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Civil War Isn’t the Movie You Think It Is

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Civil War Isn’t the Movie You Think It Is

Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny in Civil War.
Photo: Murray Close /A24

Americans sure do love to see their institutions destroyed onscreen. I remember back when it was sorta-kinda news that audiences applauded and cheered as aliens blew up the White House in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). Since then, it’s been standard operating practice for blockbusters, particularly the disaster-y ones, to incinerate or otherwise defile a monument or an iconic government building. (We took a brief recess after 9/11 — “too soon,” etc. — but went right back to it once the cultural all-clear sounded.) Maybe because our institutions were deemed so secure and unchanging for so long, the idea that they might be ravaged by aliens, meteors, zombies, or Dylan McDermott became a naughty fantasy we were eager to see played out onscreen, over and over and over again. A variation on this kind of chaos has become all too real over the past few years, with more than 40 percent of the country in a 2022 poll saying they think a civil war is likely within the next decade. I’m not entirely convinced that the constant barrage of apocalyptic destruction on our screens is unrelated. We’ve been spectators to the fantasy for so long that we’ve come to imagine we’re participants in it.

Here’s another truth about repeatedly indulging in our fantasies: We become desensitized to them. What makes Alex Garland’s Civil War so diabolically clever is the way that it both revels in and abhors our fascination with the idea of America as a battlefield. No real monuments get done blowed up real good in this one. The spectacle this time is coyer but somehow all-consuming. What’s being incinerated in Civil War is the American idea itself.

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The film is set in what appears to be the present, but in this version of the present a combination of strongman tactics and secessionist movements have fractured the United States into multiple armed, politically unspecified factions. The president (Nick Offerman), we’re told, has refused to give up power and is now serving his third term; he’s dissolved the FBI, bombed American cities, and made a point of killing journalists on sight, or so we’re told. California and Texas have joined forces and become something called the Western Front. There’s also the so-called Florida Alliance. Smoke rises from the cities; the highways are filled with walls of wrecked cars; suicide bombers dive into crowds lined up for water rations; death squads, snipers, and mass graves dot the countryside.

How we got here, or what these people are fighting over, is mostly meaningless to Kirsten Dunst’s Lee and Wagner Moura’s Joel, two war journalists making the treacherous drive from New York City to Washington, D.C., for an exclusive, probably dangerous interview with the beleaguered president. Tagging along for the ride in their van are Jessie, played by Cailee Spaeny, a young, inexperienced photographer who aspires to a career like Lee’s, and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), an aging reporter who wants to go to the front lines in Charlottesville. Lee is vexed by both their presences. Jessie’s too young, and Sammy’s too old. The blood-soaked highways of the divided states of America are no place for either of them.

The journalists covering this war gather in hotel bars, get drunk, and loudly yuk it up with the jacked-up bonhomie we might recognize from movies set in foreign lands like The Killing Fields, Under Fire, and Salvador. They’re mostly numb to the horrors they’re chronicling. After the young Jessie is scarred by an early run-in with a man who threatens to shoot two unarmed, tortured, barely alive captives, Lee tells her that it’s not their job to ask questions or get involved: “We take pictures so others can ask these questions.”

One of the reasons Lee is such a legend in her field is because she has grown a protective shell around herself. She wants to get the picture. That’s it. She’s protective of Jessie but only to the extent that the girl will slow them down or upend their plans. “Would you photograph that moment, if I got shot?” Jessie asks. “What do you think?” Lee responds, as if the answer is obviously yes. But we also understand that Lee bears the psychological scars of what she’s seen. At night, alone in her bath at a hotel, she covers her eyes and revisits the horrors she’s photographed all over the world. “I thought I was sending a message home: Don’t do this,” she says of her earlier work. “But here we are.” Garland can be clunky and obvious with his dialogue, but Dunst can also make just about any line sound true. Her face tells one story, her words tell another; together, they bring this conflicted woman to life.

The film embodies Lee’s traumatized numbness to a degree. Garland knows how to build suspense, and he depicts astonishing violence with the requisite horror, but he also moves his film along in playfully provocative ways. After one ghastly sequence in which guerrillas shoot a weeping soldier, the director cuts to a montage set to De La Soul’s “Say No Go,” a song about a horrific subject that adds a peppy beat to the grisly images onscreen. (I was reminded of the way Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket cut to the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” right after a similar firefight.)

