Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Shut Up And (Watch Someone) Dance

Phoning it in this week, because I just like Margaret Qualley

I’m kind of phoning it in this week, because I’ve already mentioned tons of times how much I love the Kenzo World ad directed by Spike Jonze and starting Margaret Qualley.

The song is called “Mutant Brain” by Sam i and Ape Drums, if for some reason you want to hear it without that amazing choreography.

Qualley is phenomenal in it, and I instantly became a huge fan. Granted, it’s impossible for Spike Jonze to make a bad music video, but I think part of that is that he chooses the right people to work with. In particular: actors and musicians who are game for whatever wild idea he’s come up with, and will be willing to bring all their talents to it. Especially if, like Christopher Walken, they can dance.

I haven’t seen The Leftovers or Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, but I was pleasantly surprised to see Margaret Qualley show up in a rather small and weird part in Poor Things. It didn’t seem like it required someone at her level of career success, so I’m assuming that she just thought it was a weird, neat idea and wanted to be part of it. (And if that’s not the case, I’d rather not know otherwise).

She also stars in a recent video for the song “Tiny Moves” by Bleachers. I’ve got to admit I’m all but completely indifferent to the song, since Bleachers has always struck me as so inoffensive that there’s nothing I can latch onto. But it’s just nice to see someone so comfortable in front of a camera bringing that charisma, along with dance training and familiarity with a ton of different styles of choreography, to a love song. I like the story behind it, too: Qualley has said that she wanted to make it as a wedding gift for Jack Antonoff after they got married last year.

Just Fine (Another Thing I Like About Poker Face)

Product placement, or establishing character and mission statement through the use of brand recognition? It doesn’t matter!

I realize that it often seems like my blog posts are written by a LLM using the prompt “write about this in the style of a pretentious nerd under the influence of Ambien,” but I swear that isn’t the case. Even though, when writing about Poker Face, I did hallucinate an Agatha Christie story called Murder on the Nile.

I also evidently ignored years of teachers stressing the importance of making outlines, because I started trying to make a few observations that quickly got away from me. One of them was about how much I like Rian Johnson’s assertion of ethics and morality in his works (that I’ve seen, of course): he doesn’t seem to care much for anti-heroes or ethical ambiguity, much less outright nihilism. He makes his values abundantly clear, but without ever being so didactic that it overwhelms the entertainment.

The other was that there’s such an economy and efficiency to the first episode of Poker Face, where it reads as casual and funny on first watch, but you quickly realize that there’s hardly a single moment in the entire show that doesn’t serve a purpose.

A great example of both: in the scene between Charlie and Sterling, Jr, where he’s setting up not just their relationship but the premise of the entire series, he starts the scene by offering her a drink. When she asks what her choices are, he seems surprised by the question. They’re in the owner’s suite at the top of a casino; she can have whatever she wants. Shortly after, we see her with Heineken in a can. Later in the episode, a bartender who knows her offers her favorite, and it’s a Coors Light. (She chooses coffee instead, which has its own repercussions).

There’s so much packed into that. The question immediately puts Sterling on the defensive, which we soon learn is key to his whole character: he’s in charge of this whole place and can have anything he wants; why is she acting like his options are limited? She’s immediately found a way to change up the power dynamic, choosing to serve herself. And the thing she chooses, out of presumably a wall’s worth of expensive liquor, is a canned beer slightly fancier than the canned beer she normally drinks.

That last part is important, because it’s the core idea of the entire scene that follows. The beer, and more explicitly, the conversation that follows, are all about establishing her character as someone who genuinely appreciates the value of having enough.

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One Thing I Love About Poker Face

Poker Face is really nostalgic for 1970s detective shows, but it isn’t content to be stuck in the past

It was a foregone conclusion that I was going to at least like Poker Face — I love Rian Johnson’s murder mysteries; Natasha Lyonne’s got a “presence” that makes you eager to like everything she does; it’s a revival of the Columbo-style mystery; and it’s got a long list of guest appearances from actors I like a lot, and also Adrian Brody1To be fair, he has to play a reprehensible sleazebag in the first episode, and he sells it so well, it’s as if it comes naturally to him.. But I never got around to watching it until my ticket to Halloween Horror Nights got me a subscription to Peacock as a bonus.

(There’s no real point to that detail; it’s just a signifier of what life was like in 2023, where streaming networks and synergy within huge multimedia companies means I have to go to a theme park to watch a show I’m interested in).

