Friday, June 29

Splice: Simple Past x Past Perfect

I. Watch the movie segment and write 1 next to the activity that was performed first and 2 next to the second one.


( ) She looked at the ceiling.

( ) She stuck her tongue out of her mouth.


( ) She opened the suitcase.

( ) She saw herself in the mirror.


( ) She played with toys.

( ) She wore the crown.


( ) She looked at the picture.

( ) She closed the suitcase.


( ) She saw the cat.

( ) She fetched the cat.


( ) She held the cat tenderly in her arms.

( ) She ran with the cat in her arms.

II. Fill in the blanks with either the simple past or the past perfect forms of the verbs in parentheses. Remember that the action that took place first should be in the past perfect form and the most recent one in the simple past.

1. She _______ (look) at the ceiling when she ______ (stick) her tongue out of her mouth.

2. She ________ (open) a suitcase when she _____ (see) herself in the mirror.

3. When she ______ (play) with the toys, she ______ (wear) a crown.

4. She _______ (look) at the picture when she ______ (close) the suitcase.

5. She ______ (see) the cat when she ______ (fetch) it.

6. When she _____ (hold) the cat tenderly in her arms, she ______ (run) with it in her arms across the barn.


1. Describe her to your partner. Is she human? Why (not)?

2. What are some of her human characteristics?

3. Which ones are not?



Answer Key:


1 1,2
2 1,2
3 2,1
4 1,2
5 1,2
6, 2,1


1. She had looked at the ceiling when she stuck her tongue out of her mouth.

2. She had opened a suitcase when she saw herself in the mirror.

3. When she played with a toy, she had worn a crown.

4. She had looked at a picture when she closed the suitcase.

5. She had seen the cat when she fetched the cat.

6. When she held the cat carefully in her arms, she had run with it in her arms.

Capsule Reviews: While the City Sleeps, Cracking Up, The Kid, Rock of Ages

While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956)

Fritz Lang's underseen noir blends the yellowest of journalism with King Lear in a prescient, savage view of media feeding a public frenzy. A news empire is offered to three successors, with the new kingdom to be ruled by the one who can beat the cops to solving the identity of a serial killer infamous only from the organization's own salacious coverage. Lang's framing is more stripped down than some other efforts but no less immaculate: the newsroom of transparent but isolating glass and roaring presses speak to the capacity of journalism to reveal and obscure, and how a giant conglomerate can drown out the truth instead of exposing it. As much as the actual string of murders, the tension operates on simple office politics, in which the promise of a raise and a title change to move up the modern social ladder can bring out the basest, most primitive behavior. The characterization of the sexually confused killer is oh-so-standard, but Lang's ability to make high style out of even the most basic movements and mise-en-scène combines with the otherwise fantastic story for a great anti-journo noir. Grade: A-

Cracking Up (Jerry Lewis, 1983)

When Lewis' name credit flashes on the screen over one of the star's pratfalls with the added text, "Who else?" that may be because no one else would dream of making a slapstick movie in 1983. Hell, only Lewis would have been so bold as to make slapstick back in the '50s and '60s. That defiance informs all of Cracked Up, which nominally dives into a suicidal loser's headspace to give Lewis the chance to appear in various guises without any semblance of plot. Instead, it's just wall-to-wall gags, carefully composed yet anarchic in Tati fashion. Among the highlights: Zane Buzby's appearance as a waitress nasally droning out every item on the menu and its preparatory options until her incessant questions about what kind of dressing or how the steak should be cooked become their own circle of hell. Also great is a vignette on the world's cheapest airline that tops Airplane! for sheer invention, turning the economy class level into a Roman galley and "first class" into what appears to be a half-cleaned Mexican village set, complete with drunks, chickens and filthy hay. There's also the opening credits, a series of pratfalls on Teflon-coated floors and furniture that attempts a one-man version of the club-destroying climax of Playtime; even the titles are carefree, attributing the singing of the all-instrumental title track to Marcel Marceau and dropping the audio track completely when the composer is credited, as if he stopped to take an offscreen bow. Not every joke lands, but I'm not sure they're supposed to: the absurdly awful King Kong hand that reaches in to grab Lewis' psychiatrist (Herb Edelman) might as well be a giant middle finger for how much it dares the audience to hate it. Cracking Up joins a line of comic writer-director-star masterpieces that mourn modernity's effect on slapstick. But if Chaplin commiserated with Keaton in one final showstopper in Limelight and Tati actually got out ahead of modern times and preempted May '68 by giving Hulot and the rest of Playtime away in an act of comic socialism, Lewis is a product of the Reagan era he despises. It's as narcissistic as they come, but so freewheeling and shameless that it is no less an achievement as the other two works. Grade: A

The Kid (Charles Chaplin, 1921)

Chaplin's first feature looks a bit rough compared to the total control the genius would exert over his later works, yet that same rawness makes its emotional impact one of Chaplin's most visceral thrills. Aided by the kid vaudevillian Jackie Coogan, Chaplin's Tramp establishes world dominance with a blend of Dickensian squalor and wry comedy that showcases Chaplin's deftness with underplayed comedy, bombastic sentimentalist that he may be. The trade of warning and supplicant glances between the cop and Tramp alone are a masterclass in body acting. The climactic race across the rooftops after the abducted kid is, compared to more controlled mise-en-scène of later setpieces, not that technically impressive, but its immediacy and tension makes it one of the director's finest moments. Grade: B+

Rock of Ages (Adam Shankman, 2012)

An experiment designed to test the limits of camp, Rock of Ages scrubs the coke and dried blood off the nose of the '80s and rolls sleeves over its track marks to render a host of hair metal and MOR classics with Glee-esque covers. It's got caricatures galore, from the small-town girl lookin' to find fame in the city (Julianne Hough) to the even-more-ambitious meathead hiding a knack for genius songwriting (Diego Boneta). There's also conniving managers (Paul Giamatti), a political couple looking for a social scapegoat in rock (Bryan Cranston and Catherine Zeta-Jones), and an aged ex-hippie (Alec Baldwin) who, like Spinal Tap, has drifted through rock trends for decades and has no idea that this music, too shall pass. But the only person who makes any kind of impression is Tom Cruise, who, when one also thinks of his minor role in Tropic Thunder, seems to be setting some space aside to just absolutely go for whatever role he gets. His Stacee Jaxx is a watered-down Axl Rose, but Cruise plays his all-consuming egomania and rock-god isolation for all it's worth, even if it's not worth that much.

But for a movie that lets its actors go a bit crazy, the surroundings are frustratingly low-key. Ported over from the necessary limitations of the stage, the Whisky-A-Go-Go-esque venue doesn't really convey the sheer ludicrous scale of 1980s rock: the arenas packed to the rafters with shrieking fans; the too-bright gloss of the music and style, every party song its own sensorily overloaded hangover; and the Dionysian orgy of illicit substances and sex tamely alluded to here. Instead, the audience must suffer through toothless renditions of metal complete with uninspired choreography; ridiculous arrogance (a hip-hop boy band is paraded around as the nadir of commercial prefabricaton, as if so many hair metal acts weren't label slaves); one song that serves as a big, unfunny gay joke; and the insultingly sexist suggestion that the big-dreaming girl really wanted love, not fame. This is a movie where a stripper becomes a star and wears less clothes in the limelight than she did on the pole. I don't even understand who gets songwriting credits in this universe: these characters "write" covers, yet the master tracks for some songs are played as well. Does this mean all the bands being covered here exist in this universe but didn't write the songs sung by the characters? Or is Stacee Jaxx merely the world's most popular cover artist? And who cares? Grade: D

Thursday, June 28

Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard, 1980)

In a stroke of peevish irony, Jean-Luc Godard's Sauve qui peut (la vie), touted even by the director as his return to cinema, is a film of reactionary social retardation. Its three main characters represent a regression from the ideals espoused in Godard's first cinematic period and rigorously critiqued in his video projects. There's Paul (Jacques Dutronc)bay, a burned out video director standing in for Godard, even taking his surname; Paul's ex-girlfriend, Denise (Nathalie Baye) who has retreated into the countryside to find idyll and comfort and give up TV production for small-town journalism; and a prostitute (Isabelle Huppert) resurrecting the preferred symbol of capitalism in Godard's films, the ultimate display of the body become labor.

