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Animal Kingdom posterWhen the Film Festival screening of Animal Kingdom finished, my companion and I turned to each other and realised that neither of us had breathed for the last five minutes. The tension that had been slowly building throughout the film had become almost unbearable and director David Michôd’s Shakespearean climax was no less than the rest of the film deserved.

Seventeen-year-old “J” (extraordinary newcomer James Frecheville) goes to live with his Gran and his Uncles when his Mum overdoses. The family are more than petty criminals but less than gangland royalty — bank robbers and thugs rather than black economy businessmen. Gran (Jacki Weaver) seems like a nice enough sort, though, and the family pulls together despite the constant pressure from the local fuzz.

But when the alpha male gets shot by rogue cops in a shopping mall carpark, there’s a vacancy at the head of the family and the only candidates are ill-equipped for leadership. Note that I haven’t told you which actors are which in this scenario. Animal Kingdom has about seven genuine “I didn’t see that coming” moments, which is about seven more than most films, and I don’t want to spoil any of them.

That’s not to say that the cast doesn’t deserve mention. Joel Edgerton wasn’t able to demonstrate his gifts in the Kiwi fizzer Separation City last year but is real movie star material here and the great Ben Mendelsohn is absolutely electric throughout. Weaver is a revelation and Guy Pearce (as the good cop) proves once again what a selfless character actor he can be now he isn’t trying to be a movie star.

Before this year’s Film Festival I cracked-wise in these pages that if anything in it turned out to be better than Toy Story 3 I’d be very surprised. I’m pleased to report that Animal Kingdom made me eat my words. I’m not saying that it is the best film of the year but it is in the top one.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice posterWith the school holidays just around the corner there’s a flurry of family-friendly releases arriving at the pictures. The only reason for the existence of Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is an amusing live-action-but-actually-digital recreation of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence from Fantasia but the rest is a bit of a fiasco. Nic Cage plays Merlin’s apprentice Balthazar Blake who has been searching for the next in line for over 1000 years. He finds him in New York City, a nerdy kid with a thing for physics, Tesla coils in particular. The kid is Jay Baruchel from She’s Out of My League and a less winning proposition I haven’t come across in a while.

Despicable MeDespicable Me poster is an animated 3D (where available) picture about a super-villain named Gru (Steve Carell) with an East European accent who adopts three little girls for a nefarious scheme to steal the moon, but whose heart is melted by the little darlings. Not enough jokes and some odd casting (why would you get Russell Brand and then not allow him to riff?) reduce the impact to almost nothing.

Grown Ups posterAdam Sandler took a bunch of mates (and a film crew) with him on his Summer holidays this year, at least that’s what Grown Ups seems like. The funeral of their middle-school basketball coach reunites the 1978 championship-winning team for a weekend of middle-aged soul-searching (like The Big Chill with less crying in the shower and more jokes about peeing in swimming pools). Sandler’s mates include the usual suspects Kevin James (Paul Blart: Mall Cop ), David Spade, Rob Schneider and Chris Rock and Grown Ups is rendered watchable mainly because of the obvious ease that the gang have going on together.

Mother and Child posterWhen Annette Bening married Warren Beatty in 1992 she was the hottest actress in Hollywood. In the roughly 18 years since she has taken the lead in only six features, an intolerable statistic. After all, she might have been happily married and raising a family but what her responsibility to her talent — and to us! In Mother and Child she proves once again what an extraordinary talent she is, playing a lonely middle-aged woman damaged by the guilt of giving a child up for adoption when she was 14.

That child has grown into Naomi Watts, a controlling career-woman with intimacy issues of her own. While these two are (separately) dealing with the fall-out from Watts’ birth, a childless middle-class black couple are trying to adopt a baby of their own. Worthy but terribly, terribly slow, Mother and Child doesn’t quite realise it’s big ambitions.

Finally, an interesting kiwi doco gets a single screening at the Paramount on Sunday afternoon: Gordonia is about scrap-man Graham Gordon and his 100 acre Waitakere property where broken down people also go to get away from the world. For 20 years or more, Gordon has fallen foul of the Waitakere City Council zoning laws (intended to make Titirangi safe for normal ratepaying citizens) and Tom Reilly’s film is sympathetic to the drop-outs, hippies and non-conformists caught in the middle.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 22 September, 2010.