Scott Z. Burns is not well known but his reputation is growing, and “The Report” adds solidly, though not spectacularly, to his portfolio. The movie recounts, with apparent great felicity, the decade-long attempt by a Washington analyst to bring to light the blight on humanity of the CIA’s post-9/11 use of extreme interrogation, including waterboarding, at remote locations. No one who keeps track of things will be surprised, but it’s the work of literature and, these days, film, to etch such damned historical events on our consciousness. By and large, “The Report” carries out its reporting function well. Adam Driver always impresses and his stoic, impassive portrayal is convincing. The tone of the film is darkness and obfuscation and cinematographer Elgil Bryld captures the dingy tenor well. As with most “true stories,” narrative urgency is lacking and the final impact on the viewer is disgust at what happened but little emotional resonance. Interesting but punches light.
Robot/AI science fiction is a favorite sub-genre of mine and I spent an enjoyable evening whizzing through “Intelligent Consent,” an engaging tale about a robot that springs into consciousness with a mind copied from that of a researcher, and their interactions as Rob the robot struggles to stay one step ahead of an unscrupulous corporation. The premised scanning and copying of a mind is lightly but convincingly related and the seesawing plot swept me along. Characterisation is not a strong suit of plot-driven novels like this (think “The Martian,” with which “Intelligent Consent” shares a little), so that empathy with either human or machine is not strong until towards the end, when a stunning climactic twist portends not only a sequel but the prospect of deepening relationships. Deeper themes relating to the nature of artificial intelligence also begin to emerge towards the end. The milieu of research laboratories is interestingly portrayed. If a sequel does drop, I’ll snap it up.
Naomi Klein writes like an avenging angel, with incandescent courage yet in clear prose, so her “On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal” is a welcome combo polemic and analysis on that most important topic, how the United States should (no, must) brings its emission fast towards zero. A collection of essays and talks and think pieces from as long ago as 2010, with the Green New Deal material expanded, the book could have been a disjointed mess. Instead, it’s a revisited refrain of her core ideas about the need for radical change. As with most fiery outpourings, there’s quite some stuff for me to disagree with (I’m a believer in capitalism with a human face, for example), but Klein’s excoriation of the evildoers of the world (yes, you fossil fuel apparatchiks, I’m looking at you) was a balm to this troubled soul. With this year’s American election looming, “On Fire” is recommended as briefing and call to action both.
The first season of “Abstract: The Art of Design” reinvented the “here’s how a creative person creates” doco, with nifty visuals, rapid cuts, the interposing of technical and personal, and a sophisticated viewpoint. Not all the eight episodes engaged me but that was simply because I found a few of the domains of the particular artists/designers/creators to hold less interest. Season 2 ups the ante and is a mind-engaging delight from start to end. If anything, the high-end quality and dramatization, by a consistent, intelligent team of directors, excels beyond Season 1’s on-screen impact. We pursue the output and inner creative processes of eight fascinating creators: an architect, a bio-architect (yes, there is something called that), a costume designer (how did they manage to intrigue me with that?), a toy designer, a Web interface designer, and a typeface designer (could there be anything more nerdy?). If you have a creative bone in your body, “Abstract” is essential, thoroughly modern viewing.
The plot basics of the eight-part “Unbelievable” series are routine: young woman is raped in Washington state and police dismiss the event, then three years later in Colorado, two determined female detectives set after the rapist following a similar rape. This could have ended up heavy-handed, with wincing scenes, or it could have been plodding police procedural fodder, but with a fine team of writers, excellent direction, and stellar acting, “Unbelievable” was one of last year’s best screen outings. Kaitlyn Dever is stunningly vulnerable yet inwardly sturdy as the first rape victim, Merritt Wever is so, so authentic as the relentless, humane younger detective, and Toni Collette inhabits the older, swaggering, crusader of a detective. Of particular note is that two of the three central characters, the avengers for goodness sakes, don’t even hit the stage until Episode 2. Such is the confidence of this series! “Unbelievable” surefootedly, with a growing sense of menace and desperation, seesaws between the nitty-gritty, two-steps-forward-one-step-back police work and the victim’s travails. The climax resists sensationalism and offers hope. Do yourself a favor and take your time (no binging) with this important series.
Who doesn’t adore reading aloud to children or (in my case at this time of my life) grandchildren? But I don’t usually consider them “worthy” of a formal review. “What Color Is Night?” is a sparkling exception. I was drawn to purchasing this slim paean to the intricacies of night-time scenes by Grant Snider’s exemplary cartoons, and I bought it as an ebook designed to be read as an ebook to one of my grandsons. Each page is a rich, clear evocation of our world beyond the day, and the book’s title is indeed the topic of every such scene. Something deep imbues the unexpected colors of night time, something that has compelled me to read aloud “What Color Is Night?” again and again, and to bring it to mind every time the sun does down on my adult world. This is a child’s book but oh no, it is not. Wonderful.
Robert Harris is a remarkable novelistic traveller through time and space, setting his extensive roster of dramas/thrillers anywhere his curiosity takes him. Who else could render Pompeii’s plot-whumping reality as a breathless story? One of Harris’s strengths is the opening scene, always unraveled with economy, always unmistakably settling the place and milieu, and “The Second Sleep” is no exception. We ride beside a callow priest, in the year of 1468, on his journey to put to rest a deceased clergyman, arriving at a gloomy, downtrodden village in grungy Exmoor. No plot spoilers but from there on, Harris’s unwinding of a wonderful plot runs at a breakneck pace, and the book unfurls as a terrific armchair read. I can recommend “The Second Sleep,” but for myself, consider the climax a step down from what Harris usually conceives.
Taika Waititi is a creative whirlwind, bringing his own artistic obsessions to an eclectic portfolio of mainstream and indie films. “Jojo Rabbit” is his transgressive outsider film, flaunting as it does with making fun of and fun with Nazism. Ten-year-old JoJo strives to be inducted into the Hitler Youth right at the end of war, and a series of grotesque, hammed-up incidents results in him discovering that his beautiful, distant mother (Scarlett Johansson miscast) harbours a Jewish girl. All and good, you might say upon hearing this basic plot, but Waititi sketches a hellish world in which an imaginary Adolf Hitler accompanies JoJo, Adolf being played with Monty Python excess by Waititi himself, and in which the Nazis are grotesque buffoons. From the start, I was reminded of the similarly transgressive “Death of Stalin,” but whereas that quickly established its madcap tone, the first half of “JoJo Rabbit” is so haphazard, twitching between absurdity and shock and nonsense, that I almost walked out. I’m glad I stayed for the second half settled into a bittersweet, overwhelmingly tragic “end of war” workout that even manages a final flicker of hope, and I enjoyed that half. And thank goodness for Sam Rockwell, whose portrayal of a drunken, disgraced Nazi officer is off the wall and a triumph. All in all, “JoJo Rabbit” miscued badly for me but I urge you to see it for yourself.
A killer opening scene on a white trash stretch of the North Carolina coast sets “Where the Crawdads Sing” on a chugging, rewarding trajectory through the life of Kya Clark, the local “Marsh Girl.” Delia Owens, a wildlife scientist with well-regarded nonfiction books to her credit, lifts this book up from the scrum of coming-of-age tales through her descriptions of the wild coastline and its birds and wildlife. Her descriptive prose sings in a decidedly traditional way. The story itself often creaks on the edge of predictability – think “Marsh Girl falls for two boys, one good, one bad” – but is always wonderfully rescued by the lush details of isolated Kya’s life and her network of occasional friends. And I was most delighted that the backbone plot of murder (maybe), investigation, and court room scene, works like a treat. Three quarters of the way through “Where the Crawdads Sing,” an echo of a much-loved book surfaced. Yes, I whispered, this is the new “To Kill a Mockingbird“! That realization helped me fall into easy sentimentality over the final, satisfying quarter of the book. Transcending itself, Delia Owens’ novel deserves a huge readership.
I was drawn to “How to Train for Aging: The Ultimate Endurance Sport” by its relevance at my time of life, but in spite of good intentions, Kevin Thomas Morgan flails at his topic without persuading. A veterinarian (that is, with some rationality) who has had heart problems, he exhorts, preaches the concept of entropy, and in general encourages systematic physical activity (he does Ironman competitions) as the antidote to aging’s retrogressions. That much I knew from the book’s title, and the concept appeals to me, but I expected sagacity and rewarding tales from the front line. Instead the book offers a few relevant insights but exaggeratedly limps from cover to cover.