Long Way Home / Temporada (2019)

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Direction: André Novais Oliveira
Country: Brazil

Although unfurling slowly and feeling somewhat turgid in its behaviors, Long Way Home / Temporada, a project by André Novais Oliveira, offers warm, friendly vibes along the way that might keep you connected. One of the strongest aspects of the film is the unexpectedness of a plot bolstered with credible performances from Grace Passô and debutant Russo Apr.

At the center of the tale is Juliana (Passô), a married woman who leaves her small-scale Brazilian hometown, Itaúnas, to embrace the bigger metropolitan town of Contagem, where she was called for a coveted yet poorly paid governmental job within the public-health department. She becomes a fighter in the arduous endemic control of the Dengue mosquito. Her husband is supposed to join her after she settles down but vanishes without a trace.

Meanwhile, Juliana befriends her immediate superior Russão (Apr), a nice, funny guy who plans to open a barber shop and, against all the expectations, finds out he is a father.

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Every co-worker has a story and a cross to bear, but they find support in one another with an empathic understanding and abundant compassion. After all, Juliana is forced to a fresh start. With her arms wide open, she embraces a new life where everything is unfamiliar and uncertain. Yet, there’s always something to discover in each and every experience.

Disillusion, frustration, and affliction counterbalance friendship, self-discovery, and hope. Oliveira’s direction is virtuous and his vision substantiates humanity. Still, he could have included the violence theme, a major problem in Brazil, in order to make this snapshot even more authentic. Although I didn’t get completely fulfilled in the end, the film has quite a few fascinating moments and is worth seeing.

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Grass (2019)

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Direction: Hong Sang-soo
Country: South Korea

Prolific Korean director Hong Sang-soo is known for little conversational diamonds of the modern cinema and Grass, lasting 66 minutes only, shows he still didn’t run out of narrative possibilities within the breezy, light fluency that characterizes his filmmaking style. Sang-soo keeps depicting unpretentious day-to-day situations with realism. Fortuitous encounters, actors, directors, booze, cafes, personal frustrations and peculiarities of the daily life are ubiquitous elements in his works.

The cast includes the same collaborators that join Isabelle Huppert in Claire’s Camera, namely, Kim Min-hee, the director’s muse, and Jung Jin-young. Their gracious performances feel so natural that viewers may feel like voyeurs of true-life episodes. It's true that the story produces little dramatic fireworks and doesn't conclude resolutely. However, it’s remarkable how Sang-soo manages to completely engross us in a tale that only exists for our cinematic pleasure.

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Grass, his 22nd feature film, centers in Areum (Min-hee), a silent, observant young woman who spends a few daily hours in a local café typing on her laptop. She seems to be writing stories inspired by the personal dramas and complicated relationships of the ones sit around her table. A young drinking couple exchange accusations over the death of a close friend; an older suicidal actor is looking for a room and asks his younger former lover if he could stay with her, now that she moved from a tiny apartment to a two-story building; a mature heartless man blames a woman of toying with an old professor and lead him to suicide; a vain director needs something to inspire him and persuades the staring Areum to enter in his new film.

Where the reality ends and fantasy begins is up to the viewer. Meanwhile, Areum shows her temperamental side while hanging out with her brother. According to him, she suffers from spinster’s hysteria.

The classical music is occasionally intrusive while the black-and-white cinematography is aesthetically appropriate for a type of fiction embroiled in a deceptively philosophical guise.

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Sauvage / Wild (2019)

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Direction: Camille Vidal-Naquet
Country: France

Abstaining from any preconception or modesty, first-time writer/director Camille Vidal-Naquet portrays a painful existence in the raw, unsentimental drama Sauvage/Wild. The story follows Léo (Félix Maritaud), a 22-year-old male prostitute with self-destructive behavior. He is impassive in the face of his decaying health as he beats the streets dirty and lascivious for small cash. Homeless and sick, he sells his body to buy drugs, but what he actually seeks is love and tenderness. Far from being a likable hero, the young protagonist is completely adrift, entangled in a downward spiral that makes him standing at the edge of an existential cliff.

Léo nurtures feelings for Ahd (Eric Bernard), the toughest of the prostitutes circling around the area, but his love is not reciprocated. Ahd is not even gay, and yet he found an older man who is taking him to Spain. It’s his chance to have a more stable life.

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Léo also gets a golden opportunity to get on the right track when someone honest gives him a hand and shows intent to stay with him. Does he have the reasoning to grab this chance and leave the streets that expose him to multiple dangers?

