Some of My Favorite (Recorded) Things of 2015

Here are records that were released in 2015 (except where noted) that I found myself repeatedly listening to and really enjoying. I can’t vouch that these are the best albums of the year, but I sure like them. In fact, looking at the “best of” lists released so far, I can say once again that I haven’t heard of over half the artists on those lists, let alone their music, so you know that most of what I’m listening to is not culturally significant—at least not in terms of pop culture.

Thank goodness.

D’Angelo, Black Messiah
Released in the middle of December last year, it’s hard to think of this as a 2014 album, so I’m not going to. It’s an amazing record, soulful, funky, melodic, and gorgeously arranged—the song “Really Love,” for example, opens with an ominous low note that opens up into a harmonically d'angelosophisticated string quartet that fades into some nimble classical Spanish guitar work before transforming into loping, jazzy R & B. Then, of course, there are those layers of D’Angelo’s voice that make up so much of the texture of these varied songs. Musically, Black Messiah recalls ‘80s funk as well as classic ‘70s work by Marvin Gaye—especially the more politically charged songs like “1000 Deaths” and “The Charade”—and Al Green. It is a bona fide masterpiece.

Decemberists 2The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Despite the four year gap between the records—when The Decembrists went on hiatus—What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is clearly a follow-up to The King is Dead. As good as The King is Dead is, though, it seems to me that the songs on What a Terrible World… are better, richer, more sophisticated while losing none of their accessibility. Because the band’s songs have become more straightforward, abandoning some of the quirkiness of their earlier music, some listeners have lost interest. But The Decemberists are not watering down their music and selling out. Rather, they’re transforming by opening themselves up, which is always tricky business. As the singer tells us in the opening track “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” “We know, we know, we belong to you / …We had to change some, you know, to belong to you.” And they do it with aplomb.

Wilco, Star Wars
I hadn’t exactly given up on Wilco in recent years, but I haven’t been inspired to spend much time with their past three albums. I expected the same with Star Wars. However, the title and the incongruous cover—an odd painting of an angora cat on a black pillow in front of a vase with three tea roses on a slate gray background—should have been a clue that I was in store for something different. The opening track, “EKG,” a brief wilco-star-wars-album-cover-artinstrumental featuring angular, dissonant guitars and a shifting time signature lives up to the cover’s singular weirdness. Granted, most of the songs following “EKG” probably would have fit comfortably on The Whole Love or Wilco (The Album), but the new songs feel unfinished, exploratory, their edges a bit more jagged, catching the ear more urgently than some of the songs on those other albums. As a whole, Star Wars feels more open to whatever shows up than anything Wilco has done in a long time, if not ever. This is my favorite Wilco album since 2004’s A Ghost is Born.

Joe Jackson, Fast Forward
Fast Forward may be the best album the prolific Joe Jackson has released since the ‘80s. Originally intended to be four EPs of songs recorded in four different cities (New York, Amsterdam, Berlin, and New Orleans), Jackson decided instead to release it as an album featuring four tracks per city. Each section of the album features musicians from the city in which it was recorded, and usually one or two of the songs have some kind of relevance to the city like the lively cover of Television’s “See No Evil” in the New joe_jackson2York section or the references to Germany in the Berlin section. Still, the cities don’t make much of an impact on the sound of the songs except New Orleans, where the rhythms and horn arrangements are unmistakable. A few songs try too hard, most notably “Far Away,” which is ambitious in all the wrong ways, but Jackson tends to undercut his pretensions with his still snotty humor, as in “Keep on Dreaming,” which opens with this little insight: “God must think he’s God or something / Lording it over us / Seems to like to make us feel ridiculous.” It’s nice to hear Jackson in such fine form.

John Zorn, The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons
Is it prog rock, jazz, or metal? Who cares when you have such a group of talented musicians as Zorn has collected here to play his genre-confounding music. The music surges on time signatures that slip around in tectonic shifts, propelled by Kenny Grohowski’s manic drumming and ribotTrevor Dunn’s massive bass, while John Medeski’s organ simmers over the white heat of Matt Hollenberg’s and Marc Ribot’s guitars. It is the aural equivalent of the violent storm that Satanist Dr. Julian Karswell conjures in Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon, the movie from which Zorn has taken his album’s title. This is fun, energetic music meant to be listened to loud.

Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Who would have thought, after a ten year hiatus, Sleater-Kinney would ever return? More to the point, who would have guessed they would sound so good? A number of punk and post-punk bands have reformed in recent years and recorded new albums with varying degrees of success. Sleater-SLEATER_KINNEYKinney, however, has released an album that rivals their best. The fuzz bass on the opening track “Price Tag” is practically perfect, until Janet Weiss’ muscular drumming kicks the song askew, and Corin Tucker’s voice is better than ever, though I’ve joked that at times she sounds like Geddy Lee on testosterone. No Cities to Love is vibrant, sophisticated rock music from what has proven to be one of the best bands to have come out of the ‘90s.

Los Lobos, Gates of Gold
After a cursory listen, Gates of Gold sounded like just another Los Lobos record in the vein they have been tapping, with little variation, since 1999’s This Time. And while it may be that, repeated listenings have also revealed a rich album. Yes, the album is split between the contributions of Cesar Rosas and collaborators Dave Hidalgo/Louis Perez, and, yes, Rosas’ los loboscontributions are traditional forms—blues, cumbia, norteño—while Hidalgo/Perez draw more from modern rock traditions. But within that familiarity there is real soul and some surprises, modest though they might be, like the moody “When We Were Free” or the hypnotic, modal progression of the album-closer “Magdalena.” This is a solid album by a great band. In fact, it’s so good that I’m going to dust off Tin Can Trust and The Town and the City and give them a few more spins. I suspect there’s some gold there, too.

Björk, Vulnicura
Opening an album with the mournful tones of a cello signifies the proceedings are going to be “serious,” which is certainly true of Vulnicura, the album Björk wrote and recorded in the shadow of her breakup with artist Matthew Barney that is dominated by spare string arrangements accompanied by liquid, electronic beats. But Björk’s often breathy, Bjorkconfessional singing—along with her trademark articulation of English, “A jux, ta, po, si, tion in spay, ee, eece”—are so intimate and vulnerable it’s hard not to pay attention. What Björk has wrought is shot through with beauty, an intersection of pop and classical chamber music allowing Björk to showcase her idiosyncratic voice, much as Antony Hergarty does with his band Antony and the Johnsons, so it’s little surprise when he actually makes an appearance late in the album. Somber the album may be, but it is also compelling.

Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night
The premise of Shadows in the Night, almost sounds like a joke: Bob Dylan covering ten songs from the Great American Songbook that had all been recorded by Frank Sinatra. Let’s face it, Dylan is a keen interpreter of song and can be an expressive singer, but he’s not a technically good one, and the songs he records on Shadows in the Night benefit from a singer who can dylanactually negotiate their difficulties.   Maybe that’s what makes Shadows in the Night such a pleasant surprise. Dylan’s strengths as a singer suit him well, but, as with any master performer, he also exploits his weaknesses to clarify his interpretations. Truth be told, the record finds him in good voice too—for Dylan at least. He hasn’t sung this smoothly in years. The arrangements, prominently featuring a haunting steel guitar, are sensitive and minimal, stripping the songs down to their essentials. They evoke the wee small hours of the morning in a way that does these songs—and Sinatra—justice.

Some albums not from 2015 that I spent quality time with this year:
Tom Waits, Alice; Louis Armstrong, Hot Fives & Sevens—Vol. 3; Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti; The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers; Jason Isbell, Southeastern; Thelonious Monk, Underground; Sidney Bechet, [Don’t know the title]; Mel Tormé, Mel Tormé Sings Astaire; Mike Watt, The Secondman’s Middle Stand; Brooklyn Rider, Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass; Rempis/Johnston/Ochs, Spectral; Swans, To Be Kind; Television, Marquee Moon; Nick Lowe, Jesus of Cool

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That Old Time Religion: The Walking Dead and Belief

zombie mobThe zombie apocalypse. By now, we know the drill. Something happened. Something terrible. Because of it, the dead have come back to life—if that’s what you call rotten corpses shambling around in half-comatose states—and they want to eat us. Worse, if they decide they’ve had their fill, leaving us, say, partially eaten and gutless in a sun-baked parking lot, we’ll become one of them, dragging ourselves along the ground in the most abject fashion if that’s what it takes to find a snack, stat.

