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Fritzsche: 5 Action Movies That Don’t Take Themselves Seriously

The fun action movie with a sense of self-aware humor has become a something of a lost art form following its prominence during the 1980s and through the 1990s. Today, action movies take themselves so seriously! Many action films these days try to be serious, gritty, realistic, and offer social commentary about our post-9/11 world (as I discovered with Liam Neeson’s Non-Stop). There is nothing objectively wrong with these films, for many of them are well made and feature stellar performances, but they do not easily lend themselves to a casual viewing with friends on a summer day. Whatever happened to the action movie a bunch of guys could sit around and watch, appreciating its one-liners and over-the-top fights? Even with films that aim to emulate this format, such as the Expendables series, seem to be missing the mark somehow. Do not fret though! There are actually plenty of fun action movies that quite easily lend themselves to casual viewings with friends over a summer evening looking for just something purely fun to watch. Here are 5 of such movies you might have missed.

1. Transporter 2 (2005) – The best iteration of the Transporter series, Jason Statham stars as Frank Martin, ex-shady government agent who now operates as a driver (or as some may say…. a transporter!) for hire. In this film, he is serving as chauffeur for a wealthy family. The family’s young son gets kidnapped, and Frank is now on a mission to find him before it is too late. This movie has it all: insane car chases, amazingly choreographed fights, plenty of purposely-outrageous stereotypes, a blatant disregard for the laws of physics (they’re overrated anyway if you ask me), and just an all-around fun vibe. Watching Jason Statham kick ass while quipping about how he can’t fight in his suit jacket because it just got back from the dry cleaner is priceless. You can pick the film apart for some plot holes and most of the female characters seem to have been cast based more on their physical appearance than their acting ability, but if you’re taking issue with a movie that has the main character drive his car over a ledge so it flips over a construction crane in order to dislodge the bomb that has been attached to the bottom of it, you may be missing the point. The movie is fun; all you need to do is go along for the ride.

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2. True Lies (1994) – Before he was remaking Dances with Wolves in space or drowning DiCaprio in Titanic, James Cameron directed this action spy movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a counter-terrorist operative trying to balance his work with his personal life. I grew up watching this movie on TNT reruns, and it is a thing of beauty. Yes, the movie deals with terrorists from the Middle East in the pre-9/11 world, so it is all played for laughs. But that is the beauty of the film – even in situations as dire as these, we can laugh. We can cheer on the good guy and breathe a sigh of relief whenever he dispatches a villain. From a James Bond-esque party infiltration in Switzerland to a thrilling chase to Schwarzenegger fighting terrorists using a AV-8B Harrier, this movie has it all. More importantly, not once does it lose the sense of charm and lightheartedness that surrounds these events that other films would treat with absolute dread. “This is the problem with terrorists,” Schwarzenegger’s character remarks as he is chasing a suspect through a mall on horseback while on his way home for his birthday party (I am not making this up), “they are very inconsiderate when it comes to people’s schedules.”

3. Jumper (2008) – I have heard some people say this is a bad movie with little plot and wooden acting from Hayden Christensen and Samuel L. Jackson. To these people, I say that the movie is damn enjoyable and fun regardless of how much of a film elitist you are. Anakin Skywalker can teleport around the world and is being hunted by those who believe his power makes him an abomination. What is not to love about that premise? The film offers snapshots of the best locations in the world to have a dramatic conversation. Want to talk to your sort-of-girlfriend about your problems? Casually sitting on top of the Sphinx in Egypt seems like the prime location. This movie thinks it is being serious, but we all know that deep down, it really isn’t. It shows how teleporting battles should be done in film (Thor: The Dark World really should have taken notes) and is just an all-around cool movie. Also Kristen Stewart is in the movie for a little bit and isn’t annoying, so there’s that.

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4. The Rock (1996) – This movie taught us all a valuable lesson about what it means to be a winner, at least according to Sean Connery: “Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.” Wise words indeed. This Michael Bay classic stars Nicolas Cage as a chemical weapons expert for the FBI tasked with stopping rouge US marines who have taken over Alcatraz and plan to launch poison gas at San Francisco. To do so, Cage enlists the help of Sean Connery, a super spy who is the only person known to have escaped from Alcatraz. This movie has all the good elements of a Michael Bay films without any of the sexist/racist humor found in his recent efforts. Cool cars, gorgeous sights, a soaring soundtrack, and amazing chemistry between two acting legends. Watching Nicolas Cage play against type as a calm, collected weapons expert and Sean Connery play the foul-mouthed renegade is absolutely hilarious. With plenty of action, humor, and “hooray America!” to go around, this is a film that everyone can get behind and enjoy.

5. Rush Hour 2 (2001) – The poster for this film was the first poster to ever grace the walls of my bedroom, and it was because even as a young lad, I knew this movie was amazing. Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker star in the best iteration of the Rush Hour series, which puts two mismatched detectives together to solve a crime that will take them from Hong Kong to Las Vegas. The comedic timing between Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan is stunning and their chemistry is unparalleled. The two bounce jokes and witty comments off of each other during martial arts battles against the deadliest gangs of China. The film also has heart (or at least more emotion than you were expecting from a movie starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker), as Chan’s character struggles to resolve the issues surrounding his father’s death. Everyone I have shown this movie to has absolutely loved it. It is one of the funniest movies I have seen and has something everyone can enjoy, making it one of the perfect summer action movies to watch with friends.

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Black Mass at Harvard

Edit: The mass has, according to early reports, been canceled, perhaps indefinitely. The following is our original post, written before the cancellation.

This evening, the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club will be hosting a reenactment of a satanic “Black Mass” performed by the Satanic Temple at Queens Head Pub in Memorial Hall. This reenactment is said to include commentary and historical context, and individuals from the club have offered reassurances that an actual consecrated host will not be used during the Black Mass reenactment. The backlash toward this event has been astounding, though not entirely unexpected: “I stand with Harvard Catholics” has become a popular phrase on Facebook, and many Catholics in the Boston area and beyond will be holding prayer services in response to the Black Mass this evening. For many members of the Christian community, the Black Mass is seen as a sacrilegious mockery of some of their most important beliefs, and for some, this event holds the potential for even greater supernatural/spiritual repercussions.

Jim McGlone, a junior at Harvard, described the event on Fox & Friends this morning as, “a mockery of the Christian faith and all people of faith.” In response to claims by many that Harvard cancelling the scheduled Black Mass would be seen as a stifling of free speech on campus, McGlone responded that, “in the university community, in that context, freedom of speech has a purpose, and that purpose is to get after the truth, to build a civil community, to build friendships  across disagreements. This is more obscenity than speech… If this were a reenactment of a KKK rally or a desecration of the Quran, I think no one would have any trouble seeing that.” Toward the end of his interview, McGlone once again reasserted that it is not, “a question of freedom of expression, I think this is basically an obscenity that offends a huge segment of the community.”

Last Friday a statement was issued by Robert Neugeboren, dean of students and alumni affairs at Harvard Extension School, stating that the Harvard Extension School did “not agree with the student group’s decision to stage an event that is so deeply disturbing and offensive to many in the Harvard community and beyond. While we support the ability of all our students to explore difficult issues, we also encourage them to do so in ways that are sensitive to others.” The Harvard Extension School stated that it was working with the club’s leaders to address many of the concerns that had been raised about the Black Mass, such as ensuring that a consecrated host will not be used as part of the reenactment. Additionally, the Harvard Extension School said it had encouraged the Cultural Studies Club to, “reach out to Catholic student organizations on campus to foster a positive dialogue about the Catholic faith.”

Earlier today, President of Harvard Drew Faust made a statement regarding the scheduled Black Mass, describing the Cultural Studies Club’s decision to host the event as “abhorrent” and stating that it, “represents a fundamental affront to the values of inclusion, belonging and mutual respect that must define our community.” Despite this, Faust did say that, “consistent with the University’s commitment to free expression, including expression that may deeply offend us, the decision to proceed is and will remain theirs. At the same time, we will vigorously protect the rights of others to respond – and to address offensive expression with expression of their own.” Faust described his plans to attend a Eucharistic Holy Hour and Benediction at St. Paul’s Church later this evening as his response to the events, demonstrating that, “the most powerful response to offensive speech is not censorship, but reasoned discourse and robust dissent.”

Throughout this dialogue regarding the appropriateness and offensiveness of a student group hosting a reenactment of a Black Mass, the intertwined concepts of free speech and offensive/hate speech keep emerging. Many argue that what separates this event from others that the Cultural Studies Club is hosting is that their other events – which include a Buddhist presentation on meditation and a Shaker exhibit – are not inherently offensive to a major demographic on campus, whereas a Black Mass is seen as a direct affront to members of the Christian faith.  Jim McGlone’s comments comparing the offensiveness of a Black Mass to that of a KKK rally or a desecration of the Quran convey the outrage many Christians in the Boston area and beyond must be experiencing. With that said though, if a student group wished to hold these events, offensive as they may be, with commentary on the historical contexts, should they not be able to? Freedom of speech on a college campus exists only insofar as the university chooses to allow it; Harvard has established the precedent that most forms of speech are permissible, even though some may be offended, in the hopes of fostering a dialogue between the parties. The Black Mass has a history extending back to the Middle Ages; it is not a random event designed to elicit controversy, but an event that has played a role in history for the last roughly 800 years.

Francis X. Clooney, an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest and scholar currently teaching at the Harvard Divinity School, wrote that, “the endeavor ‘to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices’ might in another year lead to historical reenactments of anti-Semitic or racist ceremonies familiar from Western history or parodies that trivialize Native American heritage or other revivals of cultural and religious insult.”  Yes, this is the danger faced when exploring alternative cultural practices, but if a non-mandatory event held by a student club in the hopes of providing and/or enriching ones cultural knowledge of an event in the past is offensive, then members of the community can protest it and hold counter events, as members of Harvard’s Christian community have done, fostering an important dialogue about religious expression and free speech on campus. Could the Cultural Studies Club have handled the issue in a more sensitive manner? Without a doubt. Should Harvard cancel the Black Mass? At this point, no. Aside from what some may find to be an interesting, once-in-a-lifetime event that could broaden their knowledge about a topic, at the very least it fosters and important dialogue that more college campuses should be having about freedom of expression and where the limits, if any, should be placed.

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Here Ends the Story of the Hurricane: What You Can Do About Wrongful Imprisonment

I know you’re probably in the throes of Easter, Passover, or some sort of Druidic vernal ritual right now, so I’ll be brief. Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter has passed away. In 1966, he was wrongfully convicted by an all-white jury based on false testimony and served nearly twenty years in prison. This gross miscarriage of justice became the poster case for Civil Rights era racial tension after it was immortalized by Bob Dylan (about whom I have complicated feelings) in the song “Hurricane.” (Brief editorial: The fact that Carter’s story needed a white star to achieve national attention is admittedly problematic, but at least Dylan acknowledges in the song how he himself is disgusted by but benefits from racial privilege. Baby steps.)

Unable to return to his pre-incarceration career as a boxer, Carter became an advocate for the wrongfully imprisoned after his long-overdue release in 1985. He served as the executive director of Canadian organization Association for the Defense of the Wrongly Convicted.

Tragically, Carter’s story is hardly uncommon, except perhaps the part about his release. The Innocence Project has around three hundred active cases at any given time, and they represent just a fraction of those who may be wrongfully incarcerated based on inaccurate forensic evidence, false testimony, legal incompetence, or government misconduct.

Wrongful imprisonment is admittedly just one of the many, many issues I could raise here about the United States’ ironically named Justice System, but it is an especially heartbreaking one. So what can you do?

  • Donate to an organization like the Innocence Project

  • Write to your local and state representatives, to media outlets, to anyone. (Check out this advice for how to effectively make your point.) Get a dozen of your friends to write too.

  • Volunteer with a local chapter of the Innocence Network — Georgetown Law participates in the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Network, which has positions for people with and without legal experience.

I wish I had more bullet points for you, but this cause doesn’t often get the kind of attention that it deserves. Prisoners’ stories don’t end when their cell door closes on them; sometimes, it’s just the beginning.

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You’re Not Wasting Your Time

Near the beginning of the first book of The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of my absolute favorite series, Douglas Adams writes, “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so.” Like just about everything Adams wrote, it’s a joke painted onto something deeper and ultimately rather tragic. The sanctity of lunchtime is a recurring joke in the Guide; the eponymous publication’s equivalent of a Managing Editor spends the entire series (which spans thousands of years and at least two prongs of the multiverse) on a lunch break — something to which I myself aspire. All of the time jokes and time travel throughout the series come together to form a pretty astute observation, namely that human beings’ understanding of time is shaky at best, and the way we use our pathetically brief lifetimes is absolutely ridiculous.

(I could at this point veer off into some dark and forbidding philosophical territory about the ineffability of time, but I want you to keep reading, Indy reader, so I’m going to try and stick to the more hospitable climate of Douglas Adams and my own complaints.)

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that we don’t actually know what the hell we’re talking about when we talk about time. We think about it in terms of space, as if Wednesday were some distinct location we needed to get to, as if time were a concrete thing that actually “passed” by us. We act as though minutes and hours and days and years were natural distinctions instead of facing the reality that those artificial labels are figurative at best. Perhaps the only reason I begrudgingly accept the presence of Arizona is its refusal to play by the farcical rules of Daylight Savings Time.

(Okay, I lied about not including philosophy; if you would like to read a non-butchered expression of the above paragraph, irrational hatred of Arizona excluded, consult Henri Bergson’s theory of duration.)

Here at Georgetown especially I think we suffer from a total lack of scale. Our sense of short term and long term is perverted by the incredible pressure we face to become instantly successful — and we’re not even the ones defining “success.” We divide up our lives into five year plans and burst into tears when we don’t get The Internship because now we’re “just wasting” our summer. Seriously? If less than three months of leisure, or volunteer work, or pursuing a hobby is all it takes to torpedo your entire future, your plan sucked to begin with.The Universe is around 14 billion years old; it is not going to fall apart if you spend a summer in a hammock instead of an office.

Our lack of proportion is reflected in our language. Seemingly innocuous sentences like “It’s time for class” reveal how egocentric our conception of time is. It is not actually time for class; that is not the definitive purpose of this moment. Time isn’t for anything or anyone. We move around in it (so far only in one direction) but we don’t actually know what it’s doing or why. It’s one thing to say that Georgetown Day is twelve days away, and quite another to understand why the time between now and then feels both infinite and instantaneous.

Doing things at your own pace isn’t wasting time. The time wasn’t yours in the first place. Maybe you’re super stoked to work at the non-profit of your dreams this summer — awesome, you’re using the time well. Or maybe, like me, you’re feeling a little burned out after overexerting yourself all semester or all year, and you want to take it easy and rediscover why you care about the things you know deep down matter. That’s also fine.  Take your time, for lack of a better phrase: it makes little difference to something as old and as vast as the Universe.

The Winter Soldier: Not-So-Subtle Politics in one of Marvel’s Best Yet

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I hate drinking the Kool-Aid and jumping aboard the hype train that everyone else is already on, but even I have to admit that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a damn fine movie and the best Marvel superhero film since the original Iron Man back in 2008. It also stands as probably the most engagingly political popcorn flick since 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, a dimension that was greatly appreciated and helped elevate this film over other superhero films. So what makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier so damn entertaining? First off, the movie has an excellent sense of itself – it knows what it wants to be and does not deviate from that: two-thirds 1970s political thriller, one-third explosive action flick. The first two-thirds or so of this film are intriguing as the audience delves along with Steve Rogers into this world of espionage that has all the characters looking over their shoulders and doubting the loyalties of those around them. It is a refreshing tone for a Marvel movie and this sense of paranoia permeates the first two-thirds of the film before erupting into a violent finale. Speaking of violence, this film is MUCH more violent than previous Marvel movies: innocents are gunned down, people are fall from high structures to their deaths, and one guy is even thrown into an aircraft’s propeller. Not that this is a bad thing; in fact, it adds a sense of weight and heft to the violence in the film now that individuals are shown to actually die from the explosions and flurry of gunshots (something which was lacking in The Avengers).

The performances are all great for what the film asks, with Robert Redford stealing nearly every scene he is in. Chris Evans is the perfect Captain America, a genuinely good person who is struggling to adapt to the violence and deception that characterizes the 21st century. Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, and Cobie Smulders all have their chances to shine, but the real star of this film that dominates every scene he is in is the Winter Soldier (it would be a spoiler to say who the actor is… you’ll understand what I mean after you see the film). The Winter Soldier is the best villain in a Marvel film since Loki in the original Thor – he is terrifying and an unstoppable force, someone who is more than a match for Captain America. The story surrounding who he is and why he stands against Captain America was particularly intriguing and their two hand-to-hand combat scenes in the film were exceptionally well done.

I need to mention the political commentary present in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. SHIELD, the US task force for which the members of the Avengers work for, has developed helicarriers that are able to assassinate anyone who poses a threat to American security. These assassinations can be undertaken whenever the government wants and can be done anywhere in the world. While this is about as subtle as the drone commentary in Star Trek: Into Darkness, it is handled in a much more grounded manner here. It is clear what political issue the film is discussing and what the film’s position is – the evidence for viewers is the adventure Captain America undergoes in his battle with the Winter Soldier. And what a fantastic adventure it is; you may not leave the theater singing “America, fuck yeah!” but you will certainly leave clamoring for more.

A Bite of The Walking Dead: Thoughts on Season Four

The-Walking-Dead-Season-5AMC’s The Walking Dead concluded its fourth season this past Sunday, leaving fans with a cliffhanger that will make the wait until the debut of the fifth season in October even more agonizing than anticipated. Now that viewers have had a few days to process and reflect on the events of the finale, and this fourth season as a whole, it seems like the appropriate time to reflect on the events that have occurred in the series this season, which I believe stands head and shoulders above the previous four seasons and demonstrates a massive leap in quality for the series. I remember the series premiere on Halloween of my junior year of high school – it was scary, cool, and seemed like a show that could mix gore-filled horror with thought provoking critiques of society. The series premiere still ranks as one of my favorite hours of television ever, but the first and second seasons seemed to drag on, as if the writers were never quite sure of what they wanted the show to be: was it a character drama? An analysis of power dynamics in society? A collection of thrilling horror scenarios? These first two seasons of The Walking Dead tried to be too many things at once without excelling at being any of them.

The first half of the third season was a major improvement, demonstrating that the show had fully invested in the analysis of power and maintaining order in this group of survivors, a microcosm of society as a whole. It was thrilling, it was scary, and was the most focused and driven the show has ever been. It dwelt on the conflict between all-around good-guy Rick (portrayed by Andrew Lincoln, whose performance this season earned him his first Critics’ Choice Award nomination for Best Actor in a Drama Series, which he lost to Bryan Cranston for Breaking Bad) and the more politically adept, yet morally questionable The Governor (portrayed by David Morrissey). The conflict between these two fizzled out in the second half of the season though, as the two often would trade threats and insults more than they would engage in actually conflict. The war that was promised between the two over the prison, the new-found home for Rick’s group, never happened, as The Governor ultimately murdered his own followers when they questioned him.

It was this sense with trepidation that I entered the fourth season and was completely surprised. Season 4 of The Walking Dead stands as my favorite season of the entire show for several reasons: the focus on Rick as a leader, the use of effective cathartic moments, a keen attention to character building, and the thematic cohesion throughout the season. Despite his absence in several episodes in the second half, the fourth season was about Rick’s journey: following the events of season 3, specifically his son Carl’s willingness to gun down someone who might have been an enemy, Rick began this season as a man who renounced the burden of leadership in order to save his son’s soul. The world may be cold, cruel, and violent, but Rick still sees it as his parental duty to protect Carl from this for as long as he can. So he trades his gun in for seeds and becomes a farmer.

