Light Of My Life (2019)

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Direction: Casey Affleck
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

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Direction: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Country: USA

If you’re looking for a sprightly, heartwarming indie comedy replete of fun episodes, which you’re not required to think about too deeply, then The Peanut Butter Falcon should be a good choice. A product from the minds of writers/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, this is a silly enterprise whose twists are visible from afar, but the power of the performances and the positive attitude toward the hardships of life were capable of elevating the familiarity into something firmly entertaining.

It's a Mark Twain-inspired tale that follows Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a sympathetic, family-less 22-year-old Down Syndrome person, whose dream is to become a professional wrestler. After breaking out from the nursing home he was confined to, Zak befriends Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a crab fisherman on the run, who, on his way to Florida, promises to take him to a rural town in North Carolina, where the old wrestling school of Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) is located. The latter is Zak’s longtime idol and inspiration.

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Motivating each other, the pair of friends walks and navigates long distances, drinks together, has a special encounter with a blind man of faith, drives away Tyler’s chasers, and consolidates their bond and affection. Moreover, they convince the nursing home employee Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak’s guardian, to join them in an adventure that climaxes in the offbeat wrestling that opposes Zak, The Peanut Butter Falcon, to Sam (Jake Roberts), a giant veteran who rejects defeat.

Bolstered with Gottsagen’s natural sweetness, and advancing with a favorable propulsive élan, The Peanut Butter Falcon mixes cliched narrative with feel-good energy. There’s certainly a niche for this goofy adventure, where not everything has to be so sad and serious. Cinema has these things, and sometimes a big heart can even make us forget the lack of originality.

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Skin (2019)

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Direction: Guy Nattiv
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019)

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Direction: Quentin Tarantino
Country: USA

Is Quentin Tarantino getting nostalgic at this phase? The answer is: likely yes, after we see his ninth feature, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a three-act mashup of love for the Hollywood film, melancholic hippy life in 1969, and cult-related tension.

If the entertainment levels and the powerful cast were expected, the sluggish developments and sort of leisure posture was certainly not on the agenda for a Tarantino movie. Packed with innuendos, classic film references, and even ideas from Tarantino’s previous movies, this extravagant comedy ultimately connects you with the fun and craziness of the film industry, for the better and for the worse.

The script follows a struggling TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), two buddies with different personalities trying to go along with the new adjustments and demands of Hollywood’s golden age. In parallel, it addresses the Manson Family Murders in a sardonic, carefree way, with Roman Polanski’s late wife, Sharon Tate, being happily played by Margot Robbie.

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The wildest moments of the film arrive at the end, in a way that felt intense and strategic, and there’s clever humor and quotable lines throughout, plus that memorable scene when a cool Cliff fights a proud Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).

The magic of the movies versus the frustrating reality, cult devotion and hippie culture, ferocious dog attacks and flamethrower barbecues, big joints and drinking sprees… there is a lot to experience here with that unpredictability that made Tarantino famous.

With all its ups and down, and definitely strained in terms of duration, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a worthy ride that never stumbles into vulgarity.

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The Souvenir (2019)

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Direction: Joanna Hogg
Country: UK / USA

Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a timeless arthouse gem and an evocative piece of cinema that conjures up classic European works, from Wim Wenders to Jacques Rivette, with hints of Michelangelo Antonioni. Moreover, the film is a sensitive personal statement, a look-back portrait of Hogg as a young artist filled with sincerity and focus. Regardless the influences, she was able to create something bold and unique, demonstrating an outstanding directorial maturity.

Lyrically photographed by David Raedeker’s idiosyncratic eyes and boasting a terrific soundtrack whose variety (post-punk, new wave, art rock, early jazz, opera) thoughtfully adapts to each situation, this utterly artistic slow-burner embraces a strangely calm yet tense atmosphere throughout.

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Crafting a poignant story centered in an ambitious 24-year-old film student whose first love is marred by deception, secrecy, affliction, and addiction, Hogg captivates our senses and stirs our souls. She subtlety dissects this relationship between Julie (newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne, the real-life daughter of Tilda Swinton, was not given the script and was asked to improvise instead), an aspiring filmmaker in the quest for authenticity and self-expression, and Anthony (Tom Burke), a secretive, well-traveled gentleman who borrows money from her on a day-to-day basis while frequently dodging any question about his affairs. This cordial, if snobbish junkie seems to love her, but he struggles with addiction, ultimately hitting the bottom and exposing his true self to the point of stealing Julie’s jewelry and pretending it was a robbery. He also lets one of his dealers in the apartment on one occasion. This man is never aggressive, though. By the contrary, he is always affectionate toward her, even when desperate for money. Julie refuses to give up on him and her financial predicament is usually solved with the help of her mother, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton).

The brilliant actors are used expertly, almost in an enigmatic way, conveying all the characters’ pain in those soul-freezing moments where the tough shock of reality feels like a faint, distant dream.

Extremely impactful, both emotionally and visually, the lushly chronicled The Souvenir is already dubbed as one of the best films of the year. Despite achingly cruel, it’s never uncomfortable to watch, and I can’t wait for its sequel, which will feature, once more, mother Swinton and daughter Byrne resuming their respective roles.

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Rafiki (2019)

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Direction: Winuri Kahiu
Country: Kenya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Too Late To Die Young (2019)

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Direction: Dominga Sotomayor Castillo
Country: Chile

Chilean writer/director Dominga Sotomayor Castillo became the first woman to win the grand prize for direction at Locarno Film Festival with the coming-of-age drama Too Late To Die Young. That feat was not achieved by mere chance since she has an extraordinary gift for portraying adolescent femininity with subtleness and deep feeling. Avoiding the common trappings associated with the genre, Sotomayor also contemplates the influence of the milieu and unresponsive family relations by making them relevant aspects in her story.

The film’s backdrop is rural Chile in 1990, right after the cease of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Sofia (Demian Hernández), an autonomous 16-year-old, is living in a community in the woods with her father, Roberto (Andrés Aliaga). The community has no power and their members hardly find drinkable water in the summer. This type of environment offers all the liberties to the youngsters, including smoking and drinking alcohol.

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Despite willing to live with her mother, a celebrated singer whom she eagerly expects to join the group for a New Year’s Eve party, Sofia seems unworried as she keeps flirting with the guitar-aficionado Lucas (Antar Machado), who is her age and has a huge crush on her. However, when the slightly older Ignacio (Matías Oviedo) arrives at the place in his cool motorbike, an instant chemistry blossoms between him and Sofia. Emotional complexity installs and, in the end, frustration and disillusion hold sway, making almost impossible for us not to bare a jot of pity. The final scenes, centered on a dog that runs away from the community while a wildfire consumes the hills, somehow makes an uncanny parallelism between confinement and the freedom of choice.

Everything is strangely inward in mood in this keenly observed, affectionately articulated tale where the episodes unfold slowly toward a tough, inevitable, and definite conclusion. After all, this is more about the familiar and less about the forbidden. Sofia emanates that unpleasant sense of being trapped and one can’t escape that associative feeling too. No words are needed as both the look and behavior of Sofia put us across the emotional turmoil she’s in.

Focusing on giving a sincere portrayal of adolescence, Too Late To Die Young professes a turbulent intimacy with controlled pace and assured narrative construction.

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The Wolf's Call (2019)

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Direction: Antonin Baudry
Country: France

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

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

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

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

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

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Rosie (2019)

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Direction: Paddy Breathnach
Country: Ireland

The low-budgeted Irish indie drama Rosie addresses one of the biggest problems the world is facing today: gentrification. The situation mostly affects the bigger cities and can be seen as a new form of random human cruelty.

While her husband, John Paul (Moe Dunford), is working hard at a busy restaurant, Rosie Davis (Sarah Greene) is inside their parked car with her four children, making consecutive phone calls in an attempt to get a hotel for just a few nights. No, they are not planning vacations… the reality is much different and appalling; they became homeless after their landlord sold the house, a social injustice that is commonly disregarded by politicians who, many times, benefit themselves in the ‘ungovernable’ real-estate business. I’m so glad that New York gave some signs of progress recently regarding this matter, when a rent-reform package was approved to protect the frequently harassed tenants.

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The struggle is daily and the pressure is high. Fear and shame invade their lives, but they refuse to let frustration or panic take control. Besides the lack of stability and having to sleep in the car sometimes, the family was blessed by a strong loving bond. We never see these attentive, caring parents acting impatiently or aggressively toward their kids, even when they misbehave or rebel.

Despite some incautious hand-held camera movements, the director Paddy Breathnach (Viva) did a satisfying work in capturing a realistic scenario. He worked from a bold script by Roddy Doyle (The Commitments), who was inventive enough to put Lady Gaga staying at one of the hotels while gigging in town and turn a serious, sad moment into a fun battle of fries.

Depicting 36 stressful hours in these people's lives, the film doesn’t grant a resolution. However, it’s a heartbreaking, accurate, well-acted ride that made me think about how easily things can be lost in a moment and how miraculous love can be when in the face of desperate situations.

