Doubtful (2018)


Directed by Eliran Elya
Country: Israel

The story depicted in “Doubtful”, an Israeli social drama written and directed by debutant Eliran Elya, was inspired by real events, which is not a relevant factor for us to overlook its seemingly familiar tones and inevitable conclusions.

Tel-Aviv native Assi (Ran Danker - “Eyes Wide Open”), a director and screenwriter, ‘volunteers’ as a film teacher at a Southern Israeli school for juvenile delinquents after a motorcycle accident. The unruly young misfits often turn the classroom into battle rings, and police interventions are not uncommon. Because they are minors, house arrest is the usual punishment for those who don’t follow the rules. This is what was prescribed to the wild, provocative Eden (Adar Hazazi Gersch), after an ugly fight with a colleague.
At first, Assi seems not to bother with the confrontational and often aggressive behavior of his students, but then he starts to care, especially about Eden, whom he suspects to have stolen his wallet and cellphone. Without money to return to Tel Aviv, Assi finds where the student in question lives, leaving his camera in exchange for some money and earning the sympathy of his emotionally unstable single mother, Alma (Hilla Sarjon). Even if the film suggests something more, don’t expect a love story involving the latter because Assi is obsessed with Liraz (Liron Ben-Shlush), a local grocery store clerk who doesn’t seem very pleased with his detachment and uncharming posture. This is a frustratingly underdeveloped segment of the drama.


Oftentimes, Assi seems as much aimless and helpless as his young students and maybe that’s why he becomes so attached to Eden, a misfit who collects and sells plastic bottles with the intention of buying a restaurant for his mother.

The narrative is interspersed with brief headshots of the students telling us something personal about themselves. The stories reflect problematic backgrounds, traumatic experiences, and tense family atmospheres, most of the times described emotionlessly.

Regardless of the respectable intentions, Elya missed the opportunity to do something bolder with a recurrent topic, treading the same paths that many other films did successfully. The choppily edited sequences and the inept score didn’t help the down-to-earth scenes to reach the desired emotional states, while on the contrary, the cast, featuring a considerable number of non-professional actors, provided the restless undertones to keep the film minimally interesting.


Thoroughbreds (2018)


Directed by Cory Finley
Country: USA

The slow-burner drama-thriller “Thoroughbreds”, an auspicious directorial debut for Cory Finley, creates that kind of mood that sometimes attracts and sometimes repulses.

The story finds two childhood friends who reconnect in Connecticut years after losing sight of each other. Emotionally deprived, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) have grown into upper-class teenagers of bright intelligence but limited moral principles. Lily boasts a brilliant CV, hates her manipulative stepfather (Paul Sparks), and gets fascinated by the personality of Amanda, a self-trained deceiver who seems perfectly normal but is completely unable to feel joy, sadness or guilt. She is actually a sociopath who has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, severe depression, and anti-social behavior after euthanizing her crippled horse with a knife.

The first contact between the two girls is tense due to Amanda’s perfect understanding of Lily’s inner feelings. Not bad at all for someone who is emotionless. After teaching her friend the crying technique, Amanda poses a dangerous question: ‘do you ever think about just killing him?’. The thought of killing her stepfather gains a sharper perspective when Lily is informed by her passive mother (Francie Swift) that the following year she will be attending Brookmore, a strict school for girls with severe behavioral issues. 


They plan the evil act with a helper in mind: Tim (Anton Yelchin), an ambitious drug dealer whom they intend to turn into a hitman. This particular passage felt strained and was the weakest section of the film, feeling more time-consuming than worthwhile. The positive thing is that the story shifts immediately to darker, bringing a few surprises. The poisonous bondage between the calculative Lily and the stoic Amanda is about to be sealed forever with blood. But at what price?

Intersecting the friction of a taut thriller and the biting wit of a dark comedy, Cory Finley proves he has the eye and the talent. He extracts the best acting qualities from Cooke and Taylor-Joy, who totally convince with their odd rebelliousness, coldness, and amorality. Master cellist Erik Friedlander, a modern explorer of sound, was the perfect choice to develop a tense, gripping score, while cinematographer Lyle Vincent, a habitual collaborator of Ana Lily Amirpour, may not be remembered as in “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”, but did a very competent job.


The Bookshop (2018)


Directed by Isabel Coixet
Country: UK / Spain / Germany

The adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel The Bookshop by Spanish director Isabel Coixet ("My Life Without Me", "Elegy", "Learning To Drive") is not devoid of plot disturbances but provides fair moments of gorgeous filmmaking and acceptable entertainment.

Emily Mortimer embodies Florence Green, a merry, patient, and bighearted thirty-something widow who decides to open a bookshop in the small English town of Hardborough, Suffolk. The idea, however, didn’t please the powerful Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson in her third collaboration with Coixet), who already had her own plans for the abandoned historical Old House, now Florence’s home and place of work. Moved by an atrocious condescension, Violet starts to harass Florence, using her political influence and strengthen by the passage of a bill that allows her to take possession of the Old House if a philanthropic project is considered. Since the beginning, it has been her intention to transform the place into a modern art center, where she could program art lectures and chamber music for the local high society.

If you think Florence is alone in this battle, you're mistaken. Strangely, her loyal allies and best friends happen to be Christine (Honor Kneafsey), a talkative young girl who finds the boys repulsive and is hired as her assistant, and the enigmatic Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), an avid reader who lives secluded in his mansion after the death of his wife, a motive for speculation among the inhabitants. Without leaving home, Brundish buys her modern books, including the progressive Fahrenheit 451 and the polemic Lolita, both considered audacious for the time. The transactions and correspondence are established through a young local messenger.


