First Man (2018)


Directed by Damien Chazelle
Country: USA

First Man”, Damien Chazelle’s biographical drama film about the first man on the moon, is a must-see for its irrefutable dramatic quality and insightful account of the events before and after the launch of the spaceflight Apollo 11. Chazelle, whose short career holds “Whiplash” and “La La Land” as major achievements, worked from an effective screenplay by Josh Singer (“Spotlight”, “The Post”) and guides a fabulous pair of natural actors: Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. The former is Neil Armstrong, the modest astronaut who would become a world-wide celebrity and national hero in 1969, and the latter is Janet Shearon, Armstrong’s wife, who plays a crucial role in the emotional side of the story. Steven Spielberg joined the film’s crew as an executive producer.

The film starts off with a thrilling landing on the Mojave Desert in 1961, when Armstrong’s X-15 rocket is pulled out of the atmosphere due to a ‘distraction’. At this time, the pilot lives in distress due to his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who undergoes treatment for brain tumor. Despite being extremely cold in behavior, Armstrong sheds a river of tears when his beloved daughter dies. As a way to fight the grief, he applies to the Project Gemini, an advanced spatial program that aims to beat the Soviets in the race to the moon. He is accepted and moves with his family to Houston, Texas, where he befriends other astronauts and respective families.


It’s nothing less than brave that, although seeing other colleagues dying in accidents provoked by multiple failures, the resilient Armstrong has never hesitated when it comes to accomplishing such an important expedition. After a few technical setbacks, which he handles with both responsibility and dexterity, Armstrong finally lands his spacecraft and walks on the lunar surface. An exciting section of the movie indeed.

Nicely paced, the film focus on the sacrifices made for the sake of the human progress, including the ones related to Armstrong’s family. In one of the best scenes of the film, Janet forces her husband to have a serious conversation with their sons. He must explain to them that he is going away on a dangerous trip and might not come back. If Gosling’s performance is formidably low-key, then Foy’s is pure perfection, bringing the emotional stimulus to keep us wired.

The magnificent score by Justin Hurwitz enhances the floating sensations of a different gravitational acceleration and combines in perfection with Lindus Sandgren’s detailed cinematography. Chazelle smartly avoided any type of artifice in the imagery as well as sentimentality in the drama. Hence, expect lucid space images and not fabricated spectacles, as well as emotions that feel humanely grounded and powerfully mature. “First Man” means a first-rate experience.


Blindspotting (2018)


Directed by Carlos López Estrada
Country: USA

Blindspotting” spawned a new up-and-coming star: the Oakland-born 36-year-old actor/writer/rapper Daveed Diggs, who co-wrote with Rafael Casal, a childhood friend in real life and also a promising actor. Carlos López Estrada’s feature debut is a convincing statement with its epicenter in the Californian city of Oakland.

In an unremitting quest for authenticity, the film follows three eventful days during the probation period conceded to African American Collin Hodgkins (Diggs). On his first day, he witnesses a white cop shooting a black man in the back, after a crazy night out in the company of his turbulent friend Miles (Casal).

Collin retrieves his former job in the moving company where he used to work, teaming up with Miles once again. This way, both become indirectly connected to the gentrification that keeps affecting Oakland at full force. The shooting scene remains vivid in his head and he soon finds out the identity of the civilian who was assassinated, leaving a three-year-old daughter. It’s haunting and uncomfortable. On the last day, he and Miles have a violent fight in a party, with the latter recklessly brandishing a gun in an uncontrolled act of fury. The following scenes are genuinely emotional.


Fear and disappointment dominate this section of the film, but more thrilling surprises are on the way. The writers tried to compensate the edginess of some situations with, unfortunately infrequent, hilarious moments. One of them occurs when the friends decide to make some extra money with the sale of hair straighteners, ending up being used as guinea pigs for the product they were advertising.

Blindspotting”, a straightforward fusion between “8 Mile” and “Fruitvale Station”, is a powerful encounter of hip-hop music - somewhat displaced and too calculated here - and the racial complications that keep saddening America and the world.


The Naturally Wanton Pleasure of Skin (2018)


Directed by Renée Beaulieu
Country: Canada

It’s widely known that every person’s skin reacts differently to touch, pressure, temperature, levels of stress, and several other external factors. But what the main character of “The Naturally Wanton Pleasure of Skin” tries to understand is how disparately the skin cells react to love and desire in a close linkage of dermatology and sexuality. For that, Marie-Claire (Brigitte Poupart), a down-to-earth, well-established scientist and university teacher, uses her own body and several male guinea pigs in what she calls ‘experiments’. These include sexual intercourse, which she practices without any preconception or guilt, despite being happily married and mother of two.

In truth, Marie-Claire is a pleasure-seeker, who uses her ongoing research as an excuse to feed intense carnal appetites. Soon, it became an addiction. So, it’s not uncommon to see her embarking on a wild sexual activity with a complete stranger; a fellow scientist, Alexandre (Normand D'Amour), head of her department; or even a literature doctorate, Emile (Pierre Kwenders), who is 20 years younger and makes sure to attend her classes. Men simply love her type: carefree, independent, unpossessive, wanton.

