Endless Poetry (2016)

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Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Country: Chile / France

Celebrated cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky looks at his turbulent young adulthood in Chile with the usual combination of emotional weight and provocative posture. His second autobiographical drama, “Endless Poetry”, is as overwhelming as its prequel, “The Dance of Reality” (2013).

Like happened in the preceding film, the director uses a rich color palette to depict his past misadventures, staging the scenes with gusto and populating the indecorous settings with occasional stylized choreographies and a few bizarre characters, so commonly associated with his body of work.

This slice of life takes us to his parents’ home in Matucana, where the young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) discovers Garcia Lorca, and almost immediately decides to be a poet. His austere father, Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky - director’s eldest son), becomes highly discontented since he already had envisioned a career in medicine for his only son. We see that Alejandro’s intentions/choices were systematically castrated by his father, a merciless punisher who defended that poetry was for homosexuals. Even during a strong earthquake, the poor Alejandro was encouraged to hide his fear and forced to react ‘like a man’. Conversely, his mother, Sara (Pamela Flores), was a sweet person, but not strong enough to go against her husband’s authoritative decisions and biased ideas. All her speeches are sung like an aria, a way that Jodorowsky found to tell us how much comforting sounded her voice in those difficult times.

Acquiring as much strength as necessary to oppose his “shitty family”, as he used to say, and following his most basic instincts, the now adult Alejandro (Adan Jodorowsky, the youngest son of the filmmaker) treads his own individual path, leaving his parents behind without notice. His world will change when he falls for Stella Diaz (a double role for Pamela Flores), a mundane red-haired poetess of whom he becomes insanely dependent.

Throughout this journey of self-discovery, he briefly meets with creative fellows such as Nicanor Parra and Andre Breton, and becomes the best friend of Enrique Lihn, the most bohemian of those poets, who loved to challenge the limits of possibility.
 
A few unforgettable scenes are engraved in my memory like the one that Alejandro was almost raped by a bunch of wild men in a sinister nightclub, or when he had sex with a dwarf woman when she was having her period, or when he impersonates a clown in a circus and tries to convince himself he’s not guilty.

Alongside the eccentric imagery, the superior narrative flow is never ambiguous but persistently fascinating. The unabashed artistic world of Jodorowsky is like this: offbeat, dramatic, poetic, phantasmagoric, humorous, atrocious… Even so, I found “Endless Poetry” more poetic and less visceral than his previous cinematic creations.

In a couple crucial scenes, the director, in person, comes into view to console and advise his young persona, to call him to reason, trying to compensate that huge emotional gap caused by frustration, anger, and lack of forgiveness. 

At the end, Jodorowsky ekes out a better existence for himself by absolving his father from everything that went wrong. This was the touching finale he needed to accomplish a freeing, personal mission that turned out to be beautifully artistic too.

Berlin Syndrome (2017)

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Directed by Cate Shortland
Country: Australia

Australian Cate Shortland has earned her filmmaking reputation through sensitive stories centered on female characters. She had her debut in 2004 with the satisfying coming-of-age tale “Somersault”, which featured Abbie Cornish as the protagonist. However, it was with the memorable and critically acclaimed drama “Lore” that she got more visibility, benefiting from a terrific plot and a compelling performance by Saskia Rosendahl in her first screen appearance. Indeed, this was a very special film that raised the bar too high for her next move, which happened this year with “Berlin Syndrome”.

This time around, the central character belongs to Teresa Palmer, an understated actress and model who has here another wonderful opportunity to show her acting capabilities after "Warm Bodies" (2013) and "Lights Out" (2016).   
She plays Clare, an Australian photographer that arrives in Berlin to enjoy some leisure days while working for an architecture project she had in mind for some time. Feeling lonely in a strange city, Clare shows availability to meet new friends and perhaps embark on a casual romance. And that’s exactly what happens after she bump into a handsome schoolteacher, Andrei (Max Riemelt). Despite the unhidden, intense passion they share with each other, there are certain details in Andrei’s behavior that makes us question what goes in his mind. This relentless feeling that something is not right is reinforced by the uncanny musical score composed by Bryony Marks, which sort of works as an alert for the nightmare that follows. 

Little by little, the sweet cosmopolitan romance develops into a disturbing abduction thriller when Clare gets trapped in Andrei’s cloistered apartment after a one-night stand. At first, she believed it was a mistake, but soon comes to the conclusion that the man she slept with was an obsessive psycho whose past was already stained with blood. 

Without breaking new ground, Shortland, who directed from a script by Shaun Grant (“The Snowtown Murders”) based on the novel by Melanie Joosten, crafted the captivating first part with heart-pounding conjecture but ultimately allowed things to go astray in the final section, carefully fabricated to provide the ultimate excitement that a thriller requires.

If humiliation and frustration are commonly associated with the genre, compassion and desire are very unlikely to be felt in a harrowing situation like the one Clare was living. In the end, it’s inevitable to think that “Berlin Syndrome” could have been more thrilling and less manipulative than it was. Still, it’s a tolerable exercise that shows Shortland’s potentialities in a genre she’s probing for the very first time.

Nakom (2016)

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Directed by T.W. Pittman and Kelly Daniela Norris
Country: Ghana / USA

African cinema usually rekindles revealing stories tinged with quirky colors and enlivened by warm feelings in a pure intention to reflect the continent’s inhabitants’ lives. That’s exactly what you can expect from “Nakom”, a drama film centered on the inner conflict that arises in a man divided between keeping his cultural roots and traditions alive and following his personal dreams, which can only be fulfilled within a contemporary environment.

The dilemma dilates in Iddrissu (Jacob Ayanaba), a medicine student in Ghana’s metropolitan city of Kumasi, who is forced to pause his formation to go back to Nakom, the rural Northern village where he was born. 
The sudden death of his father was the reason for his unplanned return. As the eldest son, both family and the village chief expect him to stay and become the new ‘master’ of the house. After all, he’s a valuable element since he knows the old and the new ways.
This is a real headache for Iddrissu who comes across with predicaments of a primitive culture he had almost forgotten.

His clever sister, Datama (Grace Ayariga) lives consumed by the frustration due to the impossibility to move out of the city in order to study. The motive is mainly financial but the mentality of the villagers doesn’t help. Her discontentment is mirrored in phrases like “things are always for men to decide” or “what's right or wrong is for men with education”.

Iddrissu also has to deal with his indolent young adult brother who got a 15-year-old cousin pregnant, the quarrel between his real mother and his ‘junior’ mother - the second wife of his polygamist father who left a debt, and the schemes of his little brothers who prefer to play all day instead of attending school. On top of this, he has concerns about tending the farm that will provide for all his family during the whole year. He had never given so much importance to the rain before and confesses: “in the city, nothing changes when it rains. Here, the earth breathes.”

The uncertainty of the future, translated into eat or not to eat, or the lack of medical help, mirrored in an agonizing situation lived by his cousin Fatima (Esther Issaka), induce panic in Iddrissu, a man of noble character who is not indifferent to his people. Will he give up his dreams to take care of them?

The team of directors, Kelly Daniela Norris and T.W. Pittman, who met at Columbia and now share a production company, serves up an interesting narrative packaged with authenticity and crisp focus.
Having the vast Ghanaian fields as the backdrop, cinematographer Robert Geile does a pretty nice job in capturing attractive frames while the original music by the Senegalese singer/guitarist Daby Balde infuses a gentle yet vivid ambiance that helps to maintain the African spirit well alive.

Nakom” is no frivolous tale and comes bolstered by Ayanaba’s strong acting debut.

Hounds of Love (2016)

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Directed by Ben Young
Country: Australia

Hounds of Love” is a terrific crime thriller, period. It’s been a while since a story within this genre had caught my attention, but this one succeeded through a combination of factors that include a feverish direction from debutant filmmaker Ben Young, who also wrote the script with articulated cohesiveness. Moreover, the magnificence of the imagery punctuated with stunning slow-motion sequences, the soundtrack, which invites us to the psychological horror through Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and releases the tension at the end with Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”, the accuracy of the performances, and the breathtaking plot itself, were also extremely influential in the outcome.

A quiet suburban neighborhood in the Australian city of Perth serves as the backdrop for a harrowing abduction, partly inspired by true events, perpetrated by a jobless, insane couple who embarks on a spiral of sexual abuse, torture, and ultimately killing of random teenage girls.

John and Evelyn, unblemishedly played by Stephen Curry and the former teen model Emma Booth, respectively, belong to those baffling creatures we observe with incredulous petrifaction in a vague attempt to understand the abominating cruelty that dwells in their souls.
John is a spiteful, manipulative monster who easily loses his temper and is clearly proud of himself, while the psychologically disoriented Evelyn lives in a constant state of distress and emotional turmoil. She’s the one who lures girls into their car, offering them a ride when they are alone.

When Vickie (Ashleigh Cummings) sneakily leaves her house without her mother(Susie Porter)'s consent and accepts the couple’s ride, she couldn’t imagine she was being taken to the putrid nest of the devil.
The capture of another victim turns the couple on, and their deranged reaction mirrors the complex, nauseous, and malevolent state of mind they live in.

While chained to a bed in the small torture room where she was thrown in, Vicky quickly realizes that her only chance to escape would be through Evelyn, who often oscillates in behavior and resolution. Deep down inside, the latter is aware of John’s immoral depravity, but cowardice always wins whenever she thinks of breaking the cycle. She is still apprehensive and sore about the lost of her own baby, which happened in mysterious circumstances, yet she's revealed to be as diabolical as her husband.

Curry and Booth carry the film on their shoulders while the sequences of frames are haunting and powerful, displacing the viewer into bizarre scenarios whose highly suggestive visual details stimulate the imagination rather than exposing us to graphic violence.
The chillingly infectious “Hounds of Love” exudes fetid vibes that will force you to ruminate on the darkest side of the human nature.

Colossal (2016)

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Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Country: USA

An entertaining trifle is what the Spanish writer/director Nacho Vigalondo forges with “Colossal”, his new adventurous and dramatic fantasy starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis as two childhood friends turned antagonists.

Hathaway is Gloria, an aimless thirty-something unemployed writer who loves the New York nightlife and renounces professional help for the increasing drinking problem that is ruining her life. Her condescending boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens), sees no other solution besides abandoning her to her own luck, but never imagined she could recover so well after moving back to her hometown, to the same house where she and her late parents lived before.

Once (un)comfortably installed, she bumps into a childhood friend, Oscar (Sudeikis), who invites her to hang out with him and his pals Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and Joel (Austin Stowell). Night after night, they reunite at Oscar’s bar to drink until the first rays of the morning appear in the sky. Gloria’s addictive situation doesn’t seem to get any better, but radically changes with the fantastic discovery that the gigantic monster-lizard that keeps destroying the city of Seoul is a factual creation of her nebulous mind and restless psychological state. She's the one who commands its activity with a synchronous precision through the movements of her own body. Responsibility calls her to reason, but she resolves to play a bit more after revealing the stupefying secret to her friends.

Oscar, who always had a secret crush on her, becomes conscious that he can also play this game if he jumps into the park’s magic spot where everything happens and finds that his Korean 'avatar' is a huge robot. 
His repulsive nature is fully disclosed from the moment that Gloria rejects his advances in favor of Joel, driving him mad with jealousy.

