Review: ‘The Northman,’ starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk and Willem Dafoe

April 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga in “The Northman” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features)

“The Northman”

Directed by Robert Eggers

Culture Representation: Taking place in Northern and Eastern Europe, from the years 894 to approximately 919, the fantasy action film “The Northman” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: In this Viking version of “Hamlet,” an exiled prince seeks to avenge the murder of his father, who was killed by the father’s brother.

Culture Audience: “The Northman” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s all-star cast, filmmaker Robert Eggers and Viking stories that are gory but realistically violent.

Oscar Novak, Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman in “The Northman” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features)

Brutally violent but artistically stunning, “The Northman” brings harsh realism and dreamy mythology to this Viking story that inspired William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” It cannot be said enough times as a warning: “The Northman” is not for viewers who are easily offended by on-screen depictions of bloody gore and sadistic violence. There are scenes in this movie that can best be described as downright filthy—and not just because these scenes have people covered in dirt, blood and other grime. There’s a filth of the mind that plagues many of the characters in “The Northman,” where murder, rape, torture and other assaults are a way of life to conquer and subjugate others.

American filmmaker Robert Eggers has made a career out of exploring the dark side of humanity in the movies that he writes and directs. His feature films—beginning with 2015’s “The Witch” and 2019’s “The Lighthouse”—have a rare combination of taking place in an otherworldly atmosphere while depicting people and events as if they are historically accurate. “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” are defined by elements of horror, while “The Northman” (Eggers’ third feature film, which he co-wrote with Sjón) can be defined by elements of tragedy. “The Northman” is also a movie about Vikings, vengeance and violence.

Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” play was itself based on the medieval Scandinavian legend of Amleth, the story of a prince who vows to get deadly revenge for the murder of his father, who was betrayed and killed by the father’s brother. “The Northman” weaves into the story aspects of Scandinavian folklore, the occult and the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. The end result is an immersive cinematic experience that is both menacing and magical.

“The Northman” begins in the year 894, on the fictitious Scottish island kingdom of Hrafnsey, which is close to Orkney Island and Shetland Island. Hrafnsey is ruled by King Aurvandil War-Raven (played by Ethan Hawke), a confident leader who has just returned to the land after about three months away from home. King Aurvandil has a happy family life with his wife Queen Gudrún (played by Nicole Kidman) and their son Amleth (played by Oscar Novak), who’s about 10 or 11 years old when the story begins.

“The Lighthouse” co-star Willem Dafoe has a small role in “The Northman” as a court jester named Heimir the Fool. King Aurvandil is amused by Heimir’s talents, while the king’s jealous younger brother Fjölnir (played by Claes Bang) is dismissive and condescending to Heimir. The scene with the brothers’ two very different reactions to Heimir are meant to show their contrasting personalities and how they interact with people.

King Aurvandil is fixated on the idea that Amleth should be ready to lead Hrafnsey, because the king has a premonition that he will die soon. Aurvandil does not know when he will die, but he is certain of how he will die: “I must die by the sword. I will die in honor,” he says. Gudrún doesn’t like to hear Aurvandil talk this way, and she insists that Amleth is too young to learn about royal adult responsibilities. Nevertheless, Aurvandil and Amleth do a male-bonding ritual around a campfire together, where a shaman leads the father and son to enact various wolf mannerisms while proving that they’re still human.

Although the king is beloved by many of his subjects, there is a cabal of people waiting to betray him. Leading this traitorous group is Fjölnir, who is cruel, power-mad and ruthless. One day, when King Aurvandil and Amleth are spending some father-son time in a forest, Fjölnir and about a dozen of his cronies ambush the king and viciously murder him, while Amleth witnesses everything.

Amleth manages to hide and escape, but not before using a knife to cut off the nose of a brute named Finnr (played by Eldar Skar), who later lies to everyone by saying that he killed Amleth. For the rest of the movie, Finnr is known as Finnr the Nose-Stub. Amleth runs back home, only to find out that Fjölnir and his gang are plundering the land, invading homes, and letting everyone know that the king is dead and Fjölnir is now in charge. One of the last things that a terrified Amleth sees before he runs away from Hrafnsey is his mother being kidnapped by Fjölnir’s cronies.

The movie then fast-forwards about 20 years later. Amleth (played by Alexander Skarsgård) is now a strapping, angry man, who has joined a group of marauding killers hired to help conquer villages in Eastern Europe. Those who are not killed in these villages are held captive as slaves. “The Northman” has several of these invasion scenes that are not for the faint of heart. Amleth has become extremely jaded and callous in all the violence and murders he commits as a berserker warrior.

