Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens





After trying, and failing, to keep to my shorter review format, I've decided to just write this up as a long review.
To paraphrase Blaise Pascal, I would have written a shorter review, but I didn't have the time.

My Background With Star Wars
My Star Wars story is the same story as every other person my age.  
I was 5 years old when Return of the Jedi hit theaters in 1983.  And it absolutely blew my 5 year-old little mind.  (As was the experience of watching Star Wars on TV, also when I was 5 years old.)
I have since that time achieved cognitive maturity, but because of the power of nostalgia I will never be able to view Star Wars with any sort of objectivity.  Whenever I see these movies, I'm not seeing them through adult eyes.  Instead, I am remembering how they made me feel at 5 years old.  
In other words, these movies are not just ordinary movies to me.  And these characters are not just ordinary characters.
I haven't conducted any sort of scientific poll, but if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, and if the huge anticipation of this movie is anything to go by, most people of my generation feel exactly the same way.

I've always thought it was a mistake to identify Star Wars  as geek culture in the media.  Granted, I personally am a huge geek, but I know many people of my generation who aren't, and they're all huge Star Wars fans too.  Everyone in my elementary school playground was obsessed with Star Wars.  Everyone.  (Fredrik deBoer also recently made this point [LINK HERE] . Star Wars was a huge cultural behemoth which swept over everyone's childhood in the early 1980s.  The bullies as well as the nerds all loved Star Wars.   )

All this being said, there do seem to be limits to the appeal of Star Wars. At one point in my life, I thought everyone liked Star Wars.  But then I began to notice that  people who saw Star Wars for the first time as adults never really got the appeal of it. This confused me at first, but then I tried to view the movie through adult eyes.  Maybe it wasn't as good as I thought.
"Okay," I began saying.  "Maybe you have to see these movies when your 5 years old, or you can never really truly understand their impact on childhood."
I had to revise my opinion still further when I began getting reports from friends of mine, teachers, that kids these days just weren't that into Star Wars.  And I began to realize that maybe the special effects were dated.  And maybe the action scenes, which had seemed so amazing in 1983, were ordinary nowadays.  And maybe the whole pacing of the movie (the first Star Wars especially) was completely different to modern movies.

So, I revised my opinion yet again: "Okay, in order to truly understand how great these movies are, you had to see them when you were 5, and it had to be in the early 1980s," I said.

I've had in mind this year to write a post analyzing the original Star Wars trilogy, and discussing what about it exactly so captivated us as kids.  (I've made promises to write that post  herehere and here), but it was impossible to write.  I found myself trying to either put my finger on something that probably couldn't be pinned down exactly (why Star Wars was such a huge hit, but none of it's many imitators could ever duplicate it's success) or I found myself repeating what had already been said about Star Wars a million times already on the Internet (talking about the character arcs in the first Star Wars movie, for example).
And then, these movies were on TV the other day, and I was watching them, and I thought: You know, it's just self-evident that these movies would appeal to young kids in the early 1980s.  You don't need to write 1,000 words trying to explain it.  It's just obvious by looking at it that kids would love this movie.
I mean, you could write that post, if you were a real cinephile, and wanted to dissect exactly what makes a good movie good.  But you don't really need to explain it's appeal.  It's appeal is self-evident.  Five minutes into the movie, and I was like, "Oh yeah.  It's no wonder we all went nuts for these movies as children.  This is exactly the kind of movie kids would love."
This was especially true in the 1980s, when there really were no other movies like this around.  Admittedly, nowadays when big budget fantasy/action films are much more common, Star Wars wouldn't have made the same impact on today's generation.  But back in 1983, there were no other movie like this.
So, yeah, duh, no wonder everyone went nuts for them.  There's no more to be said.

There are a couple of lingering questions:
"Okay," you might say, "I'll grant that nostalgia can make you feel fondly for childhood movies.  Fair enough.  But come on!  There's being nostalgic for something, and then there's being completely obsessed with something."
This obsession with nostalgia seems to be unique to our generation.  I mean, when our parents were our age, they weren't obsessing about the movies from their childhood, were they?   (Or were they?) [This cartoon (LINK HERE) does a good job of pointing out the differences between adults of generations past, and adults of our generation.]
As I said in my previous post on generation blaming, there's no sense trying to blame generations for their unique characteristics.  The only thing you can do is look at the causes.  Is our generation obsessed with movie nostalgia because we were the first generation to be raised largely indoors?  Or is it just that there was never any phenomenon like Star Wars in our parents' generation to compare with?  Or is every generation nostalgic, and it's just that there just never was a big industry to cater to before now?
I don't know.

