Vox Lux Movie Review

Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux portrays a star who is born out of tragedy and she manages to keep milking it for a seemingly infinite time. Natalie Portman is that star and her work here is certainly memorable. Unlike her Oscar-winning turn in 2010’s Black Swan (which also explored the highs and lows of notoriety), this movie never quite earns being blessed by her committed performance. It drew me in for a while before getting lost in its own pretentiousness and, eventually, a feeling of meaninglessness. Maybe that’s the point Corbet is going for with his script as he ruminates on the vapid nature of pop celebrity. However, when the message is that the main character isn’t ultimately worth paying attention to, it’s tricky to get invested.

We meet Celeste as a 14-year-old in 1999, as played by Raffey Cassidy. She and sister Ellie survive a school shooting, leaving Celeste with a gunshot wound to the spinal area. Her recovery inspires her to write a ballad that strikes a chord with the nation. When it’s time to cut a full album, it’s in the aftermath of 9/11 when her lightweight dance pop recordings (courtesy of Sia) are the kind of throwaway ditties that fit the airwaves. These horrific events turn Celeste into a superstar and ultimately a diva.

Forty minutes in, the story flashes forward to 2017. Now 31 years old and now in the diminutive but fierce form of Portman, Celeste is prepping a comeback tour while attempting to rid herself of certain baggage. There’s an at fault car accident from a few years back that caused injury. And there’s the breaking news of the day – a terrorist attack in Central Europe where the assailants dressed as characters from one of her old videos.

Celeste deals with all this as she’s an absentee mom to her own teen, also played by Cassidy. Her girl is raised primarily by Ellie (Stacy Martin) and that sister relationship is strained to its limit. Jude Law is the manager who puts up with the frequent tantrums and rock star behavior while indulging in it himself.

For a while, Vox Lux is unique enough with its subject matter to inspire hope. That’s for about an hour when it seems to be generating its thesis on stardom and tragedy. I will say I dug Willem Dafoe’s intermittent ironic narration. In the second half, it’s mostly about watching Celeste’s out of control behavior. In the realm of musical tales, this runs out of fresh notes to hit. What helps is that Portman is terrific. She just never quite elevates this above being an occasional fascinating misfire.

**1/2 (out of four)

Oscar Watch: Vox Lux

Three years ago, director Brady Corbet took home the Best Director prize and Best Debut film at Venice for The Childhood of a Leader. In 2018, he’s back at the festival with his follow-up Vox Lux. Said to be a haunting tale of a pop music princess (Natalie Portman), early word of mouth is quite encouraging for Corbet’s second effort behind the camera. Some reviewers have commented that it’s a darker take on the same themes of another festival favorite, Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born. 

Portman’s work is said to be fantastic. Her costars include Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, and Willem Dafoe (on narrator duties), but expect any awards chatter to go to its lead. Portman has been nominated three times already for 2004’s Closer, 2010’s Black Swan (for which she won), and 2016’s Jackie. It may not hurt that Oscar voters are aware of her performance in Annihilation earlier this year, which also earned positive notices.

One important point worth noting: Vox Lux has yet to secure U.S. distribution, so it’s possible this may not hit theaters stateside in 2018. However, based on reaction from Italy, I expect that to occur in short order.

Bottom line: International pop star Lady Gaga has likely made the short list in Best Actress for A Star Is Born. Natalie Portman could potentially join that short list playing an international pop star.

My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

The Killing of a Sacred Deer Movie Review

I’m not an attorney, but I’ve heard of the legal term known as Clean Hands. I might have heard it first from Judge Judy. Regardless, in layman’s speak, it means a defendant claims that a plaintiff can’t argue for equal remedy because they’re engaged in bad acts as well. I realize a lawyer might challenge my interpretation, but I’m reviewing a movie and I’m not on trial. Clean Hands could have been a more appropriate name than what I’m writing about, but instead we have the more pretentious The Killing of a Sacred Deer from director Yorgos Lanthimos.

The aggrieved party in our story is teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan), whose father died three years ago in a surgery performed by Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, reuniting with his The Lobster director). The two befriend each other after the incident and Martin is eventually ingratiating himself with the doc’s family – wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teen daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and younger brother Bob (Sunny Suljic). Martin seems a bit strange and too eager to please, but his motives turn out far darker. He blames the doctor for his loss and plans to exact revenge.

