Survival thrillers, music documentaries and more in our top cinema picks for this May...
Film of the month: Vox Lux
Having captured the world’s attention performing at the memorial for a horrific school shooting, 13-year-old Celeste (played with extraordinary sensitivity by Raffey Cassidy) soon finds herself propelled into a singing career and global stardom. Just 18 years later and now a bona fide pop sensation, Celeste (Natalie Portman) is already staging a comeback concert after a series of scandals—both personal and public—begin to threaten both her career and her grip on reality.
Portman shares a producing credit with Jude Law (who plays her gruff manager) and Sia—and it has the punchy, at times overwhelming, soundtrack to prove it. Part social satire, part cultural think piece and part pop concert, Vox Lux is a fascinating, if somewhat disorientating, venture.
Terror is at the heart of the film, which opens with a horrifying, thinly veiled recreation of the Columbine shootings and posits 9/11 as a turning point both personal and public—this
is definitively a portrait of a post-millennium world. Exploring the nature of fame, privacy, security, identity and the exploitation of tragedy in the modern age, Vox Lux asks more questions than it answers, though perhaps its greatest strength is in posing these difficult questions at all.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Viewers concerned by a trailer that seemed to show notorious serial-killer Ted Bundy depicted as something of a likeable rogue (one played by Zac Efron of High School Musical fame no less) can rest easy. Focusing largely on the impact of Bundy’s trial on his long-term girlfriend, single mother Liz Kendall (Lily Cole), Extremely Wicked offers a surprisingly nuanced depiction of both Ted’s incredible charisma, and the unthinkable horrors of his crimes. There are stellar performances across the board here, but Efron puts in a particularly impressive turn playing seriously against type as Bundy, able to strike both charm and fear into the viewer with a simple twist of his smile.
Concert documentaries are few and far between these days, but once little slices of splendour such as Amazing Grace come along, they prove that they’re more than worth waiting for. Documenting Aretha Franklin’s two-day live recording at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts in 1972, this long-lost film was directed by none other than Sydney Pollack himself.
Yet as a result of his lack of experience in shooting music documentaries, Pollack made some technical errors that made it impossible to synchronise sound and picture in post-production and hence, the film didn’t see the light of day for several decades—a thought hard to comprehend, considering what an inspiring and electrifying music document it is.
Accompanied by the riveting Southern California Community Choir, Aretha Franklin brings the house down, giving it her all, with beads of sweat rolling down her face and her father running up to wipe them off as he's watching her perform on standby. A unifying message of music and love, Amazing Grace will have you clapping, stomping and tapping.
Whether it’s the sea, the desert or even space, filmmakers just love to expose their protagonists to extreme environments and have them tackle the elements head on, often reaping the benefits during the awards season. But this also makes the “survival thriller” genre a tricky one to nail. By now, we’re all so familiar with the tropes, twists and turns, that crafting an original one is no easy task, as demonstrated this time by Joe Penna’s Arctic, starring Mads Mikkelsen. The film, while beautifully shot and superbly acted, struggles to surprise us in any way, resulting in a gripping, but ultimately conventional watch.
Bridging the gap between hilarity and tragedy, indie newcomer Jim Cummings’ drama will baffle and surprise you through and through with its unconventional tone, offbeat narrative and a striking lead character (also played by Cummings)—the neurotic, lovably infantile and unpredictable Jim who, following a divorce and the death of his mother, experiences a messy meltdown.