Command Z by Steven Soderbergh [7/10]

Command Z review

Steven Soderbergh directs a recent “movie” with a startling structure and provenance, an outing that delights and intrigues. A maybe-utopian, maybe-dystopian science fiction fable set in July 2023, Command Z is watchable from its own website for a US$8 fee, and parses as eight short episodes accumumulating to the normal length of a film. Michael Cera is scarily certain yet implacable (but also playful) as the AI version of a recently dead billionaire who tasks a motley crew of ordinary employees—a naive enthusiast, a jaded materialist, and a cynical radical—with saving the world by jumping into the minds of people who can influence “evil geniuses” (the title of the 2020 nonfiction book by Kurt Andersen, one the film’s three co-writers) fucking up the world, thereby altering the path of history. The film’s set is primitive and stage-like, yet uncomfortably believable. JJ Maley, Roy Wood, Jr., and Chloe Radcliffe are superb as jiving, jousting psychic adventurers. Under Soderbergh’s direction and a fine script, the movie uncannily segues between tones of simplistic futurism, dead-serious climate crisis debate, and nifty plot twisting. Command Z is an intoxicating brew quite unlike any other I have seen this year, and heartily recommended.

Ted Lasso Season 3 [9/10]

Ted Lasso Season 3 review

The first season of Ted Lasso was a sublime shock to the system (see my review), a sweet but robust tale that combined playful humor with perspicacity. The second season dialled down the smarts but retained the wisdom (see my review). The twelve-episode finale, Season 3, amps up the drama of Lasso, an American coach with a hokey, “wise” style overseeing a British soccer team (that juxtaposition leading to much humor). His team, a wonderfully diverse and well portrayed team, AFC Richmond, had been struggling at the end of Season 2 but is now on the rise. Will it ascend to the top a la Mighty Ducks? At the same time, the creators/writers carefully lay out the ground to conclude the show, which leads to many saccharine moments that could, in lesser hands, be a sopping disappointment. Instead, we are treated to a wonderful mix of humor, pathos, and, most tellingly, life lessons. Season 3 is a triumph and its closing scenes crown one of the most engaging examples of modern streamer-led television. The entire sequence of Ted Lasso is roundly commended.

Turn Every Page by Lizzie Gottlieb [9/10]

Turn Every Page review

If you knew nothing of Robert Caro, the superlative biographer, or Robert Gottlieb, one of the most influential and productive editors of the modern age, “Turn Every Page,” a documentary of their fifty-year author-editor relationship by the editor’s daughter, might seem arcane, only for literary insiders. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Anyone involved with or interested in creativity, in any field, should watch this on repeat. Brilliantly structured and paced, the documentary weaves their histories, illustrated with archival photographs and videos and enlivened by talking heads of high quality, with talking to both men and watching them work together (on Caro’s fifth volume of his LBJ biography, surely the most anticipated book in decades). Caro’s diligence and idealism shine through, as does Gottlieb’s brilliance and prodigious life. Turning Every Page should garner 2023 awards and you need to watch it.

A Tale of Two Cranes by Nathanial Gronewold [6/10]

Nathanial Gronewold A Tale of Two Cranes review

Written by an ardent journalist pursuing a topic out of love, A Tale of Two Cranes: Lessons Learned from 50 Years of the Endangered Species Act is just the type of book we need, a readable, story-telling exposition unfolding academic research. For many, the topic of the relative success rates of conservation efforts in different countries applied to two similar, highly threatened bird species might hold little intrinsic interest, but there are general threads here, to do with how best we can bend the current looming mass extinction of species towards something sustainable. The storyline is actually very engaging: in southern America, the resplendent Whooping Crane species was on its last legs after World War II, as was the similarly beautiful Red-crowned Crane (until now I had not realized how matching they are in appearance!) in northern Japan. Conservation efforts in the United States fell under the landmark 1973 Endangered Species Act (which the author analyzes with fine detail), while in Japan, individuals led the charge. Both species are now out of the worst danger zone, while still under the hammer, but, the author wonders, which approach worked best? Can we learn from this? Nathanial Gronewold is a super enthusiastic chronicler, so keen to ensure we understand complex material that he is often discursive and repetitive, and he writes in a fluid, conversational manner. Overall, A Tale of Two Cranes is a welcome addition to the recent flood of climate change/conservation reading for the ordinary citizen, and if the topic twitches your antennae, I can recommend it.

Heat by Jeff Goodell [10/10]

Jeff Goodell Heat review

Surely no writer/journalist operating today, Bill McKibben possibly excepted, more powerfully depicts our future in the Anthropocene Age, the time of climate change, than American virtuoso Jeff Goodell. His The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, which graphically foretold what is now playing out in every country, crushed and inspired me equally in 2017 and I, like many, wondered if he could bear to bring more eloquent doom and (as he does) hope to us. The answer is Heat: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet (that’s the finalized American title but the ebook I bought is more biblically called, in line with the previous book, The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet). And it is the portentous missive we dreaded but know is correct. Goodell directly tackles the primary impact of a heating world, the actual increased temperatures, both the steady averages and the more frequent, killer heatwaves. Again, he could not have been more prescient: witness the globe right now. Backed by stellar investigatory research and interviews, penned with precise outrage, the book ranges across all the effects of hotness: a move beyond the “goldilocks zone” humans can live in; the bludgeoning impacts on animals, birds, and insects who cannot move to cooler climes; increases in vector-borne diseases; ruptures in the global food systems; melting of ice caps and icebound lands and glaciers; and the iniquity of a world where the poor will suffer most (but, as Goodell points out, no one will escape the new fiery atmosphere). I sobbed upon concluding Heat but now, dear reader, I am enraged.

Barbie by Greta Gerwig & Noah Baumbach [7/10]

Barbie review

Dragged along by a curious wife, I had to admit the two names at the helm of Barbie offered the hope of wit and spectacle, and I was not proven wrong. Barbie is wickedly swift and funny, and the visual presentation of the artificial world of the Barbie doll is a creation in itself. The cast is excellent, spearheaded by two wonderful performances by Margot Robbie (Barbie) and Ryan Gosling (Ken). Spectacular comically ripe scenes abound and the movie never flags. As an entertaining concoction, Barbie is wonderful, and certainly Barbie-skeptics like me need not fret about boredom or disgust. Where the film is less successful, in my opinion, is in the overall script storyline, depicting Barbie forced to move into the real world and then fomenting a rebellion against Ken in the Barbie-world. It’s not that the script is not cunningly clever (it is) but a desire to tackle general issues such as the Barbie doll versus feminism stumbles, especially toward the end. Depending on one’s perspective, Barbie might be seen as a triumphal surge of feminism or as a muddled cop-out, and depending on that decision one might accord the film a rating of 10 or 7. I know many on both sides of that divide.

On the Wandering Paths by Denis Imbert [7/10]

On the Wandering Paths review

Acclaimed travel writer/adventurer Sylvain Tesson had a near-crippling fall in 2014, and wrote a novel about his stubborn post-accident walk across France, as a liberating, soul-discovering journey. Based on his 2016 novel, filmmaker Denis Imbert has converted the story to the screen with On the Wandering Paths. I had adored The Velvet Queen, a doco about Tesson’s quest to see a snow leopard, so I was most intrigued by this new film. It turns out to be a modestly inspiring paean to the joys of lengthy walking (something I’ve done myself), worth seeing if the basic tale and its themes appeal. Jean Dujardin is wonderful in the leading role, understated and intense, and the sweeping camerawork will attract many. All that said, the narrative of On the Wandering Paths is mild and the pace slow, so be warned.

Nothing Compares by Kathryn Ferguson [8/10]

Nothing Compares review

Nothing Compares” skilfully unfolds the now-forgotten rapid rise and cataclysmic fall of Sinéad O’Connor, an elfin songstress of astonishing ethereal vocals and direct lyrics. When I say “cataclsymic fall,” I risk being imprecise. In 1992, at the height of her stadium fame, she directly addressed no-go areas in two concerts, firstly barring the American national anthem and then ripping up a photo of the Pope on live TV. I recall those moments vividly but even I missed just how much vitriol and hatred spewed forth. As a singer-songwriter and performer, she kept up a long career, but her mainstream fame was nixed in what felt like one fateful moment. The director/co-writer immerses the viewer in the turbulent late 80s and early 90s in Ireland/UK/USA, and masterfully chronicles her appearance out of nowhere as a seemingly waifish wunderkind who connected with youth. Contemporary footage, voiceovers from associates and family, and background imagery assemble a thrilling tale, with an added bonus of throaty current commentary by the artist herself. The twin show climaxes are stunning. A brilliant portrait of courage against injustice, Nothing Compares is highly recommended.

Eight Bears by Gloria Dickie [8/10]

Gloria Dickie Eight Bears review

I’m fascinated by nature writers surveying an entire family of animals or birds, so I savored Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future by American journalist. She travels the world investigating the eight bear species and a fascinating collection they are. The author spends time with conservationists, such as the man known as Papa Panda who has led the Panda breeding efforts in China, and activists, such as the head of a rescue center for bears freed from bile farms (yes, it is as repulsive as it sounds). I had never heard of the Spectacled, Sloth, Moon, and Sun Bears, and I suspect I’m not the only one. The chapter on the iconic Polar Bear is written beautifully. Most of the eight species are under threat of eventual extinction, and those that are now thriving, such as the American Black Bear, are increasingly clashing with encroaching humans. The author is a natural stylist and Eight Bears is a welcome addition to this year’s catalogue of books documenting our animals.

Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One [8/10]

Mission Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One review

Bond, Bourne, Mission Impossible … ludicrous plots, over-the-top stunts, wafer-thin characterization, and headache-inducing music … why on earth do we watch them? Because, when they’re on song, they create a splendor of elemental striving, action, plot twist, and spectacle. The previous MI jammed a migraine into my head but Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One, this time directed by Christopher McQuarrie, ticked all the required boxes admirably. Tom Cruise looked and spoke like an older person but damn, he still came across as the stalwart, unstoppable hero. The action scenes, especially one with Cruise on a motorbike over mountains, were heart-pounding. The musical score, even though it was the same theme song reiterated in multiple variations, still evoked drama. The storyline, involving an evil AI and a pair of keys and our hero’s longtime foe, was stoopid but believable in the moment. Ethan Hawke’s backup team provided much-needed comic flourishes. Best of all, this Mission Impossible moved, pell-mell and irresistibly, providing three hours of dumb pleasure. Viewer, I savored.