Cast: Cast: Kirsten DunstWagner MouraCailee SpaenyNick OffermanJefferson WhiteNelson LeeEvan LaiStephen McKinley Henderson 

Writer/Director: Alex Garland

109 min.

There’s something innate in the American character which inspires and deludes that vast country of a place in history, past and present. Whether it’s American exceptionalism, cynicism, or opportunism, but even Trump who spent his entire tenure in the White House fermenting discontent and conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, and who eventually raised his fist in solidarity with a crowd of insurrectionists—seemed bewildered when the mob he played to actually stormed the barricades. Despite years having passed, many are quick to smirk, shrug, or comfort themselves with the platitude of full society breakdown could never happen in the USA. Widespread political violence, authoritarianism and civil war? No chance. In such a blinding mist of complacency, Alex Garland’s film, Civil War, is not only a magnificent piece of cinema, but a cold, bitter ray of light which cuts through self-deceit. It imagines an American apocalypse that isn’t science fiction but rather plausible speculation about where the States could be, just a few years or less down the road if the growing American dysfunction gets any bigger.  It also captures this dread not through sensationalism or satire, or even for that matter much in the way of traditional commercial storytelling. The dark brilliance of Civil War is that Garland treats this subject matter as simply a character study on war journalists. It could take place in any other failed 21st century state, with its landscape of despair captured through the familiar, harsh, and unblinking gaze of a battlefield photographer’s camera aperture. It puts a new context on America’s obvious fault lines through the prism most civilians are used to: the bleak yet somewhat staid and orderly framing of black and white photographs that might appear on an evening news tv bulletin on any given night. However, when these reports are coming from inside the White Housem the effect is at once eerie and clarifying. This isn’t a disaster or horror film; it’s a narrative of human carnage and suffering as we’ve come to internalise and normalise it in our collective imagination via something as mundane as a social media video. The small group of people recording those images comprises a quartet of war journalists at varying stages in their careers of staring into the abyss. Joel and Lee (Wagner Moura and Kirsten Dunst) are the two sides of a coin that’s spent too many recent years living on the borderline. A classic adrenaline and war junkie, Joel has the half-crazed idea of interviewing the unnamed and tyrannical President of the United States (Nick Offerman) who’s seen his country descend into total disarray after demanding an unheard-of third term in office. In recent years, he has developed a habit of executing journalists, but with his government on the verge of collapse, and rebel forces inching ever closer to Washington, Joel is desperate to get the President’s final quotes before his remains are dragged through the streets. Lee is made of steelier stuff. She simply wants to document the fall of an empire with the same detached gaze she perfected while photographing sectarian and imperial violence in the Middle East and Africa. She does, however, maintain enough of her soul to react with dismay when Joel lets a trainee photographer, the painfully young Jesse (Cailee Spaeny), tag along. Jesse idolises Lee and the legend she’s cultivated on the frontlines, but Jesse’s fresh face betrays just how much this situation will prove she’s in over her head when they start encountering bodies hanging from car washes, and killing fields in the land John Denver once dubbed “mountain mama.” They’re all cut from the same cloth though, and like their mentor, New York Times journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), they simply cannot sit by in the still smoking anarchy of New York City when there’s an actual battle unfolding on the outskirts of Charlottesville. So they decided to drive over 800 miles south.