Adam (Vincent Leclerc), her husband, is often traveling and had agreed to an open relationship, but things go astray when she casually opens up about her secret life. Gradually, her fully open smile is swallowed by preoccupation, to which further contributes the delicate situation of her vulnerable 14-year-old daughter, Katou (Romane Denis). It’s not that Marie-Claire doesn’t care for her. She’s just tremendously inattentive, being too immersed in her thing. When the situation is barely out of hand, is her mother - another hedonist - and her volatile, depressed, and eternal unsatisfied best friend, Mathilde (Nathalie Cavezzali), who stand on her side.


The complexities rendered by Renée Beaulieu in her second feature drama do not always succeed, but, as a character study, the film poses some interesting points of view regarding family and happiness, love and desire, as well as men and women with their commonly associated roles of predators and victims, respectively.

The reappearance of mechanical procedures and an invariable tone in each human contact may difficult the viewer’s engagement, limiting the curiosity about this woman’s behavior. Nevertheless, things improve a bit in the second half, when the affective facet overcomes the libidinous.

One of the strongest aspects of the film, in addition to Poupart’s performance, is the score by David Thomas, whose mixture of ominous textures, expert beats, and occasional ethereal chants, compensate the prosaic sex scenes with sync commitment.


Tully (2018)


Directed by Jason Reitman
Country: USA

In Jason Reitman’s slow-burning “Tully”, Charlize Theron plays Marlo, an exhausted mother of three who goes through a middle-age crisis related to her most recent conception. Moreover, her quirky son Jonah needs a one-to-one aid but the school doesn’t pay for that service and the complaints about him seem to increase every day. Depressed and overwhelmed, her life changes for the better when her brother Craig (Mark Duplass) gets her an efficient if weird night nanny. Her name is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), an extravagant creature that soon forges an atypical bond with her employer, which can be either reparative or destructive. 

All of a sudden, Marlo is calmer, less stressed and confident. She even hangs out with Tully in her old neighborhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn; and weirder than that, she deviates her from the regular tasks to sexually stimulate her husband Drew (Ron Livingston), who has a fetish for women in 1950s diner waitress uniforms. 


The night they go out starts with an amusing drive at the sound of Cindy Lauper, but becomes severely toxic when they arrive at an underground club and the drunk Marlo jumps in sync with clangorous heavy-metal rhythms and then endures pain due to engorged breasts. However, that pain was infinitesimal when compared to the afflicting news that Tully is quitting. 

This time, Reitman’s first-call writer Diablo Cody, who successfully penned “Juno” and “Young Adult”, couldn't guarantee him a favorable outcome. Playing with the tricks of the mind, “Tully” feels more contrived than astute, having the skilled group of actors working hard to avoid further damage. 


Upgrade (2018)


Directed by Leigh Whannell
Country: Australia

The first interesting film by the Australian-born actor turned director Leigh Whannell is “Upgrade”, an effective dark blend of action, sci-fi, and horror that may be too moody for everyone’s taste.

The story revolves around Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a chip-controlled mechanic that seeks revenge in the sequence of a mugging that left him quadriplegic and killed his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo). After an unsuccessful attempt of suicide, Trace accepts the help of an opaque tech expert named Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), who implants a highly-developed artificial intelligence chip in his spine. STEM, the chip, makes him physically active again but also controls his mind and talks to him (Simon Maiden’s voice) by sending sound waves directly to his eardrum. However, he needs the host’s permission to act as a brute force against those who destroyed his life.

Along the way, he gets rid of Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel), a suspicious mind who doesn’t cease to stalk him; has Jamie (Kai Bradley), a savvy hacker, rebooting his dying system; and hunts down the evil upgrader Fisk (Benedict Hardie).


The well-told “Upgrade” maintains the dystopian vibrancy until the end, compensating the less vivid moments with a subtle dark humor that fits hand in glove.

With Marshall-Green in top form, expect violent scenes throughout and rip-roaring disclosures, strategically left for the final section.


Hostiles (2018)


Directed by Scott Cooper
Country: USA

Scott Cooper launched his directorial career with a powerful drama, “Crazy Heart”, but since then has gradually lost élan. If his crime thrillers: the fictional “Out of the Furnace” and the biographic “Black Mass”, still carry some sagacity, then he stumbles heavily with “Hostiles”, a sloppy Western based on a promising story by Donald E. Stewart that, cinematically speaking, barely stands on its feet.

Christian Bale spearheads a cast that also includes Rosamund Pike as a grievous widower whose soul burns with a deep rage after having lost her family in an Indian ambush. However, they were incapable to elevate the film above mediocrity.


Protracted, deficiently paced, and lugubrious, “Hostiles” eludes the viewer with limited action and redundant scenes that disclaim any favorable outcome of a well-intentioned cooperation between a merciless US Cavalry Captain (Bale) and a captive Cheyenne Chief  (Wes Studi, a Cherokee actor from Oklahoma) and his family. The enemies are the savage Comanches, whose sudden attacks become the only source of excitement. 

Unfortunately, and despite the strong appeal to tolerance between races, the insouciant, inept ways of Cooper make us despair throughout a journey into the West that, feeling as tiresome as it is shallow, could never be considered inviting.