The small park they used to play as kids, becomes the real battle arena, but the dangerous confrontations happen in Seoul, where the scene is emulated with massive proportions.
Some situations, even fabricated, are funny and hit the right nerve while others, like the one when Oscar sets the bar on fire, are not so convincing or even properly implemented.

The flawed “Colossal” takes advantage of these trendy manias of monsters vs. robots (the computer animation is passable) and superheroes’ messy personal lives.
Vigalondo, whose discreet filmmaking past revealed an inclination for sci-fi and thriller, aims at both young and mature audiences by exposing them to a blend of fantasy, dark comedy, feeble romance, and drama. He is now relishing all the attention given to his film, after adopting the right feel-good posture and precipitating a hazy, somewhat pretentious game between reality and fiction.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

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Directed by Raoul Peck
Country: USA

Raoul Peck, a successful Haitian filmmaker and political activist, brings the controversial and thorny topic of racism to a discussion in his exemplary new documentary film “I Am Not Your Negro”.
Peck’s past moves include “Sometimes in April” (2005), a TV drama about the Rwanda genocide, and “Lumumba” (2000), a biopic about the former prime minister of Belgian Congo, Patrice Lumumba.
 
For his latest achievement, the director grasped the unfinished manuscript “Remember This House” by James Baldwin and merged the author’s words (the first-rate narration is by Samuel L.Jackson) with footage of interviews, meetings, and violent conflicts, and also music clips and film excerpts related to the topic in question.

The material, compiled and edited by Peck, features Baldwin’s keen observations on racial inequality and the recollections of three murdered close friends and influential civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. 

The documentary is incredibly well articulated within a structure whose chapters reveal not only indisputable, scandalous facts of the American history but also a profound, and very personal understanding of the problem by analyzing its core and not just the surface. With many years of struggle and fear, Baldwin confesses publicly by the end that he’s tired and became a pessimist – “negros were never happy in this country”, he states. “The world is not white, it never was, and never can be. A white world is just a metaphor for power”.

Fond of the Western film genre and a fan of John Wayne, Baldwin was shocked at a very young age after realizing that the black people were, after all, like the Indians John Wayne was after to kill. The question “are we the bad guys?” must have popped up in his mind for years. Why were the white people after the black people? Why segregation?

Baldwin explained that like his three friends, he had always believed in non-violent solutions to change the course of things.
Often, there is a smart intercalation of violent or sad scenes, past and present, with short passages of some classic movies that fearlessly addressed the issue with the hope and intention to reverse it. Some of these are still freshly present in my mind, cases of “The Defiant Ones”, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, and “No Way Out”.

There’s a lot to chew on here. The enlightening “I Am Not Your Negro” will provide you with a different perspective; it will give you a lesson about a very specific dark side of the American history, warning you at the same time that this is still happening today. 
It’s more than time to acknowledge that America and the world have no color and that divided we fall… why is this so hard to learn and put in practice? 

The Levelling (2016)

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Directed by Hope Dickson Leach
Country: UK

Somerset, England, serves as the rural backdrop for “The Levelling”, a raw indie drama set with gloomy tones and enclosing plenty of secrets to be discovered.
The film marks the directorial debut of Hope Dickson Leach, who besides writing the script, oriented the small cast with stalwart conviction, extracting the best of their qualities.

As a matter of fact, the film highly benefits from the acting skills of Ellie Kendrick, who plays Meera Reed in the popular “Game of Thrones”, and the veteran David Troughton, also a regular in television miniseries. They play Clover and Aubrey, respectively, estranged daughter and father who reunite again in difficult circumstances after many years without seeing or talking to each other.

After receiving the shocking news about her brother’s unanticipated death, Clover is forced to return to her father’s farm, which she gladly left when she was 18. Once installed, she gets disturbed with what she sees, finding not only a devastated place but also her aging father acting in a weird, almost indifferent way in regard to his son’s misfortune. 

The way Harris died is not clear and that fact drives her to search almost compulsively for something or someone that could be related to the occurrence. He blew his face off with a shotgun while celebrating with his friends the transfer of the farm to his own name. Was this a terrible accident or a desperate suicide? Cleverly, Ms. Leach structures the film in such a way that what Clover knows is exactly what the viewer knows and thus, we are able to see and learn everything through the main character’s eyes.

While the evasive Aubrey seems just concerned in having everything ready to sell the farm, Clover tries to pull out answers from James (Jack Holden), Harris’ best friend and her father’s trusting cooperator. As the time passes, the turmoil lived in the past mingles with the numerous doubts about the present, pushing Clover into a strong emotional vortex that grows wider as the revelations surface.

The Levelling” depicts the cruel side of life and confronts love and pride, family and individuality, persons and properties - all things in need of urgent leveling. It's a cheerless, violently emotional, and ultimately painful drama. 

Leach cooks it slowly, addressing guilt, compassion, repent, and resignation with sagacious human tact. Will you be able to find a culpable character?

Free Fire (2016)

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Directed by Ben Wheatley
Country: UK / France

I want to start this review by telling you how much I admire the work of British director Ben Wheatley. 
Kill List”, a bleak and violent tale released in 2011, was an auspicious directorial debut, but it was with the pitch-black comedy “Sightseers” that he really got my attention, punching me hard in the face with witty dialogues, provocative weirdness, and the unpredictability of its story. In 2013, Wheatley changed direction when he released the black-and-white art-house horror-drama “A Field in England”, which kept a stabbing sarcasm on top of the stunning visuals. “High-Rise”, a somewhat blurred adaptation of J.G Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, divided both film critics and fans. Yet, I was still fond of all its oddness.

Now, I have to point out how frustrated I am with Wheatley’s new feature “Free Fire”, a Tarantino-esque gangster-western set in the 70s Boston that doesn’t offer much more than the constant, annoying sounds of guns being fired.
The screenplay, co-written by Wheatley and his regular associate Amy Jump, lives exclusively from the shootouts between two groups involved in an arms deal. There are so many gunshots throughout the 90 minutes that the tension gets lost in the confusing, bloody sauce.

Vernon (Sharito Copley) leads the group selling the weaponry while Frank (Michael Smiley), an irritable IRA member commands the buyers. A woman named Justine (Brie Larson) was assigned to act as an intermediate and facilitate the transaction. The gangs arrive at a warehouse to proceed with the business but things get out of control when Harry (Jack Reynor) recognizes Stevo (Sam Riley), the one who had abused of his 15-year-old cousin the night before, sending her to the hospital. Tension rises exponentially, ending up in a never-ending collective shootout that is triggered after Harry sticks a bullet into Stevo’s shoulder. The warehouse is transformed into a bloody battlefield where everyone, with no exception, has the eyes put in a suitcase full of money. 

In opposition to the previous films of Wheatley, I couldn’t care less about any of the obtuse characters presented here. Stuck inside four walls and exposed to the madness of the environment, some of them cry, some laugh, some other curse or joke around in response to those who threaten with brash vocabulary and open fire. What could have been fun becomes dull while the potential points of interest rapidly vanish through inconsequent fireworks, graphic violence, and immodest poses.

The only thing left for me to do was to place my bets and wait to see who takes the money home.
Lacking charm in its depiction and cleverness in its dialogue, “Free Fire” is gratuitous fire and a thorn in Ben Wheatley’s side.

T2 Trainspotting (2016)

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Directed by Danny Boyle
Country: UK

T2 Trainspotting” is a dreary sequel of “Trainspotting”, an underground comedy drama considered by many a cinematic milestone of the 90s, which painted Scotland’s Edinburgh drug scene in a memorable and stirring way. 
The present installment, considerably less interesting than the first, revives the same protagonists 20 years after their separation. It was equally written by John Hodge, who has been working intermittently with director Danny Boyle since their first collaboration in 1994 with “Shallow Grave”.

The characters are introduced with showiness and bustle, and the charismatic Ewan McGregor, who gained his acting reputation in the 90s thanks to Boyle’s films, re-embodies Mark Renton, a former junkie who arrives in Edinburgh from Amsterdam to find the same sordid friends he cheated and stole money from.

To start, he makes amends with Spud (Ewen Bremner), a forlorn and longtime heroin addict, who was caught on the verge of committing suicide. Even upset for having been saved at the last minute, he ultimately accepts Mark’s help in order to recover from drugs and possibly return to his wife and child.
Mark also convinces Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) to pardon him after a tense encounter. The latter became addicted to cocaine and employs a sex scheme to rip-off money from the clients of the pub he owns. He does it with the collaboration of his seductive Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova).
The one who is totally unable to forgive and forget is the irascible Franco (Robert Carlyle is great), who escapes from prison and remains tough as nails regardless the age. He represents a dangerous threat for Mark and plays the villain in the story. 

Boyle retrieves the same directorial features of its source material, resorting to occasional image stillness to better reflect the emotions of the characters while in panic or experiencing violent situations. The film's moods are often drawn from hopelessness and anarchy, but a good part of the eccentricity, which worked wonders in its predecessor, feels whether fabricated or worn out. 
In truth, the inelastic plot takes an aimless direction and makes the story drag for a long period of time before landing on a pretty decent climax in its last third. This is what saves the film from further tedium, in addition to intermittent funny lines thrown in by the four aging bastards.

In a nutshell: the watchable yet somewhat sloppy “T2 Trainspotting” only sporadically entertains and we don’t feel sorry for letting it go when the ending comes. 

Tom of Finland (2017)

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Directed by Dome Karukoski
Country: Finland / other

Tom of Finland”, a biographical Finnish drama directed by Dome Karukoski from a screenplay cleverly mounted by his habitual collaborator Aleksi Bardy, is probably going to cause a sensation since it is centered on an interesting character, features solid performances, and evinces technical competence.
However, Karukoski was unable to maintain the grip and high quality levels after the first half. I found a gradual loss of responsiveness and fascination as the story moved forward.

The film tells the story of Finnish Touko Laaksonen, better known by the artistic name of Tom of Finland, a decorated WWII lieutenant turned into international homoerotic draughtsman who became very popular in gay male circles.
Touko (Pekka Strang) had his first sexual experiences during the war when the Finnish troops were stationed in Helsinki defending the country from the Russian invaders. Captain Alijoki (Taisto Oksanen) and a young country boy named Nipa (Lauri Tilkanen) were among his casual partners and they both bump into him again after the war, playing different roles in his life. The former saves him from an imbroglio in Berlin after his censored drawings and wallet had been stolen, while the latter becomes his partner for life, encouraging him to expose himself in all fronts rather than hide.

After the war, Touko suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder and it's his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), who takes good care of him. She’s also a skilled if insecure artist that accepts her brother’s nature and respects his choices but disapproves his daring artistic work, even at a mature age.

The film succeeds in depicting the struggle of an unprecedented artist who had to live so many years in the shadow due to his homosexuality and the strong repression against the gay communities. However, it loses considerable steam since the moment that Touko's trip to America is represented. This final section feels overlong, less expeditious in its narrative process, and pictures a few redundant and often cheesy scenes like when Doug, Touko’s American friend and admirer, met his partner Jack at the gym or when police officers break into Doug’s L.A. house in search of a criminal.

Strang and Grabowsky deliver fantastic, in-depth performances, shaping the siblings’ personalities with sensitive resoluteness.
Tom of Finland”, which is competing for Best International Narrative Feature at Tribeca Film Festival, also benefited from the admirable work by cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannessen and the strong production design. In contrast, the technical aspect that didn’t work so well was the artificial makeup of our hero at an older age - anyone remembers the rubber face of Benjamin Button?

