Nise: The Heart of Madness (2016)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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.

Logan (2017)


Directed by James Mangold
Country: USA

"Logan" is another decent entry in the Marvel film franchise, bringing everything required, so that an adventure of this caliber and genre can work properly. The tenth installment in the X-Men film series was directed by James Mangold, who had directed "The Wolverine" in 2013 with relative success, and co-written with Scott Frank and Michael Green. It stars Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, and the young Daphne Keen in the major roles.

The opening scene goes straight into the action, announcing the high number of times that you’ll see the three retractable bone claws coming out of Logan’s hands. As in the previous installments, Jackman embodies our mutant hero, a solitary wolf who’s having some issues in leading a decent life. With the loss of his family, Logan entered into a self-destructive spiral that even his dearest friends, Professor Charles Xavier (Stewart) and Caliban (Stephen Merchant), feel powerless to pull him out of it. 


Here, the sleepless superhero feels hesitant about helping Gabriela Lopez, a Mexican nurse holding an important secret about a pharmaceutical company that confines mutant teenagers in its premises to turn them into killing weapons. Laura (Keene) is one of these kids, a brutish little girl who managed to escape and quietly hides her mutant nature. After all, she’s deeply related to Logan and both will join forces against the evil heads of the company, which comprises Dr. Zander Rice and his evil creation, X-24, a bestial clone of Logan, as well as the cyborg chief of security Donald Pierce (Holbrook).

The action scenes are ferocious and include car chases, acrobatic movements, fights and wallops, and deadly hunts. Here and there, an inspired humor fills the gaps between the numerous cuts perpetrated by the mutants.
The uncomplicated story has its climax with the exciting finale, which, besides bringing tears, comes populated by virile fighting scenes wrapped in appreciable special effects.

Admirers of the X-Men comics will be delighted. The others, like me, will probably enjoy without venerating.

Get Out (2017)


Directed by Jordan Peele
Country: USA

Simultaneously a creepy horror movie and a witty comedy, "Get Out" is the debut feature from actor-turned-director Jordan Peele, who also wrote and produced.
Influenced by the 1975 cult classic "The Stepford Wives", Peele challenges us with a tale where a black man gets trapped in a house with a deranged white family. 

Peele’s script focuses on the apparently harmless relationship between young African-American photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his caring white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). Chris becomes anxious about the fact that Rose’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), are unaware he’s black. However, he gratefully embraces an invitation to their estate after she assures him they’re not racists.

But it’s worse – and weirder – than he imagined, as Rose’s family act increasingly suspiciously. Her brother can’t contain his impulsive aggression, Dean plays the good guy but clearly has something to hide, and Missy hypnotizes Chris against his will. What puzzles Chris even more in this overwhelmingly white milieu is how even the house’s two African-American employees seem devious and unfriendly.

The film, bolstered by its pronounced racial politics, comes out at a time of elevated racial tension, especially in the US, in which prejudice and discrimination are rife and are constantly being questioned by cinema. The issue of race has been addressed recently in earnest documentaries such as "13th" and "I Am Not Your Negro" and in fact-based dramas like "Hidden Figures", "Fences", and "A United Kingdom". In contrast to these, Get Out is an entirely fictional movie that combines genres with aplomb.

Peele crafts an ingenious plot that says much about inequality and the uncomfortable coexistence between blacks and whites. While the former are portrayed as victims, the latter are shaped as artful supremacists and tenacious manipulators. However, the filmmaker manages to alleviate any contention caused by the topic’s heaviness by infusing wit and irony, resulting in a very entertaining work.

The low budget didn’t hamper Peele from assuring strong production values, which include a suitably disquieting score by Michael Abels, sympathetic photography by Toby Oliver, and solid special effects.

Despite the misleading first impression, the observant satire shifts its primary focus of tension from racial to psychological to survival. Expect a bloody, violent finale with considerable doses of humor, more in the line of "Shaun of the Dead" than "What We Do in the Shadows".

Cleverly written, beautifully enacted, and gripping from the first scene to the last, "Get Out" has all the ingredients to be remembered in the future as a gem of the comedy horror genre. It’s even more outstanding when considered as a directorial debut.

THe Student (2016)


Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov
Country: Russia

"The Student" is a dark drama focused on the extremism of ideas and behaviors. Written and directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, who sought inspiration in a play by the German Marius von Mayenburg, the film comes equipped with comedic undertones and inflamed religious discourses.

The script focuses on Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov), a tumultuous high school student turned religious fanatic whose preachy attitude and behaviors fall out of the normal standards, especially considering his young age.
Venya might want to preach the good but ends up sinning badly. At first, one may wonder if this is not a way he found to do what he wants: skipping school’s swimming classes, loitering without studying, disregarding rules and duties, and calling the all the attention to himself. However, as the story advances, we notice that this boy has no solid background, as well as no father as an authoritarian voice. Actually, he only has this pathetic mother, Inga (Yuliya Aug), who seems in need of as much help and orientation as he does. Venya has this ability to muddle her vision about his real intentions and compel her to stand up for him regardless the unremitting misconduct.

At school, Venya tries to disguise his physical attraction to the conceited Tkacheva (Aleksandra Revenko). He also offers God’s salvation to Grisha (Aleksandr Gorchilin), a bullied crippled boy who falls in love with him, a sacrilege that will have terrible repercussions. 
The only one who dares confront him in his ideas is Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), a liberal and atheist pedagogue who gradually becomes a religious junkie as she attempts to understand the boy’s conduct and motivations. She dives so obsessively into the Bible’s writings that her boyfriend Oleg (Anton Vasilev) decides to leave her until she returns to her normal state. 
This opposite view is also a form of extremism and Serebrennikov awkwardly manages to make it work by setting an open battle between two obstinate persons: a fervent Christian and a rational scientist. 

All the characters, including the unhelpful school’s principal (Svetlana Bragarnik) and a pointless priest (Nikolay Roshchin), got on my nerves, so childish they behave. Here, we have kids playing adults and adults behaving like kids, all wrapped in a philosophical circus that feels half realistic, half staged. 
Beautifully shot by the cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants, who knows how to use light in his favor, "The Student" is a purposely exaggerated satire that feels simultaneously mindful and nerve-wracking. Among extensive angry sermons, inflamed egos, and emotional vulnerabilities, the film looks at contemporary Russia with biting sarcasm.

A United Kingdom (2016)


Directed by Amma Asante
Country: UK / USA / Czech Republic

Talented British helmer and former actress, Amma Asante, is deeply focused on the racial theme, taking advantage of the overwhelming tension that envelops our world regarding this matter.

If “Belle” (2013) was a gracious period drama inspired by the 1779 Zoffany painting of Dido Belle, a mixed-race daughter of an 18th-century aristocrat, “A United Kingdom” is a forgettable romantic biopic, set in the 40s, about Sir Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), prince of the Bamangwate tribe and natural candidate to the throne of Botswana, and his factual romance with Ruth (Rosamund Pike), a common Londoner.

Disregarding every rule and sanction, the couple ended up married in London, where Seretse was finishing his studies. From then on, they embark on a persistent fight for their rights on many fronts, both in the European and African continents.
The theme is certainly strong and present, but the film lacks the narrative fluency and emotional depth to convince.

Ms. Asante’s formal filmmaking worked beautifully in “Belle”, but in the present case has the effect of standardizing a story that is short of passion and adventure. Both direction and acting are too static and apathetic, and the drama often drags itself without the essential dramatic side associated with the true facts.
The director’s next move, entitled “Where Hands Touch”, is currently in post-production and features another romance between a mixed-race German woman and an SS officer. I hope it can bring something more to the topic than just a mere report of the facts.

A United Kingdom” feels more fabricated than authentic, dawdling in predictability and producing a sedative effect. It may celebrate a real-life victory but developed into a cinematic trifle.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki (2016)


Directed by Juho Kuosmanen
Country: Finland

Shot in a gorgeous black-and-white, “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki” is an introspective, biographical drama directed by Juho Kuosmanen about the Finnish boxer Olli Maki, who was pointed to become a national hero in 1962 when he fought for the world featherweight title.
Direct and concise, Kuosmanen, an adept of unextended durations (his debut feature “The Painting Sellers” had 58 minutes), goes strictly to the point and catches not only our eye but also our hearts through an observant narrative of a bittersweet real story.

Olli Maki (Jarkko Lahti), a small-town baker turned professional boxer, is super excited by the chance of becoming a world champion and national hero. For that to happen, he has to beat the American Davey Moore, who’s still undefeated and boasts the world title since 1959.
The major event will take place in Helsinki and is naturally generating extensive media attention in the country at the point of letting the modest Olli uncomfortable with the high number of interviews and television covering. 

Olli’s super strict coach, Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff), is a former champ himself, who struggles with financial and family problems. He becomes concerned when Olli brings his new girlfriend, Raija (Oona Airola), to Helsinki, confessing he’s in love with her. 
A persistent tension arises whenever she’s around, with Elis constantly trying to push her away, an insolence that makes Olli really upset. Elis is only satisfied when his pupil poses for pictures with important people, especially with the sponsors he venerates so much for his own interest. 
Raija ends up going back to Kokkola, their small town, but Olli can’t really focus without her near. Unable to reach her on the phone, he goes after her to assure his mind will be peaceful on the most important day of his career.
Besides her trust, the other thing he has to conquer is his excess of weight, a task that stubbornly remains unfulfilled.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki”, winner of the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, shines through a charismatic discretion and gripping assertiveness. 
It’s a wonderful story of sportsmanship and acceptance earnestly led by Kuosmanen and empowered by impeccable performances.
Fans of Rocky Balboa probably won’t find what they’re looking for in this special Finnish hero. But if you look deeper, you’ll see that this drama carries much more than just entertaining punches.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)


Directed by Tom Ford
Country: USA

Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, and Michael Shannon team up with American writer/director/designer Tom Ford in his latest “Nocturnal Adams”, a neo-noir thriller based on the 1993 novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright.
This is Ford’s sophomore feature, and just like his debut, “A Single Man”, it was nominated for an Oscar (best supporting actor). Fearless, he didn’t vacillate in this difficult adaptation of a critically acclaimed book, which was republished with the title of the film after its release.

Susan Morrow (Adams) is a successful gallery owner who has everything in life except true love. Her indifferent husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer), a businessman prone to romantic adventures with other women, is hardly present in her life. 
One day, Susan receives a manuscript for a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal) whom she didn’t hear from in 19 years. The literary work, entitled Nocturnal Animals, is dedicated to her and comes with an invitation to dinner.

The novel’s contents disturb Susan. It describes a gruesome crime tale that has indirect connotations with their past relationship. After an initial reluctance, she decides to accept Edward’s invitation. What does this rendezvous can bring to them?

The writings are transferred to the screen as Susan pictures it in her head, and we see Gyllenhaal playing the novel’s protagonist, Tony, a good husband and father who lives a horrific situation while driving on a remote Texas highway in the middle of the night. He’s attacked by three evil men and left in a dirt dead end. His wife and teen daughter had worse fates: both were raped and then brutally assassinated. Detective Bobby Andes (Shannon), whose procedures are far from orthodox, is assigned to identify the offenders – Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Lou (Karl Glusman), and Turk (Robert Aramayo), and capture them.

The story unfolds with surprise and expectation and its structure alternates between reality and fiction, making us search uninterruptedly for parallels between what was written and what has happened. The layers are not completely detachable here, but that blurriness is where the beauty of the film lies.

