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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

American Animals is a heist movie based on a true story—and the film has an original twist.

Writer-director Bart Layton has made a narrative film based on the real-life robbery of treasured collectibles by four young men. Layton casts the four with the great talents of Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Barry Keoghan and Jared Abrahamson, resulting in an exciting and funny retelling of the heist, which had some normal guys dressing like old men to steal paintings and Darwin books from a kindly librarian (Ann Dowd).

The twist: Layton also gets the real-life people to tell their accounts of what actually happened, so the film has a true documentary element. Rather than playing like some campy criminal re-enactment TV show, the film comes together in a way in which the real guys are right at home in the proceedings. It’s a genius move that gives the movie some real-life heft—without taking away from the drama and craziness of the crime. In fact, their presence truly enhances everything, making this one of the more unique crime films in memory.

Peters is terrific as Warren Lipka, the bad-boy mastermind of the group. (Lipka himself makes for an entertaining counterpart in his interview segments.) Jenner continues to be a great up-and-coming actor, while Keoghan impressively adds to a resume that includes Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

One of the movie’s great elements is the difference between the storytelling and the actual interviews—something Layton comically exploits on more than one occasion. The result is a movie that gets high marks for originality along with its solid performances. You’ve never seen anything quite like it.

American Animals is now playing at Mary Pickford Is D’Place (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100) and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

Published in Reviews

After scoring a huge critical and box-office success in 2014 with X-Men: Days of Future Past—Bryan Singer’s triumphant return to the franchise—20th Century Fox wisely brought the director back for X-Men: Apocalypse.

However, in an utterly baffling move, Fox cut the budget for the current installment, while padding the cast and upping the action. (Well, this is the studio that screwed up The Fantastic Four, so maybe the shortchanging of a reliable franchise isn’t all that surprising.)

The result: Portions of the movie look much sloppier than Singer’s usual offerings, with quite a few moments featuring cut-rate-looking CGI. The movie alternates from looking great to looking terrible. The flaws eventually pile up, and while there are some nice, enjoyable stretches, X-Men: Apocalypse is a mess in the end, despite powerful work from Michael Fassbender as Magneto, and a great performance by new-to-the-franchise Oscar Isaac as the menacing villain, Apocalypse.

Before the opening credits (which, by the way, look like shit), we get a quick back-story for Apocalypse. En Sabah Nur, an ancient Egyptian, morphs along with some sort of ancient mystical being, thus becoming the world’s first mutant, or something like that. He’s then buried under a crushed pyramid for centuries. Cue the cheap-looking opening credits.

Cut to the 1980s, 10 years after the events of Days of Future Past. A bunch of random people are standing around chanting in the pyramid ruins, and En Sabah Nur awakens as Apocalypse, a blue monster that looks like a cross between Jeff Bridges in Tron and the Emperor from Star Wars. Even though he’s buried under a bunch of makeup and voice modulation, Isaac makes every moment count. He looks like he’s having a lot of fun.

The same goes for Fassbender, whose Erik Lehnsherr has been masquerading as a mild-mannered factory worker in Poland since the events in Washington, D.C.; he’s happily married with a daughter. Erik is loving life—but when Apocalypse awakens, he causes an earthquake that jars something loose at the factory. Erik stops an object from falling on a friend, thus blowing his cover—and starting a series of events that leads him toward becoming the evil Magneto.

Apocalypse builds an army of four (like the four horsemen), including Magneto, Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn). They jet all over the Earth in some sort of energy bubble (kind of like Bill and Ted in their phone booth), eventually winding up at the school run by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). Xavier has a power that Apocalypse craves—and this leads to all sorts of wham-bam, chaotic showdowns involving crumbling buildings and telekinetic battles.

With all of this going on, Singer tries to make time for a back-story involving Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) while also upping the screen time of Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Oh yeah, the film also features an upstart actress by the name of Jennifer Lawrence, doing her Mystique shtick. There’s even memorable sequence involving Quicksilver (this time set to a Eurhythmics song) during which the guy with knives shooting out of his knuckles makes a big, if forced, cameo. In other words: Singer tries to do too much, and the movie wears out its welcome with its 144-minute running time.

The weakest of the new entries is Turner as Jean Grey. The Game of Thrones actress is simply outmatched by the talent around her, and fails to make her Jean Grey compelling. She’s just kind of pouty and grouchy. Lawrence is fine as Mystique, but her storyline feels tacked on.

Had the movie spent a little more time with Magneto and cut back on some of the characters, X-Men: Apocalypse could’ve been another worthy entry, thanks in large part to Isaac. It’s ultimately a near-miss, and the worst movie in a franchise that hadn’t previously delivered a bad film. (Yes, I was OK with the third one.)

Whatever happens next, it might be time for Singer to take a sabbatical from X-Men.

X-Men: Apocalypse is playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

The X-Men franchise has taken the time-travel route made popular by James Cameron’s Terminator movies and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) partakes in a unique form of time-tripping—and the result is the best film in the series since X-Men 2.

Another big contributor to the awesomeness of the latest installment is the return of Bryan Singer to the director’s chair. Singer piloted the first two X-Men films; he has a nice command of the characters in both their old and younger incarnations. It’s good to have him back.

The film starts in the future, where the likes of Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Wolverine have been reduced to hiding out in a dark, apocalyptic world where their enemy is a vicious robotic force called the Sentinels. Things are looking bad for the mutants.

However, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) has perfected a form of time travel in order to mess with the Sentinels. It involves time-traveling in one’s own mind back to a particular point in memory where the traveler can mess with the fabric of time. She can only send somebody back for a few minutes or so due to brain trauma—but then it strikes the X-Men that Wolverine has instant healing powers.

Wolverine therefore travels back to the early ’70s, before the Sentinels go into production, and before Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) commits a murder that will doom the future. It’s a nice chance to see Wolverine with his bone claws again, and it creates an opportunity to combine the two recent X-Men casts.

Most of the action takes place in the past, so the X-Men: First Class cast gets most of the screen time. That means more of the terrific Michael Fassbender’s take on Magneto, who is being held in a prison underneath the Pentagon for allegedly having something to do with an infamous magic bullet. James McAvoy actually steals the show as young Xavier/Professor X, who has found a solution for his crippled legs—but it has a truly bad side effect.

Peter Dinklage has a pivotal role as a creator of the Sentinels; Dinklage always adds a level of class to any project. The film also allows a funny take on Richard Nixon (Mark Camacho), who finds himself in the middle of the whole mutant public-relations fiasco.

While Lawrence gets plenty of screen time as Raven, we never do see Rebecca Romijn as Mystique. We do get a brief, brief glimpse of Anna Paquin’s Rogue. (More scenes wound up on the cutting-room floor, according to Singer.) There are more than 30 seconds of Halle Berry’s Storm in the film, which means there’s more Storm in this movie than anybody really needs.

A welcome cast addition is Evan Peters as the speedy Quicksilver. One of the film’s best sequences involves how it looks to Quicksilver, through his eyes, as he rearranges a gunfight with his fingertips in a half-second. We see it in slow motion, with much comedic detail. It’s brilliant.

This film basically allows the X-Men universe to jettison X-Men: The Last Stand, a film made by Brett Ratner; it was not a favorite with fans. I didn’t hate the movie, but it stands alongside the mediocre X-Men Origins: Wolverine as one of the weakest movies in the series.

As is the case with Star Trek, the whole system has been reconfigured with X-Men, and all options are open for future films. Is there chance they can use the whole time-travel thing on the Matrix movies, and fix those screwed-up sequels?

X-Men: Days of Future Past is playing in regular and 3-D formats at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Emma Roberts shines in Adult World as Amy, a wannabe poet who doesn’t want to accept the obvious: Her poetry is terrible. Instead, she chases down her poet hero, Rat Billings (a perfectly cast John Cusack), for mentorship, but gets mostly bemused scorn instead.

When Roberts and Cusack are onscreen together, it’s magical. Unfortunately, the film features a gimmicky subplot involving Amy’s employment at an adult-video store—and in these scenes, the movie feels strikingly unoriginal and old. Evan Peters is OK as the store manager, but his character could have worked just fine without the porn gimmick.

Still, Roberts and Cusack are on fire, especially during a scene in which Roberts smashes a guitar, and Cusack just slyly grins. There’s another great moment when Amy shows up drunk and demands to be deflowered, while Rat insists that such a thing won’t happen—even though it is pretty obvious he’s slept with poet groupies before. Lesser actors would’ve made this scene into a cliché, but these two totally rock.

Cusack and Roberts make the movie worth watching. If filmmakers had dropped the video-store stuff (and, consequently, changed the title), it would have been even better.

The film is available via online sources, including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing