Burning (2018)

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Directed by Lee Chang-dong
Country: South Korea

The films of Lee Chang-dong (“Peppermint Candy”, “Oasis”, “Poetry”), one of the most esteemed filmmakers from South Korea, are usually layered in a way that requires some patience from the viewer. If you are able to cope with slow developments and dive in Chang-dong’s detached, breezy flow that gradually shapes his characters, it is almost certain you’ll be rewarded in the end. And that’s exactly what you get in the peaceful “Burning”, a skilled cinematic adaptation of a short story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.

Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a confessed adept of William Faulkner, aspires to write his first novel short time after earning a degree in creative writing. He lives in Paju, on the border with North Korea, where he grew up practically alone, taking care of the family’s farm. His mother left when he was still a kid because of the stubbornness and irascible character of his father, a war vet who was sent to prison for physical aggression to an officer.

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One day, while working part-time in Seoul, Jong-su runs into Hae-mi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seo), a former neighbor and classmate who secretly had a crush on him. Before Hae-mi’s trip to Africa, they sleep together, also agreeing that Jong-su will come to Seoul to feed her cat while she’s away. In her apartment, he masturbates looking at her picture, but his hope of having her in his arms again becomes questionable with the arrival of Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy man whom he calls ‘Great Gatsby’. This vague, unprincipled man likes to break the rules and doesn’t recall of crying at any stage of his luxurious life. He lives to entertain himself and provide amusement to his upper-class friends through recurrent social gatherings that take place in his apartment.

Combining the unruffled, quotidian spell of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s dramas with the pertinent observation of Jia Zhangke’s contemporary themes, the film burns slowly until the moment when Hae-mi vanishes without a trace. It then gains momentum, moving confidently toward a surprising climax. The resplendent soundtrack, which includes a Miles Davis’ tune, and the naturalistic performances make a significant contribution to the success of this achingly poignant meditation on passion, in its strangest forms.

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Hereditary (2018)

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Directed by Ari Aster
Country: USA

Technically remarkable and boasting a qualified narrative, “Hereditary” buzzes delirium and supernatural horror, becoming a serious candidate to win this year’s best film in its category. The film was inventively written and compellingly directed by debutant Ari Aster, a name to have in mind from now, whose work highly benefitted from the outstanding performances by Toni Colette, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro, and Alex Wolff.

The film’s power comes from the tension build-up, the dollhouse-aesthetic scenarios and creepy imagery in a striking combination with light and music.

When Annie (Colette) and Steven Graham (Byrne) lost their 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (Shapiro) in a terrible car accident that also involved their older son Peter (Wolff), they didn’t blame the latter, which is admirable. However, in order to overcome grief, Annie opens unsafe, occult doors for herself and her family when she befriends Joan (Ann Dowd), a woman she met in a therapy group session. Both become spiritual mediums.

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The isolated house where the Grahams live already had shown signs of inhuman presences, but after Annie’s invocation of Charlie, the paralyzing terror invades their lives. Is there a way to revert the situation and gain the control again?

It’s all gloomy, anguishing, and strange, with some genuinely creepy and visually arresting scenes that can be violent, in its both psychological and physical forms. Besides references to ritualistic patterns and symbols, there are scary, furtive appearances, and characters airing guilt and resentment in an oppressive environment.

Hereditary” is not perfect but does what the good horror movies do, relying on suspense and tension to deeply involve the viewer. Hence, prepare to be disturbed.

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The Divide (2018)

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Directed by Perry King
Country: USA

“The Divide” marks the directorial debut of Perry King, a veteran actor who appeared in the 1977 morbid comedy "Andy Warhol's Bad”, the ludicrous disaster film “The Day After Tomorrow”, and the minor crime drama “The Class of 1984”. Yet, he is probably most known for television series.

King always dreamt of directing his own movie, and he did it with honesty, outside of the Hollywood circle, and with his own Californian ranch of El Dorado County as a backdrop.

The script began to take shape in 2012 after he had met writer Jana F. Brown a year before. It tells the story of Sam Kincaid, a forgetful, aging farmer, impersonated by Perry himself, who has perfectly conscious of his gradual memory loss. Sometimes he forgets the words for simple things or what he just said a minute before, often mixing people's names and identities. In addition to this, he has these terrible nightmares every night, which are linked to his past, and feels much more tired and debilitated than usual due to the persisting drought that affects his land. Luckily, he has Luke Higgins (Bryan Kaplan) working for him, a solitary ranch hand who cares about him.

Luke is also trying to make amends with a tumultuous past and never stays too long in the same place. However, he decides the opposite this time as he carefully observes the state Sam got into; at least, until speaking with his estranged daughter Sarah (Sara Arrington), a vet tech who arrives at the farm with her son, C.J. (Luke Colombero).

