The Wound (2017)

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Directed by John Trengrove
Country: South Africa

South African filmmaker John Trengrove received rave reviews at Sundance and Berlin with his debut feature “The Wound”. The capable drama, beautifully photographed by Paul Ozgur and set in the rural mountains of the Eastern Cape, South Africa, focuses on the Xhosa initiation ritual, which consists of traditional circumcision and initiation into manhood of teenage boys under the guidance of their respective caregivers. According to sources, ‘what happens on the mountain stays on the mountain’.

The plot, co-written by Trengrove, Malusi Bengu, and Thando Mgqolozana, centers on a conflicting love triangle involving a city boy, the initiate Kwanza (Niza Jay Ncoyini), who was dragged by his father in hopes to get him tougher, his caregiver, Xolani (Nakhane Touré), and the latter’s childhood friend and secret lover, Vija (Bongile Mantsai), also an experienced caregiver.

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Xolani is in love with Vija, who, every year, during the initiation process, gets sexually involved with him but without paying much attention to his feelings. The astute Kwanza, easily perceiving the forbidden relationship between the two men, defies the Xhosa ways with his rebelliousness. Besides seducing the hypocrite Vija and criticizing Xolani due to his lack of acceptance and closed homosexuality, Kwanza also refuses to speak up in front of the elders, which is a mandatory module to be followed. The threesome embarks on a tense dance that quickly adjusts from bitter to tragic.

The Wound” is a singular sexual film whose dramatic force is undeniable. Culturally informative, the film stirred controversy when the crew and cast were subjected to death threats and violence after the film’s premiere in the East Cape province.

Trengrove, whose career was leaning toward the TV, delivers an auspicious, revelatory first feature that has all the ingredients to make you alert from start to finish. An agile camerawork, dexterous storytelling, and competent performances helped define the psychological conflicts of the characters in a film that never oscillates in tone while unveiling hidden aspects of a closeted practice.

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The Endless (2018)

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Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Country: USA

Trendy directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (“Resolution”, “Spring”) return to their trippy hallucinations deeply connected to enigmatic cults and sinister characters. However, their induced fear of the unknown, otherworldly paranoia and suicide fascination simply don’t convince me.

Both filmmakers star as two brothers who, not happy with their turbulent childhood in the UFO death cult, from where they escaped ten years before, decide to return to find the closure they need. Allured by a cryptic video message they step into the secluded Camp Arcadia, which holds unexplainable forces and secrets. Reconnection with old pals brings some good memories from the past, which can't prevent them from becoming trapped both in grueling time loops and dangerous beliefs that pose clearly a threat to their lives.

While Aaron seems happy with the experience, mostly because of Anna (Callie Hernandez), to whom he has always been attracted, Justin is not particularly convinced about the benefits of the faction. For him, the camp is not just bonfires, family ties, and good food. The people there are really bizarre, with Shitty Carl (James Jordan) probably being the most intriguing one since he strides like a deranged, has a restless look, and screams like a possessed man. The young manipulative leader, Hal (Tate Ellington), is the one whose tranquility seems unshakeable. However, his sweet talk wouldn't fool a kid.

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Drowned in old videotapes, supernatural puzzles, and magic tricks, “The Endless” is pure hypocrisy. The strangest sensation I had while watching the film was that Benson and Moorhead were tricking the viewers, precisely like the cults do when preaching some crazy ideology. Apparently, they have been successful, but I’m glad I didn’t follow the flock in this illusory worship of a cinematic artifice.
 
With more estrangement than any astute twist, the film becomes linked to “Resolution” when the action is taken to the woods. Still, its turnarounds were more like dumbly existential and painfully dragging than anything else.

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A Quiet Place (2018)

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Directed by John Krasinski
Country: USA

A Quiet Place” is the boldest work of American actor-turned-director John Krasinski, who abandons the redundancy of minor comedy dramas such as “The Hollars” and “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” to embark on a post-apocalyptic horror thriller that will make you breathless throughout.

That’s because the story, written with visionary élan by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, tells us about a family - father (John Krasinski), mother (Emily Blunt), son (Noah Jupe), and deaf daughter (Millicent Simmonds) - that has to live noiseless in the countryside to avoid extermination by alien creatures with a hypersensitive auditory ability. Years before, one of those horrifying monsters, which can switch from idle to attack mode in seconds, had killed the couple’s younger son, a situation that not only created much grief in the family but also an obstinate guilt in his conscious sister. However, the couple still dances with headphones at the sound of Neil Young’s breezy songs because they were blessed with a new pregnancy. Although happiness and hope are installed in the house, the situation has much to think about and requires planning not to let the baby put everyone in danger when crying. A bunker, a small wooden box, and an oxygen mask are the key elements of their strategy. Moreover, mom has to be silent during labor, which is another motive to amplify anxiety.

Because the film is 99% wordless, the level of exigency required from the actors is mostly related to conveying everything via actions and expression. The characters use gestural language to communicate, only breaking this rule when behind a waterfall, where the noise is natural and they can remain undetected.

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I see this film as a game of the senses, a conviction bolstered by the fact that the creatures are blind and the little girl is deaf. Her father insists she has to wear her an aiding ear, even broken. Who knows when it may start working again? 

An old man who prepares to commit suicide after his wife’s execution is the only human to be found. Ironically, he just has to scream and… voilà! Despite these happenings, we are not told about what happened before or where the creatures came from. That vagueness, together with the silences and the power of the images, takes the horror to another level, simply because you’re dealing with the unknown.
 
In a couple of scenes, I wanted to start screaming out loud, like if I would alleviate the characters’ oppressive pain. Yet, that would have spoiled the film. Silence is imperative if you want to completely absorb the mood, even when Marco Beltrami’s ominous score is present to inflict further intimidation.
Regardless some minor quibbles here and there, “A Quiet Place” is original, atmospheric, tragic, and thrilling.

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You Were Never Really Here (2018)

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Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Country: USA / other

The dramas of Glasgow-born filmmaker Lynne Ramsay always have something special in addition to its rawness. So far, her short filmography comprehends four features, equal parts heavy and memorable, with the prevailing themes of youth, misfit, family, guilt, and grief. Even if her filmmaking skills and idiosyncratic style were pulsating with life in "Ratcatcher" and "Morvern Callar", her first two works, it was with the disturbing "We Need To Talk About Kevin" that she earned a massive recognition. Now, she returns in big with "You Were Never Really Here", a sunless thriller that exquisitely blends corrosive tension and morbid humor to create gripping scenes of alienation and redemption.

Ms. Ramsay, who wrote the script based on the short story of the same name by Jonathan Ames, summoned Joaquin Phoenix, who, in top form, impersonates an enigmatic, violent, and lethal hitman whose favorite weapon is no pistol nor knife but a ball-peen hammer. Heavily traumatized by an abusive father and a merciless military service, the bearded Joe is very reliable when it comes to ‘wipe out’ a man. After each job, he always goes back to his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), with whom he lives in New York City.

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In a new assignment, he vouches to free Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the teenage daughter of an important NY Senator, who was abducted to work in a dirty sex business in which major politicians are involved. The operation is dangerous and Joe is perfectly aware it can cost him friends and family, however, he’s not a give-up type guy. With some madness in his eyes and facing each setback with a disarming calmness, the tenacious hitman finds in Nina the force he needs to accomplish the mission and inflict the deserved punishment on the child abusers. 

Immersive and intriguing, the film develops with the tones of a neo-noir but ultimately glows with hope in the end. Even painful when imagined, the violence was never too explicit or extremist, making this revenge tale much more accessible than the intense shockers "Blue Ruin" and "Cold in July", which could easily upset your stomach. At least, the clouded Joe fights for some justice.

Even eschewing plot excesses, Ramsay wouldn’t be so successful without the arresting cinematography by Tom Townend, the brilliant score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and the unblemished editing by Joe Bini. They worked well together so that the packaging could look great while thrillingly grim moods were captured through a lens darkly. On another plan, Phoenix makes you enjoy every moment of his sinister role with a quiet assurance.

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Those Who Are Fine (2018)

Directed by Cyril Schäublin
Country: Switzerland

Cyril Schäublin’s feature debut, “Those Who Are Fine”, renders a scam story involving elderly women as preys in today’s Internet world. Following four short films, the young Swiss director imagines a female call center employee who tricks a few grandmothers using a false quest for urgent financial help as she pretends to be their granddaughters.

Alice Turli (Sarah Stauffer) is one of the 'inhumane' call center representatives at Everywhere Switzerland, an Internet service provider that offers up one of the most competitive prices in the market. She is a lonesome girl who takes advantage of her job to obtain extra information from wealthy elderly targets. In addition to questions like “how fast is your Internet connection” or “how often do you use the Internet”, Alice queries about their date of birth, bank account type, and approximate current balance. We follow her scamming the good-willing Mrs. Oberli (Margot Gödrös), who, despite the bank’s laborious security procedures, was more than happy to withdraw 50 thousand francs for her granddaughter. A meet up is scheduled, but instead of the latter is Alice who shows up to receive the money, exhibiting a mix of satisfaction, underestimation, and contempt in her face. 

Schäublin uses the camera in a curious way, opting for sharp close-ups, medium-long shots with half-body characters occupying only one side of the frame, and a few high-angles where she captures the austerity of the streets, the urban architecture and busy traffic in the unattractive outskirts of Zurich.

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Intertwining with Alice’s path, we hear conversations among a group of policemen assigned to carry out security checks at certain locations of the city. The topics of their conversation include Internet speeds and prices, health insurance, and movies, whose titles nobody remembers. Ironically, one of them croons Elton John’s ‘Your Song’, and in a different occasion, another one interrogates and frisks Alice, whose fraudulent ways needed another type of strategy to be unmasked. 

The guileful, achingly unemotional swindler opens a bank account with a large sum of dishonestly-earned money. That doesn’t weigh a bit in her conscience. In this aspect, debutant actor Sarah Stauffer was perfect, emulating the imperturbability of her character through a casual acting style. But because the more money you have, the more you want, Alice has no plans to stop and approaches her next victim, a senile woman living in a dementia caregiver center.

The drama relies on an interesting idea that never develops into something completely satisfactory. Regardless of a possible posterior connection, many scenes feel derivative, lost in redundant dialogues that drag the story to its limits. Even the finale promised tension but ended up wrapped in a melancholic apathy. Drowned in passwords, codes, and missing film titles, “Those Who Are Fine” runs at slow speeds and only intermittently connects. It would have easily been a more stimulating short film than a feature.

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Where Is Kyra? (2018)

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Directed by Andrew Dosunmu
Country: USA

Andrew Dosunmu’s focused yet pessimistic drama “Where Is Kyra?” marks the return of Michelle Pfeiffer to the big screen. Embracing a demanding role and dominating the scenes with a distinctive gravitas, she plays the title character, an unemployed middle-aged divorcee living in Brooklyn, who takes care of her elderly mother (Suzanne Shepherd). The camera silently lurks into the rooms with a compassionate passivity, capturing desolated facial expressions and silhouettes with predominantly dark tonalities. The tactic serves to highlight the depressive moods, yet love and affection are detected in the plausible story co-written by Dosunmu and Darci Picoult (“Mother of George”).

Even with the job interviews oscillating between disastrous and inconsequent, Kyra seems unpreoccupied because she receives her mother’s pension monthly. Nonetheless, she suddenly falls into a downward spiral of bad luck after her mother’s passing. The impossibility of cashing the checks from then on hauls her into a new inconceivable situation. Facing the tough reality of eviction and poverty, the desperate Kyra embarks on a dishonest scheme. The only thing she needs to succeed is to disguise herself as her mother and play her part at the bank.

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Meanwhile, at a local bar, she engages in casual conversation with Doug (Kiefer Sutherland), a solitary cab driver who knows her mother well and how much effort she has been putting on taking a good care of her. Both need a strong drink to cope with their lives, and after a few shots, they end up having sex. Will he be able to help her, even disagreeing with her fraudulent methods?

This reflection on economic deterioration holds a constant sense of desperation, yet never shaping into a true emotional commotion. Humiliation and shame are stabbing, and this is strongly felt when Kyra is forced to ask her ex-husband for financial help.

Dosunmu seems self-satisfied in securing the gloomy spirits, never excelling in fighting lethargy. Hence, “Where Is Kyra?” remains melancholically low-key from start to finish, failing to deliver in crucial moments, including its climax.

While Pfeiffer and Sutherland show raw and intact acting capabilities, the dramatic side of the story decreases with time, becoming plodding and monotonous. Tenaciously pronounced is Philip Miller’s score, whose jarring sounds were able to create tension galore.

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The Third Murder (2018)

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Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Country: Japan

Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda has been showing his brilliance with contemplative, emotionally rich drama films such as “Nobody Knows”, “Still Walking”, “I Wish”, “Like Father Like Son”, and “After the Storm”, all of them deeply related to family.

His latest, “The Third Murder”, deviates from this concentrative emotional paths, being a crime thriller coldly steeped in the courtroom, yet not eschewing the family side. It stars Masaharu Fukuyama as Shigemori, a senior attorney tasked with defending Misumi (Koji Yakusho), a man from Hokkaido accused to slay and then burn with gasoline his former boss. The case seems impossible to win since Misumi had served jail time 30 years before due to another murder.

Misumi promptly confesses the crime when arrested, pointing out his motives for such an evil act. He had been fired a few months before, started to drink heavily, and was in desperate need of money. Hence, the case falls in the robbery-murder category. Shigemori, whose father is also a veteran lawyer who defended this same client in the previous conviction, ponders the best strategy to get him life in prison instead of the death penalty. However, and despite the efforts of his legal representatives, Misumi keeps changing his story, which becomes strangely related to the victim’s daughter Sakie (Suzu Hirose), a teenager who limps just like his own estranged daughter. The uncertainty impels us to search for a truth that remains opaque, but not long enough to allow surprise. 

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Some more uncertainty is thrown in with the rumor that the victim’s wife had hired Misumi to kill her husband in a criminal conspiracy in order to get his life insurance money. Nevertheless, the reality is very different and we find Sakie willing to testify in court to save the detainee. 

The long, well-staged conversations between Shigemori and his client are often depicted with stationary face-to-face close-ups and medium shots with occasional juxtaposing techniques using the glass that separates them in the interrogation room. 

Impeccably shot and edited, “The Third Murder” follows the sinuous trails and tonal bleakness associated with the genre. Still, it has a fluctuating grip, lacking any sort of bright final punch that could have made it memorable. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting new directions and Koreeda should be praised for his courage. Notwithstanding, his inspiration and originality find a more suitable vehicle in the gentle, human dramas that everyone can relate to.

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The Judge (2018)

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Directed by Erika Cohn
Country: USA

Didactic and admirable, Erika Cohn’s “The Judge” kicks off with an excerpt of Quran’s fourth chapter Surat An-Nisa (translated Women): “Indeed, Allah commands you to render trusts to whom they are due and when you judge between people to judge with justice.”
This is a responsive documentary centered on Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first female judge officially accepted in Palestine’s Sharia courts, where family issues are handled. Kholoud and her colleague Asmahan Wuheidi started working in 2009 under the supervision of Chief Justice Sheikh Tayseer al-Tamimi, who, despite initially reluctant in giving them the position, didn’t regret his decision. After all, they have beaten all their male competitors.

Besides abiding by an impartial justice, a deficient aspect in the Arab countries when it comes to women’s rights, Kholoud is a respected wife and dedicated mother living in West Bank’s Best Rima. Her lawyer husband, being as stubborn as she is, felt an immediate chemistry after an argument with her the first time they met in a court case. Fearless and indefatigable, she handles a courtroom full of condescending men by exerting authority and moral integrity.

However, this brave woman had to dive deeply into the roots of Islamic law to prove she had the right to follow this profession, even having to fight with fundamentalists like Dr. Husam Al-Deen Afanah, a hyper-conservative Islamic scholar who opposes every idea related to women occupying important positions. Men with similar ideals are responsible for the escalating abuse of power that allows traditions to overrule Sharia’s law. Sadly, they only see women as instruments of pleasure and conception. It’s infuriating hearing Afanah explaining why certain roles in the society are exclusively tailored for men - “If she gives birth, if she is pregnant or bleeding, she is bound by these things, which affect her work”, he tactlessly states.

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Most of the cases she has to judge fall into domestic violence, alimony, inheritance, and divorce. Women, whose religious education is faulty in terms of gender equality, file 80 % of them. 

Even if a bit more of historical and cultural insight about Palestine would have favored the account, the film is very informative and optimistic. Yet, it only surprises when tackling topics such as unsubstantiated honor killings or describing a shocking murder case occurred in the middle of a court session due to disregarded mental illness. 

Seen as a role model, Kholoud alerts for the necessity of women to be involved in Sharia courts while encouraging them to persist in their fight for justice. For now, and regardless the temporary hardships she was subjected to, especially after the controversial dismissal of Al-Tamimi, she is winning this battle. It would be amazing if other Islamic countries could follow the example.

Vazante (2018)

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Directed by Daniela Thomas
Country: Brazil / Portugal

Vazante” takes us in a solemn journey to 1821 Brazil, where Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), a wealthy cattle herder returns to his secluded estate farm located in the middle of a clearing in Diamantina Mountains, Minas, just to find out that his wife died in labor together with their baby. Has a signal of power, he brought a few African slaves with him, but promptly abandons the farm in a disheartened state, entrusting his senile mother-in-law, Zizinha (Juliana Carneiro da Cunha), to the long-time servant Joana (Geísa Costa), and the farm to Manuel (Alexandre da Sena), his loyal foreman.

Bartholomeu (Roberto Audio), his cordial brother-in-law, arrives with his greedy wife, Ondina (Sandra Corveloni), and their 12-year-old daughter, Beatriz (Luana Nastas). With Antonio absent, he becomes the master of the house, but his inexperience and softness allow some rebels to escape after making him a hostage. They also steal mules, a price that the penniless Bartholomeu cannot pay. This scene is crafted with limited tension and ends inconsequently. Also superfluous is the presence of Jeremias (Fabrício Boliveira), an efficient planter who vouches to do wonders in Antonio's fertile land.

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Antonio eventually returns to the farm. His attention turns to his wife's niece, Beatriz, who, although underage, get her parents' encouragement to marry. This works as a payment for the incident described above as well as a guarantee of future economic stability. All the same, Beatriz’s simplicity is observed as she happily eats porridge with the black kids of the house. It’s not Antonio she loves. Her heart beats for Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), the son of Feliciana (Jai Baptista), a slave regularly summoned to sleep with the lord of the house. The film attains its devastating climax when both women, the servant and the noble lady, get pregnant. Hence, a tragic finale is unavoidable.

Presented with a deliberate languorous pace that makes us absorb every detail while enjoying the magnificent black-and-white cinematography by Inti Briontes (“Night Across The Street”), “Vazante” borrows the depressing noir tones of Miguel Gomes’ “Tabu”, the haunting looks of Ben Wheatley’s “A Field in England”, and the issues addressed in “12 Years A Slave” as a subplot, without beating any of the three. 

Under the supervision of “Linha de Passe” co-director Daniela Thomas, this emotionally wrenching period piece is culturally and historically valuable. Still, regardless the unblemished visual aspect, enriched with stunning landscapes and contemplative images that oppose the characters’ inner conflicts, the script is marred by a shattering predictability.

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Hotel Salvation (2017)

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Directed by Shubhashish Bhutiani
Country: India

Thoughtfully written and directed by debutant Shubhashish Bhutiani, “Hotel Salvation” can be considered last year’s peak international drama of the Indian cinema, just like "The Lunchbox" was in 2013.

Playing father and son, Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain are Daya and Rajiv, respectively. Haunted by a recurrent dream, 77-year-old Daya truly believes his time has come. He announces his intention to live his last days in the holy city of Varanasi at the Mukti Bhawan Hotel, a guesthouse where people can attain salvation for their sins and die in peace. The one accompanying him is Rajiv, who reluctantly leaves his job for an undetermined period of time. Besides being confronted with pressures from work, also his wife, Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni), shows some impatience with the absence, wanting him to return and perform his duties at home. Only his daughter, Sunita (Palomi Ghosh), who grew very attached to her grandfather, seems to completely understand and accept the situation.

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Once Rajiv starts taking care of his father, he grows crankier. Firstly, he’s not used to the new routines, and secondly, he doesn’t think his father is about to die. He’s neither comfortable far from his wife and daughter, nor leaving his stubborn father alone. Confused and divided, he dwells in this dilemma for some time. In the meantime, Daya gradually slips away this state of melancholy and blooms again, especially due to the presence of a new friend, Vimla (Navnindra Behl, Lalit’s real wife), a 75-year-old widow who keeps waiting for the death for 18 years.

Managing to escape the traditional melodramas, Bhutiani leans on the arthouse, which doesn’t hamper him from capturing the warmth and simplicity of the characters, as well as the colors that illustrate the magnificence of the Indian landscapes. However, not every scene was perfectly framed and a few shots were in need of aesthetic improvement.

Engaging in a different kind of tension, he crafts a modest yet spiritually inspiring story where duty, friendship, family ties, and loss are subjected to a dignified meditation. The subtle humor also fits well and the film, culturally enriching, ends up celebrating life, exactly as it should be.

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Ready Player One (2018)

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Directed by Steven Spielberg
Country: USA

Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is a busy sci-fi adventure punctuated by dark atmospheres and cathartic agitation in the form of wild action sequences filled with flashy, rowdy, and usually tiresome battles. The script, co-penned by Zac Penn and Ernest Cline, was based on the latter's 2011 novel of the same name. Despite the intelligent story, which alerts for current concerns about the addictive power of the ‘unreal’ world of the Internet and video games, the film’s visuals are hyper-saturated, assaulting our brain with the same uncontrolled trepidation as when you loop vertically on a rollercoaster.

Set in 2045, the story follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, who lives fascinated with an immersive virtual world called The Oasis, where he is one of the many compulsive players. As a place of the imagination, the Oasis allows you to be who you want to be, do anything, and go anywhere under the guise of an avatar. That way, you can feel every emotion of the experience while escaping from the desolation of the planet.

Our hero chose the Arthurian figure Parzival as his imaginary incarnation, here depicted with a David Bowie-ish hairstyle. He is prepared to plunge into a gaming contest in the Oasis that can change his life forever. The creator of the massively popular game was the venerated James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a quirky dreamer whose posthumous message to the world stated that his fortune and control of The Oasis would be given to the winning player of The Quest, a tough multi-phased contest. With the support of his team, The High-Five, Wade will explore many unknown and dangerous places, as well as fighting personal battles on both sides, the virtual and the real. 

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The competition will also serve as a rebellion to free the Oasis from the hands of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the cunning CEO of a video game company, and his evil allies i-R0k (T.J. Miller) and F'Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), bounty hunter and operations assistant, respectively. In addition to the challenge, an extra motivation turns up when Wade falls for Samantha Cook (Olivia Cooke), the clouded woman behind the well-known player Art3mis, even before seeing her real face.

The film makes a nostalgic cult to the 70's and 80's, giving it a special flavor. An amazing soundtrack, rich pop-culture elements, and a horrifying recreation of Kubrick's “The Shining” with bloodbath and everything, are some of the good aspects you'll find.

It’s understandable that Spielberg wants to ride the fashion waves of trendiness, after the sobriety and formalism of meritorious dramas such as “Lincoln”, "Bridge of Spies", and “The Post”. However, he does with sensorially exhausting pyrotechnics. In the end, I couldn’t agree more with Halliday: “the real world is the only place you can get a decent meal.” Maybe there’s some truth in the film's tech prognostication, but for now, I rather focus on our planet, where huge problems have urgently to be fixed. Especially when the virtual world depicted wasn’t so attractive.

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The Workshop (2018)

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Directed by Laurent Cantet
Country: France

This fiction centers on a teacher-student relationship that becomes a dangerous game as the characters discover more about each other. French helmer Laurent Cantet earned credit with works such as “The Class”, “Time Out”, and “Human Resources”, observant considerations about France in the 90’s and 00’s. After the modest comedy-drama “Return to Ithaca”, he’s back with the humorless “The Workshop”, a film he co-wrote with Robin Campillo (“120 BPM”), which, toggling between the human drama and the slow-burning thriller, tackles France’s social reality in an interesting yet volatile way.

Marina Fois is Olivia Dejazet, a celebrated novelist who takes the challenging task of coordinating a summer social integration course for teenagers. The goal is to have the young group of participants writing a fictional noir novel set in their Southern town, La Ciotat, having the long-gone industrial prestige of the city and possibly some real experiences, helping their effort.

Because the young participants are mixed-race, the exchange of ideas sometimes brings tension, and the main ‘agent provocateur’ is Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), a sullen French-white solitaire who often shocks his colleagues with an aggressive posture marked by extremist ideas and pretentious coldness. Antoine is very intelligent, but the constant ennui in his life makes him a detached, radical person. He is strongly influenced by his cousin Teddy, whose ideas corroborate with the extreme right-wing party. They have a fixation with guns that impels them to shoot at the stars at dawn with their faces camouflaged with dirt.

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In a preliminary phase, the film is dispersed and disarticulated, regardless the heated debates and the efforts of the non-professional cast to ring spontaneous. Things change gradually as the story evolves into something deeper. However, Cantet’s inability to assume a risk-taking posture never made him dug to the very bottom. Even addressing current socio-political issues of extreme importance in the group’s discussions - from ISIS to the Bataclan incident to the immigration crisis - this is all about murder, and how one can kill without a real motive.

Little by little, Olivia becomes excessively curious, even fascinated, by the self-reliant posture of her rebel student. Can he be a real threat to her and his mates? Definitely! And Olivia knows that. Still, she wants more from him, especially after hearing his keen if unpleasant remarks about one of her novels. In a way, Olivia tries to use him. She invites him to her own house and interviews him in private. She is in command, attempting to extract ideas that would serve to feed some fresh fictional character in her book. Is she helping him being a better person? Here is where exploitation bites hard, questioning a strange mutual attraction that was never too dark to impress.

If a sordid episode takes you to a dispassionate climax, the finale tries to tenderize even more what had happened. It’s a hopeful, and yet, too immediate conclusion. 
Both Fois and Lucci deliver competent performances, becoming the pillars that support Cantet’s enterprise. All the way through, “The Workshop” keeps oscillating between the good and the average.

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Lover For A Day (2018)

Directed by Philippe Garrel
Country: France

Philippe Garrel’s “Lover For A Day” allows us to immerse ourselves in a complex situation lived by father, daughter, and his lover. Gilles (Éric Caravaca), a philosophy professor, is openly dating and living with 23-year-old Ariane (Louise Chevillotte), one of her former students. She totally aimed at him, ultimately vanquishing the fierce resistance he was putting on her advances for one entire semester. It has been three months since the couple is living together in Gilles' Paris apartment, but an unexpected visitor, who is not exactly a stranger, changes somehow the dynamics of their lives. I'm talking about Gille’s daughter, Jeanne (director’s daughter Esther Garrel), who is the same age of her father’s girlfriend and was suddenly kicked out of her boyfriend’s apartment. Heavily disappointed and broken-hearted with her first amorous disillusion, she struggles to recover the balance, sank into a depressive state that makes her attempt to jump from a window. Unfortunately, this particular scene happens to be the less fruitful of a film that manages to catch our eye through the spectacular black-and-white cinematography by the veteran Renato Berta, a regular choice of Alain Resnais and Louis Malle in the past. The melancholic plot actually serves as scaffolding for these visual impressions.

Ariane becomes closer to Jeanne after saving her at the last minute. Knowing about each others’ secrets, they agree to keep Gilles misinformed - Ariane doesn’t mention Jeanne’s almost-fatal weakness while Jeanne doesn’t tell her dad that Ariane is the cover of an adult magazine.

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It's obvious that these women want something different from their relationships. Unfaithful and luxurious, Ariane enjoys freedom in an open relationship that reveals to be ineffective in many ways, whereas Jeanne only wants her boyfriend back, remaining tied up to that afflictive agony that keeps bringing into her mind that she was dumped without prior notice.

Unfolding with an articulated storytelling and resorting to an occasional voiceover for that purpose, the film deals with love, infidelity, jealousy, and even risks throwing in some political ideas involving the Algerian war for independence. 

Excavating moods and expressions, Garrel, who addressed these same topics in “Regular Lovers” and “Jealousy”, trails a bumpy road in this examination on the volatility of love and relationships. What you will see is classy cinema, framed with a stylish retro glow, but not devoid of a few uneven passages that feel more prosaic than poetic. Even dismaying in its conclusion, the auteur crafts it with sufficient élan to deserve a favorable mention.

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Paradise (2017)

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Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
Country: Russia / Germany

Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky’s new drama, “Paradise”, centers on three persons whose destinies cross during the World War II. Co-penned by Konchalovsky and Elena Kiseleva, the script follows a mixed structure of fictional account and documentary-style interviewing, with the camera fixed during the first minutes on the self-reliant Jules Michaud (Philippe Duquesne), who, after introducing himself, starts to talk about his wife and his guileless son Emile. Even if he doesn’t seem an evil person, Michaud works in the French Police Department as an informer for Nazi Germany, being responsible for the capture of 80 thousand Jews.
 
Now he has a new case in hands regarding Russian-immigrant Olga (Yuliya Vysotskaya), a member of the French Resistance and fashion editor for Vogue Magazine in Paris. She was arrested for hiding two Jewish children in a friend’s apartment. At Jule’s office, where evidence of physical torment is undeniable, she asks “will you torture me?”. The tone implicit in the counter-question - “do I have a choice?” - made her realize she might have a slight chance if she could use her body. And she wasn’t mistaken because Jules was completely fascinated with her strength and manipulative charm. Unfortunately, the plan is impeded when Jules succumbs to a successful Resistance operation. 

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To this point, the French glamour hadn't worked so well, but the film was going through an intriguing phase. After enticing us to know more about this woman, the attentions veer to a noble German aristocrat and high-ranked SS officer, Helmut zu Axenburg (Christian Clauß), who really prefers a good Chekov reading than chasing people around. Occasionally, he helps some Jews of his neighborhood, preventing them from being taken to concentration camps. Yet, just like his superior and friend, Heinrich Himmler (Viktor Sukhorukov), he believes in the creation of a German paradise, in which he has a brilliant future. That’s why the cruel, fundamentalist officer Krause (Peter Kurth) is so envious of his success. This man is in charge of the German concentration camp where Olga was sent. Unsurprisingly, we learn that Olga and Helmut are not strangers, with the film winding back a few years to a sunny summer day in Tuscany, Italy, when she fell into his arms.

Unable to ignite an emotional fire, the story fades gradually as the limitations of its uneven parts force me to abandon the characters. This ungoverned ship got lost in explanative rumination and trivial details that could have spared the film from that annoying overlong feel. Hence, the impeccably contrasted black and whites set by cinematographer Aleksandr Simonov nothing could do to save it from the wreck. As a matter of fact, the visual aspect becomes what impels us to look at the screen since the periodic interruptions in the narrative flow in order to include the characters’ monologues become a bit tiresome.

Konchalovsky was awarded the Venice Silver Lion but was incapable to give a proper sequence to a few good ideas, allowing both the tedium and the disorganization to circumscribe a plot that brusquely decays half-way.

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Happy End (2017)

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Directed by Michael Haneke
Country: France / Austria / Germany

German writer-director Michael Haneke earned cult status with gut-wrenching dramas such as “The Seventh Continent”, “The Piano Teacher”, “The White Ribbon”, and “Amour”. In his most recent work, sarcastically entitled “Happy End”, he addresses depression and suicidal tendencies as he depicts a French middle-class family, at the same time that faintly glances at the European migrant crisis. The story is loosely tied to the Oscar-winner “Amour”, which, like this one, also starred Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant as daughter and father.
 
Its premise, smartly steeped in technology, shows us an absorbing sequence of images recorded on a smartphone. At first, we see a woman being filmed while in the bathroom, and then unconscious due to a mysterious drug poisoning. Afterward, that overdose is transferred to a hamster, which ends up stiff in his cage, intoxicated with anti-depressives. The author of the videos is Eve (Fantine Harduin), a 13-year-old who, even admitting her guilt in both cases, never passes the sensation of evil or darkness. With her mother in the hospital, she is going to live with her estranged father, Thomas Laurent (Mathieu Kassovitz), his new wife, Anais (Laura Verlinden), and their baby.

However, the camera turns momentarily to Anne Laurent (Huppert), Eve’s aunt, a divorced workaholic who has to keep an eye on her demented octogenarian father, George (Trintignan), and her demotivated son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), who is facing a drinking problem. While Thomas is a well-established doctor, Anne and Pierre run the family business, a construction company in Calais that has been going through serious financial difficulties. Their disquietude associated with rescuing the company expands into a panic when a dangerous landslide occurs in one of the construction sites they were operating, causing a worker to be injured. 

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The emotional turmoils arrive from many fronts. Pierre is not getting better, feeling useless and ashamed of himself and attracting trouble in every move; Eve is becoming as much depressive as her mother was and finds out that his father is having an extramarital affair with a cellist; after eluding his caregiver Rachid (Hassam Ghancy), George flees from home in a car to commit suicide, but the best he can do is restraint, even more, his moves by becoming wheelchair-bound. He’s a stubborn man, though, and will study other ways that could make him end his sufferable existence. The only 'normal' situation seems to be Anne’s engagement with a British lawyer, Lawrence Bradshaw (Toby Jones).

The scenario is ideal for Haneke’s wry observations, who depicts the usual emotional fissures and inner sufferance with a disarming dark humor that keeps the film on its feet, even in the most strained situations. 
The aesthetic maturity of the static long-shots don’t compromise the emotional strength of the tale, but rather compensate the numerous close-ups that intended to dig deep into the characters’ broken souls.

