“Cardinal” began life based on the spellbinding police procedurals written by Canadian novelist Giles Blunt (the first one and among the best was Forty Words for Sorrow), but quickly established a separate life on the screen. The first two seasons were hypnotic and the third, one of my 2019 highlights, was almost unbearably dark and suspenseful. Season 4 is billed as the finale and I wish it were not so. Set in chilling Canadian snow country, the cinematography and scenic direction are as controlled and beautiful as in the first three seasons. After a harrowing opening murder scene, the plot swirls for the first three episodes, then settles into a duel between evil and the two detective heroes of “Cardinal,” John Cardinal (played as ever more worn-down but indefatigable, by wonderful Billy Campbell) and his junior partner Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse shines in this role). The embers of the attraction between the two of them glow. As ever, the supporting cast is stellar, and Shawn Doyle exudes tormented evil as the key opponent. The final two episodes, set in the white, white, frigid snow, pound with tension, and the denouement is apt and sweet. A triumph.
Grandiloquent space opera grounded in the lives of real people flows from the pen of Frank Kennedy. “The Promised Few” is the conclusion of his tetralogy, The Impossible Future, and it delivers as a maximum-octane, intelligent finale. Over the previous three instalments, we followed the lives of three young Americans – awkward Jamie, joshing Michael, and composed Samantha – thrust into the sprawling space empire of the tyrannical Collectorate. At the end of Book 3, James was a rising god overseeing god-human hybrids and immortals, now ravaging the Collectorate; Samantha was Collectorate nobility captured by James; and Michael was a semi-reluctant rebel within the Collectorate. The Promised Few plunges us into frenetic action interspersed with brilliantly conceived and executed space empire diplomacy. Kennedy’s dialogue is whip-smart, his control of the rocketing pace is wonderful, and the many battle scenes thrill. Imaginative plot twists abound. Best of all, the grandiosity of the war and diplomacy sit alongside deeply rooted character studies; this is that rarest type of space opera, one that marries the personal with the vast. And, in the grand tradition of this genre, the entire series of four books is suffused with the mystery of the Jewels, powers that choreograph the fate of all three of our characters, and indeed of the world. The Promised Few is a superb closing volume of a brilliant series. Indulge yourself and sink in!
A prolific reader of prose, I struggle with poetry but I enjoy the struggle. “Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose” is a swag of essays, over three decades, by a celebrated poet talking about poems and poetry and the practice and aesthetics of creativity, and while perhaps much of Kay Ryan’s specific commentary on and reviews of other poets’ poems flew past me, simply because I hadn’t read the poems, I do love sweet style with a beat, and this book swept me up with its prose beauty. I enjoyed her trenchant, unusual reflections called “Notes on the danger of notebooks.” Recommended for those deep into poetry or the mysteries of creativity.
Indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers last collaborated with Conor Oberst on a terrific album, but her latest solo sophomore effort, “Punisher,” is even more impressive, a layered mix of contemplative, electronic-backed songs and upbeat, pounding anthems. Impressionistic lyrics explore yearning and dread and dislocation. Her voice, able to switch between whispery, penetrating urgency and soaring emotion, is particularly memorable. A stellar supporting crew of musicians and singers (including Oberst) never overpower. Highlights include the rousing, multi-voice chorus on “The End Is Near,” topped by crazed trumpets; the heartbreaking “Moon Song”; and the lovely, plaintive “Kyoto” buttressed by a burbling bass line, as she sings “dreaming through Kyoto skies.”
“D (A Tale of Two Worlds)” is the first YA novel from acclaimed stylist Michel Faber, but it very much fits into the “also suitable for adults” category, so I came to it expectant of the pleasures of books from, say, Phillip Pullman. And so it turned out to be, Faber crafting a fable reminiscent of the Narnia classics but laced with Dickensian shadows. Dhikilo, a teenage refugee from Africa living in England, is roped in by an absent-minded professor to jump to a strange land (partnered with the professor’s dog who is also, naturally, a sphinx) in search of the theft of the letter “D” from the world. The plot bolts along with numerous entertaining adventures of the type one would expect, strange creatures proliferate, and much fun is had with “D”-less words. Dialogue throughout is a treat and a certain modernity is referenced in asides.. Faber is an artisan of the varied style, and in this novel he adopts an earnest, YA-ish clarity with undertones of enough sophistication to keep adults amused. The tale smoothly concludes with pleasing results and overall, D (A Tale of Two Worlds) is a stylish, energetic romp.
