LOVERS ON THE ROCKS – Beast (2017), dir: Michael Pearce

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There are films you know you’ll enjoy after the first few minutes and Beast is one of them as it sets off to a powerful and laconic prologue. Shots of the magnificent Jersey landscape set the canvas of this painful and crude story, and a pertinent metaphor about captive killer whales instantly draws an accurate psychological portrait of our heroine, Moll.

As the genres of drama, romance and crime thriller blend here, Michael Pearce tells an eerie tale where beasts feed from the ones closest to them or camouflage their monstrous nature with fake smiles and bounded heads, or prey on the weak when their passions are beyond control. The story is complex and smart and the performances impeccable and thrilling. The film has a dreamlike quality where Moll and Pascal experience their romantic love but takes a violent turn when deep inner confrontations occur in the face of the inevitable resolution of the tragedy.

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The two lovers give their first kiss on the edge of a rocky cliff, one wrong step and the fall is uninterrupted. It’s crystal clear right away that there are no half measures with this relationship, it is the kind that brings about radical change and reformation in one’s self. Jessie Buckley gives a haunting and magnetising performance that keeps you glued to the screen, and Johnny Flynn delivers a complicated character, an odd combination of a vulnerable rabbit and a cunning, lethal fox.

Moll’s evolution throughout the film is an ode to liberation but also a cautionary tale against the obsession of love. She rejects her suffocating family, and her overbearing and psychologically abusive mother thanks to the strength and encouragement she draws from Pascal, a man of animalistic presence and natural integrity.

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Pascal is the one who suggests that mistakes are for everyone and are better left in the past. However, up till the end Moll is bearing the guilt of a childhood mistake, which took immense dimensions due to her mother’s consuming fear. I couldn’t help but think that Moll is made to believe she is dangerous and wild when in fact, if she had been treated with more kindness, she would have thrived.  Her flaw is magnified and the daily humiliations she succumbs to compromise her ability to control her impulses and to think rationally.

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Beast brought in mind Wentworth Miller’s Stoker (2013), directed by Park Chan-wook. The relationship between India (Mia Wasikowska) and her uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode) bear similar elements to that of Moll and Pascal. Lead performances and cinematic style differ considerably but both films tell the story of two individuals who have always been lonely in a rejecting world and finally, find acceptance and a liberating push through their relationship. For India and Moll this takes the form of a sexual awakening and a journey of self-discovery that takes them in the darkest corners of their minds.

Another noticeable similarity is that of the ending, Moll and India set themselves apart from the madness of their “partners in crime” by acting as improbable avengers. The catharsis of both endings also proves that despite natural and primitive inclinations, it is the choices we make in critical moments that define us.

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After watching Beast, you might be numb by the amalgam of complicated emotions it evokes, feel like driving somewhere far and enjoying the view over a craggy peak. You might also contemplate upon the apocryphal realities we resort to, to crush the fantasy, or alternatively to protect it is a double-edged sword. Finally, you might admit the common belief that opposites attract and liked repel is true only when it comes to magnetism.

 

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Innocent and the Damned – You Were Never Really Here (2017), dir: Lynne Ramsay

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With her fourth film director Lynne Ramsay delivers an immersive, hypnotic thriller deplete with imagery of emotional pain and dreamlike visual lyricism enhanced by a powerful, throbbing score. No wonder she won herself the award for Best Screenplay and Joaquin Phoenix received the award for Best Actor in 2017 Cannes Festival.

The film was conceived and executed with evident influences from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). It introduces as to Joe, an unimaginably hurt creature able to spread monstrous, gore terror but also experience fear, guilt, love and tenderness.

I can’t recall a similar introduction to the main character before. Several minutes go by until we actually see his face but first, we get a glimpse of a habit of his, that of putting a plastic bag around his head, asphyxiating and reaping it off just in time. My instinctive association was that of sexual fetishism but Joe is more complicated than that.

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We later see him leaning off the edge of a train platform when a woman with a bruised face is peeping behind a pillar; she recognises the pain perhaps… or has indulged in similar thoughts herself? Joe has suicidal fantasies daily; hanging off the edge of train platforms, asphyxiating, playing with knives over his open mouth, trying to drown himself after a severe loss and in a climaxing diner scene towards the ending he fantasises shooting himself point blank.

