Us (2019)

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Direction: Jordan Peele
Country: USA

The much-anticipated sophomore film from Jordan Peele, Us, is funny, strange, and unnerving and it’s here to show the director’s expertise in blending comedy and horror with a very personal tone. Two years ago, he managed to consistently entertain with the distinguishable Get Out and his creativity didn’t fail him again on this new exciting puzzle movie where an Afro-American family has a hard time defeating their menacing doppelgängers.

In 1986, the young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) had a very traumatizing experience when she entered a funhouse located at Santa Cruz beach, California. The welcoming sign states ‘Vision Quest: find yourself’. Many years have passed and the now mature Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) returns to the same location for a summer vacation period in the company of her funny husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). However, the place has a weird effect on her and the unresolved predicaments inhabiting her subconscious emerge stronger, installing paranoia.

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The fright turns into panic when a four-member family, looking exactly like them, silently invade their place to threaten their lives. They are fearless and aggressive. Have you ever imagined if you had to fight your devilish equal? The explanations for the mystery lie obviously in the past, but what is confusing is that their friends, Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss) and their twin daughters are also visited by harmful variants of themselves. The attacks are ironically perpetrated at the sound of The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and then N.W.A.’s 1988 hip-hop hit “Fuck Tha Police”, which I consider extraordinary for the occasion since cops remained out of sight even after being called.

If Adelaide revealed unheralded courage in the face of danger, Gabe made me laugh several times with his asinine observations and incautious actions. He was entrusted with the comedic mission and succeeded.

Even with some over-the-top extravagance popping up here and there, the inventive script definitely puts Peele among the greats of the genre. Moreover, as if the parallel realities weren’t enough to intrigue, he reserves a wonderful twist for the finale that made me draw comparisons with the real world. Executed with stylistic brio and acted accordingly, Us is a smart move that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

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Shazam! (2019)

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Direction: David F. Sandberg
Country: USA

Shazam! is an unequivocally silly movie that happens to be ridiculously fun too. The jovial, unfasten posture adopted here provided some of the pure excitement I experienced when watched Back To The Future many years ago. Working from a screenplay by Henry Grayden, director David F. Sandberg did a sensational job, reinforcing that he has a better future shaping up puerile superhero adventures than mediocre horror exercises such as Lights Out (2016) or Annabelle: Creation (2017), his previous releases.

Asher Angel stars as Billy Batson, a 14-year-old orphan who was given the capacity of transforming into the title character after a mystical encounter with an ancient wizard. He becomes a muscular adult (Zachary Levi) whose initial challenge is to learn and understand his superpowers. Once that important aspect is resolved, Shazam is ready to assist people in trouble, yet sometimes he fools around with the newly discovered abilities and things may go a bit cuckoo.

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With full support of his foster brother, the bullied Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy navigates the Philadelphia skies, fighting the supervillain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a vindictive physicist who, as a kid, was not only abandoned by his wealthy family but also discarded by the wizard for not having a pure heart. I liked the fact that the latter character was not just presented as the bad guy; his story can be grasped and fully discerned from the beginning.

The nature of the dialogue oscillates between witty and imbecilic, which didn’t bother me at all in this context, while the fast pace and high-energy scenes help to project the attractive visual style. Destined to be a commercial success, Shazam! combines comedy, action, and adventure in a very entertaining way.

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Her Smell (2019)

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Direction: Alex Ross Perry
Country: USA

Elisabeth Moss delivers a powerhouse performance as a collapsing rocker who struggles to quit drugs, overcome insecurity, and become a dedicated mom. The actress, alone, worths the ticket to Alex Ross Perry’s sixth feature, Her Smell. However, there was nothing she could do, in this second collaboration with the director (the first was Queen of the Earth), to elevate an erratic script overloaded with unbalanced furor and trashy tension. Oddly enough, the film’s most annoying parts are the ones that easily come to mind, such as the scabrous self-destructive scenes that last forever and a sloppy, sentimental solo rendition of Bryan Adams' “Heaven” on piano, which equally lasts forever.

The neurotic, selfish, and emotionally torn Becky Something (Moss) leads a provocative indie rock band named Something She, whose smashing success becomes compromised by drug abuse, freakish religious ceremonies that serve to avert negative spiritual forces, and the gradual deterioration of her relationships with bandmates Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali Van Der Wolff (Gayle Rankin).

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Despite dozens of sold out concerts and financial stability, Becky can’t put her life together, assaulted by family traumas and cross-feeling conflicts regarding her little daughter, who was appointed as her future downfall by the phony spiritual shaman Ya-Ima (Eka Darville). It all spirals into offbeat grungy chaos that could have been less histrionic if handled by someone else other than Perry. Here, he seems more preoccupied in emulating Cassavettes with a bit of supernatural anxiety, than really adhere to an unfluctuating story. The filmmaker pointed out Guns N’ Roses’ vocalist Axl Rose as the prime influence for Becky’s character. Nonetheless, her style and looks are totally Courtney Love.

While the wild days of this rock muse felt intense, protracted, and tiresome, her isolation phase was boring, failing to make any further grasps for significance.

Firstly mounted like a humorless bizarre circus and then transforming for the flimsy redemption of its protagonist, Her Smell lacks essentially a tuneful note, lingering too much time in an uncomfortable dissonant universe.

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3 Faces (2019)

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Direction: Jafar Panahi
Country: Iran

Even facing a 20-year filmmaking ban imposed by the Iranian government, director Jafar Panahi continues to employ up-to-the-minute techniques as a mean to tell interesting stories, where the pivotal simplicity never discards any emotional peak or tension. He really knows how to blur the line between fiction and reality, and 3 Faces, the fourth film to be released under his filmmaking interdiction (the others were This Is Not a Film, Closed Curtain, and Taxi), is another step forward.

Panahi plays himself, as well as the popular actress Behnaz Jafari (Blackboards). The latter receives a startling video message from Marzieh Rezaei, a young actress wannabe from the rural Northwestern village of Saran, whose conservative family strictly opposes her going to Tehran to study acting. Impulsively, Jafari asks the director to drive her to that village in order to assure that nothing happened to the desperate girl. According to her loved ones, she had vanished three days before without a trace.

After discussing if the video was posteriorly edited or not, the pair experiences a reality that has nothing to do with their lives. Interesting happenings keep us alert - an elder woman lies down in the grave she just dug for herself; in a first phase, the villagers think the visitors are there to solve their gas and electricity problems; they learn that the village has more parables than inhabitants and have too many gardens but no doctors. In fact, these people are stuck in traditions and it's no wonder that Marzieh’s older brother considers her aspirations dishonorable.

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During the investigative examination, there are some funny moments. I’m remembering when Panahi is forced to honk while driving to be given passage in a narrow road, or when he gets a phone call from his mother, who demands some attention and asks him about the rumors of a new film.

Ms. Jafari doesn’t know how to react. She feels scared for the girl, but at the same time dragged into a manipulation. There’s a moment she even suspects Panahi, who told her that his next film would be about a suicide case. While she is emotional, he is sober and rational, and that contrast works perfectly.

Panahi refuses to abandon his art; and if his film meditates about cultural tradition, it also works as a metaphor by targeting those who disregard artistic life, seeing it as a minor craft. He gets everything under control with his camera, which, observing quietly, inflicts a decent low-key treatment in a peculiar road movie marked by slightly intriguing moments. Who told you this wasn't the truth?

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Quien Te Cantara? (2019)

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Direction: Carlos Vermut
Country: Spain

Influenced by the Spanish pop culture and a few master directors, Madrid-born Carlos Vermut assembled his third feature, Quien Te Cantara?, with poetic, dramatic, and uncanny tones. Lamentably, the fine gothic tinge applied to the imagery couldn’t hamper the story, set in Rota, Andalucia, from feeling tediously monochromatic.

Lila Cassen (Najwa Nimri), the most celebrated pop star in Spain, inexplicably vanished from the stages for ten years. When she finally decides for a comeback tour, an accident steals her memory, putting all her fortune and high-end lifestyle at stake. The good news is that her amnesia seems to be partial since she was able to recognize herself and Shakira in pictures.

Her devoted agent and longtime friend, Blanca Guerrero (Carme Elias), is disquieted with the situation, realizing that touring is imperative for the artist's future. And that’s when she devises a weird plan to have Lila learning how to be herself again with the help of a staunch admirer and flawless imitator, Violeta (Eva Llorach), a karaoke performer who is manipulated and abused by her insolent 23-year-old daughter Marta (Natalia de Molina). Marked by an inner sadness, the two women become closer, sharing laughs and tears, and their past and present slowly blur into an opaque transference of identities.

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Laced with revelational yet laborious self-examinations, this is a sleep-inducing melodrama that never earns what it works so hard to accomplish. Except for the mother/daughter scenes, whose sudden emotional catharsis is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman, the film lingers in a lethargic narrative, while probing, sometimes in the same scene, Fassbinder-like decadence and Hitchcockian mystery.

With occasional stiffness and an unattractive score getting in the way, Quien Te Cantara? is not as mesmerizing as Vermut’s previous neo-noir, Magical Girl (2014).

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Girl (2019)

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Direction: Lukas Dhont
Country: Belgium / Netherlands

Lukas Dhont’s Girl has the young Victor Polster shinning with a solid first performance. He plays a 15-year-old trans girl entangled in a morose and emotionally devastating process of sex transition while pursuing her dream of becoming a professional ballerina. Sharing the writing credits with Angelo Tijssens, Dhont sought inspiration in the real story of Nora Monsecour, a Belgian trans woman who, on top of collaborating in the script, came to the director's defense when the controversy arose regarding a self-mutilation scene and the excessive exposition of the main character’s genitals.

Lara (Polster) was born Viktor, and is now in the process of changing the incorrect male body for what her mind and soul always told her to be. Although expressing some doubt about her sexual orientation, she is absolutely sure of her sexual identity. She pierces her own ears - an old dream - and tapes her private parts to attend ballet classes at a prestigious Dutch academy. Her best friend is her supportive single father, Mathias (Arieh Worthalter), an open-minded taxi driver who keeps encouraging her to talk unreservedly about feelings and concerns.

However, the world is not perfect, and Lara gets moody and frustrated while undergoing hormone therapy. Moreover, schoolmates and fellow dancers are not always polite in their impertinent curiosity, and their subtle yet excruciating hostility simply reflects an unprepared society to deal with differences and individual choices.

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Having to wait two long years for the operation, disillusion becomes a thick, fast-growing layer placed between what she really wants to achieve and the limiting reality. The perturbation is of such order that she asks the doctors to increase the hormone intake. The desperate angst of feeling displaced in a body that is not hers, leads to radical measures to accelerate the procedure.

Despite ambitious and perfectly plausible in its complexity, the story could have taken the tension further, never entering into a thought-provoking territory. What I found most interesting here was the father/daughter relationship, while the rest remains standardized and somewhat guessable. Notwithstanding, the young Polster bravely steps into an exceptional role that makes the film watchable, while Dutch cinematographer Frank van den Eeden gives the gorgeously composed frames a coruscating, warm look.

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The Realm (2019)

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Direction: Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Country: Spain

Teaming up for the second time in their careers, director Rodrigo Sorogoyen (Stockholm; May God Save Us) and actor Antonio de la Torre (Cannibal; A Twelve-Year Night) star in The Realm, a fast-paced political thriller set in Spain. The film packs a wealth of revelatory truth about the way things really unfold in political spheres, working as a wake-up call for dirty political schemes that accommodate high-end lifestyles as well as a character study that exposes a shameless corrupt and tenacious snob.

The charismatic regional vice-secretary Manuel Lopez Vidal (de la Torre) devised an illegal stratagem to fill his pockets fast, but is unmasked when his close friend, Paco (Nacho Fresneda) is accused of corruption. Recordings of compromising phone conversations are leaked and, suddenly, the prosperous, easy life of the politician is jeopardized by a thorough investigation that can send him to jail.

Prepotent and arrogant, Manuel detests being discarded by the members of his own party, but things get much worse when Amaia Marin (Bárbara Lennie), a fearless reporter, decides to uncover his misconducts publicly. Even so, this perfidious man thinks that confidence and persuasiveness can save him.

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In front of everyone are the usual scandals that bring politicians down: luxurious vacations in exotic destinies, bribery and fraud, influence peddling and money laundry, conspiracy and corruption, and even those long, exorbitant lunches stuffed with roly-poly prawns and pretentious poses.

Although the dramatic heat is limited and the final section - the one infused with some action - is a bit strained, there are details deserving attention. The Realm doesn’t cover new ground in the shadier tactics of politicians, but is ingeniously acted and well-meaning in its efforts to denounce their outrageous behaviors, impudent attitude, and obsession for power.

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Dragged Across Concrete (2019)

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Direction: S. Craig Zahler
Country: USA

American director S. Craig Zahler had left a very good impression in his debut feature, the adventurous western Bone Tomahawk, but was powerless in maintaining the positive vibrations in the inglorious, punishingly tedious Dragged Across Concrete. The film is a neo-noir crime thriller written by Zahler and starring Mel Gibson and Tory Kittles as a suspended cop turned outlaw and a relapsing criminal with nothing to lose, respectively.

Frustrated Bulwark police agents, Brett Ridgeman (Gibson) and his reliable partner Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are captured in a video, using excessive force in an uncomplicated operation involving cash and narcotics. After a complaint is made, the case gets the attention of the media and they end up with a six-week suspension and no pay.

The situation forces them to radically change positions and infiltrate in the underground crime world. Not for justice, though, but to chase the wealth their lives are asking for. Their destinies cross with a ferocious gang that includes Henry Johns (Kittles), an African-American ex-con, who just got out of the prison to realize that his mother became a drug addict and prostitute. He bills are six months behind and she doesn't pay enough attention to his physically disabled younger brother.

