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.

After Love (2017)

Directed by Joachim Lafosse
Country: France / Belgium

Joachim Lafosse is a Belgian auteur with a propensity to describe complex family affairs with objective accuracy and sharp vision. Even though, “After Love”, his new dramatic creation starring Bérénice Bejo and Cédric Kahn, is a timid follow-up of the revered “Our Children”, released five years ago.
Fanny Burdino, Thomas Van Zuylen, Mazarine Pingeot, and Lafosse himself, are credited as writers, and the story was specified to extract the maximum acting skills from the pair of leading actors.

Bejo is Marie, the only daughter of a wealthy couple who bought her the beautiful house she’s living in. Khan plays her husband, Boris, an indebted handyman who seems more interested in playing the victim than finding a proper job. Two beautiful daughters are a result from their love, which gradually came to an end after a 15-year marriage. Even in the verge of splitting up, Boris has an agreement with Marie that consists in looking after the girls every Wednesday nights. Regardless the rules imposed by his soon-to-be ex-wife, Boris keeps breaking them, insisting in marking his presence at all times. He even overstays and sleeps at the house, sometimes acting as if everything was fine. Well, it’s not fine, because Marie admits she doesn’t love him anymore and all the moves he attempts only make her mad.

The saturated relationship causes a relentless friction that translates into many arguments where aggressive voices and behaviors scare the poor little girls out. This scenario is a real torment for everyone - parents, kids, and even friends who, when invited, feel overwhelmed with Boris’ acerbic posture. It’s even painful for us, viewers. Afterward, in order to release the accumulated tension, Lafosse resorts to the melancholic music of Chopin through a rendition of “Piano Sonata Nº3” by Artur Rubenstein.

Bearably tolerating each other, Marie and Boris, still have their doubts, especially during happy moments spent with the kids or when the desire of their bodies surpass the porous petrifaction of their hearts. 
The reason why they put themselves in this situation is purely financial. Marie wants to sell the house for a fair price and grant one-third to Boris, but he refuses, claiming 50% to cover his effort and time put on reparations of the property.

Lafosse examines this burdensome relationship with focal sharpness and emotional bait, however, the constant pace in conjunction with the cyclic relapse of the predicaments become slightly fastidious as the time advances. After playing their love/hate game for some time, the couple finally settles things out with dull expressions on their faces. There is hardly any aspect to be learned from this plausible exercise, except perhaps that marriage can gradually transfigure and take you from heaven to hell.

The Ornithologist (2017)

Directed by João Pedro Rodrigues
Country: Portugal / other

The films of the Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues are usually cleverly mounted to pique curiosity, even if the accessibility of the challenging narratives is sometimes limited. I found “To Die Like a Man” a worthy experience, regardless of its flaws, and was even more impressed with the mournful “The Last Time I Saw Macao”.

His new drama, “The Ornithologist”, raises the level of abstraction when compared to the previous tales, but still comprehends homosexual connotations, crime, and mystery. What is different here is a pronounced surrealism where the contemplation of nature mixes with religious symbolism and folklore elements to form a puzzling peregrination toward a spectacular Christian conversion.

The crisp images are deliberately protracted to make us absorb every single detail in the devious path of Fernando (Paul Hamy), an ornithologist who is rescued by two female Chinese pilgrims after his kayak has been dragged by the force of the river. The two disoriented women, Lin (Chan Suan) and Fei (Han Wen), were doing the religious route of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, but got lost, ending up in Portugal, close to the border between the two countries.

The Chinese pilgrims affirm to be haunted by Tangu – the spirit of the forest – and start acting strangely while asking for Fernando’s protection and guidance to return to the right trail. I couldn’t have been more surprised when Fernando, a positive agnostic, awakens tied to a tree, deprived of his priceless freedom. Under a cursing spell, the women talk about castrating him on the next morning, but he was lucky enough to escape before dawn.

With no map and no ID, and carrying a useless cell phone, Fernando embarks on a series of bizarre experiences that includes being followed by a white pigeon, witness an ominous folkloric ritual, and having odd encounters with a young deaf-mute shepherd named Jesus (Xelo Cagiao), with whom he involves himself sexually, and three mythical Latin huntresses on horse.

Along the way, we learn that Fernando’s mental health depends on some pills whose bottle got out of his sight. Is this a bad dream or demonic reality? The impertinent presence of an owl annunciates further oddities.

