vox lux
Ah, dear readers, I have not been entirely forthright with you. For I saw Vox Lux before A Star Is Born. But I had to see the latter to know how it stacked up against the former, because the two films, released almost simultaneously, have drawn many comparisons.

And indeed, there are some striking similarities: both films are about a young woman who meets someone who helps her achieve musical stardom. Both films feature a fan being attacked in a restaurant for asking for a picture with a famous person. And both concern a star who, despite all their professional success, has demons of their own to battle.

When it comes to critical reception, of course, there’s no comparison: the critics loved A Star Is Born; they were lukewarm on Vox Lux. Likewise, at the box office, Star demolished Vox, by a score of approximately $432 million to $874,597.

And despite the superficial resemblance, they are very different kinds of films about very different things. In fact, part of the reason for the success of A Star Is Born could be that it’s easy to describe and summarize. What kind of a film is it? A romantic musical drama. What’s it about? A couple of musicians who fall in love while their careers are headed in opposite directions.

Meanwhile, what kind of film is Vox Lux? What’s it about?

Eh, well… we’ll get to that later. If you’re a regular here at Ruined Chapel,  you know that I like to take my time in these reviews. I view them rather like legal cases in which I have to slowly build the evidence for my final argument. And if you’re new to Ruined Chapel, you’re about to get a quintessential demonstration of what I mean.

Vox Lux begins with a school shooting in the year 1999. A lone gunman walks into a music class and opens fire. A 13-year-old girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is shot in the neck, and many of her classmates are killed.

Right off the bat; I have to say this opening is effective and disturbing. It’s clearly modeled on the Columbine attack, but nowadays, when we have become all too familiar with mass shootings, it evokes the horrors of many different atrocities. The setting is powerful, too; the idea of a sleepy, rundown little town being shattered by an attack on its children is… unnerving. Unnerving and all too real.

In the aftermath, we see Celeste crying with her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) in the hospital, learning, slowly, to move on her own. Finally, with Ellie’s help, she performs a song they have written together, at a church vigil. It opens with the lyrics:

Hey, turn the light on
‘Cause I’ve got no one to show me the way.
Please, I will follow
‘Cause you’re my last hope, I’ll do anything you say

This is the chorus:

So teach me. Show me all you’ve got
And in your words, I will be wrapped up.
Speak to me, you’re my last hope
And I will say nothing and listen to your love.

I’m honestly not sure what’s supposed to rhyme with what here. “Got” with “up”? Or “up” with “love”? Or is it an an A/B/B/A rhyme scheme, where “got” is supposed to rhyme with “love”, and “up” with “hope”?

At any rate, these lyrics seem generic, banal, and trite. Which, to be clear, is a compliment, since that is how most real-life pop lyrics are.

Celeste quickly catches the eye of producers, and goes off to New York City (complete with a shot of the pre-9/11 skyline) to begin recording and to meet with a publicist (Jennifer Ehle). While the publicist tries to keep the young singer from getting her hopes up too high, Celeste’s manager (Jude Law) encourages her, and reminds her, as a way to keep her confidence up during recording sessions: “Imagine you’re alone, dancing in your room.”

Celeste and Ellie travel to Stockholm, and, in a seizure-inducing sequence narrated by Willem Dafoe, begin sampling a sex, drugs, and rock-n’-roll lifestyle. (There is also an interesting aside in the narration about how Stockholm became a center for the recording industry. The economist in me loved that; though I have no idea if it’s true.)

Celeste and Ellie party too hard, earning a rebuke from the manager, who grumbles “You kids are all the same.” After that, they jet off to Los Angeles to shoot a music video, and I have to pause here to say just how much I loved the establishing shot of L.A. at night–it radiates a sinister glow while the ominous heavy metal concert growls on the soundtrack. The ensuing strobe-light sequence nearly made me sick, but it was worth it.

In spite of the manager’s earlier warnings, Celeste sleeps with a heavy metal star after attending his concert. Lying together in bed, she tells him that the gunman who shot her listened to music like her lover performs, and tells him about dream she’s had ever since the attack, about going through a tunnel and seeing lifeless bodies inside. She also says she likes performing pop music because “I don’t want people to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.”

Shortly afterward, she is seen bursting into the manager’s hotel room, to find him and Ellie sharing a bed. Celeste is horrified at this, on top of the panic she is already experiencing on hearing that a plane has hit the World Trade Center.

The narrator intones that Celeste’s loss of innocence mirrors our own. This seems like a pretty trite line–it’s the sort of cliché that gets used whenever people are writing about a period of upheaval. But keep it in mind for later. Meanwhile, Celeste films her music video, in which she and her accompanying dancers wear shiny golden masks. She soon becomes a sensation, much to her and Ellie’s delight, and exactly as the manager was so sure she would.

And so ends Act I. (Which was titled “Genesis”) Act II, “Regenesis,” begins with a title card informing us that it is now 2017, and then we see another shooting: terrorists in gold masks like those Celeste wore in her video attacking a beach resort.

The manager goes to see Celeste to tell her the news, and prepare her for a press conference to take place before the upcoming concert and debut of her new album, Vox Lux. Celeste is now 31, and is now played by Natalie Portman.

Let me pause here and address the question of why I watch and review so many Natalie Portman movies, which some readers may have been wondering about. It began simply enough when, as a Star Wars-loving 11-year-old, I saw Attack of the Clones in 2002 and developed a huge crush on Senator Amidala. That’s a pretty common story, I think; I’ve had a number of people tell me the only way to enjoy Episode II is to have a crush on a cast member.

As a result, I started to follow Portman’s career. And while the schoolboy crush may have faded after a while, I began noticing something about her choice of roles: they are wildly different from each other, and moreover, the movies she is in are wildly different from one another–and from most anything else.

Some actors are content to just play variations of the same basic role in the same basic film over and over again. Not Portman. She’s in westerns and dystopian thrillers and romantic road movies.

And here’s the key thing: her movies always give me something to chew on. Some of them are great, some of them are awful, some of them are a mixed bag, but all of them have something unusual. As I wrote recently about Jackie: the best thing for a reviewer is something that’s just freaking weird. And Portman seems to actively seek out the weird.

