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Ripley Delivers Film Noir Thrills ~ At The Movies With Kasey

I do not generally find war movies appealing, so a film about the violent end of American democracy was a hard sell. I do, however, love journalism stories and Alex Garland’s blockbuster Civil War depicts the crucial role of journalists.

In the film, set in the near future, reporter Joel (Wagner Moura) and photojournalist Lee (Kirsten Dunst) make a harrowing journey to Washington D.C. for a final chance to cover the authoritarian President (Nick Offerman) before rebel Western Forces take the capitol. Along for the ride are veteran reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and aspiring photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny).

The narrative structure of Civil War establishes the themes bluntly. Lee quips that the backseat of the press van is like a kindergarten and a retirement home, but having the veteran and the rookie tagging along with the wartorn journalists gives the audience a well-rounded perspective on the importance of their work and the traumatic human costs of covering the worst of humanity. The plot signals are sometimes too obvious, however. In one scene, Sammy tells Jessie to get some sleep because “you never know what’s around the next corner,” and literally behind the next corner is a car chase.

The screenplay takes great pains to keep the source of conflict opaque. The Western Front is an alliance between California and Texas. We get a vague notion that the president is in a third term and has shut the press out as “enemies of the people.” In the absence of discourse about what caused the civil war, the thrust of the movie boils down to the horrors of political violence and that we should not take that route. That’s an important point, as is the love for journalism, but at times, the film pulls its punches.

Still, Civil War is beautifully made. As it follows a photojournalist, the cinematography dwells on images of beauty and violence. Often it feels like we are watching through the lens of a camera, as Lee would. Much of the movie is surprisingly quiet, and the peaceful moments throw the incredible volume of the climax into impactful contrast.

Kirsten Dunst is a force as she depicts Lee’s trauma and existential dread with moving subtlety. Wagner Moura provides a lot of humor, so when Joel has intense emotions, his performance hits harder. Stephen McKinley Henderson and Cailee Spaeny have wonderful chemistry as bookends to the foursome.

Civil War may be heavy-handed, but the quality of filmmaking and the importance of the message make it worth seeing, especially in a theater.

Civil War was written and directed by Alex Garland. It runs 109 minutes and is rated R.

In Ripley, the latest adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel, a distressed father recruits Tom Ripley (Andrew Scott) to travel to Italy to convince his son, Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn), to come home to New York. When Tom gets to know Dickie and his girlfriend, Marge (Dakota Fanning), in the idyllic coastal town where they write and paint, he decides that he would rather stay and use his skills as a conman to create a dolce vita for himself, at increasingly high costs.

This miniseries was shot in crisp black and white by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit. I thought that decision was brilliant. The series opens with a gorgeous shot of Ripley dragging a body down a staircase as the camera plays with shadows, evoking the great noir films of the past. In the later episodes, these techniques are used with such skill I regularly exclaimed, “Look at that shot!” across the couch to my husband.

We watched Ripley an episode or two at a time over a week, and it reminded me of what appointment television used to feel like as the suspense of the slow burn built episode to episode. This steady pace, punctuated with sudden bursts of violence or comedy, makes for a superb viewing experience.

The previous iteration of this story I am most familiar with is the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley. The story feels different when 46-year-old Andrew Scott plays Tom Ripley vs when 28-year-old Matt Damon does and that took some adjustment. Scott’s understated, ironic reactions sometimes make Ripley a chilling character, and sometimes draws out comedy in interpersonal relationships. Similarly, Dakota Fanning’s muted performance builds tension, especially when she shares scenes with Scott. I love how the series deploys a large cast of Italian actors to create the world through which Ripley moves. As Inspector Ravini, Maurizio Lombardi’s wry line deliveries were deliciously funny. Finally, King, a Maine Coon cat who plays Lucio, is another animal who I think deserves an acting award.

I also love how bad the props team made Dickie’s paintings. It adds a little bit of comedy but also endeared the character to me. The paintings were one example of the attention to detail that made all the dramatic elements come together so vividly.

Ripley was created, written, and directed by Steven Zaillian based on the novels by Patricia Highsmith. It runs for 8 episodes on Netflix and is rated TV-MA.

Kasey Butcher

Kasey Butcher

She is proud to be a Ft. Wayne native, a graduate of Homestead HS, Ball State University & Miami University. She became involved with journalism editor-in-chief for her high school magazine. She authors the "At The Movies with Kasey Butcher" review. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer