The House That Jack Built (2018)

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Directed by Lars Von Trier
Country: Denmark / other

In The House That Jack Built, Lars Von Trier’s subversive artistic qualities remain undiminished, even when he whimsically blurs the picture with a final chapter whose ludicrous irony and misrepresentation prevented the film to ascend to higher levels.

Set in Washington in the 70s and 80s, the story spans 12 years and depicts five random incidents that marked the long serial killing life of Jack (Matt Dillon), a wealthy engineer and a psychopath with severe OCD, who got famous as Mr. Sophistication. The nickname was earned at the expense of inventive atrocities inflicted to his victims, whom he photographed stylishly to fill the media’s first pages. In truth, this man is an art lover who turns his crimes into repulsive art forms. He possesses a salient narcissism that becomes uncontrollable whenever he feels humiliated. David Bowie’s “Fame” often accompanies the post-crime scenes in a way to intensify his sense of swaggering accomplishment.

The morbid occurrences are sequenced with occasional flashbacks showing Jack’s propensity for evil as a child, as well as voice-over conversations with Verge (Bruno Ganz), an imaginary character who appears by the end to show him to the gates of the hell where he belongs.

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Although fun-filled, the incidents are uneven and decrease in force with time. The first of them, featuring the irresistible Uma Thurman, is the one that stays longer in the memory.

Dark humor and stinging sarcasm are added in a tale that can be hilarious one minute and gruesome the minute after. You'll need a strong stomach to digest the shocking secrets Jack has to unveil, a disturbing character whose obsession and impulsiveness will destroy him at some point.

While Matt Dillon is insanely convincing in his performance, Von Trier obtains an extravagant blend of horror and humor from the monstrosity of his character.

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The Favourite (2018)

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Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Country: UK / USA / Ireland

Magnificently directed by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth; The Lobster; The Killing of a Sacred Deer), The Favourite is a sumptuous historical comedy-drama and feminist extravaganza. It narrates the unmeasurable thirst for power of two cousins, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who engage in a battle with each other to earn the favoritism of the whimsical Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) of Great Britain in the early 18th century.

When Abigail, a former aristocrat turned servant, arrives at the royal house, she finds her duchess cousin Sarah enjoying all the authority bestowed by the queen, who, besides insecure and unstable in regard to the country’s affairs - England is at war with France - is also suffering from both physical and psychological illnesses. After finding out that Sarah and the queen maintain a secret affair, Abigail sets a strategy to conquer the power and get rid of her cousin, whose absence related to important war deliberations only expedites her plan. Jealousy and hatred play big in a film where men are relegated to a second plan.

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Broadening his vision and maturing his signature style, Lanthimos skillfully weaves the threads of a story that never stops to amuse us in a sort of mundanity-meets-elegance. The pair of writers, Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, thoughtfully crafted a story whose wittiness, cynicism, and madness helped to transform The Favourite in one of the most impressive works of 2018.

Shot with sophistication, this unconventional period film is a triumph in many ways. It showcases an off-kilter sense of humor and a special conglomeration of carnality, darkness, fragility, and opulence. The superlative performances from the ensemble cast set this venomous female triangle on fire. If Stone and Weisz are extremely qualified in their roles, Colman is a marvel, playing the childish, solitary queen with so much artfulness and brilliance.

The production values are absolutely formidable, including the set and custom designs, the convenient soundtrack with Baroque, Romantic, and contemporary classical music, and the stunning cinematography by Robbie Ryan (I, Daniel Blake; Fish Tank). Furthermore, I’m glad that the bold, inimitable Lanthimos didn’t lose the power to shock and captivate at the same time, a staple in his filmography.

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Private Life (2018)

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Directed by Tamara Jenkins
Country: USA

I struggled with mixed feelings after watching Private Life, Tamara Jenkins’ third feature (Slums of Beverly Hills; The Savages) about a middle-aged married couple in a desperate quest for a child. When regular fertility treatments don’t seem to be a solution for their problem, Richard (Paul Giamatti), 47, and owner of a theater company, and Rachel Grimes (Kathryn Hahn), a respected playwright, turn their focus to one last possible solution before going for adoption: In Vitro Fertilization.

After the initial reluctance, the procedure becomes a vital factor to refine the meaning of their marriage and goal as a family, but for this, they need an egg donor. As a consequence of frustrating online scams, their choice couldn’t fall on someone more problematic than Sadie (Kayli Carter), their young niece who is going through an emotional crisis. How will her parents, Cynthia (Molly Shannon) and Charlie (John Carroll Lynch), react to the idea?

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Even granting that the smart script was matched by assuring performances, the repetition of the idea and static tone made me moderately disinterested as I got more and more disentangled from the characters’ obsession. There’s a vein of seriousness and poignancy, which Jenkins attempts to balance with awkwardly comedic moves. She also portrays the characters’ complexities with no exaggeration and that becomes the reason why the film wobbles but doesn’t disintegrate.

It’s a grown-up, patient look at infertility that, even enchanting here and there, misses that little spark that leads to the heart.

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Shadow (2018)

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Directed by Zhang Yimou
Country: China / Hong Kong

Shadow signals the powerful return of Chinese director Zhang Yimou to the wuxia epics, whose fanciful conception he dominates from top to bottom. The veteran filmmaker, whose extensive filmography includes masterpieces such as Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and To Live (1994), collaborated with Wei Li in the script of this fabulous tale set during the Three Kingdom era.

The selfish, presumptuous, and short-tempered King of Pei (Zheng Kai) is worried about the advancements of General Yang (Hu Jun), an unbeatable warrior who already took the neighbor city of Jingzhou. For his defense, the king relies on the high-ranked Commander Yu (Deng Chao), a quick-witted spearman whose true identity is Jing. Essentially, the plebeian Jing is the ‘shadow’ of the real Yu, meaning that he has been trained in an intensive way to become his double since he was rescued from the streets 20 years before.

Jing is confident that he can beat General Yang in a duel. However, the gutless King opts for a different strategy, offering his sister (Guan Xiaotong) in marriage. The future husband would be Yang’s insolent son, Ping (Leo Wu), who insults the princess by proposing an alternative solution: to take her as a concubine.

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Jing is demoted of his duties for disobeying the king’s orders, and still, he doesn’t give up the idea of duelling Yang. Yu keeps on training him and fortuitously finds the pathway to victory through a smart tactic suggested by his wife, Madam (Sun Li).

Entailing dramatic tension, especially with the forbidden love between Jing and Madam, the film then segues into spectacular battles, complemented by terrific musical moments and a broad sense of uncertainty.

The physical confrontations take the shape of balletic dances, meticulously choreographed with whirlingly lethal umbrellas in the mix. Visually, it never ceases to dazzle our eyes, either through the quasi-monochromatic canvases displaying misty Chinese landscapes or the ingenious costume design. Shadow is a sumptuous sensory feast filled with spectacle, surprise, and madness.

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Everybody Knows (2018)

Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Country: Spain / France / Italy

The work of some distinguished directors loses the charm and often the focus when they operate in a different cultural milieu. This syndrome seems to have caught Iranian master Asghar Farhadi, who gave us gems like About Elly (2009), A Separation (2011), and The Salesman (2016). Sad to say he stains his filmography with Nobody Knows, a fictional thriller set in Spain that unfolds monotonously and only sporadically piques our interest. Orienting a luxurious cast that includes Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Ricardo Darin, Farhadi failed to provide startles and thrills, relying solely on the dramatic side of things to impress. But even that factor was disastrous as he tiresomely attempts to suggest connections between the past and the present.

The film starts by capturing some newspaper clippings that reveal the disappearance of a little girl named Carmen. When Laura (Cruz) arrives at her small, picturesque hometown with their three children to attend her sister’s wedding, she couldn’t imagine she had been already chosen as an indirect target for something similar. In recent years, she has been living in Buenos Aires, where her architect husband, Alejandro (Darin), remained due to work commitments.

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The wedding’s festivities suddenly turn into a river of tears when Laura’s teen daughter, Irene (Carla Campra), disappears mysteriously. She had been kidnapped while resting in her room and the ransom is 30 thousand euros. Obviously, there was a mole at the party and the kidnappers can be either family or friends. Jorge (José Ángel Egido ), a retired policeman who acts as he knows all the answers, studies possible motives and tries to find a logic for the puzzle.

All the same, the only one with the financial means to resolve the imbroglio is Paco (Bardem), Laura’s former lover, who is well established as a local vineyard owner. Intriguingly, Paco’s wife, Bea (Bárbara Lennie), receives the same warnings from the kidnappers. Secrets are unveiled slowly and unsavorily, while the drama becomes a disorganized spiral of affective manipulations.

Farhadi keeps on working family themes, but with a voice that lacks articulation. He brings a bit of Almodovar during the colorful party and the dramatic flair of Susanne Bier, but everything is inconsistently pasted with a melodramatic television air. There’s little to differentiate this film from other generic drama-thrillers out there, and even if the images shine bright, they were not enough to make Everybody Knows glittering like gold. To tell the truth, this was more of a pale experience that puts Farhadi under pressure for his next move.

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The Family (2018)

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Directed by Gustavo Rondon Cordova
Country: Venezuela

Embracing a gritty social realism, The Family is the most interesting drama coming from Venezuela since Bad Hair (2014). First-time director Gustavo Rondon Cordova takes an attentive look at a shattered South American country, currently facing political turmoil, criminality, hunger, and despair. Centered on father and son, this is a story of guilt, repent, and sacrifice. Their dilapidated lives need a radical change so they can find a path to a more hopeful future.

12-year-old Pedro (newcomer Reggie Reyes) belongs to that group of people who don't take insults lying down. He lives in a tough neighborhood of Caracas and spends most of the day in the company of his neighbor and best friend Jonny, barely seeing his single father, Andres (Giovanni García), a hardworking man who returns home only to sleep a few hours. Even though money is around, food is not abundant. An adversity they have to pull through on a daily basis.

One day, Pedro and Jonny got in a fight with a kid from the slums who had approached them with a gun to steal their cellphones. In an impulse of self-defense, Pedro slashes the kid’s neck with a piece of glass. Regardless if the boy lived or died, now their lives are in great danger. Aware of this fact, Andres, even running from job to job, tries the best he can to protect his only son. In turn, Pedro sees his progenitor as a weak man and keeps acting wild and disrespectful. The solution is to leave the block and then try to obtain more information from a safe place while letting things calm down.

Educational insufficiency and the milieu where you grow up represent crucial factors in the story, but also the social unevenness and corruption that hamper the country’s development. Andres might have felt embarrassed in front of his son after getting caught stealing liquor bottles from a fancy party where he was working as a waiter. However, it was from that moment on that Pedro gains some more respect, realizing how equally painful was his father’s reality.

The young Reyes stands out and the production values are strong, with a well-deserved special mention for the cinematography of Luis Armando Arteaga (Ixcanul; The Heiresses).

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Happy As Lazzaro (2018)

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Directed by Alice Rohrwacher
Country: Italy

Alice Rohrwacher keeps up the remarkable directorial career initiated in 2011 with Corpo Celeste and followed by The Wonders in 2014. Communicating with a superbly controlled cinematic language, the Italian director conjures up a surreal folktale in her third feature, Happy As Lazzaro, in which tradition and contemporaneity splice together with tribulation and grief.

Written in a somewhat prophetic way and told with a Visconti-like conviction, the film depicts the methodical life and daily struggles of the few naive sharecroppers that inhabit Inviolata, a mountainous off-the-beaten-track village. Among the youngest natives are Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) and Antonia (director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher). The former, a pure-hearted young man who never complains about anything, is constantly solicited by those who need help, while the latter was selected to be the servant of the Marquise Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), queen of cigarettes and wealthy proprietor of the local estate.

Shamefully, the Marquise exploits the villagers with the help of Nicola (Natalino Balasso), a tricky trader, who devours the bread and wine of the humble locals without giving them a cent in exchange. If anyone gets pretty bored around there, that person is Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), the Marquise’s rebellious son, who calls his mother a torturer. He forges an unlikely friendship with Lazzaro at the same time that simulates his own kidnapping.

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Leaving the village is considered disrespect to the family and requires the Marquise's consent, but when Lazzaro wakes up from a long sleep, which epitomizes his own death, he finds no one but two burglars in the Marquise’s now decrepit house. One of the men is Pippo, Antonia’s son, but he is grown up and unrecognizable. Lazzaro, who didn’t age during all the years that have passed, reconnects with his family again in an unexplored city, where they struggle to survive. Either considered a ghost or a saint, Lazzaro searches for an adult Tancredi (Tommaso Ragno) and eventually finds him at the time he was trying to fraudulently sell Inviolata, now a property of the bank. Both got very happy with the reconnection, but modern society is a tough ‘place’ to live. Unfitted and misunderstood, our placid young star shed tears, suffering with his new reality.

Reinforced by the story of the saint and the wolf, the film counterpoints subjugation and freedom, in a thoughtful coupling between the mundane and the fantastic. Rohrwacher’s ability to acknowledge pain without being depressing is an asset, and her work is nothing less than a seductive elegy that overflows with imagination and pulsating heart. Despite the idyllic nature of great part of the story, the pace was never affected. In fact, it was often used to lure and hypnotize in conjunction with the powerful images.

It was curious to observe that, even being exploited, the hard-working peasants were so much happier in the countryside, where the economic factors were never the main reasons to exist. Not eschewing subtly wry humor, this depiction of irreparable loss, is an eye-opener for the strange direction the world is taking these days. Rohrwacher’s work is brilliant and very much recommended.

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Roma (2018)

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Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Country: Mexico / USA

Versatility and competence are two valuable attributes of Mexican writer/director Alfonso Cuarón, demonstrated in peculiar works like Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), Children of Men (2006), and Gravity (2013). Yet, none of the above delivered so much personal intimacy and cinematic maturity as Roma, a flawlessly shot drama based on his childhood memories when he was living in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood in the early 1970s.