The Fever and The Fret (2018)


Directed by Cath Gulick
Country: USA

Bolstered by an impactful score and stern black-and-white images, "The Fever and the Fret" is a low-budget art-house drama whose viewing can become utterly painful due to its heavy story. However, I found it completely engrossing as we keep crossing the thin line that separates the real from the surreal.

Cath Gulick’s debut feature centers on the Bronx dweller Eleanor Mendoza (Adelina Amosco), a depressive 14-year-old student of Asian descent with two large birthmarks on her face, who is a constant victim of bullying at school. Her grandmother (Shirley Cuyugan O'Brien), with whom she lives with, has to remind her every morning about going to school, a very difficult step to the teenager, who prefers to work at the restaurant of her cousin Alex (Rod Rodriquez) for three or four dollars an hour than have to confront her obnoxious colleagues. Is Alex who supports her, and the pressure of still being a virgin impels her to make a first sexual move in his direction.

This troubling reality is mistily expanded by the weird dreams that assault Eleanor whenever she gazes at her intriguing artistic paintings. Her grandmother frequently sees her work as a representation of the outer space. Contrasting with the rest of the film, these oneiric sequences are presented in color and always begin with two mountains placed next to each other with the sky filling the remaining spots of the frame. 


The inclusion of gracious gestural movements opposes to the affliction of laboring alone, whereas the sight of a newborn evolves to the happiness of having a child in her arms. The power of the mind always brings pictorial tranquil landscapes where the water is abundant. In her dreams, she also enjoys the company of a look-alike, who exhibits identical strange birthmarks as she does. This fantastic Malickian complexity is exciting, mirroring some of Eleanor’s desires but also the lack of her self-esteem. They are the sad consequence of a lamentable emotional desolation that, persisting for years, is driving her dangerously close to madness.

After another incident with Carly (Vanessa Carmona), a spiteful girl who torments her at school, Eleanor is arrested under the charges of assault, truancy, possession of an illegal weapon, solicitation of sex, and threatening to burn the school down. No images confirm the accusations, and no images deny it, but this time around, not even her teacher and protector, Miss Gutierrez (Kathleen Changho), seems to be on her side. Everything gets as much blurred for us as for the miserably lonely Eleanor, who doesn’t remember anything that day and pushes her grandmother to an existential crisis.

Ms. Gulick, who aims well at both the traumatic extremity and the tricks of a disturbed mind, uses magnified close-ups to redouble the terrible sensation of pain her protagonist keeps enduring. Conversely, Carly is flawless in conveying falsehood and malice. In addition to some terrific urban shots, the director elegantly stages an absorbing court session that ends the film with a strong grip on reality. I suspect this dark, immersive, and disturbing exercise is just the beginning of a beautiful filmmaking career.


Scary Mother (2018)


Directed by Ana Urushadze
Country: Georgia / Estonia

I found agreeably surprising this disturbing opus orchestrated by Georgian filmmaker Ana Urushadze. “Scary Mother”, her auspicious feature debut, is not a horror film but could definitely have been. Instead, Ms. Urushadze devises a tense psychological drama film, addressing trauma, repression, male domination, and mental nebulosity in a controlled way.

The story, set in Tbilisi, follows Manana (Nato Murvanidze), an undisclosed yet genial middle-aged writer who lives with her husband and children in an old apartment building, which, despite looking like an old pre-war factory from the outside, offers all the comfort in its interior.

Manana owns a sublime imagination, being capable to create astonishing tales that effectively combine the fantastic and the obscene. They are the consequence of dark, destructive, and sanguinary ideas, which she writes on her arm in maniacal impulses, a strange habit that comes from her loveless childhood. The character is so delirious, insecure, and cryptic, that our interest is incessantly turned to her.

The only person she trusts to share her novel is Nukri (Ramaz Ioseliani), a stationery shop owner who lives across the street. As a literary critic and editor, he eagerly pins for publishing her work since he’s quite sure to have a masterpiece in hands. However, this intention is thwarted by Anri (Dimitri Tatishvili), Manana’s intolerant husband, who gets embarrassed with her filthy, cheap pornography, as he likes to describe it. Exceedingly censor in regard to her looks, Anri constantly mentions carelessness in his wife’s behavior to make her feel terrible.

At the time she had to choose between writing and family, the traumatized Manana visited her father, Jarji (Avtandil Makharadze), an estranged, insensitive translator who never loved her. To make things worse, the hallucinatory attacks assault her more often, and we find her ‘reading’ the tiles of her shower with impressive descriptive precision. In urgent need of a new environment to write and gain mental stability, she moves into Nukri’s and an unprecedented love scene is memorably depicted.

Usurping most of the screen time, Ms. Murvanidze proved to be a great fit for the role, winning the Asia Pacific Screen Award for best performance by an actress. I wish her ‘madness’ were taken to those extremes where we would be able to address “Scary Mother” as a creepy film.

Even with fear encircling the story, I had the feeling that the director, besides clarifying the obscurity with a too descriptive finale, could have gone deeper in the real/imaginary duality. Still, her work comes filled with uncanniness and several neurotic moments boosted by Konstantin Esadze’s glowing cinematography and Nika Pasuri’s eerie score.

Modern Life Is Rubbish (2018)


Directed by Daniel Jerome Gill
Country: UK

Debutant director Daniel Jerome Gill snatched the title from Blur's second album of originals, “Modern Life Is Rubbish”, but, unlike the British rock band, was unable to find the originality to elevate this romantic comedy to higher standards. The film, an expansion of his 2009 short film of the same name, was written by Philip Gawthorne and stars Josh Whitehouse and Freya Mavor as a romantic couple whose uncontrollable passion for Blur’s music reinforced their mutual attraction for ten years.

Liam (Whitehouse) is a London vocalist/guitarist and songwriter who struggles to take his rock trio, Head Cleaner, to the place they deserve. Natalie (Mavor) is a sympathetic graphic designer who loves CD covers, sharing the same musical tastes of her boyfriend. 
Sounds awesome, right? Yet, the film doesn’t kick off with a happy couple. The first minutes show how painful a separation can be, and how different a man and a woman react to the situation. While Liam keeps simulating indifference, the visibly upset Natalie literally shed tears out of frustration and disappointment. This is all about priorities in life. More mature, she wants to raise a family, progress in her career, and have a comfortable life, willing to make sacrifices now for a better future. In turn, he has no idea of what’s going on, panics with the idea of a regular job, and blames the society for all his impasses and failures.

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Things get out of hand when Liam appears drunk in the gallery where Natalie had been assigned for a presentation, jeopardizing her work. Tactless and petulant, the musician amuses himself in a furious yet stagy scene that leads to the rupture.

Embracing a dull nostalgia, the good moments of the past are reconstructed through several flashbacks, which emerge surrounded by the light glare of Tim Sidell’s cinematography and a few decent indie rock songs, two positive aspects of the film.

As for the rest, everything remains unimaginative, unfunny, and formulaic, in an absurd attempt to compensate the tedious musical part with the insipid romance and vice-versa. It’s a groundless, vicious cycle aggravated by monotonous lines and clichéd postures. Not even the experienced Ian Hart (“Liam”, “Michael Collins”, “Backbeat”), as the band’s stylish yet demanding manager, could prevent this song from playing wrong jarring chords.


The Wound (2017)


Directed by John Trengrove
Country: South Africa

South African filmmaker John Trengrove received rave reviews at Sundance and Berlin with his debut feature “The Wound”. The capable drama, beautifully photographed by Paul Ozgur and set in the rural mountains of the Eastern Cape, South Africa, focuses on the Xhosa initiation ritual, which consists of traditional circumcision and initiation into manhood of teenage boys under the guidance of their respective caregivers. According to sources, ‘what happens on the mountain stays on the mountain’.

The plot, co-written by Trengrove, Malusi Bengu, and Thando Mgqolozana, centers on a conflicting love triangle involving a city boy, the initiate Kwanza (Niza Jay Ncoyini), who was dragged by his father in hopes to get him tougher, his caregiver, Xolani (Nakhane Touré), and the latter’s childhood friend and secret lover, Vija (Bongile Mantsai), also an experienced caregiver.


Xolani is in love with Vija, who, every year, during the initiation process, gets sexually involved with him but without paying much attention to his feelings. The astute Kwanza, easily perceiving the forbidden relationship between the two men, defies the Xhosa ways with his rebelliousness. Besides seducing the hypocrite Vija and criticizing Xolani due to his lack of acceptance and closed homosexuality, Kwanza also refuses to speak up in front of the elders, which is a mandatory module to be followed. The threesome embarks on a tense dance that quickly adjusts from bitter to tragic.

The Wound” is a singular sexual film whose dramatic force is undeniable. Culturally informative, the film stirred controversy when the crew and cast were subjected to death threats and violence after the film’s premiere in the East Cape province.

Trengrove, whose career was leaning toward the TV, delivers an auspicious, revelatory first feature that has all the ingredients to make you alert from start to finish. An agile camerawork, dexterous storytelling, and competent performances helped define the psychological conflicts of the characters in a film that never oscillates in tone while unveiling hidden aspects of a closeted practice.


The Endless (2018)


Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Country: USA

Trendy directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (“Resolution”, “Spring”) return to their trippy hallucinations deeply connected to enigmatic cults and sinister characters. However, their induced fear of the unknown, otherworldly paranoia and suicide fascination simply don’t convince me.

Both filmmakers star as two brothers who, not happy with their turbulent childhood in the UFO death cult, from where they escaped ten years before, decide to return to find the closure they need. Allured by a cryptic video message they step into the secluded Camp Arcadia, which holds unexplainable forces and secrets. Reconnection with old pals brings some good memories from the past, which can't prevent them from becoming trapped both in grueling time loops and dangerous beliefs that pose clearly a threat to their lives.

While Aaron seems happy with the experience, mostly because of Anna (Callie Hernandez), to whom he has always been attracted, Justin is not particularly convinced about the benefits of the faction. For him, the camp is not just bonfires, family ties, and good food. The people there are really bizarre, with Shitty Carl (James Jordan) probably being the most intriguing one since he strides like a deranged, has a restless look, and screams like a possessed man. The young manipulative leader, Hal (Tate Ellington), is the one whose tranquility seems unshakeable. However, his sweet talk wouldn't fool a kid.


