The limp that mushroomed into a castration – The Beguiled (2017), dir: Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola’s new film tells the tragic story of eight people brought together by circumstances, or in other words tells the dark tale born by two opposing forces, the man and the woman, the sex drive and the suppression of instincts, the punishing control and the uncontrollable freedom.

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The Beguiled is an adaptation of Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name, both based on the Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel “A Painted Devil”. I strongly encourage you to watch the original film, starring Clint Eastwood only to perceive how unsimilar can be two stories drilling from one source (with many of the dialogues and scenes found in both). The tone of the films is so diametrically opposite and feels like two people told you the same story but saw its characters in an utterly different light. The first person saw a school of sexually frustrated young girls and lonely hugs that stage a porn play with a wounded soldier at the lead and the second person saw ladies, frustrated with their drained of pleasure and excitement lives whose most raw and vengeful instincts get triggered by the seductive presence of a wounded soldier.

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The original film is eccentric, crude and gripping as it strips (literally) the heroines and villainises them either through their admittedly cruel actions or through their manic claim of the Corporal’s attention. Coppola wouldn’t stand for such a simplistic depiction of sexual deprivation and carnal desire so she created an adaptation far more fair to the female psych and libido. Elle Fanning’s Alicia is a teenage girl bored to the death in this cage of a school and filled with hormones in her stage of sexual awakening and not a slutty and persistent little devil, acting with the confidence of a much older and experienced woman (Jo Ann Harris).

In addition, leaving out several controversial elements of the first movie help maintain focus on the central storyline, such as McBurney’s kiss to the 12-year old Amy after he reassures her that she’s “old enough for kisses” (eh, pervert alert right there…), or the fact that Miss Martha’s late brother was also her lover (eh, brotherly love took a wildly inappropriate turn…).

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It is no wonder Sofia Coppola won the Best Director award in Cannes Festival, as The Beguiled is a masterful cinematic piece that gently pulls you into the world of these women.  The images of the countryside with the misty landscapes and the  ghost-like whipping willows surrounding the school of white marble in classical architectural style alternate with the claustrophobic scenes that find  its inhabitants interacting under the mysterious candle light (choosing a shorter aspect ratio, resembling a box in order to transit the sense of entrapment).

The film tells the story laconically (94 minutes to be precise) and yet, achieves a deeper character analysis than the 1971 feature. The narrative develops in a perfect circle; Amy gathering mushrooms in the forest, McBurney being carried by the girls, the lens laid steady outside the main gate.

This version builds up a subtle tension in the atmosphere that facilitates our immersion into the era and the psych of those women. The stylised environment, the purity of nature and the beauty and innocence of the girls as demonstrated by their manners, their clothes and their lessons makes the unescapable decay even more painful.

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This adaptation of The Beguiled is elegant and flows with the ease of a fairytale on screen despite it being a dark and emotionally dry one. There isn’t enough drama stemming from the unfortunate sequence of events but the tension and tragic irony are effectively communicated. A great part in that plays the lack of a soundtrack, as the story is told in the silence of the Virginian countryside, with only the sound of nature (birds, wind, etc.) and the violent echo of cannons dressing the images.

There are comical elements dispersed into the narrative and the depiction of the characters too. For instance, Edwina in her silent torment and lazy movements may come across less tragic than intended and Miss Martha, being so self-conflicted and always pretending to be composed, blunt and austere might make you laugh. That is not to say that Nicole Kidman’s portrayal is a caricature of a religious, old maid. On the contrary, it is a flawless one and that’s why in her desperate state, we can perceive her repressed sensitivity as well as the ridiculousness of her behaviour.

Colin Farrell is an exceptional and gifted performer that can incorporate sensitivity, anger, pain and laughter in his act. His McBurney is particularly chivalrous and charming but also, a true chameleon that becomes instantly aware that his survival is strictly dependent on him choosing the right shades of colours to match the diverse expectations of his interlocutors.

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The scenes you’ll love…

The film is emotionally flat and visually delicate, leaving you with a sensation resembling the clean and soft taste of vanilla, enjoyable but not strong enough for your palate. Nevertheless, there are many intense scenes that anchor this period fairytale.

In fact, the scenes that draw the dynamic among the women in relation to their handsome guest are a pleasure to watch. One of my favourite scenes is the apple pie dinner scene where all of them strive to earn McBurney’s affections in the most naïve and foolish manner.

The scene where Corporal McBurney attempts to get closer to Miss Edwina by diving into her psychological portrait and giving flesh to her fantasy of an empathic and romantic lover. The trembling hands, the facial expressions betraying her agony and the shattered voice when admitting that her greatest wish is to be taken away from that soul-draining place are only a few elements of Kirsten Dunst’s performance that prove how incredible an actress she is.

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Another remarkable scene is the bizarrely erotic sponge bath Miss Martha gives to McBurney. Nicole Kidman’s careful pauses and heavy exhalations show how incredibly hard is to be a constant judge of one’s true self. I wouldn’t say that Miss Martha is facing a dilemma because unlike Edwina, she made the choice between duty and desire a long time ago. Of course, her cold masquerade is in fact transparent and underneath it defenseless lay her needs and desires, ready to be triggered by McBurney’s presence and deliberate charm.

Towards the end comes the scene where Jon confronts the “butchers” and it’s an impressive and painful act followed by Edwina’s meaningful and passionate apology.

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So who is the beguiled in this story?

I don’t believe that the ladies are deceived by McBurney. They are all certainly aroused and seduced by him but it happened due to his playful nature and not with a malicious intent.

It is perhaps McBurney who should be considered the beguiled character in this story because he was misled by the graceful women who welcomed and admired him, only to wake up one morning with no second leg, or their sympathy.

I bet that the majority of women watching the film will sympathise with McBurney on how cruelly he was treated. Jon is man that received great attention and an equal amount of temptation so he acted as nature intended. He is not a bad man or deceitful but simply playful and flirty. The ladies however, turned from innocent admirers to vicious and “vengeful bitches” when he became a threat. Nonetheless, at that time women had no power to display and many hazards to look out for, and it is well known that fear mixed with frustration make the deadliest cocktail.

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Some might argue that it is self-preservation that led them to murder but it is certainly more than that. They had the option of reconciliation but instead chose to complete his punishment and send him off for the long journey.

The turning point for the tragedy was the decision to deprive him of his limp and the reasons behind Miss Martha’s action and Edwina’s silent participation are ambiguous. The amputation could be a metaphor for the castration that women secretly desire to perform on men as the apogee of their punishment for having been oppressed by them physically, mentally, socially and sexually for centuries.

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In contrast, it could be a broader critic on the cruelty and menace that rejection brings out in every human being, irrespective of gender. Men could have performed a different but equally harsh punishment to the woman who after having toyed with their feelings choice the bed of a much younger man. Similarly, had it been a male school and a Joanna instead of Jon, the antagonistic, young boys would have conspired to get rid of her after her fall from their grace.

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After the film you might want to talk with a Southern accent, eat apple pie or/and mushrooms, admit it’s useful to know how to stitch nice & even, look up how many poisonous mushrooms exist (and naturally, avoid them for a while for no actual reason…), you might be extra careful when walking up & down the stairs and finally, imagine an alternative ending in which the heroines decide they definitely need a gardener and also, learn how to share.

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!

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales/ Salazar’s Revenge (2017), dir: Rønning and Sandberg

 

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Low expectations had already infested my mind when I entered the theatre to watch the fifth film of one my most beloved franchises. I fell in love with the first film in 2003, watched it countless time and dreamed of white shores, boats, rum and crazy, lowlife companions. I liked the second and third but they didn’t quite live up to the fun and the thrills of the original. As to the fourth film, we can all pretend it never happened. Coming now to the fifth time that Jack Sparrow’s adventures are brought to the big screen, I have to tell you it’s a film worth watching if like me, you follow the characters since the beginning. Being a loyal fan, you will be able to experience all the breadth of emotions, laughs and victories with the characters along the way. 