The story focuses on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a humble Mixtec maid working for a middle-class family nearly shattered by the absence of its patriarch, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a respected doctor. At the moment that this man decided to abandon the household, his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) takes the responsibility of raising four children with the priceless help of Cleo, who also shares other domestic duties with her co-worker Adela (Nancy García García).

The camera captures the routines and dynamics of the family through glorious black-and-white frames polished to compositional precision. The extraordinary cinematography is credited to the director himself, who also co-produced and co-edited. Concurrently, we follow Cleo’s personal problems with her boyfriend, Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), an immature thug from the slums and martial arts practitioner, who dumps her ruthlessly in the same minute she informs him about a possible pregnancy.

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Taken by frustration and disappointment, the two vulnerable women lean on each other, forging a moving companionship where there is no place for social class stratification. All the guilt, trauma, and pain are attenuated by the love and warmth within the family, regardless of the difficulties that might exist. Sofia and Cleo are brave women, whom Cuarón wanted to thank and honor. And he did it marvelously.

The simple and realistic storytelling discloses individual complexities that made me care for these characters with all my soul. The touching finale is one of the most powerful scenes of a deeply humane film where hope triumphs in times of adversity.

While the performances are immaculately genuine, Cuarón’s unparalleled direction convinced me in every aspect since he never loses focus with trivialities. Every scene is there for a purpose, not by chance. Despite the evocation of another time, connections with the current state of the world can also be established in Roma, an illuminated tale of gratitude and one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had this year in a theater.

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Colette (2018)

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Directed by Wash Westmoreland
Country: UK / USA

Colette is an insipid, occasionally colorful biographical drama about the gifted French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, here impersonated by the ever-charming English actress Keira Knightley, whose penchant for period dramas is mirrored in Pride & Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2012). The script, co-written by director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice, 2014) and his late husband Richard Glatzer, focuses initially on the author’s early years spent in her Burgundy’s rural hometown and then mostly in Paris in 1893, where she moves with her unfaithful, talent-thief Parisian husband, Willy (Dominic West), who pursues success in literature at any cost.

In a society dominated by men, Willy takes all the credit for his wife’s clever writing without sketching a single line. His first book, Claudine a Paris, is a massive success, but as a vainglorious and greedy literary entrepreneur, he wants more and doesn’t intend to stop there. In a rush to meet publishing deadlines, he abusively locks his wife in a room to force her writing a new novel. However, and for his uneasiness, Colette is not the submissive type, rebelling against her husband and the system, and venturing in lesbian affairs with the ardent American socialite Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) and the perspicacious boyish Missy (Denise Gough). The sudden revelation that Georgie also shares her bed with Willy becomes Colette’s inspirational source for her next literary success: Claudine en Ménage.

Despite some admirable period details, the interesting moments come and go in a perpetual intermittence, becoming increasingly scarce when the story reaches its final part. The director was unable to overcome the pallid storytelling, which could easily be turned into avant-garde eccentricity if he had had a bit more audacity. The competent cast could do nothing to help him in this department.

The film shares its art-theft topic with another recent drama film, The Wife, whose more attractive course of events was elevated by the splendid return of Glenn Close to a first-class role.

A lot was left behind in this depthless account of a disaffected ghostwriter who wanted to affirm her artistic gift, freely and publicly. She actually did it with bravery and conviction, but this film doesn’t do her justice. Hence, my suggestion is: save your ticket money and read Colette’s biography instead.

Tyrel (2018)

Directed by Sebastian Silva
Country: USA

Tyrel is a totally missed shot by Chilean director Sebastián Silva, whose past releases alternate between the delightful (The Maid; Crystal Fairy) and the mediocre (Magic Magic; Nasty Baby).

We’re living complicated times where racial tensions keep escalating and symptoms of fear, anxiety, and violence are visibly abundant. Aware of all this, Silva wrote a plot that is conceptually logic and unequivocal, a sort of counterpoint to Jordan Peele’s Get Out that would likely lure more adepts if less diffuse in the message and more consistent in tone.

Jason Mitchell is Tyler, an African American young man who willingly joins his good friend John (Christopher Abbott) in an all-men weekend party in the Catskill Mountains. This opportunity will give him a break from certain family problems that have been bothering him lately.

The house where they’re going to stay, owned by John’s Argentine friend Nico (Nicolas Arze), suddenly becomes jammed with a bunch of peculiar white dudes he doesn’t know. While some of the guys are nice, like Alan (Michael Cera) or Max (executive producer Max Borne), others are somewhat provocative in their behavior, cases of Peter (Caleb Landry Jones) and Dylan (Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum). Frivolous conversation leads to silly games; alcohol leads to weed; everything starts rolling at a fast pace. Despite of a Trump doll hang in the living room and ready to be wrecked by torture, Tyrel becomes notably uncomfortable for being the only black person in the house.

The first night was tense, yet pacific; the second, maddening wild; both were prosaically banal. In our heads, we portray all those guys as racists and sadistic bastards ready to devour Tyler just for their own amusement. But nothing ever really happens and we feel somewhat betrayed by the pointless situations created. This sense of futility and deception was magnified from the moment I noticed that, after all, movie title and main character don’t share the same name - former is Tyrel, latter is Tyler.

With our alcohol-drenched hero programmed to act in paranoia mode, the film takes us to a neighboring house, where Silvia (Ann Dowd), her saxophonist husband (Reg E. Cathey), and their kid meet an afflicted Tyler. Are they the friendly type?

There is probably more religious turmoil here than actually racial, and the story progresses with a nonsensical self-contentment without delivering a single thrill. It doesn’t take us too long to understand Silva’s idea, in the same manner that we realize that the aimless script is populated with under-written characters. Tyrel breaks at the weight of its own ambition, feeling like an undergraduate exercise in tension. Sadly, even that tension is wasted.

The Guilty (2018)

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Directed by Gustav Moller
Country: Denmark

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men are two triumphant films shot in one single room. Probably drawing some inspiration from the cited classics, Swedish-born director Gustav Moller keeps things tense and intense in his debut feature The Guilty, an engrossing Danish suspenser that never leaves the building where the story takes place.

Police officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren, better known for Submarino and Terribly Happy) is reluctantly on duty in an emergency call center of the Copenhagen’s police department after being demoted from his usual obligations: street patrol. The reason for that is kept secret at first, but has to do with an incident under investigation. Not very popular among his colleagues, he feels extremely bored and behaves impatiently with the ceaseless phone calls he gets, most of them unimportant and with no consequence. A man that was mugged by a woman in his own car; another man who took speed and is likely hallucinating; a woman who fell from her bike and wants an ambulance for a minimal wound in her knee; and a woman journalist who wants to give him a chance to defend himself regarding the court case brought against him, are just some examples of how frustrating the job can be.

Nonetheless, when he gets a desperate call from a young mother calling for help, Asger suddenly becomes active and alert. The woman, Ibsen (voice by Jessica Dinnage), was apparently kidnapped by her violent ex-husband Michael, a former convict, leaving two minor children alone at home: Mathilde, six, and Oliver, who is still a baby.

From a distance, and slightly stepping the line that separates duty from emotion, Asger attempts to save the woman and hold her children in safety. While doing it, he does a self-conscious examination and even opens up about a certain conduct he is not proud of. Hence, this complex case, where nothing ends up being what it seems, is addressed by the officer in question as an opportunity for redemption.

With so little, Moller extracted the most of a story he co-wrote with Emil Nygaard Albertsen, also on account of Cedergren’s flawless performance and some clever warps in the script. Sharp close-ups meticulously capture the facial details, behavioral reactions, and moments of irritation due to bureaucratic procedures or vain superior orders. All the rest is left to our imagination.

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Madeline's Madeline (2018)

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Directed by Josephine Decker
Country: USA

Set in New York, Madeline’s Madeline is a riveting indie drama, glamorously handled by director Josephine Decker and superiorly acted by Molly Parker (Trigger), Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know; The Future), and the gifted newcomer Helena Howard.

The film dives into the very personal world of 16-year-old Madeline (Howard), a medicated mulatto who finds an escape to the turmoils of her mind in the experimental theater. Madeline has a thorny relationship with her super protective, slightly paranoid, and emotionally unstable single mother, Regina (July). Her dreams and problems at home are frequently shared with the theater troupe’s director, Evangeline (Parker), whom she entirely trusts. At least, until Madeline realizes that the play they were working on was entirely about her own life experiences.

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Combusting with a sharp focus on character, the film fiercely aims to the senses, bringing off a powerful effect through the combination of Ashley Connor’s camerawork, whose dynamic lens often gets out of focus and captures slow-mo sequences, and Caroline Shaw’s pertinent score. It provides a sort of surreal, ritualistic experience where suspense abounds.

In addition to the dreamlike tones created, which feel intriguing and disorienting, there is a furious earthly side well rooted in reality. The scene where Madeline is caught by surprise with the unexpected arrival of Regina when she was watching porn with neighbor friends or the one that illustrates physical aggression from daughter to mother are simply breathless and packed with emotional upheaval.

Madeline’s Madeline is likely the most gratifying indie movie of 2018. I definitely urge you to check it out.

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Lizzie (2018)

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Directed by Craig William Macneill
Country: USA

Craig William Macneill’s underpowered Lizzie offers a tedious perspective of the 1892 true-crime story set in Fall Rivers, Massachusetts, in which Lizzie Borden, here impersonated by the capable Chloe Sevigny, was temporarily arrested and tried for the murder of her father and stepmother. 125 years have passed and the case, publicly known as 'the axe murders', remains a mystery. However, any curiosity related to the macabre occurrence remains shallow throughout this dispassionate and often formulaic reconstruction of the events.

Bryce Kass’ script pictures Lizzie with a likable frontal personality, resisting as much as she can to the austerity and conservatism of her wealthy father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan). Socially and intellectually repressed, Lizzie, who is also impelled to fight an avid uncle (Denis O'Hare) in order to protect her inheritance, engenders an evil plan in the company of a newly arrived housemaid, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), with whom she lives a lesbian relationship.

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There’s nothing particularly surprising or even appealing in this fictional account, where the flame of forbidden love is extinguished almost before it starts through an underlying static quality of the characters’ actions. This obstacle also narrowed any possibility of thrills.

Moreover, if Sevigny’s performance keeps us hoping for better, Stewart is maladjusted and never truly convinces in her role. With such a potential story in hands, Macneill had everything to create greater suspenseful moments with a stronger impact if he hadn’t a heavy hand. A thriller that is never unsettling soon becomes a triviality. And that’s exactly what Lizzie is.

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We The Animals (2018)

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Directed by Jeremiah Zagar
Country: USA

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Justin Torres, We The Animals is a thoughtful coming-of-age drama that won’t leave you indifferent.

Having the rural upstate New York as a backdrop, the story is told from the perspective of 10-year-old Jonah (Evan Rosado), the youngest of three brothers who become victims of the volatile relationship of their parents, a white mother (Sheila Vand) and a Puerto Rican father (Raúl Castillo), who move apart several times after episodes of domestic violence. Growing up with hunger - a distinguished scene depicts them feeding themselves with soy sauce - and lack of supervision, these kids spend most of their time in the streets, especially whenever the tense atmosphere in the household deteriorates.

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However, Jonah reveals a quite different posture when compared to his brothers. He is far more sensitive and truly cares about his mother, who easily and repeatedly plunges into depression, a predicament that forces her to stay in bed and stop working. The most precious thing for the boy is a journal he conceals under the mattress. He scribbles it, expressing fragments of his quotidian life and emotional states through artistic drawings that often gain movement in his imagination and on the screen.

Mounted with arresting visuals and dream-like tones by documentarian Jeremiah Zagar, We The Animals is a strong personal statement sustained by an absorbing narrative. This most satisfying rendering of a complex family environment and self-discovery carries a desolate beauty of its own that haunts us all.

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The Hate U Give (2018)

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Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Country: USA

There’s a bunch of fictional films released this year, not to mention documentaries, with a focus on racial prejudice and related injustices in America. BlacKkKlansman, Sorry To Bother You, and Blindspotting are just a few examples of a big list now expanded with The Hate U Give, the new drama by African American director George Tillman Jr. (Notorious, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete).

Based on Angie Thomas’ novel of the same name and scripted by Audrey Wells, the focal point concentrates on Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a 16-year-old black student from the problematic Garden Heights neighborhood, who witnesses her longtime friend Khalil (Algee Smith) being shot dead next to his car, after has been pulled over by a nervous young white cop.

When she was nine, her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), who just like every black man in that neighborhood had problems with the justice, gave her a very first lesson about how to behave in the case of a police officer tells her to pull the car over. The altercations with the King Lords, the gang that controls the neighborhood, starts when Starr mentions them on a TV interview arranged by lawyer/activist April Ofrah (Issa Rae). The latter encourages her to speak up with her own voice and denounce publicly the case.

Starr comes to the conclusion that discrimination exists even among her own people. And it's her uncle Carlos (rapper Common), a police officer, who reveals it.

Not everything clashes between black and white people and that’s a positive factor here. Starr has a courageous white boyfriend, Chris (KJ Apa), who loves her with all his heart to the point of giving the first step to meet her belligerent father. On the other hand, her best friend Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), also white, starts acting in a provocative way after the traumatic episode. Incidentally, the scene that captures a quarrel between the two feels catastrophically artificial.

Besides didactic, the film carries the expected passion, objection, and anger to transform itself in something dramatically appealing. However, clichés in the storytelling as well as in the visual dynamics are a reality, while the surprises are few.

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Widows (2018)

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Directed by Steve McQueen
Country: USA

Widows, a tale of love and crime based on the 1983 British TV series of the same name, is undeniably the most commercial work by celebrated director Steve McQueen. By no means, this heist film is at the same level as his masterpieces Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years A Slave. However, he found intelligent ways to raise tension and let the nervousness of the unbreakable female characters penetrate our bodies.

When their criminal husbands get killed in the aftermath of an incompetent robbery in Chicago, three women - the self-assertive Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), clothing store owner Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez), and newly escort Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki at her very best) - are in imminent danger.

