Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue May 12, 2020 9:33 pm 
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Home viewing at its most challenging

The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane seemed to take some weeks to regroup after the coronavirus shutdown began. But now he has written about this stunning new situation's effect on movies (in the May 11 issue), and he has some very definite things to say.

He's funny but chastening in warning us that we've already long adapted to home viewing. And now he jokes that in these strange weeks we've totally forgotten what sitting "in a blacked-out room, in rows, and frequently in discomfort," was like, and the sensation of having paid for this, at "an appointed hour" and "in advance," with "interactivity" "at zero," now already seems very strange to us. (He's really reminding us how familiar all that was until so recently.)

Lane is rather discouraging about what home viewing can do to the experience of watching a feature film, especially a thriller. "Grandeur is squeezed," he sayss. "Intensity skirts risibility, the manic becomes the eccentric, and horror, even if you turn off the living-room lamps, melts into cheesiness. Hit the Pause button, mid-thriller, and the thrills will die on you by the time you get back from the kitchen."

Maybe, Lane says, we'd rather watch comedy now, not only because of our "off the scale" craving for relief at this moment, but also because comedy can "weather" the "change of format" with "relative ease."

By way of considering these ideas, I thought I'd look at two new pay-for-view releases Lane talks about, one from each genre. They are Australian director Justin Kurzel's True History of the Kelly Gang, a thriller about the iconic outlaw hero from Down Under based on Peter Carey's 2000 Booker Prize-winning novel; and Clark Duke's crime comedy Arkansas. Both are available now on Amazon Prime and several other platforms.

Violence, like grandeur, surely thrives on the big screen. We've been watching violent shows on TV forever, though, and I have thrilled at "The Crown" whether on a big home flat screen TV or on my computer. True Story really shakes up my computer screen, however. It is a crazy riff both on known facts and the source book. (The opening title says "None of this is true.") The handheld camerawork rocks so much you feel like your desktop is going through an earthquake. This movie is over-the-top. It doesn't quite hold together. Toward the end the relief of a long pause may become too hard to resist. And yet, this is an intense, exotic thrill ride unlike anything you're likely to get from a TV series. It makes your computer screen shake and astonish you.

This is a rough ride, but it's a ride. Kurzen has flair. For a while his penchant for violence is held back, while the preteen Ned Kelly (the unusual Orlando Schwerdt) struggles with having an Irish father Red (Ben Corbett) who seems a coward and a sissy (he is known to wear dresses) and a mother (veteran Aussie actress Essie Davis of The Babadook) who's a whore, but also a proud matriarch who may remind us of Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom. Ned proves his mettle by slaughtering a cow to feed the impoverished family. His father dies in jail. His mother now sells him for fifteen pounds to Harry Power (a portly Russell Crowe hidden behind a grey bush of a beard). Crowe's role is brief, but leaves an impression, teaching Ned it is up to him to "write your own history." Terrifying him by slaughtering a whole carriage full of people, Harry tells Ned, "That's the business, mate. You're a bushranger."

Kurzel has unleashed his violence. Lane calls this film "cheerless, dark, and deadly." Nonetheless (and I can understand this) he confesses a "soft spot" for it because it's the last movie he saw in a theater, at a preview screening, before the pandemic changed everything. On re-watching it at home Lane says he found himself "hardly shocked" to "find its wildness tamed" just by the diminished format.

But really, even at home True History of the Kelly Gang astonishes and assaults the senses. Charlie Hunnam seems a bit humbled as bad Constable Sgt O'Neil, who screws his mother and thus humiliates his father. Things waver in this movie. Is Ned a coward or a crook? Is his dad a coward, since the dress-wearing turns out to be a trick to baffle and intimidate people his gang robs? Is Ned gay, since he's so close to his long-haired friend Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), whose sexuality is fluid, and men bestow some juicy kisses on each other here? Sometimes Ned seems cowardly, sometimes excessively brave, sometimes just crazy violent. (He is to die by hanging at 25.)

In the main role of the adult Ned Kelly is last year's breakout English star, George MacKay, who was riveting in the lead of Sam Menges's impressive 1917. But MacKay actually made this film before that one. In fact he says in a Forbes article that he could never have made 1917 without the trial by fire of the challenging Ned Kelly shoot, which gave him courage and confidence. In True History MacKay is often stripped to the waist, showing off his wiry, muscular torso, at first in paid bare-fisted fights for posh people, then in all other kinds of conflicts. MacKay gives his all, and he's bloody impressive, scared and scary.

After Ned leaves his terrible mother, who he's ever loyal to despite the way she used him, he joins with a gang who call themselves the "Sons of Seive," an Irish loyalist group author Carey made up, who wear "frocks" because it freaks out their victims or enemies. This is where things turn more blatantly surreal, in Kurzel's version. (His recent slow-mo Macbeth could also be seen as surreal, I reckon. ) Extreme closeups show MacKay's almost anorexicly lean visage and his buggy eyes. Of 1917 I noted he's actually a veteran actor whose first role was at age 11, and that he isn't handsome but is "chiseled, innocent, and fresh in a way that reads right for the period." He works also for Kurzel's ambiguous folk hero-in-the-making.

Kurzel complicates his story, deflates its momentum, without destroying its energy, even in home viewing. Look at the powerful actors. Even toned down Crowe is memorable. Essie Davis is in your face. MacKay has a brave, anguished intensity. The shooting involved some tough outdoor experiences. Besides Hunnam, there's Nicholas Hoult as a more upscale English constable called Fitzpatrick, who befriends Ned in the whorehouse where he meets his future bride, who has just had George's baby. George (Marion Williams) is a Californian no more than Ned's age who turns up as Ned's mother's fiancee, and he's also a singer. The attractions and hostilities are flying in every direction. Hoult is big, suave, and confident, and also completely naked when Ned first meets him in the whorehouse. It's hard not to see him as a distraction. He's another example of Kurzel's tendency in this movie to let minor characters take over.

But this is fascinatingly adventurous filmmaking. This is never more clearly shown than in the famous final shootout with the metal fortress and the iron head armor, which dazzles with its shooting-star bouncing lights and its thin lines of hooded approaching cops like KKK members.

Everything is narrated by Ned in voiceover drawn from his written account. Ned is writing, scribbling and scribbling all the time. Recounting his own history - for his son - as Harry taught him when he was a boy he must do. It's thus that perhaps my favorite scene is the one where a captured man called Thomas Curnow (Jacob Collins-Levy), a dignified schoolteacher, sits opposite Ned, who's dressed in a form-fitting lace dress, poised over his MSS, and Curnow seeks permission to fetch his books to aid him with "grammar, parsing." "There is fault with the parsing," Ned replies. He menaces Curnow with his pen, swears at him, bangs his head on the table, then lets him go to fetch his books.

We never learn the result, because next the showdown comes. We need to read Peter Carey's novel, and this arresting film makes that seem tempting. This is a film that works on a grand scale and a small scale. For me, it was quite impressive on the home screen. Lane is no doubt right that some of its grandeur is diminished this way. But it has grandeur, and madness, to spare.

True History of the Kely Gang, 124 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2019, and played in four other international festivals, but due to the pandemic, it was released on the internet Apr. 24. Metascore 75%.

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