While the ridiculously funny finale is quite clever, pumping up a film that had fallen in drowsiness for a while, the ultimate confessions and empathic understanding between granddaughter and grandfather is, perhaps, the most questionable scene of the film.

Even familiar in tone and less effective than Haneke's previous material, “Happy End” feels destructive inside out, and the Austrian helmer shows it with a sardonic artistic touch.

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Keep The Change (2018)

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Directed by Rachel Israel
Country: USA

With her own award-winning short film as a reference, director Rachel Israel has an auspicious debut on feature-length film with “Keep The Change”, an offbeat rom-com and urban fiction that worths every minute of your time.

Set in New York City, the story stars the newly-arrived Brandon Polansky, whose true experiences were at the base of the script, and Samantha Elisofon, as two gorgeously weird Jewish New Yorkers whose personal troubles are attenuated whenever they are together. He is David, a sensory-overloaded stressed man with a charming posture who belongs to an upper-class family. She is Sarah, a modest, super talkative, all-smiley 24-year-old woman who suffers from a learning disorder. She also loves to flirt with men and sing. Both meet in the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where they attend a support group session for adults with disabilities. Most of the idiosyncratic attendees of these sessions are super funny individuals, but Sammy (Nicky Gottlieb, a natural improviser) is the one who occupies the top of the list as a flamboyant theater aficionado. When asked about which dream he would like to come true, he sensuously described a sexual encounter with David’s cousin, Matt Cone (Johnathan Tchaikovsky), who is a celebrated Broadway actor.

After driving away his Internet girlfriend, Angie (Anna Suzuki), in their first date with an obnoxious rape joke, David is stalked by Sarah, who insists on a previously agreed homework assignment that forces them to take a trip to the Brooklyn Bridge. On their way, and while in a cab, their contrasting personalities and social status become salient again since he likes his mother’s chauffeur to drive him wherever he wants, whereas she only feels at ease when on the bus that takes her to her grandmother’s house, where she lives.

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Disregarding differences, the couple shares an unarticulated yet enthusiastic first kiss and then strolls through iconic places like the Central Park, Times Square, and Coney Island, where David’s fears and weaknesses surface in the form of nervous tics. This peculiarity becomes hilarious while they ride on a carousel for children, and the issue is only mitigated with the help of Sarah, who compassionately shows to be there for him. In this scene, she gives rise to the film's most tender moment.

Unfortunately, David wasn’t able to demonstrate a comparable sensibility or consideration when Sarah starts to sing in the presence of his cousin, after having shamelessly disclosed some details regarding their first sexual experience. His embarrassment and reprimand hurt her feelings, compromising a relationship that was precociously inclined to marriage. Would he be able to live without her?

The spontaneous performances of the duo are half the battle for the success, but definitely, Ms. Israel is also influential and decisive as she merges both the comedy and drama genres with gracious artistry. Additionally, the jokes work pretty well, and the street images, sleekly captured by cinematographer Zachary Halberd, glow with a warm color temperature that is visually arresting.

The New York-based company Kino Lorber acquired the rights to the film for distribution in North America. Hence, the ones fancying unconventional romantic tales should not miss the chance of watching this little gem on the big screen. Besides the good laughs, “Keep The Change" enchants with the authenticity, zaniness, and warm-heartedness that naturally emerge from the sympathetic characters.

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Annihilation (2018)

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Directed by Alex Garland
Country: USA

English filmmaker Alex Garland has a penchant for intellectual sci-fi thrillers. The follow-up to the well-received “Ex-Machina” is another uncanny puzzle entitled “Annihilation”, the first installment of the Southern Reach Trilogy, originally penned by novelist Jeff VanderMeer. Garland adapted it for the screen, calling Natalie Portman to impersonate a biology professor and former soldier who joins a female team of military scientists to undertake the oddest mission ever.

As a premise, the film presents us Lena (Portman) under interrogation by U.S. Government agents about a classified expedition into an unearthly, abnormal phenomenon known as The Shimmer. She was the only survivor from a psychedelic experience that also involved psychologist/team leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and geologist/surveyor Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). Former military incursions into the affected area, which covers a national park, were unsuccessful, and no one ever returned to tell the story, except for Sargent Kane (Oscar Isaac), Lena’s husband. However, he seems to have lost his memory and falls gravely ill with multiple organ failure, most likely due to virus or radiation exposition. The rumors are that, once there, people lose their memories and then are mysteriously killed, or get delirious and start killing one another.

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Thus, there's plenty of bite here, even before the team steps into the iridescent electromagnetic field that identifies The Shimmer. Once in there, confronted with several technical problems and time lapses, they observe that the landscape and all types of life form are mutating. It’s not uncommon to find plants with a human shape and they even see trees made of crystal. However, if this certainly won’t scare you, punctual grotesque encounters with wild, abhorrent, carnivorous creatures will make you twist on your seat. Possible hallucinations? The dreamlike tones are properly set to make us alert as we penetrate in this chimerical world of horror and beauty. Macabre footage by the precedent explorers is found in an old warehouse, which bemuses the brave women even more.
According to the ice-cold Dr. Ventress, who shows there's something wrong with her as she lectures Lena about self-destructiveness, the goal is to reach a lighthouse at the center of The Shimmer.

We’ve all seen this type of story many times before and its moods are not a novelty either. Still, Garland, who has the capacity to develop ideas beyond the superficial, conquered me with a magnificent last part, superbly represented through visually mind-blowing images drowned in gorgeous special effects. It’s the psychological side of the story that is challenging as it also brings thrills and excitement.

Fusing elements of “Alien”, “Predator” and “Arrival”, “Annihilator” is a dark-tinged equation whose resolution whets our appetite for the upcoming sequels.

