Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

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Directed by Taika Waititi
Country: USA

I’ve always thought that the most successful action-packed Marvel flicks were those brought up with a strong sense of humor. Thus, no one better than the New Zealander sensation Taika Waititi, director of gems like “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt For the Wilderpeople”, to tackle “Thor: Ragnarok” with equal doses of energy and folly.
 
This fanciful parody, produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney, is not suitable for kids, embracing wild action scenes inflamed with vertiginous special effects.
 
Whether by land or air, the battles are numerous, fantasized with plenty of variety to satisfy the action genre aficionados.
 
The screenplay is a product from the mind of three comic book writers/enthusiasts: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, who besides formulating a fun story flooded with better-than-serious, vibrant characters, were also able to infuse a cutting humor that ranges from stupefying deadpan to corrosively sarcastic.

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Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the god of thunder, even deprived of his precious hammer, will join forces with other mighty warriors - his longtime friend Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and his artful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) - to save the Asgard people from the ambitious, powerful, and malevolent goddess of death, Hela (Cate Blanchett). Eccentrically, the latter happens to be Thor’s sister, recently returned from the exile after the death of their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins).

Before the final confrontation, set ablaze by the presence of the fire demon Surfur, Thor becomes trapped in a garbage planet ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), a sadistic loony that dominates everyone through a controlling chip implanted on their neck.

Waititi makes a proper use of the technology available to create an enormous visual spectacle on several scenes. The highlight is a ravaging fight between Thor and Hulk who, completely out of control, didn't recognize the Avengers teammate. 
I know! By now you must be thinking you really have to watch this, right? But there's more! 

There is lots of space for silliness here, yet “Thor: Ragnarok” is one of the most absorbing, even unpretentious Marvel-based films in years, and that’s because Waititi, in a bold move, did not take it too seriously. He just needed Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” fueling the furious, heroic confrontations and Cate Blanchett, who was absolutely marvelous in her evil role.
Have a ‘Thor-o-ly’ fun matinée!

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Most Beautiful Island (2017)

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Directed by Ana Asensio
Country: USA

With the title "Most Beautiful Island", actress-turned-director Ana Asensio alludes to Manhattan, New York. The film, an auspicious directorial debut inspired by true events, won the best narrative feature at SXSW Film Festival and has drawn positive reactions wherever it has been exhibited.

Besides directing, writing, and co-producing, Ms. Asensio also stars as Luciana, a struggling undocumented immigrant who lives in New York and gets intriguingly cornered after accepting a one-time job recommended by her Russian friend Olga (Natasha Romanova). Apparently, the latter is doing ok and shamelessly admits she uses men in order to make some extra money. By stating that everything is possible in New York, a city with so many opportunities, she attempts to cheer up Luciana, whose rent remains unpaid. What this ex-model finds super annoying is taking care of children, a sensitive matter for Luciana, who lost her little baby in an undisclosed accident while living in her country of origin. Embracing several day jobs, including babysitting two spoiled kids, Luciana lives in permanent financial affliction, a situation that becomes even harder to see when, penniless, she is forced to sneak into the doctor’s office to implore an examination.

After hearing Luciana's complains about money and the not-so-absurd possibility of becoming homeless, Olga decides to give her an address for a job she normally does but cannot take it this time. Apparently, the uncomplicated gig consists solely of attending a party in a black dress, a generously paid task taking into account the number of hours required. Following meticulous instructions that lead her to uncanny places filled with obnoxious characters, Luciana gets ultimately trapped in a dim-lit basement with a spine-chilling doorman (Larry Fessenden) blocking her way out. A weird, obscure meeting session begins, managed by an authoritative woman named Vanessa (Caprice Benedetti). A few other girls, equally dressed in black, wait to be called into a room after being introduced to a group of prosperous men and women. Luciana’s consternation escalates when she sees that Olga, unusually silent and avoiding eye contact, is among the girls.

Sex business immediately pops into our minds, but Asensio delivers a less obvious and far more surprising alternative to spellbind and stir tension. Slyly and motionless, this group embraces a totally different concept of pleasure, rejoicing as they play with the lives of others within a quirky, degenerate routine.

Competently shot, sometimes bluntly edited, "Most Beautiful Island" is an engrossing indie film that feels very New York. Not stretched beyond the limits of necessary - its duration is one hour and twenty minutes - the film unveils hidden aspects of a city where, literally, anything can happen, and I mean for better and for worse.
 
The imperfections are counterbalanced with one of those experiences that will make ruminate about the obscene prepotency of wealthy people who exploit, in one way or another, the honest, the desperate, or the simply adventurous in order to satisfy their despicable whims and vice.

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Columbus (2017)

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Directed by Kogonada
Country: USA

If there is a recent debut feature that has been stirring a massive, positive buzz out there is “Columbus”, a drama with an exceptional architectural orientation, both materially and emotionally.
 
The film, written and directed by American-Korean Kogonada and shot over 18 days, stars Haley Lu Richardson as Casey, an architect wanna-be, and John Cho as Jin, a Korean-born American-raised translator. Both characters are facing severe family issues that keep them stuck in their personal lives. Can they help each other in order to escape the impasse?

Casey, an architecture enthusiast, forces herself to stay in Columbus, Indiana, to take care of her mother, Maria (Michelle Forbes), a former addict whose whereabouts are not always accurate. On the other hand, Jin postpones his return to Korea, where he works, while waiting for developments in the health state of his estranged, architect father, who is in a coma.

When not together - smoking in a corner, driving aimlessly throughout the city, or exchanging thoughts about their personal concerns and dreams - Casey and Jin occupy their time in different ways. She works at the local library, where she usually engages in a conversation with her co-worker, Gabriel (Rory Caulkin), a Doctoral student friend who slowly and prudently unveils his feelings for her. Jin often gets bored at home, revealing a hazy infatuation whenever Eleanor (Parker Posey), his father’s assistant to whom he was attracted in the past, is around.

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Among graceful aesthetic shots, where architectonic structures and symmetries are given a special emphasis, Kogonada uses elementary filmmaking processes to highlight real people within an honest, plausible story.

Still, despite the narrative self-assurance and devoted performances, I found a few lingering, torpid scenes sculpted with strategic tonal approaches while the dialogue is leisurely rendered. It’s a mature script that reveals inconstant developments when brought into play, especially pace-wise.
 
Luckily, there’s a strong humane side that brims from the characters’ openness to give and receive unconditionally, restoring the possible gaps and quibbles of a minimalist drama that blends the merits of a stylish building design with the mighty powers of the heart.

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Our Time Will Come (2017)

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Directed by Ann Hui
Country: Hong Kong / China

Ann Hui is one of the strongest cinematic voices from Hong Kong these days. Even if her last work, “The Golden Era”, wasn’t so striking as one would expect, illustrious dramas such as “Boat People”, “The Way We Are”, and “A Simple Life” still live in my mind.

Her new outing, “Our Time Will Come”, was written by Jiping He (“The Warlords”) according to real characters and events and depicts an important chapter of Hong Kong history, namely, the fight of the local people against the Japanese occupation in the early 40s.

Xun Zhou ("Flying Swords of Dragon Gate") is Lan Fang, a tenacious primary school teacher, who moved by a strong sense of justice and duty, decides to leave her aging mother (Deannie Yip) and the domestic comfort to join the Dongjiang Guerrilla, a special faction created to rescue important intellectuals - artists, writers, scholars, and filmmakers - whose voices were silenced and bodies put under lock and key. 
With the schools closed and her fiancé, Kam-wing (Wallace Huo), operating undercover on the enemy side, Lan is easily dragged to the Guerrilla’s missions, becoming a respected captain after receiving an invitation from Blackie (Eddie Peng), a feared leader who convinced her with words of praise and a couple of dumplings.

