Poster for Civil War

Civil War

Posted on April 9, 2024 at 8:07 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images, and language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive very intense and graphic wartime violence, characters injured, tortured, killed, and executed, mass grave, disturbing and gory images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 12, 2024

Writer/director Alex Garland likes to present audiences with extinction level disaster, from the zombie apocalypse “28 Days Later” to the investigate-the-anomaly “Annihilation” and the AI-can- outsmart-us “Ex Machina.” In all of them, though, the story is not the causes or consequences of the unconquerable threats; it is us, and the way we respond to them. There is no zombie as terrifying in “28 Days Later” as the humans who betray one another.

Kirsten Dunst in Civil War
Copyright 2024 A24

“Civil War” is not about the issues or personalities that caused three states to declare war on the rest of the US. We learn in the first moments that two of the states are, in today’s politics, majority far-right Texas and Florida and far-left California (with strong opposite-leaning parts of the states), so there are no easy conclusions to draw. This movie is about the journalists covering the war by bringing cameras into the battles, being present as proxy, never making themselves part of the story by inserting themselves into even the most disturbing and potentially preventable carnage. The most important comment in the film, from a veteran war photographer to a 23-year-old newcomer is, “We record so other people ask.”

We will see, though, that other people do not seem to be asking. Both the veteran, Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and the newcomer, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny of “Priscilla”) are daughters of farmers they describe as pretending nothing is happening. Four journalists are trying to drive from the battleground in New York City to Washington D.C. to interview the President (Nick Offerman). They cannot take the highway that was the direct route because it has been destroyed. As they drive via back western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, they see shoot-outs and desolation, except for one small town that appears to be untouched by the war. It even has charming shops carrying items like party dresses no one has any more reason to buy. The store clerk explains that they prefer to pretend the war is not happening. As they leave, Lee sees that they are not in complete denial; there are snipers on the roofs.

The other two journalists are adrenalin junkie Joel (Wagner Moura, Pablo Escobar in “Narcos”), and elder statesman and mentor Sammy (the always-great Stephen McKinley Henderson of “Fences” and “Lady Bird”). If you get confused as they travel about who is on which side, that is the point. When they try to interview a soldier who is in the middle of a skirmish, he impatiently summarizes the situation as shooting and being shot at. Jesse Plemons has a brief scene as a terrifying figure who, though wearing a uniform, does not seem aligned with any side except his own sense of who is an authentic American.

Significantly, we never see anyone at a news organization receiving the images they send, much less a subscriber reading a news story. We are told that in Washington they are shooting journalists.

As Jessie points out, Lee’s career began with an image she took when she was still in college, a viral photograph of the “Antifa Massacre” (no indication of whether they were the killers or the victims). And she shares a name with legendary WWII photojournalist Lee Miller. Lee has a steely reserve, tempered with numbness, when photographing the most dire, dangerous, and disturbing situations. But she retains some empathy, even tenderness for Jessie, perhaps because she sees something of herself. She both wants to help her and protect her, understanding that she cannot do both.

Jessie insists on using an old camera, with film, not digital, perhaps a tribute to Lee Miller. She even carries a travel developing kit, keeping the fluid in a vial under her shirt so it stays warm. But Lee is there to tell the story, and Jessie is more like Joel, to feel the rush.

The final scenes, an attack on Washington DC, are horrifying. We’ve seen the iconic structures blown up in movies before, but the intensity and devastation of this film are unprecedented. This builds on the carefully chosen details we have already seen, a high school football field converted to a refugee center run by an international humanitarian aid group, a mass grave, those snipers on the roofs.

Garland’s words from a Daily Beast interview are the best conclusion to a discussion of the film: “More and more news organizations have become dominated by bias, so this is a throwback to an older form of journalism, which is reporting. Then, the film is attempting to function like a reporter. It’s about reporters, and it’s trying to be like a reporter itself.”

Parents should know that this movie includes intense and disturbing wartime violence with many characters injured and killed, some torture, murder, and many graphic and disturbing images including dead bodies and a mass grave). Characters use very strong language, smoke marijuana, and drink alcohol.

Family discussion: Should journalists ever intervene in the situations they are covering? What journalists do you trust and why? How are Sammy, Lee, Joel, and Jessie different in their reasons and approaches?

If you like this, try: Garland’s other films and “The Year of Living Dangerously”

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Posted on February 22, 2018 at 5:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed, many grisly and disturbing images, animal attacks, guns, explosives, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 23, 2018
Date Released to DVD: May 28, 2018

Copyright Paramount 2018

Annihilation” is based on the Nebula Award-winning first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, adapted by director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”). Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist and Army veteran, who joins a group of woman investigating an ominous anomaly the government is calling the shimmer. It looks like an rainbow prismed oil spill in the air. An area around a lighthouse is glowing and oscillating. Is it aliens? Is it God? Is it dangerous? Well, take a look at the title of the movie.

