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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Rolling Thunder Revue (2019)

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Direction: Martin Scorsese
Country: USA

Celebrated filmmaker Martin Scorsese has shown his knack for music documentaries with solid works such as The Last Waltz (1978), Shine a Light (2008), and George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011). However, his efforts reveal a bit disappointing in Rolling Thunder Revue, a sort of mockumentary with real and fake footage and fabricated interviews about Bob Dylan’s legendary concert tour in the mid-70s. The series of concerts would allow Dylan to perform in smaller venues in a more intimate connection with the audience. The political context comes forward and goes well with the confrontational activism of the talented young musicians, who abandoned themselves to socially conscious, politically charged music.

While Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Allen Ginsberg were actually part of this American caravan, the unsatisfied filmmaker Stefan Van Dorp, event promoter Jim Gianopulos, and Rep. Jack Tanner are all fake characters played by actors. Moreover, Scorsese utilizes Sharon Stone, in flesh and bone, as tantalizing bait to his story, increasing the mordancy when she states, flattered, that “Just Like a Woman” was written for her. Conversely, the story behind the protest song “Hurricane”, written for boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, is authentic.

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The music is great, yet this artful satire never really stood out as something really big, working more like a benign prankster spreading misinformation than giving a consistent insight about the topic. In a similar way, the interviews only served to make things more recondite, enhancing the artificiality of a make-believe that, at least, could have put an extra effort to be funnier. Rolling Thunder Revue doesn’t break any ground and proves more unimaginative than impressionistic.

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Paterloo (2019)

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Direction: Mike Leigh
Country: UK

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

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

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

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

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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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Non-Fiction (2019)

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Direction: Olivier Assayas
Country: France

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Photograph (2019)

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Direction: Ritesh Batra
Country: India

From the director of The Lunchbox, Photograph doesn't feel so distinguished as its predecessor. Indian director Ritesh Batra makes a demure tribute to love by leisurely depicting a romance that brings as much good intention as naivety to the screen.

Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui - also starred in The Lunchbox) is a serene, if struggling, street photographer now living in a constant pressure after his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) has decided to find a woman for him to be married. While she sets out running the vivid streets of Mumbai in searching for a good match, Rafi becomes the talk of the town. Sort of embarrassed yet unwilling to do something he doesn’t want to, he asks a humble middle-class accounting student, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), to lie to his grandmother while pretending to be his fiancé. The fact that Miloni isn’t happy with an arrangement made by her conservative parents to meet the son of some friends, who is departing to the US, made her take an attentive look at Rafi, understanding his reasons and tribulations. Against all odds, the fake couple actually falls in love, acknowledging that sacrifices are to be made in the interest of a happy future together.

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The story was written by Batra in a thoughtful way but fails to succeed in many aspects, opting for gimmicky subtle procedures for tackling a typical love story. The director pushed aside any tear-jerking scenes, but perhaps he was too permissive in an unconscious way for the film’s own disadvantage. Even making us rise and shine with an impeccable smart conclusion, this wasn’t enough to make Photograph a special love story.

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Our Time (2019)

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Direction: Carlos Reygadas
Country: Mexico / other

The films of Mexican Carlos Reygadas are structured with enough existentialism and spiritual vision to present challenges to the viewer. I’m remembering how much Japón (2002), Post Tenebras Lux (2012), and especially Silent Light (2007), generated discussion, marking the international cinema with enduring long shots prone to emotionally intriguing reflection.

The director’s new work, Our Time, is a nearly 3-hour examination of a complex, undermined open marriage between Juan (played by Reygadas himself), an arrogant cattle rancher and poet, and Ester (Natalia Lopez, Reygadas’ real-life spouse), a free-spirited mother of three who is fed up with her obligation to report her secret encounters with Phil (Phil Burgers), an American horse trainer temporarily hired to work at the ranch, to her scrupulous husband. With the passage of time, the tension grows exponentially and mistrust envelops the couple's doomed relationship. The story is partially narrated by a kid’s voice and includes letter and e-mail readings as well as phone call conversations.

