Thursday, July 15, 2010

Smacking of the Jungle

New Zealanders might not know how privileged they are to have the international festival of independent films that they do.

Back in South Africa where I come from "independent" would mean a handful of mainly white people attending and "international" would mean Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban, but never all three together. As for the other smaller cities and large towns, most of them simply don't have the numbers, interest or wherewithal to feature, individually or collectively.

Yet here you have the same festival being seen by anyone who's interested - in 15 different cities and towns across the country. In other words, almost everyone's on the same page.

So it was really exciting seeing a massive Auckland Civic filled with young people (of all ages) who are so into the film they're watching that, when a particularly nasty piece of work gets his comeuppance in the Australian flick Animal Kingdom, they applauded.

The film won the World Jury Dramatic Prize at the Sundance Film Fest, which was described by a Time critic as one that generally deals with families confronting their hidden issues. In other words, a very Robert Redford kind of film festival.

Animal Kingdom, however, is not about your average screwed up family. It focuses on a Melbourne outfit that is downright vicious, as the title implies, which means that winning in Sundance is a deservedly big deal.

What makes the film so powerful? The centre of the unit is its mother, Janine Cody, played with peroxided understatement by Jacky Weaver. No ordinary mum, her boys all come from different fathers and might look like your everyday, working-class Aussies in their faded golf shirts, but that's where it ends. They're dealing in heroin and with at least one corrupt cop, too. If she doesn't direct operations, then Janine is somehow the centre around which everything turns.

When her only daughter overdoses on H she takes in her grandson, Joshua, played with teenage repression to the point of implosion by James Frecheville. Would he really show nothing and continue watching TV while his mother is busy dying of a smack overdose? Possibly. Maybe what went before has inured him to any kind of feeling whatsoever, though he did actually call the ambulance. He certainly doesn't seem upset that his mother has died when he drily tells grandma Janine about it on the phone, but then neither does she. If you're dead you're dead, it seems, but if you're alive and male grandma's going to give you a big fat kiss that verges on the nakedly sexual.

Sometimes the above kind of conversation is very funny, sometimes it masks what needs to be fleshed out to become a little more archetypal, which is not a dirty word.

The film starts with Joshua's voice-over, which then sort of falls away, but we are clearly meant to be on his half mute, half mumbled journey - to start with at any rate. He has a girlfriend from a middle class family and the mother is understandably worried that her daughter is involved with someonewho is related to a bunch of hardcore dealers.

No touristy cityscape shots here, just the drab working-class suburbs of a sprawling, post-colonial city.

But as the net tightens on Joshua, leading him into a world of violent crime he may not have wanted to enter - though he'd already stared stealing cars before the story starts - his path crosses that of detective Leckie. Played dead straight by a moutachio'ed Guy Pearce, he has a curious effect on the rest of the film. In fact, he takes over, whether it's because his character is the only one that turns out to be any good whatsoever or because Pearce can't help having that indefinable thing called star presence.

What he instantly does to a film that has very good performances all round, especially from Ben Mendelsohn who takes the banality of evil to new check-shirted shallows, is make us question who or what exactly is the main focus of the film. He also forces us to start making comparisons with a film that deals very clearly with police corruption, the masterly LA Confidential, in which he also co-starred.

Are we supposed to feel pity for Joshua as with another product of his environment, the titular Tsotsi? Are we supposed to admire Janine just because she's a woman? Clearly, detective Leckie is the only moral character in a film that seems to want to condemn the cops. A loving father of a child with Downs syndrome, his treatment of Joshua at first seems ambiguous, if not expedient, and later touches on the fatherly, possibly because he doesn't have a child that could become "normal". But this avenue is not explored any further.

We will stay with the emotionally blunted Joshua to his inevitable conclusion, bolstered by a soundtrack that is sometimes positively overbearing: the complete antithesis to what's happening on the screen. In that department, the film might have been more effective if it had stuck to that which gives it its considerable power, tension and menace. That is, everyday talk, incidental music, blaring TVs, cellphones ringing, "suburban hum".

But if the film lacks focus - who is really the main character? why are the cops so corrupt? why do the Codys do what they do? how did Joshua find out who killed his girlfriend? why should we see yet another film about the circularity of drug violence? - it certainly announces the arrival of talented writer/director David Michod. He can only get better than what he already is.

Ghosts of the Past ll

It was fascinating to watch The Ghost Writer by Roman Polanski the day after the Swiss refused to have him extradited to the United States - on a technicality. Did it really take them nine months to process the fact that there was a breach in their rules governing extradition?

Had he been forced to go to the US, the Yanks would not have looked very kindly upon his already unsavoury case, judging by what the film has to say about them.

That is, that the US will protect lickspittles like Tony Blair (played with almost satirical exuberance by Pierce Brosnan) at any cost - and destroy those that oppose them by any means fair or foul.

It would also not have helped Polanski's case that one of the film's most nauseating characters, given the nature of the charges against him, is a woman. (To say who it is would be spoiling the plot somewhat).

But now he will not go to the US and his film is still showing that country a very firm, up-yours middle finger. Talk about life imitating art.

Is the film any good? Well, it's pure Polanski fare, meaning no shot or time is wasted. Soon there is a corpse, soon we're in an isolated yet claustrophobic location - the incessant wind, dark clouds and rain merely adding to the generally miserable atmosphere - soon the mordant wit is flying.

And then there's the music. You can literally watch The Ghost Writer with your eyes closed. Cut out the dialogue, which is as good as ever, and listen to the music of the most sublime film composer around. Alexandre Desplat deserves an Oscar for this soundtrack, but then some would say he should be a little more discerning about the company he keeps.

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