Friday, June 28, 2013

The Bling Ring

THE BLING RING: Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Emma Watson, Leslie Mann, directed by Sofia Coppola (90 min.)

Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring is a fascinating film about a whole lot of disgusting human beings, which is the biggest challenge facing the movie.  There is not one single admirable character, not one person to identify with unless you are a vapid and soulless teenager, and the picture coasts through the Bret Easton Ellis type landscape of empty-headed Los Angeles apathy.  If it weren't a true story, or based on actual events, it would be impossible to believe on a number of levels.  I was often annoyed with The Bling Ring, disgusted watching these awful, awful people.  But I realized that was the entire point.

Based on a series of LA celebrity burglaries back in the late 2000s, The Bling Ring tells the lurid tale of bored and listless teens whose only goal in their pathetic lives is to be like the professional celebrities who litter the tabloid magazines.  They decide the best way to do this - or the easiest way - is to break into celeb homes while they are away and steal their clothes and jewelry and cash because, to be honest, they aren't going to miss it anyway.  They find out which stars are out of town via the internet, places like TMZ, where the every move of talentless spoiled celebrities is scrutinized and reported in real time.  So there is the conundrum at the heart of the picture; these loser kids are stealing and breaking into homes, but these people, famous for being worthless more than anything, don't lock their homes and don't care for the piles and piles of material goods inside because, well, they'll just get more.  Whatever is missing will go unnoticed.

While there are five members of this disassociated group of shallow teens, the early portions of The Bling Ring focus on Marc, the new kid in school played by Israel Broussard, and his friendship with Rebecca (Katie Chang), easily the most monstrous of the crew.  Rebecca is dead behind the eyes, soulless, and obsessed with people like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan for no other reason than they are rich and they have a lot of "stuff."  Rebecca will regularly break into unlocked cars and steal, and she eventually graduates to breaking into homes.  But the homes are unlocked to begin with, which speaks more to the emptiness of an LA society who don't value their own possessions enough to secure them.

One night, Marc finds out online that Paris Hilton is in Las Vegas for a party.  Rebecca has the bright idea to sneak into her house, and Marc goes along.  They bring their friends and loiter and steal and dance and smoke and party in Hilton's house, a disgusting house full of pillows and pictures of Paris herself.  After nine or ten trips to Hilton's house, they move on to other stars' homes.  They visit Rachel Bilson's home, Audrina Patridge, Orlando Bloom, and the mecca of them all, the home of Lindsay Lohan.  These crime sprees grow more and more brazen, these kids become less and less likable, and the drugs and partying get more and more out of hand.  And, of course, they spend the majority of their time in these homes and clubs taking sexy pictures of themselves, just so everyone else will know how cool they are in their soulless online lives.

Emma Watson plays Nicki, one of the friends in the group, and while she may not be the central character in the film - that title belongs to Broussard's Marc in my opinion - she is easily the most infuriating and hypnotically idiotic of the entire group.  Nicki's mother (Leslie Mann) is an idiot, pure and simple, who home schools Nicki and her sisters.  But she doesn't really teach anything important, not that these girls would care about anything that they couldn't find in Us Weekly.  Once these kids get busted, it is Nicki who takes her story to Vanity Fair in the hopes of getting famous.  Just listening to Nicki speak to reporters and newsmen is so absurd and so disgusting it's amazing we have made it this far as a society.

Which brings me back around to my initial stance on The Bling Ring.  Here is a film that is grating, annoying, and irritating, but fascinating and impossible to turn away from.  Coppola knows the story she wants to tell,charm be damned.  None of the actors in the picture are compassionate or sympathetic about any of their actions, and Coppola never tries to soften the blow.  She has a strict goal to show where America's youth is headed in this age of celebrity obsession and absentee parenthood.  Her message is loud and clear, and while the film may be tough to stomach overall, perhaps it will make a teenage girl get off her phone at the dinner table and have a conversation with her family.  


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Before Midnight

BEFORE MIDNIGHT: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, directed by Richard Linklater (108 min.)

