Best and Worst of 2015


The skinny: 2015 was a great year for music, books, and art. It totally sucked for movies. Here are my personal cheers and jeers.


Best Recording of the Year:
Patty Griffin, Servant of Love: Her breakup album will made you sad, mad, and bowl you over with its power and beauty

It's mildly unfair to honor Patty on a blog generally devoted to with fewer resources on hand, so let me also give a shout out to amazing efforts from: Holly Arrowsmith, Drew Holcomb, Maura Kennedy, and Hannah Miller.

Worst Recordings of the Year:

A recording from an artist called Honeybird struck me as an exercise in shallow, attitude-laden, self-indulgence masquerading as profundity. A re-release of a 1989 Blake Babies concert was an unwelcome reminder of how boring and sloppy grunge had become just before it died.

Concert of the Year:

Wailin' Jennys
My toughest pick, as I saw so many amazing performances. I'd have to call it a toss-up between the Wailin' Jennys at the Academy of Music on May 1, and Tom Rush at the New Bedford Folk Festival on July 5—the Jennys for the ineffable beauty of their harmonies, and Rush for a textbook display of what experience and professionalism bring to the table that no new artist can.

Honorable Mentions to: Mairtin Connor Band (April, Parlor Room); Martin Hayes (July, West Whately Chapel); Milk Carton Kids (September, Academy of Music); Slaid Cleaves (September, Parlor Room); Patty Griffin (October, Academy of Music); Dan Bern (October, Parlor Room); Loreena McKennitt (October, Calvin Theater).

Most Surprising Performance of the Year:
daisy mayhem
It's rare that a warm-up act upstages the main event, but that's exactly what Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem did at the Academy of Music on November 27. We expect Arbo to be wonderful, but she absolutely killed it that night. Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky gave their usual solid performances, but they never came close to generating Arbo's  passion. 

Worst Show of the Year:

There wasn't a thing wrong with the music, but Nora Jane Struthers acted like a petulant 15-year-old in her February show at the Parlor Room. Even worse, her lame chat and lamer still attempts to exhort the audience brought some of it down to her level. Lose the smarm, Nora Jane–you didn't fool me!

Best Novel:

T'was a glorious year for fiction. In the end, though, Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North gets my nod for keeping me riveted to a subject toward which I'd not generally gravitate: a Japanese World War II POW camp. It is gorgeously written, profound, moving, and humanizes both victims and their tormenters.

Just a tick below: Nina George, The Little Paris Bookshop and Kristin Hannah, The  Nightingale.

Worst Novel:

Is Sara Gruen a one-hit wonder? She sure as hell bombed with the trashy At the Water's Edge.


I didn't see a bad show this year, but one show stood out for being innovative, important, and unique: Coney Island: Visions of an AmericanDreamland, which I saw at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.


I didn't see a single film this year likely to be labeled 'art' a decade from now. American films were so dire that I suspect Hollywood is on its last legs. So here's the best of a desultory list. Note: I rank only films that most people could have actually seen in 2015, meaning they must have opened somewhere other than Los Angeles or Manhattan.

Best Films:

View for a silly treat!
It's not an 'important' film," but for sheer enjoyment, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Directed by Jonas Jonasson) was hands-down the most enjoyable time I had in the cinema. It's in Swedish and is subtitled, but its hilarity needs no translation.
The best American film was Whiplash, Director Damien Chazelle's look at a budding young jazz drummer and his interactions with a mentor who might be a father figure, a monster, or both.  It is technically a 2014 film, but see my criterion above.

The most surprising film of the year was Brooklyn (Directed by John Crowley), which is much sweeter than my usual cup of tea, takes on a well-used subject (immigration), and is sunnier than a poached egg. And it still won me over.

Worst Movies of the Year:

Clothes do not make the movie
This is another tough one—so many contenders. Low-budget indie films can be bad, but it's not fair to hold them to the same standards as one would expect from a seasoned crew. Nor is it entirely fair to demean the artistic merits of films that have no pretense of being anything other than escapism. I choose to dishonor films with big budgets, big ambitions, and big names. Two stuck out: Mr. Turner (Directed by Mike Leigh) and A Little Chaos (Directed by Alan Rickman). The first film reduces English painter J.M. W. Turner to the value of a velvet Elvis; and the second imagines a female landscape architect at Versailles in a role her real-life counterpart never played, and makes feminism into frippery in the process.  


Carol is a Visual Treat, but Falls Short of its Hype

CAROL (2015)
Directed by Todd Haynes
Weinstein Company, 118 minutes, R (nudity, sexual situations)
* * *

Carol has made just about every Top Ten list for 2015 and quite a few critics have proclaimed it the best film of the year. If the Academy Awards were solely about looking good, I'd add my voice to the chorus. Todd Haynes' look at lesbian love in the 1950s is absolutely stunning visually: full of dreamy camera angles, moody filters, and lush colors that pop through what is, in essence, film noir shot in color. No one has used red this effectively since Martin Scorsese in The Age of Innocence (1993), nor aimed the camera through rainy and smudged windows so well since Taxi Driver (1976, Scorsese again). Haynes uses the latter technique to depict physical and emotional distancing and he uses it a lot, which is among the reasons Carol is something less than its surrounding hype. For a film about intense personal relationships, Carol often has a detached, even antiseptic feel. It is also, oddly, rather conservative.

As in his 2002 film Far From Heaven, a loose remake of a 1955 Douglas Sirk film, Haynes once again revisits the repressed 1950s, this time for a somewhat more faithful rendition of Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price of Salt, though Haynes begins with a conservative twist that is at odds with Highsmith's book: the meme of love at fist sight. In this case, pixie-like retail clerk Therese Relivet (Rooney Mara) is instantly smitten when Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) makes a holiday purchase at her counter. Carol's red lipstick, her stylish dress, and cool demeanor simply floor Therese. Two strokes of luck:  Carol absent-mindedly (or is it Gaydar?) left her calfskin gloves behind and a to-be-delivered purchase allows Therese to track her down. From there, a friendship blossoms that is really a prolonged striptease, since it's rather (too) obvious that both women lust for one another. Why not? Therese neither loves nor respects her controlling boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), and Carol's marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) is on the rocks. It also helps that Carol has had previous lesbian relationships, including one with her loyal friend Abby (Sarah Paulson). It would be full speed ahead to bed were it not for the fact that Carol also has an adorable daughter whom she loves deeply. Translation: it's complicated.

We are treated to subplots involving a road trip, the pressures of bourgeois respectability, custody battles, and Therese's dreams of becoming a photographer, but it's pretty obvious what must–at some point–happen. This is a bit of a problem. Haynes depicts the 1950s through a misty lens, which he extends to character development. There's not much dialogue in Carol and most of what we learn about any of the characters–especially Carol–is incidental. The intent, I believe, was to have his protagonists mirror the buttoned-down nature of 50s' society. But there is jarring inconsistency in the ways Haynes presents Therese, Carol, and Abby as supremely sure of themselves; in essence, he has interposed very modern mannerisms. More problematic still, in an age in which gay people met in enclaves and communicated by code, he has Carol and Therese making goo-goo eyes across rooms chockful with people who'd have to be encased in cement not to read their signals.

Haynes is himself gay, but he was born in 1961. I mention these things because it often seems as if Haynes wants to reinvent rather than present the 1950s. In Far From Heaven, for example, he imagined a 1950s in which it was possible for a husband to come out, and a white woman could at least contemplate a relationship with a black man. Neither would have been likely in Hartford, Connecticut, at a time in which the Nutmeg State had one of the most active Ku Klux Klan networks in the nation. Haynes celebrates his own sexuality, but he's also creating mythic predecessors for his own post-Stonewall, post-Harvey Milk, post-Gay Pride world. McCarthyism and the life in the closet appear more as backdrops, not the defining Zetigeist; hence gay life in the 1950s is cast as love that needs to overcome obstacles rather than the love that dare not speak its name. Carol is set in 1951, which is four years before there is even an official lesbian advocacy group (the Daughters of Bilitis). The fact that Ms. Highsmith wrote her 1952 novel under a pseudonym ought to tell you how she found the era.

History this is not! The good news? As mentioned, Haynes' exteriors are gorgeous. Although they don't have nearly as much to do as they should, both Blanchett and Mara are terrific, with Ms. Blanchett cementing her role as the heiress apparent to Meryl Streep's chameleon-like inhabitation of roles. Mara, though she looks a bit too much like Audrey Hepburn welded to Audrey Tatou, is also very strong as Therese. Kudos also to Paulson, who plays Abby as a font of defiance and inner resolve.

Bottom line: Carol is gooey eye candy, but it's a good film, not a great one. Rob Weir

End of the Year Thoughts on Politics and Culture

I'm calling this lame!

Remember the loathsome Yuppies of the 1980s? How about that entire attitude-laden Gen X bunch that came of age toward the end of the 20th century? I certainly recall the smug contempt they had for Baby Boomers and the way in which they lampooned "hippies." I actually shared some their amusement–but not their scorn­–over the gray-haired tie-dye crowd that refused to notice that the calendar had moved forward, but who is laughing now? I'm enjoying a major LMAO moment watching balding, overweight folks in their late 40s/early 50s walking around in choir robes and carrying plastic "light lasers." At least hippies had ideals, however misplaced they were (or were not). Pray tell, what's the ideology behind Star Wars? Consumerism?

The Democratic Party data scandal is a GOP fantasy come true. The DNC (Democratic National Committee) is the tin standard against which all cluelessness and ineptitude must be measured. It is a confirmation of my oft-repeated quip that Democrats possess an unlimited capacity for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Here's what the DNC action says: we will do whatever it takes to derail the party's only honest candidate (Sanders) in order to advance our flawed anointed contender (Clinton).

Speaking of Hillary Clinton, has she done a single thing thus far to make anyone think that she's anything less than the scheming, amoral, possibly corrupt charlatan that her harshest critics have claimed? She's sure looking like the latest in a long line of DNC hacks whose de facto campaign slogan is: "Vote for me. I'm not as bad as the Republicans."

The DNC simply doesn't get the fact that politics have changed. Call is style over substance if you wish then move on, as this is how the game is now played. A modern candidate needs to appear strong, counter when attacked, be likable, be perceived as trustworthy, and put forth a distilled positive message for what H. L. Mencken famously dubbed the boobocracy­–that teeming mass electorate defined by their limited education and even more limited attention span. How's Hillary stack up on this scale? High marks for toughness and meanness, but epic fail on likability, trust, and message. Machine-style politics is dead, as we keep proving in Massachusetts, where we elect GOP governors because their Democratic opponents comes off as boring, elitist, or both.  

Well here's an item that got buried. Did anyone notice that Palestinian Authority mouthpiece Mahmoud Abbas called the stabbings of Israelis a "justified popular uprising?" You probably didn't see it—it got buried in newspapers and Internet news feeds because we're too damn busy insisting that Palestinians are victims rather than instigators. What does it tell you, though, when scientific polling reveals that 2/3 of all Palestinians agree that stabbings are justified? This data tells me that Palestinians cry crocodile tears when they speak of peace. It tells me also that they're hypocrites when they speak of a "political solution" to border disputes. It tells me they are not ready for nationhood. Under what moral code do knife-wielding thugs qualify as "freedom fighters?"

In under-reported religious news, one would never know it, but incidents of anti-Semitism outnumber those that are Islamophobic in the United States and Europe. More than one billion people on the globe hold anti-Semitic views–around one in seven. Thus far in 2015, anti-Semitic incidents have risen by 21% in the United States, 23% in Russia, and 12% in Britain. The US remains something of a safe haven for Jews in global terms, but in its haste to counter Islamophobia, rising anti-Semitism gets swept under the rug. No less a source than Al-Jazeera notes that hatred of Jews and hatred of Muslims tend to rise simultaneously.

In global terms, though, another thing you'd never know is that Christians are the most persecuted religious group. As reported by the Boston Globe on December 20, martyrdom levels are approaching levels not seen since the early 3rd century Roman Empire. Some of the violence has been directed against overt proselytizers such as Jehovah's Witnesses, but there are vast swaths of the world where it's simply open season on Christians, even those minding their own business. In all, human rights groups report anti-Christian persecution and violence in 151 nations, some of whom you probably wouldn't suspect: India, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Pakistan…. The Pew Research Center confirms that Christians suffer more persecution than any other religious group. Even more surprising, Pew reports that in the United States, those who perceive themselves to be discrimination victims are, in order: Latinos, evangelical Christians, Catholics, LGBT groups, and African-Americans.

I've never found comparative repression to be particularly useful. (There's no prize for being first as opposed to sixth on this tragic list.) If it were up to me, I'd make the UN Charter on Human Rights the only standard of fairness. The problem with that is that a whole host of religious practices would be declared violations (exorcisms, burqas, forcible conversion, the caste system, female circumcision, Judeo-Christian sexism, anti-gay teachings, jihad, theocracy….) I'm okay with these things being forbidden! 

A final cultural observation: It's pretty hard to avoid thinking that American cinema is on its last legs. Put bluntly, most Hollywood movies suck, few independents get enough screen time to justify their costs, TV channels like HBO make better movies than Hollywood, and download services such as Netflix have enough backlog to carry them for decades. Today's American cinema consists of mindless mall blockbusters, box office duds, and a handful of niche cinemas that are only marginally viable. Put aside your personal preferences for a moment and name a truly great American film from 2015. Not a good one–one a future film student might discuss as "art." Maybe you can come up with one, but can you go further? I doubt it.


Angel Falls: Older Kristin Hannah Work Shows How She Has Grown

Kristin Hannah
Crown, 288 pages
* *

Discovering a new novelist who thrills you is sublime. Of course, unless it’s a debut novel, they’re not “new” at all—just new-to-you. Once I find one, though, I like to mine  that writer’s backlist to see if other treasures lurk. Sometimes they do; Jess Walter’s 2012 Beautiful Ruins is the strongest of his works, but all of them are worth reading. On the other hand, I have come to suspect that Like Water for Elephants might be the only good book Sara Gruen will ever write; and that Don Tillman needs an idea beyond endless sequels to The Rosie Project.

I was enthralled to “discover” Kristin Hannah through The Nightingale, which should be on everyone’s short list for the best book of 2015. I was actually surprised to learn that The Nightingale is Hannah’s 22nd novel, the first of which appeared in 1991. I was further surprised to find out that her prior reputation lay in categories—not my terms—often labeled as “sentimental” and “chick lit.” So I decided to pick a book somewhere in the middle between her debut and The Nightingale and settled on Angel Falls for no good reason other than the fact that Book Bub was offering it for 99 cents.

Wow! I can only say that we must applaud Hannah’s enormous growth over the past 15 years? Angel Falls moves at such a crisp pace that one could consume it in a single sitting, but it certainly lives down to the “sentimental” tag. It takes place in a namesake Washington town that’s like Lake Woebegone in the Pacific Cascades, where Dr. Liam Campbell lives in salt-of-the-earth decency and dullness with his wife, Mikaela, and two children: sixteen-year-old Jacey and nine-year-old Bret. The Campbell world is rocked when Mikaela is thrown from her horse and suffers head injuries that put her into a deep coma.

The rest of the novel plays out like a tissue-box drama from the Lifetime Channel. Doctors are baffled as to why “Mike” won’t wake up and Liam must try to keep his wits and his family together, especially Bret, who blames himself for his mother’s accident. And, of course, family ‘secrets’ leak out. Mikaela, we learn, is part Mexican. Her mother appears to help out, and we learn that Mike was born out of wedlock. (So?) The bigger secret is that Jacey isn’t Liam’s child; Mikaela was once known as “Kayla” and was the wife of heart throb Hollywood bad boy Julian True. Liam calls upon Julian to see if his voice can bring Mike back among the living, though he knows Mike never got over Julian and his presence could wreck the Campbell marriage.

Good grief! There are enough clichés in what I’ve written already to send a college writing teacher into a coma of his or her own! If you think no more can be slathered onto this tale, you’d be wrong—very wrong. Only those gullible enough to see the collected, rational, and saintly Jacey as emblematic of any sixteen-year-old on this planet will be able to swallow all of this without choking. Much of the book plays out like a preacher’s homily of the sort that provides nostrums rather than instruction. It’s all too sweet, too pat, and too unbelievable. Do not put this book on your holiday wish list.

So how does one get from here to The Nightingale? Hard effort and maturity, I suspect. I look forward to future work from Ms. Hannah, but unless I get recommendations from some reliable sources, I think I won’t return to her backlist.  Rob Weir


It Takes a Train to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

Is there a train in your future?

Bob Dylan didn’t have American rail service in mind when he wrote “It Takes a Train to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” but he could have. When Amtrak touts the Acela Express as “high speed rail,” one can but laugh. Acela trains could go as fast as 165 mph, but given the deplorable state of the tracks upon which it travels, a 457 mile Boston to Washington, DC trip will take over 6.5 hours and average just 68 mph; in other words, you could drive it faster (and certainly cheaper). High-speed rail is the three-hour 520-mile train ride I took from Geneva to Paris a few years ago, which really does go 165 mph.

As for crying, anyone who has sat dead in the tracks in the New Jersey marshes waiting for an incoming, slow-moving train to pass will be moved to tears, to say nothing of Amtrak’s back-into-the-station and wait 40 minutes maneuver in Springfield, Massachusetts. But if you really want to cry, lament the long-parted ‘leisurely’ family drive. If you’re going anywhere on the East Coast from Portland, Maine to Miami, Florida, your scenery will be that of metal walls blowing past you at 75 mph—the ubiquitous trucks hell-bent on rushing Chinese-made goods to a Walmart near you.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could move people and goods faster and more cheaply? As it turns out, we can: by train. I do not mean an improved Acela or longer freight trains. And I don’t even mean by bankrupting the treasury. As it turns out, it’s probably much cheaper to scrap what we have, convert those lines into bicycle paths, and build something resembling the pneumatic tubs that used to pass messages, receipts, and change through department stores. We don’t need to wait for a futuristic Buck Rogers scenario to unfold—the technology is here; all we have to do is build it.

The model is called hyperloop, a vacuum tube through which trains suspended in a friction-free magnetic field can knife their way down concrete above-ground concrete troughs at speeds faster than those of jet planes. There’s already a plan for a Washington-to-Baltimore (40 miles) “Northeast Maglev” that will travel at over 300 mph and could become the lynchpin for the entire Northeast. The cost? Around $10 billion, which isn’t chump change, but is cheaper than Amtrak’s estimate of $151 billion to “improve” existing lines. Imagine next a line that could whisk you from Boston to the West Coast at over 700 mph. You could catch a croissant at South Station and have a second breakfast in Oregon. You’d have no need to suffer through the indignities of an airport, pay fuel surtaxes, and then shell out a king’s ransom to be transported from a set of concrete strips in the middle of nowhere into the city core. How cool is that?  

Can it work? It already does. All we have to do is find the cash. How about slashing military spending by 20%? Or not. Heck, you could sell this as part of a Department of Defense plan. Sound far-fetched? How do you think we built the interstate highway system? The 1956 bill authorizing it was known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. That’s right, it was justified as necessary in the case of a national emergency—something we tend to forget when we’re annoyed by a military convoy clogging up lanes on the interstate.

I say let’s do this thing. Sell it as a defense measure, a jobs bill, an energy-savings maneuver, a way to make American business more competitive—anything. Get ‘er built.


Woman in Gold Shines, but Only with Gilding

Directed by Simon Curtis
Weinstein Company, 110 minutes, PG-13
* * *

The first thing to know about Woman in Gold is that it’s much better than a lot of its reviews. The second is that it’s not nearly as good as it ought to be. It is a story about art looted by the Nazis during World War II but, in this case, not just any art—we’re talking paintings by Gustav Klimt, including his famed Woman in Gold, a piece considered by many to be part of the Austrian soul.

Painting titles are often conveniently anonymous. The “woman” had a name: Adele Bloch-Bauer, and before she was a national icon she was a beloved family member whose portrait hung in the apartment of her uncle, Frederick Altmann, until the Nazis removed it and the remaining Jewish Altmanns­–and only the former to safekeeping. The film follows the efforts of Adele’s niece, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), to recover Adele’s portrait (and four other Klimts). To say that Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery and the Austrian government would rather whitewash their Holocaust past than part with “Woman in Gold,” is to do disservice to the depths of their heinousness.

The movie is essentially a series of archival searches and courtroom appearances that take place in Vienna, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, and involve Maria, her nephew lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), and Austrian investigative reporter Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Bruhl). The film tries very hard to build drama and that may have been the wrong approach. Anyone who cares about art already knows how the drama ends—in 2006, “Woman in Gold” was returned to Maria Altmann, which is why today it hangs in New York City’s Neue Gallery.

This begs a question: Would this have been a more compelling film if it had charted a different course? By choosing the most conservative path—instead of, for instance, looking at how the art world collaborated to do an end around the Holocaust—director Simon Curtis essentially opted for one of film’s most tired and trite memes: the Big Courtroom Scene. There’s nothing audacious about that unless you want to give Curtis props for having several of them in the same movie. His boldest move was to construct a Supreme Court hearing that is nothing like a real one, presumably to enhance tension, though it may have just been an excuse to give Jonathan Pryce a juicy cameo as Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

The acting is mostly solid, with Mirren trying her best (and not quite succeeding) to assume a German accent and give Meryl Streep a run for accent mastery. (Meryl still wears the crown!) Mirren is steely and, by turns, vulnerable and stubborn. Reynolds, a much lesser actor, is less convincing as a lawyer; he’s simply too soft and unfocused. Elizabeth McGovern is much better in her cameo role as Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, and Antje Traue is simply radiant in the non-speaking role of Adele. Charles Dance and Katie Holmes also appear in cameos. In the end, though, what one notices about all the principal actors is that none of them is Jewish. Is this a problem? Yes; it probably is—we’re decades past the time in which it was routine for actors to dress in cross-cultural garb.

Gustav Klimt's 'Woman in Gold'
There are other liberties taken. Czernin, not Schoenberg, located the key documents and notified Maria Altmann that she had a legitimate restitution claim. More problematic is that key Austrian politicians and art world figures appear as composites with fictional names. Doesn’t this add a new layer of complicity and injustice to an already sordid tale? Other small details are changed for dramatic effect: Maria didn’t leave Austria until her father died, so the tearful farewell scene is a contrivance. There was never a time limit on stolen Nazi art—another contrivance.

This is an amazing story rather ham-handedly told. By opting for clichés and drama-enhancements, the film is akin to a surgically enhanced model draped in silk to hide the droops and scars. When reality hands you a juicy tale, it’s best not to muck it up with chemical additives. Woman in Gold is worth watching, but be aware that you’re beholding gilding, not 24-karat gold.

Rob Weir