Friday, November 30

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Modal Verbs for Advice - Should

This used to be one of my favorite childhood movies and the remake is absolutely fabulous. I used this scene to have students practice modals for advice in a contextualized manner.

I. Watch the movie segment and make a list of 4 inappropriate behaviors these children have. Observe both  Veruca and Augustus to come up with sentences.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

II. Rewrite your sentences above, using modals for advice.

III. Imagine you are supposed to give these children's parents advice. Pair up with a partner. One of you is Veruca's mother and the other one is Augustus' s mother. Role play a situation, giving each other advice for better behavior.



Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Like so many modern movie titles, Lincoln is only one word, and as with so many other titles, this offers an oversimplified, even misleading idea of what the actual film contains. Though Steven Spielberg roped in perhaps the most noteworthy white elephant actor of our time, Daniel Day-Lewis, to portray the 16th president, Lincoln concerns the man only elliptically. He appears chiefly as a do-gooder who relies on Machiavellian practices, one of which is the use of others to do his dirty work. And though the film concentrates on the passage of the 13th Amendment, Lincoln’s most celebrated achievement and undoubtedly an act of great good, Lincoln reveals that the path to that moment was rough and dirty, indeed.

That filth can be seen in the film’s first shots, the only ones of the movie to take place on a battlefield, or at least the only one to do so during a battle rather than the still aftermath. In a few gruesomely intimate but stably mounted shots, Spielberg manages to top the false realism of Saving Private Ryan for sheer visceral repulsion. Unionists and Rebs have moved too close for musket fire, resorting to bayonet stabs, fistfights, even drowning foes in the rising rainwaters in trenches. It is brute savagery at its most chaotic and meaningless, and it hangs over the rest of the film as Lincoln alternately uses and is hindered by war developments in his quest to get slavery abolished. And as the footage is revealed to be the memories of black soldiers relating the battle to Lincoln, the pride they express in getting back at Confederates massacring all captured black soldiers hints at the tangle of racial strife that will only be compounded by the amendment, not solved by it.

That lays the foundation not for a Great Man tribute to Lincoln’s unimpeachable honesty and conviction but for the intense politicking one must employ to effect change on a federal level. If anything, the image of Honest Abe is cast asunder by Spielberg and Munich writer Tony Kushner, peeling back the noble but nevertheless Machiavellian schemes he used to get his way. Late in the film, Lincoln’s biggest misdirection and sin of omission is revealed to one of his most loyal supporters, and the man’s quivering, aghast declaration, “You lied to me,” could be the voice of all the disillusioned seeing how all-too-human the president could be. But that is one of the few times where Lincoln even comes into direct contact with his schemes; for the most part, Day-Lewis is relegated to the occasional appearance as the bulk of the movie moves with the friends in high and low places who charm members of the opposition as well as the disagreeable elements within the Republican party. Compromise, that most uncinematic of political “victories,” is the subject here, and it is valorized as much as it is called into question.

Admittedly, the moments in which the film lionizes the ends reached by such means ring the most hollow. The structuring of the final House vote on the 13th Amendment teases it as dramatic suspense, and the obvious passage is a joyous victory made more treacly by Janusz Kaminski’s trademark overlighting in a cutaway scene from the vote results to Lincoln standing by the window of the White House with his young son, Tad. Spielberg Faces abound, and Day-Lewis’ is always tilted downward, bowed by the weight of Lincoln’s responsibilities. There are also the requisite scenes of distracting comedy: James Spader’s sneaky Republican operative is shot at by a Democratic Congressman, then has time to flee, run back, and flee again before the man can reload. Likewise, ardently liberal Republican attack dog Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) gets moments to be sarcastic with the somewhat caricatured opposition, letting contemptuous syllables dart out in savage clips. These are moments that threaten to undo what the film accomplishes elsewhere, adding a doe-eyed, lightweight tone to the deflating elements.

Thankfully, Spielberg balances out most of the dubious moments with a look behind ostensible breakthroughs to reveal the inner (and outer) turmoil they create. If the film unwisely plays the vote for suspense, it successfully wrings much more believable drama out of the pressure to table, even abandon, the hope for abolition in order to bring about peace. By pursuing one goal, the Republicans must forsake another, and each issue could have chaotic historical ramifications if allowed to continue. Among the many issues Aaron Brady raises with the film in his article for Jacobin, one of the angriest concerns how Spielberg handles Stevens, whose extreme (if absolutely correct) views are cowed in a crucial moment on the House floor in order to cement moderate support. Brady calls Stevens demurral his “shining heroic moment,” and there is some discomfort to the way in which Stevens rallies and turns his instance of moral cowardice and compromise into a rousing, applause-filled rant that deflects from what principles were just sacrificed. But for a movie Brady accuses (not unfairly) of omissions, he makes one of his own by ignoring the scene that directly follows, in which Stevens sits outside the assembly hall, clearly grappling with what he just did and using a morose argument with another radical colleague to justify himself to himself as much as the other man.

And then, of course, there is Lincoln. So many movie Lincolns resemble James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a creature of unassailable innocence perhaps too good for the realm of politics but able, for however brief a time, to bring the system to his level. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln resembles more the Stewart of Anatomy of a Murder, a man who proves that someone can be streetwise even where the streets are but dirt paths. He is simultaneously disarming and infuriating, particularly when deflects mounting hostility with a disarming, folksy story that allows him to hook a crowd for a long divertissement that allows Lincoln to subsequently return to the argument from which he skillfully departed, only now he controls the angle of approach. These scenes show Lincoln at his most approachable but also his most shrewd, and one sympathizes with the mix of anxiety and anger in the voice of his secretary of war (the always great Bruce McGill) when he realizes another tale is coming and flees the room to spare himself.

If this Lincoln is inspiring, and he ultimately is, it is because this great compromiser still has just enough conviction preserved after four years of war and internal strife to risk everything for it. A reasonable alternate title for the film might have been The Last Temptation of Lincoln, wherein a return to the status quo looks painfully welcome after so much bloodshed, even if the status quo would keep millions subjugated and likely lead to another conflict down the road. An eerie dream sequence near the film’s start places Lincoln on a ship heading to unknown and foreboding territory, the voyage hopeful but terrifying in its unknowns. For Lincoln, the 13th Amendment became an endpoint only when he was shortly thereafter prevented from seeing through its consequences. Spielberg mercifully keeps the dramatic irony of that subject mostly away from the film, but when Lincoln humbly admits to his servant, “I don’t know you,” his own confession of human separation from the cause he champions casts a far more troubling pall over what the future will bring than the president’s weary, relieved walk to the carriage that will take him to the Ford Theatre.

Thursday, November 29

Ishtar (Elaine May, 1987)

With Heaven's Gate currently in the grips of revisionist appraisal (to which I may soon add my own voice once my disc ships with some pre-orders next month), I thought I might use my latest Criminally Underrated piece for Spectrum Culture to address the Heaven's Gate of comedy, Elaine May's Ishtar. I have seen three of May's four features, and all of them show off such an immense comic talent that her marginalization and retirement from directing trigger a retrospective outrage. Ishtar is not as focused as either The Heartbreak Kid or Mikey and Nicky, yet its propulsion outward of all the lacerating, insular insights of those films turns the personal and social into the geopolitical, and her broad parody of Hope/Crosby pictures emerges one of the great satires of the Reagan era. Idiotically self-absorbed man-children looking to hit big in another land do not look or behavior too differently from the CIA agents who mold those other lands to US interests, and the description I saw somewhere comparing this movie to the symphony of political inanity Burn After Reading feels especially apt.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Wednesday, November 28

Romancing in Thin Air (Johnnie To, 2012)

By virtue of their outlandish style, Johnnie To’s films often broach the postmodern and Brechtian even at their most straightforward; think the opening gunfight of Exiled, in which the sight of a door being suspended and even pushed back and forth in midair is both a source of hilarious cognitive dissonance and the oddly logical climax of the sequence. Romancing in Thin Air, though, features the director at his most nuanced and subtle, stylistically grounding the film so that the many flourishes become not par for the course but formal means of breaking down distinctions between art and life.

If the film ultimately erodes such barriers, however, it opens with a clear delineation of reality from artifice. With HDTVs now offering a home cinema experience even for news shows, To pointedly uses analog, full-frame TVs to show actor Michael Lau (Louis Koo) winning Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards and proposing to his actress girlfriend, Yuan Yuan (Yuanyuan Gao), then being stood up on his wedding day when her first love (a coal miner) turns up out of the blue and wins her back. The farcical turn of events plays out in a constricted frame on old, standard-definition video quality, marking it as something false. But then, what To shows is gossip, the world of celebrity, which belongs neither to the real world outside privileged circles nor to the art that is corrupted by it. But even this aesthetically separated realm is complicated when Michael, driven to alcoholism and ruin, is expelled from the television into the world, the final indignity of the fallen star.

Michael stumbles into the back of a truck and comes to in Shangri-La. No, really. The driver of the truck, Sue (Sammi Cheng), watched Michael’s antics on TV before heading back to the countryside, and when she arrives back at the inn she owns, her co-workers, rabid fans of Michael’s who sob at what has become of him, turn apoplectic when they see her truck in the background of some tabloid footage of Michael. In a small way, the garishness of celebrity press claims a piece of the real world. Eventually, Michael gets out of the car and wanders into the hotel, where Sue catches him playing a piano. Her puzzling reaction, a cautious recognition not of the actor but of someone she knows, sets the film’s deeper explorations into motion.

As it happens, Michael’s piano playing reminded Sue of her husband, Tian, who went missing seven years ago. Flashbacks reveal that Tian was the original innkeeper, a shy man who fell in love with Sue when she would vacation there as a student. Heretofore the only person who treats Michael as the sad human being he has become rather than the heartthrob who sends the other women into frenzies, Sue is shown in the flashbacks to be just as giddily enthusiastic about Michael as her co-workers in the present, and is even a member of Michael’s fan club. To woo her, Tian apes elements of Michael’s films, from motorcycle riding to playing the piano theme Michael composed for a movie. Art adapts life to its purposes, but here, life reworks art to its own.

This makes a warped love triangle between the missing husband, his loyal wife and the star who unknowingly brought them together and now matters to the former superfan less for his own presence than the connection he provides back to the lover who mimicked him. This complicates melodramatic cliché across metaphysical levels, introducing a troubling element to Michael’s rehabilitation and growing relationship with Sue that is further compounded when the man who appropriated Michael’s art to communicate how he felt about Sue subsequently becomes fodder for a film Michael makes with the same intentions.

To fully explore the depths To wrings out of this material would divulge too much of the story and the way it constantly offers surprises despite following a broad genre formula. To’s capacity for visual storytelling is almost unmatched by any contemporary filmmaker, and various shots speak to the slow blending of realities as well as the larger arcs. To establishes Shangri-La with sweeping, naturalistic panoramas, but as Michael and Sue’s interactions become more cinematic, the mise-en-scène grows more stylized. When their nurse-patient relationship inverts in a scene of Michael toting a drunken and despondent Sue through the snow, the sadness of the moment is magnified by the way To and cinematographer Cheng Siu-keng dampen down the forest, removing the twinkle of light on snow that looks so dull and still that the deadness around the characters resembles nuclear winter rather than the seasonal kind. Later, Michael takes Sue to see a film that eerily parallels how Sue lost Tian and how she struggles to let go of him. In one of the film’s most striking shots, the pair sit in the foreground, their heads far enough apart for the space in-between to be filled by the shot on-screen in the film within the film, a close-up of the Sue-esque figure finally removing her wedding ring. The meaning is clear, but the beauty and anguish of the shot overpower its symbolic obviousness, the heady, metaphysical dimensions of the film linked by raw human emotions of grief, desire and coping.

The moment also captures the tonal midpoint Romancing in Thin Air achieves between its affectionate attitude toward how even the lightest piece of populist fluff can speak trigger real feelings and the darker manipulation, even exploitation inherent in art’s relationship to life. The cinema of 2012 has been obsessed with the supposed end of the world, or at least cinema. To's film sidesteps such hyperbolic terms and therefore can grapple with nuanced complexities. As such, Romancing in Thin Air manages to probe the tangible discomforts of its subject matter, wrap them in the dual obsolescences of the melodrama genre and the notion of the remote, rustic countryside as the ideal real world getaway, and emerge with something that proves the enduring vitality and richness of what is being mourned elsewhere this year.

Tuesday, November 27

Capsule Reviews: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life Without Principle, On the Road

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, uses memories of Katrina as fodder for a sub-magical-realist burst of half-stylized poverty porn. Zeitlin aims for inoffensiveness by casting the severe limitations the poor face—no access to healthcare, poor education, the laughably weak safety net—as fantastical positives. This is a film where witch doctors brew medicine in jars, where everyone looks freshly rubbed down in dirt to achieve just the right look of want, and where only the truly worthy both refuse to evacuate from a coming storm and violently reject any attempts by outside bodies to help them. Young Quevenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry give performances entirely too good and revelatory for such heinous rot, but even their raw and honest work is undone by the falsity of what they are meant to invoke. Like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the film approaches a serious, national trauma and filters it through the eyes of a child. And like that other disaster, it does not use this perspective to grapple with the scope of tragedy but to infantilize it. Grade: D-

Life Without Principle (Johnnie To, 2012)

Life Without Principle cuts against the grain of financial crisis movies that take place behind solid, wooden doors, instead curving around the public floor of the bank, where employees are watched through their transparent barriers to provoke them into selling more, always more. It also moves among those unconnected to the financial industry save the shackles they place on themselves to pay for their lifestyles, linking not only the benign social climbers reaching beyond their grasp but the criminal element who come off as farcically sloppy compared to the machinations of the banks. By keeping his camera street-level, To can approach the tangled web of culpability with empathy and admonishment without the saccharine crucifixion of the fatcats who set the collapse into motion. We do not even have to sit through yet another portentous realization that the market will crash; it simply does one day, and we know about it because the financial analyst struggling to make her quota suddenly fields dozens of frantic, furious calls from people watching their life savings disappear. Movies like Arbitrage spare false sympathies for those who had every indication of what was coming but kept ignoring it, but Life Without Principle truly captures the sudden upheaval experienced by those who subconsciously put their faith in the system, and the coldness of that faceless, inhuman greed hangs over the proceedings. Even its resolution, a triumph on material grounds, reflects the amoral, arbitrary meaninglessness of a world in which the vagaries of monetary value hold sway. Grade: A-

On the Road (Walter Salles, 2012)

Shot as if making a teen film set in the present, On the Road divorces the Beats first of aesthetic, then social context. Salles’ film portrays the characters as the sort of listless creatures who populate our current movies, youth in medicated, dead-eyed search for a cause, rather than having a plethora of choices at their disposal. Drug use, sexual experimentation and jazz run through the film as they did the book, but there is no element of transgression to the behavior, no feeling that they are doing something wild. So interminably dull, even repellent, are the characters and their journey to nowhere that, for a brief spell, I began to hope the film would undermine and critique the solipsistic Beat escapism on display, with privileged white youth rebelling against a society that affords them such comfort that they can do as they please while others must toil. But no, there is a terrible earnestness to the self-evidently awful lives inflicted on an entire nation as the road carries the characters back and forth. So maybe it’s a faithful adaptation, after all. Grade: D

Monday, November 26

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

Joe Wright's previous literary adaptations have been awkward affairs, defined by a perennially miscast Kiera Knightley and an ostentatious visual style that overpowered whatever sense of respect with which he attempted to treat Austen and McEwan. The same is true of The Soloist, which tries to take mental illness seriously but aestheticizes it to such an extreme degree that the whole movie beatifies paranoid schizophrenia. Last year's Hanna worked better than his first three features precisely because the stakes of the material were lower, allowing the director to indulge himself even more and revealing that his prior films actually exhibited some form of restraint.

