The Bling Ring

ImageSofia Coppola’s life of privilege is no secret; I mean she is a Coppola, daughter of Francis, and even appeared in all three Godfather films (she was one year old in the first one).  Privilege is an interesting topic, and the exposure of the jaded nature of the privileged is not a new subject for the film industry.  Coppola has forged this territory before first in 2003 with Lost in Translation, then in 2006 with Marie Antoinette, next in 2010 with Somewhere, and most recently with this year’s release of The Bling Ring.

Based on real events detailed in Nancy Jo Sales’s Vanity Fair article, The Bling Ring is about a group of shallow, obsessive teens who rob celebrity homes in order to emulate their lifestyles.  After using the Internet to track celebrities’ whereabouts, Marc (Israel Broussard) and Rebecca (Katie Chang) begin hand picking the residences of out-of-town celebrities to burgle.  Their three close friends Nikki (Emma Watson), Chloe (Claire Julien), and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) round out the ring of thieves who steal over $3 million worth of property in one year’s time.

This story is ripe for the hands of Coppola.  While known for searching for the sympathetic side of degenerative celeb culture, she is not quick to pardon the acts of these characters.  The Sleigh Bells’ song “Crown on the Ground” plays during the film’s opening credits suggesting the forthcoming loss of innocence and selfish deviance of the characters.   Coppola draws from Sales’s article to construct a twisted Bonnie & Clyde-like story with less-than admirable protagonists.  Here Coppola analyzes youth culture and its influences in an attempt to diagnose what has lead to this overwhelming degradation in the aspirations of young people.

While it is easy to blame Rebecca, Marc, and company for their ultimate predicament, Coppola does not place the blame solely on them.  Nikki and Sam’s mother, Laurie (Leslie Mann), religiously feeds her daughters Adderall because she is too consumed with vicariously preserving her own youth through her children’s experiences.  This pill/pharmaceutical culture is clearly linked to the excessive substance abuse carried out by these young characters.  Furthermore, Laurie lacks the backbone to provide a leadership role in these girls’ lives, yet attempts to home-school them with weak lessons about moral guidance.  This hypocrisy of adults presents an additional element to explain how and why the film plays out as it does.

Coppola also frames her film with confessionals from the “ring” after their inevitable capture.  In these confessionals, the young criminals speak frankly about how their society and surroundings damaged their self-image and consciousness to the point that they were motivated to do something about it.  Coppola proposes the question that with the media’s focus on saturating the market with the glamorous lives of the over-privileged youth who seemingly were handed fame and fortune, how is patience, hard work, and morality supposed to compete?  This is a disgusting question, and one that mature adults can easily answer, but the question is posed to immature, poorly guided young people, thus the answer is archetypically suggested by this film.

It is easy to dislike this film.  However, much like last spring’s Spring Breakers one must see the forest for the trees.  There is a mess here, but it is one often swept under the rug and films like this try to show what happens when too much dirt accumulates.  This notion is most realized when examining the captivating character of Nikki, played brilliantly by Emma Watson.  Nikki utters the film’s last words, which I will not spoil here, but the message is loud and clear and it resonates as Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” plays during the closing credits.  What I will say is that Watson has a cameo in Seth Rogan’s This is the End, and while that film certainly earns its title – perhaps this film is even more deserving.  The Bling Ring is one of Sofia Coppola’s best films in an impressively growing filmography.  Her subject matter may not vary much from film to film, but she has a knack for finding new, fresh ways to interpret a theme.  It can be a “tough pill to swallow” at times, but the film is an ambitious and well-made social satire that feeds off of the very problems it wishes to expose.  It is a weird yet substantial film!  A-

The Bling Ring is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes.  Go in with an open mind and broadened expectations.  Also keep an eye out for Sofia Coppola’s good luck charm, Kirsten Dunst who makes an uncredited third appearance in a Sofia Coppola film.

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World War Z

ImageAfter numerous delays, rewrites, reshoots, and budgetary problems, the notoriously troubled film World War Z is finally here, and I am pleased to say that what results is quite a crowd pleaser.

Brad Pitt stars and produces World War Z based on the novel by Max Brooks about a mysterious and fast spreading pandemic that threatens the very existence of mankind.  The twist is that this virus turns its victims into zombies who have no other objective but to spread the disease onward.  Five additional screenwriters share credit (after the aforementioned rewrites) for bringing this story to the screen, but the film feels relatively seamless.  Pitt plays retired UN investigator, Gerry Lane.  Once the outbreak occurs, Lane is notified that his assistance is needed and in exchange his family would be given refuge aboard an aircraft carrier isolated and safe from Z infection.

The film does not waste any time getting to the action.  The infection arrives immediately and with a 12 second incubation period, the danger and terror are exponentially higher. Furthermore, what also helps World War Z rise above expectations is that unlike many other films of this genre, Lane is on his own and free to navigate the globe as needed.  Too often, ‘epidemic’ films put the main character’s family directly into danger causing many of the decisions to be based off of what will keep them safe.  With Lane’s family safely aboard a UN aircraft carrier, Lane makes drastically different decisions with his agenda aimed at protecting mankind, not just his wife and kids.  Lane travels from Pittsburgh to New Jersey to South Korea to Jerusalem to Wales all in search of the answers to this mysterious world-affecting outbreak.  This is exciting stuff!

Director Marc Forster puts together a very intensifying film with a series of very gripping action sequences.  While a couple of night sequences are overly dark and disorienting, his use of various point of view shots, hand held camera, and inspired set pieces deliver an electrifying cinematic experience.  While a supporting cast exists, this is very much Pitt’s movie.  Look out for fast and brief moments from David Morse and Matthew Fox, the latter being such a brief appearance that one can only wonder if his part was severely cut down or if he just jumped in there as a favor to Lost co-creator and Z co-screen writer Damon Lindelof.  Nonetheless, Pitt does all of the heavy lifting for this film.  This is a Brad Pitt-long hair movie, which can be worrisome (see Troy, Meet Joe Black, or The Devil’s Own if you need proof).  It also means it is no-nonsesne Pitt; there will be no Ocean’s 11 charm, Fight Club campiness, or Inglorious Basterds bravado.  Here Pitt gets his sacrificial romantic hero locks on but with kick-ass-short-hair Mr. and Mrs. Smith style results.

The only problem World War Z has is the same one that Man of Steel had last week: topical familiarity and saturation.  The Zombie genre had a major resurgence over the last decade or so, and World War Z comes to the theaters with a far from fresh concept.  Many of the ideas, theories, and plotpoints are reminiscent of things 13 million people saw on The Walking Dead every week.  Nonetheless, World War Z accomplishes a bit more of an accessible zombie story in that it is not heavy on the gore.  Much of the violence of the film happens off screen or away from the camera, and the film’s most effective scenes are those which are the quietest and most suspenseful.  There are also some very interesting scenes early on in the film as the reality of what’s happening begins to wash over the non-infected public.  This semi-original take on a familiar genre buys it just enough cache to be considered worth-while and different.  B+

World War Z is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutesIt is another example of 3-D post conversion, so it was not filmed in 3-D.  That coupled with the various dark and shaky scenes forces me to recommend the film be seen in 2-D. 

Before Midnight

ImageEthan Hawke and director Richard Linklater have cornered the market on films that answer the question, how much dialogue can Ethan Hawke deliver in a single film?  The answer: quite a bit!  Before Midnight is the latest in this series of topical minimalist discussion films; Linklater directed Hawke in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (the two predecessors to this film) as well as in an unrelated but similarly styled film in 2001 called Tape.  These are all risky and polarizing films in that they are stripped down character studies packed wall to wall with dialogue and little else.  The key to their success is simply that the actors are up to the task and that the discussions are extremely compelling.