When we first met Jesse and Celine back in 1994 they were two idealistic dreamers, twentysomethings in search of their path in life and sharing a passionate night together in Vienna.  Ten years later, we meet them again as they find each other by chance in Paris and share another day.  Both have found what they think to be happiness, Jesse as a writer, husband, and father, and Celine as a hard-working career woman.  Jesse decides to skip his flight back to the States at the end of our last visit, and his decisions sets the story of our third encounter with these people in motion.  Before Midnight brings us Jesse and Celine once again, only this time things are different.  This time, the years in between this and the second picture, Before Sunset, were not spent apart.  It changes the dynamic considerably and creates a richer, more emotionally engaging film.  Before Midnight is the best of the trilogy, the best film of the year, and it flirts with perfection more than any film has in a long while.

As I mentioned, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have spent the last decade building a life together in Europe.  This alters the musical notes of the dialogue and the tone of the picture.  No longer are these star-gazing dreamers and passionate lovers.  They have work in the way, they have twin girls, they have stresses and life and history which strips away romanticism to an extent.  Now their discussions deal with smaller issues as the grander, more profound opinions on religion and the world were covered by the younger versions of these people.  It is time to discuss real life, to discuss Celine changing jobs or Jesse wanting to move back to the States to be closer to his teenage son.  Age is showing in Jesse's face, Celine's body has changed since her taxing birth of the twins.

The film moves rythmically, reminding me of a symphony told in four distinct movements.  Taking place the final day of an extended holiday in Greece, the first movement begins after Jesse drops off his son, Hank, at the airport to head back to his mother in Chicago.  This first movement is a single shot, single take discussion in a car ride which lasts twenty minutes but never once feels slow.  You feel as if you are eavesdropping on a very real, unfiltered conversation between familiar friends.  The second movement is a beautifully shot dinner scene with Jesse, Celine, and their writer friends they have been staying with in Greece.  Here we get rich and thoughtful conversations on love, sex, life, death, and the values of companionship.  The dialogue feels not like dialogue, but real conversations among real people.  I would almost expect to hear an entirely new discussion when I revisit the picture and sit back down at this dinner table.

The third and fourth movement is exclusively Jesse and Celine.  First is a long walk through the Grecian village on their way to a hotel, where they discuss their past and what brought them to this place.  While everything feels safe between the two, the small details of the day's conversations creep through with each and every line.  The fourth movement puts us in the hotel room with the couple, where a simple throwaway criticism builds and builds into a fight.  And that is the way things go, as any small statement transforms into an argument where the real issues come to pass.  The only question, then, is whether or not the love these two people share can push them through.

I am in awe of these films, and Before Midnight in particular.  The lack of romanticism creates another challenge for these characters we know so well, and adds a layer of intrigue.  Ethan Hawke has never been better, but Julie Delpy turns in the strongest female performance of the year.  She has stripped away all vanity here, and is a woman in transition between youth and middle age.  Her performance is raw and real, and her chemistry with Hawke is transcendent.  And of course, none of this would be possible without the eye and ear of Richard Linklater behind the camera.  These three talented artists have created a beautiful trilogy about life and love, and they have come together to give us the most touching of all three in Before Midnight.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

World War Z

WORLD WAR Z: Brad Pitt, Marielle Enos, directed by Marc Forster (116 min.)

It’s never a good sign when a film is mired in all sorts of production chaos rumors, from bloated budgets to on-set feuds to re-shoots and edits and delays and just collectively bad vibes. There is, more often than not, fire beneath that smoke. But if there were a film that could overcome such nasty rumors, I would have placed my bets on World War Z. After all, it stars Brad Pitt, is produced by his own company, Plan B, and has some thrilling advertisements. Pitt hits more often than he misses, and my faith was in his corner. I know this all sounds like a set up to say World War Z is terrible, but I’m not saying that exactly. It isn’t terrible. It just isn’t very good. Remember when you r mother would tell you “I’m not mad, just disappointed?” It feels a little like that.

Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a retired U.N. investigator who made his career traveling the globe and sticking his nose into some dangerous spots. Now Gerry is quite comfortable at home with his placid wife, Karin (Mirelle Enos), and two daughters. But one morning when they are stuck in Philadelphia traffic, chaos breaks out in the streets. A runaway garbage truck plows down the street and chews up cars and people as it appears bystanders are being attacked and infected by something turning them into furious, twitching zombies. One bite and the virus spreads and, before long, the streets are being taken over by the infected. Gerry and his family escape in an RV and get in touch with his former employer at the U.N. who rushes him away from the spreading death and destruction onto an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic. City to city along the coast the virus spreads until the population becomes overrun and cities and governments collapse worldwide. These opening scenes of chaos are quite thrilling, moving at a brisk pace, but once we get out of Philadelphia the balloon begins to sink to the ground.

On the aircraft carrier, Gerry is so well respected by his former peers they threaten to ship him and his family back to smoldering Philly if Gerry doesn’t agree to escort a Harvard scientist to South Korea to try to uncover “Patient Zero.” Naturally Gerry agrees without much anger or resentment or, really, without much emotion whatsoever. When the lead predictably fizzles out in South Korea Gerry becomes a globetrotter, hopping to Jerusalem and Wales to try and figure out a cure. Along the way he crosses paths with a few different characters, none of which are very interesting outside of a female Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz) who becomes his sidekick of sorts. Gerry also has to fight off his fair share of zombie attacks, some thrilling and others a little corny.

There is an attack in Jerusalem where the zombies begin swarming like ants, piling on top of each other and rolling down city streets like tidal waves. Another attack is aboard a commercial jet and is the most thrilling moment in the film. Outside of these set pieces, everything else is a little flat. The third act deals with zombies not in swarms, but as individual monsters, and these specific undead killers are not well done when isolated. Their teeth chattering and moaning and twitching isn’t frightening, it’s silly. And their senses aren’t consistent it seems; the entire premise of the film is they react to sound, but sometimes they operate by sight instead? And speaking of zombies, the non-infected cast doesn’t do much to generate any emotion.

In between a handful of action scenes, World War Z tries and fails to create an emotional thread. Gerry’s family becomes window dressing after the opening scenes, sitting and waiting on the aircraft carrier without anything to do or to say really. And Pitt’s performance is incredibly withdrawn and flat. He looks bored, or maybe just not into the whole thing. Those rumors that he and Marc Forster butted heads consistently on set might be leaking out into his distance on screen. That is a major issue considering that not one other character in a film about a global epidemic is fleshed out in the slightest. If Pitt is in charge of carrying this whole thing, then perhaps World War Z was doomed from the start.

Which leads me, once again, to the re-writes and chaos behind the scenes. Pitt was originally attracted to the project because of the geopolitical angles of the celebrated Max Brooks novel. The book deals with a whole slew of characters across the globe and their various struggles. Then, everything was chopped up and spit out and re-done to a point where the globetrotting in this film feels forced and rushed. And that ending, that third act, goodness gracious. What a flat and uninteresting wrap up to a film that leaves open the opportunity for a sequel. But I don’t think we need a sequel here, I think we should all go home and watch 28 Days Later instead.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Man of Steel

MAN OF STEEL: Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, directed by Zack Snyder (143 min.)

Going out of the country for a week will disconnect you from the whirlwind of American media, which is usually a good thing to do from time to time.  The week I spent in Europe kept me decidedly insulated from the super storm of Superman press leading up to the release of Man of Steel.  And then, once I was back on American soil I was disappointed to see the reviews for the Superman reboot hovering somewhere just north of 50%.  I expected much better for the film honestly, and while I realize it won't hurt the picture or the franchise in the long run it is still much more encouraging to see an important film (for me, in the superhero film pantheon anyway) bring in positive reviews pushing past 80%.  I had my own concerns about Man of Steel leading up to its release, namely the involvement of director Zack Snyder, but the trailers curbed those misgivings for the most part.  Then the reviews zapped that optimism, so as the lights lowered I was a conflicted, concerned, and curious mess.

