Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Vox Lux and Short Takes on The Mule

                 Awards Season Underdog Contenders

                                                       Reviews by Ken Burke
                            Vox Lux (Brady Corbet)   rated R
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): I don’t normally pay much attention to “trigger warnings” in these reviews, but in case you’re contemplating seeing this film please be aware there are literal triggers in the first few minutes when a gruesome school shooting takes place in the year 2000, a disturbing, violent event which then propels the rest of this story for nearly the next 2 hours.  One young teen whom we’d assumed to be dead in those early shots (no pun intended) survives, writes a song of hope with her older sister to perform at a service for the victims, suddenly finds herself to be an emerging celebrity racing into a music career complete with dance moves (which she can do by careful motion, despite her near-fatal-spinal-injury), an abrasive music video, a trip to Sweden to record an album, and a protective manager who’s ultimately responsible for her growing emotionally-distant from her sister, even though the older troubled sibling remains on board throughout the troubled younger one’s soaring career.  When we suddenly jump to 2017, former-teen Celeste is now 31, a hugely-popular-but-constantly-caustic-celebrity (with a teenage daughter of her own) on the verge of either an even bigger career boost or flaming out from the pressures (and overdoses) of her daily life.  More details await you either in a rapidly-growing-system of available theaters or in my spoiler-filled review just below if you want to know all about it right now.  Be warned, though, this is an grueling film much of the time, boiling over with hostility, which might be better at depicting the agonies of contemporary life—even for those trendsetters mistakenly assumed to be above it all just because they’re rich and famous—than offering much hope of transcending such misery, but the acting’s all solid (especially in the scathing performance by Natalie Portman), the music’s very current (to my elderly ears), and the final concert scene is dynamically staged.  This certainly isn’t for everyone, but it might cater well to your specific tastes.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: With information provided at various times by an unnamed narrator (Willem Dafoe), we learn Celeste Montgomery was born in 1986, showed some precocious aspects as a child (although grainy home movies accompanying this voiceover intro mostly feature older sister Eleanor “Ellie” Montgomery [Stacy Martin]), but what matters for this story is how at age 13 (nearly 14) in 2000 one of Celeste’s schoolmates comes into her 8th-grade-classroom in the New Brighton section of NYC’s Staten Island on the morning after New Year’s break, immediately shoots the teacher, tells the students he’s already killed many others, seems to kill all of them (although Celeste [Raffey Cassidy] survives, yet has a bullet lodged in her neck causing her spinal pain for the rest of her life), then kills himself just as the police arrive.  From this opening we go to the title of “Act I Genesis 2000-2001” where Celeste is recovering in the hospital, Ellie comes to see her pledging lifelong devotion to her injured sibling, then using an electronic keyboard in Celeste’s bed the sisters compose a song, "Alive" (written by Jesse St. John Geller, Sia Furler, Grant Michaels; on the film’s soundtrack album; here are lyrics if your acoustical-clarity is as bad as mine often is regarding what’s being sung in contemporary songs), which they sing at the memorial service for slain students, after which the tune goes viral on the Internet, leading to Celeste getting a hard-nosed-manager (Jude Law) to guide her ascent in becoming a pop star, taking choreography lessons, then flying to Stockholm to record an album.  While there Ellie takes Celeste to various clubs which angers The Manager (we never get his name), but after they return to NYC to make a video Celeste becomes fascinated with a rock band singer/guitarist (Michael Richardson) but doesn’t take him up on his willingness for sex; instead, she barges into Ellie’s room, finds Ellie in bed with The Manager, leading to emotional withdrawal from her sibling even though the elder Montgomery continues to live and work with Celeste, essentially raising her sister's daughter whom we’re just about to meet.

 Next comes “Act II Regenesis 2017,” when Celeste is 31 (now played by Natalie Portman), a huge star, but burdened with emotional and physical pains plus the demands of fame so she’s generally nasty to everyone (especially Ellie) except her teenage child, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy, an interesting—if not confusing—bit of casting), seemingly the result of having sex after all with that rock musician, although her birth was likely the end of their affair.  Celeste’s career hit some brutal bumps in 2011 because she’s lost sight in her left eye (due to enhancing her already-active-alcohol-and-drug-habits with drinking various household cleaning products, then getting into a damaging lawsuit resulting from injuring a man with her car while not fit to drive [she settled for $13 million])⇒At this point, she’s about to make a sort-of-comeback-tour promoting her new album, Vox Lux (whatever that’s supposed to mean; she says it’s a career-culmination with an overall sci-fi theme), beginning with a huge concert in her hometown, almost put on hold when 4 gunmen in Croatia (wearing masks like those used in her “Hologram” video from back in 2001; more on that below) randomly shoot up vacationers on a beach, 14 dead.  Despite concern these terrorists somehow have a connection to her (or maybe the masks just caught their attention in a costume shop) the show is set to go on although Celeste—in one of her frequent bad moods—is verbally abusive to Ellie (who we learn from Albertine never really got over her sister getting all the limelight as Ellie’s hoped-for-career was pushed aside) and The Manager, then gets obscene with a restaurant manager who interrupts her getaway-conversation with Albertine (trying to convince the girl she needs an angle to succeed, such as Mom’s public suffering illustrated by the covering always on her neck), attempting to take a photo with this famous star. Later that afternoon, first at a press conference then in a 1-on-1 with a reporter, she tries to express sympathy for the shooting victims but ends up with defiant—or angry—attitudes about how she’s not going to be intimidated by such headline-grabbing-tactics.  This is followed by some drugs and sex with The Manager (who doesn’t seem to have aged much over those intervening years; Ellie’s held up nicely also), then a limo ride to the show where she stumbles in, seemingly totally wasted until The Manager gives her loving encouragement, miraculously inspiring her to transition into “Finale XXI” (no idea what the number means) where she gives a defiant pep talk to her enthusiastic audience, sings 4 songs in full complete with dancers, lights, high energy, etc. before it abruptly cuts to black, then credits.⇐

So What? Here’s another one of those cases where I was convinced by my local critic-guru, Mick LaSalle (erudite although highly opinionated) of the San Francisco Chronicle, to explore a film he raved about: “There are great movies every year, but every so often there’s a movie that’s not only great but new, that advances the form a little, that pushes movies to a different place. Such movies get remembered as the thing that happened in cinema that year.  ¶ The thing that happened in 2018 is ‘Vox Lux.’ ¶ It’s a film very much of its time, and yet fiercely in opposition to its time — utterly modern yet demonstrating utter repulsion at modernity.”  Still, I had some trepidation because it’s earned only 60% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, yet that was balanced by a surprisingly-better 70% average score from Metacritic (it’s extremely rare for them to offer the higher number; usually they’re notably lower).  Had I simply given in to that sense of reservation, taken the advice of another respected critic, Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times, I’d never have even considering seeing Vox Lux: “Just in time for the holiday season, here is a giant pile of shiny gift-wrapped garbage titled ‘Vox Lux.’  ¶ Open and proceed at your own risk. [… ¶ … It] ultimately devolves into a screeching, empty, exploitative cinematic cacophony about as entertaining and insightful as multiple sets of nails scratching across multiple blackboards until we’re begging for mercy.”  Deciding to split the evaluative-differences, I went (with the wonderful birthday companionship of my wife, Nina—my birthday, not hers—as part of a celebration of 71 years, wishing that it could be 17 again but only for a few hours), given it was playing locally while more-tantalizing-fare’s now opened up a bit farther away or will soon be in release so I wanted to see what this likely-Oscar-hopeful-now-with-little-chance-of-recognition is all about, especially given the respect I have for Portman’s acting (and new-found-respect for Cassidy, both on screen and recorded), although there are certainly aspects of Vox … that make it seem like it’s aspiring to be Black Swan II (the original directed by Darren Aronofsky [2010], winning Portman a Best Actress Oscar, my preference for Best Film rather than The King’s Speech [Tom Hooper]), without the supernatural aspects (except possibly for Celeste’ perceived bargain with the devil when she was in injury-delirium, although I can’t say what she was to gain from it except—I assume—superstardom).

