The Ornithologist (2017)

Directed by João Pedro Rodrigues
Country: Portugal / other

The films of the Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues are usually cleverly mounted to pique curiosity, even if the accessibility of the challenging narratives is sometimes limited. I found “To Die Like a Man” a worthy experience, regardless of its flaws, and was even more impressed with the mournful “The Last Time I Saw Macao”.

His new drama, “The Ornithologist”, raises the level of abstraction when compared to the previous tales, but still comprehends homosexual connotations, crime, and mystery. What is different here is a pronounced surrealism where the contemplation of nature mixes with religious symbolism and folklore elements to form a puzzling peregrination toward a spectacular Christian conversion.

The crisp images are deliberately protracted to make us absorb every single detail in the devious path of Fernando (Paul Hamy), an ornithologist who is rescued by two female Chinese pilgrims after his kayak has been dragged by the force of the river. The two disoriented women, Lin (Chan Suan) and Fei (Han Wen), were doing the religious route of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, but got lost, ending up in Portugal, close to the border between the two countries.

The Chinese pilgrims affirm to be haunted by Tangu – the spirit of the forest – and start acting strangely while asking for Fernando’s protection and guidance to return to the right trail. I couldn’t have been more surprised when Fernando, a positive agnostic, awakens tied to a tree, deprived of his priceless freedom. Under a cursing spell, the women talk about castrating him on the next morning, but he was lucky enough to escape before dawn.

With no map and no ID, and carrying a useless cell phone, Fernando embarks on a series of bizarre experiences that includes being followed by a white pigeon, witness an ominous folkloric ritual, and having odd encounters with a young deaf-mute shepherd named Jesus (Xelo Cagiao), with whom he involves himself sexually, and three mythical Latin huntresses on horse.

Along the way, we learn that Fernando’s mental health depends on some pills whose bottle got out of his sight. Is this a bad dream or demonic reality? The impertinent presence of an owl annunciates further oddities.

Amidst heavy symbolism, punctilious allegory, and religious metaphors, the mystic tale loses a bit of direction somewhere in the middle, before Fernando rebirths as Anthony (director’s cameo) and return evangelized to the civilization, hand-in-hand with Jesus’ twin brother, Thomas.

With an approach that borrows a few stylistic constituents from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, this is all about belief and self-discovery. 
The adventure can be as much tortuous as the paths of faith itself and yet sin and repentance are not taken seriously here. Some viewers will find “The Ornithologist” pretentious and philosophically boring while some others will see it as an avant-garde cult film of haunting expression. It will all depend on your openness and state of mind. 

Harmonium (2017)

Directed by Koji Fukada
Country: Japan

Japanese helmer Koji Fukada, active since 2008, has in "Harmonium" his best film so far. As an advocate of solemn dramas with surprising twists, Mr. Fukada, who also penned the script, keeps us entangled in a web of emotions, revelations, and startles, that pushes his film beyond the surface. The severe psychological backbone of the story ended up convincing the members of the jury panel at Cannes Film Festival, where the film won the Un Certain Regard prize.

Kanji Furutachi, a regular presence in Fukada films, is Toshio, a metalworker who lives a quiet life in the company of his wife, Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and their young daughter, Hotaru.
While mother and daughter always pray to God before eating, Toshio eats avidly and almost doesn’t talk. In truth, and regardless his love for them, he doesn’t pay much attention to their needs and often falls in rudimentary behaviors.

On a certain day, Toshio gets the visit of an intriguing old friend, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), who just got out of jail, where he has spent 11 years for killing a young man. Toshio immediately hires this man and invites him to live with him and his family, a strange decision that makes Akie in the verge of an attack of nerves. At this point, and observing the two men’s ways, we conclude that there’s a past debt to be paid off.

However, little by little, Akie is beguiled by the gentleness and availability of Yasaka, who acts respectful, attentive, and becomes very handy at home. He even teaches Hotaru playing a song in the harmonium for her upcoming public performance. Akie spends more and more time with him and gets emotional when he goes into his troubled past. Forbidden kisses are exchanged between them on a sunny weekend day in the countryside as the family reunites with a friend. Still, Akie continues to resist him at home, frustrating his furtive advances and forcing a different personality to emerge in him.

Her disappointment and guilt are immeasurable when Hotaru is found on a sidewalk, inanimated with thick blood covering her head and with the rancorous Yasaka at her side. The madness expressed on his face dissipates all the possible doubts about the perpetrator of the monstrous act.
Eight years after, Yasaka remains untraceable while Hotaru, completely paralyzed, is perpetually confined to a wheelchair. The couple has opposite reactions: while Toshio dreams with revenge, Akie is haunted by visions of the murderer and her nervous system is visibly damaged.
The arrival of Takashi (Taiga), Toshio's young new apprentice, will bring additional information about Yasaka. After so many years, is the couple ready to give up searching for the beast who took their peace of mind?

The slow yet penetrating plot development emphasizes the inherent fatalism of a story that, besides crime and evilness, also deals with karma and selfishness. An unblinking camera mounts compulsive scenarios, where an obstinate symbolism with the red color leads to a creepy, unsettling finale. 

The surprising factor is crucial and only one scene by the end feels forced, when the couple finds someone that looks exactly like Yasaka from behind, teaching harmonium to a young girl.
Apart from that quibble, the director competently elucidates us about how hard it is, in certain cases, to forgive and forget.

Okja (2017)

Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Country: USA / South Korea

Idolized Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“Memories of Murder”, “Mother”, “Snowpiercer”) teams up with co-writer Jon Ronson (“Frank”) and gives life to “Okja”, a big American-Korean production featuring an excellent cast composed of Hollywood stars such as Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhaal, as well as South Korean child actress Ahn Seo-hyun.

This polychromatic fantasy with dramatic lure begins with the wealthy, inhumane, and eccentric Lucy Mirando (Swinton) giving a conference in which she explains her eco-friendly plans to develop a super pig in 26 different countries. The new species is announced for 10 years from then and will be genetically created by a group of top scientists headed by Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal), also a famous TV presenter known as ‘the very healthy guy’. 

The Korean super pig (likely a cross between a pig and a hypo) was baptized Okja and lives happily in the secluded mountains with the old farmer (Byun Hee-Bong) who raised it and his young granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun), with whom it developed an everlasting friendship.

The resolute Mija heads alone to Seoul after Okja has been selected as the best pig and taken to the sophisticated Mirando Corp. Building for lab tests before a pompous public presentation on New York's Broadway.

The rescue of her best friend couldn’t have been possible without the help of five efficient activists from the Animal Liberation Front, whose leader, Jay (Dano), is totally aware of the greediness and psychopathic history of the Mirandos.

Their plan consists in unmasking the scam engendered by Lucy, who even pays to reunite Mija and Okja in front of the TV cameras. Even succeeding on this front, they still have to deal with her evil twin sister, Nancy, and drive the animal home, safely.
The film guarantees a great deal of entertainment through superb action scenes and a handful of thrilling moments. Even fictitious, we can’t help caring about the animals and the grueling treatment they are subjected to at the slaughterhouse. However, the humor lacks spirit and is confined to a couple situations when Okja defecates like rain drops and farts with a reverberant sound.

Released on Netflix and executive produced by Brad Pitt, this dramatic and satirical action-packed adventure aims at animal exploitation, rapaciousness, media attention, and consumerism with a critical eye. Nevertheless, Mr. Joon-ho, with all his talent, was unable to reach the same levels of satisfaction delivered in his much more gripping previous films.

As expected, Ms. Swinton is sensational as the villainess, while the cinematography by Darius Khondji, who also did a great job this year in James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z”, is a major asset, making use of the light in the best possible ways, whether on establishing shots, medium shots, or very detailed close-ups.

The Bad Batch (2017)

Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
Country: USA

The Iranian vampire movie “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” was the brilliant debut that Ana Lily Amirpour needed to launch her career. The accolades given by the critic have pushed the English-born, LA-based filmmaker into a challenging position, infusing some pressure and piquing curiosity about what her next move should/would be. Would she remain faithful to the beautiful black-and-white cinematography? Would she stick to noirish themes?

Her sophomore feature “The Bad Batch” is now out, and answers these questions. It’s a no to the first one since the still attractive cinematography makes use of an arid color palette. And it’s a yes to the second question because the film, a dystopian cannibal love story, is enveloped in gloominess, human degradation, and distress.

The plot concerns a young woman, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), who is marked as a bad batch, which means an outcast doomed to live forever in a forlorn enclosed area located outside Texas. She’s given a gallon of water and abandoned at her own mercy, just to be captured by cannibal freaks who usually start sawing arms and legs first to satisfy their hunger.

The imagery comes accompanied by great music, whose styles range from hip-hop to synth pop to ambient electronica, and carries a wicked toxicity and a strong sense of despair that truly disturbs. Arlen covered by her own feces after having one arm and a leg cut off, or a crow pecking the eyes of a recently dead person, are not particularly agreeable images to look at. However, there are a few great digitally manipulated shots that captivate and even soothe the generalized anarchy.

Despite the violence of the scenes and this somewhat urgency in calling systematically our attention to darkness, the story proceeds with logic and some emotional bait.

Arlen has the luck to be rescued by members of an organization called The Comfort, headed by the enigmatic cult leader and drug baron The Dream (Keanu Reeves), and also finds an external ally, Miami Man (Jason Momoa), a Cuban muscleman who’s looking for his missing little daughter.
With all types of dangers surrounding them, they keep struggling to survive in a lawless land where you have to watch for yourself.

The eventful “The Bad Batch” is bitterly caustic in its conclusion. The finale makes us think over and realize how deep into darkness Amirpour’s mind can go. Still, a relentless search for life, regardless its form, is presented in this Jodorowsky-meets-Mad Max psychedelia.

The Lost City of Z (2017)

Directed by James Gray
Country: USA

Written for the screen by James Gray (“Two Lovers”, “The Immigrant”), who also directs, “The Lost City of Z” is a biographical film that mixes drama and adventure in unequal proportions. The story had David Grann’s book of the same name as a source and tells the path of Percy Fawcett, a British officer and explorer who truly believed in the existence of a lost city in the middle of the Amazon forest.

The first scenes take us to 1905 Cork in Ireland where Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) rejoices while hunting, one of his great passions. What we learn minutes later, is that Fawcett has an even bigger passion that he just can’t control: to explore remote lands, which no white man has reached before. The sparkle in his eyes shows an unmeasured contentment when the prestigious Royal Geographical Society sends him to Bolivia in the company of the loyal Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), a deep connoisseur of the Amazon rainforest, Corporal Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), and Tadjui, an Indian guide who, knowing the dangerous river like the fingers of his hand, tells him about hidden cities covered with gold and inhabited by ancient civilizations.

Fawcett’s initial curiosity about these stories becomes an obsession when he discovers archeological evidence in the jungle. Managing to dodge from brutal Indigenous attacks and conquering hunger and tiredness, he returns safely to his beautiful and understanding wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and their little son, Jack. Even expecting another child, Nina knows there’s nothing she can do to prevent her brave husband from going back to the jungle and following his dream. It’s his destiny and his will, and Hunnam conveys it perfectly well.

After another failed attempt, in which the infiltrator James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) jeopardizes all the expedition, Fawcett and Costin are impelled to serve their country in the WWI. The noble Major returns as a hero, but his eyes became so affected that a new expedition to South America seems out of the question.
However, with the support of his brave family, Fawcett returns to the impenetrable Amazon forest, this time having just his fearless son Jack (Tom Holland) by his side.

Standing somewhere between "Fitzcarraldo" and "Deliverance", "The Lost City of Z" is a valid tale of perseverance, passion, and courage. There is plenty to like in the stunning frames captured by director of photography Darius Kondji (“Delicatessen”, “Amour”), but the film loses some exuberance in the way it is portrayed. Also, it was a shame that Gray had given less emphasis to the expeditions and its possible perils to focus more on the dramatic side of the story. I felt that a bit more of tension wouldn’t harm or compromise the outcome. 

