Archive for movies


When You Wish

Last weekend, I watched the new (ish — it just came to Disney+ but was in theaters last year) Disney movie, Wish, and I’m sad to say that it was rather meh. It wasn’t bad, but the story had the feel of something written by the marketing team to promote the studio’s anniversary. It was like they were trying to check off boxes as they paid tribute to their history, and they wrote a story that loosely linked together everything they wanted to do, leading up to the punchline of the post-credits scene. It looks gorgeous and the cast is great, but I actually forgot that I’d seen it a day later.

I think a big part of the problem is that the basis for the story doesn’t make a lot of sense. There’s a wizard king who’s created some kind of utopia by having citizens hand over their wishes to him when they turn 18, and he’s to keep them safe, then he grants a few wishes every year, making them come true. I have so many questions here, most of which are asked when the townspeople start asking questions to stall for time. The big one is why anyone would do this in the first place. Once they hand over their wish, they don’t even remember having it, which means that they aren’t discontented from wanting something they don’t have or disappointed from trying and failing, but it also leaves them a bit empty. Then there’s the fact that wishes change. What I wished for when I was 18 has nothing to do with what I want now. I could have handed that wish over without missing it even just a few years later, and then I’d have had an entirely new wish.

Anyway, when a young woman who’s applying to be the king’s intern questions this system and asks for her grandfather’s wish to be granted, that freaks out the king. Then she wishes really hard on a star and the star comes down and starts making magic happen, which makes the king feel threatened, so he tries to stamp out this other magic. Seriously, I didn’t get what was going on here at all. In spite of a really talented cast giving it their all (Chris Pine was having way too much fun), the songs are pretty weak. I was thinking during the movie that Lin-Manuel Miranda was having a really off day, but it turns out someone else did the music, so I guess they were trying for Lin-Manuel and missing.

One thing I really liked was that our heroine had a whole group of friends, something we don’t usually see in Disney movies. The more typical Disney heroine maybe hangs around with a couple of cute animals, but she doesn’t have a peer group. Some of that is baked into the fairy tales the movies are based on. Aurora is in hiding, Belle and Rapunzel are captives (and Belle is a weirdo outsider even before she finds the Beast), Mulan is Not Like Other Girls, and the Cinderella story wouldn’t work if her squad of kids of other wealthy merchants and minor gentry got their parents involved on her behalf. But even in the “original” stories, the heroines are rather isolated. Frozen is a story about isolation and Mirabel in Encanto has her sisters and cousins, but the local kids who hang around her are all little kids, not a peer group.

I’m curious if this is a deliberate choice or just something that happened without anyone thinking about it. Most writers tend to be the weirdo outsider type, so it’s natural for them to write that kind of character. It’s also a lot easier to write a loner than to try to juggle all the characters you get in a friend group. Plus, it’s easier to get your characters in trouble if they don’t have backup.

But this movie has the heroine as part of a group of friends, and they all team up to support her when she’s in trouble, which has a lot to do with saving the day, and even though I’m definitely part of the Weirdo Outsider demographic, it was nice to see that.

Chris Pine and Ariana DeBose deserved a lot better, so I hope they get another chance at doing voices for animation. Alan Tudyk seems to be required by law to do voices for all Disney movies (though in this one he actually got to talk instead of just squawking or making animal sounds, and he got parts of a song) so I’m less worried about him getting another chance.


Rewriting History

Last weekend, I ended up rewatching the animated Anastasia (it was the result of a mental rabbit trail that started with a mention of a historical figure in something I saw elsewhere, and that led me to that era in history, so I decided to watch it), and that’s really a weird movie if you think about it. It’s absolutely gorgeous and has great music (though, oddly, has no romantic song in spite of there being a strong romantic plot), with musical numbers that are staged like they’re in a Broadway musical, right down to the characters holding their final poses as though they’re waiting for applause. But the plot is utterly bizarre and the love story has some lovely moments but has no connective tissue.

The plot is theoretically based on history, but they went far afield from what actually happened. I guess Disney did the same thing with Pocahontas, but in this case the events weren’t even a century old when the movie was made. There were people still alive who remembered these events. They were well-documented and even photographed. There were reasonably close relatives to these people who were still alive at that time (Prince Philip in England was a close enough relative that they used his DNA to identify the remains of the Romanovs, since he was related to Nicholas on his father’s side and Alexandra was his great aunt). Anastasia’s presence with the rest of the family when they were in captivity was documented. She wasn’t lost while they fled the palace. I know it would have been way too dark for a kids’ animated movie to have her crawl out from under the bodies of her family after they’d been shot and bayonetted, but they could have had her go missing some other way. Not to mention that she was a teen, not a child, at that time. Rasputin was actually quite friendly with the royal family. They were fond of him. In fact, that was the problem. The nobles didn’t like a commoner having that much influence, and it was other relatives who had him killed. I’ve read some in-depth biographies of him, and he wouldn’t have cursed the family or pursued them to their deaths (he did predict that the dynasty would fall within two years of his death if he was killed, but that wasn’t a curse, it was more of a concerned warning). And while the communist revolution was no picnic, it seems disrespectful to imply that everyone in Russia was happy living under the czar until Rasputin magically influenced them to revolt. Not to mention, the grandmother ended up in London, not Paris, since her sister was the dowager queen of England, and she later went to Copenhagen, since she was Danish (in spite of Angela Lansbury’s Russian accent in this movie).

If they were going to go so far afield from actual events, way beyond ordinary dramatic license, why not do the usual Disney thing and set the story they wanted to tell in some fantasy Fairytalelandia that was Not!Russia (the way Arendelle in Frozen was Not!Norway)? Then they could have gone nuts with it and made up everything. You could tell a story about a princess who was separated from her family and who lost her memory during some crisis and make up a really good villain with really good motives for pursuing her. Heck, if you’re making it all up, you could have a really happy ending in which she gets reunited with her family, who’ve been in exile, thinking she was dead.

The other thing that’s weird is the romance. There are some good moments, and it follows the usual romantic adventure pattern of bickering, then dealing with a crisis together, which leads to bonding, which leads to love, but it doesn’t really motivate or explain each step. They start bickering as soon as they’re on the train, and I have no idea why she was suddenly being extremely bitchy to him. She was getting exactly what she wanted, and I didn’t think he was being much of a jerk until she started being bitchy, and then he responded in kind and it escalated. To contrast, consider Tangled, which had a similar pattern of lost princess traveling with a criminal. They had bickering, but there was a reason behind it. She’d been brainwashed to think all outsiders were a threat and were after the power of her magical hair, she’d whacked him on the head repeatedly with an iron skillet, and she was holding his (stolen) belongings hostage to force him to take her to see the floating lights. Meanwhile, he was trying to discourage her from taking the trip by making the outside world seem scary so that he could escape the guards and his former allies. There was a good reason they were at odds with each other and disagreeing. In Anastasia, they’re both getting what they want out of the deal. No one’s being coerced. There’s absolutely no reason for them to be at odds. They didn’t even establish any personality or value differences that would explain it. They were just bickering because that’s what usually happens at this phase of this kind of story.

I think the casting of Meg Ryan doesn’t help here. At that point in her career she’d sort of fallen into a persona that was essentially the worst parts of Sally (“I want that on the side”). Or, as one reviewer said about her in one of her later rom-coms, “she seems to be in a permanent snit.” She spends the whole movie sounding somewhat annoyed and exasperated and very much like Meg Ryan.

They have the crisis when they have to work together to escape the runaway train, but it doesn’t lead to a bonding moment. They’re still bickering. There’s a musical number involving him and his sidekick training her to be a princess as they travel, but there’s no direct interaction between Anya and Dmitri. She’s interacting mostly with Vlad and pointedly snubbing Dmitri, who spends most of the number scowling in the background. There’s no point when they find common ground or talk and get to know each other (like the conversation in Tangled when he confesses his real name and backstory and she confesses that her hair is magical and explains her upbringing). Then he gives her a new dress, which she’s bitchy about, and he’s dancing with her as she’s being taught to waltz, which leads to a moment and an almost-kiss, which comes out of nowhere. Then there’s all his angst when he realizes she really is the princess, which means he can’t be with her, and they’re both willing to give up everything for each other, but they’ve never yet had a civil conversation or any kind of interaction that suggests that they have any connection at all. They’re in love because they’re in this movie together, and that’s it. Maybe that’s why there’s no romantic song. The closest is the one Vlad sings about them when he realizes they’re connecting and this could be trouble, and I guess that’s along the lines of what Disney was doing in that era. Instead of the characters singing to or about each other, they have a third party singing about them (like “Kiss the Girl” or “Beauty and the Beast”).

This is my pet peeve about bad rom-coms and romances. If there’s bickering, there needs to be a reason beyond just personality differences. It needs to be something situational or that can be changed as one or both learn and grow. If it’s just a personality difference, then they don’t have much hope for a relationship. And there needs to be a reason why they fall in love beyond just seeing each other in better clothes. What did they learn about each other that makes them bond and then fall in love?

Of course, now I’m trying to figure out if I could get away with a missing princess story that doesn’t look like Anastasia with the serial numbers rubbed off, but I just realized I have a lurking story fragment that gender flips it, with a prince who escaped. I wasn’t deliberately doing a take on Anastasia. Actually, I was creating a backstory for an undeveloped character in some other story, and it spun out of control to become a whole story that had nothing to do with that, as these things so often do for me.


The Great Muppet Theory

A couple of weeks ago, I watched The Muppets Treasure Island, and that got me started thinking again about my Muppet Repertory Company theory.

It is possible that I spend far too much time thinking about Muppets, but my brain is a funny place, and I love the Muppets.

Anyway, a couple of years ago I started rewatching the original Muppet Show and then the older Muppet movies, and the continuity bothered me. The origin story we see in the first Muppet Movie couldn’t have been true within that world because we know Kermit was on Sesame Street with Big Bird long before he was on The Muppet Show, and they were TV stars before they got the movie. And then with The Great Muppet Caper, we got yet another origin story of how they all met. And then yet another one in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

And that was when it occurred to me that none of these films were meant to be actual biopics within the Muppet universe. Instead, what we seemed to have was a repertory company made up of the Muppets, and in their first few movies they were playing fictionalized versions of themselves. It was like when they make a movie centered around a musical group or pop singer and it’s sort of supposed to be about them, but it’s not really. They’re playing themselves, though they’re really more characters with the same names who look like them, in a fictional story. That’s how Kermit could have met Piggy for the first time multiple times in different ways in different places. They started branching out and playing other characters with their version of A Christmas Carol.

The backstage parts of the original Muppet Show are the “documentary” part. That’s their real selves. The rest, aside from some fourth-wall breaking in the movies, is not meant to be real. One area where this matters is with the relationship between Kermit and Piggy. On the original Muppet Show, she has a huge crush on him, which he finds annoying. He’s somewhat afraid of her (since she physically threatens him when she doesn’t get her way), but he doesn’t show any sign of actually being interested in her, aside maybe from the occasional jealous moment when she drops her interest in him to focus on the guest star. It’s like he’s somewhat flattered by the attention but doesn’t actually return her affections.

But then in the movies they’re always thrown into a romance, possibly either because Piggy had it put into her contract or because the executives knew that might be a selling point. Either way, Kermit was stuck with it, and like a trouper he managed to play along even though he’s usually annoyed with her. There is a moment in The Great Muppet Caper when he breaks character during a romantic scene to go into director mode and critique her performance, like he’s miffed with her about what she’s doing on the set, and then he goes back into character, playing the romantic scene.

Somewhere along the way, though, it seems like the people writing the Muppets stuff have forgotten that this was the joke, that Kermit kept being thrown into romantic scenes with Piggy in spite of him not being interested, and they were treating them like they’d become a real couple. One of the more recent iterations of a Muppet show, the one that had them running Piggy’s late-night talk show and treating it like it was The Office, had them being exes who’d broken up but still had to work together.

Even as a kid, I didn’t like the idea of them being together. Now that I know more about relationships, it’s even worse. It’s not a healthy relationship when one member of the couple always gets her way by karate chopping the other member of the couple if he dares go against her every whim. I was kind of glad that he apparently got away from her, but I hated that they ever put them together in “real life” in the first place.

I’m not sure the current Muppet stuff even fits with the idea of the repertory company. They seem to be treating some of the movie events as canon, even though they all contradict each other. I haven’t watched the more recent movies since they came out, so that may be one of my summer projects, and then finish rewatching the original series and then rewatch the subsequent series.

And that is probably way more thought than this topic deserves. I just had to get it off my chest after groaning when Treasure Island had Kermit and Piggy playing a couple yet again. I’d thought we might avoid it for once, since there wasn’t a romance that I recalled in the book. But, no.


Remaking Sleeping Beauty

Because my brain is a funny place, I found myself lying awake during the night last weekend, planning a live-action Disney remake of Sleeping Beauty.

Mind you, I currently have no connection to Disney. I’m not a screenwriter. I would have zero chance of doing anything with this. But my brain wouldn’t let go of this as a problem that needs to be solved. I’ve found that one of the best ways to get something out of my brain is to write it out, so I thought I’d share my thoughts.

First, I would make it more like the Disney live-action Cinderella than like their other live-action remakes, in that it’s not a direct remake of the animated version, but rather a new telling of the same story, but with some references to the original. Cinderella had a lot of the same pieces as the animated version, but they were executed in different ways. The animals were just pets, not talking animal sidekicks. Some of the same characters were there, but they were different than in the animated version, etc. Also, I think it would be more of a straightforward fantasy film, not a musical. The Sleeping Beauty score was lovely, since it was essentially the Tchaikovsky ballet score (though with the music used in different contexts), but the songs they made from it weren’t all that memorable. I don’t think you’d lose anything from not having the characters singing (and I’m a big musical theater fan).

The next tricky thing would be to make Aurora an actual character rather than merely an object. In the animated version, she’s basically something to be obtained, used, or guarded. She doesn’t really exist as a person. Someone calculated that she had something like 28 lines in the whole film, for which she’s the title character. But it’s a major part of the plot that she’s unconscious for a big chunk of it. How do you give a character whose main role is to sleep more to do?

I think step one for me would be to give her a goal other than finding her dream lover. Let her have learned to do something as a peasant girl who lives in the woods that’s on the way to becoming a viable career that she couldn’t continue to do as a princess. It would have to be something that doesn’t involve a lot of human interaction, since she’s in hiding, so that rules out becoming some kind of herbalist/healer, where she’d have to see patients. She could be a seamstress or baker (which might explain why the fairies didn’t know how to sew or bake without magic in spite of living without magic for 16 years, if we’re still going to have their last-minute use of magic be how they’re found), weave baskets, or do some other kind of craft they were able to sell to supplement whatever nest egg the king gave them to live on while in hiding. Just something for her to have some ambition and feel like she’s losing something other than a man when she finds out she’s a princess.

Prince Phillip from Disney's Sleeping BeautyStep two would be to develop her relationship with Phillip. It needs to be more than one meeting on that last day so that they aren’t both going “but I don’t want to marry the prince/princess because I’m in love with someone else I just met today.” Maybe they’ve been meeting up secretly over years, ever since he was old enough to go riding on his own. In the animated version, he’s four when she’s born, so when he’s 14 she’d be 10, and that means they’d have to start as friends. He’s a lonely kid who’s tired of being trained to be a prince and who doesn’t have any real friends, and she doesn’t know anyone other than her guardians. He runs into her while he’s riding in the woods and they talk. He teaches her swordfighting using sticks, maybe brings bows and arrows and teaches her archery. She’s kind of like a little sister. But then over the years as they get older, it gradually starts developing into something more. This could be shown in montage until not long before her 16th birthday, when something happens to make them see each other in a new light, and they realize they’ve fallen in love.

Though I might tinker with the ages. I know 16 is part of the fairy tale, but if she’s not sleeping for a hundred years and knew the guy who kisses her (and if we’re going to the Grimm version, if she’s not awakened by one of the twin babies she’s given birth to sucking the sliver from the spindle out of her finger), we’re already changing the fairy tale. Sixteen seems so young. Maybe make her 18 and decrease the age gap, so if he’s hanging out with her at 16, then she’s 14 and that seems less creepy.

The next issue is figuring out what to do with her during the main action, since her main role in the story is “sleeping.” The ballet offers one possible solution. The first act is the stuff leading to her falling under a curse, then act two is the prince showing up, finding her, and waking her, with act three being the wedding celebration. During act two, when she’s unconscious until the very end, the prince dreams about the maiden in the tower and there’s this big dream pas de deux. So maybe Phillip could have a dream about unconscious Aurora in which she gives him a pep talk or lets him know what happened.

Another possibility is to change the order in which things happen. In the animated version, the big, climactic scene is Phillip fighting the Malificent dragon, and then him kissing and waking Aurora is sort of an afterthought in the aftermath. Maybe he could manage to wake her first, everything seems okay, and then they have to face Malificent together.

But then we need to look at the fairies’ role. I’ve seen an analysis of the animated movie that the fairies are the actual heroes, and it’s the rare story that centers older women. I like that idea, and structurally, the fairies are the protagonists. They’re the ones with the goal and the plan. They’re the ones who make it possible for Phillip to defeat Malificent. Would it take away from their role if it’s Aurora snapping Phillip out of things when he’s captured by Malificent by meeting with him in a dream and if she’s fighting by his side? I think they’d still need the magical help from the fairies, and Aurora and the fairies can work out their issues about her independence when she insists on facing Malificent.

I probably would find another reason for the fairies to use magic in a way that provides a clue that Malificent tracks. As I mentioned above, it makes no sense that the fairies don’t know how to sew clothes or bake a cake without magic when they’ve been living for 16 years without magic.

I do want to keep the three fairies. I think I want them played by Emma Thompson, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. I want to keep this separate from the Malificent movies, so no Angelina Jolie in that role here. I had a wacky thought of Gwendoline Christie. She’s physically very different from the animated version, but she would be very intimidating and she has an amazing voice. I have no idea who would play Aurora and Phillip since it would be people who are late teens/early 20s now and I’m not up on young actors. I want to keep Phillip’s snarky sense of humor. He’s my favorite Disney prince.

My obsession with this may mean they’re actually in the process of working on the project. A long time ago, when I was obsessed with the animated Sleeping Beauty after a recent re-release, I started amusing myself by figuring out how Disney might do Beauty and the Beast, and it turned out that was when Disney was in the process of creating their animated version, so maybe I have some kind of psychic direct link to them and I pick up on what they’re doing. I’ve already written my Sleeping Beauty book, so it’s not as though I can capitalize on whatever Disney might be cooking up by writing a book now and having it ready to go by the time they release it. They haven’t announced anything, that I know of.

Really, I just want to see Phillip in live action, and they’d better get him right.


The Little Mermaid Comes to Life

Last weekend I finally got around to watching the live-action The Little Mermaid remake. I hadn’t been particularly opposed to it. I just wasn’t really in the mood for that sort of thing, and it was nearly two and a half hours long, so it seemed daunting when I was in the mood for something light. I mostly didn’t see how it was necessary. I have to say that I found it delightful, but it reinforced the issues I have with the live-action remakes loaded with CGI.

The human cast was great. Any scene involving actors with human faces was lovely. The actress playing Ariel was wonderful, and she brought tears to my eyes several times because she conveyed that sense of longing so well. It was nice that Eric got more of a personality, a song, and even a backstory. I’ve seen some quibbles about the changes they made to fix some perceived plot holes in the original, but I thought they worked. But this is all story stuff that could have happened without changing the medium to live action, other than maybe you get more realism and emotion from human actors than from cartoons.