As the situation at the prison worsens, Rick finds himself taking on more and more of his former leadership responsibilities against his will. Eventually, Rick starts once again making executive decisions without the consent of the group, as demonstrated when he exiles Carol from the prison, effectively sending her to her death (we knew she wouldn’t die, but Rick does not have the perspective of the audience). When the Governor arrives at the prison intent on capturing it, Rick is forced to make the decisions that decide the fate of many. After the prison falls, Rick is a changed man: broken (physically, at least), distraught, and lost. However, it is through this extreme loss that Rick manages to shred the remnants of his farmer persona and become the leader of the group in totality. Whether it is murdering someone who could have been a threat in the bathroom of an abandoned house to allowing the death of someone that would have cost too many resources to save, Rick is now making decisions for everyone, motivated by his complete desire to ensure the survival and protection of his son. This re-ascension of Rick as the group’s leader in order to protect his son is crystalized in the season finale, in which Rick literally bites someone’s throat out and stabs another man repeatedly for attempting to rape his son. Gone is the Rick that wanted to save his son by farming and protecting him from the horrors of the world; here is a Rick that is willing to commit horrors himself in order to protect his child.

This scene provided a moment of catharsis, as audiences witnessed a character who had once been a paragon of moral goodness rip someone’s jugular out with his teeth. Yet most people would agree that this gang deserved to be brutally murdered by Rick because of their attempted rape of his son, in addition to all the other actions audiences witnessed them commit this season. Season four excelled at providing these cathartic moments, of building the tension up to the boiling point and then having things explode into a flurry of brief violence. Whether it was Rick beating Tyreese to a bloody pulp when Tyreese threatens Rick following Karen’s death, or the battle for the prison between The Governor’s followers and Rick’s group, this season excelled at building moments up and then actually releasing all that tension violently. This provided audiences with a greater sense of release and enjoyment. A simple comparison of the finale of season 3 and the midseason of season 4 reflect this welcome shift: season 3 teased a war between Rick and The Governor that abruptly ended after five minutes in the finale, following which The Governor’s forces fled and he gunned them all down. The midseason finale of season 4, on the other hand, showed a full out war between the two forces that resulted in massive body counts on both sides, tragedy, drama, violence, and heartbreak. The battle for the prison stands as perhaps the greatest action sequence of the show and is an excellent example of cathartic violence (non-cathartic violence is often just more boring to watch) in this most recent season, something that previous seasons had sorely lacked.

           Season 4 also had a renewed focus on character. Daryl, Glenn, Maggie, Carl, Hershel, Michonne, Beth, Carol, and everyone else were all given more depth. Even “red shirt” characters that we knew were going to die were given enough screen time and enough lines to make us feel genuinely sad when they were brutally killed off. One character, other than Rick, truly stood out this season as the most developed: The Governor. While he had always been a tragic figure who was never completely stable (he had his undead daughter chained up in his apartment after all), The Governor was never truly someone you wanted to see win or sympathized with. In season 3 he was always alienated from the audience; we often saw what he did, but never felt compelled to sympathize with him. Season 4 was a different story, as it told the tale of The Governor’s failed redemption, culminating in his assault on the prison and final war with Rick.

Absent for the first five episodes of the season, The Governor is shockingly shown watching the prison at the end of an episode. Following this were two flashback episodes that show what happened to The Governor after he killed his followers at the end of season 3. The tragedy here is that this man who murdered dozens of people was, before the apocalypse, a completely average guy with a job and family. The pressures of leadership in the post-apocalyptic world are what drove him to become an unhinged killer. Yet in these episodes, The Governor is given a chance at redemption and reforming himself: he manages to form a new family unit, changes his name, burns all memory of his past, etc. As Rick will later do at the end of the season, The Governor is willing to take extreme measures to protect his people. The Governor wants to be a normal guy with no responsibility and just be with the ones he loves, but he knows that he must revert to his previous, more violent identity in order to protect these people – for The Governor, the lives of those he cares for is more important than his own redemption, thus he descends back into his violent old ways, culminating in an assault on the prison that results in the death of almost all of those he was trying to protect and the majority of Rick’s forces. This violence is given added weight because we want both The Governor and Rick to win: we care about the people who stand with both leaders, so when the bullets start flying, we are distressed by the deaths of characters on both sides of the conflict we have come to care about. This stands in stark contrast to the nameless forces of Woodbury that fought with, and were ultimately murdered by, The Governor. The intensity of this scene is tenfold because these are characters, not just humans in a scene of violence. It is for this reason that the renewed focus on character development this season has been such a benefit – it makes the action more meaningful and the scenes more engaging.

