Monday, April 18, 2022

Not Exactly Oneself: Everything Everywhere All At Once and Dual

I've totally been holding onto that review of Everything Everywhere All at Once so that I could pair it with another movie as opposed to being lazy and distractible for the past two weeks.

(Looks back and forth)

Not buying it, huh?

Anyway, it's kind of fun when a theme appears in one's viewing, in this case favorite actresses working with intriguing indie filmmakers to make movies where they get to have multiple takes on the same characters, although Daniels and Riley Stearns go about it in completely different ways: Everything Everywhere is as busy as its name implies, while Dual sands down everything that could really come across as a fun hook. In this case, it's hard to argue with how Daniels wears their hearts on their sleeves, keeping up a frantic pace for a crazy amount of time but giving the audience a lot of time to feel things even though they aren't shaking and demanding they feel this. Stearns makes a movie that begs to be examined and dissected, and while I found more going on than I was feeling while I watched it, I don't know that there is really that much there. It's got a layer or two, but only a layer or two.

It's kind of notable how they're sort of taking opposite release paths. Everything Everywhere is doing the sort of expansion one doesn't necessarily see that much any more - a couple screens in NYC/LA, some larger markets including Boston later - with the directors doing a lot of in-person shows with college kids and film-lovers that will talk it up if they like it - and then medium and wide releases following. Dual, meanwhile, got booked on one screen in the area tightly enough that I suspect it might be a four-wall (it's possible AMC figures there's just no audience for matinees, even on the weekend, but it's kind of odd), and its distributor is probably seeing this as an extremely brief stop before video. I'm mildly surprised RLJE hasn't announced an early-June release yet, but I guess it's gauche to do so before the first week is through, even if the window is down to 45 days.

Anyway - check out Everything Everywhere All at Once on the big screen if it opens nearby, preferably on the biggest one you can with people feeling emotions on every side. You're probably not going to have that for Dual, although you may find it interesting, even if it's not particularly intense.

Everything Everywhere All At Once

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2022 in AMC Boston Common #2 (preview, Imax Xenon)

In their most notable previous collaboration, "Daniels" (the team of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) produced Swiss Army Man, a film with the memorable selling point of "Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse" (but with the film also surprisingly affecting), which would seem to be a tough one to top; most would go for something played straighter. They not only do not do this, but they make absurdity a fundamental part of how Everything Everywhere All at Once works, while also giving a great cast much more to do than get the audience from one crazy scene to the next.

It's built around Michelle Yeoh's Evelyn Wang, who owns a laundromat with husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). Her father (James Hong) has recently arrived from China, too ill to live alone anymore, and Evelyn Gong Gong that daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is dating a really nice girl (Tallie Medel). First, though, she's got to get through an IRS audit - at least, until things take a strange detour along the way when Waymond is seemingly possessed by his counterpart from another universe, telling Evelyn that she's the only person who can stop "Jobu Tupaki", a threat that has already ravaged other universes and is building something that endangers all of existence. To do that, Evelyn will have to "verse-jump", connecting with versions of herself that went down different paths and as such have different skill sets to access.

One does this, apparently, by doing something improbable, and that gives the Daniels the chance to not just stage kung fu action that is at once whimsical and impressively choreographed, but to make its every appearance feel unpredictable so that it never feels like a set piece that is most impressive for its technical skill. Once this movie hits its stride, it is just maximally weird, including what is one of the most bizarrely funny bits I've seen in a movie theater in some time. The movie keeps building to new ways of being ridiculous even when that seems impossible, though it finds spots to slow down and let the audience catch their collective breath even while another part of the brain is figuring out what this all means.

It works in part because it is also incredibly sincere while still being irreverent enough that this sincerity isn't used as a club (well, maybe it is toward the end) and because it is deft enough to build itself on a foundation of Michelle Yeoh being terrific at anything that might be thrown at her by giving her a heroine who is often a screw-up without making that cheaply endearing. There's some sly use of her movie-star power here, because the audience who knows her being ready to see her claim her due power and be awesome helps build anticipation, but the whole thing would fall apart if being human and fallible both on top of and underneath that gives the movie a target and helps the film with its musings about the scale of everything.

