Midsommar (2019)

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Direction: Ari Aster
Country: Sweden / USA

After the large-scale success of Hereditary, 33-year-old American cineaste Ari Aster holds on to the horror genre and writes Midsommar, a foreboding story set in rural Sweden that comes impregnated with folklore, symbology, trauma, suicide, and slaughter. Leaving the supernatural behind in favor of the cult thematic, the filmmaker manages to get a satisfying outcome.

The film stars Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor as Dani and Christian, respectively, an American couple on the verge of breaking up, which, nevertheless, decides to go on a trip - previously planned without Dani’s knowledge - to Sweden, where they expect to attend a supposedly innocuous midsummer festival that only occurs every 90 years. The nine-day event, organized by the Harga ‘family’, hosts four more guests: Christian’s college mates Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter), who were also invited by Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a common friend and long-time member of the commune, and an English couple that arrived with the encouragement of Pelle's brother, Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg).

What should have been a relaxed time of cultural enjoyment becomes a creepy nightmare as the pagan cult uses the foreigners for their diabolical ritualistic practices and exceptional competitions.

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Although the revelations are envisaged beforehand, the film still manages to counterpoint slightly disturbing conducts with familiar paranoia-induced passages. Everything is captured by Pawel Pogorzelski’s appealing lensmanship, which balances the scenic and the repulsive, while Aster maintains an unsettling atmosphere for the entire147 minutes through a deliberate pace and the help of a competent cast.

What Midsommar lacks in originality, it more than makes up for with offbeat moments adorned with gut-wrenching eccentricities. Nonetheless, it was merely entertaining, even occasionally funny, but never truly scary.

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In Fabric (2019)

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Direction: Peter Strickland
Country: UK

Stylized with a retro glamour and immersed in enigmatic tones, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric is more than an exercise in style and mood. Already carrying a cult status for reviving the giallo genre, the British director, who previously released the groundbreaking Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, gave wings to imagination and wrote a mesmerizing piece about a haunting, killing red dress. What we have here is a conscious, if surrealistic, satire about the unbridled consumerism of today’s world. Strickland stated in an interview that secondhand clothes from unknown provenience always fascinated him, and this idea was his inspiration for the film.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste stars as Sheila Woodchapel, a 50-year-old divorced bank teller who started dating again to fight loneliness. She lives with her son, Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), who frequently brings home Gwen (Gwendoline Christie),  his impolite and impertinent French girlfriend, without his mother's consent. Despite some little problems at work - so meticulous that could be included in any Kafka book, everything seems normal in the life of Sheila, until she buys a cursed red dress at Dentley & Soper, an exclusive fancy store with strict rules of conduct, presentation, and hygiene, where erotically fetishist  rituals occur on a regular basis between its employees. The pale Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed has been a constant, amazing presence in Strickland’s works), a persuasive store clerk, speaks with a hypnotic voice, alluding to fantasies and illusions while urging Sheila to buy the dress that will bring her happiness. 

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This fatal garment causes nasty rashes on the skin, gives rise to eerie dreams, and motivates creepy accidents of various kinds. It seems to have a life of its own and literally disintegrates any washing machine it goes in. As you suspect by now, this is not your typical horror movie. It will be considered a nonsense for many, while others will praise it as a true spectacle for the senses.

The only thing with this story is that it gets slightly repetitive when the dress changes hands and enters the home of Reg (Leo Bill), an obsessive washing machine technician, and his future wife, Babs (Hayley Squires).

Glamorously surreal, darkly funny, and avidly maniacal, this effort is uplifted by a turbulent and surprising finale. The conjugation of sinister imagery with the unblemished music by the Berlin-based experimental/krautrock trio Cavern of Anti-Matter is absolutely delightful. After this, who wants to buy quality used clothing?

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Mine 9 (2019)

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Direction: Eddie Mensore
Country: USA

West Virginia native Eddie Mensore didn’t base Mine 9, his sophomore feature film, on any particular true event but rather on several that have been happening over time. His realistic dramatization of an underground accident is felt like a plaintive ballad honoring the hard-working miners who, remaining long hours below the surface, expose themselves to a number of dangers.

Both the suffocating claustrophobia and continuous tension fuel this authentic depiction of a methane explosion inside a mine, in which nine Appalachian miners become trapped with limited oxygen and some painful wounds.

The controversial decision of going back to work when the safety is being questioned for a long time, weighs a lot here. On one hand, the unstable system that allows people in the dark tunnels is far from reliable, but, on the other hand, the workers don’t want the place to be shut down since they're in desperate need of their wages in a region that is economically vulnerable.

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Images, music, and acting contribute in equal measure to capture the atmosphere of a small mining community whose resilience to mishap is remarkable. The simple storyline and real-life backdrop (in addition to a warehouse in Atlanta, Georgia, Mensore filmed in a real mining environment in Buchanan County, Virginia) were fundamental to success, in a drama equal parts tragedy and compassion.