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Even the film’s episodic quality — it’s really just a ghastly travelogue through the war-torn Eastern Seaboard, with our protagonists confronted at each stop with some upsetting new incident — feels like a provocation. Part of shutting yourself off to such horrors involves being able to move past them, and Civil War, like its characters, glides past each monstrous vignette with unbothered brio. This can make the film feel weirdly weightless at times. Its characters are observers and nomads. If anything, they feel less invested in what they’re witnessing as the movie goes on.

Civil War’s lack of a political point of view, as well as its refusal to really identify the positions of its warring parties, has come in for some understandable criticism. But does any sane person really want a version of this film that attempts to spell out these people’s politics or, even worse, takes sides in its fictional conflict? (That sounds like it would be the worst movie ever made.) Garland does include flashes of real news footage from a variety of recent American disturbances, but he’s clearly done more research into media depictions of other countries’ war zones.

This is maybe his best idea, and why the film’s lack of political context feels more pointed than spineless: The conceit here is to depict Americans acting the way we’ve seen people act in other international conflicts, be it Vietnam or Lebanon or the former Yugoslavia or Iraq or Gaza or … well, the list goes on. In that sense, Civil War winds up becoming a movie about itself. Beyond the plausibility of war in the United States or the tragedy of such an eventuality, it’s about the way we refuse to let images from wars like this get to us. It’s more a call for reflection, an attempt to put us in the shoes of others, than a warning — not an It Can Happen Here movie, but a Here’s What It’s Like movie. It doesn’t want to make us feel so much as it wants us to ask why we don’t feel anything.

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Movie Reviews

Chhaya Kadam: Earlier my name wouldn’t even be written in film reviews, now I have a Grand Prix winning film at Cannes

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Chhaya Kadam: Earlier my name wouldn’t even be written in film reviews, now I have a Grand Prix winning film at Cannes

This is clearly the year of Chhaya Kadam! After a great run with the actor’s earlier releases, Laapataa Ladies and Madgaon Express, her film All That We Imagine As Light became the first Indian film to win the Grand Prix at the recently concluded 77th Cannes Film Festival. One of her other films, Sister Midnight, was also screened at Directors Fortnight. Talking to us after the Grand Prix ceremony, Kadam exclaims, “It was the first Indian film to be screened at the main competition in 30 years, and we directly won an award! We had a story rooted in our motherland about women like us. For a subject like that to get selected here… I have no words.”

Actor Chhaya Kadam

Acknowledging her great run this year, she says, “People in Cannes also recognised me as Manju Mai (from Laapataa Ladies); they would say, ‘hey Manju Mai, Chhaya Kadam’.”

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Kadam’s tryst with acting began in 2006, then she went on to star in Marathi films such as Fandry (2013), Sairat (2016) and Nude (2018). “Earlier, my struggle was to get work; now it is for good work,” she shares, adding that it doesn’t end there. While she’s enjoying the fame now, there was a time when the actor’s work wasn’t recognised. “Earlier, film reviews would miss out on mentioning my name, even if my character was important. Bura toh bahut lagta tha. But then I thought I should work so hard that people are compelled to mention my name in their reviews,” she ends with a chuckle.

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Ezra (2024) – Movie Review

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Ezra (2024) – Movie Review

Ezra, 2024.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn.
Starring Bobby Cannavale, William A. Fitzgerald, Robert De Niro, Rose Byrne, Vera Farmiga, Whoopi Goldberg, Rainn Wilson, Tony Goldwyn, Jackson Frazer, Greer Barnes, Tess Goldwyn, Ella Ayberk, Lois Robbins, Alex Plank, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Matilda Lawler, Joe Pacheco, Amy Sheehan, Barzin Akhavan, Donna Vivino, Jacqueline Nwabueze, John Donovan Wilson, Joshua Hinck, Sophie Mulligan, Thomas Duverné, Guillermo Rodriguez, and Jimmy Kimmel.

SYNOPSIS:

Comedian Max co-parents autistic son Ezra with ex-wife Jenna. Faced with crucial decisions about Ezra’s future, Max and Ezra go on a life-changing cross-country road trip.

