Are We Not Cats (2018)

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Directed by Xander Robin
Country: USA

With a title that gives everything away, “Are We Not Cats” could also be called “The Hair Glutton”. This downbeat indie drama film also advertises one of the weirdest romances of the year, when a trash collector turned truck driver finds the girl of his dreams, one who shares his uncommon habit of eating hairs, but in a much larger scale.

He’s called Eli (Michael Patrick Nicholson), a down-on-his-luck garbage man who got fired, was dumped by his girlfriend, and lives a miserable life. He still resides with his unsentimental parents, who are selling their house to move to Arizona. It’s absolutely certain they won’t miss their smelly son to whom they only left a crumbling old truck. That’s when Eli accepts to deliver an engine upstate to a guy named Jack (Joe Buldo).

He was five hours late and couldn’t refuse to give Kyle (Michael Godere) a ride, even going in the opposite direction. After all, he’s the one who’s buying the engine and was waiting for him all day. They have a few drinks of a toxic substance along the way, ending up in an underground party with offbeat music and lush girls. The psychedelic images hook us to an atmosphere of confusion, decadence, and waste. Once in there, he observes Kyle’s enigmatic girlfriend, Anya (Chelsea Lopez), a troublesome young girl with blue lips, yellow fingernails, and a purple wig, who is violently headbutted by another shadowy princess. Although Kyle is very attentive to her needs, she and Eli felt an immediate connection. Patiently, he starts to extract her most intimate secrets, but also reveals his own quirky body transformations. Both are weirdly sick and surrounded by deep sadness. Yet, they seem a bit more optimistic in the company of each other.

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After several cat dances and a satiating hair banquet, the couple makes out, but Anya collapses in the middle of the act. A hair rock is installed in her intestines, clogging her entire system, and it’s up to Eli to save her or leave her. While the images are gruesome, the realness of the scene will make the horror aficionados rub their hands with glee.

Solidly directed by Xander Robin, a dubutant who based himself in his own short film of the same name, “Are We Not Cats” is sly and sunless, but not for once spooky. As a piece of storytelling, it’s a miscarriage with several unexplainable gaps, but in a visceral level, it has its impactful moments. Hence, you may find yourselves wishing a proliferation of blood-soaked scenes, while the director concentrates more on taking the story somewhere with a slightly disturbing tone.

Oscillating with ups and downs, this moody, felinely romantic film has not much to show off besides its bizarreness, which was, nevertheless, glamorously combined with an eligible eclectic soundtrack that includes Albert Tyler, Funkadelic, and Spirit of the Beehive.  

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Only The Brave (2017)

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Directed by John Kosinski
Country: USA

Based on the GQ article No Exit by Sean Flynn, “Only The Brave” is a magnetizing biographical drama that pays a deserved tribute to 19 brave firemen, members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who died after getting trapped in Arizona’s devastating Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013. 

Director Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”; “Oblivion”) recreates the occurrence with dramatic punch, but first, he puts us in touch with the mundane lives of the characters. The good performances by Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, and Jennifer Connelly make easier for him to address this mild phase of the drama. 

The story, co-written by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, has Eric 'Supe' Marsh (Brolin) and Brendan ‘Donut’ McDonough (Teller) at the center. The former is the stout-hearted superintendent of Crew 7, a respected unit of firemen that operates behind the first line, while the latter is a young single father who asks the firefighters the opportunity that will allow him to change his ignoble situation. Having a record and trying hard to leave a complicated drug addiction problem behind, he is decided in leading a decent life and to dedicate himself, body and soul, to his new job.

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Marsh is in permanent contact with his longtime friend and part-time country singer Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), who also happens to be the woodland division chief. He is the key to Crew 7’s certification as type 1, known as ‘hotshots’, which will make possible for Marsh to make important decisions while combating fires in the frontline. Whereas everything goes smoothly in this regard, at home, he’s having a hard time with his wife, Amanda (Connelly), a horse trainer who demands more time of his busy life to herself. Both are also former addicts who were saved by the love they feel for each other and the serious dedication to their professions. As Duane’s wife, Marvel (a cameo role for Andy McDowell), says in the film: ‘it’s not easy sharing your man with the fire’.

Even if too long, the visual power of a ravaging fire engulfing well-intentioned men in the performance of their duties is tragic and terrifying. “Only the Brave” is a touching tribute to real-life heroes and its excruciating conclusion stubbornly remains in our heads for a long time after the final credits roll.

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Faces Places (2017)

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Directed by Agnes Varda and JR
Country: France

Sympathetic French New Wave filmmaker Agnés Varda, 89, links up to photomuralist JR, 33, in the sweet and humorous documentary “Faces Places”, a celebration of friendship and art alike. The two artists visited several French rural villages and small towns for the pleasure of making art, homaging the hard-working local people.

The spontaneous duo gives wings to creativity while visiting Jeanine, the last surviving soul of a waiting-to-be-demolished coal miner neighborhood, a tireless farmer who deals with 800 hectares alone, Pirou Plage, a ‘ghost’ village whose construction was never finished, a longtime mailman friend, a solitary retired artist, two very distinct goat farms, and a chemical factory. All these places were chosen to plaster large black-and-white pictures that JR’s photobooth van spills out itself. However, my absolute favorite work included the figures of three wives of Le Havre dockers pasted on colorful vessels, in a clear support to feminism, a movement/topic that has been inherent to Varda’s personal work for a long time. In the Southern village of Bonnieux, they’ve also turned a cautious woman into a model star with her glamorous picture filling a downtown's building facade.

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Real life is shown without preconceptions, even when the work doesn’t achieve the desired success. It happened with a collage on a Nazi-era bunker that rests on a desolated Normandy beach. The film then moves on with new adventures and ideas, keeping us tied up to its well-edited course of events. 
 
It’s extremely amusing when they jest about Varda’s blurry-eyes condition, whose treatment immediately revives Luis Buñuel’s classic “Un Chien Andalou”, or JR’s tenacity in hiding his eyes behind sunglasses.

