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: ‘Beau Is Afraid,’ starring Joaquin Phoenix

April 14, 2023

by Carla Hay

Joaquin Phoenix in “Beau Is Afraid” (Photo by Takashi Seida/A24)

“Beau Is Afraid”

Directed by Ari Aster

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2022 (with some flashbacks to the early 1990s), in fictional U.S. cities, including one named Wasserton, the dramatic film “Beau Is Afraid” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A never-married, 47-year-old bachelor has to reckon with his volatile and co-dependent relationship with his widowed mother, who became a successful business mogul.

Culture Audience: “Beau Is Afraid” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Joaquin Phoenix, writer/director Ari Aster, and movies that blur the lines between fantasy and reality for the characters.

Armen Nahapetian and Zoe Lister-Jones in “Beau Is Afraid” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Beau Is Afraid” is an experimental fever dream about parent/child issues and mortality. Ari Aster fans expecting a horror movie will be disappointed. Joaquin Phoenix’s acting is stellar, but this three-hour film is too long and too weird for some viewers.

“Beau Is Afraid” writer/director Aster previously wrote and directed 2018’s “Hereditary” and 2019’s “Midsommar,” which were two unsettling horror films that had a straightforward narrative. Out of all three movies, “Beau Is Afraid” is the most wildly imaginative but also the least appealing to a general audience. There are some gruesome and violent scenes in “Beau Is Afraid,” but it is definitely not a horror film.

It’s a psychological portrait that is often hallucinogenic, but the themes of love and loss are never far from the surface. The movie is called “Beau Is Afraid” because paranoia, mental illness and physical danger always seem to be ready to pounce on the protagonist and other characters at any given moment. And what makes Beau afraid could be real external threats or anything from within himself.

The movie’s title character is Beau Wassermann (played by Phoenix), a lonely and disheveled 47-year-old bachelor who has never been married and who lives alone. Viewers know that Beau is 47 because it’s mentioned several times later in the film that Beau (who has no siblings) was born in 1975, and that the “current” part of the story takes place in 2022. There are several flashbacks in the movie, most notably when Beau is in his mid-teens. Armen Nahapetian plays the role of teenage Beau.

The movie’s opening scene is supposed to show Beau’s birth, from his perspective as a newborn. Viewers hear his mother’s panicked voice because she couldn’t hear her baby crying. The doctor in the room repeatedly slaps the baby until he starts crying. It sets the tone for much of what happens to Beau in the movie, because life just keeps giving him one proverbial slap after the next.

Middle-aged Beau currently lives in a run-down and dingy apartment building in an unnamed big city that resembles New York City. (“Beau Is Afraid” was filmed in New York state and Montreal.) Beau lives in a dangerous neighborhood filled with criminals, hustlers and other street people, causing mischief and mayhem outside at all hours of the day and night.

Early scenes in the movie show that human life is not valued where Beau lives. While walking home one day, he sees a small crowd gathered around a high-rise building where a man on the roof looks like he’s going to jump. The crowd is encouraging the man to jump, while some people are gleefully filming everything with their camera phones. Outside the building where Beau lives, a dead man’s decaying body has been left to rot on the street.

How dangerous is this neighborhood? Every time Beau goes to his apartment building, he has to be on the lookout for a man covered from head to toe in tattoos. This unnamed man (played by Karl Roy) chases Beau and tries to get inside the building. Beau has to outrun this menacing person and quickly lock the front door of the building behind him. No explanation is given in the movie for who this man is and why he has targeted Beau.

Beau is in psychiatric therapy and has been prescribed medication. In a session with his psychiatrist Jeremy Friel (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson), Beau says that he has big plans to visit his mother the next day, because it’s the anniversary of the death of Beau’s father, who passed away before Beau was born. Beau is taking a plane trip to visit his mother Mona Wassermann, who lives in Beau’s hometown of Wasserton. (The name of this hometown in the first big clue that Beau’s reality might not be what it first appears to be.)

Dr. Friel asks Beau: “Are you going there with realistic expectations?” Beau doesn’t answer the question. Dr. Friel then asks Beau, “Do you ever wish your mother were dead?” A horrified Beau says no and wonders why the doctor would ask that type of question. Dr. Friel says that it’s possible to love someone and also wish that this person were dead. The two feelings don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

In case that therapy session scene didn’t make it clear enough, the rest of “Beau Is Afraid” makes it abundantly clear that Beau has overwhelming “mommy issues.” In psychiatric Freudian terms, Beau would probably diagnosed with having an Oedipus complex. He’s a man-child who has an unhealthy attachment/fixation on his mother and what she wants him to do with his life. Issues related to Beau’s love life are also largely influenced by how he feels about his mother.