It is a premise that has been around at least as long as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. For the past six years, AMC has been airing one of the premise’s most successful incarnations, The Walking Dead, a TV series based on the Image comic book that, according to co-creator and writer Robert Kirkman in a recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF, was born of Kirkman’s frustration that zombie movies are so self-contained. The heroes are besieged by zombies. A whole bunch of people die and a few survive, successful in having defended their house or fled the shopping mall or whatever it was they were attempting. But then what, Kirkman wondered. How do these people survive another day? How do they negotiate their day-to-day lives in the midst of the Zombie Apocalypse?

The Walking Dead is an attempt to answer those burning questions. As anyone who has seen the show can attest, it’s a mixed bag. At its best, it puts characters into morally ambiguous situations that reveal just how provisional morals can be, or it provides ample opportunities for scores of zombies to be killed in spectacularly gory ways, depending on your frame of mind. At its worst, characters can be less than compelling, the pacing of the show lurches, and the plotting occasionally veers toward the unnecessarily arbitrary. At times characters are killed so offhandedly that rather than suggest the threat imminent in such a world, one feels the writers throw darts at the characters’ names. If one hits, that character’s gone!

zombie ministerOverall, I enjoy the show, but, with all its moral hand-wringing, it is not as deep as it would have you believe. Nowhere is its shallowness more obvious than in its handling of religion. Religious characters have been few and far between, and those who have appeared understandably have had their faith shaken. Even the devout Christian patriarch Hershel Greene, the show’s spiritually richest character, practically throws away his Bible when he understands what he’s really up against.

And that’s all that ever happens to religious characters on the show. If someone believes in God, it will only be a matter of time before they either give up their faith entirely or temper it to some degree—usually to a pretty large degree. It reveals a tepid understanding of religious belief that is indicative of the tin ear our contemporary world has regarding religion. Where, in The Walking Dead, are the zealots, those who revel in the Apocalypse, seeing in it not their damnation but instead joy and salvation?

Believers, true believers, don’t give up as easily as the faithful on The Walking Dead. Rather than be decimated by evidence to the contrary, beliefs of all kinds, religious or not, can be strengthened by it. Having grandma turn into a zombie can easily be seen as evidence of God’s will. After all, how else would something like that happen, and why your grandmother? His ways are mysterious, and nobody told us it would be easy.  On the other hand, if you’re an atheist, it might be proof positive that there is no God at all. Grandma’s a zombie because of the zombie virus, not because of “God,” or, in a more generous, agnostic mode, perhaps, the atheist might argue that even if there were a God, if he’s going after grandma, then believing in him doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans anyway, so why bother? In the end, then, there will be those whose faith in God will be confirmed by the Zombie Apocalypse.

apocalypseAnd that’s to say nothing of those who would not only welcome the Apocalypse but would want to speed it along. This is where our culture really has problems understanding religious belief because it is in such denial of its own dark desires. We might recognize apocalyptic tendencies in others, particularly those we want to demonize, but rarely in ourselves. Those who are religious might say that such eschatological daydreams aren’t part of what they believe, while atheists will probably cluck their tongues while pointing out that such self-destructive nonsense is precisely why they don’t hold any religious beliefs. Following the kind of logic volubly articulated by Richard Dawkins and his ilk, religious belief is toxic.

But when one looks at it, stripping it of narration, explanation, or gnomic, visionary incantation, one sees that the desire for self-annihilation is simply the desire for the cessation of the seemingly endless vexation of life, a wiping away that is peace, stillness, no more horror of this thing, right here, emptying into … God? Eternity? Silence? Nothing? Whatever. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, regardless of your metaphysics, though in a manner that’s so human you want to hug the lot of us out of deep recognition and compassion, we only allow that others desire it, others whom we want to be done with for once and for all so we can finally have some peace and quiet!

