By Roger Costa
Almost one decade after his acclaimed debut (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”), prolific indie producer-writer-director Sean Durkin returns with a much better look at a family’s crisis and disconnection. In his first film, Durkin examined the tumultuous relationships between members of a sinister cult with uneven results. Now he gets back to the family circle, observing the emotional transformations affecting a wealthy clan who recently moved from NY to London following the patriarch’s attempt on success with a new job. Set in the late 80’s, Durkin does a marvelous job with this delicate, visually arresting and mysterious thriller, supported by superb performances from the ensemble cast, particularly its protagonists, Jude Law and Carrie Coon, as the passionate couple descending a humiliating path of mistrust, financial embarrassment and divisions among them. They are both nominated for the Gotham Awards in the acting categories and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they make it to the Oscars. Beautifully observed and masterfully detailed, Durkin presents the parallels between the initial harmony among them (they are close and opened up to each other, sharing joyful dinner moments together) and the turmoil that ensues as they move along (they become distant, constantly disagreeing on all matters) with impressive narrative skills. He always uses two important elements attached to the evolving emotional crisis: the big Victorian house they move in to, serves only to set them apart, and the out of control horse being trained by Coon’s character, representing the family’s urgent need to fix their conflicts. Coon delivers a tour-de-force performance, dominating every scene she is in with incredibly intimidating presence. Durkin revolves the film around her, as she leads the most decisions in the family, after the father starts presenting signals of instability. He keeps the mystery, the sense of unknown and hiding things with both intensity and lyricism, as the narrative rapidly projects their financial problems on the horizon. She knows he’s been spending much more than they can afford, they don’t really fit at the expensive parties and dinners anymore, but she’s reluctant to give up on their progress, and as she delves into the dance floor, exorcizing her anguish to the sound of a vibrant soundtrack, she seeks to overcome the circumstances. On the other side, Durkin also examines the effects on their kids, the rebellious teen girl and her involvement with some dangerous locals, and the pre-teen who’s struggling to adapt to the new country: the result is a coherent and sharp glimpse on the identity and cultural clashes experienced by these kids. Punctuated by a jazzy, involving score by Richard Parry, this is one of this year’s most accomplished family dramas. Addressing the perils of vanity and luxury with extremely control of the material, Durkin conceived an over-the-top, excellent sophomore feature, that had me clapping and stunned throughout the entire film.
(IFC Films. 11/17. On VOD and DVD.)
A lively, energetic, extremely confident debut, director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ winning dramedy delivers both cultural and historical relevance through the journey of a single mother and former beauty queen stumbling on the American Dream. A celebration to honor the awareness of slavery freedom, the traditional holiday selects a young lady to represent their culture, beauty and history, and some of them have gone to become great, successful women. It is not exactly the case of our heroine here, despite her strong abilities, intellect and personality. As she couldn’t reach success, she is afraid her daughter will commit some of the same mistakes and tries to prevent that. Sort of intrusive and controlling, she puts all efforts to consolidate her daughter’s future, attempting on everything to have the teen going on through the same tradition and hopeful feminine path.
Winner of the Best Texan Film at this year’s SXSW and a sensation at Sundance, Peoples became one of the most respectful and promising young filmmakers with this heart-warming portrait of a woman’s struggle for financial independence and integrity, all while trying to raise her teen daughter. Nicole Beharie is outstanding as Turquoise Jones, a determined and hard-working woman in her early 30’s navigating her two jobs, a estranged relationship with her longtime lover, the conflicts with her alcoholic and religious freaky mother, and her persistence and obsession on making her daughter the next beauty pageant winner. Both the actress and director have been nominated for the Gotham Awards, elevating their prestige and recognizing their emerging talents.
The director demonstrates a strong sense of place and community, as well as the use of music and dance as essential elements of African American culture, and the spontaneously convincing performances she manages to extract from the entire cast. The result proves her to be a skilled filmmaker, conceiving a crowd-pleasing, quite inspirational and uplifting look at perseverance and hope.
