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: ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ is Disturbingly Unforgettable Horror From the Director of ‘The Lobster’

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CREDIT: Jima (Atsushi Nishijima)/A24

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan, Nicole Kidman, Bill Camp, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: R for Bluntly Presented Gore and Nudity

Release Date: October 20, 2017 (Limited)

Yorgos Lanthimos’ specialty as a writer and a director of actors is strange and disturbing dialogue delivered bluntly and clinically. Given the setting and characters in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it makes a kind of sense that this behavior is typical (due to a combination of professional desensitization and psychopathy), but it is never not unnerving. It works to provide a sense of foreboding for what initially presents itself as a slice-of-life tale that will soon give way to a domestic thriller. But really, what we are being primed for is much more sinister and much more terrifying and in fact qualifies as full-on horror.

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a cardiac surgeon who takes under his wing Martin (Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan), the teenage son of a patient who died on his operating table. Martin seems interested in medicine himself, spending significant amounts of time shadowing Steven in the hospital. Steven invites him over to the house for dinner, where he charms his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), becomes friendly with his son Bob (Sunny Suljic), and grows romantic with his daughter Kim (Tomorrowland’s Raffey Cassidy). The Murphys seem to notice Martin’s odd behavior, but they never fully acknowledge it. For a while, it seems that this film is just taking place in a world of lunacy, where announcing statements like “our daughter just started menstruating last week” are perfectly natural to declare in public. But once Steven recoils at Martin’s mom’s (Alicia Silverstone) attempt to seduce him by aggressively licking his fingers, it becomes clear that this is terrifying for both the audience and the Murphys.

The foreboding is realized hard and unsettlingly, as Bob and then Kim become paralyzed from the waist down without any clear physical explanation. Martin reveals in great detail to Steven what is going on, apparently confirming that he is the source of this ailment. He could be poisoning them, but it is so supernatural that “hex” or “plague” would be a better word. The obvious motivation here is revenge for the death of his father, but Martin’s unflappably flat speaking voice makes it impossible to get a perfect read on him. Lanthimos may or may not be speaking in metaphors; if so, I am not sure what the message is, but if not, the film is disturbing enough that it works on its own terms.

Ultimately, though, The Killing of a Sacred Deer might end up too untethered from its starting point to be an unqualified success. Indeed, it begins to lose me around the point that Steven is firing a shotgun at his family with a bag over his head. That particular scene – and others like it – are filled with fantastic tension, but they feel like Lanthimos is just filling his thirst for demented horror set pieces instead of focusing on the premise he has already established. Maybe that dissociation is the point, but sometimes the heightening of scares can use a firm direction.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Recommended If You Like: The inexplicableness of The Happening but not the cheesiness, The Lobster, Funny Games

Grade: 3 out of 5 Bleeding Eyeballs