Man of Steel is not great.  That is the negative.  But it is very, very good, touching moments of greatness which overcome the drawbacks in the end.  It is also a solid foundation for a new franchise reboot that I have more confidence in moving forward, and the Superman film I have been wanting since 1978 when the original (and still the only true quality) film was released.  Zack Snyder's action epic, from a screenplay by David S. Goyer, tells its own version of the familiar Superman story.  All of the classical elements are there, mostly, and the history of the character remains in tact - a worry I had after hearing various internet rumors - though some of these new tweaks and twists to the mythos might be a little unnecessary.  The only thing Man of Steel suffers from is excess, but that can always be corrected if the foundation of a super franchise is in place.  And that foundation starts with the actors.

The relatively unknown Henry Cavill stars as our hero, Kal-El, son of the great scientist of Krypton, Jor-El (Russell Crowe).  We all know the story: Krypton is dying and Jor-El opts to send his only son to the planet Earth in order to protect him from death and send the human race a savior, where he lands in Kansas and is raised as a human by Jonathan and Martha Kent, played in this version by a solid Kevin Costner and Diane Lane.  Those are the basics, but the surrounding beats of the origin story involve the angry General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his team of revolutionaries threatening the infant Kal-El, and an entirely new and, in my opinion, unneeded version of Krypton.  There are large beasts and flying creatures and all sorts of things that reminded me a little too much of a new Star Wars film or something regrettable like John Carter.  I didn't need these evil thoughts floating around in my head at the beginning of my Superman movie.  Thankfully, once the story gets away from Krypton, things greatly improve.

We first meet Kal-El as the human Clark Kent, fully grown and adrift in the world, taking up jobs as fishermen and barkeeps and utility workers, trying desperately to figure out how he fits in on this planet.  He is also struggling in the face of emergencies and bullies to keep his powers under wraps.  His Kansas upbringing, told in flashbacks and shot with glorious sepia tones and nostalgia, shows us his relationship with Martha and mostly Jonathan, who instills in him what it takes to be a good man.  These Kansas moments show how Clark was shaped into a young man on out planet while still struggling to find out who he was and where he came from.  Young Clark must show off his powers from time to time, but Jonathan warns him the world is not ready for him yet.  He must discover when the time is right on his own.

Let's fast forward a bit in the film where certain plot developments bring characters into focus and bring the story's second half together.  Enter Lois Lane, the precocious and energetically unflappable Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for The Daily Planet played to perfection by Amy Adams.  Of course there is Perry White, sparingly introduced via Laurence Fishburne.  And, more importantly, General Zod finds his way to the planet Earth to settle his score with the son of Jor-El and recapture an important biological piece to his diabolical puzzle.  This whole big pile of developments gets us to the action, and man is there some action.  There is so much destruction and throwing around and flying fights it gets repetitive for a few moments.  Thankfully Snyder and his team recognize the tiresome nature of these action scenes and interject secondary characters taking care of important plot points or moments of exposition to allow everyone in the audience to catch their breath.

Which leads me to Snyder, and my main concern going in.  He does a serviceable job and has room to grow in the franchise, and thankfully avoids his crippling tendency to lean on slow motion.  He is encouraging here, but not as much as the cast as a whole.  Henry Cavill nails his chance to catapult into superstardom as Superman.  His look is obviously spot on, but he carries deep concern in his eyes which add depth to the character and, in the end, has the brightness in his smile to play the alter ego.  The Superman suit works for me right along with Cavill, a nice mixture of the old and the new, complete with no underpants.  Beyond that the rest of the cast fit into their roles seamlessly except, oddly enough, Michael Shannon as Zod.  There is something that doesn't quite click for me with his interpretation as Zod.  Shannon is a marvelous actor and an intense presence, but hidden beneath the costumes and armor his psychotic nature as an actor feels too muted.  Not that Shannon is bad by any means - that is almost impossible for an actor of his caliber - it's just that a super villain might not be his bag if you ask me.

Sure, there are warts on Man of Steel, and maybe if we are comparing it is no debut film along the lines of Batman Begins.  But I would argue it belongs on that next level of super debuts with Iron Man.  I like the complexities of the script and the way the realistic human reaction comes into play with the introduction of what amounts to an alien.  There is real depth in Goyer's writing.  The most promising aspect of this new Superman franchise is it will be a franchise whether you like it or not, so there is room to build.  There are easy fixes with the action and the overt outer space influences, and as long as they work on these minor details everything will be fine.  Perhaps the most exciting thing about Man of Steel is not where this story has been, but the so many places it is able to go from here.


Friday, June 7, 2013

The Purge

THE PURGE: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, directed by James DeMonaco (85 min.)

In the not-so-distant future, crime is at an all time low across America, unemployment is less than 1%, and the economy is stable and thriving. This is because one night every year, from 7 pm to 7 am, all crime has been made legal, from petty thievery all the way up to murder. This night is called “the purge,” mandated by government law as a means of release for citizens. An emergency broadcast alert even scrolls across the screen once the night of the purge begins. This is the basic premise of The Purge, the new film starring Ethan Hawke, a film which begins with a grand idea loaded with implications and discussion points, and decides to abandon all of this in favor of a home invasion thriller.

Hawke plays James Sandin, successful businessman, husband and father of a daughter and son. James and his family live in a Utopia of mansions and sunshine, a place where the purge never reaches their doors. You see, James has made a fortune selling security systems to everyone in the affluent neighborhood so the fear is kept at arm’s length and left to the poor and urban neighborhoods where most of the purging takes place. He is aloof and blissfully ignorant of the outside world like all of his neighbors. “We will be fine,” James assures his family as the purge begins. “Like we always are.”

I had so many questions as soon as the film began, and so many different ideas are thrown at the screen through news snippets and dialogue. The Purge does something interesting with its basic idea in that it shows how the poor are weeded out of society by this night of murder, creating now lower class. No wonder unemployment is under 1%, all the unemployed are being killed every year. The notion that this night releases aggression in the human brain, easing our tension and making us less prone to violence, is another interesting theory delivered through a nameless philosopher on a news broadcast. It is never explored fully. But then there is the angle that the purge showcases the worst in humanity, and is nothing more than an outlet for the psychopaths to do what they want. Alas, we are not here for some important sociological experiment; instead we are whisked along quickly to the night of the purge where a standard action thriller can unfold.

The purge begins and the security systems lock into place. All seems well until James’ sensitive son, Charlie – the one who questions this whole purge idea from the beginning – sees a man fleeing in the streets asking anyone to please hide him. Charlie opens the security doors just long enough to let the man slide under and away from his pursuers. But it isn’t long before those very pursuers find out where this man is hiding and knock on the door. These people are clearly psychotics, using creepy, smiling, human-like masks (you know the ones, they are becoming cliché) for what reason I do not know. If the purge is completely legal, why the disguise? Nevertheless, the leader of the masked murderers threatens James and his family and says they will come in and find the man eventually and of course they break through the shoddy security system James knew was shoddy in the first place and the cat-and-mouse game is underway.

If that last sentence feels rushed, then it fits the pacing of the film. Every bit of sociological examination is an afterthought in The Purge. The idea from writer and director James DeMonaco is fresh and inventive, especially in this endless summer collection of sequels and superheroes, so why trim away all of the deeper meaning so we can get to a standard horror film? We are pushed into the action before we even get a chance to know this family beyond standard hang-ups, so when the invaders get in the suspense never materializes. It’s just a big shrug.

The Purge could have been something quite profound in the end, if only the filmmakers had taken their time. It is under ninety minutes and it could have easily been over two hours. How about showing James at work on these security systems, overlooking a flaw? Or what about these kids at school and the other teenagers thoughts on such an event? The man who hides in their home, do we get to know him? Not really. And the psychos at the door are yanked right out of The Strangers or some other home invasion potboiler. Even when they take off their masks, they’re about as faceless as they were beforehand. Nothing is fleshed out as it should be, chalking up The Purge as just one big missed opportunity.