Tag Archives: storytelling

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #20 – KATHRYN BIGELOW

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #20 – KATHRYN BIGELOW

If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies. It’s irrelevant who or what directed a movie, the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don’t. There should be more women directing; I think there’s just not the awareness that it’s really possible. It is.“— Kathryn Bigelow in 1990


Having most recently directed the searing period drama, Detroit (2017), Bigelow has been making feature films, since her debut, The Loveless (1981), for over thirty-nine years. With a strong academic background, having studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and Columbia University, it’s fascinating to review a career which has eschewed arthouse cinema and essentially been spent working mainly on big-budget genre films. However, one can see in her directorial canon that Bigelow, while striving for commercial success, is constantly testing the boundaries of genre storytelling.

Along with a powerful visual style that attains symbiosis with the core material, she intelligently explores themes relating to violence, individual freedom versus the system, masculinity in crisis, gender representations and socio-political corruption. Lastly, her characters are often outsiders, morally complex and dealing with deep personal trauma. In short: Bigelow’s worldview is one of both healthy scepticism and cynicism, but also an element of hope within the longing for control. So, here are five of Kathryn Bigelow’s most impactful cinematic releases.

***ARTICLE CONTAINS FILM SPOILERS***



NEAR DARK (1987)

While The Lost Boys (1987) is rightly regarded as a very entertaining 80’s vampire film, Near Dark (1987) is way, way superior. Despite not catching fire at the box office, this neo-horror-western contains a fantastic cast of James Cameron alumni, including: Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein. These great character actors inhabit this snarling gang of vampires perfectly as the film contains shockingly brutal violence and hard-bitten dialogue amidst a tender love story.



BLUE STEEL (1990)

While Jamie Lee Curtis is generally better known for her horror and comedy film performances, Kathryn Bigelow made excellent use of her dramatic acting ability as a rookie police officer caught up with Ron Silver’s psychotic commodities trader. Blue Steel (1990) is a variegated genre film which takes a standard police procedural narrative and twists it into something far more psychologically compelling. Lee Curtis excels, as does vicious bad-guy Silver, aptly named Eugene Hunt!



POINT BREAK (1991)

This classic heist meets surfing movie meets gay subtext bromance is jam-packed with classic action scenes and faux-deep philosophical musings. Keanu Reeves is the daftly named cop, Johnny Utah, who goes undercover, amidst the beach brigade to find a bunch of bank robbers. His suspicions fall on Patrick Swayze’s elemental surfer-dude-god and a dangerous “bromantic” game of cat-and-mouse ensues. Bigelow scored her first major hit with Point Break (1991), infusing it with some incredibly visceral stunt, surfing, robbery and chase sequences in an exhilarating film experience.



THE HURT LOCKER (2008)

After the box office failures of her previous three films, the under-rated sci-fi thriller, Strange Days (1995), enigmatic mystery, The Weight of Water (2000), and stodgy cold war film, K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), Bigelow’s seemingly took a career break. She would, however, come back with her most critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker (2008). From a brilliant script by Mark Boal and led by Jeremy Renner’s standout lead performance, The Hurt Locker (2008), put the audience right at the heart of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Putting aside the politics for a moment, the film is full of incredibly tense and superbly edited scenes which have your heart in your mouth. Simultaneously too, the film also shows the devastating emotional, physical and mental effect war has on the people of Iraq and the soldiers sent to fight this horrifically unjust conflict.



ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

Whereas The Hurt Locker (2008) had highly emotional and empathetic protagonists, Bigelow and Boal’s next film Zero Dark Thirty (2012), is a much more clinical and technically efficient cinematic experience. In parts, both a war drama and espionage thriller, the story also has a feel of an old-fashioned Western as American military and CIA operatives, led by the excellent Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke, hunt down Osama Bin Laden. Politically speaking this is a film which makes me feel very uncomfortable for a number of reasons. It plays out like a revenge story. It also seems to both criticize and vindicate torture in the early scenes. This makes me uneasy as I understand the 9/11 attacks were just horrific, yet they seemed to get used as a motive for many more atrocities by the United States government. I guess that was what Bigelow and Boal were going for. They attempted to create a morally and emotionally complex war thriller that lets you interpret the events yourself and conclude one’s own judgements.



BFI FILM REVIEW: DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991)

BFI FILM REVIEW: DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991)

Directed by: Julie Dash

Produced by: Lindsay Law, Julie Dash, Arthur Jafa, Steven Jones

Written by: Julie Dash

Cast: Cora Lee Day, Barbara O, Alva Rogers, Trula Hoosier, Umar Abdurrahamn, Adisa Anderson, Kaycee Moore etc.

