Listening to Vox Lux as a lament

In general, you found Vox Lux snarky, where I found it to be a lament, something perfect for an entry in your book.

The link between entertainment and tragedy is only partially about how the industry uses tragedy, and it’s much more than just a bold artistic flourish. This movie is deeply interested in the pressure put onto entertainment – and specifically, entertainers – to give us answers and context for tragedy, be it personal or national.

Consider the narration when Celeste’s song is sweeping the nation. If my memory is correct, we hear the narration over images of cameras zooming in on Celeste. It points out that the public wasn’t so interested in Celeste’s own grief (even though she was a direct victim in the shooting). The nation wanted her to help them figure out their own grief. Her own direct pain was ignored, even cast aside, so that she could provide something consumable for the masses. And her proximity to the tragedy was re-packaged as authenticity.

By the time the second tragedy happens, the reporters and press just want to know what Celeste thinks about it. What’s she going to do about it? Is she going to play for them, during their time of new grief? Or will she cancel and force them to be alone? What’s so particularly clever about the film is how it positions that question as being about Celeste’s ego to perform (which is certainly there, too), which is almost a way of tricking someone into thinking they want to do what we wanted them to do all along.

It’s also very much worth tracking Celeste’s spiritual transition from the first half to the second. In the first, she believes in God, has a sense of hope outside herself, even offering to pray for the shooter. In the second half, in the press conference, she declares herself the new religion. Why? Because instead of looking to God for answers and comfort during tragedy or crisis, now we look to pop idols (and all that that word implies). She has experienced that reality first-hand.

And at the same time that we look to entertainers for answers, we’re also very quick to criticize them (as with Celeste’s more intimate interview), to point out their mistakes, hypocrisies, scandals, failures, etc. – almost as if they weren’t so much their own people, almost as if their brand is their religious text and we’re finding inconsistencies with their gospels.

Now just when I thought the movie might be a little too cynical about all of that – since, in my view, art (rather than entertainment) can absolutely be heavenly comfort – Portman’s concert happens, and she addresses her audience, builds a link between them, encourages them. I guess one could see that as just more of “her brand” but there was something about the way she handled those lines that felt like she was “breaking character” from her pop icon, so that she could connect with people. Though, someone could certainly argue that that’s just more of the icon, her version of Jesus condescending to become human.

The more I think about this movie, the more I love it.

Jason Eaken

Suspiria an engrossing puzzle

Remaking Suspiria is a dicey proposition. Daria Argento’s 1977 film is a towering and effective mood piece. It straddles the line between being a nightmarish Technicolor fairy tale and feeling like a nasty snuff film conjured by its supernatural antagonist. Even with its dramatic shortcomings, it still remains one of horror cinema’s most grandiose creations.

To its credit, Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 re-imagining is equally as startling and visionary. Taking the essential narrative spine of the original, the new film is about aspiring American ballet dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who enrolls at a prestigious German dance academy. Under the tutelage of the company’s artistic director, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), Bannion is trained to become a more freeing and self-assured dancer. In reality, the young woman is being groomed for a ritualistic ceremony for a coven of witches.

Rather than presenting a heightened fable with primary colors bleeding onto the screen, Guadagnino employs a cold and stark color scheme that exists somewhere between Kubrickian pristineness and documentary realism. The choice is crucial for serving the film’s 1977 West Berlin setting. In an interesting left turn from the original, the political turmoil in the midst of the German Autumn is frequently mentioned by characters in the narrative (in addition to radio and television broadcasts).

Consequently, the film has a pervasive historical weight. The choice feels like an interesting commentary on the events of the academy. The central dance piece (Volk) could be considered an embodiment of the German people and the witches’ infighting represents a war for whether or not the people have control of their artistic expression.

Tilda Swinton appears as three characters in the film. The choice is equally interesting in illustrating an internal battle for the German soul. Helena Markos (elected head witch of the coven) seeks to carry on the atrocities of the country’s blood-soaked past by preying on the young and innocent. Whereas, Dr. Josef Klemperer chooses to be the sole individual who will no longer turn a blind eye to the savagery. This is due to his experiences with his wife and the Holocaust. This is made all the more palpable when he says in the third act, “There are a lot of guilty men in Germany, I am not one of them.” Blanc exists in the middle as a complicit instigator, who in a sense is carrying out the orders of a ruling power much like many of the men and women who served under the Nazi regime.

At the same time, the instructor’s relationship with Bannion encapsulates the film’s preoccupation with motherhood. Blanc’s teachings about opening oneself and being part of something larger are as applicable to a young woman dealing with the problems of the external world as much as ballet. With this in mind, Bannion’s journey is equally about an awakening of maternal instincts and a literal ascension to motherhood.

Swinton casts the biggest impression as Blanc. Her maternal outpouring is illustrated in sweet and caring gestures that feel like an extension of her art form. As the young Bannion, Dakota Johnson impresses with a versatile physicality that lends her sequences a raw visceral power.

In fact, some of the film’s most striking moments wield Bannion’s swift balletic movements as an instrument of the witches’ will. One particular cross-cutting sequence disturbs in contrasting the euphoria of creative expression and the literal physical damage it has on a dancer’s body.

Aside from its nightmarish imagery and harrowing instances of cross-cutting, Suspiria truly got under my skin with its subdued moments. Like Roman Polanski, Guadagnino understands how to turn seemingly ordinary situations into instances of acute uneasiness. One sequence has an impressive continuous long shot that travels the full length of a kitchen. Throughout, we see dishes being clean and plates being put away. Whilst this is occurring, we hear a meeting between the members of the coven, who are voting on their new leader.

The sequence takes one of the appealing aspects of the original, which was this sense of the witches pervading every corner of the film, and filters that feeling through a prism of normalcy. The scene is additionally elevated by Thom Yorke’s beautifully haunting score that serves as a good replacement for Goblin’s assaultive prog rock music.

In many ways, Suspiria feels like the heir to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Like the 1980 film, it has a surreal moment that defies comprehension. At the same time, it also shares that film’s understanding of the horror coming from a slow creeping dread of the supernatural having complete sway over the mundane. Like Kubrick’s film, Suspiria presents the audience with a puzzle of a movie and invites them to fit its various pieces together.

This undoubtedly makes Suspiria an ambitious horror film. It may be trying to some, baffling to most, but for those who are seduced, it is a persistently engrossing and unnerving experience that admirably attempts to combine historical weight and primordial pathos.

Sartaj Singh

This is my Han Solo

While not entirely “even”—as a movie, as a narrative plot, as a humorous story, or even in its casting—I still overwhelmingly enjoyed this movie. I though Alden Ehrenreich really did a great job overall, and his Han was “on point” considering the plot that was driving the movie. I think Donald Glover and Joonas Suotamo were clearly highlights (Glover channeled Billy Dee Willliams in every line except when he yelled). I think you said as much on Filmspotting too, Josh. I really feel like I’m getting much more entertainment from these anthology movies than I am from the saga ones (though I’m absolutely enthralled with the Luke Skywalker arc in The Last Jedi). Ultimately, this is still my Han Solo.

Dan Vander Plaats

Isle of Dogs didn't need a white savior

While I’m not as negative as some have been about Isle of Dogs‘ cultural appropriation – admittedly due to the fact I’m not as familiar with Japanese culture as I’d like to be – there were some things that Wes Anderson did with the movie that left me feeling uneasy.

The biggest problem I had is with Tracy Walker. Her appearance – specifically, the big hair – is certainly evocative of a non-white person and Anderson didn’t seem to realize how that look would come across in the film.

Tracy is put in a position to be the white savior of the story. She is the one who does all the investigating of the corruption and makes her case to all the Japanese citizens to get them to understand that Mayor Kobayashi is full-on corrupt. Her slapping around Yoko when Yoko is in a state of mourning and grief is also uncomfortable, but it gets presented as comedic.

One of my nitpicks with the film is that the dogs don’t understand Atari, even though we are led to believe they are from Japan. That part I’m willing to look past, but Tracy is too much of a glaring oversight in this movie to keep it from being a great movie.

She’s also part of a larger problem that Anderson has had throughout his career of not creating fully developed female characters. He’s really only gotten it perfectly right once with Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom.

Adam Wells