For a re­view of “Amer­i­can An­i­mals,”

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Give “Amer­i­can An­i­mals” di­rec­tor Bart Lay­ton credit for turn­ing what would have been a mildly in­ter­est­ing heist tale into a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of crime and the un­fet­tered think­ing of youth. His fac­tion­al­ized ac­counts of a rob­bery gone band works be­cause the film­maker best known for his doc­u­men­tary work took some big chances with his first foray into scripted moviemak­ing. The plot of “Amer­i­can An­i­mals” sounds like fic­tion. Four bored Uni­ver­sity of Ken­tucky stu­dents de­cide in 2004 to steal rare books from Tran­syl­va­nia Uni­ver­sity’s spe­cial col­lec­tions li­brary. No, these books aren’t about Drac­ula, but in­clude orig­i­nal John James Audubon prints. They see the rob­bery not as a criminal act but as a way to make some easy money. To the four, the plan is sim­ple. They will en­ter the poorly guarded li­brary, over­power the li­brar­ian, toss the books and prints in a large bag and be out the door be­fore any­one knows what has hap­pened. The fact that no one will get hurt makes the de­ci­sion to en­ter into a life of crime so ap­peal­ing. The plan­ning, ex­e­cu­tion and re­sults of such an en­deavor has the same su­per­fi­cial look as many a TV or film of­fer­ing. This is where Lay­ton takes the fa­mil­iar and makes it fas­ci­nat­ing and fun. Lay­ton, who also wrote the script, uses his back­ground in doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing — that in­cludes the much her­alded 2012 re­lease “The Im­poster” — to cre­ate a film hy­brid. The story is played out by four young ac­tors — Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abra­ham­son and Blake Jen­ner — but Lay­ton el­e­vates the movie by hav­ing the par­tic­i­pants talk di­rectly to the cam­era. This is noth­ing new used as re­cently as in “I, Tonya.” What makes Lay­ton’s ver­sion dif­fer­ent is these tes­ti­mo­nial sections are done by the four ac­tual par­tic­i­pants. It took some con­vinc­ing, but Lay­ton was able to get the four to talk about events as they re­mem­ber them. It’s in­trigu­ing to watch these real par­tic­i­pants talk in doc­u­men­tary fash­ion about the rob­bery and then see it played out in scripted style where even eye­wit­ness ac­counts by those in the mid­dle of the event can be vastly dif­fer­ent. In sev­eral scenes, Lay­ton takes the con­tra­dic­tory rec­ol­lec­tions of the par­tic­i­pants and in­stead of pick­ing the one that sounds the most in­cred­i­ble, films each ver­sion. How each re­calls the crime re­veals great in­sight into what the col­lege stu­dents were think­ing. That’s the other part of “Amer­i­can An­i­mals” that is so strong. Lay­ered on top of this crime drama is a com­pelling look at how break­ing the law isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the af­ter­math of a bad child­hood or out of a des­per­ate need for sur­vival. Child­hood friends Spencer (Keoghan) and War­ren (Peters) de­cide to com­mit the crime as a re­bel­lious act against their sub­ur­ban up­bring­ing. Their plan­ning process has the same tone and rhythms as a group of col­lege stu­dents plan­ning how to com­mit the most de­bauch­ery while on spring break. The real War­ren Lipka is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing among all four of the con­victed felons, as his re­count­ing seems to show the least amount of re­morse. It does show that Lipka is the kind of big per­son­al­ity that would hold to­gether such a mot­ley crew of crim­i­nals, even when it looked like the plan had failed. See­ing the real Lipka talk­ing about the rob­bery of­fers an in­sight into this lat­est film based on true events oth­ers don’t have. Peters man­ages to cap­ture that per­son­al­ity in his per­for­mance in a very real way. When deal­ing with a char­ac­ter who comes across larger than life, it’s easy to over­play the role. Peters has just enough en­ergy and charisma to make this work. The touch of re­al­ity sprin­kled through tale con­tin­u­ously grounds the pro­duc­tion and for­ti­fies the fact this movie is based on a true story. So many movies based on real events tend to wan­der away from ac­tual events to cre­ate more drama. Each time one of the real crim­i­nals pops up in “Amer­i­can An­i­mals” it is a sharp re­minder the truth — or at least the truth as best re­mem­bered — is what mat­ters most with this pro­duc­tion. Lay­ton’s film doesn’t have the big set pieces or mas­sive chase scenes that tend to fill the screen of heist films — es­pe­cially those re­leased dur­ing the sum­mer. The di­rec­tor was smart enough to lis­ten to the doc­u­men­tar­ian in his head and trust that a tale of lar­ceny con­veyed through a strong re-stag­ing of the real events cou­pled with a re­count­ing that comes from the source is enough to steal the at­ten­tion of movie­go­ers. “Amer­i­can An­i­mals,” an Or­chard re­lease, is rated R for lan­guage, crude ma­te­rial, drug use. Run­ning time: 120 min­utes. ★★★


In “Up­grade,” Lo­gan Mar­shall-Green plays Grey Trace, a man left par­a­lyzed by a gang of mys­te­ri­ous at­tack­ers. With a small, bug­like com­puter chip called STEM im­planted in his neck, Grey is able to walk again, but that’s not all. In a mo­ment of cri­sis, STEM can take over Grey’s body, co­or­di­nate his move­ments and re­duce any on­com­ing op­po­nent to dead meat. As Grey hunts down the man who in­jured him — and killed his wife — this lit­tle chip will come in handy. “Let me know,” STEM says in a calm voice that only Grey can hear, “if you need my help.” “Up­grade,” writ­ten and di­rected by Leigh Whan­nell, is sci-fi pulp that comes packed with ideas. For starters, it’s un­abashedly in­spired by the clas­sic pop movies of the 1980s, from “Ter­mi­na­tor” to “Robo­Cop,” and often man­ages, even on its lim­ited bud­get, to cap­ture their gal­lop­ing en­ergy and sense of fun. “Up­grade” de­liv­ers sev­eral ter­rific ac­tion se­quences us­ing swift chore­og­ra­phy, some highly in­ven­tive cam­er­a­work and old-fash­ioned, hands-on ef­fects (props, makeup, blood). Best of all, as our hu­man hero and his mi­crochip as­sis­tant go hunt­ing for clues, “Up­grade” becomes a genre mash-up of cy­borg thriller, body-hor­ror movie, buddy com­edy and film noir. It’s the lat­est ex­am­ple of cost-ef­fec­tive cre­ativ­ity from the Blum­house con­sor­tium (“Get Out’), and an un­ex­pected treat from Whan­nell, best known for his work on the “Saw” and “In­sid­i­ous” fran­chises. The film’s big­ger, faster, stronger premise may not be ter­ri­bly orig­i­nal, but our hero’s con­flicted re­la­tion­ship to tech­nol­ogy feels new, or least newly rel­e­vant. Grey, a vin­tage car me­chanic in a driver­less world, isn’t much im­pressed by com­put­ers un­til he becomes a guinea pig for STEM — a pet project of the wealthy tech mogul Eron Keen (Har­ri­son Gil­bert­son), whose name seems just a few let­ters away from Elon Musk. Soon, Grey finds him­self in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent on, and morally com­pro­mised by, the pro­ces­sor in his body. “Get the knife, Grey,” STEM coos as they hover over a po­ten­tial tor­ture vic­tim. Lit­tle by lit­tle, STEM becomes the user, and Grey becomes its Alexa. When Grey fi­nally finds his man, a com­put­eren­hanced sol­dier named Fisk (a smarmy Bene­dict Hardie), and all ques­tions are an­swered, it’s a bit of a let­down. Still, “Up­grade” is hugely en­joy­able and de­liv­ers just about ev­ery­thing it promised. In another sum­mer of com­puter-gen­er­ated block­busters, it’s a hand­made blast of en­ter­tain­ment. “Up­grade,” a Blum­house Pro­duc­tions re­lease, is rated R for ex­treme vi­o­lence and gore. Run­ning time: 98 min­utes. ★★★


Lo­gan Mar­shall-Green stars in the sci-fi re­lease “Up­grade.”

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