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Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look: 0%
Average: 31.58%
Pretty Bad: 31.58%
Total Crap36.84%

3 reviews, 1 rating

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Vox Lux
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Pop Life"
2 stars

Remember that bit in “Back to School” where history professor Sam Kinison goes off on a hilariously bizarre riff about the wars in Korea and Vietnam and Rodney Dangerfield, after responding in kind, remarks “He really seems to care. About what, I have no idea.” I found myself thinking a lot about that line while watching “Vox Lux.” Here is a film in which writer-director Bradley Corbett tries to tackle subjects ranging from familial conflicts to tortured artistes to terrorism (both domestic and international) to the myriad ways in which even the most disposable forms of contemporary popular culture are inextricably intertwined with the horrors and chaos of the times even as they ostensibly serve as an escape from them. The film certainly has ambition to spare but what it doesn’t have, alas, is any clear or concise idea of what it wants to say about any of it all or how it wants to say it. The result is a movie that starts off promisingly but then quickly goes downhill and trust me, it does not go down quietly.

Positioning itself as the feel-good movie of the season, the story kicks off in 1999 in the music room of an ordinary high school in Staten Island as the kids file in for their first class after winter break. The good times come to a quick and horrifying end when one student arrives late, gets the teacher’s attention while standing in the doorway before shooting her and then gunning down his terrified classmates. Many are killed but one of the survivors is Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), who escapes with merely being shot in the spine. While recovering from her injuries in the hospital, she and her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), who feels guilty for having been home with a cold that fateful day, decide to channel the grief that they are feeling into a song that Celeste ends up singing at a vigil for her dead classmates. Her performance of the song gets the attention of record company weasels who, after a couple of tweaks, turn the sisters deeply personal statement into one that helps to provide solace for the entire nation. Before long, Celeste acquires an agreeably cynical manager (Jude Law) who, along with Eleanor, helps her on the path to instant stardom as she cuts a demo, strikes a recording contract and goes off to Sweden to cut an album with the hottest producers around. While the two are off alone, Eleanor introduces Celeste to certain bad habits and by the time this section ends (at the same time as another major trauma), Celeste has already begun to plant the seeds of self-destruction even as she is poised to become the next big star in the pop firmament.

When the story picks up in 2017, those seeds are in full bloom as Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) is now a megastar who is almost as famous for her bad behavior offstage (ranging from problems with drugs and booze to a highly publicized racist meltdown following a traffic accident) as for her music. Now she is preparing for the release of her long-overdue new album—a collection of sci-fi themed pop anthems—with a big concert in her hometown and is trying to get through a number of interviews and find some time to spend with her own teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Cassidy), who is being raised by Eleanor while she is off on her misadventures. Unfortunately, the mother-daughter reunion does not go as smoothly as hoped and when the reporters are more interested in asking about the news of a terrorist attack in Croatia that appears to have been inspired by one of her most iconic music videos, it inspires a press conference rant that goes spectacularly wrong and suspicions that she may not even be able to make it to the stage that night. Yes, Celeste’s power-pop music has managed to soothe the collective traumas of her listeners in the past but the question remains as to whether that power will work on her as well.

