Archive | September, 2021

My Favorite Movies – Creed II (2018)

17 Sep

By Tanner Smith

Yep, Creed II now joins Rocky, Rocky II, and Creed in my collection of favorites. In fact, God’s honest truth here…I even think about “Creed II” more than I think about “Creed!”

“Creed” is a great film and an even greater sequel in the “Rocky” franchise (or rather, “Rocky/Creed” franchise). It breathed new life into the story of the familiar character of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), gave us new engaging characters in up-and-coming boxer Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and deaf musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and didn’t need to retcon the other sequels in order to further the story. Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Black Panther) did a remarkable job here.

I love it. It’s great–and so is “Creed II.”

Ryan Coogler isn’t at the helm this time (though he did help produce it; he’s also a producer for the upcoming “Creed III”). But we have Stallone writing again (co-writing this screenplay with Juel Taylor, with story by Sascha Penn and Cheo Hodari Coker) and welcomed a bright young director named Steven Caple Jr. (whose debut film “The Land,” I did see after my initial review of “Creed II”–very good work; check it out!). Plus, Ivan Drago, the Russian super-boxer from “Rocky IV” played by Dolph Lundgren, is back–and what’s even better is that Lundgren (along with Stallone, who created the cartoonish-villain character of Ivan (“I must break you”) Drago way back in the 1980s) humanized the character years later for this story.

That’s one of the things I, as well as other “Rocky” fans, love about “Creed” and “Creed II”–the events of the otherwise-silly (but still somewhat awesome) “Rocky IV” (particularly the death of Apollo Creed at the hands of Drago in the ring) are carried over for dramatic effect and consequence. Drago and his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) are the antagonists of “Creed II,” and they feel more like real people with emotional conflict surrounding them, thus making the familiar character of Ivan Drago all the more interesting. When I learn about the shame he went through in his home country after he lost to Rocky in the ring decades ago, and now he’s training his son to be the next best killing machine decades later, I’m very curious to see which direction he’ll go in the final act when a lot more is at stake than in your typical sports drama. (It’s also great to see Brigitte Nielsen back and reprising her role from “Rocky IV” for a few minutes of screen time–even her appearance leads to dramatic tension late in the film.)

The heroes are still very appealing. Donnie is still cocky and abrasive, but he’s also still learning (the hard way, to say the least) and he has moments of greatness in him. I liked Bianca better in this film than in the previous film, though that may be because I like her and Donnie together now that they’ve been a couple for a while. (I felt the same way about Adrian in “Rocky II”–by the way, I love the callback to the proposal scene from that movie.) And of course, there’s Rocky Balboa himself–still getting older, still long past his glory days, but most importantly, still there for those who need him. Just when I thought “Creed” gave us what was left of Rocky’s complexity, “Creed II” reminds us that while there’s still Stallone, there’s still Rocky–and he’s always welcome anytime.

There’s a lot for me to really like about “Creed II,” and I can’t wait to see “Creed III” (which is directed by Adonis Creed himself, Michael B. Jordan). I’ll keep seeing these movies if they keep giving me people to care about and emotional weight to be invested in.

And keep an eye out for this Steven Caple Jr. character–I think he’s going places.

The Fear Street Trilogy (2021)

15 Sep

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER WARNING! I’m going to try my best to be as vague as possible in summarizing some plot details for those who haven’t seen the Netflix horror trilogy as of yet–but you can’t be too careful.

Three horror movies in three weeks? Exclusively on Netflix? Sold!

The Netflix miniseries known as “the Fear Street trilogy,” directed by Leigh Janiak and based on novels written by R.L. Stine, was quite the event in the summer of 2021. Each film in the trilogy paid homage to popular horror films and tropes of a certain time while telling a bigger story about the setting, its characters, and what haunts both of them.

The three films were released on a weekly basis, and to make matters better, each installment got better as they went along. Let’s talk about them:

Fear Street Part One: 1994

Smith’s Verdict: ***

“Fear Street Part One: 1994” is influenced by 1990s slasher films, most notably “Scream” (right down to the stunt casting at the beginning, declaring the trilogy’s first victim). There’s a lot of ’90s nostalgia (including maybe too much of the ’90s-centric soundtrack), some surprising twists, grizzly horror sequences, and yes, a lot of blood. (Note: This is not R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” material being adapted here–this is hard-R (or hard-TV-MA) material we’re dealing with here on Fear Street.) What results is a decent slasher flick that will get people interested in checking out Part Two of the series.

