Animal Kingdom - David Michod - Having obsessed over the trailer for months before seeing Animal Kingdom theatrically I knew a fair amount about what to expect from this film in terms of plot and tone, but it never went where I’d determined it was headed. No small achievement that. There was a moment early on where, in regards to a certain character, I realized that I’d seen every shot from the trailer he’d been featured in already and I was left to guess where he was headed. Unlike when I experienced that same rare feeling of uncertainty in a film previously this year in 44” Chest, (and then nothing happened), Animal Kingdom took me completely off guard and scared the hell out of me. There is an assassination early in the picture that so effectively sets up the danger and the very real stakes of everything that follows, that the pressure never lets up. Doesn’t matter what’s going on onscreen, you are tense, you know that no one is safe and that by the time you (or they) see it coming, it’ll all be over. The very first scene is also a small work of perfection. Could’ve been an award winning short film, really and it sets up our main character better than any synopsis some hack like me might agonize over constructing, so I’ll leave it alone, but I’ll mention James Frecheville’s performance of J. as one of the best on screen portrayals of a teenager since Leo Fitzpatrick in Larry Clark's Kids. This dude is so dull in the eyes and blank about the face and turns in such a slack jawed demonstration of mouth breathing, without ever overdoing it, you’ll be tempted not to give him credit for acting. But that my friends is simply nailing the part. And it’s a brave part to nail. Aside from a single moment to break down crying, he’s given no flashy lookit-me type “acting” to do. Frecheville’s is one among an ensemble of strong performances that include Jackie Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, Sullivan Stapleton and Guy Pearce. Writer of The Square (as well as brother of The Square’s director Nash Edgerton), Joel Edgerton also turns in what would be a star making performance in a bigger exposure picture as the singular voice of reason and moderation among this circle of thieves and madmen. His onscreen presence is one of the most magnetic in years. I remember reading some early reviews of Reservoir Dogs where critics said “I know what this film wanted to do. It just wanted to show you all the things you don’t get to see in crime movies. It’s a heist film and you never see the heist. Instead, it focuses on all the boring parts. Ha-ha. A cheap trick.” And I suspect some folks will feel the same about Animal Kingdom. There is no big job our bank -robbing protagonists are gearing up for. There is no little job. And we’re mercifully spared any court -room procedural even though a large section of the film is preparing us for the testimony one character will bring against his partners. We understand enough from the preparation and the aftermath exactly how things go. Anything else would be gratuitous, and even though it’s a well-trod genre, there is nothing gratuitous about Animal Kingdom. There is no cool criminal speak about ‘scores’, ‘hits’, ‘marks’ or ‘vigs’. Nobody racks a gun in a sexy manner. No one discusses grand plans for outwitting the police or each other. In fact, all we get to see of the reward for the criminal life style the main characters live is a bunch of high-strung, paranoid bundles of kinetic violence cowering in the dark of their own living rooms from the police. And with good reason. At one point, we hear a character say that they heard the police are looking to kill him, (apparently out of frustration, since they’ve been unable to prove any allegations against him). In any other movie, we’d have no reason to believe that this was anything more than a paranoid delusion of grandeur, but we’re given several onscreen demonstrations of the ruthless, systematic abuse of power these guys are up against and, like I said earlier, you’re just tense the whole time. I was reminded of the quote from Frank James on why he’d turned himself in, (found in Scott Wolven’s collection of outlaw and convict stories Controlled Burn), “I was tired of an outlaw’s life. I have been hunted for twenty-one years. I have literally lived in the saddle. I have never known a day of perfect peace. It was one long, anxious, inexorable, eternal vigil. When I slept it was literally in the midst of an arsenal. If I heard dogs bark more fiercely than usual, or the feet of horses in a greater volume of sound than usual, I stood to my arms. Have you any idea of what a man must endure who leads such a life? No, you cannot.” And like a Wolven story, there is more meaning packed into the details, more nuance in the choice of words, (or silence), and more life pulsing beneath the sum of the character’s actions than the combined yield from any ten examples of the standard fare “crime” fans are typically fed. Just watch a single scene between the oldest, Pope, and his youngest brother - the relentless goading masked as an appeal for clearing the air and understanding between them, and the weary acceptance of brotherly abuse -you’ve got that relationship down. Or the sweet, bordering-on-creepy way mom treats her sons, their prompt, slumped shouldered acquiesce to her kisses that put them in their place – directly under her. Family,the ties that bind. And gag. I’m not sure why this film is drawing so much comparison to Goodfellas. I wish that it weren’t, because they’re dissimilar experiences and it’s an unfair, if flattering, parallel to make. I’m tempted to think that when audiences feel moved or overwhelmed by a mere genre picture, it’s immediately heralded as the second coming of, ‘oh, what was that other good movie about criminals?’ and A Prophet had already snagged The Godfather comparison this year. Animal Kingdom is not the scale of film that Goodfellas is. One of its strengths is its firm grasp of its own identity. It’s a small picture, modest in scope, ambitious in tone and confident in its abilities. It will not meet you halfway. It’s not pandering for a larger audience. Like each creature in the titular metaphor, it strives to set the terms and if you’ll just submit to them, we’ll all get along fine.
