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Review: Vox Lux

Natalie Portman plays the older Celeste like a car revving in first gear, deafeningly loud but scarcely moving.

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Vox Lux
Photo: Neon

Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, a strange amalgam of rock-star clichés, begins in 1999 with its only remotely coherently mounted scene, a depiction no less of a school shooting. Corbet ratchets up a sense of unease when a student arrives to his band class and stands with his back to the camera as he awkwardly gets the teacher’s attention before pulling out a gun and killing her. The scene’s formally precise camera movements, redolent of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, weave around the shooter and his terrified classmates. As the band students scramble about and hurl themselves against a wall, the sound of alarms and screaming echoes in the halls outside, and the overwhelming sense that there’s no escape from death runs through every attempt to plead with the shooter. It’s a viscerally impactful opening, and a perverse way to introduce us to Vox Lux‘s protagonist, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy).

While recovering from a major spinal injury, Celeste pens a song with her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), about her feelings and soon they’re performing it at a vigil for Celeste’s slain friends. And the song proves so moving that record producers come calling. As a narrator (Willem Dafoe) explains, Celeste’s use of “I” was changed to “we,” reinterpreting her personal expression of pain as national trauma and catapulting the song to hit-dom. The film, then, sets up Celeste as a beneficiary of tragedy, opening up a compellingly macabre narrative about how school shootings are becoming so commonplace that they can effectively serve as launchpads for stardom.

But that idea goes nowhere, as Vox Lux proceeds to play Celeste’s experience in the music industry mostly straight. Guided by a manager (Jude Law) whose no-bullshit approach loses its edge given how much room he makes for genuine concern for the teen, Celeste has meetings about the viability of a demo, plans a tour, and heads to Sweden to work with hitmakers and record a music video. Sia, who, along with Scott Walker, is responsible for the film’s music, penned one track here that sounds like a parody of a Lorde song circa 2013, and the incongruity of that sound being at least a decade ahead of its time undercuts the narration’s awkward attempts to parallel Celeste’s trauma with that of an entire country’s in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

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The film’s thread—of pop music as a protean shorthand for personal and social ills—then carries through into 2017, which sees Celeste (played now by Natalie Portman) as a 31-year-old disillusioned artist grappling with alcoholism. At one point, she’s confronted with a breaking news story that terrorists have shot up a Croatian beach resort while wearing masks from her breakthrough music video. But this shocking event barely registers to her, as she’s more concerned with spending time with her daughter, Albertine (Cassidy again), in the leadup to a homecoming concert in Staten Island. Mother and daughter walk to a diner, where Celeste launches into a self-defensive monologue in which she alternates between rants about the music industry and her personal life. These outbursts illuminate nothing about the character’s inner life beyond the usual stresses of celebrity turmoil, which means that Celeste’s petulance is ultimately a banal show of martyrdom.

Vox Lux‘s image of a popstar in decline is a concise one, but it’s also unmistakably stale. Just about the only truly interesting insights that Corbet gives us into Celeste’s behavior are confined to Dafoe’s narration, such as an off-handed reference to a Mel Gibson-esque drunken, racist meltdown. Even then, though, such an anecdote provides only mild titillation, because had the moment been actually shown on screen, Vox Lux might have profoundly complicated Celeste as a character, maybe even undercut the film’s self-seriousness with some genuinely confrontational humor.

Portman plays Celeste like a car revving in first gear, deafeningly loud but scarcely moving. Throughout, the actress loudly proclaims the subtext of Celeste’s arrested development, and the character’s lack of modulation or growth in effect forces Portman to recycle simplistic rant after simplistic rant. At times, though, Corbet offers up a solid glimmer of parody. For one, he nails the sheer misery of press junkets in a great scene where Celeste must promote an attempted comeback album while contending with questions about the terrorist attack that every reporter focuses on almost exclusively. Using shot/reverse-shot setups that constantly cut between condescendingly stone-faced journalists and an increasingly frazzled Celeste, Corbet heightens the sense of bitter obligation and unfair treatment against the artist as reporters barely hide their belief that she’s washed up while barging past publicist demands to ask about banned topics of conversation. Celeste’s fury at the disdain leveled at her has a truly cathartic effect, if only because it feels as if the character finally has something to push against.