Given the universality of this impulse and its protean aspect, hiding, always hiding, even when looking at us dead in the mirror, one can’t help but wonder to what ecstatic heights it might aspire if fueled by a Zombie Apocalypse. We’ll probably never know because, given the nature of the beast, The Walking Dead is bound to get it wrong and turn it into another dead thing that we can stab in the skull when it gets too close.

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The Plain Truth: Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight

There’s a moment in Tom McCarthy’s latest film Spotlight when Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) crosses out a word from a manuscript about the systemic cover-up of child molestation by priests in the Catholic Church that his crack investigative journalists have been laboring on for months. One of the reporters asks Baron what he’s deleting. “Another adjective,” Baron sighs. He could almost be describing the aesthetic of Spotlight, a movie that strips away almost all of the poetry of cinema for the prosaic exposition of a newspaper article—a gripping newspaper article, but a newspaper article nonetheless.

spotlightRecounting the investigative leg work that went into the Boston Globe’s groundbreaking 2002 expose of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church, Spotlight is as much a paean to the institution of journalism as it is about the wrongdoings of the Church. As McCarthy has said in interviews, it takes an institution to take on an institution. The Spotlight Team, financially supported by the Boston Globe to do in-depth investigations that can take up to a year to complete, are anathema to the 24/7 news cycle that, too often, driven by the constant need for content, relies on “amateur journalists” and ideologues while sprinting past the need for fact-checking.

The Spotlight Team, on the other hand, beats the pavement, knocking on doors (and getting doors slammed in their faces), making difficult phone calls, waiting outside elevators and offices to ambush those who are trying to cold shoulder them or to be the first person to submit the appropriate forms for access to important court documents, poring over old newspaper clippings and church listings, scrolling through microfiche, even, heaven forbid, sitting in a library until closing time. Worse, the Catholic Church strives to thwart their research, doing everything in its power to hide any and all incriminating evidence. McCarthy’s film persuasively demonstrates that without the institutional weight of the Globe, the Church would have succeeded in keeping its secrets hidden. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” professes lawyer Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) at one point in Spotlight. The film rejoins, “And it takes a team of highly trained professionals to save one.”

spotlight-dataWatching a journalist curse when he discovers that a court’s copy center is closed or a group of reporters huddle in a basement to read the employment statuses of priests may hardly seem like the stuff of high drama, but McCarthy understands the pleasure of finding evidence, connecting the dots, and stumbling on the awful truth, constructing what is essentially a police procedural with reporters instead of cops—a newspaper procedural. The audience already knows where the story is headed, but it doesn’t know how it got there and finding out is fascinating. It is a narrative structure that goes back to the beginnings of Western drama with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and drives the success of such television franchises as CSI and SVU.

But in making his movie a procedural, McCarthy shears it of unruly life. Boston is a city rich with local color, which is mentioned in the film and can be seen in the neighborhoods the reporters visit to conduct their research, but beyond the architecture—and the looming presence of the Church throughout Boston, no matter the neighborhood—there isn’t a lot of that color to be experienced. For example, one senses a missed opportunity when Garabedian asks reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) where he’s from. After Rezendes replies, “East Boston,” Garabedian cocks his head warily and says, “You don’t sound like you’re from East Boston.” Rezendes doesn’t seem to know what to make of the remark any more than the rest of us do and so responds by shrugging, which is how the movie treats not only East Boston but pretty much the rest of Boston and the people who reside there, too.

spotlight 2That’s too bad. The cast is strong. One imagines what the actors might have done had McCarthy given them characters with a richness of detail closer to the ones who people his quirky comedies rather than reduce them to generic reporters who look dour or tear up when they learn a new fact about the Church’s malfeasance. On occasion, we catch glimpses of something more finely observed, as in the scene where reporter Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) finds, in a dank storage room reeking from the dead rat in the corner, the Catholic directories that suggest the depth of the problem the team will encounter. With everyone crowding around the books in the excitement of discovery, editor Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), unable to read the print in the dim light, asks why there aren’t more lights on, forcing Carroll to admit that he didn’t know how to turn them on. It’s an odd detail, but the kind drawn from everyday life, where all of us, immersed in important events of the day or not, reside.

