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Screen Grabs: Vikings vs Nic Cage in a war of the cult flicks

'The Northman' and 'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent' will bring geeky delight to their respective cinephile fandoms

In early June Netflix is having a “Geeked Week,” featuring a lot of content geared towards genre fans. But it looks like that moment is already here, given the arrival of two films that could hardly be more custom-tooled towards a particular kind of cult cinephile, and which have both been eagerly awaited by that demographic for some time.

Both could be nutshelled as “action movies,” but neither are exactly within the range of “normal” for that genre: One is by a bona fide auteur (and no, Michael Bay’s Ambulance a couple weeks ago did not count), while the other is, well, about as postmodernist as such things get.

Robert Eggers has acquired considerable cache by directing two chamber-scaled period horror films that were really psychological thrillers, at least until the end. (And even then, you could argue whatever supernatural events occurred were only hallucinated by characters pushed past sanity.) 2015’s The Witch was an extraordinary portrait of religious fear and fanaticism amongst an exiled settler family in 1630s New England.

Three years later The Lighthouse, with Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattison as island station keepers going mad from isolation in the 1890s, was equally striking if arguably a mite less successful as a whole. Both were singular visions that had an uncompromising severity of style, atmosphere, and story content—something hard enough to pull off at all, let alone excite a fairly large general audience with.

The Northman is something else entirely, though, a big, long, starry sword-and-sorcery epic that probably cost five or six times the combined production budgets of those prior features. It begins in the Ireland of 895 AD, as King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) returns from conquests abroad, eager to reunite with Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and their son Prince Amelth (Oscar Novak), who at age 1o or so is considered ready to undergo a ritual passage to manhood under the guidance of his father’s holy fool Heimir (Dafoe).

But soon after Aurvandill is murdered by his own jealous sibling Fjolnir (Claes Bang), forcing the boy to flee or be killed himself. When we next meet Amelth, he is played by the strapping Alexander Skarsgard, and is part of a roving band of bloodthirsty barbarians, raiding villages for loot and sport. He abandons that mercenary lot to pose as a captured slave upon learning that Fjolnir and Gudrun are now living in Icelandic exile. He then sets about proving himself “loyal” in many ways to gain access to the fallen royal couple, all the while scheming revenge—for his dead father, and for his presumably unwillingly-remarried mother.

It’s a brutal, very masculine world, in which The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy (as a Slavic slave-sorceress-love interest) and Icelandic icon Bjork (in a glorified cameo as “The Seeress”) have the sole other female roles of note, ones that might easily have been cut with little change to the central plot.

You can tell Eggers and co-scenarist Sjon were as scrupulous as possible about period veracity; like the director’s previous films, this one is visually arresting in ways that emphasize the physical challenges of landscape, custom, and era. All the performances are strong. Skarsgard was born for this kind of role, as he’s got the requisite awesome physique and heroic handsomeness, as well as the acting chops to create a credible real-world character rather than a cartoon action figure like Conan the Barbarian.

Yet impressive as it is in all these departments, The Northman—which the director did not have final cut control over, calling its post-production process “painful”—never quite transcends genre the way Eggers has before. It is an exceptionally serious (even humorless) Dark Ages spectacle of combat, adventure, and Shakespearean intrigue, with a dash of magic. But while it lacks the pulpier qualities of “Game of Thrones” or “The Vikings,” it nonetheless doesn’t land far enough from them in gist, nor from big-screen “muscleman” epics stretching from Steve Reeves to Schwarzenegger. Eggers hasn’t quite elevated the familiar conventions such that they become something else entirely, the way David Lowery did with the Arthurian saga in last year’s The Green Knight.

Of course, you don’t hand someone $75-90 million and expect them to deliver anything in the realm of 1967 Czech Marketa Lazarova or Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 Valhalla Rising, two brutally “pure,” near-abstract representations of medieval hardship. That would be financial suicide. But for all its pagan mysticism, intelligent detail, and frequent beauty, The Northman ultimately feels like a fairly formulaic costume revenge tale—one with higher pretensions than most, to be sure, but not so much of a higher effect. It’s a good movie, yet also a little disappointing, because it’s not quite good enough to get away with being so little fun.

There’s really nothing but fun on the agenda in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, which also opens in theaters nationwide Fri/22. Its central joke is, well, Nicolas Cage: Playing Nicolas Cage, semi-washed-up movie star, still starring in a whole lot of movies (most recent years he’s released about six per), their very erratic quality considered part of his charm—and of his self-harm.