Also like in “Scream,” we get references to classic horror films such as “Jaws,” “Night of the Living Dead,” and “The Shining.” But this first installment of “Fear Street” may remind people more of Netflix’s popular series “Stranger Things,” which like this film involves a lot of nostalgia (this is as deep-rooted in the ’90s as “Stranger Things” is deep-rooted into the ’80s) and savvy teens solving deadly mysteries. It just so happens these kids are going up against zombies and slasher killers (and zombie slasher killers).

“Part One: 1994” is set in Shadyside, a mid-American town with a dark history of gruesome murder that dates back centuries. These murders are different time after time, but there are similarities that some locals can’t help but notice–but just to say people from Shadyside are simply bad seeds is an easier pill to take than to believe people from Shadyside are cursed, right?


But just ask the locals of the neighboring town of Sunnyvale, where everyone is rich and safe and looks down at Shadyside like they’re no better than sewer scum.

Another massacre has occurred in Shadyside, this time by a killer in a skull mask. (Something that adds to the mystery is the revealed identity of the killer right away, thus raising interesting questions already in the first act.) But things are about to get a lot worse, as a group of Shadyside teenagers accidentally disturb the resting place of a witch who cursed the town centuries ago and is responsible for the string of different local murders to come. What was whispered about (and even joked about) before is now all too real for these kids, as they are stalked by figures that represent Shadyside’s history of murder. These risen-from-the-dead monsters include: a psychotic milkman, the aforementioned skull-mask killer, a summer-camp slasher (who looks like Jason from “Friday the 13th Part 2,” with the burlap sack over his head), and my personal favorite, a happy-singing female slasher who delights in slashing with a straight razor (and singing a happy tune).

The key characters are Shadysiders Deena (Kiana Madeira), her brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.), and her friends Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger), plus Sunnyvaler Sam (Olivia Scott Welch), who used to live in Shadyside before moving. (Deena and Sam also used to be a couple before the move affected them both.) They need to figure out why the killers keep coming for them and solve the mystery of the curse before it’s too late.

What results is a wild goose chase and numerous clues to follow along, as well as some gruesome kills amongst characters (including one notably graphic scene involving a bread slicer which is definitely one-of-a-kind), that make “Fear Street Part One: 1994” an entertaining thrill ride to go along for.

Upon first viewing, the characters aren’t much to write home about (though Josh the kid brother was likable enough and Kate and Simon had some funny lines here or there), and even though I commend this horror series for giving us an LGBT couple in Deena and Sam, I didn’t care for either of their characters because they seemed thinly drawn…which is why I’m glad this is a trilogy and not just one stand-alone movie, because that leaves room for opportunity to get the audience to care about the characters by the end.

Did I? Well, let’s find out, ’cause I was going to check out Part Two anyway.

Fear Street Part Two: 1978

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Well, while some questions may have been answered in “Part One: 1994,” there’s still plenty of mysterious territory for “Fear Street Part Two: 1978” to delve into. The film begins in 1994, where Deena visits the reclusive Shadysider C. Berman (Gillian Jacobs) and demands answers, knowing she went through events similar to her and her friends. Knowing full well what she’s talking about, C. Berman tells a story and takes us back to the summer of 1978…

Welcome to Camp Nightwing, where the feud between Shadyside and Sunnyvale has the kids partaking in a brutal game of capture-the-flag. (Sheesh, for all the crap Sunnyvale dumps all over Shadysiders, why do Shadyside kids even go to this camp?) Sarcastic and trouble-making Shadysider Ziggy (Sadie Sink, Max of “Stranger Things”) is particularly chastised (and even hung up on a tree and burned on the arm–YIKES, kids can be cruel!), while her older sister Cindy (Emily Rudd) tries to keep out of trouble, thus straining the sisters’ relationship.

Oh, and get this–apparently, the only campers who smoke dope and engage in premarital sex are the ones from Shadyside. Because, of course. Sunnyvale always has to have the morality, don’t they–let’s not forget they’re the ones who spend the duration of the camp dumping all over their neighbors. (With the summer-camp setting, “Part Two: 1978” is obviously paying homage to “Friday the 13th,” but its bullies are just as ruthless and mean-spirited as those in another summer-camp slasher-horror flick, “Sleepaway Camp.”)

