Sofia, Animal, Vox Lux (CIFF 2018)

reviews by Jim Laczkowski

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Sofia

Winner of the best screenplay award at Cannes, Sofia is an 80-minute spotlight on Morocco and the struggles that women endure when their lives don’t play by society’s rules. The audience is thrusted into the wake of a young woman who is panicked by the unexpected birth of her baby. Sofia, 20, lives with her parents in Casablanca. Suffering from pregnancy denial, she finds herself breaking the law by giving birth to a baby out of wedlock. The hospital gives her 24 hours to provide them with the identification papers belonging to the father of the child before informing the authorities. But as the story progresses, the film reveals itself to be far more than it first seems, skillfully delivering a critical perspective on an incredibly flawed system. It starts with a shaky-cam bang and eventually lets up to examine a whole other culture’s ideology in a very thoughtful but uncompromising manner. I would compare it to the work of Asghar Farhadi in its immediacy and tendency to focus on caustic character difficulties that are often hard to witness but nevertheless, true to life. The cast is quite stellar here, and carries us along in a way that is both observational and moving. A great dinner scene comes to mind here, examining various tension built up throughout a conflicted family. It’s a type of scene that has been done before but in the context of everything we’re privy to, still resonates and grips the viewer. In the end, the director takes a confidant stand against the cruelty and hypocrisy of a system hellbent on controlling the sexual lives of its citizens. My only quibble is that it does feel a bit too succinct for a story that deserves an even more thorough examination, but for the time spent with Sofia, this is definitely worth exploring and ultimately worth getting angry about.

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Animal

Oscar winning writer/director Armando Bo (who won Best Screenplay for 2014’s Birdman, which he co-wrote with writing partner Nicolas Giacobone) heads back to his native Argentina for his sophomore film, Animal. Starring Guillermo Francella (of The Secret in Their Eyes) as Antonio, a happily married man who would seem to have it all, but finds a younger couple is able to offer him the one thing he seems to lack: a healthy kidney. Antonio is on the brink of death and can’t seem to move up the donor waiting list, nor receive any help from within the family, so like most folks would, he does research on the Internet and ends up going down a dark path. The problem is that more problems compound as the couple proves to be unreliable and often comically selfish. Like a lot of films with antiheroes, the audience is expected to follow a man who can’t quite come to terms with inevitability. He is a control freak that resorts to desperate measures in ways that eventually don’t ring true, but become fashioned as screenplay devices. There’s a modicum of implausibility that factors late in the game particularly when Antonio resorts to “animalistic” impulsivity when things don’t go his way. I was on board for the setup, especially since Bo has taken a cue from his Birdman director with smooth long takes that take us on a difficult, sympathetic journey. But as Antonio loses his humanity, I sensed the audience losing their interest in his decline. Then the final act just doesn’t seem to mesh with the rest of the film. Perhaps it’s meant to be tonally conflicted, especially since Antonio only grows to be more dissatisfied with his predicament, but that doesn’t always make it for a compelling experience that starts out strong and by the end, left me shrugging.

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Vox Lux

Speaking of tonally inconsistent, Brady Corbet’s sophomore effort comes across more as an experimental debut for better or worse. I was a huge fan of The Childhood of a Leader, which had graceful cinematography and a remarkable score by Scott Walker. Here, those very strong elements remain, but the story itself feels half-baked and under-realized. The film centers Celeste as a beneficiary of monumental tragedy, opening up a complex narrative about how school shootings are becoming so matter-of-fact that they can effectively transform a victim into a star. The idea of chaos and trauma can lead to something positive, instead of negative, is ripe with possibility, but somehow Corbet doesn’t go down this route nor does he stick the landing. Once again, we have an incredibly memorable setup with young Celeste finding catharsis by collaborating in song with her sister while she’s in recovery after the shooting. She performs a touching ballad in a church, becomes an overnight sensation and eventually, her family hires her a manager (played by a devilish, lower-pitched Jude Law) that tries to steer their pop music career in the right direction. The experience of watching young Celeste struggle starts compellingly enough, but devolves into cliches of addiction and narcissism, the likes that become more alienating as it goes along. Then the climax showcases live the rather inane, forgettable pop songs that made Celeste a sensation to where I felt even less interested. Perhaps there is an underlying commentary about the banality of pop music once its filtered through a “system” designed to cash in all while disregarding self-care and even proper parenting. The real heart of the story begins in the church, and only becomes more isolating. There’s much to be said about the watchable dynamic intensity between the two sisters and eventually, between mother and daughter. Portman remains one of the great actresses working today, but here we experience an inverse of her Black Swan insecurities. The film does possess some great moments with her acting out with maddening histrionics, but there are glaring flaws, including a tendency to include sped-up montages that play as comical. There’s also an interuptive voice-over courtesy of a familiar voice and actor, that does very little to complement the overall story. I left the theater more confused than anything else, since I was unclear as to what the film was trying to say. It’s worth seeing for some of Corbet’s strengths and unusual choices as a filmmaker, and he’s definitely an actor’s director (both Jude Law and Portman shine throughout), but the corruption of fame surrounded by impulsive indulgence as well as Celeste’s pitiful need for attention, has been done time and time again in this world. I didn’t think I was seeing something special in the way I did with Corbet’s debut.

All screened during the 54th Chicago International Film Festival