Woodpeckers (2017)

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Directed by Jose Maria Cabral
Country: Dominican Republic

Prison film is a subgenre that most likely overlaps with the drama and action genres, requiring a great dose of originality and exciting moments to subsist, taking into account the recurrent exploration of the topic.
Classic titles like “Le Trou”, “A Man Escaped”, “Papillon” and “The Shawshank Redemption” are among the most coveted ones, but a few recent releases gained considerable recognition by depicting lives of prisoners with interesting cogitation. Within that group, we have David Mackenzie’s “Starred Up” and Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet”.

Like the ones cited above, “Woodpeckers” is unquestionably a prison film, even if it doesn't take the same paths as those. The Dominican entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards isn't focused on any escape attempt despite encompassing a prison riot that, in fact, feels frivolous and nearly amateurish.

The inconsistency noticed during a few important scenes, working hand in hand with fabricated routines, thwarts a curious fact-based story that would have flourished if convincingly tackled.
 
Julian (Jean Jean) is convicted of a robbery and sent to Najayo Prison, where his long hair is shaved and he’s abandoned to his own luck. Once in the hole, he makes some useful friends who help him sleep decently and comfortably for a little sum of money, but inevitably bumps into unscrupulous, selfish thugs like Manaury (Ramon Emilio Candelario). The latter teaches him the sign language known as ‘pecker talking’, which serves to communicate at a long distance with the prisoner women who frequently show up in the adjacent yard to flirt with the male inmates.

Hence, Julian is 'hired' to make the bridge between Manaury and his girlfriend Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez), who shows an irreversible discontentment for being ‘cheated’ when trapped in the solitary for improper behavior. Instead of coping with the task given to him, Julian charms Yanelly and soon conquers her heart, a dangerous move that puts his safety at stake. It then becomes clear that our hero, who is no chicken-hearted nor a rioter, will have to fight for love.

The expressive images showing the ignominious conditions of an overpopulated prison - the place is a real Dominican Republic correction facility - is one of the best aspects of a too softened drama that falls short of its ambitions.
 
Although timidly showing faculties here and there to do better in the future, writer-director Jose Maria Cabral, often resorts to obvious moves while his characters lack that charisma and sometimes vibration to make this incarcerated love story work beyond a faintly enjoyable, melodramatic trifle.

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Logan Lucky (2017)

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Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Country: USA

Suspending his directorial retirement, Steven Soderbergh categorically guides a skilled cast in order to ensure the indispensable levels of entertainment in his recent heist comedy “Logan Lucky”.

Farcically penned by the newcomer Rebecca Blunt, the script follows the dissatisfied Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a dedicated father who couldn’t envision a better solution to provide for and spend time with his daughter than robbing his work site at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The idea nurtures extra stimulus after he has been laid off below the belt.

Jimmy first relies on his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), an Iraq war vet who lost half of his left arm on duty, and both start ruminating about the best way of getting the unavoidable, experienced cracksman Joe Bang (a bleach-haired Daniel Craig) out of jail. The furtive Clyde intentionally commits a minor offense to be sent to the prison, where he orchestrates everything so Joe can break free with no major effort.
 
It’s not too much to emphasize that is their intention to return him to the correction facility immediately after the job is accomplished, without anyone noticing. The other cunning comrades joining the team are Joe’s sloppy brothers Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish Bang (Jack Quaid), who joke about needing a good excuse to break the law, and Jimmy and Clyde’s sister, Mellie (Riley Keough). The team stages their act with resoluteness and intention, resorting to unorthodox procedures to succeed. When everything seemed meticulously studied and solved in their heads, a challenge arrives from a forced schedule adjustment, making the stratagem coincide with the famous Coca-Cola 600 race on Memorial Day weekend.

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While the acting is effervescent and the camerawork assertive, the plot stays a few holes below Soderbergh’s remake of “Ocean’s 11”. However, one can sense his passion when dabbling in this particular genre, even if I dig better his low-budgeted, art-house independent inventions. 

You’ll certainly find bracingly funny moments scattered throughout an amusing tale that benefits with the sprightly insouciance adopted by a filmmaker who has nothing to prove.

Tatum, who also co-produces, collaborates with Soderbergh for the fourth time. Their association started with “Haywire” in 2011 and proceeded with titles such as “Side Effects” and “Magic Mike”.

As a curiosity, Soderbergh is co-producing the upcoming “Ocean’s Eight” together with Steven Spielberg (direction by Gary Ross), and couldn’t resist the temptation of directing a horror movie entitled “Unsane”, starring Claire Foy, Juno Temple, and Jay Pharoah. While hoping for these 2018 releases, you may indulge yourself in this ingratiating money-snatching scheme.

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The Big Sick (2017)

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Directed by Michael Showalter
Country: USA

The Big Sick” is a sympathetic, well-articulated romantic comedy suffused with multicultural imbroglios and witty moments. Michael Showalter directed from the fact-based story written by husband and wife, Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley” TV series) and Emily V. Gordonand.

The former gleefully embodies Kumail, a Chicago stand up comedian and Uber driver of Pakistani descent, who keeps rejecting the Muslim women suggested by his mother. The reason has to do with the crescent infatuation for Emily (Zoe Kazan), the American blonde student that conquered his heart after a one-night stand. 

Kumail attempts to overcome several adversities that arrive from two different fronts. On one hand, his conservative parents, so strict in their traditions, will never accept a woman from another culture. On the other, the apple of his eyes gets seriously sick and has to be put in an induced coma until further notice.

As he waits for her awakening, Kumail starts hanging out with her quirky parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter), whose eccentric behaviors are at the base of the most delicious situations of the film.
As a result of the excellent performances, the characters felt truly genuine, even in those risky situations when it would be very easy to fall in the commonplace.

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All the sincerity, affability, and graciousness put on this deft formula superimpose to any sort of pretentiousness that might have existed. Still, Mr. Showalter denotes this questionable tendency to resolve every situation with a smile, which could have gone the wrong way. Fortunately, he managed not to turn the story into those syrupy exercises that are more irritating than entertaining.

