Tag Archives: Natalie Portman

Vox Lux

There are two acts to Vox Lux, and they’re both not great, but the first is at least sort of watchable.

13 year old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) barely survives a school shooting in 1999. Unable to translate her feelings into words for the memorial, she, accompanied by her sister El (Stacy Martin), instead perform a song, which launches a pop career. Somehow. Guided by The Manager (Jude Law), the girls grow up way too fast, but Celeste manages to translate the song into a video and the video into an album, which comes out more or less around 9/11 and manages to tap into a country’s, and in fact the world’s, collective grief. Celeste is a star, mostly because she was the one shot in the throat that fateful day, and her sister, the more talented of the two, had stayed home sick.

Fast forward to present day. Celeste is now 31 (and played by Natalie Portman), mother to a teenage daughter, Albertine (unfortunately played by Cassidy, again, in a performance not at all distinguished from the above). Celeste is as global a superstar as you can be, complete with a recent meltdown and nearly career-ending swerve. But she’s counting on this new album to get things on the right path again. She’s still drunk, though, and still perved on by the same greasy manager. And as luck would have it, just as she’s about to kick off her world tour, there’s another mass shooting wherein the terrorists wear masks from her first music video. And just like that she’s relevant again. But it’s a tragedy, right? Not a cancel the tour tragedy of course, because it happens overseas.

Anyway, the first bit reminded me a bit of Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique – by which I mean, it’s gritty and eerie and atmospheric. But it’s a copy, and not a great one. And that’s the absolute highlight of the film. It’s steeply downhill with rollerskates and a highly motivated dog from there.

Natalie Portman’s grown-up Celeste has no redeeming features whatsoever. She’s shrill and vacuous and we don’t see any of what happened to her in the interim to possibly explain away this complete and horrid transformation.

Clearly writer-director Brady Corbet means to say something about celebrity culture at the very least. But what is it? It’s tempting to say that the second half loses the MV5BMTkzNzAwOTYyM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDY5MjQ4NjM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_thread, but the truth is, the first half is boring enough that I don’t care about a lost thread because the whole damn sweater is garbage and a waste of good yarn. You know? Like, Sia worked hard on these songs. And the movie is slick looking, with cinematography just dripping its luridness all over the screen. But damn is it pretentious in a deflated, empty kind of way. And then the last 20 minutes or so are just concert footage, just full on Natalie Portman in a spandex body suit not quite nailing her choreography all over a stage full of unconvincing dancers. Was my jaw completely unhinged watching this or did it just feel that way? I can’t be sure. Sean tried to watch this with me, but it wouldn’t play when we rented it initially and he was gone off to work by the time I went back to it, and bully for him. I’m the one who watched it, aghast. This is Natalie Portman’s follow-up to what probably should have been an Oscar-winning performance in Jackie?

[I mean, to be fair, it’s not. She was also in Annihilation, and quite good in that, and Song to Song, which is not worth mentioning.]

Vox Lux is a derivative piece of junk. So, not unlike a pop song I suppose.

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The Darjeeling Limited

Stream of conscious watching a Wes Anderson movie:

Already loving the quirky little score, borrowed heavily from Indian films, as the pedi-cab races toward the train station.

Less than 3 minutes into the film and we’ve already left poor Bill Murray behind. Why do I feel guilty though? Peter (Adrian Brody) races by him, hopping on the train right before it leaves the station. Stupid Adrian Brody.

Peter’s brother Jack (Jason Schwartzman) has at least 8 pieces of luggage. A lovely set of course, but for ease of travel, perhaps he should consider one larger case rather than a bunch of oddly shaped little ones?

Their third brother, Francis (Owen Wilson), arrives with a busted face and a very strict mv5bmtuzmtq2mjq4nl5bml5banbnxkftztcwodg1oty4na@@._v1_sy1000_cr0,0,1493,1000_al_schedule to find the path to spirituality, plus an unseen assistant with a laminating machine to keep things on course. The 3 brothers have not seen each other in a year.

The brothers exchange unprescribed but over-the-counter drugs. It is immediately obvious why they might have avoided one another for a year.

Is it really a think to walk barefoot on trains in India? That creeps me out. There must be a special kind of athlete’s foot you get from the stinky carpeting.

Francis has so many rules for his brother that I’m starting to feel vicariously oppressed.

No wonder their mother (Anjelica Huston) hasn’t joined them: who would willing submit to this road trip with the world’s most sulky, dopey, resentful brothers?

The train scenes are shot on an actual moving train, moving from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, through the Thar desert. They requisitioned 10 rain cars and a locomotive, which Wes Anderson redecorated to his aesthetic. Nothing could be attached to the ceiling, and equipment couldn’t hang more than a meter out the windows.

How can the train be lost? It’s on rails!

Francis has just revealed their secret destination: to visit their mother, who has become a nun and is living in a convent in the Himalayas. Their visit may or may not be welcome.

With such militant scheduling, it’s kind of miraculous that they remain late for the train every damn time.

Turns out there are 11 pieces of luggage; they were designed for the film by Marc Jacobs by Louis Vuitton.

Kicked off the train, the 3 brothers and their copious luggage are traveling along a path when they see a raft carrying 3 kids overturn. The brothers plunge into the waters to save them, but one is dashed against rocks and killed. The look on Adrian Brody’s face when he says “I didn’t save mine” – oof, that’s real acting right there.

I like this custom of the father washing his son’s body before the funeral. I think Western cultures are too detached from death. There’s a tragic tenderness to this scene, just a few seconds of film, actually, that really moves me.

Francis implies that his wounds are actually self-inflicted in a suicide attempt, which is particularly hard to bear since Owen Wilson was taken off the press tour for this movie after his own suicide attempt.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) was a child prodigy, but now that she’s 23, she’s just a woman who hasn’t made a musical mark yet. She’s the manager of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, which Mr. Magorium claims to have owned for 114 years. The toy store is frantic with happy children – like FAO Schwartz given the Toy Story treatment. The toys are nearly alive with magic. The store is filled with the strange and the fantastic.

Molly’s right hand man is Eric Applebaum, a kid who struggled to make friends his own age, but shows up the toy store every day in one of the many hats from his impressive collection. One day, Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) realizes, in his 243rd year, that Magorium3perhaps it is time to get his affairs in order. He hires a very straight-laced accountant named Henry (Jason Bateman) to set things right before he dies. His lifetime supply of shoes is on its last pair, so his death is imminent, if not quite predictable. Unable to decipher the difference between important documents and doodles, Mr. Magorium’s files are intimidating, even to an ultra boring accountant like Henry. And Molly is not keen to inherit if it means the death of her friend.

The toy shop itself seems to be suffering from some affliction; it too is in mourning, sulking over its fate, and the magic is seeping out in a fit of rebellion.  With Mr. Magorium gone, from whence will magic come?

I’ve never understood how this movie isn’t more watched and applauded and beloved. Yes, it tries hard to be wonderful and whimsical. And just where, exactly, is the criticism in that? It’s about a magical toy shop, for the love of dragon scales! Isn’t maximum effort appreciated anymore? My inner child adores this movie. My grown up self adores this movie! It’s the good kind of cutesy, filled with moving pieces and primary colours. But with themes of belief and inspiration, this isn’t just for kids. It’s for anyone with a little sparkle in their hearts, or the space for some.

Your Highness

Prince Thadeous (Danny McBride), who smells like sheep scrotum, is his brother’s lesser in every way. Prince Fabious (James Franco) is more handsome and more accomplished, kinder and a better brother. He’s even brought home Belladonna (Zoey Deschanel), the most beautiful woman in all the land, to be his bride. But his wedding day is interrupted by a Leezar (Justin Theroux), a powerful warlock upset about his dead cyclops and stolen virgin. He comes to seek revenge and fulfill an ancient prophecy, leaving with Belladonna and thus, Fabious’s heart.

Their father, the king, orders the inept Thadeous to accompany Fabious on his quest, god knows why. And so begins an adventure. Had Fabious gone alone it no doubt MV5BMTUxNzMwODc5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODQ4MTA4NA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_would have been a five minute drive up the road, wit both he and his bride making it back in time to cut the cake at their reception. Throw Thadeous into the mix and all you’ve got is a stoner period piece that’s a vehicle for Danny McBride. I mean, Your Highness looks pretty great, truth be told. It’s got a big enough budget to go through the motions. But McBride’s humour is stunted. It’s like he’s always writing for 12 year olds. And, sure, the first time you hear milady say the f-word it makes the tips of your ears blush, but you can’t build a whole movie on just out of place rude humour. Well, okay, point taken – apparently you can, and apparently Universal will pay you 50 million dollars to do it – but there isn’t a mammal on Earth who shouldn’t have seen this flop coming a mile away.

How, then, does such a movie garner such a high-profile cast? Natalie Portman has been adamant about distancing herself from it. She says she only did it because she wasn’t sure Black Swan would be green-lit by a studio and she felt she could use this paycheque to self-finance the film herself, if need be. However (and perhaps, for her, unfortunately), Black Swan got green-lit fairly easily, but the contract was already signed and she had to go through with Your Highness anyway, and stumble over great lines like “burning in my beaver.” James Franco has been less circumspect, saying the film “sucked,” which is still a kinder review than the one I’m writing, but then, if I had earned $2.5M for it, I might be a little more defensive too. As it is, I have zero sympathy for a movie that can’t have even sounded good on paper, not even on RAW, unrefined rolling papers, the kind you light on fire and allow to go up in smoke.

 

TIFF18: The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a good movie in the shadow of a great one.

As a child, Rupert Turner was enamoured with a teen hearthrob, John F. Donovan, who was actually an adult playing a teenager on some soapy high school drama. A budding actor himself, Rupert (Jacob Tremblay) writes to Donovan (Kit Harington), telling him of his ambitions and desires – namely, to one day act alongside him. Surprisingly, Donovan writes back, and a beautiful friendship is forged, strictly as pen pals. But when that relationship is discovered, first by Rupert’s mother (Natalie Portman), then by the press, the friendship is misinterpreted and Donovan vilified. He dies before our two buddies can ever meet up.

john_f_donovanTen years later, a grown-up Rupert (Ben Schnetzer) is releasing a collection of their correspondence as a book, and a skeptical reporter (Thandie Newton) is interviewing him. The truth of their friendship is revealed through flashbacks, as is Donovan’s life, which of course was not all rainbows and lollipops.

Behind his privilege, Donovan had an absent father, a family that fauns over him and resents him in equal measure, an alcoholic mother (Susan Sarandon), an agent who is decidedly not his friend (Kathy Bates), and a girlfriend/childhood friend (Emily Hampshire) who is also his beard (unknowingly). He’s hiding a lot. He lives in a world filled with illusion. He’s pulled in a thousand directions and has no friends who aren’t on the payroll, and yeah, it is kind of sad that he unburdens his soul to a kid, but it’s also kind of understandable, which is sadder still.

Director Xavier Dolan is uniquely positioned to have something to say about child actors and the celebrity beast and I really enjoyed his attempts at profundity in this film. This is his first English-language film and while there are still traces of his typically auteur-ish style, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is perhaps missing just a little of what normally makes a Dolan a Dolan. It also suffers a bit from bloat. Susan Sarandon’s performance is quite good, her character very interesting, but there isn’t a lot of room for her, as Dolan cut the movie down from 4 hours to just over 2 (and left Jessica Chastain completely on the cutting room floor). Kathy Bates’ part isn’t really a part at all, barely more than a cameo.

Dolan’s crime seems to have been starting out with too much to say and then having a hard time parting ways with any of it during editing. But I think John Donovan is a character worth getting to know. And the topic of celebrity death, and our cultural obsession with it, and possibly contribution to it, is ripe for harvesting.  I think the wording of the title has something to say about it all by itself. This movie isn’t all that it could be, and coming in to a Xavier Dolan film, I can’t help but bring high hopes and standards. But there’s something worthwhile here, and I hope it will be mined for the diamonds and not just the flaws.

