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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

A family gets its proverbial ass viciously kicked in Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster’s more-than-impressive feature debut. This is a horror movie that will bruise your brain, make your blood run cold, and stay in your system well after you’ve left the theater.

Annie (an incredible Toni Collette) has just lost her controlling, creepy mother. Annie has some control issues of her own, which sometimes manifests itself in her creation of miniature models—often depicting her home life with husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne, doing his best work in years), son Peter (an impressive Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro, who will break your heart). While every member of the family seems to be earnest and decent, they are also dysfunctional—with a capital “D.”

The loss of her mom, the pressure of an upcoming show of her miniatures, and the demands of parenthood have Annie on edge, to the point where she seeks counseling. At a support group for people mourning the recent loss of loved ones, Annie meets Joan (the remarkable Ann Dowd), a surprisingly cheery woman who has recently lost her son.

When tragedy strikes, Annie finds herself leaning on Joan a little more, to the point where she accepts teachings on how to do a séance and communicate with the recently departed. Annie does a couple of rituals at her house, and it all seems innocent enough—until creepy apparitions start appearing, and malevolent spirits start messing things up for Peter, who responds by hitting the bong.

The movie is a ghost story, a demon story and a witch story rolled into one, with elements of The Witch, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and, yes, The Sixth Sense. (That vibe owes a lot to the presence of Sixth Sense star Collette.) It’s also one of the more powerful depictions of a family falling apart in years, giving this excursion into horror an extra layer of depth.

The creeping dread factor starts early in Hereditary and never lets up. Aster proves to be a master of atmospheric scares, relying less upon jolts and gore, and more upon lingering shots in dark corners where you can sort of make out a ghost staring at you. Everything works up to a frightening puzzler of a finale that might have you initially asking, “WTF?” but eventually thinking, “Oh … that’s some messed-up shit right there.”

Collette is stunning as Annie, a seemingly decent person who reveals a lot of mommy issues as things unfold. Annie isn’t an openly bad person, but as the demons start to manifest, and her mother’s crimes boil to the surface, she becomes an epically bad mom. Collette mixes a quiet, withdrawn demeanor with moments of visceral, outward nastiness. Collette makes every step of this tormented mom’s unfortunate journey mesmerizing.

Wolff, building up a great career with solid turns in Patriots Day, My Friend Dahmer and Jumanji: Welcome to Jungle, gives an incredibly raw, emotionally jarring performance as the son who doubts his mom and craves stability. The destruction of his home life coincides with his transition to manhood, and puberty supremely sucks for this guy. Wolff has moments in this movie when he seems so realistically disturbed that the movie feels like a documentary.

With Hereditary, Aster gives the horror genre the kind of film that will be around for years. It has some images (Does anything suck more than a smiling ghost?) that will haunt your dreams. It also has an enveloping darkness that will leave you perhaps a bit unsettled and on edge.

Hereditary is as unpleasant as they come—and as a horror-movie fan, I say amen to that.

Hereditary is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews