Kirsten Dunst in Civil War


A dystopian provocation by writer/director Alex Garland, Civil War may be exciting, but it's exciting in the way a near-death experience is – which is to say terrifying, and no fun at all. Nevertheless, it's a rather astonishing piece of work, and while the titular U.S. conflict doesn't provide anything in the way of recognizable good and bad guys, it does provide us with heroes: a quartet of journalists willing to risk their lives in the service of documenting a national tragedy. After viewing the destabilizing, potentially triggering trailer, a friend turned to me and asked, “Who needs that movie right now?” I'd argue that who needs it most is anyone who instinctively views journalists as The Enemy. Unbiased ones may seem hard to find these days. But as Garland's film reminds us, they're still out there, and they're not the problems – they're the messengers. And you don't shoot the messengers. Except that here, other Americans very much do.

Among the many, many notes of controversy preceding Civil War's release, perhaps the biggest concerned the movie's central conceit, which finds Texas and California aligning as “the Western Forces,” seceding from the union, and declaring war on Washington D.C. and, specifically, the President of the United States. In what universe, people asked, would solid-red Texas and solid-blue California ever be in agreement on anything? Well, you won't find the answer in Garland's script, which takes the partnership as a longstanding given, and intentionally bypasses any discussion of the “how” behind the states' coalition. The “why” is a little easier to comprehend, considering that the president – an unnamed despot played by a monstrously implacable Nick Offerman – has, we learn, appointed himself to a third term, dismantled the FBI, and ordered military attacks on U.S. citizens. (Although the trappings suggest a present-day setting, random signifiers such as reference to the “Antifa massacre” clearly place the film in the not-so-distant future.)

However Texas and California came together, and the explanation may be as simple as Garland and the A24 studio not wanting to wholly sabotage their box office, the USA is no longer U. Ground combat and aerial strikes involving the Western Forces, the military, and something called “the Florida Alliance” are frequent; food, water, and gasoline are scarce; the dollar is essentially worthless. And there to document the ongoing nightmare are four news agents hoping to drive from New York City to D.C. without getting killed: photojournalist Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst); print journalists Joel (Wagner Moura) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson); and aspiring photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), the latter of whose presence irks Lee to no end. She's not happy about her mentor Sammy being in the car, either, reminding him that he's too old and slow for their dangerous mission. (Sammy doesn't disagree, but comes along anyway.) But in this America where certain factions will happily shoot reporters on site, and with “PRESS” unmistakably labeled on their vehicle, Lee knows this is no time or place to act as a mentor herself, despite 20-something Jessie's insistence that she can handle whatever lies ahead. She has no idea what lies ahead.

Cailee Spaeny in Civil War

In general outline, Civil War is like the grimmest travelogue imaginable. After Lee saves Jessie from a suicide bombing in Manhattan, the women, Joel, and Sammy take off for the White House by way of Charlottesville; Sammy is planning to stay on the “front lines” of Virginia while Lee and Joel hope to secure an interview with the president. Their journey consequently takes the form of a traditional road-trip movie, except that nearly every stop along the way is deeply unsettling, if not downright horrifying. A tense face-off at a rural gas station finds the owners torturing a pair of purported looters. An urban shopping district becomes a locale for warring militia units and public executions. A peaceful, Mayberry-esque Main Street looks wholly untouched by the conflict – only Sammy notices the gunmen stationed on the rooftops. A Christmas-themed amusement park houses dueling sniper forces (Karl Glusman has a memorable cameo as a spotter) who don't mention, and apparently don't even know, which side of the war their assailants are on. In the film's most upsettingly sustained sequence, a deeply frightening Jesse Plemons interrogates Lee and her fellow journalists, including a pair of new arrivals, as to “what kind” of Americans they are; the wrong answer, we discover, leads to death.

All of these sequences are stomach-churning in one way or another, and largely because, like those snipers, you have no idea if the armed Americans you're confronted with are friend or foe. Civil War makes such distinctions moot. Sure, in our limited exposure to him, the president seems like a smug, totalitarian asshole. But does that mean we should root for his demise, and with it, the abject collapse of American society? Aside from our four protagonists, there's no one else to root for in Garland's movie. We're used to that in, say, alien-invasion thrillers, where we simply want our heroes to stay out of the monsters' way – or, preferably, to kill them. That instinct gets uncomfortably complicated, though, when the monsters turn out to be us, and when you realize that there's no possible chance for a Hollywood happy ending. How could there be? Americans are killing Americans, and we don't know why, so how could either side's victory be any kind of triumph?

