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Films I Neglected To Review: Amongst Friends And Neighbors.
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "American Animals," "Cold Water" and "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

I am normally always in for a good heist movie--I think my review of the delightful ''Ocean's 8'' bears this out--but I would cheerfully give up ever watching another example of that particular genre for the rest of my moviegoing days if it meant that I would never again have to endure the likes of ''American Animals,'' a film so smug and stupid and loathsome that it almost--almost''makes the likes of ''Amongst Friends'' and both ''Boondock Saints'' seem borderline palatable by comparison. It recounts the true story of a quartet of well-off young men (played by Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner and Jared Abrahamson) who, mostly out of boredom, decide to rob the reading room of the library at Lexington, Kentucky's Transylvania University of millions of dollars worth of rare books that included the manuscript of Darwin's ''On the Origin of Species'' and several oversized volumes of James Audubon's ''Birds of America.'' Of course, none of them have any criminal experience but they are serenely confident that if they watch enough heist films, they will also be able to plot and execute the perfect robbery. Inevitably (and I guess I should state Spoiler Alert here), they muck up the entire job—they can’t even successfully carry the books down a flight of stairs—and are quickly nabbed, though they do at least manage to brutally beat the woman in charge of the reading room beforehand they finally get caught.

There are plenty of run-of-the-mill reasons to hate ''American Animals''—it asks viewers to care about a collection of characters who are so vapid and self-absorbed that it is impossible to work up any degree of sympathy for them, actual details of the crime and those involved are painfully uninteresting and the actors never find anything to their roles that could inspire anyone to give a damn about what happens to them. However, what shifts this movie from the merely awful to the truly loathsome is the conceit devised by writer-director Bart Layton to have the real-life guys that the film is about, now out of prison, turn up from time to time to comment on the action and occasionally even offer up corrections regarding the reenacted elements we have just seen. Even if the real guys were genuinely fascinating, this approach would be at best conceptually risky for potentially glamorizing a real crime with real victims, but since they turn out to be just as obnoxious, boorish and self-pitying as they have come across during the reenactments, the gimmick turns out to be a disaster. (It hits its absolute low point when we see the librarian being viciously assaulted and then cut back to them with hangdog expressions of what I think is supposed to be remorse—the real librarian does get the final word in the film but it is way too little way too late.) Essentially, Layton is giving these jerks a platform to publicly plea for a redemption that they have neither earned nor do they deserve. (Hell, they can’t even point to the fact that they at least pulled off their crime successfully.) Conceptually inane, ethically dubious and just generally crappy across the board, ''American Animals'' is a shameful waste of time and money devoted to a group of people who were pretty much the same.

]Produced in 1994 as part of a series of films by highly regarded French filmmakers inspired by their lives at the age of 16 and almost entirely unavailable in the U.S. since then because of the cost of licensing the songs on the soundtrack (including hits by the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin and Creedence Clearwater Revival), ''Cold Water,'' the fifth feature from Olivier Assayas, is finally getting an American release and proves to have been more than worth the wait. In this thoughtful coming-of-age drama set in the early 1970s, classmates Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), both of whom are children of divorce, impetuously decide to steal some records from a local store. He gets away but she winds up getting caught and is eventually sent to an institution for troubled youth. The two both manage to escape from increasingly intolerable living situations and are reunited at a party at an abandoned house and eventually find themselves contemplating the next moves they want to make with their lives.

The premise may not be exceptionally original but that is not really the point of what Assayas is trying to do here. Instead, he is trying to capture the essence of what it was like to be that age at that period of time in the immediate wake of the uprisings of 1968 (a subject he would later tackle in his great ''Something in the Air,'' which can now be seen as a companion piece to this film) from the pangs of first love to the first tentative steps into adulthood to the overwhelming importance that music has for young people in the way that it can communicate feelings that they cannot completely grasp or express on their own. (You have heard Joplin’s rendition of ''Me and Bobby McGee'' in plenty of other films but it has never had the kind of impact that it does here.) In that regard, Assayas has completely succeeded here thanks to his simple but direct cinematic style and his deft handling of his two lead actors. Fouquet was a novice actor making his screen debut while Ledoyen was a more established actress who had already worked with Assayas before but both are equally convincing in their roles—they are so believable, in fact, that there are times when the film takes on an almost documentary-like feel. As for that soundtrack, it proves to have been worth the hassle because all the tunes that are heard are ones that really mean something to the story and to have just replaced them would have done irreparable damage to the film as a whole. Assayas would go on to make a number of films that I would be perfectly comfortable as describing as masterpieces, such as his astonishing recent efforts ''Clouds of Sils Maria'' and ''Personal Shopper.'' Now, at long last, we here in America have an opportunity to see his first masterwork for ourselves.

A lot of documentaries about famous people have a tendency to come across as hagiographies after a while thanks to their determination to prove just how special and extraordinary their subject is. In the case of ''Won't You Be My Neighbor?,'' the eagerly anticipated documentary examining the life and work of groundbreaking children's television host Fred Rogers, the fulsome praise he receives somehow almost seems inadequate in its ability to fully convey how much he really meant to so many people who grew up watching his show. Using a wealth of archival material and interviews with friends and colleagues, director Morgan Neville (whose previous films have included ''20 Feet from Stardom'' and a documentary on Keith Richards) tells the story of a man who, recognizing the power that television had over children, attempted to use it for good by creating a gentle, low-fi show in which he talked about radical concepts like feelings and acceptance of others. Through the clips, we see him tackling an astonishing array of topics (including anger, sadness, race and even the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy) in a gentle manner that espoused Christian values (he was an ordained minister) without ever coming across as preachy or intolerant of other beliefs. Of course, one would have to go out of their way to make a film about Rogers that wasn’t moving to some degree and indeed, even the most cynical of viewers may find themselves tearing up a bit at such moments as when his simple plea for public television funding in front of a Senate committee had an unexpectedly happy ending to his talk with a young wheelchair-bound child about his disability. At the same time, the film does not shy away from the darker aspects of his story and it touches on such aspects as a childhood that saw him bullied because of his weight to his perfectionism to his insisting that one of the performers on his show publicly acknowledge his homosexuality for fear that it might harm the show’s ability to get funding. (Happily, he eventually made a turnaround in regards to the latter.) ''Won't You Be My Neighbor?'' is not exactly a groundbreaking documentary by any means but it is a moving and highly entertaining look at a fundamentally decent and kind man who was driven to help young and impressionable people make some kind of sense of the crazy and confusing world around them. In his own quiet way, he was a true rebel and it is a shame that the likes of his show could probably never get off the ground today because God knows that we could use him now more than ever these days.

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originally posted: 06/08/18 07:45:54
last updated: 06/08/18 22:06:42
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