Viewers never find out if Beau has a job. As revealed later in the movie, his mother Mona is a successful and wealthy business mogul. Her line of work won’t be mentioned in this review, because it’s revealed in one of the movie’s more emotionally powerful scenes. It’s enough to say that Mona raised Beau to be very afraid of germs. He was taught not to eat many different types of food that most people eat but which Mona told Beau was “unsafe” for him to consume.

Before he goes to visit his mother, Beau buys a small white ceramic figurine of a mother holding her baby. On the bottom of the figurine, Beau writes this inscription: “Dear Mom, I’m sorry this is the anniversary of Dad’s death. Thank you. I’m sorry. Love, Beau.” This mother/child figurine is a symbol that shows up later in the movie. Viewers also find out fairly early in the movie that Beau has unusually large testicles. His genitals are used as a sight gag in several of the movie’s more outlandish comedic scenes.

Strange things start happening to Beau almost immediately. The night before he goes on his planned trip, while he’s trying to sleep, someone slips hand-written notes underneath his door to ask him to turn down his loud music, even though Beau isn’t making any noise. The next day, he oversleeps and wakes up in the afternoon, only two hours before his plane flight is supposed to leave.

And things get worse from there. In the rush to pack his suitcase, Beau forgot to include his dental floss. He leaves his suitcase in the hallway and his keys in the front door as he goes back in his apartment to get the dental floss. When he returns to the hallway, he sees that his keys and his suitcase have been stolen. The rest of “Beau Is Afraid” is an endurance test for Beau (and for viewers who won’t like this type of movie), as more odd things keep happening to Beau while he tries to find a way to see his mother.

While out on the street, Beau gets accidentally hit by a car driven by a grieving mother named Grace (played by Amy Ryan), who takes him to her suburban home instead of to a hospital. Grace’s surgeon husband Roger (played by Nathan Lane) gives Beau medical treatment. The couple’s sulking daughter Toni (played by Kylie Rogers), who’s about 16 years old, grows increasingly resentful that her parents have let Beau stay in her room, while Toni has to sleep on the couch in the family’s living room.

Grace and Roger are in emotional pain from the death of their young adult son Nathan, who died in Caracas, Venezuela, while he was serving in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Nathan’s tall and large Army buddy Jeeves (played by Denis Ménochet), who witnessed Nathan’s death, is staying with Grace and Roger too. Jeeves is mute, mentally ill, and prone to attacking people randomly. (It’s implied that Jeeves has post-traumatic stress disorder.) Later in the movie, Toni and Toni’s teenage friend Penelope (played by Hayley Squires) take a drug-induced car ride with Beau.

Beau’s domineering mother Mona is portrayed by Zoe Lister-Jones in Beau’s teenage years, and by Patti LuPone in Beau’s middle-aged years. Viewers see the personality change between the younger Mona and the older Mona. This change is one of the reasons why Beau has so many unresolved issues with his mother. Aside from Phoenix’s tour-de-force acting in “Beau Is Afraid,” LuPone gives a standout performance in the short time (less than 20 minutes) that she’s in the movie.

Another character who is seen in different time periods is Beau’s love interest Elaine Bray, who is about the same age as Beau. Elaine and Beau first met as teenagers when he was on vacation with his mother at an unnamed resort, where Elaine was staying with her own domineering mother. As an adult, Elaine ended up working for Mona. Julia Antonelli has the role of teenage Elaine, while Parker Posey has the role of middle-aged Elaine.

Richard Kind has the role of Harold Cohen, the Wassermann family’s attorney, who is heard talking to Beau on the phone and is then later seen toward the end of the movie. Even though Harold is not a doctor, Beau keeps calling him “Dr. Cohen,” and this misidentification greatly annoys Harold. Bill Hader has a very brief cameo as a UPS delivery person. The movie trailer and other marketing materials for “Beau Is Afraid” show Phoenix made to look like an elderly man. It’s another character in the movie that’s exactly who you think it will be, once it becomes obvious that Beau has an Oedipus complex.

“Beau Is Afraid” has terrific production design for the locations where Beau goes to in the movie, but the story is going to be too confusing and too abstract for some viewers. It’s a fascinating, sometimes funny film (if you can tolerate offbeat and violent comedy), but it can also be long-winded and a little too pretentious. The best way to appreciate “Beau Is Afraid” is to know before seeing the movie (or at least figure it out within the first half of this film) that it’s about the dangers of not expressing true feelings for a loved one, and how those repressed feelings can do a lot of damage.

A24 released “Beau Is Afraid” in select U.S. cinemas on April 14, 2023, with a wider release in U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023.

