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.
It’s nigh impossible to properly maintain the rage into one’s sixties, so I don’t listen to much metal or proper punk anymore. But “Joy as an Act of Resistance,” the sophomore release of much vaunted Bristol band Idles, came so highly recommended that I had to give it a spin. What a beauteous surprise! Idles takes me back to the days of Spooky Tooth or Black Sabbath or Public Image Limited, a sublime marriage of raw-voiced vocal savagery, a bludgeoning band attack, splendid lyrics, and – this is an essential ingredient – an ear for melody amidst the fury. Much of the hype about “Joy” concerns its earnest lyrics, tackling familial violence, racism, prejudice and loneliness, but that’s just the icing on the cake of a potent brew. Standout tracks include take-no-prisoners “Colossus,” the whooping sadness of “Cry to Me,” and the pro-immigration “Danny Nedelko.” For once the beat-up makes sense: Idles have a long highly creative future ahead of them.
9/10, that’s how I rated the first mesmerising episode of “Maniac.” Did the rest of the first half of the season live up to that inspirational start? In essence, yes! Episode 2 is Annie’s partial backstory, while we see some of Owen’s fraught past in Episode 3. Episode 4, their first shared adventure while within the pharmaceutical testing, bewilders a bit, then Episode 5, set in a 1940s séance, takes off. I was hooked. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill fill their screens with riveting acting, the cinematography and music are superb, and the supporting characters keep expanding. Best of all, the sumptuous baffling plot continues to play out under perfect control, mystifying even more as it reveals. Bring on the season’s second half.
Riversend, a Murray-Darling basis town scorched by drought: the revered local priest shoots five parishioners in broad daylight before being shot himself. A year later journalist Martin Scarsden arrives to resurrect his career with a “post-trauma” story and plunges into a classic whodunnit of wicked complexity. Author Chris Hammer has us walking in Scarsden’s shoes from the first page and unleashes the clever plot with assuredness. The rural cast of characters in “Scrublands” is evocative, the writing smooth and assured, the politics of a country town in decline well drawn. I was reminded of Peter Temple’s jigsaw-puzzle mysteries, a supreme compliment. Beyond the masterful genre mechanics and storytelling, Hammer (author of an award-winning travelogue through the drought-stricken areas) features the unforgiving landscape as a major character. Riversend is introduced thus: “the midday heat, ferocious and furnace-dry”; a river replaced by “a mosaic of cracked clay, baked and going to dust”; the heat “tugs at him, seeking his moisture.” For once let me recommend a rural murdery mystery ahead of city-based crime fiction: this is a resounding triumph.
Is Teleman England’s best kept cult secret? Surely! Once dedicated to creating the perfect pop (indie-style) confections, they’re now a robust four-piece with imaginative, solid musicianship around keyboards and guitars, all circling around frontman Tom Saunders’ field-fresh vocals. After some more experimental outings, “Family of Aliens” sees them leaping back into bouncy, almost-dance-style, sparkling songs built around intelligent, evocative lyrics (“Dreams are going to drown you someday, you don’t even know how deep you’ve gone”). Standout tracks include plaintive “Sea of Wine,” the ear worm opening track, and the sweeping “Song for a Seagull.” Not a dud track on this career best: buy and tap your foot and marvel!
I’m reviewing TV series in three tranches, namely whether to watch the first episode, then the first half of the season, then the final half. I think this mirrors how we approach a series. I rated Bosch Season 4‘s first episode as masterful but somehow lacking drama, and when I watched the next four episodes, this impression at first gained ground. Put simply, the many characters walked through their roles in a most complex intertwined plot, with much happening beyond the “Angel’s Flight” murder of an anti-cop defendant. There was nothing at all to complain about: the series’ maestros keep a logical grip on the plot, Titus Welliver inhabits the Bosch role (if also a little cockily over the first few episodes) and the supporting cast remains strong, the locales are very “Michael Connelly’s LA,” and the sense of intrigue remains high. Yet, yet, yet, I could not help feeling the “loose cannon” terrifying pulse of Connelly (and the first three TV seasons) was missing). Fortunately, in Episode 4, the season roars into life and we see that the first three episodes were all setup. No plot spoilers but a careening plot twist sends the entire story into dramatic freefall. Suddenly Welliver taps the deepest darkest heart of Harry Bosch and the other actors amp up, with Madison Lintz, playing Bosch’s daughter, simply brilliant. My heart was in my mouth over both Episode 4 and 5 and man, I simply cannot wait to see the final half. What a triumph the Bosch series is!
Normal People threatened to rush past me, a book about young people in and out of love, a species of novel I rarely read, but rave opinions turned me round and I’m so glad they did. Set in Galway and Dublin, zigzagging between the lives of desperately “not normal” Marianne and Connell, the working class boy made good, as they weave in and out of each other’s ranges, this sophomore novel by Sally Rooney is a stunner. I dare any reader not to be captivated by the immersive spell cast through dense dialogue, often mordant and savage, and inner yearnings. Not a word is wasted. With the plot leapfrogging a few months every chapter, my heart was gripped while I tried to anticipate twists that invariably surprised. The ending is sublime. Normal People restores my faith in relationship novels.
The Life to Come won this year’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award and I can see why, for it’s a formidable literary work. This is author Michelle de Kretser’s second Miles Franklin and all six of her novels have gained critical acclaim as well as growing popularity. The Life to Come is her opus, a Tolstoyian cavalcade of five intermeshed characters: sharp-penned author George in Sydney; Sri Lankan Ash with Cassie; translator Celeste in Paris; my favorite character, endlessly ambitious wannabe writer Pippa, shallow yet somehow rapier eyed; and sluggish Sri Lankan spinster Christabel at home and then in Sydney. They know love, they experience aloneness, they interpret each other. The supporting cast of characters number in the dozens and the contemporary settings spring to life on the pages. de Kretser writes stunningly accomplished, dense yet light prose, at its best when savagely funny or acutely emotional. I’ve read most of her oeuvre and have oftentimes found the plots eventful but somehow sapped of drama, and a couple of the book’s sections threatened to sag under the weight of not much, but the final two plot arcs are highly satisfying. An antidote to my more routine reading fare, The Life to Come is a rich work of art.