Mug (2018)

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Direction: Malgorzata Szumowska
Country: Poland

Watching Mug, the latest dramedy by Polish writer/director Malgorzata Szumowska (Body; In The Name Of), was a very cold experience. What should have been emotionally corrosive ends up in a sterilized pretense that impels us to pity a man dealing with acceptance and identity problems after a face transplant.

The story is set in a bucolic Polish town on Christmas time, where the heavy-metal devotee Jacek (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz), lives calmly and happily among relatives. Right after proposing to his dancer girlfriend, Dagmara (Malgorzata Gorol), Jacek has a nearly fatal accident at work that makes him undergo several facial surgeries and reappear several months later with a completely new face. He also struggles with speaking, eating, and swallowing in such a way that his grandmother doesn’t recognize him anymore.

Fortunately, generous support comes from his sister, Iwona (Agnieszka Podsiadlik), who, despite strong and steadfast, was unable to help him get a disability pension from the government. What keeps hurting him the most is the fact that Dagmara left without a word, only to be dragged into a vortex of excesses where the emotional decadence is a serious threat.

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The jocular posture is often dark-tinged and extends to Christianity, mirrored in a few controversial confessions at church, the irony that stems from the largest statue of Jesus is being constructed nearby, and a sham exorcism that felt more ridiculous than impressive. With true emotions left in the lurch, Mug ended up a nuisance, never finding the right balance between laughs and tears.

Despite some accurate remarks about her native country, Szumowska couldn’t dissimulate the heavy-handedness in her processes, being less interested in giving a decent resolution to the tragedy than overtly mocking about it. Mug is uninspired and forgettable.

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A Twelve-Year Night (2018)

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Direction: Alvaro Brechner
Country: Uruguay

The terror of solitary confinement with all its deprivations and consequent psychological effects is extensively depicted in Alvaro Brechner’s A Twelve-Year Night, a haunting account of 12 years of incarceration in the life of Jose Mujica (Antonio de la Torre), the one who, years later, would become the charismatic president of Uruguay, and his two Tupamaro compatriots, Mauricio Rosencof (Chino Darín) and Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro (Alfonso Tort).

In 1973, Uruguay in taken by a military dictatorship. Members of a left-wing guerrilla group known as Tupamaros are considered subversive traitors of the country, being persecuted and destroyed without clemency. Some of them, the ones that couldn’t be annihilated on the spot, were incarcerated and subjected to inhumane treatment over the course of several years. In the case of this trio of heroes, they were targeted in a secret military operation and isolated, although, moving from cell to cell. No one could talk to them just as they were unauthorized to talk to anyone. This was a clear attempt to drive them insane. They couldn't exercise either and sometimes his movements were limited to a small square painted on the floor.

Claustrophobic cells with no toilet or sink were part of the strategy to affect them in the head. Occasionally, out of pity, the soldiers threw them the leftovers of meals with cigarette butts in the mix.

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But notwithstanding all these torments, they found a way to communicate with each other by knocking on the walls with their knuckles. They could even play virtual chess this way and keep their brains active. Mujica was the one struggling the most with delusional psychosis and not even his mother’s vehement appeal to resist seemed to work. In turn, Ruso, who was a writer, was granted some perks after helping a sergeant winning his lover’s heart. He was the one writing the love letters. On one of those occasions, the friends had a unique chance to see one another; an exceptionally conceded stretch in the open air.

Regardless of some familiar routines, the hostile atmosphere is depicted with rigor, with the scenes shot at the Montevideo’s Libertad Prison and Pamplona’s Fort San Cristobal - a former correction facility for over a decade - reinforcing that positive attribute. While cells like these continue to exist in many countries, we learn through this description that they should be brought to a close because acts of inhumanity can never win, whatever the circumstances they are perpetrated.

Brechner forgot to expose an important detail: the political background of the characters. Even so, it was hard to take my eyes off the screen.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

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Direction: Marielle Heller
Country: USA

The director of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller, surprises us once again with a charming biopic set in New York about the lonely and alcoholic celebrity biographer Lee Israel, here marvelously portrayed by Melissa McCarthy. The actress loads her performance with wittiness and dramatic instinct, finding an excellent ally in Richard E. Grant, who plays Lee’s homeless friend, Jack Hock.

Based on Israel’s 2008 memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? brings favorable result through the vibrant screenplay by Nicole Holofcener (Please Give; Enough Said) and James Whitty, the silky vocal jazz standards, the warm colors of Brandon Trost’s cinematography, and the tridimensional characters, whose idiosyncrasies hook you in.

Known for her bluntness, discourtesy, and difficult temper, Lee, 51, is being avoided by her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), who stopped returning her phone calls. Obviously, the agent is unenthusiastic with Lee’s idea of writing a book about the film/radio star Fanny Brice. Thus, all her attention and energy are now turned to the far more popular, if less skilled, biographer Tom Clancy.

