Skaters on thin ice
INDEPENDENT American filmmaker Gus Van Sant has proved in the past he’s capable of making quality mainstream fare: he gave Nicole Kidman one of her finest roles in To Die For ( 1995) and his work on diverse productions such as Drugstore Cowboy ( 1989), Good Will Hunting ( 1997) and Finding Forrester ( 2000) has often been strikingly good.
Yet lately it seems that he has a preference for a different kind of film, a minimalist approach in which conventional plotting is shunted aside in favour of mood, usually involving rootless young people. This approach was seen at its best in the influential Elephant ( 2003), a beautifully rendered evocation of a day at a high school that culminates in a shooting massacre, but to lesser effect in Gerry ( 2001) and Last Days ( 2005). No longer able to raise American money to finance his work, Van Sant obtained French finance for his latest film, Paranoid Park, which is firmly in the tradition of minimalism and which won him a special award at Cannes last year.
In a nutshell, this is about Alex, a 16- year- old Portland boy, played by amateur actor Gabe Nevins. Lacking parental discipline and supervision ( his parents are divorcing), Alex spends much of his time hanging out at Paranoid Park, a wrong- side- of- the- tracks venue for hard- core skateboard riders. Here he gets into bad company and becomes involved in the death of a railway security guard.
His pretty cheerleader girlfriend, Jennifer ( Taylor Momsen), proposes they lose their virginity together, an act handled in a staggeringly matter- of- fact way.
Alex attempts, by means of a letter that forms the basis of the film’s voice- over, to communicate his feelings to another girl, Macy ( Lauren McKinney) who, alone among his group, seems aware of events going on in the outside world, such as the war in Iraq.
Van Sant tells this very simple story ( based on a book by Blake Nelson) in an annoyingly fragmented way, shifting time frames and keeping back bits and pieces of information. Sometimes this device works well and creates suspense, but here it merely seems mannered.
The non- professional actors were cast via MySpace and convincingly portray inarticulate teens. Momsen and McKinney are particularly effective and McKinney’s character comes across as the film’s most interesting, mainly because she seems the most aware. Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle does his usual exceptional work behind the camera, but most of the skateboarding scenes, shot by Rain Kathy Li on Super 8, are murky and extraneous.
The most curious element of this rather strange film is the way Van Sant uses music. Nino Rota themes from Fellini movies accompany key scenes: the familiar score from Amarcord is distracting when it accompanies a crucial sequence between Alex and Jennifer. No doubt there’s a cult audience for Van Sant’s work and some viewers will embrace this latest examination of teen angst. But for audiences seeking substance and cohesion in their movies, Paranoid Park will be a disappointment.
* * * SIMON Pegg established his reputation as the ultimate slacker on British television and in the Edgar Wright films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz . He plays a similar character in Run, Fat Boy, Run. Pegg rewrote the screenplay by Michael Ian Black ( it was originally an American comedy) as a vehicle for his own particular brand of British humour.
We first meet his character, Dennis, on his wedding day. He’s in a state of panic at the thought of marrying his pregnant girlfriend, Libby ( Thandie Newton), and simply runs away. Five years later, he’s living a miserable existence alone in a basement flat and working ( halfheartedly) as a security guard for a women’s clothing shop. He’s still in touch with Libby, though, and with his sweet- natured son, Jake ( Matthew Fenton), and is horrified to discover she’s now involved with a smooth, wealthy American, Whit ( Hank Azaria).
Dennis, a heavy smoker with a beer gut who baulks at the very idea of exercise, unwisely enters into a competition with his rival in the hope of regaining Libby’s love. Whit is entering the London Marathon? OK, then Dennis will too, even though he’s hopelessly unfit for such an ambitious undertaking.
The plot is formulaic, but Pegg is such an ingratiating personality that he makes the familiar situations seem fresh. He’s ably supported by Dylan Moran, who plays his equally under- achieving mate.
Like Death at a Funeral , this very British comedy has been directed by an American, David Schwimmer; it’s Schwimmer’s first feature and he works well with his mostly British cast. He also sees London through the clear eyes of a foreigner, bringing a different view of familiar streetscapes. Run, Fat Boy, Run is at times corny and predictable but, despite all of that, it’s very likable and, in the end, even rather touching.
* * * WHEN octogenarian Richard Attenborough’s illustrious career as an actor and director is discussed in the future, Closing the Ring, his latest film, will rate hardly a mention. This plodding and predictable romantic drama unfolds in two time periods, 1944 and 1991.
In the earlier period, in a small town in Michigan, three young airmen hover around the delectable Ethel ( Mischa Barton) and she has an affair with one of them, Teddy ( Stephen Amell). He is called away to the war and is sent to an air base in Belfast. In that city, nearly 50 years later, young Jimmy ( Martin McCann), who has been targeted by the IRA, finds a ring near the site of a crashed plane, which he identifies as being connected to Ethel ( Shirley MacLaine), whose husband has just died.
One of the unintended questions raised by the film is how the life- loving Ethel as played by Barton could transform into the miserable old bore played by MacLaine. But in a screenplay full of contrivances and unbelievable characters that’s only one of the niggling annoyances. Attenborough does a perfectly slick job of direction, but his material lets him down.
Annoyingly fragmented: Gabe Nevins convincingly plays an inarticulate teen in trouble in Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park