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).

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Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)


Robocop

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 Pederss√łn (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 √©lan 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.