“Snow” is both a stock-standard police procedural, set in the Republic of Ireland in the 1950s, and a sly oddity. John Banville, a Booker Prize being one of his many achievements in the literary fiction field, has also penned seven fast mysteries set in the same milieu under his Benjamin Black penname, and one wonders why Snow did not more properly fit into that universe. I think the difference is the sensibility of Snow. Starring Detective Inspector St John Strafford from Dublin, Snow features a claustrophobic, isolated manor in the Agatha Christie or Daphne du Maurier tradition, and the murder victim, a castrated priest, creates a tableau of subterranean horrors contrasted with pristine glitz. Strafford is an engaging, capable, somewhat detached puzzle solver, Banville is a consummate wordsmith with an easy rhythm, and the plot unfolds in a well-controlled fashion. I really did feel like I was reading a mystery from my teens, albeit with a modern macabre edge. If the easy read did not translate into palpable tension, if the twist ending was not really a twist at all, if Strafford’s otherness left him a cypher … none of these spoiled a juicy period piece mystery.
Gifted comedian and provocateur Craig Reucassel came out swinging in the sustainability/environmental space with his entertaining, spot-on series War on Waste. Now his four-part “Fight for Planet A: Our Climate Challenge” takes on a bigger challenge, the most fraught of them all. Employing his trademark mix of interviews, consumer challenges, politician bail-ups, and voice-over narration, Reucassel quickly drives into the heart of Australia’s shameful inaction on global warming. He sets an eclectic panel of ordinary Aussies the challenge of reducing carbon emissions from the various sectors that count. He chases politicians in Canberra and even on the beach. He employs the “black balloon” device to illustrate the relative dimensions of emissions. By its nature, Fight for Planet A is a polemic for the times, and it doesn’t pretend to be more than an intelligent tilt at the issues, but after an initial episode that seemed timid, the show picks up pace and culminates in a powerful plea for political sanity, community action, and a way forward that lines up with the science. Especially moving is a trip and interview with Charlie Veron, possibly the world’s foremost experts on coral reefs, who now despairs of reef survivals as the sea warms. Perhaps for Australians only, but recommended as a reminder of sanity and a call for action.
Is “The Trip to Greece” the last of the four “Trip” movies featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalized versions of themselves on whirlwind gourmet travelogues? It seems to be and perhaps the time has come, for the premise was always threadbare at best, and all the best jokes have been said. This time the pair pretend to retrace the voyage of Odysseus, an excuse for voluptuous scenery shots, brief clips of busy gourmet chefs, repartee between mouthfuls, repartee while driving, and the odd, slightly emotive scenes of the two in between. Michael Winterbottom is a superb director and he imbues this film, like the others, with an indie slant even while the cinematography and scene shifting are impeccable. But hey, we “Trip” lovers are not glued to the screen for any of that, what we want is spirited bickering, inspired wordplay, and voice imitations nonpareil. As usual, I watched with a perpetual half smile, nodding occasionally at cleverness, interspersed with laughing out loud. When Brydon and Coogan strike a motherlode, they are very, very funny. Overall, “The Trip to Greece” is definitely for fans and is engaging, subdued entertainment for first-timers.
“Thief of Stars” rapidly follows The Final Dawn, the first in a space opera series that runs at a cracking pace. We follow Jack Bishop’s adventures in space with a team of sentient automata, his adventures both encountered but also pivoting around his central quest to find his home planet Earth. Ashford conjures up a vast world of stars, planets, and alien races, and Bishop’s team is brought to life through excellent characterization and dialogue. On this outing, Bishop, ever more desperate to seek home, finds himself boxed into stealing a “solar core” aboard a colony ship, and a sinuous plot ensues. As in the debut, the author is at his best amidst the vivid action scenes, and once more Thief of Stars is a quick treat to read, but I had the feeling the series could be stumbling a tad. I shall, of course, be hanging for another reprise of resourceful Jack Bishop in far-flung space.
Car chase movies are abominations but during lockdown, spurred by ancient memories of “Drive” and recent memories of “Ford v Ferrari,” I was drawn into the promised energy of “Lost Bullet.” Debut filmmaker Guillaume Pierret has fashioned a simple but powerful story around the character of super-mechanic, super-driver Lino, furloughed from jail to help a special team of road cops chasing drug-carrying “go fast” cars. As the trailer foreshadows, treachery unwinds Lino’s life and he must find a car with exonerating evidence, the lost bullet of the title, before the bad guys kill him. All well and good, and precisely the reason I picked up this film. Pierret has fashioned a tight (if occasionally silly) script full of car races, battles, loves and losses, and the chase scenes themselves are brilliantly choreographed, building up tension towards a finale car chase scene. The dampening trouble with “Lost Bullet” is the actor playing Lino, stuntman Alban Renoir, who looks suitably “low-level crim” but can sustain few emotions, not even fear or triumph. Rooting for him as the hero simply never took hold of me, and while I can recommend this movie as a frenetic time-filler, it ends as empty of life as it began.
