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Mud, blood and mysticism in ‘The Northman’

Two bare-chested, unkempt men with long hair bellow while holding swords and shields.
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth in “The Northman.”
(Aidan Monaghan / Focus Features)
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Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.” This is a surprisingly big week for new releases, with a number of highly anticipated films all coming to theaters at once. Aside from the three titles we spotlight below, look out for “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. The feature debut from writer-director Jane Schoenbrun focuses on a teenager named Casey (Anna Cobb) whose online activities lead her to change in unexpected ways.

As Carlos Aguilar wrote for The Times, “Schoenbrun, a native speaker of the language of the internet, has uploaded into the cinematic landscape one of the most thoughtful depictions of self-discovery in the digital age. Through Casey’s plight of suburban isolation, the artist reaches out to us from a corner of the web’s endless abyss with an unmissable invitation, demonstrating the transcendental prowess of storytelling.”

Bogdanovich on TCM. As the TCM Classic Film Festival gets underway in person in Hollywood, the channel is having a five-film tribute to the late Peter Bogdanovich this weekend. Though it is difficult to sum up his long and varied career, these make for a strong primer, with “Paper Moon,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Saint Jack,” “What’s Up, Doc?” and Bogdanovich’s final film, the documentary “The Great Buster.”

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Screening series double-header. I am very excited that next week we will have screening events for two new French movies from female filmmakers (a pure coincidence of scheduling). On Tuesday at the Landmark Theatre, we’ll have “Happening,” which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last September and just opened the New Directors/New Films series in New York, about a young woman attempting to get an abortion in 1963 France. Director and co-writer Audrey Diwan and star Anamaria Vartolomei will be there in person for a Q&A.

On Wednesday at the AMC Sunset 5, we’ll have a screening of “Anaïs in Love,” followed by a prerecorded Q&A with writer-director Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet. A contemporary character study in the manner of “The Worst Person in the World” or “Frances Ha,” the film follows a young woman, Anaïs (Anaïs Demoustier), as she begins an affair with an older publisher, Daniel (Denis Podalydès), but soon finds herself much more drawn to his partner, successful author Emilie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi).

Books! And another reminder that The Times’ Festival of Books is back in person this weekend. I’ll be moderating a panel Saturday afternoon with authors Isaac Butler, Nick Davis, Dana Stevens and Kenneth Turan.

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‘The Northman’

Directed by Robert Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with the Icelandic author Sjón, “The Northman” is a historical Viking epic with a deeply researched, obsessive sense of detail, full of raw violence and startling mysticism. Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, who vows revenge against the uncle who killed his father and stole away with his mother. Co-starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang and Willem Dafoe, the film is in theaters now.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Happily, Eggers makes movies, not research papers, and his sweet spot is that zone where his art-film idiosyncrasies merge with a genuine flair for Hollywood showmanship. … There’s a productive tension at the heart of ‘The Northman,’ a tug-of-war between the Hollywood revenge-epic tradition from which it superficially hails and the sharper, more subversive dismantling of simplistic payback fantasies it wants to be.”

I spoke to Eggers, Skarsgård and Sjón about the long road to getting the film made. Eggers spoke about what draws him to making deeply reached, meticulously designed historical stories, saying, “What I’m trying to do is make a totally transportive period movie that explores the interior world of the period and makes the interior world and the exterior world a reality. And also something that strives to have a holistic cinematic language and a holistic cinematic approach. I understand that there’s a lot of hubris in saying this is what I’m after, but it is this idea that costume, sets, performance, camera work, it’s all one thing. It should all feel considered.”

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For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Eggers’ brutal, beautiful vision of history compensates, as such visions often do, for the deficiencies of the present. … The point is not that you or any other modern person believes in these ideas — though I suppose there are some people who might pretend to — but that the characters are governed by them. Their fates make sense to them, and therefore to us as well. What’s perhaps most impressive about ‘The Northman’ is that it hurtles through 136 minutes of musclebound, shaggy-maned mayhem without a whisper of camp or a wink of irony. Nobody is doing this for fun. Even if, in the end — thank goodness — that’s mostly what it amounts to.”

For Rolling Stone, K. Austin Collins wrote, “More than anything, ‘The Northman’ made me wonder what Eggers would do with a historically blank canvas, an act of storytelling divorced from old modes like the revenge plot or witchy self-discovery. This isn’t something that every obsessively detailed director makes us feel. It is, specifically, something that Eggers’ movies make me crave. More than his previous works — which also owe much of their power not to lived reality but to the disconcerting tug of mythology — ‘Northman’ makes a case for what Eggers might pull off were he encouraged to drift even more completely into the realm of imagination. It’s the fantasies and visions that stand out. Less so the ‘story.’ ‘The Northman’ is as off-the-rails, internal, and speculative as Eggers has ever been. The craft speaks for itself. The next step for Eggers is to really let it fly.”

For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “I promised myself I wouldn’t use the term ‘toxic masculinity’ in this review (oops), but that concept forms an unmistakable ostinato in ‘The Northman.’ … As much as Eggers might think he’s critiquing that cruelty and self-serving superstition, he indulges in their vicarious thrills with far more enthusiasm and voyeuristic extravagance. Blood, gore, honor and revenge will always be the hoariest staples of cinematic grammar, no matter how cleverly they’re undercut. Ultimately, ‘The Northman’ isn’t just about fatalism at its most epic and overwrought, it suffers from it, too. ’Twas ever thus, indeed.”

A woman wearing an elaborate headdress stands in a crude hut with an idol behind her.
Björk stars as Seeress in “The Northman.”
(Aidan Monaghan / Focus Features)

‘Petite Maman’

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, “Petite Maman” further cements her as one of the most vital filmmakers in the world today. A gentle, enigmatic exploration of childhood, the film follows 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who is exploring the woods behind her late grandmother’s house when she meets another little girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who may or may not be the younger version of her mother. The film is playing now in theaters.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “From this simple, suggestive conceit — and also from the warm, autumnal hues of Claire Mathon’s exquisite images — Sciamma weaves an enchanted reverie, a mystery in miniature that hums with resonance and implication. ‘Petite Maman,’ recently named the best non-English-language film of 2021 by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., surveys the landscape of childhood with a clear-eyed wonderment worthy of Víctor Erice and Hayao Miyazaki.”

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For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “With delicacy, minimal dialogue and lucid, harmoniously balanced images, Sciamma (‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’) invites you into a world that is by turns ordinary and enigmatic. Part of the mystery is that it’s unclear what kind of story this is and where — with its charming child and restrained melancholy — it could be headed. Sciamma doesn’t tip her hand. … There isn’t a false note or superfluous image in ‘Petite Maman,’ which runs a just-right 72 minutes. It’s perfect.”

For the AP, Lindsey Bahr wrote, “There are so many traps and pitfalls when it comes to depicting young girlhood. Movies can overromanticize, infantilize or instill incongruously adult wisdom in young characters. Sweetness becomes saccharine and nostalgia a crutch. But Sciamma is able to bring to life essential truths of what it is like to be that strange age and the sometimes frightening, sometimes wonderful vastness of a limitless imagination. … ‘Petite Maman’ may be short and stripped down, but its layers are many and I imagine it’s a film that will be more rewarding on subsequent viewings. It’s easily one of the best ever made about mothers and daughters.”

Twin girls sit side by side. In the background is a lake bordered by trees.
Joséphine Sanz, left, and Gabrielle Sanz in the 2021 drama “Petite Maman.”
(Neon)

‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’

Directed by Tom Gormican, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kevin Etten, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is an uproarious exploration of the star persona of one Nicolas Cage. In the movie, Cage plays a fun-house-mirror variation of himself, an aging movie star seeing his career in decline. In an existential free-fall, Cage accepts a paid invitation to the birthday party of an enigmatic billionaire, Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), which leads to an entanglement with the CIA, a bond of unexpected friendship and action-adventure straight out of a Nicolas Cage movie. The movie is in theaters now.

For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “The real spectacle of the film is Cage, who despite all the ups and downs in his career choices, is an undeniable Movie Star, and when he’s simply playing himself (or the heightened version of himself required here) he’s utterly compelling. … ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ knows that what it has going for it is Nicolas Cage, and Nicolas Cage is what makes this otherwise forgettable comedy worth the watch. It’s not necessarily only for super fans, but super fans will be richly rewarded by this love letter to Cage, who, remember, never went away.”

Josh Rottenberg spoke to Cage, Gormican and Etten about the film. As Cage said, even though he is playing himself, he hopes the movie might help people see him a little differently. ”I’ve been scratching my head a little bit as to why Hollywood wasn’t offering me comedies anymore,” Cage said. “I had done ‘Raising Arizona’ and ‘Honeymoon in Vegas’ and ‘It Could Happen to You’ and ‘Moonstruck.’ I was just sort of like, ‘Where did that option go?’ I think this movie will help with that.”

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For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “There’s a story, way too much of one, crammed into an overstuffed, self-reflexive entertainment that soon finds Cage flying abroad. … ‘Massive Talent’ finds its mojo once Cage and Pascal team up and start trading quips, dodging obstacles and vamping for the audience. It’s very Hope and Crosby loosey-goosey, though sometimes it’s more blotto Snoop and Martha. Cage and Pascal bounce off each other nicely, with Pascal playing the wall to Cage’s ricocheting ball.”

For Rolling Stone, David Fear wrote, “For a while, ‘Unbearable’ coasts along on this life-imitating-art-chopping-up-life-for-laughs vibe, giving Cage and Pascal the chance to make a warped, goofy buddy comedy involving dropping acid, tooling around Spain’s coast in a sports car, working on possible screenplay ideas, and bonding over the healing power of ‘Paddington 2.’ There’s a meaty take on the rabbit holes of fame and the wormholes of fandom slithering just beneath the surface, as well as some brain-tickling ideas about the way that a movie star’s legacy and persona(e) can become a prison. … Cage’s commitment, not to mention his massive talent, is so strong that he makes you think he’s spelunking in psychological territory rather than just wading through a tide of winks and nudges. You wish the movie wasn’t content to be a feature-length meme and truly deserved what Cage is doing with this long, hard look in the fun-house mirror. ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ is not unbearable by any means. It just should have been so much better.”

Two smiling men ride in a Jeep.
Pedro Pascal, left, and Nicolas Cage in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.”
(Katalin Vermes / Lionsgate)
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