Zahler is like Tarantino, only more so. Violence in his films is not meaningless; indeed, it may be the most meaningful thing about his films, the thing that connects him to the real world. The title gives us a sense of that world: mean, urban and unforgiving.
Zahler goes out of his way to thumb his nose at woke politics. Just the casting of Mel Gibson as a racist cop gives an idea of how little he cares for polite notions of what you can and can’t say or who you can cast.
Zahler emphasises that these opposites, the white detective (Gibson’s partner in crime played by Vince Vaughan) and the black former convict (Tori Kittles), are trying to get money for their families. Simple greed isn’t the motive.
These stories are stretched along the fault lines of colour – where Tarantino also likes to play – but it’s harder to decode what Zahler is saying. He maintains that he does not write from a political standpoint, but that’s horse manure: Dragged Across Concrete is one long (and I do mean long) political statement about the ugliness and violence of America.
More precisely, it’s a series of statements. Zahler offers a range of viewpoints: the film is like a compendium of good and evil. It’s just hard sometimes to know which is which.
Dragged Across Concrete feels like you’re dangling on the end of a meat hook. It’s painful and tense and at the same time, a little ridiculous. A few scenes are played for grim humour, then the shooting starts. Even then, it’s full of surprises, and riches for those who like it darker.”
The Nightingale ★★★★
Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, best known for her 2014 horror film The Babadook, has turned her hand to a local revenge tragedy about an Irish convict and an Aboriginal tracker teaming up to hunt a sexually violent officer.
Kent’s The Nightingalehas been heaped in praise locally, including winning The Age Critics Award for best Australian film, but hasn’t escaped some walkouts thanks to the difficult content. Reviewer Sandra Hall found it to be “one of the most powerful films yet seen about the country’s colonial foundation and the cruelties that were an indelible part of it”.
“There’s no doubt it is a harrowing film. We’re pitched into a moral climate with no taboos when it comes to the damage done to the innocent and defenceless.
Sound familiar? If you’re a Game of Thrones addict it should, but this is not a fantasy landscape stitched together as a medieval pastiche. It’s a wholly convincing recreation of a Tasmanian backwater in 1825, when the colony was at its toughest and most unforgiving and a 21-year-old female convict from Ireland was at the bottom of the rudimentary but intractable class system governing the place.
Bearing all this in mind, the film’s violence is not gratuitous but it is hard to bear. Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is at the end of a seven-year sentence served partly as an indentured servant to Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a British army officer whose working-class background has done nothing to inhibit his whopping sense of entitlement.
He’s refusing to sign her release papers despite her status as the wife of a free settler and the mother of a young baby. She’s beautiful, he rapes her repeatedly and his attacks finally culminate in an act of barbarity that leaves her with nothing but a fierce determination to have her revenge.
Kent is out to fashion something bigger than a revenge story. It’s clear that she sees the narrative unfurling as a morality tale as well, but telling it is not easy. Consequently, the plot limps on past its natural conclusion as she works out just how she’s going to achieve the complex ending she’s after. We’ll feel cheated if Hawkins and Damon Herriman’s Sergeant Ruse (Hawkins’ Cockney hanger-on) don’t get their comeuppance but revenge invariably precipitates a cycle of ever worsening evils, as Clare eventually realises.”
Amazing Grace ★★★★
Almost 50 years since its filming, Sydney Pollack’s documentary account of Aretha Franklin recording her most famous gospel album, Amazing Grace, in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles has finally seen the light of day. Delayed for decades because of issues with syncing audio and visual elements, the footage “is shot in a wonderfully rough-and-ready style” but doesn’t provide much insight to the Queen of Soul beyond her powerful performances, says reviewer Sandra Hall.
“It pays to do some homework before you see it because there’s no exposition and Franklin, looking deceptively young and shy, gives no clue to the turbulent state of her personal life at the time. At the age of 12, she had given birth to her first child. A second, born to a different man, had followed two years later and, when the recording took place, she had just split with Ted White, her business manager and father of her third child.
Amazing Grace, the 18th-century spiritual written by Anglican clergyman and repentant slave trader John Newton, is the centrepiece – reinvigorated by Franklin’s remarkable voice and her even more remarkable gift for harmonious improvisation.
