Night Comes On (2018)

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Directed by Jordana Spiro

Country: USA

Jordana Spiro initially made me regain confidence in the indie style with the drama “Night Comes On”. However, she kind of disappointed me in the end. Spiro and her convincing stars, Dominique Fishback and Tatum Marilyn Hall, build a detailed, dramatic tension until the final minutes when the story ends abruptly in an unimaginative redemption.

Fishback and Hall play Angel and Abby Lamere, 17 and 10, respectively, two sisters who get together again after the former is freed from juvenile detention, where she spent 2 years for drug use, shoplifting, and unlawful possession of a handgun. She goes after their father, a former recluse who did time for murdering their mother. The only thing we learn about the case is that he grew meaner after losing his job. Angel, who used to dream of being a teacher, seems incapable to forgive him and conceals a gun with the intention to make him vanish for good from the face of the earth.

In spite of that, the beautiful complicity between Angel and Abby, who had been entrusted to foster care after the incident, and the tender moments they spent together on an eventful trip to Long Island Beach impels the story to make a turn from its initial direction.

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Gladly, Spiro, who co-wrote the script with the founder of Instagram-based media company The Shade Room, Angelica Nwandu, is not an apologist of a static camera, making us search constantly and avidly for something more while reinforcing Angel’s loss of innocence and family trauma as well as Abby’s puberty-related changes.

There is nothing new or striking here, but rather emphatically emotional, in a film about decisions that never quite convinces in terms of a hypothetical revenge. Nevertheless, this is an auspicious directorial debut for Ms. Spiro, an actor turned director who gave the best instructions to her inspiring young muses.

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Adrift (2018)

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Directed by: Baltazar Kormakur

Country: USA / Iceland / Hong Kong

Adrift” is an uneven survival drama co-produced and directed by a connoisseur in the genre, the Icelandic Baltasar Kormakur (“The Deep”, “Everest”). It was loosely based on the true events endured by a young couple caught by the category-four Hurricane Raymond while sailing from Tahiti to San Diego in 1983. Shailene Woodley (“The Fault in Our Stars”, “Divergent”) stars as Tami Oldham Ashcraft, a brave woman who, alone in the sea, manages to stay alive after massive waves have erupted from the depths of the Pacific Ocean.

Having been 27 hours unconscious due to a blow on her head, Tami wakes up just to realize that her fiancé, Richard (Sam Claflin), was gone, probably swallowed by the tempestuous sea. However, she started to believe in miracles in the minute she catches sight of him on a small rubber boat that keeps floating not so far from their ruined 44-foot yacht Hazana. Visibly disturbed, Richard has a leg shattered and some broken ribs, showing no reaction to her talking. How could this have been possible? Is Tami’s fertile imagination working in her favor or a miracle actually happened? The truth is that Tami survived 41 days adrift, eating canned fruit salad and sardines.

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The inspiring reality was monotonically scripted by the Kandell twins (“Moana”) together with David Branson Smith (“Ingrid Goes West”), and wasn’t convincingly adapted to the screen, drowning fast in clumsy procedures and obtuse lines. Recurring to inevitable yet disruptive flashbacks to show us how the couple had met five years before, Kormakur creates tragic/romantic momentum without ever going too deep.

Consequently, the film shapes into an exhausting melodrama instead of the harrowing, devastating adventure that everybody was expecting. A punch-less attitude from the director, who makes us suspicious about what his next step is going to be.

What saves “Adrift” from an instant wreckage is Woodley’s performance, but still, it’s preferable to read the facts than cope with its cinematic adaptation.

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Who We Are Now (2018)

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Directed by Matthew Newton

Country: USA

In Matthew Newton’s drama film, “Who We Are Now”, we learn about the dismal circumstances in the life of Beth (Julianne Nicholson – “I Tonya”), who struggles with social reintegration after ten years spent in jail. Although rehabilitated from drug addiction, the weight of a tumultuous past marked by manslaughter impedes her to get the custody of her son. The legal battle is against her own sister, Gabby (Jess Weixler) and her husband, who became the legal guardians of the child. The latter doesn’t even know that ‘aunt’ Beth, a complete stranger to him, is, in fact, his biological mother.

A dedicated public defender, Carl (Jimmy Smits), is sensitive to her cause, but can’t do much to help, especially after Gabby's legal action to prevent her from having any contact with her son. Too many unannounced visits and a public scene were motives for the decision. However, Carl’s ambitious protégé, junior litigator Jess (Emma Roberts), undertakes Beth’s litigation on her own. There is more than one reason to explain this rare act. One has to do with the sudden frustration that escalated in Jess after a juvenile inmate has committed suicide. Also, to avoid the daily torment of dealing with and listening to her manipulative, arrogant mother (Lea Thompson). Hence, on one hand, we have a mother anxiously waiting to get her son back, and on the other, we have a daughter underestimated by her mother.

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Beth is working in a nail salon, which doesn't provide her enough income to live properly. So, there wasn't a hesitation when she offered sexual favors to get a decent job. It didn’t work though. The only thing that seems favorable in her life is a new romance with Pete (Zachary Quinto), a lonely soldier who went to Afghanistan for several missions and now suffers from PTSD.

There is nothing fanciful or odd in Newton’s story. The self-acceptance and courage of the two main characters make them admirable women. True fighters with opposite personalities and particular family backgrounds are united by an inexplicable bond that gets stronger as they open up more about their lives. If Roberts does an acceptable job by giving shape to a more rigid, conventional character, then Nicholson is fabulous as she transpires veracity in every scene she appears.

Even monochromatic in mood and driven by a neat filmmaking style, the film has Newton crafting terrific moments as well as a surprising finale centered in a tremendously unselfish act of love that will make you think for a long moment.

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Tully (2018)

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Directed by Jason Reitman
Country: USA

In Jason Reitman’s slow-burning “Tully”, Charlize Theron plays Marlo, an exhausted mother of three who goes through a middle-age crisis related to her most recent conception. Moreover, her quirky son Jonah needs a one-to-one aid but the school doesn’t pay for that service and the complaints about him seem to increase every day. Depressed and overwhelmed, her life changes for the better when her brother Craig (Mark Duplass) gets her an efficient if weird night nanny. Her name is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), an extravagant creature that soon forges an atypical bond with her employer, which can be either reparative or destructive. 

All of a sudden, Marlo is calmer, less stressed and confident. She even hangs out with Tully in her old neighborhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn; and weirder than that, she deviates her from the regular tasks to sexually stimulate her husband Drew (Ron Livingston), who has a fetish for women in 1950s diner waitress uniforms. 

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The night they go out starts with an amusing drive at the sound of Cindy Lauper, but becomes severely toxic when they arrive at an underground club and the drunk Marlo jumps in sync with clangorous heavy-metal rhythms and then endures pain due to engorged breasts. However, that pain was infinitesimal when compared to the afflicting news that Tully is quitting. 

This time, Reitman’s first-call writer Diablo Cody, who successfully penned “Juno” and “Young Adult”, couldn't guarantee him a favorable outcome. Playing with the tricks of the mind, “Tully” feels more contrived than astute, having the skilled group of actors working hard to avoid further damage. 

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Upgrade (2018)

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Directed by Leigh Whannell
Country: Australia

The first interesting film by the Australian-born actor turned director Leigh Whannell is “Upgrade”, an effective dark blend of action, sci-fi, and horror that may be too moody for everyone’s taste.

The story revolves around Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a chip-controlled mechanic that seeks revenge in the sequence of a mugging that left him quadriplegic and killed his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo). After an unsuccessful attempt of suicide, Trace accepts the help of an opaque tech expert named Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), who implants a highly-developed artificial intelligence chip in his spine. STEM, the chip, makes him physically active again but also controls his mind and talks to him (Simon Maiden’s voice) by sending sound waves directly to his eardrum. However, he needs the host’s permission to act as a brute force against those who destroyed his life.

Along the way, he gets rid of Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel), a suspicious mind who doesn’t cease to stalk him; has Jamie (Kai Bradley), a savvy hacker, rebooting his dying system; and hunts down the evil upgrader Fisk (Benedict Hardie).

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The well-told “Upgrade” maintains the dystopian vibrancy until the end, compensating the less vivid moments with a subtle dark humor that fits hand in glove.

With Marshall-Green in top form, expect violent scenes throughout and rip-roaring disclosures, strategically left for the final section.

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Hostiles (2018)

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Directed by Scott Cooper
Country: USA

Scott Cooper launched his directorial career with a powerful drama, “Crazy Heart”, but since then has gradually lost élan. If his crime thrillers: the fictional “Out of the Furnace” and the biographic “Black Mass”, still carry some sagacity, then he stumbles heavily with “Hostiles”, a sloppy Western based on a promising story by Donald E. Stewart that, cinematically speaking, barely stands on its feet.