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Undeniably made with good intentions, Ezra wants to tell a story about a young autistic boy and his father struggling to accept that uniqueness (lamenting that his son will never be “normal”) due to some personal baggage related to his rocky upbringing. Ezra is also a film that consistently gets sidetracked or finds itself telling that story in a broad, mawkish manner with outlandish plot beats that continuously sink the few elements that work. That’s also surprising considering screenwriter Tony Spiridakis (who had been working on the script for roughly 15 years) is basing that father-son relationship on his experience raising an autistic child. Why turn such personal material into… this?

A film about the challenges of parenting an autistic child and ensuring that everything from school to public behavior is going well has enough realistic, stressful drama to be relatable to anyone who has ever been in a similar situation. The dynamic that parents Max (Bobby Cannavale) and Jenna (Rose Byrne) are divorced (the actors are married with children in real life) adds another layer of domestic intrigue.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn, the film seems to have no awareness of when to stop manufacturing more drama or when it begins to feel like piling on for the sake of telling a story that quickly begins to feel false. It becomes less of an earnest look at autistic childhood and more of a far-fetched road trip flick where the logic for certain characters is nonexistent, and the narrative rapidly transitions to do something that could only exist in the movies, something that is counterproductive to why this film was made.

This is frustrating since there are touching flourishes whenever Max interacts with the titular Ezra (William A. Fitzgerald, a delight to watch and autistic). Despite getting expelled from school, Ezra is a kind soul with various stimulation triggers (such as hugs or sensitivity to eating with forks), who often speaks in famous quotes and takes everything literally to such a degree that when he overhears Jenna’s new partner jokingly talking about murdering Max, he frantically runs out of the house to warn his loving father. This leads to Ezra making the choice to run into the middle of the street while scared and avoiding a barking dog on the sidewalk, nearly getting hit by a car, with doctors under the impression that it was a suicide attempt, dealing with the incident by forcing the parents to put the boy into a special needs school and take antipsychotic medication.

That’s only the beginning of this exaggerated story, which then sees Max kidnapping his son from Jenna, believing that she has lost hope in fighting for his rights and is too comfortable listening to professional advice. He doesn’t like that the medication zombifies his son (understandably so) and appears to believe that allowing the boy to go to a special needs school means he is accepting that there is something wrong. Many of his hangups with accepting his son’s autism come from a tumultuous relationship with his father, Stan (Robert De Niro), a former chef who gave up his dreams to provide for Max after his mother left. This grandfather also has trouble acknowledging his grandson’s autism, uncomfortable uttering the term. Both of these men, in a sense, are hiding and running from reality.

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Perhaps a more skilled filmmaking team could make something out of that, but Ezra also has to contend with baffling subplots such as Max’s aspiring standup comedian career and his relative closeness to securing a spot performing for Jimmy Kimmel. There is also a road trip aspect that sees Max heading West with Ezra, coming across several old friends for the sake of convenience. In one sequence, the film makes the case that there will be kids (even girls) who accept Ezra and those who will bully him, doing so in a confused way, unsure if it wants to sanitize itself. It’s also accompanied by sappy music.

At a certain point, Ezra is officially reported as kidnapped with warnings and notices throughout the 24-hour news cycle. Max is aware of this, yet confoundingly still thinks showing up to audition for Jimmy Kimmel will end well. The occasional tender moments between father and son are continuously undercut by this stupidity and overblown narrative decisions. At least it follows suit, ending in a fittingly melodramatic cringe.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com

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Movie Review: “Mad Max: Fury Road” Now Playing at Boone Regal

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Movie Review: “Mad Max: Fury Road” Now Playing at Boone Regal
May 27, 2024 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” was one of the most critically-lauded action movies not just of its year, not just of its decade, but of all time. I will forever curse “Pitch Perfect 2” for opening the same weekend and doing better at the box office, thus keeping me from reviewing “Fury Road” (for the record, I would have given it an enthusiastic B). While Tom Hardy’s Max was an important presence in that movie, audiences seemed to find themselves drawn to another character, one that had an even more commanding screen presence, did more to make the film instantly iconic, and more than warranted an expensive prequel. Alas, we’ll have to keep waiting for that origin story for the guitar-playing Doof Warrior. In the meantime, we have this movie about another beloved “Fury Road” character, Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa.  Read more
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