The Bling Ring (Coppola, 2013), Upstream Color (Carruth, 2013) and more new ones

This post covers recent films The Bling Ring, Upstream Color, Sightseers, Drinking Buddies, Before Midnight, The Hunt, and The Act of Killing.  I’ll write about them in reverse order of how I liked them.

The Bling Ring

I’d imagine that I fall in line with a lot of people who liked Sofia Coppola’s first two films – The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, didn’t like Marie Antoinette, and didn’t see Somewhere.  Her latest film isn’t as strong as the first two, but there’s still a lot to like about it.

Based off of a real-life string of celebrity robberies, Coppola’s film casts a few unknown actors alongside Emma Watson and Taissa Farmiga.  Oddly enough, it’s Farmiga that’s the weak link.  I really liked her work on American Horror Story, but here she always seems to be looking for something to react to.  She doesn’t feel as comfortable in her faux-celebrity shoes as co-stars Watson, Katie Chang, and Israel Broussard.

The dialogue in The Bling Ring is spot-on.  How many times can someone (mis)use the word “literally”?  A lot, apparently.  Coppola doesn’t really make anyone sympathetic here.  Parents are almost entirely absent and when they’re on-screen they’re a weirdly spiritual, oblivious mother (Leslie Mann), a dad in a sweatsuit, and a mother from a broken marriage.  Even Marc – played well by Broussard – who seems to be the most sympathetic – a boy looking to fit in, egged on by Chang’s Rebecca – makes the same claim twice when asked about his insecurity: “I was afraid I wasn’t as good looking as them.”  Read: he’s reciting.

The Bling Ring is funny at times, other times it’s just a distantly observed look at celebrity and the celebrity obsession.  Celebrities leave their keys under door mats, their doors open, have pillows with their own faces on them, and have their likeness plastered all over their houses.  The thieves are saturated with Facebook, TMZ, and texting.  It’s all instant-communication, and self-obsession and gratification.

The best part of The Bling Ring is the progression of the robberies.  The first is a crazy, thriller-film heist set to a blasting soundtrack by Sleigh Bells.  A later robbery is long and slow with no music at all.  An even later one – my favorite – shows the entire thing from an angle looking down on a glass house in the hills as Rebecca and Marc make their way around the house like characters in a video game.  The diegetic sound of Hollywood fills the aural space as Coppola and the late, great Harris Savides slowly, ominously zoom in.  The last (that I can recall here) features creeping music and slow-motion cinematography.  The evolution of these robberies oscillates from barn-burner to gradual dread in a way that perhaps mirrors the addiction itself.

Upstream Color

I’m probably in the minority of people not completely enthralled by Shane Carruth’s follow-up to Primer (2004).  It’s a good, very interesting film, but it’s outdone by a really poor performance from Carruth in one of the lead roles, and slight moments of self-conscious pretension.

My favorite part of Upstream Color is the opening montage.  It’s absolutely fantastic, well put-together, and really just gorgeous.  Carruth shows us the progression and development of some kind of a drug leading to the mind control and eventual ruin of the other lead character Kris (Amy Seimetz).  It’s largely silent and mysterious and promises much to come.

Similarly awesome is the sound design, which is omnipresent, frequently different than what the image suggests it might be, and really overwhelming in a grand, cinematic way.  The narrative, which I’d rather not go into any detail on in here, largely because of how enigmatic it is, is really risky and inventive.  I like how Carruth connects his characters via sound and touch in a way that’s actually illogical but somehow works on-screen (I’m thinking of the pool sequence for those of you that have seen it).

The problems aren’t only when Carruth is on-screen (his thousand-yard stare is entirely bland), it’s also that there are moments that feel cringe-worthy.  The constant quotation and reference to Thoreau’s Walden, a pig-human connection that could have been totally affecting if it wasn’t really funny and over-serious at the same time, and little shots that really just want to feel like they’re more than they are (my least favorite: hands trailing over rows of records (or was it CDs) in a store).