There is no reason that a film recounting a story so rooted in human nature needs to sacrifice its humanity. Nor does it follow that visual sophistication need be sacrificed in service of a televisual realism. There is no doubt that the story told here is compelling, but one feels that in focusing so much on data being compiled and analyzed to solve the difficult puzzle of how to nail the Church for its crimes, what the data is all about, people, has been reduced in the telling, hidden in plain sight.

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The Look of Love: Todd Haynes’ Carol

Carol storeTherese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a bored, young department store clerk graced with waifish good looks, forced against her will to don a Santa Claus hat by her termagant manager—clearly Therese does not radiate enough holiday cheer to get the second-bestselling dolls into the shopping bags of doubting mothers. But before the day dims behind a cloud of mercantile tedium, she espies from across the room an elegant and beautiful middle-aged woman, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). Their eyes lock. Only a cruel god would keep them apart.

Rather, a cruel god or the laws and mores of America in the 1950s. With Carol, director Todd Haynes has crafted a ravishing film about two women from different classes and generations, who fall in love in one of the most repressive decades for homosexuals in America. On the surface, Carol resembles Haynes’ 2002 film Far from Heaven, about a 1950s suburban housewife who, after discovering that her husband is a closeted homosexual, finds herself falling in love with their gardener, a handsome and kind man who also happens to be African-American. Both Carol and Far from Heaven explore the drama of stories about illicit love in an era known for its cultural and social prohibition.

But, for all there was to admire about Far from Heaven—and there was much—there was a chilliness to it that derived from the sense that Haynes was not just making his film, he was also making a Douglas Sirk film, or, as Roger Ebert put it, “The best and bravest movie of 1957.” There is in Far from Heaven a palpable distance between the story and its telling that renders the feelings being elicited as feelings that are being elicited.

carol windowCarol is more straightforward, more moving. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt (under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), Carol is a swoon of a movie, the magnetism of Blanchett and Mara—the star power of each actress is on full display—drawing us deeply into Therese’s and Carol’s intense field of attraction for one another. Indeed, if their initial encounter at the department store was charged, it’s downright intoxicating at the martini lunch the women share shortly afterward, as Carol meets with Therese after leaving her gloves at the store, a clear ruse to have a reason to meet again with the young woman.

There is an urgency in the development of their relationship that Haynes associates with Highsmith’s crime writing. In an interview with Manohla Dargis, he observed, “As the one novel outside the crime milieu of Patricia Highsmith’s incredibly prolific career, [The Price of Salt] spoke directly to the criminal mentality in that sort of overheated hothouse of the amorous imagination that is always in a state of producing outcomes, run-ins, scenarios. What’s going to happen with the same kind of urgency and paranoia that the criminal mind weaves its webs. … And then, of course, the love itself is against the law, is a crime.”

That their love is criminal fuels the film’s tension. As Carol’s marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) disintegrates, he struggles desperately to hang onto it, using their young daughter Rindy as a weapon, threatening to keep Carol from seeing her as a way to keep Carol from leaving him, even if he has to stoop to accusations of moral turpitude to get his way. Of course in doing so, he only causes the women’s love for one another to grow more insistent as they struggle to resist the pull of their longing.

Carol other windowAdding to the film’s spell is Carter Burwell’s score, recalling the sensual pulse of Philip Glass’s film work, which provides the perfect undercurrent for the women’s implacable desire, and the gorgeous cinematography by Edward Lachman, who has worked on all of Hayes’ films since the equally beautiful Far from Heaven. Lachman often frames the action of Carol through windows, refracting light, reflecting what lies outside them, clouded with rain or soot, capturing the way that perception is troubled, sometimes voluptuously so, when one is in the throes of love and desire. In fact, bracketing Therese’s and Carol’s romance are scenes in which the characters struggle to see the other through fogged or rain bedaubed windows, catching mere glimpses, first Therese seeing Carol, then later Carol, Therese. In those moments, they strain to see what the film brings to such luminous life for the rest of us.

