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

Heaven’s Design Team: God’s Blessing On This Wonderful Worldbuilding

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In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.  Then he outsourced the animal stuff.

That’s the Pratchett-esque premise of Heaven’s Design Team, an anime series based on a popular manga.   The story centers around Shimoda, a young angel assigned to relay God’s instructions to the titular Design Team.  Playing Metatron to a group of creative personalities ensnares our bean-bun loving protagonist in both office hijinks and hard-science explorations of how animals work.

It’s also a show that worldbuilders and writers should at least check out.

Creation Is A Double-Edged Comedy

The series episodes have a mostly familiar arc, but one that is varied enough to stay fresh.  Shimoda comes to the team with a vague request from God.  This request is relayed to a colorful group of beings named after the planets, each with their own specialties, obsessions, and neuroses.

The result is a fun, broad office comedy with some real-world teeth.  If you’ve ever worked on a complex creative project it will be more than familiar.  Prototypes fail, creative bickering ensure, and bright ideas burn out fast in the light of reality.  The likeable cast of characters is enjoyable, and the humor is refreshingly free from jokes about genders, sexual preferences, etc.

This office comedy part fuses seamlessly with hard biology.  The Design Team has to temper their enthusiasm as ideas run into real science issues and the advice of their engineering expert, Mars.  Brilliant ideas wither in the harsh light of reality, and when that reality is designing a surviving being, mistakes become painfully obvious.

This is where the show becomes something more than just a wacky comedy – and something for worldbuilders.

Weird Science, Weird People

Heaven’s Design Team’s first season is packed with many bits of great ideas falling apart due to biological truths, but the most illustrative is the team’s attempt to make a unicorn.  “Horse that fights with a horn” sounds good, but the various metabolic, psychological, and physical tradeoffs produce problems.  The final result is an aggressive idiotic beast with navigation problems – though it is salvaged to create the Narwhal, so cuddly-animal loving Neptune is thrilled.

The show is thus a spiritual cousin to Cells At Work, being both educational, funny, and using a given genre to explore science.  The continual theme of “how animals work” and “why some ideas are good and some not” takes it to another level – and it’s why any worldbuilder needs to give it a look.

Heaven’s Design Team covers many kinds of animals and animal traits, and manages to keep it fresh and interesting.  One episode explores reproductive habits, another is about dolphins, and a third sees goth queen of grossness Pluto creating a surprising animal from her requirements.  Though the show has a pattern it usually hews to, it’s an educational one that often surprises.

If you’re a worldbuilder, you’ll quickly get ideas of what to think about what to do, and what not to do.  Because the show is about trial, error, and prototypes, it’ll help you think about animal biology.  It’s not hard to imagine how the Design Team might respond to you playing God – and how your requests might go awry.

The Whole (Earth) Package

I can heap praise upon Heaven’s Design Team, but the end result is “if you like worldbuilding and office comedy, you’ll probably like this.”

Can I say it’s “good?”  To that, I would say “yes” for two reasons.

First, the show knows exactly what it wants to be – an office comedy about biology with a bit of supernatural humor.  The show reaches the goal it sets for itself.  One might say it’s “well designed.”

Secondly, the show has a sweet, genial nature, much like the angelic protagonist.  Characters may argue and snipe, characters have flaws and quirks, but there’s no bullying or cruelty.  Even when bird-loving Venus and snake-creating Mercury square off for obvious reasons, it’s rivalry not meanness.  It’s a pleasant watch.

If you like worldbuilding (or indeed just science, but I know my audience) check it out on Crunchyroll.  It might be a creation you appreciate.

Steven Savage