Friday, September 30

Killers: Have You Ever... ? x Would You Ever...?

This movie did not meet my expectations, but this scene is perfect for contrasting the use of have you ever x would you ever.

I. Check the items with the activities that you have already done at least once in your life time.

1. swim in the ocean
2. buy a new dress (shirt) to go on a first date
3. go snorkling
4. sail on a yacht
5. fight with a stranger
6. give or receive flowers on a first date
7. lie on the first date
8. hide from your parents in a public place

II. Watch the segment and check who performs the activities above, the guy or the girl.

III. Ask a partner the following questions.

Follow the pattern:

S1 - Have you ever … (swum in the ocean)?
S2 - Yes, I have.


S1 - Have you ever swum in the ocean?
S2 - No, I haven't.
S3 - Would you ever swim in the ocean?
S2 - Yes, I would / Sure, I would / No, never.

The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939)

It takes one hell of a star to embody an entire decade, but Jimmy Cagney moves through The Roaring Twenties with such energy that the title might as well refer to his character. Raoul Walsh's gift for mixing huge, meaty setpieces, and moods with economic staging fits Cagney's brand of spare, raw grandeur perfectly. Together, the two present a profoundly cynical view of the decade retroactively seen as the glory days upon the onset of the Depression. The Roaring Twenties exposes the grim naïveté beneath that view as mercilessly as it undermines the fresh-faced pluck of Eddie Bartlett (Cagney), who returns from WWI expecting a hero's welcome and instead finds a society in chaos.

The Roaring Twenties plays by gangster movie rules, complete with stern, almost newsreel-like narration, clipped dialogue and sleazy views of the underworld. Nevertheless, it also works as a people's history of the '20s, digging beneath the glitzy surface of pre-crash society to see how the only people who were having a good time during the period were criminals, and even they soon suffered collapse.

Walsh opens in grand fashion with a recreation of the final days of WWI, American soldiers running for the nearest cover as shells and bullets fly around them. Eddie dives into a trench and lands on a grouchy soldier named George Hally (Humphrey Bogart), and soon the two meet Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), the kind angel to George's darker presence. Bogart clearly has a handle on his screen presence by this point, filling George with such acid it's a wonder his own blood doesn't melt through his flesh, but there is also an intense, crippling fear under his menace that will surface late in the film. Walsh's punchy staging and the clever bluntness of the script digs into the absurdity of the war, evident even to the Americans who entered the conflict near the end: George runs afoul of an officious sergeant he recognizes as a thug who used to steal from his father's shop, but the stocky man can now boss George around based on a codified ranking of human worth. When the armistice is signed, George darkly alludes to carrying his machine gun home with him.

Back home, Eddie undergoes a series of experiences that make him a microcosm for the dramatic upheavals of postwar anxiety and Prohibition's disastrous effect in making a separate economy. Instead of being welcomed as a hero, Eddie finds himself unable to land a job, and when he finally gets a gig as a taxi driver, he soon finds himself inadvertently delivering packages of hooch to local speakeasies, and he soon gets busted for his naïveté. But soon he starts working in one of those speakeasies and, when he runs into George during a raid on another bootlegger ship, the two join forces and establish their own empire, fellas who had nothing upon returning now kings because of crime.

The moralism is so thick you could cut it with a knife, to the point that even the lecturing narration seems but the cherry on top for a film that makes inescapably clear the social factors leading to a life of crime. But Walsh handles the material with such gusto that the film is entertaining at all times. He films those newsreel montages with artistry, using Dutch angles and superimposed imagery to demonstrate the blitzkrieg pace of change and the bewilderment it causes. As Eddie, like the rest of the bootleggers, sink further into depravity and crime to protect their ways, the montages become even more daring, showing the shadow of an armed gangster looming over a mock-up of City Hall. Later, when the stock market crashes, Walsh uses almost apocalyptic images, the ticker-tape machine growing until it resembles a giant idol before bursting over a frenzied crowd of brokers being showered by confetti-like slips of paper with clients' "sell" orders on them.

This gritty take on the vast, rapid sweep of history contrasts with the increasingly small focus on Eddie, constantly shrinking the film until we're trapped by the mounting sense of doom that surrounds the man and his unraveling empire. He pines for Jean (Priscilla Lane), a sweet girl who called him her dream soldier when she wrote a letter to him during the war. Grown up and scared of the dark environment into which Eddie takes her, Jean begins to pull away and reciprocate the more gentle affections of Lloyd, who maintains a sense of innocence despite using his lawyer skills to constantly bail out Eddie. Meanwhile, Panama (Gladys George), the owner of Eddie's favorite speakeasy, harbors clear feelings for the man who never drank even after he became a figure of the underworld and who is so torn up over Jean not reciprocating his feelings that he does not notice the woman deeply in love with him before his eyes. Then again, she too loves a specter, as her own cynical way of life helped corrupt the returning soldier she liked for his goodness, a goodness long since eradicated.

The film barrels toward its climax as the wars between bootlegging gangs finally escalates to the point that the cops cannot be pacified anymore, and when the stock market crashes, it takes bootlegging with it. (Or is it the other way around?) Eddie finds himself back where he started, but he's sure he'll climb his way back to the top, linking him with so many poor fools, then and now, who cling to materialistic fantasies of the American Dream long after it has been exposed a lie.

This being a gangster film starring James Cagney, one knows things will not end well, and Cagney's death here may be the finest of his career, or at least on a par with his almost nuclear end in White Heat (incidentally also a Walsh film). Cagney later remarked that he'd watched a documentary where a hunter shot a gorilla, which lumbered around before collapsing; he noted that it died in a "slow, amazed way." Escaping from a small act of vengeance that did nothing but make him feel slightly better, Eddie takes a bullet in the back but keeps stumbling forth, acting as if he got hit with a tranquilizer dart instead of a bullet. Cagney keeps moving, tripping sideways up some stairs and hanging for a brief moment before tumbling back down the steps and collapsing. Cagney's face is barely visible in this shot, yet his entire body registers a mild surprise at and grim acceptance of his own death. Where Cagney's end in White Heat showed a small-time hood's delusions of grandeur, the performance he gives for Walsh here is the inverse: this is a man who had it all, only to realize the worthlessness of it as he sees death before him. Cody Jarrett needed to feel like a big shot in the sobering aftermath of WWII, but Eddie Bartlett actually did make a name for himself, only to see the vapidity of his accomplishments. I cannot think of another film that so brutally captures the real nature of the Roaring Twenties and the Prohibition era.

Thursday, September 29

Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934)

Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century is so ahead of its time it serves as a precursor to two great types of Hollywood storytelling: the behind-the-scenes, referential melodrama and the screwball comedy. Even in the film's first segment, in which the dialogue tumbles out with the speed and visceral impact of a golf match, it still feels like the ping-ponged exchanges that would grace Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Hawks' economic direction, his ability to eke the fullest energy from the simplest, barest setup gives even jazzes up the dim slurring of the drunken sot who moves around the demented Broadway world of the protagonists.

"Discovered" by Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore), an impresario who tyrannically parades around like a scarfed Caesar, a lingerie model named Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) opens the film infuriating the rest of Jaffe's troupe with her awful acting. Cast in a melodrama, she proves incapable of conveying emotion. She transcends natural acting; she's so plain and starched she proves more suited to play the role of a bread loaf than a frenzied damsel. But Jaffe refuses to fire her, and though his insistence carries predatory desire, somehow his instincts prove correct and Mildred is reborn as star Lily Garland, and a cut across several years instantly hops from a tearful, overwhelmed "Hoboken Cinderella" to a jaded diva.