Jesse Plemons and Cailee Spaeny in Civil War

I'm probably making Civil War sound unbearable, and despite its blessed moments of respite and humor (an unexpectedly sweet scene of Lee trying on a dress landed exactly when I needed it to), it probably would've been if Garland's filmmaking weren't so impeccably strong. While some of his dialogue is clunky and much of it is too thematically obvious, Garland's visual presentation is stunning, rendering a United States that looks similar to the one we know when it's not more frequently suggestive of any number of war-torn countries around the globe. The chilling sound effects and employment of upbeat, mood-shattering pop tunes add to the displacement (several needle drops here reminded me of Kubrick's work on Full Metal Jacket), as do the routine cuts from fearsomely loud combat to utter silence whenever we view one of Lee's and Jessie's in-the-moment snapshots.

Plus, Garland's supremely well-paced and -edited achievement is aided immeasurably by the empathetic contributions of its cast. Seventy-four-year-old character actor Henderson appears in what is likely the second-best screen role of his career (his Bono in Fences may forever remain his finest), and he's spectacularly warm and credible; Henderson's eyes and richly mellifluous voice provide all the backstory his character requires, hinting at all the beauty and horror Sammy has ever experienced. The effortlessly charismatic Moura is an indispensable source of levity, while Spaeny proves just how good she was as Sofia Coppola's Priscilla Presley with her 180-degree turn here, her Jessie a clear, and increasingly clear-headed, audience proxy with the film's most readily identifiable narrative arc.

Dunst, meanwhile, is a reliable marvel, and so free of actorly vanity that she spends no time making Lee likable, or even all that relatable. Her photojournalist is there to get the shot, no matter the cost to her physical or emotional state, and Dunst knows precisely how to waylay us with subtle flashes of emotion that the reserved Lee attempts to hide. Civil War isn't an easy movie to love. But I certainly admired the hell out of it, and admired Garland for taking a fittingly journalistic approach to his love letter to journalists. History, rationale, and motivations be damned; all that's important is capturing the tragedy that's unfolding on-screen, and letting those of us in the audience determine how it makes us feel. He gets the shot.

Nicolas Cage in Arcadian


When was the last time you saw a monster movie with truly unusual monsters? For me, the answer would be “Friday night,” which was when a friend and I, along with very few others, caught director Ben Brewer's Arcadian, a low-rent thriller with moderately dull heroes and exceptional villains

 It's end-of-days time again, the world – or at least the world of Brewer's film – having fallen prey to war or pollution or aliens or something else inspiring faraway clouds of smoke and rounds of gunfire. (If you thought Civil War was sketchy on details, Michael Nilon's script makes Garland's look positively lousy with backstory.)iving in a remote farmhouse, Nicolas Cage's single dad Paul raises twin teenagers Joseph (Jaeden Martell) and Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins), teaching them to forage for supplies and sources of food, as well as the mechanics behind sealing doors and windows for maximum security. We soon learn why. When the sun is up, everything is post-apocalyptic peachy. When it's down, humans are besieged by growling, clawing somethings that want desperately to get inside, maybe to eat us, maybe to simply kill us – again, specifics aren't necessarily Nilon's forte. It's all very Quiet Place-y, barring the creatures' ability to also see their victims, and nowhere near as intense or interesting. But those creatures are goo-o-o-od.

Although the equally touching Martell and Jenkins develop a believable sibling rapport, meaning that Joseph and Thomas spend most of the movie unable to stand one another, there's a lot here that doesn't work, ranging from the contrived, telegraphed peril to Cage's charmless, distractingly strident portrayal to the boatload of unanswered questions. (Those growling, clawing somethings have been after us for more than a decade and they're only now realizing they can enter dwellings by digging their way underneath?) Yet the malevolent beasts themselves almost made my complaints irrelevant.

