Ad Astra (2019)

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Direction: James Gray
Country: USA

Ad Astra means ‘to the stars’ and that’s exactly where Brad Pitt, in the role of Major Roy McBride, is sent to save humanity and the Solar System from catastrophic power surges and search for his long gone father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneer astronaut that vanished mysteriously in a delicate mission occurred 16 years before.

The highly classified mission to Mars and then Neptune might be narrated in a monotonous cadence, but there are attacks of raging monkeys in addition to ambushes and battles on the lunar soil that briefly make us disregard the Malick-ian slow-motions and resplendent effects.

Roy deals with anger, frustration, and apprehension in a tale that felt limited for the possibilities showed. By the halfway, this intergalactic journey starts to feel like a mere exercise, with the film never exceeding expectations.

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Directed and co-written by James Gray (The Lost City of Z; Two Lovers; The Immigrant), the film is an introspective tale of intergalactic loneliness and yearning, whose pragmatic approach brought some ambivalence in regard to its possible success. Moreover, and partly due to the nature of the plots, Pitt shines much less here than in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Far from mind-blowing in its hidden secrecies, Ad Astra is only modestly engaging, benefitting from the finely crafted visuals - great cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar and Dunkirk) - but failing to achieve dramatic grandeur.

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Joker (2019)

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Direction: Todd Phillips
Country: USA

Todd Phillips will be forever remembered with this stylish, bitter, and visceral Joker, a story set in Gotham City in the early 80’s that elucidates about how the downcast Arthur Fleck, magnetically played by Joaquin Phoenix, became the DC villain that we all know from the Batman saga.

Arthur, who struggles with a condition that makes him laugh compulsively during tense situations, is a punching bag of a society corrupted by money and power. Victim of severe childhood abuses, he earns a living by performing in parties as a clown or holding store signs on the streets. He lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), a fragile woman who ironically calls him Happy and lives obsessed with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), her wealthy former boss who is now running for mayor. The latter’s son is the young Bruce Wayne, who would become Batman in the future in order to avenge the death of his parents and fight the crime in the streets.

Heavily medicated to combat mental illness, Arthur still dreams in becoming a stand up comedian, a tough task with his condition. He is an innocent victim of a bleak world and is wounded both in the heart and in the head. It’s so, so weird to see one of the saddest persons in the world cackling without control whenever in trouble. It has a disquieting effect. The bitter circumstances of life deteriorate his fragile state to the point of making him commit murder and feel good with it. It’s his instinctive and emotionless response to a poisonous society, the dangerous chant of the displaced and the dispossessed. The malevolent act has the support of the miserable people of Gotham, who starts a revolution against the corrupt system.

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Arthur’s creepy side makes him unpredictable and his tortuous mind has lots of room for imagination. With a killer gaze and that broad smile in his face, he premeditates his next step: victimize Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the popular host of a talk show who contributes to his downfall by making fun of him on the TV.

Simultaneously gripping and unsettling, Joker is a win for Todd Phillips, an unremarkable director until now, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver (The Fighter; 8 Mile) and had dedicated his directorial career to comedies such as the Hangover trilogy (2009,2011,2013) and War Dogs (2016). Without a hint of hesitation, he injects mordantly funny moments among the torrents of sadness and makes the film thrive both as a noir drama and a clever psychological thriller. Digging deep into his role, Phoenix was the secret weapon required to make us understand the human pain behind the Joker’s wickedness.

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Hustlers (2019)

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Direction: Lorene Scafaria
Country: USA

Directed and scripted by Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers is an inept, synthetic dramatization of a true-life story that intertwines the worlds of capitalism and erotic entertainment. The director sought inspiration in a 2015 article published in New York Magazine and written by journalist Jessica Pressler, describing the illicit practices of a group of New York lap dancers in order to extort large sums of money from their well-heeled Wall Street clients. Starring Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez (who also produces), and Cardi B, and boasting an unnecessary appearance by R&B/pop singer Usher, this film employs wear out formulas to promote celebrity worship.

Stretching my patience for nearly two hours, Hustlers is the type of film that agitates very little the intellect, relying on endlessly replicated scenes to the point of making me want to scream: “Enough! I got the idea.” Terribly mounted, the narrative is simply discouraging, with practically every scene being coated with that superficial gloss that distracts us from any potential interest the story may have.

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The best this film has to offer is some well-choreographed pole dance moves, dexterously apprehended by Lopez in her pre-shooting classes with the professional dancer and choreographer Johanna Sapakie. Sadly, none of the performances stood out, with Wu being the biggest disappointment.

There is no originality, tension, or creativity in Scafaria’s account, which roundly fails to succeed in both the erotic and the drama departments.

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Ready Or Not (2019)

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Direction: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Country: USA

You can likely tell by its thrilling premise that Ready Or Not belongs to those restlessly dynamic films pervaded by gory action and mordant dark humor. In truth, we are before a deeply nuts fusion of comedy and horror that is something you should go for, even considering its final stage sillier than expected.

Co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett worked from a simple yet effective script by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy, populating the parody with funny characters. And I mean all of them, with no exception, since even the most evil ones are gorgeously shaped with deadpan drollness.

Samara Weaving is Grace, a happy newlywed who is anxious to be officially accepted by the wealthy family of her enamored spouse Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien). As an orphan, having a permanent family now is of extreme importance to her. However, that could only occur after she plays a deadly hide-and-seek, the game at the base of an ancient wedding night ritual across generations of that lineage. In shock, but decided to survive, Grace hides in the huge mansion while her new relatives hunt her madly and ferociously with rifles, axes, and crossbows. Luckily, this girl has a temper!

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The only good soul who tries to save her is the devastated Alex, who couldn’t persuade his mother, Becky (Andie MacDowell), to help him, despite the affection demonstrated toward the bride. Becky’s husband, Tony (Henry Czerny), reveals to be the most fanatical of the hunters, while their daughter, Emilie (Melanie Scrofano), provides some of the most hilarious moments, motivated by her drug addiction and complete disorientation. The bitter Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni) and Emilie’s treacherous husband, Fitch Bradley (Kristian Bruun), are equally worthy of mention.

Apart from the ludicrous consequences of a violated pact with Satan, this wickedly bold absurdity offers some memorable lines and scenes. The phrase “I want the divorce” never had so much meaning, while the final images of Grace relaxingly smoking a cigarette soaked in blood come into my head whenever the film is mentioned.

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American Factory (2019)

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Direction: Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert
Country: USA

A Chinese factory in America operating the Chinese way with Americans on board. Would this be possible? This Netflix documentary, directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, shows how these opposite cultures clashed in 2013, when a former General Motors plant located in Dayton, Ohio, was turned into an auto glass factory ruled by the Chinese company Fuyao. Initially seen as a blessing that would make 2,000 local families retrieve their jobs, the Fuyao Glass America revealed considerable safety gaps in its operations and a fierce opposition to any labor union that would defend workers from exploitation and unfair treatment.

The company, led by multibillionaire Can Dewang, employs a team of American and Chinese workers, whose incompatibility in the work is flagrant. An inner tension is felt all around, with the Americans being accused of being lazy and called foreigners in their own land, while the Chinese are kept in control, gladly working long shifts and weekends. Also, the wages were cut down on more than a half when compared with what General Motors was paying. At that time, workers could have a decent life, but not anymore.

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One of the most appalling sequences of the film shows a group of American supervisors visiting the Fuyong factory in China, in order to witness their gaudy ostentation, be brainwashed and learn their authoritative ways, meaning: military-like treatment, exhausting 12-hour shifts, and just one or two days off per month. Also curious is Cao's admitted dilemma: is he a contributor for the development or a criminal with no consideration for the environment?

There are no particular characters with whom I could really connect, but the film is globally demonstrative of how people let themselves be subjugated and enslaved due to fear of losing their jobs. They simply cease to stand up for their rights instead of remaining united to fight for the right thing.

Despite a slightly gradual decay as it progresses, the film is compelling and provocative, shedding light on the impacts of an abusive foreign investment.

