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: ‘Shortcomings’ (2023), starring Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Tavi Gevinson, Debby Ryan, Sonoya Mizuno, Jacob Batalon and Timothy Simons

October 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sherry Cola and Justin H. Min in “Shortcomings” (Photo by Jon Pack/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Shortcomings” (2023)

Directed by Randall Park

Culture Representation: Taking place in the San Francisco Bay Area and in New York City, the comedy film “Shortcomings” (based on the graphic novel of the same name) features an Asian and white cast of characters portraying the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After an aspiring filmmaker and his girlfriend agree to take a break from each other while she does an internship in New York City, he and his semi-closeted lesbian best friend have various experiences in the dating scene.

Culture Audience: “Shortcomings” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about single people looking for love and having a lot of quip-filled banter about their relationships.

Ally Maki and Justin H. Min in “Shortcomings” (Photo by Jon Pack/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Shortcomings” avoids romantic comedy clichés by not focusing on who’s going to be in a happy romance at the end. It’s a mostly entertaining character study of about a cynical grouch and his lesbian best friend, as they navigate the dating scene. “Shortcomings” is neither a classic film, nor is it an awful movie that’s a waste of time. It’s somewhere in between, as a movie that’s a fairly good option for people who are inclined to like movies where most of the scenes are people talking about themselves and their love lives.

Randall Park, who is best known as a comedic actor (he was a star of the 2015-2020 comedy TV series “Fresh Off the Boat”), makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Shortcomings,” a witty and occasionally sitcom-ish examination of unmarried people with a jaded attitude that often masks the hope of finding true love. (Park has a cameo in the movie as a waiter named Ji-Hun.) “Shortcomings” is based on the 2007 graphic novel of the same name by Adrian Tomine, who adapted the book into the “Shortcomings” screenplay. “Shortcomings” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and its New York premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

In the beginning of “Shortcomings,” aspiring filmmaker Ben Takanaka (played by Justin H. Min) and his girlfriend Miko Higashi (played by Ally Maki), who are both Japanese American and in their late 20s, are watching a romantic comedy at a movie theater in Berkeley, California, where they live. The movie they are watching is an unimaginative ripoff of “Crazy Rich Asians,” and it’s playing as part of the East Bay Asian American Film Festival. Miko is one of the programmers of the festival, so she’s thrilled that this movie is there.

After the screening in the theater lobby, Miko says to Ben: “As a community, we waited a long time to see ourselves reflected in a …” Ben then interrupts and finishes the sentence by saying, “A garish, mainstream rom com that glorifies the capitalistic fantasy of validation through wealth and materialism?” Miko looks slightly offended, but she’s become accustomed to Ben making cutting remarks when he doesn’t approve of something. Viewers will find out that Ben doesn’t approve of a lot of things.

Miko and Ben live together and have been dating each other for six years. Ben has issues with Miko recently having a political awakening about her Asian heritage and being more outspoken about Asian representation in many aspects of life. Ben (who occasionally talks out loud to himself and the “Shortcoming” viewers) says of Miko’s newfound political awakening: “She’s doing it because it’s trendy.”

It should come as no surprise that Ben and Miko have not been getting along with each other lately. Most of their arguments are about Ben thinking that Miko is some kind of “sellout,” while Miko thinks that Ben is jealous that her career has been advancing in the movie industry while his has not. Ben works as a manager of a local movie theater called Berkeley Arts Cinema.

Ben and Miko also have very different attitudes when it comes to love and marriage. Miko eventually wants to settle down and get married. She thinks that marriage should be the next step in her relationship with Ben. Ben doesn’t think they need to get married to prove anything. They’ve reached a stalemate regarding this issue.

Miko also has a problem with what she thinks is Ben’s sexual obsession with white women, especially pretty blondes. Ben denies it, but Miko gets triggered when she finds out that Ben has been looking at porn that only has white people in it. Ben thinks she’s overreacting and says it’s ridiculous for Miko to think he can only look at porn with Asian people in it. However, Miko is correct about Ben having an attraction to pretty blondes, based on who becomes his two love interests later in the movie.

And so, when Miko tells Ben that she has accepted an opportunity to do a three-month internship at the Asian American Film Institute in New York City, Ben and Miko mutually agree that they should take a break from their relationship. During this break, they can date other people and figure out after Miko’s internship ends if they should become a couple again or break up permanently. Ben sees it as a chance to explore the dating scene and see what he’s been missing.

Meanwhile, Ben’s best friend is Alice Lee (played by Sherry Cola), a Korean American lesbian who hasn’t told her conservative parents about her true sexuality. Alice not only hasn’t told her parents, she also deliberately misleads them into thinking that she dates men. As shown in the “Shortcomings” trailer, Alice pretends that Ben is her boyfriend when she introduces him to her parents (played by Borah Ahn and David Niu), who don’t have names in the movie.

Ben, who is a self-described movie snob, manages a small staff at Berkeley Arts Cinema. The employees he supervises include two self-admitted movie geeks who are concessions workers: talkative Gene (played by Jacob Batalon) and laid-back Lamont (played by Scott Seiss), who have constant debates and other discussions about movies. In a very meta joke, Gene mentions in one of these conversations that he prefers the “new Spider-Man.” (In real life, Batalon is a co-star of the “Spider-Man” movies starring Tom Holland.)

A new employee who has joined the team has caught the romantic interest of Ben. Her name is Autumn (played by Tavi Gevinson), a hipster who works in the theater’s box office. Ben wants to date her, but he’s also aware of how tricky it can be for a supervisor to date someone who reports to the supervisor. Autumn invites Ben to an avant-garde spoken-word performance that she is doing, and it’s Ben’s chance to see if this could possibly lead to a romance with Autumn, or if she wants to keep the relationship strictly platonic.

Around the same time, Ben meets down-to-earth Sasha (played by Debby Ryan) at a house party where Alice is also in attendance. One of the first things that Sasha says to Ben is: “We’re probably the only two people at this party whom Alice Lee has not seduced.” Sasha also confirms that she’s bisexual when Sasha tells Ben that she’s single and available after breaking up with her most recent girlfriend two months ago. Ben and Sasha have an instant attraction to each other, but Alice tells Ben not to date Sasha, whom Alice calls a “fence sitter.”

As already shown in the “Shortcomings” trailer, Alice decides to move to New York City. What’s not shown in the trailer: Alice moves to New York City because she got expelled from grad school for kicking another student in the vagina during an argument. This violent incident is not shown in the movie. While in New York City, Alice’s life changes when she meets another queer woman named Meredith (played by Sonoya Mizuno), and they quickly become involved with each other.

Ben decides to visit New York City, partly to hang out with Alice, and partly to spy on Miko. This is where the movie gets into sitcom-ish territory. Ben gets jealous after finding out that Miko has started dating a guy named Leo Alexander (played by Timothy Simons), who met Miko through Leo’s filmmaker friend whose movie was at the East Bay Asian American Film Festival. (Miko dating Leo is also revealed in the “Shortcomings” trailer.)

There really isn’t much of a plot to “Shortcomings,” whose appeal is mainly in watching how these characters interact with each other. The best scenes, of course, are those with Ben and Alice, who feel comfortable enough with each other to tell each other exactly how they feel. It’s in contrast to how Ben puts on more of a “nice guy” front as being sensitive and insecure when he’s dating someone new. He’s much more acerbic and pessimistic when people get to know him better and he shows his true personality.

It’s through the characters of Ben and Alice that viewers see how people often present themselves one way to certain people and another way to other people. Min handles his role as the often-unlikable Ben with considerable aplomb. Ben is not a “villain,” but he’s deliberately portrayed as a very flawed, self-sabotaging individual who hasn’t figured out yet that he’s going to have a hard time finding true love if he doesn’t love himself.

In the role of Alice, Cola has impeccable comedic timing and makes her banter scenes with Min have creative sparks of energy that are enjoyable to watch. The friendship between Ben and Alice is more meaningful than many of the romantic relationships shown in the movie. Overall, “Shortcomings” can be an amusing and realistic look at people’s personality quirks and insecurities that often get amplified (or covered up) when they go through the ups and downs of dating. It’s the type of movie that succeeds in its intention of making viewers laugh and feel uncomfortable at the same time, with an ending that is entirely authentic.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Shortcomings” in select U.S. cinemas on August 4, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on September 14, 2023, and on Blu-ray and DVD on October 17, 2023.

Review: ‘Men’ (2022), starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear

May 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jessie Buckley in “Men” (Photo by Kevin Baker/A24)

“Men” (2022)

Directed by Alex Garland

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the fictional Village Kotson, England, the horror flick “Men” has a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman, who is grieving over the death of her estranged husband, rents a home in the English countryside and has a series of disturbing encounters with men. 

Culture Audience: “Men” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching horror movies that use abstract and often-gruesome scenes to convey messages about relationships between men and women.

