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Animal Kingdom (Australia, 2010)

Usually when I go to see a film I have a good idea about what it’s going to be like from advanced publicity, reviews etc. All I knew about Animal Kingdom was that it was about a family of bank robbers in modern-day Melbourne (the exact period is a little vague), has an ensemble cast in which the only actor well-known outside Australia was Guy Pearce, had appeared to some acclaim at Sundance and received 8/10 in the Guardian’s summary of reviews. I expected a superior heist-action film and the opening credits, with a montage of unfocused security-camera stills of bank robberies in progress, reinforced this expectation. There was certainly some pretty violent action but, unlike, say, Goodfellas or Heat, it was in short sharp bursts. It turned out to be less a crime-action film, more a gripping psychological thriller. Despite the positive reviews, the early-evening screening I attended was almost empty which is a pity.

Outline – not too many spoilers

Joshua’s mother dies of a heroin overdose and the hapless 17-year-old contacts his grandmother to arrange the funeral. For years his mother had kept him away from her violent criminal brothers but the grandmother welcomes him into the home. The Cody brothers are considering getting out of the bank-robbing business as the police are all over them. The brothers are Darren, the youngest, who is making money in the drug trade in partnership with a crooked cop; Craig, the middle son, who is none too bright but highly excitable, no doubt because he frequently samples the merchandise from his trade; and the oldest, Andrew, who is nicknamed Pope, a psychopathic criminal who is being sought by the police. The brains behind the gang belong to Barry, a family associate who advises Pope to get out of bank-robbing. His preferred option is the stock market but even the grubbier drugs business seems a better bet than carrying on in the old way. Pope doesn’t own nor would he have a clue how to operate a computer to become a stock-broker and considers the drug business as being for sissies. (This exchange reminded me of the one between Stringer Bell in The Wire who wants to move more into ‘legitimate’ business while gang boss Avon Barksdale just wants to be a gangster). Heading the family is the clawingly sentimental but quite vicious mother, Janine Cody. Janine at first seems to be the family skivvy but when her sons are in danger she comes more and more to the fore and becomes a key player in the developing narrative.

The police execute Barry in cold blood and Pope decrees revenge. After more or less forcing Joshua (known as “J”) to go out and steal a car for the job, Pope and his brothers go out and kill two policemen at random. Local detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) enters the story at this point and realises that the way to pin the killing on the Codys is through J. The rest of the film is taken up with the psychological pressure that Pope, aided by a crooked lawyer, exerts on his siblings and nephew, paralleled with Leckie’s hope of bringing J over to his side.

Commentary

The opening of the film sets the tone. We see J sitting on the sofa watching a game show on television with his mother asleep by his side. She is not in fact sleeping but dead and he has already called the paramedics. The fact that he continues to watch TV could suggest callousness but I think that would be a misreading. He is, in a sense, the protagonist of the film but, at first, a fairly passive one. Director David Michôd gives him a voiceover in the early part of the film, seemingly for expositional reasons. Despite script-writing guru Robert Kee’s dictum that voiceovers are a contentious device for exposition, I find them quite useful when done effectively, for example in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Terence Malick’s Badlands. In fact I thought we might be in for the kind of naïve voiceover we find in that film from Sissy Spacek’s character. J’s is much more dispassionate, cool and calm despite the strange family environment he finds when he moves to his grandmother’s. The voiceover finishes (from memory) after about twenty minutes but it does frame the basic lesson – all criminals come apart – which is fleshed out over the next hour and a half.

Perhaps the best things about the film were the performances. Guy Pearce had a supporting role which he plays with quiet effectiveness but there were, arguably, three standout performances. The first was James Frecheville as J. It was a misleading performance, at first quiet and introverted, not quite allowing us to see where he stands with his family’s activities, first suggesting that nothing much was going on inside his head but later suggesting a sense of shock at the crazy world he has entered. When these activities start to infiltrate his life beyond the family he becomes a more active agent in the drama.

