With a pair of loudly hyped (and simply loud) releases on tap, this is a promising weekend for new movies—especially considering that neither of them is a sequel, a prequel, or an adaptation. And we’ll get to them. But here’s hoping they don’t draw too much attention from a much more contemplative example of truly unique filmmaking: one that, if its distributor is on the level, you’ll never have the chance to watch at home.
The Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (but you can call him ‘Joe’) has been a festival favorite and a critical darling for years, but the combination of exotic settings, subtitles, and a discursive (to say the least) approach to narrative have prevented him from breaking through much in the American art house market. That may not change much with his latest, Memoria, but it does star Tilda Swinton and marks Weerasethakul’s first (largely) English-language effort, so it’s at least somewhat more accessible.
In addition, Neon Releasing, Memoria’s distributor, announced a “roadshow” strategy whereby the film would screen theatrically before one audience at a time in cities around the United States, and would never be released on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, or any streaming service. The wisdom of this strategy at a time when many are still skittish about visiting theaters, and when concerns about accessibility to art are more prominent than ever, is debatable. But there should be no debate that Memoria is an almost perfect example of a film that should be experienced theatrically if at all possible.
Swinton plays Jessica, a Scottish woman visiting her sick sister in Colombia. That’s about as traditional a plot synopsis as you can glean from Memoria. In the film’s first shot, Jessica is awakened one morning by a loud, unexplained noise. Initially, it seems perhaps the residue of a dream, or a singular neurological anomaly. But as Jessica walks the streets of Medellin and visits her sister in Bogota, the sound recurs at seemingly random moments. Only she (and we) can hear it.
What does it mean? Is she going insane? The ever-compelling Swinton’s performance is key to the sense of unsettled curiosity that Weerasethakul invokes. Jessica consults a sound engineer in an attempt to replicate the noise, describing it as “a ball of concrete hitting a metal wall surrounded by seawater,” among other vaguely evocative terms.
There exists an actual medical term for Jessica’s experience, dramatically dubbed Exploding Head Syndrome. But Weerasethakul, who says he suffered from the syndrome at one point, isn’t even slightly interested in literal or physical explanations. He’s exploring the ontological, not the otological.
Jessica, pondering her situation, becomes increasingly detached from her surroundings, a sensation that’s enhanced by Swinton’s nearly spectral physicality and the juxtaposition of her ethereal paleness against the fecundity of the Colombian countryside she finds herself in for the film’s final, transcendent act.
It’s impossible to distill the impact of Memoria into language with anything close to precision—that’s, as they say, why it’s a film. It’s also impossible to feel that impact fully without giving yourself over to it entirely, which is why the theatrical experience is so valuable. (And you have my permission to use strong language with any fellow theatergoers who engage in chitchat or texting.)
With any luck, Memoria audiences will feel compelled to check out his earlier work: 2010’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and 2004’s Tropical Malady are good places to start. Memoria is his first feature in six years, so there should be plenty of time to get caught up before his next one.
(Opens Friday, Apr. 22 at Cinema 21; also screens at PAM CUT’s Whitsell Auditorium on May 27.)
IN A LOT OF WAYS, Robert Eggers’ The Northman is the aesthetic opposite of Memoria, but it’s just as much the work of a filmmaker with a singular style and vision. Eggers, the creator of the black-and-white disturbances The Witch and The Lighthouse, brings his turbocharged sensibilities to the always-reliable genre of the Viking movie.
The Northman, though, is a far cry from Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis as a Norse chieftain and a slave vying for the love of Janet Leigh. Here, it’s the ab-endowed Alexander Skarsgård (who played the vampire Eric Northman on True Blood) as our bloodthirsty, vengeful hero.
As a boy, Prince Amleth sees his father, the king (Ethan Hawke) decapitated by his uncle (Claes Bang), who carries off his mother (Nicole Kidman). After years of exile, he grows into a driven killing machine and returns to wreak his vengeance. The plot synopsis could consist entirely of the mantra Amleth repeats to himself: “I will avenge you, father. I will kill you, Fafnir. I will rescue you, mother.”
Onto this prototypical hero’s journey, Eggers drizzles a series of memorable images: Willem Dafoe, so unhinged in The Lighthouse, pulls a similar shtick as a fungal shaman who initiates young Amleth into his princely responsibilities. Bjork herself, often suspected of being an ageless Norn Queen, plays one here in another scene aimed at enhancing the mythic nature of Amleth’s quest. Anya Taylor-Joy, who made her film debut in The Witch, shows up as a pagan romantic interest for our hero.
But the money shots (Eggers reportedly had a $90 million budget) are the battle sequences, especially an early assault by a band of marauders on a coastal village that tracks Amleth’s unstoppable path of carnage in what’s edited to appear as one minutes-long tracking shot. It’s a piece of visceral, unrelenting filmmaking, as is a later duel between two naked men on the lip of an erupting volcano. Eggers is not interested in compromise, or in leavening his epic with any irony or self-awareness.
And that’s fine—we need more big-budget non-Marvel movies from filmmakers with bold visions. I only wish he had dared to be more subversive with his storytelling. In particular, Kidman and Taylor-Joy’s characters feel peripheral to the mano-a-mano machismo of the primary conflict, despite a plot twist involving one of them. Eggers’ first two films had a particular, off-kilter point of view that isn’t as evident under all thundering score and eager disembowelments on display here. The Northman is an impressively mounted spectacle, but also a somewhat empty one.
(Opens Friday, Apr. 22, in multiple theaters)
ALTHOUGH THE OFFICIAL TITLE of director Tom Gormican’s new film is The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, it seems destined to be colloquialized as “that Nic Cage movie.” This metafictional action-comedy serves as a surprisingly heartfelt tribute to Cage, the Oscar-winning nephew of Francis Ford Coppola who has in recent years become something of a meme for his offbeat but thoroughly committed acting style in a wide variety of bizarre, cult-ready roles.
Here, Cage plays himself—or, rather, a version of himself named Nick (not Nic) Cage. Nick is in the midst of career and domestic crises when an easy-money opportunity presents itself: a million dollars to attend the birthday party of a wealthy super-fan named Javi (Pablo Pascal) on the island of Majorca.
It turns out that Javi is suspected by the CIA of being behind the recent kidnapping of a local politician’s daughter, and a pair of agents (Ike Barinholtz and an underused Tiffany Hadish) recruit the reluctant movie star to go undercover. Despite the budding bromance between Nick and Javi, Cage agrees, and the movie eventually morphs into a goofy shoot-em-up that feels a bit too close to some of the real Cage’s work-for-hire efforts.
Until then, though, it’s a glorious salute to the inimitable (or, sometimes, all too imitable) actor, including explicit nods to Face/Off, Con Air, Leaving Las Vegas, The Croods 2, and even Guarding Tess. (It also features a hilarious encomium to the non-Cage-starring Paddington 2.)
Cage and Pascal have real chemistry, and if more of the movie were along the lines of the afternoon LSD trip they share, Massive Talent could have launched itself into stratospheric weirdness instead of settling for a conventional final act. Another nit: there’s no mention of what any right-thinking person knows is the greatest Nicolas Cage quote ever. Still, whether you’re a Cage-head or merely Cage-curious, it’s worth checking out.
(Opens Friday, Apr. 22, in multiple theaters)