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As a result of her dismissal from a part-time job, Lee finds herself in a complicated situation since she has been affected by writer’s block. Her rent is three months behind and her cat, which she likes better than people, is sick. That’s when she conjures up a brilliant, easy scheme that would allow her to make a living: to forge personal letters from deceased authors and selling them to book stores for a convenient price. She did it 400 times before being unmasked and her name put down on the bookshops’ alert list. Even under these circumstances, she refuses to give up from the easy life, relying on Jack to continue the stratagem.

In the end, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for these disconsolate crooks, who contribute humor and sadness in equal measures for the sake of the film. Heller’s expeditious direction and consistent storytelling potentiate both the gravitas and the titillation of an amusing biopic.

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Araby (2018)

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Direction: João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa
Country: Brazil

Establishing a tidy, if uncommon, structure, Araby, has something commendable to say about life on the streets and the hardships of getting and maintaining a job in Brazil. To tell their message, the pair of directors, João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa, take us to a smoky little town in Ouro Preto, state of Minas Gerais. There’s sadness all around and elderly people needing care. This is the village where Andre (Murilo Caliari) was born, a solitary teenager who is neglected by his ever-traveling parents. He takes care of his sick young brother with the help of an aunt, nurse Marcia (Gláucia Vandeveld), and seems to have an erratic personal life.

When we thought Andre would be the central character of the story, the camera shifts its focus to Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), a hardworking ex-con who is employed in the old metal factory, guarantor of the town's financial stability. After a serious work accident, Cristiano is taken to the hospital and remains there unconscious. During this time, Andre goes to his place to get some clothes and finds a handwritten notebook with descriptive points of view and past episodes of Cristiano's life.

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Memories and states of mind were tossed in those pages, and that’s how we get to know more about a humble man who once had to steal to eat. He worked in a variety of fields - from civil construction to fruit picking to weaving factory - and stained his hands with blood, although, in an involuntary way. Yet, nothing had been so insuperable to him than experiencing disillusionment in an amorous relationship. The last pages reveal how tired and consumed by frustration he was.

Toggling between the feverish and the vulnerable, Araby is contemplative in the tone and depressive in the message. Its shots are unconventionally composed and some of the sequences are roughly edited, displaying live acts of Brazilian folk music that linger for quite some time. It has a penetrating narrative spell, though, that puts us in a sort of trance.

Even with all its flaws, you will be moved by its humanity, but don’t be surprised if a deep feeling of solitude invades your spirit.

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Suspiria (2018)

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Direction: Luca Guadagnino
Country: Italy / USA

Italian Luca Guadagnino, auteur of powerful films such as I Am Love (2009) and the critically acclaimed Call Me By Your Name (2017), makes his first move in the horror genre with a botched remake of Dario Argento’s 70s cult film Suspiria. Working from a screenplay by David Kajganich, who has previously worked with the director in A Bigger Splash (2015), Guadagnino had a gifted cast at his disposal, featuring Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton as protagonists, and Mia Goth and Angela Winkler in strong supporting roles.

The fiction takes place in 1977 Berlin, to where Ohio-born Susie Bannion (Johnson) moves definitely in order to join the prestigious international dance academy headed by the sinister Madame Blanc (one of the three roles of the amazing Swinton). Two influential dancers, Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Olga Ivanova (Elena Fokina), left the school psychologically affected with recondite occurrences. The former is missing; the latter was victimized by an invisible entity with virulent dance impulses. In the sequence of their absences, Suzie becomes the new protégé of the inscrutable, vampirelike Blanc. She can feel a dark force pushing her while working in the dance room and regularly affecting her dreams.

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Practically speaking, the school is under the orders of a witch society, a rare phenomenon that piques the curiosity of Dr. Klemperer (Swinton), an experienced psychotherapist who started to pay better attention to what his patient Patricia kept saying. He decides to visit the premises after meeting with the incredulous Sara (Mia Goth), one of the dancers and Patricia’s best friend. What he finds is as much bizarre as it is inextricable: esoteric rituals filled with magic, possession, and illusion.

The geometric architectonic configurations and muted colors that compose the 35mm-shot frames are relevant and propitious to the film’s ambitions; however, Guadagnino’s practices are overlong, stiff, and risibly gory in the final minutes. I got numb-brained while trying to understand why a director of this caliber would want to spoil the enchanting gothic tones previously created with a nasty sequence of human heads blowing up in blood.

Suspiria is mediocre at its best, presenting very little substance and lacking interesting character development. The songs by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke provide short moments of pleasure in a film to be quickly erased from memory.

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Green Book (2018)

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Direction: Peter Farrelly
Country: USA

In Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, a polished African American musician hires a brave white chauffeur for an eventful road trip along the hostile, segregated Deep South in 1962. Based on a true story, the film delineates the unlikely friendship between the men, depicted through episodes widely discussed in the media concerning their historical accuracy.

