Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Bling Ring (2013) – Review

Review: The Bling Ring is a stylish look at celebrity, the new American Dream, and today’s culturally vapid and self-entitled youth. The film is about five teens who decide to rob the homes of celebrities.

Writer-director Sofia Coppola approaches this true story with a detached perspective. The audience is neither a part of the group, as Coppola never really digs deeply into what motivates them, or completely outside, as the narrative never leaves its leads. Marc and Rebecca serve as the film’s leads. Marc is new to his high school and has self-esteem issues. He is the most relatable character for the audience, as he is the audience’s way into the group and he seems to somewhat elaborate on why he stole (and may even feel slightly regretful about it at first), but his sincerity is questionable. It feels like he is more nervous about being caught than actually being conflicted about whether or not what he is doing is wrong. Rebecca, on the other hand, is a kleptomaniac. She gets a thrill from stealing in addition to it being an easy way she can fill her need for nice things. She sees celebrities, their lifestyles and thinks that there is no reason why she should not have the same life. She wants to be them (on a deeply psychological level), and thus she does what she has to do to afford that lifestyle. When she breaks into Paris Hilton’s house, it is not just about stealing, she imagines herself living in the house – she just wants to hang out and absorb the full experience. The third lead, Nicki, is also fame obsessed. Her whole life revolves around how she might elevate herself to celebrity status (which seems to be normal behavior based on her friends and home life – so who can blame her). Like Rebecca and (to a lesser extent) Marc, Nicki does not feel any semblance of shame or regret for her actions. In fact, it was just a learning experience for her, a stepping stone on her way towards fame. They aspire to be the same as these people. They are constantly engorged on personal details of their lives, and thus try to emulate them. They go to the same nightclubs, wear the same closes, and try to embody the same outward appearance and attitude (which is mostly fake – a show for the media).

The Bling Ring is not a full on satire of these seemingly celebrity and fame obsessed teens however. Rather, Coppola’s film plays as sort of a commentary on the cultural attitude that has developed in America (and to some extent the rest of the World). Why are we so interested in celebrities? Compared to the average American, their lives must seem fantastical. They surround themselves with beautiful things. The myth of the American Dream has always revolved around the idea of the self-made man – hard work is how one achieves their dreams. Now, it is the opposite. Driven by media’s oversaturation of every facet of a celebrity’s life – in L.A., London, New York, Paris paparazzi stalk celebrities every moment of their lives (and they do this because it is all lapped up by the public) – the American Dream has been warped. Fame is now seemingly the easiest way to achieve all the riches of the World. Work is also now a negative word, only saps work for a living. Today’s youth truly believe that they deserve the same wealth that they see in others and it is not fair that they do not have it. Thus, stealing is not really a negative action because they are merely appropriating what they deserve. Consumerism has overtaken almost every other value.

Thus when Marc, Rebecca, Nicki, Chloe, and Sam break into the houses of the celebrities, Coppola styles it as almost dreamlike. They are entering a magical wonderland full of treasures ready for them to exploit. There is a thrill to it all. Plus, Coppola displays these houses like fantastical palaces lit up against the night sky, sparkling and wondrous. Who would not be allured by these spectacular residences? There are beautiful shots of the teens’ silhouettes against the moonlight as they frolic from or to a score, which elicits a feeling of fantasy, again evoking sort at dreamlike aesthetic.

Yet, Coppola still maintains separation from the characters. What at first feels exciting, like explorers uncovering a great bounty, starts to distort into something much more uncomfortable. As the group takes down more and more houses, there is a shift that occurs subtly. Coppola conveys a feeling of disgust towards each new heist. There is an uncomfortable feeling that the audience begins to have, like they are watching strangers go through their own homes, their own personal stuff. The dream fades into the reality that this is nothing more than petty greed and larceny. There is nothing romantic about these characters or their actions.

There is a sense that develops that Coppola not only does not like these characters, but that she feels no pity for them either. They are almost nothing more than soulless hooligans – explaining the blasé manner by which they confront their crimes. They are only upset because they got caught (or because society tells them that they should present an outward appearance of regret so as to be not as harshly judged). Coppola does not explore their motivations on a character level because they are not specific to them – it is a cultural epidemic.

Coppola most harshly (but subtly) addresses what populates this cultural obsession with celebrity. The Bling Ring is filled with sequences of media aggrandizing celebrity and anything surrounding it. The characters themselves are hounded by paparazzi when their names come out in connection to the burglaries. They even find themselves on television, assuming some level of celebrity themselves – to some extent achieving what they always wanted. Thus, taking what they believed was theirs seems to pay off. But for Coppola, the whole thing feels very vulgar. The media that creates this hunger for gossip and need for personal information (that would seems outrageous if it were you or me) is just as guilty if not more so than these teens. The only difference between these teens and the average American teen (or teen growing up surrounded by the culture explored in the film) is that they actually had the fortitude to take it a step further. Their actions are not condemned by their peers or the media, rather on both accounts it is promoted. They are not vilified but awarded (particularly in the case of Nicki). This is what Coppola is fascinated by, and disgusted by. This is not a tale of ‘crime does not pay’ as the final moments reveal Nicki being interviewed on television (achieving some level of fame – something that she always wanted), but a tale of the corruption of American culture – the souls of our youth.

