Thursday, April 18, 2024

Civil War (2024)

Written and Directed by Alex Garland

Starring: Kirsten Dunst (Lee Smith); Wagner Moura (Joel); Cailee Spaeny (Jessie); Stephen McKinley Henderson (Sammy); Nick Offerman (President); Jesse Plemons (Militia Officer)

With a provocative trailer and a circulating map of an alternate United States of competing factions, Alex Garland's latest film Civil War arrived with a morbid curiosity. For what it is, Civil War offers some effective cinema, but its incoherence presents obstacles. 

The story follows a group of journalists including Kirsten Dunst as famed photojournalist Lee Smith, Joel who fearlessly goes into dangerous situations, Sammy as the wise veteran, and rookie reporter Jessie. The "Western Forces" are an alliance of California and Texas who are on the cusp of capturing Washington DC where a besieged "third-term President" is negotiating terms of surrender. The journalists hope to score an interview with the beleaguered President.

Right now, you may be saying, "Wait, What." The political background of the conflict is only revealed in vague asides. The war's been going on for so long, many soldiers are unsure of who or what they're even fighting for. There are paramilitaries and militias, while some fight for what's left of the regular army. Atrocities are committed by both sides which are sometimes shown in graphic detail. Jesse Plemons appears as a terrifying militia officer donning Elton John glasses.  

For some reviewers, the lack of a logical backstory displayed a failure of nerve from the filmmakers. There are no buzzwords like "Blue States" or "Red States", current events are never referenced. There's a reference to an "Antifa Massacre" without any context. The lack of political definitions did not bother me so much, even though the marketing was misleading. I'm not sure how audiences would react to such imagery. As a result, the film has not pitted audiences of differing political backgrounds against each other.

Nebulous politics aside, Civil War is more of a meta-war movie in the guise of haunted Americana. Full Metal Jacket and Children of Men come to mind, and also journalism themed movies like Salvador and Medium Cool which raised similar questions about ethics and media. The journalists in the film have completely removed themselves from politics, they just want to record the events. Kirsten Dunst explains to her protégé their job is to simply document, let others analyze and shape narratives.

The film climaxes with the violent attack on Washington D.C. as seen from the ground. Garland wants us to experience everything from the journalists viewpoint. We're not watching Battleship Potemkin, nor the trench run on the Death Star. Garland goes for gritty realism, but I was looking for more of a cynical edge in the style of John Carpenter, Escape From New York especially. 

With some casually talking about a permanent break between red and blue states, if anything Civil War is a warning about political violence and rhetoric surrounding it. No doubt, a Balkanized America would be a scary place, one where political affiliation could mean life or death. 

I suspect audiences going to see Civil War will be more perplexed than shocked. In time, it will be of interest to historians or film scholars as a cinematic experiment. Compelling on a visceral level, Civil War offers little by way of social commentary. 

Friday, April 12, 2024

Late Night With the Devil

Written and Directed by Cameron Cairnes and Colin Cairnes

Starring: David Dastmachian (Jack Delroy); Ingrid Torelli (Lily); Laura Gordon (Julie); Ian Bliss (Carmichael); Steve Mouzakis (Szandor); Rhys Auteri (Gus)

It's Halloween Night 1977 and fledgling talk show host Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian) knows he must pull out all the stops if he's going to beat Johnny Carson during sweeps month. Thus, the premise of Late Night With the Devil, a playful conjuring of 1970s horror and pop culture.

The found footage premise purports to show the infamous episode in its entirety. Among Delroy's guests will be a medium, a skeptic, and a parapsychologist with teenage girl "Lily" in tow who escaped a Satanist cult and claims to be possessed by a demon. 

Dastmalchian really nails the bland talk show host persona of the era, just as the production design flawlessly replicates the aesthetics of 1970s gabfests. The film opens with a documentary on Jack's backstory. Initially, his unassuming hip style made him a challenger to Carson, but his personal issues led to a decline in ratings, hence the big Halloween show.

Things quickly begin to go haywire as supernatural events begin to happen on the set. At first, the phenomena appear staged and innocuous - until things get sinister for real. There's a hypnotism scene that's especially effective. In the wake of The Exorcist phenomenon, television latched on to demonic possession as a ratings bonanza, and the film skillfully channels the satanic panic mania taking over corners of the culture.

The script is also well versed in the mythology of late night television. First, there's the idea of late night being a zone where TV could let its hair down, push the envelope of good taste. Steve Allen staged outrageous stunts and Jack Paar battled with censors. Carson's affable Midwestern persona masked his well-documented dark side. Jay Leno and David Letterman both broadcast their eccentricities to viewers every night. Dasmalchian hits all these discordant notes as Jack, the entire film subtly suggesting he's not who you think. Lastly, there's the put upon sidekick, ably played by Rhys Auteri as "Gus."

At around 90 minutes, Late Night with the Devil never overstays its welcome. Effective as a period piece and a horror movie, highly recommend. 

Friday, March 29, 2024

Logan's Run (1976)

Directed by Michael Anderson

Written by David Zelag Goodman (based on the novel by William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson)

Starring: Michael York; Richard Jordan; Jenny Agutter; Roscoe Lee Brown; Farrah Fawcett-Majors; Peter Ustinov

Logan's Run took the adage "Never Trust Anyone Under 30" and built a fictional scenario around it. Set in the 23rd Century after a series of catastrophes forced the survivors of humanity to live in geodesic domes controlled by computer overlords as humans to live in a hedonistic Utopia. But there's a catch - your life is terminated at age 30. 

The dome dwellers led to believe they will undergo a rebirth to a higher plain of existence on their
"Last Day." But not everyone is so sure. Some attempt to escape and the "Sandmen" are there to stop them. Michael York and Richard Jordan play two Sandmen, true believers in the system, and they pursue all "runners" with due diligence. The memorable opening sequence depicts the "Rite of Carrousel" as crowds gather for the spectacle of death. 

The production design resembles a mall, a consumerist paradise where everything one could want is readily available. By night, everyone can choose their preferred drug or sexual partner after a day of unending leisure. For fashion, everyone wears comfortable neon-colored pajamas! Thematically, Logan's Run shares much in common with Brave New World and The Time Machine, the latter due to futuristic society built on passivity and ignorance, and the former for vision of a civilization based on pleasure.

When Logan discovers a community of runners who believe there's a Sanctuary where people can live out the natural course of their lives, he deicides to investigate. Along with Jessica (Agutter), Logan sets out to escape the dome for the outside world. They discover a robot called "Box" who hunts food, including freezing escaped runners, shades of Soylent Green? Eventually they discover the ruins of Washington D.C. where they encounter a dim-witted old man played by Peter Ustinov. From that point on the film loses momentum and culminates with York delivering a comically dramatic speech about liberation. 

America was a youth driven society in 1976 with Boomers entering early adulthood. As the counterculture was fraying and a more self-centered ethos was taking hold, the film's skepticism about youthful wisdom foreshadowed the shift to Reagan and conservatism. I suppose the older segment of the population will always resent the young challenging values, just as the young will always feel constrained by elders asserting their values on them. The reactionary strain to Logan's Run is evident through its vision of an unenlightened youth incapable of independent thinking but is slightly tempered by the "kids are all right" ending.

A TV series followed that aired on CBS for one season. There's been countless attempts to reboot the franchise with many directors attached, but it's been in long-term stasis. I can see the concept working for a TV series, but I'd be curious to see a fresh vision of the story.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)

Directed by Stanley Kramer

Written by Abby Mann

Starring: Spencer Tracy; Burt Lancaster; Richard Widmark; Marlene Dietrich; Maximillian Schell; Judy Garland; Montgomery Clift; William Shatner

One of the event movies of the early 1960s, Judgement at Nuremberg dramatized the trial of Nazi civil servants before an Allied tribunal. One of the first major Hollywood productions to show graphic imagery from the Holocaust, the film also raised questions about American racism, Germany's complex geopolitical role in the Cold War, and whether an entire society is to be condemned for having knowledge of the crimes against humanity being perpetuated by its government. 

With an all-star cast led by Spencer Tracy, who plays Chief Judge Dan Haywood, few actors could evoke moral authority better than Tracy. Maximillian Schell turned in an Oscar winning performance as defense counsel Hans Rolfe, defending his clients on the grounds it was unfair to hold them responsible for Nazi atrocities when the entire world enabled the Third Reich. In his opening statement he pointed out American jurists like Oliver Wendell Holmes defended Eugenics programs, while not explicably stated the ingrained racism of American institutions. 

The year 1961 marked a high point in the Civil Rights Movement with Freedom Summer and the integration of the University of Mississippi. On the international front the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel brought the mentality and extent of Nazi atrocities, popularizing the term coined by Hannah Arendt. The world was just starting to come to terms with the Second World War, and the film situates itself in the era of rising public consciousness on these issues.  

Directed by Stanley Kramer who was known for making "message" movies like The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, all serving as a barometer of mainstream liberalism. Judgement at Nuremberg may be his best film for the quality of the acting, writing, and weight of the history being presented. For millions of people, it would be the first time they would view raw footage from the death camps. In addition to archival footage, Kramer used rapid camera movements and compelling close ups, one of the most cinematic trial films.

Abby Martin's script was originally written for Playhouse 90 which aired in 1959 (with censorship required by the TV network), and indeed the high points of the movie are the monologues. Burt Lancaster is memorable as legal scholar Ernst Janning who was on trial, delivering a speech attempting to defend his actions, including forced sterilizations and handing out death sentences, because of Germany's diminished condition before Hitler. Haywood delivers his own eloquent speeches defending the idea of justice. Montgomery Clift appeared as a man who underwent forced sterilization and Judy Garland as a woman who transgressed racial laws are also both effective.

