Review: ‘Civil War’ (2024), starring Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno and Nick Offerman

April 9, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura and Cailee Spaeny in “Civil War” (Photo by Murray Close/A24)

“Civil War” (2024)

Directed by Alex Garland

Culture Representation: Taking place on the East Coast of the United States, the action film “Civil War” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latin people and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: During a civil war in the United States, a team of four war journalists take a tension-filled and dangerous road trip to the White House to try to get an interview with the U.S. president, who is under siege. 

Culture Audience: “Civil War” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Alex Garland, and war movies that have observations about political turmoil.

Stephen McKinley Henderson in “Civil War” (Photo by Murray Close/A24)

“Civil War” has some gripping action sequences, but it’s not a non-stop action flick about gun-toting heroes. It’s an effective commentary about war journalism, political unrest, and the psychological toll on people caught in the crossfire. The movie is set in the 21st century, but the themes in “Civil War” are timeless.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, “Civil War” had its world premiere at the 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival. It’s not a typical war movie because much of the story takes place during a road trip from New York state to Washington, D.C., with journalists as the central characters. The movie gives an accurate depiction of how being a war journalist requires a certain mentality, skills and attitude, including the ability to document what’s happening without getting involved.

The movie begins with an unnamed U.S. president (played by Nick Offerman) privately rehearsing a speech by himself at the White House before he gives the speech live on camera. “Civil War” does not offer a detailed explanation for why there is a U.S. civil war in this story, but it’s mentioned in the movie that Texas and California have seceded from the Unted States and formed a faction called Western Forces, which want to bring down the U.S. government. As eventually revealed in the movie, this U.S president (who is in his third term) is currently under siege by Western Forces, which want to assassinate him.

However, during this speech, the U.S. president is trying to put on a brave face during this crisis. He says of the U.S. military defense against this Western Forces attack: “Some are calling it the greatest victory in the history of mankind.” During his speech rehearsal, he changes this statement to: “Some are calling it the greatest victory in the history of military campaigns.”

The movie then shows the four central characters who go on a “race against time” road trip to try to interview the U.S. president at the White House before he is possibly assassinated. Joel (played by Wagner Moura) is addicted to the adrenaline rush of being a war journalist. He is the one who plans to interview the U.S. president. Joel’s jaded photojournalist colleague is Lee Smith (played by Kirsten Dunst), who is considered one of the top war photographers in the media.

The original plan was for Joel and Lee to go on this trip by themselves. However, they are accompanied by a New York Times journalist named Sammy (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson), who has an “elder sage” personality and uses a cane. Also along for the ride is an eager-to-learn aspiring photojournalist named Jessie Cullen (played by Cailee Spaeny), who thinks of Lee as one of her idols.

Lee isn’t very happy about adding these two people to the trip. However, Lee reluctantly agrees to have these extra two journalists join them in the press van. Sammy wants to prove that he’s useful in a media job that often discriminates against elderly and disabled workers. Joel thinks sensitive newbie Jessie can learn a lot from Lee.

Jessie and Lee met early on in the film when Lee came to Jessie’s aid in New York, during a violent street conflict between protesters and military police officers. During this conflict, Jessie accidentally got hit in the face with a police club while she was taking photos. Lee later found out that Jessie was staying at the same hotel when Jessie approached her in a lounge area to thank Lee for Lee’s help.

The rest of “Civil War” shows the harrowing events that happen during their dangerous and often-chaotic journey. However, there is also some dark comedy and a burgeoning camaraderie between these four journalists. It should come as no surprise that Jessie is the one in this group who goes through the biggest personality transformation because of what she experiences during the mayhem.

Jesse Plemons (who is Dunst’s real-life husband) has an uncredited role as a militant enforcer who holds certain people captive. Plemons’ role in the movie is not as big as his appearance in the “Civil War” trailer suggests: His screen time is less than 10 minutes. Two of Joel’s journalist friends named Tony (played by Nelson Lee) and Bohai (played by Evan Lai) have small but pivotal roles in the second half of the movie.

“Civil War” has several cast members who were also in Garland’s 2020 sci-fi/drama limited series “Devs.” Spaeny and Henderson are “Devs” alumni. “Devs” star Sonoya Mizuno has a brief role in “Civil War” as a rival journalist named Anya. Another “Devs” cast member is Jin Ha, who has a small supporting role in “Civil War” as an unnamed sniper who’s in a standoff with an unseen person or persons shooting from a large residential house. Karl Glusman (also from “Devs”) is in the same scene as an unnamed spotter who’s working with the sniper.

“Civil War” invites viewers to think about how you or people you know would react if this civil war really happened in the United States. There are scenes in the movie that show how some people want to block out the realities of this war and pretend that it’s not happening. Others want to jump in and do what they can to fight for causes they believe in, even if it means they will die. Other people are somewhere in between and acknlowedge the war but are just trying to survive without taking sides. “Civil War” doesn’t try to pass judgment on what unfolds in the movie, but it is an impactful story that shows there are no easy answers when it comes to war.

A24 will release “Civil War” in U.S. cinemas on April 12, 2024.

Review: ‘Priscilla,’ starring Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi

October 6, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in “Priscilla” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Priscilla”

Directed by Sofia Coppola

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and in Germany, from 1959 to 1973, the dramatic film “Priscilla” (based on Priscilla Presley’s memoir “Elvis and Me”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: At 14 years old, Priscilla Beaulieu is courted by 24-year-old superstar Elvis Presley, and they get married when she is 21, but their relationship is plagued by his drug addiction, infidelity, and controlling tendencies. 

Culture Audience: “Priscilla” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Elvis Presley family and people who like artfully cinematic versions of memoirs.

Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in “Priscilla” (Photo courtesy of A24)

With quiet observations and volatile emotions, the biopic “Priscilla” compellingly shows the doomed relationship of Elvis and Priscilla Presley, who had a love affair that was tender and toxic. Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi give riveting performances as this ill-fated couple. “Priscilla” is based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me,” which at the time revealed many candid details about how suffocating this relationship was for her, even during the happy times, and why she finally had to break free and start a new life.

