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American Animals (2018)

This review is weeks late after having sat down and watched American Animals, and it’s stuck with me in a powerful way. It’s a movie that pulls back the disparity between crime in the movies, so stylized and slick and carefree, and crime in real life, often traumatic, dehumanizing, and with lifelong complications for both victim and perpetrator. It’s a movie that examines a youthful sense of ennui that their lives are missing out on something extraordinary, and a step too far over a very clear moral line thanks to a fantasy given shape by escapist movies and other media. It’s also a slippery I, Tonya-style look at memory and contradiction but this time from the real-life people involved. It’s an entertaining dark comedy, an unexpected true-crime caper, and most resonating of all, a nerve-wracking thriller that left me morally queasy and unwell, but in a good way. In short, American Animals is one of the best films I have seen so far in 2018.

In 2004, at a small Kentucky liberal arts university, four young men are planning their own version of the “perfect crime.” The school has a rare books section including an original copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species and a large and valuable edition of John James Audobon’s The Birds of America. The books are appraised at $12 million dollars. Spencer (Barry Keoghan), an art student, teams up with Warren (Evan Peters), Erik (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas (Blake Jenner) to plot a daring heist. The men feel like their lives are missing something exciting and a heist is just the ticket. They just have to break in, steal the books, and subdue a librarian (Ann Dowd). Easy stuff, right?

For the first half of the movie, American Animals plays out like a dark comedy. I had no prior knowledge that we were going to get the real-life subjects appearing as themselves in interviews cut throughout the film (their family members are still actors though). The film even plays around with this narrative hook for a few laughs, making quick cuts for punchlines and trying to square conflicting accounts, like having one scene alternate between two locations in dispute of its telling. It also helps set one of the major themes going forward in a nimble fashion, namely the difference between the reality of events and the whimsical, fantasy movie version of what an excursion into crime would be like. Having been bred on cinema’s glorified depictions of heists, the guys come to assume that a heist is sexy and fun and something that doesn’t end up hurting anyone. There’s a charming quality to the fact that Spencer uses his art skills to create models of the rare books room. There’s a laughable ingenuity to the fact that they’re planning on holding the heist in the middle of their class exams, since who would suspect students during that important time? There’s a bemused naiveté about the power of their disguises when they dress as a shuffling group of old men in powdered faces. We’re set up for a funny story about bumbling students falling all over themselves at attempted criminal shenanigans.

I was expecting a relatively light movie just from the plot particulars. It’s a heist film and the goal is to steal a bunch of books. It seemed small-scale in scope and anodyne. What trouble could a group of students get into attempting to steal books? Writer/director Bart Layton (The Imposter) seems to know this, lulling the audience into a false sense of security. He even teases the movie version of what the heist might be like, with our characters suavely stepping into their parts with practiced precision, all while music reminiscent of the Ocean’s Eleven franchise hums in the background. This is the cool-movie version, the version the characters have fantasized over in their minds, and the version that the audience is more attuned to expect. What we actually get is something very different. The heist itself plays out in excruciating detail and it runs counter to their planning. The reality of subduing the librarian is upsetting. It’s supposed to be so simple, after all, but the reality is anything but. The characters almost avoid this whole scenario, aborting their heist only to return back to it the next day. You feel the anguish of how close they were to turning away at several steps, the moments this ordeal could have been avoided, and yet fate barrels onward, energized by a misplaced sense of purpose. American Animals doesn’t let you or its characters off the hook either. I was fidgeting and sweating nervously throughout the heist and its subsequent fallout. Again, this is all about a bunch of stolen books, and I was beside myself with anxiety.

It’s only afterwards and looking back that you realize how masterfully Layton has built up his scenes and the necessary information to make you squirm. With every heist, the particulars of the setting, the challenges and tight window need to be established, and once that occurs, we’re hoping for unexpected complications. But in order for those unexpected consequences to really hit hard, we have to be trained with what Plan A was going to be, and American Animals does this superbly. People have their designated roles and areas they refuse to partake in, like Eric makes it clearly known he will not be responsible for subduing the librarian in any way. Of course, you can expect what will eventually happen, pushing his character to an even more uncomfortable place. I was very appreciative that there’s an extended resolution after the heist, where the guys try to unload the books to a seller, and the further complications. You really feel the screws being tightened and the overwhelming feeling of dread. It’s another confirmation for me that I’m just not cut out for a life of crime. The day-to-day anxiety is just too much.