Drowned in old videotapes, supernatural puzzles, and magic tricks, “The Endless” is pure hypocrisy. The strangest sensation I had while watching the film was that Benson and Moorhead were tricking the viewers, precisely like the cults do when preaching some crazy ideology. Apparently, they have been successful, but I’m glad I didn’t follow the flock in this illusory worship of a cinematic artifice.
With more estrangement than any astute twist, the film becomes linked to “Resolution” when the action is taken to the woods. Still, its turnarounds were more like dumbly existential and painfully dragging than anything else.


A Quiet Place (2018)


Directed by John Krasinski
Country: USA

A Quiet Place” is the boldest work of American actor-turned-director John Krasinski, who abandons the redundancy of minor comedy dramas such as “The Hollars” and “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” to embark on a post-apocalyptic horror thriller that will make you breathless throughout.

That’s because the story, written with visionary élan by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, tells us about a family - father (John Krasinski), mother (Emily Blunt), son (Noah Jupe), and deaf daughter (Millicent Simmonds) - that has to live noiseless in the countryside to avoid extermination by alien creatures with a hypersensitive auditory ability. Years before, one of those horrifying monsters, which can switch from idle to attack mode in seconds, had killed the couple’s younger son, a situation that not only created much grief in the family but also an obstinate guilt in his conscious sister. However, the couple still dances with headphones at the sound of Neil Young’s breezy songs because they were blessed with a new pregnancy. Although happiness and hope are installed in the house, the situation has much to think about and requires planning not to let the baby put everyone in danger when crying. A bunker, a small wooden box, and an oxygen mask are the key elements of their strategy. Moreover, mom has to be silent during labor, which is another motive to amplify anxiety.

Because the film is 99% wordless, the level of exigency required from the actors is mostly related to conveying everything via actions and expression. The characters use gestural language to communicate, only breaking this rule when behind a waterfall, where the noise is natural and they can remain undetected.


I see this film as a game of the senses, a conviction bolstered by the fact that the creatures are blind and the little girl is deaf. Her father insists she has to wear her an aiding ear, even broken. Who knows when it may start working again? 

An old man who prepares to commit suicide after his wife’s execution is the only human to be found. Ironically, he just has to scream and… voilà! Despite these happenings, we are not told about what happened before or where the creatures came from. That vagueness, together with the silences and the power of the images, takes the horror to another level, simply because you’re dealing with the unknown.
In a couple of scenes, I wanted to start screaming out loud, like if I would alleviate the characters’ oppressive pain. Yet, that would have spoiled the film. Silence is imperative if you want to completely absorb the mood, even when Marco Beltrami’s ominous score is present to inflict further intimidation.
Regardless some minor quibbles here and there, “A Quiet Place” is original, atmospheric, tragic, and thrilling.


You Were Never Really Here (2018)


Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Country: USA / other

The dramas of Glasgow-born filmmaker Lynne Ramsay always have something special in addition to its rawness. So far, her short filmography comprehends four features, equal parts heavy and memorable, with the prevailing themes of youth, misfit, family, guilt, and grief. Even if her filmmaking skills and idiosyncratic style were pulsating with life in "Ratcatcher" and "Morvern Callar", her first two works, it was with the disturbing "We Need To Talk About Kevin" that she earned a massive recognition. Now, she returns in big with "You Were Never Really Here", a sunless thriller that exquisitely blends corrosive tension and morbid humor to create gripping scenes of alienation and redemption.

Ms. Ramsay, who wrote the script based on the short story of the same name by Jonathan Ames, summoned Joaquin Phoenix, who, in top form, impersonates an enigmatic, violent, and lethal hitman whose favorite weapon is no pistol nor knife but a ball-peen hammer. Heavily traumatized by an abusive father and a merciless military service, the bearded Joe is very reliable when it comes to ‘wipe out’ a man. After each job, he always goes back to his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), with whom he lives in New York City.


In a new assignment, he vouches to free Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the teenage daughter of an important NY Senator, who was abducted to work in a dirty sex business in which major politicians are involved. The operation is dangerous and Joe is perfectly aware it can cost him friends and family, however, he’s not a give-up type guy. With some madness in his eyes and facing each setback with a disarming calmness, the tenacious hitman finds in Nina the force he needs to accomplish the mission and inflict the deserved punishment on the child abusers. 

Immersive and intriguing, the film develops with the tones of a neo-noir but ultimately glows with hope in the end. Even painful when imagined, the violence was never too explicit or extremist, making this revenge tale much more accessible than the intense shockers "Blue Ruin" and "Cold in July", which could easily upset your stomach. At least, the clouded Joe fights for some justice.

Even eschewing plot excesses, Ramsay wouldn’t be so successful without the arresting cinematography by Tom Townend, the brilliant score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and the unblemished editing by Joe Bini. They worked well together so that the packaging could look great while thrillingly grim moods were captured through a lens darkly. On another plan, Phoenix makes you enjoy every moment of his sinister role with a quiet assurance.


Those Who Are Fine (2018)

Directed by Cyril Schäublin
Country: Switzerland

Cyril Schäublin’s feature debut, “Those Who Are Fine”, renders a scam story involving elderly women as preys in today’s Internet world. Following four short films, the young Swiss director imagines a female call center employee who tricks a few grandmothers using a false quest for urgent financial help as she pretends to be their granddaughters.

