Animal Kingdom

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Animal Kingdom an Australian The Godfather, but I will say that this taut crime drama is a must-see for fans of the genre. Instead of calling it The Godfather, I’ll call it The Grandmother. The central family of criminals in the story is ruled by Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver in a performance that has been attracting a lot of attention). She’s always cooking for her “boys” – Pope, Baz, Craig and Darren – four men who are varying degrees of hoodlum.

Into this den of lions walks grandson Joshua Cody (James Frecheville). He’s a cub, as detective Leckie (Guy Pearce), points out. “The weak survive when they are protected by the strong.” But as the Cody family comes under attack from a zealous police unit, Joshua and his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheeler) find themselves caught up the desperate and deadly fracas.

The script was developed in a government-sponsored workshop and the film itself won the Grand Jury Prize this year at Sundance. Writer / director David Michôd, a member of the Blue Tongue collective of Australian filmmakers, unfolds the drama in a steady, sometimes dispassionate manner. The tension is built masterfully, and the queasy score by Antony Partos and Sam Petty deserves a good deal of credit for this.

Not only is Jacki Weaver as fascinatingly fun to watch as the buzz has been saying, the other acting performances are all stellar. Each of the men who play the Cody brothers creates a distinct character. James Frecheville’s performance as Joshua is probably going to be the most dividing among audiences. I found his taciturn inscrutability to be spot-on for an awkward teenager, and the right tone for the story to work; others may find him almost a blank slate.

To be sure, the movie isn’t perfect. I count a single use of voice-over in a film to be a venal sin; and as nicely as the tension is built, the movie often releases it anti-climactically, rushing the action scenes or skipping them altogether. There is a point at the end of the movie where — without being spoiler-specific — a cop points a gun at a character’s head. The timeline at this point in the film seems confused, but one of my friends, JD, puzzled out that this scene takes place after the trial, and thus is a reaction to what the character said at the trial.

The cinematography, possibly in an attempt to feel gritty, often instead just looks dirty. I thought the movie was shot on video; but there were lots of credits for the DI, the digital intermediate, suggesting it was acquired on film at least. I guess they were trying to use a super-fast film stock and natural lighting to make the movie feel raw and real, which it does, although the highlights were often blown out and the color detail seemed crushed and muddy. The director and d.p. Adam Arkapaw do make great use of speed-ramping – there are several scenes that ramp seamlessly into slow motion. (You can see Michôd loves off-speed camera work from this short, “Crossbow”.)

All in all, Animal Kingdom is one of my favorites this year. My mid-year ranking: (1. Agora, 2. Animal Kingdom, 3. Inception, 4. The Kids Are All Right, 5. The Girl Who Played with Fire)

The Other Guys

The Other Guys is very funny, and that’s all the reason needed to recommend it.

However, if you want some further analysis with your comedy, there are a few things I can say. First of all, I love writer / director Adam McKay’s approach to comedy. He takes a genre, say the sports movie with Talladega Nights, the family drama with Step Brothers or, well, I don’t know what Anchorman is supposed to be — but he takes the genre and does a comedy parody of it. On top of simple genre spoof plots, like a jazz standard, he has his band riff every moment to near-absurdity. It’s a great formula, and it shows no sign of tiring, although I did think Talladega Nights was funnier.

As if McKay wasn’t talented enough, The Other Guys shows him to be a very fine director of action scenes, at least those involving a degree of comic mayhem. But his superior sense of editing, composition and lighting to most comedic directors is, in some sense, wasted. You don’t need the blockbuster studio budget to make a film as funny as The Other Guys, as McKay has proved before.

The end credits of the film contain some beautifully-animated infographics that clumsily try to make a non-comedic point. It doesn’t belong. For one thing, having seen McKay improvise several times on the stage at Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, I know he’s more intelligent and sophisticated than these infographics bely with their implications that AIG bonuses and the Madoff ponzi scheme were peas in a pod. (The Madoff scheme is criminal: a malfunction of regulators and the greed-blindness of investors; the bailout of AIG and others financial companies is a logical and foreseeable response from a system where incentives have been misaligned and companies are encouraged to become “too big to fail”. This is a similar fallacy to connecting the DC sniper shootings and the Anthrax attacks to the 9/11 attack – simply because they are contemporaneous does not make them indicative of some larger pattern.)

The good thing about the infographics and the plot elements to which they relate is that they indicate McKay perhaps has grander ambitions beyond simply making people laugh. I’d love to see a movie where he restricted himself only to comedy that comes from a very real sense of the characters, like a The Kids Are All Right and which had, thematically, a very personal ethical vision. In a way, I think this would be a better use of his talents than a kick-ass car chase.

Or not. As with the personal ethical vision of the classic movie Sullivan’s Travels, a director who is great at escapist comedy should be content to continue making it and not attempt to freight his films with didactic moralizing. So Mr. McKay, please keep making Michael Keaton recite lyrics from TLC songs. Then shout “America!” and hit the gas.