However, Amleth soon has a vision of a mystic named Seeress (played by Björk), who reminds Amleth that his immediate purpose in life is to avenge his father’s death. This sets Amleth on a path to disguise himself as a slave and go on a slave ship heading to Iceland. It’s on this ship that he meets Olga of the Birch Forest (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, the breakout star of “The Witch”), an enslaved Slavic devotee of the mystic arts. In other words, Olga is a witch. Amleth and Olga have a mutual attraction to each other that goes exactly where you think it’s going to go.

Amleth is going to Iceland, because it’s where Fjölnir has now settled with Amleth’s mother Gudrún, who is now Fjölnir’s wife. Fjölnir and Gudrún have two sons together: brash young adult Thórir the Proud (played by Gustav Lindh) and obedient pre-teen Gunnar (played by Elliot Rose), who have been brought up in a life of royal privilege. For all of his flaws and evil deeds, Fjölnir loves his sons immensely and will do anything to protect them. Considering how Gudrún ended up with Fjölnir, she is treated just like a trophy wife.

“The Northman” often has simplistic and cliché dialogue, but the cast members’ performances are mostly convincing. Skarsgård and Bang have a great deal of physicality in their roles as Amleth and Fjölnir, which play out in the expected “protagonist versus antagonist” ways. What they both bring to these characters is an added level of emotional depth that becomes more compelling when this nephew and uncle, who are sworn enemies, actually have something in common: their love of family as their biggest emotional vulnerability.

Kidman struggles with sticking to the same accent (sometimes she sounds Scottish, Nordic, Icelandic or various combinations of all three), but her overall performance as Gudrún is riveting, because Gudrún is the most complicated character in the story. Taylor-Joy is perfectly cast as the cunning and (literally) bewitching Olga. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles.

Aside from the disturbing violence, “The Northman” will leave an impact on viewers because of how it creates a world caught in between medieval truths and timeless mythology. There are haunting and compelling scenes involving pagan rituals, ascending into heavenly spaces, and transforming someone’s interior body into some kind of mystical realm, with entrails snaking around like winding tree branches. “The Northman” also has more than a few nods to psychedelia, including Olga’s psychedelic mushrooms that are used as a weapon in this family feud.

“The Northman” greatly benefits from the almost-hypnotic cinematography of Jarin Blaschke, a longtime collaborator of Eggers. Whether or not people enjoy Eggers’ movies (which sometimes drag with slow pacing), there’s no denying that these films have top-notch cinematography. Viewers who can withstand the relentless onslaught of violence in “The Northman” can also appreciate that even amid the murder and mayhem, there are still glimmers of hope for humanity.

Focus Features will release “The Northman” in U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Passing’ (2021), starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga

December 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in “Passing” (Photo by Edu Grau/Netflix)

“Passing” (2021)

Directed by Rebecca Hall

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City in the late 1920s, the dramatic film “Passing” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two African American women, who were friends in high school, see each other for the first time in years and find out that they are living two very different lives: One of the women lives as her true identity as a black woman, while the other woman passes herself off as white. 

Culture Audience: “Passing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted movies about how racial identity affects people’s perceptions about themselves and about other people.

André Holland and Tessa Thompson in “Passing” (Photo by Emily V. Aragones/Netflix)

If you could live your life identifying as another race, would you do it? It’s a question that viewers will inevitably have when watching the dramatic film “Passing,” where racial identity is used as both a weapon and as a shield, depending on the individual and the racial identity that the person presents to the world. Social class and sexuality are other identities that “Passing” shows can be used to confine or liberate people. A talented cast and steady direction from Rebecca Hall bring a cinematic vibrancy to this fictional story from the 1920s, but it’s a story that applies to many people’s lives in the past, present and future.

“Passing,” written and directed by Rebecca Hall, is Hall’s feature-film directorial debut. She adapted the movie from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. Larsen based the novel on her own experiences as a biracial person (her father was African American and her mother was Dutch), who was raised by her mother and white stepfather. Hall (who is British) also has “passing as white” in her family history: Hall’s maternal grandfather was an African American who passed himself off as white, according to the “Passing” production notes and according to what Hall has said in interviews.

“Passing” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Although the “Passing” novel and the movie are set the late 1920s, many of the same social constructs exist today. Most societies still expect biracial or multiracial people to choose just one race to identify with the most. And white supremacy still makes people think that the “whiter” someone is, the more “superior” that person is, and therefore more entitled to the best things that life has to offer.

