The superhero film genre is in deep schtuck. What was once a wondrous sci-fi-category is now mired in overkill stupidity. Look, I know box offices continue to like anything from the Marvel or DC stables, but I can barely watch those, and each time I do, I regret it (see my take on Venom for example and who can forget how infantile “Thor: Ragnarok” was). But all is not lost. “Legion” was fabulous, in all the ways a superhero movie is meant to be, and now “The Umbrella Academy,” based on a Dark Horse Comics (never heard of them, which is apposite) series, shows tons of promise in the first episode. The premise is that an eccentric billionaire has trained up seven superheroes with different talents and now Daddy is dead. Something will happen! Tom Hopper is exactly the right kind of stolid as Luther, the eldest Umbrella Academy member, young Aidan Gallagher shines as Number Five, and Ellen Page captures reticent Vanya beautifully. The scenes are lush, the music fab, and the overall vibe is dark and expectant. Episode 1 is mostly setup but that task is carried out with proper intelligence, and I look forward to continuing onward.
Where can Ricky Gervais go after all the places he’s been? “After Life” is an intriguing choice – a bittersweet marriage of Gervais piss-take scorn and sentimentality, the tale of an ordinary English journo bereft and nihilistic after his wife’s cancer death – but the opening episode works beautifully. We walk with slumpy, morose, “kill me soon” Tony, through a day in his little pretty English village, as he interacts with colleagues, especially his brother-in-law Matt (wonderfully portrayed by Tom Basden), his Alzheimer’s-ridden father, even his postman. Some of the trademark Gervais scabrous humor almost set me hooting, but even the less wild scenes possessed great, intelligent, quiet funniness. All in all, the first episode works really well, but I guess the question is – what will become of what seems a really hokey plot?
“Life After Life” introduced me to Kate Atkinson’s imagination and prose, and I’m an admirer of her Jackson Brodie series. “Transcription” is somewhat of a detour, a literary post-WWII spy thriller set in England. A young precocious woman, recruited to perform a minor role in a wartime counter-espionage department, discovers a decade later, as a BBC producer, that the past never goes away. Atkinson’s lead character is wonderful and her writing is immersive, but spy fiction is a demanding genre, and a right-angle plot twist at the end left me a little nonplussed. Fans of the current revival in wartime and post-war stories could well lap this us and I raced through the read in Atkinson’s masterful hands.
Dogged lawyer Dan Grant and harried investigator Jayne Brett set off on their third outing in “The Innocent Ones.” Neil White offers an easy, close-up style and a twisty plot, revolving around a murdered journalist following up a cold case of child killings. The two protagonists are easily appealing if a little blancmange in the modern day of heroes with huge handicaps. The Yorkshire settings are well portrayed. Recommended especially for fans of stalwart authors like Peter Robinson.
The second, much awaited release by Toronto grunge rockers Dilly Dally, “Heaven” is uncommercial but full of loveliness. Kate Monks, the core of the group, has one of those voices you’ll not forget, stretching and cooing, shredding the larynx, and soaring with a stratospheric rasp. At the group’s best, on the opener “I Feel Free,” the combination of small-girl, wispy voice and ballistic chorus, accompanied by atmospheric guitar and solid rhythms, is memorable. “Sober Motel,” sweet then screeching, some kind of paean to longing and sobriety, concludes with a voice/guitar finale. “Marijuana,” an ode to the substance, seesaws from plaintive wonder to raucous insistence. Although the unremitting holler dullens the experience somewhat, this blend of Pixies and Courtney Love, is most impressive and even enjoyable.
The ninth in the high-octane spy thriller series starring Dan Roy, “Scorpion Sting” is a quick, almost satisfying read. The plot revolves around our hero on the trail of a killer until he hears a mayday from his old flame, Russian ultra assassin Scorpion; the two unite to tackle a fearsome plot by an ultra terrorist. That one-line description sounds like a parody and therein lies the issue: Mick Bose writes well, the action is quite compelling, the many locales are sketched vividly enough, but … something about the overall plot arc invites feelings of déjà vu. If you love this genre – and I do – grab “Scorpion Sting” for a zinger of a read, but beware of the novel’s limitations.
Older runners will immediately recognize the cover of “The Incomplete Book of Running as part homage, part spoof of Jim Fixx’s “The Complete Book of Running,” the bible of the nascent 1970s running boom. Indeed Peter Sagal attributes acquiring the running bug, as an overweight teen, from his wise dad who saw the light according to Fixx. Sagal’s book is nothing like Fixx’s, less a prescriptive paean, more an extended memoir and wise shoulder, but it is nonetheless an inspiring work. I loved his immersive descriptions of key marathons and his dive into the question of why we runners hurt ourselves was welcome to me at this point in my life. The book also reverberates as a memoir of a comedian whose life plunges low after a divorce. Sagal’s lynchpin is the tale of his terrorism-blighted 2013 Boston Marathon guiding a blind runner. There’s plenty of blindingly brilliant writing here (it’s not easy bringing a run to life, as I know) and the book is artfully constructed. Would I recommend “The Incomplete Book of Running” to a non-runner considering the sport? Possibly not, but if you’ve ever donned joggers and hit the roads, this is a zesty and stylish reminder of why you should be out there right now.
The marketing of “The Death of Noah Glass” suggests a literary mystery, and while there is a puzzle nestled in the book’s pages, this novel produces few thrills. Rather it’s a nuanced, immersive journey with a son and a daughter of an art historian suddenly found dead in a pool. The languorous (in a good way) narrative splits between Sydney and Palermo, and the interspersed back story of Noah Glass fills out the details. All three characters are complex, worthy individuals tossed around by their natures and by fate, and Gail Jones, a splendid writer, delves deep into their natures. Locales are vividly drawn. If the plot offers more, in the way of thrillerly thrills, than it promises, that highlights the gentleness of “The Death of Noah Glass,” a reflectiveness that is memorable.
Banging out a prequel to a thriving mystery series, ten books strong, doesn’t sound like marketing wisdom, but “The Infirmary,” #11 in the DCI Ryan roster but set in Newcastle in 2014, stands strongly on its own feet. DCI Ryan (note the lack of first name) investigates a particularly vicious serial killer who has just added the police investigator to his victim list. Ryan is a wonderfully drawn, stolid sheriff, and his supporting cast of officers comes alive vividly. The pace rattles along under firm authorial control and the plot is clever in that detailed, police procedural way we’ve grown to love. Ross’s style is engaging with frequent sprinklings of humour or irony. I read the book in a couple of sittings and now look forward to catching up with the full series.
Having enjoyed the part biopic of liberal iconic judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “On the Basis of Sex” (I rated it as 7/10), I was ruing the fact that I’d missed the short Australian season of the more life-encompassing documentary “RBG.” Luckily it has popped up on free-to-air here, so I’ve taken a look. And this is a most fascinating documentary, especially for a non-American who is only vaguely aware of the huge role Supreme Court judges play in political, let alone judicial life in the United States. Ginsburg’s pivotal role in initiating a revolution against discriminatory legislation is interesting enough, but then her more recent role as sensible dissenter on the Supreme Court, during a conservative phase of the country, is most absorbing. The documentary itself is competently unfurled, with plenty of modern-day, frail-but-unbowed Ginsburg on show, and some good interview material. But I sensed something missing. The key moments of drama in Ginsburg’s past are explored but not deeply and something about the “plotting” of the film renders it unexciting. In an era when documentary makers can turn fact into riveting entertainment, “RGB” is interesting to watch but fails to catch hold. One to see but not a highlight.