Skaters on thin ice

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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