Paterloo (2019)

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Direction: Mike Leigh
Country: UK

Mike Leigh is a wonderful director who showed all his brilliance in titles like Secrets & Lies, Another Year, Naked and Vera Drake, among others. His directorial reputation is certainly not ruined with Peterloo, a historical account that recreates the 1819 massacre of the same name, even if the film doesn’t work for most of its duration.

Sir John Saxton (John Paul Hurley), a soldier known for his great achievements but with no time for politics, is promoted to commander of the Northern District and assigned to work in Manchester with the mission to locate and identify the insurgents who keep supporting radical campaigns against the government. The English nation became divided and people demand not only a Parliamentary reform but also voting rights extension and the repeal of the Corn Laws, which is responsible for the rising of poverty. Women also gather in protest.

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Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), an excellent orator and agitator, leads the radicals and becomes a target for the government spies as he organizes a crucial meeting at St. Peter’s Field. Other outstanding reformists are John Bagguley (Nico Mirallegro), an 18-year-old machinist with a penchant for powerful speeches, and the passionate Samuel Bramford (Neil Bell), who spearheads a group of supporters from Middleton but gets disappointed with the impossibility to speak publicly. Local magistrates trust the Manchester Yeomanry, a volunteer armed regiment, to put an end in the meeting and arrest Hunt, but the operation ended in a brutal attack against the vehement yet peaceful laboring-class protesters as well as innocent people, including women and children.

I classify this period chamber piece as a long, drawn-out journey in which every scene is overextended far beyond the interest of its content. Every radical phrase deserves a time-consuming cheer, which is despairing sometimes. The visual presentation is lyrical and luminous, impeccably controlled by the cinematographer Dick Pope, whose frames resemble Realist paintings. However, the dialogues, speeches, and ideas repeat to the point of making the progression of the film a burden. This is the type of film where no one in the cast really stands out, while Leigh’s linear narrative wasn’t particularly attractive this time.

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High Life (2019)

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Direction: Claire Denis
Country: UK / France / USA

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

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

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

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

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

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Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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Direction: Bryan Singer
Country: UK / USA

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

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

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

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

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

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The Little Stranger (2018)

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Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Country: UK / Ireland / France

Esteemed director Lenny Abrahamson, the architect behind noteworthy films such as Garage, Frank, and Room, directed this gothic drama film from a script by Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Waters. Impeccably acted, the film boasts Ruth Wilson, Domhnall Gleeson, and Charlotte Rampling in its cast, but it's governed with an unstable hand, developing inconsistently in pace and intensity.

Carrying something bizarre without never really scare, the story follows a country doctor, Faraday (Gleeson), who returns to the manor where he had been with his mother, a former maid, during the 1919 Empire Day party. Still vivid in his memory are some bitter instants of that day, but now he’s visiting as a doctor to treat the young maid Betty (Liv Hill), clearly influenced by disturbing episodes observed on the premises that nobody can explain. Faraday solves Betty’s problem, having the aristocratic Caroline Ayres (Wilson) calling him a wizard. He also meets her brother Roderick (Will Poulter), the disfigured owner of the manor and a traumatized Royal Air Force veteran, as well as their mother, Mrs. Ayres (Rampling), who admits with airy tones that the house works on people.

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Becoming a frequent presence in the house, Faraday, little by little, gets the fondness of the family members. On one hand, he offers to treat the psychologically fragile Roderick through an innovative process, on the other hand, he tries to conquer Caroline's heart, a laborious task. Soon, he detects a supernatural activity in the house, a virulent inhuman presence that Mrs. Ayres associates with the spirit of her deceased younger daughter, Suki.

I have to admit it was a bit shocking when Faraday’s intentions are disclosed. Yet, the reflexes of evil and struggle in the story were never sufficiently impactful to tantalize and satisfy. The romance and its wry twists provided us with the best moments of the film, whereas the ghost story remained sapless.

More inanimate than haunting, The Little Stranger is Abrahamson’s least interesting feature. Here, the ambiguity doesn’t work as a positive factor and not everyone will have the patience for a family tragedy that on several occasions felt apathetic and calculated. It should go down smoothly with fans of the genre, though.

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Lean On Pete (2018)

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Directed by Andrew Haigh
Country: UK / USA

With a still short directorial career, Andrew Haigh has presented us thought-provoking dramas filled with honesty, emotion, and intimacy. Titles such as “Weekend” (2011) and “45 Years” (2015) are referenced as gems of the contemporary British cinema.

With “Lean On Pete”, the director shifts style, totally embracing American colors and practices without losing dramatic effectiveness. It’s true that this heartfelt story centered on Charley (Charlie Plummer), a 15-year-old boy who suddenly becomes orphan and homeless, is not as striking as the cited titles, but still presents enough emotional heft to keep you alert in a long journey of searching, subsistence, and settlement.

Charlie, a motherless teenager, loves very much his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), even if he has to spend several days on his own, with very little money in his pocket and no food in his stomach. They live happily together in Portland, Oregon, but the financial situation is precarious, which compels Charley to find a job. He is given an opportunity in a horse stable, whose owner, Del (Steve Buscemi), always pays him at the end of the day. However, whereas Charley gets emotionally attached to an old horse called Lean On Pete, Del only sees it as a business. Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), the experienced jockey who rides it, advises him: “He’s not a pet. He’s just a horse.” However, Charley can’t cope with the idea of putting the horse down just because he doesn’t win races anymore unless drugged.

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One day, Ray brings a new ‘girlfriend’ home. A few days later he is brutally attacked by her husband and then taken to the hospital in a serious condition. Sadly, Charley becomes orphan, facing the possibility of going to a foster home if he doesn’t find Margy Thompson (Alison Elliott), his father’s former girlfriend, who once wanted to take him with her. Yet, he’s not willing to lose that horse without a fight either. So, he steals the horse and Del’s van and sets off on a trip where he is forced to rely on strangers to survive. Not everything goes as expected as some of the encounters turn into negative experiences.

The young Plummer acts with confidence and the character he impersonates, despite all the adversities, becomes a symbol of courage and tenacity. 
Eschewing sentimental allure, “Lean On Pete” was based on the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin. It’s a life lesson that stands above most of the coming-of-age dramas.

The Death of Stalin (2018)

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Directed by Armando Iannucci
Country: UK / other

Not all the filmmakers have the capacity of gathering sensitive political and historical material and turn it into a pleasurable satirical parody that stirs our intellect in a totally different way. With just a couple of feature-length films, Italian-born Armando Iannucci is surely one of them, asserting his gift with comedies such as “In The Loop”, and now “The Death of Stalin”, a tongue-in-cheek caricature of the post-Stalinism struggle for power. Its conception was based on the French graphic novel of the same name.

In 1953, the paranoia related to Josef Stalin's dark list consumes the nerves of common civilians, red army soldiers, and high-ranked politicians in Moscow. There are numerous arrests, tortures, and deaths, which become more and more exaggerated as they kept being ordered by the tyrant Russian leader (Adrian McLoughlin) and his feared right arm and NKVD’s head, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Rumors are that the duo has already locked up half the nation.

In order to give us an idea of how improper things work around there, the director fabricates a scene of a classical music concerto whose recording is unexpectedly required by Stalin through an unusual direct phone call. Because nobody had recorded it, the artists were forced to play the Mozart recital again while the audience was encouraged to applaud even more. However, pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), an opposer of the regime, refuses to play and had to be bribed to step on stage for the second time. 

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Following Stalin’s cerebral hemorrhage and consequent death, the main members of the Central Committee - the cynical Beria, the slippery first secretary Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi), the conspiring foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and the vain deputy general secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) get ready to fiercely dispute the leadership. Other ministers join the four vultures in a ceremonious if hilarious funeral that is further disturbed by the presence of Stalin’s drunken son, Vasily (Rupert Friend), the unwelcome yet invited ultra-orthodox bishops, and Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the authoritarian marshal of the Soviet Union who is also scheming in hopes to hold sway.

By employing a wry, British-like humor, Iannucci, who co-wrote with David Schneider and regular collaborator Ian Martin, satirizes the episodes with whirlwinds of tension and mordant tones, regardless the historical inaccuracies that his script may contemplate. 

The narrative is no slack and there’s always something happening that keeps us alert and grinning from ear to ear. As the farce moves forward, it becomes irresistibly chaotic, zany, and jocular, ingredients one should expect from this type of provocative comedy. The ensemble cast was so daredevil in their absurdist roles, and the sequence of events so wild, that the film was banned in Russia and other former members of the Soviet Union.

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La Barracuda (2017)

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Directed by Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin
Country: UK

This newly discovered indie thriller, “La Barracuda”, stars Allison Tolman and Sophie Reid as two estranged half-sisters who get to know each other at an adult age while living under the same roof for a limited period of time. The story was an idea of Jason Cortlund, who co-directed with Julia Halperin, and this is their second feature, after the 2012 drama, “Now, Forager”.

The plot centers on two sisters who had never met until their father’s death. Besides being an alcoholic and drug addict, the singer Wayne Joseph Klein was also a liar and a cheater, at least according to his wife, Patricia (JoBeth Williams). Their daughter, Merle Klein (Tolman), lives comfortably in Austin, Texas, in the company of her helpful fiancé Raul (Luis Bordonada) and his son from a previous relationship. She maintains a steady job and now has a big inherited ranch under her supervision.

On a certain day, by the time she gets home, Merle almost becomes speechless when a British woman stationed at her door says to be her sister. Her name is Sinaloa (Reid) and she’s a singer/songwriter, just like their dad.

Reluctantly and due to Raul’s insistence, Merle invites her to stay. At first, the interaction between them seems arduous, but as the time passes, they become best friends. Meanwhile, Sinaloa borrows an old acoustic Gibson and finds some moments of glory when singing melancholic country/folk tunes at home, backed by local musicians who are also friends of the family, and at a local bar. Under different scenarios, she shows to be an honest, independent woman who resolutely exhibits a strong character. However, as the story moves forward, the cool, hippie-like attitude she first adopted gradually vanishes, unmasking a deranged personality that, until then, was concealed.

The episodes succeed one after another while these small changes in Sinaloa’s temperament occur in a very subtle way, forcing the viewers to remain in a state of alert and ambiguity. This can be either challenging or frustrating, and in my case, it was the latter option that won. The reason had much to do with the authors’ inability to build proper tension throughout. Instead, they envisioned pouring everything out, at once, in the final section.

The prolonged pre-climax, characterized by an unaltered pace and tone, took over a story whose main point of interest suddenly changed from Sinaloa, supposedly ‘designed’ to intrigue us (what was that pee in the garden?), to Merle and her emotional problems.

Even with all its weaknesses, the slow-burning “La Barracuda” evinced strong production values, which is laudable considering its low budget. In addition to the appealing cinematography by Jonathan Nastasi and some interesting focused-unfocused camera techniques, the film, which had Bruce Beresford (“Breaker Morant”, “Driving Miss Daisy”) as an executive producer, also reaps considerable benefit from the compelling performances by the pair of leading actors.

Looking and feeling like a true independent film, it was a shame that it felt so uneven and limited in thrills along the way.

Mindhorn (2017)

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Directed by Sean Foley
Country: UK

The ridiculously adventurous “Mindhorn” borrows its title from a tacky British detective whose optical eye is no more and no less than a truth-detector that permits him to capture lawbreakers with relative facility. The hero, played by the extravagant actor Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt), a true Capoeira devotee, was created for a TV show that suddenly became a massive success in the Isle of Man, where it was filmed in the late 80s.

25 years later, we find Richard in London, unemployed and infesting casting auditions and cine-studios with unconvincing demonstrations of his rusty acting capabilities. 

Unexpectedly, he returns to Douglas on the Isle of Man to embody the famous character again, but not for a film or TV series. The motive has to do with a serial killer, Paul Melly (Russell Tovey), an advocate of the Apocalypse of Justice, who demands his presence right after slaying another victim.

Escorted and protected by police officers, Richard is regarded as the secret key to catch the villain. In addition to the difficulty of actuate in a real environment pelted with real dangers and misleading cops, Richard re-encounters the old crew he left behind, including his ex-girlfriend and actress, Patricia Deville (Essie Davis), now a serious journalist married with Richard’s former stunt-man Clive Parnevik (Simon Farnaby), and also Geoffrey Moncrief (Richard McCabe), a broke public relations who lives decadently in a caravan. He also tries to reach Peter Eastman (Steve Coogan), a second-rate actor turned ostentatious businessman whose contact he should avoid.

The film, produced by Coogan and Ridley Scott, was directed by Sean Foley from a screenplay by Barratt and Farnaby, relying heavily on Barratt’s performance to convey the carefree posture and provocative attitude of the insolent, self-aggrandizing protagonist. It also features cameos from Kenneth Brannagh and Simon Callow.

Mindhorn” is an outlandish, intellectually limited experience that uses a few cheap gimmicks to entertain. Yet, it shows some nerve in the wild, if nonsensical situations depicted. It can be defined as a blend of crime parody and calamitous detective misadventure populated by weird, fabricated characters. Despite all the artful imbecility associated with it, I didn’t give my time as wasted and even discovered a few hilarities among its never static imbroglios.

The renowned American entertainment company Netflix saw its commercial viability while it was running in the UK theaters and acquired the broadcasting rights.

The Levelling (2016)

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Directed by Hope Dickson Leach
Country: UK

Somerset, England, serves as the rural backdrop for “The Levelling”, a raw indie drama set with gloomy tones and enclosing plenty of secrets to be discovered.
The film marks the directorial debut of Hope Dickson Leach, who besides writing the script, oriented the small cast with stalwart conviction, extracting the best of their qualities.

