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 disappointing results 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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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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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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Us (2019)

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Direction: Jordan Peele
Country: USA

The much-anticipated sophomore film from Jordan Peele, Us, is funny, strange, and unnerving and it’s here to show the director’s expertise in blending comedy and horror with a very personal tone. Two years ago, he managed to consistently entertain with the distinguishable Get Out and his creativity didn’t fail him again on this new exciting puzzle movie where an Afro-American family has a hard time defeating their menacing doppelgängers.

In 1986, the young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) had a very traumatizing experience when she entered a funhouse located at Santa Cruz beach, California. The welcoming sign states ‘Vision Quest: find yourself’. Many years have passed and the now mature Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) returns to the same location for a summer vacation period in the company of her funny husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). However, the place has a weird effect on her and the unresolved predicaments inhabiting her subconscious emerge stronger, installing paranoia.

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The fright turns into panic when a four-member family, looking exactly like them, silently invade their place to threaten their lives. They are fearless and aggressive. Have you ever imagined if you had to fight your devilish equal? The explanations for the mystery lie obviously in the past, but what is confusing is that their friends, Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss) and their twin daughters are also visited by harmful variants of themselves. The attacks are ironically perpetrated at the sound of The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and then N.W.A.’s 1988 hip-hop hit “Fuck Tha Police”, which I consider extraordinary for the occasion since cops remained out of sight even after being called.

If Adelaide revealed unheralded courage in the face of danger, Gabe made me laugh several times with his asinine observations and incautious actions. He was entrusted with the comedic mission and succeeded.

Even with some over-the-top extravagance popping up here and there, the inventive script definitely puts Peele among the greats of the genre. Moreover, as if the parallel realities weren’t enough to intrigue, he reserves a wonderful twist for the finale that made me draw comparisons with the real world. Executed with stylistic brio and acted accordingly, Us is a smart move that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

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Her Smell (2019)

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Direction: Alex Ross Perry
Country: USA

Elisabeth Moss delivers a powerhouse performance as a collapsing rocker who struggles to quit drugs, overcome insecurity, and become a dedicated mom. The actress, alone, worths the ticket to Alex Ross Perry’s sixth feature, Her Smell. However, there was nothing she could do, in this second collaboration with the director (the first was Queen of the Earth), to elevate an erratic script overloaded with unbalanced furor and trashy tension. Oddly enough, the film’s most annoying parts are the ones that easily come to mind, such as the scabrous self-destructive scenes that last forever and a sloppy, sentimental solo rendition of Bryan Adams' “Heaven” on piano, which equally lasts forever.

The neurotic, selfish, and emotionally torn Becky Something (Moss) leads a provocative indie rock band named Something She, whose smashing success becomes compromised by drug abuse, freakish religious ceremonies that serve to avert negative spiritual forces, and the gradual deterioration of her relationships with bandmates Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and Ali Van Der Wolff (Gayle Rankin).

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Despite dozens of sold out concerts and financial stability, Becky can’t put her life together, assaulted by family traumas and cross-feeling conflicts regarding her little daughter, who was appointed as her future downfall by the phony spiritual shaman Ya-Ima (Eka Darville). It all spirals into offbeat grungy chaos that could have been less histrionic if handled by someone else other than Perry. Here, he seems more preoccupied in emulating Cassavettes with a bit of supernatural anxiety, than really adhere to an unfluctuating story. The filmmaker pointed out Guns N’ Roses’ vocalist Axl Rose as the prime influence for Becky’s character. Nonetheless, her style and looks are totally Courtney Love.

While the wild days of this rock muse felt intense, protracted, and tiresome, her isolation phase was boring, failing to make any further grasps for significance.

Firstly mounted like a humorless bizarre circus and then transforming for the flimsy redemption of its protagonist, Her Smell lacks essentially a tuneful note, lingering too much time in an uncomfortable dissonant universe.

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Green Book (2018)

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Direction: Peter Farrelly
Country: USA

In Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, a polished African American musician hires a brave white chauffeur for an eventful road trip along the hostile, segregated Deep South in 1962. Based on a true story, the film delineates the unlikely friendship between the men, depicted through episodes widely discussed in the media concerning their historical accuracy.

The stubborn, quarreling, and teasing Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), better known as Tony Lip, is proud of his Italian roots and proclaims himself a bullshitter. He lived in the Bronx all his life, working at nightclubs and gaining the reputation of a tough guy. Suddenly, Tony becomes temporarily available to do something else when the nightclub that employs him closes for repairs. An eight-week driver job comes up, but a small detail can be relevant in the choice. The employer is Doc Shirley (Mahershala Ali) an erudite, alcoholic black pianist who wants to extend the driver position to bodyguard plus personal assistant. Of course, this is nothing that could intimidate Tony, despite some previous demonstrations of prejudice for black folks.

