Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
Picking a movie on Saturday night is like looking for a restaurant when you’re too hungry – the lower your blood sugar drops, the more you want your meal to be perfect: not just delicious and unique, but emotionally fulfilling.
On a Saturday in front of the tube, we’re looking for something that’s equal parts heady and gutsy, but just popcorn-y enough that we don’t fall asleep.
So that’s what we’re always looking for here at The Thread.
Sometimes we play with a theme (like Robin Hood last week).
But week after week, what really gets us going are the random obscure connections that we stumble across in the course of our research each week.
So. The new release that caught our fancy this week is from writing/directing team Ryan Fleck and Ann Boden (Half Nelson, It’s Kind of a Funny Story). We could have done a Gambling theme; started with 1974’s The Gambler (James Caan); and included Philip Seymour Hoffman’s fantastic Owning Mahoney (2003).
But the main reason Mississippi Grind caught our eye is the new-to-you Aussie lead with a dark spot on his heart – Ben Mendelsohn. That guy, whose name never knew. Once we started poking around in his past, we found some interesting stuff.
Fleck and Boden (who have been collaborating since NYU film school) cast Ben Mendelsohn as Curtis, an Iowa real estate salesman whose true vocation is obsessive gambling. The casting seems like predestination – both the writer/director team and the actor are fixated on characters who quietly but desperately try to solve the insoluble existential puzzle.
Into Curtis’ low-luck life comes a lucky guy — the effortless, charismatic Gerry – better looking, a little smarter, but just as addicted.
As the new friends travel downriver looking for the big score that will heal all wounds, Mendelsohn does an intense slow boil, and pretty-boy Reynolds gives a layered performance that may be the best of his career. This creative team seems to have a knack for those – think Ryan Gosling in Full Nelson.
With a heavy debt to Altman’s California Split and other bohemian character studies from the 70’s, the movie is more artsy than caper-y. It premiered at Sundance and opens small this weekend.
Four years after its release, Animal Kingdom is already a 21st Century Australian classic. A Down Under Goodfellas, it’s the fast-out-of-the-gate first feature by director David Michôd. The film won the World Cinema prize at Sundance, and got Jacki Weaver (above, with Mendelsohn) several nominations including Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
After his mother dies of an overdose, a young man is goes to live with his grandmother (Weaver) and is initiated into his extended crime family, while simultaneously wooed by a cop, played by Guy Pearce.
Mendelsohn plays one of his uncles, a borderline psychopath, described to a “t” by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian: “a neurotic obsessive whose criminally murderous behaviour is less a career choice than a pattern of irrational compulsion entirely outside his control.” In other words, classic Mendelsohn.
Animal Kingdom was Mendelsohn’s comeback film. It finally put him on the Hollywood radar as a go-to character actor. Here and elsewhere the core element of Mendelsohn’s performances is danger – he has the ability to hover in a space of uncontrol that is much more common in real that film performances.
The two performances (Mendelsohn and Weaver) are reason enough to see the film. But it’s also worth seeing for Michod’s talent and the kinetic outsider spin he gives to American genre conventions.
Animal Kingdom was a sort of late bloomer comeback for Mendelsohn. He first came to prominence as the bad boy jock who knocks up the girl, in this coming-of-age story directed by John Duigan (Flirting, Wide Sargasso Sea) and produced by George Miller (Mad Max).
Mendelsohn won the AFI Best Supporting Actor honor for his performance, and went on to a big career in Australia, where he was as famous as Guy Pierce, Russell Crowe and his costar here, Noah Taylor. Mendelsohn specialized in angry young men, but also nailed some solid romantic leads.
Then all the others went on to Hollywood. Crowe and Pearce made it big. Taylor reprised his Voice Broke character in the sequel Flirting, young David Helfgott in Shine, and worked steadily in American film and TV. (Recently, Game of Thrones) Mendelsohn never quite caught on in L.A., and slowly his career dwindled, until the inspired casting of Kingdom.
The Year My Voice Broke is charming, innocent, picturesque — and feels a little clichéd. But it makes a great double bill with Flirting (part two of Duigan’s never-completed trilogy) where Taylor is joined by Nicole Kidman and Thandie Newton.
As it turns out, it’s really hard to find here in the States. You have to buy it on Amazon:
As we said above, part of the thrill of each week’s hunt are the oblique connections. So let us digress a moment from Mendelsohn, and follow the thread to Michôd.
Michôd’s second film is a post-apocalyptic second film could have been: “Pattinson Acts!” Yep, that’s him that Guy Pearce is so mad at above.
Guy Pearce was well established in Hollywood by the time he went home to do Animal Kingdom; and his bond with Michôd was strong enough that he returned again to make The Rover.
In The Rover, Pearce plays is an ex-soldier wandering the lawless Australian desert 10 years after a global economic meltdown. Pattinson, who is British, was determined not to get stuck in the rut of his Twilight persona, so he actually auditioned for the role of a slow, tic-ridden, damaged but violent American.
The result is flawed but worth watching, for the mood, the curiosity of Pattinson’s performance, for his dynamic with Pierce, and just to see what Michôd does on his second outing. The film is better in theory than in fact — atmosphere and staging are solid, but it’s oddly structured, and even though it’s meant to be a character piece, there’s a narrative void.
But, we should also mention, some people are on record as really liking it. Like Quentin Tarentino, whose oddball tastes we really respect.
Up next for Michod — Hollywood. He’s directing Brad Pitt’s war satire, The War Machine – which in a notable coupe was picked up by Netflix’ new film distribution arm.
Story credit for The Rover is shared by Joel Edgerton, the actor/writer/director who played Ramses last year in Ridley Scott’s Exodus. We’re dying to see The Gift, the twisty, low-boil psychological thriller that is Edgerton’s directing debut. It’s still in a few theatres, but doesn’t come out on video until October 27.
In the meantime, take a look at this 2008 debut film by Edgerton’s brother, Nash Edgerton (also written by and starring Joel). Nash works (a lot) as a stuntman, and both brothers are members of the Blue-Tongue Films collective, which also includes Michod.
The Square has a classic film noir setup – married lovers, found cash. The director unfolds the intricate plot like an origami puzzle, steadily and relentlessly.
When the movie came out, it was compared to Blood Simple, and the Edgertons were compared to the Coens. See for yourself if the comparison holds up.
At this point, both the Edgertons and Michod seem on the brink of success. Which is why we’re so interested in seeing what they do next. But it’s been 7 years since The Square. And to be honest, The Rover didn’t come near the promise of Animal Kingdom.
And sure, not all success has to be in LA. But still, after years of working steadily but not quite living up to his early promise, is Ben Mendelsohn ready for his Hollywood moment?
Friends disagreed…. But despite the presence of Sam Shepard, who we admire; Sissy Spacek, who we adore; and Kyle Chandler, the nominal star… for us the first season of Netflix’ Bloodline only worked for us when Mendelsohn was onscreen.
Which, even more than his Emmy nom, we assume to be the reason they’re bringing him back next year as a regular character. Despite the fact that – well, we’ll skip the spoiler, but see if you agree.