Friday, July 20, 2012

Free Udemy Video Course: Brazil for Beginners

Check out this free video course titled "Brazil for Beginners," presented on Udemy by Marshall C. Eakin of Vanderbilt University. It consists of 17 sessions, 15 of which are lectures of about 20 minutes each.  The first session is a brief introduction to the course, and the final one is a short written note. 

Professor Eakin has devoted his career  of more than 30 years to the study of Latin America, with a major emphasis on Brazil. He has lived and studied in Brazil.

So far, I've watched the first two lectures. He manages to cover a lot of content in each lecture.  

I'd describe his lecture style as deliberate more than dynamic, but he obviously knows what he's talking about and the lectures contain so much information that they are interesting. 

While viewing the video, you can type notes in a sidebar notepad, and you can then download the notes in the form of a data file that can be opened with a spreadsheet app such as Excel or Numbers.  I found that it was easiest to get the notes to appear the way I wanted them in Numbers, then copy and paste them into Pages before printing. 

The video format that Udemy uses doesn't work well at all on my iPad or Apple TV. It starts out fine, but by the last 5 or 10 minutes, the image turns into digital blocks.  So far, I haven't had any problems viewing the lectures on my Mac.

But I'm not complaining. The course is, after all, free, and Dr. Eakin is offering a valuable resource.

Highly recommended for those who want a good overview of Brazilian history.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review of HBO series "Mulher de Fases"

I stumbled across this series while searching through the HBO Latino section on HBO On Demand.  It was listed with its Spanish title, "Mujer de Fases," but since I'm working on my Spanish, I gave it a shot, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it's a Brazilian comedy, in Portuguese, with English subtitles.

The series centers on Graça, a recently divorced 30-something real estate agent in Porto Alegre. Graça is looking for Mr. Right.  The show's unique take on this familiar formula is to have each episode include two very different men who enter Graça's life.  Episode one, for example, is called "A Smoker and a Mystic," in which Graça hooks up with both a chain-smoker and a guru.  In her efforts to make things work, she takes up smoking for the first time in her life, and also throws herself into the spiritual teachings of the guru.  In other words, she's something of an emotional chameleon, taking on the most prominent characteristics of her various love interests in each episode.  

The format of having two men of extremely different types in each episode is what makes the series work.  Graça herself, played with deadpan humor by Elisa Volpatto, is something of a blank slate, but her best friend Selma has strong opinions on everything, and Selma's daughter Tereza offers her share of sardonic humor to the mix.  For outright humor, though, my two favorite characters in the series are Graça's ex, Gilberto, who uses exaggerated facial expressions, wry comments, and physical comedy to get a laugh;  and Graça's mother Hilda, who bustles around, saying what she thinks with disarming candor. 

The formula works, but it's also very predictable, so that by the third or fourth episode, you're thinking, "I've seen this before," and you have.  The show is a comedy, but I don't find myself laughing out loud very often.  It's also hard to believe that Graça, who is strikingly beautiful and seems intelligent enough, would settle for some of the guys she ends up becoming so obsessed with, let alone so willingly alter her behaviors to match theirs.  

Would I watch this if it were in English?  Probably not, but it's a great way to practice my Portuguese listening skills, and the actors all speak with an accent that is relatively neutral, at least to my American ears.  I also like seeing the daily life of middle-class Brazilians, even as depicted through the potentially distorted lens of a TV sitcom.  

  • HBO On Demand

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Film Review: "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within" ("Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora e Outro")

This film is a sequel to "Tropa de Elite," and in my opinion, it's a case where the follow-up surpassed the original in every respect.  

The story is narrated by Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a leader of BOPE, an elite squad of specially trained police, created specifically to combat crime in Rio's favelas.  BOPE's symbol is a skull. This force is ruthless and trained in urban warfare. 

The story opens with a prison riot.  BOPE is sent in to deal with it, under the leadership of Nascimento's right-hand man, Captain André Matias (André Ramiro).  Meanwhile, Diogo Fraga, a university professor and husband to Nascimento's ex-wife, has been called in by authorities to negotiate with the rioting prisoners.  Things go bad very quickly, and both Nascimento and Matias pay a political price.  Matias is demoted, but Nascimento is promoted to an administrative job in Rio's security department.  