Amidst heavy symbolism, punctilious allegory, and religious metaphors, the mystic tale loses a bit of direction somewhere in the middle, before Fernando rebirths as Anthony (director’s cameo) and return evangelized to the civilization, hand-in-hand with Jesus’ twin brother, Thomas.

With an approach that borrows a few stylistic constituents from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, this is all about belief and self-discovery. 
The adventure can be as much tortuous as the paths of faith itself and yet sin and repentance are not taken seriously here. Some viewers will find “The Ornithologist” pretentious and philosophically boring while some others will see it as an avant-garde cult film of haunting expression. It will all depend on your openness and state of mind. 

Harmonium (2017)

Directed by Koji Fukada
Country: Japan

Japanese helmer Koji Fukada, active since 2008, has in "Harmonium" his best film so far. As an advocate of solemn dramas with surprising twists, Mr. Fukada, who also penned the script, keeps us entangled in a web of emotions, revelations, and startles, that pushes his film beyond the surface. The severe psychological backbone of the story ended up convincing the members of the jury panel at Cannes Film Festival, where the film won the Un Certain Regard prize.

Kanji Furutachi, a regular presence in Fukada films, is Toshio, a metalworker who lives a quiet life in the company of his wife, Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and their young daughter, Hotaru.
While mother and daughter always pray to God before eating, Toshio eats avidly and almost doesn’t talk. In truth, and regardless his love for them, he doesn’t pay much attention to their needs and often falls in rudimentary behaviors.

On a certain day, Toshio gets the visit of an intriguing old friend, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), who just got out of jail, where he has spent 11 years for killing a young man. Toshio immediately hires this man and invites him to live with him and his family, a strange decision that makes Akie in the verge of an attack of nerves. At this point, and observing the two men’s ways, we conclude that there’s a past debt to be paid off.

However, little by little, Akie is beguiled by the gentleness and availability of Yasaka, who acts respectful, attentive, and becomes very handy at home. He even teaches Hotaru playing a song in the harmonium for her upcoming public performance. Akie spends more and more time with him and gets emotional when he goes into his troubled past. Forbidden kisses are exchanged between them on a sunny weekend day in the countryside as the family reunites with a friend. Still, Akie continues to resist him at home, frustrating his furtive advances and forcing a different personality to emerge in him.

Her disappointment and guilt are immeasurable when Hotaru is found on a sidewalk, inanimated with thick blood covering her head and with the rancorous Yasaka at her side. The madness expressed on his face dissipates all the possible doubts about the perpetrator of the monstrous act.
 
Eight years after, Yasaka remains untraceable while Hotaru, completely paralyzed, is perpetually confined to a wheelchair. The couple has opposite reactions: while Toshio dreams with revenge, Akie is haunted by visions of the murderer and her nervous system is visibly damaged.
 
The arrival of Takashi (Taiga), Toshio's young new apprentice, will bring additional information about Yasaka. After so many years, is the couple ready to give up searching for the beast who took their peace of mind?

The slow yet penetrating plot development emphasizes the inherent fatalism of a story that, besides crime and evilness, also deals with karma and selfishness. An unblinking camera mounts compulsive scenarios, where an obstinate symbolism with the red color leads to a creepy, unsettling finale. 

The surprising factor is crucial and only one scene by the end feels forced, when the couple finds someone that looks exactly like Yasaka from behind, teaching harmonium to a young girl.
Apart from that quibble, the director competently elucidates us about how hard it is, in certain cases, to forgive and forget.

Okja (2017)

Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Country: USA / South Korea

Idolized Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“Memories of Murder”, “Mother”, “Snowpiercer”) teams up with co-writer Jon Ronson (“Frank”) and gives life to “Okja”, a big American-Korean production featuring an excellent cast composed of Hollywood stars such as Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhaal, as well as South Korean child actress Ahn Seo-hyun.

This polychromatic fantasy with dramatic lure begins with the wealthy, inhumane, and eccentric Lucy Mirando (Swinton) giving a conference in which she explains her eco-friendly plans to develop a super pig in 26 different countries. The new species is announced for 10 years from then and will be genetically created by a group of top scientists headed by Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal), also a famous TV presenter known as ‘the very healthy guy’. 

The Korean super pig (likely a cross between a pig and a hypo) was baptized Okja and lives happily in the secluded mountains with the old farmer (Byun Hee-Bong) who raised it and his young granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun), with whom it developed an everlasting friendship.

