Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom

Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 February 2011

Venues: Curzon Soho (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: David Michôd

Writer: David Michôd

Cast: James Frecheville, Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton

Australia 2010

113 mins

When gormless teen Joshua or ‘J’ Cody’s mum dies, he has little choice but to move in with the side of the family that she had previously shielded him from. It’s not a good time for him to do so. It probably never was. His uncle Andrew or ‘Pope’ is/was an armed robber, now trying to keep a low profile. With their house being watched by the cops, drug dealing and the stock market are becoming more tempting forms of employment for what’s left of the gang, and relations in the house are becoming increasingly fractious, barely kept together by ever loving ‘Grandma Smurf’ Janine. When the most level-headed member of the gang is removed from the picture, the more unstable relations are left in charge, led by Pope, who instigates an insane blood feud with the police force, a war that J inevitably becomes part of, becoming an accessory to dark deeds, and viewed by investigating officer Leckie (Guy Pearce) as the loose link of the Cody clan to use as a weapon against his newly adopted family…

David Michôd’s Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom is wholly credible right from the first shot, which sets up the film’s world perfectly, a blend of grim tragedy and the suburban mundane, with a trace of jet black humour. No one sports a sharp suit here. We are in a Melbourne of plywood and breezeblock, of bungalows and barbeques, and Michôd continuously avoids conventional genre scenes to emphasise odd moments of character business and domestic detail. The family chat and bicker about noise, the use of a blender in the morning, bathroom hygiene and proper drug etiquette. A SWAT team raid occurs without warning immediately after an awkward attempt at nephew/uncle bonding in front of the TV. A scene involving a middle-class dad getting his kids’ shoes on to go on a car trip becomes imbued with unbearable tension. Most of the business that would take place in, say, a Michael Mann epic is either ignored or played out against a backdrop of mantelpiece kitsch and ill-considered lawn furniture. Performances tend towards the naturalistic and low key. There are very few wide shots or chances to get a bigger perspective. And this grubby little world of banal terrors seems to close in on us as the intensity level rises, trust begins to wither, and there’s nowhere left to go.

Outside of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I can’t think of a more corrosive portrayal of family life, where ties of loyalty are tools of coercion. The Cody’s are a nest of paranoia and substance abuse. And Ben Mendelsohn’s uncle Pope is a quietly chilling creation, all the more so for his lack of physical muscle. He has a weaselly inability to meet anybody’s eye, or voice what’s on his mind, masking a truly depraved heart that his brothers are unwilling to confront or control. Mother dearest only goes so far as to suggest that he ought to start taking his pills again. Jacki Weaver is fantastic as the matriarch, all bleached blonde hair and lipstick, demanding kisses and cuddles from her sons, calling everyone ‘sweetie’, her true reptile nature only emerging when her boys are threatened, and is all the more disturbing for being logical and controlled. At least her sons are mentally unstable drug abusers, she knows exactly what she’s doing.

J (played by James Frecheville) asserts in a piece of voice-over early in the film that he accepts all of this craziness as normal, in the manner of most teenagers’ attitude to their families. His taciturn, dull-eyed demeanour rarely betrays what we suspect, that this isn’t true. Exactly how much J is a typical Cody is left ambiguous. He could be, as Leckie asserts, looking for a place to fit, but all options seem wanting. What’s normal, anyway? Different families and value systems are contrasted and brought into conflict throughout. The police are corrupt and murderous and the legal system is morally bankrupt. His girlfriend’s folks look like pretty decent people, but from Animal Kingdom‘s point of view they seem ignorant of the real world, until it comes crashing horribly into their lives. It’s left to Guy Pearce’s solid cop with a wife and family to provide the picture with an ethical magnetic North. Nothing else is on the level, life is messy and chaotic, and idiocy and miscommunication have as much impact on events as intentions and desires. As the plot twists and turns and characters reveal their true colours, Animal Kingdom shocks, surprises and amazes but never seems false or unreal. A great film.

Mark Stafford



Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 February 2011

Venues: Soho, Wimbledon Curzon, Notting Hill Gate, Ritzy (London) and key cities

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Writer: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Cast: James Franco, Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker

USA 2010

93 mins

‘You can’t translate poetry into prose. That is why it is poetry,’ explains a witness in the spectacular 1957 obscenity trial against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and publisher of ‘Howl’, when asked by the prosecution to help make sense of some verses in Allen Ginsberg’s expansive, powerful 3,600-word outcry against conformity and injustice. It’s a compelling argument, and the fact that documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman decided to make it early on in Howl, a portrait of the late Beat poet and an illustrated vision of his most famous work, suggests the writing-directing duo is well aware of the bold venture they’ve undertaken in their first fictional film. It inevitably raises the question of whether it is indeed possible to visualise the passion, heart and soul of a poem such as ‘Howl’, which, in its entirety, reads as a man’s fierce inner monologue, a confession of his controversial thoughts, his deepest desires, his fantasies and anxieties, all carefully drafted in sharp, candid, yet mostly surreal language.