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The film incurs in a derivative minor subplot when Kelly (Jennifer Carpenter), an esteemed employee of the bank marked to be robbed by the ruthless gang, goes to work for the first time after her baby was born. On another note, swallowing a key was never so easy, while taking it out of the stomach was both coarse and repugnant. Apart from these details, the tale comes to a cop-gangster association enveloped in paranoia, mistrust, and suspicion.

There’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen before or better done. The uncharismatic characters and languid pace cut down any interest we might have in a story extended to 159 painful minutes where insensibility and banality reign.

Largely shot in lurid, gilded tones that serve to paint oppressive environments, Dragged Across Concrete is a tremendous misfire that even the most vehement fans of cop thrillers should have trouble to connect.

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Long Day's Journey Into Night (2019)

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Direction: Bi Gan
Country: China / France

This particular Day’s Journey Into Night has absolutely nothing to do with the famous Eugene O’Neill's play turned into a classic drama film by Sidney Lumet in 1962. Instead, it is an art house effort that marks the second directorial feature film by Bi Gan, a Chinese filmmaker, poet and photographer born in Kaili, Guizhou province.

The follow-up to Kaili Blues (2015) is stylishly rich in influences, carries a good-look charm and an intriguing noir mood that lingers. Like its predecessor, it has the director’s hometown as a point of departure for a dreamy, sort of out-of-the-body experience where false and true memories blur a labyrinthine reality. The director got credit for changing to 3D at some point, after which he shot a nearly one-hour take.

The secluded Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) talks in his vivid dreams. He calls himself a detective as he searches for Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), the girl in his dreams, the one who marked his life in such a way that it's impossible to forget her. He doesn’t know what happened to her since he left Kaili 12 years before. However, his father’s death forces his return to that city, an opportunity to investigate more about his mysterious former lover.

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This man is willing to undertake wacky trips where several encounters with strange people occur under intriguing ambiances. There’s an abandoned old house transformed into a shallow pool by a leaking ceiling, a rusty wall clock with valuable info inside, a green book with an inspiring love story, a decrepit porn theater with a passageway to a secret basement from where it’s difficult to find a way out, a dark place for gaming where he gets locked up with a girl from his hometown… all these elements push us to walk through a gauntlet of sensory, obfuscatory mystery. If the cinematography is great, the score led by Jia Zhangke’s first choice, Lim Giong, is no less essential.

The film occasionally strains to connect in all its languor and wistfulness, but when it does, it can be fascinating. This is a minimal story structured with deliberate entanglement; therefore, don’t expect things to be served easily. It’s puzzling like Tarkovsky, romantic like Wong Kar Wai, and painful like Tsai Ming Liang.

Bi Gan presents us impasses and ambiguities along the way that by no means are resolved. I take my hat off to him in terms of filmmaking, yet the experience would have been better if the script had a less blurred nitty-gritty and more bite.

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Clergy (2018)

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Direction: Wojciech Smarzowski
Country: Poland

A rabble-rousing glimpse into clerical scandals become disturbing on several levels in Clergy, an unexpected Poland box-office hit directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, whose works always feel like tough nuts to crack for the ones in command of that country. The director is known for his severe tone and denunciatory bluntness, aspects mirrored in previous efforts such as The Dark House (2009), a bitter look at corruption and greediness in the communist Civic Militia, Traffic Department (2013), where the weaknesses of a debased Warsaw Police Department bare naked, and Rose (2011), a historical drama with the ethnic nationalism that crushed the Masurian people as the topic.

Even though this film is categorized as a black comedy, there are very few reasons to laugh as we follow three Catholic priests, all survivors from a devastating fire, being caught in a series of embarrassing transgressions that are systematically covered up by sovereign ecclesiastics.

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Father Andrzej Kukula (Arkadiusz Jakubik) is accused to rape an altar boy and now faces the wrath of the local people; the supercilious Father Leszek Lisowski (Jacek Braciak) is a curia worker who deliberately sins through bribery and greediness; the alcoholic Father Tadeusz Trybus (Robert Wieckiewicz) gets his younger housekeeper pregnant, encouraging her to abort. Each of them has corruption staining their souls, just like the opulent Archbishop Mardowicz (Janusz Gajos), who wants to build a sanctuary with dirty money.

With the polemics invading a country that is right-winged and predominantly Catholic, Smarzowski now deals with vigorous accolades on one hand and serious threats on the other. He seems to have put the finger right in the center of the wound with this strongly thematic bleak tale. Although far from outstanding in its execution, the film served to re-initiate inflamed yet necessary debates about well-known abuses in the Catholic Church worldwide.

