Your Weekly Roundup of New Movies: “Petite Maman” Is a Near-Perfect Artifact

What to see and what to skip while streaming or going to the theater.

TOP PICK OF THE WEEK

Petite Maman

**** Cleaning out her recently deceased grandmother’s hallway closet, 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) discovers a forgotten paddleball game. Her dad is occupied; her grieving mother is suddenly absent. Paddleball is an apt solo activity, but three swings in, the ball flies off the string and into the woods. Maybe that’s the mechanism by which Petite Maman departs for the realm of magical realism, or maybe it’s just a superb symbol. But immediately, Nelly meets a girl of near-identical age and appearance (played by Sanz’s real-life twin, Gabrielle) building a nearby tree fort. After the visual and emotional grandeur of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, French auteur Céline Sciamma distills Petite Maman into 72 minutes of leaf crunching and dream sharing between two serious children looking to each other for what their parents can’t explain about loss and loneliness. Both Sanz girls’ performances are frank and watchful, not averse to occasional glee, and never so precocious that Sciamma turns them into screenwriting puppets. This is childhood the way we wish it could be during a crisis—and a quietly fantastical tale that punches megatons above its weight. Petite Maman is itself a near-perfect little artifact, a closed loop containing multitudes. Bat that ball once and feel everything that comes boomeranging back. PG. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Living Room.

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The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

**** Nicolas Cage is a rare acting legend whose filmography has become a genre-fluid library of cult classics. It’s a unique cinematic achievement that spans generations—and it’s what makes The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent work. In the film, Cage plays a version of himself so meta it becomes difficult to determine what’s satire and what’s autobiography. Here, “Nick Cage” is in a career slump, plagued by financial woes and rumors concerning his eccentric spending habits (in one scene, he offers to pay $20,000 for a gun-wielding statue of himself inspired by John Woo’s Face/Off). This compels him to accept a humiliating gig from wealthy superfan Javi (Pedro Pascal): appearing as a guest at his birthday party for $1 million. The action kicks off when the CIA recruits the actor to spy on his host, channel his inner “Cage,’’ and complete a mission. This results in a fun bromance with Javi based on their shared love of film (the true heart of the movie). Moments of absurdity come infrequently enough to enhance the comedic tone without defining it—and co-writer and director Tom Gormican knows his audience, giving viewers what they want with little care for what anyone else thinks. That’s an attitude any Nicolas Cage fan can relate to, and gleefully revel in. R. RAY GILL JR. City Center, Clackamas, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Laurelhurst, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Mill Plain, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Progress Ridge, Studio One, St. Johns Twin, Tigard, Vancouver Plaza.

Ambulance

*** Michael Bay’s Ambulance is stupid beyond belief, but it’s also thrilling, terrifying and impressively brutal. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Danny, a career criminal who enlists his adopted brother Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to help steal $32 million from a Los Angeles bank in broad daylight. It’s an insultingly improbable setup—even if Will needs money for his wife’s “experimental surgery,” why would he agree to Danny’s delusional scheme in minutes? But once they steal an ambulance to escape the army of police officers on their trail, the movie gets into a volatile groove. By trapping a bleeding cop (Jackson White) and a hardened EMT named Cam (Eiza González) in the ambulance with the brothers, Bay creates countless possibilities for triumphant tension. When Cam has to use a hair clip to perform surgery, your heart skips a beat—and when snipers prepare to fire shots that could kill everyone in the ambulance, it nearly stops. Hyperactive editing and swooping camera movements make too much of the action a frantic blur, but there’s no denying Bay’s control over the exhilarating currents of fear that course through your mind and body as you watch. Based on a 2005 Danish film, Ambulance strikes its share of false notes, but unlike most modern action movies, it understands the difference between bombast and suspense. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Bridgeport, Cascade, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Fox Tower, Movies on TV, Progress Ridge, Tigard, Vancouver Plaza.

Everything Everywhere All at once

*** A hyperkinetic sci-fi/martial arts (kung fusion?) fever dream grounded in Asian American family dynamics, Everything Everywhere All at Once will be absolutely adored by some moviegoers from its very first moments. It’s a film made to be loved—and, given the sheer eye-popping technical wizardry at play throughout, nearly impossible to hate. Michelle Yeoh is typically dazzling as Evelyn Wong, a misanthropic laundromat owner called upon to save the multiverse from her daughter’s worst self (Stephanie Hsu, in a role intended for Awkwafina). Evelyn is an underwritten character, but Yeoh brings a welcome authenticity to the film, even if a performance of such finely shaded nuance isn’t the best fit for the DayGlo sensationalism of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the filmmaking duo known as Daniels (Swiss Army Man). As with Terry Gilliam, Edgar Wright or any other avant-garde sentimentalist pressing restless rhythms and visual inventiveness into the service of a wholly undeserving story, the directors effortlessly pep up the slow parts and paper over the plot holes, but when the pace calms and the fireworks die down for an emotional climax, the film moves glacially. Inevitable? Perhaps, but it’s still disappointing that Everything Everywhere All at Once is less than the sum of its dazzling parts. R. JAY HORTON. Academy, Cinema 21, City Center, Clackamas, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Joy Cinema, Lake Theater, Laurelhurst, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Studio One, St. Johns Twin, Tigard, Vancouver Plaza.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