Hence, don’t expect to find an Indiana Jones here, but rather a character based on a real explorer who abandoned his life for the passion of adventure. Solid watching!

Mad World (2016)

Directed by Wong Chun
Country: Hong Kong

Following the guidelines of a tight script written by Florence Chan, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Chun releases his debut film, “Mad World”, with promises of having much more to give in the future. The film, a compulsive drama, looks at mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, not only addressing the typical pain and distress that torments patients in this condition but also embracing understanding, expectation, and hope.

The film’s central character is Tung (Shawn Yue), a former successful stockbroker who decided to left his job and personal life to take care of his bipolar mother. Curiously, he struggles with the illness himself, extremely aggravated after his mother’s death, which happened in strange circumstances. So strange that he had to go to court to dissipate all possible doubts related to the incident.

The camera lens fixates on Tung after he has been discharged from the mental hospital and accompanies him in the difficult processes of re-adaptation to the real world and reconnection with his estranged, aging father (Eric Tsang). The latter, a good-natured truck driver, is happy to have him in his tiny space in a single-room-occupancy building. However, he is also concerned with his son, and in fact, he has reasons for that since he stopped taking his pills.

Through recurrent flashbacks, Chung thoroughly reconstructs some key moments in the life of Tung, focusing on his depressing experiences when in the company of his mother, who could cry like a baby in his arms and then suddenly curse him with a painful fury. Moments with his heartless girlfriend Jenny (Charmaine Fong), with whom he will meet up again in an attempt to resume the relationship, are also introduced, helping us to better understand his troubled past.

When everything seemed to be favorable, hope is turned into humiliation, and a fulminant relapse goes on his way without mercy or compassion. Pitch-dark are the clouds that hover above his head, making his poor father hopeless as he keeps observing his son lying on the bed all day, crying, without eating or having the strength to take a shower. These are the most powerful scenes in the film, and they cut like sharp razors.

To complicate, the neighbors don’t feel comfortable when Tung is around and demand his departure. Besides his father, there’s only one person in the building who cares about him, earning his friendship: a bright, sensitive kid who read him Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince at night through the wall. 

“Mad World” is an unadorned, modest tale with a topic many times explored before. Still, and even slightly flawed, it thrives with steeped emotional affluence and gripping performances. Besides sincerity and zeal in the filmmaking and production design, Wong Chun endeavored to extract some light from a life of shadows. Hence, the Best New Director Awards given to him by the Golden Horse Film Festival and the Hong Kong Film Awards are not so surprising.

The Long Excuse (2016)

Directed by Miwa Nishikawa
Country: Japan

Japanese filmmaker Miwa Nishikawa (“Wild Berries”), whose career started under the tutelage of the acclaimed Hirokazu Koreeda, adapts her own 2015 novel, “The Long Excuse”, to the big screen with favorable results. The drama stars Masahiro Motoki (“Departures”) as Sachio Kinugasa, a successful writer too centered on himself to pay attention to his affectionate wife, Natsuko (Eri Fukatsu). She is a hair stylist who supported him when he most needed and always encouraged him to follow his dreams.

However, their 20-year marriage is going through a terrible phase and keeps deteriorating. With a circumspect sequence of close-ups, Ms. Nishikawa reinforces the state of mind of the couple right in the first scenes. While giving him a haircut, Natsuko heartily summons up agreeable moments of the past spent in his company, but she only gets indifference and bitterness back.

Sachio's life will make a U-turn when his wife suddenly dies in a bus accident in the company of her high school best friend, Yuki (Keiko Horiuchi). The fatality occurs when Sachio is at home fooling around with a younger woman, a student who immediately understands that his ego is too large for him to worry about the loss. Conversely, Yuki’s modest husband, Yoichi (Pistol Takehara), falls into a spiral of tears and despair.

Unexpectedly, his soul goes through a complete metamorphosis when he gets closer to Yoichi’s two children, Shinpei (Kenshin Fujita) and Akari (Tamaki Shiratori), who are temporarily entrusted to him so that their father can work overnight. Sachio was impressed with and compassionate for the highly sensitive Shinpei when he discloses he won’t be attending school anymore. Happy about finally doing the right thing, he undertakes the mission of helping the kid with the studies while also watching for his lovely little sister.
Well, he had no idea how many simple yet precious things he was about to learn from these kids, including exteriorizing feelings and opening his soul to others.
Besides the humane side of the story, the film also focuses on the gap between social classes by putting Sachio and Yoichi on different sides of the fence. On one side, there’s social status, vanity, and pretentiousness. On the other, modesty, honesty, and transparency.

Even resorting to some sentimentality, “The Long Excuse” reached me in the way it treats camaraderie, personal growth, and family ties with sagacious integrity.
Hence, the quibbles found in Nishikawa’s directorial procedures have almost no expression when compared to the message conveyed. And it feels so good seeing someone who became stuck moving on.

Ma Rosa (2016)

Directed by Brillante Mendoza
Country:  Philippines

Filipino director Brillante Mendoza (“Kinatay”, “Grandmother”) responds to the crisis lived in his country with another descriptive drama, set in the fervent Manila, about a couple, Rosa (Jaclyn Jose) and Nestor Reyes (Julio Diaz), whose illegal activities carry out in their small convenience store are subject to search by the corrupt local police, leading to their subsequent arrest.

With three children to feed, Rosa is clearly the head of the family and the one who maintains everything under control in the household. She provides for the family while taking an eye on her vicious husband. Since the money obtained from the store is not enough to cover the needs, the couple plunged head first into the ‘ice’ business, becoming popular small-scale crystal meth suppliers for the entire neighborhood. Their life has changed for better since then and, regardless some debts to collect here and there, they don’t have to worry so much. Besides, it's not uncommon to see Rosa helping out the ones knocking on her door to ask for financial help.

Emergent writer Troy Espiritu, in its first collaboration with Mendoza, makes his point by showing us how tough and contradictable life may be. Sometimes your best friends are the ones who turn you in. Other times, even those who you don’t get along with, can save you from the most sordid situations.