Having nothing in common apart from a life ruined by debt, they decide to join forces and steal five million grand to save their asses from incurring in further complications. The plan is not a product of their imagination, though. All the details were written in a notebook left by Veronica’s sly husband, Harris (Liam Neeson). The latter had stolen one million from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss turned politician, who now wants to be paid by Veronica. He is running for alderman against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), also a powerful politician who’s trying to get things his own way, despite the disapproval of his authoritarian father, Tom (Robert Duvall).

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Aware of the necessity of a driver to carry out the plan accordingly, they add a fourth element to the team: beautician and part-time babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo). Even with a few unanticipated setbacks, the heist is consummated, but tranquility is still not guaranteed since villainous connections and pernicious schemes are disclosed in the final section.

Having the stellar cast putting his creative ideas into effect, Steve McQueen exalts feminine prowess in a story filled with political corruption, criminal violence, adultery, and tainted relationships. The well-founded script came from Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn.

Deftly mounted to please the crowds in obvious ways, Widows benefits from the organized structure of its storytelling and the ability to never slackening in tension or emotion. Although operating in a Hollywood-esque mode, McQueen offers the viewers consistent payoffs.

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The Wife (2018)

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Directed by Bjorn Runge
Country: Sweden / UK / other

Bjorn Runge’s The Wife is a mature, if reserved drama that evolves at a steady pace without that dramatic punch that would make it memorable. Jane Anderson (It Could Happen To You) wrote it based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Meg Wolitzer, in a fair attempt to describe a few acerbic days in the life of an American couple shaded by a public lie and a mix of sacrifice, ego, and surreptitious resentment.

Joan Archer (Glenn Close) is a gifted writer discouraged by the prejudice of the editors against women. She has been dedicating all her life to her husband and former teacher, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), whose success depends exclusively on her skills. John is informed by phone that he is the new Nobel Prize in Literature. While he celebrates effusively like a child, she acts far more reserved and slightly distant, seeming a bit disturbed with the communication.

Through flashbacks, we learn the shocking truth. She was, in fact, the true author of all his novels. The narcissistic Joe becomes overwhelmed with the success, whereas Joan, devastated inside, tries to deal with the unbearable pain of living in the shadow for so many years. The couple heads to Stockholm, where the Nobel Prize ceremony takes place, accompanied by their son David (Max Irons), who also aspires to be a writer.

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Once there, things quickly become a nightmare with Joe flirting with a young photographer, and Joan being troubled by Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), an impertinent biographer who suspects she is the real talent of the household.

Despite the potentiality, this embittered love tale and domestic drama film never exploded because neither of its characters exploded when they needed and were supposed to. In a number of times, I wished the story were tempered with a bit more sarcasm. Showing some tackiness in the maneuvers, the Swedish director only gets the film flowing because of the mesmeric leading performances. Ms. Close, in particular, a six-time Academy Award-nominated actress, is irreproachable in the role of an emotionally hurt giver who refuses to play the supportive wife any longer. It is thanks to her that The Wife remains fairly acceptable.

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The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (2018)

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Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Country: USA

Taking short rides into the Wild West, the Coen brothers deliver six fabulous vignettes, equally rich in laughs, action, drama, and surrealism. All this is squeezed into their latest feature The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which portrays on the screen the sagas they keep reading in an old book. Entertaining me for more than two hours, the brothers fabricate unbelievable clashes between settlers and desperadoes in a stylistic intersection between Quentin Tarantino and John Ford.

Most of the stories have unhappy endings, including the first one and my favorite, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which features a grinning Tim Blake Nelson as a skilled pistolero, bragger, and country singer, literally turned into an angel by the ultra-fast The Kid (Willie Watson), who had recognized him as the most wanted man in the West.

The second story, Near Algodones, presents James Franco as a sly bandit who decides to rob a bank in the middle of a depopulated prairie. The plan goes wrong because the talkative bank teller (Stephen Root) was bold and surprisingly aggressive.

The saddest story is Meal Ticket, which broke my heart into pieces. It unfolds the appalling fate of Harrison (Harry Melling), a young declaimer with no arms and no legs, whose impresario (Liam Neeson) replaces him with a hen that does the math. It’s all about greed and contempt for human life.

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The following story, All Gold Canyon, is a pleasure to the eyes. An old prospector (a qualified Tom Waits) digs the soil for gold, finding his gratuity after a lot of work. However, an unscrupulous young cowboy (Sam Dillon) had sneakily followed him, waiting for the right moment to exterminate him and take the prize. Without disclosing more of this adaptation from Jack London’s short story of the same name, I must say you'll likely be smiling by the end.