By calling it his "second first film," Godard himself seemed to acknowledge this step backward, casting his work as a look back instead of forward. Yet if both the crisp 35mm texture of the image and some aspects of the "story" (more on those quotation marks later) recall a period the director angrily left behind more than a decade earlier, Every Man for Himself nevertheless shows a considerable maturation and change in the filmmaker's approach and his obsessive themes. Where Godard's '60s films popped with formal revolution and ingenuity, the shots of this film are static like much of his video work. Likewise, the use of freeze-frames and slow motion apply some of the analytical techniques of video back to cinema. But if these attempts to modernize film still constitute a look backward for the director, the mood these techniques capture, of quiet reflection that makes the political human instead of vice-versa, marks a significant new step in Godard's work.

That's not to say that there isn't political content in this film. Paul lives a life surrounded by capitalist glitz. He lives out of gold-plated hotels and roams malls bustling with the inhuman roar of a large crowd, using his good looks to attract and use up women. And even a man, as the bellhop of one hotel is so smitten he outright begs the director to "bugger" him. If he feels uncreative in his actual work, Paul enjoys the tyrannical control of an auteur in the world around him. Godard's autocritical streak is nothing new, but the bourgeois shell into which he places his avatar is one of his most barbed pieces of self-criticism.

Further distinguishing Paul from other forms of the Godard's introspection is the manner in which the director attacks his own chauvinist tendencies. Whether it was Godard's own, constant reevaluation or the influence of Anne-Marie Miéville, the gradual evolution of the director's sexual politics reaches a new level of disgust with the lot of women. Though he works with video, Paul recalls some of the attitudes that dot Godard's work of the 1960s, not '70s. Conversations with other men reveal even darker impulses than the usual sexism. Paul even asks one friend if, because his daughter looks like his wife, he ever fantasizes about sleeping with his daughter. Other men prove even more vile. A scene at a petrol station holds on two men slapping a woman for refusing to choose between them, no one intervening as they wear her down with violence. And when local pimps discover that the prostitute Isabelle (Huppert) is operating on her own, they abduct her and subject her to a perverse spanking for her presumptuousness. "Only banks are independent!" shouts one of the pimps.

Godard then folds these misogynistic traits back into his larger political dissatisfaction, suggesting that Paul's misogyny is a manifestation of his failure to live up to his own ideals. Godard's previous work with Miéville gradually introduced an almost Joycean view of women into the director's canon, one that posits the woman as the true revolutionary force of the world. This idea was almost explicitly stated in France/Tour/Détour/Deux/Enfants, and Godard here links a failure of the revolution with the failure of men to adapt their attitudes toward and treatment of women. "You mock the heritage system, yet now you act just like your father," Denise says to a friend, encapsulating the greatest cop-out of a generation that wanted to change everything but was about to enter a decade of rampant capitalistic excess (though France would elect a socialist to see them through the decade defined by Reagan and Thatcher).

Denise is a breath of fresh air, not only for her narrations that blend sexual and social rhetoric but for the imagery Godard associates with her. Where Paul roams over-lit, gilded constructs, Denise has retreated to the countryside, at once a reactionary surrender from modernity and a reflection of the elemental force of woman that cannot be fully tamed. The juxtaposition of Denise against sumptuous shots of nature bring to mind the water imagery of Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake. Denise may have run away from it all, but Godard does not seem to begrudge her the way he chastises Paul for selling out his ideals.

Nevertheless, the director devotes most of his attention to the prostitute, clearly back on familiar ground with one of his favored types. Where the prostitutes in Godard's '60s films displayed some level of uncertainty in their lives, a pained struggle between what they want and what society has forced them into, Huppert plays Isabelle as a woman used to the capitalistic takeover of sex still in its infancy during Godard's early days. She approaches her job with such professional remove and micro-planning she could call herself an entrepreneur. She even holds something of a job interview with her sister, who is interested in her sibling's profession. Isabelle makes her sister undress and asks personal questions about her "qualifications" and "goals." And if local pimps accosted the woman to punish her independence, Isabelle herself is not too different from them, quickly clarifying that she would take half her sister's earnings.

The mordant humor of this sibling exchange is but one example of the strong return of Godard's sense of humor after inconsistently dotting the video period. Paul gives a lecture at a school where he writes a note on the chalkboard comparing cinema and video to Abel and Cain, a lofty, militant declaration that is deliberately deflated by its scribbling in a classroom before a group of uninterested students. In so doing, Godard pokes fun at his own flat rhetoric and its myopia: at the turn of the previous decade, Godard would only show his works for students, but now he parodies how useless such an academic circle jerk could be. Smaller jokes abound, whether it be Paul's suggestive cigar smoking or random, hilarious gags like a tired man asking his horny girlfriend to put her panties back on before they go inside a theater because he really does want to see a movie.

The funniest, darkest scene of all involves an elaborate bit of sex play that a studio producer and his assistant foist upon Isabelle and another prostitute. The producer makes increasingly insane, perverse demands of the women, and his assistant, as the scene plunges ever deeper into horror and black comedy. The whole sequence works as a grotesque indictment of men, capitalist power and, of course, the movie industry, a more direct and blunt attack than the intellectually rigorous deconstructions of all these in Godard's work with the DVG and Miéville, but also a more accessible and amusing one. In the middle of it all, Isabelle even calls to check on the apartment she's been eyeing, emphasizing the want-driven nature of it all even as it suggests Isabelle's method of reassurance and morale-boosting, her way of keeping her eye on the prize.

Scenes like these, and others, communicate a vast sense of sociopolitical dissatisfaction, and it's easy to see Godard as cynical. "It's all tricks," one character says. "There are no heroes. There are no winners. It's all bullshit." One shot even frames a photo of a Communist Chinese kid drinking a soda, literalizing Godard's once-incendiary notion of the children of Marx and Coca-Cola with an "Is that it?" letdown. Paul's disillusionment is underscored in the statement, "Even in a dream, one keeps looking for solutions." He longs for dreamless sleep, so that he might forget about the manner in which he abandoned the dreams he used to have.

Yet for all the anger and disenchantment running through Every Man for Himself, there is also a sense of great artistic hope. Godard brings video techniques back to cinema, but his slow motion and freeze frames do not break down social processes as they did in video works. Instead, Godard merely studies gestures or actions for their own sake, often highlighting nothing more than the beauty of an image. Even objects that clearly fill Godard with righteous scorn, such as a gas station, are captured with such splendid color that the polluting capitalism the setting represents is at least partially offset. (Godard would mine a gas station for even more stunning visual poetry in his latest Film Socialisme.) The aforementioned release the film finds in nature likewise offers a more complex side of a filmmaker previously seeking to out-modernize modernity. Perhaps the director considers a move to the countryside analogous to a return to cinema, at once a reactionary step backward and an open-minded inclusion of the old with the new. Godard's own career trajectory reflects this contradictory step forward: to see Godard get a director's credit that reads "un film composé" throws back to more than a decade earlier, before Godard started sharing creative credit with collaborators and before he stopped using film altogether. Yet that same credit also announces the start of yet another major phase in the career of a director constantly reinventing himself, a bold new start that would oversee a significant change in stylistic and thematic approach. Godard was "back," as they say, but would he be recognizable even to those who'd followed him through the video wilderness?

