Local cinemas this week

It never rains, it pours, there are just so great movies this week, too many… You can read about The Nightingale and Dogman here, but if there’s ever been a time when you really should check out the new releases at your local arthouse, then this is it.

Dragged Across Concrete

Few local film-lovers will have heard of the pulp-crime director S Greg Zahler (Brawl in Cell Block 99), though he’s a critical favourite as well as a regular presence at the prestigious Venice film festival. Even fewer will get to see his latest slow-burn provocation – which is a shame, since Dragged Across Concrete will surely one day to be as highly regarded as anything by early Tarantino. Part of the reason for that is because this tough, super-smart and occasionally brutal pot-boiler stars Mel Gibson, an actor everyone admires (some grudgingly) for his craft, but dislike personally. He’s not penitent enough, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw sniffed in his 4 star review – referring to past political indiscretions. Worse, he’s teamed with Vince Vaughn here, another white male and admitted Republican (OMG!) in a crime caper that is so murkily amoral that no one can quite decode what it really means. Even its local distributor, a company Gibson part owns, seems nervous, not bothering with critics’ previews and then putting it on “limited release”.

Early on our two “heroes” Detectives Ridgeman (Gibson, who really is very good) and Lurasetti (Vaughn) are suspended without pay, after one of their typically overzealous arrests of a Latino drug pusher and his girlfriend is filmed by an onlooker. That’s a financial tragedy for Ridgeman, a grizzled, pushing-60 veteran of the mean streets. “You’ve been out there too long,” his cynical police chief boss (Don Johnson) tells him. “You lack compassion,”  an understatement if ever there was one. He has a invalid wife to look after, and a young teen daughter who is being racially threatened by a black youths in “the shitty neighbourhood” he has to live in because of his “shitty wages”. So he and his partner hatch a plan to tail a local big operator – “to see if he’s got any spare money he doesn’t need.” The crime they stumble on isn’t a drug deal, but a major bank job conducted with unimaginable brutality and sadism (off-screen, phew!) which leaves five innocents dead. Instead of calling it in, our “heroes” decide the gold bullion loot could be theirs. Now you see the reason for those inverted commas!

Zahler is slow and deliberate – there are long scenes with very little happening (minutes of Vaughn noisily eating a sandwich – really) interspersed with flashes of savage action and whip-smart but queasily nauseous dialogue. For a flavour of that – at one stage during the long and incredibly tense stand-off which lasts nearly a full hour of its generous 160 minute run-time, the villains have to retrieve a key which someone has swallowed. They shoot him, and then use a knife for a bit of impromptu surgery – which yes (look away) is shown… “Be careful not puncture the liver, they really stink,” one advises. “Especially the black guys.” 

Ouch! Yep, you are being trolled by an expert here, and some reviewers have allowed themselves be triggered – all they can see is racial outrage and the surname “Gibson”. There’s a fair amount of casual misogyny too, unpleasantness towards Latinos and at least one dodgy “homophobic” joke – so anyone who wants to feel aggrieved, can easily do so. But these are the same minority-group fault-lines Tarantino runs his stories along too, and Zahler here has given us something nearly the equal of the master’s best work. Take the negative reviews you’re bound to read with a pinch of salt. Anyone who likes their crime fiction to be on the dark side, their characters well-cooked and their humour pitch black, will find plenty to admire in this grubby, ultra-pulpy little gem – which even has a genuinely surprising (and bleakly satisfying) ending. Check the screening locations and trailer here – the US version suits its noirish tone better than the local one. R18+ from Aug 28. Local cinemas include Dendy Newtown and Burwood. ★★★★ 

Amazing Grace

Most music-lovers will be familiar with the sublime songs and heavenly harmonies in Amazing Grace – it is after all the most listened-to and highest grossing gospel album of all time. It’s also Aretha Franklin’s best selling record ever – something no doubt wryly noted by her record company label now, who didn’t originally want her to release it. The recording was done live over two nights at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, LA in 1972, and was always supposed to be a movie too. One never seen for mysterious reasons – attributed to “technical issues” in the front credits of this version – which comes (and this may be significant) after the Queen of Soul’s death. The Oscar-nominated director Sydney Pollack had the original gig, and he’s usually blamed for the failure of the movie to see the light of day. Only today’s digital technology has been able to rescue his bungled footage and sync it with the sound, or so the story goes. 

But less well-known is the fact that Aretha also fought to suppress it, and as late as 2013 took legal action to stall its release. But why? Even her niece doesn’t know, but money, probably… reliably responsible for most of the idiocies of our times.

None of that matters now, especially since the result is so exhilarating. Throughout the film, the then 28-year-old Aretha is completely, utterly focussed on her singing, and avoids any interaction or chatter with the audience (with includes Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts on the second night – in town for the recording of Exile on Main Street). Like everyone else, they got caught up and carried away up in the ecstatic devotion of performances like Wholy Holy, God Will Take Care of You and Amazing Grace. The songs amble on leisurely, elaborated by Aretha’s own enraptured whoops, cries and fills, and those of the backing choir as well as the audience. She’s drenched in sweat throughout, though smoothly supporting and encouraging her with words was the event’s MC, the Rev James Cleveland. And her dad, the Reverend CL Franklin, who, came up on stage to say a few words. At first it sounded like he was making one of those clumsy unprepared wedding speeches, but then, as the pair’s obvious love and devotion filled the room, it turned into something magical. And like all good weddings, made me cry.

I had the advantage of seeing it at a packed special event preview complete with a live choir performance beforehand at the glorious old Randwick Ritz, and the audience was pumped. They were cheering and clapping along, whooping and and hollering – I was half expecting everyone to jump up and start dancing in the aisles, just as they were in the church. It was an incredible experience – I’m not sure if the movie will quite seem the same in a regular cinema – especially one of those tiny ones we’re being asked to get used to – and certainly not on your TV at home. Best seek it out on the biggest theatre you can find, one with the best sound. And go on a crowded night. G from Aug 28. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown ★★★★1/2

Also showing:

Normally something as fantastic as Amazing Grace would be our pick of the week – but that honour goes to The Nightingale (★★★★1/2, reviewed here) in this extraordinary week of high quality releases. The Sunday Tele‘s Vicky Roach’s view on why it has attracted hostility and walkouts is intriguing. She attributed that to good old fashioned gender politics. “There have been no reports of seats being vacated during Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” she wryly notes, “in which Brad Pitt pulps a woman’s skull on a mantlepiece.” Indeed – at the screening I attended, the audience laughed.

Meanwhile, for more arty nastiness, this time set in Italian auteur Matteo Garrone‘s blighted Gomorrah-land, Dogman is definitely worth checking out too. ★★★★

Reviews – Russell Edwards