Saturday, July 30

License to Wed & Death at a Funeral: Letters of Complaints

Of course writing a letter fo complaint is not a grammar point, but I have been adding activities to practice the 4 skills, so this one is for writing. Letters of complaints are contextualized with very funny situations here. These scenes made this writing class much more interesting and meaningful.

I. Watch the movie segments from the movies License to Wed and Death at a Funeral. Both scenes are very funny, but they show consumers who are dissatisfied with the service they were provided with. When you watch the scene, make sure you observe what the problem was and how you would like the problem to be resolved.

License to Wed's Scene:

Death at the Funeral's Scene:

Imagine now that you are one of the characters from the segments you have just seen. Put yourself in his shoes and write a letter of complaint to the company who provided you with the service. Choose one of the scenes to complain. Follow the guidelines below:

  • An introduction that clearly identifies the subject of the complaint. In the first paragraph you should identify what the issue is and any relevant information that you believe is important. Be sure to include the following information if it's applicable to the situation: the date/time of the issue, location, name of person on duty, name of product, what the problem was, your account number, model number, price, warranty information and reference number. Be sure to stick with the facts and avoid putting emotions into your letter.
  • A body paragraph that (a) clearly and specifically explains the nature of the complaint, and (b) provides the reader with all of the information needed to provide an appropriate response. It should state what you would like done to resolve the situation. If you received poor service, you could request an apology or a coupon. If a product malfunctioned, you could request that you could exchange the product for a new one or request a refund.

  • A conclusion that clearly states what actions are needed to remedy the problem. The last paragraph should thank the reader for thoe time. You can also throw in some compliments about something you liked about their company's product or service. You should include your telephone number/e-mail address after your printed name so that they can contact you ASAP if necessary. Be sure to keep a copy of the letter for yourself and include photocopies of any relevant documents and enclose them with your letter.



Friday, July 29

White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)

When I posted my review for The Public Enemy recently, I was lambasted by a Cagney fan for spoiling the movie, something I found amusing because A) it is 80 years old and B) as any fan of a Cagney gangster picture should know, the crux of the movie is always in his grisly demise, because nobody died like Jimmy Cagney. Even before the Hays Code took effect, Cagney turned his deaths into a form of reckoning, not moral so much as existential. Even at his most ignoble, Cagney makes such demises so compelling that he infuses the worst brute with tragedy.

Well, they don't get much more brutish than Cody Jarrett. The film opens with Cody carrying out a train heist with great timing but ruthless sloppiness. The other crooks dispatch two men on-board the train, but Cody's viciousness comes out in calmer moments, prompted solely by one of his subordinates using his name in front of the engineer and fireman. Compounding this horror is the release of steam when the fireman falls on a release, inadvertently maiming one of the robbers. In less than five minutes Raoul Walsh crafts a world of such violence and death that one could guess its outcome even without the legendary "Top of the world, Ma!" conflagration that ends the film.

Even by Cagney's standards, this is a furious performance: Cody is a man wracked by his madness, so explosive and all-consuming that he is occasionally torn apart by his rage in splitting migraines. Cagney's clipped, punchy delivery has never sounded more sinister, and Cagney plumbs new depths for the lows that follow these manic highs. Underneath Cody's mania is an emotionally stunted man-child, a boy who used to fake headaches to get his mother's attention then came to rely on her when those headaches became real. Indeed, "Ma" not only knows of her son's lifestyle but accompanies and supports him as he hides out in a mountain safehouse.

Walsh's film is so grisly and cynical it stands out even among other noirs. This is a film where the protagonist leaves a scalded man to die alone, and even sends in a conscience-ridden hood to kill the poor sap. This is a film where no one is safe, and everyone is always scheming. Unfortunately for Cody, everyone plots against him, from his two-timing wife (Virginia Mayo) to the undercover agent (Edmond O'Brien) posing as a cellmate when Cody sneakily surrenders himself for a lesser crime that occurred at the same time as the train robbery.

That's the sad truth of Cody, of so many Cagney gangsters: they spend so much time sure of their own smarts that they don't realize how small-time and clumsy they are. That train robbery seems so skillfully planned, but it falls apart so quickly even though it succeeds. But despite the four murders and the grandiose madness we see in Cody, it is not a cop nor an FBI agent but a mere Treasury investigator named Evans (John Archer). Cody thinks he's so clever for taking the rap for a lesser crime and doing a short sentence, but Evans is already one step ahead, and Verna and double-crossing right-hand man Ed are already plotting taking over the gang.

Cagney manages to play this omniscient awareness through a clueless Cody without breaking from the character to telegraph his fate. He plays Cody's reliance on his mother less as easy Oedipal love than outright infancy. When Cody retreats into the safehouse bedroom to have his migraine, Cagney pounds the bed like a petulant child as he wrestles with his pain. Walsh stages an unexpectedly wrenching moment in prison as he moves in a lateral track down a dining table as Cody asks a recent inmate his mother is, the camera tracking the passed-down whisper to the man and tracking back as the dire, one-word answer creeps back to Cody. When he receives the news, Cagney explodes in agony, his incoherent moans of sorrow echoing around the hall as guards try to subdue him but are punched out in succession. This is Cagney at his most epic even as he shows a man at his smallest, and the moment is as terrifying as his final standoff.

That standoff is justly famous, one last example of Cody's almost Stalinist grip over his gang, the members of whom have the option of shooting at surrounding cops until killed or being shot by Cody for attempting to surrender. The literally explosive end is your standard combustion, but as Cagney screams that now immortal line, his epic funeral pyre feels as nuclear as the glowing terror that brings Kiss Me Deadly to an abrupt close. White Heat is postwar noir not at its most nihilistic, but certainly its most directionless and agonized. The title gives it away: Cody's rage is not focused enough to be blue flame, but that aimless fury is blinding.

Monday, July 25

Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger is so enjoyable it prompts not merely a reevaluation of the relevant worth of a superhero intrinsically tied to an outdated nationalist self-perception but of the abilities of its director. Joe Johnston, an art director who apprenticed under George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and then promptly made a solo career that did nothing to live up to that resumé, finally demonstrates a keen understanding of what his early bosses did with the help of his talents. Captain America is outrageously big, using CGI to extrapolate realistic objects to absurd dimensions. In fact, Johnston's movie feels more like an Indiana Jones film than Spielberg's last entry.

I typically enter these comic-book movies blind, with only the mass pop-culture resonance of basic backstory as my guide. But I have read Ed Brubaker's fantastic revival of the character, a run that effectively revitalized the Captain for an age of mass disillusionment. Johnston, along with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, ably mimic Brubaker's balance of the character's old-school idealism with modern sensibilities. The film's subtitle is already cumbersome and limiting—it defines the film essentially as an advertisement for an upcoming one rather than its own entry—but it seems especially unnecessary considering that, among the rushed crop of Avengers-preparing movies (Iron Man 2, Thor), Captain America is the only one that truly works as a standalone property, as well as the first origin story since Iron Man to remotely justify its feature length.

Like Iron Man, Captain America succeeds by maintaining total focus on its lead and primary cast. Though Chris Evans might not be as utterly perfect in his role as Downey is in Stark's, he finds Steve Rogers' sense of conviction and irrepressible idealism from the start. Usually cast as the arrogant looker, Evans here captures Rogers' sense of long-suffering but undiluted optimism so quickly that when he becomes the ultimate soldier through a special serum, I began to think of the muscled, taller Evans as the effects-crafted body rather than the rail-thin weakling he plays at the start.

