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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At Eternity's Gate (2018)

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Direction: Julian Schnabel
Country: USA / UK / other

Julian Schnabel’s proclivity for biographical dramas about renowned artists - Basquiat (1996) renders the street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; Before The Night Falls (2000), the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas; and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby - is not so surprising if you think he is a painter himself, one who marked the Neo-expressionism artistic movement in the late 70s and 80s. However, his directorial effort have not always produce favorable outcomes, which is now the case of At Eternity’s Gate, a personal depiction of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh during his last years in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, France, where he died at the age 37.

Even with Willem Dafoe deeply committed to his performance, the film doesn’t deliver the goods properly as it misses a consistent dramatization of the tormented artist. Less dragging scenes in nature together with a more expeditious storytelling that could facilitate emotions, would have been worked in its interest.

Van Gogh’s vulnerability feels exasperating while his dialogue with fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), an incompatible soul both in temperament and artistic style, was always monotonously oversimplified in tone and content.

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While the piano score is fatiguing, the cinematography of the French Benoit Delhomme guarantees a beautiful light at every shot, occasional blurring the frames to give them the aspect of an impressionistic canvas.

Even when addressing the painter’s mental illness, obsession, and anxiety, Schnabel struggled to do away with certain apathy. The film then succumbs to its own torpid developments and the indifference only abandoned me during a brief conversation between the painter and a priest (Mads Mikkelsen), a scene with a sharper dialogue and aggrandized by close-ups. At Eternity's Gate is a superfluous biopic and a tedious experience slightly elevated by Dafoe’s acting efforts.

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Climax (2019)

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Direction: Gaspar Noé
Country: France

Provocative French-Argentine helmer Gaspar Noé continues to show an alarming inability to write interesting or intelligent stories. Like in other previous polemic moves such as Irreversible (2002) and Love (2015), the only goal in Climax is to unconditionally shock, no matter how. Hence, this time he gathered a group of professional dancers, coming from different backgrounds, to rehearse in an abandoned school and embark on a party turned into unplanned LSD trip that quickly falls out of control. Be aware that this diabolical nightmare can upset sensitive stomachs and induce severe aches in weak heads. It’s all very artsy, though.

The necessity to call attention to himself starts right away when the final credits are exhibited at the beginning of the film, a prank that complies with the unnatural developments that come next. Human decadence and degradation are portrayed with the assistance of a palette drenched in super saturated colors, potentiating the hallucinatory vibes induced by images and music. Up in the first place, the protracted dancing scenes are just there to distract us. They are time-consuming, giving us some time to prepare ourselves for the repulsive avalanche of happenings that serve Noé’s darkest pleasures.

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The plot is shallow, assembled with no curves ahead. It’s an abhorrent cocktail of cruelty, violence, paranoia, sadism, unbridled libido, racism, abortion, sexism, suicide, hysteria, and incest. There is a vague allusion to a flag connected to a sect and regular black screens with pseudo-illuminating thoughts like: ‘life is a collective impossibility’ or ‘death is an extraordinary experience’. Genius!

The positive aspects of the film are limited to the eclectic soundtrack and the intrepid camerawork, suffused with oblique and high-angle shots as well as spinning movements meant to daze and confuse.

Insidiously vicious, Climax requires patience, a resistant stomach, an all-embracing sense of humor to deal with the nonsense, and lots of tolerance toward its intellectual emptiness.

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Vice (2018)

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Direction: Adam McKay
Country: USA

Unfolding like a documentary, but adapted to the dynamic style of director Adam McKay (The Big Short), Vice tells the true story of former US vice-president Dick Cheney, whose quietness couldn't dissimulate a maniacal thirst for power. Encouraged by his controlling and super ambitious wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), Dick became one of the most powerful and shadowy leaders in American history. The character gains an interesting dimension thanks to Christian Bale (American Hustle; American Psycho; The Machinist), who put a lot of effort - he gained 40 pounds for this role - in another glorious appearance.

