Sweep the leg, Johnny! The genius of COBRA KAI

For good reasons, THE KARATE KID is a classic movie—not just in terms of the perfect casting. To be clear, we’re talking about the ‘80s original starring Ralph Macchio, not the remake with Will Smith’s kid and Jackie Chan set in China with kung fu instead of karate… and yes, that begs the question, WHY????

Structurally, the classic movie runs circles above your typical action blockbuster where Tom Cruise, Dwayne Johnson or Charlize Theron play a hero who’s tough, sexy and amazing the first second you see them on screen…and that hero doesn’t suffer or change one flipping bit after two hours of mayhem and blood.

THE KARATE KID gave us real characters with actual character arcs. Daniel Larusso is a loser in Act 1 and keeps getting his butt kicked by the gang from the Cobra Kai dojo. He’s a skinny underdog. And if you really watch, the real villain isn’t blonde tormentor Johnny, but his evil sensei.

So it was a fun surprise to learn about a new series, COBRA KAI, catching up with Johnny 34 years after that kick to the face in the All Valley Karate Tournament.

I watched the first episode before seeing the trailer, and it’s fun to see things from Johnny’s point of view. You don’t get a glimpse of Daniel Larusso until the end, where his eternally young mug pops up on in a TV commercial for the Larusso chain of auto dealerships. Seeing this makes Johnny trash his old tube-style television.

It’s a great scene, making me smile to think, “Hey, they got Ralph Macchio to do a cool cameo on this series. It’s like like Walter White showing up to buy a Cinnabon from Saul.”

Except if you watch the second episode (also free on YouTube), or check out the trailer, it becomes clear that Ralph Macchio isn’t popping in to shoot a few seconds of cameo goodness, just for old times.

Ralph is co-starring in this thing. I KID YOU NOT.

And he is glorious.

Here’s the series trailer:

The first episode is a slow burn. Yet those early setups are worth the payoff.

What’s interesting, in terms of the writing, is how complicated and gritty they’re going with this. Even though Johnny is the villain again, he’s sympathetic. You feel for him and understand his motivations. I kept rooting for the whole time. Daniel Larusso’s life couldn’t be more different, with money, a beautiful wife and a giant house–yet he’s not presented as perfect, either.

Making these two characters complicated and deeper than you expect is a smart choice.

This entire series feels like an extension of the old Funny of Die video that made fun of Ralph’s ageless looks and scandal-free history. His family on this series feels a lot like the wife and family in this fake mockumentary. (Warning: this clip contains some bad words, if you avoid that sort of thing, and it will also make you snort milk from your nose.)

VERDICT: If you watched THE KARATE KID and have a pulse, check this thing out. DO IT NOW.

And now for something completely different — THIS IS AMERICA by Childish Gambino

Listen: I grew up watching music videos, back when we had this thing called MTV, which played music videos 25 hours a day, eight days a week.

So there isn’t much that shocks or impresses me, seeing how 99 percent of music videos fall into these categories:

(1) Solo divas belting away while backup dancers go crazy

(2) Boy bands lip-syncing while dancing like crazy

(3) Metal bands in black-and-white videos, trying to look tough, no smiling allowed

(4) Concert videos with screaming, adoring fans

(5) Artistic mini-movies that only prove singers should sing and actors should act

This video is something truly different. Donald Glover can act, sing and dance–and while he’s making a number of political statements in this video, none of them are on-the-nose. You have to rewatch this video three or four times to catch them all, including imagery from GET OUT.

Here, take a look and a listen:

Glover debuted this song live when he hosted SNL, and did a nice job there, too.

VERDICT: I’m shocked and impressed. A tricky thing, trying to send a powerful message through a song and music video without bonking your audience over the head with that message. Pretty easy to be far too heavy or way too subtle. Glover threads the needle with skill and care. I want to see more of his work now, and it’s easy to see why this video has gone beyond viral.

Why the USS CALLISTER worked so well while METALHEAD turned meh

BLACK MIRROR is a beautifully strange British sci-fi series playing on this thing called Netflix, except they call it “streaming” now and you can do it on your phone, PC, iPad, Nook or 65-inch plasma wallscreen.

Each episode is different, and the showrunners take massive, massive risks. They’re not afraid to fail.

This season, everybody seems to love USS CALLISTER, which is a genuinely great episode starring Meth Damon from BREAKING BAD.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s that same actor rocking the role of Todd in BREAKING BAD:

The other episode I truly, madly and deeply wanted to see this season is METALHEAD, an entirely black-and-white story about an apocalyptic world. Check out the trailer:

So: why does USS CALLISTER work so well while METALHEAD fizzles out at the end?

There’s nothing here about the acting, the sets, the special effects or the directing. All are top notch.

What’s different is the writing.

The trick is, every episode in this series is a horror story. You can say it’s sci-fi, but that’s the setting, not the story.

Horror stories are about punishment. The monster is really the hero, and everybody dies in the end except for the monster, who comes back for endless sequels.

Good horror movies show the people who die first, committing sins they’ll get punished for later. In slasher films, it’s teenagers typically drinking and carousing and breaking the rules. In other horror movies, scientists (and society) get punished for being arrogant enough to think they could invent some insane new technology that, of course, turns on them in the end.

Bad horror movies reverse this and make the regular actors into heroes and the monster into a villain that dies in the end. Doesn’t feel right. That’s a different kind of story with different beats and twists.

The type of story where good guys kill the monster is what Blake Snyder nicknamed Monster in the House, where there’s a monster in an enclosed place, and either you’re going to kill it or it’s going to kill you. That’s a primal story, something that touches us deep in our caveman souls, and you can see the same essential beats in movies that seem dramatically different: JAWS, ALIENS and FATAL ATTRACTION aren’t really a horror, a sci-fi and a domestic drama–they’re the same story in different settings.

USS CALLISTER is actually Monster in the House instead of horror. There’s a monster in an enclosed place–the starship–and the crew is either gonna kill him or get tortured and killed, forever, by an all-powerful bully who created this world. It takes a lot of creativity and guts for the crew to beat him in the end, and it feels right. They deserve their freedom and he’s a monster who deserves his fate.

METALHEAD is a horror story where everybody dies in the end, except the monsters. Where it goes wrong people don’t get what they deserve. The monster is punishing everyone for a sin you never witness, which makes all the deaths caused by the killer robots feel senseless.

This is why horror movies always start by showing the sinners running around, committing the sins they’ll be punished for later. It doesn’t matter how good-looking and wholesome the teenage actors in a slasher film are, they’re going to die for their sins. Same thing with horror movies with scientists trying to play God: they might be great actors, and the entire team may not be evil, but the whole lot of them get punished for the sin of thinking they could (a) make an army of robots to do all the work, (b) genetically engineer a way to life forever or (c) create super-smart sharks with lasers.

If we had seen the original sin in METALHEAD, and the characters who all die were somehow associated with that sin, then it would feel right for them all to get punished. Instead, the killer robots seem off. It feels like the most likely explanation is whoever created and programmed security robots for warehouses did waaaaay too good of a job. Now if that man and his team got killed by his own creations, the audience would swallow it.

This one chart cuts through the heart of EVERY MUSICAL GENRE

So on Mondays, when the mood is right and the coffee is hot, I dissect music videos on this silly blog–half because it’s fun and half because you can learn a lot from taking apart a 3-minute video.

This chart does a beautiful job of taking a scalpel and slicing right through the heart every major musical genre. It is merciless, it is brutal and there is no escape. Even better: there’s a lot of truth in here. Because the secret of humor is revealing painful truths.

every music genre

Great job, John the Atkinson of Wrong Hands–please give us more charts like this.

As a bonus, here’s a music video that we’re looping endlessly: NO ROOTS by Alice Martin, a great song in part because it’s completely different. I can’t shoe-horn her song into pop, blues or punk. And that’s a good thing.

31 brand new animal species discovered by amateur naturalists

As a pookie, it felt perfectly natural to learn about gorillas, pythons and such from hour-long documentaries starring a kind, grandfatherly gentlemen bankrolled by an insurance company in Nebraska.

Today, we fire up the interwebs to watch 2-minute videos with Randle losing his mind as he extols the insane bravery of honey badgers–or some random man with a killer Morgan Freeman impression narrates how the cuttlefish do.

I still love animals, documentaries and documentaries about animals. So it warmed my heart to learn of 31 brand new species discovered by amateur naturalists, ordinary people who wouldn’t dream of bestowing their finds with 47-syllable names derived from Latin.

Here’s the list, with actual photographic evidence of each new species:

1. Arrow Pigs

arrow pig

2. Murder Logs

murder log

3. Danger Noodles

danger noodle

4. Disco Chickens

5. Puppers (aka Doggos or Floofs)

6. Murder Torpedoes

7. Cat Bears

8. Sky Puppers

9. Long Horses

10. Sea Raviolis

11. Holiday Chickens

12. Torpedo Puppers

13. Catsnakes

14. 

14. Spiky Floofs

15. Tyrannosaurus Deer

16. Wobble Sticks

17. Leather Tanks

18. Freedom Gliders

19. Night Squirrels

20. Beach Chickens

21. Subwoofers

22. Danger Water Cows

23. Pantless Thunder Geese

24. Panda Whales

25. Fluffy Tree Rats

26. Danger Zebras

27. Nopes

28. Sea Catsnakes

29. Formal Chickens

30. Hot Moose

31. Death Floofs

Kygo and Selena Gomez bring it with IT AIN’T ME

As I drive MANY MILES each day, and listen to this thing they used to call the radios, it’s like a blind taste-test for music. You usually don’t know the name of the singer or band, so your reactions are honest.

My reaction to this song on the radio was “play that again.” Put a gun to my head and I would’ve sworn this was some kind of European electro-dance thing, and the singer was maybe somebody like Ellie Goulding.

So it was a shock to learn Selena Gomez sings it. It’s a cut off the new album by Kygo, a Norwegian musical genius.

Let’s take apart why the video works so well with the song.

You care, right away

The trouble with most of music videos is there’s no attempt at making us feel, because the musicians are too busy trying to look cool, tough, rich and/or glamorous while singing about themselves. Nothing is really at stake and there’s no story told, so there’s no reason for the audience to care. It’s just a song, no matter how much gets spent on directors, dancers and the set.

This video has two characters you can relate two, right off, and an actual story with real stakes. You feel bad for this young man in a coma after the motorcycle crash, and you sympathize with the young woman sticking by his side at the hospital. You want him to be OK and for them to be together again.

The inner POV is trippy and beautiful

Loved it when the video switches to the point of view of the man in a coma.

They got truly creative with what it might be like to be trapped in your own body, aware but not awake. The lighting and effects are creative and well done. Impressive.

Genuine setups and payoffs leading to a beautiful ending

There’s a real sense of joy when she starts dancing and puts the headphones on her boyfriend. There’s a contagious sense of joy when she dances in spite of the situation. You can see in his inner POV that he hears the music, that he’s dancing, too, giving you hope that maybe he’ll make it and wake up.

It’s a great bit if storytelling with song that builds up to a classic closing image of him opening his eyes.

 

One final note about the costumes: this is the opposite of most videos, where singers try to show off insane outfits or as much skin as possible. They use crazy costumes for the inner POV sequences, which fits, then everyday outfits for the real life scenes. I was far more impressed with the simple joy of a singer rocking out in T-shirt and jeans, in this video, than all fancy choreography, skimpy costumes and backup dancers you find in other videos. Well done.

Verdict:

A creative music video with a great song and an actual story with a beginning, middle and end. The dream sequences are a special bonus.

TL;DR: I have seen many, many music videos, and this one is special. 10/10 would watch again.

 

 

SALUT SALON gives us a musical clinic and a giant dose of joy

Who says classic music is boring?

These four women prove that technical talent can combine with humor. They could’ve played this normally, and nobody but music professors would care about the difference in the quality of the music. This way is just far, far more entertaining for the audience. And for the musicians, too.

I’d bet my house those smiles aren’t fake. Not a bit. These four musicians are clearly having a blast goofing off like this. Their joy is contagious.

Good on you, Salut Salon–thanks for being this creative and having the guts to be silly in a serious business.

Why all writers need to study the secrets of screenwriting

So my genius sister, Pamela Kay, made a series of YouTube videos on how to write screenplays. She won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy and knows her stuff. Heed her words, even if you don’t write screenplays, because this field is crazy useful for any sort of writer.

Why? The secret to all writing is structure–and nobody is better at structure than screenwriters.

Not because they’re magical and amazing, though many are. It’s because you can hide bad structure with pretty words in a novel or feature story.

With screenplays, you can’t hide the bad bones of a story, because that’s all people see: the bones.

Writing today has far too many silos, mostly focused on little details, with few notions on structure at all:

  • Writing to inform: Journalists are stuck inside the inverted pyramid, a structure that’s inherently boring for anything of length, which is why journalists typically stink at novels
  • Writing to persuade: Speechwriters know the structure of rhetoric, but it’s not really meant for writing anything to inform or entertain
  • Writing to entertain: Novelists, playwrights, poets and screenwriters all have their own jargon and tricks, like they live on different planets

This reminds me of boxing, wrestling and martial arts before the days of MMA, with everybody doing their own little thing and swearing they’d whip the lesser disciplines. Except boxers got destroyed by the wrestlers, who got owned by the jujitsu people, who later on got wrecked by the boxers who learned how to sprawl. To be truly good fighters, fighters had to set aside their pride and train in every discipline.

I believe the same is true for writers today. There’s never been more content out there, with scads created every second all around the world, so there’s never been more competition to get read.

From having a toe in journalism, speechwriting and novels, I know you could slave away in one of these fields for years and still miss out on core fundamentals. Not learning from other disciplines is like building a house when all you know is drywall and plumbing–the thing is going to fall down.

Screenwriting is key because structure is why 99 percent of bad drafts are bad. Go look at a bad draft. Line by line, the words are plenty pretty. Structure is what vexes us all.

So: I hope this video gives you a taste of screenwriting and her series sparks something in you. Not so you can write LETHAL WEAPON 7: DANNY GLOVER AND MEL GIBSON BUST OUT OF THE SANTA MONICA NURSING HOME, but so you can learn how to pour the foundation of any sort of story, making it stands strong so you can move on to the wiring (dialogue), plumbing (setups and payoffs) and drywall (description).

Any sort of writing with strong bones will beat the stuffing out of the prettiest words with a weak foundation.

If you want more, here are two of the basic texts, the guide stars: STORY by Robert McKee is a deep dive on structure, while SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder is a breezy little look at genres, beat sheets and story, using movies we all know.

P.S. Pam did a ton of these videos, so I’ll try to post one every Tuesday as long as she keeps making them.

Taking apart the expensive disaster of LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO by Taylor Swift

I come here to praise Taylor Swift, not to bury her CGI zombie corpse.

Though I’m neither superfan nor hater, I have to say she did some great music videos early in her career. YOU BELONG TO ME is excellent. BACK TO DECEMBER is pretty good.

This music video is a step backward, an expensive mess that shows T-Swift has fully evolved from a Scrappy Young Talent Who Just Hit It Big all the way to a Establishment Megastar With More Mansions Than She Can Remember.

Yes, the production values are great. Fans will watch the heck out of this just for the spectacle.

HOWEVER: It doesn’t make you feel anything.

At all.

And that’s the acid test for a music video.

Do you laugh?

Do you feel joy, or anger?

Do you cry?

That’s because whether you intend to or not, every song tells a story. A music video is supposed to help tell that story.

Songs don’t give you a lot of words to do the job. It takes discipline and talent to do it right. 

The Dixie Chicks can spend 200 words to tell a full story that makes you full of sorrow (TRAVELING SOLDIER) or righteously angry (GOODBYE, EARL).

Taylor can do this, too. She has the talent to tell a story and make you feel. One of her first big hits did this perfectly. It’s even in the title.

Here’s where this new video goes wrong, despite all the money spent–reportedly, $12 million in diamonds was used for that bath scene.

What story is she telling, and how does it make us feel?

In her best songs and videos, Taylor’s telling a story about somebody else, somebody we can all relate to, and that makes us feel for the protag. YOU BELONG TO ME is about a high school girl, something of a loser, with a crush on a neighbor boy. People get that. Whether you’re male or female, we’ve all been through awkward years in junior high or high school. It’s easy to feel for the girl she’s singing about, and to root for that underdog. You want her to get the boy and it’s a great moment when they both show up to the dance together.

In this video, Taylor’s clearly talking about herself, and the point of the song is to strike back at perceived rivals.

It’s hard for non-billionaires to feel sympathy for celebrities with hurt feelings. No matter how good the song is (and it’s not that good compared to her best) and how much they spent making this video, you can’t force people to feel sorry for a young, pretty woman who makes more money in a week than most people will make in their lifetime.

What are the stakes?

 

Just like books and movies, songs can have low stakes or high stakes, personal stakes and public stakes.

They can be about whether love rules the day or love forever lost. War or peace, injustice or redemption.

The stakes here are extremely low. Oh, Taylor is so upset (at Katy Perry or whoever, I honestly don’t care and neither should you) that she crashed a car that costs more than your house while a a cheetah served as her copilot. With her car trashed, will she be unable to get to work in the morning and lose her job? Does it matter in the slightest? No. She may have to tell her staff to gas up the Ferrari, or the Bentley, or one of however many dozen cars she owns. People will clean up the mess while she goes off and trashes one of her jets and rounds up an army of cloned robots or whatever to assault the compound of P-Diddy or whoever she’s mad at this week.

Basically, I can’t make myself care, and yes, I tried. Really hard.

What’s the impact of the song and video?

The best songs and music videos stick with you. AMERICAN PIE was about an entire era, and half the fun was trying to decipher the lyrics. Even if you didn’t get every line, you got the message about how America was changing. It sticks with you.

EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE is about love turning into obsession, and the video is stark black-and-white. I wouldn’t change a thing.

When I first heard LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO on the radio, I swore it was Britney Spears.

Not kidding. Feels like mid-stage Britney, after she’d made it big, and started doing over-the-top stuff like this:

Verdict: Sure, the production values and budget is sky high, but the entertainment value is meh and the feels generated are zero. 10/10 would not watch again.

If the old Taylor Swift is dead, and the new T-Swift is busy being obsessed with her hurt feelings and celebrity beefs, let’s resurrect the old Taylor Swift–the one focused on songs that aren’t about her. I’d happily listen and watch that singer.

Redemption: Vets behind bars helping other vets by training service dogs

friendly friday friendly dog meme

Just a beautiful story by Matt Lorch at Q13, and this prison is in my county. I knew about this program, and some folks who’ve helped with it. This story does them justice.

A four-minute+ piece is crazy dang long for TV news. Good on Q13 for going deep with this one.

We need more stories like this that show the power of hope and redemption.