Monday, June 24, 2013

The Shallow Shine of The Bling Ring

           Once again, Sofia Coppola proves she’s her father’s daughter in helming The Bling Ring, an impressive portrait of cool kids making cool mistakes. Judging from the number of teen-aged girls in the theater with me, I was concerned I might not exactly be in Coppola’s target audience. As it turned out, Coppola’s script (co-written with Vanity Fair journalist, Nancy Jo Sales) and her directing style later had me wondering whether the teen-aged girls were within her target audience.
            The Bling Ring tells the true story of Marc (Israel Broussard), the new boy at LA’s Indian Hills high School, who is befriended by fashionista Rebecca (Katie Chang). Marc, Rebecca and their pals, Nicki (Emma Watson), Chloe (Claire Julien) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga), all share an obsession with fashion, clubbing and the glamorous lives of their favorite celebrities. When Marc discovers online that Paris Hilton will be hosting a party out of town, he and Rebecca break into Hilton’s Beverly Hills mansion on a lark and take souvenirs. This light-hearted burglary quickly becomes habit and soon the whole gang is stealing from the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox and Rachel Bilson (Oddly, I guess Hilton didn’t mind the trouble too much; she let Coppola shoot the recreations in her house!). The gang makes out like bandits, literally; copping pricey designer purses, shoes, dresses and jewelry, along with thick wads of cash which, I guess if you’re really rich, you keep around the house. Flashing their ill-gotten bling all over Facebook and at house parties, the ring takes it all too far and the law does catch up with them.
All of the young actors do excellent work in The Bling Ring, and I think we’ll be seeing more of Israel Broussard in the future. Honestly, though, the one starlet whose performance everyone wants to know about is almost certainly Emma Watson.
Many remember watching Miss Watson growing up as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films. Miss Watson seems to be handling this pivotal point in her life very well; staying in the public eye while choosing her roles carefully. Nikki is a great, if flawed, character. For now, Miss Watson seems to be playing off of being a grown-up (and sexy?) Hermione; she even has a cameo in This Is The End as herself, raiding James Franco’s booze supplies as the apocalypse rages. It’s too soon to say whether Emma Watson can transition her childhood success into a lifelong career. Maybe she will; perhaps she won’t, but based on her performance in this film, she’s certainly giving it a solid shot.
The Bling Ring is that rarest of birds; a well-funded film that keeps the spirit of its independent roots. Sofia Coppola’s use of photographic depth of field in her storytelling is phenomenal and truly unique to her visual voice. Ever since the homerun she scored with 2004’s Lost in Translation, I’ve waited patiently for her to create the masterpiece she’s so capable of producing. Sadly, while fun and thought-provoking, The Bling Ring falls short of masterpiece status.
The Bling Ring’s best feature is its illustration of a lifestyle-obsessed culture, not in its nearly passionless characters. The most emotionally charged scenes are when the gang tries on clothes from celebrities’ closets or gazing upon the stolen glamour of their reflections in a mirror. The intense scene in which Chloe finds a gun and threatens Marc with it is reminiscent of the French New Wave and exemplary of how these kids’ lives are so detached from reality. It is no mystery how kids can become this way. In recent decades, Western culture has made great strides in the worship of wealth, glamour and popularity, with LA/Hollywood at its epicenter. Coupled with home lives devoid of meaningful relationships; parents too busy and too stressed trying to survive; Coppola’s film becomes an extreme example of a new norm – and easily become a pandemic.
One would think that each generation learns something from the past, but I guess not. 50 years ago we had the Valley of the Dolls; 30 years ago we had Less Than Zero; today, we have The Bling Ring. Wealth can only buy off a degree of unhappiness, but it can never satiate one’s soul.
Because, and in spite of this, The Bling Ring’s characters are not engrossing; and the drama, frankly, lacking.
Sofia has shown she can handle the hard stuff; the intimacies characters share and the convoluted themes they represent. I’ll keep waiting for her magnum opus, her Lawrence of Arabia, her Apocalypse Now or her Wings of Desire.  It is coming, I’m sure. She is, after all, her father’s daughter – she’s proved it time and again.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Lesser “Man of Steel”