I left this movie feeling a strange mixture of jubilation and sadness, still reeling from the expertly developed and executed moral tension. The technical skills are just as strong, each working in succinct harmonious sequence to bring about Layton’s vision to startling effect. The editing is extremely tightly constructed. The smooth cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland frames the tension and comedy expertly, and the ominous music by Anne Nikitin kept me on the edge of my seat. It’s almost like a full-blown David Fincher film by the end. The acting is another strong point, with each actor initially relegated into a stock role (“The Muscle,” “The Wheelman,” etc.) we’ve come to associate with these kinds of movies. The film nicely pushes the characters beyond a casual, cursory understanding, blurring the lines of who they are as they blur lines of their own. A surprise standout is Blake Jenner (unrelated to the Kardashians/Jenner clan) who joins the team the latest, seems like a stereotypical rich jock lunkhead, but when he breaks down and articulates why the team is as screwed as they are, his clarity can catch you off guard. He’s the first to realize they’ve trashed their lives and are doomed and for nothing. Also deserving of praise is the always-wonderful Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale); your heart hurts for this poor woman who is confused, scared, and undeserving of her harrowing ordeal.

American Animals hasn’t been able to leave my thoughts for weeks, which is usually the sign of a pretty good movie. It upset me. It rattled me. It entertained me. Most of all, it made me think, about the lines people cross in the name of missing out on some vague sense of grand experience, of the differences between the reality of crime and our appealing fantasy versions of crime, and why those stories appeal to us in general. I kept thinking about the pain these four men had caused themselves and others and their regrets. I kept thinking about how smartly Layton utilizes documentary storytelling techniques to enhance his film as well as better examine the disconnect of reality-versus-movies. It’s a movie that could have been told as a documentary but excels best as a hybrid of the two, one that challenges our conception. I’m shocked it wasn’t credited to a book or news article as its source material, meaning Layton compiled all of this impressively on his own. This is a movie that got under my skin, that made me uncomfortable, but also thrilled me and entertained me from its first minute until its very last. I highly advise looking for American Animals once it becomes readily available.

Nate’s Grade: A

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X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

cf7kkqeuuaeqame“We all know the third movie is the worst,” says young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) in a curious moment that is too meta for its own good. It’s meant to be an in-joke, and possible a jab at 2006’s heavily derided X-Men: The Last Stand, but it ends up summarizing more than one X-Men movie. Easily the weakest of the prequel series, X-Men: Apocalypse is a muddled super hero movie that marginalizes its interesting characters, lacks a thematic linchpin, pushes a new batch of boring and often superfluous new mutants, and feels like everyone is running through the paces of what they think an X-Men movie should be. It’s not Last Stand, the near franchise-killer that Days of Future Past had to wipe out of existence, but this movie is a dull and clear example of the lousy mediocrity of compounded missed chances suffered at the expense of loyalty to formula.

In 1983, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school for gifted youngsters, a.k.a. mutants, and has a new class of students including Jean Grey, Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan), Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Kurt Smit-McPhee). Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is trying to live a simple life and exclude himself from a larger fight between humans and mutants. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is crossing the globe and discovering new mutants to rescue. Everything changes when an ancient mutant is awakened in Egypt. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is thousands of years old and is rumored to be the first mutant. He collects four mutant helpers he deems his Horsemen, and in 1983 it happens to be a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Archangel (Ben Hardy), and Magneto. Apocalypse promises a world built for only the strongest mutants and will wipe the planet with those found lesser.

X-Men-Apocalypse-Storm-Comic-OriginLet’s start with the empty void that is the titular super villain; Apocalypse is a complete waste and a complete bore. Oscar Isaac is a terrific and soulful actor who can be so malleable to roles as diverse as misanthropic Llewyn Davis to dreamy X-wing pilot Poe Damaron. He is buried under pounds of purple makeup that limit his expression, coupled with a heavy costume that also limits his movement. Apocalypse should have probably been a motion capture performance. Andy Serkis has proven that mo-cap performances can exhibit tremendous emotive qualities and the technology can support it. Mo-cap would have been better than staring at Ivan Ooze lumbering around. Then there’s his haphazard characterization. Apocalypse is both too all-powerful and shackled with powers that are too vaguely ill defined. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that needs an entourage for support despite the whole snazzy “Four Horsemen” backing band name. Apocalypse should be the solo act; he doesn’t need a backup band. You could have written Storm and Psylocke out entirely and had no impact on the plot whatsoever. My pal Eric Muller even jokes that Psylocke literally walks off the movie. Allow me to indulge my X-Men fandom a moment and just say how Apocalypse is my favorite X-Men villain and Psylocke was one of my favorite X-Men way back when I was reading the comics consistently in the 90s. I loved the psychic blade of Psylocke, though in this movie it’s pretty much just a laser arm sword, which is a underwhelming. Seeing both of these characters completely wasted is particularly disappointing to 90s me.

But back to Apocalypse, he seems too powerful to need to seek out a select group of super lieutenants and part of this is also because of how poorly the movie explains the specifics or limitations of his powers. He absorbs the powers of his host mutants but what are those powers exactly? The movie never specifies beyond the weird shifting-humans-into-walls thing that looks a bit too silly to be truly terrifying. Every time he displays a new fancy power we just have to accept it, but if he keeps unleashing powers we never know about then why does he even need assistance? We already see Apocalypse turning the world into dust clouds, so why does he need Magneto to, I believe, rip the metal core out of the Earth? It’s not like he has a meaningful relationship with Magneto, the only Horseman who truly matters. Apocalypse should be the mutant equivalent of a god, and credit to my pal Ben Bailey on this assertion, and the world of mutants should be forced to make a choice to follow this god who genuinely wants a new world consisting only of his “children.” Instead he’s just a bloviating and boring demagogue that makes a terrible lead villain. For a guy who might be the “first mutant” and inspire the Bible, it sure seems like squandered potential.

hqyqxvfnbce8jfpwptqnThe trio of the core characters of the prequels (Professor X, Magneto, Mystique) is largely sidelined and you can certainly tell that the actors are eyeing the exit door, no more than Lawrence. These are the characters we’ve gotten to know and the ones we’ve built up an emotional attachment to, so why not just push them to the outer edges of your story and shove some new even younger X kids in place to dominate the narrative? Lawrence and Fassbender especially are given the least to do. When Mystique has to become a de facto X-Men leader and teacher, you can feel like everyone is just going through the motions. They just look bored or at least unable to hide their ambivalence with the muddled screenplay. The new X kids are also fairly bland with little charisma. I think there’s an actual scene where Nightcrawler is walking around a mall in plain sight. The X kids are here to take over for the Magneto/Xavier/Mystique unit and provide a bridge to the original X-Men series. It is here where I must now gripe because First Class was set in 1961 and Apocalypse is set in 1983 and nobody looks like they’ve aged. Maybe that’s a mutant ability plot device but then Rose Byrne’s human character hasn’t aged much either. Her character is also completely pointless in this movie. She might not be as badly shoehorned into the action as Lois Lane was in Batman vs. Superman, but then again there still isn’t anything as terrible as anything in BvS.

The X-Men franchise from the beginning has been a super hero saga with subtext and social commentary. It might not be completely subtle but it was effective and brings greater relevance and emotional power to the struggles of our mutant heroes. The first prequel was about a core philosophical divide between Xavier and Magneto; the second movie was about the individual versus society and was personally exemplified by the moral crisis of Mystique’s hunt for vengeance that would lead to the downfall of humanity. This third movie has none of that. Magneto is suffering from a personal tragedy caused by prejudice and fear but the basic theme is the same from First Class just not nearly as well articulated. Here it’s more just blunt “kill ‘em all” vengeance, and he’s made to be a practically mute cipher until called upon at the very end for some tidy plot work. I haven’t even talked about the tacky return to a concentration camp. The characters are either fighting the bad guy or fighting with the bad guy. That’s it. There isn’t any major personal or philosophical conflict that is highlighted by the subtext of the plot. It’s all just more grist for world-ending CGI nonsense.

Apocalypse at best is a series of moments, and the overall quality level rarely rises beyond competently acceptable, not exactly a ringing endorsement. The movie’s action sequences are rather dull and visually repetitive, making poor use of geography and development. The entire third act is a blandly extended action sequence in the dusty ruins of Cairo. Things just sort of happen and then more things just sort of happen. The opening action sequence in Days of Future Past is better than 99% of the scenes in this movie. The clear highlight that everyone will rightly cite is Quicksilver (Evan Peters) showcasing the amazing potential of his super speedy powers, but even this is a repeat of a highlight from a previous movie. It’s like the producers decided to take the moment everybody loved and do it bigger and better. It was a real fun surprise in the first time, and now it’s become the newest part of the X-Men formula. Still, it’s a fantastic sequence with great visual panache and a lively sense of humor. When the world slows down and Quicksilver steps into the frame, it’s almost like a hero moment for the audience to cheer. He saves a school of mutants, and a dog, from a colossal explosion, but it too is just another moment that could have been cut from the movie entirely. It’s a fantastic moment, the obvious highpoint, and yet it’s still superfluous. The other highpoint is an extended cameo at Alkali Lake, and again it is superfluous and calls into question greater franchise continuity.

xmen0001Speaking of continuity, there are some major events in Days of Future Past but especially Apocalypse that make me question how the events in the 2000s X-Men still stand. According to the events of the prequels, Mystique “outed” herself to the world and proved the existence of mutants to the wider public when she tried killing Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) and infiltrated the Nixon White House. Cut to 1983 and Apocalypse broadcasts a message to every human and mutant on the planet. He launches the world’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons into space. That seems like a big deal, the kind of deal that would dramatically alter the events in the 2000s to the point that a mutant registration act would seem hilariously quaint and far too late. The character relationships in the first X-Men movie must also be reassessed with the events of Alkali Lake. It’s hard for me to reconcile the earlier films matching up with these prequels at this point.

The studio execs and producers behind the X-Men series have already gone on record speculating that their next movie will take place in the 1990s and have Mr. Sinister as its chief villain. I think they’re getting a little too ahead of themselves with the larger franchise vision much like what happened to Sony after their 2012 Amazing Spider-Man reboot. They started plotting two sequels, a spin-off, and lost sight of simply making a good movie with characters you care about and memorable action sequences. They lost track and had to reboot their Spider-Man franchise yet again, this time with an assist from the Marvel bigwigs. I don’t need an X-Men-a-decade adventure. I just want good movies. Out of six movies, half of them are great and the rest are acceptable to terrible. Apocalypse won’t kill its franchise but I think the negative and indifferent response from the public, as well as less-than-robust box-office returns, will give the studio caution. Don’t just throw out an X-Men movie in order to lay the tracks for the next two X-Men movies. Make a compelling and entertaining X-Men film that stands on its own. If you can’t do that, then there won’t be too many more X adventures, period.

Nate’s Grade: C

Adult World (2014)

MV5BMjIzNDY1NjgzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzMzMDEwMTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_People often celebrate independent films as an oasis of creativity in comparison to the cookie-cutter blockbusters that populate Hollywood. However, indie film can have just as many formulaic, half-baked, cookie-cutter films that waste your time. Case in point, the indie comedy Adult World, a movie that feels out of time and place.

Amy (Emma Roberts) is a recent college graduate who has big dreams of being a poet. Her idol, Rat Billings (John Cusack), even lives in town, giving her ample stalking opportunities. But Amy only seems to get rejection slip after rejection slip in the mail. Her parents cannot afford to bankroll her lifestyle, and so Amy sets off on her own, shacking in with a transvestite, and gaining a job at Adult World, a small mom-and-pop porn store. Amy holds onto hope that she can become a great poet with Rat’s mentoring.

adult-world-movie-stills-ff8a8e06cf485219The movie feels overly quaint, like its premise, and much of the character interplay, came from a script from 1996 that was lost until now. The entire enterprise feels painfully dated in scope, humor, and its sense of peculiarity. I don’t even know why the filmmakers decided to set the movie in modern times. The excuses they devise for why a mom-and-pop porn store exists in the world of 4G wi-fi Internet never come close to working. Yes, we still have the traditional brick-and-mortar porn stores to this day, but those have a wealth of selection. This is like a tiny store with a few walls of movie titles, movies that people rent and return. Remember those, video rental stores? Again, dated. The very existence of the porn store disrupts the credibility of the film; not to suggest it would be perfect without this one plot element. There’s such a dated sense of titillation having a desperate woman land a job at a porn store. Oh no, she’s out of her element! The problem with the porn store is that they never do anything with it. There are perhaps four jokes directly related to the fact that it is an adult novelty store, but beyond that it would have been the same if they just sold toasters (note to self: look into potential market for adult novelty toasters). At no point does it prod our heroine along her journey or really have any larger impact besides the place where she meets her eventual love interest. The mom and pop that own the store are never seen again after their introduction, meaning the film even abandons one of the easier comedic scenarios of the elderly, folksy pornographer.

The entire storyline of a would-be poet slumming it at a porn store, learning some hard lessons, and finally finding her footing, well the whole thing just feels so much like a byproduct of 1990s filmmaking, when the broader commercial impact of indie film was being explored. The middle-class suburban girl being pushed out of her comfort zone by a band of quirky misfits in a fringe setting, well it just feels so dated. Even so, that doesn’t mean that this kind of story setup will flounder. Under the right care, even dated material can succeed, but Adult World coasts on the supposed outrageousness of its premise and characters. The trouble is that these people are more of less indie film cartoon characters with no real depth to them. Amy is mostly a brat but we never seem to go beyond the surface of her oversized ego and sense of certainty in her talent. Her relationship with the self-loathing Rat is meant to open herself up the harsh realities of the world, the rude awakening of every post-grad. Except he’s really just a jerk that treats her like garbage and eventually humiliates her. At no point do you get the impression that either character is really having much of an impact upon the other, beside general annoyance or frustration. Then there’s the character of Rubia, a transvestite Amy meets on the bus and within ONE DAY Amy asks if she can move in with this total stranger. Again, the idea of the kindly transvestite who becomes the heroine’s roommate, doesn’t that feel so dated too, so desperate to be edgy? Rubia is also ill defined and one-note. I’m surprised the filmmakers had the restraint to not give Rubia a tragic back-story.

ADULT-WORLDWith all that said, the movie is never as funny or as interesting or as edgy as it seems to believe it is. I may have laughed once or twice for the entire movie. I certainly wasn’t attached to the characters by any means. There’s a segment where Amy and Rubia discover Rat driving through town, so they hop on a bike and pedal after him. It’s played out like it’s supposed to be this stroke of comedy, complete with backbiting comments from Rubia, but it’s never funny and it just continues to play out, never altering to possibly become funny. Here’s something that is funny: after Amy’s parents tell her they cannot afford to pay for her poetry submissions, she runs away from home. The funny part isn’t her decision-making or the act of running away itself. The real funny part is that we don’t see or hear from Amy’s parents again for over an hour. Did her mother and father not care that their only child has disappeared? Are they secretly relieved? Amy doesn’t even refer to her parents, so we’re left wondering if there may be a missing person’s report floating around somewhere. It’s details like this, and the lack of taking advantage of the comic possibilities of the porn store setting, that showcase just how terribly Adult World goes about developing its shoddy story.

Then there’s the overall sludgy look of the film itself. Filmed on location in Syracuse, New York during a wintry period, it’s as if director Scott Coffey (Ellie Parker) wanted to communicate the misery of his characters with a visual style that made you feel their pain. This is one of the crummier looking wide releases I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is just dreary but without any strong sense of visual composition. I know this was a low-budget effort but Coffey and his team do such little work to hide the limitations; the set dressing is pathetically bare when it comes to locations, like the porn store. Every shot, every scene just reminds you further that Adult World just didn’t have the money, or the right people for the money. Coffey’s other sin is his mishandling of his actors. Roberts (We’re the Millers) and Cusack (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) are two very capable actors but they seem abandoned here. Cusack is just a misanthrope who treats every moment with annoyance, and it gets tiresome. Roberts is all over the place, needing a gentle tug to help bring her histrionic character back to a suitable reality.

I cannot think of any reason a person should take useful time out of their day to watch Adult World. The film isn’t funny. The characters are bothersome and lacking depth. The essential premise, the hook of the movie, is incidental and inconsequential. There is just a general malaise about the film, a lack of development that saps the characters and the story. Oh sure, things occasionally happen, or characters will magically reveal insights, but it’s always in the most hasty, inorganic fashion. Even the title is so on-the-nose to be annoying absent further examination. By the end of the movie, I think we’re left with Amy realizing that she might not be as talented as she thought, but hey, at least she has an arty boyfriend now. If this is a late blooming coming-of-age tale (a la Frances Ha) it misses all the necessary elements that push our heroine to grow. Instead, we’re saddled with a crummy looking movie with poorly developed characters, a nascent sense of comedy, and a plot that feels quaintly dated at every turn. If this is what growing up looks like, take it from me and skip Adult World.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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