The Night Comes For Us - Timo Tjahjanto - Plot concerns a bad man who just can't bring himself to bad that much any more and so gets the ruthless and well-oiled machinery of smuggling, trafficking, vice and murder for hire criminality in and around Jakarta and the South Pacific all a-twist in on itself and bursts the levee holding back blood and only the quickest, toughest most ridiculously badass motherfuckers will survive rising tide of entrails and brain matter and severed limbs the whole world is covered in by the end of this breathless, groovy as shit movie that gives Gareth Evans' The Raid franchise a worthy competitor for the kung-fu-ck-u film making throne. Having enjoyed director Tjahjanto's previous efforts (the pscycho/sicko thriller Killers and chop-socky lip smacker Headshot) just enough to keep tuning in I was nevertheless comfuckingpletely unprepared for the level of magic he was capable of. Nothing in those other films even hinted at latent potential a fraction of these heights. Here's hoping Netflix gives him the go-ahead on his proposed Six-Seas trilogy with The Night Comes For Us serving as chapter one. Further, let's hope there's an excuse to bring back the entire cast - in different roles where need be - especially Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Zack Lee, Hannah Al Rashid and Dian Sastrowardoyo.
this rankling review). It's pretty clear to anybody paying attention that the film maker cares deeply - as his hero does - about children and the vulnerable. Consider the punishment meted out by the hero. He lets a father's rage be vented against the monster that killed his little girl before taking punitive measure against the same father for letting his daughter's life go so far off the rails that she was at risk of the kind of fate that found her, and (more) as a reminder not to let it happen to his other children. We are also led to believe that he spares the life of a man who helped plan an assassination attempt on him because the man acted out of desperation to provide for his young and very helpless son. He cares too for his own child, whom he shares very tender moments with, and saves his most white-hot slaying for the one whose child-abuse has led to the tragedies of the film's plot, while punishing, but non-lethally, the man who tried to kill him, but drew the line at harming a child. Final note: the karaoke. Notice that every time the hero sings, it is in Thai and not subtitled, and his audience is entirely made up of policemen - like he's preaching to them, teaching them The Law. Like Jesus ending his parables with the phrase "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Now think about the non-cop karaoke scene where he systematically disables the senses of a villain - if you're not using your eyes/ears, let's get rid of them - or the ritual severing of hands (again recalling Jesus' words "If your right hand makes causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.") So, yeah, heavy religious, good and evil overtones... I love that shit. Best moment: the showdown between Gosling and Pansirigarm - made me think of Jacob (the younger, softer, less-macho and less-favored of two brothers) wrestling the angel - contending with God. It's the final big reveal of theme in the film, in case you weren't yet getting it. Wonderful scene.
Standoff at Sparrow Creek - Henry Dunham - The story concerns a small militia group deep in the dark heart of the American wilderness who discover that one of them may have started a war with the cops. The group whose politics are never discussed are torn between sniffing out and offering up their member who shot up a cop's funeral and bracing for inevitable Armageddon. The dramatic tension is expertly drawn out and the cast are uniformly good. I can't wait to see where Dunham's career goes from here.
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