Anna Karenina reunites the director with his leading lady and, more broadly speaking, canonical adaptations. But it resembles the director of Hanna more than the maker of Atonement, at last jettisoning Wright's lip-service reverence for his source novels to fully bend a great work of literature to his own ends. If over-direction marred his earlier works, Wright here gives in fully to his id, making over-direction its raison d’être. If that means the director gives less precedence to the book being adapted, it marks no change from his earlier films save that Wright is finally being honest with people. By dropping the pretense, the most over-directed work by the most notorious over-director currently working stands clearly as his best work to date.

Tolstoy’s writing is renowned for its expansive scope, its ability to survey wide swaths of characters and social strata; Wright’s adaptation of the author’s novel, however, is characterized by geographical myopia, shrinking the St. Petersburg social circles where much of the novel takes place to a single, theatrical set. Proscenia border shifting backgrounds as the camera dives, ducks and soars around ever-shifting levels of the stage, and a model train that seems to come right out of Wes Anderson’s films serves as a cheeky mode of transport. The entire city of St. Petersburg, even, resembles one of Anderson’s dollhouse worlds, and Wright uses this setup in a similar manner: to establish the cloistered privilege of its inhabitants.

Where the British director differs from the American one, though, is in the manner he focuses not on the emergence of a maturing individual from the shelter afforded by wealth but how that shelter can expel those who disrupt the status quo. The person in question is the titular princess (Keira Knightley), whose life of comfort is thrown into chaos by the intrusion of the young Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) into her life. Introduced as a suitor for Anna’s niece, Kitty (Alica Vikander), Vronsky soon turns his attentions to Anna, who finds unknown desires awakened within her and must decide whether their pursuit is worth her sudden ostracism from high society.

Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey use Sarah Greenwood’s astonishing production design to the fullest in visualizing the way society turns on Anna like antibodies locking on to a foreign contaminant in the blood. Wright arranges attendees at the ball where Anna and Vronsky share their first, highly charged dance in static tableaux. The other dancers freeze in action until the new couple sweep past them, while insert shots of onlookers in silent judgment break up the romance with the forces that will conspire to destroy it. The film’s best sequence, recreating Vronsky’s doomed horse race within the closed set of the giant stage, uses shots of Vronsky against a black void (and a flat wall painted with spectators enjoying an outdoor race) for a deliberately false effect compounded by the horse tripping off the stage and falling into the orchestra pit. Anna cannot contain herself, and all heads turn not toward the shrieking horse and shaken rider but the hysterical woman who just gave away her true, socially unforgivable feelings.

In such moments, where members of St. Petersburg’s elite become immobile in disapproval and rejection, Anna Karenina almost resembles the Godard of Passion, and the primary Russian influence on this film may not be Tolstoy but Aleksandr Sokurov, whose Russian Ark clearly informs some of the swooning movements through this world. That admittedly leaves the film cold, but then the focus is not on the passionate romance and midlife crisis it engenders but the hypocrisies of high society that result from these “transgressions," the most visible of these hypocrisies being the perpetual forgiveness of adulterous men as Anna is spurned. Why, even Knightley’s miscasting as a woman old enough to look back on a life suddenly filled with regrets could almost count as a metatextual commentary on the way these films are cast with the young. (The film’s biggest unintentional laugh stems from Knightley reminiscing about being “your age” with Vikander, a scene that comes off like a pompous senior’s advice to a freshman.)

The closest the film comes to tragedy is in the recurring juxtaposition of Anna’s breakdown in St. Petersburg with a character who gets to live a much happier form of separation from it. Konstatin Levin (Domhnal Gleeson) lives on a rural estate outside the dizzying, interior world of Russia’s cultural capital, demonstrating that a person of privilege can exist outside those walls. But then, Levin got to leave of his own volition, and he plays by the sanctimonious rules when he returns to town to try and win Kitty’s hand. As one chirping member of high society says of Anna in the film’s most focused self-summary, “I’d call on her if she’d only broken the law. But she broke the rules.” In that sense, the most affecting aspect of Anna Karenina is what a sick joke it all is.

Saturday, November 24

My Big Fat Greek Wedding: Order of Adjectives

This is one of the best romantic comedies of all times. The cultural conflict, good humor, and clever plot make it stand out the others. It is full of scenes you can use in your classroom.

A. Watch the movie segment and choose the best order for the given adjectives.

1. They are wearing (resistant / beige) stockings

2. The bridesmaids are polishing their nails with a (gorgeous /orange / nail) polisher.

3. They are putting on some (elegant / silver / high heels) shoes.

4. All the bridesmaid are wearing similar (blue / silk ) dresses.

5. The bride is wearing a (beautiful /white / wedding) dress.

6. The bridesmaids are (excited / young) gals.

Answer key:
Here the answers are in the correct order. Use the worksheet for mixed alternatives.



Wednesday, November 21

Capsule Reviews: Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, Skyfall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, 2012)

Anticipating the ire of their many detractors, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim build their feature-length Billion Dollar Movie on a joke that plays on them inexplicably receiving money from major corporate interests to do their thing in the mainstream. The creative duo's audacity has often eclipsed the actual content of their 11-minute episodes on Adult Swim, making the prospect of a 95-minute feature daunting. Surprise, surprise, this is amazingly focused, with something approaching a plot and everything. Because a relatively stable foundation grounds the film, Tim and Eric's usual diversions manage to pack more punch for letting the nuances of their weirdness shine through. Every technical hiccup, awkward insert shot and flat line of dialogue delivered just a second too late creates a sense of discomfort like a low-frequency sound. I cannot explain why I find that effect hilarious, but then, the sight of John C. Reilly hacking up a lung as a Dickensian, wolf-raised orphan or Ray Wise presiding over a grotesque sort of body cleanse need no justification. Grade: B-

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)

I had intended a podcast appearance I made with Corey Atad of JustATad and fellow guest Calum Marsh (a fantastic freelance writer you can follow on Twitter here) to stand as my Skyfall thoughts, but sadly the audio was lost. To condense the thoughts I expressed there, I found myself mildly mixed but, for the most part, highly satisfied by this latest Bond outing. Mendes is the director, but it's Roger Deakins who steals the show, silhouetting and backlighting action sequences to visually match M's (Judi Dench) assertion that war now takes place in the shadows and just generally setting a new aesthetic standard for action films. Skyfall attempts to bridge the franchise reinvention under the Daniel Craig era to Bond's larger history as an ostentatious escape vehicle. When Deakins lights Craig in such a way that he looks both haggard and more iconic than any Bond since Moore, maybe even Connery, or when Craig pauses for a second in the middle of a visceral action sequence that rips the end out of a train to adjust his cufflinks, this really does seem like the best Bond movie of them all.

