Everything Everywhere All at Once

Another awesome guest review from artist & friend of the L&D Report, the ever-esteemed, Joanna K. Dane.

What a delight to see at the theater, a movie as odd and daring as Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

First, there’s Evelyn, played by Michelle Yeoh, a woman caught in a mid-life rut of hard work, high expectations, and daily proof that her husband is silly and useless; her daughter, endlessly difficult.  How did she turn out to be such an ordinary woman, washing other people’s clothes, after so many big dreams?  A failure, just like her father says.

Here she is at the dining room table, worrying over stacks of receipts. Not only is their struggling laundromat being audited by the IRS, but Evelyn’s father is visiting from China, and her daughter has just arrived home from college with her new girlfriend. 

Evelyn needs to focus, but she has a spitting headache and keeps getting distracted by very odd visions.

Haha!  It’s Jamie Lee Curtis playing the evil tax auditor who wears orange polyester suits that highlight her belly fat.    

Evelyn’s husband, Waymond, played by Ke Huy Quan is mousy and silly and sweet.  In this universe.  But in another, the universe where they didn’t get married, but went their separate ways, he is suave and rich and charming.  

But Evelyn’s journey is so much more than a marriage story.  There’s the universe where she is a chef with a chef who wears a raccoon under his hat.  There’s a universe where she is a kung fu master.  A universe where she is traffic cop.  A universe where she is a maid for a sleaze bag who’s into S&M, a universe where people have giant hotdogs for fingers and Evelyn and the tax auditor are lovers.  And her favorite universe, where she is a world famous singer.

It’s a mother/daughter story and a father/daughter story, and a story that blurs the line between dream and reality, between failure and success.  It is a kung fu story and a story about the nature of our minds.  It’s a movie that breathes and dances and pulses with life.  A dazzling feat of editing and sound.

And there’s the realization that Nothing Matters.  And the black hole that’s shaped like an everything bagel.  And the fanny pack kung fu scene in the IRS office.  And the dazzling costumes worn by Stephanie Hsu playing Evelyn and Waymond’s daughter Joy, who, it turns out, is also the villain of the multiverse. 

And the line, “I would have loved to have spent a life with you doing laundry and taxes.”

And there’s the long silent scene where mother and daughter are rocks in a lifeless universe.  

A scene so long, you start to wonder, is it going to end like this?

The Northman

As a survey of both sub-genres in Nordic Death Metal, “OOHHHHHH!!!!!!” and “AAHHHHHH!!!!!!” this film is a cultural tour de force. Otherwise, it’s just a load of macho bullshit. 

Maybe you don’t like hearing that? Maybe you lose sleep thinking about free will and fate, nature versus nurture, Big Mac versus Whopper. If so, and you don’t mind or maybe even love the idea of sitting through 5 beheadings — albeit two are horses — then this movie is right up your alley. 

Maybe it’s your idea of a good time to check out Willem Dafoe wielding a strap-on? Okay. No judgement here. Or you love Björk’s acting (for 10 minutes). Or maybe you haven’t had enough dudity in your life recently. Though there is a thing called the internet that would save you the two hours and seventeen minutes of sitting through this, for that. 

Apparently a few so-called critics are saying the movie is great because it makes Shakespearean connections. …Shakespearean connections. That’s about as profound as saying you noticed that cars have wheels. Every piece of Western literature, including the menu at Norm’s Diner, owes its life to Shakespeare.

Alas, the boneless pork chop / the weak, weak coffee.

It’s all there. 

Now this film, The Northman, is essentially a cross between Midsommar and Conan the Barbarian. However, it’s not as psychologically mind-fucking as the former or as compelling as the latter. It’s certainly not original. Even hallucinogenic mushrooms were more creatively deployed during the Phantom Thread.  The weird thing is that I actually enjoyed ACT I and thought Ethan Hawke played a believable King. Then everything unravelled, like a roller coaster that descends as slowly as it peaked.  

