Light Of My Life (2019)

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Direction: Casey Affleck
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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Skin (2019)

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Direction: Guy Nattiv
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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Rafiki (2019)

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Direction: Winuri Kahiu
Country: Kenya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Wolf's Call (2019)

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Direction: Antonin Baudry
Country: France

The Wolf’s Call is a competent French high-tech thriller that belongs to the submarine subgenre. Written and directed by Abel Lanzac under the pseudonym Antonin Baudry, the film builds a curious premise with a statement by Aristotle: “the human beings come in three kinds: the living, the dead, and those who go to sea”.

François Civil stars as Chanteraide, an expert in underwater acoustics, who, unexpectedly, becomes the key element to avoid a nuclear war with the Russians. Even if this sensitive man doesn’t work so well under pressure, occasionally letting the nerves take care of his mind, his immediate superiors, Grandchamp (Reda Kateb) and D’Orsi (Omar Sy), are aware of how valuable his ears can be.

Due to precipitate acts of hostility, a world crisis erupts and the already shady enemy becomes invisible, forcing the French Navy to fight their own submarines to avoid a global catastrophe. Later on, is the ALFOST (Mathieu Kassovitz), a French acronym for Admiral commanding the Strategic Oceanic Force, that has no other option rather than trust Chanteraide in order to free him from the imbroglio he created himself.

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Whereas the underwater scenes are nail-biting, fueled with both oppression and tension, the scenes ashore are a drag, emotion-wise. Lanzac could have been less lenient in giving shape to the main character as well as introducing a redundant romance, which only serves to attenuate the excitement. Nevertheless, the overall balance is positive, thanks to the competent sound design by Randy Thom (Wild at Heart; The Revenant) and a cast that responded well to the challenges of making this chaotic scenario a realistic experience.

Far from blowing my mind, The Wolf’s Call does what it needs to do, and surprises, in some ways.

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The Mustang (2019)

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Direction: Laure De Clermont-Tonnerre
Country: USA

Laure De Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut The Mustang is a drama with backbone but also with plenty of familiarities. Anchored by Matthias Schoenaerts’s sober performance, the film tells the story of Roman Coleman, an inmate, emotionally destructed by a crime committed within his own family. He finds redemption through an outdoor rehabilitation program that encompasses the training of wild, free-roaming horses, which will posteriorly be sold to the public in auctions. Clermont-Tonnerre, who co-wrote with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock, got the idea from the real rehabilitation program that exists in Carson, Nevada.

As he attempts to tame a horse as wild as he is, Coleman finds a valid opportunity to forgive himself, regaining confidence and easing the grief that has been consuming him for 12 years. This fact also allows him to reconnect with his daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon), who is expecting a child. He accomplishes the mission with the help of Henry (Jason Mitchell), a fellow convict who happens to be the best horse trainer in the facility, and under the guidance of Myles (Bruce Dern), a rancher who, despite sarcastic, believes in his capacities. On the other side, there’s the vicious Dan (Josh Stewart), Coleman’s cellmate, who gives everybody a hard time.

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The film is not devoid of weaknesses, presenting episodes whose repercussions are overlooked and then forgotten - the conflict with Dan is a blatant example. Simplistic, predictable, and visually unimpressive, the well-intentioned The Mustang discloses some aspects the majority of us don’t know about American prisons. However, it not only lacks genuine emotional force in several scenes but also structural stability to fully succeed.

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

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Direction: Joe Talbot
Country: USA

Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is not merely a movie about a young black man desperately trying to react to a difficult situation - he is just another victim of the massive gentrification that affects the big cities - but also about San Francisco’s own tough experience. The plot is partly based on the true circumstances experienced by former homeless Jimmie Fails, who stars as himself alongside Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, and Jamal Trulove. Fails and Talbot, who are childhood friends, co-wrote the script.

Even after losing the beautiful Victorian house where he grew up, Jimmie keeps going there to make small outside repairs without authorization. Naturally, this invasion makes the new owners upset. His obsession is reinforced by the fact that it was his grandfather who built that house, but now, Fillmore is a targeted district for the greedy real-estate predators. When he realizes that the owners just moved out, he and his best friend, Mont (Majors), dabble into an illicit task: recreate the home’s interior as it was before. At the same time, he tries to make acquaintance with his new neighbors as well as reconnect with his cold father, James Sr. (Rob Morgan), who sells pirated movies to keep his single-room-occupancy building, and estranged mother (played by Jimmie's real mother), with whom he fortuitously crossed paths during a bus ride.

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The film’s pace is a bit lifeless and its emotional peak, which coincides with a private theater session at the house, fails to create an impact, with the scene being pushed to an overdramatic sphere. Apart from this manipulative scenario, the film is sprinkled with small details and decisive peculiarities that help to elevate the quality of its storytelling. The result is slender but still piercing, and brighter images, lovely photographed by Adam Newport-Berra, cannot conceal the depressive state this man lives in.

With minor twists, The Last Black Man in San Francisco doesn’t equal the relatable Blindspotting in vibrancy, but it should be seen for the urgency of its theme and tribute to friendship.

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Los Silencios (2019)

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Direction: Beatriz Seigner
Country: Brazil / Colombia / France

Los Silencios, the sophomore feature film by Brazilian writer/director Beatriz Seigner, is a conscious refugee tale and a saddened look into war, loss, forgiveness, and relocation, all wrapped in political package.

The occurrences take place in an interesting milieu, a tiny swamped Amazonian island located at the border of Brazil, Colombia and Peru, which doesn’t really belong to any of these countries. Amparo Gomez (Marleyda Soto) had been living in San Martín, in the interior of Colombia, with her guerrilla-supporter husband, Adão (Enrique Diaz), and their two children, the effusive Fabio (Adolfo Savilvino), 9, and the speechless Nuria (María Paula Tabares Peña), 12.

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After her husband went missing in the battle against the oppressive Colombian paramilitary, she was threatened to death and ultimately resolved to flee to the cited island, where aunt Abuelita (Doña Albina), is waiting for them. The latter puts a word in her favor to the president of the island (Heider Sanchez) since she dwells there for 20 years. However, he is more interested in making business with greedy rich men than sheltering another refugee. The islanders are furious because the government wants them to sell their houses for a very low price in order to build a casino and a resort. Whether in big cities or small towns, this is a recurrent situation that keeps contaminating our society. The story increases the enigmatic tones when Adão arrives on the island. Is he real or a ghost?

Despite occasionally veiled with haziness and bringing no nuance to the lukewarm ambiance, the film is observant, compassionate, and holds up the longer you analyze it. The blend of gritty, sad realism and otherworldly connection has proved substantial.

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The Emperor of Paris (2019)

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Direction: Jean-François Richet
Country: France

After successful collaborations with Vincent Cassel in the two-part biographical crime film Mesrine (2008) as well as in the comedy One Wild Moment (2015), French helmer Jean-François Richet re-teams up with the actor in The Emperor of Paris, a Napoleonic adventure he co-wrote with Éric Besnard. If the director’s previous effort, Blood Father (2016), showed his ability and predilection for the crime thriller genre, this new incursion into France’s 19th-century history offers him alternative resources to explore brutal action scenes and the mundane quests for power.

Here, he sketches a satisfactory portrait of François Vidocq, a renowned criminal and eternal escapee turned private detective. In clear terms, Vidocq (Cassel) exults with the victories but also cries his losses in silence, including his beloved lover, Annete (Freya Mavor). In all cases, he keeps faithful to the principle of always working alone, something that the ambitious Nathanael de Wenger (August Diehl), a former prison mate whose main purpose is to conquer the ‘streets’ of Paris, doesn’t accept willingly. While he becomes Vidocq’s worst enemy, the central character is coerced to join the police and undermine the underground world in exchange for freedom. Even loving the shadows a bit too much, he is given the choice to work for his country. Can he do it?

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Treasons, unexpected alliances, cold assassinations, and dynamic fights are spices used in a recipe overcooked with a histrionic score and that sort of overworked production that may drive some viewers away. Nevertheless, the tonally consistent handle of the script and Cassel’s ardent performance make it moderately arresting and fairly watchable.

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Never Look Away (2018)

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Direction: Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck
Country: Gerrmany

The new film from German filmmaker Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck, who showed capable of the best with The Lives of Others (2006) and the worst with The Tourist (2010), brings together Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, and Paula Beer in an epic post-war drama mounted with solid production values, melodramatic brush strokes, and archetypal storytelling. Despite the crowd-pleasing schemes commonly associated with this type of film, Koch gives us some good reasons to keep seated in our chairs and watch it.

The story follows the romance between Kurt Barnet (Schilling), a struggling painting student artistically tied up to the dominant socialist realism of the time, and Ellie Seebrand (Beer), the daughter of a savvy, if unscrupulous, gynecologist and a proud member of the SS medical corps, Professor Carl Seebrand (Koch). It had been the latter who, in 1937 in Dresden, marked Kurt’s mentally-ill aunt, Elizabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl), to be annihilated.