Everything gets complicated when Lan’s mother decides to actively help her daughter and the cause by passing critical information, ending up arrested and tortured by the Kenpeitai (the military police arm of the Imperial Japanese Army disbanded in 1945).

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Ms. Hui attempts to consolidate the realism when simulating a fictional interview with a former young messenger, Ben (Tony Leung), set in the present day and shot in black and white. In the film, this humble man had the privilege to meet the film’s heroine during those tumultuous times and still works as a cab driver.

Even low-key and a slightly stagy at times, the film manages to project this particular story in a way we can understand the wider historical context. Ann Hui fulfills this requirement through a sturdy directorial hand and clear storytelling, even considering her inability to transform “Our Time Will Come” into a thrilling film. In opposition to being a bit too relentless with sometimes wobbly spy moves and episodic brittle war scenes, the film boasts authenticity in its performances, using a legendary symbol of feminine independence and revolutionary resistance to remind us of the sacrifices and efforts put up by the oppressed minorities in response to a cruel occupancy.

The evocative cinematography by Nelson Lik-wai Yu, habitual first choice of Jia Zhangke, is one of the film’s highest pleasures.

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On the Beach at Night Alone (2017)

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Directed by Hong Sang-soo
Country: South Korea

Prolific Korean writer/director Hong Sang-soo keeps pursuing both inner sensitivities and the truth in human relationships with a cinéma vérité that enchants with simplicity. Sang-soo remains faithful to a simple yet highly efficient filmmaking style that goes against any contemporary cinematic trend that attempts to turn everything visually spectacular through fabricated settings, eccentric special effects, or excessively pre-staged situations. Instead, he prefers tackling a good emotional story by taking advantage of an observant sincerity, naturalistic performances, and a forthright approach. Gentle dramas such as “Oki’s Movie”, “The Day He Arrives”, and “In Another Country” (featuring Isabelle Huppert) are highlights of an undeviating career that incorporates three more titles this year: “Claire’s Camera”, featuring Ms. Huppert once again, “The Day After”, and “On the Beach at Night Alone”, the object of this review.

Just like the former two titles, the latter stars the talented Kim Min-hee (“The Handmaiden”), winner of the latest Silver Berlin Bear, who has been the director’s inspirational muse since the release of the well-received “Right Now, Wrong Then” in 2015. The film comes wrapped up in autobiographical controversy after Sang-soo has admitted his extramarital affair with Min-hee at a press conference in Seoul.
  
Feeling abandoned after the terminus of an affair with a married man, the celebrated yet stranded actress Young-hee (Min-hee) flies to Hamburg, Germany, where she finds solace in the company of a longtime friend. The disenchantment with her actual life is quite perceptible when we listen to their conversations. She wonders if her lover misses her like she misses him and even tests her friend with “should I come living here with you?”.

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Unfitted, she returns to the Korean coastal town of Gangneung, where she reunites with some old friends at a restaurant. This section is a staple in the director’s written statement since food and drinks always play an important role in his narrative process. At the dinner, she gets tipsy in just a few minutes, proclaiming her male friends unqualified to love or be loved, except Jun-hee (Song Seon-mi) with whom she has a special chemistry.
 
After being rescued of her dreams while lying down alone at the beach, she is taken to drink with her former director/lover, an encounter that gains extra dramatic agitation. There is a thin line separating loneliness and friendship here, an idea reinforced by the main character herself when she admits her emotional complexity and destructive side. Also, one can feel a strong sense of misplacement and surrender that translates into emotional aggressiveness rather than resilience.

Sang-soo operates the camera in a very efficient way, regardless if he opts for static or dynamic shots, occasionally complemented with zoom ins and wide pans. His lucid quests for the meaning of love, consistently clever and exclusive, keep enriching the contemporary cinema with modesty and virtue. Hence, “On the Beach at Night Alone” brings some truths attached and is definitely worth exploring.

