MYS Oregon to Iberia

FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Civil War,’ ‘The Beast,’ ‘La Chimera,’ and more

Kirsten Dunst is exceptional in Alex Garland's emphatically non-partisan vision of a war-torn future America.

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Kirsten Dunst in “Civil War”

Being exhorted by a marketing campaign to “Experience Civil War in IMAX” gives off a very contemporary sort of dystopian vibe. As an increasing number of Americans come to see themselves as helpless spectators to a seemingly inexorable, existential, sociopolitical schism, it’s no surprise to see a potential endgame depicted on the biggest screens, and at the loudest volume, Hollywood has to offer.

What writer-director Alex Garland has delivered, however, is a nonpartisan parable of horribles more concerned with exploring the human costs inherent in bearing essential witness to violence than with pointing tiny fingers at any particular American authoritarians. Superficially, it’s in the same genre as The Year of Living Dangerously or Salvador, following a group of intrepid, thrill-seeking, morally complicated war reporters as they travel through a lawless, bullet-pocked landscape.

In what look to be the final days of an armed conflict between secessionist forces known as the Western Forces and the U.S. military, world-weary photographer Lee Smith (no relation to the Hall of Fame pitcher) (Kirsten Dunst) and her adrenaline-enthusiast partner-in-arms Joel (Wagner Moura) decide to make the drive from New York City to Washington, D.C. Their plan is to try to interview the (literally) embattled President (Nick Offerman) before the White House is overrun by rebels. A veteran New York Times journalist, Sammy, (Stephen McKinley Henderson) convinces Lee to let him tag along, and Jessie (Cailee Spivey), a newbie shutterbug (and huge stan of Dunst’s character) pleads her way into the press van as well.

Damage to the highway system means the quartet needs to take a roundabout, 857-mile route as far west as Pittsburgh and then back through West Virginia to the capital. It’s a gauntlet of truly anarchist jurisdictions, where only foreign currency has value; where the ruins of strip malls and subdivisions are everywhere; and where almost everyone has become completely inured to witnessing, and committing, acts of calm, heartless violence. You know, a war zone. The obvious difference in Civil War is the imposition of this cataclysmic filter onto the quotidian details of the world we see outside our windows. We’ve seen national monuments and landmarks destroyed on screen ad infinitum, so it’s more jarring to see bodies hanging from freeway overpasses than the Lincoln Memorial being shelled.

Two episodes hit especially hard on this journey into the heart of darkness. In one, a fatigue-clad Jessie Plemons plays a terrifying soldier (it’s rarely clear which side someone is on) who demands to know “What kind of American are you?” In another, the group comes across a mass grave where corpses are being treated with quicklime, the closest the film comes to acknowledging Americans’ potential for tolerating genocide. It’s in these moments that you can feel Garland trying to shake his audience by the shoulders, boldfacing the assertion that, yes, it can absolutely happen here.

Dunst, in her first film in three years, is fantastic, in the first role of her long career where she exudes not a pip of perk (well, other than maybe Lars von Trier’s Melancholia). The rest of the cast is more than able, with Spivey strongly following up her work in the title role of Priscilla. Offerman’s cast as the commander in chief is the only discordant note. He doesn’t disappear into the role, and the actor’s well-known kind-hearted politics make it more tempting to imagine him as an ironically Trumpian figure than Garland seems to intend. (There are also references to dismantling the FBI and serving a third term that hint in that direction, but those are things that an authoritarian of any stripe would presumably pursue.)

The same lack of specificity that allows Garland to avoid reductive red vs. blue dichotomies, though, threatens to reduce the movie’s message to “war is hell.” But by focusing on professional, even self-compelled, witnesses, and depicting the calloused moralities that arise in an environment of atrocity, he’s warning us not to be dulled to the dangers that loom. Already, as the Overton Window of what’s considered extreme has shifted, and a deluge of unfiltered content has overtaken our cultural attention span, we have started to lose the capacity for genuine, as opposed to reflexive, outrage.