Socially conscious if slightly repetitive in its structure, the good-natured “Faces Places” reserves a touching moment to be presented at the end, having the reclusive philosopher/filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard at the center.

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Phantom Thread (2018)

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Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Country: USA

Revered writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson re-teams up with the resourceful actor Daniel Day-Lewis in "Phantom Thread", a perversely romantic, adult drama film set in 1950s London.

Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, a first-rate fashion designer whose peculiar personality, allied with an elegant yet somewhat vampiric look, makes him a wonderful character. He lives permanently obsessed with work, controlling everything and everyone, except when he gets sick, often haunted by the death of his mother. He shares this abnormal dependency with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a former waitress turned into his new inspirational muse, in a glorious scene wrapped in flirtation and nostalgia.

If Reynolds is completely taken up by work, Alma becomes an obsessively devotional person whose purpose in life is to please a perpetually unsatisfied man. When she first moved in with Reynolds, she was seen as unreliable by his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), the one who helped him build his fashion emporium. Despite initially opaque and a source of enigmatic tension, she becomes more open as her trust in Alma grows sturdier.

That special sparkle that enveloped the couple right after they met, gradually vanishes due to Reynolds’ fussiness. He disapproves too much noise and movement at breakfast, flips out when his work is interrupted, and shows occasional contempt for her in public. Curiously, he is perfectly aware of what he is, calling himself an incurable person who detests surprises or the word chic.

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Their relationship reaches the peak of acidity when a Belgian princess arrives in the city to order the most beautiful wedding dress. Jealous, Alma will have the nerve to play with his life, taming him, taking care of him, and having him to herself. After all, perceiving he’s not so strong as he puts on display, she takes advantage of that camouflaged fragility. It’s insane to see her treating him like a spoiled little baby, fulfilling his deep emotional gap by acting like a caring mother. Because of that desired impression, marriage is mentioned as the next step in their intriguing bond. Where do these obsessives intend to go with their mutual madness? 

Just like it happened in “The Master”, I bow to Paul Thomas Anderson, who managed to engage me in the personalities and moves of every single character, even the supporting ones. Of course, this could only be possible due to the classy acting scenes, which are among the year’s best. Besides this, I found a phenomenal sense of space and extreme attention to light and color balance in every frame. As a curiosity, the success of the cinematography is directly related to the director himself, albeit uncredited. 

Unfolding with splotches of gothic glamour, “Phantom Thread” unearths an intoxicating tale with several dichotomies between authority and submission, power and fragility, passion and contempt, as well as gravitas and dark humor. Imperfect characters actually build a nearly perfect chamber film, equal parts poetic and obscure. Being a difficult one to digest, this is not what you would normally expect from a love story.

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Golden Exits (2018)

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Directed by Alex Ross Perry
Country: USA

Golden Exits”, the very much-expected return of 33-year-old American writer/director Alex Ross Perry, happens to be a futility, regardless the dedication of its ensemble cast. Embracing a one-tone ambiance, this low-key drama is deeply anchored in indulgent conversation, lacking the poetic vision of “Listen Up Philip” and the claustrophobic tension of “Queen of Earth”, which remains Perry’s best film so far.

Perry imagines a 25-year-old Australian woman named Naomi (Emily Browning) arriving in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, NY, to fill the position of archivist required by Nick (Adam Horovitz), a local bourgeois. Perspicacious and attractive, Naomi is a natural seducer and her daily presence with the boss - five feet apart and nine hours a day - becomes a concern for his wife, Alyssa (Chloe Sevigny), who already went through some tribulations in the past regarding infidelity. Also, his unmarried and ever-present sister-in-law, Gwen (Mary-Louise Parker), a manipulative liar according to him, doesn't squander the chance to speculate a bit more and warn everyone she’s attentive. She usually confides with her assistant, Sam (Lily Rabe), whose presence feels redundant, as she doesn’t add anything worthy to the story.

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Regardless the suspicious atmosphere lived in Nick’s house, Naomi doesn’t make a move toward her boss. It’s quite the opposite, actually, since she sends him home on his birthday, after an unexpected visit in the middle of the night. However, she decides to re-direct her seducing spell to Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), a family friend of her age who lives in the neighborhood and recently opened a music studio with his wife, Jess (Analeigh Tipton).

The material, feeding on both complex and unbalanced relationships, only works sparsely. At the minimum sign of surprise or tension, everything gets lost in the rational monotony of the dialogues. Moreover, the characters feel shallow and distant, making us not to care about their residual problems. Every problematic circumstance they might experience seems to have exactly the same emotional weight. 

Cinematographer Sean Price Williams kept emphasizing the warm tones of the captured images in order to compensate the coldness and linearity of the fictional individuals. However, not even the numerous close-ups did the magic trick. 

Emotionally parched, “Golden Exits” is a film of misconceptions based upon choices, behaviors, and romantic frustrations. In the end, it leaves us stiffly cold and utterly disappointed.

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Double Lover (2017)

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Directed by François Ozon
Country: France / Belgium

Whenever I take a look at the filmography of prodigious French director François Ozon, I feel very comfortable stating that he is one of the most versatile storytellers working today. Regardless which genre he picks to dive into, his filmmaking style and artistic vision persist interesting, even when the scripts don’t facilitate his moves. Unforgettable films like “Under the Sand”, “Swimming Pool”, and “8 Women” became true classics, while “In The House”, “Young & Beautiful”, and “Frantz” earned a generally good reputation among critics and cinephiles alike. However, quality and consistency are variable factors in a cinematic career and Ozon lost his footing in his new film “Double Lover”, a cynical, erotic, psychological thriller starring Marine Vacth and Jérémie Renier. Both actors had worked with the director before; the former in “Young & Beautiful” and the latter twice, in “Potiche” and “Criminal Lovers”, released nearly twenty years ago.

