What is the nature of evil? Fussing over that question can seem an impossible quest but genocide and serial killers remain perennial subject of scrutiny for me. The first season of “Mindhunter” offered a unique entry into the latter category of evil, by adapting the same-name true crime tell-all by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, recounting the FBI history of developing serial killer profiling, which I read over two decades ago. Mucking around with the characters a bit, the first TV season was horrifying, troubling, but strangely, effectively informative and revealing. So I approached the second season with trepidation: could it possibly continue the high standard? Well, I can trumpet that the first episode equals or betters its predecessors. Quickly refreshing the plot and re-introducing the core three characters, the intelligent script plunges us into a new, apparently supportive boss and a new horrific crime and, of all things, an in-jail interview of Son of Sam. Moody cinematography, great acting, edgy music, and the promise of more to come … I can’t wait to get to Episode 2!
A brainy, nerdy, free-wheeling private eye who out-Sherlocks the great man himself, what could there not be to like? Joe Ide’s “IQ” burst onto the crime fiction scene like a missile; it was truly one of 2016’s great reads. Follow-up “Righteous” dropped back a notch but was still a work of art. Now the third outing of Isaiah Quintabe, “Wrecked,” finds IQ formally partnered with flamboyant opportunist Dodson, a heartfelt character as memorable as the locally loved detective himself. When Isaiah falls in love with a mysterious young painter whose mother needs tracking down, he finds himself arrayed against a rambunctious, deadly paramilitary gang but also Seb, the man who once killed his brother. Ide writes in fulsome, colorful prose, the LA locales are down and dirty, all the supporting characters breathe as if alive, and the conundrums requiring IQ’s mental prowess are captivating. All up, this ranks as high as the debut and is mandatory 2019 armchair fodder.
“John Wicks: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” is an ultra-violent, elegant, smart confection. I came to it without having watched the first two outings in the franchise, and I came to it with trepidation, but the word of mouth was so good that I had to see it, and I’m delighted to have done so. The action kicks off immediately, with super-assassin Wick “excommunicated” by the secretive High Table, and within a couple of minutes, seemingly thousands of assassins are pursuing our hero, who plunges through the wet, dark streets of New York, then progressively heads to Africa to somehow track down the boss of them all in order to have any chance at all of staying alive. Keanu Reeve has always been an underestimated actor and here he excels, suitably direct and simple yet with touches of irony and a core of decency. Supporting roles and cameo appearances are provided by a stellar cast, well suited and all on song, with particular mentions needed for Ian McShane and Mark Dacascos. Dan Lausten’s cinematography stuns again and again. The choreographed mayhem is video-game-stylized and offers the kinds of spills and thrills that the last half decade of superhero movies has relinquished. In summary, “John Wick 3” is a lush, kinetic, smart treat.
Scandi-noir queen Karin Fossum brings familiar Inspector Konrad Sejer to an interview room in “The Whisperer.” There he spends much of the novel probing a dormouse of a woman who has clearly done something bad. Fossum delicately interleaves the charged discussions between cop and prisoner with the recent days of the woman, who had begun receiving threats. The interrogations are nuanced, the daily histories increasingly pregnant with violence. I enjoyed the cat-and-mouse very much, and the author’s masterful withholding of information works a treat, but there is only one problem. The final denouement reveals a tired plot that limps to a boring end. A pity that the technically adept construction is in aid of so little.
Bruce Springsteen has always tested the bounds of his brand of guitar-based singer-songwriter music. On the thirteen songs of “Western Stars,” he upends his normal tropes into a mix of C&W, Americana, and sixties crooning. It can be a shock. The first track, “Hitch Hikin’” begins with a plaintive “thumbs stuck out as I go” and an earworm C&W melody yoked to Bruce’s bruised voice, and all seems normal if muted, so that when the song concludes with a gentle orchestral wash … what the? The next track, “The Wayfarer,” turns on a full symphonic sweep and voice, honeyed up, ignites a memory of Al Martino, yet it is imbued with that Springsteen gravitas that instantly makes it memorable. “There Goes My Miracle” is direct from the Gary Puckett 60s. The title track, an elegy for cowboys, is barely recognisable as the “man who was once the next Dylan,” but it is as sweet as. The aching “Stones in My Mouth” ends with a Springsteen refrain over a long twangy orchestral section that works magnificently well. Overall, it’s an emotionally strong, adept exploration of a new palette.
Doesn’t the world shine more brightly with imaginative tales like “The Umbrella Academy” out there? I rated the first episode as 8/10 and then felt the next four episodes drifted a little. But from the start of Episode 5 through to its (literally) cataclysmic finale, the viewer is in good hands. The pace sprints, each plot component is expertly wrought, and every scene is filmed gorgeously and artfully realized. All seven of the superheroes are perfectly cast for seven actors in fine form; let me resist praising Ellen Page and instead carve out Tom Hopper in the nuanced role of Luther, Robert Sheehan pitch perfect as Klaus, and Cameron Britton as villain turned penitent. After eight episodes, “The Umbrella Academy” feels how a superhero movie should: cartoonish yet mythic and a thrill.
In their live shows, The Felice Brothers unspool their dual-singer folk-rock with flamboyant ramshackle joy, but their albums vary in intensity. “Undress” is the band at its peak, it’s sound veering from massed instruments and voices to more intimate tunes filigreed by precise guitar or lovely piano or squeezebox. The dozen songs mix political targeting and personal poems and singalongs. The overall effect intoxicates, you find yourself breathless for the next offering. I could name ten highlights but here are three: the title track begins as a humorous ode to “lightening up” before fat horns join the mix to climax at a plea to “find the light of day”; the corrosive jaunty “Special Announcement” in which Ian sings of “savin’ up my money to be president”; “Socrates,” a soaring hymn to modernity’s discontents. But wait, how can I convey the poetry of “Days of the Years,” Ian’s ode to the moment, each line threatening to raise tears! Buy this now and if you can, catch a live show.
Can Ian McEwan, author of some especially fine literary novels, tackle science fiction? In “Machines Like Me,” a geeky failure in his own mind, Charlie, besotted with younger neighbor Miranda, is one of twenty-five people across the globe to buy the first real humanoids. Charlie and Miranda each program half of perfect Adam’s personality, and McEwan quickly plunges the threesome into a domestic maelstrom of sex, love, a murky past, and attempted adoption of a waif. All of this in an alterna-historical setting of 1980s Britain in which the Falklands War is lost and Alan Turing still lives. The author needs to cover plenty of ground and in less skilful hands, the explication of this imagined world and Adam’s nature would weigh down the plot, but McEwan is masterful. From the outset, the core theme of the book relates to how robots, when they’re indistinguishable from humans, will use their vastly superior mental processing to negotiate a human-filled world, and I was delighted by how deeply “Machines Like Me” delves. I suspect many sci-fi readers, among which I count myself, will point to far bolder and transgressive examinations of future ages of machines, but to my mind this novel hits the spot, zooming futureward just far enough to ask questions the next generation might well face. A triumph.
Deep reading and deep reflection, leading to lyrical musing, that’s what we’ve grown to love in Maria Popova’s wonderful Brain Pickings blog. Her first book, “Figuring,” transcends the blog, with a staggering sashay through the lives and achievements of a range of geniuses such as astronomers Maria Mitchell and Caroline Herschel, mathematician Mary Somerville, writer/critic Margaret Fuller, artist Harriet Hosmer, and poet Emily Dickinson. Popova is not afraid to meander off course, nor to wax hyper lyrical, but somehow she still wrests a reasonably cohesive narrative out of a huge number of sources. A patient reader is required; sometimes the hyperbole fails, though I loved it when it succeeded, such as with this ardent sentence: “It is a life’s work to reconcile ourselves to the fact that none of the things we gain by force of effort—admiration, awards, wealth, chiseled abs—ever make up for the unbidden gifts we are given and inevitably lose.” Popova’s final hero is the one I championed most during reading, the luminescent marine biologist/environmentalist Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring,” the book that kicked off environmentalism. I revelled in her life, her philosophy recreated, and Popova’s paean. Brilliant, brightly brilliant.
“The Great Hack” is an “in the moment” documentary digging into the Cambridge Analytica scandal (that’s the term that’s often used; watch this film and you’ll call it a crime) of a firm using Facebook data to help bring about Trump and Brexit. Does anyone realize how recent those events were? Now directors Karin Aimer and Jehane artfully and unobtrusively, but to great dramatic effect, cover the ongoing (and still “going on”) series of revelations about the real truth. A multi-pronged examination, “The Great Hack” focuses on brave academic David Carroll, intrepid journo Carole Cadwalladr, and, from the trenches, whistleblowers Brittany Kaiser and Chris Wyllie. It’s a stunning, tense narrative that zings from an atmospheric start to its savage climax. CA, in particular its former CEO, fight hard to seem relatively innocent but instead reveal the consultancy as a propaganda gun for hire marketing to despots and would-be despots around the world. This is a must-see for anyone concerned about data privacy and a fine piece of film-making.