Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014)


Pride
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.

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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)


Laputa
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.

Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)


Punch Drunk Love
So this is a strange one. I can’t say I’m familiar with Sandler’s work, it never really appealing to me, a few moments of “Little Nicky” really putting me off, but BBC critic Mark Kermode always points to this as proof that he can make good films, so I gave it a try.

It opens as Barry Egan (Sandler), a self-employed salesman sees a car crash and a harmonium abandoned at the end of the lane of his wholesale outlet. Picking up and bringing back the harmonium, which features throughout the film but without any clear reason, Barry returns to his office where he is hectored (mostly by phone) by his sisters about attending a party. Barry is bullied by his sisters, one of whom is trying to set him up with a date, Lena (Emily Watson). Barry, and we, actually see this prospective date early in the film, as she leaves her car outside his work and asks him to look out for it – she’s basically checking him out.

We also see Barry checking an airmiles promotion on a range of ‘healthy choice’ foods, which Barry realises actually mean that the products are worth much less than the offer and, if he is canny, means he can effectively travel for free. He searches out the most cost-effective product to buy – and then buys stacks of the stuff, enough for a flight to Hawaii.

At the party later, his sisters relentlessly pick on Barry until he flips out and destroys a window – something he’s done before. Lonely and frustrated after the party, he calls a phone sex line but not for sexual gratification, just for a friendly voice to talk to. Unfortunately for Barry, this is a scam, the woman he’s talking to taking enough personal and financial information to think they can blackmail him.

Surprisingly, Barry does manage to strike up a connection with Lena but the phone sex blackmailers, led by an oddball Philip Seymour Hoffman, threaten to make life difficult, and even dangerous, for Barry and he has to balance his pursuit of Lena with this threat to his health, livelihood and good name.

This is an enjoyable film, for sure, and certainly not ‘just another rom-com’, though I’m a little concerned that I am starting to notice the unthinking sexism in so many of these movies that isn’t intentional or malicious but is nonetheless distracting. Just as in the last rom-com I watched, Adventureland, the female lead must be ‘rescued’, in a sense, by the male. Here, in addition, the hero is so odd, and occasionally so violent, that although we see he’s a nice guy, it’s hard to believe that she sees enough to realistically make that judgement and you’d have to wonder whether, in real life, she’d actually be safe with him.

Still, it’s not real life and maybe I need to go easier on the rom-coms for a while.

Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013)


Philomena
This was a film I’d been wanting to see for ages, though I missed it on release at the cinemas, as I’d been following the clerical abuse stories coming from Ireland over the last couple of years but hadn’t seen this particular story. The film version has taken some liberties with the facts (there is no joint road trip to the USA) but the changes look, to me, a justified ‘streamlining’ of the narrative, without materially altering the important facts of the case or unfairly maligning anyone.

Martin Sixsmith (played here by Steve Coogan) was an ex-news reporter who had been working for the government as a spin-doctor before a briefing scandal forced him to resign. Looking around for something to write about, he is initially dismissive of the dreaded ‘human interest’ story until he is persuaded to meet Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and the nature of the abuse she suffered, and the resultant problem she faced. Philomena got pregnant as a (-n unmarried) teen and, in the Ireland of 1951, this meant that her options are limited to one. She must work in the dreaded Magdalene laundries, effectively as a slave, and with limited contact with her child. After four years, she finds that her son has been given up for adoption, without her knowledge or consent. Returning to her family, Philomena carried on her life, her later husband and further children knowing nothing about her lost son.

On what would have been his fiftieth birthday, Philomena contacts Sixsmith through her daughter and tells him the story, which we see in flashback, and the pair team up to find what has happened to the lost child. Visiting the convent, they are told by the nuns that the records no longer exist because of a ‘big fire’ but, at the local pub, they are advised that the ‘big fire’ was limited solely to the records that had been deliberately destroyed to cover up an illegal (and hugely unethical) adoption service – effectively, the nuns were selling illegitimate babies to rich and childless Americans. Sixsmith quickly and fortuitously find the identity of the child and they travel to the States to find out what they can about what happened to him.

In turns hilarious, moving and enraging, this is a beautifully told story that cannot easily be dismissed as ‘Catholic bashing’, the usual easy retort whenever yet another scandal of the Catholic church in Ireland is exposed to public view; Philomena herself has remained a staunch Catholic, managing a forgiveness for the perpetrators of the inhuman regime she suffered that eludes me and, if I’m honest, I think is morally wrong. The people who carried out these acts and enabled such barbarities should not be forgiven.

Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009)


Adventureland
I tagged both this and Zombieland, both starring Jesse Eisenberg, both made in the same year and both with similar titles and put them down to watch together, presuming them to be connected. Only when I came to decide which to watch first did I discover that they are completely unrelated films, except for the coincidences listed above.

In this film, Eisenberg plays James Brennan, just leaving school in 1987 and about to head off for a summer in Europe with his friend before taking up his studies in New York to become a journalist. Very late on, he discovers that his father’s job has been ‘downgraded’ meaning James’ parents can no longer pay for his holiday and, further, he’s going to need to take a summer job in order to save some money for college. Utterly unprepared for this, James finds he hasn’t relevant experience to get any job he might actually like and, instead finds the only place that will accept him is a nearby funfair, Adventureland, that operates over the summer and accepts just about anybody. Even then, he can’t get on the ‘Rides’ team, the least worst of the options available, and has to work on ‘Games’ instead.

While there, he makes a friend of pipe-smoking cynic Joel (Martin Starr), who shows him the ropes, and falls for the drily ironic Em (Kristen Stewart), after she saves him from being attacked. James is a virgin and Em is decidedly not, having already had several sexual relationships, and she is currently in a clandestine relationship with the married rides technician, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds). Connell is a sleazebag, a musician who trades on the ‘cool’ of a pretended period supporting Lou Reed, to seduce young women but James makes the mistake of trusting him as a friend, even though he soon recognises that the Lou Reed connection is bullshit, Connell knowing far less about Reed than James, a Velvet Underground and Reed fan, does himself. The question is whether James and Em’s relationship will flourish, or will her low self-esteem and her secret, and his naiveté and inexperience, mean they fail to consummate their budding romance.

The characters are generally well drawn and likeable – even Connell is mostly likeable, despite his despicable actions; of course it’s his charisma that sells his ability to charm the girls – and the drama is low-key and believable. Mostly. I do have a bit of a problem with James. He’s just too cool. For a naïve virgin nerd, he seems a bit too self-possessed. Of course, I’m judging him by how I and my friends were at that age, but he just seems to be too idealised a version of the writer’s own youth, with a large dose of wish-fulfilment in the mix.

Still, I did enjoy this, including Kristen Stewart’s acting. Whatever the virtues, or otherwise, of the Twilight films and her acting in them (I can’t judge, as I’ve never seen them), the notion and internet meme of her being unable to even vary her facial expression, let alone act, is well wide of the mark.

Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)


Only Yesterday
Well, this was a novelty. A Ghibli film I didn’t like. Ok, there were parts I liked and parts I hated and, overall, I’m quite ambivalent about it but it’s far and away the weakest one I’ve seen so far, and that’s despite a conceit, and also some scenes, I loved.

The story is set as a schoolteacher, Taeko, in her late twenties travels to her annual summer holiday in the countryside where she works on a farm. As she travels, and then as she works on the farm, memories of her ten-year old self haunt her imagination, manifesting almost as a real presence in her modern life. Some of these are very clear echoes, with thematic links between then and now, but others are more idiosyncratic and cryptic in meaning. The memories of her childhood were the most charming thing about the film, often funny but also insightful, charming and moving. It’s her adult self that’s problematic. As a child, Taeko is feisty, individualistic and bright (though with believable gaps and flaws in her understanding); as an adult, she is a bit ‘thin’, and all too placid. Her friendship, and hesitant romance, with a local farmer is the only drama we see, and that’s all too often side-tracked by some overt preaching about organic farming.

It’s that preachy tone to the film that really grated. There was constant repetition of the mantra of the countryside being better than the city, and of organic being the ‘way forward’ and ‘old ways’ being the answer to all Japan’s problems. Because harking back to a mythical golden age, with simplistic and unworkable solutions is always the answer to the world’s problems! As always with Ghibli films, much of the animation was gorgeous, in this case mostly the landscapes, but the people! There was a repeated attempt to show the unalloyed, simple happiness of the farming community but their smiles were so uniformly and simplistically portrayed as to make them look like gormless automatons.

Most of Ghibli’s films have an environmental consciousness about them, and frequently a message to impart, but no others I’ve seen are so blunt or wrong-headed in delivering it, or willing to screw up the telling of a story as sacrifice to it