Wednesday, November 30

1.000.000 Visitors!

Thank you all for 1.000.000 hits on Movie Segments to Assess Grammar Goals. This is a motivating number that will certainly make me keep on sharing my activities!

Sunday, November 27

Beginners (Mike Mills, 2011)

As precious as it can be, Mike Mills' Beginners overcomes its occasional indie accoutrements—twee, arty montages à la Wes Anderson abound—to tell a moving story about one man's total emotional upheaval and his attempt to put his life back in order. Based on Mills' own life experiences, Beginners sidesteps as many clichés as it embraces, moving beyond its quirks to get at the real impacts of life's oddities and even avoiding the pitfall of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Like Mills, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) finds himself in a painful spot in the early 2000s. After his mother's death, his father, then 75 years old, came out as gay. Four years later, he died of cancer. Mills fractures the timeline of events so that we receive this information at the start and get constant flashbacks both to Hal's (Christopher Plummer) new life and to Oliver's reexaminations of his childhood in the wake of his father's outing as he puts the pieces together.

The beneficial side effect of this structure is that we get to see Plummer work throughout instead of relegating him solely to the first half. Plummer, at 81, is half a decade older than the character he plays, yet he looks a decade younger. We almost never see Hal not hooked up to a breathing tube or a hospital bed, but he bursts with energy. Plummer intuits the character's mental state, his body falling apart just when he's never felt more whole and alive. Making up for a life not lived, Hal throws himself into queer culture, joining not only gay pride parades and hitting up gay bars but attending gay book and film clubs.  So out of the loop with the LGBT community, Hal assumes other people are as clueless as him and amusingly projects his ignorance onto his son. Hal condescendingly explains that Harvey Milk was the first gay elected official or that the rainbow flag symbolizes gay pride and generally ignores his son's protests that he already knows these things.

Mills contrasts this vision of a kind, flirtatious, electrified old man to a childhood defined by Hal's emotional and physical absence and his mother's quiet acts of rebellion to generate the passion never shown to her. Plummer steals the film, but Mary Page Keller deserves recognition as well as Georgia. The look of muted caged agitation and anguish on her face is tragic, and her stabs of acting out make it clear to her child that something is wrong even as the boy could never guess the true reason for his mom's disconnect and displaced emotions. Believing she could "fix" Hal by marrying him, Georgia only found herself trapped in the same fabrication Hal had to build around his real self. Keller could have played Georgia's whimsical, even obnoxious actions for mere oddity, but she never once fails to express the pain and social imprisonment that defines her pathetic existence.

As Oliver mulls over these memories, we see the split between his take on his father's revelation and Hal's. Oliver sees how the whole family got caught up in Hal's lie, leaving his mother erratic and unloved and preventing a deep connection between himself and his father until late in life. But for Hal, his earnest, if tepid, acceptance of his heteronormative front was a denial of the real man for the sake of his wife and child. Oliver feels pangs of defensiveness with his father's boyfriends, not repulsed by their sexuality but jealous of the doting love Hal shows them, an affection he never expressed for Georgia or him.

Less striking and original is the other half of the film, following Oliver as he puts his life back together with the help of a French actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent), whom he meets at a Halloween party. That scene is perhaps the highlight of their whole relationship, with Oliver trying to mask his still-fresh mourning by dressing as Sigmund Freud and "analyzing" the other party guests while Anna communicates with him via notepad as he voice is shot from laryngitis. McGregor and Laurent never fully match the level of chemistry that arcs between them here, nor do they make the inevitable scenes of mutual relationship doubt feel genuine. But Laurent, as revelatory a discovery in Inlgourious Basterds as Christoph Waltz, manages to overcome the dangerously limiting part Anna threatens to be, negating her potential "perfect woman" status with an insecurity and caution evident in her relationship with Oliver from the start. I've seen some dismiss Beginners as formulaic, but while it may end on a conventional note, Mills and his actors don't get there by the usual route.

As a coming to terms with his father's identity and a belated sense of regret that the man had so little time to be himself, Beginners is a beautiful making of amends. As a story of a depressed son mentally recovering through a restorative romance, it dangerously flirts with staleness. But when Mills, McGregor and Laurent can eke sorrow from a cutely arranged scene of the two lovers playacting a conversation between Anna and her manipulative father, they quickly prove their ability to toe that line without falling into mediocrity. Complete with the achingly human performances by Keller and Plummer, Beginners is an elegiac but affirming tribute to our ability to find ourselves at any time in life, and of the worthiness of doing so even if only for the last fleeting moments of one's existence.

Saturday, November 26

Island of Lost Souls (Eric C. Kenton, 1932)

The film opens on a thick sea fog, a ship piercing out of the mist as if a ghost vessel. When deckhands spot a man floating limply in the water, this feeling is only exacerbated. But Island of Lost Souls, adapted from H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, proves far more unsettling than some simple ghost story. Instead, its taut narrative delves into grotesque visions of amoral scientific experimentation and imperialism, where the white men so often look as monstrous as the half-beasts they create.

Kenton's direction is thoroughly shadowed, constantly preventing any moment's calm even as the protagonist remains oblivious to the horrors around him for the film's first section. Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) barely has any time at all to be grateful for his rescue, suddenly confronted with a ship filled with belligerent animals and a captain with a short temper who callously maroons the man he saved to be spared the inconvenience. Parker must go with Dr. Moreau back to his lair until he can get a ride back to the nearest proper port, but after a few glimpses at people with horrible, animalistic features, we know he won't be able to just up and leave.

Charles Laughton portrays Moreau as impossibly well-groomed for a man living on a tropical island. Portly despite a vegetarian diet, tidy hair defying the sticky air, Moreau never looks or sounds as mad as, say, Kurtz. Rather, Laughton extracts the man's villainy from his rationality, the scientific impulses of curiosity and exploration taken to perverse extremes. With unsparingly bleak, static cinematography, Kenton dips into a cold, inhuman horror appropriate for its subject matter of animals slowly turned into tortured subhumans. Moreau is still a warped scientist, but it's no coincidence that he dresses like a plantation owner as he orders around his primal creations.

Underscoring the repulsiveness of Moreau's actions is a brutal scene of a vivisection without anesthesia, a scene that manages to avoid graphic detail without sparing the viewer any discomfort. Even Parker, who otherwise is so thick that the sight of people with pig faces is just "odd," blanches at seeing this atrocity, though his struggle against Moreau is primarily one of self-preservation, with his consideration of the humanoid figures under the doctor's cruel thumb a distant concern. Even when he finds himself attracted to a woman made from a panther, he only cares for her insofar as she looks like a beautiful human female. When she begins to genetically revert, he recoils with as much fright as Moreau engenders in him.

The film's grizzly end proves genuinely upsetting, not, of course, because one sympathizes with Moreau but because Kenton frames the scientist's comeuppance with visceral rage. When the doctor's creations finally realize how thin his power over them really is, they stand up as one, and the director captures their fury with a montage of characters running toward the camera until they freeze in a menacing close-up, the effect of which is deeply disturbing. And when the mob pushes him back into the "House of Pain," his echoed shrieks cannot be listened to with ease.

Less atmospheric than Expressionism-inspired Pre-Code horrors of Dracula and Frankenstein, Island of Lost Souls nevertheless feels the most "Pre-Codey" of them. It's to-the-point, brutish, and it almost certainly would have run up against the Hays office for its (literally) animalistic sexuality and grim violence. The horrific final purging of the island conveys a cynical cover-up of Western atrocity, one more powerful than most horror films manage today. Even the fact that our heroes survive is small comfort, for they are so thin and self-absorbed that the deaths of the tortured creatures is far more worrisome. I had not heard of this film before Criterion announced its plans to release it a few months ago, and I'm glad they did. This is a punchy, uncompromising early horror film that stands with the best of the genre of any era.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (Bill Condon, 2011)

Only the most cynical financial motivation could lead anyone to split Breaking Dawn, the conclusion to Stephenie Meyer's embarrassing and tedious tetralogy about a girl's inability to function without the sexual presence of her emotionally unstable lover. There isn't even enough material to fill this film, which goes above and beyond the already over-saturated prevalence of helicopter shots of Pacific Northwest forests, the visual trademark of this film franchise. Breaking Dawn Part 1 starts with a wedding and ends with a birth. It's like Yi Yi, only replace the rationalist evocation of life's pains and pleasures with dialogue so mortally stilted that the actors can only prolong their demises by fighting against it.