Vox Lux is a case in point: just when you think you’ve got Portman pegged as an elegant, restrained actress who brings fragility and delicacy to her roles, she goes and plays a hyperactive, drug-addled, alcoholic, narcissistic pop diva with a New York accent and a foul mouth. The manic is still there, but the pixie and the dream girl, not so much.

Celeste, decked out in a punk-y hairdo and heavy make-up that makes her look much older than 31, is something of a wreck, railing at restaurant employees and sniping with journalists. Ellie has been taking care of Celeste’s teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy) and has brought her to the hotel to see her mother. Celeste  treats Ellie with total contempt, before marching past the paparazzi to take her daughter to lunch.

Over lunch–or rather, before lunch, since they ultimately get thrown out before they can eat–Celeste gives a rambling monologue touching on, among other things, her belief that Ellie is poisoning Albertine’s mind against her, her disgust that her daughter learned about her recent break-up from gossip magazines, and most incomprehensibly, this beauty, ostensibly about modern marketing:

“Their business model relies on their customer’s unshakable stupidity. And deep down we probably sense that–their intimate knowledge of our commitment to the lowest common denominator. It’s the official manifestation of the increasingly important urge to break with every living thing that has some connection to the past… the past reeks too much of ugly old people and death.”

In short, Celeste seems rather unhinged. This is confirmed by more background that the narrator helpfully provides, saying that she is recovering from a recent episode of heavy drinking, as well as a car accident in which she injured a pedestrian.

The narrator also informs us that Albertine has been planning to tell her mother that she has recently lost her virginity. This news causes Celeste to lash out at Ellie when she returns to the hotel, viciously berating her sister for not taking better care of Albertine. Ellie tearfully reminds Celeste that she writes her songs, and threatens to reveal that fact to the public, but as Celeste says, “In this day and age, no one will care.”

Celeste then gives a bizarre press conference, in which, after perfunctory condemnations of violence and expressions of support for the victims, she says that, like the terrorists wearing her masks, she used to believe in God, too–when she was a child. The narrator adds the gloss that she speaks like the political figures of her era.

Afterwards, she goes to her hotel room, where she finds the manager embracing Albertine. She tells him to get away from her daughter, and dispatches Albertine with a note of apology to Ellie. She seems on the edge of a breakdown, as evidenced by her comment when she turns back and is surprised to see the manager still in the room: “Jesus Christ, I almost forgot you were there!” He tells her that Albertine wanted to see her father (presumably the musician Celeste slept with back in L.A.) but that he thinks that’s a bad idea.

She and the manager then snort drugs, drink whiskey, and finally stagger out of the room in an almost comical sequence. Celeste manages to somehow find her way to the convoy of vehicles transporting her to the concert. En route, she orders her driver to stop, and pulls Albertine out to the side of the road to kneel with her, in silent prayer, for “Everyone who’s suffering right now.”

They then continue on to the concert venue, where Celeste has another meltdown over… I’m not even sure what, to be honest. The manager ends up holding her in her dressing room, telling her to ignore Ellie, who finally makes him go away, and then cradles Celeste as she sobs incoherently about being “ugly”.

This ends Act II, and now begins the Finale.

I should mention that up to this point, the film felt very low budget–lots of handheld camera shots, and dingy, grimy interiors. Not Hollywood grimy, either; but the real thing–or so it felt, anyway. It gave the film an almost documentary-like feel.

The concert at the end is clearly where they spent most of their production budget. It’s a high-tech show with elaborate special effects and lots of extras. It seemed to me like a very good representation of a pop concert–which is to say, almost unbearable, as one who has never attended such a concert, or wanted to. Dancers in sparkling catsuits, lasers and pyrotechnics, flashing words on a huge screen, all while a synthesized voice shouts unintelligible lyrics. It looked like every Super Bowl halftime show that I’ve ever had the misfortune to glimpse.

Celeste’s performance seems to be a mash-up of allusions to real-life pop stars–she calls her fans “little angels,” she performs a song called “Firecracker,” and another one called “Private Girl in a Public World.”

And then the film just ends in mid-concert, after about twenty minutes of singing and dancing. Nothing happens after. The credits roll (in total silence) and the movie’s over.

Ah… well, actually; not quite. I omitted something. But it’s a spoiler. A big one. I, unfortunately, knew this spoiler going in, and didn’t get to experience the surprise for myself. And that’s too bad, because I would have liked to have seen it without knowing everything.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Think very carefully about whether you want to proceed beyond this point, because now we are going to get into the real meat of what Vox Lux is. If you want to skip that for now, just know that I think it’s an extremely dark film–especially the shocking violence at the beginning–and that it’s also a very, very interesting piece of social commentary, with great acting and writing. If you watch it, pay particular attention to the scene where Celeste has lunch with her daughter; it’s more important than it seems at first. Have fun!

==NOW ENTERING THE SPOILER ZONE==

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MV5BMTUzMTM0MDc3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDI1NjM0NTM@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_A couple years ago, I read the Jonathan Safran Foer book upon which this film is based, and at the time I wrote that it made me feel very glad to have been a vegetarian all these years.

Well, the movie also does that, and then some. It’s one thing to read about how the proverbial sausage gets made. Seeing it is stomach-churning. A word to the wise: skip the snacks before this one, or make sure you eat them all during the previews.

But Eating Animals isn’t just a glimpse into the sickening nature of the meat industry. It’s partly that, for sure, but it also explores alternatives, interviewing organic farmers and animal welfare advocates who offer other, less horrifying systems for farming.

One of the key points that the film and the book raise is the way that modern farming has corrupted the biology of the animals. What we think of as “normal” chickens aren’t where the meat comes from—instead, meat chickens are bred to be morbidly obese, barely able to walk once they reach adulthood. (I’ve seen these first-hand; it’s incredibly sad.)

And it gets worse: because modern animal farming conditions are so horrible, the animals need to be pumped full of antibiotics just to survive to adulthood. And those antibiotics end up in the meat that people eat, and in turn cause antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” to breed. 

This is really the big takeaway from Eating Animals: the modern farming system is hurting humans too. Whether it’s dumping animal waste in cesspools that drain into rivers or allowing pus from diseased cows to seep into milk, the problems with the present-day meat industry aren’t simply related to animal welfare, but ours as well.

As a film, it works pretty well, though it is a bit disjointed as it hops back and forth to tell the stories of various farmers and activists. For the most part, it’s done in a straightforward interview style, although there was one cut from a KFC commercial to the interior of a corporate chicken farm that had a darkly ironic tone worthy of a Michael Moore film.

The film makes a number of strong points about the ties between the meat industry and the U.S. government charged with regulating it. As with so many things, the lobbying interests are able to control the bureaucrats who are supposed to regulate them. 

This brings me to one question that the film never fully answered: the role of government regulation. The general theme of the film is that the huge, centralized nature of the meat industry is responsible for most of the appalling practices. (In the film, Christopher Leonard from something called “New America” likens the meat industry’s structure to the Soviet Politburo) The better alternative, the film implies, is local, organic farming—in other words, farming as it was prior to 1960 or so.

The problem here is that it would be hard for the government to regulate such small, decentralized outfits, which in turn runs the risk of food produced in a non-standardized fashion, which could very easily become contaminated. Say what you want about the current system, but it at least hasn’t caused a major pandemic yet. That might be due to pure luck, but still, I would have liked to see more of an explanation of how, exactly, the FDA or the USDA or whatever is supposed to regulate a nation of small, independent organic farmers.

This, by the way, is one of the less obvious points about political economy that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats like to acknowledge: that government and big business need each other. Government needs big business because it’s too hard to regulate (or raise money from) small business. Big business needs government because it can lay a foundation for it to maintain its monopolies or oligopolies. 

Eating Animals makes a strong case that the current, horrible system of factory farming has developed as a result of deals and organizational hierarchies devised by huge organizations, but from there, it doesn’t address how we’re supposed to get back to the “old” style of farming. After all, the fundamental factors that caused organic farming to vanish in the last half-century are still present. How do we change that?    

By the end, the film suggests that nature will change things for us—perhaps in the form of a pandemic or severe global climate change. In the meantime, the best we can do is try to think long and hard about our food choices, and choose options that are healthier and less destructive.

Watching Eating Animals was a surprising experience for me personally because of how close to home it hit—much of the film is shot in the rural Midwest, and the farms and fields look like the ones I remember from my childhood. Many of those interviewed could have been my neighbors. And, most disturbingly, some of the footage of animal cruelty came from a farm in Plain City, Ohio; a mere 20 minutes from where I grew up. (You can read about the case here—be warned; there are some disturbing pictures.) The horrible consequences of modern farming are all around; it’s just that few people bother looking for them.

After seeing an early sequence in the film showing aerial footage of cesspools outside pig farms, I decided to check online and see if they really looked like that. Sure enough, if you go on Google maps and look at the satellite images, you can see the pink-tinted pools outside the long, grey buildings that house the pigs. They’re all over the place in North Carolina.

Of course, most people know, in some vague, abstract sense, that the way their meat got made was not pretty, and frankly, most of them would just as soon remain ignorant of the details. When I recommend this movie to my meat-eating friends, most of them react by saying “I’d rather not know.” Some of them go a step further and try to justify eating meat as a hard-nosed “just-the-way-of-the-world” realism that only naïve idealists ignore. And some of them say simply “I have to eat meat.” (They assert this without ever having tried to do otherwise.)

Eating Animals isn’t arguing that everyone should abandon meat altogether. (I might argue for that—but then, I’m awfully fond of cheese and eggs, so I can’t claim total innocence in this.) But it is arguing that we need to think long and hard about the way we get our meat, and whether this system is one that can continue indefinitely without causing massive, deadly problems. And to do that, we first need to be willing to confront the current reality. There may be some nasty things in the world that are best left unexamined—the comments sections on most news articles come to mind—but this isn’t one of them.

Chances are that most people who voluntarily go to see Eating Animals are people who have read the book or who are already aware of the problem of factory farming. And that’s well and good, but it isn’t enough, because the film is most effective as a form of aversion therapy to make people reconsider what they eat. So I not only recommend that you go see it, but drag some of your carnivorous family and/or friends along as well. Say you’ll treat them to dinner afterwards—and then see if they don’t suddenly become interested in organic or vegan food.

WARNING: I AM GOING TO SPOIL THE WHOLE MOVIE. DON’T READ THIS IF YOU WANT TO BE SURPRISED.

Annihilation_(film)Annihilation tells the story of a biologist exploring a mysterious region called “Area X”, where the fallout from a meteor strike has enveloped the landscape. In the film’s first scene, we see the biologist (unnamed in the novel on which the film is based, but here called Lena and portrayed by Natalie Portman) being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit, whose questions she can answer only vaguely, or not at all.

The film then flashes back to a meteor crashing into a lighthouse, and then forward again to a scene of the biologist  giving a lecture in her class at Johns Hopkins. (It seemed hard to believe she would have been giving a lecture on the basics of cells to pre-med students, but whatever.) After class, she meets a fellow faculty member named Dan, who invites her to his house for a party. She refuses, as she is still mourning the loss of her husband, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac, and yes, apparently Kane is his only name)—a soldier missing and presumed killed in action. She stays home and paints their former bedroom, thinking of happier times.

Then her husband suddenly appears. She’s overjoyed to see him, but it soon becomes clear he is not well, and has no memory of what his mission was or how he got back. He begins to bleed from the mouth, and Lena calls an ambulance. En route to the hospital, they are intercepted by a SWAT team that drugs Lena and forcibly removes her husband from the ambulance.

She awakens in a holding cell where she is interrogated by a psychologist called Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually reveals that they are in a research station just outside of Area X—where Kane was deployed. He is dying, and Lena realizes the only way to find out what happened to him is to join the team of researchers about to deploy into the mysterious Aurora-like substance called “The Shimmer” that covers Area X.