Oh, and only a Shadysider must be possessed by a demonic curse, thus embarking on a killing spree about the campground. That’s exactly what happens, as Cindy’s mild-mannered boyfriend suddenly becomes a violent axe murderer and chases his girlfriend and her friend Alice (Ryan Simpkins, “Brigsby Bear”). Thus, we have the origin of the Camp Nightwing Killer, who was brought back from the dead in “Part One: 1994.”

Secrets are revealed, the body count rises, and despite being a summer camp with many different places to run and hide, there’s very few options left for our main characters to run and hide as they try to figure out how to survive the night. “Part Two: 1978” is an effective chiller made even better with the context of its previous chapter–not only am I entertained (and suitably creeped out) by the material, but I’m involved in a decades-long mystery I want to learn more about.

And it got me interested in seeing “Part Three: 1666,” which would undoubtedly give us the origin of the notorious witch and the curse laid upon the town. Will it disappoint?

Fear Street Part Three: 1666

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Nope. It didn’t disappoint. They saved the best for last.

And what’s even better is even though I didn’t “love” Parts One or Two, I was thankful for watching them to get to this point. Even the 1994 characters of Deena and Sam, neither of whom I cared much about in “Part One: 1994,” grew to become more compelling characters that I cared very much about here in Part Three. How? Well, I won’t say here.

And again, I’m trying to be careful here in mentioning plot details, especially now that we’re at the end of the trilogy. There’s still a possibility that some readers of this review haven’t seen the trilogy yet.

Anyway, now we’re in the year 1666, and we’re going to get the answers we’ve been waiting for. How did everything in this setting lead to all the mayhem and terror we’ve come to encounter in 1978 and 1994? Is there more of a connection than we initially thought? We’re put right into how it all happened here. (And to make things a little more interesting, pretty much all of the characters in this mid-17th century era are portrayed by actors from Parts One and Two.)

We’re taken to 1666, at the establishment before Sunnyvale and Shadyside were divided in two. Right off the bat, I buy the setting. The costumes and sets are authentic enough and the cinematography helps bring me into the era. Sometimes, the accents are muddled and there are some historical accuracies to needlessly nitpick, but let’s be fair here–this isn’t “The VVitch.”

Sarah Fier (Madeira again), who will become the notorious witch who cursed Shadyside, gets involved in a secret romantic affair with Hannah (Welch again)…which doesn’t bode well at all when the village’s water is poisoned, the food supply is spoiled, and the local pastor commits an unspeakably evil act. Thus, everyone in the village is convinced there is evil brought upon them and are looking for someone to blame–and sadly, two women being intimate together is enough to make them the target of a witch-hunt. (The social commentary here is surprisingly very effective.)

There is a real witch around here, one that reads from a book of spells, and…really, I should stop here in discussing the 1666 story. Let me just say that this film is a solid case for the heard-before messages of “don’t believe everything you hear” and “history is made by the winners.” I was surprised to find myself really getting into the sad plight of these protagonists and what sacrifices were made that split the establishment into Shadyside and Sunnyvale and cursed the town of Shadyside for centuries to come. When it reached its climax, I was surprisingly emotionally invested. Where I enjoyed having fun with Parts One and Two as cheesy entertaining slasher flicks, Part Three pulled the chair out from under me.

We do return to 1994 (complete with the title card of “1994: PART 2”), so that Deena and surviving co. can use what she learned about the true origins of the Shadyside curse to bring an end to it all. While the 1666 portion, which takes up half of the film’s running time, is the most riveting and intriguing and even emotional of Part Three, I’m still glad I stuck around for the remainder of the 1994 story. Not only does the Deena-Sam relationship redeem itself to the point where I cared deeply for them, but we’re also treated to one crazy (and blood-splattered) climax that brings the previous monsters back for one last hurrah. And it’s a lot of fun to watch.

And so, I’ve completed the “Fear Street” trilogy and had a very good time. What a finish!

How good was “Fear Street Part Three: 1666?” It made me appreciate the previous films a little more than I did before. That’s why as much as I recommend Part Three, the whole trilogy deserves to be seen as whole.