Breaking Dawn Part 1 is a film of even mores. It's got even more helicopter shots, even more Edward flightiness, even more Jacob sulking, and, amazingly, even more Kristen Stewart lip biting (how has her lower lip not fallen off?). The one exception is plot, of which there is even less than usual. Director Bill Condon gets us through Bella's and Edward's wedding painlessly enough, but soon the film languishes as their honeymoon bliss turns to crazed pregnancy fears softened by so much religious conservatism that even the occasional newcomer dragged to this film by a fan will know that everything will turn out fine for our empty shell of a heroine.

From the start, Breaking Dawn displays the franchise's glacial pace and unintended humor. Melissa Rosenberg, writer of all the saga's screenplays, has tried to alleviate the former by shoehorning in various stabs at intentional comedy, but with the exception of Billy Burke's always reliable Charlie, everyone's jokes fall flat while the sheer listlessness of everyone involved makes it hard for one not to bust up laughing amidst a sea of Twi-hards. Consider the montage of toast givers at the wedding, where everyone awkwardly stumbles through some lame jokes, then look at the far more entertaining moment of tension between the invited werewolves and the offended vampire Irina. Watching Maggie Grace attempt a look of disgust and effrontery, which instead comes out a sort of overwhelming social panic (as if she'd just loudly farted and had no way to deflect blame), proves one of the film's comic highlights.

There's also the acting, which continues to suggest either hostility to the script or mere incompetence. It's certainly embarrassing to see people like Michael Sheen and Peter Facinelli stooping to droning out portentous lines, though not as bad as Taylor Lautner's seemingly immobile face hissing sour comments out of any break between teeth. Robert Pattinson continues to be unreadable, delivering Edward's clinging lines with conviction but also betraying moments where one can't help but think he's in on the joke. Indeed, the only pleasure I've gotten from these movies is gradually catching on to Pattinson's strange game, and having to fret over Bella's half-breed demon fetus—or, as one vampire insists, "baby," opening up a political argument this insipid, anti-feminist text cannot hope to argue with any depth—is like a comic gift from heaven.

Forced to comply with a PG-13 rating, Condon cannot plumb the depths of Meyer's unhinged sexual fantasy, eliding over sex scenes and censoring the Grand Guignol birth scene of this first part's climax with some simplistic but schizophrenic effects. The repression that so ensnares Bella extends to the framing and editing, to the point that Breaking Dawn would make a fine add-on to Condon's biopic on Arthur Kinsey, if for no other reason than to prove the sex researcher right in his belief that an unhealthy view of sex could lead to unhealthy psychological problems. After forcing Bella to remain chaste for three novels, Meyer abruptly throws her into physically harmful sex and a pregnancy that any sensible person would abort, basking in the long-delayed sexual euphoria and then meting out punishment for it. And then Meyer makes sure to clarify that Bella quite literally asks for it so no one raises any objections.

But as much as I revile the sexual politics inadvertently thrust into this franchise, what continues to rile me the most is the mere lifelessness of these films. Not one of them has a spark of chemistry between anyone, much less the raging torrents of passion each installment is meant to invoke. After their night of bruising lovemaking, Bella asks her guilt-ridden husband, "Why can't you see how perfectly happy I am?" to which one wishes he would respond, "Because you just said that sentence so flatly it didn't even sound like a question." So unutterably dull is this picture that its casual inclusion of offensively simple-minded issues—from its pro-life stance to its forgiveness of Edward's past murders (see, he only killed bad people, so he's actually a hero)—could not even rouse me to anger. That would be some form of emotional response, which this film cannot hope to conjure. I was, however, incensed that Guillermo Navarro, the cinematographer responsible for the breathtaking blue nights of Jackie Brown and Pan's Labyrinth (among others), is the man behind Breaking Dawn's murky, atrocious night shots. Now that is an artistic offense.

Friday, November 25

Mary and Max: There to be

I love this Australian animated movie. Here the student plays bingo with what they will see in the movie in order to practice of the verb THERE + TO BE. This class was really fun!

A. You are going to see a movie segment that shows Lamington Drive in Waverly, Australia. Look at the phrases below and complete the bingo chart with 9 of the given phrases that you think you will see in the scene.

a pair of boots on the wires / a football on the roof / a fast trolley / a sprinkler in the garden / a pair of roller skates on the grass / trash cans on the street / kids playing rugby/ different mailboxes / a brown bicycle / a barbecue grill / different statues / beautiful flowers/ an underwear on a line / very tall buildings / a bird cage/ an I-pod/ hot dog stands


B. Watch the movie segment now and check your bingo chart. The winner is the student who bingoes or who guesses the most correct items.

C. Now rewite the phrases in your chart, using there is (not) or there are (not)

Ex: There is a pair of roller skates on the grass

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

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

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

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

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

7. ...........................................................

8. ...........................................................

9. ...........................................................



Answer key - Possible items:

a pair of boots on the wires / a football on the roof / a sprinkler in the garden / a pair of rollerskates on the grass / trash cans on the street / mailboxes / a barbecue grill / different statues / an underwear on a line

Richard Ellmann — James Joyce

Richard Ellmann's James Joyce is, quite simply, the best artistic biography I've ever read. Like the work of David McCullough, Ellmann's book is not only meticulously researched (nearly 100 pages are devoted to endnotes) but so lyrically written as to be almost novelistic. At first I did not understand the need for a biography of Joyce, given how autobiographical his work is, but Ellmann beautifully ties even the most minor incidents and acquaintances of Joyce's life into his flowing corpus. In fact, James Joyce could serve as well as a set of notes for Dubliners, Exiles, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManUlysses, and Finnegans Wake as it does a biography.

Progressing in chronological order, Ellmann sidesteps this predictable, typically tedious structure by making clear how much of Joyce's growth as an artist was specifically related to his constant change. Where others might devote chapters to the subjects that influenced and inspired the artist, Ellmann makes it clear that, more than anything else, time was the great preoccupation of Joyce. Joyce never stopped dealing with the forces that shaped him, he just added countless new observations and studies until he built from microcosmic fragments of Dublin life to a dream language of the universal man. Amazingly, Ellmann captures every nuance of this constant evolution without ever losing sight of the man. Then again, for Joyce, life and literature were one and the same.

Sparing any saintly view of the artist, Ellmann lays out the hardships of Joyce's adolescence and adult life—money was almost always a concern, and when it wasn't, John (and, later, James) made sure to get rid of any comfortable surplus quickly—but never shies away from the negative aspects of Joyce's personality. The same memory that allowed Joyce to reconstruct all of Dublin from European exile also made possible the holding of lifelong grudges, few of which were ever ameliorated. Ellmann even notes Joyce's excitement over the drowning of an ex-friend who attempted to drive a wedge between Joyce and his partner Nora, an excitement arising from Joyce having "predicted" the suicide via Cosgrave's avatar in Ulysses but also perhaps a sense of victory over a sexual rival.

But that's the wonderful messiness of Joyce: everything that made him unpleasant and even withdrawn also made him the great humanist writer of the modern era, perhaps ever. Ellmann focuses so intently on the minutiae of Joyce's life because they inform his entire position, which in and of itself was a radical shift from most novelistic grounding. His worlds were not those of aristocrats or the aspirant middle class but of pétit bourgeois citizens with mundane concerns, and even as Joyce was taking the English language to hyper-intellectual new heights, he concentrated on the simple thoughts of ordinary people. Then he proved that doing so was more daring and difficult than the most lofty and poetic pronouncements.

