Sunday, 29 July 2007

Live Free or Die Hard/Wiseman (2007)

I don't watch so many blockbusters. I think I find the suspension of disbelief, or even more the suspension of total derision, interferes with relaxed enjoyment of them. But this was a lot of fun, irrespective of the absurdity of it.

John McClane is now older (although not as old as Willis), with a difficult teenage daughter and a separated (unseen) wife. As with the formula of the previous films in the series, he's an ordinary cop, or by now detective, caught up in a mess involving superbright criminals with a grudge.

The film plays on its heritage, with little asides about what it is to be a hero - he's just the guy who's there, who does what he has to do - and ironic echoes of previous catchphrases, but where the previous McClane was flippant, this one is serious. In that change of mood, it imitates Bond's latest outing, where there was a very conscious darkening of the hero. In many ways, Die Hard is similar to the Bond franchise, especially in this case in the clumsy title (abbreviated for British release to 'Die Hard 4.0') The outrageous stunts, and the parkour-practising baddie, are also competing with the most recent Bond.

So the improbable plot is that an ex technical security adviser to the FBI, having had his suggestions for post-9/11 essential overhaul of key systems ignored, and his career abruptly ended, commits a heist on the whole of America to prove a point. And to steal all the money on Wall Street. He stages a 'fire sale', which is an immobilisation of all essential systems - transport, communications, power - and then exploits the panic and misguided back-up systems to access secure financial information.

But, as with Bond films, the plot, and the implausibility of it (apparently one geek with a laptop can access any system in America instantly) are beside the point. The cast is one superbrain baddie (Timothy Olyphant), his geeky assistants, including a high-kicking Asian girlfriend, and Willis and one good geek. The fun is in the very inventive chases, Willis's strong-chinned determination, and completely dumb stunts. I think it pays off.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

La Vie en Rose/Dahan (2007)

The problem of this film for a UK audience is unfamiliarity with the life and performances of Edith Piaf. I fact, I can't think of a comparable cultural icon in 20th century Britain - Gracie Fields and Vera Lynn certainly represented something definitively English, at different ends of the social scale, but are not revered by present generations as Piaf continues to be.

This means that the emotional reaction of the intended audience, in France, can't be replicated in England. Most French viewers would be very familiar with the life story of Piaf, and have associations with her songs that I couldn't bring to the cinema. I only know La vie en rose, and the iconic Je ne regrette rien, and had a hazy idea of her rough upbringing, affair with a boxer, and premature death.

All this means that my judgement of the worth of the film is limited. I can't easily assess whether the depictions of real events are conventional, exaggerated or sentimentalised, or whether all the incidents depicted are part of the legend. I can just judge the impact it had on me.

One key problem I had with this, even before I saw the film, is that one of the most famous characteristics of Piaf was her height. She was 4'7", tiny, hence her name, ("piaf" means "sparrow"), but the actress playing her, Marion Cotillard, is about a foot taller. This isn't just quibbling, it's an essential part of Piaf's character that she was the tiny woman with the huge voice and boundless passion, the underdog from the gutter who succeeded despite her drawbacks. Cotillard is above average height for a woman, so that when she's with Marcel, the boxer she has an affair with, she stands beyond his chin height, whereas the real Piaf would have been about chest high to him.

Apart from that, it's easy to see why Cotillard was chosen for the role. She has some physical resemblance, height aside, has a great voice, and can act. I can't judge the accuracy of her interpretation, but the singing impressed me enough, as did the range of her acting.

The direction I found unnecessarily distracting. At the beginning, depicting her early life on the streets, a handheld camera is used, to no obvious advantage - it's not a POV shot, and it only serves to distract rather than energise. The time jumps were also erratic and unnecessary, and more frequent towards the end.

Only once or twice was it shown how Piaf used the experiences of her life to inspire the passion of her performances. Most effective is when she hears of Marcel's death in a plane crash, and becomes hysterical, running round her house until she steps from the hall straight on to the stage and into a performance.

I wasn't as engaged by this as I felt I should have been, partly because of the lack of association I mentioned above, and partly because I thought it was a film of some good scenes, but not a great whole. Cotillard's performance was excellent, others were passable or forgettable.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Dreams (Journey into Autumn)/Bergman (1955)

I've seen nearly all of the Bergmans available on DVD, except notably Fanny and Alexander, which has been sitting here waiting for a special occasion. So when I saw there was a mini Bergman season on BBC4, with 2 films not available on DVD, I was delighted. The timing wasn't good - it coincided with me going to a festival, but I managed to get the first night's programmes - one film plus two documentaries - on to one tape, and I hope I have another tape with the second film coming from a friend.

This film stars Bergman's favourites from the period - Harriet Andersson, who broke out in Summer with Monika, Eva Dahlbeck, who was a fine comic actress in A Lesson in Love, and the peerless Gunnar Bjornstrand, who was in over 20 of Bergman's films, and is always excellent, whether in comic or serious roles. It comes in the middle of his best comedies - A Lesson in Love and Smiles of a Summer Night, and just before his serious period starts - The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries were both made a couple of years later.

It has a dual plot - Dahlbeck and Andersson are agent and model, and they travel together to a photography shoot. Dahlbeck tries to pick up a previous affair with a married man, whereas Andersson, having split with her boyfriend back home, is picked up by a rich old man, played by Bjornstrand. The latter leads to some light comic scenes, but then the film turns darker. Bjornstrand's wife has been hospitalised since she gave birth to her daughter, who she rejected. The daughter is headstrong and free-spirited, rejecting her father's discipline, and the father pursues young girls who look like the wife he still loves. A casual flirtation turns into something more sordid as the daughter humiliates Andersson.

Similarly, Dahlbeck's potential tryst is interrupted by her lover's wife, as they're planning to elope to Oslo. Both meetings start full of flirtation and hope, and end in disillusion, with a final scene emphasising the solidarity of rejected women, and the fortitude of working women. Bergman is famous for his sympathy to women throughout his career - there are few directors who present such strong women so consistently - and this is again seen through the eyes of women. There are 6 characters - 2 men and 4 women - and it's the men who are weak and pathetic, while the women divide between the betrayed and the pursued, but all, apart from Andersson, who's a child, are strong characters.

I enjoyed this a lot, it was one of Bergman's best that I've seen, and I don't know why it's not yet available on DVD - perhaps it's in the huge boxed set.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

El Topo/Jodorowsky (1970)

This is the cult film to top all cult films. Full of allusions to the occult, obvious religious symbolism and gratuitous obliquity, it is by turns gory, sexy, funny, pretentious and infuriating.

I can't say I followed this all the way through. I wasn't prepared to do the work required, nor was I sure that the effort would be repaid. But there's plenty enough to enjoy, and it's plainly a work of some intelligence and great personal investment.

Jodorowsky plays an elite gunfighter, dressed in black, who in the opening scene avenges a slaughter committed by a small gang. He's accompanied in this by a naked 7 year old boy, presumably his son.

He sets out on a mission, to find and kill the four best gunfighters, each of whom has their own philosophy. So far, it's a parody of spaghetti Westerns, or rather a tribute to them as many of them were parodies themselves. Jodorowsky adopts the genre to pursue a spiritual quest, which wasn't clear to me (because I didn't care enough), but it includes lions, lesbians, dwarfs enclosed in a mountain, and rabbits.

I can well see that this was popular with stoned students in the 70s, attempting to decipher the allegories, some of which are obvious - Jodorowsky as Christ is hardly subtle when he shows stigmata. I'm not concerned about seeing more of his films, although my vid store has the boxed set.


Idiocracy/Judge (2006)

This film, by the maker of the wonderful Office Space and King of the Hill, was suppressed by the studio and only released on DVD. Watching it, it's hard to see why it wasn't released - it's rubbish, but surely no worse than other films of the genre of recent years.

I didn't enjoy this much. The central conceit - that the US in several centuries will have evolved to the lowest common denominator, because of the greater tendency of idiots to reproduce - is one gag, then there are some jokes about how that will manifest itself, and the consequences of not having enough intelligent people to run the country. But it's mostly weak stuff. The concept of the average joe being frozen and waking up in several centuries is a direct steal from Woody Allen's Sleeper and Futurama (although of courseThe Time Machine is the original), and Judge doesn't do anything sufficiently new with it to justify the film.