What can one add about “Succession,” in the wake of its final season? A sublime show of thirty-nine flawless episodes (check my reviews of Season 2 and Season 3), it was a must-see-right-now as soon as it was dumped, ten weeks in a row. Once more I sank into a ferocious world of billionaires and corporate executives (the latter providing particular enjoyment for me, reminding me as it did of my three decades of corporate life … the joys the terrors, the repulsion). A stunning plot twist early in the season wrenches the narrative into a headlong plunge to a heart-stopping finale. Once more the four lead roles of father and brood are played with stunning authenticity and emotional heft. In the end I found it hard to choose between Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Sara Snook, and Kieran Culkin for my most admired and my best loved. Because that is the singular feat of those actors, aligned with Jesse Armstrong’s stellar script: it allows us to love the unlovable. In the final season, Matthew Macfadyen comes into his own with an amazing performance, and Nicholas Braun is not far behind. As ever, the glossy sets and locales add to the excitement of the show. After the emotional rush of Season 4 has abated, do I think we need a tale of a rapacious media overlord and his rabid children? Indeed we do, when it is told so thrillingly and intelligently and deeply, indeed we do.
Anyone I know who has played the computer game The Last of Us is, it seems, a rabid, fan, so “The Last of Us,” a nine-part screen series, is a gamble. Brought to HBO by the game’s creator, Neil Druckmann, in partnership with Craig Mazin, the genius behind Chernobyl, and co-rewritten by the pair of them, the resultant show is a triumph. Calling it a zombie flick demeans it, for even though it is set in a dystopian world almost destroyed by zombies infected by a fungus, it is primarily a tale of adventure and hope. When fourteen-year-old, perky orphan Ellie is handed to tough guy Joel to be transported across a blighted, fraught America, it is not clear whether either will survive a single episode, nor what the eventual destination might deliver. Battling zombies, militias, the military, cults, and other horrors, the two of them become epic symbols of hope for humanity, even though both are flawed and reluctant. Pedro Pascal is brilliant as Joel and Bella Ramsey is unforgettable as Ellie, and the rest of the cast is pitch-perfect. The movie’s sets and scenery are spellbinding in their detail and imaginativeness. The action scenes could be watched again and again, so stirring are they. That the blighted world of The Last of Us is the result of a pandemic underscores the resonant depth of the storyline plotted out by triumphant Mazin. A highlight of 2023, without a doubt.
A propulsive, sprightly thriller that turns its own pages, “The Truth Against the World,” by David Corbett, a wonderful stylist, might well sit uneasily with the reader as it entertains. The principal plotline is that of a young woman who has been robbed of the bestselling book she wrote, and then embarks on a fraught road trip across America to seek justice. The journey rocks with danger because this is yet another dystopic novel, with the United States in the grip of fascists and lawlessness rife, so our heroine is fortunate to have a knight in shining armor, a sweet-talking, sweet-singing Irishman. No plot spoilers here but for this reader, the Irish hero reveals himself quickly to be outside the thriller genre, a twist that colored my read. The author is a master of action, the dialogue sparkles, and the near-future world is atmospherically drawn. All in all, I can recommend The Truth Against the World as a speedy, enjoyable read, but it does come with a cross-genre warning.
Such an ambitious project! The eight episodes of “Extrapolations” are literally points on the IPCC’s predictions of climate crisis woe over half a century from today: floods, species extinctions, overheating, wildfires, agricultural failure, etc., etc. Each episode is a standalone tale with its own plot and character arc, all linked by story continuity and character recurrences. A star-studded cast is one of the calling cards of the series, yet the episodes featuring Ed Norton, Meryl Streep, and Forest Whitaker are weighed down by dialed-in performances and sagging storylines. The series’ through line of evil capitalist Nicholas Bilton (played woodenly by Kit Harrington), heading up the Alpha corporation reaping a fortune from climate change, seems cartoonish at several points. But two features of Extrapolations save it from the bin and indeed make it rather memorable. Firstly, several standalone stories sizzle with wonderful acting: Tahar Rahim is superb as a futuristic “companion” with “summer heart” (bodily distress from too-high temperatures) and Adarsh Gourav plus Gaz Choudry are brilliant as smugglers in heat-wracked India. And secondly, even if the series can seem didactic, the fact is that its portrayals of the future are stark pictures IPCC can never give us, for which I am grateful.
Colson Whitehead’s 2021 Harlem Shuffle seemed trite at first, certainly compared to his previous literary novels, but quickly shone as “an ambitious, highly literate tour de force.” Its sequel, “Crook Manifesto,” is even more vaulting and prodigious, even as it, also, hides its force under a superficially slick veneer. Once more we follow Ray Carney, a striving owener of a Harlem furniture store, as he tries to shrug off his gangster heritage and claw his way to respectability in a white man’s world. Three distinct tales take place in shape-shifting Harlem in 1970, 1973, and 1976, with the middle story recounted by Pepper, the implacable brute force crook with a pungent wit, whose life dovetails with Ray’s. The three mini stories tackle crooked cops, Blaxploitation-era movies, and official corruption. Throughout, Harlem, “the City,” is vividly portrayed as a magical character. The author somehow achieves a flawless energetic tone that intelligently entertains as it smoothly portrays. Reading Crook Manifesto is a magical experience, highly recommended.