But the non-human parts didn’t come across so well. The animation to create all the sea creatures was gorgeous and created absolutely real-looking sea creatures. The problem came when these real-looking creatures started talking, dancing, and singing. It was weird. It seems you can either have cartoony creatures who have somewhat human facial features that convey human emotion or you can have realistic creatures who don’t convey human emotions because they don’t have human faces. I think it might have worked better if they’d just let the characters with human faces have the speaking parts and let the sea creatures be sea creatures.

That would have required a rewrite, but then I wouldn’t mind if they’d done more like Cinderella and just made a new version of the same story using some elements from the animated version. I wouldn’t necessarily want to get rid of “Under the Sea” or “Kiss the Girl,” but maybe let Ariel have merpeople friends to talk to who could sing. I don’t know. It’s just weird seeing a realistic-looking crab singing.

I’ve found most of the Disney animated sequels (the direct to video ones they did in the 90s) to be blah, but this movie is just about begging for a sequel, with the characters setting off on an adventure and with a mystery to Eric’s backstory.

And I still want a good live-action version of Sleeping Beauty. Maybe not a musical because the songs weren’t pivotal in that one, and go full-on fantasy movie, given that we get a battle between a prince and a dragon. I’m not sure how to give Aurora a bigger role (I believe I read somewhere that she had 27 lines in the whole movie), considering that her being in a coma is a big part of the story. Maybe beef up what she does earlier in the movie, or else borrow from the ballet, in which the prince dreams of her while she’s asleep. In the ballet, they go with the 100 years asleep thing that they skipped with this one, so the prince had never met her, and he goes to try to wake her because of a dream he had about her (in the ballet, it’s an excuse to get in a big romantic pas de deux before the finale), but Philip could dream about her while Malificent has him locked up.

Oh, and I need Emma Thompson to play one of the fairies. Thanks. Maybe we could get Judi Dench while we’re at it.

writing, movies

Main Character or Protagonist

One of my movies last weekend was 10 Things I Hate About You, the modern (well, 1999) teen retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. I saw it at the theater when it first came out, but I don’t think I’ve seen it since then. In part, it served as a time capsule for things that were happening around that time. For instance, the fashion. I remember those platform flip-flops one character wore because that kind of shoe caused a minor drama in my office. Some of the women were wearing those for work (they were expensive, designer platform flip-flops), and our boss sent out a memo banning them from the office, saying they weren’t appropriate office attire and the sound they made when people walked up and down the halls in them was distracting. Except the boss was Australian, so he used the word “thongs” instead of “flip-flops,” and thong underwear was a big thing at that time, so a lot of people in the office thought he was banning a certain kind of underwear, and it was none of his business what underwear anyone wore. I thought they could have figured it out from context because if your underwear makes “slap, slap” noises as you walk down the hall, you’ve got problems, and the memo could have served as an intelligence test. I hadn’t thought about that in years, but seeing the way people dressed in the movie took me right back to the job I had at that time.

Anyway, in case you aren’t familiar with the movie … The new kid in school falls for a pretty, popular girl, but she’s not allowed to date until her older sister, a notorious shrew, does, so he and his friend cook up a scheme to con a rich guy who’s also into the popular girl into paying the school bad boy to woo the shrew.

It’s a fun teen rom-com that’s very cleverly written. You don’t have to know Shakespeare to follow the story, but there are a ton of Easter eggs related to Shakespeare. The characters are pretty well-rounded, and the cast is a good collection of people who went on to bigger things as they grew up. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times but also made me cry a bit.

But the thing that struck me on this viewing was a structural thing and the way the character roles were handled. Normally, we use the terms “main character,” “protagonist,” and “hero/heroine” interchangeably because they’re usually the same characters, though there are differences in what each of these terms means. A main character is the character who has the most focus, gets the most screen/page/stage time, and is generally the one we sympathize with. A protagonist is the character with the goal, and their pursuit of this goal is what drives the plot. The term “hero” depends on the context. It can mean the good guy, as opposed to the villain. Or it can be the one who’s on the hero’s journey, the one who is growing and changing and undergoes a transformation. In a romance, the hero and heroine are the main romantic couple (and are often both protagonists).

But this movie is the rare story in which these aren’t the same person. The main character is Kat, our “shrew,” played by Julia Stiles. She gets most of the screen time and is the person most of the other characters are focusing on. In hero’s journey terms, she’s the hero because she’s the one who has the transformation arc and goes on a journey. Her life is upended when Patrick starts pursuing her and she has to learn to let herself be vulnerable instead of pushing everyone away. Her sister grows a bit and has a realization and their father also learns something, but none of the others really change or grow.

But Kat isn’t the protagonist. She’s acted upon by the story, but she doesn’t drive the story. The protagonist is Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He’s the one with the goal — date Bianca — who drives the story with each of his schemes to be able to reach his goal, and it’s a really good example of the structure with the intermediate goal that doesn’t work, requiring a new approach, with each one escalating. His first tactic when he learns Bianca is looking for a French tutor is to cram his way through the French textbook and quickly learn enough to tutor her and get close to her so he can ask her out to a French restaurant so they can practice, but then he learns that she’s not allowed to date unless her sister does (since their father knows Kat’s unlikely to date). His next plan is to find someone to ask Kat out, but none of the guys are brave enough. The next plan is to get Patrick, who seems unafraid of anything, to try, but he doesn’t even dignify that with a response. Then the friend comes up with the idea of conning the rich jerk into paying Patrick. Then they have to help Patrick deal with Kat when she’s unimpressed. And so forth.

As far as I can tell, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was the big name among the younger cast at that time. He was something of a tween/teen heartthrob on the Third Rock from the Sun TV series, while Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles were relative unknowns (he’d been on a short-lived TV series but had mostly worked in Australia and she’d had bit parts on TV while mostly working on the stage), so he may have been meant as the main character, but he’s mostly a catalyst character. His actions change other people, but he doesn’t really change. His love interest, Bianca, was played by Larisa Oleynik, who at the time was on a popular TV series targeted at tween viewers, but they aren’t the main couple. The main romance is between Kat and Patrick. The Cameron and Bianca relationship is resolved at the midpoint. Their only conflict from that point is helping get Kat and Patrick to go to the prom together so Bianca can go to the prom with Cameron. The romantic conflict is between Kat and Patrick, with her main issue being that she’s afraid to trust and that making the fact that he was hired to ask her out a ticking time bomb (even though he’s come to actually like her and he’s mostly just scamming the jerk for the money).

It all works, though, and I applaud the filmmakers and the actors involved for going with what the story needed. From what I’ve heard about Gordon-Levitt, he’s a nice guy and must not have had a major ego attack about wanting more screentime or focus in spite of being the biggest star. It would have been a less interesting story if it had focused on his character instead of the hot mess that Kat was, and if they’d made him flawed enough that he needed to grow, then his scheming would have looked creepy. It only worked because we could tell that he was a good guy and we wanted Bianca to choose him over the jerk.

Another interesting thing about this odd bit of structure is that I don’t think Kat would be a viewpoint character if you wrote a novel based on this movie. I think there was one scene in which we saw her alone. Otherwise, she’s always with someone else or being watched by someone else, even if she might think she’s alone. It seems like you’d have to write it with her being perceived by other people rather than ever getting into her head — probably because she would be entirely different from the inside than she seems from the outside and the point of the story is that it takes time for that to come out and it takes Patrick, who’s also got a reputation and is different than people think, to see that.

Anyway, it’s a movie that holds up really well, aside from the belly shirts and platform flip-flops, and a lot of fun.

Books, movies

Good Endings

Last weekend, I rewatched the movie Stardust for about the zillionth time. That’s one of my all-time favorites, a “comfort” watch that never fails to make me feel good. There’s something about that movie that makes me sigh with satisfaction when it ends.

And that got me started thinking, what makes for a satisfying ending? What is it about this story (I have a similar reaction to the book, though the ending is a bit different) that gives me that happy sigh?

In this case, I think one thing is that it feels like everything is neatly tied up. The villains are taken down in satisfying ways, and even the irritants (not really villains, not really antagonists in the sense of being obstacles to the hero, just people who bother him) get taken down a peg. The woman who rejected him and used him early in the story gets to see what she gave up, and the one she rejected him for may not be as into her as she thought. A couple that was separated gets reunited. We even get the narrator telling us the long-term outcome. All of that comes together to give you that “yes, all is right with the world” feeling. I know a lot of people sneer at stories in which all the ends are neatly tied up, but there’s also something nice about that if it’s done well.

One thing that I think helps is if the “neatly tied up” doesn’t necessarily work the way you expected it to — it’s a way you like, but not what you thought would happen. I don’t know for sure if that’s the case with Stardust because it’s so familiar by now that I don’t even remember what I thought would happen. But I do know I love it when I’m expecting something to happen and what does happen is even better than I expected, or it happens, but in a better way, maybe with a fun twist. Of course, I can’t think of any good examples now, and I suppose it would be a major spoiler to give an example. That’s the challenge in talking about endings.

Tying everything up doesn’t necessarily make for a good ending, though. As much as I love The Lord of the Rings, I’m not crazy about the ending in either book or movie. It goes on and on after what should have been the climactic moment. The movie did help by tightening and cutting a lot. I know that all the stuff going on in the Shire when they got back was thematic, and I suppose it showed how much the Hobbits had changed in the way they handled it, but it still felt like “but I thought it was all over, and now there’s more?” I also have very mixed feelings about the very ending and the fate of Frodo and the elves. Again, I know it’s thematic, but I don’t really like the idea. There’s something about the way that saga is resolved that leaves me feeling not entirely satisfied, like there’s both too much and not enough. There’s practically material for an entire sequel in what’s supposed to be the resolution.

Another kind of good ending is the one that makes you want to read/watch the thing again, right away. I loved the end of the book To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis so much that as soon as I finished reading it, I flipped to the beginning and immediately re-read it. I’m not sure I’d say there were twists, but it was one of those things where you learn some of what really happened and what was really going on behind the scenes, so the end was a big “aha!” moment, and it was fun to re-read with that knowledge.

I’ve written before about what I termed the “Lucas ending” that showed up in a lot of the Star Wars films and one of the Indiana Jones movies — the cathartic victory, reunion with hugs, celebration. That can work really well as an ending pattern.

I find that I like it when the villain has a lot to do with his own destruction rather than the hero actually defeating him. There’s a lot of talk about how you could remove Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark and the outcome wouldn’t change much, but I think a lot of it is about the fact that he’s trying, and then I like that the bad guys defeat themselves because they don’t understand or respect what they’re really dealing with, and Indy prevails because he does and he knows what to do, and then his presence means the Ark doesn’t stay in the bad guys’ hands.

On the opposite side of the coin from the “everything tied up neatly” ending is the “leave them wanting more” ending in a series, where it’s just satisfying enough to make you happy but there are enough loose threads to make you eager for the next book/movie. You want to know what will happen next, how the characters will function with a new status quo. I’m not a huge fan of cliffhangers, though. I want there to be some kind of conclusion to each installment. I like the way that the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Deep Space Nine tended to do season finales. The end of the season would wrap up the latest arc in a satisfying way, and then there’d be one thing coming up at the very end that hinted at what the next problem would be. The good guys would get their celebration after defeating the enemy, and then in a kind of coda, we’d see a new villain or problem emerging. You wanted to know what would happen next, but it wasn’t leaving anyone in immediate peril. It was more of a teaser for the next arc following the conclusion of the last one, so things were wrapped up but you wanted to know what happens next.

Another factor in a satisfying ending is the feeling that the main characters are in a better place than they were at the beginning, both physically and mentally. I like seeing that they’ve grown and learned something. That may be why “full circle” endings work so well, where they may return to something that reflects or echoes the beginning, and that makes it clear what’s changed.

I have to admit that I struggle with endings. That’s usually what I end up revising first because my first attempt at an ending is never good. I’m so eager to be done with the book by that point that my first draft ending is usually along the lines of “and then they beat the bad guys, the end.” Once I’ve recovered from writing the draft, I go back and write something a little more detailed. And then I rewrite it again after revising the whole book.

What kinds of endings do you like best? What’s your favorite book or movie ending?


Books, movies

Why I Love LOTR

Last weekend, I rewatched the Lord of the Rings movies. I reread the books a few years ago, and this was my first time to watch the movies after refreshing myself on the books (and when I reread the books last, it was the first time to read them after seeing the movies). One thing I found interesting was that I seem to have mapped some of the imagery from the movies onto the books, so I was mostly seeing the movie characters and settings in my head as I read (unless I ran into a strong image that remained from previous reads), even in the parts that weren’t in the films. As a result, I had scenes in my head involving the movie imagery that it turned out weren’t actually in the movies, so I was surprised when they didn’t come up. That was a little disconcerting.

Of course, now I want to reread the books again, but I don’t really have time for that right now. I’m trying to read through my to-be-read bookcase as part of a book purge in preparation for a possible move. So no rereading, just reading the books that have been waiting for me to get around to them. Maybe next fall or winter. They feel like fall/winter books to me, the sort of thing you read while snuggled under a blanket, maybe next to a fire.

I’m no book purist. There are book scenes I miss in the movies, but I can also see why they were left out of the films. Even with the regular release (I don’t have the extended editions), they’re very long movies, and these bits would mess up the pacing. But it would be kind of fun to have a whole movie of my favorite part of the whole series, the beginning up to Rivendell. I love so many of the parts that were left out, like the dinner party in the woods with the elves and Tom Bombadil (I know that’s controversial, but that part is basically cozy fantasy). That section of the first book is all about being in this other world and experiencing enchanting things before it gets serious with all the battles. I get bored with the battle scenes in the movies, when it’s all just orcs swarming all over the place. On this viewing, I got distracted by spotting when Orlando Bloom was and wasn’t wearing the blue contact lenses during one of the battle scenes because that was more engaging to me than all the hacking and slashing.

It’s the character stuff I love — Sam finding the strength and courage he always had but that came out when he was put to the test, Pippin growing up right before our eyes (you can actually see on his face the moment when all the illusions shatter), Eowyn being a badass warrior woman without ever being Not Like Other Girls, Aragorn finally accepting and claiming his heritage, the growing friendship between Gimli and Legolas. Gandalf’s gentle fondness for hobbits. I just really love all these people, and I think that’s a big key to the enduring success of these stories.

The ending is always a bit bittersweet for me. On the one hand, I’m usually tired from making it through the whole thing, but on the other I’m a little reluctant to leave that world and return to reality.

Incidentally, I’ve decided that my ideal home might be a hobbit hole in Rivendell. I like the coziness of Bilbo’s house, but I also love the airiness of the elven homes and I like the general setup and aesthetic of Rivendell. Maybe an elven house with an attached hobbit hole for a cozy nook. Incidentally, the movie depiction of Rivendell is one place where I can’t make the movie version fit what I see in my head when I read.

Maybe next time I read/watch, I’ll do it back-to-back or around the same time so I can do a real comparison between books and movies.

Books, movies

Kind of Like Enchanted Inc.

The main thing that sparked me to write the book that became Enchanted, Inc. was that it was the sort of thing I wanted to read but couldn’t find. I wanted something kind of like the “girl in the city” chick lit books that were popular at that time, but with some magic. I wanted something kind of like the Harry Potter books, but about adults and in the working world rather than about kids at school. A mix of magic and the real world with some humor and whimsy that were about life situations I could relate to as an adult. It didn’t seem to exist, so I had to write it myself.

Last weekend, I watched a movie that in some respects was a British, gender-flipped Enchanted, Inc., The Portable Door (it’s on Amazon). A young man trying to make his way in London gets a mysterious job offer at what turns out to be a magical company. He’s initially assigned to a tedious job with a mercurial boss, but then he comes to the attention of the company’s top executive, who assigns him to a special project. And he has a crush on his magically gifted coworker who’s on the fast track at the company. Beyond that, though, it goes off in very different directions. The company is different, the relationship is different, the assignments are different, the plot is different, the villains are different. It’s a different story entirely other than that basic framework.

But it turns out this movie is based on a book by Tom Holt that was initially published in 2003, so around the time I was writing Enchanted, Inc. I think it may have only been published in Britain at that time because the editions I can find from US publishers were from the 2010s. I certainly hadn’t heard of it until I saw the movie. It never came up as a comparable title when Enchanted, Inc. was on submission. If I’d known about it, it would have been easier to position my book. I wonder if there was something in the ether around that time or if it came from a similar place (Harry Potter, but in the corporate world). It’s even possible that if I’d found this book, I might not have gotten around to writing my book because I would have found what I wanted to read, but I suspect that by the time this book was published I’d already gone far enough in developing my own story that I still would have wanted to write mine.

I haven’t read the books (it’s a series), but I did enjoy the movie. It had all the stuff I was looking for when I came up with the idea that became Enchanted, Inc. It’s got humor, action, and a bit of romance. There’s a satisfying comeuppance for the villain and some good growth for the hero. My one quibble with the movie is that I’m not sure what audience they were aiming for. It falls into the category of “four-quadrant” entertainment, so it’s the sort of thing a whole family can watch together. There’s nothing unsuitable for children in it (it’s solidly PG), nothing parents would be uncomfortable watching with kids (or nothing kids would be uncomfortable watching with parents), but nothing really child-friendly, either. I would suspect that younger kids who aren’t yet of the age to be dreaming of the adult world they may one day inhabit would be mostly bored. But then toward the end it veers into the kiddie film territory. Just when the action gets pretty tense, the villains turn the ham up to 11 and they become like something out of one of the cheesier rubber suit Doctor Who episodes or a children’s film. It’s a big tonal shift, like they’re suddenly trying to appeal to kids or make the tense part be less scary for the children who’ve probably already wandered off in boredom. The books aren’t published as YA, so I’m not sure what they were trying to do here. The Jim Henson Company was among the producers, so maybe they were turning the Muppet people loose at the end. I still enjoyed it, but it was weird.

Now I need to find and read the books, but my library doesn’t have them. Apparently, this author also writes as K.J. Parker, who has titles like A Practical Guide to Conquering the World, and some of the reviews compare him to Terry Pratchett.


Everything Everywhere

I know I’m late to the game, but I finally got around to watching Everything Everywhere All at Once last weekend, and my mind is still spinning. I’m going to need some time to process it, and I may need to watch it again.

Just the fact that a movie like this could get made and be successful seems like a good sign. It’s not like anything else. It’s not a franchise, a sequel, or based on something else. It’s wildly original and creative, simultaneously silly and profound. I hope that Hollywood learns something from this and is more open to things that are totally different.

It’s hard to describe, but it’s basically the story of a middle-aged immigrant woman whose life is kind of a mess with a failing business and failing relationships with her husband and daughter who finds out during an IRS audit meeting that the fate of the multiverse relies on her. She has to connect with other versions of herself in universes where things worked out differently to learn the things she needs to know to save the multiverse (while doing a lot of martial arts in an office building).

I’ve seen a lot of commentary about this being about the generation gap and relationships between parents and children, but to me it was largely about midlife crisis, reaching the age when you realize that most of your choices have already been made and some opportunities are gone forever. Even if you started now and worked really hard, you’d never be able to do or be some of the things you dreamed of. The idea of being able to visit a universe where you actually did those things and you can see how your life would have worked out if you had is fascinating. I’ve always loved “what if” stories. In a weird way, this is like Sliding Doors on steroids and a whole lot of mind-altering substances, only our heroine is conscious of all the parallel timelines as she jumps in and out of them.

I can see why so many of the actors involved won Oscars because they’re all playing multiple versions of their characters who are distinctly different and yet still fundamentally the same, and all the while they have to remain human enough to ground this crazy story. I love that it resurrected Ke Huy Quan’s acting career. Even as a kid, he had so much potential, and it’s sad that he wasn’t able to find good roles. He’s so moving in this movie while also being hilarious.

I see a lot of movies that make me feel like I could have come up with that story (or have come up with a story like that), but I could never in a million years have imagined coming up with this.