From his new position, he is able to witness the corruption that infects the police department and the political system.  Nascimento sets out to reform things, but he underestimated the extent of the corruption, and the flexibility of those involved to adapt to the changing situation.  The voice-over narration is very effective in showing us how Nascimento becomes increasingly disillusioned.  

The director does a very good job of combining fast-paced action sequences, with lots of shooting and guerrilla warfare, with the developing story of the rampant corruption.  The film turns into a political thriller as much as a crime story, and Nascimento develops into a much more human and sympathetic character than he was in the first film, or even the beginning of this one.  In the end, he allies himself with his former enemy Fraga to expose the corruption. The film ends with a fly-over of Brasilia, with Nascimento reminding viewers that the corruption has its source at the very highest levels of government.  

This film was a huge success in Brazil, and also got attention here in the US.  I have watched it several times, and found that there was so much that I missed the first time, it really requires at least two viewings to fully appreciate it.  The acting is excellent, the action sequences are exciting and realistic (I didn't see much evidence of CGI), and the production values are outstanding throughout.  Best of all, the film becomes almost cerebral as Nascimento starts to figure out what's really going on.  He changes from a brutal, reactive police officer to a man who is compelled to re-examine not only his entire life's work, but all of his preconceptions and values.  That Wagner Moura is able to portray this transformation in a believable way is a tribute to his abilities as an actor.  

I viewed this film in HD on Netflix streaming, and the image and sound were both excellent.  Subtitles are easy to read, but they fly by quickly, as the dialogue is very fast.  I had a hard time catching a lot of what was being said because of the speed.  The second time through, I was able to grasp a lot more, but this is a film where I definitely need the subtitles. 

I highly recommend this film. Like any film that deals with crime in the favelas, there's a lot of violence, but by shifting the focus of the film from a police story to a thriller, the director moves it to a higher level.  


Film Review: "Do Começo ao Fim" ("From Beginning to End")

The cover art for the DVD should have already tipped you off that this film involves an intimate relationship between two men, but what the image doesn't tell you is that they also happen to be half-brothers.  So if either or both of those themes bothers you, do not view the film!  It's not that the film is overly explicit or graphic, though there are a couple scenes with minimal nudity, but the subject matter itself may not be to everyone's taste.  

However, it would be a mistake to categorize the film as a gay film, because it transcends the genre. If anything, it's a film about obsessive love, and that alone might be enough to bother some viewers.  

Now that the warnings are out of the way, on to the review. The film opens in a maternity ward, with Francisco, a boy about 5 years old, recalling how he first met his newly born younger half-brother Thomás  The two boys form an intense bond from the very beginning, and the bond intensifies as they grow older.  

They are the only two children of wealthy parents. Their mother, Julieta, is a doctor, and their father, Alexandre, (step-father to Francisco), is an architect.  Francisco's father is Pedro, an Argentinian with whom Julieta had a relationship before marrying Alexandre.  

The boys grow up in an affluent and loving atmosphere, and in the first part of the film, we see them doing the things that kids do, playing and having fun with their family.  The boys go to visit Francisco's father, Pedro, in Buenos Aires one Christmas, where they are also welcomed warmly.

The parents are affectionate with both boys, and while they see some signs of excessive intimacy even when they're children, they realize that there's not much that they can do about it.  

We next see them as young men at their mother's funeral.  Her death has clearly had a devastating effect on the boys and Alexandre.  Alexandre moves out of the house and lets his son and step-son live there.  If the relationship between Francisco and Thomás had not been physical up to that point, it is now, but the scenes are relatively short, and tastefully done.

Thomás is a competitive swimmer, and when he is offered the opportunity to train in Russia for several years to compete in the Olympics, he initially wants to turn it down.  But Francisco insists that Thomás should go, and he does.  The resolution to the story is handled well, but I won't give it away here.  