Lanthimos isn’t interested with playing in the run of the mill revenge fantasy thriller genre. No family pet is harmed in the making of his screenplay with Efthymis Filippou, though there is one. Instead Martin wants to harm the family and any one of them will do. He also manages to capture the heart of Kim while he moves forward with his acts.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a dark and unsettling experience that sometimes struggles to earn the pain we go through watching it. From a technical standpoint, it’s often expertly rendered with a Kubrick like sense of clinical precision and a loud and evocative score. Farrell and Kidman (just seen together in The Beguiled) are just fine as the parents facing increasingly difficult circumstances and choices, but it’s Keoghan who electrifies plenty of his scenes. His misguided Martin gets under everyone’s skin, including ours.

That said, the style of Deer is frequently more potent than its subject and I struggled with whether it was worth it in the end. For all its bells and whistles, it kind of is a typical revenge fantasy with art house touches. Dr. Murphy may have made his mistakes, but there’s a Clean Hands defense when he discovers Martin’s bad acts. For this viewer, I offer a mixed defense of the picture itself.

**1/2 (out of four)

Tomorrowland Movie Review

At one moment in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, one of the lead characters exclaims, “Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” It’s a line that Disney would surely like us to follow with this earnest, visually pleasing, sometimes preachy and totally uneven tale sprung from the minds of Bird and cowriter Damon Lindelof. There is a lot to admire about Tomorrowland and seeing an original picture presented with such a big budget and lots of tech wizardry is among them. Yet it’s hard to love it. Tomorrowland is mainly centered on optimism and it doesn’t hesitate to occasionally lecture us about a generation that dared to stop dreaming, according to its filmmakers. This is primarily centered on lack of focus with the space program and loss of interest in advancing science. Here we have a mega budget sci fi tale with a point of view and a supremely talented director behind the camera to tell it. There are moments during Tomorrowland that left me greatly optimistic for where the story would go to next and individual sequences that were flat out terrific. The faded optimism came with a plot that never really pays off and a third act that doesn’t match up with the first two. It results in being Bird’s least satisfying overall experience, though he’s set quite a bar with The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

The movie begins with young Frank Walker at the World’s Fair in New York circa 1964. He’s invented a jetpack that sadly doesn’t fly. Nevertheless, his unbridled enthusiasm in science draws the attention of Athena (Raffie Cassidy), a young girl who gives him a pin emblazoned with a big T. Frank soon discovers that this pin transports him to Tomorrowland, a land many dimensions away that looks quite futuristic. We soon learn this is a place where dreamers can go to dream and invent things to keep the future rolling along without the interference of Earthly distractions like money and politics. Turns out Athena is no little girl and she’s a programmed robot tasked with finding those special people to populate Tomorrowland.

When the story switches to present day, Athena’s new pupil is Casey (Britt Robertson), an energetic and endlessly curious teen whose dad (Tim McGraw) is a NASA engineer who doesn’t get much work. She gets a pin as well, but her journey isn’t an easy one. It includes meeting a grown up Frank (George Clooney), whose feelings on Tomorrowland have changed through the years and not in a positive way. They may be well founded as Tomorrowland’s leader David Nix (Hugh Laurie) has a rather warped view on us Earth folk.

For a picture stressing the virtue of the idea behind Tomorrowland, we don’t spend much time there. Most of the action is set back on this planet and a lot of what we see is quite entertaining. Raffie Cassidy has the most challenging role of all and she gives a winning performance. Robertson and Clooney may be stars and they are both just fine, but Cassidy’s butt kicking robo girl steals the show. A scene in a hobby shop with Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn and a sequence in which the Eiffel Tower is harboring an underground rocket ship are particular highlights.

As I stated, a lot to admire. However, by the time Laurie’s Nix is essentially preaching the plot to us in the third act, I felt a little underwhelmed. I realize this Utopias world he spoke of didn’t get explored much here. And while lessons about destroying the planet are important, it’s not like we haven’t heard it all before. I still would recommend making this trip because there is enough to like, but temper that optimism a little perhaps.

*** (out of four)