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Pity (2018)

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Direction: Babis Makridis
Country: Greece

Pity marks the second collaboration between Greek director Babis Makridis and his fellow co-writer Efthimis Filippou, the one behind inventive scripts that made Yorgos Lanthimos famous with Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Actually, similarities with Lanthimos’ clean yet subversive early style, especially in what concerns to tone and aesthetics, are pretty obvious here, but this shaggy-dog tale needed some more grip in its weirdness and maybe a spectacularly tragic ending, which didn’t happen, in order to succeed.

Immersed in absurdity and deadpan humor, this dark comedy shapes as a character study of a depressed lawyer (comedian Yannis Drakopoulos) who craves the pity of others to continue living. After the tragic accident that sent his 45-year-old wife (Evi Saoulidou) into a coma, this man earned all the consideration and commiseration of every person around him.

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His secretary worries about his silence and isolation at work; his longtime friend encourages him to hang out more often and rubs sunscreen on his back while at the beach; a kindhearted neighbor bakes him cakes, which he pleasantly eats in the morning in the company of his only son; and the laundry owner is always compassionate of his difficult situation. The only one looking at his case with pragmatism is his father, who promptly disregards the imaginary white hairs he claims to have grown while grieving. The described scenario radically changes when, against all the expectations, his wife recovers and returns home. By that time, dangerous thoughts invade his mind, leading to radical actions.

Sabotaging situations and lying brazenly, this man puts himself to ridicule, at the same time that proves capable of committing terrible atrocities in order to regain people’s sympathy.

Pity is morbid and ludicrous nonsense that grows tiresome, loaded with grief-imbued close-ups, trapped in a rigid pace and unchangeable atmosphere, and failing to unlock much of the positive indications patented in its inaugural phase.

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Fighting With My Family (2019)

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Direction: Stephen Merchant
Country: UK / USA

British helmer Stephen Merchant brings family and wrestling to the forefront, propping up a crowd-pleasing comedy that feels as strenuously fraudulent as its topic. Expect a lot of stagy representation both inside and outside of the ring, in a fact-based story adapted for the big screen with a dramatic bait that is way too much contrived.

Siblings Zack (Jack Lowden) and Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), were born in England, in a family of enthusiastic wrestlers. Their dream is to become professionals in the US and they have all the support of their liberal, hippie parents, Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey), also fans of the sport. These youngsters are go-getters and their passion and effort lead them to compete for a place in the WWE.

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But whilst Saraya is picked among a bunch of candidates to participate in an intense training season in Florida, Zack, who is expecting a child, is left behind. Definitely separated from his childhood dream, he lets resentment undermine his soul and radically change his conduct. Meanwhile, Saraya, who changed her name to Paige and boasts an underground punk-ish style, is not adapting so well to the American ways, clashing with her three fellow colleagues, all former models and cheerleaders. Apparently, not even a change of look can make her swallow the strong pride and overcome the fact that she’s homesick and has no friends or motivation. Hence, the easiest way to end the pain is giving up. Will she?

Although making the experience a bit less painful through occasional funny lines about British/American divergences as well as contrasting postures between liberal and conservative families, the director makes this account feel too schematic in all its narrative. Energetic fights at the sound of hard rock music are intercalated with scenes soaked in melodramatic gimmick, which never worked for me. Already twisting in my seat, I was gladdened when, finally, the credits started to roll.

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Custody (2018)

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Direction: Xavier Legrand
Country: France

First-time helmer Xavier Legrand engenders an engrossing story filled with tremendous tension and emotional truthfulness, where domestic terrorism inundates the lives of a mother and her two children. After one year, Miriam (Léa Drucker) is still stalked and threaten, both physically and psychologically, by her ex-husband Antoine (Denis Ménochet). He decided to start a legal battle for joint-custody of their 11-year-old son, Julien (Thomas Gioria). The latter and his sister, Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux), 18, write a statement to be read in court, saying they don’t want to see Antoine anymore since, whenever he is around, they fear for the life of their mother.

Despite the gravity and concern that this sensitive case demands, the judge, persuaded by Antoine’s lawyer, allows him to keep Julien on weekends. Selfish and obsessed, Antoine doesn’t really care about his son, inflicting him continuous psychological torture to reach his ex-wife, whom he suspects is having a new affair. Temporarily out of work, he uses every single minute to pest the family, creating discomfort all around, inclusive in his own parents, who, in vain, try to show him the right way.

This violent, jealous man is insanely obstinate and his attacks of fury can be very destructive. When nothing seems to work, he shamelessly changes tactics, playing the nice guy who now regrets his bad behavior. How can this man be so blind to the point of not realizing that the image he wants to pass is far from being affirmative with his attitudes?

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Drawing a painful realism from each scene, Legrand extends his Oscar-nominated short film, Just Before Losing Everything (2013), with no drags or redundancy. He manages to aptly depict the silent anguish of the boy and the restlessness of his family. It’s devastating to see a child completely paralyzed by fear and that sentiment is even more infuriating when it’s one of the parents that deliberately inflicts it.