The other lingering question is exactly when the cut-off dates are for the Star Wars generation.  I'm pretty sure you have to see it in childhood, or you'll never be able to fully understand it's appeal.  This newspaper columnist [Link Here] for instance, was already an adult when Star Wars hits theaters, and writes intelligently on the generation gap between those who saw Star Wars as children, and those who were already cognitively mature when it first arrived.   For a while, I posited that 5 years old was the perfect age to see Star Wars, but Whisky Prajer was 12 when Star Wars hit theaters in 1977, and was also completely blown away by it [LINK HERE].  (I've also heard similar stories from some of my co-workers who are about 10 years older than me.)  So when is the cut off date?  Did you have to see it before you were 10?  12?  15?
And then there's also probably a cut-off date going the other direction as well: the younger generation, spoiled by movies with much better effects and much more adrenaline action sequences,  might not understand the appeal these movies had in the early 1980s. But again, the exact where cut-off age is, is difficult to pin down.  My younger co-workers (21 years old, some of them) were just as excited for this new Star Wars movie as I was.

Anyways, enough of my musings on nostalgia.  On to the main review:

Setting Expectations
Remember how excited you were when you heard that the whole cast of the original Star Wars had agreed to come back for the movie?
This was a minor miracle.  For years in interviews Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher had all consistently expressed reluctance to do another movie.  I didn't think it was possible to re-unite the old gang.  But they did it!  And we were all over the moon.  Another Star Wars movie featuring our childhood heroes?  This was too good to be true.

And then, gradually, we found out that the original cast would just be in supporting roles or cameo roles.  And our excitement began to die down again.

Look, I know the torch had to be passed to a new generation at some point.  The original cast is all in their 60s and 70s, after all.  But I would have loved just one last movie focusing on the original cast.  In the first movie, you could have had all the new characters in supporting roles, and the original cast in the main role, and then gradually switched the focus over the course of the trilogy.

That's really the movie I wanted to see.

Instead, most of the original cast gets reduced to supporting roles, or brief cameo appearances.
Han Solo and Chewbacca being the exceptions of course.  Those two admittedly get a lot of screen time.  But Luke, Leia, C3P0, and R2D2 are barely in the thing.
I mean, if you couldn't get all the original cast to agree to come back, I would have understood.  But having accomplished the miracle of getting everyone to agree to come back....well, it just seems like a waste to have them all in the movie, but not get to do much.

That's obviously not the direction J.J. Abrams decided to go in, however, so there's no sense harping on it.  As Roger Ebert used to say: "Review the movie you saw, not the movie you wanted to see."

And to be fair, once I accept that, I have to admit that this is a pretty amazing movie.

The Review

Absolutely wonderful.  J.J. Abrams really hit the ball out of the park with this one.
As much as I would have loved to spend more time with the original cast, I have to admit that the all of the new characters are completely charming.  I loved Finn, loved Poe, and loved Rey.
(I hate to kick Lucas when he's down, but...but it's hard to avoid comparisons with the prequel trilogy, and how wonderful and interesting and charming all these new characters are in a way that absolutely none of the prequels characters ever were.)

This movie has the perfect mix of action, mystery, and humor.

Also, how great was Harrison Ford?  He gave a spectacular performance as Han Solo, in which both he and the screenwriters perfectly re-captured his humor from the original movies.

There are certain movies where you are so thrilled by the experience that you don't really care about any of the flaws.  You know the flaws are there, but you just don't care--you're enjoying the movie too much to be bothered by them.

This was one of those movies for me.

