Movies » Movie Review

The Criminals (Animal Kingdom) and the Swinger (Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel)

It's all about animal magnetism.

by

comment

There are three things that distinguish a wonderful movie from an ordinary one: writing, writing, and writing. Just for the sake of argument, we'll add a fourth ingredient: acting. Everything else is window dressing. Case in point: David Michôd's sinewy, mesmerizing crime story, Animal Kingdom.

We've seen the setup many times before, but somehow Australian writer-director Michôd, here making his feature-film debut after warming up with shorts and screenplay jobs (he co-wrote Nash Edgerton's Spider, takes a family of career felons and makes them the most fascinating bent characters to appear on screen since fellow Oz helmer Edgerton's The Square, another must-see. Must be something in the water down there.

The action centers on seventeen-year-old Melbourne resident Joshua "J" Cody (played by newcomer James Frecheville), a lanky galoot who tends to hold his emotions in. We meet J as the film opens, sitting on a couch idly watching a game show on TV with his mother. Then the police arrive, and we discover that J's mom is actually dead, freshly OD'd on heroin. With nowhere to go, J phones his grandmother, Janine "Smurf" Cody (Jacki Weaver). She picks him up, gives him a room in the Cody family's ranch-style home, and just like that, J enters the Animal Kingdom.

The family business revolves around armed robbery and drugs. J's tattooed, manic uncle Craig (Russell Crowe lookalike Sullivan Stapleton) deals cocaine and heroin with the help of a crooked narcotics cop named Randall Roache (Justin Rosniak). Profits are up, but the police drug squad wants a bigger cut and doesn't hesitate to assassinate rivals. Craig's younger brother Darren (Luke Ford), a skewed surfer type, provides muscle but may fold under pressure.

The Cody brother that everyone talks about but seldom sees is J's Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), a notorious smash-and-grab artist now lying low. Pope and his crew mate Baz Brown (Joel Edgerton) may talk about things like the stock market, but for Pope the choice comes down to larceny or death. He's a bit of a prick; he's also a violent psychopath, coldly studying the situation and measuring people with his stare, like a snake. Pope, his brothers, and the family racket are all beginning to come unglued just as J enters the frame.

It's a nerve-wracking life. The Cody boys are forever looking out the window, noticing cars and where they're parked, jumping every time a dog barks, etc. Naturally they've got a sleazy, suntanned, coke-snorting lawyer (Dan Wyllie). J brings his innocent, dull-faced girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) around to spend the night. Bad move. Girls have a tendency to "natter," or so Pope thinks. Better to "give her the flick." And downtown, police detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) is doggedly building a case by dropping in unexpectedly on young J, who sometimes accidentally lets things slip, on account of his youth. But J is also, in his hesitant way, building a personal case of his own against the beasts he's related to.

Grandma Smurf gradually takes center stage in the Cody family, especially as her sons begin to drop by the wayside. A veteran of such Australian international screen hits as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Jacki Weaver possesses a startling pair of eyes that can change, at the merest suggestion in a line of dialogue, from warmly maternal to frighteningly feral. Smurf smothers her boys in a twisted parody of motherly love, with always a lookout for the alibi and the fatal weakness.

Stock characters all, but with Michôd's dialogue in their mouths, plus composer Antony Partos' apprehensive music score and Sam Petty's nervous sound design, the cast turns utter naturalism into a raging zoo of survivalism, with brilliant little scenes scattered like spilled cereal throughout the screenplay: Baz's hand-washing lesson to J in the Vietnamese restaurant; Leckie's social-Darwinism speech, also to J; the predatory expression that comes over Pope whenever he looks at Nicky, or even thinks about her. From the beginning, Michôd bangs us over the head with his metaphorical establishing shots of wild-animal home décor, but we resist, and want to learn more about them. After all, this is only a family like anybody else's, right? Just don't tap on the glass.

Does anybody remember Playboy? Centuries ago, it seems, the most successful of the "skin magazines" used pictures of naked females to subsidize what was then, in those pre-Internet days, a publishing phenomenon. King of the hill and Playboy-in-Chief was Hugh Hefner, a skinny workaholic and Pepsi-Cola junkie from Chicago who evidently had more on his mind than just the Playmate of the Month. Brigitte Berman's info-packed documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel explains everything she thinks we ought to know about the man and the era.

Hefner's slick, airbrushed brand of born-again hedonism tickled America in the deepest recesses of its sweet spot, and friendly witnesses line up to sing his praises: singer Tony Bennett, football and movie star Jim Brown, talk-show host Dick Cavett, filmmaker George Lucas, folk singer Pete Seeger, rock star Gene Simmons (huh?), comedian Dick Gregory, comic commentator Bill Maher, and even a slightly dazed Joan Baez, who seems guilty about praising Hef's corporate-rebel antics. The man himself also speaks up — this is the first Hefner bio-doc to have full access. The best antagonists Berman could dig up are feminist Susan Brownmiller and walking punch line Pat Boone. When Brownmiller grouses about objectifying women, Hefner gleefully admits to it.

The thing Berman, and Hefner, want us to recognize is that the Playboy empire at its height unabashedly lined up with liberal causes, bringing messages of racial tolerance, resistance to the military-industrial complex, and anti-Puritanism into bedrooms all over America. For that, the man and the magazine were hounded for years on pornography charges.

But even though the magazine's circ is now a shadow of its former self, Hef gets the last laugh. Most of his enemies — Nixon, Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover, Ed Meese, various apoplectic preachers — are dead, and the 84-year-old swinger is shown celebrating his birthday, buried beneath a pile of blonds and grinning like a well-fed hound dog. Living well is the best revenge, they say, and Berman's doc is an entertaining history lesson about the time when people were imprisoned for fellatio and cunnilingus.

Related Film

Official Site: www.sonyclassics.com/animalkingdom

Director: David Michôd

Producer: Liz Watts, Bec Smith and Vincent Sheehan

Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton, James Frecheville, Dan Wyllie, Anthony Hayes, Laura Wheelwright, Mirrah Foulkes, Justin Rosniak, Susan Prior, Clayton Jacobson and Anna Phillips

Related Film

Official Site: www.hughhefnerplayboyactivistrebel.com

Director: Brigitte Berman

Producer: Brigitte Berman, Peter Raymont and Victor Solnicki

Cast: Joan Baez, Tony Bennett, Pat Boone, Jim Brown, Susan Brownmiller, James Caan, Dick Cavett, Tony Curtis, Dick Gregory and Hugh M. Hefner

Add a comment