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Police Action: Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario

When did the “War on Drugs” escalate into an actual war? Watching the opening of director Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, in which the FBI crash through the front of a house with an enormous, armored vehicle, one is reminded of images from the 1980s of tanks plowing into crack houses, images that rightly caused public outrage. By now, we have become inured to the idea that law enforcement uses military tactics to maintain law and order—at least, when it has to. So in Sicario, knocking down the front of a house doesn’t seem outrageous. There are hostages. There are bloodthirsty drug dealers. The good guys need to win. This isn’t time for mincing about.

sicario bodiesAlas, in Sicario, the FBI is too late. Instead of hostages, the agents find a brood of rotting corpses that have been plastered into the walls of the house and a booby trap that takes out a number of agents, compelling agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) to join an inter-agency investigation at the behest of Matt (Josh Brolin), who claims to work for the Department of Defense though Kate has her doubts about whom he actually answers to. What follows is Kate’s education, her rough initiation from innocence to experience, beginning with a legally dubious trip to Juarez during which she meets Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a renegade from the Colombian drug war even more morally confounding than Matt, who literally leads Kate into the underworld as she pursues him through a tunnel connecting Juarez to El Paso.

While Sicario recalls Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, it is less didactic in purpose—Traffic, at least in part, seemed intent on showing us the scope of the US/Mexico drug trade, from the upper class users all the way down to the unfortunates who are really nothing more than collateral damage in the showdown between drug dealers and law enforcement. Once its plot gets underway, Sicario seems more willfully pulpy, turning less into an expose of the war on drugs than a taut, brutal revenge drama.

sicario k and aIt’s whose revenge that is a bit of a surprise. At the beginning of the movie, as we follow Kate on the job and then into her new position working with Matt, it seems to be Kate’s story, as she moves toward her revenge on those who killed the hostages and especially those FBI agents. But as soon as she joins Matt and Alejandro, it becomes clear that she is not all that important to what unfolds. Neither Matt nor Alejandro tell her what is going on—initially she was told the operation in Juarez was to have taken place in El Paso and when she pointblank asks what the mission of the operation is, they won’t tell her.

That could be because she’s a woman. As I recall, she was the only woman at the Juarez briefing, which was swimming in so much testosterone, the funk of a men’s locker room practically wafted from the screen. And no one talked to Kate at the briefing except Alejandro, who remained cryptic, simply telling her to keep her eyes open. Later, when busloads of Mexicans are taken into custody and interrogated, the two men again refuse to tell Kate what they’re doing, but when her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), another FBI agent recruited for the interagency investigation, asks, they tell him.

sicario nightAccordingly, Kate’s story gets shouldered out of the film by Alejandro’s. As it does, it becomes clear that Alejandro is the film’s sicario, at least in one sense of the word as it is defined at the beginning of the film: “In Mexico, sicario means hitman.” But he is also, in a very real sense, a product of the U.S. drug enforcement tactics we see acted out in the film, in which highly trained operatives bring to bear on the drug cartels advanced technology and weaponry of a scale that is as awesome as it is somewhat unbelievable. In fact, one of the movie’s most visually stunning sequences, of the many under the masterful eye of longtime Coen Brothers collaborator cinematographer Roger Deakins, is when U.S. operatives engage in a nighttime raid wearing heat sensitive and infrared goggles. So the drug lords develop retaliatory tactics that they feel are commensurate with scale of the force they face. In fact late in the film, a drug lord even angrily spits out that he got his savage tactics from the U.S.