Florence’s intellectual openness and disarming modesty - she can really feel uncomfortable in a deep maroon dress - attract Mr. Brundish, who sacrifices his comfortable isolation to intercede in her favor. On the contrary, the lazy, scornful, and opportunist Mr. North (James Lance) takes advantage of her benevolence, stabbing her in the back at the first opportunity.

Everything is systematic and structured yet flowing, with lilting jazz standards playing in the background whenever the narrator, whose recurrent presence is contestable, points the direction. Anyway, it was the courage of the good characters that made me enjoy this flawed drama film. With Clarkson embracing a more modest role, Mortimer and Nighy deserve the acting spotlights. In her polished yet non-elaborate style, Ms. Coixet did enough to win the categories of Best Director, Best Film, and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Spanish 32nd Goya Awards.


The Valley (2017)


Directed by Saila Keriat
Country: USA

Suicide and depression have been favorite topics of many cineastes throughout the years. Reputed dramas such as “The Seventh Continent”, “Taste of Cherry”, “The Fire Within”, “The Virgin Suicides”, “Interiors”, “The Hours”, and “Suicide Room” deal with the problem in very different ways.

Saila Keriat’s debut feature, “The Valley” addresses the same theme but doesn’t live up to the initial expectations, failing to attain the emotional depth it had promised. Parenthood and human connections play a great deal in a story about a wealthy American Indian family, featuring Alyy Khan and Suchitra Pillai, experienced Bollywood actors, as well as the young Agneeta Thacker in the main roles.

The Kumars live in California in a beautiful house that provides them all the comfort they need. Neal (Khan), a successful high-tech businessman in Silicon Valley, pridefully claims to have built it with his hard work, however, his presence and availability are not as frequent as his wife, Roopta (Pillai), and their two daughters would desire. Both girls, Maya (Thacker) and Monica (Salma Khan), attend expensive private colleges where they are studying engineering and medicine, respectively. If the latter seems more outgoing and happy with the course of her life, the former is highly depressed and lonely since she can’t connect with the colleagues and is only trying to please her father. What she really likes is English and literature.

A curious and noticeable fact is to see the affectionate attachment between Maya and the family’s housekeeper Didi (Samina Peerzada), to the point of provoking jealousy in Roopta, an unhappy housewife who often bores her children with formal, upper-class social parties given at home. It’s all about the ‘right’ connections and less about what they really want for their future.


Shock arrives when Maya commits suicide. Nobody was expecting this to happen since they were very ‘busy’ with their own lives to see what was going on.
Neal becomes obsessive, wanting to understand what caused so much despair in his daughter. He sets off to the college campus where he talks to her evasive roommate, Laura (Hope Lauren), her best friend, Alicia (Christa B. Allen), and the boy she was interested in, Chris Williams (Jake T. Austin). Despite visibly affected, it seems that all of them know something more about the case. Or is just a weird feeling?

For brief minutes, the drama becomes a thriller, followed by the revelation of secrets when Neal comes into contact with Maya’s journal. However, the episodes are chained in a clumsy way, preventing the story to flow in a compelling manner. A few redundant scenes, especially regarding Neal’s work, aggravate this. 

The film works as a lesson for some parents who, imposing pressure for success in their children, can't manage a balanced distribution of demand and availability. Besides the interior conflicts, there are blames and regrets in the mixture, but the dramatic tones feel shallow and uninspired, bringing the type of sentimentality that is more adverse than expedient.


Middleground (2018)


Directed by Alisa Khazanova
Country: USA/Russia

Mood and tone are fundamental in a movie, but if working on their own, it can make it a hard experience to endure. This is what happened in "Middleground", the debut feature by Russian-born Alisa Khazanova, which combines the conversational and the dreamlike in a sort of experimentalism suffused with parallel realities and memory gaps.

The director, a former Bolshoi ballerina who also wrote and produced, stars as a submissive woman subjugated by her presumptuous husband (Chris Beetem). They are staying at a hotel, where he has these routined business meetings to strategize how to get Chinese funders for a profitable deal. The same scenario, always mysterious and baffling, repeats a few times more, probing possibilities as behaviors and moods keep changing.

At first, we see the couple in the desolate restaurant of a bizarre hotel. There’s tension in their conversation and he just flips out because she forgot to remind him about an important phone call; also because she smoked in his car and has that blank expression on her face. In the meantime, she finds a spider web in her wine glass but there’s no one there to complain. He leaves her alone at the table to meet his business partner Marcus (Daniel Raymont) outside. A stranger (Noah Huntley) then approaches the woman and talks as if they knew each other for a long time. He even mentions an affair with her. The woman leaves quickly, a bit uncomfortable and certainly not believing him. He remains in the restaurant where the bartender (Rob Campbell) lectures him about influences, including the ones of booze and opium.


The second vignette shows the couple at the same restaurant, a bit more composed this time. The glass of wine is broken and there’s a waiter who brings them a bottle of wine to compensate that fault. The husband is slightly nicer now, but leaves the table anyway. His wife refuses to go with him and has an uncanny conversation with the stranger about illogical memories. The first memory that pops into her head has to do with her sister - vaguely related to a few blurred and wide angled dreamlike passages that focus on a young girl named Olga. These sequences are gracefully accompanied by sober piano notes, after which a different bartender talks about parallel realities.

For the last section, the husband unexpectedly turns into a considerate guy, but his bored wife seems to enjoy more the company of the stranger, who talks about deja-vu and supernatural premonition. Tipsy, she believes in fairytales, while he believes in a glass of wine and the memories of a great time spent together and in love. Which reality suits you best?

