Indie darlings “Animal Kingdom” and “Bran Nue Dae” in theaters

By Sean O’Connell Two independent titles receiving a fair amount of buzz are expanding theatrically this weekend. We give them a look below.

Animal Kingdom (***1/2 out of 4)
Between Nash Edgerton’s gripping “The Square” and now “Animal Kingdom” from Australian director David Michod, American audiences are getting a small sampling of the dark, nimble, yet terrifying stories coming out of the Land Down Under. Based on what we’ve seen, I’m hungry for more.

“Kingdom” is as menacing and volatile as “Square” was relentless and unexpected. After his mother overdoses on heroin, wayward teen Josh (James Frecheville) takes up residence with his distant family members, the Codys: an untrustworthy, hair-trigger bunch of drug-addled bank robbers who make Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito look like Nanny McPhee.

The clan is fiercely committed to protecting their brother, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn, a powder keg), who’s in hiding as the law and other criminals hunt him down. When an officer downs one of the Cody’s partners in crime, the family wages war on the police, putting Josh at the center of a bloody tempest.

Obviously, Martin Scorsese’s gangster oeuvre exerts an influence over Michod’s thriller, and not just because it lies with intimidating dwellers of a sleazy, criminal underbelly. The director seems to admire the same lawless westerns Scorsese often references. And Michod takes cues from Scorsese’s use of music, with Air Supply being put to good use in places where Marty would fall back on the Stones.

“Animal Kingdom,” however, greatly benefits from a stable of actors who don’t carry the burden of recognition. Outside of Guy Pearce, who’s unrecognizable as a noble cop hoping to rescue Josh’s soul , Michod’s cast isn’t instantly associated with previous roles, so it’s easier for us to believe – as much as we might not want to – that these characters exist in this brutal world. It also prompts us to drop our guard, so the revelation of the group’s ultimate, heatless mastermind is a swift kick to the gut.

That realism bolsters “Animal Kingdom” at every turn. It lives up to a warning uttered in the early stages that all criminals must come undone. But Michod’s riveting drama never unravels, holding us in a vice grip until we’re practically begging to be set free.

Bran Nue Dae (*** out of 4)
Geoffrey Rush, currently earning raves for his performance in “The King’s Speech,” anchors this infectious, musical romance (based on a stage musical) that has the tunes and the tender heart of “Grease” … just with a unique Outback setting.

Director Rachel Perkins cinematically removes the beating heart of a Bollywood production and transplants it to Western Australia Broome, circa 1969. Rosie (Jessica Mauboy) dreams of being a singer, even though that’s frowned on by her Aboriginal community – specifically Willie (Rocky McKenzie), the pious boy being groomed for the priesthood who’d rather win her heart.

Rush relishes a mentor’s role, playing the head priest at Willie’s religious school. And it’s in this setting that “Bran” bows to the occasional corny cliché. One song-and-dance number set to “There’s nothing I would rather be, than to be an Aborigine” will bring a smile because of its embraceable cheesiness. The three credited screenwriters could have worked a little harder to remove the screenplay’s clumsy coincidences. “Bran” thinks a harmony will erase a bad plot point … and more often than not, it does. Yet with its vibrant neon color schemes, catchy soundtrack, inventive set pieces and decent characterization, “Bran Nue Dae” comes off as “Moulin Rouge” at half speed, which is more of a compliment than you might imagine.

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