Thirteen years ago, four Kentucky college students decided to steal several valuable books from Transylvania College’s rare book collection. One of the volumes was Audubon’s “Birds of America,” worth $12 million. How these kids came up with this wild scheme and almost pulled it off is the subject of “American Animals,” an entertaining twist on a traditional heist movie. Cleverly directed by Bart Layton, the film interweaves interview footage of the actual thieves with dramatized scenes of how the heist was planned and executed. Layton has assembled an excellent cast of young actors who capture the grandiosity and goofiness of the quartet, a bunch of affluent and relatively sheltered guys who figured watching “Reservoir Dogs” and “Oceans 11” on repeat would teach them everything they needed to know to succeed as criminals.
Disaffected art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is taking a compulsory tour of his college’s rare-book collection when he notices how little security there is protecting the library. He shares that information with his best friend Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), a wild-eyed guy who seems to be dying of boredom at a nearby school. At first, they case the library just as a goof, gradually becoming more excited at the prospect of pulling off the heist and becoming millionaires overnight. Layton is very successful at capturing the adolescent enthusiasm that can lead to some really nutty events. Bringing in two more conspirators, Eric Borsuk, an accounting major (Jared Abrahamson), and fitness nut Charles Allen II (Blake Jenner) as getaway driver, the four stumble from one stage to another, figuring out disguises, what to do about the librarian, and how to sell the stolen goods. The scheme begins to take on a life of its own as individual qualms are swept away. The movie has all the tension and excitement you want in this kind of story, along with some provocative insights into the competitiveness of upper middle-class American society and the effect it has on some youth. The combination of real participants and dramatized scenes reminded me a lot of Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” another film treatment of an actual crime. Since true-crime stories are my guilty pleasure, I’m happy to see them on the big screen. Layton’s first film was a documentary about another crime called “The Imposter.” I didn’t see it, but will put it on my list now.
Down in Australia
“American Animals” is a coming-of-age story in a way, but a more traditional presentation of the genre comes from Australia in “Breath.” I’ve been a sucker for Simon Baker since “The Mentalist,” and his directorial debut is affecting and visually gorgeous. It’s a surfing movie of sorts, set on the western Australian coast in the 1970s, and follows the development of two teenage boys, Pikelet and Loonie (newcomers Samson Coulter and Ben Spence) as they become enthusiasts of the sport and protegees of a renowned older surfer Sando, played by Baker. Pikelet is the more cautious of the two boys, thoughtful and sensitive, and his best friend Loonie is the wild one, intense, competitive, and fearless. We meet them when they’re twelve or thirteen, riding their bikes all over and just watching bigger kids surf on the ocean. Pikelet sometimes fishes with his father (a wonderfully restrained performance by Richard Roxburgh) in the bay, and Baker sets up a contrast between the placidity of fishing and the thrilling danger of the surf.
The boys slowly learn how to surf and once they have managed to buy fiberglass boards, Sando comes into their lives, allowing them to stash their boards at his place. He’s mysterious and seductive in his encouragement, and both boys become more and more entranced with him. Sando lives with his injured-skier American wife; she often seems angry or jealous about Sando’s relationship with them. and the boys learn to be careful around her.
Half the movie takes place on the water and I can’t imagine what it took to film those scenes. They are flat-out gorgeous as the boys tackle larger and larger swells. This footage gives the film a sensuality and vitality that carries over thematically as well. Sando is in the habit of taking off for months at a time, and when he and Loonie disappear, Pikelet is left behind to keep Sando’s wife company and to figure out what sorts of risks he’s willing to take and the kind of man he wants to be. The film is not especially original but the natural acting, the amazing cinematography, and the skillful editing make it a standout.
Over to France
“Rodin” is a great-man biopic about the French sculptor, but you’re not going to learn all that much about the artist. You will however get an awful lot of info about his relationships with his models, and you’ll see a lot of them too. I guess director Jacques Doillon hasn’t been paying attention to the Times Up movement; this film could be prima facie evidence for the gratuitous debasement of women in the film industry. Rodin is always seen clothed and busily working on his statues; his models are almost always naked and eager to satisfy his wishes. To make it even worse, the movie is really boring.
The new documentary on Showtime about a year at The New York Times is anything but boring. “The Fourth Estate” was riveting, and I gobbled up multiple episodes at a sitting. Many of the reporters are familiar to me as a regular reader, and the director Liz Garbus does a great job following Maggie Haberman, Mark Mazzetti, Glenn Thrush, Elisabeth Bumiller, and Dean Baquet as they do their jobs during the first year of the Trump presidency. The Times gave Garbus extraordinary access and the result is fascinating and inspiring. The amount of news they cover and uncover is astounding, and seeing them maneuver through their assignments and their lives underlines how hard good journalists work and how much we need them.
I’ve been listening to a new podcast — ”Unorthodox” from Tablet. It’s hosted by three young people and is a fresh and funny take on the Jewish world. Mark Oppenheimer, Stephanie Butnick, and Liel Leibovitz talk about Jews in the News as well as current cultural happenings, and there are interviews with a gentile of the week and a Jewish guest as well. The back and forth between the hosts is funny, and I’ve enjoyed the interviews I’ve heard, particularly one with a humanist pastor who grew up as a Christian evangelical. The letters they receive from listeners are fascinating too. Good company on your commute.