Wednesday, February 29

50 Book Pledge #6: Philip Pullman — The Golden Compass

Having seen and quickly forgotten the decent 2007 adaptation of this book, I never got around to its source material, which is a shame because I would have treasured this as a teenager. An accessible fantasy book warning against religion, The Golden Compass could have helped my rough transition into atheism by giving me a storytelling backup, not merely the boring den of facts. And I must say, it's a fantastically swift read, even taking into account I'm an adult and this book can be easily read by children. The narrative momentum never falters in this first installment, and I more or less plunged headlong into the next installment the second I finished.

Tuesday, February 28

Brian De Palma: Redacted

The mainstream view of Brian De Palma's 2000s output is anything but flattering, with all four of his films made in the new millennium bowing to intense critical pans and commercial indifference. However, I've found his contemporary work to rank among his best. Mission to Mars captures the boundless enthusiasm (and unabashed cheesiness) of old Disney space adventures, shot to favor near-poetry over scientific accuracy and all the better for it. Femme Fatale threw people with its narrative mulligan, but it made the strongest case to date for the director's actual feelings for women, which are far more complex than the lazy accusations of misogyny that have dogged him for so long. The Black Dahlia is, if anything, the only one of De Palma's films that can even stand with Carlito's Way in terms of sheer aesthetic and Romantic beauty. Its sloppy elements and awkward acting choices only add to its deliberate, yet gentle, attack on Hollywood. It may also be the most neatly contextualized of De Palma's films in his strange canon, fitting neatly with the more formal, big-budget experiments and the uncompromising anti-mainstream tone of his '70s and '80s work.

Then there's Redacted. In 1989, De Palma made Casualties of War, one of his most sincere films and perhaps the only one to lack any postmodern flourishes. Redacted seeks to rectify this: it swaps Vietnam for Iraq and swaps the classical filmmaking of Casualties for a collage of styles and media. De Palma constructs his film as a hodgepodge of footage sources. The intent is clear: by stylistically and narratively repurposing Casulaties' true story of a rape and massacre being arduously brought to light, Redacted uses its own dramatization of real events to demonstrate that, in a war that can now be documented by anyone with a cell phone, truth has never been further from the public's grasp. If Casualties of War found worth, even moral victory in doing the right thing, Redacted nihilistically sees no point in even trying.

For that very reason, all the incisive ideas percolating through Redacted's slim running time cannot prevent it from being one of the most abysmal, unbearable movies De Palma ever made, ranking among the dregs with Bonfire of the Vanities and Wise Guys. It's a shame, too, for Redacted occasionally flirts with greatness, suggesting a vicious assault on oblivious American mindsets since the "Be Black, Baby" segment of Hi, Mom! But from the first moments, one can tell that Redacted will be a miserable chore, not a galvanizing screed.

The film follows a company of soldiers stationed in Iraq, where they already chafe under the hot desert sun and tense relations with the indigenous population. One soldier, Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), decides to film life on the base, believing that his work will get him into film school when he goes home. There's a grim irony to this thought process, the home videos a young Steven Spielberg used to make where he and his friends reenacted war now replaced by a taping of a real one. But his journal reveals the first, and deadliest, flaw of the movie: Salazar, and his comrades, could not be more simplistically written or agonizingly two-dimensional. To a T, they make casually racist comments about Iraqis and show no remorse for their lethal screw-ups. A green soldier ends up killing a woman at a checkpoint when her car speeds through, and not only does he not struggle with it, he brags into Salazar's camera.

Only Salazar and another soldier, Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney), ever even hint at a basic humanity, and they are no more nuanced than their rapacious brethren. They are moral simply because the script calls for someone to be at least partially decent, and their protests to increasingly horrific behavior have all the conviction of a bored high-schooler forced to read a play aloud in class and doing so with a flat, get-it-over-with monotone. The squad leads a raid on a local home that they suspect contains intel, where they arrest a man for no reason as a reporter for an Al-Jazeera-like news organization asks the soldiers what they are doing. Later, some of the soldiers decide to return to have their way with a 15-year-old girl they saw in the house, killing her and her family in the process. Salazar is forced to witness it, and a protesting McCoy is thrown out by his comrades at gunpoint.

That's the basic gist of the story, but De Palma tries to dress it up with his use of multiple styles. Unfortunately, the result is an interminable mess. De Palma's asides with a group of French documentarians parody stuffy, emptily moralistic war docs, the camera slowly zooming in and out on soldiers' faces as the orchestral arrangement of "Sarabande" from Barry Lyndon plays. At least, I assume it's a parody; these segments are so tedious that De Palma must be making fun of such films, but his target is unclear. Likewise, we see various YouTube clips of terrorists sneaking bombs under the clueless eyes of the Americans, or of newscasts showing angry Iraqis swearing vengeance for what has happened to them. Everyone knows what the Americans are doing, but no one will listen.

It might be an compelling array of conflicting, yet harmonious, elements were the transitions not so jarring, the morals not so disgustingly black-and-white, and the judgment not so haughty. Casualties of War grounded its characters' sadism in an understanding for their predicament. It vigorously condemned the actions of the soldiers, but it could also at least see how they were driven to the point of feral madness. Redacted feels like an old man's rant about "kids these days," only the kids here murder a family in cold blood and set fire to a teenager after raping her. It just accepts the horror of the soldiers' actions as a foregone conclusion. Salazar blanches at the atrocity, but he also wants to reveal the truth in a way that will make his film project a hit; better to get back home and piece together a dynamite cut than get justice now. And all McCoy can do is feel bad, even up to his last moment on-screen, which openly mocks him.