This time warp throws Hawks' camera forward with such force that it emerged with a momentum that propelled the director at double speed for the next decade. Throwing the lever into high gear, everything speeds up into lunacy: Lombard, whose stiff-mannered nobody couldn't even scream, now speaks solely in melodramatic flourishes. Not to be outdone, though, is Barrymore, who got lost on his way to an Expressionist film. Barrymore has no "natural" response to anything in this movie. At all times, Barrymore is ludicrous: even the mildest surprise registers on his face with such comic exaggeration he looks as if he just found a swaddled baby Quasimodo and got a peek the hideous creature underneath the blanket. He and Lombard engage in a warped romance that mixes sexual lust and power dynamics into a case of mutual love-hate dominated by jealousy and ego. It resembles a cosmic war of deities more than an affair, and the mortals caught between them are just so much collateral damage. Jaffe hires a detective to tap Lily's phones—"Tapping phones is our specialty!" the man crows—and the poor S.O.B. returns looking as if he ran across a puma on the way over.

Hawks himself helped stoke the flames between Barrymore and Lombard, all while trying to get Lombard more comfortable in her role. At this stage in her career, Lombard was known enough to get into the sort of party where Hawks met her but hadn't had her breakthrough yet. Impressed, Hawks had her come read for the film and test with Barrymore, where she bombed. Like Katharine Hepburn four years down the road, Lombard just didn't know how to handle the material, and she came off as flat, not wild like the part needed her to be. Rather than look for another actress, Hawks called her over and asked her what she'd do if a guy said something insulting about her. "I would kick him in the balls," Lombard responded, and Hawks told her that Barrymore had just said whatever would set her off. In a sense, Hawks' own dedication to keeping Lombard until she lived up to the potential he saw in her mirrors Jaffe's treatment of Mildred/Lily, albeit in a far more supportive manner. And clearly, the gambit worked, and not just because it launched Lombard into stardom, where she quickly became the highest-paid star in Hollywood. Lombard plays Mildred/Lily as if she's always on the cusp of hauling off and sending a gam flying up between Jaffe's legs, and her own histrionic sense of importance creates an equal sparring partner for Barrymore's madman.

The two enrage each other to the point that Lily quits Broadway for, naturally, Hollywood, sending Jaffe into a frenzy and leading to an absurd scheme to steal her back by intercepting her on her train, the titular Twentieth Century. The action thus compressed and contained, the film hones its banter into bottlenecked madness, expanding the cast to include Lily's new, put-upon paramour, and a mysterious old codger (Etienne Giradot) who speaks of having so much money he despairs not being able to spend it all and amuses himself by pasting apocalyptic stickers wherever he can put them. As Lily and Jaffe explode at and over each other in cramped proximity, the white "Repent!" discs proliferate like bacteria in a petri dish, adding a visual element of chaos to the war of gesticulation between the two sort-of lovers. Giradot's matter-of-fact attitude when placing these stickers is hilarious, as if this is his day job and he's just sticking crap to windows and unsuspecting people until the 5 o'clock whistle blows.

A host of great lines skewer the self-importance of the art crowd, my favorite being Jaffe's grim dismissal, "I close the iron door on you" stressed as if the increasingly disinterested minions at his disposal are about to be black-bagged and shipped to the gulag. It's such a hysterically overwrought condemnation that even those on the receiving end grow weary of its hydrogen-inflated doom. But like any jumped-up tyrant, Jaffe's unsparing power comes from an intense fear of losing it, and Lily's defiance drives him so wild not merely because of his obvious feelings for her (feelings he can never articulate because he hates her just as passionately as he worships her) but because she can shatter his myopic sense of totalitarian authority. Sure enough, the film concludes by closing the circle, Jaffe having swindled his leading lady back into subservience, but where we met a timid, insecure woman, now we see an embittered, hollowed-out diva arguing with the same instructions Jaffe used to bring out her latent talent. This new cycle promises to be even more ridiculous than the last.

Tuesday, September 27

Brian De Palma: Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes is, in a bizarre way, the logical continuation of Brian De Palma's previous film, Mission Impossible. Mixing political thriller with questionable plays for De Palma's capacity to capture Romantic grief, Snake Eyes likewise feels like a safe bet for the director, but one he that allows him to push his luck. If it's one of the emptiest films of De Palma's corpus—a collection of work that houses more than a few technical exercises—at least the director gives us a story so ridiculous you almost don't mind when it collapses in the third act.

In a long career of intricate, arresting openings, the start of De Palma's Snake Eyes may be his finest. A 13-minute tracking shot that moves through the grimy politics behind a heavyweight championship fight, the opening moves from camera monitors through police corruption and finally ends with an assassination. I would couch that in a spoiler warning, but I want to avoid repetition and thus see no need to mention that this is a Brian De Palma movie a second time. It's the start of a shallow but merry and hysterically over-intricate journey into late-Clinton America, a time of economic success and almost-grating peace, of a country so well off it's now darkly quaint to think how badly everyone wanted something interesting to happen.

That opening shot serves not only to introduce principal players—chiefly crooked cop Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) and his best friend, Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise)—but to serve as a smorgasbord of De Palma's pet themes and tricks. The initial focus on pre-newscast prep and pullback to a row of monitors starts the film with surveillance, while Rick's tour through the arena's underbelly, placing bets for the fight and chasing down hoods (Luis Guzman) who hang out with the defending champ, shows off corruption and the way some cops fit into the criminal underworld a little too well. De Palma's Steadicam careens around corners, tilts with anticipation, and when the action moves to the floor of the arena for the big match, De Palma uses the frenzy of the crowd (and a ludicrously oversized and ironic American flag) to instantly plunge into sensory overload. You're left waiting for something terrible to happen, a feeling made worse by De Palma strictly tethering the movement to Rick, always pivoting to look at suspicious people around him and Kevin sitting by the visiting Defense Secretary before returning to an oblivious and ostentatious Rick. At the height of the match, shots ring out, and Rick turns to see the Defense Secretary dying, the only clues amidst the pandemonium the previously established glimpses at surrounding characters. As is so often the case with De Palma, the style slowly reveals the substance.

It's a shame the rest of the film doesn't live up to this bravura opening, a perfectly timed escalation of comic overacting, art-for-art's-sake stylistic flourishes and gripping tension that introduces multiple stories and red herrings from the start. Once Rick, with his gaudy leather-brown jacket and leopard-color Hawaiian shirt, starts digging into a case that runs far deeper than he could ever comprehend, it soon becomes evident that he's too indifferent to justice and too invested in some of the suspects to pursue the truth with the conviction he displays.

Not that it isn't fun to watch Cage strut around yelling his head off at all those who cross him. In many ways, he's the ideal Hollywood star for a De Palma film, capable of powerhouse performances when matched with the right material but incapable of subtlety at all times. Cage is a bundle of wild eyes, a manic grin, and a base volume so high one would be forgiven for assuming Cage imagined himself in some strange variant of Speed where he couldn't drop beneath 55 decibels. The only time he looks in his element is when stands up in his front-row seat and declares himself king as the crowd roars. That is the single moment of the film Cage is sufficiently in his element; the rest of the time, the action takes place on Earth, a place Cage infrequently dwells.

Made to chase down various leads, Rick slowly uncovers a vast conspiracy that does not border on comical so much as merrily squeak a clown nose as it rides over the line on a unicycle. De Palma announces the twist early on, even framing it in blatant visual terms: red light bathes the double-crosser as the camera goes Dutch, and ominous music sets in because you can never have too many clues in a De Palma film. Taking a page from their work on Mission: Impossible, De Palma and writer David Koepp set their sights on a wounded military-industrial complex reacting to the end of the Cold War gravy train with pent-up masculine capitalist aggression. This curious, amusing mash-up of jingoistic greed and psychosexual feelings of impotence in the military machine when it cannot flex its muscles to impress people is grounds for merciless De Palma satire, but the director never truly explored the idea in either of these films.

But if Snake Eyes sacrifices potential depth of comedy (to say nothing of humanity), it at least proves a fun diversion that lets De Palma dance around coquettishly. He and Cage understand each other to the point that the two nearly ring tragedy out of the absurdity of the double-cross and Rick's steadfast refusal to accept it (to those always on-guard for De Palma's purported misogyny, the fact that he blames a woman to her face for the transgressions of a man edges uncomfortably into an abstract, allegorical form of slut-shaming, with money swapped out for sex). Sinise plays Dunne like Lieutenant Dan with more self-control but all of the frothing hatred roiling underneath; to hold back that tension, Sinise clenches his jaw, and it's entirely conceivable he turned in this performance after having his mouth wired shut from some kind of accident. His hissed lines make a jolly counterpoint to Cage's toothy yells. Carla Gugino steals the show as the mysterious woman whose role remains ambiguous for a chunk of the film as she alternates between the femme fatale, the brilliant professional and the damsel. Gugino handles these shifts so fluidly she emerges perhaps too talented a chameleon for the sort of person her character really is, but it's a delight watching her melt through various female types while not letting herself be defined by any of them.

But not even Gugino is as interesting as De Palma's camerawork. Though the film lacks the aesthetic or political bite to place it among the director's finer works, Snake Eyes boasts a few setpieces that display the best (and most gloriously tacky) of De Palma. Besides the stupendous short-film career-summary of the opening shot, De Palma outdoes himself with a drift over hotel rooms as evil forces close in on Cage and Gugino. With a camera pointed straight down, De Palma moves over gauche tableaux of Atlantic City oblivion, scanning over garishly colored rooms filled with reveling frat boys, lonely gamblers, gratified johns, even a businessman or two who clearly imagined themselves enjoying the kind of night we see in the other neon-smeared suites clinging to the '80s by the fake fingernails. As with the first shot, it's silly, tasteless, and oh so brilliant.

Sunday, September 25

Capsule Reviews: Lola (1961), Safety Last!, Parks and Recreation—Season 1

Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961)

If character dramas unfold in arcs, the lines of the people in Jacques Demy's debut form asymptotes. Demy's New Wave-cum-classical style creates a self-contained world that gives a softly lift haze to reality as characters constantly aim for each other and miss, sometimes passing within mere inches of each other before carrying on or being redirected. The linking of characters—the ennui-ridden Roland and the American sailor looking to stay outside his homeland, the titular dancer and the sweet but equally restless teenager Cécile—only serves to compound and make mutually perpetuating cycles of the sense of missed chances and empty dreams that cool the film's fits of aspirational jauntiness. Roland is the Ghost of Christmas Future of Frankie's desire to stay in France, whose quixotic quest to win Lola's spoken-for heart suggests the endpoint of Roland's own courtship. A spoken-word film has never wanted so badly to be a musical, but everyone's too confused and sad to dance around and sing. Raoul Coutard's cinematography is deftly composed but as antsy and fidgety as the characters, creating a balance between formalism and rawness worthy of the title card's dedication to another master of technical, grim melodrama, Max Ophüls. The camera certainly moves enough to betray aspirations to Ophüls, but Demy accomplishes similar acts of formal rigor on real port city streets, replacing Max's almost clinical touch with more deeply felt longing and obliviousness. Grade: A

Safety Last (Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1923)

From the opening misdirect—threatening bars and a hanging noose revealed to be a harmless train station—Safety Last! advertises a keen sense of cheek that makes use of Harold Lloyd's perpetual look of having been forced into a situation that, despite his undiluted confidence, exists wholly outside his understanding and, unless you pay attention, his physical capacity. Yet Lloyd, with his anti-Keaton arsenal of beguiling smiles, also demonstrates the hucksterism implanted by his father, and his perpetually unassuming nature masks a capacity to play at levels no less minutely planned and vast as his contemporaries. Lloyd knew how to cater to an audience without letting it come off as condescension, and his eager young worker makes for a more identifiable and empathetic character than Chaplin's pitiable, idealistic Tramp. He'll find a way to push through any moment, turning a pratfall into a desperate rep of push-ups in a flash as if to convince an onlooking crowd that he meant to do that, demonstrating the indefatigable nature of the American spirit, even if he made it look ridiculous.

Lloyd also knew how to set up a gag as well as anyone: that wry open is merely the first of many jokes that call for physical dexterity but work best for their staging and the mad logic of their comic crescendos and expectation-shattering fakeouts. The best of these, of course, is the legendary sequence in which Lloyd, an amateur forced to double for an expert climber, scales a building façade as everything goes wrong to impede him, most famously him falling on a clock hand that then pulls the whole face of it out of the building. And even when he recovers, he gets caught in a damn spring. It's always something. But even the scenes of working life in a department store, with its two-pronged assault of employee-dehumanizing surveillance and rampaging customers engaged into open war for the best deals, show off Lloyd's body language and his ability to frame big scenes with coherent economy. Lloyd may not mine the same thematic depth as Chaplin, nor the technical brilliance of Keaton's setpieces and innovative camera techniques, but he had the purest laughs, and this is one of the few silents where intertitles are almost as funny as the sight gags. Not a hair out of place. Grade: A+

Parks and Recreation—Season 1 (2009)

Granted, the American version of The Office started off weakly too, but it's amazing the Parks and Rec we know and love emerged from this six-episode mid-season replacement. If the first six episodes of The Office's own truncated season felt too tethered to the original, Parks and Recreation feels downright chained to the American Office, an exhibition of Plato's argument against art as being thrice removed from reality, only this is thrice removed from yet more art. The show does manage to ground itself in the intriguing setting of small-town government, and some characters—chiefly Tom and Ron Swanson—are winners from the start. But the rest of its considerably talented cast is largely wasted, and Leslie Knope's laminated Michael Scott copy is too clueless even as Poehler uncomfortably draws on Hillary Clinton-esque ambition that should (and eventually would) come across as bucking gender norms but here plays into the most aggravating types of career-driven women. The last episode represents a notable uptick in quality, but not until the writers came back that fall, armed with feedback they wisely did not ignore, the show soon found its feet and became one of the best shows on TV. Say what you will about NBC (I have), but you've got to admire their confidence in letting not one but three major creative investments pay off despite initially poor results (see also The Office and 30 Rock). Grade: C

Saturday, September 24

Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen, 1941)

With its tight running length—barely stretching to the point of feature length—and stripped-down visual style, Dumbo broadcasts the financial desperation motivating it as if trumpeting it through the trunks of its elephants. After Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved one of the greatest hits in motion-picture history, Walt Disney promptly sank profits into the far more ambitious experiments of Pinocchio and Fantasia, both of which proved to be costly flops. Desperate to refill coffers, Disney took a planned short film adapting a story written for a novelty toy and had his team inflate up to a 64-minute picture to get some money, any money, back into the studio.

Yet if Dumbo is, fundamentally, a last-ditch effort to raise money, it must surely rank as one of the most delightful and genuinely creative "cash grabs" put to film. Moving away from the more detailed and expensive oil and gouache background paintings that gave Disney's previous two features their considerable artistic depth, the animation team returned to the more economical use of watercolor for backgrounds. But if the cuter, broader backgrounds lacked the intricacy of Fantasia's vastness or Pinocchio's masterfully modulated sense of scale, they also freed up the animators to focus on more vivid character animation, and one need only compare the expressiveness of Dumbo's baby blues to the more basic facial capabilities of prior characters to see how much the Nine Old Men and the rest of the animators could grow even when taking a studio-mandated step-backward.

The film's plot, even considering the running length, is spare: storks bring a circus elephant a baby boy blessed/cursed with massive ears, and the constant mocking the child receives eventually causes the mother to snap and get taken away from her boy. But this basic plot makes for a story more emotionally gripping than the previous three Disney features by leaving everything to the character animation. Mrs. Jumbo's deflated look when Dumbo does not initially come with the other delivered babies, the fat tears that roll down Dumbo's cheeks when he is ostracized for something he cannot help, the twisted looks of haughty disgust on the faces of the other elephants; all of these serve as emotional gut-punches that give much of the film a heavy sadness that conflicts wholly with the candy-colored sweetness of the backgrounds.

Dumbo himself is a masterpiece, the high- water mark of character animation in Disney's golden period and the standard to which nuanced, expressive character rendering must be judged today. The animator responsible for him was Bill Tytla, erstwhile the animator of hard-edged villains or at least antagonizing characters. He gave Grumpy his visual spikiness, Stromboli his undulating and unstable mass of flesh, and Chernobog his pants-wetting, epic-scale evil.

But Dumbo is something else entirely. Drawn with soft edges, Dumbo has just enough lines to confine him into the shape of an elephant. But the pink of his ears runs fluidly into the gray of his skin, his movement one of grace and clumsiness, the embodiment of innocence that culminates in eyes so blue they stand out even at night. Every action this poor, different creature makes is endearing, from his playful bath to inadvertently getting drunk when he drinks water mixed with champagne. Dumbo never utters a word throughout the film, and rarely makes noise of any kind, but no matter: one look at him and you're as liable to look out for him as his mother. Dumbo would be Tytla's last masterpiece for the studio, and the simple, emotional purity of the baby elephant stands as his finest achievement.

The rest of the animation is no less impressive. Woolie Reitherman handles most of the early scenes involving Timothy Mouse, the Jiminy Cricket-esque figure who looks after Dumbo in his mother's absence. These early Timothy scenes show the same attention to scale that defined Pinocchio's shifting animation, with Reitherman making tree trunks of elephants' legs and stretching the great beasts even higher as Timothy berates them for their treatment of Dumbo, the low-angle shots used to the opposite effect of their theoretical meaning: here, Timothy conveys so much of the audience's indignation that he propels his outrage upward, blowing apart the usual power dynamics of such framing. An earlier sequence of black workers and the circus animals themselves erecting the circus tent upon arriving at their destination suggests that more than one person at Disney was pleased with Sergei Eisenstein's endorsement of their work, for the sequence looks like something the Constructivist would have died to put in one of his films. As sheets of rain stab down in diagonal lines, the animals and employees raise beams and canvas. Cut corners abound in this film's animation, but the striking use of diagonals and grim light convey the energy-sapping slog of the labor. And after the animators strike that would throw off the balance not only of this film but subsequent Disney features of the decade, this sequence's depiction of race and class exploitation comes to be one of the studio's most scathing autocritiques, a depiction of the circus, the ostentatious brand of family entertainment, effectively enslaving its workers, sometimes across generations.

(This sequence, seemingly extraneous, may also have worth for clarifying the role of the crows who appear later in the film. Derided, not unfairly, as stereotypical depictions of black people, the crows indeed dress and speak in perceived black patterns, and the leader of the bunch was even named Jim Crow in script drafts. Nevertheless, as grating and dated as these visualizations are, performance-wise these characters, only one of whom is voiced by a white person, are more complex and defiant than any live-action black character at the time could ever be. Though they join in the mocking of Dumbo's ears, they direct most of their jabs at Timothy and are even stand-offish against Timothy's own forceful nature. They also prove to be the only characters besides Mrs. Jumbo and Timothy to support and encourage Dumbo, even coming up with the trick to give Dumbo confidence to fly. Their animated depiction is still troubling, but the actual behavior of the crows, combined with the earlier look at black employees visually aligned with animals as creates of hard, thankless labor for whites, suggests a rare depth for Disney.)

The best animated sequence of the film, however, is also the one that has the least to do with the overall tone of the film. Dumbo and Timothy, both drunk on the spiked water, have a joint hallucination of creepy, neon elephants dancing in the sky. The notorious Pink Elephants on Parade sequence has been lauded and dismissed for its sudden break from diegetic coherence, but it is impossible to deny the power and sinister fluidity of the animation. The nightmarish elephants move like gelatin, jiggling and stretching with abandon as they dance around a jet-black void, a void also seen in the vacant, disconcerting pits where their eyes should be. Obviously, this hallucinatory vision clashes not only with the watercolor softness of the rest of the film but with the reality of inebriation itself, yet it demonstrates one last fitful gasp of Disney's pure artistry before they began to aim in a more commercial direction. Disney films would see such a gonzo burst of neon color again until Eyvind Earle did the art direction on Sleeping Beauty.

With Dumbo, we see the emergence of Disney's patented brand of sentimentality; the studio was already upholding conservative values with Snow White and Pinocchio, but here at last one can see Disney actively targeting the audience's emotions. It proved so successful—earning more than Pinocchio and Fantasia combined at a fraction the expense—that the studio soon learned how to commercialize that appeal, and the studio never truly aimed for the loftiness of Pinocchio or Fantasia again. As such, Dumbo is a harbinger of things to come, more so because of the controversy of the strike that occurred right after completion of principal animation, which might also explain some minor hiccups throughout that didn't receive a smoothing-over. Along with Bambi, Dumbo represented the changing face of the studio and the end of its all-too-brief Golden Age; the studio wouldn't put out another feature of remotely comparable quality until the end of the decade with Cinderella (though 1944's The Three Caballeros displays some of the old ambition), and the familial atmosphere of the workplace was shattered by the strike and Walt's harsh reaction to it.

Nevertheless, Dumbo displays all of the creativity and brilliance of Disney's classic era, from its pleasing style to its emotional devastation—for my money, seeing Mrs. Jumbo confined so-close-yet-so-far-away to her lonely, mocked son and capable only of reaching out her trunk to morosely comfort him is profoundly more disturbing than the flat-out death of Bambi. It's remarkable to see how Dumbo fits in with its surrounding features, sharing the traits that run through early Disney features—the emotional shortcuts of Bambi, the overarching validation of a conservative worldview, even matching animation like Mrs. Jumbo's jail resembling the mobile one Stromboli uses to trap Pinocchio. But it also shows the stylistic variance of these early Disney movies, its watercolor softness radically different from the sharp, edgy oil and gouache of the preceding two films, the impressionistic realism of Bambi, and even the more picturesque watercolor of Snow White. Its pared-down running time makes it perhaps the most emotionally direct of Disney films, but also the one that most effortlessly pulls of its heartstring-tugging. Despite its simplicity, I would not hesitate to rank it among the studio's finest achievements, and in fact I can name no more than three or four Disney films I might find superior to it.

Friday, September 23

Astro Boy: To be Supposed to x To be Able to

This animated movie is amusing. I had a lot of fun in the theater with my little niece. I used this scene to contrast the use of to be supposed to x to be able to.

A. This scene takes place in the future. Watch the scene and write down 5 things that robots will be supposed to do in the future, according to the segment:


B. Now watch the second segment from the same movie. Make a list of 5 things that robots will be able to do and that humans can't do nowadays.





Thursday, September 22

Day of Wrath (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943)

Predating Arthur Miller's The Crucible by a decade, Carl Theodor Dreyer's own witch hunt allegory is not only politically braver—he managed to get away with making it under Denmark's Nazi occupation—but more morally complex. Its scathing view of institutions goes beyond any one target, even one as pervasively evil as the Third Reich, to indict the pettiness and paranoia not overcome by objective rule but given a focal point for the mob. By the same token, Dreyer also visualizes the presence of unfathomable evil (a redundancy, as all true evil is on some level insoluble) and how our understandably fearful reaction to such evil leads us to create such harsh, inhuman institutions. Nevertheless, as the first shots of the film move down an illuminated text of the titular hymn, its portentous, almost bloodthirsty revelry in Judgment Day matching the force of the score. The shadow of a cross descending with the camera only makes the moment more uncomfortable, and for those who found Dreyer's tribute to Joan of Arc religiously uplifting, here he makes clear his disdain for organized religion.

Then, he complicates matters. The signing of a glorified execution notice of a suspected witch moves to the woman in question, Herlof's Marte (Anna Svierkier), giving concoctions to a village woman. The old crone claims the herbs she used for her drought have power because she picked them under the gallows. "There is power in evil," she tells her suspicious customer. But just as Dreyer inserts the possibility of actual witchcraft, the sound of an encroaching mob brings back the fear of witch hunts as the old woman flees out her pig trough. Then she makes the mistake of hiding out in the home of the local, persecuting pastor. Or is it a mistake after all?

If The Crucible framed its parable around the clear and insidious lie of Abigail and its effects on a community too scared to dissent, Day of Wrath acknowledges that the hunted in question might be guilty of the accusations thrown at them. Then, Dreyer asks the relevance of such guilt, particularly given the response of others. And as his cultural analogy here alludes not to abstract anti-Communist fear but the very tangible danger of rounding up Jews, the collusion Dreyer illustrates runs far deeper.

