Monday, November 15, 2010

"Animal Kingdom": All gangster, no glamour

I also managed to see two very compelling documentaries on my final day at the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival, but they were each, in their own way, so grim that they sort of canceled each either out in my mind, leaving me kind of mentally battered and bewildered.

Which certainly doesn't make them any less successful at telling important stories extremely well. The first was "Mugabe and the White African," which from the title alone you can tell is probably not going to have the happiest of endings. It follows the story of Mike Campbell, a white farmer in Zimbabwe who has taken leader Robert Mugabe to court to block Mugabe's land grab of all farms owned by white people. Using hidden cameras, the filmmakers get extraordinary access to Campbell and his family as they fight their fight and are menaced by Mugabe's thugs at every step. Hard to watch, but well worth catching when this hits DVD on Dec. 14.

After that, and for the last movie of the festival for me, I watched "Last Train Home," but like I said, I was unfortunately way to emotionally drained by that point to really enjoy it. The movie follows the misfortunes of one family in particular as it takes a look at the exodus of China's migrant work force back to their home towns for each Chinese New Year, described at the outset as the largest human migration in the world (and watching people fight for spots on the train, it's impossible to doubt that.) It hits very hard as it follows one married couple who work in the garment industry as they simultaneously fight to keep their children from following in their footsteps. Not sure when this might be coming to DVD, but check it out when it does.

Sandwiched in between these two grim affairs, thankfully, was "Animal Kingdom," an Australian gangster movie of sorts that I'm fairly certain will find a home on my list of the top 10 movies for the year.

As the movie begins, you can tell that our protagonist, young Joshua "J" Cody, has already had much of the life drained out of him as he calmly calls his grandmother to report that her daughter, his mother, has died of a heroin overdose as she sits on the couch beside him. From there, he's taken in by the Cody clan, a low-level Melbourne crime family with many of the trappings of crime families throughout movie history, but still a unique group to watch for both their savagery and, often, their ineptitude.

The Cody gang is made up of three brothers and a cousin as the soldiers, and a matriarch played by Jacki Weaver who is someone to keep your eyes on (though it will be impossible not to anyway.) As we meet them, they're clearly already on the downside of their rather petty criminal careers, and watching their fall is one of the many things that makes writer/director David Michod's debut feature film so grimly but thoroughly entertaining.

I don't want to give too much away, but the story here is about how Joshua (James Frecheville) is slowly drawn into their desperate world, and what measures he will go to to escape it. It always annoys me when gangster movies get compared to "The Godfather" (calling, for example, "Un Prophet" the French "Godfather," as I've seen many times), but in its lack of convenient catch phrases or stylish action set pieces, Michod's movie is, if anything, the anti-"Godfather."

Instead of resorting to any of these usual gangland conventions, Michod instead lets his movie be driven by a constant mood of terror that only increases as the flick unfolds, and by natural performances throughout from his cast, particularly Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn as the rather seriously unstable Andrew "Pope" Cody.

Even its ambiguous ending was a satisfying wrap up for me, and I think you'll be hearing at least Weaver's name with the Oscar nominations as Best Supporting Actress, and "Animal Kingdom" is so good that I'd have to think it's a dark horse for Best Picture too, since there will once again be 10 competitors.

I have no idea if this is still playing in theaters anywhere, but if it is, definitely check it out, and look for it in on DVD in January. I've included the trailer, which makes hilarious use of Air Supply's "All Out of Love," below. And with that, I've got to pack and return home from the first leg of my vacation. Peace out.


Bob said...

I saw "Animal Kingdom" a couple of months ago and I thought it was pretty well made but I would never want to sit through it again. I've seen plenty of depressing movies but most of them at least allowed me to feel something and get some sort of emotional release at some point. This one just felt completely oppressive to me. I felt a little like Joshua, just completely drained of life.
That could be a testament to just how well made it is. If that was the least depressing movie you saw this weekend then I can't even imagine sitting through those two documentaries.
I agree with you about Weaver. She will probably have a Bob Award nomination in her future if nothing else. :)

Reel Fanatic said...

I think you're dead on in your assessment, Bob, but I wasn't expecting any kind of positive outcome at all, so wasn't let down by the ending

Reel Fanatic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emma said...

I actually didn't saw this movie. From your review this movie is seeming to me a great option. I will definitely watch this movie soon to end up my excitement for this movie. Thanks for this great write up.
Animal Kingdom 2010

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