The prodigious, swoon-worthy pen of Jeff VanderMeer knows no bounds, and with “Hummingbird Salamander,” he has turned to the sci-fi thriller genre. It may never the same again. The story is of a computer security expert and ex-wrestler who receives, by mysterious means, a taxidermied hummingbird and a taxidermied salamander from a now-dead woman labeled as an ecoterrorist. The time is the near future and the hummingbird and salamander stand as emblems of mass species’ extinctions. The plot kicks off slowly and then zooms into action, as our hero’s family is suddenly under threat, her job gone. What is the true nature of her weird inheritance, why was she chosen, and what does it all mean? Written in a freighted, oblique style that reflects the doomsday ambience, the novel is an adrenaline rush salted with existential dread. I read it in two sittings and was enthralled throughout by the baffling, conspiratorial plot and the view into a possible future world. The mind-blowing climax of Hummingbird Salamander caps off a glorious, deep thriller.
Entirely predictable, that’s the adjective that springs into shape upon seeing the trailer for “Dream Horse,” a feelgood, “based on a true story” comedy drama set in the down-and-out Welsh village of Cefn Fforest. Unhappy checkout chick and whippet breeder decides, on an irrational whim, to buy a mare to breed a racehorse, funded by £10 a week from a motley syndicate … a recipe for fiscal disaster … only to end up winning the Welsh Grand National, steeplechase race numero uno. Add to that a potentially troubling close-up view of the perils of hurdling to horses (every race seems to feature a perilous tumble), and my first post-lockdown venture into a cinema threatened to be a bore. And yet, writer Neil McKay deftly pins the story around fast-paced, pithy conversations, the casting is sublime, and director Euros Lyn provides an immersion into both race thrills and racehorse syndicate thrills. Toni Collette and Damian Lewis are sturdy lynchpins, playing sympathetic folks with warmth, and humorous recurring cameos from the other syndicate members round out a pleasant hour and a half of classic, heartwarming cinema. Recommended.
I read the first three of Daniel Silva’s thrillers starring art restorer/spy Gabriel Allon, loved them, and dipped regularly into the ongoing books over the years. Number 21, ”The Cellist” illustrates why long series should be killed off before stagnation sets in. This time, when a Russian oligarch is murdered in London, Allon digs for the truth when no one else wishes to, and soon comes upon a female cellist and banker who might hold the key to justice., The premise, though by now hackneyed, holds promise, but the author seems to have misplaced the skills that deservedly earned him bestsellers. So many ancillary characters have entered Allon’s orbit over twenty books that the author is now forced to spend pages setting the scene. Wads of exposition unfurl the plot. And the once-nimble style is now facile (though sharp dialogue remains a strength). Read the first three, not this one.
Serial killer movies are yesterday’s news, sullied by two decades of repetition. Yet at their best, especially in filmic expression, this sub-genre can encapsulate the ancient good-versus-evil storyline like no other. “The Little Things, ” written and directed by John Lee Hancock, is a return to the classic form of the serial killer hunt: a flawed policeman riven by obsession hunts a almost supernaturally talented killer. Denzel Washington is in superb form as Joe Deacon, a rural cop once an LA homicide detective star, enlisted by an upstart La detective (played quirkily but convincingly by Rami Malek) to stop a run of killings of women. The movie’s atmospherics are brilliant, evoking the seedy side of Los Angeles, and the interplay between the two policemen is haunting. When a lumbering drifter (played with malevolent force by Jared Leto) comes into the frame, the film shifts from pursuit to cat-and-mouse. Brooding and intense, possessed with barely contained emotions of rage and yearning, the film builds up to a series of climactic scenes that might disappoint some thriller aficionados, but which struck me as clever and apt. I was held in thrall for the 128 minutes of The Little Things, childishly lifted up by a return to a sub-genre that informed my middle years. Recommended.
A family saga of sorts, “The Vanishing Half” addresses the American race issue with a stunning plot idea. Twins from a tiny, southern black town run away from home, one returning with a black daughter, the other passing for white when she marries into money. Spanning two generations and four decades from the 1950s, the novel delves into the corrosive effects of racism and the accommodations people make. The twins themselves are such captivating stars of the novel, both deeply alive on the page, but four other emerging major characters are also well portrayed. The author is a supremely confident plotter and stylist, and for a weighty story, the pace rockets along. Nothing pans out as any reader might imagine but everything falls into a wonderfully intricate tapestry. Somehow The Vanishing Half manages to simultaneously remain engaging, tackle multiple social and political issues, and sinuously twist as a narrative. A triumph.
