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writing, movies

Saving the Cat

I’ve started a rewatch of the Star Wars saga, going in internal timeline order, since some of the recent series have put things in a new context (I’m only including live-action shows and movies in this because there’s so much of the animation that it would take me years, and I recently finished watching Clone Wars). I’m on the prequels now, and I figured out a valuable writing lesson from watching Attack of the Clones last weekend that I actually used in my own writing because it made me realize what I needed to do in the scene I was working on.

I normally fast-forward through the Anakin and Padme scenes when I watch this movie because that part is painful while the rest of the movie can be a lot of fun. I made myself watch the whole movie this time, and I think Hayden Christensen gets a lot of unfair criticism for his performance. He actually does a good job portraying the character as he’s written. The problem is that his character seems to be in a totally different movie from everyone else, particularly Padme. They’re all reacting to a different person than we actually see, and I think that has a lot to do with it all being so unconvincing. He’s this seething volcano of arrogance and adolescent rage, someone who hates the universe the way it is and thinks he could fix it if he could force everyone to do what he wants, but everyone’s acting like he’s this great guy who’s just a little cocky.

The romance really feels out of sync. It seems like every romantic moment is preceded by a scene of him being kind of scary, or at least creepy. Padme hears him having a hissy fit about how he’s the greatest Jedi ever and how unappreciated he is, and she has to ask him to stop staring at her because he’s making her uncomfortable, then she calls him out for mansplaining her home planet to her — and that’s what leads up to their first kiss. Since I usually skip these parts, I’d forgotten what happened, and based on her behavior leading up to that moment, when he started touching her and leaned in for the kiss, I expected her to flinch away and tell him to back off, so the kiss came as a shock. Later, the scene of them romping in the meadow and rolling around on the ground, giggling, comes after the conversation in which he talks about a dictatorship being a good idea, something she actually seems to find alarming since it goes against everything she believes. So why is she getting all romantic with him immediately afterward? And then before she declares her love for him, she hears him go on yet another rant about being better than everyone else and admitting that he slaughtered all the sandpeople, including the children.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that not only were there a lot of reasons why she wouldn’t have fallen in love with him, but they also didn’t bother to give any reasons why she would. During their whole side of the story, we don’t see him do anything kind or heroic. There’s the chase through the city scene at the beginning, but she didn’t see that, and then there’s the battle after she declares her love. But during the middle of the movie, when she’s supposedly falling in love with him, he doesn’t actually do anything. He’s there as a bodyguard for her, but he never has to save her. They don’t have an adventure together where they have to work as a team — even when they’re in that factory, they’re off on their own, not working together. She doesn’t see him help anyone else.

The funny thing is, George Lucas has managed to make this sort of thing work before. I also rewatched Willow last weekend (to prepare for the launch of the series). That story has an even higher hurdle for the “why?” since it’s an enemies-to-lovers story, but you can see why she fell in love with this guy (the actors were falling in love in real life and ended up married, so there is something of an unfair advantage since they had crazy chemistry, but I think the script still supports it). First, we saw the way her mother constantly criticized and berated her, so when the guy starts spouting poetry at her and praising her, we can see it get to her (he was under a love spell at the time, but she didn’t learn that until later). It may have been the first kind words she’d ever heard. Later, we see her react to him being loyal to and protective of Willow and the baby. Still later, we see her impressed by his swordsmanship and bravery, the fact that he’s singlehandedly taking on her army in order to protect Willow and the baby.

In screenwriting, there’s a term, “save the cat,” which basically means a moment in a story when you make the audience like a character by having that character “save the cat” — they have a moment when they do something kind or heroic without receiving any benefit from it. That’s particularly useful when introducing a character who might be edgy or problematic if the story isn’t going to show them being heroic or good for a while, but you want the audience to like them. For instance, in the animated Disney Aladdin, Aladdin is introduced as a thief, stealing bread and then running from the guards. Along the way, he sees a starving child and hands over the bread he stole for himself. That’s a save the cat moment.

But I think the save the cat can be more than just for the audience. It can be a way of making a character like another character. There’s an example of this in another Star Wars film. Early in Rogue One, Jyn Erso is kind of being a brat. She’s being forced to do something she really doesn’t want to do, and she’s got an attitude about it. Cassian Andor is having to babysit this brat on a mission he’s not crazy about, and he’s tired of her attitude. Then they get caught in the crossfire when a group of rebels attacks some Imperials. She spots a small child who’s out in the open, in danger, and she jumps out of her hiding place to whisk the child to safety and return her to her mother. It works as a “save the cat” for the audience because we see that there’s a kind heart underneath the attitude, and I think it affects the way Cassian sees her. They get along a bit better after that point. In Willow, there’s not really one particular save the cat moment, but the fact that this brash swordsman is willing to risk it all to protect the small, weak, and helpless has a similar effect.

And that’s what we needed some of in Attack of the Clones. Lucas may have gone too far in showing Anakin’s downward spiral starting so soon. Maybe he could have held off with the ranting and slaughter of children until after Anakin was already married to Padme, or maybe it should have been in secret and she didn’t know about it. But at the very least, Anakin needed to save a few cats. He needed to whisk a child from danger, use the Force to levitate a kitten out of a tree or stop something from falling on someone. We needed to see that he had a good heart underneath the attitude and the rage. And we never did see that. The audience does see him saving Obi-Wan a time or two, but Padme doesn’t see him doing or being good in the whole time between their reunion for the first time since she met him as a child and the time she declares her love for him.

