John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)

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Direction: Chad Stahelski
Country: USA

Thrilling, enigmatic, and impeccably shot, the third entry in the John Wick neo-noir saga is not for the fainthearted, standing above the mediocrity that keeps enveloping the action-thriller genre. Under stuntman Chad Stahelski’s sure-handed directorial style, Keanu Reeves embraces the title character with no smiles in a hectic performance at the physical level, but pretty relaxed in terms of lines.

Even though his life now worths $14 million, the ‘excommunicado' and former assassin John Wick manages to escape his avid hunters with the precious help of a bunch of old pals. While Wick runs desperately throughout the streets of Manhattan, experiencing uncanny encounters and trying to evade fierce opponents, the ones who helped him are severely punished by the obscure, authoritarian council of high-level crime lords called the High Table, here almost fully represented by The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), a powerful female figure committed to track him down. She relies on Zero (Mark Dacascos), a relentless Japanese assassin hired to bring him down.

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However, through his valuable underground contacts, Wick reaches Casablanca, where he re-encounters a former colleague, Sofia (Halle Berry returns in big). She prudently accepts to help him find The Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), the only man above The High Table that can set him free, but not without a little revenge to settle their sore past.

Violent images filled with shooting rampages, knife-throwing disarrays, and spectacular chases combine with flawlessly choreographed physical fights, rather provoking and entertaining than actually disturbing.

With a terrific score fitting hand-in-glove with the noir imagery and a top-notch supporting cast elevating this chapter into a fairly good position, Parabellum surprises with a mix of comic book angst and tricky escapism.

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Wobble Palace (2019)

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Direction: Eugene Kotlyarenko
Country: USA

Starting promisingly, Wobble Palace combines post-mumblecore comedy and millennial romance but turns out more pathetic than astute. The film is slightly provocative, though, albeit the mind-numbness you may experience with the sexual rites and erotic fantasies of the one-dimensional leads. Even inevitably chuckling in the most ridiculous situations, I can’t pronounce it a funny experience.

The clear, crisp cinematography of Sean Price Williams (Alex Ross Perry and Safdie Brothers’s regular choice) became the most substantial aspect of a pretentiously artsy comedy written, starred, and directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko. In his fifth feature, he plays Eugene, a funny-haired native of Russia who lives in Los Angeles and goes through an experiential, still on-going breakup process with his girlfriend Jane, played by co-writer Dasha Nekrasova.

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While Eugene invites several women to the cute apartment he still shares with Jane, the latter actually starts something apparently more serious with her friend Ravi Gupta (Vishwam Velandy), a wealthy Indian guy and Trump-supporter with whom she has a strong chemistry. However, this trial phase goes awry for both of them and out-and-out separation seems the unavoidable next step.

The spirit and looks of the independent cinema are on display. Still, the plot is too flimsy and unconcerned, climaxing with a boring and despondent Halloween party where it’s hard to distinguish between what is meant to be funny. With a little more thought and less gaudy scenes, the film could have found a better outcome. Nevertheless, Wobble Palace is just an unorthodox trinket providing very limited enjoyment.

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Rocketman (2019)

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Direction: Dexter Fletcher
Country: UK/USA/Canada

Rocketman offers a trippy musical account of the early days of British pop singer/composer Elton John. It was passionately choreographed and flamboyantly directed from a script by Lee Hall (War Horse; Billy Elliot), becoming an agreeable surprise. Even more so, when we bear in mind that its director, Dexter Fletcher, was directly involved in Bohemian Rhapsody, where the life of Queen’s Freddie Mercury was not so fun to watch, revealing problems about historical accuracy and in its technical execution.

In the first scene, we see a wasted, emotionally devastated Elton John entering a group therapy session dressed in an exuberant winged costume to affirm: ‘my name is Elton Hercules John and I’m an alcoholic’. He also admits to have problems with drugs and anger management, but the film really never explores in that direction. Fletcher makes it fascinatingly canny with risk-taking scenes that simultaneously inform and entertain without resorting to any sort of cheap sentimentality or manipulation. In addition to that, he needed an amazing performance for the film to succeed and he gets it from Taron Egerton, who enlivened the character almost to perfection with his acting skills.

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Sir John’s indelible songs were pretexts for unabashed choreographies and a small amount of uncontemplated surrealism, advantageously employed in key moments of the story. It was done smartly and briefly with no exaggeration. The period and milieu are also nicely depicted, while relationships with lyricist friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and abusive music manager and lover John Reid (Richard Madden) were never insipid. However, some scenes depicting the interaction with his cold, indifferent father (Steven Mackintosh) could have been more diligent and, perhaps, less formal in order to not clash with the strategy adopted for the rest. Moreover, the anger management mentioned in the beginning of the film was a mirage, being completely wiped out from the script.

Pompous in the presentation, Rocketman is not perfect, but had enough nerve to show Elton John flying during a performance at Los Angeles’ venue The Troubadour. He didn’t need any plumed pair of wings for that.

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Booksmart (2019)

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Direction: Olivia Wilde
Country: USA

Teenage agitation and frantic ethos are back in this delicious coming-of-age comedy from actress Olivia Wilde, who excels in her directorial debut. Booksmart is the product of a jointly creative work authored by four female writers: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman. Unfolding at a hyperactive pace, this highly entertaining film also serves as a showcase for Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever’s acting capabilities.

After learning about their unpopularity among their school peers, two hugely smart graduating high school students and best friends, Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever), resolve to demonstrate the world that they are not one-dimensional A+ people and that brains are just a little part of their tremendously interesting selves. Consequently, they will do the impossible to stand out at Nick’s end-of-the-year party, but before reaching there, bizarre occurrences make the night impudently eventful due to the company of the eccentric Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and the frenzied Gigi (Billie Lourd).

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Expect a drug trip that ends up in obscene doll-related hallucinations, a first-time lesbian sex experience with disastrous results, a serious argument and subsequent poignant reconciliation, an emotional goodbye, and even a funny conversation promptly delivered in Chinese at their most convenience. Everything looks cute with the deft handling of script and camera by Ms. Wilde, whose directorial career starts auspiciously.

At once rebellious and charmer, Booksmart also displays strong technical aspects, including an effective soundtrack with an inclination for hip-hop. Actor/comedian Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay (Vice; The Big Short) were summoned as executive producers, while the casting by Allison Jones (Lady Bird) is brilliant. Without the hypocrisy of its genre-related competitors, this is a refreshing teen movie that bounces with energy and tangy dialogue.

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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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Glass (2019)

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Direction: M. Night Shyamalan
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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Triple Frontier (2019)

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Direction: J.C. Chandor
Country: USA

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

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

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

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Shazam! (2019)

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Direction: David F. Sandberg
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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Dragged Across Concrete (2019)

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Direction: S. Craig Zahler
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At Eternity's Gate (2018)

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Direction: Julian Schnabel
Country: USA / UK / other

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

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

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

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

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

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Vice (2018)

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Direction: Adam McKay
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

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Direction: Marielle Heller
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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

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Suspiria (2018)

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Direction: Luca Guadagnino
Country: Italy / USA

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

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

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

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

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

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Blaze (2018)

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Direction: Ethan Hawke
Country: USA

Better known as an actor, Ethan Hawke decided not to star in Blaze, a film he directed and co-wrote about the American country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. Hawke may not make all perfect choices in this well-intended adaptation of Blaze’s ex-wife memoir, particularly in terms of duration and dynamics. However, he succeeds in enveloping the viewer with that same digressive sarcasm and melancholic torpor that got the musician, an alcohol-drenched, ZZ Top-like bearded man who died at the young age of 39. He once affirmed: “I don’t want to be a star. I want to be a legend". Real-life musician Ben Dickey played the character adeptly, in what was his first acting role.

