Tag Archives: Fight Choreography

A Study in Distractions — “Yasuke”

“Yasuke” is based on an African man who came to Japan with Jesuit traders. His circumstances and position are unclear, and the show refers to him as a “servant” at this point. Once in Japan, he entered the service of legendary warlord Nobunaga, and became a samurai. That’s about where the anime’s historical accuracy ends.

This isn’t necessarily a problem – the series dives into a fantasy battle from the opening scene. Giant robots lay waste to soldiers as sorcerers conjure devastating attacks in response. It lets you know that “Yasuke” isn’t really going to be recounting history.

Most of “Yasuke” takes place after Yasuke himself has gone into hiding. It’s 20 years later and he’s known as the “Black boatman”. He takes people up and down the river and fishes along the way. Traumatized by his time in battle, he spends his free time drinking or sleeping. He’s charged with taking a girl upriver to see a doctor. Needless to say, things go haywire from there.

The problem with the show rests in its world-building. There’s an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to incorporating anime cliches. That’s fun at first, but becomes increasingly overwhelming and distracting. It’s a six episode series and outside of two fight scenes, Yasuke himself has nothing to do outside of drink or be tortured for the first three episodes.

For a show ostensibly created to celebrate a Black samurai, it feels frustrating. He certainly wasn’t the only Black person in Japan at the time, but he’s the only one we know of who broke through its considerable racism and achieved such high social status in a very hierarchical military culture. In those first three episodes, we get flashbacks where Yasuke trains, fights, and discusses honor and loyalty. Those flashbacks are great. The storyline that takes place in the present, however, mostly sees him drink and get tortured.

There may’ve been more for him to do, but the show is too intent on shoveling in trope after trope that don’t have to do with him. Like I said, it’s fun to recognize them at first. Yet none of them are contextualized or even very consistent. You see, the Mongols invaded Japan using giant robots, forcing Japan to adopt the tech as their own to defend themselves, except giant robots are sometimes magical constructs and sometimes technological ones, and sometimes mecha operated by a pilot and sometimes not, and who knows which and does any of it matter because I’m not sure even the show knows.

And then there’s a werewolf, and then there’s an African sorcerer, and then there’s a wise-cracking robot, and then there’s a woman with a scythe who’s maybe a mecha pilot one time in the fifth episode, and then they work for an agent of the Catholic Church who’s a mutant with biomass powers but he also has electric powers and oh! he can also can turn his mouth into that series of teeth that the worms from “Dune” have, and then the Daimyo is an evil psychic spider, and then there’s a Dark Samurai infused with powers that do something, but he glows purple real well, and then there’s astral projection, and then, and then, and then.

With each new “and then”, I got excited about how brimming the world was with the intersections of all these things, until I realized none really mattered. None were ever filled in. Their presence in the world isn’t given reason. They’re all present, for no particular reason. The voice cast does a good job with these characters, but the writing needed to have fewer of them or provide them more substance.

The series details Yasuke’s past in beautiful ways for three episodes, and LaKeith Stanfield does some great work as a young, idealistic Yasuke and a burnt out, traumatized older one. There are nuances of the character that carry through, but a worldview that’s been damaged. It’s a good thing Stanfield does this level of work, because the rest of the show doesn’t. It weaves his story in the present in such a way that sidelines Yasuke in exchange for world-building. That’s fine, but then that world-building doesn’t mean anything. Nothing is shaped out of it. It’s good for a few meta one-liners, but many of them fall flat and they aren’t central enough to build into something larger. We’ve traded Yasuke and his story for a pile-on of elements the show never treats as very important.

For the first three episodes, “Yasuke” relies on balancing his arc in the past against his arc in the present, without ever giving him an arc in the present beyond getting drunk and being tortured. It hardly feels like a celebration or recognition of him, but even if these aren’t what we’re looking for, what is given us feels needlessly counter-productive and cruel.

The last three episodes leave the flashbacks behind and progress the current story. Here, Yasuke has considerably more agency and the show capitalizes on those flashbacks in some resonant ways. I really wish the series had found a way to focus on the flashbacks from the first three episodes, and the present-tense storyline from the last three episodes, with all that wasted time in the first three episodes cut down.

But it’s an action anime, I’m taking it too seriously? Sure, but the lack of context and consistency saturates the action scenes. Let’s take the good first: the sword fights themselves are stylish and communicate in a way that makes following them feel easy. We can watch Yasuke fight, dodge, counter, and then follow the movement of his sword all the way through to someone’s head being chopped off, the camera spinning around the world in relation. There’s a groundedness and great sense of choreography – particularly for what anime enables our POV to follow in a cogent way.

Then comes the robot. The fight and chase scenes he’s involved in have very little geography. Characters fly around in ways that completely lose the viewer’s sense of direction and strategy. If we can’t follow what the pursued and pursuing are thinking and why they take a certain action, then it doesn’t matter how many energy blasts you’ve got, the scene lacks consequence. Of course, anime has a long history of abstracting fight scenes so that geography disappears altogether, and this can be really striking – but this doesn’t describe the approach here. Instead, these are grounded fights and chases – they just aren’t done well.

This also expands into the battle scenes, where landscape and geographical features are only included once they’re needed for a plot point. You’re ambushing from the forest? I guess there was a convenient forest on both sides of their army the whole time, OK. You’re blasting through a chunk of mountain to bring an army in? OK, so there was mountain there the whole time, I guess. The more elements a fight, chase, or battle includes, the more the sense of “and then, and then, and then” takes over.

Many may show up for the music, and it is by far the show’s standout strength. The electronic/hip hop artist Flying Lotus designs an expressive landscape of yearning synths and soft yet driving drum hits. There are moments that are reminiscent of Vangelis’s work in “Blade Runner”, but Flying Lotus also shifts easily into a unique blend of hauntology, hip hop, and Japanese instrumentation that often rises toward heroic darkwave themes for the fights. There are even clever synth callbacks to Ennio Morricone in moments of stand-off and rising tension. I don’t know how much I’d recommend the show, but the score has an argument as one of the best ever made for a series. It does so much heavy lifting that I think it kept the show’s emotion alive for me after the rest of it had already burned through my patience.

The animation is a mixed bag because it’s often sabotaged by editing decisions. Japanese studio MAPPA do some really detailed work, with early backgrounds of Yasuke’s village standing out as beautiful. The presentations of astral projection and sorcery are well done, with a sense of impact and consequence. There are some towering moments of otherworldly weirdness with the show’s big bad.

That brings us to the robots/constructs/mecha, which can be impressive when they’re actually shown in relation to characters, but are often isolated to their own shots that don’t relate to the battle, fight, or chase scene at hand. I don’t mean to double down on criticizing the robot element here – I was excited at its inclusion at first – but the show never defines any element of how they function or intersect in a fight, while relying on them in half the fights. Worse yet, it leans on cutting to them in isolation or in a completely different area. They’re not linked up to an element of the action scene where the viewer is already anchored, so whatever they do ends up being confusing until one of the characters notices, ‘oh hey, they just did xyz’ or you catch up and just figure it yourself. There’s a reason the trailers avoid showing most of the sci-fi elements: they just don’t work.

Character designs can feel like they come from different eras, which should be a strength but can also stress the sense of wanting more context and world-building from all the different elements crammed together. There are also a few times scenes feel missing, where a character just Hudson Hawks from one place in one scene into a completely different place in the next without the interstitial scripting that connects them.

Would I recommend “Yasuke”? I’m fifty-fifty. The symbolism’s strong in a lot of moments. Then it gets distracted by one-liners, many of which don’t work or are overly familiar. The flashback story of the first three episodes is strong, with a genuine sense of character and texture that made me want to see this element expanded. The last three episodes feel a bit rushed and could have supported more meat to this part of the story, but they’re overall good.

On the other hand, that sense of being rushed only makes me more frustrated with all the wasted time in the present-tense story of the first three episodes. Even as the show got more consistent in its final episodes, I felt like my patience had already been wasted. I wasn’t sure if I was finishing the show because I wanted to see what happened, or because I’d already invested an hour-and-a-half and figured I may as well finish the last hour-and-a-half. I’m glad I finished it, but its early misfires also made me bristle any time I felt the series was getting distracted or focusing on unexplained, throwaway characters again.

The everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach isn’t a bad one. I’ve enjoyed it in series and movies that are far worse than this, so why didn’t I enjoy it here? If I’ve defended “Vagrant Queen” or “Flash Gordon”, how can I possibly criticize something that is more artful and substantive like “Yasuke”? Those may be worse, but they didn’t lose the thread of their stories or characters. They didn’t sideline their stories and characters in ways that wasted viewers’ time.

