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The Movie Guru: ‘Civil War’ and ‘Strange Way of Life’ good, but missing something

'Civil War' is now playing in theaters.
A24/Courtesy photo

Civil War (in theaters)

War is horrifying, but it’s great for cinematographers.

That’s the truth behind pretty much every war film ever made, including Alex Garland’s “Civil War.” Shot on cameras designed to make it look more like live news reports than a safely removed movie experience, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy plunge viewers into the heart of a war that turns familiar American images into bloody, brutal nightmares. It takes an immense amount of talent to make a sensory nightmare this immersive, and a great cast brings a human element that makes the movie more emotional and darker by turns. If the center didn’t prove as hollow as every American-made movie about the Middle East, this movie would have been unforgettable.

America’s modern civil war is in full swing when the movie starts, following a group of journalists as they cross war-torn land for an impossibly dangerous story. Kirsten Dunst is our POV character, a longtime war journalist who is constantly fighting her own battle between defeated cynicism and the last shreds of her empathy. She makes us feel every shred of the weight she carries, and Cailee Spaeny and Wagner Moura are great as the ghosts of where she’s been and where she might let herself fall.



Garland, however, makes the same mistake that American filmmakers so often commit during war movies. The political pathway to this fictional civil war has been scrubbed clean, the backstory so disconnected from anything real that it might as well not be there at all. Wars like this are awful realities around the world, and a horrifying possibility here, but divorcing them of context makes them seem like unstoppable nightmares rather than the reality of our day-to-day choices. Peace doesn’t just disappear 鈥 it’s chipped away by money, power, hatred, and the inattention of thousands and thousands of people. That’s the real lesson of war, and one that movies too often forget.

Grade: Three stars

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Strange Way of Life (Netflix)

If it weren’t so interesting, it wouldn’t be nearly so frustrating.

Said to be Pedro Almod贸var’s take on “Brokeback Mountain,” “Strange Way of Life” is a fascinating, beautifully acted little short film that will make you angry when you think about how much of the story you’re missing. Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke put every shred of energy they have into this bittersweet love story, adding layers of nuance and emotion to the backstory the movie only barely has time to sketch out. This is almost the last half hour of the movie, not the whole thing, and it’s a testament to how good it is that it makes you want to see more.

The movie drops us in the middle of a slightly fantastical version of an Old West town, where Pascal’s character goes to have a seemingly innocuous visit with the sheriff (played by Hawke.) As the day continues, however, we discover that the story between them is far more complicated than at first glance.

Pascal and Hawke are both incredible, and completely believable as former lovers who let a lot of complicated circumstances get in the way. They’re also very sexy together, more so than actors cast as their younger selves in the too-brief flashbacks. They make you feel the depth of their character’s feelings, and give the movie stakes that feel higher than what is actually shown onscreen.

If Almod贸var ever turns this into a full-length film, I’ll be the first in line. Until then, I’ll dream of everything the movie didn’t let us see.

Grade: Three stars

Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at themovieguruslc@gmail.com.


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