For example, before I went into this movie, I had heard that J.J. Abrams basically repeated all the same plot points from the original Star Wars movies.  (This Salon.com reviewer [LINK HERE], among others, tipped me off to what I was about to see.)  And I was all set to really hate this.
This repetitiveness has long been my least favorite thing about the Star Wars franchise.  I really hated that in the Star Wars prequels many scenes were just there purely for the purpose of reminding us of previous scenes.  And in my review of Star Trek Into Darkness, I wrote about how stupid I thought the whole idea of repetitive history was, and how I really hoped J.J. Abrams wouldn't do it in the new Star Wars.

Well, J.J. Abrams did exactly what I was hoping he wouldn't do, and yet...and yet I was so charmed by the overall movie experience, that I'm largely willing to forgive it.  Who cares if we've seen this same story before.  It was exciting, it was fun, it was thrilling, it was tense and suspenseful and funny in all the right places.

I don't know, maybe it should have bothered me more, but the movie was just so much fun I am willing to forgive a lot.

Similarly with the plot holes, coincidences, and macguffins--I know they're all there, but it this movie was so much fun, it didn't really bother me that much.

Also in a previous post, I complained that The Force was a really boring part of Star Wars, and expressed hope that the new movie would downplay that aspect of Star Wars.  This movie did not.  (The Force is a big part of the story.)  But I didn't mind.  It was well done.
The Force is still the most problematic part of the Star Wars universe (it's confusing and inconsistent), but in this movie, it was used as a way to build up the drama and the tension between the characters, and I found myself leaving the movie theatre without one complaint.

Well, okay, I do have a couple nitpicks:
I'm willing to forgive a lot of repetition if you can give me a fun movie, but that last part about blowing up the Death Star again was just a bit too on the nose.
If that part had been left out, I think most of the critics would have forgiven all the other repetitions.
And the pity is, the movie didn't need it.  You could have just canned that whole "blowing up the death star" bit, and it wouldn't really have affected the other plot lines that much.

Furthermore, the blowing up the Death Star scenes were perhaps the one part of this movie that suffered by comparison.  In both Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, there was a fair amount of suspense created in the space battles around the Death Star.  In Star Wars, for example, we could see the faces of all of the fighter pilots.  There was building tension as they all got picked off one by one.
Unfortunately, there was none of that in this movie. J.J. Abrams generally did a good job of creating interest and suspense in all of his other scenes, but the space battle scenes are the one part of the movie where he really dropped the ball.  All the more reason why this whole part of the movie should have been cut, and nothing would have been lost.

And One More Big Complaint...
So, everyone knows Han Solo had to die at some point.

All Star Wars geeks know the history--Harrison Ford had wanted Han Solo to die since the original trilogy.  He reportedly thought it would add a sense of sacrifice and loss which would heighten the drama and reality of the series.  And he reportedly argued bitterly with George Lucas about this, but ended up getting over-ruled by Lucas.
I strongly suspect that Harrison Ford only agreed to come back for new Star Wars movies on the condition that they finally give him that Han Solo death scene he'd always wanted.
So as much as I hated to see Han die, I knew it had to happen.

But here's the thing though--it shouldn't have happened the first movie back.  This scene should have been pushed back to the second movie.  (Assuming, that is, Harrison Ford could have been talked into delaying it for one more movie.)
For one thing, I think fans kind of deserved one movie just enjoying Han Solo again before they had to say good-bye to him.
I mean, I want to enjoy all that classic Han Solo wit and one-liners that are fully on display in this movie, but it's so bittersweet now, knowing that this is also the movie where I have to say good-bye to him.

Secondly, and more importantly, this movie can't handle the emotional impact of Han's death.  There's just no room in the movie for the impact of the death to register.  No sooner has Han died, then Rey and Finn rush out into the woods for the climatic scene with Kilo Ren.  And don't get me wrong, that final climatic scene is great--it's very emotionally strong in its own right, but the emotions of that scene over-shadow what happened in the previous scene.
Come on!  This is Han Solo.  HAN SOLO.  You don't just kill him off and then rush on with the rest of the movie.  If you're going to kill him off, at least give him the full scene.  Let the camera linger.  Have a scene where the characters (and the audience) get to absorb what has happened before rushing off to the next scene.

And that's the one thing that really bugs me about this movie.  This is what brings the movie down from a solid 10 out of 10 to a 9.