In that context, the word sicario also reflects the other definition given at the beginning of the movie: “assassins or hired killers in Jerusalem who killed Roman soldiers.” The assasins, sicarii, named for the daggers with which they killed their targets, were members of an occupied people, the Jews of Judea, who were fighting against one of the most powerful and advanced militaries in the world. They used terror in an attempt to even the fight. As the might of America weighs down on the criminals just south of our border, resistance is encountered that strives to recreate the atrocities of war, inducing us to increase the force of our response, impelling a fiercer reply from the drug lords, all in the name of a war that rages under the guise of a police action.

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Going Viral: Ridley Scott’s The Martian

the martianThere is an ambivalent moment in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Martians,” when the father of an Earth family colonizing Mars promises his family he’ll show them Martians only to reveal their reflections on the placid surface of a deserted Martian canal. As the children are aware, and as the reader knows too well, there are other Martians, native Martians, who have been entirely, or almost entirely, wiped out by the arrival of Earth’s colonists. They are the Martians the children had hoped to see but never will or can, since what they want to see has vanished long ago if it was ever there in the first place. It is a narrative all too resonant for those who call themselves Americans, and, perhaps unintentionally, it is echoed in Ridley Scott’s latest science fiction film, The Martian.

The movie stars Matt Damon as botanist Mark Watney who is stranded on Mars when his research team encounters an especially nasty storm in which Watney is thought to have been killed when a communications dish is catapulted at him by the driving wind, its antenna breaching his space suit. Due to sheer luck, however, Watney survives, only to realize that his camp’s oxygen, food, and water supplies will last a fraction of the time it will take before somebody can return to rescue him. So, with the application of a little science and whole lot of gumption, Watney sets out to survive against the odds.

the martian plantsTo his credit, Scott has crafted a handsome, fast-paced movie out of material that is probably best-served as a book. Its action, a combination of crisis and discovery strongly flavored by science, recalls Arthur C. Clarke’s classic science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama in that The Martian is also an adventure story that without the science is pretty thin. The movie’s plot really just bounds from one clever solution to a problem after another. Cinematically, The Martian is like a cross between Gravity—minus the zero-g splendor—and Robinson Crusoe on Mars –minus the monkey—plus, in its vision of the rival Chinese and US space programs reaching a détente in the name of rescuing a fellow spaceman, a dollop of 2010 minus the portentousness.

If this promises a modest movie, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, not least because Watney seems to be such a likeable fellow. True, he only seems to be likeable because that’s how Matt Damon plays him. Over the course of the film’s nearly 2 ½ hours, hardly anything is revealed about Watney except that he doesn’t like disco, that he is possessed of a high degree of ingenuity, and that he is willing to risk his life to save it. The relentlessness of The Martian’s narrative keeps us from knowing anything more, not making room for the kind of introspection that admittedly led to some of the clunkier moments of Gravity. Still, such pacing, while necessary for survival in the Cineplex, seems at odds with a movie in which a man spends more than a year alone, enough time to have experienced the kind of boredom that functions like a dark mirror, allowing one, without distraction, to look into eternity’s maw.

the martian stormBut Watney is squarely cut from American cloth. Death is his enemy. Should he die, or even prepare himself to die as Stone does in Gravity, he will have lost. Instead, with a rousing can-do attitude, he beats death at every corner. His commitment to the belief that technology can push back death’s inexorable tide, is so American that one can begin to see how calling Watney a Martian is akin to calling those immigrants who come to the United States, taking up its unwarranted optimism, the breathless rush forward of progress, Americans. In fact NASA even points out to him that by growing crops on Mars, he has effectively colonized it. So in The Martian, America, having colonized Earth’s unconscious with our cultural products and our peculiarly venomous brand of capitalism, is leaping out of orbit to Mars and, undoubtedly, beyond, a kind of virus. No wonder our creators in Scott’s previous science fiction film, Prometheus, wanted to rip our heads off.

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Cinemasaurus plex: Jurassic World

One of the difficulties of sequels—or installments of franchises, to speak shudderingly, for all that it promises, in today’s parlance—has been the need to top the original. Usually, that means giving us more of what the original did even if not as well. With its title alone, Jurassic World, the fourth movie in the Jurassic Park series, seems aware of this.   Not only has a park transformed into the world, but given the amusement park overtones of the film’s setting, one can’t help but think of Disney, which opened Disneyland in 1955 on a paltry 160 acres (the park itself occupied only about 60 of them) that has expanded over the years to about 500 acres, and Disney World in 1971, now covering over 27,000 acres.