The characters I’m working with aren’t nearly that problematic, but I did have a situation in which I needed to get one character to trust another character quickly, even though she met him in difficult circumstances, and after thinking about these movies it struck me that she needed to see him doing an act of kindness that showed a gentler, softer side to him. And from there, I knew what my next scene needed to be.

writing, TV, movies

Epic Overkill

A couple of weekends ago, I rewatched the Hobbit trilogy. It’s weird that it takes longer to watch the movies than to read the book they’re based on. They took a fairly simple book that was written to read to a kid at bedtime and turned it into a bloated epic. It’s pretty obvious the parts in the movies that came directly from the book. They tend to have a warmth and wit and are on a “human” scale (using the term loosely for this story). It made me think about epic vs. intimate in fiction. I think sometimes when writers or filmmakers go overboard in trying to make things exciting by making them epic, it comes back around to being dull. I kept checking the clock while watching these movies, and usually during the biggest, most “epic” scenes.

I think a lot of that comes down to something I’ve heard said about the news, that two lives lost is a tragedy, and two thousand is a statistic. Seeing one character we care about in a reasonable amount of peril against a foe they have a chance of fighting against can be gripping, but seeing thousands of faceless CGI characters we’ve never “met” in a massive battle is boring.

I had a similar problem with the overkill in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There were so many cases when our heroes would be overwhelmed by swarms of orcs, and those scenes got kind of ridiculous. It was hard to believe that they could survive those odds without major plot armor. The scene would end up being the hero fighting about six stuntman orcs while dozens of CGI orcs swarmed around. I guess all the bonus extraneous orcs were meant to make the scene exciting, but it had the opposite effect on me. If they’d kept it to the few stuntman orcs, it would have made for a more engaging scene.

I think one way that the Rings of Power series worked for me was that the fights all had reasonable odds. It wasn’t a mass of CGI characters. It was mostly characters we knew fighting a realistic size opponent. We saw more of the one-on-one fighting in a way that seemed like either side had a chance of winning, without the need for plot armor and with skills that fit what we knew about the characters.

I’m in no danger of going too epic because that kind of mass battle doesn’t really interest me, but looking at things this way made me more aware of what interests me. I’m far more engaged by character interactions than I am by battles, and if you want me really engaged, make me care about the people. A few weeks ago, I had to pace the living room during an episode of Andor (to switch franchises) because I was so anxious about what would happen to the characters in a big heist/fight scene. I cared about those people, and the focus was on the characters we knew instead of them trying to make everything massive (it turned out that they actually had some other plans, but COVID restrictions meant they couldn’t do a big crowd scene, and so they wrote around their limitations in a way that made the story work better).

If you make me care, you don’t need all the epic bells and whistles to engage me. The makers of The Hobbit movies wasted a lot of money on CGI when they had strong enough characters (and actors) to keep us involved with something on a smaller scale.

movies, fantasy

The Huntsman Rides Again

I did check The Huntsman: Winter’s War out of the library, and I was surprised to find that it was much, much better than the first movie. It’s still high-budget Fantasy Cheese, but it was much better structured than the first movie.

As an aside, I figure I should define “Fantasy Cheese.” The quick and easy definition is “the sort of thing the Sci Fi Channel used to show on Saturday nights,” but then I had to think further to figure out what that meant. I think for me it boils down to underdeveloped fantasy that’s mostly a string of tropes. So, generic quasi-medieval European world with no development beyond that of what the society is like, the standard character and plot points without much to make them unique. In books, I’ve heard this referred to as “extruded fantasy product.” It was the sort of thing that got published a lot in the 70s and early 80s when people wanted more stuff like The Lord of the Rings, and so we got works that were essentially based on LOTR without any further development. I think it can be fun for movies since a lot of the nuance and development never makes it to the screen anyway, and there’s something satisfying about a favorite trope done well. A lot of these movies are low-budget, so there’s a bit of a camp factor to them. They’re kind of cheesy and predictable. These are fantasy movies not to be taken too seriously but that can be fun to watch.

But back to The Huntsman. The main thing for me was that the heroes had actual goals, both on the story level and the personal level. We knew what they wanted and why, and those things had emotional resonance. There was interpersonal conflict with emotional stakes. And the heroes got to be proactive rather than just reactive.

The way I define “proactive” is that the heroes are trying to do something other than just escape from or counter the villain. If all they do is respond to what the villain is doing, that’s reactive. If they have their own plan that they’d be carrying out regardless of what the villain is doing, that’s proactive. They’ll still have to deal with and react to the villain, but the villain is getting in the way of them doing something. In the first movie, Snow White was purely reactive up until the end. She was just trying to get away from the queen, so if the queen stopped chasing her, there would be no story. You have a proactive story if the heroes would still be doing something if the villain left them alone.

This movie is both a prequel and a sequel. There’s an extended prologue (maybe about 20-30 minutes of the movie) that gives some of the backstory of the queen from the first movie and her sister and how the sister becomes the Snow Queen (that’s the fairy tale this movie focuses on). Then it gets into the backstory of the Huntsman from the first movie and how he and his future wife were taken by the Snow Queen and trained to be part of her army of warriors, then goes on to show what happened to his wife and how he got to where he was in the first movie. And then it skips ahead to after the first movie, when the magic mirror has gone missing and Snow White’s husband asks for the Huntsman’s help to find it and get it to a safe place where the Snow Queen won’t be able to get to it. So he sets out on a quest, running into someone from his past along the way, and he learns that things in his past weren’t what they seemed.

There’s some humor and some decent action sequences that had an emotional core, so I didn’t zone out during them. Emily Blunt makes a wonderful villain, with a kind of fragile vulnerability beneath her icy exterior. I found myself actually caring what happened.

