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Feature


Gus Van Sant returns with Paranoid Park, the unfortunate tale of Alex (Gabe Nevins), a skateboard kid who haphazardly gets involved in the accidental death of a security guard and the internal struggle he faces in the days that follow.

 Paranoid Park
I don’t know what it is with Gus Van Sant. I always feel compelled to watch his movies, no matter the subject matter, no matter the critical response and more so, no matter what version of Gus Van Sant is directing the movie. What I mean by this is that for a while there seemed to be two Van Sants. The one who made Good Will Hunting—which I consider to be a masterpiece in modern cinema—and the other Van Sant, who made movies which have uncomfortably long takes and push the words ‘experimental filmmaking’ to a whole new level in popular cinema. Anyone who’s seen Gerry or Last Days will know what I’m talking about. Now don’t get me wrong, I like both of these Van Sant’s and own seven of his last eight movies/short films after all ( Psycho being the one I don’t own if you’re interested, urgh). Whether I would actually deem myself a genuine fan of Van Sant is another thing.

Of Gus Van Sant’s recent body of work, Paranoid Park is probably closest to Elephant. Both films do a fine job of capturing the world of America’s youth. Both feel like genuine accounts of the day to day life of schoolchildren, their turmoil and their interactions. How Paranoid Park differs from Elephant is that this is much more focused on one character. What Elephant did so well, was having a sense of dread throughout the whole movie, always knowing what was coming. Paranoid Park works around an event that you slowly discover the details of and then it moves onto why we are getting these details in this structure.

 Paranoid Park
The actual incident in Paranoid Park is shocking on more than one level. It first starts to unravel with a TV news report, so you know what’s happened. This leads on to seeing the build up to the event and it cuts just as the event unfolds. All of this is frighteningly simply laid out and realistic. What delivers the big shock is that just when you think you’ve seen it all, Van Sant throws an unexpected visual that locks you into this schoolboy’s headspace for the duration of the movie.

Gabe Nevins as lead character Alex delivers an understated performance here. It’s pretty much unreadable, but I think this is a conscious decision from Van Sant. The use of music, abstract sound and even camera movement, somehow draws the emotion out of this young actor. He cleverly plays on how we’d expect a boy of his age to behave in his circle of friends and uses this to show us how he’s not reacting. The way he sits silently amongst his rowdy friends during the police officer’s questioning and seeing how closed off he is when he has sex with his teen-boy’s-fantasy of a girlfriend, is some very effective film making.

 Paranoid Park
Not everything works and in all honesty, there are a lot of moments that suffer the same issues that I’ve had with Van Sant’s last few movies. Some of the more experimental techniques just slow the movie down a little too much in places and there was probably one too many 8mm skateboard video. Also, while I enjoy seeing new actors allowed to act naturally (Van Sant has sort of become the master of it), there are a couple of actors in here that just can’t do it and when that wall of reality breaks into a young kid trying to act like they’re not acting, I think it can have a negative effect on the proceedings.

Video


The picture here does very little to show off its high definition transfer. In fact, I can’t imagine there’s a huge difference between this and the standard definition release, bar some of the more well-lit shots and close ups. Due to the real-life nature of the movie, this was more than likely intentional but compared to what you’d expect of a Blu-ray release, Paranoid Park has a muted feel to it, both in colour range and video quality.

 Paranoid Park

Audio


This one I’m really torn on. The sound mix (I watched it in Dolby Digital 5.1) is all over the place. The high points are that the mix uses all of the speakers very effectively. The more trippy atmospheric sound design feels like it’s everywhere. You can pinpoint certain sounds in different speakers and it’s a fantastic use of the surround system. The same can be said for the music in the film. As per his previous movies, I love the music choices Van Sant’s makes; especially the obligatory Elliot Smith tracks and I love how they sound on the good 5.1 mix. This is all very strong here; the screeching of the acoustic guitar strings and reverb they produce is all captured perfectly.

But to counter all of this there are the low points. This is most apparent with dialogue. It’s clear and always coherent, but the way it’s been recorded and placed into the sound mix is strange. It sort of sounds like your hearing some of the conversations in an empty room, with a lot of the dialogue in all five speakers at the same time. It quite distracting in the quiet scenes and I found I really noticed the rear speakers presence during a lot of the quieter dialogue scenes.

 Paranoid Park

Extras


I wasn’t expecting a lot here really, Gus Van Sant movies have never really been renowned for their wealth of features. We get the theatrical trailer (1:48), which is in 4:3 with black bars either side to make it stretch to widescreen. There’s also a bizarre little extra called ‘Future Shots: Secret Cinema Event’ (6:27), which I think was about a screening of the film in London in 2007, but due to the nature of the editing and it’s randomness, I may have been wrong. Then, to round up, there’s a ‘Making of’ (26:21), which is a really laid back look at the process of making Paranoid Park. In fact, it’s not so much a conventional making of as it is quite literally watching them make the movie. It’s inter-cut with a few talking-head stories from the young cast and has some art work animating across the screen every now and again. It’s actually quite a nice companion piece to the film and while it’s not exactly rich with detail I found it quite watchable and very much in tune with the style of the film.

 Paranoid Park

Overall


Once again, Gus Van Sant delivers a solid movie in a style that he’s continually honing. He continues to make obviously personal movies that don’t bow to the current norms. His ability to make the most of his fresh-faced young actors—or non-actors as the case may be—is a brave move that he somehow manages to pull off with ease. In an age where everyone with a video camera is urged to go out and make a movie, Van Sant must be seen as an icon.

Despite its low budget experimental qualities, this is probably the most accessible of his movies since Finding Forrester, although that’s not to say it’s anything like Finding Forrester, which was underwhelming at best. Paranoid Park is a more focused story, with a more audience-friendly approach than his last feature, Last Days, it’s more natural than the almost documentary style Elephant and it has a more engaging narrative than the nearly dialogue-free Gerry. Paranoid Park shows a director who is comfortable with his long developed style, and while it’s not a career best, it’s certainly a movie well worth seeing.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.


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