It’s why in the story of “Passing,” when two African American women who were friends from high school, see each other for the first time in about 12 years, one of them has decided to live her life as a white woman. It’s a sweltering day in New York City when Irene Redfield (played by Tessa Thompson) stops by the restaurant of the upscale Drayton Hotel to cool off and have some lunch. Irene is a light-skinned black woman who considers herself to be a cultured and classy, but she knows that as long as people know that she is black, she won’t be allowed into certain places, such as this hotel whose guests are white people.

Therefore, when Irene is out in public, she tends to wear outfits (such as a hat that’s worn low enough to obscure much of her eyes) and talk a certain way so that people assume that she might be white. She doesn’t deny that she’s black, but she lets people think that she’s white if it helps her get through her day a lot easier. Irene lives in New York Cit’s Harlem neighborhood with her doctor husband Brian (played by André Holland) and their two sons Junior (played by Ethan Barrett) and Ted (played by Justus David Graham). Junior is about 10 or 11, whle Ted is about 8 or 9.

At the Drayton Hotel’s restaurant, Irene sees another woman sitting by herself at a table nearby. They look at each other, almost like they’ve just seen a ghost from their past. The other woman is Clare Kendry Bellew (played by Ruth Negga), who was a close friend of Irene’s when they were both in high school. Irene and Clare haven’t communicated with each other in the approximately 12 years since they’ve seen each other. They’re about to find out how their lives have gone down different paths.

After Clare and Irene greet each other and make small talk, Clare says that she’s visiting from Chicago. Clare is married to businessman named John Bellew (played by Alexander Skarsgård), and they have a daughter together named Marjorie, who is not on the trip with them and who is never seen in the movie. Clare proudly announces to Irene that John is white, and that they are raising their daughter as white. Clare also mentions that she was worried before Marjorie was born what shade the child’s skin color would be.

And there’s something else: John doesn’t know that Clare is not white. Clare was raised by her white aunts, which is one of the reasons why it was easy for her to conceal her true racial identity from John. Clare smugly comments on the burden of lying to her husband and many other people about her true racial identity: “All things considered, it was worth the price.”

When Irene says that she’s married to a black man who’s a doctor, Clare laughs in a surprised and condescending way. It’s as if Clare can’t believe that Irene chose to marry a black man with the knowledge that by doing so, Irene’s life would be harder. Irene asks Clare with some curiosity and envy if Clare is happy. Clare gloats, “Of course! I have everything I wanted!”

Shortly after this somewhat awkward reunion, John joins Clare at the restaurant table. Because this restaurant’s customers are white people and because Clare is talking to Irene, John incorrectly assumes that Irene must be white. He tells Irene that Clare dislikes black people so much that Clare won’t even have black maids. And in case it wasn’t clear that John is a racist, he says the “n” word during this conversation.

Clare smiles and agrees with John, without seeming to care how this conversation might be hurting Irene, who is too polite to object to all the racist talk in the conversation. However, it’s clear from the expression on Irene’s face that she’s feels hurt and betrayed. And so, when the conversation ends with Clare saying that they should keep in touch, Irene can barely hide the look of disbelief at Clare’s blatant phoniness.

At home, Irene tells her husband Brian about this uncomfortable encounter. He’s appalled, and he advises Irene to completely distance herself from Clare if Clare tries to get in touch with Irene again. At first, Irene takes that advice by ignoring the apology letter that Clare sends to her.

But one day, Clare shows up at Irene’s home unannounced and uninvited. This time, Clare says that she’s traveled to New York City for an extended visit without her husband and child. Clare is able to charm her way back into Irene’s life, with results that neither woman expects.

“Passing” is a “slow burn” movie where the pacing might be too sluggish for some viewers. But as a psychological drama, the movie is fascinating. It might be worth it to watch the movie more than once to pick up on subtle clues that might not have been noticed during the first viewing.

During Clare’s extended visit, she spends most of her time in Harlem, where she is introduced to Irene and David’s social circle. Viewers find out that when in Clare and Irene were in high school, Clare was considered to be prettier, more glamorous and more charismatic than reserved and introverted Irene, who often felt overshadowed by Clare. Those same dynamics start to repeat themselves as Clare starts to become the center of attention at social gatherings that she attends with David and Irene.

Things get complicated because of an unspoken romantic attraction that Irene seems to have for Clare that apparently existed since they knew each other in high school. Clare drops big hints in conversations that her own sexuality is fluid, while Irene seems to also be somewhere on the queer spectrum but is definitely in the closet about it. Any sexual attraction between the two women seems to be mostly on Irene’s part, based on the furtive, longing glances that she gives to Clare when Irene thinks no one else is looking.

Clare, who is extremely vain and manipulative, seems to sense this attraction and uses it to her advantage. It should come as no surprise when Clare starts flirting with Irene’s husband Brian, who seems attracted to Clare too. It puts Irene in a difficult situation because she doesn’t want to react too strongly by sending Clare away. After all, Irene still wants Clare to be around because Irene is attracted to Clare.

Meanwhile, Irene and Brian have disagreements over how to teach their sons about the dangers of white supremacist racism. Brian thinks that the boys should know about this harsh reality as soon as possible to prepare them for the real world. Irene thinks that the boys are too young to know, and that this type of knowledge will ruin what she thinks should be the boys’ happy childhoods.

For example, when there’s a newspaper report about a black man being lynched, Brian wants to talk about it with the kids, while Irene vehemently objects. They argue about it. Brian gets so frustrated with Irene that he blurts out to her: “I don’t understand how as intelligent you are, you can be so stupid!”

Over time, it becomes obvious that although Clare is lying about her racial identity to certain people, Irene is in a type of denial of her own—not just about her sexuality, but also about how her children will be treated as black people in a society that enables, teaches, and encourages white supremacy. Clare’s presence is a reminder to Irene about the extreme lengths that people will go to kowtow to a white racist mentality.

However, what Irene doesn’t expect is that Brian, who seemed to be all about black pride and who previously disapproved of Clare, is starting to grow closer to Clare. As for Clare, it’s eventually revealed that her so-called “perfect” life with her husband John isn’t so perfect after all. Clare’s lies about her racial identity have affected her a lot more than what she originally told Irene.

“Passing” has a few other characters in the movie who are mostly there as people who are part of Irene and David’s social life. Hugh (played by Bill Camp) is a white bachelor who is among the well-to-do white people who think it makes them look “cool” to hang out with black people in Harlem, but the same black people would never be invited into these white people’s homes. Hugh is a big gossip who likes making sarcastic observations about people.

Another person in the movie’s party scenes is black man named Ralph Hazleton (played by Amos Machanic), whose dance partners are often white women. Ralph often gets mentioned as an example when Hugh and other people at these parties talk about dark-skinned black men who attract white women. When Hugh asks Irene if she thinks Ralph is handsome, she says no but that Ralph is “exotic.” It’s left up to viewer intepretation to think if Irene really believes that or she just said something that she thought Hugh wanted to hear.

These are all just side characters to the main focus of the story, which is about Clare and Irene’s rekindled friendship and how it starts to affect Irene’s marriage to David. “Passing” could have taken a predictable melodrama route by turning this story into a love triangle involving screaming arguments or women catfighting over a man. But the movie has a low-key approach that is more about repressed feelings, with fear bubbling under the surface that secrets might be revealed.

Negga rises to the challenge of depicting Clare, who could be completely unlikable, as a complex character who is neither a hero nor a villain but someone who masks her insecurity with a “bon vivant” personality that can shapeshift to whatever can get Clare what she wants. When Clare sees that Irene is happily married and that Irene doesn’t have the burden of pretending to be another race, Clare wants some of that happiness too.

Thompson gives Irene an aura of someone who is used to being hurt but is trying to hold on to whatever dignity that she has when she’s in situations that cause her emotional pain. It’s why she’s reluctant to confront people or cause a scene. And it’s why she wants to delay as much as possible how and when her sons find out about the evils of racism.

“Passing” was filmed in black and white, using 4:3 aspect ratio, which was the standard aspect ratio for movies of the 1920s and 1930s. The movie admirably recreates a lot of other characteristics of the era, such the costume design, production design and music. Thompson’s body language and speech patterns as Irene seem particularly calibrated to embody someone from that era who wants to be a highly respected society woman, no matter who is with her. Irene is not someone who talks one way with white people and another way with black people. Clare, who comes from a higher-income household than Irene does, is the one who seems coarser and less refined than Irene when Clare is around other African Americans.

What the cast members and Hall are able to achieve with this film is more than commentary about people’s attitudes when it comes to race, social class or sexuality. By the end of the movie, audiences will understand that “Passing” is ultimately about truth telling about ourselves and other people. And telling the truth can sometimes have dangerous consequences when people are invested in perpetuating lies or keeping secrets.

Netflix released “Passing” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2021. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 10, 2021.

Review: ‘Godzilla vs. Kong,’ starring Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Julian Dennison and Demián Bichir

March 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Godzilla and King Kong in “Godzilla vs. Kong” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

“Godzilla vs. Kong”

Directed by Adam Wingard

Culture Representation: Taking place in various other parts of the world, the action flick “Godzilla vs. Kong” features a racially diverse cast (white people, African Americans, Asians and Latinos) who are part of the scientific community, corporate business or are underage students.

