Monday, May 30

Doctor Who — "The Eleventh Hour"

So much happens in the first episode of Doctor Who's fifth series that there's no way I could address everything I wanted to in a season-encompassing review, so I'll lay out some thoughts in a separate post.

I had anticipated Steven Moffat hitting the ground running as creative head of Doctor Who; were I to list the 10 best episodes of New Who, all of his penned episodes would make the cut. As I've said in previous Who posts, Moffat's style combines wit, edginess and an atmosphere that relies on suggestion over confrontation to unsettle the audience. His approach was an antidote to the sometimes cloying sentimentality of Russell T. Davies, who stuck to the child-oriented side of the program while Moffat gave kids something to think and fret about.

What I did not expect is that Moffat would find a new Doctor who could communicate the same things through his body language and delivery. Like those who saw this transition happen in real time, I felt sad to see David Tennant go. He was so effortlessly charismatic, so capable of pulling off whatever the writers required of him, that he left his successor big shoes to fill. Matt Smith, however, proves instantly that he's not only capable of the task but perfect for a Moffat-run Who.

When he crashes in his wrecked TARDIS outside the large but rotting home of wee Scottish transplant Amelia Pond, the still-transforming Doctor displays a complete personality shift from his predecessor. If the Tenth Doctor's catchphrase was "Allons-y," the Eleventh's might as well be, "Oh, would you come on, already?" It's not that he's hostile, per se, only so removed from others that his directness can seem edgy. Davies' conception of the Doctor always made him sound as if he'd like nothing more than to be a human; Moffat's Doctor appears to be just fine being a superior creature, thank you very much.

"The Eleventh Doctor" is so simultaneously funny and terrifying (and, occasionally, heartbreaking) that it instantly raises the bar for the series. As the Doctor notes (among frantically and rudely demanding different foods to test his new taste buds), Amelia's calm toward an alien who fell from the sky commanding her must make the crack in her bedroom she fears truly scary. And God is it; it's like the ragged gash from Roman Polanski's Repulsion, a subtly expanding fissure concealing the escape of a prisoner from a cross-dimensional prison.

I'm going to try to stop summarizing there, because if I don't I'll never stop. Like "The Girl in the Fireplace," another Moffat episode, "The Eleventh Hour" splits time between two relative points; the Doctor heads into the split to investigate the prisoner breakout and returns five minutes later, only to find that 12 years have passed and the wide-eyed girl is now a bitter young woman scarred by teases and analysis over her insistence of a "raggedy doctor" who visited her as a child. Amelia, now "Amy," feels anger over sadness, and we see the Doctor's edge reflected in her.

If Smith quickly proves himself in this episode, Karen Gillan does as superb a job in carving out her own territory from previous Companions. She's sharp-tongued, but not in Donna's bromantic sense; Tate formed a solid double act with Tennant, but there's tension between the Doctor and Amy I haven't really seen so far, familiar only with New Who and thus of two romantic Companions and one Laurel and Hardy-esque situation. Amy captures the best of both, still wounded from the pain the Doctor indirectly caused her but intrigued in more ways than one about him. When the Doctor strips before Amy and her fiancé, Rory, she keeps watching, even responding to Rory's snippy question of whether she's going to turn away with a curt, "Nope." Frankly, I'm as interested in seeing how Amy grows as the Doctor.

As far as monsters go, Moffat has always preferred the suggestion of terror punctuated by the fleetest glimpses of full-on, pants-wetting horror. Small wonder, then, that the escaped prisoner is a creature that eludes capture by taking on other forms and manages to remain unseen in its natural form by lingering in the corner of one's eye. Even when all seems to be calm, the slightest flicker of discrepancy grows in the mind until HOLY JESUS WHAT IN THE NAME OF—

There are inherent setbacks to Doctor Who: its family-friendly format and modest budget can only accommodate a certain range of ambition. "The Eleventh Hour" is one of the few episodes, particularly coming off the incredibly uneven Davies years, that really shows what the series can be capable of; its wit—"You're Scottish, fry something"—, suspense and rich characterization (both the Eleventh Doctor and Amy emerge so fully formed this series debut never feels like your basic establishing episode) make for a truly stellar episode of television. Considering just how much was reset this series, as much was at stake with this episode as Davies' resurrecting pilot. But unlike the gradual piecing together of new characters and hinted arcs that defined Davies' largely underwhelming series openers, Moffat's does not set the groundwork for better episodes later. It is simply great TV, fully realized while still tantalizing the audience with promises of further growth. I'm in love all over again.

