Gus Van Sant has often name-checked Béla Tarr for the "Death Trilogy" of Gerry, Elephant and Last Days, but their voluptuous morbidity and achingly blank "models" show it's Bresson he's been after. If Last Days was his The Devil, Probably, Paranoid Park is his Four Nights of a Dreamer, which is another way of saying that Van Sant has gone from one of his most poetically bleak films to one of his most poetically hopeful films. It's also one of his freest works -- while the other three were locked in deterministic lines of death and decay, the director here moves from purposely awkward naturalism to aestheticized artifice, sure that he'll "get it all on paper eventually" yet relaxed enough to shuffle the order of his fragments or douse a sudden break-up scene with Nino Rota enchantment. No wonder several critics have used "floating" to describe its tone: This is a movie with neither floor nor roof, the walls of the titular skater-boyz hangout suggest anti-gravitational slopes, the pubescent protagonist, Alex (Gabe Nevins), is an ethereal, alienated Icarus in full freefall. A Portland high-schooler, he's stuck with divorcing parents who are glimpsed mostly as out-of-focus blurs, plus a cheerleader girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) whose demands for sex somehow make her rather bat-faced; skating is his only escape, particularly when photographed by Christopher Doyle and scored to French murmuring, until one night he hops a freight train of trauma.
Just when it looked like Van Sant had milked the cutie-strolling-down-high-school-halls-in-slow-mo bit dry, along comes Paranoid Park to provide, if not a culmination of the auteur's stylistic and thematic motifs, then a limpid greatest-hits album. The teenager's impressionistic headspace is his canvas, layered like a Keats poem and scored like an iPod (one with enough room for Elliott Smith and Beethoven). The rawness of the inexperienced cast (culled from MySpace) fuses with Van Sant's resolute sense of lighting and composition for a handful of stunning effects: A scene between Alex and a detective (Daniel Liu) that slowly shifts from mid-distance two-shot to frontal close-up, the subtly darkening tones of nature in the field where Alex writes his essay-confession, the cacophony of echoes and crashes inside his head in the shower as the dripping water turns his hair into a mass of Franz Kline lines. What raises it above a series of swooning movements, however, is the sanguine view of youth angst. Alex belongs to Van Sant's gallery of angelic zombies, yet his world is not so much a dying one as one rattled (and widened) by a death -- the character is a grave blank, and when he's face to face with the severed torso he is responsible for, he sees his own lack of wholeness. Whether a mock-Dostoyevsky event or a metaphorical bungled sex act, Alex's wrong move is one that will accompany him into adulthood even as he attempts to write it off or burn it away. Paranoid Park may seem like a sketch, yet it catches in luminous amber a moment when reality bloodily, necessarily pierces the myth of adolescent purity.
Gilded cages abound in Ira Sachs's still young but already remarkable filmography -- Married Life starts and ends with characters framed behind window grids, an acknowledgement of the picture's spiritual ancestors (Sirk and Ophuls, mainly) along with a literalization of the incisive feeling of entrapment in Sachs's previous film, Forty Shades of Blue. What's especially miraculous about both films is their lack of derision, a feat all the more notable in that Married Life is set in the years preceding Eisenhower's America, now a veritable board for ironist darts (see Pleasantville, Far From Heaven, Kinsey). The narrative, based on John Bingham's novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven, is founded on a couple of rich jokes: The uptight, middle-class mensch's (Chris Cooper) search for romance with a young war widow (Rachel McAdams) because his wife (Patricia Clarkson) can only express love through sex, and his deeply felt notion that poisoning the wife would be the most merciful way to spare her the pains of divorce. Pierce Brosnan, as Cooper's bachelor friend (for whom marriage is "a mild kind of illness"), enters the triangle and turns it into a parallelogram -- when a cigarette is passed from McAdams's lips to Brosnan's, it's a moment of pure sublimated sensuality reminiscent of Sachs fave Charulata, as well as a fond appreciation of Old Hollywood artifice ("Corny, but it works. And it's from the heart"). The roundelay structure and Hitchcockian nods could have easily given way to a sardonic puppet theater, but Sachs and screenwriter Oren Moverman care too much about their characters to turn them into pawns. Instead, Married Life sagely follows people from moment to moment as roles are investigated, unexpected sides are uncovered, and the strangeness of love is accepted with a scabrously human, implicative "funny, isn't it?"
And now, for something completely different: 10,000 B.C. Is that how far back this thing sets the medium? The title gets imprinted across the screen like a portentous timecard, and I hoped against all hope for another card, reading "Sunday" or maybe "Lunch Time," to follow. Only such a Pythonesque jibe could have cleared the air of epic asininity. Unhappily, the guy at the wheel here is Roland Emmerich, possibly the most humorless and visionless creator of blockbusters to ever step behind the camera, so the picture proceeds accordingly. Heavy on moronic mysticism (narrator Omar Sharif gasses on about "the last hunt" and "the promise of life") and light on imagination, excitement, and shot-to-shot coherence, the Stone Age plot -- caveboy (Steve Strait) rescues cavegirl (Camilla Belle) from some Darth Pharaoh -- is a craptacular mishmash of Apocalypto, Conan the Barbarian, and, uh... Ator the Fighting Eagle, I guess. You can't say you weren't warned after Stargate, Independence Day and Godzilla, but it's hard not to feel gypped by the sheer lack of care in the FX department. More than $100 million for a budget, and The Flintstones still has more convincing mammoths? Quoth Lubitsch's Trotskyite in Trouble in Paradise: "Phooey!"
Reviewed March 25, 2008.