The performances of both Jackie Weever (Janine) and Ben Mendelsohn (Pope) share, in their different ways, a certain kind of creepiness. The character of Janine (for which Jackie Weaver was nominated in the recent Oscars as the Best Supporting Actress) shares certain features with previous fictional criminal mothers such as Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) (whose son, played by James Cagney, was of course Cody Jarrett – any significance?); Billie Whitelaw as Violet, mother of the ultra-violent twins in The Krays (d. Peter Medak, 1990); and Livia Soprano  (Nancy Marchand). The latter prefigures Janine in the way Livia is happy to plot the death of her son as Janine is happy to sacrifice her grandson but unlike the latter she is passionately (almost oedipally – kissing them passionately on the lips) fond of her sons. When they go to jail she displays her ruthlessness and power. Her performance is at its most effective when she is silent, her eyes almost giving her entire performance. A mistress of manipulation, behind her benign smile there is coldness with which she sketches what must happen to J to save her sons, all the while keeping the grandmotherly expression on her face. A chilling performance.

Ben Mendelsohn’s tactile performance as Pope was unsettling from the start. He’s off his medication and is a figure of dangerous unpredictability and ominous impulse. It is not just in the way the character seems at any moment to hit out at whoever displeased him but the way, for example, that he pretends to be a sort of father figure, particularly to the youngest brother Darrell, encouraging him to come out as gay, telling he doesn’t mind but menacingly so as to increase his control over his weak younger brother. One unsettling moment foreshadows Pope’s later horrific treatment of Debbie, J’s 16-year-old-girlfriend. She falls asleep as J is out of the room and carries her into the bedroom, his hands lingering on her legs until J arrives.

One aspect of the film that was at one point causing me problems was the pacing of the narrative. At first, when J arrives at the Codys, I found it difficult to distinguish between the brothers and their associate Barry. Fairly quickly the character of Barry establishes itself, especially as Pope’s entrance is held back. It might have been more effective for Barry to be left a bit longer as a counterweight to Pope so that the death of a potential protector for Josh highlights his vulnerability more dramatically. Later, when the police seemed to be making headway in the case and the killers’ arrest and conviction seemed inevitable, I felt the narrative sagged a little. However, a final act opened up with Janine’s role becoming major and our sympathy for J and anxiety on his behalf (and on behalf of his girlfriend Debbie and her family) being ratcheted up. It slackened off after the trial to be revamped by a triumphant Janine confronting Detective Guy in the supermarket and an explosive ending (which, although I half-guessed was about to happen, nevertheless  was a shock.

Finally, much of the atmosphere in the film was conveyed by the music and cinematography. Antony Partos’s austere score was dark, melancholic, tense and menacing. I think I need a further viewing to absorb the mise en scene and cinematography but I was left with an impression of frequent (over-frequent?) slow motion sequences, slow zooms and noirish lighting which combined to create a mood of tragic inevitability.

Here’s the trailer:

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Vallanzasca – Gli angeli del male (Angels of Evil, Italy/France/Romania 2010)

Kim Rossi Stuart as Renato Vallanzasca in one of the prison scenes

Angels of Evil is a stylish Italian entry into the crime biopic genre which has seen a recent resurgence with the success of the two Mesrine films starring Vincent Cassell. It’s also related to another recent biopic, the mammoth take on the international revolutionary criminal Carlos. But perhaps it is best considered alongside recent fictional crime sagas such as Animal Kingdom, Un prophète and Gomorra.

The central character in Angels of Evil is Renato Vallanzasca,  a Milanese street kid born in 1950 who gravitates towards bank robberies and eventually becomes Italy’s ‘most wanted’ partly because he becomes involved with the deaths of police officers. The film begins with one of his many prison terms and then reveals his story in flashback. What is noticeable is the extent to which Vallanzasca’s no doubt partly romanticised biography so closely resembles a typical crime genre narrative. For instance, his gang includes his blood brother from the streets, Enzo, a man who may have learning difficulties but who is certainly a highly dangerous companion, and his ‘little sister’ Antonella from the same background. Renato’s parents remain supportive throughout (it seems barely credible that in one of his breakouts from prison, Renato goes to his parents’ flat).

Generically, the film is very close to Mesrine and Renato is represented as almost a Robin Hood type figure, a generally honourable character who shows up the inadequacies of the police and prison service and appeals directly to the public. I was reminded at times of the idea of the Italian ‘outlaw’ figure and Eric Hobsbawm’s ideas about ‘social bandits’. I haven’t seen Francesco Rosi’s film about the Sicilian bandit Lucky Luciano but I wonder if there are any parallels. Vallanzasca is not a rural bandit of course. But his street origins in the early 1960s do mean that he is an ‘outsider’ and one of the narrative strands in the film deals with his attempts to oust the more established crime families in Milan. I’ve seen criticisms of the film complaining that given its time span (primarily the 1970s and 1980s) it doesn’t say enough about the changing nature of organised crime in Italy. I confess that I couldn’t keep track of all of the action in the film and the various groups from different crime organisations but I did note that Renato (like all ‘old-time’ criminals in genre films) bemoans the young thugs and their mindless violence, believing that he himself was ‘honorable’. I’ve just finished reading an Italian crime fiction novel about the Calabrian criminal families and I was intrigued to see that they get a mention here alongside the Sicilians.

I thought Angels of Evil was an enjoyable (if very bloody) genre film on a par with Mesrine but lacking the intensity of Un prophète or Gomorra. The central performance by Kim Rossi Stuart is its strongest element alongside the two young women played by Valeria Soleano and the Spanish actress Paz Vega (as Antonella). The multi-lingual German actor Moritz Bleibtreu plays one of the gang members. Rossi Stuart also starred in director Michele Placido’s earlier crime film Romanzo criminale (2005) – a very similar package about a criminal gang in Rome in the 1970s which I haven’t seen. Overall I have to agree with a reviewer who suggested that the film reveals a cast and crew who most enjoyed dressing up for the 1970s/80s scenes.

Angels of Evil is that now rare beast – a widescreen ‘popular’ European genre picture that struggles to get even a limited UK release, even though it was part-produced by Fox International Italy and Canal+. Once, such films, often dubbed, received a wide release in the UK. Ironically, Italian domestic production is on something of a roll at the moment scoring multiple hits at home. Angels of Evil opened at No4 in the Italian Top 20 in January 2011 (when 4 out of the Top 5 were Italian ‘domestic features’). When it dropped out of the Top 20 after four weeks the film had taken $3.76 million. It might do quite well when it opens in France in September.

The 24th Leeds International Film Festival

The 24th Leeds International Film Festival was a success both in terms of audiences and in the variety and range of films provided. Total admissions were 29,000, improving once again on earlier years. Certainly, most of the screenings I attended enjoyed substantial audiences. There were some screenings with just a few devotees. But the programmes of World Cinema that I favoured generally did very well. The art and foreign language films I saw seem to have larger audiences than similar films capture outside the Festival fortnight.

The change to the city Town Hall as the main venue for the Festival presumably helped in this, as the auditorium accommodates 900 people. Not all the films screened there attracted a full house, but there were still some sizeable audiences. The Town Hall is a definite improvement on the previous central venue, The Carriageworks. There is a large screen erected, about 25 feet high I reckon. And the prints and projections were generally very good. The acoustics are trickier, though still an improvement on The Carriageworks. As a concert hall it is not designed for film and dialogue in particular can be indistinct. As the Festival progressed the delivery improved, and sitting on the ground floor rather than the balcony was a good idea. For films with strong musical or sound mix it worked very well.

The critic’s judgements on the programme selected Tuesday After Christmas (Marti, Dupa Craciun, Romania, 2009, directed by Radu Muntean) for The Golden Owl Award. Note that the Owl graces the logo of the City. This is another film from what is now termed the Romanian New Wave. It offers a portrait of an extra-marital affair. The new award, the Golden Owl Lifetime Achievement Award went to Tsai Ming-Liang. A feature and a short film by him both featured in the Festival, and have been reviewed on this Blog. Another award went to a German horror film, The Last Employee (Der Letzte Angestellte, 2010, directed by Alexander Adolph). This award is part of the European Federation of Fantastic Film Festivals, and as such Leeds hosts its annual Silver Méliès competition for the UK. The film now goes forward to the final European leg of the competition. And the jury made special mention of the Irish thriller Savage (2008, directed by Brendan Muldowney). I would expect these features to get some sort of release for the wider UK audience.

Audiences get to record their own preferences by being able to score films from one to five stars. The method does not really enable strict comparisons because audience size varies considerably, as possibly do completion rates. Anyway, the music documentary High on Hope (UK, 2009, directed by Piers Sanderson) was the overall favourite. This deals with acid parties in the late 1980s. The King’s Speech was named as favourite fiction feature, [and is also reviewed on the blog]. After collecting audience votes from every screening during the Film Festival, High on Hope received an average score of 4.64 out of 5. Both films would seem to be likely to enjoy good audiences on a general release. In fact, The King’s Speech is apparently already doing well in the USA, with a tip for a possible Oscar. I can believe that Colin Firth will get a Best Performance Nomination for his characterisation of King George VI. Unfortunately for the producers they failed to foresee the recent royal announcement, otherwise they could have included a Royal wedding in the plot as well.

