‘Vox Lux’ Goes for Broke Almost to the Breaking Point
Warning: Vox Lux contains scenes depicting a school shooting that could trigger some viewers. It also has many scenes with rapidly flashing lights that may trigger those with photosenstivey disorder.
Vox Lux is a magnificently flawed film of abject fury and empathy. Not since this year’s earlier Sorry To Bother You have I witnessed a movie so consumed with passion and anger. I’m just not sure it’s any good.
It seems to be railing against our current obsession with what I guess you could call “distraction culture.” A culture aware of the horrors and atrocities going on around them but whose own futility at what can be done is usurped by its own need to feel joy. Vox Lux argues there are distractions and then there is ignoring things so you don’t have to think about them.
Yes, it’s healthy to practice self-care and not get too wrapped up in things beyond our control. But at what point is looking away to avoid being overcome by the horror of it all turn into ignoring everything else except for our own obsessive need for gratification. At least I think that’s the main thrust.
To say Vox Lux is about any one thing would be foolhardy. Gun violence, the dehumanization of celebrities, and how women are marketed less for talent and more for their bodies are all fair game. Truthfully I’m not sure exactly what it’s trying to say. It’s hard to tell. For as giddy as I was watching Vox Lux I was also frustrated because I couldn’t quite understand what the film was trying to do. It didn’t help that the ending can be perceived as either irritating or brilliant. The film walks the knife’s edge of artistic brilliance and pretentious nonsense.
Brady Corbet structures Vox Lux as a fable about a young girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) who survives a school shooting. Narrated by Willem Dafoe, his voice lends an air of forthright impenetrable honesty as he regales about the girl’s life. Celeste survives with a permanent spinal injury. At the memorial for the other students, she and her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) play a song they wrote. The result is Lady Gaga/Beyonce inspired superstardom.
Vox Lux is one of those movies where I can tell you what happened but it doesn’t do it the justice of sitting there seeing it all unfold. Corbet makes every scene palpable, every frame pulsates with energy. The film feels alive and as such seems untamable as it explodes onto the screen before our eyes. Operatic and feverish, it never lets up no matter how much you may wish it to.
Celeste survives a school shooting, this is true. But Corbet makes us feel the horror and the tension of living through the school shooting. The ubiquitousness of gun violence both in our media and in our day to day lives has perhaps deadened the very real, violent, and disturbing reality of the actual experience. The driving anger of Vox Lux is in our inability to hold onto meaningful experiences and instead, dropping them and moving on to something else.
Natalie Portman plays a grown-up Celeste. A world-famous pop star, she is all but coming apart at the seams. In many ways, Vox Lux looks at how we enshrine celebrities and make them impossible beings. Portman’s Celeste is a pop star on the verge of a nervous breakdown. With her thick Staten Island accent and slicked back hair, Celeste powers through when she should clearly take a breath.
Celeste has a daughter of her own now, Albertine, also played by Cassidy. In an abrasive and uncomfortable scene, the adult Celeste attempts to have a heart to heart with her daughter. But Celeste is so closed off due to her stardom and drug abuse, she seems incapable of basic human connection. Her daughter asks her why she hates Ellie. Celeste responds with a rambling monologue about how nothing we do matters anymore because people just move on to the next thing. “I did a commercial a few years back. That stupid little thing where the rose opened up and I was little fairy inside with a soda can. I thought it’d ruin me. Know what happened? Nothing. Everybody forgot about it.”
It’s an old joke on the internet that the internet never forgets, but it’s only partially true. Yes, the internet is forever but our attention spans are not. Vox Lux isn’t pointing fingers so much as expressing a deep and volatile dissatisfaction with the way things seem to be heading. Art can offer answers but sometimes art can just be a cipher for our volatile and, sometimes, corrosive emotions.
At the same time during this same scene, the manager of the restaurant comes over and asks Celeste if he could take a picture with her. “I’m not going to post it. I just want it for me.” A celebrity’s time is rarely their own. Social media has made fans voracious in their need to be seen with people who “are just like them” but who never get to be treated like normal people.
Portman turns in what is her second best performance this year behind the earlier and still haunting and gorgeous Annihilation. But her work in Vox Lux is jaw-dropping for the kinetic energy she imbues in her Celeste. It is a fearless performance. Portman all but leaps from the screen and into the audience. Her Celeste is larger than life as she struts, dances, throws temper tantrums, all before turning to the screen and smiling. We root for Celeste while acknowledging what an absolute hell it must be living in her sphere.
After getting high, and having sex with Jude Law’s character known only as The Manager, the two stumble out of Celeste’s hotel room. I mention the scene only because Portman does one of the best pratfalls I’ve seen all year. I howled because Vox Lux is a movie that constantly pokes you, daring you to express either frustration or laughter. At the very least it wants you to feel something and tries in earnest to get, at the very least, a rise out of us.
