As an addon book (by a hired gun) after the original Dragon Tattoo trilogy was ended with author Stieg Larsson’s death, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” was a barely passable thriller. Now brought to the big screen, the movie is a kinetic, lush zinger. Claire Foy, unrecognizable as The Queen or Neil Armstrong’s wife (her very recent roles), mesmerises as troubled super-hacker Lisbeth Salander. Quite how she does it, I can’t explain, but somehow Foy transcends the Bond-ish lurid plot, to the extent that every scene with her at center stage is a winning scene. The other actors are also perfectly cast, if somewhat limited by the narrative. If I was occasionally troubled by the “full-on-thriller” styling, that mattered little, for the combination of propulsive plotting and staging with Foy’s virtuoso performance swept me up. 117 minutes vanished and I emerged from the cinema overwhelmed and, weirdly enough, reflective. Bring on the next one in this post-Larsson series, I say.
The final half of the fourth “Bosch” season blasts onwards from the high drama of Episodes 4 and 5, with Bosch closing in on the murderer of a controversial African-American defense lawyer, while also tracking down killers much closer to home and digging into his own past. Titus Welliver inhabits the role of Bosch and here he reaches a new level of acting veracity. All the cogs of the intricate main plot, all the many support actors, all the subplots, all of these mesh into a satisfying, glorious whole. The highs and lows of LA are depicted grittily. I sank into the fascinating intricacies of evidence and clues and frame-ups. No need to hesitate, folks. Even if Bosch Seasons 1 to 3 passed you by, Season 4 is a 2018 highlight!
James Clear, with his book “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones,” follows on from a wonderful 2012 bestseller I’ve personally used a lot, namely Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit.” The powerful idea behind both books is to address the psychological stages we go through when slave to a habit, either to promote a new, virtuous habit, or to kill a beastly habit. By breaking down habits into stages, we can, so the theory goes, more readily promote or kill them. Duhigg used three stages: cue, routine, reward. James Clear adds another one, ending up with cue, craving, response, and reward. He’s a deft writer of crystalline explanations and uses a marvellous array of supporting examples. Anecdotes from his own life also help. The book is well laid out, with excellent diagrams and charts. Again reverting to personal experience, I question whether any habit-forming or habit-breaking process can overcome lack of fundamental motivation, a point Clear acknowledges very early, but if you’re seeking a path forward to an optimal armoury of habits, this will be most useful reading. One of the few recent “how-to” books that resonates freshly.
As with film biopics, so too with novels tagged on the front cover as “based on an incredible true story,” as “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” is emblazoned. Can truth coexist with intelligent art? Well, I must have grown disgruntled from plenty of filmic and literary “true story” clunkers, for I only tackled Heather Morris’s novel because a discerning friend was enthusiastic, and I must admit I was wrong. “Tattooist” is about the man who survived Auschwitz because he snared the rare, protected job of hammering tattoos into the skins of the new arrivals at that hellhole atrocity. Employing gently rhythmic prose written in the first person, Morris walks in the shoes of Lale Sokolov as he survives, simply survives, but then is smitten by Gita, a young female inmate. The plot opens with tattooing and then, incredible as it may seem, escalates in tension all the way to war’s end and aftermath. I could barely read the scenes featuring butcher Doctor Mengeles, long my icon of pure evil, but all the characters, good and bad, are deftly brought to life (and often to death). With no fuss or tedium, the geography and workings of Auschwitz (and adjacent Birkenau) grow to life. As I implied above, the author’s prose is not showy at all, but calm and respectful, adding the necessary gravity and distance for the material. I wept at the end. Never forget, that’s our guiding light, and we must be thankful for Heather Morris and the trust shown in her by Lale.
British singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Calvi has bloomed on her third release, “Hunter.” This is a powerful collection of songs propelled by drama and bold lyrics around gender and sexuality. She has one of those voices equally at home soaring or roaring or cooing, and ordinarily I’d be left a little cold by this kind of vocals, but not so in this case. Calvi’s guitar work is brilliant. I enjoyed the variety, ranging from swoony “Swimming Pool,” to dramatic, controversial “Hunter,” to snappy “Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy.” The penny dropped when I discovered the producer is Nick Launay; he adds heft and grace and, yes, drama, to every track. A risky, triumphant album, “Hunter” is well worth a listen.