The team consists of physicist Radek (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and medic Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez). They are led by Dr. Ventress. Ventress throughout seems cold and distant, and in early scenes has her hood pulled over her eyes like she’s Darth Sidious or something. She also sounds almost bored when describing to Lena how Area X will slowly grow until it consumes the entire planet. Leigh is a fine actress, so I’m assuming the director told her to deliver her lines in this awkward way.

After entering the Shimmer, Lena and her team awaken after a few days with no memory of how they reached the part of the jungle they are in, or of setting up their camp. Moreover, they discover that none of their communications equipment works, while Ventress lurks ominously at the edge of the camp, saying dismissively “Did anyone really expect our equipment to work?”

In other words, Ventress is pretty much the worst leader imaginable, and gives them every reason to distrust her.

The team makes their way into the jungle, trying to find the coast and the lighthouse that lies at the epicenter of the strange phenomena. At one point, they find an abandoned boathouse where they are attacked by a huge albino alligator.

NotATrashCompactor
Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in “Annihilation” Image via IMDb

This scene really annoyed me, because when the creature attacks Radek and pulls her into the water, Lena immediately runs in after her, dropping her rifle. And then Sheppard and Thorensen follow suit.

Lena is supposed to have been in the army! I find it hard to believe she would just throw down her gun and blindly jump into the water. The fact that the others would do the same, leaving no one to cover them, is just inexcusable.

Miraculously, they rescue Radek, and then–despite inexplicably letting the gator get too close before firing on it–kill it and examine its corpse, discovering it is mutated, with teeth like a shark.

As they move deeper into Area X, they discover an abandoned army base where they find a video memory card left behind by the previous team–including Kane. On playing the card, they see a disturbing scene of Kane cutting one of his comrade’s stomach open to reveal his intestines writhing like a living creature. Later on, they find the remains of this unfortunate man, with strange vine-like structures radiating out from his skeleton and covering the walls.

Unable to sleep after studying the strange behavior of the cell samples, Lena joins Ventress taking the night watch. Ventress tells her that, in light of the disturbing footage, it’s a good thing that Lena didn’t tell the other team members that Kane was her husband. Ventress’s musings on the human urge for self-destruction are interrupted when a monster breaks through the perimeter and drags Sheppard into the night. Lena finds her remains the next day

After this, Thorensen grows (rather abruptly, I thought) distrustful of the other members of the team. She comes to suspect that Lena murdered Sheppard.

Now might be a good time to mention that all of this has been interspersed with flashbacks to Lena and Kane’s marriage as she thinks back on their relationship. First, she recalls their happiness together, but gradually, her thoughts turn to his deployment–and her infidelity with Dan during his absence.

She wakes from a dream of one such memory to see Thorensen holding a gun on her. In her escalating paranoia, Thorensen has found a locket of Lena’s with Kane’s picture in it, and realized he was her husband. She is now convinced that Lena, possibly working with Ventress, killed Sheppard, and ties both of them up, as well as Radek. She seems on the verge of slicing them open when the monster that killed Sheppard appears and kills her. (Eerily, the sinister beast growls in Sheppard’s voice.) Radek gets free and kills the monster, saving Lena and Ventress.

Ventress decides to press on, heading alone for the lighthouse. Lena and Radek remain behind in the ruins of suburb overrun by strange vegetation and trees that resemble human beings. Radek wanders off, apparently deciding to become one with Area X, leaving Lena to find her way to the lighthouse alone.

The lighthouse scenes were some of the best in the film–it’s a tower surrounded by human skeletons and strange glittering trees; a perfectly creepy set. Inside, Lena discovers a camera (which mysteriously still has power after all this time) that contains a recording of Kane giving a chilling speech that ends in instructions to “find Lena”. He then commits suicide with a phosphorous grenade, after which a doppelganger of him steps into the frame.

Lena enters a small hole in the lighthouse floor, leading to a strange catacomb structure where she finds the psychologist, who says some threatening stuff and then explodes into a dazzling display of light and strange alien forms.

I know a lot of reviews talk about how weird and trippy this scene is, but honestly, it was not nearly as weird as it is in VanderMeer’s book:

“Not a wall of light–gold, blue, green, existing in some other spectrum–but a wall of flesh that resembled light, with sharp, curving elements within it, an textures like ice when it has frozen from flowing water. An impression of living things lazily floating in the air around it…”

Weird lights as shorthand for the Great Unknowable Cosmos is a pretty common science fiction idea. I thought of this line from Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann:

I saw… only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth.”

I even fancied I heard the demonic pipings of some nameless flute on the soundtrack, another Lovecraft standard.

After the light show ends, Lena is confronted by a strange creature that resembles a person in an oddly-colored full-body suit. (Honestly, you could be forgiven for thinking the special effects department gave up and said “Just send the stunt person in their mo-cap garb.”)

This creature fights Lena, prevents her from escaping the lighthouse, and mimics her every move. It’s a mesmerizing and well-choreographed dance-fight, although I couldn’t help thinking of this classic Marx Brothers routine.

The creature gradually starts to take on Lena’s physical features, creating another doppelganger. Lena–at least, I think it’s the “real” Lena–takes a phosphorous grenade from Kane’s pack and thrusts it into the creature’s hands. It explodes and Lena escapes as the creature and the lighthouse are engulfed in flames.

Flash forward to the interrogation chamber, where the man in the hazmat suit reveals that The Shimmer disappeared after the lighthouse was destroyed, and that Lena’s husband–or, the person who looks like her husband–has recovered. She asks to see him, and a flicker of The Shimmer is seen in their eyes as they embrace and the credits roll.

For all the talk of Annihilation‘s many influences–Apocalypse Now, Alien, 2001, everything Lovecraftian–it reminded me most of the video game Spec Ops: The Line. The scene of Lena gazing back at the flaming tower reminded me of a similar surreal shot in Spec Ops, and both game and film are driven by an ever-increasing uncertainty as to what is real amid mounting death and destruction. (Also, minor note, but Spec Ops was the first time I ever heard of white phosphorous.)

Annihilation is a solid sci-fi thriller. Portman and Isaac’s performances are the standouts, but everyone is good–in later scenes, Leigh makes up for her early flat line readings about the end of the world. There are a few truly disturbing scenes, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. The special effects occasionally look cheesy, but for the most part they were decent. The soundtrack is a little weird. A strangely soothing stringed instrument crops up at ill-timed moments, but it wasn’t a major problem.