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The Villainess (2017)

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Directed by Jung Byung-gil
Country: South Korea

Drawing from a promising script he co-wrote, Korean director Jung Byung-gil (“Confession of Murder”) squanders the chance of doing something original or memorable with “The Villainess”. Sadly, the crime thriller in question brings an assemblage of stale clichés that, although fast-and-furious, only increase tiredness along the way.

Byung-gil goes straight to the point, showing a ravaging skinny woman annihilating an entire gang in a short period of time. She is Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), a trained assassin since a young age, whose traumatic memories of a difficult childhood bolstered her lethality and resilience.
 
The superior fighting skills and instant killing instinct she evinces quickly call the attention of the South Korea’s intelligence agency which forces her to enroll in one of their obscure projects comprising several dangerous missions with assigned targets. Before starting to execute these preys under the tight supervision of the agency’s glacial chief, Kwon (Kim Seo-hyeong), Sook-hee is submitted to a facial plastic surgery, psychologically revitalized, and persuaded to join them for ten years in exchange for a lifetime pension and total freedom when the service time is over.

Often, especially while on duty, harrowing situations from a tumultuous past assault her mind and are presented in the form of flashbacks. Despite so, it was still difficult for me to connect with this mysterious character, who is relocated to an apartment with her little daughter in order to live a discreet, ’normal’ life. Rejuvenated and with a new identity, this gal is able to smile again, gaining extra confidence when a young neighbor and widower, Hyun-soo (Bang Sung-jun), gains her trust and her heart. Big disillusion, though, when she finds out he’s an undercover agent sent to control all her moves.

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In fact, the romance gets emotionally vibrant, becoming the prettiest part of a tale whose situations keep oscillating between the easily tolerable and the terribly bad. There are plenty of bloody scary faces, shots in the head, physical torments, nauseating throat slashes, and a scene captured with visual panache of a few bikers dueling with swords in a narrow tunnel. It’s simultaneously excessive and spectacular, and is exactly this intermittence in terms of satisfaction that accompanied me throughout.

To give you a better idea of what you can expect, think about a dark crossing between the psychological harassment associated with the cinema of Takashi Miike and Shion Sono, the vengeful path and romping rage of "I Saw the Devil", and the espionage thrills of "La Femme Nikita". 
The description above might sound appealing for action hunters, but as a matter of fact, and when deeply analyzed, “The Villainess” is simply an overlong, unarticulated, and impotent thriller that opted for the easiest way to impress.

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The Death of Louis XIV (2017)

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Directed by Albert Serra
Country: France / Spain / Portugal

The purist cinema of Catalan Albert Serra was never easy to assimilate whether due to its deliberate fluctuating pace or challenging topics, yet, in my eyes, it’s always fascinating. If last year’s “The Story of My Death” managed to aggregate a few more followers of Serra’s singular indie style, the heavy historical drama "The Death of Louis XIV" will divide audiences since the prolonged cheerlessness related to the unhealthy state of the cited French king, who reigned for 72 years and died slowly of gangrene at 76, can be frustrating, gloomy, and distressing.

The script, penned by Serra and Thierry Lounas, was inspired by the Duke of Saint Simon’s memoirs, focusing exclusively on the last days of the King. You'll witness his gradual disappointment, whimsical exasperation, and occasional despair, as well as the vain efforts of a group of experienced medics who were trying to solve the puzzle related to the sovereign’s ailment.

The first scene of the film got stuck in my head. Louis, flawlessly performed by Truffaut/Godard’s protégé Jean-Pierre Léaud, sunk down in a huge chair with a weary expression on his face, saying he would love to join the guests in his grandiose salon but couldn’t find the strength to do it. His prostrated eyes only sparked when his dogs were allowed to come near him, a very rare situation since Dr. Fagon (Patrick d'Assumçao) has prohibited any contact with the animals.