The resolute Mija heads alone to Seoul after Okja has been selected as the best pig and taken to the sophisticated Mirando Corp. Building for lab tests before a pompous public presentation on New York's Broadway.

The rescue of her best friend couldn’t have been possible without the help of five efficient activists from the Animal Liberation Front, whose leader, Jay (Dano), is totally aware of the greediness and psychopathic history of the Mirandos.

Their plan consists in unmasking the scam engendered by Lucy, who even pays to reunite Mija and Okja in front of the TV cameras. Even succeeding on this front, they still have to deal with her evil twin sister, Nancy, and drive the animal home, safely.
 
The film guarantees a great deal of entertainment through superb action scenes and a handful of thrilling moments. Even fictitious, we can’t help caring about the animals and the grueling treatment they are subjected to at the slaughterhouse. However, the humor lacks spirit and is confined to a couple situations when Okja defecates like rain drops and farts with a reverberant sound.

Released on Netflix and executive produced by Brad Pitt, this dramatic and satirical action-packed adventure aims at animal exploitation, rapaciousness, media attention, and consumerism with a critical eye. Nevertheless, Mr. Joon-ho, with all his talent, was unable to reach the same levels of satisfaction delivered in his much more gripping previous films.

As expected, Ms. Swinton is sensational as the villainess, while the cinematography by Darius Khondji, who also did a great job this year in James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z”, is a major asset, making use of the light in the best possible ways, whether on establishing shots, medium shots, or very detailed close-ups.

The Bad Batch (2017)

Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
Country: USA

The Iranian vampire movie “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” was the brilliant debut that Ana Lily Amirpour needed to launch her career. The accolades given by the critic have pushed the English-born, LA-based filmmaker into a challenging position, infusing some pressure and piquing curiosity about what her next move should/would be. Would she remain faithful to the beautiful black-and-white cinematography? Would she stick to noirish themes?

Her sophomore feature “The Bad Batch” is now out, and answers these questions. It’s a no to the first one since the still attractive cinematography makes use of an arid color palette. And it’s a yes to the second question because the film, a dystopian cannibal love story, is enveloped in gloominess, human degradation, and distress.

The plot concerns a young woman, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), who is marked as a bad batch, which means an outcast doomed to live forever in a forlorn enclosed area located outside Texas. She’s given a gallon of water and abandoned at her own mercy, just to be captured by cannibal freaks who usually start sawing arms and legs first to satisfy their hunger.

The imagery comes accompanied by great music, whose styles range from hip-hop to synth pop to ambient electronica, and carries a wicked toxicity and a strong sense of despair that truly disturbs. Arlen covered by her own feces after having one arm and a leg cut off, or a crow pecking the eyes of a recently dead person, are not particularly agreeable images to look at. However, there are a few great digitally manipulated shots that captivate and even soothe the generalized anarchy.

Despite the violence of the scenes and this somewhat urgency in calling systematically our attention to darkness, the story proceeds with logic and some emotional bait.

Arlen has the luck to be rescued by members of an organization called The Comfort, headed by the enigmatic cult leader and drug baron The Dream (Keanu Reeves), and also finds an external ally, Miami Man (Jason Momoa), a Cuban muscleman who’s looking for his missing little daughter.
With all types of dangers surrounding them, they keep struggling to survive in a lawless land where you have to watch for yourself.

The eventful “The Bad Batch” is bitterly caustic in its conclusion. The finale makes us think over and realize how deep into darkness Amirpour’s mind can go. Still, a relentless search for life, regardless its form, is presented in this Jodorowsky-meets-Mad Max psychedelia.

The Lost City of Z (2017)

Directed by James Gray
Country: USA

Written for the screen by James Gray (“Two Lovers”, “The Immigrant”), who also directs, “The Lost City of Z” is a biographical film that mixes drama and adventure in unequal proportions. The story had David Grann’s book of the same name as a source and tells the path of Percy Fawcett, a British officer and explorer who truly believed in the existence of a lost city in the middle of the Amazon forest.

The first scenes take us to 1905 Cork in Ireland where Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) rejoices while hunting, one of his great passions. What we learn minutes later, is that Fawcett has an even bigger passion that he just can’t control: to explore remote lands, which no white man has reached before. The sparkle in his eyes shows an unmeasured contentment when the prestigious Royal Geographical Society sends him to Bolivia in the company of the loyal Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), a deep connoisseur of the Amazon rainforest, Corporal Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), and Tadjui, an Indian guide who, knowing the dangerous river like the fingers of his hand, tells him about hidden cities covered with gold and inhabited by ancient civilizations.