As a child he remained powerless against the menace of an abusive father. His legacy however passed on as Joe hasn’t dismissed his father’s appetite for violence, nor his favourite weapon, the hammer. Is the hammer empowering him as by representing his worst childhood fear, it turns him into the ultimate terror, or is it perhaps a joke on his father, now that his son is liberating abused kids with the same tool that once served his old man’s perversion?

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Joe still suffers the aftermath of the abuse under his skin but thanks to his line of work (he is a hitman but also, retrieves kids that were abducted for sex slavery), every victim he saves may represent an attempt to save his younger self. However, in spite of acting in retribution this doesn’t amount to a cathartic, healing process that could grant him his freedom from past nightmares, instead he carries them around with him every moment.

In a particular scene where he lies beside his mother’s killer, holding his hand you see he is embracing a brother’s journey to the other side and making it almost his own. For all his hypnotising fantasies involving death, he is able to make that connection with the afterlife through a fellow hired gun or keeping company to him as a substitute experience to the one he would like to have had with his mother.

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Joe is capable for love, compassion and sacrifice. He is caring for his mother and showing his affection by cleaning her fridge, seating by her bedside until she falls asleep and helping her polish the silverware while accompanying her in their favourite song. Later on, he will launch on a risky, vengeance mission to save Nina.

Joaquin Phoenix is sensational and shows great skill and capacity to creatively adopt an overly used persona and make it his own. His piercing eyes alone tell a complex, scary story and his ability to violently shake you and remind you that you know nothing of torment is astonishing. Towards the ending, during the mansion scenes in the absence of lines his talent radiates as he employs physicality to take us through Joe’s crisis. I believe that Phoenix’s performance elevates the character to the cult pantheon next to personas like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976), Dae-su (Oldboy, 2003), the Bride (Kill Bill, 2003-04), Léon Montana (Léon, 1994) to mention a few.

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Ramsay abandons linear narrative for a more rich and interesting approach that embraces flash-backs and quick-fired visions. In essence, she is throwing a few pieces of Joe’s psyche puzzle here and there and are not enough for us to construct an elaborate, clear storyline. They suffice however to spot his most recurrent, haunting visions and the initial trauma that marked his later life. She also indulges us with extreme close-ups to transmit his extreme pain and loneliness.

She likes to shoot through surfaces for instance standing on the other side of the platform we observe Joe through the passing train or when engaged in a gory fight, we enjoy dizzying shots through the glass ceiling. In a remarkable, dreamlike scene where his mother’s body is drawn to the bottom of the lake, we see her hair floating in a slow-motion capture, in the same way a few scenes back the camera focused on Nina’s hair. That is a beautifully-poetic connection between the two characters, followed by a vision that more clearly associates the two in Joe’s mind and will push him to emerge from his passivity.

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Lynne Ramsay’s visual poetry is dressed with a shrill, muddy score, where electronic, polyphonic pieces intertwine with chilling, high dynamic range compositions, able to cause vertigo and despair. In particular, the “Dark Streets” track encompasses haunting, electro abyss. Jonny Greenwood’s work is always excellent and unique and earlier this year earned him an Academy Award nomination for composing the score for his lifelong collaborator’s latest film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (he has also composed the score for Inherent Vice and The Master, both films featuring Phoenix).

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After the film you might check Lynne Ramsay’s previous work (it’s only three films so there’s no excuse not to…), similarly delve into Greenwood’s compositions and admit that Joaquin Phoenix has a raw quality about him and a capacity to convey pain that only few of his colleagues have. Also, you might feel ready to engage more actively with the pain of others, or perhaps your very own despair. Finally, you might try to capture the feelings you would experience if you led a life where you could disappear and leave no traces behind, as if you were never really here at all.

An Amphibian Affair – The Shape of Water (2017), dir: Guillermo del Toro

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Guillermo del Toro named The Shape of Water his best film so far and he might be right to think so. Admittedly, the film represents a distinct and mellow fairy tale that not only is masterfully shot but also, carries important symbolism and commentary on human nature.