I really enjoyed this film, because it's the only Brazilian film I have seen so far that doesn't deal either with drugs and crime in the favelas, or the gritty, grinding poverty of the sertão.  Instead, it offers a view of one affluent family's story.  The production values are very good, the actors are excellent, and the story, while unusual, is not as strange as it sounds in a plot synopsis. 

The film looks quite good on DVD, with artistic cinematography and good composition.  There is a scene when the boys go back to Buenos Aires as young men, when they're walking through the streets of the city, and bystanders turn to look at them, probably because it was obvious that a film was being made.  I wondered why the director didn't opt for a less obtrusive hand-held camera for these shots, or clear out a couple of blocks so that just paid extras were filmed, but perhaps the film's budget didn't allow for that.  

The soundtrack is excellent and fits the mood of the film well.  


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Film Review: "Cidade de Deus" ("City of God")

This film, released in 2002, received critical acclaim, was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, and is ranked 18 on IMDB's Top 250 films as voted by users.

In spite of its fame, I had avoided this film because I knew it was violent, and I wasn't sure I wanted to see yet another film about drug dealers and crime in the favelas.  However, if you're going to watch Brazilian films, it's almost impossible to avoid these topics, and the fact that the film was so highly reviewed finally convinced me to watch it. I'm very glad that I did.

First of all, the film is violent and almost all of the action takes place in the Cidade de Deus, one of Rio's favelas.  There are a lot of guns, and a lot of shooting, and perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the film is the degree to which very young kids (and I mean young:  8 and 9 year-olds) are involved in the shooting.  

The film also shows the widespread corruption of the police force, a theme echoed in "Tropa de Elite" and "Tropa de Elite 2," which I will review separately.  

But "Cidade de Deus" is much more than just another grim film about the seemingly insoluble problems of outrageous income disparity and the grinding poverty which makes drug trafficking a reasonable choice for so many kids in the favelas.  This film tells a story, with the narrator, "Buscapé," drawing the viewer into his world and making it accessible in a way that no other film about this topic has done.  

The action starts from the opening of the film, where we see a high-school aged Buscapé walking down a street in the Cidade de Deus with a new camera, his friend at his side.  The action stops short just as shots are about to be fired, and we then view a series of extended flashbacks, going back to the 1960s and moving forward.  We meet a series of interesting characters, many of them portrayed by players who were recruited from the favelas which are the subject of the film.  

The direction and cinematography are both excellent, making the film seem almost like a documentary, without sacrificing aesthetics.  Composition, lighting, and other elements often missing in a documentary make the film visually appealing, in spite of the squalid surroundings.  

The story also has humor, largely due to Buscapé's ability to tell his story in a lively and engaging way.  His resilience, and that of some of the other characters, keep the viewer from becoming depressed by the constant killing.  

There are a lot of guns in this film, and there's a lot of shooting.  The main "bad guy," Zé Pequeno, is a sadistic sociopath, but Buscapé doesn't waste a lot of time bemoaning this fact.  Instead, he describes Zé's actions from a logical, almost business-like standpoint.  He doesn't glorify, excuse, or rationalize, but he doesn't demonize, either.  

The film ends on a tentative high note, at least for Buscapé, but the final scene shows a group of very young kids toting guns and listing off all the people they're planning to kill.  

I read quite a few of the reviews for this film on Amazon, because I was curious to see how an American audience would react to it.  The film has a very high rating on Amazon, with an average of 4 and half stars.  That's based on 341 reviews, an extremely large number for a foreign film.  Of those reviews, 269 are 5 stars, 45 are 4 stars, and only 27 total reviews are 1 through 3 stars.  Most of the negative reviews criticize the film for excessive violence, which at first seems like a reasonable objection.

However, as the documentary that is one of the extra features on the Blu-Ray release makes clear, the film is not exaggerating anything.  In fact, it's based on a true story.  The documentary shows actual kids who are involved in the gangs as they proudly display the various weapons that they use.  It also includes a fairly long interview with the head of Rio's police department (who left the force shortly after the documentary was filmed, to run for political office).  

It's difficult for someone like me, a foreigner who has never lived in Brazil, to know how closely a film like "Cidade de Deus" reflects reality, but based on the documentary, it was a very faithful and honest depiction, at least of the situation at the time the film and documentary were made.  

The film looks great in high definition, and the 5-channel soundtrack is excellent and sounds good.  Aside from the documentary, there are no extra features, but the documentary is quite good, although it was shot in standard definition.  

The English subtitles are very clear and easy to read.  

This is one of the best Brazilian films that I have seen so far.  If it had just been another drug war film with lots of shooting and violence, it would be forgettable, but it's a great film because it does what a great movie must do:  it tells a fascinating story and it does it in a way that grabs the viewer's interest from the beginning, and doesn't let it go until the very end.  


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Using Spanish to Leverage Your Portuguese, and Vice-Versa


When I first started studying Brazilian Portuguese, my knowledge of Spanish was both an advantage and disadvantage. The advantage was that I was familiar with a lot of the vocabulary, which often looks identical, or nearly identical. The disadvantage is that the sounds of the two languages are very different, and it was hard for me to get beyond using my Spanish pronunciations for Portuguese words that were identical or very similar to their Spanish counterparts.

The biggest problem I had at first was the difference in the way final "o" is pronounced in the two languages. In Portuguese, final "o" has a sound that resembles English "oo", as in the word "too." In Spanish, it's similar to the sound of "o" in the English word "oh." (In both languages, the sound is shorter and not dragged out the way we might do in English).  

I tended to pronounce Portuguese "lh" as I would Spanish "ll" and Portuguese "nh" as if it were Spanish "ñ," but in both cases, the Portuguese sounds are softer.  

Then there were issues of syntax, with Spanish using the preposition "a" between forms of the verb "ir" and the infinitive to express "going to do something," while Portuguese does not.  

Lauren, the author of Hacking Portuguese, has an excellent page that outlines the challenges facing a Spanish speaker who is learning Portuguese.  She also links to a very thorough article on Wikipedia which addresses this topic.  (Regardless of whether you speak Spanish or not, you have to check out Hacking Portuguese, which offers an amazing assortment of resources for learners at every level). 

After I finished all three levels of Pimsleur, I realized that my Portuguese speaking skills were better than my Spanish speaking skills, even though I had only been studying Portuguese for a few months, and I had completed three years of college level Spanish.  

So I decided to use Pimsleur to improve my Spanish.  

I was a bit leery at first, because I didn't want it to interfere with my ongoing study of Portuguese.  And at first, I had to do the exact opposite of what I did when I began the Pimsleur Portuguese program. Now, my final "o" sounded as if I were speaking Portuguese, and my "ñ" in words like "señor" sounded too soft, like Portuguese "nh". I also had to work on making sure that my "d" and "b/v" were properly articulated. But by the fifth or sixth lesson, I had overcome these problems, without losing my ability to speak Portuguese in the process.  

I still stumble with certain words and phrases. "Un poco" in Spanish sometimes comes out as "um pouco," "cerveza" can sound like "cerveja," and I still sometimes use "é" instead of "es." I try to catch my errors and repeat the words correctly right away. 

If there is enough time for me to do it, and if the sentence is really easy, I say the response in Spanish first, then repeat it in Portuguese (the scripts are almost identical in both programs, and from what I've read, this is true for all of the Pimsleur language programs).  This helps me to reinforce the differences between the two languages, and also gives me a chance to switch between the two languages quickly.  

The result of all of this is that I am finding that my spoken Spanish is a lot better than it ever has been.  The vocabulary and the dialogues in level I of Pimsleur are much easier than what I'm able to read or write in Spanish, but what I'm getting from these lessons is the ability to say something in Spanish without having to stop and mentally translate it from English first.  This is exactly the way Pimsleur worked for me with Portuguese, and it's why I am such a fan of the program.  