War is unpleasant, and the Iraq War more unpleasant than most, given its falsified justification and mismanagement. But De Palma's usual talent for immersion in seediness fails him here. He does not capture the repulsion of war; he only makes a repulsive film. As if to ward off the pointlessness of the exercise, De Palma has his characters occasionally spout aesthetic maxims. When Salazar jokingly tells McCoy that his camera doesn't lie, McCoy replies, "That's bullshit because that's all that camera ever does." Later, Salazar more insistently urges, "Just because you watch it doesn't mean you're not a part of it." Naturally, both of these utterances are key positions of De Palma's entire approach and philosophy, but so hear them said aloud here cheapens them. Especially the latter quote; De Palma is a master of implicating his audience, up there with Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Haneke. But this film does not implicate anyone because it is so morally rigid. Casualties of War shows a situation slowly spiraling off its axis until the breaking point isn't visible. These men broke before they even left home. What, then, can we learn of them?

And why is the movie so unsparing? As with the Incident on Hill 192, the real-life Mahmudiyah killings were punished. In fact, they were punished far more severely than the incident that spawned Casualties of War. The soldiers who raped the Vietnamese girl and destroyed her village had their sentences drastically reduced, and in some cases dropped entirely. The three soldiers involved in Mahmudiyah, however, have received multiple life sentences. To end the film on an uncertain note is just bullshit posturing, an offensive recalibration of reality to fit a tidy, repellent premise. The problem with this film is that De Palma, though still a provocateur, cannot now conjure the same anarchist energy of his earliest days. When he inserts an embarrassing YouTube rant by a single-minded teenage liberal, he does not broaden the scope of his critique of contemporary culture. He merely chucks in one more stereotype to be lazily jabbed, nothing more than the wink of a shock comic grown too old.

There are so many good ideas in Redacted. The fat soldier's first raid through the house borders on the Orwellian as he seizes documents he cannot read for evidence so that he can give them to a translator to determine if they are actually evidence. The blood stains left by the dead recall those thick lines of permanent marker blacking out sensitive information, erasing the full detail of the person who was there while still leaving an unmistakable trace of malfeasance. The cross-format collage of video sources presages Film Socialisme in a Derridean attempt to chase truth through the multitude of options now available to us and coming up shorter than ever. But the lapse of De Palma's subtlety results in a film that feels like a repository for every charge ever leveled against him, from misogyny to cheap cynicism to hollow rip-offs (the music lift from Barry Lyndon and a recreation of the scorpion and ants shot from The Wild Bunch add nothing). Many of De Palma's films have vile traits, but they are usually intentionally added, well-illustrated travesties cleverly dismantled by De Palma, who can be in the thick of it and above it all at once. This, however, is the only one of his films I've ever found truly disgusting, and I hope that he gets back to work soon to erase the memory of it.

Saturday, February 25

Brian De Palma: The Black Dahlia

Building off the moral investigation of film noir that characterized his Femme Fatale, Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia is a grim, stylish examination of the whole genre, not merely one of its most vital foundations. An adaptation of a fictionalization of a real murder committed in Hollywood, The Black Dahlia is ripe for De Palma's approach, but his film is less a deconstruction than a demolition, its elegant, formalist structure nonetheless betraying jagged edges that rip apart film noir. At its face value, the film is perhaps the director's most aesthetically pleasing, with its golden hues and plunging shadows casting Hollywood as its own cinematized fantasy and nightmare. More importantly, however, it is easily De Palma's most profoundly disturbing film, as transgressive in its own way as Body Double, only more formal and emotional. Body Double assaults the senses, but The Black Dahlia hits where it hurts.

Narrated in terse, strained voiceover by Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), The Black Dahlia feels like a noir from the start, even as it introduces its detectives via their alternate gig, boxers for the force. If Femme Fatale delved into the characteristic female type of noir, The Black Dahlia breaks down the male cop archetypes. We meet Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) as Mr. Ice and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) as "Mr. Fire," their accomplishments as police officers nothing more than mere fodder for hyping this exhibition match for the precinct. It casts the two as leading men not merely of the film but of its diegetic world, headliners revered for their crowd-pleasing qualities. This presentation fundamentally weakens the two men as serious police officers, but De Palma will spend the rest of the movie undermining them even more, digging into the grim, unheroic truths beneath their aesthetically captivating shells.

Blanchard and Bleichert make perfect foils for each other. Blanchard, sporting Eckhart's magnificent chin and Aryan hair, looks like the national perception of the "All-American" and resides in a house so big that even his colleagues must want to investigate his tax returns. Bleichert, smaller and brunette, returns to his cheap apartment to care for his dementia-ridden, German immigrant father. Bleichert takes a dive in their fight in order to put his dad in a home, but his voiceovers suggest that he knew Blanchard had to win anyway. For the good of the department, the son of a Jerry was always going to have to get pummeled by Captain America.

Yet Blanchard proves to be a sport about their rigged match, and the two become close friends. The merciless staging of the boxing scenes—filmed by De Palma in ways that make Raging Bull look tame—fades into an equally exaggerated view of camaraderie between the partners. De Palma even suggests that the two have bonded so thoroughly that they practically share the same woman, Blanchard's girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). But as quickly as De Palma casts Blanchard and Bleichert as the purest form of the buddy cop cliché, he sets about rending them apart. Muttered half-revelations hint at dark secrets that inform the odd sort of love triangle between Kay and the two officers, and when they get drawn into the investigation of the infamous titular murder case, their collective type crumbles.

The discovery of the "Black Dahlia," Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), occurs in the background of a stakeout Blanchard and Bleichert plan for a serial rapist/murderer, and De Palma thickly lays on the grim irony of this white woman's death instantly taking precedent at the precinct over the tailed violator and killer of black children. Bleichert himself tries to get this across to Blanchard, but his partner swiftly forgets about his initial target to focus on the case of this gruesomely disfigured corpse. Bleichert, who perhaps feels at least some form of kinship with the neglected elements of society as a second-generation immigrant, is more repulsed by the idea of children dying regardless of race. Blanchard, though, wants to find the person responsible for the killing of an attractive white woman. And as clues filter in about her sexual past, his dedication morphs into obsession.

If De Palma's previous film tacitly criticized the Nice Guy™faux-chivalric male, The Black Dahlia fully attacks it. Bleichert gradually pieces together Kay's past out of vague, fearful allusions until he realizes she was a prostitute tortured by her pimp. Blanchard rescued her, but as Kay tells Bleichert, he's never slept with her. Male judgment of female sexuality pervades the film, and Blanchard's visceral reaction to sex illustrates this most clearly. His dedication to the Elizabeth Short case exhibits his need to protect women, but also his revulsion of them. The discovery of seedy "audition tapes" featuring Short only further feed his rage. De Palma sprinkles misogyny throughout—Short's own father practically says she deserved what she got for dressing the way she did—but the treatment of Blanchard bitterly deconstructs the seemingly noble impulse to save or avenge the wronged damsel to its roots, which are no less hateful.

Bleichert, on the other hand, lacks Blanchard's fierceness but makes up for it by feeling all the lust Blanchard denies himself. His friendship with Kay flirts with inappropriateness, with Kay's repressed sexuality eking out around the man, whose own feelings are stirred in her presence. However, Bleichert pulls back when he senses himself growing too close, prioritizing his relationship with Blanchard over the one with her. More intriguing, though, is the romance Bleichert ultimately enters into with Elizabeth Short's doppelganger, a pampered rich girl named Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank) who likes to slum it in some of the lesbian bars Short used to visit. De Palma has long loved his doubles, but what makes Madeline unique is the relative lack of definition of her "real" self. The Black Dahlia is a wisp of memory, a vague outline of corrupted innocence that represents perhaps the most purified and cynical end to the poor rube who came to Hollywood to follow her dream. Madeline is, of course, the reverse; her family helped build Tinseltown and in turn made boatloads of money. But she, like everyone else in her mad clan, is perverse and exploitative, the sort of person who corrupts the corruptible like Short.

But Bleichert doesn't care. He plays Blanchard's id as much as Madeline (a Vertigo reference, perhaps?) plays Elizabeth's, and the two soon enter into a sexual affair. Madeline adheres more faithfully to the femme fatale type that De Palma so brilliantly subverted with his last film, yet he adds a class twist to her schemes that run counter to the usual motive of greed. Instead of manipulating people for personal gain, she seems to do it just to get some kind of thrill. Cloistered in aristocratic misery with her internally squabbling family, Madeline gets her jollies seducing a woman who looks like her, or twisting this hapless detective around her pinky finger. All of the loathing Blanchard pours onto the image of Short would be better directed at this embodiment of all he hates about her, but it's his partner who ends up sticking it to her, in more ways than one.

In contrast to the men and their projection of women, Short herself is complex and heart-wrenching. This is all the more striking given that the audience only "interacts" with her via old those old tapes of grimy audition reels. Kirshner brings out depths of tragedy to the woman in fragmented bursts, playing Short with just enough cynicism to try to seduce her off-camera mocker but too much innocence to do it with any more conviction than a child aping something she should never have been allowed to see. Adamant in her desire to be a star, Short is nevertheless so timid and fragile that the misogynistic accusations thrown at her memory evaporate. A tragic air pervades the film, but elsewhere it is subdued in cold shock. Whenever Kirshner appears in black-and-white, half-heartedly rousing herself against the horrid casting director (De Palma himself, off-screen), her barely contained despair jumps through the diegetic camera and then through De Palma's lens. Her looks feel like addresses to the audience's decency, and the unbearableness of it drives Blanchard insane.

The Black Dahlia is based on the book by James Ellroy, whose L.A. Confidential is regularly cited as one of the great American films of the last 20 years. That film frames Ellroy's unsparingly critical view of Hollywood with a formal perfection, its layered narrative nonetheless neatly arranged and its direction generally crisp and uncomplicated. De Palma's film is precisely the opposite of all that. It's messy, self-annihilating and convoluted. Yet it is De Palma's movie, not Curtis Hanson's, that visually embodies the tone in which Ellroy's writing casts Hollywood. Vilmos Zgimond's gorgeous cinematography uses golden hues and deep shadow to duplicitous effect, at once highlighting the nostalgic and idealistic glory of show business and its jaundiced, rotting underbelly.

In addition, De Palma understands that Hollywood, like the rest of America, was erected by immigrants and frontiersmen, often moves back past noir into German Expression itself. The stylized L.A. never truly settles into any form of realism, and by the end it's morphed into an outright fever dream of despair and confused longing on behalf of Bleichert, whose flat narration prevents one from easily guessing that the whole movie is his delirious nightmare until the final moments. De Palma regularly checks the great Expressionist film The Man Who Laughs, not only as a recurring image but a key plot point. He even throws in his own tragically yearning and disfigured character, and anyone who knows their De Palma will know instantly that such a character simply must be played by William Finley.

The dizzying, extended climax to The Black Dahlia is at once one of the most controlled freak-outs in De Palma's canon and one of the most unsettling. Bleichert, still reeling from a stunning second act finale, falls fully into madness, and the plot suddenly speeds up to accommodate his plummet. The Expressionist touches turn into full swaths of stylized acting and staging, most memorably the grim fate of Madeline's mother, whose gagging dignity made for such great comedy in an earlier dinner scene but suddenly seems frightful and insane. Other influences beging pouring in as well, from a confrontation with Madeline that makes the Vertigo connection more than plausible to what even appears to be a lift from F for Fake.