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Squeezed in the middle of these lives marked by obsession, voyeurism, carnal desire, and ego, we have furious bull fights, which work as a metaphor for leadership and possession in the marital alliance but also as an exteriorization of all the tension accumulated throughout. Under a deceptively polished surface, there’s a lot of emotional fractures, whose delineation, despite valid, won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes.

Reygadas stumbles in this quiet yet powerfully acted tale of love, loyalty, and exasperation, where one pokes around vainly in search of something more than just the facts.

In Juan’s words: ‘love is resilient and imperfect’ and, in some way, that’s what a much less ambiguous Reygadas intends to substantiate here. However, he couldn’t handle this bull by the horns, stretching the time into an absurd extent in order to tell a story that never showed plenitude of heart.

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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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Gloria Bell (2019)

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Direction: Sebastian Lelio
Country: USA

Julianne Moore is Gloria Bell, an independent divorcée and mother of two who tries to fill a gap in her life with a caring man who could meet her expectations and tastes. As a dance lover, she refuses social isolation and keeps looking for the perfect match in clubs around L.A. at the sound of funk, pop, disco, and R&B hits from the 70s and 80s.

The apparently bashful Arnold (a convincing John Turturro) becomes a candidate of choice when things work out well between them after the first encounter. Recently divorced, he is trying to change his life, but admits having two adult daughters who completely rely on him financial-wise. However, this man reveals to be more complicated and pathetic than he demonstrated in the first instance. On one hand, he needs all the attention he can get, and on the other, he provides everything his daughters and ex-wife demand from him, even stressing and complaining about it all the time.

After an unexplained disappearance when at Gloria’s son’s birthday party, they break up, but days later she gives way to his charm and insistent phone calls, giving him one last chance to redeem himself. A trip to Vegas reaches a climax that, unfortunately, we had already seen before.

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Reimagining his own 2013 film Gloria, whose story was set in Santiago and features Paulina Garcia in the leading role, Chilean director Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) copies himself in style, designing a similar story to fit the American soil. In fact, the whole film is unsurprising and drags tediously into obvious conclusions. I mean, who needs an American Gloria Bell when we had the wonderful Chilean Gloria? And I say this with all the respect Ms. Moore’s work deserves.

The American adaptation lacks the real free spirit, magic narrative pulse, and radiance of the original, taking this problematic romance to a minor key and making us pay the price. Regardless of the great performances from Moore and Turturro, I would call Gloria with a Spanish accent.

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Birds of Passage (2019)

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Direction: Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego
Country: Colombia

Notable Colombian director Ciro Guerra, here teaming up with debutant Cristina Gallego, has carved his own style with stunning works that speak for themselves. Birds of Passage succeeds to the mesmerizing Oscar-nominated adventure that was Embrace of the Serpent in his short yet exceptional filmography. Even not as striking as the latter, this new film provides extraordinary moments of mature cinema.

Divided into five acts and inspired by real events, the film, written by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde, boasts an effective narrative delineated with refinement, integrity, and a cultivated cinematic sensibility that unfolds in a mixed style that incorporates the mysticism associated with the indigenous Wayuu clan traditions of the Guajira Peninsula in the northernmost part of Colombia and the violent, materialistic world of the noir gangster movies.

Rapayet (José Acosta) is not doing so well in his coffee trade, struggling financially to pay the heavy dowry asked by the family of his intended wife, Zaida (Natalia Reyes). The latter was conveniently prepared to embrace the role of a dedicated wife. Her mother, Ursula (Carmiña Martínez), the superstitious, ambitious and reasonably cautious matriarch who communicates with the spirits, taught her everything she must know.

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Rapayet's solution to the problem consists in teaming up with the voracious Montcho (Jhon Narváez), a childhood friend from a different ethnicity, and sell marijuana to the Americans, a very lucrative business that will cast aside any economic difficulty. However, tragedy and war struck the indigenous family, firstly due to Montcho’s shameless criminal practices and obsession for power, and secondly, due to Leonidas (Greider Meza), Ursula’s vile and vicious younger son.

