Tuesday, December 21, 2010

David Michod's 'Animal Kingdom'

I'm sorry David Michod. I know you've been swatting away journalists and negotiating contracts in overseas markets, but I just can't bring myself to join the throng of admirers with regards to your debut feature film, Animal Kingdom. I know, I know, this will do nothing to endear me to complete strangers at subsequent summer BBQs and the astonished looks across tabletops will become onerous at some point; but I've decided that we all just need to accept that unlike one of the film's stars, Luke Ford, you, David, just haven't, to paraphrase your words, 'seen enough' to pull off a text like this. And, sadly, you may well do more harm than good in the current climate.

When it all boils down, the essence of Animal Kingdom is melodrama that harks back to an earlier, more ignorant era. Because, when the dust settles, the junkie criminal is the epitome of evil, whilst the 'family man' police officer saves the day, with a bit of help from the 'quiet little brother'. Sure, the film has been sold as 'A Crime Story', but I think it's important to be cognizant of the ripple effect here; especially upon middle-class Melbourne. You see, because every time a heavily-stoned person turns up on a train begging for money, or every time a known-criminal is incarcerated without proper medical attention due to his/her benzodiazepine dependence, the empathy dial will be even further to the left than it is otherwise; it may not even be touched at all. "But it's only a movie!", I hear you exclaim. Yeah, and the Herald Sun is only a newspaper. In fact, one could argue that the former actually holds more weight in the 21st century.

Who is the injecting drug user in Animal Kingdom? He is a psychopathic, violent murderer who even considers rape every once in a while if the target is young enough. He doesn't think twice about injecting drug-naive teenagers in distress, and may even be a closet homosexual. Disgusting, I know.

Michod establishes a perspective early on, with the opening scene of J's mother overdosed on the couch whilst he sits next to her in front of a 'game show'-blaring television. The trite portrayal of 'heroin as killer' sets the scene for the rest of the film. We later learn that J's mother became estranged from her mother, Jackie Weaver's 'Smurf', because of a card game disagreement. Michod embarrassingly reveals his feeble take on 'low-life, scumbag Australia' - petty, evil and addicted. And whilst such characters do exist in the world, Michod's text not only lacks gravity, but I also just wasn't convinced by the portrayal emanating from the screen. Unlike Ray Winstone in 44-inch Chest, or Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, two films that didn't receive the attention they deserved; two films that didn't rehash hackneyed material from the mind of a writer whose understanding of the 'underworld' seems to be derived from tabloid headlines and bain marie banter. How could anyone be convinced when Joel Edgerton's Barry passes a wad of cash to Ben Mendelsohn's Pope at the front of a store in clear view of the shop window? These are two crims who are under constant surveillance by detectives, thinking nothing of such a silly mistake. Add 'stupid' to the aforementioned list and unveil yet another cliche. It's no wonder Barry is shot soon after!

Then, in possibly the film's standout scene, Mendelsohn draws on an old skeleton companion when he fairly accurately portrays heroin use with the subtle cues of a slight rub to the nose, glassy eyes and a blissful naivety. But Mendolsohn well and truly tears such an achievement down when he colludes with Michod in a scene where J's girlfriend, Nicky, succumbs, without so much as a whimper, to Pope's offer of a heroin injection. This is yet another example of Michod portraying a world he knows nothing about. He seems to have created a bunch of scenarios that hit the 'FULL-ON' register, pieced them all together, labeled it a film, and then waited for equally unaware audience members to look at each other and gasp, "FULL-ON!!!". Well, folks, it doesn't run that smoothly, because young women often have difficulty finding their veins because they are often thinner and deeper under the surface of the skin, and an opiate-naive teenager would have most likely vomited soon after receiving the injection. Pope doesn't come off as a new initiate, so the contents of the syringe would have been potent (or potent enough). Following the injection, Nicky seems to just stare blankly at Pope, as if nothing of significance had just taken place.

It doesn't seem to matter to Michod that a group of police detectives murdered Barry in broad daylight, with the corrupt drug squad officer portrayed lightly as a bumbling dork who, deep down, really does want to 'do the right thing'. In the world of Animal Kingdom, 'good' simply wears a uniform, whilst 'evil' may not wear a tracksuit but is drug-fucked and might be found lurking at the local. Okay, so let's do a random search of today's news headlines and see just what the face of 'evil' might look like in reality. The first two that appear on my computer are: 1. "A Victorian policeman has been charged with various offences including having sex with an underage girl." - theage.com.au (21.12.2010) 2. "The owner of a Sydney childcare centre charged with indecently assaulting a pre-school girl in his care is facing a fresh charge of assaulting a second girl." - theage.com.au (21.12.2010). Hmm, an officer of the law and a businessman. Whilst only charges have been laid at this stage, it should still make us think...