The Gal Who Gets Rattled, an adaptation of the short story by Stewart Edward Wright, tackles romance between an Episcopalian young heiress, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), and a Methodist wagon train leader, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), who helps her to overcome a financial imbroglio. By the end, there are furious Indian attacks and some spectacular images.

The sixth and last story of the collection, The Mortal Remains, is the most ambiguous as it carries a sort of supernatural predisposition that didn’t work so well for me.

This is cinema peppered with generally convincing acting and the superior visual sensibility of French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who had already worked with the Coens in Inside Llewyn Davis. It is original, brainy, and funny.

Zama (2018)

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Directed by Lucrecia Martel
Country: Argentina / other

Zama, a rugged yet rich period drama written and directed by Lucrecia Martel (The Holy Girl; The Headless Woman), offers you a smart, classy, sometimes philosophical storytelling that develops languorously. Its looks are eccentric and exotic, and there’s also a grim humor that makes it particularly attractive. Just out of curiosity, the long list of producers have included the names of Pedro Almodóvar, Gael Garcia Bernal and Danny Glover.

The film’s script, based on the novel of the same name by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto, narrates the 18th-century misadventures of Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a magistrate of the Spanish Crown stationed in a remote Paraguayan town, who patiently waits for his long-promised transfer to the city of Lerma in Argentina.

The first minutes of the film attempt to elucidate for the personality of the title character, a voluptuous voyeur who doesn’t miss the chance to embark on forbidden liaisons. With no recent news about his wife and kids, who kept waiting for him in Lerma, Zama, a man of the law and pacifier of Indians, despairs with boredom.

While flirting with the seductive Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas), a married yet independent woman despised by women and misunderstood by men, Zama ensures to adhere to an exemplary conduct so that the Governor acquiesces in writing a letter to the King asking for his transfer. Morose and bureaucratic, the process becomes obstructed and his expectations frustrated when a confrontational magistrate assistant, Ventura Prieto (Juan Minujín), becomes a direct rival in more than one front.

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The good times were clearly over for Zama, who falls in disgrace, becoming psychologically tormented due to the interminable waiting. Furthermore, just to complicate his miserable life, he crosses paths with Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), a terrifying bandit with an awful reputation, who everybody thought was dead.

Mrs. Luenga made sure to announce that there is no place for elegance in that town. As compensation, there’s plenty of elegance in Ms. Martel’s ways, which enchants with a blend of sophistication and abstraction in an unimaginable crossing between Claire Denis, Manoel de Oliveira, and John Boorman. If the musical score is perhaps too soft for the incidents, then the visuals are outstandingly feverish, magnified by the contribution of Portuguese cinematographer Rui Poças (Tabu; The Ornithologist).

Filled with situations that mirror the social and racial preconception of the time, this hypnotic tale of punishment and atrocious colonialism is an engrossing experience, likely to be turned into a cult film.

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The Little Stranger (2018)

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Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Country: UK / Ireland / France

Esteemed director Lenny Abrahamson, the architect behind noteworthy films such as Garage, Frank, and Room, directed this gothic drama film from a script by Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Waters. Impeccably acted, the film boasts Ruth Wilson, Domhnall Gleeson, and Charlotte Rampling in its cast, but it's governed with an unstable hand, developing inconsistently in pace and intensity.

Carrying something bizarre without never really scare, the story follows a country doctor, Faraday (Gleeson), who returns to the manor where he had been with his mother, a former maid, during the 1919 Empire Day party. Still vivid in his memory are some bitter instants of that day, but now he’s visiting as a doctor to treat the young maid Betty (Liv Hill), clearly influenced by disturbing episodes observed on the premises that nobody can explain. Faraday solves Betty’s problem, having the aristocratic Caroline Ayres (Wilson) calling him a wizard. He also meets her brother Roderick (Will Poulter), the disfigured owner of the manor and a traumatized Royal Air Force veteran, as well as their mother, Mrs. Ayres (Rampling), who admits with airy tones that the house works on people.

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Becoming a frequent presence in the house, Faraday, little by little, gets the fondness of the family members. On one hand, he offers to treat the psychologically fragile Roderick through an innovative process, on the other hand, he tries to conquer Caroline's heart, a laborious task. Soon, he detects a supernatural activity in the house, a virulent inhuman presence that Mrs. Ayres associates with the spirit of her deceased younger daughter, Suki.

I have to admit it was a bit shocking when Faraday’s intentions are disclosed. Yet, the reflexes of evil and struggle in the story were never sufficiently impactful to tantalize and satisfy. The romance and its wry twists provided us with the best moments of the film, whereas the ghost story remained sapless.

More inanimate than haunting, The Little Stranger is Abrahamson’s least interesting feature. Here, the ambiguity doesn’t work as a positive factor and not everyone will have the patience for a family tragedy that on several occasions felt apathetic and calculated. It should go down smoothly with fans of the genre, though.

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