In addition to David Gallego’s delightful cinematography, which captures both luxurious and arid landscapes with the same exuberance, we have enthralling folk music connected to ancient traditions, dreams, allegories, and premonitions in a stylized, hybrid tale of power, love, vendetta, and honor. This is powerful cinema.

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Little Woods (2019)

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Direction: Nia DaCosta
Country: USA

Grounded, socially aware, and believable, Little Woods is the first directorial effort by New York-based writer/director Nia DaCosta, whose bleak yet stubbornly optimistic tale highly benefits with the lucid performances from Tessa Thompson and Lily James.

In the last eight days of her probation, Ollie (Thompson) is decided to do better than smuggling pills over the Canadian border. However, the economically fragile Little Woods in North Dakota is not a comfortable place to make a living. If everything pointed in the right direction, the death of her mother and the unexpected contact with her depressive and emotionally volatile sister Deb (James), makes her step on muddy territory again. Despite the opposite personalities and some antagonism that stems from the past, the sisters unite in a dramatic small-town thriller that rings true. In fact, and even depicting complicated situations, the plot line is solid and never derivative.

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Sombre as it may be, this low-budget film centers on a character that never stops searching for solutions in an extremely adverse environment. DaCosta’s personal vision brings out shades of Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik and refuses to exclude the possibility of dreaming, which is a positive factor. If you enjoy a tightly wrought story with clear-cut characters, then Little Woods is for you.

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Styx (2019)

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Direction: Wolfgang Fischer
Country: Germany / Austria

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

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

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

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

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

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Long Way Home / Temporada (2019)

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Direction: André Novais Oliveira
Country: Brazil

Although unfurling slowly and feeling somewhat turgid in its behaviors, Long Way Home / Temporada, a project by André Novais Oliveira, offers warm, friendly vibes along the way that might keep you connected. One of the strongest aspects of the film is the unexpectedness of a plot bolstered with credible performances from Grace Passô and debutant Russo Apr.

At the center of the tale is Juliana (Passô), a married woman who leaves her small-scale Brazilian hometown, Itaúnas, to embrace the bigger metropolitan town of Contagem, where she was called for a coveted yet poorly paid governmental job within the public-health department. She becomes a fighter in the arduous endemic control of the Dengue mosquito. Her husband is supposed to join her after she settles down but vanishes without a trace.

Meanwhile, Juliana befriends her immediate superior Russão (Apr), a nice, funny guy who plans to open a barber shop and, against all the expectations, finds out he is a father.

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Every co-worker has a story and a cross to bear, but they find support in one another with an empathic understanding and abundant compassion. After all, Juliana is forced to a fresh start. With her arms wide open, she embraces a new life where everything is unfamiliar and uncertain. Yet, there’s always something to discover in each and every experience.

Disillusion, frustration, and affliction counterbalance friendship, self-discovery, and hope. Oliveira’s direction is virtuous and his vision substantiates humanity. Still, he could have included the violence theme, a major problem in Brazil, in order to make this snapshot even more authentic. Although I didn’t get completely fulfilled in the end, the film has quite a few fascinating moments and is worth seeing.

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Grass (2019)

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Direction: Hong Sang-soo
Country: South Korea

Prolific Korean director Hong Sang-soo is known for little conversational diamonds of the modern cinema and Grass, lasting 66 minutes only, shows he still didn’t run out of narrative possibilities within the breezy, light fluency that characterizes his filmmaking style. Sang-soo keeps depicting unpretentious day-to-day situations with realism. Fortuitous encounters, actors, directors, booze, cafes, personal frustrations and peculiarities of the daily life are ubiquitous elements in his works.

The cast includes the same collaborators that join Isabelle Huppert in Claire’s Camera, namely, Kim Min-hee, the director’s muse, and Jung Jin-young. Their gracious performances feel so natural that viewers may feel like voyeurs of true-life episodes. It's true that the story produces little dramatic fireworks and doesn't conclude resolutely. However, it’s remarkable how Sang-soo manages to completely engross us in a tale that only exists for our cinematic pleasure.

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Grass, his 22nd feature film, centers in Areum (Min-hee), a silent, observant young woman who spends a few daily hours in a local café typing on her laptop. She seems to be writing stories inspired by the personal dramas and complicated relationships of the ones sit around her table. A young drinking couple exchange accusations over the death of a close friend; an older suicidal actor is looking for a room and asks his younger former lover if he could stay with her, now that she moved from a tiny apartment to a two-story building; a mature heartless man blames a woman of toying with an old professor and lead him to suicide; a vain director needs something to inspire him and persuades the staring Areum to enter in his new film.

Where the reality ends and fantasy begins is up to the viewer. Meanwhile, Areum shows her temperamental side while hanging out with her brother. According to him, she suffers from spinster’s hysteria.

The classical music is occasionally intrusive while the black-and-white cinematography is aesthetically appropriate for a type of fiction embroiled in a deceptively philosophical guise.

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Sauvage / Wild (2019)

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Direction: Camille Vidal-Naquet
Country: France

Abstaining from any preconception or modesty, first-time writer/director Camille Vidal-Naquet portrays a painful existence in the raw, unsentimental drama Sauvage/Wild. The story follows Léo (Félix Maritaud), a 22-year-old male prostitute with self-destructive behavior. He is impassive in the face of his decaying health as he beats the streets dirty and lascivious for small cash. Homeless and sick, he sells his body to buy drugs, but what he actually seeks is love and tenderness. Far from being a likable hero, the young protagonist is completely adrift, entangled in a downward spiral that makes him standing at the edge of an existential cliff.

Léo nurtures feelings for Ahd (Eric Bernard), the toughest of the prostitutes circling around the area, but his love is not reciprocated. Ahd is not even gay, and yet he found an older man who is taking him to Spain. It’s his chance to have a more stable life.

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Léo also gets a golden opportunity to get on the right track when someone honest gives him a hand and shows intent to stay with him. Does he have the reasoning to grab this chance and leave the streets that expose him to multiple dangers?

At once unpolished and corrosive, Sauvage/Wild is immersed in a grim reality. This character study forces us to reflect on behaviors and choices, and ultimately fear, emptiness, and loneliness.

Fueled by Maritaud’s impressive performance, this sunless tale builds something more than just sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. In the end, it’s almost impossible not to think about the poor Léo and how he could transform his life into an easy ride.

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The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind (2019)

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Direction: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Country: UK / Malawi

Lamentably, it’s common to see inspirational fact-based stories become unexceptional films. And that’s the case with The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the feature directorial debut by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave), who also stars. With the latter in control of his own screenplay, the film is a pedestrian adaptation of the book co-written by Malawian William Kamkwamba, the protagonist and true hero of this story, and NY Times bestselling author Bryan Mealer.

Set in Malawi, the story follows William (Maxwell Simba), a smart 13-year-old boy from the village of Wimbe who puts his head to work after reading the book Using Energy. His intention is to help his family and neighbors overcoming a disastrous harvest season, a severe drought and subsequent famine that follows. Motivated, William finds no technical troubles in building the windmill to produce energy and pump water into the fields; his biggest challenge is to convince his incredulous father of what he just had done.

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Ejiofor recreated the story with the best intentions, equally incorporating the political turmoil that was affecting the country. However, he seemed more concerned in touching our hearts with immoderate melodrama than providing an absorbing narrative depleted of that upsetting tonal familiarity that is commonly associated with emotional true stories.

There are a few slippery occasions where the film actually touches banality, yet the performance of the young debutant Simba prevented it to enter in an earlier collision. In the present case, forceful simplicity didn’t guarantee authenticity.

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Brothers' Nest (2019)

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Direction: Clayton Jacobson
Country: Australia

Led by powerful complementary performances from Clayton and Shane Jacobson, Brothers’ Nest is a resourceful blend of family drama, dark comedy, and infamous crime. An inordinately entertaining low-budget thriller galvanized by a Coenesque style and shrouded in a doomed atmosphere. Clayton directed it from a story by Jaime Browne and Chris Pahlow.

Taking place at a secluded old house in Victoria, Australia, the tale follows two frustrated brothers, Jeff (Clayton) and Terry (Shane), who resolve to murder their stepfather, Rodger (Kim Gyngell). The reason is clear: their mother (Lynette Curran) is dying of cancer and her inheritance is about to be delivered to her longtime partner.

Besides utterly obsessed, scrupulous, and manipulative, Jeff is an annoying smart-ass. As the mastermind of the plan, he has answers for everything and constantly rebukes Terry, who exhibits a more passive temperament. As a matter of fact, the latter doesn’t seem to take the plan too seriously, showing more concern about his ex-wife taking his kids away from him.

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As you’re probably guessing by now, the plan is altered last minute, becoming corrupted with both gut-wrenching anxiety and supplementary violence that ramps up for a tense and tragic finale with some good laughs in between.

Boasting a fantastic score by Richard Pleasance and his Pleasantville band, the film takes some time to build up, but the writing is effective, pointing out to a tough, unrelenting, and intense final part where the brothers’ loyalty is put to test.

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Lemonade (2019)

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Direction: Ioana Uricaru
Country: Romania

Identity and immigration are two intimately related topics in Romanian Ioana Uricaru’s debut feature, Lemonade, which also addresses xenophobia and abuse of power. The film’s main character is Mara (Mãlina Manovici), a thirty-something Romanian nurse and single mother, who, living in the US, struggles to make a new life for herself and her nine-year-old son, Dragos (Milan Hurduc). In five weeks, she fell in love and got married to Daniel (Dylan Smith), an American landscapist whom she treated after a severe work accident. She applied for a Green Card, but is still not allowed to work in American soil until the case is approved, what makes her financially dependent on Daniel. The process can take years and everything depends on Moji Wijnaldum (Steve Bacic), the US Immigration official that interviewed her.

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When the prepotent Moji calls her, mentioning a problem with her application, it was inevitable to cogitate about sexual favors. Because her son was with her, Mara gets late to the meeting and naively agrees to get in Moji’s car to be interrogated, an illegal procedure aggravated by the subsequent sexual assault. She is also informed that her husband has a record, a past case related to an offense against a minor. And because misfortunes never come singly, she finds the police at her door since her best friend, Aniko (Ruxandra Maniu), left Dragos temporarily alone at home to go to work. No need to say that serious family problems arise as soon as Daniel finds out what happened.

It’s easy for us to involve in the drama of this woman. However, the film, co-produced by celebrated writer/director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; Graduation), weakens in its second half when both the inquisitiveness and uneasiness gradually fade out to give place to humiliation and legal strategy. It’s a well-acted, if too polished, exercise tinged with sadness and hope alike. Still, the valid ideas had a considerable margin for improvement.

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A Vigilante (2019)

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Direction: Sarah Daggar-Dickson
Country: USA

Despite the interesting topic, Sarah Daggar-Dickson’s directorial debut didn’t exceed my expectations, becoming a minimally involving slow-burner set in upstate New York that essentially relies on Olivia Wilde’s convincing performance to elevate it slightly above the levels of mediocrity.

After a ruining past experience that made her endure physical abuses and lose a child at the hands of a violent husband, Sadie (Wilde) found the strength to abandon the depressive state she was immersed into. She resolved to turn her life from passive to active and act fiercely against domestic abusers. Although occasionally exposed to panic attacks that contrast with the ice-cold expression she evinces while in action, the skinny Sadie prepared herself physically to apply the same brutal violence that husbands and neglecting parents use against their frightened and weaker relatives. She still attends the support group meetings that set out a whole world of physically abused women, who, despaired, don’t know how to escape their aggressors. Sadie finds relief by making them pay for their misconduct.

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After a few rescues, including a devastated kid whose brother was violently harmed by their mother, Sadie faces the worst of her nightmares: the return of her cruel husband (Morgan Spector).

The idea in this classically suspenseful story sounds a lot better than its execution. The director cooks it slow and steady, balancing the tension throughout. Yet, she never provides that spine-chilling effect one constantly seeks in a film of this nature.

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