The script is likewise solid: the love scenes, Kane’s final message, and the very last line are the best parts, and there are only a few pieces of clunky exposition, including Lena’s opening speech to her class.

If you like science-fiction, horror, and especially weird fiction of the cosmic variety, this one’s for you.

And that’s my review. What are you waiting around for? Go on, shoo! Go watch the nice movie. There’s nothing to see below the page break, I promise.

Lena Got a Gun
Natalie Portman in “Annihilation”. Image via IMDb

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Wonder Woman, Jane Got a Gun, and Ghost in the Shell
From left: “Wonder Woman”, starring Gal Gadot, “Jane Got a Gun”, starring Natalie Portman, and “Ghost in the Shell”, starring Scarlett Johansson

Have you heard? Feminists and superhero fans have been getting anxious about the relative lack of promotion for the upcoming Wonder Woman film, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins. They are concerned that it is going to suffer the same fate as recent DC Comics films have, and be cast as second-rate superheroes in comparison to Marvel’s string of successes.

I’ve been following the fortunes of the Wonder Woman film for a while now, and I also noticed this lack of publicity.  It registered with me because it fit into a pattern I’ve seen before.

My favorite movie of all time, Jane Got a Gun, was another film whose marketing campaign I watched closely. The Weinstein Co.’s promotional efforts for it were abysmal–I think I saw one trailer for it, and it made the movie look like an action/adventure flick when in fact it was a romantic drama. (Even the title is kind of misleading. They should have called it Jane Ballard.)

Jane Got a Gun had an infamously turmoil-filled production, and apparently the Weinstein Co. based its decision on the film’s history, rather than the finished product. (It’s usually a mistake to focus on process over results.) As such, they didn’t put much effort into promoting it, and didn’t hold advance screenings for critics.  As a result, few people heard of it, and it fared poorly at the box office.

This isn’t the only recent example of a film getting hamstrung by bad marketing.  Ghost in the Shell was a big-budget sci-fi picture with a strong story, and it flopped badly at the U.S. box office.

Unlike the case of Jane, the studio could never be accused of not spending resources promoting Ghost. Paramount even bought a Super Bowl ad for it.  But it was hit with an intense negative buzz, in which people accused it of “whitewashing” because of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead character, Major Killian.

This accusation is obviously nonsense to anyone who bothers to watch the film. Major Killian is a cyborg–a human brain housed in a machine.  True, she was originally a Japanese woman, but the entire premise of the film is that her mind and consciousness are transferred to an artificial body.

And yet the accusation of whitewashing persisted, and undoubtedly contributed to negative press surrounding the film. Which is too bad, because while it was not a great film, it was certainly one of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen in recent years. It was far better than the highly-successful blockbuster The Force Awakens, for example.

This is why what’s happening with Wonder Woman doesn’t surprise me too much.  I have, as they say, seen this movie before. But like Ian Fleming wrote, “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.” At this point, I have to think this is part of some pattern.

So what’s the common thread?

While they are all very different films, Jane Got a Gun, Ghost in the Shell and Wonder Woman do have a few shared characteristics.  Most obviously, they all feature female protagonists.  They also are all categorized as action films. (Although Jane probably shouldn’t have been).

Is Hollywood deliberately sabotaging female-led action films? That seems crazy, since the easiest way for studios to prevent such films from succeeding would be to… not make them in the first place.

Let us, like Woodward and Bernstein before us, “follow the money”.

One thing to look at is the studios producing the movies: Warner Bros. is handling Wonder Woman, because they own DC Comics.  As I mentioned earlier, DC has been in competition with Marvel on superhero movies, and they have been losing.

Marvel is owned by Disney, which acquired it in 2009.

It so happens Disney also originally had a deal with Dreamworks to release Ghost in the Shell, but it was terminated in 2016, and the movie was released through Paramount instead.

Jane Got a Gun is the clear outlier here–the Weinstein Co. isn’t on anything like the same scale as Disney, Warner Bros. et al.  Also, Jane was rated “R” whereas the rest of these are “PG-13”.  So, presumably it had a much smaller marketing budget at the outset.

The key point is that all three of these movies are released by companies that aren’t Disney.

This is most significant for Wonder Woman, because of the ongoing DC/Marvel battle, which is really a proxy war between Warner Bros. and Disney.  And Disney has been winning it.

Part of the reason I brought up The Force Awakens to contrast with Ghost in the Shell  was because it got way more positive press despite being an inferior film.  But of course, Force Awakens was made by Lucasfilm, which since 2012 is owned by… Disney.

The upshot is that I think Disney is way better at promoting their movies than most of the other studios are.  Even when Disney has something sub-par, they can generate enough positive buzz about it to get people to buy tickets.

It’s important to understand what promotion really entails.  It’s more than just advertisements on television and the internet.  It’s more even than tie-ins, and red carpet events, and sending the cast and crew on talk shows.

It has to do with how PR firms work.  They feed stories to industry journalists to create a buzz around their clients’ products. (Read this marvelous essay by Paul Graham for an in-depth description of this process.)

My impression is that Disney–or perhaps the PR firm they hired–does a vastly better job of promotion compared to the other studios.  They have a much higher success at generating positive buzz for whatever they are releasing next.

Now, to some extent, there is bound to be a “crowding-out” effect. If Disney can internally do better PR, or if they can pay more to get it, it leaves less room for other non-Disney productions to get good PR.

And of course, none of this has anything to do with the actual quality of the movie in question.  (Indeed, I often wonder just how many movie reviews are influenced more by the PR campaign surrounding the film than by the film itself.)

In my review of The Force Awakens, I concluded by saying:

“[W]hy do so many people like The Force Awakens?  I don’t know–maybe it’s the same reason so many people like Donald Trump: both are loud, in-your-face, and have so much money backing them that they won’t go away.”

The comparison actually runs a bit deeper than that.  Trump, whatever else you want to say about him, is great at promotion.  He is like a one-man PR firm in terms of his ability to draw an audience for whatever he is peddling.

Disney, or whoever is handling PR and marketing for their movies, has a similar level of promotional skill.  And the other movie studios are unable to match it.

I think there is also something of an escalation going on, in that the more Disney hypes their releases, the more the other studios are then going to be expected to do to hype theirs. Expectations for marketing campaigns get higher and higher, and when studios fail to meet them, people don’t go to see their movies.

I. Plot Synopsis

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Poster for “Jackie” (Via Wikipedia)

The movie Jackie is only partially about the title character, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. (Natalie Portman) Ironically, it is categorized as a historical biopic when in fact it is an exploration of public relations, image vs. reality in politics, and, in some ways, the nature of Truth itself.

That does not mean Mrs. Kennedy is not featured prominently–she is in nearly every scene, and often in extreme close-ups. Especially in the film’s opening half, we see her raw emotion in response to the assassination of her husband.

But as the film makes clear from the framing device–a reporter, (Billy Crudup) interviewing Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination–it is focused on the role of media and appearance in politics, and ultimately in history. During the occasionally combative interview, she explains not only her emotional state, but also the ways in which she sought to shape the perception of her husband’s legacy.

This segues to flashbacks, first to a televised White House tour given by Mrs. Kennedy in which she discusses various historical Presidential artifacts which she has restored to the White House. This tour really did take place, and the filmmakers clearly went to some trouble to recreate it.

From here, the film next shows us the fateful trip to Dallas, and Mrs. Kennedy’s grief and horror in the aftermath. But even in these circumstances, political intrigue continues, as we see glimpses of the tension between Robert Kennedy and the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson.

As Robert and Jackie ride with JFK’s coffin in Washington, she asks staff members if they know anything about Garfield or McKinley. They don’t. She then asks what they know about Lincoln, and they respond that he won the Civil War and freed the slaves. She then decides that she will model her husband’s funeral on Lincoln’s, to ensure his memory lives on as Lincoln’s did.

In one memorable sequence, we see her wandering the empty halls of the White House, listening to John Kennedy’s favorite record, the recording of Camelot, while drinking and taking pills as she is overwhelmed with grief.

Planning for the funeral continues, and Jackie makes clear her desire to have a long procession–a grand spectacle, that will capture the attention of the entire nation watching on television, and preserve Kennedy’s legacy. However, the Johnson administration is hesitant to do so, because of the security risk.

When Oswald is shot by Ruby, it confirms the risk to Mrs. Kennedy, and she decides not to have the procession on foot and go by motorcade instead. She shouts at Robert Kennedy in frustration, berating him (and by extension all politicians), for being unable to know what’s going on or keep anyone safe, despite all their power.

But later, as they are sitting in the empty White House, it is Robert’s turn to rage in frustration at the apparent wasted opportunity of his brother’s tragically ended administration. As she listens, Jackie makes up her mind that his death will not be in vain, and goes to Jack Valenti to tell him the procession will be on foot after all.

Valenti tells her that the problem is that foreign dignitaries–specifically, Charles de Gaulle–are afraid of the risk. Jackie replies that she wishes to let it be known that she will go on foot, but if de Gaulle wishes to ride “in an armored car, or a tank for that matter” she will understand, and pointedly adds that she is sure the national television audience will as well.

Bowing to this implied threat of public humiliation, they accede to Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes and proceed on foot.

Interspersed with all of this, in addition to her exchange with the reporter, are scenes of Jackie conversing with her Priest. (The late, great John Hurt). She is understandably having a crisis of faith, and pours her feelings out to him. He tries to console her, but in the end even he can give no satisfying answer to why God inflicts such suffering as has befallen Mrs. Kennedy and her family.

As their interview concludes, the reporter assures her that she has preserved Kennedy’s legacy as a great President. She tells him there’s one more thing, “more important than all the rest”, and relates the late President’s love of the musical Camelot, quoting the lines: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot,/ For one brief, shining moment/That was known as Camelot.”

The film ends with this song playing over flashbacks of the White House tour and the Kennedys dancing together.

II. Review; Praise and Criticism

The film is very powerful, but also strangely disjointed. It can be hard to keep track of where action takes place even in the narrow time frame the film covers, so quick are the cuts to different moments.

Early on, there are many tight close ups on the face of the grieving widow, and long scenes of her cleaning the blood from her face and hair. These scenes are shocking, but seemed unrelated to the film’s larger theme.

The best scenes are those of the journalist interviewing Mrs. Kennedy. There is a tension between the two, who seem to strongly dislike one another, and Mrs. Kennedy’s harsh editing and commentary on what the reporter is and is not allowed to print starkly make the point about using the media to create a narrative–a point that seems especially relevant in light of recent political events.

In general, the acting is quite good. Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy is terrific, Hurt is very good, as he always was, and Billy Crudup is excellent as the journalist. The only actor who did not really seem right was John Carroll Lynch playing Lyndon Johnson, and this was not really an issue of his acting–which was quite fine–but simply his extreme non-resemblance to Johnson. There were times when I did not know who he was for parts of scenes.

This brings me to the star of the piece. Faithful readers know that Portman is my favorite actress, and it is because she is in this movie that I have followed it so closely.

Her performance is very good, and her Academy Award nomination is well-deserved. That said, all the talk that this is the greatest performance of her career is overblown–indeed, I would argue it is not even her greatest performance in a movie released in 2016. Her roles in Jane Got a Gun and A Tale of Love and Darkness (which Portman also directed) allow her far more range and depth.

There is however one very notable feature of her performance which, despite all the press about it, I have not seen mentioned in any reviews. That is the difference between how she plays Kennedy in the flashbacks and in the “present day” interview with the journalist.

In contrast to the panicked, grief-stricken widow of the immediate aftermath, in the interview scenes she seems about 20 years older, even though only a little time has elapsed. Her tongue is sharper and her attitude more bitter. The contrast is very noticeable, and quite effective at conveying the pain Jackie endured.

The single biggest problem with the film is its script. It is not uniformly bad–it is not even mostly bad–but when it is bad, it is absolutely dire. This might be worse than if it had been bad throughout, because it makes the really terrible lines stick out all the more.

At one point, someone advises Jackie to take her children, leave the White House quietly, and “build a fortress in Boston and disappear”.

Who the hell talks like that?

At another point, Robert Kennedy says that walking by the Lincoln bedroom reminds him that “one ordinary man signed an order that freed millions of people.” This is a rebuttal to Jackie saying it feels “peaceful”.

One scene was so bizarre I almost wonder if it really does have some basis in fact: aboard Air Force One, after the assassination, Jackie is asking about the bullet that killed her husband. “It didn’t sound like a .38” she says. “It sounded like a bigger–what do you call it?–caliber, like soldiers use.”

First of all, I find it hard to believe she would talk about the bullet. Second of all, I find it even harder to believe she would be able to tell if it was a .38 or not. And thirdly, if all that did happen, I think she wouldn’t then say “what do you call it” and be unsure of the word “caliber”.

Another example: when Jackie and Robert are walking through Arlington cemetery to select the grave site, Jackie is obviously having difficulty walking through the mud in her high heels. Robert asks her what’s wrong, and she says her shoes are getting stuck in the mud.

There’s no reason for her to say this.  It was clear enough to the viewer; so why include the line?

The Priest says lots of things that I highly doubt any Priest would ever say, least of all to the President’s widow. Even the scenes with the interviewer, strong as they are, have some ham-handed lines, such as when he awkwardly raises the subject of the White House tour film that introduces the flashback.

The musical score is just flat-out weird. It is primarily a growling, synthesized noise that is sometimes appropriately foreboding, but at other times is just annoying. Sometimes it overpowered scenes of the grieving Jackie in instances where silence would have been far more effective. (As if to drive this home, later in the movie many scenes have no soundtrack, and these are much better.)

The cinematography, on the other hand, is very good throughout. There are some beautiful shots of Washington D.C. and the White House interior, and the scenes at Arlington are appropriately grim. And best of all is a scene of Jackie and Robert talking about the funeral in the gloomy November twilight.  The scenery, make-up, costumes and acting all make it feel very real and immediate.

This all adds up to a wildly uneven picture.  Just when it gets good, some jarring line throws it off, and just as it seems about to run off the rails completely, the cinematography or acting grabs your attention again.

I would be tempted to say it’s a mess with great acting and cinematography.  If that were all there was to it, I could end the review now and just say, “See it if you are a Kennedy history buff or a Portman fan; otherwise, skip it.”

But that would ignore something.  Which brings me to the third and most complicated aspect of this thing…

(more…)

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Natalie Portman in “Jane Got a Gun” All Rights Reserved by the Weinstein Co. and re-used under “Fair Use”.
[UPDATE 4/23/2016: I loved this movie so much I also wrote a more in-depth analysis of it here. Note that it gives away the ending.]

 

The Western genre more or less died out after the 1970s. The social scientist in me wants to attribute this to the cultural change in that decade–the mythology of the American West was focused heavily on the image of white men with guns as heroes, and cast other groups as either supporting characters or villains. Not the most progressive genre.

But as the title indicates, Jane Got a Gun gives the firearms to a female–a mother, protecting her family from a gang of villains called “The Bishop Boys”, named for their cruel leader. (Ewan McGregor)

Natalie Portman plays Jane, the frontierswoman whose husband Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) encounters his old gang and is shot nearly to death by them. When he returns home on the verge of death, Jane takes her young daughter to safety and rides off to get help from her old fiancé, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), whom she believed had died in the Civil War, and had met again only after her marriage to Bill.

Dan at first refuses to help, still bitter that Jane left him for Bill. The Bishop Boys, meanwhile, are interrogating one of Hammond’s associates in the fur trade regarding his whereabouts. Bishop clearly remembers Jane as well, and means to track them both down.

Having been rebuffed by Dan, Jane rides into town to buy weapons. As Jane is leaving town with her arms and ammunition, one of the Bishop Boy goons drags her into an alley and holds her at gunpoint, demanding to know where Hammond is and threatening to rape her.

Dan arrives, and aims his rifle at the gang member, who offers to split the bounty on Bill Hammond with him.  Dan listens, feigning interest, and Jane takes the opportunity to fire a shot into the thug’s head.

Jane and Dan hastily ride out of town and back to Jane’s ranch, where Jane pays Dan to help prepare them for the inevitable attack by the Bishop Boys.  During this, we see flashbacks to Jane and Dan’s courtship, as well as to the beginning of the trouble with the Bishop gang.

Gradually, as she and Dan scramble to prepare the home’s defenses while also tending to the wounded Bill, their old feelings start to emerge.  Dan recounts how his love for Jane had sustained him through the War, and how it broke him to find that she’d married another man and had a child with him.

That night, Dan’s resentment towards Bill nearly boils over, and he holds his gun at the bed-ridden man–until Jane enters, which prompts the drunken gunslinger to stagger away, muttering “I don’t know what you saw in him.”

As Dan keeps watch from the upstairs window that night, Jane joins him and tells him about what happened to her after she joined the Bishop’s wagon train.  She had a daughter (named Mary, after Dan’s mother) with her when she placed herself under Bishops’ “protection”.  The Bishops then took Mary from Jane, and forced Jane into prostitution. The scene flashes back to when Hammond, as a member of the gang, tried to free her, but was prevented by Bishop.

The next scene was perhaps the most disturbing, as Hammond asks one of Bishop’s men what became of Mary. He chillingly replies something to the effect that “Bishop told me to ‘take care of her’–he didn’t explain what he meant, so I made my best guess.  Did you know she can’t swim?”

In a fury, Hammond races to the brothel and, in a violent but extremely cathartic scene, guns down the clientele and rescues a weeping Jane.

The transition from Dan’s face as Jane begins telling the story, to the flashback sequence, and then back to Dan, is really powerful.  His expression changes completely, and his rage is such that he can barely spit a few words to say that he hopes John Bishop himself is coming.

As the night wears on, Jane and Dan venture outside the house.  The scene is dark and atmospheric, and Jane utters a few words of courageous resolve.  Then, shots ring out and Jane and Dan both hit the ground.

So begins the climactic showdown–I won’t spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say that it is immensely satisfying.  Not to give too much away, but watch for a certain transition that begins with a close-up on a revolver barrel–it works really well.

What a lot of the “feminist” or “strong woman” action movies get wrong is to portray the woman as a Rambo-like super-human, crushing everything in her path.  Jane Got a Gun avoids this pitfall–Jane is believably vulnerable, but gains her strength on fiery resolve and force of will, rather than impossible physical strength. Portman does a terrific job conveying the transformation from sweet, innocent girl to hardened frontierswoman that Jane undergoes.

Edgerton is suitably gruff while conveying an underlying decency, and his chemistry with Portman is absolutely marvelous. McGregor is the very picture of the “villain we love to hate”. All the Bishop gang henchmen are utterly loathsome in different ways, making each one’s demise a satisfyingly bloody catharsis.

The beautiful landscapes and moody soundtrack really stuck with me.  I’ve been a sucker for desert movies since I saw Lawrence of Arabia as an impressionable sixteen-year-old, and my Fallout: New Vegas binge only solidified my love for the harsh, barren landscapes. Jane uses this type of scenery to create a marvelous feeling of loneliness and isolation.

It was interesting to watch this movie so soon after seeing the new Star Wars film. Jane’s behind-the-scenes connections to Star Wars are well-documented, as Portman, McGregor and Edgerton all appeared in the prequel trilogy. More significantly than that, the original Star Wars, which the new one tries so hard to imitate, was really just George Lucas’s reinvention of the western–an attempt to translate the familiar Good vs. Evil melodrama for a new generation.

The latest Star Wars tries to do this too, but fails badly on every level. Jane Got a Gun (while obviously not a film for children, because of the violence) succeeds in capturing this old-fashioned spirit.

Both films feature a Good vs. Evil plot with a strong heroine, a reluctant hero, and a cruel villain. But while Star Wars‘s Daisy Ridley and John Boyega fail in their attempts to portray the archetypes of “strong heroine” and “reluctant hero”, respectively; Portman and Edgerton play those same roles to perfection. McGregor, meanwhile, brings a chilling charisma to the villain’s role–exactly the sort of touch Adam Driver failed to give his cartoon bad guy in Star Wars.

Jane Got a Gun does not reinvent the Western by any means, but it certainly revives it admirably. The performances are all first-rate, and the pacing is terrific.  It is marketed as an action film, but there is plenty of romance and suspense as well, and the haunting desert landscape and soundtrack give it a very strong atmosphere.  Go see it.

Thor (2011) poster reproduced under Fair Use, via Wikipedia

I don’t care much for superhero movies.  The concept is boring to me.  I also don’t much care for Norse mythology, so Thor was pretty far down on the list of superhero movies I would want to see.  But Natalie Portman is my favorite actress, and she plays the eponymous hero’s love interest, so when it came on TV the other night, I figured I’d check it out.

The first thing that struck me was how bad the digital special effects were.  The city of Asgard, where Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and the rest of the Norse Gods live looks like the City from  The Wizard of Oz, only less believable.  The enemy creatures that Thor and his comrades fight early on looked pretty fake, and of course, the color palette was the standard blue and orange that I’ve blogged about before.

The first half hour of the movie was pretty tedious, with lots of comic-book fights and bad special effects. The essence of it was this: Thor is persuaded by his brother Loki to attack the enemy “Frost giants”, but it turns out to be a huge mistake, and Thor is banished and deemed unworthy to wield his hammer. He is forcibly cast out of Asgard and crashes in the New Mexico desert, his hammer landing not far away.

At this point, we leave the hokey special effects behind for the most part, and the movie turns into an enjoyable romance between Thor and Dr. Jane Foster, (Portman) an astrophysicist who observes him crashing to Earth after his banishment.

Against the advice of her colleague, Dr. Selvig, Jane takes Thor to the site where his hammer has crashed.  Meanwhile, Thor’s brother Loki is busy taking over Asgard while Odin is in a coma. (Or something. I had trouble following this part.) Loki, it becomes clear, has been orchestrating the whole thing to gain power.

Back on Earth, Thor tries but fails to pull the hammer out of the crater in which it is embedded.  It becomes clear that, per Odin’s command, he is not worthy to wield the hammer.  When this happens, Thor despairs and is taken into custody by government agents, who earlier had confiscated Jane’s scientific notes and equipment in order to study them.

Thor is rescued from them by Selvig, and is able to take back Jane’s notebook.  He and Jane then share a romantic interlude, after which Thor’s friends from Asgard return to let him know of Loki’s treachery.  Then Loki sends this big metal robot-soldier thing down to Earth to kill everyone.

Thor walks up to the robot and addresses Loki, asking him to spare the lives of Jane and her friends.  In exchange, he tells Loki to take his life.  The robot does so, and strikes Thor, knocking him to the ground.  But, as Jane kneels over the apparently dying Thor, the hammer comes soaring out of the ground and flies into his hand, transfiguring him into the God of Thunder.

I won’t lie; it’s a powerful moment.  Thor has become worthy, through sacrificing his life for his loved ones, to wield the hammer.  Of course, he revives and is able to fight off the robot.  He shares a passionate kiss with Jane before returning to Asgard to fight his treacherous brother.

Unfortunately, in the course of defeating Loki and waking Odin, Thor destroys the bridge between Asgard and Earth, meaning he and Jane are separated at the film’s end.  But it ends on a hopeful note, with a shot of Jane and her friends making progress in their research into the portals between realms, and Jane smiling as Thor does the same across the Universe.

As I said, I don’t like superhero movies, but this isn’t a typical superhero movie.  It was directed by the Shakespearean actor/director Sir Kenneth Branagh, and the Bard’s influence is quite clear.  You have a Prince struggling to be worthy of the throne, a usurper taking the throne from the rightful King, and intrigues that lead to wars between kingdoms.  It’s a strong, character-driven adventure story.  The chemistry between Portman and Hemsworth is spectacular, and the supporting characters all hit just the right notes.  The mood is light and adventurous, while still having some very powerful scenes. If you can get past the weak special effects, it’s a very enjoyable romp.