Fawcett’s initial curiosity about these stories becomes an obsession when he discovers archeological evidence in the jungle. Managing to dodge from brutal Indigenous attacks and conquering hunger and tiredness, he returns safely to his beautiful and understanding wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and their little son, Jack. Even expecting another child, Nina knows there’s nothing she can do to prevent her brave husband from going back to the jungle and following his dream. It’s his destiny and his will, and Hunnam conveys it perfectly well.

After another failed attempt, in which the infiltrator James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) jeopardizes all the expedition, Fawcett and Costin are impelled to serve their country in the WWI. The noble Major returns as a hero, but his eyes became so affected that a new expedition to South America seems out of the question.
However, with the support of his brave family, Fawcett returns to the impenetrable Amazon forest, this time having just his fearless son Jack (Tom Holland) by his side.

Standing somewhere between "Fitzcarraldo" and "Deliverance", "The Lost City of Z" is a valid tale of perseverance, passion, and courage. There is plenty to like in the stunning frames captured by director of photography Darius Kondji (“Delicatessen”, “Amour”), but the film loses some exuberance in the way it is portrayed. Also, it was a shame that Gray had given less emphasis to the expeditions and its possible perils to focus more on the dramatic side of the story. I felt that a bit more of tension wouldn’t harm or compromise the outcome. 

Hence, don’t expect to find an Indiana Jones here, but rather a character based on a real explorer who abandoned his life for the passion of adventure. Solid watching!

Mad World (2016)

Directed by Wong Chun
Country: Hong Kong

Following the guidelines of a tight script written by Florence Chan, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Chun releases his debut film, “Mad World”, with promises of having much more to give in the future. The film, a compulsive drama, looks at mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, not only addressing the typical pain and distress that torments patients in this condition but also embracing understanding, expectation, and hope.

The film’s central character is Tung (Shawn Yue), a former successful stockbroker who decided to left his job and personal life to take care of his bipolar mother. Curiously, he struggles with the illness himself, extremely aggravated after his mother’s death, which happened in strange circumstances. So strange that he had to go to court to dissipate all possible doubts related to the incident.

The camera lens fixates on Tung after he has been discharged from the mental hospital and accompanies him in the difficult processes of re-adaptation to the real world and reconnection with his estranged, aging father (Eric Tsang). The latter, a good-natured truck driver, is happy to have him in his tiny space in a single-room-occupancy building. However, he is also concerned with his son, and in fact, he has reasons for that since he stopped taking his pills.

Through recurrent flashbacks, Chung thoroughly reconstructs some key moments in the life of Tung, focusing on his depressing experiences when in the company of his mother, who could cry like a baby in his arms and then suddenly curse him with a painful fury. Moments with his heartless girlfriend Jenny (Charmaine Fong), with whom he will meet up again in an attempt to resume the relationship, are also introduced, helping us to better understand his troubled past.

When everything seemed to be favorable, hope is turned into humiliation, and a fulminant relapse goes on his way without mercy or compassion. Pitch-dark are the clouds that hover above his head, making his poor father hopeless as he keeps observing his son lying on the bed all day, crying, without eating or having the strength to take a shower. These are the most powerful scenes in the film, and they cut like sharp razors.

To complicate, the neighbors don’t feel comfortable when Tung is around and demand his departure. Besides his father, there’s only one person in the building who cares about him, earning his friendship: a bright, sensitive kid who read him Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince at night through the wall. 

“Mad World” is an unadorned, modest tale with a topic many times explored before. Still, and even slightly flawed, it thrives with steeped emotional affluence and gripping performances. Besides sincerity and zeal in the filmmaking and production design, Wong Chun endeavored to extract some light from a life of shadows. Hence, the Best New Director Awards given to him by the Golden Horse Film Festival and the Hong Kong Film Awards are not so surprising.

The Long Excuse (2016)

Directed by Miwa Nishikawa
Country: Japan

Japanese filmmaker Miwa Nishikawa (“Wild Berries”), whose career started under the tutelage of the acclaimed Hirokazu Koreeda, adapts her own 2015 novel, “The Long Excuse”, to the big screen with favorable results. The drama stars Masahiro Motoki (“Departures”) as Sachio Kinugasa, a successful writer too centered on himself to pay attention to his affectionate wife, Natsuko (Eri Fukatsu). She is a hair stylist who supported him when he most needed and always encouraged him to follow his dreams.