My Favorite Movies – Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

15 Sep

By Tanner Smith

There are three Batman movies in particular that I hold in such high regard–and they’re all very different in style and tone, but neither of them is any less entertaining or powerful or thought-provoking. I love Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I love Tim Burton’s Batman, and I love Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which I’m going to talk about now.

I didn’t watch “Batman: The Animated Series” as a kid–I was in college when I watched the first season on DVD and I was enthralled by the gritty atmosphere and adult themes and complex ideas that made for the very best episodes. To my pleasant surprise, this was not just a show for kids–in fact, I’d even say it treated kids as if they were adults. And my first time watching the cinematic spinoff, “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” which I had bought soon after watching my first episodes of the show, was like watching a fully-realized three-part episode crafted by the show’s best writers (and a bigger budget as well).

There’s a reason “Mask of the Phantasm” has grown a following over time and is even hailed by some as THE best Batman movie of all time: because it is really freaking good.

It was so good that when Siskel and Ebert missed seeing it in theaters, they dedicated a spot to it on a much later show, after they had finally caught it on laserdisc. They thought it was so good that it was worth talking about regardless. Better late than never. I agree with their review, except for one major point: Mark Hamill as The Joker. “I don’t like this Joker’s voice,” Siskel admitted.

I disagree–I always thought Mark Hamill was one of the best Jokers in Batman entertainment. As a maniacal clown, he was both twisted and funny at the same time; he’s like Pennywise fully realized. And I like him in this movie too, especially in his final moments where he’s at his craziest.

So what is it about “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” that everyone including myself loves? Well, for one thing, it’s short (77 minutes, including credits)–that means every single frame of animation counts. Nothing in the story is wasted.

Speaking of which, the story is great. It delves more into Bruce Wayne’s past and how he could’ve had a normal life with the right woman before becoming Batman. It also gives us a compelling mystery with another masked vigilante who is mistaken for Batman, whose name is now sullied as a killer. The more we learn, the more interesting the mystery becomes. (Also, if you look up who does the voice for the Phantasm, it leaves a pretty good clue as to who’s behind it all.)

And yeah, people die in this PG-rated action-thriller–the sight of a smiling corpse (one of Joker’s victims) that the Phantasm finds always gives me a jolt each time I see it! If I had seen that as a kid, WHOA!

My favorite scene: a flashback scene in which Bruce Wayne ultimately becomes Batman and dons the infamous mask. Alfred reacts, “My God!” The music, the shadows, the sheer delivery of that one line from a man who’s raised Bruce all his life and now seeing him become a terrifying figure–it’s all so great!

I’m glad I caught this movie when I did. And I’ll talk about “The Dark Knight” and “Batman” at some point in the future too.

Good Boys (2019)

11 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Don’t you boys look cute! Everybody’s in the basement…I don’t even want to know what’s going on down there!” states a possibly-intoxicated mother who cheerfully welcomes our three prepubescent main characters to her equally-preadolescent son’s “kissing party.”

That’s one of many delightfully satirical touches added to “Good Boys,” a Superbad-inspired comedy that is made for adults to look back on their idiotic youthful days. (If the film’s clever poster and DVD/Blu-Ray cover design indicates anything, it’s that this film is definitely not for their kids.) All the ingredients for a teenage comedy are here (big party, sexual talk, drugs, violence, lots and lots of hijinks)…but the protagonists of “Good Boys” are not teens–they’re “tweens” (“preadolescents”).

And yes, I did say the film was inspired by “Superbad,” so it’s no surprise to see “Superbad” creators Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s names in the credits. (They co-produced it.)

When you’re a pre-teen, there’s a lot to figure out about life and about yourself. And it’s not pleasant–especially when everyone else claims to know more about “the facts of life” than you. We’ve seen this material made for dramatic purposes (Eighth Grade), but “Good Boys” is a brash, offensive, and very funny comedy about three young boys who get into all sorts of trouble along their journey to be cool and kiss the girl. Thankfully, they’re not following the course of most teen movies and looking to get laid–these are little kids, after all, so they’re only naive enough to misunderstand many of the jokes they say and the, um, let’s say “objects” they come across. (Like I said, this will offend some people–art is not safe and neither is comedy, and there are worse things these kids could be doing.) In the end (spoilers, I guess), they learn very little about what they thought they should know and instead understand that they have each other, which gets friends through the toughest times at that tender age of 10-12.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we get the emotionally resonant portion of this coming-of-age story, whatever–the film is really f***ing funny, and the funniest moments come not just from what these little sh*ts get themselves into but also from relating to them because of similar incidents in your youth.

