What a sparkling half year of viewing, with 6 movies/shows rating 8/10, all of them fine, but even more impressive, 5 TV/streaming series and 1 film rating 9/10 (or higher!). Don’t hesitate to binge on any of them!
“Berlin Station Season 3,” set in Estonia, with a setup fresh out of our present day, is furiously paced and captivating. Espionage has never been so sharp.
“Russian Doll” is a tour de force for Natasha Lyonne but she’s not the main attraction, which is the stunning Groundhog-Day-in-the-modern-era plotline.
Julien Faraut’s “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” is as quirky as all-get-up but as a study of the genius and rage of McEnroe is riveting.
No series does dread and relentless detecting as well as “Cardinal” and Season 3 is the best yet.
Sometime genius Ricky Gervais hits the mother lode with the sentimental, yet sharp comedy “After Life.”
A perfect score of 10/10 for Craig Mazin’s pitch-perfect game changer of a disaster doco, “Chernobyl.”
A fabulous half year of reading, with very few duds indeed. Only 3 books rated 9/10 (all nonfiction!), but 15 hit ratings of 8/10 and of those, I’ve pulled out 5 to present a first-half list of must reads, 4 novels, 4 nonfiction. It’s an eclectic mix and you’d need to ensure genre/topic are to your liking, but I commend them as must-reads.
“The End of Ice” by Dahr Jamail [9/10] is a stunning travelogue cum journalistic climate change investigation cum ode to climate change sorrow.
“November Road” by Lou Berney lyrically and sparely thrills with a tale of a JFK-era mobster on the run.
“Killing Commendatore” is the latest Haruki Murakami moody, enigmatic spellbinder.
Mick Herron is the new master of the spy novel and “London Rules” thrills and delights.
“The Incomplete Book of Running” by Peter Sagal is the modern paean to jogging.
Sophie Cunningham’s “City of Trees” [9/10] is near perfection, part memoir, part essayistic reflection on the earth we’re scrunching.
Andrew Lowe’s “The Dying Light” is a double shot of caffeine into the police procedural genre.
Genius historian Robert Caro graces us with his craft and ethos in “Working” [9/10].
“The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” is a first for me, a Palestinian drama from Muayad Alayan that I eagerly anticipated. Set in the streets of Jerusalem, often framed against the sky like a character in its own right, the charged tale is of a casual affair between Palestinian delivery man Saleem (portrayed in rough fashion by Adeeb Safadi) and Israeli café owner Sarah (a confident role, if not always convincing, from Sivane Kretchner). The trouble is, he’s one and she’s the other, and he has a pregnant wife and she is married, with child, to an Israeli colonel. Discovery sends their worlds into a spiral. Alayan milks the initial cat and mouse story of discovery for tension, and that works well, but to me, the public and private unwinding came across as clumsy and less than fraught. The intricacies of all the cross-cultural and nationalistic subtleties were fascinating. So … an intriguing and occasionally tense window into modern Israel.
I picture Scottish band Idlewild, which I saw in Melbourne maybe a decade ago, as a group of very able musicians, plus, notably, self-declared poet Roddy Woomble. Woomble left the band after their heydays first few albums, and his next few releases were fine but more like earnest, if literate, poems set to minor key songs that never lifted. Idlewild reformed in 2015 and now “Interview Music” is a welcome blast from the past, but, really, a Roddy Woomble album buttressed by earnest musicianship that graces some songs with flair but can also retreat into disparate if professional chops. “Same Thing Twice” returns to the band’s jagged, scream-led roots; at the other extreme, “Lake Martinez” is a lovely Woomble lyric-led ballad; and “Mount Analogue” is a fine in-between chunky toon.
Fourth album from James Chapman, known as Maps, an absurdly talented studio creator of electronic-based songs, is called “Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss” And it’s a creation that seems to echo all those expansive ideas, a major unfurling into a quasi-symphonic extravaganza replete with other vocalists and musicians, even a string ensemble. Chapman’s songs range from quirky to pastoral, his voice sounds like half a dozen different touchstones. The ambience is lush and sometimes poppy, sometimes pastoral. What a blissful listen! My core tracks are the opener, “Surveil,” more Grandaddy than the original; the long, grandiloquent “Wildfire” with its unforgettable chorus; and “You Exist in Everytning,” a rolling, sweet anthem.