I finally watched the first episode tonight, and it nails everything I expected it to. The opening titles alone were enough to set the tone, even if they hadn’t been set on top of shots of a casino seemingly stuck in a perpetual state of mid-to-late-70s-ness. It’s a perfect setting for a series concept that itself seems to be stuck halfway in the past.

The main character suggests a call back to Jim Rockford — mostly in her sense of humor in the face of being constantly targeted by bad guys and misfortune — and of course, the format calls back to Columbo. But calling it just an homage would be selling it short. You could make a very, very good pastiche of 1970s detective series. Or you could take the premise of “the audience knows the killer(s) from the start,” and experiment with it in loads of interesting ways. Poker Face does both, breaking down its inspirations into their component parts, and then using them to make something new.

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  • 1
    To be fair, he has to play a reprehensible sleazebag in the first episode, and he sells it so well, it’s as if it comes naturally to him.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Les chansons dans ma tête

Two tangentially-related tunes for Tuesday, en francais

If you’re as prone to catching earworms as I am, I recommend avoiding the movies Death Proof and But I’m a Cheerleader, because they both contain “Chick Habit” by musician and animator April March. The last time I saw either of those movies was a year ago, and I still occasionally wake up with the song going through my head. Sometimes just thinking of or seeing a picture of Natasha Lyonne is enough to set it off.

It’s a faithful cover of “Laisse Tomber Les Filles”, and she’s recorded versions in both English and French. The original was made famous by France Gall, a French pop star with an only slightly less unbelievable pseudonym than April March.

Not as good as “Laisse Tomber Les Filles,” but no less tenacious, is “Poupée de cire, poupée de son”, another song written by Serge Gainsbourg, and the song with which she won Eurovision in 1965. You can read more about the song in your local library, or on Wikipedia, if you’re wondering about the translation, or just want to be reminded of how asinine Gainsbourg was.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Songs in Progress

Two tangentially-related tunes that are aware that they’re tunes

I’ve only seen 8 1/2 once, back around 1989, so I only remember two things about it: 1) My favorite moment had an annoying character suddenly getting hanged1Or dropped into a bottomless pit? I said I don’t remember much about it, and am too frustrated with Kanopy’s interface to try and find the scene again. with no comment from the other characters, and 2) It’s a surreal interpretation of Frederico Fellini’s struggles to make his ninth movie.

Frankly, I feel that that movie has been surpassed by the decades of movies that were inspired by it. But back in the late 1980s, just the idea that a movie was “allowed” to be so happily self-referential was like pure Chucknip.

And I also still love the idea of songs that are aware that they’re songs. “Simple Song” by the Shins doesn’t wallow in self-reflection, but it still does quite a lot with the premise. With just a couple of acknowledgements, it sets up the idea of looking back at a young love, struggling to find a way to encompass how significant the “small” moments turned out to be throughout his life.

The most extreme example is Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Your Song,” which is still such a wonderful way of expressing in song how you can be so full of love for someone that a song feels incapable of expressing it.

My favorite version of the song is still Ewan McGregor’s from Moulin Rouge, because it uses the self-reflection of the song — McGregor just narrates the entire first verse, as if he’s composing it on the spot — and then turns it into self-reflection for the movie.

Everything in Moulin Rouge up to that point had been broad, loud, chaotic, and so, so affected. I distinctly remember the urge to walk out of the theater, it was so relentlessly too much. At the start of the scene, Nicole Kidman is going completely over the top2In case it’s not obvious: deliberately over the top. Her performance hinges on the idea that she can never show anyone the “real” her, but just the affectations. — over-acting as an actress in a movie scene about an actress over-acting — about how stories feel perfect and powerful, because here, they are. Then McGregor practically unhinges his jaw like a python to let the song pour out, and she, along with the rest of Paris, is forced to stop and pay attention. It’s just such a wonderfully sincere and earnest expression of how difficult it is to be sincere and earnest.3And if you’re wondering whether watching that scene again, completely removed from its context, still made me tear up at my desk in the middle of the afternoon: I assure you that it did.

And my apologies to Carly Simon, who probably thought this post was going to be about her.

  • 1
    Or dropped into a bottomless pit? I said I don’t remember much about it, and am too frustrated with Kanopy’s interface to try and find the scene again.
  • 2
    In case it’s not obvious: deliberately over the top. Her performance hinges on the idea that she can never show anyone the “real” her, but just the affectations.
  • 3
    And if you’re wondering whether watching that scene again, completely removed from its context, still made me tear up at my desk in the middle of the afternoon: I assure you that it did.