Such a brilliant idea, to situate a drama about a TV news desk around the first quarter of 1986, allowing for six amazing news events to both enrich the character stories but also to illuminate a swathe of themes. “The Newsreader” plonks a rookie reporter (a star turn from Sam Reid), a glam female newsreader (Anna Torv in fine form), a veteran newsreader (acted with aplomb by Robert Taylor), and a curmudgeonly station exec (William McInnes shines) into terrorist bombings, a comet, AIDS, Lindy Chamberlain, and Chernobyl. The milieu of the newsroom is revealed in all its tension and complexity, while the key characters’ flawed yet believable lives mesh and clash with wonderful drama. Each episode zips along and progresses the human stories over the season, and I was impressed by how unpredictable every moment was. Is The Newsreader the most sparkling Australian drama of 2021? Perhaps indeed.
“Death of a Ladies ‘Man” follows on the heels of the much more prestigious release, The Father (graced by Anthony Hopkins among others), which also attempted to portray in film the state of mental collapse of dementia. The Father messed willy-nilly with time. Death of a Ladies Man messes with hallucinations, and is, in my opinion, a much more profound movie. It is also decidedly quirky, with writer/director Matt Bissonnette framing the narrative around Leonard Cohen songs and splashing around garish strange visions. Gabriel Byrne plays a professor beginning to reap the impacts of a lifetime of boozing and philandering, and he suits the movie’s mood and themes perfectly, being world weary and ironic and self-deceitful, but also questing for closure, forgiveness, redemption … the eternal life questions. An ensemble cast revolves around Byrne; notable are Brian Gleeson as the apparition of our hero’s long deceased father and Karelle Tremblay as his foul-mouthed but desperately loving daughter. Fantastical set pieces abound—ice hockey players dancing, a weird band interjecting, an AA meeting turned into a joyous anthem— and, weirdly, fit perfectly. The first third of the film flirts with tedium but once an attentive viewer gathers up the vibe, the final pre-death scenes (none of them formulaic) strike with a hammer of revelation and grief. An unanticipated triumph, is Death of a Ladie’s Man.
A scintillating tale of chaos and adventure over 2020 and into 2021, ”Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy” is wonderful historian Adam Tooze’s snapshot of the Covid-19 pandemic, with a special focus on how the global financial markets reacted. Tooze rightly points out his “just happened” history will be swept aside by later histories, but his kaleidoscopic mind ensures that this is a masterful drawing together of all the strands. Constantly stressing how unprecedented were the pandemic, the global “lockdown”reaction, and the fiscal and monetary responses, Tooze also lauds the incredible achievement of lightning vaccine invention and production. Obsessed as I have been with the pandemic’s outworkings in my neck of the wood, I did not realize the fascinating variations and linkages across the globe. Tooze even attempts a first synthesis of Covid-19 as an expression of humanity’s hubris within our environment. The author is a blistering, erudite stylist whose sentences and paragraphs enthral. I surprised myself by reading this in two evening sittings—imagine, a financial markets’ story as a page turner!—and I commend Shutdown to anyone seeking a deeper, more fulsome overview of our age.
“The A Word” centers on Joe, an autistic boy played with brilliance by Max Vento. Joe lives in a world of walking with headphones and obsessively singing 70s and 80s rock music (the music programming throughout all three seasons is a delight). In the first season, parents Alison (Morvern Christie cannot put a foot wrong) and Paul (a stunning performance from Lee Inglesby) struggled to understand and cope with Joe in the wider world. Their surrounding rambunctious families (all casted and portrayed flawlessly) deepened the story with swirling subplots. By Season 2, Joe was in a special school and his parents were divorced but the narrative had deepened, with various other disabled teenagers entering the scene. Season 3 alternates between Alison and Joe in Manchester, and Paul and Joe in the Lakes District (featuring stunning cinematography), and the narrative arc has widened to incorporate a young Downs Syndrome man’s wedding and the pregnancy of Joe’s sister. The British do such soap-opera-like ensemble tales so well, but The A Word transcends the cliches. The script is clever, the dialogue is whip smart, the storylines remain unpredictable, and above all, there is a real, pulsing heart to it all. Seasons 1 and 2 were mesmerizing viewing and Season 3 tops them both. A must-watch.
A tense drama about the aftermath of 9/11, “Worth” is above all a vehicle for the superlative acting of Michael Keaton. Here he plays a lawyer specialising in bulk settlements when tragedies strike or accidents occur, developing formulas that most equitably compensate victims and their families, and then negotiating to ensure his compensation package is broadly accepted. It’s a specialised field that I have some knowledge of, being an ex-actuary, and I was fascinated by this aspect of the movie. After the epochal terrorist attack in 2001, Congress set up a legislated fund to tackle the tragic aftermath, with thousands dead and injured, doing this mostly to head off class actions that might derail the economy, and Michael Keaton’s character is plunged into a maelstrom of conflicts of interest. The supporting actors all do a splendid job, Sara Colangelo directs with steady pacing, and 9/11 is evoked well. All that said, Worth is plagued by the “based on a true story” label, a millstone that almost always seems to leach genuine drama out of a story. Only Michael Keaton’s brilliant evincing of a human under stress saves the film from tedium. On balance, a fascinating tale well told.