‘The Untamed’ a sci fi story brimming with sexual ambivalence

A movie about a space alien, a story about gay panic, and a vignette about the Mexican middle class, The Untamed manages to be three things at once yet is strongest, unexpectedly, as the second and third. Amat Escalante, who directed the excrutiatingly violent crime drama in 2013 called Heli, keeps matters at a quiet simmer; his attention to sociological detail makes The Untamed all the more discomfiting.

Opening with the image of an asteroid adrift in space, The Untamed traces how its eventual impact in the outskirts of Guanajuato affects wildlife and citizens. In the second scene, a nude woman in peril faces the camera as tentacles reach for her. Then a lovely dissolve: the woman, now clothed, wanders through frog but bleeds from her right side. Verónica (Simone Bucio) is the woman. Eventually she befriends, with sweet tentativeness, Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), married with boys to Ángel (Jesús Meza). The son of the factory owner that employs Alejandra, Ángel occasionally beds brother-in-law Fabián (Eden Villavicencio); in the true spirit of homophobia, Ángel assures his wife that he tolerates Fabián because he’s her brother and uncle to their children. Fabián, a doctor at the local clinic, treats Verónica for her wound, assuming at worst that a rabid dog bit her.

As we and everyone not Verónica knows, a dog had nothing to with it. The rest of The Untamed follows the machinations of the creature as it wields its influence on this bizarre love triangle. Verónica lets one of the principles in on the secret, leading to dreadful consequences. The tentacular alien, we learn, can give untold sexual pleasure, indifferent to gender and sexuality, so long as its partners don’t get too close. When Verónica tells Alejandra about it, she assumes the mien of a cult member, unreachable, interested only in recruitment. Meanwhile Escalante has wisely kept the creature mostly out of sight. Shots of tree roots and skies, to which Guro Moe’s score applies an ominous greasing, suggest the existence of these darker forces.

While Escalante works out these details with assurance, The Untamed nevertheless leaves the impression that it would rather impose the creepy-crawly stuff on material that would otherwise play well at respectable international film festivals. Moreover, the film can’t dispel the suspicion that the characters most disposed to polymorphous pleasure suffer most grievously. Too concerned with atmospherics to be funny, too well-developed as a domestic genre to give much cop to the sci-fi, The Untamed‘s ambitions are as ambivalent as the creature.

GRADE: B

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Twenty-five years ago…

Twenty-five years ago this week, I lowered the volume on the Joy Division squall to hear the other squall outside. My calm scowling dad ordered me to join the rest of the family in the kitchen, the only room with no access to windows. The power went out. For more than two hours the wind roared, at times competing with the noise of fervent and precise praying from my mother and great grandmother. During the worst of it my mom jumped at every bang and crash and exclaimed, “What was that? The garage flew away? Did you hear that?” My demented great grandmother recited the Our Father in a dull voice.

When it ended minutes before 7 a.m., we opened the door to a mess: tree limbs, directional signs, toys, millions of shards of glass; but the neighborhood had survived. We lost a quarter of the roof’s tar paper, although my enterprising grandmother had not waited for the storm to end to call her friend the contractor; he was at the house by eight-thirty, at the start of what became a grueling month. A week from starting college, I wouldn’t step foot on campus for another three weeks. I had friends who got power restored in twenty-four hours, others in twenty-four days. A couple of acquaintances in Country Walk, one of Andrew’s epicenters, watched as the storm turned their homes into broken match sticks.

Andrew introduced many of us South Floridians to the ferocity of hurricanes — an experience sober and unique enough to be forgotten, as is our wont. We’d get refreshers during the 2004 and especially 2005 hurricane seasons. The rest of the country would learn from Charlie, Ivan, Katrina, Wilma, Sandy, and Matthew. Now Florida looks like it might forget the lessons of Andrew, as a result of which my state passed the country’s toughest building codes, the envy of the world, in fact.

The Miami Herald reprints its first post-storm front page story. Even today the details chill me:

Power outages were everywhere. About 1.3 million of 2 million homes in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County were without power by 8 a.m., said Ray Golden, a spokesman for FPL. In Dade, about 76 percent of people had no power and in Broward the number was even higher, Golden said.

Conditions in Cutler Ridge “couldn’t be worse, ” said police officer Earl Steinmetz. “The roads are just about impassable with downed lines, downed trees. We’re picking our way through the rubble.”

“It’s impossible to know even where you are because nothing looks the same. It’s devastating, ” Steinmetz said.

