Imagine our world spiraling down towards the climate catastrophe we dread. Imagine a last-ditch effort to clone old species to mitigate the damage. Imagine a scientist caring for a new baby, a resurrected Neanderthal. There you have the premise of “Ghost Species,” the seventh novel of master lit-sci-fi author James Bradley, and it’s a premise handled in masterly, brisk, yet reflective fashion. The author’s prose is elegant and precise, the interweaving of the setting in Tasmania with an angular picture of escalating catastrophe is masterful. In spite of the professionalism at work, I found character engagement took root only gradually, as if we were meant to stand apart from it all, but by the time the climax rolled in, the emotional impact was strong. A dystopian novel with a difference, unrelenting yet not overwrought, well worth a read.
Remember the evocative movie Hidden Figures about the almost-hidden female mathematical stars who played crucial roles in the space race? Well, “The Calculating Stars” is a beguiling extension of that notion. When a 1952 meteorite destroys Washington and bequeaths accelerated global warming upon the Earth, Elma, mathematical whiz and ex-WWII-pilot, assists her space engineer husband as he plays a key role in a race to launch into space to enable humanity’s salvation. Elma dreams of space but it is 1952, after all, and women will never be given a chance, surely? Mary Robinette Kowal, an award-winning fantasy author, brings brilliant plotting, exemplary characterization, and a superb stylistic voice to the task, and the end result is an engrossing, unpredictable, and fascinating science fiction novel. The Calculating Stars is recommended reading for anyone fascinated by space, even if you’re no regular sci-fi reader.
Living through a pandemic flattens the mind. Perspective seems impossible yet perspective is exactly what a writer’s mind demands. For that reason I’ve taken care over the last six months to read any Covid-19 journals/snippets, and in particular a few “in the thick of it” anthologies. Typically they have involved writers scribing what they experience or intuit, and I appreciate such efforts, but “A World Out of Reach: Dispatches from Life under Lockdown” offers not only writers/poets but also healthcare frontline professionals, social commentators, journalists, and even politicians. Released regularly in The Yale Review over March to June, it mixes the quotidian with the profound, to the benefit of both. I wept at Rachel Jamison Webster’s ode to her aunt, I ground my teeth during Black Lives Matters essays and one on a prison population, and I gasped at the immediacy and dread of hearing about doctors hunting for PPE. A World Out of Reach is not always comforting reading but it feels essential.
My anticipation for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Charlie Kaufman’s latest enigmatic offering, was intense, and I quickly sank into his tale of a young woman (wonderfully, suitably enigmatically played by Jessie Buckley) accompanying her kind-of, barely-got-to-know boyfriend (another fine performance from an unlikely actor, Jessie Plemons) to his parents’ out-of-the-way farm. There, some strange, semi-frightening episodes occur with the mother and father, exuberantly dished out by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, and we know we’re in a the middle of a Kaufman wonderment and need to “figure this out” even while we’re entranced by the weirdness. And I realized just why the trailer focuses so much on that first third or half, because after the farm scenes, the movie spirals quickly (amazingly quickly, actually) into incomprehensible tedium. Long scenes in the snowed-under car, a strange school, new weird characters … all the while cutting back and forth to a shuffling old janitor. The end, when it comes, is bafflement ultra, and most welcome that ending is. Afterwards I Googled, as one does, and sorted out what I’m Thinking of Ending Things is meant to portray, based on what sounds like a weird but spectacular, immersive novel, but heck, a movie based on a book is not intended to come with the rider, “read the book first.” This time, Kaufman’s narrative skills have deserted him. Cryptic sludge probably only suitable for Kaufman completists.
“Imagine” is the bold and brilliant 2012 creation of Polish filmmaker Andrzej Jakimowski. Blind British teacher Ian, who teaches blind children to transcend their canes with the use intense listening and echolocation (voice or finger clicking), arrives at a Lisbon blind clinic. Here the children (and a reclusive German blind woman, Eva) are taught to always proceed with a tapping white cane, and from the outset Ian’s bold new approach startles and scares the students and staff alike. The movie plays out as a heuristic challenge: can Ian convert his charges to a richer, cane-less existence before society’s caution shuts him down? The education of Eva (wonderful acting from Alexandra Maria Lara) is especially fraught and meaningful. Edward Hogg portrays Ian in a stunning performance, full of fiery daring and intelligence, and the children, many of them apparently real blind kids, are superbly natural. The cinematography crowds the blind people, mimicking their cramped sensory boundaries, and several scenes of Ian with his charges crossing traffic are terrifying. The script establishes tension and intrigue from the first frame, and I was riveted from the start to the dramatic climax. A highly original tale of meaning and risk, Imagine is a movie I would not normally have gravitated to (it’s six years old!), but I’m delighted that I did, for it’s one of 2020’s viewing highlights, something I’ll go back to for the savoring.
Prison escape movies loom large in my childhood memories, so I gravitated readily towards “Escape from Pretoria,” dramatising the escape attempts by three apartheid activists from a South African prison during the dark ages of oppression. This is an escape film pure and simple, with only a short “how they ended up in jail” preamble before Tim Jenkin (whose memoir this is based on, he is played with aplomb by Daniel Radcliffe) is figuring out how to carve cell door keys out of wood. The cinematography is close-up and intense, the dialogue wastes no space, and the prison atmospherics strike true. Francis Anna, who directed and co-scripted, ekes out increasingly fraught tension from scenes of stealth and jeopardy. There are no grand morality themes here, just the do-or-die efforts of ethical activists to break out of incarceration hell. Recommended.
What a treat to read another of Jennifer Ackerman’s revelation-packed, inspirational books about the avian species on our planet. “The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think” is an astonishingly assembled and narrated look at five aspects of birds, just as the subtitle says. Explicating cutting-edge research from around the world (but especially, I noted with pleasure, in Australia) underpins this expansive, entertaining survey. Ackerman not only shows how birds seem even more varied and versatile and capable than we ever expected, she does it in a way that makes for sprightly, pleasurable reading. Unlike most birding books, The Bird Way would satisfy any reader out to explore the world on the page. Recommended.
Somber yet joyful intensity pervades “I Am Greta,” the brilliant documentary by Nathan Grossman that hangs out in the shadows of the last few years of Greta Thunberg’s life. The camera tracks her during her ascent to near sainthood, and instead of proselytizing or over-dramatizing, the approach is one of careful neutral observation. The effect is stunning. We see a teenage girl of precocious intelligence and moral grit keep delivering the same message – my generation (I’m 65) is doing nothing to avert the climate emergency spiraling into disaster for her generation and beyond. It’s a simple message but one that brooks no scientific disagreement, and when expressed so clearly, it’s no wonder Greta has been embraced by the millions and millions around the world terrified about our climate future. Grossman observes how her father devotes himself to her and her message and its delivery; the father-daughter observations are touching and unassuming. Her mother, back in Sweden, is just as much a parent-rock. Scene after scene on trains and in crowds … her fraught yacht trip across the seas to deliver the film’s climactic scene of her unforgettable speech to the United Nations … this is a documentary about purpose and steely determination and clearheaded morality. By eschewing any sermonizing, the filmmaker achieves the seemingly impossible, humanizing Greta at the same time as extolling her message and role. I Am Greta: an incandescent film for our age.
Aaron Sorkin can do no wrong. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a superbly wrought account of the Nixon-mandated trial of hippies and others after Mayor Daley unleashed the police on peaceful protestors during the 1968 Democrat convention. Most “based on a true story” films limp under the burden of fidelity to factuality, but Sorkin manages to deftly focus on key moments and aspects and themes of this pivotal trial, while at the same time ratcheting up the tension. Few can do it but this film exemplifies the power of strong storytelling. And the acting! Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Sasha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin … all exemplary, but I could name a dozen others, notably Mark Rylance and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The ambience of the courtroom, the riot scenes, and the general flower power era are evocatively portrayed, and the cinematography of Phedon Papamichael is powerful. Several of the core scenes had me on the edge of my seat. A must-see, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a 2020 highlight.
No one can doubt how fucked-up America’s response to Covid-19 has been and is, so it takes a special filmmaker to dramatize it with compelling flair. Prolific Alex Gibney does just that with “Totally Under Control.” Offering nearly a day-on-day step-through of the U.S. response since the start of this year, and culminating only weeks ago when Trump tested positive, the documentary was filmed under cover of stealth, and often with DIY interviewing cameras sent to interviewees. The cast of interview subjects is stellar, ranging from prominent whistleblowers right at the heart of things, to seasoned pandemic professionals, to journalists from the beat in America and South Korea. Gibney (and fellow director Ophelia Harutyunyan) possesses an uncanny knack of extracting just the right narrative tenor from each of the interviewees. Of course Trump himself, together with his entourage of venal incompetents, provides plenty of visual fodder. In a sense I did not need to watch this, but the thought that kept me going, beyond the storytelling expertise at work, was that Totally Under Control is likely to be a reference document for the next generation. And given how badly the U.S. situation has accelerated since October, I wonder if Gibney will come up with a Part Two. I hope so.