Sunday, June 23, 2013

Bling-bling! Ka-ching! Ka-ching! The Bling Ring

The scariest thing about teens Rebecca (Katie Chang), Marc (Israel Broussard), Nicki (Emma Watson), Chloe (Claire Julien), and Samantha (Taissa Farmiga) is that they come from financially comfortable backgrounds and yet they feel a need to burglarize celebrity homes and steal their stuff, and they do it without the slightest twinge of a guilty conscience. Obsessed with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, they break into L.A. celebrity homes and casually select from the shoes, clothing, and jewelry of the likes of Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, and Lindsay Lohan, so that they can own the things that make these celebrities who they are. That the closets and rooms from which the pilfer are filled with items all neatly arrayed as in a store, not one shoe on the floor or out of place, suggests that Paris and Orlando and Lindsay are extremely obsessive compulsive, but I don’t think that’s the case. Most likely it’s a visual statement that the teen burglars see the possessions as goods meticulously arrayed for their taking, but it was an unrealistic element that really bothered me. Doesn’t Paris have a pile of jewelry or shoes that she hasn’t had time to put away? Don’t celebrity homes look lived in? In addition, the homes of the teenagers are sterile, brand-new, and uncluttered. This may well be a thematic statement, but it distances me from reality.

Sofia Coppola’s direction captures the glitz that these teens worship, and the performances are solid. Newcomer Katie Chang, as Rebecca, the ringleader, stands out. Chang’s performance portrays Rebecca as a sociopathic monster with ice water in her veins and nary a trace of emotion mixed in with the haughty expression on her pretty face. Indeed, Chang is scary to watch. Emma Watson as Nicki is not as convincing. Watson walks the snooty, spoiled-brat walk, and she talks the shallow, materialistic talk, but Watson’s portrayal of Nicki exposes its artificial seams whereas Chang’s performance stands out solidly, and chillingly, beyond artifice.

Of course, The Bling Ring resembles Spring Breakers in many ways. In both films, hedonistic teenagers without consciences, all girls except for one boy in Ring, commit ruthless acts encouraged by the licentious lifestyles glorified by the media. But the Spring Breakers go much farther than the Bling Ringers, and the impact of Spring Breakers is much more emotional and visceral.

Sofia Coppola’s film is very well made, but it is mostly a repetitious montage of break-ins and celebratory debauchery, and we don’t get to know too much about these celebrity-obsessed pirates. Coppola effectively captures their cold temerity. She shows their pathological incapacity to own up to what they have done. On the surface, what we see is shocking. But, however well framed it might be, what you see is what you get. When it comes to the end, there seems to be something missing. The film and its characters seem undeveloped; the drama and conflicts never seem to kick in. Everything about the film seems as shallow as the glitzy lifestyles the Bling Ringers attempt to hijack. Perhaps that’s the point, but perhaps the film should have given us something more to remember the point by.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Zombie Apocalypse: World War Z

You wouldn’t call me a big fan of the zombie genre. I’m not into those novels that insert zombies into Jane Austen novels or Victorian history. After a couple of episodes of The Walking Dead I was bored. But after a year or so of resistance, I read World War Z, by Max Brooks, and I have to say it’s a tremendous novel. It is a wonderfully imaginative masterpiece that vividly depicts a global zombie apocalypse in the form of very convincing oral history.

The film, World War Z, directed by Marc Forster, starring Brad Pitt, only achieves the global, journalistic approach of the novel in an effective news footage montage showing cleanup measures that comes after the film’s climax, but as an entity, it is a relentlessly gripping experience full of apocalyptic mayhem on a grandly visual scale. The book is quite a different thing, but I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.

The action starts quickly and with a narrow focus on the family of Gerry Lane (Pitt), a UN investigator. There’s no prologue, no fooling around. Once infected, humans change into zombies in seconds. And these zombie don’t shuffle. They run! In a scene the evokes the panic captured by Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and seems to imitate the scene in The Day After Tomorrow when the flood inundates a traffic jam on Fifth Avenue, Gerry, his wife, and their two daughters flee the rapid spread of the zombie virus in a masterfully intense scene full of intricate chaos. Forster builds nice suspense in the congested street, as collisions and explosions grow in intensity. The suspense continues in the hallways of a New Jersey apartment building. As Gerry’s hunt for the source of the virus takes him from Korea to Israel, the scope of the zombie disaster widens, mounting to widescreen panoramas of mind-boggling proportions.

With no explanation of what caused this virus, and with very little exposition of facts and figures, except by a delightfully enthusiastic young biologist who expresses his fascination for viruses, the film spends most of its time building up one set-piece disaster after another. The movie is very different from the novel, but I never felt disappointed. I enjoyed the film’s relentless sense of dread and its persistent tension, made all the more enjoyable by Pitt’s portrayal of Gerry as he interprets the virus’s quirks in an attempt to find a way to defeat it

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Summer Viewings

This Is the End entertains with an interesting premise: how the real Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride might act during a disaster, but when the what-if nature of the story wanders off into nonsense involving the Biblical apocalypse, the premise and the crude jokes get stretched out of all workable shape.

With Man of Steel, you need to steel yourself for an endless barrage of spaceship blasting; explosions; and superhero pounding. Superman and his enemy, General Zod, endlessly pound away at each other and throw each other into many exploding things - all to no dramatic effect. Man of Steel tries to personalize the Superman myth, the story of the alien boy who comes down to Earth and must adapt to an alien environment. Fitting in is difficult for Supe. He suffers ostracism and feels like an outcast. These few quiet moments are good, but the few quiet moments are immediately drowned out by excessively long sequences of head-splitting combat and destruction.

