Tag Archives: B


Producer: Derrin Schlesinger, Katherine Butler, Dimitri Doganis and Mary Jane Skalski
Director: Bart Layton
Writer: Bart Layton
Stars: Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Udo Kier, Gary Basaraba, Lara Grice, Jane McNeill, Wayne Duvall, Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Charles Allen II
Studio: The Orchard


By toying with traditional narrative in imaginative ways, Bart Layton’s true-crime tale about a heist gone terribly wrong raises lots of intriguing issues. The title alone, drawn—as we’re shown at the very start—from Darwin, for example, refers not only to one of the items marked for theft and the location of the caper but to the underlying instincts of the perpetrators. If one goes back to the full text, moreover, it also implies that those perpetrators were blind, as, morally and practically, they certainly were.

While alluding to many such matters, however, the visually arresting, cannily constructed “American Animals” never fully grapples with them. It is more impressive for its surface slickness and narrative trickery than for psychological depth, so while one can admire the dexterity of the filmmaking and its intricacy of design, when the picture is over, the effect evaporates. Still, though the impact may be ephemeral, it’s potent while you’re watching.

The major tweak that Layton gives to his quirky docu-drama about four Kentucky college dudes who plan to steal some valuable rare books is to mix his recreation of their bungled efforts with recollections by the actual perpetrators, whose remembrances sometimes clash with each other. (Toward the close, one of them even questions whether another might not have simply lied about something very important.) It’s a tactic that throws the whole issue of what “actually” happened into disarray, in the way that Sarah Polley did in her family memoir, “Stories We Tell.” (The very opening, where the words “This is not based on a true story,” suddenly lose the “not based on” part, points in the same direction.) In this case, though, the effect proves less intense.

In any event, the film is based on the would-be heist that occurred in Lexington, Kentucky in 2004. The scheme was hatched by childhood pals Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters). The former, an aspiring artist, had won a scholarship to Transylvania University, while the latter was the recipient of an athletic one at the University of Kentucky. One day Spencer visited his campus library’s rare book room, where the librarian Miss Gooch (Ann Dowd, who does in fact look a bit like Auntie Mame’s secretary) showed the student group a copy of Audebon’s “Birds of America,” along with some other valuable items, among them an early edition of Darwin’s “Origin of Species.”

When he blithely told Warren about how little security there is to protect the volumes, Lipka, already weary of team practices and schooled in plenty of Hollywood heist movies, latched onto the idea of stealing the books and selling them through a fence to wealthy collectors. Reinhard at first dismissed the idea as crazy, but Warren wouldn’t let it go. (The real Lipka denies that he was the ringleader.) Eventually they enlisted two more University of Kentucky students in the scheme, which took on a life of its own: Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), whose math skills would come in handy, and preppy jock Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), who would serve as their wheel man.

As the plan proceeded, Spencer and Warren took on the task of locating a suitable fence, going to New York to meet “a guy,” an encounter that led Warren to travel to Amsterdam to see a real player (Udo Kier). (In retrospect, the real Reinhard wonders whether Warren actually saw anyone there.)

Of course despite all the planning, the actual robbery went terribly wrong, and Layton’s staging of it, complete with bad old-age makeup, phony bravado, incapacitating devices that fail to do their job, volumes too heavy to carry, and elevators that don’t go where they’re supposed to, proves a canny blend of slapstick farce and genuine suspense. It acts as a fine finale for the quartet of excellent young stars—glum, nervous Keough, loose cannon Peters, intense Abrahamson and hunky Jenner—who bring real conviction to their roles. No one else in the cast makes much of an impression, save for the suddenly ubiquitous Dowd, whose Gooch is a typically prim, Prussian librarian (the real article turns up at the end, a close approximation), and, of course, for the real guys that they’re playing. Of them Reinhard and Lipka are the most prominent, though one must say that despite their best efforts, they don’t emerge as particularly sympathetic, though the seven years each spent in prison appear to have mellowed them.

“American Animals” is technically proficient, with slick cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland (using Charlotte locations for Lexington, and Davidson standing in for Transylvania) and sharp editing by Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Julian Hart and Luke Dunkley, with the transitions from the actors to the real people they’re playing nicely handled.

