Thursday 24 February 2011

Trash: "Animal Kingdom", "Waste Land" and "Drive Angry" (ST 27/02/11)

Animal Kingdom (18) 113 mins ****
Waste Land (PG) 98 mins ***

Drive Angry (18) 104 mins ***

Every scene in the tough and surprising Australian crime picture Animal Kingdom deposits its characters at a crossroads, and then wonders – compulsively, anxiously – which direction they’re going to go in. The pattern is set from the very first image: a teenager torn between watching Deal or No Deal, or the paramedics working on the mother succumbing to a fatal overdose on the sofa next to him. Taken in by his gran (Jacki Weaver, up for Best Supporting Actress at tonight’s Oscars) and his career-criminal uncles, young Josh (James Frecheville) is soon pondering the Edmonds conundrum: whether to risk everything for the big bucks, or play safe, and walk away with his life.

There’s a familiarity (in every sense) about this material, pitching itself as it does against the themes of The Godfather and Heat, but writer-director David Michôd proves specific indeed about this particular intersection of criminality and domesticity. Weapons are stashed in mum’s ironing; a vacuum cleaner is used to conceal conversations. Aided by claustrophobic, close-miked sound, the family’s home becomes a fortress, and a prison of sorts: a place of fraternal needling and roughhousing you just know is going to result in betrayal and bloodshed. Even a dopey hophead like Josh can’t fail to spot the appeal of the respectable folks around his middle-class girlfriend’s dinner table.

Where Animal Kingdom is at its most Godfather-ish is in the clear delineation of the brothers’ personalities: the level-headed Baz (Joel Edgerton), the wired Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), the depressive Darren (Luke Ford). Michôd elicits a truly unnerving performance from Ben Mendelsohn as Andrew, the one genuine sociopath in the bunch: a bloodhound-faced weirdo who’s been pulled back into the family after too long on the lam, with few interpersonal skills, and – as his Scarface-at-a-luau wardrobe makes apparent – not much idea of how to dress while under surveillance.

Few contemporary directors have seemed this fascinated by their supporting characters, and the options, better and worse, they might provide for the leads. Representing the former, Guy Pearce gives yet another brisk, grounded turn as the detective on the family’s case; the latter, however, is where Weaver comes into her own. Underemployed in the first hour, there her Janine is, leonine and untouchable, as the net finally closes: blithely badmouthing the crookedness of a TV host’s smile, and doing something memorably hideous with kisses that linger just a beat too long – the sugar that keeps her boys coming back, when it might be healthier for them to pull away.

Lucy Walker’s Oscar-nominated doc Waste Land profiles Vik Muniz, the Brazilian artist and photographer who uses everyday items as raw materials: I liked his study of a Pollock-like painter at work, rendered in the medium of maple syrup. Muniz’s latest project centres on the Jardin Gramacho, a Rio refuse dump so vast it has its own vibrant – nay, positively humming – community of foragers and gleaners, sorting the recyclable wheat from the festering chaff. Here, millionaires’ detritus gets junked alongside cast-offs from the favelas: it’s a level playing field, or would be, if the landfill didn’t threaten to subside whenever the workers set foot upon it.

As in Walker’s previous Blindsight, we’re watching disadvantaged subjects with mountains to climb, and the footage of the pickers navigating these towering peaks makes for compelling viewing in itself – you grow concerned about the absence of health-and-safety provision, and increasingly glad the film isn’t being released in Smell-O-Vision. It’s enough to make us think about the consequences of our culture of disposability, even while Muniz’s project is encouraging the workers to leave Gramacho behind. As one forager confesses, once ensconced in the studio: “I don’t want to go back.”

The camera sticks to those selected for Muniz’s portraits – the elder statesman battling lung cancer, the young mothers who’ve left families behind them – catching what it is to be there whenever binbags rain down off the trucks and, later, the perception shift forced upon those seeing their hardscrabble life transformed into marketable art. Throughout, Walker insists on letting the artist’s subjects speak for themselves: the result is a chance to hear garbage pickers discuss the relative merits of Marat and Machiavelli, and an insight into the creation of a modern art that is at once edifying, humane, and borne of pure rubbish.

More trash. The high-slash-lowpoint of the 3D exploitation feature Drive Angry, all fast cars and hot babes and loud bangs, involves Nicolas Cage – as vengeful grandpa John Milton (yes, really) – engaging in gunfire while simultaneously tupping a cocktail waitress and sucking on a fat cigar. Patrick Lussier’s film is at its most inventive when introducing its characters – best of all, William Fichtner’s wonderfully precise Grim Reaper figure – but the whole contains more subversive energy than just about anything in the multiplexes right now, and more cherishable moments than anything in the Cage filmography since Con Air.

Animal Kingdom and Drive Angry open nationwide tomorrow; Waste Land opens in selected cinemas, and is available on pay-per-view via FilmFlex, from Friday.

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