One of the oddest documentaries I’ve ever had the privilege to watch, and I say privilege because this is drama of a fierce, fierce kind. “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” pivots around reels and reels of tennis instructional footage taken at Roland Garros during the French Open in the 70s and 80s, shot with noisy slow-mo cameras. Faraut cleverly sidles up to his focus, namely McEnroe, clearly an obsession of Gil de Kermadec, the French head of the filming project, and you wonder if Faraut is going to look more generally at tennis talent. But the final two thirds of the movie is all McEnroe, juxtaposing his artistry (one can swoon at the slo-mo of his drop shots and drop volleys) and his on-court antics. Was he spoiled brat or was it all a means of revving up performance? Faraut indulges in some pop psychology but then the final twenty minutes comes down to one match in June 1984, when McEnroe, during a nearly flawless year, takes the first two sets in his Roland Garros final against Ivan Lendl, only to begin to flounder. An electric guitar soundtrack roars as the slo-mo cameras from different angles capture the pent-up agonies on McEnroe’s face, in his posture. This is not acting, this is real, this is film showing the inner person under utmost stress. Extraordinary, I left the cinema shaking my head in awe at Faraut’s filmic genius.
Haruki Murakami, the workaholic Japanese literary star, represents a conundrum for most readers. Some, myself included, will complain about the plot weirdness of his novels, complain about the seemingly simple writing style, but come away from each experience refreshed and elated. Others – and I know plenty of them – will praise the ease of reading but rubbish the books as nonsense. “Killing Commendatore” is a baggier example of these two extremes. This time, Murakami follows the adventures of an aimless portrait painter who ends up in a lonely mountain house dealing with midnight tolling bells, an enigmatic nearby tycoon, a young girl, and a painting whose subject comes to life. In typical Murakami fashion, our hero’s life unfolds in endless detail that should bore the reader but is instead riveting. Towards the end, he actually plunges down an Alice-in-Wonderland-like hole battling something called Metaphor. Sounds silly? Yes, yet it isn’t. Somehow, through dint of immersion and rhythmic writing, our hero’s meandering, possibly pointless journey exhilarates. The many extended scenes exploring how the painter paints his portraits, deep “in the zone,” are wonderful. I reached the end refurbished and baffled. Another Murakami, I reflected.
I love mysteries and thrillers set in my old stamping grounds of the finance sector, so I snapped up “The Target,” a fast-paced tale about Sean Dwyer, an insurance lawyer who snares a job with the SEC, allowing him to investigate insider trading claims against his now-dead father. Insider trading and “shorting” of stocks are fascinating areas of what I call “money behaving badly,” and “The Target” is built on a most clever plotline centered on them. Dwyer is a terrific hero and all the other characters come alive for the reader. A sure sense of pacing, an engaging style, plot twists galore, and vivid settings (especially the milieu of U.S. corporate justice) complete what is a most enjoyable thriller.
A Rwandan genocide survivor adopted by a international justice prosecutor… a complex case launched… mysterious players… governments involved… the terrain of Hugo Blick’s “Black Earth Rising” is devilishly tricky and right at the heart of modern morality. If Episode 1 is representative, it’s also a humdinger of a thriller, for there are more plot twists here than in most entire series. Michaela Coel is stunning as survivor Kate Ashby, her judge mother is brilliantly played by Harriet Walter, no bit player misses a beat, and there’s even an ongoing oddly effective role played by John Goodman. Spiffy cinematography and crunchy dialogue round out a season opener that begs for a dose of the binges.
Put me in front of a biopic and watch me squirm with frustration. Real life is fascinating but rarely makes for a finely judged story. So I came to “On the Basis of Sex” with apprehension (especially as I’d missed seeing the much-lauded documentary “RGB” about Ruth Bader Ginsburg). I shouldn’t have fussed: Mimi Leder is an excellent director, with an intelligent, finely balanced grasp of story and drama, and the script from Daniel Stiepleman barely puts a foot wrong. Perhaps the reason that this biopic works is that it isn’t really a biopic. Instead it sets the scene with some early-life flashbacks and then settles into a tense, inspiring look at Ginsburg’s very first success at changing U.S. legislation on the basis of sex discrimination. And what a drama it is, with the outcome swinging on a few minutes’ testimony by feisty, whip-smart Ginsburg. Felicity Jones produces a career-best performance as Ginsburg, and Armie Hammer ends up delivering the goods as Martin Ginsburg even if he looks too wholesome. The chauvinistic villains are played by capable character actors. I was swept up by the rousing tale, one little told, and didn’t come down until the abrupt but smart ending. Recommended.
“Russian Doll” is, based on the first episode, a hoot of a remake of “Groundhog Day.” Its frontline star, Natasha Lyonne (who apparently co-created the series), is not an actor I know, much to my detriment, for she’s an instantly charismatic mid-thirties New York City hardcase intellectual cynic. The plot conceit is, of course, that soon after the episode kicks off at her birthday party, she gets cleaned up by a yellow cab while seeking her cat… and wham, she’s back at the party, again and again and again. Nothing is all that clear in the first episode but it’s clear that we’re in for a zingy, clever-clever plot of recurring but morphing life episodes, like the unpacking of a Russian doll. The sets are super evocative, every character so far is subtly brilliant, and the music rules. I can’t recommend it too highly and can only hope the plot chicanery can sustain my interest over the remaining episodes.
Every few years, I read a futurist’s breathless prognostications for our genetically enhanced future, a world of diseases cured, humans enhanced, and humanity reconfigured. “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity” by Jamie Metzl, and yes, he is a futurist, is the most sprightly, clear predictive extravaganza of them all. Metzl startled me early by pointing out that IVF involves giving parents the choice between the eggs at their disposal, in effect selecting amongst alternative genes, and he quickly points out that this will inevitably lead to expanding the number of eggs and expanding parents’ God-like capabilities. From there, he explores the entire gamut of accelerating technologies that will be available to “hack” or engineer humans’ genetic make-up. Metzl does a great job in organizing the book intelligently and his writing style is cogent and stylish. I noted that on any genetic issue, he cycles through pointing out the risks (personal and societal) and encouraging oversight, before edging us towards believing that we won’t be able to resist the amazing new machinery. By the end, I had enough material to plot a dozen sci-fi books, I felt excited, I had experienced dread, and my mind buzzed. What more could I ask of such a book?
The final half of “Berlin Station Season 3” is a careening, uber-tense rollercoaster, as the American spies battle to keep Estonia from falling into the arms of a Russian overlord. Plot twists occur almost every five minutes and one of them in particular had me leaping from my chair. If I could have, I would have binge-watched it in one four-hour sitting, but the Australian release of episodes was drawn out. I’ve said as much as I need to in previous reviews of Season 3 about the brilliant acting and precision cinematography; suffice it to say that the quality never slackens off, which is remarkable after three full seasons. Episode 9 was as exciting as any action movie I’ve watched in recent years. If Episode 10, which needed to wrap up all the intricate strands convincingly, ends up being, like Episode 1, a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle, I’m sure no Berlin Station or Olen Steinhauer fan will complain. Bring on Season 4… please!
I enjoyed this solid debut of a mooted police procedural series featuring DCI Ronnie Carlson. “Tangent” finds Carlson and his crew hunting a particularly vicious serial killer who seems to be a blast from the past. Carlson, grieving a family loss, is an appealing, “everyperson” protagonist, and his crew of police are all drawn convincingly. Although the villain seemed to me to be less “alive,” and although the stylistics and plotting bounced up and down a bit in quality, overall I raced through the novel with quiet pleasure.
Even though I find some of her books distinctly uncomfortable reading, A.L. Kennedy is one of my favorite stylists. What exactly is her style is hard to describe, for it’s not flashy. Her style is more in the pacing and rhythm than in flowery prose, though her descriptions are wonderful. “The Little Snake” is an oddment within her portfolio, a novella-length fable about a fabulistic snake, Lanmo, who visits humans about to die, and his unexpected friendship with little girl Mary. Told in gentle, evocative prose (“The red jewels blinked like clever, tiny eyes. This was because they were clever, tiny eyes.”), Kennedy’s meditation on death and life and everything in between glides through Mary’s life and Lanmo’s journeys. This is infinitely seductive writing in the service of a handful of basic messages, and I found it powerful indeed. Highly recommended, especially if you can read it to a young child after you’ve wept with it yourself.