Film review of Vox Lux

March 9, 2019

(This film review of “Vox Lux” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 February 2019.)

Directed and written by Brady Corbet; starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle and Raffey Cassidy, with narration by Willem Dafoe

*****

“Vox Lux” is a new drama featuring everyone’s favourite Israeli-American actress, Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”, “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, “Jackie”), as Celeste Montgomery, a young woman who survives a violent tragedy with her sister (French actress Stacy Martin, star of “Nymphomaniac”) and turns it into a hit song that launches their singing careers.

Portman arrives in the film half-way through; her younger self (Raffey Cassidy) is the one (careful: plot spoilers ahead) who faces the darkened eyes of a Columbine-style school shooter in her Staten Island high school, offering to be a hostage if he lets everyone go. It doesn’t work: Celeste is shot anyway, but she survives, following which she attends months of physical therapy.

With the help of her younger sister, Celeste chances on music as a form of therapy, and ends up writing a hit song about her experience, coached by a gruff manager (Jude Law) and guided by a music publicist (Jennifer Ehle). Fast forward 15 years. Celeste, now 31, is a superstar singer, a drug and alcohol abuser, and an imperious, self-centred and powerful presence, part Lady Gaga, part Madonna. She also has a teenage daughter (with no partner on the scene) named Albertine, played by Raffey Cassidy (who is also the younger Celeste). A neat trick.

“Vox Lux” is that kind of movie, striving to keep the audience off-balance. Despite the film’s nasty subject matter, it is presented with a strong ironical (and occasionally humorous) tone, partly due to a calm “voice from on high” narration by an unmistakeable Willem Dafoe. There’s something else, possibly the sound design or an at times menacing musical score by iconic composer Scott Walker (The Walker Brothers). Or perhaps it’s the edginess that most characters show on screen, that makes you think something terrible is always about to happen. Some pretty bad things take place – this is a physically and emotionally violent film, truly earning its MA15+ rating – although events never feel quite as emotionally devastating as foreshadowed. The director, Brady Corbet, may be playing with us here, distancing us from the emotions of his lead character. Or not. The result is disconcerting, intentionally so. This is clever film-making, torn from tomorrow’s news. It may not be easy to watch, but the result commands our attention.

Portman’s performance is enthralling, a haunting darker sister to Lady Gaga in “A Star is Born”. Like Lady Gaga, she sings her own songs. What she loses in melody, she makes up in aggressiveness.

Despite strong early Oscar buzz, Portman was shut out of both Oscars and Golden Globe nominations. According to The Guardian, last year – 2018 – was the worst on record for gun violence in American schools, with 94, beating the previous record (set in 2006) of 59. Are the film’s themes, so contemporary in the era of Sandy Hook and Parkland, just too strong for major awards?

The final half of the film is a count down to a major concert by Celeste, and it is shattered by a distant tragedy with uncomfortable resonance to Celeste’s own brand. Celebrity and terrorism are inextricably linked in America, “Vox Lux” seems to be telling us.

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Begin Again film review

August 17, 2014

“Begin Again” is one of those romantic overcoming adversity fantasy films that is just grounded enough for you to suspend disbelief. I loved it.

Irish film director John Carney originally broke onto the scene of small, warm, musically-themed films with his “Once”, a delightful drama of two mismatched musicians in Dublin who go against the odds. With “Begin Again”, the action switches to New York City, and he has enlisted a strong cast to tell a similar story.  The result is highly entertaining and upbeat, guaranteed to make you believe that yes, your dreams are possible.

Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is a former music executive who co-founded an independent label with partner Saul (hip hop artist Mos Def), but has fallen on hard times: separated from his wife Miriam (the ever strong Catherine Keener), he wanders the streets in an alcoholic haze and tries vainly to be a father to his 14 year old daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Gretta (Keira Knightly) is a sensitive singer-songwriter who has come to New York with boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine from Maroon 5), who in turn becomes a star, and in turn leaves her.

On her planned last night in New York, Gretta reluctantly takes the stage at an East Village nightclub to sing one of her songs, cajoled by old British friend Steve (James Corden). That’s where Dan hears her, and the result is a magical scene where Dan can hear and envision all of the instrumentation behind Gretta’s song. Director Carney does a neat job of presenting both Gretta’s and Dan’s stories to us (neatly filling in the backstories of the day leading to their propitious first meeting).

From there the film takes a familiar, but still highly satisfying course. Yes, Dan convinces Gretta to stay in New York City, and yes he produces an album of their songs. But the gimmick is that because they don’t have enough money to afford a studio, they record the songs at various locations around the city: on a subway platform, on boats on Central Park lake, in an alleyway, and on a rooftop with a view (of course) of the Empire State Building.

No prizes for guessing the outcome, nor for the inevitable Gretta-Dave reunion, nor for how daughter Miriam’s life is changed, etc etc.

