Friday, July 12, 2013

The Catch-Up: Summer Art House Counterprogramming

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  (If it’s good enough for Wesley Morris, then it’s good enough for me!)  Here are some mini-reviews of indie fare targeted at filmgoers already exhausted by smashy summer blockbusters. 

Dir. Sofia Coppola

4 out of 5

Nipping at the heels of Spring Breakers for the year’s best distillation of twisted adolescent solipsism is Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring.  Based on the real-life Hollywood Hills burglaries perpetrated by a group of fame-obsessed teens between 2008 and 2009, The Bling Ring seizes upon the malleable definition of “celebrity” in contemporary culture. Fixating on the exploits and wardrobes of socialites like Paris Hilton and Audrina Patridge, the criminals surmise - with a brazenly stupid logic that almost makes sense - that they can be like the famous and the beautiful by simply positing that they ought to be famous and beautiful too (an attitude slyly echoed in scenes where oblivious mom Leslie Mann homeschools her overprivileged brats with a curriculum based on The Secret).  Egged on by ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang), the gang makes multiple “shopping trips” to the homes of the stars they idolize, bringing away impressive hauls of clothes, cash, and other luxury items.

The sheltered narcissism and ubiquitous Valley-girl patois of the characters in The Bling Ring are ripe for satire, which Coppola delivers from a deadpan comedic stance that’s perhaps a bit too judgmental in places.  It’s hard to argue with the results, though - Emma Watson, in particular, does a spot-on impression of a media-addled manipulator who has a pile of rhinestones where her brain should be.  What’s great about The Bling Ring, though, are the readings resting beneath the surface: it’s a movie about the way peer pressure and groupthink can create binding relationships, about a gay teen’s identity crisis (empathetically portrayed by newcomer Israel Broussard), or about the baffling and persistent arrogance of the affluent classes.  These kids have better lives, materially speaking, than the majority of Americans, but still they crave more.  They’re young people making - and getting punished for - terrible mistakes, yet have no idea of the actual suffering of their peers who make similar choices but don’t have the necessary self-delusion or purebred superiority to ignore the consequences.

“The Bling Ring” is now playing in theaters.

Dir. Ryan Coogler

3.5 out of 5

In the early morning of New Year's Day 2009 in San Francisco, a BART police officer shot and killed the unarmed Oscar Grant as he was being detained for arrest.  Because the incident was captured on security cameras as well as the cell phones of many other commuters, there’s not much that Fruitvale Station can do to embellish the gut-wrenching impact of the slaying itself - it opens in vérité fashion with grainy camera phone-like footage of the event.  Instead, the film mostly eschews the crime to focus on the victim.  Fruitvale Station is a comparatively quiet character study of Grant on the last day of his life and a thoughtful dispatch from post-recession urban America.  It’s a slice of modest working class life that doesn’t romanticize its subjects yet makes it impossible not to empathize with them.  The film taps into the yearning, frustrated souls of the many rudderless young men like Grant via the portrayal of Michael B. Jordan - a revelation here, at least to those unfamiliar with his previous decade of work on TV shows like The Wire and Friday Night Lights.  Directed by first-timer Ryan Coogler, who also scripted, Jordan gives an emotionally charged performance that, like the film itself, is as rich and riveting in its moments of domestic stillness as in its unimaginably swift descent into chaos.

“Fruitvale Station” opens today in limited release.

Dir. Sebastian Silva

3 out of 5

American drug tourist Jaime (Michael Cera) wants nothing more than to experience a mescaline trip from the fruit of the San Pedro cactus in Sebastian Silva's Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus.  He’s come to Chile and hooked up with a group of three laid-back brothers (played by Silva’s actual brothers Juan Andrés, José, and Augustín) who humor the selfish gringo’s psychedelic desires out of little more than resigned boredom and morbid curiosity.  But their patience is tested further by the titular Crystal (Gaby Hoffman), a party-crashing sprite who mistakes Jamie’s condescension as a invitation to join his drug vacation; before long, she’s the fifth wheel distributing "magic pebbles" and constantly redefining her relationship to clothing.  The audience may feel the same exasperation with the film as it turns from a relaxed and humorous travelogue of shifting alliances - next to Jaime’s incessant douchebaggery, the brothers start to prefer Crystal’s harmless hippie quirks - to broad, unimaginative portraits of the Ugly American and the Space Cadet.  By the time Cera finally reveals the hint of human vulnerability hiding beneath his callous behavior, it can’t save the well-meaning but ill-advised tonal collision of Crystal Fairy’s final act, imposing a swift sobriety that doesn’t jibe with the movie’s otherwise enjoyably loopy vibe.

“Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus” opens today in limited release and is also available via Video on Demand.

Dir. Sebastián Cordero

2 out of 5

The claustrophobic space thriller Europa Report aims to do for science fiction what Paranormal Activity did for horror, embracing a faux-survelliance aesthetic to tell the story of a privately-funded voyage to investigate signs of life on one of Jupiter’s moons - a trip that, in predictable fashion, goes terribly wrong.  The latest film from Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero, Europa Report discovers new depths of tedium in an already unwelcome visual trend.  In a movie like this, off-screen space can and should be used to build tension, but more often than not the static, unimaginative camera placement merely obfuscates the action taking place.  The talented cast, led by Sharlto Copley (District 9) and Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), works hard to salvage the material, though it’s difficult to buy into the premise when this crew of handpicked experts keeps making crucial (and ultimately fatal) mistakes.  Europa Report is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than a piece of sleek, stripped-down entertainment, a deathly dull slog that renders its final message - that the smallest bit of success makes a harrowing physical and emotional ordeal worthwhile - highly ironic.

“Europa Report” is available now via Video on Demand and will be released in select theaters August 2.

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