The movie that turned Rian Johnson into one of the star turn writer/directors, Knives Out, was an exuberant, star-filled Agatha Christie homage that simply worked. Even the oddity of Daniel Craig hamming it up as a southern American gentleman Poirot-clone somehow succeeded. The sequel, “Glass Onion,” transports the twisty puzzle to a Greek island, to a tale of a tech billionaire (Ed Norton) entertaining his murderous supplicants in a locked-room setting. In essence, the plot setup is the same as in Knives Out and the locale is even more atmospheric, so this viewer came to the viewing primed for delicious plot twists and belly laughs from a cast of established stars. Unfortunately, the acting performances are routine, with clear blame placed on Ed Norton, who transmits no charisma at all. What attempts at humor are made quickly fizzle out. And the unrolling of the plot offers the viewer complexity without depth. As light entertainment, Glass Onion whiles away a couple of hours, but the earlier magic is gone.
A breathless sci-fi thriller with smarts and a little depth, “Upgrade” takes place in a mildly dystopic world a bit in the future. A gene criminal policeman, son of a famous scientist who accidentally wreaked havoc and then suicided, takes place in a routine snare mission and then, after an explosion, begins to witness his body and mind altering, the “upgrade” of the title. Family dynamics come into play as our hero battles to deal with his genetic evolution. The author controls the plot well, pens stylishly, and keeps the reader guessing. Upgrade is classy post-Christmas entertainment for those who like intriguing near-future sci-fi.
As an ex-actuary who employed models, albeit highly specialized ones, in my working life, the much more ambitious climate change models that underpin the IPCC’s stellar, critical work fascinate me. Yet as someone who understands the pitfalls of models, just how useful those models are in practice has been an open question for me. Now Erica Thompson, an experienced modeler/data scientist, has tackled that very issue (among many others) with “Escape from Model Land: How Mathematical Models Can Lead Us Astray and What We Can Do About It.” There is no dumbing down here, with the author digging deeply into general and specific models from the outset, so, dear reader, have your wits about you. But any savvy interlocutor should be able to sink into a superb, sprightly narrative that traverses fields from historical beginnings to recent Covid-19 models, while spending considerable time on humungous climate models. Anyone confronting the dodgy “climate change won’t have any material impact on humanity’s economies” models knows how distortions can arise. The many pitfalls of models, from hubris arising from having an elegant model, through data deficiencies, to poor explication at the other end, are covered elegantly and thoroughly. The ongoing value of models, even in the face of downsides, is also stressed, and the author makes suggestions on how to evaluate and use models. In this age of mega issues facing us, Escape from Model Land is marvelous, essential reading.
Very much for nuclear proliferation wonks—sporting historical data, employing a methodology, and testing a hypothesis—”Leveraging Latency: How the Weak Compel the Strong with Nuclear Technology” may also appeal to post-WWII-history buffs, simply because it is so appealingly executed. The author, a historian at an American naval school, exhibits full control of his narrative and writes in a perky, clear style that makes for sweet reading. His argument, that potential nuclear proliferators can sometimes strike advantageous bargains with large national powers but only at a certain “Goldilocks” sweet point, is most persuasive. At a time when an academic or semi-academic treatise on nuclear proliferation seems to be born every six months, Leveraging Latency shines out.
Peter Morgan has tied up hours of my life, entertaining me with his exquisite talent at storytelling, while telling a story that revolts me, that of the British royal family. “The Crown” has been stellar viewing, with perfect casting and fine acting, with dramatic stories ripping the best out of the royal saga, with soaring cinematography. The earliest seasons were the most dramatic, enriched by the emergence of Great Britain out of WWII into the Cold War, but recent seasons have entertained (my reviews of Season 3 and Season 4). And Season 5, the most controversial one so far because it messes with the unknown truths behind the recent decades of regal turmoil? I see this season as a mixed bag, with a couple of mildly intriguing standalone episodes, a brilliant story about the Russian Revolution and Yeltsin, and a multi-episode, slow burn dramatizing Diana’s schism with the Queen and family. Elizabeth Debicki does a splendid job as Diana but the abiding issue is that Diana herself was largely vacuous, so two episodes dragged. That said, Episode 9, the culmination of that narrative strand, is vintage Peter Morgan, stately and tense. Overall, Season 5 works well enough but rarely lifts above highly competent and watchable.
“Kalev” is, for this son of Estonian wartime refugees, a fascinating drama set in Tallinn and Russia just as the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, mere months before Estonia regained independence after half a century under the yoke of Stalin and his successors. Kalev is the official name of the country’s basketball team and here they wrestle with their political responsibilities as they partake in the last of the Soviet-wide games. Eschewing a single hero, the camera lens documents the games, the practice dramas, and moments in the lives of some players, but mostly the team itself is the protagonist. The backdrop of dreary Soviet-ness amidst news footage of turmoil captures the era well, the action cinematography is sprightly and dramatic, but a certain flatness pervades the story as a whole. Normal story arcs are left stranded or abandoned and the key figure of the coach, a gum-chewing, harsh-talking but ethical mastermind, never becomes fully explored. Overall, Kalev is a wonderfully entertaining and revealing period piece but misses chances to be much more.