Culture Clash: Gigantic monster enemies Godzilla and King Kong cross paths, while some greedy corporate people want to exploit the monsters’ power sources in order to make deadly weapons.

Culture Audience: “Godzilla vs. Kong” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “Godzilla” and “King Kong” movies and don’t care if the story is badly written, sloppily directed and populated with hollow human characters.

Alexander Skarsgård, Rebecca Hall and Kaylee Hottle in “Godzilla vs. Kong” (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

The tedious and atrociously made train wreck that is “Godzilla vs. Kong” probably will please people who have extremely low standards for action flicks. But considering that several superhero movies have proven that action movies can be entertaining spectacles with distinct and memorable characters, there’s really no excuse for why “Godzilla vs. Kong” stinks more than any toxic excrement that can be expelled from these fictional monsters’ bodies. “Godzilla vs. Kong” is the epitome of a “cash grab” film that lazily exploits the nostalgic brand names of beloved creature feature films. In “Godzilla vs. Kong,” the filmmakers do almost nothing to create intriguing characters that can exist in a cinematic art form.

Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein, “Godzilla vs. Kong” takes an annoying amount of time building up to the inevitable fight scenes described in the movie’s title. The filmmakers inexplicably overstuffed the movie with a lot of characters that barely do anything except act egotistical (if they’re the villains) or look anxious (if they’re the heroes). The human characters who are involved in the most action and decision making in the movie are reduced to spouting idiotic dialogue that makes the monsters in the movie look more intelligent.

Yes, it’s another movie about a creature that threatens to destroy the world, while humans think they can stop the destruction in time, and the greedy ones think they can get rich off of this crisis. That’s pretty much the plot of every movie about Godzilla, King Kong or other giant monster. Pitting two supersized titan monsters against each other should raise the stakes even higher, but “Godzilla vs. Kong” fails in delivering an enjoyable story and has an ending that falls very flat. The movie’s visual effects from Luma Pictures are adequate but not outstanding.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” begins with King Kong living in a biodome on Skull Island, where he is being observed by scientists for research. Leading the team of scientists is Dr. Ilene Andrews (played by Rebecca Hall), who is a single mother to an adopted deaf/mute daughter named Jia (played by Kaylee Hottle), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Apparently, Ilene cares more about her research than the safety of her underage daughter. Jia is allowed to be in many completely dangerous situations that would be more than enough for child protective services to get involved.

But dumb movies like “Godzilla vs. Kong” pander to the lowest common denominator by showcasing people with horrific parenting skills and acting as if nothing is wrong with it. And if that means making it look like kids should be allowed to be in the line of fire and actively fighting these monstrous and deadly creatures, then so be it. Kaylee and some of the other underage characters in “Godzilla vs. Kong” are portrayed as having uncanny knowledge and skills that the adults don’t possess. It’s just more pandering to a kiddie audience or people with a child’s mentality.

The movie (which was filmed in Hawaii and Australia) jumps all over the place in a haphazard manner, but here are the main locations in the film:

  • Skull Island, where King Kong lives until he’s brought out of hiding for reasons explained in the movie. It’s also where Ilene and her daughter Jia live until they decide to travel to wherever Kong will be relocated.
  • Apex Cybernetics, a high-tech corporation in Pensacola, Florida, is involved in cybertechnology related to military defense weapons. The CEO of Apex is a typical money-hungry villain named Walter Simmons (played by Demián Bichir), who has a conniving daughter named Maya Simmons (played by Eiza González), who wants to take over the business someday. Walter’s loyal right-hand henchman is Apex chief technology officer Ren Serizawa (played by Shun Oguri). Apex also has an engineer named Bernie Hayes (played by Brian Tyree Henry), who ends up becoming a whistleblower.
  • Monarch Relief Camp, also in Pensacola, is the temporary home of refugees who were displaced by the destruction caused in the 2019 movie “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” It’s where divorced dad Mark Russell (played by Kyle Chandler), a former Monarch animal behavior and communication specialist, works to help refugees. Mark has a headstrong and independent teenage daughter named Madison (played by Millie Bobby Brown), who wants to follow in his footsteps as scientist who studies animals.
  • Denham University of Theoretical Science is a think tank in Philadelphia where the workaholic and underappreciated Dr. Nathan Lind (played by Alexander Skarsgård) is working on a top-secret theory/experiment. Aren’t they all in movies like this one?
  • Hong Kong, where some of the characters in the story take a rocket, because apparently it’s not enough just to have transportation by planes, ships, trains or automobiles.
  • Tokyo, because you shouldn’t have a Godzilla movie without Godzilla fighting in Tokyo.
  • Hollow Earth, a place somewhere below the earth’s surface that was discovered in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” This location also plays a major role in “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

In “Godzilla vs. Kong,” King Kong somehow got access to a javelin (it’s never explained how), and like an Olympic champ, he throws it at the sky while he’s on Skull Island. The javelin pierces the biodome ceiling, so that’s how King Kong finds out that the world he’s been living in has been hermetically sealed.

