My main goal in writing film reviews is to entertain you while I tell you about a movie. While I can’t even sniff the same comedic galaxy as Pitch Meeting or Honest Trailers, I do my best to come up with jokes to make your read slightly less boring than the mind-numbingly dull dreck you get from mainstream film critics. While doing a little research on The Northman’s main actor, Alexander Skarsgard, I discovered the name of his character in True Blood is named Eric Northman. That is unbelievable. There is a joke there – I’m sure of it, but I haven’t been able to put my finger on it. I’m sure it would be super easy and barely an inconvenience for Ryan George, but I’m going to need you to get all the way off my back while I try to think of that perfect joke.
(SPOILER ALERT – Plot stuff as usual, plus a huge THANK YOU!! to Mr. George for being hilarious.)
Young Amleth is excited at the return of his father, Viking King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), from weeks of raping, killing, and pillaging. In fact, Amleth is so excited that he bursts in on his mother, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), while she is dressing and receives a scolding for not knocking. The two of them meet Aurvandil as he rides in at the head of his army, then sit with Aurvandil in the throne room as they are presented with the spoils of war. Aurvandil gifts Amleth a gold necklace, then later takes Amleth into the bowels of their temple to perform a ritual where Heimir the fool (Willem Dafoe) drugs them and they bark like dogs while hopping around on all fours. Yeah, it’s weird. I hope you weren’t expecting something straight-laced from the guy who gave us the very weird (and very overrated) The Witch (director Robert Eggers).
The thing is the scene works somehow. It might be because every representation of Vikings ever (and other Others white Europeans regarded as barbarians) shows them as barely more civilized than wolverines, so we just sort of nod along thinking “that’s probably right.” But, we need this representation because Amleth is what Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon would look like if the blue fairy made him a real boy. We need to believe Amleth is capable of growing up and becoming Alexander Skarsgard. And not the Big Little Lies Skarsgard, but The Legend of Tarzan Skarsgard.
Amleth must become this shredded, barking, raging, man-imal because his life becomes a revenge plot after his father is betrayed and murdered by his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang). Amleth escapes his own murder attempt and we don’t see him again until he’s a Skarsgard. And boy do we ever see him. It’s some years later and he is hacking and murdering his way through a town with whatever horde of Vikings he finished growing up with. Make no mistake – he looks every bit the animal warrior that little ritual portended him to be. This is a good time to mention that if you have a weak stomach, you are at the wrong movie.
After a whole lot of violence, Amleth is visited by a Seeress (Bjork) who may or may not be a Norse god advising him that the time for his revenge is upon him. Amleth cuts his hair, brands himself with a slave mark, and sneaks on board a slave ship heading for Fjolnir’s village. On this boat, he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who continues to be so strikingly beautiful that you start to feel like you aren’t supposed to look directly at her. She claims to be a sorceress herself and we know this is true because she looks like one.
The rest of the film takes place in and around Fjolnir’s village, which lies at the foot of a volcano called Hel. Once there Amleth, with the help of Olga, plots and executes his revenge against Fjolnir and his men. If you weren’t already on the edge of your seat after the intensity of the first half of the film, you’re going to want to make sure seat backs and tray tables are in their upright and locked position because this film has a higher gear. A much higher gear. Norse-God level, if I may.
Aside from the very straight-forward revenge plot, the film does a fantastic job of weaving in some Norse mythology and historical Viking stereotypes, displaying an interpretation of how Vikings may have lived back in the ninth century. They are calling on Odin and Freya the way us modern folks invoke modern gods. Not as formal prayers, but as a part of everyday language. We also see sacrificial offerings to the gods, witches, visions of the future, the mythical Viking berserker rage, and Valkyrie, so…far better than your typical Christian services. And definitely more bloody.
Norse mythology and history is a subject I’ve always wanted to read more about and The Northman is the type of movie that violently shoves me toward actually, finally doing it. As much fun as it is to get the Marvel interpretation, The Northman’s depiction is far more intriguing. As uncomfortable as a couple of the scenes made me, I enjoyed every moment of the film. From the acting, to the production, to the story-telling, to the visuals, to the weirdness, there was never a moment where I thought something might have been done better. Well, maybe Skarsgard’s character’s name. Amleth is no Eric Northman.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, including the food that won’t sit well by the end of the film.
This movie is what I have been missing for the past year. Big, loud, dumb blockbusters that promise one thing. Prior to this, Wonder Woman 84 was supposed to be that movie, except not the dumb part. Of course, WW84 turned out to just be dumb. Then, WandaVision was released on Disney+ and filled that blockbuster void. Well, for seven episodes at least. The last two episodes were blah followed by are you fucking kidding me? But that’s another story. Now, we get Godzilla vs. Kong, the epitome of big, loud, and dumb. A giant lizard fights a giant ape. If it was anything but big, loud, and dumb, I would be annoyed.
In all seriousness, I was a little annoyed for approximately forty minutes, or, the amount of time it took for Godzilla and King Kong to actually fight. I understand that they had to do some plot development and introduce some characters and…nope, I can’t even finish that sentence. This is the fourth movie in Legendary’s and Warner Brothers’ so-called MonsterVerse. We really don’t need more than five, maybe ten minutes of intro before they start fighting. And it was not just me. My eight-year old son kept asking when something was going to happen. Yes, I was egging him on, but he wanted to see the monsters fight much more than I did.
And why were they going to fight? Much like Batman v Superman, their reason for fighting has to be wildly contrived. Even in movies about superheroes or movies featuring gigantic monsters living in Hollow Earth. Yeah, I forgot about that stupidity as well. Why do the screenwriters feel the need to explain why we never saw the giant monsters before? It’s just, well, dumb. Only three people give a shit and this movie had five writers. You do the math. But I digress. My point is that previous films portrayed both Godzilla and King Kong as heroes saving humanity. So, why are they fighting again?
Because alphas just gotta alpha. In other words, there can be only one Highlander. As Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) helpfully explains to Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard), “there can be only one alpha titan.” This is her reasoning for refusing to allow King Kong off of Skull Island, as if that was somehow an option and as if Godzilla has a Twitter account labeled #allalphasmustdie #aftermoviethree. According to Dr. Andrews, if Kong ever left the island, Godzilla would immediately detect and kill Kong. Say what now? Are you suggesting the cloud that surrounded Skull Island was some sort of magical barrier that blocks Godzilla’s alpha radar? And, even if that were true, doesn’t Godzilla only attack bad alphas? You know we saw Mothra in the last movie not get attacked by Godzilla, right?
Here is where the real contrivance comes in. The film starts with Godzilla attacking an Apex research center. Everyone is flabbergasted and Godzilla is immediately labeled an enemy of the state. Keep in mind, this is despite everyone plainly knowing that Godzilla only shows up to destroy existential threats to humanity. I told you – dumb. Anyway, the CEO of Apex (Demian Bichir) convinces Dr. Lind to go convince Dr. Andrews to convince King Kong to go to Antarctica and show them how to reach Hollow Earth, otherwise known as the mystical world at the center of the Earth invented by Jules Vern. Wow, it sounds even dumber when I say it out loud.
As Dr. Andrews predicted, the moment Kong leaves the island (somehow manacled to a giant barge), Godzilla makes a beeline for them. And, without further ado – ado being thirty to thirty-five minutes – Godzilla and Kong fight. And it was glorious. A year, everybody. That’s how long we’ve gone without something like this. Several minutes of Godzilla destroying aircraft carriers and battleships and King Kong jumping from ship to ship like a giant Frogger and the two of them smashing into each other and fire-breath and elbow drops and chest pounding and RAWWWRRRRRR!!!!!! Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.