After The Storm (2016)

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Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Country: Japan

Throughout his extraordinary career, Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda has demonstrated tremendous sensibility to depict family dramas. Gracious works such as "Nobody Knows" (2004), "Still Life" (2008), "I Wish" (2011) and "Like Father Like Son" are considered socially influential within the Japanese new wave cinema.
"After the Storm" brings us a richly detailed story that involves family generations and is surrounded by strong emotional depth, naturalistic settings, and considerable amounts of sorrowfulness and optimism.

The story revolves around the divorced Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a crooked private detective and struggling writer who, in his thirties, still didn’t find the financial stability to pay for his child support. Despite the success of his debut novel, Ryota tries to overcome a persistent condition known as writer’s block. His inability to provide for the household wasn’t the only reason why his more mature and hard-working wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki), decided to leave him. Ryota, wasn’t paying too much attention to their little son, Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa), and keeps living in the fantasy that one day he’ll win the lottery, squandering all his money in tickets and gambling. In this aspect, he takes after his father whose recent death made Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), his mother, rejoice again with life and freedom.

When another typhoon is approaching, nobody seems to give it real importance, however, this will be a special occasion to reunite the family in the matriarch’s cozy place.
Alternating between perspicacious and dramatic, Yoshiko understands very well the situation of her family. She wants them to reconcile but doesn’t take sides in the dispute. On one hand, she accepts Ryota as he is, alleging it was his father’s genes that made him like that; on the other hand, she always loved her daughter-in-law for being strong, caring, and a wonderful mother. More than anything, she respects their decisions. 
Her vision of the men, in general, becomes clear during a casual conversation with Kyoko: “why men are unable to love the present? They keep pursuing what they’ve lost or dreaming beyond their reach”.
Shingo is the one who gets confused with the situation, relying on his grandmother, a true idol, to comfort and pamper him.

After the Storm” is an honest drama that doesn’t search for rapid solutions but rather hope. Koreeda composes the picture in a civilized and introspective manner, after engendering a script that appropriately describes our modern times. It evaluates the weight of responsibility in addition to the pursuit of personal dreams and its repercussions within the household.

Despite the seriousness of the story, the film exhibits a funny side, particularly through the compulsive, untamable, and even childish posture of Ryota. Haragumi’s subtle musical score worked perfectly with Yutaka Yamazaki’s endearing cinematography, showing an intriguing ability of almost pacifying the problems of the characters, who felt real and authentic. 
Unobtrusive techniques, human awareness, and narrative accessibility remain strong features in Koreeda’s simple yet effective filmmaking style.

Graduation (2016)

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Directed by Cristian Mungiu
Country: Romania / France / Belgium

Acclaimed Romanian writer/director/producer Cristian Mungiu called the world’s attention through observant contemporary dramas like “Occident” (2002), “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2007), and “Beyond the Hills” (2012). He has a background in English literature and his work for the big screen focuses on quality rather than quantity.
His fifth film, “Graduation”, is a pungent drama whose story, set in a small Romanian town, touches themes such as corruption and influence peddling, education, family, and obsession, at the same time that looks at a problematic Romania with mordacious dissatisfaction.

The film has an intriguing start when someone throws a stone at the window of the Aldeas' house, breaking the glass and provoking more curiosity than indignation in Romeo (Adrian Titieni), the head of the family and a respected doctor, his vulnerable wife Magda (Lia Bugnar), and their teenage daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus).
The latter admits to her father she’s a bit anxious for a crucial scholarship exam that will permit her to study at the London’s famous Cambridge University. However, her anxiety is nothing compared to her father’s. He lived abroad himself after graduating, but decided to return to Romania for the impossible mission of getting ‘things’ changed. Disappointment and failure are at the base of his overwhelming obsession with Eliza’s future.

The communication between Romeo and his daughter is uncomplicated, but with Magda things are not so smooth since he has been unfaithful to her with Sandra (Malina Manovici), a 35-year-old single mother, former patient, and teacher at Eliza’s school.
Pressure and nervous tension surround him at all times, but Romeo is pretty confident that Eliza, a brilliant student, is going to make it. However, a day before the exam and on her way to school, Eliza was violently attacked by a stranger who attempted to rape her. Emotionally disturbed and with a wounded arm, is Eliza psychologically and physically ready to do the exam? 

For the first time in his life, the desperate Romeo has to sacrifice his good reputation and put his honesty behind, using his connections and medical influence to guarantee a decent future for his daughter. Shouldn’t he be worried about her emotional state instead? This dilemma haunts us throughout the film and we can’t help feeling sorry for them. 
Climaxing in a spiral of anguish and deception, the well-acted drama culminates its insightful analysis with disconcerting irony.

Mungiu remains faithful to a style that combines realism and emotional depth allied with an impressive cinematic dexterity. Dispensing a musical score, he privileges handheld shots in detriment of a more static approach, yet the camera movements never translate into abrupt or awkward images.
Graduation” might not be his best work to date, but it’s certainly an urgent, denouncing, and intelligent eye opener that tells much about a ruined country in terms of moral values. Here, besides brandishing a powerful critical voice, the director also reinforces his admirable filmmaking credentials.

Neruda (2016)

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Directed by Pablo Larraín
Country: Chile / Argentina / other

Undoubtedly, Pablo Larraín is the most exciting Chilean filmmaker working today. He has been carving his mark in the contemporary world cinema through beautiful artistic works such as “Tony Manero”, “Post Mortem”, “No”, and “The Club”.
Last year, he filmed a couple of interesting biopics, which regardless the bold approach and peculiar vision, had different impacts on me. If “Jackie” impressed me most through the stylish visuals, “Neruda” strongly hit me with its poetic narrative and passionate conception.

Written by Guillermo Calderón and starring Gael García Bernal and Luis Gnecco in the main roles, the film adopts the qualities of a detective story painted with lyrical hues and bolstered by a cat-and-mouse game taken to philosophical extremes.

In the late 40s, Pablo Neruda (Gnecco), an earthy and provocative poet, throws out passionate words that are food for the poor and strength for the oppressed. In addition to being the voice of the Chilean people, he’s also a proud militant of the communist party and senator, projecting his strong voice against the brutal anti-communist repression led by the president Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (Alfredo Castro).

Forced to abandon his splendid house, a stage for many wild nocturnal parties in the company of intellectuals, aristocrats, and often criminals, Neruda hides in remote rural areas in Argentina, where he tries to escape the astute and relentless inspector Oscar Peluchonneau (Bernal), who tries to hunt him down as he ardently narrates this story. At the same time that Peluchonneau eagerly dreams with the glory of the capture, he often vacillates in his true inner self by showing great admiration and curiosity for the poet’s work and personality. Nonetheless, he focuses on his mission with obstinate determination without exteriorizing what he feels or thinks.

In turn, the incorrigible Neruda is not afraid to expose himself to dangers. He regularly visits bars where he drinks and interacts with women and artists. The ones he can really trust are longtime lover Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) and the famous Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) who clandestinely takes his words outside.

Obsession remains one of Larrain’s favorite topics and here, he had the chance to explore it with a mix of dark and wry tones, interesting dialogues, and attractively composed settings framed by the lens of his habitual cinematographer Sergio Armstrong.
Neruda” is a fascinating piece of cinema, an elegiac and exhilarating chant of refined artistry that reaches the sky not only through the faultless performances by Gnecco and Bernal, but also through an engrossing direction.

Nise: The Heart of Madness (2016)

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Directed by Roberto Berliner
Country: Brazil

Under the direction of Roberto Berliner, “Nise: The Heart of Madness” is a taut biographical drama based on the achievements of Dr. Nise da Silveira, a Brazilian psychiatrist who rejected aggressive methods such as lobotomy and electroshocks in favor of affection and art as therapies to recover her schizophrenic patients.
Actually, 'patient' is a word that Nise wanted to avoid. She preferred client because she and her team were there to serve them, not to oppress or punish.

In the early 40s, after spending a few years in jail due to political reasons, Nise (Glória Pires) returns to the filthy National Psychiatry Center located in Engenho de Dentro, outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. It’s not only the place that is somber, but also the insensitive doctors and nurses who work there. Immediately, she learns that lobotomy and electric shocks are common treatments in the site, being fiercely advocated by the condescending Dr. Cesar (Michel Bercovitch), a true example of arrogance in the medical class. The manager of the site, Dr. Nelson (Zécarlos Machado), is slightly more understanding but makes clear he won’t go against the adopted procedures, which grew more and more popular at the time.

Appalled and unable to follow these invasive and destructive techniques, Nise is relegated to the chaotic Occupational Therapy Wing. With the help of Ivone (Roberta Rodrigues), a caring nurse, and Lima (Augusto Madeira), a brute slacker turned tolerant ally, she will make a revolution in the sector, also thanks to the collaboration of Almir (Filipe Rocha), an art-lover who brought in the idea of painting sessions for the inmates. 
Her ridiculed practices, which were approved by the master Carl Jung whom she corresponded with, also included daily contact with animals, namely stray dogs that were enthusiastically adopted by the schizoid patients. As expected, Nise’s success didn’t bring accolades from the envious colleagues, who continued to choose the ice pick instead of a paintbrush.

Despite the threatening and tense atmosphere, Berliner sweetens a few scenes that would be stronger without that type of dramatization. There’s a directorial overreaction that seeks to please the viewer by showing the positive side of the treatment, not only on the patients but also on the rest of the characters. For instance, the abrupt changing in Lima’s behavior feels phony. On the patients' side, Emygdio (Claudio Jaborandy)’s open speech before going home feels convenient and formulated. Not to mention the occupants' zombie-like walking, which was too dull and coordinated to be acceptable.

Even with all these reverses, “Nise” is a deeply humane story that everybody should know about. It depicts an important slice of history and advertises human dignity with positivism and pride.
Within an appropriate casting, Glória Pires gives an excellent performance as her broad smiles transpire the happiness of seeing those poor people doing better and the victories of her hard work.
The musical score by the cellist/composer Jacques Morelenbaum is employed to emphasize emotions whenever needed.

Turnabout (2016)

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Directed by E.B. Hughes
Country: USA

Shot in mere18 days, “Turnabout”, the sophomore fictional feature from American writer/director/producer E.B. Hughes, is a character-driven crime film whose story unfolds in a single night. 

Regardless of the prizes collected in festivals such as Atlantic City, Hollywood Boulevard, Chain NYC, and Philadelphia Independent Film Fest, the film wasn’t able to mask the predictability of its plot and simply didn’t work for me. 
The story starts by focusing on Billy Cain (George Katt), a loser who tries to kill himself after taking a bunch of sleeping pills. Leaving his car aside, he walks a mile down the road to throw himself into the ocean but is ultimately saved by two men who were cane-pole fishing on the bridge. With all those pills, maybe it was the cold water that made him stay awake. Still soaked, he makes this unexpected phone call to his high school best friend, Perry (Waylon Payne), whom he doesn’t connect with for 15 years. His voice is trembling and he seems a bit desperate. After all, this is a call for help.