Christian Bale spearheads a cast that also includes Rosamund Pike as a grievous widower whose soul burns with a deep rage after having lost her family in an Indian ambush. However, they were incapable to elevate the film above mediocrity.

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Protracted, deficiently paced, and lugubrious, “Hostiles” eludes the viewer with limited action and redundant scenes that disclaim any favorable outcome of a well-intentioned cooperation between a merciless US Cavalry Captain (Bale) and a captive Cheyenne Chief  (Wes Studi, a Cherokee actor from Oklahoma) and his family. The enemies are the savage Comanches, whose sudden attacks become the only source of excitement. 

Unfortunately, and despite the strong appeal to tolerance between races, the insouciant, inept ways of Cooper make us despair throughout a journey into the West that, feeling as tiresome as it is shallow, could never be considered inviting.

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Sollers Point (2018)

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Directed by Matthew Porterfield
Country: USA

Matthew Porterfield’s “Sollers Point” depicts social reintegration in a problematic environment corroded by unemployment and racism.

Keith Cohoe (McCaul Lombardi) is a 24-year-old con who has been living under home arrest in suburban Baltimore for nine months due to drug dealing. Hot-tempered and fan of heavy metal music, Keith lives with his father, Carol (James Belushi), a retired employee of the long gone Bethlehem Steel Plant, with whom he maintains an uneasy relationship. Even allowed to leave the house now, he continues in probation, so he mustn’t leave the state, a move he would take for sure since the atmosphere in the city is not ideal for him to get back on his feet.

Love, consolation, and support come from his benevolent grandmother, who offers to pay for his studies. However, he just wants to work and lead a decent life, an enormous challenge in a city that lacks opportunities. Moreover, his former gang mates, all black haters, keep stalking him as they see his transformation as a rejection. Segregation is a sad reality and the conflict is inevitable, especially with Aaron (Tom Guiry), who has to be pushed back by Keith’s Afro-American friend Marquis (Brieyon Bell-El) and his little crowd.

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Keith’s amorous life is also an issue. He continues deeply attached to his ex-girlfriend, Courtney (Zazie Beetz), also an African American, despite having an open relationship with Jessie (Everleigh Brenner), a local stripper. Lacking the financial resources that would allow him to have an independent life, Keith gets trapped in a series of perils that make him realize he might have no other option than reconnect with the gang of drug dealers. The inescapability of the milieu leads to inconsiderate actions and his initial plan dampens with gloominess.

After a slowly developed first section, the low-key indie drama gets some grittiness coming from the hostile relationships, leading us to an offbeat finale that, understandably, may be classified as pointless or unsatisfying by many viewers. 

Porterfield, who hails from Baltimore himself, extracts convincing emotions from the simplest scenes, pursuing the understated rather than the boisterous. The decreased intensity and long-suffering nature of the film are not obstructive since Keith’s frustration feels authentic and the backdrop/atmosphere painfully realistic.

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The Rider (2018)

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Directed by Chloé Zhao
Country: USA

The sophomore feature from Chinese writer-director Chloé Zhao ("Songs My Brothers Taught Me”), “The Rider”, is an impressive documentary-style drama film, whose soulfulness and elegance dazzle. Serving as a backdrop for this true story is the eroded arid region of South Dakota.

By employing non-professional actors, who actually play themselves in the film, Ms. Zhao manages to shape “The Rider” as an authentic emotional journey that is as much gripping as it is true to life. Brady Jandreau deserves credit for the formidable performance as Brady Blackburn, a Native American cowboy and local rodeo star who, after a severe accident, is forced to abandon what he likes the most: to ride and compete. As a consequence of a deep skull fracture, which caused brain damage, he struggles with motor difficulties in one hand and occasional seizures that will likely become worse if he doesn’t stop to ride completely. However, he barely can resist to that unbending impulse of mounting on a horse. 

His eyes reflect all the sadness and he only opens up a bit with his younger sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), a fifteen-year-old who has Asperger’s syndrome. He maintains a cold relationship with his father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau), an old-school horse expert and now a widower. Yet, despite Wayne's drinking and gambling problems, we can tell there’s love between them. It’s just a matter of letting it out.