Did more happen in this movie? I think so, but I was savoring the near-death match so much that I barely cared what was happening between then and the next hopefully-death match. Something about an evil corporation and the girl from Stranger Things (Millie Bobby Brown) being able to practically waltz into a high security facility with her friend and a conspiracy theorist in tow. My attention refocused when they finally revealed the real villain that Godzilla and Kong would inevitably team up against after fighting each other again. And, again, glorious. I was just so happy. Everything I had missed for a year was there – big, loud, and, especially, dumb.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back for those three reasons.
Prior to screening The Aftermath, I was looking for a quick synopsis of the film because I knew nothing about it. The first thing that popped up in the Google search was a review for The Aftermath subtitled “The Aftermath is the cinematic equivalent of crying after sex.” This nearly made me spit-take coffee all over my laptop. On the surface, it is a hilarious way to describe a movie and is full of possibilities. Imagine my disappointment when, after watching the film, I went to read the article and discovered that I would have to subscribe to a Canadian newspaper called The Globe and Mail in order to read it. That is definitely not going to happen. I can’t even see the name of the writer without the subscription, so I am going to have to live with never knowing what the writer meant. And, judging by that byline, it is probably really funny. Which is the exact opposite of The Aftermath – decidedly not funny.
The Aftermath is set in post-World War II Hamburg, Germany, about five months after Germany surrendered. Sweeping aerial shots show us the decimated husk that is Hamburg, including thousands of German people living on the edge of starvation in tent cities. See? Not funny.
(SPOILER ALERT. If you want to figure out on your own why this film is the equivalent of crying after sex, stop reading now.)
Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives in Hamburg to meet her husband, British Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), who has been placed in command of the British occupation forces in the city. The couple is assigned to live in a mansion commandeered from German architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgard) and his daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann). Stefan has prepared to relocate to the tent camp, but is surprised with Colonel Morgan invites Freda and him to stay and live on the third floor. See what the screenwriter/author (this film is based on a book I have not read) did there? Also, awkward.
Given that this movie is classified as a drama/romance, you don’t get any points for guessing where the main storyline of this film goes. And of course it goes there. Rachael is forced to live in a recently conquered country, with a husband she hasn’t seen in years and who is constantly running out to deal with flare-ups, in a house that isn’t hers, with a polite, hunky man who looks suspiciously like Tarzan. What you might not guess is the movie does exactly zero work to develop the affair beyond Stefan yelling at her to kick them out of the house early in the film. He literally forces a kiss on her during this exchange in order to piss her off to further persuade her to evict them. Instead, love blossoms. Or something.
The only thing left standing in Hamburg.
Rather than develop the characters to the point where the affair is believable, the film elects to defend the affair with dead kids. No, seriously. Both Stefan and Rachael are coping with their children having been killed in bombings of their home cities. On top of that, Stefan’s wife is also dead. With Lewis constantly away, that leaves two lonely, grieving adults sharing a giant house together in a war-ravaged city. Who doesn’t get naked in that situation?
Stefan and Rachael aren’t the only forced relationship. Freda hates having to share their house with the Brits and, at one point, literally hisses at them on her way out the door to school. By this time, she is stealing from them and giving the ill-gotten goods to a German resistance group still fighting for Hitler. Yet, two seconds later, she is having a tender moment at the piano with Rachael, playing a duet together. Suuuure.
Soapiness aside, everything in this movie deals with the aftermath of something. War, bombings, death, Nazis, absentee husbands who irrationally blame their wives for their death of their sons…pick your tragedy. And all of them have consequences, be it illicit affairs, Germans who refuse to admit defeat and continue killing people, pissed off daughters forced to share their house with the conquerors, broken marriages…pick your tragedy. This cornucopia of sadness is so plentiful it suffocates the development of everything in the film. What’s left is a far from believable affair and a bunch of distracting side stories.
The news is not all bad. The cinematography is gorgeous, as are the costumes. If not for all the death and sorrow, it’s a lovely film. Maybe that is what that critic meant about crying after sex. If something is pretty enough, you’ll convince yourself to sleep with it, but you won’t feel good about it afterward.
Rating: Ask for all of your money back. It really isn’t that pretty.
Let’s play a little game I like to call “Bwaaaa?” In this episode, we will be looking at a couple of critics’ responses to two movies that are similar in far too many ways, but at least have different plots – The Jungle Book (JB) and The Legend of Tarzan (LT). In other words, they should have roughly the same ratings, all things considered. It’s a simple game – I say stuff and you try not to say bwaaaa or smack your forehead. Here we go. First, we’ll level set the movies.
Both movies center on a male human raised by jungle animals.
Both movies are heavily reliant on CGI animals and CGI jungle.
Both movies are based on stories written more than 100 years ago (JB – 1894; LT – 1919).
Both movies were released within three months of each other this year.
Now, here are the current ratings scores for the two films.
Rotten Tomatoes – 95% for JB; 30% for LT.
Metacritic – 77% for JB; 41% for LT.
I expect you’ve uttered at least one bwaaaa to this point, but now the real fun begins. Let’s start with Peter Howell of the Toronto Star, beginning with the review titles.
JB – “The Jungle Book more than just bare necessities.”
LT – “The Legend of Tarzan retells old tale, but why?”
Right away, you can see that Mr. Howell has a massive double standard or was drunk when he wrote those titles. JB unabashedly retells its original story (or at least the animated movie’s story) with very minor tweaks, but Mr. Howell chooses to ignore that for JB. And, he doubles down in the opening of each review.
JB – “The laws of nature and animals are much discussed in Disney’s remake of The Jungle Book, but only one rule really applies: Don’t screw it up. Happily, the spirit of the beloved 1967 animated classic survives and even thrives as live-action drama, directed by Iron Man’s Jon Favreau.”
LT – “It’s possible, even likely, that more effort was expended on sculpting Alexander Skarsgard’s abs for The Legend of Tarzan than on providing good reason why the movie was made.”
Why does this happen? Why excuse one movie, but not the other? Well, maybe he at least acknowledges they both have great CGI.
JB – “Photo-realistic animals replace familiar cartoon characters with the fidelity you’d expect from a National Geographic special.”
LT – “Magnificent abs they are: a sculpted six-pack that could bounce not just a gold coin but an entire bag of them. They’re also among the few things that actually look real, in a film so larded with CGI, little appears to have any weight or substance within the hazy grey-green digital foliage.”
That looks totally real.
Are you kidding me? Other than a slightly different color palate (green-gray versus gray-green) and talking animals, they have the same quality of CGI, especially the animals. Ok, last chance – he has to at least agree that both feature well-worn stories that should elicit virtually no reaction other than noting them, right?
JB – “The story nods to the familiar with its coming-of-age tale of loin-clothed Mowgli leaving the wolf pack and striking out on his own.”
LT – “In telling for the umpteenth time the Edgar Rice Burroughs yarn of a noble Englishman raised by apes in “savage” Africa,”
Alright, enough. I’ve read some hack pieces before, but Mr. Howell has put together some really shitty reviews (and I’m using the word “reviews” very loosely) that are clearly biased for no reason he’s willing to explain, especially considering he spent a grand total of eleven sentences discussing LT and twelve sentences on JB. That’s barely enough space to summarize a movie (which is essentially what he’s doing), let alone give an honest and informative review.
Let’s move on to our other contestant, Richard Roeper (yes, that Richard Roeper). To be fair, Mr. Roeper rates LT as adequate and entertaining, but still goes way over the top with JB on certain aspects that are no better than LT. Case in point, the CGI:
JB – “…but thanks to director Jon Favreau’s visionary guidance and some of the most impressive blends of live-action and CGI we’ve yet seen, “The Jungle Book” is a beautifully rendered, visually arresting take…Every drop of rain, every cracking tree branch, every swaying tree and (most impressively) every jungle creature in the film looks amazingly real”
LT – “Which brings us to perhaps the most serious drawback of the film: the jungle creatures. They’re all CGI, and far too many times, they look VERY CGI. Some of the apes have more animated facial expressions than mid-1990s Jim Carrey, while ostriches, the aforementioned lions, hippos and other creatures look great from a distance but not so believable when the humans are “interacting” with them.”
