What a shame, selfishly speaking, that Season 3 of “Mr Inbetween” is apparently the final hurrah. Season 1 was superb and Season 2 was even better. In Season 3, once more we follow the mostly humdrum everyday life of Ray Shoesmith, with his daughter and his friends, a life punctuated by brutal violence, for Ray is an assassin and a fixer. The show’s core rationale is the exploration of Ray’s alien but quotidian character amidst a netherworld of crims. As writer, Scott Ryan is a master at gently interweaving Ray’s paradoxical strands, and in his portrayal of Ray, Ryan is flawless. The other actors are as perfect, often in very Ocker roles. Throughout, any dialogue is pitch perfect. The nine half-hour episodes making up Season 3 whip past as unmitigated delight, and when the final credits roll, I realized that even though I long for Season 4, perhaps Scott Ryan is right when he says, in a Sydney Morning Herald interview, “It feels like it’s time to do something else now, you know?”
Who can forget the word-of-mouth bestseller A Gentleman in Moscow with its brilliant story and sparkling prose? Amor Towles’s debut, Rules of Civility, also pulsed with life. We have panted half a decade for Towles’s third novel, “The Lincoln Highway,” and the wait has been well worthwhile. A long, baggy story follows eighteen-year-old Emmet Watson, released in mid 1954 from a juvenile work farm. His mother long gone, his father recently released, Emmet sets out to drive himself and his eight-year-old brother Billy, in Emmet’s blue Studebaker, from their failed Nebraska farm to a fresh life in California. But two of his fellow inmates, the irrepressible Duchess and the oblique Wooly, escape and join him, and on the adjacent farm lives Sally. These five young souls, all different (and unforgettably voiced by the author), end up zooming west instead, to New York City, and the resulting plot careens wildly, although always under Towles’s flawless narrative grip. The novel is at once a life journey, a travelogue through the America of the fifties, a character study, and a morality fable. The author’s proses sparkles with jaunty, rhythmic authority and the dialogue is a constant delight. Surely one of the most unforgettable novels of 2021, The Lincoln Highway thrillingly captivates.
“Dune,” a fresh cinematic telling of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction masterpiece published over half a century ago, is surely one of the most visually spectacular movies ever. Shot with sumptuous grace by Greig Fraser, it offers not one blancmange frame. Director and co-scriptwriter Denis Villeneuve, whom I have admired since Arrival, offers us the complex Dune world and all the incredible dramas of the book, in an intelligently laid out storyline that never baffles. Essentially, Dune is the tale of a young heir of an aristocrat, who accompanies his family to a bleak desert world containing one of the all-powerful Empire’s most vital minerals. Battles ensue and the heir and his mother end up throwing their lot in with the indigenous people who have learnt to live in the harsh terrain. A particular hazard is huge sand worms whose cinematic depictions need to be seen to be believed. The acting is consistently strong, highlights being young Timothée Chalamet in the lead role and Javier Bardem as a local. The action sequences are brilliant and Hans Zimmer’s ear-splitting, somber music enhances the mood. Overall, Dune is essential viewing, especially when one considers that it is labelled as Part 1 and only progresses halfway through Herbert’s first book. Let’s hope Parts 2 and onwards roll out quick smart.
You might think Succession, a streaming series depicting the battles amongst four progeny of a media magnate, to be for specialized tastes. Not so. Certainly my own delight in the show derives partly from journeying with characters spookily like business acquaintances I vividly recall, and from catching a glimpse of shareholder machinations familiar to me. I found Season 1 to be brilliant and I was transfixed by Season 2. But the appeal of Succession is much more than its milieu, rather it springs from a sophisticated, deep plotline enacted by superb actors. You will have heard of Brian Cox playing the patriarch and Sarah Snook as the daughter, but Jeremy Strong and Kieran Culkin’s performances as two of the sons are pitch perfect. Throw in Matthew Macfadyen, so subtle and real as a son-in-law, and, increasingly in Season 3, Nicholas Braun as the hapless cousin, and the viewing experience comprises one riveting scene after another. Season 3 opens with Kendall Roy, having betrayed his father at the end of Season 2, on the attack, and Logan Roy flailing, but (no spoilers here) the storyline twists and complexifies with each episode. The last of the nine episodes may well be the best Succession hour yet. One of a kind, must be watched.