The stubborn, quarreling, and teasing Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), better known as Tony Lip, is proud of his Italian roots and proclaims himself a bullshitter. He lived in the Bronx all his life, working at nightclubs and gaining the reputation of a tough guy. Suddenly, Tony becomes temporarily available to do something else when the nightclub that employs him closes for repairs. An eight-week driver job comes up, but a small detail can be relevant in the choice. The employer is Doc Shirley (Mahershala Ali) an erudite, alcoholic black pianist who wants to extend the driver position to bodyguard plus personal assistant. Of course, this is nothing that could intimidate Tony, despite some previous demonstrations of prejudice for black folks.

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The shock of personalities and cultures make the movie. Mortensen and Ali boasting their extraordinary acting skills while following the predictable yet extremely entertaining script devised by Farrelly, Brian Currie, and Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga. Beyond doubt, Tony is bigmouthed, insolent, and hot-tempered, but it's also true that he has a big heart. In turn, Shirley is a sad person with identity problems; if on one hand, he has too much knowledge and money to be accepted by his fellow black Americans, then, on the other, his artistic qualities never earned him enough respect from the vile white men. He is also gay, which doesn't help him at all in a highly biased society.

Green Book is impregnated with funny moments, conveying assertive energy that occasionally resembles the classics. Regardless of the possible nonconformity with the facts, the film was put together in a way that is visually and narratively exciting, with Farrelly abdicating of sentimental moments and sugarcoated humor in favor of a more down-to-earth approach. He was able to surprise me with this one, which overcomes the shallowness of his dry-as-dust previous films.

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If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

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Direction: Barry Jenkins
Country: USA

If Beale Street Could Talk is Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, whose title refers to a 1916 blues song by W.C. Handy. To tell this sad tale of love, racial prejudice, and injustice, Jenkins (director of the three-Oscar winning Moonlight) reckoned on the acting skills of debutant Kiki Layne and the slightly more tested Stephan James, who appeared in Selma (2014) and Race (2016).

The story takes place in Harlem in the early ’70s, where the 19-year-old African-American Tish Rivers (Layne) informs her affectionate parents, Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo), as well as her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), that she is pregnant from her fiancée Fonny (James), a childhood friend from her neighborhood who was put in jail without a trial for a rape he didn’t commit. A malicious white cop, Officer Bell (Ed Skrein), deliberately gave false testimony to frame Fonny, who now depends on the Puerto Rican victim, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), to clear his name.

Meanwhile, Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis), a religious fanatic, sees this pregnancy as an act of sin and curses Tish’s unborn child. In any case, the incident doesn’t dissuade her husband Frank (Michael Beach) to offer all his support. He starts working hard in cooperation with Frank in the interest of the child. A lawyer is hired, and Sharon travels to Puerto Rico in hopes that Ms. Rogers could change her mind.

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Jenkins exerted the expected sensitivity for each scene, yet some of them worked better than others. For several times I got the feeling that the atmosphere was touching the theatrical, while from a narrative point of view, some struggle was detected in keeping up a convenient pace, with a couple of redundant scenes breaking the initial fluidity. Regardless of what has been said, it’s admirable how a jittery tension installs throughout with the physical violence kept to a minimum necessary. In the end, it’s all too heartbreaking.

With Ms. Layne making a notable first appearance on the big screen, and Jenkins treating the borrowed material with cognizance, this film can be considered a valuable entry in the specific category of based-on-true-events drama. It was also great if people could learn from its message.

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Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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Direction: Bryan Singer
Country: UK / USA

Bryan Singer’s biographic drama film about the legendary rock icon Freddie Mercury reveals directorial weaknesses on top of relevant historical and narrative inaccuracies. It’s also mounted with a stilted pose that becomes more noticeable in the parts meant to be funny.

The good side of it is that you can have a glimpse into Mercury’s extrovert character and some more insight about the tense state of affairs with bandmates Brian May (Gwilym Lee), John Deacon (Joe Mazzello), and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). Unlike these, the characterization of the Queen’s vocalist, especially when young, was overdone, a fact that didn’t hamper Rami Malek from giving a respectable performance. Worse than that was the characterization and posture of EMI executive Ray Foster (weirdly played by Mike Myers), which felt extremely unnatural.

Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything; Darkest Hour) and Peter Morgan (Rush; The Queen) wrote a story that covers Mercury’s successes and failures with unchanging tone. Even with all the predicaments and untidiness, there's a lot of info for Mercury's fans: the family environment, his early marriage and lifelong friendship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), the discovery of his bisexuality, the financial and musical quarrels with the other members of the group, the ups and downs with his double-dealing boyfriend Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), and the final phase of his life, when he was already ill, alongside new partner Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), here wrongly portrayed as a hired party servant when he was a hairdresser in real life.

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While watching it, I got the impression that the scenes had been fabricated to please the crowds and delivered in a reckless mode. Although displaying some curious details, the emotional depth was never enough to make Bohemian Rhapsody stand out. It turns out that this was a film of abandonments and departures, facts that obviously weighed in the final result. Allow me to clarify that Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) took the leading role but left the project in 2013, allegedly because of divergences with Queen's members. In December 2017, it was Singer who dropped out due to clashes with the cast and crew. English actor turned director Dexter Fletcher (Wild Bill; Eddie The Eagle) replaced him.

A closer look reveals dissonance in this orchestration. Hence, you won’t find a forward-thinking film about the forward-thinking band that once mixed opera with rock music to create an unforgettable symphony. And that’s because, more than anything, Bohemian Rhapsody is ostentation, offering limited musical insights and dramatic tension within a stereotyped approach. Queen’s burning music is all that's left.

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The Heiresses (2018)

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Direction: Marcelo Martinessi
Country: Paraguay

Carrying everything with a flawless performance, first-time actor Ana Brun takes this drama film into another level. The Heiresses marks the directorial debut of Paraguayan writer/director Marcelo Martinessi, whose work received honorable praise in Berlin.

We are introduced to Chela (Brun), a depressed middle-aged woman who is part of the prosperous, elitist circles of Asuncion. However, she lives a delicate situation after losing all her inherited fortune and social status. Whenever possessed by fear, Chela manifests a mix of emotional fragility and bitterness, but at the same time, she can be cold and hostile, putting on airs of superiority when interacting with the new maid, Pati (Nilda Gonzalez).

She lives in the same ample house where she was born, in the company of her longtime girlfriend Chiquita (Margarita Irun), who soon will have to do time on fraud charges. Meanwhile, the couple keeps selling their inherited possessions in order to survive, starting with the silver cutlery and valuable chandeliers. Their wrecked financial situation is entrusted to Carmela (Alicia Guerra), an old friend who now would like to repay them the help she received in the past. As you can imagine, this is all very painful for someone who always lived lavishly.

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Surprisingly, Chela transfigures for the better as soon as Chiquita is thrown into jail, gathering all her courage to drive for the first time in many years. She makes use of her old, cherished Mercedes to provide local taxi service to her wealthy neighbor Pituca (María Martins) and her friends. As if that were not enough, she falls for a younger woman, Angy (Ana Ivanova), who makes herself available for new relationships after breaking up with her boyfriend. Would she be open to a romantic relationship with a woman? Chela feels rejuvenated. The fears suddenly evaporated and she even regained the sexual desire lost several years before. One incontestable fact is that her life will never be the same again.

Balancing the low-key tones that involve the story with the ever-present inner tension of the main character, Martinessi aims at Paraguayan society. Moreover, the slow developments suit the story well, which, working under the sign of authenticity, stirs up captive emotions. The Heiresses is an understated yet assured work.

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Transit (2018)

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Direction: Christian Petzold
Country: Germany / France

German filmmaker Christian Petzold (Barbara; Phoenix) shows a predisposition to structure his dramas in a ravishing, oblique way. His latest effort, Transit, is set in the port city of Marseille during the Nazi invasion.

The central character is Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German Jew on the run, who finds a viable way to flee the country without arousing the suspicion of the authorities. He is in possession of a document issued by the Mexican consulate to another man that can guarantee him a transit visa. In truth, he stole the identity of that man, Weidel, a celebrated poet who didn’t resist the Nazi pressure and committed suicide in Paris. Weidel’s charming wife, Marie (Paula Beer), is also stuck in Marseille, waiting anxiously for him, so they can depart to Mexico, the much desired safe harbor.

In the meantime, and before meeting Marie in strange circumstances, Georg visits the wife and son of a comrade who succumbed to the manhunt. The woman, Melissa (Maryam Zaree), is mute and was born in the Maghreb; her sweet kid, Driss (Lilien Batman), loves to play soccer, forging a strong bond with Georg, whom he gladly adopts as a father figure. Both are illegal refugees in the country, which becomes a terrible inconvenience when Driss gets sick. Opportunely, Georg offers himself to find doctor Richard (Godehard Giese), who is having an affair with Marie but is planning to leave her soon to embrace a bigger medical cause in Europe. Marie is visibly confused. She wants her husband so badly that, for a couple of times, she had mistaken him for Georg, the man who strategized about saving himself by impersonating him. However, Georg decides to alter his plans after falling for her.

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Georg can thank his lucky stars because in some cases, despair leads gradually to tragedy, especially if you are stranded and hopeless. In different situations, tragedies just come with fate. Ironically, “Road to Nowhere” by The Talking Heads plays during the final credits.

The extraordinary performances magnify the complexity of the characters, surrounding them with empathy. Still, you will find emotional pain in every each of them. It’s outstanding how quietly the director gets close to these people.