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Red Sparrow (2018)

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Directed by Francis Lawrence
Country: USA

After three installments of "The Hunger Games" franchise, director Francis Lawrence teams up once again with the charismatic actress Jennifer Lawrence for a sexed-up espionage thriller that, lacking depth, still finds a compromise between the satisfying action and the inglorious thrills.

Set in modern-day Russia, the story follows Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), a superb Bolshoi ballerina whose career ends abruptly after a serious injury. Overwhelmed by an unclear future, she is maliciously approached by her surreptitious uncle, Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), an agent for the Russian intelligence who assigns her a perfidious mission before sending her to Sparrow School. Once there, she is subjected to an intensive and sadistic training, learning to use her body and mind to seduce possible targets. Dominating the art of manipulation, Dominika will become a reliable agent, but her efficiency and determination soften after she bumps into Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), an American CIA operative who is trying to save the same mole - identified as Marble - she was ordered to seek and destroy.

Soon, Dominika becomes a double agent. She does it out of love and as a response to the brutal assassination of another Russian female spy, a warning to all agents in an attempt to prevent leaks of secret information.

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Directing from a script by Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road”, “The Lone Ranger”), based on the novel by Jason Matthews, Francis Lawrence plays with overused counter-espionage tactics while trying to gain some more points through a faulty Russian-American romance. "Red Sparrow" packs an imperfect punch that only becomes effective during the brief yet violent interrogations and a well-mounted scene involving unmerciful stabs.

Modest appearances by Charlotte Rampling and Jeremy Irons as the headmistress of Sparrow School and General Vladimir Andreievich Korchnoi, respectively, weren’t enough to push the film into the limelight. We are left with a few lurid episodes, abundant lust, and… Jennifer Lawrence, who, better than Charlize Theron in “Atomic Blonde”, plays this brave if cunning spy with the right attitude and a sexy look. 

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The Death of Stalin (2018)

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Directed by Armando Iannucci
Country: UK / other

Not all the filmmakers have the capacity of gathering sensitive political and historical material and turn it into a pleasurable satirical parody that stirs our intellect in a totally different way. With just a couple of feature-length films, Italian-born Armando Iannucci is surely one of them, asserting his gift with comedies such as “In The Loop”, and now “The Death of Stalin”, a tongue-in-cheek caricature of the post-Stalinism struggle for power. Its conception was based on the French graphic novel of the same name.

In 1953, the paranoia related to Josef Stalin's dark list consumes the nerves of common civilians, red army soldiers, and high-ranked politicians in Moscow. There are numerous arrests, tortures, and deaths, which become more and more exaggerated as they kept being ordered by the tyrant Russian leader (Adrian McLoughlin) and his feared right arm and NKVD’s head, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Rumors are that the duo has already locked up half the nation.

In order to give us an idea of how improper things work around there, the director fabricates a scene of a classical music concerto whose recording is unexpectedly required by Stalin through an unusual direct phone call. Because nobody had recorded it, the artists were forced to play the Mozart recital again while the audience was encouraged to applaud even more. However, pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), an opposer of the regime, refuses to play and had to be bribed to step on stage for the second time. 

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Following Stalin’s cerebral hemorrhage and consequent death, the main members of the Central Committee - the cynical Beria, the slippery first secretary Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi), the conspiring foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and the vain deputy general secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) get ready to fiercely dispute the leadership. Other ministers join the four vultures in a ceremonious if hilarious funeral that is further disturbed by the presence of Stalin’s drunken son, Vasily (Rupert Friend), the unwelcome yet invited ultra-orthodox bishops, and Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the authoritarian marshal of the Soviet Union who is also scheming in hopes to hold sway.

By employing a wry, British-like humor, Iannucci, who co-wrote with David Schneider and regular collaborator Ian Martin, satirizes the episodes with whirlwinds of tension and mordant tones, regardless the historical inaccuracies that his script may contemplate. 

The narrative is no slack and there’s always something happening that keeps us alert and grinning from ear to ear. As the farce moves forward, it becomes irresistibly chaotic, zany, and jocular, ingredients one should expect from this type of provocative comedy. The ensemble cast was so daredevil in their absurdist roles, and the sequence of events so wild, that the film was banned in Russia and other former members of the Soviet Union.

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Final Portrait (2017)

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Directed by Stanley Tucci
Country: UK

Final Portrait”, the first film of Stanley Tucci in 10 years, not only brings about a few interesting aspects about the personality of the Swiss multidisciplinary artist Alberto Giacometti, but also stages his relationship with James Lord, the film narrator and art critic who exhaustively posed for him in an impeccable suit, delaying consecutively his trip back to New York.

British cinematographer Danny Cohen did an excellent job, giving the picture the monochromatic tones that had marked the artist’s painting style while capturing Giacometti's decrepit, and often messy, studio and the 1964 Parisian atmosphere.

Geoffrey Rush ("Shine", "Quills", "The King's Speech") and Armie Hammer ("Call Me By Your Name"), embodying Giacometti and Lord, respectively, become the true artisans of a passable biopic whose mood kept oscillating between the diverting and the unaspiring. There were brief moments where I could engage with the characters, while on others, I expected much more as I started to react with indifference to the repetitive swearing proper of a perpetually unsatisfied genius.

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“I will never be able to paint you as I see you. It’s impossible.” Says the artist to his model. A bit neurotic and sometimes radical in his attitudes, the temperamental Giacometti keeps his large income at home, confesses he thinks about suicide on a daily basis, only cares about his miserable wife (Sylvie Testud) when he’s sick, and burns all his money with a young hectic prostitute named Caroline (Clémence Poésy), his primary model, inspiration, and obsession. Sometimes, dominated by frustration and impelled by furious attacks, he throws his valuable art in the garbage.

Tucci’s ideas, together with Rush’s acting abilities, were enough to minimally shape the artist, but this biographical drama has no place among the best I’ve seen lately. 

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