Lacking a genius stroke for the finale, “Nocturnal Animals” depicts a nonviolent reprisal that feels good and justified. At some point, we don’t know if we should feel sorry for Susan, Edward, or both.
Even imperfect and with margin to improve, the film looks at love, success, and self-confidence with a mordant cynicism and irony.

American Honey (2016)


Directed by Andrea Arnold
Country: USA / UK

There’s no doubt that Andrea Arnold is one of the most observant filmmakers and compelling writers of our times, attributes acquired through indelible movies such as “Fish Tank” (2009), “Red Road” (2006), and a remodeled indie-version of the classic “Wuthering Heights” (2011).
American Honey”, her first American incursion, stars debutant actress Sasha Lane as Star, an 18-year old low-class girl from Muskogee, Oklahoma, who spends her days taking care of two little children in the absence of their negligent parents. 

In the first scene of the film, we see Star grabbing a raw whole chicken from the garbage to take to the kids’ home.
Stop by a local K-Mart to buy drinks for the children, was just an excuse to flirt with Jake (Shia LeBeuf), a natural seducer whom she saw celebrating in a van with a bunch of teenagers. He invites her to follow them to Kansas City where he can give her a job as a door-to-door magazine seller.
At first, she lets the opportunity slip. However, disgusted with her aimless life, she resolves to embark on the adventure. After leaving the children with their mom, she finds Jake in Kansas and joins the group of waifs that works for Krystal (Riley Keough), the intractable boss who collects the money from the selling agents. 
Jake starts training Star, but when close to her, he loses all the focus that made him a top-seller. Star usually ruins the business due to jealousy and exposes herself to dangers when accepting different rides from strangers - three cowboys, a truck driver, and finally an oil field worker.

Krystal is the one who’s not happy with the situation. She easily replaces Jake at night in bed but doesn’t tolerate the ones who don’t bring her money.
After making love with Jake in his sports car, Star raises her hands above the head and looks at the sky shouting: ‘I feel like I’m fucking America!” – this is the most memorable scene of the film.
Their possessive relationship becomes tenser with the time while the sales crew shows a compromising emotional instability, which is directly related to frequent alcohol and drug consumption.

Despite the engaging correlation between rustic images and urban soundtrack and the brave performances by Lane and LeBeuf, this well-directed hippie road-movie drama wasn’t so impactful as Ms. Arnold’s previous moves.
It runs a bit long in its two hours and forty minutes, struggling with a few repetitions of ideas that, despite initially interesting, become tiresome.

The drifting “American Honey” is Andrea Arnold’s messiest film with its wobbly narrative and uneven parts, some of them stronger than the whole.  However, we still have some captivating moments that accurately reflect a lost American youth… with passion, heart, and dreams.

The Lure (2017)


Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska
Country: Poland

Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska chooses a horror musical tale with a kitsch look for her debut feature. “The Lure” was written by Robert Bolesto and stars Michalina Olszańska and Marta Mazurek as Golden and Silver, respectively, two siren sisters who come ashore with the promise of eating no one. 
Both actresses also perform in “Holga Hepnarova” whose NY premiere is scheduled for March 24th.

The story, set in Warsaw in the 80s, takes us to a nightclub bathed in disco sound and populated by quirky creatures of the night. The boss (Zygmunt Malanowicz) is more than happy to introduce his new attraction called ‘Figs N’ Dates’: two smiley mermaids singing, stripping, and exhibiting their long fish tails while partially immersed in a tank filled with water.
What almost no one imagines is that these beautiful creatures can also be dangerous in several circumstances, getting a vampiresque physiognomy while eating human flesh.

The two sisters are different in nature. Golden is more adventurous, whimsical, and sly. Her soul is dark, just like her hair, especially when she feels lonely and craving for blood. She befriends with Triton (Marcin Kowalczyk), a reptilian creature and messenger of the sea (according to Greek mythology), here disguised of punk music rocker.
Less aggressive, Silver dreams of becoming human, especially after falling for Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), the nightclub’s bass player. She’s willing to go into surgery and replace her monumental fish tail for a pair of legs and a vagina. However, there’s a myth saying that if she cut her tail off, she will lose her voice. Also, she can be turned into sea foam if the man whom she falls in love with, marries another woman.

Relying on other crazy characters like the cabaret’s diabetic drummer (Andrzej Konopka) and singer Krysia (Kinga Preis), Smoczynska orchestrates everything in an entertaining way but with a few rhythmic displacements. The blood, reserved for a slightly gore finale, runs in small doses but it’s not really essential to make this fantasy successful.

 “The Lure” can be so boorishly reckless on some occasions and freshly delicious in others. Its production, with songs and choreography inclusive, can be classified as modestly ambitious.
The positive thing is that I've never lost the interest in the story, no matter how ridiculous or insane it was.

20th Century Women (2016)


Directed by Mike Mills
Country: USA

American writer-director Mike Mills has convinced me of his cinematic capacities with just a triplet of comedy-dramas. This is quite something since most of directors tend not to be so fortunate in an early stage. 
Mills’s secrets include hard work over a script that works, take the time to get it ripe, and then gather the best actors and employ honest mechanisms to put it into practice.
It was like that in “Thumbsucker” (2005), “Begginers” (2010), and now in his brand new “20th Century Women”.

The film, partly based on the director’s childhood, is mostly centered on a middle-aged single mother, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), who struggles to fight loneliness and raise her 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in 1970s Southern California. However, it also introduces us to other interesting characters that help to enrich the whole with their own particular stories.
Dorothea rents his house to Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a staunch feminist, music connoisseur, and amateur photographer who’s recovering from cervical cancer. Although late on the rent payment, she and Dorothea are good friends.

Also a tenant, William (Billy Crudup) is a bland soul who helps to fix the house and energizes himself through meditation. He starts an uncompromising relationship with Abby but it’s attracted to the landlady, who gets along with him but finds him humorless.  Dorothea is sufficiently liberal to let Jamie skip school classes. However, she gets upset when Abby inflicts a substantial dose of feminism on him.
Jamie is a punk music enthusiast who often sleeps with his best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), with no sex involved, though. He's going through a difficult phase, proper from the age, but Dorothea really doesn’t know how to deal with him. Resorting to her tenants to help her on this matter seems not to be the right solution.

Both adults and teenagers share their lives with one another, trying to feel good and attain balance. Sometimes simplifying, sometimes complicating, all of them are compelling individuals.
Pelted with pleasurably weird moments, “20th Century Women” is a beautiful ode to friendship and human understanding that doesn’t waste a single minute with trifles. It’s realistic enough to make us interested until the end, conveying a variety of emotions within the different scenarios.
Even with all these pointed qualities and a great cast, the film doesn’t surpass “Beginners”, which remains Mills’s most accomplished film so far.

The Handmaiden (2016)


Directed by Park Chan-wook
Country: South Korea

14 years ago, Korean director Park Chan-wook secured a huge legion of fans with his critically acclaimed thriller “Oldboy”, which later on was subjected to a lame American remake directed by Spike Lee.
During the following years, Chan-wook came up with some good ideas, most of them characterized by violence and general alienation. Titles like “Lady Vengeance”, “Thirst”, and “Stoker” belong to this roster.

This year, and for our surprise, he resolved to change direction, adapting Sarah Waters’s novel “Fingersmith” and switching its Victorian background for Korea under Japanese colonization. He counted on his regular collaborator Chung Seo-kyung to work on the script.

The voluptuous psychological thriller, “The Handmaiden”, stars Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri as Lady Hideko and Sook-Hee, respectively. The former is a wealthy Japanese heiress who lives with her stern uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), while the latter is an experienced Korean con artist who is hired by a scheming man who, adopting a false identity, goes by the name of Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo).
His plan consists in sending Sook-Hee, operating under the name of Tamako, to the opulent mansion of Hideko, an orphan haunted by nightmares, where she would work as her personal maid. This strategy envisions to facilitate his access and intentions of marrying Hideko to steal her inheritance.

Everything was going as planned, but unforeseen difficulties arise when master and servant embark on a scalding lesbian romance that leaves Fujiwara aside, with no financial perspectives.
Along the way, we learn more details about the characters, especially Hideko who struggles with psychological problems related to a terrible childhood. She lives haunted by her aunt’s ghost and trembles with fear of her perverted uncle.
Sook-Hee, whose ambition is not as big as her passion for Hideko, manages to get rid of Fujiwara with a little help from the deranged Uncle Kouzuki.

Rich in dark humor, detail and color, as well as marked by a strong narrative, “The Handmaiden”, eschews the bloodsheds that Chan-wook is so fond of. 
Instead, it intertwines lustful carnal scenes and tense artful schemes.
The package comes full of fine ingredients, old and new, telling us that the filmmaker’s vision and aptitudes are wider that we’ve had imagined.

The Salesman (2016)


Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Country: Iran / France

Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian writer-director with a knack for profound dramas (“About Elly”, “A Separation”, “The Past”), returns with “The Salesman”, another heartfelt story branded with uncomfortable dualities. The nature of this tale, set and shot in Tehran, will make you ponder about what’s right and wrong, and confront you with a few moral questions that bear on justice, compassion, forgiveness, and retaliation.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a well-liked teacher who shares a huge passion for theater with his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). They star in Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman”, putting every drop of inspiration on their roles. Even in the play, they are husband and wife, impersonating Willy and Linda Loman.
The building where they live is about to collapse due to adjacent construction and structural deficiencies, forcing them to an immediate evacuation. With no place to go, they accept the help of a fellow actor, Babak (Babak Karimi), who finds them an apartment that just got unoccupied. The woman who lived there before had a bad reputation. She left all her belongings in the apartment due to some last-minute difficulties.

One night, while Rana was bathing, someone rings the buzz. Convinced it was Emad, who had left minutes before to go to the neighboring supermarket, she opens the door and returns to the bathroom. To her surprise, she’s violently assaulted by a stranger who, on the run, left a pair of socks on the floor, some money, and his car keys in the apartment.
Rana was taken to the hospital, returning emotionally debilitated, yet unwilling to report the case to the police. Not even the theater seems to help her to overcome the situation. However, little by little, she starts giving signs of recovery.

In turn, for better and for worse, Emad keeps trying to identify the offender through the pickup he left outside, elaborating a plan to have his revenge.
The final part brings revelations and resolutions that lead to a whirlwind of internal conflicts and emotions.

As habitual, Farhadi settles on a ferocious realism conveyed through a credible acting, intelligent narrative simplicity, and mordant irony. He became a true master in this nuanced passive-aggressive style.
The performances of Hosseini and Alidoosti, Farhadi’s frequent and reliable choices, are irreproachable as they were in previous works.
The Salesman” might not be as striking as “The Separation”, since it’s a slightly more manipulative, but is a powerful piece of cinema that authenticates Farhadi as the most predominant contemporary Iranian filmmaker.

Julieta (2016)


Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Country: Spain

After watching the gloomy drama “Julieta”, we come to the conclusion that Pedro Almodovar, perhaps the most emblematic film director of the current Spain, continues very far from the artistry of his early works but fairly ahead of the ridiculousness of "I’m So Excited!", his previous film.

The 20th feature film of Almodovar’s directorial career was inspired by three short stories, “Chance”, “Soon” and “Silence”, by Alice Munro, a Canadian Nobel Prize winner.
Adopting the same strategy of the writer, Almodovar sets the story back and forth in time, relying on Alberto Iglesias’s dismal musical score and well-planned close-ups to extend its dramatic perimeter.

Julieta (Emma Suárez) has almost everything prepared to finally leave Madrid and move to Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). However, she decides to cancel this longtime planned trip after bumping into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), a childhood friend of her estranged daughter, Antia, who left home when she was 18 to a spiritual retreat and never came back or contacted her again. 
While vacationing in Lake Cuomo, Beatriz saw Antia with her three children and the latter’s reaction wasn’t the best.

