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Commanding Female Roles: Destroyer and Vox Lux

Powerhouse Female Roles: Destroyer, Vox Lux
This year’s last week of January has been a change from the past dozen or so when I would be binging on exciting new movies at the Sundance film festival, my favorite festival experience.
I miss that special atmosphere but am keeping tabs on the offerings generating the most buzz and worth watching out for during the year.
In the meantime let me recommend a couple of recent releases featuring powerhouse female performances that command attention even if overlooked for Oscar nominations in a competitive year.

Destroyer (U.S.
Nicole Kidman won her best actress Oscar back in 2003 for her transformative role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours. In director Karyn Kusama’s bleak crime drama, Kidman’s psycho-physical transformation is if anything greater and considerably less glamorous, akin to that of Charlize Theron as a serial killer in Monster.  Kidman plays Erin Bell, an alcoholic, hard-bitten Los Angeles police detective estranged from a rebellious teenage daughter and an ex-husband Ethan (Scoot McNairy, also seen in the latest HBO “True Detective” series).  Seventeen years earlier Erin was undercover with FBI agent Chris (Sebastian Stan) in a criminal bank-robbing gang led by the ruthless Silas (Tobby Kebell) and female sidekick Petra (Canadian Tatiana Maslany). Playing a couple, Erin and Chris became one; then temptation entered her mind until thwarted  when a heist gone terribly wrong had lethal consequences she’s had to live with.    
            That past is reawakened when Erin is sent a dye-coloured greenback from that robbery, knows it is from Silas, and decides she must settle the score.  It’s what’s been destroyed in her that turns her into a destroyer. Kidman is at the top of her game, turning in one tough performance in a movie as dark and gritty as they come.  B+
 From writer-director Brady Corbet comes a tale of exceptional rise to pop stardom far more original, culturally challenging, and chilling, than Bradley Cooper’s more mainstream remake of A Star is Born.
With chronological chapters of the story arc narrated by an offscreen Willem Dafoe, the movie begins before the turn of the millennium in an American town called New Brighton. In a horrific sequence the teenage Celeste (Raffey Cassedy) suffers a spinal injury in a school shooting of which she is her class’s sole survivor. Coached by older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) Celeste sings a song at a memorial that touches a chord and becomes a comforting anthemic hit. Her sentimentality taps into a zeitgeist that carries forward post 9/11 and propels her career upward abetted by an ambitious manager (Jude Law) and publicist (Jennifer Ehle). 
            Fast forward to 2017 and Celeste—now played by Natalie Portman—has become a high-living chart-topping pop diva, adored by millions but prone to the addictions and anxieties of stardom that strain her relationships with all around her, including her sister and her own teenage daughter. Preparing for a return-to-hometown concert, Celeste becomes embroiled in a social-media storm when a Croatian beachfront is attacked by terrorists wearing masks apparently inspired by one of her video hits. As the back-stage tensions mount Celeste is momentarily overwhelmed but pulls it together for a sensational finale.  Call it overwrought and melodramatic, but Portman is terrific in the role and brings it off with a style that even Lady Gaga might admire.  B+         


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