From its opening scene, the brown-tinged Cold War thriller “The Courier” looks, sounds and feels like a movie out of my teens. Director Dominic Cooke does a masterful job of planting the viewer right there in 1960, the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis. International salesman Greville Wynne is approached by MI6, partnered with the CIA (Rachel Brosnahan gives a perky characterization), and asked to expand his Eastern European bailiwick to Moscow, to act as courier for volunteer Soviet spy Oleg Penkovsky. Wynne, slick and adept at selling through boozing, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a superb performance. Merab Ninidze is almost as wonderful as Penkovsky. Cooke’s unwinding of the straightforward script, which escalates towards Armageddon, is surehanded, and the tension is terrific. The aftermath allows Cumberbatch to portray pathos with gripping dramatics. The Courier is based on a true story, normally a handle that signifies filmic yawning, but this movie is traditional and exciting and nothing more needs be said.
Comedian Kitty Flanagan plays an emotionally tone deaf suburban solicitor amidst a chaotic husband-wife legal practice in “Fisk,” a slyly funny six-part series that is so Melbourne-soaked, both in its tram-in-the-streets atmospherics and in its droll humor, that I can really only recommend it to Australians. That said, apart from one flat episode, the series glitters with chuckle-inducing repartee and a gentleness that is rarely seen these days. The supporting actors playing the shonky firm’s outlandish personnel are brilliant: Ray Sheargold, Julia Zemiro, and especially Aaron Chen as “the Webmaster.” The final episode is guffaw after guffaw. Fisk is understated, subtle pleasure.
“Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It” spoke to me from its opening words. Our frenetic inner self-talk, so necessary to our brilliant human consciousness, can readily spiral into debilitating anxiety and madness, and, as someone who generally regards himself as supremely logical, I find myself periodically hijacked—by myself! Neuroscientist and psychologist Ethan Kross, an expert on the theory and treatment of retrograde self-talk, addresses the subject in a fascinating book that assembles, over seven discrete chapters, lessons and tips and tools for all of us. The case studies beguile . Kross writes engagingly with admirable cogency. If at the end I felt that the menu of chatter-wrangling tools is easier read than employed, that just illustrates the immensity of the task facing us. Chatter is welcome and a ready read.
In my mind, for my reading slate, “Klara and the Sun” seemed a natural progression from Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me, which I read a couple of years ago and labeled a triumph. Both are near-term sci-fi-world examinations of artificial intelligence tackled by literary fiction giants, rather than the science fiction authors we generally turn to for futurism. McEwan’s novel in particular seemed to attract the ire of sci-fi fans, but I have never believed that non-genre novelists cannot tackle the future. Well, Klara and the Sun adopts a similar narrative conceit to Machines Like Me, in that Klara is an Artificial Friend, a synthetic humanoid designed to be used by humans in the home, in the same way that robot Adam was purchased in McEwan’s book. But whilst McEwan considered Adam from the point of view of his human hero, this time we see the world from Klara’s intelligent but askew perspective. Bought by a teenage girl who seems to be constantly ill, Klara gradually unpeels her new world, and, no surprise to any Ishiguro fan, it is a warped, quietly dystopian world. Ishiguro’s deceptive prose style is simple to the point of parody but its strength is a consistency of internal perception, one that sucks the reader in, even as the author deftly reveals what is going on. I found the final third of Klara and the Sun to be emotionally devastating and when I turned the final page, I was struck by the realization that the novel is just as much about love and loneliness as it is about robotics. After The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s only clunker, I can heartily recommend Klara and the Sun.
An imaginative, filmic approach to what is essentially a lecture, “Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet” covers the nine planetary boundaries for planet Earth’s sustainability for human purposes, such as climate change (note this issue, a momentous one to me, is only one of the nine), ocean acidification, land use change, biodiversity loss, and five others. Johan Rockström, a Swedish environmental academic, runs an institute devoted to exploring the earth’s vulnerabilities at such macro levels. In a sense, he is synthesizing all the environmental dangers we know exist, all of them due to humanity’s inexorable grip on its planet. Well, now that I’ve told you what Rockström is addressing, how well does Breaking Boundaries work as a film? Rockström’s own talking-head and voice-over pronouncements can come across as a solemn, Swedish-vibe Ted Talk (and indeed there are some cuts from those), but the visuals and accompanying graphics and charts are terrifically conceived and executed. Best yet, David Attenborough provides a counter-narrative to Rockström’s, which proves to be a genius move. Attenborough turns a lecture into a story, and my recollection of Breaking Boundaries derives far more from memories of what he relates than the other elements of the film. Overall, this is a vital topic well treated in filmic fashion, with Attenborough-style genius thrown in. Highly recommended.