This good-natured, Western-themed tale was shot entirely in black-and-white, evoking Perry’s favorite films from the 30’s and 40’s. Its straight narrative includes some mystery, presenting flashes of conflict and discontentment throughout. Still, some of you might probably complain about the slow developments, hinged on the inflexible mood and pace, and for which contributes the melancholic country music composed by Molly Mason.

For a small independent film addressing guilt and trauma within a family, “The Divide” manages to stand on its feet. Despite the predictable ending and a bashful posture, there are emotions running steadily, and the hope of a happy future ultimately makes us enjoy a drama film that also serves as a showcase for King’s estimable acting capabilities.

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Border (2018)

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Directed by Ali Abbasi
Country: Sweden

The Swedish fantasy thriller “Border” is the sophomore feature from Ali Abbasi, who improved considerably in terms of thrills and tone when compared with his debut “Shelley”. After learning that the script had the stamp of John Ajvide Lindqvist on it - he authored the acclaimed vampire tale “Let The Right One In” - my expectations went high and, in fact, were never defrauded as I dug this noir fairytale drenched in Nordic folklore and delicious suspense.

The story's protagonist is Tina (Eva Melander), a singular customs officer with an uncommon chromosome flaw, rigid posture, and unfriendly face, who has the special ability to sniff trouble in the passers-by. Her infallible sense of smell can detect things like alcohol, drugs, weapons, and even SD cards with child pornography, as well as inner feelings like shame, guilt, and rage. She does this with such accuracy that, occasionally, the authorities seek her services to solve major criminal cases. The probability of failure while performing her task is tiny, however, she is challenged for the very first time when Vore (Eero Milonoff), a mysterious man with a weird obsession with maggots, is selected for inspection. She knows he hides something impure, but their instant physical chemistry turned into visceral, animal-like passion, made her lenient. Both have a lot in common, and not only physical. They have a strong, strange connection to nature and animals.

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The somber side of Vore is gradually exposed after he accepts Tina’s suggestion to move into her guest house, a situation that bothers her parasitical boyfriend, Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), a Rottweilers enthusiast. Tina’s greatest difficulty, besides accepting her own nature and realizing that, like Vore, she is not a creature of this world, was to understand the lies that populate her ‘human’ past.

While the talented director keeps the things flowing with the appropriate amount of tension, the lead actors respond with absolute brilliance. Well anchored in its unique conception, “Border” can be tender and liberating, furious and disgusting, and even polemic in its vision of decaying humankind. In this case, and for its arresting visuals and compelling narrative, it’s easy to conclude that this is no minor work.

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The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

Directed by Sara Colangelo
Country: USA

Sara Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher”, an American remake of the 2014 Israeli drama of the same name directed by Nadav Lapid, never really earned my admiration.

Staten Island dweller Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has been a patient and caring kindergarten teacher for nearly twenty years. She never had problems at work and her current concerns have to do with her two teenage children, Josh (Sam Jules), who is fed up with school, and Lainie (Daisy Tahan), who was caught smoking weed with a boyfriend. However, Lisa is experiencing an inexplicable unfulfillment, which leads her to attend poetry classes for adults, dispassionately tutored by Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal in low-key mode).

Open to something new, Lisa sleeps with Simon, an incident with a minimal emotional impact when compared with her new discovery: Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), a 5-year-old boy with an advanced ability to compose poems in the spur of the moment. Stunned with his rare gift and curious about his home environment, Lisa asks Becca (Rosa Salazar), the child’s nanny, more information about his inaccessible father, Nikhil (Ajay Naidu). Rapidly, Lisa nurtures a profound admiration for the kid, who she thinks meritorious of a special attention in this materialistic world we all live. However, and sooner than later, this admiration turns into an obsession.

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The daring teacher sort of kidnaps Jimmy to have him reciting his poems in a late-night session at Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan. This causes Nikhil and Simon to be angry at her for disparate reasons. Nevertheless, she repeats the move later again, in the name of Jimmy’s innate talent, but the consequences won’t be the same as the first time.

Lisa got on my nerves as she reads her own poem to a disconnected Jimmy. She does these meek eyes at the same time that airs an exasperating expression that mirrors a frivolous profoundness. It's all by the sake of art but maybe what this kid really needs is to play with his little friends.

It is also hard to put up with the ending, which feels forced. Hence, the only reason to watch "The Kindergarten Teacher" is Ms. Gyllenhaal’s performance, whose quality makes us resist until it’s possible.

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Apostle (2018)

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Directed by Gareth Evans
Country: UK / USA

With the claustrophobic, medieval-esque, gory horror film “Apostle”, director Gareth Evans (“The Raid: Redemption”) attempts to offer us a bit more than just action sequences with insanely kinetic physical clashes. Indeed, the film tells a super dark story, set in 1905 and immersed in strong religious mysticism and fantasy.

Dan Stevens is Thomas Richardson, a traumatized former Christian missionary who travels to a remote Welsh island to rescue his innocent sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys) from the hands of a religious cult headed by the fervent prophet Malcolm Howe (Michael Sheen) and his power-hungry right-hand, Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), a tyrant who deceptively looks for purity. These dark souls worship a mysterious, imprisoned goddess who feeds from the fresh blood of their ritualistic sacrifices.

