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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The Beguiled

The Beguiled

Posted on June 22, 2017 at 5:22 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexuality
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: War (off-screen), injuries, murder
Diversity Issues: Gender issues
Date Released to Theaters: June 23, 2017

Copyright 2017 Parmount

Writer/director Sofia Coppola has taken a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie about a wounded but manipulative Civil War soldier cared for and disruptive of the staff and students of a small girls’ school and reframed it as a story about the staff and students of a small girls’ school who care for and are disrupted by a wounded Civil War soldier. It is not so much telling the story of the spider and the fly from the perspective of the fly; it is more like telling the story with the women as the spider.

From her first film, “The Virgin Suicides,” through “Marie Antoinette,” “The Bling Ring,” “Lost in Translation,” and “Somewhere,” Sofia Coppola has been transfixed by stories of slender, ethereal young women who are a bit lost in a world created by powerful but inadequate men, and she has done her best to transfix the audience as well. Her next project, “La Traviata,” the story of a consumptive courtesan who turns out to be more noble than the man she loves, is certain to fit this pattern as well.

It is impossible to consider this latest work, a remake of a film directed by and starring two of the most testosteronic filmmakers in movie history, without that context. And that context is increasingly repetitive, with each iteration revealing not only the limits of the individual film but also the lacunae of the previous ones as well. What once seemed intriguing, mysterious, and thoughtful now appears, when the work is viewed as a whole, as superficial. It turns out that what was omitted was not because it was subtle and deep but because she had nothing more to say. While this film touches on issues of war (and warring emotions), it eliminates the slave character played in the first film by Mae Mercer, because there is really no way to do that relationship justice and any attempt to do so would throw the rest of the story off balance.

It is a pity, because she is just so good with the externals. The settings, costumes, music, and performances in her films are always superb, which makes the dispiriting emptiness even more disappointing.

Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) runs a small boarding school for girls, a retreat precariously close to Civil War battles being fought nearby. When one of the girls is out gathering mushrooms in the woods, she discovers a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell) and she brings him back to the school for treatment. Miss Farnsworth is not pleased, but she cannot turn him away. She treats him and tries to keep his presence as a male and an enemy combatant from disrupting the students and her co-teacher, Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst). But he is a novelty and a distraction especially for those who long, perhaps unaware how much, for male attention.

McBurney has a gift for making each female in the house feel that he is what they most want him to be, from the teenager (Elle Fanning) to the widow (Dunst). “I’m grateful to be your prisoner,” he says. At first, he is gracious, unassuming, and charming. But he becomes a more ominous presence, dividing and disrupting the women until they take drastic action.

Kidman and Dunst are outstanding, representing two very different reactions to the intruder. It is precisely presented, even beguiling, but Coppola needs to move on or go deeper.

Parents should know that this film contains peril and violence including war (mostly offscreen), a wounded soldier, an accident, amateur surgery, mutilation, and murder, as well as sexual references and a situation, alcohol, and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did McBurney assess the vulnerabilities of each of the women and girls? How does this version reflect our era in differing from the original?

If you like this, try: the original version with Clint Eastwood

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Interview: Gary Ross on “Free State of Jones”

Interview: Gary Ross on “Free State of Jones”

Posted on June 27, 2016 at 3:37 pm

Gary Ross, best known for the first “Hunger Games” movie, spent years researching the real-life story behind his new film, “Free State of Jones,” about a group of deserters from the Confederate Army and runaway slaves who declared their independence from the legal and economic oppression of the Confederacy. You can see more about the story in the “Free State of Jones” website. His commitment to authenticity included filming in the actual locations where the events took place, including the swamp where Newt Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey) and his group hid from the Confederate soldiers. “We were in the swamp for a long time but it was worth it. We were shooting where the true story actually occurred so that was kind of inspiring.” There are several books about the historical events, but Ross reviewed the original documents. “I did a lot of primary source research. When you go to the website you will see that most of the things that we cite are not secondary historians but are primary sources. I studied for about 2 to 3 years before I ever even started writing the script….There’s a tremendous amount of original sources that survived. We use a ton of sources from what was called the OR, the Original Records of the War Between the States which is the most reliable source. And we used a lot of letters to corroborate this evidence from former Confederate soldiers they were writing about the rebellion to one another as it was going on so there’s a tremendous amount of actual primary sources that exists, I mean hundreds and you can see them on the website.” freestateofjones

The film is set in the Civil War era, but some scenes show us Knight’s descendent in a 1948 miscegenation trial. Ross said, “I think that we need to see some perspective. It was a way of almost trying Newt in absentia a century later. These issues that were necessarily unresolved. It also let us explore what happens to memory when you lose connection with your past. This is a century later and it is still going on. I think that the fact that there was in fact this real trial which was still bizarre was an important thing to include.”

He talked about seeing the jobs of writer and director separately. “I don’t see directing as an extension of writing. It is to certain degree because you are storytelling but it’s its own thing. But you are never afraid to keep writing when you’re a writer there so I actually have more flexibility on the set, I don’t see the script as such a lock or rigid thing. And directing informs your writing. When you’re directing you think of it the more cinematically, you think, ‘Are they going to be able to actually do it?’ There is less waste in the writing. There is more of a cognizance of the cutting pattern. There is more even awareness the things like sounds design, so yes I definitely think it informs how I write now.”

There are some common themes between this real-life story and the allegory of “Hunger Games.” “Individual and personal liberty is tremendously important to me and I think that this has been somethings that has been expressed through a lot of the work that I’ve done one way or another. Newt used Scripture to justify his actions. It began as an organic rebellion. It was anti-tax rebellion at the outset but it grew into a larger meaning of freedom and it broadened out into a bigger definition of what freedom was. Once he glimpsed what true freedom meant he couldn’t tolerate his wish for personal freedom and then accept unfreedom for other people so I think that Newt expanded and grew and in his worldview and that led him been an advocate for African-Americans in the postwar period.”

Ross wants to make sure that audiences see the oppression that continued after the end of the Civil War. “The war didn’t and in 1865. The conflicts of the war went to 1876. We can see this as a continuum in the fight for freedom. I think that the only movies that existed prior to these were the original “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” so the record needs to be set straight because they are very misleading about the reconstruction era. I hope people who see this can talk about interracial reliance and interracial alliance. I think that’s tremendously important. Newton Knight as an ally of African-Americans in the postwar era is a tremendously important thing to celebrate. Only when we unite in America will we ever make true progress.

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Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones

Posted on June 23, 2016 at 5:40 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images
Profanity: Some strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence including battle scenes, hanging of adults and children, brutal abuse, rape, and lynching
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 24, 2016

freestateofjonesThe timing is not great. “Free State of Jones” is a Civil War drama based on the true story of a community of Confederate deserters and runaway enslaved people who banded together to fight for their own vision of freedom. It was filmed once before as “Tap Roots,” with Van Heflin, Susan Hayward, and Boris Karloff (as an Indian!), but this version, from “The Hunger Games'” Gary Ross, deals forthrightly with the racial issues, or at least tries to. There is an inescapable and maybe unconquerable problem in telling a story set in Civil War era Mississippi with a glorified white man as the hero, in a time when one of the most anticipated films of the year is the Sundance Grand Jury and Audience award winner “Birth of a Nation,” a film that grabbed and repurposed its title from the blatantly racist D.W. Griffith film of the silent era.

Ross brings the same passion for tackling tyranny to this story that he did to “Hunger Games.” It’s just that we’re no longer dealing with speculation and metaphor, and that means a political overlay reflecting both historical and contemporary controversies.

Matthew McConaughey plays Newt Knight, a Mississippi farmer with a wife and young son who is serving as a nurse in the Confederate army. Early on, we see him removing the uniform from a wounded enlisted man so he can tell the doctors he is an officer and get him treated. Increasingly frustrated with the endless carnage on behalf of wealthy elites who exploit the poor, it is too much for him at last when his nephew is killed in battle and he leaves, taking the body home to be buried. There he finds the Confederate forces are taking all of the food from the local farmers, leaving them to starve. On the run from the military seeking defectors, he hides out in a swamp, where he meets up with runaway slaves. There he decides that his allegiance is not to the Confederacy, which is sending poor boys to fight to preserve what today we might call the 1 percent. “I ain’t fighting for cotton,” another solider tells him. “I’m fighting for honor.” “That’s good,” Knight responds. I’d hate to be fighting for cotton.”

Writer/director Ross, working with the locations where these events occurred and a touching score from Nicholas Britell, evocatively conveys the hardscrabble lives, the literal and spiritual grit, the desperation and conviction it inspires. Knight hands guns to three little girls and, when the Confederate officer does not take them serious, Knight tells him that guns will shoot anybody. “It don’t seem to matter where the bullet comes from.” The depth of research is evident throughout, but it is never pedantic. The storyline is grounded in historical events like the Confederacy’s requisitioning of food and supplies, and post-war exploitation and terrorism, led by former Confederate officials, that prevented former enslaved persons from basic rights and murdered those who tried to assert them. There are brief glimpses into a conflict 85 years later, as the descendent of Knight’s relationship with a former slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is criminally prosecuted for marrying a white woman in violation of the state’s laws prohibiting mixed marriages. It is there to remind us that we can never dismiss the events of the past as behind us.

Parents should know that this film has very intense and graphic violence including Civil War battles and skirmishes, hanging, rape, and lynching, adults and children injured and killed, very disturbing images, some strong language with racist epithets, some sexual references

Family discussion: What did Knight find most unjust about the Confederacy?  What did we learn from the 1948 courtroom scenes?

If you like this, try: “Glory” and “The Red Badge of Courage” and read about the story that inspired the film.

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Civil War Movies to Commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

Posted on June 29, 2013 at 7:58 pm

This week is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, still the greatest loss of life in American history, the turning point of the war, and the inspiration for one of the greatest speeches in history, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, three simple paragraphs that connected our future to the visions that fueled our past.

The struggles of that era continue to resonate through today’s debates about the essence of the American character. Many movies that focus on the Civil War, and of course Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentary series for PBS is a masterpiece. These are also especially worthwhile:

Gettysburg Michael Shaara’s award-winning book The Killer Angel is the basis for this two-part saga produced by Ted Turner and starring Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen, and Richard Jordan.

The Blue and the Gray This 1982 miniseries starring Gregory Peck, Stacy Keach, Kathleen Beller, Lloyd Bridges, Geraldine Page and Colleen Dewhurst is based on the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning Bruce Catton.

The Red Badge of Courage Real-life WWII hero Audie Murphy stars in this story of a frightened young soldier, based on the classic book by Stephen Crane published in 1895. (Remade in 1974 with Richard Thomas)

The General Buster Keaton loves Annabelle and he loves his train engine, called The General. When both are captured by the Union,he must come to the rescue in a masterpiece of exciting action and comic genius.

Lincoln Daniel Day-Lewis won a much-deserved Oscar for his performance in this outstanding Steven Spielberg film about the last days of the life of the 16th President.


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