The Big Sick” is not the masterpiece that some supporters are proclaiming but undoubtedly presents something more than most of the rom-coms done these days.

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Sieranevada (2016)

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Directed by Cristi Puiu
Country: Romania

The films of Romanian auteur Cristi Puiu usually contain a fascinating blend of thoughtful realism and pungent social commentary. "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" and "Aurora", his second and third movies, respectively, marked the peak of an auspicious career whose impact softened up a bit with the practically unknown Three Exercises of Interpretation, which lacked a proper distribution.

His new comedy-drama, cryptically entitled "Sieranevada", finds his focus on family matters, living from awkward situations and clear-cut observations while adopting a sly pose. It's all condensed in a package of effervescent tension that lasts for 173 minutes.

The script can be a hard nut to crack, mostly because of the political references that occasionally wallow in the dark past of the country.

Puiu designates Lary (Mimi Branescu) as the main focus of a story that takes place in Bucharest during one single day. He is a specialized doctor who apparently is doing great in life just by selling medical equipment. His wife, Laura (Catalina Moga) is a compulsive shopper who can’t hide a wide grin whenever she’s in possession of her husband’s credit card.

They are heading to a traditional family reunion in his mother’s house that will serve to remember the 40th day of his father’s death. The important occasion is supposed to be addressed with joy, respect, and total commitment, however, the behavior of a few characters undermines the plan.

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Once they get there, we are gradually introduced to the many members of the family, an undertaking that takes some time. Lary’s mother, Nusa (Dana Dogaru), stands up for her devastated sister Ofelia (Ana Ciontea), whose quarrelsome husband, Toni (Sorin Medeleni), is being systematically unfaithful to her over the years. Sandra (Judith State) and Relu (Bogdan Dumitrache) are Lary’s siblings, and while the former cries when poked by aunt Evelina (Tatiana Iekel), a staunch supporter of the old Communism and a camouflaged antagonist of the church, the latter is a communications officer who confesses he's dabbled in fear. Sandra’s husband, Gabi (Rolando Matsangos), and her cousin, Sebi (Marin Grigore), embark in animated political debates that have the Internet as a frequent mediator. Sebi’s younger sister, Cami (Ilona Brezoianu), loves night parties and drags a junkie Serbian friend into the house, causing everyone to panic. The only guests are the Popescus who seem as much shocked as uncomfortable with the disarrangement.

The funniest aspect of the movie is that everyone is extremely hungry - Lary, for instance, didn’t eat anything the whole day - and to overcome all the unexpected predicaments before finally sitting down, hang loose, and fill their empty stomachs, seems to take forever.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some moviegoers find "Sieranevada" a bit overlong and sometimes even repetitive in its almost exclusive indoor/conversational mode. In fact, I see the house factor somewhat limiting, maybe because one of the most thrilling incidents happens on the street, in a hyper realistic disarray that involves Lary and Laura.

On the other side, it is no less true that I exulted with a generous number of disconcerting and delightful episodes where Puiu, employing his directorial competence to better capture the family’s moves with sharpness and wittiness, attempts to satirize life in today’s unstable Romania.

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Afterimage (2017)

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Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Country: Poland

The name Andrzej Wajda assuredly brings good memories to the most attentive cinephiles because the celebrated Polish filmmaker, who left us last year at the age of 90, was the one responsible for masterpieces such as the 50’s war trilogy “A Generation”, “Kanal”, and “Ashes and Diamonds”, and some wise proletariat observations such as “Man of Iron”, “Man of Marble”, and “The Promised Land”.

Biographic dramas like “Danton”, “Korczak”, and “Walesa, Man of Hope”, also occupied an important section of Wajda’s filmography, and “Afterimage”, about the avant-garde Polish painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski, concludes a distinguished career filled with numerous prizes.

The flawless Boguslaw Linda embodies the noble painter and art professor who resisted to the devouring advances of the Communist party in Poland after the post-war years.

Despite had lost one leg and one arm when serving in the First World War, Strzeminski is depicted as a very active man and a zealous pedagogue, capable of captivating the students with the challenging ‘Theory of Vision’, a product of his own reflection that comprehends art, freedom of expression, and perception of life. 

As the creator of the first art school in Poland and the second in Europe, he is a highly respected figure among enthusiasts of the modern art. However, his personal life became a bit messy after his wife, also a vanguard artist, had left him for unknown reasons to die alone in a cold hospital in Lodz, where they lived. Things got worse when he refused to corroborate the totalitarian party’s ideas of social realism. From then on, his visionary capacities were totally discarded by the government members who, considering him a traitor and an agitator, forbade him to work and teach. The professor was banned from the Lodz’s State Higher School of the Visual Arts, which he co-founded, and couldn’t even buy materials for his paintings.

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The underestimated artist still receives his most devoted students at home. After a few months without work, he can only rely on their help, especially Roman (Tomasz Wlosok) and Hania (Zofia Wichlacz), who were very dear to him, especially in the most difficult phase of his life. Also, his friendship with the poet Julian Przybos (Krzysztof Pieczynski) was maintained until his depressing last days.

Another essential aspect covered by Wajda is the somewhat cold relationship between Strzeminski and his forlorn young daughter, Nika (Bronislawa Zamachowska), despite her unremitting concern about his health - "you smoke too much!” she used to say.

Impeccably photographed by Pawel Edelman (“The Pianist”, “Ray”), “Afterimage” is a well-told story that eschews any sort of abstraction or ambiguity. It rather prefers to validate a panoply of emotions associated with the decadent condition of a man who, even deprived of a dignified life, never succumbed to the temptation of letting political ideologies interfere with what should remain pure and untouched.

Even though I didn’t need to make any effort to follow the story until its very last minute, there was never a concrete climax or an occasional emotional swirl in its storytelling. For this reason, when the film came to an end, I naturally started to think about Nika, wondering what could have happened to her, rather than in Strzeminski’s terrible suffering.

