The first season of “Upright” was Tim Minchin at his best (my review): funny, wild, a script that worked as both propulsive and emotionally deep. Season 2, then, is a bit of letdown, although it is perfectly watchable. Minchin again plays Lucky, now a successful rock performer wasting his life, until young Meg from Season 1 lobs on his doorstep and takes him on an odyssey into the jungles of northern Queensland. The acting remains sold throughout and some of the snappy dialogue works, but the plot is naff and the overall story arc is shoddy. The action scenes lack flair and the Lucky-Meg dialogue retains little of the initial humor. Minchin himself remains highly engaging and the short episodes charge along, but overall, Upright Season 2 feels hurried.
Patrick Brammall and Harriet Dyer bring wonderfully timed comedic dialogue expertise to “Colin From Accounts,” a cutesy rom-com series that mixes subtlety and in-your-face oddness. Brammall plays Gordon, owner of an inner-city Sydney brewery, Dyer is Ashley, a younger medical student, and the pair meet and bond over an accident with a dog. Both are awkward misfits and quirky characters at the same time, and around them swirls an ensemble cast of similarly distinctive people bringing modern city life into colorful repose. Each of the short episodes reminded me of a seventies sit-com dabbling with modern themes and ideas: always amusing, sometimes touching, never dull but also skating across any deeper themes. A pleasure to indulge in over a week but never aspiring to more, Colin from Accounts felt to me, in the watching, like a few ideas short of brilliant.
A masterful fantasy and science fiction author, equally adept in either genre, Martha Wells kicks off “Witch King” in the middle of the kind of confused action fantasy readers love. Kai—Kaisteron actually, a demon unusually living above the underworld, and mysteriously called the Witch King—wakes in a befuddled underwater prison and emerges to explore why he was there and to exact revenge. Kai is very much a Martha Wells creation, just slightly human-off-kilter and amoral, yet deeply feeling and quickly embraced by the reader as he tracks down trapped and hidden friends and enlists allies, while setting off on a journey through an astonishingly built fantasy world of technology and magic. Overlay a dazzlingly complex tapestry of peoples and alliances and enmities, throw in the genocidal Hierarchs, and the result is a swirling, fascinating, entertaining first entry in a must-read new fantasy series. Welcome, Witch King.
Young Jacob Meaney, the reluctant hero of “The Conspirators,” is a quiet, smart multilingual translator, keen for a dollar because his girlfriend has issued an ultimatum, so when a mysterious rich person offers him a huge amount to interpret between Russian and Hindi over a few days in a remote Slovenian villa, he jumps at the chance. Quickly it becomes clear that he is in the murkiest of waters, and his situation plunges into fraught mayhem with no way out. A well-traveled ex-journalist, turned mystery and thriller writer, George Shaw is blessed with a cunning grasp of plot, lightness of touch in style, and, especially, it seems, an affinity toward throwing ordinary people into impossible situations that bring out the best in them. The action rips along, with the reader forever guessing the next twist in the plot’s skein, and the climax clocks in perfectly. A bonus is a fascinating peek into the world of book translation. Seeking a one-sitting entertainment spasm? Look no further, The Conspirators will satisfy.
A Sam Mendes film is always worth waiting for, and “Empire of Light” is a minor gem. It revolves around a gorgeous movie theater in a southern England coastal town, sumptuously filmed by Roger Deakins, Olivia Colman is unforgettable as a forty-something manager in the cinema, possessing a hidden flaw, who falls badly for a young black usher, wonderfully acted by Micheal Ward. Other delightful cast members include Toby Jones as the projectionist and Colin Firth in an uncharacteristic sleazy role as the manager. The film starts gently enough, but with a pulse clearly going somewhere, and a revelatory mid-movie plot twist tumbles the viewere into an entirely different film, one of intense pathos. Wonderfully evocative scenes of the times (the early 80s) round out a terrific viewing experience that lingers. Empire of Light presents itself as too mild to be significant but its carefully wrought undercurrents make for a fine film.
Super-technology-analyst Vaclav Smil has the wonderful capacity and ability to burrow into details and yet scan from the highest possible heights. His “analyses” are either weaponized (anti-renewable folks loved him but now he’s smashing nuclear power!) or derided as myopically extrapolating from the past. I see him as a marvelous provocateur to be read and absorbed and then carefully digested. “Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure” is his latest no-holds-barred mixture of historical adventure and bristling polemics. Decrying what he sees as a current fad for overestimating the pace of innovation, Smil starts by recounting the histories of three “inventions that turned from welcome to undesirable”: leaded gasoline, DDT, and chlorofluorocarbons. Then he unfolds the histories of “three inventions that were to dominate – but do not”: airships, nuclear fission, and supersonic flight. Then, three “inventions that we keep waiting for”: travel in a (near) vacuum, nitrogen-fixing cereals, and controlled nuclear fusion. Each mini history is a tour de force of unpacking data analytically, cogently, and authoritatively. Smil’s final chapter is his now-familiar rant that decarbonization targets and hopes are hopelessly ambitious, at least based on any history.
Some of Smil’s recent prolific output has seemed to flirt with excessive emotionalism. Make no mistake, Invention and Innovation is at heart a diatribe, a familiar one, but the historical underpinnings are a pleasure to absorb and his unexpurgated opinions certainly add to our current debates about the future. Recommended.
So much has been written about the weird, dysfunctional manner in which North Korea, an isolated, totalitarian country, has armed itself with nuclear weapons, a slow, steady, seemingly unstoppable process over three quarters of a century. A test of the global nonproliferation regime that has seen that structure fail, North Korea’s nuclear arming has fascinated scholars and participants. Now we have the definitive account, by superbly credentialled American physicist, Siegfried Hecker. Not only is his technical experience, at Los Alamos Laboratory and elsewhere, been first rate, he visited North Korea, at their invitation, over 2004-2010, and dealt with both diplomatic and technological negotiations. “Hinge Points: An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program” is his account of his jaw-dropping experiences, related in a fluid, commanding style, but also his analysis of what he calls “hinge points,” moments of missed opportunity to ratchet back the nuclearization. It is no surprise to anyone with any perspective of the last three decades of the North Korean debacle (for that is what it was) to hear that the most recent Republican administrations were blind and incompetent on this issue, but both President Clinton and President Obama come in for reasoned criticism. Hinge Points is THE go-to analysis and account of this story and was, for this reader, a delight to read.
Albums from the wonderfully droll, poetic, and oddly radical Robert Forster sound at first to be amateurish but then speedily morph into ear candy. So too “The Candle and the Flame,” his first album since 2019’s Inferno. Produced at home and roping in family and friends as needed, Forster delivers nine delightful, low-key but muscular songs anchored by his trademark semi-conversational voice. The album kicks off with a brilliant curio, a furiously strummed riff over which Forster spits (singing to his wife who came down with ovarian cancer), “she’s a fighter, fighting for good,” before “Tender Years,” a gorgeous love song. “There’s a Reason to Live” offers homespun philosophy over an unforgettable, lilting melody, while the closer, “When I Was a Young Man,” is a lovely, poetic reflection on the past. Overall, The Candle and the Flame is a brilliant package that cuts through the ephemerality of much modern music.
Nowadays writing about food is much more complicated that a couple of decades ago, to the extent that there is a new sub-genre that examines the role of the food system in the climate crisis, the extinction crisis, and escalating global inequity. “Avocado Anxiety: and Other Stories About Where Your Food Comes From” is a mash-up of food history, carbon footprint discussions, food decision-making, English history, and emotionally charged recipes, ending up with a sense of overreach. Food writer/journalist Louise Gray relates the tales of a dozen fruits and vegetables as they have featured in the lives and history of Great Britain, and each of the stories is an engaging essay written with punch and flair. I learned plenty about bananas, avocados, and more. The author weighs in on the evolving debate about food miles: is it better to buy only local produce even if driving to a farmer’s market catalyzes greater emissions than air-freighted supermarket produce one can walk to? And so on and so on. I enjoyed her candor in admitting that often a decision on what and how to buy ends up being arbitrary or simplistic. In the end, Avocado Anxiety was an intriguing read that perhaps shrank from boldness and advice, advice this reader undoubtedly needs.
Possibly best suited to opera afficionados, “Knowing the Score” relates the story of the trailblazing Simone Young, who travels from Manly Beach to the wide male-dominated world of opera and classical music, and conquers them all, reaching the top of the profession. The documentary hinges on her return to conduct at the newly renovated Sydney Opera House, an occasion intensified by an earlier tenure at Opera Australia when she had been sacked. The hero is a modestly charismatic figure, the filming involves some imaginative graphics, the direction is steady, but I felt insufficient dramatization was invoked, dramatization that was there in the underlying story but not amped up. Truth be told, the operatic milieu is not for this reviewer, perhaps coloring my impressions, so Knowing the Score, with its grand theme of our over-slow passage to gender equality, might well appeal to many.