“Yasuke” doesn’t ground the huge range of elements it wants to throw in, it just keeps throwing more in. Neither does it pursue something abstracted, surreal, or meta enough to use these elements as texture on which you can imprint larger meanings. There are a lot of anime series that handle such a wide range of elements in more directed ways than this. They may not always have the elements of social consciousness that “Yasuke” has, but even when “Yasuke” brings them up, it can’t focus on them very long when a robot needs to deliver a one-liner you’ve heard 20 times before. At the same time, it’s not like there are many anime series entrusted to Black creators like LeSean Thomas, and that representation gives the series an off-the-screen importance that other shows lack.

“Yasuke” has good characters, some good action, and phenomenal music, but with incredibly inconsistent and distracted storytelling. Countless elements are thrown in, a lot of them with writing that doesn’t hold up to the standard of the writing of the main characters. There’s no sense of consistency to the things that establish consequence. Some scenes arrive without context, powers are all over the place, and even the features and geography of a battle will change as the plot suddenly requires the landscape to be different for something new to happen. Moderate distances are too great to travel one minute, while great distances are then traversed in no time when the series realizes it only has 30 minutes to wrap things up.

None of this is enough to topple “Yasuke”, which is borderline shocking and speaks to how good certain elements like the music, acting, and much of the animation are. Yet the series never feels very steady either. There’s a story here that it wants to tell, and that’s fun to see, but there are so many distractions and excesses that it feels like Thomas is often more interested in these than in the core plot and hero…and that risks us following the storyteller’s lead and becoming less interested in the plot and hero, too. All that we’re left with is those distractions, which aren’t going to hold our attention. When the show finally does get more interested in Yasuke, his agency, and his story, I couldn’t feel comfortable putting that initial trust and emotional investment back into it all.

You can watch “Yasuke” on Netflix.

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When Gimmicks Sabotage Fight Choreo — “Mortal Kombat”

“Mortal Kombat” is like a coffee table book, or a subreddit you burrow into out of boredom. It’s not really there for you to get incredibly involved and read it cover to cover. It might work better as something you glance at to prompt conversation. It’s amusing in bits and pieces, but too much of it at once and you’ll reflect afterwards on why you just spent hours leafing through pictures of door handles.

It doesn’t start out like this. The movie’s first half hour makes it feel like it’s a semi-serious, grittier, character-oriented take on the “Mortal Kombat” franchise. Thirty minutes in and I was thinking, you know what, it’s better than most Fast & Furious, Transformers, and James Bond movies.

Then the rest of the movie happens, and I found myself realizing it has a lot more in common with the 1980 “Flash Gordon” or an Arnold Schwarzenegger cult piece like “Running Man”. I like both those movies, and if you press me, I guess I like “Mortal Kombat” in a way, but too much of the charm in that first half hour disappears as the movie gets going.

Cage fighter Cole is one of Earthrealm’s champions, who are being assassinated so that the Outworld can win a fighting tournament that gives them control of Earth. Cole is played by the incredibly charming Lewis Tan – who you may recognize from “Wu Assassins” or “Into the Badlands”.

His story is a familiar set-up – a Chosen One who doesn’t know they’re a Chosen One, and encounters a universe he couldn’t have imagined days prior. There’s a reason this premise works so well: hand it to an actor this charismatic and they can do wonders with it. It’s a shame then that after the work of establishing Cole’s personal struggle and larger role in the plot, the film gives him almost nothing to work with in its last half.

If “Mortal Kombat” is impressive for one thing, it’s the consistent rate at which it gets worse and worse. The film never falls off a cliff so much as it takes a steady, well-mapped mule trip down a ridge trail. You end up at the bottom either way, but at a nice pace where you can look around and appreciate the consistent speed at which you’re going downhill.

It’s a movie about fight scenes, and it’s the fight scenes that exemplify what goes wrong. Early fight scenes in “Mortal Kombat” are isolated well. We get that fight, in whole, and it has an impact. Character and plot scenes are also isolated, allowing the film to really focus in on exactly what it wants to do in that scene.

There’s even a bit of establishing character in early scenes, such as a cage match for Cole. Yet even if most fights aren’t complex from a character or plot standpoint, they’re at least isolated well as set-pieces – at first.

The later fight scenes are cut together with other fights, plot exposition, and underwritten character moments that are really just about setting up the next fight scene that’s going to be chopped together with three other things like a spring salad. Much of this is due to the gimmicks involved – characters discover arcana, or special abilities that basically serve as superpowers. There’s a lot of time taken in characters finding theirs, which drags the middle of the movie out, but I kept hoping it would pay off in the end.

The problem becomes the film has no real idea how to involve many superpowers in the fight choreography. Sub-Zero has ice powers, and that’s done well. Kung Lao has a razor-rimmed hat that acts like Xena’s throwing chakram. This is done terribly. What’s the difference?

Sub-Zero’s ice powers generally serve the choreography itself. He freezes opponents joints so that they can’t defend themselves, creates an ice wall to throw an opponent through, or casts weapons out of ice. The ice powers are built into the choreography. An early scene has Sub-Zero freeze a character’s limbs and shatter them away. That’s brutal.

By the time we get to Kung Lao’s fight scene, we have a sawblade hat spinning lumbermill style as Kung Lao rides an opponent into it. It’s laughable – intentionally slapstick, but what was earlier a show-stopping moment of brutality is now a comic beat. More to the point, the hat prop seems to be so heavy that the fight choreography involving it is exceptionally slow.

This is the issue – they didn’t develop workable choreography for all the characters’ powers. With some, they know exactly what they want to do. Sub-Zero has his powers worked into fully-functional fight choreo. The powers serve the choreography. With Kung Lao and other characters, the choreography serves the powers – the choreo is really only there when the powers don’t get in the way of it. It feels like the choreography team needed longer to flesh out the fight design for certain characters, and to get more workable prop design in their hands.

Later fights need to incorporate all the superpowers – fireballs, the bladed hat, a laser eye, teleportation. The list goes on, but there isn’t the planning or directorial skill here to make these serve the choreography. Instead, the choreo becomes centered on each gimmick. You could name another series or movie that does each of these powers well – “Wu Assassins” has a deeply creative fireball fight scene, and “X-Men” movies have done laser eyes and teleportation fights with both frenzy and grace. Hell, we have 57 years of cinematic weaponized headgear technology since Oddjob in “Goldfinger”. Yet it feels like “Mortal Kombat” is trying to invent how to use each gimmick from scratch, and none of it communicates in a way that involves us in these scenes. Worse yet, each gimmick slows down the scenes in a noticeable way.

As the characters we’ve been following get their arcana, we see fewer fast-paced fight scenes and more clunky, slow scenes where the choreo stops and starts as the inclusion of powers demands. We should see these characters accelerating to meet each other late in the film. Instead, we see them slowing down.

The film is pretty smooth and fluid between fight, character, and plot in those first 30 or 40 minutes, with a couple of good scenes and even great moments. Then it starts losing the punch to its action. It starts relying on camp comedy, which I like and is often done well, but doesn’t feel consistent with its opening act. With the fight scenes becoming so much slower and more limited, it relies on quick-cutting those fight scenes with anything and everything else it can get its hands on.

This makes the film as a whole start to reflect that stop-and-start pace. A scene could work in isolation before because that scene itself had energy and speed. As they slow down, they’re spliced together so that the editing can try to make up for how slow things are. This makes some scenes feel out-of-order, or cut in awkwardly with other scenes.

This is not the fault of the actors. Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim are both martial arts legends, and their 12-minute prologue sings. Lewis Tan is getting there. It’s not the fault of the choreography team, either. They prove in the film’s opening stretch that they can choreograph and carry it out. It is a directorial and production issue – one of prizing the powers over the choreography itself. Perhaps it’s jealousy of Marvel and desire to get its own universe up and running, but “Mortal Kombat” becomes more interested in establishing a superhero franchise than a martial arts one. There’s enough there for a captivating martial arts franchise – there isn’t enough for a superhero one. That’s the core issue with what went wrong here.

There are other elements that stumble. Character-based scenes disappear later on, with early opportunities to highlight the charismatic Lewis Tan and Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade turning into brief contests to see who can string the most cliches together. As entertaining as Josh Lawson is as the one-lining, sarcastic Kano, having the comedic sidekick take over the dialogue is a fine line to walk when it requires dropping everyone else’s screen time.

There are only three women who have more than bit fighting parts. Besides McNamee’s Sonya, we meet Cole’s wife Allison and daughter Emily – primarily there to serve as motivation. I will say they get some good moments and they aren’t presented as helpless, but more could’ve been done here.

What is refreshing is to see an event film that shows an Asian man married to a white woman. They obviously desire each other, care for each other, and have a healthy family that communicates with each other. Our entertainment industry has a long history of fetishizing Asian women while desexualizing Asian men. Bucking this bigoted stereotype may be the film’s strongest statement and most lasting success.

(Minor spoilers follow)

Where the film drops the ball plot-wise is the build-up to the Mortal Kombat tournament for control of Earth. The entire premise is that our Chosen Ones need to survive long enough to compete in the tournament. Then the movie ends without even needing to have the tournament. Everyone has their fight before it happens, in abandoned places with no cheering onlookers.

If you spend an entire film promising me a wacky, intergalactic tournament, and it never arrives, I’m going to be disappointed. I wanted to see “Bloodsport” by way of Mos Eisley Cantina from “Star Wars”. Give me the ending of “Karate Kid” taking place in the City of a Thousand Planets, “Enter the Dragon” put on by the Orion Syndicate. That seems like a gimme. By promising a tournament full of ridiculous aliens betting on other ridiculous aliens, and then never delivering, the film sabotages what could’ve been its biggest strength.

We live in a post “Thor: Ragnarok” world. In this, the year 4 T:R, if you’re going to build your plot around wacky alien tournament hijinks, deliver said hijinks.

(Minor spoilers conclude)

I must really hate “Mortal Kombat” then. Well, that coffee table book about x-rays of ingested and inserted objects serves a purpose. ATBGE is a popular subreddit. They’re both kind of hilarious. I don’t hate them. They’ll make you point and furrow your brow, which is what they’re there to do. It’s just that they’re five-minute visits, not two-hour ones.

In a lot of ways, watching “Mortal Kombat” echoes the feeling of watching the original “Mortal Kombat” in 1995. That’s a better movie, but neither one’s exactly good. What they are good at is being party movies, something on in the background for people to visit and talk about now and again. Unfortunately, the usefulness of that is limited during a pandemic. If I’ve got to watch this straight through again for some mysterious reason, I’ll feel disappointed to waste two hours of my time. In a post-pandemic world, if I walk into a party one day and this is on in the background, I’ll probably be really happy to see it.

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Audacious, Subversive, Confrontational — “Birds of Prey”

I didn’t think I’d be writing this, but “Birds of Prey” is in that elite category of best superhero movies we’ve got. So you know where I’m coming from, I’m a bit exhausted on superhero films. I still go see them, and I think they’re better than they’ve ever been…so why are they sometimes tiring? There’s always the potential that I’ll be walking into something that feels extremely similar to what I’ve seen before.

That happened quickly with the Zack Snyder-directed Superman, Batman, and Justice League films. Everything began to feel blue, black, grim, and strangely plastic. Characters got less and less time to simply be themselves.

It’s taken Marvel longer to get there, but it’s found its own pitfalls. Fulfilling as it was as I watched it, I left “Avengers: Endgame” feeling like it was a largely empty experience. That was a strange feeling. I’d just cried at the sacrifice made at the end; I was excited by the fights; I laughed when expected to.

That’s the thing. As solo superhero movies increasingly get to extend into other genres and make more blatant social and political statements, the most bankable core films color by the numbers more and more. They often do so extremely well, even artfully – but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re doing what I’ve seen before. I was excited, laughed, and cried when the filmmakers expected – and when I expected. I miss being surprised by those things.

When watching superhero films, sometimes I feel like I’m having more of a Pavlovian response than an honest emotion. What’s worse is that it becomes difficult to tell the difference.

Enter “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”. It’s thematically blunt and wants you to know it. It’s also wacky, violent, slapstick fun. The story is told out of order, sometimes under various influences, by villain-as-antihero Harley Quinn.

It boils down to finding a gemstone everyone’s after, which means capturing the young pickpocket who stole it. Gotham City’s criminal underworld has just become aware that Quinn is no longer protected by the Joker, so they’re after both Quinn and the gemstone. Of course, it becomes much more complicated than that, but let’s not spoil a good thing.

Something I am thankful for is that the Joker is passingly referenced, but never seen. This is a wonderful way to acknowledge Jared Leto’s Joker while hopefully never having to see that version on screen again.

Quinn ends up alternately running from and working with the pickpocket Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco), under-appreciated police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a singer trying to hide a superpower in Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and vengeful assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead at her Winsteadiest).

I found myself thinking chiefly of two films as I watched, and they aren’t what I’d call similar. “The Usual Suspects” came to mind because of the out-of-order storytelling. Quinn is an inherently untrustworthy narrator, though for our purposes we can believe what she’s telling us. She’s more importantly a narrator who wants to tell the audience the thought she’s most excited about before filling in its context. This creates moments where we take guesses why she’s doing something, but we have to wait to be proven right or wrong. Essentially, events are strung together in a way that makes sense to her, and we pick up on how they fit together as we listen and watch. It feels conversational.

Birds of Prey Harley Quinn cocaine scene.jpg

The other film that came to mind is “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Despite some problems I have with that film, it still may be the best example of fusing traditional animation into live action. The comparison isn’t because “Birds of Prey” incorporates a ton of animation. It opens with an animated sequence. When they’re introduced, new characters get a freeze-frame that’s sometimes drawn all over like the cover of a Trapper Keeper.

Other than that, there’s not a great deal of animation used in the film. “Roger Rabbit” comes to mind more because of the way Quinn herself exists in her story. She’s all but a cartoon character at times, and in terms of actors emulating past portrayals, her performance is as close to the 1990s “Batman: The Animated Series” as anyone will ever get in live action.

The work Robbie’s doing here is complicated, and it requires comedic and dramatic performances that fit a range of different genres to function. Beyond that, she’s doing most of her own stunts and fight choreography. The same praise we once gave to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean” should be finding its way to Robbie in “Birds of Prey”. (It won’t, but that’s another conversation.)

“Birds of Prey” navigates a ludicrous range of influences and genres while doing all this. Director Cathy Yan starts by essentially taking Zack Snyder’s midnight blue-and-black DCEU and exploding bright colors all over it. What follows pulls from blaxploitation cinema, kung fu films, Michael Mann cop montages, Marilyn Monroe dance numbers, fashion magazines, “Trainspotting”, and Mel Brooks comedies.

Do you want a film that draws its set design influences equally from “A Clockwork Orange” and the 1960s “Batman” TV show? You have found it and it somehow works really well.

This isn’t just pulling from previous cinema, though. It’s also drawing from ultra-modern influences. Quinn’s meta interaction with the story means she occasionally interrupts herself to look at the camera and talk to the audience. It isn’t new for those who grew up watching “Saved by the Bell” and “Wayne’s World”, and it isn’t overdone, but the specific presentation here often recalls Twitch streamers and YouTube influencers.

It should all be a mess. It may be to some people. Yet while Yan is willing to spill utter chaos on us, it never gets in the way of presenting Quinn and her story. That’s what’s most impressive. A ridiculously complicated bit of interwoven choreography and cinematography will cut to a joke at the drop of a hat. Both Robbie and the editing need to be utterly on point to make it work. They both need to be so perfectly timed that they seem completely relaxed in the delivery. Yan’s broad comedy and action set-ups fuse with an editing and lead performance so exact and in rhythm they seem off-the-cuff.

Cathy Yan Margot Robbie Birds of Prey.jpg

In other words, that chaos holds together because that rhythm and relationship between Yan as director and Robbie as actor can veer from the broad to the precise with such control that it all seems easy. “Birds of Prey” is what happens when you watch masters of their craft who synchronize with each other perfectly.

This same sensibility shapes the action, too. The set-pieces here are as good as you can get, in large part because Yan makes the job so much more complicated than it has to be.

The action scenes live off their props and set design elements. Yan’s set pieces are often immensely complicated, yet they flow naturally. There’s a cartoon logic at play in a more dramatic live-action presentation. Robbie constantly makes you wonder why all the people trying to kill Quinn brought guns to her baseball bat fight.

There’s also a consistent feel despite Yan regularly switching filmmaking tools in these fights. Pastel smoke grenades and sandbag bullets that explode in glitter get slow-motion cause they’re so colorful, while Robbie plays the fight slapstick for the camera.

You expect that to be the way fights happen in this movie, yet a few scenes later the fight is hard hitting and plays at full speed. The comedy comes instead from reaction shots cut in for Robbie to deliver dialogue.

A fairly straightforward fight beneath drenching water gets choreography movements edited in isolation – one or two movements per edit, a few seconds per shot.

A later fight involving dozens of characters, roller skates, guns, shifting elements on a rotating set, mirrors, all while swapping fight partners, props, and weapons features some shockingly long takes.

The minute you think you understand how the film wants to present its fight scenes, it’s turned that approach on its head. At the same time, they all feel part of a whole. That constant change in presentation makes sense. Yan is a director at the absolute top of her game, in complete control of what she wants to do, working with an actor who can essentially enable her to do anything she wants – in part because Robbie’s that good of an actor, and in part because she’s also the producer and can give Yan the cover to do it.

This film, Yan’s direction, and Robbie’s performance are all elements I’m fairly certain I’ll be talking about at the end of the year.

This doesn’t even get to the themes and elements at play: a refreshingly aggressive, unhidden feminism and extensive commentary on white male privilege and toxic masculinity – often through Ewan McGregor’s villain Black Mask.

The cast is diverse, which makes the world feel inhabited, more realistic, and more consequential.

