“Serpentine Prison,” the first solo album from Matt Berninger, that distinctive singer in the majestic National, is less grandiose and adventurous than his band’s output. Co-produced by the legendary Booker T. Jones, it has a smoothly sonorous, spacious sound, almost laid back. Accomplished sessions musos buttress Berninger’s oh-so-distinctive world-weary upfront voice in a gorgeous mix that sits equally as lockdown solace, study background, or car music. As with the National albums, Serpentine Prison seems a seamless whole, pulled together by that gentle soundscape and Berninger’s elliptical, poetic lyrics. As ever, his concerns are solipsistic, but in that fine manner that invites the listener to identify with deep personal concerns. Every one of the ten tracks seeps into the listener’s mind; I found myself humming snatches at odd times of the day. Standout songs include Berninger’s nihilistic voice on “Take Me out of Town” burrowing into my soul as he sings “Swear to God, I’ve never been so burned out”; the Hammond organ solo alongside the softly-softly anthemic chorus of “Loved So Little”; and the swaying, piano-led bleakness of “All For Nothing.” In spite of the downbeat nature of Berninger’s concerns, there is something wondrously hopeful in the listening experience of Serpentine Prison that speaks to us in pandemic times.
Can a documentary culminating in (no, not even culminating in, rather originating with) the 2018 chopping up of the body of renegade Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istambul, on the direct orders of Saudi Crown Prince MBS (Mohammed bin Salman)—all of this fully known to me—possibly hold interest? Fear not, earnest moviegoer: “The Dissident” trumps all expectations and is a spellbinding masterpiece, quite the most impactful movie I have seen so far in 2021. Director and co-writer Bryan Fogel has assembled a remarkable array of interviewees, the most notable being Kashoggi’s fiancee and a Turkish prosecutor, and arranged a mosaic of news clips, talking heads, surveillance footage, audio transcripts, and backup material into a fascinating narrative. Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi exile now morphed into a dissident Youtube star, provides a compelling reflection on Kashoggi, his life and philosophy and courage. Fogel’s script and direction never take a misstep. In the end, The Dissident becomes a moving exploration of morality and injustice and justice sought, an exploration that rivets one to the screen far more than the next spy thriller.
Should billionaire philanthropists issue books from their elevated towers? Normally, I would counsel them not to, but “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need” is an apt, honest, quirky take on a subject that Bill Gates is throwing money at, the biggest topic of them all, the climate emergency. Very early on, Gates cautions that his expertise is in tech and analysis, not politics (even though he meddles in the latter necessarily) but even with that bracelet of modesty, it’s clear that How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is an uber geek’s synthesis. So if you’re after radicalism or political ire, this narrative might disappoint, but I found it to be a tonic. Using the kind of geeky focus I myself might attempt (no doubt ineffectually), Gates sets up, in effect, a huge spreadsheet in which he dissects our current annual global 51 billion tons of carbon emissions between five macro categories and then explores what the current “green premium” (how much more expensive the carbon-free options are) is for each cell. Some will find his emphasis on technology too emphatic, others will bridle at broad-brush simplifications, but geeky old me found the whole explication refreshing and fascinating. Even if you disagree with his analysis, or his remedies, and I’m sure we’d all find such disagreements, the analytical generosity and clarity he employs means that evaluating his dissection is open and useful. And if he pushes those solutions he has invested in, why not? His work with poverty and pandemics shows his approach is not only generous but rigorous. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is an individualistic must-read at the start of the 2020s, our decade of destiny.
A Guy Ritchie film represents a juicy treat of violent froth and after the triumph of The Gentlemen, I made sure to go see “Wrath of Man” on the day of its Melbourne opening. Such a splendid title, I thought. Jason Statham brings his stolid physicality to a role as H, a new recruit to a depot of armored cars that tote millions and train newbies to survive. Soon H demonstrates the Statham style of invincible physicality and we are treated to a series of nested flashbacks that allow the viewer to piece together what H is doing at the depot. All well and good, and vintage Ritchie. I enjoyed the pace, the semi-cartoonish raw bloodshed, and the presented plot puzzle. Notable was the brooding, hellscape musical soundtrack penned by Christopher Benstead, so notable that I left the cinema humming its six-note closing riff of menace. Alas, two pieces of the Ritchie style go missing in Wrath of Man. Firstly, the glorious panache we have come to expect shows only sporadic appearance; the dialogue is fluid enough but we miss the swagger of Ritchie’s best offerings. And second, a related issue is the lack of star turns. Over-the-top hammed-up set pieces by top actors are needed to make this kind of movie work. Hot McCallaney tries hard as Bullet, H’s armored car sidekick, but the other supports are unconvincing, and Statham’s lack of flair is a handicap when, as is mostly the case, the script offers him little to go with. Overall, Wrath of Man is an enjoyable diversion but nothing more.
Behold “The Fall of Koli,” the final, remarkable instalment of M. R. Carey’s destined-to-be-a-classic Rampart trilogy. New to this superlative world builder and science-fiction stylist, I swooned from the very first words of The Book of Koli, then rocketed through The Trials of Koli, and have now put aside all else to check out the series’ triumphant closer. The trilogy is set in a distant future Earth dunked back into primitivism, an Earth blighted by human-created ecological madness and dotted with remnants of once-near-magical technology. In the first book, young Koli, writing in a simplistic dumbed-down voice, is thrown out of his struggling clan, and finds the three companions gracing the trilogy: an AI music player, a tetchy healer, and an angry warrior. At the start of The Fall of Koli, the quartet finds itself aboard a boat searching for the origins of a signal across the ocean from long-drowned London. From then on, the storyline escalates into a baroque, beautifully realized series of plot twists involving genetic foretelling, cyborgs, long-dormant metal armies, primitive battles, and massed countryside battles. Nothing is predictable, all fits like a glove. Koli is a classic sci-fi hero out of the mold of Gene Wolfe, the author writes a dream, and the emotional heft of the grand theme of humanity’s reach overstretched and perhaps restored is deep, and … well, as you can gather, I consider The Fall of Koli to be the capstone of a transcendent three-volume work. Buy all three today and sink in, dear reader.