Nevertheless, the film is a decent farewell from Mr.Wajda, whose passionate dedication to his chosen subjects and the honest way he addressed them, will be missed by every world cinema aficionado.

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Heal the Living (2017)

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Directed by Katell Quillévéré
Country: France / Belgium

Heal the Living”, a French-Belgian drama with the heart in the right place, marks the  return of French director Katell Quillévéré (“Suzanne”), who co-wrote the script with Gilles Taurand based on Maylis de Kerangal’s 2016 novel “Mend the Living”. His fourth feature interweaves three distinct stories linked by a heart transplant. 

When the opening credits start to roll, a propelling pop/rock song surrounds us as we follow three young friends gathering in central Le Havre for a vibrant morning of surf. Simon Limbres (Gabin Verdet) left his girlfriend’s room very early and pedaled at a high speed toward his friend’s cute yellow van.

As the surfers ride the waves with tremendous fun, sequential stunning shots taken from a variety of angles keep framing the huge masses of water hitting the lens of the camera with quite an impact.
  
Everything had been fascinating and the excitement of the physical activity makes them a bit sleepy on their way back. Hazardously sleepy, I should say, because a car accident sends Simon to the hospital with a severe internal bleeding in his head. After some time in a deep coma, surgery is no longer an option, and the pair of medics responsible for his case considers him perpetually braindead. Thomas (Tahar Rahim) is the most attentive and considerate of the doctors as he explains to Simon’s parents, Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (Kool Shen), that organ donation is something they should consider. Even not pushing them in any way, he makes clear that this must be a fast decision as all the organs are still working properly. One can only imagine how this must be a difficult decision for the parents, who just lost their only child and now have to ponder about what to do with his body.

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The storytelling then veers to Paris, where we find Claire (Anne Dorval), a single mother of two, pretending she was dead on the bed. It was a prank for her sensitive younger son, Sam (Théo Cholbi), whom she suspects is gay. Maxime (Finnegan Oldfield), the first-born, exhibits an earnest personality and doesn’t understand why she lies to Sam, concealing her true state of health. In fact, Claire is dying because of the increasing dilatation of her heart. Believing that her time has come, she inadvertently seeks for her ex-lover, Anne (Alice Taglioni), a classical pianist who, surprised to see her, becomes appalled by the news of her illness. Notwithstanding, Claire has one last chance to live if she agrees to take Simon’s heart.

The medical team at the hospital composes the remaining segment of a tale whose perspective evolves not only with throbbing drama and expectation but also with a priceless optimism.

Even occasionally lacking fluidity in some passages, “Heal the Living” adopts an altruistic and positive posture, appealing as much to reason as to emotions.

A slow-and-steady, measured pace was deliberately assumed in order to earnestly encompass the least detail in this peculiar and blurry cycle of life and death. At the film's terminal point, the light and hope emanated from the story touched me, pumping my mood and elevating my spirit. However, by then, I just wished I had experienced this exalted state long before.

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It Comes At Night (2017)

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Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Country: USA

It Comes at Night” is a somber dystopian thriller expeditiously written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, an emerging young director who already gave us “Krisha”, one of the most touching, personal, and rawest dramas released last year.

In his new mind-boggling creation, the world population faces a devastating, mysterious outbreak. We are only able to conclude that something silent and contagious makes people slowly rot to death, so everyone is a suspect and you can’t be too careful when a stranger is around.

Wearing breathing masks, the former teacher Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teen son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), unanimously decided to put an end to the suffering days of Sara’s father, who was caught by the bug. The act was as much blunt as emotional, but absolutely necessary to guarantee their safety.

They own a secluded property in the woods that seems to protect them from the outside dangers. A certain day, a stranger called Will (Christopher Abbott) attempts to invade the house, thinking it was empty. Paul knocks him out, ties him to a tree, and later starts questioning him, trying to figure out what his real intentions are. The man discloses he has a wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and a little son named Edward (Griffin Robert Faulkner), who are both waiting for him 50 miles away with plenty of food but no water supply, a situation that forced him to scavenge for the precious liquid.

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After verifying the veracity of the man’s story, Paul and his family give their consent for Will to bring his family and live with them under the compliance of some strict safety rules.
Despite all the cautions, the invisible enemy lurks at every corner, ready to take man or animal that crosses his path. Travis, frequently assaulted by creepy nightmares at night, is the one who wanders all over the house, seeing what nobody else can see.

Without being scary in the real sense of the word, the film is still able to surprise you and never falls in boredom or convention. It becomes inevitable to ponder what would you do if it was you and your family facing a critical situation such as the one depicted.

The camera stealthily plunges in arresting scenarios, moving patiently between dark rooms and halls, and building suspenseful moments with the help of Brian McOmber’s decorous yet penetrating score.

You won't be given revelations about the enigma or bloody horror scenes. In truth, Shults focuses exclusively on the characters and puts the profound silence of the woods working together with the haunting idea of an abominable contamination that can entrap you and the ones you love the most. Hence, expect a light horror film but a heavy, psychological, dark chamber tale.

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The Last Family (2016)

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Directed by Jan P. Matuszynski
Country: Poland

The Last Family”, a very humorous yet unsettling biographical drama about the Polish dystopian-surrealist painter Zdzislaw Beksinski, starts with a funny lightness, develops with an enthralling wittiness between the lines, and ends with a harrowing murder scene. Even with death, suicide, and illness playing influential roles in the life of the Beksinskis, the film embraced a spirited mood throughout that was fiercely swept aside with the appalling finale.

The smartly and effortlessly mounted account begins in 1977 and ends in 2005, the year that Zdzislaw, a bit debilitated due to aging, was brutally stabbed to death at his Warsaw apartment by a 19-year-old with whom he was familiar.