Even piling up gripping tension throughout, the story didn’t captivate me so much due to the fact that Ozon simply forgot that, in most of the cases, less is more. Adopting several strained and calculative tactics within his genre-bending approach, he attempted to fuse the suspense of Brian De Palma, the sensualistic pleasures of Jean-Claude Brisseau, and that sort of “Alien” fixation of a woman with something creepy inside her guts. 

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At the center of the story is Chloé (Vacth), a 25-year-old single woman and former model who is referred to a psychoanalyst after her gynecologist has concluded that the piercing bellyaches that keep tormenting her should be mainly psychological. At the age seven, her mother confessed she was an accident, and she was entrusted to her grandparents. It was no surprise that the lonely and fragile Chloé undertakes to seduce her therapist Paul Meyer (Renier), promptly revealing her sexual dreams with him after only one session.

After being considered apt for a normal life again - celebrated with a part-time job as a museum watchwoman - she moves in with Paul. However, she becomes suspicious and slightly paranoid about his past, after finding an old passport of his with a different surname. Whether by accident or terrible fate, she discovers that Paul has a twin brother named Louis, who is also a psychoanalyst. Yet, his personality and working methods are completely opposite to the ones followed by his estranged brother. After scheduling an appointment with this enigmatic man, Chloé is given a thorough diagnosis of her condition and becomes trapped in a dangerous web of personal fascination and sexual desire.

You may expect the unexpected in this adaptation of the 1987 novel Lives of the Twins by Joyce Carol Oates. Still, the twists are so uneven and deviant that made me experienced them more as nonsenses than effectively stimulating points. By dabbling in hazy mirror games and cheap, artificial glamour, Ozon squanders the chance of presenting something consistent, both thematic and genre-wise. Notwithstanding, and considering “Double Lover” as a punctual misstep, I keep my expectations high for his next move.

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All The Money in the World (2017)

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Directed by Ridley Scott
Country: USA

The fact-based drama “All The Money in the World” is both timely and timeless, depicting the greediness of our world, where, unfortunately, the money is idolized and considered of more importance than the human life itself.

The story follows the kidnapping of 16-year-old Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), an amiable, longhaired bohemian who is confined to a shack in a remote region of Calabria, South of Italy, awaiting patiently that his billionaire grandfather, J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), pays $17 million dollars in ransom. Despite the pressure and anxiety involved, Paul was lucky enough to earn the fondness of Cinquanta (Romain Duris), one of the Mafiosi.

Surprisingly or not, the dominant and inflexible Mr. Getty is not willing to pay a cent for his beloved and favorite grandson, whose life depends exclusively from the efforts of his desperate mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams). She gets a good backup from Getty’s trustful advisor, a former spy named Fletcher Chase (a too modest Mark Wahlberg), who was assigned to bring Paul back home.

Through sporadic flashbacks, we get aware of the distorted relations among the family members. Seventeen years before, in the early 70s, the wealthy patriarch attempted to reconnect with his son, John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan), but the latter got lost on drugs in Morocco and remained there, living a vicious life as a hippie.

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If Christopher Plummer, who took the place of the discredited Kevin Spacey, is an extra reason for you to see this film, Ms. Williams plays the most empathic character as an ordinary woman who fights bravely for her son, refusing to bow or kneel down in front of her powerful father-in-law. What would you think of a man who pays millions for a piece of art but refuses to pay for his innocent grandson’s freedom? Having his own reasons, he doesn't eschew a justification for his acts. Meanwhile, the case aggravates when the kidnappers, already having lowered their price and stressed for the wait, send an ear of the young Paul to the editorial department of a major newspaper to prove they were not joking. 

Although far from being a reference in the kidnapping thriller genre, the dramatic side gets into your skin. Yet, you might only expect the thrilling moments to take proper effect in its final section. The experienced 80-year-old Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner”, “Thelma & Louise”, “Alien”) directed the film without major gaps, relying on a script by David Scarpa, who based himself in the book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty by John Pearson.

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Lucky (2017)

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Directed by John Carroll Lynch
Country: USA

At dawn, with a mountainous, arid landscape as a background, a slow turtle crosses a dusty road adorned with a single green cactus. This is where everything begins in “Lucky”, an illuminated drama by veteran actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch. With an acting career spanning 30 years, the debutant director, who worked with Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, and David Fincher, showed to have sufficient know-how to make things work. Curiously, the script was written by another two actors, Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, and no one could have been embodied the title character with such mastery as Harry Dean Stanton, who delivered his best performance since “Paris Texas”. Sadly, the proficient actor died two weeks prior to the release of this film, at the age 91.

Another novelty is to see Stanton acting alongside the one-and-only David Lynch, the same who had hired him a few years ago for dark mystery films like “Twin Peaks” and “Inland Empire”, as well as the poignant drama “The Straight Story”, whose mood and pace seem to have been a natural influence here.

90-year-old Lucky, a war veteran and crossword aficionado, lives solo and takes pleasure in learning the meaning of words. Following the same daily routines for years, the first thing he does in the morning is to smoke a cigarette. After that, he bathes, does five yoga exercises, drinks a glass of milk, and gets dressed to go out. He heads to Joe’s, a diner where he is expected by the friendly staff, and then goes to buy cigarettes at a grocery store owned by Bibi (Bertila Damas), who, knowing his love for mariachi music, invites him to her son’s birthday party. And what a perfect occasion for him to shine artistically!

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Later on, Lucky necessarily stops at Elaine’s, a small and cozy local bar where he drinks his Bloody Mary and catches up with longtime friends, including Howard (David Lynch), who got overwhelmed lately by the disappearance of his adorable turtle named President Roosevelt. He utters an emotional speech about his terrible loss. When at this bar, Lucky gets philosophical, discoursing effusively about the theory of the void, yet, he hardly complies with the rules as he always attempts to light a cigarette in the premises. He feels so alive that he even picks a fight with Howard’s attorney. However, what Lucky doesn’t show is that he became scared of dying after fainting down for no apparent reason. His health is exceptionally good for his age, says the doctor, but the incident made him seriously conscious of the idea.

