Effie Gray (Richard Laxton, 2014)

Effie Gray
I’ve never much cared for pre-Raphaelite art; I’ve no particular problem with it, it just doesn’t aesthetically appeal. And yet the stories that arose from the movement have always had a bit of drama about them that makes it surprising there haven’t been more films about it. This one, written and produced by Emma Thompson, who also joins a pretty strong cast, takes one of the most infamous episodes in the history of one of its most iconic figures.

John Ruskin (here played by Greg Wise) was an influential art critic and writer who used his immense influence to support the young movement, and largely cemented his place in history in doing so. At the height of his fame, he married the young Euphemia (“Effie”) Gray (Dakota Fanning), having already met her years before, when she was aged only twelve. All seemed to be going well, both bride and groom blissfully happy, until the wedding night when Ruskin spurned his new wife, and they would never again seriously consider sexual relations with one another. The traditional story is that Ruskin was somehow repulsed by the reality of his previously idealised bride. The more scurrilous rumour was that he was shocked by her pubic hair, and this film hints at that in a suggestion that he might have been sexually or romantically drawn to inappropriately young girls (if not actually paedophilic, in preferring young children, then being drawn to the innocence of young teens – this seems to be true to the history, as far as I can tell).

There is a lot of attention to the mores and practical realities of 19th Century life, and to how trapped this makes Effie, and this gives the film an authenticity that saves it from being simply a potboiler. In addition, the early depiction of Ruskin, if perhaps not exactly flattering, seems to pay more than lip service to both his talent and his good intentions. As the film progresses, he becomes both less sympathetic and also more of a cartoon – whether this is founded on actual accounts of the man, I do not pretend to know, but it does give the film a slightly less convincing tone, though it may well be justified and Ruskin’s actions have to be seen as both suspect in motivation and cruel in effect.

The film is quiet and reserved, making it quite suffocating and claustrophobic, for me as a viewer as well as for Effie as the heroine, until it opens up near the end as Effie finds sympathy, affection and later love from John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge).

Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)


This is one that had passed me by but, with the remake out this year (which I’ve also, so far, missed), it made it on to my “fun easy trash to watch’ list but pleasantly surprised me; yes, it was trashy but it wasn’t just good fun being a little more complex than I at first thought.

I grew up reading 2000AD comic, so was well acquainted with Judge Dredd, and this film clearly takes that template of a robotic uber-cop, pitiless and indestructible, and gives it both an origin story and a pathos. It also lays down plenty of templates of its own, for other sci-fi to draw on later, District 13 being an obvious one to me, taking its basic plot of corrupt developers in league with crooks in a future dystopia. The Robocop’s view of the world is also something that you see in numerous other films and tv shows (though this also borrowed from Terminator, and there is also a repeating section where news and adverts are shown, to give us a vision of this future world, in all its shallowness.

In a future Detroit, the police force is largely being run by OCP, a private company that also has plans for a major development project, yet also seems happy for the criminals to have the upper hand over the police, though there are plans to introduce robot police. One of these, an extremely sinister and martial form of policing, is demonstrated spectacularly unsuccessfully at an OCP board meeting. This failure severely embarrasses the OCP vice president, Dick Jones (Ronny cox) and gives a younger executive, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) the opportunity to advance his own project and, maybe, to unseat Jones.

Meanwhile, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is a good cop entering a really bad precinct, where he is partnered with Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen, looking particularly 1980s), pretty much a super-cop herself. On their first patrol, they encounter a group of thieves making their getaway and chase them to a warehouse where Murphy is brutally murdered, Lewis unable to help. The criminals get away and, shortly afterwards, the first Robocop appears, his face looking rather familiar.

Over the course of the film, we see the corruption of OCP go far deeper than was immediately apparent (even if we could guess) and the immorality of the very concept of the Robocop, as well as sadness of this particular one, as memories start to return (despite his programming). Weller’s unusual face makes him easy to recognise, rarely having to remove his helmet for us to do so. Some of the effects are pretty ropey, and the end of the movie does descend into standard, maybe sub-par, shoot-em-up fare, actually laughable at times. Still, with its subversive touches and moments of subtlety, this was far better than I’d expected.

Day of Wrath (Carl Dreyer, 1943)

Day of Wrath
Made during the second world war by a director who had to flee Nazi-occupied Sweden shortly after making it, this film is claimed to have subtle anti-Nazi themes, though they were perhaps too subtle for me to get; to me, it’s just a good film.

It opens as a healing woman, Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier), is forced to flee her house to escape the mob who have arrived to burn her as a witch. She alights on the house of the pastor, Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose) to ask his young wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin) to hide her. Anne is Absolon’s second wife, and is much younger than him. We learn very early on that Herlofs Marte is indeed a witch, as was Anne’s mother, though this fact has been kept from Anne. Anne’s mother was not tried as a witch as Absolon conspired to keep her secret, in return for Anne as his bride. Herlofs Marte is discovered and put on trial, threatening to reveal Anne’s secret if Absolon does not save her.