The tightrope act the actors have to walk in the film is how nuanced they are. Law’s Manager character is as flawed and fleshed out as anyone in Mary Queen of Scots. He is at once kind and caring while also being manipulative and brusque. Notice the storm of conflicting emotions on Law’s face, and Portman’s for that matter, when she walks in on him holding Ellie in her arms. For all it’s bravado it’s the quiet moments between the screeching vibrato of its tone is where Vox Lux holds it’s most haunting and galvanizing power.
Much of the film’s power comes from the harsh and ingenious editing of Matthew Hannam. Just as you think we’ve got a bead on its rhythms it switches gears and out of our grasp. Aided by Lol Crowley, the cinematographer, the two create a living pulsating piece of artistry hellbent on making sure their screams into the abyss are heard. Crowley never puts the camera in a boring or wrong place. Even if the angle might be familiar the lens or lighting make it seem fresh and new. It allows us to decide for ourselves how we feel about certain moments and reactions.
I mentioned Portman’s pratfall earlier. While the theater was not packed, it was far from empty, but I was the only one laughing. I tell you this to illustrate how the film works differently for different people. A scene may be darkly comedic to me but to you or someone else, it may play as unbearably tragic.
During the last act of the film, we see Celeste perform her latest album, Vox Lux, to a teeming throng of adoring fans. Magically the concert footage feels like an actual pop concert. The vibrant and inventive energy the film has worked so hard to cultivate never evaporates. I sat in awe as they seamlessly blended realism with the dreamlike imagery of surrealism. Corbet, Crowley, and Hannam have sewn together disparate scenes that would in a lesser director’s hands seem like patchwork.
The ending, as previously stated, is abrupt; almost daringly so. A crucial piece of information is revealed just seconds before Corbet cuts to black. Because of how Vox Lux is presented, many moments seem weird or odd so after a while, we do not think much of them. But Corbet, mere seconds before the end drops a bombshell of a revelation that might be true or not. Dafoe’s narrator, whose voice exudes authority and honesty, delivers the line almost as an afterthought. I don’t know if it makes Vox Lux an inarguable masterpiece or if it pushes the film over the line from operatic to camp trash.
Most movies never know when to quit. Vox Lux quits arguably too soon. When I realized the credits were rolling, it took me a few seconds to realize it was over. Time flew by, though I’m not sure I would call the time spent watching Vox Lux fun. Engaging, certainly but calling it fun seems shallow somehow.
I like movies that are fun but sometimes I think we value the movies that are merely fun over the movies that are not. As if a movie not being fun is somehow an excuse not to engage with it. I’m not arguing that movies that are boring are good. I’m merely saying that, if we are to call movies art, then we should allow for a broader sense of what we demand from them.
Still, when the lights came on and I struggled to catch my breath, I knew some would find it too much. It is not a film for everyone, it never pretends to be. Its brashness and audacity have stayed with me and I get kind of giddy just thinking about it. Vox Lux is an act of untamed cinematic grandiosity that flails about with such brashness you might end up kind of annoyed. I loved every minute of it.
Image courtesy of Neon
Mary Queen of Scots vs. the Patriarchy
I am normally not a fan of period pieces set in the Elizabethan era. I came up in the 90’s back when Hollywood was flushed with them. Despite this genre prejudice I found myself utterly absorbed by Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots. A smart, complex, enthralling tragedy so well paced and woven the Bard himself would be pleased.
Of the many feats Mary Queen of Scots somehow pulls off, is the slaying of the insistent but moronic myth that movies like these cannot be populated by queer people or people of color. They have always existed and are a part of history; regardless of what decades of whitewashed historical epics might have said. The inclusiveness of Rourke’s film is as refreshing as it is bold.
While Mary Queen of Scots may present itself as a costume drama about how Mary (Saoirse Ronan) tried and failed to unify Scotland and England, it is only partly about that. At its heart, it is a tragedy about two women Mary and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) and how they are the head of their church and country but each sits at the heart of the patriarchy.
I’m not sure how historically accurate the script by Beau Willimon is but, in the end, it doesn’t matter. It feels real and when it comes to storytelling, that is the best we can hope for. Exiled to Scotland, the Catholic Mary Stuart attempts to bridge a peace with the Protestant Elizabeth I. Elizabeth refuses to marry or have children thus cementing her hold on the crown. Mary, on the other hand, is quite happy to marry and is, in fact, planning on having a child thus giving her a claim to the throne.
Don’t worry, Mary Queen of Scots is much more fascinating and moving than it sounds. For starters, Robbie’s Elizabeth is a woman on her own surrounded by men all but demanding she marry and sire an heir. Robbie is, per usual, magnetic.
Elizabeth confesses to her advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce), “I am a man. If I were to marry, my husband would surely wish to be my king. I will not bow to any king. I am the queen. You are the closest thing to a wife I shall ever have.” The moment is a perfect marriage of the perfect words for the perfect actress.
Mary Queen of Scots is shockingly adept at showing how remarkably little power women in power have when their counsels and envoys are men. Schemes and double crosses are made both for power but also so to free the country from “the yoke of female rule”. Time and time again Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I remain always pitted against each other.
Mary wishes nothing but to be named merely the next in line for the crown. But Elizabeth’s men cannot tolerate a Catholic laying claim and Mary’s men cannot fathom bowing to a Protestant. Round and round it goes with treachery and betrayal littering the road. Willimon’s script has an aura of fate inscribed into its structure. Even as Mary is charmed by Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) we know he will be her downfall. Not because she is weak but because it will allow, by technicality, for there to be a way to kick her off the throne.
Ronan’s Mary loves her country even though it seems not to return her love. Ronan does not have the fierceness that Robbie has and in fact, her Mary seems innocent and naive comparatively. But Ronan is sly in her performance. Much like Elizabeth, we underestimate her but we soon grow to root for her.
Lord Darnley’s inevitable betrayal is uncovered and Mary is counseled to execute him. “I will not behave as some woman Henry the VIII beheading my husbands just to secure my throne. I took a vow to honor and love him.” Though he may not live with her, or rule with her, she will not break a vow taken before God.
Mary and Elizabeth both show courage and principle in a world filled with men who have neither. At one point Elizabeth, suffering from the pox, ailing, but still full of fire and grace, wonders, why she shouldn’t just name Mary as successor. Her advisors point out her failings to which Elizabeth laughs. In one of the best scenes Elizabeth lays out all that has been done to Mary and yet she still stands.
Mary for her part is dealing with a recently quashed civil war, a renegade Cleric John Knox (David Tennant) and a gay husband who is being blackmailed by her most trusted advisors to take the crown and give it to her brother James (James McArdle). Unlike Elizabeth, she refuses to give up her femininity or her right to love and passion. Rourke never says which queen is right or wrong, only that each queen is ruling in the way she feels is best.
Willimon’s script lays out each character so fully that we understand where each character is coming from even after only just meeting them. We understand Tennant’s Knox when he argues with Mary about accepting the Catholics. Willimon’s deep and abiding empathy flows through the very text of Mary Queen of Scots and adds to the verisimilitude of the story.
Gemma Chan, who was so wonderful in this year’s earlier Crazy Rich Asians is magnificent as Elizabeth Hardwick. A role with barely any words, she plays a friend and confidante of Elizabeth’s. Chan’s glances tell us more than dialogue can as she becomes increasingly worried about her queen.
Rourke and Willimon surround both Queens with an inner circle of ladies, each an extension of how the queen is perceived. Elizabeth’s are comforting but often quiet and reserved. Mary’s are much more outgoing and effusive in their praise. Mary show’s an inclusive streak herself when she allows a bard who seems to enjoy wearing dresses into her fold. She treats him as she treats her other ladies, and they accept him as so.
Scotland is a countryside we’ve often seen in movies. John Mathieson, who shot Logan, shoots Mary Queen of Scots with a lush and deft eye for rolling hills and misty beaches. For all the beauty he and Rourke never let us forget the grimy reality of the times. Yes, there are castles, but they are made of stone, the chairs do not look comfortable and when it rains, there is little hope of getting dry.
Mary Queen of Scots is breathtaking in its intimacy and drawn out tension. It is Rourke’s directorial debut in film and it is an announcement of confidence and joy of a craft. She has created a world that feels lived in and whose drama and characters feel immediate and real.
Full of political intrigue, but never dull or pompous, this is a generous movie filled with many tiny moments and gestures on the sides of the frame. It takes a great talent to portray a tragic tale of love, sisterhood, betrayal, and envy in such a way we feel exuberant rather than exhausted. Rourke is such a talent.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures
Avengers: Endgame Revealed
Just ignore the silly name. We all know Endgame is a bit stupid and maybe the internet can shame Marvel into changing it. Regardless of the name, we have our first look at Marvel’s epic conclusion to the story begun in Infinity War. The Avengers are back to undo the damage Thanos wrought upon the universe.
We don’t see anything unexpected here. Half of all life is gone, our heroes are sad, Tony Stark is lost in space on the verge of death (not really), and they have a plan to undo the Snap. Steve Rogers lost his beard, and I don’t mean whatever woman he currently “dates” to distract from his feelings for Tony. Hawkeye is back and Ant-Man shows up. Really the only thing missing is Captain Marvel. Come on, Marvel, we all know she will be there. You want Captain Marvel to make even more money than it already will? Let people not in the know aware of her role in the new Avengers movie.
In this humble writer’s opinion, Infinity War did a stunningly effective job with the ensemble superhero movie and set a huge bar for this latest entry to not only clear but even match at all. Can they possibly recapture that magic again? Who will live or die? What will the new Avengers team look like in the end? How will they undo Thanos’s villainy?
All I know is that Nebula better be a feature attraction here. Her relationships with both Thanos and Gamora demand it.
Avengers: Endgame will snap half the money out of existence this April.