I picked up a book called Italian Folktales recently. It is edited by a writer I love, Italo Calvino. I couldn’t get past the first story. It was simply too absurd. It could be me or as I said, it could just be a bunch of macho bullshit. AAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!! OOHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

CODA

I watched most of CODA (Children of Deaf Adults) with a lump in my throat. It’s such a moving and emotional work and such a genuinely funny one at that. 

I could tell the people next to me where crying (No, not D and Dr. B…the people to my other side) and that was totally understandable. 

Even though there is an obvious ending it’s really not about the destination at all. The journey there is so profound and harrowing for Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) that you get lost with her at every twist and turn. 

The role of Ruby’s dad, Frank, is played so utterly humanly by Troy Kotsur it also garnered him an Oscar, along with this film for Best Picture. Again, I’d emphasize the humor in this film.  It’s not above a good fart joke. Or Tinder joke for that matter. As much as you’re rooting for, hoping and getting caught up in the raucousness of this family, you are laughing along with them the whole way. 

Eugenio Derbez gives a multi-layered turn as Choir Master Bernardo Villalobos. Oscar winner Marlee Matlin also stars with a strong performance as the mom, Jackie. 

It’s one of those films that makes you think about life, how you got where you are and how great a privilege it is to struggle. It transcends the screen and I highly recommend it.

The Batman

What the hell was that?

The question constitutes the quick take from our L&D special guest, who joined us for the world premier of The Batman Thursday evening.

My answer? That was a limited Netflix-type series condensed down into three hours and change. There are clearly four or five separate episodes here, replete with the cuts between ‘episodes.’ Indeed, at one point I thought the movie might be over, it had that natural break feel about it. But, after lingering a beat or two, we moved on.

I am endorsing this one because there was so much I enjoyed about it and I will enjoy discussing it with other Bat-fans. For example, I liked how the entire musical score is built around Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” (which serves to tell you pretty much all you need to know about the mood of this one). I loved Robert Pattinson in the leading role; he put the goth in Gotham, for sure. Now there’s a Dark and gloomy Knight for you! There was good action throughout, including the sequence where muzzle flash provided the only light. And a great car chase!

But the verdict is that this is a case of trying to do too much and, as a result, not doing enough things well, and leaving too many things undone. Case in point, there is a great To Live and Die in LA chase sequence, but why were they even chasing him? What was the payoff? (Those familiar with the White Knight story arc should certainly see my point here). The purpose was that they needed to introduce the Batmobile (I doubt that constitutes a spoiler). Yes, following the chase there was a pretty fun back and forth with Gordon and The Batman here during the grilling, but ultimately this defied credulity even moreso than usual.

But my biggest gripe is certainly that the writers grossly overestimated the payoff from their “big” plot reveals. I am not sure exactly how we were supposed to respond when that news came out, but my response was: Yawn! I saw that movie already! So pretty disappointing on that front, pretty good story, not a great story.

Plenty of starpower, including Peter Sarsgsaard, Zoë Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Paul Dano, John Turturro, Andy Serkis, and Colin Farrell. That’s a lot of characters to introduce, develop, and complete a story arc on. The Batman doesn’t, and couldn’t, without another few hours of exposition. I listed the actors in descending order of how I thought of whether the character worked, from Sarsgaard as the DA to Farrell as a pretty forgetable Penguin. What a waste of makeup and acting talent (though I am definitely the minority view on this assessment). Kravitz as Catwoman is certainly remarkable in the true sense of that term. Another something to chat about on the ride home. I thought Dano was good in spots as the Riddler, but, meh.

So, there you have it, a dark, brooding eight hours of entertainment mushed down to three. If you go to these types of movies, you will almost certainly find something to like. But this feels more like The Dark Knight Rises than The Dark Knight in terms of the overall quality and payoff. It’s going to be in theaters for a while, so you’ll have plenty of time if you want to see this one.

Jackass, Forever

He is no hero who never met the dragon… Only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard, the “treasure is hard to attain.”

That’s Carl Jung, of course, but it may as well have been said by Johnny Knoxville, the long-time ringleader and curator of the improbable but unmistakable Jackass serial.

Knoxville and his dragon-facing gang are all back, older, no wiser, and seemingly more willing than ever to put their testicles on the line for the cause. The entry fee to be part of this team is to take some gratuitous punishment — preferably to the greater genital region — and then writhe in pain whilst your brethren bust a gut laughing at you &/or adding further insult to your injury.

And often more injury to your injury, as well.

Knoxville, of course, is the mastermind who dupes, defiles, and degrades his merry gang of ostenstibly trained stuntpersons (what sort of training do you suppose one receives for bellyflopping into a cactus garden?), making him seem rather demented and sadistic. But it is Knoxville himself who stands tall in the path of a raging bull, unflinchngly taking its best shot.

And then he does it again because he didn’t quite get the right angle on the first take.

Remarkably, the series doesn’t seem to be running out of ideas — or perhaps it is not so remarkable, opportunities to be a jackass are pretty bountiful! But they do it so, so well! Something as simple as donning marching band attire and dutifully stepping on a high-speed conveyer belt is a recipe that continues to deliver low-brow, low-tech, high-impact laughs.

Not from me, of course, but these antics do seem to tickle L’s funnybone.

Jackass, Forever also adds some new faces here, too, faces willing to take a scorpion stinger or a couple of snake bites for a laugh. That’s the price of admission to be part of this group.

As per always, some of the most hilarious segments involve misdirection: the guy steeling himself to take a hockey puck to the crotchal area, but instead the first shot goes to the face. That’s pretty high comedy. The subsequent cupshot is almost beside the point.

But we’ll take it anyway.

That is, he’ll take it anyway.

A Wenders Journey — Essay

As the 1960s dragged on in divided Germany, conventional movies, American imports and porn were the only products you could find to watch in the cinemas of the West. Many movie theaters simply shut down. To the rescue of this sad state of affairs came a group of young independent filmmakers whose movement became known as New German Cinema. Its manifesto reads, “The old film is dead. We believe in the new one.” 

The two most famous and internationally successful Directors to come from this movement are Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders.  With Wenders, it’s not so much that his worldview is borderless but rather that he absorbs and elevates each country he is filming in. He holds these diverse cultures and peoples to be equal. In these times of over the top nationalist sentiment, it’s a powerful message. But it’s not overtly political. His cinema is one of travel and discovery. Of movement above all. Trains, planes, automobiles, cable cars, boats…whatever it takes to keep the characters literally moving. And if they are not moving, they are sleeping, restlessly, somewhere on the road. Or trying to kill a mosquito in the night or actually killing a TV set in a hotel room.

Which brings me to another aspect of Wenders’ cinema. A respect for and acknowledgment of making the images themselves. Whether Polaroid, Hi8 video or using a Bolex. Telling stories cinematically is what matters most to him. A recurring theme is the cultural importance of image making. “You lose touch when you lose your sense of identity. That’s why you always need proof, proof that you still exist. And that’s why you keep taking those photos.” — From Alice in the Cities

When a Wim Wenders film starts, there is a sort of transportation that also happens within me. Wherever he is going, the intention of a Wenders film is to take us all along for the journey. 

A special treat for the cinephile are the many Director’s commentaries that can be found on Wenders’ DVDs. These commentaries were made often 20 years after production, during the release of restored versions of his films. You can really feel the depth of his desire to use movies as not just a form of expression for himself but as a way to bring us all out of our shells and into the entire world with him. 

— If you’d like to get out of your shell in Appleton, Wisconsin, the next (and final!) installment of The 602 Club Wenders Series is Saturday, March 5th. I’ll be screening 1994’s Lisbon Story, which I mail-ordered from Korea, with a proper glass of port. 

