May Film Reviews

Words by Harry Moore

Civil War

A near-future United States is engulfed in a civil war after an authoritarian president begins a third term in office in this dystopian cautionary tale from writer-director Alex Garland. “Civil War” focuses on a small team of reporters — composed of a renowned war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), her journalist colleague Joel (Wagner Moura), her mentor Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) an aspiring photojournalist who idolizes Lee — journeying across the war-torn states to follow a lead that promises the chance at an interview with the tyrannical president (Nick Offerman) before the Western Forces of Texas and California close in. The film takes a grounded approach to portraying its fictional conflict. We don’t see the war room briefings or even get to know any of the soldiers, the story is only told through the eyes and camera lenses of the four reporters. Much has been made of Garland’s choice to not label either of the warring sides as good or bad or to draw heavily from the real divisive rhetoric of our current climate. But by making the film’s point of view that of the journalists, he finds a way to portray the violence as a non-intervening observer. The road trip conceit of the story allows for an almost episodic plot with each stop on their journey bringing in new characters and challenges for our leads to overcome. It allows Garland to show how he interprets different regions to fare during a war. We see Philadelphia turned into a refugee camp while the countryside becomes a playground of sadism, which is highlighted in the film’s most gripping scene where they cross paths with a violent militant (Jesse Plemons) who is in the act of filling a mass grave. 

 

War movies tend to carry similar imagery to one another. Whether they’re set in mid-century Europe, the Vietnamese jungles or Middle Eastern villages, there is an expectation of seeing helicopters whirring overhead as explosions go off and legions of troops are shredded by artillery. Where a lot of the power of “Civil War” comes from is in the transposition of those images into the U.S. homeland. Seeing American landmarks being obliterated has been a blasé experience since “Independence Day”: Monsters and aliens have had their way with almost all our major cities for years now, The White House getting vaporized by space lasers isn’t the provocative image it used to be, but seeing Washington, D.C. turned into a battlefield reminiscent of Al-Fallujah is an arresting sight. Throughout the film, Garland brings the distressing spectacle of modern warfare to the American landscape with quick firefights and tense faceoffs between snipers, but it isn’t until the climactic assault on Washington that we see a full-fledged battle sequence that culminates in a Bin Laden-inspired raid on the White House. Garland has said that he intended the film to be an anti-war piece, and to his credit, he largely eschews the exciting bombastic tradition of war cinema, hammering home the predominant idea that war is hell, and the last thing we need is a fight. The message is delivered loud and clear throughout with sequences showing how quickly conflict allows people to dehumanize each other and enables some to act out their most sadistic instincts. 

“Civil War” will likely be amongst the most divisive films of the year. Those in the audience expecting a chest-thumping war epic will be dismayed at the film’s often solemn, contemplative tone, while others will be frustrated that it’s not a prophetic warning against a certain ideology leading us into a catastrophe like this. Then there are those who will want to see audacious bravura filmmaking with several nerve shredding sequences that don’t pull any punches. With stellar performances across the board, particularly Plemmons who gives one of the great single scene performances —and indelible cinematography, editing and sound design — “Civil War” is operating at an incredibly high level and is some of the strongest work of Garland’s career so far. It’s not a great time at the movies, but it is a great movie. 

 

Abigail

A crew of crooks bite off more than they expected when they kidnap the daughter of a powerful crime lord. The directing duo of Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin jump from their recent success of rebooting the “Scream” series to this genre-blending thriller that revels in gore.

 

Abigail is an interesting beast in the modern film landscape. The effectiveness of the film is predicated on the revelations that lie in wait in the plot to be surprising. Due to the nature of movie marketing, the twist that kicks off events in the second act was placed front and center in the advertising, which blunts much of the early tension and the impact of the reveal — which is a crucial factor for the entire film. 

 

The premise of “Abigail” sees a group of disparate criminals hired to pull off kidnapping the child of a wealthy and powerful crime lord in the hopes of claiming a large ransom. But what they don’t know is that the little girl they’ve taken hostage is in fact a vampire, and they have been set up to be her prey. Now this turn happens around the midway point of the film, which to that point is playing out as a straight-faced crime thriller before turning into a blood-splattered monster movie. Knowing the direction the story is heading leaves the audience waiting for the other shoe to drop through much of the film and significantly dulls the intended effect that would be there when going into the film cold with no preconceived notion of what will happen. It is a pretty damning indictment of the studio’s marketing department that they opted to hamstring an inventive film as they were incapable of figuring out how to sell it without giving it all away. Perhaps the film will find its audience as it was intended to be seen, years down the line when the marketing campaign is just a distant entry on a disappointing portfolio. On its own merits though, “Abigail” is a fun watch for horror fans that is helped by a dynamic ensemble cast led by Melissa Barrera and Dan Stevens. It is further evidence that Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin have the instincts for over-the-top, Raimi-esque gore that doesn’t veer over into excess for the sake of excess. 

 

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