The Bling Ring


Life is a beach for the spoiled and the privileged.

Life is a beach for the spoiled and the privileged.

(2013) True Life Dramedy (A24) Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, Georgia Rock, Leslie Mann, Carlos Miranda, Gavin Rossdale, Stacy Edwards, G. Mac Brown, Marc Coppola, Janet Song, Anne Fitzgerald, Lorenzo Hunt, Timothy Starks, Rich Ceraulo, Joe Nieves, Nelson Rockford, Doug DeBeech, Erin Daniels. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Woman Power

It’s hard for some to recognize what America has become. Celebrity-obsessed, fame-driven, materialistic and entitled. In many ways we’re a nation of spoiled brats.

None more spoiled than the Bling Ring, a group of bored, privileged sorts who yearn to be celebrities. Rebecca (Chang) is the ringleader, more or less. She meets new kid Marc (Broussard) and find themselves with much in common. One thing is a talent for larceny as at a party the pair steal things from unlocked cars of other partygoers.

When Marc mentions offhandedly that a wealthy acquaintance is about to leave town, Rebecca spots this as an opportunity to make a big score. While Marc is reluctant – this is a friend, or at least someone he knows after all – Rebecca overcomes his misgivings and the two steal a handbag, which Rebecca notices is the same one as her fashion idol, Lindsay Lohan, owns. The two steal a Porsche and use the cash they steal to go on a shopping spree that allows them to buy the luxuries that they couldn’t previously afford.

Soon, they’re hanging out at posh clubs where celebrities like Kirsten Dunst and Paris Hilton hang out. They discover that Hilton is going to be out of town and decide to find her address and check it out. With a key conveniently left under the doormat, they gain entry and find wall-to-wall swag, so much there’s no way she’ll notice any of it missing. Rebecca begins to show off some of the jewelry she’s stolen to her friends Nicki (Watson), Sam (Farmiga) and Chloe (Julien). Unsurprisingly, the others want in.

They continue to go on what they think of as shopping sprees in the homes of celebrities who they can confirm are out of town – among the victims are Audrina Partridge, Megan Fox and Orlando Bloom. Unfortunately, the kids may be bold but they’re not bright; they’re seen on security cameras and brag about their bling on social media. This leads the cops right to them.

Coppola, who grew up surrounded by famous directors (Francis Ford, her dad, and Marc, her brother) and actors (Nicolas Cage, her cousin and Talia Shire, her aunt), has the experience to put a personal edge on the film and the directing chops to make it interesting, but curiously as frenetically paced and glamour-conscious as the movie is, there’s an oddly flat quality to it. The lead actresses all seem like their eyes are glazed over, not quite drugged but almost like they’re staring into a different place than the rest of us see. It’s a bit disconcerting.

Watson, the best-known of the young actors playing the crooks also does the best job. Her Nicki is by turns bored, peer-pressured, demanding and self-delusional. Like all of the other characters, she’s truly unlikable and her value system is virtually non-existent. These girls (and boy) are all about self-gratification and achieving fame without earning it; it’s no wonder one of the real perpetrators ended up with a reality TV show; the mentality of becoming famous for being famous is irresistible to these girls.

While Nicki’s new age mom (Mann) is proof that shallow can be genetic (or at least environmental), it’s really hard to find anything that smacks of a redeeming quality for any of them. When the poop hits the fan they turn on each other like rats. They have no empathy for the people whose homes they are invading, only a lust for designer clothes, high-end watches and of course whatever the loose cash lying around can buy them. This is the true entitlement generation rather than the welfare recipients that Fox News misidentifies in that regard. These young people believe that fame is something that should be handed to them rather than earned. I think most famous people would assure them that fame is a double edged sword and maybe these kids have learned that by now.

Coppola displays the culture of celebrity, material possession and fame obsession that we have degenerated into quite dispassionately and without judgment or comment, although perhaps by displaying the ultimately empty pursuits and absent moral compasses may be in itself a kind of judgment. We are left to watch, horrified perhaps or maybe just plain disgusted as these kids show the worst qualities of our modern society; whatever remorse they might have had seems to be more in line with being caught rather than in having done something wrong.

Because the characters are so without redeeming qualities it is difficult to find anything to relate to here, except maybe by relating to the polar opposite of what these kids are, which is harder work. I wonder how many young kids will see something of themselves in the Bling Ring; I suspect that those who are most like them will not. Most of these sorts of people can (and often do) look at themselves in the mirror all day long, but fail to see the ugliness that’s reflected there.

WHY RENT THIS: Trainwreck; you just can’t look away. Scathing indictment of our shallow society.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Characters so unlikable that audience has nothing to identify with. Occasional bouts of “Look ma, I’m directing!”
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of bad language, plenty of drug and alcohol abuse (by teens) and some sexually suggestive conversation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Paris Hilton’s home were shot in her actual home.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette about the real Bling Ring, hosted by the author of the original Vanity Fair article that inspired the movie, as well as an interview with Paris Hilton, one of the victims of the crimes, and her decision to allow her home to be used in the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.2M on an $8M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spring Breakers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Results

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Shakespeare High


The play's the thing.

The play’s the thing.

(2011) Documentary (Cinema Guild) Richard Dreyfuss, Val Kilmer, Kevin Spacey, Mare Winningham, Julian G. Simmons, Luis Cardenas, Sue Freitag, Marisa Gold, Michelle Sui, Melvin Emesibe, Galvin Emesibe. Directed by Alex Rotaru

The English language is an amazing thing. It can communicate so much, so eloquently. It is distressing that of late we have chosen to dumb it down and simplify it to a series of catch phrases and abbreviations so that the things we express can fit in a Twitter feed.

Respecting Shakespeare, perhaps the most accomplished practitioner of the English language there ever was, is not something that comes naturally to most high school students. Acting out Shakespeare’s timeless plays can be daunting as well.

The Drama Teachers Association of Southern California has put on a Shakespeare competition for more than 90 years now. Each year it chooses three different plays from the Bard; schools from the region then are invited to either condense the play into an eight minute scene, or perform a five-minute scene from the play. They can use no props other than four folding chairs. They are welcome to interpret the dialogue and action however they wish so long as it conforms to the basic meaning of the play, or simply perform it as is.

Fifty schools participated in this particular year, from schools for the wealthy and privileged to schools for the disadvantaged and poor. Among them is the Los Angeles High School for the Performing Arts whose students and teachers tend to prefer traditional presentations of Shakespeare. They tend to be dismissive of the other schools which is ironic because some of the other students seemed to have a deeper understanding of what Shakespeare was trying to get across than the snobs. I found that comforting, somehow.

Some of the stories of the kids who are involved here are downright heartbreaking. There are kids involved with gangs, kids dealing with personal tragedies, kids with hopes of becoming professional actors and kids who are just having a bit of a lark.

The documentary captures adequately how Shakespeare can change the lives of those exposed to him for the first time. What it doesn’t capture is what these kids thought of the plays they were performing. So involved do the filmmakers get in the competitive aspect of the competition that they forget the reason for it at times. I would have liked to have seen more details and fewer student portraits. It’s not that all of them didn’t deserve their 15 minutes, it’s just when a documentary tries to be all things to all people, it becomes so much more difficult to edit it down. I get the sense that Rotaru connected with the students so much that he lost some of his objectivity in terms of actually making the film.

This isn’t one of those life-changing documentaries that makes you aware of some aspect of life that you don’t focus on enough although I do think most of us could only benefit from a little bit more Shakespeare in our lives. It is however, interesting if not compelling in places and if you run across it in your browsing of things to watch and you happen to like documentaries, this isn’t a bad option.

WHY RENT THIS: Reminds us of how transformative Shakespeare can be. Some of the stories are compelling.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many stories. Could have used some judicious editing and more detail as to what the students thought and how they processed Shakespeare.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dreyfuss, Kilmer, Winningham and Spacey all appeared in previous competitions and Spacey executive produced this film. All four appear in the movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Two schools that were cut from the finished film are shown here, as is a student from one of the schools that were included but whose story also didn’t make the final film. There are also three complete festival performances including one from the winning school.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy), iTunes

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Caesar Must Die

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For