The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards

Seven stories. Self-contained, based on short stories from Robert Boswell’s collection. They have some commonalities, I suppose: toeing the line between fantasy and reality, or the gray area between memory and what really happened. Inventing shit when we’re young and have no experience. Blurring reality when we’re old and looking back. Life is bittersweet. We’re all bastards sometimes. It just depends on the day.

Conrad (James Franco) identifies his father’s dead body and is comforted by his death, comforted by the fact that he wasn’t the only one his father wanted to kill.

Paul (Jim Parrack) goes home to visit his father, whom he barely recognizes. Dementia has taken him further and further away from the man he used to be. All that seems to be left is his meanness, and even knowing it’s the product of disease doesn’t quite mitigate it. It cuts particularly close to home when it involves Paul’s ex wife (Natalie Portman) and the kid who looks disturbingly just like him.

Monica (Kristen Wiig) is a single mother who works as a maid. She gets through the day by fantasizing about using her wealthy clients’ lives as inspiration for the writing that will make her rich and famous one day.

A huge cast, including Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Thomas Mann, Matthew Modine, Rico Rodriguez, Tony Cox, Jimmy Kimmel, and Keir Gilchrist assembles to pull this thing together, along with more than 7 writers and more than 7 directors. The stories are not uniformly good, or uniformly  memorable, and though I enjoyed some, I don’t think they really mean much as a whole.

 

 

Annihilation

Kane’s been missing for a year when he suddenly turns up at the home he shares with his wife, Lena, hemorrhaging blood. He’s been deployed on a top-secret mission that Lena can’t fully understand even as she’s recruited to join the next one. Of the dozens of men deployed, Kane is the only one to return, and he’s just waiting to die of organ failure.

Three years ago, something mysterious happened to a nearby lighthouse, which has been enveloped in a “shimmer”, a danger zone inside which terrible things are happening and from which no one returns. The zone is growing daily, and their own city will be overtaken if they don’t figure it out soon. So Lena (Natalie Portman) joins the next mission, the first one to be all-female, an expert biologist but also just a wife wondering why her husband would sign up for a suicide mission. She joins a group of women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) highly trained but with nothing to lose as they enter what is likely to be their last mission.

63a7237ca43826d1507503b739fc4d55Inside, every living thing has been transformed. Mutations have made some things astonishingly beautiful, and other things the stuff of nightmares (imagine an alligator-shark hybrid). And now those things are also taking on human DNA.

Director Alex Garland took on human uniqueness in Ex Machina and further explores the subject here. When they are reflected back on us in other living things, which of our traits make us truly special, truly human? It’s a scary question. Garland continues to excel in the creepy, quiet moments between the splashier, gorier stuff. His style throws us off-kilter even as the visuals delight. The audience is continuously confronted with questions to chew on while scary monsters breathe down our goose-pimpled necks. Alex Garland is clearly a talented sci-fi film maker, and even if you leave the theatre confused, you won’t be able to let it go.

For fans of the novel, by Jeff VanderMeer, don’t go in too attached. Garland chose not to re-read the book before embarking upon the script, so the movie turns out more a distant cousin of the book rather than a faithful adaptation. In fact, the details I remembered most from the book were absent; clearly Garland and I latched on to different themes. But the essence remains, the terror remains, the curiosity remains. Annihilation doesn’t exist just to scare you, it wants to challenge you. This is a bold film that doesn’t fit inside any comfortable Hollywood mold. The studio is crapping its pants because it think the movie’s too “cerebral” for us folk. But you know what? Embracing the unknown can be freeing. And exploring these concepts with women as our protagonists, free from macho bullshit, allow us to also experience these things for their beauty and their terror at the same time. Portman’s character is remote, unreachable. Rather, Thompson and Rodriguez provide the most emotional heft as their characters contemplate the most gorgeous and familiar of mysteries.

I left this movie shaken.