Combining recreated scenes from the courtroom with animated sequences that accompany parts of the poem, and a docu-style dramatisation of Ginsberg’s life, Howl is striking for its deftly interwoven structure. But what makes the film captivating is the surprisingly convincing performance by James Franco, who seems to have found true inspiration in the young, intellectually complex Ginsberg, impersonating him with an understated charm that shows his potential as a great character actor. Deliberate yet subtly persuasive, and fuelled with an overwhelming passion, Franco as Ginsberg reads the poem for the first time at Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955, sits in his New York apartment while talking to an unseen interviewer and recalls flashbacks from the past - in particular, the time he spent with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and his long-time lover, Peter Orlovsky, searching for truth and the meaning of life, and his own voice and personal liberation.

As in Ginsberg’s poetry, there is not really a beginning, middle or end to the film, apart from the verdict that is eventually revealed in the courtroom scenes. Instead, Epstein and Friedman compose the different narrative elements almost like a great piece of jazz: repeatedly drifting back and forth, varying style and technique, and free-associating ideas, especially in the animated sequences. In addition to the free-floating visual fluidity with which the poem unravels, what is essential to the film’s subversive charm is the rhythm of Franco’s voice: as he reads the entire ‘Howl’ in slow, radiantly emphatic intervals, his recitation is underpinned by a fiercely energetic verve that vividly brings the words to life, though without necessarily forcing their meaning upon the audience.

In their attempt to create a celebration of one of the most influential American poets and his revolutionary work, Epstein and Friedman aim high both aesthetically and conceptually, but they only really dazzle on the former level. Yet, although Howl sometimes feels long-winded and the animation might not work for everyone, the film remains in the mind as a visceral amalgam of words, images, streams of thoughts, confessions and feelings, employed in a daring fashion. Do you need to care about poetry to be able to enjoy the film? It might help. But even if you don’t, it is still a beautifully shot, softly nostalgic look into an artist’s imaginative, intense and troubled life. And just like the poem, the film is also much richer than any attempt to describe it.

Pamela Jahn



Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 February 2011

Venues: ICA, Ritzy (London) and key cities

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Testuya Nakashima

Writer: Testuya Nakashima

Based on the novel by: Kanae Minato

Original title: Kokuhaku

Cast: Takako Matsu, Yoshino Kimura, Masaki Okada

Japan 2010

106 mins

Asian cinema does revenge well, and already boasts many excellent films on that theme, from Shunya Ito’s Female Convict Scorpion series to Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy. Tetsuya Nakashima has added one more to the list with Confessions, which equals Park’s Oldboy in the cruelty of the punishment and the sophistication of the set-up. Adapted from Kanae Minato’s best-selling novel, Confessions tells the story of teacher Yuko Moriguchi’s diabolical revenge against the two 13-year-old boys she accuses of murdering her little girl.

In a remarkable opening sequence, the soft-spoken Yuko quietly tells her rowdy class that she will leave at the end of term. She then calmly proceeds to tell them about the murder of her daughter, how she discovered that the killers were two boys from her class, and how she has already taken revenge on them. Each of her disclosures is made all the more shocking by her even tone of voice, her astonishing words finally forcing the unruly students to pay attention to her. This mesmerising sequence lasts for 30 minutes and seemingly reveals the whole plot of the film. But Yuko’s ‘confession’ is followed by a series of further confessions from other characters, the film intercutting their points of view, each revealing some new twist until we reach the culmination of the revenge story.

Read the interview with Tetsuya Nakashima.

Brilliantly, intricately edited, often using the juxtaposition of different viewpoints and moments in time to create complex meanings, the film offers a sombre view of an immoral youth. Admittedly, there is something somewhat reactionary in the broad portrayal of young people as hopelessly self-centred, callous and insensitive, but the pessimism includes the adult characters too. There is no possibility of redemption for anyone, and social relationships are just a web of cruelty in which everyone is guilty.

