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

Advertisements

Hank and Asha


The movie fails to explore Asha's alcohol issues, alas.

The movie fails to explore Asha’s alcohol issues, alas.

(2013) Romance (FilmRise) Mahira Kakkar, Andrew Pastides, Brian Sloan, Ken Butler, Brian Patrick Murphy, Robyn Kerr, Jean-Baptiste Moreau, Samuel Beckwith, Margot Duff, Jiri Dular, Vaiva Katinaityte, Anna Tydlitatova, Bianca Butti. Directed by James E. Duff

In the 21st century courtship is changing. Once upon a time everything was done face to face. Long distance romance involved writing letters which took days to arrive. Yes, the dark ages of the 1980s when computers were just becoming prevalent in society we resorted to phone calls and letters, as well as actual dates. These days, our communication methods have changed as our technology as changed. Video calls, e-mails and social media have replaced earlier means of communication and thus courtship as well. We get to know each other in different ways than we once did.

Hank (Pastides) is a young man from North Carolina who moved to New York to pursue a career in film making. He managed to make a documentary about ballroom dancing that is making the rounds at festivals around the world, but his main income comes from being a production assistant on a reality show in which spoiled rich kids change their identities for a day. Mainly he sits in a van waiting for his walkie talky to summon him to fetch coffee or chauffeur cast or crew.

Asha (Kakkar) is a woman of Indian background who is studying film in Prague. She caught Hank’s documentary at a film festival there and was much taken by it. She had hoped that he would be present for a Q&A afterwards and was disappointed that he was not, so she decided to ask him a few questions anyway via video mail. She is very pleased to find out he’s a handsome young man and not, as she puts it, a crusty old documentarian which is what she assumed he was.

Hank responds in kind, answering her questions and asking a few of his own. Soon they are corresponding regularly and giving each other video tours of their apartments, of Asha’s film school and Hank’s “office” (the van he drives). They become friends, looking forward to their messages and becoming concerned when there are gaps in the other’s replies. The friendship begins to deepen as they start to make plans to meet in Paris, a place Asha has always wanted to visit. However, like most relationships, making it to Paris requires that a big dose of reality has to be addressed first.

I found the structure of the movie somewhat innovative – basically the movie consists of the exchanged video messages. At no point do the two ever converse directly with each other via video chat, which seems to be something Asha is reluctant to do after Hank suggests it early on. We find out why later on, but that does add a degree of difficulty to the movie in that it becomes something of a found footage romance. Keeping it interesting can be a challenge but the filmmakers actually manage to do that, engaging in a commentary on modern romance via technology along the way.

Hank and Asha make an engaging couple. They mesh well together and are exceedingly cute, not only physically. Asha has a sweet smile and her expression as she samples world famous Czech beer is absolutely precious – beer is most definitely an acquired taste, even excellent beer. There haven’t been many instances I’m aware of where someone tasted beer for the first time and exclaimed “Wow! That’s really delicious!”

For his part, Pastides is a charismatic presence. His face is very expressive and at times he’s required to express frustration, confusion, hurt and goofy charm and often does so wordlessly. He has a sequence that’s essentially a take-off on the Tom Cruise dance from Risky Business that is lovely, although it does go on a bit too long.

The problem with the movie is that it’s essentially an hour and a half of, if you’ll forgive the use of an industry term, meet cute. Montages of them travelling around their respective cities set to jangly indie rock is a bit cliche and a bit of a cheat as well, even though these are sequences supposedly created by Hank and Asha themselves. I found that they stop the movie in their tracks and forced me to grouse about indie film cliches until the movie resumed its conversational tone.

Another thing I would have liked to have seen is the two characters reveal a bit more about themselves. Of course, that might be a point the filmmakers are trying to get across – that modern technology puts up different kinds of walls, allowing us to show only our surface selves and nothing of who we truly are. And that’s a perfectly valid point, to be sure. Yes, Hank talks about his relationship with his parents and Asha has a brief moment where she feels like she doesn’t belong because she’s the only Indian student in the school and so she’s completely out of place but those are fleeting insights and are not really followed up upon. We never truly see Hank and Asha with any depth and quite frankly, the surface aspects of both of them are so engaging that I would have liked to get to know them better. Alas, that is the curse of modern life I suppose.

REASONS TO GO: The couple is utterly adorable. Nice commentary on modern romance.
REASONS TO STAY: Descends into the realm of too cute occasionally..
FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hank and Asha debuted at Slamdance in the dramatic film competition.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Same Time Next Year
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Skin I Live In

God Bless America


God Bless America

WARNING: Blatant "American Idol" rip-off ahead!

(2011) Black Comedy (Magnolia) Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Melinda Page Hamilton, Rich McDonald, Guerrin Gardner, Andrea Harper, David Mendenhall, Larry Miller, Lauren Benz Phillips, Aris Alvarado, Mo Gaffney, Maddie Hasson, Tom Kenny, Geoff Pierson, Tom Lenk. Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait

 

There is plenty of reason to be frustrated at the state of affairs in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Angry, even. Most of us keep our frustrations pretty much to ourselves however and our anger manifests it in a tendency to be more and more self-centered. After all, what can we as individuals do?

Things aren’t going so well for Frank (Murray). He lives in an apartment with paper-thin walls; the couple next door with their bawling new baby are inconsiderate at best, louts at worst. Frank suffers from terrible headaches that keep him up at night, and although he tries to be pleasant enough at work, he is grumpy as all hell and prone to snapping.