Season 1 of “Ted Lasso” was a delicious confection, ideal during a pandemic. Season 2 begins in the same vein, with Richmond FC relegated and drawing match after match. Each of the many main characters morphs and bends pleasurably at the hands of yet another sinuous, intelligent plot, and the acting is just as damned spectacular. Anyone who has missed the scatty, geeky, conversational riffing of Jason Sudeikis in the role of Ted has missed something wonderful. This time round, Brendan Hunt stretches out in his brilliant Coach Beard role, including a surreal episode devoted to him. But Season 2 is not just Season 1 reprised. Partway into the season, Ted lurches off the ground with anxiety, and mental health issues crop up throughout. And a gradual darkening of the character of Nate adds another dimension. All up, the twelve episode of this season are sterling, even if the surprise factor of the first season cannot be regained. Highly recommended.
There is a distinct, clever movie genre in which a single character in one place handles a thriller crisis; think Phone Booth or the recent Oxygen. As with Oxygen, this claustrophobic new movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal, ”The Guilty,” provides edge-of-the-seat entertainment but struggles to chime deeply. Gyllenhaal plays a Los Angeles cop in a police call center. We know he has been demoted to this desk job due to some infraction and part of the pleasure of the film is paying attention to clues as to his predicament. He is portrayed as a moral, caring policeman, and when a caller turns out to be a kidnapped woman speaking in code, pretending to be talking to her daughter, he becomes increasingly frenetic to save her. The overall plot is serviceable, and the atmospherics in the claustrophobic emergency center are well portrayed, but Gyllenhaal is the movie’s core, and he gives a stellar performance. Overall, this genre is so tough to turn into gold, but The Guilty provides a tense, enjoyable filmic experience.
During my business career, a kind-of role model was Jack Welch, who took the mammoth electricity equipment manufacturer General Electric into far flung fields, seemingly with impeccable judgment, while instilling a ruthless, rational business culture that never failed. How I failed to spot the turnaround I do not know, but “Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electric” is a brilliant journalistic expose of GE’s plunge in value in the hands of Welch’s successor, the sales-oriented Jeff Immelt. The authors unerringly commence with the dilemmas faced by Immelt’s hapless replacement, John Flannery, the man charged with revealing GE’s predicament to the markets, with horrifying value effect. Then the account backtracks to the glory days of Welch, before forensically and vividly cataloguing Immelt’s flailing mistakes. The writing is slick, the many anecdotes beef up the tale, and the plot is unfolded with surehanded expertise. A revealing and entertaining corporate fable, Lights Out should be read by enterprising business managers from any industry.
A mixed bag, this one. On the one hand, the first half of “The Starling” sets up a dramatically rewarding narrative of a married couple whose baby dies, plunging the husband into institutionalised depression and the wife into stoic activity, their stalled dynamic disrupted by a protective bird and a wise veterinarian. Notably, Melissa McCarthy is pitch-perfect as the wife, Chris O’Dowd captivates as the husband, and Kevin Kline is perfect for the role of the sage. For half the film, the plot and pacing are masterful and the film grips. But the second half fails to match the first, descending into cliche and sentimentality. Overall, The Starling is an entertaining ninety minutes that should have been so much more.
Most climate change writing is by “adults,” us older folks who poisoned the well in the first place, so how refreshing it is to 20s-something activist Daniel Sherrell’s meditations on the subject, “Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World.” Sherrell is a captivating stylist with a wide-ranging mind, with a capacity to think more deeply about the subject than most of us (and indeed some of his reflections dug a little too deep for me). Structured as a letter to a potential child, the book ranges back and forth through time, and weaves in tales of his activism and his pursuit of understanding, including a wonderfully evoked outback “journey” with indigenous folks in Broome, Australia. Especially noticeable is his rage against my generation, mostly against the immoral denialists and obstructionists, but also a general contempt. I understand and appreciate this, and I found the read to be a fast-flowing and bracing one. Warmth is highly recommended for those of you exploring the gap between doomism and gung-ho activism.
“Dead Ground” is the fourth outing for a sparkling mystery series featuring serial killer hunters Detective Sergeant Washington Poe and his analyst, Tilley Bradshaw. He is bluff, unstoppable, and intuitive, while she is super-geeky and nigh socially inept. The novel opens with a riveting scene featuring vault bandits wearing James-Bond-actor masks and quickly moves to a baseball bat murder in a Cardiff brothel. Poe and Bradshaw become swept up into MI5’s domain, and the case (the cases?) grows ever more baffling. The author proceeds in short, sprightly chapters featuring pitch-perfect dialogue, with wonderful control of pacing. A classic mystery plot with unforeseen twists pins the reader to her seat. But the feature that distinguishes this series from the many mystery offerings I read is the hilarious, yet emotionally true rapport between Poe and Tilley. Dead Ground begs to be read in a single sitting and is one of 2021’s bumper mysteries.