Confessions picks up on the extreme sentimentality and extreme cruelty that exists in Japanese cinema, and combines them, for instance, when the bullying of one of the accused boys is turned into a fun-looking, brightly-coloured, point-scoring game on the students’ phones. Scenes of the boy’s harassment are set against images of happy young girls leaving school amid beautiful cherry blossoms and even a quirky musical number. Teenage sentimentality is specifically ridiculed: ‘Pop… the sound of something important disappearing forever’; this catchphrase, repeated with a fair amount of self-pity by one of the boys throughout the film, will be thrown back at him later by Yuko, with a devastating new meaning.

Watch the trailer.

Dominated by blue-ish tones and making frequent use of fish-eye shots and distancing low and high angles, Confessions feels like a disturbing dream. Characters recount terrible misdeeds in strangely detached voices, as if in a daze, and a number of scenes are filmed at a slowed down pace. The oneiric effect is emphasised by the music, which combines an emotive Radiohead ballad with atmospheric, gloomy tracks from The xx and Japanese noise band Boris, as well as ironic pop songs (‘That’s the Way I Like It’) and gentle, melancholy pieces.

In Confessions, Nakashima has toned down the stylistic exuberance that marked his Kamikaze Girls (2004) and Memories of Matsuko (2006). Those two films shared an almost insanely upbeat quality and a strong visual style based on an orgiastic use of bright colours. But where Kamikaze Girls was a light, pink cream puff of a film, there was a very bleak tale hidden in Memories of Matsuko‘s candy wrapper. In Confessions, there is no sweetness to balance the darkness, and it is Nakashima’s most accomplished film to date.

Listen to the Lucky Cat podcast Series 5 Episode 5, in which Virginie Sélavy was the guest of presenter Zo&#235 Baxter to discuss Confessions. First broadcast on Resonance FM, 104.4, on Saturday 12 February 2011. Lucky Cat is a weekly show that focuses on East Asian culture.

Virginie Sélavy

In Their Sleep

In Their Sleep

Format: DVD

Release date: 14 February 2011

Distributor: Optimum

Directors: Caroline and Eric du Potet

Writers: Caroline and Eric du Potet

Original title: Dans ton sommeil

Cast: Anne Parillaud, Arthur Dupont, Thierry Frémont

France 2010

79 mins

One year on from the violent death of her son, Sarah (Anne Parillaud) is still clearly not the full shilling. Medicated and disconnected, she is sleepwalking through her job as a nurse. She is sent home to get some clearly needed rest, and driving down a narrow country lane she runs, literally, into Arthur (Arthur Dupont), a young man apparently running from a burglar he caught in the act, a bloodied lunatic (Thierry Frémont) who dogs them with his car as she tries to drive him to safety. Two police at a roadblock had indeed warned her earlier about a housebreaker in the area, but Arthur isn’t telling all he knows, and there are worse crimes than burglary…

Clocking in at a lean 79 minutes, Caroline and Eric du Potet’s In Their Sleep is a creepy little psycho-thriller that makes the most out of comparatively little; it has a location or three, some cars, Eric Neveux’s effective (Theremin!) score and a small cast, but exploits these resources to great effect. The du Potets have clearly spent some time working out their tale and how best to tell it; information about the characters and what’s going on emerges gradually in well-timed flashbacks, and as much through visual clues, physical acting and expression as through the minimal dialogue. While much of the business of the film will be familiar to genre fans (home invasions, chases, moonlit attacks, narrow escapes) it is made more interesting by the psychological dynamics. None of the characters appears to be quite in their right mind, and, as the title suggests, In Their Sleep is preoccupied with different states of consciousness: insomnia, death and coma, being knocked out and coming to. From the start, it has a fractured waking dream quality, where terrible unexplained things can happen in broad daylight, and from then on nobody has the full picture, and the truth remains elusive. We know more than any of the people on screen, but the filmmakers aren’t above screwing with our perceptions either.

Sarah and Arthur are the heart of the film, both are damaged in their own ways, and it’s their relationship that gives the film some bite and depth. She clearly begins to see a substitute son in Arthur, and can’t stop her maternal instincts overcoming her reason. He begins to find something in her that he clearly needs. It’s a goddamn Freudian minefield, and well played by Parillaud and Dupont as they swing through states of distrust and affection (and a queasy sexual attraction).

It’s a class act, and relatively restrained, which may be a problem for anyone expecting anything along the lines of Switchblade Romance or Frontiers, who may be disappointed by the paucity of overt violence or visual hysteria. But it walks its own path, the understatement just makes some scenes more unsettling, and while In Their Sleep is essentially just a neat low-budget thriller along the lines of many others, Arthur and Sarah will linger in the memory.