As a matter of fact, the film highly benefits from the acting skills of Ellie Kendrick, who plays Meera Reed in the popular “Game of Thrones”, and the veteran David Troughton, also a regular in television miniseries. They play Clover and Aubrey, respectively, estranged daughter and father who reunite again in difficult circumstances after many years without seeing or talking to each other.

After receiving the shocking news about her brother’s unanticipated death, Clover is forced to return to her father’s farm, which she gladly left when she was 18. Once installed, she gets disturbed with what she sees, finding not only a devastated place but also her aging father acting in a weird, almost indifferent way in regard to his son’s misfortune. 

The way Harris died is not clear and that fact drives her to search almost compulsively for something or someone that could be related to the occurrence. He blew his face off with a shotgun while celebrating with his friends the transfer of the farm to his own name. Was this a terrible accident or a desperate suicide? Cleverly, Ms. Leach structures the film in such a way that what Clover knows is exactly what the viewer knows and thus, we are able to see and learn everything through the main character’s eyes.

While the evasive Aubrey seems just concerned in having everything ready to sell the farm, Clover tries to pull out answers from James (Jack Holden), Harris’ best friend and her father’s trusting cooperator. As the time passes, the turmoil lived in the past mingles with the numerous doubts about the present, pushing Clover into a strong emotional vortex that grows wider as the revelations surface.

The Levelling” depicts the cruel side of life and confronts love and pride, family and individuality, persons and properties - all things in need of urgent leveling. It's a cheerless, violently emotional, and ultimately painful drama. 

Leach cooks it slowly, addressing guilt, compassion, repent, and resignation with sagacious human tact. Will you be able to find a culpable character?

Free Fire (2016)

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Directed by Ben Wheatley
Country: UK / France

I want to start this review by telling you how much I admire the work of British director Ben Wheatley. 
Kill List”, a bleak and violent tale released in 2011, was an auspicious directorial debut, but it was with the pitch-black comedy “Sightseers” that he really got my attention, punching me hard in the face with witty dialogues, provocative weirdness, and the unpredictability of its story. In 2013, Wheatley changed direction when he released the black-and-white art-house horror-drama “A Field in England”, which kept a stabbing sarcasm on top of the stunning visuals. “High-Rise”, a somewhat blurred adaptation of J.G Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, divided both film critics and fans. Yet, I was still fond of all its oddness.

Now, I have to point out how frustrated I am with Wheatley’s new feature “Free Fire”, a Tarantino-esque gangster-western set in the 70s Boston that doesn’t offer much more than the constant, annoying sounds of guns being fired.
The screenplay, co-written by Wheatley and his regular associate Amy Jump, lives exclusively from the shootouts between two groups involved in an arms deal. There are so many gunshots throughout the 90 minutes that the tension gets lost in the confusing, bloody sauce.

Vernon (Sharito Copley) leads the group selling the weaponry while Frank (Michael Smiley), an irritable IRA member commands the buyers. A woman named Justine (Brie Larson) was assigned to act as an intermediate and facilitate the transaction. The gangs arrive at a warehouse to proceed with the business but things get out of control when Harry (Jack Reynor) recognizes Stevo (Sam Riley), the one who had abused of his 15-year-old cousin the night before, sending her to the hospital. Tension rises exponentially, ending up in a never-ending collective shootout that is triggered after Harry sticks a bullet into Stevo’s shoulder. The warehouse is transformed into a bloody battlefield where everyone, with no exception, has the eyes put in a suitcase full of money. 

In opposition to the previous films of Wheatley, I couldn’t care less about any of the obtuse characters presented here. Stuck inside four walls and exposed to the madness of the environment, some of them cry, some laugh, some other curse or joke around in response to those who threaten with brash vocabulary and open fire. What could have been fun becomes dull while the potential points of interest rapidly vanish through inconsequent fireworks, graphic violence, and immodest poses.

The only thing left for me to do was to place my bets and wait to see who takes the money home.
Lacking charm in its depiction and cleverness in its dialogue, “Free Fire” is gratuitous fire and a thorn in Ben Wheatley’s side.

T2 Trainspotting (2016)

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Directed by Danny Boyle
Country: UK

T2 Trainspotting” is a dreary sequel of “Trainspotting”, an underground comedy drama considered by many a cinematic milestone of the 90s, which painted Scotland’s Edinburgh drug scene in a memorable and stirring way. 
The present installment, considerably less interesting than the first, revives the same protagonists 20 years after their separation. It was equally written by John Hodge, who has been working intermittently with director Danny Boyle since their first collaboration in 1994 with “Shallow Grave”.