This one actually might work best if you don’t try to connect it to the first film because there are some continuity gaps, and this movie makes some of the pivotal stuff in the first movie an even bigger “huh?” There’s a bit of a Once Upon a Time (the TV series) thing, with the Huntsman from the Snow White story turning out to also be one of the kids from the Snow Queen story, and the Snow Queen and the Evil Queen from Snow White are sisters (in that series, it seemed like all the fairy tale characters were either related to each other or were mashups, with the same person playing key roles in multiple fairy tales).

In general, this is a good popcorn fantasy film with some good performances, gorgeous costumes, and a decent story. I don’t know that I’d buy the DVD unless I find it on the bargain shelf at the used bookstore, but it’s a fun watch. I think it’s currently available to watch with ads on Freevee (what used to be IMDB-TV).

movies

The Dreaded Triangle

I’ve been analyzing what was wrong with the movie Snow White and the Huntsman, since I’ve lost a lot of sleep mulling it over and figuring out how to fix a bad story is a good creative exercise. Previously, I dealt with the major issues, which are mostly about how the writers forgot to actually create characters for the protagonists. We never really knew what they wanted in life or what they aimed to accomplish in the story. And that made for a mess when it came to the weirdly halfhearted romantic triangle in the movie.

Generally, a love triangle represents a choice the person at the center of the triangle has to make. There are two major approaches. In one version, one guy is good and the other is bad, but it’s hard to tell which is which, often because the bad one hides behind a fair face, charm, and other things we associate with goodness, and the good one may not have the superficial qualities we associate with goodness. One famous example of this is Pride and Prejudice, and it’s also common in Gothic romances. Figuring out which one is good and which is bad is a test for the heroine, and she has to learn whatever cosmic lesson the story is teaching her to be able to make that choice, such as getting over her prejudice or learning discernment.

In the other kind of triangle, both suitors are good, but they represent different paths the heroine could take, and one of those paths might be better for her. Choosing a guy means choosing the direction of her future and the kind of life she’s going to have. A famous example of this one would be The Philadelphia Story, in which Katharine Hepburn’s character faces the enviable dilemma of choosing between characters played by Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. They’re both good guys who care about her. Jimmy Stewart’s character sees her as a goddess and puts her on a pedestal, while Cary Grant’s character sees her as a flawed human being and loves her anyway. She realizes that’s what she needs, that she’ll never grow if she’s being admired as a goddess. She needs to get knocked down off the pedestal and challenged.

I’m honestly not sure which of these the writers of Snow White and the Huntsman were trying to take. There are going to be spoilers here because this is where they deviated a lot from the fairy tale, so if you haven’t seen it, want to, and want to be surprised, come back after you’ve seen it.

In one corner of the triangle, we have William, the duke’s son, Snow White’s childhood best friend. He’s sort of in the role of Prince Charming from the fairy tale. He had to be literally carried away to keep him from trying to get back to the castle to save her when the evil queen took over when they were children and he’s been actively fighting against the queen ever since then. He’s taking a great risk by infiltrating the enemy to try to help her. In the other corner, we have the Huntsman, a drunk who’s still hung up on his dead wife, who was working for the queen to try to catch Snow White until he learned the queen lied to him and who only agreed to help Snow White after that because he was promised a reward. He abandons her at one point and only comes back when he realizes the people he ditched her with are under attack.

I don’t think either guy is bad. Both help her, neither betrays her, and they end up being able to work together well. There’s no jealous sparring between the guys and neither one turns out to be a louse. It may be that they represent two different paths. William wants to place Snow White on her rightful throne, so he represents the path of royalty. I’m not sure what the Huntsman is supposed to represent. This is where the characters having no real goals becomes a problem. We don’t know what the Huntsman wants out of life (other than his wife back), so we don’t know what Snow’s life with him would be like, and we don’t know what Snow really wants, so we don’t know if she’s opposed to William’s goal or torn about duty vs. freedom, or anything like that. As queen, she can’t really be with someone like the Huntsman, so being with him would probably mean going away to someplace safe where the evil queen can’t reach her and giving up on being royalty. But it’s hard to see that as a positive outcome, especially since she sees the harm the queen is doing to the people of Snow White’s kingdom. She’s selfish and irresponsible if she chooses that path. So then we’re down to a Roman Holiday thing, but with a triangle twist, where she might want to choose that guy but out of duty she can’t choose the path he represents, so she’s making a sacrifice to choose duty and give up love. That seems to be what they’re aiming for, since it’s the Huntsman who saves her from the curse of the poisoned apple with a kiss (after William’s tearful kiss after she collapses from the poison does nothing), and then the scene of her coronation in which the Huntsman is lurking near the back is somewhat reminiscent of the ending of Roman Holiday, in which the reporter shows up at the princess’s public appearance, back in their royalty and commoner roles but with a sly acknowledgment to each other of what has passed between them.

Except, they don’t really bother to develop that in any way. We haven’t seen any kind of development of their relationship or any struggle between desire and duty. The plot more or less follows the fantasy road trip outline I came up with last year — there’s the bargain they strike that leads to them traveling together. There’s bickering (though it’s sort of half-hearted, almost like they’re just ticking it off a list and then they forget about it after a scene). They come under attack and barely escape. Then there’s a “whew, we made it” scene after they run into the dwarfs in which there’s dancing. Except she’s not dancing with him. She’s goofing around and dancing with one of the dwarfs. This should have been where the Huntsman cut in and ended up dancing with her, with them having a big moment of sexual tension or awareness of each other. It’s in the next scene when the childhood friend finds them and helps them fend off the rest of the search party, so that would have fit perfectly — just as she’s had a moment with the Huntsman, William shows up and she’s reunited with her old friend. Cue Huntsman looking lonely and Snow White feeling torn. Except it doesn’t happen that way. The Huntsman is amused by watching her dance, but shows no sign that he wants to be the one dancing with her. He doesn’t seem to be all that interested in her other than as someone to be kind of in awe of and even encourages William to tell her how he feels about her after William talks to the Huntsman about how he’s always felt about Snow. The Queen uses Snow’s relationship with William to trick her into taking the poison apple, and Snow seems pretty keen on him then.