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A group of loyal friends, stationed around his bed, applauds gleefully whenever his appetite returns, but his unresponsiveness for the court’s matters is quite visible, especially when the Duke of York insists about unlocking funds to finance a security construction plan.
Feverish and nauseated, Louis grows weaker each day that passes and his leg problem has no immediate solution. Both Fagon and Blouin (Marc Susini), the king’s most devoted servant, end up agreeing in summoning the best doctors of the Faculty of Paris. However, and since their theories also reveal to be useless, the last hope is Le Brun (Vicenç Altaió), a confident healer from Marseille, whose vague mystical creeds are regarded with deep suspicion by the medical team.

The lugubrious, dusky atmosphere encircling the story requires patience and nerve, but is also poised, touching, and mature. The settings, impeccably mirroring the era, were depicted with a keen eye for detail and it's noticeable the triumphant aptitude to combine colors and shadows within the impressionistic image compositions. Each Rembrandt-like close up gives us instant access to a particular state of mind, such is the power of the human expression captured by the frames. While Jonathan Ricquebourg’s jaw-dropping cinematography is purely revivalist, the direction, one of the most accomplished I’ve seen these days, is filled with incantatory rigor.

Totally shot indoors in a conscious yet agonizing delirium, "The Death of Louis XIV" is a long, slow, and arduous walk toward an inevitable death. 

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Mother! (2017)

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Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Country: USA

Only very few great filmmakers didn’t stumble in their careers. Stanley Kubrick is certainly one of them, occupying the top of a list that also includes Billy Wilder, Luis Bunuel, and David Lean. As an example of the present time, I can point Paul Thomas Anderson.
 
This introduction is just to say that this is not the case of the American helmer Darren Aronofsky, who conquered me with superlative works such as “Black Swan”, “The Wrestler”, “Pi”, and “Requiem For a Dream”, but failed to engage with trifles like “The Fountain” and “Noah”. However, if the latter two demonstrated to be shaky and debilitated in their conception, his brand new thriller, “Mother!”, feels highly formulaic and infuriatingly decrepit, not to mention pathetic.

Forcing ambiguity and obscurantism, the director not only messed up his writing with futile symbolism, but also didn’t give names to any of the characters.
Javier Bardem plays a vain literary author who is struggling with writer’s block. He lives secluded somewhere in the country with his insecure, childless wife, embodied by Jennifer Lawrence, who manages and fixes everything in the huge house when not paralyzed with uncanny seizures.

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Even still bonded by love, their life is immersed in cold monotony for quite some time, and nothing better, according to the novelist, than housing a weird, dysfunctional married couple to stimulate creativity. 
The strange man (Ed Harris) is a doctor and also a staunch fan of the writer. In fact, he is dying, and the kind invitation to stay with his idol for an indefinite period of time is accepted like a grace. He brings his nosy, impertinent wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) to stay with him, causing discomfort and anxiety in the confused Lawrence. Serious trouble coincides with the arrival of the strangers’ unbalanced sons.

Up to this occurrence, one still searches for something palpable, giving Aronofsky’s plot the benefit of the doubt. Illusion! From this moment on, the film falls into ludicrous situations, including anarchic home invasions, which not even Lawrence's charm was able to repair. Moreover, Bardem’s character, choosing fame over family, feels phony in his vanity. The actor was never accomplished in his role.

"Mother!" may be visually arresting but it’s hollow at its core, embracing an implausible, nearly-surreal darkness that is inept and devoid of any sense.
As one of the worst movies of 2017, this is a clear sign that Mr. Aronofsky needs urgent help for his next script.

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The Road to Mandalay (2017)

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Directed by Midi Z
Country: Myanmar / Taiwan

The acerbic art-house drama “The Road to Mandalay”, a Taiwan-Myanmar-France-Germany coproduction, depicts a story centered on the adversities of illegal immigration and comes embittered by an immoderate, destructive relationship.

Burmese filmmaker Midi Z directs from a tight script of his own authorship, returning to the fictional film after releasing two documentaries in the last couple of years about jade diggers in Myanmar, “Jade Miners” and “City of Jade”.

