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I went off to see Animal Kingdom knowing almost nothing about it — how lucky was that? If you haven’t seen it or read a review, don’t read any (though this isn’t that) and do yourself a favour soon.

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They didn’t like Animal Kingdom

David and Margaret At the Movies both gave it four stars. There were, at this point, 52 readers’ comments with fifteen calling it average or really average (3 stars and less).

  • Colin: It had no glue, maybe if I knew more about the “true story” it would have been better.
  • Caroline: It wings in on being endearing through quirkiness, a feeling of impending doom with the soundtrack etc (but what was and where was the doom? There was insufficient power in the narrative to support the art).
  • Amelie: This was a slow-moving, melodramatic, tiresome and utterly depressing film that strived to be meaningful but all that is really left is surface — a dark soundtrack, staring into space, characters “thinking” and pared back dialogue. I would have preferred to see Sex and the City 2 because at least it doesn’t pretend to be something it is not.
  • Dan: Maybe my expectations were too high after all the rave reviews. … but geez, it’s nothing special.

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Animal Kingdom, an Australian masterpiece

An Australian masterpiece? It managed to sustain quality right across the board: a high level of tension, superior acting, cinematic precision and narrative coherence from opening credits to climax to fadeout. Rare in any film from anywhere. Masterly, at least.

Extremely disturbing how believable the criminal Codys are as a close but dysfunctional family unit — indeed, a working family.

James Frechevllle’s young Joshua, or “J”: the innocent intruder as narrator. The sweaty anxiety in this big lunk of a boyman — picture a young suburban Jamie Packer. Animal Kingdom is  about corruptibility — crims and cops, all crooked or crooking. So we watch to see how the young corrupt.

Grandma Smurf. Jacki Weaver’s mesmeric crime den mother. With her mascara smearing: I can’t find my positive spin on this. And I’m usually really good at it. How she turns, and turns again, on a dime, on a bad penny.

Beyond his usual pall of contained terror, J’s half-smile at one late point. What good can come of that?

The killing naivety of his girlfriend, Nicky. To her mother: You don’t want to tell me he can’t stay in front of him so he can’t tell what a bitch you are. (Mum, later: Nicky, I do things for you. Having your boyfriend sleep over for the first time is a big thing for me.)

Police. Going rogue. Never gets old; alas, always credible.

Pope. Uncle Pope. Ben Mendelsohn’s personification of relentless menace. To his brother Darren, taking a hit from the bong before a job: Why are you doing that? What makes you think that’s a good idea to do that now? Why are you doing that now? Verbal monstering not unlike Eric Bana’s Chopper, only all psychopath and no comedy.

The horrific scene of Pope killing someone, before a helpless witness. Softly, softly, also walks evil.

The unrelenting tension: something bad is going to happen next, is always about to happen.

The ruthless despatching. Psycho‘s Marion Crane lesson learnt well.

Alright, Pearce is always the boringish go-to good Guy. But the mo has to go.

The very end. The tiniest whiff of an echo of the fadeout in the last scene of The Godfather, the door closing to black. Things have changed, have twisted…

The brilliant opening credits of black and white CCTV clips of robbers in scary masks. Bank heist as pop video with a rather too enjoyable soundtrack.

Animal Kingdom entertains, The White Ribbon will not.

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The White Ribbon

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I managed to finally see The White Ribbon, knowing almost nothing about it. Lucky me. If you haven’t seen it, don’t wait for the DVD — its immaculate monochrome was made for hi-tech big screens.

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They hated The White Ribbon:

  • David Edelstein, New York magazine: (Director Michael) Haneke’s contempt for humanity had congealed into dogma before he shot his first frame of film.
  • Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor: Haneke is such an expert puppeteer that it’s easy for the gullible to mistake that manipulation for art … It’s an M. Night Shyamalan movie with a PhD. Or maybe an MA. Grade: C+
  • Claudia Puig, USA Today: The depressing farm town is not a place where most of us would want to spend any time. Even the baroness, wife of the town’s wealthiest landowner, longs to escape its pervasive menace: “I can’t stand this place anymore.”  Ditto.

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The White Ribbon, a masterpiece

Well, it surely looks like a masterpiece, and it sounds like one (no musical score excepting contextual church and harvest festival music). Even the title sequences are pastiches of classic movie credits. A few things make me suspicious, but I’m also willing to suspect it of being a masterpiece. It’s undeniably extraordinary, but there is a specific bone I will need to pick*.

(Update: I think it really is a masterpiece — it has a series of remarkable, unforgettable images. They linger.)

The unrelenting tension: something bad is going to happen next, is always about to happen.

The narration of the innocent intruder. Because you are never innocent when you are family. (The full German title: Das weisse Band: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte The White Ribbon: a German teacher’s tale.)

Anthony Lane, New Yorker: The monochrome imagery is not just jewel-sharp but, unusually for Haneke, touched with moments of loveliness and hints of peace.

Interviewed by Lane, Michael Haneke: “I will not be happy if the film is seen as a film about a German problem, about the Nazi time … It’s a film about the roots of evil. It’s about a group of kids who are preached certain ideals, and become the judges of others — of those who have pushed this ideology onto them.”

Sensational cinematography: austere and impeccable — August Sander via Ingmar Bergman (the Sander reference explicit). A year of long (144 mins) slow seasons in the last rural-feudal generation. Sometimes it seems to be shot in infrared: the white highlights radioactively radiant — the harvest heat, the fields of snow, the new spring green.

The story: willfully enigmatic, shocking, devastating. It’s a psychoportrait of the German community just before the war, of the children who will become Hitler’s adults. And also a horror mystery — where blame seems to attach to everyone.

Repressive authority = Rebellious radicalism. Oppression = Explosion. Rubs in the point? Mm, maybe a little itty bit.

The image of a murdered bird, like a cross.

The pastor: Your mother and I will sleep poorly. I have to beat you, and the strokes will cause us more pain than to you. A too-successfully Teutonic jest: our hard-hearted audience could not raise a laugh among us.

Normality: seven children in a household.

Terrible fathers. And one really terrible father. A revenge note in the film: “The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generations.”

Is director Michael Haneke fooling?: “It’s important to always try to tell a story in a way where there are several credible possible explanations. Explanations that can be totally contradictory!”

A bird in a cage as gift, as consolation.

Doctor: O God, why don’t you just go and die.

Courtship, how they used to do it. Slowly. In sunshine.

Animal Kingdom is entertainment, The White Ribbon definitely not.

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*Picking a bone: So much of the film’s mysteries are open-ended, and yet the children are trapped in the frame Haneke builds around them. Haneke’s metaphor is of the pastor’s pet bird, brought up in captivity: It is used to living in a cage. In that case, David Edelstein’s point above is valid, and Haneke’s metaphoric cage becomes brittle.

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