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On Blu-ray/DVD: THE VANISHING (2019) and VOX LUX (2018)

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THE VANISHING
(US/UK - 2019)


After the perfectly acceptable HUNTER KILLER tanked in theaters last fall, I said to a friend "Other than the next entry in the HAS FALLEN series, Gerard Butler's probably headed to VOD going forward." Cut to a little over two months later, and not only was Butler's next movie bowing on VOD, but it was also given an ignominious first-weekend-of-January dumping on top of it. Shot in 2017 as KEEPERS, THE VANISHING (not to be confused with two previous George Sluizer thrillers with the same title) isn't one of Butler's formulaic action vehicles, but it does find the star (and one of 28 credited producers) in Serious Actor mode in the vein of the underseen MACHINE GUN PREACHER. Inspired by the 1900 "Flannan Isle Mystery," where three lighthouse keepers disappeared without a trace from a distant island off the coast of Scotland, THE VANISHING moves the setting to the 1930s and proceeds on pure speculation. The film could've gone in any number of directions--theories of the disappearance range from one of the three men going insane and killing the other two; a sea serpent; and an even an alien abduction--but it opts for a character-driven mash-up of THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and Danny Boyle's breakthrough SHALLOW GRAVE with a bit of a John Carpenter siege scenario for a little while.






Arriving on Flannan Isle for a six-week stint of running the lighthouse and other various maintenance duties, boss Thomas Marshall (Peter Mullan), James Ducat (Butler), and young apprentice/good-natured hazing target Donald McArthur (newcomer Connor Swindells, currently on Netflix's SEX EDUCATION) find their dull routine broken up one morning by the appearance a crashed boat and a body washed ashore on the rocks below. Donald is lowered down to check him and even though he says the man (Gary Kane) isn't breathing, he comes to and attacks Donald, who then bashes his head in with a rock in self-defense. In the crashed boat is a locked trunk that Thomas opens to discover it's filled with an untold fortune in gold bars. James and Donald think they've struck it rich, but Thomas urges caution, reminding them "Somebody's gonna come looking for this guy." Sure enough, two men, Locke (Soren Malling) and Boor (GAME OF THRONES' Olafur Darri Olafsson), show up on the island and start asking questions. It isn't long before there's two more dead bodies and increasing paranoia over more people coming and a growing mistrust of one another over concerns about making off with the gold and who'll keep their mouth shut about it. Given the speculation about what could've gone down on Flannan Isle in 1900--and to this day, no one knows for sure--THE VANISHING certainly takes an unexpected approach when it could've been just as easy to get a movie about a sea monster or aliens made. It benefits from three strong performances by its stars, particularly Mullan as the conflicted Thomas--considered the likely killer by historians who support the "one man went insane killed the other two" theory--still grieving over the deaths of his wife and daughters (and he won't say how they died). But in the context of the film, it's Butler's James who really cracks up and folds under pressure, which allows the actor to stretch a bit when he's usually the hero. THE VANISHING is worth a look for fans of Butler and the great character actor Mullan (SESSION 9), but the pace is a bit too slow (probably why Lionsgate relegated it to VOD), and it starts stumbling in the home stretch when it really matters most, leading to an abrupt and not-very-satisfying conclusion. (R, 107 mins)




VOX LUX
(US - 2018)


If Lars von Trier attempted to make his own warped version of A STAR IS BORN and was completely in over his head and absolutely terrible at his job, it would probably come out looking a lot like VOX LUX, the latest from actor-turned-filmmaker Brady Corbet. In his acting days, Corbet paid his dues with stints on 24 and with guest spots in the LAW & ORDER universe, but instead of going the mainstream route, he was driven to take roles in films by provocateurs like von Trier (MELANCHOLIA), Gregg Araki (MYSTERIOUS SKIN), Michael Haneke (the remake of FUNNY GAMES), and Olivier Assayas (CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA). I've not seen Corbet's 2016 directing debut THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER, but VOX LUX is a film that thinks it's deep and meaningful, but is really just shallow, exploitative, self-indulgent drivel that feels like the kind of nonsense that VELVET BUZZSAW was trying to lampoon. Corbet may have spent time observing and picking the brains of his auteur heroes, but he doesn't seem to have learned anything from them beyond surface imitation. You know you know you're in for an ordeal when the film opens with von Trier-esque title cards like "Prelude: 1999" followed by "Act I: Genesis (2000-01)." There's also wry and sardonic narration by frequent von Trier star Willem Dafoe, just like the kind John Hurt provided in von Trier's DOGVILLE and MANDERLAY. In an effectively harrowing opening sequence set in 1999, Staten Island teenager Celeste Montgomery (Raffey Cassidy of THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER) gets a bullet lodged in her spine when she's the sole survivor of a shooting rampage by troubled outcast and character-name-that-could-only-exist-in-a-shitty-movie-like-this, Cullen Active (Logan Riley Bruner), who mows down her entire classroom, and it's all downhill from there. During her long recovery, after which she's still able to walk as long as the bullet doesn't dislodge, she attends a candlelight vigil and performs a song written by her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin, who played the young Charlotte Gainsbourg in von Trier's NYMPHOMANIAC) that captures the nation's attention and draws interest from various record companies. She gets a manager (Jude Law), a publicist (Jennifer Ehle), and a choreographer, and soon enough, she's about to become teen pop sensation "Celeste," recording songs in NYC and Europe, and then the sisters are partying hard and hooking up with guys in L.A. in the early morning hours of 9/11, when narrator Dafoe gravely intones "Celeste's loss of innocence curiously mirrored that of the nation."






I would pay to see the look on Willem Dafoe's face when he was standing in the recording booth and was handed that line. It's impossible to take anything VOX LUX offers seriously after that, but at about the midway point, there's a 16-year time jump or, as Corbet (who probably now pronounces it "Cor-bay") puts it, "Act II: Regenesis 2017," where we're introduced to 31-year-old Celeste, and the film achieves the unthinkable and somehow gets even worse. Much of that is due to a career-worst performance by Natalie Portman, who takes over the role while Cassidy now plays her teenage daughter Albertine. Adult Celeste is now a Madonna/Lady Gaga-esque pop culture icon, constantly stalked by the tabloids and addled by booze, drugs, public meltdowns, and other scandals. As she prepares for a sold-out comeback concert at a Staten Island arena, her always-enabling manager (still played by Law, who's pretty much Alan Bates in THE ROSE) informs her that terrorists dressed as the dancers in the music video of one of her early hits have just committed a horrific mass shooting on a beach in Croatia. She has nothing but resentment and scorn for the long-suffering Ellie, who's done most of the heavy lifting both writing her songs for her and raising Albertine. It all culminates in a triumphant performance by Celeste in front of her hometown "angels" in an interminable finale featuring songs by Sia that sound like they came from the bottom of her slush pile. Corbet's ham-fisted, would-be commentary on everything from school shootings to 9/11 to the Price of Fame while feebly trying to emulate von Trier and others borders on outright poseurdom, and while Martin and Cassidy manage to emerge generally unscathed (though Cassidy's British accent slips through quite a bit in the first half), a shrill and over-the-top Portman, stuck playing one of the most grating, off-putting, and aggressively unlikable characters in any movie from last year, is just embarrassingly bad. Check out her overly-affected Noo Yawk screech when she's ranting at Ellie or at restaurant managers or at a journalist (Christopher Abbott), or waxing philosophic over society's ills and "ultra mega triple hi-def TVs" and "our intimate knowledge of the commitment to the lowest common denominator." Barely released by Neon and grossing just $730,000, VOX LUX isn't a serious artistic statement by a bold new voice in filmmaking. It's smug, self-impressed, vacuous bullshit. Can someone tell Brady Corbet that masturbation is usually something done in private? (R, 114 mins)



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