*** When it was announced that J.K. Rowling was unleashing five films based on a faux-academic textbook that she had assembled for charity, Harry Potter fans instantly knew two things about the coming Fantastic Beasts pentalogy: An epic saga wrung from a whimsical taxonomy was a terrible idea, and that mattered not at all. Despite the irrelevance of the concept, the IP-that-lived held enough power to birth a third adventure for cryptozoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), despite the recasting of big bad Johnny Depp, the transphobic rants from Rowling, and the tonal sea change from earlier entries’ Dr. Dolittle-esque period travelogue toward a secret agent yarn about a failed affair between arch-mages. While replacement Grindelwald Mads Mikkelsen lacks Depp’s cartoonish self-regard—which provided a romantic counterweight to the incandescence of Jude Law’s Dumbledore—his Hannibal/Bond villain brand of drolly effete cruelty brings a necessary gravitas to a story that moves through a Disney-fied Weimar Berlin with bounce and verve. It also helps that the screenplay (by Rowling and Steve Kloves) expertly seeds the voluminous exposition with fan-servicing nods, but scarcely requires prior knowledge of the titular future headmaster. Yes, this is still the Potterverse, but to the film’s eternal blessing, it needn’t always be. PG-13. JAY HORTON. Bridgeport, City Center, Clackamas, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Mill Plain, Pioneer Place, Progress Ridge, Studio One, Tigard, Wunderland Milwaukie.

The Northman

** If you like your men handsome, violent and oozing self-pity, you’ll get a kick out of The Northman, a new take on the Scandinavian legend that inspired Hamlet. It’s a satisfyingly brutish, mystical epic directed by Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse, The Witch) and starring Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, a comically obsessive Viking prince. When Amleth was a boy, his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), was murdered by his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who then married Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). By the time Amleth is old enough to seek revenge, Fjölnir has lost the kingdom to a rival ruler and become a farmer, which is one of the film’s many perverse jokes—Fjölnir can never fall far enough to sate Amleth’s fury. While Amleth’s macho theatrics could have been intolerable, they’re undercut by the film’s peculiar humor. There’s a charming self-amusement behind the exaggerated Scandinavian accents of the actors—they know they’re in a bonkers movie and they’re loving it. Plenty of audiences probably will too, but save for Queen Gudrún mocking her son with a beautifully mad cackle, Eggers is a director of divided loyalties—he rebukes toxic masculinity while reveling in it. Hypocrisy is by no means fatal, but despite a glorious climactic duel on a lava-drenched volcano, The Northman leaves weary familiarity in its wake. Critiquing men like Amleth and Fjölnir? Good. Leaving them behind? Better. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Academy, Cinemagic, Cinema 21, City Center, Clackamas, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Laurelhurst, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Mill Plain, Oak Grove, Studio One, Tigard, Vancouver Plaza.

The Bad Guys

** During its infancy as a major studio, DreamWorks Animation was often accused of attempting to mimic the output of its primary competition, the House of Mouse. Shark Tale was “Finding Nemo with gangsters.” Antz was “A Bug’s Life with Woody Allen” (despite being released first). Shrek was “any Disney princess movie with Jeffrey Katzenberg’s unmitigated bitterness over being ousted from the company.” Now, 2022 brings us The Bad Guys, aka “Zootopia but not as good.” That’s a shame, because parts of the film genuinely work. The animation offers a beautiful blend of sketchbook textures and 3D models, and the voice actors are game for most anything, particularly Sam Rockwell and Zazie Beetz (who exchange winning repartee as a pickpocket named Mr. Wolf and a red fox politician named Governor Foxington, respectively). However, the story is paper thin and flimsy—particularly during a third act that makes an unexpected detour from heist movie to science fiction—and the gags lean heavily on crude jokes, broad slapstick and the occasional out-of-nowhere pop culture reference. The Bad Guys isn’t terrible or offensive, but it’s far below the standards DreamWorks has set for itself. PG. MORGAN SHAUNETTE. AMC Vancouver, Bridgeport, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Evergreen Parkway, Lloyd Center, Mill Plain, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Progress Ridge, Studio One, Tigard, Vancouver Plaza, Wunderland Beaverton.