Structuring the film in a bold way, McKay uses a fictional narrator, an ex-war vet named Kurt (Jesse Plemons), who connects to the main character in an unthinkable way. This was sort of amusing during the first quarter of the film, especially since he puts forth some mordant lines. However, as the story advances, the facts become serious and the jokes lose their purpose. McKay showed indecision about which kind of tone to infuse, the critically informative or the inconsistently satirical. He simply didn’t give up any of them.

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After the introductory part, the story winds back to 1963, making us aware of Dick’s alcoholic problem when young, a deciding factor that hampered him from graduating at Yale. However, under the protective wing of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and following his own opportunistic instincts, he gradually becomes an influential political figure in several Republican administrations, working with presidents Nixon, Ford, and George W. Bush. It was with the latter in command, between 2001 and 2009, that he took hold of the vice-presidency, enjoying unprecedented power in a position that is usually more figurative than active.

Even moderately bored with the adopted tones and unable to find real tension throughout, I never lost interest in knowing more about this calculating man, who, among health problems, sees his gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) fall out. In fact, and after thinking for a bit, I found these people uninteresting in all their cynicism. McKay captures everything at an accelerated pace and doesn’t miss an opportunity to play with the viewer. He even mounted a fake ending with credits and everything, just to make the film proceed a minute after.

Vice informs galore as it attempts to make the humoresque narrative work in its favor. It doesn’t always succeed and the scenes lack the heebie-jeebies that make political dramas triumph. For these reasons, mixed feelings arise whenever it comes to my mind.

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Shoplifters (2018)

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Direction: Hirokazu Koreeda
Country: Japan

The imposing filmography of Japanese Hirokazu Koreeda just became richer with the addition of Shoplifters, an intelligent, fully formed piece of cinema conceived with as much filmic art as emotional insight. The family topic is recurrent in Koreeda’s explorations, with dramas such as Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), Our Little Sister (2015), and Like Father Like Son (2013) being very much recommended. It was precisely the latter film that inspired the director to write Shoplifters, based on the question ‘what makes a family?’

Set in the suburbs of Tokyo, the story follows a quirky family struggling with poverty during the peak of the Japanese recession. The father, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), hates to work in the freezing cold and spends time with his son Shota (Jyo Kairi), instructing him safe techniques to shoplift goods in small grocery stores. Shota is not his real son; he was taken from a car at a very young age. Osamu and his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), a laundry employee, say they saved him from negligent parents. The family lives under the roof of a goodhearted elder woman, Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki), who, additionally, helps them financially via her late husband’s pension. Rounding out the group of misfits is Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), a club hostess who is very close to Hatsue.

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The limiting economical factor doesn't refrain Osuamu and Nobuyo from ‘adopting’ Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a little neighbor girl psychologically traumatized by abusive parents. Without notice, their happiness is suddenly at risk due to several agents. The girl’s disappearance is somehow reported on the TV; Hatsue dies suddenly right after the couple becomes jobless; and Shota starts to inquire in his head about what’s wrong and what’s right.

Stressing family bonds, Koreeda expands his realistic vision, procuring a dichotomy that is equally complex and questionable. Genuine moments of rapture and love found within the improvised family oppose to the stressful atmosphere the kids are subjected in their real parents’ households. In the case of Shota, the uncertainty about his real past and family persist after the credits roll.

Beautifully shot and brimming with precious humane details, the film is always gentle in tone. Nothing surprising here since Koreeda is a creative storyteller that doesn’t need to make a fuss to clearly bring his point of view. The strong social consciousness elevates a story that kind of disturbs in its final phase by exposing some shocking dark secrets. This near masterpiece made me think for long periods of time, meaning that its message and purpose were conveyed with a glorious sense of accomplishment.

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Western (2018)

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Direction: Valeska Grisebach
Country: Germany

Blending work-related issues with personal quests, German writer/director Valeska Grisebach (Longing) has in Western, her best film. You can think of it as if the proletarian realism of Ken Loach had fused with the culture clashes depicted by Jacques Audiard. The film title is a suitable epigram, playing with the east-west differences and with the western genre through the semblance and the actions of its main character.

