Film: Ex Machina

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015) is probably one of the best science fiction films ever made: smart, thoughtful, well-acted, beautifully shot, and ingeniously structured. Above all, it’s a thought-provoking examination of artificial intelligence, human psychology, and gender. It’s unfortunate, then, that it winds up falling prey to the exploitation it purports to critique – deliberately, perhaps, but in a distracting manner that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young computer programmer for a futuristic, Google-like search engine giant, wins a drawing to spend a week at the remote mountain estate of the company’s reclusive genius founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Flown by helicopter to Nathan’s facility, Caleb quickly learns the reason for the visit: his job is to test Nathan’s lifelike robot Ava (Alicia Vikander), to find out whether its AI consciousness can pass the Turing test. The week begins innocently enough, as Caleb meets the miraculous Ava and begins to judge her capacity for human interaction. But as the sessions continue, Caleb learns that something odd is going on at the facility, and his investigation spins off in dark, mysterious directions.

Ex Machina is confident and engrossing, building its human and science fictional mysteries with subtle, effective reveals that pull the viewer inexorably through a maze. It’s visually stunning, but the driving force of its execution is performance. Gleeson shines as the film’s quietly decent hero, while Isaac’s gloriously sleazy Nathan is played to perfection. Vikander, too, is impressive, making Ava feel ever more unknowable and alien as the film progresses, even as she looks more and more human. The plot is thoroughly satisfying, carrying the viewer from innocent intrigue to jaw-dropping discomfort as the unsettling truth is exposed in increments. It’s tight, smart, and powerfully executed in almost every respect.

But late in the game, Garland falters. The film builds, quite deliberately, to an examination of the inherent problem of an artificial person’s potential for being exploited. Ava is Nathan’s creation: not just objectified, but literally an object, and technically a prisoner. As this realization dawns on Caleb, it dawns on the viewer as well, and thrusts them rather effectively into the uncomfortable spaces of Garland’s message. The script drives this twist quite purposefully, and there is an ethical underpinning to it, thematically. But the direction, I think unnecessarily, indulges in the behavior it’s ostensibly critiquing by lingering rather leeringly at the nude robots with whom we’re supposed to sympathize. Films of this nature tread a fine line: are they critiquing exploitation, or actually exploiting? Ex Machina steps over that line and stays there several frames too long. The ogling also breaks the suspension of disbelief; an otherwise immersive story suddenly becomes, transparently, a movie with the seams showing, in which a male director is clearly manipulating his actresses – while, perhaps hypocritically, berating one of his characters for committing the same crime.

That’s a troubling scar, alas, but the surface of the film is otherwise flawless. Garland does, indeed, command this material and one comes away wondering if this one sleazy decision is part of the grander plan: to get the audience to think about the implications of its SFnal premise, and by extension how that reflects back on the uneasy truths of our reality. The best SF does this, and at the end of the day Ex Machina earns that badge.

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TV: The Fall (Seasons 1 & 2)

the fallDark, deliberate crime series The Fall is grimly compelling stuff that plays an unsettling trick on the viewer. Set in Belfast, the mystery centers on a mild-mannered grief counselor named Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan). Outwardly Spector is an upstanding family man, but secretly he’s a vicious serial killer who prays on innocent women. Called in to investigate his latest crime is Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), a brooding and brilliant inspector with psychological insights into the crime borne of her own unique experience. When Gibson connects Spector’s latest victim with an earlier murder, the investigation escalates into a classic cat-and-mouse conflict that strays unflinchingly down the pitch-black alleys of human nature at its worst.

At first glimpse, The Fall’s serial killer narrative plays out like a bleaker, more European inversion of Dexter. There, the writers took great pains to invest you in Dexter Morgan’s particular brand of evil by ensuring his victims were “deserving” targets. Here, though, Paul Spector – played with increasingly creepy and intense villainy by Dornan – is completely and utterly unsympathetic. He feeds off the suffering of his innocent victims in an unrepentant and arbitrary manner. This isn’t to say that the series doesn’t invest you in his plight; part of the show’s penetrating end game is to lure the viewer into a fascination with this monster, despite his irredeemability. He’s a liar, a misogynist, and a sociopath of the highest order, and yet the show plays on your curiosity to concern yourself with his peculiar psychology. The way the series yanks the rug out of this interest is a real punch in the gut.

