This Is a Movie Review: ‘Vox Lux’ is a Traumatic and Entrancing Journey Through Pop Music Stardom

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CREDIT: NEON

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Willem Dafoe

Director: Brady Corbet

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for School Shooting Violence, Drug Use, and Staten Island Accented-Profanity

Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Limited)

There is a scene about midway through Vox Lux in which pop star Celeste Montgomery (Natalie Portman) is at a diner with her daughter Albertine (Raffey Cassidy, who also plays the teenage Celeste), expounding about how the press is always hounding her, and it turns into this incomprehensible rant about the misbegotten state of the world. She sounds like someone who watched Fight Club too many times as a teenager, specifically the scene in which Tyler Durden espouses his whole philosophy. But the causes of Celeste’s unique psychology can actually be traced to much more intense external forces. The armchair nihilist philosophizing is just gravy.

The adult Celeste is the product of two adolescent experiences that no teenager is naturally wired to perfectly handle. Both of these types of experiences on their own can, and have, resulted in long-term negative effects for many people. But together they produce … well, they produce Vox Lux. Celeste’s journey begins by surviving a shooting at her middle school, which is obviously traumatic enough to produce scars that last a lifetime. During her recovery, she writes a song to create some love out of the violence, and it ends up becoming a huge hit and leads into a full-on pop music career. But teenage stardom is not ideal for most people, and Celeste does not buck that trend. Fast-forward to the present day, in which at 31 years old she is emotionally still a child.

The culmination of Celeste’s story is hardly surprising, but director Brady Corbet makes it entrancing even at its most disturbing. This is a truly singular whirlwind of a person, and even knowing how messed up her personal life is, we can see how she remains compelling through and through to the public at large. The final 15 minutes or so take place at her new tour’s kickoff performance at her hometown of Staten Island. Considering the series of crises on the way to getting her to the stage in one piece, I thought that this moment was going to end with her collapsing or otherwise failing to finish the show. But instead, she is a wonder to behold, as bedazzling as any modern pop star at the top of her game. This triumph is even more stunning considering the struggle leading up to it. Celeste becomes more admirable while simultaneously remaining as much of a cautionary tale as ever. She remains a symbol by holding up the weight of circumstances that are so much heavier than any one person could possibly bear.

Vox Lux is Recommended If You Like: The Spectacle of Pop Music, Black Swan, Staten Island accents, Actors playing the same characters 20 years apart

Grade: 4 out of 5 Losses of Innocence

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Annihilation’ is a Beautiful Hybrid

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Skydance

This post was originally published on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi

Director: Alex Garland

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Gator-Shark Attacks, Giant Bear Attacks, Swirling Intestines, and a Little Bit of Nookie

Release Date: February 23, 2018

Annihilation needs you to trust that sometimes disorientation can be good. Or at least, that it can be exciting. I will admit that disorientation does not necessarily work out so well for this film’s characters. The relative safety afforded the audience in vicariously experiencing this vexing and dangerous journey makes secondhand disorientation easier to defend. But still, I think the message here is the same for both participants and observers: venturing into the confusion is how to make the spectacle happen.

Biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) has been mourning the disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) ever since he took off for a highly classified military expedition a year ago, when suddenly he just reappears in their house one day. But Kane has essentially no memory of what happened, and it is clear soon enough that there is so much of his mission left to complete. So Lena is recruited by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to join her and her team of scientists (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) to trek into Area X, the coastal location that Kane and many others have gotten lost in, and figure out what the hell is going on there.

I do not recall Annihilation specifying the exact geographical location of Area X. It is possible it did and I just missed it, which can happen when a film mentions a significant detail only briefly. But in this case it is appropriate that I would miss such a detail, whether or not it was actually omitted. Area X is surrounded by a liquidy substance, or perhaps “presence” is a better word, referred to as “a shimmer,” which disorients anyone who approaches or moves through it. When Ventress and her crew first awake in the area, they seem to have immediately lost days, maybe even weeks. If we as an audience feel like we are missing just as many details as they are, then writer/director Alex Garland is probably pulling off what he set out to do. What awaits all of us is a world of wonders that can be explained by science, even though science says they should be impossible.