Another shocking focal point has to do with the open dishonesty embraced by the Filipino police agents. Those guys suck the transgressors to the bone, asking for bribing money with a scoffing posture that is painfully vexing. Through Rosa, they also reached her supplier, the young Jomar (Kristoffer King), who, in turn, works for a big fish. That means thick bundles of cash to their pockets and a reason to celebrate with roasted chicken and beers.

Not satisfied with what they got, the agents ask for a higher bail to free Nestor and Rosa, who become totally dependent on her children, Jackson (Felix Roco), Erwin (Jomari Angeles) and Raquel (Andy Eigenmann). Each of them will have to put their minds to work and find ways to collect the required sum. Nevertheless, thrills are not particularly increased.
Rosa’s sharp tongue and frequent vulgar language easily become the funny side of a story rendered with rawness and nearness, which make it pretty much alive, even considering the dark scenario.

The point here is how would you educate your own children in these circumstances to make them better human beings and look to the future with optimism and confidence. It makes you ponder about what options do they have in a place like Manila, where the struggles to survive are overpowering.

Understated, “Ma’ Rosa” comes deprived of the traumatic agony of “Kinatay” and the mordant plot of “Grandmother”, but still bestows this in-your-face authenticity that keeps us interested. The social realism conveyed here is not new, though, and Mendoza did it clearly better in previous moves. Even saturated with active camera movements, his direction feels a bit stiff, and the power of the scenes comes mostly from the capture of the poor milieu and the cast's forceful acting. 

Donald Cried (2016)

Directed by Kris Avedisian
Country: USA

Donald Cried” is an indie American dramedy and sympathetic buddy film with much to say about friendship, self-conceitedness, and complacency.
It marks the directorial debut of Kris Avedisian, who also stars as Donald and wrote the script based on his own 2012 short film of the same name.

The camera lens fixates on Peter Latang (Jesse Wakeman), a successful Manhattan banker forced to return to his Rhode Island hometown, where he intends to spend just one night or two in order to take care of things related to his grandmother, who suddenly passed away. 

Peter is visibly exasperated for having to go back to a place that brings embarrassing memories from a slice of his life he wants to forget. Things go from bad to worse when he realizes he left his wallet on the bus with crucial elements like ID, cash, and credit cards. Desperate and irritated, he doesn’t know how to react when he sees Donald Treebeck, his former best friend. The latter, after 15 years, still dwells in the past, but is truly glad to see him and insists on hanging out, while Peter, swallowing his superiority, asks for money and a ride.

Before heading to the nursing home where Peter’s grandma lived for the last six years, the reconnected friends experience an awkward encounter with a former schoolmate, play football in the snow with a drug dealer, meet with Donald’s brute boss and stepfather (Ted Arcidi), and pay a visit to another ‘amigo’, Toutey (Jeremy Furtado), who, even apathetic and laconic, brings around shameful situations from the past that only increase the nervousness among them.

The film’s climax just arrives in the second half, when Peter is cockblocked by the forlorn Donald, when he goes on a date with Kristin (Louisa Krause), a real estate agent whom he first pretended not to know. The scene, simultaneously embarrassing and funny, comes in the sequence of their mourning process, which would never have been the same without smoking weed.

The wry, dark humor is a constant, both explicit and implicit, and the garrulous Donald is the one who stirs things up with a disarming honesty, childish imagination, and the slyness of a thief. Just don’t expect those nice characters typical of this peculiar subgenre.

Apparently, most of the tension evaporates in the air. Hence, “Donald Cried” could have hastened to raise the pressure. However, if that was the case, this pragmatism that crafts every scene to become plausible and genuinely pulsing could be jeopardized.
Avedisian, opting for a handheld camera instead of fixed shots, succeeds in his efforts to engage audiences with an uncomplicated combination of ludicrousness, depression, and cynicism.

One Week and a Day (2016)

Directed by: Asaph Polonsky
Country: Israel

Every person reacts in a different way in the face of grief and loss. That's the main topic of “Two Weeks and a Day”, a bittersweet Israeli drama written and directed by American-born Israeli-raised Asaph Polonsky.

For a debut, the filmmaker managed to associate narrative clarity and very observant details to a slightly offbeat tale, which, despite the heaviness related to the subject itself, ended up being hilarious on various fronts.

The story begins on the last day of the Spivaks’ sitting shiva, a seven-day mourning period in which the coupled stays at home and receives visitors. Eyal (Shai Avivi) and Vicky Spivak (Evgenia Dodina) are still numbed by the loss of their only son, Ronnie, due to cancer. However, their postures after this painful reverse are completely divergent and their behaviors are a reflex of their state of minds. 

While Vicky suffers in silence but tries hard to go back to her normal life, Eyal is completely lost and disoriented. Despite having everything more or less organized in her head, Vicky may forget the dentist appointment, but immediately makes an effort to compensate the fault. She struggles to keep focused and on the right track, and even returns to school to teach again.
In turn, Eyad ignores work and persists in going back to the hospice where his son spent his last days. His intention is to retrieve his son’s colorful blanket but instead, he ends up stealing medicinal cannabis from a patient. In addition to this, he slaps his neighbor Karen (Carmit Mesilati Kaplan) and then fights her husband, Shmulik (Sharon Alexander). Yet, for our surprise, he starts hanging out with their neighbors' immature son, Zooler (Tomer Kapon), a sushi delivery guy who pretends to play an imaginary guitar and helps him rolling a joint for a first stoned experience. His wife’s facial expression shows disapproval of his conduct, but she kind of tolerates this weird phase he’s going through.

And that's how miserable and vulnerable they feel in their mourning process, desperately finding a cure for the endless pain in their souls.

Lots of zany scenes engendered by Polonsky carry a wry humor, at the same time that pushes the viewer to this permanent state of expectation. Thereby, you may expect several oddball situations that keep coming out without previous notice.

The rock music soundtrack is great and serves as a good pretext for Zooler to exteriorize tension with an indefatigable dance moment.
Avivi and Dodina don't let a drop of emotion behind during their memorable performances, regardless how much ridiculous their actions may look. In turn, Kapon conveys a pretty funny stupidity that insults and entertains.

