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Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
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Thursday, October 8

Sicario & The Martian

Two recent films may not win the Oscar for best picture, but both will certainly be in the conversation. Both are built around extreme tension, Sicario involving the grim war being fought between U.S. agencies and the Mexican drug cartels, The Martian (based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name) involving a race to rescue an American astronaut stranded on Mars. But where Sicario leaves the viewer scratching his head and wondering exactly what actions are justifiable in this drug war, The Martian shows us a positive view of the future with plausible science in the future of space exploration.

In Sicario there is no Geneva Convention to control the combatants’ behavior in the war being fought on both sides of our southern border, no code of ethics or morality to control those we like to think of as the good guys, the U.S. lawmen. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, a tough but naïve FBI agent out of Phoenix. As the film opens, she and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are heading up a kidnap response team that moves on a drug house in Chandler, Arizona. We see it in gritty, grainy overhead camera shots, not quite sepia, but close, a washed out yellow reflecting the desolation surrounding the house and the houses around it, the ethical desolation of the drug traffickers as well as the agents fighting the battle. After a tense shootout between the agents and the druggies, over forty bodies are discovered inside the walls of the house, standing upright and side by side in plastic sheets, like freeze-dried tv dinners. Who were these dead people and why were they killed and why were they there? Questions not answered. Emily Blunt would seem more likely to play one of Jane Austin’s females than a kick-ass FBI Agent, but she manages the action quite well. When a bomb is accidentally detonated in the Chandler house, she suffers a head wound and two of her fellow officers are killed. Later, she’s invited to sit in on a task force meeting, supposedly an interagency group that wants to pick up a drug lord being held in Juarez. They want this third-level member to lead them to the second in command in the Juarez cartel who would then lead them to the top man. Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) heads the meeting, but it’s never clear who these people are. Are they Department of Defense, DEA, CIA, or a combination of all three? After a brief vetting by Graver, Kate is asked to volunteer for the task force. She says yes, but she isn’t sure exactly why they want or need her or what they’ll be doing. There is also the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, looking almost as menacing here as he did in No Country for Old Men) sitting in on the meeting. Who is he? she wonders. The audience also wonders. We're informed early on that "sicario" is Spanish for "hitman," and Alejandro certainly seems to fit that bill. The tension builds as the group, in five black SUVs, heads into Juarez, naked bodies seen dangling from overpasses, victims of the cartel’s brutality and evidence of their control of the city. They get the man from the prison and head back to the border, but they’re stalled in traffic, and both the agents and the viewers just know they’ll be involved in some kind of shootout. And they are. When Kate expresses her concerns about the groups’ bending of the law, Graver, to justify their actions, says, “Until someone finds a way to stop the 20% of America from putting this shit up their nose, order is the best we can hope for.” And that’s the message director Denis Villeneuve seems to send, that too often the good guys resort to the same lawlessness and brutality as the bad guys. It becomes painfully clear to Kate that the only reason she was brought in to the group was to view what they were doing and then sign off as FBI agent that what she witnessed was legal and aboveboard. Powerful movie, great movie, but one that gave us no answer to the dreadful drug situation we now face.

Then there’s The Martian, a film that was about as feel-good as that perennial favorite It’s a Wonderful Life. The tension was there, but from the very beginning we all knew that astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) was not going to perish on the Red Planet. It was tense, it was quite funny at times, it was gorgeously filmed, it was a wonderful glimpse of what may be in store for the world in the not too distant future. We had three locations for the story—the red, desolate landscape of Mars; Mission Control; and the Ares-3 space ship returning from Mars without Watney, whom they assumed had been killed in the violent storm that caused them to flee the planet. A really good director in Ridley Scott; a really good cast of people: Matt Damon as Mark Watney, Jessica Chastain as Ares-3 commander Melissa Lewis, Jeff Daniels as NASA head, Kristen Wiig as Annie Montrose, Michael Peña as Rick Martinez, Chiwetel Ejifor as Vincent Kapoor. But Matt Damon owned it. He’s funny, he’s admirable, and he’s so much the kind of Matt Damon we want to see instead of the bad astronaut Matt Damon we saw in Interstellar. We see him for more than half the film as he attempts to stay alive until he can be rescued, solving all kinds of problems—how to grow food, how to let NASA know he’s alive, how to generate water for his potato plants, how to stay warm enough and not run down his batteries in the ATV-thing he has to drive around in, how to keep his sanity with no one to talk to or nothing to listen to except for the dreadful disco tracks that Commander Lewis had provided for them. He says to the camera taping his activities, he’s going to “science the shit out of it.” And science the shit out of it he does. It was a thrilling examination of what it might be like on our nearest planetary neighbor as we shared Mark’s isolation and desolation there (filmed in the Wadi Rum region in Jordan). It was a realistic look at what it might be like for future astronauts on long space voyages as we defy gravity and float with the six astronauts aboard the Ares-3, moving from one compartment to another and then into the gravitied living quarters. I almost stood up at film’s end and gave a shout out and frenzied clapping for what I’d just seen. I think I may have to go see it again.
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