However, their 20-year marriage is going through a terrible phase and keeps deteriorating. With a circumspect sequence of close-ups, Ms. Nishikawa reinforces the state of mind of the couple right in the first scenes. While giving him a haircut, Natsuko heartily summons up agreeable moments of the past spent in his company, but she only gets indifference and bitterness back.

Sachio's life will make a U-turn when his wife suddenly dies in a bus accident in the company of her high school best friend, Yuki (Keiko Horiuchi). The fatality occurs when Sachio is at home fooling around with a younger woman, a student who immediately understands that his ego is too large for him to worry about the loss. Conversely, Yuki’s modest husband, Yoichi (Pistol Takehara), falls into a spiral of tears and despair.

Unexpectedly, his soul goes through a complete metamorphosis when he gets closer to Yoichi’s two children, Shinpei (Kenshin Fujita) and Akari (Tamaki Shiratori), who are temporarily entrusted to him so that their father can work overnight. Sachio was impressed with and compassionate for the highly sensitive Shinpei when he discloses he won’t be attending school anymore. Happy about finally doing the right thing, he undertakes the mission of helping the kid with the studies while also watching for his lovely little sister.
 
Well, he had no idea how many simple yet precious things he was about to learn from these kids, including exteriorizing feelings and opening his soul to others.
Besides the humane side of the story, the film also focuses on the gap between social classes by putting Sachio and Yoichi on different sides of the fence. On one side, there’s social status, vanity, and pretentiousness. On the other, modesty, honesty, and transparency.

Even resorting to some sentimentality, “The Long Excuse” reached me in the way it treats camaraderie, personal growth, and family ties with sagacious integrity.
Hence, the quibbles found in Nishikawa’s directorial procedures have almost no expression when compared to the message conveyed. And it feels so good seeing someone who became stuck moving on.

Ma Rosa (2016)

Directed by Brillante Mendoza
Country:  Philippines

Filipino director Brillante Mendoza (“Kinatay”, “Grandmother”) responds to the crisis lived in his country with another descriptive drama, set in the fervent Manila, about a couple, Rosa (Jaclyn Jose) and Nestor Reyes (Julio Diaz), whose illegal activities carry out in their small convenience store are subject to search by the corrupt local police, leading to their subsequent arrest.

With three children to feed, Rosa is clearly the head of the family and the one who maintains everything under control in the household. She provides for the family while taking an eye on her vicious husband. Since the money obtained from the store is not enough to cover the needs, the couple plunged head first into the ‘ice’ business, becoming popular small-scale crystal meth suppliers for the entire neighborhood. Their life has changed for better since then and, regardless some debts to collect here and there, they don’t have to worry so much. Besides, it's not uncommon to see Rosa helping out the ones knocking on her door to ask for financial help.

Emergent writer Troy Espiritu, in its first collaboration with Mendoza, makes his point by showing us how tough and contradictable life may be. Sometimes your best friends are the ones who turn you in. Other times, even those who you don’t get along with, can save you from the most sordid situations.

Another shocking focal point has to do with the open dishonesty embraced by the Filipino police agents. Those guys suck the transgressors to the bone, asking for bribing money with a scoffing posture that is painfully vexing. Through Rosa, they also reached her supplier, the young Jomar (Kristoffer King), who, in turn, works for a big fish. That means thick bundles of cash to their pockets and a reason to celebrate with roasted chicken and beers.

Not satisfied with what they got, the agents ask for a higher bail to free Nestor and Rosa, who become totally dependent on her children, Jackson (Felix Roco), Erwin (Jomari Angeles) and Raquel (Andy Eigenmann). Each of them will have to put their minds to work and find ways to collect the required sum. Nevertheless, thrills are not particularly increased.
Rosa’s sharp tongue and frequent vulgar language easily become the funny side of a story rendered with rawness and nearness, which make it pretty much alive, even considering the dark scenario.

The point here is how would you educate your own children in these circumstances to make them better human beings and look to the future with optimism and confidence. It makes you ponder about what options do they have in a place like Manila, where the struggles to survive are overpowering.

Understated, “Ma’ Rosa” comes deprived of the traumatic agony of “Kinatay” and the mordant plot of “Grandmother”, but still bestows this in-your-face authenticity that keeps us interested. The social realism conveyed here is not new, though, and Mendoza did it clearly better in previous moves. Even saturated with active camera movements, his direction feels a bit stiff, and the power of the scenes comes mostly from the capture of the poor milieu and the cast's forceful acting. 

