Tag Archives: The Secret

The Bling Ring – Losing the fame game

Crime spree or shopping spree? Farmiga, Broussard, Watson, Chang and Julien

The fifth feature from Sofia Coppola, The Bling Ring once more sees the director looking at the vapid excesses of the comfortable-off, and like her 2006 film Marie Antoinette succumbs to the vacuous nature of its subject matter.

Based on the real-life ‘Bling Ring’, a gang of rebellious upper-middle class LA teens whose obsession with the celebrity lifestyle led them to start burglarising A-listers’ homes when gossip websites reported they were out of town, the film attempts to deconstruct concepts of fame and its pursuit.

Ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang) convinces effeminate new kid in school Marc (Israel Broussard) to help her in her thieving pursuits, and they gladly blow the money they make in up-market night spots while wearing the high-end fashions they ripped off from the rich and not-so-deservedly famous. Home-schooled sisters Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and Rebecca’s bestie Chloe (Claire Julien) get in on the action.

Rolling along at a good pace, The Bling Ring keenly demonstrates the emptiness of its subjects’ lives, and the self-delusion that has come from insufficient hardship and the worst of role models.

But there’s no drama. The heists are always safe. Rifts never really develop between the group members. We know from the framing device that they will eventually get caught, so there isn’t even much excitement in a “can they get away with this?” sense. A gun is found in Megan Fox’s house, but it goes off like Chekhov’s damp squib.

Once the set-up is complete, the film becomes as vapid as its protagonists, falling onto the fun drama side of the line between drama and grotesquery instead of dancing maddened back and forth across it as Spring Breakers did. As the Bling Ring become celebrities themselves, Marc raises the idea that America has an obsession with “Bonnie and Clyde types”, reducing Coppola’s argument to a first semester undergraduate film studies class.

The cast are strong for the most part, with newcomers Chang and Broussard impressing, but forced to speak in the bored low tones traditional of Coppola’s characters (including the ones she’s played herself… yes I went there), they drag down what might have been a more exciting film. Emma Watson gets some great one-liners though, and Leslie Mann steals many scenes as her The Secret-reading, Xanax-dispensing mother.

While Mann gets time to shine, the relationships between Rebecca, Chloe and Marc and their parents is disappointingly under-shown; however Coppola should be complimented for never seeing a need to discuss Marc’s homosexuality, so natural as it seems.

What’s truly shocking is how bland this film looks. From the director of Lost in Translation and the cinematographer of Zodiac, a far more visually dazzling film could have been expected. It looks crisp and bright, but the set-ups (with one noticeable exception) are so obvious and lazy they might have been from the shot list of a made-for-TV movie version of this story. The editing keeps the film flowing along, but sometimes the cuts from bland shot to bland shot after bland shot begin to exhaust.


(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)


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After Earth – Where there’s a Will, there’s a Jaden

Smith hits the fan: Jaden takes a knee before facing the Volcano Zone level of After Earth

Smith hits the fan: Jaden takes a knee before facing the Volcano Zone level of After Earth

The original teaser trailer for After Earth felt like an M. Night Shyamalan movie. In deep space, in the future, super-soldier Will Smith and his would-be hero son Jaden crash land on an unpopulated, savage world. But twist! It’s Earth!

But much like Shyamalan’s last disastrous venture, The Last Airbender, After Earth isn’t one of the director’s traditional twist-based thrillers, rather a sci-fi action adventure film. And once more the director is considerably out of his element.

Based on a story idea by Smith the elder, and written by Shyamalan and Book of Eli writer Gary Whitta, After Earth is a father/son bonding tale set within a clumsily considered (and more clumsily realised) science fiction universe. The whole venture feels like an excuse for Will to show off his son; Shyamalan certainly has no chance to show off anything here.

Set some 1,000 years after Earth is abandoned for environmental reasons, mankind has settled on a sunny, Grand Canyon-esque planet called Nova Prime (‘new one’ – not even the most embarrassing use of Latin this film demonstrates). Ranger Corps general Cypher Raige (Will Smith, overcompensating for how ordinary his real name is) has become the hero of humanity after defeating an alien invasion; in what would probably have been a much more entertaining movie to watch. He has perfected the art of “ghosting”, suppressing all fear so that the alien beasties can’t see him. But the death of his daughter at the claws of one of the creatures has scarred his relationship with his son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who has sort of been blamed for her demise despite being only about six at the time it happened.