One film that other viewers recommended several times to me was Animal Kingdom (Australia, 2010, directed by David Michôd) a thriller set in the Melbourne underworld. This should be released generally into the UK. Another was The Art of Negative Thinking (Kunsten å tenke negativt, Norway, 2006, directed by Bård Brelen), a satirical black comedy. I think both performances for this feature were sold out.

In line with our own Blog’s interests I concentrated on World Cinema, [reviews are included separately]. There were some welcome revivals, especially Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors. Also the extremely rare print of Children of the Beehive. And there were contemporary releases; the best of which I think would be Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

One item of programming found in past festivals but missing this year was a focus on a particular director: the retrospective of Francesco Rosi a few years back was splendid. Nor did we get a particular national focus like the German films from last year. Despite this, the variety of films and the quality of the best features made this a very strong programme. And the attention given to documentary and experimental film is also very commendable. One hopes that the present cultural constrictions will not prevent an equally enjoyable Festival in 2011.

The Road

Father and son travel the wilderness

USA 2009 – Certificate 15.

Screen adaptation by Joe Penhall: direction by John Hillcoat.

This film is clearly a ‘message movie’. But, for me, the most stimulating moment in the screening was among the preceding adverts. The first was by Act on CO2. It presented a father reading an illustrated moral fable to his young, blonde-haired daughter at bedtime. We saw the animals and natural settings that succumbed to the man-made toxic pestilence. At the end the young girl asked her father, ‘Is there a happy ending?’ It struck me that if she was a few years older she could see the film that I was about to watch. In this post-apocalyptic tale the opening shows a world where there is clearly not a happy ending for the animal kingdom, for nature and for human society.

The following contains some plot information: however, I think the plot’s trajectory is fairly obvious from the opening moments.

The film is an adaptation of a highly praised novel by Cormac McCarthy. I found the book an absorbing and powerful fable, but (like No Country for Old Men) that its minimalist style has definite limitations. The minimalism is drastically reduced in the film medium. We are immediately shown facial expressions and character movement: the actual detail of the devastation: and intriguing detail in the background: all amplify the bare bones of the novel. The filmmakers accentuate this tendency partly through cinematic style, for example the use of the overhead, dramatic wide shots: but mostly by the often obtrusive accompanying music. I cannot remember many musical riffs in my imagination when I read the novel.

The filmic approach also gives added emphasis to other aspects that are found in the novel. This applies especially to the roles of female characters. In The Road Charlize Theron (woman) plays the lead female. The fact that she is a star just makes it more obvious that her character is subordinate and marginal to the men: and she also has a negative function in the narrative. In fact, in both the book and the film, men trudge off into the wilderness (here father and son played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee), with the women frequently left behind in the world of domesticity. In this case, though, the domestic world has collapsed. Man and the wilderness is a common motif in popular films: the Hollywood Western is mainly constructed round this situation. McCarthy’s books tend to be westerns as well. But equally in the broader US culture the situation has almost mythic status. (Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel offers an excellent analysis of this tendency).

A more problematic treatment, not in the book, concerns African-Americans. I think there are one or more among the extras, including in a gang involved in cannibalism. However, the one black character (Michael Kenneth Williams) presented centrally in a sequence is the thief.  In the book McCarthy describes this character thus, “Scrawny, sullen, bearded, filthy. His old plastic coat held together with tape.” Making him a black character might seem neutral casting, but that is not the case in the sort of capitalist society where racist stereotypes are still powerfully present.

Critics have commented on how the film softens or downplays aspects of the novel – the treatment of cannibalism is a good example. Joe Penhall was asked about changing the written story for the film and suggested that movies were ‘subject to immutable laws’, [Interview on Night Waves, Radio 3, January 7th 2010]. This is over-emphatic, though mainstream films are subject to powerful conventions. These are apparent at the film’s ending. On the seashore setting there is one extra character (uncredited) as loaded in connotations as the wilderness itself. I think you will recognise him/her as soon as you watch the final scene.