Under the Sky We Make by Kimberly Nicholas [8/10]

Kimberly Nicholas Under the Sky We Make review

Climate scientist Kimberly Nicholas, accustomed to speaking about the climate emergency and how we react to it, has now offered up a far-reaching manifesto on how to move forward. ”Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World” takes the chaotic data dump we all face when we come to grips with the crisis and delineates a hopeful chain of thought and action. The first few chapters (“It’s warming, it’s us”) sets out the science and its strength, and how much we need to know. Next (“We’re sure, it’s bad”), she provides a kind of counselling service, on how to deal with the waves of grief, rage, nihilism, and helplessness that assail the modern activist. And finally, and most importantly (“We can fix it”), she examines, using personal anecdotes, how we can most sensibly align our own worlds with the societal changes we are seeking to bring about. The author is a smooth, confident stylist, with a sense of humor and refreshing candidness, and the book, far from being a chore, is a breeze to read. Under the Sky We Make might well be the book that changes your life.

Long Way Up [7/10]

Long Way Up review

Seven years after the previous television series starring Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman undertaking an epic motorcycle trip, “Long Way Up” sees the convivial duo (backed by a support team that often offers subplots) tilt at riding from the southern tip of South America all the way to Los Angeles. A novel addition to their schtick is that they’re on prototype Harley-Davidson electric motorbikes. The eleven episodes of Long Way Up make for a pleasant, often fascinating viewing experience, the highlights being spectacular scenery brilliantly shot; the genuine camaraderie of McGregor and Boorman; the insights into our future electrified world, as they struggle to charge their bikes on an underdeveloped continent; and admiration of the riders’ pluck. The first half of the season struck me as more exciting, with the final two episodes of dramatic passage through cartel-ridden Mexico proving to be a little flat, but overall, Long Way Up is an intriguing, warm-hearted travelogue.

Foundation Season 1 [7/10]

Foundation Season 1 review

David Goyer and Josh Friedman are brave indeed to tackle “Foundation,” their screen rendering of Isaac Asimov’s groundbreaking (but very complex) set of books from the 1950s. In broad terms, Asimov imagined a vast intergalactic empire ruled by dynastic, authoritarian clones, challenged by Hari Seldon and his “psychohistory,” which foretells, using mathematics, the empire’s collapse. I marveled at the books’ grand sweep and brainy ambit, five decades ago, but have never revisited them (and will not now). The creators of the Apple+ series have apparently envisaged eleven seasons, and have substantially recast the plot and characters, both of which facts can be gained from the “official podcast” (which is surprisingly useful). Foundation is as much a cultural event as a cinematic experience, and similar bold remakes in the past often bombed. Thankfully, the news is good. Foundation is excellent, with captivating plot arcs backed by very solid acting performances (let me single out Lou Lobell’s pitch perfect rendition of Gaal Dornick, Hari’s protege; the inimitable Jared Harris as Hari; and Lee Pace’s superb mastery of the role of Brother Day, the middle of the three ruling clones). The visual spectacles of the Empire and its planets are mind-blowing. My only genuine complaint is the soundtrack, a cloying, Star-Wars-y orchestrated intrusion (hey, I know that’s a personal preference thing). If you can master the first few episodes of patient world-building, you’re in for an intriguing, ever-surprising watching feast. In the final analysis, the very complexity of Asimov’s plot and the plot gymnastics of the series, seem to prevent full emotional identification, but let’s wait for Season 2 to deepen the filmic journey.

Finch [5/10]

Finch review

The opening scene of “Finch” is spectacular, Tom Hanks in a cumbersome protective suit prospecting in the wreckage of our planet after a “solar flare” has destroyed most it. The visual depiction of this radioactive, ozone-holed world aroused all my Anthropocene Age fears. And the rest of the first half of this ambitious-yet-modest film works brilliantly. We see that the survivor, an ex-IT superstar, has a cute dog he loves, and we watch him create a clunky-looking robot who instantly appeals. As the trio flees west across America’s vast wasteland in a specially rigged van, aiming for the San Francisco Bridge, all seemed in hand for an intriguing, intelligent hour and a half. Hanks is in top form, the human-robot dialogue avoids pitfalls, spectacular scene follows spectacular scene, and a sense of foreboding builds. Unfortunately, the second half of Finch slides into mawkishness and slumping tension. By the end, I was fidgeting with embarrassment. So, by all means while away time with this interesting dystopian aside, just don’t expect The Road.

Sympathy for Life by Parquet Courts [6/10]

Parquet Courts Sympathy for Life review

Sympathy for Life” is a departure for Parquet Court, the rambunctious, intelligent punk rockers. Alongside angular thumpers like “Walking at a Downtown Pace,” the album includes bumpy, loud rockers (“Black Widow Spider”) and Talking Heads robot-rock (“Marathon of Anger”) and almost-funk (the title track). Adding continuity are Andrew Savage’s shouty voice and the band’s rousing choruses. Much of it is actually dance-inducing, something that does not always appeal to me, but I found repeated listens burned all the songs into my head. Impressionistic lyrics complete the picture of a solid ninth album.

Phil Lynott: Songs for While I’m Away by Emer Reynolds [9/10]

Phil Lynott review

I remember being shocked in 1986 by the premature death, at age 36, of the former lead singer of Thin Lizzy, a band with some brilliant hard-rocking songs and much ordinary pfaff. One of the strengths of “Phil Lynott: Songs for While I’m Away” is bringing home just how complex the seemingly bravura Lynott, with his trademark appearance, actually was. Indeed, it seems that the crucial narrative hook utilised by filmmaker Emer Reynolds was telling Lynott’s life story through his many songs. This works brilliantly, each chosen song dovetailing with an aspect of the singer’s character or chapters of his life. Various talking heads bring sparkle to the narrative; notable interviewees include some old friends, Midge Ure, a laconic Scott Goreham, and Huey Lewis. In the end, the filmmaker’s nuanced, perhaps even poetic examination of a rock genius’s all-too-short life imbues her subject with awe and tragedy. A must for rock music aficionados, Phil Lynott is a documentary triumph.

Wild Souls by Emma Marris [8/10]

Emma Marris Wild Souls review

What are our moral obligations to Earth’s non-human creatures in the Anthropocene Age? The moral issues involved are impossibly complex and ambiguous, but in “Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World,” American writer Emma Marris tackles the subject head on. This is a compendious, exhaustive book, yet the author’s energy, narrative coherence, and clear prose render the read highly enjoyable and transporting. Drawing on her own global investigations (such a pleasure to read!), on recent and less recent environmental history, and on the clashing philosophical views on the subject, the author delves into the ethical complexities involved. Do we save one animal or do we save a bird species? Can we kill thousands of feral rats to restore environment? Is it better to fight to halt the diminishment of common species or to pull out all stops to arrest an imminent extinction? Do we feed polar bears (a brilliant chapter)? More fundamentally, what is wildness and is any creature now truly wild? Are we conjoined morally with animals or birds or even insects? No breezy diversion, Wild Souls in a welcome in-depth moral re-evaluation that is vital to consider as we face the climate crisis.

No Time to Die [8/10]

No Time to Die review

Seeing the latest James Bond movie is a ritual, but not always a huge pleasure. Daniel Craig has added gravitas to the Bond legend but the last two Bond outings provoked an identical reaction in me: I rocked up to the cinema with anticipation but walked out shaking my head at plot inanities. Thankfully, Craig’s final Bond appearance in “No Time to Die” has cemented his reputation, for this instalment in the Bond series is a hoot of a fine thriller. Amazing set-piece scenery wonderfully shot, coupled with suitably ludicrous but gasp-worthy violence, are a given in Bond films, and No Time to Die never disappoints. Craig emotes far more than usual, adding depth to the movie’s otherwise cartoonish flavor; in particular, Rami Malek’s portrayal as the obligatory arch-villain is solid but campy. The other key actors are well cast and capable; kudos to Ralph Fiennes as M and Ben Whishaw as Q. The plot is the customary throwaway nonsense but who cares? Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction is flawless and the action rockets along with few pauses and no clunkers. Loud, fast, thrilling, No Time to Die left me glad for the end of lockdown.

The Velvet Underground by Todd Haynes [8/10]

The Velvet Underground review

In theory, I’m the right age to have been influenced, as have so many, by the Velvet Underground, but my rebelliousness stopped shy of this iconic band. The Velvet Underground were very much Lou Reed’s vehicle of expression, but he was balanced, in the first incarnation of the band, by the inimitable John Cale, and by Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker. I spent half a decade reading of the influence of the band upon artists and groups I adored. Now Todd Haynes, uncompromising filmmaker extraordinaire, has put together a biopic documentary of sorts: “The Velvet Underground.” Haynes has chosen to let the band and contemporary talking heads speak for themselves, via interviews and wonderfully evocative concert clips. Visually, he creates arresting montages and segues, and the end result is a propulsive narrative that forces the viewer to interpret on the go. The Andy Warhol era (he sponsored them for a while) is especially fascinating. Rock and roll, at least in my day, was meant to be revolutionary, dismissive of the old and established, and The Velvet Underground, as a film, certainly lives up that ambit claim.

The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey [7/10]

Amanda Lohrey The Labyrinth review

A gentle forensic novel centering on grief and restoration, “The Labyrinth” is my first Amanda Lohrey and it will not be my last. When her artist son becomes incarcerated due to homicidal negligence, a woman abandons her normal life and buys a ramshackle hut on the southeast coast of Australia, close enough to her son’s prison. Reeling, she seizes upon the redemptive idea of building a labyrinth, one of those twisty physical structure we all remember from our childhoods. With no grand plan, she is forced to rely on others—locals and an illegal immigrant—and gradually, hope for the future offers itself as a possibility. Describing the plot above does not do justice to the hypnotic plot and prose, to the interplay of real humans, to the interplay of ideas. The Labyrinth is no thriller but it is a page turner, and a meditative one at that.