Er…hopefully not the extreme scenes such as the one in which the kids cross a busy freeway–do not try that in real life, ever.

Our lead characters are three sixth-graders–Max (Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams). They’re all good kids who want to be “bad”–much like the “South Park” characters, they swear up a storm and talk about things they know nothing about because they think that makes them “adult.” (All three young actors play off each other wonderfully–you buy them as real friends.) When Max earns the respect of a “cool kid” named Salen (Izaac Wang), by taking a swig (or, in the kids’ minds, a “sip”) of beer at the local skate park, he also gains an invitation to Salen’s party. Sounds great, but wait…it’s a kissing party! And Max has a crush on a pretty girl who is also attending the party! This is his chance! But he doesn’t know how to kiss! What will he do!?

For a poor timid good kid like Max, this is as dramatic as his life gets. (His friends have different issues–Lucas’ parents are divorcing and the wannabe-tough kid Thor is insecure about his musical talents.)

Max, with the help of Thor and Lucas, wants to learn how to “prepare” for the party, and naturally, everything goes wrong. They search the Internet to learn how to kiss, which results in watching porn, which confuses them more. But it’s OK–one of the boys’ parents has a “CPR doll” they can practice with… (Oh yeah, this movie goes there–it walks that fine line and maintains a certain edge in the process. Just wait until you see the “necklace” that Max wants to give to his crush.)

Max is aware of his neighbor’s sexual activity–or rather, he heard she’s a “nymphomaniac.” (What’s that, one of the boys asks? “It means she can have sex on both land and sea.”) Using his father’s forbidden drone (his dad’s out of town), Max, Thor, and Lucas spy on the neighbor, a teenage girl named Hannah (Molly Gordon), but things don’t go as planned. Not only does Hannah break up with her boyfriend Benji (Josh Karras), which means no kissing is witnessed, but also the drone is caught by Hannah and her friend Lily (Midori Francis).

If Max’s dad (a very funny Will Forte) gets home and finds his drone missing or damaged in any way, Max is grounded and unable to go to the party. So, the boys go through desperate measures to one-up the “old girls” and solve this dilemma. And thus, hijinks ensue, involving a violent brawl at a frat house, a nervous encounter with a tired cop who just wants to go home, and yes, a race across a 12-lane freeway (complete with a pretty hilarious payoff).

Oh, and Lucas dislocates his shoulder during a bike chase. (That scene was shown in the trailer and didn’t sell me on seeing the movie upon initial release–I don’t like seeing kids getting hurt. But hey, one of my new favorite movies shows a kid falling off a roof and bleeding from his head, so I thought I’d take a chance with this comedy.)

Lots of hijinks, lots of raunchy dialogue from kids who don’t know sh*t…and yet, somewhere in the midst of this 89-minute crazy R-rated comedy, there’s room for heart (much like “Superbad” and Booksmart). What helps is the overall good nature of the three kids, all played by appealing young actors. (Plus, it’s fun to hear the R-rated dialogue come out of Jacob Tremblay, best known for roles that are more innocent, to put it lightly.) “Good Boys” was directed and co-written by Gene Stupnitsky, who recalls the fears and insecurities of being that young and naive and exaggerates them for ultimate comedic effect. The film is at its funniest when the kids misunderstand certain behaviors (and devices) and at its warmest when they have to say to each other, “F*** this,” and realize more important things such as being themselves.

The latter also has many priceless lines of dialogue, such as near the end, when Max stands up to a bully by saying…well, I won’t give it away here. “Good Boys” is a hilarious gem.