To me, the best rock music listening experiences revolve around the voice. That’s a generalization, certainly, but remarkable vocalists, singing on song, transform ditties into compelling songs. Thus too with Another Sky, fronted by Catrin Vincent, with a high voice tinged with a falsetto-like dark timbre. “I Slept on the Floor” is the British band’s thumping, ambitious, post-rock debut, and by the second track, with Vincent plaintively singing “Fell in love with the city as I fell out of love with you” before lovely raging guitar, you know this is special. Blistering personal and political lyrics underpin a dozen memorable songs. Whether booming in stadia or whispering over pianos, Vincent dominates but the rest of the band more than hold their own as they channel Radiohead and a dozen other grand UK bands. Standout tracks include the coruscating “Avalanche,” the catchy “Let Us Be Broken” and the pounding “Brave Face.” I Slept on the Floor has been a highlight of my 2021 listening and I eagerly await its follow-up.
The first season of “Staged” gave every impression of being the last, simply because it so obviously played with the pandemic lockdown world. Essentially it was David Tennant and Michael Sheen hilariously, cerebrally sparring over Zoom about rehearsing over Zoom for a post-Coronavirus play. While some of the humor derived from the brilliant concept, the real pleasure was manic, unpredictable improvisation of the two leads and a dozen or so others. Guest jaunts from the likes of Samuel L. Jackson and Judi Dench only added to the pleasure. I judged it to be a “Coronavirus boon,” so when, out of the blue, Season 2 was sprung on us, I was delighted if anxious. Would the concept sour? The welcome news is that the second season is even more adventurous, virtuosic, and comedic. A simple conceit – that Sheen and Tennant miss out on starring in a remake for American audiences because they are insufficiently famous – almost spirals out of control as the two of them rage and mourn and grieve and plot. The overarching control of Simon Evans (who co-writes, directs, and puts in a fabulous performance himself) ensures that all eight episodes of Staged’s second season are cackingly funny and sparkling. Cameos by Michael Palin, Jim Parsons, Simon Clegg, Cate Blanchett, Ewan McGregor, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge are perfect icing on a reprise that outdoes the first season.
Debut novelist Dawnie Walton has achieved something remarkable with “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.” She has penned a novel about rock music that both evokes the music, in evocative language, and captures the surrounding swirl of business and culture. In New York in the early seventies, just as flower power morphed into something grand, young Opal, an African American singer of charismatic looks, and Neville, a recently arrived white singer-songwriter from Birmingham, click together in the Big Apple. Black funk pairs with white punk to create a fictional, incendiary group that takes the world by storm for a brief period. Now, five decades later, a renowned American music journalist reaches back to construct an oral history, reviving both the facts of two careers but also possible dire skeletons. Constructed as interlaced interview records spiced up with editorial asides and the journalist’s own story, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev leapfrogs the boredom often associated with fake oral history, and artfully constructs a thrilling tale replete with rock music’s real footprint. Innovative, wonderfully written, and illuminating, it is a ravishing debut.
Scott Hunter is one of the most able and prolific police procedural authors in the market, and I had read all seven (and reviewed three of them on this site) of his DCI Brendan Moran series set in the Thames Valley region around Oxford. But I was unprepared for and delighted by the quick release of Number 8, “The Cold Light of Death.” This time around, the author first places us in 1976, embroiled in a shop owner’s murder, then jumps four and a half decades to the present day, when a body is unearthed and Moran, with his usual crew, needs to solve a case as cold as a case can be. As we have come to expect from this author, the writing is supple and easy to read, the complex plot unfolds in steady hands, and the ensemble cast, riffing off each other, enriches the entire reading experience. Procedurals beg to be read in a single sitting, and I spent an enjoyable evening with The Cold Light of Death, but at the end, in spite of a a series of satisfying fake climaxes, I felt a smidgen dissatisfied. There was nothing in the triumvirate of plot, characterization, and setting that seemed awry, rather I sensed insubstantiality in this addition to the stellar series. The Cold Light of Day marks time, and marks it entertainingly, but I find myself hoping for an upping of the stakes in the next one.
In a small northern English coastal town soon after World War I, a nerdy young naturalist spends his days combing the shore and observing birds. His beautiful, locally born wife seems content with a housewife’s routine life. Through their eyes, “The Woodcock” is a tale of love, lust, hubris, morality, and humanity, a tale that speedily takes off when a larger-than-life American whaler, together with his red-haired daughters, arrives in town planning to build the equivalent of Coney Island out into the sea. A brilliant nonfiction writer, with five books under his belt, Richard Smyth has taken to fiction with aplomb, displaying on every page the flair, economy, and eloquence needed to lift this story from the realm of period piece (I found myself recalling two recent movies, Ammonite and The Dig) into something magical. A naturalist himself, the author imbues the town and coastline with cinematic depth, and his portrayal of the extended cast of characters, local or transplanted, is as keen as that of the birdlife. An accelerating pace transported me, over two evenings, to a grand, unpredictable yet fitting climax, and over those two evenings, I had occasion to chuckle and gasp. Quite unlike anything else I’ve read this year, The Woodcock is an unmitigated delight.