April 2022

I’ve started watching Game of Thrones again recently — just to see if season eight is as bad as the internet insists it is. I’m only on Season Four so it’s too early to tell — so I felt absolutely in the right frame of mind to watch this, Robert Eggers’ latest effort following an acclaimed and inventive start with The Lighthouse and The Witch. He’s maintained his distance from the tried and obvious path with The Northman.

This is a historic nordic-epic based on the story of the likely fictional 10th century Viking Prince Amleth, which would become the basis of Hamlet. Prince Amleth is on the verge of becoming a man when his father (Ethan Hawke) is brutally murdered by his uncle (Claes Bang), who kidnaps the boy’s mother (Nicole Kidman). Two decades later, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is now a Viking berserker who raids Slavic villages. He soon meets a seeress (Björk) who reminds him of his vow — save his mother, kill his uncle, avenge his father. So with the help of Olga (Anya Taylor Joy), off he goes to do that.

And honestly, that’s 80% of the movie. Throw in some mysticism and prophecies and you’ve got the other 20%. Simplified like this, though, and it probably sounds a bit like the Sword and Sorcery movies from the 80s I enjoyed, like Conan, and Flesh + Blood. But that would do it a disservice.

Instead, it’s a brutal, and one would imagine accurate, portrayal of Viking life if you discount all the sorcery stuff. With all those swords getting thrown around, sooner or later people are going to start getting hurt. Amleth as a berserker is a terrifying sight, surrounded by other terrifying sights, as he and his buddies plunder a Slavic village for no other obvious reason than they can and it was in their way. Our heroes are seen here butchering villagers, burning women and children, branding others to put into slavery.

Any heroes here, though, are of the anti variety. If you’re in this movie, you’re going to do some deplorable stuff in a day that would keep you occupied on a therapist couch for a lifetime. But in these folklore tales, these are brave men doing brave deeds in the name of something, and everyone is the hero in their own story.

I really enjoyed this without ever loving it. It took me about twenty minutes to tune into the Scandanavian accents and names, and for spells I didn’t know what was going on or who anyone was until something clicked, roughly at the point that Amleth goes off to get his revenge, and I started to settle in and could make sense of it all.

Eggers co-wrote this with Icelandic writer and poet, Sjón, and they do an amazing job keeping this as authentic as it feels, resisting the temptation to dumb any of it down for its audience. They give you some work to do and the movie is all the better for it. Filmed mostly on the island of Ireland, the landscapes are beautiful and occasionally CGI enhanced to appear more Icelandic, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke wrangles light in a quite incredible way.

It’s captivating, relentless, visceral, and a hundred other things but it’s maybe just a little bit too bleak, a little bit too lacking in good to be an absolute triumph, but it comes pretty close.

I genuinely have no idea where to begin with this one.

MIchelle Yeoh puts in an extraordinary performance as Evelyn Wang, a Chinese-American laundromat owner whose head seems to be filled with what her husband, Waymond (wonderfully played by Ke Huy Quan who you’ll remember as Short Round from Indiana Jones), calls hobbies she confuses with jobs. She has a problem seeing things through, perhaps scared of failure, perhaps scared of success. Unbeknownst to Evelyn, Waymond is plotting to divorce her and tensions are already at boiling points as the IRS are auditing their business, Evelyn’s granddad is now living with them, and her daughter, Joy (superbly portrayed by Stephanie Hsu), is gay which Evelyn flat out refuses to accept. 

The family head out to an audit meeting with IRS Inspector Deirdre Beaubeirdra, played by an incredible Jamie Lee Curtis. There, there seems to be a glitch in the universe and Waymond becomes possessed by a version of himself from an alternate universe, warning Evelyn that the fate of the entire multiverse may well be in her hands, all the while as the IRS move closer to reclaiming her business, believing that they don’t have Evelyn’s full attention.

It’s a frenetic opening. In the initial scenes in the laundromat, as the family prepares for the Chinese New Year, conversations fly around in Chinese, English, amalgams of both, and it’s like the movie is trying to discombobulate the senses of the viewer in preparation for what’s about to happen next.

Because what happens next really is very difficult to explain. Alternate Waymond quickly explains verse-jumping to Evelyn, an ability to tap into any of the infinite alternate versions of herself and steal their skills and memories for the fight ahead. Evelyn’s attempts at this are hit and miss to begin with, introducing us to universes where people have hot dogs for fingers, and one where bludgeoning someone to death with sex toys is standard fayre.