At the beginning, and to better set the tone, Jan P. Matuszynski, who directed from a screenplay by Robert Bolesto (“The Lure”), stages an amiable conversation occurred in 2005 between the painter and his chronicler friend, Piotr Dmochowski (Andrzej Chyra). The well-disposed Zdzislaw, superbly played by the veteran actor Andrzej Seweryn, imagines how amazing would be programming a supercomputer to perform some adjustments in Alicia Silverstone according to his sexual fantasies and whims. The story then winds back to 1977 when he and his wife, Zofia (Aleksandra Konieczna), visit and inspect an old apartment in Warsaw to accommodate their only son, Tomasz (Dawid Ogrodnik), a selfish and suicidal neurotic who would become a popular radio presenter, movie translator, and music journalist in the following years. Tomasz struggles permanently with himself, tormented by his flagrant inability to maintain a proper relationship with a woman. 

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His parents have their respective mothers living with them. When together, the two elder women try to guess who is going to die first in the family. They both bet on Tomasz, but his recurring suicide attempts won’t be successful until the Christmas Eve 1999, time when his father located him dead in his apartment. Ironically, Zdzislaw, who considered suicide an act of courage, congratulates his son for finally having found peace.
One year before, the painter had lost his dear wife to a fatal aneurysm. By that time, besides painting to sell abroad, he was a bit obsessed with making homemade videos, his favorite hobby.

Mr. Matuszynski’s directorial methodology, whether pleasantly elaborated or painfully raw, has a crucial impact on the way the drama evolves.
 
Packed with dauntless shots and enlightened by the top-notch performances of Seweryn and Ogrodnik, “The Last Family” also scintillates with major production values with prominence for the appropriate period settings and costume design, an unbreakable storytelling suitable to the challenging structure, and an arresting soundtrack spanning several decades. This is an arty biopic not to be missed.

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Goodbye Berlin (2016)

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Directed by Fatih Akin
Country: Germany

German director of Turkish descent, Fatih Akin, belongs to that group of filmmakers that struggle at some point in their careers after a brilliant start replete with numerous accolades. His undeniable talent was materialized in many prizes with top-rated dramas such as “Head-On”, winner of the Golden Berlin Bear in 2004, and “The Edge of Heaven”, Cannes best screenplay and prize of the ecumenical jury in 2007. Even when he adventured himself in comedy with “Soul Kitchen”, the results weren’t bad at all, but his following steps, the documentary “Garbage in the Garden of Eden” and the drama “The Cut”, related to the Armenian genocide, didn’t bring the usual gratification to the fans of his cinema. That’s why his next move was awaited with some expectation.

Mr. Akin opted to have a go at the widely explored coming-of-age topic with the comedy drama “Goodbye Berlin”, starring Tristan Gobel and the debutant Anand Batbileg as two teen fugitives from Berlin during the summer holidays.
 
Gobel is Maik Klingenberg, a 14-year-old Berliner whose character intrigues due to a staggering mix of naivety and honesty. He loses his self-confidence when Tatjana (Aniya Wendel), the schoolmate he’s in love with, doesn’t invite him to her birthday party. His apathetic state doesn’t get better when his teacher rebukes him for a composition in which he tells about his alcoholic mother and her considerable time spent in the spa, a funnier way of addressing the rehabilitation clinic, where she willingly goes when stepping off the limits.

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His sad days come to an end after he befriends the new student, Tschik (Batbileg), a delinquent Jewish-gipsy orphan with a tough-adult attitude and whose doubtful reputation is reinforced by the rumors that he’s associated with the Russian mafia. Both decide to embark on a road trip in a stolen blue Lada Niva, listening to Richard Clayderman’s “Ballade Pour Adeline” and embracing every strange occurrence and encounter with a burning passion proper from their age. 
While heading to Wallachia, where Tschick’s grandparents live, they bump into Isa (Mercedes Müller), a starving, smelly girl with candid blue eyes who asks for a ride after helping them stealing gas. She intends to catch the bus that will take her to Prague, where her half-sister lives, but not before flirting with the tremulous Maik.

Confessions, promises, and a mutual understanding that feels truly sweet, bolster the trio’s friendship.
Akin reserves the best thrills to the final part, when the troublemakers Maik and Tschik are forced to change direction to escape the police, with unfortunate consequences that could have had much worse repercussions.

Based on Wolfgang Herrndorf's best-selling 2010 novel "Why We Took the Car”, the film shows how Fatih Akin is an adaptable filmmaker, whose interesting vision gets limited and blurred whenever he doesn’t go deeper than the surface, whether emotionally or narratively. 

The feel-good “Goodbye Berlin”, in all its audacity and insubordination, doesn’t break new ground but didn’t let me down either. Even with ups and downs in its fluidity, and with levels of entertainment that oscillate between the good and the average, I didn’t feel that my time had been wasted in the end.

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Soul On a String (2016)

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Directed by Zhang Yang
Country: China

I’ve always admired the way that Beijing-born filmmaker Zhang Yang handles a story. The gentle “Shower”, his first and major hit, saw the daylight in 1999, but other compelling dramas succeeded, brimming with sufficient points of interest to deserve approval, namely, “Sunflower” and “Getting Home”.

His epic and subliminal revenge tale, “Soul On a String”, adapted from two novels by Tibetan writer Tashi Dawa, may feel excessively contemplative in some passages but it’s also smartly written, marvelously photographed, and sagaciously detailed.
Rooted in ancient tradition, the storyline revolves around Tabei (Kimba), a sinful man who was entrusted with a special mission after finding a precious Tibetan stone in the mouth of a deer. Blessed by a sapient monk, Tabei sets off to the Buddha’s sacred Palm Print Mountain, where the stone has to be returned. The arduous journey works also as an opportunity for a soul cleanse, as well as to bring his life to a right path.

After a one-night stand with the solitary and obstinate Chung (Quni Ciren), the traveler will have her company for the trip, even if he doesn't want to. Later, a homeless dumb kid, whom they name Pu (Yizi Danzeng), joins them on the adventure. In truth, he becomes extremely useful with his psychic powers and keen sense of orientation. Chung is the one to be happy with his presence since she's more adept of children than swords.