            I’ve always looked forward to Superman movies, ever since I was a boy. Even though I personally favor Batman, films featuring the noble Man of Steel never failed to fire my imagination with hope for humanity. As Superman’s father, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) told his son in “Superman(1978)”: “They (humans) can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way.” Batman exemplifies dark poetic realism, with Gotham City a stark reflection of inner-city decay and the man himself a mere mortal with the funding to become a high-tech vigilante. Alternately, the refugee last son of Krypton always represented something greater, a higher ideal for us all with some comic book innocence and optimism for mankind’s future. That is, until now.
            I doubt I need to re-tell the story of Superman/Kal-El. i.e his evacuation from the planet Krypton and his inauspicious upbringing on a Kansas farm. Suffice to say, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) in “Man of Steel” spends the first half of the film searching for his place among us Earthlings, sometimes hiding his powers with superhuman inner strength. In flashbacks, Kal-El recalls the homespun wisdom of his Earthly father John Kent (Kevin Costner), assuring him that someday he’ll know the right time and place to reveal himself to the world. The trouble begins when other survivors of Krypton, led by the malevolently dedicated General Zod (Michael Shannon), arrive on Earth. Zod and his crew seek Krypton’s “Codex” which holds the genetic keys to re-establishing the Kryptonian race, but Jor-El merged this “Codex” with the infant Kal-El at the cellular level before sending him to Earth. Naturally, fistfights and all-out battles ensue, causing apocalyptic destruction from Kansas to Metropolis.
            This is where “Man of Steel” pays off for its action/adventure genre: the visual effects are spectacular! Richard Donner and the Salkinds - the team who created the 1970’s/80’s “Superman” films - could hardly imagine of the flying effects and epic scale of destruction brought to life by director Zach Snyder in “Man of Steel.” To some extent, this cinematic intensity is a bad thing, though, because the level of carnage spread through Metropolis (and in 3D no less) was enough to give this reviewer flashbacks to September 11th, 2001. Sometimes, less is more, and too much is just plain excessive.
            Director Zach (“300”) Snyder’s new image of Krypton is decent science fiction to be sure. Kal-El is the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries as children there are grown in vitro with pre-ordained abilities and destinies in society. Kryptonian technology, envisioned by Production Designer Alex McDowell as an earthy yet organic “Geo-Tech”, looks and feels terribly derivative of David Lynch’s “Dune”(1983) and 2004’s “Chronicles of Riddick.” All in all, though, not a bad re-boot of Superman’s home world, but nothing eye-popping or groundbreaking either.
It was disturbing to see the amount of Christian symbolism in “Man of Steel.” From a scene where a confused Kal-El consults a priest, to Superman’s appearance before a group of soldiers looking like the second coming of Christ (Sun over his shoulder, cape billowing in the breeze), it was all a bit too much. I know there was always a Superman/Jesus parallel at work, but honestly, if there were any more messianic images in this picture the Pope would have to issue a statement!
            “Man of Steel” is filled with fine actors whose talents are wasted on this film’s poorly drawn characters. Laurence Fishburne plays Perry White: okay, getting old, getting portly and venerable. Russell Crowe plays Jor-El: pretty okay, great voice but no great lines to deliver. Amy Adams appears as Lois Lane, she’s capable and adorable and the blandest lady reporter in history. None of the actors mentioned above are at fault for their shallow performances – the fault lies squarely with the filmmakers. In a mega-production filled with massive special effects and adrenaline-infused action set pieces, intimate character-building scenes tend to become 2nd class concepts. That said, how does one create a Superman movie and fail to create any kind of tangible chemistry between Superman and Lois Lane? Fine – there’s a kiss, and some chatty scenes including one beside John Kent’s grave. Nowhere, however, is chemistry created even close to the level generated between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in 1978!
            The most emotionally driven, interpersonal moments in this film occur between young Kal-El and John Kent. In these scenes, we watch a young boy grow up knowing he is an outsider to all those around him, a boy who must keep his amazing talents and abilities a secret. Kevin Costner brings a natural strength, a common sense, everyman appeal to John Kent. It is Costner’s performance that makes us feel what could easily have been the tired, old concerns of John Kent – that people might come, take his son away, that the boy might misuse his powers, or even use them at an inopportune time. John Kent’s simple farmer’s understanding of wrong and right gifts Kal-El a moral center forged in the American Heartland, but Kevin Costner gifts John Kent with the soul to make us believe in that moral center.
            At the end of the day, I have to admit 1978’s “Superman” can’t hold a candle to “Man of Steel” in scale, raw action or special effects. Still, I prefer the older film to the one I saw this week hands-down. Christopher Nolan, who brought Batman back to the big screen with his films starring Christian Bale, worked on this film as a creative consultant. Perhaps Warner Bros. felt Superman needed to be modernized for a 21st century audience in the same way as Batman. This was beyond a tragic mistake -- it was a betrayal.
In the climactic man on man battle royale against General Zod, Superman is forced into an action I never imagined I’d witness. I’m not disappointed in Superman for his deed; he was put into a unavoidable situation not by free choice, not even by Zod, but by this film’s creators. So what if Nolan, Snyder, screenwriter David S. Goyer had to update Superman for the 21st century? What does it say about us that the “light we need to show us the way” is now a man who kills another with his bare hands? If that is what we as a people need to rediscover hope, then we’ve failed very idea of Superman. You don’t ask Jesus to carry brass knuckles, you don’t ask Superman to snap General Zod’s neck. The innocence is gone from this “Man of Steel”. Even the colors of Superman’s re-envisioned costume appear muddied for today’s world.