Music by: John Barnes

Cinematography: Arthur Jafa

***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***



“I didn’t want to tell a historical drama about African-American women in the same way that I had seen other dramas. I decided to work with a different type of narrative structure…[and] that the typical male-oriented western-narrative structure was not appropriate for this particular film. So I let the story unravel and reveal itself in a way in which an African Gullah would tell the story, because that’s part of our tradition. The story unfolds throughout this day-and-a-half in various vignettes. It unfolds and comes back. It’s a different way of telling a story. It’s totally different, new.” — Julie Dash

If you didn’t know the British Film Institute (or BFI) is the UK’s lead organisation for film, television and the moving image. It is a cultural charity that: presents world cinema for audiences in cinemas, at festivals and online; cares for the BFI National Archive, the most significant film and television archive in the world; is a registered charity that actively seeks out and supports the next generation of filmmakers; organises and runs the annual London Film Festival; and works with the government and industry to make the UK the most creatively exciting place to make film internationally. As my wife and I are members we get sent films on Blu-Ray/DVD as part of the membership. These can be re-released classics or remastered arthouse masterpieces such as Daughters of the Dust (1991).

Daughters of the Dust (1991) was a labour of love for writer and director Julie Dash. Originally inspired, way back in 1975, by her father’s experiences, she strived to create a short, poetic and cinematic account of a Gullah family’s migration from idyllic island life to New York at the turn of the century. Eventually, and after many year’s of development and struggle, PBS’ American Playhouse would grant the low budget for a feature film. The film is set in 1902. It tells the story of three generations of Gullah women in the Peazant family and their varying viewpoints, thoughts and philosophies in regard to the move from Helena Island.


Daughters of the Dust review – the dreamlike film that inspired Beyoncé's  Lemonade | Film | The Guardian

Daughters of the Dust (1991) was made for a reported $800,000, but it looks worth far more in terms of cinematography, costumes and settings. Arthur Jafa’s camera placement and use of the natural light, on the beach and swamp land especially, conjures up some magical imagery. The iconic images of the women on the beaches in their bright white dresses are stunningly memorable. While watching I felt like I was viewing a gallery of moving paintings, such was the exceptional nature of the composition. Again, despite a low budget and use of actors from independent cinema, Julie Dash, gets some incredibly natural and compelling performances from her cast. It’s all the more amazing as most of the cast had to learn the Gullah language employed from scratch.

Thematically the film is very powerful too. Conflict derives from dialectics such as the clashing of elder versus younger people, ancient beliefs versus Christian religion, African heritage versus Neo-American capitalism and nature versus technology. Julie Dash structures these themes and the character’s desires in a non-linear fashion over a period of a long weekend. There are poetic flashbacks and flashforwards too as the imagery is supported by a voiceover from a yet to be born child of parents, Eli and Eula. Ultimately, this film is a very immersive experience. There are no subtitles, so the language can be tricky to understand, but for me that enhanced the desire to feel the narrative. Indeed, the lyrical beauty of Daughters of the Dust (1991), combined with the humming percussion-driven music, stunning landscapes and inventive cinematic language mean you are swept out to sea by the powerful emotions of Julie Dash’s spectacular vision.

Mark: 9 out of 11


GAME OF THRONES – SEASON 8 – HBO TV REVIEW – AN EMOTIONAL FAREWELL FULL OF HIGHS AND LOWS!

GAME OF THRONES – SEASON 8 – HBO TV REVIEW

Lord of Light! Come to us in our darkness. We offer you these false gods. Take them and cast your light upon us. For the night is dark and full of terrors.“― Melisandre prays to R’hllor

Created by: George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss

Based on: A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin

Executive Producers: George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Carolyn Strauss, Bernadette Caulfield, Bryan Cogman, Miguel Sapochnik, David Nutter

Producers: Mark Huffam, Frank Doelger, Chris Newman, Greg Spence, Lisa McAtackney, Bryan Cogman, Duncan Moggach

Writers – Season 8: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Dave Hill, Brian Cogman

Directors – Season 8: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Miguel Sapochnik, David Nutter

Main cast: Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Liam Cunningham, Nathalie Emmanuel, Alfie Allen, John Bradley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Gwendoline Christie, Conleth Hill, Rory McCann, Jerome Flynn, Iain Glen, Carice Van Houten etc.

**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**

THE BELLS!