This is a movie that treats subversion as something that you shove in the audience’s face and use to confront them, rather than an option you politely offer and hope they one day notice. In that way, Quinn might be the hero we need, not just the one we deserve.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Birds of Prey” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Margot Robbie plays Harley Quinn. Rosie Perez plays Renee Montoya. Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays Black Canary. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Huntress. Ella Jay Basco plays Cassandra Cain. Ali Wong plays Ellen Yee. There are various other women with brief speaking parts.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes. I’d say that it’s possible the majority of the dialogue is between women, but studies show that men are incredibly bad at assessing this ratio, so I could very easily be wrong.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. They often talk about their plans, their frustrations, plot developments, and each other.

When they do talk about men, it’s often about men standing in their way or taking credit for their accomplishments.

Quinn’s narrative monologue makes up a lot of the film, so it’s also worth addressing. It starts off revolving around her break-up with the Joker, but quickly moves along to the plot, and discussions of the other characters – mostly, but not exclusively women.

This section is a way to talk about whether a film meets some excruciatingly basic expectations. It’s not a measure of whether something is feminist or not. “Birds of Prey” is far more confrontational about feminist aspects than a lot of films, but I also recognize the character in some ways serves a very male gaze. That isn’t quite toned down in the sense that 190 is less than 200 but still a lot. More what’s communicated is that Quinn embraces her own sense of style for herself – because it’s who she wants to be – and less for the male gaze. That it still serves that gaze is complicated.

There’s also the conversation that Anita Sarkeesian brings up in relation to many movies where women demonstrate equality by displaying a violence that’s typically understood as male. Sarkeesian has said in the past about similar films (such as “Mad Max: Fury Road”) that embracing and performing male violence as women is an act that solidifies patriarchy rather than dissolving it.

I did think about this because of the extent to which Quinn is a character who plays to the male gaze. I write about fight choreography often, and is her violence equalizing, tantalizing, or both? If it’s equalizing, does the notion that it’s tantalizing undermine it? Or am I reading tantalization where there is none, and introducing that aspect through my own bias?

I can say that the film often delivers feminist ideas in a way that’s more forthright than most, but that it also potentially possesses problematic elements. I try to be careful with this section because it should be informational. This section exists because it’s something all critics should be engaging, not in order to tell someone what to think.

I’m a man, so I’m not qualified to assess the extent to which the feminism works or doesn’t work. What I can do in this section is provide information and be transparent about how it interacts with the biases I bring. I can communicate some of the specific questions that I’m unable to answer because – as a man – I’m not the one qualified to do so. Ideally, that communicates important feminist elements about the film without pretending I’m qualified to then judge or assess those elements.

It’s also important to highlight Black Mask’s embodiment of white male privilege and incel-adjacent toxic masculinity. He becomes excited about all the things he has, showing off supposedly colonialist treasures while talking about the exotic places he got them from. If someone isn’t in his employ, he wonders why they aren’t “his”, as if they’re toys. He abuses those around him, he perceives others’ emotions as targeting him when he’s upset, and he becomes upset when things that were never his to start with are “taken” from him.

McGregor delivers a beautiful lampoon of all these things succinctly, and characters like Quinn and Black Canary criticize this through their reactions and monologues.

Another consistent theme is men taking credit for the work of women. Joker always took credit for Quinn’s achievements. Montoya’s police captain was promoted for her work. Black Canary can be used by Black Mask, but he can’t trust her. Everyone assumes a mysterious “Crossbow Killer” is a man when she’s a woman.

Diversity

This is also a good section to address the film’s diversity in greater depth. Three of our heroes/anti-heroes are non-white. It’s good to see. The surrounding characters are also very diverse – this includes good guys, bad guys, and bystanders.

Some characters who betray in both large ways and the everyday are non-white. You always want to be careful when presenting people of color as traitorous or self-interested. You threaten to portray all people of that race or ethnicity as being that way because there’s so little other representation for people of color in media – and especially superhero films.

I’m not sure to what extent this is or isn’t stopped off by three of our heroes being Latina, Black, and Korean-Filipino – especially because they’re anti-heroes and not exemplary heroes. Stereotypes are generally avoided, and the film as a whole has an interest in portraying a diverse world. In general, I’m pretty happy with how it comes off. It’s not just for the sake of diversity, though that’s important on its own terms. It’s also because a world that looks like ours feels like it has more consequence, regardless of what genres it’s hopping through.

The Batman universe and its rogues’ gallery has always struggled with portraying mental health. It’s the major Achilles heel that tends to limit its aspects of representation. Criminality in Batman’s world is often associated with mental illness, rather than greed or bigotry.

“Birds of Prey” doesn’t fix this, but it does avoid to some extent presenting Harley Quinn as a criminal due to any mental health issues. Her presentation here is more akin to an outlaw hero. Others call her “crazy” and sometimes she points out the equally ridiculous things they’re doing. They call her dumb and she reminds them she has a PhD. I wouldn’t say “Birds of Prey” avoids further harm along these lines, but it avoids leaning on it the way so many other Batman universe stories have.

Rosie Perez

One thing in particular that gave me joy is that I never knew how much I wanted to see Rosie Perez beat dudes up. She was an outspoken Latina who broke ground for Latinas in film in the early 90s before seeing declining work and criticism for everything that made her identifiably Puerto Rican and Nuyorican – her skin color, her accent, her presentation. Growing up then, she only ever came up when someone needed to make fun of Latinas. I didn’t know about her indie film history, her awards, any of that. Growing up in a very white suburb, my only understanding of her was that she was someone shameful that reflected aspects of my Latino heritage that I felt I should hide.

So it feels really good to see her beat down villains at 55 years old. It doesn’t just feel redemptive, it also feels like – here’s this person who white peers used to reinforce my otherness. And now she’s the closest thing the film has to a hero, fighting a corrupt system and the people who made it that way with brass knuckles.

I don’t often think of Perez or the way she was talked about back then. It applied to countless Latinx people. Yet when one of them rises and I recall how my white peers focused their antagonism on something they compartmentalized as otherness, it feels freeing to see her still fighting back, as an actor and as a character. She never really stopped as an activist for Puerto Rico, yet that doesn’t get the attention that being in a superhero movie can. It pushes acceptance in an additional way, and I can’t help but be thankful there are other Latinx kids today seeing her be accepted for the roles she once would’ve had no chance at playing.

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The Best Fight Choreography of 2015

FuriosaArm_PIC4

by Gabriel Valdez

Fight choreography is often overlooked for its ability to tell stories in ways that differ from the usual visuals of filmmaking. In many countries, martial arts themselves are infused with deeper and more mythological meanings, so why shouldn’t fight choreography on film be able to communicate these same things?

Some films this year really have gone an incredible distance in terms of the emotional storytelling they choose to convey with fight choreography.

Let’s get one thing out of the way and start with what’s not on here, however. Why isn’t “Kingsman: The Secret Service” here? That church sequence alone should get it near the top of the list, right? And while I didn’t like the film, I did think many of its choreographic concepts were technically brilliant. The problem lies in the execution.

If there’s an award that should go to someone on “Kingsman,” it should go to the editors and compositors. Watch the church scene again, if you’ve got the stomach for it (I actually recommend not doing so, but suit yourself). Count how many times a body or object crosses the screen in the extreme foreground. How many times does the camera swing away to other characters?

While the sequence may present itself as a series of unbroken takes, it’s actually composed of dozens of far quicker takes. While the conceptualization of the choreography is brilliant, if brutal, the execution is more simple. It’s what works for what the film wants, but it’s not anything special in terms of the actual fight choreography or by artistic merit. It’s not anything that belongs on a list like the one below.

Be warned, unlike most other awards, the nature of fight scenes often means seeing a spoiler in the form of a big reveal or a character’s death:

THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW.

5. The Dead Lands

Clint Elvy, fight coordinator
Andrew Stehlin, fight coordinator

The first feature film shot entirely in the Maori language, “The Dead Lands” is also the first to choreograph battles using Mau Rakau. This is the indigenous martial art of New Zealand. You may recognize the movements and unique expressions from the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, which performs a traditional Maori war dance before every match.

If the “demon” in the clip above looks familiar, that’s Lawrence Makoare. He played a number of evil creatures in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies, including the orc who goes one-on-one with Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn at the end of “Fellowship.” Makoare brings a controlled abandon to the fight choreography, and gave an overlooked dramatic turn in “The Dead Lands” as well.

4. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Wolfgang Stegemann, fight team & fight trainer

It’s hard to place a choreography like that of “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.” Its presentation is remarkably theatrical for an American action movie. The fight choreography deliberately plays with what you expect, constantly changing expression and mood. The production and set design often become a silent third player in how each fight develops. This consideration lends both a groundedness and a surprising puzzle-solving quality to each fight. The sets aren’t breakaway, made for the viewer to appreciate their destruction. The sets are instead made to feel real, made for the characters to interact with.