Review: ‘Dune’ (2021), starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Zendaya and Jason Momoa

October 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem and Timothée Chalamet in “Dune” (Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures)

“Dune” (2021)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Culture Representation: Taking place in the year 10,191, on the fictional planets of Caladan, Giedi Prime and Arrakis, the sci-fi action film “Dune” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.

Culture Clash: A territorial war is brewing between two factions—House Atreides from the planet of Caladan and House Harkonnen from the planet of Giedi Primewho will rule over the planet of Arrakis, which is the only place to find melange, also known as spice, a priceless substance that can enhance and extend human life.

Culture Audience: “Dune” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Dune” novel and to people who like epic sci-fi adventures with stunning visuals and good acting.

Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac and Stephen McKinley Henderson in “Dune” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures)

By now, you might have heard that filmmaker Denis Villeneuve wants his version of “Dune” to be split into three parts, in order to better serve the movie adaptation of Paul Herbert’s densely packed 1965 novel “Dune.” People who see Villeneuve’s version of “Dune” are also probably familiar with the 1984 movie flop “Dune,” directed by David Lynch. The 1984 version of “Dune” (starring Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young and Sting) was such a disaster with fans and critics, Lynch wanted to have his name removed from the film credits. That won’t be the case with Villeneuve’s version of “Dune,” which is a sci-fi epic worthy of the novel.

Villeneuve co-wrote his “Dune” screenplay with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts. Part One of Villeneuve’s “Dune” is of much higher quality than the 1984 “Dune” movie, but any “Dune” movie’s cinematic interpretations tend to be a bit clinical in how the characters are written. “Dune” is a gloomy story, with characters who are, for the most part, very solemn and rarely smile. There are no wisecracking rogues, quirky robot sidekicks or cute alien creatures. In other words, “Dune” is no “Star Wars” saga.

As is the case with most epic sci-fi movies, the biggest attraction to “Dune” is to see the spectacle of immersive production designs and outstanding visual effects. When people say that “Dune” should be seen on the biggest screen possible, believe it. However, it’s a 156-minute movie whose pace might be a little too slow in some areas. If you’re not the type of person who’s inclined to watch a two-and-a-half-hour sci-fi movie that’s not based on a comic book or a cartoon, then “Dune” might not be the movie for you.

And this is a fair warning to anyone who likes their sci-fi movies to have light-hearted, fun banter between characters: “Dune” is not that type of story, because everything and everyone in this story is deadly serious. People might have laughed when watching Lynch’s “Dune,” but it was for all the wrong reasons.

And yes, “Dune” is yet another sci-fi /fantasy story about a young hero who leads a war against an evil villain who wants to take over the universe. In the case of “Dune,” the hero is Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet), the House Atreides heir who is the son of a duke. House Antreides exists on the oceanic planet of Caladan. And like any war story, the war usually starts with feuding over power.

House Antreides has had a rivalry with House Harkonnen from the planet of Giedi Prime. In the beginning of the movie, Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV has ordered Paul’s father Duke Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac) to serve as fief ruler of Arrakis, a desert planet with harsh terrain. Arrakis is the only place to find a priceless treasure: melange, also known as spice, a dusty substance that can enhance and extend human life.

Prolonged exposure to spice can turn humans’ eyes blue in the iris. Gigantic sandworms ferociously guard the spice. And therefore, harvesting spice can be a deadly activity. However, because spice is the most sought-after substance in the universe and can make people wealthy, people will go to extremes to get it and to be in charge of Arrakis. The native people of Arrakis are called Fremen. The movie presents this colonialism of the Fremen people in a matter-of-fact way, with some (but not a lot of) initial insight into how the Fremen people feel about being ruled over by another group of people from a foreign land.

House Harkonnen had previously overseen Arrakis until that responsibility was given to House Antreides. Leto and his troops are under orders to visit Arrakis, but it’s a set-up so that House Harkonnen enemies can ambush the people from House Antreides. Leto suspects that this trap has been set, but he has no choice but to follow orders and see about the territory that has now come under his stewardship.

The chief villain of House Harkonnen is its leader, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (played by Stellan Skarsgård), an obese and ruthless tyrant who has a penchant for spending time in saunas filled with a tar-like substance. In the 1984 “Dune” movie, Baron Vladimir was a cartoonish character who floated through the air like a demented balloon that escaped from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In the 2021 “Dune” movie, Baron Vladimir is a menacing presence that is undoubtedly pure evil. (This “Dune” movie has shades of “Apocalypse Now” because Baron Vladimir is presented in a way that might remind people of “Apocalypse Now” villain Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando.)