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The Mustang (2019)

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Direction: Laure De Clermont-Tonnerre
Country: USA

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

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

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

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Luz (2019)

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Direction: Tilman Singer
Country: Germany

Luz, the debut feature from German writer/director Tilman Singer is a psychological horror movie, not too gory, not too stuffed, and holding a steady grip throughout. The filmmaking style deserves praise, especially if we take into account the minimalism of the story and its schematic course. However, its characters are thinly sketched.

Simon Waskow’s score has already announced some creepiness during the initial long shot. The story takes place in Germany and the worried moves of Chilean cab driver Luz Carrara (Luana Velis) in a desolate police station anticipate something strange and uncontrollable. In fact, the blaspheming girl, who apparently doesn’t speak German, is about to be psychologically evaluated under the attentive supervision of cops Bertillon (Nadja Stübiger) and Olarte (Johannes Benecke). For that, they hire the services of Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt), an experienced psychiatrist and hypnotherapist who will try to find more about the traumatic past of the woman. What these dedicated agents of the law don’t suspect is that Luz’s former schoolmate, Nora Vanderkurt (Julia Riedler), had already been in contact with the imprudent doctor, passing the demon that has been possessing his body.

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The tale draws its best moments from a bar scene where Nora approaches Rossini, but, suddenly, things decline as our attention shifts to the interrogation room, which becomes foggy, in a tacky attempt to intensify fear and claustrophobia. The truth emerges from the shadows but not convincingly.

Singer relies on simplistic yet well-composed images to create some titillation. Yet, the film never reaches those spine-chilling levels we all crave. If only the director had found the time to dig a better ending and engender better sequences to mere plot points with potential, maybe Luz could have been the surprise of the year within the limits of a saturated horror genre. Lamentably, it didn’t happen, but I would definitely select Singer as a director to watch in the future.

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

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Direction: Joe Talbot
Country: USA

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

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

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

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

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Anna (2019)

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Direction: Luc Besson
Country: USA / France

With Anna, the 60-year-old French director Luc Besson descends to an even lower level when in comparison with his previous efforts. The director is known for some heavy-handedness and an enduring fondness for having attractive women playing violent characters - Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita (1990), Rie Rasmussen in Angel-A (2005), and Scarlett Johansson in Lucy (2014), are some examples.

Wrapped in tawdry schemes, this debilitated espionage action thriller and trashy femme fatale charade is symptomatic of the incapacity and obtuseness demonstrated by the filmmaker over the years.

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The sloppy, tone-deaf script rushes things out when not repeatedly jumping back and forth in time, shaping Russian model Anna Poliatova (Sasha Luss) as one of the most feared assassins working for the government. Lascivious and ultra-violent, she flirts with the KGB and the CIA and dares to play chess with her superiors. Besson, however, contradicts the necessity of having a strong winning strategy and a wider vision. Overdoing the action scenes to the point of ridicule and infusing them with every little cliche you can imagine, he delivers a terrible film. Not even Helen Mirren as the head of the KGB saves Anna from being a torturing experience.

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Los Silencios (2019)

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Direction: Beatriz Seigner
Country: Brazil / Colombia / France

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

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

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

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

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The Emperor of Paris (2019)

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Direction: Jean-François Richet
Country: France

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

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

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

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The Dead Don't Die (2019)

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Direction: Jim Jarmusch
Country: USA

In recent years, acclaimed director Jim Jarmusch showed his versatility by successfully changing the themes of his films. He cleverly explored the world of vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), documented the American punk band The Stooges in Gimme Danger (2016), and offered one of the smartest and most engaging stories from 2016 with Paterson. His new movie, The Dead Don’t Die is a George A. Romero-inspired zombie-comedy pastiche whose connection with the previous three films are the actors. Tilda Swinton is the character who fascinated me the most, yet Jarmusch also convened Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, and Iggy Pop, who makes a brief yet authoritative appearance as a zombie.

When radio signals repeatedly fail and the days become inexplicably longer in the small town of Centerville, the local police force - represented by the easygoing Cliff (Murray), the suspicious and cerebral Ronnie (Driver), and the super sensitive Mindy Morrison (Sevigny) - starts to think about Hermit Bob (Waits), an apparently aggressive caveman that lives in the forest for years without never hurting anyone. The cops immediately drop the suspect when an unexpected zombie attack takes place at the local bar (the pair of blood drinkers and flesh eaters are Iggy Pop and Sara Driver), leaving a general sense of fear in the air.