Those damned bells. The first chime sent a chill in the air. Everything stopped for what seemed like an eternity. The second chime clanged. The third and then the fourth and suddenly the fate of a television show went from glorious triumph to a just about earned pyrrhic victory by the final episode credits. Thus, in the space of a minute or so, and the carnage that followed, Game of Thrones virtually threw seven seasons and 5 episodes under a narrative bus.

I’m of course talking about a key character and plot wrench in Season 8, episode 5, called The Bells. While what followed after Queen Daenerys’ decision to carry out her actions, was as spectacular a television set-piece as you could ever see, unfortunately it led to a badly judged final episode called The Iron Throne. In this final episode the writers gave us a series of baffling creative decisions which flew in the face of character arcs and also many rules of the Westeros world. Don’t get me wrong, strong shocks and massive twists have always been part of the books and show. However, some of the decisions made were just mystifying.

“NOT TODAY!”

This is a spoiler-free and more emotional outburst so I won’t go into specifics. In my review of Season 7 — found here — I defended the writers, who I believe could be forgiven some sleight-of-hand contrivances and geographical inconsistencies, because the show was still one of the most entertaining programmes around. Conversely, the first seven seasons gave me some of the greatest televisual enjoyment I have ever experienced. Moreover, the novels are an incredible testament to the brilliant imagination, scope and mind of author George R.R. Martin.

In terms of character, plotting, dialogue, action, reversals, twists, shocks, romance, performance, political intrigue, editing, direction and jaw-dropping-heart-pounding-tension Game of Thrones is ONE OF THE GREATEST TV SHOWS EVER! Moreover, as aforementioned, George R. R. Martin’s books are just something else too. Indeed, the third book, A Storm of Swords, is one of the best works of fiction I have had the pleasure to read. But yet, Season 8 had some more amazing action and events too. It’s just THAT ending; THAT final episode.

Highlights of Season 8 were the build up to the attack by the dead. Winter had finally arrived i.e. death. It comes for us all and our heroes were witnessing a manifestation of death via the White Walkers and Others; all led by the ghoulish Night King. Then when battle commenced the third episode called The Long Night, was an incredible action feast, containing moments of high drama, horror and heroism from many characters we have come to love and even some we hate.

I didn’t even mind that the black night meant it was difficult to see some action. Moonlight, fire, the Red Women and dragons lit up the sky enough to see what was occurring. The blackness was in context and added to the doom facing our characters. My issue was that the fight with the Night King was an end-of-the-world event. Surely, this battle should have closed the show. But no, there was more to follow; the final battle for the Iron Throne itself. In my view, anything following The Last Night could be open to anti-climax. So, it proved.

HEROES AND VILLAINS

Let me reiterate: I still loved Season 8 and I DID NOT SIGN A PETITION for the writers to take the black! These so-called fans signing on-line petitions need to get a life and if they want to take a stand need to take a good LOOK AT THE REAL WORLD! But there was no smoke without fire for the online pitchfork hordes. I too did not agree with how rushed the final season was and many of the character choices that were made. During The Long Night and The Bells episodes I witnessed two of the finest television episodes ever seen from a production perspective. They were jaw-dropping. But from a structural stand-point they were as broken as Bran.

It would appear the showrunners were working from George RR Martin’s template as to how it may end. However, we definitely got a bullet-point conclusion; leaving it hitting certain emotional plot events without earning them. Basically, the complexity of characterisation was lost in favour of wrapping up the storylines too quickly. However, I still cannot praise the massive crew and cast who made this TV show. It genuinely made my life worth living from a cultural perspective.

WINTER HAS GONE!

The main reason for watching and loving the show was for the heroism in the face of death and darkness. Life can be shitty and tough and Game of Thrones was about escape for me. Personally, I felt characters such as Jon Snow, Daenerys and Jamie deserved more heroic endings, but instead got disappointing ones. Similarly, Cersei’s visceral flame just fizzled out. I know they aren’t real people but I wanted their conclusions to be more rousing. The likes of Arya, Sansa, Brienne of Tarth, Samwell Tarly; and even Sandor Clegane got somewhat satisfying endings. I guess you can’t have everything, though.

Don’t get me wrong, Game of Thrones has a propensity to surprise and shock and amaze and it definitely did that in Season 8; right up until THAT vanilla ending. Because as the troubadour once sung, “It’s better to burn out than fade away;” so it’s a shame the lord of light diminished somewhat at the end. Still, it’s all about the journey and the quest rather the final destination. Winter and come and winter has gone and it’s a one I will never forget!

Game of Thrones – Season 8 – Mark: 9 out of 11

Game of Thrones – Overall – Mark: 11 out of 11

SIX OF THE BEST #12 – UNRELIABLE NARRATORS IN CINEMA (WITH HUGE SPOILERS)

SIX OF THE BEST #12 – UNRELIABLE NARRATORS IN CINEMA

**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**

I find the nature of storytelling and narrative construction a fascinating craft. As someone who reads and watches a lot of stories via: books, cinema, theatre, comedy, radio and television, I am always drawn to devices which differ from the conventional norm. When I was younger I used to pour scorn on stories told straight and in chronological order. I like difficult or unconventional works as it appealed to my younger rebellious side. Of late though, I have come to realise that unconventional or non-linear storytelling can be used as a stylistic device for the sake of it and adds nothing to the story. Screenwriting navel-gazing devices such as fragmented timelines can detract from the emotional impact of the characters’ journey. Thus, to get a complex layered and non-linear storyline right is difficult. Many writers and filmmakers experiment with variant structures to escape standard narrative conventions. Indeed, with hard work and positive creative decisions it is possible to capture magic in a script and transport it to the screen.

Conversely, the device of the unreliable narrator is another means which a screenwriter can differentiate a narrative from conventional classic storytelling. Usually, in say a Hollywood blockbuster our hero or heroes will be those we root for from beginning to end. To switch our main protagonist or narrative focus from positive to negative or good to bad is brave writing. To even begin with an anti-heroic or even unlikable lead protagonist is obviously a risk and can alienate the audience. Furthermore, to make the lead character or characters unreliable is very difficult. However, the tricky craft of leading us one way with a protagonist before revealing them to be untrustworthy or twisted is a device which can provide much narrative satisfaction.

In 1981, William Riggan, created a study of various unreliable types, including: The Picaro, The Madman, The Clown, The Naif and The Liar. The Picaro will typically be a bragger, similar to the Liar but not as heinous. The Madman or Mad Woman, however, will be more sinister but The Clown and The Naif will either be playing for laughs or in the latter’s case, telling their story from a naïve position. Moreover, an unreliable narrator will potentially be hiding their own crimes or actions out of guilt. Or they will have amnesia, selective or deliberate to mislead the audience. They may just take great joy in telling lies or simply be unhinged to believe their fractured personality is presenting their version of the truth. It could be they are also attention seekers; OR actually a combination of all of the above.

Examples of unreliable narrators are legion throughout theatrical and literary presentations. Indeed, Agatha Christie and Jim Thompson often utilised them in their crime stories; as did novelists such as: Emily Bronte, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bret Easton Ellis, Gillian Flynn, Vladimir Nabokov and many more. In this piece I would like to consider six of the best films featuring unreliable narrators. It was tough to get just six as I could have easily doubled it but here we are!

***CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS***

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ATONEMENT (2007)

Joe Wright’s majestic directorial adaptation of Ian McEwan’s tragic war story is a poignant study of petty revenge and romantic conflict. While the story focusses on the doomed love affair between James McEvoy and Keira Knightley’s class-crossed lovers, the narrator is novelist Briony Tallis (Vanessa Redgrave).  Due to a spiteful action by her thirteen year-old self the events of the drama are revealed at the end to be manipulated out of sheer guilt. While she attempts to give the romance story a more positive ending the horrors of war are to the fore and Briony’s remorse will never be humbled.

THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1920)

This silent movie classic is seen as the epitome of German Expressionist cinema. Set within the confines of a mental health asylum it was directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. The story concerns a man named Francis (Friedrich Feher) as he tells of a strange tale involving the mysterious somnambulist Cesare and nefarious Dr Caligari. Both stylistically and structurally formidable the film features: twisted and painterly sets, shadowy key lighting and ghostly make-up. Also, the story-within-the-story is both terrifying and all a lie in the mind of a madman. The ending would now be seen as potential cliché but on release it was astounding and clearly influenced another story with a troubled and unreliable narrator in Shutter Island (2010).

FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Chuck Palahniuk’s seminal novel and David Fincher’s incendiary cinematic adaptation is way too complex a piece to sum up in this little list. However, it still stands the test of time in terms of style and structure as Fincher directs the hell out of Edward Norton’s everyman and his charismatic alter-ego, Tyler Durden. A brutal, violent and coruscating vision of masculinity in crisis within a crumbling, corporate and schizophrenic society, Norton’s unreliable narrator spits and spirals and finally splits literally in half. Funny, dark, and a genuine film classic, no one’s meant to talk about Fight Club but it certainly deserves all the praise heaped upon it.