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At least, I think that’s what he might be saying. Because that would also explain, beyond sheer sensory overload, the aestheticized realism of the violence and the skull-rattling reports of automatic weapons fire. (IMAX, indeed!) After all, in a movie about the coarsening effect of a barrage of unpleasant stimuli, it makes sense to ask if Garland is practicing what he’s preaching against, or if he’s making his point by leaving you with a headache and minor PTSD after the credits roll. It’s a similar paradox to the one that Oliver Stone exploited thirty years ago with Natural Born Killers.

Knowing Garland, who brought an iconoclastic, intelligent perspective to stories about AI (Ex Machina) and folk horror (Men), I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But it’s almost too easy, especially during a lengthy, unrelenting final assault on the White House, to get swept up in the adrenaline of the moment. Somebody wins the war. It seems like it’s the good guys, but who can really say anymore. And who knows what comes next. (Opening wide.)

ALSO OPENING

The Beast: The latest provocation from French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello (Nocturama) is a temporally sprawling, thematically scattershot epic that’s too ambitious and inscrutable for its own good. Ostensibly inspired by a Henry James story, it stars the always compelling Léa Seydoux and the wide-eyed George MacKay as a pair of lovers in three different eras. In 1910 Paris, she’s a concert pianist and he’s the Brit who steals her from her husband; in 21st-century Los Angeles, she’s an actress and he’s the disturbed incel (redundancy alert!) modeled on the despicable Elliot Rodger who’s obsessed with her; and in 2144 Paris, she undergoes a bizarre technological process that’s designed to remove her emotions so that their relationship can avoid its previous tragic ends.

There’s a lot of philosophical folderol, of the sort this correspondent generally relishes, but if Bonello ends up saying anything truly creative about the eternal puzzle of fate versus free will or the possibility of genuine human connection, it must only be apparent on a second or subsequent viewing. The earliest segment is the most interesting, visually and dramatically, and the film’s momentum flags once it’s left behind. (Cinema 21)

La Chimera: A more revelatory exploration of emotional bonds that stand the test of time comes in the first narrative feature in five years from Alice Rohrwacher (Happy as Lazzaro). Josh O’Connor, soon to be seen opposite Zendaya in Challengers, stars as Arthur Finnegan, a mopey Brit who lives in a shanty in a remote Italian village, pining for a lost love while consorting with a band of tombaroli, Felliniesque scofflaws who make a living by discovering and raiding 2,000-year-old Etruscan graves.

Unlike his more mercenary compatriots, Arthur, whose uncanny dowsing skills are an invaluable aid in locating the subterranean chambers, seems to be in it for some hard-to-define other reason. He’s an enigma, but one that’s beloved by the elderly Flora (the treasured Isabella Rossellini), mother to Arthur’s absent girlfriend and employer/teacher to the aspiring but tone-deaf singer Italia (a charming Carol Duarte). Italia takes a shine to the melancholy Arthur, ignorant of his clandestine occupation.

There’s a remarkable sense of place in Rohrwacher’s cinema, and occasional cheeky injections of meta-cinematic bits where characters address the camera directly or narrative is delivered via folk song. O’Connor’s performance is slippery but appealing, and the film as a whole is not unlike the trinkets recovered by the tombaroli: elegantly simple in form, but endowed with added meaning through time and space. (Regal Bridgeport and Salem Cinema)

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Kim’s Video: There’s been a surfeit of nostalgia towards those largely extinct dinosaurs once known as video stores, but this stupefying, surreal odyssey is practically the polar opposite of The Last Blockbuster. Kim’s Video was a huge and influential outpost in Manhattan that, like most of its brethren, bit the dust after you all decided you’d rather sit at home and let algorithms decide what you watched next. (Sorry, bitter former video store owner here…) That’s just the beginning of the story, though, in director David Redmon’s peripatetic documentary about the fate of the store’s vast inventory of rare, offbeat (frequently bootleg) tapes and discs. It turns out that these 55,000 titles were shipped to a town in Sicily with the promise that they would be digitized by the new owners. Years later, Redmon follows up, leading to encounters with the Mafia, surreptitious warehouse invasions, and, eventually, the sort of heist caper that only a true cinephile could love. This is a must-see for anyone who bleeds VHS and has a Proustian reaction to the smell of shrink wrap. (Kiggins Theater)

