Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Dog Eat Dog

So imagine you have less than twenty-four hours to watch a movie and review it for your blog. No problem, right? Well, except when you take eight hours out of that for your day job, two hours travel time, two for a seriously overdue laundry run, not to mention at least six hours of sleep, the time left begins to look a bit leery, doesn't it? Needing to see a film on short notice, I hauled ass down to the local Redbox to check out the latest releases, finally settling on two: the nearly forgotten George Cloony thriller The American and the Australian Oscar nominee Animal Kingdom. I'll admit that The American appealed to me more for that particular viewing, but my roommate took over the main room's entertainment center for the evening. Frankly I didn't mind (especially since I got to see her freak out to the tune of giant spiders in Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles) but the main room is the home of our lone blu-ray player, and I'd picked up The American in that format. This left normal DVD Animal Kingdom as the default choice, and I was hoping that the title didn't leave me feeling I had been stuck with second best.

I think Pearce won an AFI award for "Best 'Stache"
Animal Kingdom calls itself a crime story, and to that effect the film's protagonists are what most people would call the bad guys. Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville) is a teen whose mother tried to keep far from her criminal family. When she dies, however, he's brought back into the fold of his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), who is the matriarch of a crime family that includes J's three uncles. J just tries to get along, but while his family can protect him, they're just as scary as the police, led my Officer Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce). Leckie has the family in his crosshairs, and he may have no hesitation in using the young J to take the whole operation down.

Weaver = Wow
As the directorial debut of David Michod, this film is a good mix of high tension and wonderful acting. There's nothing mysterious about the plot, no secrets to uncover and you are given just about every detail you need to follow the story with ease. This is almost a revelation in modern film, where so many people like to whack you over the head with a surprise and watch you squirm. Everything becomes about the next big scare, or an unnecessarily confusing ending, or a major actor's cameo for little reason more than the director can do it. That's not to say that these things can't be good, just that they so rarely are effective anymore. Shyamalan and ilk, take note: if you have a well-told story and a competent cast and crew, good things will happen naturally.

Special appearance by Coco?
When you think of Australian actors, a lot of names come to mind: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving, Portia de Rossi, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts and Geoffrey Rush are but a small sample of the industry's more successful Aussies. One name you might neglect to remember is that of former LA Confidential star Guy Pearce, who makes an appearance here. Pearce plays a police officer who is hard-nosed, but fair as well, making him probably the most sympathetic character outside of J himself. Frecheville by the way seems to be a talented actor, but the role doesn't give him a lot of room to play around, with a lot of moody sullenness that is perfect for the kind of downtrodden character he is. Unfortunately, it doesn't allow me to say whether he'll make it as a performer or if he'll be typecast in this same type of role for years to come. Jacki Weaver has gotten both attention and awards for her portrayal of the maternal crime lord, and while I wasn't sure at first if she was going to have deserved them, she proved me wrong with a scarily charismatic performance that really put her head and shoulders over the rest of the cast. She was almost worth seeing this film on the basis of her talent alone, and she's the main reason I'd see it again given the chance. Another strong performance belongs to the role of J's uncle Andrew "Pope" Cody, Ben Mendelsohn. Pope is by far the creepiest, scariest character on both sides of the legal divide, and Mendelsohn makes you cringe with his every appearance on screen. I thought he was almost as compelling as Weaver, and while he'll never be a big star, his ability to create such vivid characters is deserving of more praise than he gets. Other good performances belong to Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford and Sullivan Stapleton as others in the crime family, and rookie actress Laura Wheelwright as J's unknowing girlfriend Nicky. There isn't a weak actor in the house, and the ensemble cast mesh well enough to make the tale realistic and honest.

You'll see that blank stare a lot in Australia (I'm kidding, don't sic the Koalas on me!)
The film does have a few faults. The pacing isn't perfect, though there aren't many dull moments at all. The biggest problem I had was with some of the minor character introductions. There were some, like Nicky and a few others, who simply appear from thin air without pretense of an introduction. While some summary descriptors for their history are announced, it still makes those few scenes a bit shaky. Still,.this isn't enough to derail what is actually a solid crime film with plenty going for it. With a stellar cast and a good directing job by the talented Michod, Animal Kingdom misses that intangible to be an excellent film but does enough right to be a very, very good one. This is a title I recommend if you want something a little different than the slick, hyper-produced gimmicky fare currently available.

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