Her star power also lets the rest of the cast kind of sneak up on the viewer, even when they shouldn't. James Hong, for instance, has seemingly been playing cantankerous old Chinese men since he was young, but it's a delight to see him play with those tropes and suddenly take charge of a scene without making it any less Yeoh's. Ke Huy Quan, meanwhile, has not been on screen nearly as much as one might like since a couple memorable roles as a kid, but he also reinvents himself from scene to scene while still finding common ground. Same goes for Stephanie Hsu, who in some ways has the trickiest roll, in that Joy's multiple iterations have to seem incredibly far apart even though the crux of it is that it's the same person underneath.

That's the nut of it, really - that what's pushing all versions of all these characters is kind of the sameI and relatively universal, even if a lot of the details are specific to Chinese families. Small, bizarre details can send them off into wildly different directions but much of it's the same. That said, a big part of what impresses is that the Daniels don't just take their grand sci-fi premise and use it to explode a tight circle's concern to giant-screen size, but allow themselves and the audience to stand in awe of how mindbogglingly incomprehensible and indifferent the universe can be while still finding value in the chaos.

It's a special movie for that, able to grasp at the grandiose without making the mundane feel inconsequential. It's sentimental as movies come, but doesn't have to minimize anything to make the pieces one can grasp important.


* * (out of four)
Seen 14 April 2022 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Considering how much I've enjoyed writer/director Riley Stearns's previous movies and like Karen Gillan, I found Dual tremendously disappointing. This movie takes an intriguing premise and does nothing with it so aggressively that one can't even find it clever any more. The bland numbness of it all is obviously part of the design, but ultimately to no particular end.

In it, a woman named Sarah (Gillan) suddenly finds herself taking ill, and it's not good news - she's got a rare condition that will kill her painlessly relatively soon. Fortunately, she lives in a world where "The Facility" can clone someone in such a situation, and this new copy will be like a sponge, learning all she can and ready to step in without a hitch so that her boyfriend (Beulah Koale) and mother (Maija Paunio) will be able to continue on without their lives being upended. The thing is, Sarah's Copy isn't exact - she's got a different eye color, soon develops different tastes, and over the coming months, becomes so close to boyfriend Peter that they're kind of getting impatient for her to die. But the disease goes into an unlikely remission, and while most clones are blithely deactivated under these circumstances, Sarah's Copy wants to live, and the law gives her the option to challenge Sarah to a fight to the death - which makes Sarah as ready to fight for anything as she's ever been, even if she can only afford an inexpensive instructor (Aaron Paul) to train her.

Stearns and his crew create a world that in some ways evokes Repo Man in its aggressively generic, un-slick aesthetics - nothing has a brand name, and while a lot of the technology is fairly modern - smartphones and DVD players and the like - there's a sort of IBM PC-style design to what we see on the screens, monochrome images with 8x8 character sets. The characters all speak in simple declarative sentences, with anything that may be a witty rejoinder or sly self-knowledge carefully removed from the script, and though there's a stray reference to California early, the characters have a mishmash of flat accents and mismatched ethnicities. It's canny in a certain way; it establishes a world where one seldom exactly questions the idea of people being replaceable so much as whether replacing Sarah is really necessary.

One can sort of see the thinking behind a lot of these choices, but even when one sees what Stearns is going for, that's all they are, choices that don't always land or intrigue. When the whole film is so determinedly flat and the metaphor is so clear, it's natural to want there to be more: Some sort of world-building, a storyline that has Sarah questioning the world around her, some sharper satire or intrigue or a chance for Gillan to really play with how Sarah is seemingly already dead inside before her guts start to rot versus Sarah's Copy being fresh and curious. Stearns seems too locked into playing up the dreary emptiness of the world he's skewering to create that sort of excitement, as if afraid that too many corners where one can see potential will undercut the rest.

So one has to treasure the moments where he does get aggressive - there are a couple of scenes where the decent black comedy pulls out an unexpected knife, like the Facility's recruitment video or a small child telling a horrific story. There are also the scenes where Gillan gets to show a little emotion and one wants more, because she absolutely connects when Sarah is shaken out of her stupor. There's a chemistry between her and Aaron Paul that intrigues in part because it's there despite how stunted they are - it's not entirely unlike the folks in The Art of Self-Defense, in some ways, except that there's deliberately less to this group.

It's a worthy effort, but the deadpan just doesn't work most of the time, whether because there's nothing for it to play off or some other reason, and the end is too carefully but obviously constructed to knock anyone for a loop. Stearns has been making a career out of these stories of people disconnected from the world, and it's for the most part been intriguing stuff, but this particular film is just too detached for its own good.

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