Maybe he missed the part with the giant orangutan (King Louie) that easily looked as CGI as anything LT had to offer. Or the gigantic snake (Ka). Or when Mowgli runs into the butt of an animal at the watering hole. I’m sorry, but you don’t get to complain about the facial expressions on apes or interactions of lions with a human in one fantasy movie, but then be okay with a singing, dancing bear emoting like a human (watch the honey scene again) in another fantasy movie. How’s your forehead now?
That looks totally fake.
I could go on, but I don’t want you to give yourself a concussion. So, here’s my take.
Many of the critics seem to be hung up on the fact that LT includes little sidebars on several societal topics (slavery, exploitation of Africa, greed), convincing themselves that the story is muddled and can’t decide what it wants to be, even though the story couldn’t be more straightforward – bad guys want to exploit a region and its people so as to get filthy rich and good guys want to stop them. Toss in classic tropes ‘damsel in distress,’ ‘reluctant hero,’ and ‘plucky sidekick’ and we’ve got ourselves a standard adventure movie, complete with a mustachioed villain who kills people the same way as Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4. All of those side topics are exactly that – side topics, so of course they aren’t fully fleshed out. This isn’t that kind of movie nor should it be.
Performance-wise, I don’t think they could have cast any better. Alexander Skarsgard (Tarzan), Margot Robbie (Jane), Christoph Waltz (evil villain), and Samuel L. Jackson (plucky sidekick) are all good in their respective roles. Skarsgard is believable as an incredibly-cut, raised by apes, jungle man who just wants to save his wife. Robbie gives us a Jane who isn’t just a helpless damsel in distress, defiant to her captors and sometimes to Tarzan, and a person we care enough about that we want her to be saved. Waltz delivers a villain who is two parts slime and two parts cunning – a villain we want to see trampled by wildebeasts as much as we want to see Jane rescued. And, Jackson delivers some much needed comic relief as only he can – blending Nick Fury’s dry wit with Jules Winnfield’s serious wit to keep this movie from plunging into a morass of brooding and chest thumping.
To be fair, LT does have some issues, but they are minor. The scenes where Tarzan is swinging through the jungle feel a little over the top, as Tarzan is whipping around as fast as Spider-Man (at one point, we are told a train they are swinging to is moving at 40 miles an hour). I also didn’t buy the villain’s suggested infatuation with Jane as his reason for hanging on to her even after she served her purpose (he has zero ties to her, not even a newspaper clipping he might have had of her since she was quasi-famous). I’m not excusing those little things, but they weren’t enough to torpedo the movie for me. One thing I did like was how well they intertwined Tarzan’s origin story into the film (through flashbacks) without making it the focal point of the narrative.
Eye candy for all.
Looking back at my review of JB, I had no issues with the plot of the movie or some of the technical elements. My issue was that it was almost a straight remake of the cartoon, but lacked a lot of the charm of that cartoon. What makes LT a more recommendable film is that previous incarnations of Tarzan have been silly and are completely unwatchable in 2016 and LT is a very adequate movie. Conversely, the JB cartoon is still very watchable and the 2016 live-action JB has a worse ending. It also helps that LT is much more obviously aimed at adults (and Skarsgard and Robbie are absurdly gorgeous humans if all you want is eye candy) because I am an adult. But when it comes down to comparing these two movies, do not let the aggregate ratings sites fool you – The Legend of Tarzan is easily as entertaining as The Jungle Book and neither is telling you a story you haven’t already seen many times over.
Rating: Ask for two dollars back and remember to put some ice on that.