9 out of 10 stars

Other Notes
* So, by all reports, Billy Dee Williams would have been perfectly happy to come back for this movie if someone had just phoned him up and asked him.
I'm a little bit puzzled as to why he's not in it.  Granted, there wouldn't have been much for him to do in this script.  He would only have been a cameo character--but then C3P0, R2D2, and Leia were also pretty much also reduced to cameos, so why not have Lando Calrissian also just hanging around at the rebel base?
For the moment, I'm going to put this as another negative on the film's score card.  But if it turns out in episode 8 that they were saving Lando's reveal for something really cool (and there are hints of this on the Internet rumor board) then I'll go back and remove this negative.

* According to this Wired.com article, Disney not only has plans to do this trilogy, but to release one Star Wars film a year forever.  (Or as long as people keep buying tickets).
I was so charmed by this film that I'm giving it a complete pass on its recycled plot.  But going forward, I think there is now a real question of how many stories Star Wars is capable of telling.  Are we just going to get the same movie over and over again 40 times over the next 40 years?  Because if we are, at some point I'm going to stop forgiving that.

* I've already linked before to this Charlie Jane Anders piece on the confused politics of Star Wars. Lucas was of the generation that was traumatized by the Vietnam War, and originally the evil Galactic Empire and its scorched earth policies were supposed to represent how the United States had acted in Vietnam.  But because of the confused messages of Star Wars, and because it represented a Manichean (W) universe in which there is little room for moral ambiguity, the film was perceived by many Americans as a message about the importance of keeping a strong military so as to continue the fight against evil.
Matt Zoller Seitz (writing on Roger Ebert's old site) thinks he sees a continuation of the Vietnam War's influence on Star Wars in the new movie, and I don't think he's wrong.  He talks about the "My Lai-style massacre" in the beginning of the film, and also says:
Many film historians have noted the way Lucas's first film, which came out two years after the end of US involvement in Vietnam, flipped that war's script upside-down, making defeated Americans identify with “rebels” who were essentially Vietcong-like guerrillas, and root against an industrialized military whose literally-scorched-earth tactics were all too Western. A shot of a storm trooper roasting a hut with a flamethrower brings the original trilogy’s Vietnam obsession full-circle
I'm not entirely sure the Vietnamese appreciate this part of their history being played out for science-fiction fantasy on the big screen.
As it happens, I saw this movie at a theater in Vietnam, and when this scene was playing, it seemed to me that a ripple of discomfort went through the theater.
(Or I don't know--possibly I was just projecting out my own discomfort at being the only white guy in the theater during this scene.  But I thought I could feel something in the air.)

* For my other thoughts on Star Wars, I wrote once before on Star Wars nostalgia back in 2005 (in anticipation of the release of Revenge of the Sith).  And then I reviewed Revenge of the Sith when it came out.  And then there's this post from 2012, in which I first reacted to the news that Disney was planning to resurrect the Star Wars franchise.

Link of the Day
On Power and Ideology

I Really Hate "Last Christmas"

I don't remember this song growing up.

When it first came out (in 1984, according to Wikipedia), I was 6 years old, still too young to be fully aware of pop culture trends.

I don't remember it at all during my adolescent and teenage years in the 1990s.  It could be that I was just oblivious to it.  Or it could be (as this awl.com article posits) that the song underwent a resurgence in popularity about 2001ish when a bunch of other bands began covering it.   (Most probably, I was just oblivious to it.  I've been oblivious to a lot of stuff during my life.)

All I know is that I first became aware of the song when I was in Japan.  It was played constantly over the loudspeakers in all the shopping malls in Japan.

My first thought was that this was some sort of Japanese song with English lyrics.  Sometimes J-Pop artists will attempt to do English version of songs, and this song seemed like it had J-Pop written all over it.  The slow, saccharine melody sounded like it would be right at home in J-Pop, plus the lyrics sounded distinctly like someone who was writing in English as a non-native speaker.  There seemed to be no awareness of the way English poetry or song lines normally work--instead of having identifiable song lines in the music, with identifiable beats or rhythms or stresses or rhymes,  the singer would just would just ramble on until the music got to a pause, and then just take a break and continue right where he left off.