Whatever it is, it is expanding rapidly, posing a threat to pretty much everywhere. “The silence around it is louder than usual,” one observer notes. All missions, manned and unmanned, to investigate have produced no information and no human or drone sent inside has come back. Until one, an Army sergeant named Kane (Oscar Isaac), Lena’s husband. A year after he left, he shows up at their home, dazed and critically ill.

And so Lena joins the next group going inside, along with Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist leading the team, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist, and Josie (Tessa Thompson), a shy physicist. The film is told in flashback, as Lena is being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit, so we know that she will be the only one of the group to survive. We know what happened. We will see how.

The New Yorker calls VanderMeer “the King of Weird Fiction” and the Southern Reach trilogy “arresting, unsettling, and unforgettable” and “meditations on the theme of epistemic pessimism, in the tradition of Kafka.” I think what that means is that many science fiction and fantasy writers, even the most imaginative and compelling, base their stories on extrapolating what is already here, whether apocalyptic destruction of the planet due to environmental neglect or aliens who are a reflection of whatever geopolitical issues we are struggling with.

Generally, though, the fundamental rules, the ones we take for granted so much we are not even aware we are taking them for granted, apply, including the rules of dramatic fiction that go back thousands of years. Hubris invites catastrophe. Bad guys want to control everything. Courage and honor triumph. VanderMeer, let’s just say, goes another way. Instead of taking what we have and know and projecting it in a more extreme form, he takes what we have and know and bends reality — and our minds — to make us think about how much we do not know. Inter-species mutations are occuring, suggesting that the shimmer somehow dissolves what we think of as immutable barriers, the ones that define our sense of the world and our sense of ourselves. “It’s literally not possible,” a team member says. “It’s literally what’s happening,” another responds.

One of the first questions we hear at the beginning of the film, as Lena is being something between interrogated and debriefed, is “What did you eat?” Her group had rations for two weeks but survived for months. “I don’t remember eating,” she says. Later we will see the group, dazed, trying to remember what has happened and trying to figure out how much time has gone by based on how much food is gone. They do not know where they are or how long they have been there. Their communications technology does not work. Even the most basic technology, a compass directed only by the magnetism of the North Pole, does not work. They are literally disoriented. The women are there because of their expertise in science, but they cannot even manage some of the most fundamental cognitive tasks. They are not sure whether they cn trust each other. They are there to observe and report but they cannot trust their perceptions or analysis.

And we may not be able to trust our own. This movie puts its cards on the table with an opening that reveals the end. This will be an escape room/haunted house set in the wilds of the Florida swamp story with Lena as the “final girl,” the last woman standing. “It all goes back to the first cell,” we hear Lena tell her class of biology students. Cells do not die; they reproduce. Everything alive is a piece of the first cell. As the women on this mission have to decide whether they want to understand or fight the shimmer, another option presents itself.

Garland uses luscious, even seductive visuals in the verdant Florida swamp setting to beguile and horrify us, sometimes both at once. This is more than mind-bending; it is mind-expanding, something of an intellectual shimmer creating a cognitive distortion of its own.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and some very grisly and disturbing images, guns, grenade, fire, suicide, animal attacks, some strong language, and explicit sexual situations.

Family discussion: Why did Lena say she owed it to Kane to go on the mission? Why didn’t she tell the other women about her relationship to Kane? What would you do if you were in charge of containing the Shimmer? What is the relationship of this story to Lena’s lecture about cells?

If you like this, try: “Arrival,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Solaris,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Midnight Special,” and “Coherence”

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Interview: Alex Garland of “Ex Machina”

Posted on May 1, 2015 at 3:39 pm

Copyright A24 2015
Copyright A24 2015

Alex Garland is the screenwriter of thought-provoking sci-fi films like “28 Days Later” and “Never Let Me Go.”  He wrote and for the first time directed “Ex Machina,” a fascinating story about Caleb, a computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson), invited to the remote home of Nathan, a reclusive genius (Oscar Isaac), to evaluate a new artificial intelligence persona in the body of a lovely female robot called Ava, with the exquisite face and voice of actress Alicia Vikander.  Nathan tells Caleb to perform a “Turing test” but as he and we learn, he is really the one being tested.  There’s a reason the Turing test is blind.  Ava’s programming and appearance are designed to play into Caleb’s susceptibilities.

I loved talking to Garland about the film.

You must know Domhnall Gleeson pretty well by now. But this was your first time working with Oscar Isaac, right?

It is the third movie we have worked on together. So we’ve known each other backwards.  Not only that, the first movie he ever worked on, “28 Days Later,” was with his dad. So out of five movies four of them have been with Gleeson so I know that clan and I know Domhnall really very well. We’re friends. So casting him is different. I just call him up and say, “Look man, there is this thing, I really think it would be good, would you take a look?” The thing about Oscar was I have seen him in stuff like Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies,” set in the Middle East, and he is acting opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, which can freak people out, and I was thinking, “He is just owning every scene, and what is he doing? How is he owning it?” I can’t see what he’s doing, he is relaxed and he is so natural, an incredibly naturalistic performance but also very magnetic, a sort of gravity suck performance that just pulls you towards it. And so there’s something fascinating about him. Every time I saw him it might be in a bad movie but he’d good.