Intrigued, Perry leaves his picky wife Lisa (Judy Jerome) at home with their kid and drives in the middle of the night to rescue his estranged friend.
We learn that Bill is a former guitarist turned into a drug addict. He confesses he was in rehab and that nothing excites him anymore, holding this frustration for remaining broke after working three jobs. It’s noticeable a bit of envy in his eyes since Perry is a well-established optician. While warming up at a local diner, an incident with a teenager will tell us more about Billy’s deceiving personality and unreliable nature. This particular denouncing scene, besides amateurish in its execution, immediately triggers conjectures about Bill’s real intentions and the direction the story is about to take.

Both friends end up in a strip club where Bill spends most of his nights. The idea was just to have one drink and go home, but Perry starts to suspect he was drugged, a fact that doesn’t seem to bother him so much when he has Sherri (Rosebud Baker), a hot stripper, on top of him. 
The night party is turned into a terrible nightmare after the two friends take Sherri and another stripper into a motel room to keep on celebrating.

The film succeeds in showing a mundane, underground world dominated by excesses and vicious dark characters. However, on the other hand, it lacks any sort of surprise or even a proper climax. Many scenes are time-consuming, especially the ones involving the girls, having the film stranded in the same monotonous fainted tones and feeling much longer than it really is. For several times, I found myself asking ‘where did I see this before?’.
Turnabout” is a simplistic and conversational indie thriller whose highlights are limited to Chase Bowman’s decent cinematography and Payne’s mature performance.

Personal Shopper (2016)

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Directed by Olivier Assayas
Country: France / Germany

Two years after the highly esteemed drama “Clouds of Sils Maria”, French writer/director Olivier Assayas tackles a psychological drama/thriller bolstered by crime and spiritualism.

Kristen Stewart is Maureen Cartwright, an American personal shopper based in Paris where she’s assisting Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), a high profile and super-busy celebrity. Her job, a dream for many of the common mortals, consists in traveling to European cities and pick up fancy clothes and jewelry that will be worn by her client at some party or event and then returned to the store.

Even with this painless, well-paid job that provides her a good quality of life, Maureen is not at peace with herself since her twin brother Louis has died from a heart malfunction. In truth, Maureen also suffers from the same medical condition and needs a routine examination every six months. She’s advised to avoid extreme emotions and physical strains.
This is not what bothers her, though, but the fact she can’t connect with the spirit of Louis, who was a very sensitive medium and should be manifesting his presence somehow by that time, as they had promised each other.

Fearless and determined, the disheartened Maureen keeps going back to the house where Louis died to spend the night and trying to establish contact. The house, placed in a remote location in the woods, is now abandoned, and strange happenings start to occur. Is it really Louis or other intrusive forces?
To increase her anxiety, she starts getting mysterious texts on her phone from an unknown sender who seems to know all her moves.
This particular aspect of the story is easily guessable and didn’t really pique my curiosity. A harrowing crime, plus the cat-and-mouse play that results from it, is what will turn it exciting.

The film was never creepy during the ghostly appearances, but Assayas’ vision caught my attention from start to finish, especially through the emotional struggles of this seductive woman who also allows herself to be seduced by the forbidden. He had a perfect ally in Stewart, who gave an out-of-this-world performance, shaping a character that needs to find how to deal with grief and, at the same time, accept what she can’t control. 
Even if not as brilliant as “Clouds of Sils Maria”, “Personal Shopper” is a worthy tale about letting things go in life, in order to live it freely.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary (2017)

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Directed by John Scheinfeld
Country: USA

As inspiring as the music of Coltrane itself, "Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary" unfolds the life of the galactic saxophonist whose soulful approach to music incessantly spread light, peace, and love into the world.
Coltrane put his life in music, resorting to a unique timbre, accurate technique, and an unshakeable spirituality, delivering quintessential records that still sound modern and bold today. I believe that every true jazz fan was touched in a way or another by the art of this jazz giant whose musical phases encompass bebop, cool jazz, post-bop, and spiritual avant-garde jazz and modal music. 

Music documentarian John Scheinfeld ("The U.S. vs. John Lennon", "Who Is Harry Nilsson?") dug deep, painting a compelling portrait of the musician with the help of the many personalities connected to him directly and indirectly. His direction embraces a typical structure within the genre, intercalating still photography, video footage, and testimonials of friends, family members, and fellow musicians. The Oscar-nominated actor/director Denzel Washington was the one designated to narrate Coltrane’s encouraging words. Scheinfeld doesn’t break new ground with his approach and yet, he stands firm and focused on its purpose of chronicle the story with clarity and in a way that becomes accessible to everyone, even those who are not familiar with the saxophonist’s ingenious sounds and work.

The interviewees belong to different generations. In addition to Coltrane’s stepdaughter and sons, we have devoted admirers from the world of music, like guitarist Carlos Santana, an honorary chair of the Coltrane Home in Dix Hill, and contemporary saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who was strongly influenced by Coltrane’s language in his own explosive blend of jazz and soul. Curious was a couple of unexpected (and perhaps redundant) appearances from the former American President Bill Clinton. Still, the most engaging stories derive from Coltrane’s fellow musicians back in time – Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Heath, all of them living jazz legends.

From the film, we learn how Coltrane’s background and beliefs influenced his music. In his childhood and adolescence, black music was a response to the trauma and segregation that the black community was exposed to. However, instead of incendiary in words and behavior, he directed all his energy to dashing musical phrasings and patterns.

Don’t think the genius had an easy life, though. He was heavily affected by heroin consumption and got fired by Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, whose prestigious quintet and big band, respectively, symbolized the limelight of jazz in the 50’s. His desire to become original got compromised for a while, but John had the strength to turn the tables on drugs and innovate in such a way that his ardent prayers were many times misunderstood. The reason is obvious: Coltrane was far ahead of his time. He kept being a huge influence and inspiration for many, not only in music but also in life. His good nature and humbleness were patent when he visited Nagasaki with his new quintet, which included his second wife, the pianist/harpist Alice Coltrane, and prayed for the atomic bomb victims on the Japanese ground zero site. 