Attempting to reconnect, Cypher takes Kitai on a mission with him, but soon enough an asteroid collision leaves them the only survivors of the starship once it crashes down to Earth. With Cypher’s leg broken, and the only working distress beacon in the tail section of the starship some miles away (alternative title: ‘Lost in space’), Kitai must venture into the sort-of-unknown to save the day and earn top-billing on the movie posters.

Daddy's issues: Will Smith begins to regret relinquishing top billing to his son

Daddy’s issues: Will Smith begins to regret relinquishing top-billing to his son

The lush landscape of Earth is now dotted with plenty of predators and poisonous nasties, mostly mild evolutions of creatures we already have – slightly bigger eagles, slightly bigger cougars, slightly bigger monkeys, slightly bigger leeches, ordinary-sized boars. But, due to science and why-the-hell-not-ery, the temperature plummets to below freezing after nightfall, meaning Kitai must race to reach a series of hot spots – thermal safe zones, assumedly where he can save his game and regenerate in case he is killed in his mission.

In a plot mechanic worryingly borrowed from space Viking movie Outlander, an alien monster being transported by the ship has also survived, and is after Kitai, who must prove himself a fearless hero like his father. The alien, a feral xenomorph thing that shoots needles, is called an ‘ursa’, from the Latin for ‘bear’, because screw education that’s why. There is nothing remotely bear-ish about these things.

There is almost a decent story in the pre-Earth sequences of this film, although Will Smith’s robotic delivery and 14-year-old Jaden’s slightly awkward performance don’t capture the militant father/struggling son dynamic as well as maybe it appeared behind the scenes. Smith Sr., reduced to Morgan Freeman impressions in Jaden’s ear for much of the film, gives his son as much room as he can to act the star, but the young performer is just not up to carrying a movie – especially with only CGI animals to perform against for much of the time.

The locations are lush but the CGI is poor, and when swarms of computerised monkeys rumble through the ferns it looks almost laughable. The action scenes in general are disastrous, with all but one of them cut short after only a minute – an aerial showdown with an eagle ends almost as soon as it begins.

While the architecture of Nova Prime is briefly interesting, the story leaves it so quickly that we never have a chance to be wowed by the $130m production values. The inside of Cypher’s ship looks like something out of Blake’s 7, all cardboard walls and hangar netting. They were going for a look, clearly, but they forgot to finish it. The one piece of design truly worth commending is in the Ranger Corps’ weaponry – they wield ‘cutlasses’, blade handles with control panels on them allowing the wielder to select the blade of their choosing to shoot out from it. It’s a nice idea, and gets a few brief clever uses; but if you’ll remember the last time a sword was the best thing about a film you were watching The Phantom Menace.

It’s impossible to know what anyone saw in this project. What is the moral? Certainly not environmentalism – mankind has only been gone a millennium and Earth looks gorgeous again! The father/son bond is central but never really pushed, and climaxes on a remarkably awkward joke that suggests not so much an understanding has been reached but that neither man is up to their line of work. Wedged in the middle is the most preposterous re-enactment of Androcles and the Lion you could ever hope to witness. The running theme of overcoming fear allows for a lot of The Secret-meets-FDR nonsense talk from Smith, suggesting fear is something we choose to have, even when watching our sisters get impaled by colossal lizard bug monsters, called bears.

Ursa, minor: Kitai (Jaden Smith) faces off against whatever the hell that thing is supposed to be

Ursa, minor: Kitai (Jaden Smith) faces off against whatever the hell that thing is supposed to be

Shyamalan’s failure is most of all not knowing how to control an action sequence, and he seems to have no sense of what audiences want from their thrill rides. Lacking pacing, drama, emotion, action and even a truly unique vision, After Earth is about as big a dud as Hollywood can hope to churn out these days. Not even the combined starpower of Mr. and Mr. Smith can save this one.


(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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