Vox Lux (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Those who take the film at face value would likely scratch their heads in confusion. Because, in a way, it is an exercise of extremes: the story opens with a terrifying school shooting in 1999, continues on as an intimate portrait of a fourteen-year-old who has no idea that she is about to become an international pop star, then it has the courage to jump seventeen years into the future and focus on a woman who is so broken, so commodified, we observe her concert performance and feel incredibly sad for her. We watch the main character first as a girl who could have gone on to become a respected—and respectable—artist, fully in control of her career and destiny, but instead she became a puppet in an industry that doesn’t really value her as a person or what she can offer. It values the money that she generates from her concerts, her album sales, her controversial image. In some ways, the picture is an unflinching look at modern celebrity. It made me thankful I am not under the scrutiny of the public eye. But “Vox Lux” is more than that.
Writer-director Brady Corbet creates a character study for the thoughtful viewer who appreciates irony. I enjoyed his approach of laying out pieces that may initially come across as too strange or awkward to be able to fit together (mass shootings, pop idols) and somehow, almost by sorcery, by the end of the tale these fragments make sense only when, or if, the audience manages to connect emotionally with each segment. Employing strong images, music—score and soundtrack—that demands attention, and pointed dialogue, it cannot be denied there is great confidence propelling the work. It is all the more impressive that it is only Corbet’s second feature; I very much look forward to what else he can offer. Even the presentation of the opening credits is inspired.
Natalie Portman plays the thirty-one-year-old Celeste. She is required to sing and dance, to be in control of ridiculous costumes, to wear heavy cosmetics and emote in every second of every frame. She must communicate that Celeste is a tragic figure and yet one who may not necessarily deserve our pity because, after all, she put herself in her current situation—drugs, booze, surrounding herself with toxic people but distancing herself from those who genuinely love and care for her—despite being a survivor of a school shooting. Without relying on obvious or tired tropes, I appreciated that the film is clear: One can be a victim of an event but the victim can choose not to feel victimized for the rest of her life.
At the same time, there is humor in the performance; Portman’s histrionics are best seen to be believed. As seasoned performers do, she milks every millisecond when the camera gets a glance of her face since each tiny opening is a chance to enrich the portrayal. I could tell she had put a lot of thought into the woman she is playing. Still, though, the melodrama fits the story being told and the character being explored. Celeste’s physical outer wounds may have healed, but in a way the real Celeste is suspended in time, in that particularly horrifying day. It is a wonderful performance, one Portman should be proud of, especially given the caliber or her already colorful filmography.
I admired the material’s willingness to take risks. First is in the casting of teen Celeste and Albertine, Celeste’s teenage daughter. Both are played by Raffey Cassidy which is genius because we get introduced to her version of Celeste first and then later as the protagonist’s daughter who is yearning for a true connection. By casting one actor for both roles, seeing the same face causes a ripple effect of implications, the sadness of the story all the more amplified. Second is the cinematography by Lol Crawley, particularly in how interiors of hotels, makeup stations, and backstages are captured so realistically. When it makes an uncommon pivot to images of landscapes, for example, it is like a slap in the face, a reminder of what’s important in truly being alive.