Rogers' transformation into a larger-than-life figure of unreal proportions matches Johnston's visual design, which is the first film of his since The Rocketeer to truly show off the skills he must have learned in his early career. After a summer of superhero films with questionable CGI so cheesy and spotty it looked as if some of these movies were made years ago and locked in studio vaults, Captain America uses computer animation in a manner that is outlandish without being insufferably self-conscious. Johnston makes everything huge: tanks loom over characters, and the villain's plane makes Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose look like the prop-jobs aviation-minded kids train with in fields.

They key to Captain America's success is the way Johnston embraces such camp without winking or placing himself above what he's depicting. And if a hero ever called out for some easy modern irony and distance, it's Captain America: Evans and Johnston sell Steve Rogers' desire to get into the war effort without once suggesting that his zeal is either misplaced or sinisterly bloodthirsty: Steve merely knows what it's like to be bullied and wishes to help others being pushed around. (On that note, the absence of father issues is like a sudden gust of breeze through a room without air-conditioning in this heat-wave ridden summer.) The only commentary Johnston makes is within the movie, mocking the manner in which Captain America is quickly put on the war-bond circuit rather than allowed to properly serve. The Cap just wants to do his part, not be put on a pedestal.

Because Johnston never forces a modern perspective on this throwback or parade his own self-perceived cleverness, Captain America lacks the smug self-satisfaction of Matthew Vaughn's un-satire X-Men: First Class. It also avoids the pitfalls of the Spider-Man franchise, a series preemptively hobbled by the 9/11 attacks, placing a severity upon New York's most iconic superhero that Sam Raimi's puckish genre travesty could not handle.

I'd go so far as to say that Captain America is not merely one of the few good superhero movies but one of the most purely entertaining alongside Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy films, which share traits with this movie's focus on occult Nazi evil. The cast is so good that one hardly notices how surprisingly non-threatening Hugo Weaving is as Johann Schmidt, the super-powered Nazi scientist bent on taking over the world. Weaving is on autopilot as a force of pure evil, but everyone else is wonderful, from Toby Jones' skittish right-hand man to Stanley Tucci's downplayed idealism as the defected Nazi scientist and creator of the Super Solider formula. Tommy Lee Jones doesn't break ground as the gruff Col. Chester Phillips, but his laconic weariness gives his unique bite to Phillips' sarcastic lines.

Best of all, of course, is Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter, who is the ultimate rarity: a strong, completely independent woman in a comic-book film. She is Rogers' love interest, yes, but watch how she establishes her presence entirely outside Steve and continues to exist when not by his side or doing something that will affect the male hero. Her first action is breaking a soldier's nose for disrespecting her authority, a move captured not with martial arts grace and sexiness but swift, brute force. Her romance with the Cap is one of equal ground, each attracted to the other as much out of an empathetic sense of being dismissed by others as the physical spark that comes after Rogers buffs out. Carter's own strength gives the romance an actual stake, and Captain America, for all its high-camp fun, ultimately ends on a melancholy note regarding the two.

Though it eventually loses track of where, exactly, it's headed and lacks a villain compelling enough to fit into the massive surroundings he creates to forge his weapons, Captain America is one of the more surprising successes of the year. Atwell's Carter alone is worth the price of admission, but let us not forget Evans, who, after a decade of high-profile roles in numerous blockbusters, finally makes the case for himself as a star. He manages to play Rogers' humility and quiet dedication in such a way that you still can't take your eyes off him. Complete with some of the only competent live-action CGI of the year so far, Captain America is a delight, and if it is as imperfect as all other comic-book films, it at least tries to tackle the genre from a new direction rather than stay the course whilst pretending to be smarter than everyone else who trod that road.

Sunday, July 24

Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête is at once deeply fantastical in its fairy tale set design and ethereal cinematography and strikingly real in its class observations and human behavior. It is a film that bears its director's signature quite literally, opening with his deftly scribbling the actors' names in chalk as a helper quickly erases the board so Cocteau can keep writing and subsequently using a hand-written scroll with his John Hancock to set the movie in motion. Cocteau even kicks off the film with the clack of a soundboard, the self-reflexive touches the cinematic equivalent to tucking a child into bed before opening up the storybook.

Like a storybook, Beauty and the Beast uses few words, all the better to imprint on a young mind. Instead, Cocteau, cinematographer Henri Alekan and designer Christian Berard craft a world of clashing reality and ephemera, capturing banal bourgeois village life and frighteningly dense woods before moving into the full-on fantasy of the Beast's castle. The aesthetic, which draws from the engravings of Gustave Doré, is at once static and vibrant, using various camera tricks to bring out the magic of its bizarre sights. This is a poetic film, to the point that the various mentions of children's story I've made may be wholly inapt; though I've seen some of Cocteau's poems and artwork, this is the first of his films I've viewed, yet I understand immediately his quest to find the "classical avant-garde." No one would use a fairy tale in such daring fashion until Catherine Breillat put out Bluebeard more than 60 years later.

Disney's wildly successful animated version of the tale did an admirable job of making Belle a strong, intelligent character whom one believed warmed to the Beast through an exchange of genuine personalities rather than plot convenience, but it also failed to properly establish the woman's regular life before meeting the Beast. Cocteau, being a French artist, spends time evoking bourgeois aspirations of Belle's family: where Belle innocently cleans and cares for her father, her sisters primp and preen and ask for ludicrously exotic gifts like monkeys just to make them that much more noticeable. Belle's filial piety, presented in the modern update as the result of her self-sure attitude not blinding her to devotion to a loved one, is here more openly the product of a gender-restrictive society that places the onus of care upon the children and especially the youngest daughter. The son, Ludovic, puts his whole family's wealth at risk for a loan he hopes will catapult him up the ladder. The film is at its talkiest among the family, their arrogant posturing and clueless revelry stressing how boring and quotidian they really are under their flashy dress and sense of self-importance.

Once Belle finds herself in the Beast's castle to take her father's place in imprisonment, however, the film quiets down and settles into visual fantasy. The castle features some gorgeous and unsettling aspects, such as candelabras held to the wall by human arms that extend outward as people pass, smoke swirling around the unlit candles until the wicks catch flames as Cocteau runs his film backward. Mirrors and double exposure are also used for various effects, but it's remarkable how these holdover tricks from the silent era feel brand new for their time and fresh even today. Cocteau made this film long after filmmakers finally got a handle on how to re-incorporate visual artistry into cinema in the wake of talkies, yet his vision is the perfect blend of the traditional—not only in its choice of subject material but in its use of old techniques—and the experimental, which comes out in Cocteau's unexpectedly emotional grasp on out-there fantasy.

Of course, nothing in the film strikes the balance between the emotional and the technical like the Beast himself. Jean Marais, Cocteau's lover, plays both Avenant, a village man who pines for Belle, and the Beast. In his own skin, Marais is an Adonis, his sculpted jawline and steel gaze striking but overpowered by Marais playing Avenant as an arrogant, vapid fool. As the Beast, however, Marais is something different entirely: Cocteau envisioned a full mask for the character, but Marais argued instead for a makeup-process that would take far, far longer to put on but would allow proper facial expressions. As the Beast, Marais is physically repulsive yet instantly disarming. He projects a vulnerability and longing through the matted fur and fangs. His curse has already humbled him, and when Belle arrives, he's so taken aback and won over by both her beauty and her sacrifice that his first words to her are a completely genuine assurance that she is no danger around him. Cocteau and Marais place such humanity in the Beast that, when the curse finally lifts and Marais reappears in the flesh as a man with Avenant's looks and the Beast's soul, the effect is dissonant. Belle is even visibly disappointed, a feeling shared by the audience. Marlene Dietrich, who attended the premiere with Cocteau, summed up the emotion when she purportedly called out to the screen, "Where is my beautiful Beast?

Cocteau's film is pure magic, altering the audience's perspective until the vision of bourgeois comfort slowly comes to seem like hell while the isolated, haunted castle is the lovely escape. Belle's family falls into poverty in her absence, but Cocteau suggests this is as much due to her missing goodness as it is the result of the son's unwise loan. Another filmmaker might have forced such implications, but Cocteau wraps up everything so beautifully in his majestic, unorthodox vision that everything flows into one whole. I cannot think of another film, whether a live-action movie or a Disney feature, that so perfectly captures the feel of a fairy tale, a clear moral subsumed into a transporting, imaginative narrative that paints pictures even without the accompanying illustrations.

Friday, July 22

Tangled: Past Perfect (with Never)

This movie is amazing. The graphics and the story itself made me have a wonderful time during my trip to New Orleans, because I saw it on the plane that flew me there.

I. Write down at least one thing that you HAD NEVER DONE before the following moments in your life (select the items according to your group's ages.

- You met your current (last) boy (girlfriend) / You got married

(Ex: I had never fallen in love).

- You passed the vestibular (PAS) (College entrance exam) (started studying at college or your current school).

- You first traveled abroad (by plane).

- You got your first job.

- You got the job you have now.

- You moved to the house you live in now.

- You started studying English.

II. GAME - Work in pairs. Watch the segment and write down as many sentences as you can remember about what Rapunzel had never done before she left the castle for the first time. Each sentence with correct information and grammar use scores 1 point. The winner is the group that scores most points. You have 3 minutes to write the sentences.

- Ex: She had never seen a river.

1 ..........................................................

2 ..........................................................

3 .........................................................

4 .........................................................

5 .........................................................

6 .........................................................



Answers will vary.

Tuesday, July 19

Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

The theme of duality runs indirectly through many Hitchcock films, with the ironic alignment of two individuals in his wrong-man thrillers and the fetished quasi-double (who is really just one person period) in Vertigo. In films such as Strangers on a Train and Psycho, however, that theme has come more prominently to the fore, examined in moral terms in the former and ludicrously psychosexual in the latter. Shadow of a Doubt, Hitch's 1943 thriller widely considered his first masterpiece, is the director's purest exploration into this minor theme. Featuring matched action and edits, suggestive character unity and clashing moralities, Shadow of a Doubt is one of the director's more immediately guessable mysteries even as it is one of his most surprising pictures.

Hitchcock establishes his darker tone instantly, opening on shots of urban decay in Philadelphia. And when his camera makes its way to a neighborhood where kids innocently play ball in the streets, the camera suddenly moves in a series of dissolves and low-angle Dutch shots upward into the no. 13 building nearby, finally moving inside an apartment where Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten), going by an alias, lies on his bed with liquor and money casually placed on the bed table. Cotten looks like a vampire, an image strengthened when the landlady arrives and closes his blinds, the darkness cause the man to rise with a jolt. The woman acts like a chiding mother, lovingly cleaning up the place and speaking to him sweetly without picking up on the harshness of his answering tone or properly paying attention to the implications of his littered alcohol and cash. She notes that two men came by looking for him earlier, and when she leaves, Charlie downs his last bit of whiskey and flees. Hitchcock was the master of paranoia, and the speed with which he undermines any expectation gives Shadow an edge that clearly announces the second stage of his career.

Shortly after this opening, Hitchcock begins mirroring shots and characters. Looking for a place to hide away, Charlie sends word to his family in Santa Rosa, California, and Hitchcock moves to that house using the same nearing dissolves to move inside the Newton home. Inside, he makes his way to the bedroom of Charlotte (Teresa Wright), who also goes by the name Charlie. Her introduction roughly matches her namesake uncle's, but some details reverse in the reflection. Where the landlady made a matronly figure, the well-meaning fool speaking to Young Charlie is her father, and where Uncle Charlie lounged in loose bills of cash, Young Charlie speaks of matters of the soul.

This is but the first example of doubling and reflection, and soon the film suggests an outright psychic link between Young and Uncle Charlie when the girl's sudden thoughts about her uncle and her subsequent discovery of a telegram saying he will be coming to visit. Wright, who never looked more innocent, greets her uncle's arrival with pure elation, oblivious to just how sinister, angular and harsh Cotten's leering Uncle Charlie looks to her sweet, giddy energy. The contrast is so marked as to be perverse, which is exactly what Hitchcock wants. Where Young Charlie sees her oneness with her uncle as a charming example of spiritual fulfillment, both Cotten and Hitchcock depict Uncle Charlie as desiring a oneness of a more physical kind. When the uncle arrives, the father superstitiously asks him not to throw his hat on the bed, but Uncle Charlie barely waits for his brother-in-law to leave the room before chucking it on his niece's mattress. It's not only a moment of defiance and deliberate antagonism, it has the feel of a predator marking one's territory.

Though Hitchcock had been in America since 1940's Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent, but Shadow of a Doubt feels like his first resolutely "American" film, the first time the national backdrop became part of the story and part of the psychological framework of the themes. Undoubtedly, the director owed this to Thorton Wilder, that master of small-town America who wrote the film's original script. Of course, this being Hitchcock, Wilder's gift for finely observed portraits give way to rigid types that play with American clichés. This is quaint, small-town Americana, a place where the people are neither gibbering yokels nor refined intellectuals; the townsfolk are generally simple, a bit ignorant and if they do not seem as fresh-faced as Wright, that is only because Wright's radiance outshines all.

By setting up Santa Rosa as typical Americana, Hitchcock makes Uncle Charlie's arrival all the more unsettling. Cotten's vampiric shadow hangs over this movie, rage erupting behind his cold exterior in his attempts to keep his true identity from his family. Even Young Charlie cannot maintain her enthusiasm when her uncle shames her father at the bank where he works, loudly joking about embezzlement as co-workers begin to eye the hapless Joseph. When the two ostensible reporters make their way from Philadelphia to continue investigating Charlie, his niece must confront the truth of his character, a revelation long ago figured out by the audience. Her understanding allows the film to travel in even darker directions, such as a centerpiece scene of Cotten freezing over in cold fury at a dinner where he goes off on a calm but forceful rant about rich widows, his measured tone not even remotely masking the sadism of his words.

It's important to note that Hitchcock does not particularly structure this film as a mystery; Uncle Charlie's identity as the Merry Widow Murderer is obvious as soon as we learn that a serial killer is on the loose, and Cotten does nothing to disguise Charlie's true self. Instead, Hitchcock uses his clear evil as a bouncing-off point for his aesthetic duality. Hitch juxtaposes innocent with perverse, humble with arrogant, plain with preening. Wright's radiance illuminates even her low-lit scenes, while Cotten casts all into shadow. Hitchcock was always evoked emotion with ruthlessness, and the manner in which he upends Young Charlie's world is heartbreaking in its cruelty: the poor girl is so flabbergasted to see that her unity with her uncle is one of horrifically diametric opposites that she almost cannot see how Jack, the detective pursuing the killer, forms a reflection of her goodness, not its inverse like Uncle Charlie. Of course, it also wouldn't be a Hitchcock film without jokes, and the director here delights in gags involving twos. The best of which, surely, is the scene inside the 'Till Two club where doubles are ordered.

When the two detectives posing as reporters come to Santa Rosa, they con their way into the house by saying they want to do a story on a typical American family, to which the mother, Emma, ironically replies that she doesn't think they're typical. Yet the suggestion under Hitch's use of broad types and unforgiving humanity is that the twisted, Freudian incest of this family and the seedy elements lurking under pre-fab suburban cleanliness and conformity is common to all such towns. Hitchcock would only delve further into such perverse, paranoid matters after the war ended, but Shadow of a Doubt is not only his first major consolidation of such issues but one of his best. It shows a director in complete control of his look and tone; no wonder, then, that his trademark cameo in this feature is a shot of him at a bridge table literally holding all of the cards.

Monday, July 18

Sex and the City: Past Continuous x Simple Past

Activity provided by Carina Fragoso. Visit her handy site for really great ideas.
Thanks Karina for sharing such an effective activity.

Movie Activity

Before watching the video:

1. Fill in the blanks using words from the Box:

her - affected - examined - their - American - focused

Sex and the City is an _________ cable television series. Set in New York City, the show _______ on four women (Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha and Miranda), three in ______ mid-thirties and one in _____ forties. The series specifically ________ the lives of big-city professional women in the late 1990s/early 2000s and how changing roles and expectations for women ________ the characters.

Watching the video:

2. Carrie is a writer and her boyfriend Big has bought an apartment for them. She is thinking about selling her apartment to help him pay the new one. Based on the following scene, write T for true and F for false (10min-14min):

a) ( ) Big doesn’t want to get married to Carrie.

b) ( ) Carrie is surprised because he asked her to get married.

c) ( ) Carrie got Botox.

d) ( ) Samantha is disappointed because Carry is getting married.

3. Carrie’s boyfriend didn’t get married with her because he didn’t feel ready. He left her at the church. Based on the following scene, answer the questions (51min-55min):

a) Why did Big stop the car?

b) What was Carrie feeling?

c) Why didn’t Carrie say she felt he was strange?

d) Where were they going on honeymoon?

4. The girls decide to take the honeymoon that Carrie had booked. Based on the following scene, write T for true and F for false (57min-1h):

a) ( ) The receptionist was waiting for the girls.

b) ( ) Carrie thinks everything was a bad dream

c) ( ) Carrie didn’t sleep a lot.

d) ( ) Charlotte was afraid to eat the food because they were in Mexico.

After watching the video:

Based on the scenes we watched in class, write an ending for the story using the Simple Past and the Past Continuous.

Ex: Carrie found another boyfriend and she decided to travel to Brazil. When she was going to the airport, ...


Adapted from Wikipedia.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (David Yates, 2011)

[I guess I should issue a spoiler warning for this review, but honestly, if you've neither read the book nor seen the movie yet are still reading reviews hoping not to be spoiled, what the hell is wrong with you?]

Viewed as a referendum on the Harry Potter film franchise (to say nothing of my childhood), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is bound to fail. With precious few exceptions, this series has favored exposition over organic growth, deflated climaxes and spotty special effects, and at times this franchise has been so lifeless that Britain's talent pool has been drained to give these films any weight at all. Numerous critics and admirers have remarked upon the franchise's consistency given the number of editors and directors that have taken on the material, but I think that is something of a detriment. Regardless of who's made these films, the studio has made sure that nothing, not even Alfonso Cuaron's "none more black" mise-en-scène, has rocked the boat. Hiring David Yates, a workman whose primary skill has been putting exposed film into cans, seemed the final push to make these movies as crowd-pleasingly safe as possible.

And yet, Deathly Hallows Part 2, like its predecessor, shows Yates not overcoming his flaws but offsetting them with narrow but powerful strengths. The final installment in this film franchise suffers the same overarching, aforementioned issues that plague all these films, and it also suffers from the convolution, calculated audience appeasement and rush-job pacing of Rowling's written conclusion. Yet for once, I can confidently say that few, if any, of the film's major flaws can truly be traced back to Yates, while a great deal of its moments of pure atmosphere and character are specifically the result of his hand.

As he revealed in the last film, Yates works best when he captures communication between characters without using words. His sense of epic action is stodgy and he has no gift for eking anything engaging out of the exposition-heavy dialogue of these movies (and the exposition only compounded in the installments he helmed), but when Yates lets minimal language and tone carry a scene over plodding speeches or finds the intimacy in the bombast of these massive setpieces, he shines brighter than anyone before him. Compare the lifeless exchange between Harry, Ron and Hermione in Bill's cottage to pretty much everything around it in the first 40 minutes to see where Yates' talent truly lies: a haunting opening of dementors hovering over Hogwarts as Snape silently overlooks the youth prison the school has become sent a genuine chill down my spine, and the terse exchange between Harry and the goblin Griphook, conveying menace and urgency instead of spelling out the details, evokes mood from as few words as possible.

These opening 40 minutes may be my favorite run of quality of the film series. The raid on the wizard bank Gringott's is both Yates' finest huge setpiece and a clever way of compartmenatlizing the action to feel big even as it's being more tightly managed, from the mine cart ride through the multiplying objects within Bellatrix Lestrange's vault, making for what feels like a demented Indiana Jones setpiece. Also, letting Helena Bonham Carter act like Emma Watson, including her breathy deliveries and incessant hesitation, was a scream. Yates subsequently gets the characters back to Hogwarts as quickly as possible and even blisters through a protracted moment in the book involving Dumbledore's brother, Aberforth (Ciaran Hinds). I was particularly grateful for the omission of Dumbledore's past, which arbitrarily drags the character through the muck and, worse, kills all momentum to do so. (It doesn't help that Rowling basically makes him into a closeted homosexual Nazi.) There are plenty of moments in this film calculated to raise a cheer, but I never had a bigger urge to clap than when Harry cuts off the coming monologue and says "I'm not interested in what happened between you and your brother."

Notably, the preparations for the final battle, which feature Professor McGonagall finally getting to unleash her pent-up aggression (her giddiness at summoning statues to fight is infectious) and the Order of the Phoenix rallying around Harry, are more interesting than the actual conflict. The ephemeral shield the professors summon to protect the school, a globule of energy that rolls like melting ice cream over the castle, is beautiful, but the actual exchanges of magic when that shield falls feel and look too much like whiz-bang fireworks.

And yet, Yates changes tack after a while, moving from his grandiose, slightly clumsy setpieces to remain with Harry, who moves around the battle to finish his mission to destroy Voldemort's Horcruxes. Yates makes this work a great deal better than Rowling's writing did, with its haphazard oscillation between the full picture and Harry's quest at the expense of connection to either. True, there are some setups here, such as Fred and George confidently awaiting the coming horde, that would telephone incoming tragedy even for those who haven't read the book. Nevertheless, when Yates abandons his futile efforts to be an epic filmmaker, he fantastically mounts the sense of doom and loss hanging over the fight. In the book, the deaths feel somewhat cheap, brought up just to tug at the heartstrings in callously flat terms. Visually, these become elegiac moments of sorrow, the sight of Lupin and Tonks together in death or the Weasleys bewildered in grief over Fred more fundamentally troubling than the book ever let on.

By framing the battle in this manner, Yates magnifies the haunting moments where Harry learns just what he will have to do to defeat Voldemort. With his more broadly foreboding tone, Yates better incorporates the awkwardly placed yet utterly wrenching reveal of Snape's entire motivations as a character, a fractured memoryscape so well handled by Alan Rickman that he makes the sequence, truncated into its most plot-necessary elements, feel as devastating as Rowling's full text. What's more, Radcliffe does some fantastic silent acting as he comes to terms not only with the revelations of Snape's importance to Harry but the final, horrible reveal of the boy's responsibility. That long walk out into the Forbidden Forest to let Voldemort kill him made me shake with hurt and fear, though I knew damn well what would happen. The use of the Resurrection Stone only brought me further to the breaking point.

Moments like these made me wholly forgive the film's flaws. These quiet grace notes offset the obligatory thread resolutions and lopsided pacing to give me all I've ever wanted from these movies, a moment to simply appreciate these characters. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint say everything best when they say nothing at all, and I was infinitely happy to see Matthew Lewis finally get his moment to shine as Neville. Without the St. Mungo's scene from Order of the Phoenix to capture Neville's fears and furies, Lewis got unfairly shafted a few years back, but it is staggering to look at this handsome, convicted man when one thinks of the British-toothed, pudgy weakling we met shamelessly crawling around a train looking for a toad. Now we see a man purged of fear, so defiant he can confront Voldemort without flinching. While Harry is quietly resolving to die for his cause, it is Neville who emerges the action hero.

In the past (and present, and likely future) I've criticized the Harry Potter films for a sense of deflated tension, of perennial anticlimax, yet Yates deliberately films the end with a far more downbeat, human note than the book's epic sweep. Rather than pit Harry against Voldemort with an onlooking crowd waiting to cheer, Yates separates them as the others fight. I'm sure this is indicative of seeing the film on Sunday rather than a midnight Friday showing, but I found it worth noting that my crowd justifiably went nuts over Molly Weasley's big moment and Neville's blow to Nagini, but no one made a sound at the conclusion of Harry's and Voldemort's duel. It's not a moment of victory but a whispered release, a relieving knowledge that it's all over. It's a tone Yates carries into the aftermath, one not of revelry but reflection. Yates even manages to make that god-awful epilogue bearable, cheese, bad makeup and all.

Most importantly, Yates' presentation of the climax shows a clear understanding of the overriding hope and dream of the main characters locked in this epic, fated struggle: normalcy. Rowling quickly subverted the wonder of her own series to refashion the wizarding world into one with the same basic conflicts and human developments as our own, with admittedly mixed results. But if waywardly metaphorical takes on puberty or inevitable romances delayed for plot convenience didn't work, Rowling always had a steady hand on the humility of the Boy Who Lived and how badly he just wanted to get on with his life. I've often wondered why international wizards feature so rarely in this series, with only a cursory mention of continental wizards and no Americans whatsoever; but the thoroughly British sensibility of this series has never been more plainly evident.

Rowling's world is one where a power-regulating bureaucracy is the best form of government, where magic is strengthened by love and empathy, and a quiet, content family life beats saving the world any day, even though one must sacrifice to save that world when it is threatened. Harry Potter has lost numerous loved ones throughout his life, faced death and vanquished evil, but that is all the price for happiness, not heroic triumph. I cannot say this is the best installment of the series—my spare comments for the whole middle act reflect my general lack of enthusiasm for its pacing issues and awkward staging, and Yates bungles Ron and Hermione's kiss—but this is the only film to truly remind me why I fell in love with this world and these characters in the first place. I wanted to see them win not for the thrill of it, but because I felt they deserved happy lives. I didn't feel the same wave of feeling that I did when I first read the book and knew the journey was over, but Deathly Hallows Part 2 made me truly, deeply care about these people for the first time in years, and perhaps it's fitting that my muted, relieved satisfaction matches their own.

Sunday, July 17

Jane Campion's Short Films: Peel, Passionless Moments, A Girl's Own Story

An Exercise in Discipline: Peel

An Exercise in Discipline: Peel opens Jane Campion's career with a bang. It starts with an echoing tap eventually revealed to be an orange bouncing off a dashboard and proceeding in a series of quick cuts that allow no hint of coherence even as a title card establishes its trio's relation to each other. From there, it only gets stranger, using the vivid color of '80s clothes and the countryside around the stopped car to bring out the dysfunction of the family dynamic exhibited by the father, his son and the boy's aunt. The father chastises the boy for throwing his orange peel out the car window, even stopping to make the kid pick up the pieces along the road. The lad's defiance leads him to run away, but in quiet shame he starts collecting the peel long after getting out of eyesight. The woman, meanwhile, viciously berates the man for making them stop, already peeved that she had to spend the day driving with them when she had other plans.

The only thing clear-cut about this movie is the aforementioned card with its postmodern family tree, but even that triangle is problematic: by folding back in on itself, it lightly suggests incestuous relationship, an theme common to Campion's early work in both literal and psychologically figurative ways. Though one generally refers to the film by its subtitle, it is important to take note of the "Exercise in Discipline" tag. It speaks to the fractured narrative exercise: the man forces discipline upon his son, who then begins to order around the woman having no been conditioned into a harder adult male. But it also hints at the formal rigor of Campion's piece, which features segmenting and fragmenting angles, framing and focal lengths by cinematographer Sally Bongers to deepen the alienation and power dynamics of the family. It's bewildering to think that something so dense and fully formed was a student film, and much less surprising to note that it won the Short Film Palme D'Or at Cannes four years later. This is one of the best modern short films I've seen, and one can see Campion's gift for microcosmic, obsessive yet always playful characterization in its eight short minutes.

Passionless Moments

Continuing the splintered framing and behavioral observation of Peel, Passionless Moments shows how our attention focuses in and out constantly. Repetitive sounds, double-take glances and sudden bursts of memory cause people to randomly meditate and fixate on things they do not particularly care about but try to solve anyway. Campion then adds her focal aestheticism to the mix by messing with focal lengths to demonstrate how one's attention is always settling on one thing at the expense of the other, and that the vacillation between foci is random and, as the title lets on, passionless. Though Campion's next short would firmly align with a feminist perspective, it is this film's presentation of her minute detail as merely a series of shots she finds interesting at the moment until something else catches her eye, demystifying her approach even as she only furthers her mastery of the form. Though it's a step down from the fully contained bewilderment of Peel, Passionless Moments is no less vital in understanding Campion as a filmmaker. In fact, given how much more accessible it is, it mght be a better starting point.