Thomas is not willing to pay any ransom, concentrating all his efforts in finding Jennifer and set her free. When the rulers of the island realize there is an intruder, they contemptuously exhibit Jennifer publicly to attract his attention. Thomas is eventually entrapped and the success of the mission becomes dependent on Andrea (Lucy Boynton), the good-hearted daughter of Malcolm, who, in the meantime, loses ascendency for Quinn. Our hero is also guided by the young Jeremy (Bill Milner), son of another cult devotee, whose tragic fate is morbidly depicted in a disgusting scene that includes vile torture and men dressed in black KKK-style costumes.

The mise en scene, legitimately photographed by Matt Flannery, is representative of a disturbing combination of Kafkian fantasy, Bergman-like religious paranoia, and Chan-wook’s studies on brutality and torture, while also displaying sunless landscapes and dismal intramural scenarios.

The camera work is commanded with assuring preciseness, exhibiting a couple of glorious weirdly-angled shots that emphasize the bizarreness even more. As a violent, supernatural adventure, the film should attract both action and horror enthusiasts alike, yet Evans ends up slightly short of thrills and ambiguity, which are always valuable aspects of the genre. I’m convinced that this film would have benefited if told from a more psychological perspective instead of just relying on painful, physical horrors. “Apostle” has the proper mood but, regardless the different styles, couldn’t surpass the adrenaline infusion of The Raid installments, Evans’ true specialty.

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

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Directed by Spike Lee
Country: USA

BlacKkKlansman”, Spike Lee’s second joint of the year and distinguished winner of the Palme D’Or, is a biographical comedy-drama whose story was considerably manipulated by the quartet of writers - Lee is included - to provide us with larger doses of dramatic weight and fun entertainment.

In the early 1970s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) was hired by the Colorado Springs Police Force, becoming the first African-American to ingress that department. Because of his stubbornness about doing something to help the oppressed black community fighting for civil rights, he is soon promoted from the records room guy to an undercover agent with a plan to infiltrate and denounce the racist brotherhood Ku Klux Klan. For that, he will have to use a lot of his improvisational skills and the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish officer, equally fluent in English and Jive, who borrows the identity of the investigation's mastermind.

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In the meantime, Stallworth falls for Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the dutiful president of Colorado College Black Student Union and a strong voice for the Black Power movement. If he plays his game with the K.K.K. with a relative comfort, relying on Zimmerman to do most of the ‘dirty’ job, then he couldn’t feel so comfortable about concealing his true profession from Patrice, creating a minor investigation-relationship conflict. While he flirts with Patrice, Zimmerman meets all the white supremacists, starting with Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), the president of the Colorado Springs branch, and ending with the leader of the organization, David Duke (Topher Grace). However, the most fanatical and dangerous militant is Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Paakkonen) and his delirious wife, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), whose dream of killing ‘niggers’ is about to come true.

Lee vulgarizes the existence of the dreadful K.K.K. by infusing a quasi-absurdist humor in several scenes. If the final message is powerful and elucidative about current dangers, then the whole story - based on Stallworth’s 2014 memoir - is worth being told. The provocative attitude is expanded with references to D.W. Griffith’s silent yet polemic drama film “Birth of a Nation” and the final footage containing no fewer polemic declarations from Donald Trump regarding the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Even though all these efforts are valid, the film could have been even more incisive with a few narrative adjustments and image filtration for sloppiness reduction. This is tough material Spike Lee is dealing with, and yet, he makes it an easy, pleasant watch.

A word of praise for the energetic performances from Washington and Driver and the awesome score by jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard.

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Searching (2018)

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Directed by Aneesh Chaganty
Country: USA

Searching”, a low-budget, tech-based thriller directed by debutant Aneesh Chaganty, hinges on a catchy premise, advances with a so-so development, and waves bye-bye with a terrible resolution.

The gimmicky story, co-written by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, is set in San Jose, California, and follows David Kim (John Cho), an over-controlling single father who freaks out when his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La), goes mysteriously missing.

Within the first minutes of the film, through family videos, we learn that Margot’s mother, Pam (Sara Sohn), died from a lymphoma relapse. Two years have passed and Margot is now more independent, living her life without giving too much explanation to her dad. After the vanishing, David finds out she had canceled the piano classes six months before and made an unexplainable transfer of $2500 to a deactivated Venlo account. Managing to get several access codes and password recoveries, David dives in her Facebook page and gets in touch with her contacts, just to sadly realize they weren't exactly friends.

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The case is assigned to detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing - remember Grace Adler from “Will and Grace”?), who first considers the chance of a ‘runaway teen case’ before concluding it was abduction. In the meantime, David keeps digging deeper in Margot’s social media accounts, which leads him to Barbosa Lake, a place she kept visiting for five months, and to the only person who she really maintained contact lately: Hannah, a young Pittsburgh waitress who uses fish_n_chips as web identity.

The suspects change along the way, from Margot's colleagues to David’s own brother, Peter (Joseph Lee). Yet, to complicate things a little more, an ex-con confesses the murder before committing suicide. Do not worry, because the story doesn’t end here.

Chaganty wanted his film to look intelligently cryptic, but what he achieved was just completely muddled. Moreover, the storyline is naive, contrived, and ultimately nonsensical, all aggravated by the utterly unconvincing performances from Cho and Messing.

With my patience wearing thin, I remained seated just to confirm that “Searching” steeply declines as the mystery unravels. It's an emotionally parched, insubstantial drama thriller.

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First Man (2018)

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Directed by Damien Chazelle
Country: USA

First Man”, Damien Chazelle’s biographical drama film about the first man on the moon, is a must-see for its irrefutable dramatic quality and insightful account of the events before and after the launch of the spaceflight Apollo 11. Chazelle, whose short career holds “Whiplash” and “La La Land” as major achievements, worked from an effective screenplay by Josh Singer (“Spotlight”, “The Post”) and guides a fabulous pair of natural actors: Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. The former is Neil Armstrong, the modest astronaut who would become a world-wide celebrity and national hero in 1969, and the latter is Janet Shearon, Armstrong’s wife, who plays a crucial role in the emotional side of the story. Steven Spielberg joined the film’s crew as an executive producer.

The film starts off with a thrilling landing on the Mojave Desert in 1961, when Armstrong’s X-15 rocket is pulled out of the atmosphere due to a ‘distraction’. At this time, the pilot lives in distress due to his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who undergoes treatment for brain tumor. Despite being extremely cold in behavior, Armstrong sheds a river of tears when his beloved daughter dies. As a way to fight the grief, he applies to the Project Gemini, an advanced spatial program that aims to beat the Soviets in the race to the moon. He is accepted and moves with his family to Houston, Texas, where he befriends other astronauts and respective families.

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It’s nothing less than brave that, although seeing other colleagues dying in accidents provoked by multiple failures, the resilient Armstrong has never hesitated when it comes to accomplishing such an important expedition. After a few technical setbacks, which he handles with both responsibility and dexterity, Armstrong finally lands his spacecraft and walks on the lunar surface. An exciting section of the movie indeed.

Nicely paced, the film focus on the sacrifices made for the sake of the human progress, including the ones related to Armstrong’s family. In one of the best scenes of the film, Janet forces her husband to have a serious conversation with their sons. He must explain to them that he is going away on a dangerous trip and might not come back. If Gosling’s performance is formidably low-key, then Foy’s is pure perfection, bringing the emotional stimulus to keep us wired.

The magnificent score by Justin Hurwitz enhances the floating sensations of a different gravitational acceleration and combines in perfection with Lindus Sandgren’s detailed cinematography. Chazelle smartly avoided any type of artifice in the imagery as well as sentimentality in the drama. Hence, expect lucid space images and not fabricated spectacles, as well as emotions that feel humanely grounded and powerfully mature. “First Man” means a first-rate experience.

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Eighth Grade (2018)

Directed by Bo Burnham
Country: USA

Bo Burnham’s feature debut, “Eighth Grade”, is probably the most spot-on coming-of-age drama made recently. To better limn an important slice of a teenager’s life, the 28-year-old American director employs an attractive soundtrack, pelts the narrative with wry tones, and observes the over-tech reality the world is immersed in without critical judgment.

Thirteen-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is a brilliant video maker - her motivational topics revolve around the self-confidence and image - but she is so cringingly shy at school that she was voted ‘the quietest student of the year’ in the annual academic polls. Online, she gives the impression of being super extrovert, but in fact, she’s very lonely and prone to panic attacks, regardless of the huge efforts to socialize and make friends. She lives with her responsive single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who genuinely worries about his daughter. However, he has a weird timing to interact with her, creating humoresque if embarrassing situations.

Like many other kids of her age, Kayla hides her acne pimples behind a thick layer of makeup. She also has a crush on Aiden (Luke Prael), a popular schoolmate who casually asks her if she gives blowjobs after she had told him she was saving dirty photos for her upcoming boyfriend. Of course, smartphones are everywhere here, with all the anxiety it causes, anchoring the story in the present, but there are other curious factors and situations, like a class with a military man who explains the eighth-graders how they should react if a massive shooting occurs.

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Kayla is unexpectedly invited to the birthday party of a disdainful classmate, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), and connects with the latter’s awkward and living-in-his-own-world cousin, Gabe (Jake Ryan), who compulsively dives in the pool while wearing a scuba mask. Still, nobody would believe they have something in common. In addition to this agreeable surprise, the first contact with high school is positive, even before the nightmarish eighth grade come to an end.

The script, smartly and carefully written by Burnham (a comedian and actor who played the title character of TV series “Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous”), carries all the sensibility to depict Millennials in a way that is simultaneously funny, unnerving, miserably heartbroken, and honest. It definitely rang true to me.

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A Star Is Born (2018)

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Directed by Bradley Cooper
Country: USA

Actor Bradley Cooper (“Silver Linings Playbook”, “American Hustle”) makes his directorial debut with “A Star is Born”, a 21st-century remake of the 1937 classic of the same name directed by William A. Wellman. He co-stars alongside pop star Lady Gaga in her first theatrical appearance. With a score composed by Gaga and Willie Nelson’s son, Lukas Nelson, Cooper attempts to successfully combine the power of music with the sharp cinematography of Matthew Libatique (Darren Aronofsky’s first choice), as well as the fluctuations of romance with the complications of personal/professional life.

Cooper is Jackson Maine, an alcoholic country-rock star who finds in nightclub-singer Ally (Gaga) a reliable partner in music and life, giving her the opportunity to make the leap to international fame and become a celebrity. However, his alcoholism doesn’t make things easy for her, becoming worse after she gets her first musical contract. From this point on, their relationship becomes arduous as Ally steps up toward stardom whereas Jackson keeps declining.

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This romantic if tragic musical drama achieves its climax when Ally is publicly embarrassed by Jackson’s behavior at the Grammy awards.

Gaga’s last song brings some emotion, which could never compensate for the absence of it during the rest of the film. Her performance was solid enough, while Cooper’s bloodshot eyes and general look are natural from a heavy drinker. However, the film didn’t touch me in the heart, presenting more inept than satisfactory moments, both drama and music-wise.

Leave No Trace (2018)

Directed by Debra Granik
Country: USA

New York-based Debra Granik has been a highly regarded director and valuable voice in the contemporary cinema. “Leave No Trace” is another outstanding drama sprinkled with mystery, reinforcing a filmography already rich with not only impressive fictional works such as “Down to the Bone” and the Oscar-nominated “Winter’s Bone”, but also an amusing documentary, “Stray Dog”.

For this new work, Granik and her writing partner Anne Rossellini based themselves on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, triumphing once again in the art of shaping characters with an honest pragmatism.

Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are father and daughter, respectively. They are homeless, living hidden from the ‘outside’ world in a small camp mounted in the woods of a public park in Portland, Oregon. He is an Iraq war vet with PTSD who is always on the run, making a living from the illegal sale of the pills he occasionally picks up in town for his disease. She is 13, has a very strong bond with her father and wishes she could remember her late mother. She doesn’t go to school and is hungry, for most of the time, since gas and food have to be spared. The tent in which they sleep is leaking and the general conditions are visibly precarious.

Will is as much obsessive as he is a master in becoming ‘invisible’. He's cautious at all times, but not Tom, who is spotted by a jogger, triggering a search operation by police officers and the social services. They are eventually caught, interrogated, subjected to tests, and then given a job and a proper if isolated accommodation. Tom is happy as she reintegrates herself in the society with relative ease, even forging a solid friendship with a farmer boy. However, her unaggressive yet notably restless father has one sole fixed idea in his tortuous mind: to flee again.

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Inevitably, they head north, where the hard cold bites, escaping into the middle of a muddy, humid, and uncomfortable forest. Once there, fortuitous encounters and fretful episodes wait for them. We reflect about the girl’s unstable life and future, realizing how unfair for her is to accompany her distressed father in these atypical journeys. She is young and unhappy; hence, a choice is imminent.

In terms of ambiance and filmmaking style, you can think about a crossing between Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers (some parts are pretty evocative of “Rosetta”). And it’s so easy to become involved in the dramatic situation of the family because it’s also easy to understand what is going on in their heads. The low-key temperament of the storytelling and the authenticity of the performances are strong elements of a subtle and intelligent film that captures our attention from the very first minute. It’s an emancipative, heartbreaking experience with humanity galore.

Mandy (2018)

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Directed by Panos Cosmatos
Country: USA

I was curious to see Nicolas Cage impersonating a merciless avenger in the utterly violent film “Mandy”, a candidate for the darkest film of the year. Thus, if you are a fan of the actor who helped to create memorable cinematic treasures such as “Leaving Las Vegas”, “Bringing Out the Dead”, and “Adaptation”, this is a great opportunity to witness his momentary return to the limelight through a wild performance. And if you dig macabre, evil scenarios accompanied by brutality in its physical and psychological forms, all vigorously propelled by powerful heavy metal chords, then this is an extra reason for you to visit the sophomore feature from Italian-Canadian Panos Cosmatos (“Beyond the Black Rainbow”). The filmmaker's father, George P. Cosmatos, was also a film director, best known for “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and “Cobra”, both starred by Sylvester Stallone.

