The Second Best Multiverse Movie I Saw Recently

“Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.”

― Werner Heisenberg, Across the Frontiers

The Dallas Eye, Dallas, Texas

I had a lot of work to get done today, even though it was Saturday, and i completed most of it – or as much of it as I could… so I took a break and watched a Marvel Movie streaming on my TV.

It was the second best movie set in a Multiverse I’ve seen recently. It wasn’t too bad, a bit of gaudy entertainment… but it wasn’t Everything, Everywhere, All At Once – not by a long shot.

As a matter of fact… if it was the second best…. It was also the worst movie set in a Multiverse I’ve seen lately.

The Hole

“The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs. This was March, but the weather had been horribly cold and everywhere there were mounds of blackened snow. As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her—her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her—understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”

― George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

The Hole

I’ve been getting up early every day, even on the weekends, to go on a bike ride at dawn – to beat the heat. On weekends, that means I have my daily exercise out of the way by 8 AM. Which is weird for me, because it leaves so much of the rest of the day free.

So I had some of that most precious of possessions – a little bit of free time – and decided to pick a movie from The Criterion Channel to watch. After a bit of bouncing around I found a selection from Taiwan, The Hole. Directed by Tsai Ming-liang, Starring Yang Kuei-Mei and Lee Kang-sheng. It was blurbbed as: Set just prior to the start of the twenty-first century, this apocalyptic tale of pandemic alienation follows two residents of a crumbling Taipei building who refuse to leave their homes despite a virus that has forced the evacuation of the area. As rain pours down relentlessly, a single man (Lee Kang-sheng) is stuck with an unfinished plumbing job and a hole in his floor. This results in a very odd relationship with the woman (Yang Kuei-mei) who lives below him. Combining deadpan humor with an austere view of loneliness and surreal musical numbers, Tsai Ming-liang crafted one of the most haunting and original films of the 1990s.

The film seemed so much to be about the Coronavirus…  a viral pandemic of unknown origin, a Chinese apartment building locked down, mysterious men spraying disinfectant, empty stores, coughing and then death…. It was hard to believe the movie was made almost a quarter-century ago – long before Covid.

The biggest difference is that this virus was spread by cockroaches and, after an initial flu-like stage, caused the victims to crawl around afraid of the light, like a roach. Pretty horrible.

The movie is slow and follows a man in an apartment – he has a food store nearby but no customers during the pandemic – and the woman in the apartment below him. The pipes are leaking and a plumber beats a hole in the floor of the man’s place which opens up in the ceiling of the woman’s. The two are then set at odds over the hole, the plumbing, and trying to get on with their lives. In addition to the disease it never stops raining, which adds an extra layer of depression to the tableau. The woman’s place is always wet – from the rain and the leaking sewer above – and she tries to get by with cases of paper towels as her wallpaper peels off all around her. This drab and depressing world is punctuated by colorful musical numbers lip-synced to old Grace Chen showtunes. No – this makes no sense… none at all.

The surprising thing is that all this depression and hopelessness actually has an upbeat… almost romantic ending. I’m not sure if what we see actually happens or is just another fantasy – but it is nice to watch, nice to think about.

Everything Everywhere All at Once

“Every Rejection, Every Disappointment Has Led You Here To This Moment”

— Alpha Waymond, Everything Everywhere All at Once

My bicycle locked up in front of The Alamo Drafthouse theater in Richardson, Texas. They have the coolest bike racks.

Partly out of desire… but mostly out of necessity (we are down to one working car) I have been riding the five mile commute to my work on my bike every day. The mornings are OK – except I have to get up twenty minutes before dawn so I’m riding before it gets too hot – the rising sun slowly burning away the morning fog. The afternoon commute is already too hot, though – here in Texas it’s already in the mid to high nineties most days.

There was a movie I’ve been wanting to see – Everything Everywhere All at Once. It was showing at the Alamo Drafthouse here in Richardson at 6:15. My commute is five miles, it’s three or so miles to the theater, and four and a half home from there. Easy riding – except for the heavy rush hour traffic around downtown Richardson and coming off Highway 75. So I sneaked out of work a few minutes early and rode up to the Alamo.

It was hot and I was sweating like a stuck pig. A bit embarrassing, but I arrived a bit early so I bought a cold beer (Lakewood Temptress on tap) and sat in a dark booth in the back of the cool bar until the movie was announced… I was able to cool and dry off enough to at least be almost presentable.

The movie is getting a lot of hype —- and it deserves every bit of it… and more. It is not a perfect film – it is way too ambitious for that – and when the filmmakers have a chance to go for it… the do that and more.