Rory Kinnear in “Men” (Photo by Kevin Baker/A24)

Filled with symbolism intended to make viewers uncomfortable, “Men” has incisive observations about grief, guilt, toxic masculinity and female empowerment—all wrapped up in an atmospheric horror movie. Written and directed by Alex Garland, “Men” is the type of horror film that is best appreciated by people who don’t expect all horror films to follow a certain formula where a “villain” is defeated at the end. In fact, the movie leaves it open to interpretation if there are any “villains” and how much of the story occurs inside the mind of the story’s protagonist.

“Men” (which takes place in England) begins with a striking and disturbing image of protagonist Harper Marlow (played by Jessie Buckley) watching a man die while she’s in her apartment home. Harper is British, in her early 30s, and she works in an unspecified job where she has to deal with data figures. As she looks out her apartment window, she’s shocked to see a man falling. This scene is played in slow-motion, as if it’s some kind of dream. But it’s no dream. It’s a flashback memory that Harper is having.

And the man falling out of the building was Harper’s estranged husband James (played by Paapa Essiedu), who died in this tragic fall. His death happened on the day that Harper told James that she wanted him to move out of their home after they had a brutal argument. Harper had already told James that she was going to divorce him. Some other things happened on that day to explain why Harper has a bloody nose. Whether or not James’ death was an accident or a suicide is discussed in the movie, which makes it clear that James was definitely not murdered.

After this horrifying opening scene for “Men,” Harper is then shown arriving at an English countryside mansion called Kotson Manor, which she is renting for two weeks in a place called Village Kotson. It will be a getaway retreat for her after James’ death. It’s never detailed how long ago that James has died, but it’s implied that his death was fairly recent, because Harper booked the rental under the name Mrs. Harper Marlow, out of habit.

The owner of the house is a middle-aged man named Geoffrey (played by Rory Kinnear), who has nervous energy and is very talkative when he gives Harper a tour of the house. When Geoffrey asks Harper where her husband is, Harper makes a comment that implies that she’s divorced, but she hasn’t changed the “Mrs.” part of her name yet. Harper also tells Geoffrey that she has kept her married surname, but she plans to change that too.

James’ death isn’t the only thing that Harper lies about to Geoffrey. There’s a baby grand piano in the house. James asks Harper if she knows how to play piano. Harper says no. James comments, “Me neither.” However, when Harper is alone in the house much later in the movie, she plays the piano. And she’s clearly a very skilled piano player. It’s the movie’s way of showing how women sometimes hide their talent to make men feel more secure.

“Men” has several religious symbols from Christianity’s Old Testament, including the Garden of Eden and the biblical story of the birth of humankind. The first thing that Harper does when she arrives at the house is eat an apple from the apple tree on the front lawn. Geoffrey jokes to Harper that the apple she’s eating is “forbidden fruit.”

Geoffrey, who is upbeat and friendly, apparently lives alone, since he doesn’t mention anyone else who lives in the house. Harper has a very good first impression of this well-kept estate, which she later describes as a “dream country house.” Geoffrey seems very confident that Harper will take good care of the house before he leaves. But it won’t be the last time that Harper will see Geoffrey.

Harper’s best friend is an opinionated and confident American woman named Riley (played by Gayle Rankin), who is close to Harper’s age and who also lives in England. Riley is a supportive and attentive friend to Harper. Harper and Riley are shown having FaceTime conversations throughout the movie. In one of their conversations, when Riley becomes concerned about Harper’s safety, Riley offers to go to this country estate to give Harper some company, but Harper declines the offer. Later in the story, it becomes clear how this friendship represents the power of female solidarity.

Harper thinks she’s going to have a peaceful and quiet vacation at this home in the English countryside. But soon, strange things start happening. While out for a walk in an open field, Harper uses her phone to take a photo of the lush green scenery. But she’s horrified to see a naked man (also played by Kinnear) in the distance suddenly appear in the photo. The man, who is bald and has a stocky build, is completely nude and just staring at her silently in a creepy manner.

Harper goes back to the house, calls Riley, and shows the photo to Riley. They both have a laugh over this awkward situation. But it won’t be the last time that Harper sees this bald, naked man.

While taking a walk through the woods, Harper come across a tunnel, which has an unusually long echo whenever she makes sounds in the tunnel. Harper is charmed and amused by this echo, but her whimsical moment comes to an abrupt end when she sees a shadowy figure of a man at the end of the tunnel. The man, who is wearing a business suit, appears to be watching her.

And all of a sudden, the man starts running after Harper. She frantically runs away, goes in the house, and locks the front door. Harper looks out the windows and doesn’t see any sign of this stranger. She assumes that the man lost track of her when she ran away in the woods, so she’s fairly certain that he wasn’t able to follow her to the house.

Harper then calls Riley to tell her about this odd experience, but Harper decides to shake it off and give Riley a video tour of the house. As she gives the video tour, unbeknownst to Harper, the naked man is walking around on the house’s front lawn and peering through the house’s front windows. He also sees the apple tree and starts eating one of the apples. Eventually, Harper sees the man, who tries to break into the house. Harper calls the police, and the man is arrested.

The rest of “Men” shows Harper having varying degrees of hostile experiences with some of the men who live in the area. Viewers can easily see that most of these men look like Geoffrey, including a church vicar, the naked man, a cop, a pub owner and two farmhand brothers who are both customers in the pub. But is something supernatural going on in Village Kotson, or is it all an elaborate hallucination from Harper?

There’s also a young male character named Samuel (played by Zak Rothera-Oxley), whom Harper first meets when she goes to a church for some meditative solitude. Behind the church is a cemetery. Samuel is sitting on the church steps, wearing a face mask of a blonde woman, when he asks Harper if she wants to play a game. When Harper politely says no, Samuel calls her a “stupid bitch.” Samuel is also rude to the vicar and tells the vicar to “fuck off” when the vicar tells Samuel to stop bothering Harper.

Are there any women in this village, besides Harper? Yes. After the unnamed naked man is arrested (he is mute, has no identification, and is presumed to be homeless), a female police officer named Freida (played by Sarah Twomey) takes Harper’s statement with empathy and professionalism. The 999 phone dispatcher/police operator (voiced by Sonoya Mizuno), who takes Harper’s call about the intruder, is also a woman, although she is only heard over the phone.

However, the movie is really about the characters played by Buckley and Kinnear, who give compelling and admirable performances. The flashback scenes in “Men” demonstrate that although Harper is on a “getaway” trip, she can’t really get away from her feelings about James’ death and how their impending divorce had an impact on their lives. The movie’s pacing might be a little slow for some viewers, but the last 15 minutes of “Men” are a bold and bizarre knockout.

What does all of this symbolism mean in the story of “Men”? The movie shows in subtle and not-so-subtle ways what it’s like to be a woman in a world where men have most of the power and want to keep it that way. A woman who is independent, intelligent and confident is seen as a “threat” to this dominance. And this male insecurity comes out in various ways, such as trying to make women feel weak and inferior to men.

One of the most telling scenes in the movie is at the church, when the vicar talks to Harper, who confides in him on how her husband James died. At first, the vicar seems compassionate in comforting Harper. But when the vicar finds out how Harper’s husband died, this impromptu counseling session ends on a sour note because of rude and insensitive comments that the vicar makes to Harper, as shown in the “Men” trailer: “You must wonder why you drove him to it … Might it be true that if you had given him a chance to apologize, he’d still be alive?”

Even “nice guy” Geoffrey has his moments of sexist condescension. When he gives the house tour to Harper, he says to her with a smirky grin: “Ladies, watch what you flush.” He adds, “Septic tank,” as if to say that the septic tank can get easily clogged. Geoffrey’s snide comment is a subtle menstruation reference to women and girls being told not to flush sanitary pads down toilets. Geoffrey could have easily told Harper about the septic tank without making it sound like women are more likely than men to clog toilets.

The series of increasingly horrifying encounters that happen in “Men” range from sexist comments to outright violent misogyny. Some of it happens in Harper’s flashbacks too. The movie takes a scathing look at how male egos are intertwined with society’s idea of what outward masculinity should look like. And the movie also shows how men are taught to hide their inner pain and insecurities, which misogynistic men often take out and inflict on women.

“Men” also shows how toxic masculinity breeds more toxic masculinity. This toxic masculinity can morph into many different forms—and it isn’t always violent. It’s shown in conversations between men and women when men talk over and interrupt women, to try to assert male dominance. It’s shown when men dismiss women’s thoughts, feelings, intelligence, skills and worth as less important than men’s.

It’s shown when men are hostile to women who are or could be in leadership positions over men. It’s shown when men excuse, enable or tolerate horrible actions from men, but give harsher judgment to women who do the same horrible things. It’s shown when men are quick to blame women when women are wronged and are the victims. It’s shown when men think they know best on how women should live their lives.

“Men” will frustrate some viewers who won’t understand the symbolism in this richly layered movie. People who have no knowledge about Judeo-Christian religious beliefs might also be confused over what the apple tree means in the story. (Look up the story of Adam and Eve, if you don’t know it.) But for people who get what the messages in “Men” are all about, the main takeaway should be that toxic masculinity is everywhere, and people really can’t escape it. “Men” also sends an impactful message that grief should be honestly confronted (not avoided), and women need to tap into their own strength to overcome the damage of misogyny.

A24 will release “Men” in U.S. cinemas on May 20, 2022.

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