Self-awareness isn’t everything. But with some directors, it’s enough. Sofia Coppola is making a career out of it. Her movies — The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere — are about the toxins of privilege and the downsides of vanity. But they leave Coppola vulnerable to being called privileged and vain herself. With Coppola, eyes will roll. The opening credits of The Bling Ring get the narcissism charge right out of the way. A montage ends with the camera sailing above a spread of trinkets and stopping at a charm bracelet that says “rich bitch.” This is where Coppola has chosen to put her “directed by.” She owns the irony.
My feelings about this movie haven’t changed since I saw it a month ago. Well-off high school kids break into the homes of the rich and famous and steal some of their stuff. It’s smart and droll. Coppola looks at the robberies and aspiration and materialism with the sugared piquancy that Baz Luhrmann uses for The Great Gatsby and Harmony Korine tries out for some of Spring Breakers. They’re all movies about the obsession with stuff and leisure and adoration, movies that are also rooted in hip-hop.
The Bling Ring‘s soundtrack has music by Sleigh Bells, deadmau5, and Can. But the songs the characters actually hear are usually rap. The girls snarl their way through Rick Ross’s “9 Piece” in the car. On a different night, it’s Kanye West’s “All of the Lights.” When Coppola’s protagonist, a sweet-faced fashionisto named Marc (Israel Broussard), has a moment alone, he’s listening to Ester Dean’s club hit “Drop It Low,” which has assistance from Lil Wayne and Chris Brown. The scene is shot entirely from the point of view of his laptop camera. It’s in grainy black-and-white and situated so that we’re looking up at him while he takes drags from a pot pipe, flings his hair, turns his back to the computer, and grants Dean’s wish to see that “booty, booty, booty pop.” Aside from the sight of Emma Watson doing a luscious slow-motion dance-floor bounce, that moment with Marc is the movie’s most fun. This music isn’t the reason these kids rob. But it’s in their system. Their lust for luxury brands and hunger for celebrity are as much a part of where hip-hop has wound up: on Rodeo Drive.
Young white America’s early relationship to rap began in rebellious aspiration. Young black America’s relationship to it began in identification. Success has lifted rappers up — off the streets, out of the ghetto, away from jail. They’re rich. They’re famous. They have what the kids want in The Bling Ring: fashion lines and fragrances. Jay-Z and Kanye West recorded a whole masterpiece about the anxiety of their affluence. 2011’s Watch the Throne was entirely devoted to the physical and psychological defense of the kings they’d become. They didn’t want to be mistaken for arrivistes. They had arrived. They were royalty, and they were paranoid.
Acquisition has always been part of hip-hop, rappers rapping about their stuff and their territory: “my Adidas,” “my radio,” “my part of town.” But that’s quaint. Now it’s “my Bugatti,” a car whose asking price is about $1.4 million. The game, as they say, has changed. Last week, the Beastie Boys’ Mike D and his wife, Tamra Davis — the director of the Chris Rock rap-industry parody, CB4 — unveiled their tastefully renovated Brooklyn brownstone to the New York Times. The talent-agency arm of Jay-Z’s business empire is now poaching professional athletes from established firms. Jay-Z has expressed empathy with the ascent of Jay Gatsby from nothing to something, and that empathy culminated in his curating the soundtrack of Luhrmann’s movie.
Luhrmann didn’t make the hip-hop Gatsby he might have dreamed about, but it’s almost poignant the way the film’s embarrassing minstrel flourishes imply what, in a more daring movie, could have been. Still, the scene in which Jay’s shirt collection rains down on Daisy Buchanan is straight from the book, but it also feels straight outta Kanye, a man who, last week, told Jon Caramanica in the New York Times that some of the inspiration for his new record came from a Le Corbusier lamp. Rap and hip-hop culture have gone from being “black America’s CNN” to the entire country’s E!
The incidents dramatized in The Bling Ring took place in 2008 and 2009. The victims of the ring were people readers of Dlisted.com wanted to be back then: stars of the reality show The Hills, Paris Hilton, Megan Fox, and Lindsay Lohan. The Kardashians were around but they weren’t the thing that they soon would become. This was before the release of Watch the Throne, and before Kanye got mixed up with Kim. But it’s not hard to imagine the capers Coppola coolly depicts being targeted at “Kimye” and West misconstruing the adulation for hateration.
As it is, West is the pivotal figure in rap’s transition from extroversion to introversion, from the sociological to the psychological. He’s held on to the music’s sense of self-assurance, but he’s given it both a certifiable persecution complex and stunning narcissism. In The Bling Ring, when Watson’s character stands before news cameras and announces that her arrest and conviction haven’t disqualified her from national leadership, it’s precisely the sort of unapologetic delusion West continues to express, say, about his attempt to steal a Moonman statuette from Taylor Swift.