(Vertical Entertainment. 11/16. On VOD and other digital platforms.)
German actress Nina Hoss gives another fierce and impeccable performance in this efficient dramatic psychological thriller. In the role of a violin instructor traversing a personal crisis but never letting anyone around her notices it, she exceeds in nuance and precise pacing, as a woman in conflict with her principles and profession, proving to be one of Europe’s greatest leading actresses.
Directed by award-winning actress-turned-director Ina Weisse, the film sets a claustrophobic atmosphere around the protagonist as we observe her motivations: she’s eager to shape her new pupil into a genius of the violin at any cost, the same way she expects her son to improve his talent; despite he’s reluctant, and feels that the art of playing the violin is more of an obligation, he finds console with his father while being challenged and pressured by his grandfather.
At this point, Nina must deal with stubborn male figures, her pupil, her son, her father, while fulfilling her natural needs, balanced between her husband’s devotion and patience, and the cultivation of an affair with a fellow instructor at the Conservatoire. She needs a valve of escape, and the only exit is to accomplish success, both at home and at work- the intense process of developing a musical identity on her new pupil, and the challenges of putting up a concert together.
Softly addressing relevant issues, such as animal protection in the role of Nina’s son, and the importance of education and being a role model, Weisse builds up some unexpected tension and ambiguity as its characters collide one at another, crafting a labyrinth-style, seductively executed and remarkably performed drama.
(Strand Releasing. 11/16. On VOD and DVD.)
THE ARTIST’S WIFE
Helmed by Tom Dolby, a prolific producer with titles such as “Call Me By Your Name” and “Little Woods” under his signature, this sophisticated and immersive female-driven character study gives Oscar-nominated star Lena Olin the chance to practice her skills, which have been obscured in the past decade with difficult choices. Here she gives a stunning and shattering performance as Claire, the wife of a famous aging painter, who’s dealing with his recently diagnosed dementia and trying to reapproximate the family: her lesbian stepdaughter and son. Another giant of the screen, Bruce Dern is also fascinating as the insulting painter, but the film belongs completely to Lena’s character, focusing on her determination and consequent falls. As her husband works on a new show, she leaves their property in upstate and goes on exploring the art galleries circuit in New York City, arranging for a possible farewell of his career, as she must now navigate the next step in their lives: healing from the disease. There, she also seeks to develop a relationship with estranged stepdaughter and bring her back to terms with her father while he still remembers things. At the same time that she’s trying to protect, preserve and defend her husband’s reputation, work and legacy she also finds opportunity to awake herself, artistically and emotionally, after playing the sort of assistant role for many years. She doesn’t leave such position behind, but she gains confidence to practice her painting skills, and to attract herself into an impulsive moment of extramarital sexual connection.
A searing and touching, gritty and sensitive examination on artistic influences and ego, parenting, aging, and forgiveness, Dolby is a naturally skilled filmmaker with keen eye for female empowerment, and its odyssey of ups and downs.
(Strand Releasing. 11/16. On VOD and other digital platforms.)
The haunted house genre finds a refreshing and disturbingly inventive new style in director Natalie Erika James’ creepy and absorbing dramatic horror. After getting a call from authorities informing her mother has been gone missing, Kay (the always excellent Emily Mortimer) and her daughter come down to check on her and initiate an intense search for the elderly’s whereabouts.
As night falls in, strange noises and movements coming from inside the walls, fill up the house with a ghostly, claustrophobic atmosphere. The lady unexpectedly returns, demonstrating evident signs of dementia and delusion, as well as an unknown bruise on her chest. Astonishingly shot, the narrative revolves on the psychological effects the house has over the three female characters and how they interact with it: simple details captured by their sight might reveal the unburied conflicts and mysteries afflicting them. Making her directorial debut, James delivers an accomplished nightmarish journey into dementia, a fine Gothic-infused re-invention of motherhood in the horror field, a bizarre tale of family bond, trauma and past wounds.
(IFC Midnight/IFC Films. 11/17 on DVD and Blu-Ray. Also available on digital platforms.)