The characters are introduced with showiness and bustle, and the charismatic Ewan McGregor, who gained his acting reputation in the 90s thanks to Boyle’s films, re-embodies Mark Renton, a former junkie who arrives in Edinburgh from Amsterdam to find the same sordid friends he cheated and stole money from.

To start, he makes amends with Spud (Ewen Bremner), a forlorn and longtime heroin addict, who was caught on the verge of committing suicide. Even upset for having been saved at the last minute, he ultimately accepts Mark’s help in order to recover from drugs and possibly return to his wife and child.
Mark also convinces Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) to pardon him after a tense encounter. The latter became addicted to cocaine and employs a sex scheme to rip-off money from the clients of the pub he owns. He does it with the collaboration of his seductive Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova).
The one who is totally unable to forgive and forget is the irascible Franco (Robert Carlyle is great), who escapes from prison and remains tough as nails regardless the age. He represents a dangerous threat for Mark and plays the villain in the story. 

Boyle retrieves the same directorial features of its source material, resorting to occasional image stillness to better reflect the emotions of the characters while in panic or experiencing violent situations. The film's moods are often drawn from hopelessness and anarchy, but a good part of the eccentricity, which worked wonders in its predecessor, feels whether fabricated or worn out. 
In truth, the inelastic plot takes an aimless direction and makes the story drag for a long period of time before landing on a pretty decent climax in its last third. This is what saves the film from further tedium, in addition to intermittent funny lines thrown in by the four aging bastards.

In a nutshell: the watchable yet somewhat sloppy “T2 Trainspotting” only sporadically entertains and we don’t feel sorry for letting it go when the ending comes. 

A Quiet Passion (2016)

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Directed by Terence Davies
Country: UK / Belgium

English writer/director Terence Davies is known for his mature, if sometimes too formal, dramas such as “House of Mirth”, “The Deep Blue Sea”, and “Sunset Song”. Regardless his remarkable aptitudes in adapting period novels and plays to the big screen, it was with a moving, intimate documentary/biography entitled “Of Time and the City” that he impressed me the most.
He’s back this year with “A Quiet Passion”, an earnest biopic about the American poet Emily Dickinson, whose life included many years spent in reclusive isolation.

The main role was given to Cynthia Nixon (mostly famous for “The Sex and the City” TV series), who played Emily in her maximum dramatic force and adaptable capabilities, while Keith Carradine, Catherine Bailey, Jennifer Ehle, and Duncan Duff are devout to the supporting roles.

Very attached to her family, Emily was condemned to be an eternal spinster who couldn’t cope with the idea of marriage, despite the transient secret infatuation with Reverend Wadsworth (Eric Loren), whose inflamed sermons easily reached her heart. The narrative assertively focuses on her unflinching ideas about family, religion, friendship, and morality, and shows her muted indignation with the publishers of the time, who used to alter the punctuation marks of her poems without her consent.

The joyful and sad moments in the poet’s life are manifestly uneven in amount since she grew lonely, bitter, and sick in the last phase of her earthly existence. Seizures became frequent and Emily chose to abandon social life by refusing to leave her room for several years.

Davies’ style was noticeable since the first frames – almost absence of music, rigorous image composition (photography is by Florian Hoffmeister), mannered and clear speech lines, and interesting use of light and shadow within the evocative settings.

Emily’s poetry is as honest as “A Quiet Passion”, another compelling move from Terence Davies and a classy entry in his refined, selected filmography.

Prevenge (2016)

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Directed by Alice Lowe
Country: UK 

Alice Lowe is a busy (five features in 2016), talented, and sympathetic British actress and poignant writer (“Sightseers”) whose name is from now on associated to film direction. Her directorial debut feature is entitled “Prevenge”, a dark comedy thriller in which she plays Ruth, a psychologically disturbed pregnant widow who decides to slit throats to calm down her anger and her baby’s. 

Her chosen victims are the ones who were involved in the climbing accident that killed her husband and she truly believes her fetus, with whom she has long conversations, is the real mastermind of the merciless, cold, and violent acts she commits.

The film is very graphical and the cinematographer, Ryan Eddleston, draws strong indie flavors from his glamorous shots. The bloody scenes are addressed as a mix of poetic veneration and careless joke, but it’s the dark humor that works best, usually extracted from the characters’ behaviors and relying on a few embarrassing situations.

The best sequences involve a lousy, selfish DJ (Tom Davis) who lives with his senile mother; an insensitive HR representative named Ella (Kate Dickie), who works alone until late and insists her company needs to do ‘harsh cuts’; and Len (Gemma Whelan), a brave woman who tackles Ruth with boxing gloves on her hands.

Lowe, whose performance is half of the film and looks great as a demented slasher, reserves us a trippy finale packed with bloodshed and urban folklore elements.
 
Simultaneously entertaining and zany, “Prevenge” is already a massive success near younger audiences.
However, it lacks the superior pitch-black tones and emotional strength of “Sightseers”, feeling somewhat puerile in its approach.

A United Kingdom (2016)

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Directed by Amma Asante
Country: UK / USA / Czech Republic

Talented British helmer and former actress, Amma Asante, is deeply focused on the racial theme, taking advantage of the overwhelming tension that envelops our world regarding this matter.

If “Belle” (2013) was a gracious period drama inspired by the 1779 Zoffany painting of Dido Belle, a mixed-race daughter of an 18th-century aristocrat, “A United Kingdom” is a forgettable romantic biopic, set in the 40s, about Sir Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), prince of the Bamangwate tribe and natural candidate to the throne of Botswana, and his factual romance with Ruth (Rosamund Pike), a common Londoner.

Disregarding every rule and sanction, the couple ended up married in London, where Seretse was finishing his studies. From then on, they embark on a persistent fight for their rights on many fronts, both in the European and African continents.
The theme is certainly strong and present, but the film lacks the narrative fluency and emotional depth to convince.

Ms. Asante’s formal filmmaking worked beautifully in “Belle”, but in the present case has the effect of standardizing a story that is short of passion and adventure. Both direction and acting are too static and apathetic, and the drama often drags itself without the essential dramatic side associated with the true facts.
The director’s next move, entitled “Where Hands Touch”, is currently in post-production and features another romance between a mixed-race German woman and an SS officer. I hope it can bring something more to the topic than just a mere report of the facts.

A United Kingdom” feels more fabricated than authentic, dawdling in predictability and producing a sedative effect. It may celebrate a real-life victory but developed into a cinematic trifle.

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

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Directed by Ken Loach
Country: UK / France / Belgium

I, Daniel Blake” is another urgent work from the brilliant British director Ken Loach. This title now becomes an integral part of the filmmaker’s mandatory ‘social realism’ film list, which also includes “Riff Raff”, “Ladybird Ladybird”, “My Name is Joe”, “Sweet Sixteen”, and “The Wind That Shakes The Barley”.

Loach bites, leaving a bubbly red mark in our consciences as he keenly addresses the social problems inherent to a technological modern world. 
The film, written by Loach’s habitual associate Paul Laverty, got wider reputation after winning the Palme D’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and the Audience Award at Locarno, Stockholm and San Sebastian Festivals.

Dave Johns is Daniel Blake, a hard-working 59-year-old joiner from Newcastle who is aware he can’t work no more after having suffered a major heart attack. Now facing a serious heart condition, Daniel needs the help of the State. However, applying for the sickness benefit program becomes a nightmare populated by frustrating phone calls, moronic obligations, and difficult form fill-outs. 
Despite facing eviction and poverty, Daniel still finds the time to help Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires), a single mother he met at the Job Centre. She has just arrived in town and struggles to feed her children.

I, Daniel Blake” is a tragic, moving, not to mention infuriating portrait of a decaying society. Its account, warmly humane on one side and embarrassingly sad on the other, has the ultimate goal of emphasizing the importance of solidarity, justice, human rights, and community support.

Loach’s raw and ultra-realistic approach, always loaded with strong messages, remains a fundamental weapon to denounce the sicknesses of our world. He doesn’t need special effects to create a powerful film. He just focuses on simple characters, which we can easily identify ourselves with, exposing their plausible problems with heart and emotion.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

Directed by Stephen Frears
Country: UK

Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Helberg give excellent performances in Stephen Frear’s biographical comedy/drama, “Florence Foster Jenkins”, which focuses on the last period of the title character's life.
Florence (Streep) is a wealthy American socialite who owns a music club in New York where she occasionally teams up with her devotee-yet-unfaithful husband, St Clair Bayfield (Grant), in a few minor shows. 
St Clair, a mediocre actor and monologist, never sleeps with his wife because she has been carrying syphilis, got from her first husband, since the age of 18. Despite spending the nights in a separate house in the company of Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), an unsecret girlfriend, St Clair does everything to please Florence, promptly attending to her most eccentric desires.

Despite the evident lack of talent, Florence’s dream is to become an opera singer. Encouraged by a vocal teacher and famous maestro, she decides to hire a pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Helberg), to accompany her in a bumpy musical journey that will bring her both laughs and tears.
Florence is not only convinced she’s ready for her debut concert, but also thinks she can reach the stardom. What she doesn’t know is that most of the people in the audience was paid to applaud, just like a few reporters were paid to write positive reviews about her jarring opera.