Although well acted, mindful, and visually arresting, the film doesn’t go beyond its hypothetical circumstances. The thin line between the real and the imaginary is reinforced by a structure whose looping segments are mutable, in the same line of Tykwer’s "Run Lola Run" and Kieslowski’s "Blind Chance". Without achieving that desired emotional depth to elevate it above the acceptable or simply satisfying, "Middleground" runs whimsically loose and exploratory throughout, living essentially from the intensity of its mood.


The Guardians (2018)


Directed by Xavier Beauvois
Country: France / Switzerland

The wartime rural story illustrated in the French drama film “The Guardians” is painted beautifully with suave brushstrokes and surrounded by a bucolic aura whose contemplative attributes don’t interfere with the controversial emotions expressed by the characters.
The film was co-written and directed by Xavier Beauvois, a recurrent presence in Cannes, where he won the jury prize in 1985 with “Don't Forget You're Going to Die” and the Grand Prix and prize of the ecumenical jury in 2010 with “Of Gods and Men”, a memorable reflection about faith and terrorism.

In 1916, the 20-year-old Francine Riant (magnificent newcomer Iris Bry), an honest and hardworking orphan, joins the Paridier farm for the harvest season to help Hortense (established actress Nathalie Baye), the unsmiling matriarch of the Sandrail family. Since Hortense’s sons, Constant (Nicolas Giraud) and Georges (Cyril Descours), and son-in-law Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin) went to the frontline to fight the German invaders, the responsibility for the farm practically fell in the hands of women. Hortense’s husband is too old and tired to undertake any type of heavy work, while their daughter, Solange (Laura Smet), deals with too many tasks both inside and outside the home. Thus, the family sees the healthy Francine as a true savior and she becomes Georges’ sweetheart during the course of his regular visits. This defrauds the intentions of the young Marguerite (Mathilde Viseux-Ely), Clovis’ daughter from his first marriage. Georges is very fond of her, but for him, she's like a younger sister.


Frolicsome American soldiers are stationed in the village while waiting for orders to join the front. Their presence shakes the peace that reigns in the family, affecting Francine, who is obliged to move out of the farm carrying Georges’ son in her womb.

The Guardians” is an icy tale of injustice, war, love, despair, and adaptability, which unfolds serenely yet assuredly with attentive period detail. Regardless the relative predictability of the events, Beauvois doesn’t trouble us with irrelevant tears or screams of anguish. He rather stimulates the intellect through the sensational imagery - impeccably photographed by Caroline Champetier - and patient storytelling, engendering a glorious finale with music and a radiant smile of love and hope to counterbalance the fissures of a fragmented heart.

Enduring pain as mothers, wives, or lovers, the women are the true heroes and villains of a quietly emotional film that comes fortified with engrossing performances, an appropriately moving score by the one-and-only Michel Legrand, and a refined editing by Marie-Julie Maille, a regular collaborator who also co-wrote.  


Lean On Pete (2018)


Directed by Andrew Haigh
Country: UK / USA

With a still short directorial career, Andrew Haigh has presented us thought-provoking dramas filled with honesty, emotion, and intimacy. Titles such as “Weekend” (2011) and “45 Years” (2015) are referenced as gems of the contemporary British cinema.

With “Lean On Pete”, the director shifts style, totally embracing American colors and practices without losing dramatic effectiveness. It’s true that this heartfelt story centered on Charley (Charlie Plummer), a 15-year-old boy who suddenly becomes orphan and homeless, is not as striking as the cited titles, but still presents enough emotional heft to keep you alert in a long journey of searching, subsistence, and settlement.

Charlie, a motherless teenager, loves very much his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), even if he has to spend several days on his own, with very little money in his pocket and no food in his stomach. They live happily together in Portland, Oregon, but the financial situation is precarious, which compels Charley to find a job. He is given an opportunity in a horse stable, whose owner, Del (Steve Buscemi), always pays him at the end of the day. However, whereas Charley gets emotionally attached to an old horse called Lean On Pete, Del only sees it as a business. Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), the experienced jockey who rides it, advises him: “He’s not a pet. He’s just a horse.” However, Charley can’t cope with the idea of putting the horse down just because he doesn’t win races anymore unless drugged.


One day, Ray brings a new ‘girlfriend’ home. A few days later he is brutally attacked by her husband and then taken to the hospital in a serious condition. Sadly, Charley becomes orphan, facing the possibility of going to a foster home if he doesn’t find Margy Thompson (Alison Elliott), his father’s former girlfriend, who once wanted to take him with her. Yet, he’s not willing to lose that horse without a fight either. So, he steals the horse and Del’s van and sets off on a trip where he is forced to rely on strangers to survive. Not everything goes as expected as some of the encounters turn into negative experiences.

The young Plummer acts with confidence and the character he impersonates, despite all the adversities, becomes a symbol of courage and tenacity. 
Eschewing sentimental allure, “Lean On Pete” was based on the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin. It’s a life lesson that stands above most of the coming-of-age dramas.

Deadpool 2 (2018)


Directed by David Leitch
Country: USA

Director David Leitch (“John Wick”, “Atomic Blonde”) and writers Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and Ryan Reynolds considerably decreased my enthusiasm about Deadpool with this discouraging second installment of the Marvel Comics franchise. In 2016, Tim Miller (his next move is a reformulated episode of Terminator with Schwarzenegger) was more efficient in his approach, causing a positive impact with his depiction of the subversive anti-hero and drawing a legion of fans, who rejoiced with the irreverence of the character.

Insolent, defiant, often violent, and having a spiteful tongue, Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is a disfigured yet physically indestructible mercenary whose body enjoys an extremely accelerated healing factor. After losing his beloved girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) in a sudden enemy attack, Wade tries to commit suicide by blowing himself up. In the course of his recovery, he befriends a mutant kid named Russell Collins/Firefist (New Zealander Julian Dennison), who is not so kind-hearted as he looks. Cable (Josh Brolin), a cybernetic soldier from the future come to hunt him down with fierce determination after losing his family due to Collins’s evil actions.

