Thursday, September 19, 2013


Ellen Page and Alexander Sarsgard: The East
The East wants to be a morally complicated film, but would only be so for people who are morally simple.  This doesn't mean the film is not enjoyable - the acting is top notch and the story is dramatic enough to keep you guessing - but director Zal Batmanglij also wants you to think he's a bright boy with big thoughts, and that's where he stumbles.

Sarah (Brit Marling, also the co-writer of the screenplay) is a former FBI agent working for a private agency that sends her undercover to learn about 'The East,' an anarchist collective that avenges corporate wrongdoing.  She maneuvers her way into the group where she meets Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), The East's charismatic leader, and Izzy (Ellen Page) his feisty acolyte. The rest of the group look like the folks you'd see at Starbucks after an all-ages goth show - lots of eyeliner, stooped shoulders, and a general mix of arrogance and low self-esteem. Despite the shabby look, the group is dangerous and focused. They involve Sarah in one of the high points of the film, a beautifully executed assault on a pharmaceutical company.
But, as often happens in movies where the leader of a cult is a handsome chap like Benji, Sarah begins feeling drawn to the East and their mission. Hence, she has trouble adjusting to regular life, her boyfriend leaves her, and her boss (Patricia Clarkson) warns her about getting too involved with these freaky kids. But quicker than you can say Donnie Brasco, Sarah is in the lake with the East members, enjoying their ceremonial baths, and making out with Benji.

There are some more twists and turns, and a couple of scenes that are downright suspenseful, but ultimately the film goes down some well-beaten paths and we're left with a bunch of characters who, after seeming unique at first, turn out to be strangely cardboard, just a bunch of cranky kids getting revenge on their daddies.
The film's message seems to be that corporations are bad, and it can be difficult to decide which side of the fence you want to be on. These are cliched ideas on their own, but  The East makes them even more hackneyed by portraying Patricia Clarkson as a cold bitch; by drawing all of the corporate types as stiff and drab; and by making  Benji into a buff, blue-eyed guru that any girl could fall for, even if he's an anarchist. He's Charles Manson with bedroom eyes. The group amuses itself with folk dancing and games of spin the bottle; are we to think Sarah couldn't appreciate their cause without seeing that they're just a bunch of kids at heart? Would she be so torn if Benji wasn't such a dreamboat?
One character we needed more of was Doc (Toby Kebbell), a Stanford-trained medic who once took the drug distributed by the pharmaceutical company and now suffers the frightening side effects.  His hands shake, and he faces a possible mental breakdown in the future. Still, he works stoically to save a wounded group member. Watching him handle a  surgical tool as his hands shake says more than the rest of these grungy characters combined.

* * *
One of the first things Lee Malvo asks for when he gets to America is a cheeseburger.  Within a few scenes of Alexandre Moors' Blue Caprice, he's become an expert with a rifle. Burgers and guns. Aint that America?

The film is a retelling of the "Beltway Sniper" case that terrorized the greater Washington area in the fall of 2002. John Allen Muhammad  and Lee Malvo carried out a warped mission to create chaos by random shootings, ultimately killing 10 and injuring several others. Since then, Muhammad has been executed for his crimes, while Malvo is serving six life sentences.  Malvo co-authored a book about the shootings; much of the information he gave  turns up in the story told here, although the film fudges a number of incidents.

Most films would have dealt with the terror in the headlines, and the police investigation. Moors, instead, focuses on the relationship between the killers. Lee (Tequan Richmond)  is a lonely teen, abandoned by his mother and left to fend for himself in Antigua. Distraught, he nearly drowns himself, only to be rescued by John (Isaiah Washington). There's an instant chemistry: John is a strong, smart, older man, a perfect father figure for the lonely 17-year-old Lee. And both have been abandoned by women - Lee by his mother, John by his wife. John brings the boy to America, and starts referring to Lee as his "son." Lee doesn't object.
Soon, John is teaching Lee his philosophies. He preaches that the United States is keeping him down, and that the country needs a nudge. "A few dead bodies," he says. "Maybe five or six." Lee, willing to do anything to stay in the good graces of his father/protector, becomes the sniper of John's dreams. "I've created a monster," John says at one point, playfully rubbing Lee's head.
Is the movie a fair depiction of what happened? Not particularly. Lee is portrayed as a frightened kid turned into a robotic assassin, as if John controlled his mind. But as any stage magician will tell you, you can't hypnotize someone who doesn't want to be hypnotized. I'm not an expert on the Beltway Sniper killings, but I know that the pair met under much different circumstances, and that Lee had demonstrated some anti-social behavior long before he met John. Moors seems less interested in the truth than in using the parts of the story he likes to create a hunk of psycho-babble.
So if it's not an accurate version of history, is it at least a good movie? I'd say yes, and I might add that Moors made exactly the movie he wanted to make, a cold-blooded tale without the blood.  The acting is solid, the direction is steady, if non-spectacular, and it's nice to see Tim Blake Nelson in a minor role. Also, Leo Fitzpatrick has a funny cameo as a shaggy-looking arms dealer. But Blue Caprice has a low boiling point and surprisingly little drama. At one point John talks about finding other kids to train as future snipers. I almost wish that had happened, not in real life but in the movie, because the idea of other boys competing for John's attention might have created some friction.

Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring tells the story of those spoiled rich brats from California who spent a year breaking into the homes of third rate celebrities like Paris Hilton. They didn't mean any harm, they just wanted to steal shoes and handbags and then go home and dance in front of mirrors. Coppola must have seen the story as a statement on America's fascination with third rate celebrity, but her movie never quite hits the ground running. The first hour is an endless series of break-ins, and partying. By the fifth time one of these dreary girls tries on a pair of shoes you feel like texting Ms Coppola: OMG this is so boring :(

The film finds some traction during the final half hour. The girls get caught and become third rate celebs of their own, and Coppola finds her satirical voice in the court scenes and aftermath. Too little, too late, though. Good performances from Leslie Mann as the dippy mother of one of the girls, and  Israel Broussard as a male member of the group, plus some nice cinematography by the late  Harris Savides, make the film almost bearable, but The Bling Ring didn't do well with audiences this year. My guess is that anything to do with Paris Hilton  just makes people feel bad.

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