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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A ‘Good’ Beat Story by the ‘Poker Princess’ – Molly’s Game (2017), dir: Aaron Sorkin

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Molly’s Game is a woman’s psychography with juicy incidents and legal repercussions embedded in it. Sorkin’s script never disappoints as characters fire their brilliant and profound lines to each other with great velocity and precision and thus, amaze and impress us while also, saving the slightly overlong film from feeling tiring. Daniel Pemberton’s score dresses the film in energetic, upbeat tones, melancholic pieces and thrilling bursts as we’ve seen in his previous works Steve Jobs, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, The Counselor, etc.

The opening scene serves as a dynamic introduction to the competitive, distinguished and smart character of Molly Bloom, a true survivor and determined fighter. Molly is a sassy, impetuous and charming woman with a one-of-a-kind story and so, represents a symbol of both femininity and feminism. Jessica Chastain’s voiceovers are guiding us through Molly’s experiences and life lessons while the film bounces back and forth in time between her childhood, her career steps and the present-time lawsuit.

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The incredibly talented Chastain employs the body language signs and the smooth, thin voice that help her pass for the 22 year-old Molly (when she is in fact 40). To witness her transformation is tremendously exciting, as Chastain’s captivating confidence achieves a magnificent connection with the audience. By staying true to the fiery and sexual real-life persona, she executes a powerful female role beautifully, with precision and absolute focus and makes it impossible to take our eyes off her.

The scenes between Chastain and Idris Elba (her lawyer) are remarkably well-acted and resemble the quickest ping pong game of witty lines. The stories of the players involved keep up the interest; the eerie and villainous ‘Player X’ (Michael Cera), the listless and silly-looking ‘Bad Brad’ (Brian d’Arcy James), the tragic figure of Harlan (Bill Camp) and the mumbling caricature of Douglas (Chris O’Dowd) give the film its’ unique poker flavour.

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After having experienced admittedly traumatising events Molly seems powerless and passive when defending herself against the prosecution. To her rescue comes of course, her lawyer and a demonstration of his conviction of her innocence and – despite having broken the law – integrity escalates to an intense argument. Although I recognise the necessity of the scene, it slightly bothered me that Molly’s independent and unapologetic demeanour had to be diminished toward the end of the film and that she should be passionately defended by someone else. I recognise however, that showing Molly defeated and humiliated enhances the story’s credibility, as even the toughest fighters can reach the end of their rope.

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A genuinely funny and emotional scene is that of Costner (Molly’s father) and Chastain, taking the form of a humorous hubris against psychotherapy and shedding light to the unspoken sorrows that drifted them apart. The first argument her father makes is that her subconscious motive behind running the high-stakes games was to control powerful men, having being supressed by his demanding attitude as a child. He soon revokes this as it was only meant to provoke her and set her tongue loose regarding the main pain between them.

It got me thinking however, whether this argument could in fact, stand. Looking at the film and how Molly used her sexuality, to simply manipulate players and preserve her position, I’d say that she wanted power, period. Reigning over a male-dominated industry certainly granted her an even greater pleasure for going against the unwritten rules but overall, she was not aiming to control powerful men but simply, powerful people.

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After the film you might give poker a try, google Molly Bloom, explore Chastain’s filmography to the last, be reminded of how decisive our style choices are in shaping people’s opinion of us. You might imagine whether you’d have pleaded guilty or not, had it been you in Molly’s place. Also, the film might bring forth concerns about your risk love or aversion, whether you’d have the grit to go against the law, or how deeply corrupted you’d end up being by greed for money and power. Finally, you might reconsider the realistic distance between success and failure.

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.

Who Dares, Wins – The Disaster Artist (2017), dir: James Franco

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For decades, the writer, director, producer and star of the ‘best worst film ever made’ has been a mystery. We still have no clue about his country of origin, his age, where his money come from, etc. But isn’t it the mystery around one’s origins and personality a necessary ingredient for exciting people’s curiosity and giving birth to wild theories around them? In the case of Tommy Wiseau in particular, his secretive and yet, absurdly eccentric persona rose to fame when it was channelled through his first ‘masterpiece’, The Room.

Watching The Disaster Artist you get the feeling that James Franco has a special connection with Wiseau’s persona and as clear a vision as the latter claimed to have while making his own film. Putting them side by side (end credits prove the adaptation has excelled in detail), it is evident that Franco has fully immersed into Wiseau’s existence and got out with more shades that we ever got from the man himself in interviews. Franco captures the bizarre, outwardly amalgam of accents, the occasional high-pitch finishing of words, the dizzy intonation and of course, the signature fake laughter.

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The film succeeds to introduce the character in a scene shockingly funny, painfully embarrassing and also, strangely relatable that manages to connect you with this bizarre man. He is passionate and daring but instantly strikes us as a tragic clown as he is not aware of himself in relation to others and that is a guarantee for loneliness. And lonely he is, until he finds a true friend in Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), or ‘Babyface’(a la Tommy) and they begin the journey to stardom together.

The film immediately starts to explore the bond between the two, with a hopeful and honest bromance flourishing around their common aspirations. But what at first, looks like a hymn to unlikely friendship and an inspirational pursuit of a dream, soon becomes a tale haunted by jealousy, bursts of anger, and manipulative handling.

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The film insinuates that beyond jealousy and fear of losing a companion, there’s a romantic infatuation that triggers Tommy’s despair when Greg slowly slips away. However, it is disappointing that it avoids taking a closer look and consequently, ends up raising questions around Tommy’s psyche and sexuality, and Greg’s inexhaustible tolerance.

Franco’s portrayal of Tommy is full of compassion and childish spontaneity that makes him a likeable caricature, funny but never entirely, as there’s great guilt in laughing at someone who is doing their best, however insufficient and ridiculous that might be. This is perhaps what makes the film uniquely entertaining, the duplicity of the source of our laughter, genuinely farcical scenes layered with the realisation that the person in question has no intention of being funny and thus, having is laugh at the tragedy of a man being trapped in his ridiculousness.

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Franco allows us to peep into Tommy’s feelings and sense the vulnerability and the pain stemming from rejection. There are scenes where we get a glimpse of a more complex human being that escapes the caricature. These scenes include his ‘Shakespeare performance’ in the restaurant, the advice he gets from the acting teacher, the casting scene where he is trying to ‘lose the accent’, his confrontation with his film crew for their insults (captured by his behind-the-scenes cameraman/snitch), and his despair towards the audience’s reaction to his movie, amongst others.

In these, Franco’s face is heart-breaking as a slight emotional transparency is achieved, just enough to invoke empathy but quickly, flashes back the childness and stubborn persistence in ridiculousness of the man. To make matters worse, Tommy’s immature and absurd reactions to Greg’s success with women, and later on, to his first potential career break show us his unflattering side and are inconsistent to his generous and friendly nature, as presented at the beginning of the film.

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Admittedly, Tommy’s angry attacks and violent disappointment is bearing the pressures of completing his project but also, the helplessness of his utter loneliness. According to Sestero who wrote the book adapted here by Franco, Wiseau felt that ‘no one was grateful’ for giving them a job or ‘respected his vision’ and perhaps, despite his constant, unreasonable denial of reality he might have had some doubts himself about his abilities and the quality of his brainchild.

In spite of the darkness and loneliness we mostly infer than actually see in the film, there is an ensemble of great supporting actors, with Seth Rogen giving voice to the audience, Jacki Weaver expressing love for the craft and bafflement over the script, Paul Scheer being discreetly funny, and many others.

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After the film you might invite your friends over for a re-watch of The Room, greet everyone starting with “oh, hi…” and try at least once screaming “You’re tearing me apart…” a la Wiseau. You might be haunted for the rest of your days by Tommy’s stage imitation of Marlon Brando’s Streetcar Named Desire famous scene, be tempted to display some craziness in a public place and perhaps, remember when was the last time YOU took a chance and went after your dream, despite it being against the odds and everyone else’s opinion?

The King and the Showman; Battle of the Sexes (2017), dir: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

uk posterWhat could be more satisfactory than watching a charismatic person embody another charismatic person?! (Many things I imagine but that is not the point here…) This is the case for Emma Stone and Billie Jean King who in the Battle of the Sexes found one another and a strong and emotive performance was born. Apart from a successfully achieved – however unlikely – physical resemblance (apart from the dentalized lisp they coincidentally share…), Emma Stone captures the speech patterns, the forward-leaning walking style and all the traits of King’s introvert nature. She is mesmerising and powerful, she fills the screen with her talent and focus.

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Steve Carell gives us Bobby Riggs, the man who had a very relevant for his time (unfortunately, for ours too…) and showbizzie idea to put a feminist to fight on court a ‘sugar daddy’ chauvinist pig. Carell is excellent at adding layers to an otherwise ridiculous persona; like Stone, he does a great job at presenting a most realistic version of his character, capturing Bobby’s caricature traits, his quick and pompous talking style and his social talents that extend from the bets on court he sets with friends to the imaginative games he improvises to entertain his son. However, Carell doesn’t leave it there, he delves deeper into Bobby’s psyche and delivers a more personal portrait, that of a man who faces addiction, struggles with a dull routine that sets him even further away from a stardom he feels he still deserves, and who is in denial when things get tough.

Emma Stone is equally exquisite in her portrait of this great woman and athlete. She is playing in many courts so to speak, as she is in a fight for gender equality first in the sport but then also, this extends to the American society at large. In addition, she is facing an immense challenge in preparation for the game against Riggs and on the day of course and finally, she is discovering her sexuality.

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Andrea Riseborough is a lovely hairdresser, Marilyn who becomes Bille Jean’s first female lover. The scenes they share are exceptionally sweet and intoxicating thanks to their chemistry and the numbing close-ups. Numbing and investigative in the sense that this way of shooting puts us in the place of these women, admiring each other, carefully observing every little trait they have, the smiles, the eyes, the shyness, and the words that carefully and slowly come out. There is something precious and overly personal in capturing their relationship in romantic and dreamy shots.

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Other memorable mentions from a cast perspective; Sarah Silverman is incredibly powerful and effortlessly funny as Gladys Heldman, the tennis promoter who fought alongside King and her fellow tennis pros against the male tennis establishment. Alan Cumming, a stylist whose warmth and words infested with meaning created some delightfully wise moments on screen.

Larry King, Billie Jean’s husband is played by Austin Stowell who is a very pretty face but not just that. It is thanks to the hotel scene where he has an unexpected encounter with lingerie that we understand how good an actor he is; the stillness of his eyes, the confusion that gives its place to bitterness and the process of making a crucial decision for his marriage, to swallow his words or act on them. His performance is transparent to all these thoughts and feelings and the scene is undoubtedly one of the most emotionally charged of the film alongside with the long-anticipated match and the first encounters of Billie and Marilyn.

The film gave room for powerful performances, but it is not a very good one. It could have benefited by being 30 minutes shorter and by better editing in the sense that transitions between the parallel narratives disempowered the tension of the storytelling. In reality, Battle of the Sexes seems to be treating the events with a lightness that does not do credit to the battle in question.

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Somehow the film puts a veil on the darkness and cruelty of that time, focusing on the superficial elements of the actual show and not gazing at the emotional effect discrimination places in our protagonists’ hearts. Also, it felt as Bobby’s vulgarity was overshadowed by his portrayal as a harmless clown, which could not have been possibly the case. A man capable of such grotesque behaviour is imbecile and harmful as he accredits similar views held by other members of the society as we’ve recently witnessed with Donald Trump in the US elections for instance. Battle of the sexes has a documentary feel and a soundtrack that easily transports us in the ‘70s however, only performances and certain lines give the piece tension and thrill with the rest of it feeling like a silent and passive depiction of events or to be more accurate, the backstories of THE event.

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After the film you might check the original game, look up the amazing Billie Jean King, try to imitate Sarah Silverman’s accent and play some tennis because it is an amazing and thrilling sport. Also, man or woman you might take a few seconds to go through your most unprocessed, instinctive thoughts and pick those that have some Bobby in them and then make sure you understand why they’re there and how you get read of them. However, if you can’t find anything wrong with them then, don’t waste a minute longer and go see a therapist immediately! Finally, you might find yourself wondering how honest you are about your true desires and what are YOU going to do to change the things that matter?

Love’s GLOrious epilogue – Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017), dir: Paul McGuigan

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The film is a personal portrait of a love story, no matter how unusual and morbid it becomes. The early memories of their affair interwind with the last days of Gloria’s life and in fact, are only two years apart, which makes it feel even more an unfair and tragic a conclusion. Flashbacks and the present are smoothly alternated in a way that will make you think about parallel universes and the relativity of knowledge and time. The reality is that because we are set to see Gloria’s end since the very beginning, this tragic disposition sets a tone of inescapable misery and grief that affects the lightness and playfulness of their early days of carefree loving.

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It is an affectionate yet sad story of an improbable romance. The 30-year age difference between Gloria and Peter challenges the credibility of this love affair but given the charisma of this woman and her brilliant acting career it makes sense why in the eyes of a young man, a struggling actor nonetheless she would be the most desirable woman.

And to be fair, she truly is. Annette Bening (Gloria Grahame) is so powerful, charming and piercing that you won’t be getting enough of her. Glo’s voice is hypnotising and smooth like a fingertips caress, her body moves with grace and her eyes sparkle with childish vitality and excitement. Annette Bening’s presence is so strong and mesmerising that fills the screen and your heart with admiration, anticipation, sorrow and tenderness.

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Jamie Bell is excellent as Peter Turner, his energy is infectious and his affection transparent as it feels incredibly original. It is an amazing gift he has to always appear authentic and emotionally charged with his physicality playing a great part in that.

I loved the dancing scene they share when they first meet because it a splendid prologue of their later affair and a glimpse of who they truly are. They are not synchronised but they are a pair, he is energetic and passionate, she is delicate and craves for attention and desire. The restless movement of the camera transmits the sexual tension, the eagerness for closeness and the curiosity for each other. The Romeo & Juliet scene towards the end was also an unforgettable experience as performances were sensational and the gesture in itself is the most moving declaration of love.

If nothing else, the film gives room for great, impactful performances and a bittersweet feeling about love. In that sense, Film Stars is a film about giving someone what they need, offering affection, sharing amazing moments, standing by them when trouble appears and finally, coming face to face with an immeasurably painful loss.

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After the film you might re-watch some Gloria Grahame films, question whether age difference limits sexual attraction, think about what makes you fall in love; could admiration be an integral part of it? Also, you might start picturing yourself in 30 years from now and wonder whether love will have a central role in it and finally, you might be entertained by the thought that experiencing a great romance could occur in the most improbable time and place (like Liverpool…?)