Everyone in town is fond of this aging man and his absence is immediately noted when he doesn’t show up in time to the regular places he attends. That’s why Joe’s friendly waitress, Loretta (Yvonne Huff), pays him a visit, appeasing his anxiety and fear with a joint. During a brief conversation with a stranger named Fred (Tom Skerritt), also a World War II vet, he will see some light at the end of the tunnel, finding his own way to deal with the tribulation that keeps saddening him.

With mortality as its thematic center, "Lucky" strangely feels like a light poem, eschewing sentimental baits but rather relying on the integrity of an encouraging story that also feels charming, positive, and hopeful. You will find plenty of human warmth in this odd spiritual journey that is also Stanton’s memorable final work. I hope he had departed with the same smile advocated at the end of this estimable film.

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Princess Cyd (2017)

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Directed by Stephen Cone
Country: USA

Stephen Cone’s “Princess Cyd” is a low-key coming-of-age drama about a 16-year-old who, carrying the weight of a family trauma on her shoulders, decided at some point to explore and taste life in order to polish up her self-knowledge.

The blossoming Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) arrives in Chicago from South Carolina to spend a couple of weeks with her aunt, Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence), a celebrated novelist who, despite her neatly organized life, willingly hosts her. This is a golden opportunity for the young girl to take a break from her depressive father, who keeps struggling after the tragic death of his wife and son.

Establishing an invigorating connection, the two women talk about the past and also open up about their current lives. While sunbathing in the backyard, Miranda confesses she’s too immersed in her writing to have sex, which doesn’t happen in a handful of years. Nearly in shock with the revelation, Cyd, whose honesty and spontaneity are wonderful, discloses that she feels attracted to Katie (Malic White), the boyish female barista of the coffee shop at the corner. She got pleased with the fact that her supportive aunt didn’t make a big deal about her being attracted to another girl. In truth, she even thought it was natural. The admiration becomes evident and is reciprocal: Miranda rejoices with the intensity of that presence, whose youth re-awakens some of the simplest yet almost forgotten pleasures of life, whereas Cyd discovers her aunt’s books, ascertaining the literary circle that surrounds her, and also benefitting from her maturity, advice, and spirituality.

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Like in real life, not everything is linear, and troublesome moments sometimes follow the good ones. It happened when Cyd and Ridley (Matthew Quattrocki), a handsome gardener neighbor, smoke a joint together and then lock themselves in a room over the course of a poetry reading session. Also, when Katie is almost raped by her brother’s drunken friend, or when Miranda gives Cyd an important lesson when her words and tone went too far.

The most curious aspect of “Princess Cyd” is that Miranda grows a much more interesting and sympathetic character than her niece, a reality reinforced through the self-imposed impasse created in the relationship with Anthony (James Vincent Meredith), a still-legally-married journalist friend whose admiration for her is not limited to the intellectual.

Resplendently photographed by Zoe White, who assures that every frame has a cozy tonal warmth, the film doesn’t try to be more than what it is, and that is something to be praised in the first place. Even when we get lost in poetic detail or even momentarily immersed in condescending dialogue, we feel encouraged by Spence and Pinnick’s sweet performances.

Showing a strong propensity for coming-of-age stories, Stephen Cone still couldn't match “The Wise Kids”, but this new effort is a valid example on how two completely different persons can mark the lives of each other forever in a positive way. They do that by giving and receiving affection in crucial phases of their existence.

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Downsizing (2017)

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Directed by Alexander Payne
Country: USA

When you know beforehand that a proficient director like Alexander Payne (“Election”, “Sideways”, “Nebraska”) is commanding a terrific cast spearheaded by Matt Damon and Christopher Waltz, it's more than natural to expect an interesting and amusing outcome. However, for our discontentment and despite the strong ecological consciousness, “Downsizing”, his first film in four years, fails to engage, becoming sloppier as the story proceeds.

Co-written by Payne and his longtime collaborator Jim Taylor, the story centers on Paul Safranek (Damon), a respectable occupational practitioner from Omaha, who decides to enroll with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), in an innovative human shrinking program that would end with their financial problems. Despite the temporary side effects and infinitesimal margin of failure associated with it, this irreversible process of cellular reduction is widely considered as a safe procedure. Besides, it is generally regarded as a guarantee of welfare and happiness.

Taking the example of his friend Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis), who did the procedure with his family and became extremely satisfied with the results, Paul persuades Audrey to embark on the adventure but is let down in the last minute with her refusal to go on. Hurt, frustrated, inconsolable, and downsized, he starts working in a call center while adapting to the experimental community set for his ‘kind’. After his divorce case is closed, Paul is relocated to a new apartment, where he befriends his upper neighbor Dusan Mirkovic (Waltz), a business-oriented Serbian partygoer who has good plans for him. Before embarking on a life-changing trip to Norway, where he meets with the father of ‘downsizing’, Dr. Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard), Paul emotionally connects with Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a bossy Vietnamese dissident who cleans Dusan’s house after his wild parties. She was the sole survivor in a human smuggling attempt to the US, which cost her one leg. Benevolent, Paul offers himself to help with her deficient prosthetic leg, but ends up as a pro bono ‘doctor’ that tries to heal the sick people in her impoverished and secluded neighborhood. Highly submissive, he even joins her in the cleaning team, a situation that feels more pathetic than funny.

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Unexpectedly, he reaches a point where he will have to choose between contributing to the preservation of the human species, threatened by the Arctic methane emissions, or embrace love, once and for all.

Oscillating considerably in tone and mood, “Downsizing” abruptly jumps from a poignant drama to a bleached pseudo-thriller, and then to a bland comedy about how many types of fuck there are in America, just to end up in a blurred, chemistry-free romance, which surpasses any human survival strategy.

