American Animals

American Animals

By: Kevin Jordan

Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

When I was a kid, my parents watched America’s Most Wanted with John Walsh.  Episodes featured cheap reenactments of crimes committed by featured suspects to give the audience something to watch besides Mr. Walsh talking, even though that something to watch had the cinematic quality of anthropomorphic finger paintings.  American Animals is what would happen if America’s Most Wanted had spent the entire series’ budget on a single episode.

American Animals is not just a movie based on real events, but depicts the events of 2004’s Transy Book Heist in a hybrid reenactment/documentary film.  The heist involved four college students – Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) – attempting to steal a bunch of rare books and manuscripts from the rare book collection housed in the library of Transylvania University.  The craziest thing about the ordeal is that Transylvania University is an actual university in Lexington, Kentucky, that has exactly zero vampires (unconfirmed).

Supernatural aside, the thing that interested most people at the time was the motivation of the four men.  In interviews shortly after their incarceration, they stated that they wanted to ensure that their lives would not take them down the dreary and rote suburbanite path of their families.  They reasoned that if they were successful, they would be rich and living in Europe, and if they failed, they would go to jail and would lose the opportunities of suburbia.  It is also worth noting that all four kids were middle-to-upper-middle-class, were all regarded very highly in their communities, successful students and athletes, and had done everything right (by societal standards) up until college.  These were not the clichéd criminals whose neighbors state on television how they were just the nicest boys because those neighbors refused or ignored all of the red flags; they really were the nicest boys.

The title doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Normally, I do not get into documentaries unless I am really interested in the subject matter, so I would like to request that all future documentaries be filmed in this reenactment style.  The film does not just do a reenactment with interview clips spliced throughout, but transitions during scenes between the actors playing the four men and the actual four men themselves reciting lines, sometime in the middle of a sentence.  For example, Peters will be delivering a sentence and Lipka will finish it.  And it is not just dialogue, but reactions or emotions.  Toward the end, there is a scene where the characters are reflecting on their actions and the movie cuts to the real men sitting in silence, also reflecting back on what they did.  It is a really cool piece of direction and successfully draws sympathy from the audience, regardless of how much sympathy these men deserve.

As interesting as the heist is itself, the most compelling part of this film is how the story is told.  Most of the movie is told from the point of view of Warren and Spencer, but their memories of some parts of it are fuzzy.  At times, Spencer notes that he is not sure if what he remembers is his own memory or what Warren remembers of it and told to Spencer in past recalls.  The film depicts the discrepancies, showing us both versions (was it a younger guy with a green scarf or an older guy with a blue scarf?), which adds some mystery to events.  This is important for the character development, because Warren is the leader and driving force of the heist and he is the one of the four who the audience trusts the least.  It is a brilliant bit of filmmaking (nice work director/writer Bart Layton) that makes this film so much more than just a special episode of Cops.

He’s younger than he looks.

Most of the movies I have watched this year are the big, loud, blockbusters, so American Animals is a very pleasant change of pace, despite it being a heist movie.  Even though we know almost from the beginning that the boys ultimately fail, the film has plenty of tension because we do not know how far they get before failing.  But, the main reason to watch is to find out how they fail because it is obvious that they have no idea what they are doing (they literally watched Ocean’s Eleven, Snatch, and Reservoir Dogs as research), though they make a very good attempt.  If anything, you will watch for the same reason you watched those episodes of America’s Most Wanted, but you will not have to endure acting and production values that look like they came from a junior high in actual Transylvania.

Rating: Ask for zero dollars back because a movie that makes you feel a little bad for four wealthy kids with no troubles in life is definitely worth seeing once.

Dunkirk

By: Kevin Jordan

The war-iest of war movies.

We’ve all seen what Christopher Nolan is capable of and it’s almost always been fantastic.  We’re at a point now where “Directed by Christopher Nolan” is all that needs to be said to peak interest in a new movie.  In other words, the opposite of “Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.”  We’ve also come to expect a certain type of movie; one with a well-written and intriguing story featuring rich characters, dazzling visuals, and sounds/music that are almost a character unto themselves.  When Dunkirk was announced and the first trailers dropped, our immediate reaction was “YAAAAAASSSSSS.”  The thing is we haven’t seen a Nolan movie like this before.

For those of you who don’t have the slightest idea what Dunkirk refers to, stop reading now.  You are the only people who will be surprised by the events depicted in this film.  For the rest of you, Nolan dispenses with the rich characters and intriguing plot to focus on the final day (apparently) of the evacuation of the British Army at Dunkirk, France in June, 1940 during World War II.  Don’t get me wrong, there are characters in this film, but none of them are developed to the point where you might care whether they live or die.  And, the plot is just a telling of the event through the lens of a few anecdotes featuring some of those characters.  But, like I said, that isn’t the point of this movie.

Here’s the point of this movie.

The point of this movie was to put the audience on the beach with the hundreds of thousands of soldiers desperate to escape the oncoming German army, air force, and artillery (with Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, and Kenneth Branagh).  The point of this movie was to put the audience into the seat of a British Spitfire fighter plane (with Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden), dogfighting with German Luftwaffe.  The point of this movie was to put the audience on a civilian boat (with Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Cillian Murphy, and Barry Keoghan) making its way to Dunkirk to help rescue the soldiers.  And that is exactly where you, the audience, feel like you are.

If you intend on seeing this film, see it in IMAX or you will miss out on the full experience.  The movie was filmed with IMAX cameras in order to take full advantage of the technology and make you suspend your disbelief that you are sitting in a theater in 2017 and not a French beach in 1940.  Nolan and his visual team also filmed as many practical effects as possible, to the point in which (according to Nolan), there is no scene in the movie that is pure CGI.  Yes, that includes flying actual Spitfires (or replicas) and, in some cases, crashing them.

You should also sit in the back row near the speakers (which is where I was sat for the screening).  The sound and music (by Hans Zimmer) were amazing and our place in the theater was literally vibrating in tune with the movie.  It might very well be that everyone in the theater felt that as well, but I’ve seen a lot of IMAX movies and it’s the first time I felt like the music was literally moving me.  There’s also a ticking clock underscoring the music throughout nearly the entire film, which heightens the tension in the film.  The genius of the ticking is that there are stretches where you can’t hear it, but you know it’s still there.  And when it finally stops, it’s almost deafening in its silence.  Yeah, I’m totally geeking out over it.

I don’t remember his name, but he’s a hell of a pilot.

Speaking of tension, book a massage for after the film.  Even if you are familiar with the event, you can’t help but clench every muscle during the film.  Even though you won’t be emotionally connected to the characters, you are expecting them to eat it at any moment, which makes the film that much more tense.  Do not buy food or drink because you will forget you have those things.

The bottom line is Dunkirk is an excellent film from an extraordinary filmmaker.  Dunkirk shows us the height of technical filmmaking while delivering a harrowing experience for audience members, regardless of how historically literate one might be.  You would be forgiven for expecting something closer to Saving Private Ryan or Titanic, but embrace the fact that you are getting an extremely well-funded history lesson that will make you duck and cover in what may be the best, pure war movie you have ever seen.

Rating: Worth triple what you paid for it, especially for the IMAX surcharge.