Rom-coms and I have never coexisted comfortably. To truly enjoy a rom-com, you need belief in romantic ideals and a sense of humor, neither of which I possess. That said, a quality rom-com can exhibit a snappy script, intelligence imbuing the material, and stellar acting. Regrettably, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” bombs out on all three. I barely need to relate the storyline, that of a modern British doctor voluntarily submitting to an arranged entwining back in his family’s home of Pakistan, while his childhood friend, plagued by poor boyfriend choices, puts her documentary filmmaking career on the line by following him around during the process. Love will, of course, ensue. Although the underlying subject matter, the role of arranged marriages in the modern world, offers plenty of scope, the scripted narrative is not only banal, it insults the intelligence of those on either side of the “are arranged marriages okay” debate. If there were any cool, alert dialogue-driven scenes, I missed them. Neither of the two leads, Shazad Latif and Lily James, suits the role and neither convinces. And the sight of Emma Thompson hamming up a so-called comedic routine as our heroine’s mother is cringeworthy. Richard Curtis is one classy filmmaker but What’s Love Got to Do with It? is a glaring misstep.
The fourth atmospheric police procedural (if that’s what you call tales from one policeman’s daily routines) featuring country cop Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen, ”Day’s End” is as comfortable a crime read as they come. Yet the domesticity of the deeply described rural setting in South Australia belies sudden lurches into terror and horror. Hirsch is as beguiling a character as Garry Disher has created in his celebrated history, an honest, steady policeman striving to stay on top of his job and help out others, and in Day’s End he finds himself tested by a missing backpacker sought by the mother, a burnt body in a suitcase, drugs, bullies, despair… A slow burn build-up towards a frantic finale is ample reward for any reader. Another Garry Disher triumph.
I recommend you use “The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires that Run the World” as half of a one-two combo of vital, depressing reading. I read Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse (my review) first, and I recommend that sequence, for British scientist Dave Goulson balances his gloominess with odes of joy to his six-legged loves. Goulson is one of the myriad scientists interviewed by journalist Oliver Milman for his sparkling, comprehensive panorama of the insect crisis/apocalypse/whatever, but Milman is unafraid to express his own views and does so with wonderful elegance. Scientist and journalist agree: insects are in deep trouble (over half of all insect species declining at 1-2% annually) and virtually no one cares. The author commences with an imagining of a world where insect pollinators are gone and mass starvation wracks humanity, and then carefully dissects the underlying causes, notably habitat loss (especially of corridors allowing insects to move), insecticides, and climate change. Two detailed chapters, covering bees and Monarch butterflies, are fascinating. The author offers some hope in the closing chapter, hope for humans opening up room for insects to survive, but the prospects of any success at all seem slim. The Insect Crisis will end up much-thumbed in the hands of many a young person, and therein lies some possibility of real action.
“Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval” is a kaleidoscopic mixture of hard-headed prognostication and dreamy futurism. To Gaia Vince, a journalist with huge experience on climate matters and an amazing trove of internalised data (referencing is sparse and the book is all the better for that), migration has been an engine of human growth and will be so again in the Anthropocene. We need to welcome migration, plan for it, and guide it through policy. According to her, a better world awaits if we harness migration rather than wait for climate-change-driven exoduses to render the world chaotic.
The ambitiousness of Vince’s thinking is often apparent, for example: “Migration will remake the world in the coming century whether by accident or design. Far better the latter. Developing a radical plan for humanity to survive a 3–4°C-hotter world includes building vast new cities in the far north while abandoning huge areas of the tropics, and relying on new forms of agriculture. It involves adapting to a changed planet and our rapidly changing demography.” Am I convinced? Hardly. But the beauty of this book is that it challenges existing narratives and spurs new ones. For example, a fascinating chapter “Migrant Homes” covers the policy ingredients to make new migrant cities or cities taking in migrants blossom (to the extent they can).
This optimism produces assertions the reader can question, for example: “Most people will transition to a plant-based diet over the next decade with little effort or conscious decision-making on their part, given the right nudges.” (I’m vegan and can see little evidence of my cohort moving towards plant-based foods.) A predilection for high-tech futuristic solutions to everything from decarbonization and geoengineering to habitat restoration can be expected from a journalist accustomed to hunting for news, and of course it can be scoffed at, but I enjoyed musing over her buoyant futuristic views.
Overall, Nomad Century is unlike any climate change book I’ve read recently (and I’ve read tons). Written with verve and style, it challenges, provokes, and informs, and I think any reader will end up, as I was, the better for the read.