One wishes that the film could have delved more deeply into the psyches of this quartet of college guys who undertook the lunatic Transy Book Theft as some sort of movie-inspired lark with little thought of the consequences, but at least it tries to convey the difficulty of pinning down what actually happened, and why. That, of course, is always the crucial problem in trying to understand the past, even when people are around to tell the story, and Layton’s film is notable for pointing to the vagaries of memory and muddled motives that inevitably intrude. The result may be imperfect, but that’s true of any historical account, certainly of events far more significant than this one. If “American Animals” reinforces that lesson among viewers, it will have provided a salutary service—as well as a pretty entertaining ride.


Producer: Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Gary Hamilton, Victoria Hill, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray, Deepak Sikka and Christine Vachon
Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger, Cedric Antonio Kyles, Michael Gaston and Victoria Hill
Studio: A24 Films


Paul Schrader has never been one for subtlety, and in “First Reformed” his penchant for bludgeoning across a message is on full display, as is his characteristic Calvinistic rigor. But so is his ability to fashion a film that fascinates even as it goes wildly overboard.

The protagonist of “First Reformed” is Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), pastor at a small Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York that’s been preserved, despite a sparse congregation, because of its historical significance as a stop along the underground railroad. Toller is a deeply troubled man, a former military chaplain whose son died in the invasion of Iraq and feels guilt at having encouraged him to enlist; the boy’s death also led his wife to leave him. Toller secretly drinks, and is suffering from an undiagnosed stomach ailment, while pushing away the prim parish housekeeper (Victoria Hill), with whom he had apparently enjoyed an earlier relationship.

Given all this, it is hardly surprising that Toller’s freedom of action is being increasingly circumscribed by intervention from Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Antonio Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer), who runs a nearby megachurch that treats Toller’s picturesque little establishment as a photogenic offshoot of his larger operation. Keeping things running smoothly is especially important given that Toller’s church is at the point of celebrating the 250th anniversary of its foundation, an event that will attract a good deal of attention in the press.

The celebration is, however, being funded by a questionable patron: Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), who runs a petroleum company that shows little concern for the impact of its operations on the environment. That fact will be brought home to Toller when he is approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who asks him to meet with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an activist who is convinced that the earth is becoming uninhabitable and shows every indication of readying himself to go to violent extremes in protest. The pastor’s embrace of Michael’s cause—and, as it happens, concern for his wife—will draw him to consider radical action himself.

Schrader’s debt to Bergman and Bresson (whose “Diary of a Country Priest” is an obvious influence) is apparent throughout “First Reformed,” not only in its austere, controlled style (the cinematography by Alexander Dynan mimics the sharpness and angularity of the church Toller presides over) but in its narrative form, in which the reverend records his experiences, thoughts and intentions in a journal whose entries, read by Hawke, drive the story forward. One has to admire the intensity with which the film grapples with the question of what a real embrace of the Gospel means in terms of personal commitment and action, as well as the need for meaningful personal connection in a callous world.

At the same time, however, the film—like Schrader’s others—is both deeply serious and unrestrained in its adoption of the elements of pulp melodrama. It goes for broke toward the close, setting up a scenario that combines the potential for explosive terrorism with a longing for self-flagellation, and adding to that mix a penchant for flamboyantly over-the-top imagery that becomes positively baroque (a style certainly out of sync with the architectural simplicity of Toller’s church).

What to make of this mixture of rigor and extravagance? One can say that while it might seem weird in almost any other director, it’s quite typical of Schrader, who has always combined the sublime with the ridiculous, and has been lucky enough to find collaborators willing to devote themselves to his very personal vision. This time around, his chief partner is Hawke, who delivers a performance that fully embodies Toller’s angst and despair. The character is a study in extremes, but Hawke manages to endow him with real humanity as well. Seyfried and Ettinger contribute effective if subdued support, and while Gaston goes for obvious obnoxiousness, Kyles provides a spot-on depiction of a pragmatic clergyman who might have grudging admiration for Toller’s devotion to the ideals of Thomas Merton, but is more concerned with getting along with Mammon than he is in upsetting the real-world applecart.

There’s no question that “First Reformed” is short on plausibility and restraint, but its willingness of take risks compels respect, even when it goes off the rails.