Mark Stafford

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 February 2011

Venues: nationwide

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Director: Mark Romanek

Writer: Alex Garland

Based on the novel by: Kazuo Ishiguro

Cast: Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield

UK/USA 2010

103 mins

Alex Garland writes a screenplay based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Mark Romanek directs. A slow-burning nightmare, as a strange boarding school in a timeless limbo England raises children for a sinister purpose. It’s a film about the evils that can be concealed behind politeness and bureaucracy, and the horrors society is prepared to tolerate if it suits our purposes.

If I was the ridiculous smart arse that I clearly am I’d try to draw parallels between the film’s theme, where official euphemisms (‘donors’, ‘completion’ etc) are used to make all manner of nastiness acceptable, and the film itself, where a quality cast, a string quartet soundtrack and a little cinematic restraint can be seen to be covering up the fact that this is essentially The Clonus Horror/The Island with a university degree.

This review was first published as part of our coverage of the 2010 London Film Festival.

But I won’t, because it’s actually pretty bloody good, the tastefulness and restraint making the nasty stuff all the more horrible and moving. Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley and Charlotte Rampling all do good work, Carey Mulligan is great. I think the film loses something and becomes more clearly an adaptation of a novel after it leaves the weird bubble of Hailsham House. But it still weaves a disconcerting spell.

Mark Stafford

Watch the trailer:

Man Hunt

Man Hunt

Format: DVD

Release date: 31 January 2011

Distributor: Optimum

Director:Fritz Lang

Writer: Dudley Nichols

Based on the novel by: Geoffrey Household

Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders

USA 1941

106 mins

Having left Germany and his wife - the Nazi-sympathising Thea von Harbou - behind, Fritz Lang was soon well established in Hollywood. Although he was never allowed the huge budgets that he’d been given at UFA to make Metropolis (1927) he applied his talents to many successful genre films - Westerns like The Return of Frank James (1940) and crime dramas such as You Only Live Once (1937) and Fury (1936). He later became one of the key directors of film noir.

Man Hunt is an espionage thriller with a twist. Shot in 1941 and released six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, it is a pro-war/anti-neutrality piece of propaganda. It was one of a cycle of films produced despite an act of neutrality that prohibited such overt anti-German sentiments - although the Lease/Lend Act of March 1941 had officially confirmed US support (financial at least) to the Allies.

Introduced by the title ‘Somewhere in Germany shortly before the war’, the film opens with Captain Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) carefully preparing his rifle, setting the sights and lining up Adolf Hitler in the cross-hairs. He fires an empty chamber, tipping his hat, having achieved his ‘sporting stalk’. The challenge, he later explains upon his capture, is merely to get close enough to the target to kill and not actually fire. ‘The sport is in the chase, not the kill… I no longer kill, not even small game,’ he explains to the none-too-impressed Gestapo. The Nazis try to get Thorndike to sign a confession saying he was working for the British government. He escapes and finds himself the quarry of a less sporting stalk.

What follows is a studio-bound 39 Steps-style extended chase sequence as Thorndike is pursued by a determined bunch of Nazi spies from Germany to London to Bognor Regis. But the ‘high concept’ is not what makes this a great film, if anything it is one of the film’s flaws - a McGuffin so big it distracts rather than merely setting the plot in motion. Despite (or perhaps because of) its propagandist purposes little is made of real anti-Nazi sentiment. Rather than questioning the more ‘serious’ issues such as German expansionism, suppression of political opponents or anti-Semitism, Thorndike merely ridicules Nazi salutes and expresses distaste at beheadings.

The film really picks up when we reach London. The city becomes a wonderful Hollywood concoction of shadowy, foggy cobble-stoned streets, pearly-clad singing cockneys with ridiculous accents and some very odd-looking fish and chips. Joan Bennett’s perky Jerry Stokes may have had the same voice coach as Dick Van Dyke (‘5 quid lumme’) but it is in the interplay between her common (possibly toned-down prostitute) street waif and Pidgeon’s incredibly decent upper-class man-of-leisure that the film gets interesting. Bennett went on to star in two of Lang’s out-and-out American masterpieces, The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), but her character here is far removed from the femmes fatales she was to play in the later films.

