Tag Archives: B+

ANIMAL KINGDOM

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B+

A tale of a crime family much smaller and far less prosperous than the one headed by the Corleones in the “Godfather” pictures, the Australian “Animal Kingdom” is nevertheless as fascinating in its own way as Francis Ford Coppola’s epic trilogy, especially since it features two characters whose casual malevolence is even more shocking when set in such a drably lower-middle-class milieu. And its bursts of violence are even more effective because they’re so abrupt—and so brief.

David Michod’s debut feature was inspired by actual events in Melbourne, but they served merely as a springboard for a story centered on teenager Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), nicknamed J, who after the overdose death of his mother is welcomed into the home of his grandmother Janine, or Smurf (Jacki Weaver). She’s a smiling, affectionate—indeed, overaffectionate—widow who presides over a brood of criminal sons. One, Barry, or Baz (Joel Edgerton), is a rational fellow who recognizes the need to step away from their usual bank-robbing ways into legal activities like working the stock market. But his brothers are of very different attitudes. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a wacko drug dealer, and Darren (Luke Ford) a hapless follower. But the worst is Andrew, nicknamed Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), recently sprung from prison—a volatile psychopath, a man who though meek and mild-mannered on the surface is a brooding schemer who can explode into brutality at any provocation.

Thrust into the deceptively ordinary but simmering world of this family, J finds himself and his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) inevitably drawn into their activities, particularly after Baz is summarily gunned down by a bunch of corrupt cops. Pope spearheads an act of revenge—the random massacre of a couple of policemen—and enlists J to steal the car that serves as bait for the trap. A clean investigator, Sergeant Leckie (Guy Pearce), removes J from the Cody household to persuade him to turn state’s evidence, but both the boy and Nicky become the target of the suspicious Pope, and when it becomes clear that J may be a liability, Smurf—who’s clearly as brutally practical-minded, and more efficient than, any of her sons—intervenes to save her darlings, and J must change course to save himself and take revenge as well.

What gives “Animal Kingdom” its punch is the performance of Weaver as the matriarch of this small-time bunch of hoods, a smiling cobra but a snake nonetheless, and that of Mendelsohn as her eldest son, a fellow all the more frightening for seeming so mild and even clownish. Their relationship has a bit of the mother-son vibe of “White Heat” to it, though not quite at the same level of intensity. Beside them Edgerton, Ford and Stapleton, solid as they are, are cast in the shade, as is even Pearce, who brings a sweaty integrity to the overmatched Leckie.

Where the picture stumbles is in juvenile lead, who’s serving the Michael Corleone function here. J has to be a character that’s difficult to read, but in Frecheville’s performance he comes across as more vacant than opaque. It’s not that you’re unaware of what he’s thinking; it’s that he doesn’t seem to be thinking at all.

But while that’s a serious defect, it’s not fatal, simply because what’s happening around the young man is so absorbing. And the ambiance—gritty but basically commonplace—has been well caught by the technical team and captured by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. Antony Partos’ score gets a bit blowsy at times, but overall adds to the mood.

“Animal Kingdom” shows that the gangster movie is alive and well, even as the corpses pile up. And even Down Under.

ADORATION

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B+

Atom Egoyan’s last film was “Where the Truth Lies,” but it wasn’t much good. That title would also suit this one, but it differs in being very fine indeed.

Egoyan is one of the most interesting directors working today; even his failures are intriguing. But his best films—“Exotica” and “The Sweet Hereafter”—are truly extraordinary. And if “Adoration” doesn’t quite match them, it comes remarkably close.

The linchpin of the plot is Simon (Devon Bostick), a high school student and orphan living in a modest suburban house with his uncle Tom (Scott Speedman), a sad-faced tow-truck driver. When his teacher, Sabine (Arsinee Khanjian), reads the class an old news report about a Palestinian man who sent his pregnant wife on a flight to the Middle East with a bomb in her luggage—which fortuitously did not explode—he writes an essay in which he’s the unborn child whom his father intended to sacrifice but who survived. Sabine encourages him to read the essay to the class as fact rather than fiction, and soon the whole school is not only talking about him via their computer linkups but engaging the wider net community in the discussion.

Meanwhile Simon is reflecting on videos he shot of his bigoted grandfather Morris (Kenneth Walsh) as the old man lay dying, blaming his daughter’s death or her husband. Recollections of Simon’s mother Rachel (Rachel Blanchard), a violinist, and father Sami (Noam Jenkins)—particularly the last contentious dinner they had, along with Tom and Simon, at Morris’ house—are juxtaposed with “flashbacks” from Simon’s school scenario, also with Blanchard and Jenkins. Another layer is added when a mysterious woman in a chador and elaborate niqab appears at Tom and Simon’s home asking questions about the boy’s parents—queries that challenge Tom’s attitudes and his emotional solitude.

Egoyan manages to tie all these threads together—it wouldn’t be fair to reveal precisely how—and though some of the connections and revelations strain credulity, they do what they’re intended to do: to bring out the ideas that Egoyan wants to ruminate on, taking us along with him. In those respects “Adoration” is of a piece with his other films, both stylistically and thematically. Like them it’s quiet and meditative, a fractured narrative doling out fragments of information as Simon struggles to discern where deception and his imagination end and the truth really lies. And it proceeds with an achingly slow rhythm and seductively simple, chaste visual beauty.

In the process it raises issues Egoyan has dealt with before—overcoming, or at least learning to live with, guilt; the power of intolerance and ancient hatreds; the bonds of family; the varieties of perspectives from which any event can be perceived; the difficulty of communicating; the abruptness with which violence and tragedy can erupt. But none are treated in blunt, didactic fashion. Egoyan toys with them, teasing out examples of how they operate in individual lives and the ripples they send out into the larger world. And he refuses to tell the viewer what it all means, instead inviting us to think about the ideas he raises for ourselves. For some that obliqueness will be frustrating; but for those ready to give themselves over to the picture’s melancholy complexity, it will be engrossing.

For the most part Egoyan draws refined performances from his cast. His wife Khanjian, who’s often appeared in his films, pushes the plot forward, sometimes rather bluntly, but Bostick is poignantly subdued as the tormented young student, and Speedman subtly shows the changes in his uncle. Blanchard and Jenkins do equally delicate work. By contrast Walsh is gruff and emphatic as the boy’s grandfather. Watch for Maury Chaykin as one of the more vivid interlocutors on Simon’s Internet chat room.

“Adoration” has been fashioned with care, in Egoyan’s usual style, precise but unfussy, with fine cinematography by Paul Sarossy. Particularly important contributions come from Susan Shipton, whose editing knits the narrative fragments together skillfully, and composer Mychael Danna, whose string-heavy score not only establishes the right mood of sadness and dissonance but serves as an effective linking device among the plot strands.

No Egoyan film is ever going to be popular in the multiplex sense—he’s too personal an artist, with too idiosyncratic and demanding a style. And “Adoration” is unquestionably a rarefied piece that asks a lot of viewers. But those who make an effort to respond to its challenges will find it an absorbing and haunting experience.