Alice Turli (Sarah Stauffer) is one of the 'inhumane' call center representatives at Everywhere Switzerland, an Internet service provider that offers up one of the most competitive prices in the market. She is a lonesome girl who takes advantage of her job to obtain extra information from wealthy elderly targets. In addition to questions like “how fast is your Internet connection” or “how often do you use the Internet”, Alice queries about their date of birth, bank account type, and approximate current balance. We follow her scamming the good-willing Mrs. Oberli (Margot Gödrös), who, despite the bank’s laborious security procedures, was more than happy to withdraw 50 thousand francs for her granddaughter. A meet up is scheduled, but instead of the latter is Alice who shows up to receive the money, exhibiting a mix of satisfaction, underestimation, and contempt in her face. 

Schäublin uses the camera in a curious way, opting for sharp close-ups, medium-long shots with half-body characters occupying only one side of the frame, and a few high-angles where she captures the austerity of the streets, the urban architecture and busy traffic in the unattractive outskirts of Zurich.


Intertwining with Alice’s path, we hear conversations among a group of policemen assigned to carry out security checks at certain locations of the city. The topics of their conversation include Internet speeds and prices, health insurance, and movies, whose titles nobody remembers. Ironically, one of them croons Elton John’s ‘Your Song’, and in a different occasion, another one interrogates and frisks Alice, whose fraudulent ways needed another type of strategy to be unmasked. 

The guileful, achingly unemotional swindler opens a bank account with a large sum of dishonestly-earned money. That doesn’t weigh a bit in her conscience. In this aspect, debutant actor Sarah Stauffer was perfect, emulating the imperturbability of her character through a casual acting style. But because the more money you have, the more you want, Alice has no plans to stop and approaches her next victim, a senile woman living in a dementia caregiver center.

The drama relies on an interesting idea that never develops into something completely satisfactory. Regardless of a possible posterior connection, many scenes feel derivative, lost in redundant dialogues that drag the story to its limits. Even the finale promised tension but ended up wrapped in a melancholic apathy. Drowned in passwords, codes, and missing film titles, “Those Who Are Fine” runs at slow speeds and only intermittently connects. It would have easily been a more stimulating short film than a feature.


Where Is Kyra? (2018)


Directed by Andrew Dosunmu
Country: USA

Andrew Dosunmu’s focused yet pessimistic drama “Where Is Kyra?” marks the return of Michelle Pfeiffer to the big screen. Embracing a demanding role and dominating the scenes with a distinctive gravitas, she plays the title character, an unemployed middle-aged divorcee living in Brooklyn, who takes care of her elderly mother (Suzanne Shepherd). The camera silently lurks into the rooms with a compassionate passivity, capturing desolated facial expressions and silhouettes with predominantly dark tonalities. The tactic serves to highlight the depressive moods, yet love and affection are detected in the plausible story co-written by Dosunmu and Darci Picoult (“Mother of George”).

Even with the job interviews oscillating between disastrous and inconsequent, Kyra seems unpreoccupied because she receives her mother’s pension monthly. Nonetheless, she suddenly falls into a downward spiral of bad luck after her mother’s passing. The impossibility of cashing the checks from then on hauls her into a new inconceivable situation. Facing the tough reality of eviction and poverty, the desperate Kyra embarks on a dishonest scheme. The only thing she needs to succeed is to disguise herself as her mother and play her part at the bank.


Meanwhile, at a local bar, she engages in casual conversation with Doug (Kiefer Sutherland), a solitary cab driver who knows her mother well and how much effort she has been putting on taking a good care of her. Both need a strong drink to cope with their lives, and after a few shots, they end up having sex. Will he be able to help her, even disagreeing with her fraudulent methods?

This reflection on economic deterioration holds a constant sense of desperation, yet never shaping into a true emotional commotion. Humiliation and shame are stabbing, and this is strongly felt when Kyra is forced to ask her ex-husband for financial help.

Dosunmu seems self-satisfied in securing the gloomy spirits, never excelling in fighting lethargy. Hence, “Where Is Kyra?” remains melancholically low-key from start to finish, failing to deliver in crucial moments, including its climax.

While Pfeiffer and Sutherland show raw and intact acting capabilities, the dramatic side of the story decreases with time, becoming plodding and monotonous. Tenaciously pronounced is Philip Miller’s score, whose jarring sounds were able to create tension galore.


The Third Murder (2018)


Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Country: Japan

Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda has been showing his brilliance with contemplative, emotionally rich drama films such as “Nobody Knows”, “Still Walking”, “I Wish”, “Like Father Like Son”, and “After the Storm”, all of them deeply related to family.

His latest, “The Third Murder”, deviates from this concentrative emotional paths, being a crime thriller coldly steeped in the courtroom, yet not eschewing the family side. It stars Masaharu Fukuyama as Shigemori, a senior attorney tasked with defending Misumi (Koji Yakusho), a man from Hokkaido accused to slay and then burn with gasoline his former boss. The case seems impossible to win since Misumi had served jail time 30 years before due to another murder.