The unbalanced relationship between the two develops as Jerry turns from reluctant assistant to aspirant lover. Thorndike condescends to treat her with respect (his snooty family less so) and even eats fish and chips without cutlery. But she is always a child who does not understand the serious world of adults and tragically fails to realise that in 1940s Hollywood - as with the white man and ‘Indian girl’ in Westerns - relations between upper-class men and low-class women can never be. The prostitute can be good, beautiful and even noble but she can never get her man - the best she can hope for is to give up her life for him.

Man Hunt is not in the same league as the greatest moments of Lang’s German period (1931’s M, of course) or the very best of his US films, partly because Thorndike is too unquestionably decent. He has none of the revenge-driven dark side of Glenn Ford in The Big Heat (1953) or Spencer Tracy in Fury, or Edward G. Robinson’s struggles with his subconscious in the afore mentioned films starring Joan Bennett. But for the middle 40 minutes at least, the same genius that made those films can be seen at work.

Paul Huckerby

A Blonde in Love

A Blonde in Love
A Blonde in Love

Format: DVD

Part of The Czechoslovak New Wave Collection Vollume II DVD box-set

Release date: 7 December 2015

Distributor: Second Run

Director:Miloš Forman

Writers: Miloš Forman, Jaroslav Papousěk, Ivan Passer, Ví¡clav Sasek

Original title: Lí¡sky jedné plavovlí¡sky

Cast: Hana Brejchoví¡, Vladimí­r Pucholt, Vladimí­r Mensí­k, Ivan Kheil

Czechoslovakia 1965

81 mins

Miloš Forman’s bittersweet comedy drama is a gem of the Czech New Wave.

A Blonde in Love (Lí¡sky jedné plavovlí¡sky, 1966) is a gem of the Czech New Wave. As Czechoslovakia’s communist censors relaxed their hold on culture in the 1960s, directors still had the benefit of 100% state funding for their films, but with greater freedom of expression. Some directors took advantage of this freedom by making stylised, fanciful films that would previously have been condemned as avant-garde. For other directors, the most exciting part of the liberalisation was the permission to make films about everyday life, warts and all, rather than idealised propaganda pieces. Within the Czech New Wave, a distinctive strand of filmmaking emerged: fiction films that were strongly influenced by documentary, but which also highlighted the absurd in everyday situations. As Miloš Forman was the most prominent representative of this approach, it became known as ‘The Forman School’. Based on a true story, and featuring many non-professional actors even in leading roles, A Blonde in Love typifies the Forman School’s successful combination of fiction, documentary and comedy. Its candid portrayal of young love led to problems with the censors in Australia and Argentina. But this same candidness and humour also made the film immensely popular both domestically and internationally: it is among the most successful films ever made in the former Czechoslovakia, and was only the second Czech film to be nominated for an Academy Award.

The blonde in question is Andula, a young woman who lives and works at a shoe factory a remote little village where there are 16 women for every man. The film follows this endearing character as she naívely navigates sparse romantic terrain. The factory manager, worried about his employees’ future, organises a dance, and convinces the army to send some men. To the girls’ disappointment, it is middle-aged reservists who arrive to socialise with them. Andula’s eye turns to the band’s young pianist from Prague, and her bittersweet love story begins.

Showcasing the black humour for which Eastern Europe is rightly famed, it is the film’s most poignant situations that have the most comic potential. When Andula visits the pianist in Prague, his scolding mother won’t let them sleep together. He is forced to squeeze into his parents’ bed, where he has an endless, and endlessly comic, argument with them about who has the most duvet, who should sleep on the join in the middle of the bed, and above all, about the unwanted visitor. Unfortunately, Andula can hear their argument clearly, and is crying alone outside the door.

Second Run’s DVD comes with informative liner notes written by Michael Brooke, commenting on the film’s themes, political significance, international reception and influence. There is one significant gap in this account, though: it fails to explain the context and nature of the Czech New Wave. It is also disappointing that the DVD itself contains no special features. An interview with Miloš Forman would have offered welcome insights into life and filmmaking under communism.

This review refers to the original DVD release of the film by Second Run in 2011. The special features are the same as included on the new box-set edition. For a full list of extra contents, visit the Second Run website.

Alison Frank

The Last Lovecraft

Directed by Henry Saine, The Last Lovecraft (2009) is a horror comedy that follows the adventures of an ordinary man who finds out he is the last descendant of horror master H.P. Lovecraft and is forced to fight the monsters created by his illustrious ancestor. The Last Lovecraft is released on DVD in the UK by Kaleidoscope on 4 April 2011.

Comic review by Hannah Berry
Hannah Berry is the author of the graphic murder mystery Britten and Brulightly, published by Random House. For more information, go to the Random House website.