The plot, adapted by Petzold from Anna Seghers’ WW2 novel to fit the present-day, can be challenging sometimes, but the articulation of the scenes and that pleasurable ambiguity in the narrative turn the film into an interesting watching. Don’t expect many thrills, though, since the director is more interested in offering a wide tonal palette of emotional reflections than really shocking us directly through the images.

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Blaze (2018)

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Direction: Ethan Hawke
Country: USA

Better known as an actor, Ethan Hawke decided not to star in Blaze, a film he directed and co-wrote about the American country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. Hawke may not make all perfect choices in this well-intended adaptation of Blaze’s ex-wife memoir, particularly in terms of duration and dynamics. However, he succeeds in enveloping the viewer with that same digressive sarcasm and melancholic torpor that got the musician, an alcohol-drenched, ZZ Top-like bearded man who died at the young age of 39. He once affirmed: “I don’t want to be a star. I want to be a legend". Real-life musician Ben Dickey played the character adeptly, in what was his first acting role.

On the gnarling inaugural scene, probably the most vivid of the film, a wasted Blaze and his junkie friend, the folk singer Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton), drive a studio manager crazy. Blaze’s story, then unfolds as Van Zandt and Zee (Josh Hamilton), another musician, give an interview about the former's latest album.

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The flashbacks, filtered with yellowish monochromatic warmth, show the ups and downs of the long relationship with his supportive Jewish lover, Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), who would become his wife. After enduring disenchantment associated with Blaze’s drinking problem, she was forced to move on, leaving him in a pitiful state of decadence, playing songs about his life experiences for indifferent people in small, nearly empty southern pubs.

Capturing the emotional subterfuges of an artist you’ve probably never heard of, the film never felt less than thoroughly lived-in by a cast that was permanently in the care of making this small work a bigger achievement. It’s a lengthy, inebriating, and casually funny experience that didn’t fall into the usual traps of biographical films.

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Bird Box (2018)

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Directed by Susanne Bier
Country: USA

Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier (Brother; After The Wedding; The Things We Lost in The Fire; Love Is All You Need) is commonly associated with heavy dramas and light romantic comedies. Her first American blockbuster, Bird Box, is a supernatural drama thriller starring Sandra Bullock as a single mother of two children who desperately looks for a safe place to raise them while the planet is under an unfathomable alien threat. Assuming ghostly forms, the invaders urge their victims to commit suicide right after they make visual contact with them. Therefore, the solution is to become blindfolded while outside and never listen to their persuasive words, which are deceptively uttered through the voice of a loved one who passed away.

Expecting a child, Malorie Hayes (Bullock) sees her all-too-lively sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson), succumb at the sight of the enemy and takes refuge in the house of Douglas (John Malkovich), a sinister and pragmatic man who didn’t seem much affected after witnessing the death of his wife in shocking circumstances. In the house, they not only welcome the innocuous Olympia (Danielle Macdonald), another pregnant woman, but also Gary (Tom Hollander), whose behavior and intentions are far more suspicious. After the kids are born, an attentive man, Tom (Trevante Rhodes), gains her trust and becomes her lover. But anyway, Malorie will have to make a perilous two-day journey alone with the kids, helplessly named Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair) and Boy (Julian Edwards). Blindfolded, they have dense countrified areas and a stirring river to be crossed. Is this practicable?

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Eric Heisserer (Arrival; Lights Out) penned the script according to Josh Malerman’s novel of the same name, having Bier directing exclusively in the US for the first time. Aiming to the senses without never really impress or startle, Bird Box adopts easy strategies, creating frivolous scenes and employing contrived tones as a result of the narrative fatuousness and cheap abstraction.

Ms. Bier, whose previous directorial efforts kept toggling between competent and sloppy, fully embraces Hollywood this time with dubious quality, and that comes with a price. Following impossible, far-fetched routes, Bird Box is a lumbering and quite incongruous mess.

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Heavy Trip (2018)

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Directed by Juuso Laatio and Jukka Vidgren
Country: Finland

The first directorial endeavor by the winning team Juuso Laatio and Jukka Vidgren tells about an unheard Finnish heavy metal band that embarks on a crazy trip to Norway in a desperate attempt to perform in the Northern Damnation Festival. They are eager to make everyone proud in their rural little village, Taivalkoski.

The four members of the band are very peculiar, starting by the lead vocalist, Turo (Johannes Holopainen), a tranquil, introverted fellow who is easily transformed into a powerful roarer whenever holding a mic. Turo works in a mental institution and nurtures secret feelings for Miia (Minka Kuustonen), a childhood friend.

Pasi (Max Ovaska) plays the bass and might not be totally normal. He works in the local library and remembers every song he hears. Lotvonen (Samuli Jaskio) is extremely fast on guitar and efficient in slaughtering reindeers in his father’s farm, while the drummer, Jynkky (Antti Heikkinen), is considered the toughest guy in the band. However, he often faints while playing due to lack of oxygen in the brain.