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, “Priscilla” has the blessing of Priscilla Presley, who was married to Elvis from 1967 to 1973. (Priscilla is one of the executive producers of the movie.) Elvis died of a heart attack in 1977, when he was 42. “Priscilla” had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival, where Spaeny won the prize for Best Actress. “Priscilla” had its North American premiere at the 2023 New York Film Festival. The movie takes place from 1959 to 1973 (when Priscilla was 14 years old to 28 years old), with Spaeny skillfully portraying Priscilla in every scene.

Most people who are fans of Elvis already know the story of how Elvis and Priscilla met in 1959, at a party at Elvis’ rented home in Bad Nauheim, Germany. (“Priscilla” was actually filmed in Toronto.) The movie shows how Priscilla (born in New York City, raised in Texas) was living in Germany at the time with her mother Ann Beaulieu (played by Dagmara Dominczyk) and stepfather Paul Beaulieu (played by Ari Cohen), because Paul was a captain in the U.S. Air Force, and the family was stationed at a military base in Germany. At the time, Elvis was the biggest music superstar in the world, and he had been drafted into the U.S. Army.

Priscilla’s birth name was Priscilla Wagner. Her biological father, James Frederick Wagner, who was a pilot in the U.S. Navy, died in a plane crash when Priscilla was 6 months old. She was adopted by Paul Beaulieu after he married Priscilla’s mother. Priscilla’s maiden surname was then changed to Beaulieu. In real life, Priscilla had five younger half-siblings, but these siblings are barely in the movie. Everything is completely told from Priscilla’s perspective, from the beginning of her relationship with Elvis to their separation that eventually led to their 1973 divorce.

At the time that Elvis (a boisterous extrovert) and Priscilla (a quiet introvert) met, he was 24, and she was 14. What many movies and TV shows about Elvis often gloss over or try to excuse is the predatory way he pursued this child to go out on dates with him. Although Priscilla claims that Elvis always asked her parents’ permission to go out on dates with her when she was underage, the fact remains that their relationship while she was an underage teen was very inappropriate. “Priscilla” shows in no uncertain terms that the relationship has all the signs of a girl and her parents being “groomed” so that she could eventually be controlled and manipulated by an older lover. In this case, the older lover just happened to be rich and famous.

In “Priscilla,” this imbalance of power is shown right from the start. Elvis’ friend Terry West (played by Luke Humphrey), a military man in charge of booking the base’s entertainment, is the one who actually invited Priscilla to Elvis’ house party. Terry meets Priscilla when he sees Priscilla by herself at a diner on the military base, and he compliments her on how pretty she is before he invites her to Elvis’ party. It makes you wonder if Terry was asked by Elvis to specifically target underage teenage girls to “hang out” with Elvis at these parties, Priscilla’s parents certainly weren’t invited to this party.

The first instinct of Priscilla’s parents is to not allow her to go to the party. Terry assures Ann and Paul that Terry and his wife Carol West (played by Deanna Jarvis) will be chaperoning Priscilla the entire time that Priscilla is at the party. Of course, these chaperones aren’t with Priscilla the entire time, because Priscilla and Elvis have moments when they are alone together. In the movie, when Elvis finds out that Priscilla is only in ninth grade, he says to her, “You’re just a baby.”

Priscilla is naturally flattered by the attention, because she was already a fan of Elvis before they met each other. In one of their early conversations, she tells him that her favorite song is Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel.” Elvis likes what he sees and hears when he’s with Priscilla, who is starstruck and overwhelmed by being in Elvis’ presence. Priscilla will eventually see Elvis’ abusive and controlling side, including his nasty temper and his demands that her physical appearance be exactly how he dictates her to look. As Priscilla said in “Elvis and Me” about Elvis: “He was truly a master at manipulating people.”

By the time Priscilla is asked to go on a third date with Elvis, Paul requires that Elvis meet Paul and Ann in person first. Paul is the more skeptical and wary parent, who questions Elvis on why Elvis is pursuing underage Priscilla when Elvis could date women. Elvis tries to spin it as “companion” interest instead of a sexual interest, by telling Paul that he enjoys talking to Priscilla and that she’s “mature” for her age. Elvis also plays the sympathy card, by telling Ann and Paul that Priscilla has been helping him get over the death of his beloved mother, Gladys, who died of a heart attack in 1958. Elvis uses his fame and charm to eventually convince Ann and Paul that his only intentions are to take care of Priscilla like a young friend.

Of course, the relationship became more than friendly and not very innocent. The movie shows Elvis is the one who initiates the first kiss that he and Priscilla have together. And early on in the relationship, he introduces Priscilla to taking pills (uppers such as Dexedrine and downers such as Placidyl) that he was frequently ingesting as a way to cope with his hectic lifestyle. “Priscilla” does not try to excuse the fact that Elvis was knowingly drugging an underage person who didn’t have a prescription for those pills.

As depicted in the movie, Priscilla has no interest or curiosity in taking the pills the first time that Elvis orders her to take these pills. She only does it to please him. It eventually became a pattern in the relationship between Elvis and Priscilla. The movie implies that Priscilla eventually gets hooked on the pills, but her pill habit wasn’t severe enough for her to seek medical help. In “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla said that while she was married to Elvis, she eventually quit taking these types of pills on her own, but Elvis never quit.

In 1960, after Elvis left active duty in the U.S. Army, he went back to the United States. He stopped contacting Priscilla for all of 1960 and a great deal of 1961, while Priscilla pined for him and showed no interest in dating boys her own age. She was also aware of Elvis’ very busy love life that was covered in the media. This type of heartbreaking infatuation is shown with accurate clarity in “Priscilla,” which does a very good job of depicting how the lines can be blurred between fan worship and an unhealthy obsession. Priscilla believes that her connection to Elvis was real in the short time that they spent together, so she’s deeply hurt and confused over why he chooses not to keep in touch with her.

And so, in 1961, when Elvis calls Priscilla out of the blue to pick up right where they left off in their relationship, it’s no wonder that lovelorn Priscilla jumps at the chance. Now older and more assertive (but still under 18), Priscilla threatens to run away to wherever Elvis is if her parents won’t give her permission. Elvis summons Priscilla to Memphis, Tennessee, to visit him on a regular basis at his famous Graceland mansion.

By 1963, when she is 18 years old, Elvis has persuaded Priscilla to live with him at Graceland. Her parents are convinced it will be safe because Graceland is also the home of some of Elvis’ relatives, including Elvis’ father/business manager Vernon Presley (played by Tim Post) and Vernon’s mother Dodger Presley (played by Lynne Griffin), whose real name was Minnie Mae Hood Presley. While she’s in high school, Priscilla’s true relationship with Elvis isn’t officially confirmed to the media because of the scandal it would’ve created.

While out on dates with Elvis, she was presented as Elvis’ close friend, but most people were skeptical that the relationship was strictly platonic. In “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla also mentioned that Elvis used his money and clout to keep many of their dates secretive. For example, he would often rent out an entire movie theater after-hours for him, Priscilla and anyone else who was invited to watch his choice of movies.

The scenes where the adult Elvis is “seducing” underage Priscilla are supposed to be uncomfortable to watch, especially for people who don’t want the words “statutory rape” to be associated with Elvis. In Tennessee, 18 years old is the minimum age of consent to legally have sexual relations with an adult. This was also Tennessee law in the 1960s.

There’s a scene in “Priscilla” where adult Elvis tells underage Priscilla that he won’t have sexual intercourse with her, but “we can do other things.” In “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla admitted that she and Elvis started having sexual relations (which she called “lovemaking”) when she was 16. She claims that they didn’t have full sexual intercourse until their wedding night, when she was 21. Priscilla and Elvis got married on May 1, 1967, less than two weeks before Priscilla’s 22nd birthday.

“Priscilla” will get inevitable comparisons to the Oscar-nominated 2022 biopic “Elvis” (directed and co-written by Baz Luhrmann), but these two movies couldn’t be more different from each other. The bombastic spectacle “Elvis” was sanctioned by Elvis Presley Enterprises and is chock full of Elvis songs and dazzling performance scenes, but the movie doesn’t show Priscilla as anything but a side character, and the movie blocks out any references to legal issues regarding Elvis being sexually involved with an underage girl. The “Elvis” movie does not show how (according to Priscilla) Elvis coldly announced to her that he wanted a trial separation, when she was pregnant with daughter Lisa Marie in late 1967. The separation ended before Lisa Marie was born in February 1968.

“Priscilla,” which has a much lower budget than “Elvis,” is a quieter and more understated character study that is a more accurate depiction of what happened in the relationship between Elvis and Priscilla. Viewers should not expect to see big scenes of Elvis performing his songs in “Priscilla.” There are no Elvis songs in the “Priscilla” movie and only a few brief scenes of him performing on stage. Also noticeably absent in “Priscilla” is Elvis’ domineering manager Colonel Tom Parker, who is the narrator and one of the main characters in 2022’s “Elvis.”

One of the most effective things about “Priscilla” is how it depicts abusive relationships as often starting off as “fairy tale” type of romances. But there are usually warning signs. Early on in their dating relationship, Elvis forbids Priscilla from taking a part-time job at a clothing boutique, by telling her that she has to make this choice of what she wants in her life: “It’s either me or a career.” Long before Elvis and Priscilla are married, he expects her to be at his beck and call, while he doesn’t have to answer to her about any of his activities or life decisions. Elvis gets very angry when Priscilla asks questions about what he does when he’s away from her.

And when there are obvious signs that Elvis is cheating on Priscilla (his “Viva Las Vegas” co-star Ann-Margret is mentioned as Priscilla’s biggest rival), he tries to make Priscilla sound paranoid or imagining things when she brings up her infidelity suspicions to him. When the couple’s arguments get physical (there’s a scene where Elvis throws a chair at Priscilla, but the chair narrowly misses her; another scene shows Elvis harshly shoving Priscilla), Elvis does the typical abuser “love bombing” of making profuse apologies and promising that the abuse will never happen again. Elvis is shown as someone who was unpredictable, with a temper that could go from one extreme to another in a matter of minutes. There are enough good times to convince Priscilla to stay in the relationship longer than she should have, but the abuse never really leaves the relationship.

“Priscilla” has many scenes in the movie that are taken directly from “Elvis and Me,” often using some of the same lines of dialogue that are quoted in the book. For example, the movie recreates the section in the book where teenage Priscilla is desperate to get a good grade on a math test, in order to graduate from high school. And so, she convinces the straight-A female student sitting next her during the test to let Priscilla copy the answers on her test, with the implied promise that the other student will be invited to one of Elvis’ parties as a reward.

One of the many other experiences described in the “Elvis and Me” book that’s recreated in the “Priscilla” movie is when underage Priscilla visits Elvis at Graceland, sometime in 1961, when they had rekindled their dating relationship. During this visit, she is once again not accompanied by her parents when spending time with Elvis. Elvis tells Priscilla to take some pills. She goes into a deep sleep that she thinks lasts for a few hours. When she finally wakes up from her groggy stupor, Elvis tells her she’s been barely conscious for two days, and he refused to take her to a hospital. This is the type of disturbing experience that isn’t in most movies or TV shows about Elvis.