The story develops with a few twists and Cable becomes Wade's ally in the battle against Russell and his new partner, the hard-as-a-rock Juggernaut (voice of Ryan Reynolds), whose colossal strength rips Deadpool in half - it's silly but it really happens! Other associates join them to make justice, like Colossus (voice of Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), both old X-Men pals, as well as the honest Domino (Zazie Beetz), one of the newly recruited members of X-Force. The selective interviews of the candidates who want to join this anti-sexism group constitute the most hilarious scenes of the film.

A seismic avalanche of rambunctious situations occurs throughout the film, characterized by karate moves, gunshots, digitally processed jumps, flights, and stunts, and flashy special effects, all wrapped in a deliberate sloppy pose and disarrayed hysteria. Sentimentality is also present in a few cheesy occasions, bolstered by a questionable soundtrack. Unfortunately, I found the film more tiresome than entertaining, with the intermittent funny jokes being unable to rescue the film from the visual and verbal exhaustion. You know what? “Deadpool 2” is no smart adventure.


Disobedience (2018)


Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Country: UK / Ireland / USA

Sebastian Lelio, the son of an Argentinean architect and a Chilean ballet dancer, is one of the most praised representatives of contemporary Chilean cinema alongside Pablo Larrain. His debut feature, “The Sacred Family”, came out in 2005, but it was only in 2013 that the filmmaker got the deserved attention with the unforgettable drama “Gloria”, an international success and his best film to date. The film collected many prizes in festivals such as Berlin, Lima, Havana, and Palm Springs, yet, none of them was so precious as the recent Oscar in the category of best foreign film with “A Fantastic Woman”, which relaunched the acting career of transgender classical singer Daniela Vega.

With love and sexuality as recurrent topics, “Disobedience”, starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, utilizes different colors to illustrate known patterns, only transferred to a dissimilar setting. Lelio teamed up with Rebecca Lenkiewicz (“Ida”) in the adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel of the same name. The story is set in suburban London and follows the prohibited love between two Orthodox Jewish women and childhood friends, who reconnect after years of growing apart. 

The non-practicing Ronit (Weisz) is a successful if erratic photographer living in New York for many years. She flies to her hometown, Hendon, London, as she learns about the death of her father, a prominent rabbi whose inflamed exhortations used to include subjects as the clarity of the angels, the desires of the beast, and the freedom of choice given to every human being. The family members are incredulous, in some cases even a bit overwhelmed, with her presence. However, her cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) was nice enough to welcome her into his house. The complication comes from the fact that he married Esti (McAdams), Ronit's former teenage lover, who, living an unhappy life, is still madly attracted to her. She profoundly admires the liberal Ronit, a symbol of feminist prowess, for having had the courage to escape the religious strictness of their cultural roots. The only enjoyable thing in her life seems to be her work.


There is a sense of despair enveloping the two female characters since what they feel for each other is much stronger than any rigid rule imposed by the society. While in the company of Esti at her father’s unoccupied house, disappointingly left to the Synagogue, Ronit tunes a radio station that was playing Love Song by the goth-rock band The Cure. The song seems to bring voluptuous old memories. Tender kisses turn up naturally and the disobedience to the rules recklessly extends beyond the house, putting Esti’s reputation in danger. What to do next, when the secret is revealed?

Despite beautifully conceived until this moment, the powerful drama becomes contrived. Initially built with an enthralling tension and clever insight, it suddenly fails to grasp in its flimsy climax. Dovid’s impulsive change in posture regarding Esti’s quest for freedom felt too flexible and untroubled, tolerating emotions to become forged, more fabricated than genuine. Even if the romantic triangle didn’t work so well, the first-class performances from McAdams and Weisz are good reasons to watch “Disobedience”. The way they come to grips with the conflict between religious austerity and taboo lesbian romance in their community is still complex and interesting.


See You Up There (2017)


Directed by Albert Dupontel
Country: France / Canada

French post-war drama film "See You Up There" develops with shades of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Louis Malle. This stylish period drama, set in France in the 20’s, addresses topics such as friendship, war and family trauma, corruption, and survival. Actor/director Albert Dupontel ("Bernie") adapted Pierre Lemaitre’s novel The Great Swindle and gave himself the main role. He is Albert Maillard, a former accountant who tells his peculiar WWI story in a Moroccan police station. 

Maintaining a moderate to fast pace and leaning on an objective storytelling, the film displays a French funny side regardless of the sadness associated with the fictional account. Yet, we can glimpse a bit of the American classic mood in its demeanor. The merit goes to Dupontel, whose charming performance always brings some natural humor in the way he talks and moves.

In 1918, soldier Maillard was able to survive the brutal German attacks, without ever imagining that the biggest trouble would come from his own superior, captain Henri Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte), a monstrous tyrant. Seen as a sanguinary sadistic, the latter didn’t want the war to end and, in a pure act of madness, starts shooting his own soldiers from behind, confirming his heinous conduct as a leader. While trying to escape the unscrupulous captain, Maillard falls in a deep, narrow trench where there was a dead horse. It was his good friend Edouard Péricourt (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a talented draughtsman, who saved his life. During this process, Edouard is shot in the face, becoming facially disfigured.

Taken to an infirmary, the speechless man gesticulates to ask his friend to kill him since he doesn’t want to be sent back home. He begins to panic at the thought of seeing his father again, the bitter president Marcel Péricourt (Niels Arestrup). But of course, anyone could tell that Maillard was not tailored to kill not even a fly, so, he managed to give his friend a false ID and hide him in a secret place, informing his family that he had died like a hero while serving the country.