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Crossing amazing landscapes to avoid the insecure main roads, the confident Tabei and his friends head north, aware that a few mysterious men keep following them. 
One of these men is Gedan (Siano Dudiom Zahi), a shadowy cowboy and writer who searches for answers himself, while the other two, Guori (Zerong Dages) and Kodi (Lei Chen), are two brothers who want to avenge the death of their dad, killed by Tabei’s late father in a duel. The younger brother is so enraged that, for the last ten years, he has been killing every man named Tabei that crossed his path.

The camera, peeking from any possible direction, captures stunning sceneries whose combination of color and light would make a great impressionistic painting. The splendid, ultra-polished widescreen cinematography belongs to Guo Daming, who was also preponderant last year in Yang’s “Paths of the Soul”.

The director, privileging tense generational predicaments over bloodsheds, also infuses a prickly, spot-on humor into his storytelling.

The engaging “Soul On a String” is an unparalleled Buddhist-Western odyssey that effectively earned my attention during its nearly two and a half hours.

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Heartstone (2016)

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Directed by Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson
Country: Iceland / Denmark

Heartstone, the directorial debut by the Icelandic Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson, is a coming-of-age drama that leaves an ambivalent impression as the force of the written material opposes to some obstacles regarding pace, duration, and cinematography.

The story is set mostly during summer in a small Icelandic farming village, where the teens Thor (Baldur Einarsson) and Christian (Blaer Hinriksson) are best friends. They support each other when an older red-haired bully messes with them, or when they have a hard time at home, which is a recurrent situation. 
Thor’s father left home and headed south where he now lives with a much younger woman. Attempting to suppress loneliness, Thor’s mother, Hulda (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir) occasionally sleeps with a ‘friend’. However, this behavior doesn’t please her daughter, Rakel (Jónína Pórdís Karlsdóttir), who in a defying hysteria hits her mom with words and fists. Also Christian is far from enjoying happy moments next to his family, living constantly ashamed of his irresponsible, alcoholic father, Sigurdur (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson), who can’t really offer him what a father should offer to a son at such a complicated age.

As they hang out with other friends, their sexuality eagerly awakens, becoming an imminent, inescapable, and sometimes painful aspect to deal with. Thor has a crush on Beth (Diljá Valsdóttir), who reciprocates the feeling. She and her friend Hanna (Katla Njálsdóttir) are the ones coaxing the boys to embrace the wildest adventures. Thor, for instance, reveals an urgency to enter adulthood and gets constrained for still lacking pubic hairs. It’s not rare that his sister finds him jerking off at home while looking at pornographic material, an embarrassment that is quickly overcome by spending time with his friends.

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The solid friendship between Thor and Christian is abruptly put to a test when the latter can’t pretend anymore he’s gay. He naturally makes clear that what he feels for Thor is more than a simple friendship. Guilt and confusion quickly strike them as the story develops with slightly more interesting occurrences being reserved for the final section.

Transpiring some genuine emotions, Heartstone feels somewhat flat in the execution and a bit stuck in its moves. Christian’s character, with all its dilemmas, should be further explored and sometimes the family issues feel like pretexts to make us pity them rather than setting the atmosphere that surrounds them.

Often enveloped by shadows and darkness, the dismal visuals almost provide a proper refuge to the restless characters throughout their journey of self-discovery, which happens in a claustrophobic environment. 

The performances by the debutant boy actors, Einarsson and Hinriksson, were driven with an honest, dramatic strength, leading the film to win the Queer Lion at Venice Film Festival.

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Detroit (2017)

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Directed by  Kathryn Bigelow
Country: USA

American filmmaker, Kathryn Bigelow, has been hugely influential in the recent history of cinema, specifically within the war genre, where gems like “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” truly deserved the dozens of awards collected a bit from everywhere in the US.

Detroit”, her tenth feature film, centers on the true events occurred in 1967 at the Algiers Motel, Detroit, Michigan, when the city was under a civil disturbance known as 12th Street riot. Following a screenplay by Mark Boal, the film portrays a different kind of war, but still a war, and one so important to remind, especially during these absurdly tense and rowdy days we’re living in today due to racial prejudice.

Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), two Motown black singers who separate from their other bandmates in the heat of the street riots, manage to find a room at the Algiers Motel, where they meet two gorgeous white girls, Julie Ann and Karen, visitors from Ohio. They are visibly relieved for having escaped the ugly warlike scenario that keeps going on out there. The streets are packed with African Americans who violently protest against the discrimination and frequent brutality of the white cops, who, spreading violence, inflame the revolt even more. The turmoil reaches such a dimension that Governor Romney and President Johnson send the Michigan Army National Army and two Airborne Divisions, respectively, to a Detroit on fire.

The two couples and three other acquaints end up trapped in the room of a war veteran after a harmless yet compromising shot with a blank handgun had set the infamous police officer Phillip Krauss and his ruthless squad on their trail.

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Willing to find out who the shooter was, Krauss, whose precedent procedures showed his proneness for violence, invades the room to spread fear and death among the present in a clear abuse of power. Will Poulter gives his best performance to date, exhibiting a juvenile physiognomy that masks a heart of stone and unprincipled nature.

Minimal yet precious help comes from Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a private security guard who, for some reason, earned some immunity, even being African-American.

Ms. Bigelow sculpted this drama with vibrant looks and settings, capturing the essence of the late 60s and populating it with fervent confrontations and tumultuous scenarios of hate, violence, and destruction. This tenebrous depiction opposes to the happy vibes that transpire from the R&B and soul songs that compose the film’s soundtrack, which besides originals, also includes names such as Marvin Gaye, Brenda Holloway, and Martha Reeves.

Considerable buzz has been going on around this drama due to its topic and timing, and also the way it was addressed. The recreation of the facts is partly observant, partly opportunistic, but “Detroit” is as much valid as any other story, fact-based or not. For obvious reasons, it can’t be compared with Bigelow’s previous highlights, which live more from the suspense and alertness on the battlefield rather than the insult, prejudice, and humiliation factors associated with the present case.