I have not read anything like “The Strange Book of Jacob Joyce” in years. An eloquent, propulsive novel that can seem like a thriller one moment but fantasy-horror the next, it held me in thrall. No plot spoilers from me: we travel with Jacob Boyce, a geologist obsessed with a painting, obsessed to the point of measuring each millimeter of the canvas, even as his own married life heads towards disaster. Scotland, then Spain, all beautifully observed … backed by rapier-sharp dialogue and a memorable cast of minor characters. And the descriptions of paintings – wow! If The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce were optioned for a movie, it would surely have to be by Christopher Nolan, so deviously twisty and immersive is the plot, so evocative the penmanship. Wonderful, wonderful.
A mystery set in rambunctious East Texas, “Beneath the Surface” is the second outing for Detective Sam Lawson, a can-do, smart, but volatile policeman. Assigned out of town to track down the missing daughter of his ex-boss (and enemy, Lawson discovers a stew of potential suspects, including businesspeople and local identities. The author unfurls the action and clues deftly, the style is unobtrusive, the dialogue sounds right, and Hawkins County springs to life. “Beneath the Surface” is stock standard genre fodder and all the better for it, a swift, pleasing read.
Assessing, modelling, and predicting the global impacts of anthropogenic warming is, of course, almost impossibly complex, and one of the complexities is our very air, the atmosphere, sloshing around in barely decipherable configurations. In “Jet Stream,” a marvel of compact storytelling and explication, meteorologist Tim Woollings explains to us one crucial element of our understanding, a “river” of fast-moving eastward air over five kilometers above our heads, whizzing around the equator. Woollings posits a weather balloon journeying around our planet in the jet stream, and he artfully uses stopping points – in the Caribbean, in Africa, in Asia, in the Americas – to explain to us the weather, the climate, and the history of climatology. 195 pages is all it takes to bring the reader up to scratch (albeit an information-dense position that forced me to think hard). And the author’s prose sings! If you’re at all interested in weather, climate, and our fate, Jet Stream is an epitome of elegant science writing.
A documentary maker with a heart, Sasha Snow is also a consummate craftsman, and “The Troublemaker” is a tour de force. Clocking in at just under an hour, a viewing is an existentially intense epic that seems to last … well, an existence. Framed around the talking head of charismatic Roger Hallam, cofounder of Extinction Rebellion, and expanding into a deft coverage of XR’s 2019 campaigns, while drawing in another XR interview and footage of the damage already being wrought by global warming, The Troublemaker is the most intellectually and emotionally call to climate emergency action I have witnessed. Hallam’s piercing analysis of our current crisis and his own account of metamorphosis from organic farmer to nonviolent-direct-action rebel leader is riveting, sentence-by-sentence riveting. On two occasions, his words, so forensically and scientifically accurate, but oh so passionate, set me to tears. The film’s cinematography is sumptuous, the soundtrack (by Adem Ilhan) is gorgeous, and Snow’s direction is intelligent. All up, this is a must-see in 2020, perfectly capturing our moment between one age, of humanity’s ignorance of its own existential peril, and a new age of ameliorative and restorative action.
Will Toledo, singer and brains trust behind Car Seat Headrest, has pumped out lo-fi indie rock over nearly a decade. Bold with musical flourishes, introspective lyrics, and a pliable, howl-ready voice, Toledo has slowly acquired fame. Now he has taken four years to bring out “Making A Door Less Open.” No longer lo-fi, indeed close to stadium ready, Toledo zaps all over his range of genres, from buzzing guitars to electropop to world-music-lite. The album feels like a rolling set of fun songs, or at least as fun as a gloomy headspace guy can be. Vocally channeling various garage rock styles but also notably Matt Beringer from The National, Toledo is in fine form, and every song is both interesting and catchy (again in that indie sense). Highlights include the two versions of “Hostile,” one guitar punk, one brooding electro (the latter with a lovely acapella outro sealed with shouting); the opener, “Weightlifters,” with its Led-Zep-Kashmir intro and sawing guitars; and the majestic, National-esque “Life Worth Missing.” A beguiling, foot-tapping, intelligent jumble.