Salazar’s Revenge is directed by the Norwegians Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, known for their Academy Award-nominated high sea film Kon-Tiki who managed to bring back some of our favourite elements of the first films, mostly their simplicity and humour. There were also many artful shots that reflected their expertise in using water as the perfect setting for creating engaging visuals.

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The plot lacks twists, the alliances formed are easily-followed and the ending although predictable is source of pure joy for fans. There is a new ‘couple’ of course, Elizabeth’s and Will’s son, Henry Turner, played by Brenton Thwaites and the accused-of-being-a-witch astronomer Carina Smyth, portrayed by Kaya Scodelario both of whom do a great job, being fresh, witty, and convincing by setting the right tone of romance, friendship and rivalry. 

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Captain Hector Barbossa, my personal favourite, is in a fantastic state of wealth and sea-domination when Jack’s past sins take a toll on him too, being a pirate and all… Geoffrey Rush is once more an absolute master of the art, and revives a character that has shown multiple layers through the series. In Dead Men, his devotion and protecting nature emerges once more and not only for his beloved Black Pearl. His signature laughter and scornful grimace can rightfully compete with Depp’s zigzaggy and rock n’roll persona. 

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Speaking of which, if there was one thing I didn’t feel as familiar here that was Jack Sparrow! Bizzarely, he felt heavy and tired, as if he was reluctantly awaken in the middle of a good dream and went along with the action only because there was no other choice (just like in his actual opening scene in the film). What I mean is that there wasn’t much passion in the performance that the teasing and cunning look he delivered every sentence with in the past is missing here. Perhaps it was intentional, as part of the character’s development and in order to reflect his downfall given that he hits bottom when in the absence of the Pearl, his crew and his rum, he trades his once most precious possession after his ship, his magic compass. 

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Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem) is a dark, tormented and merciless figure that has been consumed by hate all his life and all his death! Salazar and his crew, who have fallen victims of a curse – just like Barbossa and his own in the Curse of the Black Pearl – that turned them into ghosts and kept them trapped in the Devil’s Triangle and we all guess who was the culprit… Having read reviews that accused the film of being overly surrealistic, I expected outrageous additions to the Pirates’ universe however; I found more similarities to the first film than contradictions. If surrealism and fantasy is not your cup of tea and you expect an accurate depiction of pirate life then I suggest you not to watch it or if you do, to not criticise the film for not being something that it has never pretended to be! The whole franchise is based on mythology, magic, curses and monsters. In my case, it was only the fish-like crew of the Flying Dutchman that seriously challenged my aesthetics and posed a threat to identification with the character of David Jones, as it was simply too hard to see the man beneath the mollusc. However, it didn’t feel far-fetched because I’ve embarked on the adventure with the Pirates on a ship of skeleton-looking fellas under the moonlight, admitting there were supernatural creatures in the unknown sea…

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Salazar’s Revenge is an entertaining vision with memorable bits, including the bank robbery attempt, finding the stunningly sparkly island where Poseidon’s trident lies, hearing the tale from Salazar’s mouth and all the ending scenes basically (yes I cried, so what?!). It is also rich in funny moments, like when Jack encounters the very French guillotine, when Carina is trying to explain to pirates that she is an astronomer and a horologist, when Jack is brought into a horrifying marital engagement etc. 

Love of many kinds is touched upon again in the franchise: the father – son/daughter bond and sacrificial nature of the relationship, friendship, romance, and of course the love for the sea/freedom and for the beauty that captured both Jack’s and Hector’s heart, the Black Pearl. 

The ending brought me tears because I’m soft, a sucker for romance, sacrifices, reunions, and that signature score of the Pirates of the Caribbean that is embedded in my brain and brings about strong emotions every single time it touched my ears without fail. 

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After the film, you might want to watch once more your favourite Pirates of the Caribbean film (chances are it’s The Curse of Black Pearl), start counting the stars, you might develop an interest about astronomy, have a drink with rum, say “hombre” with unprovoked hostility, call your dad to declare your love for him and fantasise that your next holiday will involve a boat.