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There’s not much to do in the vast fields and Ray, besides accepting a few minor jobs as a horse trainer, starts working as a cashier in a supermarket in order to adjust the financial needs of his family. When hanging out with friends - drinking, smoking weed, and singing a mix of pop and country songs - he forgets the troubles for a little while. However, it’s becoming extremely burdensome for him to cope with his situation. This is exacerbated by his regular visits to a medical facility to see a friend, Lane Scott, who got paralyzed and became speechless after a rodeo accident. Ray will learn important things from him, including never giving up on his dreams. But can he just stop, let it go, and move on?

There is an infinite sadness involving Zhao’s “The Rider” but also an immeasurable humanity. What happened to Ray truly broke my heart, maybe because I value a lot the things I like to do. This powerful, quiet, and confessed drama with shades of Western will give you much more than what you are expecting. It’s a treasure and already a favorite of mine in the contemporary drama genre.

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The Escape (2018)

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Directed by Dominic Savage
Country: UK

The sophomore feature film from Dominic Savage, “The Escape”, shows that the British director has a penchant for depicting conflictive relationships with decent levels of maturity. The director had an interesting debut in 2005 with “Love+Hate” and since then has been dedicated to TV movies and series.

This subtly aching new drama is set in suburban London and follows a thirty-something housewife and mother of two, Tara (Gemma Arterton), who is extremely unhappy in her marriage, and whose life becomes more and more draining and pointless. Her daily routine includes taking care of the kids, do the housecleaning, make dinner, and be available for her unmindful husband Mark (Dominic Cooper), who assures a good financial stability but cannot see the lamentable emotional state she got into.

It’s sad to realize that this intelligent woman cries while forcing herself to please the sexual appetites of her selfish partner. There are no signs of pleasure or joy in her expression and their relationship gradually becomes poisoned by bitterness and resentment. Suffocated, she ends up taking her anger out on the innocent kids, showing that her emotional fortitude reached a very low level.

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She seems not to have close friends and the only person with whom she talks to, from time to time, is her nonchalant mother, who states she’s just going through a phase. Suffocated and determined to do something more with her life, Tara flees from home and heads to Paris, where she has a romantic adventure with a local photographer, Phillipe (Jalil Lespert). The chemistry between the two is palpable, but is this the affair she needs?

Despite Arterton’s outstanding performance, the film weakens considerably in its last section. In a frustrating way, the drama stalls in terms of fluency after the main character’s self-imposed freedom. Hence, the solidly built oppression that comes from the household becomes the film's emotional peak. This undeniable decrescendo of enthrallment tells us that "The Escape" is a fair drama that could have been better.

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In Syria (2018)

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Directed by Philippe Van Leeuw
Country: Lebanon / Belgium / France

The thorns of war are brutally stinging in “In Syria”, a drama film impeccably mounted by the Belgian cinematographer turned director Philippe Van Leeuw (“The Day God Walked Away”).

The internationally known Israeli-Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (“Blade Runner 2049”, “The Visitor”, “Lemon Tree”) is Oum Yazan, a courageous mother who gets trapped in her apartment in Damascus with merciless snipers surrounding the building. She is in the company of her three children, her depressed father-in-law Abou Monzer (Mohsen Abbas), her daughter’s boyfriend Karim (Elias Khatter), the housemaid, Delhani (Juliette Navis), and a recently married couple, Samir (Moustapha Al Kar) and Halima (Diamand Bou Abboud), who live in the apartment above hers but were forced to move out when a bomb hit their living room. This couple has a newborn to protect and the perilous situation they’re going through doesn’t leave them a better option than fleeing from the city. After all, food and water are not abundant, and the place is constantly under menace.

With her husband away on a mission and numerous roadblocks hampering the free circulation, Oum uses all the matriarch’s authority to make sure everyone obeys her strict orders, especially in the case of a sudden attack. However, despite her tenacity and controlling nature, there was nothing she could do to prevent Salim to go out and be shot, after which he was left in the parking lot. Another helpless situation occurred when two men broke into the apartment and caught a resistless Halima off-guard. 

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In the throes of this harrowing, devastating scenario, the slightest good-natured and funny circumstance, even very limited in number, is felt as an urgent gratification. Thus, it was quite comforting to see the beautiful relationship and strong bond between Abou and his naughty grandson, who loves to prank him from time to time.

Shot in Lebanon, this splendidly acted film - some of the non-professional actors are real Syrian refugees - replicates the daily horrors lived by those threatened with their lives, and concludes with the disquiet uncertainties with which the Syrian people currently endure. Anger, guilt, and anguish become inevitably present in a tumultuous, anarchic world that every true man should be ashamed of.