But nothing compares to the last scene, the most elegant, Romantic obliteration since De Palma caught up to Carlito's Way's foregone conclusion. Bewildered and enraged, Bleichert returns to Kay for comfort, seeking shelter from what he has seen and uncovered. Kay opens the door in a flash of heavenly white, the whore become the Madonna as she beckons the man inside. But before he can move, Bleichert hears the caw of a crow behind him and turns to see Betty Short's mutilated corpse lying on the lawn, illuminated by Kay's glow, the object of his ecstasy also a reminder of his agony. In that moment, Bleichert finds himself frozen between equally garish reminders of his two biggest failures, to the case, and to his friend and partner. It's worth noting that when Bleichert shakes his head and the ghastly image of Short disappears, so too does Kay's aura. This flash of lucidity breaks up the subjective haze of the film's last 15-20 minutes, yet Bleichert's conscious decision to retreat from the world with Kay may be more unsettling than any of the stylized actions that preceded it.

Earlier I mentioned the stylistic ways that the more graceful Black Dahlia diverged from the full-on porn assault of Body Double, yet if anything, it's the 2006 film that is more merciless. Body Double spits on what Hollywood had become; as Bleichert enters the house with Kay and shuts himself off from the horror around him, The Black Dahlia makes clear that Hollywood was always the most loathsome, horrifying place in the world.

Friday, February 24

Robert K. Massie — Catherine the Great

This could have been a great text. Instead, it feels more like a very good introduction to Catherine II for middle schoolers, maybe high-school freshmen or sophomores. It is a genuinely engaging read, however, wonderfully paced and informative with the exception of one too many esoteric asides. Massie has a clear enthusiasm for the material that generally overpowers the nagging realization that he offers no particularly revealing insights on the subject. Overall I gave it a positive score, though I admit it made me look for superior biographies of one of Russia's most fascinating rulers (and therefore most fascinating rulers of any nation).

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Once Upon a Time in America: Used To

This activity was taken from an unforgettable classic. It is a wonderful movie with a brilliant story and saga. It's one of my all times favorite. I took advantage of the scene that shows New York in the beginning of the century to practice USED TO in a contextualized way.

Watch the video segment and observe how different New York used to be in the beginning of the century. Pay close attention to the following people and objects.

Cars Street vendors Streets Cameras Women

Clocks Police Officers Buildings Clothes Kids

Read the examples and write down your own sentences, using the given cues. Make sure you choose a suitable verb to complete the sentences.


The kids/ on the streets. The kids used to play on the streets.
Cars/ uncomfortable. The cars used to be uncomfortable.
Street vendors/ bread. Street vendors used to sell bread.

1 – Streets/ crowded ______________________________________

2 – Cameras/ practical _____________________________________

3 – Women/ dark clothes ___________________________________

4 – Police officers/ elegant uniforms ____________________________

5 – Buildings / dirty _______________________________________

6 – Streets / smoky _______________________________________

After viewing:

Talk to a partner. Discuss the following questions:

1 - How do you compare the New York depicted in the segment and the city nowadays?

2 - Which one is better and why?

3 - Would you like to live in New York nowadays? Why?

4 - Would you like to have lived in New York in the beginning of the century? Why not?



How to prepare your own video segment:

• Select a movie segment that takes place in the past.

• Costumes, childhood memories, last century towns, historical moments are perfect to assess this grammar goal .

• Ask students to observe specific features in the passage .

• Prepare an exercise with cues that will help students write sentences with the structures/verbs you want to assess.

• Students write sentences, using “used to” .

Undefeated (Daniel Lindsay & T.J. Martin, 2012)

Undefeated doesn't reinvent the sports documentary, but it does add depth to the genre with an unyielding focus on the people over the game. I've never seen a sports doc care so little about the actual sport. Like Hoop Dreams (a film it uses as a clear template), Undefeated makes its subjects so dramatic that even this hater of all things sports wants so desperately to see them succeed. It's not a great movie, but Undefeated is nevertheless a fine documentary about the struggle to find some new hope in the wake of the death of the American Dream.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, February 20

Steven Spielberg: Catch Me if You Can

The brilliant opening credits of Catch Me if You Can encapsulate the spirit and tenor of the film to follow with magnificent conciseness. Animated with the use of rubber stamps (an ingenious technique that only further ties the credits to the content of the actual movie), Olivier Kuntzel's and Florence Deygas' title design renders Spielberg's most delicate film into a brief summary of plot and direction. The credits have a tremendous flow and momentum to them, the words forming in elegant typography, lines always continuing until they form the next credit. The animation has the same unceasing inertia, with the frame shifting horizontally and vertically as the stamped silhouette of Frank William Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) evades FBI Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). Buoyed by John Williams' own '60s throwback, a light but still dramatic score, these first minutes are so memorable that I recalled them instantly after not seeing the film in years, while so much of the actual story had faded.

Watching Catch Me if You Can again, however, made me wonder how I'd let it sink in my estimation. It's an undeniably light work, perhaps Spielberg's lightest since The Sugarland Express, his first theatrical film. But it's also the first of his movies since then to truly work as a comedy, to still operate on the formal, large scale of his typical work but also generate character-driven, intimate humor woefully absent in, say, 1941. So delicate is Spielberg's craft here, so unlike his typical populist stylist of overwhelming spectacle, that it can be easy to miss that the film, like The Sugarland Express, is actually a drama. In fact, it may be the most elegant summary of some of Spielberg's pet themes of childhood innocence and distanced parenthood. That it is so funny only reveals frustratingly unexplored depths to Spielberg's storytelling capacity.

We meet Frank Abagnale Jr. as a guest on a game show in the '70s. Caught, even reformed, he is on television acknowledged for what he truly is: one of the greatest con-men of the 20th century. Spielberg then briefly flashes back to his capture in France, where Hanratty finally confronts his biggest target and betrays a clear fondness for the young man beneath his taunting. By starting with these two scenes before reverting back to a mostly linear tour through Abagnale's life, Spielberg gives away his hand. The question of the cat-and-mouse game between FBI agent and confidence man is answered before anyone has even begun to ask it. This flashback betrays the director's motives: as charming and clever as so many of the reversals Abagnale routinely performs on Hanratty are, they are not the point of the expertly plotted caper.

This is only made clearer when Spielberg reverts to Abagnale's youth. Leonardo DiCaprio, though using roles like this to establish a serious and adult persona, has never looked more fresh-faced than the boy Frank. Abagnale has the perfect postwar adolescence: his respected father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) sends him to private school and continues to romance his wife (Nathalie Baye), whom he met while serving in France. DiCaprio wears a boyish smile that takes years off his already cherubic face, and he regards his father's induction into the local Rotary Club's lifetime membership as something approaching beatification. To see this kid, so naïve and joyous, juxtaposed so closely with the rotting but still cunning knave trying to escape from a French prison creates a cognitive difference.

With considerable speed, however, Spielberg begins to bridge the two beings into the same conflicted son. Frank Sr. exhibits some erratic, even dishonest behavior with bankers, and his mutterings about the I.R.S. knocking on his door coincide with shots of the Abagnales' fortunes reversing. To keep the feds at bay, the family must sell their home and move into a smaller place, as well as getting rid of the car. The parents must also send their son to public school, where he goes the first day in his old uniform, tacitly attempting to keep some form of familiarity in the upheaval (his behavior here mirrors that of Max Fischer in Rushmore after his expulsion from the titular academy).

But it is this act that helps bring out the start of Abagnale's gift for tricking people. Shoved by a bully, he walks into class with that kid and, when some mistake him for the substitute teacher, he plays along so that he might get his revenge. As the start of an epic criminal career, it's so innocuous as to be no less bewildering than the sinless child previously seen. But the childish quality of Abagnale's trick reveals a crucial aspect of his crimes that are hammered home by his subsequent discovery of his mother's infidelity and his parents' divorce.

Faced with having to choose between his separating parents, Abagnale somehow seems to grow even younger and more innocent as cross-cut frames of a sympathetic but impatient lawyer urging the boy to sign meet shots of the young man desperately fleeing the situation, running so hard that the formal elegance of the film to that point is instantly upturned in favor of handheld, momentum-filled shots that carry all the frantic energy of Spielberg's handheld footage in Saving Private Ryan. Abagnale's subsequent career of confidence tricks, of check fraud slowly blossoming into full-on impersonations of pilots, doctors and attorneys, comes back to this single moment, a despairing child fleeing reality for the safety of his own illusions.

In that sense, the Spielberg film with which Catch Me if You Can shares the most is Hook. They even share something of a common shot: the honoring of the beloved and respected parental figure in a ceremony that is both modest and overwhelming for what it means to the principal characters in attendance. There's more humor in Frank Sr.'s speech about the two mice than the resonant beauty of orphans standing for Granny Wendy, but that early shot acts a clue to this film's fairy tale origins. But Catch Me if You Can succeeds where Hook so often falls flat as a story of reality and fantasy colliding. Spielberg's Pan is a realist being sucked back into his fantasy world against his will, creating an awkward struggle in which regression is bizarrely proffered as a positive goal. Abagnale's story progresses the proper way, in which a fantasist resists the constant tug of the world around him as he must continuously up the ante of his imagination to outpace the truth.

To further emphasize this, Spielberg took the biggest creative license with Abagnale's life to stage two invented reunions between father and son. These scenes beautifully capture the son's futile attempts to remold everything back into the life he remembers. Having amassed a pile of money through check fraud gotten over by the respect given to him as a Pan-Am "pilot," Abagnale treats Frank Sr. to lavish lunches and extravagant gifts that the father, still hounded by the I.R.S., must turn down. But the son persists, and he speaks to his dad about going to pick up mom as if nothing happened, as if she didn't already remarry and Frank Sr. wasn't hollowed out from the blows of his career and family imploding at the same time. Abagnale is so caught up in his lies, and still so childish, that he cannot see the problem of giving his audited father mountains of cash he himself obtained illegally. With his father, he really is a pilot, just trying to give back to his parents who are going through a rough spot but will come through it all right.

Walken shines in these scenes. Every time he returns to the screen, Frank Sr. is more bitter, more heartbroken, but his self-pity never stops him from seeing right through his boy. In their first reunion, Walken has a smirk on his face that betrays all he knows from the moment he sets eyes on Junior. Walken puts an edge into his last few lines with DiCaprio, and when Frank Sr. parts with a cryptically whispered, "The rest of us really are suckers," the depth of his son's cluelessness is made plain by his confusion. His dad just shattered the illusion and Abagnale doesn't even know it. But when the two later meet, after Frank Sr. is reduced to working for the government he so virulently hates, the father's knowledge of his son's true activities comes out in the open when the man actually encourages his kid to continue his antics, so thrilled that his boy is giving the government a hard time. Ironically, it is Abagnale's true identity as a criminal that makes his father the happiest, but Abagnale still cannot break out of his fantasy. Frank Sr. is by this point completely broken, and all he has left in life is the brief thrill of vicarious revenge. But his son cannot see that, for he cannot even see himself.

But reality breaks through Abagnale's barriers despite his best efforts, and Spielberg further clarifies his placement of the opening flashbacks by presenting an alternate bond between Abagnale and Hanratty. The latter works in the bank fraud division he helped create, and he attaches himself to Abagnale's extensive paper trail with solemn zeal. Hanks plays Hanratty almost totally without mirth, albeit with a touch of self-awareness. (I'd give anything to have been in an audience when he replies to his partners' complaints of his humorlessness with a vulgar knock-knock joke that could bring the house down.) Hanratty gets so caught up in Abagnale's case that he himself risks folly by disappearing solely into his work. He's chasing the man beneath all those aliases, and when the two meet for the first time, Abagnale manages to fool Hanratty into letting him go. Later, the boy recounts to the agent what his dad told him about why the Yankees win, that everyone else is "looking at the pinstripes." For a time, Hanratty is as much a part of the fantasy world Frank Jr. constructs as the various occupations.