Monday, June 10, 2013

“Mud”: Southern Gothic Love and Strength

            In a summer movie season filled with tent-pole pictures such as “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel,” it’s easy for a smaller film like “Mud” to be overlooked in the fray.
 “Mud” tells the story of Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a young man in Arkansas, as he carefully maneuvers a period of upheaval in his life. Ellis and his friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), journey one morning to claim a boat stuck in a tree on a river island but happen upon the film’s title character, Mud (Matthew McConaughey), hiding out. Faced with his parents’ pending divorce and the destruction of his way of life along the river, Ellis bonds with Mud and chooses to help him connect with his lifelong love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud must elude law enforcement and the powerful, violent family of a man he killed for beating Juniper, causing her to miscarry. Ellis has his own girl troubles; trying to forge a relationship with the very pretty, if untrustworthy, girl of his dreams, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). Ellis grows strong and confident over the course of this film, but he is slowly disillusioned of love and trust. Ultimately, Ellis’s angry cynicism simply doesn’t stand up to the powerful bonds of true friendship and family.
Written and directed by native Arkansas filmmaker, Jeff Nichols, “Mud” is a bit like the river that plays so prominently in its story -- sometimes beautiful; at other times, slow-moving. This is hardly an indictment, however; even the calmer portions hold one’s attention in anticipation of the adventure promised by Ellis and Neckbone’s perilous journey.
            Matthew McConaughey was voted one of People magazine’s “Hottest Bachelors” in 2006, but for “Mud,” he let himself go to seed. We never see him appearing clean or shaven, and the results are brilliant. I’ve never been a huge fan of McConaughey’s work, but he turns in a respectable performance as this film’s titular character, a fugitive hobo (not a bum, as per Mud; hobos work for their money!). Without McConaughey bringing an amiable humanity to his tragic character, it might have been hard to believe Ellis and Neckbone would have done all they did for him. Indeed, were it a rougher performance, we wouldn’t care ourselves about Mud’s romantic quest to ride the river into the sunset with the love of his life, Juniper.
            “Mud” features stellar performances from many of its cast members. Reese Witherspoon is almost unrecognizable in her authentic portrayal of Juniper, a barfly flirt who takes Mud’s love for granted but genuinely values their lifelong relationship. Sam Shepard perfectly plays Mud’s de facto father, Tom Blankenship, as an unkempt yet life-savvy retiree who can’t avoid the feelings he has for the boy he found in the woods decades earlier. A-Listers and venerable character actors aside, it’s Tye Sheridan who truly carries this film squarely and capably on his young shoulders. I remember seeing Leonardo DiCaprio in “This Boy’s Life” opposite Robert De Niro back in the early-1990s and knowing immediately that he was destined for a brilliant future in film. I’d like to say the same here for Sheridan, but honestly I’m not as certain about him. I see potential in Sheridan for stand-out performances in the years to come, but I think he’ll have to work harder at it than DiCaprio. I hope he puts in the work; I think many filmgoers will be grateful if he does.
 “Mud” is in the same ballpark as “Stand By Me” and even “Sling Blade”, but is sadly not quite in the same league. Another coming-of-age film, “The Kings of Summer,” was a Sundance darling and seems to be getting a lot of press. Given said recognition, this is no wonder.
Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” deserves to be known, shown and seen. Young teen boys should take a break from space men and super heroes to see what life is really like and truly about in this film. Likewise, people who want to enjoy a solid, down-to-earth story should not miss this valuable if understated offering, as well. Please do make the effort to see “Mud.” It might not be around long in the face of its staunch competition for screen time, but it is refreshing to see a movie wherein the stars are actors, not computer-generated effects.