 Overall, I’m glad I went, even though I don’t find Vox Lux to be as enthralling as LaSalle does but it’s certainly not the utter flop experienced by Roeper.  How it might impact you could depend on how much you agree with director Corbet’s intentions (from the press notes) of producing story “constructs that imagine fictional characters as eyewitnesses of crucial historical turning-points, or real- life personages placed in altered historical settings. For me, these stories demonstrate a more transparent contract with the reader than the traditional historical biography because one is able to access the past without questioning the author about how they could provide such a detailed account of an event without having been present for the event themselves. Or if they had been present, in the case of a memoir, has their memory of past experiences not betrayed them?  [… Vox Lux’s] protagonist is a pop star called Celeste and it chronicles key events and cultural patterns that have so far defined the early 21st century via her gaze.”  It’s arguable how well he succeeds in his ambition, given how off-putting as well as mean-spirited the primary character becomes after she’s enveloped by the adulations of fame (although constantly kept unbalanced by inner pain), how distant she’s become from her devoted sister and daughter, how fiercely she rejects her well-earned-admiration when off-stage, how cavalier she is about personal misconduct even when it’s physically/emotionally harmful to someone else as well as herself.  If you can see her life as a metaphor for ongoing-deterioration of American society throughout the 21st century you might find a lot to respect here; however, if what you see is a modern, possibly-even-more-tragic version of Judy Garland as an innocent juvenile whose life’s been taken away from her by social forces well beyond her control, leaving her struggling to maintain any sense of self-appreciated-selfhood, then Vox Lux might come across as just a flashy exercise in grotesque self-excess, with a semi-worshipped-performer channeling actual public spectacles by Madonna, Janet Jackson, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, etc.  There’s a lot to admire or dislike, so see for yourself how/if it all works out.

Bottom Line Final Comments: While a couple of films I’ve recently addressed (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs [Ethan and Joel Coen; review in our December 6, 2018 posting]; First Man [Damien Chazelle; review in our October 18, 2018 posting]) joined Vox Lux in premiering at last summer’s Venice International Film Festival they also share with Vox … a relative restraint from audiences (Ballad …, no income info as it’s now on Netflix streaming rather than in theaters; First Man, $100.5 million worldwide) even if they’ve all had some support from critics, unlike Venice premieres Roma (Alfonso Cuarón; review to come soon), The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos; review in our December 12, 2018 posting), and A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper; review in our October 11, 2018 posting), all of which are front-runners for annual Top 10 accolades, presumed Oscar nominations, and—in the case of A Star …—mega-impact at the global box-office ($376.3 million at present).  Meanwhile, Vox Lux’s barely mustering a majority of positive reviews, making even less of a ticket-sales-impression with returns of only about $433 thousand so far from domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters (of course, playing in only 325 such venues doesn’t help, with 319 of those coming in its second week of release, so we’ll just have to see if this film picks up any further steam within this holiday season, although doubtful with heavy-hitters such as Mary Poppins Returns [Rob Marshall] and Aquaman [James Wan] on the near-horizon).  Still, I found Vox Lux to be quite intriguing with its dual look at how young people who survive a brutal attack are injured psychically (if not also physically) in manners haunting them for the rest of their lives, even if the media focus may be on their heroic efforts to change the social conditions allowing such tragedies to happen (as has been the case with political activism by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas teens from Parkland, FL) along with the film’s critique (I assume) of how our fickle public will turn victims (even if their circumstances are somewhat self-inflicted, as with Celeste’s career-threatening-problems) into idols if they provide attitudes appropriate for the sound bites of social media; however, I also agree with those who castigate Vox Lux for being mostly style over substance (similar to how I felt about Orson Welles’ long-delayed-final-film, The Other Side of the Wind [review in our December 6, 2018 posting]), especially with its “Finale” where Celeste gets to perform several well-staged-numbers, but the film suddenly stops as she finishes "EKG" (written by Sia Furler, Alexander Shuckburgh; this song and the others just below on the film’s soundtrack album) in which she sings of love bringing her back from flatline, claiming “I know I will get through it.”  Will she?  We can only hope she does.

