Movies Watched, April 2024

Still from “Civil War,” directed by Alex Garland

Like a lot of people, once I saw the trailer for Alex Garland’s “Civil War,” a dystopian thriller set in a near future America where factions of oddly aligned formerly-united states turn the country into a battleground, I just dreaded it. It seemed oddly insensitive to the current political climate where known insurrectionists are running for office openly and shamelessly. The scenes shown in the previews suggested that Garland was using the prospect of Americans being actively, militarily at one another’s throats as a provocative backdrop for some kind of artistic statement—it’s hard to tell what kind of statement from just a trailer, but whatever it might be, it seemed potentially exploitative if not inflammatory. I found myself asking whether we really needed a movie like this at this time?

When I saw it in theaters last month I realized that in the same way that this review I’m writing is not really a complete, coherent review, Alex Garland’s latest movie is not a complete, coherent movie. To be fair, “Civil War” is a far better movie than this is a review; it’s bracingly paced, full of furious tension, and it features on its soundtrack two tunes from legendary psych-rock pioneers Suicide. But it’s also not much of an artistic statement. It is, as I suspected, exploitative, but it’s also so sleight in its willingness to make any kind of artistic statement, much less a political one, that it feels less inflammatory than it does dismissible.

The first two-thirds are basically an echo of the script Garland wrote for the now-classic zombie movie he wrote two decades ago, “28 Days Later,” but set in a civil war. In fact, watching this new film it’s sometimes difficult to remember that it’s not a zombie movie at all, so familiar are all of us now to scenes of abandoned, war-scarred American landscapes as settings for stories of the undead.

The only thing that really reminds us that this is a different kind of movie altogether is the exposition that sets up, in the scantest of detail, the forces at play in this war. That, and all the energy spent explaining what Journalism is and how Journalists practice it. The experience of those reporting on the war, particularly those who photograph it, is what Garland is primarily interested in here and not the war itself. As such, he spins a quest narrative that allows the three journalists at the center of his script to make Garland’s points about the importance of their work—with surprisingly clunky, exposition-laden dialogue. I’ve watched plenty of movies that have done far worse jobs using their characters as mouthpieces for their ideas, but for a filmmaker as controlled and precise as Garland, this seemed unexpectedly creaky.

The last third of the movie is much, much better, but then the climatic battle that comprises it is mostly just an extremely well executed action set piece that takes place in Washington, DC. Garland does manage to let his characters shine in the last act more than in the first two, but overall he does little to explore who they are or what makes them complex beyond their single, defining character traits: jaded angst (Kirstin Dunst), macho thrill-seeking (Wagner Moura), sage wisdom (Stephen McKinley Henderson, superb as always) and naked ambition (Cailee Spaeny). These performers all do the best they can but they’re trapped within their thinly written roles.

In fact, the meager character development joins a list of Things that Garland Is Conspicuously Not Interested in Examining. Other items include the relevance of an imagined civil war to the real world circa 2024, and the impact of such a conflict on civilians. This unwillingness to draw parallels between his fictional world and the red and blue state divide in contemporary America has been widely debated of course, and many have found fault with Garland for this. As artistically evasive as this creative decision is, it doesn’t even bother me all that much, to be honest. What does really grate on me is that Garland seems to have shockingly limited interest in what he professes to be examining: the actual journalism itself.

The movie is focused almost exclusively on the vicarious thrill of shadowing combatants in wartime, but it flagrantly tunes out aspects of that practice like, for example, the ethics of embedding with armed forces, the process of turning observation and photographic images into actual stories, the role of those stories in the way war unfolds, and the impact of those stories on the world at large—and we’re not even mentioning the existential question of whether journalism as a trade is even viable anmore. That’s a really extensive list of things that Garland excuses himself from addressing, and the film is noticeably poorer for it. Ultimately, “Civil War” turns out not to be as inflammatory as I expected; because of all the things it shies away from, it ends up being mostly forgettable.

Three Indies

I had considerably more fun watching a handful of small-scale indie films that I would heartily recommend to anyone who’s looking for low-stakes productions that actually manage to put forward distinctive artistic statements. “Late Night with the Devil” is an imperfect but boldly unique horror film that’s set, of course, in the world of 1970s late night talk shows. “Molli and Max in the Future” is a “When Harry Met Sally”-style, off-the-wall and very endearing romantic comedy set in outer space. And “Hundreds of Beavers” is…it’s just insane and it’s hard to believe it exists, or that anyone really had the wherewithal to make it, especially on a tiny budget. I watched it twice! You should watch it at least once.


