The East & The Bling Ring (2013)
OK, speed review time so I apologise in advance for any inconsistencies, to continue my mental gymnastics as the intellectual training continues – picture a Rocky montage if you like. If I had to select one theme to encapsulate last weekend’s viewing activities it would have to be misguided youth. From one side of the spectrum we have a brood of furtive & idealistic eco-terrorists, taking the battle to the boardrooms of corporate America in the rather mysteriously titled The East, on the other a sly celebration of adolescent vacuousness and their orbit of a a fathomless moral void in Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. Both films champion the young and idealistic as our eyes into our shared world, whether it’s the grimy scrubland of Louisiana or the Rodeo Drive commercial Gehenna of Beverley Hills, where capitalism in its all pervasive hegemony is the lurking antagonist driving the jejune antics, with entire swathes of new graduates and the young furtively divining for a career it’s an interesting time to see them represented on on-screen, especially when two pictures emerge which are attuned to the most prevalent big-screen demographics (16-24 age with a median household disposable income) which doesn’t spring from a comic book or established franchise. Now, before we get into the reviews proper I very quickly want to touch on the announcement of the new Terminator franchise upload which was announced last week, whilst this was inevitable I am quietly excited that this is being spearheaded by Annapurna pictures whom you may know is the production company of billionaire daughter Megan Ellison, they have been responsible for the recent critical triumphs The Master and Zero Dark Thirty and have thus already established themselves with a reputation for quality and artistic integrity. If I was them I’d programme something radical and go back to the first movie blueprints for a modest $30 / $40 / $50 million rebrand, pick up some hot and hungry new talent and force them to improvise with meagre resources to keep it lean. mean and keen, and not include a single, solitary reference to Ahnoldt whatsoever to break from the bloated past and signal a fresh direction – this opinion is probably why I’m still not a top-tier studio executive eh? So let’s stick to what I do know, and that’s taking movies more seriously than they were probably intended;
It’s a stalwart scriptwriting tool to plunge your hero or heroine into a moral quagmire by punting them in ‘so deep s/he doesn’t know which way is up’, in The East former FBI agent Claire Moss (Brit Marling) is an ambitious corporate security executive whom is desperate to ascend the career ladder at Niler Brood, one of North America’s most prestigious corporate security firms. With friends in high places the group specialise in Intel acquisition, Executive safety and run interference on the numerous hydra headed anarchist collectives that are ideologically idling across North America, pitted in a covert battle of wits between obscuring and disseminating the truth. Headed by the callous, greedy and similarly ambitious CEO Sarah (an underemployed Patricia Clarkson) Claire is awarded the prestige contract of infiltrating the secretive cell known only as ‘The East’, one of the most feared and secretive eco-insurgants famed for their media attuned conscious raising pranks and home invasion incursions, taking their collective battle for the environment directly to the homes and families of the most pathologically indifferent Chief Executive Officers. After ingratiating herself with the self-righteous membership Claire begins to develop feelings for her misguided colleagues, with Alexander Skasgard as a trust-fund doyen igniting some sexual tension whilst the brittle Izzy (Ellen Page) is bristles as an ideologically spurned daughter of a major petrochemical heir, both supported by Toby Kebbell (Dean Mans Shoes, Control) in his first American production. When their plan to activate a series of high-profile ‘happenings’ strays into the realm of human casualties Claire must decide where her loyalties lie, and maybe her new clandestine comrades have a few surprises in store for her as well….
The East takes a serious subject with a serious rancor, and like the groups it examines is a rather droll and humorless affair, with a righteous idealism smouldering at its eco-friendly roots. One glaring error for a thriller is something of an absence of actual nail-biting moments, as The East prefers to grow and inculcate Claire organic character alteration, her beliefs and views evolving as her ambition are warped by her experiences, as the scales fall from her eyes and she understand the sheer scale and human costs of the West’s veneration of profit as the absolute apex of existence. These illuminations ignite an ethical revaluation as sure as a flint spark can preamble a forest fire, and Marling is convincing as a conflicted ideologue being turned from the flock, but the lack of a commitment to thrilling twists and turns does pitch the film as something of a dour affair, without even facsimiles of real world figures of hate like the Koch Brothers or the Occupy movement generating an emotional sneer from either side of the political culture wars. It raises some interesting and difficult questions in relation to 21st century First World collusion, how one can simultaneously prosper in a commerce worshiping society and retain ones individual moral code? Is that moral code polluted and twisted in the first place? How can you divine right from wrong in a system whose manipulation by self-interest groups rigs the game in their privileged favor? How do you make the impossible compromises to progress one’s career at the sacrifice of others lives and localities? The film certainly has its heart in the right place and is appropriately ambivalent with its shakily sustainable conclusions, but is a little ungamely and hesitant in delivery, particularly when dissolving the driving factor behind specific individuals to psychologically simplistic paternalistic issues rather than a genuine passion for social and environmental change, The East tills fertile ground for further discussions of the social consequence of a so-called ‘lost’ economic generation but a little more Hitchcock would have welcome among the histrionics.
