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Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Skarsgard’

One of the things that Hollywood writers grumble about and bring up when the Writers’ Guild contemplates strike action is something called the possessive credit: this is when, at the start of a film, it says ‘A Film by…’ and then the director’s name. If you’re talking about a pure piece of auteur cinema, written, directed and otherwise shaped by a single person’s vision, then fair enough – but if the director’s just realising someone else’s script, you can see why the writers might get a bit peeved about their contribution being downplayed in this manner.

Certainly there are occasions when the use of the possessive credit feels – what is the mot juste here? – silly. But directors like to think of themselves as artists and creative visionaries, even when they are making films like Godzilla Vs Kong (which is apparently ‘A film by Adam Wingard’. I’ll be honest and confess I’d never really heard of Wingard before, but apparently he made a name for himself doing visceral micro-budget horror films and things loosely linked to the mumblecore movement (low-fi, low-budget, naturalistic movies). How therefore he ended up in charge of a $200 million franchise movie I am not entirely sure; he must have made a very good pitch.

For anyone who doesn’t follow the meta-plot of Hollywood monster movie franchises as closely as I do (I suppose it’s possible such people do exist), this is a follow-up to both 2017’s Kong: Skull Island and 2019’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters. As the movie gets underway, we learn that giant ape Kong (never actually referred to as King Kong here, in case you were wondering) is essentially being kept in protective custody by monster-wrangling agency Monarch, to stop Godzilla from tracking him down and beating him up (there is bad blood between their families, or something). Deeply concerned for the big guy, and de facto leader of Team K as the movie progresses, is primatologist Ilene (Rebecca Hall), who has a cute deaf-mute adopted daughter who shares a special bond with the ape.

The plot proper kicks off when colossal nuclear dinosaur Godzilla surfaces in the Gulf of Mexico and launches a seemingly unprovoked attack on an industrial facility in Pensacola owned by one of the world’s leading tech companies. The world is shocked by this sudden aggression, but firmly on Team G is Madison Russell (Millie Bobbie Brown, reprising her role from King of the Monsters), who is sure there has to be a reason for the attack and sets out to discover what it is.

Meanwhile, maverick geologist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) is recruited by the owner of the tech company (Demian Bichir, giving an enormous, swaggering, I-am-delighted-by-my-own-evilness performance) to help find a means of fending Godzilla off should he start playing up again. This involves locating a mysterious power source only found at the hollow core of the Earth. The expedition involves going down a very deep hole they have dug in Antarctica, and…

Well, look, here’s the thing. As regular readers will know I am a big fan of Japanese monster movies (and indeed monster movies in general) and happily cut them all kinds of slack as long as they get the good stuff right. And, up to a point, Godzilla Vs Kong delivers the goods in spades: the monster rasslin’ between Kong and Godzilla is as imaginative, violent, and destructive as one could wish for. (Similarities between this film and the jokey King Kong Vs Godzilla are thin on the ground, but both are obliged to address, in different ways, the fact that Godzilla’s atomic breath appears to give him a distinct advantage. Bonus points are also given for there actually being a genuine winner when the two face off in the third act.) Hereabouts we have previously discussed the issue of the aesthetics of giant monster battles, and the slightly tedious tendency of Hollywood movies to set them at night. There’s a touch of that here, but it’s offset by the film’s general use of a garish, neon-saturated colour palette, even if it is a bit video-gamey.

Nevertheless, you can’t just have 113 minutes of monsters fighting each other; there needs to be some kind of connective tissue of plot and structure to give it all a bit of context and significance and, dare I say it, logic. It’s true that this is a film about how the ancient rivalry between an enormous ape and a gargantuan nuclear dinosaur is impacted by the plans of a lunatic billionaire who has decided, for reasons known only to himself, to build a giant cyborg replica of said nuclear dinosaur using body-parts harvested from an alien space dragon, and thus it could be argued that normal standards of credibility and logic are not fully in effect. Even so, much of the plot of the film is nonsensical, reliant on outrageous and absurd plot contrivances and devices. You can see that they’re hoping that if they go really fast and keep hitting you with visual grandeur, lavish CGI and new plot developments, a sort of fridge logic will be in effect and you won’t notice how little of it makes sense. But fridge logic has its limits and even as you’re watching it, you can’t help but notice how under-exposited most of it feels.

But as I say, it does look very pretty, with some impressive new monster designs (including a new version of yet another member of the classic Toho kaiju stable). You have to feel a bit sorry for the actors, though, who join the long and distinguished roll-call of performers who have signed up for a Godzilla or Kong film and found themselves all at sea. Takeshi Shimura, Raymond Burr, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jean Reno, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins: there is no shame in joining their company, as Skarsgard, Hall, and various other members of the cast do here. Bichir, on the other hand, seems to be trying to win a bet: it’s a big and enjoyable performance, but camp in a way that most of the film seems to be trying to avoid.

