“Invisible Cities” is yet another soundtrack by Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran (A Winged Victory for the Sullen), this time for a dance performance. The thirteen tracks seep drama and slow flair, all distinct yet of a whole. Soundtracks are, of course, background rather than inspiration, but Invisible Cities rewards the lockdown ear. Highlights include the oozing drone and sepulchral keys of “So that the City Can Begin to Exist,” reminiscent of long-forgotten Klaus Schulze; in “The Celestial City,” the dread of a distant choir and soft horns atop pulses and distorted jangle; the un-ambient buzzsaw distortion field at the end of “There Is One of Which You Never Speak”; and “Total Perspective Vortex” in all its boiling magnificence.
“A tonic,” I called Season 3 of “Call My Agent” when I watched and reviewed it during last year’s lockdown. Season 4 opens with the four core talent agents split apart and now buttressed with a handful of younger aspirants. Skullduggery abounds and the firm ASK, the heart of the series, struggles to retain its glory days. Camille Cottin stuns as the firm’s new head Andrea, Thibault de Montalembert is rock steady as Machiavellian Mathias, Gregory Montel is pitch perfect as earnest Gabriel, and among the supporting cast, Nicolas Maury steals the show as Herve. The central conceit of Call My Agent, real stars playing themselves, has never been amped up as much—Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sigourney Weaver, and Jean Reno triumph in resonant roles. Laughs abound, Parisian eye candy delights, and sly plot twists enthrall, but the strength of the show remains the exploration of the characters’ ambitions and hearts. Much as I am averse to over-praise, Season 4 tops its three predecessors and is roundly recommended. Ah, sweet times indeed were the four seasons of this feast of story, portrayal, and life’s lessons. I wish for a fifth season of Call My Agent but to go out on such a high is indeed a fitting closure.
Years from now, this linearly constructed documentary, “Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World,” will be watched as a crystalline gaze into the force that is Greta. Constructed as a simple tale – Thunberg takes a year off school to straddle the globe for activist and self-educational purposes – the documentary maintains a simple palette of scenes. Accompanied by a tone-neutral narration by Paul McGann, we see Greta in motion; Greta in major events (Davos, etc.); Greta as voice-over; Greta quizzing a scientist or engineer; Greta’s father Svante; and Greta as talking head. Even more than was the case with I Am Greta, a similarly focused documentary in 2020 (which I labeled “an incandescent film for our age“), Greta Thunberg inspires by showing, with refreshing candor and lack of hype, that Thunberg really is an ordinary person called to action by the climate emergency reality that should impel all of us to drive change. She enunciates so clearly the thoughts we know we should be thinking. Her consistent call to “follow the science” is brilliantly pithy and on song. In this documentary, the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic actually interrupts Thunberg’s plans, but in a way, witnessing her isolating and refreshing adds to to the movie’s grace. Wonderful.
In a quintessential small Australian country town, the young journalist hero of “Catch Us the Foxes” stumbles upon the ritualistically mutilated body of her best friend, and embarks on a crusade to track down the killers. Debut author Nicola West sends the plot spiraling into deep dark corners of this hidden rural world, deep into the lives of her friends and family, and the brisk plotting is one of the highlights of this entertaining novel. But it is difficult to empathize with a crime solver who seems to oscillate between robust competence and trembling anxiety, and one of the plot machinations had me guffawing in disbelief. Catch Us the Foxes is pleasant, if flawed, reading.
Somehow radiating an old-fashioned thriller vibe, “The Necklace” follows struggling waitress Susan, who embarks on a convoluted pilgrimage across America to North Dakota, where the monster who slayed her infant daughter two decades earlier is up for death row execution. The problem is, as she struggles against all odds to complete her journey in times, evidence pops up that questions the entire history of the slaying. Matt Witten does a splendid job of immersing the reader in Susan’s being, and his sense of pacing is exquisite. The overall plot, as a thriller/mystery plot, is by no means intricate, but the author’s skill is such that I read the book in one evening sitting, locked to my seat. Most entertaining and satisfying.