Donald Cried (2016)

Directed by Kris Avedisian
Country: USA

Donald Cried” is an indie American dramedy and sympathetic buddy film with much to say about friendship, self-conceitedness, and complacency.
It marks the directorial debut of Kris Avedisian, who also stars as Donald and wrote the script based on his own 2012 short film of the same name.

The camera lens fixates on Peter Latang (Jesse Wakeman), a successful Manhattan banker forced to return to his Rhode Island hometown, where he intends to spend just one night or two in order to take care of things related to his grandmother, who suddenly passed away. 

Peter is visibly exasperated for having to go back to a place that brings embarrassing memories from a slice of his life he wants to forget. Things go from bad to worse when he realizes he left his wallet on the bus with crucial elements like ID, cash, and credit cards. Desperate and irritated, he doesn’t know how to react when he sees Donald Treebeck, his former best friend. The latter, after 15 years, still dwells in the past, but is truly glad to see him and insists on hanging out, while Peter, swallowing his superiority, asks for money and a ride.

Before heading to the nursing home where Peter’s grandma lived for the last six years, the reconnected friends experience an awkward encounter with a former schoolmate, play football in the snow with a drug dealer, meet with Donald’s brute boss and stepfather (Ted Arcidi), and pay a visit to another ‘amigo’, Toutey (Jeremy Furtado), who, even apathetic and laconic, brings around shameful situations from the past that only increase the nervousness among them.

The film’s climax just arrives in the second half, when Peter is cockblocked by the forlorn Donald, when he goes on a date with Kristin (Louisa Krause), a real estate agent whom he first pretended not to know. The scene, simultaneously embarrassing and funny, comes in the sequence of their mourning process, which would never have been the same without smoking weed.

The wry, dark humor is a constant, both explicit and implicit, and the garrulous Donald is the one who stirs things up with a disarming honesty, childish imagination, and the slyness of a thief. Just don’t expect those nice characters typical of this peculiar subgenre.

Apparently, most of the tension evaporates in the air. Hence, “Donald Cried” could have hastened to raise the pressure. However, if that was the case, this pragmatism that crafts every scene to become plausible and genuinely pulsing could be jeopardized.
 
Avedisian, opting for a handheld camera instead of fixed shots, succeeds in his efforts to engage audiences with an uncomplicated combination of ludicrousness, depression, and cynicism.

One Week and a Day (2016)

Directed by: Asaph Polonsky
Country: Israel

Every person reacts in a different way in the face of grief and loss. That's the main topic of “Two Weeks and a Day”, a bittersweet Israeli drama written and directed by American-born Israeli-raised Asaph Polonsky.

For a debut, the filmmaker managed to associate narrative clarity and very observant details to a slightly offbeat tale, which, despite the heaviness related to the subject itself, ended up being hilarious on various fronts.

The story begins on the last day of the Spivaks’ sitting shiva, a seven-day mourning period in which the coupled stays at home and receives visitors. Eyal (Shai Avivi) and Vicky Spivak (Evgenia Dodina) are still numbed by the loss of their only son, Ronnie, due to cancer. However, their postures after this painful reverse are completely divergent and their behaviors are a reflex of their state of minds. 

While Vicky suffers in silence but tries hard to go back to her normal life, Eyal is completely lost and disoriented. Despite having everything more or less organized in her head, Vicky may forget the dentist appointment, but immediately makes an effort to compensate the fault. She struggles to keep focused and on the right track, and even returns to school to teach again.
 
In turn, Eyad ignores work and persists in going back to the hospice where his son spent his last days. His intention is to retrieve his son’s colorful blanket but instead, he ends up stealing medicinal cannabis from a patient. In addition to this, he slaps his neighbor Karen (Carmit Mesilati Kaplan) and then fights her husband, Shmulik (Sharon Alexander). Yet, for our surprise, he starts hanging out with their neighbors' immature son, Zooler (Tomer Kapon), a sushi delivery guy who pretends to play an imaginary guitar and helps him rolling a joint for a first stoned experience. His wife’s facial expression shows disapproval of his conduct, but she kind of tolerates this weird phase he’s going through.

And that's how miserable and vulnerable they feel in their mourning process, desperately finding a cure for the endless pain in their souls.