Yet Hanratty offers clarity to Abagnale, clarity both unwanted and desired. He represents hard truth in the form of the law, unable to nab the con man but nevertheless capable of ruffling his feathers. At one point in the film, Abagnale has fallen so far into his own construct that he attempts to marry a girl (Amy Adams) who thinks him one of his aliases. This essentially traps him, but he doesn't realize it until Hanratty's team tracks him down, demolishing Abagnale's house of cards and gradually setting the boy on a path to collapse. Incidentally, it's a collapse that, in a mirror of Peter Pan in the flashback of Hook, occurs when he sees his mom happy with another child. But where the young Pan fully divorced from reality to retreat to Neverland, Abagnale must finally come to terms with that reality.

On the flip side, Hanratty also stands for the normalcy Abagnale genuinely wants from all his high-flying escapades. Like Abagnale's father, Hanratty is divorced, only it was dedication to his job, not an illegal undermining of it, that splintered his family. Hanratty is also the one to see the real Abagnale, again in a foil of the boy's father: Frank Sr. sees vengeance for his torment at the hands of feds, while Carl sees the child just wanting to be loved. When Hanratty receives the first of his Christmas calls from Abagnale, he rightly deduces that the boy is calling because he has no one else to talk to, but his victorious laughing soon gives way to a clear empathy for the kid. Abagnale's genuine regret for the hassle he causes Hanratty feels like that of a disobedient but faithful child apologizing for letting down his father. All the bravado in DiCaprio's voice dies in those phone calls, his guarded but somber tone suggests that he's growing tired of all the games too.

As with last year's War Horse, Catch Me if You Can represents a deliciously old-school Spielberg in the midst of his literally bleached-out late career. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is rich in color, with classically arranged shots offering sumptuous detail as Spielberg moves swiftly through Abagnale's fast-paced life, a speed that apparently matched that of production. Though it lacks the gravitas of so many of Spielberg's late work, the film nevertheless features perhaps the best of his exuberant energy, which might explain how he could average three shooting locations a production day and still wind up with such an immaculately framed picture. To return to The Sugarland Express, Spielberg's light but poignant 2002 feature forms something of a bookend with his first theatrical release. They are both fleet-footed exercises in style that reveal their maker's deep preoccupations, but where The Sugarland Express ends with confusion and sadness, Catch Me if You Can shows its characters moving on, coping with their failures and even finding contentment.

Though filmed and released after Minority Report, Catch Me if You Can feels as if it should come before it, forming a tighter bond with A.I.'s mature, insightful thoughts on childhood and humanity and leaving Spielberg's morally probing tech thriller to the post-9/11 films to follow. But regardless of its release date, Catch Me if You Can may be the final word on Spielberg's obsession with innocence, childhood and family. That's not to say he hasn't broached the subject since, but certainly nothing he's done since has even neared the intensity and depth with which it has reckoned with the director's most personal themes.

Friday, February 17

Agora: Used To

This is a very interesting movie about a woman scientist that was ahead of her time, developing scientific studies that were proven right centuries before the first astronomers came up with the theories we believe in nowadays. I used this scene to practice the use of USED TO and its negative form.

A. Watch the movie segment and complete and read the sentences below.

Then complete them with used to or didn't use to, according to the segment.

1. Ordinary people ___________ (think) the world was a gigantic chest.

2. They _________ (believe) that heaven was on top and the earth was on the ground.

3. They _____________ (claim) that the earth was round.

4. They __________ (question) why people on the bottom didn't fall off and the ones on the sides didn't slideoff.

5. They __________ (feel) intrigued why the the sun changed size from summer to winter.

6. The scientists in the movie _________ (believe) that the earth was the center of the universe.

7. They also _________ (imagine) that the sun traveled around the earth.

B. Work in pairs:

1. What are some of the things that we believe in nowadays that you believe might be proven wrong in the future?

2. what are your current viewpoints about these issues?

- Intelligent life in other planets

- living in mars

- comets or asteroids destroying our planet in the future


1. used to think 2. used to believe 3. didn't use to claim 4. used to question 5. used to feel 6. didn't use to believe 7. didn't use to imagine

Wednesday, February 15

Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

The latest filmmaker to springboard off of working for Michael Haneke into a solo career, Markus Schleinzer tries to copy his boss' skill and fails miserably. An arch, removed take on the horror of a child molester, Michael attempts to be shocking by removing the shock and ends up failing to make any impact at all. It's times like this I'd rather be offended. At least if I'm offended, I'm engaged on some level, and maybe even being implicated in social horrors. Instead, I had to watch Schleinzer try to construct a routine around evil to make it banal. Well, he succeeded, I guess.

Check out my full review now at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, February 14

Steven Spielberg: Minority Report

Filmed from March to July 2001, Minority Report was not influenced by the September 11 attacks later that year, yet retrospectively it seems the first of Steven Spielberg's attempts to grapple with the aftermath of the tragedy. A neo-noir in which crime is committed and prosecuted in the mind, Minority Report proves disturbingly prescient in its vision of a world in which murder is punished preemptively. Though based on an even older Philip K. Dick story, the film feels like the meeting point of the Patriot Act and the impetus for the Iraq invasion, albeit the focus lies not on wars and national defense but mere law enforcement. As the PSAs encouraging support for a national PreCrime system argue to the people, "That which keeps us safe also keeps us free."

Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) believes that motto with all his heart. Having lost his son years ago to an unknown kidnapper/murderer, John looks at PreCrime as a way to prevent such pain from afflicting anyone else. Using a trio of genetically engineered psychics to predict when murders will occur and who the perpetrators and victims will be, Anderton and the rest of Washington D.C.'s unit have reduced the murder rate in one of America's most violent cities to zero. The resultant utopia resembles that of Demolition Man: exceedingly bright and almost eerily calm. Only where Demolition Man presented its peace as the product of nanny-state liberalism, Minority Report shows how instant detention has cleared the streets.

Perhaps that's why the brightness of Spielberg's future D.C. is so garish and uninviting. Using the bleach-bypass method he employed for Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg casts his world in a quasi-chiaroscuro, not fully employing black-and-white but suggesting the obliteration of a moral gray area in this new societal order. Anyone predicted to kill by the "PreCogs" is guilty and arrested before the act is committed. There are no extenuating circumstances, no appeals, only a quick journey to a massive prison that resembles a high-tech Guantanamo. Some of the police offers working in PreCrime have never even covered a homicide. They simply trust in the system, which clearly marks people as either innocent or guilty.

But naturally, there isn't much drama in a world where evil has already been figured out and dealt with, and soon Anderton's faith in the new way of things is directly challenged. First comes the intrusion of the bureaucracy, in this case Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), a representative of the attorney general. Before PreCrime can go national, the federal government wants to make sure there are no flaws. The fact that Witwer is even investigating the system cracks the illusion of the system's infallibility, and his intervention sets in motion events that lead Anderton to a potential flaw, at which point his world turns upside down.

Predicted to kill a man he's never even heard of, Anderton must flee and try to clear his name, and Spielberg stages a number of impressive chases as the chief ducks his co-workers. He leaps across maglev cars racing at hundreds of miles per hour in every direction, hitches unwitting jetpack rides off the officers come to arrest him and dukes with Witwer in a car manufacturing factory before driving away in the car that is constructed robotically around him. Spielberg's direction is at his most fluid and dynamic, the welcome return of his more coherent, formal style communicating as much energy as Saving Private Ryan with out all that camera jostling tedium. A sequence in which tiny, retina-scanning automatons move through an apartment looking for Anderton is filmed, De Palma-style, with a top-down camera gliding over the partitions of rooms, peeking in on the domestic bliss and drama of the tenants as the mechanized creatures scurry around looking for their mark. As a showcase for Spielberg's talent with action filmmaking and pacing, Minority Report is his best pure rush since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Yet it also displays some of the director's deepest conceptual probings. Like so many of Spielberg's films, Minority Report details a loss of innocence, only here this loss is visited on an adult instead of a child, and more than once. Anderton's world is shattered once when his son disappears, but he also loses the new, cocooned world he creates around himself when his name comes up as a future killer and he is put on a path to undermine the PreCrime program. Spielberg finds complexities in the man by staging him as both perpetrator and victim, someone who deliberately sets out to uncover the truth and is then wracked by those revelations.

The titular minority report refers to an aberration among the hive-mind visions of the three PreCogs, a "disagreement" on how a future might play out. Anderton goes so far as to abduct the most powerful of the PreCogs, Agatha (Samantha Morton), to try to find his own minority report, to be told that he really doesn't have to kill the unknown man he's been predicted to murder. However, if he did have a minority report, he himself would disprove the fallibility of PreCrime and the necessity to dismantle it. And yet, as the "inventor" of PreCrime (Lois Smith) tells him, the best way he could destroy the system would be to kill the man, thus proving its inability to fully protect people. No matter what Anderton does, everything will change, and he'll be destroyed by it.

Naturally, Spielberg uses this foundation to toy with the notion of fate. Agatha, once sprung from her holding chamber to accompany Anderton, can predict even small occurrences that happen without fail. Yet it is also she who tries to urge Anderton not to carry out his predicted destiny, arguing that his knowledge of his future gives him the power to change it. But it is precisely that knowledge that ultimately leads him to the doorstep of a man he does not know, at which point he discovers something that makes him capable of the murder Agatha and her siblings foresaw. This constant mixing of paradoxes, ironies and quandaries is visualized in the film's key shot, perhaps the single most striking shot of Spielberg's oeuvre, that magnificent two shot of Anderton and Agatha holding each other, their heads seemingly growing out of each other's. As Agatha shares a hive mind with her siblings, so does she swap thoughts with Anderton for a moment: having stolen Agatha to try to clear his name, Anderton now feels that he must go through with the predicted action, while Agatha the psychic tries to convince him to change his fate.

This is heady stuff, exceeded only by A.I.'s uncompromising views on humanity itself. But apart from the director's more current interest in moral complexity, Minority Report also features a unique take on the classic Spielberg theme of neglectful parents. Here, he flips the dynamic, so that instead of focusing on the wronged child, we see the parent coping with his failure, whether perceived or real. Anderton blames himself for Sean's kidnapping, and he can hardly live with himself for it. Loyal to the legal system and outwardly so strong, Anderton retreats into a drug haze when in private, watching old home movies as he dopes himself to blot out the pain for a few minutes. The aforementioned retired PreCrime pioneer likewise comes across as the regretful parent, viewing herself as having failed children who were born different and then experimented upon without care. Though not as direct an examination of Spielberg's dearest preoccupation as Catch Me if You Can, Minority Report nevertheless represents one of the director's last great looks into one of his foundational hangups, this time from a different angle that exposes new moods and interpretations.

Like Spielberg's other 2002 film, Minority Report represents a meeting of the director's two best sides, the populist audience-charmer and the serious-minded artiste. Some criticize the ending, and I agree there are a few issues. Any time you see Max von Sydow in a film, you can pretty much bet he's guilty of whatever the crime is, which dampens the suspense somewhat. As to the charge that its "solution" to the PreCrime system is too absolute, I never could gel with that reading. I've always believed that it's better to let a guilty man go free than to cage an innocent one, and by revealing the flaws in the system, Anderton and others have no choice but to scrap its progress. True, Spielberg doesn't even try to address the larger framework of justice, but that's a subject for another film. Perhaps, continuing off his Kubrick high, the director incorporated the lesson that the late, great director imparted with his altered finale of A Clockwork Orange, that dismantling a bad cure for horrible actions is as important as finding a working method of treatment for crime. Minority Report doesn't set out to find a bold new solution to law and order but to discard a flawed one. And in the face of subsequent foreign and domestic policy in this country, the film's message has since come to resemble a warning.

Saturday, February 11

Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, 2012)

Haywire displays nearly all the traits of a modern Steven Soderbergh movie. It sports an A-list cast seemingly game for anything. It jet sets all over the world even though it hardly needs to, suggesting that the director A) insists on verisimilitude, B) loves studio-paid vacations, or C) both. Its shallow-focus digital cinematography creates paranoid, claustrophobic frames of doubt and suspicion; Haywire even opens with such abstracted, zoomed-in pixellation that the text telling the audience they're watching upstate New York simply must be a gag. And as with the cast of Bubble and Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, Haywire features a non-professional actor anchoring the action, in this case retired MMA fighter Gina Carano.

The film also works as the latest in Soderbergh's never-ending line of genre deconstructions. Despite its lean running time of 93 minutes, Haywire leaves gulfs of space around its revenge plot, Lem Dobbs' script asymptotically approaching exposition, only to flatline in vagueness before reaching it. Dobbs, of course, wrote the screenplays for Soderbergh's Kafka and, somewhat infamously, The Limey. Given the amount of dialogue, it stands to reason more of Dobbs' words remain here than in Soderbergh's masterfully elliptical anti-thriller, but Haywire nevertheless shares many qualities with the director's best film. Both are action thrillers that dismantle the conventions of their niches within the genre, finding beauty and agony in the all-too-single-minded attitudes of so many of these films.

Soderbergh and Dobbs frame Haywire as a constant series of glancing blows to coherence. Beginning near the end, the film shows a shivering, antsy Mallory Kane (Carano) walking into a diner in aforementioned upstate New York and enjoying but a moment's peace before Aaron (Channing Tatum) pulls up and instantly sets her on edge. They exchange half-spoken details of a mission in Barcelona and Aaron urges her to come with him. When she declines, he throws coffee in her face and the two proceed to get in a vicious, visceral fight in front of stunned onlookers. Mallory gets the upper-hand with the help of an intervening patron (Michael Angarano), then takes the young man hostage and drives away in his car. While riding, she explains how she got there as the film promptly moves to flashbacks to follow her narrative.

The frequent time jumps become just another way to constantly stay ahead of explaining what, exactly, is going on. Slowly, the film pieces together that Mallory was the top contractor in a private sector firm farming out mercenaries for American black-ops missions. We see the mission in Barcelona alluded to earlier, as well as her betrayal at the hands of her employer and former lover, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor, whose perennial youthfulness makes the idea of the government turning to him for national defense even funnier).

Though he subverts as more tropes than he faithfully portrays, Soderbergh makes one of the more engaging and felt action films of the last few years. He holds his shots out in the fight scenes, cutting judiciously to keep momentum while nevertheless giving the audience a refreshing visual continuity and flow. He didn't hire a trained MMA fighter to be in the lead just to cut around her, and it's thrilling to see Carano take and give blows without all the erratic, stunt-double-hiding editing that defines so many modern fighting movies. This also gives her a screen presence that more than makes up for her stiff line readings, which would throw off the flow of the film in Soderbergh wasn't already doing that so casually with his structure.

Indeed, the director finds other ways to disorient the viewer accustomed to the current slate of beat-em-ups in the absence of shakycam editing. Camera angles constantly find unorthodox framings, while the placement of the camera in fight scenes is, amusingly, farther away and more objective than in the more blurred static moments. There's also the score by Ocean's series composer David Holmes, who brings a similarly jazzy touch to the music here. As Carano runs after a loose end in Barcelona, the exertion and determination on her face is deliberately undermined by the light tone of the music running over the scene. But Holmes' score is no less propulsive and textured than Soderbergh's alternately chugging and lethargic direction. It's the perfect compliment to a strange film, capable of capturing the disparate, often conflicting moods Soderbergh layers into his deconstructive film.

Holmes even offers some clues to what Soderbergh might be doing here in occasionally throwing back to the music of old spy movies. Haywire, more than a mere martial-arts movie, is also a take on the spy thriller. Perhaps the fact that Mallory is not a government agent but a private contractor hired by a government explains the breaks in genre routine. It's not Soderbergh tearing apart this genre, it's the cynical progress of our national defense strategies. McGregor schemes with officials (Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas), who in turn plot against him when the time comes. In the new world of intelligence and classified assignments, the only goal seems to be to cover one's ass and maybe make a profit if at all possible. Though the pieces eventually come together to reveal who betrayed Mallory and how everyone else she's encountered fell into place, Haywire still leaves disturbingly vague just what it is these people do when they're not trying to kill one of their own.

Friday, February 10

Big Fish: Too x Either

This marvelous movie is fantastic for activities because it is full of complete micro stories completely contextualized. This one I used for a basic grammar point, contrasting the use of TOO and EITHER.

I. Answer the questions about Ling and Ping, the Siamese Sisters. Decide which alternative is better, according to the movie segment. Then answer the questions, using too or either.

1. Ling can / can't sing. What about Ping?


2. Ling has / doesn't have two arms. What about Ping?

3. Ping is / isn't wearing a blue dress. What about Ling?


4. Ling is / isn't wearing a red rose in the hair. What about Ping?


5. Ling was / wasn't very happy about the performance. What about Ping?


6. Ping was / wasn't surprised to see the soldier. What about Ling?


7. Ling is / isn't going to help the soldier. What about Ping?


8. Ping is / isn't beautiful. What about Ling?




Answer key:

1. can - She can sing too.

2. has - She has two arms too.

3. isn't - She isn't wearing blue either.

4. is - She is wearing it too.

5. wasn't - She wasn't happy either.

6. was - She was surprised too.

7. is - She is going to help him too.

8. Answers will vary.