In terms of sheer watchability, however, the show gets far more mileage out of Gillian Anderson, who is riveting as Spector’s relentless opposite number. Gibson’s determination and professionalism cork a volcano of emotional volatility that’s only ever hinted at by the narrative. It’s one of those subtle, nuanced performances that doesn’t look like acting until you realize how convincing it is.

The faceoff between Gibson and Spector drives the story, but The Fall has other assets: seemingly incongruous subplots that flesh out and eventually tie into the wider world; a solid supporting cast that includes Niamh McGrady, Archie Panjabi, John Lynch, Stuart Graham, Bronagh Waugh, Aisling Franciosi, Karen Hassan, and, in a crucial role, Valene Kane; and a uniquely respectful handling of the potentially exploitative elements so commonly found in this subgenre of crime story. (Really, on this score it’s more similar to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than Dexter.) All these components culminate in a season two ending that some will find abrupt, but that I found thought-provoking, both as a penetrating character study of Gibson and a hopeful sociopolitical commentary.

Be forewarned: The Fall is full of very difficult-to-watch depictions of violence against women. It’s also glacially paced, creaking and lurching through each episode in a manner that will mesmerize some while alienating others. Most surprisingly, evidently there’s a third season in the works…which blew my mind, as the season two finale seemed quite calculated to tie everything off thematically. My guess is that viewers who make it to the end of season two will most likely be interested enough to continue, however; I know I will.

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Spy 100, #3: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

In my view, the list’s top three selections are unassailably awesome spy films, but it’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) that may be the most perfect. This classic of noir intrigue, based on John Le Carré’s breakout novel, is an elegant masterpiece of convoluted spy fiction plotting. It may not be the most purely enjoyable film on the list, but it’s certainly the tightest, craftiest, and most brilliantly realized one, and its influence still lingers fifty years later.

Based in Berlin, Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is a station chief for British intelligence. When the last of his agents is killed trying to cross the border, he’s called back to London and put out to pasture by his boss, Control (Cyril Cusack). Or is he? As it turns out, Control has one last operation in mind for Leamas: selling him to the East Germans as a defector, in order to implicate the enemy’s top man, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck), of being a British spy. The elaborate, subtle charade involves Leamas’ faked expulsion from the service, a meager new job, and a descent into embittered alcoholism. It also entangles him in an unexpected romance with a co-worker, Nan Perry (Claire Bloom). But ultimately Leamas hits rock bottom, and when he does, enemy spies come out of the woodwork to recruit him. The devious British plan is in effect, but it turns out to be even more devious than Leamas ever imagined.

Shot in stark, elegant black and white by director Martin Ritt, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an absolute classic of dark spy fiction, and surely one of the genre’s most ingenious narratives. Ritt’s take is quite faithful, and represents a rare instance of a film matching the quality of its source material. The script doesn’t pander or over-explain; it simply immerses the viewer in its sordid, mysterious world, stringing together stately sequences that paint a gradual picture, which finally explodes into focus during the final act. In the process, it serves as an unforgiving, vicious rejoinder to the glamorized, wish-fulfillment exploits of James Bond and his suave, spy-fantasy ilk. At the heart of it all, Richard Burton is ferocious as the embattled Leamas, giving one of spy fiction’s most memorable figures an unforgettably riveting performance.

Viewers searching for colorful, escapist spy action will bounce right off of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but diehards attracted to the genre’s murky gray areas and ethical ambiguities will find it an absolutely essential watch.

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Film – Avengers: Age of Ultron

Say what you will about the Marvel Cinematic Universe – formulaic hitmaker, nostalgic button-pusher, miraculous blockbuster franchise – I still love it, even when I’m apologizing for its flaws and excesses. And yes, the much-anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) possesses its share of flaws and excesses, rough edges that could have used some sanding down. On the other hand, I still found it highly satisfying: breathless, funny, thrilling, and chock-full of the iconic heroes of my youth, including some Avengers second-stringers I was very excited to see come to life on the big screen.

The installment begins with a full-on assault of a H.Y.D.R.A. base in the fictional eastern European nation of Sokovia, where the Avengers are tracking down the missing sceptor of Loki. But they get much more than they bargained for: not only do they face off against two experimentally enhanced humans – the twins Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) – but they stumble across the seeds of a complex new artificial intelligence. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) decides to develop this AI into an invincible new peace-keeping technology, and lures Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) into helping him. Alas, that famous Stark inventiveness has always had its short-sighted side, and his experiment spawns Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a robot whose notions of “peace in our time” turn out to be decidedly more pure and sinister than Stark ever imagined.