Finally, this season was more thematically cohesive than previous seasons. The overarching question posed was whether we get to come back from the things we do. Rick articulates this to the strange woman he meets in the forest in the very first episode of the season, and then the question is posed back to him by Carl when his son asks, “who are we?” Many of the characters this season have wrestled with this question. The Governor concluded that there was no way to return from the things you have done, thus the only way to survive is to embrace the horrors you have committed for the greater good. Rick tells The Governor, “we have all done the worst kinds of things just to stay alive, but we get to come back.” The season leaves it up to the viewers to decide at the end whether we truly get to come back from all the things we do. In the season finale, after murdering the men trying to rape his son, Rick and company arrive at Terminus, a promised sanctuary, only to find that something is amiss and they delve into violence once again. Perhaps it is not so much what we do as opposed to what we do them for that determines if we, and these characters, can come back. As Hershel says, every day we risk our lives and, “the only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for.” This thematic cohesiveness, when combined with the stellar characterization, cathartic violence, and some really cool moments (including the outbreak of the flu in the prison, Daryl and company running through a horde of zombies, the battle at the prison, and Rick’s confrontation with the marauders) set season 4 of The Walking Dead head and shoulders above its predecessors.

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Virtual Reality is A Thing Now, So Get Used to It

Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR made huge waves last week, breaking the circles of tech news into broader media coverage. After all, the world’s largest social network suddenly and unexpectedly taking over a gaming-focused startup in the recently re-emerging VR space sounds like the perfect setup for a soon-to-be cyberpunk dystopia.

Statements by Mark Zuckerberg’s press release didn’t help matters, promising that “Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play, and communicate.” Framing Oculus’ breakthrough VR headset Oculus Rift  like this could have come out of any number of classic sci-fi and cyberpunk works, as Fast Company’s Co.Design recently outlined in a blog post. Sci-fi fanatics, to be sure, tend towards the over-cautious when it comes to new technology (see: grey goo), but this time around it doesn’t feel like an overreaction. The purchase of Oculus VR was made with explicit public intent to expand into social spaces, and all we can do now is wait.

 

Most critical with shocking news like this, we need to take some time to really analyze the situation. Jamin Warren, founder of Kill Screen magazine (also the guy behind the fantastic PBS Game/Show) wrote a couple pieces which break down the deal and work through the finer mechanics of the games industry’s relationship with the world at large.

 

Social VR could be the greatest invention of the millenium. Given the right applications, something as basic and developmental as the Oculus Rift has the potential to drastically change the way we experience empathy (note: NSFW link) and how we relate to others. There might not be a limit to what we can do with this sort of technology. We’ll have to look back at fiction to get some ideas, but VR could mean a whole new way of engaging with each other and the world at large.

 

On the other hand, Facebook’s acquisition might prove the death knell for Oculus VR and the burgeoning field as a whole. Massive corporate interests, even beyond creating the potential for giant oppressive cyberpunk-y situations, might just kill the whole thing in a cash grab filled with such fun terms as “gamification” and “micro-transactions”.

 

While we await our inevitable doom/salvation, welcome to my new new column, Welcome to the Future Because It Is Now and We Are Living In It, in which I talk about all of the fun things that come with modernity (and/or post-post-modernism) and the internet and the little magic boxes we keep carrying around nowadays. So stick around, because it is quite the time to be alive.

Forrest Fenn, American Hero

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As promised, Ladies, Gentlemen, and those who identify with neither category: Forrest Fenn, American Hero.

Forrest Fenn amassed an incredible collection of art and artifacts earlier in the century, acquiring objects from all over the world, mostly at a time when it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that maybe indigenous peoples wanted to keep their sacred objects. He has some absolutely fantastic things in his house, including a sizable collection of Precolumbian animal figures, many of which are solid gold.

He was diagnosed with cancer in 1988 and, fearing his death was imminent, packed a bronze chest full of gold, rare coins, jewelry, gemstones, and a jar containing his biography, and decided to bury it in the wilderness north of his Santa Fe home. Fenn recovered before he could bury the treasure. A few years later he changed his mind and buried it anyway, and published nine clues to help potential seekers. The clues are in the form of a poem, because what kind of story would this be if they weren’t? The poem was casually slipped into Fenn’s memoir, The Thrill of the Chase. The man knows how write a headline.

The treasure’s value has been placed around $1 – $3 million dollars. And it’s just chillin’ somewhere in the Rockies, waiting to be found. It’s been over a decade since it was buried and Fenn, now 82, is growing antsy. He’s since released four more clues and has now published a second book, Too Far to Walk, which contains a map of the area containing the treasure. He is begging us to find it.

When I first learned about this fantastic story, I was ready to drop everything and heed the call of Forrest Fenn. A buried chest, questionably-acquired artifacts, clues written in verse? The Fenn saga feels like it comes from another era, some earlier time in American history that’s all but disappeared into lore. It’s the Gold Rush reincarnate; Americans making bold forays into the unknown, knowing that their chances of striking it rich are slim, but willing to throw themselves into the chase.

The best part of the tale (and it does feel like a tale) isn’t even the treasure, which has yet to be found, but the adventure. The people who do dedicate their time to finding the chest share their experiences with each other and with the world. Dal Neitzel is a major treasure hunter whose website serves as a forum for other searchers to compare their findings and stay up to date on the news.

As it turns out, this renewed interest in exploration was Forrest Fenn’s plan all along. He’s been interviewed saying that the reason he decided to bury the treasure after his cancer was cured was to rekindle our passion for discovery. He wants to share the experience he had finding these objects in order to inspire us to keep exploring. At the risk of sounding tragically corny, the real treasure was hidden in the first clue — The Thrill of the Chase.

As you may have gleaned from the above, I live for this sort of thing. Cultural consequences of Manifest Destiny notwithstanding, I am a major proponent of the frontier thesis. (If such a thing existed, I’d have a poster of Frederick Jackson Turner above my bed.) I think the best way for us to know ourselves is to be constantly pushing past ourselves and into the unknown.

To me, science is like a spectator sport: I approach it with great enthusiasm and astonishing ineptitude. Considering all of the horrors human beings have inflicted, are currently inflicting, and will probably continue to inflict on each other and our planet, it sounds naive, even insensitive, to suggest using our resources to send explorers out among the stars or down into the depths of the sea. I know that. But I also know that right now, while freezing rain falls on us in DC, it’s raining diamonds on Jupiter. And, personally, I’d like to see that.

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Why First Impressions of Earth is Actually a Good Album

Many fans on the Internet are less than pleased with the rumors that Julian Casablancas’ second solo-album will be a spiritual follow up to the much-maligned third album by The Strokes, First Impressions of Earth, instead of continuing along the path of the 1980s electronic aesthetic of his first solo album. I, on the other hand, am more than willing to embrace this change and have hope that his upcoming album (rumored to be titled Voidz) will be an aural delight. My hope lies in my unwavering love and appreciation of First Impressions of Earth – though regarded by many to be the “weird” album by The Strokes that delved into an angrier, more hung-over sound that many found off-putting following the one-two punch of Is This It? in 2001 and Room on Fire in 2003.

           I consider First Impressions of Earth, released in 2006, to be my favorite album by The Strokes because of this exact fact: it’s different. The Strokes are known for their lyrical prowess in describing mundane moments in life, with many of their most famous songs seamlessly blending dialogue with narration to describe relationships and partying. First Impressions of Earth focuses more on feeling, combining images with statements that are meant to elicit a specific mood as opposed to capturing a moment in life. In “Ize of the World” the band tackles the intersection of finding identity through dedication to an art, in this case music, with the censorship of that art by the media. At one point Casablancas sings:

Am I a prisoner to instincts? Or do my thoughts

just live as free and detached as boats to the dock?

Just like the music was born and detached from your heart

Is your free time to free minds or for falling apart?

At the climax of the song, the sound in the final line abruptly cuts out before Casablancas can finish his statement, reinforcing the themes of censorship present in the song by, in fact, censoring the song itself. Additionally, there is a greater focus on lyrical repetition on this album as compared to previous and future works by The Strokes. Many songs consist of only a few key lines repeated over and over. In “Ask Me Anything,” after spending a verse instructing audiences to avoid being “coconuts” because God may try to speak to them, Casablancas repeats the line “I’ve got nothing to say” eight times before moving on to the next verse. Similarly, in “Fear of Sleep” he uses the line from which the song derives its title twenty times, and the fateful proclamation of the song that “you’re no fun” is repeated twenty-seven times. Instead of indicating lyrical weakness, it suggests the theme of uncertainty with oneself: the construction of the lines in songs forces us to question our perceptions of ourselves: Do we have something to say? Are we fun, and does it matter at all? This degree of artistic craftsmanship and focus is not found in The Strokes’ two previous albums, which is one of the reasons why I believe First Impressions of Earth to be the superior effort.

           What also distinguishes this album that it is both more aggressive in terms of denouncing an unspecified “you,” while at the same time, existing as a more romantic album than any of their other efforts. The first two albums by The Strokes often had songs focusing on the breakdown on relationships or the initiations of hookups for the first time, while their latter two albums, Angles in 2011 and Comedown Machine in 2013, are more remorseful and contemplative in their discussion of relationships. First Impressions of Earth is ranges from the spiteful to the outright loving. In “Juicebox,” Casablancas sings:

 I know you miss the

 Way I saw you

And cold

You’re so cold

You’re so cold

You’re so cold

Similarly, later in the track “Vision of Division,” he almost yells, “All that I do is wait for you / I can’t get away from all your friends / I’m not coming back / That’s all there is.” On “Razorblade” he calmly and coldly makes the following statement to demonstrate the conclusion of a relationship: “Oh, no, my feelings are more important than yours / Oh, drop dead, I don’t care, I won’t worry.” Yet on an album expression these feelings of utter disgust and hatred towards an individual, The Strokes also reach moments of sincere tenderness. In “Evening Sun,” Casablancas remarks to this “you” that “You’re the prettiest smartest captain of the team / I love you more than being seventeen.” Perhaps one of the bands more romantic songs is “Red Light,” in which after remarking that, “Two can be complete without the rest of the world,” Casablancas goes on to sing the following:

All the girls could never make me love them the way I love you

  I saw your face then I heard that song

  It was so inviting it hurt my bones

  Well it looks like you but your eyes are grey

  And your hair is gone but your mind’s okay

  Yes I like your smile but your forehead’s cold

  I don’t want you to be afraid and go

  I would cheat and lie and steal now I’ll stay at home and kneel for you

Pretty damn romantic, right? Most likely inspired by lead singer Julian Casablancas’ marriage during the writing of this album, these tracks delve into more heartfelt and romantic territory than any of their preceding or following efforts.

           First Impressions of Earth is sometimes a down-right odd album, and that is part of why it is so endearing. Is something nonsensical simply because I don’t understand what it means? Or are the words merely a vehicle for eliciting a specific emotional reaction or mood? I believe this album is an example of the latter. In “15 Minutes,” Casablancas at first appears to be discussing a relationship, saying “It’s not that I don’t really love you / It’s just that I don’t really know.” Then he is randomly going off about how, “He would like one more night in your life / I saw worlds they don’t stop, they’re like us / They go fast like a sun that’s been shot.” After that he’s talking about some random party, but suggesting we not worry about it, “’cause today they talk about us / And tomorrow they won’t care.” Finally he starts following an existential question about reality itself: “This whole life is it a dream? I can’t tell / I got up, then I waved, then I fell / I recall, you were there with me / Overjoyed and at peace.” Do I have any idea how these events narratively fit in with one another? Not in the slightest. But am I able to determine a specific mood from the song regarding the nature of existence and the nightmare-ish uncertainty of certain relationships? Absolutely.

           While First Impressions of Earth was the album that almost killed the career of The Strokes and resulted in the band taking a five-year hiatus, I find it to be perhaps their strongest effort in terms of constructing the entire album as a thematic work. Is This It? and Room on Fire will always be two of the best damn albums ever recorded, but First Impressions of Earth deserves more consideration for the complexity it displays that their other albums lack. This is why I am excited by rumors that Julian Casablancas’ second solo album will be in the same style as First Impressions of Earth. Now all we have to do is wait until it is released…

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MIA is a Barren Hellscape

My dearest Indy reader, I failed you last week. I had every intention of posting something ridiculous yet vaguely inspiring about Forrest Fenn’s treasure and the frontier thesis (stay tuned — I promise I’ll explain my obsession with Mr. Fenn next week). In fact, I was all set to write up my post on the plane back to DC when I was confronted with the fundamental incompatibility of Miami International Airport and happiness. What follows is what I wrote, hysteria mounting, while sitting in the airport, rocking back and forth slightly. Only slightly though.

 

>>>

 It’s 11:00 AM and I’ve been in the Miami airport for three hours now. I’ve been delayed before, delayed longer than this, but I’ve never heard a pilot sound as hopeless as Captain Johnson when he announced, “this will take an hour to fix… at least….” He didn’t elaborate on what “this” was that so desperately needed fixing, but judging by his tone of voice, I’m guessing it’s his entire life.

 I should have suspected something was amiss when I was randomly selected for the no-hassle security pre-check line. Nothing good has ever happened to me at Miami International Airport. I take it for granted when I travel that I will spend at least ten minutes of every journey barefoot and simmering with barely concealed indignation as a TSA agent roots around in my purse, ultimately emerging with a scented candle or a corkscrew and a totally uncalled for judgmental smirk.

 At any rate, I made it to the plane and boarded only to discover that I was seated by the emergency exit. Leg room and a window? The air travel gods continued to smile on me, or so I thought. After half an hour of sitting in row 15 without any kind of encouraging movement, I put on Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach suites in order to maintain sufficient Zen.

 Another hour passed and still no movement. Captain Johnson periodically informed us that he had no idea what was going on. We grew mutinous in the main cabin. My exit row compatriots and I briefly considered fleeing to freedom via the emergency exit. I even toyed with the big red handle, but alas: I am no revolutionary.

Tragic anti-hero Captain Johnson came back on the microphone to announce that he was personally embarrassed by the crew’s failure to inform him of some sort of mechanical turmoil in the cargo hold. There was talk of strapping things to walls, and of phoning ‘the boys’ in Tulsa for guidance. I was confident that no one in Tulsa could help us now. I switched to Wagner and began to seethe.

 The increasingly forlorn-sounding Captain Johnson suggested we leave the plane. We were only too happy to oblige.

MIA’s sole redeeming feature is that, due to some fortuitous topographical fluke, there is a bar approximately every fifty feet in every terminal. Yes, they are tiny, overpriced, and overwhelmingly tragic, but any port in the storm, right? Unfortunately, everyone else on that voyage of the damned had the same idea. The first bar I went to was filled beyond capacity. At the second, a woman eyed me levelly and said, “Ma’am, it’s 10:45. We aren’t serving wine yet.”

Wagner was suddenly not enough to express the depths of my despair. I switched to my emergency all-Duran Duran playlist and began to write this, perhaps my final communication before I expire from boredom. Does life still go on outside this airport? Are there birthdays and weddings and vacations in the sun? Is there laughter on the outside?

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That’s where I stopped writing. It’s worth noting that we re-boarded the plane about half an hour later and took off without further delay. Blame it on being hungry or wine-deprived, but it certainly felt as though I had inadvertently glanced into the abyss. But maybe that’s just par for the course at the airport.