The spy thriller genre markets itself well, with the catch being that some of my recent reading in this field has marked itself as competent but over-complex, a tad weak on characterization and purpose. Prolific thriller author Henry Porter, with the third of his Paul Samson series, “The Old Enemy,” honors the genre’s promise of espionage skullduggery but renders his two core characters as real humans and carefully stage manages a complicated tapestry of twists rooted in WWII-evil. In other words, The Old Enemy satisfies as it intrigues and thrills. Paul Samson, an ex-MI6 agent now freelance, and his old flame Anastasia are gathered up into a storm when an old spy is assassinated and Anastasia’s husband is poisoned while appearing before the US Congress. Whizzing around the espionage globe, the author choreographs a seemingly realistic conspiracy plot replete with Jason Bourne thrills. The dialogue is dab, the settings deftly drawn, and the climax more than satisfies. The Old Enemy: one of the classy spy releases of 2021.
Charlie Newton marries the writing chops of Elmore Leonard to an over-the-top, gritty thriller sensibility that feels old-fashioned to me, perhaps channeling Alistair MacLean. Last year’s Privateers was a hoot to read without transcending its extravagant plot, but now this underrated author has written the standout book of his career. “Canaryville” is at once an ode to an iconic Irish-American suburb of Chicago and a kinetic thriller plucked straight from the headlines. When a bomb massacre occurs in Canaryville, accompanied by lurid killings nearby, the great industrial city is poised on the edge of a new white-black war, and the only one who can track down the killer is police officer Denny Banahan, child of Canaryville and now embroiled in controversy, ready to retire and in love. The author is a master of controlled pell-mell plotting, the huge cast of riveting characters is wonderfully portrayed, and the bleak, black, humorous dialogue enriches every page. Throw in a villain creepy enough to out-creep Hannibal Lecter, and Canaryville is an immersive triumph that must be read in one sitting.
The pleasures of the second season (eight episodes) of “City on a Hill” are myriad. A scabby, garrulous, violent tale of Boston law and order in the 1990s, it juxtaposes a corrupt FBI agent (played in wonderful form by Kevin Bacon) and an aspirational black prosecutor (equally as well cast and acted, cementing Aldis Hodge’s reputation) amidst black gangs, project lives, and drug deals. Bustling subplots energize every scene. The settings are so, so gritty and the 90s music interjections so apposite. The ensemble cast is first-rate, standouts being Pernell Walker as a black community paragon and Jill Hennessy as a questing Catholic wife and mother. Dirty-realistic tales like this can readily founder, either ending up as noir porn or as sentimentalized journeys, but not City on a Hill: the serpentine storyline delights time and time again. Like all superior noir, few characters are pristine and some of them are shockingly malevolent, yet somehow every character is given the dignity of an arc that renders him or her human. The first two seasons have each felt complete and satisfying, leaving plenty of room for at least Season 3.
In the by-now hallowed tradition of Emma Donoghue’s decade-old Room, “The Last Thing to Burn” is a harrowing, immersive tale of a woman trapped in an imprisoned life on an English farm, trapped by the vastness of the countryside and her psychopathic captor’s surveillance system. Enslaved to provide a weird wifely life to the brutal man, Jane (his name for her) has no hope, no prospects … until chinks of possibility open and a new reason for hope emerges. The first standalone novel for Will Dean, a British-born resident of Sweden, shows this author in superb command of a claustrophobic thriller that will likely be read in one sitting. The central character of Jane springs to life from the opening pages and the bucolic-yet-horrifying setting is vividly presented. Surely The Last Thing to Burn will be snapped up for a movie version.
As wave after wave of books on artificial intelligence proliferate, journalist Cade Metz offers a new lens, the lens of the geeky brains underpinning the state and corporate pushes. “Genius Makers: The Mavericks Who Brought A.I. to Google, Facebook, and the World” follows five decades of the careers of the individual nerds with the breakthrough ideas. Metz has amazing access to a stunning group of brilliant, often reclusive academics, some of whom have made fortunes from persisting with unpopular ideas. Metz’s story follows the academic history, from the early unpopularity of the neural network idea (in which computers “learn” to recognize patterns based on huge volumes of data) to its triumph in the new century; the technological history, such as AI’s mastery of the most complex game in the world, Go; and the practical, corporate history, including the triumph of the new theory in fields such as translation. Overlaying all of this are the twinned histories of geeks making fortunes and the Googles, Microsofts, Facebooks, and Amazons of the world (let alone the Chinese) expending millions. Genius Makers is a valuable adjunct to other popularizing histories, and it is engrossingly entertaining, although by the climax of the book in our today of promise and uncertainty, one is left a little benumbed by similar tales of mavericks enmeshed in corporate battles. Recommended.