Custody is heartbreaking, but never feels manipulative, thanks to the believable performances. Indeed, both Ménochet (In The House; Glorious Basterds) and the young newcomer Gioria were perfect choices for their roles. I point them out as the most influential pieces of a film that, rising on the strength of an uncomplicated, solid script, is easier to admire than to enjoy.

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The Tree of Blood (2019)

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Direction: Julio Medem
Country: Spain

Layered like a zigzagging soap opera and mounted with a pretentious artificiality, The Tree of Blood leads us to unexciting places. The story focuses on two lovers, Marc (Álvaro Cervantes) and Rebeca (Úrsula Corberó), who return to their hometown in the Basque Country, Spain, with the purpose of unveiling and writing the complex stories of their families. The generational secrets emerge slowly, giving them the pleasure of discovery and imagination. After a while, they realize that two brothers strangely tie their family trees.

Marc’s mother, Nuria (Lucía Delgado), married Olmo (Joaquín Furriel), a secretive man with connections to the Russian mafia. In turn, Rebeca discloses that Olmo’s brother, Victor (Daniel Grao), was the man who raised her after her mother has been admitted in a hospice for mental illness treatment. Unexpectedly, all the amusement of the young couple radically changes when their personal secrets start to be revealed.

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San Sebastian-born director Julio Medem mixes a tiny bit of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s surrealism, the tension of Alejandro Amenabar’s crime thrillers, and the eroticism that his own previous films had already shown, cases of Sex and Lucia (2001) and Room in Rome (2010). However, everything is sloppily glued-up, and the film becomes an abominable part-erotic, part-psychological pastiche.

Extra care was given to the cinematography, wonderfully controlled by Kiko de la Rica (the black-and-white of Blancanieves remains his best pictorial achievement), who rejoins the director after the disastrous Ma Ma (2015). The images of The Tree of Blood exhibit that sophisticated gloss worthy of a classy art-house film. However, under the surface, lies an empty soul. As opposed to transgressive and original, the film got stuck in stereotypes, becoming narratively ineffectual and dramatically unenjoyable. The nature of the script demanded focus as well as a taut, responsive execution, something that Medem was unable to enforce.

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Ash Is Purest White (2019)

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Direction: Jia Zhangke
Country: China

Ash is Purest White is the latest art-house period drama of gifted Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke. It’s also a tart love story that spans 18 years and overflows with precious details and a lot of references to the auteur’s previous films and themes.

Structured in three parts, the story begins in 2001 in Datong and follows small-time mobster Guo Bin (Liao Fan) and his loyal, quick-witted girlfriend Zhao Qiao (director’s wife and muse Zhao Tao). They spend time among friends, playing mahjong at the bar he owns and taking a good care of the illicit business that allows them to live comfortably. As members of the Jianghu, a word referring to the Chinese underworld, which also means trust, they act and react according to that lifestyle. “For people like us, it’s always to kill or to be killed”- he says. However, the Jianghu is not like in the old days anymore. Times are changing at a hasty pace. Whilst he enjoys living in the margins of the society, she opens up about wanting a stable life, in an attempt to coax him into the idea of family.

This dream becomes totally impracticable for Qiao after she was forced to shoot a gun to save Bin’s life from a violent ambush. While she is sentenced to five years, he does only one, after which he never visits her in prison. Immediately after her release, the disappointed Qiao heads to Fengjie, where Bin is now working. She obviously suspects of betrayal, but, self-reliant as she is, she just can’t let the hope dies and forget the case. Moreover, if something happened, she wants to hear it from him, not from anyone else. Is she prepared for the cruel truth?

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The misadventure includes a frustrating boat trip through the Three Ganges Dam and a lot of artfulness to survive. The repeated locations and comparable characters make us think of a combination between the social disenchantment of Unknown Pleasures and the austere transformations of modern China depicted in Still Life. In the same manner, a strong female character is at the center of the story, just like it happened in the director’s previous effort, Mountains May Depart. Still, Zhao Tao elevates Qiao as the most active and resolute of the characters, delivering a thoroughly engaging performance.

Preserving a detailed, intimate, and observant style, so reminiscent of Hou Hsiao Hsien, Zhangke provides us a culturally intense, consistently-told story with a noir sense of punishment, bitterness, and disillusion. This powerful look at an ever-transitioning Chinese society comes with plausible twists that indicate new times, new realities, and new postures.

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Capernaum (2018)

Direction: Nadine Labaki
Country: Lebanon / France / USA

Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third feature, Capernaum, is a heart-rending drama focused on the shocking realities of both poor slum inhabitants and migrants living in Beirut. Labaki’s past works has been consistent (Caramel; Where Do We Go Now?), but her directorial career reaches a pinnacle with this saddening tale co-written with regular collaborator Jihad Hojeily and first-time scriptwriter Michelle Keserwany.

The central character, Zain El Hajj (actual refugee Zain Al Raffeea), is a 12-year-old who besides facing the hardships of poverty and neglecting parents, takes in his own hands the responsibility of saving his 11-year-old sister Sahar (Haita Izzam) from an unacceptable marriage. She just had her first period and Assaad (Nour El Husseini), the family’s landlord and local tradesman, is ready to buy her. The kid’s parents, Selim (Fadi Yousef) and Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad), see an opportunity to get a better life in this arrangement. After all, it’s one mouth less they have to feed. Tragic incidences lead Zain to be sentenced five years in prison, but what I was far from imagining is that this astute boy could sue his inconsiderate parents for bringing him into the world.

Prior to his crime and subsequent arrest, Zain had run away from home, finding support in Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an undocumented Ethiopian woman who provides him with housing and food. In exchange, he babysits her little infant Yonas, a target for the malicious Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh), whose intention is to sell him for adoption.

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Simultaneously sensitive and straightforward in her directorial methods, Labaki articulates the moral complexities of the subject matter with an equal share of fascination and depression. She got precious assistance from the pair of editors, Konstantin Bock and Laure Gardette, as well as German-Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun. And, sure thing, it's not possible to disregard the terrific performance of the young new actor, who makes a notable first appearance. Through him, Zain looks real, showing all that street wisdom that no real school would be able to teach him.

It’s all too painful and frustrating, but there are moments of true love and care. My only hesitation has to do with the too optimistic, even naive idea of justice. At once touching and infuriating, the film bursts with irrepressible sadness and deserves kudos for avoiding gratuitous sentimental deflections.

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24 Frames (2018)

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Direction: Abbas Kiarostami
Country: Iran / France

24 Frames is an experimental posthumous work by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. To form the base of this interesting, if unconventional, experiment, the latter first employed famous paintings before switching to his photographs. That media, representing an instant and unique capture of the reality, becomes the framework over which he expresses his imagination of what could have happened before and after that particular moment.

Introduced by fade-ins and culminating in fade-outs, the frames exhibit nature in various forms. You may indulge yourself in wintry landscapes populated by wildlife and occasional human activity, or interior shots in which birds, lingering on the other side of a window, become the main subjects, having contrasting trees composing the beautiful black-and-white images. Intrinsically, some of them impel us to reflect on life and death, while others, made me think about how the humankind affects nature.

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Whereas some segments are repetitive and a bit monotonous, others feel melancholically rich in its minimalism. Once in a while, there are surprises that force you to look at and think further about what was put in front of your eyes, but it’s mostly sadness that reigns. As an exception to this rule, a specific frame comes to my mind, where six persons, with their backs turned to the camera and facing the Eiffel tower in Paris, are too absorbed to pay attention to the other pedestrians. The liveliness of the people’s movements is reinforced by the melody of Les Feuilles Mortes.

Although 24 Frames is attractive to the eyes and senses, it requires patience since there are no characters or even a plot to follow. Kiarostami prefers simplicity to opaqueness, and his method is pure, almost symbolizing the vision of a child. Not for everyone, these art forms are to stare at, relax, and enjoy.

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Pope Francis: A Man of His Word (2018)

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Direction: Wim Wenders
Country: Switzerland / Germany / other

Perceiving the turbulent times we’re living today is not an easy task and master documentarian Wim Wenders (Pina; The Salt of the Earth) felt the urgency of spreading Pope Francis’ noble ideals and message. He did it in a simple yet compelling way in Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, a documentary where the pontiff’s inspirational words of wisdom echo like bombs in our deaf ears.

This pope, the first to choose the name Francis, lives according to the humble ways of his inspirer, St. Francis of Assisi. He talks about the problems of the modern world without avoiding any sensitive matter. No wonder he points out wealth as the bigger temptation of the church and politicians, naming it God’s highest antagonist. Instead of wasting time dividing religions, he calls brother to every man, at the same time that shows a deep understanding of their choices, paths, and milieus.

Amidst the serious and thoughtful considerations about unemployment, deliberate onslaughts against Mother Earth, pedophilia in the church, gender equality, immigration, and the importance of listening to what others have to say, the pope still finds the courage to throw in funny lines about husband-wife relationships and coping with mothers-in-law. With an overt smile, he makes reference to a prayer for good humor by St. Thomas More. He is so charismatic and unequivocal in his sayings that I could be seated a couple more hours and listen to his recommendations.

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Wenders opted for a type of interview in which he concedes the pope enough space to talk directly to the camera, emulating a face-to-face interaction with us, the viewers. Even if his direction feels more competent than brilliant, he deserves credit for making sure the film progresses with no topic redundancy or unnecessary delays. A pertinent parallelism with the life of St. Francis is made, and for this purpose, black-and-white images are exhibited in a classic style.

The true star here is the pope himself, not only a man of his word, but also a man of impressive openness, humbleness, and fearlessness when speaking the embarrassing truth. He delivers the real message. Words that could help us save the planet, be better persons, and pull us out of this shameful idolatry of money and apathy in the face of injustice.

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An Elephant Sitting Still (2018)

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Direction: Hu Bo
Country: China

Shrouded in gloominess, disappointment, and anguished regret, An Elephant Sitting Still is a moody undertaking on human existence. Despite running for nearly four hours, this incisive realistic drama set in suburban China was never fatiguing as a result of an efficient narrative filled with uncertainty and surprises. Its bleakness hits you even harder when you think that its director, the novelist Hu Bo, committed suicide right after finishing the film. He was 29, and this work became his first and last film.

You can sense the sadness, fear, and emptiness coming from all directions, witnessing the loveless environments that engulf miserable characters looking desperately for a way out. The pale grayish canvases capturing an outside world so big and so limiting at the same time, reinforce this crushing feeling of hopelessness.

Flowing at a steady pace, the film is structured to accommodate four narrative threads that unfold in the same Chinese neighborhood during one single day. The central characters of each story end up connecting with one another at some point.

16-year-old Bu Wei (Peng Yuchang) lives in a constant tension at home, especially after his unscrupulous father has been fired for taking bribes. Courageous, he’s not afraid to confront the bullies that mess with his friend at school. However, after an incident that takes the leader of the bullies to the hospital, he is chased down by the latter’s older brother, Cheng Yu (Zhang Yu), a dangerous and heartless criminal who lives with the guilt of being directly implicated in the suicide of his childhood friend.

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Living in the same building of Bu is Mr. Wang (Li Congxi), an aging man on the verge of losing his own apartment and being sent to a nursing home by his insensitive son. Bu’s classmate, Ling Huang (Wang Uvin), is also in a dead end, unable to find love in her coldhearted single mother. She lets herself being dragged to forbidden encounters with her school’s vice dean (Xiang Ring Dong), an obscure man.

Feeling an urgent need for change, the two youngsters and the old man resolve to search for hope in China’s busiest port of entry, Manzhouli, where the rumors say there is a mythical circus elephant that sits still all day long, doing nothing and ignoring everything around it.

Economic struggle, crime, intimidation in a variety of forms, and, above all, the lack of affection and joie de vivre, are factors strongly influencing the course of the story. Hu Bo, who could have been a true artist of the cinema, put his spellbinding camerawork at the service of a brutal social exposition with plenty of anger and frustration. The effect is intimidating and very real.

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Museo (2018)

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Direction: Alonso Ruizpalacios
Country: Mexico

Museo, the sophomore feature from Mexican writer/director Alonso Ruizpalacios, is a gorgeously shot, character-driven heist film inspired by the 1985 Christmas Eve robbery of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. It is only occasionally that its mild tones go beyond the expected, yet even so, it stands as a low-key fun overall with some refreshing takes on the genre.

Gael Garcia Bernal stars as thirty-something Juan Nunez, a college dropout with a sharp taste for and massive knowledge of anthropology. Moreover, Juan is subversive, selfish, and manipulative, a man capable of driving crazy not just the members of his family, but also Benjamin Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris), his submissive college mate, follower, and best friend. Ambition is another important feat of his personality and that’s why he decided to steal invaluable Inca pieces from the National Museum of Anthropology, where he used to work part-time to pay his leisure time. His idea consists of escaping from the boring suburbs and the control of his vehement father, Dr. Nunez (Alfredo Castro). He and his friend just dreamt of building their own paradise. Sounds great, right?

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Christmas Eve means celebration and, consequently, implies critical breaches in the museum’s security. Juan and Benjamin knew exactly what they wanted to pick. Among the stolen pieces is the funerary mask of King Pakal, which, by itself, makes them multimillionaires. Nonetheless, what seemed obvious to them becomes shrouded in uncertainty, and what should be the simplest part of the plan - selling the art - becomes a nightmare. Juan had the courage to do it. Does he have the courage to fix it?

Ruizpalacios, who did a more consistent job in his 2014 debut drama Gueros, combines adventurous theft, archeology lessons, family aloofness, and a vitiated friendship all in one. The lens of cinematographer Damián García attractively captures all of this, but part of the energy accumulated during the journey wasn’t always canalized in the right direction. It wouldn’t hurt if the relationship between the two leads were further explored or if Juan’s night of excesses was depicted with a bit more creativity.

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