I can’t really explain the plot. It’s the story of a middle aged Chinese woman named Evelyn (played by the incredibly talented Michelle Yeoh) and her immigrant family (with a very American lesbian daughter) that lives in a tiny apartment over their failing laundromat. They are straining with family drama and friction and are about to undergo an IRS audit. At that point Evelyn discovers that there is an infinite multiverse made up of all the different realities that each person has created with every decision they make. Not only that, but there is an evil creature named Jobu Tupaki that is jumping through the multiverse, destroying everything. Jobu makes Thanos look like a piker. Evelyn, this failing version of Evelyn, this worst of all possible Evelyns, is the only person that can stop this.

She is torn between saving all the universes and trying to complete her IRS audit. Things get strange after that.

This is not a sufficient explanation of the plot or an adequate description of what the movie feels like – those things are impossible. You have to see it to believe it.

Boiled down – it’s the eternal struggle between the googly eye and the everything bagel (really). You have to see it to understand.

Just see it.

I want to see it again. It is so complex, layered, with so many references and symbols – one viewing is not enough (maybe a hundred wouldn’t be enough). Plus, it is a movie with a heart – a giant beating, sometimes bloody heart. It’s really funny too.

Oh, see it in a theater. I can’t imagine watching it for the first time at home, alone.

It was dark when the movie was over, but I have good lights, the traffic had died down, and my ride home was uneventful (and maybe a little fun).

I slept like a stone – dreaming of people with hot dog fingers and sentient stones.

Daisies

“Am I tough? Am I strong? Am I hard-core? Absolutely.
Did I whimper with pathetic delight when I sank my teeth into my hot fried-chicken sandwich? You betcha.”
― James Patterson

Daisies

I watched another Czech New Wave movie on The Criterion Channel – “Daisies” – a very odd and unique film.

Two somewhat attractive young women decide that since the world is going to hell in a handbasket they will do whatever they want. A lot of what they want is to convince older men to take them out to expensive restaurants where they eat and drink wine to excess – then take the men to a train – pretend to go with him – then jump off and run home without.

The movie is surreal and jarring – there is a scene where the women cut up the very film stock with scissors – until it is reduced to a jerky collage of heads and body parts. There is no plot – only the two women messing around. There is one scene with one of the two covering her naked body with the display cases of a Lepidopterist who is passionately in love with her.

At the “climax” of the film (such as it is) the two ride a dumbwaiter up through a series of odd tableaux viewed through a tiny grimy window until they arrive at a giant hall set with a log table – chairs for twenty or so – and a sideboard groaning with food. They start out sampling here and there before graduating to gorging themselves and finally a full-blown food fight where they destroy the feast. Then they appear wrapped in twine and newsprint trying to clean up their mess as best as they can – in apparent penance for their chaotic destruction.

They finish – happy and satisfied – stretched out on the table amidst the broken crockery and stained cloth until….

But that would spoil the fun, wouldn’t it?

My Octopus Teacher

The problem when you’re a crab, you’re now being hunted by a liquid animal. She can pour herself through a tiny little crack.

—- Craig Foster, My Octopus Teacher

Untitled (Sprawling Octopus Man), by Thomas Houseago Nasher Sculpture Center Dallas, Texas

This morning I had to go into work before dawn to supervise a job. When I arrived on site I discovered everything had been delayed an hour and a half (a phone call came in while I was driving and I don’t answer calls in my car). So I had some time to kill.

I have Netflix on my relatively new personal phone and had downloaded a handful of films to watch offline. So I sat there waiting as the sun rose and watched the rest of the Oscar-Winning documentary My Octopus Teacher.

It was really, really good. The photography of the kelp forest was breathtaking. It’s hard to believe that a mollusk could be so captivating. The end of the film is bittersweet – I did not know anything about how an octopus reproduces….

It reminded me of a short, wonderful time in my youth – a middle school teenager living in Panama – on the Atlantic side of what was then the Canal Zone. A friend and I would take the bus out to Fort Sherman, hitchhike to Playa Diablillo and walk down the coast snorkeling and exploring the mangrove forests and coral reef – just like the guy in the movie.

One day we were walking along the exposed coral heads at low tide when something wet hit me in the side of the head. I turned and there was a large octopus mostly out of the water on the coral. He did not like us walking through his ‘hood and was squirting us with jets of water and ink out of his siphon. As we watched him he went through an amazing series of shape and color changes, trying to convince us to leave him alone (although we would never have noticed him – his first color and texture blended in with the coral – if he had not squirted us). We looked at him for a while, then granted his wish and left him alone.

If you are curious, it was right here. There is actually a streetview – this is exactly where I saw the octopus.

The film conveys spectacularly the freedom and the zen-like concentration of swimming with a snorkel in the cornucopia of life that is a coral reef or kelp forest. The ecosystem interacts like a single, enormous creature and when surrounded by that water, you become part of it.

I am so glad that I experienced that and am afraid I will never do so again.

Altered States

Emily’s quite content to go on with this life. She insists she’s in love with me – whatever that is. What she means is she prefers the senseless pain we inflict on each other to the pain we would otherwise inflict on ourselves. But I’m not afraid of that solitary pain. In fact, if I don’t strip myself of all this clatter and clutter and ridiculous ritual, I shall go out of my fucking mind. Does that answer your question, Arthur?

—–Eddie Jessup, Altered States

Transcendence, on the first night.

RIP William Hurt

I saw last night that the actor William Hurt had passed away. He exploded on the scene in the years right after I graduated from school – and I saw a lot of movies then.

Kiss of the Spider Woman was always special to me… and there was Body Heat, of course… The Big Chill, Gorky Park, Children of a Lesser God…. But for me, the film that I always remembered was Altered States.

A coincidence, I had it queued up; I’m not sure what it was but something made me think of it the other day. So I watched it tonight.

1980 was a different time – the movie is more than a little dated – but I think movies were better then. Altered States is flawed – but it is audacious (a Ken Russell directed visual weird-fest about primitive Mexican Hallucinogens combined with a sensory deprivation tank – what do you expect) and a lot of fun.

Re-watching it after all these years – I forgot how much of an entitled prick William Hurt’s character was. In becoming a beast – he becomes a human being. I also forgot how dead-solid sexy Blair Brown was.

Not a perfect movie – but a fun ride. A nice change from what we have now. I don’t think this could be made today – there is too much money and computer graphics for a film this gritty and strange.

And you have to love a horror film that inspired the end of A-Ha’s Take on Me.

Jojo Rabbit

“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”

― Rainer Maria Rilke

H.O.P. Rabbits, by David Iles

Just a couple days ago I watched a movie and wrote a blog entry about a Nazi WWII movie. It’s just a coincidence that I watched another one so soon – Jojo Rabbit was recommended by a website listing underrated, quirky movies. It was on the internet, so it has to be true.

Jojo Rabbit was made by Taika Waititi – who wisely chose to spend some of his Thor Ragnarok money on an odd film that would never have been financed otherwise.

It’s a comedy/drama about a young boy, an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth in the waning days of the second world war. The boy has trouble fitting in, so he develops an imaginary playmate – Adolph Hitler himself, played as a dim-witted goofball by Taika Waititi himself.

Here’s an early scene that sets the tone and moves the plot forward:

The movie has a real Wes Anderson feel to it – which is fun. There is a lot of star power here and a lot of talent behind the camera – which is fun.

Of course things take a dark turn. Even a friendly, goofy Gestapo is terribly deadly. The boy starts to part from his imaginary best friend (HItler) when he is inspired and confused by a discovery in his attic (no spoilers here – other reviews of this film have too many). There is tragedy and redemption….

And a pretty damn enjoyable underrated, quirky movie.

Conspiracy

“I once spoke to someone who had survived the genocide in Rwanda, and she said to me that there was now nobody left on the face of the earth, either friend or relative, who knew who she was. No one who remembered her girlhood and her early mischief and family lore; no sibling or boon companion who could tease her about that first romance; no lover or pal with whom to reminisce. All her birthdays, exam results, illnesses, friendships, kinships—gone. She went on living, but with a tabula rasa as her diary and calendar and notebook. I think of this every time I hear of the callow ambition to ‘make a new start’ or to be ‘born again’: Do those who talk this way truly wish for the slate to be wiped? Genocide means not just mass killing, to the level of extermination, but mass obliteration to the verge of extinction. You wish to have one more reflection on what it is to have been made the object of a ‘clean’ sweep? Try Vladimir Nabokov’s microcosmic miniature story ‘Signs and Symbols,’ which is about angst and misery in general but also succeeds in placing it in what might be termed a starkly individual perspective. The album of the distraught family contains a faded study of Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths—until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.”
― Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22: A Memoir

Sacrifice III, Lipchitz, Jacques, Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden

I am not sure what reminded me of the historical WWII movie (not a film, really, it was made for TV) Conspiracy – but I did a search and found it streaming on HBO Max. I had seen a good bit of the short (hour-and-a-half) work before. I had searched it out because I had seen a documentary on and was interested in the life and death of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich – a particular hideous man assassinated by a team sent by the Czech government in exile.

So I re-watched it and it was crackerjack. It is the story of the 1942 Wannsee conference, set at a posh estate outside of Berlin. A group of top Nazis meet and develop the monstrous plan to settle the “Jewish Question.” It is based on the only surviving transcript of the meeting and is an awful, yet illuminating record of the thoughts of the butchers involved.

What first struck me was the illustration of Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil. Despite the apocalyptic subject being discussed, the men are obsessed with jockeying for power, style, and the food being served. It is truly a slice of genocidal bureaucracy.

I watched it with the subtitles on so I could follow the exact language. The way the couched the subjects, the way they pounded on the table, the way they insisted what they were doing was not only legal, but the only moral imperative – was chilling. Absolute, pure evil was disguised and couched in the language of duty. Think about this the next time you watch a Zoom meeting where a disastrous or immoral conclusion is arrived at without anyone talking about what is really going on.

Oh, now I remember what reminded me of this movie…. The algorithm presented me with a YouTube video showing someone that had a tiny, bit part (a radio operator) in the film. I always enjoy spotting a future star with a background part in a film.

I guess it’s inevitable that Loki would be present at the conception of the Holocaust.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

“It is never too late to be wise.”
― Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

(click to enlarge) Mural, Deep Ellum Dallas, Texas

Let’s see, the movie came out in 1964… but I would have seen it on an Army base (which one? probably Fort Leavenworth) which are second-run theaters (back then, a movie cost a quarter) so I would have seen it a year or two later. I would have been eight or nine years old. And yet I remember it like it was yesterday.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars is streaming on the Criterion Channel and I had nothing better to do, apparently, than to waste a precious afternoon of perfect weather re-watching it… after all these decades.

Despite the bilious title, it isn’t a bad movie at all. Adam West has a small, pre-Batman, part (spoiler – he dies near the beginning). The special effects are economical but practical, the flying saucers cool looking (they look like the aliens from the original War of the Worlds– which was made a decade earlier).

Spaceship, Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Spaceships, War of the Worlds (1953)

Oh, no wonder. Here is the answer from IMDB:

The Martian spacecraft are leftovers from The War of the Worlds (1953). Director Byron Haskin was involved in both projects, although George Pal is often given sole credit for the earlier classic.

I remember thinking that they looked the same in 1966 or whenever. War of the Worlds was on TV and had made quite a splash we me and my diminutive friends. But there was no internet then and I couldn’t find out for sure.

Dune

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune


Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, Nick in 1996
Nick in 2001 (we need to go back and get a shot now)

I read Frank Herbert’s classic novel, Dune, in college, in Kansas, in the Dorm – maybe 1975 – about ten years after it was published. I liked it… though I can’t really say I understood it completely. I was reading a lot… I was young… I had a sense that there was a lot going on under the surface that I couldn’t really comprehend.

Then, in Dallas, in 1984, I went to the theater and saw the David Lynch film. I was a fan of Lynch (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man) at the time and actually liked the film a lot. There was so much hate for it at the time. It wasn’t flawless but it was a unique vision – and that is rare. The film actually helped me understand the world of Arrakis better and it inspired me to re-read the source. Dune is definitely a book that benefits from a second reading.

Then right after the turn of the millennium there were the two television mini-series which covered the first three books, somehow. Again, not the best, but a game attempt. I barely remember them, except that my kids – nine and ten years old – watched them and actually liked them better than I did.

And now, 2021, forty-six years after I read the novel, we have Denis Villeneuve and his film.

Again, I was (am) a huge fan of the director (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) and have been hyped up for the film for years – the Covid delay was tough to take. But patience is rewarded, sometimes.

I had big plans of going to the theater and seeing it on the big silver screen – but I have picked up a bad habit of hanging around the house during the pandemic – something I need to work on breaking – something I should have used the film as an aid to breaking – but I didn’t have anyone to go with… so I ended up closing off the living room, scooting the recliner close to the screen, turning up the sound system, and streaming the thing at home.

(don’t worry – no spoilers)

It was very good – as good as I expected, better than I feared (and fear is the mind-killer), worse than I hoped. The only criticism is a bit of slow pace the last quarter. The best part – visuals, sound, acting – all top notch.

The first Dune film was interesting because it was, at the heart, a David Lynch film – with all his personal demons leaking out of the screen. I didn’t realize how much an impression the Lynch Dune made on me, but I could feel echoes of the earlier work all over this one. It is, of course, only half the story, and there is plenty of story for two films (I almost wonder if it should have been a modern cable R-rated mini-series) and it definitely benefits from not having the rushed pace of the earlier one-film version.

The new Dune also shows the mark of its director. There is a unique visual vocabulary – it reminds me of Arrival (especially the shape and motion of the space ships) more than Dune 2049. Denis Villeneuve does have the chops to handle the visuals, the complex political science-fiction landscape, and even the larger-than-life personalities – a lot of balls to keep in the air, but he pulls it off.

Now, how long do I have to wait for the next one? I will definitely go see that one in a theater (if such a thing still exists).

“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune