Archive for movies



I’ve been watching the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, and it’s made me think about some of the perils and benefits of “prequels,” stories that explore the backstory of something we’ve already seen, so that we already know the outcome for some of the major issues.

In this case, I thought the fact that we already know the fate of most of the main characters in the series, so we knew who would survive, made it bearable to watch. I don’t know if I could have handled the tension and suspense if I hadn’t known that most of the characters I cared most about would survive. Even knowing that, it got tense, and I had to repeat to myself “You already know when he/she dies, and this isn’t it.” I know that some viewers felt otherwise, like there was no point in watching it when you already know what will happen to the characters and what the outcome of everything will be.

I guess that comes down to whether you focus on the journey or the destination. Is the point of a story being surprised about the outcome or is it about the experience along the way and learning things about the world and the characters? I like surprises, but I think if enjoyment of a particular story hinges on being surprised by the outcome, there’s probably something lacking in that story. A really well-executed story should still be enjoyable even if you already know the outcome — even better, it should gain a layer when you already know all the revelations. I often refer to that as the “Shawshank Redemption Effect.” That movie becomes an entirely different story the second time you see it once you know what’s really going on. You get the same sort of thing with The Sixth Sense. It’s best to see it the first time without knowing the outcome, but once you know, it’s worth watching again because it becomes a different story. I suspect the “if I know how it ends, there’s no point” crowd don’t do a lot of rewatching or rereading, while rewatchers/rereaders are more focused on the journey than on the outcome.

I think a good prequel has this sort of effect on the later stories. In the Star Wars universe, Rogue One added a layer to the original movie that gave it a bit more meaning. The Obi-Wan Kenobi series adds a whole lot of emotion to that original movie when you factor in the histories it gives some of the characters — and it works even though George Lucas had none of it planned when he wrote that original movie. There’s a throwaway moment in the first movie that now will probably make me cry.

The prequel films were a bit less successful at that, in my opinion. They did flesh out some of the backstory and relationships, but about the only addition I get from having seen those when I watch the original trilogy is the weird sense that I’m seeing young Ewan McGregor looking out through Alec Guinness’s eyes. Lucas was trying to show how things came to be the way they were in the original trilogy, but I didn’t feel like there was much emotional depth, just a checklist of questions that needed to be answered. A prequel has to be about the journey, the experience, since the big-picture outcome is already known, but those prequels focused more on answering questions than on truly providing the journey and fleshing things out. I feel like I got more understanding about what made Darth Vader tick from his appearances in the Obi-Wan series than I did in watching his journey from childhood to adulthood in the prequel films.

I’ve written a few prequel things for my series and I have ideas for some more. It helps when I already have a pretty good sense of what was in the past before I write the “present,” so I don’t find myself frustrated by what I’ve already written when I go to address the past. I didn’t necessarily have the entire backstory of everything in Enchanted, Inc. made up before I wrote the first book, but I figured out a lot of it while I was writing that book. That’s made it a little easier to write shorter pieces taking place before the events of the first book.

I think after watching the Kenobi series I’m going to have to do an epic Star Wars rewatch to fit all the pieces together — probably not including the animated series because there’s just so much of that to deal with. I may wait until the fall so I can start watching a movie after dark and still finish before I’m falling asleep. Those movies really work best in the dark, and my living room stays light enough to be distracting until close to 9 p.m. these days. I either need to get blackout curtains or watch things that can be enjoyed in daylight.


Meeting at the End

Talking about romance novels, romantic comedy movies and the dismay among my romance writer friends about the fact that people called Sleepless in Seattle a romance even though the couple didn’t actually meet until the very end of the movie reminded me that there was actually kind of a trend in the 90s and early 2000s of rom-coms in which the couple didn’t meet until the end.

There was Sleepless in Seattle, of course, in which she heard him on the radio and became fascinated and wrote to him, and he eventually became interested in the idea of her. In between, there were a number of little signs that they were meant for each other, so we knew they would get along when they met. We just never saw them actually interact.

There was a movie called The Night We Never Met, which was about a man and a woman sharing a New York apartment on different days. He had certain days of the week and she had the other days (I don’t remember the exact reason — maybe they were both in other relationships and had a place to escape to for alone time? It’s been a long time since I saw it), so they never actually met until the end, but they did things like leave notes or gifts for each other.

There was Til There Was You, which involved a man and a woman going through life having near misses in which they almost met but didn’t, though we saw they were meant for each other, until finally they met at the end.

Sliding Doors sort of does that in one of the timelines. We see them getting to know each other in one timeline, but in the other timeline there are a lot of near misses, where they’re in the same place at the same time (in a place where we saw them together in the other timeline) but don’t meet until the end.

In Serendipity, they meet at the beginning, but then part with no way to find each other again. The rest of the movie is about them trying to find each other, and they aren’t reunited until the ending.

In The Very Thought of You, there are multiple guys who’ve met this woman and all think they’re the one who hit it off with her, and we see the story from each of their perspectives, but I don’t think she and the hero actually run into each other again until near the end.

You might be able to count The Truth About Cats and Dogs, in which they talk on the phone but don’t meet in person until the end (she’s afraid of what he’ll think of her when he meets her, and there’s a case of mistaken identity, so she lets him think her more attractive friend is really her).

I have a sense that there was at least another one, but I can’t think of the title or who was in it to be able to look it up. I guess that’s not too many films, but it’s a weirdly specific structure to all come within about 10 years, and I don’t know that there were many like that before that decade. Or maybe I was just aware of them during that decade because I was hanging out with a lot of romance writers then and heard all the complaints about the rom-coms that weren’t actually romances because the heroes and heroines didn’t meet until the end.

Although you couldn’t sell that plot as a Romance to an American publisher, the “near miss” or “bad timing” plot is a whole subgenre of British romances/women’s fiction/chick lit. There are the ones where they do meet early in the book, but it’s always a case of bad timing whenever they run into each other, so they don’t actually get together until the end, after years of near misses and chance encounters. I think I’ve read a couple in which we get her story and his story in parallel, and we can see that they’d be great for each other, but they have to work out their stuff individually before they’re ready for each other, and then they meet at the happy ending. I’ve also read at least one home swap book, kind of like The Holiday, but instead of falling in love with someone they meet at the location they’re visiting, they fall in love with the person they swap with while texting about things they have to deal with in each other’s homes and from things they learn about each other.

I actually enjoy this kind of story. It’s a fun change of pace, and it’s kind of reassuring to see how things work out in the right way at the right time. Plus, you don’t have to sit through the characters bickering constantly before they fall in love. There’s no love/hate thing.

And now, of course, I’m trying to figure out how I could do this kind of story. With magic, of course.

writing, movies

Seeing the Structure

Over the past couple of years, I’ve developed a routine of Friday and Saturday movie nights. On other nights, I don’t just sit and watch stuff. When I’m “watching” TV, I’m usually also working crossword puzzles, reading, knitting, exercising, or doing embroidery. But for movie nights, I make some popcorn, turn out the lights, and just sit and watch. It’s an exercise for my attention span and almost like meditation in that I force myself to be in the moment and just watching what’s going on.

Of course, I can’t turn off my brain entirely. I can’t help but think about what I’m watching, and I’m usually analyzing the story structure. I make note of when I start the movie and how long it is so that I can find the various story milestones and see how closely it aligns to story structure.

If you don’t want to have the way you see movies changed, don’t read beyond this. Once you see this, you may not be able to unsee it whenever you watch a movie.

I recently read a book on story structure that said at the middle of a story, you’ll find what they call a “mirror moment.” That’s a moment of self-reflection in which the hero has to face the person he is and decide what person he’s going to be. This decision is critical because it affects the way he’ll deal with the final crisis in the story. Quite often, this moment of reflection involves a literal mirror or other reflective surface.

The Middle of the Story An ordeal that’s the mid-term exam for the hero May be: First attempt at achieving story goal that fails because the hero’s flaw still holds him back Part one of achieving the goal, but the hard part is still to come A stepping stone — a smaller-scale version of what the final battle will be A false victory — the hero thinks he’s achieved his goal, but either he’s wrong or he soon loses what he achieved

But I’ve generally found that the midpoint of a story is some kind of ordeal. It’s like the midterm exam of the story. The hero can’t reach his goal at this point or the story would be over, but he may make his first attempt at reaching his goal and fail because he hasn’t yet fixed the flaw that’s holding him back. Or he may achieve part of his goal but still has something else to do. This shows up in a lot of “get the thing to the place” plots. At the midpoint he gets the thing, but he still has to get it to the place. The ordeal could be a stepping stone, an initial test that somewhat reflects the ultimate challenge but that’s a bit easier than the final challenge will be. Or the hero may think he’s achieved the goal but then turns out to be wrong about that or loses what he achieved (like Indiana Jones getting the Ark away from the Nazis after an extended midpoint action sequence, only to lose it again). In general, something big and exciting or tense happens in the middle.

So, I started tracking this when I was watching movies, and I did start noticing the mirror moment. Something that would fit the idea of facing oneself is in just about everything I’ve watched recently. It very often does involve a mirror or other reflection. There’s a moment when the hero pauses and reflects on what’s happened or on his identity and has to be totally honest with himself or someone else. But this isn’t the midpoint. I’ve been finding it at the 3/4 or 2/3 point, right before the final “battle.” The exact point depends on how long and involved the final “battle” (literal or metaphorical) is. If it’s an extended sequence and there’s a long resolution, it will be at 2/3. If it’s a fairly quick bit of conflict and there’s not a lot of wrap-up, it will be at the 3/4 mark. I’m still finding an ordeal at the midpoint.

Usually the structure goes: Midpoint ordeal, celebration (we made it! There’s often a love scene here), realization that they still have to face the hard part, big setback, mirror moment, climactic “battle” scene (may be literal or figurative battle) that’s essentially the hero’s final exam.

It’s really easy to track this in a movie. I find it a bit harder in books because time gets wonky in books. Movies take place in real time. There may be gaps between scenes, so not every movie story happens within two hours, but once a scene starts, the amount of time it takes is the amount of time it happens. A two-minute dialogue scene takes the same amount of time as a two-minute action scene. In a book, that dialogue scene that would take two minutes on the screen may take five pages, while the two-minute action scene could take two paragraphs or ten pages, depending on how detailed the description of the action is, whether it’s “they fought” or a blow-by-blow telling with thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations described.

That makes it a little harder to open a book at the midway point and find the ordeal. Then there’s the issue of multiple viewpoints, so that one character’s ordeal may or may not happen at the same time as other characters’ ordeals, depending on whether or not there are subplots. A movie is closer to a short story in structure so is less likely to have multiple braided plots. There’s one ordeal and one final “battle.” A book may have this for each character, and each character may be on a different timeline. Usually the subplots wrap up before the protagonist has his final battle, since the resolution of the secondary characters’ plots may be what leads to the final battle.

Still, this kind of structure is helpful in planning a book. I’d originally plotted the book I’ve been working on with the idea of that mirror moment coming halfway through, which is part of why I’ve been feeling like I’m slow getting into the story, but if it’s at the 2/3 or 3/4 mark, then I’m closer to being on track. Now I just have to figure out what the ordeal really is.


Toy Stories

Over the past few weekends, I’ve rewatched the first three Toy Story movies and watched the fourth, which I didn’t see in the theater, for some odd reason. These films are so clever and imaginative, and it’s fun to track the progress of the Pixar technology from the first through the last one. But watching these has made me wonder if maybe I was a bad toy owner as a kid.

I don’t recall having a “best friend” toy like Andy had Woody. I might have when I was really little, before I have clear memories, but I certainly didn’t have one who stuck with me to the point I was planning to take it to college with me. I guess I did have my R2-D2 action figure, but that was more about showing my fondness for Star Wars, and R2 is kind of a personal mascot. I didn’t have any particular feelings for that figure.

My toys were generally my cast to play out stories I made up, so whatever feelings I had for them were for the roles they were playing at that particular moment. The object itself wasn’t that important to me. I didn’t sleep with toys. My parents didn’t do the “you can bring one toy with you” thing when we went to restaurants. If I ever did bring something with me, it was most likely a book. A toy on its own wouldn’t have been any fun unless I could have it acting out stories, and I couldn’t do that properly in public.

I was also pretty fickle. I might be really into a new toy soon after getting it, but then I’d move on. I suffered a lot from 70s TV commercial oversell (as the fourth movie so hilariously depicted), so the toy that looked like so much fun on TV, that I desperately wanted and begged to get for Christmas or my birthday, ended up not doing anything like what was shown on TV. I remember in particular the Baby Alive, a baby doll that would actually eat and drink and then you’d have to change its diaper (it came with this powder stuff that you made into a glop with water to feed it). I’m not sure why that sounded like fun, but I had a baby brother at the time, and I guess I wanted my own baby to feed. One time dealing with the grossness, and I didn’t use that feature of the doll again. As I recall, if you “fed” the doll, you then had to pour a lot of water through it to rinse it out, and it was more trouble than it was worth. Then there was the bride doll I desperately wanted, got, and then wondered, “Now what?”

When I was little, I mostly played with the Fisher Price “little people.” I had the house and the school, though the school also got turned into things like churches and auditoriums. My brother inherited those, and he also got the farm and the airport. One house where we lived had a full basement with a room we got to use as a playroom, and we set up a whole town for the people, with other buildings built out of blocks.

My Barbie dolls were mostly used to act out plays and musicals (I’d make up stories to connect the songs on my record albums, so I guess I invented the “jukebox musical” decades before that trend hit Broadway). They also served as models for clothes I designed and made. In that same house where we had a full room as a playroom, I set up a kind of town for my dolls. I had the Barbie Dream House, and I built all kinds of additions to it, including a fireplace and balcony. I was around 10 during my most intense Barbie phase, and I think I used that as a way to imagine what my ideal adult life would be like. I had a Malibu Barbie, but my primary doll was actually a Francie, who I think was Barbie’s cousin. She was brunette, a bit less voluptuous and had slightly flatter feet instead of being designed for high heels. Mine was the “quick curl” model, with wiry hair that you could curl with a “curling iron” plastic rod. But basically, her hair ended up all clumpy and frizzy, which meant she was just like me. At one point, I tried to fix this with scissors, and that never goes well. During that more intense Barbie phase, when that doll was pretty worn out, I got a PJ (a brunette Barbie), sent my Francie to a spa for a makeover, and she came home as that PJ, so I saw her as essentially the same doll. Then about six months later we moved, and I pretty much stopped playing with Barbies. We didn’t have a good place to put up the Dream House, and since I was going into junior high, I didn’t want it in my room.

I have that last doll in a box in my closet, and I guess it’s weird that the one I kept is one I didn’t play with all that much. According to the Toy Story films, that’s been a horrible fate for that doll, to be boxed up in a closet and never played with. I don’t have a daughter to give her to, and given that she’s more than 40 years old (yikes!), I’m not entirely sure how safe she’d be. There’s no telling what they were putting in toys then.

Now that those movies have made me feel bad, maybe I should find her and let her look outside, or something.

I did have a bit of a Toy Story 3 experience with my books. My parents cleared out their attic with boxes and boxes of childhood books. I knew I would probably never have kids, but my church works with a summer program that provides summer enrichment for kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods. As part of it, they have a reading program, and they like for the kids to be able to take home a few books of their own to keep. I donated all my old books to that program, and I felt like the end of Toy Story 3, in which a grown Andy gives up his childhood toys to a child, when I handed over all those boxes. I did feel attached to some of those books, and now I like to imagine children who didn’t have books of their own bringing those books home with them, and maybe getting even more attached to them than I was because these might be the first books they got to own for themselves.

movies, writing

Specific and Universal

I was surprised to see a criticism of the movie Turning Red that suggested it was too specific in its setting, that it would only appeal to the filmmaker and her friends, people of Asian descent who grew up in the early 2000s in Toronto.

I found that rather baffling because stories are supposed to be specific. The whole idea is to take something universal and put it into a specific place and time. I’m not of Chinese descent, was a pre-teen long before the early 2000s, and have never been to Toronto, and yet I related quite strongly to the characters in that movie. It reminded me so much of my seventh-grade year at a US Department of Defense school in Germany in the early 80s.

I have to wonder if this reviewer has ever seen any other Pixar movies. Last weekend, I watched the first two Toy Story movies. I am not a cowboy toy owned by a little boy, but I related to the fear of being replaced. That sort of experience comes up so often in life, like when your friends really seem to like the new kid in school and you worry you’ll lose them, when that new employee is so slick and cool that you’re worried your career is going to come to a screeching halt, when get a baby brother or sister and worry your parents will have less time for you. It’s a universal feeling put into a specific setting.

In fact, just about all stories are like that. You might be able to find a few things that are about someone exactly like you who’s experiencing something exactly like your life, but I’d think they’d be kind of boring. Why read or watch a story that’s basically about your life? We’re not space knights, superheroes, princesses, 1940s private detectives, or any of the other heroes that show up in fiction, but we can still find things about them that we can relate to.

That doesn’t mean, though, that not everyone needs to be represented or to see themselves in stories. Every so often it’s fun to find something that you relate to not only on a universal level, but also in something specific. I was in my 40s when the movie Brave came out, but it still gave me a huge thrill to see a curly-haired heroine—one who had real curly hair that acted like real curly hair, not like a straight-haired actress who’d had a curling iron waved in her general direction. Even better, she didn’t get a makeover in which she suddenly became beautiful when her hair was straightened. If that movie had existed when I was a kid, it would have had a huge impact on the way I saw myself. I think everyone needs to see themselves in stories at some point.

I suspect this writer thought the setting should have been more “universal,” like middle America. We need to get past the idea that white middle America is some kind of default that’s universal. It’s not, really. For one thing, which America? A town in the deep South isn’t the same as one in the northeast, and both are different from the midwest, which can vary depending on whether it’s north midwest or south midwest. There is no “universal” setting. I suppose the Toy Story movies do take place in some kind of generic suburban middle America, but since it’s seen through the eyes of toys, they have no real experience of the world outside Andy’s home so they have no idea where they are. Their specific world is Andy’s home.

When you try to have a generic setting with real people, you get a Hallmark Christmas movie, where they talk about the city without naming it and the small town may have a name, but you never know where this town actually is. The cars all have generic plates, if they show the license plates at all, so you can’t even tell what state they’re in. It’s just generic middle America, and it doesn’t seem like a real place. That’s the irony: the less specific you are about your setting, the less real it feels. You don’t find the universal emotions in the story when the setting feels fake. You’re more likely to relate to something in a specific setting that’s far from your personal experience because it feels more real.

This applies to made-up places, too. You need to make up a place that feels specific, like someone who grew up there could tell you exactly what it was like. Otherwise you get those generic quasi-medieval European-ish fantasy worlds.


Recent Viewing

I’ve been keeping up my weekend movie night habit, but I’ve lost track of talking about them, so here are some thoughts on things I’ve watched recently, in no particular order:

A Fish Called Wanda — I needed a laugh, and I remembered this being very funny when I saw it at the theater when it first came out (I am old). It was still funny and quite an 80s time capsule, but not exactly the thing to watch when you’re a bit down because you’re losing faith in mankind, since even the “nice” people in this movie are fairly awful people. Still, brilliant writing and acting.

Weekend at Bernie’s — I guess I was on an 80s kick (and once I watched Wanda, Amazon started suggesting 80s movies). I remember wanting to see this when it came out because I thought the premise sounded fun, but I never did, and I’m not sure why. It came out during a summer when I was interning and had an apartment on my own in Austin (back in those days, apartments in Austin were dirt cheap over the summer. Times have changed), so there was nothing stopping me from seeing it. I went to a lot of movies alone that summer. Anyway, I finally saw it, and it didn’t quite live up to the premise. The core of the movie — the two guys pretending their dead boss is still alive because they’re afraid they’ll be killed if anyone realizes he’s dead while the assassin is going nuts because he’s sure he killed that guy — is rather brilliant and quite fun. But it’s a very small part of the movie. The movie’s only about 90 minutes long and we don’t even get Bernie killed until more than 30 minutes into the movie, and it’s another half hour or so before they learn their boss put a hit out on them and start really faking Bernie being alive. There’s a lot of padding with a romance subplot that doesn’t really add anything to the story. But, wow, the 80s vibes. It took me right back to my college years. The hair! The makeup! The clothes!

Ladies in Lavender — now for something a little more PBS-like. Two elderly spinsters during the 1930s find an injured young man washed up in front of their cottage on the Cornish coast and get a little too invested in him. That sounds like a horror movie, but it’s actually rather sweet. The guy is a Polish violinist who was on his way to America but ended up overboard from the ship, and the ladies want to support his dream, but fear they’ll lose him as one of them experiences her first crush late in life. Surprisingly, this gentle little movie was written (based on a short story) and directed by Charles Dance, perhaps best known now for playing Tywin Lannister. It has a great cast, starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. The young man looked really familiar, and it turns out he plays a villain in the Marvel movies, but he’s all grown up now.

Free Guy — This was the “restoring faith in humanity” movie I needed. I wasn’t sure about the idea of it, since it involves video games and I am not a gamer at all, but I was able to follow it well enough. In the world of a violent video game, one of the non-player characters becomes self-aware, falls in love with the avatar of one of the gamers, and starts being a hero in the game, doing good and stopping the violent acts, which inspires a worldwide movement in the real world — much to the chagrin of the guy who owns the video game company. He may destroy the game’s world unless that “Free Guy” can find the evidence the owner stole the code at the heart of the game. This movie is so sweet while also being fun and exciting. I found it oddly inspiring in the way it showed the impact of someone who does what he can to make the world better, one act of kindness at a time. At the same time, I felt like my lack of interest in video games was validated because that game didn’t look at all like fun to me.

West Side Story (the new one) — I love the original version. I have that soundtrack on cassette. I’ve seen the movie so many times, including on the big screen (thanks to the campus theater when I was in college). I’ve also seen numerous productions of the stage show. But I was intrigued by what could be done in a remake, and I was really impressed. The film is beautiful to watch, and the performances are terrific. I think the music is better than in the original. It was a little weird seeing something that was so familiar and yet so different. They took the basic story and the music and wrote a new script, in consultation with experts on the Puerto Rican community in New York in that time period, and I think the story works much better now. I intend to get this one on DVD so I can watch it whenever without worrying about whether it will stay on Disney+. I’d thought that this might be one Spielberg movie that didn’t involve John Williams, but it turns out that he consulted on the score because he was the pianist in the score for the original version!

Turning Red — A 13-year old girl from a Chinese immigrant family in Toronto in the early 2000s finds that her family has an interesting blessing/curse: upon puberty, the women turn into a giant red panda when they get emotional. Her overprotective mother intends to do a ritual that will remove the panda, but that’s the same night as the concert by the hot boy band the girl and her friends are determined to attend, whether or not their parents let them go. And she actually kind of likes the panda and isn’t sure she wants to get rid of it. It’s Pixar, so it’s sweet, funny, emotional, and has a universal emotional core even if it’s about a specific group of people. I’m from a different era and ethnicity and my parents weren’t nearly that overprotective, but it reminded me of my 7th grade year when I was 12. My friends and I were obsessing over Star Wars instead of a boy band, but otherwise the things they did at school and the way they talked about their obsession were all so familiar. The heroine even carried the same flute case I have (that I had then). There were a few moments when I was dying of secondhand embarrassment, but that was the universal part. Even if your parents didn’t go that far, when you were that age you probably felt that way because you feared you’d get embarrassed.

The Sword in the Stone — I don’t think I’d ever seen this Disney classic all the way through. There were scenes that were familiar that I know I’ve seen, but the rest was entirely unfamiliar. I know the story, of course, and I’ve even read the book it was based on. I’m not sure how well it holds up. It’s rather episodic, just a series of events rather than there being any kind of narrative drive. It was still cute and funny, and there’s always the game of finding the spots where they reused bits of animation from other movies that you can play with Disney films from that era.

Now I have to think of something to watch this weekend. I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for.


Swashbuckling Sea Fantasy

Over the past few weeks, I’ve focused my weekend movie nights on rewatching/watching the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I saw the first three in the theater when they came out. I have the DVD of the first one and have watched it multiple times all the way through. The second and third were the sort of thing I’d stop on if I was channel surfing and they were on TV (back when I had cable). I don’t think I’d ever rewatched them straight through from beginning to end. I would drop in on them, watch my favorite parts, and then move on. I’d seen most of the fourth one on TV, but I don’t think I’d ever watched it through from beginning to end. There were scenes that were familiar, but there was a lot I didn’t recall. I hadn’t seen the fifth one at all.

It occurred to me while I was watching that these really are more “fantasy” movies than “pirate” movies. The only actual piracy — as in raiding, looting, and pillaging — happens near the beginning of the first film in the attack that kicks off the story. For the rest of the series, “piracy” is treated as a culture that’s being oppressed by the British government/East India Trading Company. It works like a secondary-world fantasy in which there’s something similar to something in our world, but is actually quite different in the way it works. The plots are all about breaking curses and finding magical objects or substances, and the resolutions to most of the stories involve magic in some way. I think the geography even works differently, since they seem to be making quick side trips to Singapore from the Caribbean, long before the Panama Canal. So, fantasy.

Looking at it that way, these movies actually work to scratch my itch for a particular kind of fantasy movie. There’s lots of swashbuckling adventure, a good dose of humor, and a dash of romance, all woven around magic and some decent worldbuilding (not so great if you’re looking at these as historical fantasy, set in a particular place and time, but it works pretty well if you consider it secondary-world fantasy where some of the places happen to have the same names as in our world).

I think the pacing on the second two movies gets weird. They’re very episodic, going sometimes rather abruptly from one sequence to the next. There’s a lot of “and then” instead of “so then.” It helped when I started thinking of those two movies as a season of a streaming series. They divide pretty neatly into episodes, so that you resolve something, that’s the end of the episode, and then you pick up in the next episode with a new problem.

The fourth movie doesn’t really work for me. I’ve mentioned the fact that it doesn’t have a protagonist. There’s a story line that just ends without any resolution. It gets better with the fourth film, where we have a protagonist again and a fun love interest. It’s lacking the magic (the storytelling kind, not the literal supernatural kind) of the original films, but it’s still a lot of fun.

Photo of the rigging at the prow of a tall shipI have a weird fascination with sailing ships, so I love the idea of a fantasy with a tall ship. There’s something so romantic about the image. The centerpiece of my last real vacation, a trip to Chicago, was an excursion on a tall ship on Lake Michigan. I got to help hoist the sails (hard work!) and then experience traveling only under sail power. I’d been on smaller sailboats before, but not one that big on that big a body of water. I seem to live in entirely the wrong part of the world for the things that fascinate me. A person who feels most alive in a forest and who loves tall ships probably shouldn’t be living on the prairie.

I need to find some sailing-focused fantasy novels to read. I loved the Liveships books by Robin Hobb. I’ll need to dig around for more.

writing, TV, movies

Do We Really Need Villains?

Before Christmas, I wrote a post about low and high tension stories and whether you really need to have edge-of-your-seat tension for a book. Sometimes you just want to go on a fun journey (literal or metaphorical) without having to worry about the hero’s fate. In the same post, I talked about the requirement that the hero be proactive and defeat the villain, while it can sometimes be really satisfying if the villain causes their own downfall, without the hero doing anything to cause that downfall.

Now I’ve been wondering, do we actually need a villain?

My latest bit of joy has been the new version of All Creatures Great and Small that’s been on PBS. I rewatched the first season the week after Christmas and the second season is on now. This is a show that goes beyond cozy to downright cuddly. It’s the story of a young veterinarian from Glasgow who gets a job in the late 1930s working for a practice in Yorkshire, where they treat both pets and farm animals. His boss is gruff and demanding but turns out to be decent at heart (he mostly just likes animals more than he likes people), and he sometimes has to deal with difficult personalities but there isn’t really a villain in the story. The interpersonal conflict generally comes from people who have good intentions but disagree about the right way to deal with a situation or from people who have an emotional involvement that clouds their judgment. Otherwise, there’s a lot of “man vs. nature” conflict in figuring out what’s wrong with an animal and how to fix it — or how to deal with it if it can’t be fixed. There is some personality clashing within the vet practice, especially once the boss’s younger brother joins them, since he has a very different attitude about life (at first, you might expect him to be a bit of a rival to our hero, but they become best friends). The closest thing to a “villain” is a rival vet, but they aren’t trying to hurt each other. They “defeat” the rival by trying to do a better job of diagnosing and curing a farmer’s cow. Nobody’s really mean. There’s no evil at all, and it’s quite refreshing. This is a show I can just sit and watch without doing crosswords or knitting, so it keeps my attention even without all that conflict.

In fact, I find it ironic that the show that’s on before it has felt the need to shoehorn in a villain. That’s Around the World in 80 Days, and you’d think that just trying to deal with all the stuff they’re facing on this great journey would be enough conflict, but they’ve thrown in an enemy who’s trying to sabotage them. And I can’t watch that show without also doing something like crosswords or knitting because it doesn’t entirely hold my interest.

Another no-villain thing I’ve seen lately is Encanto, the Disney movie. It’s about a family in a Columbian village. The family all has magical powers they use to help the village, but one of the daughters has missed out on a magical gift and has realized that things are going wrong (hmm, where have I seen something along those lines before, the person without a magical gift who solves things for the magical people …). There’s conflict within the family, but there’s no villain, no evil person causing the problems. It’s just good people trying to do their best and sometimes going about that the wrong way. There are still a lot of emotional stakes. There’s even tension and action, all without a villain.

I’m reading a fantasy novel right now that may not have an actual villain in it. There are some not so great people, but they’re not what I’d call a villain, not someone that they have to defeat to save the day. I’m only about halfway through, so it could change, but mostly it seems like the force they’re having to fight is nature. So, it can be done (though this is an established author).

The series I’m developing does need a villain, so I can’t play with this concept here, but now I have a mental challenge to see if I can come up with a story with no villain.


Christmas in the City

Skaters at Rockefeller Center
Some city Christmas magic from my trip to New York to research Damsel Under Stress

On Twitter, I’ve been playing around with what the opposite of the standard Hallmark Christmas movie would be, reversing or inverting all the tropes. So, instead of the city girl with a corporate career and a successful, wealthy boyfriend going to her hometown for Christmas to help save her family business and deciding to ditch her career and boyfriend and get back together with her high school boyfriend, you might have the small-town girl working for her family’s business and dating her high school boyfriend who goes to the city, where she ends up getting a corporate career and successful, wealthy boyfriend.

There are also the movies where the big-city girl has to go to a small town that she’s not from, where she discovers the wonder of Christmas and finds it all so magical. I can kind of see someone going to her hometown and being touched by traditions she remembers from childhood, but it seems less likely to me that a city girl would ditch everything for a small town she’s not from.

Really, I don’t get their fascination with small towns. I’m from a small town and have no desire to go back to one. Though I think we might disagree on the definition of “small town.” The town I’m from had a population of about 3,000 when I lived there. They’re a bit above 5,000 now. The “small” towns in these movies are more what I’d call a small city. I can somewhat see the appeal of moving from a major metro area to a smaller city that’s still an actual city and that isn’t part of a major metro area. But if we’re talking about a place where Christmas is particularly magical, I’ve had small-town Christmases and big-city Christmases, and the city wins, hands down. I guess if you’re from a city in the South, you might be charmed by a New England village where you get to take a sleigh ride, but it’s still not going to be a case of “Wow, I had no idea Christmas could be so magical!” unless she was living under a rock in the city.

In most small towns, Christmas amounts to some sad, weathered plastic tinsel and lights on the lampposts of the downtown area and a Christmas parade in which Santa rides on a fire truck. There might be a tree-lighting ceremony in a park. And these things happen early in December, not a day or two before Christmas. There are smaller towns that do bigger things for Christmas, but they do this for tourism purposes and bring in a lot of people from outside the area. One lone visitor wouldn’t stand out among the crowds enough to be adopted by the friendly locals (and that’s another thing — in my small-town experience, the locals are friendly to each other but suspicious of outsiders).

The “small town” in my area that comes closest to the Hallmark Christmas ideal isn’t truly a small town. It’s a former small town that has become a big city in the heart of a major metro area. It still has the quaint old downtown Main Street, and they do it up big for Christmas, but beyond that is major suburban sprawl. At Christmas, the downtown area gets really crowded and has a lot of traffic. People come in busloads, and they book vacation packages at the big resort hotels in the town. It is really festive and Christmassy, but it’s not a truly “small town” experience.

There’s a lot more Christmas stuff going on in big cities than in most small towns. Just about every city in the metro area has a light display, a parade, and a tree-lighting ceremony. There are holiday markets, outdoor concerts, outdoor ice rinks, and concerts involving big-name groups and artists. If I have to watch a production of The Nutcracker, I’d much rather watch the New York City Ballet than the kids at Miss Edna’s Dance ’n’ Twirl. You could do a different Christmas thing every night in December. When I was in high school in a small town, we had church youth group excursions to the big city, in which we’d load up the church van and go to Dallas to go to one of the big malls for Christmas shopping and ice skating. I think it’s far more likely that someone from a small town would go to the city and think everything was so magical than the reverse.

I’m not sure where Hallmark got this small town fetish, but their older movies don’t have it. If you look before 2016 or so, a lot of them take place in cities. No one has to give up their careers or get back with their high school boyfriends. I watched one last weekend, Naughty or Nice, that has the heroine living in the suburbs of a city, and she stays there and stays with her lawyer boyfriend. From around the same time, there’s It’s Christmas Carol, a retelling of A Christmas Carol in which a high-powered professional in Chicago becomes nicer but stays in her career. That one also has Carrie Fisher as all the ghosts, carrying around and drinking from a champagne bottle.

I’d toyed with drafting a Christmas story during this month as a way to keep the writing habit while I’m working on research, but then the month got away from me, and now it’s a week until Christmas. Instead of adding work, I’m going to take next week off, so no posts (especially since my scheduling doesn’t seem to be working). I may do a “year in review” post the week after Christmas, but I’m mostly going to take it easy, bake, and snark at Christmas movies.


Fantasy and Frozen

I’ve scheduled this post a couple of times, and it never seems to post, so it’s originally from right before Thanksgiving. Maybe my server just hates Frozen.

I’ve been watching movies that give me a “fall” vibe, so I rewatched Frozen 2 recently. It’s got an autumn setting and plenty of pretty fall forest imagery. And I came to the realization while watching that I might like it a bit better than the original film. It doesn’t have any one song as iconic as a couple of the songs in the first one, but I think I like the story better, maybe because it’s more of a fantasy story and less of a Disney princess story. As much as the first one tried to interrogate the usual Disney princess tropes (like mocking the idea of marrying someone you’ve just met after you sing a duet together), it was still pretty princessy. In the second, I feel like there’s more worldbuilding and some actual development of the magic instead of there just being magic because it’s a fairy tale. Maybe that’s the distinction: the first one was more of a fairy tale, while the second was a fantasy story that actually developed the culture and history of the world and looked into what the magic was all about. We seldom learn much about the world where a Disney princess movie is set. There’s little culture or history. We just know there’s a prince.

I found myself thinking that you could take the story of this film and make a decent “serious” live-action fantasy — not in the way that Disney has been doing live-action remakes, but making a different movie with the same core story. Take out Olaf, the musical numbers, and the cutesy stuff like pretending the reindeer are talking — basically, the stuff aimed at kids — and treat the history and the battles more realistically, and you could have something that fits in the Lord of the Rings mold. Thinking about how I’d rewrite it, I think I’d pretty much ignore the first movie and just start with the given that there’s the queen with ice powers and her more extroverted sister, then bad stuff happens in their kingdom and they have to go on a quest to resolve it by facing their family’s history. I might make Kristoff one of the reindeer herders, so Anna meets and gets to know him on the quest rather than them being in an established relationship with all the waffling about proposing. Or possibly he’s someone she meets on the journey to get to the place where the enchanted forest is. Have real battle scenes in the flashbacks and real fighting in the present. CGI could make the water horse look really cool.

I noticed that on Disney+ you can get a version dubbed in Norwegian. I’ll have to try watching these movies that way when I’m a little more advanced in my language study. Right now, I can read a lot pretty well, but I can’t seem to understand much when I hear the language spoken. I don’t even pick up many words on the train announcements on Slow TV (real-time videos of train journeys in Norway — you can watch it online, and it’s nice and relaxing. They just put a camera in a train, so it’s like being on a train ride, watching the scenery go by). They’re using words that are in my vocabulary, but I don’t pick up on them when I hear them. The only time I’ve been able to actually follow and understand what a Norwegian was saying was in a video I saw of a speech by the current king of Norway. I could understand him, but he apparently is considered to have an American accent, since he spent a good chunk of his childhood and went to elementary school in the US during WWII. Maybe watching a movie with a familiar story in that language will help me tune my ear into it. I don’t think I can count on running into the king if I ever go there to travel, so I need to be able to understand what I hear. Most people there do speak good English, but it’s good to be able to understand some of what you’re hearing. That also makes eavesdropping more entertaining.