Movie Of The Day:

Paranoid Park (dir. Gus Van Sant): The last four Gus Van Sant movies—Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, and this gorgeous reverie on adolescence—have the quality of a dream, slipping so fluidly through time and space that they practically float on air. Van Sant had an artistic awakening after hitting bottom with Finding Forrester and he continues to refine a filmmaking style that initially owed much to Hungarian director Béla Tarr, but now seems unmistakably his own. If the new and improved Van Sant has a flaw, it’s that his caressing camera tends to view humans from a cold aesthetic distance and the lack of intimacy flattens them out psychologically. Perhaps by tethering the movie to some measure of conventional plot tension—the young hero’s involvement in the accidental death of a Portland security guard —Paranoid Park has the weight of real insight that the other movies (which I think are all accomplished in other ways) can’t really claim.
Unlike the sk8ter bois in Larry Clark’s cartoonish Wassup Rockers, the film’s troubled hero (Gabe Nevins) isn’t much of a punk—or a terribly good skater, for that matter—but he identifies strongly with the disaffected kids at the city skate park, and spends his time there sitting on his board and watching from the sidelines. He’s a lonely kid, stuck with bickering parents and a girlfriend with whom he has little in common, and his suspected role in the guard’s death intensifies his isolation. There’s no one around he trusts enough to talk about what happened, so he writes his thoughts down in a letter (relayed sparingly via voiceover) that may or may not ever be sent.
The surface of Paranoid Park is seductive enough: The lush photography, by erstwhile Wong Kar-wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle, utilizes changing film speeds to approximate the heightened emotions of a pubescent kid; the soundtrack, featuring selections from Nino Rota’s score for Juliet Of The Spirits alongside songs by Portland’s own Elliott Smith, makes you want to raid Van Sant’s record collection. Though the music and images give the film a memorable texture, Van Sant uses them to support a surprisingly incisive and complete impression of its hero’s world. It’s a film I can’t wait to get lost in again. (A)

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Margot At The Wedding (dir. Noah Baumbach): With this assured follow-up to The Squid And The Whale, Baumbach firmly posits himself as an Eric Rohmer acolyte (naming Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character “Pauline” couldn’t have been mere coincidence), specializing in talky, fine-tuned relationship comedies that have some bite to them. What surprised me most about Margot is how prickly it turned out to be; the characters are all deeply flawed and in many cases unsympathetic, and Baumbach doesn’t seem to care if viewers warm to them or not. As a judgmental Manhattanite, Nicole Kidman may be the festival’s most terrifying character outside of Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, doling out passive-aggressive slights that sabotage the already-neurotic characters in her orbit. Invited to the family home in Long Island for sister Leigh’s wedding, Kidman is determined to talk Leigh out of marrying Jack Black (an unemployed slob who keeps his moustache around for “comic effect”), and she preys on her sister’s weaknesses expertly. Though funny throughout, Margot isn’t cuddly in the least; its uncompromising nature certainly earned my respect, if not quite my love. (B+)

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Cleaner (dir. Renny Harlin): This question had tantalized me for weeks: How did Renny Harlin—the schlockmeister behind Cutthroat Island, The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane, Die Hard 2, Exorcist: The Beginning, The Covenant, and more—sneak his latest effort into the Toronto Film Festival? Was it the participation of respected character actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and Luis Guzman? Or had Harlin finally broken down and made a genuine arthouse beard-stroker? After seeing the film this afternoon, I still don’t have an answer. I question whether Harlin bothered to leave his office to phone in this by-the-numbers thriller, which lacks even the gonzo silliness of Harlin favorites like The Long Kiss Goodnight or Mindhunters. I’m at a loss as to why Cleaner is in the festival; going to an international film festival to see it is like getting a plate of Spaghetti-Os at a fine dining restaurant. If I wanted to eat that, I’d have stayed home. (D+)