Our first exposure to one, in truth, is one of the great giggly-scary treats of the year to date. While Joseph feigns napping, an intentional opening in the front door leads to one of the monsters gingerly extending a tentacle into the room, the appendage unfolding and expanding until it halfway reaches the boy – and then a spindly, razor-like fingernail begins growing toward the kid, coming within an inch of his face. At our Friday screening, a patron near us quietly mumbled “What the hell … ?” and was totally right to; the bit was hilariously unnerving. And when we finally see the living nightmares in full form, they're a wild collage: a little Komodo dragon, a little velociraptor, a little H.R. Giger, and (as my friend astutely observed) a little Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, all blended with what looks like fur and a novelty shop's chattering-teeth toy. In short, they're remarkable, and if the not-great but not-that-bad Arcadian feels like something you've seen before, trust me: You've never seen anything quite like these weirdos.

Andrew Scott in Vanya


Between All of Us Strangers, Netflix's limited series Ripley, and the National Theatre Live presentation of Vanya I was privileged to see at FilmScene on Sunday, 2024 might go down (for me) as the year I couldn't stop publicly raving about Andrew Scott. I wish every year were one in which I couldn't stop publicly raving about Andrew Scott. With Vanya's Iowa City screening following the play's West End debut last September, a question arises: Has any actor ever had such wildly triumphant successes in film, television, and theatre over a seven-month period? Maybe Laurence Olivier back in the day, and maybe Laurie Metcalf with her 2018 nominations for an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony (the latter of which she won), but it's a short list. Scott, meanwhile, is on my own short list of performers I'll gladly, gratefully watch in anything, which made his Olivier Award-nominated turn in this solo interpretation of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya such a particular pleasure, because he gets to do everything.

As Chekhov's tragicomic masterpiece about a crushingly unhappy Russian family sits firmly among my five favorite stage plays of all time, I'll be the first to agree that we lose a few things through its transformation into a one-man show. Principally, of course, we lose other actors. Yet more essentially, we lose what a smart director can do with them, positioning and choreographing characters so that their movement, or lack of it, can demonstrate relationships without the aid of dialogue, and their proximity or distance can reveal emotional undercurrents otherwise merely suggested. As adept as Scott is at differentiating Chekhov's eight Uncle Vanya roles, it still takes a bit of time to fully glean which member of this amusingly sad household he's playing; I'm embarrassed to admit that I thought the figure of Vanya's mother, at the beginning, was actually a housekeeper. And through necessity, Scott isn't able to fully submerge himself in the skin of any one figure the way he no doubt would if he were merely (or, in Scott's case, “merely”) playing the unfulfilled Ivan “Vanya” Voynitsky or the lovelorn country doctor Astrov or even the beguiling Helena. He's unquestionably great in these and the other roles, but before long, another character will be required to speak, and the delicate, individual spell that Scott casts will inevitably be broken.

All that being said, I can't imagine two hours better spent than watching Andrew Scott, in front of director Sam Yates' live (recorded) audience, delivering theatrical magic – and magic that, despite the stunt of the project, doesn't feel remotely self-congratulatory. Through his every reading, gesture, and protracted silence, the actor makes it clear that he's in service to Chekhov and the story and the characters, not his own ego. Working on a largely spare, seemingly haphazardly decorated set boasting out-of-period accoutrements (plastic outdoor furniture, a cassette-tape player), and with Simon Stephens' adaptation boasting a goodly supply of modern vernacular (you've never before heard “f---” so frequently in a Chekhov), Scott dons smartly chosen comfy clothes to zip in and out of the playwright's characters. He lends most of them a telling visual detail: indoor sunglasses for the barely-ambulatory Vanya, a dish towel for put-upon Sofia, a cigarette for sardonic Elizabeth. He slightly alters his rhythms, cadence, and accents to diversity the lineup. And then, my description a nod toward Stephens' conversationally updated telling, he f---ing goes to town.

Andrew Scott in Vanya

Despite the intentionally drab décor, Yates' Vanya boasts plentiful theatrical wizardry: a center-stage doorway that conveniently allows for character transformations and unexpected props (an idea I'm totally stealing for future shows I may direct); dramatic smash-cut blackouts; two rounds of shotgun blasts leading to a riotous punchline. It's Scott's wizardry, though, that you most revel in, even when you're clocking performance habits – the actor fiercely covering or rubbing his eyes, or pulling his face into a taut mask – familiar from Sherlock and Fleabag and his one-man Sea Wall. (A huge part of Ripley's thrill is that almost nothing from Scott's expected performance arsenal is on display.) Entire paragraphs could, and should, be devoted to any number of insanely moving dialogues and soliloquies, many of which bring their reciter to tears that he has to immediately wipe away in order to carry on with the show. You may find yourself in a similar situation. I'm thinking immediately of Scott's Vanya drunkenly recounting his life failure to Sonia, and Sonia coyly surveying the doctor's romantic interest (“If I had a friend … ? Or a younger sister … ?”), and handyman Liam explaining how he got his unfortunate nickname, and Vanya's rage-filled tirade against brother-in-law Alexander's selfishness … .