These talented musicians never played live before, but envision their big opportunity when the manager of the cited Norwegian festival (Ville Tiihonen) made a traumatic stop by the village. Although upset with the sordid events of his short visit, he accepts a demo containing one sole brutal original inspired by the sound of a reindeer grinder.

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While waiting for a response of the manager, Turo tells Miia he’s heading to Norway with the band in order to impress her. They suddenly earn reputation, stepping up from losers to heroes, and even get to open a concert for Jouni (Ville Tiihonen), the swaggering vocalist of a soft-pop band who is flirting with Miia for quite some time. The concert becomes memorable, but for the worst reasons.

After being informed they wouldn’t be playing the gig, the quartet, now called Impaled Rektum, adopts the fearless attitude of true metalheads and rashly prepares for the trip. However, a last-minute incident forces them to recruit one of Turo’s intimidating patients, Oula (Chike Ohanwe).

They steal, commit profanation, and almost provoke a war between countries. Yet, nothing dissuades them from their goal, not even Miia’s super-protective father (Kai Lehtinen), a rigorous cop who, at the right time, decides to give a chance to Turo, the man he comically designates as the glue-sniffing criminal.

Heavy Trip is an absurdist, powerhouse folly, which feels spunky enough to honor the musical genre and comes filled with deadpan hilarity to please comedy addicts.

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Daughter Of Mine (2018)

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Directed by Laura Bispuri
Country: Italy

Laura Bispuri’s sophomore feature Daughter Of Mine takes mother-daughter relationships to an interesting level. Lifted by the sharp performances of its ensemble cast, this is an emotionally resonant tale that, still, could have offered more than just some modest pleasures.

The story centers on Vittoria (Sara Casu), a bashful 10-year-old who lives in a quiet Sardinian village with her mother, Tina (Valeria Golino), and father, Umberto (Michele Carboni). One day, she finds out she was adopted at birth and that her biological mother is Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, the younger sister of prestigious director Alice Rohrwacher), an alcoholic young woman who spends her nights at the local bar asking men to pay her drinks. The good-hearted Tina has helped her financially since the kid was born, but now the young lady faces an eviction order that has no solution in sight.

Meanwhile, Vittoria starts visiting Angelica without Tina’s knowledge. The tactless, irresponsible young mother seems pleased for having the kid around before departing for good. In such a way that Tina becomes distressed with the idea of losing her only daughter. It’s sad when we conclude that this sudden bond has ulterior motives.

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Interesting dynamics emerge from this triangle and there are a few ignominious situations to which a 10-year-old shouldn’t be exposed. They serve as emotional shockers in a journey that feels at once tough and merciful. After all, Vittoria is a victim of the circumstances.

If Golino convinces without enchanting, Rohrwacher, in her second collaboration with Bispuri, gives one of her best performances by shaping her character as it should be - with no structure, no reliability, no will to change. As far as the young Casu is concerned, this is an agreeable surprise with the qualified newcomer revealing strong acting skills as she personifies the object of dispute between the mothers.

Whereas Bispuri’s direction is guileless and focused, the script, co-written with Francesca Manieri, could have been slightly adjusted, especially in its final section where the complexity of the situation spins no payoff and got me a bit frustrated.

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Wildlife (2018)

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Directed by Paul Dano
Country: USA

Actor Paul Dano, best known for his roles in Love & Mercy and There Will Be Blood, has in Wildlife his directorial debut. Dano co-wrote the script with Zoe Kazan based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, directing an excellent cast composed of Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, and Ed Oxenbould. They are the Brinsons, a family living in Great Falls, Montana, in 1960.

Fired without a cause and feeling aimless, Jerry Brandon (Gyllenhaal) temporarily leaves his wife, Jeanette (Mulligan), and 14-year-old son Joe (Oxenbould) in order to join a group of firemen assembled to battle a wildfire that keeps consuming the nearby mountains, close to the Canadian border. Although this is an honorable and brave decision, it comes at a time when his family most needs him. Financial difficulties force both mother and son to find part-time jobs while the inflexible Jerry is decided to risk his life for a miserable salary.

With no news about her husband and mad at him due to his selfishness, Jeanette embarks on a bared romance with Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a middle-aged ex-veteran who thrives in the car business. She doesn’t love him, but he could provide the stability she and her son have been seeking for so long. How does Joe cope with this situation? Well, there’s a traumatic dinner at the man’s house and some unexpected visits that accurately elucidate about his emotional state. Will Jerry be able to mend things up when he returns or it will be even worse?

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Compellingly written and acted, Wildlife is a mature drama about a crumbling marriage and the emotional struggle of a sensitive teenager who just aspires to see his parents together. On many occasions, he acts like the adult person who needs to put a stop in his parents’ uncontrolled impetus.