During the marriage of Priscilla and Elvis, they maintain a home at Graceland; at a ranch in Horn Lake, Mississippi; and at a mansion in the Los Angeles area. Elvis and Priscilla also spend a lot of time in Las Vegas, where Elvis had a concert residency at Las Vegas International Hotel, from 1969 to 1976. (The hotel’s name is now Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino.) Elvis and Priscilla share a fondness for certain animals as pets, particularly dogs and horses. A West Highland White Terrier (a gift from Elvis to Priscilla) becomes Priscilla’s constant companion in many scenes. In real life, this dog was a white poodle named Honey.

Elvis’ self-titled 1968 concert special on NBC (also known as the Elvis comeback special) is depicted as a triumphant and happy experience that Elvis and Priscilla watched on TV with members of their inner circle. Elvis would also host several parties and musical jam sessions. Unlike the 2022 “Elvis” movie, “Priscilla” does not have several depictions of other celebrities who knew Elvis. As shown in “Priscilla,” any good times that Elvis and Priscilla had also came with bad times that were the eventual undoing of this marriage.

In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, “Priscilla” shows that the glamorous sides of fame and fortune—such as shopping sprees, high-priced gifts and lavish trips—were just superficial things that did not impact the marriage of Elvis and Priscilla nearly as much as the abuse and disrespect that she suffered during the marriage. As seen in the movie, Priscilla can come home with shopping bags of expensive items, but when she’s at home, she goes back to being an oppressed wife whose husband makes restrictive demands on her or ignores her while he’s away enjoying the company of other women.

Priscilla is also constantly reminded that Elvis has more power than she ever will. When she is a teenage student, he visits the Catholic high school where Priscilla attends after she moved to Memphis. Some of the school’s nuns are star-struck and act like giddy schoolgirls when they ask to take photos with Elvis. When she is a married adult, Elvis refuses to let Priscilla to get a job or have any career interests. Long before they are married, he tells her as an underage child that her life has to revolve around him, in order for him to really love her and be in a relationship with her.

“Priscilla” also shows the painful loneliness that often comes with dating a busy celebrity. While in high school, Priscilla doesn’t have many friends. She’s considered “different” or “unapproachable” because she’s dating Elvis. She’s also predictably the subject of a lot of gossip and is told by Elvis not to mingle with people who could spread information about their relationship. Vernon also won’t allow Priscilla to bring any visitors to Graceland, where she was living during her last year in high school in 1963.

As an adult, Priscilla is frequently left alone while Elvis is touring or working on a movie. Elvis would often forbid her to visit him where he was working. And if she was allowed to visit him, she could only stay for a very short period of time. Priscilla often had to find out what Elvis was doing with other women in his free time by hearing about or seeing these antics in the media.

“Priscilla” shows that Priscilla has some female friends, but those friendships are briefly depicted in the movie as social friends, not close confidantes who know all the details about Priscilla’s misery in her marriage. It’s one of the few areas of the movie that is in direct contrast to Priscilla’s account in her “Elvis and Me” memoir. In the book, Priscilla details her close female friendships, particularly with Joan Esposito, the first wife of Elvis’ longtime tour manager Joe Esposito.

And sometimes, the loneliness that Priscilla experienced was when Elvis was physically there with her but emotionally far apart. The movie portrays Elvis’ mid-1960s obsession with various religions and philosophies in his quest to find the true meaning of life. Elvis’ hairstylist Larry (played R Austin Ball), based on the real Larry Geller, becomes a self-appointed spiritual guru for Elvis. Larry is the one encourages Elvis and Priscilla to take LSD for the first time. (In “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla said she and Elvis only took LSD once when they were a couple.) This “acid trip” is depicted in the movie, but not quite in the way that it’s described in “Elvis and Me.”

The movie portrays Priscilla’s eventual discontent over Elvis’ spiritual philosophy activities, because she felt it was ruining their marriage. In bed, she would try to be sexually intimate with him, but he would demand that she listen to him while he read spiritual and philosophical books out loud to her. By the mid-1960s, he was inviting people to have Bible studies at their Bel Air home. He would lead these Bible studies, which would last for hours per session. All the Bible study guests were young, adoring females, who would mutually flirt with Elvis, while Priscilla was usually in the same room.

Elvis’ notorious all-male entourage, nicknamed the Memphis Mafia, is depicted as mostly carousing “yes men.” Elvis and the Memphis Mafia leer and gawk at Priscilla when she is forced to make herself look sexy for them, such as trying on and modeling dresses for Elvis and his Memphis Mafia, while they give their opinions on how she looks. This judgmental leering has a sleazy factor when you consider that Priscilla is an underage teen in these scenes.

After Elvis and Priscilla become parents to daughter Lisa Marie, he spends even less time with his family. (Raine Monroe Boland as the role of Lisa Marie at age 3. Emily Mitchell has the role of Lisa Marie at age 5.) The smiling Presley family portraits during this time often masked a marriage that was fracturing and would eventually permanently break.

“Priscilla” doesn’t make Priscilla look saintly, but the movie could have been more honest in showing that Elvis wasn’t the only one who was unfaithful in their marriage. In “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla admitted she had an affair with her karate instructor Mike Stone in 1972, before she made the decision to leave Elvis. The “Priscilla” movie hints that Mike Stone (played by Evan Annisette) and Priscilla were sexually intimate, but the movie has no outright depiction or admission of this extramarital affair.

Overall, writer/director Coppola has a very impressive eye for detail and adds some artistic touches to this biopic. In the “Elvis and Me” book, Priscilla made a sarcastic joke about how her choice in dresses often had to be compatible with whichever gun she would be carrying. (Elvis liked giving her pistols as gifts.) In the movie, there’s a shot of three dresses displayed on a bed with different pistols lying on each dress, as if the pistols are clothing accessories. The cinematography, costume design and production design of “Priscilla” are all on point for this splendid-looking movie.

It’s truly fascinating to behold Spaeny’s ability to show the emotional range and evolution of Priscilla at all these different stages in Priscilla’s life, from childhood to adulthood. Elordi’s portrayal of Elvis as an outwardly confident but inwardly insecure superstar is also admirable in its nuances, even though Elvis doesn’t change as much as Priscilla does in this movie. Because “Priscilla” revolves so much around Priscilla and Elvis, everyone else is a side character with not much development.

Did Elvis and Priscilla have true love? Maybe. But it was also a very dysfunctional and unbalanced relationship where Elvis always wanted to control Priscilla. It was never the type of love where there was equal respect between the partners. Because “Elvis and Me” was published in 1985, and because “Priscilla” stays mostly faithful to the book, there isn’t any new information revealed in this movie. However, in the growing list of Elvis Presley-related movies, “Priscilla” is in a class by itself for celebrating someone in Elvis’ inner circle who had the courage to leave an unhealthy situation where many people would willingly stay because of the fame and money.

A24 will release “Priscilla” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023.

Review: ‘How It Ends’ (2021), starring Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny

July 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny in “How It Ends” (Photo courtesy of MGM/American International Pictures)

“How It Ends” (2021)

Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy film “How It Ends” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Hours before an impending apocalypse, a woman in her 30s sees a physical manifestation of her 15-year-old self, and together they visit people they know to say their goodbyes in case they don’t survive the apocalypse. 

Culture Audience: “How It Ends” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “mumblecore” comedies that are self-consciously quirky in a way that will annoy some viewers.

Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny in “How It Ends” (Photo courtesy of MGM/American International Pictures)

The smugly oddball “How It Ends” looks and sounds like it could have been a pilot episode for a mumblecore sitcom rather than a compelling cinematic experience. In this time-wasting apocalyptic comedy, the end of the world is depicted as Los Angeles hipsters and weirdos acting as annoying as possible and thinking that they’re hilarious. You can see that on Hollywood Boulevard for free. You don’t need to pay money to see that in a movie as dull as this one.

Husband-and-wife duo Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein wrote and directed “How It Ends,” and it looks exactly like what it is: A movie that was rushed into production during the pre-vaccine COVID-19 pandemic, just so the filmmakers could brag about how they braved the pandemic to make this movie. Unfortunately, not enough time seems to have been spent on developing an interesting story for this repetitive and mostly empty-headed film.

“How It Ends” takes place in Los Angeles, just hours before an apocalypse is supposed to destroy the world. It’s never explained how people know the exact hour that this apocalypse is going to hit. But the characters in this movie are just way too calm about it, and they go about their lives as if it’s just another sunny day in California.

At least half of this movie just shows the two main characters walking from house to house, as they say goodbye to friends and assorted loved ones before the end of the world happens. Expect to see repetitive shots of people sauntering down a street as if they’re just out for a pleasant stroll before the apocalypse. And everyone they talk to just happens to be “quirky.”

The two main characters in the story are supposed to be the same person at different stages in her life. The movie opens with protagonist Liza (played by Lister-Jones), who’s in her 30s and with an unknown occupation, in her home on the morning before the apocalypse. There’s a teenage girl (played by Cailee Spaeny) jumping up and down on Liza’s bed.

Liza checks her voice messages and finds out that her friend Mandy (played by Whitney Cummings) has invited Liza to an end-of-the-world party happening that night. Liza tells the teenage girl, “Tonight, I want to get really fucking high and eat ’til I puke.” The girl in Liza’s house replies, “I can list so many problems with that idea. The first is: You’re out of weed.”

Who is this girl? Liza finds out this other person in her home is her 15-year-old self. Liza might want to roll on Ecstasy to get high, but the only thing rolling during this movie will be viewers’ eyes at the self-consciously twee absurdity of it all. Guess who’s hanging out with Liza for the whole movie? Young Liza, who’s somehow wiser and more emotionally intuitive than the older Liza.

It’s explained in the movie that Young Liza can only be seen on the last day before the apocalypse happens. And based on the advice that Young Liza gives her older self, Young Liza is supposed to embody hindsight. Young Liza also doesn’t have the emotional baggage that older Liza has, so she’s able to see things more clearly when it comes to unresolved issues in older Liza’s life.

Before Liza and her younger self go to the party, they decide to visit a series of people to say their final goodbyes. A lot of these half-baked scenes (many of them look improvised) are just filler. There are long stretches of the movie where it’s nothing but Liza and her younger self walking from place to place and encountering goofy, strange and usually very irritating people.

Wait, doesn’t everyone drive in Los Angeles if they can afford it? The movie comes up with a reason for why Liza and her teenage mini-me end up walking everywhere for more than half the movie: Liza’s car has been stolen. It’s the end of the world, so there’s no point in reporting the theft to the police. Will Liza get her car back though? That question is answered in the movie.

Most of the people whom Liza and her young self visit are the type of characters you would expect in a low-budget indie flick where the filmmakers think that it’s automatically supposed to be funny to see adults acting like immature kooks. There are the wacky neighbors in different homes, such as Derek (played by Bobby Lee), who’s a babbling stoner; Manny (played by Fred Armisen), a forgetful eccentric; and anxious Dave (played by Paul Scheer), who gets yelled at by another neighbor for not washing his recycling container.

And then there are a few people randomly performing in the middle of the street or on a sidewalk in this residential area, including a nameless stand-up comedian (played by Ayo Edebiri), who’s actually one of the few highlights of the film. Real-life singer Sharon Van Etten shows up toward the end of the film as a folksy singer named Jet, who plays acoustic guitar in the street to an enthralled audience of two: Liza and her younger self.

“How It Ends” desperately wants to be a uniquely modern film, but it uses the oldest and most cliché trope in a comedy starring a woman: She’s pining over a man because she wants him to be her romantic partner. In Liza’s case, “the one who got away” is Nate (played by Logan Marshall-Green), a former hookup whom she has deeper feelings for than she was willing to admit when he was in her life and when she emotionally pushed him away. Liza regrets shutting Nate out of her life, and she wants to see Nate again so she can tell him that she loves him before the end of the world happens.

Liza also has some unfinished business with her divorced parents Kenny (played by Bradley Whitford) and Lucinda (played by Helen Hunt), as well as her ex-boyfriend Larry (played by Lamorne Morris), who cheated on her when they were together. Liza visits all of them during this movie to tell them how she really feels. Viewers find out that she has major abandonment issues and has had a problem communicating her true feelings to the people who are closest to her.

But the best and funniest encounter that Liza has is with an estranged friend named Alay (played by Olivia Wilde), who’s just as neurotic as Liza is. Liza and Alay have a rapid-fire conversation where they talk over each other about what went wrong in their friendship (they fell out because Alay didn’t approve of Larry), and they call a truce—because of, you know, the apocalypse.

Alay eats a very decadent-looking cake during this conversation and says she’s a psychic. What does she see in Liza’s afterlife future? Alay says, “Timothée Chalamet and lots of dairy with no consequences.” Sounds like heaven for a lot of people.

If only “How It Ends” had more of this type of laugh-out-loud comedic scene with Wilde and Lister-Jones, because they have such natural and appealing chemistry with each other. Maybe they can co-star in another movie someday. Hopefully, it would have a better screenplay and more exciting direction than what’s in “How It Ends.”

But for every scene like the rip-roaring one with Wilde, there are five or six more scenes in “How It Ends” that are just so tedious and downright cringeworthy. For example, when Liza goes to her ex-boyfriend Larry’s home, it’s a retro ripoff with derivative ideas: She holds up a boombox (just like John Cusack famously did in the 1989 movie “Say Anything”), and then she quotes the chorus of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 hit “You Oughta Know.”

And there’s some self-pitying drivel, such as when Liza and her younger self have an argument with each other. Liza wants to ditch her younger self and continue on her own, because she thinks Young Liza doesn’t count as her real self. Young Liza shouts, “I do count! All your life, you’ve been licking your fucking wounds, when I’m the biggest wound of all!” Oh, boo hoo. Did anyone bring any tissues?

Lister-Jones and Spaeny previously worked together in the disappointing 2020 horror film “The Craft: Legacy,” which was written and directed by Lister-Jones and starred Spaeny as a teenage witch who joins a coven of other teen witches. The chemistry between Lister-Jones and Spaeny in “How It Ends” is more like older sister/younger sister as two different people, rather than entirely convincing as two versions of the same person. One of the takeaways from the movie is that Liza looks physically older than her younger self, but she hasn’t emotionally matured very much since she was a teenager.

Spaeny makes some attempt to mimic certain mannerisms that older Liza would have had in her teen years. And there are times that Liza and her younger self do things in snyc when they’re walking down the street. However, the movie looks like it was filmed so quickly that Spaeny and Lister-Jones didn’t have enough time to do work on body language and speech patterns that are more subtle and nuanced.

“How It Ends” is not so off-putting that it won’t find its share of people who will love this movie. There’s a very specific type of viewer who automatically thinks any movie that reeks of being self-congratulatory “quirky” is something that’s worth admiring. But for people who prefer their comedies to actually be funny and have a significant plot, you’ll have to look elsewhere, because “How It Ends” comes up very short in these elements and is mostly just a series of poorly conceived vignettes.

MGM’s American International Pictures released “How It Ends” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 20, 2021.

Review: ‘The Craft: Legacy,’ starring Cailee Spaeny, Zoey Luna, Gideon Adlon, Lovie Simone, David Duchovny and Michelle Monaghan

October 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Lovie Simone, Gideon Adlon, Cailee Spaeny and Zoey Luna in “The Craft: Legacy” (Photo courtesy of Rafy Photography/Columbia Pictures)

“The Craft: Legacy” 

Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, “The Craft: Legacy” features a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four teenage witches use their witchcraft to turn a school bully into a politically correct, enlightened person, but they find out these actions cause a major backlash.

Culture Audience: “The Craft: Legacy” will appeal primarily to people who like stories about witches that play it very safe. 

David Duchovny, Michelle Monaghan and Cailee Spaeny in “The Craft: Legacy” (Photo courtesy of Rafy Photography/Columbia Pictures)

Just like Blumhouse Productions’ 2019 remake of the sorority horror flick “Black Christmas,” the foundation of Blumhouse Productions’ 2020 teenage witch film “The Craft: Legacy” (a reimagining of the 1996 movie “The Craft”) is about empowering women in the #MeToo feminist era. But “The Craft: Legacy” (written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones) makes the same mistake that the 2019 remake of “Black Christmas” did: By telegraphing these feminist intentions so early in the movie, it’s very easy to figure out who the “villains” are in the story.

The heavy-handed preachiness of “The Craft: Legacy” would be easier to take if the movie delivered a better story that wasn’t filled with major plot holes and had a more consistent tone. This movie needed more horror gravitas and more impressive visual effects instead of ill-suited comedic bits and cheap-looking visual effects that weaken the story’s message.

There are parts of “The Craft: Legacy” that work fairly well: The cast members do adequately good jobs in their roles, and there’s a realistic handling of awkward issues in blended families. But too many other parts of the movie don’t work well at all and are at times quite dull and predictable.

“Black Christmas” and its remakes at least made concerted efforts to be terrifying. By contrast, “The Craft: Legacy,” which obviously has a younger audience in mind than an adult-oriented slasher flick like “Black Christmas,” only has mild scares that are disappointing and often take a back seat to the movie wanting to look more like a teen drama than a horror film. That doesn’t mean that “The Craft: Legacy” had to have a lot of gore, but there are several noteworthy horror movies that are suitable for underage audiences and are still able to be effectively terrifying. Some examples include 1982’s “Poltergeist,” 2001’s “The Others” and 2002’s “The Ring.”

The basic premise of “The Craft” remains intact in “The Craft: Legacy.” Three teenage witches, who are social outcasts at their high school in an unnamed U.S. city, are powerless because they need a fourth witch to complete the circle of their coven. They find out that a new outsider girl at their school is also a witch, and they invite her to join their coven. The four teen witches then use their newfound magical powers to make their wishes come true and get revenge on people who hurt them in some way. The “new girl” is the story’s main protagonist.

