Serenity. After directing a tense drama featuring a single actor in the front seat of a car (Tom Hardy in 2013’s Locke), screenwriter Steven Knight returns to the director’s chair with a tremendous failure. An ugly, convoluted, and laughable misfire, Serenity reunites the stars of Interstellar — Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway — as Baker Dill and Karen, hard-boiled cardboard characters out of the film-noir playbook making killer plans for Karen’s abusive but superrich husband Frank (Jason Clarke).
It all unfolds on the fictional island of Plymouth, a tropical paradise not far from Miami where Karen and Frank live. Decked out in posh, generic fashion, the two stick out like sore golden thumbs in the blazing sun of island scallywag slackers. Using damning language such as “Miami is a strange place,” the writer of strong movies such as Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things seems to fumble for dialogue. It’s all heightened by an overly present, manipulative score by Benjamin Wallfisch and cheesy camera effects by Jess Hall that audibly whoosh around the characters during several heavy-handed moments.
This could all be a sly wink to a type of ‘80s neo-noir, but there’s such a sense of gravitas — especially with McConaughey, Clarke, and Hathaway hamming their way through the material — it saps the fun out of it. There’s also Diane Lane playing a rather thankless role as some kind of island-dwelling retiree who pays Baker Dill for sex when his fishing take is weak. The film culminates in a twist ending that might explain the film’s juvenile tone, but by the time it arrives, it just feels like a bad Lasse Hallström movie reaching for redemption while copping out on the drama. Opens in wide release Thursday, January 24. — Hans Morgenstern
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Vox Lux. Best known for its incarnation as a tragic play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the 1700s, Faust has made its way onscreen a number of times. In Vox Lux, the tale of Faust, or in this case pop star Celeste, plays out fascinatingly. Labeled “A Twenty-First Century Portrait,” the film begins with a school shooting in 1999 that leads to an exploration of a Celeste in two acts, split by nearly two decades.
Vox Lux’s first half features Raffey Cassidy as Celeste, covering her rise to stardom after being shot and performing an original song at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting. Natalie Portman takes over as the character in the back half to show a day in the life of Celeste, preparing for a massive concert and dealing with a terrorist attack that featured a mask from one of her early music videos. She is helped along by her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin), her publicist Josie (Jennifer Ehle), and her nameless manager (Jude Law), who couldn’t serve as a better stand-in for Mephistopheles, aiding in Celeste’s ascent to pop iconography.
For a film that features more than one shooting, spans multiple decades and countries, inserts bombastic shots of New York City and its bold architecture, and climaxes with the kind of pop concert — featuring a memorable collection of original Sia tunes — that sells out in a minute nowadays, Vox Lux has a pretty narrow point of view, entirely tied to Celeste’s perspective. It’s an odd character study, though, one that doesn’t offer any easy answers for the behaviors of its character and is just as interested in exploring pop music as a whole rather than limiting itself to one woman. Instead, it posits that, as a sort of stand-in for artists such as Lady Gaga — referring to fans as her “little angels” instead of “little monsters” — Celeste is prone to getting lost in the masquerade of being a pop star.
Though many critics have accused the film of being empty provocation, there’s something to be said about the blunt honesty with which Brady Corbet looks at pop music. Where a film like A Star Is Born features a protagonist who is inherently dismissive of pop, Vox Lux is truly invested in how pop music functions as salvation for many, even if it leads to damnation for one particularly jaded individual. Opens at Miami Beach Cinematheque Friday, January 25. — Juan Antonio Barquin