Misumi promptly confesses the crime when arrested, pointing out his motives for such an evil act. He had been fired a few months before, started to drink heavily, and was in desperate need of money. Hence, the case falls in the robbery-murder category. Shigemori, whose father is also a veteran lawyer who defended this same client in the previous conviction, ponders the best strategy to get him life in prison instead of the death penalty. However, and despite the efforts of his legal representatives, Misumi keeps changing his story, which becomes strangely related to the victim’s daughter Sakie (Suzu Hirose), a teenager who limps just like his own estranged daughter. The uncertainty impels us to search for a truth that remains opaque, but not long enough to allow surprise. 


Some more uncertainty is thrown in with the rumor that the victim’s wife had hired Misumi to kill her husband in a criminal conspiracy in order to get his life insurance money. Nevertheless, the reality is very different and we find Sakie willing to testify in court to save the detainee. 

The long, well-staged conversations between Shigemori and his client are often depicted with stationary face-to-face close-ups and medium shots with occasional juxtaposing techniques using the glass that separates them in the interrogation room. 

Impeccably shot and edited, “The Third Murder” follows the sinuous trails and tonal bleakness associated with the genre. Still, it has a fluctuating grip, lacking any sort of bright final punch that could have made it memorable. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting new directions and Koreeda should be praised for his courage. Notwithstanding, his inspiration and originality find a more suitable vehicle in the gentle, human dramas that everyone can relate to.


The Judge (2018)


Directed by Erika Cohn
Country: USA

Didactic and admirable, Erika Cohn’s “The Judge” kicks off with an excerpt of Quran’s fourth chapter Surat An-Nisa (translated Women): “Indeed, Allah commands you to render trusts to whom they are due and when you judge between people to judge with justice.”
This is a responsive documentary centered on Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first female judge officially accepted in Palestine’s Sharia courts, where family issues are handled. Kholoud and her colleague Asmahan Wuheidi started working in 2009 under the supervision of Chief Justice Sheikh Tayseer al-Tamimi, who, despite initially reluctant in giving them the position, didn’t regret his decision. After all, they have beaten all their male competitors.

Besides abiding by an impartial justice, a deficient aspect in the Arab countries when it comes to women’s rights, Kholoud is a respected wife and dedicated mother living in West Bank’s Best Rima. Her lawyer husband, being as stubborn as she is, felt an immediate chemistry after an argument with her the first time they met in a court case. Fearless and indefatigable, she handles a courtroom full of condescending men by exerting authority and moral integrity.

However, this brave woman had to dive deeply into the roots of Islamic law to prove she had the right to follow this profession, even having to fight with fundamentalists like Dr. Husam Al-Deen Afanah, a hyper-conservative Islamic scholar who opposes every idea related to women occupying important positions. Men with similar ideals are responsible for the escalating abuse of power that allows traditions to overrule Sharia’s law. Sadly, they only see women as instruments of pleasure and conception. It’s infuriating hearing Afanah explaining why certain roles in the society are exclusively tailored for men - “If she gives birth, if she is pregnant or bleeding, she is bound by these things, which affect her work”, he tactlessly states.


Most of the cases she has to judge fall into domestic violence, alimony, inheritance, and divorce. Women, whose religious education is faulty in terms of gender equality, file 80 % of them. 

Even if a bit more of historical and cultural insight about Palestine would have favored the account, the film is very informative and optimistic. Yet, it only surprises when tackling topics such as unsubstantiated honor killings or describing a shocking murder case occurred in the middle of a court session due to disregarded mental illness. 

Seen as a role model, Kholoud alerts for the necessity of women to be involved in Sharia courts while encouraging them to persist in their fight for justice. For now, and regardless the temporary hardships she was subjected to, especially after the controversial dismissal of Al-Tamimi, she is winning this battle. It would be amazing if other Islamic countries could follow the example.

Vazante (2018)


Directed by Daniela Thomas
Country: Brazil / Portugal

Vazante” takes us in a solemn journey to 1821 Brazil, where Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), a wealthy cattle herder returns to his secluded estate farm located in the middle of a clearing in Diamantina Mountains, Minas, just to find out that his wife died in labor together with their baby. Has a signal of power, he brought a few African slaves with him, but promptly abandons the farm in a disheartened state, entrusting his senile mother-in-law, Zizinha (Juliana Carneiro da Cunha), to the long-time servant Joana (Geísa Costa), and the farm to Manuel (Alexandre da Sena), his loyal foreman.

Bartholomeu (Roberto Audio), his cordial brother-in-law, arrives with his greedy wife, Ondina (Sandra Corveloni), and their 12-year-old daughter, Beatriz (Luana Nastas). With Antonio absent, he becomes the master of the house, but his inexperience and softness allow some rebels to escape after making him a hostage. They also steal mules, a price that the penniless Bartholomeu cannot pay. This scene is crafted with limited tension and ends inconsequently. Also superfluous is the presence of Jeremias (Fabrício Boliveira), an efficient planter who vouches to do wonders in Antonio's fertile land.


Antonio eventually returns to the farm. His attention turns to his wife's niece, Beatriz, who, although underage, get her parents' encouragement to marry. This works as a payment for the incident described above as well as a guarantee of future economic stability. All the same, Beatriz’s simplicity is observed as she happily eats porridge with the black kids of the house. It’s not Antonio she loves. Her heart beats for Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), the son of Feliciana (Jai Baptista), a slave regularly summoned to sleep with the lord of the house. The film attains its devastating climax when both women, the servant and the noble lady, get pregnant. Hence, a tragic finale is unavoidable.

