What To Watch This Weekend, Theatrical Edition

"The Northman," "Petite Maman," and "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent." Plus an Amazon Prime repertory pick.

What To Watch This Weekend, Theatrical Edition

The Nut Graf: “The Northman” (in theaters, ***1/2 stars out of ****) shows a gifted and confident young director flexing his muscles. “Petite Maman” (in theaters, **** stars out of ****) is a translucent fable of mothers and daughters. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (in theaters, ** stars out of ****) is like that M.C. Escher print of two hands drawing each other, only with Nicolas Cage. “Love and Friendship” (2016, Amazon Prime, ***1/2 stars out of ****) remains a delightful bonbon of wit and malice, courtesy of Jane Austen and Whit Stillman.

“The Northman” is authentic atavistic cinema, a bulletin from the before times fashioned by one of the great natural filmmakers of the present. Robert Eggers is one of those precision madmen of the movies who disappears down rabbit holes of research and resurfaces with pure cinema; like Hitchcock and the Coens, it’s all in his head before it ever goes before the camera. His 2015 feature debut, “The Witch” spun a distressing tale of early American Puritanism and demonic possession, and the light at its center was the discovery of the young Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead. Eggers’ 2019 follow-up, “The Lighthouse,” stuck Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe on an isolated island and uncorked the insanity; I thought the first hour was brilliant and the second hour a splattery mess, but I have been informed by my grown children that the film is considered one of the great works of their generation.

Both those movies were made in contained settings with small casts. “The Northman” is Eggers’ grab at the brass ring: It feels huge. Set in the early Tenth Century of Northern Europe, it tells the story of Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård, above), a Viking warrior thirsting to avenge the murder of his father the king (Ethan Hawke) by his power-hungry uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who has subsequently married the widowed Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman). Wait, doesn’t that sound a lot like “Hamlet”? It is “Hamlet” – or rather, it’s derived from the same medieval Icelandic legend from which Shakespeare drew inspiration. Returning to its source (or sources), “The Northman” hopes to reinvigorate the tale and recover its primal power.

Did I mention that Björk’s in this, too?

Does it work? By diving into the grit, the grime, and the gore of the legend and by generally turning the amps up to 11, “The Northman” succeeds, both because and in spite of its willingness to dance on the volcano rim of the absurd. The attention to historical detail is fetishistic, with clothes and architecture and attitudes that feel as though they’ve been unearthed from the peat bogs. The violence is true to the period, and it’s feral with testosterone, not celebrated so much as coldly observed. I happened to see the movie a day or two after the revelation of the Russian Army massacres in Bucha, Ukraine, and there’s a savage Viking assault on a village early in the film that was more difficult to watch than the director may have intended. Or maybe not. The innocent are not spared in this movie, and to pretend otherwise would be lying. We are meant to wince in our comfortable seats.

And then we’re meant to cheer Amleth on as he pursues his vengeful slaughter, pretending to be a captured slave so that he’ll be taken to Iceland and to his uncle, who won’t recognize the hulking berserker now working his fields as the boy he’d been told had been killed years before. Or are we meant to look on Amleth’s quest with a more jaundiced eye? A love interest arrives in the person of another slave, a wide-eyed blond who introduces herself as “Olga of the Birch Forest,” which does sound a little like the manager of an upscale day spa, so you’re allowed a discreet snicker. But Olga – this movie’s version of Shakespeare’s Ophelia – is played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who since her appearance seven years ago in “The Witch” has become a star (via “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix, among other things) and toughened up as an actress. Both she and Kidman as the traitorous queen know that their characters are much, much smarter than any of the men here – they’re women, they have to be – and through them Eggers lets us see Amleth’s musclebound naiveté.  For all its melodramatic macho overkill, “The Northman” plays a tightly controlled game in which the audience roots for revenge while seeing its folly.

Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Northman”

In other words, “Conan the Barbarian” this ain’t, although “The Northman” will probably find a warm welcome among the alt-right bro crowd who will cheer its surface chest-beating without stopping to examine the ironies beneath. And while it’s sharper and weirder than any episode of “Game of Thrones,” tender souls of both sexes and all political persuasions may find it overheated or laughable or thuggish. There will be severe misreadings of this movie, a cultural phenomenon that is hardly Eggers’ fault, since he’s made exactly the epic of primitive glory and violent pigheadedness he seems to have wanted. He’s a throwback to the 1970s, when directors rolled the dice and risked their lives on lunatic projects, and there are long shots in “The Northman” where I could swear I was watching one of Werner Herzog’s bonkers early dioramas. And then I remembered that Robert Eggers is his own man and has his own future ahead of him. It will be something to see.

A scene from “Petite Maman”

If that’s just too much red meat for you, feel free to seek out “Petite Maman,” from Celine Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”). A festival favorite, it’s being released in New York and L.A. today and will roll out to Boston and other markets next week – in time for Mother’s Day, appropriately. I’ve already written about this slender miracle – only 72 minutes long – when I saw it as part of the Toronto Film Festival and in my year-end roundup of best movies, so I’ll just add that Sciamma’s warm, intimate focus on female characters and their interrelationships takes on magical-realist shadings in this modern-day fairy tale of a little girl who goes into the woods one day and meets her own mother as a girl. Twin sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz play the leads, and the film stakes out a very special sphere of friendship, forgiveness, and understanding.

“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is I guess where Nicolas Cage has been heading for a decade or two now: A Very Meta Nicolas Cage Movie that acknowledges he’s a pop culture joke and that he’s also in on the joke and that he’s also an actor of strange and powerful gifts. (See: “Mandy” and/or “Pig.”) Here he plays a declining Hollywood star named Nick Cage, so neurotic, narcissistic, and obsessive-compulsive that he’s alienated his agent (Neil Patrick Harris), his wife (Sharon Horgan of TV’s “Catastrophe”), and his teenage daughter (Lily Sheen, daughter of Kate Beckinsale and Michael Sheen and thus blessed with a frighteningly impeccable British acting genome). Deep in debt, Cage (or “Cage”) agrees to travel to Mallorca for a rich man’s birthday party, but the rich man, Javi (Pedro Pascal), has a screenplay he wants Cage to star in and he might be an international arms dealer and there’s a pair of CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) who enlist the actor in an undercover mission and … you get the point. It’s a movie about Nicolas Cage that becomes a Nicolas Cage movie.

With its intertextual references to the actor’s deep cuts (“Guarding Tess”! “The Croods II”! “Not the bees!” ) and long discussions between Nick and Javi about the movie they want to make – which is, get this, the movie we’re watching – it’s all very clever but only clever, and it swipes ideas from other, better Cage movies, like the imaginary alter ego that’s been airlifted in from “Adaptation.” I dunno – Pascal is great comic company and the movie’s good for a guilt-free watch when it comes to cable or VOD. The star enters enthusiastically into the self-abasing spirit of the thing and if you’re a Cage completist, I suppose you’ll want that notch on your belt. But, really, you might be better off watching 1988’s “Vampire’s Kiss,” perhaps the first indication of how truly unhinged this actor could get and one of the most misunderstood movies of its era. (It’s available for rent on Apple TV.) Or “Knowing” (2009), which may be my secret favorite Nicolas Cage movie because I can’t decide whether it’s crazy terrible or crazy inspired and nothing in the star’s hoarse, apocalyptic, deeply committed lead performance offers a clue. Someday we’re going to stand around the beautiful smoking crater of this actor’s filmography and marvel that we were alive to watch it happen.

Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in “Love & Friendship”

If you’re not up to going out to the theaters and would rather curl up at home with a good movie, may I suggest 2016’s “Love & Friendship,” streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime? It’s the best Jane Austen adaptation you’ve probably never heard of, from a Jane Austen novella you’ve also probably never heard of, and it gives Kate Beckinsale a deliciously conniving role as a widow on the prowl for a new rich husband. Whit Stillman (“Metropolitan”) directs and he’s as good as his name; for my money, this is the wittiest Austen ever put on screen. Plus there’s a riotous performance by Tom Bennett as an upper class twit — if they gave an Oscar for Best Idiot in a Movie, he’d have won in a landslide.

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