Everything Everywhere All At Once
Directors: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schreinert
USA

From directing duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schreinert comes a fresh take on the multiverse concept. Anchored by a strong cast of veterans (Michelle Yeoh, James Hong, Jamie Lee Curtis), emerging talent (Stephanie Hsu) and reemerging talent (Ke Huy Quan, back onscreen after two decades behind the camera), Everything Everywhere All At Once asks some of life’s big questions and finds answers in surprising, delightful ways.

Known collectively as Daniels (plural, no article), the directors have been collaborating since they met in college, progressing from award-winning, viral music videos to their feature debut Swiss Army Man (2016), best known for Daniel Radcliffe’s turn as a farting corpse. Juxtaposed with the latter, Everything Everywhere is not only not that weird, but it actually kind of makes sense. (Although, with that said, humans have evolved to have hot dogs as fingers in one of the film’s universes).

The premise of Daniels’ multiverse is that every single decision, no matter how big or small, leads to a branching of one’s life story, and so each individual has an almost infinite amount of potential selves across different universes. At the center of this complex web of possibility is the Wang family: Evelyn (Yeoh), Waymond (Quan), daughter Eleanor (Hsu) and patriarch Gong Gong (Hong). Whereas the Evelyn and Waymond in the present world lead a humdrum life revolving around a dead marriage, a failing family business under audit, and clashes with their daughter, another version of the couple develops the technology to transfer a person’s consciousness from one iteration to another across universes. Each world should exist separately from the rest, but this advancement leads to complications that reverberate across the entire multiverse.

If an integral part of the human experience is constantly wondering, “What if,” then Everything Everywhere is the equivalent of strapping a rocket to that question and launching it into space. Like Swiss Army Man, the film examines universal questions about life, love and the meaning of existence through the same funhouse mirror of absurdity. Only Daniels could make a movie with the playful wackiness of Michel Gondry, the sentimentality of Steven Spielberg and the frenetic energy of Michael Bay at his best. During a Q&A session following the world premiere at SXSW, the pair joked that Everything Everywhere was an excuse to use rejected concepts from their music video days.

Yeoh and Quan are perfect foils as the bitter tiger mom and her submissive husband, two childhood sweethearts trying to find their way back toward the way they used to be when they were young and optimistic since their lives didn’t take off in the way they’d hoped after running away to America together. (Reaching one’s potential is another recurring theme). Even while cycling through universes, the film provides commentary on generational trauma through the many ways that Evelyn’s relationships with her father and her daughter play out in different worlds, like a spinning color wheel of expectation, rejection, approval, supplication and reconciliation. Hsu shines in what is arguably the most complex role, and Curtis is brilliant as an IRS official who just can’t give the Wongs a break.

Simultaneously heartfelt, absurd and hilarious, Everything Everywhere is the sort of film that practically demands an immediate re-watch to catch all the nuance in the narrative and visuals. Daniels have been cultivating their creative team and production crew over the years, and the film showcases their strengths. One can only imagine how many other strange universes were left on the cutting room floor.

Everything Everywhere will be in theaters starting March 25, 2022.

The Prank
Director: Maureen Bharoocha
USA

Director Maureen Bharoocha returned to SXSW with her second feature, The Prank, after her debut became one of many films that didn’t make it to screen at the canceled 2020 edition of the festival. Starring Rita Moreno as a sadistic high school physics teacher whose methods threaten to break students (both figuratively and literally), the film is a muddle of genres that never quite finds its voice.

Ben (Connor Kalopsis) and Tanner (Ramona Young) are best friends and polar opposites. Whereas the former is Type A and academically driven, the latter is a slacker who prefers hacking and gaming over homework. Aside from attending the same school, the only thing the pair seems to have in common is their quirky hiphop side project, Frock Swap. Desperate to earn a prestigious scholarship, Ben becomes desperate when his AP physics maven Mrs. Wheeler (Moreno) threatens to fail the class because someone cheated on the midterm exam. Tanner’s misguided attempt to help her friend involves a hacking gambit to frame Wheeler for a crime that quickly spirals beyond anyone’s control.

The stilted dialogue, penned by co-writers Rebecca Flynn-White and Zak White, is not realistic enough to pass muster to millennials, let alone the generation the story is meant to represent. The characters come across as more caricature than individuals with agency and depth.  Despite Moreno’s strong screen presence, her talents feel wasted, which is a shame considering her recent career resurgence and her enthusiastic pre-recorded introduction that played before the screening. Perhaps she hadn’t yet seen the final cut.

Kalopsis and Young don’t quite vibe in the way necessary for a successful buddy movie, and the film is neither clever enough (see: Booksmart) nor quite hare-brained enough (see: 21 Jump Street) to leave a lasting impression. The supporting characters are far more entertaining (Nathan Janak as the ever-live streaming school gossip, Keith David as the principal with an inferiority complex, and Kate Flannery as the grumpy lunch lady) though they have precious little screen time.

Bharoocha, known for directing segments for Jimmy Kimmel Live! prior to transitioning to features, has undeniable visual storytelling skills, able to convey multitudes in just a few seconds of bold imagery. The opening montage, set to music by Deron Johnson, establishes the contradictory natures of the two young protagonists, yet for the next ninety minutes The Prank struggles to move past the superficial. Working with director of photography Mathew Rudenberg, The Prank achieves a number of stunning shots reminiscent of Old Hollywood film noir.

At its core, the film seems to suffer from an identity crisis rather than a lack of heart, trying to accomplish too much like Kalopsis’ character and failing to hit the right notes in any genre. Is it dark comedy or satire? Mystery thriller or coming-of-age? Horror or buddy film? Hopefully Bharoocha’s next project will have a script on par with her capabilities.

Soft & Quiet
Director: Beth de Araújo
USA

Writer and director Beth de Araújo’s feature-length debut Soft & Quiet is the consummate social thriller for a post-Trump society. Taking place over the course of a single afternoon, the film traces how a chance encounter between a group of white women and two Asian sisters escalates into the worst case scenario.

Soft & Quiet opens with kindergarten teacher Emily (Stefanie Estes) taking a pregnancy test in the bathroom of her school, her visceral reaction without indicating what the desired result is sets the tone for how the film will continue to keep the audience guessing. Once the last student leaves she makes her way to a meeting clutching a foil-wrapped dish. Upstairs at the local church she greets a handful of other white women, removes the foil and delivers the first gut-punch: a pie with a swastika cut neatly into the top crust revealing the red, fruity filling within. Behind Emily, a whiteboard reveals the true nature of the gathering: Daughters for Aryan Unity.

The group decides to relocate to Emily’s home, stopping first at fellow member Kim’s (Dana Millican) store for provisions. Enter Anne (Melissa Paulo) and Lily (Cissy Ly), whose accusations against Emily’s brother are the reason he is in jail. Confrontation ensues, and after the sisters leave the store the group decides that they must be taught a lesson, because how dare these women of color disrespect them that way? Without giving too much away, what follows is a taut drama as unsettling as it is thrilling, and a feat of technical and creative storytelling.

Araújo, who is Chinese-American and Brazilian, introduced her film at SXSW as a “cautionary tale.” She conceived the story and shot the film during the pandemic, inspired in no small part by the infamous Amy Cooper (Central Park birdwatching) incident. Current events at the time coupled with the filmmaker’s own experience led her to delve into the world of female white supremacists, which to her felt like a rebranding of the men in white robes of the previous century. But touchy subject matter was not Soft & Quiet’s only hurdle.

Inspired by war movies and their gritty, on-the-ground handheld aesthetic, Araújo was adamant that the film be shot in the style of “moving theater,” which is to say in a single continuous take.  (For reference, the film is 90 minutes long and has multiple locations). Cinematographer Greta Zozula spent several months before shooting to physically train to be able to hold the camera for that long, and to design a custom rig that would provide enough battery power. The result is captivating, attracting even the attention of Blumhouse Productions, a company specializing in the horror genre with hits including Get Out. In fact, it’s perhaps because of films like Get Out that Soft & Quiet exists. The two are similar in their shock value, yet the latter is grounded in reality and therefore more disturbing, especially in light of the recent spate of attacks against Asian women in America.

Araújo gives her film the most punch by not tying it to a specific location. It would have been all too easy for the white actors to put on easily identifiable regional accents, but in their absence Soft & Quiet feels like it could take place not just anywhere but everywhere. And with the camera so tight on the characters’ faces, it’s likewise impossible to distinguish any geographic landmarks. The biggest threat to a POC, the film suggests, is not the cops but rather the people you see every day in your community. And yet, Araújo abstains from vilifying Emily and her friends. No one character is wholly guilty or innocent, in a way that’s refreshingly humanizing for a film about race and sure to spark much-needed discussion.

Really Good Rejects
Director: Alice Gu
USA

Cinematographer Alice Gu makes her third foray into directing with Really Good Rejects, which debuted in SXSW’s musical documentary sidebar. Centering on Reuben Cox, an unconventional luthier based in Los Angeles, the film is a playful, lighthearted antidote for the serious fare that dominated the festival’s lineup this year.

Originally a photographer by trade, Cox began making guitars as a hobby while teaching art in upstate New York. Over a decade ago his family relocated to the West Coast, where he signed a lease on the space that would become his atelier and the Old Style Guitar Shop in Silver Lake. As a self-taught luthier who first learned from watching YouTube videos and then through experimentation, perhaps his lack of formal training is the key to giving his instruments that je ne sais quoi. Throughout the film, musicians who are proud to use Cox creations struggle to articulate what precisely makes them so special. Is it the wood he uses? The way he wraps the bridge in rubber to alter the sound? The f-hole he sometimes cuts into electric guitars?

Cox claims that he lacks any musical talent, which is hard to believe considering the caliber of instruments that he creates. All of his guitars are unique, both aesthetically and acoustically, as a result of his preference to use salvaged and reclaimed wood from surprising sources. Each piece is more akin to a painting or a sculpture than an instrument. Cox has made guitars out of a vintage mahogany headboard, and even a side table that his wife, music executive Miwa Okumura, had intended to use to decorate their home. (Her connections within the industry are briefly mentioned, and no doubt helped get Cox’s guitars into more hands). He also refurbishes old guitars, breathing new life and sound into them – sometimes by putting together pieces from different eras. Whether made from scratch by Cox or Frankensteined together from vintage instruments, each guitar comes with a story. No two are the same.

Really Good Rejects features rock artists including Jackson Browne, Aaron Dressner of The National, Carrie Brownstein and Phoebe Bridgers. All of them, like Cox, speak about the instruments as though they’re animate; collaborators in making music rather than mere tools. The guitar is like a conduit that channels the emotion and imagery from the artist. Gu attempts to get to the source of the inspiration, getting the musicians to open up about their backgrounds and how they connected to music at an early age. Some people, it seems, are just born with it. But despite having a famous clientele, Old Style Guitar Shop remains accessible to all. For all the custom projects he takes on, Cox prefers to think of himself as a tradesman making goods for the proletariat. Indeed, the shop has hosted artists for free pop-up shows when their regular tour venues were sold out.

Gu’s film is an ode to the transcendent quality of music, why we need it and what it means to the people who create it. Cox is not just a craftsman but an artist in his own right, bucking tradition in favor of what feels right to him, no matter how unusual. Although lay people will find his story interesting, Really Good Rejects is really for the creatives and the indie rock nerds of the world.

Watcher
Dir. Chloe Okuno
Poland

With an elegantly simple plot and a standout performance by Maika Monroe, Watcher keeps viewers on the edge of their seats until the final shot. As a masterclass in building and maintaining tension and suspense, it’s hard to believe that the film marks Asian-American director Chloe Okuno’s first full-length feature.

Julia (Monroe) and Francis (Karl Glusman) are a young married couple who relocate from New York to Bucharest after he gets a promotion. The company puts them up in a tastefully bland furnished apartment with vast windows, through which Julia becomes convinced that a resident in the building across the street is watching them. While her husband works, Julia spends her days exploring the city and attempting to learn the local language through an app. (Francis is fluent, but rarely around to translate for her). When the latest victim of a serial killer is discovered near their apartment, Julia believes that there’s a link to the mysterious figure she sees in the window.

Although Zachary Ford’s script was originally set in New York, transplanting the story abroad worked in the film’s favor in terms of emphasizing Julia’s sense of loneliness and isolation. Already feeling aimless (over dinner with Francis’ colleagues Julia hints at a failed acting career and states that she’s “reevaluating”), the language barrier is almost a physical obstacle. The lack of subtitles forces the audience further into the protagonist’s emotional state, sharing in her confusion and frustration in not being able to communicate. Not being able to connect with anyone besides her husband makes her feel vulnerable and powerless, and being the “tag-along” spouse doesn’t seem to suit Julia either.

As a woman watching the film, Watcher reverberates with darker undertones that speak to the female experience. For example, Julia’s mounting paranoia that she is being followed feels all too familiar as does the fear that forces her to keep looking back over her shoulder. We see shades of gaslighting, too, when the other characters — and particularly the men — in Julia’s life don’t believe her despite her convictions and even evidence. Francis, her own husband, fails to be the ally that she needs. Left to her own devices, Julia becomes determined to find answers, a quest that only puts her at more risk. Monroe, in the lead role, conveys all of this and more with aplomb and just enough restraint.

Watcher derives obvious inspiration from classics like Rear Window and Rosemary’s Baby, yet feels fresh rather than derivative. The fishbowl effect of the apartment’s big windows lit up at night is terrifying when Julia realizes that if she can see the man across the street, he can see her as well. Women are accustomed to being subjected to the male gaze, but it feels especially violating when it occurs in the safe space of the home. Okuno also worked on the script with Ford, zeroing in on Julia’s character and minimizing Francis’ role and, as a result, creating a snapshot of the female psyche when faced with trauma. Relying on legitimate threats that can speak to the audience’s experience instead of the abstract or the supernatural makes the film that much more impactful. In fact, certain scenes were like seeing my own fears projected onto the screen.

While it’s clear that the plot will have twists, watching the film is like navigating a maze in the dark. Sure, there are turns up ahead, but the direction that it goes in is always a surprise. With a solid psychological thriller like Watcher under her belt, there’s no telling what Okuno might do next.

Bad Axe
Director: David Siev
USA

Director David Siev’s feature-length documentary debut, Bad Axe, captures the zeitgeist of social and political unrest spurred by the pandemic through the eyes of his family in the small town of Bad Axe, Michigan. Filmed over the course of months beginning in March 2020, the documentary offers a complex portrait of the immigrant experience and what it means to be an American.

Along with his siblings, the director returns to his eponymous hometown at the outset of the pandemic to help their parents keep the family restaurant afloat. Due to public health mandates, these months prove to be less of a struggle than a battle for survival, though for this family that instinct and the drive to persevere is deeply ingrained.

Patriarch Chun Siev came to the U.S. as a Cambodian refugee escaping Pol Pot’s regime in the 1970s (a journey more fully explored in the younger Siev’s 2018 short film Year Zero). The former settled in Michigan, where he met his Mexican-American wife, Rachel, and started a family and fledgling restaurant business. The director’s older sister, Jaclyn, recalls how hard it was to make ends meet with the first venture, a donut shop, and that for years the family of seven shared a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. It wasn’t until re-conceptualizing as a family restaurant that the business began to thrive.

Parallel to the family’s economic woes is the specter of social justice. Throughout the pandemic the Siev family regularly communes to watch the nightly news, and the murder of George Floyd and rise of the Black Lives Matter movement strike a chord, particularly with the adult children who feel they cannot remain silent. Aligning with BLM in a place like Bad Axe, which is predominantly white, conservative and pro-Trump, does not go unnoticed, and the consequences are severe. As the Siev children find their voice, with their parents’ blessing, it becomes clear just how much the far right hates having a mirror held up to them.

While COVID-19 isn’t as scary now as it was two years ago, the film captures the fear and uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic in visceral ways, like Jaclyn beseeching her aging parents to stay home while she and her siblings run the restaurant, or Chun confessing that he was less afraid of the Killing Fields than he is of catching the virus. The director’s intimate portrayal of his family dynamic is like unraveling a complex knot in which two of the central threads are filial piety and generational trauma.

When various family members ask the director why he’s filming all of this, he says that it’s his love letter to Bad Axe. While at that particular moment it sounds slightly implausible, when taken in the full context of the film, the family’s connection to the town makes more sense. Just as in a personal relationship, one must take the good with the bad, for better and for worse. Many attest that Bad Axe is a great place to raise a family but, as Siev’s brother-in-law says, “If you grew up here, you couldn’t wait to get out.” And yet, it seems to exert a gravitational pull.

Some of the most powerful documentaries are the product of happenstance, and Bad Axe is no exception. What the Siev family goes through during the pandemic feels almost like fate dealing out a bad hand, one card after another, yet ultimately their narrative is a universal one of resilience. By the end of the film their triumphs feel like the audience’s, as do their losses.

Crows Are White
Ahsen Nadeem
USA

The documentary Crows Are White is the culmination of director Ahsen Nadeem’s years-long, trans-national quest for self-discovery and enlightenment. Although messy at times, the documentary provides a fascinating look at a secluded Buddhist sect while suggesting that truth and meaning can be found without resorting to asceticism.

Northeast of Kyoto stands Mt Hiei, home to the Tendai school of Buddhism founded in the 9th century. For Nadeem, a wayward Muslim feeling increasingly torn between the life he wants to lead and the life his devout parents expect of him, the cloistered monastery and temples seem to shimmer with the promise of wisdom and answers. Once granted permission to film, he follows Kamahori, a monk attempting to reach the highest ranks of the sect by putting himself through its most arduous trial, kaihyogo, which entails walking for 1,000 days over the course of seven years up, down and around the mountain to shrines and sacred places. Fail to complete the task, and the monk must commit suicide. (Tendai seem to be known for extreme ascetic practices that push their minds and bodies to the absolute limit).

Kamahori’s devotion and faith lead the director to believe, naively perhaps, that the monk can provide answers to help him out of his quandary, but he blows his chance when his phone rings during a ritual never before seen by outsiders. Moments like these make it difficult to sympathize with the director, but the more he reveals about the role that religion played in his upbringing, the more his issues as an adult make sense. Nadeem may be too traumatized by his experience with Islam to return to it, but observing the Tendai’s regimented way of life reminds him of the rituals he grew up with.