Sound predictable? Perhaps. But the true delight in “Begin Again” is the film’s irrepressible good humour, absolute adoration of modern music (writer/director Carney used to play bass for an Irish rock band, so he knows what he films) and an almost pitch-perfect cast. Ruffalo is a great music exec who needs to prove himself again; Knightly, singing with her own voice, brings just the right combination of vulnerability, energy and style to her role; Keener virtually defines the ever-suffering former wife; Steinfeld is the adolescent daughter needing direction and attention; Corden is the perfect “best friend” who has just what Knightly’s character needs; and as real-life musicians both Mos Def and Adam Levine play important roles. If we did not believe the tension between Def’s character and Ruffalo’s, nor if we did not believe the Levine-Knightly relationship, the film would not have worked. Yet it does.

“Begin Again” is about … yes, rebirth, following ideals and the possibility (indeed the necessity) of reinvention. Director Carney understands this basic element of the American character, and brings it to screen in such a buoyant way that we cannot help being charmed into liking both the film and all of its characters.

Begin Again film poster


Jersey Boys – just not New Jersey enough

August 8, 2014

The main problem with Clint Eastwood’s cinema adaptation of the stage musical “Jersey Boys” about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as far as I can see, is that it is not sufficiently “New Jersey”.

The characters all say that they are from New Jersey, and there are a couple of shots with (supposedly) New York City across the Hudson River (Jersey City?).

But the real indicator is an odd shot when the Frankie Valli and the other members of the “Four Seasons” all travel to home of their Mafia-like protector Gyp DeCarlo (a delightful Christopher Walken), who lives in a suburban mansion. The original band manager Tommy (Vincent Piazza) has taken them all into terrible debt to a loanshark, and the meeting there is to sort it out; it’s an important scene where effectively the group splits up (whoops – spoiler alert).

Presumably this scene takes place in “north” Jersey, and we all know that there are a few “mountains” nearby (unlike south Jersey, with its flat sandy plains) – hey, there are the Kittatinny Mountains, along with its foothills – the Pohchuck, Wawayanda, Bearfort, and Ramapo Ridges. And there are the Watchungs – consisting of Orange Ridge, Preakness Ridge, and Long Hill Ridge. But look carefully at this scene: was it really shot in New Jersey? The mountain behind the house seems way too steep to be in New Jersey and the vegetation looked pretty California-like to me.

I am a great fan of Clint Eastwood, and love most of his films of the last twenty years. But he’s a westerner, a former mayor of Carmel, California. He “does” San Francisco well, extraordinarily well: he was born there and had years of “Dirty Harry” characters, as well as directing “Blood Work” and others. He grew up playing westerns. (“The Good, The Bad, the Ugly”, which I once went to for a long-ago birthday present, was long one of my favourites). “Mystic River” – Boston, okay Clint you have me there. You did it once, but that was partly great casting, with Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon and more. But how about “The Bridges of Madison County” (upper Midwest) and “Unforgiven” (cowboy country) – that’s the west, to be sure, where I suggest you best know your stuff.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with filming in California and calling it New York. Hey, “Friends” was notably shot in Los Angeles, but that never felt very “New York” either, did it? By contrast, didn’t “Sex and the City” just ooze New York? It should, it was actually shot there.

It takes something else to portray those dense, multicultural east coast spaces of the USA. Martin Scorsese has it, in spades. Woody Allen has been criticised for only showing part of what the east coast is all about (he has usually preferred upper middle class, upper east side Jews … I love them, really), but he knows what it was like to grow up in New York City and has created some of the best screen romantic moments of that city. Barry Levinson, a Baltimore native, gets it. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck both get it, and their “Good Will Hunting” (Boston) director Gus Van Sant has been able to “do” both coasts (think “Milk”). The late Sidney Lumet was New York through and through. You want east coast films? Think Spike Lee, Sydney Pollack, Nora Ephron, Noah Baumbach – or the new wave of Lena Dunham and her contemporaries.

But Clint, Clint you never convinced me that I was, indeed, with you in New Jersey. Sure the houses were there and some accents. But a “New Jersey handshake” instead of a contract? Really? Go west, Clint, go west.

Below – character of Tommy on a street in New Jersey:

Jersey Boys Tommy on street

Below – the set of “Friends”, taken at the Warner Brothers studio lot, October 2011:

29Oct2011 NY LA-1 349


Children of Eden hits Sydney’s north shore

April 2, 2010

The Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”) Children of Eden is about to hit Sydney’s north shore.  Produced by North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, in association with the Chatswood Musical Society, it will be at the Pymble Ladies College theatre on April 13, 14, 15 & 17, 2010.  I am biased in this regard:  I am the chair of the marketing committee for the production.  Video clips about the production can be seen by clicking here or clicking here.  The Australian Jewish News video report from Lexi Landsmann can be seen here.

For more details of the play, go to the Wikipedia entry or the official website.  To book for the production, go here.