The Internship is a delightful Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn vehicle that follows the formula of unlikely underdogs ultimately triumphing, specifically, in this case, making it big at a Google internship camp. Wilson and Vaughn are genuinely funny, and Rose Byrne adds her charming presence, as the story cracks jokes at the drawbacks of technology, connectivity, and all things "on the line" that dominate our 21st century culture.

The Kings of Summer poignantly and memorably explores issues of coming of age; father-son conflicts; and falling in love, as three boys run away from home and go Walden in the woods, building their own house, trying to live off the land, communing with nature, and struggling to come to terms with all the painful elements of growing up and striking out on your own.

Before Midnight completes the Before Sunrise-love-story trilogy, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine, who are "married" with two children now. On vacation in Greece, they talk about the factors that brought them together as well as the issues stemming from their decision to live together. Jesse worries that he needs to live closer to his son from his first marriage while Celine worries that she has sacrificed her aspirations for marriage and parenthood. In long takes, with a minimum of scenes, the film touches on all things important, and frustrating, about life and relationships. As the film bites incisively into these issues, Hawke and Delpy portray a relationship that appears lived in and deeply developed. Before Midnight attains a realism that makes you feel the warmth of life's wonders and the discomfort of life's complications.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Purge

First you have to wrap your head around the premise. A fascist regime has taken control of our government. They’re called the Founding Fathers. Okay, think the Tea Party. No problem. And this regime allows one 12-hour period per year for Americans to get out their weapons and go around killing and raping as a means to expunge all those violent urges inside all of us. Seems that the growth in sales of firearms and security systems has boosted the economy and there is virtually no unemployment. Okay, the NRA might get behind this. Also, the Purge, as this cathartic period is called, gets rid of society’s undesirables. Sounds familiar to me.

That done, you have to expect the story’s similarities to Straw Dogs, The Strangers, and Funny Games, as our mild-mannered, highly privileged family sits inside their fortified mansion to get through Purge Night – which has been turned into a highly documented television event – The Hunger Games on a national scale. Dad, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), is a slick security systems salesman who has acquired the very best for his family. Wife Mary (Lena Headey) cooks gourmet meals with zero carbs. Son Charlie is a long-haired, sensitive guy who tinkers around with and talks to a remote-control tank mounted with a half-melted doll’s torso. Zoey (Adelaide Kane) is your typical romantic teenage girl with a randy boyfriend (Tony Oller).

Soon, a couple of twists get the tension going. Charlie breaches the defenses to admit a wounded stranger (Edwin Hodge), and the randy boyfriend, who has sneaked into the Sandin fortress, is going to confront disapproving Daddy with a gun. To make matters worse, preppies from hell besiege the house and plan to batter down the doors if the Sandins don’t release the stranger.

Suspenseful moments in dark hallways and moralistic choices ensue, but the suspense is often weakened by the lack of initial establishing shots to clearly delineate the layout of the house, and we never know where anyone is hiding or creeping in relation to the approaching threat.

You can guess that the Sandins decide to fight it out, and I embraced this basic element as a wish fulfilled, hoping that traces of humanity have survived the fascist dictates of the Founding Fathers, whoever they are. Guess it would be all right to assassinate the F.F.s on Purge Night. Somebody should try it.

The Purge delivers standard mayhem, but what I liked most about this movie is that – SPOILER OF SORTS – Mary emerges as the prime mover for good, and her control of circumstances when the Sandins are beset by a surprise invasion is a satisfying climax, nicely performed by Headey.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

After Airbender: After Earth

Everybody knows the story. After his successes with The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004), it was like M. Night Shyamalan got whacked on the head or something. His writing lacked imagination; he lost his directorial touch for getting subtlety out of an actor like Bruce Willis or passion out of a newcomer like Bryce Dallas Howard; and his editing lost its suspenseful timing. His subsequent films, Lady in the Water, (2006), The Happening (2008), and The Last Airbender (2010) were lopsided, toneless, or just plain bad.

With After Earth (2012), starring Will Smith as a wise father guiding his fearful son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), through a mission on Earth, now a wild environment hostile to humans, Shyamalan makes a moderate comeback in the sense that he delivers a tight story about survival and the bond between father and son that is gripping and visually engaging.

But Shyamalan has not recovered completely from that metaphorical whack on the head. His direction does not get the best out of Will Smith, and Jaden, very cute and dynamic in The Karate Kid, lacks substantial presence here. With some stilted acting and a flatness of tone that may stem from Shyamalan being too cautious and overly thoughtful in the editing, After Earth sometimes feels too sedate, but it redeems itself by being a darn good survival story.

Mixing real locations of desert and redwood forest with CGI beasts and backdrops, Shyamalan creates a realistic world. This is wilderness Earth, a Sierra Clubber’s wet dream, armed against the humans who ruined her environment. After evacuating their planet, humans settled on Nova Prime, where they came in contact with blind alien creatures called Ursas that can smell fear. Cypher, Kitai’s hero father, is famous for being able to “ghost,” which means shedding all his fear so that the aliens cannot “see” him. While we wonder if Kitai will survive his journey across hostile terrain to locate a beacon in order to save his injured father, we get the added hook of wondering if Kitai can “ghost.”

Despite the flatness of some of the scenes, the film succeeds as a simple survival tale. There are gripping moments involving Earth’s environmental hazards, and there is a nicely fanciful moment when Kitai’s encounter with a gigantic condor turns into an episode out of The Arabian Nights that has a touching resolution. After Earth fails to achieve the emotional effect of Shyamalan’s earlier films, but it is a good story, and its post-human Earth is a place worth visiting.