But then after the poison apple, the Huntsman makes a big, heartfelt speech to what he thinks is Snow White’s dead body, laid out in state, talking about things between them that they never really showed. We didn’t see the things he describes in his speech before the kiss, and then there’s the fact that just a few days earlier, he was so hung up on his dead wife that he was willing to take the job to bring Snow White to the queen because he thought the queen could bring his wife back to life. Instead of it being a pivotal emotional moment the whole movie was building toward, it was a big “huh?”

I think him showing up at the coronation and the ambiguity they left it with, with no definite relationship with either guy, was meant to set up the sequel, but they removed Snow White from the sequel, which is just about the Huntsman, and apparently the sequel reveals that she married William, which makes what happened in this movie even more baffling. I’m curious enough to see what happens in the sequel, even though apparently it’s worse than the first one, that I’ve checked the DVD out of the library for weekend viewing. It has Emily Blunt in it, so it can’t be all bad. She’s always fun to watch. I’ll be making popcorn and settling in Saturday night. There may even be alcohol.

movies

Why Didn’t it Work?

Last weekend, I was still in the mood for fantasy but not quite up for starting an entire fantasy saga, and as I noticed the previous weekend, there are precious few standalone fantasy films. So, I ended up watching Snow White and the Huntsman, which is new to Prime. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it before. I remember the wisecrack I made at the time about how they got all those noted British actors to play the dwarfs by finding the pub where the renowned theater actors hang out, drugging them, loading them into a van, and driving them to the set, where they woke up already made up as dwarfs. But, oddly, there was only one scene in the whole movie that seemed at all familiar to me, and my memories of scenes I thought I remembered turned out to be inaccurate. As I recall, I watched it on HBO when I was sick, so it’s possible I was dozing off and on and didn’t see much of the movie. This viewing felt like I was seeing it for the first time.

And it’s not a great movie. It’s basically Fantasy Cheese with a bigger budget. They had good special effects, a mostly top-notch cast, and enough money to hire enough extras for crowd scenes (though a lot of them might have been computer generated). But the script may have been worse than most of the Fantasy Cheese movies. I had to fight to stay awake and wasn’t at all engaged, which may be why I didn’t remember much from the first time I watched it. I actually lost sleep that night from lying awake and trying to figure out why it didn’t work. It was an interesting exercise in story craft, so I thought I’d share my analysis. I’m going to try to keep it vague enough to not be spoilery, especially where this version deviates from the basic fairy tale this is loosely based on, but if you haven’t seen it and think you might want to, I suggest watching it before you read this.

I think the main problem for me was that I didn’t find the protagonists very engaging. I didn’t care enough about them to get emotionally involved in the story, which meant it was mostly spectacle and I mentally checked out. The villain was reasonably well-developed. We learn early in the movie what she wants out of life — what might be called her character goal or desire — and why. Then there’s the time when things change and she comes up with her story goal, the specific thing she needs to accomplish in order to set things right. We also get a pretty good sense of what her underlying drive is. These are the core things you need for a character who’s going to be driving the action, so they got that much right. Unfortunately, she mostly drops out of the movie around the time her story goal is established. She does a few pivotal things late in the movie, but for most of the middle of the film, she just stands around looking menacing and occasionally yelling at people.

The protagonists don’t get that much development. Snow White is just a void. We get a little bit about her as a kid in the prologue, but as an adult, we know nothing about her. She wants to escape the queen and we understand why, but she doesn’t really have any hints of goals or motivations beyond that until almost the end of the movie. They keep telling us how special and inspiring she is and how she’s some kind of chosen one the people will rally around and finally defeat the evil queen, but we don’t really see her do anything inspiring. Mostly, she just stands open-mouthed and with her chest heaving while various people and creatures stare in awe at her because she’s just that special. All the people around her want to restore her to her rightful throne, but we never learn how she feels about that until almost the end of the movie, and we don’t know if this is a difficult decision for her. Is it something she wants all along? Does she change her mind? Is she doing it because she really wants it or out of duty? I think the character development in the script stopped at “played by that chick from Twilight, so all the teen girls will love her.” I understand that Kristen Stewart got a lot of hate for this role, and she’s not good. She just has that one facial expression with her mouth hanging open and almost no inflection to her speech, but the script gives her absolutely nothing to work with. She’d have had to create a character from scratch and write an entire script for what’s going on inside the character to have had anything to play. She has very little dialogue and almost no action other than running away from people chasing her.

The Huntsman isn’t any better. He gets a sad backstory about having lost his wife, but we don’t know what he wants. He initially works for the queen to track down Snow White because she promises she can use her magic to bring his wife back, but he later agrees to help Snow White because she promises him a big reward if he can get her to the duke who’s still holding out against the queen. He doesn’t really have a story goal and we don’t know if he has a character goal. The character development went no further than “played by Thor, so maybe people will remember that and apply it to this character.”

