Saturday, December 17, 2011

Film List - pleasant surprises

The 'Film List' comes early this month - since next week is Christmas, and then I plan a little year's end review for the final weekend of December.

I have been living quite quietly the past few months, staying in a lot, watching a lot of DVDs (and, latterly, a lot of HBO). Many of the films I've sat through have been fairly awful (for instance, I finally got around to watching Scorsese's Gangs Of New York - and realised why'd I'd been avoiding it all these years!).

However, in amongst all the dross (most of HBO and Phoenix Movies, alas), and amongst the classics I'd seen before, and amongst all the so-so and the near-miss and the mildly disappointing... I have stumbled by happy chance across a few things which gave me unexpected pleasure. The pleasure was unexpected in two ways: first, I hadn't heard anything about these films before I began watching them; and second, my expectations of them based on their apparent budget and genre were extremely low - but they turned out to be very good indeed. Watch out for these. [Beware: a few mild SPOILERS here and there.]

(Dir. Neil Marshall, 2010)
The kind of straightforward action adventure tale you didn't think they made any more. This film addresses the story of Rome's 9th Legion, vanished without trace on a punitive expedition against the Picts of Scotland, from the perspective of a small group of survivors trying to fight their way back home from deep behind enemy lines. It was made for a negligible budget by contemporary standards, but it assembles an impressive cast: the excellent Michael Fassbender as the dashing young hero, and stalwart British character players Bernard Hill and David Morrissey, who actually make you believe in and care about the two gnarly veterans under his command. Director Neil Marshall (who cut his teeth on low-budget horror flicks The Descent and Dog Soldiers, and is now busy working on the TV mini-series Game of Thrones) handles the action scenes very well (lots of the intricate choreography and stop-start editing perfected in 300), and also produces some stunningly photographed vistas of the Scottish Highland locations. The story is nothing very substantial, but for what it is, it is executed just about perfectly.

The Warrior's Way
(Dir. Sngmoo Lee, 2010)
I'm not usually a big fan of the comic-book style in movies, but this zestful marriage of the ninja and Western genres won me over.  It's done with exuberant style, and its tongue firmly in its cheek. And the bizarre background details and lurid, painterly colour palette give it a surreal, dreamlike quality (it's mostly set in a virtual ghost town on the edge of the south-western desert, where a group of washed-up circus performers are attempting to build a giant ferris wheel, seemingly in the delusional belief that it will revive the local economy).  Once again, the film benefits from an excellent cast: Kate Bosworth (an actress I hadn't seen before), very appealing as the plucky young heroine (unfortunately, she rather has to carry the film, since the male lead, Korean actor Dong-Jun Jang, is a little too determinedly expressionless to be at all engaging; a common problem with ninjas!), the always watchable Geoffrey Rush as the obligatory alcoholic ex-gunslinger, and Danny Huston as the unspeakably nasty villain (this is my one major misgiving about the film, in fact: you can establish 'evil' without setting up an attempted child rape - that just doesn't sit well in a film that is essentially a light-hearted romp).

Meek's Cutoff
(Dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
Less surreal, but even more captivatingly dreamlike is this unorthodox Western about early pioneers making their way west on the Oregon Trail. Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a crusty old mountain man full of bombast and tall tales and disdain for the Native Americans, has been hired as a guide by a trio of families in their wagons, but appears to have become hopelessly lost. They take prisoner a solitary middle-aged Native American they encounter, hoping he will be able to lead them to water and to safety; but it's not clear that he is any less lost than they are. The film is sparse in incident, sedate in tempo; and there's no resolution - the party just blunder around the wilderness, trying to remain calm as they face the spectres of thirst, starvation, and despair. And yet it is quite mesmerising: beautifully photographed, tautly scripted, very well acted (Michelle Williams, especially, as the most spirited of the young wives in the group, dominates the screen in every scene she's in).

Down In The Valley 
(Dir. David Jacobson, 2005)
Writer/director Jacobson pulled together a superb cast for this unusual drama: Edward Norton as a charming drifter, Evan Rachel Wood as the feisty teen who starts a romance with him, Rory Culkin as her withdrawn kid brother, also befriended by Norton, and the always excellent David Morse as the children's single dad, hostile to this stranger's sudden influence. This is a film that takes its time, and constantly keeps you guessing as to which way it's going to turn next: Norton's wannabe cowboy at first seems too good to be true, all old world courtesies and simple-hearted decency; but it gradually becomes apparent that he is a hopeless fantasist, and perhaps a sociopath - and yet, through all these revelations, he remains a sympathetic character.  All four of the leading characters are, in fact, unusually well-developed and believable human beings. This is an unusual story, compelling told, and it lingers powerfully in the memory.

Ninja Assassin
(Dir. James McTeigue, 2009)
Apparently conceived by the Wachowski brothers, who are co-producers, this delivers fast-paced thrills and stylish gore. Korean pop star Rain is extremely buff in the lead role of Raizo, a rogue ninja being hunted down by his vengeful 'family', and, though conventionally expressionless, does manage to be modestly engaging. The rest of the casting is the film's weak point: Ben Miles (an incompetent Interpol detective) is a British TV actor better suited to light comic roles; and Naomie Harris (a resourceful researcher who gets herself into trouble for turning up evidence that ninjas are real) is very pretty but lacks screen presence, leaving the impression that the producers probably wanted but couldn't afford Thandie Newton or Zoe Saldana for the part. The relentlessness and implacability of the ninjas, and their ability to materialise out of shadows, is well rendered - genuinely creepy and scary at times. And the script has a certain mordant humour, doesn't take itself too seriously.

(Dir. David and Alex Pastor, 2009)
I found this on HBO late at night a few days ago, and am annoyed to have missed the first 20 minutes. It's a post-apocalypse tale about a handful of young people in America struggling to make their way across country in the aftermath of a global pandemic. The focus is on the pervasive fear of the deadly disease - which is pretty obviously going to get everyone eventually - and the way in which ties of community, friendship, family, even basic morality are eroded by the imperative of survival. I gather it bombed at the box office in the US, after being misleadingly marketed as a routine horror film. In fact, it's a compelling human drama, often very suspenseful and ultimately very poignant.

[I'll leave this post at its originally planned time of Saturday afternoon. I ran out of electricity before I'd finished writing it, and so was cut off from my Internet connection. Finishing it off late on Sunday night, I discover that it's been leapfrogged by a poetry post I'd done earlier. Oh well, it's not as if anyone notices most of what I post anyway!]

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