Will Ferrell is not the most convincing actor (and in this film his age jars), but he is funny and can write funny, and in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” he tackles a worthy target, the music phenomenon that I personally abhor but is undeniably a global unifying musical phenomenon. The storyline is as kitsch as the subject matter, with Icelandic lifelong music partners Lars (Ferrell himself) and Sigrit (a wonderful performance by Rachel McAdams) chase their Eurovision dream against seemingly impossible odds. In quasi-mockumentary style, we accompany Lars and Sigrit, a bumbling pair with some decent Abba-style songs, to the finals in Edinburgh, where mayhem and bubblegum music and extravaganzas reign. The script surely intends us to be sympathetic to the duo, but that interferes with the comedy, and the number of truly comic scenes (a couple of madcap ones, one in which Lars insults blithe American tourists) is way lower than it should be. The cast of Eurovision aspirants is strong, especially Dan Stevens (one of my favorite actors) playing an oily but somehow charming Russian superstar. Bubbling under the surface of what surely one might expect to be a manic satire is genuine affection for the Eurovision scene, and that accords “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” with its own gravitas but saps the hope of laughs. Overall, a diversion with some funny moments.
I’ve recently read a fascinating book about breathing, so the opportunity to learn more about our lungs could not be skipped. In “Breath Taking: The Power, Fragility, and Future of Our Extraordinary Lungs” [don’t have cover image yet], pulmonologist Michael Stephen offers an expert’s perspective on the subject, stylishly presented in terms comprehensible even to this layperson. The introductory chapters on the evolution of our breathing apparatus and its structure and functionality are deftly unwound. I was especially taken with his startling (to me, remember, I’m a neophyte) explanations of the differences between human and avian lungs and breathing. The profound impact breathing, and hence our lungs, have on health and well-being is covered without fanfare. The second half of the book details the incredible sophistication of the lungs’ defence mechanisms, and the plethora of ways in which they can be breached, from smoke inhalation to lung cancer and other illnesses. The tale of cystic fibrosis is especially harrowing, both depressing and encouraging. Covid-19 even receives summary, early treatment. All in all, this is a splendid everyperson introduction and resource.
“ZeroZeroZero” is a lavish, bleak mini saga of a massive smuggled cocaine deal, weaving between three equally nihilistic tales. In Monterrey, Mexico, a soldier (played with mesmerizing intensity by Harold Torres) involves his squad in a cartel assembling the drugs and shipping them to Italy. In Calabria, an aging, evil overlord (another stellar performance, by Adriano Chiaramida) spars with his aspiring grandson as they await the shipment. And the dealmakers in between are a Florida family (memorable acting by Andrea Riseborough, Gabriel Byrne, and Dane DeHaan). A study in evildoing, “ZeroZeroZero” is not for everyone; death stalks every scene and no lily-white hero leaps out. Instead, the eight equally gripping episodes cook ferociously, tension bubbling, amidst sumptuous cinematography and an industrial-brooding soundtrack. As someone endlessly baffled by and obsessed with humankind’s potential for darkness, I was held in thrall. Only at the end, when the three stories are played out and intersect, was I let down somewhat; the overall narrative arc seems to lack change and resolution. Be that as it may, “ZeroZeroZero” is compelling, black-hearted viewing.
Long tracks of chugging psych-folk, overlaid by singer (and band leader) Jeremy Earls’s gentle falsetto … Woods is both easy listening and somehow unsettling, shifting as you listen. They have been around for years but I only cottoned onto them with their 2017 “Love Is Love,” which I found to be overly sentimental. “Strange to Explain” also feels optimistic but more steely and varied, and it has played again and again on my turntable (of course I don’t have a turntable but that expression is too precious to ditch). Songs flow with electronic piano and mellotrons, and even strategically placed brass, playing off against the typical precise guitar. Poetic lyrics explore life and loss and the times. Highlights include the driving “Can’t Get Out,” a lament of desperation; the swaying, sublime title track; the jammy instrumental “Weekend Wind”; and the pulsing, sad “Fell So Hard.” A ray of musical light indeed.
Out of all the “writers riffing amidst a pandemic” offerings so far, “Intimations: Six Essays” is a fine contribution, simply because Zadie Smith is such a rhythmic, complex, intelligent stylist. No matter whether she is talking about the guilt we all feel during Covid-19, the notion that we must not complain, or exploring the dynamics of random street encounters, Smith grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and propels her along. A withering blast against the contempt infecting modern politics and discourse sits alongside a reflection on an extremist sign holder in a public square. Intimations backs you away from obsession with masks, numbers, and horrors, into a more nuanced, prospective view. Recommended if you’re like me and need the balm of excellent writing in these troubled times.