In the end, it’s colourful and action-packed and sort of fun, but it’s like drinking a bucket of cola instead of enjoying a balanced meal. I’m rather surprised that the proper critics have gone so easy on Godzilla Vs Kong, admitting to its various flaws but suggesting they don’t matter and may in fact be inherent in this kind of a movie. Obviously, I would disagree: even the critically-mauled King of the Monsters was more coherent and satisfying story-wise. It may just be that the presence of Kong, as opposed to a group of more obscure Japanese monsters like Mothra and Ghidorah, makes the new movie more accessible to a general audience. I didn’t find it as satisfying as either of the films immediately preceding it, but it is entertaining on a superficial level; it’s just a shame they couldn’t have come up with a way of keeping all the monster fights but surrounding them with a plot that actually made sense.

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  1. British-occupied Germany, late 1945. Possibly a Thursday.

A train arrives in the ruins of Hamburg. Slim and beautiful RACHAEL MORGAN (Keira Knightley) disembarks. Waiting for her is stocky, troubled British army officer LEWIS MORGAN (Jason Clarke).

RACHAEL: Hello darling! It is I, your slim and beautiful wife Rachael Morgan, come to join you in post-war Germany. I am outwardly very happy to see you again.

LEWIS: Hello darling! Yes, I am your stolid, decent husband Lewis, a well-meaning but perhaps somewhat naïve English soldier (although I am played by an American), determined not to be beastly to the defeated German people, and somewhat disgusted by the crude prejudices of some of my colleagues. I am outwardly very happy to see you too.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

RACHAEL: Of course, although we are both outwardly delighted to be back together, we cannot help but reveal the coldness at the heart of our marriage and betray the existence of an issue which is slowly driving us apart.

LEWIS: Mmm, yes. Although we will only let hints and clues as to what this might be trickle out at dramatically appropriate moments.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

How was your trip?

RACHAEL: No sandwiches on the train.

She cannot meet his gaze.

LEWIS: Stiff upper lip, darling.

2. The grounds of a palatial house near Hamburg.

A car pulls up and LEWIS and RACHAEL get out. Waiting to meet them is tall, handsome, sensitive, decent German man STEFAN LUBERT (Alexander Skarsgard).

LEWIS: Herr Lubert! Please meet my wife Rachael.

STEFAN: Hello, Mrs Morgan. Please tell your husband to stop calling me a halibut.

RACHAEL: Hello, Herr Lubert. I am Rachael, the troubled Englishwoman with whom you immediately feel a deep, passionate connection despite yourself. And who might you be?

STEFAN: I am the sensitive, decent German widower (even though I am played by a Swedish actor) whose home has been commandeered by the British occupying forces for you and your husband to live in, while my daughter and I camp out in the attic.

LEWIS: Thus enabling a clumsy and not very subtle metaphor about the British occupation of Germany itself.

RACHAEL: Is this metaphor particularly resonant with the story we will enact?

LEWIS: Not really, no.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

STEFAN: Anyway, I am also the sensitive, decent German man with whom you immediately feel a deep, passionate connection despite yourself, thus allowing you to move beyond your initial prejudices about Germans.

LEWIS: I, of course, am completely oblivious to this. Shall we go inside?

RACHAEL: Yes, all right.

STEFAN: Please excuse me. I must go up to the attic, there is a subplot waiting for me about my difficult relationship with my teenage daughter, who has a crush on a Nazi loyalist.

3. The kitchen of the palatial house shared by the characters.

RACHAEL and STEFAN enter.

RACHAEL: Time has passed and we have both accepted the powerful sexual chemistry which exists between us.

STEFAN: Yes, I have accepted the powerful sexual chemistry between us, and also feel that by stealing the wife of an American –

RACHAEL: British.

STEFAN: – British colonel, I am striking a blow against the unjustness of the occupation of my country.

RACHAEL: Meanwhile, by yielding to the desire I feel for you, I feel I am punishing my husband for his neglect of me and his behaviour with regard to the dark secret which has killed our marriage. I have also come to value your sensitive decency and feel you are treated badly by the other Brits here, so this is a question of sympathy, not just me being over-sexed.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

STEFAN: Shall we tastefully consummate our illicit desire while your husband is out?

RACHAEL: Yes, why not? We’d better not go to the attic, there’s a subplot up there.

STEFAN: My kitchen table is of solid German construction.

RACHAEL: That should do.

The structural integrity of the kitchen table is put to the test, tastefully.

4. A military prison in Russian-occupied Germany.

LEWIS appears, ready to talk to an IMPRISONED NAZI.

LEWIS: You ought to know I have been sent here to hunt down Nazi hold-outs responsible for attacking the occupying American –

NAZI: British.

LEWIS: – British (thanks) forces, while my absence will conveniently also give my wife the opportunity to deepen her adulterous relationship with the man who lives in the attic. I, of course, am still oblivious to all of this.

NAZI: I am a Nazi, and therefore irredeemably evil. I am here to reinforce the distinction between the majority of decent, sensitive Germans, and the tiny minority who caused such suffering.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

LEWIS: You Nazis are so evil!

NAZI: Yes, we are!

LEWIS: I’m glad we were able to make that so clear.

5. A ball at regimental HQ.

LEWIS and RACHAEL appear in their glad rags.

LEWIS: I am a chastened man, for I am no longer oblivious to what is going on between you and that Swede.

RACHAEL: German.

LEWIS: Oh yes.

RACHAEL: However did you figure it out? Was it the kitchen table?

LEWIS: No. I may generally be characterised as being unaware of the interplay of emotions going on around me, and usually slow off the mark, but when the plot demands it I can be incredibly intuitive.

RACHAEL: Oh dear.

There is a long, meaningful silence.

LEWIS: We should probably have a heated argument in which our emotional reserve finally shatters and we get to the core of the dark secret which has been driving us apart since before the start of the film.

RACHAEL: That’s a good idea. Do you want to do that now?

LEWIS: Hang on a minute, there’s the culmination of that subplot about youthful Nazi resistance to the American –

RACHAEL: British.

LEWIS: – British (thanks) occupation and the tragedy of doomed youth due any moment, and we should probably wait for that.

The subplot passes them. LEWIS runs off after it waving his gun.

6. The palatial house.

RACHAEL, LEWIS and STEFAN stand around looking glum.

LEWIS: Well, we have managed to resolve our various problems in a tasteful and spoiler-free manner.

RACHAEL: Yes, everything has always been so blandly easy on the eye and unlikely to offend anyone, even my nude scene in the second act.

STEFAN: And yet it has all been so terribly inert and predictable and almost totally unengaging.

RACHAEL: I had no idea post-war occupied Germany was so dull.

STEFAN: Do we feel we have learned anything of value from all of this?

LEWIS: I am a good man and the war and its consequences have left me miserable.

STEFAN: I am a good man too, and the war and its consequences have also left me miserable.

RACHAEL: I’m not a man, but I’m also quite miserable because of the consequences of the war.

STEFAN: War is bad.

RACHAEL: War is bad.

LEWIS: War is bad. I’m glad we got that sorted out.

There is a long, meaningless silence.

The Aftermath (dir. James Kent) is in cinemas now, but hopefully not for much longer.

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If someone makes a really great movie, does that mean you automatically go and see their next movie? There is something to be said for caution, after all: it does seem like some people only have one really great movie in them – look at Robin Hardy, who did The Wicker Man, or Douglas Hickox, who directed Theatre of Blood. But if someone makes two great movies on the spin that does earn them a pass, I think. Which brings us to John Michael McDonagh, who in 2011 made The Guard, a scabrous black comedy thriller which I loved, and in 2014 made Calvary, a drama which really impressed me. So naturally I went along to see his new film, War on Everyone.

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War on Everyone is probably – we will discuss this – a jet black parody of Hollywood buddy movies, with McDonagh’s usual erudition and willingness to rip up the rulebook subtly stirred into the mix. The leads are Bob (Michael Pena) and Terry (Alexander Skarsgard), a pair of Albuquerque police detectives. It is quickly established that these guys take a very flexible view of the whole ‘serve and protect’ ethos as the opening sequence depicts them running someone over solely so they can nick his stuff.

Basically, they show no interest at all in actually, you know, upholding the law, and spend all their time trying to get rich in any way they possibly can: extorting bribes from criminals, ripping off the proceeds of successful bank robberies, and so on. ‘Utterly and enthusiastically corrupt’ only begins to describe these guys. Bob is also a fairly appalling parent, though his wife seems very fond of him, and Terry has various substance abuse problems too.