Here’s the full list of all nineteen movies (twenty, if you count my second viewing of “Hundreds of Beavers”) that I watched in April. This is the latest in my monthly round-ups of movies I’ve been watching. You can also see everything I watched in March, in February, in January, and summaries of everything I watched in 2023, 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.

  1. The Hunt for Red October” (1990) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Read the book in high school and thought it was garbage but the movie at least is an unimpeachable example of plot construction and breathless pace.
  2. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” (2006) ★★★
    Lovely time loop-themed film from Mamoru Hosoda, director of “Wolf Children,” who brings a wonderful mix of clarity and abstraction to his remarkably precise anime style.
  3. La Haine” (1995) ★★★★
    Brutal, raw, frequently dreamlike banlieu tale set the morning after a ghetto riot on the outskirts of Paris. Clearly indebted to Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” but also fully its own expression.
  4. Rolling Thunder” (1977) ★★★
    Tarantino is a huge fan of this grindhouse pic that’s really a haunting character study. Fascinating in its balance of those two sensibilities, but otherwise it’s not much more than perfectly okay.
  5. Die Hard 2” (1990) ★½
    Rewatched. Schlocky and slack in all the ways that its predecessor was brainy and taut, this is a movie that thinks acknowledging its own absurd, craven existence earns it some kind of pass on being a patently absurd, craven cash grab.
  6. Die Hard: With a Vengeance” (1995) ★★½
    John McTiernan, the director of the original “Die Hard,” comes back to show everyone how it’s done. It actually works really, surprisingly well for a good stretch—until it doesn’t.
  7. After Life” (1998) ★★★½
    Like the title says, this is a supposition of what happens after you die, by Hirokazu Kore-eda, a master of humanist storytelling. Its fantastical premise is executed with extraordinarily simple, even rudimentary staging, which is amazing for a long time. Then it kind of drops the ball with a too convenient, late inning reveal that lets down what came before it.
  8. Late Night with the Devil” (2023) ★★★½
    A brash B-movie that tries to recreate the feeling of late night television, circa 1977, in the form of a supernatural horror thriller. Not fully successful, but a lot of fun.
  9. The Thomas Crown Affair” (1999) ★★★½
    Rewatched. A brisk romp, never boring for a moment, and reasonably clever about the heist antics at the center of its corny romance.
  10. Molli and Max in the Future” (2023) ★★★½
    Another ballsy indie film that does a lot with its tiny budget and an extra-large helping of hilarious ideas.
  11. Birth” (2004) ★★★
    I had no idea this 20-year old Jonathan Glazer psychodrama was so high concept. For a while it’s convincingly gripping and Glazer really ratchets up the tension. But by the end it can’t escape how goofy it is.
  12. Spirited Away” (2001) ★★
    Rewatched. This movie feels completely empty to me.
  13. Now You See Me” (2013) ★★
    Rewatched. This movie is unabashedly dumb, makes no sense and even undercuts the craftsmanship of real world magicians. But I somehow don’t hate it.
  14. Blue Beetle” (2023) ★★
    This movie was always going to be bland. But director Angel Manuel Soto nevertheless managed to smuggle in a true Latinx sensibility into what is really no worse (or better) than any number of post-“Iron Man” derivatives. That counts as progress too, I guess.
  15. Kiss the Blood Off My Hands” (1948) ★★★★
    Black-as-night film noir set in a foggy, damp, post-blitz London that feels like a time warp back to the Victorian area. Starring a radiant Joan Fontaine as a kind of anti-femme fatale, and Burt Lancaster at his brutal best.
  16. All Night Long” (1962) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Saw this strange, jazz-inflected riff on “Othello” starring Patrick McGoohan when I was a teenager and it really stuck with me. I was happy to find that it still holds up.
  17. Hundreds of Beavers” (2022) ★★★½
    This microbudget, live-action mashup of silent film-era comedies and Looney Tunes is just off-the charts on the scale of “Why would anyone make this?!” but it’s amazing nevertheless. Not perfect but highly, highly recommended.
  18. Hundreds of Beavers” (2022) ★★★½
    Rewatched. I thought it was so amazing that I had to show it to my family, and they agreed.
  19. Deadpool” (2016) ★
    Rewatched with my kid, who couldn’t stop laughing, which taught me that this movie just isn’t for me and that’s okay. It’s also okay for me to hate it.
  20. Civil War” (2024) ★★★
    Director Alex Garland’s provocative, well-made imagining of what most Americans fear (or hope for) isn’t the artistic statement that Garland seems to think it is. This is mostly because he seems to excuse himself from really addressing a series of issues and ideas that his exploitative script continually bring up.