Having envisioned a comedy packed with dramatic force, Payne stumbles heavily in a faulty script, adding a few clichés and unimaginative formulas that reduce “Downsizing” into a microscopic size. To aggravate the case, Lan Tran’s behavior and talk, which apparently should work as the funniest factor in the film, become more asinine than amusing, while, in turn, Waltz was never given the spotlight he deserved. 

Hence, this one belongs to that Sunday-matinée category whose constituents should only be picked if there’s nothing else to see and you feel really desperate for a movie.

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Menashe (2017)

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Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein
Country: USA

In Joshua Z. Weinstein’s Yiddish-language drama, “Menashe”, we follow the title character, a Hasidic Jewish widower who, defying the Orthodox Jewish practices of his Brooklyn’s massive community, struggles to regain the custody of his 10-year-old son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski). The plot, conjointly written by Weinstein, Musa Syeed and Alex Lipschultz, is anything but bland, embroidering a painful reality about this particular religious group, which defends that a widower must remarry in order to properly raise his children. Also, it comes with the attractive peculiarity of having been loosely based on the life of Menashe Lustig, the debutant actor and protagonist of the film. 

Manashe deals with this cultural/religious problem and with the fact that his life is a total mess. In addition to dislike his job as a grocery store clerk, he always gets late wherever he goes and never dresses accordingly, which provokes embarrassment in his unsympathetic brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), the one with Rieven’s custody by the order of the Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz). Furthermore, the tolerant yet reckless Manashe is severely indebted, a situation that doesn't refrain him from occasionally spending some money on drinks when in the company of friends. The question persists: he loves his son, but is he a good example for him? Despite all these setbacks, he shows to be more considerate of people than several other men that carry the epithets of righteous and virtuous, like his obnoxious manager.

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Now, freed from the ties of an unhappy marriage, it may come as no surprise that Menashe refuses to elope out of love again, despite the pressures he has been subjected to. He is ready to fight for his son, whom he appoints as the only consolation in life. And to prove that, he adventures himself in cooking for the memorial dinner of his late wife. This way, he contemplates the possibility of earning Eizik’s respect by showing him he can assume responsibilities without a woman beside him.

The film, besides rich in unfamiliar Hasidic traditional customs and religious practices, evinces a ripe storytelling whose incremental emotional appeal is bolstered by the crisp compositions from Weinstein himself and Yoni Brook, as directors of photography. Additionally, the characters ring true and their behaviors clearly draw strong reactions in whoever comes across with their ways. In my case, moved by Menashe's sad case, I nurtured a special sympathy for an imperfect man who was trying so hard to be better and to do the right thing.

Weinstein’s ability to notch up the dramatic side of the story without bringing manipulative tricks into play is praiseworthy. His work serves up a tart platter that gives you food for thought.

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The Square (2017)

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Directed by Ruben Ostlund
Country: Sweden / other

Swedish director Ruben Ostlund bows to ambition in “The Square”, a satirical drama put together with exquisite shots and packed with characters whose incredible behaviors range from comical to earnest to contrived, and sometimes a combination of those. Even with his filmmaking style transfigured for this work, Ostlund didn’t achieve the emotional fierceness of his first couple of dramas, “Involuntary” and “Play”, as well as the objectivity of his latest “Force Majeure”.

Nonetheless, the big winner of Cannes has been conquering many fans with a semi-articulate fusion of deadpan humor, weirdness, and unexpectedness while focusing on themes such as global tolerance and responsiveness toward others, guilt and honor, ego and defeat, and both the influence and the potential dangers of the communication in general, and the social media in particular.

Deploying clean, Nordic-style visuals, Ostlund attempts to examine modern life in our days, with all the personal, professional, and technological implications associated with a civilized community. However, over the course of its drifting 2.5 hours, the film embraces a few outlandish situations that keep oscillating between morally disturbing and irreverently ludicrous. It’s like finding an intersection point between the social mordancy of Roy Andersson's comedy-dramas and the lightest version of Quentin Dupioux’s absurdities. 

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The story was partly inspired by an authentic art installation that both the filmmaker and the renowned producer, Kalle Bolman, had made, and develops into the multiple crises in the life of Christian (Claes Bang), the hypocrite chief curator of a major Swedish art museum. When not working on the publicity of a brand new installation entitled ‘The Square’, a piece described as ‘a sanctuary of trust and caring where, within it, we all share equal rights and obligations’, Christian is taking care of his two daughters or is attempting to locate his stolen cell phone with the help of a geeky employee or is having hot if casual sex with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a weird interviewer who lives with a chimpanzee and insists on collecting the man's condom after having fun. Among a few unexpected scenes, including a man with Tourette's syndrome disturbing an interview and a terrified woman screaming for help in the middle of the street, there is one that deserves to be highlighted, involving an extremist performance artist named Oleg (Terry Notary) who, pretending to be a wild ape, actually attacks people during a museum’s meeting.

Regardless its long duration and wacky side, there are genius moves and several engrossing parts in “The Square”, a film that pushes boundaries by infusing lifelike sequences occasionally peppered with surreal allure.

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The Post (2018)

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Directed by Steven Spielberg
Country: USA

"The Post", a well-depicted journalistic drama based on true events, marks the awaited return of Steven Spielberg to direction, and stars the fantastic duo Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as the main protagonists.
Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (“Spotlight”), the story is a reconstruction of the 1971 battle between Richard Nixon’s government and the respected American journalists of the Washington Post and New York Times, who decided to publish the Pentagon papers that disclose the embarrassing truth behind the Vietnam War. The facts had been concealed from the public for thirty years.

The marvelous Ms. Streep embodies Katherine Graham, the first female newspaper owner and publisher, who has the power of decision when in possession of such incriminatory documents. On one hand, as a person of contacts, she has a few friends in the government that would be implicated in the political scandal, plus the possibility of losing everything her family had built if the major investors withdraw their money; on the other hand, she faces the responsibility of defending press freedom and ensure the true mission of an independent newspaper.

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Persuaded by her tenacious editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Hanks), who got his hard-working team sorting through four thousand unnumbered pages, Katherine, with tears in her eyes and a flickering voice, will have to make the most difficult decision of her life. Pressures and tension are everywhere, from battles for information and revelation of sources to Supreme Court’s deliberations. 

Besides tremendously elucidative, “The Post” is detailed but not boring, triumphant but not ostentatious, disciplined but not tacky. Still, it lacks that emotional knockout punch that other major journalistic films such as “Spotlight” and “All The President’s Men” can brag to have delivered. Hence, if the moments of indecision and resolve are the working organs that make this body of work function correctly, then Meryl Street is both its heart and soul.

Although better in the message than in the art of entertaining, this conspiracy disentanglement is pure respect for freedom and an ode to righteousness. 

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The Shape of Water (2017)

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Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Country: USA

Among the nine features in the filmography of Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, only “The Pan’s Labyrinth” can compete with his newest creation “The Shape of Water”, a dark poem rooted in the most fantastic fairy-tale tradition and stirred by magic, excitement, and strong emotional spins. Impeccably written by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, the film is a successful compound of romance, sci-fi, comedy, drama, and thriller with espionage undertones.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute orphan young woman who loves old musicals and tap dancing, lives alone, above a huge movie theater in 1962 Baltimore. In one of her first scenes, she bursts in sensuality and eroticism, masturbating in the bathtub while immersed in water until the neck. Her best friend is Giles (Richard Jenkins), a solitary middle-aged gay artist who lives next door and struggles both to sell his work and assume his sexual identity. 
 
Elisa works as a janitor at a secret governmental laboratory, teaming up with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a co-worker who is able to interpret effortlessly her gestural language. They suddenly notice an absurd daily increase of blood on the floor of the lab after being told that the facility is about to hold the most sensitive ‘asset’ ever - a humanoid amphibious creature that had been captured in a South American river by the heartless Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Her nosiness is enlarged when Richard, a merciless torturer, loses two fingers, hauled by the raging monster as a response to the electric shocks he was being subjected to.

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While cleaning or visiting in secrecy, she communicates with the perspicacious creature, which, for her surprise, likes music and also deals with emotion. When a strong bond was consolidated between them, the bad news arrives: the creature is to be dissected in order to study possible advantages in spaceflight improvement for the Americans, deeply involved in a fierce competition with the Russians. Suffering a good deal with the idea, Elisa sees no other option than risk herself to save the living thing. She will do it with precious back up from Giles, Zelda, and Dimitri (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy infiltrated as a scientist.

Sank in astounding detail and rich imagery, this bizarre love story gets wildly violent by the end and was devised with all the ingredients needed to entertain throughout without falling into a single dull moment. As a norm, we have the good against the bad; but here, the good ones are truly empathic common mortals with whom we can immediately identify with, while the bad ones become memorable villains, especially Shannon, who gives another tour-de-force performance as an ignoble egotist, sadistic, harasser, and sexist. 

Besides this aspect, we have powerful dynamics, funny lines, and a glamorous soundtrack that ranges from Brazilian samba to romantic waltzes sung in French to expressive chamber orchestrations. Moreover, with Del Toro at his finest, expect to be jaw-dropped with the magnificence of the visuals. Let yourself be hastened into this unforgettable water slide ride.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

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Directed by Martin McDonagh
Country: USA

British-Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”, “Seven Psychopaths”) abandons a five-year hiatus from the big screen to prove with “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, a commendable neo-noir crime film, that his filmmaking abilities matured considerably.

The story earns much of its grip through Frances McDormand, who delivers her best performance since “Fargo”. She compellingly embodies Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who, in an unprecedented way, decides to call the community’s attention for the unsolved murder of her teenage daughter Angela. Her simple-yet-costly strategy consists in renting three decaying billboards, unused since 1986, and give them a new life by questioning directly the small town’s chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) about the seven-month impasse in the solution of the case. She also talks on TV and radio stations, admonishes a priest with an elucidating discourse about culpability, attacks a threatening dentist and three scornful school kids, and makes everybody talk about her. In her stern look, we read: ‘don’t mess with me’.

Chief Willoughby, who is dying of pancreatic cancer, naturally got discomposed but he seems not to be the problem here, demonstrating his willingness to solve the mystery. The real problem is the second-in-command Officer Jason Dickson (Sam Rockwell), a picky, abusive, violent, and alcoholic agent who gets the worse bits of advice from his also alcoholic mother in a small town where being a racist and a homophobic seems customary.

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Through a one-time flashback, we understand that Angela was a difficult teen. We also apprehend the pain and guilt Mildred is immersed into, a desperate state of mind turned into anger and bitterness, and captured by the illustrative frames from the director of photography Ben Davis (“Guardians of the Galaxy”, “Avengers”). Her estranged ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) humiliates her whenever he appears with his obtuse 19-year-old girlfriend while completely overlooking the existence of their depressed son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges). 

Taking a few impactful twists and turns out of his sleeve, McDonagh skillfully channeled the story into a new direction, dropping the pitch-black atmosphere that dominated the first two-thirds of the film to embrace hope and restore the faith in a better world. What he never abdicated was the humor, which frequently transpired from the smart dialogues or uncomfortable postures evinced by the characters. Although remaining true to his own voice, McDonagh’s filmmaking style denoted influences from the Coen brothers and Robert Altman as he thrusts his fictional account at full force, without wasting a single minute in frivolities. 

This tale of retaliation, redemption, and forgiveness, besides constantly spellbinding, has many important things to say. Perhaps the most immediate of them is that you can only learn from something bad if you let your anger go.

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Voyage Of Time: Life's Journey (2017)

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Directed by Terrence Malick
Country: USA / France / Germany

The philosophical viewpoint about the origins and meaning of life by the respected American director Terrence Malick can be truly awesome or extremely boring, depending on your ability to deal with the material. If the fictional existential drama “The Tree of Life” was a deeply intimate experience, his documentary “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey”, despite graphically stunning, got me twisting in my seat from boredom and melancholy.