The characters that surround the two unlikely lovers are unique caricatures; the sensitive gay neighbour, the chatty, good-hearted colleague, the spy doctor with a conscious, the cocky, brainless General and the cruel racist and sadist Colonel. In an imaginary world, replete with villains and heroes, were find our outwardly couple, a mute woman and an amphibian creature with special powers. Although a romance like this pushes the boundaries of our tolerance to imagination, their relationship is approached so delicately and sensitively that becomes smoothly integrated into our soft fantasy circle.

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The opening scene is a miraculous entrance to Elisa’s world and introduces us to the blue and green shades that colour the film. In that first glimpse of our heroine, floating in her sleep in Alexandre Desplat’s melancholic score she strikes as an underwater Amélie. The circular movement of the del Toro’s camera feels almost like a dancing sequence that familiarises with the space and the characters by also enabling a feeling of visual cosiness, warmth and comfort.

In Elisa’s kingdom where silence reigns, so does loneliness until she makes a new friend in the secret government laboratory where she works. That new friend is a male humanoid amphibian that succumbs under daily torture and is soon to be terminated. If there is one thing we can say about the monster is that it looks gorgeous, powerful and fragile all at once.

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The first half of the film can definitely be considered its best part, its most romantic and dreamy compared to the slightly disjointed, out-of-tone action of the second. The courtship and establishment of trust is the most exciting and captivating state we find our protagonists in. Sally Hawkins assumes a demanding role that relies completely on physicality and she does a great job. Elisa’s sensitivity and independence are radiating, her courage and determination make her glow. Her soulful eyes transmit her sweetness and capacity for love but also her painful loneliness and unbearable sentiment from the upcoming separation. She seems delicate and soothing while a fire is burning inside her.

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Richard Jenkins is superb as the sensitive, reality-avoidant friend. His struggle to find companionship has left him with a fridge filled with hopeless unsavoury, green pies and a handful of life lessons. Michael Shannon is haunting as the impersonation of pure evil and draws a thick, dark energy into the film. Octavia Spencer gives a funny and distinctive performance, and Michael Stuhlbarg is remarkable in conveying his moral struggle.

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As a child Guillermo del Toro was marked by the cruelty and injustice done to the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and now he has finally made cinema do right by him. A team of experts assisted him in his vision, creature designer Mike Hill, Legacy Effects Supervisor and co-creature designer Shane Mahan, and visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi brought the “Asset” to life and Doug Jones employed his acting skills to complete the task.  The team managed to give us an attractive figure with a perfectly-shaped mouth, expressive, wet eyes and an impressively impeccable body with cyan details on his forehead.

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The Shape of Water is a film created with meticulous care and passionate cinematic love. Its details and unique fabric comprise del Toro’s masterful vision and place the film among the classics with a several scenes amounting to perfection. The dreamy opening scene, the man seating on the bus stop bench holding four balloons and a cake, the first time Elisa and the Creature gaze into each other’s eyes, Giles opening the flooding bathroom door to find the couple sharing a glowing hug, the camera following two rain drops becoming one and the magnificent lightening of the ending scene are the most memorable gems for me. However, despite its beauty and profoundness, the film doesn’t render the hypnotic fairy tale that is promised by its riveting opening.

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After the film you might feel like going to the nearest beach for a swim, bring to mind other unlikely love stories from both art and life and contemplate whether Giles’ advice to his younger self (“Take better care of your teeth and fuck more”), no matter how superficial could actually leave no room for future regrets if acted upon. Finally, you might embrace the film’s argument about loving the “otherness” as experience has taught us that the greater the difference between two individuals, the more fascinating are the discoveries in on another and in oneself while sharing a loving relationship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Labour of love – God’s Own Country (2017), dir: Francis Lee

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Francis Lee’s directorial debut is a raw, realistic, and sensual love story between a miserable farmer and his newly hired worker. In an attempt to present the harsh realities of the farming life in addition to not fitting in as he’s experienced it himself, Lee gives us a story so impactful and true to human nature that is impossible to leave one apathetic.

The material is tough but the lead performances are superb, with both Alec Secareanu (Gheorghe) and Josh O’Connor (Johnny) enjoying a captivating chemistry and being exceptional in delivering the emotional depth of their characters. Ian Hart (Martin) and Gemma Jones (Deidre) are brilliant and crudely affective as Johnny’s disabled father and firm grandmother.