This film is a beautiful homage to a man who was able to take "Giant Steps" with "A Love Supreme". The final credits rolled at the sound of “Blue Trane” and the shining light of Coltrane impelled me to grab some of his records and embark on a voyage with him to the infinite cosmos of creation.

A Quiet Passion (2016)

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Directed by Terence Davies
Country: UK / Belgium

English writer/director Terence Davies is known for his mature, if sometimes too formal, dramas such as “House of Mirth”, “The Deep Blue Sea”, and “Sunset Song”. Regardless his remarkable aptitudes in adapting period novels and plays to the big screen, it was with a moving, intimate documentary/biography entitled “Of Time and the City” that he impressed me the most.
He’s back this year with “A Quiet Passion”, an earnest biopic about the American poet Emily Dickinson, whose life included many years spent in reclusive isolation.

The main role was given to Cynthia Nixon (mostly famous for “The Sex and the City” TV series), who played Emily in her maximum dramatic force and adaptable capabilities, while Keith Carradine, Catherine Bailey, Jennifer Ehle, and Duncan Duff are devout to the supporting roles.

Very attached to her family, Emily was condemned to be an eternal spinster who couldn’t cope with the idea of marriage, despite the transient secret infatuation with Reverend Wadsworth (Eric Loren), whose inflamed sermons easily reached her heart. The narrative assertively focuses on her unflinching ideas about family, religion, friendship, and morality, and shows her muted indignation with the publishers of the time, who used to alter the punctuation marks of her poems without her consent.

The joyful and sad moments in the poet’s life are manifestly uneven in amount since she grew lonely, bitter, and sick in the last phase of her earthly existence. Seizures became frequent and Emily chose to abandon social life by refusing to leave her room for several years.

Davies’ style was noticeable since the first frames – almost absence of music, rigorous image composition (photography is by Florian Hoffmeister), mannered and clear speech lines, and interesting use of light and shadow within the evocative settings.

Emily’s poetry is as honest as “A Quiet Passion”, another compelling move from Terence Davies and a classy entry in his refined, selected filmography.

Prevenge (2016)

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Directed by Alice Lowe
Country: UK 

Alice Lowe is a busy (five features in 2016), talented, and sympathetic British actress and poignant writer (“Sightseers”) whose name is from now on associated to film direction. Her directorial debut feature is entitled “Prevenge”, a dark comedy thriller in which she plays Ruth, a psychologically disturbed pregnant widow who decides to slit throats to calm down her anger and her baby’s. 

Her chosen victims are the ones who were involved in the climbing accident that killed her husband and she truly believes her fetus, with whom she has long conversations, is the real mastermind of the merciless, cold, and violent acts she commits.

The film is very graphical and the cinematographer, Ryan Eddleston, draws strong indie flavors from his glamorous shots. The bloody scenes are addressed as a mix of poetic veneration and careless joke, but it’s the dark humor that works best, usually extracted from the characters’ behaviors and relying on a few embarrassing situations.

The best sequences involve a lousy, selfish DJ (Tom Davis) who lives with his senile mother; an insensitive HR representative named Ella (Kate Dickie), who works alone until late and insists her company needs to do ‘harsh cuts’; and Len (Gemma Whelan), a brave woman who tackles Ruth with boxing gloves on her hands.

Lowe, whose performance is half of the film and looks great as a demented slasher, reserves us a trippy finale packed with bloodshed and urban folklore elements.
 
Simultaneously entertaining and zany, “Prevenge” is already a massive success near younger audiences.
However, it lacks the superior pitch-black tones and emotional strength of “Sightseers”, feeling somewhat puerile in its approach.

Frantz (2016)

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Directed by François Ozon
Country: France / Germany

Respected French director François Ozon (“Under the Sand”, “Swimming Pool”, “8 Women”, “In the House”) is back with a post-war romantic drama that leaves us reflecting on life and its disappointments. He co-wrote the script of “Frantz” in collaboration with Philippe Piazzo, based on the 1932 drama “Broken Lullaby” by Ernst Lubitsch. 

The story, set in 1919, immediately after the end of the WWI, takes place in Quedlinburg, Germany, shifting into Paris for the final act. 
Paula Beer, in a meteoric ascension, was deservedly awarded at Venice for her role as Anna, a beautiful young German woman whose pacifist fiancé was killed in battle. Pierre Niney is Adrian, a sensitive French violinist who travels to a wounded Germany to visit the grave and family of his close friend Frantz Hoffmeister, Anna’s fiancé. He not only becomes close to Frantz’s parents, bringing some light to their gloomy lives, but also casts a strange spell on Anna, who was feeling extremely depressed and lonely. The reality, however, is not what it seems, and the drama becomes more and more profound as the secrets are unveiled.

The plot is decent yet not totally surprising and the systematic slow pace can be an issue for some. However, the poetic and somewhat nostalgic tones grabbed me until the end.
The nationalistic roars from both sides have a negative effect on these tormented characters, making them uncomfortable. They just intend to forget everything, let the pain go, and live their lives with no more rancor or guilt. 

“Frantz” was impeccably acted and beautifully photographed by Pascal Marti, most of the time in an attractive black-and-white. Its visual aesthetics, interior settings, and the WWI-related topic made me think of Haneke’s “White Ribbon”, which was more incisive and less lenient than the present.

As usual, Ozon was solid behind the camera in a classic (re)tale about remorse, forgiveness, and passion. Even with a couple of awkward moments, “Frantz” provides substantial cinematic pleasure.