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But this momentary sense of purpose soon dissipates, as the film abruptly wraps up with an extended concert sequence that presents a dimly parodic vision of contemporary art pop. This might have worked but for the sheer laziness of the film’s depiction of Celeste’s act, which is an elaborate concept performance involving “sci-fi anthems” yet doesn’t show the star switching costumes or even tempo as she rolls through three or four midtempo epics that all sound exactly the same. Even the choreography is embarrassingly simplistic, with Celeste swaying in place like a drunk guest at a wedding reception. Corbet films this audiovisual spectacle as if operating the camera feed for Celeste’s overhanging video screens, alternating between close-ups of the star’s face and wider shots of her wretched dancing, and throughout the sequence it’s difficult to get a sense of whether the filmmaker is playing the material as a parody or a sincere expression of Celeste’s emotional state.

As a giant screen flashes nonsense words behind her—one series of words reads “Baby,” “Avec,” and “Cash”—Celeste offers a pithy message of empowerment before soldiering through her slog of a show. The film cynically mocks that message even as it attempts to match the character’s feeling of momentary ecstasy, effectively preventing this conclusion from functioning either as an empathetic portrayal of Celeste’s brief moments of happiness before a crowd or as a nihilistic denial of poptimist aspiration.

Cast: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Christopher Abbott, Maria Dizzia, Meg Gibson, Daniel London, Micheal Richardson, Matt Servitto, Leslie Silva, Willem Dafoe Director: Brady Corbet Screenwriter: Brady Corbet Distributor: Neon Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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2019 Oscar Nominations: The Favourite and Roma Lead Field, Bradley Cooper Snubbed for Director, & Cold War Surprises

Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards were announced today and The Favourite and Roma led the way.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning. Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma led the nomination count with 10, followed by Adam McKay’s Vice and Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born with eight, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther with seven, and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman with six.

Cold War made a strong showing, with Pawel Pawlikowski claiming his first nomination for best director. Notably snubbed in the category was Bradley Cooper and Peter Farrelly, whose Green Book is considered the favorite to win best picture after its victory at the Producers Guild Awards. Elsewhere, Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy) had to make way for Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born) in best supporting actor, while Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate) snagged a spot in the best actor race thought to be reserved for John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman).

See below for a full list of the nominations.

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Best Picture
BlacKkKlansman
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

Best Director
Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)
Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)
Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)
Adam McKay (Vice)
Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War)

Best Actress
Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)
Glenn Close (The Wife)
Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born)
Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

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Best Actor
Christian Bale (Vice)
Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)
Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate)
Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams (Vice)
Marina de Tavira (Roma)
Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Emma Stone (The Favourite)
Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)
Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)
Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Sam Rockwell (Vice)

Best Costume Design
Mary Zophres, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Ruth E. Carter, Black Panther
Sandy Powell, The Favourite
Sandy Powell, Mary Poppins Returns
Alexandra Byrne, Mary Queen of Scots

Best Sound Editing
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
A Quiet Place
Roma

Best Sound Mixing
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
Roma
A Star Is Born

Best Animated Short
Animal Behaviour
Bao
Late Afternoon
One Small Step
Weekends

Best Live-Action Short
Detainment
Fauve
Marguerite
Mother
Skin

Best Film Editing
Barry Alexander Brown, BlacKkKlansman
John Ottman, Bohemian Rhapsody
Yorgos Mavropsaridis, The Favourite
Patrick J. Don Vito, Green Book
Hank Corwin, Vice

Best Original Score
Ludwig Goransson, Black Panther
Terence Blanchard, BlacKkKlansman
Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk
Alexandre Desplat, Isle of Dogs
Marc Shaiman, Mary Poppins Returns

Best Documentary Feature
Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons
RBG

Best Documentary Short Subject
Black Sheep
End Game
Lifeboat
A Night at the Garden
Period. End of Sentence.

Best Foreign-Language Film
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Best Production Design
Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart, Black Panther
Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton, The Favourite
Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas, First Man
John Myhre and Gordon Sim, Mary Poppins Returns
Eugenio Caballero and Barbara Enriquez, Roma

Best Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War
Christopher Robin
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Best Cinematography
Robbie Ryan, The Favourite
Caleb Deschanel, Never Look Away
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Matty Libatique, A Star Is Born
Lukasz Zal, Cold War

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Border
Mary Queen of Scots
Vice

Best Animated Feature
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Adapted Screenplay
Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters, and Eric Roth, A Star Is Born
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott, BlacKkKlansman
Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Best Original Screenplay
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite
Paul Schrader, First Reformed
Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, and Nick Vallelonga, Green Book
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

Best Original Song
“All the Stars,” Black Panther
“I’ll Fight, RBG
“The Place Where Lost Things Go,” Mary Poppins Returns
“Shallow,” A Star Is Born
“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Review: Never Fear Is Driven by Its Maker’s Personal Demons

If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Ida Lupino’s own.

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Never Fear
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films/Photofest

In a 1985 interview with DeeDee Halleck conducted at the Chelsea Hotel, filmmaker Shirley Clarke stated that she made films about African-Americans as a way of working through her own ambivalence about being a woman in a male-dominated culture: “I identified with black people because I couldn’t deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt….I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in.” One can detect a similar tendency in the work of Ida Lupino, whose independently produced dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s tackled hot-button issues such as rape, bigamy, and unwanted pregnancy. These films are no mere homilies on contemporary social problems, but complex and deeply personal explorations of what it means to be an independent woman in a world ruled by men.

Lupino’s pioneering work is suffused with a profound sense of alienation and self-doubt. Her films are about people whose conventional middle-class existence is suddenly, sometimes violently, upturned, causing them to feel completely unmoored. No longer sure of where they’re going in life or what they truly want, these people find respite away from their old life, in an unfamiliar place with a new potential lover. And Lupino tells these stories with an empathy that’s striking for its directness and lack of condescension.

Such is the case with the first film Lupino directed completely on her own, Never Fear, an emotionally complex drama about a young dancer, Carol (Sally Forrest), who seems to have it all, as she’s just gotten engaged to her partner, Guy (Keefe Brasselle), and their careers are on the verge of taking off. But then, all of sudden she’s stricken with polio, and everything changes. Carol, depressed and bitter, enters a rehab facility where she eventually makes strides toward walking again, thanks in part to the inspiration of a hunky fellow patient named Len (Hugh O’Brian). As Carol struggles with her own will to get better, she grows increasingly distant from Guy, urging him to keep pursuing his dancing career rather than settling down into a conventional job selling pre-fab “Happy Homes” as he waits around for her to recover.

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Free of the noir-ish inflections Lupino brought to her other films—most notably The Hitch-Hiker, and the rape sequence in OutrageNever Fear is directed in a simple, straightforward style that bears comparison to the stripped-down neorealism of Roberto Rossellini. Lupino is captivated by the process of physical rehabilitation, offering detailed observations of Carol’s stretching routine, swim therapy, art classes, and, in one show-stopping sequence, a square dance featuring lines of wheelchair-bound patients twirling each other around in consummately choreographed synchrony. Carol is clumsy and awkward as she struggles to operate her wheelchair, a marked contrast to the film’s opening scenes, in which Carol and Guy move together with lithe sophistication as they perform a romantic swashbuckling tango.

Never Fear’s subject matter was personal for Lupino, who survived polio after an attack in 1934. But the filmmaker isn’t merely interested in the physical ailment itself, but also in the complicated pressure that recovery places on Carol. There’s a tension in the film, which was released at the height of the U.S. polio outbreak, between what Carol wants and what the men in her life want for her. When Carol begins to reject her own treatment, it’s in part because she’s rebelling against the expectations that her doctor, her fellow patients, and especially Guy have placed on her. “Be a woman for me,” Guy asks of her, but the demand is counter-productive, as Carol can only truly recuperate when she decides to do it for herself.

In Carol’s dilemma, one can sense Lupino wrestling with her own artistic ambitions, coming to grips with the reality that as the only woman director working within the Hollywood studio system in the ‘50s, she too would have to accept the guidance of the men around her, and in so doing she would be forced to bear the weight of their expectations for her—their demands, hopes, dreams, and pity. Unfortunately, Never Fear closes with a cop-out, a last-minute reconciliation that cheapens Carol’s hard-fought struggle to learn to live on her own terms by suggesting she’s fundamentally lost without a man. Almost as if the film is embarrassed by its own denouement, the final screen assures us, “This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage.” If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Lupino’s own. Never Fear wasn’t the end for her either, but merely the start of one of the most unique and pathbreaking directorial careers in Hollywood history.

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Cast: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Rita Lupino, Herbert Butterfield, Kevin O’Morrison, Stanley Waxman, Jerry Hausner, John Franco Director: Ida Lupino Screenwriter: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1950

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.

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Stay
Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

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Watch Stay below:

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