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American Animals

The Film Insider Series that the San Diego International Film Festival puts on is a blast. They often get directors and actors from the movies to speak afterwards. It’s also fun seeing a movie months before it’s released. Sometimes it may be a movie that doesn’t even get released in San Diego and that’s our only chance to see it. The movie they showed last month was American Animals, and it was a fun talking to CEO Tonya Mantooth and her actor brother Randy Mantooth (Emergency!) after the screening.

The movie starts with a huge laugh by saying “This is not based on a true story.” That’s followed by “This is a true story.” And in something I’ve never seen done before (aside from a fake way in I, Tonya), we see the actual guys that were involved in this heist, talking about what happened. That heist and the planning of it, is shown with actors playing their parts. A few critics are complaining that this glorifies them, yet I didn’t hear a single critic complain that I, Tonya did that. And what’s worse is, that movie got Tonya Harding into the Oscars, onto a TV show, and made her a lot of money. These teenagers tried to rip off a library of valuable books, and ended up spending seven years in prison. Harding didn’t spend a day in prison, and even got to compete after bashing in Nancy Kerrigan’s kneecap. But I digress.

The story involves four college students at Transylvania University in Kentucky. Evan Peters plays Warren, the charming, charismatic leader of the bunch. The immensely talented Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) plays the friend that begrudgingly goes along with anything Warren says. Even when he’s in a grocery store stocking shelves and telling him the flaws in his plan, he still goes along with it.

Blake Jenner (who we all got to meet at the San Diego International Film Festival last year) plays Chas Allen. We can’t figure out why he decided to become the getaway driver in this mess of a plan.   

One of the things I found fascinating about Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is, it was a heist movie, that never showed us the actual heist. It showed us the planning, and how horribly wrong it all went afterwards. This movie, which coincidentally has a big section paying homage to Reservoir Dogs, is a heist movie where we know the outcome from the beginning. These guys aren’t going to get away with it. Yet you’re fascinated by the often idiotic way in which they made many of their decisions.

It’s both frustrating, and interesting, that you never realize the motivations behind this. It’s not like these guys need the money. They just want the excitement of doing it. Sitting in a car smoking dope and lighting shopping carts on fire, got old for them.

It’s fun when you watch people plan a heist and there are humorous elements involved. This had many funny scenes. One of them involves the miniature model of the library Spencer has created, and he gets mad when one of the guys is touching something in it that could easily break.

This is the fourth movie I’ve seen in two weeks with Ann Dowd, and that’s just fine by me. She plays the suspicious looking librarian.

One of my complaints is that British director Bart Layton (The Imposter) made this longer than it needed to be. It also needed to be a bit more…fun. For example, I was at a movie last night and I saw the trailer for this. The crowd went nuts at how funny it was, and how goofy the guys looked in their old men beards, hats, and trench coats. If only the movie were as fun as that trailer.

It might have been better if there was at least one of these kids we cared about, although…if they would’ve written some bogus storyline — like one of the kids needed the money for his tuition — that would frustrate me, too.

Randy Mantooth brought up an interesting point about how in heist movies, everyone is always Joe Cool, like George Clooney in the Oceans films. And that’s true. It is intriguing to watch the nervousness of these young men that are getting in way over their heads. It just that sometimes it felt bland.   

The film ends up being worth your time. You can laugh at their incompetence and stupid decisions, and root for them in other moments.

There’s a nice score by Anne Nikitin, and this gets bonus points for a soundtrack that included alt-J, my favorite Donovan song (Hurdy Gurdy Man), one of my favorite Doors songs (Peace Frog), and Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation” which…is a perfect song for when you’re in a library.

3 stars out of 5.