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley brings the star power: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe…I could go on.  And in Act I, it does a great job creating dramatic tension, with an intensely cinematic take on a Midwest carnival in 1941. A circus where side shows are the main event and the animals are human. This part of the film wonderfully weaves directing, acting, screenwriting, art direction, cinematography, hair, makeup, wardrobe, special effects — the whole shebang —into an intriguing portrait. The homages fly: Days of Heaven, Strangers on a Train, La Strada, Wings of Desire…and yet it also seems all its own.  

But then ACT II happens, and the waves of tension and intrigue flatline. 

By ACT III the film is a mockery of itself and a bathroom break is in order. 

This is the 5th year of the LnD Report and if you look through the archive you’ll find many circumstances where the sum of its impressive parts didn’t achieve the total of a great film. What went sideways in Nightmare Alley? As D pointed out, the foil is not strong enough, particularly in terms of motivation. Also, by the time of the denouement, there are no characters for the audience to care about. The most interesting characters are left far behind. As one example, Willem Dafoe has more of an opportunity to show his dramatic range in Spider-Man: No Way Home, than he has playing Clem Hoatley, the carnival boss and geek wrangler in Nightmare Alley

According to our friend F, the 1946 novel is much better. So that would be worth checking out. I was also reminded of a great title I read in a previous life, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. Or simply pop in a DVD, Blu-ray or stream Tod Browning’s 1932 masterpiece, Freaks, if you are jonesing for an emotional carnival drama.  

The French Dispatch

There’s a certain late night cafe in Los Angeles, in Los Feliz, on Vermont. I was there when Benicio Del Toro appeared suddenly, shadowed by the arch of the door like a cowboy avenger in a Spaghetti Western, busting in on a tavern full of bandits. I don’t think he was after me however. I’m pretty sure he was there for the fries. Then as now, he is a larger than life figure. Intimidating as well as intriguing. Wes Anderson casts him perfectly in the masterpiece, French Dispatch. 

Wes Anderson’s cinematic world is a theatrical one, including light gags, absurd stunts and impossible cross-sectioned sets. His oeuvre is really a celebration of Art Direction. And though the fourth wall is sacred in terms of performance, it is anything but in terms of the actual walls. They are unapologetically shoved around, pushed through and across. If you are wondering where the real wall is, one scene in particular features a prop that is, to great effect, resoundingly smashed right into the camera lens.

Anderson’s films cast a spotlight on our at times absurd behaviors and activities.  In his study of minutiae within the particular style of screwball writing and delivery and cinematographic controlled chaos, he is able to reveal what actually moves people.

House of Gucci

House of Gucci is an operatic yarn that spins from farce to tragedy on a dime. The tragicomedy is handed off flawlessly like a relay baton from Lady Gaga (who showed her acting chops in A Star is Born and does so again) to Jeremy Irons (Flaw. Less.), Al Pacino lights it up, Adam Driver is completely believable…but it’s Jared Leto as the fumbling, bumbling yet simpatico Paolo Gucci who shines brightest and steals this film as his character is stolen from. Paolo Gucci has some seriously funny zingers related to everything from chocolate to Lycra and he doesn’t disappoint. How does he do it? To quote our friend G., “It’s called acting.” 

Maybe some of the accents are off. Maybe sometimes they say grazie and sometimes they say thank you. Maybe there is too much espresso (strike that, there can never be too much espresso). But the point is, Director Ridley Scott knows nuance, timing, how to pull a heart string, how to intercut for drama, how to set up tension and relieve it with passion or comedy. 

For some, this won’t be an interesting movie. The high crimes and misdemeanors of the jet set. Couture. Meh. And I get that. But I enjoyed the performances overall and that was more than enough for me to say, Bravo Gucci! Bravo!

The French Dispatch

Image
Panama Al Brown, Paris, 1935

The new Wes Andersen film, The French Dispatch, finally made its way to the greater “north”east Wisconsin area, and D and Dr. B were able to catch it in some of its glory. If you are a Wes Andersen fan, it is highly likely that you have already seen the movie and you are busy gushing about it to someone.