It’s a shrewd choice by Garland to make his interpretation of another American civil war focus not on the cause of the conflict, or even how the first shots were fired, but rather on its last bedraggled days. He avoids much in the way of exposition, including in a perplexing nugget of information that California and Texas have joined forces to overthrow the government. Yet the scarcity of background works in the film’s favour. As Garland has already hinted, it is disturbingly easy for any viewer to fill in the details of what occurred between today and this film’s tomorrow; and by evading the political “hows” and “whys” of its scenario, Civil War is able to almost clinically analyse its speculative fiction with a level of seeming banality. The violence which occurs throughout the film, both suddenly and randomly, is incredibly chilling, gruesome and matter of fact. Like most modern war films made in the past 25 years, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy utilise handheld photography to give an in-the-trenches tactility to the slaughter and keep most of the violence in clear and clean wide shots. When one American bleeds out on a dirty cement floor, the agony frozen by Jesse’s camera might have come from the scrapbook of a Vietnam War photographer, and the subsequent revenge killing of captured POWs certainly echo executions on a Saigon street. The chord Garland is striking is not subtle, but it comes through with enormous urgency. This is what secession, disunion, and finally war, would actually ook like in America, and it’s as ugly as a red smear pooling beneath a pile of bodies. Who those Americans were and what differences they might have had will never be known by either the audience or the vultures about to feast.  The point is brutally made. What is more surprising is how much of a love letter the film becomes to journalists, particularly war correspondents. By structuring the film from their vantage, Garland has crafted a film that could be set in almost any collapsed state. He also lionises a profession which has seen better days. This is best exemplified by Dunst’s taciturn performance. Underplaying every gesture, and seemingly throwing away each sparse line she’s handed, the actress quietly embodies the much remarked cynicism of a photojournalist who’s seen how too many sausages were made—and which in her case involved actual blood and guts. Yet her unremarked upon earnestness and hope for something better, if only gleaned through a wary gaze toward an unwanted protege, gives ‘Civil War’ its flicker of a soul. This is undoubtedly a film that courts and may well find controversy. It may be debated in news columns, dismissed by talking heads, and reviled by some quarters of social media. Yet it is an evocative and haunting work from Alex Garland - and it achieves the queasy reaction it aims for. The threat of civil and institutional breakdown has risen in America in the last decade, and seems unlikely to abate if Trump is returned in January 2025. Civil War enters this toxic maelstrom and deftly, brusquely asks you as a viewer to stop the rhetorical and mental evasions. It is a towering piece of filmmaking, if you have the courage to sit through it, staying in your mind like a faded war photograph etched into eternity. 



Cast: Michael KeatonAl PacinoJames Marsden,  Suzy NakamuraJoanna KuligRay McKinnonJohn Hoogenakker, Lela Loren   

Producer/Director: Michael Keaton

114 min.

Michael Keaton's second directorial effort, Knox Goes Away is both a quietly touching human drama and a tense, race-against-time thriller, confident and clever, and filled with fine, subtle performances. John Knox (Michael Keaton) is a professional killer, a man with Army special ops experience and possessor of two PhDs. Lately he has been forgetting things, becoming stuck in finding words, so he goes for a checkup and receives an alarming diagnosis. He has been stricken with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rapid neuro-degenerative disorder – and it’s only a matter of weeks before Knox will forget everything he ever knew. He goes off on one final job with his colleague Tommy Muncie (Ray McKinnon), but he blanks during the job and things go badly wrong. He decides it’s time that he begins the process of getting his affairs in order, cashing out his assets and laundering the money so that he can leave it to three very special people. Unfortunately, his assets are hidden everywhere, and he must gather them all up – and soon.

At the same time, he receives a knock on his door from his estranged son, Miles (James Marsden). His daughter, Knox's granddaughter, has become involved with a much older man, a neo-Nazi, whom she met online, and she is now pregnant. Miles had gone to the man's house and killed him in cold blood, and now needs Knox's help. Can Knox pull off these tasks before his memory leaves him for good? Keaton's outstanding directorial debut The Merry Gentleman (2009), also found him playing a professional killer, although there’s no other link between that film and Knox Goes AwayKeaton has an elegant touch, often settling on small details. It begins with an overhead shot of a man's hands gathering his things, keys, wallet, phone, notepad, etc., walking away and forgetting his watch, then coming back to retrieve it. Conversations in the film are soft-spoken and very natural, as if all the characters had known one another for years. Knox and Muncie's argument about whether they should know who their targets are, is forever fascinating. A meeting with his ex-wife (Marcia Gay Harden) is gently touching, as are phone calls to his old pal, professional thief Xavier (Al Pacino). Suzy Nakamura as the sharp, prickly police detective Emily Ikari, who is just two steps away from figuring out Knox's plans is also impressive. Keaton is brilliant at telling this three-pronged story, finding tense ways of showing his hunt for the money and jewels, with a trip to a remote cabin being a real nail-biter. He's also exceptional with visuals, and, like any good actor-director, he knows how to use his own persona and screen presence to tremendous effect. Knox Goes Away is an excellent piece of work and makes us wish that Keaton would direct more often.