On the gnarling inaugural scene, probably the most vivid of the film, a wasted Blaze and his junkie friend, the folk singer Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton), drive a studio manager crazy. Blaze’s story, then unfolds as Van Zandt and Zee (Josh Hamilton), another musician, give an interview about the former's latest album.

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The flashbacks, filtered with yellowish monochromatic warmth, show the ups and downs of the long relationship with his supportive Jewish lover, Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), who would become his wife. After enduring disenchantment associated with Blaze’s drinking problem, she was forced to move on, leaving him in a pitiful state of decadence, playing songs about his life experiences for indifferent people in small, nearly empty southern pubs.

Capturing the emotional subterfuges of an artist you’ve probably never heard of, the film never felt less than thoroughly lived-in by a cast that was permanently in the care of making this small work a bigger achievement. It’s a lengthy, inebriating, and casually funny experience that didn’t fall into the usual traps of biographical films.

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Wildlife (2018)

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Directed by Paul Dano
Country: USA

Actor Paul Dano, best known for his roles in Love & Mercy and There Will Be Blood, has in Wildlife his directorial debut. Dano co-wrote the script with Zoe Kazan based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, directing an excellent cast composed of Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, and Ed Oxenbould. They are the Brinsons, a family living in Great Falls, Montana, in 1960.

Fired without a cause and feeling aimless, Jerry Brandon (Gyllenhaal) temporarily leaves his wife, Jeanette (Mulligan), and 14-year-old son Joe (Oxenbould) in order to join a group of firemen assembled to battle a wildfire that keeps consuming the nearby mountains, close to the Canadian border. Although this is an honorable and brave decision, it comes at a time when his family most needs him. Financial difficulties force both mother and son to find part-time jobs while the inflexible Jerry is decided to risk his life for a miserable salary.

With no news about her husband and mad at him due to his selfishness, Jeanette embarks on a bared romance with Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a middle-aged ex-veteran who thrives in the car business. She doesn’t love him, but he could provide the stability she and her son have been seeking for so long. How does Joe cope with this situation? Well, there’s a traumatic dinner at the man’s house and some unexpected visits that accurately elucidate about his emotional state. Will Jerry be able to mend things up when he returns or it will be even worse?

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Compellingly written and acted, Wildlife is a mature drama about a crumbling marriage and the emotional struggle of a sensitive teenager who just aspires to see his parents together. On many occasions, he acts like the adult person who needs to put a stop in his parents’ uncontrolled impetus.

This closely observed family portrait, a study of loss and trauma, comes in tones of pervasive sadness. The fully shaped characters convey innate veracity, making us plunge headfirst into their afflictions, hopes, and frustrations. In particular, it is Mulligan who excels from start to finish.
Advancing quietly but in an assured way, Wildlife is heartbreaking.

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First Reformed (2018)

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Directed by Paul Schrader
Country: USA

The challenges of faith are demonstrated with intense anguish in Paul Schrader's First Reformed, a psychologically disturbing drama film that tells the story of Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke). His insufferable life is like purgatory.

It’s a slow-moving yet incredibly arresting chronicle of a somber journey undertaken by the pastor of the first reformed historical church of Snowbridge, which, in the cusp of its 250th anniversary, is practically transformed in a touristy souvenir shop. However, this is the least of the concerns of Toller, whose deep crisis of faith is related to the loss of his only son in Iraq. Besides bearing the guilt of having encouraged him to enlist, the solitary 46-year-old minister is aching all over with both physical and spiritual pain. This is something that could easily take him to a tenebrous state of mental obfuscation. Drinking whiskey doesn’t help with the infirmity, and things only get worse after Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant parishioner, asks him to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), a tormented, hopeless environmentalist.

After Michael’s suicide, the reverend gets closer to Mary. Yet, his suffering is even more excruciating and all the disheartenment makes him another forlorn man. Will she be able to bring him some light and make him change the dire plans he has been preparing for?

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Schrader’s confident filmmaking encompasses both restfully imaginary and painfully earthly scenes, with the film’s climax coinciding with an ambiguous finale meant to be pondered and discussed after the credits roll. The maturity and rigor bestowed by the script don’t surprise me either. After all, he was the one who penned Taxi Driver and adapted Raging Bull to be directed by Martin Scorsese.

Brooding in tone and sincerely acted, First Reformed succeeds on the strength of its complex theme, not only examining the hardships of faith but also alerting for the gradual decay of our planet. This is Schrader’s best film since Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and one of 2018's highlights.

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The Sisters Brothers (2018)

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Directed by Jacques Audiard
Country: USA / France / other

This is a gratifying adaptation of Patrick deWitt's novel by French director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet; Rust and Bone; Deephan), who commands an excellent cast with John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in the leading roles, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed as credible supporting actors. In his first English-language film, Audiard, who co-wrote the script with regular associate Thomas Bidegain, provides quite a bit fun as he depicts sequential reverses in the life of two criminal brothers, Charlie (Phoenix) and Eli Sisters (Reilly). The occurrences are incidental to a ravenous gold rush that starts in 1851 Oregon and ends in San Francisco.

While the younger brother, Charlie, is dangerously impulsive - he drinks and kills with equivalent zest, Eli is tired of being an assassin on the run. He actually lives to cover his brother’s misconducts. Both work for the Commodore (Rutger Hauer), a harmful man who assigned them to fetch Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed), a gold prospector and chemist who developed a secret formula to extract gold from rivers. Also in his tail is John Morris (Gyllenhaal), a patient detective with an intellectual posture, whose mission is befriending him before giving him away to the brothers. The plans change after Warm and Morris become true friends, which leads the former to make an irresistible proposition to the brothers. They promptly accept, also agreeing to part ways after this job. However, the unreliable Charlie puts everyone in danger after a terrible lapse. The ending is a pure nostalgic pleasure.

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With salient dark humor popping out from time to time and a great score by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water; Argo; The King’s Speech), The Sisters Brothers provides proper entertainment even when things become a bit out of control. The strong performances by the leads help to shape curious characters with strong personalities, and Audiard plunges into the Western genre with conviction and panache, offering reasonably more than just the essential. It may be a passive film at times, but never exhausting.

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Private Life (2018)

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Directed by Tamara Jenkins
Country: USA

I struggled with mixed feelings after watching Private Life, Tamara Jenkins’ third feature (Slums of Beverly Hills; The Savages) about a middle-aged married couple in a desperate quest for a child. When regular fertility treatments don’t seem to be a solution for their problem, Richard (Paul Giamatti), 47, and owner of a theater company, and Rachel Grimes (Kathryn Hahn), a respected playwright, turn their focus to one last possible solution before going for adoption: In Vitro Fertilization.

After the initial reluctance, the procedure becomes a vital factor to refine the meaning of their marriage and goal as a family, but for this, they need an egg donor. As a consequence of frustrating online scams, their choice couldn’t fall on someone more problematic than Sadie (Kayli Carter), their young niece who is going through an emotional crisis. How will her parents, Cynthia (Molly Shannon) and Charlie (John Carroll Lynch), react to the idea?

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Even granting that the smart script was matched by assuring performances, the repetition of the idea and static tone made me moderately disinterested as I got more and more disentangled from the characters’ obsession. There’s a vein of seriousness and poignancy, which Jenkins attempts to balance with awkwardly comedic moves. She also portrays the characters’ complexities with no exaggeration and that becomes the reason why the film wobbles but doesn’t disintegrate.

It’s a grown-up, patient look at infertility that, even enchanting here and there, misses that little spark that leads to the heart.

