Hank (and Rob Harmon’s) recommendations 09/24/13

hank_paperHANK’S PICKS 09/24/13:

FILL THE VOID — A year after her beloved older sister has died in childbirth—a family tragedy which the newborn baby survives—an 18 year old sibling, on the cusp of exploring her own ideas of matrimony, is faced with community and family pressure to “fill the void” by marrying her sister’s widower.

This film brings to mind similar good movies whose protagonists try to balance independence with a willing obedience to the strictures of sect (in this case the Satvars in Israel).

This film is situated somewhere between the intense melodramatics of A PRICE ABOVE RUBIES (a great film starring Renee Zelleger), and THE ARRANGEMENT, about the easy friendship between two young observant women, a Jew and a Muslim, who are beginning teachers, that enables problem solving regarding arranged marriages. This current film does present, in an interesting and fully sympathetic panoply of characters, the urgency of matrimony upon which the survival of this small and strict community depends. It’s a film that’s satisfying enough to fill the void of your own entertainment needs.

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksROB HARMON’S PICKS 09/24/13

THE BLING RING (dir. Sofia Coppola, 2013)

Film noir is that quintessentially American style which emphasizes the stories of hapless individuals and losers who dream big and try to get their piece of the action, often by taking short cuts and falling flat on their faces. Many people who might otherwise be turned off by the content of Sofia Coppola’s latest effort The Bling Ring—a ripped-from-the headlines true story about a group of fashion-obsessed Los Angeles-area high schoolers, scions of various low-tier Hollywood hangers-on, who decide to pursue their version of the American Dream by stealing it from the homes of their favorite celebrities—will probably be interested to know that this nifty little film is a slice of noir in disguise, dressed as it is in Chanel, Alexander McQueen sunglasses, and carrying a Louis Vuitton bag!

The worlds of haute couture fashion, red carpet photo ops, TMZ-style gossip, selfies, social networking, celebrity culture, and shameless bling may, at first, seem like odd stuff for such a trenchant and serious character study. Upon further examination, it is perfectly appropriate given that these very domains increasingly dominate the attention spans of today’s youth. Let’s call this noir for the teen set.

The film begins, in classic noir fashion, in media res and unfolds largely through the testimony and flashbacks of the plaintiffs, who cheerfully bear their souls for the benefit of the very media outlets who initially stoked their dreams of fame.

Awkward and self-conscious Marc (Israel Broussard) arrives at his new high school in Calabanas, California after having been expelled from his last one for excessive absences and he immediately falls in with and falls for the beautiful and ballsy Rebecca (Katie Chang), who shows him the ropes and introduces him to the local party scene, populated by a wealth of jaded rich kids. The two of them form an instant bond over fashion, celebrity-gossip, and pursuit of the easy life. The bitchy and imperious Rebecca plays femme fatale to poor Marc’s hopeless dupe: She seems to have neither fear nor mitigating moral compass, gleefully opening unlocked cars on a wealthy street at night in order to relieve the inhabitants of their wallets and other assorted valuables. For thrills, the two begin monitoring the internet to find when favorite celebrities, such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, will be out of town on publicity gigs, breaking into their homes, and making off with a few choice designer trinkets as souvenirs.

Rebecca’s daredevil-like sensibility eventually wins over the initial hesitancy of the infatuated Marc and they are soon joined by a coterie of friends and classmates: Chloe (Claire Julien), Nicki (Emma Watson), and her adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga). Naturally, the crimes begin to escalate as the stakes of the robberies are raised (a gun is introduced into the plot, some goods are fenced, etc.), resulting in this group of junior-grade criminals being branded by the local media with the film’s title-moniker (as ambivalent a statement as their ever was on America’s love affair with glamor and crime!).

This could easily have descended into the purely vacuous material of a made-for-Lifetime movie (and, yes, there is another film with the same title and subject made by the Lifetime Channel in 2011) but for the sympathetic viewpoint of iconoclast Coppola, who has made a career of wringing the humanity out of individuals who can otherwise seem ice-y and remote, particularly girls and young women. Her camera manages to probe the internal worlds of youth without descending into pure voyeurism. This breezy dream of a movie has a very West Coast-like-vibe to it: so laidback and chill is the environment that even real-life celebs like Paris Hilton and Kirsten Dunst (a Coppola regular) casually appear on-screen in cameos playing themselves, in a film which otherwise subtly mocks their outré tabloid lifestyles!