But the audience cannot be trusted to pick up on such things, so we get a barrage of cute references to previous films that may end up dating Skyfall as badly as prior attempts at self-awareness. The plot is as nonsensical and half-justified as any other Bond film, but here it places so much stock in Joker-esque plotting that the holes stand out more. Nevertheless, this is superbly acted (Javier Bardem continues to be an arresting villain, while Ralph Fiennes suggests gulfs of hidden personality and secrets within a small part), and the Shanghai sequence may be a franchise-best action scene. But as much as Craig's films have cut the waffle on a bloated franchise, Skyfall retains certain elements of misogyny and fascism that now seem inseparable from the brand, and as pleased as I was with so much of the movie, I was left feeling that it could have been the best of the 50-year-old franchise rather than merely in the top 10. There are worse "disappointments" in the world. Grade: B

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden, 2012)

Eat, Pray, Love rubbed down with Bengay, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel uses a vibrant, agreeably "real" (read: poor and densely populated) India to allow a group of British retirees to find themselves. Like so many movies of this ilk, Marigold Hotel takes place in a cultural green zone, where the impoverished Indians always smile at those born when India was still the Jewel in the Crown and everyone conveniently speaks perfect English until someone has a racist comment to make, at which point the recipient of hate can only continue to smile ignorantly. Wouldn't want anyone to register the sting of harsh words and break the spell, would we? But of course, the mixture of bewildered and hateful Brits who arrive are slowly softened by tours of places that contain just enough reality to not seem like the kept-up attractions they are. With a cast comprising such talents as Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, the film cannot help but be entertaining, and its message of it never being too late to make amends or find new happiness is a fine one. Wilkinson's arc, a retired judge who is returning (not merely traveling) to India in order to make peace with a horror he left behind, even manages to treat the areas outside the romantically dilapidated and hermetically sealed realm the characters inhabit with severity and actual empathy. Yet the most insightful comment of all may come from the most sheltered and enduringly prejudiced of the characters, who falls to pieces as the rest acclimate and accuses everyone else of self-delusion. She is positioned as the most repugnant character in the film, more so even than Maggie Smith's virulently racist housekeeper, yet her words ring truest of all. Grade: C-

Tuesday, November 20

Generation P (Victor Ginzburg, 2012)

Generation P starts strong as an amusing take on Russia's post-perestroika marketing boon, where communism is made capitalist to sell Western goods to a civilization weaned on propaganda. When it tries to become an ad-centric Brazil, though, it falls apart, filled with half-baked ideas that are never expounded upon and ambitious but hollow images that do not even work for their own sake, much less a broader satiric point. Its first half is great fun, but the rest feels like a letdown.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, November 19

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

Leos Carax's Holy Motors, one of the standout releases of the year, reminds me another great recent picture, Jafar Panahi's This Is Not a Film. Panahi's (not a) film concerns a reaction to literal censorship, imposed by a theocratic dictatorship afraid of anything that might challenge their complete mental hold on the people. The barriers placed in front of Panahi's creativity are tangible: a prison sentence, an effective lifetime ban from filmmaking. Carax's work, on the other hand, comes after a 13-year dry spell between features, broken only by the occasional short. It is a reaction censorship figurative, not literal, with abstract obstacles of budget concerns and esoterica placed between the director and his drive.

Of course, the two are not equal, but then, Carax's response to the studio mothballing trades Panahi's open rage and sorrow for more muted, sarcastic cynicism. Of course, Carax also enjoys a place of privilege and thus channels his own frustrations into an elegy for all of cinema. Panahi declared his own work was not a film because of its format (and also, in fairness, a jab at authorities), but Holy Motors quivers with fears that, with the advent of digital and other new technology, no one will ever truly make a film again. This has the effect of inverting the usual dynamic of one of the director's films, in which escapist, pure cinema is grounded by a consideration of the consequences of breaking from society or form. Here, the invigorating reveries intrude upon the somber reflection, and if Panahi's un-film emerged as one of the great defenses of the artform's worth, so too does this latest in the calls for the Death of Cinema contradictorily energize the medium even as it pulls ever closer to its supposed death.

In essence, then, Holy Motors is one great magician's trick and con job rolled into one, and there can be no one alive better suited to pull off such a crowd-pleasing and -swindling act as Denis Lavant. Carax's primary on-screen avatar, Lavant enters the film through an enigmatic, fourth-wall breaking trip through a two-dimensional forest into a movie theater, but as odd as the sight is, the strangest aspect of it may be the actor's visible age. Unlike his director, Lavant has not disappeared for a decade, but when he stumbles his way to the theater, his slowed movements and slightly filled frame speak volumes for the time that has passed for the filmmaker who lives through him. Lavant's knotty face has always been lined with a false sense of age, but now his features are supplemented by actual wrinkles, and the actor looks sullen in his own, slightly sagging skin.

Perhaps that is why he spends so much of the film in other guises. By day, Lavant, as Monsieur Oscar, rides about town in a limousine driven by Céline (Édith Scob), receiving mysterious assignments that involve him donning various costumes, makeup and prosthetics in order to...well, that is not at all clear. When he dresses as an old, hunchbacked homeless woman and staggers to a corner to beg for change, what task could he possibly be fulfilling, and for whom? Likewise, one cannot help but be bewildered by Lavant reprising his Merde character from Carax's short in the anthology film Tokyo!, and that is before he abducts an ennui-frozen model (Eva Mendes) and secrets her to a sewer where he strips naked after converting her designer gown into a makeshift burqa. Is this a commentary on the objectifying nature of the fashion industry, which relies on women who fit a pre-set standards of beauty but then treats them as nothing more than mannequins? Is Merde, further robing the woman as he completely disrobes, also guilty of this? The most important question, though, is just what the hell is happening, anyway.

Almost immediately, Oscar's assignments come to resemble miniature performances and films in their own right. Occasionally, this connection is made even more explicit: an early vignette places Oscar in a motion-capture suit and has him perform moves in a vast, darkened room filled with infrared cameras to record his movements for later animation. Lavant's acrobatics come roaring back as he twirls and leaps, and the black room lightens with graphics as he runs on a treadmill, as if a hamster powering the whole room with his effort. Yet this scene also parades some of Carax's weariness, with Lavant occasionally stumbling and his incredible, dextrous movements (as well as his lascivious interplay with a mo-cap-suited woman who joins him) put toward a crude digital wireframe that lacks all the spark the actual people emit. Oscar voices this cynicism more openly when one of his bosses (Michel Piccoli) gets in the limo at one point to ask why his performances have lacked their usual vigor. "I miss the cameras," Oscar responds. "They used to be bigger than us. Then they became smaller than our heads. Now you can't see them at all." The last sentence suggests the nature of Oscar's work, and also that he may be as confounded at this point as the audience, as bewildered by his own actions with no visible watcher reassuring him that it is all an act. Oscar clearly wonders if there is a future in his line of work, and it is no coincidence that so many of his roles are elderly and infirm.