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The 12th Man (2018)

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Directed by Harald Zwart
Country: Norway

Films about authentic heroes with keen survival instincts and an extreme capacity for resilience usually provide solid entertainment. Danny Boyle’s "127 Hours", Baltasar Kormakur’s "The Deep", Sean Penn’s "Into the Wild", and Kevin Macdonald’s "Into The Void" are some acknowledged cases of cinematic success.

The historical war thriller "The 12th Man", written by Petter Skavlan (Kon-Tiki) and directed by Harald Zwart, was underpinned by another amazing fact-based story that, even far from the titles cited above, is worth watching.

Set in Norway, the account follows Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad), the only saboteur from a group of twelve that survived the Nazis in the winter of 1943 after their boat has sunk. Emphasizing the priceless courage of the local population, the director depicts Baalsrud as a modest hero and a noble patriot. A model of determination, this Resistance fighter, despite forced to sacrifice some gangrened toes due to the extreme cold, ultimately reaches his goal: to cross the border into neutral Sweden. Blessed by the heavens, he couldn’t have made it without the help of a few inestimable friends, including an old midwife and the Gronvolls - siblings Gudrun (Marie Blokhus) and Marius (Mads Sjogard Pettersen). Their assistance was of the most importance, so he could elude the unremitting manhunt mounted by Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an inflexible, hostile SS officer who always knew he was not chasing a ghost but a real man.

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Curiously, Arne Skouen had depicted this same story in 1957 in his Oscar-nominated drama "Nine Lives". At the time, it was Jack Fjeldstad who embodied the protagonist.

Although competent in terms of storytelling, the most impressive aspect of the film was its visual impact, with some severe scenes causing discomfort. But it’s also a jolt when we think that these occurrences actually happened. The question is: with which level of accuracy? Regardless of the answer and a cliché here and there, Zwart did his job accordingly. Even perceiving how this cat-and-mouse game would end up, we have the bitter Scandinavian cold acting like an enemy as lethal as the merciless Germans.

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Let The Sunshine In (2018)

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Directed by Claire Denis
Country: France

French director Claire Denis created her own niche of fans with thoughtful dramas like "Beau Travail", "The Intruder", "35 Shots of Rhum", and "White Material". She now returns in top form, after two documentaries and one short, with an engrossing story adapted from the 1977 text A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes. Juliette Binoche is an unquiet, emotionally unstable Parisian artist who desperately needs true love to survive. Isabelle is indeed a difficult divorcee who dreams of the perfect love. However, the men she picks are usually married, volatile in their emotions and decisions, and not so accessible as she would like them to be. 

At the same time that she closes one door to the despicable banker Vincent Briot (Xavier Beauvois, director of "Of Gods and Men" at his best), who is only interested in the pleasures of life and informs her he could never leave his wife, she opens another one to a successful younger actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who seems as nearly disorientated with his life as she is with hers. There’s also Mathieu (Philippe Katerine), a cordial, wealthy and single neighbor who keeps inviting her to spend some days with him in an estate in the countryside. She doesn’t pay so much attention to him as she keeps searching for something spicier in her relationships. 

Social class is also a factor that weighs in her evaluation of men. Hence, her preference goes to Marc (Alex Descas), a circumspect 50-year-old fellow artist, instead of the ordinary Sylvain (Paul Blain), with whom she flirted one night just for fun. She has nothing to lose in probing different relationships, but life can get dramatically tortuous when you don’t get what you’re looking for.

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Lonely, frustrated, and somewhat depressive, Isabelle can’t be blamed for feeling jealous of one of her best friends, Ariane (Sandrine Dumas), whose amorous life is better than ever. Maybe that’s why she embarked on inconsequent sexual encounters with her ex-husband François (Laurent Grévill), who now takes care of their 10-year-old daughter. Isabelle acts with indifference in regard to the kid. Her general dissatisfaction and inconstant mood consume so much energy from her that she can’t help crying alone.

Be aware that this is not a romantic film. It’s exactly the opposite. The self-assured Ms. Denis, who collaborated with Christine Angot in the script, takes the path of success by making it deliciously complex and witty. Her detailed observations are meticulously transposed to the screen through a fantastic Binoche, incredibly compelling in her performance, and the outstanding supporting cast. 

