Life and Nothing More (2018)

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Directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza
Country: USA / Spain

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

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

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

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

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Blindspotting (2018)

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Directed by Carlos López Estrada
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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

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A Gentle Creature (2018)

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Directed by Sergey Loznitsa
Country: Russia / Lithuania / other

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

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

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

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

Mission Impossible - Fallout (2018)

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Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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The Naturally Wanton Pleasure of Skin (2018)

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Directed by Renée Beaulieu
Country: Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Directed by Jon M.Chu
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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Heaven Without People (2018)

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Directed by Lucien Bourjeily
Country: Lebanon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Night Comes On (2018)

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Directed by Jordana Spiro
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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

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Adrift (2018)

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Directed by: Baltazar Kormakur
Country: USA / Iceland / Hong Kong

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

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

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

Consequently, the film shapes into an exhausting melodrama instead of the harrowing, devastating adventure that everybody was expecting. A punch-less attitude from the director, who makes us suspicious about what his next step is going to be. What saves “Adrift” from an instant wreckage is Woodley’s performance, but still, it’s preferable to read the facts than cope with its cinematic adaptation.

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Who We Are Now (2018)

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Directed by Matthew Newton
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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

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Tully (2018)

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Directed by Jason Reitman
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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Upgrade (2018)

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Directed by Leigh Whannell
Country: Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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Hostiles (2018)

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Directed by Scott Cooper
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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Sollers Point (2018)

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Directed by Matthew Porterfield
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rider (2018)

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Directed by Chloé Zhao
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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

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The Escape (2018)

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Directed by Dominic Savage
Country: UK

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

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

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

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

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

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In Syria (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 12th Man (2018)

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Directed by Harald Zwart
Country: Norway

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

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

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

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

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

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Let The Sunshine In (2018)

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Directed by Claire Denis
Country: France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lightest Darkness (2018)

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Directed by Diana Galimzyanova
Country: Russia

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

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

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

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

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