Tag Archives: stunts

New Shows + Movies by Women — September 25, 2020

I want to highlight a short film that’s coming available on Netflix. “A Love Song for Latasha” is based on the death by shooting of 15 year-old Latasha Harlins, which was one cause of the 1992 civil uprising in Los Angeles. A store owner attacked Harlins under the belief she was trying to steal a $1.79 orange juice, despite video evidence later showing Harlins had money in her hand. Store owner Soon Ja Du attacked Harlins, and when Harlins defended herself and then tried to run, Du shot Harlins in the back of the head.

Despite a jury finding Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter and recommending the maximum sentence of 16 years, the trial judge Joyce Karlin sentenced Du to five years probation, 400 hours community service, and a $500 fine. The week before, Karlin had handed down a tougher sentence on a man who’d kicked his dog.

The Los Angeles D.A. disallowed Karlin from judging felony cases that involved violent crimes, but Karlin was elected a year later to California’s Superior Court. She would later be elected to the Manhattan Beach city council, and serve a term as the city’s mayor.

The 19-minute short film doesn’t focus on this, but it’s important to know and remember. Instead, “A Love Song for Latasha” remembers the girl and her dreams. It feels so difficult in the world we live in to remember both at once. The media overwhelms us in ways that pretend we can only choose accountability and the anger when it’s missing, or the memory of someone’s humanity and the love that demands that accountability and anger. Don’t believe someone telling you that you have to choose between them when they’re the same thing.

NEW SERIES

The School Nurse Files (Netflix)
directed by Kyoung-mi Lee

What would it be like if you were a grown-up magical girl who had to save the world in full view of everyone else? They can’t see the monsters you’re saving them from either. You’d just look like someone waving a neon sword and acting funny around your workplace. This is the fate of An Eun Young, a school nurse destined to save the world and look silly doing it.

“The School Nurse Files” is directed and showrun by Kyoung-mi Lee, a director and actress who started off as the script supervisor for the superb “Lady Vengeance”. It’s written by Serang Chung. (Apologies if I switch up first name/last name order at all here; I try to check but without knowing Korean, the information I have available isn’t always consistent.)

You can watch “The School Nurse Files” on Netflix with a subscription.

Utopia (Amazon)
showrunner Gillian Flynn

A group of comic book readers discover that they’re not reading fiction. The conspiracy in the pages of “Utopia” is real. They set out to defeat the corporation engineering the impending downfall of humanity.

“Utopia” has been under production on and off since 2014, first under HBO. Originally, David Fincher was set to showrun and direct. As happens with the majority of David Fincher projects, the series stalled due to budget disputes. Amazon picked up the rights, and in stepped “Gone Girl” novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn.

The long delay on the project really doesn’t help it right now. As Polygon critic Samantha Nelson notes:

“In different times #UtopiaTV would just be a mediocre conspiracy thriller. But in an era where some people genuinely believe COVID-19 is a hoax, airing a show about a plague engineered by a tech philanthropist and a global cabal feels irresponsible.”

Flynn also produced and wrote the novel and some teleplays for “Sharp Objects”, as well as the screenplay for “Widows”.

You can watch “Utopia” on Amazon with a subscription.

NEW MOVIES

Secret Society of Second Born Royals (Disney+)
directed by Anna Mastro

I have to admit to a high level of discomfort writing about a plot where the children of monarchs have special genes that make them superheroes. It seeks to legitimize too many concepts of aristocracy that have been used to wipe out indigenous cultures. There’s a mountain of my own cultural history that will never be recovered or accessible to me because it was systematically wiped out by eugenics justifications that looked a lot like this. The concept that only the aristocrats can keep the peace and they have an innate and inherent superior ability to do this – that’s the entire operational justification for colonialism. That’s the concept your fantasy is based on?

Oh, but it’s a kid-friendly movie, stop being so serious? Yeah, the notion that this is the logic we’re selling to children only makes it worse.

I want this feature to be primarily informational, and as a man writing about projects by women, I try to be conscious of limiting my own judgments and potential biases. When something steps into territory like this, where the core of it is centered on propagandist notions that have proven harmful and even today continue to cause harm, it’s not really a judgment anymore. It’s an open wound that has yet to be healed; it is an ongoing fight to be seen as equal in our humanity. As a Latino, I cannot mention something with this precept without speaking about how searing it is living with the long-lasting, generations-spanning pain of that concept, everything it took away, and anything that tries to legitimize the root cause of it even for a second.

The idea that royals have an ancestral, genetic superiority is a eugenecist concept. To world-build on that concept as the central theme of your story and a positive selling point we should cheer for is harmful. It’s insulting. It digs into that wound. If we’re going to be real about the criticism and bad intersectionalism of “Mulan” and at the very least the advertising for “Cuties”, then let’s be real about this one, too.

NEW DOCUMENTARIES

Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story (VOD)
directed by April Wright

“Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story” looks at the extensive work and history of stuntwomen in Hollywood. Stunt crews go without much praise for jobs that are incredibly dangerous and painful, and this lack of praise goes double for women who do those jobs.

Narrated by Michelle Rodriguez, “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story” traces the industry evolution of stuntwomen in film. It also features a wide range of interviews with stuntwomen and women stunt coordinators about their experiences and the obstacles they’ve faced in the industry.

Director April Wright has balanced independent narrative film with documentaries. This isn’t the first time she’s examined the history of the movie industry either. Her series “Going Attractions” has featured histories on the evolution and near extinction of both the drive-in (“The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie”) and the grand, ornate movie palaces that used to pack hundreds (“The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace”).

You can rent “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story” starting at $4. See the streaming options here.

Fandango at the Wall (HBO)
directed by Varda Bar-Kar

One surviving Mexican tradition is an approach to folk music called son jarocho. In “Fandango at the Wall”, Arturo O’Farrill travels to Veracruz, Mexico to meet with those who continue and celebrate the tradition. He joins them traveling to a music festival that takes place in Mexico and the U.S. at the same time, on both sides of the border wall.

Director Varda Bar-Kar shifts between short-form and feature length documentaries, often with a special interest on regional traditions in Mexico as well as the U.S.

You can watch “Fandango at the Wall” on HBO Max with a subscription.

Kiss the Ground (Netflix)
co-directed by Rebecca Harrell Tickell

“Kiss the Ground” tackles a front on climate change that is seldom discussed. Soil health has been sapped by modern agricultural techniques. The literal ground on which plants are grown and animals graze doesn’t just lack health, it lacks productivity and resilience as well. Healthier, more bio-diverse farming techniques can actually save expenses while returning a great deal of carbon into plants and the soil itself.

This alone won’t heal climate change, but it is a factor that needs to be talked about more. Beyond this, greater abundance of food can contribute to easing other societal pressure points that keep us from tackling the bigger-picture fights like climate change.

Director Rebecca Harrell Tickell started out as an actress, and has since shifted more toward directing. Her directing partner is also her husband, Joshua Tickell. The pair are probably known best for “The Big Fix”, which examined the factors that contributed to and the effects that arose from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster.

You can watch “Kiss the Ground” on Netflix with a subscription.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

The Best Stuntwork of 2014

Need for Speed open

by Gabriel Valdez

Let’s talk about stunts, the forgotten category long left hanging in the wind by an Academy that has failed to award an element of filmmaking as old as film itself. And then they wonder why people think the Oscars are boring.

There will be a separate article for best choreography of the year, but I want to focus on stunt work for the time being. This is an article awarding the most singular achievements in stunt coordination this year.

Stunts can include everything from someone sent flying out of a building to being lit on fire, from precision driving to retraining an actor how to move like a different species. Stunt teams do some of the most difficult work on film, often to little or no credit.

I’ll be avoiding CG stunts. A performance can be aided by CG, motion captured, even take place in a set created through visual effects, but a stunt still has to be a performance. I won’t list anything here that’s entirely created through visual effects.

3. FURY

Hayley Saywell, stunt department coordinator
Ben Cooke, stunt coordinator

Fury, aside from being one of the most egregious awards show oversights, pulled off a rare trick. For a mid-movie tank battle, it employed a real German Tiger tank. It was the first time since 1946 that one was used on a film set. Mock-ups were used to develop the battle choreography. On lend from the Bovington Tank Museum for exactly one day of shooting opposite the American M4A2 Sherman tank that played the film’s namesake, the crew had to practice the sequence to the point where they knew what every member was doing every second of each shot. They had to recreate in their mock-up the exact control scheme and sense of response a Tiger tank has so that there were no surprises in the choreography once they were shooting.

It’s the rare mechanical stunt whose complexity won’t be realized by most viewers. On top of all that preparation, the sequence required the crew pave unseen paths in a muddy field, keep to a tight schedule, and keep an eye on mechanical issues.

Fury is filled with other stunts as well, but this tank battle – the above clip only represents a brief moment in the entire sequence – is the showpiece that demonstrates one of the best displays of coordinating a battle scene in recent memory.

(Read the review)

2. NEED FOR SPEED

Pamela Croydon, precision driving team coordinator
Lance Gilbert, stunt coordinator

That clip is all practical. None of the stunts in it are CG. Look, Need for Speed is a very average movie, but the sheer amount of stunt driving crammed into it is pretty audacious.

In an age when Fast and Furious is making money hand over fist with ridiculously CG driving sequences, Need for Speed focused on making everything practical. To do so, it employed no less than 38 stunt and precision drivers. It shows in the end result. Whatever else one says about this film, what you’re really paying to see – the chase and race sequences – are second to none.

(Read the review)

1. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Charles Croughwell, Marny Eng, Terry Notary, stunt coordinators

This doesn’t look like it involves much stuntwork. It’s just a bunch of CG, right? Not exactly. When you watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and realize that each of those CG apes spilling out of the woods is being played by an actor: climbing rigging, leaping, and bounding across sets in coordination with each other (often using prosthetic extensions to do so), it becomes one of the most overwhelming stunt accomplishments in recent history.

Motion capture has to have an actor performing the role in order to work. To coordinate dozens upon dozens of actors playing apes requires extensive movement training, complex staging, climbing coordinated between dozens at a time, and a brand new and unique fight choreography based on another species. The list of accomplishments here is stunning. It begins to blur the lines between stunt work, acting, movement training, motion capture, and fight choreography, and it does so to brilliant and moving effect.

(Read the review)

In the lead-up to the Oscars, we’ve named several Best of 2014 Awards, with a special focus on some categories the Oscars don’t include:

The Best 3-D of 2014

The Best Diversity of 2014

The Best Original Score of 2014

The Best Soundtrack of 2014

The Most Thankless Role of 2014

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:


.
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:


.
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.


.
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.


.
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.


.
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