I could go on for hours. Longer, even, than the run-time of Vanya itself. Yet beyond being extraordinarily moving, Scott, in no surprise, is also supremely funny when the material allows it. Also sometimes when it doesn't, as Stephens' script boasts beautifully tongue-in-cheek references to Chekhov's minor characters after they've been gone for an inordinately long period of time, as well as a dog that, more than 90 minutes into this under-two-hour presentation, we never knew existed. My FilmScene ticket was a Christmas present from friends, and although it took nearly four months for me to cash it in, Vanya proved to be one of the most rewarding gifts I've ever received. Stay tuned to Scott's stage sensation isn't there yet, but it will be eventually, and you won't want to miss it. [4/17 update: What I initially presumed was a one-time-only showing of Vanya happily wasn't – it will be playing again at Iowa City's FilmScene at the Chauncey at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 20.]

Ryland Brickson Cole Tews


Director/co-writer Mike Cheslik kind of already had me with his ultra-low-budget movie's title: Hundreds of Beavers. I'm sorry, but that's objectively funny. So was the trailer that a friend directed me to a couple months ago. And while I'm not entirely convinced that the 108 minutes of Cheslik's feature film wouldn't have been more effective if it were a half-hour shorter, I have to applaud this grainy, black-and-white homage to century-ago silent comedies for staying consistently clever through its run time, and for boasting numerous slapstick gags that, unlike the norm, actually get more hilarious through repetition. The first time a grizzled fur merchant missed hitting a spittoon with his chewing tobacco, I smiled. By the eighth time, I was laughing out loud.

Imagine a Road Runner cartoon in which, after innumerable attempts, Wile E. Coyote's ACME products actually do net him his long-desired prey, and then remove the color, and then multiply that short by a figure of around 35. That's Hundreds of Beavers, which finds a drunken applejack maker (co-screenwriter Ryland Brickson Cole Tews) determined to win the hand of his sequestered amour (Olivia Graves) by scoring beaver pelts for her father (Doug Mancheski). Oh, and did I mention that the beavers in question – as well as all manner of dogs, rabbits, wolves, and the like – are enacted by scores of humans in plushy, theme-park mascot outfits? Perhaps not, and it doesn't matter. Words can't do justice to the inventive silliness on display here, because any description of the film's comic gambits – such as “a woodpecker attacks every time he hears a wolf whistle” – will only make Cheslik's feature sound dumb. It is dumb. Yet in its blend of practical ingenuity, shrewd editing choices, and deliriously juvenile gags, this is dumb comedy rendered with something approaching brilliance.

Connoisseurs of old-time Looney Tunes cartoons should have an absolute blast at this thing, rife as it is with ultra-violence in the shape of kid-friendly fun. And despite a few eyebrow-raising moments involving our hero's sweetheart (a hardscrabble frontier gal who also proves to be an incongruously expert pole dancer), kids themselves will likely giggle themselves silly, the frequent guttings and beheadings made tolerable by the creatures' innards composed of nothing but fluff. (Both demographics should appreciate the resurrection of the all-purpose “X”s that signal either the liquor content on a jug of booze or, in a creature's eyeballs, sudden death. Until now, I think only Wes Anderson has taken satisfying advantage of that signpost.) With most of its dialogue constrained to title cards, and Tews an inspired, ideal silent-comedy lead – he has a killer disgruntled groan and farcical eyebrows – Hundreds of Beavers is an absolute gas, and happily, far easier to access than Vanya. It's currently at Davenport's Last Picture House, will be opening soon at Iowa City's FilmScene, and, through FilmHub, is available for rental and purchase on Prime Video and Apple TV nationwide as of today. To fully appreciate the movie's scope, however, do try to catch it on the big screen, or at least a sizable home-theater one, as opposed to your phone. Th-th-th-that's small, folks!

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