Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Bling Ring


I especially like films that take an anthropologic approach. No matter what the subject, no matter how vapid or detestable the people to be examined. A documentary feel, maybe slightly stylized, and with a thorough understanding of its world. DAZED AND CONFUSED is probably the best example of such a film with high-schoolers as the principal players. Rick Linklater somehow captured a prism of life that could only be achieved by an insider, yet with an outsider's objectivity.

But this time, I honestly had little desire to spend an hour an a half with a group of bitchy San Fernando Valley teens who idolize the likes of Paris Hilton and Rachel Bilson. The Vanity Fair article that detailed the so-called "Bling Ring" and their long string of successful robberies of Hollywood celebrities was yet another reason, once digested, for readers to lose hope in mankind. Unsurprisingly, in 2011 the Lifetime network made a movie about it.

But then so did Sofia Coppola with 2013's THE BLING RING. That was reason enough for me to give this one a shot. I've been mostly impressed with her four previous efforts, and this fifth one seemed to continue her examination of alienation with a genuine insight not shared by many other writer/directors. And her approach has always been observant, watchful for subtle behaviors. Not overly controlled. In the DVD's making-of doc, BLING RING cast members describe their director as that keen observer, offering last minute advice that really guides the actors, bits of information that will put them in the right frame of mind. More often than not, it shows in the performance. Not just in privileged moments, but in the aggregate.

The talented, mostly unknown cast of THE BLING RING is led by Katie Chang who plays Rebecca, the mastermind and Israel Broussard as Marc, a shy new kid at school who is befriended by and becomes co-conspirator of Katie. Emma Watson, famous for her role as Hermione Granger in the HARRY POTTER films, plays Rebecca, and really gets to shine in her role as a manipulative little hustler who with Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and Chloe (Claire Julien) round out the underage band as they rifle and hang out in the L.A. palaces of Lindsay Lohan and the aforementioned, all who have surprisingly little security protecting their bling. Paris Hilton even leaves sliding glass doors open! She allowed the filmmakers to use her actual house, by the way. Her outrageous shoe closet alone looks to have a monetary value that eclipses the entire movie's budget.

And Paris, the young woman who is "famous for being famous" has her home traversed nearly a dozen times by the Bling Ring, not just for the kids to rob for pieces of jewelry but also to just luxuriate in an environment they so desperately covet. A den of outrageous interior design (complete with those hilarious pillows of Paris' mug) that is a sharp contrast to the teens' cookie cutter Valley homes. Harris Savides' (who died during shooting and to whom the film is dedicated) and Christopher Blauvelt's cinematography really isolates this verisimilitude. Their compositions of the mansions (and L.A. itself) are sometimes sleekly and other times just gaudily beautiful.

The first two-thirds of THE BLING RING wallows in the hedonistic lifestyle of the main characters, who snort lines of coke, get blind drunk in nightclubs, and go on Rodeo Drive shopping sprees with the wads of cash they pilfer from the rich and famous. At times it feels, as it did in the recent THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, that the filmmakers are almost condoning the behavior. Showing how much fun it all is. In the moment, of course, with perhaps a recognizance of potential consequence down the line but, fuck it, life is too short.  That sort of attitude. Then comes the fallout. The wolves get what's coming to them. Was it worth it? Did we enjoy the ride with these characters while it lasted? Hoped they would maybe get away with it?

Scorsese's film is more ambiguous in whatever message it was attempting. Coppola (who scripted) likewise does not judge her characters. She draws them carefully, as wannabes who measure their self-worth by what they see on E! or TMZ.com. She does not use her song choices to sneer at these brats, but the commentary is certainly there. She's not mocking. She has a conscience. Her film is not a spoof, even though there are several amusing lines. I was reminded of some of Larry Clark's films about disaffected youth, particularly BULLY. Shades of Tim Hunter's OVER THE EDGE and RIVER'S EDGE also crossed my mind. These are the sorts of "youth films" I want to watch.

But I did find myself wondering: why focus on these people, frolicking in this plastic paradise, when there are so many other stories to tell? Are these petulant twits and their hollow pursuits worth the celluloid (or digital bits)? Sofia Coppola has proven the worth of watching such stories; her previous film, SOMEWHERE, followed a tired celebrity as he slogs around the Chateau Marmont for over 90 minutes. Many found it pretentious and pointless (I saw an oblique poetry). Many others will feel the same for THE BLING RING. I feel both films, and actually, all (even MARIE ANTOINETTE) of Coppola's earlier films successfully understand the weight of inertia of existence. How it can cause one to retreat into oneself or perhaps act out in some (self) destructive manner. Problem is, self-destruction often has consequences for others.

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