In a world where intelligent films for and about teens are about as rare as a Sasquatch sighting in the Hollywood Hills, Coppola (who adapted Nancy Jo Sales’ Vanity Fair article “The Suspect Wore Louboutins”) deserves high praise for her moody depiction of a group of thrill-seeking youngsters who decide to live on the edge and end up, inevitably, getting in well over their heads. In a lean 90 minutes she manages one of the more cogent recent analyses of our contemporary society’s pathological obsessions with celebrity, money, and fame, and particularly the effects upon young people, as well as the disconnection which teens may feel between reality and our plugged-in, online culture.

The relationship between Marc and Rebecca forms the heart of the film and when things inevitably collapse the bitterness of their falling-out seems to be cut right out of a James M. Cain novel, adding a melancholy note—a next-morning-like-hangover—to their whirlwind adventures. Surprisingly, in a film where sex appeal is a constant preoccupation for the main characters there is little-to-no sex apparent anywhere, as though even this act has been emptied of meaning in the minds of the youngsters, being finally reduced to a mere teasing pose. The ensemble cast of The Bling Ring is uniformly solid, with some necessary comedic relief provided by the clueless reactions of Nicki, Sam, and especially their New Age-y, home-schooling mom Laurie (a deliciously scenery-chewing Leslie Mann) to their new-found infamy and/or fame.

Whereas traditional noir usually ends with the death or apprehension of the misled hero, the contemporary nature of The Bling Ring provides for the possibility of an ironic life-after-crime coda, in the form of today’s tabloid media and reality television hell.

Filmmaker Sofia Coppola, who was once best remembered for her widely-panned performance in her father’s THE GODFATHER: PART III, has steadily built a reputation as one of the most interesting and consistent voices in American cinema. The Bling Ring is her fifth feature, following THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999), LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003), MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006), and SOMEWHERE (2010).

New Releases 09/17/13

Top Hits
World War Z (action epic, Brad Pitt. Rotten Tomatoes: 67%. Metacritic: 63. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The movie, loosely adapted from Max Brooks’s 2006 novel of the same title, is under two hours long. Its action set pieces are cleverly conceived and coherently executed in ways that make them feel surprising, even exciting. Brad Pitt, playing a former United Nations troubleshooter pressed back into service to battle the undead, wears a scruffy, Redfordesque air of pained puzzlement. And, best of all, World War Z, directed by Marc Forster from a script with four credited authors, reverses the relentless can-we-top-this structure that makes even smart blockbusters feel bloated and dumb. The large-scale, city-destroying sequences come early, leading toward a climax that is intimate, intricate and genuinely suspenseful.” Read more…)

The East (thriller, Brit Marling. Rotten Tomatoes: 74%. Metacritic: 68. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The East is a neat little thriller about ends and means and ethical quandaries. The title refers to a mysterious network of anti-corporate militants whose activities — called ‘jams’ — shade from prankish agitprop toward outright terrorism. The members of the group, who live off the grid in an abandoned house in the wilderness somewhere near the Mason-Dixon line, are determined to hold the poisoners and polluters of the executive class accountable for their actions. Sometimes, as in the case of a pharmaceutical company that has peddled dangerous antibiotics, this means giving the bosses a literal taste of their own medicine.” Read more…)

The Bling Ring (crime drama, Emma Watson. Rotten Tomatoes: 59%. Metacritic: 66. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “In her last two movies — the sublime Somewhere and the seductive Marie Antoinette — Sofia Coppola has focused her rigorous attention on characters living inside bubbles of privilege, fairy tale precincts where the invisible magic of wealth and power makes wishes come true. Stephen Dorff’s drifting movie star and Kirsten Dunst’s capricious young queen both lead pampered existences of a kind that make them easy objects of envy and resentment, but Ms. Coppola examines them with detached, quiet sympathy, refusing to mock or judge. She anatomizes the spiritual conditions of people who might have seemed to be case studies in shallow, carefree materialism. The Bling Ring, her new feature (and her fifth over all), continues in this vein from a somewhat different perspective. It is not about the paralysis of having more than you could possibly want, but rather about the addictive thrills of wanting what you can’t quite have and trying to get it.” Read more…)

Behind the Candelabra (Liberace biopic, Michael Douglas. Rotten Tomatoes: 94%. Metacritic: 82. From Mike Hale’s New York Times television review: “There’s something uncanny, even brilliant, about Michael Douglas’ impersonation of Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s biographical film Behind the Candelabra. Sashaying across Las Vegas stages and epic suburban living rooms with a drum major’s puffed-up grandeur and a lounge lizard’s predatory smile, Mr. Douglas gives a performance so assured, so free of camp or cringe, that you quickly surrender any doubts you might have had about his playing a famously flamboyant, closeted-in-plain-sight gay entertainer.” Read more…)

Raising Adam Lanza (documentary, biography, social issues, violence. From Mike Hale’s New York Times‘ Critic’s Notebook on PBS’s post-Newtown documentaries on guns in America: “The focus shifts firmly to psychology in Tuesday’s ‘Frontline’ episode, ‘Raising Adam Lanza,’ which follows two reporters for The Hartford Courant as they investigate the relationship between Lanza, the Newtown gunman, and his mother, Nancy, who was the first of his 27 victims. Despite too many lame All the President’s Men-style scenes of the reporters traveling to interviews and batting around ideas with their editors — including some dangerously speculative theorizing about the Lanzas — the program has the advantage of delivering new information about the mother and son, from several acquaintances who had not spoken previously in public.” Read more…)

Cockneys Vs. Zombies (horror comedy, Michelle Ryan. Rotten Tomatoes: 69%. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ New York Times review: “There’s not much difference between regular English soccer fans and the undead variety in Cockneys vs. Zombies: Even when expired, they’re still ready to rumble with anyone wearing the colors of a rival team. And that’s pretty much the point of this spirit-of-the-Blitz comedy from Matthias Hoene. Filled with East End grit and EastEnders escapees, the ragtag story is merely an excuse to remind us, all too emphatically, that Londoners won’t lie down.” Read more…)

Greetings From Tim Buckley (musical biopic, Penn Badgley. Rotten Tomatoes: 69%. Metacritic: 57. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Biopics come in a number of flavors, though most turn out either to be hagiographies that clean up the little and big messes of famous lives, burnishing legends for maximum nostalgia, or analytical postmortems that try to put their subjects into play with history and the world. Greetings From Tim Buckley takes a look at two musicians who died young and were largely strangers, Tim Buckley and his son Jeff Buckley, and goes right for worship: it’s sweet, sentimental, almost inevitably touching if not especially persuasive, brushing against the thorns in each man’s life without drawing blood.” Read more…)

Love Is All You Need (romcom, Pierce Brosnan. Rotten Tomatoes: 74%. Metacritic: 60. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: The first sign of trouble in the romantic comedy Love Is All You Need is the clichéd and incessant use of ‘That’s Amore.’ Ever since that early-’50s Dean Martin hit was used in Moonstruck in 1987, the song has been pop culture’s Pavlovian signal to wallow in the jollier side of all things Italian. Much of this movie, about a wedding that goes awry, is set in Sorrento, overlooking the Bay of Naples. But as the story progresses the tune’s insistent levity is contradicted by the awful behavior of some pigheaded characters.” Read more…)

New Blu-Ray
World War Z
The East
Behind the Candelabra
The Bling Ring

New American Back Catalog (post-1960)
Jaws: The Revenge (1987, action/horror, Michael Caine. Rotten Tomatoes: 0%.)

New TV
Bates Motel: Season 1

New Documentaries
Radio Unnameable (community radio, WBAI, Bob Fass. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. Metacritic: 72. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “[Radio host Bob] Fass, whose sonorous baritone still can be heard on [WBAI-FM], offering provocation and comfort to insomniacs and late-shift workers, is the subject of Radio Unnameable, a new documentary by Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson. Drawing on archival photographs and audiotape, the filmmakers pay tribute both to an influential voice in broadcasting and to the times whose ideals and follies he helped articulate. Robin Williams used to joke that if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. That may be so, but Mr. Lovelace and Ms. Wolfson assemble a motley, graying assortment of characters who seem to have forgotten nothing. Mr. Fass narrates old war [and antiwar] stories with vivid clarity and impeccable timing, and his accounts are fleshed out by a Greek chorus of friends, co-workers and fellow travelers.” Read more…)

Raising Adam Lanza (biography, social issues, violence, in Top Hits. From Mike Hale’s New York Times‘ Critic’s Notebook on PBS’s post-Newtown documentaries on guns in America: “The focus shifts firmly to psychology in Tuesday’s ‘Frontline’ episode, ‘Raising Adam Lanza,’ which follows two reporters for The Hartford Courant as they investigate the relationship between Lanza, the Newtown gunman, and his mother, Nancy, who was the first of his 27 victims. Despite too many lame All the President’s Men-style scenes of the reporters traveling to interviews and batting around ideas with their editors — including some dangerously speculative theorizing about the Lanzas — the program has the advantage of delivering new information about the mother and son, from several acquaintances who had not spoken previously in public.” Read more…)

The Hill (urban policy, racism, New Haven, local documentarian Lisa Molomot, in Top Hits)
School’s Out: Lessons From a Forest Kindergarten (education experiment in Switzerland, local documentarian Lisa Molomot, in Top Hits)