At once unpolished and corrosive, Sauvage/Wild is immersed in a grim reality. This character study forces us to reflect on behaviors and choices, and ultimately fear, emptiness, and loneliness.

Fueled by Maritaud’s impressive performance, this sunless tale builds something more than just sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. In the end, it’s almost impossible not to think about the poor Léo and how he could transform his life into an easy ride.

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The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind (2019)

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Direction: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Country: UK / Malawi

Lamentably, it’s common to see inspirational fact-based stories become unexceptional films. And that’s the case with The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the feature directorial debut by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave), who also stars. With the latter in control of his own screenplay, the film is a pedestrian adaptation of the book co-written by Malawian William Kamkwamba, the protagonist and true hero of this story, and NY Times bestselling author Bryan Mealer.

Set in Malawi, the story follows William (Maxwell Simba), a smart 13-year-old boy from the village of Wimbe who puts his head to work after reading the book Using Energy. His intention is to help his family and neighbors overcoming a disastrous harvest season, a severe drought and subsequent famine that follows. Motivated, William finds no technical troubles in building the windmill to produce energy and pump water into the fields; his biggest challenge is to convince his incredulous father of what he just had done.

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Ejiofor recreated the story with the best intentions, equally incorporating the political turmoil that was affecting the country. However, he seemed more concerned in touching our hearts with immoderate melodrama than providing an absorbing narrative depleted of that upsetting tonal familiarity that is commonly associated with emotional true stories.

There are a few slippery occasions where the film actually touches banality, yet the performance of the young debutant Simba prevented it to enter in an earlier collision. In the present case, forceful simplicity didn’t guarantee authenticity.

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Brothers' Nest (2019)

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Direction: Clayton Jacobson
Country: Australia

Led by powerful complementary performances from Clayton and Shane Jacobson, Brothers’ Nest is a resourceful blend of family drama, dark comedy, and infamous crime. An inordinately entertaining low-budget thriller galvanized by a Coenesque style and shrouded in a doomed atmosphere. Clayton directed it from a story by Jaime Browne and Chris Pahlow.

Taking place at a secluded old house in Victoria, Australia, the tale follows two frustrated brothers, Jeff (Clayton) and Terry (Shane), who resolve to murder their stepfather, Rodger (Kim Gyngell). The reason is clear: their mother (Lynette Curran) is dying of cancer and her inheritance is about to be delivered to her longtime partner.

Besides utterly obsessed, scrupulous, and manipulative, Jeff is an annoying smart-ass. As the mastermind of the plan, he has answers for everything and constantly rebukes Terry, who exhibits a more passive temperament. As a matter of fact, the latter doesn’t seem to take the plan too seriously, showing more concern about his ex-wife taking his kids away from him.

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As you’re probably guessing by now, the plan is altered last minute, becoming corrupted with both gut-wrenching anxiety and supplementary violence that ramps up for a tense and tragic finale with some good laughs in between.

Boasting a fantastic score by Richard Pleasance and his Pleasantville band, the film takes some time to build up, but the writing is effective, pointing out to a tough, unrelenting, and intense final part where the brothers’ loyalty is put to test.

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Lemonade (2019)

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Direction: Ioana Uricaru
Country: Romania

Identity and immigration are two intimately related topics in Romanian Ioana Uricaru’s debut feature, Lemonade, which also addresses xenophobia and abuse of power. The film’s main character is Mara (Mãlina Manovici), a thirty-something Romanian nurse and single mother, who, living in the US, struggles to make a new life for herself and her nine-year-old son, Dragos (Milan Hurduc). In five weeks, she fell in love and got married to Daniel (Dylan Smith), an American landscapist whom she treated after a severe work accident. She applied for a Green Card, but is still not allowed to work in American soil until the case is approved, what makes her financially dependent on Daniel. The process can take years and everything depends on Moji Wijnaldum (Steve Bacic), the US Immigration official that interviewed her.

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When the prepotent Moji calls her, mentioning a problem with her application, it was inevitable to cogitate about sexual favors. Because her son was with her, Mara gets late to the meeting and naively agrees to get in Moji’s car to be interrogated, an illegal procedure aggravated by the subsequent sexual assault. She is also informed that her husband has a record, a past case related to an offense against a minor. And because misfortunes never come singly, she finds the police at her door since her best friend, Aniko (Ruxandra Maniu), left Dragos temporarily alone at home to go to work. No need to say that serious family problems arise as soon as Daniel finds out what happened.

It’s easy for us to involve in the drama of this woman. However, the film, co-produced by celebrated writer/director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; Graduation), weakens in its second half when both the inquisitiveness and uneasiness gradually fade out to give place to humiliation and legal strategy. It’s a well-acted, if too polished, exercise tinged with sadness and hope alike. Still, the valid ideas had a considerable margin for improvement.

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A Vigilante (2019)

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Direction: Sarah Daggar-Dickson
Country: USA

Despite the interesting topic, Sarah Daggar-Dickson’s directorial debut didn’t exceed my expectations, becoming a minimally involving slow-burner set in upstate New York that essentially relies on Olivia Wilde’s convincing performance to elevate it slightly above the levels of mediocrity.

After a ruining past experience that made her endure physical abuses and lose a child at the hands of a violent husband, Sadie (Wilde) found the strength to abandon the depressive state she was immersed into. She resolved to turn her life from passive to active and act fiercely against domestic abusers. Although occasionally exposed to panic attacks that contrast with the ice-cold expression she evinces while in action, the skinny Sadie prepared herself physically to apply the same brutal violence that husbands and neglecting parents use against their frightened and weaker relatives. She still attends the support group meetings that set out a whole world of physically abused women, who, despaired, don’t know how to escape their aggressors. Sadie finds relief by making them pay for their misconduct.

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After a few rescues, including a devastated kid whose brother was violently harmed by their mother, Sadie faces the worst of her nightmares: the return of her cruel husband (Morgan Spector).

The idea in this classically suspenseful story sounds a lot better than its execution. The director cooks it slow and steady, balancing the tension throughout. Yet, she never provides that spine-chilling effect one constantly seeks in a film of this nature.

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The Pigeon (2019)

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Directions: Banu Sivaci
Country: Turkey

Debutant Turkish writer/director Banu Sivaci comes up with a quirky script in The Pigeon, a slow-paced art-house drama that aspires to be more than what really is. The story centers on Yusuf (Kemal Burak Alper), an unsociable young boy living in the slums of Adana, south of Turkey. He nurtures a longstanding obsession with pigeons to the point of sleeping, washing, and eating in the rooftop of his parents’ home. He inherited this passion from his late grandfather, something that his older brother, Halil (Ruhi Sari), was never able to understand.

Lacking any sort of enthusiasm apart from the birds, Yusuf starts working in a garage and, suddenly, ends up out of town as part of an exploited crew assigned for a one-week job. Panicking with the simple thought of leaving the pigeons without supervision, Yusuf takes a train back home. Penniless, he travels underneath a seat to remain out of the sight of the ticket controller. However, when he gets home, he gets disgusted with what he sees.

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The tension keeps floating considerably along the way, but its peak is reached when a thug slashes Yusuf’s favorite pigeon, Maverdi, in retaliation for an incident occurred with his own carrier pigeon. Aimless, Yusuf fights to protect his dovecote. He can’t afford to lose the only thing that makes him happy and distracted from the stress and afflictions of the outside world. Not even a pretty local woman, with whom he occasionally dreams of, seems capable to make him go in a different direction.

Despite the simplistic vision and timid filmmaking process, Sivaci had the precious hand of Arda Yildiran, the director of photography, in the capture of attractive colors and in the purpose of giving the images a fine, sharp glow. Besides conveying both the purity and naivety of Yusuf’s personality by depicting his stronger affinity with birds and detachment from people, this bittersweet drama also makes us think about work and eke out a living. Still, I struggled to empathize and connect emotionally with the central character.

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High Life (2019)

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Direction: Claire Denis
Country: UK / France / USA

French director Claire Denis’ High Life is not an easy film to watch. With simplistic scenarios and unshowy special effects, this psychological sci-fi thriller has bursts of violence within a deliberate pace that, despite fluctuating, never makes it a boring experience. Denis has a magnificent reputation for earthly dramas such as Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum, White Material, and Let the Sunshine In, but this story, co-written with frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, marks a turning point as her first English-language film as well as her first involvement in the specific topic of space exploration.

Intriguingly, the first scenes of the film present Monte (Robert Pattinson), a psychologically strong astronaut working outside a stranded spacecraft in order to fix energy problems while maintaining communication via radio with a little baby girl, who remains inside. They are the unique survivors of a failed mission into a black hole to extract energy. The crew was exclusively composed of death row inmates operating under the orders of the lascivious Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a scientist totally devoted to artificial insemination. Obsessed with creating a child through the aforementioned method, Dibs forbids any sexual contact between crew members. But, of course, she didn't include herself in this restrictive rule. She makes sure that everyone on board becomes a compulsory user of a cabin referred as ‘the fuckbox’.

Through flashbacks, we realize how the radiation positioned in the mouth of the black hole killed a pregnant woman and her infant; how captain Chandra (Lars Eidinger) suffered a nearly fatal stroke; how the violent Ettore (Ewan Mitchell) silently sneaks in the sleeping room to claim Boyse (Mia Goth) as his sexual prey. We also catch sight of every death that leaves Monte and the baby as the sole survivors. Is she his daughter? How was she born?

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The idea matured in Denis’ creative mind during 15 years and the result is a compelling, thought-provoking piece of sci-fi with moments of undisturbed brainwork and sheer horror alike to give the audiences a jolt. Kubrick is a reference that comes to mind and the cinematography by Yorick Le Saux (who worked with François Ozon, Olivier Assayas, Luca Guadagnino, and Jim Jarmusch) is absolutely phenomenal. Also worth mentioning, the trippy score was created by Tindersticks’ frontman Stuart Ashton Staples.

Something really interesting to observe is that the spacecraft was never under external attack. They were never in danger, not even when a similar ship is sighted with ravenous stray dogs inside. As we could testify, humans are the main threat to their own existence. High Life is a mesmerizing, cerebral collision of uncontrolled human impulsivity and troubled survival.

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Glass (2019)

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Direction: M. Night Shyamalan
Country: USA

M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass marks the last part of the Unbreakable trilogy, launched with Unbreakable in 2000 and followed with Split in 2016. This new thriller tries to funnel the two precedent story threads into a conclusion, but the problem is that I was unable to feel excitement or have any type of reward along the way. Shyamalan, 48, had his biggest success in 1999 with The Sixth Sense, and since then has been giving signs of creative constraints. Examples that testify what was just said are The Village, The Happening, and Lady In The Winter, all nonsense mystery movies.

In truth, the final chapter of the trilogy is also its worst part, a clunky superhero film fabricated with worn out procedures, where the thrills are so scarce or practically nonexistent that we want it to end before long. During the first 20 minutes, the director sort of promised to take us somewhere, but instead, he let it all dribble away, remaining in a fog of apathy that has absolutely no pay off in the end.

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Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and James McAvoy reprise their roles from the previous installments as the indestructible vigilante David Dunn, the murderous mastermind Elijah Price, and the multi-personality criminal Kevin Wendell Crumb, respectively. All three are locked in a mental hospital and defied by an ambitious and skeptical young psychiatrist, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who undertakes the byzantine task of proving that they are just ‘normal’ people, totally devoid of superpowers.

Problems with this film: the ideas simply don’t breathe, the narrative is more viscous than fluid, the dialogue is stiff, the connections are simplistic and amateurish, and the performances have no room to shine. The fact of the manner is that the film is so anti-climax and preposterous that not even the action scenes with The Beast succeeded in capturing my attention. To summarize, Glass would need to be completely reconsidered, script-wise, and then redone from scratch.

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Triple Frontier (2019)

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Direction: J.C. Chandor
Country: USA

Triple Frontier, the fourth feature from director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call; All is Lost; The Most Violent Year), is a bi-lingual action thriller that could have been much more interesting with less patterned behaviors. Co-written by Chandor and Mark Goal (mostly known by the invaluable contributions to Kathryn Bigelow’s films, including The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) from a story by the latter, the film is configured with some conscious twists, which doesn’t erase the trouble in the head of five retired first-class soldiers brought to life by Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal. The decent cast, with the exception of Affleck, who couldn't persuade me with his weak performance, was powerless to overcome some debilitations of a canny script.

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Five aimless former Special Forces operatives decide to embark on an illegal, self-prepared mission to bring down a powerful South American warlord and steal his millions. After doing it, they meet with the difficulties of transportation, given the absurd amount of $100 bills collected.

Mildly enjoyable, Candor’s platitude is pumped up by some good, if intermittent, thrilling scenes and the sharp duality that confronts amorality - in the face of greed - with the unselfishness that ensues redemption. Both the camerawork and the film’s pace are controlled with effectiveness, while the powerful soundtrack features Metallica, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
If you’re a fan of the heist genre, it doesn’t hurt to give this a try. If not, skip it.

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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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