Given that he was known almost from the start for giving peculiar, over-the-top performances (even in mainstream hits like Peggy Sue Got Married or Moonstruck, but especially in quirkfests like Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart and Raising Arizona), it seems rather astonishing in retrospect that for a while there, this weirdo was one of the most popular actors in the world, starring in at least a few of the most middle-of-the-road entertainments imaginable, from 1996’s The Rock to 2004’s National Treasure.

But it didn’t last, and his increasingly busy, decreasingly selective filmography (purportedly encouraged by very spendy offscreen ways) gradually turned him into a sort of professional novelty act. How gonzo would he be this time? How random could his eccentricities get? Would they actually relate to the movie they’re in, or not? Will he elevate it, or sink it? Or if he’s in an infrequent earnest mode, will the effect be touching, or just seem disinterested? I have really enjoyed some Nic Cage performances and movies in recent years (chief among them Mandy, Mom & Dad, and last year’s Pig), but he remains a true wild card—not only in that you don’t know what he’ll do, but you don’t know whether what he does will be good for the movie, or even for Nicolas Cage.

Unbearable Weight has the clever if risky (see: the cautionary example of Burt Reynolds’ 2017 quasi-swan song The Last Movie Star) idea of having its star basically play himself. Well, he is playing himself, Nicolas Cage, albeit a version that apparently took some arm-twisting before he was willing to accept: Endlessly self-absorbed, pretentious about his art (and its applied “shamanic thespian instincts”), very sensitive about criticisms re: his career trajectory, a bit too eager to please, borderline desperate to get “the role of a lifetime” that would put him back on top (but which he may be too no-longer-hot to win). In other words, exactly the mix of larger-than-life swaggering celebrity and terminally insecure basketcase we might well imagine Cage to be.

That’s the Cage 2.0 director Tom Gormican and co-scenarist Kevin Etten levy upon a long-suffering fictive ex-wife (Sharon Horgan) and teenage daughter (Lily Sheen) who are really fed up with his shit. Particularly after he reacts to a professional setback by getting very drunk and extremely embarrassing at the latter’s 16th birthday party. Just as well, then, that the next gig arranged for him by agent Neil Patrick Harris is not a movie but a paid personal appearance at the estate of a rich Spanish superfan, alleged olive grower Javi (Pedro Pascal). Yes, it is demeaning to parade one’s nearly-60-year-old self before complete strangers and pretend to be their “friend” just for a $1 million paycheck. But such are the travails of a former-A-list actor.

Belying his luxurious digs and high security, turns out Javi appears a pretty nice guy, as well as a sincerely flattering fan. And despite the occasional harassing inner-voice snark from his younger self (“Nicky,” Cage digitally youthified to the mid-1980s), our protagonist has started to actually enjoy this sojourn when he is informed by two CIA agents (Tiffany Hadish, Ike Barinholtz) that they require his cooperation. Javi, they say, is in truth a “violent international arms cartel” chief whose goons just kidnapped the teenage daughter of a Latin American president he wants ousted. The captive girl may even be held on the premises where the star of Face/Off and Con Air is currently boozily suntanning.

For America, for love of decency, he must use his acting skills to make like a spy, perhaps even an action hero to save her. What could be easier? How many times before has he played that kinda part? Could it be so hard to do “for real”? Needless to say: Oh yes it could.

Unbearable Weight is not deep, but it juggles a lot of balls rather delightfully, paying affectionate homage to its “fucking legend” star while also ridiculing him (and letting him ridicule himself), operating as an actual action movie while parodying the genre. There are a bazillion references to past Nicolas Cage films—you might even say the passage in which he and Pascal trip on LSD is one long bow to his screen gonzo-dom. Yet a measure of the film’s essential good naturedness is that the best cinephile in-joke here is a running gag reference to a movie he had nothing to do with: Paddington 2, the cuddly 2017 sequel that could well be the single best feature film of the last decade no childless adult ever even thought about watching.

Why is it plugged so incongruously in this goofy fan-flick for grownups? Well why not?! Paddington 2 really is all that. And The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent only makes itself even more agreeable for saying so.

The Northman and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent both open at theaters throughout the Bay Area on Fri/22.

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