Copyright 2015 A24
Copyright 2015 A24

When you hire an actor it’s like a three years lag in a funny way. Everybody starts talking about these guys before they really hit and everybody knew Oscar was good. That was the word going around, this guy was really good. I knew he was good and then I met him and he was really smart. Again not all good actors are smart.  They can project smart, they can act smart but they may not actually be smart. He is really smart and by the end of that meeting I knew he was right for Nathan. And so I got this growing sense of anxiety through the meeting.  You start to think, “What if I don’t get him?”  I know that there are three other movies trying to get him.

And then you get this crazy thing where you get to know this young man, he’s intelligent, he’s quite slim and he is articulate, he’s quite delicate, he is a guitar player and he says, “I’ll be there in 21/2 months.” and you think, “Yeah, we’ve got this slim young guy,” and he turns up, he’s like a bull, and I don’t know how he did it. And then you get used to this other person because Oscar, the guy you knew, vanished. You can’t find him anymore, he is gone. And instead, there is this powerful muscular, testosterone-driven alpha male and he dominates everything.  Often working with him on set was like being in theater where you are watching a performance and I would lose track of all the things I should be watching because I’m completely locked into his performance. Just exactly like being at the theatre with terrific actor on stage.  It is incredibly seductive and so you totally forget to say, “Cut.” And I really mean that, it’s not just a set of words that people say. But eventually you get used to it, then the film ends. And you meet Oscar three months later. He was over actually for the premiere of “Inside Llewyn Davis” where he was a completely different person and the bull is gone and the slender young guitar player guy is back again. Everything I just said vanishes. He vanishes part by part.

I didn’t recognize him at first in the trailer, with the shaved head and beard and the thick, muscular body.

It was a result of collaboration and conversation. I liked the idea that Nathan had a beard for various reasons partly because I’ve always being told in previous films when I would write a character with a beard that the studios hate beards, they used to hate beards because it kills international sales or some stupid reason like that. So I knew he had a beard and I knew that I wanted him to be physically powerful because he is a bully on an intellectual level and the implicit violence in him.  Oscar arrived with a whole bunch of other things.  One thing that Oscar felt that he needed was glasses.  It was quite interesting, when he didn’t have classes he looked like a thug but when he wore glasses he was at least an intelligent thug.  Somehow we’re taught that glasses make you look smart and it does kind of work. And eventually we settled on the shaved head and beard and he had the muscle mass and the glasses. And then the final thing he did which was really lovely and strange was his Bronx accent which he got from Kubrick because he loved the juxtaposition.  Kubrick was is obviously an intelligent man who has this owlish look which Oscar often does if you watch his performance. He has this sort of owlish raised eyebrow look but this Bronx accent that is slightly incongruous.

Tell me about your location — that spectacular Juvet Hotel in Norway.

There’s something that is slightly kind of obscene in a way about this because to say it’s a low-budget film when it’s $15 million, which is obviously a massive amount of money, but in the world of film-making it’s turns out to be a small amount of money. So then what do you got, you’re telling a story about a guy owns the biggest tech company in the world, as rich as anything you can imagine with a property which needs to reflect his level of wealth.  How does a low budget film create endless wealth?  It is a sort of paradox.  We found this beautiful spot in Norway. It wasn’t the just the architecture; it was also the landscape. Some of the mountain landscape was sort of chocolate boxy, a bit like Ansel Adams, too beautiful, too perfect.  Norway had a kind of brutal bleak sort of aspect and  these big powerful skies and these mountains that could kill you really and not care, with powerful sort of glaciers and rivers and stuff like that.

What do you see as the significance of the Turing test?

The Turing test is perceived as test of sentience but it is not, it is a language test. It’s a test to see if you can pass the Turing test.

Nathan does not abide by Asimov’s rules preventing robots from hurting a human.  

He is doing a self-destructive thing.  He’s working on successive machines each more successful and capable than the next.  He knows that the intention is at some point one of these machines will outsmart him and when that happens it won’t be good for him. He knows that. He knows it won’t be good for him and he knows it probably won’t be good for us.

He’s very Darwinian about it.

He is very Darwinian and actually that was a very important aspect of this, that they are actually part of us, a continuation of us. We tend to see them as parallel.  Either they get presented as a rival species or as a creation is like Frankenstein, semi-religious, where it is not your place to mess with God’s work. I was just trying to present it as a parental thing, the creation of a new consciousness, which is what parents do. And also those consciousnesses do rebel from us and do move on and actually what we ask of them is that they live longer than we do and have better lives.  Always for me when she turns around and says to Nathan, “What is it like to have made something that hates you?” — it’s an adolescence.

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