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.

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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.

Kill them, baby, one more time; Alien: Covenant (2017), dir: Ridley Scott

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Prepare yourselves to repeat the ritual of alien penetration in the fellowship of the space exploration or as is the case in Covenant, colonisation. You’ve surely being here before, even if you’ve only watched the first film of the Alien trilogy but that doesn’t mean you will leave the theatre unsatisfied.

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The film deals with the origins of creation and the creator-creation relationship parallel to raw and cruel scenes against humanity in an adventure where the stronger prevails. The Covenant consists the bridge between the end of Prometheus and the events in the original Alien, by diving into the origins of the alien blood-thirsty beasts that first appeared in theatres in 1979.  Good flow of scenes that are smoothly connected and executed with great performances and excellent directing from Scott who is a masterful expert on the sci-fi genre.

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In Covenant, Scott is using the cult cinematic myth of the Alien with no desire to innovate and invent. The film feeds upon the nostalgic feeling of the genuine scares of the original movie without adding something new or remarkable to the classic story. A smarter approach to the scenario would have saved me the disappointment provoked by certain scenes; such as the one where the Captain willingly looks into an opening Xenomorph’s egg when treacherous David  – who minutes before has flipped out when the Captain shot a Xenomorph that had just beheaded a member of the crew – suggests so, or the ending scene that shockingly reveals something we saw coming, if not since the beginning of the film, then by the moment David and Walter are left alone to fight and only one makes it back…

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However, it was a great choice to locate the story on a macabre-looking place, a planet with great vegetation that hides the city of the dead in its core. Aren’t these the perfect surroundings to prepare you for doom?!  And so the rain falls non-stop and the creatures wandering around seem to have made killing and impregnating our misfortunate travelers their life mission.

My favourite bits of the film are its real stars: the Xenomorphs. Similarly to their 1979 predecessors, the monsters in Covenant are more faithful to Giger’s original art and as elegant as the angels of death are a horrifying spectacle indeed. Although, Scott patiently prepares the viewer by slowly setting the atmosphere of terror for the time that the crew will fight for their lives in blood and naivety, the overall predictability of the structure fails this build-up. In an interview, Scott mentions that his goal is giving us time to identify with the characters and care for them but in the 45 minutes (almost the ½ of the film as it last 122 minutes) before the deathly action begins, I felt boredom instead of sympathy…

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However, it was only when Xenomorphs made their appearance that my stomach got tight and one thought governed my mind; had I been them, I wouldn’t last a minute! Oh wait… neither did they!

The choreographed attack by Xenomorphs in a field of tall grass in the first half and the visceral hunting that follows and sees blood and gore gush from every pore of the film are thrilling. Our very first scene of a Neomorph bursting out of a human and the subsequent panicking and killing is gripping and utterly transporting. I particularly loved the scene where David approaches the Xenomorph in an attempt to communicate and gain the creature’s respect.

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Xenomorphs have an elegant shape and a relentless appetite for screams, blood and human flesh, which makes their presence a menace of disproportionate dimensions for the poor, fragile humans. The fact that the opponents are so unfairly unequal made me loose interest when almost all heads dropped down and it was only Daniel’s character that reassured me for the upcoming – and single in the entire film – victory in the final battle. Katherine Waterston is a force of nature and an artful actress that takes you with her in her emotional pain at first, and then in her stubbornness for survival and escape.

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Michael Fassbender’s dual performance is the perk and the differentiating element of the Covenant compared to the other Alien movies.  He acts against himself and delivers an interesting performance. A good example is the scene where an ecstatic David attempts to prove his point to his look-alike Walter and manages to set scenery charged with homoerotic energy and ample narcissism that is actually – and I hope intentionally – rather funny.

The film failed to immerse me into the existential and religious Odyssey supposedly experienced by the characters. David despises his maker and the entire humanity in fact, considering them a weak and rightly dying bread. He resists to a servant’s life that was destined for him and thanks to his appointed talents and abilities David manages to do plenty of harm. David is technically and emotionally more evolved than Walter but suffers from a delusional fever of creation obsessiveness and a severe God complex. Although, he is not a relatable character he is admittedly the most interesting one.

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After the film you might wonder if you’d ever consider taking part in a space colonisation mission, think of the way you’d like to be killed by a Xenomorph (probably the least painful or the most eccentric..), pick which one you’d like best: being a human or an android, start appreciating the flute, never take a shower listening to loud music again and think how cool it would be to have a look-alike to take your place whenever you fancy!