“Proxima,” written and directed by Alice Winocour, is a straightforwardly plotted film so stunningly well executed and blessed with acting performances, that the cinematic stage effortlessly expands into a window on life and love. Eva Green deserves an Oscar for her sublime performance as Sarah, a French astronaut selected to join an international space mission, partnering with American Mike (played oh so right by Matt Dillon) and Russian Aleksey (an understated performance by Anton Ocheivsky that is like much of the film, thoroughly convincing, almost documentary style). The mission is heading to Mars and Sarah is subjected to rigorous training which is, again, fully realistic. But Sarah has a young daughter (the role amazingly powerfully nailed by Zélie Akerman Loreau) who is perceptive, emotive, and deeply centered. From the movie’s opening frames, we’re clear that the story is not about space, it addresses love and duty and ambition and all the gaps between. Moving from Cologne to Russia’s Star City, ahum with the mundanity and excitement of preparation for space, the film circles back, again and again, to mother-daughter moments and embraces and glances that break your heart. Well, “Proxima” breached my heart’s walls repeatedly, completely unexpectedly, which is code for “I wept, fellow viewers.” Even now, three days later, I can close my eyes and see the bond wrestling with the upcoming gulf – how can they stand it? This film deserves the status of quiet classic.
The fourth in a solid police procedural series set in evocative Norfolk, “Tell No Tales” finds dependable, sharp-minded, unstoppable Detective Inspector Tom Jansson pursuing the truth behind the mortal fall of an unidentified man from Sheringham Cliffs. I have walked the 78 kilometers of marshes, dunes, and beaches of the Norfolk Coastal Path and author J. M. Dalgliesh’s evocative descriptions of fictional Sheringham brought vivid memories back to life. Alongside his usual team, Jansson is now lumbered with a new Detective Sergeant, Cassie Knight, and the subtle interactions of this new relationship build on his evolving intricate storyline, in a familiar, slow-burning progression. The dead man turns out to have a dark past and as treacherous a present, and Jansson’s swirling set of clues almost unmoors him. As usual, Dalgliesh’s prose is smooth and muscular, his grounding in Norfolk is flawless, and his characterization is solid. The plot involves sinister outside forces, a device that can unroot the plot from the closely observed characters, but the climax is, as usual in this Hidden Norfolk series, satisfying and twisty. “Tell No Tales” is another fast, delectable read.
Garry Disher is a national treasure, a writer of subtlety and prodigious narrative control. “Peace” is the second in a murder mystery series set in the dry farming land of South Australia, starring Hirsch (aka Sergeant Paul Hirschhausen), a newbie in a small country town. None of your standard crime fiction tics for Hirsch: he is a decent, hardworking cop with a sharp mind. Disher is brilliant at setting the scene and bringing this unforgiving area of Australia to life, and in “Peace” he takes his time building up a tapestry of crimes, minor and then, dramatically, most major. The final third is a rollercoaster of investigation and action. A large array of characters, all people I’m sure you recognize, sparkles amidst Hirsch’s relentless pursuit of hard-won justice. Disher does not waste a word and the pages tumble under the reader’s eye; this is late-night compulsion. One of my favorite mystery reads in 2020.
“The Glovemaker” is an earnest historical novel set in a remote Mormon community in Utah in the late nineteenth century. A lone woman frets about her late-to-return husband when a fugitive lands on her doorstep. In an era thick with persecution (a fascinating unexpected morsel of history), the law will surely follow, and the novel turns into a fraught set of moral decisions by her and her neighbor. The setting amongst Utah’s canyons is vividly portrayed. “The Glovemaker” is a smooth read, most interesting, although the plot fails to live up to its early dramatic promise.
What saved me in my teen years was a mobile library housed in a bus. “The Giver of Stars” offers the fascinating tale of an even older mobile library, a horseback service run by women in rural Kentucky in the late 30s, so of course I was hooked. Jo Jo Moyes is a capable stylist, perhaps a little prone to clichés in characterisation and dialogue, but her steady plot, involving as it does marital woes, the library service’s battles against conservative men, and even a death, drew me in. Englishwoman Alice Wright and firebrand Margery O’Hare emerge as memorable. Descriptions of the library’s routes in all seasons bristle with life. An enjoyable read, although the ending rounded matters up too cleanly for my twisted likings.