As one of the few souls on this planet who never deigned to play Tetris, the computer and console game that swept the world from the late 80s, I came to the “based on a true story” movie “Tetris” expecting clunky boredom. Not so. From the opening scene, when failing American salesman Henk Rogers tries Tetris at a convention and launches a campaign to gain commercial rights from the Russian founder, this movie sparkles with energy, wit, and perceptiveness. Taron Egerton is unforgettable as the effervescent, driven, yet humane Henk, and the rest of the cast, including Nikita Efremov as the original inventor, is pitch perfect. Interspersed with cheesy but most effective Tetris-style cartoons, we gyrate between coruscating scenes of Robert Maxwell and his son, the video game world in America, the cowboy country of last-days-before-the-collapse-of-the-
Soviet-Union business in Moscow, and Henk’s fairytale home life in Japan. Not a frame is wasted, not a word fails to make a mark. Nothing profound is revealed in Tetris but as unabashed corporate history entertainment, it is one of my favorite viewings of 2023.
Perhaps as one ages and as achievement becomes fraught and freighted with time anxiety, one heads back into childhood entertainment. For me, cowboy stories, those tales of uncomplicated struggle and bravery (ignoring what we now about their fuckery), still resonate, and so I’ve found myself turning to “The Mandalorian.” Despite rejecting the entire Star Wars oeuvre after the source movie, I loved the first two seasons that presented Din Djarin, an outcast from the shattered Mandalorians, armored, shooting, flying warriors with a warrior code to match. Cast as a future space Shane, he is stolid, fierce, undaunted, just as he should be for an old fan of the simplistic ethos of cowboy despair and victory. Add in his initially reluctant oversight of Grogu, clearly “Baby Yoda,” and “Mando” offers episodes of fun and blasting and whooshing. And what of Season 3? Well, half the episodes indicate an approaching “use-by” point, being complex Empire-versus-Rebel plotlines into which the Mandalorian is shoehorned, and several “en masse” battle scenes with many Mandalorians are somehow hokey, and don’t get me started about the passe orchestral music. Yet half the episodes, the ones of simple encounter and battle are as pleasing as those in Season 1, with battle scenes worthy of the Star Wars franchise. And I cannot resist Pedro Pascal’s deep, echoing defiance with “This is the way.” So I, for one, shall be back for Season 4.
Magisterial in scope and passionately cogent in expression, “The Earth Transformed: An Untold History” is a vast undertaking that should not succeed but does so with panache. Oxford University historian Peter Frankopan has dared to take on a revised history of humans on Earth viewed through the lens of the planet’s changing climate. What’s more, he bravely attempts to cover the entire globe, not just the main continents of Europe and Asia and (later) northern America. As an amateur historian tackling a daunting enough project myself, I gasped in awe at Frankopan’s absorption of historical data, including the transformative recent analyses permitted by new dating and genetic technologies. After a first chapter encapsulating the first four-and-a-half billion or so years of Earth’s existence, he introduces (over some seven million years) the species of us, then moves forward in chunks of history from 12,000 BC, hitting “the Roman Warm Period” straddling AD zero by Chapter 9. Ten more chapters reach the industrial age, four chapters find us in a chapter titled “The Sharpening of Anxieties (c. 1960-c. 1990), before wrapping up with three decades of the climate crisis. I was constantly flabbergasted by new knowledge: so many volcanoes plunging the planet into cooling; so many local cooling or warming spurts; such a clear early signal of manmade warming via fossil fuel burning! Throughout, the overwhelming flood of climate-rich data never, in fact, overwhelms, so clear is the author’s control and style, and he never over-eggs the climactic evidence, remaining quite the scrupulous evidence-based historian. There has never been a history like The Earth Transformed and I venture to suggest that in this intersection between climate, planet, and dominant species, there might never be another as impressive.
On an Earth plummeting toward mass extinctions of many animal, plant, and bird species, passionate scientists and naturalists are striving to accomplish the impossible, to save the species closest to the cliff’s edge. To do that, dramatic and imaginative solutions are employed, and to do that, knowledge is key. In the case of our 10,000-plus bird species, where, when, and how they fly is a crucial knowledge piece, and until the past few decades, was a scientific gap. “Flight Paths,” written stylishly and cogently by America science writer and naturalist Rebecca Heisman, plugs the gap with a wonderfully informative recent history of the often-unknown heroes who have revolutionized ornithological understanding of avian flight. Progressively covering better and more authoritative surveying across the immense distances over which birds, incredibly, migrate from the birder with her binoculars; to scanning moonlit skies in peak migration season; to clumsy early leg bands; to lighter and lighter on-bird trackers; to the stunning use of radar; to mass community science efforts; to satellite tracking; and (the most amazing feat of all, to my mind) analysis of radioactive isotopes in feathers … all this is explicated. Talking to and visiting a band of modest and sometimes eccentric ornithologists, engineers, and birders, the author brings to life the excitement of rapidly escalating understanding of the creatures that have been in our planet’s skies long before we walked its lands. Highly recommended, Flight Paths is.
A bold arthouse movie that alienates many from the first scene (I know, having seen the film in a party of ten), “Aftersun” covers a few days in a seedy Portugese beach resort. Calum, a young Irishman, is treating Sophie, his eleven-year-old daughter to a holiday, and it is immediately clear that Sophie lives with her mother and Calum is desperate to reestablish a relationship with her. Sophie, played with immersive brilliance by Frankie Corio takes jerky home movies that form part of her adult memories, as we see from a few flash-forwards. Calum is sweet (another wonderful performance from Paul Mescal) but we begin to see hidden despair behind his clumsy efforts at loving fatherhood. Willfully oblique in cinematography and narrative direction, Aftersun mixes brief cryptic images and scenes with drawn-out episodes of what seems to be banality, but behind every moment, it becomes clear hidden emotions swirl. This is a film to give you a headache from concentrating but the emotional depth is astounding.