 So, speaking of music (as one must, in a film emphasizing it so much, especially at the end in what seems like a tribute to the main character rather than something moving the story along toward any sense of narrative closure, unless you see the contents of those 4 songs [assuming you can follow them; if not, I’ll continue to provide lyrics], as she begins in "Sweat and Tears" [written by Sia Furler, Jake Troth]—seemingly to a new lover—“I wanna see you put your heart where your mouth is […] And I’ll be there for you every night” then follows with "Private Girl" [written by Mikkel Eirksen, Sia, Tor Hermansen] where she says she’s more than her controversial public image because “You know I’m a private girl I don’t need to tell the world,” followed by "Wrapped Up" [written by Greg Kurstin, Sia]* where she admits to a supportive-someone-else “But I’ve never shut up long enough to hear you And you never hurt me by shutting me down,”** along with the aforementioned “EKG” as a reassurance to herself and us her life will now get better as she’ll find more constructive ways of dealing with her demons), I’d say it’s time for me to wrap this up with my usual review-closer of a Musical Metaphor, which is this case is easily drawn from the film itself in "Hologram (Smoke and Mirrors)" (written by Sia, Fernando Garibay) as sung by Raffey Cassidy in the film at https://www. (plus just a touch of the music video accompanying this song in the film, the one that seemingly connects to the mass-shooting on the Croatian beach) as it speaks directly to the horror Celeste wanted to erase from her damaged life early in this story (“Now I blacked you out, I just want you gone I need to be alone”) as well as how it continues to haunt her well into adulthood (“And I fear you’ll be back, inside all the cracks No, I can’t handle that History’s heartbreak was in my mind Now I no longer cry”), but maybe she’s always sensed some command over this disruptive force (“And now the power’s out and you are thin air What an illusion, I coulda sworn that you were there Smoke and mirrors, you are just a hollow man Hologram”), leaving us with more possibilities for her in the future than what we’ve so far observed in the past and present.

*To my old-school-ears, this echoes The Beatles’ long-ago "Help" (from their 1965 same-named-soundtrack album from their also same-named-movie) where John Lennon notes “But now those days are gone, I’m not so self-assured Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors.”

**Here’s Portman performing it in that concert scene, intercut with shots from the rest of the film.
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also appear here)
                        The Mule (Clint Eastwood)   rated R
Based (however loosely, I’m not sure) on the real situation of an old man becoming a drug mule, hauling large quantities of coke from Texas to Chicago in order to overcome his bankruptcy, then help his neglected family and community; this movie moves at a casual pace, reflecting the age of the protagonist who faces down frequent adversity despite escalating danger.

Here’s the trailer:

       Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.

 As with being intrigued by Vox Lux for no other reason than seeing how Natalie Portman is pushing herself in ever-new-directions in this dark-side-of-A-Star-Is-Born’s-perennial-narrative, I was also interested in Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial/starring effort but in his case because I know what to expect with the consistency he’s demonstrated in front of/behind the camera for decades (also, at 88—he looks it, playing 90-year-old Earl Stone in this movie—I can’t help but wonder when Clint will follow Robert Redford’s supposed decision to terminate his acting career [for Redford, after The Old Man and the Gun—David Lowery; review in our October 18, 2018 posting—given Redford’s “youthful” status of 82]).  Another reason I was interested in The Mule is it’s doing solid-box-office-business, raking in $17.5 million domestically for its debut, playing in 2,588 theaters (although its #2 status last weekend looks puny compared to the $55.9 million worldwide for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse [Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman]—already getting Oscar-buzz for Best Animated Feature, currently in 3,813 domestic theaters with more screens and much more income very likely).  What I found, though, is that while there’s not much going on in The Mule beyond what you see in the trailer the whole experience is well acted, builds useful senses of suspense to keep the tension generally-well-placed for effective beats throughout the almost 2-hr. running time, while emphasizing the dangerous cruelty of the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel whose workers become trapped into lives of crime or death, no quarter being the ongoing attitude.  Even though this is yet another “based on a true story” drama we’re only given that notation just before the final credits, with no follow-up on the actual guy, Leo Sharp (WW II vet; released in 2015 after 1 year in prison; died 2016), or anyone else in the film so it’s hard to know how much fictionalization’s written in here.  As the movie depicts events, though, Earl’s (Eastwood) a prosperous Midwest orchid grower in 2005 (although neglectful of his family, missing daughter Iris’ [Alison Eastwood, Clint’s actual child] wedding, drawing her ongoing ire, along with ex-wife Mary [Dianne Wiest]), but by 2017 he’s broke (Internet competition shut him down), takes a tip to see some guys in El Paso, TX about being a courier, which he does, agreeing to not peek into his cargo (although he soon enough realizes it’s cocaine), continuing to make several runs to Chicago which pays him enough to buy back his foreclosed property, save the local VFW hall, contribute to the expenses of his granddaughter Ginny’s (Taissa Framiga, Vera’s sister) wedding, etc., but the cartel’s tolerance of his meandering travels ends abruptly when head honcho Laton’s (Andy Garcia) killed by one of his own.

 Ultimately, Earl’s brought to justice by the determined Chicago office of the DEA—run by Laurence Fishburne—as agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Peña) make the arrest with the help of a cartel infiltrator whose info helps the feds identify Earl after he’s severely off-schedule with his latest run because he’s gone home to reconcile with dying Mary (also, by extension, the rest of his family), only getting back on the road after her funeral.  In court, Earl astounds his lawyer by pleading guilty (but—in a surprisingly-frustrating-twistwe get nothing on what became of the involved cartel members).⇐   With all of the above in play while considering a Musical Metaphor for The Mule, I decided on “Poncho and Lefty” at watch?v=AbZ3VdYb90o (a video of the Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard duet from Nelson’s 1983 Poncho & Lefty album, with Willie as Poncho, Merle as Lefty; also notice a thin guy, Townes Van Zandt, who wrote the song in 1972 for his The Late Great Townes Van Zandt album [here’s his live version]) when I thought about how Earl’s situation reminded me of “Poncho needs your prayers, it’s true But save a few for Lefty, too He just did what he had to do Now he’s growing old.”  So, that pushed me, in my deft metaphorical manner, to rationalize Poncho being Laton, with Lefty as Earl, because Poncho “was a bandit boy […] Who wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel” (although I think Van Zandt intended another interpretation of that last line than the one my usage implies); Laton certainly “met his match, you know On the deserts down in Mexico Nobody heard his dying words [because of his quick assassination] But that’s the way it goes,” just like “Lefty [Earl], he can’t sing the blues All night long like he used to do The dust that Pancho bit down south Ended up in Lefty’s mouth,” as Earl’s fortunes faded under the cartel’s new regime plus tips from the DEA informant.  Further, the part about “A few gray federales say They could have had him any day Only let him go so wrong Out of kindness, I suppose” could be used in a sarcastic context about lawmen (not that I don’t have ultimate respect for them—at least sometimes), both the Mexican authorities who seem to have little hope of corralling such cartels and the intrepid DEA guys who finally find the right black truck with Earl at the wheel on the freeway after attempting arrests on the wrong drivers of such vehicles several times prior (Earl’s advanced age aided him in not seeming to be a suspect).  Or, if you don’t buy any of that then just let me and Clint “slip away Out of kindness, I suppose” until next you need some cinematic insights from Two Guys in the Dark.

 However, it’s doubtful we’ll be back until January 2019, but we’ll return with reviews of more-likely-Oscar-contenders, opening or available to us by then.  (If you need something to occupy your time, though, maybe you could volunteer to help a federal prisoner grow orchids; at least, that’s the impression we get in The Mule as to how Earl spent his final years behind a high fence topped with a guard tower.  Or, you could read Variety’s selected opinion about 12 Best Movie Scenes of 2018.)
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

AND … at least until the Oscars for 2018’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 24, 2019 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2018 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees for films and TV from 2018.

Here’s more information about Vox Lux: (29:43 interview with director Brady Corbet and actor Natalie Portman [begins with the same trailer from the review above])

Here’s more information about The Mule: (7:31 interview with director/actor Clint Eastwood and actor Andy Garcia, Dianne Wiest, Michael Peña)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come. 


Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 6,117 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week (with 5 of our hoped-for-continents represented, missing only Africa, which rarely appears here):

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