Film: Home, home on the terribly narrow range

The Hi-Lo Country (15) Stephen Frears; 127 mins West Beirut (15) Ziad Doueiri; 105 mins South (no cert) Frank Hurley; 71 mins The Nights of Cabiria (PG) Federico Fellini; 117 mins Koyaanisqatsi (U) Godfrey Reggio; 86 mins Mulan (U) Barry Cook/Tony Bancroft; 89 mins
The one memorable thing about Stephen Frears's The Hi-Lo Country is the moment you realise that it is set not in the 1850s but the 1940s. Here comes the young actor Billy Crudup, tinkling along the outskirts of his homestead in his spurs. His hat's enormous, and his horse is in a bad mood. His house looks as strong as a toothpick. Crudup rides into town and heads for the saloon. There's probably an automobile in one of these shots, but you don't notice it, because nothing's going to muss with your notion that this is the mid-19th century.

Then Crudup and co-star Woody Harrelson start talking about Pearl Harbor. They want to join the Marines and be even bigger men on the waves than they are on the plains. And when they get back, they're going to buy some cattle, and drive them across the land, and then drive them back again and draw and fire and marry anyone willing to spend her life giving birth on a chequered counterpane.

Frears's film is odd. It tells the story of two cowboys in New Mexico (Crudup and Harrelson) who make a go of being independent beef-rearers, fall in love with the same woman (Patricia Arquette), get sloshed, play cards, worm cattle and pick fights. They are the kind of men Janis Joplin used to long for, between barbiturates. Men in jeans, smelly men.

Just what Frears is trying to do or say is unclear. The film is lazily plotted, with characters set up as salient and mean who then disappear from the narrative like people genuinely forgotten. Casting Arquette as the femme fatale is also ruinous - she's all whine and small eyes like someone who read by dynamo-light as a child. There is some suggestion of a society in transition, of the death of the divine right of the cowboy, but only occasionally is there something to thrill at, some art. Crudup's flimsy house clings to the landscape like something alien, something pretend, suddenly representative of the pioneers' psyche - tiny people in a big, big place. Better shoot and shout very loud. This aside, the film is simply a homage to the Neanderthal.

West Beirut is the autobiographical writing-directing debut of Ziad Doueiri, who worked as assistant cameraman on Quentin Tarantino's films. It's a sure film, personal and tender and thankfully uninterested in apeing Tarantino's style. It's 1975, the start of the civil war in Lebanon. Muslim friends Tarek (Rami Doueiri, the director's brother) and Omar (Mohamad Chamas) make friends with a Christian neighbour May (Rola Al Amin). The trio are not interested in politics or religion (there's a lovely scene in which the boys clumsily summon up sections of the Koran, mumbling through the incantation, blushing and biting their lips) but with pop music and sex and dropping fag ash all over each other.

Doueiri is keen to examine the peculiar fun these kids are having. Bombs are dropping, Beirut is divided into Christian East and Muslim West, neighbours are scrapping and making love, parents are suddenly radical and communicative, people are remembering this and that, and dressing up, and prating - school is out. As a creative idea, this is felicitous and rich. Through the mist and smudge of a city in extremis, there are children learning about memory, attuning themselves to the moment, bracing their nerves, feeling the warm air wafting their flares, stuffing themselves with kebabs.

South is the documentary record of the 1914-16 trans-Antarctic expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. His ship, the Endurance, was frozen and crushed in the polar ice, forcing Shackleton eventually to leave behind most of his men and make the 800-mile journey in an open boat to South Georgia to seek rescue.

The Australian photographer Frank Hurley followed the expedition's astonishing disasters in a manner so polite, so sweet. Months were spent stuck in the ice-wasteland, with only the dogs and each other for company, but Hurley never shows us scenes of anxiety. Instead he shoots the men at work, the dogs grinning and puffing, and the ship itself, sitting in all that whiteness like strange bait. Hurley shoots the local wildlife with particular empathy. It's clear how friendly these men needed to feel towards even the grumpy penguins around them, and how alone they were when such creatures dropped into the sea and struck away. The animals perhaps confirmed their worst fear - that man ought not to be here.

Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria is re-released with a seven-minute sequence previously only seen at its Cannes Festival premiere in 1957, and subsequently omitted at the behest of the Catholic Church. The sequence has the film's heroine, Cabiria the kind prostitute, meeting an altruistic stranger who is delivering food to the tramps living in caves outside Rome. It's a sharp section and one that informs the social context of the film, accentuating its candid concern with destitution. Giulietta Masina, Fellini's wife and muse, is beautiful in the title role, always half-mortified, half-smiling, her bobby-socked swagger and bold eyebrows barely concealing a splashed heart.

Koyaanisqatsi, a favourite of stoned students after they've tired of reading Charles Bukowski, is as tedious now as on its original release in 1983. Godfrey Reggio's film-poem (ha!) starts in the Grand Canyon and takes us to the nasty city, all to a barmy Philip Glass uber-digital soundtrack which goes on and on and on and on.

A re-release perhaps, but Disney's Mulan is the only decent film for children around. The makers obviously did some research, and belatedly discovered that small children aren't interested in snogging: it's weird. Mulan does have a love interest, but the liaison is only ever sold as a potential, and the film ends with the hero shyly popping round for supper.

Mulan, a Chinese girl who rides to war disguised as a boy, is a great character, and the film is largely superb. Its preoccupation with leaving home and the relentlessness of choice and experience is very Tolkien. When Bilbo sang "The road goes ever on and on", Mulan might easily join in - with Donny Osmond and half the cast of Miss Saigon perhaps, but that's big-budget animation for you.

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