Lean on Pete directed by Andrew Haigh [8/10]

Lean on Pete review

How wonderful the world of movies! Released last year, Lean on Pete only made it to Australian cinemas now. I’ve been hanging out for it. I don’t know author Willy Vlautin well, having only read one of his novels (and not Lean on Pete), nor was I a rabid fan of his prolific band, Richmond Fontaine, but his stature has grown and this American adaptation to the screen had a solid reputation. The wait has been more than worthwhile: this is a pitch-perfect low-key stunner. Charlie Plummer transcends the role of Charley Thompson, a slender, likeable fifteen-year-old living with his struggling dad in Portland, Oregon. Charley picks up a stable roustabout job working for an irascible trainer (a great role for Steve Buscemi) and falls under the spell of Lean on Pete, a fifteen-year-old quarterhorse racer in decline. Nothing is over dramatized and it takes the viewer some minutes to appreciate how dire young Charley’s situation is, and then, of course, the bottom falls out. Simple, raw scenes of the rural and city fringes of the United States, carefully centered around the plucky figure of Charley, are filmed with crystalline intensity. Vlautin is famed as a chronicler of the American down-and-out, and the relentless assault, in growing crescendos, on Charley’s humanity and pride are almost unbearable to watch. I found the final third a ratification of film’s grandeur and I’m sure you will too. Watch Lean on Pete, would you?

Maniac directed by Cary Fukunaga – Episodes 6 to 10 [9/10]

TV series Maniac review

I rated the first episode of this stellar TV series as 9/10, then watched the first half of the season to accord 8/10. Well, the final five episodes of “Maniac” ratchet up the weirdness and atmosphere even more. Jonah Hill in particular amps up the theatrics as he plays characters inside Owen Milgrim’s head and Emma Stone, as Annie Landsberg, remains flawless. The pharmaceutical trial spirals out of control as strange and wonderful fantasies seem to draw Owen and Annie together even inside their heads, while Dr. Fujita, Dr. Mantleray, and the latter’s mother play out another drama altogether. Sumptuously filmed and precisely choreographed, the series finishes on a high. Oh, and I roared with laughter during one scene with Owen as a high-pitched Icelandic spy.

Kin Soundtrack by Mogwai [6/10]

Mogwai are by now almost elder statesmen of dramatized, soft-and-loud, elegiac-and-distortion-heavy instrumental rock. They have increasingly focused on soundtracks and now we have “Kin,” backgrounding the recently released science fiction movie. A soundtrack is by definition music of muted impact but Mogwai’s modus operandi is highly congruent with such works, and Kin is a fine, atmospheric album that walks no new ground but soothes and bathes. Guitar squalls follow light piano motifs follow spooky synths follow thundering bass follow drifting feedback. The longer the track, the better according to me, so the highlights include the stately, ratcheting-up title track, the piano-led “Guns Down,” and the superb synthy rave-up “Donuts.” One for the study or late-night headphones.

The Last Everything by Frank Kennedy [8/10]

Frank Kennedy The Last Everything review

How long since I read a grand civilization-spanning novel? Echoes, perhaps muted, of Asimov in Frank Kennedy’s latest, “The Latest Everything.” No plot spoilers beyond what’s in the blurb: Jamie Sheridan, fleeing his backwoods town, finds himself being hunted by people he’s known all his life. The plot escalates, thickens, then spirals into a sprawling tale involving galactic forces timetabling his inevitable death. Jamie is an innocent beautifully portrayed, as are his two young fellow battlers. Kennedy is a sure-handed stylist and the book never misses a beat. Be swept up!

Murder in Mud by Roland Strong [7/10]

Roland Strong Murder in Mud review

After every serial killer thriller, shouldn’t one read a cozy mystery? Gentle and intricate, the clues being the point, a la Agatha C, they’re a wonderful antidote. Murder in Mud, the second in a series featuring author and home husband Oliver Atkinson, is a lovely example of the sub-genre. In the first series book, his mind was inhabited by a female “hitchhiker,” a ghostly presence, in this book the hitchhiker is a grumpy Scotsman who prompts Oliver to investigate a murder involving the ghost’s great, great grandson. Oliver insinuates himself into the investigation and the plot unfurls like clockwork. Author Strong writes in a breezy, atmospheric style, the dialogue is sharp, and the other characters are well fleshed out. A breezy read that tickles the mind. Most enjoyable.

Boy Erased directed by Joel Edgerton [9/10]

Boy Erased movie review

What an unanticipated gem! Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, Boy Erased, has been brought to the screen with consummate artistry and intelligence by Joel Edgerton, fresh from his triumph with a very different film, Loving. I approached “Boy Erased” with trepidation, not wanting to witness close up the moral perfidy of conversion therapy. I thought I knew all about conversion therapy: using tactics akin to military psychological torture, with physical violence often thrown in, religious zealots set out to “convert” LGBT Christians into “normality,” a process intrinsically doomed to fail. In Boy Erased, Jared, a sweet, earnest, gay eighteen-year-old agrees with his minister father and his mother to be sent to a short day-stay conversion camp. Lucas Hedges is unbelievably powerful in his portrayal of Jared, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman don’t miss as beat as dad and mum, and Edgerton himself makes the flesh cringe as the camp’s overpowering, sociopathic head. As we witness with unfurling horror the diabolical process used to break down the camp’s young men and women, and as we see Jared struggling mightily to reconcile what he is seeing and experiencing, with his love for his parents,and his faith, the tension cooks and cooks. The climax is thrilling and then an extended aftermath rounds out the story with style. Eduard Grau’s cinematography, centered around close-ups of Jarrod’s questing face, is artful, and for once in a movie of this type, the discreet soundtrack blends perfectly. Stunning, not a moment awry.

The Absent Man by Robert Enright [5/10]

Robert Enright The Absent Man review

The Absent Man” is the second in an urban fantasy thriller series set in a sumptuously imagined Britain alongside a shadowy world of “Others.” Our rather baroque hero, Bermuda Jones, works for a police organization charged with dealing with evil creatures “crossing over,” and he is an appealing mixture of India-Jones-bravado, wisecracks, courage, and dejection. Author Enright’s plotting is nice and tight, places (this time centering on Glasgow) come to life, and characterisation is vivid if sometimes overwrought. I enjoyed this and its predecessor and will follow the series along, but I wish I didn’t have to reread and reread character motivations and themes. Action scenes are written very well but the general writing can be quite awkward. A readable, exciting adventure in a beguiling double-world.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web directed by Fede Alvarez [8/10]

The Girl in the Spider's Web review

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.

Bosch Season 4 Episodes 6-10 [9/10]

Bosch Season 4 review

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!

Atomic Habits by James Clear [6/10]

James Clear Atomic Habits review

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.