Animal Kingdom – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 78: Animal Kingdom

Poster for the 2010 Australian movie Animal Kingdom

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We watched Muriel’s Wedding and it was one of the best we’ve had so far in the CRFC.

The Choice

Like last time it came down to a binary choice. On the one hand Animal Kingdom (2010), a gritty crime drama. On the other, Children of the Revolution (1996), a comedy about Stalin having an illegitimate Australian heir. I was mainly considering the latter to compare with last year’s excellent The Death of Stalin (plus it seems fairly positively reviewed and has Geoffrey Rush, F Murray Abraham and Sam Neill in). Then I watched the trailer and… it was Animal Kingdom all the way.

The Link

Dan Wyllie

Actor Dan Wyllie in Muriel's Wedding

Dan Wyllie in Muriel’s Wedding

He was one of Muriel’s deadbeat siblings last time, and seems to be something if a mainstay of Aussie film and TV. I’ve not seen him in anything else, but as he’s one of a couple of cast members who could link is to Animal Kingdom, it’s time for a second bite of Wyllie.

Animal Kingdom and me

I’ve always been a bit scared of Animal Kingdom, if I’m honest. I don’t gravitate towards gritty crime stuff at the best of times (there are a LOT of seminal British gangster films I’ve never seen), and this is Australian. And in my head Australian films tend to have an extra layer of grit, an extra twist of the knife.

Proposition

This is the image that springs to mind when I think “Aussie cinema…”

The Proposition always sticks in the mind as an example, but it’s true of the first couple of Mad Max films too (fyi I will not hear a single word against Mad Max Fury Road, but that’s a different topic for another day). Muriel’s Wedding demonstrated this too, tackling topics a UK or Hollywood film about Abba and weddings would not go to. And last year’s It Comes At Night, directed by Animal Kingdom star Joel Edgerton, fits the bill too…

So although I’ve only ever heard great things about it, Animal Kingdom scares me.

IMDB says

A seventeen year-old navigates his survival amongst an explosive criminal family and the detective who thinks he can save him. 7.3 stars.

I says

Well I don’t know what I was so worried about. It’s not exactly a light hearted romp, mind, but there’s a lovely sensitivity to Animal Kingdom that balances out the subject.

Animal Kingdom 005

James Frecheman and Dan Wyllie

When the opening scene was of J (James Frecheman), a teenager, calling paramedics to attend to his ODed mum, who had died, I’ll admit I felt a little bit justified in my fear. That said teenager is then inducted into his extended family who specialise in armed robbery didn’t help. A family being molested by police who are, by all accounts, itching to shoot first and plant evidence later…

Animal Kingdom 002

GRIT! SO MUCH GRI- Hang on…

But the violence, when it comes, isn’t lingered on. There’s a spray of blood from off camera here, a gentle panning away there. J doesn’t have to see the worst of it, and we’re not made to either. So J is hauled in for questioning by Guy Pearce’s tired cop we still have sympathy for him holding out. He’s not a saint himself, and the family have shielded him from the worst brutality.

Animal Kingdom 003

Grumblegrumble Gritty Moustache grumblegrumble

Let’s just pause and have a chat about Guy Pearce for a second. After Memento he was bona fide leading man material. He’s hunky, he’s interesting. And yet he rocks up in strange roles. The weatherbeaten cop here, the tacitern lead in The Rover, Weyland in Prometheus. He hasn’t gone down the star route, whether by choice or the ins and outs of the hollywood system. But he is consistently interesting and just slightly weirder than you expect (without being a stone cold oddball). I think Robert Pattinson might have taken notes from his career trajectory.

Anyway, J’s uncles are a combination of inspiring (cheers, Joel Edgerton), maverick (cheers, whatseryername from the 300 sequel), and creepy (cheers Ben Mendlesohn). His girlfriend’s family are a great contrast, a clear family unit but not saccharine. And over it all Jackie Weaver’s matriarch presides. She’s a Lady Macbeth figure with the hard edges tucked away so far that you forget all about them. And when she brings it, it’s in such a matter of fact style that it’s all so perfectly natural.

Animal Kingdom 004

Something real gritty might be happening, careful

I liked The Rover, David Michod’s follow up film, very much too. Critics made loads of smug puns that sort of spoiled some plot stuff, so if you’ve not seen it do give it a watch, but don’t read too much about it first.

The Verdict

I am less scared of Australian films than I was before, but no less impressed.