The story takes place in 1983, near the Californian Shadow Mountains where Red Miller (Cage) and his beloved girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) find solace for their traumatic pasts in long, therapeutic conversations. They couldn’t imagine that evil would destroy their lives after Jeremiah Sands (Linus Roache), the delusional leader of the hippie sect Children of the New Dawn, has put his eyes on Mandy, coveting her with obsessive resolution. He orders his vassal, Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy), to kidnap her while Red is immobilized and tortured.

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Despite drugged with mind-expanding eye drops and a bizarre dream-inducing sting from a huge insect, Mandy couldn’t help but laugh madly when Jeremiah exhibits his penis. It’s a psychedelically insane scene, and the only reason why the paranoid and frustrated Jeremiah ordered his freaky disciples to burn her alive. No need to say that Red is left alive and manages to escape, pursuing the evildoers like a mad dog.

Immersed in a phantasmagoric penumbra and occasionally painted with saturated red and blue colors, “Mandy” makes its way with an increased level of graphic violence that refuses any type of enlightenment. The sections that worked better for me were the hallucinogenic ones, but some viewers will also probably rejoice with the dark humor and gory blood spills in a one-by-one manhunt.

Even though it's all too gut-wrenching and sunless, kudos to a fast and furious Cage, who returns from the dead with an insatiable appetite for vindictiveness.

Life and Nothing More (2018)

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Directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza
Country: USA / Spain

Starring non-professional actors, “Life and Nothing More” was shaped as a docudrama, telling the story of an African-American single mother who struggles to provide for their children and keep things together in northern Florida. Regina (Regina Williams), 30, works extremely hard in a diner but her income is still very low. She cannot stop worrying about her 14-year-old boy Andrew (Andrew Bleechington) whom she advises the best she can to prevent him from going to prison like his father. In fact, mother and son are in probation and their relationship is not always easy. Lonely and tired, this woman lives under a constant pressure, oscillating indefinitely between the strict and the protective when dealing with her delinquent son. When Robert (Robert Williams), her new partner and a stranger in town, somehow shakes the bond of the family with his strong temper, she doesn’t even hesitate to put him in the right place.

But the problem doesn’t drop out of sight since Andrew becomes more and more isolated and furious with life while considering to finally connect with his absent father. A curious and contradictory aspect regarding Regina is that she believes her son isn’t capable of doing anything harmful to other people despite saying recurrently that he is the son of his father.

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In his second feature, Spanish writer/director Antonio Méndez Esparza emulates a credible portrait of African-American lives with a great dose of realism. Yet, if the story is thoughtful and promising, then the editing needed some polishing to avoid unconsidered cuts and precipitate image transitions contrasting clumsily with the sluggish development. It’s weirdly watchable but not necessarily satisfying in the end since it sinks its teeth in a horde of topics such as the judicial system, race, education, parental responsibility, parental absence, and social/economic inequality without making a fully satisfying portrait of the family. It’s like if the huge potential of the script had been consumed by a wobbly direction.

The ‘real’ people, here transformed into real actors, are the heart and soul of a painful drama whose creator, maybe too concerned about not diverting from the desired reality, forgot to exert a bit more emotional bite and set an adequate pace to fulfill its promise of going places.

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Blindspotting (2018)

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Directed by Carlos López Estrada
Country: USA

Blindspotting” spawned a new up-and-coming star: the Oakland-born 36-year-old actor/writer/rapper Daveed Diggs, who co-wrote with Rafael Casal, a childhood friend in real life and also a promising actor. Carlos López Estrada’s feature debut is a convincing statement with its epicenter in the Californian city of Oakland.

In an unremitting quest for authenticity, the film follows three eventful days during the probation period conceded to African American Collin Hodgkins (Diggs). On his first day, he witnesses a white cop shooting a black man in the back, after a crazy night out in the company of his turbulent friend Miles (Casal).

Collin retrieves his former job in the moving company where he used to work, teaming up with Miles once again. This way, both become indirectly connected to the gentrification that keeps affecting Oakland at full force. The shooting scene remains vivid in his head and he soon finds out the identity of the civilian who was assassinated, leaving a three-year-old daughter. It’s haunting and uncomfortable. On the last day, he and Miles have a violent fight in a party, with the latter recklessly brandishing a gun in an uncontrolled act of fury. The following scenes are genuinely emotional.

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Fear and disappointment dominate this section of the film, but more thrilling surprises are on the way. The writers tried to compensate the edginess of some situations with, unfortunately infrequent, hilarious moments. One of them occurs when the friends decide to make some extra money with the sale of hair straighteners, ending up being used as guinea pigs for the product they were advertising.

Blindspotting”, a straightforward fusion between “8 Mile” and “Fruitvale Station”, is a powerful encounter of hip-hop music - somewhat displaced and too calculated here - and the racial complications that keep saddening America and the world.

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A Gentle Creature (2018)

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Directed by Sergey Loznitsa
Country: Russia / Lithuania / other

Ukrainian director Sergey Loznitsa is known for dejected dramas marked by a strong emotional aptitude and sharp sociopolitical commentary. In addition to valid fictional works such as “My Joy” and “In The Fog”, he dedicates great part of his career to documentaries, a category that includes “The Event” and “Maidan” as highlights.

His most recent work, “A Gentle Creature”, was aptly shot in Latvia and Lithuania and its story based on Fyodor Dostoievsky’s short story of the same name. It stars Vasilina Makovtseva, the perfect figure to personify this lonely Russian woman whose incarcerated husband suddenly is impeded to receive her monthly package containing clothes, canned food, condensed milk, and other essential goods. The package had never been refused by the prison or returned by the post office before, which rises suspicion about his whereabouts and health condition. He can even be dead, and this gentle if restless creature can’t live with that painful uncertainty. Hence, courageous and unhesitating, she sets off to the prison where he was sent to after being sentenced for an apparently shady murder case.

An uncomfortable and exhausting trip to a remote region of the country impregnated with oppressive atmospheres and gloomy characters who seem to enjoy telling her morbid stories. To get to see her husband, she is subjected to several humiliations - police corruption and abuse of power are systematic, and is drawn to unfriendly places where depression, debauchery, paranoia, and mistrust become nerve-wracking. Not to mention the endless bureaucracy and constant intimidation associated to the futile, totalitarian Russian authorities. This woman knows she cannot trust nobody, but she has no other option than accept the help of strangers. After all, she needs her piece of mind, which can only achieve when she finds out where her husband is. Once at the prison, she is told to contact the ‘proper authorities’, a vague statement that gets her as much confused as frustrated.

Loznitsa essayed a long, dense, and evil governmental machination, which culminates in unexpected places replete with familiar faces. The disturbing ending has the crepuscular cinematography by Oleg Mutu reinforcing the darkness of a tale whose occasional sarcastic humor won’t be enough to cheer you up. “A Gentle Creature” is an arduous watch indeed and will leave you a certain nausea that takes a while to go away. However, its mysterious ways, bolstered with a bit of psychedelic surrealism, makes it notable.

Mission Impossible - Fallout (2018)

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Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Country: USA

Under the direction of Christopher McQuarrie, “Mission Impossible - Fallout” is the follow up to “Rogue Nation”. The sixth installment of the MI franchise continues to incorporate Tom Cruise as IMF agent and team leader Ethan Hunt. For the present adventure he teams up with his loyal friend Luther (Ving Rhames), IMF field agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), former MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), and CIA assassin, August Walker (Henry Cavill), hired to control all his moves.

They all engage on a suicide mission in an attempt to dismantle The Apostles, a terrorist group that emerged from the extint The Syndicate, after the capture of its anarchic leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). The group is illegally dealing plutonium cores in Europe and Hunt is assigned to retrieve the hazardous material. However, the secret agents fail to accomplish the mission in Berlin when Ethan decides to put Luther’s life in first place, leaving the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett), in a pile of nerves.

With the agent’s double life featured through an encounter with his estranged wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), the film advances at high speed, relying on the tension created by interminable and often overdone motorcycle/car chases that take us to inevitably packed crossroads and confined dead alleys. Besides this, we have supplementary manhunt mania in Kashmir, this time involving a plane and a helicopter; agile physical confrontations; advanced technology methods; and dangerous transactions with sudden ambushes.

Co-produced by McQuarrie, Cruise, JJ Abrams (“Super 8”; “Star Trek”; “Star Wars: The Force awakens”), and Jake Myers (“Dunkirk”, “The Revenant”, “Interstellar”), this blockbuster satisfies in its purpose but doesn’t earn the title of ‘impossible to miss’.

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The Naturally Wanton Pleasure of Skin (2018)

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Directed by Renée Beaulieu
Country: Canada

It’s widely known that every person’s skin reacts differently to touch, pressure, temperature, levels of stress, and several other external factors. But what the main character of “The Naturally Wanton Pleasure of Skin” tries to understand is how disparately the skin cells react to love and desire in a close linkage of dermatology and sexuality. For that, Marie-Claire (Brigitte Poupart), a down-to-earth, well-established scientist and university teacher, uses her own body and several male guinea pigs in what she calls ‘experiments’. These include sexual intercourse, which she practices without any preconception or guilt, despite being happily married and mother of two.

In truth, Marie-Claire is a pleasure-seeker, who uses her ongoing research as an excuse to feed intense carnal appetites. Soon, it became an addiction. So, it’s not uncommon to see her embarking on a wild sexual activity with a complete stranger; a fellow scientist, Alexandre (Normand D'Amour), head of her department; or even a literature doctorate, Emile (Pierre Kwenders), who is 20 years younger and makes sure to attend her classes. Men simply love her type: carefree, independent, unpossessive, wanton.

