Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Unbalanced Duos

I recently got reacquainted with the first three Pirates of The Caribbean films, or as I tend to call them, the two good ones and that one that you have to watch to give the second film an ending. The third film, At World's End, certainly has a lot of cringe-worthy elements for a lot of fans, but one of the elements that bothers me most is the arc of one of my favorite characters, Ragetti.

Don't get me wrong. His overall arc from a mumbling, dog-like sidekick to a cheeky, erudite badass is fascinating. What bothers me about his character arc in the third film though is how much more of one he gets than his partner-in-crime Pintel. Practically every scene in At World's End that features these two has Ragetti upstaging Pintel, getting the spotlight without him, and generally being treated like he's a way more important character.

The problem with this is that before At World's End, these characters were introduced and always presented as a duo. We see duos all the time in movies like this, often as comic relief, and their purpose for being a duo is that they offset each other. They can have a leader and follower dynamic, but the two characters are supposed to work together and be of equal value in the story. Giving more attention and development to just one of them over the course of the narrative can reduce the other duo member to a pointless character, which is what happens to Pintel in At World's End.

Pintel and Ragetti aren't the only character duo in film to have balancing issues. Fans of the Hobbit films often point out how much more focus the dwarf Kili gets over his brother Fili despite them being a pair. The roles of Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings are pretty equal in the books and don't change much in the films, but it's clear from the staging and editing that the filmmakers liked Pippin more. I even think that Jake in the first Blues Brothers movie gets the spotlight a few too many more times than Elwood. Why does this happen?

In some cases, it may be in response to fan preference. Jake Blues was played by John Belushi in the original Blues Brothers sketches on Saturday Night Live, and Belushi was a more energetic performer than his costar Dan Aykroyd. Because of this, Jake was probably more memorable and more liked by viewers than Elwood, so the writers decided to give Jake more material when it came time to write the film. Similarly, Ragetti's wooden eyeball and more sympathetic portrayal in the first Pirates of the Caribbean probably made him stand out more than Pintel, so the writers expanded his role in the sequels to appease fans.

Another reason why duos lose their balance could be that one member just shows more potential for personal growth. Kili, Pippin, and even Ragetti are the younger and more naive halves of their duos, so they naturally have more to learn and more growing up to do. That often speaks more to writers, which is fine, but as the writer, you have to do something with the other duo member to offset the more compelling one's growth. Duo characters are usually together because they have a unique and firm understanding of one another, so any notable change that one of them undergoes is going to effect the other.

I think one of the best examples of a film duo done right is the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars. Their personalities are strong and distinct enough not only to complement each other when they're together, but also to make both of them interesting when they're apart. They each get a fair amount of alone time in the spotlight, but neither one ever outgrows the other because they're kind of designed to need each other.

R2-D2 is pretty much the only character that C-3PO can rant and complain around without getting dismissed, and C-3PO is the only major character who can always translate what R2-D2 is saying. Each one can only achieve his full character potential when the other is present because they're the only characters who fully allow one another to have a voice. They're equal opposites who complete each other -- a whirring, beeping, blue and gold yin yang.

The simplest advice I can think of for writing a good, balanced duo is to almost think of it like adopting twins. If you're going to bring a pair into the picture instead of just one character, then you need to be willing to raise both of them. Explore and celebrate the bond that they have, encourage them to be individuals but not to forget each other, and above all else, treat them fairly.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

No One Gastons Like Gaston

I know I wrote pretty favorably of the new Beauty and the Beast film in my last entry. I even went so far as to call it superior to the 1991 original in a lot of ways, but now that the hype over this version is calming down and I've seen it again, I think it's only fair to discuss at least one of the ways that it pales in comparison. Changing anything in a remake is a gamble, and when it comes to changing something about a character, the results can be hit or miss. Sadly, I think that the new film's version of Gaston is a miss.

The whole point of Gaston's character is that he's the same way that the Prince/Beast was before meeting Belle. He's shallow, selfish, brutish, boastful, and simple-minded. He's also meant to be the epitome of everything that's wrong with the people in Belle's town, as is shown by how much they admire him for having all of those above mentioned qualities. In short, his character needs to be instantly unlikeable and impossible to take seriously.

Just look at his introduction scene in the original film, where we see him shooting ducks out of the sky in the middle of town. Killing hapless animals by the sack-load paints a lousy enough picture of his character, but the fact that he's doing it in the middle of a crowded village where the birds could fall on anyone illustrates how inconsiderate he is even to the people who admire him. You know right away what kind of a person he is.

In contrast, the new film instantly misses the point of Gaston by making him a war hero who's returning home from battle. I guess the idea was to give the townspeople a more realistic reason for admiring him so much, but Gaston's  contribution to the story's theme is supposed to be that he's stupid and selfish. It makes little sense that someone like that could achieve the rank of captain in the military and even less sense that he would risk his life to serve his country in the first place. The film tries to explain that he joined the war effort because he likes fighting, and it can be argued that he also likes bossing around subordinates and receiving medals for his exploits, but as we saw in the original film, there are easier ways for a sociopath to channel his bloodlust.

This sacrifice of character for the sake of realism can be seen all throughout Gaston's screen time in the new version. Two other examples of it are the scenes where he attempts to woo and propose to Belle. In the original film, he goes about it in his usual narcisistic way, bragging about himself and paying no attention to Belle's input because he assumes she adores him. He tosses her favorite book into the mud and casually says that women getting ideas from reading is bad for them, then he assembles an entire wedding outside her house before even proposing to her because he can't imagine why she wouldn't say yes. He's so unabashedly pig-headed that you can't help but be entertained by him.

The new film scales back both of these scenes so much that they actually make Gaston's character inconsistent. He begins his first talk with Belle by offering her flowers and complimenting the book that she's reading, which he admits that he hasn't read himself. Not only does this make him seem sensitive and even humble to some degree, but it contradicts his lines in the song "Belle" where he clearly explains that he only values Belle's beauty and doesn't care about her personality. Gaston shouldn't be making any effort to impress her; he should think that his mere presence is enough to win her over.

The proposal scene takes this even further. In addition to scrapping the whole preemptive wedding setup, the scene has Gaston argue his case to Belle by pointing out that unmarried women in their town become beggars when their fathers die. It's such a compelling argument that Belle can't even offer a good rebuttal. This kind of logic and tact simply doesn't work coming from a character who spends one of his first scenes hitting on his own reflection with all seriousness.

That makes all of this so unfortunate is that these inconsistencies and Gaston's overall more subtle portrayal make him totally unmemorable in the new film. I either don't know what his character is about or I find him so underwhelming that I tune him out altogether. Heck, he gets out-shined by his sidekick in a song called "Gaston" that's supposed to be all about him and how great he is, and Gaston's own contributions to that song are so low-key that they seem to sap energy out of the scene. That doesn't make a good villain.

I don't blame actor Luke Evans for this portrayal of the character. He gave the performance that he was told to give and the idea behind it simply didn't translate well. That seems to be a flaw with a lot of these recent Disney remakes; story elements, pivotal moments, and characters themselves either get rushed or watered down for some reason and a lot of their emotional resonance gets lost as a result. I still think there are plenty of very good things in the new Beauty and the Beast, but there were three core characters that it had to get right, and it only managed that with two. I don't like to disagree with the beautiful beast of Meat Loaf, but when this happens in a remake of a beloved classic, two out of three can sometimes be a little bad.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

"The Open Portals - Part 1" Now Available

Check it out! Part 1 of my new young adult sic-fi/fantasy novel "The Open Portals" is now available on Kindle for $2.99:

"The Open Portals - Part 1" by Katelyn Rushe

Returning to her life on Earth hasn't been easy for young Amber Brenin. Rendered powerless and surrounded by people who don't believe her tales of inter-dimensional travel, she misses the world of Rökshena more than ever, and when her feelings for her father Robert also become strained, she comes to see her homeward as nothing but a prison. Even worse is the knowledge that she must stay away from Rökshena to protect it from the Black Gadget.

However, this soon changes when amber discovers that the four Voxacustos have found their way to Earth as well. Now forced to defend her homeworld from them, she must strike a bargain with the Black Gadget and journey back to Rökshena with Robert to obtain the element Faelodine, the Voxacustos' one weakness. Can Amber defeat her old enemies on Earth and keep Rökshena safe, or has she already doomed both worlds?

Also check out Parts 1 and 2 of "The Last Creator," now on sale for $1.99 each:

"The Last Creator - Part 1"
"The Last Creator - Part 2"


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Top 5 Plot Holes the New "Beauty and the Beast" Fixes

Well, Disney just released their newest live-action remake of an animated classic with Beauty and the Beast this past weekend, and judging from the film's reception so far, we can probably expect a lot more remakes from them in the future. I'll admit I was hesitant to see this one at first, not because I object to remaking Beauty and the Beast, but because the previews didn't make this version seem any different from the 1991 animated film. Why pay $11 for a theater ticket when I can watch my VHS of the original for free?

But just like Belle with the castle's West Wing, curiosity got the better of me and I went to see the new film. Not only did it turn out to be an entertaining remake, but it also turned out to be a smart remake that fixes a lot of the original's problems. Fairy tales by nature are riddled with plot holes and the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, while still a great film, is riddled with them too. With that said, here are my top five examples of how the new version fills those holes with some real world logic.

5. How did Belle get the Injured Beast Back to the Castle?

After a violent encounter with the Beast about halfway through the 1991 film, Belle flees from the castle and gets attacked by wolves in the forest. The Beast fights off the pack, but gets badly injured in the process and passes out with no one but Belle to help him. She does get him back to the castle, but aside from one shot of her leading her horse through the woods with the unconscious hero slung over its back, we don't see how she manages that. How does a lone 17-year-old woman get what must be at least a 600-pound heap of dead weight onto a horse's back? It's the animated equivalent of not showing how the explorers moved unconscious King Kong from his island onto their boat; just because it's minor to the story doesn't mean we don't have questions about it.

The new Beauty and the Beast resolves this by keeping the Beast awake after fighting off the wolves. He collapses from his injuries, but he has enough strength left to help Belle get him onto the horse. Having him awake and struggling instead of unconscious also adds tension to the scene when Belle is debating whether to help him or finish her escape, since there's still a chance that he may be dangerous to her as well. All in all, this version of the scene makes some moments simpler and others more complex in a way that keeps it engaging but not as distracting.

4. What Happened to the Townspeople at the End?

This is more of a loose plot thread than a plot hole, but it's still an enormous missing piece that merits addressing. In the climax of the 1991 version, the villain Gaston leads an angry mob of townspeople to the Beast's castle where they do battle with all of the enchanted objects inside. We see a few minutes of people getting beaten up by furniture and appliances in funny, creative ways, then the people retreat and the focus settles on Gaston fighting the Beast on top of the castle. Gaston eventually falls to his death, then Belle and the Beast break the curse, everything goes back to normal, and the happy couple closes out the film by dancing together in the castle with all of the re-humanized servants gathered around them.

The only thing missing in all of this is what happened to the rest of the townspeople after they retreated. Are we meant to believe that they just went back to their normal lives after failing to kill the creature that Gaston made them so afraid of? If they were fearful enough of the Beast to invade his home in the first place, wouldn't they be fearful enough now that they might spread word of the demonic castle and come back in greater numbers? I guess it wouldn't matter since they would discover upon returning that the Beast is human again, but the film totally ignores these questions because of "Happily ever after."

The new version answers these questions by showing the townspeople come back to the castle right after the climax is over. They discover that the Beast and his servants were humans all along, and then they join the celebration at the end. The new film wraps up the storylines of hundreds of characters that the 1991 version didn't even care about, and it gets a lot of humorous and poignant moments out of them for it. What's more, it doesn't take all that much time to do any of this, which further enforces that Beauty and the Beast is about more than just a handful of core characters.

3. Why Doesn't Anyone Wonder What Happened to the Prince?

One of the more common complaints about the 1991 version is that nobody in Belle's town ever seems to wonder why they haven't seen or heard from the prince in years when his castle is so close to their homes. He's their ruling monarch, isn't he? At the very least, he's a local prominent figure whose dealings would probably be heard about in nearby settlements like theirs, so why doesn't anyone find it odd or try to investigate when he suddenly disappears from the public eye?

Again, the new version makes quick work of resolving this. A line in the opening narration explains that the enchantress who cursed the castle also erased its existence and the existence of the people inside it from the memories of everyone in the outside world, ensuring that nobody would come and try to help the prince. This is further demonstrated when the townspeople return to the castle after the curse is broken and begin recognizing the characters who had been cursed.

It's arguably the greatest overall shortcoming of the 1991 version that it doesn't treat the townspeople like they're really people. Maybe that was the idea since they're supposed to be too simple for Belle's taste and it does create an ironic contrast with the more humanized characters in the castle, but it vilifies them for basically just wanting to protect their homes and families from something beyond their understanding. They're easily misled, but in the spirit of the story, I think it was smart of the new film to link their sheeplike mentalities with the curse and show that they can change their ways once someone like Belle opens their minds.

2. Where Did All of the Cursed People Come From?

Another question that viewers often raise about the 1991 film is how there could be so many people in the castle who were turned into talking objects. Practically every single kitchen utensil, light fixture, cleaning supply, and piece of furniture in sight has the ability to move, which means that every single one had to have been a living thing originally. Were there seriously thousands of servants working in the castle when it was cursed? Were some of those objects actually birds and rodents that just happened to be on the roof or in the dungeon at the time? No explanation is ever given.

In the new movie though, we learn that the prince liked to host extravagant balls for thousands of guests and was in the middle of hosting one when the enchantress came to his door. This clears up the issue by showing that most of the enchanted objects were once visitors who normally wouldn't have been in the castle. Things like this go a long way in grounding the story in reality, which is important to do in modern adaptations of fairy tales.

Also, having so many of the curse victims not belong in the castle is likely why the screenwriters came up with the idea of erasing the outside world's memories of them. If this is the case, then this solution is especially good because it fixes two plot holes for the price of one.

1. How Long Does the Curse Last?

We all know how the prince came to be cursed in the 1991 film: an old woman came to his door seeking shelter, he turned her away because she was ugly, and she revealed herself to be the enchantress and turned him into a monster as punishment. Her terms were that if he could learn to be kind and find true love by his twenty-first birthday, the curse would be lifted. His time with Belle takes place in the days leading up to his twenty-first birthday, but one line in the song "Be Our Guest" reveals that the Beast and all of his housemates have been under their curse for ten years. Do the math, and you realize that the prince was only eleven years old when he turned away the enchantress.

Not only does this raise all sorts of questions about why a child of the royal family was allowed to answer the door alone and whether he even deserved to be punished for turning away a stranger, it also creates an inconsistency. You can't argue that the 1991 Beast started as a child and grew into an adult during his time under the curse because the portrait of his human self that he destroys shows him as an adult, not as the child that he should have been at the time when it was painted. The timeframe of the curse is often regarded as the biggest pothole in the 1991 version, and fortunately, the new version does fix it.

How do they fix it? By making the prince an adult to begin with and never actually saying how much time the characters spend under their curse. The writers even change the line in "Be Our Guest" from "Ten years we've been rusting" to "Too long we've been rusting" to keep the amount of time ambiguous. Unlike with Belle getting the injured Beast back to his castle, the remake knew that the curse's duration was an insignificant detail and eliminated that detail altogether.


It's kind of funny how easily the new Beauty and the Beast fixes these problems from the original. I don't know how the writing process for the remake went, but it almost feels like the screenwriters went online and studied every YouTube video, message board rant, and fan article about the original's plot holes beforehand and then made a point to address each one in their script. Filmgoers are a lot more keen to scrutinize movies these days, so filmmakers have to be more scrutinizing of their products while making them -- and in the case of the screenplay, they did well with this one.

But if you were wondering, the Beast still doesn't get a name in this version. That's a mystery that's going to remain as old as time.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Groundhog Shack

Coming back from a one-month hiatus, I want to kick off 2017 with a good old off-the-wall movie fan theory. Since Groundhog Day was earlier this month, I think it's only fitting to discuss the movie Groundhog Day -- and how it could work as a prequel to Caddyshack.

In case anyone doesn't know the premise of these films, Groundhog Day is about a grouchy weatherman named Phil Connors who gets trapped in a time loop and has to relive the same day of his life (which falls on the titular holiday) over and over again until he figures out how to do everything right. Caddyshack is about a teenage country club caddy trying to make money for college while an eccentric new club member clashes with the snobby regulars and an insane groundskeeper named Carl Spackler battles wits with a gopher that's tunneling through the golf course. Today's fan theory is that Carl from Caddyshack is actually Phil from Groundhog Day who lost his mind after his experience in the time loop and assumed a new identity.

The first piece of evidence to support this is the creative team behind these films. Not only are Phil and Carl both played by Bill Murray, but both movies were directed and cowritten by Harold Ramis. While Groundhog Day may not have been intended as a prequel to Caddyshack, it's entirely possible that Murray and Ramis subconsciously incorporated elements of Carl into Phil's character arc.

For instance, we see that the two characters are each very mellow and detached from their surroundings. While this can be chalked up to Bill Murray just being Bill Murray in both performances, the characters aren't exactly alike. We see that Phil is much more lucid and expressive than Carl at the beginning of Groundhog Day. It's only as his ordeal of reliving the same day goes on longer and longer that we see him slip into a deep depression, start to lose touch with his emotions and surroundings, and become much more like the crazy groundskeeper from Caddyshack. This is especially apparent in a scene where he kidnaps the Punxsutawney Phil groundhog and talks to it while driving both of them off of a cliff in a failed suicide attempt. It's as if he comes to see the ground-dwelling rodent as the cause of all his torment and decides that destroying such an animal -- even an entirely different one that lives on a golf course -- is a suitable way of restoring order in the world.

In turn, we can also find hints of Phil in Carl's behavior. Phil is a weatherman in Groundhog Day, a job that requires him to narrate a great deal of what he does to a viewing audience that he never actually sees. Similarly, Carl in Caddyshack has a habit of discussing his plans and explaining his actions out loud even when he is completely alone. It could be that Carl retained some of his old identity and is still under the delusion that he's being watched by an audience that he needs to keep informed.

One problem with this theory is that it seems to conflict with the ending of Groundhog Day. In that movie, Phil breaks his curse by changing his ways and learning new skills and then gets the girl in the end. This is a happy ending, so how does it fall apart by the beginning of Caddyshack?

The answer could lie in the very last scene of Groundhog Day. As Phil and his new girlfriend Rita emerge from the house where they're staying in Punxsutawney, he remarks how beautiful the scenery around them is and suggests that the two of them move in together in that town. Rita makes no comment on this sporadic idea, not even when Phil backtracks by suggesting that they just start off renting. Harold Ramis speculated that Phil spends a decade in the time loop at the very least; considering this, the character is probably so rearing to finally get on with his life at the movie's end that he may be moving too fast.

It's easy to imagine this rushed, impulsive behavior pushing Rita to leave him somewhere down the line, and since the two of them are coworkers, it's also conceivable that Phil might impulsively decide to quit his job after losing the woman that he spent so much time pining for. From there, he could very well continue on a mental downward spiral as he struggles to fathom the point of his time loop experience until his love of scenery makes him take up caddying. This could eventually lead to his meeting with the Dalai Lama on a golf course that he recounts in Caddyshack, in which the Buddhist leader promises him "total consciousness" if he dies on his death bed (as opposed to committing suicide, perhaps). Maybe this encounter inspires Phil to assume a new identity and embrace his new life on the golf course now that he has the assurance that everything will make sense to him one day. It just so happens that the sudden, unexpected arrival of another ground-dwelling rodent into his life resurrects his long-dormant dislike for them.

This is admittedly a dark interpretation of Groundhog Day, as it seems to dismiss all of the good will in that movie. Bear in mind though that Harold Ramis was a follower of Buddhism and that he incorporated several Buddhist themes into the script, such as reincarnation and finding happiness by shedding selfish desires. Another major aspect of Buddhism is the idea that achieving simplicity in one's life is important in finding peace of mind. Well, people don't get much simpler than Carl from Caddyshack.

What's especially interesting about Carl's subplot is that for as much as he considers the golf course gopher to be his "enemy," he never seems all that angry while plotting to destroy it. If anything, he seems to find a lot of joy in hatching his schemes. It's as if the intention of the time loop wasn't to prepare him for bigger and grander things in his life like Groundhog Day suggests, but rather to make him incompatible with the busy, unfulfilling life that he had and force him into a much simpler existence.

Some may consider this notion to be dark as well, but in a movie like Groundhog Day that features womanizing, suicide, and murdering a cute, innocent animal, darkness certainly has its place. Actually, you can argue that the wackier and more cartoonish world of Caddyshack is a much happier place for Phil/Carl to live, and all evidence in his scenes seems to support that he is in fact happy. Perhaps the real intention of the time loop wasn't to prepare Phil spiritually for anything, but rather to test him spiritually and then eventually reward him for passing that test. Carl may not be living with Rita in a big house with a white picket fence, but his time loop ordeal has led him to another paradise, even if that paradise is full of gopher holes.