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Lords of Chaos (2019)

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Direction: Jonas Akerlund
Country: UK/Sweden

This nauseating semi-fictionalized account, directed and co-written by Swedish Jonas Akerlund, is as dark and heavy as the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 90s that it makes reference to. The focus isn’t exclusively on the musical genre but also on the sinister happenings and practices that led to the homicide of Oystein 'Euronymous' Aarseth, co-founder of the band Mayhem. The film was adapted from the 1998 book of the same name and stars Rory Culkin as the cited guitarist, Emory Cohen as Varg Vikernes (founder of the one-man-band Burzum and Euronymous’ murderer), Jack Kilmer as the self-destructive Dead, and Valter Skarsgård as the homosexual-hater Faust.

There’s absolutely nothing interesting in the life of these satanic church burners; nothing valid or positive can be taken from their wild, yet miserable existence, which can be summarized as a mix of chaos, prepotency, and idiocy. Clearly pursuing fame through other forms that not just music, the members of this hidden ‘Black Circle’ had admitted: “we are not normal people”. I agree.

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Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono was pointed out to direct the movie a few years ago. It would be his first English-language film, but knowing his ferocious work as I do, it’s hard to believe that his version could escape the super explicit and gratuitous violence shown here. In fact, Akerlund, who is a black metal drummer himself, seems only interested in shocking the viewer, whether through serial stabs or any other type of repugnant savagery. Lords of Chaos feels like a sick extravaganza rather than an accurate and substantial account of the story/case it claims to portray. To make everything more difficult, the ending is the dumbest part of the movie. Skip it.

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Blinded By The Light (2019)

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Direction: Gurinder Chadha
Country: UK

Unlike the central character in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded By The Light, I’m not a huge fan of American singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen. However, that wasn’t a relevant factor for my dissatisfaction regarding this film, a comedy-drama inspired by the life of journalist Sarfraz Mansoor. The latter co-wrote the script in accordance with his memoir Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll.

Set in Luton, England, in 1987, the story follows 16-year-old Saved Khan (Viveik Kalra), an insecure British-Pakistani who is deeply into Springsteen’s music. This is the good part of his life, alongside the sweet romance with an activist schoolmate, Eliza (Nell Williams), and friendships with Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Roops (Aaron Phagura). Conversely, at home, Saved is consumed by the frustration of having his conservative, overbearing father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), which complicates even more the integration of the family in the British society. Moreover, the teenager is a recurrent target of racial discrimination. That’s when Springsteen’s powerful songs become an inspiration, an obsession, and a vehicle for him to expand ideas and develop his writing skills. Part of the encouragement came from his progressive teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell).

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The film is observant in terms of cultural differences and self-aware in the message to pass along. However, while Saved’s infatuation with the music of Springsteen becomes more and more annoying, the musical scenes, approached with an exuberantly theatrical posture and nostalgic vision, wanted so badly to impress that feel contrived. The soundtrack is wonderful, though.

Inspiring? Not to me. Lamentably, this bland exercise, cooked with euphoric floridness, never goes deeper than the surface.

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Long Shot (2019)

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Direction: Jonathan Levine
Country: USA

Jonathan Levine is a promising director whose work has been marked by hits and misses. If their earliest films - 50/50 (2011), The Wackness (2008) and Warm Bodies (2013) - were consistently entertaining, then the most recent - The Night Before (2015), Snatched (2017), and now Long Shot, a romantic comedy moved by political mordancy and starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen, didn’t convince me.

The latter work still throws in some witty lines, but the situations created oscillate between the expected and the pathetic, failing to deliver solid punches in spite of the attempts to look and sound refreshingly subversive.

Levine directed from a screenplay by Dan Sterling, who also conceived the story, and Liz Hannah. The former had worked with Rogen before in The Interview (2014), while the latter got known after teaming up with Josh Singer and write the Oscar-nominated The Post (2017).

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Filled with the typical imbroglios this type of comedies likes to focus on, the film illustrates an unlikely romance between Fred Flarsky (Rogen), a brave if big-mouthed political journalist who suddenly gets unemployed, and his former babysitter and childhood crush Charlotte Field (Theron), now the charismatic and sophisticated Secretary of State, who happens to be in the run for the presidency of the United States.

While flirting with some disturbing political truths, the film sometimes mistakes fatuity for freshness. If anything, it works as a showcase for the actors. Rogen is equal to himself and Theron spreads charm throughout. On the screen, they seem to be having a lot of fun together, but the film is definitely not above the ordinary.

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Parasite (2019)

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Direction: Joon-ho Bong
Country: South Korea

South Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong was meritoriously elevated to cult status due to masterworks such as Memories of Murder (2003), Mother (2009), and Snowpiercer (2013). Two years ago, he made a shift in direction with the imaginative action-adventure film Okja, returning in big this year with another witty and gritty invention called Parasite, a virulent mix of crime thriller and black comedy that you won’t be able to forget for a long time.

This madcap satire delivers social class commentary and serves up thrilling moments enshrouded in slyness, erupting into explosive violence in its final segment. This way, Parasite can join Lanthimo’s Dogtooth and Miike’s Visitor Q as one of the most disturbing portraits of demented families.

The plot follows Ki-woo Kim (Woo-sik Choi), a broke young student turned English tutor, who starts working for the wealthy Park family. He had been recommended by his brave friend, Min (Seo-joon Park), who abandoned the position to go study abroad. Sooner than later, Ki-Woo takes advantages of the insecurities of Yeon-kyo Park (Yeo-jeong Jo), the amiable, if naive, lady of the house, and recommends an art tutor for her problematic younger son. He introduces this busy, highly qualified art teacher as his friend and colleague, but in truth, she is his sister Ki-Jung (So-dam Park). Propelled by an uncontrolled ambition, Ki-jung sets up the family’s driver to get her father, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), employed again and filling the place. In turn, the latter recommends his wife, Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), for the housekeeping job, after they frame Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee), who was performing that task for years with distinction.

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In no time, the injurious Kim family goes from folding pizza boxes to well-paid steady jobs. Yet, these charlatans face exposition as the former housekeeper threatens to unveil their secrets.

The jokes are as strong as the moments of suspense, and, if on one hand we see the Kim family drowned in whiskey and with their hands stained by blood, then, on the other, we have the Park family fighting for ramen. The final stage is a crazy intense rampage that grabs the audience with its turbulent atmosphere.

Brilliantly shot and photographed with Kyung-pyo Hong's distinctive palette, Parasite offers a lot of wicked pleasures, providing you with a delightfully insane cinematic experience. This is pretty strong filmmaking admittedly and one of the best films of the year in its genre. Most importantly, it testifies that Bong knows how to entertain a crowd of moviegoers better than anyone else.

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Wild Rose (2019)

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Direction: Tom Harper
Country: UK

Set in Glasgow, this heartfelt, if rudimentary, story about an aspiring country singer was played in a minor key for my ears. Jessie Buckley (Beast) is Rose-Lynn Harlan, a single mother of two, whose dream is to go to Nashville, Tennessee, and become what she thinks she was born to be: a country singer. She firmly believes she should have been born in America.

After spending 12 months in jail for attempting to smuggle heroin, Rose finds her place taken in the local bar band she was regularly performing. She is forced to take a full-time job as a housekeeper, working for a generous, wealthy woman called Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). It just so happens that the latter has the right connections to provide Rose with an opportunity to sing at London’s BBC Radio 1. A bumpy train ride almost thwarted the visit that served to teach this go-getter something important. It was put like this: “you have the voice, but what do you have to say to the world?”

In addition to all this, Rose does the best she knows to take good care of her estranged children and be in good terms with her critical mother, Marion (Julie Walters).

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With all the doubts and emotional confrontations, Rose makes a decision, with the movie evolving into a typical melodrama pinched by a varnished production that removes everything it had created raw and rustic. The combination of rough edges and polished surfaces rarely produced satisfactory results here. This strategical tonal contrast leaned on the formulaic and ended up as a crowd-pleaser.

The film isn’t all bad and Buckley’s onscreen presence is significant; however, it just didn’t work out as an emotionally resonant tale, with director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor playing the easiest notes without risking something outside the scale. Wild Rose gives a perfect example of a fascinating start that gradually loses potentiality, failing to make a splash in the last instance.

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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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The Plagiarists (2019)

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Direction: Peter Parlow
Country: USA

Peter Parlow’s micro-budgeted The Plagiarists is an insignificant and frustrating piece of indie cinema suffused with too many words but completely parched in satisfying ideas. Written by Robin Schavoir and James N. Kienitz Wilkins, the film feels like a half-baked, home cooked essay about legitimacy in art, monotonously chronicled with a strong experimental inclination and inauthentic performances.

Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and Tyler (Eamon Monaghan), a young novelist and filmmaker, respectively, are engaged for one year and working on their careers. Their car breaks down on their way to Philly, where they should meet with their good friend, Allison Baker (Emily C. Davis). An enigmatic black man called Clip (Michael ‘Clip’ Payne - member of the funk collective Parliament-Funkadelic), who also happens to be an acquaintance of Allison, offers them a place to spend the night. This section of the film almost feels like a thriller, but the film never gets close to anything substantial or astute, rather getting lost in dull conversation and… I was already yawning quite frequently. In a catastrophic way, tedium escalates as the film advances.

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Clocking in at 76 minutes, The Plagiarists feels much longer than it is, since it’s all too fabricated, unenthusiastic, and senseless. At least, its creators won’t have to worry about being plagiarized. Who would want to copy something so uninspired and unattractive like this?

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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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