By the time Pope is chasing J, in what could be described as the film's climax, I have to say that I felt no more afraid of Pope than I did of Nicky's clueless dad who seems to do whatever anyone tells him, regardless of how well he knows them. Mendelsohn is far more menacing in Beautiful Kate, due primarily to that film's authenticity; because at the end of the day, Michod's film just isn't authentic and, failing that, isn't even daring as it merely reverts back to familiar ground well-worthy of contempt.

David Michod, I am going to set you some homework to complete before your next 'masterpiece'. Please seek out the meaning of the following words: ambiguous, banal, caricature, lame. Due date is anytime before the next Sundance film festival.

More info. on Animal Kingdom can be found here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_Kingdom_%28film%29

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Drugs, a victimless crime? Hardly: Miranda Devine

Miranda Devine joins the exalted ranks of 'people who have employed dodgy analogies to justify ill-informed positions in the public sphere' in her latest piece of paid writing for Sydney's Daily Telegraph. And whilst one could tackle Devine's perceived wisdom piece-by-piece, I think the dodgy analogy is all that needs covering really.

So, Devine states: "The analogy is a gardener who regularly weeds his garden, keeping the problem at bay. But one day he decides: "It's no use. The weeds keep growing no matter what I do, so I'll just give up weeding."

Hmm, I can't help but wonder how long this pearl of wisdom has been floating around for and would pay decent money for a snapshot of the expression on Devine's face when it came forth. Yeah, yeah, lowest form of wit, I know. But sometimes one needs to do what feels right, and after years and years of exasperating ignorance, sarcasm feels right.

I am going to offer up an alternative, albeit slightly longer, analogy:

Drug law reform is like having a garden like no other that has ever been in existence. As the owner of the garden, one feels a deep sense of anxiety because one is unaware of why this garden exists and exactly how it came into being. Thus, there is no-one else who can help and say, "Oh yeah, there's another garden like this in another part of the universe that is much older and this is how its owners learnt to manage it best. So one carries on in the best way one knows how to and uses what resources are available. And it is really tough. Because the garden is filled with many different things and it is difficult to understand and sustain all of them. Something that becomes evident, though, is that all the different things benefit from each other's existence and when nurtured appropriately, thrive to create an amazingly beautiful diversity of life forms. The weeds are persistent and need to be removed, but, in the end, even those are the same as the others essentially, and depending on how the gardener manages the garden, the weeds are more or less of a problem.

Then one day, a neighbour comes along and starts to draw one's attention to several particular plants in the garden. To you, they have required regular maintenance to ensure the harmony of the entire garden but they have been no more trouble than any other plant. Oh actually, there has been one particular plant that has been especially troublesome, but it seems helpful to the other plants, so it seems worth it to manage it. But this neighbour is adamant that these several plants are incredibly dangerous and they are even called 'evil'. Over time, one starts to agree with the neighbour because the neighbour has been so relentless and has a garden that is much larger and owns a lot of resources that can be of assistance.

Eventually, after much persuasion, and even a little intimidation, one decides to remove the 'evil plants' and keep watch over the garden to make sure that they never return. However, the neighbour takes cuttings of the evil plants and explains that they will be kept for 'special reasons'. Over time, however, the garden starts to change and a small number of new plants begin to appear. But there is something funny about the new plants because they appear similar to the 'evil plants' but they are attached to the weeds and they are incredibly difficult to manage. They still look okay and they get on okay with the other plants, but there is something that is just not right.

Years pass by and one starts to notice that a fair number of the plants who come into contact with the new plants experience problems and the entire garden becomes even more difficult to manage. The neighbour just tells you to weed harder, and to keep persisting. So you follow the advice of your neighbour who comes by every now and then with chemicals to help kill the new plants. However, more time passes and the situation doesn't seem to be improving and some of the most beautiful and valuable plants in the garden are looking terrible from disease, with some species dying off altogether. The frequency at which the weeds appear has also increased and they have become increasingly voracious, severely impeding the development of other plants. You feel incredibly saddened by the losses and the course that the garden has taken since you removed the 'evil plants' and your neighbour just keeps telling you to continue weeding.

Then one day, a gardener from a far-off town comes to visit and you explain the situation to him. He just throws back his head and laughs, explaining that "We had that problem a few years back and then my neighbour told me to just return to the old way of doing things. To prioritise the beauty and harmony of the garden and not worry about what other gardeners are telling you." The visiting gardener explains that the original weeds are the real problem and that, whilst the 'evil plants' might be a bit trickier to manage, they belong in the garden and provide benefits; "they just require a little more work", the visiting gardener explains. At that moment, one realises that the visiting gardener might be onto something and that with diligence and the abundant resources at hand, a better way of managing the garden is possible. The visiting gardener then continues on home and one is left wondering which is the best course of action to take in the future.

Ethan Nadelmann is the 'visiting gardener' and Australia needs to work out how to best proceed. That, girls and boys, is the end of storytime and it's now time for your midday nap. Nigh' night.