MEMENTO (2000)

Christopher Nolan’s early noir classic Memento (2000) is famously told in reverse chronological fashion, thus subverting the very nature of linear storytelling. His anti-hero, Leonard Shelby, has no means of making new memories thus via tattoos and Polaroid photos he constructs a present day movie of his own life in visual form. As the story unfolds we flash back and forth to a film within a film about a character called Sammy Jankis. Yet, incredibly and sadly, it turns out that Sammy is an imagined character used to suppress a terrible event in Leonard’s life and the film within a film is in fact the imagined vision of an unreliable narrator.

RASHOMON (1950)

Akiro Kurosawa’s superbly directed crime classic has not just one but numerous unreliable narrators. Structured around the investigation into a rape and murder in Japan the story splinters around the investigation of said crimes. Various versions of the same story are told from different perspectives as the subjectivity of truth is tested to the full. Are the characters’ stories from the perspective of: the bandit, the wife, the samurai and woodcutter lies or “true” reflections of the events in their respective minds? We all tell stories and is it possible we have got it wrong by mistake or manipulating the truth to our own benefit. Rashomon  posits such questions and more in a beautifully rendered cinema classic.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay remains one of the best I have ever read and the film is not too bad either. Shot on a low budget but cast perfectly the whole story is set around Chazz Palminteri’s cop grilling Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint about a major crime at the docks. What follows is a fractured structure which twists and turns on the basis of the narratives Kint is providing. We flash into event within event which is initially perceived to be truth but ultimately is a fiction. The final reveal where we find Kint has, in fact, been hiding a devilish truth all along astounds the cop and audience beyond belief. The story was so complex that Gabriel Byrne and other cast members actually thought they were Keyser Soze; only finding out they weren’t when they’d seen the incredible twist ending.

2016 BFI – LFF – THE BIRTH OF A NATION  (2016) – REVIEW

2016 – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL – THE BIRTH OF A NATION  (2016)

SPOILER FREE REVIEW

TITLE:  THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016)

DIRECTOR/PRODUCER/WRITER: Nate Parker

CAST:  Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Colman Domingo, Aja Noomi King

STORY:  At the turn of the 1800s a charismatic preacher must decide between a life of slavery or to stand up and fight against his brutal captors.

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REVIEW:

This drama, written, produced, directed and starring by Nate Parker has, since its release at the Sundance Festival, created a whole host of controversies. There is a historical rape prosecution of which Nate Parker was found innocent of in 1999; there are accusations of historical inaccuracies in the story; plus the passivity of female characters within the narrative has been criticized too.  Not surprising though because any film about slavery, rape, abuse and murder is bound to set the cultural world, internet, film industry, social media, historians etc. alight with debate.

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Personally, when I watch a film I prefer to judge it purely on whether it has entertained, informed, provoked thought and created emotion. The filmmakers’ personal history or whether a film meets certain quotas on political correctness or even whether the history has been altered to suit a narrative are important factors but not my main viewing considerations. Of course, if it is an exploitative piece of crap then I would call it; but mainly I ask myself: did the film entertain me and is it a good story done well?

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Well, inaccuracies and controversies aside I was thoroughly moved and taken with emotion by The Birth of a Nation. It is ambitious, independent filmmaking which takes a figure from history that stood up against oppressors and fought back against the injustices that befell him and his people. In little over two hours we get a microcosmic view of the character of Nat Turner and the horrific period he lived in and get a short, sharp and shocking drama. Turner is shown to be an intelligent, proud and spiritual force who inspires those around him to fight against the brutality all around.

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You cannot underestimate Parker’s vision and determination to bring Nat Turner’s ‘story’ to the screen. On such a relatively low budget (reported to be £10 million) it is an admirable and risky project to pursue and deliver. Not as startlingly stylistic as the big-budget-spaghetti-slave-Western Django Unchained (2012), The Birth of a Nation is a heart-breaking narrative which posits the power of the scriptures and damns the beast of humanity which allowed free people to be stolen from their country and made to serve others.

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Overall, the film works as a lower-budget epic in the vein of Braveheart (1995) and Spartacus (1960), while covering similar ground thematically as Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave (2013). It may not have the artistry of Steve McQueen’s directed epic, but it is still an important film about a fascinating historical figure. Whether it is accurate or not the film still made compelling viewing and Parker deserves all the praise he gets for such an assured debut.