Before Midnight is the third and likely final film that documents the relationship of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy).  While the two met happenstance on a train in Europe in Before Sunrise and then reconnected slightly by chance in Before Sunset, it is not necessary to view either of these films before seeing Before Midnight.  Apparently Jesse did “miss that plane” from Before Sunset because Before Midnight finds Jesse and Celine on vacation in Greece nine years later.  Jesse is working on his third book while Celine is contemplating a major career decision.  Jesse’s son from his first marriage is nearly 15, and he and Celine both have young twin girls of their own.  While Before Sunrise looked to capture true love at its inception and Before Sunset looked to watch it blossom under unforeseen circumstances, the appropriately ominously titled Before Midnight looks to uncover the tension that lurks within every relationship when life gets complicated.  Jesse and Celine’s banter at this point reveals a familiarity that manifests playfully at times but also bitterly and honestly raw at others.   We first see Jesse at the airport sending his son, Hank, back to the states.  We then follow the couple through four distinct and ever-intensifying scenes that culminate in a hotel room in the South Peloponnese region of Greece.

The real power of the film is watching and experiencing the communication breakdown and habitual reparation in a relationship.  Every scene is so authentic that it is unlikely that anyone who has been in a long-term relationship can view this film and not hear at least one phrase he or she has uttered at one point or another.  The film forces the audience to view it introspectively and reflect on the inherent competitive nature that exists within relationships.  It also forces the audience to feel relief that they are simply witnessing these exchanges and not necessarily a party to them.  This is a film that can get you to squirm in your seat with genuine awkward discomfort.  Consequently, Before Midnight is a major departure from its predecessors in terms of tone and mood.  Furthermore, this film also has a broader focus, introducing some additional characters into the mix and adding context and perspective to some of the deeper conversations about love, sex, age, and life.

Before Midnight is the most bittersweet entry in the series, but it is perhaps the best.  It is superbly acted and extremely well written, although tremendously chatty.  If that description doesn’t interest you, skip it and go see Man of Steel.  B+

This is the End

ImageI know this won’t be a popular statement for the 80 or 90 people that loved Freaks and Geeks in 1999, but I’m glad it got cancelled if it led this group of young actors to strive for a level of celebrity that allows for a film like This is the End to be made and to work so well! 

This is the End is another example of pseudo-reality entertainment in the style of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where actors play versions of themselves albeit sometimes deeply ironic versions of themselves; I’m talking to you, Michael Cera – at least I hope I am!  Seth Rogan wrote and directed this film along with his partner, Evan Goldberg, and the film clearly benefits from having someone so close to the actors involved with all parts of the production. 

This is the End opens simply enough with Seth Rogan meeting his friend Jay Baruchel at the airport.  They plan to hang out in LA and eventually end up heading to James Franco’s new house for a big house-warming party.  The opening act of this film is a cameo-filled (Emma Watson, Rhianna, and Paul Rudd to name a few) laugh fest that just piles on the humor in ways that a big-screen comedy hasn’t done since The Hangover in 2009.  The comedy is not just name-dropping cheap laughs though.  Rogan and Franco along with Jonah Hill and Jay Baruchel have permeated their way into celebrity in such a way that they can satirize the entertainment business through self-referential humor.  Rogan has written a screenplay that characteristically paints his characters as corrupted in one way or another by the entertainment industry, and this biting satire plays out far beyond the opening act. 

Rogan also makes a series of wise choices as both a writer and a director that keep this film from quickly growing stale.  Most notably is his decision to play the rest of the film as a true disaster film.  Once the inevitable apocalypse begins, it is not treated as a joke to introduce more absurdity.  Instead, it is used as a backdrop of real danger designed to continue the motif of contempt that has built up in the characters.  That is not to say the laughs stop coming – that is in no way true.  However, the balance of humor and real danger keep the film fresh and alive. 