Adam (Vincent Leclerc), her husband, is often traveling and had agreed to an open relationship, but things go astray when she casually opens up about her secret life. Gradually, her fully open smile is swallowed by preoccupation, to which further contributes the delicate situation of her vulnerable 14-year-old daughter, Katou (Romane Denis). It’s not that Marie-Claire doesn’t care for her. She’s just tremendously inattentive, being too immersed in her thing. When the situation is barely out of hand, is her mother - another hedonist - and her volatile, depressed, and eternal unsatisfied best friend, Mathilde (Nathalie Cavezzali), who stand on her side.

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The complexities rendered by Renée Beaulieu in her second feature drama do not always succeed, but, as a character study, the film poses some interesting points of view regarding family and happiness, love and desire, as well as men and women with their commonly associated roles of predators and victims, respectively.

The reappearance of mechanical procedures and an invariable tone in each human contact may difficult the viewer’s engagement, limiting the curiosity about this woman’s behavior. Nevertheless, things improve a bit in the second half, when the affective facet overcomes the libidinous.

One of the strongest aspects of the film, in addition to Poupart’s performance, is the score by David Thomas, whose mixture of ominous textures, expert beats, and occasional ethereal chants, compensate the prosaic sex scenes with sync commitment.

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Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Directed by Jon M.Chu
Country: USA

One cannot deny the existence of a tireless vibrancy, flashy visuals, and versatile soundtrack in “Crazy Rich Asians”, a romantic Chinese-American adventure led by director Jon M.Chu (“G.I. Joe: Retaliation”; “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never”). However, these features weren’t enough to make the film stand out because, under the delusive, glossy surface, we find nothing consistent or memorable.

Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim co-wrote a shallow script based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Kevin Kwan. Basically, it comes jammed with clichés while maintaining that synthetic exuberance that usually serves to conceal the high predictability of a storytelling from the viewer.

Economics professor Rachel Wu (Constance Wu), a New Yorker of Chinese descent who is not afraid to pursue her passions, travels to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding). The reason for the trip is related to Nick’s best friend’s wedding, but the occasion is also an opportunity for Rachel to meet her sweetheart’s family, the wealthiest in the country. Sad to say: Nick’s glacial mother, Eleanor (fantastic Michelle Yeoh), doesn’t approve the relationship, basing her judgment on the social class differences between the two families. A tough posture that gains further repercussion when she discovers Rachel’s inaccurate story about her deceased father.

In addition to flamboyant bachelor/bachelorette parties, fancy family gatherings in luxurious spaces, and stereotyped dramatic threats against a gorgeous couple in love, this somewhat cheesy crowd-pleaser offers a great deal of neurotic gossip addressed with annoying pomposity and superfluous multi-cultural fashion.

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Heaven Without People (2018)

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Directed by Lucien Bourjeily
Country: Lebanon

Who never experienced a heated discussion in those hypocrite family gatherings that tend to sour festive occasions? Lebanese writer/director/producer/editor Lucien Bourjeily imagines one of these scenarios in his feature debut “Heaven Without People”. He puts together a solid cast ensemble composed of unknown and amateur actors for this farcical representation of the Lebanese reality.

Despite struggling with inconsistencies in mood and an erratic pace, the film fires up some curious observations about the alienated state of the country, without ever reaching high levels of socio-political controversy.

Serge (Nadim Abou Samra) arrives late at his parents’ house, which was left without electricity for two days, for the long-awaited Easter celebration. He takes a new girlfriend with him: Leila (Laeticia Semaan), a Shiite who had to move to the Southern suburbs due to war. Seated at the table are Serge’s goodhearted mother, Joujou (Samira Sarkis), and self-satisfied father, Antoine (Wissam Boutros); his tense sister Rita (Farah Shaer) and her husband Rabih (Ghassan Chemali); his other sister: the submissive Christine (Nancy Karam) and her passive-aggressive husband, Elias (Jean Paul Hage); as well as his controlling aunt Noah (Jenny Gebara) and her teenage son, Sami (Toni Habib), a troublemaker.

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The handheld camera keeps moving around the table at a medium distance, and the tedious introduction of the characters is done slowly and coupled with the vapid conversation, whose topics vary from religion - with incidence on the extremism among Catholics - to corrupt politics to personal observations about some demeanors of the present. It takes a while to contextualize everyone within the family, but once done, the story flows in a more effective manner.

The hypocrisy at lunch comes to an end when the matriarch finds that 12 grand, the equivalent to a one-year salary paid to her husband in advance as a bribe, is missing from her purse. Predictably, the modest Ethiopian maid, Zoufan (Etafar Aweke), who works in the house for several years and earns only $200, is the one to be blamed.

Racism, corruption, preconception, insincerity, violence, and resentment, are all predicaments this family has to deal with. Bourjeily, who gained a reputation as a theater director, chews things up for more than an hour, only to change the course of events from casual passivity to precipitous chaos in a couple of minutes. Can a brilliant ending save a film? Sure, but I strongly feel this one could have given much more if handled with a little more subtlety.

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