Even without an address, Julieta, decides to write a final letter to Antia, where she unravels more about her daughter’s father, Xoan (Daniel Grao), a humble fisherman who had been unfaithful to her with Ava (Inma Cuesta), an artist friend from his hometown.
The story winds back to the moment when a young and bold Julieta (Adriana Ugarte), in her early twenties, meets Xoan on a train and makes love to him in one of the cars. Months later, after a successful first experience as a classic literature teacher, she abdicates from work in order to live near the sea with Xoan, whose wife had recently died. Already pregnant, she was welcomed by Marian (Rossy de Palma), a moody maid who tried to warn her about Xoan’s weaknesses.

Almodovar urges us to immerse ourselves into a complex emotional entanglement that only gave half of what was promised in a first instance. 
The tragedy, cooked with lugubrious tones, failed to reach the depth intended and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth after the credits roll. 

The dazzling cinematography by Jean-Claude Larrieu was the only outstanding feature since Almodovar lacked the ability to explore his own script in a way to escape the conventional. Even with some interesting moments, this is a modest pic from a talented director from whom we expect more and better.

Aquarius (2016)


Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho
Country: Brazil / France

With only two feature films, Brazilian writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho has gained a certain cult status, becoming a powerful voice in the alternative world cinema and a keen observer of today’s Brazil.
If “Neighboring Sounds” (2012) had stricken me with its irreverent tones, the recent “Aquarius”, a character-driven drama, completely enthralled me for nearly two hours and a half.
At the time the film was exhibited at Cannes Film Festival, the film’s cast organized a pacific demonstration where they showed discontentment about the impeachment of Brazil’s president Dilma Roussef and the disgraceful political situation lived in the country.

The story is centered on Clara, a retired upper-class music writer and former journalist who refuses to sell her beautifully renewed apartment to a greedy construction company that is eagerly planning to make some more millions by replacing the decayed Aquarius building. 
The narrative, divided into three chapters, begins in 1980 Recife, where we find a young shorthaired Clara (Barbara Colen really looks like Elis Regina) fairly recovered from a traumatic breast cancer and celebrating the anniversary of her aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez), a former political activist, in the company of her family – husband, three children, and brother.

Many years after, we find Clara (Sonia Braga), now a 65-year-old widow, visibly annoyed in the course of an interview for a local journal. The frivolous questions were not focused on her new book but rather if she could cope with digital music as well as her old vinyl collection. She’s living exactly in the same apartment she lived in the 80’s, cherishing every family memory and determined not to open hand of her patrimony despite the venomous persistence of Diego (Humberto Carrão), the unscrupulous new manager of the construction company. 
There’s a spellbinding eeriness associated with the ghostly apartment building since Clara, now the only dweller, keeps tracing lots of noises and suspicious activities, especially in the apartments above hers.
Activities may include cleaning and security inspections but also unimaginable things like orgies and religious gatherings.

It seems everyone is against her decision of staying in the building. Even her own daughter, who’s divorced and faces a delicate financial situation, doesn’t understand why she doesn’t accept the large sum of money that has been offered to her and move into a more secure apartment. 
The visionary director also takes the time to show us how Clara manages to live by herself, brilliantly exposing her sexual life, uncanny premonitory dreams, and social life in the company of her friends, some of them gossip adepts.

Sonia Braga’s tour-de-force performance, likely the best of her long career, bolsters a film that functions as a stirring contemporary eye-opener with a precise focal point.
I’m thinking of a comparable case in NYC: the famous, now-degrading Chelsea Hotel where people are still living in and nobody can throw them away.

Supported by a set of international producers, including Walter Salles (“Central Station”, “The Motorcycle Diaries”) as an executive, Mendonça Filho holds an unflinching filmmaking style reinforced by a haunting narrative fluency. 
A bow to his new masterwork!