Wednesday, June 27

Opeth: Blackwater Park/Deliverance/Damnation

I reviewed some reissues of Swedish progressive death metal band Opeth's early 2000s output for Spectrum Culture. I've been an admirer of Opeth for a while, though it's been years since I've listened to these three albums (I prefer the LPs that bookend them), but I still love Opeth's approach to prog rock, favoring atmosphere and mood over mere virtuosity. I was surprised at how much more I enjoyed Damnation this time around, finding it to be more of a gimmick back when I listened as a teenager. It may even be my third favorite Opeth album now after Ghost Reveries and Still Life.

My full piece on these reissues is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, June 26

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)

[The following is my June entry for Blind Spots.]

More than one person has referred to William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives as the "best" Best Picture winner. What many failed to mention is that it is also the "most" Best Picture winner. It resembles almost the quintessential essence of the ideal Oscar movie: socially conscious but inoffensive,  heart-wrenching on a surface level, and beautiful without being a true aesthetic marvel. But if the film represents the non plus ultra of Academy-pleasing filmmaking, it is also a demonstration of how great that kind of movie can be. Wyler's direction, aided by the great Gregg Toland, may not be fussy, but its framing offers direct snapshots of character insight that never let the pace lag on this three-hour extravaganza of post-war moralism.

The Best Years of Our Lives opens at a military post on an airstrip that houses soldiers, seamen and pilots waiting in limbo for an open plane seat to take them back home after the end of World War II. As they all wait for the chance to finally go home, rich civilians continue to fly undisturbed, not one inconvenienced for the sake of sending America's heroes back to their loved ones. At last, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), an Air Force captain, manages to get his ride back to the Midwestern Boone City along with a sailor named Homer Parrish (Harold Russell). But the jovial, amusing tone of this cramped purgatory and the promise of a return to normalcy dies when Parrish goes to sign his name to get on the plane and reveals two prosthetic hooks where his hands used to be. The medium long shot remains unbroken as both Fred and the man in charge of scheduling instantly shrivel with pity, and the tone of the film, only subtly undermined to this point, instantly changes. Homer and Fred meet the last lead, Army sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) on the plane ride home, and despite their rapport, it's clear that all three are as nervous to go home as excited.

This hesitance comes out in the taxi ride the three share to their respective destinations. Homer's house comes first, and the disabled sailor's can-do attitude dissipates as he nears his family's porch. He suggests they all go back to his uncle's bar and have a drink first, said in the tone of a man casually seeking a way out of his certain death. Even Al, older than the others by more than a decade, asks for Fred's stop to be the second destination to put off his own return. The three men feel so uncomfortable back in their respective haunts that before the day is done, all of them find themselves belatedly taking Homer's suggestion and ending up in that bar.

The rest of the film weaves in and out of the men's lives as they attempt to rejoin a society that seems so different to them now. Fred stops in for a quick visit at his parents' working class hovel of a home and leaves just as fast, having no desire to endure his father's inability to talk to his son or his mother's oblivious questions about what he had to do to get all those medals and ribbons. Suffering from PTSD, he tacitly wants financial compensation for his trauma in the form of a better lot in life. But with so many soldiers returning home, a bum resumé looks only marginally better for a war record attached, and Fred must go back to his prewar job as a soda jerk. His own anger over this insult is nothing compared to the outrage of his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), who clearly enjoyed herself in her husband's absence and chafes under his presence.

Al also resumes his old job, though he works at a bank. But if Al at least gets to come home to a fat paycheck, he expresses as much enthusiasm for his position as Fred does for his. "Last year it was kill Japs. And this year it's make money," he tells his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), ruefully encapsulating the unwritten, unspoken social directive to move past the war as quickly as possible. Of the three main characters, Al has the easiest life ahead of him. Not only does he have a cushy job guaranteed, Al also enjoys the support and devotion of his wife and two children. Yet his relative comfort may be a source of guilt; when a Navy man applies for a small loan to buy a farm, Al reviews his lack of collateral and funds and seems about ready to deny the request, only to be overcome by a sense of duty to a fellow veteran. Furthermore, Al flirts most dangerously with alcoholism, dragging Milly and even his young daughter for a night of drunken carousing visualized by a slurred montage of superimposed nightclubs and later nearly botching a big speech at a company banquet by inadvertently criticizing banks' greedy impulses.

But the best and most affecting story is Homer's. Wyler cast Russell, a nonprofessional actor, because he really did lose his hands during the war. To have lived that sacrifice does not necessarily mean one can portray it on the screen, however, yet Russell's performance pulls together the naturalistic style of the cinematography and editing. Wyler and Toland place Russell center-frame and nearly alone in his distance plane in long shots of Homer sitting with his shoulders hunched and his face drawn in shame as his family and that of his girlfriend, Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell), speak about him as if he were not there, either ignoring him or conversing with each other about what Homer can or cannot do. On the plane home, Homer showed off his ability to light a match with his claws, as much a feat to put the other two men at ease as himself. But sitting miserably in his parents' home, Homer literally jumps at the chance to light Wilma's father's cigar, but the man, not realizing the offense, politely refuses the lad's help. As the film wears on, Russell's jocular forthrightness regarding his disability gathers a rougher edge, a sardonic bite seeping into his conversation. Before one man can even asked what happened, Homer cuts him off with a sarcastic response. In one of the film's most striking moments, Homer grows so paranoid and self-conscious about his looks like the rams his hooks through a window to scare his little sister and her friends peering in at him. Even this outburst, though, is handled with considerable believability and humanity by Russell.

Russell's performance is indicative of Wyler's quest for naturalism, which does not entail strict realism so much as an honest, giving style that lets his actors ease into what might have been an overbearingly preachy script. Long takes generally placed at some level of critical distance emphasize the waves of alienation and uncertainty emanating from the returned soldiers. Toland's deep focus is used exceptionally throughout: when Al embraces Milly after years apart, the camera remains in its original position adjacent to the door as Al walks back down the hallway; the shot is crisp, but its distance makes the audience feel like an eavesdropping spectator, gawking along with the kids at a private exchange. Back at the drugstore, Toland and Wyler routinely place the callous boss in a transparent office high above the showroom floor, constantly watching as if looking for an excuse to sack Fred. Most stirring of all are the shots of an airplane graveyard that look almost surreal as propellors and fuselages stretch in perfect formation to the farthest distance of the frame. The stacked engines resemble their own tombstones as they lie vertically on the ground, while the gutted plane husks produce a cognitive disconnect between the neat, disciplined arrangement of the aircraft and their tattered, stripped look. But even this scene feels real because it is, shot at an actual field breaking down derelict and excess aircraft after the war. This field even connotes its own sense of beauty, the planes being torn down to build VA housing in a modern take on beating swords into plowshares.

Supporting performances aid the overall mood of somber humanity as well. Hoagy Carmichael does a great deal with the handful of lines he receives as Uncle Butch, urging his nephew to be patient with his loved ones in a tone of considerate advice between relatives who see each other more as pals the way aunts and uncles so often do with nieces and nephews. Minna Gombell has even less to work with as Homer's mother, but she instantly makes an impression upon seeing her mangled son and only just managing to transform an unstoppable sob into a cough before the sound fully escapes her throat. The finest of the supporting players is Teresa Wright, giving characteristically unimpeachable work as Al's daughter and a love interest for Fred. She takes a part that could have shattered the low-key, realistic narrative and turns it into the most believable character in the film, or at least no less natural than Russell. Both naïve and wise, Peggy realizes how ridiculous her crush on the married man is, but when she announces to her parents her intentions to break up Fred and Marie, Wright delivers the line with casual conviction she might as well be listing her errands for the day.

Released so early after World War II, The Best Years of Our Lives proves prescient in its sober appraisal of the uncertainty created by the war and its discomfort by the speed with which American society covered up the realities of war to bask in the country's new position as an undisputed economic and military superpower. Here, Wyler shows the audience some of the cracks in that damn of obliviousness. Rob, Al's son who has already become obsessed with the implications of The Bomb, receives spoils of war from his father in the form of a sword and flag taken from a dead Japanese man. Rob thanks his father the way someone thanks their dog for bringing a dead bird into the house, clearly horrified at these tokens of death. Elsewhere, the instantaneous push for enmity with the Soviet Union leds to an infuriating exchange between a clueless old pre-McCarthyite and Homer: the man tells Homer he lost his hands to the wrong enemy, as if somehow his sacrifice would have meant more had he given his hands to Stalin instead of Hirohito. These fears for the world's future only make the title further ironic, which could make the relative happiness the characters find by the end of the movie seem contrived. But Wyler makes their satisfaction and successful readjustment hard-won and muted, offering a rare Hollywood ending that follows logically from an emotionally harrowing story.

Monday, June 25

Brave (Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, 2012)

Brave is at once the most visually distinctive project Pixar has yet made and their most derivative work. Slightly dimmed as if filmed by natural light, the Celtic realm of stone and forest achieve a new level of realism for the studio's animation; even by their standards, I can think of no other Pixar film that invites such pure pleasure merely in scanning the frame for all its absurdly fine detail. Yet with this new peak of visual sophistication comes a story that mines Disney princess tales and blends it with the style and thematic content of Japanese animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki. But if this setup is less fundamentally "original" than, say, Ratatouille or Up, it nonetheless offers an important opportunity to alter and update a classic form of storytelling. After all, from old elements can come wonderful, new things.

For the first act, at least, Brave demonstrates this in spades. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) instantly establishes herself as an entrancing heroine; the daughter of a king who presides over a group of allied Celtic clans (Billy Connolly), Merida is groomed by her mother, Elinor, (Emma Thompson) to behave like a proper lady but above all cherishes a bow given to her by her father. The precocious child grows up to be an adventurous teenager, strong-willed enough to climb a sheer cliff just because it's there and so skilled in archery that various targets she erects around the castle woods might as well be quivers for how many arrows they hold in their bullseyes. When Elinor announces that the day has finally come for Merida to choose a suitor, the young woman's outrage burns so hotly that the flippant faux-independence of some recent Disney princesses looks even more laughable. When she says she doesn't want to marry right now, she damn well means it, and she goes to unexpectedly drastic lengths to defy her mother's wishes.

Amusingly, Brave portrays its men as brutish, immature fools. King Fergus' hall echoes with the drunken roars of loutish, bragging oafs, none louder than Fergus himself, affable as he is. The sons of clan leaders compete for Merida's hand, but they are all so dim-witted that whomever wins, it's clear that Merida loses. Their broad inanity relentlessly spoofs the idea of winning a lady's hand like a trophy, an idea I would say is self-evidently ridiculous at its most basic level were it not for an Entertainment Weekly article asking whether Merida might be a lesbian for such gender-role-bucking behavior. No, seriously.

Because the men are so shallow and as unworthy of the audience's attention as Merida's, the film devotes most of its time to the conflict between Merida's headstrong behavior and Elinor's adherence to tradition. It is in this generational rift, more so even than Merida's uncompromising behavior, that ties Brave to the best work of Miyazaki. Brave has the intelligence and depth to sympathize with Merida, even to clearly side with her in the issue of betrothal. But that does not preclude the possibility, even the certainty, of her mother being right about many things and, if nothing else, the absolute, unshakeable love a mother has for her child. The delicacy of such a mature evaluation also carries over to the characterization of the disobedient child, and how fine a line can separate righteous indignation from bratty selfishness.

This being a fantasy film, though, this moral is sold less through the striking energy exchanged between Macdonald's and Thompson's animated selves than a magical twist. Such an approach hardly breaks with centuries of fairy tale storytelling, but the plot upheaval here is played more for comedy than pathos. It's not so much a surreal outgrowth of the story so much as a sudden shift that develops the ideas of the first act with only intermittent success. The narrative curveball shatters everyone's arcs: Merida's emotional journey is instantly sidelined into a plot-driven quest, but one that makes irrelevant her foundation of self-sufficiency and strength. Those much-shown archery skills don't even play a role in the climax, or really any moment in the entire second half. Elinor is completely changed, preventing any serious engagement with her character. I wanted to get a sense of whether she walked into her own destined marriage happily or if she sacrificed her own dreams to follow the way of things. An offhand allusion to doubt is dropped at one point, but only as a quick joke that raises frustratingly unanswered questions.

Brave, then, may be most engaging solely as a visual treat, but my God what a treat it is. I've not always warmed to Pixar's quest for realistic animation, feeling that somewhat missed the point of the entire artform. (As beautiful as Ratatouille's Parisian background is, I wish it tried to visualize the city's soul rather than recreate its appearance on Google Earth.) But the detail of Brave's druidic highlands is pristine to the point of tangibility: Scottish fog rolls in so thick it chills the theater with its mist, while the gorgeous but utilitarian stonemasonry of the castle genuinely gives the impression of having been handmade rather than programmed on a computer. Every Pixar builds technically on some specific aspect of a previous film: the reflective sheen of the Cars movies beget the sophistication, astonishing brightness of blazing fires in Toy Story 3 and Wall•E, for example. Here, the animation of Lotso the Bear's fur in Toy Story 3 appears to be the grounding technical element, for the hair and fur of Brave's characters and animals is so tactile I could often focus on nothing else. Whether it's the salt-'n-pepper grain flecking Fergus' steel wool hair and beard or the bristling fur of real, not toy, bears, the animation is breathtaking for its microscopic, almost incidental perfection. Then, of course, there's the case of Merida's curly locks, a feat of virtual gravity-defying the details of which read like NASA-level physical calculations. Yet it also seems indicative of the film's larger issues that I was often so entranced by the female protagonist's hair that I didn't immediately notice how quickly Brave ceases to develop the woman to whom those follicles are attached.

Friday, June 22

Grease: Dangling Modifiers

This a classic with an unforgettable song. It is important that teens learn about the classics, and they usually like experimenting with new material.

Decide if the sentences below are correct. If they are not, make the necessary changes to correct them. There may be more than one possible correction.

Danny with the guys and Sandy with the girls.

1 - After sitting around Danny, the boys asked him to tell them about the girl he met.

2 . While telling her friends about her summer loving, the girls listened to her curiously.