Sunday, May 29

Brian De Palma: The Untouchables

No one in The Untouchables, either cop or criminal, seems to have anything in the way of a moral code. Their lives are far more existential: the criminal steals because he is a thief, and the cop upholds the law because it is his job to do so. When a reporter asks Bureau of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), dedicated defender of Prohibition, what he would do if the government repealed the 18th Amendment, he replies without hesitation" I think I'll have a drink." Until that day, however, "It is the law of the land."

As for everyone caught in-between, life under a system of legislated morality has seemingly divorced individuals from a sense of right and wrong. Ness' efforts to conduct raids on bootleggers fail because of corrupt cops tipping off Al Capone's men in order to get a few drops of the material they're helping to hide. The title refers to the team of uncorrupted policemen Ness and Irish beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery) recruit straight out of police academy to ensure their unblemished records, but it just as well describes Al Capone and his empire, which has such control over the desires of the common American that the boss can openly chat with reporters about bootlegging.

In comparison to the hedonism of Scarface, The Untouchables does not show anyone particularly enjoying the thrill of illegal consumption. Flapper-filled speakeasies seem to be in some other dimension entirely from the world Ness and co. traverse to take down Capone. Those smoky, alcohol-serving dens are in the underworld, but the point here is that the cops need not descend into it to find law-breakers; the most flagrantly criminal people live topsoil. Not only that, they leave in lavish mansions fit for holding the aristocracy at court for the winter.

In such matters, De Palma's attention to detail and suggestion has never been better: period costumes and set design are immaculate, and the director clearly shoots for an accurate representation of the social turmoil caused by Prohibition, not simply in the resulting crime spree but in a skewing of values that led to romanticizing that crime. For example, he immediately juxtaposes the scene of Capone chumming with sympathetic reporters as he assures them he just runs a business and does not use violence with the bombing of a bar that refused to sell Capone's wares, killing everyone inside (including a young girl).

However, De Palma's capacity to let wooden performances go uncorrected has rarely been so apparent. Divorced from his Brechtian satire, De Palma crafts a remarkably straightforward Hollywood picture with The Untouchables, but that only means that the actors have nowhere to hide when one examines their work. Costner, who would go on to convey something resembling human emotion as a crusader in JFK, here barely modulates his voice, speaking in a flat tone even when yelling. Connery, playing an Irish cop, appears to have decided the best approach to the accent would be to speak in his normal voice but occasionally make it a bit more nasal. Thankfully, he only tries to keep up this charade for about five minutes, at which point he simply speaks like Sean Connery, full stop. Only Robert De Niro, who plays Capone like a more unassailable and confident version of the fat Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, puts any effort into this.

De Palma, too, uses little of the prowess so freely on display in his usual style. The film has its share of Steadicam and crane shots, including a first-person roam outside Jimmy's apartment that has all the trappings of the director's voyeuristic, playful élan. But so much of the movie feels stiff, too mannered, as if the starch in everyone's suits bled into them and into the film itself.

This is all the more perplexing given that it was written by David Mamet. Though certainly not as madcap as Oliver Stone, Mamet nevertheless works best as a vulgarian wordsmith with an ear for detail, and only a few isolated moments of wit ever surface. The rest of the time, we get treated to farcical sub-slapstick—"Where's your warrant?" "He's my warrant!" comes the response with a sucker punch that makes the criminal's eyes bug out cartoonishly—that clashes with the somber tone of the rest of the film.

In fairness, the shootouts are fun, even if the famous rip-off of Potemkin's Odessa steps sequence feels like just that, lacking the creativity De Palma usually puts into his quotations. The lead-up to the fight is masterful De Palman suspense, and the actual gunfight in slo-mo is also entertaining, but where Obsession, Dressed to Kill and Body Double warped, inverted and experimented with his love of Hitchcock (to say nothing of minor variations on influences sprinkled throughout his work), this just feels like plagiarism.