Absolon’s mother hates Anne (it’s not clear at this point whether she knows of Anne’s secret or just sees Anne as flighty and unworthy of her respected husband) and when Absolon’s son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye) arrives, she is horrified to see Martin and Anne forming a friendship that seems to her to be dangerous and unhealthy. And, when Anne discovers the truth about her heritage, her attitude to Absolon changes dramatically.

This film looks beautiful, shot in a way that makes the monochrome look full of life and shade. It also takes a nuanced view of both the plight of the witches and the fears of the community in which they live. My partner doubted whether Herlofs Marte and Anne were indeed witches, on the bases that witchcraft and Satan aren’t real. On this basis, the Exorcist or the Omen wouldn’t be about the devil either, but I don’t think that argument holds up, correct as the rational basis of it undoubtedly is. I think whether or not you consider them witches is open to question – but everyone in the film seems to take this as evident, including the witches themselves.

Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)

Gone Girl
I’ve not read the book, and scrupulously avoided spoilers, and enjoyed this, I think, much more for doing so, and so will try to avoid giving spoilers myself. This is a twisty, intelligent and darkly comic thriller that went into directions I never expected.

As the film begins, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) goes to the bar he runs with his sister, to bitch a little about the fifth wedding anniversary he is going to have to face with his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), with whom he is no longer so happily married. While there, he gets a phone call from a neighbour to advise that he should come home. He arrives to find the door ajar, and some minor damage that might indicate a struggle. Not, at this point, overly concerned he calls the police.

Finding out that Amy was the model for her mother’s range of popular “Amazing Amy” children’s books, and is therefore a kind of celebrity who has previously reported stalking incidents, the police take the disappearance seriously from the outset. It soon appears that the disappearance is more worrying than originally thought but we also see that neither Nick nor Amy (whose voice we hear from readings from her diary) are quite what they seem. As the film progresses, Nick’s public persona goes from victim to villain to stoic victim, back to villain and onwards.

There is enough sex and violence to justify the ’18’ rating (UK) but it is an adult film in more than just its certificate. Some of the plot twists are far-fetched and, at one point, I thought ‘that’s enough now’ though, when it twisted again, I was impressed with both the audacity and the élan with which it was done – and carried on doing, even after that. And it is scabrously funny about the role of the television media in shaping public reaction to tragedy. Well worth a watch.

Sex, Lies & Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989)

Sex Lies & Videotape
James Spader seems to have made much of his career, current Blacklist TV series notwithstanding, as sincere, earnest, charismatic weirdos. And this is right up there. Here, he plays Graham, who reappears in the life of his old college friend John (Peter Gallagher) and plays havoc with his old friend’s, already dysfunctional, family.

So, we first meet Ann (Andie MacDowell), who is undergoing therapy, as she no longer likes being touched by husband John, although he was the first to withdraw from contact, and has never really liked sex. Ann is also upset that John has invited his old friend Graham to stay without first asking her if it was ok. We then see John leaving his office to arrange a liaison with a young woman for sex. This woman turns out to be Anne’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who resents Ann and is having the affair with John as much to ‘get one over’ on her as to get pleasure from the sex itself.

When Graham arrives, he is far quieter and more thoughtful than Ann expected, or as John previously knew him to be. They’ve grown apart. Ann and Graham initially get on well and start to confide in one another but Ann is shocked by Graham’s ‘hobby’, videotaping women talking about sex, though Cynthia, intrigued at the possibility of another sexual partner, is far more enthusiastic.

Given its title, and subject, the film is quite tame in its depiction of sex. It isn’t intended, I think, to titillate. Rather, it’s intended to make us think about intimacy and trust, and what we want from our sexual partners.

The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, 2010)

The Runaways
As a teenager, I recall Joan Jett’s release of “I Love Rock and Roll” as a seemingly ever-present song one year, the band apparently having appeared out of nowhere and disappearing suddenly again. I have no recollection of any other songs by the band, and certainly no idea that Joan Jett had already had any kind of fame before her own band.

Only recently, following the release of this film and, latterly, the use of “Cherry Bomb” in The Guardians of the Galaxy, did I become aware even of the existence of Jett’s prior band, the Runaways. Having recorded this film and having enjoyed Kristen Stewart’s performance in Adventureland, I gave this one a whirl.

The film is based on Cherie Currie’s (here played by Dakota Fanning) book and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) is an associate producer, so the film concentrates almost entirely on these two characters. The rest of the band are, mostly, just background detail to the story of the friendship of Currie and Jett. Plus ca change; it seems like this was always the case. Jett was the ‘leader’ of the band, at least in this film’s telling of it, and Currie was the ‘face’, both the singer and the image, for the most part, to the chagrin and resentment of the rest of the band, Jett perhaps excepted.

As the film opens, Jett is starting to get serious about forming a band, though her attempt to take guitar lessons is thwarted by her teacher’s insistence on her learning ‘On Top of Old Smokie’, telling her that rock is for men, not girls. Currie is meanwhile emulating her hero David Bowie, in his Ziggy stage, and miming to his music for her school talent competition, coolly giving the finger to the unappreciative crowd. At a rock club, Jett recognises producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) who, despite initially abusively and mockingly dismissing her, agrees to build a band around her. Together they start looking for a singer, and alight on Currie. Fowley’s idea is to take the most innocent looking girl he can, ‘jailbait’, and subvert this image with the most in-your-face raunch and aggression he can get away with.

Training them to be able to deal with aggression, it seems Fowley is himself abusing the girls more than anyone and you have to wonder if he was actually sociopathic (again, if the representation is a true one) but he does seem to get results and gets both a record deal and a tour, including to Japan. Around this time, punk arrives and the band incorporate the new aesthetic into their act. As their career takes off, the rock and roll lifestyle starts to take its toll on Currie’s and Jett’s health and friendship.

The film isn’t earth-shattering – it goes down a fairly predictable route, not too surprising given its true-life origins – but it was an interesting presentation of a bit of rock history of which I was previously unaware, and an insight into the particular problems women in rock faced, and probably still do.

Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014)

Fine actor though he is, and probably a really nice man too, “Bill Nighy” is a name that tends to make me avoid films. “British comedy” is also a term of which to be wary. This film, however, has had such good reviews and is on a subject of such interest that I had little option but to give it a try.

Based on a true stories, with most of the characters except the lead based on real people, it tells the tale of a London-based Gay and Lesbian group who decided, unprompted, that the miners’ strike of 1984-85 was their struggle too, both groups being vilified and victimised by the Thatcher government, the police and a hostile press. After collecting money, they contact the National Union of Miners to try and donate it but are rebuffed as soon as they announce their group’s name, “Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners”. Bypassing the national organisation, they contact a local organisation directly and, very soon, a representative of thelocal committee, Dai (Paddy Considine), turns up to talk to them. It transpires that the donation was accepted without anyone really understanding who “LGSM” actually were, the message being taken somewhat amateurishly. Dai is a little unsettled, being out of his comfort zone, but soon realises the group, led by the charismatic and politically driven Mark (Ben Schnetzer), are both serious and passionate and agrees to take the donation and invite the group back to the village, Onllwyn,in order to be officially thanked.

Of course, this is where the potential for culture clash arises, with the ultra-working class miners not expected to take too well to the ‘out and proud’ community group, the most ‘flamboyant’ of them specifically warned to tone down his behaviour.

Our ‘in’ to this world is a fictional addition, Joe (Dominic West), a still closeted young man who attends a gay pride march, worried that he might be noticed. and finds himself roped into Mark’s new campaign almost accidentally – we see both the gay and mining communities through his eyes, as an outsider. The Welsh mining community is sympathetically and interestingly portrayed, with a range of characters coming to terms with their new allies, future MP Sian James (Jessica Gunning ), village leader Hefina (Imelda Staunton) and, yes, Cliff (that man Bill Nighy) principal among them. One slight disappointment was the portrayal of the ‘villains’, the bigots. I can’t quite describe what seemed wrong; they were given a kind of ‘justification’, and their behaviours and beliefs are, to me, pretty rotten, but they still came across as a little pantomime, a bit too easy to dismiss as ‘bad’uns’. Still, I can’t think of any way to improve on how they were portrayed and I don’t think they were really done an injustice.

Despite the failure of both LGSM and the miners to achieve their stated aim of winning the strike, the film nonetheless manages an upbeat finale, with real historical victories proving, as Billy Bragg sings, that “There is Power in a Union” indeed.

The Blood on Satan’s Claw (Piers Haggard, 1971)

Blood on Satan's Claw
A very interesting oddity, indeed, this one.

Set in a 17th Century village, it opens with farm labourer Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) discovering a strange skeleton whilst ploughing. Fearing it to be demonic, he reports his discovery to his squire who, reluctantly, goes to the site only to find no bones present. Dismissing Ralph’s concerns as those of a primitive ignoramus, the squire takes no further notice. Soon after, the squire’s nephew Peter (Simon Williams) visits with his intended bride. Tragedy follows and it soon transpires that a coven is growing in power, led by the young Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), and the local priest is powerless to prevent it.

The worsening situation comes to the attention of a judge (Patrick Wymark) who starts to make plans to intervene but, in the village, things are getting desperate.