Without getting much further into it, I suppose that’s an adequate, brushstroke summary of the plot, which is more or less a structural and thematic mirror of its predecessor. As in the original, the fractious, exceptional individuals that make up the Avengers are first torn apart by their differences – with a little help from the villains – but then rally, with the moral guidance of Captain America (Chris Evans, still pitch perfect in the part), to present a unified front against a threat to the world. Ultron wants to eradicate humanity and evolve a new species, but he’s more or less the same type of villain as Loki: a maniacal trickster, with legions of minions at his disposal for the Avengers to systematically obliterate.

It’s a successful formula, and a solid framework on which to hang the series’ raison d’être: clever, engaging character interactions between the team’s iconic heroes. As usual, Joss Whedon’s dialogue zings and sings, full of witty lines and clever rejoinders. The ensemble dynamic – even complicated as it is by its small army of new and recurring characters – is as exuberant and winning as ever. Whedon has always been good at fast-paced interplay between disparate team members, and he hasn’t lost his touch.

He also pleasantly surprised me by scaling back the story focus on the MCU’s dominant A-listers – Captain America, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Iron Man – in favor of the characters who don’t have their own franchises. It was a pleasure to see extra attention given to Bruce Banner, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Alas, Johansson and Ruffalo are shotgunned into a romance that capitalizes on their chemistry, but diminishes Black Widow’s agency and resourcefulness. Not exactly a feather in Whedon’s cap, regressing Johansson – to me, the walkaway superstar of the franchise – into much more conventional, supporting-role spaces. Meanwhile Hawkeye, ever the butt of a joke, has a nice subplot painting him as the team’s “glue guy;” finally the wise-cracking Hawkeye I loved as a kid has found his way to the big screen. Renner isn’t my ideal incarnation of Marvel’s unlikely archer, but he comes closer here than ever.

The film also introduces three more great, lesser-known Marvel characters: Quicksilver (Taylor-Johnson), Scarlet Witch (Olsen), and the Vision (Paul Bettany). All three are introduced in lore-bending but effective fashion, integrated well in light of the limited time allotted to the task. While we don’t really get to know them too deeply, their powers are perfectly rendered, and their surface personalities, at least, are true to the lore.

So what’s not to like? Well, for one, there’s a certain level of structural and thematic predictability – some attributable to MCU formulism, others born of Whedon’s familiar writing tactics. There are hand-wavey plot transitions that gave me “wait-what?” moments. (The vision pool? The Vision’s Frankenstein-like birth?) Some of the story decisions (the Banner-Natasha romance, the “Science Bros” subplot) felt like fan-service pandering…or maybe the greasy fingerprints of studio interference. There’s Stark’s dismaying remorselessness in light of his disastrous decisions. And there’s the ever-worrying trend of wanton destruction, collateral damage, and civilian casualties that tend to cloud these otherwise light-hearted spectacles. (A lengthy, middle-stretch slugfest between Iron Man and Hulk – while it has thematic and emotional payoff, at least – reminded me, dispiritingly, of Peter Jackson’s King Kong dinosaur battle. I felt bludgeoned.)

In the greater scheme of things, and in the moment, these issues didn’t particularly bother me; I was more or less swept along by the colorful, exciting fun of it all. These are characters, after all, that lodged themselves into my pop culture psyche as a kid, and I’m still a little amazed at how well they’ve translated to the big screen thirty-odd years later. Is the continuity getting too overpopulated? Probably. Can the MCU sustain its hit-making prowess without shaking up its formula now and then? I do wonder. But as chaotic and messy as the universe is getting, my enthusiasm just isn’t flagging. Avengers: Age of Ultron is imperfect, but I still enjoyed the hell out of it.

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Novel: The Buried Life by Carrie Patel

Debut author Carrie Patel’s The Buried Life (2015) is a dystopic mystery set in Recoletta, a subterranean city located in…where, now? This is one of the questions that propels this breezy, engaging SF mystery.

Liesl Malone, a determined inspector for Recoletta’s municipal police, is joined by a dashing new partner named Rafe Sundar for an important case: looking into the murder of a member of the city’s ruling council. Their investigation, which takes them through the dark, murky warrens of the underground city, only scratches the surface of what turns out to by a wider conspiracy, which also entangles young Jane Lin. Jane is a laundress whose access to powerful clients in the wealthy quarter embroils her in parallel intrigues. Malone and Jane don’t know it, but they’re curiosity and determination has set them on a collision course with each other, with history, and with Recoletta’s turbulent future.

