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.
A mockumentary extending a series about a hapless interviewer roasting celebrities, “Between Two Ferns: The Movie” doesn’t need to rope in a decent plot (it doesn’t) nor to exhibit any acting ability from star/creator Zach Galifianakis (it doesn’t), but it does need to generate regular belly laughs, and in this regard, the film almost works but fails. The film intelligently varies the settings by sending our dumb griller on a dumb road show, and the “star’s” back-up crew is solid (especially the gormless assistant portrayed well by Lauren Lapkus), but Scott Aukerman’s script and direction drift. Will Ferrell, as the manic producer, hams things up for no laughs at all. As for the star turns, scenes with Bruce Willis and Keanu Reeve are plain dull, and only deadpan, hilarious segments featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Matthew McConaughey save “Between Two Ferns” from major torpor.
A lush, almost transcendental masterpiece from a genius, “Ghosteen” stood out from my 2019 year of half-hearted, wrong-track listening. At age 64, I hate reprising favorite artists or bands from my 30s (for that’s a feature of today’s music scene, all the oldies keep on giving) but for the life of me, cannot find highly affective, inspiring music from the younger generations. Nick Cave and his longstanding, morphing band, here lightly but potently employed, have crafted eleven keening, yearning songs about loss and seeking and reality and questing and raging (softly) and love … well, you get the picture that for me, each of these synth-and-chorus-soaked songs, some long, some shorter, builds inside me with great force. Every word carries portent and mystery. I can barely present highlights, so strong is each song, but listen to the soaring wordless chorus behind “Bright Horses,” or Cave’s lament or triumph on “Waiting for You,” or the whispering softness of the title track. Oh, why can’t more music move me like this?
Guy Ritchie is back! Who could forget “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” from two decades ago? Entering the cinema, I wondered whether “The Gentlemen” could reprise that whipsaw, amoral swagger. The opening scene, in which a seedy journalist (wonderfully played by Hugh Grant, with a Cockney lilt no less!) sets up the movie’s elaborate framing with the core gangster’s consigliere, requires momentary patience, as does the next sequence of Matthew McConaughey voice-over narration, but from then, wham, bang, pow, it’s vintage Ritchie without letup. Who is double-crossing whom? Who will survive the mayhem? I guffawed with delight during several scenes. McConaughey is in fine form but super acting flows from Charlie Hunnam, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Colin Farrell, and Henry Golding, as well as countless bit players. The music is tops, the violence is choreographed without fault, and that special winner-takes-all amorality (with a touch of heart) pervades the entire film. “The Gentlemen” flows as one superb cinematic treat.
I don’t read as many self-help books as I used to, possibly for the benign reason that I’ve ended up in a relatively happy space in terms of “helping” my “self.” But “Master Amateurs: How Nonprofessionals are Poised to Dominate the Future of Work,” which lauds and talks to those who don’t follow a single line of work or activity, seemed to fit my current situation. I have multiple projects in hand in which I am a complete, total amateur, and I find such a life to be almost unbearably tough and exhilarating. “Master Amateurs” pays less heed to its subtitle (it doesn’t really prognosticate) than to survey a huge, diverse array of amateurs, both current and historical, through a typology of motivations, from a need for imperfection, through greed, through compulsion by personality, to innate curiosity. Astryan’s interviews are fascinating and easily relatable to this or that aspect of oneself, and she writes with an approachable fluency that welcomes involvement. Two of her many observations have lodged with me and altered my work habits, and any book that does that is a most worthwhile read. If you can see the labels brave or amateurish (they go together according to this book) apply to any aspect of your lives, this book is for you.
Martin Scorsese has such stellar cred, deservedly so, that “The Irishman” was always going to captivate true fans. Think about it. The gritty tale of a New York mob fixer and hitman, entwined around the famous disappearance of unionist Jimmy Hoffa … De Niro perfectly cast as the American-irish mobster … Pacino as Hoffa … dialogue and violence the drivers … a sinuous assemblage of scenes composed as Scorsese can … how can this not be a late masterpiece of the master? And I admit “The Irishman” is so, so watchable. Time vanishes. The only trouble is, the story is vacuous, offering neither any conclusion nor any reflection. It’s just a life and we know biopics are the dullest of cinematic fare. I sat glued to the screen but then walked off, wishing Scorsese had used his moral compass and imagination to turn this eye-and-ear candy into something imbued with meaning.
The only Bong Joon Ho I’d watched was “Snowpiercer,” a dystopian sci-fi extravaganza that left its mark on me, so I approached “Parasite” with respectful caution. Quite rightly, for this is a movie of passions and plots and themes writ large. A scrabbling family of four, residing in a Korean “sub-basement,” worms its way into a wealthy family’s house and existence. Dread builds and then, when you least expect it, the plot spirals in a new lurid direction, and then in another, and then in another, followed by a phantasmagoric Seoul street scene, followed by a sequence of short, telling redux scenes. The direction and cinematography are lockstep precise, the music wonderfully grandiose or menacing. The acting often feels unobtrusive, as if you are watching real people, with Cho Yeo-jeong outstanding as the naif rich wife. “Parasite” is a rush of plot tropes that leaves you scrambling to unpack the strong themes of class and jungle evolution and hopelessness and longing. A stunning film that, for once, offers what literature might not be able to offer.