The Bling Ring does have a narrative through line, and Coppola does manage the pacing well, but unlike most narrative films the characters are not the central aspect of the film. Coppola uses them (and their story) more as a foil by which to explore American youth culture. The lack of strong character development does make the film more difficult to relate to for the audience, as really none of the characters are likable, and the audience never gets to know them well enough to see a deeper more emotional side to them. They are all just emotionally superficial, but that was part of the point Coppola is trying to make. Coppola’s detachment also seemingly leaves the audience wondering how to feel about the actions of the characters (or the characters themselves), but the film certainly seems to lend itself to a critical reading of today’s celebrity obsessed culture in addition to the attitude that seems to have developed among young people that they deserve all the World has to offer without working for it – there existence is enough to justify their desires. It is not fair that they are subjected to their level of wealth when they see those that have more. Coppola’s film does not paint a positive picture.

In many ways, The Bling Ring is equally a fairytale and an indictment of American culture. This is the brilliance of Coppola’s film. It enchants the viewer with the excitement of these teens looting these ‘celebrities’ (who themselves are somewhat vilified in the media, so the teens are only robbing ‘bad’ people anyway right), but the film also begins to reveal just how grotesque the whole attitude and culture is, propagated by the media and consumed by America. No one comes away looking good.

Technical, aesthetic and acting achievements: Sofia Coppola has continually been accused of making films that value style over substance. But, she is not making narrative films in the traditional sense. For example, Somewhere works much more as a montage piece as images and scenes are juxtaposed to create a feeling or idea. The Bling Ring is no different. Coppola again has made a wonderfully stylish film that seemingly lacks substance in terms of characters, but she is exploring an idea with the film using the characters merely as a template. The film exists in between the forms of expressionistic art and narrative filmmaking. I think it is her best work since Lost in Translation, as it is a socially piercing look at American culture while still maintaining a high degree of artistic merit.

 Composers Daniel Lopatin and Brian Reitzell create a score that works tonally very well with the film. Their compositions plays into the dreamlike feel of many of the burglary scenes. The Bling Ring also features a brilliant soundtrack that seems to perfectly capture the youth attitude on display (with songs like M.I.A.’s Bad Girls and Azealia Banks’s 212, for example). Christopher Blauvelt and Harris Savides (who the film is dedicated to, as he passed away during its production) provide the film with magnificent cinematography. The exterior shots during the theists are often remarkable. There is a scene in particular in which the camera lingers outside from a far as Marc and Rebecca pillage Audrina Patridge’s house. It is enchanting, skillfully embodying Coppola’s detachment and the film’s thematic dichotomy. Anna Ross’s production design is also evocative. Paris Hilton allowed Coppola to film in her actual house, but Ross’s design work for the other celebrity homes is fantastic as it personifies the fantasy aspect of the film (as the homes just seem absurdly glorious – though, that feeling is strongest at Hitlon’s home). However by the time the group robs Rachel Bilson’s house, Ross has toned down the opulence greatly, and it feels much more like they are just ransacking a normal house and not some grand wonderland. Another interesting aspect to Ross’s work is that all the members of the group live in nice homes too (especially Chloe).

While Coppola does not explore her characters in detail, the cast does strong work bringing them to life. Leslie Mann plays Nicki’s mother, who herself seems obsessed with fame, as she homeschools her children on the beliefs of The Secret (which just seems ludicrous). She is oblivious and enabling towards her daughters’ behavior. Mann plays her well. Taissa Farmiga and Claire Julien play the two supporting members of the group, an adopted sister who is less pretty and vying for her place and a spoiled rich girl who is wild because she can be, respectively. They are along for the ride and enjoying every minute of it. Emma Watson (playing completely off type) is fantastic as the sociopath Nicki, a girl who is really only concerned with herself. She would be a villain in most frames, but here she seems to merely be a product of her time and surroundings. Watson shows off her range. Israel Broussard has the tough job of playing Marc, a character who seems like he could be sympathetic, but is equally shallow and unaffected by his actions. Katie Chang plays Rebecca the group’s ringleader. She does a great job playing sort of the mean girl role as she seemingly pressures Marc into each situation (but his apprehension stems more from fear than a feeling of what he is doing is wrong), but where she really excels is in her glazed over coldness when confronted with her actions. There is not a true hint of remorse in any of them.

Summary & score: The Bling Ring is aesthetically beautiful and engaging as it straddles the line between artistic expression and narrative filmmaking in its scathing look at the state of celebrity obsessed culture. 8/10

No comments:

Post a Comment