I'm also finding that the book "Pois Não" has been extremely helpful, much more than it was when I first started learning Portuguese.  "Pois Não" is specifically designed for speakers of Spanish who are learning Brazilian Portuguese.  It's not the ideal beginning textbook, at least it wasn't for me, but now that I've finished all three levels of Pimsleur Portuguese and have started an active review of Spanish, the book is exactly what I need.  Not only does the author include vocabulary lists comparing Portuguese and Spanish words, he constantly refers to Spanish in his explanations of Portuguese grammar.  If you have any knowledge of Spanish and you're trying to learn Brazilian Portuguese, you should at least consider investing in "Pois Não" at some point in your studies.  For the money, it's one of the best resources available, even offering a very comprehensive program which includes a CD containing audio and video clips.

I'm also revisiting the "Tá Falado" podcasts, this time paying much closer attention to the Spanish speaker than I did the first few times I listened to them.  

So, after my initial concerns about interference in learning that my knowledge of Spanish was causing, I can now see that because the languages share such a large vocabulary and are similar in so many other ways, a learner can use one language to develop skills in the other. 

Using Brazilian Music to Build Your Language Skills

In an earlier post, I wrote about some of the Brazilian music that I've been listening to, both for pleasure, and to improve my language skills.  Here are some suggestions about how you can use music to help develop your listening skills.

1.  Read the lyrics in Portuguese.  The best site I've found for lyrics of Brazilian music is "Letras de Músicas," which has a huge selection of lyrics and usually includes a video for the song as well.  Since lyrics may or may not be included in a CD, and will not be included with music that you download from iTunes or Amazon, this is a helpful resource.

2.  Use the lyrics with your iPhone or iPod. If you're using iTunes, you have the option of adding lyrics to any track.  On a Mac, you do this by selecting the track, selecting "Get Info," and clicking on the "Lyrics" tab.  You can then paste the lyrics into the lyrics field and they will appear when you play the song using an iPhone or iPod.  There is currently no way to view lyrics on an iPad, which is unfortunate.

3.  If you use lyrics that you've retrieved from the internet, you may have to reformat them in order to make them easily legible.  The problem is that lyrics you find online often do not have paragraph breaks or carriage returns inserted, so that the lyrics end up all running together, with no breaks between the lines, which makes them difficult to read.

You can solve this problem using this procedure:

1.   Copy the lyrics into a word processor before you paste them into iTunes.  I use Pages, but you should be able to do this with Word, as well.  After the lyrics have been copied into Pages, I choose "Show Invisibles" from the "View" icon at the far left.  This shows paragraph breaks, line breaks, etc.  

2.  Use "command F" or Edit > Find to bring up the Find/Replace dialog box.  Click on "Advanced" and next to the "Find" field, click on "insert" and select "line break."  Then, next to the "Replace" field, click on "insert" and select "paragraph break."  

3.  Now all you have to do is click on "Replace all" and the line breaks will be replaced by paragraph breaks.  It may look as if there's too much blank space between each line, but this will normally be removed when you copy and paste the lyrics into iTunes.  

4.  Select all (command A), then copy the text, and paste it into the lyrics field in iTunes. The lyrics may still appear to have extra spaces between lines, but this normally disappears after you click on another track and then come back to the track you have just been working with.

Once the lyrics are correctly copied into iTunes, sync your device, and you can then view them while listening to the song on any iPhone, or using an iPod that supports lyrics. 

I know this sounds like a lot of work, but after you've done if a few times, it becomes almost automatic.

The first few times you listen to a song, you're probably going to have to refer to the lyrics fairly often.  

Work on becoming familiar with the words in Portuguese, and try to translate as much of the song as you can into English.  Use a translator to help with parts that you can't do yourself.  Keep in mind that just as in American popular music, you'll encounter a lot of informal language and slang.

If you're comfortable singing out loud, go for it, but if not, just focus on visualizing the song as you hear it.  In other words, have mental images that match the lyrics as you listen to them.  

If you don't have an MP3 player that displays lyrics, you can sometimes find a YouTube video that includes lyrics as subtitles, or you view the videos on the "Letras da Música" website, with the lyrics displayed next to the video.