“I’m sitting in the police station, which is half gone. The Government Center roof is all gone. The library is gone. Just getting in here was almost impossible.”

No officers were injured when part of the Station 5 roof collapsed, he said.

Steinmetz also said the roof of his home, a mile away, “is gone.”

Watch the excerpt above if you’ve got a few minutes. Bryan Norcross, the meteorologist who became a legend after being on the air eighty hours straight, is at his uncanny best in this clip.

The legislature this season sought to freeze the code or slow down the level at which updates happen. “Florida’s building codes would still be updated every three years, but they would no longer adopt the ICC codes,” The USA Today revealed. “Instead, Florida would keep its current code and pick and choose which parts of the ICC code to adopt.” Contractors will insist the code remains robust; untold experiments in deregulation have shown that this is how it starts.

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Songs about eclipses and darkness

My short playlist. Fortunately I was indoors for the first day of a journalism course, protecting my students’ irises from this cosmic danger.

1. X – Under the Big Black Sun
2. Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine
3. Elton John – Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me
4. James Carr – The Dark End of the Street
5. Mekons – Only Darkness Has the Power
6. Pink Floyd – Eclipse
7. Pet Shop Boys – Silver Age
8. George Harrison – Beware of Darkness
9. Soundgarden – Black Hole Sun
10. Robert Plant – Darkness, Darkness

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Liveblogging Donald Trump’s address to the nation

With an approval rating average as enthusiastic as middle America’s embrace of foie gras, Donald Trump has decided the Afghan theater needs more men to pacify a country that the Soviets and British couldn’t. Less than eight years ago, Barack Obama, pursuing a strategy called escalate-then-exit that seemed borne out of a junior college’s one PR section, committed several thousand troops, to no avail. But presidents of both parties relish these discussions when they distract from falling poll numbers; now “Morning” Joe and “Mika” Brzezinski need not discuss Charlottesville tomorrow. “Trump’s foreign policy has become almost entirely one favored by Republican hawks because the president doesn’t hold firm convictions on these issues and yields to what his hawkish advisers want,” Daniel Larison writes. “He has accepted a foreign policy of endless war because he is too weak and self-serving to pursue any other course.” This would be true if Democratic presidents and their enablers on the Armed Services Committee didn’t bow before received wisdom so abjectly.

At any rate, let’s begin.

9:44. And voila! Cable news gas bags are giving the president points for delivery. Because I believe I shouldn’t deprive myself of torture — er, enhanced interrogation — I’ll return to listening to The War on Drugs.

9:29. To quote the sapient Donna Summer, who do you think you’re foolin’? No matter how much Americans may recoil from the deaths in Barcelona or may want safety, they don’t want more blood spilled for the sake of Afghanistan.

9:26. “We must restore the bonds of loyalty” among our citizens, said the spokesman for white nationalism.

9:24. What aromatic boilerplate the president has served The American People. Lest I’m accused of partisanship, I called bullshit on Obama’s commitment to stupid wars in which he nevertheless invested American lives.

9:20. I’d believe “micromanagement” does not “win” battles if our president believed in any management, micro or otherwise.

9:17. “We are not nation building. We are killing terrorists.” He loves his sibilants.

9:15. “We will not talk about numbers of troops,” the president says after every wire agency and media outlet has reported how many troops he will send. And since when has any president announced where and when troops will strike?

9:14. LOSERS.

9:12. Trump knows that when he became president he knew he had inherited “big and intricate problems.” But he’s a problem solver.

9:11. Trump pronounces ISIS like Dylan did in 1976.

9:10. The consequences of a rapid exit are “predictable and unacceptable.” The ghosts of Ike, JFK, LBJ, and Nixon clink bourbon glasses.

9:08. He’s got me when he says we’ve spent billions on reconstructing foreign countries in our image, therefore he’s sending more troops to Afghanistan to reconstruct the country in our image.

9:04. “We cannot remain a force of peace” without remaining a force of peace “for each other,” he has the audacity to say. What does Trump know about “sacred bonds of love and loyalty”?

9:03. He’s speaking slowly — he’s using a Teleprompter. “The men and women on our military operate as one team, with one shared mission and one shared purpose,” he writes. The American family, he calls it. Admirable sentiment. He has showed them more respect than civilian.

9:01. God help me but when Trump approaches the dais he reminds me of this august moment.