If you haven’t seen it, perhaps you should. The movie is incredible. The level of detail and all of those Andersen touches in set after set is almost incomprehensible. And the star power of the cast is almost hard to believe — there are not too many new faces in this one because evidently there are lots and lots of old faces who are crawling over one another to work with Andersen, including Appleton’s own Willem Defoe! And The Fonz! And, off the top of my head, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Elisabeth Moss, Jason Scwartzman, Griffin Dunne, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, that guy from Dune, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, and, of course, Bill Murray.

Oh, right, and Ed Norton. Ed Norton! He gets roughly 45 seconds of screen time, sure, but it’s Ed Norton!

The great sets and great acting and solid storytelling notwithstanding, the movie still did not quite sit well with me. So I swapped notes with an L&D regular who found the movie “oddly boring.” That is exactly how I felt. I liked the first story well enough(Benicio del Toro dominates!), but by the end of the second story I was kind of not looking forward to the third story. And by minute 90 I was impatiently awaiting the credits to get an accounting of all the star power herein.

The credits came, and I will say my experience with the credits is probably an apt summation of my feelings about the movie. For each of the stories the cast flashed on the screen alongside a putative cover of The French Dispatch, but there wasn’t enough time to examine the characters and to digest the cover. And if you pick just one, you still don’t have enough time to take in what’s going on. There is 110 minutes of that.

This is all by design, of course. As French Dispatch editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr., (Bill Murray) continually reminds his writers, in what I take to be the thesis of the movie: “Just Try To Make It Sound Like You Wrote It That Way On Purpose.”

And those writers, of course, are proxies for writers for The New Yorker magazine, which the movie is an extended homage to. Not coincidentally, the credits slow down as Andersen lists the dozen or so New Yorker greats from back in the day that he dedicates the movie to.

One of those writers, A.J. Liebling, is an iconic boxing writing, and his prose is instrcutive. Liebling opens his classic, The Sweet Science, with this advice on attending a fight:

If you go to a fight with a friend, you can keep up unilateral conversations on two vocal levels — one at the top of your voice, directed at your fighter, and the otehr a running expertise nominally aimed at your companion but loud enough to reach a modest fifteen feet in each direction.

Let me ask you this, is that the guy you sitting in your section?

Liebeling gives us an example of how a (self-proclaimed) expert might go about this:

“Reminds me of Panama Al Brown,” you may say as a new fighter enters the ring. “He was five feet eleven and weighted a hundred and eighteen pounds. This fellow may be about forty pounds heavier and a couple of inches shorter, but he’s got the same kind of neck. I saw Brown box a fellow name Mascart in Paris in 1927. Guy stood up in the top gallery and threw an apple and hit Brown right on the top of the head. The whole house started yelling “Finish him, Mascart! He’s groggy!'” Then, as the bout begins, “Boxes like Al, too, except this fellow’s a southpaw.” If he wins you say, “I told you he reminded me of Al Brown,” and if he loses, “Well, well, I guess he’s no Al Brown. They don’t make fighters like Al any more.”

There is a lot of amusing stuff in there, yes. But to what end?

This identifies you as a man who (a) has been in Paris, (b) has been going to fights for a long time, and (c) therefore enjoys what the fellows who write for quarterlies call a frame of reference.

A frame of reference, indeed, but perhaps not the most humble one. The medium is the message. In The French Dispatch Andersen doesn’t just approve of this, he venerates it. Indeed, he adopts it. The movie is the cinematic equivalent of 110 minutes of Panama Al Brown references. Just because the loudmouth at the game knows what he’s talking about, it doesn’t mean he’s not annoying.

Still, this is an exceptional piece of work that is well above the $5 bar and is certainly one of the better movies you will see this year — the production values, the attention to detail in the set pieces, the stories, the acting, it’s all there. So when it’s all said and done you can pick up the BluRay and start dissecting it with the extended Andersen fanbase. Or you can, as my friend reports, go home and watch The Budapest Hotel.

“Now that’s a great movie!”