Because the title protagonists don’t have a goal beyond surviving, they’re in reactive mode. They don’t do much other than react to what the queen and her minions do. They get chased around a lot, but there’s no narrative drive for them. The turning points come about because of things the queen does or things they stumble across rather than because of choices they make. I think that’s what makes me lose interest.

There is one good guy they actually did some development on, the duke’s son, Snow White’s childhood friend. When we see him as an adult, he’s fighting a guerrilla insurrection against the queen (character goal!), and then when he learns that Snow White is still alive after all those years as the queen’s prisoner, he sets out to find and help her so he can restore her to her rightful place on the throne (story goal!). And he’s proactive about it — he has a plan. He joins the queen’s hunting party that’s looking for Snow White so he can protect her before they get to her (and he can hamper them a bit). The scene in which he shoots his way onto the hunting party in a very Robin Hood way was the one scene I recalled from the first time I saw the movie. A movie about this guy infiltrating the hunting party as a way to find Snow White while also trying to sabotage them so they don’t find her might have been a lot more interesting than what we got.

And, oddly, this guy was apparently the “Mr. Wrong” in a weirdly undeveloped romantic triangle, but that’s a pretty complicated topic I’ll save for the next post.

That means we have no narrative drive from the protagonists whose names are in the title, and no real emotional or relationship development between them, while the one they give narrative drive and emotional development to is peripheral. And that’s why I couldn’t make myself stay engaged with the movie. The lesson learned here is that your protagonists need to be trying to get or achieve something, and we need to have a sense of what relationship they have to each other. Those are the things that keep an audience engaged in a story.

Another problem related to the lack of narrative drive is the role of what seem to be coincidences in furthering the plot. There’s something later that hints that maybe it wasn’t just coincidence, but it’s never made explicit what’s going on, and while I don’t have to be spoon-fed, I do like to have my guesses verified, and I’d like to know if the characters have made the connections and figured things out. Snow White is able to escape from the tower where the queen has kept her imprisoned for about ten years because some friendly birds get her attention and get her to notice a big nail sticking out of the rock wall near her window. She’s able to pull the nail out, and it comes in handy when a moment later the queen’s brother comes to get her to bring her to the queen. She’s able to fight him and lock him in her cell so she can run. Then when she’s made it out of the castle, she happens to find a horse waiting for her on the beach. Since we later see that fairies were riding those birds, I think we’re meant to assume that the fairies set up her escape, including having the horse waiting for her. But they never make it clear, so it just seems like everything lined up conveniently.

I think if I were going to do a rewrite to fix it, I’d start by doing more to establish Snow White. She’s been kept a prisoner for about a decade, but we don’t know what she’s been doing all that time or how it’s affected her. She’s going to be doing a lot of physical stuff in the rest of the movie, so I think I’d set it up by showing her regular daily routine, with her walking and running laps around her cell, doing some shadow fencing, and maybe some other physical training stuff to show that she’s preparing to escape. Maybe she’s already got the nail and has been waiting for the chance to use it, but they slide things through a slot in the door instead of opening it. Or the friendly birds, her only companions in her imprisonment, have been spying on the queen, hear what her plans for Snow are, and bring her the nail. I’m still not sure what a nail was doing sticking out of the wall of a stone tower and why she hadn’t noticed it before. Finally, she gets her chance to use the nail when the queen’s brother comes to get her. The friendly birds lead her to the horse, so it’s more obvious that this has been set up.

Then we need to know where she stands on what she wants to do next. It’s treated as a big turning point when she wakes up from the apple curse and announces that she knows how to defeat the queen and she’s going to lead the army into battle, but up to that point, she hasn’t really had a position. It might be somewhat understandable if she feared that the queen was too powerful for her to defeat and she was too traumatized by her long imprisonment to face the queen again, so all she wanted was to get to a place of safety and hide, but that wouldn’t really be a heroine you’d root for, especially after she’s seen what the queen is doing to her people. During her initial escape, the people in the nearest village made no move to help her and even cleared a path for the queen’s men to come after her, so Snow White may have taken that to mean she didn’t have support among the people and no one would rally behind her, but everyone else she encountered after that was in awe of her, which kind of kills the “she didn’t think anyone would fight for her” theory. Maybe take a middle ground in which she thinks there’s some magical McGuffin she needs to defeat the queen, not realizing until later that the reason the queen needs her is also the reason she alone can defeat the queen. At any rate, we need to know what she wants to do, whether it’s just survive, fight back, or buy time. We’d also need a bit more evidence of how inspiring she is and why. Snow White is known for her kindness, so use that here. Let her help some of the magical creatures she encounters along the way and have that pay off. There’s a scene in which she keeps the Huntsman from killing a troll and the troll seems in awe of her, so why isn’t the troll fighting in her army against the queen later?

Likewise, we need to see something of what’s going on with the Huntsman. What does he think about Snow White? Does he want to defeat the queen and restore Snow to her rightful throne? Does he just want to get away somewhere the queen won’t find him? Is he in love with Snow but worried that a guy like him doesn’t stand a chance with a princess? We don’t know (and I’ll deal with this more when talking about the love triangle). The guy who doesn’t want to get involved and is just in it for the reward — until he has a change of heart at the end and joins in the big battle — is a cliche at this point, so maybe he realizes from the start that now that he’s betrayed the queen he doesn’t stand a chance of having a life unless she’s defeated, so he’s all for that plan for selfish reasons, until he later comes to be a true believer.

These are all minor tweaks that wouldn’t require any additional budget and that could easily have come in the time they had available by shaving some of the slow spots, but I think would have made the movie more engaging.

