It is Weird.  It is Art.

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If you were to ask me who are the greatest musical artists of the past 100 years, I’d first wonder why the hell you asked me.  But, as I answered, I would have to say Prince and Weird Al Yankovic.  Prince’s place is obvious – talented, a supporter of musicians, etc. – but Weird Al also fits the definition of artist.  He’s a musicologist in a jester’s outfit, a man who gets music and truly reaches you – art that makes you laugh for many different reasons.

His “biopic” Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is also art.  In fact, it’s art in the sense of James Joyce’s quote that the emotions art produces are where “The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.”  Art takes you out of yourself, and this movie – also a comedy – definitely does that.

Weird is a fictionalized telling of Weird Al’s career, but that doesn’t do it justice.  It takes the all-too familiar beats that many a bad biopic shoved a real person’s life into and does it with Weird Al’s life (which is often rather tame).  The result is the movie version of one of his songs – taking one thing and making it about another.

However this is not a song, but a movie about a real person, real events, played by real people.  It’s also done with a straight face, except for a few over-the-top moments and sly lines.  The result is surreal, jarring, and funny – where familiar faces and situations appear scrambled inside an often misused story framework.  We know Weird Al didn’t have an affair with Madonna, but the film has that happen because a bad romance is a common biopic trope.

As these falsehoods occur on the screens, the actors sell it with sincerity.  Daniel Radcliffe is exceptional as Weird Al, capturing both his sweetness and going off the rails in service of the plot.  Rainn Wilson does an almost disturbingly good Doctor Demento.  Evan Rachel Wood’s life-ruining Madonna is basically one of Madonna’s old personalities brought to life.  Even when he has but one scene as Wolfman Jack, Jack Black embraces it with a passion to be both the man and the bad biopic role he fills.

It’s all very wrong, all done with a straight face.

Watching Weird is funny, but the more you know about Weird Al (and I’ve been a fan of his, especially into the 90s) the more the experience keeps taking you outside of yourself.  It’s so gloriously wrong about everything that you don’t know what will happen next.  It’s also so familiar in its use of bad biopic beats that it’s a savage mockery of tropes we’re used to.  A Fauxumentary if you will, where you’re both unsure of what is to come but completely sure you’ve seen it before.

Thus I really have to consider this art – because it keeps knocking you outside of yourself.  Is that a trope or real?  Wait why is that history out of order?  Isn’t that plot twist something every bad biopic pretends happens anyway?  How can these people say these stupid and false lines without laughing themselves silly?  Wait, aren’t a lot of these supposed real-life documentaries just this dumb?

It is perhaps the perfect film to falsely sum up Weird Al’s life as it’s, well, just like his songs.  But it’s not just appropriate or a good jab at the media.  Weird is a reminder that art doesn’t have to be staid and dignified – it can wear a Hawaiian shirt, have an affair with Madonna, and eat LSD-laced corn chips.

Steven Savage

Everything Everywhere All At Once: Unspoilable Lessons

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I want to do a review of Everything Everywhere All At Once, the science-fiction drama-comedy starring Michele Yeoh. I want to review it as not only is it worth reviewing, the movie has many lessons for writers and media creators. However, there’s a problem – I don’t want to spoil any of it.

There is nothing in the film I want to risk spoiling because even minor things add to the experience. Each time I think “here’s an example” to communicate the feel of the film, it would ruin some of the delights.

Thus a challenge – reviewing a film you shouldn’t spoil to extract lessons we can use. How do you review a movie this good without ruining it a bit?

In a rather Taoist/Buddhist fashion, I’m turning poison into medicine here. I will explain why I shouldn’t spoil things and what those things teach us about making good media. Its “do not dare spoil nature” is a lesson about why it is good.

So you probably know the basics from the ads. Michele Yeoh plays a woman, and somehow multiple universes and martial arts action are involved. That’s it. Now let’s see why Everything Everywhere All At Once works in a way that won’t tell you a damn thing about what happens.

Here’s why the movie works and what to learn.

The Right Cast:  Saying casting is “perfect” is trite, especially when you have, well, Michele Yeoh. But the entire cast is excellent, and dare I say at least one of them eclipses Michele Yeoh. Each person brings their all to the role and creates many personal, subtle moments. It’s these meaningful moments that are things I don’t want to spoil

Use of Location:  Locations are characters all their own as well as tools of narration and backstory. Everything Everywhere All At Once puts its locations to use, even down to the props, as they can tell stories. A poster, table, desk, or piece of junk can all say something to the audience. Location can and should matter – I just don’t want to go into detail because it spoils.

Emotional Truth: The commercials for Everything Everywhere All At Once are quite wild. But in that wildness are some core, powerful, emotional truths – “throughlines” if you were, weaving the wildness together. A good film sticks with you – and a day later, I was discussing not the scenes from advertisements but the characters and their feelings.  And I’m not telling you about those feelings, you have to see for yourself to “get it.”

The Chosen Form:  Building on that emotional truth, one fantastic thing about Everything Everywhere All At Once could be told in other genres. The chosen form (sci-fi action) was just one of many choices with which to do it. I find a good story, a good emotional truth, could exist in any form – and you can tell if it could or not. 

Use of Direction:  Everything Everywhere All At Once is exceptionally well-directed (if you’ve seen any ads, you can tell it has to be). There’s a fearlessness to the wild stylings and effects, a confidence, that makes the film work. Honestly, few directors could have done this – Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert were amfazing.

As crazy as Everything Everywhere All At Once may look, it is rock-solid in what it does – and what we learn from it. Have an emotionally resonant story, implemented well in your chosen genre, where location allows great actors to tell a relatable tale. There’s nothing in it that we haven’t heard before, but it’s done very well.

Now I hope you go out and see it – but afterward, don’t spoil. Leave others to be as surprised as you will most assuredly be.

Steven Savage

Double Dragon The Movie: Inside Not Out

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I have never watched the entire Double Dragon film from 1994, the infamously bad video game “adaption,” until recently. I say adaption as the movie has nothing to do with the game – a game I remember playing in the arcades. Since the film is terrible, it probably makes the game look better.

Many things that make the film bad – the acting, the effects, the script. But one of the strangest things is that the movie has an enormous amount of “plot” that has nothing to do with the game. Does a film about “two guys beat up a gang to rescue someone” need a post-apocalyptic LA, gang politics, magical amulets, and the like? It’s a story where everything is grafted on.

None of this worked, as you may guess.

I started thinking about how others might approach a property like Double Dragon’s beat-them up. I was thinking specifically about some Hong Kong b-movies studios, indie studios, and the like. The plot was a significant problem of the movie, so how might someone with a fresher, “punkier” sense make such a movie?

The original game has no plot except “beat people up until you save the victim.”  Some versions add a few simple elements – the martial arts the heroes practice, their enemies (The Black Warriors), being in a post-war New York, and the heroes’ hope to save their kidnapped mutual love interest. Not a lot to go on, right?

So let me ask, what if you ran with this paltry lore instead of piling on extra elements. Don’t add things on, but go deeper into what you have from the limited lore. Indulge me for a moment.

First, two brothers practicing a strange martial art and with a potential romantic rivalry? With the right actors, that’s a core dynamic right there! We have two talented martial artists with a great burden – and a petty rivalry eating away at them? How do they evolve and grow as they battle their way through post-war New York? There’s a story!

Now lets’ take the Inevitable Kidnapped Interest, Marian. Rescue-the-girl tropes are sexist and overdone, so let’s shake it up. Marian let herself be kidnapped to infiltrate the Black Guardians, all arranged by the heroes’ master. Only the master got himself killed before he let them in on his plan to take down the Guardians. Now Marian has to pull a Die Hard from the inside to help the two occasionally bickering heroes defeat the bad guys and get her the hell out.

So we’ve got a Martial Arts Die Hard with arguing brothers? What about the setting?

We’ve got post-war (indeed post-nuke) New York. So let’s toss in some politics, just not the egregious ones of the film. Several martial arts groups have worked to bring the city back, and some of the gangs would be up for it – except the Black Guardians want to rule. So our heroes have a chance to unite the gangs to fight for the city, and battling the Black Guardians can do it. That was their master’s plan all along . . .

There you go, you’ve got a film. There’s an epic journey across a devastated New York, with the city’s future on the line.  Two likable badasses with a weak spot for arguing, trying to save the city and their love interest while fulfilling their masters’ last wish. A put-upon and clever female lead operating from the inside, trying to corral her would-be rescuers. Gang politics as an excuse for epic fights – and of course, it must end in all the gangs attacking the Black Guardians in a kind of Helm’s Deep of epic action.

You didn’t have to add on tons of unrelated stuff. Just extrapolate and go deeper with what you have. It’s still two guys battling to rescue a girl in a post-War gang-infested New York. You add some depth to make it mean more.

Less isn’t always more. But a few things with depth can make a movie or book or whatever far better than many elements with no depth.

Steven Savage