After a well-meaning but misguided attempt to cheer up a fellow employee lands him on the unemployment line, Frank gets the double whammy of finding out that he has an inoperable brain tumor that leaves him with a much shorter life span than he anticipated. Divorced from his wife (who respects him about as much as she does….well, she doesn’t respect him at all) and estranged from his pre-school age daughter who is turning out to be a spoiled child who channels Veruca Salt on a daily basis, he sits at home watching the endless, mind-numbing array of reality programming on his television.

At last he’s had enough. When his daughter won’t see him, he winds up watching a reality show starring Chloe (Hasson), a spectacularly entitled bitch who berates her doting dad (Miller) on national TV when he gets her the wrong car for her birthday (“I wanted an Escalade!!!!!” she shrieks at ear-bleeding volume when she views the offending present).

Disillusioned and with nothing to lose, Frank – an ex-military man – decides that this isn’t what he served his country for. He gets his gun and drives out to see Chloe and after a botched attempt to blow up her car, shoots her in the head. This is witnessed by Roxy (Barr), a classmate of the late reality star who is thrilled, not just because Chloe got what she deserved but also because she sees a way out of the boring life she leads.

At first Frank is appalled and wants nothing to do with the young teen but when Roxy confesses that her stepfather is molesting her on a nightly basis, Frank reluctantly agrees to bring her along. They decide to off Chloe’s indulgent parents as a message to parents who give everything to their kids except discipline. That attempt is botched as well but Roxy saves the day just when it appears that Chloe’s mom might actually get away.

Suddenly the two are sort of like a super-liberal Bonnie and Clyde, roaming the countryside to rid the land of those that Frank construes as mean, rude or oppressive. The offending parties include a conservative blowhard talk show host (kinda Glenn Beck-esque), a homophobic Christian preacher (read as Fred Phelps), Tea Party protesters and the most heinous of all, people who talk and text in movie theaters. All of them get a bullet courtesy of the two Liberal spree killers who are giving Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate a run for their money. However, Frank has his sights set on some of the worst offenders of all – a musical competition show called American Superstars, a thinly veiled version of “American Idol” right down to the graphics. He is particularly incensed that a mentally challenged young man with little talent tries out and gets ridiculed, later threatening to commit suicide.

As you might have noticed from the synopsis, this is black comedy and for director Goldthwait, a veteran stand-up comic and writer, business as usual. This is definitely a satire on American life as seen by a card-carrying leftie, and I must admit that watching a stand-in for Glenn Beck being gunned down gave me a curious sense of satisfaction – not that I’d want the real Beck to be snuffed, mind you. I wouldn’t mind an extended case of laryngitis in his case however.

Conservative sorts are going to have issues with the politics of the movie, unless they have a really good sense of humor and an ability to poke fun at themselves (which a fair percentage of them do I must admit). Liberals might just find this a bit too violent, kind of a Death Wish meets Dirty Harry with a dose of Coming Home thrown in for good measure.

Murray, whom most might recognize from his stint on “Mad Men” (and who is the brother of actors Bill Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray), makes a fine sad-sack hero here. His delivery is dry and a bit Midwestern, giving Frank a kind of socially awkward exterior which frames a fairly decent interior (except for his penchant for putting a bullet in people he doesn’t like). For me while I kind of understood Frank’s rage, I never felt the movie explained why such a decent guy snapped so completely.

Young Barr gets the thankless job of playing a precocious teen but she does it without making her relatively annoying (and any teen who rips Cody Diablo a new one is all right by me). She makes a good foil for Murray and even though they are about as odd a couple as you can get (Barr’s attempts to flirt with a suitably appalled Frank aren’t dwelled upon and are done before it gets too creepy) the chemistry seems to be pretty genuine.

There are some pretty great laughs here, some of the sort that will have you feeling guilty a moment after expelling your guffaw. There is nothing remotely politically correct here; Goldthwait has an axe to grind and he plants it squarely between the shoulders of the Republicans. It’s certainly a bit of a one-sided world view (although Frank sheepishly admits to sharing some of the political philosophy of the talk show host – the relaxing of laws advocating gun control which figures when you think about it) but then again, I doubt Goldthwaite wants or needs to apologize to anyone.

The point here is that the movie is funny and even brilliant in a couple of places. I found the scene where the rude theater-goers were gunned down to be vicariously satisfying. When you spend as much time in movie theaters as I do, people who talk and text in theaters are on your ten most wanted list. While I don’t advocate mass murder, sometimes watching some of your favorite targets being used as actual target practice brings a smile to your face. I hope I would find the humor in watching a conservative vigilante take down ACLU lawyers, atheistic political commentators and Greenpeace activists with the same objectivity. I might wince a little more often there though.

REASONS TO GO: A clever satire of American life. Barr and Murray have surprising chemistry.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems to take great glee at skewering the conservative/tea party sorts which might offend some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a surfeit of profanity and a few sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Along with the Florida Film Festival, this has screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Calgary Underground Film Festival and South by Southwest.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: Not available. The reviews are pretty dang positive, at least early on.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Dreamz

GUN LOVERS: On display is a pretty impressive variety of handguns and other weapons, from Walther PK-9s to AK-47s to a .44 Magnum.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT:Turn Me On, Dammit!