I honestly don't know what the point of this movie is. People call Carlito's Way an "apology" for Scarface, but I would point to The Untouchables as the likelier candidate for a direct response to that film. If Scarface dove headfirst into the underworld (and potentially cracked its skull on the bottom), The Untouchables never really ventures anywhere outside the respectable world, but the point De Palma was making carries no weight without seeing how the respectable members of above-ground society are precisely the ones to sink into dens each night to get plastered and dance. The open wealth Capone enjoys is the only hint at the transparent garishness of the wealthy during the Great Depression, a financial catastrophe caused in part both by massive income inequality and the effective second economy created by Prohibition that made men like Capone so wealthy that, when the law cracked down on bootlegging, it collapsed the legitimate economy in addition to the illegal one.

But this is all projection. The Untouchables lives up to its name in that even the director seems reluctant to grab a hold of these people and really throw them into the muck. It runs in the opposite direction of Scarface, presenting a sterile view of crimefighting not even fully alleviated by the presence of blood. De Palma and Mamet do suggest that the characters want to be in a more violent movie, however: when one of the team, Wallace, starts tracking the accounts of every business tied to Capone and suggests getting the mobster on tax evasion, Ness waves him off, unwilling to take down a murderer with a prosaic approach.

After under-performing or flopping with most of his '80s features, The Untouchables proved a much-needed hit for De Palma, though I can't help but lump it with the likes of Wise Guys instead of legitimately good mainstream fare like the director's next film. By the end of the film, Ness has eroded his law-abiding façade, killing an unarmed man and lying to a judge to ensure the outcome he wants in Capone's trial. Had the rest of the film put more effort and care into crafting a moral viewpoint, this downfall would only enhance the irony of Ness' final statement, the aforementioned quip about post-Prohibition what-ifs. As it is, these end-game occurrences are merely the first signs of life after two hours of watching De Palma fuss over everything but what's important. At least it secured him a few large budgets for his next couple of features. When not even an Ennio Morricone can liven your film, you've got problems.

Friday, May 27

The Ant Bully: This, That, These, Those - Demonstrative Pronouns

This is a wonderful movie. It's fun, clever and the graphics are amazing. I took advantage of this attractive scene to practice the use of demonstrative pronouns, because the characters use them all the time in a contextualized and visual manner.

I. Before watching the scene, complete the blanks with THIS, THAT, THESE, or THOSE. There is more than one possible answer.

1. __________ is a big nest.

2. What's ________?

It's just a door.

3. All your guests pass under __________ door?

4. Oh, ________ is too bad! Now we have to go home!

5. ________ is called hang-gliding.

6. Oh, sorry, was ________ the word?

7. ________ is Hawaii. We went there last summer.

8. ______ are the pyramids. Well, not the real pyramids...

9. Are __________ your nest mates?

Yeah, ________'s my family.

10. Is __________ what humans do when they are sad?

11. When we ants are sad, we do _________ .

II. Now watch the movie segment and check if your answers are correct, according to the segment.

Answer Key:

1. this, 2. that, 3. this, 4. that, 5. this, 6. that, 7. this, 8. these, 9. these / that, 10. that, 11. this

Labor Pains: Adverb Clauses

This wonderful activity was provided by Patricia Faustino, a teacher at the Casa Thomas Jefferson, Brasilia, Brazil.












A. I. Watch the clip of `Labor Pains’ part 1 and fill in the blanks with one of the words or expressions above.

1. Thea’s boss was irritated ______________ she got to work 5 minutes late.

2. _______ Thea arrived late, her workmate made a comment about her alarm clock.

3. Thea brought her boss some coffee, he didn’t drink it ___________ . Greg had already gotten him some.

4. ____________ Thea had checked the Oxford dictionary; she had spelled a name incorrectly.

5. Thea has to wash her boss’s dog _____________ he rolled in poop again.

6. Thea feels she needs to wash her boss’s dog as many times as he asks __________ he excuses her for her mistakes and she keeps her job.

A. II. After watching the clip of `Labor Pains’ part 2, complete the sentences about the clip.

1.Thea only wants to take the dog to the veterinarian on Tuesday because _____________________________________

2. When her boss yells at her, Thea _________________________

3. Jerry, Thea’s boss, stands at the window in the bathroom so that ___________________________

4. Jerry opens the women’s bathroom door violently _________________

5. Thea says she is pregnant ___________________________________

6. Since Thea is pregnant, ___________________________

7. When Thea’s workmates hear that she is pregnant, _______________