You know what that means. King Kong becomes restless because he knows he belongs somewhere else. It isn’t long before Ilene and the rest of the scientists find out that King Kong has literally cracked their carefully constructed façade.

Ilene comments about King Kong to a co-worker named Ben (played by Chris Chalk): “The habitat is not going to hold him much longer.” Ben replies, “We need to think about off-site solutions.” Ilene then says, “The island is the one thing that’s kept him isolated. If he leaves, Godzilla will come for him. There can’t be two alpha titans.” Oh yes, there can, or else this movie wouldn’t exist.

The decision is made to move Kong out of Skull Island. King Kong is tranquilized and strapped to a cargo ship. And you just know that tranquilizer is going to eventually wear off. Somehow, Kong’s energy is sensed by Godzilla, who comes out of hibernation from deep in the ocean. Godzilla goes on a rampage in trying to find Kong. It’s all just filler until these two creatures face off against one another.

What does this have to do with Apex? The company has discovered a subterranean ecosystem that’s as “fast as any ocean light.” It has an energy life force that Apex wants to find in order to make a weapon that will defeat Godzilla.

Nathan, a former Monarch employee, says that he tried and failed to find the mysterious Hollow Earth entry. He believes in genetic memory, a theory that says all titans share a common impulse to return to their evolutionary source. Nathan wants to tag along with Ilene and her crew to find the power source that’s in Hollow Earth.

But since “Godzilla vs. Kong” isn’t interested in keeping things simple with only essential characters, there are more people who want to get to Hollow Earth too. There are the Apex villains, of course. And then there’s a motley trio that’s meant to be the movie’s comic relief but they end up saying a lot of corny lines and getting into stereotypical slapstick predicaments.

This trio consists of Apex engineer Bernie, who’s decided he’s going to expose Apex’s dastardly plans; teenage Madison, who apparently skips school so she can save the world in “Godzilla” movies; and her schoolmate Josh Valentine (played by Julian Dennison), who’s the type of character that Dennison is known to play in movies: a sarcastic brat. Josh is also the clownish “klutz” of the group who’s prone to be more terrified than the others. Meanwhile, Bernie sometimes acts like he’s uttering lines that were rejected from a bad stand-up comedy act.

How did Bernie get mixed up with these kids? Bernie is the host of a podcast called the Titan Trade Podcast, where he spouts “insider” conspiracy theories about Apex but doesn’t reveal his true identity. Even though Bernie’s voice and his irritating motormouth personality would be recognizable to his Apex co-workers on this podcast (Bernie makes no effort to disguise his voice), the movie wants people to believe that Bernie’s been able to keep his podcast identity a secret while he’s spilling confidential company information to the world.

“Something bad is going in here,” Bernie warns in one of his podcast episodes. He says that he’s going to download evidence of a “vast” corporate conspiracy. “It’s more than a leak. It’s a flood,” he adds. “And this flood is going to wash away all of Apex’s lies.” And with that announcement, Bernie essentially tells the world that he’s a company whistleblower, without thinking that the company could possibly catch on to his exposé plan before he actually does it. So dumb.

Madison listens to the podcast and essentially drags a reluctant Josh along when they meet Bernie. Madison uses Josh because he has a car and she doesn’t. As if to put an emphasis on how Bernie is the “out of touch” adult in this trio, he has a very outdated flip phone that he uses a lot in the movie. It might be some type of weird irony that a guy who works as an engineer at a highly advanced tech company doesn’t even have a smartphone, but it just makes Bernie look even more dimwitted, considering all the benefits of a smartphone that he would need on this mission.

Because “Godzilla vs. Kong” is meant to be a family-friendly film, there are the obligatory sappy moments to make it look like this isn’t just a movie with fights and explosions. Jia has an emotional bond with King Kong that’s intended to tug at people’s heartstrings, because somehow she’s taught him sign language without her mother knowing. Ilene eventually finds out, but you have to wonder how much of neglectful parent Ilene must be if she let her daughter spend enough time alone with King Kong that Ilene didn’t know that Jia has now become King Kong’s personal American Sign Language tutor. Kids these days.