This closely observed family portrait, a study of loss and trauma, comes in tones of pervasive sadness. The fully shaped characters convey innate veracity, making us plunge headfirst into their afflictions, hopes, and frustrations. In particular, it is Mulligan who excels from start to finish.
Advancing quietly but in an assured way, Wildlife is heartbreaking.

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The Old Man & The Gun (2018)

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Directed by David Lowery
Country: USA

After terrific achievements such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saint (2013) and Ghost Story (2017), American writer/director David Lowery is definitely a name to be followed closely. Despite of the low-key vibe of The Old Man & The Gun, a biographical drama film about the ever-smiling robber and prison-escape expert Forrest Tucker, he doesn’t disappoint, weaving enjoyable episodes through a fusion of non-violent crime and sweet romance. For the script, Lowery based himself on an article by David Grann published in 2003 on the The New Yorker.

Supposedly, this is the last theatrical appearance of 86-year-old actor Robert Redford, who announced his retirement last August. Impersonating Tucker with that habitual devotion he always dedicates to his acting roles, Redford is joined here by Sissy Spacek, in what was their first collaboration on the big screen. The latter plays Jewel, the woman who conquers Tucker’s heart without being able to make him stop from robbing banks like a gentleman.

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Partnering with longtime pals Teddy Green (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits), Tucker never leaves prints, raises his voice, or makes any kind of fuss when operating his scheme. This happy fellow probably never shot a gun in his whole life, not even when escaping from prison, a feat he successfully completed 16 times. Nonetheless, his well-calculated maneuvers became objects of study of police detective John Hurt (Casey Affleck), who is visibly intrigued by and embarrassed for a ‘clean’ robbery executed by the time he was inside the bank.

This efficient account charms with a breezy fluidity, also displaying decorous looks and settings that conjure up that slightly opaque glow of the 1980s. The witty dialogue between Redford and Spacek feels refreshingly romantic, with Lowery abdicating of typical clichés in favor of a tangible honesty that burns with irony, love, and glee. Being a film of minor tensions, The Old Man brought me joy in the quantities required to make it noteworthy.

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First Reformed (2018)

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Directed by Paul Schrader
Country: USA

The challenges of faith are demonstrated with intense anguish in Paul Schrader's First Reformed, a psychologically disturbing drama film that tells the story of Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke). His insufferable life is like purgatory.

It’s a slow-moving yet incredibly arresting chronicle of a somber journey undertaken by the pastor of the first reformed historical church of Snowbridge, which, in the cusp of its 250th anniversary, is practically transformed in a touristy souvenir shop. However, this is the least of the concerns of Toller, whose deep crisis of faith is related to the loss of his only son in Iraq. Besides bearing the guilt of having encouraged him to enlist, the solitary 46-year-old minister is aching all over with both physical and spiritual pain. This is something that could easily take him to a tenebrous state of mental obfuscation. Drinking whiskey doesn’t help with the infirmity, and things only get worse after Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant parishioner, asks him to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), a tormented, hopeless environmentalist.

After Michael’s suicide, the reverend gets closer to Mary. Yet, his suffering is even more excruciating and all the disheartenment makes him another forlorn man. Will she be able to bring him some light and make him change the dire plans he has been preparing for?

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Schrader’s confident filmmaking encompasses both restfully imaginary and painfully earthly scenes, with the film’s climax coinciding with an ambiguous finale meant to be pondered and discussed after the credits roll. The maturity and rigor bestowed by the script don’t surprise me either. After all, he was the one who penned Taxi Driver and adapted Raging Bull to be directed by Martin Scorsese.

Brooding in tone and sincerely acted, First Reformed succeeds on the strength of its complex theme, not only examining the hardships of faith but also alerting for the gradual decay of our planet. This is Schrader’s best film since Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and one of 2018's highlights.

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22 July (2018)

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Directed by Paul Greengrass
Country: Norway / Iceland / USA

English director Paul Greengrass has a knack to recreate real-life events on the big screen, a faculty mirrored in brilliant films like Bloody Sunday (2002), United 93 (2006), and Captain Phillips (2013). Recently, he has turned his eyes to the Norway attacks of July 22, 2011, where a far-right terrorist diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder killed 77 people.

Charismatic actor Anders Danielsen Lie (Oslo 31; Reprise; Personal Shopper) impersonates the monster with a convincing and indispensable coldness in a dramatic thriller based on the book One of Us by Åsne Seierstad. Despite featuring an exclusively Norwegian cast and crew on behalf of credibility, the film is English-spoken, which I see as an inconsistent choice.

In spite of this debatable choice, the account starts one day prior to the attack as we follow the silent Anders Breivik (Lie) preparing meticulously a double onslaught. In the first place, a car bomb explosion in Oslo, quite close to the Prime Minister’s office, and then after that, a mass shooting on the Utoya island during a Workers' Youth League (AUF) summer camp, an event organized by the Labor Party. He performs the massacre dressed in a police uniform, vociferating words of hate against Marxists, liberals, and members of the elite.

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Following Breivik’s arrest, 17-year-old Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), who survived the tragedy along with his younger brother Torje (Isak Bakli Aglen), becomes a central figure, having his rehabilitation, frustration, and trauma captured by Greengrass' agile lens. In parallel, Breivik’s court proceedings clarify his political view based on a deep disdain for immigrants, also demonstrating his self-gratification for the evildoing and general aloofness from the rest of the world. For me, Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), the lawyer specifically appointed by Breivik to defend him is the most intriguing element of a plot whose intelligible narrative facilitates the perception of the entire picture.

On the one side, Greengrass touches the melodrama through the use of some emotional manipulation, but on the other side, he creates a visceral impact with the horrifying scenes. As a thriller, it can be an entertaining watching and the adrenaline rushes as a consequence of the nightmarish carnage. However, whenever our mind focuses on the idea of reality, it’s pain and sympathy that envelop us. Having that said, and in spite of a certain number of aspects that could be ameliorated, the dramatization works more often than it doesn’t.

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The Sisters Brothers (2018)

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Directed by Jacques Audiard
Country: USA / France / other

This is a gratifying adaptation of Patrick deWitt's novel by French director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet; Rust and Bone; Deephan), who commands an excellent cast with John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in the leading roles, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed as credible supporting actors. In his first English-language film, Audiard, who co-wrote the script with regular associate Thomas Bidegain, provides quite a bit fun as he depicts sequential reverses in the life of two criminal brothers, Charlie (Phoenix) and Eli Sisters (Reilly). The occurrences are incidental to a ravenous gold rush that starts in 1851 Oregon and ends in San Francisco.

While the younger brother, Charlie, is dangerously impulsive - he drinks and kills with equivalent zest, Eli is tired of being an assassin on the run. He actually lives to cover his brother’s misconducts. Both work for the Commodore (Rutger Hauer), a harmful man who assigned them to fetch Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed), a gold prospector and chemist who developed a secret formula to extract gold from rivers. Also in his tail is John Morris (Gyllenhaal), a patient detective with an intellectual posture, whose mission is befriending him before giving him away to the brothers. The plans change after Warm and Morris become true friends, which leads the former to make an irresistible proposition to the brothers. They promptly accept, also agreeing to part ways after this job. However, the unreliable Charlie puts everyone in danger after a terrible lapse. The ending is a pure nostalgic pleasure.

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With salient dark humor popping out from time to time and a great score by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water; Argo; The King’s Speech), The Sisters Brothers provides proper entertainment even when things become a bit out of control. The strong performances by the leads help to shape curious characters with strong personalities, and Audiard plunges into the Western genre with conviction and panache, offering reasonably more than just the essential. It may be a passive film at times, but never exhausting.

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Claire's Camera (2018)

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Directed by Hong Sang-soo
Country: France / South Korea

I can understand why Claire’s Camera, the new drama film by Korean director Hong Sang-soo, may be considered a bit shallow for some viewers. At the first sight, the story feels somewhat underdeveloped, but a deeper look into its incidents made me appreciate it more. Shot during the 2016 Cannes film festival, the film is an insouciant 68-minute reflection on relationships and time, the transitory and the permanent.

The most delightful episode of the film happens during its first minutes, when Manhee (Kim Min-hee), a film selling person in Cannes, is forced to resign from work without an acceptable reason. Her boss, Yanghye (Chang Mi-hee), justifies the fact with a sudden loss of confidence after five years working together but contradicts herself during the explanation. She states she hired her because of her honesty, something you can’t change with time, but now is trying to convince her that it changed.

After a while, we learn that the true reason for the dismissal was jealousy. The 50-year-old filmmaker So Wansoo (Jung Jin-young), for whom they work, slept with Manhee while drunk. Nothing wrong with that if he wouldn't be maintaining a romantic relationship with Yanghye.

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The sadness of being without a job becomes attenuated when Manhee befriends Claire (Isabelle Huppert), a full-time Parisienne teacher and part-time photographer who is in Cannes for the first. She meets director Wansoo by chance, becoming a bit shocked by how much he drinks, and through her magical camera, encourages Manhee to figure out what she wasn’t capable to understand.

Fluctuating with slight temporal shifts, the narrative feels manifestly comfortable while the dialogues don’t measure up to other Sang-soo works, but feel naturally engaging nonetheless. Only some of the scenarios felt a bit too composed.

This is the second time that celebrated French actress Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher; Elle) works with Sang-soo, following their auspicious collaboration in 2012 with In Our Country. In turn, Min-hee (The Handmaiden), after the polemic news regarding her real-life affair with the director, continues his muse, having participated in all his works since 2015.

Claire’s Camera is not among the director’s best efforts and yet, has the power to captivate us with its lightness, effortless spontaneity, and instinctive charm.

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