In “The Craft,” Neve Campbell, Fairuza Balk, and Rachel True were the original trio of witches, while Robin Tunney played the “new girl” invited into the coven. In “The Craft: Legacy,” the “new girl” is Lily Schechner (played by Cailee Spaeny), while the original coven trio consists of sassy transgender Lourdes (played by Zoey Luna), goofy jokester Frankie (played by Gideon Adlon) and Afrocentric-minded Tabby (played by Lovie Simone).

Spaeny gets the most screen time of the four, and she does a fairly good job in portraying Lily’s angst, although she’s not as assertive as Tunney’s “newbie” character in “The Craft.” Lily is the only one of the four witches whose home life and family are shown in the movie. It’s a big change from the 1996 “The Craft,” where viewers got to see the home lives and family members of three out of the four witches.

Luna is memorable as Lourdes, the member of the coven who’s the most emotionally mature and the unofficial “alpha female” of the group. Adlon will either delight or annoy people with how she portrays Frankie, whose hyperactive and somewhat ditzy energy can get on people’s nerves after a while. Just like True’s character in “The Craft” movie, Simone plays the “supportive friend” whose personality is overshadowed by the other members of the coven.

“The Craft” was set in a private Catholic school where the students had to wear uniforms, whereas “The Craft: Legacy” is set in a regular public school. It’s a change of setting that alters the impact of what being an “outsider” in the school really means. Someone who wears Goth makeup (as does one of the teenage witches in each “Craft” movie) and who’s suspected of being a witch is less likely to be a considered a rebel or an outcast at a public school, compared to a private Catholic school with strict policies about religion, hair, clothes and makeup.

Because the school in the original “The Craft” movie was a private institution, there was more of an elitist aura to the school, which made the teen witches’ “outsider” status a little bit more socially dangerous for them at the school. The World Wide Web was fairly new in the mid-1990s. Social media and smartphones didn’t exist back then. Therefore, the teen witches of “The Craft” probably felt more isolated for being “different” than they would be in modern times when they could find other like-minded people on the Internet.

In “The Craft: Legacy,” social media is not seen or mentioned at all, which is probably writer/director Lister-Jones’ way of trying not to make the movie look too dated when it’s viewed years from now. In fact, the movie has several “throwback” nods to pop culture from a past era. For example, during a car ride, Lily and her mother sing Alanis Morissette’s 1995 hit “Hand in My Pocket.” And in multiple scenes, Lourdes uses a Polaroid camera.

Lily is a pixie-ish and introverted only child who has recently moved to the area with her single mother Helen Schechner (played by Michelle Monaghan), who is a therapist from New Jersey. Lily mentions later in the story that she doesn’t know who her father is, and Helen has never told her. Helen and Lily have relocated because Helen is moving in with her boyfriend Adam Harrison (played by David Duchovny), a motivational speaker/author whose specialty is giving empowering advice and self-help therapy for men.

Adam has three teenage sons, who are introduced to Lily for the first time on the day that Lily and Helen arrive to move into their two-story house. Oldest son Isaiah (played by Donald MacLean Jr.) is about 17 years old. Middle son Jacob (played by Charles Vandervaart) is about 16 years old. Youngest son Abe (played by Julian Grey) is about 14 years old. People who see this movie and have knowledge of Judeo-Christian history will notice right away how biblical these names are.

Isaiah is a “strong, silent type” who’s somewhat of an enigma. Jacob is a popular but brooding heartthrob at school. (Goofball witch Frankie has a mild crush on Jacob.) Abe seems to be the kindest and most sensitive of the three brothers, and he’s the only one of the brothers to attempt to befriend Lily. It’s strange that Helen and Adam would wait until move-in day for their children to meet each other for the first time, but there are stranger things that have happened in real life.

Meanwhile, although Adam isn’t overtly sexist, he is very much about male bonding and men’s rights. Living with two females in the house is quite an adjustment for him and his sons. (The mother of Adam’s sons is not seen or mentioned in the movie.) Adam spends a lot of time traveling to host male-only retreats, where he helps men get in touch with their masculinity and innermost feelings. Adam has a mantra that he instills in his sons and his followers: “Power is order.”

Lily’s mother Helen has a different view of power: She constantly tells Lily, “Your differences are your power.” It’s clear that Lily and Helen both know that Lily has supernatural powers, but Lily hasn’t been able to harness those powers for anything major that would fully expose her for being a witch. That is, until she joins the coven.

Adam has gotten notoriety for a book called “Hollowed Masculinity,” which basically preaches that men shouldn’t be afraid of or apologetic for being dominant leaders. One day, while Lily is getting to know the different rooms in her new home, she goes in the home’s study/library and sees the book. When she picks up the book, she drops it quickly, as if the book could’ve burned her. This movie is not subtle at all.

Just like in “The Craft,” there’s a school bully who gets put under a spell by the witches. In “The Craft: Legacy,” the bully’s name is Timmy (played by Nicholas Galitzine), and he happens to be Jacob’s best friend. Lily has a humiliating experience in her first day at the school, when she gets her menstrual period while she’s sitting down at a desk in class. Lily doesn’t know that she’s gotten her period until Timmy announces it and points out the blood on the floor to everyone in the class. “Did you drop something?” Timmy sneers. And then he cruelly adds, “It looks like a crime scene.”

A mortified Lily runs into a restroom and locks herself into a stall to clean up after herself. And she’s soon followed by Lourdes, Frankie and Tabby, who give her sympathy and tell Lily that Timmy has bullied them too. Tabby offers her gym shorts for Lily to wear, since Lily’s jeans are too bloody to put back on again. It’s a generous and kind gesture that goes a long way, because Lily ultimately befriends this trio.

Another big difference between “The Craft” and “The Craft: Legacy” is that the newcomer fourth witch joins the coven a lot quicker in “The Craft: Legacy.” Lily becomes a part of their group within a few days of knowing Lourdes, Frankie and Tabby. They begin to suspect that Lily’s a witch when Timmy taunts Lily again in the school hallway, and she’s able to throw Timmy up against a locker and make him fall down, just by using her mind. This incident puts both Timmy and Lily in detention.

While she’s in detention, Lily begins to hear the voices of the other witches talking to her in her mind. They tell her to meet them in a hallway restroom, and she does. And that’s how Lourdes, Frankie and Tabby are able to confirm that Lily is a witch too. Not long after that, all of four of them start doing spell experiments, such as levitating, before they decide to unleash their full powers. And just like in the first “Craft” movie, snakes and butterflies are in some scenes in the movie where supernatural things happen.

One of the frustrating things about “The Craft: Legacy” is that it doesn’t really expound on the unique powers that each witch has in this coven. Lourdes represents the north, with her power derived from the earth. Frankie’s power represents the east, with her power derived from air. Tabby’s power represents the south, with her power derived from fire. And to complete the circle, Lily’s power represents the west, with her power derived from water.

You would think that these specific powers would be incorporated more into the spells that they cast on people. But aside from some cutesy colors that swirl around when they chant, their unique powers are all talk and almost no action. There are lots of ways to cause witchcraft terror by using the earth, air, fire or water, but those avenues are not fully explored in this movie. Maybe the movie’s budget was too low for the visual effects that would be needed.

And speaking of visual effects, the witch characters in “The Craft: Legacy” mention being fans of the 2008 teen vampire film “Twilight” multiple times. And it’s somewhat ironic, because the much-ridiculed “sparkling vampire” aspects of “Twilight” get sort of a nod in “The Craft: Legacy,” in scenes where there are sparkly effects around the witches, most notably when Lily takes a bath in sparkly purple water.

It’s an aesthetic that’s more like “My Little Pony” instead of “Mistress of the Dark,” and it’s really hard to take “The Craft: Legacy” seriously as a horror movie at that point. There are scenes in the Disney movie “Maleficent” that are scarier than “The Craft: Legacy,” and that’s a major disappointment because Blumhouse movies shouldn’t skimp on the scares.

Another aspect of the film that’s dangled in front of viewers and never quite comes to fruition is that it’s mentioned fairly early on that the foursome coven will get to enact four stages of their full powers: Stage One is telekinesis. Stage Two is mind infiltration. Stage Four is shapeshifting. Frankie tells Lily that Stage Three will be revealed later. But that reveal is another big disappointment. And the shapeshifting (which was used to great effect in the 1996 “Craft” movie) becomes an abandoned idea for the witches in “The Craft: Legacy.”

Whereas the original “Craft” movie had the over-the-top, unhinged performance of Balk as the “loose cannon” witch of the group, there is no such unpredictable personality in this “Craft: Legacy” coven. In fact, all of the witches in this coven are extremely cautious of not going too far to hurt people. If you can believe it, these witches are too politically correct, which doesn’t really work in a story that’s supposed to be about teen witches who want to get revenge on people who’ve tormented them.

Instead of a variety of individual spells that made the original “Craft” movie entertaining to watch, the story of “The Craft: Legacy” focuses on one big group spell, which they put on Timmy. After the spell, he goes from being a sexist bully to a “woke” guy who’s a walking stereotype of an uber-sensitive, progressive liberal. While that mindset might be scary to people on certain ends of the political spectrum, this movie should have been more about horror instead of the political leanings of people who aren’t even old enough to vote.

“The Craft” had a spell put on the class bully so that he would be lovesick over the newbie witch. “The Craft: Legacy” goes one step further and makes the reformed bully not only a potential love interest for the newbie witch (Lily), but he also becomes a feminist who would rather pal around with all four of the witches than hang out with his male buddies. It’s the movie’s way of saying that men can be feminists too, but the message ultimately isn’t that great if the only way a male in this story becomes an “enlightened” feminist is if he’s “tricked” into it by a witch’s spell.

Galitzine is quite good in his role as Timmy, who goes through this drastic personality change. One of the best scenes in the movie is when Timmy and his four new gal pals hang out together and confess some of their biggest secrets. Timmy’s biggest secret is one of the movie’s few major surprises. It’s an emotional scene, but it’s completely different from the “jokey teen antics” tone that the movie was going for in the first half of the film.

After Timmy’s secret is revealed, things take a dark turn in the movie, which would’ve benefited from a dark tone from the beginning. But by the time the big showdown happens at the end of the movie, there are two major plot holes that just can’t redeem this disappointing film.

The first major plot hole involves a “bound spell” that prevents a witch or witches from casting any more spells to do harm. And yet during the big showdown, this “bound spell” is completely forgotten in the plot, as if it never happened. The second big plot hole involves the reveal of the chief villain, who should have several allies in the movie’s climactic showdown, but the villain inexplicably and strangely is the only adversary in this big fight.

And this crucial action sequence in the movie is more talk than suspenseful action. The action just brings more sparkles instead of true terror. There are other parts of the movie that are even more tedious and might induce boredom or the urge to go to sleep.

There’s a “surprise” cameo at the end of the film that isn’t much of a surprise. (And if people really want to know who does this cameo, it’s not a secret, because this person’s name is in the Internet Movie Database list of cast members for “The Craft: Legacy.“) The cameo isn’t that big of a deal because this person does not speak any lines in the movie and is only seen in the last few seconds of the film.

“The Craft: Legacy” seems to have had the right intentions when it was conceived as an updated version of “The Craft.” But somewhere along the way, the filmmakers made the mistake of diminishing the horror of the original “Craft” movie and making “The Craft: Legacy” more of a sparkly teen soap opera.

Columbia Pictures released “The Craft: Legacy” on digital and VOD October 28, 2020.

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