In the meantime, Maillard is forced to steal morphine from other handicapped war veterans to give it to Edouard, who, refusing any type of surgery, hides his face behind a mask. In order to communicate, he uses a personal ‘translator’, a neighbor kid named Louise (Héloïse Balster), who understands him better than anyone. Despite spending his days pacifically drawing, he becomes anxious after finding out that Pradelle, who decided to make a living with a corrupt business involving soldiers’ corpses, is on the verge to marry his sister, Madelaine (Émilie Dequenne). Struggling to eke out a decent existence, the two friends decide to set up a con scheme, using the artist’s brilliant drawings as a source. 

Despite the conventional storytelling, there’s a lot to like in Dupontel’s best film to date. In addition to the noticeable costume design, the mise en scene is memorable and the rich cinematography feels vivid. The pans and zooms operated by the camera are quite active and efficient, whether in its dynamic or rigid modes, and, fortunately, the war depictions were never too visceral to superimpose the aggravating family trauma. Even heartening at the end, there is a bittersweet taste that fills our mouths when we think how easy it is to destroy a human life.


The Great Buddha + (2018)


Directed by Huang Hsin-yao
Country: Taiwan

From Taiwan, and mostly shot with a lucid black-and-white mesmerism, “The Great Buddha +” is an appealing comedy-drama bolstered by the noir tones of crime. Its story develops slowly yet assuredly. 
Exploring both the philosophic side of life and the mundane world of concupiscence, the debut feature of Huang Hsin-yao, who occasionally narrates at his convenience, was expanded from his 2014 short film of the same name, depicting friendship in a zany way, but with enough personality to make us care.

Crane-games aficionado and day-time recycling collector Belly Button (Bamboo Chen) is often timid, but loses any inhibition whenever he is in the company of his friend Pickle (Cres Chuang). The latter works as a night watchman in a Buddha statue factory where he spends incessantly rainy nights around adult magazines together with his friend. Pickle’s wealthy boss, Kevin Huang (Leon Dai) is usually away, amused with his new sweetheart Gucci (JC Lei), a mixed-race beauty who loves to be called ‘puta’ when having sex in the car. However, his former lover, Yeh Feng-ju (Ting Kuo-lin), a mature yet possessive woman in her forties, demands more attention from him. The imbroglio ends up in a hideous crime, which Pickle and Belly Button had the opportunity to [witness] through the colorful images captured by a dash-cam placed in Kevin’s luxurious Mercedes.


It’s curious to see how different the two friends are. While Belly Button can’t refrain curiosity, becoming genuinely astonished by the course of events while yearning for Kevin's colorful lifestyle, Pickle is a modest man who never complains about anything. He is more concerned with his sick octogenarian mother and prefers not to meddle in his boss’ business.

Even with a few uneven episodes, the satire focuses on social class gaps and shapes into an important statement against political corruption and abusive influence in the contemporary Taiwanese society. Darkly funny and with an uncanny finale, “The Great Buddha +”, the sensation of the 54th Golden Horse Awards, provides an unusual yet incisive look at the mentioned predicaments. 


I Am Not a Witch (2018)


Directed by Rungano Nyoni
Country: UK / France / Germany / Zambia

Witches in Zambia can't roam freely in Rungano Nyoni’s satirical debut feature "I Am Not a Witch". They are confined to a witch camp in the middle of the desert and their main activity, besides guessing who are the culprits of anything bad that happens in the rural village, consists in farming the fields. A ribbon that goes from their back to a spool restricts their movements as a form of preventing them from fly and kill people. In other words, these women, dressed in blue and with her faces painted in white, are the touristic attraction that fills the pockets of the greedy government official Mr. Banda (Henry BJ Phiri). This bribable figure, married to Charity (Nancy Murilo), a young former witch, now faces another witchcraft case that is causing aversion in the village's population. 

8-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is being accused of being a witch due to a minor incident. She has no family or friends, and nobody knows where she came from. Without confirming or denying the accusation, Shula is found guilty and sent to the state-run witch camp, where she is told that if she ever cuts the ribbon and tries to escape, she will be turned into a goat.


The talented director, who was inspired by real cases and wrote the story after a research trip to a Ghanian witch camp, funnily blends traditional practices and beliefs with touches of modernity. To give you an example, Banda’s wife is a sophisticated witch who goes to the supermarket wearing high heels. Moreover, some of the witches attempt to buy fancy wigs, with the styles varying from Beyonce to Rhianna, and pay them with the presents that Shula gets for her outstanding guessing capabilities. 

The kid starts working directly with Banda, who uses her to sell rain in a drought season and eggs with her name stamped. However, the only time we see this child smiling is when she attends school. The young Mulubwa’s expressive eyes do the magic, exhibiting the sadness of an emotional suppressed girl, whimsically picked by nefarious people to suffer for the rest of her life.

Humor and tragedy combine effortlessly in this sensitive, mindful, and stylish look at the roots of a distant African culture and the unjust burdens that mark its society. For a first film, Ms. Nyoni not only shows intelligence in the way she addresses the topic, but also reinstates hope in the African cinema through a moving yet never sloppy storytelling and impactful imagery - the staggering cinematography is by David Gallego, who did wonders in Ciro Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent”.


Arrhythmia (2017)


Directed by Boris Khlebnikov
Country: Russia

Sad realities are usually desirable topics for observant films whose intention is to alert the world for specific circumstances. “Arrhythmia”, the sixth feature-length by Moscow-born filmmaker Boris Khlebnikov (“Roads to Koktebel”; “A Long and Happy Life"), follows exactly that premise, portraying the profile of a married couple in a relationship lacerated by alcohol addiction.

