W.B. at the Movies: Everything Everywhere All At Once

At its core Everything Everywhere All At Once is a sweet movie — a kind movie — and of course an insane movie. The insanity is why I loved it.

It seems everyone these days is doing movies about the multiverse, where every choice leads into its own universe. What would have happened if you took that other job or didn’t get that divorce? Somewhere there’s a universe where you made the opposite choices and everything played out differently.

Here, all of the multiverse is under threat, and somehow Evelyn Wang — played brilliantly by Michelle Yeoh — is at the center of it all. Everything, everywhere, all at once, somehow depends on Evelyn stopping her daughter Joy from building a bagel. Googley eyes also play a key role.

Not everyone will love the nuttiness of this film as much as I did. I can see someone throwing up their arms and saying, “This is just insane.” My response would be, “Yeah, I know. Isn’t it great?”

Yeoh is always wonderful, and here she is absolutely believable in an unbelievable role. Three of her colleagues are nominated for Oscars in supporting roles — Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis — and if it were up to me I’d declare a tie and give the two awards to the three of them. After last week’s Screen Actors Guild awards, Yeoh and the film itself are the front runners for Best Actress and Best Picture, and while admittedly I haven’t seen any of the other films and performances, I certainly would agree they would be worthy choices.

But you could tell everyone wasn’t thinking about winning awards when they made this picture; they were just having fun. And that is why you really have to see this film when you can. It’s just fun, and we need more of that these days.

W.B. at the Movies: The Batman

I really wanted to like The Batman with Robert Pattinson, and it probably would make a compelling two-hour movie. The problem is it’s three hours long. I actually ended up watching the last third or so fast-forwarding at 2x, at which speed the captions are still visible on our Blu-Ray player. 

Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz and Jeffrey Wright turn in nice performances as the three main protagonists, but the bad guys are pretty cardboard. 

This is blasphemy, but after all this time I think I just don’t find Batman that interesting anymore.

But if I’m honest, I have never found Batman all that interesting in the first place. “Gasp!” I know, right?

I was a Marvel Comics guy even before Marvel Comics remade itself as Marvel Comics. In the early years, late 1950s and early 1960s, we would mostly buy comics as a treat in our annual summer vacation to Vermont. I would read Superman, Batman and the Legion of Super Heroes dutifully, but what really caught my imagination was an off-brand comic called Strange Tales.

In the summer of 1963, we arrived in Vermont and I started looking for Strange Tales. Instead I found the fourth issue of something called The Amazing Spider-Man, produced by something called the Marvel Comics Group. It was only later that I realized Strange Tales was also a Marvel title.

When we got back to New Jersey, I was no longer content to buy comics only once a year. I found a store that had Spider-Man #5, and I was a biweekly to monthly visitor from those days forward.

This is a long way of saying I never was much of a DC Comics fan in the first place. It was Marvel that made me a comic book fan, and it was the DC fare that felt Marvel-ish that attracted my attention — heroes like Metamorpho and Metal Men and Deadman, and of course Jack Kirby’s Fourth World titles.

So you should take it with a grain of salt when I say The Batman is overlong and dark and tedious, because while I appreciate the Batman and Dark Knight stories from an artistic point of view, they rarely have sparked emotion from me. I admire the best of Batman, but I don’t love it.

I love that movie, but why?

Alien beings visit Earth with an urgent message, but they don’t know how to say the message in a language we would understand, and we can’t understand their language. We must communicate with them before those among us who would destroy what they don’t understand gain the upper hand. The film Arrival is a story about communication and connection and common bonds.

It moved me more than any other film since E.T. The Extraterrestrial 40 years earlier — why, I wonder? A more objective viewer might agree that it’s a fine story and well told, but why did I place it on the shelf of my five favorite films and my favorite among those I have seen since we crossed the imaginary timeline into the 21st century?

What makes one story more moving than the others?

Several answers suggested themselves as I stared down that question. The twist when we realize the nature of “this child” who haunts the doctor’s thoughts. The exploration of how we connect and communicate. I do love a good story about the nature of time. Could it be something as I like Amy Adams — but then, why this Amy Adams movie as opposed to the others? The others in my Big 5 — It’s a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca and E.T. — explore alternate realities, the “what might have been.” There is a fine love in George and Mary, Rick and Ilsa, Eliot and E.T., an intriguing love growing in Arrival, and of course Dorothy loves her traveling companions in her innocent way. Love, then, needs to drive the story in some way.

But how did these five films reach so deep into my heart/soul? Timing has something to do with it: I first saw Wonderful Life on a night when I felt nearly as despairing as George Bailey. I first saw Casablanca with a large audience also seeing it for the first time, and the shared burst of emotion at “Round up the usual suspects” is part of why I love the film.

I could decide the “why” isn’t important — just say, “I don’t know why, I just love these stories” — but if I knew the why, if I could dissect the reasons, maybe I could write my own stories that reach into hearts and souls. Or does that sort of clinical examination, analyzing structure and themes and all, reduce the joy and surgically remove the heart of it all?

Maybe I am moved by the stories because they are so real in their alternate-reality way. I know I love Arrival because it genuinely surprised me — that moment when it became suddenly obvious that this was not just a story about communicating with aliens, it’s about the choices we make at the risk of our hearts.

What a miracle that we have these ways to connect and communicate across the generations and across the miles. It becomes a sort of shorthand, not unlike “Love me, love my dog.” Our reaction to these stories tells us about each other. If we love the same books or films or music, that love becomes a starting point. This may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

W.B. at the movies: Well-meaning aliens

© Zrfphoto | Dreamstime.com

My favorite of the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies is easily First Contact.

In the Trek mythology, the Vulcans discovered Earth on the day Zefram Cochrane performed a successful warp drive experiment. A passing Vulcan craft detected the warp drive signature — a sign of an advanced, star-faring civilization — and went over to Earth to introduce themselves.

In the film, the overly aggressive Borg collective travels back in time to stop Cochrane from making that first flight. The Enterprise chases them back in time to make sure the Borg fails, and the closing scene shows Cochrane and the Vulcans meeting each other.

I’m a sucker for these first-contact movies that revolve around humans and aliens interacting with essentially peaceful motivations.

I’m sure there are earlier examples, but I’d start with the original version of The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), where Klaatu and his robot Gort attempt to present Earth with a device that would enable us to study life on other planets, until a trigger-happy government employee pumps a round into him. Klaatu ends up becoming a world cop, leaving Gort behind to prevent further bloodshed, so it’s not exactly a happy ending. More satisfying endings happen in:

It Came From Outer Space (1953), in which aliens crash-land and do some body snatching, but only so they can fix their boat. Otherwise they have come in peace. 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and its more literal sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, in which we never really meet the aliens but their mission is clearly to help us evolve to the next, more noble, stage.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), in which, when we finally meet the mysterious aliens, our hero joyously rides off with them in an apparent mission to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), in which an alien botanist gets stranded on Earth and befriends a little boy. This sweet story is one of my all-time favorite films and, tangentially, the John Williams soundtrack is that fine composer’s finest hour, er, two hours.

Contact (1997), which I wrote about the other day, a cross between the secretive aliens of 2001 and the Close Encounters aliens who invite us humans along for the intergalactic ride, albeit using small moves, Ellie.

And finally, Arrival (2016), a magnificent film and my favorite of the 21st century so far, in which a dedicated linguistics professor races to translate the language and culture of visiting aliens before we paranoid humans can blow them (and ourselves) up. Once again, their goal is meaningful communication but some of us can’t get over our fears.

What these movies have in common is the notion that aliens among us generally have nonviolent and benevolent intent, and our fears and prejudices make us act in unwelcome ways that hinder the process at best and make us the true villains of the story at worst.

I would suggest these stories intend to encourage us to be willing to embrace the strange and the unknown and find a common understanding to move forward together. That’s why I regard these movies with more fondness than, say, War of the Worlds (1953) or Independence Day (1996), which are tremendous stories in their own right but present the aliens as would-be conquerors. I think the films I’ve listed here have a healthier outlook.


Lists pros and cons

I had an interesting exchange Friday after I posted yesterday’s post (“Joni’s foreground music”) to Facebook. 

One of my closest we-should-be-friend-friends-not-just-Facebook-friends friends, Sam Kujava, responded, “I would say she is my favorite female musician but that is considered sexist now, right?” And added, “I cried happy and sad tears watching her perform here,” talking about the “Joni Jam” at Newport Folk Festival on Sunday.

On the subject of “female musicians,” I said, “I’d been thinking whether Bob Dylan was still our greatest songwriter or if Springsteen had passed him, and then I thought of Joni and thought, ‘Wait just a minute …’”

Then Sam said it all: “They’re all up there near the top spot. Maybe we shouldn’t focus on ‘top spot’ and just enjoy them all.”

I am a sucker for lists. In my digging around after the Joni Jam, I dove into Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Albums of All Time” (Blue was No. 3), and I’m always wanting to rank stuff like that. But Sam’s right: Maybe we should just enjoy them all. Why try to parse whether “Jungleland” or “River” is the more moving song when they both strike the soul to the core? It’s a fun little exercise, but the bottom line is that both songs tell us something unique about what it means to be human.

I locked in my favorite four movies of all time years ago, and the only change in decades has been what’s No. 5 — It’s a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and E.T. — but do I really choke up marginally more at “ZuZu’s petals — THERE THEY ARE!” than at “There’s no place like home”? Does “You always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself” really move me slightly more than that last “Here’s looking at you, kid”? Does “Louis, I think this could be the start of a beautiful friendship” really leave me speechless a tad more than E.T. telling Elliot, “I’ll be right here”?

Maybe I shouldn’t focus on “top spot” and just enjoy them all.

As I type this, I’m listening to “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey,” from Joni Mitchell’s album Mingus, which I thought I had never enjoyed but now I wonder if I ever bothered to listen to it. She is certainly one of our most adventurous songwriters. She could have been content to produce lovely songs like “Both Sides Now” and “The Circle Game” but instead she went out on a limb and explored “The Jungle Line” and “Shadows and Light,” and I dare say that’s why she is immortal.

We are blessed to have multiple works of art that take our breath away, that touch us in ways that random words and melodies can’t. “Best ever” is a totally subjective statement, and if we’re honest, it changes from moment to moment. 

And here I am, days later, still thinking about that priceless hour at Newport where love of Joni Mitchell focused like a laser in thousands of hearts. Wherever if lands on some list, that experience goes on the “Best Ever” pile.

P.S. What was I thinking? Mingus is amazing!

W.B. at the Movies: Dr. Strange 2

We watched Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness on Saturday night, and I appreciated it for what it was. How do you go wrong, really, with a cast along the lines of Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Rachel MacAdams and newcomer Xochitl Gomez?

I have resigned myself to the fact that the Stephen Strange of my youth has left the building. “My” Dr. Strange would be more likely to shout “By the hoary hosts of Hogarth!” when alarmed, as opposed to “S#!+!” and he had no sense of humor, so some of this character’s wisecracks feel like something out of Tony Stark’s mouth in an Iron Man movie.

Be that as it may, this latest Marvel movie is entertaining — although I’m not sure I would take children to see it, as some of the scarier imagery made Red blanch — and a couple of new characters made my comic-book geek soul soar, played by John Krasinski and Charlize Theron (to keep spoilers at bay). 

You need to be at least familiar with the Disney+ series WandaVision to fully understand the plot, which extends the TV show’s exploration of how grief affects a superhero’s psyche. I do hope the denouement of this film brings that episode to a close so that, if Elizabeth Olsen reprises the role, we can go back to seeing her as the powerful force for good that she has been in the past. (Her seething delivery of the line, “You took everything from me,” remains one of my bone-chilling favorite moments of Avengers: Endgame.)

Oh, and that one-eyed monster in the movie’s opening scenes was so spot-on Ditkoesque that I’m pretty sure that delighted childish squeal I heard came from me.

You didn’t get a second opinion for something called a ‘brain cloud’?

Brain Cloud © CristinaConti | Dreamstime.com

I saw an ad for a supplement designed to fight brain cloud. Wait, what?

I first heard the phrase “brain cloud” in John Patrick Shanley’s eccentric follow-up to Moonstruck. In Joe Vs. The Volcano, brain cloud is a ridiculous, made-up medical condition used to bamboozle Tom Hanks’ character into believing he has only months to live.

“You’d think they’d come up with something better than ‘brain cloud,’” Meg Ryan’s character laughs. And yet, now, 30 years later, you can buy a supplement — and probably pharmaceuticals — to combat brain cloud. What a world.

Big Pharma spends billions every year inventing diseases and peddling medicines for them. And why not? They collect billions more in sales. Yes, legitimately helpful medications have also been developed, but you need to take every new drug commercial with the proverbial carload of salt — especially the ones where the list of side effects and warnings comprises 42 seconds of the 60-second spot.

Brain cloud. Good grief.