Flowers of clearly different species are growing on the same branches. The team is attacked by a gator with shark teeth. Plants in the shape of walking humans have sprung up. Eventually these ladies recognize their own blood and DNA swirling and transforming. These combinations are supposed to be fundamentally incompatible according to life as we know it. Lena’s on-the-fly theorizing of this continuous mutation works as a sort of explanation of how mythical hybrid creatures or the monstrosities from genre films could come to exist if they were to exist in reality.

The crew confronts Area X and its inhabitants with a mix of paranoia, wonder, fatalism, and determination. Considering the constant transformation inherent to this setting, it could be argued that all or none or some indefinable combination of these approaches is the right plan of action. Appropriately, it is all rendered by a design and effects team inspiring awe on a thoroughly devastating scale. The lush greenery is both beautiful and explosive. The music, courtesy of Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, is unnerving and entrancing, including a set of reverberating notes that the trailer has already made famous. This intoxicating mix also offers up a series of killer set pieces, including a riff on The Thing’s notorious blood test scene, but featuring the main animal from a creature feature imbued with the Freddy Krueger-style power to maintain the dying cries of its victims.

Annihilation hits that sci-fi sweet spot of a confusing, complicated premise that ultimately explains itself, but not in a way that betrays its intricacies or ambitions, or makes matters particularly comforting. This is visionary cinema, flourishing and fully realizing itself from glorious setup to perfect ending.

Annihilation is Recommended If You Like: The Thing, 2001, Fringe, Cronenbergian body horror, The design elements of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Mulholland Drive

Grade: 5 out of 5 Shimmers

SNL Review February 3, 2018: Natalie Portman/Dua Lipa

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CREDIT: Will Heath/NBC

My letter grades for each sketch and segment is below. My in-depth review is on NewsCult: http://newscult.com/snl-love-itkeep-itleave-natalie-portmandua-lipa/

Fox & Friends – C+

Natalie Portman’s Monologue – B-

Patriots vs. Iggles – C

Stranger Things 3 Sneak Peek – B-

Natalie’s Rap 2 – B

Dua Lipa performs “New Rules” – B-

Weekend Update
The Jokes – B
Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve – C+
Pete Davidson – B-
Willie – B-

Alien Lover – B

Kids’ Choice Awards Orange Carpet – C+

Melania and the First Ladies – B-

Dua Lipa performs “Homesick” – C+

Bunny at the Bar (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – B

This Is a Movie Review: Jackie

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This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt

Director: Pablo Larraín

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: R for an Alarming Recreation

Release Date: December 2, 2016 (Limited)

The strongest biopics often take the most intimate approaches, and it does not get much more intimate than Jackie. In terms of chronology, cinematography, music, dialogue, and everything else, Pablo Larraín’s portrait of the iconic Mrs. Kennedy is razor sharp in focus. The opening shot, and essentially every shot thereafter, is a tight close-up of Natalie Portman as the First Lady. She is told, in the wake of her husband’s assassination, “the world has gone mad.” But this has been so ever since she has taken residence in the White House. The relentless gaze she endures in such an existence makes it so.

Jackie is constructed around four key relationships. The framing device is an interview conducted by a persistent, but plainly frustrated Billy Crudup (supposedly playing historian Theodore H. White, but credited only as “The Journalist”). Jackie welcomes him into her home, but insists that he is prohibited from printing basically everything she reveals to himHe seeks truth, whereas she only offers stories. Yet, her film is filled with details, and in the wake of tragedy, she latches onto them for some semblance of survival.

Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) is in full-on family mode, as he attempts to anchor his sister-in-law back to reality. Does our knowledge of the tragic fate that awaits him suggest that her buzzing, restless psyche is the better response to all this madness? Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) is a constant, near-silent presence, practically a friendly neighborhood specter propping up Jackie’s decorum and fabulousness. And then there is a priest (John Hurt), who only offers answers wrapped in ambiguity. (Or is it the other way around?)

The teams on sound and design assemble it all to give you the front-row seat that is almost too disturbing to bear. Indeed, its boldness in key moments may in fact be too much for some audiences to handle. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine understands that the medium is the message. His Super 16 photography is a mix of grainy distortion/clarity and that old soap opera-style intimacy. Mica Levi’s avant-garde score is unnerving, yet somehow comforting, and therefore unnerving to think that such a tragedy could ever be comforting. A constant string phrase sounds like the THX theme being drained of life. Like all of Jackie, it is indelible.

Jackie is Recommended If You LikeThe Tree of LifeUnder the SkinBlack Swan

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Bloodstains That Are Hard to Wash Off