AVAILABLE ON DEMAND

Riddle of Fire: If The Goonies had been made by Harmony Korine, it might have turned out something like this. In wide-open Wyoming, three precocious pre-teens pilfer a copy of a new video game only to discover when they get home that they need the parental control password for their TV to activate it. Mom is sick in bed, but promises to provide the password if they will bring her a blueberry pie. One thing leads to another, and eventually they’re joined in their quest for a speckled egg by another, more feral child, and mixed up with a gang of outlaws.

Director Weston Razooli shot this, his debut feature, on 16mm, giving it a dreamy quality that matches the enhanced, fairy-tale reality of both the narrative and the juvenile performances. Staying firmly in PG-13 territory, he still manages to hint at darker menaces and isn’t afraid to put his grubby, adorable protagonists in danger. It’s a shame that no Oregon theaters picked this up during its theatrical release, but it’s now available on demand.

Coup de Chance: It’s a little more surprising, but less of shame, that a new film from none other than Woody Allen didn’t rate theatrical release. Has any film artist descended from paragon of the cultural zeitgeist to social and cultural pariah more fully than Allen? Relegated to shooting in France, Woody’s first subtitled movie is as mediocre and forgettable as everything he’s produced over the last decade. (Quick, what was Magic in the Moonlight about? Or Wonder Wheel?) It’s an all-too transparent tale of a woman (Lou de Laâge) who bumps into an old classmate (Neils Schneider) and embarks on an affair, prompting her wealthy husband (Melvil Poupaud) to take desperate measures. The heart wants what the heart wants, but the brain thinks it’s sad to see how irrelevant the man behind Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Hannah and Her Sisters has become.

ALSO OPENING

The Absence of Eden: Zoe Saldaña stars as a woman who flees across the border from Mexico to the U.S. after killing a drug cartel member in self-defense. (Regal Fox Tower)

A Forgotten Man: At the end of World War II, the Swiss ambassador to Nazi Germany is haunted by his decision to remain neutral. (Regal Fox Tower)

Laroy, Texas: Steve Zahn and Dylan Baker headline this darkly comic crime caper in the vein of Blood Simple. (Salem Cinema)

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ALSO THIS WEEK

Friday

  • Bottle Rocket [1996] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Dawn of the Dead [1978] (Hollywood, through Sunday)
  • Mean Girls [2004] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • Mean Girls [2024] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • The Muppet Movie [1979] (Kiggins, through Sunday)
  • Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché! (Clinton St., with pre-film drag show)
  • Repo! The Genetic Opera [2008] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • The Vertical Ray of the Sun [2001] (5th Avenue Cinema, on 35mm)

Saturday

  • Desperately Seeking Susan [1984] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • Madonna: Truth or Dare [1991] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • Paris, Texas [1984] (Cinema 21)
  • Vampyros Lesbos [1971] (Hollywood)

Sunday

  • Butterfly in the Sky [2022] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein [1972] (Hollywood)
  • Little Shop of Horrors [1986] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • Titanic [1998] (Hollywood, in 35mm)

Monday

  • One Hand Don’t Clap [1991] (Hollywood)
  • Run Lola Run [1999] (Hollywood, in 35mm)

Tuesday

  • Enter the Clones of Bruce [2023] (Hollywood)
  • Fast Break [1978] (Clinton St.)
  • The Return of Swamp Thing [1989] (Hollywood)

Wednesday

  • The Mystical Rose [1976] (Clinton St.)
  • Us [2019] (Hollywood)

Thursday

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  • Do Not Resist [2016] (Clinton St.)
  • Shanghai Express [1932] (Hollywood)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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