A parallelism with the present times is inevitable, and lessons can be learned from this dark episode of the American history. With them, we should be able to improve mentalities and evolve as human beings.

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Dunkirk (2017)

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Directed by Christopher Nolan
Country: USA / UK / other

Over-the-top American director Christopher Nolan has been giving us countless moments of amazing cinema through irreproachable works such as “Memento”, "Batman Begins”, “The Dark Knight”, and “Inception”.
If last year’s “Interstellar” didn’t catch my eye like the ones cited above, his historical war drama, “Dunkirk”, appealed to me through its quirky storytelling, thrilling scenes captured with the help of a phenomenal camerawork, the clever edition by Lee Smith, and the dazzling visuals supervised by the competent director of photography, Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Interstellar”, “Her”, “Spectre”).

During the World War II, the allied English and French troops get trapped in the Northern French city of Dunkirk, after being pushed to that deadlock by the enemy’s implacable actions. Only a miracle can save thousands of stranded soldiers who, surrounded by Germans and constantly under threat, wait patiently on the beach for an evacuation that seems to take forever to occur.
 
Nolan cleverly assembled his version of this famous warlike episode by portraying it through three different perspectives - land, sea, and air.
 
The mole of Dunkirk harbor is where Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), the pier-master, and Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy) are stationed. They analyze the difficult situation, showing visible signs of preoccupation as they are occasionally attacked by enemy planes. Without losing face in front of their men, they become visibly disappointed and hopeless when informed that the British Navy was relying on small civilian vessels to rescue their men rather than larger capital ships. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is one of the lucky British privates that managed to reach the beach safely. Instead of joining the long lines to embark, he sneaks in a fishing trawler anchored outside the Allied jurisdiction area with two other friends. They are now part of a group of wounded Scottish soldiers who wait for the rising tide to be evacuated. However, an unforeseen German attack will thwart their plans.

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The sea segment follows the courageous sailor Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), voluntary civilians who operate their small boat independently to help the Allies. They are exceptionally joined by George (Barry Keoghan), their teenage assistant ashore, for an eventful trip marked by the rescue of a soldier in shock (Cillian Murphy), the only survivor of a wrecked ship put down by a German U-boat. 

At sea, they also spot three RAF Spitfires flying over their heads. The pilots have very specific orders to provide air support in Dunkirk, but struggle with fuel limitations. The aerial sequences become easily the most spectacular scenes, also displaying realistic and often jaw-dropping air battles.

The images speak for themselves and despite the three distinct fields of action, the film’s narrative never feels disjointed or confusing. You won’t see smiles here, but the hope never abandons our heroes whose struggle becomes quite palpable. One can feel their unshakeable camaraderie, even in the toughest moments.

Dunkirk” was conceived in a more psychological way rather than sending us directly to the battlefields. This was another aspect I truly enjoyed. There’s no bloodshed or explicit violence, and the enemy is an invisible presence that haunts and excruciates.

Nolan is a perfectionist and his remarkable account of Dunkirk’s episode spawns a distinguished and unpretentious epic war film whose outcome is powerful and sublime.

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Marjorie Prime (2017)

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Directed by Michael Almereyda
Country: USA

Michael Almereyda’s filmmaking style was never easy to catch up. His past films, regardless amazing premises, usually fell into torpid atmospheres and narrative impasses. “Nadja”, “Hamlet”, and “Cymbeline” are elucidative examples of potentially good stories that fail to deliver in the end. Even though, I was able to give him some credit a couple of years ago, when “Experimenter” came out.

Now he’s back with “Marjorie Prime”, a thoughtful and psychological science-fiction drama that truly fits the current times, and which I consider his best work to date.

Almereyda starts by introducing us Marjorie (Lois Smith), an 86-year-old former violinist who apparently is experiencing some trouble with her memory. While we, the viewers, immediately suspect of Alzheimer disease, she sits and talks with a computerized hologram (a Prime) of her husband, Walter (Jon Hamm), who exhibits the same physical aspect he got when he was 40. It was Marjorie who chose this version of him to facilitate and stimulate their communication. He basically keeps repeating old family stories over and over again while studying carefully her reactions. From their warmish conversations, sometimes perplexingly formal, we learn that Marjorie has a daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), whose husband, Jon (Tim Robbins), she was never fond of. After Tess and Jon are brought to the stage, we realize that, just like Walter, Marjorie is a Prime.

At an early stage, we see that Jon struggles with a drinking problem aggravated by pills. While under their effect, he unburdens his mind by embarking on private, often bitter, conversations with the attentive yet icy Walter, in which he revisits forbidden past occurrences like the death by suicide of Tess’ brother, Damian, who left an indelible, painful mark on everyone’s chest.

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In a similar way, Tess attempts to open up with the figure of her dead mother, but in a more reserved way. She furnishes some more information to Marjorie’s Prime, who avidly absorbs everything fast and clear, even when the info is scarce and feels slightly devious. At this point, we discover another scar in the family as Tess talks about an estranged daughter who refuses to talk to her.

If the story wasn't intriguing enough to keep us searching for the core of the problem, we unexpectedly realize that the real Tess is also dead, and the person we see is just another Prime, who listens, processes, and apprehends information only to mold itself and behave according to the expected. This hired, disturbing tech chain of ultra fast assimilation and response takes us to a dissimulated reality of a painful solitude and apparent well-being. Things get a bit more real and clear whenever Jon becomes ‘tipsy’, as he likes to call it.

Anticipating the disconcerting finale, both ironically funny and achingly sad, we can observe a debilitated, aging Jon taken care by his granddaughter, also called Marjorie. This is a particularly important scene, a crucial passage that helps us understand the desolation of the whole scenario.

By focusing on a complex theme and approaching it through simple processes, Almereyda mounts a gloomily visionary tale that besides dealing with loss, also warns us about the unstoppable advances of modern technology to apparently suppress people from feeling more and more lonely. “Marjorie Prime”, which has a play by Jordan Harrison as its source, is a no-nonsense exercise full of demonstrative close-ups, in which deceitful specters are imagined to ease empty, lost souls.