Doesn’t the world shine more brightly with imaginative tales like “The Umbrella Academy” out there? I rated the first episode highly and went into the next four episodes expecting the earth. And the freshness of the concept, the sparkling acting (if in the first episode I was drawn to Tom Hopper, Ellen Page and Aidan Gallagher, over these four hours I grew to admire Robert Sheehan as dissolute Klaus, David Castaneda as blade-throwing Diego, and Cameron Britton as jaded enforcer Hazel), the lush props, and the brilliant orchestration of action, all of these were admirable. Yet I couldn’t help but shake my head as the plot veered from crazy-neat to plodding and back again. By Episode 5, I queried my commitment, but that episode corrects course and offers intriguing developments in the offing. So … I’ve been tested over the season’s opening half but remain optimistic that the concept’s fresh premise and filmic chops will bear fruit over the second half.
A “crimmy” ( as some of my friends refer, perhaps ever so disparagingly, to a crime novel) set in formerly industrial Newcastle towards the Queensland border, in a world of petty criminals and small time business people and ordinary folk, “Hiding to Nothing” is the second boisterous outing of house painter Lachlan Munro. Lachie is a house painter but also attracts chaos and swirling wrongdoing; this time the mix is a milk bar robbery, gangster Billy Wong and Lachie’s combustible con father. The action is swift, caper after caper, and the dialogue is sharp (though not as humorous as I’d expected, reflecting more on my sense of humour than on the author’s style). A fun read over a few hours straight and a peep into the feral side of a lively Australian city.
To everyone’s surprise, the “Chernobyl HBO mini-series” hit the streaming world with a bang. Who would have thought a five-hour reprise of the world’s worst nuclear accident, way back in 1986, would enthrall non-specialist viewers? But it has caught on for one reason: it is an exemplary example of movie making. The subject matter is “on song” to me (I’m writing a history of nuclear reactors) but even I was swept up by a combination of a riveting, theme-soaked script, careful period scene-setting, impeccable casting and acting, and even a weird atonal soundtrack. Over five hours, it is impossible to both “get the whole damned thing essentially accurate” and “follow the original chronology completely faithfully,” and fortunately creator/writer Craig Mazin has opted for the former approach, which works in a deeply holistic way. (If you’ve a completist bent, do yourself the added favor of listening to Mazin chatting with Peter Sagal on the accompanying “The Chernobyl Podcast” episode after each episode viewing.) Johan Renck’s direction is meticulous and infused with purpose. The script zings! Jared Harris nails the lead character Legasov but Stellen Skarsgard almost steals the show as Soviet strongman Shcherbina. “Chernobyl” is a must-see (it’s my only 10/10 rating since Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road“) about a subject that remains pertinent.
Only a few weeks after enjoying the second book in T.W.M. Ashford’s “Checking Out” time travel cum space romp series, I jumped straight into the concluding Book 3, “Checking Out: Anticlockwise.” George Webber, once a guest at the Le Petite Monde hotel, gateway to the multiverse, takes a lead role in this adventure, partnered with concierge Pierre, in wild corners of the universe and the cracks in its time continuum. Once again, the pell-mell zany time travel plot twists come thick and fast, once again the Doctor-Who-style fights and flights entertain, and once again a light sense of humor leavens the strangeness. The entire concoction is served up with wonderful flair and control. Another one-sitting read and another smile-inducing pleasure.
I’m no expert on the history of Israel or the life story of its founder (self-declared and, in truth, actual) founder, David Ben-Gurion, but I found “A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion” to be comprehensive, sophisticated, and in line with the facts I knew. Using scads of archival material presumably never before available, Tom Segev, a leading, and at times controversial, historian/journalist, takes the enigma of Ben-Gurion and adds plenty of flesh to it. Ben-Gurion could be wild and woolly, almost insane, or he could be the most conscientious diplomat. His personality veered all over the spectrum. I was fascinated to discover that core elements endured through his life: his passion for politics and its power bases; the concept of a Jewish state, come what may, whatever was required; a love of reading; tempestuous relationships; and a deep hankering for his place in the panoply of history. Segev retains superb control over his material, and writes vigorously and methodically. Although this is the only bio of the icon I have fully read, any competitor for historical authority must surely be quite remarkable. I commend “A State at Any Cost” to both the keen modern history buff and the explorer of Israel’s genesis.