“THE NORTHMAN” AND “THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT”
Reviews by Matt Neufeld
It’s been particularly rare during the pandemic era of 2020, 2021 and 2022, so far, to generally find any weekend with two big-budget, Hollywood-studio, wide-release feature films that are enjoyable and highly-recommended (and, in recent years, that’s been generally rare even before the pandemic). So it’s great news to report that the late-April, early-spring weekend of April 22-24, 2022, does indeed welcome and include two such entertaining–and recommended–films: The bloody, violent and intense, but still captivating, Viking fantasy sword-and-sorcery drama “The Northman,” and the goofy, silly, slightly clever and overall good-hearted meta comedy “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.”
If you’re looking to get out of the house/home office amid a weather forecast calling for warmer and generally more pleasant weather and see two good movies–keeping in mind, again, that these are two very different movies–then head on out and enjoy these films.
Be forewarned that both movies are wholly R-rated in tone, content and overall approach, and although this is a slight detriment for both movies, the films still manage to succeed overall, despite themselves and despite their occasional forays into R-rated violence, language and attitude. That’s just a warning–don’t let that stand in the way of heading out to real, actual movie theaters with real, actual people and enjoying real, actual movies in the manner in which movies are meant to be enjoyed!
Starring Alexander Skarsgard, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Gustav Lindh, Ethan Hawke, Bjork, Willem Dafoe, Oscar Novak
Written by Sjon and Robert Eggers
Directed by Robert Eggers
Produced by Mark Huffam, Lars Knudsen, Robert Eggers, Alexander Skarsgard and Arnon Milchan
Cinematography by Jarin Blaschke
Edited by Louise Ford
“The Northman,” is a stirring, riveting, emotional and heavily atmospheric—and bloody and violent–Viking fantasy sword-and-sorcery revenge drama that bravely and courageously succeeds–much like its main character–despite itself and its obvious flaws. That’s due to consistently strong, assured direction, acting, writing and production.
Director and co-writer Robert Eggers knew exactly what he wanted and he held firmly to his commitment of presenting a dark, deeply-felt, epic-style, somewhat-Shakespearean Viking sword-and-hammer-to-the-head, hold-nothing-back movie. There are graphic fights, plenty of swordplay, raids and rampages, more fights and plenty of the aforementioned sorcery in the forms of sorcerers, wizards, demons, beasts, seers and mystics–and although even the most casual moviegoer has seen all of this in a thousand other sword-and-sorcery movies, Eggers, who co-wrote the script with the writer Sjon, deftly overcomes the violence, the cliches, the heavy fantasy elements, mumbled and nearly-unaudible dialogue and even a horrid musical score that nearly ruins several scenes, and, again, manages to make it all work through sheer skill, professionalism, intelligence and that dedicated commitment.
“The Northman” can stand as a movie that does indeed manage to work even as filmgoers can easily cite, list and catalogue the quite-obvious influences, cliches and similarities to other films in its genres.
“The Northman” centers its basic story on a son avenging the brutal, senseless death of a parent at the hands of brutal, senseless invaders in the son’s peaceful village. That’s the basic premise, of course, of John Milius’ and Oliver Stone’s classic “Conan the Barbarian.” “The Northman” features a classic climatic fight between main characters amid all manner of hellish, crumbling and fiery landscapes of doom, gloom and apocalyptic destruction. That’s similar, of course, particularly, to the climatic fight scene in John Boorman’s classic “Excalibur.” “The Northman” has its main characters regularly interact with, confide in, work with and be counseled by those various colorful, always-interesting and appropriately magical, mystical and mysterious supernatural wizards, demons and seers–and gods of varying powers. That’s similar, of course, to Peter Jackson’s classic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the original “Clash of the Titans,” the original “Jason and the Argonauts” and, oh, about a thousand or so other fantasy and supernatural genre films!
But “The Northman” soldiers on, powered by its convictions. The dialogue tries its best to be somewhat original, smart and deep–and the script often achieves these goals. The lines are written and delivered in a particular stylized Shakespearen manner, and, most of the time, this works. Every now and then, that stylized manner almost approaches its limit–as this type of fantasy genre dialogue does in many of these types of films–but Eggers wisely knows just when to hold back, step back, and come back down to earth, so to speak. Wise directors and writers working in fantasy, science fiction, horror, the supernatural and the paranormal know when and how to balance the genre-oriented mumbo-jumbo speech and the more grounded, easily-understood dialogue to keep viewers continually connected to what’s going on, as too much mumbo-jumbo can alienate viewers.
Eggers even somehow overcomes the too-graphic, too-intense, too-often bloody, gory, head-pounding (literally) violence that permeates and, again, nearly sinks the movie. “The Northman,” simply, does not need to be as all-out, flat-out, stand-out violence as it is in its finished form. The movie is simply too violent for its own good. Yes, Eggers and lead actor and co-producer Alexander Skarsgard have stated in interviews about the movie that the violence was necessary to the story, script and the movie, but, well, not really. Not in terms of the way this particular violence is presented up on the screen in this particular movie. The violence could easily have been toned down, been less graphic, been less bloody, been less repulsive–and, if this was done, the movie would actually been much better. Intense, graphic and bloody, gory violence is rarely the answer, is rarely actually needed–even in a Viking fantasy revenge drama–and graphic violence rarely makes a movie better.