It is mournful stuff, yet Carax undermines his thesis at every turn by dint of his skill. The film's brief tours through characters and genres serves not as a visualization of cinema's life passing before its eyes but a constant series of rebirths that makes every sudden end to a sequence as revitalizing as alienating and insular. Carax's quasi-Luddite raging against new technology aside, even the gag of the rendered motion of Oscar and his female "co-star" speaks to cinema's ever-evolving means of showing an audience something new. Sure, the image of two strange beings wrapped in a programmed dance is less meaningful than the human movements that inform it, but Holy Motors lives for aesthetic pleasures for their own sake. Carax even cuts short the vignettes that threaten to become self-sufficient through their human impact, putting all stock into the joy of Lavant's Lon Chaney-esque donning of faces. And when Scob puts on a mask not unlike the one she wore in Eyes Without a Face, the film likewise celebrates even the occasionally glib satisfaction to be gained from postmodern reflexivity, placing among the various other ways films entertain us. A recurring image from the opening credits to the closing ones is a clip from a zoetrope, the once-novel trinket now a dated missing link in film's development. Presented without comment, the clip's meaning is clear: movies will never die, though they will not look as they did once upon a time. But neither, then, will people, as Lavant's face will attest. With this film, Carax proves that nothing can kill cinema, not even Carax.

Saturday, November 17

The Top 10 Martin Scorsese Films

With Martin Scorsese celebrating his 70th birthday today, what better time than to count down 10 of the greatest achievements of one of America's greatest directors? Unlike his contemporaries, Scorsese has enjoyed a typically stable level of quality over the course of his entire career, not flaming out like a Cimino or Coppola nor exploding beyond his initial, intimate scale the way Spielberg and Lucas did. A consummate craftsman, Scorsese continues to employ technical mastery on a level that up-and-comers can only imitate, and often through contradictorily old-fashioned means. Think the tangible recreations of Gangs of New York, or the lush Technicolor throwbacks of The Aviator or Shutter Island. And when presented with new technology, as with digital and 3D, the director looks not merely to replicate the feel of film but to explore how these technical aspects can influence new directions in storytelling.

Not content merely to provide the world with his own string of great and memorable films, Scorsese has devoted much of his life to the preservation of the movies that inspired him, keeping them alive to motivate the next generation of movie brats. It can be difficult to whittle down his impressive filmography, filled not only with features but documentaries, concert films, shorts, even music videos and advertisements. These 10, however, distill the best of my all-time favorite director.

10. Mean Streets

Both De Niro and Scorsese had made films before Mean Streets (De Niro had even appeared in a masterpiece in the form of Hi, Mom!), but that slo-mo scene of De Niro bouncing onto screen to the strains of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" feels like an announcement of arrival for both. Swathed in the Catholic guilt that would become one of Scorsese's trademark tics, Mean Streets refines the raw, Cassevetes-inspired work that preceded this third feature and funnels it toward an exciting, developed voice. The director would continue to develop his skills over the years, but the immediacy of this breakthrough still offers one of the best insights into the director's canon of self-destructive characters pursuing hollow, often dangerous dreams and paying dearly for them.

9. Shutter Island

As Roberto Rossellini once said of Chaplin's A King in New York, Shutter Island is the work of a free man. Having finally gotten his Oscar for an enjoyable but wan self-parody, Scorsese threw himself into some good pulp and produced this elegantly colorized, paranoiacally unsettled thriller. Sure, the twist can be seen from the boat pulling into the prison island's harbor, but it's the journey that counts, and Scorsese spins out a masterful yarn that plys his Im- and Ex-pressionist tendencies to their fullest use since Bringing Out the Dead. And after The Departed basically used a "Best Songs from Scorsese Films" playlist for its soundtrack, Shutter Island sources canonical and contemporary classical music and ambient noise to further trap its plunging crimsons and multiple image sources (several kinds of film stock and digital are used) in a time all its own. It even manages to revisit the irritatingly expository dénouement of Hitchcock's Psycho with a more devastatingly personal twist.

8. Raging Bull

Leave out Robert De Niro's overhyped weight fluctuations and Raging Bull still contains one of the all-time great performances for its complete understanding of character. Whether lean and mean or fat and broken, De Niro gives Jake La Motta the braggadocio, intensity and insecurity a boxer who came from nothing would feel, making it big and falling pray to all the impulses no longer restrained by income level. Scorsese more than matches his muse: the boxing scenes are a tour de force, aping the great ballet scene of The Red Shoes by occurring in the subjective experience of the protagonist, who gets in the ring not for the crowd around him but to pummel the poor son of a bitch in front of him. The fights take place against a black void of white noise, which makes the matches as disturbing as the astonishing prosthetic and makeup work that shifts features with every sick punch.

7. Goodfellas

So many position Goodfellas as the recipient of The Godfather's baton, but in nearly every way it is the opposite of Coppola's operatic saga. The Corleone family comprise a host of Greek tragic figures, perversely successful immigrants and wholesome American heroes turned fratricidal monsters. The characters of Scorsese's gangster masterpiece, however, are nasty, brutish and stupid, in the game solely to satisfy their id and dying suddenly when they make one wrong step. To put it another way, The Godfather sticks with the masterminds; Goodfellas stays with those the masterminds plot to whack when they get out of line. For sheer bravura filmmaking, the coke-soaked sequence of the FBI closing in on Ray Liotta's burned-out hood has rarely been matched by anyone, even Scorsese himself.

6. Gangs of New York

Unfortunately compromised with a tacked-on love story and a bit too unwieldy even without the influence of studio notes, Gangs of New York nevertheless serves as Scorsese's messiest valentine to his hometown and the legacy of blood that built it. Released in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Gangs demonstrates that xenophobia and carnage are inherent in New York's story, but so too is the desire to make a better life. The film suggests that some battles are worth fighting while others are merely worthless, and the opinion of the mob may not always see which is which. And though the film technically concerns Leonardo DiCaprio's avenging son of an immigrant, it hinges on Daniel Day-Lewis, an Irishman playing an anti-Irish gang leader whose extradiegetic contradictions manifest in the character. A brute whose preference of open conflict over democratic gentility anthropomorphize the Civil War that only intrudes upon the myopic street wars depicted here at the feature's end, Bill is equally capable of honor and dignity for those he carves so ruthlessly. One of Scorsese's messiest films, to be sure, but also one of his purest.

5. Life Lessons

Scorsese's segment in New York Stories (the only worthy one of the trio) returns to the Dostoevsky well that served him so well with his Palme D'Or winner, this time loosely adapting The Gambler rather than Notes from Underground. "Life Lessons" uses a painter's block and his strained relationship with an assistant who wants to break away with him in order to craft a vision of art as expansive and intimate as the vast canvas Nolte's character throws paint upon in brief, tightly shot fits of creativity. Deafening music, blinding stylistic flourishes and more turn the protracted hell of Dobie's emotionally wrought creative process into a larger portrait of how art inspires, torments and releases. In 45 minutes, Scorsese says as much about why he lives to create as much as his lengthy documentaries on the films that inspire him.

4. The Last Temptation of Christ

When I found it online shortly after watching the movie, the Siskel & Ebert review of The Last Temptation of Christ struck me as much as the film itself. In it, Gene Siskel noted that Willem Dafoe’s Jesus “knows it is harder to be a good man than a god.” That single line captured the whole film for me, an atheist who always felt awful watching Jesus walk to his death with the supposed foreknowledge of what he would endure. Scorsese uses that prescience as perhaps the greatest agony Christ faced, filling Him with Catholic guilt before the Church could even grow out of His sacrifice. By showing Jesus as a man (emphasis on man, not Son of God), Scorsese actually lends greater credence to the power of His words because Jesus wrestles with every teaching, every temptation. Sympathy, too, is spared for Judas, who knows the role he must play and is torn up by the awful responsibility placed upon him. The titular final temptation, in which Christ gets to live out a peaceful, happy life as he bleeds out on the cross, is Scorsese's greatest moment to date.

3. Bringing Out the Dead

Every so often, Scorsese cleanses his palate with a pure exercise in style. After Hours, Casino, Shutter Island and the like let off creative steam when the director gets too overheated. Bringing Out the Dead, however, mixes this glorious excess with a genuinely great script, messing with Taxi Driver’s components until that movie somehow morphs into a touching romance between two broken individuals and between a shattered Christ figure and his even-worse-off flock. Nicolas Cage gives one of his best performances, wild but wounded, capable of playing to the sensory overload of the frame but centered enough to ground it. So many of Scorsese’s films are hallucinations. None is more pained than this.

2. Taxi Driver

So ensconced in the pop culture lexicon that it almost suffers for being put on a pedestal, Taxi Driver remains a singular achievement, as intimate as it is vast and so wrapped up in its protagonist that the man is, to this die, cited as both an anti-hero and a total villain. Scorsese's hell-vision of New York is repugnantly realized, Bickle's hatred transferred through the subjective lens onto the entire city. It no longer even resembles a metropolis but a state of mind, hissing steam, dripping grime and grinding innocence into pulp between molars. The only thing worse than staring at this world through Travis' eyes is the moment when Scorsese, unable to bear it any longer, briefly tracks away from the psychopath and the vacant hallway upon which he settles disturbs more than the sight of Travis' worst carnage.

1. The King of Comedy

The King of Comedy feels so unlike a Scorsese film, endothermic where his work usually burns will spare energy and static instead of vivid. Rupert Pupkin even erects a dream world around himself of unmoving cardboard cutouts, celebrities and a two-dimensional wall of an adoring crowd frozen in love for whomever stands in front of them. Bickle simmered until he exploded, but even Pupkin’s most drastic actions reveal an insularity as the anxious, fame-hungry loser collapses into his paper-thin fantasy. Among the film’s many ingenious, brutal reflections on celebrity, the best may be the anticlimax and denouement, almost entirely shown through the filter of a TV screen, reflecting how Pupkin’s triumph would be transmitted but also weakening the impact with soft video images. For Scorsese, the master aesthete, the inferior image quality clearly connotes the negative aspect of fame for fame’s sake, but as celebrities famous simply for being famous have exploded in recent years, The King of Comedy looks enduringly fresh in its analog conclusion.

Friday, November 16

Silent Hill: Modals for Possibility - MIGHT COULD MUST

The first scene of the movie is intriguing. You have a lot to speculate about. Ask your students to use their imagination doing the exercises.

I. Watch the movie segment and write 3 sentences for the questions below.

Use MIGHT and COULD (slight possibility), MUST (great possibility) or CANT (impossibility).

1. What happened in Silent Hill?

a .............................................
b ............................................
c ............................................

2. What kind of city is Silent Hill?

a ...........................................

 b ..........................................

 c ..........................................

3. What will happen if they go to Silent Hill by themselves?

a ..........................................
b .........................................
c .........................................

4. How will the child's father react when he finds out his wife and child went to Silent Hill
without him?

a .........................................
b ........................................
c .........................................

II. Work with the class as a whole. First, read your sentences with MUST out loud and decide which is the most plausible explanation for each of the questions.

III. Now read your sentences with the other modals and decide which one is the most far fetched for each of the questions.



Dionysus in '69 (Brian De Palma, 1970)

I never got around to this in my De Palma retrospective, so when Spectrum Culture decided to do one of its own, I knew I had to cover it. The results are...middling, like so many early De Palma efforts, though as a concentrated experiment in sustained split-screen usage it remains an intriguing work. De Palma's highly cinematic techniques ironically enhance the theatricality of the filmed performance, though soon he would be employing the methods for even more lavishly stylized effect. Nothing more than a curio, perhaps, but De Palma has made far worse.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Thursday, November 15

The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, 2012)

The contemporary prevalence of apocalyptic films reaches its apex with The Turin Horse. It contains the various dualities that have marked this recent spate of subject matter: ascetic and deeply aesthetic, primally raw and analogously mannered, ending the world with a bang (or at least a howl) and a whimper. If it is to be Béla Tarr's final film, it is a disturbingly appropriate one for an artist whose stately, enigmatic corpus comprises some of the most quietly yet profoundly horrific films in all of cinema. It is a film so bleak that musical collaborator Mihaly Vig's ominous cues almost offer relief despite their sinister tones, for at least they suggest that music of some sort still exists within this whiting-out world.

The title refers to the infamous, apocryphal story of Friedrich Nietzsche going mad at the sight of a horse being flogged, a tale related to the audience by a narrator. The speaker goes into some more detail of Nietzsche, though the specificity slips on other things, say, the name of the abusive cabman, now lost to time as only his occupation was needed to make the legend. "Of the horse," the narrator admits at the end of his introduction, "we know nothing." Tarr then opens on a horse, though it is not meant to be the one from Turin. Nor even is it a stand-in for the suffering beast; instead, one could argue that the film that follows could possibly be what Nietzsche saw in his collapsed mind after his final rush of incomprehensible letters and his final words, spoken 10 years before his actual death. But the closest Tarr's film (which credits editor Ágnes Hranitzky as co-director in keeping with his last few works) comes to Nietzsche is in its depiction of a world beyond, well, everything, not just good and evil.

With his characteristic long takes, Tarr follows that horse and its masters, an old man named Ohlsdorfer (János Derzi) and his unnamed daughter (Erika Bók), over the course of six days defined by an aggressively mundane routine set against increasingly strong winds that add a surreal flavor to the tedium. One's thoughts turn to Jeanne Dielman, especially when the centerpiece of each day's schedule is the boiling and eating of potatoes, the father and child's only sustenance. But Tarr and Akerman use their intense focus on the things omitted from most films in vastly different ways. Jeanne Dielman offers a fascinating deconstruction of domestic life along social and gendered lines, revealing the myriad ways society imposes itself even in the sealed-off space of the woman's home and informs her relationships with others and her sense of self. The Turin Horse, on the other hand, shows a parent-child bond as the last bastion of humanity as society outside their isolated hovel is wiped off the face of the Earth by the endless gales.

But as my friend Andreas noted in a brief conversation we had on Twitter about the vague Akerman connection, Tarr does not position father and daughter as our last beacon of hope. Far from it, their time together serves only to delay the inevitable, and the hardships they face simply to live their banal lives suggest that they would be better off merely surrendering to the storm. Tarr films them in unbroken takes, each shot ever moving outward as it gently curves with what could pass for action. What he documents are two people locked into almost animalistic instinct, not too discernible from the horse who shares their routine of drinking ice water, feeding on bare nutrition and carrying out heavy burdens. The first day's shot of the pair's meal starts close on the daughter's preparation of the food and her setting of the plate in front of her father, whose fingers reach into frame and clumsily, gingerly claw at the skin of the steaming tuber. The camera moves back to show the man's face and upper body as he feeds with instinctual remove, rapidly cramming his mashed potato into his mouth while his face remains unsettlingly impassive. His feeding is all the more bestial thanks to his paralyzed right arm, which comes off as a transference of abuse from Nietzsche's unseen horse to a parallel dimension where the driver suffers the wounds.

And if the driver in this realm exhibits some of the horse's traits, so too does the horse seen on the screen exercise a willpower more suited to a human than a beast of burden. After seeing it drag the cart along in the first shot, the horse decides it has had enough of that and refuses to budge when the humans harness it and the father attempts to set off for town. After that, they cannot even get the harness on; by the third day, it ceases to eat, and by the fourth, it will not drink. The humans continue on with their tasks, but the horse knows better. This makes for dark humor, with father and daughter eventually reduced to tugging their cart around themselves as the horse follows freely, subtly driving them on as they attempt to flee their increasingly inhospitable home, only to turn back after the shot holds on their trek for an excruciating length of time. The shot becomes the funniest joke of the movie, even over the visitors who occasionally intrude upon the isolated family with wild warnings and anarchic behavior. Tarr's style, so unsettling in its spatial distance and temporal length, becomes a single-shot shaggy dog anticlimax in which the most major variation in the action amounts to nothing.

Through it all, the wind blows, getting worse each day until the last, in which its absence may be the only thing scarier than its constant roar. Mirroring the story of the Creation, The Turin Horse uses its six days to slowly undo what God wrought, and by the sixth day, with food and water exhausted and only a small amount of brandy to ease the end, even the sun has left, plunging the home into a void. It is Tarr's last, sick joke, making the previous mise-en-scène seem relatively dense in retrospect compared to the table existing in infinite blackness. Might as well go out with a laugh, I suppose, even if the chuckle, like the characters on-screen, freeze into silent stasis.

The Comedy (Rick Alverson, 2012)

I've been more fascinated than consistently entertained by the likes of Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim and Gregg Turkington (a.k.a. Neil Hamburger), yet their performances in The Comedy seem almost a scathing rebuke of their own style even as they push it to new, rewarding limits. Heidecker in particular is incredible as a man who pours a bit of Rupert Pupkin into mumblecore heroes, amplifying that sociopath's incapacity for humor into a disgusting reliance on irony just to interact (and avoid interaction) with others. It is a harrowing film, though it also lives up to its title, wringing pained laughs out of its most nightmarish scenarios. One of my favorites of the year.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Friday, November 9

Prometheus: Asking Questions

I am a great fan of Ridley Scott's movies. This one is no exception. The story is wonderful, and it makes us think about the importance of knowing about where the human race come from.

I. Before you watch the segment, try to put the questions below in the correct order.

1. man / what / happened / to / that


2. aren't / why / you/ them / helping


3. die / why /did / he

............................................................................... ?

4. where / they / go / do

................................................................................ ?

5. know/ do/ it's beautiful / you / how

................................................................................ ?

6. you / what / believe / you

.................................................................................. ?

II. Write the number of the questions before the answers. One question does not have the answer listed below.

( ) That's what I choose to believe.

( ) He died.

( ) Heaven, paradise

( ) They don't want my help.

( ) Because sooner or later everyone dies.

III. Watch the movie segment and decide if the questions are written in the correct order. Then check if you matched both the question and the answer correctly.



Answer key:


1. What happened to that man?

2. Why aren't you helping them?

3. Why did he die?

4. Where do they go?

5. How do you know it's beautiful?

6. What do you believe?


5, 1, 4, 2, 3

Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki, 2012)

To pinpoint the moment Arbitrage ceases to be plausible is to assume it ever established any kind of suspension of disbelief at all. And when Richard Gere fails from the start to make his billionaire hedge fund manager, Robert Miller, look remotely in his element with business talk, the commentary Nicholas Jarecki wishes to tie to his evil money-handler does not work. Hell, Gere's utter ineptness is but one of several early giveaways of the lack of care paid to the film. Unconvincing as a hedge fund guru, Gere is equally out of place with his family, with whom he has an unironically loving relationship yet looks like a total stranger around them. Perhaps that can be explained by his affair with an Italian artist, who enjoys the financial support of her lover yet lives in a flat that looks like an IKEA showroom.

Like the privileged child of a 1990s movie, the mistress throws a fit when Miller gets caught in a meeting and misses her important exhibition. After she gesticulates for a bit, the two head out and Miller passes out briefly at the wheel, leading to an absurdly oversized single-vehicle accident that leaves the woman dead and Miller terrified. Or maybe just extremely annoyed. Hard to say. Jarecki uses this involuntary manslaughter as a fatuous analogy. The man covers up his company's books to keep up appearances as the great hedge fund scheme implodes with exponentially increasing speed, and now he has to cover up his physical crime. This is an obvious, and common, method of tying more abstract, technically legal financial chicanery to that which people universally consider a violation of the law, and ostensibly it should make Miller seem doubly a villain.

But for a film that wallows so glibly in defeatist cynicism, Arbitrage's framing of this crime reflects its attitude toward Miller's financial transgressions. Gere's grating interaction with other people should peg him as a mean-spirited shark obsessed solely with himself, yet the actor looks like he simply read the technical jargon off the page without understanding a lick of the complicated legal shuffling required to pull off the tactics that lead to the economic crisis. And though he places his family, especially his daughter (who serves as his company's CIO), below his greed, he routinely claims, believably, that he wanted to provide for them. That has motivated many a villain, but the film inadvertently makes him sympathetic, as much a victim of his own design as the perpetrator. That he kills someone accidentally only compounds the sense that we should feel for this man.

Maybe he just seems sympathetic because those who seek to uncover his sins make even Gere's detached, clumsy performance riveting by comparison. Brooke (Brit Marling) notices the discrepancies in her father's books and proceeds to chase down answers like an old pulp journalist, not someone who would silently wish to make sure everything was alright within the company for which she is an executive. Her indignation when she learns the truth is laughable: Marling, barely 30, plays a character who enjoys a senior executive position at her father's multibillion dollar firm, yet she cannot fathom her dad's self-serving behavior? But for pure, stilted laziness, one cannot top Tim Roth as the detective on the case. Speaking in a Noo Yawk accent so thick he might as well walk around with a Nathan's Famous in his pistol holster, Roth's character instantly hones in on the billionaire as the prime suspect and speaks of taking down this rich, superior asshole as if getting even with the system on his lonesome. Yet Roth sleepwalks through this quest for roundabout social justice, failing to even muster up the will to truly intimidate the young black man (Nate Parker)—with priors, of course—who could hold the key to taking down Miller. Everyone in this movie acts with all the conviction of a bored high school student forced to read a passage of Shakespeare aloud.

Jarecki wraps their disinterested wheel-spinning in astonishingly banal direction; lighting has never stood out so powerfully to me for its mediocrity, and at no point does the director visually communicate that someone like Miller runs this country and makes the rules. Jarecki aims for shades of Chinatown with Arbitrage's conclusion, though it lacks any of the sick humor and committed nihilism of that film. Rather than depict an insurmountable system maintaining its status quo at all costs, this movie presents a handful of po-faced dopes who speak only to their own uselessness. No one truly pushes back against the powers that be, so the audience is left with no feeling that those powers cannot be bested. Like the center-right liberals with whom it aligns, Arbitrage plays at outrage with a societal evil but makes no move to attack it before declaring the situation hopeless and inalterable.

Thursday, November 8

Capsule Reviews: Lockout, Fixed Bayonets!

Lockout (James Mather, Stephen St. Leger, 2012)

Filmed in oxidized green-grays, Lockout has an agreeably dingy look to it, something both exacerbated and subverted by the directorial style built on top of it. Wearing its "Like Escape from New York, but in space!" pitch on its sleeve, Lockout wrings a great deal of immaculately sloppy fun out of its well-worn material. Guy Pearce shines as Snow, a framed CIA agent whose trip to prison turns into a recruitment to save the president's daughter, taken hostage during a humanitarian trip to this cryogenic space jail gone horribly awry. Speaking solely in Plissken-esque, macabre quips, Pearce has a ball on his own. But that's nothing compared to his double act with Maggie Grace as the naïve but sharp daughter; Andreas brought up It Happened One Night and now I can't not think of that. I was hooked from its literally punchy opening.

Fixed Bayonets! (Samuel Fuller, 1951)

Released hot on the heels of Fuller's other 1951 Korean War film, the geographically compressed The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets! expands the field of battle but retains its compatriot's focused character study. Its surveyed platoon, abandoned to cover the rear in the dead of bitter winter, lose themselves to psychological contemplation as the cold threatens them as much as the encroaching Chinese. Lest you think that the voiceovers turn the film into some kind of reverie, however, Fuller here nails down the pulp-prose-poetry visual style that would make him such a distinct filmmaker. Indeed, Fixed Bayonets! offers a host of striking, idiosyncratic shots and tics that say more than even the bluntest dialogue.

The tremble of the camera when a mortar round explodes, both prefiguring the rise of shaky cam visceral "realism" and transcending its inherent thrill ride with more static, observational framing. The almost religious procession of the rest of the regiment (complete with Gregorian-esque chant) as they leave their comrades behind. The cacophony of Chinese bugles calling troops to arms but also containing the mournful last notes of "Taps" to further rattle the Americans. The amusing, fraternal scene of the men in a circle rubbing their frostbitten feet together until one of the sergeant's good-natured ribbing turns to horror when he realizes the cold, numbed foot he grabbed is his own.* Most gripping is the scene of Corporal Denno going to save the other sergeant stranded in a minefield, his own cowardly desire not to have to lead in the man's stead ironically compelling him to bravery. Fuller wrings tension out of a series of close-ups of Denno's boots, twinkling with melted snow as if the shoes themselves are sweating in nervousness as he takes each ginger step forward. It's all gorgeous and harrowing, as aesthetically thrilling as it is morally grounded in the complexities of respect and regret for its characters.

*As Gene Evans' sergeant tells the others, "Only three things you gotta worry about the infantry: your rifle and your two feet." As the grandson of a vet whose feet never fully recovered from winters in Korea, this tossed-off line carried a lot of weight and understanding.

Wednesday, November 7

Vamps (Amy Heckerling, 2012)

A lightweight vampire parody that mercifully pokes at the deeper lore rather than just taking potshots at Twilight, Vamps starts rough and ends an unexpected delight. Using the true age of Alicia Silverstone's vampire to make fun of her being behind the times, Amy Heckerling also mocks the faded relevance of their previous, iconic collaboration, Clueless. That gives the goofy jokes more (forgive me) bite, and it eventually leads to an emotional breakthrough for its characters that hints at some of the same care that marked Heckerling's best film.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969)

In time for Skyfall's release Friday, I looked back at possibly the best entry of the franchise, the unfairly maligned and forgotten On Her Majesty's Secret Service. When I watched these films as a kid, I did not respond much to this entry, by that point so used to Connery and Moore that I did not pay attention to this usurper. Yet no film in the franchise has grown so much in my estimation, and returning to it now after several years, I was struck by the beauty of its cinematography, the visceral impact of its editing and how both of these enhance the story to the point that its infamous ending, for all its cruel abruptness, naturally flows from the rest. One of a precious few installments in the franchise that can stand proudly on its own.

My full piece is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, November 5

Detention (Joseph Kahn, 2012)

Joseph Kahn's Detention is a film so scatterbrained that it cannot even begin before getting distracted, introducing a secondary character before moving onto the protagonist. Kahn links the two with mirroring shot setups and mise-en-scene. The first is Taylor Fisher, the most popular girl at Grizzly Lake High School. Her room is lit as if reflected off her perfect, bleached smile, and she rises out of bed fresh-faced and with perfect hair. Turning the word "bitch" into an inspirational acronym, Taylor Fisher rattles off a set of offensively vacuous rules by which to live life as she sporadically swears at her family and rejects all the boys who call her after she hooked up with them for homework help or just on a whim.

The other girl, Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), exists at the opposite end of the spectrum, socially and, as Kahn twists the same basic shot setups, aesthetically. Where the sun seems to rise with Taylor, Riley groggily rolls out of bed, having passed out with a plate of ketchup-soaked French fries that now soil her clothes. Her posters promote vegetarianism  a cause she takes to less out of belief than to have something that keeps her separate from most others. Her dialogue matches The only thing that truly links them is the casual prescription drug abuse of both. Well, that and the ax-wielding, costumed killer that comes for them both. The killer gets Taylor easily, abruptly cutting short her "arc" before it begins. As for Riley, the killer is just one of many horrors she must face over the course of the feature, none so daunting as regular high school life.

The brief focus on Taylor anticipates multiple diversions across the trim 90-minute running time, breaking up the film as if optimizing it for 10-minute YouTube chunks and the attention-deficit nature of its demographic. Reminiscent of last year's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Detention employs various aesthetic tricks to visualize a generation of kids unable to concentrate for longer than 10 seconds. Its cutaways to backstories for ancillary characters are augmented by shot-to-shot tics such as pop-up text, wild match-cuts and gorgeous but blink-and-you'll-miss-it cinematography. The opening credits capture the film in a nutshell, the camera zipping over the names of cast and crew animated in on various objects and in various styles that connote both an extreme exaggeration and a pure distillation of cross-generational high school touchstones.

Detention contains all the usual tropes of the high school movie—the ugly duckling chasing the popular boy (Josh Hutcherson), the dorky friend (Aaron David Johnson) who pines for that girl as she chases the other lad—but its pop culture frenzy extends to the film's plot, complicating its genre deconstruction with the incorporation of horror and science fiction elements. The latter proves particularly interesting as Kahn repurposes some of the headier elements of Donnie Darko, another teen movie involving wonky time-travel metaphysics, as pure farce. One young woman's obsession with early-'90s pop culture fits within the broader referential humor, but certain plot developments explain why she seems stuck in the past, while the school jock finds himself in a Cronenbergian nightmare when his exhibits fly-like tendencies such as sticky hands and vomited acid. These ludicrous side-issues eventually overwhelm the main plot, if the film could be said to truly distinguish between Riley's ongoing story and all the things that interrupt and add to it.

By going so much further in the quest for a laugh than the host of self-aware high school comedies and parodies, Detention manages to craft much subtler, more visual jokes. I got a kick out of the shot of the girl's bathroom, which appears large enough to be a club dance floor and is crowded enough to be one. Even the spoken-aloud references to the film's influences (as well as that "stupid" movie, Kahn's own Torque) lack the typical laziness of such mentions because the director so cleverly turns the entire film into a spastic pop culture rave, not standing outside its meta-humor but intimately exhibiting it in every frame. Because of this, however, it can be difficult to tell whether the film reflects some of the childishly sexist, egotistical behavior of its characters or if it merely observes them unvarnished. But as all the madcap elements of the story fall into place in the climax, Kahn slyly brings the grotesque misogyny of youth (and its veneration in most other teen movies) into sharp relief. Even that point is stylized, which might keep its intended targets oblivious but cements the film's brash brilliance as one of the few postmodern genre deconstructions to get it all right.