A Girl's Own Story

Jane Campion's work may be less openly confrontational than the work of Catherine Breillat, but I find her style to be far more combative and transgressive, particularly in her early work. Her fragmented, synecdochical framing eventually blossomed into full-on paranoia and schizophrenia in Sweetie and An Angel at My Table, respectively, but A Girl's Own Story, the longest and admittedly weakest of Campion's early films, shows that style being used to dive into the female perspective for the first time. A Girl's Own Story opens with girls looking in a medical book at a drawing of an erect penis, their hands curiously brushing along this 2D representation to get a feel for the material. At last their hands move down along the drawn legs to the bottom of the page, revealing a bit of text that warns "This sight may shock young girls."

But if a penis is shocking to these young women, Campion suggests that is only because of its power over these physically changing girls. From Beatles reenactments that have other girls in a Catholic school shrieking in quasi-homosexual frenzy to a boyfriend who convinces one girl to have unprotected sex (leading to pregnancy) without the two even sharing a kiss, men hold power over these confused and suddenly sexually appealing women. One shot, in a clinic where pregnant teens meet, frames these women under one of those garishly graphic crucifixes, tacitly pointing out the religious root of chauvinism in the Western world. For the first time, a slight surrealism enters Campion's frame, a tone she would carry out in fullest extent in Sweetie: one girl's parents have stopped speaking to each other and use their daughter to pass messages between them, only to have rough sex in front of their children. Later, the father joins the ranks of the other men circling around these women like sharks. Campion doesn't force any of these shots, and for the first time Campion demonstrates her ability to completely bewilder and stun with such subtlety that the cognitive disruption always seems to hit just after the tone switches once more, only widening the confusion.

Saturday, July 16

Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)

Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 masterpiece, Army of Shadows, opens on a shot so darkly ironic that its minimalism scours out any potential fleck out of humor. A static shot framing the Arc de Triomphe bears witness to a procession of marching Nazis, the symbol of French victory now a paean to conquering foes. It establishes the tone of this film, set mostly in twilight when metallic blue night pushes the sun out of view: Melville's film is an ironic, regretful and sad. The latter is what struck me the most. I cannot think of another war film so bitterly rueful, even films about modern, questionably justified conflicts. This is a film about noble resistance that depicts how ignoble that resistance could be. When the film was released in the aftermath of another great insurrection in France, I suspect its hostile reception was less the result of its ostensible glorification of the subsequently reviled De Gaulle (who barely features, and not altogether flatteringly at that) but the implications and warnings at least partially aimed at the new radical left.

Yet the film is broadly nonjudgmental, not of resistance fighters who must sacrifice their morals in time of war; not the Vichy collaborators guilty of the sin of not wishing to die; not even the Germans, who, on the existential spectrum of violence presented in the film, appear merely to exist at the far edges where they have become violence itself rather than perpetrators of it. Army of Shadows shows feats of incredible courage, but that heroism is flecked with contradictions and contextualized around displays of realistic interaction between conquered and conqueror. How was this viewed as some piece of De Gaulle fluff again?

Moving from its stark opening shot to a police van carrying a dissident to a prisoner camp, Army of Shadows brilliantly and amusingly sets up the anticlimax of this spectral war within the war even as it subtly lays down its more sinister undercurrent. Lino Ventura, squat and puffy as Philippe Gerbier, does not especially look like an inspiring rebel, and one initially wonders if he hasn't simply been sent away on a trumped-up charge. And if you think he looks paunchy, just wait until you get a load of the officer riding with him, notably a Vichy cop instead of a German soldier. The rosy cheeked fellow is affable and smiling—were the film remade today in English, I'd cast Jim Broadbent in this role in half a second—even stopping to get some black market food from a local. But as he reassures Gerbier of the prison's relative comfort, the officer only lets on the madness and desperation clouding collaborators' perception, never openly acknowledging the fact that he's helping lock away a fellow countrymen for trying to free that nation from foreign oppression. By the same token, this attempt at kindness on his and other Vichy officers' behalf suggests a dormant sympathy that expresses itself in erratic, subconscious ways. Melville's spaciousness imbues all his characters with a sense of larger importance, and it's hard not to look at the actions and tone of the Vichy cops as a microcosm for Vichy France's conflicting attitudes of sympathy and hostility to those who would end Nazi rule.

Soon, Melville makes clear that Gerbier is not simply some wrongly convicted schmuck caught up in Vichy crackdowns. Ventura's plush physicality ends at his lined, harsh face, always furrowed in concentration as he schemes. Not even Alain Delon's inscrutable face in Le Samourai can match Ventura's impenetrable visage; take one good look at his face and any doubts that he can operate a resistance network vanishes, and it's also clear that all he can think about in captivity is getting out to rejoin the fight. A transfer to a Gestapo headquarters presents Gerbier the opportunity of escape, and the first thing he does upon returning to Marseille is track down the resistance traitor who sold him out. He never stops plotting, either recruiting more fighters to the movement, plotting rescue attempts for captured comrades or ordering the executions of those deemed traitors, regardless of the reasons for confessing.

Information is always a valuable commodity, but it's the only weapon the resistance has in its infancy. A man does not even know that his own brother, a philosopher whose life of uninterrupted luxury is the perfect cover, or the ultimate hypocrisy. Those who give this weapon to the enemy must be dispatched, something Gerbier has come to rationalize this response with cold efficiency. He can even turn around and order the death of someone who just saved his life when she is captured and threatened into compliance.

Melville structures the violence in the film to be far more disturbing and protracted when it is practiced internally. Gerbier's escape from the Gestapo is quick and nasty, Melville using sudden quick cuts of action close-ups and jumped angles to show the resistance fighter grabbing a German's knife and driving it into the soldier's throat. But when Gerbier subsequently returns to his cell and his associates bring him the man who sold him out, the traitor's death is agonizingly protracted. First the men drag him down back alleys to get to a secluded apartment, the few people they pass along the way casting sidelong glances but remaining silent. Melville's macabre sense of irony comes to the fore when Gerbier, his friend Lepercq, and a new recruit who calls himself "La Masque" suddenly have to debate over tactics when they realize that a family next door will hear them if they shoot the traitor. La Masque, who wanted a tougher assignment and picked his hard-edged nickname to feel more important, blanches at Gerbier's assertion that they must strangle the man, and when Lepercq wraps a towel around the piteously whimpering betrayer's throat and turns a handle to slowly suffocate him, those moans get louder but more distorted, each creak of the tightening towel adding to the agonizingly silent murder.

This is not sadism, certainly not in the sense that a later scene in which Germans force prisoners to run in front of machine gun fire for sport is sadistic. This is a rebellion in its birth pains, when its fighters must still wrestle with their morality. Melville, whose involvement in the resistance is disputed in terms of extent but not in basic participation, understands the sacrifices that must be made in war, and he does not present these men simply as villains. After they kill the traitor, the three fighters sit in the darkened room, internalizing their actions, processing the guilt. It's reminiscent of some of the more ingeniously horrific strategies of totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union or Saddam's Iraq, wherein those not purged must accept some degree of shared culpability in the fates of those not so fortunate.

Perhaps, then, the overcast tones of the film's lighting and color scheme refer to more than merely the eclipsing oppression of Nazi rule. Demonstrating the falling shadow of this morally skewed army could be another reason. When sunlight finally pierces this movie, it's hazy and blinding, the way sunlight is always more stinging when it pokes through a cloud than it is nakedly exposed, though the visual suggestion of the lighting is as plausible a metaphor for the brightness of French spirit poking through those clouds. That moral ambiguity reflects the film's own take on the resistance, for while it does show horrific acts perpetuated by the fighters, it does have its moments of heroism. Having escaped to London, Gerbier and a comrade do not relax but keep working to convert more to the cause. Their attempts to woo the British clash with De Gaulle, who royally pissed off everyone during his stay in London; when he appears to give a medal to Luc Jardine, the philosopher/resistance leader, De Gaulle seems an isolated figure surviving on cult of personality at home. Far from lionizing him, Melville clearly demarcates De Gaulle's long-distance support from true, grisly involvement and suggests that, as Amy Taubin says, "his heroism would not outlive the extreme circumstances in which the war had placed him." And when Gerbier learns that his friend has been captured and tortured, he immediately has himself flown back into France, the rickety prop-job and sight of the man taping his glasses to his head before parachuting adding a splash of humor at the difference between De Gaulle's comfort and the little absurdities experienced by those in the action.

That humorous visualization is but one of several amusing touches even in the tensest moments. Running down the streets in Paris after escaping the Gestapo headquarters, Gerbier ducks into a barber shop where the owner has a Pétain poster. To make sure the barber doesn't sell him out, Gerbier pretends that he just sprinted in the place for a late-night shave, which Melville presents with idiosyncratic editing, spending quite a bit of time on the lather as nervous, suspecting glances are exchanged, only to then cut to the end of the shave as the barber is revealed to harbor De Gaullist sympathies. A certain visual gallows humor frames the citizens of both France and Britain and how they get by during the war, the quid pro quo dealings between local Frenchmen and Vichy officers contrasted with the attempts to grin and bear the Luftwaffe bombings in London. English officers even dance with nurses as the walls shake from nearby bomb reports.

In the clearest demonstration how the radical revolutionaries of the day eventually become quaint, even reactionary by modern standards, Melville shows the two resistance fighters walking out of a screening of Gone With the Wind beaming, Gerbier stating, "The war will be over for the French when they can see this great movie." To him, the rebel fighters pushing back against a slash-and-burn northern invader is inspirational, not heeding the reactionary politics that caused that particular schism.

These minute observations, always so suggestive and so often humorous, are the purest expression of Melville's capacities as a filmmaker, his simultaneous attention and disregard to detail. Characters in his films plan, always plan, but dumb luck is inevitably the deciding part of the equation, though "luck" is the wrong word, for despite its neutral meaning it has positive connotations. Fate itself seems to intervene in schemes, from Alain Delon's hitman being spotted to Gerbier's initial prison escape thwarted by transfer to the Gestapo, which he compensates for with an almost comically spur-of-the-moment, literal cut and run. Mathile (Simone Signoret, putting all of her worldly knowledge into the part of the spy no enemy ever seems to suspect) hatches a suicidal plot to bail Lepercq out of prison, and her scheme actually works, only for the prison doctor to refuse to release him to Mathilde's
"nurse" because he's been tortured so badly he can't travel.

Through it all, Melville frames the film as one long sigh of regret, a recognition of the necessity of uncompromising actions even as it reflects upon the horrors buried in a national sense of guilt. One final murder seals this sense of reluctant obligation, a means of practicing inhuman acts without losing one's human processing of them. Melville honors the heroic actions of these men and women, but on an intimate, not particularly rousing scale. Melville's camera, despite its aesthetic distance and coolness, shows us the intimate nature of war, where a battle is merely the exchange of information and the ultimate show of fraternité is giving a tortured comrade one's only cyanide pill to ease his passing, thus ensuring the man left behind will have no choice but to endure the atrocity about to be visited upon him. Though the film points to the much larger and much tougher Maquis network and to the retributive zeal of the épuration sauvage, it also demonstrates how such fevered passion began and developed from minute, human acts and beliefs.

It is next to impossible to depict war without either glorifying it or arriving at the easy conclusion that all conflict is a waste, but Melville captures the post-hangover meditation after the V-day revelry. Without waving the flag and tugging at the audience to mourn fallen heroes, he creates a genuine sadness for these troubled rebels. And while the film darkly ends with one last self-inflicted wound and text cards spelling out the doom awaiting these figures, its visual coda of being waved past the Arc de Triomphe as the car starts to drive away, is quietly hopeful, moving away from the symbol of war and looking forward to the peace that would have to be so dearly bought.

Capsule Reviews: Moulin Rouge!, A Corner in Wheat, 31/75 Aysl

Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)

A pop culture kaleidosope-cum-travesty, Moulin Rouge! is as unbearable as it is enthralling, always at once, all throughout the film. The exclamation point in the title is actually the most subtle element of the whole shebang. It's like a Girl Talk musical, running through fragments of a vast range of music in blitzkrieg assaults of color and choreography. Though I don't know where on Earth the people who get emotionally invested in its paper-thin romance narrative are coming from, the film's aesthetic smorgasbord makes for an unforgettable, transfixing experience. Tim Brayton said it best, even if I can't match his level of enthusiasm: "Five minutes of the film can be exhausting; two hours is the most invigorating, blissful experience that cinema can offer."

The performances are fantastic: Ewan McGregor has rarely been more attractive, Nicole Kidman definitely hasn't, and Jim Broadbent has never been more boisterously endearing. Jill Bilcock's editing feeds every shot through a meat grinder, but Donald McAlpine's lurid throwback to Technicolor and Catherine Martin's vibrant art and costume design are still striking. Luhrmann's bombastic setpieces take choreography and romantic melodrama to gaudy extremes, and it's funny how this, his most bewildering picture, is also his most coherent and successful. I have no grade for this film; it's an A+ and an F at the same time and averaging out to a C doesn't remotely give the right impression of my feelings for it.

A Corner in Wheat (D.W. Griffith. 1909)

With its rapid editing between financially shaken-down commonfolk and monopolizing wheat tycoons, D.W. Griffith's A Corner in Wheat presages Soviet montage not merely in aesthetic but political thrust. His intercutting is darkly humorous: boisterous, lavish parties of the rich mix with static tableaux of miserable, exorbitant breadlines that feel like Griffith somehow went through time and brought back photographs of the Depression to splice into his moving picture. Even when they move, the poor trudge like zombies, and when the bread runs out all too quickly, the sense of despair only compounds. Griffith's grim comeuppance for the tycoon who starves the people to add $4 million a day to his coffers is a literal burial in riches, a macabre joke I didn't know Griffith had in him, but then I've only seen Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. The depiction of the middle class being driven into poverty to compound the wealth of the rich is, of course, more relevant than ever 112 years later.

31/75 Aysl (Kurt Kren, 1975)

Shooting over 21 non-consecutive days with the same strips of film and an alternating masking board with altering alignments of holes, Kren's 31/75 Asyl turns a static shot into an ever-changing tableaux of colliding light exposures and alternating time periods. The shifting areas of black space and splotches of countryside comprising differing days and lighting/weather conditions make a pointillist landscape, like satellite TV in a storm. When Kren drops the black space altogether for a moment, he's left with a pan-seasonal collage where winter snow rubs against spring bloom, the multiple timeframes glimpsed in the alternating patches of light and exposure now fully visible. I confess I don't know what it "means," but Kren's structuralist experiment is fascinating, beautiful and suggestive, calling attention to the way time affects all images even as they are constructed.

Friday, July 15

Young Victoria: Had Better x Would Rather

I enjoy films about the Royalty. They are always about their kings and queens, but each story has a special flair and uniqueness. I love this great movie. I used the first scene to contrast had better x would rather in a contextualized way.

A. Watch the movie segment and pay attention to the Kensington rules, procedures Queen Victoria has to follow. Then complete the blanks with had better or would rather and the verb provided. Make sure you choose either affirmative or negative forms, according to the information in the segment.

1. She was born a princess, but she ______________ (have) an ordinary life.

2. Palaces are wonderful, but she _____________ (live) in one.

3. Her life is always in threat, so someone _____________ (taste) her food before her meals.

4. She can't attend school with other children, but she ___________ (go) to a regular school.

5. The Kensington rules are for her protection, so she __________ (sleep) in a room with her mother.

6. She __________________ (walk) downstairs without holding the hand of an adult.

7. Because Victoria is too young, her uncle wants to be her Regency, but she __________ (rule) the Kingdom herself.

8. She is unhappy, she she ____________ (change) her life and ______________ (be) free.



Answer key:


1. would rather have

2. would rather not live

3. had better taste

4. would rather go

5. had better sleep

6. had better not walk

7. would rather rule

8. would rather change / be

Thursday, July 14

Harry Potter Books, Ranked

Compared to my marked indifference to the films, the Harry Potter books continue to charm me long after I move beyond YA fiction. The endless exposition does get to me at times, but there's a reason these books caught on: the relatable characters, the engaging plot and the element of surprise that remains in these works after numerous rereads and a general understanding of its wholesale ripoff of classical hero archetypes. I've cheered on Neville or been smitten by Hermione as much as I've been affected by any characters in fiction. So, to offset the light cynicism of my film post, allow me to take a more pleasant stroll down Memory Lane with Rowling's novels.

7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Rowling's second book has wild tonal inconsistencies between more gosh-gee whimsy and sudden dips into darkness without any kind of balance or transition. The added characters, such as Colin Creevy and Ginny, are largely pointless and suck ridiculous amounts of time from the rich cast of characters already introduced and interesting enough to warrant further analysis. Gilderoy Lockhart makes for a great buffoon, his fame-hungry attention seeking a key counterpoint to Harry's humility, something called into question by so many in the later books. Overfilled with exposition, lacking almost entirely in solid character growth and erratic in tone and thrust, Chamber of Secrets is by far the most frustrating of the novels.

6. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

It's a shame that the most thematically interesting novel of the series is also the most cumbersome and unfocused. The main plot, dealing with an arch-conservative, isolationist propaganda war designed to silence news of Voldemort's return, offers heady social commentary for youth fiction, and the couching of this plot in the loathsome toad Dolores Umbridge, who is terrifying for all the reasons one wouldn't expect, is genius. But Rowling burdens this story with wayward hormones, which she has to spruce up with magic and possession, an attempt to link these asides with the overarching importance of Voldemort's return that ultimately leads only to absurdly OTT and blithely selfish outbursts from a Harry who has never been more unlikable. Tack on the interminable sideplots and what might have been a vicious take on government's unending, counterproductive desperation to never let on that something has gone horribly wrong instead feels like a distended, scattershot rant on puberty.

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I've read this book four times and I still don't remotely understand the arbitrary creation and subsequent all-importance of the rules of wand ownership. It's such a random way to handle the climactic duel that I just assume Rowling pointed a wand at her ass and yelled "Accio resolution!" Having only introduced the concept of Horcruxes in the previous book, Rowling leaves most of the object hunting to this entry, leading to awkward plot jerks between hiding out in the woods away from detection and constantly coming into conflict with enemies to destroy Voldemort's soul fragments. Like all concluding entries, Deathly Hallows has to tie up a lot of loose ends, but there is a perfunctory feel to many character returns and subplot payoffs, thrown in just to get a cheer rather than as a narratively justified insertion. Nevertheless, it's a thrilling read when elements fall into place, and the utter disappointment of the convoluted finale cannot undermine a overriding feeling of relief at this poor boy's ordeal finally ending. And it made me care about Dobby, which is kind of like making me mourn Jar-Jar Binks.

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Granted, even by Rowling's standards, this trades mood for exposition, but then this is obviously the most child-oriented of the series. Besides, its giddiness is infectious; from the moment Hagrid arrives to remove Harry from his Dickensian trappings, Philosopher's Stone is whimsical, charming and wondrous. It manages to cordon off allies and enemies quickly while giving sufficient reasons why those lines will more or less maintain over the whole of the series. Even the climax, with its multi-stage progression to the final confrontation, is more exhilarating than dark. Not a "great" novel, per se, but certainly the most delightful of the books. It's no wonder this captured so many imaginations, and continues to do so.

3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

It was obvious in Chamber that Rowling wished to go to less savory realms with this saga, but the pall that hangs over Prisoner of Azkaban is still surprisingly unsettling. The mystery of Sirius Black drives much of this atmosphere, but even in retrospect this book feels dirty and ominous. When the most helpful and gentle character is as rough-looking as Remus, you know you're not in for a sunny year at Hogwarts. Dementor attacks, disappearances, the feeling of always being watched and threatened, Prisoner of Azkaban markedly splits the series from children's lit into the more demanding levels of YA fiction, the rapidity of maturation reflected in the choices Harry himself must suddenly make. While the falling action of time travel and abetting criminals is thrilling, it is the climax in the Shrieking Shack that proves not only the most intense moment of the book but of the whole saga, forcing moral choices of not only Harry but Ron and Hermione that show how adult they really are.

2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Where Azkaban went full-tilt into darkness, Goblet eased back and bit and offered the best balance between the light-hearted wonder of the early books and the darkness to come. The best-paced of Rowling's books, Goblet even manages to go off on its tangents—Rita Skeeter's tabloid hack, the unwelcome return of Dobby—without disrupting the flow, and in many cases she only enriches the book. For example, Krum is an extraneous character, but he serves to bring out the tension in Ron and Hermione's relationship for the first time, or at least to clarify the edge they always had as a show of mutual affection. Furthermore, this is the one book that shifts tones with smooth, natural transition, moving from glee to bombast to creeping menace to full-on horror without flagging. It doesn't get across as much character as the two books to either side of it in my rankings, but the exceptional plotting more than makes up for the relative lack of growth.

1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

With the exception of the random repositioning of Ginny, the least developed major character of the series, as Harry's sudden love interest, Half-Blood Prince is a nearly perfect character study, incredible given how late in the series it arrives. The dips into Voldemort's past not only elucidate his character but add more depth to Harry, Dumbledore and the relationship they have. Ron and Hermione dig into their tension so fully that its continuation into the final installment frankly feels a step too far because they have nowhere else to go as a will-they-won't-they couple. Though the final book flat-out dives into Nazi imagery, I find Half-Blood Prince, with its sinisterly scribbled textbook, uncomfortably humanizing and literally de-humanizing progression through Voldemort's life, and the horrific ordeal in the cave and ambush at Hogwarts, to be the darker work. And yet, it also weaves a thread of genuine wistfulness into the pages, taking stock of the home Harry and his friends will have to leave behind in the coming war, and it's remarkable how poignant such scenes feel. None of the books is perfect, but the combination of tonal sophistication and meaningful character insight makes this by some degree my favorite installment in the saga.