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Kurt is admitted in a liberal art school in Dusseldorf but keeps being haunted by memories of a never-to-be-forgotten past. There, he will find an incomparable opportunity to speak with his own voice and build a real life with Ellie. But none of that can be achieved without sacrifice and tolerance, especially with his obnoxious father-in-law in control of their lives.

Donnersmarck drew inspiration from visual artist Gerhard Richter. This is a grand story, yet perhaps too lustrously depicted to work in full. I was never bored, though.

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Non-Fiction (2019)

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Direction: Olivier Assayas
Country: France

French auteur Olivier Assayas, an important figure in the European contemporary cinema since the ‘90s, tells a conversational modern-day tale, slightly inspired by Eric Rohmer's The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque (1993) and containing some pertinent observations about hypocrisy in the art world - the emphasis is on literature and cinema - and the effects of the ever-evolving technology. Non-Fiction stars a talented ensemble cast with Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne, and Nora Hamzawi embarking on extensive dialogues that oscillate between well-rounded and routine.

Canet’s Alain Danielson is an ambitious Parisian publisher totally immersed in the digital development of literature. His wife, Selena (Binoche), is a successful TV actress who complains about being a hostage of her profession. While the husband is sexually involved with Laure (Christa Théret), his freewheeling young assistant, the wife maintains a long-standing affair with the struggling writer Leonard Spiegel (Macaigne), who prefers chaos to authority and stutters every time a journalist makes him uncomfortable questions about his books.

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The latter almost never agrees with his busy, often insensible wife, Valerie (Hamzawi), but they have fun together, nurturing their relationship with enthusiastic discussions about art, politics, and Leonard’s real-life-inspired writings. Valerie works for David, a left-wing political candidate, whose transparency becomes blurred after a sex scandal. In order to spice things up, Alain refuses to publish Leonard’s new work, considering it repetitive and boring.

Loaded with multiple discussions and personal opinions, the film sometimes lacks some sort of empathic envelope, playing the extramarital affairs as enhancers for tension. However, it finishes much better than it starts, gradually creating a lived-in sense of roominess to expose the world of the characters.

Shot in 16 mm, this Assayas’ satisfying yet unremarkable effort is not as strong as The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) or Personal Shopper (2016), but becomes exquisitely affecting in its final third. Non-Fiction’s main strength is perhaps the non-judgmental posture together with the acceptance of life, with all its complex phases, as it is. Yet, I felt this was the type of story that Truffaut would make look charmingly witty, whereas Chabrol would turn into a pseudo-thriller.

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Styx (2019)

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Direction: Wolfgang Fischer
Country: Germany / Austria

In Greek mythology, Styx is a deity and a river that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld. You won’t find a deity or a river in Austrian Wolfgang Fischer’s sophomore film, but the immense sea and an unforgettable, shocking discovery that will forever mark the life of an adventurous woman sailor.

The experienced, hands-on 40-year-old doctor Rike (Susanne Wolff) resolves to abandon the stress of emergency medical night shifts in Gibraltar to embark on a solo sailing trip to the small tropical island of Ascension. She learned about the place's artificial jungle from a book by Charles Darwin. Expecting to find some sort of paradise on Earth, it’s hell that appears in front of her, not due to a storm that after a certain time shook her yacht with violence, but when she faces the sad reality of a fishing boat overloaded with dehydrated, famished, and sick African refugees. Several attempts to ask for help were made via radio and all she got was a voice saying: “back up and don’t intervene”. That’s when Rike envisions a risky scheme to force the authorities to get involved and do their job.

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The monstrosity of letting debilitated people dying in the sea is disgusting. This is just an episode amidst many that show the cruelty of the world we’re living in. Should some lives matter more than others?

Fischer puts you right in the middle of the action, infusing tension and anguish with a story that demonstrates the complacency of developed countries in the face of painful realities lived by human beings in other parts of the world.

The film has been compared to J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost, yet Rike felt powerless and helpless rather than really lost at sea and with her life in danger. The ending didn’t exceed expectations, but this was a piercingly realistic cinematic experience based on an outrageous true story.

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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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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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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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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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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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Long Day's Journey Into Night (2019)

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Direction: Bi Gan
Country: China / France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Clergy (2018)

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Direction: Wojciech Smarzowski
Country: Poland

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

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

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

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

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