The arrival in town of Lord James Mangan (Theo James), a well brought-up English criminal mastermind, proves significant for the boys, as he sets about orchestrating a huge heist at the local racetrack. Scenting an opportunity to advance themselves, basically by waiting for the robbery to succeed and then stealing the money from the robbers themselves, Bob and Terry obtrude themselves into Mangan’s business, and things quickly turn quite nasty…

Well, this is obviously much more of a piece with The Guard (loud-mouthed, lairy) than the more thoughtful Calvary, and for all of the film’s mostly-American setting and style McDonagh has brought along one of that’s film’s supporting cast (David Wilmot). But where The Guard had an undeniable warmth and an almost sitcom-like gentleness at times, War on Everyone is more of a full-throttle experience, uncompromising, harder edged. It almost feels to begin with as if McDonagh is prioritising outrageous jokes and situations over remotely credible characterisation – Bob and Terry aren’t just corrupt, they are absurdly corrupt, Bob isn’t a bad father, he’s a ridiculously bad father. And it’s so over-the-top that it’s difficult to engage with the story for a while.

In fact it eventually started to seem to me that War on Everyone might in fact be a surreal, deadpan deconstruction of the classic Hollywood buddy movie, maintaining the general shape and conventions but emptying out all the content and replacing it with such bizarre material that the limitations of the form are thrown into sharp relief.

At one point, for example, Bob and Terry are looking for a suspect who they are basically looking to shake down for some immoral earnings, but they learn he has gone into hiding. In Iceland. So the scene changes to Iceland for literally about five minutes, until they go back to New Mexico, and it’s very strange. Compounding the oddity is a moment where one of them asks the other what their plan is to find the man, who is African-American. The other admits he doesn’t have a plan, but says something to the effect that ‘there can’t be many black people in Iceland, if we just stand here in the street we’re bound to spot him sooner or later.’ And the guy promptly walks past them.

There are parts of War on Everyone which almost move into the ‘a film with something to offend any decent person’ category – and again, you wonder if McDonagh is just looking to satirise the excesses of political correctness, or satirise racism itself, or doesn’t give a damn and is simply going for the most outrageous, near-the-knuckle jokes he can come up with. We see the boys down the police firing range at one point, and sure enough all the practice targets take the form of pictures of black men, some of whom have clearly already surrendered. You can’t fault the director’s willingness to go way out there, but given what’s happened in the US recently, is that really funny?

The film becomes slightly more engaging as it goes on, and McDonagh is too good a director not to make a good-looking film with strong performances and moments along the way – he’ll just switch off the plot for a moment for a dance routine, for instance, and the images and the soundtrack will conspire to create something genuinely great. But the need for a strong conclusion requires the film to become more conventional, and Bob and Terry inevitably discover some remnant of decency within themselves, provoking a heroic confrontation with the bad guys (their motivation for this is somewhat hackneyed).

In the end I would say War on Everyone isn’t really close to the standard of either The Guard or Calvary, and it really is one of the strangest and most difficult to figure out films I’ve seen in a long time. In the end, McDonagh’s intelligence and wit keep it watchable, giving the film a certain level of style – but while the film succeeds because of its style rather than its substance, I don’t really think you can call it a triumph.

 

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Ubiquity can turn into obscurity very quickly sometimes. Westerns used to be a staple of every studio in Hollywood, one of the primary mainstream genres, but big studio cowboy films are rarer than hen’s teeth these days – the ones that get made more often than not have an art-housey whiff about them. But something even more extreme seems to have happened with respect to the celluloid exploits of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous creation, Tarzan of the Apes.

Let’s talk numbers: the first Tarzan film came out in 1918, a mind-boggling 98 years ago, with the jungle lord played by Elmo Lincoln. Since then, twenty actors have put on the loincloth to appear in over fifty movies (including perhaps the best-known dozen starring Johnny Weissmuller). Arthur C Clarke used to claim that Tarzan was the most famous fictional character of all time, and based on sheer bulk of product, only Sherlock Holmes and perhaps Dracula can offer him any real competition.

And yet, since about 1970, it has gone rather quiet in the jungle, in live-action terms at least: a risible soft-core vehicle for Bo Derek in 1981, a lavish but oddly joyless ‘quality’ take on the character in 1984’s Greystoke, and an obscure little 1998 movie with Caspar van Dien. Have audiences finally got sick of Tarzan and all the trappings of his films? Or are there other, more problematic reasons for his disappearance?

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Warner Brothers have gambled nearly $200m on the proposition that people miss Tarzan and want to spend more time with him, and the result is David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan. Yates’ film is set in 1890 and as things get underway our hero (Alexander Skarsgard) has forsworn his jungle home and taken up the title and duties of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, back in the UK (it’s suggested his grandfather is still alive, which inevitably makes one wonder why he’s inherited the title, but let’s not get too pedantic about this: it’s a Tarzan movie, after all). He is fairly happily married to the lovely Jane (Margot Robbie) and seems content.