The imagery is a collage of interspersed segments that comprises animal activity in its most diverse forms, jaw-dropping landscapes in its pristine beauty, colorful cosmic flare-ups such as the Big Bang, a few extravagant prehistoric fantasies, and variegated human interaction that sometimes feels tense and depressing in its cruel reality, and other times joyful and peaceful regardless the backdrop.

The experimental posture allied with the sparse and humdrum narration by Cate Blanchett, whose physical presence is far more pungent than her voice, made me fall into a somnolent state. The poetic intonations are so characteristic of the filmmaker’s late works, and identical word cadences can be found in “To the Wonder” and “Knight of Cups”. The same is valid for the typical dreamlike atmosphere that worked at some point, but becomes tedious along the way. 

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Metaphysical questions are uttered softly and monotonously: “Nature, who am I to you?”, “Mother, where are you? Where have you gone?”, “So much joy! Why not always?", while the parsimonious answers are of the following kind: “Life. Restless. Unsatisfied.”
I believe that Malick’s insistence on sounding theoretical and composed is starting to divide his fans. His filmmaking signature and patterned methodology are unique, and yet, I miss that fluid line of thought that turned “The Tree of Life” and “The Thin Red Line” into dramas of choice. 

In a stoic way, dream and reality mix to take us on a voyage that doesn’t add absolutely anything to what we are, think, or feel about nature and our existence.
The director devised another version of the film for Imax, shortened to 45 minutes and narrated by Brad Pitt. By taking into account this theatrical stumble and the crushing disappointment that came with it, I’m reluctant in checking out the alternative version.

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The Party (2017)

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Directed by Sally Potter
Country: UK

Writer-director Sally Potter (“Orlando”, “Ginger & Rosa”) didn't need more than one hour and eleven minutes to delight us in her stimulating comedy-drama “The Party”, which hilariously depicts a celebratory gathering of bourgeois English friends, who unexpectedly become alienated after a few painful truths have been disclosed. The film, superbly photographed in a lovely black-and-white by Russian Aleksei Rodionov, boasts a precious ensemble cast that includes Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Cillian Murphy, and Emily Mortimer.

The idea is certainly not new, but Ms. Potter added the required amount of facetious lines and created considerable scathing situations to make it completely self-reliant when compared to other movies with similar topics such as “The Celebration”, “Krisha”, and “August, Osage County”.

The story begins with Janet (Thomas), a highly competent politician in the opposition party who made it to the top. She’s holding a small party at her house to celebrate the deserved promotion that made her a UK’s shadow minister. Her husband Bill (Spall), who infallibly supported her in the whole process toward a successful career, is seated in the living room, drinking wine and listening to his old blues records. Drunk and desolated, his eyes are fixed in the vague, and his depressed semblance makes us guess that he’s probably more worried than happy.

The invited friends keep arriving one after another. Each one of them brings something peculiar and interesting scene, hence, there are no tedious or frivolous characters at this celebration. First arrives a fabulous couple composed of April (Clarkson), a former provocative idealist turned into cynical realist, and her German husband, Gottfried (Ganz), a self-proclaimed spiritual healer who deeply annoys his wife, even when meditating with his mouth shut. She plans to separate from him soon. 

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The next is Tom (Murphy), a handsome and wealthy banker who seemed very agitated. He arrived without his wife Maryanne, Janet’s colleague and best friend, but brought cocaine, a pistol, and a glint of madness in his eyes. According to his behavior, one can tell he has a ruinous plan in mind for that night.

In turn, the lesbian couple that follows, Martha (Jones) and Jinny (Mortimer), show up with a radiant smile on their faces, announcing that the latter is going to give birth to three children. This is “the miracle of conception”, derides Gottfried. However, they won’t leave the house in the same mood.

The troubles start when Bill reveals he got a terminal diagnosis from the doctor. As an atheist and a materialist, he doesn’t know how to cope with the situation, asking for Gottfried's help. The discussion goes to many places, from the inefficiency of the Western medicine to past lives, and from karma to faith.

Janet, who also hides her own secrets, got hysterical with the news, becoming furious the next minute when another bomb falls down: Bill is being unfaithful to her, and his lover is Marianne. 

As an exercise in mood, the efficiently edited “The Party” serves as a showcase for the general powerful acting, yet, the film’s heart is Clarkson with her mordant observations and sarcastic postures. Effortlessly gliding between pungent drama and theatrical satire, this is an inspired, fast-paced chamber piece that ends gloriously staggering.

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Wonder Wheel (2017)

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Directed by Woody Allen
Country: USA

You might not believe it, but Woody Allen stumbles again with his latest drama “Wonder Wheel”, starring Kate Winslet, James Belushi, Juno Temple, and Justin Timberlake. Remaining faithful to his promise of releasing one film per year, Allen’s works have been a hit-and-miss case in the last decade. Hence, if last year’s “Cafe Society” was fairly acceptable, “Wonder Wheel” is a bland exercise and a disappointing ode to Coney Island, New York.

Love, both in its reciprocated and unrequited forms, and jealousy, are the main topics here, but they never achieved a real climax or even a sense of purpose, failing roundly to boost a film that started high-powered and ended crawling.

The story focuses on two married women, Ginny (Winslet), 39, and Carolina (Temple), 26, who dispute the same man. The former is a waitress and the wife of Humpty (Belushi), a Coney Island’s carousel operator with an alcohol problem, while the latter is Humpty’s daughter, recently returned home from a failed relationship with a gangster, who now wants her dead.
Carolina reconquers her father’s heart, starts working at the same bar as Ginny, and even attends school at night. She gets along pretty well with her stepmother, who gives her all the support she needs, but their relationship deteriorates abruptly when Ginny’s lover, Mickey (Timberlake), a young lifeguard, writer and poet, falls in love with Carolina on the first moment he sets eyes on her. Moreover, he is deeply intrigued by her personality and fascinated by the past that made her a marked woman for life.