The quiet Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is a German construction worker who accepts joining a specialized crew, headed by the antagonistic Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), to build a hydroelectric plant in a small rural Bulgarian village, next to the border with Greek border. He soon clarifies his boss about his intentions: he’s there only for the money.

Taking advantage of the reduced working flow - there’s no water on the site to be mixed with the cement and a 40-ton shipment of gravel was stolen - he sets out to the village mounted on an old white horse he borrowed without permission. When the conflict was expected, Reinhard surprises us by gaining the trust of the suspicious villagers. His comfortable posture and friendly manners were able to beat the barrier of communication. Thus, he was more than welcome to be part of this small Bulgarian family.

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The horse owner, Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), becomes a close buddy, appointing him as his personal bodyguard. This happened after Meinhard had mentioned to some residents he fought in Afghanistan and Africa as a legionnaire. However, a number of unexpected incidents, involving both locals and his own crew, will mar his staying with glumness.

The story takes its time to develop and requires patience at every languid turn, but once you let yourself be enveloped by its mood, it’s all rewards. Neumann does an impressive work here, embracing his first role with natural ease and assuming great part of the responsibility in making of the tale a grounded and sincere experience. On the other hand, Grisebach is an intelligent storyteller, showing to have a meticulous eye for detail. The realistically filmed Western dissects its male characters, digging into their souls and revealing a human perspective that, even suggesting a vast array of emotions, never hand them on a plate. Actually, it feels great having to search for them.

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Happy New Year Colin Burstead (2018)

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Direction: Ben Wheatley
Country: UK

Ben Wheatley is known for his subversive wittiness and distinct filmmaking style, aspects that earned him not just general acclaim but also some cult status with works such as Sightseers (2013), High-Rise (2016), and A Field in England (2014). His new film, Happy New Year Colin Burstead is nothing we haven’t seen before, depicting one of those nerve-wracking family reunions with equivalent portions of love and hate. Despite the familiarity of the tone and the slightly fussy dynamics, it still punches some impactful hooks through moderately uncomfortable situations.

During the first minutes, Colin Burstead (Neil Maskell) occupies the center of the stage, as he welcomes his relatives to a luxurious country manor he rented to celebrate New Year's Eve. As you are probably picturing in your head, the film includes a bunch of peculiar characters that, moved by assorted conflicts and disputes, take the party in unplanned directions. The principal focus of tension here is Colin’s brother, David (Sam Riley), who arrives from Berlin with his German girlfriend Hannah (Alexandra Maria Lara). Invited in secret by his naive sister Gini (Hayley Squires), David finds his brother and parents, Sandy (Doon Mackichan) and Gordon (Bill Paterson), still disgusted with the fact that he carelessly abandoned wife and children to embrace a new life in Germany.

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If the pugnacious Colin argues with his father about financial predicaments, David charms his mother by playing on the piano a sentimental song he wrote for her. It’s nothing but a game of power, where everyone claims attention. The coolest figure is uncle Bertie (Charles Dance), an eccentric who dresses in woman’s clothes and nurtures a genuine tenderness for everyone. He was the only one that made me laugh.

Commanding a handheld camera, Wheatley orchestrated this comedy with delirium-free, improvised-like routines that bring it closer to the experimental genre. Moreover, he consolidated his script with additional material by the cast. Some of the film’s passages struggle with unevenness and the watching is more relaxed and fluid after the sometimes arduous task of identifying who is who.

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Mug (2018)

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Direction: Malgorzata Szumowska
Country: Poland

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

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

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

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

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

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A Twelve-Year Night (2018)

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Direction: Alvaro Brechner
Country: Uruguay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

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Direction: Marielle Heller
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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

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Araby (2018)

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Direction: João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa
Country: Brazil

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

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

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

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

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

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Suspiria (2018)

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Direction: Luca Guadagnino
Country: Italy / USA

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

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

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

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

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

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Green Book (2018)

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Direction: Peter Farrelly
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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