At its heart, and in as few words as possible, it’s a martial arts movie. The fight sequences are breathtaking to watch, given that there are no rules here and Evelyn is as likely to become a master in an instant as a henchman is of turning to glitter. Hint: very likely. And it’s these punctuations of multiverse variables that keep everything fresh and exciting.

But the difference between this and a mindless romp is that the emotional heart of the movie beats so strongly. There’s a villain behind all this destruction, by the way most of it happens in the IRS office, there’s an evil force that we suspect we know who is out to destroy Evelyn, and so it comes as no surprise to learn who that is, and at this point, we begin to wonder exactly how much of this is just a hyper-exaggerated metaphor for appreciating life, accepting those around us, taking joy in those grains of pure happiness that life affords us.

Directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as Daniels, it takes around two-and-a-half hours to figure all of this out, and if I’m honest, it began to feel it in the end. But as I exhaustedly made my way back to the car, an emotional wreck, and as I tried to confirm that I really had just watched one of the best movies I’ve ever seen or the worst, I realized how much it reminded me of Scott Pilgrim and how it dealt with its metaphors, and its existential message is one of hope and beauty, and it feels important, and a movie absolutely needed today, as it provides a very odd and difficult to describe reassurance. 

It’s going to be okay, folks.

It may not be obvious, but I try to put a bit of effort into this sort of thing. And by a bit of effort, that usually means pecking out 500 words and doing my best to make it look and read like a review you could see in the culture section of a newspaper or magazine. I’m still waiting for the call-up to the pros so we can debate how successful or otherwise I’ve been over the last decade. Hint: not very.

Anyway, the reason I mention this is because it’s a commitment that’s easier for some movies than it is for others. The Lost City, for example, I could quite happily have taken another 1,000 words going on about things I loved about it. Your Highness, on the other hand, I believe I chickened out after the opening preamble to instead deliver a recipe for jambalaya. Compartment No. 6 is a strange sort of in-between. It feels like I could talk about it for a while, but I’m not sure how much I want to.

Directed by Juho Kuosmanen and based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Rosa Liksom, the movie follows Laura (Seidi Haarla), a Finnish student living in Moscow with her somewhat ambivalent lover, who travels by train the 1,200 miles north to Murmansk, up near the Finnish/Swedish border, to see some ancient petroglyphs. In the train, her compartment-mate is a gruff Russian laborer or miner, Lyokha (Yuri Borisov), who is a bit of a drunken mess when he meets Laura for the first time and within five minutes, he assumes she’s a prostitute and starts talking about her genitals. Off to a bad start, then. Over the course of the movie, Laura and Lyokha grow to understand each other and a strange bond develops between them. And that’s about it. Oh, and it snows a lot.

My difficulty in bonding with the movie starts with the ambiguity that permeates it. It never really establishes what year we’re in. It seems old. It seems eighties. The music is eighties. The Rubik’s Cube solution discussion is eighties. The presentation of transport problems in Russia feels pretty eighties. We see cassette tapes and an old Sony camcorder. But then there’s a section where they discuss Titanic, which definitely isn’t eighties.

Then we have Lyokha, and really nothing about him is revealed enough to allow us to join the dots with him. His purpose for traveling to Murmansk seems to be for work, but the type of work isn’t really explained and his position in the organization is unclear. He seems to be connected in some manner but we don’t know why or how. Halfway through the journey, he stops off to meet with an old woman who he says isn’t his mother, but then never explains who she is. He steals a car to do this. None of this is explained or mentioned again.

And then there’s the whole keystone of the movie; the relationship between Lyokha and Laura. Given that he essentially assaults her in their first scene, any progression is a mystery, and yet the relationship does develop and Laura at several points puts her trust in this man where everything she knows about him has to be through the lens of their introduction. From his point of view, he becomes enamored with Laura despite reacting dismissively toward her reasons for travel.

I’ve really enjoyed seeing as many foreign-language movies as I’ve seen over the last few months, and I’m grateful that more and more seem to be finding their way into our local theaters. This Finnish/Russian collaboration certainly provides an insight into how stories can be told so very differently across different cultures. Plus, there’s little moments that illuminate my ignorance where the introduction of another Finnish character means that for long periods, I wasn’t sure which language they were all speaking or who understood what.

Despite perfectly decent acting, with its bleak palette and presentation of depressing ways to travel long distances, the movie was too much of a struggle, and its inability to throw me a bone or show me some way to connect left me underwhelmed, full of questions and confusion, and entirely surprised that I’ve managed to write this much without reaching for the recipe book.