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Our first image of Johnny is that of a lonely alcoholic, trapped in a torture of a life. He is not enjoying the company of friends, lovers, or his family and his work is in fact, forced labour. He has no control over his demise and that leads his family to treat him with contempt, pushing him even further to the road of alienation and anger. Johnny’s idea of human contact is so distorted that he is not able to tolerate being touched or kissed, resembling that of a scared animal that first attacks and then runs off.

Gheorghe on the other hand, is calm, grounded, confident and tender. Being an immigrant, he employs sensibility and discipline which comes in complete contrast to Johnny’s carelessness and indulgence. It is remarkable how piercing and emotive is Secareanu’s expression opposite to O’Connor’s tormented look. Johnny’s cry for help is answered in the most compassionate and loving way, granting him acceptance and leading him to a precious connection with a fellow man. The cathartic scenes that follow his surrender to Gheorghe’s affection are disarmingly affective. As Johnny opens up little by little, we witness his life’s shape changing as well.

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Apart from the great scenes between the two leads, there is another I truly loved between Johnny and his father. The particular scene brought East of Eden (1955) in mind, where Cal (James Dean) and his father (Raymond Massey) have a similar purifying exchange marked by those two little words, “Thank you” that seem able to wipe clean years of harshness and bitterness in seconds.

Experiencing the film, it felt as a sensational piece of reality, a precious lesson on the transformational power of love and on the strength necessary to seek a better life by being truer to oneself. In God’s Own Country the silence and loneliness of the Yorkshire countryside is beautifully captured and the relentless and yet, rewarding labour of its people is explicitly presented with honesty and realism. The romantic story that is born and evolves in those landscapes has an impressive intensity and passion that fits the absoluteness of its surroundings.

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After the film you might feel like praising the power of love, experience compassion for the lonely, avoid eating lamb or any livestock for a while, take a trip to the countryside, contemplate about how your surroundings reflect upon your mood and behaviour and finally, you might judge whether you’d be brave enough to oppose to your family’s expectations regarding your work, love life, etc. by following your own path.

Delusion and self-absorption crisis – Brad’s Status (2017), dir: Mike White

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Self-absorbed and tormented is the status of Brad as we find him beating himself up over the unfulfilled successes he once hoped for himself by comparing his life achievements with those of his college mates. Brad reflects upon the ambitions of his youth, his wife’s influence, the conflicted feelings regarding his son’s potential future success and that of his old friends who in his eyes have far exceeded anything he has accomplished. Voice overs as the storytelling device give us access to the perplexity of Brad’s emotions and perception of the world, the real one and the one created by his fantasies around the lives of his friends.

The film has an unsettling disharmonic score that feels like irritating and rough sound circles and matches perfectly with Brad’s introspective, obsessive analysis of his situation. On paper Brad is not a likeable character and the opening scene makes sure to illuminate his absurdity and neurotic preoccupation with measuring success. However, Mike White’s script draws a daringly honest and sarcastic picture of a middle-aged man who is taking inventory of his life and that brings out our empathy for him, as we recognise his weaknesses and egotism in ourselves.

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Ben Stiller (Brad) is transparent, vulnerable and affective with carefully measured expressiveness and focus.  Austin Abrams on the other hand projects a calm power and sensitivity as Brad’s son, Troy whose confidence and security get shaken due to his father’s high emotional investment into securing him a place in Harvard and at the same time, his questioning the value of sending him to college at all.

White’s script is piercing and impactful by shedding light to dark corners of the human psyche and giving us access to the mind of a man who submits himself into compulsive and agonising comparisons. Towards the end, Brad meets one of his old and very successful friends, in a beautifully acted and thus, uncomfortable to watch restaurant scene and the realisations he comes to carry him to a musical catharsis. In the final scene, we are given a slide hope that he might be exiting the phase of taking stock or at least, beginning to appreciate the good things in his life, his loving family for instance.

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After the film you might fear the moment you will experience a midlife crisis, think about how you measure success and remember that friend you will always feel competitive towards. You might also, contemplate upon Troy’s words about how we should only care about the opinion of our loved ones, as the rest of the world is too self-absorbed to even notice us and finally, be honest about the extent of your vanity and the length of egocentric inner dialogues that go through your mind every day.

Even Dickens’s Ghosts would have given up – All the Money in the World (2017), dir: Ridley Scott

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Being rich is the hard task, becoming rich can just as well be an idiot’s achievement. This is one of the few quotes delivered by Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty. Early on in the film we also get a mini lecture from Getty on how unnecessary and incorrect is the word ‘priceless’, as everything has a price.

Ridley Scott’s crime thriller explores the price of the human life, which here is that of the grandson of the world’s richest man at that time. Getty, the grandfather in question has made crystal clear from the beginning that he appreciates art over people, as in art there is the purity of transparency and straight-forwardness, in contrast to people’s duplicitous nature.

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Although he fantasises, quite comically, about having lived as a Roman Emperor in a previous life, it’s rather obvious he is the reincarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge, only ten times worse. His inconceivably cruel behaviour towards his daughter in law, Gail (Michelle Williams) and his 16-year old grandson (Charlie Plummer) when kidnapped, is the driving force of a real-life drama that stirs up our conception of love, family, power and greed.

The film’s rhythm fluctuates from quick transitions and fast progressions to a slower, more dramatic tone that better served the dialogues. The simple story is intertwined with the promise of complicated characters and minor twists that keep the viewer interested, despite the film’s general flat and quiet tone.

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For instance, young Paul changing hands as a hostage intensifies the thriller atmosphere, Gail’s discovery that her father-in-law has always been a cheap human being that even gave cheap gifts serves as a ungranted relief. Along with the member of the gang that felt for the boy and the doomed escape, these are all examples of what was done right here. The film might not succeed to immerse viewers completely but performances take you where you need to go to enjoy it.

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Michelle Williams didn’t bring enough energy to the part at first, seemed almost unfocussed but around the middle, she picked up by communicating the quiet pain and despair of a woman that had to put up with Getty’s obsession for negotiating prices (in this case ransom), his false pretences for not sparing a nickel and the intense pressure from the kidnappers. Indeed, as did a paparazzi in the film, I found myself wondering why she came across so calm and why even her sorrow and agony were moderately demonstrated. However, in a couple of scenes, when she finds out the price of the statue and when she discovers Getty’s bust, she is remarkable and piercing. Might have been part of Williams’s process but unfortunately, it didn’t work for me as it opposed to my innate belief that the situation asked for explosive and loud reactions.

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This sort of reaction is found in one particular scene delivered by Mark Wahlberg, here as the professional negotiator Fletcher Chase who was appointed from Getty to deal with the kidnappers’ unreasonable requests. The scene is a beautiful confrontation that results in a shocked and mentally defeated Getty. Worth mentioning here is how great Christopher Plummer was in a part that came to him unexpectedly and had to be executed then and there, without preparation within a month.

Although it might be unfair to judge without having seen the scenes he shot (nor will we ever…), I’m glad we got to see Plummer in a heavy, unapologetic and vicious version of Getty as I’m afraid that Spacey’s performance would have too much of Frank Underwoood in it. Plummer is excellent in his few scenes and manages to find the subtlest ways to demonstrate emotion, with his face assuming the role of the most precious tool.

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After the film you might feel more generous and giving, think about your grandparents, start feeling very protective of your ears, and contemplate how subjective are the value and price of our lives to the people around us. You might also, have long conversations about Getty’s psyche in order to explain his complete lack of compassion for a loved one but end up to the disappointing conclusion that accessing the source of cruelty will only provide evidence of how prone we are to it.

Godly Strength & (Com)Passion; Wonder Woman (2017), dir: Patty Jenkins

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There was something empowering, reassuring and bitter into experiencing even as a viewer the society made solely for and by women. These women, called Amazons have courage, kindness and bravery in their hearts, unique strength in their bodies and flawless technique in their minds. The film managed to recreate a utopian place where we get to first encounter our heroine, when it could easily have turned into a kitche setting. A slow motion spectacle of well-built legs, never-ending pony tales, round shields, sharp swords, elegant bows, shiny horses and white sand gives us an indulging first battle scene.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is the embodiment of her superhero name; she is a godly creation, the perfect woman: beautiful, strong, powerful, brave and kind. She lacks diplomacy and experience but she’s equipped with an unwavering belief in a simplistic story she was taught as a child (not unlike many of us…) and a formidable devotion to her altruistic mission.