It’s a perfect fusion of gospel and jazz. Nobody remains unmoved by it and partway through, the church’s pastor, who’s been accompanying her on the piano, steps aside and sits with his head in his hands until the tears stop.
During the two days it took to record the album, the audience frequently upstage the performers. And here again, a bit of homework can help. Otherwise, there’s no way of hazarding a guess at the reasons for an unexplained incident that looks like a scuffle between Franklin’s mentor Clara Ward and her mother, Gertrude Mae, another venerable figure in gospel lore.
Ironically enough, Franklin is in the middle of the song Never Grow Old when it happens. And she keeps singing while Mae is picked up off the floor and Ward resumes her seat as if nothing has happened. Only when you look up their biographies do you learn about the decades of friction that may have helped bring about this moment.
But doing your own detective work is part of the fun in a film enriched by its imperfections. It’s a fascinating curiosity and the music is sublime.”
The Kitchen ★★
Andrea Berloff, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Straight Outta Compton, has tried her hand at directing this American crime thriller, which tells of three mob wives forced to take over the Irish gang business when their husbands get arrested. Based on the Vertigo comic-book series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, even a stellar cast of Elisabeth Moss, Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish couldn’t make plausible this fictional feminist feature, according to reviewer Jake Wilson.
“One of the better lines in last year’s mainly tepid feminist caper Ocean’s 8 came from Sandra Bullock’s character, aiming to inspire her sisters in con-artistry during the lead-up to the big heist. ‘Somewhere out there is an eight-year-old girl, lying in bed, dreaming of being a criminal. Let’s do it for her.’
This imagined little girl could be the ideal viewer of The Kitchen. Set in the late 1970s in the then low-rent Manhattan neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen, it’s both an amoral gangster saga and a bizarrely right-on message movie in the spirit of Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book Lean In, proposing that women can be at least the equals of men when it comes to operating protection rackets and wiping out the competition.
Ultimately, the film makes less sense literally than it does as an allegory of Hollywood in the #MeToo era – especially in the scenes with Bill Camp as a high-end gangster whose fancy apartment could be the home of a veteran producer with a cabinet full of Oscars. Defying expectations, this character proves to be one of the good ones, spelling out his place at the top of the pecking order but gladly giving a helping hand to up-and-coming talent.
Nor can it be an accident that his wife, who cites Gloria Steinem in praise of the newcomers, is played by prominent Harvey Weinstein accuser Annabella Sciorra. More ambiguous is the symbolic place occupied by the indomitable Margo Martindale as a gravel-voiced matriarch who has long run Hell’s Kitchen from behind the scenes and brooks no competition.
All this is fascinating on a conceptual level, and pros such as Camp and Martindale are more than capable of looking after themselves. But as a director Berloff is unable to find a tone and style that might make emotional sense of the material or to generate any kind of spontaneous interplay between her stars, who even when positioned side by side seem to be giving separate, unrelated performances.”
Matteo Garrone’s Dogman, which won critical acclaim and was nominated at Cannes for the Palme d’Or, was loosely based upon real events 30 years ago in Italy. Starring Marcello Fonte, who some might remember from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, as a bullied dog groomer, Dogman tells of a father being pushed too far by a neighbourhood thug as he tragically undergoes a metamorphose from man to animal. Reviewer Jake Wilson calls the film “a curious beast” as it blends hard-hitting crime drama with a touch of Edgar Allen Poe horror.
“In the opening stretch of the film, one dog after another passes through Marcello’s hands, from a Great Dane to a chihuahua. These scenes show the character at his most endearing, and are played for whimsy even as we suspect that the story will eventually turn nasty.
Indeed, it isn’t long before we learn Marcello has a darker side: with a young daughter (Alida Baldari Calabria) to support, he’s taken to supplementing his income by selling cocaine (or perhaps — it’s not entirely clear — the dog parlour has always been more of a drug-dealing front than anything else).
This brings him into regular contact with some dubious personalities, in particular a hulking former boxer and petty crook named Simone (Edoardo Pesce) who is, supposedly, his best mate.
This is where the knockabout, puppet show side of the film comes in, in a manner which is menacing and comic at once.
Dogman can be unpleasant to watch, as films about bullying commonly are. But on its own terms it’s well-made and even gripping. That said, it’s not altogether clear why Garrone chose to tell this story or what broader implications (if any) he has in mind.”
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Aja Styles is a digital entertainment editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.