Saturday, April 13, 2024


CIVIL WAR is a film that is politically, visually and aurally challenging. It is vital, important and politically astute.  I think a lot of criticism that's been thrown at it about being apoliticalis unfair and I'll get into why.  But most of all this is a film that sits with you - that moves you - that provokes you to thought and also features one of the most hilarious drop tracks of De La Soul's Say No Go! What more can you want from a film?

CIVIL WAR has been written and directed by Alex Garland who started off as a novelist with The Beach and then moved into writing for film and then directing. He created the amazing TV show Devs and actually a lot of the cast from that reappear in this film. He has come to represent one of the most thoughtful voices about the real structural challenges facing us as a species which I can't believe I'm saying because it sounds so pretentious! But films like EX MACHINA and 28 DAYS LATER challenge what it is to be human and a morally centred being. And now with CIVIL WAR he is tackling head on political divisiveness and everything about the current times in which we live that pit person against person, identity against identity, and tribe against tribe.

In its structure, this movie it is a road movie.  It's four journalists in a car going from New York to Washington DC. It stars Kirsten Dunst as Lee Miller, named after the real life journo who was first into Dachau. This is referenced in the film so Alex Garland is being very explicit about his references. I also think the character is based on the late Marie Colvin.  Lee is accompanied by Joel who's played by Wagner Moura of Narcos fame. He is charismatic and a really good counterbalance to Kirsten Dunst's Lee who is  held together tightly as if all her trauma might spill out if she cracks a smile. Lee and Joel have two interlopers in the car. First, we have have Sammy played by Steven McKinley Henderson. He'll be known to you if you watch Devs. He is an old school reporter and it's implied that he worked or still does work for the New York Times. He doesn't think they should be going to DC but he also wants that story. Lee and Joel are also accompanied by a very young aspiring photo journalist who kind of blags a ride. She is called Jesse and is played by Cailee Spaeny, who recently played Priscilla Presley in Sophia Coppola's biopic.  

In a sense the Journey of the film is twofold.  We're going from New York to DC to see what hell is happening in America but also I think that there's a message about generation Z having to confront the reality of what is happening and get blooded into war. There is a tragic mantel being handed from Lee to Jessie - a toughening up and a hardening and a locking down of emotion. I have seen some people criticize the character of Jessie and I would say the only flaw I find in this film is the final interaction between the two photo journalists. I'm not going to say more for fear of spoiling it but I think I would have maybe played that slightly differently or written it differently.

Our four journalists start off in a New York that is having power cuts and where there are violent protests and suicide bombers. As they journey down to DC they've got to skirt around Philadelphia to somehow get to DC which is the front line of the Civil War then as now.  They're seeing an America that's ravaged and where armed militia have taken the breakdown in institutional authority as an opening to wield their own authority.  

Nowhere is that more chillingly conveyed than in a short cameo by Jesse Plemons, who of course is the real life husband of Kirsten Dunst. He has a very small role to play but it's absolutely I think the the philosophical and political heart of this film. He asks a question of each of our journalists: "what kind of Americans are you?" I think that to me is the line of the film because it hints at the fact that it's no longer enough to say you're an American.  You have to say if you are a progressive or a Republican or a Mega supporter or a whatever it is - whatever label - whatever qualifier.  This is the problem that leads to the War, and I would bet you money this scene comes half way through the film.

The political setup of this film has caused a lot of controversy and I don't really understand why. There is a president of the United States and it is not ambiguous at all: this guy is a fascist! How do we know? He serving his third term and we know that's illegal under the Constitution right. We know he's abolished the FBI. We know he has ordered the Army to shoot on American citizens. So this guy's a Fascist and later on when they're talking about potentially getting an interview with him Sammy who's the older journalist says you know these these dictators always disappoint you when you meet them - Ceaucescu, Gaddafi et al - when you meet them in the flesh they are smaller men than you think they're going to be so he's clearly bracketing the President in that category.

What is I think troubling to some people is that the people fighting this fascist takeover or the two states of the Western Forces are Texas and California that's blowing people's minds right because you have what's perceived to be a very right-wing State and a very left-wing State joining forces in this film.  But you've got to free yourself from your contemporary politics and you've just got to see this is the way the film's going to position itself so as to speak to both sides of the aisle.  Moreover, the film is making a point about how people abuse military power. We see the official United States Army massacring civilians but we also see individual militia committing extra-judicial murder and lynchings and even the liberating WF army is shooting unarmed civilians. So  I think there is a message there about how invading forces act and maybe it's a commentary on what Imperial forces have done throughout history but I think the message that Alex Garland is going is giving in this film is they're but for the grace of God. I think he's making a point that however this fascism begins and whichever of the states comes together to fight against it it's going to unleash the worst of us.

I cannot speak highly enough of this film. I think it's beautifully shot and beautifully acted.  I would love to see Kirsten dun and Jesse Plemons up for awards.  I think it packs an emotional punch.  I think there are images that are just haunting and I really hope it serves to tell its audience on both sides of the political aisle "look where this leads if we don't find some kind of common ground and some kind of ability to talk through our differences in a civil manner (pun intended) as opposed to splitting into identitarian tribes where one side's good one side's evil and and conversations impossible and we are only left with the most extreme options this is film making at its finest and I hope it gets the audience it deserves."

Civil War is rated R it has running time of 109 minutes it it is currently on release in the UK and the USA. It is no coincidence that it's been released on April 12th - 13th - the anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861 and the start of the US Civil War.


