The Michael Moore documentaries were always as disheveled as he is but at least in the early days they aimed at targets easy to hit, requiring little work. Over time they’ve grown even more cheap and nasty. This one isn’t even narrated by Moore but by director/writer Jeff Gibbs, and he is a surly non-raconteur. “Planet of the Humans” shows no coherent plotline but flails at modern environmentalism, which Gibbs believes has been corrupted. The movie concludes portentously at nihilism backed by population control. The renewable energy sector can roll with the punches here, chiefly because Gibbs offers up tawdry images and false facts seemingly taken from the playbook of the fossil fuel industry (although biomass may well be a legitimate target, from my state of knowledge). But the chief problem with “Planet of the Humans” is not the content, risible though much of it may be, the chief problem is an unintelligent lack of narrative coherence or drive. Most scenes are trivially boring and the constant lurches between “on the spot subversive reporting” and lurid, pointless imagery is exhausting. If this isn’t the worst movie I watch in 2020, I don’t know what will be.
At once an encyclopedic tour de force about all things to do with whales and whaling, and a lyrical exploration of humans and other species on the brink of the next great extinction, “Fathoms: The World in the Whale” is a blessing. An immersive, beautifully written mix of academic exploration, philosophical musings, and research memoir, it is a right book for a right time. Australian author Rebecca Giggs covers every aspect of whales fully (sometimes, it must be said, too exhaustively for this simple soul). A number of times, I gasped at unexpected knowledge revealed or fresh insights gained. “Fathoms” is recommended for anyone with the slightest fascination with nature and our environment.
The third DI Tom Janssen mystery to be released in just over half a year, “Kill Our Sins” is another solid slab of entertainment perfect for lockdown times. When fisherman retrieve a badly mutilated female body off the Norfolk Coast, Jannsen, the stolid, relentlessly analytical homicide detective, aided by his offsider and by his boss Tamara, sets out to plumb the past and put justice to rights. All clues point to long-ago school friends but the plot is murky enough to almost derail Janssen. As ever, Dalgliesh keeps up a steady clip and the plot bucks and twists. Norfolk is a wonderful backdrop. A fine, complex read.
Avarind Adiga, 2008 Booker Prize winner (for “The Tiger“) is, in my considered opinion, one of the most immersive, brilliant stylists alive. “Amnesty,” his fifth novel, mashes us, within the opening page, into the mind of an illegal Sri Lankan immigrant working as a cleaner in Sydney, a young, earnest man on the cusp of a solid existence after three years of anxiety. When a cleaning client is murdered, Danny realizes who the killer is and must choose between justice for the dead and his own deportation. Told over one breathless day, a plotting triumph that weaves Danny’s past into a thriller ripped from the headlines, the novel broadcasts the fraught, ridiculous sub-world of the illegal, a person without status, almost without existence. Not many novels can entertain superbly (a one-sitting reading this is, I guarantee) while speaking to our modern world, while bringing us into the mind and heart of a person irretrievably split between duty and self-fear. “Amnesty” is one of the finest novels of 2020 so far.
Grant Snider stands apart, an illustrator with a distinctive, flowing eclectic style that ranges across colors and moods, an inventive mind, and wisdom crossed with laugh-out-loud humor. “I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf” covers books and writing and everything in between, in a series of one-page and two-page comic strips that captivated and entertained me. His work invokes the senses and engages the mind. In lockdown, those of us who love books and/or write should be in our natural habitat, but a pandemic preys on the sensibilities of creatives, and they suffer. I can think of no better antidote to lockdown blues than a steady sampling of the wondrous comics in this Grant Snider collection. A must for all the geeks of humanity.
In lockdown, I sought elegant romantic fluff and in “The Lost Love Song,” by Tasmanian author Minnie Darke, I stumbled on just what I needed. The novel’s plot conceit is revealed in its title: a famous pianist composes a love song that then begins a life independent of her, across oceans and cultures and times. If that sounds twee, the author transcends the genre through strong writing with a robust authorial voice, through a revolving set of vibrant characters, and through a plot that might seem destined for a romantic climax but twists and turns. This is delectable writing to be devoured in one lockdown-conquering sitting.
The superb, emotion-ridden, classic rock voice of Dana Margolin, the singer of Brighton quartet Porridge Radio, underpins the ragged, intelligent beauty of their second release, “Every Bad.” Whether crooning raggedly or revving up to a scream, her performance is a tour de force, but there is more to the band than her. All eleven songs marry tumbled personal lyrics, often repeated as melodic incantations, with savvy arrangements built around crunchy riffs and buttressed with keys. “Every Bad” sounds at once typically British and fresh as revolution. Call it indie, call it semi-punk, call it Costello-like pop, call it what you will, this is a gorgeous romp that enlivened Coronavirus lockdown, and I heartily recommend it. If you need tracks to check out, go for Margolin shrieking “you’re wasting my time” on “Long,” a song that builds and then cools; the thumping aching pop of “Give/Take”; and “Lilac,” a lovely scuzzy torch song.
For some reason the British excel at conspiracy thrillers and “The Capture,” a six-part series written and directed by Ben Chasan, is as devious and troubling as any. When a British soldier (played convincingly by Callum Turner), recently released from prison after a sensational trial, finds himself framed for a kidnapping that plays out on CCTV footage, an ambitious, smart policewoman (a terrific performance from Holliday Grainger) sets out to track him down, only to discover all is not as it seems. I found the second episode flat but from then on, the plot roars with twists of flamboyant outrageousness. Like the darkest thrillers of the 1970s and 1980s, the murky reality is revealed, time and time again, to mask further complexity and horror. For a plot-driven movie, the directing and cinematography are razor sharp, and all the supporting actors never put a foot wrong. “The Capture” might not, in the end, have you worried about the world (the plot is way over the top) but it captures a paranoid mood we all sense today. You will definitely ache to binge this one.
Eric Maisel has saved my life many times over. His stunning portfolio of philosophical and creativity references and how-to books has not only kept me writing against any sensible odds but has ended up underpinning my very life system. I know there is a river of creativity self-help books out there, and can tell you from bitter experience that most add little, but “Unleashing the Artist Within: Breaking through Blocks and Restoring Creative Purpose” is the real deal. A sequel to 2005’s brilliant “Coaching the Artist Within,” Maisel’s best book in years addresses a dozen key challenges faced by working artists, writers, and musicians (indeed any creative types including businesspeople, etc.). Most chapters are informed by telling vignettes from Maisel’s creativity coaching clients. The opening “lesson” addresses the heartland topic of how to sink into the reality of the daunting nature of creativity, the second lesson tackles the daily grind issue, the third exhorts passion (he calls it hunger) and offers ways to inculcate it, and so on. I found “Recovering from dashed hopes” to be most potent. A chapter on honoring and guarding one’s creative workspace is a gem. Essential, that’s what “Unleashing the Artist Within” is.
No one but no one writes what William Gibson writes, nor writes how he writes. From the “Neuromancer” days, three and a half decades ago, we’ve been blessed with enigmatic, fast-paced science fiction (and sometimes almost not sci-fi) that vibrates with post-ironic intelligence. “Agency” follows 2014’s “Peripheral” in a universe where remnant oligarchs fiddle around divergent time-travel strands in the past, like Zeus’s menagerie of Gods. In the roaring opening pages of “Agency,” in a present-day America in which Trump didn’t win, our hero Verity, an app tester (of course) takes on a spunky new AI, Eunice by name, who struggles to understand herself even as the machinations of present and future battle over her. Gibson is a punctilious stylist who peppers his worlds with objects and settings almost, but not quite, normal, and he’s a super choreographer of his careening plots. Dialogue dominates even the most James-Bond-like scene, and the dialogue is waspish and beautiful to read. “Agency” is a monster of a read that may well be heralded as one of Gibson’s classics.