Lots of zany scenes engendered by Polonsky carry a wry humor, at the same time that pushes the viewer to this permanent state of expectation. Thereby, you may expect several oddball situations that keep coming out without previous notice.

The rock music soundtrack is great and serves as a good pretext for Zooler to exteriorize tension with an indefatigable dance moment.
 
Avivi and Dodina don't let a drop of emotion behind during their memorable performances, regardless how much ridiculous their actions may look. In turn, Kapon conveys a pretty funny stupidity that insults and entertains.

Eschewing a particularly strong climax, “Two Weeks and a Day” develops with confidence toward a conclusion that brims with hope, resignation, and finally acceptance.

The Confessions (2016)

Directed by Roberto Andò
Country: Italy

Roberto Andò’s multi-lingual "The Confessions" looks at the filthy capitalist side of the world with a sneering disdain and confronts it with suggestive topics such as religion and the supernatural.

As it happened in the political satire "Long Live the Freedom" (2013), the Sicilian filmmaker teams up with the one and only Toni Servillo ("The Great Beauty", "Il Divo"), who plays a Carthusian monk turned into the main suspect in the death of the wealthy French economist Daniel Roché (Daniel Auteuil), director of the International Monetary Fund. The tragic incident occurs during a G8 confidential meeting convoked by the president himself, who, after a long confession with Father Roberto Salus (Servillo), a man of untrembling faith, is found in his hotel room choked with a plastic bag tied over his head.

None of the ministers or guests can leave the luxurious German hotel exclusively reserved for the event before the detective in charge concludes the investigations that will determine whether if it was a suicide or murder. The procedures take a long and sinuous course because the monk’s mouth is sealed by a strict vow of silence, which increases the mistrust and insecurity among the group.

By itself, the simple convocation of the monk for this meeting is an enigma, but the fact that he was the last person seeing the banker before his death along with a few other relevant details, make him the center of everyone’s attention. 

Pushed to the limit to tell what he knows, the mysterious Father Salus becomes the most sought after personality in the hotel for various reasons. While the elusive Italian minister Antonio Varelli (Pierfrancesco Favino), worried about his reputation, agrees to confess his sins to relieve his conscience, other ministers, particularly the ones from the UK and the US, just want to get rid of him since he might be in possession of classified information. From here, we conclude that what they were about to approve wouldn't be beneficial for the world at all but for their pockets and personal interests.

This tense dance between God and the devil, dispossession and financial power, repent and sin, takes almost the shape of one of Agatha Christie’s cases with uncertainty and mysticism alike. 

Salus’ best ally ends up being Claire Seth (Connie Nielsen), a famous writer of books for children, who developed a steep curiosity for the monk since the minute she laid her eyes on him. Besides them, there’s another outsider, Mark Klein (Moritz Bleibtreu), a guest musician who tries to conquer Ms. Seth with his gallantry when he’s not entertaining everyone with country-like renditions of tunes like Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side.

Andò co-wrote the script with his close collaborator Angelo Pasquini, resorting to mordant, funny lines to censure the secrecy and hypocrisy of the world’s financial state of affairs, a concern that he dares to compare to the Mafia.

Packed with ironic scenes accurately framed by cinematographer Maurizio Calvesi, who was able to find the right tonic between the light and the shadow, and enhanced by Nicola Piovani’s uncanny score, "The Confessions" flows at a steady pace, avoiding abrupt frenzied spins beyond an unfathomable surreal finale that is worthy of the best illusionists.
One thought weighs in the end: silence, no one can buy.

King Of The Belgians (2016)

Directed by Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth
Country: Belgium / Bulgaria / Netherlands

Belgian Peter Brosens and American Jessica Woodworth persevere in teaming up with gratifying results. The pair of writer-directors, more self-assured than prolific, only released three movies in the last decade. If I regarded “Altiplano"(2009) as a big step in their careers, the totally engrossing “The Fifth Season” (2012) worked as a validation for their storytelling inventiveness and sure-footed filmmaking style.

Their new film is an adventurous comedy that, being told and shaped like a documentary, makes suitable the neologism mockumentary to better define it.
This road outing, hopping from country to country, takes some time to spread its charms, but when it does, we feel immersed in those feel-good vibes that radiate from the intention of saying bitter truths through a few good laughs.

We follow the well-behaved Nicolas III (Peter Van den Begin), the king of Belgium, whose activities are being filmed for a documentary. The man responsible for capturing the best frames during the most propitious occasions is the documentarian Duncan Lloyd (Pieter van der Houwen), who was hired by the king’s garrulous wife, Queen Ursula (Nathalie Laroche), to follow him everywhere. 

Lloyd, the film’s narrator, gladly joins the king in an official visit to Istanbul that aims to welcome Turkey into the EU. With them goes the faithful royal staff composed of the chief of protocol Ludovic Moreau (Bruno Georis), the press relations Louise (Lucie Debay), and the king's personal valet Carlos (Titus De Voogdt).

Once in Turkey, they get the news that Belgium is no more since Wallonia just declared independence. In a rush to return home and better face the political crisis, Nicolas III sees an unforeseen solar storm hampering them to fly or even communicate by cell phone. However, being stranded is not a protocol followed by the humble king, who agrees in following a risky escape plan suggested by Lloyd. They get on a bus with a bunch of empathetic Bulgarian folk singers toward Sofia.
 
Their peculiar itinerary includes a ride on a tractor, a helpful hand from traditional Kukeri figures (remember the fantastic German dramedy “Toni Erdmann”?), and a visit to a rural village disguised of Belgium TV reporters. In Serbia, Lloyd bumps into an old pal and former sniper named Dragan (Goran Radakovic) and the group drinks traditional rakija until dawn, while in Albania they face trouble for having neither passports nor cash.

With jocose lines, “King of the Belgians” is an undemanding offbeat caricature that turns up politically concise in its sayings, yet considerably stinging in its depictions, especially of the countries visited. The widely known internal contention between Walloons and Flemish in Belgium is briefly sneered, functioning as a contradiction of a country whose capital is also the capital of the EU.

In addition to an efficacious hand manipulation of the camera, credible acting, and whimsical musical variations of famous classical pieces, the film has the merit of framing with purpose both naturalistic settings and occasional mounted aesthetic composures. 
 
You may think of it as if “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” were transformed into a road-trip, in which an unostentatious, solitary king discovers himself through the enjoyment of living an unforgettable adventure.

The Commune (2017)

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Country: Denmark / other

Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg, co-founder of the Dogme 95 movement along with Lars Von Trier, is known for some poignant dramas with manifest emotional insight as are the cases of “The Celebration”, his first big hit, “The Hunt”, a worldly acclaimed drama with a strong theme, and “Far From the Madding Crowd”, a well-made British-American adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel of the same name. However, his filmography is not always consistent and titles such as “Dear Wendy”, “It’s All About Love”, and “Submarino” are completely dispensable.

Vinterberg co-wrote his new drama, “The Commune”, with a highly respected writer/helmer, Tobias Lindholm (“R”, “Highjacking”, “A War”), but the film is another rough stumble in the wobbly quality of his creations.
Set in the 70s, the film focuses on a successful liberal couple, Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) and Anna Muller (Trine Dyrholm), architecture professor and TV newscaster, respectively, who move with their 14-year old daughter, Freja (Martha Wallstrøm Hansen), into a large but secluded house in Hellerup, North of Copenhagen. The house is too big for them and is Anna’s wish to live in a commune with both old friends and a stranger, a broke foreigner called Allon (Fares Fares).

The other uninteresting dwellers are Ole (Lars Ranthe), Mona (Julie Agnete Vang), and a couple of associate professors whose little son faces a serious heart condition. As they cry and laugh together, everyone knows their place and how to live with respect.

After a chameleonic start that deludes us for brief moments with a perplexing piano melody erroneously announcing a thriller, and then suggesting a possible middle-aged romantic tale before settling in a fellowship adventure, the sharp camera lens fixates on the three main protagonists.

While the temperamental Erik starts an affair with a third-grade college student, Anna enters in a depressive and vicious spiral that will affect her life and work. Freja, who accidentally finds her dad’s secret, also gives the first steps in love with an older boy.

Although one may find genuine moments in the couple’s crisis, there are a bunch of scenes that feel contrived and even touch the ridicule. Perhaps the best example to illustrate this is when Allon does his interview with the commune members. Moreover, the dramatic side, many times enhanced by steep close-ups, is manipulated and conducted with an overwhelming negligence. 

Regardless the wonderful performances by Thomsen and Dyrholm, the narrative engine machinated by Vinterberg needed some more oil to slide out of its torpor. I’ve never found that miraculous spark that captivates, intrigues, and impels us to care about the characters, and that led “The Commune” to become stoic in all its avidity to quickly and easily stir emotions.