If Eggers and his crew had actually toned down the violence–even to the point of having this movie presented as a PG-13- or PG-rated-movie instead of its current R rating–“The Northman,” again, would have succeeded on an even greater level. With Eggers’ committed strong direction, a strong production quality, interesting story, sharp dialogue and exceptional acting, the movie could easily still have succeeded without the blood, guts, gore and violent mayhem.
Another element that could have sunk the movie is the clunky, disjointed, noisy–and decidedly non-melodic and non-musical–film score. The monotonous, irritating score for the movie threatens to completely take the viewer out of several scenes–and this is just the latest example of a disturbing trend in recent years: horrible, non-melodic scores that do not add to the movie, do not blend with the movie, and do not contribute to telling the story, defining characters or scenes or moving the story forward. Successful movie scores do all of this. Yet many scores during the last twenty years have just been among the absolute worst in film history–really. Once again, though, in the case of “The Northman,” the overall quality of the movie overpowers the lacking score.
Alexander Skarsgard stars as the lead character, a likeable Viking warrior named Amleth who, much like Conan, has had his life consumed by that singular quest to avenge the senseless murder of his father. That quest, of course, will require various adventures, battles, fights, spycraft, plots and plans, all if which are interesting, layered, intertwined and enjoyable to follow. Skarsgard works as hard with his character, his characterization, his acting and his performance as Eggers does with his direction. Skarsgard reportedly underwent a rigorous physical regimen to prepare himself for this role, and it shows. Skarsgard delivers a performance that is as impressively physical as it is dramatic and emotional. Viewers will care about Amleth, and that’s a testimony to Skarsgard’s acting.
And he’s supported by an equally-talented cast, including a very strong Claes Bang as Amleth’s main rival Fjolnir; Gustav Lindh as Thorir; a beautiful, captivating Anya Taylor-Joy as Amleth’s caring, seductive lover Olga; Ethan Hawke as King Aurvandill; and Willem Dafoe as Heimir. Bjork makes a memorable, spooky appearance as the Seeress, one if the many mystical creatures that keep “The Northman” firmly, strongly rooted in its fantastical and fantasy roots.
“The Northman” will take moviegoers on a welcome, wild and fantastical filmic journey, and like lead character Amleth’s quest, this is indeed a journey worth taking.
“THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT”
Starring Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal, Sharon Horgan, Ike Barinholz, Alessandro Masteonardi, Jacob Scipio, Neil Patrick Harris, Tiffany Haddish
Written by Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten
Directed by Tom Gormican
Produced by Nicolas Cage, Mike Nilon, Kristin Burr, Kevin Turned
Cinematography by Nigel Bluck
Edited by Melissa Bretherton
Music by Mark Isham
“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is that rare high-concept movie that takes a mondo bizarro, stangely- and crazily-original idea, runs with it full-force with fully-commited comedic intensity–and subsequently succeeds amid its inherent gonzo risks, challenges and general goofiness. It’s a fun, funny, original, enjoyable–and hilarious–comedy. The movie is also one of the better, genuinely feel-good funniest movies in theaters in ages.
Do you want, and need, simply a chance to sit and laugh for a while in a movie theater, and appreciate laughing along with a movie that clearly revels in, and succeeds with, its own hilarious world and concept? Then go see “Unbearable.”
In this clever, original movie, the real-life actor Nicolas Cage plays–Nick Cage, a somewhat exaggerated, slightly-modified, even-more-over-the-top, even larger larger-than-life version of, well, the actor Nicolas Cage. And the movie version of Nicolas Cage is somewhat down on his luck, deeply in debt, somewhat willing to take just about any gig that comes along to help pay the bills, a wide-eyed, still-somewhat-confident movie-lover, and a man dealing with broken family relationships–just like the real-life Nicolas Cage. And the movie version of Nicolas Cage gets caught up in some actual, real diabolical, criminal-world, gangster machinations, and must battle the bad guys and be the hero–just like, well, the characters that the movie version of Nicolas Cage and the real-life Nicolas Cage often play.
If it all sounds majorly meta, like a major nod-nod-wink-wink in-joke and an attendant parody and satire of all things celebrity, fandom, filmic, Hollywood and popular culture—that is exactly what this movie is all about, among other things. And it’s all continually, consistently hilarious. And the filmmakers–director and co-writer Tom Gormican, co-writer Kevin Etten and lead actor and co-producer Nicolas Cage (the real-life Nicolas Cage), are smart and insightful enough to know how to balance just the right amounts of parody, satire, in-jokes, send-ups and gags with concurrent, genuine, inventive storytelling to prevent the whole movie from collapsing under the, well, unbearable weight of its overall concept.