The issues raised in Judgment at Nuremberg remain consequential over sixty years later. To what extent should a nation's people be held accountable for atrocities committed by its government? With authoritarianism once again fueling politics across the globe, have we learned anything from the Second World War and the Holocaust? Now Western nations struggling with their own pasts of colonialism, slavery, and racism, issues which fuel contemporary political discourse on the left and right, what does reconciliation of past injustices look like?

On the Unclear and Present Danger podcast John Ganz observed that Hitler wounded so badly that many of today's issues can be traced back to him. From the persistence of Nazi iconography utilized by white supremacists to the ongoing war in Gaza, the past remains present. There's been countless studies of why societies turn on each other and give in to their basest instincts. The common argument is that Germany's economic distress and humiliation following the First World War set the stage for Hitler, but also a failure of the entire nation-state system. 

Despite being didactic at times with a hint of post-war American triumphalism, if you've not seen Judgement at Nuremberg, it remains an essential film.

(Currently streaming for free on Tubi and Amazon Prime)

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Maestro **1/2

Directed by Bradley Cooper

Written by Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer

Starring: Bradley Cooper (Leonard Bernstein); Carey Mulligan (Felicia Bernstein); Maya Hawke (Jamie Bernstein)

Legendary conductor, composer, and educator Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) led a fascinating life. As a champion of the arts, he left an indelible mark on 20th Century culture. Bradley Cooper's biopic is mostly focused on Bernstein's marriage to Felicia and his daughter Jamie. While the period flavor is well executed, especially in the first 45 minutes which were shot in crisp B&W, the muddled second half (in glossy color) loses direction. 

Before watching Maestro, I watched the 1998 PBS American Masters documentary Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note, which focused more on his artistic accomplishments, while not ignoring his complicated personal life. The documentary also explored his commitment to Israel and his Jewish identity, featuring interviews with his family and collaborators. 

Cooper plays Bernstein as an artistic dynamo, charming everyone with his enthusiasm and brilliance. Infused with jazz and big band music of the era, his music brimmed with post-war confidence. His marriage to Felicia brought some stability, but his many affairs with men and women, he was openly bisexual within his social circle, made for a tumultuous private life. Much of the second half deals with Felicia's struggle with cancer, in a major tonal shift from the chipper first half. Mulligan is often reduced to playing the put upon wife with an undeserved tragic ending. 

Maestro ends on a disappointing note, leaving the viewer uncertain as to why Bernstein, who was such a towering figure, was so highly celebrated.  Barely any time is given to his collaborations on West Side Story and Candide, nor his involvement in politics. Bernstein's popular TV series Concerts for Young People, which brought music appreciation to a new generation, is also ignored. The famous evening when the Bernstein's hosted the Black Panthers at their luxury apartment, leading to backlash from the New York media and the famous hit piece "Radical Chic" written by Tom Wolfe who skewered the event for New York Magazine. Nor is the harassment he endured from the FBI ever explored. 

Cooper's script seemed more interested in telling more of an old-fashioned Hollywood tearjerker (with modern twists) similar to his 2018 remake of A Star is Born. Bernstein led a fascinating life and unfortunately Maestro left way too much out. 

Monday, January 22, 2024

I.S.S. ***

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Written by Nick Shafir

Starring: Ariana Debose (Dr. Kira Foster); Chris Messina (Gordon Barrett); Joh Gallagher Jr. (Christian Campbell); Maria Mashkova (Weronica Vetrov); Costa Ronin (Nicholai Pulov); Pilou Asbaek (Alexy Pulov)

The Space Race began as an existential competition between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. but evolved into a means of cooperation between both countries. The Apollo-Soyuz Mission in 1975 symbolized détente, as a mutual respect developed between the competing Space Programs. Space serving as a means to take the edge of the Cold War would also be reflected in films like Marooned and 2010: The Year We Made Contact.

I.S.S. flips the premise in an ominous story reflecting the current international situation of the 2020s. The story begins with Dr. Kira Foster joining the Russian and American crews on the International Space Station.  As the newest crew member, she's introduced to the cramped quarters and strenuous living conditions by the American commander played by Chris Messina, who informs her learning how to sleep in zero gravity "sucks." 

In time Kira adjusts to the social dynamics between the crew which are comradery with occasional tensions, such as when a joke is taken the wrong way by the Russians. They also decide to never discuss politics to avoid arguments, especially regarding the War in Ukraine. Then without warning, they begin to witness a catastrophe playing out on the surface of the Earth that leads to the central conflict of the film.

I.S.S. is a warning of how conflicts can imperil personal relationships, leading people to abandon their humanity (or maybe find their humanity). Although the grim premise of the film detracts from the narrative going on at the space station, it does speak to the fraught state of world politics.

The cast and direction were both excellent, achieving an intimate realism that achieves the illusion of being aboard the space station. There are suspenseful sequences that recall Gravity, and even some resonant symbolic moments. A somber Sci-Fi movie to open the year, it certainly the reflects the mood going into 2024.