Inside the home of the pastor, Absalon, Herlof's Marte runs into the man's wife, Anna, a woman far younger than her husband and whose narrowed eyes communicate a resentment of having been swiped from the cradle. Herlof's Marte begs to be hidden, alluding to some skeletons she knows Anna and Absalon keep in their closet before guards burst in and find her before Anna can do anything to honor the agreement. The constables find her in the attic, but the camera remains back downstairs with the couple as her shrieks of pain and fear fill the air, the imagery of Nazis searching hideaways for Jews unmistakable and chilling. But by implicating Anna's own past, Dreyer calls to mind the genetic suspicions that ran through the Holocaust, the fear that beset a family with even the tiniest drop of Jewish blood in the line. Herlof's Marte, though tortured and terrified, has the wherewithal to taunt both Anna and her husband with the knowledge she has of Anna's mother, information that could harm their standing in the community, even get them put on the rack or on a stake as well. The orthodox collar Absalon wears, a ludicrously oversized wing that makes him look like a hunchback, becomes a glaring symbol of guilt both religious and personal as it weighs down on his old, frail shoulders, wracking him with shame and fear of being exposed.

As such, the film is less about whether Herlof's Marte is truly guilty—though Dreyer inserts enough coy coincidences regarding and, later, Anna, that keeps open the possibility of witchcraft—than how a community invents demons even where they might exist, how religious fervor and complicity combine into a guilt that redirects in savage fashion onto others. It's no coincidence that Herlof's Marte resembles a more unkempt version of Absalon's strict orthodox mother, Meret (Sigrid Neiiendam), suggesting how close she really is to the image of blameless Christendom the family likes to project as they torture the old woman in a chamber for confession.

Dreyer films that scene with his usual grace, his camera looking away from the poor woman as is tracks past the aligned faces of patriarchal authority. But Dreyer eventually makes his way around to Herlof's Marte, the vague aura of power around her now gone as she lies partially nude and exhausted from pain, the stern, even eager looks of the men not matching up to the wretched sight of someone old enough to be a grandmother panting for air with sweat-matted hair pasted to her scalp in ribbons. Whether or not Herlof's Marte is truly guilty, this punishment is inhuman, and as the clergymen compliment each other on the confession they extract from her, the ascetic conditions of the dungeon grow yet colder and darker.

Dreyer uses shadow to magnificent effect here, and throughout the film. Inside, artificial lighting recreates the look of candles, providing a steady source of illumination, but one that only raises a few feet, leaving the ceiling above in inky blacks. In a film where characters take their motivations from aspirations to heavenly salvation, the void over them is doubly disconcerting. Amusingly, the only real brightness in the film are exterior shots of Anna and Martin, Absalon's grown son from his first marriage, engaging in a romantic tryst. In the film's depiction of visible sin (at least sin without religious justification the way torture is "permitted"), Dreyer uses idyllic exterior interludes with bright sunlight, though he tellingly filters even that through obscuring canopies of leaves. Rather than generate a mood of ambiguity, Dreter suggests universal evil of some level, whether it's Anna's vindictive, quasi-incestuous affair to spite her husband or Meret's twisted manipulation or burning an old woman at the stake.

The film's attitude toward human sin and the exacerbating, not alleviating, presence of church dogma explodes in the final act. Absalon, cognizant of his wife's newfound happiness and suspicious of the reason, makes his own confession, one as hollow and bitter as the one he forced out of Herlof's Marte. He apologizes for stealing his wife's youth and joy with all the sincerity of a person saying "This is all my fault" with the expectant pause inviting the other party to cry out, "No!" and gather the penitent to her comforting bosom. Instead, Anna's pointed gaze somehow sharpens further into diamond quality hatred, and Absalon's uncontrollable shaking reveals just how thin his apology really was. The webs of personal and institutional evil converge in what happens next, and Dreyer ends on a note of utter hopelessness.

By not assigning clear blame, either to genuine witchcraft or a repressed religious society looking for outlets for sexual aggression, Dreyer applies his disgust to everyone, yet he never lapses into outright nihilism. The grace of his ascetic framing and movement, and the modicum of sympathy he affords to characters when they are trapped by the system, deepen Day of Wrath into a more probing study of human sin, sin outside religious dogma yet perhaps as ingrained in us as so much religious teaching says it is. Dreyer's greatest work, The Passion of Joan of Arc, ends on a similarly bleak note of Pharisaical triumph, yet neither communicate utter hopelessness. Dreyer doesn't frame this as theatrical symbolism, and even in his allusion he frames the story with uncomfortable reality. You learn too much about his characters to view them as tragic props or emotional cues, and while that makes the results that much more hard-hitting (emotionally with Joan, morally with the people here), one cannot retreat into despair the way one can with Bergman. Only Dreyer could make that unending bleakness seem the easy way out.

Wednesday, September 21

Capsule Reviews: Red-Headed Woman, Waterloo Bridge, Fish Tank

Red-Headed Woman (Jack Conway, 1932)

"So blondes have all the fun, huh?" asks the platinum blonde goddess Jean Harlow, here sporting a wig so fiery you can practically see the ginger blaze in black and white. The question is less an interrogative than the slap of a gauntlet across the face of those who would deny this redhead her fun. Like Stanwyck in Baby Face, Harlow uses sex to climb to the top. Also like Stanwyck, she's such a sexual force that she barely puts any effort at all into her eyelash-fluttering wilting flower bit, her crocodile tears a half-step above saying "Boo-hoo" in perfect monotone. But when the men fold like deck chairs, why waste time honing the craft? Harlow was never more seductive or unrepentant; her conniving grin presages Jack Nicholson at his most manic, and her asymptotic eyebrows divebomb toward her eyeballs, only to catch a glimpse of the steel and fire in them and make a last-second attempt to break out of their gravitational pull. It gives her a perpetually furious look, and at times you wonder if Cagney put on drag to play this part.

It's amazing to think Conway actually cut this film for Hays Office approval, as its almost combative sexuality and defiance is precisely the reason that office was created in the first place. But no one can resist the sultry charm of the redhead, and the social outrage that greeted the film only drove up its profits further. If you look hard enough at the end, you can almost see Harlow laughing her way to the bank. Grade: B

Waterloo Bridge (James Whale, 1931)

Waterloo Bridge is one of the more disturbing Pre-Code films out there, less for its forthright treatment of social malaise, sexuality and crime than its contextualizing of same around not the sinful speakeasies but war-torn London gripped in panic and confusion. Mae Clarke extrapolates the pain and bewilderment she brought to The Public Enemy to fit the protagonist Myra, an impoverished, American chorus girl stranded in London during WWI, too penniless to return home from the storm. To get by, she turns to prostitution, a plan that jades her but does not wholly rob her innocence, an innocence that comes to the fore when a sweet Canadian soldier (Douglass Montgomery) comes into her life and she can't bear to hurt him. A mournful quality hangs over this film that stresses the weariness of world-weariness. Clarke's hardened exterior soon cracks, and the waves of revulsion and sadness that wash over her face (a face that registers pure helplessness over her situation) are heartbreaking. So troubling are the implications of its view of how poverty and war has the grimmest of consequences, it's no wonder the film met with huge controversy despite clearly portraying prostitution as a bad thing where so many Pre-Codes viewed it as a mere way of life. A sense of pointlessness hangs over this film, and as a depiction of the waste and senselessness of war, it makes the home front as savage and horrific as the trenches of All Quiet on the Western Front. Grade: A

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

Arnold's tight 4:3 framing drops a Mentos in a Diet Coke and shakes up the bottle. Her view of a council estate is initially chaotic, wrapped up in aggressive editing, hand-held shots, violence among teens and language so coarse it takes on a physicality of its own; it's a wonder the film doesn't catch fire in the gate. Things smooth into a more coherent portrait of directionless youth with a terrific, anguished performance from discovery Katie Jarvis and a shifting portrayal of emotional stability and warmth in Michael Fassbender's kind but vaguely off-putting Connor. Arnold's crisp imagery is breathtaking, and she never uses it ironically, even when capturing the glint of sunlight through a cheap plastic bottle. It makes everything so much more tragic, the characters unable to see the gorgeous beauty around them for their troubles. A credibility-stretching but harrowing climax drives Mia to the brink, and it's a miracle Arnold wrings some kind of vague, cautious hope out of the end, more so that she does so to the strains of Nas' "Life's a Bitch." Grade: B+

Sunday, September 18

Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011)

[Note: this review is spoiler-free but I would still encourage those who haven't yet seen the film to go into it as cold as possible.]

Having proudly managed to seclude myself from practically anything related to Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive following its rapturous reception at Cannes, I found myself surprised by the extremity of the praise that filtered through my blinders. What particularly caught my eye was one rhetorical headline (I did not read the story in my anti-hype lockdown) that asked whether Refn and his star Ryan Gosling were the new Scorsese-De Niro, a comparison I found particularly odd since this is only their first collaboration. Having now seen Drive, however, I can almost see where that writer was coming from: Gosling represents a synthesis and an embodiment of the director's goals, thematic intent and emotional frequency. Refn's previous film, Valhalla Rising, was an abstract tone poem to masculine horror, the kind codified and even encouraged by chauvinistic, barbaric religious organization. Gosling introduces feminine contours to Refn's stylized but dimmed and rough side, though the sensitive actor with the gentle eyes displays an equal capacity for brutality here that places him on the tipping point between grace and savagery.

But then, maybe the invocation of Scorsese and De Niro was just that writer's way of getting in on the  referential action. Refn, who says he modeled Bronson on Kenneth Anger films (there's a reference here, too) and Valhalla Rising on Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, here unloads a dump-truck of stylistic homages, from early Michael Mann to stripped-down car movies like Two-Lane Blacktop and The Driver to an overt reference to Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin. Hell, the most visible reference point, to my surprise, was that of Wong Kar-wai, particularly his devastating In the Mood for Love. For some, all these references will be a delight, a smorgasbord of retro cool gussied up further by the inexplicable (but fun) use of '80s synth music. For others, this is merely a sign of self-satisfied theft, a lazy repackaging of ideas. Either way, this fixation misses the true joy of Drive: watching Refn wring tension out nearly every moment, even doe-eyed, wistful stares of impossible love.

Drive's opening segment is the best I've seen in a film since the one-act play that launched Inglourious Basterds. With graceful and steady but desaturated and restless images, Refn shows the nameless Driver (Gosling) preparing and executing a job with formal fluidity. Economic editing and deliberate framing keeps our focus inside the Driver's car as he waits for the robbers who hired him to do their job. The sound design layers noises—a basketball game Driver listens to on the radio, the crackle of a police scanner, the blaring roar of an engine when Driver puts the pedal to the metal, etc.—to further ratchet up tension. Refn's judicious presentation extends to his handling of the car "chase," for want of a better word. It resembles more a game of hide-and-seek than some metal-screeching tear through city streets, with Driver losing one cop before stumbling into the searchlight of a chopper or stopping right in front of a patrol car. Refn understands suspense, and by inserting gulfs of space around a handful of thrilling, fast-edited punctuation marks, he generations enough tension and expectation to leave theater seats everywhere etched with the imprints of fingernails.

The rest of the film follows a similar approach to action, tightly handled, formalist bursts of blunt physicality amid an elegant but dark evocation of L.A.'s promises and pitfalls. The Driver is but the first stripped-down archetype. A few doors down from his apartment lives Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose perpetual cuteness is exacerbated by the young child she raises alone and given a faint sadness for the same reason. I say faint because Mulligan is, admittedly, the weak link of the film, never truly conveying much baggage beyond wisps of regret and the confusion caused by budding feelings for the Driver. Nevertheless, her cherubic giggle and empathetic face provide a nice contrast for Gosling's kind but vaguely troubled stares. If Gosling fills the shoes of the existentially bound hero, Mulligan plays her part as the woman who exists to complicate his feelings, but if she lacks any memorable presence, at least she awakens more humanity in the Driver than one can usually expect of such a taciturn protagonist, allowing him to project some form of humanity into a type stripped down to its most inhuman, objective elements, reconstructing a human being from a stereotype.

Other characters fare better with their archetypes. Oscar Isaac adds depth and conflict to Irene's fresh-out-of-prison husband that fills him with residual jealousy, fear, and genuine concern for his family. Bryan Cranston plays the Driver's mechanic and only friend (in a manner of speaking): Cranston handles the Driver's day and night jobs, getting him underpaid work as a stunt driver and gigs as a getaway man. Cranston's genial warmth, compounded by a sympathetic limp, make him so charming that when he confides to Irene that, as much as he idolizes the Driver's skills, he underpays the kid, she chuckles as if she's just been told a light anecdote. But Shannon's exploitation of the kid runs deeper, and soon he gets the kid caught up with the mob, visualized by the menace of Ron Perlman's gigantic head and steak-knife teeth and a revelatory, ingenious performance by Albert Brooks as a movie producer-cum-gangster.

Not even my self-imposed blackout could prevent hype for Brooks' performance from seeping through, and he lives up to the hype. With hair teetering on the boundary between tamed and wild and eyebrows that long ago went into Witness Protection, Brooks the brilliant, ironic comic looks like he doesn't have a funny bone in his body. He radiates such cold, horribly calm energy that when he fusses over the chopsticks with his Chinese order, one begins to fear he'll stab someone with them for not getting his order perfect. Though not as piercingly silent as Valhalla Rising, Drive still prefers to unfold with imagery instead of words, and Brooks seems to own most of the dialogue despite his handful of scenes, as if he lent out the remainder of the script to the rest of the cast. With interest, of course. Brooks doesn't overplay his hand, doesn't openly menace or even speechify despite how much chattier he is than the others. Refn's inspired casting brings out the cruel inverse of Brooks' deadpan style; as a comedian and filmmaker, Brooks follows premises to their ludicrous conclusions. He does the same here, only the endpoint is usually a corpse, which he views with exasperation. Both he and Perlman toy with the idea of Jews playing at being Italian mafiosos, but where Perlman growls about the discrimination, Brooks infuses the two ethnic types into something unwieldy and terrifying. Here is a man who will kill your whole family and make you feel guilty for taking up that 10 minutes of his time.

At some point, these separate lines begin to converge, elements of one plot bleeding into the other until everything is connected and you're not entirely sure how that came to be. As such, the film's distinct emotions of longing, fear and mounting anger crash together so each justifies and complicates the others. Refn and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel handle these conflicting yet unified emotions ably, moving dextrously between abstracted shots inside the Driver's car where the lights outside always blur and expand, grim, fluorescent underworlds, and the calming but tense arrangement of floral pastels on the walls of the apartment complex that communicate longing and tragedy so well Gosling likely could have acted off the wallpaper as well as he did Mulligan.

This collision of styles and moods also allows for Refn to explore the space between his stylistic influences; in particular, Drive feels like the missing link between Michael Mann's nihilistic debut, Thief, and his more optimistic view of the same twisting L.A. streets seen here with Collateral. As I watched Refn flex his stylistic muscles whilst standing on the shoulders of giants for greater visibility, I thought of how much he had in common with the other great imitator of modern cinema, Quentin Tarantino. Both indulge in their ultraviolence—Drive features gore so intense it punches through the barrier to absurdity, not unlike Taraninto—but both also have the ability to find fluidity and tension among their quotations and action. Tarantino's films feel more action-packed than they usually are thanks to his command of dialogue and and direction. Refn, on the other hand, likes to let silence do the talking, using his similar grasp of film technique to make the build-up to visions of unorthodox gore more grueling and unbearable than bashed brains or slashed flesh. Watching Refn pile all this together made for the most thrilling experience I've had at the movies this year, and to dismiss its inventive hodgepodge of styles as nothing more than pastiche strikes me as akin to saying green is but a mash-up of yellow and blue.

P.S. Special mention must go to Cliff Martinez's retro electronic score, perhaps the strongest argument one could have for something in this film surpassing its influences. Martinez, who already put out one engaging soundtrack this year with his work on Contagion, here mixes old-school New Wave synths with the greater nuance afforded by modern electronica. Clearly using the film work of Tangerine Dream as a jumping-off point, Martinez finds emotional contours and chilly suggestion that Tangerine Dream never came close to mining, even as he also beats them at their own game of skittish, digitized paranoia. Having never been a big fan of electronic scores (with a few exceptions, of course), I'm surprised to find that my favorite soundtracks of the last two years have both been synthesized works, and while Martinez's '80s throwback isn't as obviously compatible with its host film as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' Social Network score was, he nevertheless carries a great deal of the film's mood and never flags. The handful of synthpop songs peppered among the score are demonically catchy as well.

Valhalla Rising (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2009)

If one were to play the old "X meets Y" game of critical shorthand, one would have to plot Nicholas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising along several other axes. Unequal parts Apocalypse Now, Aguirre and, of all things, Stalker (this reference actually supplied by the director), Valhalla Rising creates oneiric abstraction out of bluntly realistic primitivism. A far cry from the epic, glorious tone of swords-and-sandals films, Refn's meditation on the meeting point of barbarism and religious fervor depicts not the raw energy and codified nobility of man's first hints of civilization but of the unformed rage and atrocity that truly defined the early man. But then, the Greeks and the Romans came long before these Celts and Norsemen, and Refn leaves the social effects of early Christianity hanging in the air as we see a world far more primitive and savage than the supposed heathens who practiced their idolatry.

Divided into six parts, the film initially presents no story at all, and for a long stretch, no dialogue. Instead, we are treated the the sight of tattooed Viking slaves pounding each other into mulch for the amusement of their captors. Amusement may be the wrong word: unlike the cheering throngs of bloodthirsty Romans, these tribesmen watch their slaves beat, bash and strangle each other with impassivity, as if this were some kind of perfunctory act, just some way to pass the time. It almost looks like the barbaric equivalent of discussing the weather. Even the worrying proficiency of the slave One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) at destroying his opponents prompts little more than water-cooler chat, as it were. When One-Eye gets a hold of an arrowhead that allows him to break free of his bondage and slaughter his captors, their brief flashes of overwhelming fear mark the first emotional beat of the film.

This opening segment is the highlight of the film, a grim, muddy closed loop of clacking chains, howling wind and the wet thump of fist on flesh. No story arises from this first part, but then One-Eye has no use for a narrative. His only dramatic motivation is to stay alive, and if he has to snap a stranger, maybe even a fellow tribesman's, neck or beat in a head with a rock, he'll do it. Crystal clear imagery captures the craggy, desolate hells of untamed Britain with desaturated imagery, emphasizing the cold, black mud in which the slaves fight and the half-frozen, nutrient-less vegetation that clings to its own meaningless life in this foggy, frigid terrain. Only the modicum of kindness a boy shows to One-Eye alleviates this sense of overarching inhumanity, but not even that can do anything to soften the edges of this uncomfortably crisp view of brutality, a brutality that reaches its peak when One-Eye manages to free himself and take his revenge.

After One-Eye's escape, he and The Boy stumble across a band of Christian Crusaders looking to sail for the Holy Land. The clan's leader (Ewan Stewart) invites the two to come along, clearly desirous of One-Eye's strength. The chieftain even promises that the warrior's sins will be forgiven, ironically through yet more killing. This change of pace introduces something approaching a narrative into the film, but Valhalla Rising still moves on with its atmospheric drift. The cold sharpness of Britain's windswept hills gives way to a fog-drenched voyage at sea, mist obliterating visibility past a few feet. Refn alternates between a hallucinatory, brown-red tint that gives the fog a hellish hue and a silver-gray, ghostly luminescence, the obscured sun making everything bright but still obscured. Directionless and without food, the men begin to fear for their lives, and Refn shows the breakdown with cold precision. There are no screams of panic, merely whispers of curses and superstition, growled orders to dispatch those who might be dooming them all and swift, dispassionate defenses of the targeted blights.

When One-Eye's visions tell him they've reached fresh water, the fog dissipates and reveals not the arid sands of the Middle East but the coniferous expanse of the New World. But in a movie where fear and single-minded dedication to brutish life are the only concretes, the rich possibilities of this new land induce only panic and more superstitious infighting. Refn enhances this bewilderment and unease by stripping the lush terrain of game and fruit, leaving only leafy trees to blot out visibility, and to conceal territorial natives from the confused, vulnerable Vikings as the steady fall of arrows begins to confirm their belief that this mockingly fertile land is Hell itself.

Morten Søborg's cinematography, aided by the Red One camera's range of possibilities, finds a balance between Alexander Knyazhinsky's contrasting styles in Stalker: desaturated, tinted shots emphasize black mud and pallid flesh, but color bleeds in in dream-like fashion even before the stylistic shift when this ragtag group of Vikings reaches the New World. America naturally comes to resemble The Zone, a realm of beautiful color (though still slightly chilled, à la Stalker) that is as inviting as it is unsettling. But where Tarkovsky made his alien realm into a place where leaps of faith were the only way to survive, Refn's New World displays the inverse. Scared and desperate for a sign from God, the men ingest psychotropic drugs, which only further awakens their paranoia. Previously hallucinatory imagery brought out One-Eye's supernatural visions, but Refn does not resort to much trickery to show the breakdown, keeping a firm eye on the now-uninhibited flow of fanaticism and violence. Tarkovsky's Zone was the dangerous, testing path to Heaven, or at least spiritual self-realization. Refn's America is merely a place of death, an area so vast the controlling elements of religion escape into the expansive air and leave those who cling to it lost at sea. It's no wonder they prove more dangerous to each other than the hailstorm of shafts.

Refn clearly molds this film for maximum stylistic impact, and he makes as good a use of Peter Kyed's music as the cinematography. A score of noise rock and pre-Gregorian tonal chants, the music crafts moods of unformed, primal aggression, fear and surreal breaks from the diegetic world. Organ chords are held until they threaten to pulsate every civilized thought out of your head. Jagged, atonal feedback escalates the tension when the Crusaders begin to fall apart in their verdant Hell, walls of electric squall puncturing the mix just as the rain of arrows continues to pepper the Vikings. It is a defiantly anachronistic touch in a film that, unlike nearly all such medieval films, truly feels as if you've been dropped back in time with no way to return to modern comfort, yet it somehow seems appropriate. It captures the sound inside these men, formless textures of white noise, capturing not only their base, instinctual moods and motivations but the absence of any guiding voice save the one they insert into this wash themselves.

An opening title card reads, "In the beginning there was only man and nature. Men came bearing crosses and drove the heathen to the fringes of the Earth." Valhalla Rising posits that the heathen was driven to the fringes of the mind, not any geographical location. The only thing separating the converted Vikings and the native tribes is the natives' purity of violence. Without the awkward, often counterintuitive application of Christian soldier values to complicate fighting with guilt and self-righteousness, the indigenous warriors act on animal instinct alone. It's not a preferable way of being, of course, but Refn isn't out to show humanity's civilized side. For that, he'd need a woman.

Thursday, September 15

The Ghost Writer: Giving Directions - Imperative Forms

This movie is amazing. I love Roman Polanski's films and this one is no exception. This scene is great because of the clear instructions given by the car's GPS.

I. Read the instruction the driver received from his GPS while driving to his destination. Choose the right verbs from the given ones below before watching the video.

You may repeat them.


1. __________ road when possible.

2. In 200 yards, ____________ left.

3. __________ around when possible.

4. _____________ to the indicated route.

5. In 200 yards, ____________ the next exit.

6. In half a mile, _________ a short right turn.

You have reached your destination!

II. Now watch the segment and check your answers.

Answers: 1. join, 2. turn, 3. turn, 4. proceed, 5. take, 6. make

II. Work with a partner. Choose 2 easy-to-reach destinations in your city and give each other instructions to get there driving.

Ex: From Park Shopping to Carrefour.



Youth Without Youth (Francis Ford Coppola, 2007)

Francis Ford Coppola's modern rejuvenation is one of the most unexpected and wonderful occurrences of contemporary American cinema. Almost entirely written off as a has-been who burned out while trapped in his mock-up Vietnam, Coppola's seeming early retirement after 1997's The Rainmaker appeared less premature but, if anything, belated. But Youth Without Youth was not merely Coppola's first film in a decade but his greatest in a generation, at least since 1983's Rumble Fish. The usual round of scathing late-period reviews greeted the director's work, but if one looks past a script that clearly reads better than it sounds aloud, Youth Without Youth becomes one of the most powerful expressions of the possibilities of the new cinema and, for all its reduced scale and budget, an astonishing leap forward in the classically minded Coppola's search for the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Based on the novella by Romanian author Mircea Eliade, Youth Without Youth wears its literary influences on its sleeves, introducing a 70-year-old Romanian intellectual, Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) at the end of a career spent unsuccessfully tracing linguistics to the origins of language. Despondent for a life wasted in solitary confinement, he returns home with plans to commit suicide, until a bolt of lightning strikes him as he crosses the street. Left horrifically charred, blind and near death, poor Dominic appears to suffer one final injustice before he shuffles off this mortal coil. Then, he makes a full recovery with breathtaking speed, not merely recuperating but aging backwards three decades.

This medical miracle naturally baffles the doctors and nurses tending to Dominic, who will eventually display even more supernatural feats as it becomes evident that his entire genetic makeup has changed. With the Nazis at Romania's doorstep, officers soon come calling for Dominic to study the man who has caught the attention of Der Führer himself. Ergo, Coppola frames the film's first half as an international thriller, complete with spies, Nazis and a constant sense of fear. But the director splits the antagonizing forces into dualities of external foes—the aforementioned Germans—and internal strife brought on by the development of a second personality, the embodiment of Dominic's mysterious condition, that skews his perceptions of reality. Already putting the audience on edge, Coppola takes things one step further with a visual style that blurs the realm between reality and dream. The frame routinely tilts 90, even 180 degrees, hallucinatory, often erotic imagery moving imperceptibly from fever dream to reality as Dominic's primary medical observer and friend, Prof. Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz) notes that the man actually is enjoying the company of the fantasized-about Woman in Room Six, who may also be a German spy.

These are confusing threads made more difficult by the aesthetic style, which starts superimposing images, using brief close-ups to recontextualize repeated shots and provide vague clues, and digitally inserting Dominic's doppelganger when not using a Gollum-style series of shots to make Roth seem like two different people. If one takes a step back, however, Coppola's genius becomes clear. Using the free possibilities of digital cinema and easy post-production, Coppola actually returns to the early days of cinema with silent techniques. The superimposed imagery harks back to silent editing, while the use of suggestive color schemes—honeyed yellow in daylight, ice-blue at night—likewise recalls early color tinting, particularly the blue of Expressionist horror's chilly nighttime shadowplay. This is an art history expression of the duality expressed between Dominic's meek, lovelorn corporeal being and the Nietzschean Übermensch of his split personality, a rational but forceful being that looks forward to the new age of mankind with Dominic as the first of a new species. Applied to the aesthetics, Coppola likewise ages backwards along cinema's timeline only to develop new possibilities and ways forward.

Before long, one can hardly separate the themes and structure of the film's narrative from Coppola's own creative life. While still recovering from his extensive burns, Roth is wrapped from head to toe in bandages, making a mummy of a still living man who already feels dead for having failed his life goal. Perhaps Coppola identifies with the man prematurely mummified, enshrined while still alive as if reminding detractors that he's not dead either, regardless of how much people insist on speaking of the director as if he died in 1980. But the lightning strike that nearly killed Dominic winds up rejuvenating him and giving him a second lease on life and his artistic dream; it is all but impossible not to see the correlation to digital filmmaking, which must have threatened the old guard like Coppola with obsolescence but now gives him a whole new lease on artistic creativity. Just think, one of the most legendary directors alive, four decades into his career, is now an independent filmmaker thanks to the potential of digital.

Coppola does not waste the opportunity. Mihai Malaimare's gorgeous cinematography surely stands as one of the finest use of digital cameras in film to date. Eschewing the digital noise of Michael Mann's late-career format explorations, Coppola and his cinematographer instead made impossibly crisp imagery that can undulate and shift on a dime. Coppola moves the camera less, relying instead of Walter Murch's rhythmic editing to progress immaculately composed static shots to not only create dynamic motion but also to handle the transitions in and out of dreams. Murch gives that blurry divide its ambiguity and, combined with the film's gentle leaps through time, finds the balance between the concrete and the abstract, between reality and dream. And after all, isn't that divide what the cinema is all about?

Other artforms feature as well. Osvaldo Golijov's score mixes whispers of Coppola's love of opera with modern compositional touches, crafting textures of moody, mysterious fragments and lilting motifs that effortlessly traverse the rich cultural history and varied narrative styles the film employs. As for literature, it drives the film. Refreshed and escaped from Nazi Romania, the newly young Dominic resumes his work on tracing the Ur-language, research aided by his ability to glean the contents of books simply by waving a hand over them. Dominic's sudden ability to speak fluently in practically any language opens the possibilities for paths back through time, and it's no coincidence that, when he finds himself in neutral Switzerland in 1939, he keeps on his nightstand one of the earliest pressings of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, another work of dreamspace-set lingual deconstruction.

To travel down this alternate plot, as well as to further the film's use of duality, the tone of the film abruptly switches around the halfway point from a dark, moody psychological and quasi-political thriller to a romance for the ages, literally. While hiking one day, Dominic meets Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), the spitting image of the first love he, in young Scrooge fashion, lost for his single-minded pursuit of career. But Veronica is not merely the reincarnation of Dominic's beloved Laura but of Rupini, one of the first disciples of Buddha; a storm traps her in a cave, and when Dominic leads a party to find her, he discovers the young woman speaking perfect Sanskrit, this reverted form only expelled after tracing the real Rupini's remains.

Coppola sets the romance that blossoms between the two as one of Dawn and Dusk, inextricably linked but doomed to separation for the balance of the cosmos. Veronica is a perpetual youth, her buoyantly smiling visage containing within it the memories of ancient civilizations, a subconscious knowledge of the birth of man. Meanwhile, the invigorated Dominic prepares for a foreseen apocalypse and and end of humanity as we know it as they evolve into a new lifeform. His rejuvenation is merely a reflection of entering his moment, just as Veronica's sudden aging around Dominic shows the last vestiges of light slowly dying at nightfall. This cosmic reading turns the the little-r romance between the two into capital-R forbidden love and destined separation. When Dominic whispers "I've always loved you" to a sleeping Veronica, he sounds like a corporeal incarnation of eternal forces using vocal cords to express something otherwise communicated on an epic, silent level.

Quite a lot of Youth Without Youth is obscure, not in any referential sense but in the unorthodox structure of stilted language. Mirror imagery abounds, much of it digitally manipulated to divide the movements of Roth and his "reflection"; there are even strangely matching shots separated by huge gulfs of time, such as the shot of a zapped Dominic lying on the ground with red, peeling flesh surrounded by fire at last matched with the man lying snow-covered. In the film's elision over time and space, details that might clarify the shifting aims and point of the film get lost in a haze, and the mysterious ending dissipates into metaphysical, emotional and philosophical abstraction. The film's tour through various cultural histories all works to the benefit of cinema, and Coppola even addresses his own work with seeming immodesty. But then, only a fool would deny Coppola's place in cinema's rich timeline, and the whispered, Willard-like narration and less-ironic golden tones of The Godfather's tinting mingle beautifully with the reverence for silent cinema and the more static, compositionally pure style of Ozu that Coppola has said he wants to imitate now.

The characters and visuals of Youth Without Youth are perpetually divided by the material's obsession with dualism of young and old, hallucination and reality, and conjured roses are used to demonstrate the search for a middle ground. As Dominic asks his doppelganger to put two roses on him, he falters when thinking of a place to place a third one, a simple question that becomes emblematic of the spiritually nomadic journey Dominic takes throughout the film. The third rose's placement will dictate the balance, and when it finally appears at the end, its simple, prose-poetry beauty feels a powerful statement of renewed intent by the filmmaker. But then, flowers have long been signs of revolution.