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If the apathetic police officers behave passively, a local gas station owner, Bob Wiggins (Jones), and the fearless Scottish sword master, Zelda Winston (Swinton), are pretty committed to fighting the walking corpses. The latter, even enjoys a close relationship, sort to speak, with the dead since she works as an undertaker at the Ever After Funeral Home. In the film’s most imbecilic scene, she is teleported into a UFO.

There’s nothing we haven't seen before in The Dead Don’t Die, with the aggravation that its course is predictable and slow, the deadpan humor only works intermittently, and its action scenes are dully bland. Jarmusch has definitely the passion, but he didn’t have the brains to take this caricatural experience to the next level. Unfortunately, that contagious, nightmarish side we hope to find in a film of this nature is missing.

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Never Look Away (2018)

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Direction: Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck
Country: Gerrmany

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

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

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

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

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Ray & Liz (2019)

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Direction: Richard Billingham
Country: UK

Not many debutant directors have sufficient developed skills to make a grand first appearance, but photographer Richard Billingham achieved that feat with Ray & Liz, a tremendously impactful drama set in the Midlands, England, whose prodigious realism entraps us in the cruel, deeply rooted memories of his joyless childhood.

Combining the raw cinematic exposure of Andrea Arnold and the visual aesthetics of Chantal Akerman, Billingham dives into a disciplined, if rugged, autobiographical drama depicted with traces of bleak humor amidst parental negligence, indifference, and addiction.

The film comes in the sequence of previous short-documentary videos about his family as well as the first of a three-part feature named Ray, in which his alcoholic father is portrayed. Actually, the film’s inaugural shot consists in Ray (Patrick Romer) drinking a full glass of booze in an empty stomach. He is a heavy drinker abandoned to the solitude of a room infested with flies and seems to be patiently waiting for his death. His good neighbor Sid (Richard Ashton) is the only person visiting him, guaranteeing his daily supply of strong liquor. The story then winds back and we observe the routines of a younger Ray (Justin Salinger), his bellicose wife and compulsive smoker Liz (Ella Smith), and their two children: ten-year-old Richard (Jacob Tuton) and two-year-old Jason (Callum Slater).

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This phase of the account features a particular episode that really sticks hard into the head. It's when Lol (Tony Way), an obtuse neighbor, drinks until unconscious while looking after Jason in the absence of his dysfunctional parents. After that, the story advances eight years in time to shock us even more with a dirty, unruly house and the inert, soporific behavior of Ray and Liz (her older version is played by Deirdre Kelly). At 18, Richard (Sam Plant) looks resigned with the situation, while Jason, now 10 (Joshua Millard-Lloyd), finds new hopes after almost freezing to death.

Admirably photographed by Daniel Landin (Under the Skin), the film represents a blasting match of stylish filmmaking and genuine writing material. It’s a wonderful debut, despite all the discomfort one may feel watching it.

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The Burial of Kojo (2019)

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Direction: Sam Blitz Bazawule
Country: Ghana

Ghanian writer/director Sam Blitz Bazawule delivers a sensitively imagined tale, showing his undeniably precious qualities as a multifaceted creator of moods in his grand feature debut The Burial of Kojo. Impressively, there’s nothing sloppy in this micro-budgeted piece entirely shot in Ghana with a local crew and many non-professional actors. Each frame was conceived with an enchanting if poignant aura in order to heighten the characters’ emotional states. I was immediately drawn into this trancelike story loaded with mystery, guilt, resentment, magical bewitchment, and the common burdens of life.

Esi (Cynthia Dankwa as a child and Ama K. Abebrese as an adult) narrates her childhood, feeling she never brought luck to her struggling father, Kojo (Joseph Otsiman), after she was born. Yet, they have a very close relationship, living in a tiny isolated village surrounded by water, to where Kojo moved seven years before.

Unexpectedly, they are surprised by a couple of visits that will change their lives. The first one is from a blind stranger seeking a child with a pure heart to whom he can entrust a sacred bird he has been protecting from an evil crow. The second one, more familiar, is Kojo’s brother Kwabena (Kobina Amissah-Sam), who insists on taking his brother back to the city. A strange request, if we take into account their complicated relationship due to tumultuous past incidents.

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Kojo finds a miserable city with no opportunities and ruled by aggressive Chinese exploiters who took over the gold mines, depriving the local families of sustenance. But are they really the ones Kojo should be afraid of?

I loved the way the film was shot, from the oneiric tones of Michael Fernandez’s cinematography to the vivid, harrowing scene of eating a roach alive to the stylish architectural perspectives captured in the city. Watching this human story unfold is an uncommonly moving experience that makes The Burial of Kojo a small yet potent African film.

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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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