This lends a solidity to the fights most films lack. It also allows the director to play with that solidity when he wants to really turn the screws on a character. This is the sort of thing that theatrical plays do with advanced set design. It’s typically not what you expect in a Tom Cruise film. When we talk about how technical elements are used in film, we shouldn’t just talk about the independent qualities they possess. We should talk about how those elements are folded into the film to better create a world and its visual language. In that, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” is remarkable.

3. Kung Fu Killer

Hua Yan, martial arts director
Bun Yuen, martial arts director

“Kung Fu Killer” (aka “Kung Fu Jungle”) isn’t a great film on its story merits. Those trucks in the clip above were driving through the plot holes. Yet on the balance, the film’s fight choreography is varied and wonderfully complex.

The fight scenes make use of the full range of wide-screen presentation, and the language of each fight, the ebb and flow, is communicated through editing on precise movements. This precision helps earlier in the film, when our heroes investigate the murder of martial arts masters. There are particular edits we don’t see in the initial fight. Instead, these are bookmarked in our heads. When Donnie Yen’s Hahou Mo looks at the crime scene, these bookmarked edits are filled in. As he recognizes what happened, so do we. It’s clever, and requires viewers to remember specific movements later on without making us realize that’s what we’re doing.

“Kung Fu Killer” easily boasts the most technically impressive choreography of the year. So why’s it #3? Because there’s more that choreography can do than being technically incredible.

2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Fight Choreography Kylo Ren Rey Finn

Stephen Oyoung, sword trainer
Chloe Bruce, Adam J. Bernard, Gyula Toth, choreography

You’re going to have to take my word for it, since any unlicensed clips of the film online (including the most spoiler-iffic) are erased by Disney as fast as they’re put up. What “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” does right is present the control with which a fighter does (or doesn’t) fight. We see Finn get beaten multiple times, so his choreography is elementary, but full of recoveries. Constantly losing yet also narrowly surviving in believable ways walks a very fine line. That means his fighting style is too tight, too closed, the scope of his engagement too narrow.

For Kylo Ren’s choreography, we need to see someone thoroughly trained yet who lacks the discipline to adhere to that training. His choreography is built from powerful attacks that close distance quickly. Sometimes he’s controlled and sometimes he lashes out. In sword work, the more relentless you are, the more vulnerabilities you risk. It’s a choreography that defines Ren’s character as well as any other aspect of the film does.

Enter Rey’s choreography, which is built for defense and counter-attack. It’s built from stances and positions that close and then open again, attacks that rise and then fall. This gives her choreography the feel of breathing. It’s a naturalistic choreography. The body closes to focus and present less of a window for an opponent. When switching from defense to counter, the body opens back up again in its full breadth, offering a more complete window to attack your opponent.

Combined with Kylo Ren’s tendency to lash out, their choreography turns into something of a meditation. The assault of anger, of lashing out, the breathing in to contain, the breathing out to release. Overly complex choreography (see: the prequels) is ditched in favor of choreography that communicates. It’s why that last fight is so utterly beautiful. Light sabers in a dark wood as the snow falls doesn’t need help being beautiful, yes. And yet that choreography speaks to what we feel in the theater as we hold our breath, what we feel in our lives when panic strikes. It feels like the assault of fear, and the response of calm, the loss of control against the acknowledgment there is no control. It echoes some of your worst days and some of your best. It feels like the world closing in on you, and then letting yourself be a part of that world anyway.

It feels like breathing, and it lets us know we’ve been in this fight ourselves. We know what it’s like, what its emotional steps are, how it takes place in the mind, and how it feels when the fear and anger and breathing and calm all course through our bodies in a complicated mixture. The fight we see on-screen is beautiful. That we can all recognize its meaning in ourselves makes it meaningful. That’s what choreography can accomplish.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Richard Norton, fight coordinator
Greg van Borssum, principal fight choreographer / weapons advisor

It would take something truly and uniquely special to beat that out. And yet, there really is nothing else this year that compares to “Mad Max: Fury Road.” When I talk about fight choreography, I talk about the visual language it creates as part of a film. Fight scenes are often treated like set pieces, and they can be visual delights in this way. Yet a truly good fight scene is like a truly good dialogue scene. From when it starts to when it ends, something has changed for every character involved.

In no film is that more true this year than “Mad Max: Fury Road.” What makes the film so incredibly unique is that its dialogue scenes don’t really evolve the characters’ relationships to each other. They let us get to know them better, and give us better windows into their internal worlds, but it’s through the action that “Mad Max: Fury Road” tells its story. The relationships of these characters evolve through fist fights and gun fights and car chases, and it takes a rare marriage of all parts of choreography to make this happen. What are all the parts? That’s conception, that’s the base choreography, that’s how it interacts with the set around it, how costume informs what’s happening, how the stuntpeople and the actors work in concert for consistent performances, and how the editing and music can communicate a remarkable number of emotional beats inside of it all.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” develops such a complete choreographic language that there are moments toward the end of the film that become less about action in a story, and more about the physical embodiment of myth. In that rare a feat, it makes it feel like the choreography itself is some demonstration in our minds, something that we imagine as we’re told a story and then arises from us as interpreters of that story. No film in a long time has better used fight choreography simply to tell the story.

Read the rest of our 2016 Awards:

Best Diversity

Most Thankless Role

Where did we get our awesome images? Both “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” images are from Forbes’ “No, Rey…Is Not A Mary Sure” article, and the “Mad Max: Fury Road” image is from Nerdist’s “The Subtle Triumph of Furiosa’s Prosthetic Arm.” Both are highly recommended.

Fight Scene Friday — “Blade 2”

by Gabriel Valdez

Keep your sparkling vampires. I’ll take my Eastern European goth ninjas any day of the week. It’s hard to rank this fight – it looks great and many of the short combination sequences are beautifully laid out, but it’s bookended by lovably atrocious 2002 CGI and interspersed with some of the most useless choreography put to film.

As in many of director Guillermo Del Toro’s action movies, there’s about four parts meaningless flourish, one part effective move, but you know what? These movies usually concern immortal supernatural beings hacking away at each other. Who am I to question their flourishy martial arts? Most of written mythology is more concerned with boasting, too.

It’s fun to watch, and that’s what matters. Just don’t try to count the number of openings missed, and never try catching a sword blade between your shins like Blade does.

Del Toro initially wanted nothing to do with the sequel to Stephen Norrington’s first Blade, but – as Del Toro details in his collection of behind-the-scenes material Cabinet of Curiosities:

“I mean, literally, my agent at the time called me and said, ‘Do you want to make Blade II?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do Blade II.’ And he said, ‘Do you ever want to do Hellboy?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, if you want to do Hellboy, you gotta do Blade II, because no one’s going to hire you to do Hellboy based on Mimic or Cronos.’ And he was absolutely right.”

This was also fresh off a spectacularly failed pitch for I Am Legend. The long-in-gestation remake had Arnold Schwarzenegger attached at the time. Del Toro was a long-shot to direct and he was fairly certain he lost any consideration when he told producers that Schwarzenegger was completely wrong for the project. That movie wouldn’t end up getting off the ground until 2007, and was eventually directed by current Hunger Games helmer Francis Lawrence and starred Will Smith.

Del Toro would eventually direct Blade II – the high point for the franchise – with a unique attitude. Anything having to do with the character Blade, he left to Snipes. Del Toro wouldn’t mess with anything Snipes wanted to try; he would just stay out of the actor’s way. Everything else was Del Toro’s domain, which explains the lightproof, leather-and-lycra steampunk costumes with adjustable goggles and an inventive, demonesque take on a new supervampire. Now, go enjoy yourself some 2002 CGI.

Impressapointing — “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

Hobbit Five Armies battle

by Gabriel Valdez

When I tell you The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the least of director Peter Jackson’s six Middle-earth epics, it’s a lot like saying milk chocolate is the worst kind of chocolate. Any way you cut it, you’re still getting dessert.

By this third Hobbit film, our halfling hero Bilbo Baggins has accompanied a band of dwarves to the Lonely Mountain in order to reclaim their homeland. This sets off a chain reaction that draws human refugees, armies of wood elves and dwarves, and vicious orcs and goblins to the riches of the mountain stronghold. Five Armies is mostly one continuous battle scene including plenty of 1-on-1 duels between heroes and villains of every species.

In his earlier Lord of the Rings films, Jackson centered his fight scenes on the actors’ performances. There were heaps of CG visual effects in those films, but the actors were always the center of the battle. The Hobbit trilogy has used CG stand-ins in its battles more and more, and Five Armies takes it to another level entirely.

This reliance on visual effects often lets Jackson create energetic, whirling action scenes, the kind I usually compare to a Rube Goldberg machine. Some viewers will like the CGI duels more – they’re flexible and allow clever situations like felling a tower to make a bridge, then battling across it as it falls apart. Personally, I prefer the earlier duels that involved more live action participation. They might not include whirling cameras and crazy shots, but they did feel more personal and more desperate.

Hobbit Five Armies preparing for battle

The first two Hobbit films also had great humor, focusing on the dwarves’ slapstick behavior when eating, sleeping, or fighting. The novel The Hobbit is more youth-friendly than Lord of the Rings and these moments were ways to translate the humor of the book into the film without taking the novel’s large story detours. Unfortunately, there’s not as much of that here. Five Armies has its notes of mirth, but less than its prequels. It’s also dire at points, but not nearly as apocalyptic as the Lord of the Rings films. It sometimes feels caught in the middle, but at the same time, these are terrific co-franchises to get caught between.

Make no mistake, Five Armies is impressive. You will see sights and visuals you won’t find anywhere else. You feel the fantastic in the fantasy – the elf king rides a war caribou (I’m sure it has a beautiful name in the books, but I’m calling it a war caribou), dwarves ride armored hogs on the battlefield and mountain goats up steep cliff faces, and the orcs boast war bats and giant, tunneling worms. That’s not even mentioning the huge, majestic eagles or a dozen other moments.

Some images will stay with you, others will play with the cliches you expect from fantasy movies and, as always, Jackson finds a way to sneak two or three quick, experimental sequences into his classical framework. These asides have always been my favorite moments in his Middle-Earth movies, and truly shine when depicting a mad hallucination or a magical stand-off.

Hobbit Five Armies orcs

Five Armies is the Transformers entry in Jackson’s Middle-earth saga: it exists to show off its action with a minimum of story. The first Hobbit was an uneven, yet loving, character study. The second Hobbit was the travelogue of the bunch, full of life and texture that stuck the viewer into its world like few films ever have. This third one is the most rousing of the bunch, but I can’t help but miss the focus on character and place that made the others feel so vibrant and important. Some of this may be added back in the special edition re-edits Jackson does for all his Middle-earth films. In this theatrical release, Five Armies feels slightly dulled – it lacks the sense of awe and the nuance for bittersweet storytelling that I’ve come to rely on from Jackson.

While Five Armies fails to evoke the full range of emotion that its prequels and the Lord of the Rings trilogy do, it still boasts more experimentation and emotion than most other action films. It’s a good film, and it’s must-see big-screen territory if you’re a fan of the franchise. It’s just a notch down from greatness – which is what I’ve come to expect from this world – and it doesn’t compare to the capstone that Return of the King gave to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I’m harsh on it because of what’s come before, but I absolutely enjoyed watching it. It has tense action and great performances. It just doesn’t feel absolutely complete.

(On that note, this is my favorite trailer and it’s remarkable in that half of the shots in it aren’t in the final film. That special edition is going to be interesting.)

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Cate Blanchett plays elf queen Galadriel and Evangeline Lilly plays the elf warrior Tauriel. Peggy Nesbitt and Mary Nesbitt play Sigrid and Tilda, the two daughters of human hero Bard. Sarah Peirse plays Hilda Bianca, a villager of Laketown who is supportive of Bard and critical of the old regime.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Barely.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Tauriel helps evacuate Bard’s family when Laketown is attacked by the dragon Smaug.

Note that four of the five women in the movie are invented specifically for the film series. Jackson has always had a feminist streak in his films, even if many of them center around bands of men.

Hobbit Five Armies Tauriel

Tauriel’s an Elven captain, and a better fighter than nearly everyone else in the film. (She also gets the best live-action fight choreography.) Fans complain that she was invented for the franchise simply as a love interest, but that’s clearly backseated to her function as a warrior. Without her, there wouldn’t be a single woman taking part in the film’s central showdowns. It’s also worth noting that, while a dwarf and elf pine after her, she’s too busy with the war to let it get in the way of her decapitating orcs.

There’s also a moment when the women of Laketown, after being told to bunker down in a chapel, rally to save the men of the town. This is not in the book either. Jackson (and the screenwriting team of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro) made additions to Tolkien’s material in order to give women more agency in the fighting.

Also, Galadriel is a beast. There is no joy in this world that quite compares to seeing her one-shotting an orc. In fact, there’s a moment that consciously evokes the modern fantasy trope of the fainting lady lying in her knight’s arms as he protects her – except in this case, Galadriel’s the knight, and the fainting lady is the most powerful male character in the franchise.

Hobbit Five Armies Galadriel Gandalf

Jackson later inverts another fantasy trope, of the male warrior avenging the death of his woman through self-sacrifice, except this time, the gender roles are reversed.

It may not be the best example of passing the Bechdel Test on technical terms, since women barely get a chance to talk to each other here, but when you compare Five Armies to its source material and take into account Jackson’s consistent reversal of fantasy cliches, you have a movie that makes a very meaningful feminist effort in its storytelling.

Simply put, the writing team’s additions pissed off diehard fans in order to put female role models on the battlefield. That’s worth commending.

Women in the film save men more often than they are saved, and they are as brave and effective as their male counterparts. It’s also worth noting that the Elven army is mixed gender. You can’t really tell with the dwarf army because, as Viggo Mortensen reminded us in The Two Towers, they all have beards – and we never get to see the armies up close except for a few key characters.

Other issues of diversity, such as the fact that every main character is white, are real issues. How much of it is the racial makeup of New Zealand and how much of it is bias, I couldn’t tell you. I’ve got to imagine there’s a greater presence of Maori, Polynesian, and Indonesian populations Down Under than the casting here shows, and it is off-putting that the only place for these actors to go is in portraying the evil orcs. I am no expert on New Zealand and Australian ethnicities, however. It might be something to ask writer Olivia Smith one day.

Insofar as the treatment of women goes, I really do have to commend the changes Five Armies makes in order to create more feminist agency and narrative importance. That’s not to say it couldn’t have gone further, because it could have. But it does go much further than the vast majority of other writers and directors would tempt with the adaptation of such sacred source material.

Undercooked Stake — “Dracula Untold”

Dracula Untold at least the costumes are good

by Gabriel Valdez

The most important factor in telling a story is having a reason to tell it. It can be a small reason – this year’s Godzilla asked a modern horror filmmaker to return the monster to demigod status. It can be a big reason – The Monuments Men addresses the sacrifices made not just to save people, but to save their very culture during World War 2.

Whatever your reason is, it doesn’t need to change the world, but you do need to have one. Dracula Untold has no reason. It has a vague plot, involving Prince Dracula’s people resisting a Turkish army bent on taking 1,000 of their boys as tribute. Dracula seeks out an ancient beast in the mountains in order to borrow his vampiric powers for the coming war.

Leaving aside yet another tired “anybody east of Greece is inherently evil” plot line, everything that needs to be there in a period tale about the famous vampire’s origins is there. A great lead (Luke Evans), detailed set design, good costuming, solid music, nice visual effects. Take each of these components on its own and it holds up well. Put them all together and there’s something vital missing.

Dracula Untold feels like the first two minutes before a TV show that recap all that’s come before, except it goes on for an hour and a half. There is no, “And now for the conclusion.”

Dracula Untold the makeup budget was spent on my predator vision

Universal wants to use its classic movie villains (Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein) to establish a Marvel’s Avengers-like team of monstrous anti-heroes. It’s a good idea on paper, but the film that gets you there feels like it’s rushing you through so you’ll be prepared for the sequel two years from now. We pay to see movies in order to be thrilled, not rushed.

Certain scenes play well, like the various ones that steal directly from Superman movies. Dracula first awakening to his newfound powers, for instance, feels like every time Clark Kent discovered a new Superman power on Smallville. Dracula flying across the landscape to catch a loved one feels like Christopher Reeve flying across a cityscape to do the same. It’s just Superman didn’t have to turn into bats to do it. Even silver gets used an awful lot like kryptonite. This Dracula bears little resemblance to the terrifying ones we’ve seen before; he’s Superdrac (now with Predator vision!) This would be fine, but only if you have a reason beyond wanting to be like Marvel.

Nowhere is this film’s dismissal of its audience better represented than by its explosions of sound and light. When characters pull a sword or strike a torch, it’s enough to make the audience cover their ears, and my theater wasn’t particularly loud. Similarly, when you’re straining your eyes to make out details in a dark, moody scene, you don’t want to suffer a quick succession of blinding white flashes. It was so painful, audience members had to shield their eyes and look away at certain points. That’s profoundly inexcusable.

By the end of the film, Superdrac (now with Predator vision!) is flying at jet speed while Turks are magically transporting from the top of a cliff to the valley a thousand feet below. And no, that’s not according to some superpower, which would be fine. They’re magically transporting according to shoddy editing that strips out any sense of geography or consequence in the action scenes. It’s laughable, which my audience regularly took advantage of.

Dracula Untold totally not trying to be the hobbit ok maybe a little

The fight choreography is good. It might even be great, but you won’t see much of it. Shaky cameras, blur effects, and trick shots – like seeing half a battle in the reflection of a thin sword – are relentlessly abused, and there isn’t the skill behind the camera or in the editing room to incorporate them in any way that makes sense beyond “the director really likes blur effects.”

Dracula Untold has solid design elements and a lead who’s fun to watch. You may recognize Evans from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, in which he plays Bard. He doesn’t act any different here, but that’s fine – he has a compelling demeanor. It’s a good thing, because few other characters are given names, let alone anything resembling characterization.

Dracula Untold just doesn’t care about your experience. It’s checking off boxes on the “start a franchise” clipboard, and that’s not enough reason to tell a story.

It’s somehow rated PG-13 despite the fact that the last five minutes are spent skewering people on stakes and watching their skin fall off as they dissolve into corpses, hinting at a movie that at least would’ve been far trashier than the one we got. But PG-13? I don’t think so.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Dracula Untold have more than one woman in it?

Technically, yes. There is Dracula’s wife, Mirena, played by Sarah Gadon. There’s a Governess who barely appears, played by Dilan Gwyn, and whose importance to the plot you can derive by the fact she has no name, and is simply listed as “Governess.”

Other women occasionally appear in the background doing oh so important background things like looking dramatically at Luke Evans, or looking dramatically at the camera, or looking dramatically at each other.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Hah!

3. About something other than a man?

Haha!

Look, Dracula Untold may technically pass the first rule of this test, but only because if all the extras were men, we might think Superdrac was running a gay kingdom, and something like that still matters to some people. Personally, I think that would’ve made a far more interesting movie. Shoot, why didn’t they try that 40 years ago with Tim Curry as Dracula – oh, wait a minute, they basically did.

But I digress.

Dracula Untold is all about super awesome European men protecting their women and children from evil Turks, who do such nefarious things as wear copious amounts of eyeliner. Pick up your swords! Trade your souls for demonic powers! Our European children must not be forced to wear copious amounts of eyeliner!

Seriously, Dracula Untold is ridiculous. That I’ve already written 1,000 words on it means I’ve put more thought into their movie than its writers did. What did I just watch, is it possible to nuke it from orbit (it’s the only way), and who thought this could function as the beginning to a multi-tiered franchise?

Not only does Dracula Untold fail the Bechdel Test, it also fails the Are You Racist Test, the Try Not to Blind Your Audience Test, the Prosopagnosia Test, and the Not Throwing Up in My Own Mouth Test (patent pending).

Honestly, when it comes out on DVD, this could be the new mainstay of bad movie nights*, but it certainly doesn’t do anything for feminism or tolerance or the English language. Only through Luke Evans being Luke Evans and its own general ineffectiveness at everything, including being hateful, does it fail to threaten 300: Rise of a Thin Gaza Metaphor as worst movie of the year.

*Seek out Dario Argento’s Phenomena, people, and your bad movie nights will never be the same again.

Go Watch This: Medieval Combat Techniques Hollywood Ignores

by Gabriel Valdez

This quick video is a superb illustration of all the things movies get wrong about combat in heavy armor. We like to think that they all fought like Gandalf and Aragorn, whirling dervishes of blades whipping this way and that while cutting down enemies with a single blow. I’m a big fan of that fantastical style of swordplay – I even wrote an essay about fight choreography as myth, using Troy and Serenity as examples.

All that said, I wouldn’t mind an historical movie that actually treats combat in heavy armor like the mix of precision strikes and ground-based grappling it really was. Mel Gibson involved some in the choreography for Braveheart, while Ridley Scott has come close with his choreographies in films like Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood, but Hollywood is still a good distance away from giving us real, gritty choreographies that are more thrusts and grapples than wild swings and balletic dodges.

Observe a more accurate view of the mobility of heavy armor and the techniques used in medieval warfare:

Thanks to Wilson Freeman of Drifting Focus Photography for the heads up on this.

Bits & Pieces — Fight Choreography as Philosophy, Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan Chinese Zodiac

One thing I’m noticing about Jackie Chan’s choreography: he keeps his own unscripted mistakes on-screen. Obviously, there are many that can’t be kept – the unintentional hits and misses highlighted in the painful gag reels he shares during the credits. Yet when Jackie starts a kick too early and has to adjust, or adds a needless extra step or miscued move, he’ll keep it. These are minor imperfections, corrections, and hesitations, but there are enough of them to give his choreography – for all its acrobatics and complexity – an everyman feel.

Here’s what makes it work: he doesn’t keep the unscripted mistakes of the actors who play his villains. They represent an unassailable perfection, intimidating because they don’t miss a step. This reflects a concept often associated with Buddhism, and reflected through many Eastern martial arts, including the Southern kung fu, hapkido, and taekwondo in which Jackie specializes.

The idea is that perfection is something that can only be achieved for a moment. The very second you reach it is the very second you lose it. In accomplishing perfection, it now takes on a different meaning, because you can always go beyond something you’ve accomplished. Life is the pursuit of perfection, a constant moving of the goalposts further and further down the field. True mastery over anything is in realizing and understanding that you cannot master it, but rather let it flow through you. Thus, to consciously realize you are doing something perfectly is to become too aware of it; perfection slips away when recognized.

It’s a philosophy repeated throughout many kung fu films, but few choreographies represent this better than Jackie’s. His characters again and again are flawed, extraordinarily acrobatic one moment and tripping over themselves the next. Their techniques can rarely match up against those of his villains – it’s only through creativity, adaptation, and indomitable spirit that he can match them. It inverts the classic Western superhero trope – that heroes have to win all the time, and villains only have to win once. In Jackie Chan films, the onus is reversed. Since villains win all the time, it’s the heroes who only have to win once. Jackie’s opponents aren’t the villains he fights; his opponent is the perfection they embody.

It is the most often overlooked key to Jackie’s success – no matter how many times we’ve seen a Jackie Chan film, no matter how many times we’ve seen him win in the end, his kung fu is filled with so many holes and imperfections that we can never be absolutely sure it will defeat the taller, more limber, more technically perfect martial artists opposite him. Cinematically, it’s a lesson learned from Charlie Chaplin, who Jackie credits as one of his greatest influences – to root for the underdog, you’ve got to believe he really could lose.

This works because it transforms the fight into something we can understand. None of us can do the things Jackie Chan can do, so why make us root for him to do them well? There’s no tension there; we know how talented Jackie is and that he’ll always win that last fight. But we’re never asked to root for him to win. We’re asked to root for him to overcome himself in order to do it. Winning is secondary.

That personal challenge, surpassing your own capabilities, achieving that fleeting moment when you don’t master the moment at hand, but rather let it flow through you – that’s what we’re cheering for. We know how hard it is to overcome ourselves. It’s the most constant, difficult, and frightening challenge in life. Because it’s the fight we so rarely win, it’s the fight we can never be sure Jackie will win. Beating someone up – we know Jackie Chan can do that in his sleep. Overcoming ourselves…that can only be achieved for a moment. Every time we accomplish it, it takes on a different meaning, because there will always be something in yourself to overcome.

It’s what makes Jackie Chan’s choreography so universal, so meaningful. The acrobatics and flips, leaping off buildings and running up walls, are astounding, yes. Yet he’s made a career not of fighting villains, but of fighting himself and his limits in the same way we all fight ourselves and our limits. That’s why he’s transcended cultures. It doesn’t matter what language he’s speaking, we all know that fight when we see it. It’s the one that scares us the most, and it’s the one he faces for us over and over again. In that way, he demonstrated first to Hong Kong and then to a world of fans – very few of whom can leap off buildings or run up walls – how to surpass their own limitations and fears. He hasn’t pursued a career of being perfect. He’s pursued a career of being imperfect.

Since those limits and fears win all the time, we just have to win once. Then we find new limits, new fears, the goalposts move, and we start over again, better than we thought we could be yesterday.

Bits & Pieces — Fight Choreography as Myth, “Troy” and “Serenity”

We look at fight choreography and often think it’s just different ways for people to hit and punch each other, but stunt coordinators and fight choreographers put just as much thought and artistry into a fight as a costume designer does into a film’s wardrobe, or a cinematographer does into the film’s shots. Fights themselves can hit you down low, where you feel it in your bones, or can become a dance of mythic proportions that sparks the part of us that marvels at art.

Let’s take two well-choreographed films, Troy and Serenity. Why these two? Brad Pitt and Summer Glau, that’s why. The All-American character actor and the ballet dancer-turned-genre actress both played characters that fought with a sort of preternatural, psychic skill.

Pitt first – an adaptation of Homer’s The IliadTroy is a mess of a film. It’s an unintentional masterpiece of trashiness, despite never being all that trashy, in which a Trojan prince kidnaps a Greek princess and sets the two empires to war. It has gorgeous technical elements – I have no idea as to their historical accuracy (I’m guessing there’s not much), but its costume design and make-up remain some of the best ever seen in a sword-and-sandal epic. Troy also boasts Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) as Odysseus, which teased in the minds of millions of fans the barest shred of a hope of a much better movie – The Odyssey starring Sean Bean. Alas, it was not to be.

What Troy did best, however, was fight choreography. It featured Brad Pitt as Greek warrior Achilles, the most famed of all warriors, and Eric Bana as the honorable Trojan prince, Hector. Watch an early battle sequence featuring Achilles:


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Stunning, right? Well, everything aside from Pitt’s acting, though I blame director Wolfgang Petersen more for that. At times in Troy, Pitt owns the screen; at other times it seems like he’s still rehearsing. What always delivers is that choreography, though. There are two elements at play here. The first is the Stunt Coordinator – in this case, Simon Crane. You can see his ability to choreograph large battle scenes. It’s his calling card, after all – the man choreographed the massive battles of Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan. He’s also responsible for the fantastic and complex gun fu of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the incredibly clever sword fights in Stardust. If the Academy gave out Oscars for stunts (which they should), Crane would be the Meryl Streep of stunt coordinators. (Jackie Chan would be Katharine Hepburn; just go with the metaphor).

Crane’s style does have a few interesting nuances. He tends to use extras instead of visual effects, and Troy only employs vast numbers of CGI troops in its biggest battle sequence. This makes Crane’s battles feel more organic, but using college kids playing hooky as your extras has its drawbacks. If you look past Mel Gibson in Braveheart as he gleefully hacks his way through enough Englishmen to fill an Olympic swimming pool, you’ll see numerous instances of extras half-heartedly swinging axes meters away from each other, or spearmen charging each other with their spears held out of the way. You can’t spend your entire budget insuring the extras, after all. It’s a necessary trade-off, and I still prefer organic battles to CGI-heavy ones.

Troy Achilles

One of Crane’s trademarks is in developing choreography suited to individual actors. Every central character in Troy – Achilles, Hector, Ajax, Menalaus – fights in a different style. All except Patroclus, whose emulation of older cousin Achilles causes Hector to mistake the two and slaughter Patroclus in battle. Cue Achilles riding to the gates of Troy to challenge Hector to a 1-on-1 duel.

These individual choreographies are developed separately from the large-scale battles. This is the second element key to these complex sequences: Crane employs a Sword Master, the excellent Richard Ryan, to develop specific choreography for each actor. Ryan makes a point of Achilles’ preternatural fighting ability. In the Greeks’ beach landing above, there’s a point at which Achilles places his shield upon his back just as an arrow buries itself where his kidney would have been. His choreography for Achilles is filled with moments like these – there’s a sense of either the gods watching out for Achilles or the warrior possessing a sixth sense for unpredictable threats.

When Achilles fights Hector, it’s really more of a ballet on Achilles’ part. He’s already positioned himself for Hector’s next attack before Hector makes it. There’s even a moment when Achilles rests his shield on the back of his neck, an utterly preposterous fighting position. It creates an iconic profile, however, as if Achilles is posing for his statue. Moments later, Achilles deflects a sword blow meant for his neck by spinning around – he’s planned that many moves ahead how Hector will combat him. Achilles is, essentially, fighting psychically. Watch:


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Now for Summer Glau – her choreography as River Tam in Serenity is an incredibly close comparison. The style of fighting is completely different, but the effect that’s achieved is similar. In writer-director Joss Whedon’s movie adaptation of the gritty sci-fi show Firefly, River Tam is a character who is powerfully psychic. Summer Glau, the actress who plays her, started out as a ballet dancer. Watch a later scene and compare it with the choreography given Pitt at the end of that beach scene.


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The Fight Choreographer for Serenity was Ryan Watson. The style he gives River Tam – while different from Achilles’ – is still based on moves that clear where her opponents’ weapons will be, and is centered around positioning herself in anticipation of how those opponents will move. It’s worth noting that Glau – like Pitt and Bana – performs her own stunts and choreography. Her training as a dancer also allows Whedon to use her in a way Petersen can’t use Pitt in Troy: the entire fight scene is done in one shot. It’s a shorter scene, but you’ll notice Whedon’s tendency for extended takes in the longer Maidenhead fight we’ll watch momentarily.

Now, if you’ve ever been in a real fight and you’ve had training, you’ll know that the fight – at least at first – takes place in your head. You seek the strongest position possible and, more importantly, you seek to put your opponent in as disadvantageous a position as possible. If you do a good enough job of that, the fight’s decided before anyone throws a punch. The physical just follows the mental via muscle memory. There is a real element of predicting and guiding your opponent into specific physical and mental positions, setting up your own moves and his reactions.

Both the choreography for Glau and Pitt are unreal extensions beyond this. In Glau’s case, it specifically highlights River’s ability to predict where a blow will land or how a new foe will arrive moments before it happens. In Pitt’s case, it lends Achilles the aura of a god, of a warrior truly blessed by the Fates. In both circumstances, an artificial choreography is created – one that has nothing to do with the willpower and physical reaction of a real fight, but has everything to do with the power of dance to communicate elegance and myth.

All of these choreographies, before they get to the actors, are refined using stunt specialists. Watson’s choreography for Glau was developed with Bridget Riley. She wasn’t originally credited in the production – many stuntpeople often aren’t, despite being key to developing much of the choreography that makes it into the final product. We are lucky enough to have video of Riley’s original blocking for the Maidenhead fight. Please note that Riley is a professional stuntwoman and martial artist, and could beat the living snot out of Brad Pitt and anyone else mentioned in this article in a heartbeat. Except maybe Katharine Hepburn.


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The original scene takes advantage of Riley’s extensive martial arts skills, as well as a decent amount of wirework. Each shot is isolated to an individual encounter and stunt.

With Glau, the scene changes. She’s not able to perform some of the moves Riley helped develop, but Glau’s ability as a dancer does allow for the scene to be shot in longer takes than were originally planned. Like Achilles, she avoids attacks in her blind spot through preternatural anticipation. This isn’t an oversight in the choreography – like Simone Crane and Richard Ryan did for Troy, Ryan Watson developed individual choreography for each actor in Serenity. Nathan Fillion’s fight scenes opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor are altogether different. As Captain Mal, Fillion is a scrappy slugger, essentially just doing his best to get one more chance to punch the other guy in the face. He often uses misdirection to do so. As the nameless Operative, Ejiofor keeps everything directly in front of himself – he fights efficiently, letting his opponents’ wrap themselves up. He reacts with precise, cleanly defined motions. Glau is the only one who fights in that preternatural style; it’s a conscious artistic decision. Watch what I mean in the final version of the Maidenhead fight.


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So what’s my point, at the end of all of this? It’s that fight scenes aren’t just whether you use Kung Fu or Muay Thai or Krav Maga. Fight scenes can also communicate messages through their art. In Troy, the fight between Achilles and Hector ceases to be real – it becomes representative, a metaphor for the characters of these two men. Achilles is like an animal, circling around his opponent and taking a quick test bite at the beginning, and he is like a god, reacting to Hector’s attacks even as they happen.

Hector, on the other hand, is a man who doesn’t value combat, but does value effort. There’s a moment earlier in the film when Hector betrays the honor of a duel by defending his brother Paris (Orlando Bloom). He doesn’t do so because Paris is his brother; he does so because Paris – despite not being a warrior – still showed up for the duel and put forth his best effort. When Hector later faces Ajax, a warrior twice his size, Hector is victorious not by skill, but because of his effort. He’s clearly outmatched but he doesn’t give up.

In the lead-up to his fight with Achilles, both Hector and the audience know he will not make it out alive. Achilles is an animal. Achilles is a god. Hector is a good man doing his best. The fight choreography isn’t about Hector and Achilles. That choreography is about our constant struggle just to come up even against forces greater than ourselves. It’s about facing nature and fate and knowing that we can never come out on top, but that’s not going to stop us from trying anyway. It’s not because we think we’re better, but rather because the effort itself is honorable, and gives the struggle meaning. Hector is a man going to his death knowing exactly how he’ll face it – as the best version of himself. He is effort, which means nothing to Achilles or to nature or to destiny or to a god, but which carries meaning only to Hector himself.

Fight choreography can communicate as much as a dance, as much as any other form of art can in five minutes. It can give us that same artistic reaction – that same chill up our spines when it suddenly dawns on us what’s being said and the passion behind it – that a beautiful vista in Lord of the Rings can, that a costume from Moulin Rouge can, that an immaculately designed Kubrick set can, that a line from a poem, or a phrase from a song, or an emotion caught in a photograph can.

Fight choreography isn’t just people beating each other up. Stuntwork isn’t just people diving in front of explosions. Fight choreography and stuntwork can be art, and the people behind it think of it as art, communicate in the same way that other artists do. Start to look at these scenes that way, and you’ll start discovering things about film that you never even thought were possible.

Troy
Stunt Coordinator – Simon Crane
Sword Master – Richard Ryan
“Achilles” – Brad Pitt
“Hector” – Eric Bana

Serenity
Fight Choreographer – Ryan Watson
Stunt Development – Bridget Riley
“River Tam” – Summer Glau