Jurassic IndominusJurassic World continually nods to, and winks at, its status as a franchise—merchandise litters the visual landscape of the movie like errant facial hair at Burning Man. Even the premise of the movie comments on its own premise: faced with flagging attendance due to the public’s boredom with seeing the same old dinosaurs, scientists at Jurassic World create a new, more dangerous predator, the most dangerous ever seen—the Indominus rex. And here we are, sitting in the theater, just as the spectators at Jurassic World are, returning to a franchise we’d thought had expired in 2001 due to lack of interest, biding our time with the movie’s “plot” until the Indominus rex appears.

While we’re waiting, of course, it doesn’t hurt to see some other nastiness, appetizers for the main course, horrors d’oeuvres if you will, and Jurassic World serves them, mainly in the shape of a pack of velociraptors who are in the thrall of raptor-whisperer and former Navy man Owen Grady—the always quirky and charming Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation—and a Shamu-like Mosasaurus, that leaps out of a water tank for fish treats, though the fish it gobbles up aren’t mackerel, they’re great white sharks.

Jurassic mosasaurusThat the Mosasaurus is intended to keep us occupied until the Indominus rex goes on its rampage is, unsurprisingly in such a self-reflexive movie, also underscored by action in the film. Ostensibly, the movie is about two adolescent boys, Gray and Zach Mitchell, who are sent to Jurassic World to be shielded from the horrible spectacle of their parents’ impending divorce. Once at the park, they’re to be watched over by their aunt Claire who, it turns out, is too busy to tend to them, so they’re left on their own. Zach, the older of the two boys who is showing an interest in girls, is bored at Jurassic World. Sitting at the Mosasaurus show, Gray excited about the prospect of seeing the marine dinosaur, Zach has his face glued to his smart phone until the Mosasaurus leaps from the tank and takes out most of the shark with one snap, his reentry into the water splashing just about all of the spectators. That got Zach’s attention, just as it got ours. Finally, some carnage.

It’s hard to know what to make of this relentless self-awareness. On one hand, it feels like satire—it uses its own status as film product to mock the very industry it’s a part of. But there’s the rub. Once old Indominus rex appears, the satire goes out the window and this becomes a conventional monster-on-the-loose movie, making the self-awareness come across a bit smug and cynical, as if the film were telling us, “Yeah, we know it’s stupid. We know you’ve seen it before. What are you going to do about it?”

Jurassic owenNot a lot, I suppose, because as stupid and familiar as it is, there is something fundamentally satisfying about watching a giant monster run amok. I think it’s no mistake that the movies keep coming back to this formula, from King Kong to Godzilla to, well, Jurassic Park and all the other imitators, sequels, and remakes in between. The marauding dinosaur in Jurassic World is no different, though by this point the monster rampage has become a bit of cinematic comfort food. Still, it almost distracts one from the myriad of undeveloped or unpursued plotlines that abound in Jurassic World—the divorce has no presence after the beginning of the film and Zach’s interest in girls is just that. No development is needed apparently. Nor do we need to know much about Owen Grady except that he knows a lot about his little pack of velociraptors and moves through the world with the excited engagement of a boy playing out adventures in his backyard. It’s little wonder the Gray and Zach are drawn to him. Both have barely emerged from the world that Grady seems to occupy.

So if its lack of clarity about what its plot is—beyond the Indominus rex getting loose—as well as the screenwriting credit, which is attributed to four people, suggests a script written by committee, stitched together like Frankenstein, so, one could say, is the Indominus rex itself, made up of various traits from the scary dinosaurs of previous Jurassic Park films, out-of-control and come to attack its creator, much as this movie seems to want to do to those sitting in the Cineplex, who want to be shaken awake but, like Zach Mitchell, don’t want to take the energy to do it themselves.

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