A thousand miles away both geographically and figuratively is The Bling Ring, another installment in Sophia Coppola’s aureate abasement of the privileged and wealthy, based on the 2010 Vanity Fair article “The Suspect Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales the film takes an almost psuedo-documentary approach to a recent spate of high-profile burglaries of the rich and famous among the Hollywood hills. New to Tinseltown is Marc (Israel Broussard) who quickly makes friends with a clique of squawing pubescents who share his fascination with fashion and the lifestyles of the celebrity circus, besotted with the blossoming beauty of Rebecca Ahn (Katie Chang) Marc finds himself embroiled in her frequent acts of petty larceny, pilfering wallets and watches from the unlocked vehicles of their entitled communities. Like any addiction the appetite for more risky and rewarding returns soon grips the pair and aided and abetted by their two friends Nicki (Emily Watson) and Chloe (Claire Julien) their antics accelerate to the actual breaking and entering of celebrities homes who rather conveniently signal when they will be absent by hosting MTV parties in Miami or Grammy shindigs in Manhattan, the banusic quartet feasting in an orgiastic display of enough Chanel, Gucci, Burberry, Marc Jacobs, Cartier, Rolex and Tiffany to stock a buffalo’s boutique. With the genius level intellect afford them by their similarly vacant parents the group parade their booty through social media boasting and status enhancing jibes at the next socially imperative party, leading the authorities to apprehend the group only for the symbiotic serpent of fame to devour it’s own tail….
One can only satanically hope that the next school shooting – and let’s be honest here, we all know there is going to be another massacre as sure as day follows night – one can only hope that the next maniac attends the Hollywood Hills High school and decides to inflict his wrath on these vapid abuses of Deoxyribonucleic acid, an unholy prayer which might just pause our inevitable plummet from civilisation given this generations ascension to any positions of influence or power. There is not a single solitary creature with whom to sympathise here, Coppola giving her ‘ohmygod’ squeaking parasites just enough celluloid rope to hang themselves on the altar of irritation, and the only adult character (Nikki’s mother) with a notable role is similarly infuriating as a home schooling airheaded nutbag whom insists her children gather for a faux pseudo self-help religious prayer every morning and holds seminars on how to purge corrosive life forces from ones inner self. It’s these scenes with Leslie Mann as the similarly narcissistic matriarch which provides most of the films cautious chuckles, the scene where she attempts to usurp the spotlight of her daughters fame being a rare moment of levity among a knuckle chewing litany of image obsessed, intellectually castrated cultural psychopaths. Coppola gets a fair amount of criticism for her gilded vision from within the bubble of the rich and famous, but if the adage of ‘film what you know’ is accurate then I’m not quite sure what her detractors expect, and I rather like the airless, hermetic and slightly daydreamish qualities that quietly permeates her films, although The Bling Ring certainly lacks the levitating lethargy of her earlier accomplishments The Virgin Suicides or Lost In Translation. As you’d expect the film also has a bruising soundtrack which is expertly cut to the montages of commercial cocaine, like a Vanity Fair advertising insert come to life Coppola revels in the ornate trappings of elite clothing, footwear and jewelery of which a single piece would equate to a small South American countries GDP, whilst the vacant and materialistic prada heeled urchins never once refer to their crimes as transgressive infractions, merely as ‘shopping’ as a victimless exercise in self-absorbed idiocy.
There is one directorial flourish at the midpoint of the film which neatly encapsulates the entire thematic and cultural malaise in a single evocative shot, one home invasion which plays out in a slow zoomed single take, like a 21st century Edward Hooper landscape the minimalist interior suggesting the goldfish bowl prism of the modern celebrity and marketing machine. Similarly affecting are the infrequent sequences of these young mistresses of the universe writhing in slow motion projection like a bacchanalian tribute to their neophiliac narcissism, but the film itself is somewhat transparent and doesn’t linger in the memory, there’s no real commentary or contemporary illumination being provoked here, and the film lacks any real satiric venom which could have been injected by a script pass by the likes of a Bret Easton Ellis and his immolating immediacy – The Bling Ring is Coppola treading water in her beachwear line of Jimmy Choo’s, rather than finding inspiration in her ennui afflicted individuals. The film is dedicated is the memory of the brilliant cinematographer Harris Savides and this was the last film he worked on, which is enough of a reason to see the film for cinema fans, an elite class collaborator with the likes of Coppola, Fincher and Gus Van Sant.