Monday 29 August 2016

The Last 5 Films I've Seen

Wild, wild west: the excellent Meek's Cutoff

There's no Your Week In Film column this time, please accept some reviews in its place. Normal service should be resumed next week...

Every week I watch a bunch of movies then write about five of them here. Some are films I've never seen before, some are old favourites I'm watching for the umpteenth time, others are pictures I've maybe seen once but haven't been entirely convinced by. From Buñuel to Bay, I'm happy to give anything a chance...

1. Meek's Cutoff (2010): The BBC's recent Top 100 films of the 21st Century poll was fascinating and mostly on the money, I think, but there were of course a few omissions that genuinely had me tearing out my hair. If Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive was the most egregious oversight, Kelly Reichardt's fantastic alt-western wasn't far behind. Set in 1845 and based on a real incident, it follows three families as they journey across a vast desert on the notoriously arduous Oregon Trail. Their guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a self-aggrandising frontiersman full of tall stories, gets them hopelessly lost and a trek which should have taken a fortnight suddenly becomes five weeks with no end in sight. The group, which also includes characters played by Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson and Paul Dano, soon become more desperate – hungry, thirsty, exhausted, dirty, depressed and frightened for their lives. They capture a Native American, with whom they can barely communicate, and hope he'll lead them to water rather than into a trap. Meek's Cutoff is one of those films that takes a while to bring you under its spell but, keep watching, and it will utterly beguile you. Reichardt's a terrific storyteller and she really takes her time laying out her characters' predicament here in painstaking detail. There's little melodrama – it just concentrates on the slow but ceaseless erosion of the families' hope: the incessant sun on their backs, coupled with the trudge across pitiless terrain, doesn't just drain their energy, it takes their personality and humanity from them too. They bicker about whether to kill the Native American, discuss whether Meek has deliberately led them astray and start taking foolish risks. Filmed in the old square academy ratio to really emphasise the nature of their dilemma (trapped in a wide-open space – oh, the irony!), this is a masterful slow-burn affair which shows you the dirt under its protagonists' fingernails and the sweat on their brows. The old west has rarely seemed so alien or unforgiving. Rating: WWWW

All is lost: Reichardt's old west is an unforgiving place

2. Dheepan (2015): Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust And Bone) returns with an odd but effective tale of three Sri Lankan immigrants fleeing the country's civil war to France. The trio (including former Tamil Tiger soldier Dheepan) pose as a family – despite barely knowing each other – but quickly discover their past isn't so easy to forget and discard. The film starts off as a serious arthouse drama keen to explore the impact of war and dislocation on our trio as they struggle to make ends meet in their new adopted country. But, late on, it morphs into something only a hop, skip and a jump away from Taken or Death Wish. The sudden gear change – provoked when Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) clashes with drug dealers on the rundown estate where he lives and works – is jarring, disorienting and I was unsure of its message: the all-pervasiveness of violence and conflict perhaps or, more simply, never mess with a pissed-off Tamil Tiger. However, the most baffling thing about Audiard's enjoyable but flawed work remains how it ever won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes over the far superior Son Of Saul. Rating: WWW

A history of violence: Dheepan boasts a brutal final act

3. The Commune (2016): With his fellow Dane, Lars Von Trier, director Thomas Vinterberg founded the influential and gratifyingly punk-rock Dogme 95 movement, which gave the world the likes of Festen and The Idiots. Since then Vinterberg has struck out for more commercial waters, culminating in last year's solid but by-the-numbers adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd. The Commune sees him on slightly less mainstream ground in a melodramatic tale of communal living and romantic betrayal. Set in 1970s Copenhagen, it sees stick-in-the-mud Erik (Ulrich Thomsen) inherit a huge house and, after a little prodding from his wife Anna (Trine Dyrholm), invite friends and strangers alike to move in with them. Matters soon become fraught, however, when the lecturer commences an affair with one of his students; a woman who could comfortably pass for Anna's daughter or far younger self. The rest of the film deals with the impact on the couple, their actual daughter and their house-mates, but most of all Anna herself, who soon falls into a destructive spiral of booze and self-loathing. It's all about selfishness and personal desire versus community and collectivism, and Vinterberg – who lived in a commune as a child  – is even-handed in his appraisal. Communal living can offer people enormous love and support, but such social experiments are also fraught with danger, especially when the needs of the group come into conflict with those of one or more of its individual members. Dyrholm is raw, compelling and utterly sympathetic as poor cast-aside Trine, a beautiful, successful woman suddenly made to feel old and undesirable. No one does unreasonable bastard quite like Thomsen (as evidenced in trashy US TV show Banshee, in which he played an Amish gangster), while Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen is also terrific as daughter Freya, a young woman who clearly adores her parents and fellow house-mates, but is quietly perplexed and appalled by them too. Rating: WWW

Stronger together: Vinterberg's The Commune

4. Pete's Dragon (2016): Young orphan boys being found in the wild by CGI animals has been a bit of a theme in films this year. There was Mowgli (discovered by wolves) in The Jungle Book, Tarzan (stumbled across by apes in The Legend Of Tarzan) and now here's five-year-old Pete being adopted by a ruddy great dragon in Disney's charming remake of their 1977 live action/animation adventure. How come this stuff never happens to girls? Pete is found by the dragon – who he names Elliot – after his parents die in a car crash and he, the wreck's only survivor, gets lost in the woods. Boy and beast remain undiscovered within the forest's dense canopy for six years until a logging operation brings them into contact with humanity – some kind (Bryce Dallas Howard's forest ranger, and her dad Robert Redford, who'd encountered the dragon many years before), some with a villainous glint in their eye (ruthless logger Karl Urban). The plot's ebbs and flows are fairly predictable (boy gets dragon, boy loses dragon, rinse and repeat) but David Lowery's film is a real treat despite that. It's sweet and sentimental but never cloyingly so – simple, straightforward, and refreshingly old fashioned too. Despite the presence of a colossal mythical beast and a seat-of-your-pants final act, this is a small story – one that's really about family, friendship and imagination. To call it lovely might sound like I'm damning it with faint praise but that's really not my intention. That said, Howard, Redford and Urban – all fine actors – are only permitted one character trait each (nice, eccentric and nasty, respectively), and it certainly won't be challenging The BFG or The Jungle Book in the Best Visual Effects category come Oscar time. But, when you have the jaw-dropping beauty of New Zealand's Redwoods Forest (doubling for the US) as your backdrop, who needs artifice? Rating: WWW

Hit and myth: Pete's Dragon is simple and lovely

5. Bait (2012): Silly B-movie about a pair of great white sharks running (swimming) amok in a flooded supermarket after a tsunami leaves an Australian seaside town under several feet of water. The premise is as intriguing as it is ridiculous but the film is scuppered by risible dialogue, poor pacing, wooden acting and bargain-basement CGI. Those survivors of the disaster fighting for their lives in the flooded store and its underground car park are the usual cardboard cutouts these films seem to thrive upon  the bad girl and her disapproving cop dad, the star-crossed lovers, the bickering couple, the geek, the misunderstood villain (Julian McMahon, the only actor I recognised in the entire thing). There are far too many characters and not nearly enough of them are gorily despatched before the end credits, while the charm that usually gets this type of caper over the line is in very short supply. In fact, the only thing that made me smile was the fact its ending is practically identical to the one in last year's San Andreas, right down to the final line of dialogue. Rating: W

Great white dopes: Bait failed to entice me in 

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

No comments:

Post a Comment