Coming Attractions

We could stay paddling around in Australian waters, but with Joel Edgerton and Jacqui Weaver having made a number of international films maybe we won’t… It’s Tim’s choice, so who knows where we’ll end up.

@BornToPootle

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The Hackman Connection – The Chain Reaction Film Club

The only Hackman I used to know

Gene Hackman is one of those actors who I have almost entirely overlooked. I saw Superman as a kid, of course, and Unforgiven. I think I saw Get Shorty. But that’s about it. I didn’t really go to the cinema that much growing up, and much of his filmography is more adult-skewed anyway. There’s a lot of slightly gritty-sounding stuff in his filmography, realistic settings rather than the sci fi bombast I preferred (and often still do) so didn’t make the effort to catch them on TV. By my late teens/early 20s I was more into horror – all the former video nasties were finally given official releases in the late 90s so it was a glorious time. Then I met my other half who is obsessive about 30s, 40s and 50s cinema… So Hackman just kind of passed me by.

Since starting the Chain Reaction Film Club I’ve made a conscious effort to pick his films where possible. There are so many notable ones often used as reference points by film makers and reviewers that it’s been part out of interest and part out of obligation. So we’ve already tackled Bonnie and Clyde, Scarecrow, Wyatt Earp, and Twilight, plus Absolute Power and A Bridge Too Far as part of the Goldman Variations covered in the last post.

Rather helpfully his IMDb credits list 100 films, so I’m up to having seen 10% of his work (not sure if I ever saw Superman IV…). With another 90 films to choose from we started with…

Film 65: Under Suspicion (2000)

Hackman is… Under Suspicion

All I knew going in was that it was Hackman and Morgan Freeman, and some kind of cop/suspect cat and mouse. And then came one of the worst openings that I remember seeing. It’s a series of very cheap looking shots of Puerto Rico, swooping over houses and coastline like a 70s travel documentary. I was not inspired with confidence…

And then… it almost worked. Hackman is a bigshot lawyer who goes to see his friend and local police detective (Freeman) to clear up a few loose ends about a body he found while out for a run. But there are more questions than answers and suspicion starts to fall on him… They’re a solid pair of actors to anchor this kind of story around, even though in a couple of places you can tell they’re only moving from their seats because the director has blocked it that way. It twists and it turns and it almost but doesn’t quite hold together. Oh well. I liked what it was trying to do.

Film 66: The French Connection (1971)

He doesn’t even eat any damn spinach…

Here we go, a biggie. Somehow I’d never seen this. In my head it was indivisible from Bullitt (probably also coming to a CRFC blog soon), notable for a car chase but otherwise a mystery. Like Hackman, Steve McQueen has largely eluded me. 

The setup? Drugs are streaming through to America from France. A pair of New York detectives get a lead on the French connection who will be in town for one big deal…

One of the things that struck me most about The French Connection was how used to being able to look things up online I’ve become. In a few places Hackman and his partner (played by Roy Scheider) leave a straw hat in the back of their car. It’s pointedly done, but in a 70s pointedly way rather than a modern here-we’re-doing-this-and-I’ll-explain-it-twice kind of way. A quick google after the film, and I’ve discovered it was a signal to cops that undercover cops were on duty in the car. How did people used to deal with not knowing? God knows.

Hackman is irredeemably irascible, which is fun, and there is that humdinger of a car chase. It’s made even juicier from – you guessed it – looking it up. And finding out that:

A) They only had permission for part of the route

B) Director William Friedkin held the camera in the back of the car as he was the only non married member of the crew

C) One of the crashes is real – a driver had got round barriers and was sideswiped by Popeye Doyle for his trouble.

It’s taut and a bit nasty, just like Doyle himself. And it won 4 Oscars including best picture. That seems a bit over the top to me, particularly as Clockwork Orange was one of the other nominations. Perhaps it’s one of those occasions where so many films have followed the tone and riffs of The French Connection since that it’s hard to see it in context.

Film 67: French Connection II (1975)

Give the man an Oscar. Or a shirt.

Yup, we went straight into the sequel. And my but it’s annoying that they removed the definite article from the title. 

The car/train chase is what the first film is most notable for, so how did they decide to follow that? Generally the formula is to crank everything up to eleventy stupid (to quote Dr. Kermode) – you want a chase? Howzabout one with cars and a train and a bus and a tank?! In space!! Props to French Connection II for not attempting that at least. Instead it follows Hackman’s Popeye Doyle (one of only two returning characters) as he heads to France, is kidnapped and forcibly addicted to heroin, goes cold turkey and endures withdrawal, torches a building full of junkies who, frankly, probably wouldn’t all have made it out, and generally makes a mess of the investigation. It’s a bold move and these days would be seen as a performance chasing an Oscar. Maybe it was then too. 

The first is definitely the better film, but for a Hackman season this was worth it for the performance.

We’ve just scratched the surface of his filmography, and there’s more to come from The Hackman Connection. So far though? I like how unlikeable he is. Does he play any likeable characters? Ever? How great to have a leading man career based around unlikeableness. It just seems so… unlikely.

Next up will be 1988s Mississippi Burning starring… Gene Hackman!

An Attempted Mugging

This post isn’t really writing related, game related or even about esoterica. This is just about something that happened to me last night and I thought it was worth sharing as… catharsis? Advice? A warning? Who knows. It’s a thing. That happened.

I got back to Crystal Palace station at about 11:15 last night, having been up in north London at a friend’s flat. I do this once a week most weeks, and followed my usual route. I was first out of the barriers, winning my imaginary race. From the station I normally cut up through Ledrington Road, a darkish street with houses on one side and a bit of grass on the other. I’ve often thought it would be a good spot for a mugging and am always on the look out. Why continue to use that street? Good question!

There was a chap walking away from me towards the main road about two thirds of the way up the street. A third of the way up the street were two more people following him, and I instantly felt like they were gearing up to mug him.
I accelerated to make them aware more people were around to save the chap from harm. As soon as they saw me, the two lurkers crossed away. Job done, I thought.

I reached the main road and normally walk up the slightly darker side which has the park off to the right. Mindful of the potential would-be muggers I instead crossed to the more brightly lit residential side. There were a couple of cars about, but not many. I didn’t realise but the muggers had crossed behind me.
I saw a shadow from the streetlights approaching on my left hand side and sped up a little more, though didn’t think that anything would happen on the main road.

One of them brushed up on my left hand side, the other crossed to the far side of the road and kept pace. The one on my left told me, in a quiet, measured voice, that we were going to take a walk and not to do anything stupid or he’d stab me. I didn’t see a knife, but his hand hovered over his pocket.

I politely rebuffed him, mindful that Derren Brown had once foiled muggers (or so he has said) with mind-games – ignoring the mugging and making polite, intense conversation about something unrelated. I told him what a nice evening I’d been having and a little about the film The Insider which I’d watched round at my friend’s. He re-iterated his threat. Derren Brown 1, me nil.

I saw a couple on the other side of the road, and crossed. There was no traffic. The mugger was still brushed up against me, but allowed me to cross – possibly he didn’t want to make it look like something untoward was going on.

I approached the couple and told them that the chap was trying to mug me, and asked if I could walk with them. They seemed unsurprisingly perturbed – I imagine I had a manic glint in my eye from the furious politeness I was maintaining. I repeated myself and the bloke said yes, he was happy for me to walk with them. 

I thought that might be it, that now we were a group of three and, at this stage, half way up the hill towards the bustling Crystal Palace triangle, the muggers would be put off.

I was wrong.

He threatened to stab my new friends – a man and woman in their 20s (I’m horrible at guessing ages, fyi) – unless they backed off. They didn’t back off and took on the same polite tone I had with the mugger.

We crossed to the more brightly lit side of the street, and the mugger crossed with us, telling me that he was going to take me round the corner. There was a hefty chap with headphones in at the bus stop, but I thought better of trying to enlist him too – he seemed quite young.

We reached the top of the hill, and I let the couple lead just slightly in case they were going to turn off – they didn’t, so we were now heading towards pubs and chicken shops. Across the street was a pub I know well, which was still open and had a number of punters sitting outside.

“Do you know what,” I said, “I really fancy a pint, shall we go for a drink in The Westow?” The couple agreed and we all crossed, mugger included, then headed into the pub. As soon as we were in the ‘beer garden’ at the front, the mugger sloped off around the corner towards the bus station. His mate who’d been keeping watch had presumably disappeared in that direction too.

Pint ordered. Police called. Mugging averted.

Huge thanks due to Paul and Sophie, who’d been out on a date having known each other 2 weeks. And to The Westow, and the Met.

What have I learnt?

If he’d asked me to hand over my wallet/phone/whatever in the first instance I probably would have done. I don’t know what his plan was if he did ‘get me round a corner’. In mugging, as in writing, clarity of purpose is essential.

Also, and more importantly: don’t go down streets you think are good spots for a mugging.

@BornToPootle