And while this awful movie whips around from place to place like a flea in search of a mangy dog, somehow the filmmakers forgot to have any meaningful story arc for Madison’s father Mark (who was a protagonist in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”), who is completely sidelined in “Godzilla vs. Kong.” The parents in this movie are insultingly portrayed as incapable of making truly effective decisions unless the kids show them the right way.

There’s nothing wrong with precocious kid characters, but not at the expense of making the adults with years of scientific knowledge look clueless next to kids who haven’t even graduated from high school yet. The movie completely undervalues and dismisses the life experiences of adults whenever the kid characters are in the same scene. It’s why “Godzilla vs. Kong” has the mentality of video game or a cartoon instead of a live-action movie.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” doesn’t even bother giving the villains anything memorable about their personalities, which is what all worthwhile “good vs. evil” stories are supposed to do. Heroes often have bland, interchangeable personalities, but villains are the ones who are supposed to get the biggest audience reactions in these stories. And audiences like to see some of the clever ways that villains make mischief. None of that happens in “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

There could have been so much improvement to the movie’s lackluster human interactions if the villains were compelling. Walter is very generic, Ren doesn’t talk much, and Maya is a completely unnecessary character. All of the actors in “Godzilla vs. Kong” give performances like they know they’re in a movie where they don’t have to show much acting talent and it’s all about the paychecks they’re getting.

As for the Godzilla vs. King Kong fight scenes that come too late in the movie, they are extremely predictable but at least better than the witless dialogue that the audience has to endure whenever the movie’s scenes focus only on the humans. In order for a monster movie to have the most impact, viewers should care not just about the fight scenes but also about the people whose lives are in danger. And in that regard, “Godzilla vs. Kong” stomps out a lot of humanity to distract viewers with CGI action that isn’t even that great in the first place.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Godzilla vs. Kong” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on March 31, 2021. The movie was released in several countries outside of the U.S. on March 25 and March 26, 2021.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘The Kill Team’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgård in "The Kill Team"
Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgård in “The Kill Team” (Photo by Manolo Pavon/A24)

“The Kill Team”

Directed by Dan Krauss

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

In 2013, “The Kill Team” (directed by Dan Krauss) won the Tribeca Film Festival jury prize for Best Documentary Feature for its chilling chronicle of the Maywand District murders scandal, in which members of the U.S. Army were arrested in 2010 for murdering unarmed, innocent civilians during the war in Afghanistan. Krauss has revisited the story—this time, by writing and directing the dramatic, scripted film also titled “The Kill Team,” which is based on real-life events but using fictional names of the real people involved. Whereas the documentary (which was released by The Orchard in 2014) spends a lot of time explaining why this tragedy happened, the scripted feature film does something even more disturbing: It shows how it happened in the first place.

“The Kill Team” documentary, which includes interviews with several of the soldiers involved, takes place entirely after the arrests of the soldiers. The documentary is set not in a combat zone, but in the type of conference rooms and offices where defense attorneys or therapists meet with their clients, as the defendants prepare for their cases to be resolved. The “Kill Team” scripted feature film takes place almost entirely before the arrests, and brings the viewers directly into the environment that created the horrific “Kill Team” mentality to murder people for thrills.

The main protagonist in both films is the young specialist who enters the Army as a wide-eyed, eager-to-please rookie and leaves the Army as a disillusioned, broken man wracked with guilt over his participation in the murders. In real life, that man is Adam Winfield, whose name has been changed to Andrew Briggman in “The Kill Team” scripted film. In the beginning of the movie, Andrew (played by Nat Wolff) is excited and proud to join the Army, since his father is an Army vet who served honorably.

Andrew has a close relationship with his loving parents, William and Laura (played by Rob Morrow and Anna Francolini)—and it’s a relationship that plays a pivotal part later on in the story. However, Andrew is in for a rude awakening when he leaves the supportive cocoon of his middle-class family and goes off to war in Afghanistan. Early on, Andrew experiences the brutality of war when he and other squad members witness their squad leader being killed by an improvised explosive device (IED). In addition, several of the other soldiers in his squad initially give Andrew a hard time—they think because of his scrawny physique that he’s a nerdy wimp who’s not cut out for combat.

Andrew and his college-age peers essentially have a fraternity-like existence, with each member jockeying for position and testing boundaries when it comes to egos, power and respect. They argue, but they also party together (smoking hashish is one of their preferred leisure activities), and they have varying degrees of expectations on how much violence they’ll commit while they’re on active duty.