This was a British Film made during the period of decline of British horror movies, though this is made by Tigon rather than Hammer studios. There are plenty of dodgy dialogue, plotting and acting moments to indicate this might not have been the most expensively mounted film of the period. There is the (admittedly appropriate to the subject) nubile nudity you’d expect from a horror of this time. Some of the special effects are risible, and some of the hairstyles too. And yet…

There is a serious attempt to remain true to the period that is really admirable. I’m sure that historians, or enthusiasts of the period, could tear it apart but, to me, this looked surprisingly consistent in its representation of a particular time and place in English history. And there is both a seriousness in the consequences of the horror to the villagers and a consistancy in the beliefs of the people of that time and the way the horror unfolds that helps drive that suspension of disbelief. I was frequently a little scared, and never bored.

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)

Guardians of the Galaxy
I finally caught up with this, a little late, but I did want to watch it at the cinema as some of the reviews referred to it having a kind of Star Wars vibe, an event picture best watched on a big screen and in company. Perhaps it was that the cinema was nearly empty, only a few of us stragglers still not having seen it, but I have to say I was a little underwhelmed.

The movie was fun, with plenty of laughs and entertaining throughout but, at the end, I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about and I struggle to remember any real stand-out moments from it. Perhaps it was just a case of reacting against the hype – ‘expectation inflation’.

As the film starts in 1988, we see a young boy at the hospital where his mother is dying of cancer. As she dies, she reaches out her hand but the boy hesitates too long and she is dead before he can say his goodbye. Unattended by the other grieving relatives, and with his father having left, he runs out into the misty night – and is abducted by a UFO. Cut to modern day and the same boy, now a man, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), is on an deserted alien planet (we know he is the same boy as he’s playing the same cassette tape on the same Walkman) scavenging an ancient artefact, a mysterious orb. This is obviously a much-sought after thing, as he has to fight others to retrieve it, and a bounty is paid, both for him and the artefact he is trying to sell. A green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldan) is sent to kill him and retrieve the item for her boss Ronan who, in turn has been promised the destruction of his enemies of the planet Nova by his boss Thanos; and a genetically-modified raccoon, Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and his tree-like partner Groot (Vin Diesel) try to kidnap him for the bounty. A three-way scrap on the planet Nova, after Quill unsuccessfully tries to sell the orb only results in all four participants being arrested and sent to a space station prison to rot, or die. There, they encounter another maverick outlaw, Drax (Dave Bautista) and they soon find that only they stand between Ronan and the destruction of entire worlds.

This is a Marvel movie, part of the ever-expanding Marvel universe, but much has been made of it not calling on the other movies, the way the various Avengers movies did. This is largely true (I only noticed the villain Thanos and ‘The Collector’ having made any prior appearances) but is also largely irrelevant. It’s still a Marvel film, and it still calls on the same mythos, and the tone, while more consistently playing for laughs than other films, still has much the same mix of silliness, heroics and suspense as those other films. The biggest difference is that where Avengers went for wit, this one went for fun. That’s probably why so many people liked it so much, and why I didn’t, so much.

There was the usual end-credits scene but I think I was the only person in that cinema who got the joke!

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Yoshifumi Kondô, 1986)

Ahh, this is more like it. After my last Ghibli film, I was rather deflated so I was very glad to come back to this, a much better offering. It still has that environmental message but this time more expertly incorporated into the story, with the sense of wonder that Only Yesterday aimed for and missed.

We open with a raid on an airship by strange bee-like aircraft as pirates try to take a necklace belonging to a little girl. This girl, Sheeta, is being ‘protected’ from the pirates by a handsome secret agent but, at the first opportunity, she knocks him unconscious and tries to escape from both the pirates and her protectors/captors and falls from the skyship in the process.

Down on the ground Pazu, a young engineer’s apprentice, sees a light descending slowly from the sky and runs to investigate, finding the unconscious body of Sheeta slowly descending. Rescuing her, he takes her back to his accommodation. When she wakes, she tells him the necklace she wears is made of a levitating crystal which is linked to the mythical floating city of Laputa, and that her family name includes reference to that city. The pirates want the crystal to find the city and loot its treasures; the government want to find it to eliminate a possible source of threat and, maybe, to take any weaponry they find. Sheeta and Pazu try to elude the pirates and the government and find Laputa before any harm can be done to it.

Shot through with strong anti-war and respect-the-environment messages, this has a strong narrative, exciting set-piece scenes, a lot of humour and a sense of wonder. There is an ‘alternative Victorian’ aesthetic to the airships and flyers that reminds me of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy novels, while Laputa itself has echoes of the Atlantis myth and there is an air of Silent Running about it, when it is finally discovered.

This restored my faith in the Ghibli studios.