With Kamahori out of reach, Nadeem forms a pivotal friendship with Ryushin, a young, low-ranking monk who, at the time of their first meeting, is in charge of answering phones and inscribing calligraphy at the temple visitor center. The two bond over feeling like outsiders – both to their families and at the monastery. Ryushin drinks sake on occasion, loves listening to heavy metal on vinyl and frequents Kyoto’s ice cream shops to satisfy his sweet tooth – all behaviors at odds with the school’s core tenet to quell desire.

The documentary’s meandering story conveys the filmmaker’s inner restlessness and sense of feeling adrift, but his perpetual yearning for easy solutions to complex problems is oftentimes more frustrating than compelling to watch. Or perhaps it’s that the audience recognizes before the subject does that running away to the mountains is an evasive tactic; that he knows all along what he must inevitably do but needs courage rather than answers. Nadeem and Ryushin’s stories ultimately mirror each other, in that their personal journeys hinge upon being able to tap into their inner strength, as Kamahori did to reach the ultimate enlightenment.

Crows Are White is at its most interesting when the camera focuses on the monks and their way of life. Nadeem’s journey is occasionally moving but more often than not feels navel-gazing. The line between creator and content becomes so blurred that it’s impossible to distinguish whether the goal is to reconcile his faith and identity or to finish the film, or are they the same? His anguish and despair at the prospect of not getting a proper ending are tangible, but serve as a reminder that as much as religion can provide a framework to help make sense of the world, sometimes the individual must cut loose and take a leap of faith.

Omoiyari: A Song Film by Kishi Bashi
Kaoru Ishibashi and Justin Taylor Smith
USA

Omoiyari documents the personal and creative journey of the musical jack-of-all-trades Kishi Bashi, née Kaoru Ishibashi, as he explores the treatment of Japanese in America during World War II while reconciling his identity as an Asian American in today’s sociopolitical climate. Co-directed with Justin Taylor Smith, the film offers a unique perspective on the bi-cultural experience and the process of making art on the artist’s own terms.

Born to two post-war Japanese immigrants, Ishibashi was raised in Norfolk, Virginia and introduced to music at an early age. Violin is his primary instrument, though he also composes on piano and guitar, and sings, touring with a band under the stage name Kishi Bashi. Growing up in a predominantly white community, the artist recalls embracing whiteness in order to assimilate and quash insecurities resulting from feeling other. Years later, as an adult during the Trump administration, Ishibashi feels compelled to act in response to the rise in anti-Asian sentiment and the eerie parallels between ICE detention centers and Japanese incarceration camps the only way he knows how: through music.

Ishibashi works with a fervor that many creatives can only dream of, recording snippets of melodies and lyrics on his smartphone that blossom into arrangements and concertos. To better inform his music, he hits the road to visit the ruins of the camps that once held thousands of Japanese Americans, and speaks to survivors. Tracing this part of history stirs up some unexpected feelings, since his parents came to the United States in the 1970s, and therefore he does not have the direct connection to the camps that others of Japanese descent do.

The film makes effective use of archival footage without feeling didactic. In fact, as someone who has grown up very aware of this era (I am the granddaughter of two internees and the daughter of a social justice activist heavily involved with the Japanese American Citizens League and Tule Lake Pilgrimage), some of the clips and photographs used were new to me. Omoiyari is especially poignant, though, when Ishibashi visits the former camps.

When learning about these bleak moments in history, nothing can compare to being physically present at the site of such trauma and tragedy, whether it’s Heart Mountain, Wyoming or Auschwitz or the killing fields of Cambodia. It’s nearly impossible for the mind to fathom such cruelty, so Ishibashi tries to convey through music what words cannot. It’s chilling to hear and see him playing the violin in the middle of an overgrown field with Heart Mountain rising in the background, evoking the sense of isolation and abandonment that the internees must have felt.

In an interview with the New York Times last year, actor Steven Yeun said, “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.” There’s a stickiness inherent to the Asian-American identity that Ishibashi explores in the film. No matter which generation one is, there’s a feeling of not quite belonging to one culture or the other; of existing in-between and being overlooked.

The title of the film reflects the Japanese concept, omoiyari, of putting oneself in another’s shoes and acting upon it, like a form of radical empathy. Perhaps this is essential to the path forward – to healing the fissures in society and to posterity. Through art the atrocities of the past can be remembered in constructive and informative ways, transcending grainy footage and faded photographs.

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