My Favorite Movies – Cyrus (2010)

10 Sep

By Tanner Smith

Jay & Mark Duplass, famously known as The Duplass Brothers, made quite a name for themselves as heroes in the micro-budget (or no-budget) filmmaking movement. (Many call it the “mumblecore movement,” but even the “mumblecore” filmmakers don’t seem to appreciate that term; why not call it “semi-pro?”) After making short, Sundance-accepted films with no money and making their impressive debut feature “The Puffy Chair” with only 15 grand, the Duplass Brothers had an opportunity to make a film with a bigger budget financed by a studio such as Fox Searchlight. (If their shared autobiography “Like Brothers” is any indication, that preparation process took so long that they made Baghead for cheap in the meantime just to stay creative–great move, guys.)

Whenever indie filmmakers get a chance to show a wider audience what they’re all about, it’s always kind of a risky move. Sometimes, it works, like with David Lowery and “Pete’s Dragon,” Richard Linklater and School of Rock, Mike Flanagan and Ouija: Origin of Evil…and yes, I know those are some strange examples, but try and fight me on their effectiveness. And with the Duplass Brothers, it really works. The film they made for $7 million, and with a cast of great, popular talents such as John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, and Catherine Keener, and made to appeal to a more mainstream audience than their arthouse features, actually turned out to be very funny, very sweet, and very weird–a great mix of their “mumblecore” (er, “semi-pro,” sorry) techniques and the mainstream “dramedy” entertainment they grew up watching.

That film is titled Cyrus.

I appreciated this film when I first saw it long ago (in 2011, I think; I missed its 2010 theatrical release). It’s grown on me even more over time because of its unique mix of dark comedy and romantic drama. And, I must confess, it currently rivals “Baghead” for the position of my favorite Duplass Brothers film.

John C. Reilly, one of the best character actors still working today, stars as John, a lonely guy who is depressed when his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) tells him she’s getting married. Knowing the news is devastating for him (even though they’ve been separated for seven years), Jamie invites John to a party, hoping he’ll meet somebody. And to John’s surprise and delight, he does meet someone: Molly, a quirky, delightful, fun woman who is played with the effortless charm of the lovely Marisa Tomei. They hit it off really well (and partake in a great dance number set to “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League) and promise to see each other again, but…she has a secret.

John stalks Molly to discover said-secret and that’s when he meets Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly’s 21-year-old son who still lives with her. John finds it somewhat difficult to connect with Cyrus, a grown man who is very attached to his mother (so close to the point that I think he could be reaching Norman Bates levels), whom John is now dating and having sex with. And yes, that is a bit much for John to take in–but Cyrus seems cool about the situation (and even makes uncomfortable jokes about it). But as this dynamic continues and Cyrus is more off-putting and clingy towards his mother, John has his suspicions about Cyrus’ intentions–and we do too, such as, is Cyrus trying to break up John and Molly? What is Cyrus truly all about? Where is this going?

Jonah Hill is absolutely brilliant as “Cyrus.” This film was released in 2010, a time when audiences who were familiar with Hill as the abrasive loudmouth in comedies like Superbad got to see a different side to him as an actor; to see him as this creepy, manipulative sort of man-child is to recognize this talented actor’s impressive range. (And a year later, Hill would star in “Moneyball” and earn his first Oscar nomination.) There are many different levels to Hill’s performance as Cyrus, and the more times I watch the film, the more amazed and intrigued I am by what he accomplishes in his facial expressions, his dialogue, and his attitude.

When John and Cyrus are at wits with each other, it makes for some delightfully dark comedy, with this relatively nice guy trying to figure out what the deal is with this potential psychotic and whether it will damage his relationship with the psychotic’s wonderful mother–and there are moments when we’re looking at it from John’s perspective and finding moments such as when Cyrus and Molly are wrestling together in the park…very off-putting.

But because John is so likable and played by the lovable John C. Reilly, and also because the Duplass Brothers care more about character, we’re not just laughing at the actions/reactions; we’re also caring about the main character and getting to know the other characters through him. When Cyrus’ humanity (his true humanity) does show, it doesn’t feel forced; it feels like a real person with faults and even guilt. And with Molly, it’s not as simple as, oh if only she could just wake up and get rid of this creep of a son–it’s more complicated for her to take sides.

It’s this kind of characterization that many mainstream comedy-dramas lack–those films are about comedy and drama with character, while “Cyrus” is a film about character with comedy and drama. The Duplass Brothers did a wonderful job here, making an indie film with mainstream appeal (or a mainstream film with indie appeal, however you see it).