Marisa Abella (Industry) delivers a stunning central performance as Amy Winehouse in this new biopic of the singer. She captures Amy's caustic wit, her physical mannerisms, and most impressively, her spoken and singing voice.  Director Sam Taylor-Wood (NOWHERE BOY) tackles the audience's apprehension head on in an opening scene showing Winehouse's Jewish parental family singing together. Abela freestyles Fly Me To The Moon and the audience relaxes, safe in the knowledge that Abela's Amy is spot on. Her Amy is straightforward to the point of rudeness, full of energy and sheer talent. But also troubled way before she meets her much vilified husband Blake Fielder-Civil. She is already bulimic and alcohol dependent with a self-acknowledged streak of self-sabotage, particularly when it comes to men. This is something that Matt Greenhalgh's script, using her own lyrics, explores from the first scenes.

About forty minutes into the film, Amy's first album has been a breakout success but she has been told to restyle herself for America. This plays into all of the insecurities that have fed into her self-abuse. And at that moment we meet Jack O'Connell (UNBROKEN) as Blake Fielder-Civil. He is charming and fun and has a deep knowledge of music over which he and Amy can bond. It's another powerhouse performance. There's an immediate spark and we are swept up in young, heedless romance.  According to this version of the story, it was a genuine love affair on both sides at first, and while he was already using Class A drugs she stuck "only" to alcohol and weed. It's only when they reunite after a break-up that he was motivated more by her fame and money and ability to fund his smack habit.  Once inside prison, he cleans up and realises what's obvious to the rest of us - that this is a desperately toxic codependent relationship with competitive self-harm. He wants to break free. Fair enough. But it breaks Amy in the process.

Needless to say, this is a more nuanced and sympathetic portrait of Fielder-Civil than we got from contemporary news reports, or from Asif Kapadia's superb 2015 documentary AMY. My only criticism of Kapadia is that he often creates pantomime villains in his films - whether Alain Prost in SENNA or Fielder-Civil and Mitch Winehouse in AMY.  Greenhalgh and Taylor-Wood may have swung the pendulum back too far in BACK TO BLACK but I really appreciate the attempt to treat humans as flawed real people. And we have to remember that Fielder-Civil was also a young man and an addict at the time. 

The whitewashing of Mitch Winehouse, played by the innately sympathetic Eddie Marsan, is probably going to be even more controversial.  In this film, he is portrayed as an indulgent father who is totally out of his depth when it comes to Amy's addictions. This kind of tracks with Amy's mother saying, in Kapadia's documentary, that when Amy told them about her bulimia they just kind of ignored it and hoped it would pass. We don't see the avaricious exploitative father of Kapadia's doc at all.

But let's not be fooled into thinking this film is a whitewashing of the brutality of addiction and bulimia.  Amy's descent into full blown class A drug addiction is shown explicitly, but never exploitatively. We see her ability to go clean for periods, but that she is, in the scripts words, always on edge, so that it doesn't take much to push her over. In this film, it's always heartbreak that does it - whether Fielder-Civil leaving her, or her inability to get pregnant and have the stable family life she craved.  The narrative is convincing, and Abela's central performance is heartbreaking.  I love that we spent so much time with Amy and her beloved Nan (Leslie Manville) and saw that Amy's heart was rooted in jazz. I felt I had an understanding of her deep familial musical heritage that I didn't get from Kapadia's doc.  And this is, I think, one of the most important things that we need to know about her.

BACK TO BLACK is rated R and has a running time of 122 minutes. It went on release in the UK today and goes on release in the USA on May 17th.

Thursday, April 04, 2024



I absolutely adore Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels. They are slippery and subversive and dark and dangerous and about the best crime procedurals you can read. I have also loved many of the iterations by which Ripley has found himself on the big screen, from PLEIN SOLEIL to RIPLEY'S GAME and Anthony Minghella's superlative TALENTED MR RIPLEY.

When I first heard that Andrew Scott (ALL OF US STRANGERS) was cast as Ripley I was excited but I assumed that this would be an adaptation of one of the later books when Ripley was older. I was shocked to discover that this was actually an adaptation of the source novel where the characters are meant to be in their twenties. Johnny Flynn's Dickie is also in his forties.  The problem is that this makes the concept of the book seem ... well ... odd. Dickie Greenleaf dodging his responsibilities on a kind of extended gap year in Italy feels right for pretty young things but doesn't quite work for middle-aged men.  And thanks to Zaillian's choice to go for black and white photography, life in Italy never feels beautiful and lush and seductive. Rather, we start off in a world that is decaying and deserted and rather drab.  It's hard to see what in Dickie and Marge's existence would be attractive to Tom. Their life doesn't feel particularly luxurious. And there's no sexual tension between Dickie and Tom, and certainly no apparent love for Dickie on Marge's part. It's just all so flat.

As we move into the second act, things pick up pace. The crime procedural has its own momentum. Whether it needs five episodes though, is doubtful.  We see the quality of Eliot Sumner as Freddie Miles in their pivotal scene with Tom.  A scene that is played very differently to how Philip Seymour Hoffman played it, but with no less menace.  The problem is that Eliot is a good fifteen years younger than Andrew Scott and seems to be in a totally different film.

So far so problematic, but where this adaptation totally loses it is in the final episode. We begin episode eight with a flashback to Caravaggio which is way too on the noise, and a clear case of a showrunner being given way too much running time to pad out. We also get a confrontation between the police inspector and Tom that's so literally incredible it destroyed any respect I had for this adaptation. Minghella's choice to have them never meet was the more elegant solution.

RIPLEY was released on Netflix today.