Much of the success of this movie rests wholly with–and this is not a joke–Nicolas Cage. Whether the movie is funny or not, clever or not, and a good movie or not, it still takes some major chutzpah, guts, courage, good will, good spirits, good attitude, a positive self-deprecating sense of self–and an overriding sense of humor about yourself and who you are–for Cage to agree to act as himself in this project. The movie pokes fun, yes, at Nicolas Cage–in a nice, not nasty way, and, really, a loving way–but it’s all still poking fun. However, Cage seems to be having a blast here–and he is completely, wholly, 100 percent in on the joke. Which is, like his action movie hero characters at their best, somewhat heroic. Heck, it is heroic.
To star as a fictionalized, exaggerated version, or versions, of yourself in a broad comedy that not only pokes fun at yourself but also at the entire filmmaking business that you’ve spent your life working in, is heroic. So good for Nicolas Cage for having a great sense of self and a great sense of humor for taking on this movie.
Fortunately for everyone, “Unbearable” works at every level. The movie is smart satire, fun, funny, enjoyable, well-written, directed with the proper level of light, breezy comedy, and even lavishly produced, with scenes, shots and settings that are actually beautiful, scenic and artfully designed–the latter being filmic elements not usually seen in big-budget Hollywood comedies. But parts of “Unbearable” were shot overseas in exotic locales, and these locations add an unexpected, added level of quality to this comedy.
But it’s really all about Cage. As the movie’s Nick Cage, Nick Cage accepts an offer of $1 million to make a simple personal appearance at a billionaire’s birthday party. Once at the billionaire’s residence in Mexico, Nick Cage finds himself caught up in some underworld criminal intrigue, watched over by some highly-puzzled and confused CIA agents. It’s up to Nick Cage and his new best friend, the billionaire Javi Guiterrez, to figure out just what’s going on, to fight the bad guys, to rescue a young kidnapped girl, to help the CIA with its case, and to try not to get themselves killed.
Pedro Pascal has a blast playing Javi, right along with Nicolas Cage as Nick Cage. In yet another welcome, positive surprise in this movie, Javi and Nick develop a respectful, lovable–platonic and non-sexual, please note–and thoroughly enjoyable friendship! Sharing a love of movies, pop culture–and Nick Cage –the two grown men bond and click and become friends in–and this is true–one of the nicest, most positive and mature depictions of a platonic, male adult friendship in a movie in ages. Really.
There are just two slight criticisms of “Unbearable,” and one of them is the same criticism as “The Northman:” “Unbearable” would have been an even better movie if the film had toned down its R-rated aspects and been rated PG or PG-13. “Unbearable”just didn’t need to be an R-rated movie. The other criticism is the casting of Tiffany Haddish as one of the CIA agents. Haddish is miscast in this role. This role called for a comedic actress with attendant exotic secret-agent-type looks, and this role would have been perfect for Mila Kunis, Jennifer Aniston, Aubrey Plaza or Rashida Jones.
Beyond all of the solid, on-the-mark satirical observations in “Unbearable” about Hollywood, movies, show business, acting, celebrity, fandom and reality-versus-unreality, believe it or not, this comedy is also about one of the most important aspects of life–friendship. Watching Javi and Nick Cage bond and develop a real friendship is heartening and an assurance and reminder that it’s never too late in life to make new friends.
And how these two lost souls bond is also hilarious. Sharing an equal high level of movie fandom–Javi has written a screenplay that he wants Nick Cage to read, produce and star in–the two star-struck men–one a movie star and the other a billionaire–frequently engage in on-the-spot movie-inspired improv. They hilariously act out dialogue and scenes from a thousand rote action-adventure movies–with a heavy emphasis on Nick Cage movies. It’s just hilarious–and even heartfelt.
At one poignant point–perhaps the nicest, most real moment in the movie–a soul-searching and rehabilitated and rejuvenated Nick Cage turns to Javi and tells him that their new friendship is the best thing that’s happened to him in a long time. It’s really a beautiful moment.
Pedro Pascal and Nicolas Cage are wonderful in this movie, and their chemistry, timing, pacing and senses of humor are outstanding. As Nicolas Cage recently told The Washington Post, somewhere along the line, Hollywood seemed to forget that Nicolas Cage can do comedy. Well, “Unbearable” strongly serves as a positive reminder that, yes, Nicolas Cage can indeed do comedy.
In real life, in 2022, happily, recent news stories report that Cage is emerging from his debt and financial problems, he is on the road to recovery, he is still in demand as a movie actor and he is happily married. Good for Nicolas Cage! And, now, he is reclaiming his deserved leading man status in a fun, funny, enjoyable and entertaining comedy.
There might be, for some people at some times in certain times of their lives, a very real unbearable weight of massive talent. But for the real-life Nicolas Cage right now, in 2022, with this fun, good new movie out and brighter days ahead for him and his family, surely all of that massive talent these days is less of a weight, more of a welcome, positive part of life, and completely bearable.
That’s good for Nicolas Cage, good for Hollywood, good for movies–and good for the rest of us!