Teenage Paparazzo (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
While out in Los Angeles, Adrian Grenier, who directed the film, noticed a thirteen-year-old paparazzo trying to get his attention in order to get the perfect picture. His name was Austin Visschedyk and it seemed like he had been a pop-stalkerazzi, a term he despised, for quite some time. Intrigued with Visschedyk, Grenier decided to contact the teen and make a movie about him and the fame he tried to capture using his expensive camera. “Teenage Paparazzo” had some interesting tidbits to say, some involving the ethics of paparazzi and privacy, but its vision wasn’t always clear. The first half of the picture was Visschedyk’s almost obsessive nature in capturing images of celebrities. He claimed it was fun, easy, and one great shot could get him a thousand dollars. And while he acknowledged that there were dangers in being a part of the paparazzi (he carried pepper spray), he turned a blind eye most of the time. He wasn’t the only one in denial. His parents allowed him to stay out past 3:00 A.M. (including school nights) to follow celebrities in downtown Hollywood. I’ve been in downtown Hollywood around that time of night and to say that the area is “unsafe” is an extreme understatement. The parents’ defense was they wanted to encourage him to pursue his passion. However, most of us can say that it’s simply a case of bad parenting. The second half, while backed with research about teens and how important fame was to them, it felt unfocused because it moved away from Visschedyk’s story. The documentary eventually became more about young people craving to become famous in any way, shape, or form. There was a survey given to middle school students which showed that they would rather become assistant to celebrities instead of being a CEO of a company, presidents of Ivy League institutions, and other prestigious positions. While it was a shocking result, it did not fit the thesis of the movie. I enjoyed the film best when Grenier and Paris Hilton showed the ridiculousness of trashy gossip magazines and television shows like TMZ. The duo informed Visschedyk and his paparazzi friends that they would be at a certain place and time and the rumors created from the pictures were amusing. It was great to look at things from behind the scenes. All the more disappointing was the fact that there were nice insights from great actors like Matt Damon and Whoopi Goldberg as well as intellectuals like Noam Chomsky. It wouldn’t have been a missed opportunity if the connection between the teenage paparazzo’s story and fame was stronger. Visschedyk’s admission that he wanted to be famous was not enough. I’ve seen his website and I have no doubt that Visschedyk has a gift for photography. In the end, I’m happy there was a glimmer of hope that he could channel his talent to something he could actually be proud of.
★★ / ★★★★
A journalist (Kenneth Branagh) divorced his wife (Judy Davis) because he wanted to be with other women–women who were some type of a celebrity, like a supermodel (Charlize Theron), an actress (Melanie Griffith), or a very successful book editor (Famke Janssen). One of his main reasons for divorcing his wife was, as he claimed, he was unhappy with the way she was in bed. The insecure wife, on the other hand, met a seemingly perfect television producer (Joe Mantegna). She could not believe the fact that she had met someone who was willing to devote everything to her. She suspected there must be something wrong with him and so she waited for the relationship to go haywire. Throughout the film, the journalist became unhappier while the ex-wife’s luck turned for the better. Directed by Woody Allen, “Celebrity” was ultimately a disappointment despite its interesting subject matter. I think it is more relevant than it was more than ten years ago because of the recent surge in technology that allows us to get “closer” to our celebrities. Unfortunately, I thought the humor was too broad. Did it soley want to be a showbiz satire, a marriage drama, or a character study? It attempted to be all of the above but it didn’t work because the protagonists lacked an ounce of likability. The journalist was desperate in getting into women’s pants while the ex-wife pitied herself so much that it was impossible to root for her. Their evolution and the lessons they learned (or failed to learn) were superficial at best. Instead, I found myself focusing on the many interesting and vibrant side characters. For instance, I loved Theron’s obsession with her health as well as her outer appearance. It was interesting to see her and the journalist interact because I constantly wondered what she saw in him. As the night when on, layers were revealed as to why while some details were best remain as implications. Leonardo DiCaprio as the very spoiled young actor was great to watch as well. His arrival on screen was perfect because it was at the point where the script was starting to feel lazy. The characters had no idea what they wanted or what they wanted to say. DiCaprio’s character was invigorating to have on screen because he wanted everything but at the same time his wants lacked some sort of meaning. Even though the spoiled actor and the journalist did not get along well, they were more similar than they would like to believe. While cameos were abound such as the surprising appearance of Donald Trump, I wish the filmmakers trimmed the extra fat in order to make a leaner film with astringent wit. It had some great moments but they were followed by mindless sophomoric jabber (uncharacteristically not charming considering it’s a Woody Allen film) that quickly wore out their welcome.