The apocalypse that hits is quickly discovered to be a literal onset of the Book of Revelations complete with the Rapture and the arrival of Satan on Earth.  Such high stakes force the boys to hole up in Franco’s house along with Craig Robertson and Danny McBride.  Irreverent humor abounds with some of the meanest, nastiest, low-brow, toilet humor imaginable – all of it hilarious.  Occasionally, the film hits a slight snag in terms of pacing and some of the gross-out humor is tasteless and extreme, but it is hardly at the film’s detriment.  The film has a little bit of something for everyone; in fact, even fans of The Backstreet Boys owe this film a tremendous debt of gratitude for preserving a shred of their relevance in cinematic history. 

Rogan and company have truly tapped into a genre of humor that grows along with them.  In one scene, they try to kill boredom by filming crude home-movie versions of sequels of their own films.  Somebody get to work on this exact version of Pineapple Express 2 immediately!  In fact, This is the End would be a great exclamation point at the end of the “end of the world” movie fad that has been so commonly explored in entertainment lately.  However, with World War Z, The World’s End, and Elysium still to come this summer along with fall’s second installment of The Hunger Games series, it’s clear that we are far from done with this genre.  A-   

This is the End is rated R – very, very, very R – and has a running time of 1 hour and 59 minutes.  It is heavy on the raunch, and while I highly recommend it as a comedy, it is not for the easily offended. 

Man of Steel

Image“Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way…” But what lead to all of this? That’s the question director, Zack Snyder attempts to answer in the latest treatment of “the last son of Krypton,” Man of Steel.

It has been 75 years since Superman first appeared in 1938’s Action Comics’ premier issue. Since then, the character has starred in countless comics, TV shows, and movies. Yet, with Man of Steel, Superman’s sixth cinematic appearance, most of the buzz revolved around Christopher Nolan’s involvement with the project. Nolan, most known as the director of the remarkable Dark Knight trilogy, teamed up with his Dark Knight series co-writer, David S. Goyer to write the screenplay for Man of Steel. Nolan and Goyer successfully revitalized the Batman franchise by making it edgy, making it smart, and taking a fresh take on a familiar story. Thus, the hopes are that they were able to do the same to DC Comic’s most popular hero, Superman. Man of Steel, unfortunately, does not quite deliver the goods.

The film opens on Krypton as the doomed planet is self-destructing after its inhabitants have mined the nutrients of its core, causing a full on apocalypse. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Laura decide to place their newborn son, Kal-El in a capsule headed for Earth in the hopes that he will know a better life and continue a form of the Kryptonian line of people. Kal-El is, of course discovered and raised by Kansas farmers, The Kents where he is famously renamed “Clark.” Conflict arrives when Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives on Earth searching for Kal-El as part of his mission to obliterate man-kind in a genocidal plot to repopulate Earth with pure Kryptonians.

Man of Steel sets out to offer a different tone than is usually found in a Superman film. Henry Cavill’s performance as the title character is far more serious, insightful, and raw than any previous Superman. Additionally, this is the most violent Superman film to date, proliferated with tragedy and destruction. Director, Snyder does offer a fresh take on the well-known origin story with a non-linear timeline that bounces back and forth through Superman’s first 33 years on Earth. He also, gives audiences a lengthier glimpse at Krypton than found in previous films. The non-traditional timeline works very well, preventing the film from hitting snags as the character grows. Instead, audiences are able to see Superman earlier with a peppering of flashbacks to add context to his story. With all of this being said, the film lacks the edge and intelligence necessary to allow it to, well, soar. The opening sequence on Krypton is a welcomed change, but the planet is already experiencing so much unrest that it is hard to believe these alien people are anything but flawed and miserable. In fact, this scene introduces a sort of Brave New World motif where choice has been bred out of Krypton, and society chooses the fate of all inhabitants. The screenplay opts for simplicity over complexity, which forces the film into a brainless extended action scene for the final hour; a scene that puts the “never-ending” in the “never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Coupled with these extended action scenes is Snyder’s shooting technique. He uses a lot of shaky, hand-held camera shots, which do become strenuous at times.

Perhaps the most major missed opportunity is the weak exploration of young Kal-El’s/Clark Kent’s struggles as an alien in a strange world. While Snyder does explore this, he does so in a fashion that merely glosses over the surface. Scene’s involving Superman’s youth are far too underdeveloped and border on stereotypical. Furthermore, the fun and the romance that are expected from a Superman story are in short supply in Man of Steel. Instead, this reboot attempts to ground a movie about alien superpeople living and battling on Earth in some sort of reality, which is a bit preposterous.

The casting is certainly the film’s major strength. Cavill is, of course, an excellent choice for Superman. He looks the part and has great presence on the screen. Amy Adams gives a performance as Lois Lane that veers far from her just being a silly girl getting into trouble all of the time, and Michael Shannon gives another full-tilt-crazy performance as Zod. Other familiar minor characters are also well cast including Laurance Fishburne as Perry White and Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Ma and Pa Kent.

All together, Man of Steel shows promise, but mostly for what is yet to come. Warner Brothers has already green-lit a sequel that will be fast-tracked to release before 2015’s Justice League. Man of Steel feels like a bloated set-up piece to what promises to be a far more superior sequel. B-

Man of Steel is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes. The film was post-converted to 3-D, however there are some exciting sequences that are enhanced by the conversion. Nonetheless, 2-D is recommended and there is no stinger after the credits, so feel free to go home if you’re not interested in who the 2nd assistant sound editor was.

The Internship

ImageListen beautiful babies, I only have time to say this once and whether you’re just a baby chick or a full grown hen there’s not a lot of people that don’t know the cadence of a metaphor-laced Vince Vaughn pep-talk speech, but if you haven’t heard one of these fast paced gems it’s an anecdotal mess – but the kind of mess where something may accidentally come of it, I mean Columbus thought he was in the West Indies but it’s no reason to ridicule the man, it’s the genocide that maybe gives the guy a damaged rep but hey you gotta get back on the horse man, and do it like a champion, a CHAMPION!  

And there you have the message of Vaughn’s latest buddy comedy, The Internship.  Not genocide, but a mess where something worthwhile might occasionally, accidentally come out of it.  Vaughn’s speeches have become less ‘cute’ and more cliché this time around, and so it goes with The Internship.  The film opens with the most uncomfortable scene of the year where two forty-somethings played by Vaughn and co-star Owen Wilson wildly sing Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic,” which is ironically un-ironic as the scene is so cringe-inducing and not funny that you can’t wait for it to end.  Vaughn and Wilson play Billy and Nick, two guys who lose their sales jobs and nonsensically end up as interns at Google in a final attempt to get their hands on that ever-elusive American dream.  And just in case that wasn’t clear, prepare yourself for Owen Wilson’s tepid recitation of Langston Hughes’s “A Dream Deferred.”

Part of The Internship’s humor revolves around how old Vaughn and Wilson are compared to the young, spry geniuses typically courted by Google.  However, that humor is lost rather quickly as it becomes too apparent that Vaughn and Wilson are simply too old for this.  Wilson is especially awkward.  He showed such promise in a more mature role with Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris, but it seems his days are numbered as the immature feathered haired sidekick.  It’s laughable (in a bad way) to imagine that these two supposedly excellent salesmen still have live-in girlfriends and virtually no marketable skills.  Nick’s foray into selling mattresses for his brother-in-law (played by Will Ferrell in a moderately funny cameo) proves that these guys are stereotypical screen characters just waiting to prove their worth at some inevitable time when their charm can benefit some unorthodox circumstance.

Simply put, the first act of this film has hardly any redeeming quality and if you walked out, I wouldn’t blame you.  Nonetheless, if you suffer through the laborious opening, things do get better – not much better, but better.  Bill and Nick (a pair of more ubiquitous names would be difficult to imagine) eventually find themselves the underdogs on a team of further underdogs who must compete against other intern teams for a chance at a full-time job with the company.  The tasks are obscenely unconventional as the audience is constantly barraged by propaganda about Google’s progressive nature (Do Google interns truly take part in live competitive Quidditch matches?).  Nonetheless, once the exposition is complete, the film livens up a bit with an entertaining nightclub scene and a funny take on a “first date” scene when Nick courts an executive named Dana (Rose Byrne) who has conveniently forgotten how to have fun and needs a man to remind her of what’s important (actually, feminists may want to avoid the movie in its entirety).

Vaughn and Wilson teamed up once before in the incomparably better film, Wedding Crashers.  These two do have chemistry, but only if the material holds up.  Unfortunately for The Internship, it does not and only the screenwriter is to blame, Vince Vaughn.  Vaughn’s two other screenwriting credits, The Break-Up and Couples Retreat, happen to be equally vapid.  His writing relies on cheap gags, stereotypes, and in the case of The Internship, a strange motif where the bushier a character’s eyebrows, the more villainous the character’s intentions.  The Internship is basically a thinly veiled advertisement for the virtuosity and distinctiveness of Google.  Unfortunately, for the average paying theater-goer, the film is not as innovative as its subject.  Consider passing up this InternshipD

Now You See Me

 ImageIn 2006’s The Prestige, Michael Caine plays a magician mentor who says, “Making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.”  In Now You See Me, Caine plays a very different character who in one scene learns this lesson in a very painful way.  Now You See Me is like The Prestige-Lite, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. 

According to Now You See Me, successful illusions are the result of misdirection and timing. In a summer teeming with sequels, it is refreshing to see an occasional original idea hit the theaters, and it is this misdirection and successful timing that perhaps enhances the appeal of this film.  In one of the year’s most enjoyable opening scenes, four unique illusionists (Jessie Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, and Dave Franco) are drawn together by a mysterious individual who provides them with the blueprints to a spectacular act that only they are capable of performing as a team.  The team, now known as the Four Horsemen, begins performing a series of illusions that involve various heists including the robbery of a major Paris bank.  Ironically, the spoils of these robberies go not to the victors but to the audience of the show!  This Robin Hood-esque form of vigilantism draws the attention of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) who is given the exceptionally difficult task of proving exactly how the Four Horsemen are guilty of these robberies. 

Casting is by far one of the film’s major attributes.  Eisenberg’s awkward, self-deprecating persona is put aside for one with much stronger bravado; watching him play J. Daniel Atlas is sort of like watching him play Mark Zuckerberg on personality steroids, in other words – kind of great.  Woody Harrelson does a great job as mentalist Merritt McKinney, which he plays kind of like Sherlock Holmes…on personality steroids – so also kind of great.  Dave Franco and Isla Fisher are very effective, but far less central to the film’s development.  Ruffalo and his partner Alma (Mélanie Laurent) are great at revealing the frustration of chasing down the clever illusionists, and Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine expertly provide further dimension to the story by exploring the darker side of “magic’s” purpose.         

Now You See Me has a lot of fun with its premise.  Director, Louis Leterrier packs the film with style and tricks of the trade that keep the story moving and rather captivating.  Leterrier, mostly known for action films like The Incredible Hulk and the first two Transporter films, takes a crack at an ensemble piece where he must balance story with numerous characters – all the while keeping the audience in the dark about the exact motivations of these characters.  He is mostly successful at this, but the film requires a rather high level of suspension of disbelief and some serious overlooking of plot-holes.  It also has a bit of an unevenness to it as Leterrier cannot quite lose his proclivity for action and crowbars a 15 minute car chase smack in the middle of the film.  The scene is brilliantly shot and very exciting, but it also involves virtually none of the film’s main characters and thus, feels a bit superfluous.

Now You See Me is a lot of fun and fortunately, it does not run out of steam at the end.  Too often films like this are all set-up and no delivery, but the ending of Now You See Me is satisfying and very appropriate.  Hopefully, Now You See Me will find an audience and remind movie studios that once in a while an original idea is worth their consideration before they green-light Fast and Furious 12: Where Did I Put My Keys? B+

Now You See Me is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 56 minutes. If you like magic and you like movies and you’ve been looking for a way to make that miserable experience of seeing The Incredible Burt Wonderstone disappear, this is the movie for you!