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Gadot’s performance is interspersed with small details that bring out the naturalness and purity of the heroine’s spirit. In the scene where she pays her mother the bitter farewell, we can see how Gadot uses her eyes wisely to take us though the character’s emotional transitions throughout the scene.  Bringing her eyebrows together, although used predominantly to express her persistence, focus and at times, frustration did not serve as an overworn mask for her.  Our heroine has a multi-layered personality, a heart-warming smile and a compassionate nature that starts her journey into the world of men entirely pure and hopeful, only to end up realising that good and evil bleed into each other inside the flesh of every human. Diana of Themoscera, Princess of the Amazons is sincere and compassionate but also, a fearless fighter with a mission to defeat the father of all suffering and evil, Ares.

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Chris Pine is equally exquisite to watch as his Steve is funny and ingratiatingly natural in a role that has been portrayed countless times in a shamefully cliché manner. Pine, on the other hand manages to build an intense character with a piercing look that projects his agony and urgency to see evil dominating the world to an end. Similarly to Gadot, little details in his performance makes it a refreshingly sincere one, a great example of which is the boat scene where a disarmingly naïve Diana reassures him that she will restore good in the world with her magic sword. There, between his awkwardness and discomfort, there is a precious glow in his eyes partnered with a shy smile, that of a miserable child that unwillingly surrenders to the hope of happiness for a brief moment.

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It is much in the details of both their performances that I felt most immersed into the story, such as the moment when an emotionally-charged Steve explains the duality of human nature to a disappointed and broken in spirit Diana and suddenly, pushes away a lock of hair blocking his eyes, or when Diana with a broken and sweat voice appoints Charlie as the singing member of their group.

Wonder Woman offers fresh humour that feeds on the contradictions between Steve and Diana, stemming from their different background (literally, worlds apart…), their beliefs and temperament. In addition, the warm feeling of companionship and genuine friendship is guaranteed when Steve and Diana group up with Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and the Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) to set out for their dangerous journey to the front.

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The film has feminism in its core but without adopting a didactic tone and that makes Wonder Woman inspiring and powerfully evocative. I enjoyed Diana’s sharp criticisms on our society: the slavery of time, the dynamics defining the relationship between women and men, the cowardly position that nation leaders occupy, especially in critical times for their people, etc.

Even the romance is not a typical, cheesy love story but a rather original one, with the comical element replacing unnecessary smoochy encounters between the two. The friendship, admiration and respect for one another supersede lust, thus adding authenticity to their story. Also, their electrifying chemistry and humour support the main storyline without tricking our focus away from the film’s thematic spine.

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Wonder Woman presents an assembly of great and memorable scenes that prove the quality of the script and masterful directing from Patty Jenkins:

Diana’s spontaneous reactions to the clothes she’s trying on is a comical magnifying glass on the oppression suffered by 19th century women and the outrageousness of certain social norms. The entire boat scene is once more a funny statement against societal restrictions and unnecessary rituals and rules.  In parliament where Diana shames men politicians for their disregard of human life when it is not themselves who will be sacrificed in the name of power, we are reminded that true leaders see themselves as no different than their fellow man and that this is unfortunately true only in Themyscira (and other utopian places, where humans are nowhere to be found….).

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Finally, a glorious scene that honours the character’s 75 year-old legacy and pays credit to its iconic status is where we find Diana bravely embracing her inner need to help others by attempting to cross No Man’s Land. I dare you try not to get goose bumps when Diana first steps outside the fortress and takes a rain of bullets in a thrilling, CGI, slow motion spectacle. The score composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams  is not blameless either as its raw, dark and heroic tone enhances the impressive visuals.

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After the film you might feel too emotional and a little numb, admit that perfection might be achievable after all, or admit that there are gorgeous Aliens among us, consider starting horseback riding or sword-fighting, use coloured tablets to make your bath water look extraordinary, have an inner dialogue about whether Ares’s intentions were slightly misunderstood and finally, fantasise the day when men are extinct and women rule this beautiful world.