Presented with a deliberate languorous pace that makes us absorb every detail while enjoying the magnificent black-and-white cinematography by Inti Briontes (“Night Across The Street”), “Vazante” borrows the depressing noir tones of Miguel Gomes’ “Tabu”, the haunting looks of Ben Wheatley’s “A Field in England”, and the issues addressed in “12 Years A Slave” as a subplot, without beating any of the three. 

Under the supervision of “Linha de Passe” co-director Daniela Thomas, this emotionally wrenching period piece is culturally and historically valuable. Still, regardless the unblemished visual aspect, enriched with stunning landscapes and contemplative images that oppose the characters’ inner conflicts, the script is marred by a shattering predictability.


Hotel Salvation (2017)


Directed by Shubhashish Bhutiani
Country: India

Thoughtfully written and directed by debutant Shubhashish Bhutiani, “Hotel Salvation” can be considered last year’s peak international drama of the Indian cinema, just like "The Lunchbox" was in 2013.

Playing father and son, Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain are Daya and Rajiv, respectively. Haunted by a recurrent dream, 77-year-old Daya truly believes his time has come. He announces his intention to live his last days in the holy city of Varanasi at the Mukti Bhawan Hotel, a guesthouse where people can attain salvation for their sins and die in peace. The one accompanying him is Rajiv, who reluctantly leaves his job for an undetermined period of time. Besides being confronted with pressures from work, also his wife, Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni), shows some impatience with the absence, wanting him to return and perform his duties at home. Only his daughter, Sunita (Palomi Ghosh), who grew very attached to her grandfather, seems to completely understand and accept the situation.


Once Rajiv starts taking care of his father, he grows crankier. Firstly, he’s not used to the new routines, and secondly, he doesn’t think his father is about to die. He’s neither comfortable far from his wife and daughter, nor leaving his stubborn father alone. Confused and divided, he dwells in this dilemma for some time. In the meantime, Daya gradually slips away this state of melancholy and blooms again, especially due to the presence of a new friend, Vimla (Navnindra Behl, Lalit’s real wife), a 75-year-old widow who keeps waiting for the death for 18 years.

Managing to escape the traditional melodramas, Bhutiani leans on the arthouse, which doesn’t hamper him from capturing the warmth and simplicity of the characters, as well as the colors that illustrate the magnificence of the Indian landscapes. However, not every scene was perfectly framed and a few shots were in need of aesthetic improvement.

Engaging in a different kind of tension, he crafts a modest yet spiritually inspiring story where duty, friendship, family ties, and loss are subjected to a dignified meditation. The subtle humor also fits well and the film, culturally enriching, ends up celebrating life, exactly as it should be.


Ready Player One (2018)


Directed by Steven Spielberg
Country: USA

Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is a busy sci-fi adventure punctuated by dark atmospheres and cathartic agitation in the form of wild action sequences filled with flashy, rowdy, and usually tiresome battles. The script, co-penned by Zac Penn and Ernest Cline, was based on the latter's 2011 novel of the same name. Despite the intelligent story, which alerts for current concerns about the addictive power of the ‘unreal’ world of the Internet and video games, the film’s visuals are hyper-saturated, assaulting our brain with the same uncontrolled trepidation as when you loop vertically on a rollercoaster.

Set in 2045, the story follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, who lives fascinated with an immersive virtual world called The Oasis, where he is one of the many compulsive players. As a place of the imagination, the Oasis allows you to be who you want to be, do anything, and go anywhere under the guise of an avatar. That way, you can feel every emotion of the experience while escaping from the desolation of the planet.

Our hero chose the Arthurian figure Parzival as his imaginary incarnation, here depicted with a David Bowie-ish hairstyle. He is prepared to plunge into a gaming contest in the Oasis that can change his life forever. The creator of the massively popular game was the venerated James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a quirky dreamer whose posthumous message to the world stated that his fortune and control of The Oasis would be given to the winning player of The Quest, a tough multi-phased contest. With the support of his team, The High-Five, Wade will explore many unknown and dangerous places, as well as fighting personal battles on both sides, the virtual and the real. 


The competition will also serve as a rebellion to free the Oasis from the hands of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the cunning CEO of a video game company, and his evil allies i-R0k (T.J. Miller) and F'Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), bounty hunter and operations assistant, respectively. In addition to the challenge, an extra motivation turns up when Wade falls for Samantha Cook (Olivia Cooke), the clouded woman behind the well-known player Art3mis, even before seeing her real face.

The film makes a nostalgic cult to the 70's and 80's, giving it a special flavor. An amazing soundtrack, rich pop-culture elements, and a horrifying recreation of Kubrick's “The Shining” with bloodbath and everything, are some of the good aspects you'll find.

It’s understandable that Spielberg wants to ride the fashion waves of trendiness, after the sobriety and formalism of meritorious dramas such as “Lincoln”, "Bridge of Spies", and “The Post”. However, he does with sensorially exhausting pyrotechnics. In the end, I couldn’t agree more with Halliday: “the real world is the only place you can get a decent meal.” Maybe there’s some truth in the film's tech prognostication, but for now, I rather focus on our planet, where huge problems have urgently to be fixed. Especially when the virtual world depicted wasn’t so attractive.