Coming to the Beskar Screen

Responding to the announcement of a movie for the most quintessentially TV version of Star Wars

Disney announced an upcoming movie featuring the characters The Mandalorian and Grogu, titled The Mandalorian and Grogu. In addition to hoping that Jon Favreau has a different title in the works, I’m also a little bit confused and disappointed by the announcement.

To be clear: I’m absolutely going to be seeing this movie, and if you think otherwise then I’m not sure why you’re reading this blog, since it’s clear you don’t know me at all. If they sold tickets before movies entered pre-production, I would’ve already bought one.

But The Mandalorian is, to me, inherently televised. It’s the most perfect translation of everything I like about Star Wars into the television format. It’s the show that I dreamed of when I was a little kid, obsessed with Star Wars and obsessed with television. But better, because it couldn’t possibly have existed back then. In fact, I think a big part of why I can’t help but gush about it is that it’s got failsafes built in: anything that might seem corny or underdeveloped feeds back into the charm of the series, because it feels like a callback to what television was like at the time Star Wars was at its peak.

In fact, I can call out the aspects of it that make it feel inherently suited to television, in handy blog list form:

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Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Strings Attached

Using the theme of string sections in popular music as an excuse to listen to two of my favorite songs ever

Listening to “I Am The Walrus” last week, and praising George Martin’s production in particular, reminded me that it’s been a while since I’ve heard a popular musician really commit to the string section beyond a few samples here and there.

Luckily, two of my favorite songs by two of my favorite musicians are full-to-bursting with string arrangements.

I love Neko Case, both for being funny as hell, and for really understanding the appeal of a creepy murder ballad. And of course, for her amazing voice. It’s so powerful that listening to one of her records from start to finish can sometimes leave me like I’ve been physically assaulted. She should do a team-up with Black Bolt. It’s so powerful that it makes you forget how brilliant she can be with the lyrics.

It almost seems like she had to bring in the big guns with “Dirty Knife” because a full orchestra is the only thing that could compete with her voice. You can hear the madness punching its way in, interrupting her wistful and lilting voice with a compulsive repetition that’s actually frightening.

Björk is another artist who could overpower anything other than a full orchestra, and “Isobel,” my favorite song from my favorite of her albums, uses it to full effect. It doesn’t feel like an unnecessary flourish. It’s more like the music that’s been driven by the electronic beat that seems to carry throughout Post is finally allowed to break free and soar. It felt timeless, both familiar and cinematic and still like nothing I’d ever heard before.

One Thing I Like About Poor Things

The best moments in Poor Things are the ones you can appreciate empirically

I went in hoping, and fully expecting, to love Poor Things, but it never really clicked for me. So it’s a good thing I’ve got a series called “One Thing I Like,” because there’s an awful lot to like about this movie.

The art direction is outstanding, delivering on the promise of the trailer and then some. It’s full of fantasy versions of cities (and a ship) that are beautiful and familiar, but just surreal enough to suggest that you’re seeing them for the very first time, and just sinister enough to suggest that there’s always danger lurking just outside of your field of view. The beginning calls back to The Bride of Frankenstein and Metropolis, just directly enough to make sure that we make the connection, but not so directly that it feels just like a reference.

And Emma Stone, obviously, gives herself so completely into this character that any trace that it’s a performance disappears within a few minutes. There’s no way the movie would’ve worked without her commitment. Mark Ruffalo is also excellent, acting as if he were a character borrowed from an entirely different movie, which is exactly what’s needed for the character. Willem Dafoe is at the stage in his career where yet another exceptional performance from him isn’t all that exceptional. And I think Ramy Youssef deserves credit for playing the straight man against so many showy performances; he has to function as the audience’s guide into a Victorian horror story, but one in which the story abandons its narrator a third of the way through.

Also, there are brief black-and-white interstitials when the story moves to a new location, each seeming like we’re getting a peek into Bella’s bizarre and beautiful dreams. But none lasts long enough to make any sense of them. Like a real dream, they seem to leave an after-image on the mind, even if we can’t reliably recall details.

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Tuesday Tune Twenty Twenty-foursome: What I Am

FOUR tangentially-related tunes on the theme of self-actualization for the New Year

I’m not aware of too many things, but I am aware that I missed posting a Tuesday Tune Two-Fer last week. I decided to take a break for Christmas, largely because Christmas songs are ubiquitous anyway, and there’s not much original I can say about any of them.1If you’re curious, I probably would’ve tried to find some way to pair “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” from Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town with “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt.

But that’s all in the past! I’m making up for the missed week by delivering four tunes this week! That’s double the songs for the same low price! And now it’s the New Year, which means it’s time to decide who or what you’re going to be in 2024.

You could go expansive, like in “New Year” by The Breeders. Granted, only somebody as cool as Kim Deal could claim to be the sun and the rain and the New Year, but this is more about being aspirational than achievable.

If you like the idea of being the sun and the air, but you want to manage expectations a bit, you could change it up like The Smiths with “How Soon is Now?” Just make sure you’ve got Johnny Marr backing up your self-aggrandizing, performative gloominess, so it’ll be a few decades before people realize your bullshit isn’t that funny anymore.

Or, if you want to wallow in your neuroses, but not quite as hard and definitely not as gothic, then you could take a cue from Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel and declare “I Am a Rock.” Pros: A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries. Cons: It’s a little on the nose.

Of course, you could just skip the whole business and just spend the year spewing out nonsense, as in “I Am the Walrus” by the Beatles. Again, just be sure that you pair yourself with a brilliant producer, and you’ll be praised as an enigmatic genius.

As for me, I think LA’s fine, the sun shines most of the time, and the feeling is laid back.2Update: The palm trees still grow, but the rents are no longer low. For 2024, I aspire just to be a content, middle-aged man.

Literacy 2023: Recap

Another year of failing to hit my target number, but being pretty happy about it nonetheless

I picked up this whole series again when I discovered Goodreads and its annual reading challenges. But the real goal for me isn’t to hit some number of books read, but a) make more time for reading for pleasure, and b) get better at summarizing my thoughts on a book without its turning into an over-long book report to prove that “I got it.” By that metric, this year’s been a success. More about rediscovering familiar books and writers than taking on anything new, although I managed to do both.

Goal
20 books in 2023

Final
18 read

Favorite Book of Literacy 2023
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. I didn’t expect to enjoy this one as much as I did, but early on it deviated from the format I’d thought it was going to take, and it went off to surprise me over and over again. It’s an infuriating (and I hope exaggerated) account of racism in America perfectly balanced with pulp sci-fi.

MVP of Literacy 2023
Agatha Christie. Last year I started reading or re-reading the mysteries, most of which I hadn’t read since high school, and it was more like discovering a new author than getting re-acquainted with a familiar one. I never appreciated how innovative and experimental Christie could be, or how well some of her books situated themselves in “modern times” as opposed to being quaint relics of the early 20th century.

Runner-Up MVP of Literacy 2023
Mary Roach. I kind of worked my way up to her most well-known books (Stiff and Bonk), which was a great way to get familiar with her style before seeing how good it could be when she’s firing on all cylinders. I’m looking forward to reading more of her books in 2024.

Goal for Literacy 2024
12 Books in 2024. I like having an arbitrary number to encourage myself to keep reading — and I probably would’ve left Shadow of the Sith hanging had I not been driven to finish it before the end of the year — but “a book a month” is a perfectly reasonable goal. I’d rather end the year feeling happy that I exceeded one arbitrary target instead of disappointed that I didn’t hit an equally arbitrary one.

RIP to Goals of Past Years
I did try to resume The Starless Sea, as I’d pledged in previous years, but I finally had to abandon it as being just not for me. My biggest complaint was that it was so high on its own supply of magical realism that it felt twee, but I read so many positive reviews that I resolved to try again. And almost immediately, it hit me with a description of a merchant who collected stars and traded them for secrets. I mean come on.

Most Looking Forward To in 2024
The Destroyer of Worlds, the sequel to Lovecraft Country, which I got as a Christmas gift

Call to Action
I’ve still got a long backlog of books, but I’m always looking for new recommendations. If there’s anything you’ve read that made a particular impact on you, feel free to recommend it in the comments or on Mastodon!

Literacy 2023: Book 18: Shadow of the Sith

An interim Star Wars story in which Luke and Lando try to protect Rey’s family from a sinister Sith plot.

Book
Shadow of the Sith by Adam Christopher

Synopsis
Set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, the story begins with Luke Skywalker training the next generation of young Jedi while Lando Calrissian is searching the galaxy for his kidnapped daughter. Their paths cross when Lando overhears a plot from an evil bounty hunter assigned to track down a young couple and their daughter, which ties in with sinister plans from Sith cultists and Luke’s own nightmarish visions of a dark planet called Exegol.

Pros

  • A team-up of two characters I rarely see in Star Wars stories, during a time period that we haven’t yet seen much of.
  • Carefully connects the dots between ideas and events mentioned in the sequel trilogy, or shown briefly in flashback.
  • Gives more characterization of Rey’s parents, and offers an explanation of the events that led to her being left on a desolate planet at the start of The Force Awakens, as well as an explanation for how Emperor Palpatine had a son that no one knew about.
  • Some of the locations are as evocative and imaginative as Star Wars at its best, like a ghost planet bleached of color by radiation, and a world covered in diamond “frozen” over a treacherous ocean. Their descriptions suggest classic concept art from the films and TV series.

Cons

  • The dialogue is pretty clunky, even by Star Wars standards.
  • Trying to justify some of the decisions in The Rise of Skywalker is a thankless job, and I don’t think the book quite manages to live up to the challenge. In particular, the end of Rey’s family’s story to set up the first sequel is still unsatisfying.
  • The back stories for some of the characters are too complicated with a few too many names of characters involved, implying to me that they’re attempting to piece together threads from the comics or from other novelizations that I haven’t read.
  • Tries to split the difference between science fiction and Star Wars fantasy, which works sometimes, but often feels like unnecessary explanations for things the reader would otherwise just accept and run with.
  • Related to the above: because it’s essentially a chase story, so much of the story involves characters trying to track each other down across the Galaxy. The book tries to offer a pseudo-sci-fi justification, which just draws attention to how much of the plot is characters just knowing things “because reasons.”
  • An entire storyline of the book consists of characters trying to avoid a fate that we already know is unavoidable, and our main protagonists have no real agency in affecting it.
  • As it’s trying to fill in the gaps between existing stories, it’s obligated to leave most of its threads unresolved. This results in our main characters having no real arc; they end the story pretty much exactly how they began it.

Verdict
I didn’t enjoy this one, but honestly it’s as much my own fault as it is the fault of the book. It’s not my preferred “flavor” of Star Wars, but as it’s got “Sith” in the title, I should probably have predicted how much of it feels like “Star Wars For Goths.” (That still somehow manages to turn into a scene that reads like the goofy-but-horrifying-to-a-kid climax of Superman 3). I’m also realizing that I’m no longer the same kid who freaked out over Splinter of the Mind’s Eye; I just can’t get into the novelizations anymore, since they too often feel like trying to explore the inner minds of characters who, by design, are only just as deep as they need to be to drive pulp fiction.

It’s an unenviable job to have to connect the dots and provide depth and nuance to things that screenwriters only intended as Macguffins, or as puzzle boxes deliberately left for someone else to open and explore. Shadow of the Sith feels weighed down by too many franchise requirements to ever get the chance to go off on interesting tangents and tell its own story.

One Thing I Love About Wonka

My favorite thing about Wonka is how it effectively chooses songs from the original, and then goes off to do its own thing

When I first saw a link to a trailer for Wonka, a 2023 prequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Timothée Chalamet, I was prepared for the worst. And I was pleasantly surprised when I could find nothing wrong with it; it looked perfectly charming.

After seeing it, I was happy to see that it is charming (albeit far from perfectly) from the start. It begins with the three repeated notes from “Pure Imagination” — which work so well because they are vaguely creepily discordant — before launching into an original opening song confidently introducing Chalamet as a young Willy Wonka.

I should admit from the start that I was almost hoping to find fault in Chalamet’s performance, and by the end of the first song, I gave up and just resigned to having to acknowledge that sometimes famous people are just good at stuff. I think he did an exceptional job creating a version of the character that is at the opposite end of Gene Wilder’s version — all of the optimism and kind-heartedness and almost-compulsive showmanship and eagerness to make people happy, but before decades of seeing people’s greed (and excessive gum-chewing and TV-watching) put a darker and more melancholy spin on it.

Which is, more or less, my most significant criticism of the movie: it delivers exactly what is promised on the poster, wonderfully, but no more than that. It’s an often-delightful and imaginative children’s movie about imagination and hope, with tons of people doing excellent work to sell every moment, but there’s little sense of a unique voice.

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