Excited with the critiques, the naive and good-hearted Florence decides to record and prepare herself for the next big step: to sing at the demanding Carnegie Hall. 
The embarrassed McMoon only showed up to play because of the sincere friendship he had with his employer. Like the noisy sound of a shearwater, Florence hurt our ears with her calamitous melodies but managed to fulfill her dreams, entertaining a crowd that was mostly composed of soldiers.

The experienced Stephen Frears (“The Queen”, “Philomena”), who directed from a screenplay by Nicholas Martin, built the scenes on the same ground as the early screwball comedies, avoiding cheesiness on one hand, but adopting a somewhat zany posture on the other. 
Presented with well-balanced, warm colors, “Florence Foster Jenkins”, is nothing more and nothing less than a noble crowd-pleaser that made me laugh more than I was expecting. Basically, thanks to Florence’s strident cacophony, and also to the hilarious behavior of Mr. McMoon.

Eye in the Sky (2015)

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Directed by Gavin Hood
Country: UK

Helen Mirren gives another remarkably centered performance in “Eye in the Sky”, where she plays Col. Katherine Powell, a military officer in command of an operation to capture terrorists in Kenya.

The intelligence has strong reasons to believe that a dangerous woman called Susan Helen Danford, a British citizen now radicalized by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, is hidden with her radical husband in Nairobi where they lead terrorist attacks from a well-identified house.
From the Northwood Headquarters in the UK, Powell supervises the delicate multinational mission, counting on the information provided by the American drone surveillance team that operates from Nevada, and Farah (Barkhad Abdi), a Kenyan undercover agent who is stationed in Nairobi and controls a spy insectothopter (a miniature drone with the form and size of a dragonfly) that is intended to invade the terrorists’ refuge. 
Besides confirming Danford’s identity, the drone also shows that a suicide attack is about to be carried out. This particular circumstance impels Col. Powell to modify the mission’s classification from ‘capture’ to ‘kill’.
 
After a complicated process to get clearance from her superiors, Powell proceeds with the mission, instructing the USAF pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) to advance with his Reaper drone and destroy the target.
However, Watts sees a little girl selling bread right in front of the house and refuses to obey the orders.
Negotiations begin in order to minimize collateral damage, but assuring that the terrorists don't escape. Question: Does the life of an innocent child worth more than the death of these priority targets?

Slightly better than “Good Kill”, Andrew Niccol’s 2014 drone thriller, “Eye in the Sky” is imbued of a tension that is already familiar. 
Director Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”), working from a screenplay by Guy Hibbert, seemed to have planned everything so that the ending could reach our hearts. Despite this sensation, the film succeeds by presenting two valid sides: one didactic, which shows today’s modern technology and warfare clinical procedures; and another, far more unsettling, that shows little respect for human lives.

The Ones Below (2015)

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Directed by David Farr
Country: UK

The effective thriller, “The Ones Below”, deals with two neighbor couples expecting their first child and the terrible happenings that follow the loss of a baby.

The Londoners Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore), after giving it a good thought, are going to have a child and are feeling great about it. When not working, they carefully plan every detail while moving into the upper flat of a townhouse that was divided horizontally into two.
The ones who live below are the English-Finnish Theresa (Laura Birn), and her successful husband, Jon Baker (David Morrissey). They’re living a dream since she's finally pregnant after seven years attempting to conceive.
Kate develops a strange curiosity for Theresa, who seems very sympathetic, carefree, and enjoying a stupendous phase in her marriage and life.

The women eventually become closer, but the first meeting of the couples comes draped in tragedy. Kate invites the Bakers to dinner, but the couple doesn’t seem so happy as before. Theresa shows to be unstable and drinks a few glasses of wine, despite forbidden by Jon, who in turn, adopts a judgmental posture that visibly bothers the hosts. He acts violently after Theresa falls down the steep stairs. This anguishing incident makes Theresa lose the fetus.

From this point on, the couples cut relations and the Bakers depart to Germany. They return a few months later, willing to forget what happened and ready to make amends with their neighbors. Theresa even shows availability to take care of Kate's newborn, Billy. However, abnormal behaviors and frightening occurrences put Kate and Justin alert, as the story grows creepy in its conclusions, embracing an impenetrable darkness.

Even without blowing your mind with his statement, David Farr, who co-wrote the screenplay of “Hanna” five years ago, had a favorable directorial debut. This slow-burning thriller was able to cause a good impression and got my attention from start to finish, also thanks to the consummate performances of the well-selected cast.

Sunset Song (2015)

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Directed by Terence Davies
Country: UK / Luxembourg

The name of the English filmmaker, Terence Davies, is associated with rigor and formalism, which are well patent in the strong period dramas “The House of Mirth” and “Deep Blue Sea” from 2000 and 2011, respectively. In between them, in 2008, he set out the meditative documentary “Of Time and the City”, a poetic homage to his birthplace (Liverpool), which received general critical acclaim.
With the rustic drama, “Sunset Song”, an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel of the same name, Mr. Davies’ methods don’t change and the same directorial sharpness is applied, enhanced by the outstanding production values.

The story takes place at the start of the 20th Century in North East Scotland, where the handsome and bright Chris (Agyness Deyn) calmly narrates her own story. 
Willing to become a teacher, Chris tries to study whenever she has a chance, a task that isn’t so easy due to the hard work on the farm and the unpleasant atmosphere lived at home.
Her stern father, John Guthrie (Peter Mullan), is often violent and abusive, spreading fear and anguish in the family. Usually, his main target is his older son, Will (Jack Greenlees), who can only find solace in the arms of Chris whenever he’s violently thrashed. 
Unfortunately, the siblings can’t count on their depressive mother, Jean (Daniela Nardini), who just gave birth to twins and, not long afterward, finds she’s pregnant again. Hopeless and disoriented, Jean couldn’t cope with the idea of having another child and poisons herself to death.
The vexed Will decides to abandon the house, lacking any motivation to help his father while the twins go to live with an aunt. This leaves the gracious Chris, a blossoming flower facing the disquietude of the coming-of-age, living alone with her ghastly father.

John has a stroke and ends up bedridden. Yet, he still shows his despicable character in an appalling scene just before dying. 
Is the gracious Chris finally free from hardship? The answer is yes and no.
She gets married with a hard-working young lad, Ewan Taverdale (Kevin Guthrie), and the couple lives harmoniously for a few years. However, their love faces a deep abyss when the World War I breaks out. 

Not always expeditious in terms of narrative, “Sunset Song” would have benefited if shortened, especially in those moments when a dragging melancholy takes over the story – perhaps not the perfect time to slideshow multiple picturesque Scottish landscapes. 
Mr. Davies, a lyrical observer who wasn’t totally faithful to the novel, lost impact when setting up two or three staged scenes, which maybe were the causes why I couldn’t take this story so seriously.
Michael McDonough’s splendorous cinematography and Agyness Deyn’s delightful performance are the wild cards that prevent this drama from becoming narrower.

High-Rise (2015)

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Directed by Ben Wheatley
Country: UK / other

As an unconditional admirer of Ben Wheatley’s work, I must admit I was expecting slightly more from “High-Rise”, an impractical adaptation of J.G Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name. However, I'm not disappointed either because I enjoyed the bizarre, lustful, surreal, and psychedelic tones that the film has to offer, in addition to a mordant humor, which is already a staple in Mr. Wheatley’s projects (“Sightseers”, “A Field in England”).

Set in a dystopian near future that is evocative of the 70’s, the film stars Tom Hiddleston in the mesmerizing role of Dr. Robert Laing, an unceremonious physiologist who is more than happy to move into a monumental apartment building where the social class of a person determines in which floor they live. There, he meets a bunch of curious characters, starting with the voluptuous Charlotte (Sienna Miller) who lives right above him and was telling Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a failed documentarian who lives on an upper floor, that he’s not her type.
Wilder is married to the extremely fertile, Helen (Elisabeth Moss), who is pregnant again and spends her time making parties for kids. 
Laing is invited to different kinds of parties, in which he tries to learn how the things work there, including one of the highest and consequently fanciest floor where the architect of the building, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives an agitated life with his wife. Royal likes Laing but this particular party wasn’t a so positive experience for the latter.

The building, portrayed as a trap, offers everything its tenants might desire except mental sanity. There’s a swimming pool, a supermarket, sports fields, and a gym. Every character brings a bit of mystery to the story since we have the notion there’s something hidden and waiting to be disclosed.

The delirious “High-Rise”, suffused with infidelities, whims, parties, and brawls, is a strong social satire that interlinks the bourgeois status (with all its privileges) and moral decadence.
The oppressive air comes to us through satisfying portions of irony and edgy irreverence, in a stylistic effort that you can think of something close to Franz Kafka meets Peter Greenaway. Also, the dashing visuals and musical score were highly influential in our general perception. 
Not everyone will be pleased with a freewheeling story that features a group of dysfunctional characters inhabiting a dysfunctional building. Nevertheless, Mr. Wheatley, who shows a curious inclination for slow-motion scenes, and the screenwriter Amy Jump, did the impossible. Even faulty here and there, the film pays off.