American Animals (2018)

8 Sep

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

NOTE: This may be one of my new favorites, but I decided to go back to the standard-review format. (Maybe after another viewing or two, I’ll add a My Favorite Movies post about it.) I am giving it four stars because I feel it deserves it. (But really, what do these stars mean anyway?)

In writer-director Bart Layton’s brilliantly-crafted docudrama “American Animals,” we find ourselves asking the very same question as its interview subjects do: why?

As in, why did these good boys do this bad thing?

They came from good homes. They had no criminal records. They had no reason to commit this crime that ruined their good names.

And it was meant to be a harmless theft too. It didn’t turn out that way. (It was also very horribly planned out–let’s just say, professional thieves, they are not.)

“American Animals” tells the true story of four young men who in the mid-2000s attempted to pull off a heist at the library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Their plan was to steal the library’s rare-book collection and sell them off to underground art dealers.

But this is not your typical documentary with brief dramatic reenactments of the events told to us by the interviewees (i.e. the real-life people who recall the incident and more). A majority of the film belongs to the dramatization of the choices made by the boys who planned this heist. And they’re played by familiar young talents such as Evan Peters (Quicksilver in the “X-Men” movies), Barry Keoghan (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), Jared Abrahamson (“Hello Destroyer”), and Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen, Everybody Wants Some). (We also get nice work from character actor Ann Dowd in a pivotal role as an unsuspecting librarian.)

However, for the context, we are treated to testimonials from the real-life people who perpetrated the event: Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen II. (In addition, some of their parents, one of the culprits’ teachers, and even the real-life librarian are sharing details with us as well.) The way these people tell this story in the present-day, looking back at what they did in the mid-2000s, it’s almost as if even they don’t fully understand why they did this.

(Note: This narrative device not only leaves plenty of room for analysis; it also makes for some comedic moments as well, such as when Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard have contradicting memories as to where Spencer first told Warren about the rare-book collection. Unreliable narrator, anyone? What makes the scene better is when the real-life Warren interacts with fictional Warren to assure him to trust Spencer’s memory better than his own as he was drunk and/or stoned that night.)

I mentioned that writer-director Bart Layton crafted this story brilliantly, and I wasn’t exaggerating–there is so much to desire about this art-imitates-life (or life-imitates-art) approach. The complicated editing by Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, and Julian Hart is also very impressive, making for a great mix of documentary and crime-drama.

How did all this begin? Well, in the beginning, we follow the college life of art student Spencer (Keoghan), who lacks inspiration. (He even tears through his canvas of a new work because it doesn’t satisfy–I’m not sure if the real Spencer really did that.) He confides in his troublemaking childhood buddy Warren (Peters) that he wants something exciting (or even tragic) to happen. (Note: Keoghan and Peters share convincing chemistry as the oil-and-water type of friendly duo.) When Spencer is given a tour of the library’s special collection of rare books, such as a first edition of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” he and Warren share a thought: what if we could steal it? And not just that book, but all the books?

How hard could it be?

The idea grows particularly in Warren’s head to the point where Warren even travels to Amsterdam to meet with black-market art buyers for an answer to how much they would pay for these books.

Millions, Warren assures Spencer upon arriving home. Millions. And thus, it’s on! They bring in two other boys, Eric (Abrahamson) and Chas (Jenner), and come up with a plan so crazy and far-fetched that it could only work in the movies…

What happens when they attempt the heist, I’ll leave for you to discover if you don’t know the story already. (I didn’t.) Layton has fun with the lighthearted approach upon planning the heist before pulling the rug out from under us to show how serious and real and unplanned the situation really is. That’s because, while the film is entertaining, there’s a real sense that Layton is making the film in an attempt to understand why this event happened and why these four kids felt compelled to go about this plan that ruins their lives.

These are four white, rich, jaded college boys who already have pretty much everything they need in life. It’s like they do this for the excitement, because it’s different, because it’s risky, because it gives them purpose, or whatever. Even with its narrative structure, “American Animals” doesn’t pretend to have all the answers to the questions it raises–it leaves room for its audience to analyze the situation. And it’s both fun and interesting to think about.

“American Animals” is one of the smartest and most intriguing heist films I’ve ever seen–I can’t think of another that kept my attention as much as this one.