However, when the King of Belgium extends an invitation for Clayton to visit the Belgian Congo, he is urged to accept it by American diplomat and adventurer George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson), as this will get them access to the otherwise-sealed country so they can investigate disturbing rumours of slavery and other crimes. (It turns out Williams was an actual historical person, who ended up buried in Blackpool, bizarrely enough. That doesn’t stop Samuel L Jackson doing his Samuel L Jackson-wisecracking-sidekick routine, of course.) Jane insists on coming along as well.

But, of course, there is more going on than first appears to be the case: the nefarious Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is intent on subjugating the country for his royal master, but needs funds to do so. The chief (Djimon Hounsou) of a diamond-rich area has promised Rom all the money he needs, in exchange for the man who killed his son – Tarzan… (It turns out Rom was also an actual historical person, although one whose actual fate was rather different from the one depicted here. That doesn’t stop Christoph Waltz doing his Christoph Waltz-fastidious-psychopath routine, of course.)

Well, it occurs to me that in the past I have only said fairly lukewarm things about David Yates (and when it came to his briefly-mooted Doctor Who movie, some downright sharp ones). ‘Safe pair of hands’ was about the nicest thing I said while he was knocking out the last four Harry Potter films. I suspect that The Legend of Tarzan is not going to make the same kind of world-conquering returns, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a solid piece of entertainment, nor a rather ambitious film, in its own way, and one for which Yates should be commended.

I think it’s fair to say that, Greystoke and a few others excepted, most Tarzan movies have essentially been rather generic jungle adventures with only a vague connection to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original stories – the Weissmuller-and-after characterisation as a semi-articulate half-savage bears very little resemblance to the fiercely intelligent character in the novels. The first plus point for The Legend of Tarzan is that it does seem to be trying to respect Burroughs, in spirit if not detail – Skarsgard’s Tarzan is a thoughtful man equally at home in the jungle and the House of Lords, and the mangani apes who raised him are referred to by name, which I think is a first. Set against this is some apparent confusion over which Earl of Greystoke Tarzan is and the decision to set the film in 1890, when the ‘canonical’ Tarzan was only two, which has presumably been taken to facilitate the film’s historical setting, which is crucial to its conception.

If there’s a single reason why Tarzan movies have fallen out of favour in the last thirty or forty years, it’s because the character is perceived as being intrinsically rather problematic. The idea of a white man using his natural gifts and abilities to rise to become master of the African jungle and its inhabitants is, to say the least, awkward in our post-colonial world, where issues of race and superiority are still very delicate fault-lines running through society.

Yates’ movie tries to get round this by making the whole film about colonialism and the exploitation of Africa by white Europeans, hence its attempts to reference the real-life events in the Congo and the inclusion of real-life figures such as Williams and Rom. Pitting Tarzan against the worst face of colonial exploitation should deflect any criticism that he’s just a colonial-exploiter poster-boy himself – that seems to be the theory, at least. Coupled to this is an energetic attempt to present Tarzan and the rest of the supporting cast as thoroughly reconstructed figures – he’s in tune with nature and treats his African friends as equals, while Jane is liberated, capable and terribly feisty, Williams is stricken with guilt over his role in atrocities against Native Americans, and so on. You can never quite get away from the fact that this is a film in which the Congo and its people are saved primarily by a white dude in a pair of shorts, but the film-makers do everything humanly possible to mitigate against this.

And, while doing so, they include nearly all the stuff you really want to see in a Tarzan movie – swinging on lianas, talking to animals, fighting whole mobs of opponents single-handed, and so on. My companion while watching this movie said later that she thought it was all rather far-fetched, but when I suggested she just consider Tarzan to be the first superhero, it all seemed to make a bit more sense to her. On the other hand, Skarsgard doesn’t get to wrestle a crocodile, alas, and the film is a little coy when it comes to the famous ‘Aaaa-eyahh-ahh-eyahh-eyahh!!!’ cry, too.

That said, The Legend of Tarzan manages to take itself impressively seriously – this isn’t a spoof, or at all knowing, or tongue-in-cheek – without appearing quite as po-faced as Greystoke arguably was. I was honestly rather impressed by the whole enterprise – the performances are universally strong, the camerawork is atmospheric, and the script intelligent. It’s a good, extremely watchable adventure movie. And there’s some space left to be filled in by any future movies from this team of film-makers; for once, I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel. If we are still living in a world in which Tarzan movies are a viable proposition – and I must confess to hoping that we are – then this is a very good template as to how they should be approached.

 

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