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.

Oppenheimer by Christopher Nolan [10/10]

Oppenheimer review

Christopher Nolan’s latest grandiose creation is a biopic of the key scientific head of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer. The creator of the atomic bomb, some would say. Such a weighty topic, fraught with titanic moral issues and a need to be factually scrupulous, needs serious underpinning, and Nolan chose to hew closely to the classic biography, American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, a stately book I well recall falling into. Oppenheimer is both the book and Nolan, for he brilliantly structures the narrative around three time periods: creation and testing of the 1945 Trinity nuke (and then Hiroshima and Nagasaki), Oppenheimer’s 1954 kangaroo court ordeal that removed him from public life, and a 1959 vengeful political act that did the same to his arch-foe, Lewis Strauss (played superbly by Robert Downey Jr.). The movie belongs on the large screen, evoking the awesome power of the atom through visual grandeur, underpinned by the edgy, spooky music score of Ludwig Göransson. Nolan’s script is clever and deep, making no concessions to the viewer as it dips back and forth in time, cramming in the facts (I know the Manhattan Project well and can attest to this film’s basic accuracy) and a huge cast of real-life participants. Cillian Murphy is perfectly cast as Oppenheimer, looking just like the photos, and magnificently portrays both the majesty and unknowable contradictions of the physicist. Matt Damon ditto as blunt, profane General Groves. The film is long at three hours but never drags for a minute, and Nolan’s capturing of the ethics of the atomic bombs adds its own tensions. Viewer, I was riveted, and can commend Oppenheimer as essential 2023 viewing.

The Night Agent [7/10]

The Night Agent review

Conceived and overseen by the capable Shawn Ryan, “The Night Agent” is a binge-beckoning treat of a conspiracy thriller. When a journeyman FBI agent, answering phones from super-secret “night agents,” responds to a plea for help from an innocent bystander, he and she both are swept up into a murky, high-stakes plot worthy of the ancient Robert Ludlum. And the comparison is apt, for The Night Agent, like the Ludlum books, pounds relentlessly through one crisis or battle or revelation towards a truly cataclysmic finale, over the distance of ten wonderfully paced episodes. The core actors of Gabriel Basso, Luciane Buchanan, Fola Evans-Akingbola, Sarah Desjardins, and Hong Chau offer little charisma but slot soundly into their hectic roles without ever becoming mere plot runners. The dialogue is solid in service of the plot, action scenes are excellent, and the plot drags you along (as long as you do not interrogate it, but hey, that was equally true with Robert Ludlum). The Night Agent is a series that is hard to watch without binging and although the storyline degrades a tad toward the end, it represents one of the classier Netflix thrillers among its many such offerings.

Love Again by Jim Strouse [5/10]

Love Again review

The classic rom-com setup of “Love Again“—when a grieving widow texts her dead husband, she reaches a moochy music critic who is drawn to her missives—might have, in better hands, worked a treat. But the plot plods with in a predictable line, the dialogue is banal, and the atmosphere reeks of treacle. Most notably, the female star role played by Prianka Chopra Jonas, oozes fake sex appeal and homeliness. The film’s only saving grace is a brilliant, serious rendering of the chump destined for love by Sam Heughan, complete with that lovely Scottish accent. A yawn a minute.

Ultra-Processed People by Chris van Tulleken [8/10]

Chris van Tulleken Ultra-Processed People review

Ultra-Processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food … and Why Can’t We Stop?” has a title that hardly welcomes the reader, but this is an important book written with scorching rage and a vivid style. The author, a doctor and TV presenter, tackles the modern obesity and ill-health epidemic through the lens of the super-highly-processed food that many of us eat in huge quantities. It’s a fascinating tale, unwound through the tales of scientists (belatedly) classifying food into four categories, with UPFs (ultra processed foods) being industrial formulations that bear no relationship to real foods but are dressed up as equivalent to real food or (often) improved foods. Scientists then begin to decipher how UPFs underlie many of the dietary, weight, and health ills besetting us. The author excoriates the food industry while admitting the industry, driven by shareholders’ pressures, seems to have little choice. The solution, he writes, must be aggressive, adversarial regulation forcing the industry to reveal what its products really are. The author illuminates the story with anecdotes from his own life, including the weight battles he and his twin brother, Xand (also a doctor and TV presenter), endured (my own enjoyment was greatly enhanced by “bonus” discussions between the two of them on the audiobook). I’m already a disciple of the WFPB (whole foods, plant based) diet, but for those of you still eating what supermarkets mostly sell, this book has the cojones and factual rigor and persuasiveness to change your lives.