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The shock of personalities and cultures make the movie. Mortensen and Ali boasting their extraordinary acting skills while following the predictable yet extremely entertaining script devised by Farrelly, Brian Currie, and Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga. Beyond doubt, Tony is bigmouthed, insolent, and hot-tempered, but it's also true that he has a big heart. In turn, Shirley is a sad person with identity problems; if on one hand, he has too much knowledge and money to be accepted by his fellow black Americans, then, on the other, his artistic qualities never earned him enough respect from the vile white men. He is also gay, which doesn't help him at all in a highly biased society.

Green Book is impregnated with funny moments, conveying assertive energy that occasionally resembles the classics. Regardless of the possible nonconformity with the facts, the film was put together in a way that is visually and narratively exciting, with Farrelly abdicating of sentimental moments and sugarcoated humor in favor of a more down-to-earth approach. He was able to surprise me with this one, which overcomes the shallowness of his dry-as-dust previous films.

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If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

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Direction: Barry Jenkins
Country: USA

If Beale Street Could Talk is Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, whose title refers to a 1916 blues song by W.C. Handy. To tell this sad tale of love, racial prejudice, and injustice, Jenkins (director of the three-Oscar winning Moonlight) reckoned on the acting skills of debutant Kiki Layne and the slightly more tested Stephan James, who appeared in Selma (2014) and Race (2016).

The story takes place in Harlem in the early ’70s, where the 19-year-old African-American Tish Rivers (Layne) informs her affectionate parents, Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo), as well as her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris), that she is pregnant from her fiancée Fonny (James), a childhood friend from her neighborhood who was put in jail without a trial for a rape he didn’t commit. A malicious white cop, Officer Bell (Ed Skrein), deliberately gave false testimony to frame Fonny, who now depends on the Puerto Rican victim, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), to clear his name.

Meanwhile, Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis), a religious fanatic, sees this pregnancy as an act of sin and curses Tish’s unborn child. In any case, the incident doesn’t dissuade her husband Frank (Michael Beach) to offer all his support. He starts working hard in cooperation with Frank in the interest of the child. A lawyer is hired, and Sharon travels to Puerto Rico in hopes that Ms. Rogers could change her mind.

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Jenkins exerted the expected sensitivity for each scene, yet some of them worked better than others. For several times I got the feeling that the atmosphere was touching the theatrical, while from a narrative point of view, some struggle was detected in keeping up a convenient pace, with a couple of redundant scenes breaking the initial fluidity. Regardless of what has been said, it’s admirable how a jittery tension installs throughout with the physical violence kept to a minimum necessary. In the end, it’s all too heartbreaking.

With Ms. Layne making a notable first appearance on the big screen, and Jenkins treating the borrowed material with cognizance, this film can be considered a valuable entry in the specific category of based-on-true-events drama. It was also great if people could learn from its message.

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Bird Box (2018)

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Directed by Susanne Bier
Country: USA

Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier (Brother; After The Wedding; The Things We Lost in The Fire; Love Is All You Need) is commonly associated with heavy dramas and light romantic comedies. Her first American blockbuster, Bird Box, is a supernatural drama thriller starring Sandra Bullock as a single mother of two children who desperately looks for a safe place to raise them while the planet is under an unfathomable alien threat. Assuming ghostly forms, the invaders urge their victims to commit suicide right after they make visual contact with them. Therefore, the solution is to become blindfolded while outside and never listen to their persuasive words, which are deceptively uttered through the voice of a loved one who passed away.

Expecting a child, Malorie Hayes (Bullock) sees her all-too-lively sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson), succumb at the sight of the enemy and takes refuge in the house of Douglas (John Malkovich), a sinister and pragmatic man who didn’t seem much affected after witnessing the death of his wife in shocking circumstances. In the house, they not only welcome the innocuous Olympia (Danielle Macdonald), another pregnant woman, but also Gary (Tom Hollander), whose behavior and intentions are far more suspicious. After the kids are born, an attentive man, Tom (Trevante Rhodes), gains her trust and becomes her lover. But anyway, Malorie will have to make a perilous two-day journey alone with the kids, helplessly named Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair) and Boy (Julian Edwards). Blindfolded, they have dense countrified areas and a stirring river to be crossed. Is this practicable?

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Eric Heisserer (Arrival; Lights Out) penned the script according to Josh Malerman’s novel of the same name, having Bier directing exclusively in the US for the first time. Aiming to the senses without never really impress or startle, Bird Box adopts easy strategies, creating frivolous scenes and employing contrived tones as a result of the narrative fatuousness and cheap abstraction.

Ms. Bier, whose previous directorial efforts kept toggling between competent and sloppy, fully embraces Hollywood this time with dubious quality, and that comes with a price. Following impossible, far-fetched routes, Bird Box is a lumbering and quite incongruous mess.

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The Old Man & The Gun (2018)

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Directed by David Lowery
Country: USA

After terrific achievements such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saint (2013) and Ghost Story (2017), American writer/director David Lowery is definitely a name to be followed closely. Despite of the low-key vibe of The Old Man & The Gun, a biographical drama film about the ever-smiling robber and prison-escape expert Forrest Tucker, he doesn’t disappoint, weaving enjoyable episodes through a fusion of non-violent crime and sweet romance. For the script, Lowery based himself on an article by David Grann published in 2003 on the The New Yorker.