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Tyrel (2018)

Directed by Sebastian Silva
Country: USA

Tyrel is a totally missed shot by Chilean director Sebastián Silva, whose past releases alternate between the delightful (The Maid; Crystal Fairy) and the mediocre (Magic Magic; Nasty Baby).

We’re living complicated times where racial tensions keep escalating and symptoms of fear, anxiety, and violence are visibly abundant. Aware of all this, Silva wrote a plot that is conceptually logic and unequivocal, a sort of counterpoint to Jordan Peele’s Get Out that would likely lure more adepts if less diffuse in the message and more consistent in tone.

Jason Mitchell is Tyler, an African American young man who willingly joins his good friend John (Christopher Abbott) in an all-men weekend party in the Catskill Mountains. This opportunity will give him a break from certain family problems that have been bothering him lately.

The house where they’re going to stay, owned by John’s Argentine friend Nico (Nicolas Arze), suddenly becomes jammed with a bunch of peculiar white dudes he doesn’t know. While some of the guys are nice, like Alan (Michael Cera) or Max (executive producer Max Borne), others are somewhat provocative in their behavior, cases of Peter (Caleb Landry Jones) and Dylan (Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum). Frivolous conversation leads to silly games; alcohol leads to weed; everything starts rolling at a fast pace. Despite of a Trump doll hang in the living room and ready to be wrecked by torture, Tyrel becomes notably uncomfortable for being the only black person in the house.

The first night was tense, yet pacific; the second, maddening wild; both were prosaically banal. In our heads, we portray all those guys as racists and sadistic bastards ready to devour Tyler just for their own amusement. But nothing ever really happens and we feel somewhat betrayed by the pointless situations created. This sense of futility and deception was magnified from the moment I noticed that, after all, movie title and main character don’t share the same name - former is Tyrel, latter is Tyler.

With our alcohol-drenched hero programmed to act in paranoia mode, the film takes us to a neighboring house, where Silvia (Ann Dowd), her saxophonist husband (Reg E. Cathey), and their kid meet an afflicted Tyler. Are they the friendly type?

There is probably more religious turmoil here than actually racial, and the story progresses with a nonsensical self-contentment without delivering a single thrill. It doesn’t take us too long to understand Silva’s idea, in the same manner that we realize that the aimless script is populated with under-written characters. Tyrel breaks at the weight of its own ambition, feeling like an undergraduate exercise in tension. Sadly, even that tension is wasted.

Madeline's Madeline (2018)

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Directed by Josephine Decker
Country: USA

Set in New York, Madeline’s Madeline is a riveting indie drama, glamorously handled by director Josephine Decker and superiorly acted by Molly Parker (Trigger), Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know; The Future), and the gifted newcomer Helena Howard.

The film dives into the very personal world of 16-year-old Madeline (Howard), a medicated mulatto who finds an escape to the turmoils of her mind in the experimental theater. Madeline has a thorny relationship with her super protective, slightly paranoid, and emotionally unstable single mother, Regina (July). Her dreams and problems at home are frequently shared with the theater troupe’s director, Evangeline (Parker), whom she entirely trusts. At least, until Madeline realizes that the play they were working on was entirely about her own life experiences.

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Combusting with a sharp focus on character, the film fiercely aims to the senses, bringing off a powerful effect through the combination of Ashley Connor’s camerawork, whose dynamic lens often gets out of focus and captures slow-mo sequences, and Caroline Shaw’s pertinent score. It provides a sort of surreal, ritualistic experience where suspense abounds.

In addition to the dreamlike tones created, which feel intriguing and disorienting, there is a furious earthly side well rooted in reality. The scene where Madeline is caught by surprise with the unexpected arrival of Regina when she was watching porn with neighbor friends or the one that illustrates physical aggression from daughter to mother are simply breathless and packed with emotional upheaval.

Madeline’s Madeline is likely the most gratifying indie movie of 2018. I definitely urge you to check it out.

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