Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Dec 08, 2018 2:25 pm 
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NATALIE PORTMAN IN VOX LUX

Corbet's second film is a pop melodrama with a glitzy role for Natalie Portman

The actor Brady Corbet's directorial debut was about the rise of a fascist dictator. He's ambitious this time too, but turns to violence and pop music in a movie that declares itself to be about the 21st century, and provides Natalie Portman with a flashy role. Vox Lux (it could be Glitz Biz) satirizes rise-and-fall pop bio melodramas - or does it just revel in them? It also takes on such apple-pie Americana as school massacres and 9/11, not to mention the toxicity of fame. Celeste, its electro-pop diva, played as a teen by Raffey Cassidy (Killing of a Sacred Deer), is a role taken over later in an over-the-top performance by Natalie Portman. All through the gruff Jersey manager is played by Jude Law. In the background a documentary-style narration is voiced by Willem Dafoe, and the variously-styled songs are by Sia. In the foreground there are some arty and artful visuals (it's all shot handsomely on Kodak film) and, at the end, there is a Madonna-cum-Lady Gaga song and dance performance, an apparent tribute to the late Jonathan Demme of the celebrated 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense and multiple Neil Young films. This finale is a gorgeous thing that will look nice on the biggest screen you can find.

Corbet's directorial debut Childhood of a Leader was elegant, grand, haunting, and disappointing. This one has more appeal to the public, though it may intend to be thumbing its nose at the audience. Its historical significance is pushed and its satirical ambition doesn't pan out. What kind of pop music satire ends with such a glorious, shiny performance of songs written by someone as good as Sia?

The opening sequence, titled, with typical Brady Corbet grandeur, "I. Genesis," starts with an out-of-the blue shocker. At a high school on Staten Island a student enters a homeroom class after vacation and shoots the teacher and the class, then sets off some explosions and offs himself. Only Celeste (Cassidy) survives, with a bullet lodged in her neck and a serous spinal injury requiring lifelong meds that arouse a liking for drugs. With the nation watching, she performs a song written by her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin of Nymphomaniac ), who stands by, and this becomes an instant widespread hit, as does Celeste. Riding on this instant fame and visibility, Celeste moves on to an early pop career with Eleanor writing the songs and Jude Law managing. The sisters' Christian primness quickly fades after an all-night debauch.

Just as they begin to do well, 9/11 happens. Fast forward to "II. Regenesis." Seventeen years have passed, and the 31-year-old Celeste, still with Eleanor and the manager but now played by Portman, has been in a period of decline fueled by dissolute living and drug-induced scandals - a car crash causing serious injury to somebody is mentioned. Portman's version of Celeste is hard, brassy, and substance-dependent. Yet she's still fresh-faced - or is that just a lot of makeup? And is this satirizing, or just reveling in, the pop diva life? Nonetheless, Portman manages to achieve some moments of striking authenticity and intimacy, wedged in between the camp.

Relations with Eleanor having declined (though not the debt to her composing skills), Celeste is now accompanied mainly by her own teenage daughter, played by Raffey Cassidy, who played her before. (This will not trick you into thinking the two women resemble each other.) We meet the diva uneasily preparing for a big return performance at her home town's ampitheater. Celeste's state of nerves worsens when she gets the news that terrorists have massacred people on a beach in Croatia wearing shiny silvery masks copying Celeste's music video, "Hologram." We glimpse the video (the masks did look pretty menacing already) as well as the dark-clad nasties descending on a beach and opening fire. Are pop stars complicit in the violence they themselves have been victims of? Is the 21st century just a giant destructive lizard forever chasing its own tail?

Dramatic, and perhaps thought-provoking, as all this is, the pacing and dialogue aren't always very snappy. Things tend to drag, some of the dialogue isn't all that interesting, and it's not always totally clear where the action is going.

Celeste as played by Portman is a guilty pleasure. She's a master of hissy fits, talking in a chewy New Jersey brogue that Jude Law occasionally seems to be imitating. Being shot in three weeks, this movie didn't allow major prep time, except that funding evaporated at one point, and Portman credits the temporary shutdown that caused with the practice that allowed her to sing and dance with such panache in the glossy final sequence - though for all the songs, she wears the same costume. Before the show, manager and Celeste have a drug orgy together, and maybe sex. The speeded-up and jittery, blurred images don't show what's going on, but it looks like fun, or at least Corbet is having fun with the visuals. Celeste falls on her face and has to be shouldered to the stadium, but you know how it is, The show must go on. The performance never falters.

Apart from the technical flourishes, one clear pleasure in this not wholly satisfying or coherent movie is seeing Portman this time do a grand turn that's loose and fun , a far cry from her masochistic, Oscar-winning Black Swan role. Brady Corbet is obviously a fledgling director of much ambition and talent. If there is less excitement but more success in Vox Lux than Childhood of a Leader, such is the way with sophomore efforts. He's already scheduled to shoot a third film, tentatively titled The Brutalist. It is to be the thirty-year saga of a great Hungarian-born Jewish architect struggling for recognition in America. Sounds like Louis Kahn, and his could be a very good story, though his son Nathanial's memorable documentary homage My Architect will be a hard act to follow.

Vox Lux, 110 mins., debuted at Venice, where Corbet won two prizes for Childhood of a Leader. It also showed at 16 other festivals including Toronto, Vancouver, and Mill Valley. US release is 7 Dec. 2018. Metascore 72.

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NATALIE PORTMAN AND RAFFEY CASSIDY IN VOX LUX

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