Oleg (Aleksandr Yatsenko) and Katya (Irina Gorbacheva) started dating in med-school and have been married for a few years. He is a paramedic who goes all over the city in an ambulance, jumping from house to house to provide emergency medical treatment for those in a critical condition. However, he has a serious drinking problem that sometimes prevents him to perform the tasks at his full capacity.

Much more ambitious and reliable than he is, Katya is a dedicated junior doctor who becomes more and more upset with Oleg’s irresponsibility. The situation was already bad, but her patience reached the limit during her father’s anniversary lunch, where she got visibly disturbed and embarrassed with Oleg’s impertinence. She still loves him, though, and yet, the situation seems out of control, getting her tired and frustrated. So much that she still doesn’t know how to address the problem, communicating her decision to divorce him by text message. Oleg doesn’t take her seriously at first but starts sleeping in the kitchen until he could find a new apartment, which he never does.


Meanwhile, the things at work are not famous either, with Oleg being subjected to various complaints. Sometimes he overdiagnoses, other times he doesn't follow the rules he is obliged to, and some other times he doesn’t respect the patient’s decisions or beliefs. This situation only gets worse with the arrival of the insensitive new head of the Emergency Medical Agency substation, who imposes twenty rules to be followed tightly, disregarding the human factor that this type of job should consider. 

The romance, holding down a down-to-earth emotional weight, feels very authentic, for which much contributes the tight performances of Yatsenko - best actor at Karlovy Vary - and Gorbacheva. This is also bolstered by the confident direction of Mr. Khlebnikov, who keeps the film controlled while consciously takes it to a nonjudgmental path. The objective camera doesn't seek props or embellishments but rather captures a distasteful social reality without extravagant stratagems. It gives us the raw environment within the household, at the working premises, and in streets bursting at the seams with traffic congestion.

Feeling as emotionally strong as conceptually simple, “Arrhythmia” was handsomely crafted with powerful, thrilling scenes, showcasing not only a Russian medical predicament but perhaps even a worldly one. There’s optimism as a response to the imperfect world it describes, and genuine love seems to be the global solution.


Revenge (2018)


Directed by Coralie Forgeat
Country: France

Luxurious in its first minutes and viciously brutal in the remaining time, “Revenge” is a heavy, breathtaking ride that will make fans of horror/action genre rub their hands with glee.

The film, a product from the mind of newcomer Coralie Forgeat, thrives with devoted performances by Matilda Kutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, and Guillaume Bouchede, who were able to convey all the distress, trauma, alertness, and resentment required to make the film succeed. Other fundamental aspects include the intermittence of Rob's disturbing score, which keeps alternating with suspenseful silences, and the super sharp cinematography by Robrecht Heyvaert, which comes filled with impressive close-ups and medium-range shots. The quality of the editing, carefully handled by Forgeat, Bruno Safar, and Jerome Eltabet, is especially noticeable in Jennifer's nightmares sequences. 

The plot is very simple and direct, yet, the way it was executed turns the film into one of the biggest blood soaking baths of the year. The sculptural Jennifer (Kutz), an American socialite, follows her wealthy French lover Richard (Janssens), a married man, in his annual hunting trip to the desert, where he retains a house. Her plan was to stay for two days with her sweetheart before the hunting begins. However, Richard's friends, Stan (Colombe) and Dimitri (Bouchede), arrive one day earlier than expected, getting utterly fascinated with Jennifer’s beauty. When Richard leaves the site for just a couple of hours, the uncontrollable Stan doesn’t resist his sexual impetus and rapes her, having the impassive Dimitri, an avid marshmallow-eater, ignoring the scene. 


Refusing money as a compensation for the traumatic experience and threatening Richard, Jen is pushed off from a cliff after trying to escape the three madmen. Although gravely wounded with a tree branch stuck into her belly, she survives and considers no other option rather than revenge.

Memorable scenes include Jennifer’s unimaginable beer-brand tattoo made under the effect of a hallucinogenic drug, several painful attempts of taking out external objects from inside their bodies, and the thrilling final cat-and-mouse game around the house’s narrow hallways.

Overwhelming emotions and feminist prowess are drawn from the visceral, agonizing, and often-cartoonish images that hold this sick n' ferocious film together. Even if excessively sanguinary, it runs at a dazzling pace and boasts impeccably mounted episodes.


This Is Our Land (2018)


Directed by Lucas Belvaux
Country: France / Belgium

Belgian cineaste Lucas Belvaux, author of "Rapt" and "Trilogy: One, Two, Three", returns with "This Is Our Land", a piercing political drama set in a small Northern French town.

Emilie Dequenne is Pauline Duhez, a dedicated, unselfish nurse and single mother of two, whose tranquility is shattered after an invitation from her family doctor and personal friend, Phillipe Berthiez (Andre Dussollier), to join his populist party and run for local mayor. The party dangerously believes in a France exclusively for the French, but Pauline, seduced by the idea of a radical change for the better, seems too flattered to really pay attention to the possible consequences. Her initial reluctance in accepting the invitation was immediately overcome after going to an election rally of the party where the persuasive, self-confident leader, Agnes Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob), the daughter of a neo-nazi, convincingly exposed her political intentions. This faction is enthusiastically supported by a discontented local minority, which includes Pauline’s best friend, the fanatical Nathalie (Anne Marivin), but is also fiercely contested by many who demonstrate on the streets, opposing to their obnoxious principles.

After her media baptism, Pauline starts losing patients and is frequently insulted on the streets. She is seen as the quiet puppet of Agnes and Phillipe, who didn’t even discuss the party’s program with her. The situation gets even more delicate when Pauline, who had divorced from her husband five years before, starts dating with an ex-high school boyfriend, Stephane Stankowiak (Guillaume Gouix), without knowing his violent political past as a radical nationalist militant. Moreover, she gets devastated when her communist father, Jacques (Patrick Descamps), cuts ties with her due to the impossibility to cope with the idea that his daughter is a fascist.


Webs of lies encircle this misguided woman as she gradually discovers the real intentions of those who surround her, including her beloved Stephane. Despite the contradictory feelings, she ends up choosing love in detriment of politics, living the illusion that he is a changed man.

Even with the violent scenes in need of a more convincing impact, the film, co-written by Belvaux and debutant Jerome Leroy, was mounted with a consistent narrative flow while its emotional grip is maintained until the last minute. The writers were inspired by the shocking political ascension of Marine Le Pen during the French presidential elections in 2017, and managed to slightly disturb through a few sharp observations.

The sad transformation of Pauline develops plausibly with the character constantly oscillating before a proud vanity for being chosen and a blind discomfort for the reactions around her decision. Filthy political strategies, inflamed slogans, speculation, and forceful poses, all of them contribute to the social decay of a naive nurse.


Isle of Dogs (2018)


Directed by Wes Anderson
Country: USA / Germany

Wes Anderson’s new stop-motion animation film is a kitschy Japanese canine adventure with a cool posture and deadpan humor. The celebrated filmmaker, author of cult comedies such as “Rushmore”, “The Royal Tenenbaums”, “Moonrise Kingdom”, and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, co-penned the story with regular partners Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, but this time also counted on Kunichi Nomura in the script and voice. Besides the latter, the ensemble voice cast includes Courtney B. Vance (narrator), Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Yoko Ono, and many more.

The story is set in Megasaki City, where the authoritarian mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) orders the capture and extradition of every single dog to Trash Island after a mysterious dog-flu outbreak. The smelly dogs have to fight each other to impede starvation on a filthy island that is merely a pile of garbage filled with chemicals, toxic waste, and hundreds of rats looking for food.


Spots (Liev Schreiber), the faithful dog of Atari Kobayashi (Royu Rankin), the mayor’s 12-year-old nephew, is the first dog officially deported from the city. The brave Atari flies to the island to retrieve him. His plane crashes, but he is rescued by a pack of five dogs led by Chief (Cranston), a stray that never sits or fetches and usually bites the humans who try to pet him. Against the odds, man and dog embark on a frenzied adventure threaten by Kobayashi’s robotic dog-machines and the uncorroborated presence of wild aboriginal cannibal dogs.

In the meantime, Dr. Watanabe (Akira Ito), the one who invented the dog-flu serum is assassinated in a conspiracy theory unmasked by American exchange student Tracy Walker (Gerwig).

Delightfully atypical, and conveying a deliberated laid-back narration filled with a bunch of political metaphors, “Isle of Dogs” disconcerts with a decaying spectacle of images that, even not so colorful or stunning, go well with the impeccably stylized, surrealistic atmosphere. Just like “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, this is another funny, clever, and imaginative animated fable.


In The Fade (2018)


Directed by Fatih Akin
Country: Germany / France

Turkish-born German filmmaker Fatih Akin, author of gems like “Head-On” and “The  Edge of Heaven”, thoughtfully returns to the drama genre after last year’s so-so coming-of-age adventure “Goodbye Berlin”.

In The Fade” stars Cannes-awarded actress Diane Kruger (“Unknown”, “Inglorious Basterds”, “Disorder”) as Katja Sekerci, a woman living in Hamburg, whose happy life is suddenly shaken by the assassination of her husband and 6-year-old child in a Nazi conspiracy consummated with a nail-bomb attack. The first images show us Nuri Sekerci (Numan Acar), a Kurdish living in Germany, being applauded as he leaves his prison cell all dressed up to get married to Katja. Although convicted for drug trafficking in the past, when the film advances to the first of its three chapters, we see him completely rehabilitated, managing his own tax office, where he also helps fellow countrymen with document translations.

A certain day, Katja arrives at his office, located in the Turkish neighborhood, to drop off their son before going to meet her best friend Birgit (Samia Muriel Chancrin). On her way out, she notices a young woman, later identified as Edda Moller (Hanna Hilsdorf), placing a brand new bike in front of the office and then walking away. The bicycle was purposely left unchained. Later in the evening, she went to pick them up, but was informed there was an explosion in that specific area. It was an agonizing shock when the two unrecognizable bodies of a man and a kid were confirmed to be the members of her family. This harrowing reality impels her to take drugs in order to numb the pain. 


Officer Gerrit Reetz (Henning Peker) is the one leading the investigation and wonders if Nuri was still working for the Turkish Mafia as a dealer. Was this a retaliation? If not, who could have done such an evil act? The Eastern Europeans? A Nazi faction? 

Following a dramatic court session where the culprits are nauseatingly acquitted of the killings using a false alibi, Katja, in the impossibility of appeasing her soul and find relief, chases them down, traveling to Greece with a radical plan.

Akin’s approach favors as much the tense moments as the emotionally disturbing ones, only sporadically deflecting to unimaginative territories through superfluous maneuvers. Probably the most gratuitous scene happens when Katja attempts to kill herself, saved at the last minute by the phone call of her lawyer and family friend Danilo Fava (Denis Moschitto). 

Still, “In The Fade” was conceived with strong performances and never softens up, even when giving signs of momentarily wobbling. After the tragic, visceral finale, and before the closing credits, the director points out the xenophobe crimes committed by the members of Neo-Nazi group National Socialism Underground.


Pass Over (2018)


Directed by Spike Lee
Country: USA

Spike Lee’s unconventional storytelling and theatrical dramatization go beyond the cinematic, yet mixed feelings may arise from viewers who peek at his latest work, “Pass Over”. The film intends to elucidate audiences about the sad reality experienced by the African American community in the US.
Having Antoinette Nwandu’s story as the source, Lee literally films a play where two young black men, Kitch (Julian Parker) and Moses (Jon Michael Hill), captivate our attention for nearly 75 minutes, showing us some abominable truths captured by a competent and nimble camerawork.

Although a bit reluctant during the first minutes, I was completely involved in the conversations and misadventures of the friends, who hang in the corner of E 64th St and King Drive in Chicago. Lee shot the film in this city at the Steppenwolf Theater.

Instinctively throwing themselves on the ground whenever a noise is heard, these men are victims of the white men's prejudice, and their top 10 Promised Land game means just their dreams flowing, misleading the emptiness of their stomachs and the general unhappiness of life.


Their tete-a-tete is disturbed by a well-groomed white folk named Mister (Ryan Hallahan), who was heading to his mother’s house. He carries a basket replete with food and wears a white suit and red bowtie, having a constant smile on his face. Despite apparently harmless, the discomfort in the black folks becomes inevitable - is he a Mormon, a policeman, or a gangster? After an interesting conversation about the ’N’ word, he leaves pacifically, giving his place to an aggressive white cop, Ossifer (Blake DeLong), who only asks two quick questions: ‘who are you?’, ‘you going somewhere?’. The former is self-answered with ‘stupid, lazy, violent, thug’, while in regard to the latter, a ‘nowhere, sir’, uttered by one of the men, seemed to get the intolerant satisfied.

This dangerous game takes a U-turn, becoming a tragicomic manifesto that attempts to denounce the racial inequalities that keep infecting our world. Spike Lee did it artistically explicit.


Love, Simon (2018)


Directed by Greg Berlanti
Country: USA

Although smartly adapted from Becky Albertalli’s novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, “Love, Simon” felt too standardized and over-polished to impress. Director Greg Berlanti could have had the best of the intentions, but his coming-of-age drama film, despite warmhearted and inspiringly educational, played below my expectations, exclusively delivering the expected as the story develops with a crowd-pleasing, soap opera-ish comportment. 

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), 17, is a closeted high school gay living in Atlanta, who feels a sudden urgency of identifying himself publicly as a gay, obviously a very demanding task. He gradually falls for an anonymous classmate who, under the pseudonym ‘Blue’, wrote an online confession regarding his homosexuality. While trying to physically meet with Blue, whom he suspects is the sympathetic Bram (Keyinan Lonsdale), Simon keeps hanging out with his old pals Leah (Katherine Langford) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), and a brand new friend, Abby (Alexandra Shipp).


Even believing he would be all right at school in the case his secret is disclosed, Simon has his doubts when it comes to his family since his cool yet intrusive father, Jack (Josh Duhamel), occasionally makes some depreciative jokes about gays. Even not coming directly from the heart, this behavior hits Simon, who has his mother, Emily (Jennifer Garner), as a supportive and attentive ally.

The emotional involvement among the friends becomes knotted when Martin (Logan Miller), considered a tedious imbecile, gains access to Simon’s email account. He threatens to leak the sensitive info if Simon refuses to help him conquer Abby. Imbroglio after imbroglio, the film, an undeniable charmer, advances with the happy vibes of a pretty decent soundtrack and the lightness of contrived episodes that never attain profound emotional levels besides the average entertainment. 

Regardless the moderate collapse as a cinematic effort, it can easily work as an inspiration for many people going through the same process of affirming their true identity.


Submergence (2018)


Directed by Wim Wenders
Country: Germany / USA / other

72-year-old Wim Wenders is one of the inevitable figures of the European cinema. His work includes masterpieces such as “Paris Texas”, “Wings of Desire”, “Kings of the Road”, and “Alice In the Cities”, which deserved all the accolades they got. However, the current phase of his directorial career is not so strong, with the fictional films failing to match the much more compelling documentaries like "Pina" and "The Salt of the Earth". This fact hampers him from standing out again as a primary filmmaker.

Based on the novel of the same name by J.M. Ledgard and with a questionable adaptation from Erin Digman (“The Last Face”), “Submergence” depicts a bitter memory of a fine romance lived in the French Normandy between Danielle Flinders (Alicia Vikander), a biomathematician, and James Moore (James McAvoy), a Scottish agent under the cover of a water engineer. While she is on the verge of embarking on a pioneering diving into the deep Atlantic in a submersible to collect valuable samples, he is heading to East Africa in a classified mission. Once there, Somali jihadist fighters make him a hostage, and torture becomes a painful endurance.


Immersed in flashbacks, the drama lacks intensity, being progressively engulfed by irregular, often dispassionate waves of longing. The anguished Danielle can’t focus on her work since James became unreachable. In her mind, she questions if he just lost interest in her or is simply stuck somewhere with no communication. Yet, after some time, she lets go the latter possibility. James’ imprisonment, filled with numerous backs and forths and torturous oscillations, fails to engage us in its dualities: friend or enemy, salvation or perdition, compassion or aggression. Also, the pace doesn't facilitate our empathy.

The episodes involving the characters have no other link tying them besides the ephemeral love affair, and Wenders couldn’t avoid falling into a protracted, unexciting, and often sloppy exercise that never brought much satisfaction or hope.

The emotional agitation resultant from lovesickness could have pushed the film forward, but the heavy-handed narrative together with Spanish-born Fernando Velázquez’s annoying score make us all stuck too, waiting for the pointless ending to arrive.