Too esoteric for many, “A Trip to Infinity” will appeal to many nerds and science/maths tragics. Jonathan Halperin and Drew Takahashi artfully combine spirited, often cheeky interviews with leading mathematicians, philosophers, and physicists who wrestle with topics associated with infinity, such as parallel universes, time travel, the size and timeframe of the universe, etc. It was fascinating for me to watch writers I had followed in video mode, such as Janna Levin, Brian Greene, Alan Lightman, and Carlo Rogelli; all of them are in sparkling form. Of the other eight locutors, I especially enjoyed the awe-struck tone of Steve Strogatz. The talking heads are ably supplemented by nifty graphics and cartoon explainers. Of course, one does not expect to get to the end with perfect understanding, otherwise you’d be a world-famous mathematician, right? I kept up (perhaps) for half the stunning mental pyrotechnics, then surrendered to a happy sense of wonderment. I recommend A Trip to Infinity for those who ever think about infinity and for their children and grandchildren.
I’ve always heard that Neil Young has an enormous archive of sound and film data from throughout his career, so I assume that “Neil Young: Harvest Time,” an hour and a half of rag-bag footage from the making of his classic album Harvest, is the first output from that treasure trove. A beaming, slightly chubby Neil Young in 2022 introduces the video and then we journey through the recording of different Harvest tunes at his sun-baked ranch, in various studios. in London with a symphony orchestra, and in a radio station. We see and hear long jams repeated in rehearsal, brief fascinating interviews with the man himself about his creative process, and some concert footage. Some sections seem indulgent, and frequent band/recording scenes are interesting but not vital, yet the patchiness is more than made up for by a chiming sense of the hippy era and a peek into a genius singer/songwriter at work. I would say Neil Young: Harvest Time is primarily for longtime fans but students of that golden age of music should also check it out.
One book I have never forgotten is Peter Matthiessen’s luminous 1978 nature/travel memoir, The Snow Leopard. It transformed me into a greenie. Now, in “The Velvet Queen,” an eccentric, intrepid travel writer, Sylvain Tesson ventures into the 5,000-meter-plus heights of Tibet to seek the famously hard-to-find, hard-to-see snow leopard. Classified by IUCN as vulnerable (code for declining in numbers and only decades behind those possibly destined for extinction), this beautiful, powerful predator is “the ghost of the mountains.” Tesson narrates the film but he is not the star. Rather the inspirational pivot point of the film is famous photographer and moviemaker Vincent Munier, who is a chronicler of wild nature in extreme locations. A charismatic explorer-type, Munier readily admits he is far more at home peering at snow-swept mountains for elusive animals than back in civilization. Writer/director Marie Amiguet seamlessly constructs a tense narrative around the forays of the two men—photographer-explorer and writer-explorer—from an outpost hut into the high mountains, marveling at the animals and birds, while employing Munier’s deep knowledge of the snow leopard’s habits to achieve the near impossible: sight and capture on film. The plotline, as it were, is exciting, the cinematography is superb, and the landscape and creatures captured … well, they take one’s breath away. The Velvet Queen is the most visually stunning and moving film I have seen in 2022 so far, it’s a must-see.
Karin Slaughter pens frenetic, fraught thrillers designed for the thriller market, and although I stopped reading her a while back, it is clear she has all the needed chops. Based on Slaughter’s book of the same name, “Pieces of Her” is an eight-part series that commences with a commanding, baffling opening scene and never lets up. Ideal entertainment fare, the show ascends one notch with two impressive acting performances that insert characterization into the excellent plot. Bella Heathcote gives a wonderful turn as a thirty-year-old thrust into a bewildering, violent race, while Toni Collette reigns supreme as the mother with a deeply buried past. A competent crew of writers deliver the different episodes under the eye of showrunner Charlotte Stoudt, and all eight episodes are tightly delivered by director Minkie Spiro. The entire series unfurls with gratifying suspense, although the post-finale twist finished too hazily for me, and the show’s music is subpar. Overall, Pieces of Her is fine, none-too-cheap entertainment.
An oddity that flirts with wasting a superb team of actors, “Inside Man” mashes up a Hannibal-Lecter jail inmate with a fraught clock-ticking thriller about a domestic drama gone awry, adding the whimsical complication that the two tales occur in locations separated by an ocean. David Tennant is, as ever, convincing as a vicar in a quiet English village, whose act of compassion leads to a woman bloodied and imprisoned in his cellar. The real star, however, is Stanley Tucci, who plays a Death Row murderer in Texas, with a sideline in solving crimes, Sherlock Holmes style. Tucci’s portrayal of a gently spoken, precise, super-intelligent monster is superb; every one of his scenes is a delight. When a British reporter arrives to interview him, a thin nexus is formed between the two locales and stories. Inside Man is one of those thrillers that delights in plot twists and weird but pleasurable connections, and over its four episodes, on several occasions I shook my head in disbelief. But the sheer imaginativeness of the final episode, with several splendid plot gyrations, eventually overcame those reservations, and I commend the movie to you as lightweight but satisfying thriller fare.
Australian actor-turned-writer/director Thomas M. Wright was not familiar to me until I sank into his latest film, ”The Stranger,” but he is now definitely on my must-watch list, for this is a powerful, powerful movie. Not to everyone’s taste, it unwinds a gritty crime tale in relentlessly arthouse fashion, filmed in stark, murky colors, overlain by a soundtrack of unbearable, creaking techno tension. Joel Edgerton offers a career-best depiction of an undercover cop—intense and troubled—in Western Australia trying to get close to a murder suspect by enfolding him in an intricate, fake web of a new crime gang. The murder of the child, years earlier, is brilliantly woven into the storyline. Sean Harris, however, is the real star of the show: his turn as the bearded, asthma-puffer-wielding suspect, has to be seen to be believed. Alternately anxiously shambling and Manson-reminiscent terrifying, Harris’s portrayal had me literally looking over my shoulder. Thomas Wright eschews all of film’s standard devices of flashbacks, tidy explanatory scenes, and easily dramatic scenes, opting instead for a relentless, documentary-style unfolding interspersed with unexplained dreams and eerie portents of terror. Many will find it too far outside the standard crime thriller genre, but I was swept away. Will The Stranger snap up the awards it deserves? Probably not. But you, dear viewer, should fall under its dark spell.
“Little Fires Everywhere,” based on Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel, is a slowly warming powder keg of an eight-part series that examines motherhood in racially torn America. Set in a self-righteous white suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, in the late Nineties, it pits two fiery women and their families against each other (although at first they join as allies): an “appearances are everything” bossy, workaholic white mother (played with steely precision by Reece Witherspoon) and a nomadic black artist (I was at first less convinced by Kerry Washington but her performance accelerated after the first couple of episodes). Four white teenage children, running the gamut from a seemingly perfect achiever who aspires to Harvard, through two very different boys, to the youngest and most rebellious, connect in complex spirals with one black teenage daughter. All five teenagers are more than ably portrayed by a fine cast. The plotline permutes the five (and the two main women and a husband, plus an illegal immigrant who abandoned her child to be adopted by another white woman) into a tapestry illustrating (occasionally with a heavier hand) themes such as racism, biracial sexuality, abortion, transracial adoption, and family secrecy. The final two episodes explode with passion and tension, and the climax works on a number of levels. Little Fires Everywhere is a splendid, tight family drama series.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the hugely idiosyncratic creation of the Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), is a riot of invention, emotion, cinematography, and something unique that only movies can offer. Michelle Yeoh triumphs in the hugely demanding role of Evelyn, burnt-out, crabby owner of a laundromat, who is thrust into the role of saving all the universes of a world of many, through a series of escalating fantabulous adventures. The key support actors of Stephanie Hsu (Evelyn’s daughter Joy), Ke Huy Quan (husband Waymond), and Jamie Lee Curtis (a tax collector among other roles) are also superb. The way-out-there plotline is massively smart and ambitious, the cinematography is sublime, the action scenes scorch typical Marvel/Disney pyrotechnics, and the attention to detail is woozily fabulous. Not a moment of the running time of two-and-a-quarter hours feels slow or too fast. All in all, Everything Everywhere All at Once is not something I can recommend to many around me, with their circumscribed palates, but for me it is hands down the most powerful, intelligent film of this year. At its core, it addresses the issues we existentialists exult in and fret about every day. And so many scenes are laugh-out-loud funny but, even when theoretically stooopid, are delivered respectfully. Cinematically unique, something I cannot process yet but will do so over repeated viewings, it vies for 2022’s crown.
”Kleo” is one heck of a surprise, seemingly the child of the brilliantly plotted Patriot series and the stylish, gory mayhem of Killing Eve. Chock full of visual treats, imaginatively varying in pace, and plotted with verve over eight unpredictable episodes, it is never wholly original, yet always fresh. Jella Haase is perfect as East German assassin Kleo, wrongfully imprisoned and then released when the Berlin Wall comes down. Set on revenge, she eventually enlists unlikely companions such as druggy Thilo and hapless West German cop Sven. The scriptwriters and directors are not afraid to take chances, with the result that every episode is a hoot from start to end. No grand themes intrude but the post-Cold War German backdrop fascinates, and the music is an exuberant feast. Kleo is a 2022 standout.
Despite his longtime fame, for some reason “Licorice Pizza” is the first of his nine films I’ve seen, and I’m now bereft at missing the other eight, for this is a stunningly evocative, intelligent, funny comedy-fantasy-drama. Set in 1973 and stuffed with that era’s music, some famous, some obscure, and shot with wonderfully resonant-of-those-times cinematography (often tinged with exaggeration just shy of excess), the film’s arc is simple. When child actor Gary, aged 15 (played with aching realism by Cooper Hoffman; I can guarantee you’ve met someone just like Gary in your life), meets 25-year-old Alana, he is smitten. Anderson is simply brilliant in setting up that impelling premise within a couple of minutes of the film’s bouncy opening. Gary is fast-talking, an archetypal American entrepreneur, launching businesses around waterbeds and pinball machines. Alana is a clever, frustrated rebel within her conservative Jewish family in the San Fernando valley. Bemused, Alana resists Gary, and resists him, and resists him, even as the pair deal with wonderfully strange characters hammed up by the likes of Sean Penn and Brad Cooper. Suffused with nostalgic but universal in its storyline, Licorice Pizza is a delight from its kick-off to its unforgettable final scene.