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God and country are an unbeatable team: the best of Luis Buñuel

One of my two or three favorite directors didn’t make a single film unmarred by a bad idea or ineffective execution, and that’s why I love Luis Buñuel. Orson Welles did too:

He’s a rich feeding ground for that sort of critic, because it’s all true about him. You can take off and say he likes feet and all that. Jesus, it’s all true. He’s that kind of intellectual, and that kind of Catholic. He is a deeply Christian man who hates God as only a Christian can, and, of course, he’s very Spanish. I see him as the most supremely religious director in the history of the movies. A superb kind of person he must be. Everyone loves him.

Like Hitchcock, Hawks, Kurosawa, and Sturges, Don Luis is one of the few pantheon filmmakers whom cineastes watch for unalloyed pleasure; he’s the film equivalent of Al Green. “Everyone loves him,” as Welles said.

After the convulsions of his Surrealist period and a grim post-Spanish Civil War period of American exile, Buñuel moved to Mexico, which became a second home; one can make a strong case that Mexico can claim him as a native son. As much as the work of Sam Fuller, those Mexican films make an airtight case for the virtues of the B-movie ethos as practiced by an artist. Take Mexican Bus Ride, Susana, or Wuthering Heights. The acting is at best listless when not atrocious, the production values a little better than fifth graders using construction paper and papier-mâché, but man! He was never more authentically subversive and hence surrealist. The cheapness of the effects and the guerilla editing accentuated the shocks. Thanks to a uni library that owned the sudsters in VHS transfers of reel-to-reel, I watched minor things like Illusion Travels By Streetcar and Fever Mounts in El Pao in the early nineties. I’m shocked Criterion hasn’t acquired Los Olvidados, the greatest of his films unavailable widely on DVD or Blu-ray. Winner of the Best Director award at Cannes in 1951, this terrifying film presaged Pixote, My Own Private Idaho, and every film about street toughs but outpaces them in terse poetry. Buñuel doesn’t mistake sentimentality for realism. In Las Hurdes, depicting a Spanish province whose poverty rivals feudal times, Buñuel understood how even the documentary requires moments of disruptive, savage lyricism for verisimilitude.

Working with Jean-Claude Carrière on the script for Diary of a Chambermaid in 1964, Don Luis discovered a late manner dependent on the financial stability offered by international producers who understood the power of what we call now his brand. He had perfected his methods as finely as a sous chef does the flow of appetizers from his kitchen. Those late films could be one-joke contrivances; I’ve given That Obscure Object of Desire and The Milky Way more chances than they deserve, and prefer the parched earth of Susana. I like to think that had he never gotten the chance to direct again after L’Age d’Or this descarado would have been an excellent freelance gag writer. Consider: the rubber chickens in Discreet Charm, the young woman sticking her tongue out at her insistent lover in Un Chien Andalou, sending up the prejudices of the Mexican upper class by giving one of his monsters the line, after a window gets smashed, “It was a passing Jew” in The Exterminating Angel.

For a director who loved literature but was contentedly as he put it “agraphic,” Buñuel left a voluminous account of his working methods. My Last Sigh remains among the most delightful of memoirs, and Objects of Desire, a compilation of interviews with a couple of adoring but scrupulous Mexican critics, should be part of any serious home collection of ci-ne-mah texts.

Finally, I owe Buñuel for the recipe for a perfect martini.

1. Belle de Jour
2. Un Chien Andalou
3. L’Age d’Or
4. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
5. Los Olvidados
6. Simon of the Desert
7. El
8. Robinson Crusoe
9. The Exterminating Angel
10. Nazarin
11. Viridiana
12. Wuthering Heights
13. Tristana
14. The Phantom of Liberty
15. Las Hurdes

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‘Wind River’ a chilly look at mourning

Until a development in the third act requires a defense of vigilantism over post-movie cocktails, Wind River is an often gut-wrenching look at mourning. Taylor Sheridan, who wrote 2016’s Hell or High Water, makes a sturdy directorial debut, demonstrating an affinity for the snow-blasted wilderness in and around the eponymous Indian reservation, Wyoming as strongly as Hell or High Water did his feel for the topography of west Texas. But once a screenwriter, always a screenwriter. Sheridan spins contrivances like spiders spin webs, and his picture gets caught in them.

It’s in this dangerous country, where temperatures in the winter often fall to twenty below zero, where U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) hunts coyotes and mountain lions (often, with Sheridan’s typically sharp ear for local dialect, shortened to “lions”). Hunting for prey deep in the mountains six miles from the highway, he chances upon a barefoot corpse ill equipped for the weather, pools of blood frozen around it. She was Natalie, the eighteen-year-old daughter of the Hansons. Typical of Sheridan’s skill is a scene between Lambert, the tribe police chief Ben (played by Graham Greene with his usual cut-this-crap economy), and the medical examiner, the latter of whom won’t declare Natalie’s death a murder despite a forehead laceration evidence of savage sexual assault. Look at the circumstances, Lambert says. “Circumstances are your thing,” the examiner replies tersely. She died from pulmonary hemorrhage, a result of inhaling frozen air, and that’s all he’ll commit to. A crime on Indian land falls under federal jurisdiction, but two century’s worth of discourtesies and broken promises makes the American government an unwanted presence; it’s one of Wind River‘s strengths that the tension is felt and prodded without a fuss.

When FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives from Las Vegas, it doesn’t take much for the local forces to suss the Fort Lauderdale native. She won’t survive more than a few hours in that Bureau windbreaker, Lambert informs her (Sheridan also includes a lame aside about GPS). Most male directors would turn a female agent into a martinet whose by-the-book attitude adduces her sexual deprivation. But Banner, a quick study and made overeager by compassion, only errs once: attempting to get info from Natalie’s grieving parents, she walks into a bedroom where Natalie’s mother, weeping quietly, is slashing her arms. Relying on Lambert’s tracking skills, she figures out that Natalie had been seeing Matt, an employee at the local oil drilling site. She learns this from Natalie’s brother Chip, a meth addict hiding in a dilapidated shack with the reservation’s troublemakers.

Sheridan, fortunately, doesn’t cast a blanket of portent on his cast or script like David Mackenzie did in Hell or High Water; he trusts the power of the setting and the cast’s small graces. What I’ve withheld from the synopsis so far is that Lambert has himself barely emerged from the shadow of death. His daughter Emily, Nathalie’s best friend and a writer of promise who won a scholarship to Colorado State University, died under mysterious circumstances after an open house party got out of hand; he and his native American wife separated but share custody of their son. In Renner’s laconic performance, his best since Zero Dark Thirty, Lambert emerges as a man living a skeleton’s life, during which duties are performed, air breathed, conversation started, nothing beyond the necessary; Renner’s eyes, set against the his wrinkled clenched fist of a face, have the dull gleam of a coma victim. At first Olson seems miscast; she has the pluck of a high school class president, not an FBI agent. As her empathy wins over Ben and Lambert, though, I started to like her too. Sheridan’s narrative strategy become clearer too: if Banner’s plucky at first, it’s because Lambert sees her that way; no scenes are shot from Banner’s point of view. Sensitivity is Sheridan’s best friend. He doesn’t condescend to natives, white or indigenous; even a scene in which Lambert explains to Martin how he should mourn his daughter works because of their hushed intimacy.

The ending and, more devastatingly, a flashback anticipating the ending at first grossed me out and then threw me out of the picture. Some critic have praised these turns; I say Wind River can survive without them and, indeed, is a better picture without Sheridan’s inclusion of the kind of savage violence that gets called realistic. To understand why the ending feels cathartic doesn’t let Wind River off the aesthetic hook. If the movie becomes a sleeper hit like Hell or High Water, the point is moot. Lacking any special moviemaking magic, Wind River is nevertheless sound entertainment that occasionally is more than that.

GRADE:  B-

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The ten worst New Order Songs

New Order may have recorded indifferent songs, but I could only think of eight terrors before scouring their solo careers.

1. State of the Nation
2. Rock the Shack
3. Chemical
4. I Told You So
5. Sub-culture (Remix)
6. Turn My Way
7. Dracula’s Castle
8. Sugarcane
9. Pineapple Face
10. Try All You Want (Electronic)

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Just wait till tomorrow: Talking New Order

After a summer and fall spent blasting Electronic’s debut, I guessed it was time to buy Substance — in 1991. One of the many points Andrew Unterberger and I make in our Billboard podcast for the Coming Around Again series is to what degree we can call Substance an album instead of a compilation. Of course you can, I argued. Stop this post-hippie nonsense about gestalt and Sgt. Pepper, for Substance has the former and is more fun than the latter.

For reference, my list of New Order’s best.

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Singles 8/18

If I were Skepta, I might work with Mick Jagger too. If I were Mick Jagger, I would not record solo albums, or, indeed, any albums. But I am not Mick Jagger.

Expect to hear more about The War on Drugs in coming days — much more. The press will be unstoppable. Resist. I took comfort in two terrific country tunes, the week’s best tracks.

Brooke Eden – Act Like You Don’t (7)
Lauren Alaina – Doin’ Fine (7)
Wolf Alice – Don’t Delete the Kisses (7)
Aymee Nuviola – Rumba de la Buena (6)
The War on Drugs – Strangest Thing (5)
Christophe Willem – Marlon Brando (5)
Kamaiyah – Build You Up (5)
Mick Jagger ft. Skepta – England Lost (5)
Skinny Hightower ft. Andrew Hawkley – Taboo (5)
Jessie Ware – Midnight (4)
Kendrick Lamar ft. Rihanna – LOYALTY. (4)
Jessica Mauboy – Fallin’ (4)
Future ft. Nicki Minaj – You Da Baddest (3)
The Script – Rain (1)

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The best of Jeff Lynne, producer

Those of us who lived during the Poppy Bush Interzone got accustomed to the layers of overdubbed acoustic guitars, counterpoint harmonies, and incongruously layered synths of the average Jeff Lynne production, always for an artist over forty. Dave Edmunds was the first boomer in need, and in retrospect “Slipping Away” introduces many of the elements mentioned, but Lynne’s gravy train didn’t leave the station until George Harrison gave him a break on Cloud Nine in 1987. For the next decade, Lynne was a musical AARP; hell, even Paul McCartney hired him. I was taken with this sound — I even bought 1990’s Armchair Theater, on which you’ll find the most unexpected Anderson-Weill cover in rock history.

I put my ELO list together yesterday.

1. Roy Orbison – You Got It
2. Dave Edmunds – Slipping Away
3. George Harrison – If That’s What It Takes
4. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Two Gunslingers
5. Traveling Wilburys – Handle With Care
6. The Beatles – Real Love
7. Paul McCartney – The World Tonight
8. Jeff Lynne – Lift Me Up
9. Tom Petty – Yer So Bad
10. Traveling Wilburys – Where Were You Last Night
11. The Everly Brothers – The Story of Me
12. Brian Wilson – Let It Shine

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Steve Bannon — RIP

I don’t give a shit. A racist still sits in the Oval Office. One doesn’t applaud a mass murderer for burning an axe.

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One of these days you’re gonna get it right: the best of Electric Light Orchestra

I knew I’d joined a special place when the first act Stylus Magazine inducted its Hall of Fame wasn’t Joy Division, Talking Heads, or Brian Eno but…ELO. Tireless enthusiasts of British pop but with progressive-rock roots, Electric Light Orchestra at their best recorded pop as otherworldly as the (in)famous spaceships yet as familiar as Jules Verne. Jukebox heroes whose material absorbed the other jukebox competition.

I hesitated, it’s true, before including “Evil Woman.” “Evil Hook” is more like it — damn! The chorus sung in falsetto answered by Richard Bevan’s clavinet. Misogynist, there’s no denying it, except like most dorks closeted with their addled dreams synchronized on synthesizers they get their idea of women from other songs or their own suppressed lust. In essence, the speed and detail and delight of the music mitigates, to my ears, the dumb, received tropes; women couldn’t be evil if they inspired a love-as-lust ode as addled as “Don’t Bring Me Down.”

Expert magpies (“Shine a Little Love” is Lynne doing ABBA doing disco, or perhaps ABBA heard ELO’s use of strings and thought, “Hm…”) and precise trend reflectors (“Hold Me Tight” became a hit in 1981 just as American pop music was drenched in homages to the fifties), ELO could get exhausting, especially when in a rotten mood their songs remind me of bumpers or Saturday morning cartoons from the dawn of the Reagan era. So much of Lynne’s work presaged the dork futurism of Gary Numan and Trevor Horn’s use of call and response harmonies singing at the top of their range while pianos tinkle and a singer tries keeping his equilibrium in a world intent on banishing his awful hair to obsolescence. Perhaps this explains Lynne’s alignment later in the eighties with Tom Petty and George Harrison. It had to be more than “It’s Over.” Otherwise they would have dialed the number of the dude from Supertramp.

1. Don’t Bring Me Down
2. Telephone Line
3. Can’t Get It Out of My Head
4. Turn to Stone
5. Twilight
6. Mr. Blue Sky
7. Shine a Little Love
8. 10538 Overture
9. Calling America
10. Don’t Walk Away
11. Xanadu
12. Hold On Tight
13. Strange Magic
14. Yours Truly, 2095
15. Ticket to the Moon
16. Lift Me Up (Jeff Lynne)

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