The Buried Life is a bracing and accessible read, full of nicely honed turns of phrase and entertaining banter. And I grew rather fond of its well rendered characters as they doggedly search for the truth underlying their reality. The story action is rife with compelling ingredients, from high society balls to government conspiracies, romantic encounters to action setpieces. Unfortunately, in my opinion the novel did fall down a little bit on its setting and world-building. Recoletta only came alive visually in snatches, and the deeper realities of the futuristic scenario aren’t examined in all that much detail. Chiefly concerning: why does society remain underground when the surface seems perfectly recovered from whatever catastrophe befell it in the past? A corner of my mind was hoping for an answer to this question at the end, preferably something integral to the plot, but it never quite comes. But the ride, overall, is a fun and promising one, an engaging retrofuture procedural with a winning cast. Here’s hoping the sequel addresses some of the novel’s meta-issues.

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Spy 100, #4: Goldfinger

Hallelujah. The final James Bond movie on the list, Goldfinger (1964), has been dutifully processed. I wasn’t impressed. Actually, let me put it this way: I thought it was wretched.

Goldfinger pits smarmy superspy James Bond (Sean Connery) up against Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), a seedy dealer in precious metals who’s clearly up to no good. Tasked with revealing Goldfinger’s evil schemes, Bond plants himself in the villain’s path, quasi-befriends him, and then finds himself neck-deep in Goldfinger’s elaborate plans to hijack the US gold reserve in Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Okay, I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect a best-of spy movie list not to lionize Bond. And Goldfinger is iconic stuff, not just within the franchise but within the entire genre. There’s legendary Bond girl Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). There’s memorable adversary Oddjob (Harold Sakata). The famously tricked-out Aston Martin. The classic scene with Bond on a table, about to be bisected by a laser. That undying exchange of dialogue: “Do you expect me talk?” “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” And the lavish Fort Knox setpiece. All of these ingredients would influence subsequent Bond movies, and spy filmdom in general, for decades to come.

But holy cow, is this a tedious yawner. Bond’s “best” film, by this list’s reckoning, is dating very, very poorly. The plot is a confused muddle. The villains’ decisions are illogical and convenient. The fight choreography is clumsy. The technological eyeball kicks have lost their luster. And my God, is Bond ever an unlikeable hero. What an entitled, sexist asshole.

The fourth best spy movie of all time? I’m not convinced it’s the fourth best Bond movie of all time. Certainly From Russia With Love (#39) and Casino Royale (#73) are superior, at the very least. Alas, the best thing about Goldfinger is that it is the last James Bond movie I will ever have to watch.

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Film: Force Majeure

Force MajeureThe Swedish film Force Majeure (2014) is a long, difficult watch, but it rewards the effort – provided you’re interested in stunning scenery, awkward cinéma vérité stylings, and painfully insightful gender subtexts. (How’s that for a soft sell?)

In the French Alps, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) take their two young children on a posh holiday to a ski resort. It’s a relaxing, indulgent time for the family until the unexpected occurs: a controlled avalanche goes awry, nearly engulfing them. Ebba moves instinctively to protect the children, but Tomas, in a moment of panic, races to save himself. When the snow settles, no harm is done but everything is utterly changed, as Tomas’ momentary knee-jerk cowardice drives a wedge between the husband and wife, and sends Tomas spiraling toward an emotional breakdown.

Force Majeure is the kind of patient, slow-building movie that’s sure to bore some viewers while mesmerizing others. I fell into the latter camp, lured by its breathtaking cinematography, realistic performances, and the way its simple scenes build a complex picture. At first it comes across like a painstaking, bludgeoningly honest character study, but eventually reveals itself to be a scathing indictment of traditional gender roles – especially conventional male self-image. Heroic, strong, knowledgeable, in-charge…Force Majeure lays bare the weakness and hypersensitivity lurking underneath this posturing façade. I’ve seen this film billed as biting comedy, but it didn’t remotely tickle my funny bone; this is a nuanced and penetrating monument to the enduring toxicity of modern male behavior. Hard to stomach, but very well done.

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TV: Daredevil (Season 1)

Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m an unreserved fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for the first few episodes of Daredevil’s first season – now streaming on Netflix – I worried I might be experiencing some superhero fatigue. This third foray into episodic TV for the MCU starts rather slowly, introducing its bleak underbelly in grim, gritty and hypermasculine fashion. It’s a drastic tonal shift away from its more upbeat (Agent Carter) and more disposable (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) cousins on ABC, and while immediately superior to both of those shows, I found myself resisting its more realistic language, shocking violence, troubling torture scenes, and tired antihero themes. But I soldiered through these concerns, and while I’m still not enamored of its more problematic aspects, I’m glad I hung in there, because this may be the most accomplished Marvel property yet: a compelling slow-burn with deeper characterizations, a stronger created family, and richer sociopolitical themes than any of the movies.

It’s the story of Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), a young lawyer who sets up shop, along with best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), in his childhood neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen in New York. As a child, Matt lost his eyesight while saving someone’s life during a truck accident – but in the process, gained heightened powers in his other senses as a result of the mysterious chemicals that blinded him. Matt is determined to clean up his city, helping the downtrodden as an attorney during the day, but also prowling the streets at night to dole out vigilante justice.

Matt and Foggy’s first client is Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a secretary for a construction firm who stumbles across corporate corruption and lands in hot water. The case ultimately brings her into the firm as an employee, and sets the trio on a collision course with the reclusive Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a crooked developer with his own vision for saving the city. Fisk’s coalition of criminal gangs feeds off the weak and the poor, but for Fisk, strong-arming methods are a means to an end: revitalizing Hell’s Kitchen, which was devastated in the Battle of New York. The horrid criminal means he’s using, however, make him a target for Matt, whose enhanced senses make him hyperaware of the suffering Fisk’s plans have caused. He’s determined to stop Fisk by any means necessary…but soon finds himself at war with his own conscience, as his methods in rising to the task send him into highly questionable ethical territory.

It took several episodes for me to warm up to this series. The first two hours in particular are heavy on the over-familiar trappings of the origin story. I found the pacing ponderous, and tonally it is dark, dark, dark in a way that, as a fan of Mark Waid’s more light-hearted take on the character, didn’t immediately appeal to me. The fight choreography is spectacular, but it’s also unpleasantly ultraviolent. Matt’s propensity for beating and torturing perps to get information is highly problematic in these early hours, and not just because it reinforces the myth of torture’s effectiveness as an interrogation method. It also makes Matt difficult to get behind, especially as it turns out to take several more episodes before the viewer gets a real handle on his motivations. Additionally, Matt presents rather like Batman in the Christopher Nolan movies, which is to say he’s the least interesting part of the show. This problem goes away over time as the slow-build strategy plays out, and Cox eventually won me over in the role, but it was something of a barrier to entry.

With the exception of Matt, the series otherwise nails character right out of the gate: Henson and Woll are terrific, as are Rosario Dawson (as Matt’s nurse friend Claire Temple) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (as intrepid reporter Ben Urich). The early groundwork building these characters pays off later, when the raised stakes of the escalating war between good and evil lends emotional weight to their every interaction. The show doesn’t scrimp on the other side of the conflict, either. Once Wilson Fisk enters the picture, the series spends as much time building the personalities and relationships of the bad guys. This is an area, in my opinion, where the MCU movies frequently drop the ball: rendering the villains as more than cardboard targets for the climactic battle. D’Onofrio’s Kingpin is the most richly realized villain in the MCU so far, and the writers surround him with terrific support from the likes of Toby Leonard Moore, Bob Gunton, Ayelet Zurer, Wai Ching Ho, and others. There’s nothing superficial about Fisk, and nothing pat about his complicated interactions with his villainous colleagues. They’re all handled just as carefully, and occasionally as sympathetically, as the heroes. So much so, in fact, that from time to time you’ll forget how monstrous they are…until they inevitably remind you. It makes for very satisfying characterization, all of its impeccably acted.

Meanwhile the plot is suitably complex and riveting, transcending its superhero noir furniture to render pointed political commentary, much in the way that Captain America: The Winter Soldier did. It taps effectively into the American ideological divide, examining the methods and motivations of its opposing forces, and takes both sides to task for the way they go at each other. Perhaps most importantly, Matt’s early brutality isn’t justified away in the manner that, say, Jack Bauer’s is on 24. He examines his choices, and grows, and alters his path accordingly…which for me, anyway, at least partially redeems the deplorable early viciousness.

Note: this is not your typical Marvel show. It’s much more hard-hitting and upsetting. But its arc is powerful and satisfying, and in the end, I found myself caring more about these characters than any of the bigger name movie heroes. I’m conflicted, thanks to those uncomfortable early impressions, but I’m also fully invested and deeply impressed. I suspect this is just the beginning of a long and prosperous run.

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Novel: All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

Olen Steinhauer is an absolute master of spy fiction. The process of reading through his catalogue has built this impression over time, but his latest, All the Old Knives (2015), seals the deal for me. By Steinhauer standards it’s a slim read, but it’s no less rich and intricate than usual, and in some ways more compact and intense.

An old hand of the CIA, Henry Pelham, flies halfway around the world to Carmel, California – ostensibly on routine matters, but in reality to meet with a retired colleague, Celia Favreau, who also happens to be his former lover. Their career paths crossed in Vienna in the mid-2000s – Henry after a rough stint in Moscow, Celia an emerging service star fresh off an assignment in Dublin. But their fortunes, and their romance, took a brutal turn, shattered by a terrorist act that would loom like a black cloud over the officers of the Vienna station for years to come. Now, years later, the ex-lovers reunite in an exclusive, quiet restaurant, a rendezvous that commences with a breezy, innocent surface. But there’s tension bubbling just underneath their cool conversation that relentlessly digs back into the haunting mysteries of their intelligence-career pasts, revealing hidden agendas.

Steinhauer’s brief foreword suggests that the idea for All the Old Knives began as something of a formal exercise: an attempt to tell an espionage tale in the form of a dinner conversation. Ultimately he doesn’t hew too rigorously to that idea, relying on flashback and interior monologue to send his protagonists – both Henry and Celia take turns delivering first-person narration – back to Europe in order to backfill their history. But the general conceit, of two former colleagues and lovers mining the past together over dinner, is the crux of the story, and it’s masterfully executed. Beyond the bells and whistles of espionage, the novel succeeds on the strength of the nuanced relationship between the two spies: their career history together, how they came together, what eventually tore them apart. When each flashback ends and we return to the table, a new layer of comprehension is unlocked, and the interplay between them takes on new meaning.

Revealing more would be criminal. Suffice it to say that it’s yet another brilliant book. The pace is blistering, the plot is involved and compelling, and most importantly, the characters are accessible, convincing, and richly imagined. I suspect this one is going to make a great movie some day.

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TV: Salamander (Mini-Series)

Salamander_DVDSad to say, I think the new reality of the Internet edge has rather taken the teeth out of the conspiracy thriller genre. With so much flagrant evidence of corruption and injustice on display in the world on a daily basis, and so much of it ignored or quickly forgotten, how powerful can fiction about concealed corruption and injustice be? Yet the genre holds a place in my heart, and so I tried Salamander (2012), a twelve-part Belgian miniseries with a classic conspiracy core. Deploying a dizzying mix of Dutch, French, and German, the series deploys – and rather overextends – a promising central idea, with professional if unspectacular results.

It begins with a heist: a team of shady criminals, led by badass Joachim Klaus (Koen De Bouw), tunnels into the safe deposit vault of a bank in Brussels and empties the personal boxes of sixty-six powerful individuals. The banker, Raymond Jonkhere (Mike Verdrengh), doesn’t report it to police, however. Why? Because the stolen materials belong to members of a secret Belgian elite: politicians, businessmen, officials, and others who comprise an organization of upper-class criminals known as Salamander. The clash between Salamander and their unknown enemy stays off the radar, at first, but once the extortion demands start flying, the country quickly falls into disarray. Stepping into this clandestine war is intrepid police inspector Paul Gerardi (Filip Peeters), who quietly gets wind of things, starts an investigation, and lands himself squarely in the crosshairs of both organizations.

Salamander consists of a number of promising elements. It’s generally well performed, attractively produced, and more or less tells an engaging story, tying the motives for this secret war into Belgium’s history. In terms of tone and subject matter, it loosely resembles shows like 24 and MI-5: twisty, involved, dark and intense. It seems to have all the earmarks of a successful conspiracy thriller…but unfortunately something’s missing. A spark, a message, maybe a character or two to hang your hat on? As a fly in the ointment for the bad guys, Gerardi is a passable hero: shaggy, bearded, dripping with integrity. I’m not sure why the ladies fall all over him, or why he’s so central to events; he seems one step removed from the true conflict, thrust into things by chance and misfortune. Peeters does his level best with the material, but he’s still kind of hard to get behind. The rest of the cast is…professionally serious? And meanwhile the plot is bogged down by expository dialogue and at least one whopper of an unlikely contrivance. In the end, I watched it through with clinical interest and was moderately entertained, but also wondered if perhaps the subtitles and high production values were masking what might otherwise have been a rather empty background watch. It will push a few buttons for the already interested, but general viewers will probably bounce off it.

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