Even once I figured out that this song was by a genuine American native speaker, the fact that it was extremely popular in Japan did not immediately make me think it was some sort of Christmas classic I had missed out on.  Sometimes strange little pieces of American culture, things that get completely forgotten about back home, become extremely popular abroad and end up taking on new lives overseas.  (The most popular American music group in Japan are The Carpenters.)

The one thing I knew for sure, though, was that I absolutely hated this song.  It was one of those songs that was guaranteed to give me a headache from the first few notes.  When I got together with other foreigners, I complained about the prevalence of this song in Japan, but I always just attributed this to the fact that Japanese people have funny tastes in English music.

But in recent years, I've been discovering that a lot of people like this song.  And not just Japanese people, but Americans, Brits, Australians--even people I used to respect.

In Cambodia, I once caught a co-worker of mine, an Australian, using this song in his English classes.  He had designed a gap-fill song sheet for the students to complete, and he accidentally left own of his copies in the copy machine.  When I saw the song-sheet, I confronted him about it.
"I can't believe you're making your students listen to this!" I said, throwing the song-sheet down on his desk angrily.
Rather than have the decency to act sheepish about it, or to apologize for his actions, he actually seemed confused as to why I was upset.  "What?" he said.  "It's a good song."

At my new job in Vietnam, I was recently at a company work shop in which this song was given as an example of a good Christmas song to do with the students.  Of course, I immediately protested that this was the worst song ever, only to find, much to my amazement, that I was the only one in the room who felt that way.

I used to assume everyone was in agreement with me about how horrible this song was, and that I didn't actually need to explain it to them.  For example, whenever the song came on the loudspeakers, I thought I could just be like, "Oh, this again.  This is the worst song ever!  Right guys?"  And everyone would be like, "Yeah, you said it!"
But more and more, I'm finding that people are actually resisting me on this, and not simply agreeing that it's a bad song, but challenging me on it.  "Why do you hate this song so much?" I get asked.

Have you ever had to explain why a song was good or bad?  It's very difficult to articulate into words, and I find myself just sputtering incoherently and saying things like, "What?  But don't you--?  I mean, can't you just hear it?  Doesn't it--?  Are you telling me you don't have a huge headache right now just listening to it?"

While, this may be an exercise in futility, but I thought I would try, as best I could, to put into words exactly why this song sucks so much:

First, the melody.  What is this?  It's just like the same two notes going back and forth painfully slowly, and then speeding up a little bit at the end.
And the music doesn't have any sort of hook, or punches, or any sort of punctuation to let you know when you've gotten to the end of a line.  It's just like the notes meander for a while like they're lost and don't know where the song is going, and then it just stops.  And then it repeats.

And it's so painfully slow.  It's only got a couple of notes, but each one is just held way too long.

And then there's the singer's voice--it's whiny.  He just whines his way through the whole song.  You want to slap him, and say, "nobody likes to hear people whine.  If you can't say it nicely, then you'll have to go to your room until you're ready to speak like an adult."

And the words...what is up with those words?  Are those supposed to be verses?  There's no meter, there's no rhythm, there's no attempts at any of the things that traditionally define lyrics in English.  The singer just whines about something for a while, and then just pauses when the music pauses, and starts whining again.

The words are essentially meaningless.  ("Gave you my heart"--what does that even mean?).  But when so much of popular music is based off of meaningless lyrics,  I guess you can't fault this song too much for that.
But man, does it take forever for the singer to say what he wants to say.  Every word is held out for a long time over a slow moving note.  If it's two syllables (Christ--mas) it's broken down into two slow notes.  The whole thing sounds like the singer is undergoing a stroke, and is just barely able to get out the words he wants to say.  "Laaaast Chriissst-mmasss I gave you myyyy heaaart..."  And I just want to scream, "Come on already!  Just say it!!!"

Last word on the whole matter goes to David Mitchell:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Star Wars on the Brain

I've been talking about writing a post on Star Wars now for close to a year now (here and here), but I've got so many thoughts on the franchise that it's difficult for me to sort out my thoughts into anything approaching coherence.

In the course of this past year, however, while my own brain has been frustratingly inarticulate, other Internet commentators have been very articulate.  And a few of the posts I was going to write have already been written by other people, and I see no need to duplicate what they have already done so well.
So I'm just going to use this post to link to articles which articulate what I wanted to say myself, but never got around to it.

First off: I was intending to write a post about the confused politics of Star Wars--how it's both incredibly anti-war, and incredibly pro-war at the same time.
(On the one hand, George Lucas intended the Evil Galactic Empire to represent the United States military.  But on the other hand, Star Wars was single handedly responsible for making war toys cool again, and cleared the way for such franchises such as G.I. Joe--something that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years beforehand in the immediate post-Vietnam atmosphere.)
But Charlie Jane Anders over at io9 wrote a wonderful article about the phenomenon which now makes any commentary I would have seem needlessly redundant.  See his article here.

I was also intending to write an article on how much prequels suck--not the Star Wars prequels specifically, but the whole concept of prequels in general. But Amy Woolsey over at The Week pretty much summed up my thoughts exactly.  See her article here.
Unfortunately, despite how strongly both Amy and I feel about this, it looks like to a large extent the ship has already sailed on this one.  We've already got a lot of prequels in the pipeline coming our way.  The current Star Wars: Rebels TV show, for example, is a prequel.  All of the announced anthology Star Wars movies are prequels (Rogue One--apparently a prequel about how the Death Star plans were stolen in the first place, some sort of Boba Fett prequel, and some sort of Han Solo prequel).  Plus, now it looks like we might get some sort of live action Star Wars TV show [LINK HERE] which is (sigh) also a prequel.
The best we can do at this point is just maybe hope that after 2020, there will be no more prequels.
Seriously though--Prequels are the worst.  They're boring, they have no stakes, they create bad continuity, and they're absolutely needless.  (Was anyone asking for a Han Solo prequel?  Did anyone want a Boba Fett prequel?)

Last, but not least, I was going to write a post on how The Force was the worst part of Star Wars, and that I really hoped the new films would down play it.
Star Wars has a lot going for it.  I like the fighting Nazis in space idea, I like the pirates and rouges and smugglers, I like the dogfights and the laser guns and the explosions, but The Force is just boring, inconsistent, and doesn't even really make sense.  It was tolerable in the first trilogy, because it was only gently teased.  But it was awful in the prequels, and it has the potential to make the whole Star Wars franchise awfully boring in the future.
Fortunately for me, someone already wrote very eloquently on this very subject:  Mike Ryan wrote a trilogy of articles on why Jedis and The Force are boring--here, here and here.
As of this writing, I have yet to see episode 7.  So I have no idea how the new movie will handle it.  I've got to say though, I'm disappointed with Star Wars: Rebels.  The very set up for this show would have been perfect for doing a Jedi-free story--it was set during the years in which, according to traditional Star Wars mythos, there weren't supposed to be any Jedi.  It would have been the perfect opportunity to just focus on pirates and space Nazis and laser gun fights--and what did they do?  They insisted on re-writing Star Wars mythos so that now there were a bunch of Jedi running around in this period.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky in Prague, Czech Republic

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Using The Great Dictator Speech to Listen for Stress, Varying Speed, and Pauses

(TESOL Worksheets--IELTS Listening, Pronunciation, Youtube Videos Authentic Listening)
Google: Drive, Docs, Pub
[This is meant to supplement a lesson from IELTS Express Upper-Intermediate Coursebook on page 84-85.  The lesson in the coursebook was meant to focus students attention on how lecturers will often indicate important information by varying their speed, pausing before and after key information, and stressing key words.
As always, the IELTS Express textbook was very informative, but very dry.  (The constant challenge with teaching IELTS is to find a way of giving the students the information without boring them to death.)  In an effort to supplement this textbook information with something more interesting, I tried to think of any film clips I knew that featured a speech with lots of words stressed, varying speeds, and pauses.  
Although it's always dangerous to show something from 1939 to a group of teenagers, this was the first thing that popped into my head.  And actually, my students seemed to react pretty positively to it.  
It helped that my students were clued in enough to have a vague awareness of who Charlie Chaplin was.  Therefore they were intrigued enough to see him in a completely different type of role than the silent comedy they associated him with.  And I think you can't help but get sucked into the passion of the speech once you start listening.
There are several subtitled versions of this speech floating around Youtube in virtually every language, so I chose a version that had Vietnamese subtitles for my Vietnamese students (here).  
The exercise I devised for the speech was exactly the same as the IELTS Express textbook.  The students had to underline where the speaker sped up, put a slash (/) by where the speaker paused, and circle any words that were emphasized.
Before I gave this activity to my students, I had a shot at doing it myself.  Although truth be told, I've always been terrible at doing this kind of thing myself.  (One of the reasons I hate teaching stress in intonation in my classes is that I have a terrible ear for marking it myself.)  But I gave it a shot at, and then presented my answers to the students as one alternative answer, and not the definitive answer. 
The circling marks don't copy and paste well into blogger, but can be seen on the Google Drive version of this document.
This speech properly falls more into the category of oratory than informative lecture, and so the changes in speed and stress are probably more to give it a hypnotic rhythm than they are to indicate key information (the original purpose of the IELTS exercise.)  But I justified it more as an awareness raising activity.
I then supplemented this by doing the speech from "A Few Good Men" (which I had previous posted here.)  
At the end, I apologized to the students for only using a bunch of old movies, and told them that if they could find any clips of movies with speeches that illustrated varying speed, stress, and pauses, then we could do their examples next week.]

Listen to this speech from the movie “The Great Dictator”.  As you listen, underline the parts of the speech where the speaker speaks faster than usual.  Circle those words which are given particular stress.  Put a slash (/) where the speaker pauses.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible - Jew, Gentile - black man - white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness - not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
The airplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men - cries out for universal brotherhood - for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world - millions of despairing men, women, and children - victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.
To those who can hear me, I say - do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed - the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes - men who despise you - enslave you - who regiment your lives - tell you what to do - what to think and what to feel! Who drill you - diet you - treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men - machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate - the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!
In the 17th Chapter of Saint Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” - not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power - the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then - in the name of democracy - let us use that power - let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world - a decent world that will give men a chance to work - that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will.

Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world - to do away with national barriers - to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! In the name of democracy, let us all unite!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Donald Trump Predictions

This post comes out of a couple conversations I've had recently with friends, and I thought I'd just throw my thoughts on-line.

Namely: I find it hard to believe that Donald Trump is serious about being President.

I know I'm not the first person to say this.  In fact, 6 months ago there were all sorts of articles pointing out that Donald Trump (and many other candidates) benefited financially by running for President (it was tons of free publicity that made them into household names, and they could later cash in on this fame by charging money for speaking appearances, or various other projects).
Also 6 months ago, there were lots of articles pointing out what a huge ego Donald Trump has, and how he just lives for this kind of attention.

However, I haven't seen these articles recently.  And fair enough, 6 months ago it was a lot easier to believe that Donald Trump would just ride this wave of publicity for a while, and then drop out.  He hasn't dropped out, though, and he's reached the point where he's seriously messing with the Republican Party's electoral process.  The joke has gone on far too long for many people to still believe it is a joke.

 I recently had a hard time convincing a friend that Donald Trump wasn't a serious contender for President.  So I'll just write here what I told him:

Imagine that you are really serious about becoming President.  You really want it bad.  So you the first thing you do is hire all the best political advisers money can buy, right?
Well, who is advising Donald Trump?  No sane political adviser is going to tell him to say the kind of things he's been saying.  Either he's got the worst political advisers in the world, or he is just blatantly ignoring everything they tell him.
Compare that to how a serious presidential candidate acts.  Every single thing they do is carefully scripted.  
Is Trump just unaware that this is how the game is played?  Did no one bother to tell him?  Or does he just blatantly not care?
Is he really that stupid that he thinks behaving like this is the way to win a Presidential election?
....I just can't imagine that he is!  He must know what he's doing.

I don't know what Trump's long term game is.  But I'm relatively confident that he doesn't want to be President.  So put this one up as my second political prediction this year.

My Prediction 
Donald Trump does not actually want to be elected President.  Exactly how far he will let this little game go on, I'm not sure.  But at some point, if his numbers don't fall on their own accord, he will either drop out of the race, or perform some sort of self-sabotage.

...and now that my prediction is stored on-line, we can check back in a few months to see how I did.

For my first prediction, on Hillary Clinton easily winning this election, see here

For an extra bonus, for my 2005 review of Donald Trump's book, How To Think Like a Billionaire, see here.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on ISIS

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Speaking Activity: Create Your Own School

(TESOL Worksheets--Speaking)
This activity was inspired by watching a colleague's lesson.  I adapted slightly what he did, and designed my own intro to it.
My colleague in turn was adapting a lesson from the Speaking Extra (A) textbook.  But this is my adaptation of his adaptation of the lesson, so it's significantly altered from the original lesson in Speaking Extra.
The students discuss in pairs the 3 different schools, and then create their own school.  (The final stage, although not on the PowerPoint, is for each group to present their school to the class, and the class votes on which school is best.)
All the information on Bob Jones University comes from this website here.  For the purposes of not confusing my Pre-Intermediate students with too many details, I've simplified some of the rules.  For example Students may not play video games rated above E10 (games meant for 10 year olds and older) or a game that contains graphic blood, gore, sensual or demonic themes, violent first-person shooting, suggestive dress, bad language, or rock music becomes "students may not play video games".
PowerPoint on Google here (drive, slides, pub) and Worksheet on Google here (drive, docs, pub).

Create your own school

Name of your school: ________________________

School rules

daily schedule

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Discuss Teachers: Speaking Activity

(TESOL Worksheets--Speaking)
This is a follow-up activity to the one on discussing school subjects.  And like the school subjects lesson, the questions in here all come from the book Discussions A-Z (A).  My own contribution is minimal--to change the formatting, to edit slightly some of the questions (and omit others) and to put it on PowerPoint.
PowerPoint on Google here (drive, slides, pub) and worksheet on Google here (drive, docs, pub).

Discuss Teachers

1.  What do you learn from your parents that you don’t learn from your teachers?
What do you learn from your teachers that you don’t learn from your parents?
Who do you learn more from?

2.  Do you prefer being taught by a male or female teacher?  What difference does it make?

3.  What is the difference between having a young inexperienced teacher and an old experienced one?

4. Should teachers express their political views in class?  Why or why not?

5.  Is the teacher always right?  Should you question what the teacher says?

6. Should teachers call you by your first name or family name?  How should you address them?

7. Do you prefer strict teachers or easy going ones?

Friday, December 11, 2015

Describing Everyday Objects: Speaking Activity

(TESOL Worksheets--Speaking)
Google: Drive, Docs, Pub
[This was designed to supplement page 57 of the Life Pre-Intermediate textbook, but I think it can also stand on its own as an independent speaking activity, so I'm posting it here.
The activity has two phases.  In the first phase, the students are put into groups of three.  The names of object cards are spread out on the desks. One student reads the description card, and the other two students compete to grab the appropriate object card.
Then, the students are given blank cards, and they write their own description of everyday objects.  They read these descriptions to their group, and the group tried to guess their objects.]

shaving cream

It is made of metal, plastic and rubber.  We use it to drive to places.

This is made out of plastic.  We use it to hold our drinks inside.
This is made of metal stretchers, and fabric (most commonly nylon).  We use this to keep us dry when it rains.

This is made out of metal.  We use it to help us eat soups.
This is made of rubber, cloth, or leather.  We use it to protect our feet when we walk.

This is made out of wood or plastic.  We use it to sit in.
This is made from fabrics, such as cotton or polyester.  We use it to cover our upper body when we go outside.

This is made out of wheat, flour, water, and yeast.  We use it to make sandwiches.
This is made of a CPU, hard drive and motherboard.  We use this to go online and search the Internet.

This is made out of metal and plastic.  We use it to keep our food cold.
This is made of stearic acid and triethanolamine.  We use it to keep our skin smooth when we shave.

This is made out of cardboard.  We use it to keep things in.
This is made from oil water and lye.  We use it to clean our bodies.

This is made of water and detergent.  We use it to clean our hair.
This is made of cotton.  We use it to dry our hair and skin after we get out of the shower.

This is made from leaves.  We drink it.
This is made of oil, vinegar, and eggs.  We use it to make our sandwiches more delicious.

This is made from feathers.  We use it to rest our heads on when we sleep.