Wittingly or not, Coppola’s film connects hip-hop’s migration from the realm of have-not/have-some/have-it-all to the age of disillusionment with having arrived. Marc is the movie’s outsider. He’s gay, loosely conscientious, and insecure about his looks. He falls in love with the rich-bitch glamour of the gang’s leader, an icy operator named Rebecca (Katie Chang). She’s his gateway to drugs, luxury, and a pair of hot-pink Louboutins. Eventually, the sprees end, the gang turns on itself, and Marc is left slightly beside himself. He’s an outsider, one similar to the narrator in the Frank Ocean song that plays over the closing credits: “Super Rich Kids.”
Of course, as much as hip-hop provides the unifying undergirding of both The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers and the 21st-century spine of the 1920s in The Great Gatsby, and as vital as that culture is to these movies, the privilege that each embodies makes no room to include hip-hop as more than a boutique for taste-making and street cred. You really don’t want to hear West go on a tirade about how things still aren’t equal at the movies, but he’d be making a valid point. Film stardom remains elusive. West and Jay-Z might, indeed, have it all, but they don’t yet have that.
Zombies are the last horror species that can still scare you. Werewolves and vampires want to be our friends and future exes. They have book clubs and fan fiction. Zombies just have the teen necrophilia of Warm Bodies, and they seem pissed about it. Whatever it is that vampires are supposed to stand for now has more to do with what we want — sex — than who we are. Zombies? Zombies are us. That’s the fear, anyway. If a zombie gets you, you’re more than screwed, more than no longer alive. You’re … a zombie.
Good zombie entertainment — George Romero’s Dead films, Danny Boyle’s two 28 films, the occasional episode of The Walking Dead — establishes the threat, maintains an air of dread, gradually erodes the line between our savagery and that of the zombies, and perhaps weaves in some sociopolitical critique. The only rule is: Don’t get infected. Don’t wind up a tweaked-out, power-walking cannibal.
The zombies in World War Z sprint the way girls do when their pheromones detect Justin Bieber. I’ve never seen anything prey upon people the way the zombies do here: in great, rushing rapids. The enduring image from the advertising is an aerial shot of a tsunami of bodies urgently piling up high against a concrete barrier until it’s breached.
But like everything else in this lousy, ugly-looking, intensely illogical movie, that moment conveys none of the visceral thrill you need from a zombie thriller, none of the claustrophobia. It doesn’t even look real. I don’t mean that it doesn’t look possible. I mean it looks fake, like we’ve been given a hard drive of unfinished video-game scenarios. Most of the film, which is available in 3-D, looks computerized, and like you’re watching through a glass ashtray. Even when the sun’s out, it’s often that murky. The shots whiz by even faster than the zombies do. Nearly every scene has been photographed with handheld cameras. The presumable conceit is that we’re panicking in the mosh pit, too. But all the shaking and jostling and veering, and all the split-second editing, produces a movie that never slows down enough to earn your fear. The story doesn’t unfold. It gushes. It spews.
And what’s it spewing, anyway? This is a tale of monumental disaster, scarcely adapted from Max Brooks’s novel and starring Brad Pitt as a retired, high-level U.N. investigator named Gerry Lane. When hell breaks loose, he and his family are whisked to an aircraft carrier where Thierry (Fana Mokoena), the U.N. deputy secretary general, coerces Gerry into venturing off into chaos to find some kind of cure. Only by accepting the mission are his wife and two daughters guaranteed safety on the carrier. So off he goes, trotting the globe, happening upon a succession of would-be insulting political commentaries, like the barrier the Israelis have erected in Jerusalem to keep out the zombies, which for Brooks was the flash point for his allegorical geopolitical ambitions.
In the film, you know the attention to detail was iffy when no one seemed to think it was a bad idea to name two of your major characters “Gerry” and “Thierry.” It sounds like they’re talking to themselves. The production of World War Z was reportedly a troubled one. This might explain why so much of it feels so rushed and the rest is so confusing and dull, why Matthew Fox appears for about four seconds and Mireille Enos, as Pitt’s missus, has nothing more to do than hand Gerry’s phone calls to Thierry. Of course, some of that might also be a matter of the film’s having been made by Marc Forster, a flashy director with no distinctive style or taste or point of view. Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Stay, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner, and Quantum of Solace? They’re also his.
When Gerry and a wounded Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz) make their way to a World Health Organization laboratory in Wales, World War Z gives us its one good sequence. It’s just three characters traveling from one wing of the complex to the zombie-infested other side. But everything’s at stake in the trip. Someone involved with the movie understands this enough to banish the chaos and raise the tension. For the first time in about 80 minutes, you’re getting what you need in a zombie movie: intimacy, suspense, and a goal. We even get the bonus of fine actors (Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ruth Negga, and Moritz Bleibtreu) supporting Pitt, who to his immense credit refuses to become the game avatar — the zombie, really — he almost has the right to become.
This is a film with three credited writers — Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof, who is the alleged author of this passage. That climactic sequence is so well done that you resent the rest of the movie for its incompetence and incoherence. But when the illegible Post-it note of a finale arrives a scene later with its threat of a sequel, it’s as if the entire production is laughing at us. WWZ 2? Not if we’re lucky.