Next up, I deal with the issue of romantic triangles and how this movie does it wrong.

movies, fantasy

Where’s the Fantasy?

Since I’ve been watching the Rings of Power series, I was in the mood for a fantasy movie last weekend, and I didn’t have time to watch any of the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit films since most of those run about three hours. I found a fantasy film on Amazon called Dawn of the Dragonslayer that worked pretty well and was less than two hours.

I’d put this in a similar category to the kind of fantasy movie they used to show on Saturday nights on the Sci Fi Channel (back when it was the Sci Fi Channel instead of SyFy) that I called Fantasy Cheese, only it was much better executed. It was filmed on location in Ireland and they had a good director of photography, so it looked utterly gorgeous, and there was a good score to go with all the lovely imagery. They had an actual castle to use as a location, so the setting looked real. The acting was mostly strong (it seems to have been a cast of mostly Irish actors who do a lot of theater work). The script was so-so. It may just be that I’ve spent too much time studying story structure, so it’s hard to surprise me, but I felt like it was very by-the-numbers and a bit too predictable. On the other hand, it was the kind of predictable that’s satisfying — a key factor in good Fantasy Cheese. You know what’s going to happen, but it’s what you want to happen.

The story was about a farmboy whose father was killed by a dragon. It was his father’s wish that he leave the farm and go to be a bondsman to a nobleman who owed the father something, with a sealed message the farmboy was to bring the nobleman. The idea is that the nobleman will train the farmboy to be a knight, and he’ll be able to move up in the world. Except the nobleman is down on his luck and out of favor with the king, so although the sealed message definitely gets a reaction, he only takes on the farmboy as a farmhand, not to train him to be a knight. But the nobleman has a beautiful, scholarly daughter (of course), and she has a rare book on how a knight should be trained and an even rarer book on how to be a paladin who can battle dragons and survive, so she trains him in secret — when comes in handy when the dragon returns.

The low budget mostly showed in the lack of cast and in the bad special effects, and I think those things affected the story. It’s a really small cast, and there are no extras, which made it feel like a really empty world. The farmboy walks across the land from his farm to the nobleman’s castle without encountering a single person that we see until he reaches the castle, and there are several other long journeys (some requiring camping overnight en route) in which the characters never see another person or even a sign of civilization, and this is not a plot point. We never learn that the dragon has wiped out most of the people, or anything like that. Aside from a few farmhands, there are no servants at the castle. Maybe that’s because the lord is down on his luck, but a wealthy elderly noblewoman who’s a relative comes to visit, and she has no servants with her, not even a lady’s maid. A wealthy and powerful young nobleman with eyes for the daughter comes to visit, and he doesn’t have any servants with him. I guess since there are no people, they were able to safely travel without guards. I think the script could have used this to add a bit of worldbuilding, but since the lack of people wasn’t acknowledged, it just made the world feel empty and artificial.

And the CGI dragon itself wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t integrated well into the “real” footage, so it looked like one of those bad Photoshop jobs where they just stick something into a picture and it’s obviously pasted in. That didn’t bother me quite as much as the heroine having Jennifer Anniston hair with face-framing layers and a heavy-handed modern makeup job. If you’d told me there was a deleted scene saying she was a time traveler who’d fallen through a portal from 2010, I’d have believed it.

But aside from those quibbles, it was an entertaining and lovely to look at fantasy movie with a running time of under two hours, which is rare.

Really, fantasy movies seem to be oddly rare now. The 80s were a heyday of fantasy films, with things like Dragonslayer, Ladyhawke, Legend, Labarynth, The Princess Bride, and Willow, along with more sword-and-sorcery type stuff like the Conan movies, Krull, and The Beastmaster. And while some of them were based on books, there were several that were original stories.

But in spite of the success of the Lord of the Rings movies, Hollywood didn’t seem to capitalize on it with more fantasy stuff. There were the Hobbit films, which were the same universe and filmmaker, and the Narnia movies, but otherwise I can’t think of many fantasy films other than a few of the fairytale-based movies and the Disney live-action remakes. They seem to have headed for TV instead, with A Game of Thrones and the spinoff, Wheel of Time, and Rings of Power. There are a few other things that kind of fall into the fantasy category, like the Pirates movies and some of the Marvel movies, but there’s not a lot of what I call “traditional” fantasy, with a quasi-medieval setting, castles, wizards, etc. And all the more recent fantasy I can think of is based on books or some other pre-existing property. Not that I have any problem with turning fantasy books into movies or TV series, but it does make you wonder where the original stories are. Are studios so risk-averse that they only fund things based on something that’s already got a fanbase, or are writers not coming up with their own fantasy stories? I scrolled through the entire fantasy category on Amazon last night, and there’s very little of what I would consider “fantasy.” Most of it is more horror or science fiction.

I need more horses, castles, knights, wizards, dragons, etc.

That filmmaker who did Dawn of the Dragonslayer (who also did another good Fantasy Cheese film I watched last year, The Crown and the Dragon, which I think is set in the same universe as this film) should maybe try writing a script that actually uses the practical limitations she’s dealing with and that doesn’t require a dragon. Write about a witch or wizard in a lonely place, doing magic that requires minor CGI to show, and no CGI creatures, and let the director of photography have fun with the scenery.

TV, movies

A Golden Age

I’ve been thinking lately about what my 11-year-old self would think about the times I’m living in now. That was the age when I fell full-on into geekiness and there wasn’t enough of the geeky stuff I wanted to satisfy me.

I’d been obsessed with Star Wars since I first saw it when I was 9, and in the fall of my sixth-grade year we were still a year away from The Empire Strikes Back (I was living on a military base overseas, so we wouldn’t get it until November of the following year after it was released in May in the US). Around that time, I discovered fantasy as a genre. I’d read books with magic and had even read The Hobbit, but that fall I found the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lloyd Alexander Prydain books, and The Lord of the Rings. I’m not sure which of them I found first, but I do know I read them all during that fall (though I stretched out the Narnia books and didn’t finish reading the series for the first time until early the following year).

The problem at that time was that there wasn’t enough of these things. There was one Star Wars movie, and there was no home video, so the only way to see it over and over again was to go to the movie theater, if it was playing anywhere. Which it wasn’t, especially not on military bases in Germany. There wasn’t a lot of related media. There were mostly just iterations of the original movie — the novelization, the comic book version, the audio drama version, the “storybook” version that had photos from the movie to illustrate the novelization. The way I “saw” the movie repeatedly was to read the novelization while listening to the soundtrack album. The only new stuff that wasn’t just the same story as the movie was one non-canon sequel novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which originally was meant to be the sequel if the movie did well enough for a sequel, but then when it was a smash that got scrapped and Lucas planned a whole saga with a bigger mythology. I guess the Han Solo books came out around that time, but I didn’t find them until about a year later. And there was the infamous Holiday Special, which was terrible but which we were excited for because it was something new in the Star Wars universe.

For Lord of the Rings, an animated version of the first half of the saga came out around that time (I’m not sure when it was actually released, but it came to one of the base theaters nearby that fall, right around the time I read the books). I was so excited about that, then was rather disappointed. And even if I’d loved it, there was no home video, so no way to watch it if it wasn’t at the theater.

It would have blown my mind then to imagine there being eleven Star Wars movies, plus multiple TV series. And it’s all streaming, so you can watch it whenever you want to. You could watch Star Wars content every waking hour for weeks before repeating anything. I was watching Andor last week and it struck me that I was watching a Star Wars TV show, and there would be a new episode a week later. In the days when it was three years between Star Wars movies, that would have been an unimaginable luxury.

And then on Friday night, I watched the latest episode of Rings of Power, which also amazed 11-year-old me. Not only do we have full movies of the whole Lord of the Rings saga, but now there’s a TV series with new stuff in that world, so we get to visit that world again without knowing exactly what will happen because we’ve read the books repeatedly.

I’m really enjoying both of these series, and not just because it’s so exciting to have new content in worlds I love. I think I’d enjoy them even if I hadn’t already been a fan. Andor is actually pretty peripheral to the main Star Wars story, though without that character and his actions, the events of the first movie wouldn’t have happened. But in a way, that’s what I like about it. It fleshes out that universe and shows why the Empire was terrible (beyond just the “willing to blow up whole planets to make a point” thing) while telling a new story I haven’t seen or read before. And Rings of Power is just gorgeous. It’s an immersive wallow in that world, getting to see different aspects of it than were in the main saga.

Twice a week right now, I get to indulge my inner 11-year-old and live out some of the biggest dreams I imagined when I was that age. And if I want to watch something related to these universes between episodes, there’s plenty to choose from.

movies

Fortunate Fools

A few weekends ago, I rewatched the Bill and Ted films. I have the first one on DVD, after seeing it multiple times in the theater. I saw it during the initial release, and then it played at the dollar theater across the street from my university campus, so my friends and I went multiple times. I saw the second one when it came out, but I don’t know if I’d seen it all the way through since then. There were parts I remembered clearly, but I didn’t remember the big picture story. I got the DVD of the third one when it came out. I noticed that they were all on Amazon Prime, so since I could see the second one, I decided it was time for a rewatch. (Warning: there are two versions of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey on Amazon, and the one that comes up first in recommendations is a rent/buy, but it’s also in Prime Video if you scroll further.)

Something that struck me upon this viewing is that the first two movies, in particular, are a modern telling of a “fortunate fool” story. This is a fairy tale archetype in which a good-hearted simpleton manages to bumble through life unaware of threats against him and always manages to come out ahead. He may stumble into trouble because he’s a bit of an idiot, but he also gets out of trouble easily due to a combination of good luck and good karma. He collects friends and allies easily and shows kindness. He’s the kind of guy who’ll see a hungry person and give him his own food, and then later realize that he’s hungry and has no food. But he wins in the long run, usually getting the princess.

Which is basically Bill and Ted. They stumble their way through history, collecting their historical figures and managing to win them over. They seldom lose their good natures and don’t really hold a lot of malice, even when people wrong them. They benefit from a lot of good luck and good timing, getting out of trouble in the nick of time. And they end up with princesses.

I have to wonder how intentional this was. Were the writers conscious of this trope and deliberately using it, or did they maybe absorb it subconsciously from fairy tales? I know that the Bill and Ted characters started as a bit the writers did as stand-up comedy and they wrapped a plot around these characters, but I don’t know if there was more to it than just these airhead guys.

Oddly enough, the description of this trope at TV Tropes fits Bill and Ted perfectly, but they aren’t mentioned among the examples.

The third film goes in a different direction. It’s more about dealing with destiny and facing mortality in the Bill and Ted side of the plot. The daughters are doing the running around in time part of the story, but the daughters are geniuses, with extensive in-depth knowledge of music theory and an ability to have conversations about quantum physics.

I love these movies so much (I need to get a DVD copy of the second film). They’re very much happy place viewing, and they never fail to make me grin. There’s something infectious about their zest for life and tight friendship. It’s even more fun when you know that the two actors became friends while filming and are still close all these years later.

movies

Disappointing Dresses

Last weekend, I watched the 1965 TV version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella. I remember watching it on TV as a very small child when they used to air it every year (I wasn’t born when it was first on, but I believe it was an annual TV tradition for a while after that). Watching this made me think about how often the revelation of the magical dress that totally transforms the heroine ends up being disappointing.

The dresses in most versions of Cinderella are actually pretty blah. They’re pretty, but not really anything that you’d think only a fairy godmother could conjure up or that would make her stand out from the crowd. The one in the Disney animated version is kind of dull. I think the dress she and the mice make that the stepsisters destroy is far prettier and more interesting. I remember as a child being disappointed with what she wears to the ball. The one in the TV version I just watched is pretty plain. It’s prettier than the things everyone else is wearing, but it’s nothing special. The dress in the more recent stage adaptation of the TV musical is mostly interesting because they pull off the transformation live on stage, but that means the dress itself isn’t that spectacular, since it has to fit inside the peasant dress to unfold as she spins around. It’s a neat bit of special effects, but it’s not a magical gown. About the only Cinderella dress that really lives up to the hype is the one in the live-action Disney film, where they used layers of tulle and LED lights to make the dress truly look magical, so that it changes color subtly as she moves and it looks lit from within.

It’s not just the magical dresses that can be a letdown. The same thing happens in non-magical stories. Ever since I was a child, I’ve hated the ballgown in My Fair Lady. It was like a 1960s evening dress suddenly appeared, and the hair also doesn’t really work for me. I like the dress from the Broadway version a lot better. It’s more apt for the period than the movie gown is.

And I can rant for hours about Pretty in Pink. She cut up a really cute dress to make a new creation for the prom, and everyone acts stunned when they see her, but the dress she made looks like something the mother of the groom would wear to an afternoon wedding.

In some cases, I’m sure my reaction is about perspective. The My Fair Lady movie dress probably was stunning to someone from the era when the movie was first made, since it was what was in style at the time. Now it just looks dated while not really fitting the time of the movie. Then again, I was a teen in the 80s, and I still think the Pretty in Pink dress is horrid. It was ugly then and now. I think showing up in the actual vintage dress would have been a bigger statement.

Now I’m trying to think of any dramatic transformations on film that really live up to the hype, aside from the live-action Cinderella. Is there a dress that’s supposedly knocking everyone’s socks off that really does knock your socks off? The nice thing about writing books is that I have an unlimited wardrobe budget for my characters, and everyone gets to imagine their idea of a fabulous dress, so no one’s disappointed.

movies

Fiction Becomes Real

I guess I’ve been on a “fiction becomes reality” kick lately, because after watching The Boyfriend School a couple of weeks ago, last weekend’s movies were The Lost City and Galaxy Quest, which also fall into that trope.

The Lost City is a spoof of the Romancing the Stone sort of film, in which a novelist gets dragged into the kind of adventure she writes about. In this case, an eccentric billionaire kidnaps a reclusive novelist because her latest book made him think she knew how to find a treasure he’s seeking, and her himbo cover model decides to stage a rescue mission that doesn’t quite go as planned.

This movie is an absolute hoot. I did have to turn off the part of my brain that knows anything about publishing because they seem to have written it as though it was movies but then changed it to books (a book tour doesn’t really work like a Hollywood press junket) and they don’t seem to understand that if you have a long series about the same hero, they’re probably not romance novels. But I laughed out loud so often during this movie. It somehow manages to be a spoof of the genre and an excellent example of it. It stands on its own as a romantic adventure movie while also sending up the tropes of that kind of movie. Everyone involved seems to be in on the joke, having fun and not taking themselves too seriously, sometimes mocking their own images. We’ve got Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter’s all grown up!) gleefully chewing the scenery as the villain, Channing Tatum playing the himbo with surprising depths while still leaning in to his character’s foibles, Brad Pitt having tons of fun mocking his own image, and Sandra Bullock pulling off an older, wiser version of the “spunky kid” type she played earlier in her career. Meanwhile, all the supporting characters are given something that fleshes them out and makes them memorable.

It’s on Amazon Prime, and I don’t know how long it will stay (movies seem to rotate in and out more rapidly lately). I may have to watch it again while it’s there. If you liked Romancing the Stone, check this one out.

I saw Galaxy Quest at the theater when it came out, but I don’t think I’ve seen it since then. There were parts that I remembered but a lot that I didn’t, and there were a lot of people I didn’t realize were in the movie. They’re known now, but that was an early (or first) role. That movie, about the cast of a Star Trek-like series that gets recruited for a mission by aliens who saw their show and thought it was real, is an excellent example of setups and payoffs. Every character gets established with a “thing” early in the movie that establishes their arc, and they all pay off at some point in the movie, which makes it all quite satisfying. One that works particularly well is Alan Rickman’s character ranting about hating his character’s tagline, and then he delivers it with utter sincerity later in the movie in a scene that’s quite emotional.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan most of my life (apparently, my mom watched part of the original run while feeding me when I was an infant), so it’s fun catching the way this movie lovingly sends up so many of the Trek tropes. It’s aged surprisingly well.

Mashing up all these things I’ve watched lately now kind of makes me want to write the story of the reclusive fantasy author who gets taken through a portal to a magical world, where they think she can coach them in defeating the Dark Lord and recruiting a team of heroes, since it looks to them like she’s an expert, thanks to her books that they think are histories. Or something like that. I’m trying to decide if her genre savvy would turn out to help or if it would turn out that nothing works the way it does in fiction. We could throw in a recent divorce and make it Under the Tuscan Sun meets Galaxy Quest, but in Narnia.