The finale is simultaneously droll and trenchant, with a 10-minute appearance from Gerard Depardieu as a spiritual counselor. His own relationship with his partner also reached an impasse. Yet, he talks in circles until drawing a smile from Isabelle out of a false hope. Can she let the sunshine into her life? I have serious doubts. Denis’ most diaphanous work to date is a subtle, powerful, and intelligent look at human relationships and society.

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The Lightest Darkness (2018)

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Directed by Diana Galimzyanova
Country: Russia

Spurred by film-noir momentum and Kafkian conundrum, “The Lightest Darkness” is a visually strong neo-noir thriller that promises much but gives little. If the black-and-white cinematography by Svetlana Makarova and Alexey Petrushkevich deserves accolade, then the script, penned by debutant Russian director Diana Galimzyanova, is parched in emotion. She evokes the mood and tones of Hitchcock’s “Strangers On a Train” and Kawalerowicz’s “Night Train”, but the effort ends up deprived of real tension.

In the fictional City of N., two women take a dangerous train trip, knowing that the Fruiterer, an undisclosed serial killer who only kills at night, is on board. The fearless women are Arina (Irina Gevorgyan), an obstinate screenwriter who is currently seeking crime-related inspiration for a new video game, and Elina (Marina Voytuk), a self-reliant pianist who witnessed the last killing. Sharing the car with these two powerful female presences is Musin (Rashid Aitouganov), an insomniac, neurotic, and heavily traumatized private detective whose fluctuant behavior leads us to believe he may be the killer. Moreover, he is riding on the same train for six months.  

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The story, told backwards with the help of hazy flashbacks, pushes us to a puzzling mystery that gets lost in an idle conversational mode. As an alternative to suspense, Ms. Galimzyanova dabbles in human psychology and mysticism when she introduces Izolda (Kolya Neukoelln), a sinister Holistic experimenter who is strictly connected with voodoo and spiritism. She is the therapist of the attention-seeking Lyubov (Kseniya Zemmel), the missing woman whom Musin was hired to find. However, instead of focusing on his goal, he gets emotionally involved with the manipulative therapist.

Lacking a proper climax and shattered by plot holes, the film takes us to narrow train hallways and inconsequent therapy sessions, both of which are far from being exciting. Moreover, none of the characters earned my sympathy or piqued any sort of curiosity, not even in regard to their enigmatic yet muddled pasts. Thus, watching “The Lightness Darkness” was a limited experience that failed to give something more than just visual pleasure.

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The Insult (2018)

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Directed by Ziad Doueiri
Country: Lebanon / France / other

The Insult” is a drama film immersed in political complexity and racial antagonism. It was directed by Ziad Doueiri (“The Attack”), who co-wrote with Joelle Touma, and stars Adel Karam and Kamel El Basha as a Christian Lebanese and a Palestinian refugee, respectively, who, taking their pride to an extreme, have their personal squabble taken to court.

The story is set in Beirut, where Toni Hanna (Karam) runs a car garage with the help of his expecting wife Shirine (Rita Hayek). He is an angered Lebanese who tries to cope with a traumatic childhood pelted with the violence of war. Yesser Salameh (El Basha) is a competent, hardworking Palestinian foreman who works legally for a local construction company and lives in a refugee camp mounted for those known as ‘the niggers of the Arabs’. Their destinies cross, not without friction, when construction begins on the road where Toni lives.

The provocative Toni certainly doesn’t look for peace when he confronts Yesser, who, in response, insults him with a simple “fucking prick”. Curiously, it’s not the weight of the words that causes indignation but who is saying those words. The local man demands an apology, a very difficult step for Yesser, who lives with the feeling that every Lebanese look down on him. In this particular situation, he is right because Toni humiliates him once more. The exasperated Yesser loses his temper and uses violence in an uncontrolled impulse, sending Toni to the hospital with two broken ribs.

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The men end up in a legal dispute, where the question about who is the aggressor and who is the victim emerges. Verbal racism has to be proved, so Yesser can continue living in the country that shelters him. Judge Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Boy Abboud) is the one to defend him and prove his innocence. She finds herself in a tug-of-war with her own father, the more experienced pre-Christian Judge Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh). The media attention around the story increases the tension between Christian Lebanese and Palestinians, attaining unimaginable proportions to the point of requiring the President’s intervention.
 
The Insult” was built with uneven scenes that routinely sway between perspicacious and debilitated. Doueiri opted to mix the emotional-conversational approach of Asghar Farhadi with mediocre courtroom scenes. I got a clear notion that I was being manipulated on several occasions without being given real answers. 

Notwithstanding, considerable insight about the open wounds left by a devastating Middle East crisis was gleaned. And these wounds are not the most obvious. 
While the direction was unexceptional, the credible performances elevated a film trying to justify the acts of its characters through a chain of emotional states that relate to trauma, loss, rancor, prejudice, and violence.

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Unsane (2018)

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Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Country: USA

Steven Soderbergh is one of those directors whose unconventional style could easily incorporate an iPhone as a working tool. In “Unsane”, a so-so psychological thriller, he has indeed used an iPhone 7 Plus with satisfactory results, yet incapable of beating Sean Baker and his absolutely delightful “Tangerine”.
Hence, there was nothing wrong with the frames captured by Soderbergh here, but the film would have been stronger if the screenplay, penned by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer (“Just My Luck” and “The Spy Next Door”), hadn’t covered so many holes with a viscous absurdity. 

Clare Foy is the real star here, impersonating Boston-born, Pennsylvania-based Sawyer Valentini, a psychologically unstable woman who resolves to test her own delusional mind by committing to an obscure program in the Highland Creek Behavioral Center. Surrounded by insane people, Sawyer is forced to remain in the center against her will due to a terrible mistake. She also finds out that an old stalker and harasser from Boston, David Strine (Joshua Leonard), is a staff member.

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Despite the distressing relationship with her quarrelsome roommate Violet (a Rastafarian-haired Juno Temple), she befriends Nate (Jay Pharoah), a sane patient who lends her his cellphone from time to time and explains to her the center’s fraudulent scheme to collect insurance money at the cost of involuntary patients. 

Haunted by demons from a very recent past and having the obsessive David around to control her moves, will Sawyer be able to return to her ‘normal’ life? Can her wealthy mother, Angela (Amy Irving), save her from the hands of a tormentor and the filthy corrupt system that holds her captive?

Many situations are conducted with a comedic touch, sometimes dark and somber, whereas the finale comes wrapped in ferocious brutality. The whole idea, as an experiment, is interesting, but the film lacks in credibility what it gains in boldness. Even pushed to the limit through multiple contrived situations and with limited thrills, there is an urgency to see how things will develop.

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Gemini (2018)

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Directed by Aaron Katz
Country: USA

I see Aaron Katz’s “Gemini” as a boring C movie. The director, a Portland native, caught my attention in the past with pretty solid moves, cases of the mystery-drama “Cold Weather” and the amusing road trip comedy “Land Ho!”.

Carrying insipid erotic tones, this unemotional new drama turned into a bland detective story stars Zoë Kravitz (daughter of rock star Lenny Kravitz) and Lola Kirke (“Mistress America”), respectively Heather Anderson, an ennuied movie celebrity, and Jill LeBeau, her loyal personal assistant. After a last-minute refusal to participate in a Hollywood movie that had been in production for five years, Heather makes a bunch of people furious, including Greg (Nelson Franklin), the writer-director, and Jamie (Michelle Forbes), her agent.

Out of the blue and without a purpose, the actress borrows a gun from Jill, who shoots it accidentally in the morning of the same day that she found her friend lying dead on the floor of her own apartment with five bullets in her body. Not only the characters mentioned above threatened to kill her but also her sly ex-boyfriend Devin (Reeve Carney), who desperately seeks an alibi for the night of the murder. Just in case.

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Other persons who have interacted with her recently are Stan (James Ransone), an extremely impertinent paparazzo, top model Tracy (Greta Lee), our celebrity’s secret new girlfriend, and a nosy fan who upset her with a forbidden question about her love life. The one in charge of the murder case is Detective Edward Han (John Cho), who seemed too condescending and trivial in his procedures to solve it efficiently.

Gemini” reveals a blatant tackiness in the way the scenes are mounted and delivers extremely poor dialogues. Although talented, Katz ran out of ideas for his latest effort, arranging the scenes frivolously and setting highly inconsistent moods throughout. According to one of the characters, three factors lead to a killer - motive, opportunity, and capacity. In my eyes, Katz overlooked all of them.

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Doubtful (2018)

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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.

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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.

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Thoroughbreds (2018)

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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. 

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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.

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The Bookshop (2018)

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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.

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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.

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The Valley (2017)

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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.

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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.

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