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It’s not the first time, and probably not the last, that Allen sticks to this dull narrative strategy that consists in having the characters talking directly to the camera as if they were talking to you. Although effective in other circumstances, especially comedies and heist films, this removes every bit of realness a drama might have, since they seem constantly reminding you that the persons you're seeing are just fictional characters.
Ginny starts eating her heart out when the innocent Carolina asks for advice about Mickey. The charming man first denies everything to his lover, but opens up with his new friend, whom he truly loves, about the complicated situation he is.

Adopting a bitchy pose, Ginny, who also has to deal with a pyromaniac child, shows signs of a breakdown, and yet, she’s capable of everything to recover her boy.
Wonder Wheel” gets terribly melodramatic as the story proceeds and brutally stagey by the end. The last conversation between Ginny and Mickey is absolutely ridiculous and the depleted sequences continue until the credits roll. It’s the ending of our discontentment!
Plus, the Dixie jazz tune ‘Coney Island Washboard’ by the Mills Brothers runs too often, becoming more aggravating than bracing. This wheel is a blunder… not a wonder!

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Darkest Hour (2017)

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Directed by Joe Wright
Country: USA

The politically correct “Darkest Hour”, showcasing a memorable performance by Gary Oldman as the UK’s former prime minister Winston Churchill, is a weighty and eloquent historical drama film about a visionary leader whose ideas were not always well accepted or understood.

Director Joe Wright, an expert in period dramas (“Pride & Prejudice”, “Atonement”, “Anna Karenina”), returns to the right path after a terrible experience in the family/adventure genre with “Pan”. Teaming up for the first time with the screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”), the filmmaker assures that his conversational ‘war’ film flows with an assertive and coruscating narrative.

In 1940, when the allies were attempting to strategize a plan to face the European invasions of Nazi Germany, the then British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), considered inapt by the opposition to defend the kingdom, resigns. It’s his right to point out a substitute, and his preference falls in Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who declines the offer. The only man tailored for the position that is available is Winston Churchill. However, instead of passive measures based on negotiations with the enemy, he vindicates a risky yet ambitious counter-attack plan to deal with the situation, which is particularly delicate in the French cities of Dunkirk and Calais, locations with stranded British troops. For him, in that specific case, peace means weakness, and therefore, he is ready to fight tooth and nail to convince everyone that his strategy is the most adequate.

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Offering nothing but blood, toil, tears, and sweat, the confident Churchill, who despite irascible in his speech can be very humorous, takes his responsibility seriously and manages to make the skeptical King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) a believer of his cause, as well as the entire Parliament.

Despite counting on the support of his wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), and the professional dedication of his new typewriter, Miss Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), of whom he grew a special fondness, Churchill has some difficult moments in which he almost disintegrates emotionally. Wright’s proficient visual sequences effortlessly display this human frailty, as genuinely as he portraits his fiery political side. The camerawork is precise if expeditious at times, moving from one face to another with a glorious sense of inquest.

Gary Oldman, giving an Oscar-worthy performance, has the perfect command of his role, even when the scenes are not so incisive, like when Churchill decides to make contact with the people in the London Underground.

Darkest Hour” is, in truth, a polished war film where the action is purely wordy. And it worked!

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Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Country: Italy 

The praiseworthy dramas of Italian director Luca Guadagnino always give us something to think about and to remember. Usually, the mature stories he addresses are set in his country of origin, involving local and foreign characters, whose experiences are unhurriedly depicted with a true heart and a non-judgmental posture.

If the British Tilda Swinton was the star in the previous installments of his Desire trilogy, “I Am Love” and “The Bigger Splash”, the American actor Armie Hammer was the one to appear in the bold final installment, “Call Me By Your Name”. 

Hammer is Oliver, a handsome 24-year-old anthropology doctorate who arrives at the Northern Italian countryside to intern for six weeks with professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a summit in the field.
The year is 1983, and the sun abundantly bathes the beautiful villa of the Perlmans. All the members of this American Jewish family are excited to receive the also American Jewish Oliver, with the exception of the 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the professor’s eldest son, who sees his privacy compromised and his comfort dimmed. Besides sharing the bathroom with the guest, he was politely forced to offer his room either. It’s perceptible that Elio is a bit annoyed by Oliver's arrogance and carefree posture. However, on the other hand, he becomes very attracted to this man, whose sociable nature, self-confidence, and irresistible charm have a magnetic effect on him.
 
Both the adult and the teenager flirt with girls. The older one with the local Chiara (Victoire Du Bois), and the younger with his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel), a Parisienne around his age, who is experiencing love for the first time. But the compulsive seduction game between the men keeps happening as their desire grows without dissimulation or fears. This is naturally depicted rather than forced.

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Despite having sharp eyes, Elio’s lenient parents don’t meddle directly in their son’s affairs. They seem inattentive and a bit detached, with the housekeeper, Mafalda (Vanda Capriolo), assuming the authority and rebuking Elio whenever he deserves.
Yet, this initial perception has proven to be false, since the couple, aware of the special bond between their son and their guest, suggest they take a farewell trip to Bologna.
 
The drama is filled with raw emotions and evinces an incredible honesty in terms of storytelling. The filmmaking style, evoking the wonderfully languid cinema of Eric Rohmer and Bernardo Bertolucci, reflects, even more, the vivid three-dimensionality of the characters. Guadagnino did an amazing job with John Ivory’s script, an adaptation of André Aciman’s novel of the same name, and was granted with superior performances by Chalamet and Hammer in order to bring to the surface any emotional complexity that their words couldn't express. 

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, opted to shoot in 35-mm to accurately capture the sexual awakening of a young man, who, at the end, becomes inconsolable, suffering violently with the loss of his first true love. Who hadn’t been there?

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