With another Academy Awards looming, I’m taking the opportunity to look at the two remaining candidates for Best Picture. Both have form. The first, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, leads the pack in 2023 with 11 nominations. The second, All Quiet on the Western Front, has been nominated in nine categories, and won seven BAFTAs this week, including Best Picture and Best Director.
You may be wondering why I’ve taken so long to get around to these two utterly different, boom movies, but there was always another film that seemed more engaging. Now that the rush of award nominations has sent me scampering to repair the omission, I can only feel confirmed in my initial instincts.
Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, AKA. “The Daniels”, has gathered an enormous fan base. People rave about it, as if it is an entirely new kind of film. It would be more accurate to say it’s a new hybrid of the Chinese family comedy, the crazy Hong Kong action movie, and Marvel Studios’ ongoing obsession with the multiverse – a weird but winning combo.
We begin at a laundromat in Simi Valley, California, run by a middle-aged husband and wife, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). Originally from China – or is it Hong Kong? – they have lived in America for more than 20 years, but still speak like characters in a Cantonese comedy program. Their daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who has turned out to be a problem child, is in a lesbian relationship with a girl named Becky (Tallie Medal). Evelyn’s imperious old father, Gong Gong (James Hong), has come to live with them, and demands constant patriarchal deference.
The story finds Evelyn and Waymond dealing with an audit from the Internal Revenue Service, which means turning up at an office and being grilled by agent, Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis). It’s what happens when they enter the IRS offices that gives the film its jump start. To Evelyn’s surprise, the old familiar Waymond morphs into a new, more dynamic version, who claims he is from the Alpha universe, one of an infinite number of variations that exist in the multiverse. He has travelled through the dimensions to enlist Evelyn’s help in confronting a cosmic menace, namely a villain called Jobu Tupaki, who wants to bring destruction to all the worlds.
From this point we will hurtle wildly through the different universes, as Evelyn draws on the other versions of herself and makes use of their powers in a furious, stop-start battle with multiple versions of the IRS staff, and Jobu Tupaki, who turns out to be the multiverse alter-ego of her daughter.
For some viewers this madcap, kaleidoscopic melée will be pure fun, for others, mere chaos and confusion. The martial arts routines, bad taste jokes and (modestly budgeted) CGI, tend to disguise the fact that the film is at heart a sentimental family saga, in which Evelyn and Waymond repair their fractured marriage, Joy and her mother are reconciled, and Gong Gong finds his human side. Scrape away all the madness and a soap opera is revealed.
The heart of the film is Michelle Yeoh’s performance as a Chinese mother, a role obviously born of extensive life experience of the type. Ke Huy Quan does a remarkable impersonation of Jackie Chan, who was initially sought out for the part of Waymond; while Stephanie Hsu is a textbook disaffected daughter of a migrant family, who has been born in America and struggles to cope with her parents’ cultural baggage. As for Jamie Lee Curtis, although this must be one of the least flattering roles of her career, she displays a well-developed comic instinct.
Some seem to believe this movie is a philosophical masterpiece because characters reach conclusions such as: “nothing matters”. If this were the case, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody would also qualify for the title. The problem is that philosophy involves working through a line of argument, but the Daniels have been content to hit us with a succession of propositions and hope we are too dazzled to think about any of them deeply. Chief among them is the multiverse, which is now a feature of every second superhero movie, but never seems much more than an excuse for lavish indulgences in CGI.
The Daniels’ Eureka! moment was to realise that all this metaphysical fairyfloss might be combined with a domestic comedy-drama, to make a film in which the most unlikely elements coallesce into a unique package. In brief, a platypus.
One wonders if Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front owes some of its current success to Vladimir Putin, whose policy of sending thousands of young, poorly trained recruits to attack Ukrainian strongholds, is eerily similar to the tactics practised by generals on both sides, during the First World War. It’s impossible to watch these scenes of mindless slaughter and not recognise that the same scenarios are being played out today in places such as Bakhmut.
This is the first time the Germans have filmed the classic novel by Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970), that the Nazis saw as an insult to the German front-line soldier. The book was banned and burned, while Remarque was stripped of his citizenship and forced to live in Switzerland. Having sold four million copies, he would soon be in Hollywood where he became best buddies with Marlene Dietrich.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) is a short, gripping tale of 207 pages, which is well worth reading in connection with this film. It’s also revealing to watch Lewis Milestone’s 1930 version, which won the Academy Award that year for Best Picture.
Remarque’s tale is often referred to as an anti-war novel, one of many gruelling, heartbreaking books that emerged from WW1, including Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu (1916), which was an important influence. All Quiet’ is an intensely subjective exercise, filtered through the consciousness of a young recruit, Paul Bäumer, who volunteers for the war with a group of schoolfriends, and is plunged into a world of relentless horror. The story alternates between graphic descriptions of the conflict and passages in which Paul and his comrades reflect on the war, on its futility and its likely aftermath.
Oddly enough, Lewis Milestone did a better job of capturing this psychological dimension than Edward Berger, even though all his actors were speaking English with American accents. Neither did Milestone lose much in the combat scenes, which were astonishing for their time. Both directors grappled with how to end the story, but Milestone’s solution is an iconic moment in cinema, while Berger’s is, frankly, a mess.
Berger’s new production is at its best in conveying the unspeakable squalor and barbarism of the war, which served to dehumanise everybody. Ordinary men on both sides were sent to kill each other or die in the attempt. We are reminded in a set of aftertitles, that more than 3 million soldiers would die on the western front during four years of trench warfare in which neither side managed to advance more than a few hundred metres. Some claim the body count was much higher.
Felix Klemmerer is the new Paul Bäumer – a young, eager recruit with an expressive face, who will find himself drenched in mud and blood, battling for survival, while finding solace in the companionship of his fellow soldiers.
Unlike the character in the book, this Paul never goes home on leave, never meets any girl, never spends time in hospital, and never gets involved in any discussions that show what’s really going on in the soldiers’ minds.
Berger draws back from the tight, psychological focus to give us a bigger picture of the war. He introduces new characters and scenarios, starting with a sequence that follows the recycling of a uniform owned by a soldier killed on the battlefield. This is a startling and effective addition, as is the introduction of enemy tanks later in the story – even though they are barely mentioned in the novel.
More problematic are new top brass characters such as a real-life diplomat, Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), who is entrusted with the job of negotiating an armistice with the French, and an imaginary General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow), an old-school commander who dreams only of military glory no matter what the human cost. They are examples of the good and bad German that turn the story into a tragedy of misguided national pride. Yet the power of the original story resides in the way it anatomises the entire mentality of war, burrowing deep into the soldiers’ psyches.
To achieve this broader view, Berger sacrifices much of the intense cameraderie between Paul and his friends, which Remarque portrays as a bond forged under fire that transcends a soldier’s attachment to wife or parents. In this new version we never feel much empathy with any of the characters, perhaps not even Paul, who spends much of the movie staring with wide eyes at the mayhem unfolding on all sides. His friend, Kat (Albrecht Schuch), who plays an important part in the story, is the only other character who is allowed to develop a personality, but he is a mere shadow of his literary counterpart.
None of this makes Berger’s film a failure, but it suggests that all those BAFTAs and Oscar nominations have flattered a production that is good on dramatic and cinematic details but disappointing in the way it has reframed a classic story. There’s a hollowness to this film that can’t be filled by all those glittering prizes.
Everything, Everywhere, All at Once
Written & directed by Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ke Huy Quan, James Hong, Tallie Medel, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr., Biff Wiff, Brian Le, Aaron Lazar, Narayana Cabral
USA, MA 15+, 139 mins
All Quiet on the Western Front
Directed by Edward Berger
Written by Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson, Ian Stokell, after the novel by Erich Maria Remarque
Starring: Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer, Moritz Klaus, Adrian Grünewald, Edin Hasanovic, Daniel Brühl, Thibault de Montalembert, Devid Striesow, Sebastian Hülk
Germany/USA/UK, MA 15+, 148 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 25 February, 2023