With its unrelenting grim and pessimistic worldview only occasionally offset by moments of jet-jet-black humor and the dryly cynical narration supplied by Willem Dafoe, there are times when “Vox Lux” seems as if it was designed to suggest what might result if Lars von Trier was hired to direct an episode of “Behind the Music.” That sounds like a potentially fascinating idea for a film, I suppose, and the early scenes seem to be setting up something truly provocative in the suggestion that even something as nightmarish as a school shooting with multiple casualties can serve as the inspiration for a career in show business. This is an audacious notion that could have yielded a fascinating look at how popular culture can help process grief even as it profits from it. The trouble is that almost as soon as he starts to hint at this particular notion, Corbett all but abandons it once the scene shifts to the current-day incarnation of Celeste, who is so wrapped up in herself that the notion that her work may have helped inspire a terrorist attack barely registers with her at all. The trouble is that Corbett doesn’t seem to have any idea of what he is trying to say about the world of popular culture in general and Celeste in particular. He has no interest in exploring how the Celeste of the first half became the one seen in the second or her tenuous relationships with her daughter, sister, manager, fans and sanity. Even the musical aspect of the film, which one would think would be of key import here, turns out to be a disappointment. Celeste’s big breakthrough song, which was penned by Sia, is okay on the surface but does not in any way suggest what people were actually listening to back in the time when it was supposedly recorded and the medley of tunes that Celeste performs during the climactic concert are astoundingly bland and nondescript but the attitude it demonstrates towards them is so muddled that I cannot tell if they are supposed to be deliberately bad songs or if they just happen to be bad all by themselves.

To be fair, while Corbett never pulls the elements of his story together in any meaningful or coherent manners, there are a few individual moments of genuine power that suggest what might have happened if the screenplay had been more thought out. The opening scene depicting the school shooting is one that has a queasy power to it that cannot be denied—it is one of the very few scenes that has been laid out and presented in a dramatically coherent fashion and does about as good a job as anyone has done of representing such an unthinkable act into cinematic terms. The later scene in which the adult Celeste is stuck doing a roundtable with journalists, who ignore the music they are ostensibly there to talk about in order to slip in questions about the terrorist attack that they have been barred from bringing up, is a very knowing bit of satire that captures the soul-deadening feel of such interviews with the kind of pinpoint accuracy that the film could have used a lot more of throughout. I also liked some of the observations about the industry supplied by the manager character played by Law, though I suppose it suggests just how bleak and devoid of joy the film is when you consider that the sleazy rock star manager is arguably the closest thing to a moral authority figure to be found in it.

One aspect that really doesn’t work—almost disastrously so—is the shockingly one-note and off-key performance given by Natalie Portman as the adult Celeste. Because of the structure of the film, she doesn’t actually appear until about 55 minutes into the proceedings but within a couple minutes of seeing her, I found myself hoping that she would vanish for the remaining 55. Normally one of the most subtle and interesting actresses around, her turn as Celeste is a bombastic bore that finds her screaming and ranting in lieu of ever getting a firm grasp on the character. She spends virtually all of her screen time doing a spoof of a Lady Gaga-type celebrity in a matter that might inspire a chuckle or two in a “SNL” skit but which wears badly over the course of the hour she is on the screen, especially since she, like the film as a whole, goes about her business in a stultifyingly self-serious manner that grates more than intrigues. Even the sight of her going through her pop princess motions proves to be less of a spark that it was clearly designed to be, especially for those who saw her busting out raps on her “SNL” appearances. By comparison, Raffey Cassidy winds up acting circles around Portman as both the younger version of Celeste and as the older Celeste’s daughter—her smart and distinct performances as both characters are the closest that the film ever gets to any real focus about what it wants to convey.

Whatever else one might say about “Vox Lux,” it certainly is not a timid movie by any means and long after it has passed the point where most people will have written it off, it is still up there swinging wildly for the fences. And yet, all that swinging makes no difference if it never actually connects with anything and that is the problem here. This is a film that clearly had the potential to become something smart, powerful and devastating and even managed to get the caliber of talent capable of pulling it off. Unfortunately, instead of developing it further to achieve those goals, it feels as if all involved inexplicably elected to shoot the very rough first draft instead. The end result is a theoretically grandiose meditation on the state of the world that is ultimately more frustrating than it is edifying.

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originally posted: 12/14/18 13:14:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 AFI Fest For more in the 2018 AFI Fest series, click here.

User Comments

7/15/19 Ashley Moye Utter crap. 1 stars
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  07-Dec-2018 (R)
  DVD: 05-Mar-2019


  DVD: 05-Mar-2019

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