It’s the holiday movie season, and you know what that means: family-friendly films that make you feel all warm inside, and prestige dramas hankering for Oscars filling theaters to the brim. Ha, just kidding. The widest release this week is Violent Night, in which Santa Claus, played by David Harbour, goes to town on a band of ruthless mercenaries in bloody and nihilistic fashion. One hates to sound moralistic, but in my day you needed to seek out flicks like Silent Night, Deadly Night on the wire racks of a video store or in the musty confines of a second-run theater. Now you can see Santa stab a candy cane through a guy’s face in a TV commercial.
But I digress. While Violent Night (which I have not seen and most likely never will) is taking up an outsized share of movie theater real estate, other more interesting titles stake their claims where they can. Those include a pair of stories about people with troubled backgrounds attempting to make new lives for themselves in unwelcoming environments. Neither involves hand grenades or reindeer, but somehow they manage.
The main character in Nanny, the first feature from writer-director Nikyatu Jusu, is a Senegalese immigrant named Aisha (Anna Diop) who gets a promising job as a nanny and housekeeper for a wealthy white family (Michele Monaghan and Morgan Spector). At first things seem fine, despite Aisha’s discomfort with the opulence of their apartment. She gets along great with young Rose, her charge, although being with the child makes her miss her own son, who she left back in Senegal until she can afford to bring him to America, even more. Aisha also starts a tentative relationship with the charming concierge (Sinqua Wells) at her employer’s building.
But, soon enough, cracks begin to show. Aisha has troubling dreams in which she imagines a spider crawling into her mouth, or that she is drowning. She’s getting paid less than was agreed. She notices increasing domestic discord between husband and wife. And her brief telephone calls with her son are becoming fewer and farther between.
Nanny gradually, almost imperceptibly, incorporates genre elements into its story of social, economic, and racial isolation. The Senegalese-American Diop, who has appeared in Jordan Peele’s Us and on the DC Comics TV series Titans, delivers what should be a breakout performance full of dignity, rage, and guilt. Things build to a harrowing climax wherein Aisha is faced with one last, potentially insurmountable hurdle in her quest for reinvention. (Opens Friday, Dec. 2, at the Living Room Theaters.)
The lead character in writer-director Elegance Bratton’s debut fiction feature The Inspection is similarly desperate to forge a new reality. Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) is a 25-year-old gay Black man at the end of his rope, homeless and essentially disowned by his mother (Gabrielle Union). So he decides to join the Marines.
It’s 2005, during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era, but of course that doesn’t stop French’s drill sergeant (Bokeem Woodbine) from screaming the question “Are you a homosexual?” to each new recruit. (Right along with “Are you a terrorist?” and “Are you a Communist?”) It also doesn’t stop some of his fellow recruits from engaging in harassment, cheating, and outright beatings once they figure out he’s not straight.
Through it all, French perseveres. He doesn’t want to let the bullies and bigots win, and he certainly doesn’t want to go back to his old life. Bratton, who based The Inspection on his own experiences, toes a delicate line between pulling back the curtain on barracks brutality and homophobia and acknowledging that the whole point of Marine basic training is to push recruits beyond what they thought they could handle.
Does this run the risk of excusing, or at least mitigating, the horrific behavior French tolerates? Or does it shine a light on the heroic endurance that he and so many other gay soldiers have demonstrated in order to serve their country? The trick is that it does a little of both. (Opens Friday, Dec. 2, at Cinema 21.)
Speaking of all those screens being taken up by jolly St. Nick and his “season’s beatings,” a couple of other notable new films debut, unnecessarily, on streaming platforms this week.
There’s no reason, for instance, why the handsomely mounted, if unimaginative, new film of Lady Chatterley’s Lover shouldn’t rate a big-screen release. Unless it’s that audiences are woefully out of practice when it comes to watching sex scenes in a room full of strangers.
This Chatterley certainly doesn’t skimp on the skin, but it’s a far more sophisticated take than the soft-core 1980s version starring Sylvia Kristel. (A low bar, admittedly.) There have been enough different takes on D.H. Lawrence’s famously risqué novel that Ned Stark (Sean Bean) has played the earthy, sexy gamekeeper Mellors in one production, while Robb Stark (Richard Madden) has done so in another.
Here we have Emma Corrin, who played Princess Diana in the previous season of The Crown, as Lady Constance Chatterley, whose marriage to Clifford (Matthew Duckett) goes downhill when he returns from World War I paralyzed, impotent, and bitter. (She’d better be careful or she’ll get typecast as women who won’t abide a loveless union.) The sturdy Jack O’Connell is Mellors, the gamekeeper with a tragic past, a literary mind, and a predilection for running naked in the rain.
Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnere (this is the first Chatterley directed by a woman, as far as I can tell) serves up a faithful retelling that’s historically accurate and sexually frank without being exploitative. It’s the best version of the book to hit the screen, although there’s an ideal adaptation that truly delves into Lawrentian themes and refuses to put the naughty bits front and center. Who’d watch that, though? (Debuts on Netflix on Friday, Dec. 2.)
Last but not least, or at least not least by much, is the intriguing, arty genre flick A Wounded Fawn. Writer-director Travis Stevens has cross-bred a serial killer thriller with the ancient Greek legend of the Erinyes (a.k.a. The Furies) and come up with a uniquely creepy, psychedelic folk-horror hybrid.
In its opening sequence, a small sculpture of the Erinyes is bid upon at a fancy auction. That night, the winning bidder, Kate (Malin Barr) is murdered by one of her colleagues, Bruce (Josh Ruben), who uses a vicious metal hand-claw gizmo to slash her throat. We next meet Bruce as he’s taking Meredith (Sarah Lind), who works at an art museum, on a weekend getaway. She’s agreed, even though they barely know each other, as a way of helping her get over a bad breakup three years earlier.
Spoiler alert: The weekend does not go well, especially for Bruce. Meredith spots that Erinyes statue on his coffee table, and it’s not her first hint that he’s not on the up-and-up. Almost exactly halfway through A Wounded Fawn, the tables are turned and the movie descends (or elevates, depending on your taste) into a phantasmagoric spectacle of revenge and humiliation. Ruben skillfully provides moments of dark humor as the suddenly vulnerable predator, although it’s unfortunate that Tanning is forced to disappear into a stoic vehicle of vengeance.
Shot on grainy 16mm, A Wounded Fawn looks like it could be a long-lost British shocker from the 1970s. As such, it should appeal to the same retro-savvy crowd that has made Ti West’s recent X and Pearl into instant cult classics. (Premieres on Shudder on Thursday, Dec. 1)