Two brilliant musicians from different fields, Mark T. Smith from that unforgettable propulsive group, Explosions In The Sky, and Matthew Robert Cooper of crackly, fuzzy ambient Eluvium, combine to make up Inventions. “Continuous Portrait,” their third album, is a modest yet rather thrilling collection of oddball tunes. “Calico” settles into a rattling, shuffling rhythm overlaid by choral voice, banjo and thumped keys. The pastoral title track combines in a smooth organic whole disparate ambient elements such as burbles, rhymic chimes, and whispers. “Hints and Omens,” the longest of the nine tracks, begins with laughter and interjected keyboard figures and sounds, and then morphs into a pleasing EITS-style grandiose panorama. Some of the tracks are properly background ambient, but overall “Continuous Portrait” is more than the sum of its disparate parts, a moody, optimistic ode to modern music.
Is it really only the third season of “Killing Eve“? We’ve seen so much glossy, extravagant carnage and imaginative plotting in this classic story of female spy chasing female psychopath, both of them precariously attracted to each other, across a glittering global stage! Season 2 was a savage delight but seemed to totter occasionally, the writers unclear on how to knit together the duo’s path through a world of conspiracy and double-crossing. Would Season 3 lose the plot brilliance that distinguished the first two season? Well, there is no need to worry: Season 3 is just as much an unremitting rollercoaster as the first two. Inevitably the “grand scheme” plot is inching towards parody but the game between Eve Palastri (Sandra Oh keeps triumphing in this role, never missing a beat) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer wonderfully deepening the characterization) is sure-footed. Yet it’s the supporting characters that hold the tale intact. A new handler of assassins, Dasha, played with brio by Harriet Walter, freshens up the regulars, including the superbly prim but deceiving spymeister Carolyn (Fiona Shaw always commands attention) and my favorite, the burly humorist Konstantin (Kim Bodnia never wastes a scene). The locales are extravagantly filmed and colored, the dialogue snaps like a mousetrap, and direction of the Villanelle action scenes remains a highlight. What a delight.
“Khaki Town” plunges the reader into a sprinkle of Australian history we have barely heard of, the tale of Queensland’s Townsville in early 1942, when American soldiers, mostly African-Americans, flooded the town and brewed up a cocktail of simmering violence. Into this cauldron strides an unknown American senator, Lyndon Baines Johnson, charged with restoring order discreetly. It’s a fascinating tale and Judy Nunn unfurls the plot with a sure hand, but characterisation lets the story down. All the main players seem like puppets clumsily deployed. Nunn’s bold depiction of LBJ also irked me; I know the future president well from biographies and histories, and he was altogether a more complex and compelling man than revealed in “Khaki Town.” An enjoyable but by no means riveting read.
Pinegrove, a band of jangly, rough-edged indie songs of wordy introspection, centered on writer/vocalist Evan Stephens Hall and nifty drummer Zack Levine, hits number four with “Marigold.” A lovely outing with swirling mixtures of grit and subtlety, the album provides a cohesive whole of familiar-sounding-yet-fresh songs dealing with private lives. It takes a few listens for the persuasive melodies of the songs to penetrate and then they stick like radio hits. There’s nothing tremendously adventurous here, just a directness that penetrates. Highlights include “Dotted Line,” the album’s opening, a juddering, intricate ode to optimism; the delicate country pickings at the end of rambunctious “Moment”; and the long, filigreed instrumental closer, the title track.
Surely six seasons of a police procedural must degenerate into stodge? Not so in the case of “Bosch.” Season 4 and Season 5 both scored 9/10 from me, and I noticed that when the marvellous sax-led theme tune came on near the start of the first episode of Season 6, tears sprang to my eyes. Even more than the terrific, longstanding Bosch book series, by Michael Connelly, the screen version has hit the sweet spot with what must be twenty pitch-perfect characters revolving around the luminous performance of Titus Welliver as Harry Bosch, homicide detective in the City of Angels. Season 6 begins with what appears to be a simpler crime than usual: a doctor steals radioactive cesium when his wife is threatened, and Bosch combines with the FBI to peer into the heart of right-wing terrorists. But the plot twists and twists again in an organic, satisfying manner. And around the action swirl the lives of all the core characters. Pacing is perfect, the cinematography is precise yet lush, and the script is wonderfully tight. Every episode entertains and nearly every episode moves. In a world seemingly rent asunder by a virus and unleashed hatred, “Bosch” Season 6’s classic, people-driven story of right versus wrong stands as a blessing.