Tread with care, filmmaker! Biopics seem to paralyze screenwriters and directors, so I approached “First Man“—examining the life of one of the Twentieth Century’s icons, Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon—with trepidation. I need not have worried. Josh Singer’s screenplay, closely based on James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography of the same name, is wonderful, focusing on both the astronaut’s inner life and the juddering, fraught, cramped life of space pioneers. Director Damien Chazelle has followed up “La La Land” with a filmic perspective of alternatively majestic and muted intelligence. Long at 141 minutes, it should have been ponderous but instead time in the cinema just slips away. And the acting! I’ve idolized Ryan Gosling since the masterpiece “Drive” and here he inhabits Armstrong, illuming both his social reticence and his driven engineering passion. Claire Foy – is there a part she can’t play? – steals the show as Janet Armstrong. The cinematography, the music, the pacing . . . all wonderful. So go see “First Man” to find out how deep and sharp movies can be at illuminating history.
Simon Mawer creates immersive character-driven novels of people intersecting with history, and “Prague Spring” is a wonderful example of his skill and humanity. In 1968, while President LBJ wrestles with the Vietnam War, in Czechoslovakia a flowering revolution of political and cultural openers, personified by Alexander Dubcek, moderate leader of the Communist Party, butts up against Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. Throw into this poised moment in history a mismatched hitchhiking couple from England and a young career diplomat in love with a Czech firebrand and you have the makings of either a turgid “based on a true story” recounting or something special, and Mawer achieves the latter. He effortlessly interweaves complex character plots with what happened leading up to the famous Soviet invasion. I felt I knew all the characters like my kin. England, Europe, and especially Czechoslovakia came alive to me, and I basked in reflections about that crazy Cold War era. I can’t speak highly enough of this unshowy minor masterpiece.
Dull as dishwater, that’s what a documentary about Facebook’s offshore content moderators – folks who view a potentially offensive or unethical image or video every ten seconds or so and make the binary decision of “ignore” or “delete” – should be. But no, filmmakers Hans Block & Moritz Riesewieck have created in “The Cleaners“ a riveting, artful meditation on censorship, ethics, social media, and propaganda. Employing moody music and clever shots of offices and people and faces, working to a careful intelligent scripts, and building in scenes from USA, Philippines and Myanmar, the film scrutinises the societal impact of Facebook and the content moderators themselves. We hear one moderator boast, “I’m passionate about my work,” but gradually we see that a never-ending barrage of beheadings, pornography, hate messages, and nutcases exacts a heavy cost on the moderators. The filmmakers stay out of frame and there are no Michael-Moore-esqe polemics, so you emerge from the cinema with senses and minds abuzz. A triumph of documentary creation, “The Cleaners” is a must-see.
The 13th book in Walker’s acclaimed Bruno Chief of Police series, set in the Périgord/Dordogne northernmost region of France, is a baffling reading experience. “A Taste for Vengeance” sees Bruno learning to manage his recent promotion to Chief Inspector while dealing with a gruesome double murder/suicide and teaching cooking in a friend’s class. It’s a mix of realistic police procedures and homely relationships that should have kept me well interested, and indeed so many aspects of this complex novel intrigue. The author is a smooth, adept stylist and the local setting and gourmand milieu are satisfying. But here’s the thing: the diabolically intricate “solve the crime” plot revolves around a multitude of police personnel from three countries working together to unravel suspects, all of whom are off stage. Not until towards the end does Chief Inspector Bruno confront evil face to face; this, I’m sorry to say, blunted the narrative force of what is otherwise an accomplished novel.
An early reputation as a classic high-wire British thriller drew me to the first episode of “Bodyguard.” The first long kinetic sequence, introducing us to bodyguard David Budd, riven by his Afghanistan military experience, thrilled me, and there is so much to like about the setup – Budd is assigned to protect ultra aggressive Home Secretary Julia Montague – and the atmospherics (the music, the stylish cinematography), and the scene mechanics. Richard Madden is stalwart as the simmering but professional Budd, and Keeley Hawes is sufficiently icy as Montague, but neither stuns in this initial episode, and the other bit parts seem rather humdrum. Worst of all, the episode ends without a climax, often a no-no for series’ launches. Summing up, I’m intrigued enough to watch onward but hey, Episode One is no narrative blitz.