Crime writer Garry Disher is a consummate craftsman and all his series have blessed the genre. His latest police procedural series, featuring hardworking, earnest country policeman Hirsch (aka Constable Paul Hirschhausen), transcends the usual narrow field. Set in the rolling hills and wheat fields and bleak terrain north of Adelaide, on the way towards the Flinders Ranges and thence the great inner deserts of the Australian outback, it’s a small-time world with everyday rural folks, and it could have been boring as shite. Instead, the first of the series, Bitter Wash Road, got me hooked and the follow-up, Peace, complexified and deepened the body-strewn tales. “Consolation” is even stronger. Disher is a master at spooling out plots fit to baffle even the most conscientious mystery reader, while at the same time enriching the read with a huge cast of absorbing characters, an immersion in the rich setting, and his muscular, almost poetic prose. Let me not spoil the plot beyond tantalizing you with the dust jacket crumbs: Hirsch receives a query about a possibly mistreated schoolgirl while hunting a snowdropper (someone stealing women’s underwear off clotheslines), then an irate father blows off steam, then … then Consolation takes off. The finest mystery I’ve read this year.
Harlan Coben has always been a paragon of thriller writers to me, the one author seemingly able to conjure jackknife plots out of any human situation, always written with flair, always graced with deft characterization. But in “Win,” Coben has taken a storytelling risk that backfires. The Myron Bolitar series, eleven books strong, has buddied up the hero with an antihero facilitator, Windsor Horne Lockwood III, a super-rich, martial-arts-endowed, nerves-of-steel, amoral machine who helps out. This time Windsor, known as Win, is the protagonist in a mystery that springs open upon the discovery of a dead man in a room next to a suitcase stolen two decades earlier from the Lockwood family mansion. The book’s plot gyrations, revolving around a tragic radical leftists group and Win’s sister’s past, is suitably intriguing and unpredictable, but for this reader, Windsor’s cold unlikability and apparent indestructibility conspired to reduce a fast read to a “meh” experience. Win feels skillful but pointless.
A Korean family of four, having escaped poverty in their own country, buys hardscrabble farmland in Arkansas in the 1980s. The father is driven and willful, the mother seethes with regret and worry, the older girl is all lightness, and the young son has a heart condition. When his grandmother joins them, and water problems strike the farm, conflicts bloom even as disaster beckons. “Minari” is an exquisitely unfurled and filmed immigration tale, one that reminded me of the endless struggles of my refugee parents in a new land, and I sat transfixed. Emile Mosseri’s soundtrack is elegiac and dramatic in turns, somehow lifting the ordinary into poetry. Alan S. Kim steals the show as the son but it’s the wonderful, shaded performance of Steven Yeun as the classic striving father that knits Minari together. A most worthy cinematic experience.
Do I patronize the viewing market when I offer the view that “Mrs. America” must be one of the more unappealing streaming series to emerge over the last year? Whenever I mention to friends that they simply must delve into this complex nine-episode history of America’s attempt to enact the Equal Rights Amendment over the 1970s, I see their eyes glaze over. When I began my journey through Mrs. America, I had zero knowledge about the battle between the feminist titans that emerged in the hippy 60s, headlined by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and relentless conservative Phyllis Schlafly (unheard of). After the first two episodes, I almost dropped out, chiefly because the subject matter seemed too arcane. But the series quickly gains momentum and becomes a riveting window into the times of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. The ERA, seeking to right myriad wrongs, needs 38 state ratifications to be tabled, and in the heady early seventies, that seems a gimme, but Schlafly, complicit with or manipulated by male politicians, proves too durable, and today it remains a paper monument. Each of the nine episodes ends up being a monument to a major or minor character, and the series is blessed with stunning performances: let me single out Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, Rose Byrne as Steinem, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug, Tracey Ullman as Friedan, and Melanie Lynskey as conservative field worker Rosemary. Not knowing the history, that is, the climax of this stellar series, I was gripped as I approached the finale of Mrs. America. Highly recommended.
George Clooney can do no wrong, whether he sparkles in big budget movies or smoulders in arthouse flicks. “The Midnight Sky” is an exceptional science fiction film directed by him, in which he stars with intensity and conviction. Based on a slim, feted novel by Lily Brooke-Dalton, it is firmly in the dystopia genre, and powerfully so. When a human Armageddon engulfs the globe, a lonely space pioneer in the arctic realizes he needs to head further north for one last frantic attempt to stop a returning space expedition from landing. Burdened by a left-behind young girl, he strives through riveting, beautifully composed snow wilderness scenes, even as equally majestic space scenes track the returning astronauts. Besides Clooney’s career-crowning performance in the lead role, Felicity Jones stuns as a space journeyer, as does Caoilinn Springall as the girl. Some of the swelling strings of the soundtrack intruded (I’m old-fashioned: I hate orchestral film music) but melancholy piano songs compensated. The plot, presumably the book author’s plot, is sneaky, in the best possible way, and the elegaic ending has stayed with me ever since my viewing. In the end. The Midnight Sky is about the human spirit driven by love, and unlike most films that subside into sentimentality, it emerges triumphant. A 2021 highlight.