I’m Still Here (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was to retire from acting and pursue a career as a hip-hop artist, the media was abuzz, wondering if he had lost his mind. Some were angry with his decision because they thought it served as a mockery of something they deeply respected. Personally, I did not care so much of the announcement. While I was a bit saddened because he was a very good actor, I thought he was well within his right to change career paths. After all, hundreds of thousands of people decide to change jobs every day. I saw his decision to move from being an actor to a music artist as no different. If I had seen this film prior to the announcement that it was all a hoax, I would have been seriously disturbed. I would not have laughed at the most intense scenes such as when the actor in question had an argument with one of his friends concerning a leak of information (which led to a disturbing payback), the meetings with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and when Ben Stiller offered Phoenix a role in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” I find it difficult to find humor in something that I believe to be non-fiction because I take no pleasure in seeing the suffering of others, especially through ridicule. In a way, I took comfort in the fact that it was all a joke so I was able to pay attention in what Phoenix and Casey Affleck, the director, wanted to convey about celebrity life. Naturally, one of the main messages was being a celebrity did not necessarily equate to happiness or financial stability, but I relished small details I wasn’t aware of before like the paparazzi actually booing actors who chose not to pose in front of the camera. The harrassment Phoenix had to endure (some, admittedly, he incited) were sometimes difficult to watch. I could not help but feel sorry for him. However, the paparazzi were not the only ones that showed cruelty. Even people I’ve never even heard of (like YouTube “celebrities”) can have opinions that not only sting but leave a mark in the psyche. At the same time, Affleck’s film was effective in showing the ridiculous nature, as well as dangers, of method acting if taken to an extreme. Mostly everyone was convinced that Phoenix had lost control of his mental capacity and that made me question the amount of truth, if any, in the images I saw. I’m not convinced all of the scenes were designed to simply poke fun. After all, the most convincing lies stem from a truth. “I’m Still Here” is not for everyone because most people don’t understand satire. But I think Phoenix’ fans just might enjoy the film because it really was quite a performance.
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
I heard about Justin Bieber in 2009, on YouTube, and thought he was some eleven-year-old kid who could sing really well. After a couple of months, he became an international sensation thanks to rabid pre-teen and teenage girls. Directed by John Chu, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” documented the events that led up to Bieber’s performance in the coveted Madison Square Garden. Performing on that stage in a sold-out show established the peak of his career. The film started off strong because it gave me information I didn’t already know. It showed us personal videos before he was discovered by Scooter Braun. As a kid, he had a natural talent for playing drums, guitar, and he could sing songs from various genres with relative ease. There were also some interesting moments when Bieber revisited places in his hometown where he used to perform to get noticed. Where he used to play guitar now stood a little girl playing violin. We learned that he was very close with his grandparents, especially his grandfather, and he was just like a regular kid when he returned home. However, the documentary lost its fast-paced energy as the performance in Madison Square Garden got closer. A stand-out scene was when the film actually showed us the famous Bieber hair flip in slow motion. It was cheeky and I was glad the material wasn’t above that because the hair, arguably, was one of the reasons why the pop star reached superstardom. While the picture cited some of his struggles like contracting an infection in his throat, I didn’t understand why the director failed to isolate his subject and interview him. Instead, the adults around him did the talking. It was obvious that they were hardworking people and they cared about the business but I wanted to hear what Justin had to say. The adults spoke of having a plethora of record labels refusing to be in business with Bieber but the more interesting information was how Justin felt at the time. After traveling across the country which led to so many dead-ends, did he feel frustrated, angry, or disappointed? We didn’t know. The documentary was supposed to be about Bieber so I found it strange and somewhat maddening that he was never asked questions about how he felt, for instance, about having to do over a hundred shows per year and rarely taking a break. He claimed he wanted to make it to every single show. If he was a robot, I would believe him. Instead, I had a sneaky suspicion there was something more to his story. When he was given a chance to speak, it was always somewhere along the lines of, “Go after your dreams!” I just couldn’t help but feel restless. Perhaps the managers were concerned about Bieber saying something he would regret later on. But, in my opinion, if they did have such reservations, why make the movie at all? The most likely answer is money. I’m afraid Beliebers would see this film and retain the idea that celebrity happens overnight. I enjoyed the first forty-five minutes but the rest felt too idealistic, too superficial.