Baron Vladimir’s closest henchmen are his sadistic nephew Glossu Rabban (played by Dave Bautista) and coldly analytical Piter De Vries (played by David Dastmalchian), who is a Mentat: a person that can mimic a computer’s artificial intelligence. At House Antreides, the Mentat is Thufir Hawat (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson), while the loyal mentors who are training Paul for battle are no-nonsense Gurney Halleck (played by Josh Brolin) and adventurous Duncan Idaho (played by Jason Momoa), who is the closest that “Dune” has to having a character with a sense of humor.

Paul confides in certain people that he’s been having premonition-like dreams. In several of these visions, he keeps seeing a young Fremen woman who’s close to his age. Paul won’t meet her until much later in the movie. He will find out that her name is Chani (played by Zendaya), and she becomes a huge part of his life in a subsequent Villeneuve “Dune” movie. Don’t expect there to be any romance in Part One of the movie. When Chani meets Paul for the first time, it’s not exactly love at first sight for Chani. She has this dismissive reaction and says to Paul: “You look like a little boy.”

Paul also keeps envisioning Duncan as living with the Fremen people and being their ally in battle. Paul is also disturbed by a vision of seeing Duncan “lying dead among soldiers after battle.” And speaking of allegiances, Paul’s intuition tells him that there is someone in House Antreides who is a traitor. That person will eventually be revealed. Until then, it’s pretty obvious from Paul’s visions that he has psychic powers. The question then becomes: “How is he going to use those powers?”

Among the other Fremen people who are depicted in the movie is Stilgar (played by Javier Bardem), the leader of the Fremen tribe called Sietch Tabr, whose members include a fighter named Jamis (played by Babs Olusanmokun). Arrakis also has an Imperial judge/ecologist named Dr. Liet-Kynes (played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster), who acts as a go-between/negotiator between the Fremen people and those who come from foreign lands.

There are some poignant father-son moments between Paul and Leto. Their best scene together is after a devastating battle loss when Paul, who is reluctant to be the next ruler of House Antreides, gets reassurance from Leto. The duke says to his son that he didn’t want to be the leader of House Antreides either, because Leto wanted to be a pilot instead. Leto tells Paul that it will ultimately up to Paul to decide whether to be the leader of House Antreides “But if the answer is no,” Leto says, “You’re all I’ll ever needed you to be: my son.”

However, Paul ends up spending more time bonding (and sometimes disagreeing) with his mother Lady Jessica (played by Rebecca Ferguson), a brave warrior who is a member of Bene Gesserit, an all-female group with extraordinary physical and mental abilities. Jessica defied Bene Gesserit’s orders to bear a female child and had Paul instead. Villeneuve’s “Dune” spends a great deal of time showing Paul and Jessica’s quest on Arrakis than Lynch’s “Dune” did. Paul seems to know that he was born as a special child, but at times, it brings him more insecurities than confidence. At one point, Paul yells at his mother Jessica: “You did this to me! You made me a freak!”

One of the influential supporting characters who’s depicted in Villeneuve’s version of “Dune” is Gaius Helen Mohiam (played by Charlotte Rampling), a Bene Gesserit reverend mother and the emperor’s truthsayer. She has one of the most memorable scenes in “Dune” when she gives Paul a pain endurance test that further proves that Paul is no ordinary human being. Dr. Wellington Yueh (played by Chang Chen) is a Suk doctor for House Antreides, and he plays a pivotal role in the story.

Chalamet’s portrayal of Paul is someone who can be introspective yet impulsive. He skillfully portrays a young adult who’s at the stage in his life where he wants to prove his independent identity yet still seeks his parents’ approval. Momoa is also a standout in the film for giving more humanity to a role that could’ve been just a stereotypical warrior type. Ferguson also does well in her performance as the strong-willed Jessica.

But make no mistake: “Dune” is not going to win any major awards for the movie’s acting. Before being released in theaters and on HBO Max, “Dune” made the rounds with premieres at several prestigious film festivals, including the Venice International Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. This festival run is in indication that the filmmakers want this version of “Dune” to be a cut above a typical blockbuster sci-fi movie. “Dune” excels more in its technical aspects rather than in the movie’s acting performances or screenplay.

“Dune” has the type of fight scenes and musical score (by Hans Zimmer) that one can expect of an action film of this high caliber. But even with a movie that’s rich with characters who are heroes, villains and everything in between, it’s enough to say that the sandworms really steal scenes and are what people will remember most about this version of “Dune.” The overall visual effects and a reverence for the “Dune” novel as the source material are truly what make this version of “Dune” an iconic sci-fi movie.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Dune” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on October 21, 2021, a day earlier than the announced U.S. release date of October 22, 2021. The movie was released in various other countries, beginning in September 2021.

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