The stakes in the team’s power plays get higher when the squad gets a new staff sergeant named Sergeant Deeks (played by Alexander Skarsgård), who is charismatic but extremely manipulative. He does what most toxic leaders do: He pits his subordinates against each other so that they can prove who is the most loyal to him, and those who “win,” get the most rewards and benefits from him. Deeks (who is based on the real-life Calvin Gibbs) makes it known to his squad that he’s looking for a trusted right-hand man, which sets off a competition to see who’s the toughest of the bunch to get that position. Andrew is eager to prove himself worthy of being Deeks’ second-in-command, and he surpasses Deeks’ expectations by fulfilling increasingly violent tasks that Deeks orders him to do.

The other members of the squad—including Rayburn (played by Adam Long), Coombs (played by Jonathan Whitsell), Marquez (played by Brian Marc), Weppler (played by Osy Ikhile) and Cappy (played by Oliver Ritchie)—join in on the mayhem, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance. Coombs in particular has an almost joyful zest in the violence that he causes, because he thinks war should be about “kicking ass,” and he thinks it’s boring for soldiers to have duties such as patrolling areas and protecting civilians.

On the surface, Deeks appears to be an accomplished and upstanding military man—he lovingly checks in on his wife and young son back home via Skype chats—but it’s a façade that masks a sadistic criminal who likes to kill for fun, and he has a total disregard for the law and U.S. military policies. The first sign of Deeks’ corruption is when he catches his subordinates smoking hash, but instead of reporting this punishable offense, he tells them that what they’re doing is wrong because he knows where they can get better-quality hash.

It isn’t long before Deeks lets his young subordinates in on some of his secrets: He’s gotten away with an untold number of murders in Iraq and Afghanistan, simply by lying and saying that the people attacked first and were killed because of self-defense. In many of the cases, Deeks admitted to planting weapons on the victims (which is called a “drop weapon” technique) to further perpetuate the lie that the killings were justified. Deeks has also kept body parts (such as fingers) of many of his victims, and he likes to pose for pictures next to their dead bodies, much like a hunter poses for photos with dead prey.

Some of Deeks’ subordinates are all too eager to join him on his murder sprees, if it means that they can rise through the military ranks with Deeks as their mentor. They call themselves “The Kill Team,” and become a twisted fraternity of soldiers looking for unarmed victims to murder, under the guise of being good military men who are eliminating the enemy at war. When some of the squad members show signs of guilt, they’re threatened by Deeks to keep silent, or else he’ll make sure they’ll be beaten up or killed. After all, Deeks has shown that he’s capable of not only committing these crimes but also covering them up and making the victims look like the aggressors. Deeks’ subordinates are isolated, far from home, and under the command of a dangerous and powerful leader, so it’s easy to see why they went along with his heinous actions in order to protect themselves.

We’ve seen villains in many war movies before—the Oscar-winning classics “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” for example, each features a corrupt leader who fits the mold of the gruff, scowling bully instilling fear in his subordinates. What makes “The Kill Team” villain Deeks even more insidious is that his dominance isn’t all by brute force—he barks commands, but he also presents himself as a smiling, older brother to be admired and whose approval is a reward that his subordinates are desperate to get, even if it means that their morality gets stifled or snuffed out in the process.

Deeks’ physical presence—tall, blue-eyed good looks, as embodied by Skarsgård—also has a lot to do with his powerful influence, because he fits many people’s image of an American military hero. Skarsgård brings complexity to the role by portraying Deeks as loathsome but also with a self-righteous magnetism that makes it convincing that he could manipulate other people into thinking what he wants them to think. The merits of this film are largely centered on authentically explaining how someone like Deeks could get away with so much horrific destruction—and Skarsgård successfully rises to the challenge. The Andrew Briggman character is less complex and more transparent than Deeks, but Wolff effectively portrays the morality crisis and emotional turmoil of a soldier whose world is turned upside down by the horrors of war and corrupted values.

Krauss and his team did a terrific job of recreating not only the Afghanistan war zones (the movie was actually filmed in Spain) but also the military weapons and automobiles (which were actually digital effects) that were shown in the movie. Although many people already know the real-life outcomes of the Maywand District scandal, Krauss builds a level of suspense and emotional tension that will leave an impact on viewers and serve as a painful reminder that serial killing in the context of war is an issue that will never be fully erased.

UPDATE: A24 Films will release “The Kill Team” in select U.S. theaters and on VOD on October 25, 2019.

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