Supposedly, this is the last theatrical appearance of 86-year-old actor Robert Redford, who announced his retirement last August. Impersonating Tucker with that habitual devotion he always dedicates to his acting roles, Redford is joined here by Sissy Spacek, in what was their first collaboration on the big screen. The latter plays Jewel, the woman who conquers Tucker’s heart without being able to make him stop from robbing banks like a gentleman.

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Partnering with longtime pals Teddy Green (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits), Tucker never leaves prints, raises his voice, or makes any kind of fuss when operating his scheme. This happy fellow probably never shot a gun in his whole life, not even when escaping from prison, a feat he successfully completed 16 times. Nonetheless, his well-calculated maneuvers became objects of study of police detective John Hurt (Casey Affleck), who is visibly intrigued by and embarrassed for a ‘clean’ robbery executed by the time he was inside the bank.

This efficient account charms with a breezy fluidity, also displaying decorous looks and settings that conjure up that slightly opaque glow of the 1980s. The witty dialogue between Redford and Spacek feels refreshingly romantic, with Lowery abdicating of typical clichés in favor of a tangible honesty that burns with irony, love, and glee. Being a film of minor tensions, The Old Man brought me joy in the quantities required to make it noteworthy.

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The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (2018)

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Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Country: USA

Taking short rides into the Wild West, the Coen brothers deliver six fabulous vignettes, equally rich in laughs, action, drama, and surrealism. All this is squeezed into their latest feature The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which portrays on the screen the sagas they keep reading in an old book. Entertaining me for more than two hours, the brothers fabricate unbelievable clashes between settlers and desperadoes in a stylistic intersection between Quentin Tarantino and John Ford.

Most of the stories have unhappy endings, including the first one and my favorite, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which features a grinning Tim Blake Nelson as a skilled pistolero, bragger, and country singer, literally turned into an angel by the ultra-fast The Kid (Willie Watson), who had recognized him as the most wanted man in the West.

The second story, Near Algodones, presents James Franco as a sly bandit who decides to rob a bank in the middle of a depopulated prairie. The plan goes wrong because the talkative bank teller (Stephen Root) was bold and surprisingly aggressive.

The saddest story is Meal Ticket, which broke my heart into pieces. It unfolds the appalling fate of Harrison (Harry Melling), a young declaimer with no arms and no legs, whose impresario (Liam Neeson) replaces him with a hen that does the math. It’s all about greed and contempt for human life.

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The following story, All Gold Canyon, is a pleasure to the eyes. An old prospector (a qualified Tom Waits) digs the soil for gold, finding his gratuity after a lot of work. However, an unscrupulous young cowboy (Sam Dillon) had sneakily followed him, waiting for the right moment to exterminate him and take the prize. Without disclosing more of this adaptation from Jack London’s short story of the same name, I must say you'll likely be smiling by the end.

The Gal Who Gets Rattled, an adaptation of the short story by Stewart Edward Wright, tackles romance between an Episcopalian young heiress, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), and a Methodist wagon train leader, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), who helps her to overcome a financial imbroglio. By the end, there are furious Indian attacks and some spectacular images.

The sixth and last story of the collection, The Mortal Remains, is the most ambiguous as it carries a sort of supernatural predisposition that didn’t work so well for me.

This is cinema peppered with generally convincing acting and the superior visual sensibility of French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who had already worked with the Coens in Inside Llewyn Davis. It is original, brainy, and funny.

Sorry To Bother You (2018)

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Directed by Boots Riley
Country: USA

The fanciful story of Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Lakeith Stanfield - “Short Term 12”) depicted on “Sorry To Bother You”, the first feature film by Boots Riley, deserves some attention. Set in Oakland, California, this cute, scruffy, and flawed sci-fi comedy entertains throughout, from its inaugural scene - an ordinary interview for a telemarketing job - to its clumsy, surreal conclusion, which takes us to a totally different realm without unbinding the previous ideas. In between, you can witness the ascension and fall of Green, a broke yet ambitious African American telemarketer, who, talking with the teasing ‘white voice’ suggested by his experienced co-worker Langston (Danny Glover), attains the worry-free life he had always dreamt of. However, that prosperity is fed at expense of human exploitation and obscure businesses carried out by the company he works for.

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Because of that, he left on bad terms with his artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and disconnected from his pals, Sal (Jermaine Fowler) and Squeeze (Steven Yeun), who are busy fighting the miserable work conditions through a labor union. Craftily manipulated by Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the vicious CEO of the company, Green realizes he inhabits an insane world of transgression, iniquity, and debauchery.

Even if the deadpan humor doesn’t always triumph, there is some mordant social commentary expressed with a satirical posture, which sort of replaces it. Stanfield is a wonderful revelation, a crucial element for the film’s pulsation.

With “Sorry To Bother You”, Riley wants to alert people for something that goes beyond pure racism. He does in a showy, senseless, and ridiculous way, but this is all part of his strategy.