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Midsommar (2019)

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Direction: Ari Aster
Country: Sweden / USA

After the large-scale success of Hereditary, 33-year-old American cineaste Ari Aster holds on to the horror genre and writes Midsommar, a foreboding story set in rural Sweden that comes impregnated with folklore, symbology, trauma, suicide, and slaughter. Leaving the supernatural behind in favor of the cult thematic, the filmmaker manages to get a satisfying outcome.

The film stars Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor as Dani and Christian, respectively, an American couple on the verge of breaking up, which, nevertheless, decides to go on a trip - previously planned without Dani’s knowledge - to Sweden, where they expect to attend a supposedly innocuous midsummer festival that only occurs every 90 years. The nine-day event, organized by the Harga ‘family’, hosts four more guests: Christian’s college mates Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter), who were also invited by Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a common friend and long-time member of the commune, and an English couple that arrived with the encouragement of Pelle's brother, Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg).

What should have been a relaxed time of cultural enjoyment becomes a creepy nightmare as the pagan cult uses the foreigners for their diabolical ritualistic practices and exceptional competitions.

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Although the revelations are envisaged beforehand, the film still manages to counterpoint slightly disturbing conducts with familiar paranoia-induced passages. Everything is captured by Pawel Pogorzelski’s appealing lensmanship, which balances the scenic and the repulsive, while Aster maintains an unsettling atmosphere for the entire147 minutes through a deliberate pace and the help of a competent cast.

What Midsommar lacks in originality, it more than makes up for with offbeat moments adorned with gut-wrenching eccentricities. Nonetheless, it was merely entertaining, even occasionally funny, but never truly scary.

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In Fabric (2019)

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Direction: Peter Strickland
Country: UK

Stylized with a retro glamour and immersed in enigmatic tones, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric is more than an exercise in style and mood. Already carrying a cult status for reviving the giallo genre, the British director, who previously released the groundbreaking Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, gave wings to imagination and wrote a mesmerizing piece about a haunting, killing red dress. What we have here is a conscious, if surrealistic, satire about the unbridled consumerism of today’s world. Strickland stated in an interview that secondhand clothes from unknown provenience always fascinated him, and this idea was his inspiration for the film.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste stars as Sheila Woodchapel, a 50-year-old divorced bank teller who started dating again to fight loneliness. She lives with her son, Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), who frequently brings home Gwen (Gwendoline Christie),  his impolite and impertinent French girlfriend, without his mother's consent. Despite some little problems at work - so meticulous that could be included in any Kafka book, everything seems normal in the life of Sheila, until she buys a cursed red dress at Dentley & Soper, an exclusive fancy store with strict rules of conduct, presentation, and hygiene, where erotically fetishist  rituals occur on a regular basis between its employees. The pale Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed has been a constant, amazing presence in Strickland’s works), a persuasive store clerk, speaks with a hypnotic voice, alluding to fantasies and illusions while urging Sheila to buy the dress that will bring her happiness. 

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This fatal garment causes nasty rashes on the skin, gives rise to eerie dreams, and motivates creepy accidents of various kinds. It seems to have a life of its own and literally disintegrates any washing machine it goes in. As you suspect by now, this is not your typical horror movie. It will be considered a nonsense for many, while others will praise it as a true spectacle for the senses.

The only thing with this story is that it gets slightly repetitive when the dress changes hands and enters the home of Reg (Leo Bill), an obsessive washing machine technician, and his future wife, Babs (Hayley Squires).

Glamorously surreal, darkly funny, and avidly maniacal, this effort is uplifted by a turbulent and surprising finale. The conjugation of sinister imagery with the unblemished music by the Berlin-based experimental/krautrock trio Cavern of Anti-Matter is absolutely delightful. After this, who wants to buy quality used clothing?

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Mine 9 (2019)

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Direction: Eddie Mensore
Country: USA

West Virginia native Eddie Mensore didn’t base Mine 9, his sophomore feature film, on any particular true event but rather on several that have been happening over time. His realistic dramatization of an underground accident is felt like a plaintive ballad honoring the hard-working miners who, remaining long hours below the surface, expose themselves to a number of dangers.

Both the suffocating claustrophobia and continuous tension fuel this authentic depiction of a methane explosion inside a mine, in which nine Appalachian miners become trapped with limited oxygen and some painful wounds.

The controversial decision of going back to work when the safety is being questioned for a long time, weighs a lot here. On one hand, the unstable system that allows people in the dark tunnels is far from reliable, but, on the other hand, the workers don’t want the place to be shut down since they're in desperate need of their wages in a region that is economically vulnerable.

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Images, music, and acting contribute in equal measure to capture the atmosphere of a small mining community whose resilience to mishap is remarkable. The simple storyline and real-life backdrop (in addition to a warehouse in Atlanta, Georgia, Mensore filmed in a real mining environment in Buchanan County, Virginia) were fundamental to success, in a drama equal parts tragedy and compassion.

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Lords of Chaos (2019)

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Direction: Jonas Akerlund
Country: UK/Sweden

This nauseating semi-fictionalized account, directed and co-written by Swedish Jonas Akerlund, is as dark and heavy as the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 90s that it makes reference to. The focus isn’t exclusively on the musical genre but also on the sinister happenings and practices that led to the homicide of Oystein 'Euronymous' Aarseth, co-founder of the band Mayhem. The film was adapted from the 1998 book of the same name and stars Rory Culkin as the cited guitarist, Emory Cohen as Varg Vikernes (founder of the one-man-band Burzum and Euronymous’ murderer), Jack Kilmer as the self-destructive Dead, and Valter Skarsgård as the homosexual-hater Faust.

There’s absolutely nothing interesting in the life of these satanic church burners; nothing valid or positive can be taken from their wild, yet miserable existence, which can be summarized as a mix of chaos, prepotency, and idiocy. Clearly pursuing fame through other forms that not just music, the members of this hidden ‘Black Circle’ had admitted: “we are not normal people”. I agree.

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Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono was pointed out to direct the movie a few years ago. It would be his first English-language film, but knowing his ferocious work as I do, it’s hard to believe that his version could escape the super explicit and gratuitous violence shown here. In fact, Akerlund, who is a black metal drummer himself, seems only interested in shocking the viewer, whether through serial stabs or any other type of repugnant savagery. Lords of Chaos feels like a sick extravaganza rather than an accurate and substantial account of the story/case it claims to portray. To make everything more difficult, the ending is the dumbest part of the movie. Skip it.

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Blinded By The Light (2019)

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Direction: Gurinder Chadha
Country: UK

Unlike the central character in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded By The Light, I’m not a huge fan of American singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen. However, that wasn’t a relevant factor for my dissatisfaction regarding this film, a comedy-drama inspired by the life of journalist Sarfraz Mansoor. The latter co-wrote the script in accordance with his memoir Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll.

Set in Luton, England, in 1987, the story follows 16-year-old Saved Khan (Viveik Kalra), an insecure British-Pakistani who is deeply into Springsteen’s music. This is the good part of his life, alongside the sweet romance with an activist schoolmate, Eliza (Nell Williams), and friendships with Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Roops (Aaron Phagura). Conversely, at home, Saved is consumed by the frustration of having his conservative, overbearing father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), which complicates even more the integration of the family in the British society. Moreover, the teenager is a recurrent target of racial discrimination. That’s when Springsteen’s powerful songs become an inspiration, an obsession, and a vehicle for him to expand ideas and develop his writing skills. Part of the encouragement came from his progressive teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell).

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The film is observant in terms of cultural differences and self-aware in the message to pass along. However, while Saved’s infatuation with the music of Springsteen becomes more and more annoying, the musical scenes, approached with an exuberantly theatrical posture and nostalgic vision, wanted so badly to impress that feel contrived. The soundtrack is wonderful, though.

Inspiring? Not to me. Lamentably, this bland exercise, cooked with euphoric floridness, never goes deeper than the surface.

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Long Shot (2019)

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Direction: Jonathan Levine
Country: USA

Jonathan Levine is a promising director whose work has been marked by hits and misses. If their earliest films - 50/50 (2011), The Wackness (2008) and Warm Bodies (2013) - were consistently entertaining, then the most recent - The Night Before (2015), Snatched (2017), and now Long Shot, a romantic comedy moved by political mordancy and starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen, didn’t convince me.

The latter work still throws in some witty lines, but the situations created oscillate between the expected and the pathetic, failing to deliver solid punches in spite of the attempts to look and sound refreshingly subversive.

Levine directed from a screenplay by Dan Sterling, who also conceived the story, and Liz Hannah. The former had worked with Rogen before in The Interview (2014), while the latter got known after teaming up with Josh Singer and write the Oscar-nominated The Post (2017).

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Filled with the typical imbroglios this type of comedies likes to focus on, the film illustrates an unlikely romance between Fred Flarsky (Rogen), a brave if big-mouthed political journalist who suddenly gets unemployed, and his former babysitter and childhood crush Charlotte Field (Theron), now the charismatic and sophisticated Secretary of State, who happens to be in the run for the presidency of the United States.

While flirting with some disturbing political truths, the film sometimes mistakes fatuity for freshness. If anything, it works as a showcase for the actors. Rogen is equal to himself and Theron spreads charm throughout. On the screen, they seem to be having a lot of fun together, but the film is definitely not above the ordinary.

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Parasite (2019)

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Direction: Joon-ho Bong
Country: South Korea

South Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong was meritoriously elevated to cult status due to masterworks such as Memories of Murder (2003), Mother (2009), and Snowpiercer (2013). Two years ago, he made a shift in direction with the imaginative action-adventure film Okja, returning in big this year with another witty and gritty invention called Parasite, a virulent mix of crime thriller and black comedy that you won’t be able to forget for a long time.

This madcap satire delivers social class commentary and serves up thrilling moments enshrouded in slyness, erupting into explosive violence in its final segment. This way, Parasite can join Lanthimo’s Dogtooth and Miike’s Visitor Q as one of the most disturbing portraits of demented families.

The plot follows Ki-woo Kim (Woo-sik Choi), a broke young student turned English tutor, who starts working for the wealthy Park family. He had been recommended by his brave friend, Min (Seo-joon Park), who abandoned the position to go study abroad. Sooner than later, Ki-Woo takes advantages of the insecurities of Yeon-kyo Park (Yeo-jeong Jo), the amiable, if naive, lady of the house, and recommends an art tutor for her problematic younger son. He introduces this busy, highly qualified art teacher as his friend and colleague, but in truth, she is his sister Ki-Jung (So-dam Park). Propelled by an uncontrolled ambition, Ki-jung sets up the family’s driver to get her father, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), employed again and filling the place. In turn, the latter recommends his wife, Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), for the housekeeping job, after they frame Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee), who was performing that task for years with distinction.

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In no time, the injurious Kim family goes from folding pizza boxes to well-paid steady jobs. Yet, these charlatans face exposition as the former housekeeper threatens to unveil their secrets.

The jokes are as strong as the moments of suspense, and, if on one hand we see the Kim family drowned in whiskey and with their hands stained by blood, then, on the other, we have the Park family fighting for ramen. The final stage is a crazy intense rampage that grabs the audience with its turbulent atmosphere.

Brilliantly shot and photographed with Kyung-pyo Hong's distinctive palette, Parasite offers a lot of wicked pleasures, providing you with a delightfully insane cinematic experience. This is pretty strong filmmaking admittedly and one of the best films of the year in its genre. Most importantly, it testifies that Bong knows how to entertain a crowd of moviegoers better than anyone else.

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Wild Rose (2019)

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Direction: Tom Harper
Country: UK

Set in Glasgow, this heartfelt, if rudimentary, story about an aspiring country singer was played in a minor key for my ears. Jessie Buckley (Beast) is Rose-Lynn Harlan, a single mother of two, whose dream is to go to Nashville, Tennessee, and become what she thinks she was born to be: a country singer. She firmly believes she should have been born in America.

After spending 12 months in jail for attempting to smuggle heroin, Rose finds her place taken in the local bar band she was regularly performing. She is forced to take a full-time job as a housekeeper, working for a generous, wealthy woman called Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). It just so happens that the latter has the right connections to provide Rose with an opportunity to sing at London’s BBC Radio 1. A bumpy train ride almost thwarted the visit that served to teach this go-getter something important. It was put like this: “you have the voice, but what do you have to say to the world?”

In addition to all this, Rose does the best she knows to take good care of her estranged children and be in good terms with her critical mother, Marion (Julie Walters).

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With all the doubts and emotional confrontations, Rose makes a decision, with the movie evolving into a typical melodrama pinched by a varnished production that removes everything it had created raw and rustic. The combination of rough edges and polished surfaces rarely produced satisfactory results here. This strategical tonal contrast leaned on the formulaic and ended up as a crowd-pleaser.

The film isn’t all bad and Buckley’s onscreen presence is significant; however, it just didn’t work out as an emotionally resonant tale, with director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor playing the easiest notes without risking something outside the scale. Wild Rose gives a perfect example of a fascinating start that gradually loses potentiality, failing to make a splash in the last instance.

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Light Of My Life (2019)

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Direction: Casey Affleck
Country: USA

Casey Affleck (Manchester By The Sea; Gone Baby Gone; A Ghost Story) is a great actor, who sporadically makes a move into film direction. Light of My Life, his sophomore directorial feature, is now released, nine years after I’m Still Here.

The film is a survival tale and dystopian thriller, telling the story of an attentive widower, simply known as Dad (Affleck), who tries to protect his 11-year-old daughter, Rag (Anna Pniowsky), from the hands of unscrupulous predators. Years before, a plague had decimated most of the female population, including Rag’s mother (Elisabeth Moss), but for some unexplained reason, the kid was spared. The current situation forces Rag to dress like and pretend to be a boy whenever in the presence of strangers. Tireless in his travels and meticulous escape plans, for how much longer can Dad hide his princess from such a destructive world?

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Pointless flashbacks informing us about the difficult past moments lived in the family are part of a screenplay that isn’t especially inventive. The film is still able to capture an interesting vibe that comes from the strong bond and trust established by the two leads. Yet, regardless of this particular aspect and the persistent anxiety-filled scenes, there’s nothing new here to be remembered. Sadly, the promise of a thrilling story fades along the way.

Light of My Life was gorgeously shot, though. Virtuosity is identified in the well-composed frames captured by the lens of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Lore, Animal Kingdom), in particular of the interiors. Despite watchable, this is a trivial effort whose comparisons with John Hillcoat’s The Road are inevitable.

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The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

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Direction: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Country: USA

If you’re looking for a sprightly, heartwarming indie comedy replete of fun episodes, which you’re not required to think about too deeply, then The Peanut Butter Falcon should be a good choice. A product from the minds of writers/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, this is a silly enterprise whose twists are visible from afar, but the power of the performances and the positive attitude toward the hardships of life were capable of elevating the familiarity into something firmly entertaining.

It's a Mark Twain-inspired tale that follows Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a sympathetic, family-less 22-year-old Down Syndrome person, whose dream is to become a professional wrestler. After breaking out from the nursing home he was confined to, Zak befriends Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a crab fisherman on the run, who, on his way to Florida, promises to take him to a rural town in North Carolina, where the old wrestling school of Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) is located. The latter is Zak’s longtime idol and inspiration.

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Motivating each other, the pair of friends walks and navigates long distances, drinks together, has a special encounter with a blind man of faith, drives away Tyler’s chasers, and consolidates their bond and affection. Moreover, they convince the nursing home employee Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak’s guardian, to join them in an adventure that climaxes in the offbeat wrestling that opposes Zak, The Peanut Butter Falcon, to Sam (Jake Roberts), a giant veteran who rejects defeat.

Bolstered with Gottsagen’s natural sweetness, and advancing with a favorable propulsive élan, The Peanut Butter Falcon mixes cliched narrative with feel-good energy. There’s certainly a niche for this goofy adventure, where not everything has to be so sad and serious. Cinema has these things, and sometimes a big heart can even make us forget the lack of originality.

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The Plagiarists (2019)

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Direction: Peter Parlow
Country: USA

Peter Parlow’s micro-budgeted The Plagiarists is an insignificant and frustrating piece of indie cinema suffused with too many words but completely parched in satisfying ideas. Written by Robin Schavoir and James N. Kienitz Wilkins, the film feels like a half-baked, home cooked essay about legitimacy in art, monotonously chronicled with a strong experimental inclination and inauthentic performances.

Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and Tyler (Eamon Monaghan), a young novelist and filmmaker, respectively, are engaged for one year and working on their careers. Their car breaks down on their way to Philly, where they should meet with their good friend, Allison Baker (Emily C. Davis). An enigmatic black man called Clip (Michael ‘Clip’ Payne - member of the funk collective Parliament-Funkadelic), who also happens to be an acquaintance of Allison, offers them a place to spend the night. This section of the film almost feels like a thriller, but the film never gets close to anything substantial or astute, rather getting lost in dull conversation and… I was already yawning quite frequently. In a catastrophic way, tedium escalates as the film advances.

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Clocking in at 76 minutes, The Plagiarists feels much longer than it is, since it’s all too fabricated, unenthusiastic, and senseless. At least, its creators won’t have to worry about being plagiarized. Who would want to copy something so uninspired and unattractive like this?

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Skin (2019)

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Direction: Guy Nattiv
Country: USA

Uneven but necessary, Skin is the fourth feature film from Israeli-born writer/director Guy Nattiv. This biographical drama, which is not related to his 2018 short film of the same name, tells the story of Bryon ‘Pitbull' Widner (Jamie Bell), a brutal white supremacist who decides to change life after meeting Julie (Danielle Macdonald), a qualified mother of three. However, Bryon doesn’t have the freedom to embrace a normal life. For that to happen, he would need to break all ties with his skinhead gang led by Fred (Bill Camp) and his wife, Shareen (Vera Farmiga). The couple often recruits, adopts, and brainwashes young kids from the streets, giving them some sense of belonging so they can join their filthy cause. The subversives are punished according to the rules.

Trapped between two antagonistic worlds, Bryon ends up getting married in secrecy, moving from one city to another to protect his family, and ultimately accepting a one-time deal with the FBI in order to dismantle the gang. To complete his radical transformation, he undergoes 162 days of painful tattoo removal, clearing both his skin and his soul.

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Some scenes intend to demonstrate the difficulty of dealing with fear, anger, and impulsivity at once. Nattiv succeeds in some disturbing ones, those that linger in the mind. Others, may feel a bit too rushed and contrived, though.

The excellent performance from Bell bolsters a film that is always interesting and, on occasion, compelling. The message has a vital importance in our days, and I just hope that the ones involved can learn something and change their lives by following Bryon’s example.

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Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019)

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Direction: Quentin Tarantino
Country: USA

Is Quentin Tarantino getting nostalgic at this phase? The answer is: likely yes, after we see his ninth feature, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a three-act mashup of love for the Hollywood film, melancholic hippy life in 1969, and cult-related tension.

If the entertainment levels and the powerful cast were expected, the sluggish developments and sort of leisure posture was certainly not on the agenda for a Tarantino movie. Packed with innuendos, classic film references, and even ideas from Tarantino’s previous movies, this extravagant comedy ultimately connects you with the fun and craziness of the film industry, for the better and for the worse.

The script follows a struggling TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), two buddies with different personalities trying to go along with the new adjustments and demands of Hollywood’s golden age. In parallel, it addresses the Manson Family Murders in a sardonic, carefree way, with Roman Polanski’s late wife, Sharon Tate, being happily played by Margot Robbie.

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The wildest moments of the film arrive at the end, in a way that felt intense and strategic, and there’s clever humor and quotable lines throughout, plus that memorable scene when a cool Cliff fights a proud Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).

The magic of the movies versus the frustrating reality, cult devotion and hippie culture, ferocious dog attacks and flamethrower barbecues, big joints and drinking sprees… there is a lot to experience here with that unpredictability that made Tarantino famous.

With all its ups and down, and definitely strained in terms of duration, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a worthy ride that never stumbles into vulgarity.

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The Souvenir (2019)

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Direction: Joanna Hogg
Country: UK / USA

Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a timeless arthouse gem and an evocative piece of cinema that conjures up classic European works, from Wim Wenders to Jacques Rivette, with hints of Michelangelo Antonioni. Moreover, the film is a sensitive personal statement, a look-back portrait of Hogg as a young artist filled with sincerity and focus. Regardless the influences, she was able to create something bold and unique, demonstrating an outstanding directorial maturity.

Lyrically photographed by David Raedeker’s idiosyncratic eyes and boasting a terrific soundtrack whose variety (post-punk, new wave, art rock, early jazz, opera) thoughtfully adapts to each situation, this utterly artistic slow-burner embraces a strangely calm yet tense atmosphere throughout.

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Crafting a poignant story centered in an ambitious 24-year-old film student whose first love is marred by deception, secrecy, affliction, and addiction, Hogg captivates our senses and stirs our souls. She subtlety dissects this relationship between Julie (newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne, the real-life daughter of Tilda Swinton, was not given the script and was asked to improvise instead), an aspiring filmmaker in the quest for authenticity and self-expression, and Anthony (Tom Burke), a secretive, well-traveled gentleman who borrows money from her on a day-to-day basis while frequently dodging any question about his affairs. This cordial, if snobbish junkie seems to love her, but he struggles with addiction, ultimately hitting the bottom and exposing his true self to the point of stealing Julie’s jewelry and pretending it was a robbery. He also lets one of his dealers in the apartment on one occasion. This man is never aggressive, though. By the contrary, he is always affectionate toward her, even when desperate for money. Julie refuses to give up on him and her financial predicament is usually solved with the help of her mother, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton).

The brilliant actors are used expertly, almost in an enigmatic way, conveying all the characters’ pain in those soul-freezing moments where the tough shock of reality feels like a faint, distant dream.

Extremely impactful, both emotionally and visually, the lushly chronicled The Souvenir is already dubbed as one of the best films of the year. Despite achingly cruel, it’s never uncomfortable to watch, and I can’t wait for its sequel, which will feature, once more, mother Swinton and daughter Byrne resuming their respective roles.

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Rafiki (2019)

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Direction: Winuri Kahiu
Country: Kenya

Arriving fresh and confident from Kenya, where homosexuality is considered a criminal offense, Rafiki marks an important step in LGBT rights in that African country by depicting a tender love between two female teenagers in a hostile, conservative environment.

In Nairobi, the reserved Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and the extroverted pink-haired Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) forge a genuine, if totally unexpected friendship since their respective fathers, John Mwaura (Jimmy Gathu) and Peter Okemi (Dennis Musyoka), are running against each other in a local election. The friendship quickly evolves into an intimate love affair that must be hidden from everyone. Besides illegal and punishable with 14 years in prison, same-sex relationships are also not approved among their closest friends and the general population.

However, nothing escapes the eyes and ears of the venomous gossip Mama Atim (Muthoni Gathecha) and her daughter Nduta (Nice Githinji). With their secret unveiled, the young women soon become victims of the neighborhood’s prejudice and violence, facing isolation, and seeing her conjoint dreams being destroyed on the spot.

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In the face of the occurrence, Ziki, who always seemed to be the strongest and the most resolute of the two, ends up surrendering, while Kena, already marked by a family shattered environment, holds on to her studies and a future career as a doctor.

Rafiki is a well-intentioned, if modest, drama that exposes intolerance, passion, and resistance, in a direct and simplistic way. In her sophomore feature, director Winuri Kahiu, who also co-wrote and co-produced, follows a stereotypical narrative that often struggles to surprise. Thus, from my perspective, the main interest here comes from the milieu and cultural background that supports the story.

Sadly, the film was unjustly banned in Kenya. Not because of any explicit scene, which is something Kahiu didn't incorporate, but because the ending was too hopeful and positive regarding lesbianism.

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