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Lady Macbeth (2017)

Directed by William Oldroyd
Country: UK

Emergent British actor Florence Pugh delivers a monstrous performance, in both senses of the word, in “Lady Macbeth”, a pitch-dark period drama that focuses on a Shakespearean main character that ascends from hell, exposing her murderous instincts to solve all the predicaments that may destabilize her will.

In 19th-century England, the young Katherine (Pugh) is sold to the Lesters, a wealthy rural family composed of Boris (Christopher Fairbank), an authoritarian old man, and his bitter, tormented son, Alexander (Paul Hilton). She was bought to marry the latter, who treats her with bluntness and rudeness while strangely keeps rejecting her sexually. This behavior drives her crazy and increases her craving for an affair, which eventually happens with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), the impertinent new stableman.

Obstinate and prepotent, Katherine, who had been strictly forbidden to leave the house, refuses to comply with the rules of her ruling father-in-law and remorselessly poisons him to have her way.

When her estranged husband returns after a long absence, confronting her with the affair already made public, Katherine doesn’t feel intimidated. On the contrary, she provokes his wrath by exhibiting Sebastian to him. The ambitious lovers murder the dishonored Alexander and fulfill their dream: to become the masters of the entire estate.

Everything went exactly according to the plan, except for the unexpected arrival of a strange and self-assured woman who brings her grandson Teddy to live in the house. According to her, the young boy is the son of Alexander and her daughter, his mistress. 

Cerebrally insidious and wildly violent by turns, “Lady Macbeth” was elegantly put together and thoroughly controlled by the first-time director William Oldroyd, who followed a screenplay by Alice Birch, based on the novel “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Russian novelist and playwright Nikolai Leskov. Opting for an unadorned filmmaking style likely influenced by the also English Andrea Arnold and Terence Davis, the gifted newcomer thoroughly portraits a possessive, lusty relationship poisoned by a murky feline woman whose impulsive, tenebrous, and immoral acts make her a worthy object of study in psychology and psychiatry.

This is a fantastic example on how to seek inspiration in past literary works and create bold fresh material.
Unusual, uncomfortable, austere, and tragic, this drama film will likely give you the bitterest taste you’ve had this year in the movie theaters.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Directed by David Leitch
Country: USA / other

Actor/producer Charlize Theron embodies a sexy, unemotional, and methodical MI6 agent in “Atomic Blonde”, a spy action thriller set in Berlin during the Cold War era and directed by David Leitch, uncredited co-director of “John Wick”. The film co-stars James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, and Toby Jones.

Written by Kurt Johnstad, the script was inspired by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart's 2012 graphic novel "The Coldest City", but the natural strength of the occurrences described in the book failed to be fully passed to the big screen.

Lorraine Broughton (Theron) recalls an eventful Berliner mission that served to retrieve an important list containing the names of all double agents operating in the Soviet Union. She's being submitted to a tight interrogation led by Eric Gray (Jones), her superior, and Emmett Kurzfeld (Goodman), a CIA agent working with the MI6. As she talks, her story is reconstructed visually to include not only the mischievous collaboration with Percival (McAvoy), a cunning agent and snitch who secretly passes to the side of Brenovych (Roland Møller), a crude arms dealer and KGB associate, but also the lesbian relationship with the seductive French informer Delphine (Sofia Boutella) and the necessity to escort and protect Spyglass (Marsan), a former Stasi agent who having memorized all the names on the coveted list, became an easy target for the Russian clan.

Although throwing dynamic punches with avidness when not sharing hot moments with her lover, our heroine needed to be characterized with a bit more charisma and style to captivate and turn us into unconditional supporters. Despite a few periods where the film literally gets stranded in muddy waters, the last section becomes substantially more convincing and slightly more thrilling than the previous. At least we had some more psychological tension around instead of the uninventive physical fights.

Atomic Blonde” is moderately violent, widely familiar, and boasts a fantastic retro soundtrack that may trigger some nostalgia. The final revelations, almost functioning as an antidote for the mechanical processes adopted by Leitch, piqued a small amount of curiosity until the final credits roll. Notwithstanding, its title won’t be considered as an unmissable spy flick because the story loses emotional grip with the routines succeeding one another without novelty or originality.

War For the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Directed by Matt Reeves
Country: USA

War For The Planet of the Apes” is the third installment of the saga and the second directed by Matt Reeves (“Let Me In”, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"), who knows how to structure tension at the same time that pursues an undeviating narrative line without falling in excesses or trivialities.

Co-written by Reeves and the executive producer Mark Bomback, the film unsurprisingly sets humans and apes battling for the control of the Earth. The modest cast includes Andy Serkis once again as Caesar, the leader and bravest of the apes, and Woody Harrelson as Colonel, his ruthless opponent and human supremacist.

After trying to preserve the peace through pacific ways, the fearless Caesar cries the loss of his wife and two children in an ambush led by Colonel’s troops. He sees no other choice than abandon his vulnerable home and search for revenge. Firstly, he needs to find the monkey who betrayed him and then deal with Colonel, who runs a concentration camp for apes, forcing them to hard labor and depriving them of food and water.

On his way to accomplishing this impossible mission, Caesar and his allies show their compassionate nature when they rescue and accept an orphan little girl they call Nova (Amiah Miller) as she was part of their own clan. Because to give is to receive, they are helped and guided by Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a traumatized, frightened yet funny former prisoner of a human zoo.

The highly appealing scenarios, compellingly photographed by Michael Seresin, emphasize blazing emotions that arise from a powerful quest for freedom and justice, which makes “War For The Planet of the Apes”, one of the most accomplished blockbusters recently released. Besides being the most satisfying module of the series, it kept the expectations high until the end without ever disappointing in its procedures and moral examinations. 

This epic war fantasy is painted with the dark hues drawn from the suffering and despair of losing loved ones as the menace of extinction becomes real. 
Matt Reeves confirms his directorial skills by using a positive, clear, and resonant cinematic voice.