Sightseers

Ben Wheatley is one of the most hyped genre directors in recent memory.  While I liked both Down Terrace and Kill List (the latter more so), I wasn’t crazy over either, aside from the closing tunnel set piece of Kill List.  Sightseers is my favorite of his films so far.  It demonstrates Wheatley’s knack for dialogue that feels improvisational without running overlong or feeling digressive.  The dialogue and strong performances (by writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram) reflect a theme for the next several films in this post.

I’m having trouble thinking of what dark comedy this film reminds me of.  The Coen’s Burn After Reading is a little too easy, but something about the tone is similar.  Still, Sightseers is more contained.  Maybe Man Bites Dog or In Bruges.  I don’t know – I’m just thinking out loud now.  In short, Sightseers is solid, has some really funny moments, and will likely remind you of a film you can’t put your finger on.

Drinking Buddies

Drinking Buddies is pretty easily Joe Swanberg’s most accessible film.  It’s really, really simple, and really, really well-acted.  There’s nothing special about the story at all.  Two couples, played by Olivia Wilde and Ron Livingston, and Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson, find themselves attracted to the opposite gender of the other relationship.

I’m actually surprised at how much I liked Drinking Buddies.  There are some nice moments at Chicago establishments that I recognized, very believable dialogue for early-30s characters, and a few good avoidances of easy cliches, but otherwise, this is a film that I really liked almost entirely for the performances.  It’s one thing to watch a movie and think, “that’s just like me.”  It’s another to watch a movie and think, before a line is said, “this is how I’d react,” or “this is how X friend would react,” and then see that reaction play out.  It’s solidly observed and feels culled from actual life experience, not anything imitating in dramatic form.

My only hang-up: why aren’t these characters hungover more frequently?  They’re shown drinking basically the entire film, and there’s really only one notable hangover that I can recall, and even that’s glossed over.  I’m not asking because I think it would add to the plot, but rather because everything else is so realistically portrayed and this just seems like a dodge.

Before Midnight

The third in Linklater’s Before trilogy is just as strong as the two that preceded it.  Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke reprise their Celine and Jesse roles.  Like Drinking BuddiesBefore Midnight is anchored by really strong performances.  These are two actors that I’ve never really been here nor there with, but in Linklater’s hands they’re just so believable, interesting, and full-formed.

Before Midnight features a handful of scenes that mostly play out as long conversations – Jesse and Celine in the car in a long take, Jesse and Celine walking through the Greece streets in another long take, a dinner conversation between 8 people (each representative of a different generation), and the denouement – an absolutely incredible scene in a hotel room which runs from lustful to annoyed to angry and back again.

Unlike Drinking BuddiesBefore Midnight (perhaps because we’re accustomed to these characters, perhaps because they’re in their 40s) reflects on deeper issues that never feel pretentious – probably because neither Jesse nor Celine can resist poking fun at the other and both are rather irreverent.

The dialogue from Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy (are three are credited as writers) is so beautifully written that you forget the page it came from.  The long scene in the hotel room is a coup of screenwriting, itself a mini-film, featuring perfect transitions in such a way that, when we find ourselves caught in the midst of a serious marital argument, it’s difficult not to marvel back at the subtle process that got us there.

The Hunt

This is another good example of the type of film I’d like to make.  Mads Mikkelsen proves that he’s a phenomenal actor with a ton of range, and Thomas Vinterberg shows that he’s still a force to be reckoned with.  This deals with hidden mistrust in a similar way that The Celebration did, but it’s smaller and more contained.  The cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen (whose work I’m not familiar with) is beautifully cold.

Read my review of the film HERE.

The Act of Killing

Probably the most unsettling new film I’ve seen since The Snowtown Murders, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary feels almost like a work of fiction.  It’s the rare film that manages to somehow be funny at times despite it’s absolutely horrifying subject matter, and man, does the director have a good eye.

Read my review of the film HERE.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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