Part of what makes Ellmann's biography so indispensable is the manner in which he shows Joyce honoring even the people he mocks when putting them down in prose. Ellmann's descriptions of John Joyce, a man of fierce but constantly undulating temperament and extravagant spending far beyond his means, paint a traditional literary portrait of a less volatile Fyodor Karamazov. But as Stephen Dedalus' father, John's stand-in Simon is a small-scale tragic hero, a working class version of a dying king surveying his splintered kingdom. As much revulsion as Joyce shows of the man's weaknesses, he rounds out any simplistic reading of Simon with sympathy and even admiration. For all the symbolism and allusion of his writing, he really wanted to capture people as they are (which is why his work was so often censored or withheld from publication over fears of litigation; he wrote about everything, down to farts and menstruation.)

The portrait Ellmann sketches is rarely flattering. As a lad, Joyce's early intellectualism distanced himself from his peers before he had the literary faculty to prove his mettle. Ellmann routinely quotes verses Joyce composed in his correspondence with people, and a number of them come from the artist's earliest days of writing. Their stylish but empty rhymes certainly do not justify the arrogance of the young Joyce, who would quibble with anyone, even the great Irish poet Yeats, who nevertheless couldn't help but like the boy. As an adult, Joyce was even worse, having moved beyond what few literary heroes he allowed as an adolescent to criticize them ostentatiously. For a man who had practically nothing published by the time he was 30, Joyce could so easily puncture the balloons of others. Even when not discussing art, Joyce's volatile temper could explode without warning, and Ellmann recounts several cases where Joyce pursued litigation for the most petty of squabbles despite even his lawyers saying it would be a waste of time and money. Humble as he could be, Joyce's vanity sometimes demanded a scapegoat.

And yet, he was not an intellectual in the sense of other expatriates of the early 20th century. While living in Paris during the '20s, he did not typically fraternize with the Lost Generation writers and largely avoided conversations with literary types. Ellmann presents fascinating anecdotes of Joyce delighting in the blunt (but strangely spot-on) comments of ordinary people, and the authors with whom he generally spoke were those who could convincingly capturing their provincial voices, not the ones aiming for the cosmos. For example, while living in Trieste, he discovered Aron Schmitz, a businessman who happened to have written two novels at the turn of the century and since hidden them away after an apathetic reception. But Joyce read them and loved how well they captured Trieste's lingual melting pot and wound up resuscitating the man's literary career at the end of his life. Elsewhere, he would entrust the tricky prospect of translating his novel to friends instead of looking for the most educated mind in each country.

These strange quirks are so clearly evident in Joyce's work that Ellmann doesn't even need his routine quotation from the author's books to demonstrate how the man's life informed his writing. The duality of his intellectualism and disdain for those obsessed with the highbrow make him an unwieldy subject, and I was always interested to read not only Joyce's progression through the years but the changing opinions of his admirers. Ezra Pound, Harriet Weaver, Yeats, even Joyce's brother Stanislaus all oscillate between admiration and repulsion, cautious disapproval with gradual respect. That's how difficult the man's work was; even those who admitted its singularity could hardly stand to read it—Ellmann takes an obvious pleasure in pointing out that neither Yeats, who loved Ulysses, nor George Bernard Shaw, who hated its content for what it revealed of Irish life, read the thing from cover to cover. And even when they would come around to one thing, the next would send them reeling. Weaver, perhaps Joyce's most generous patron, exchanged letters with Joyce over sections of Finnegans Wake that show her trying desperately to conceal just how much she clearly hates this new book, even referring to its style as raiding the "Wholesale Safety Pun Factory."

But Joyce never let anyone get to him. Stanislaus, who put up with so much of his brother's profligate spending and erratic emotions out of a childhood sense of hero worship, finally rebelled over parts of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and Joyce simply stopped asking the one family member who understood him for his opinion. Pound asked for changes to Ulysses, and Joyce routinely ignored them. He even acknowledged how alienating his work could be, but he couldn't bring himself to change it. By the same token, Ellmann includes a number of quotes, especially in relation to Finnegans Wake, that suggest Joyce cared far more about pleasing people with his writing than delivering any kind of statement. In conversation, he mentioned using all those river names in the ALP chapter so that someone in the farthest reaches of the globe might one day read his novel and smile at seeing his or her home river mentioned.

Capturing the complexities of Joyce's warmth and aloofness, Ellmann makes a suitably contradictory, dense, yet utterly readable account of the greatest literary mind of the century. Though he does not offer significant diversions for the close relatives in Joyce's life, Ellmann also manages to delve beyond mere summary for such vital figures as Stanislaus, John and, of course, Nora. But everyone who came in even indirect contact with Joyce made it into his work, and by recreating the webs of reading and interaction that shaped Joyce's life, Richard Ellmann did the invaluable service of clarifying the most ambitious literature of any era and any language. I would recommend it to anyone even cursorily interested in Joyce, not as a supplement but a skeleton key.

Thursday, November 24

The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011)

Not three minutes go by in The Muppets before the filmmakers flaunt their unabashed reverence for Jim Henson's beloved creations. A montage of memorabilia would, in other movie, be as cynical and greedy as a filmmaker could get. Here, however, it establishes character, that of Walter (a new Muppet) and his supportive brother Gary (Jason Segel, who co-wrote the screenplay), as well as setting up the deep vein of affection the movie carries for the franchise. Segel made his Muppet love plain in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and ardor bursts from every frame of this uneven but lovable revival.

In fact, The Muppets will likely play better to the parents who remember the felt-and-cloth puppets from their own childhood than the kids they take along (though the ones in my audience seemed entertained enough). Packed with self-referential jokes and the usual Muppety meta-humor, the film emerges as a true passion project for Segel, co-writer Nicholas Stoller (director of Marshall) and director James Bobin. And though their nostalgia occasionally threatens to make wall off the movie from the youngest viewers, The Muppets proves funny, and touching, enough to win the fuzzy puppets a new generation of fans.

The Muppets moves quickly through Walter's and Gary's lives, the puppet sibling never growing taller and retreating into the comfort of old Muppets tapes as Gary constantly looks after him. Their bond is so close that Gary, now a grown man celebrating his 10th anniversary with girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), invites Walter to tag along to Los Angeles so he can visit the famed Muppet Studios. Gary is so happy to see the pure ecstasy on his brother's face that he misses the twitches of irritation on Mary's. But the mildly disrupted idyll of their trip explodes when they arrive in California to find Muppet Studios not only closed but about to be demolished by a tycoon (Chris Cooper) eager to drill for oil. The only way to stop this is to come up with $10 million in two weeks, and there's only one way to get it: Walter has to reunite The Muppets.

Largely following the schema of "getting the band back together" movies, The Muppets wastes no time adding everything that makes the franchise great. Strong opening numbers, especially the wonderfully written and choreographed "Life's a Happy Song," convey all the giddiness of the project, while later tunes play across a range of emotions in a manner so rarely seen in musicals these days. Then again, how often do we get musicals anymore period? Segel and Stoller also break the fourth wall routinely, with characters constantly referring to the audience and the film itself. They also have fun with character backgrounds, from the perpetual cycle of Kermit and Miss Piggy's tumultuous relationship to Animal, here a member of an anger management group to get his frenzied, drum-related hysteria under control.

I won't spoil the film by mentioning the range of celebrities who provide cameos (other than to express regret that Steve Martin isn't one of them), but it speaks to the lingering affection people have for what Jim Henson made that so many people would appear for a few seconds of screen time. This is all the more impressive given how culturally out of step the whole conceit of the Muppets is, something the movie openly acknowledges. When Cooper's bad-guy baron snarls that this is a hard, cynical world, he's the voice of reason, not just antagonism. Yet the sight of Kermit flailing and being tackled by Miss Piggy, of Fozzie selling those awful jokes with all his might, can't help but make someone smile.

To their credit, Bobin, Segel and Stoller don't try to modernize the Muppets, and the isolated instances where they do—a head-scratching rap from the unlikeliest of sources and a clucked sing-a-long by Camilla and the other chickens to a certain Cee-Lo song—are the film's weakest moments. Everything in the movie feels retro, from the cheeky '50s suburbia that opens the film to the parade of '80s songs that make one wonder if someone didn't just use an old mixtape for the soundtrack. But what does it say about us that something so resolutely cheerful, even at its most moving and adult, feels anachronistic?

Overlong and inconsistent in its second half, The Muppets doesn't reach the heights of the show and the original three movies. Nevertheless, it works as a heartwarming (and occasionally heartbreaking) coming-of-age tale and an affirmation of how timeless family entertainment can be when it's done with respect for an audience, not money-grubbing afterthought. For all the issues the film has, I at no point disliked it, and I felt like a kid again watching Kermit bring me to tears with just the slightest "facial expression" caused by a hand moving around inside some felt. By the time The Muppets reaches its joyous conclusion, it's demonstrated itself to be as defiantly unfashionable, chaotically absurd and utterly charming as the Muppets themselves.

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)

For the six people out there who still love 3D, Hugo will be the film of the year. To be sure, no other film from any year is so well-suited for the format. Concerning the earliest days of cinema, where the medium still oscillated between kitschy gimmick and potential artform, Hugo was directed by Martin Scorsese, a director fascinated by the artifice of cinema and how its inherent falsity can nevertheless draw in a viewer like no other art. This makes 3D doubly appropriate, and as much as I loathe the tackiness of even the supposedly advanced iteration of the technology that is already flaming out brilliantly, Hugo makes such inventive and striking use of 3D that I hate what Scorsese's done as much as I love it. Hugo is too ambitious to make any money, but even so; could the director pump some life back into 3D just as it seemed we were free of this headache that comes once every three decades?

Set in the vast Parisien train station Gare Montparnasse in the early '30s, Hugo follows its titular hero (Asa Butterfield), the orphaned child of a clockmaker, as he moves within the walls of station winding its various timekeepers and swiping meals from oblivious vendors. He also collects gears to repair a rusted automaton his father (Jude Law) brought home before he died in a museum fire, hoping that continuing his father's work will somehow bring the man back in some form. But when an old toy vendor (Ben Kingsley) catches him trying to steal parts from one of his wind-up mice, Hugo finds himself thrust into a deeper story of embitterment and rejuvenation, one that holds the key to his own issues even as it plunges him into a whole new world.

Scorsese delights with his new toy, but the space he gives to objects already made distinct by the 3D effect is magical. Steam and mist hang in the air in ethereal clouds, while gears turn all around the lad as he snakes through the station's inner workings. The inherently shallow visual range of 3D only encourages the director to use even more close-ups and extreme close-ups than usual, which Thelma Schoonmaker throws together in what must surely be the best-edited family film of all time. The 3D gives the film its usual illusory effect, but where so many are trying to make the format seem legitimate and artistic, Scorsese actively uses it for cheap effect, whether opening on snow flurries that float out into the audience or pushing out the faces of those in close-up. In so doing, he uses 3D to remind the audience of the film's "filmness," of the fact that it's fake yet enchanting.

This becomes important when Hugo grows close to the toy seller's granddaughter, Isabel (Chloë Moretz), who has been forbidden from seeing any movies. Hugo sneaks her into Safety Last!, that masterful Harold Lloyd picture, and she marvels with fright and elation at the man's precarious stunts, scarcely able to believe her eyes. When clues lead the two to believe that her grandfather might have made films as well, Scorsese visualizes their research with clips from the earliest of cinema, especially the Lumière brothers' film Train Pulling into a Station, which seems so simple today but famously terrified audiences who feared the train would come through the screen and crush them. In that 50-second short is Scorsese's whole approach to 3D, that of a clearly fake image turned to verisimilitude by the sheer magic of cinema.

Of course, it was not the Lumières who brought wonder to cinema, and it turns out that the old, bitter grandfather tending to his failing toy shop is actually Georges Méliès, the first great dreamer of cinema, the first one to truly test the properties of film and how its sideshow attraction nature could actually be the foundation for artistry, not a hurdle to overcome. From his films comes the blockbuster, with its use, for better and worse, of special effects to dazzle rather than deepen. Naturally, 3D becomes but one of the tricks that can, in theory at least, make film more tactile to audiences, and seeing Méliès' own A Trip to the Moon converted to 3D is one of the most bizarrely fitting approaches to film history I've ever seen, and I cannot believe I just wrote that.

Hugo gradually shifts from the story of a boy trying to find himself to one of that lad attempting to save an old man from self-made ruin, but I found the film remarkably cogent in its unexpected progression. Even the asides to the other characters who populate Scorsese's sandbox of a train station do not significantly alter the momentum. Besides, their subplots converge neatly into the ultimate theme, which sublimates Hugo's quest to retain his father into a story of realizing one's self, regardless of age. Even the film's villain, a hobbled WWI veteran turned officious station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), gets the chance to find some measure of happiness and fulfillment. He, Hugo and Méliès have all suffered some kind of debilitating setback, but finding their various loves in life, be they people or projects (or both), can make them whole again.

I have some minor quibbles with Hugo. Moretz, despite being the best and most mature child actor in a generation, gets saddled with vocabulary words that too preciously play on her intelligence. Robert Richardson's cinematography is gorgeous and works fluidly with the 3D, but I'm somewhat over our strange orange and teal fascination when it comes to color tones. Nevertheless, Hugo is a delight, and as personal in its own way as Mean Streets. Scorsese's passion for film preservation comes to the fore in the final act, and judging from the astonished response of the children in my screening to those ambitious old silents, the need for protecting and showing these films to new generations is a cultural imperative, which shouldn't be as hard as it seems. (I've seen some dismissing Scorsese's cinephilia here as academic, but the pleasures of people like Méliès or Lloyd are anything but dry and intellectual.) Movies unlock purpose for so many in this film, and it comes as no surprise that the key that sets it all in motion should be in the shape of a heart.

Tuesday, November 22

Film Club: Limelight

I greatly enjoyed my first film club chat with Allison of Nerdvampire and was ecstatic when she picked a real blind spot in my movie watching with Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, the last of his American productions before Hoover effectively exiled him. I think I liked this conversation even more than the first, and it was a pleasure not only to see a Chaplin film I hadn't previously viewed but to discuss its charms fully with someone else. So without further ado, I present out discussion below.

Plot synopsis: A washed-up vaudevillian, Calvero (Charlie Chaplin), saves a young dancer (Claire Bloom) from committing suicide and resolves to nurse her back to health. But as Thereza recovers, Calvero only slips further into obscurity. Also features Sydney Chaplin as the charming, young, American composer Neville and Buster Keaton in a show-stopping climax with Chaplin. More somber than Chaplin's classic silents, Limelight nevertheless stands as the best transplant of the auteur's trademark sentimentality into the talkies.

Jake: I'm curious as to how many Chaplin films you'd seen before watching this, Allison, as I couldn't stop thinking throughout just how much Limelight felt like a culmination for his career. Its tone is, for all the sentimentality, far more somber than most Chaplin pictures, but it nevertheless struck me as very much of a whole with his filmography.

Allison: I've really only seen Modern Times, but also the biopic Chaplin which goes over his Hollywood career pretty well. It seemed very reflective of his career as a whole.

J: Ah. Modern Times is a film I thought of often during Limelight. That movie was Chaplin's first to incorporate sound while still passing itself off as a silent picture. It also set a precedent for Chaplin's talkies, at least of the ones I've seen. They all in some way comment on, if not outright attack, the technology and its effect on his image. Modern Times is about technology robbing us of humanity. The Great Dictator tried to use the more realistic effect of sound to directly appeal to his audience, arguably losing the magic of his sentimentality in the process. Monsieur Verdoux served as the dark inverse to his usual themes of a man put-upon by social mechanisms by offering his protagonist long-belated revenge upon them.

Limelight contains bits of all three of these films, a bittersweet, borderline self-martyring, elegy to Chaplin's own career even as he finds the nobility of his protagonist. Calvero is a drunken has-been, but he still has those flashes of sweetness that made Chaplin a megastar.

A: Oh definitely. Calvero might be a drunk, but I never feel unsympathetic towards him. He still dispenses great advice and saves Thereza from being thrown out into the street.Plus, it's not like he's this pompous character who think he's still got it: Calvero is aware he's a has-been and knows that it's drinking that got him there, as much as it might have helped his career.