Baby Driver (2017)

Directed by Edgar Wright
Country: USA / UK

British cineaste Edgar Wright has one of those creative minds that you always expect a lot from. He traditionally delivers bold and nimble stories whose course of events suit tastes of both young and old generations. His filmography might not be so extensive, but includes a trio of mandatory flicks, in which he masterfully blended action and comedy genres, gaining deserved praise and a legion of followers around the world. They are “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”, two masterpieces, and also the extremely entertaining “The World’s End”. Only “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” didn't work for me, feeling like the weakest link.

His new film, an American crime adventure entitled “Baby Driver”, seemed to be the right spin his career needed. Yet, the enthusiasts of his previous movies won’t find that outstanding, sparkling humor but rather considerable amounts of tense activity packed with adrenaline. 

Set in Atlanta, Georgia, the story focuses on Baby (Ansel Elgort), an orphan young man with a baby-face and phenomenal driving skills, who is also a music lover. Music is an indispensable factor in his life since it eases his tinnitus symptom, making him even bolder behind the wheel.

Traumatized by the accident that victimized their parents, Baby has been working as a driver for a crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), who uses him for violent heists. At first, his collaboration served to pay for having stolen one of the Doc’s cars, but when one last job is not proposed but required, it becomes a totally different story.

Boasting a confident personality, Baby embraces the task with his habitual coolness while his nonchalant posture arises some suspicion in the thugs hired by Doc – “you cannot just being in crime without being a little criminal”, one of them said.

Only one aspect makes him ponder about the uncomfortable situation he got himself into. It’s his other half, Debora (Lily James), a deli waitress with an enchanting voice who also vibrates with music.

“Baby Drive”, a stylish combination of Winding-Refn’s “Drive” and Affleck’s “The Town”, runs at a hurried yet safe speed as it flourishes with a diversified pop/rock soundtrack in the background. 
If Spacey accomplishes his role in a sober performance, the young Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars”) jumps to the spotlight, showing he’s ready for even bigger challenges.

Mr. Wright mounted his plot with a peculiarly interesting character in the center, but when it comes to the conclusion, he was a bit of a letdown. Unfortunately, the justice doesn’t have so much consideration for sly little criminals in the guise of good Samaritans.

The Beguiled (2017)

Directed by Sofia Coppola
Country: USA

The Beguiled”, the beautifully-photographed new drama by Cannes' best director Sofia Coppola (“Lost In Translation”, “The Virgin Suicides”), provides an acceptable cinematic preparation that concentrates sexual tension and frustration as a compact cocktail ready to explode. However, it fails that final and decisive move to impress.

Ms. Coppola wrote the script based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel of the same name and pointed the way to a stellar cast that includes Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning.

The film’s course of events takes place in Virginia during the Civil War, and starts with a wounded ‘Yankee’ soldier, Corporate John McBurney (Farrell), being rescued by a young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), when she was picking up mushrooms in the woods. He’s obviously an exposed deserter in enemy territory.
Unhesitant, the girl accepts to help him, taking him to the school run by the fearless Martha Farnsworth (Kidman). She supervises the only tutor that didn’t leave, Edwina Morrow (Dunst), and five young female students of different ages.

Ms. Farnsworth immediately relies on her nursing skills, managing to save the life of a soldier who afterward shows to be kind, considerate, and thankful for the caring treatment he was subjected to. However, his presence arouses a natural curiosity among the women, who clearly change their way of dressing and behavior because of him. The deliberate seductive posture sharpens the competition among the girls and gives some power to the Corporate, who inevitably becomes the center of all the attentions.

When almost recovered, McBurney promises his love to the dissatisfied Edwina, sets Ms. Farnsworth’s heart on fire while indulging in frivolous conversation and brandy, but ends up in the bed of Alicia (Fanning), the cheekiest and older of the girls. His reckless behavior triggers an unpremeditated disgrace that will change their lives forever. While the soldier uncovers his darkest side, the women change from sweetly flirtatious to shockingly apprehensive, and everything feels like a punishment for playing the perfidious games of enticement.

Coppola’s direction is competent and mature, but even so, she couldn’t reach the essence of the characters’ emotions. Hence, the tale becomes suffocated with female unanimity and bourgeois pose, aspects that become pronounced by the end, during the most difficult circumstances. Regarding this particular segment of the film, Ms. Farnsworth’s bravery could be much better explored while McBurney’s ultimate torment should have had a longer and convincing healing process.

Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of “The Beguiled” ends up accomplishing the mission with gorgeous visuals, adequate period settings, and nice acting. Yet, it could never bring narrative excellence or add further substance when compared to the 1971 classic version released by the hand of Don Siegel.

The Circle (2017)

Directed by James Ponsoldt
Country: USA

The Circle” is a drag of a psychological thriller, in which nothing works favorably. I was expecting something more exciting from James Ponsoldt, a skillful director who brought us little gems such as “The Spectacular Now” and “The End of the Tour”. He co-wrote the script with Dave Eggers based on the latter’s 2013 novel of the same name.

Emergent actress Emma Watson embodies Mae Holland, who enthusiastically embraces The Circle, an Internet-related organization headed by Mr. Bailey (an apathetic Tom Hanks), who is persuasive about his ideas and generous in his gratifications.

Blinded by ambition and boosted by self-confidence, Mae undertakes a delicate role in the company after being rescued from an unsettling solo kayak adventure. Her obsession with the job costs her one good friend and puts her parents in a very embarrassing situation.

Chip implants, fancy minuscule cameras, overwhelming control techniques, and powerful communication systems based on the Internet are all technological baits that ended up being pointless in a story where the dramatic side was ridiculously feeble.

Other films, like “Red Road”, have succeeded in addressing surveillance as a relevant conditioner of freedom, but that is not the case in “The Circle”.
On top of ineffective, intellectually limited, and emotional parched, the film is way too long, lacking proper tension and fluent narrative.