Scream 4 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ten years had passed since Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) was stalked by Ghostface. She had written a bestseller based on her experiences and Woodsboro was the last stop of her book tour. Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) had gotten married. And while Riley, now a sheriff, was happy with the marriage, Gale was less than ecstatic because she missed being out in the field as a sassy reporter and solving crimes. It must be Gale’s lucky day because it seemed like there was a new killer in town. Directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson, “Scream 4” felt fresh. That is an important quality because sequels tend to run out of ideas over time. This film was an exception because it took advantage of what social networking sites and fame meant to the new generation. The eleven-year break felt necessary. The challenge our beloved trio had to overcome was to quickly learn how to adapt to the new rules. Failure to do was tantamount to being a big-breasted dumb blonde who decided to investigate a strange noise upstairs. We all know what would eventually happen to that character. There were new horde of sheep ripe for the picking. Jill (Emma Roberts) was Sidney’s cousin but they were never really close. She had two spunky but good-looking best friends (Hayden Panettiere, Marielle Jaffe), an ex-boyfriend (Nico Tortorella) who cheated on her, and two horror movie geeks (Erik Knudsen, Rory Culkin) who had a crush on her galpals. There was also Deputy Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton), openly flirtatious to Dewey while on the job and Sidney’s assistant (Alison Brie) who was actually elated when she found out that teenagers were being butchered. Needless to say, all of them were suspects. After a self-satirizing and highly enjoyable first scene (with a nice cameo from Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell), I immediately got the feeling that no one, including Sidney, Gale, and Dewey, was safe. After all, they weren’t getting any younger. Perhaps the writer and director decided that it was time to pass on the torch. Furthermore, the teens were very similar to the characters in the original picture. What I loved was Craven’s awareness of that suspicion. He held onto our expectations, turned it upside down, and shook it with purpose. In doing so, the story actually felt unpredictable for a change. I paid more attention to where the story was heading next instead of the horror movie references or how knowledgeable the characters were about scary movies. I felt like there was more at stake this time around. Most importantly, “Scream 4” had something to say beyond the fences of horror pictures. Admittedly, the idea wasn’t fully developed but it’s far superior than torture porn where the violence depicted on screen were done simply for shock value. After a decade, the knife still felt sharp.
Scream 3 (2000)
★★ / ★★★★
Post-college life was tough for Sidney (Neve Campbell) as she moved away from her friends and family to live in a house deep in the woods with her dog. Who could blame her for being traumatized after a masked killer, or killers, exhibited a fixation for murdering those she was closest to? “Stab 3: Return to Woodsboro,” a successful horror franchise, was in production in Los Angeles but the actors were attacked and killed by Ghost Face. It seemed like the killer’s plan was to murder the actors in which they died in the movie in order to attract Sidney’s attention and come out of hiding. The two obviously had issues to resolve. There was only one problem: Sidney, Gale (Courteney Cox), and Dewey (David Arquette) had no idea which script Ghostface had in hand because three versions were written. It meant there were three different order of kills and three different endings. Still directed by Wes Craven but the screenplay helmed by Ehren Kruger instead of Kevin Williamson, “Scream 3” had potential for excellence but the execution was too weak to generate enough tension to keep me interested. What I enjoyed was Sidney, Gale, and Dewey’s doubles (Emily Mortimer, Parker Posey and Matt Keeslar, respectively) because they were exaggerated versions of the real ones. What I didn’t enjoy as much was they weren’t given very much to do other than waiting to die in a gruesome fashion. And while the material played upon the actors’ self-centeredness despite being second- or third-rate celebrities, it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. What made the first two movies so enjoyable was the fact that the comedy and horror were connected in a smart way. In here, the material relied on spoiled celebrities as a source of comedy and Ghostface’s hunt for Sidney as a source of horror. Since the two failed to connect, the script felt painfully stagnant. I wondered where the story was ultimately heading. Furthermore, the chase-and-stab formula became less exciting over time. It was awkward how the film would stop in the middle of the suspense and cut into a less exciting scene. In doing so, the scares lost considerable amount of momentum. And when it finally decided to return to the murder scene, it just looked silly and gruesome. It began to feel like a standard slasher flick. “Scream 3” still winked at itself, like the villain in a trilogy becoming seemingly superhuman, but it lacked the edginess combined with other necessary elements to bring the movie to the next level. It just didn’t feel fresh anymore. When the unmasking arrived, I just felt apathetic. It’s not a good sign when you’re looking at the clock every other scene to check the remaining minutes you have to sit through.
Boogie Nights (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
17-year-old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) was spotted by a pornographic film director named Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) while working as a busboy in a disco. Eddie, after running away from home, decided to work for Jack, changed his name to Dirk Diggler and instantly became an adult film star in the late 1970s. At first, everything seemed to be going well: Dirk’s well-endowed tool skyrocketed him to stardom, he made some good-natured friends (Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the ideas he shared with Jack in order to make the exotic pictures they made together even better earned Dirk awards, money and recognition. But in the 1980s, everything came crashing down as he chose his pride over people that took care of him when he was at his lowest, became addicted to drugs and resulted to prostitution to finance his addiction. I was impressed with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s elegant control over his material. It could easily have been sleazy because of its subject matter but I was happy he treated his subjects with utmost respect. Anderson may have highlighted his characters’ many negative traits but he made them as human and relatable as possible. His decision to underline the negative aspects of the pornographic industry not only was the driving force of the drama but it also prevented the picture from glamorizing its many lifestyles. It made the argument that the porno stars were sad, desperate and that most of them wouldn’t choose the industry if they knew how to do anything else well or if they had the means to reach for their goals. For instance, Don Cheadle’s character did not have the financial means to start his own business so he used the industry to have some sort of leverage. Details like that made me care deeply for the characters. Their careers didn’t have to be honorable but, like us, they did what they have to do in order to get by. However, I wished the movie could have at least acknowledged the role of sexually transmitted diseases in the industry. I know that the idea was not yet popular at the time but some hint of it could have added another dimension to the script. Furthermore, I found William H. Macy’s character to be one of the most fascinating of the bunch but he wasn’t fully explored. With a wife that so openly cheated on him (she had a penchant for having sex in public), we saw that he was a pushover. But what else was he? I felt like he was merely a joke, a punchline and that stood out to me because, even though others had something peculiar about them, they had layers and complexity. “Boogie Nights” surprised me in many ways because I didn’t expect it to have so much heart and intelligence. It certainly changed the way I saw pornographic material and, more importantly, the people that starred in them.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg spent a year with Joan Rivers to document her rollercoaster ride of a career. Joan Rivers is a comedian, but she claimed she was an actress at heart; she simply played a comedian and she knew she did it well. I saw Joan Rivers for the first time on TV when she interviewed people on the red carpet during the Oscars. There were two thoughts that ran across my mind: “Who is this hilarious woman?” and “She’s had way too many facelifts.” She knew exactly what people thought of her yet she decided to forge on like she didn’t care. It’s not that she wasn’t hurt by mean comments (especially critiques directed at her acting abilities), but being in show business was what quenched her appetite yet at the same time fueled her hunger to be relevant and reinvent herself. Despite the ups and downs of Rivers’ career in a span of one year, the directors successfully painted a well-realized picture of their subject. I had no idea that Rivers had been around since the early 1960s and had appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” I didn’t even know she won in a reality show. But it was the small details in her life that moved me, one of which was when she expressed to the camera that one of her biggest fears was that one day, she’ll turn around and find nobody she knew well enough to ask, “Do you remember?” Despite her lavish lifestyle (and she told us bluntly that she loved living comfortably), I’m convinced she held more value to personal links and true companionship than she led us to believe. That moment swept me off my feet because I did not expect it from a comedian who made outrageous jokes about AIDS, abortion, and even handicapped individuals. I was also moved at the part when she and her grandson decided to volunteer for God’s Love We Deliver to deliver food to handicapped people who couldn’t leave their homes on Thanksgiving. At end of the day, Rivers concluded that “Life is mean.” For a woman who was seventy-five years old, working at very strange (and very late) hours, sometimes traveling in the middle of nowhere, I couldn’t help but ask how she continues to do it. I found her story inspirational because it made me think about where I want my career to go. “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is full of beautiful contradictions that weren’t necessarily easy to swallow but that’s exactly what I loved about it. Ultimately, that’s what I loved about her. She’s edgy, ironic and she knew the business (and the busy-ness) of show business. People thinking of establishing a career under the scrutiny of the public eye should see this documentary. They just might think twice. Joan Rivers said she’s never seen her name without a positive adjective right before it. How about the resplendent Joan Rivers?
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Richard Day, “Straight-Jacket” was about a popular 1950s actor named Guy Stone (Matt Letscher) who must hide his homosexuality with the help of his agent (Veronica Cartwright) in order maintain his fans’ adoration. When a jealous fellow actor took a photo of Guy being arrested and was accused of being gay, his agent and the studio head (Victor Raider-Wexler) came up with a plan to keep his name clear by means of marrying an unaware fan/secretary named Sally (Carrie Preston). But things didn’t go quite as planned when Guy met a writer (Adam Greer), someone totally different from his type of “big, dumb and blonde.” I detested this picture’s exaggeration of pretty much everything: the slapstick, the wordplay, the acting, the set, among others. I felt as though it was looking down on me because it didn’t let me try to figure out what’s really going on in the characters’ heads because it was too busy hammering me with “this is funny!” moments. I also found this movie particularly difficult to watch because it had great trouble when it came to finding a consistent tone. With all the craziness that was going on screen, a little stability pertaining to the style of storytelling really would’ve done wonders. I like energy when it comes to the comedy but there’s a vast difference between energy and manic randomness. I found no redeeming factor in “Straight-Jacket” but I really have to mention one thing that deeply bothered me while I was watching it. The characters talked about having different kinds of homosexuals out there in the world, yet the film only focused one kind of a homosexual male: good-looking in the face, a built body, with snappy comebacks readily spit out. They’re in Hollywood, for goodness’ sake! Where are the lipstick lesbians, the drag queens, and stout effiminate directors? For a story that touches upon the glamour of Hollywood, this one simply lacked color and diversity. And I guess that’s why I hated this film: it’s unaware that it’s one-dimensional. There are a plethora of bad LGBT movies out there and this one, unfortunately, belongs in that category. What a waste of a hundred minutes.
Rudo y Cursi (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Rudo y Cursi” stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as brothers who started off as workers in a banana plantation and, with the help of a soccer scout (Guillermo Francella), eventually became Mexico’s soccer stars. One of the things I liked most about this movie was it allowed two very different characters to start off in the same level of happiness (or unhappiness). But when they finally achieved stardom, they were rarely on that same level and that caused tension, resentment, and bitterness which ate them inside out. But what’s even more impressive is that writer and director Carlos Cuarón painted the picture in a light-hearted manner with a real sadness in its core. It was easy for me to buy the fact that Bernal and Luna were very competitive brothers because of their lingering chemistry from “Y tu mamá también.” Although their characters genuinely loved one another, they forget that one time or another because they constantly got caught up in their own problems and inner demons. Such issues were commented on by the narrator who discussed things like the similarities and differences between a mother and a uniform, passion and talent, and the labyrinthine world of fame. The way their luck and fortunes fluctuated from golden fevers to pitiful desperation engaged me throughout. This is far from a typical sports film where a lead character goes through all kinds fo hardship in life and finally gets that big break. It’s really more about the dynamics between brothers who constantly had to build themselves up and could not help but compare themselves to each other in order to determine if they were good enough. (Which kind of works as a cautionary tale.) Carlos Cuarón’s debut film impresses on many levels which, admittedly, could have been a lot stronger if it had a better sense of pacing. I was just glad that it actually had a brain despite the sport.