J: That's why I think the setting is so crucial. By placing the film in the year 1914, Chaplin aligns Calvero's decline with his own ascendancy (1914 was the year Chaplin made his first films for Keystone). So even as Chaplin is shoveling dirt onto the grave of his career, he's acknowledging how he himself must have looked to the old vaudeville stars with whom he worked before jumping to Hollywood. Chaplin made them redundant just as new techniques and performers have put him, Keaton and the rest out of work. It's that willingness to self-criticize that makes the film more than just an old man's pity party.

A: That's a good point. Film as a medium was displacing these cheap theatre shows, but it was definitely caused by the big movie personalities like Chaplin. I will say that I think his and Keaton's performance probably works better filmically than it would from a theater, which could be his own acknowledgement that he's done more as a filmmaker than he could have as a vaudeville performer.

J: I'm glad you say this, because I had an odd feeling of disconnect watching the stage show portions of the film. On the one hand, they permit Chaplin (and, at the end, Keaton) to prove just how much physical comedy they have left in them. On the other, seeing them reduced to a few antics after both innovated the artform to make room for their comedic ambition is tragic even without the reverse shots to empty theaters.

I also think this lines up with Chaplin's camera technique, which was never particularly advanced in relation to his masterful set design but feels downright cumbersome and static in the age of sound. This isn't the only one of his talkies to be like that, either. It could simply be unfamiliarity with the new technical demands, but I think it works thematically. Chaplin's sound films, even on a narrative level, purposefully lack the grace of his silents, and to see him dancing around in a music hall only visualizes what he'd already been suggesting with his camera.

A: The camera was very static, although there was some nice use of cranes in the second half with relation to the stage. What I really liked (and what really stuck around from the silent era) was all of the strong lighting. All of the shadows fell just right, the ingenue was always glowing. The mood was well-set just in regards of light technique.

J: Exactly right, and the angelic lighting of Thereza is always matched by the shadowy twilight hanging over Calvero, as if he's already got one foot in the grave. And yet, in some respects he's more alive than ever. Much as he likes to play sound against itself, he also explores the possibilities it raises. Here we get a chance to listen to Chaplin's singing voice, as well as to hear his gift for wordplay; I laughed out loud when one of Calvero's washed-up pals responds to his command to play largo with, "I'd rather stick with beer."

And if films like Modern Times and The Great Dictator defiantly clung to at least some modicum of silence, the absence of sound here is devastating. By linking sound primarily to the audience response, Chaplin now completely identifies the old format with death. The silence he wanted so badly to continue now signals total obsolescence and the end of fame.

A: And the word play is genuinely funny, but a lot of the script gets bogged down with the drama. But that is another evolution with sound cinema: slap stick, while still situational, winds up being about the dialogue as much as the actions.

Pardon the pun, but I think we keep dancing around a certain subject here: Thereza, who is visually pretty. Kind of boring when not on stage.

J: Yeah I agree, and I think the film hits its biggest snags when it stops to listen to her hysterical sobs of anguish and ecstasy. Calvero's interactions with Thereza are sweet but she herself is too thinly sketched to make much of a difference. I wish her occupation had been something that intersected more with vaudeville to set her up as more of a successor instead of the unrelated dancing.

I do find it interesting, though, how Chaplin frames the relationship between the two. I'm reminded of Cary Grant in Charade: Grant, who preferred younger women, nevertheless made sure it was Audrey Hepburn's character who pursued him, not the other way around, to avoid scandal. Likewise, Chaplin, who'd actually been the subject of controversy for his relationships, has Thereza fall for an uncomfortable Calvero. Then again, maybe Calvero is attracted to her but doesn't want to spend the rest of his life with someone so histrionic.

A: I thought the scene where Thereza was auditioning and reunites with Neville underlined Calvero's perspective. There's this prolonged shot where half his face is in shadow after he realizes that the Meet Cute he thought up becomes actualized. He's forced to realize that his current relationship has to change, no matter how comfortable things have gotten for him. And it's right after that when Thereza tells him she's in love with him. It's a little heartbreaking how much of the decisions in their relationship are left up to Calvero. But I'm sure a lot of this plot was created with regards to his relationships.

J: When Calvero first takes Thereza in, he drolly but sincerely remarks upon the benefits of a Platonic friend, and I think Chaplin gets more dramatic mileage out of Calvero's insistence on getting Thereza over him than he would if he really allowed the two to develop and mutual romance. By making the bond between them something Calvero must break to fully cure Thereza, Chaplin gets to be Platonic but feel romantic. It's a deft bit of screenwriting, and one that makes up for a lot of Thereza's character deficiencies by constantly focusing our attention on how we react to the interplay between Calvero and Thereza instead of on each person.

A: Very true! And I think Calvero is more effective as a character on the whole for not becoming romantically involved, although I do see some undertones towards that.

The screenplay works to that effect by drawing their relationship out. It's not episodic, but it is punctuated with performances, starting with Calvero's dreams and then working up towards actual staged events. Even though Thereza doesn't do vaudeville, it does seem like they relate to each other best as performers, which might be how he can handle her histrionics as well as he does. I expect Calvero must be used to it by now.

I've been thinking, if she had been a vaudeville actress, the plot might have been too much like A Star is Born.

J: Ooh, good point. I also think it differs from A Star is Born in the way it handles the old man's demise and the young woman's rise. A Star is Born is more melodramatic, what with Norman being no less destructive than he is beneficial and taking a more gruesome way out to atone for himself. Much as I like that film, its plot seems more a freakish aberration. Limelight casts the fall of the old and forgotten along with the rise of the exciting and new as more of a cyclical act. Chaplin resigns himself to fading away just as he eclipsed his forebears. As bitter as the film can be, it also accepts this fate with some grace, and even the one last show at the end is his way of going out on a high to leave the up-and-comers free to keep rising without him.

A: It's pretty much the main difference between a straight-up Hollywood monster melodrama and something by Chaplin. He really works to develop these characters and their points in the film to best remark upon that theme.

J: And, naturally, I think that theme is best expressed in the finale, which is simultaneously the most optimistic and the most tragic part of the film. Calvero gets his last shot at adulation, but even setting aside the grim conclusion to his final bow, there's something final in the applause he receives. This isn't a rebirth, it's a wake. He just happens to be alive long enough to experience it.

And I admit I actually cried when I realized that his partner at the piano was Keaton. I knew it was him, given that I was aware of his cameo and this was the end of the film, but I didn't recognize him until this one shot of him looking helplessly at Calvero as their musical number goes uproariously off the rails. He looked so old and broken, even more hollowed out by changing times and scandalous relationships than Chaplin. And yet the two of them find these hidden reservoirs of physical prowess as they stumble and trip over their song, and I was reminded of how great they both were again. It's the comic high point of the film, but also one of the most emotionally and thematically complex sequences Chaplin ever shot. Even more so than the film's sad but graceful conclusion, this climax represents the last word on Chaplin's career.

A: Damn, that is a good place to stop. I certainly can't top it. Final thoughts?

J: Limelight isn't the best of Charlie Chaplin's films (for technical skill I think of The Gold Rush, for emotional resonance I side with his achingly poignant City Lights), but it may be the one that best encapsulates his career. It may be more bitter than sweet, but it emerges as sentimental a view of art as anything he did as the most beloved man in the world.

A: Agreed. And while bittersweet, I think it's still hopeful, in its way. It looks back on a great career and lets him die after a round of applause, rather than forgotten in a room. It shows a very interesting relationship between an artist and his art in that way.

Monday, November 21

Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, 2011)

Getting the chance to sleep for a few days on Paddy Considine's feature debut Tyrannosaur didn't do the film any favors. While I still felt it distanced itself somewhat from the limited constraints of the miserable kitchen sink genre in which it operates, the film doesn't do enough to break from the traditions it seeks to transcend. Too often, it just feels like horror overload, and not even the remarkable performances from its three principal players can fully alleviate the near-tedium of its unrelenting atrocity. Nevertheless, the thread of affirmation that runs through all but the most savage moments redeems the film, and I look forward to seeing where Considine goes next.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Saturday, November 19

J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011)

J. Edgar is a film about a legend who cared only for respect, made by a man who seems to care only for awards. Clint Eastwood, the most shameless Oscar-baiter currently working, has nothing to say about J. Edgar Hoover, infamous founder of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, nor does he even try to tell his deflated narrative well. This is painting-by-numbers biopic, not even its limp "twist" subverting its schematic use of flashbacks and theme-articulating moments in twilight years. Judging from the mixed reception J. Edgar received, however, Eastwood's increasingly stale approach might finally be rubbing critics the wrong way.

Written by Dustin Lance Black, J. Edgar lacks the passion the writer brought to his script for Milk. One can understand his more ambiguous feelings toward Hoover, but Black finds himself caught between sympathy for the man and clearly critical thoughts on his seedier tactics, and his own mixed thoughts inform the film's presentation of its protagonist. If you think Hoover's brand of "keeping us safe" justice is something this country could use again, you'll be disappointed by its depictions of Hoover's egomaniacal shadow takeover of government. If you see Hoover as the precursor to Patriot Act politics of paranoia and fear, you'll hate its attempts to make an unpleasant man sympathetic. But don't make the mistake of thinking this lack of extremes means that Hoover emerges a rounded, complex human being. Instead, he serves as a repository for lazy screenwriting summaries of character, and Eastwood, famously lazy when it comes to fixing the drafts he's given, does nothing to alleviate the hollow revelations of J. Edgar's character.

One could argue that, given this is a film about Hoover trying to erect his own deluded self-image as legion, the fact that no one in this film never looks his or her intended age is a wry visual commentary. But that ignores Eastwood's status as a no-nonsense workman, and one glimpse at Leonardo DiCaprio earnestly trying to look 24 dispels any notion of play. To fit DiCaprio's middle age, Eastwood has to overemphasize his grim, joyless color palette even during Hoover's ascendancy. The director's modern output has generally been sapped of its pigment, but J. Edgar takes the desaturation to absurd new lows. Everything here looks rubbed down with ash, with such errant use of shadow that evocative use of shadow takes a back seat to mere incoherence.

Nevertheless, DiCaprio gives it his all as Hoover, valiantly working against a leaden script and (in Hoover's old age) cocooning latex makeup in a futile search for complexity. Two things set Hoover's tongue uncontrollably wagging: sex and justice. The former makes him stammer with nervosa (even revulsion), the latter with unchecked excitement at the prospect of fighting enemies. When the lad rushes to the scene of an anarchist bombing on the attorney general in 1919, his determination masks a sense of relieved satisfaction, his paranoid fears of radicals finally confirmed. DiCaprio never delves into the depths of Hoover's fears and vendettas, but he nearly captures the contradictions of the G-man, finding the personality link between the fearlessness of walking into the Oval Office every few years to blackmail a new president and the quivering shyness that comes with being asked for an innocent dance.

DiCaprio certainly escapes the tedium of Black's script with more aplomb than any of the other principal cast. Naomi Watts arrives early as Helen Gantry, the secretary who served under Hoover nearly all of his professional life, but she has nothing to do except follow orders with only the rarest suggestion of unease, which barely registers at the level of seeing someone put a drink on a table without a coaster. Poor Armie Hammer has it worst of all. Playing Hoover's second-in-command (and rumored lover) Clyde Tolson, Hammer does not have the luxury of portraying a human being. As a strapping young lad, he is the projection of Hoover's clear homosexual fantasies: a clean-cut, well-tailored man who makes catty comments about fashion and will also make the first move Edgar is too terrified to pull. As an aged, disillusioned agent, Hammer sports some of the most hysterically bad makeup it's impossible not to feel sorry for him. He looks as if someone used his face to scrape the spackle off a putty knife, latex flesh hanging off him in tumorous clumps.

But damn it, Edgar still loves him, and anyone who takes this film as remotely true to Hoover's life will be flummoxed as to how the man could intimidate anyone with his career-killing secret so plainly visible. The relationship of the two men is chaste, but Black still devotes huge portions of the film to the sexual tension between the two men, even as he isolates it from relevance to the rest of the story. He does not, for example, even float the idea that Hoover's latent homosexuality might have been a motivating force in his obsessive quest for shameful dirt on others. And this is from Black, who had no trouble whatsoever suggesting that such self-loathing was not merely a factor but the factor in Dan White's assassination of Harvey Milk. Instead, we are treated to the almost comical sight of Hoover's mother (Judi Dench), a domineering wench who speaks solely in dolorous thuds of guilt inducement. She even addresses her son's all-but-open sexuality by darkly reminding him of a cross-dresser in their town they called a "daffodil," a word said with hilariously misplaced gravity.

The mother becomes just one more haphazardly inserted element in the film's incessant leaps between desperate grabs for thematic purpose. An amusing split between the director's and writer's age sensibilities come into play here highlights the problem: Eastwood thinks he's making Citizen Kane, the story of how a man's grasp on the American Dream later becomes a chokehold that forces out the grotesquerie of what he loves. Black, on the other hand, is looking to one of that film's clearest progeny, The Social Network, which works on a smaller scale yet aims even higher, seeking to precede Kane by showing how such creation myths as the American Dream begin. J. Edgar thus tries to be both, but in treating Hoover as the product of his own creation myth, the film betrays an unwillingness to either straighten out the inconsistencies in vision or to pursue this ouroboric theme to its ambitious conclusion.

As such, J. Edgar is but the latest film to embody the detached laconicism of Eastwood's actor persona. For all his formal chops, Eastwood seems increasingly indifferent to the quality of his own work even as almost everything he does feels cynically calculated to get some tacky statue. His last film, the even more dismal Hereafter, boasted some truly awful moments of crystallized directorial laziness, embarrassingly simple mistakes a man of Eastwood's stature and age should not have made. J. Edgar has one such moment in a flashback to a horse race where Edgar and Clyde bonded, or at least, that's intended to be the focus of the shot. My attention was directed to what the camera itself was focused on, which is to say, the railing in front of every human being in the shot. This is a blunder I expect a sandals-and-black-socks-wearing father with a Flip cam shooting the family vacation to make, not Eastwood and his cinematographer Tom Stern. And for the love of God, will someone stop letting him make his own scores? His wretchedly plodding piano notes sound less like an evocation of Hoover's inner pain than a drunk slowly pounding the same four keys in a stupor.

Hereafter was spectacularly bad, but J. Edgar feels like every issue I've had with late-career Eastwood—weak script, formalism so stiff it's banal, an overinflated sense of importance—put into one film. The best I can say for it is that, while taking everything else from Changeling, at least the movie didn't port over that film's overwrought melodrama. But I might have actually liked some more weeping and shrieking, if only to wake up the audience. As the story of a man's life, J. Edgar fails miserably. As a thematic statement on how a man chased the idea of America with such force that he actually corrupted the very ideal he wished to embody, it fares even worse. Sporting the worst framing device since Saving Private Ryan, turgid cinematography, and actors left without a clue how to progress, J. Edgar proves so dull one cannot even say it spins its wheels. Hell, it doesn't even shift out of park.

Spirit - Stallion of the Cimarron: Onomatopoeia

Teaching figures of speech are occasionally necessary. This is a fun way to practice identifying onomatopoeia. REMEMBER:

Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech that employs a word, or occasionally, a grouping of words, that imitates, echoes, or suggests the object it is describing, such as "bang", "click", "fizz", "hush" or "buzz", or animal noises such as "moo", "quack" or "meow".

I. Match the animals or things below and the onomatopoeia you believe the sound they make suggests. There may be more than only one matching for each of the items. Try to figure out the "sound" the verbs may have to identify the corresponding noun.

1. Wind

2. River

3. Wings

4. Bird

5. Eagle

6. Geyser

( ) rumble

( ) swoosh

( ) flutter

( ) screech

( ) chirp

( ) spout

( ) blow

II. Watch the movie segment and check your answers:



Answer Key:

river: rumble

wings: swoosh, flutter

eagle: screech

bird: chirp

geyser: spout

wind: blow

bird: chirp

Thursday, November 17

The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, 2011)

I cannot say that The Mill and the Cross fully captivated me, for I confess I was lost during some stretches of its plotless reverie. Nevertheless, at no point did Lech Majewski's film fail to fascinate me. As a work of criticism that explicates Bruegel's painting The Way to Calvary, it reminds me of some of Godard's most structuralist early-'70s work, breaking down and giving voice to each component of the composition. As an experiment, its striking use of digital animation to blur the line between reality and painted backgrounds makes for beautifully unique CGI as that technology grows increasingly stale.

Majewski inhabits Bruegel's painting as the artist (played by Rutger Hauer) conceives of the opus. Offering no grounding element for the audience, the director launches immediately into a reality-blurring recreation not only of the painting but the historical context around it. Juxtaposing Bruegel's conception of the painting with the lives of the people it depicts, The Mill and the Cross blends its aesthetic critique with a historical one, making a subtle but unmistakable case for the importance of art as a reflection of culture even as it carves out new paths for that culture to follow.

The film can be impenetrable for those not familiar with the painting, so a quick word on that. Bruegel's Calvary recasts the Passion in contemporary Flanders, then under the rule (and persecution) of Spain, which acquired the county after the Eighty Years' War. Reacting to the wave of Protestant conversion that swept Flanders, the Catholic Philip II enacted a brutal repression of the Flemish with the approval of the Inquisition. Bruegel's painting, at its most basic level, recasts the Spanish (and, by extension, the Catholic Church) as the pharisaical force quelling a radical, but peaceful and loving, new religion.

But it is about so much more that, as we learn from Bruegel's discussions with the art collector and investor who gives the artist patronage. Hauer, hunched over his sketches, eyes darting up to get another survey of the land, speaks with all the intensity he brings to his other roles. Yet he speaks only of the painting and of the meaning of each aspect of it. Drawing lines to the focal point of the cross he places in the middle distance, Bruegel assigns symbolic and thematic meaning for everything around that center. The city seen in the top life comes to represent life; the circle of spectators already waiting for the execution at Calvary stand for death.

Majewski then fleshes out the elements of the painting even more as he slips into the tacit, unforgiving lives of the people seen in each aspect of the arrangement. We see the "tree of death" erected when Spanish guards capture a man and beat him to death, tying him to a wheel that they then hoist on a giant pole for the sport of crows. The woman playing the role of the Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling) whispers in voiceover about her doomed son, Rampling's impassive face quivering from the effort of holding back her grief. Then there's the miller residing in that precariously perched mill overlooking the painting; even before Bruegel clarifies the man's role in his painting, the miller resembles God in his silence and food-giving occupation.

Over time, the lives of the people in the painting bleed into the "reality" of Bruegel's present, and eventually everything sublimates into the artist's subjective perception, which places those painted backgrounds into the open air of the countryside and forces the bourgeois collector into emotional involvement with the Christ figure he comes to mourn. In the film's most incredible scene, Bruegel signals to the overlooking miller, who halts the Earth with a wave, Bruegel's own creation now offering divine inspiration for the painter. It's a beautiful visual statement on how the artist views the world, as well as the way that reality and imagination combine.

Granted, it can be hard to follow the film at times as it drifts between the world within the painting and without. Those who found The Tree of Life confusing would likely explode at this film's plotless movement. But Majewski's direction makes for a fascinating work of art-as-critique, exploring The Way to Calvary as not merely a picture but a crystallized moment. Obtuse as it can be, The Mill and the Cross is an excellent way to introduce people to the concept of analytical criticism, of viewing a work of art as more than a surface-element recreation and analyzing its content, its form, and its context. As I walked out of the theater, I heard no fewer than four people say something to the effect of, "Well, it looked pretty but that story was awful!" Judging from that, we could use a few more films teaching us about what truly goes into crafting a piece of art.

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2011)

For a film that can be so smart, Incendies sure does suffer from some amateurish mistakes. A mystery concerning the unraveling of two twins' lives in the wake of their mother's death, Denis Villeneuve's film splits its focus between past and present as we track the family tree from the Middle East to Québec. Fundamentally, however, this has the effect of not simply either showing or telling the audience the importance of the mother's life and the depth of her secrets but doing both. Essentially, the audience gets every key piece of information twice, if not more so; Villeneuve presents the final twist in at least four different ways, draining the moment of its impact.

The story begins in Québec, with Simon and Jeanne Marwan (Maxim Gaudette and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) meeting with their late mother's notary (and former boss) as he reads the will. The man calmly reads out the woman's unorthodox wishes, which ask the children to seek out the father they thought dead and the brother they did not know existed. Simon, petulant and nursing a clear resentment for his mother, wants no part of this ridiculous goose chase and leaves his more amenable sister to track down her mother's past in a fictionalized stand-in for Lebanon during its civil war. What Jeanne finds will upend her and her brother's lives.

Villeneuve and cinematographer André Turpin film Incendies with the crisp, almost brittle texture that informs desert-set films these days. Flashbacks place the mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), amid build-ups of armies and militias, the wide, jagged space of rural and rocky areas offering so few places to hide from any number of roving bands who each have their own special reason to kill whomever they stop. Villeneuve arranges haunting shots of static atrocity, from still-smoldering ruins of bombed orphanages to a bus filled with murdered passengers set on fire by extremist Christians.

But the film's real horrors are of a more personal nature. The film moves from a flashback of the mother just before her death to the first glimpse of her early life, and the first thing we see is Nawal's family murdering her Palestinian refugee for getting her pregnant. The brothers nearly kill her as well for shaming the good Christian name of the family, and even though the grandmother spares the young woman from death, she too disparages and attacks Nawal, banishing her after the baby is delivered and taken away from the family. This proves one of the less disgusting tragedies to befall the poor woman, so ignored by the children who do not remotely understand her story.

Incendies works best when it remains firmly with Nawal, patiently absorbing her growth from intelligent but naïve college girl to embittered warrior fighting against her own Christian sect to express her hatred for their actions. Azabal routinely finds untapped reservoirs of strength, her eyes turning ever more steely and her whole body coiling like a caged animal looking for an impossible escape. Nawal's indefatigable resolve in the past only makes her catatonic death in the present all the more mysterious and unsettling. And while the narrative requires the film to keep returning to the children, these constant oscillations hurt the film for distracting from Azabal's intense performance.

They also bring up the aforementioned repetition between exposition and demonstration. We are told in the present of Nawal's torture in a political prison, only to be shown it in the subsequent scene. Alternately, visual clues alert the audience to a revelation minutes before Villeneuve painstakingly makes them clear in dialogue as if he expected no one to fully put it all together until a character openly addressed the issue in dialogue. I can't tell if Villeneuve doesn't realize the dramatic error he's committing or if he just has that little faith in the audience. Either way, the disturbing truth underneath this dysfunctional family mystery loses all of its stomach-churning implications through its constant restatement.

Not that it's a particularly resonant truth, at least outside providing an initial gut reaction. In many ways, Incendies reminded me of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy as played for drama, not thrills. This is not merely for the way in which the film springs a perverse reveal but in the manner it surprisingly serves as a kind of revenge movie. Rather than giving any insight on the Lebanese Civil War or even a deeper understanding of its characters, Incendies is fundamentally a mechanical exercise that cares only for its shocking but meaningless twist. It's a shame, for the film boasts many fine elements, from its solid pacing (even taking into account the overlap that should have been trimmed) to Azabal's fantastic work. For a film that broaches the rarely filmed subject matter of the Middle East's entrenched sectarian violence—as opposed to its oversimplification of religious extremism—Incendies proves frustratingly conventional, casting aside its moments of depth to pursue its myopic narrative to its conclusion. I'm sure I'd have heard gasps from an audience had I seen Incendies in a theater, but I was more engaged gasping at the real horrors of war than the ludicrous development that shoves that conflict aside.

Wednesday, November 16

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (José Padilha, 2011)

I hated the first Elite Squad so much I could barely deign to give it a capsule review. The sequel, which initially seems like more of the same, thankfully redeems itself after the first act and makes this franchise at least interesting, if still deeply flawed aesthetically and morally. In moving away from its fascism, it now has the problem oscillating haphazardly between reactionary politics and more liberal rumination. It's still clumsy, but at least you can stomach it.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Sunday, November 13

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

[Warning—contains spoilers]

I can think of no useful way to break down Pedro Almodóvar's stunningly transgressive The Skin I Live In without using spoilers. Like Vertigo, The Skin I Live In features a twist that changes the entirety of the film's meaning, not simply on a cheap narrative level but the thematic subtext itself. Also like Vertigo, Almodóvar's film deliberately divulges its secret with an entire act to go, necessitating a discussion of that upheaval to truly unpack the film's offerings.

The Skin I Live In is a horror film in which everyone, on some level, is a monster. Some behave monstrously, while others see themselves as creatures. The only real distinction between the monsters is gender, which becomes the crux of the entire story. Almodóvar's film is remarkable for many reasons—the outlandish plot; its enticing blend of florid, rustic and aseptic color palettes; the ever-thickening atmosphere—but none more so than its ingenious, audacious, incisive commentary of gender identity.

The director wastes no time shaking up the audience. He introduces us to Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a skilled surgeon working on "transgenesis," experimenting on human DNA to improve the species. In his house he keeps a woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he locks in an upstairs room and denies her any sharp objects. Clad in a flesh-toned body stocking, Vera looks like an animated medical textbook drawing, anatomically correct but blank. Her presence disturbs the tranquility of Ledgard's villa, an offsetting feeling only exacerbated by the surgery clinic the doctor built on the grounds that resembles the secret lab of a mad scientist (which it is). These touches disrupt the film before it has truly begun, and things only get worse from here.

We learn that Ledgard, inspired by the suicide of his wife after a car accident left her horribly scarred, is trying to create a form of human skin resistant to burns. He tests this new flesh on Vera, and Almodóvar stresses her guinea-pig state with a beautiful, dreamy, but horrific fade from a headless medical dummy with lines marked for patches of skin to Vera lying in the same chair with the same lines marked on her. Almodóvar, along with cinematographer José Louis Alcaine, never oversells the sadism of these scenes, instead creating a lush but eerie feeling that fits with the melodramatic flourishes of revenge that slowly filter into the film, matching two dissimilar patterns along the same beat.

That oneiric approach informs even the twist, revealed through a flashback clearly rooted in Vera's perspective. While she sleeps, we see in her dreams not the woman but a young man, Vicente, a cocksure, self-consciously masculine boy who preens like a '50s greaser. Perhaps compensating for working as a seamster in his mother's shop, he hits on the lesbian clerk and later rides out to a wedding clearly looking to pick up a girl. He succeeds, chatting up Ledgard's daughter and taking her out to the garden to get some action. But his aggressive come-ons go too far, and the already shaken Norma goes completely insane and eventually kills herself. Ledgard, now wholly insane, kidnaps the boy and, as we see through a series of surgeries, turns him into Vera.

Does the reveal truly count as a twist, though? In a narrative sense, absolutely; it reconfigures the character dynamics and plunges the film into even darker territory. But it's hardly a twist the way we think of it, with a sudden reveal calculated to send the audience reeling. Anyone paying attention will put together the truth a few minutes into the extended flashback, but that in no way spoils the mood. The truth underneath The Skin I Live In is shocking, but Almodóvar does not simply drop it on the audience, instead elongating the jolt into the same sustained, sinking feeling that permeates the whole film. Almodóvar, having refined his flourishes over the years, is one of the few people who can cross as many boundaries as he does while still displaying a clear amount of restraint.

Furthermore, by not staging this as a quick reveal, Almodóvar gives the audience time to rethink the entire film to that point and what follows, which allows for a deep consideration of gender politics. We've already seen how gender affects the type of monstrosity shown in this film: Ledgard cages Vera, watches her on surveillance monitors, and has his way with her when he pleases. Contrast that active villainy to the wife, whom we see post-accident in flashback. Scarred beyond all recognition, she recoils when she finally sees her reflection and cannot bear to live. Where Ledgard hides his monstrosity beneath a handsome and soft-spoken veneer, the wife sees herself as a hideous beast.

Vicente/Vera bridges the split and clarifies the commentary. Vicente, though not evil, is brash, arrogant, defiant and sexually aggressive. He feels remorse for going too far with Norma, but he also thinks he can just move on with his life. Vera, however, is submissive, not only to Ledgard but Zeca, the half-brother who ran off with Ledgard's wife. Zeca returns and, mistaking Vera for the wife, proceeds to break into her room and rape her. After a time, Vera even defends Ledgard when suspicions begin to mount. His real face now obscured through surgery, Vicente internalizes his new feminine state and acquiesces to that gender role. It's worth noting that most of what aggression Vera still exhibits is self-directed in the same way that the wife and Norma take out their agonies on themselves where Zeca and Ledgard brutalize others.

Through Vicente/Vera, Almodóvar makes plain that gender is merely a social construct. The degree to which Vicente accepts the submissive role of the female is stunning, and it starts from the moment Ledgard gives him a vaginoplasty. Marilla, Ledgard's servant, functions as the steely matron, complicit in Ledgard's atrocities. But when she comes to the villa in flashback to look after Vera, we see her elect to wear a servant's uniform, willingly stepping back into her role as caregiver, and she even sacrifices her son in the present to maintain order for the child who grew up to be her master. As men, Ledgard, Zeca and Vicente are bestial, indulging their appetites without a care in the world. But it is the women who are made into creatures, be it Vera's lab rat, Marilla's beast of burden or the wife's hideous alien. To further stress the role gender plays in the characters' behavior, Almodóvar sparks the violence of the falling action from a glimpse Vera gets of her old self in the paper, triggering a last vestige of masculine self-determination that breaks the spell of submission.

This elevates The Skin I Live In from a first-rate genre mash-up to one of the most daring films in recent years. Almodóvar doesn't chuck in transgender forms for the sake of shock but to examine the ways that the binary opposition functions and enslaves us. This explains the stylistic intermingling feminine melodrama and masculine horror-thriller, and why neither style offers a respite. In this film, color—the passionately red blood, the offensively bright yellow of Zeca's Carnival costume/disguise—signals trouble as much as the sterility of Ledgard's lab or the ascetic conditions of Vera's sparsely decorated room.

Faces play a key role in The Skin I Live In, with Almodóvar routinely placing a male face in front of a surveillance monitor of Vera. Sometimes the man looks down upon a tiny screen, other times Vera's face looms over the watcher on a giant TV. In both cases, some force pulls each face toward the other, enticing the male, bracing the female for what she knows is coming. Almodóvar's films routinely delve into feminine oppression, and not always by evil men (Vicente has that same perverted innocence to him as Benigno from Talk to Her), but The Skin I Live In explicitly deals with the gender split and its primal, horrifying impulses better not only than any of his own movies but any film that comes to mind. Brilliantly paced and thematized, The Skin I Live In is the probably the most unorthodox, most entertaining distillation of feminist theory ever made by a man.

Saturday, November 12

The Princess and the Frog: Simple Present

This is one of the best animated movies by Disney in recent years. It is fun, amusing and uplifting. The music and plot are great. I love it. I used this scene to practice the simple present tense based on a typical routine day in New Orleans. In the end, the students may personalize the exercise talking about themselves and their own city. They loved it!

A. Take a look at the activities below. Watch the movie segment and write T if Tiana, the main character, performs the activity or P if it is the people of New Orleans who do it, or B if both Tiana and the people do it on a typical day, according to the segment.

( ) 1. Read a magazine on the way to work.

( ) 2. Play musical instruments in the streets.

( ) 3. Dance in the streets of New Orleans.

( ) 4. Serve food and drinks in a restaurant.

( ) 5. Play card tricks.

( ) 6. Buy newspapers in the streets.

( ) 7. Have fun.

( ) 8. Make magic.

B. Now write down four affirmative and four negative statements about what Tiana does (doesn't do) and what people do (don't do) on a typical New Orleans day. Use the information in exercise A.

Affirmative sentences:

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

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

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

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

Negative statements:

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

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

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

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

C. Now take a look at the activities in exercise A. Write affrimative and negative statements saying wht you do (don't do) on a Brasilia's (or your town's) typical day.

Ex 1. I read (don't read) a magazine on my way to work (school).

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

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

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

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

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

7 .....................................................................

8 .....................................................................