Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Bling Ring

(Sofia Coppola, USA, 2013)

I'll admit that I'm not always sure what Sofia Coppola is up to.  Her most fully-realized film is Lost in Translation, which remains as charmed and atmospheric as it first appeared in 2006.  I saw Marie Antoinette, which didn't leave much of an impression, although I do recall it being much better than the most vocal haters claimed.  Somewhere is sitting somewhere on my Netflix queue. 

The Bling Ring gets at least one thing right: the stoned vacancy that can result from a person spending too much time out in the SoCal sun.  The kids who constitute the ring are hardly avid criminals, in what ends up being one of the bone-dry but droll meta-jokes of the movie.  It's unclear that they ever realize they're doing something wrong, but it's unmistakable that the appeal of the B and E escapades has almost nothing to do with transgressing.  For these wayward youngsters, it's about "stuff."  That actual word comes up a few times, always in reference to the splendor of the possessions they cadge from the houses of their heroes and heroines.   They feel entitled to it; they're just helping themselves to what they view as their just desserts.  It's funny, in a way, but it's also very sad.  While it seems axiomatic that the Bling Ringers don't have political or even moral awareness, it's kind of shocking to realize that they also don't seem to even have much in the way of aesthetic imaginations.  The opulence registers, but not the beauty, of their plunder.  (Yes, a great deal of it is tacky, expensive crap, but it's not like they're fooled; the name on the tag is what matters.  How it looks, or how kitschy it might be, is irrelevant.)    The late-night revelry at the club, when they writhe to house beats studded with their new loot, is merely fodder for selfies.  They aren't interested in experiences as such, only as things to document and transmit through the ubiquitous tentacles of social media.   It's all meant for the consumption of others, strangers and friends who are scrolling silently through Facebook photo albums.

Depressing as this is, its mostly in the background, as Coppola mostly manages to keep the action light and funny.  The film isn't what you'd call trenchant.  It understands that the kids aren't all right, and it makes the good judgement to assume that the audience understands this also.  An excoriating tirade, in film form, would have been unbearable.  Coppola has always chosen the removed observer approach, which has its aesthetic and moral virtues.  As dispiriting as it is to see the young characters sleepwalk through their lives, so thoroughly fleeced of their vitality that they don't even know it's gone, Coppola manages to capture something latent in their faces.  It's a dim vestige of who they might be - young souls, just fresh and naive enough to come alive, if only the right circumstances were in place.

As much as this makes for a kind of saving grace, there's still the sense that Coppola was coasting, to some extent.  She takes for granted that her characters are pretty much screwed, which is nowhere more evident than in the depiction of their parents.  If the kids in The Bling Ring are pathetically unformed, their adults are just pathetic.  I appreciated the comic moments that Leslie Mann delivered for the film, but it's a flaw that her character, as well as the other parents we see (fleetingly), are never more than punchlines.  It's all well and good that they are shown through their absence, but the aggregate effect betrays a lack of interest in the deeper underpinnings of the story.  It's disappointing that Coppola, faced with a cast of characters that overwhelmed her in their banality, took the easy road of soft satire.  There is always more beneath the surface, as Coppola demonstrated so brilliantly in Lost in Translation.  You just have to be willing to see it through.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Upstream Color

(Shane Carruth, USA, 2013)

Nifty, but not the game changer that I had allowed myself to expect.  There's a ton of stuff to admire about Upstream Color, from the concept all the way through the dazzling execution.   Carruth is a meteoric talent, there's no doubt.  Liking or not liking this movie will largely depend, or at least it did for me, on whether one is able to accept the odd, disjunctive way that Carruth plays in a few different genres.  The most captivating moments, for me, came early in the film, where the mode seems to be sci-fi thriller.  Amy Seimetz (she's wonderful) being drugged and swindled is both squirm-inducing and riveting to watch.  The means by which the "thief" manages to get all her savings captivate not just as ingenious story ideas but also register on the level of the metaphysics that Carruth expands as the film progresses.  The utter vulnerability of the characters is the key to their actions; although the world the film presents looks very much like our own, there is something not quite right about it.  The camera records things in a lushly naturalistic way, but the editing and the sound design turn it into a fractured collage of anxiety and loneliness.  Families, friends, society seem to exist outside the frame, if they exist at all.

As the film wanders from thriller to body horror to mystery to modern-ennui dream mode, the overall quality don't always stay consistent.  Temperamentally, I'm less inclined to enjoy the velocity at which Carruth prefers to work; there's a restlessness to it that seems to belie a lack of confidence in some of the images and ideas.  And I confess to not understanding, or at least only vaguely understanding, what some of those ideas are.  Parts of the story are easy enough to get, but the film is committed to raising far more questions than it answers.  This is all well and good when it comes to meaning, of course, but the plot itself begins to take on a Chinese-box style air of mystery, with each tentative link exposing more questions in need of answering.

Overall the film does impress and delight, but it also disappoints, if only because its ambition is so evident.   Through all of the high-minded hinting about love, social alienation, and metaphysical connection, there is an unwillingess to let these ideas breathe.  Carruth remains enamored of the more plotty, earth-bound tropes of noir and horror - all of which is fine, except he seems slightly uncomfortable with them, as if he felt the need to transcend their tawdriness.  So he's stuck, in a sense, between heaven and earth.  Between some rather awesome metaphysical flights of fancy and some equally exciting, if gritty and terrestrial, storytelling.  Upstream Color is an opus.  There's a world in there, even if it has trouble getting itself seen completely.