Eschewing a particularly strong climax, “Two Weeks and a Day” develops with confidence toward a conclusion that brims with hope, resignation, and finally acceptance.

The Confessions (2016)

Directed by Roberto Andò
Country: Italy

Roberto Andò’s multi-lingual "The Confessions" looks at the filthy capitalist side of the world with a sneering disdain and confronts it with suggestive topics such as religion and the supernatural.

As it happened in the political satire "Long Live the Freedom" (2013), the Sicilian filmmaker teams up with the one and only Toni Servillo ("The Great Beauty", "Il Divo"), who plays a Carthusian monk turned into the main suspect in the death of the wealthy French economist Daniel Roché (Daniel Auteuil), director of the International Monetary Fund. The tragic incident occurs during a G8 confidential meeting convoked by the president himself, who, after a long confession with Father Roberto Salus (Servillo), a man of untrembling faith, is found in his hotel room choked with a plastic bag tied over his head.

None of the ministers or guests can leave the luxurious German hotel exclusively reserved for the event before the detective in charge concludes the investigations that will determine whether if it was a suicide or murder. The procedures take a long and sinuous course because the monk’s mouth is sealed by a strict vow of silence, which increases the mistrust and insecurity among the group.

By itself, the simple convocation of the monk for this meeting is an enigma, but the fact that he was the last person seeing the banker before his death along with a few other relevant details, make him the center of everyone’s attention. 

Pushed to the limit to tell what he knows, the mysterious Father Salus becomes the most sought after personality in the hotel for various reasons. While the elusive Italian minister Antonio Varelli (Pierfrancesco Favino), worried about his reputation, agrees to confess his sins to relieve his conscience, other ministers, particularly the ones from the UK and the US, just want to get rid of him since he might be in possession of classified information. From here, we conclude that what they were about to approve wouldn't be beneficial for the world at all but for their pockets and personal interests.

This tense dance between God and the devil, dispossession and financial power, repent and sin, takes almost the shape of one of Agatha Christie’s cases with uncertainty and mysticism alike. 

Salus’ best ally ends up being Claire Seth (Connie Nielsen), a famous writer of books for children, who developed a steep curiosity for the monk since the minute she laid her eyes on him. Besides them, there’s another outsider, Mark Klein (Moritz Bleibtreu), a guest musician who tries to conquer Ms. Seth with his gallantry when he’s not entertaining everyone with country-like renditions of tunes like Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side.

Andò co-wrote the script with his close collaborator Angelo Pasquini, resorting to mordant, funny lines to censure the secrecy and hypocrisy of the world’s financial state of affairs, a concern that he dares to compare to the Mafia.

Packed with ironic scenes accurately framed by cinematographer Maurizio Calvesi, who was able to find the right tonic between the light and the shadow, and enhanced by Nicola Piovani’s uncanny score, "The Confessions" flows at a steady pace, avoiding abrupt frenzied spins beyond an unfathomable surreal finale that is worthy of the best illusionists.
One thought weighs in the end: silence, no one can buy.

King Of The Belgians (2016)

Directed by Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth
Country: Belgium / Bulgaria / Netherlands

Belgian Peter Brosens and American Jessica Woodworth persevere in teaming up with gratifying results. The pair of writer-directors, more self-assured than prolific, only released three movies in the last decade. If I regarded “Altiplano"(2009) as a big step in their careers, the totally engrossing “The Fifth Season” (2012) worked as a validation for their storytelling inventiveness and sure-footed filmmaking style.

Their new film is an adventurous comedy that, being told and shaped like a documentary, makes suitable the neologism mockumentary to better define it.
This road outing, hopping from country to country, takes some time to spread its charms, but when it does, we feel immersed in those feel-good vibes that radiate from the intention of saying bitter truths through a few good laughs.

We follow the well-behaved Nicolas III (Peter Van den Begin), the king of Belgium, whose activities are being filmed for a documentary. The man responsible for capturing the best frames during the most propitious occasions is the documentarian Duncan Lloyd (Pieter van der Houwen), who was hired by the king’s garrulous wife, Queen Ursula (Nathalie Laroche), to follow him everywhere. 

Lloyd, the film’s narrator, gladly joins the king in an official visit to Istanbul that aims to welcome Turkey into the EU. With them goes the faithful royal staff composed of the chief of protocol Ludovic Moreau (Bruno Georis), the press relations Louise (Lucie Debay), and the king's personal valet Carlos (Titus De Voogdt).

Once in Turkey, they get the news that Belgium is no more since Wallonia just declared independence. In a rush to return home and better face the political crisis, Nicolas III sees an unforeseen solar storm hampering them to fly or even communicate by cell phone. However, being stranded is not a protocol followed by the humble king, who agrees in following a risky escape plan suggested by Lloyd. They get on a bus with a bunch of empathetic Bulgarian folk singers toward Sofia.
Their peculiar itinerary includes a ride on a tractor, a helpful hand from traditional Kukeri figures (remember the fantastic German dramedy “Toni Erdmann”?), and a visit to a rural village disguised of Belgium TV reporters. In Serbia, Lloyd bumps into an old pal and former sniper named Dragan (Goran Radakovic) and the group drinks traditional rakija until dawn, while in Albania they face trouble for having neither passports nor cash.

With jocose lines, “King of the Belgians” is an undemanding offbeat caricature that turns up politically concise in its sayings, yet considerably stinging in its depictions, especially of the countries visited. The widely known internal contention between Walloons and Flemish in Belgium is briefly sneered, functioning as a contradiction of a country whose capital is also the capital of the EU.

In addition to an efficacious hand manipulation of the camera, credible acting, and whimsical musical variations of famous classical pieces, the film has the merit of framing with purpose both naturalistic settings and occasional mounted aesthetic composures. 
You may think of it as if “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” were transformed into a road-trip, in which an unostentatious, solitary king discovers himself through the enjoyment of living an unforgettable adventure.

