Cinephiles consider the start of the Toronto Film Festival in early September as the kickoff for the fall movie season, and it’s around this time awards-hungry indie labels and studio specialty divisions begin releasing prestige titles that gained international fame making the rounds at packed screenings in cities like Berlin, Venice and Park City. In some cases, though, the films in question fail to live up to the hype outside the buzz-building world that turned them into word-of-mouth hits. This weekend, two festival favorites finally seeing their South Florida debut exemplify what I like to call dashed expectations.
Take, for instance, the winner of the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival. Lebanon takes an unblinking look at that Middle Eastern conflict in June 1982 from the point of view of four Israeli soldiers carrying out a mission their commander assured them would be a cakewalk. The film starts with a lovely shot of a sunflower field in full bloom; the rest of the film takes place in the cramped confines of the tank where our young protagonists will have their loss of innocence.
Director Samuel Maoz wants the viewer to feel the claustrophobia and paranoia his characters experience, but I felt trapped for a very different reason: These snot-nosed brats would not quit whining. The gunman has passive aggressive tendencies. The driver has a hissy fit when his dials don’t respond. And when the enemy begins firing at them, one of them starts crying like a little girl. All that’s missing from the scene would have been him asking for his mother—oops, I spoke too soon. “I want my mo-mmeeeee,” he whimpers.
It doesn’t help matters that Maoz displays all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Passing through a debris-strewn street, the soldiers spot a dying donkey. Cue to a closeup of the animal’s eyes…there’s tears in them!When their superiors store a dead soldier in the tank, one of the soldiers helps put him inside. Then he looks down at his hands; they’re covered in blood. The blood…it’s in his haaaands! Oh, the humanity!
This is territory that was much better navigated by filmmaker Ari Folman in his Oscar-nominated animation/nonfiction hybrid Waltz with Bashir. In that film he was able to convey the rudderless chaos of the Lebanese War. The self-importance in Lebanon just makes it call attention to itself. It should have been renamed Arabs Are Shooting at Me…WAAAAAAHHH!! Check back with me when you’ve matured, Mr. Maoz. You big crybaby.
On paper, Animal Kingdom seems like a knockout, a gritty portrait of a family whose bread and butter involves robbing banks, dealing drugs, and just being all-around scumbags. The Australian crime thriller has a ton of accolades under its belt, more recently taking Sundance by storm earlier this year. (The film picked up the Grand Jury Prize in the festival’s World Cinema section.) So why did it feel like an unending snoozefest to me? Blame newcomer James Frecheville, whose voice over narration saturates the beginning of the film and is then abruptly dropped by writer-director David Michôd, who makes his feature debut.
Frecheville sleepwalks through the role of Joshua (nicknamed J), a sullen, disaffected teen who becomes reacquainted with his shady relatives after his junkie mother dies from a heroin overdose. There’s Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton, looking like Paul Walker gone to seed), the drug dealer who’s the family’s biggest breadwinner. His idea of fun? Giving his nephew a gun to go scare off some thugs who entered a staring contest with him while they sit in traffic. There’s Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the oldest, an armed robber hiding from the police. If he looks at you funny, be very afraid. There’s Barry (The Waiting City’s Joel Edgerton, quite appealing), Pope’s associate and an honorary family member, who plans to get out of the business by investing in stocks. By far the film’s most interesting character is J’s grandmother Smurf (Jacki Weaver, channeling Karen Black on a bender), the queen bee whose warmth masks a cold-blooded survival instinct. Expect her name to be bandied about come Oscar season.
Michôd, who co-wrote the clever 2007 short Spider, walks down those mean streets many gifted directors have explored in better films. His is a Darwinian world of crooks who are bad to the bone and policemen who are even more morally bankrupt, but Animal Kingdom just lies there, even with the welcome appearance of Guy Pearce, who sports a Ned Flanders mustache as one of the only police officers with an ounce of integrity. As the body count rose, I found my personal investment waning. “It’s just a bad situation for everyone,” Smurf observes. No kidding, Grandma.
The antidote for these letdowns? A blast of Mexploitation from Robert Rodriguez, of course. A feature-length version of the first fake trailer in Grindhouse, Machete is bloody fun and, best of all, gives leather-faced character actor Danny Trejo, usually stuck playing bad guys, his own movie. As a former Mexican Federale left for dead after being betrayed by his own partner, Machete becomes the unlikely hero of the current immigration debate after he’s hired to bump off the right-wing senator (Robert De Niro, having a ball with his Texan drawl) who’s lobbying for the construction of an electrified border fence. More double crosses ensue (please don’t ask how he escapes from a hospital…okay, it involves using human intestines like a rope), and he finds himself teaming up with a US marshal (Jessica Alba, finally playing a Latina) and the leader of an underground revolutionary army posing as a taco stand vendor (Michelle Rodriguez, doing some grade-A ass kicking).
This is exactly the movie The Expendables should have been, and Rodriguez, who made a big splash in Toronto back in 1992 with El Mariachi, finds gruesomely inventive uses for all kinds of sharp objects (nope, I don’t think I’ve seen a corkscrew used quite that way). I wish the movie, which Rodriguez co-directed with longtime editing assistant Ethan Maniquis, had maintained the momentum of the first forty-five minutes, though. The midsection is flabby, and the climactic showdown is, let’s face it, a bit of a mess. But how can you resist a movie that has Robert De Niro using a taxicab as a getaway vehicle? Or that features Lindsay Lohan packing heat while wearing a nun’s habit? Machete ain’t perfect, but the inspired cheap thrills it serves up put a goofy grin on my face. And these days, that’s surprisingly hard to find.
Animal Kingdom and Lebanon are now showing at Regal South Beach Cinemas; for more information go to www.fandango.com. Machete is currently in wide release. Since it was shot in high definition, my advice would be to seek out the theaters that are screening it on digital projection.