The long opening shot shows us a woman and a man crossing a riverside on a floatable rubber ring. She is Lianqing (Wu Ke-xi), 23, a Burmese from the water-less region of Lashio, and he is an escort paid to take her to Thailand, whose border is delimited by the other margin. From there, she proceeds to a van that will finally take her to Bangkok, where a friend should be waiting for her.
 
Unexpectedly, an unselfish young man from her hometown, Guo (Kai Ko), makes his expensive front seat available to her and jumps into the trunk. Once in Bangkok, he tries to persuade her to work with him in his cousin’s textile factory, an opportunity that eventually occurs after Lianqing realize that times have changed and no respectable company, small or big, will hire her without a work permit. 

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Before starting to work in there, obviously off the books, she was washing dishes in a small restaurant but ended up arrested during an overnight police raid. It was Guo who bailed her out, yet Lianqing, unresponsive to his romantic advances, refuses to follow his ideas. Besides their clashing personalities, they want totally different things from life. While she’s willing to risk everything to get the papers that would allow her to work in the city and consequently apply for a Thai passport, he intends to return to Burma to open a small store to sell clothes imported from China.
It’s curious how this conflicting situation sometimes weighs more than the immigration problem itself.

Avoiding overdramatic strategies or major fusses, Midi Z resorts to a slow, steady pace to set the highly articulate storytelling in motion. It is bolstered by the inherent sadness of the score, magisterially composed by Lim Giong (a recurrent choice by Jia Zhangke and Hou-Hsiao Hsien), and the dispiriting visuals captured by the debutant cinematographer Tom Fan.

Bitterness and disappointment escalate as the desperate Lianqing considers a new tactic - remarkably insinuated through an intelligent surreal scene - in order to solve her problem.

When the tale seemed to get closer to a happy ending, a brutal final blow is applied, suspending our breath for a few seconds. The deliberate visual abruptness devised by another Zhangke’s regular, the editor Matthieu Laclau, only emphasizes the raw tones adopted throughout.

Both Wu Ke-xi and Kai Ko were phenomenal in their performances and Midi Z has probably in “Mandalay” his best work so far.

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The Woman Who Left (2017)

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Directed by Lav Diaz
Country: Philippines

Filipino drama “The Woman Who Left” is no easy watching, requiring redoubled concentration and considerable amounts of patience from the viewers to be fully absorbed. Reinforcing his statute of cult director, Lav Diaz (“Norte, The End of History”, “From What is Before”) was awarded with the Venice Golden Lion with this peculiar, classic-style revenge tale, vanquishing other powerful candidates such as “La La Land”, “Jackie”, “Nocturnal Animals”, or “Arrival”.

Diaz drew inspiration from Leo Tolstoy’s short story "God Sees the Truth, But Waits” and not only adapted it to the Filipino reality but extended it to three hours and forty-six minutes. Nothing to be surprised, since he always showed this tendency for protracted movies - “Norte” runs a bit more than four hours, while “From What is Before” goes over five and a half hours!

If pondered-style indie world cinema is right up your alley, you won't give your time as wasted as you contemplate this somber story.

Charo Santos-Concio is Horacia Somorostro, a good-hearted teacher who spent 30 years in a Filipino correctional for a crime she didn’t commit. In 1997, her longtime friend Petra finally confessed she was the culprit of a murder machinated by Horacia’s ex-boyfriend, the wealthy Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael de Mesa). 

Before going after Rodrigo with a clear intention to kill, Horacia stops by her family’s house, but only finds the daughter of the old caretaker who informs her about the death of her husband, the sudden disappearance of her son, and the whereabouts of her daughter, Minerva (Marjorie Lorico), who never went to visit her in prison.

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Acting undercover, Horacia moves to the city where Rodrigo lives, planning carefully all the steps of a very anticipated bloody retaliation. However, the new stranger in town reveals true compassion for the poor and the disadvantaged, befriending Magbabalot (Nonie Buencamino), a miserable yet God-devotee egg street seller, Mameng (Jean Judith Javier), an unbalanced young woman who knows exactly who the ‘devils’ are, and Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), an epileptic transvestite who roams the streets with self-contempt, waiting patiently for his life to end. In the most despairing situation, all these characters will take something from her but will also reciprocate. 

The painful loneliness is increased by a sparse narrative, while the lingering camera, capturing everything in a Kurosawa-esque black-and-white praxis, turns this film into an occasionally exasperating but ultimately rewarding experience. The surprises of the story don't come from where you expect, and that is an extra point for Diaz’ written material.

Simultaneously bleak and illuminated, “The Woman Who Left” is not just about revenge, moral integrity, and opportunity. It’s about life… a life you didn’t choose to live but you are compelled to. Furthermore, it makes a keen observation on the recent situation of the Philippines, a country dominated by injustice and social inequality. The good thing is that Diaz, not satisfied with merely denouncing it, combats it with love, clemency, and friendship.

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Soy Nero (2017)

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Directed by Rafi Pitts
Country: USA / Mexico / other 

Iranian-born helmer based in Paris, Rafi Pitts (“It’s Winter”, “The Hunter”), couldn't have chosen a more scalding topic for his new drama, "Soy Nero", than the Mexico-US immigration entanglement. The story, co-written with the Romanian Razvan Radulescu, the creative mind behind movies such as “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" and “Child’s Pose”, sought inspiration in the recently debated DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act.

Every day, several young Mexicans attempt to jump the fence, searching for a better life. This is the case of 17-year-old Nero Maldonado (Johnny Ortiz), who grew up in San Fernando and has spent most of his life in South Central, Los Angeles, before being nabbed and deported to Mexico, his country of origin.

Despite this setback, the tenacious Nero is not the kind of guy who gives up easily. Thus, he fearlessly engenders the best way to cross the border again, waiting patiently for the perfect hour of the night to do it. His intentions are clear and simple: find his older brother Jesus (Ian Casselberry), who can provide him shelter, and then enlist in the US army, the unique option that will grant him the very much sought after Green card.

Jumping the fence was not a simple task or devoid of nervousness, but didn’t require too much effort either, a depiction that can reinforce the deranged idea of building a costly giant wall at the border to cut out the Mexican influx.
 
His path crosses with a few weird characters, starting with an armed, unstable guy who offers him a ride and whose discourse becomes gradually aggressive regardless the presence of his little daughter in the backseat. The atmosphere promises a lot but slowly vanishes until Nero finally meets up Jesus in his Beverly Hills mansion. However, the way he gets there is as much ironic as it is contrived. The fraudulent ostentatiousness of Jesus and his girlfriend Mercedes (Rosa Isela Frausto) takes a long time to develop, only to lead us to expected outcomes. 

Soon, our young man sees himself in a situation of homelessness. Not for too long, though, since the next shot shows us a dangerous No Man’s Land in the Middle East, where Nero, now holding the identity of his brother, fights not only the enemy, presented in the form of suicide car bombs and rapid ambushes, but also the racial prejudice, incompetence, and stupidity of the American soldiers of his own unit.
 
Opposing to the sharp and vivid frames captured by the lens of Greek cinematographer Christos Karamanis, Pitts paints a dark scenario with biting disenchantment, trying to call the attention in two fronts urgently in need of ponderation and restructuring. But if the first half deals with a psychological tension that is able to touch and disturb, the overstuffed second half considerably weakens what had been built.

Choppily edited by Danielle Anezin, “Soy Nero” exposes Uncle Sam’s critical open wounds in a flawed manner while Ortiz’s performance served the film’s purpose without creating too much empathy.

The film was dedicated to all the ‘Green Card’ soldiers who were deported after serving in the US Army.

It (2017)

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Directed by Andy Muschietti
Country: USA

Serving up a mixed plate composed of the horrific descriptions of “Poltergeist” and the teen adventures of “Stand By Me”,“It” holds our attention for a while but grows fastidiously repetitive and disappointingly predictable as it moves forward.

Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) directs from a script written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, who joined efforts in the adaptation of Stephen King’s famous novel of the same name.

In this first installment of a planned duology, seven teenagers from Derry, Maine, struggle with the devilish nature of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), also known by ‘It’, a freaky clown with a massive, sharped jaw and shape-shifting capacities, who is responsible for many local children's disappearances in the town. Feeding on the kids’ fear, he unflaggingly preys on young victims every twenty-seven years.

Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), a sensitive, brave, and stuttering boy whose younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is among the missing kids, leads a quartet of friends that includes the bigmouthed Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard ), the prudent Jewish mysophobic Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), and the overprotected Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer). 

They are all bullied by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) whose pernicious behavior also aims at the fat ‘new kid’, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and the African-American Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs). There’s also a girl, Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who joins the good-natured team to escape the constant fear she feels at home in consequence of her father’s unnatural behavior.

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Using several illusional stratagems, the supernatural creature terrorizes all of them, except Bowers, who being manipulated instead, becomes a body-and-flesh impersonation of the evil.
 
Muschietti takes some time to make us involved in this summer adventure and we become fond of the kids, but misfires on several other fronts. The fact that the clown is present everywhere, loses the point and feels gratuitous, leading the initial fun factor to become annoyingly changeless over time. Moreover, some scenes feel more idiotic than scary, like the one that Beverly becomes soaked in blood in her bathroom.

Resorting to tiresome gimmicks, “It” gradually lost the charm previously gained with the genuine unity of a likable group of friends. 
This was undoubtedly an improvement when compared to the super uneven “Mama”, but Muschietti still didn’t convince me of his expertise in the horror genre.

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A Ghost Story (2017)

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Directed by: David Lowery
Country: USA

Writer-helmer-editor David Lowery (“Ain't Them Bodies Saints”) delivers one of the most rewarding movies of the year, a psychedelic, indie-style ghost drama that is beautiful and haunting in equal proportions.

Resorting to long shots, which stimulate even more our curiosity, and perfectly composed settings, the director opts for a dead-cold stillness that characterizes an intelligent, layered tale related with a profound sense of loss, despair, and eternity.
 
By the time we are introduced to C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), a young married couple who just moved into a suburban house in Dallas, we are also presented with a sentence by the acclaimed English writer Virginia Woolf that says: “whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting”.

Actually, after dying unexpectedly in a car accident, a door of light is literally shut for C, who, by choosing to return home, remains confined there for many, many years.

Noises and silences are masterfully conjugated to create tension, while the impactful score by Daniel Hart plays a fundamental role in the discomfort of whether eerie, whether dramatic situations. Moreover, the balance between light and darkness is achieved with artistry and enhances the beautiful cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo (“You’re Next”).

One of the aspects I liked the most was the basic way the ghost was depicted. And let me tell you that, in the present case, the typical long white sheet with two holes in the head felt creepier than childish. This rambling hollow figure patiently observes M’s grieving process until she abandons the house for good. Before leaving, she places a little piece of paper with something written inside a crack on the wall. The frustrated spirit of C attempts to reach this ‘secret’, even many years later, when several other people went to live in the property. 

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On two occasions, the spirit attests all his dissatisfaction and boredom by employing violent manifestations. Firstly, when M brings home a new male friend, and secondly, when a Spanish-speaking family moves into the house.

An unthinkable surprise, perhaps slightly strained, turns up when C communicates with another ghost who keeps waiting in the house next door for someone he doesn’t remember.

A Ghost Story” tests the limits of our intellect and senses, giving us much more to chew on than most of the typical films within the genre. This film looks like something Wim Wenders would do if he had dedicated himself to the infinite solitude of a ghost instead of a fallen angel.

Lowery’s risk-taking effort could easily fall in the ridicule. However, the auteur shaped it brilliantly and the film truly impressed me by entangling, astonishing, and disorienting with its hazy, uncanny, spiritual viewpoint.

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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.

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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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