The Commune (2017)

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Country: Denmark / other

Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg, co-founder of the Dogme 95 movement along with Lars Von Trier, is known for some poignant dramas with manifest emotional insight as are the cases of “The Celebration”, his first big hit, “The Hunt”, a worldly acclaimed drama with a strong theme, and “Far From the Madding Crowd”, a well-made British-American adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel of the same name. However, his filmography is not always consistent and titles such as “Dear Wendy”, “It’s All About Love”, and “Submarino” are completely dispensable.

Vinterberg co-wrote his new drama, “The Commune”, with a highly respected writer/helmer, Tobias Lindholm (“R”, “Highjacking”, “A War”), but the film is another rough stumble in the wobbly quality of his creations.
Set in the 70s, the film focuses on a successful liberal couple, Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) and Anna Muller (Trine Dyrholm), architecture professor and TV newscaster, respectively, who move with their 14-year old daughter, Freja (Martha Wallstrøm Hansen), into a large but secluded house in Hellerup, North of Copenhagen. The house is too big for them and is Anna’s wish to live in a commune with both old friends and a stranger, a broke foreigner called Allon (Fares Fares).

The other uninteresting dwellers are Ole (Lars Ranthe), Mona (Julie Agnete Vang), and a couple of associate professors whose little son faces a serious heart condition. As they cry and laugh together, everyone knows their place and how to live with respect.

After a chameleonic start that deludes us for brief moments with a perplexing piano melody erroneously announcing a thriller, and then suggesting a possible middle-aged romantic tale before settling in a fellowship adventure, the sharp camera lens fixates on the three main protagonists.

While the temperamental Erik starts an affair with a third-grade college student, Anna enters in a depressive and vicious spiral that will affect her life and work. Freja, who accidentally finds her dad’s secret, also gives the first steps in love with an older boy.

Although one may find genuine moments in the couple’s crisis, there are a bunch of scenes that feel contrived and even touch the ridicule. Perhaps the best example to illustrate this is when Allon does his interview with the commune members. Moreover, the dramatic side, many times enhanced by steep close-ups, is manipulated and conducted with an overwhelming negligence. 

Regardless the wonderful performances by Thomsen and Dyrholm, the narrative engine machinated by Vinterberg needed some more oil to slide out of its torpor. I’ve never found that miraculous spark that captivates, intrigues, and impels us to care about the characters, and that led “The Commune” to become stoic in all its avidity to quickly and easily stir emotions.

Wonder Woman (2017)

Directed by Patty Jenkins
Country: USA / other

“Wonder Woman”, another hyperbolic action-packed wonder-stuffed fantasy rich in highly stylized visuals and heroic passion, fails to engage.

Directed by Patty Jenkins, best known for her compelling debut drama “Monster”, the film was painted according to the screenplay delivered by Allan Heinberg, who also wrote the story together with Zack Snyder (“Man of Steel”, “Batman v Superman”) and Jason Fuchs.

To sweeten things, the creators envisioned a quasi-platonic romance between Diana, an immortal Amazon princess valiantly played by the sculptural 51-year-old Gal Gadot, and Cpt. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a young British spy she saved from drowning when his plane crashed.

The self-confident Diana combines the majestic natural powers passed by her father Zeus and the corporeal agility gained with the training received from her brave aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright). Departing from the beautiful hidden island she was raised on and leaving the Amazon queen (Connie Nielsen) and mother behind, Diana embarks on a risky mission to free the world from the hands of Ares, Zeus’ renegade son and god of war, who must be found among the tyrant Nazis and annihilated.

Besides a couple minor twists, the tale advances in a predictable way while presents us with loads of crossfire that makes our eyes tired and our brains slightly numbed. Despite the righteous message and Diana’s tenacious dedication to serve-and-protect humanity, the attributes of the film, even fashionable, are not so strong or new.

Wonder Woman”, whose first part was much more interesting than the second, is the fourth installment of DC comics, and although better than the previous three, still struggles with stereotypes and unevenness.

The Age of Shadows (2016)


Directed by Kim Jee-woon
Country: South Korea

Brought to cinematic life by the hand of writer/helmer Kim Jee-woon, “The Age of Shadows” is a Korean espionage action thriller that reaps honors with a smart script, outstanding action scenes, and unshaken performances by Song Kang-ho (“Momories of a Murder”, “Snowpiercer”), Gong Yoo (“Train to Busan”), and Eom Tae-goo.

The director, whose past works oscillate between the horror (“Tale of Two Sisters”, “I Saw the Devil”) and the action genres (“A Bittersweet Life”, “The Last Stand”), shows a strong narrative articulation while keeping high levels of tension throughout.

Set in the 20’s occupied Korea and Shanghai, the film centers on Lee Jeong-chool (Kang-ho), a deserter member of the Korean resistance who started working for the Japanese as their police captain. He usually accomplishes knotty missions in a stainless way, being regarded as an asset in the hunt for rebel leaders. His superior, Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi), has him in a high account and never recriminates him, even when the operations go off the track.

After the killing of Ok Kim-jang, an important member of the Resistance, Jeong-chool, whom was his former classmate and close friend, radically changes sides as he teams up with Jin Kim-woon (Yoo), a dissimulated antique dealer and persuasive blackmailer who asks for help in a scheme to transfer explosives from Shanghai to Seoul. The explosives would be used to destroy critical Japanese targets in the disquieted capital of South Korea.

Divided between the Japanese duty and his true Korean heart, Jeong-chool resolves to embrace the role of a double agent after meeting with the most wanted man in the country, Jeong Chae-san (Lee Byung-hun), the leader of the Resistance and, according to his own words, a “soldier who lost his country".

At the same time that our agent tries to deviate the attention of Hashimoto (Tae-goo), his voracious new partner in the police, he also tries to locate the betrayer who, acting from inside the group, keeps the occupiers so well informed.

Every scene was carefully weighed and measured to look as realistic as possible, a factor that is commonly neglected nowadays in favor of fireworks and overdone tantrums.

Never decaying in pace, the film provides us with thrilling Hitchcockian sequences on a train, suspenseful ambushes, treacherous inside men working in the shadow, and incredible shootouts at the sound of Louis Armstrong. Are these enough reasons to make you interested?

The Age of Shadows” not only received domestic praise but also drew positive reactions internationally.

La Barracuda (2017)


Directed by Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin
Country: UK

This newly discovered indie thriller, “La Barracuda”, stars Allison Tolman and Sophie Reid as two estranged half-sisters who get to know each other at an adult age while living under the same roof for a limited period of time. The story was an idea of Jason Cortlund, who co-directed with Julia Halperin, and this is their second feature, after the 2012 drama, “Now, Forager”.

The plot centers on two sisters who had never met until their father’s death. Besides being an alcoholic and drug addict, the singer Wayne Joseph Klein was also a liar and a cheater, at least according to his wife, Patricia (JoBeth Williams). Their daughter, Merle Klein (Tolman), lives comfortably in Austin, Texas, in the company of her helpful fiancé Raul (Luis Bordonada) and his son from a previous relationship. She maintains a steady job and now has a big inherited ranch under her supervision.

On a certain day, by the time she gets home, Merle almost becomes speechless when a British woman stationed at her door says to be her sister. Her name is Sinaloa (Reid) and she’s a singer/songwriter, just like their dad.

Reluctantly and due to Raul’s insistence, Merle invites her to stay. At first, the interaction between them seems arduous, but as the time passes, they become best friends. Meanwhile, Sinaloa borrows an old acoustic Gibson and finds some moments of glory when singing melancholic country/folk tunes at home, backed by local musicians who are also friends of the family, and at a local bar. Under different scenarios, she shows to be an honest, independent woman who resolutely exhibits a strong character. However, as the story moves forward, the cool, hippie-like attitude she first adopted gradually vanishes, unmasking a deranged personality that, until then, was concealed.

The episodes succeed one after another while these small changes in Sinaloa’s temperament occur in a very subtle way, forcing the viewers to remain in a state of alert and ambiguity. This can be either challenging or frustrating, and in my case, it was the latter option that won. The reason had much to do with the authors’ inability to build proper tension throughout. Instead, they envisioned pouring everything out, at once, in the final section.

The prolonged pre-climax, characterized by an unaltered pace and tone, took over a story whose main point of interest suddenly changed from Sinaloa, supposedly ‘designed’ to intrigue us (what was that pee in the garden?), to Merle and her emotional problems.

Even with all its weaknesses, the slow-burning “La Barracuda” evinced strong production values, which is laudable considering its low budget. In addition to the appealing cinematography by Jonathan Nastasi and some interesting focused-unfocused camera techniques, the film, which had Bruce Beresford (“Breaker Morant”, “Driving Miss Daisy”) as an executive producer, also reaps considerable benefit from the compelling performances by the pair of leading actors.

Looking and feeling like a true independent film, it was a shame that it felt so uneven and limited in thrills along the way.

Sami Blood (2017)


Directed by Amanda Kernell
Country: Sweden / Denmark / Norway

This idyllic yet emotionally powerful international co-production between Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, follows the drama of a Lappish woman who gladly left her nomadic family behind, neglecting her origins in favor of the more intellectual and cosmopolitan life she envisioned for herself. The viewer has the chance to observe a zealous ambition turning into a tenacious battle against Nordic prejudice.

Anne-Marja (Maj-Doris Rimpi) is a stubborn, never-smiling 78-year-old woman who changed her name many years ago to Christina. The combination of wrinkled skin with a permanently severe look lets us guess she had a tough life in her youth days. We find her heading to Lapland for her sister’s Sami funeral in the company of her son and granddaughter.

Boycotting any possible contact with the locals and isolating herself in a hotel room after refusing to acknowledge her sister, Anne-Marja recalls a tumultuous past, letting us know how she abandoned the Great Northern Mountain, her mother - a reindeer herder, her fragile sister, and the rural smell of the Lapps in order to become a teacher in Uppsala.
The narrative winds back to the 30s when Anne-Marja, 14 (now brilliantly played by Lene Cecilia Sparrok), and her younger sister Njenna (Mia Sparrok), were temporarily sent to a boarding school for Sami children in the South. While the former, a bright student who already spoke fluent Swedish at that time, showed a strong will to become independent and successful, the latter, perceivably different in nature, was yearning and counting the days to go back to her family.

Even owning a monumental intelligence, things didn’t go smoothly for Anne-Marja since the Sami people were considered inferior and prevented from attending better schools to proceed their studies. Trying to hide her true identity by adopting the name of her schoolteacher, she runs away from school but finds prejudice and humiliation everywhere, even when she mistakenly thought that Niklas (Julius Fleischanderl), an Uppsala boy she fell for, would become an ally.

Seamlessly written and compellingly directed by Amanda Kernell, who causes a very much positive impression in her debut feature, “Sami Blood” is a tale of rebellion, ambition, perseverance, and forgiveness, told with a Scandinavian tranquility and sustained by a top-quality performance by the young newcomer Lene Cecilia Sparrok.

The endearing images – photography is by Sophia Olsson – bestow a picturesque charm and compositional rigor while the script was developed directly from Kernell’s 2015 short film “Northern Great Mountain”, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. The irresistible “Sami Blood” did even better by winning the Label Europa Cinemas prize and best debutant director at Venice, the Human Values Award at Thessaloniki, and The Best Nordic Film prize at Goteborg Film Festival.

I can't deny having a certain curiosity about Kernell's next move, as well as where the young Lene can go after this first fulfillment.

Mindhorn (2017)


Directed by Sean Foley
Country: UK

The ridiculously adventurous “Mindhorn” borrows its title from a tacky British detective whose optical eye is no more and no less than a truth-detector that permits him to capture lawbreakers with relative facility. The hero, played by the extravagant actor Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt), a true Capoeira devotee, was created for a TV show that suddenly became a massive success in the Isle of Man, where it was filmed in the late 80s.

25 years later, we find Richard in London, unemployed and infesting casting auditions and cine-studios with unconvincing demonstrations of his rusty acting capabilities. 

Unexpectedly, he returns to Douglas on the Isle of Man to embody the famous character again, but not for a film or TV series. The motive has to do with a serial killer, Paul Melly (Russell Tovey), an advocate of the Apocalypse of Justice, who demands his presence right after slaying another victim.

Escorted and protected by police officers, Richard is regarded as the secret key to catch the villain. In addition to the difficulty of actuate in a real environment pelted with real dangers and misleading cops, Richard re-encounters the old crew he left behind, including his ex-girlfriend and actress, Patricia Deville (Essie Davis), now a serious journalist married with Richard’s former stunt-man Clive Parnevik (Simon Farnaby), and also Geoffrey Moncrief (Richard McCabe), a broke public relations who lives decadently in a caravan. He also tries to reach Peter Eastman (Steve Coogan), a second-rate actor turned ostentatious businessman whose contact he should avoid.

The film, produced by Coogan and Ridley Scott, was directed by Sean Foley from a screenplay by Barratt and Farnaby, relying heavily on Barratt’s performance to convey the carefree posture and provocative attitude of the insolent, self-aggrandizing protagonist. It also features cameos from Kenneth Brannagh and Simon Callow.

Mindhorn” is an outlandish, intellectually limited experience that uses a few cheap gimmicks to entertain. Yet, it shows some nerve in the wild, if nonsensical situations depicted. It can be defined as a blend of crime parody and calamitous detective misadventure populated by weird, fabricated characters. Despite all the artful imbecility associated with it, I didn’t give my time as wasted and even discovered a few hilarities among its never static imbroglios.

The renowned American entertainment company Netflix saw its commercial viability while it was running in the UK theaters and acquired the broadcasting rights.

Eternity (2016)

Directed by Tran Anh Hung
Country: France / Belgium

France-based Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung is known for his sensitive depictions of plausible life dramas through a meditative approach. All this is reflected in the worth-discovering first works of his short filmography, such as "The Scent of Green Papaya" (1993), "Cyclo" (1995), and "The Vertical Ray of the Sun" (2000). This trilogy concerns his country of origin and you should start with it, in case you’re not familiar with his work.

Eternity” is his first ‘French’ story, following “I Come With the Rain” (2009), a minor neo-noir thriller whose action takes place in the US, Philippines, and Hong Kong, and “Norwegian Wood” (2010), an unconvincing Japanese romantic tale. Hung wrote the screenplay based on the novel “The Elegance of Widows" by Alice Ferney.

Choppily narrated by the helmer’s wife, Tran Nu Yen Khe, the film stars Audrey Tautou, Bérénice Bejo, Mélanie Laurent, Jérémie Renier, and Pierre Deladonchamps, whose characters belong to the same family and are tied by strong bonds.

The narrative begins with the focus on Valentine (Tautou) who, at the age of 17, marries Jules (Arieh Worthalter), a good-natured troubadour. They become proud parents of six children. Predestined to live a long life, Valentine goes through a lot by seeing her loved ones departing to the other world due to illness or war.

The painful sensation of losing a child haunts her again, many years after her husband's death, when her son, Henri (Renier), marries Mathilde (Laurent). The narrative shifts again to the latter’s cousin, Gabrielle (Bejo), and her quiet husband, Charles (Deladonchamps), since both couples are intimately connected and, like a family curse, will inevitably deal with death in their own ways. 

Eternity” sweeps family generations with a cyclical boredom. On one hand, we have the aching, mournful women; on the other, the quiet, introspective men. All the frames are rigorously composed through elegant period settings and painted with saturated colors, predominantly embracing yellowish and reddish tonalities. Hung draws its natural formalism from Rohmer. However, the orchestrated classical piano music and the occasional use of slow motion techniques only increase the melancholy of a tale that would benefit if less contemplative and a bit more expeditious in its strategies for the big screen. 

The lugubrious atmosphere that surrounds the drama is soon turned into enervation, and you will probably find yourself making an effort to stay awake only not to miss the superfluous ending.
Totally forgettable, “Eternity” reveals a nostalgic Tran Anh Hung in need of urgent inspiration.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)


Directed by Guy Ritchie
Country: USA

The legendary King Arthur, his powerful sword, Excalibur, and his heroic deeds in medieval times were addressed a few times before in the movies with variable outcomes. Some of them opted for a more classical approach like the interesting “Camelot” by Joshua Logan or “Excalibur” by John Boorman. Some others are a total waste of time like Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 “King Arthur”. To me, the more successful ones were those that added some creativity and a hint of boldness to the tale such as the beautifully unorthodox “Lancelot of the Lake” by Bresson and “Percival” by Rohmer, which are directly related to the topic.

Guy Ritchie also intended to do something creative on “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”, but roundly failed his test. He lamentably relied on too many frivolous fireworks and a lousy plot that among other feeble aspects, lacks fantasy, charm, and any sort of interest. 

The trio of screenwriters, Joby Harold, Lionel Wigram, and Ritchie, were the ones who set up this repulsive machination, which is devoid of any possible magic and mysticism by incorporating giant monsters and terrible slo-mo fighting sequences. The tale takes a similar path and activates the same strategic baits of those terrible apocalyptic catastrophe fantasies embraced by Roland Emmerich.

The story typically follows Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) on his efforts to retrieve the legitimate throne that was taken from him by his evil uncle and king of Mordred, Vortigern (Jude Law). To achieve his mission, he teams up with a small legion of rebels composed of old and new friends, and benefits from the help of Maggie (Annabelle Wallis), the villain’s maid who resolves to help the Resistance.

Over the course of two infinitely tedious hours, we can observe that Ritchie dropped the medieval atmosphere in favor of a sloppy urbanity whose unpolished settings were recklessly framed by the cinematographer John Mathieson (“Gladiator”, “Logan”). Moreover, instead of a king or, at least, a knight, Hunnam looks like a rock singer while the combination of imagery and music could only be useful for a promotional video clip of some heavy metal band. 

It’s hard to believe how the director of the praised “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” could have descended so low.

There is no heart and even less soul in this mish-mashed lackluster film, already one of my first choices for the worst film of the year. 
Do yourself a favor and stay away from this aberration!