February 23, 2011 6:38 pm

Film releases: February 24

Nigel Andrews reviews David Michôd’s ‘Animal Kingdom’ as well as Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s ‘Howl’ and Lucy Walker’s ‘Waste Land’
 
Animal kingdom
 Menacing grace: ‘Animal Kingdom’ with Sullivan Stapleton and Jacki Weaver

We never thought of Melbourne, Australia, as a crime capital of the world. That’s one reason Animal Kingdom is so funny – and so subtly lethal. It’s like a large splatter of blood on a Victorian antimacassar. “Victorian” as in the city’s state, “Victorian” as in the reticent, even stately manners of the crime family (based on real Melbourne forebears) at the centre of Australian writer-director David Michôd’s first feature.

Imagine Harold Pinter dramatising the Krays, or Edith Wharton scripting a Lizzie Borden biopic. Seventeen-year-old Josh (James Frecheville) lives within contagion distance of an epidemic of crime-world uncles, who wear the scars and rashes of raids, robberies and killings, but who in their respect for family values defer near-religiously to Josh’s blonde-dyed grandma Janine (Australian star Jacki Weaver). She is the hoodlums’ controlling mum; she is Melbourne’s Ma Barker. In scene one Janine is carted out by paramedics after a heroin overdose. (Josh, still a learner in clannishness, just keeps watching the game show on television). Umpteen scenes later she is pondering her brood’s latest bloodbath with the words, “I’m having trouble trying to find a positive spin...”

The script is that gnomic, that mandarin, between atrocities. The music is no less integral to the film’s macabre grace. Composer Antony Partos’s mellifluously discordant underworld boomings mess with your mind, suggesting worm-tunnels to other violence-laced movies – from Blue Velvet to Bonnie and Clyde – while italicising, or ironising, the dread induced in us by all this home-front propriety. Uncle Andrew, nicknamed “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn), is a gentle soul, a lay prelate of crime, who can murder without warning. Uncle Darren is a soft-spoken psycho. Even the family’s coke-snorting lawyer is languid, even refined in his spivviness.

A lot of people die. But the mess is always cleared up, as scrupulously as Uncle Pope tells Josh to wash his hands after using the toilet. Barely a single scene is unoriginal. When Josh has a sobbing fit, it is a series of dry heaves precipitating a saliva drool, a moron’s weeping jag, though a single tear touchingly follows. A small part of us finds this family endearing – revolting but endearing. They don’t have the wit to distinguish vice from virtue, but they have the semi-idiotic parochial nous to manifest good manners and rational behaviour (more or less) around the house.

4 star rating

3 star rating

“PVC is the filet mignon of waste,” says someone in Lucy Walker’s Waste Land . It must be the week for lower-depths wit. This Oscar-nominated documentary scavenges for material in the world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho on the edge of Rio de Janeiro. As in her memorable Blindsight, in which sightless climbers took on Everest, Walker celebrates the indomitability of the human spirit. This time the tribulation is poverty – Brazilian “pickers” who seek their daily pittance by sorting and selling recyclable trash – and the trial is survival against the odds.

Some get lucky. Artist Vik Muniz picks them as models for one of his garbage collages: portraits-in-rubbish paying homage to famous artworks. Here is “The Death of Marat”, with handsome black picker Tião posing in a tin bath, his magnified photo-image later shaded and backgrounded, in the studio, with multicoloured refuse. A Picasso, a Van Gogh sower ... Muniz picks his art and his posers to order (or ordure). Then they get famous in galleries.

Walker is so taken with this transcendence tale – the tears of the rescued (who later get given their own portraits) – that the landfill’s supporting stories are lost in the triumphalism. That’s a pity. Great that the winners get rich on art. But isn’t it also compelling to learn about the losers? Those who go on living, and presumably hoping and dreaming, with no Vik Muniz to wrest them from the stink? Rejects living on the rejected: that’s a subject too. But maybe it wouldn’t go down well with Oscar voters.

If you were stuck in a room alone with Allen Ginsberg, would you bless your luck or eye the fire escape?

3 star rating
Howl helps you find out. You are stuck with the American poet, or with actor James (127 Hours) Franco’s skilled impersonation. Curly black mophead, burly black-frame specs, incantatory baritone rich on adenoids.

 
Howl
 James Franco in ‘Howl’

In their new drama-doc, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman – the gay-rights-crusading filmmakers who made The Celluloid Closet and The Times of Harvey Milk – plonk their hero in a room, or two alternating rooms, and gift him with the gab. Room one is the San Francisco art gallery that hosted Ginsberg's recital of his historically incendiary 1955 poem. Room two is Ginsberg's apartment, where he soliloquises on art, life, love, homosexuality and what his enemies and legal prosecutors call “obscenity”.

“Howl” (the poem) landed its publisher in court and that’s where we spend other parts of this split-structure movie, witnessing two lawyers (David Strathairn, Jon Hamm) play tug-of-war with defendant Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers). A fourth and final component is animation. Episodes from Ginsberg’s life and excerpts from his poetry are recreated in trippy swirls of line and colour, courtesy of the poet’s one-time illustrator Eric Drooker.

Does the resulting movie work? Not quite. Is it watchable? Yes. Mainly for Franco’s gamy Ginsberg, visibly writhing and vocally wrestling to escape the lantern-slide-lecture restrictions of his remit. Elsewhere the film suffers the fate of many drama-docs aiming for the best of several worlds. Worlds divided seldom give their best. They give what they can spare, like loose change. They save the quality stuff – the big notes – for enterprises pledged to wholeness and cogency.

3 star rating

Anthony Hopkins plays a nutty exorcist in The Rite. A daft horror film worth seeing only for him, it drives the predictable nails into our patience. Asinine plotting; ersatz religiosity; locations thick with history-made-hokum (Rome). The acting is wooden from almost everyone, a Calvary of stick-figure performances, arms outstretched at moments of martyred or messianic climax.

We except Hopkins. His acting is weird and delirious. For some scenes he was clearly told: “Be Hannibal Lecter.” He stands immobile, stout-chested, basilisk-eyed, with that cat-just-ate-mouse grin. In other scenes he is over the top with no covering fire, manic, momentous, heaven-stormingly hammy. Here is yet another actor from Wales, like Burton, who should never have let the theatre lose him to the cinema. Come back, Sir Anthony, all is forgiven. (Except possibly this movie.)

2 star rating

West Is West is a sequel to East Is East. The Salford Anglo-Pakistani family troops over, in lazily plotted instalments, to father Om Puri’s homeland. The Pakistan they find is a pother of cliches: picturesque peasant poverty, women stooped over pestles, stoical matriarchs colourful in saris. There are a few tears and a lot of knockabout. The humour has broadened as surely as the vision and human authenticity have narrowed.

2 star rating

This article is subject to a correction and has been amended.

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