3. After telling the guys about the girl, they asked him several questions.

4. When dancing on the stairs, the girls were dancing in the school patio.

5. Whereas Sandy was romantic, Danny was naughty.

6. While dating, they made a true love vow.

II. Talk to each other.

1. How different do you think dating was in the 60's and nowadays?

2. How different are the guys' and girls' views about dating and romance in the 60's?

3. How different is it nowadays?

4. Do guys and girls still talk about their relationships to their friends? Who does it more often - guys or girls?





Summer loving had me a blast
Summer loving happened so fast
I met a girl crazy for me
´Met a boy cute as can be
Summer days drifting away to oh oh the summer nights

Tell me more, Tell me more
Did you get very far
Tell me more, Tell me more
Like does he have a car

She swam by me, she got a cramp
He ran by me, got my suit damp
I saved her life, she nearly drown
He showed off splashing around
Summer sun, something´s begun but oh oh the summer nights

Tell me more Tell me more
Was it love at first sight
Tell me more, tell me more
Did she put up a fight

Took her bowling in the arcade
We went strolling, drank lemonade
We made out under the rock
We stayed out till ten o´clock
Summer flying don´t mean a thing but oh oh the summer nights

Tell me more, tell me more
But you don´t gotta brag
Tell me more, tell me more
Cause he sounds like a drag

He got friendly, holding my hand
She got friendly, down in the sand
She was sweet, just turned eighteen
Well she was good, you know I mean
Summer heat, boys and girls meet but oh oh the summer nights

Tell me more, tell me more
how much dough did he spend
Tell me more, tell me more
Could she get me a friend

It turned colder, that´s where it ends
So I told her we´d still be friends
Then we made our true love vow
Wonder what she´s doing now
Summer dreams ripped at the seams but oh those summer nights

Tell me more, tell me more

Answer key:

1 - After sitting around Danny, the boys asked him to tell them about the girl he met (correct).

2 - (incorrect)

While Sandy was telling...

3 - (incorrect)

While Danny was telling ....

4 - (incorect)

While the guys were dancing ...

5 - (correct)

6 - (correct)

Extraterrestrial (Nacho Vigalondo, 2012)

I wish I could better put my finger on what felt amiss about Extraterrestrial. There's nothing really wrong with the movie: it follows its low-key mash-up of not-sci-fi and not-romance to a strangely logical conclusion, and the writing is often deft and funny. But the movie just...lacked something, working on the level it chose but not truly playing with convention like it thinks it does. It's a film stuffed with potential, but not one that rises above merely promising. I've yet to see Vigalondo's much-acclaimed Timecrimes, and I look forward to it even more after seeing this, especially if it proves this above-average but somewhat middling affair is merely a passable sophomore slump.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Thursday, June 21

Blu-Ray Review: Green Lantern

[I received this disc from Warner Bros. as part of their Blu-Ray Elite program.]


Green Lantern feels like the superhero equivalent of post-Twilight takes on fairy tales and monsters. It thinly applies a veneer of "edge" to an iconic, cheesy hero, turning an emblem of fearless resolve into a smarmy, insecure prat whose defensive one-liners and daddy issues make for nothing more than trendy add-ons. The film's hero can make power from will, but a less energetic comic book movie I've yet to find. The whole thing looks as if it came out of a gumball machine, tacky, bright and brittle, capable of being snapped in half with the slightest effort. Ryan Reynolds is horribly miscast as Hal Jordan, communicating none of the character's traditional characteristics and awkwardly trying to deepen the character with daddy issues. None of the other actors does any better, trapped in tossed-off roles so thin they make even the lazy etch of this Green Lantern seem deep. And while plot holes can be an easy way to focus on all the unimportant things in a film, Green Lantern is scripted with shocking half-assedness, always taking the simplest way to the next scene without remotely resolving anything. Nearly every single action Jordan makes is nonsensical, and the weightless CGI only complicates the feeling of drifting aimlessness.


The 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is surprisingly murky, casting the slickness of the production in dim light. I felt as if I'd somehow gotten a 3D copy by mistake and my tv miraculously played it anyway. In fairness, though, I can't remember if the film itself looked like this in the theaters: using darker lighting has been an easy way to disguise horrible CGI for nearly two decades at this point, and if there's anything Green Lantern has in spades, it's bad effects. Much better is the booming 5.1 Master Audio track, a boisterous affair so loud I could clearly make out distinct music, sound effects and dialogue on my TV's lowest setting before mute. This audio track is so good it's the only thing on the Blu-Ray worth paying for.


The centerpiece of the disc is one of Warner's Maximum Movie Mode video commentaries, driven by Geoff Johns, the DC writer who spearheaded Green Lantern's popular revival in the comic book realm. Stuffed with additional featurettes that can be optionally played during the course of the commentary, this Maximum Movie Mode is most notable for the portrait it paints of a lot of people with an admiration, maybe even love of the comics but no ability to see how rapidly they were drifting away from the crux of those books. It's also filled with absurd moments of false modesty such as Reynolds saying of the pressure he felt during the scene where he says the Lantern Corps oath for the first time, "People know this oath inside and out." It's four lines, long, Ryan. That's one-third more time-consuming than learning a haiku. The most depressing aspect of this MMM, though, is how many behind the scenes images are merely half-developed CGI. Reynolds gets in an unintended dig when he says of a bunker set that he finally got an idea of the film's scale because there was something tangible to look at. The rest of the extras are the usual filler, with some deleted scenes, background info on the comics and even a digital comic of the new Justice League series. My favorite of these lesser extras is the unfortunately titled "Ryan Reynolds Becomes Green Lantern," if only because the actor was forced to change not an ounce of his usual approach to play this part.

Bottom Line

This is a bad film, and the slightly extended cut Warners includes on this disc has nothing to offset or even slightly help the glaring issues and sloppy execution. Even the video transfer betrays a lack of care and consideration, whether on the part of the filmmakers themselves or the disc production. The extras are solid, but they only offer a sustained spin campaign for the film somehow honoring a subject it treats with flippancy. Avoid

Wednesday, June 20

Corpo Celeste (Alice Rohrwacher, 2012)

I have a love-hate relationship with realist cinema, a love for the movies that genuinely capture a naturalistic tone while also evoking something, and general antipathy for anything that sets realism as the ultimate achievement for cinema, ignoring the boundless possibilities of the art for something so banal. Corpo Celeste, Alice Rohrwacher's Rosetta-esque first feature, gets somewhat caught in between these two extremes, though it leans far more toward the former pole than the latter. Aided by a phenomenal performance by its child lead and some clever but not over-aggressive views of religion as a limiting social function, Corpo Celeste is a promising debut and a fine film its own right.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, June 19

A Tale of Two Vampyres

My latest piece at Spectrum Culture is a comparison between F.W. Murnau's seminal Nosferatu and Werner Herzog's 1979 remake starring his greatest on-screen collaborator, Klaus Kinski. Murnau's film is justifiably one of the hallmarks of silent cinema, a masterpiece of editing and framing in which the mere setup and execution of a shot can be as thrilling as the actual monster. But I also confess to preferring Herzog's more laid-back, spiritual take on the same material, replicating much of the original but stretching everything until it emerges vastly different in tone.

My full comparison is up now at Spectrum Culture.

In a Year of 13 Moons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978)

[This is an post for the Queer Film Blogathon, co-hosted by Pussy Goes Grrr and Garbo Laughs.]

Made in the aftermath of his lover Armin Meier's suicide, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's In a Year of 13 Moons is perhaps the director's most personal, devastating work. It begins with a massive block of introductory text in garish hot pink, explaining how every seventh year is a Moon Year, during which time those with greater emotional sensitivity tend to suffer worse from depression. A similar effect has been observed for years with 13 new moons. When such a year coincides with a Moon Year, the text says, "inescapable personal tragedies may occur." This happened six times in the 20th century, one of them being 1978, the year of Meier's suicide and the year in which this film is set.

As this text rolls, Fassbinder establishes the action in a Frankfurt park in the dim morning light just before sunrise. What appears to be two men meet in the shadows and begin petting each other, until one pulls away roughly and begins angrily speaking as no subtitles appear to explain his frustrations. Suddenly, a group of men appear and bring subtitles with them; the angry man tells the newcomers that the other man claims to be a woman, and everyone then falls upon this member of the initial pair with a vicious beating. As an introduction to Elvira, née Erwin (Volker Spengler), Fassbinder couldn't be much more bleak.

And then the film continues. A limping Elvira stumbles back home to her apartment seeking comfort from her lover Christoph, only to face a fiercer, crueler rebuff. Christoph adds some physical abuse of his own, as well as a verbal onslaught. Christoph mocks Elvira's self-pity, and her notions of womanhood. Christoph holds her to the mirror to see how ridiculous Elvira, with Spengler's hyper-masculine jaw and bulky frame, looks. It's hard to disagree with his assessment, but as Elvira shrinks away in fear from the mirror and Christoph's snide put-downs get ever more inhumane, it's impossible not to feel for the woman who says in her defense, "The only thing I did wrong was yearn for someone to caress me and kiss me."

That could be the motto of nearly every Fassbinder character, but Vogler's composed hysterics fits in with the director's style of removed, icy melodrama like few others. The actor takes the part with such conviction that, through the course of the film, the ungainly sight of this unalterably male physique walking about in a dress morphs into someone one can easily take as a woman. This is all the more impressive because, as one character notes, Elvira did not change her sex because she felt she was born a woman but for a much more pedestrian reason, one so absurd that Fassbinder doesn't even try to hide the black comedy it entails.

As we later learn, Elvira was Erwin until he met a businessman named Anton and fell in love. Muddying the sexual lines further, one of Elvira's friends says that before this, Erwin wasn't even gay. But the man thought he'd found someone in this world who understood him and confessed his love to Anton, who offhandedly remarked, "Too bad you're not a woman." But sarcasm doesn't work on the earnest and lovestruck, and when Erwin went to Casablanca and Elvira returned, she discovered to her horror what a mistake she'd made.

That Elvira's change can be attributed to this grimly ridiculous motivation throws the film into the realm of the surreal and senseless even as it opens up to the director's most piercing view of a person in desperate search for a self. In many movies, all people have in themselves, but the characters in Fassbinder's films aren't even that lucky. In Elvira they have their purest avatar, someone who made a radical change in order to define herself, only to define herself according to someone else. Before the audience learns of the truth of Elvira's sex change, she offers a cryptic defense of all her sins when she tells a gay friend-of-a-friend simply, "I had to exist." Spengler's unapologetic but broken delivery of the line distills Fassbinder's cinema to its essence.

At every turn, the director's camera reflects this despair and longing. His Sirkian use of mirrors combines with a steady use of long and medium shots to visualize both the protagonist's fractured identity and the unsentimental remove with which the rest of the world views Elvira. One striking room features a bathroom wall with a disrupted pattern of tiles and tiny square mirrors, a pre-digital pixel collapse that only compounds the cruel reflections and distortions of Elvira's confused self-image. Fassbinder isolates Elvira with frames within frames, constantly separating the poor woman not only from the world but the mise-en-scène.

The greatest display of Fassbinder's direction in this film, and maybe his entire career, comes with a tour Elvira takes with a friend through the slaughterhouse where young Erwin used to work. As Elvira lays out some of her sad story from Erwin's marriage and fatherhood before falling for a man and having the operation that turned her into Elvira. It's a monologue that depressingly lays out the pathetic forces weighing down on humanity and the way that connections can sometimes be as loneliness as solitude. But what makes Spengler's impassioned delivery even more terrifying and repulsive is how Fassbinder marries Elvira's autobiographical monologue to scenes of abattoir activity. Workers casually hoist up cows and slit their throats, sending showers of blood pouring out onto the floor as the heads are sawed further until connected to the torso by only the thinnest sliver of meat and skin in a manner not unlike the beheading technique of seppuku. As Elvira's tale of the miserable grind of life builds to a fever pitch (Vengler comes magnificently unglued quoting Goethe), the mise-en-scène steadily watches the cows bleed out and flop limply, then carved up by the butchers who flay the skin from muscle. As if to taunt Elvira at this moment of raw self-admission, Fassbinder even includes a shot that hones in on a pile of severed steer penises. Set to a Handel concerto, this bravura, nihilistic sequence pushes the fear and loathing of Fassbinder's cinema to its most abstract, but also its most emotionally direct.

The more blunt scenes lose none of their impact, either. In Elvira's wild despair, she returns to the Catholic orphanage where he was abandoned as a baby, trying to find her lost identity by tracing back all the steps of her life. A nun remembers Elvira as a young boy and recounts a story as devastating for her calm recounting of Erwin's adolescence as Elvira's fevered reminiscence of the life she left behind was in the slaughterhouse. One shot of Elvira's friend standing with her eyes sleepily closed but filled with tears speaks to the simultaneous effect of boredom and devastation in the nun's delivery. The camera moves with the nun as she orbits around a garden, talking of how Erwin's mother gave him up for adoption after World War II and how the nuns took such a shine to him that, as the toddler felt lonely without parents, the chaste virgins got out the yearning of their biological clocks by vying for his doting affection. And when Erwin finally had his shot at adoption by a loving, well-off family, the mother's fear of her husband's retribution for secretly giving away his legitimate child while he was away prevents the act that might have changed everything.

This scene, among others, traces Elvira's issues of self and solitude to factors beyond sex, and in its revelation of the nuns' own longing for vicarious mother-son relationships opens up one of the film's most aching suggestions, that not only may there be value in accepting the affections of imperfect people who offer it but that this may be the only way to make a mutual connection in the world. Neither the nuns nor Elvira's wife and daughter could truly fill the void in her life, but as rending and relatable as Elvira's loneliness is, it's apparent that the biggest obstacle to her finding a place in the world is her.

When Elvira finally reunites with Anton (Gottfried John), his own rejection of her love reveals the flip side of her narcissistic despair. Elvira's sexual identity reflects her confused, impulsive reaches for any kind of love, but Anton's business dealings speak to an embrace of solipsism. Anton makes his millions buying up buildings, bulldozing them and flipping the property for a profit. His own isolation is the proud endpoint of capitalism, an every-man-for-himself individualism that actively manipulates those who would attempt to pull him into any kind of collective, even one simply of emotional connection. In one of the film's odder scenes, Anton has his lackeys and Elvira reenact a scene of a Martin and Lewis movie, replicating the choreography as Anton plays both the star and the director. It's a goody interlude in its own right, but also one that shows how casually Anton plays on the affections of others to enjoy their total devotion.

In terms of density of ideas, richness of tragedy and excess of style, In a Year of 13 Moons feels like a summation of Fassbinder's skill, a distillation of his politics, grim humanism, even his controversy-baiting. This two-hour tour through contemporary Germany is quite possibly more harrowing than the director's 16-hour overview of a Weimar Germany on the brink of fascism. I admit I was unsure about Fassbinder's use of transgender as an extreme example of the usual visualization of sexual ambiguity in movies, as a means of communicating not a genuine self-identity but a host of other problems, and to say that it deals with more universal feelings of self and belonging may not wholly excuse its use of the theme. Yet as a means of coming to terms with a lover's suicide and of perhaps getting out Fassbinder's own pansexual uncertainty, In a Year of 13 Moons infuses its savage tragedy and black humor with honesty. Nowhere is the film's essence of simultaneous searching for and fear of self-realization than in a scrawled note in an apartment that forebodingly reads, "But my greatest fear is that, one day, I'll find words to express my feelings. For when I do..."

Sunday, June 17

Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991)

[This is a post for the Queer Film Blogathon, co-hosted by Pussy Goes Grrr and Garbo Laughs.]

Todd Haynes' formal experimentation has always extended to the format of narrative structure itself. His lo-fi debut short, Superstar, handles its extended gag of using dolls and miniature objects to tell the Carpenters' story so intricately that it transcends gimmickry into daring. His most recent feature, 2007's I'm Not There, infamously drew on an entire cast for a single role, filming each side of Bob Dylan's insoluble personality with a different actor and aesthetic true to that musical and social "character." Poison, Haynes' feature debut, is no different, a triptych of radically different film and narrative styles that parody their respective genres of filmmaking as much as they collectively eviscerate their unifying theme. That linking idea is the way in which homosexuality is perceived by society at large. In all three interconnected narratives, gay characters exhibit lust, madness and disease, all of them paraded around in grotesques that eventually fold back in on themselves.

The film even opens with an act of self-loathing violence, a black-and-white, handheld POV take retreating from cops pounding on the door and hiding in a crime scene before fleeing out a window when police and family burst in and scream at what they see. The point of view is that of 7-year-old Richie, who killed his father, and his subsequent segment, "Hero" attempts to sketch a portrait of the fugitive tyke in absentia. The opening credits for the film proper roll over what appears to be a dramatic recreation of the boy's possible motive, another POV shot, this time in saturated color, of a hand gliding over a room filled with psychological shorthands, a host of symbols that could give an instant but oversimplified explanation for the child's stunning act. But Haynes then subverts even this satirical bit of pop psychology, the hand roaming this room of trinkets suddenly struck by another when it pauses for even a second on some feminine objects. The camera wheels around to reveal two caricatures of conservative, abusive parents berating the child in a din of overlapping shouts that are nevertheless clearly homophobic.

The rest of this segment plays out as an absurdly exploitative, valueless (in aesthetics and morals) documentary attempting to piece together why the boy did what he did. This chiefly takes the approach of talking heads of those who knew Richie that weave around the scattered pieces of the other two narratives. "Homo" adds a seedy gay twist on the prison sexploitation genre, with grimy cells host to a series of gruesome rapes and assaults. "Horror"replicates the workman black-and-white look and feel of 1950s science fiction, down to the punchy camerawork and deadpan, clinical narration. In it, a scientist distills the sex drive into a serum that gives him a highly contagious, almost leprotic disease clearly intended to replace the Red Scare of the films this section parodies with the rampant AIDS terror of the late '80s and early '90s.

Haynes is clearly having fun, and a primal energy infuses all of the stories even though he films them all with a critical distance and emotional remove. Each story pushes some "popular" view of homosexuality to an extreme until it rebounds back onto the abhorrence of the perspective. By framing an AIDS metaphor as one of those cheap, didactic sci-fi relics, Haynes subtly suggests that the social paranoia of gays insidiously spreading disease will, in the not-so distant future, be seen as dated and absurd as the thought of people losing their heads over closet Communists. "Homo" is not explicit, but Haynes' judicious editing and selective close-ups give the impression of its ascetic location being even more filthy than it is. But as the protagonist has flashback reveries of his juvenile exploits with a now-adult prisoner who proves the most vicious rapist in the jail as an adult, a warped love story emerges that gleefully rips apart heteronormative tropes of romance. Any number of hijinks can occur in a romantic film so long as the couple gets together at the end, and perhaps the most transgressive element of this whole seedy tale is that it ends with a marriage.

"Horror" is my favorite of the segments, but "Hero" might be the most devastating. By taking the form of a documentary looking for easy diagnoses, "Hero" shows how hate can be rationalized and pseudo-intellectualized via confirmation bias. The stylized hall of tokens Richie wanders through over the credits is blatantly meaningless, but let's just humor the armchair psychology being parodied in this shot: suppose that Richie's "selection" does suggest the boy is either gay or transgender. The subsequent talking heads attempt to find out what was wrong with the child, but the speakers reveal more about themselves than they do Richie. Classmates casually mention beating him up at school because there was just "something about him" that made him a target, while his mother speaks of the murdered father's abuse of her and Richie. Those who do not inadvertently admit to physical and verbal abuse on their own part all reveal their judgmental neglect. So many films position the sexually confused murderer as being motivated by their sexuality; "Hero" makes it clear that it is the outside world's incessant abuse of those who do not fit into strict norms that corrodes people, not the sexual identity itself.

Poison isn't as giddily transgressive as Superstar, nor as crystallized as Haynes' masterpiece Safe, but it nevertheless showcases one of the most radical talents to ever have an unlikely shot at mainstream recognition. Though the three stories all use different kinds of film stock and locations, Haynes manages to switch back and forth between them with few discernible breaks. He can even go in and out of monochrome without hiccups owing to the dimness of so many of his color shots. Poison splits the difference, not cleanly, between formalist know-how and rough-edged, rule-breaking spontaneity. But the same mix of mastery and amateurism that occasionally makes Poison unwieldy also establishes it as a cornerstone of the gestating New Queer Cinema movement, able to at least namecheck the rules of "proper" filmmaking as it looks to chip away at the social foundations.

Friday, June 15

Cars: Comparatives of Adjectives and Nouns

I have said many times that I just love animated movies. Cars was a turning point in animation. The movie is great and this scene is perfect for comparatives. I also use it for the practice of USED TO, but this is something for another post. I hope you like this one.

A. Read the features below and compare the same city before and after the construction of Interstate 40. Write B if the adjectives or nouns are more evident in the city before the construction of the interstate 40 years ago or A if it applies to the city after the construction of the Interstate.

1. ( ) visitors

2. ( ) cars

3. ( ) busy

4. ( ) rich

5. ( ) jobs

6. ( ) crowded

7. ( ) empty

B. Now write comparative sentences about the city in the past and nowadays. Pay attention whether the items are adjectives or nouns when you write the sentences.

1. In the past the city had more visitors than nowadays.
Nowadays the city has fewer visitors than in the past.

2. ..............................................................
3. ..............................................................
4. .............................................................
5. .............................................................
6. .............................................................
7. .............................................................


2. In the past the city had more cars than nowadays.
Nowadays the city has fewer cars than in the past.

3. In the past the city was busier than nowadays.
Nowadays the city is less busy than in the past.

4. In the past the city was richer than nowadays.
Nowadays the city is less rich than in the past.

5. In the past the city had more jobs than nowadays.
Nowadays the city has fewer jobs than in the past.

6. In the past the city was more crowded than nowadays.
Nowadays the city is less crowded than in the past.

7. In the past the city was less empty than nowadays.
Nowadays the city is emptier than in the past.

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012)

[Warning: contains spoilers]

The mythological and philosophical ideas co-writer Damon Lindelof shoehorns into Prometheus are intriguing ones, at least in theory. It also helps if you have never read the work of H.P. Lovecraft, seen Mission to Mars or understood 2001: A Space Odyssey. Prometheus is the cynical variant of the latter two works and a diluted take on the extreme nihilism of the former. In the bleakness of Prometheus' suppositions about humanity's origins is also a crushing limitation set by Lindelof's deficiencies of imagination. This film suggests a despairingly predestined meaning of human life, but also a grand plan more or less identical—in concept and messy, insane execution—as the Weyland-Yutani Corporation that hangs over the Alien franchise and, in pre-merger iteration, this prequel as a spectre of the all-too-human military industrial complex.

This could have been fodder for savage cosmic comedy, one that actually could play off the Promethean myth referenced, obviously, by the title. Prometheus' great crime was in giving man the power of a god, in giving mortals the chance at equaling, and perhaps bettering, immortals. The great thing about Greek mythology is how repulsive the gods are. They are belligerent, venal, venereal, and vain to the point of incest—for who else is worthy of a supreme being than something with that being's bloodline? They are deities unworthy of worship other than as a means of staving off death in their thoughtless rampages. If Lindelof ever went any deeper into his mythological fetish than merely connecting a web of references in dense but ultimately facile subtext, he might have truly reflected the nature of the gods Prometheus rebelled against and made something wonderfully deconstructive. That would require a willingness to treat the material with any kind of earnestness or thought, however, and Prometheus is instead one of the most tediously ponderous blockbusters in years even as it also routinely fails to invest its ideas with any severity.

Ridley Scott opens the film with helicopter shots of what one can assume is planet Earth in its infancy, volcanic eruptions cooling in torrents of sulphuric water. Straight-down shots of hardened magma give the impression of veins carrying the planet's lifeblood to its still-forming body. At a waterfall, an alien creature drinks a black fluid that dissolves him, depositing his DNA into the foaming waters as the credits roll. These moments represent the one time Scott's direction achieves any kind of visual grace, a humble beginning that is, though more explicit than the start of 2001, agreeably mysterious and captivating in a manner not unlike Kubrick's masterpiece.

Then, the movie abruptly cuts to the year 2089 as a group of scientists in Scotland discover a cave painting of a star pattern that matches exactly with ones they found in archaeological digs across ancient civilizations all over the world. The two in charge of the expedition, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her husband Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), date the painting at 35,000 BCE. Later, Charlie says it is 35,000 years old, either because he likes nice round numbers or because he cannot add Common Era to Before Common Era. Elizabeth, for her part, is a Christian despite being a scientist in any capacity but especially a scientist who may have found the way back to humanity's decidedly non-spiritual maker. Her faith becomes a recurring issue only insofar as it allows the film to add yet more half-formed wisps of religious thought.

They track the primitive star maps to a distant moon capable of sustaining life, and the Weyland Corporation funds a covert expedition to meet God. The crew of the titular ship instantly sets in motion a series of problems that spiral ever further out of control as the film progresses. Not to harp on the many ways in which Prometheus suffers compared to Alien, but consider the casting of the two movies. Alien is nearly revolutionary this regard, populating the Nostromo with character actors who look like working class stiffs in space. Everyone on the Prometheus is a star, with the exception of some particularly red shirty fellows who might as well baste themselves in marinade for the benefit of whatever will inevitably consume them in 15 minutes. Everyone in Alien and its sequels tends to be referred to by their last names, stressing how work and assignment forces these people together. Everyone in Prometheus is, despite being strangers hired for a mission for which they are given scant information, on a first name basis.

Once the ship lands on the moon, everything falls apart. As is usual with Lindelof's writing, the supposed depth of his mythological and philosophical wonderings can only be facilitated by characters who do the stupidest thing at every turn. Charlie, upon learning the atmosphere inside a strange installation clearly erected by some sentient species is technically breathable, removes his helmet with no worries for bacteria or any other contaminants which his body would be wholly unprepared to fight. Our two redshirts inexplicably get lost on their way back to the ship, then play around with an actual lifeform they meet on an alien planet as if it were a stray dog. And though these two were always destined to die, they are helped along by the horniness of the ship captain (Idris Elba), who leaves his post monitoring two of his men out in the field to get some nookie from Vickers (Charlize Theron), the Weyland representative.

But hey, at least the film asks some big questions, right? True, compared to most blockbusters, Prometheus aims considerably high in what it wants to say, or what it thinks it's saying. Sadly, at no point does Prometheus follow through on any of its ideas, instead presenting a bunch of theories and leaving them to be argued over for years on Internet forum as false proof of depth. The opening images of the "engineer" sacrificing himself to give life become an endlessly referenced theme, with one character even saying, "Sometimes to create, one must first destroy." But it's not even correct to call this a theme, as it plays no part in the actual story of Prometheus. The nearest the movie comes to building on this notion are in the actions of David (Michael Fassbender), an android who seems to start his emotionally removed, superior outlook at Ash's "I admire its purity" speech in Alien and only goes madder from there. A dissatisfaction constantly lines Fassbender's otherwise impassive, eerily welcoming face as he follows his own agenda during the expedition, a sideplot potentially more complex than the philosophical reaching of the primary story. David brings up ideas worthy of the depth of Blade Runner, a creature essentially going to meet his grandparents and perhaps eager to carry out the mission implied in what they left behind to enjoy his own existence. Infuriatingly, though, these threads are the least explored of the film, David's behavior so ungrounded it is only justifiable as a manifestation of Oedipal impulses, which is too simple and human a box in which to place a robot.

After a time, an uncomfortable, pathetically self-serving subtext emerges in the crew's search for the great answers of our existence. Charlie, who shares surnames with the actor who played Sawyer on LOST, in blatantly a stand-in for LOST fans irritated by that show's own inconclusiveness and false promise. The crew of the Prometheus makes mankind's most significant discovery, and all Charlie can do is pout that they only found alien bodies, not their living selves capable of definitively answering all his queries. Lindelof sets Charlie up to look like a fool for this, and soon he punishes the character for his stubbornness. I'm not the only person to pick up on this, but there's something particularly infuriating about Lindelof dragging down another franchise to get out lingering feelings over his main gig.

But then, Prometheus bombastically displays all of LOST's worst traits. The self-satisfied, meaningless appropriation of religious and mythological symbolism. The characters who serve at the pleasure of the plot, rewritten on a whim to facilitate some new development.* The assumption of emotional investment in a story that openly prioritizes deep, arching mysteries over character growth. In addition, Scott ports over the worst of his own tendencies. He's clearly happy to be back in science fiction, but he has CGI mounted on such a ludicrous scale that the film falls flat, most egregiously in a storm of dust and static electricity that is shot with unforgivable incompetence in spatial relations. (I wish Scott's brother Tony had handled this scene; he would have turned the flying shards of metallic dirt into a Pollock painting.) And while everyone wanted to avoid regurgitating all the franchise's iconic imagery, this results in a lot of roaming around nondescript tunnels and too-shiny ship cabins (what happened to that incredibly tactile, lived-in quality of the Nostromo?). The only time the film looks interesting or has any sense of shot rhythm, in fact, is when it actually does reuse some of the old imagery and symbolism, especially on a set that will be instantly familiar to fans.

I didn't want to drag Alien into this too much, but that film illustrates everything Prometheus gets wrong. Though this new film aims at profound questions about the nature of humanity and a dark truth that could be behind it all, Alien manages to address the same ideas fluidly through its plot-driven story. It crystallizes the vicious nihilism this film cannot bring itself to fully endorse: on the one hand, the Nostromo had to contend with a perfectly evolved killing machine that existed only to kill and reproduce. On the other was the heartless corporate power that came to govern humans, a capitalistic juggernaut willing to destroy its own species for the sake of profit and expanded power. Alien is a film so bleak that the only two moral acts of selfless concern—bringing the infected Kane back on-board the ship and Ripley going back for that damn cat—are so out of place as to seem insane. The only victory in Alien is survival at whatever cost, and they respond organically to this trauma. In forsaking profundity, Alien achieves it; in desperately pursuing it, Prometheus falls laughably short. As with LOST, Prometheus will be defended for posing complex questions, but the explanations, hidden as they are in the promise of a sequel, are so easily gleaned from this lame collection of heady sci-fi tropes that, taken with its two-dimensional plotting and banal direction, Prometheus emerges a failure not for its obscurity but its simplicity.

*This is especially true of David, whose intriguing, sinister arc is dumped in the last few minutes in favor of inexplicable acquiescence, even pleasurable, willing cooperation.