Rachel’s Farm is a bubbly, intriguing documentary by Rachel Ward, film star and wife of iconic Aussie actor, Bryan Brown, about her discovery of regenerative farming and a three-to-four-year push to switch over to no-fertilizer, no-herbicides farming rotating cattle around partitioned fields. The idea is to bring the soil back to its proper state, full of life and fungi. Ward is an engaging storyteller, frank and open, and with a sure touch with staging and plotting. A picture of obsessive work and deep love for a project comes through, in a style that is neither pompous nor didactic. One can query the very foundations of such regenerative farming as a means of overcoming the carbon contributions of the meat and food giants to global warming (some say regeneration does not come close to redressing the climate crisis imposts, others say that it cannot be efficient enough in delivering protein to eight billion humans), but I recommend Rachel’s Farm as a passionate (and surprisingly reflective) look at one regen attempt.
Watching Season 1 of The Newsreader in 2021 was one of that year’s viewing pleasures (see my review). Immersing the viewer in a 1986 Australian television newsroom, replete with episodes of evocative history (Chernobyl!), it spun around a storyline of Dale, a go-getter reporter keen to become an announcer, and Helen, the channel’s superstar host of “News at 6.” Season 2 kicks off with a 1987 election-eve broadcast and includes the Black Monday stock market crash, but the main focus is on the many deeply portrayed characters: Anna Torv is unforgettable as the queen of the screen inching downward in stature; Sam Reid nails a nuanced performance as the rookie presenter on his way up, grappling with his own sexuality and the superstar relationship; Michelle Lim Davidson wonderfully underplays a rookie behind-the-scenes producer who falls in love with a sports presenter; Rory Fleck Byrne ably plays a new character to the season, a flippant entertainer; Robert Taylor is note perfect as a stuffy, old-style news anchor; and Marg Downey is superb as his scheming wife. For my money, though, the standout performance is William McInnes as the profane slob running the newsroom, hilarious and imaginative in his portrayal. The arc of the season works wonderfully, with not a moment wasted, and the sets and cinematography bring the era and characters alive. Season 2 of The Newsreader is this year’s must-watch Australian drama.
The Washington Poe procedural series, costarring geeky Tilly, now five books long, is one of the best extant mystery sets, and M. W. Craven displays a wonderful, smooth style with a distinctive voice. So Fearless, a standalone thriller (probably destined to be a series, although who knows?), firmly located in Jack Reacher territory, was hotly awaited. It stars Ben Koenig, a former star cop who is physically unable to feel fear, and now lives (hey, like Reacher!) off the grid. When the past rocks up to intrude, Koenig embarks on a rollercoaster, ultra-violent crusade to bring down the bad guys. The author again displays a fluent style, this time with a different voice, and the action scenes are choreographed wonderfully. All well and good, but whereas Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher voice” hits the spot as flat but lyrical, the voice in Fearless is (in my humble opinion) stupidly benign to the point where the kinetic plot begins to seem cartoonish. In other words, Ben Koenig out-Reachers Reacher, which should denote a triumph, but instead falls flat. Overall, Fearless is a mildly fun read but a stylistic fail.
An entire generation of readers grew up to laud Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of space opera extravaganzas. All kudos then to the team that tackled this icon for an opening season of ten episodes a couple of years ago. Although highly impressive, Season 1 seemed slightly overwhelmed by Asimov’s complex plot (see my review), and Season 2 of Foundation reinforces that picture. Let me stress the many positives: the acting, only occasionally overly portentous, remains first-rate (I won’t list the many fine performances, see the review link above); the space-opera filmics are sublime, even awe-inspiring; some new plot threads are introduced in fine fashion; episode direction is steady-handed. On the negative side, the music remains appalling, but that could be dealt with. It’s the plot, specifically the underlying story of Hari Seldon, his magic cube, the time and space wizardry, and a propensity for weird new super-science to pop up (did Asimov really use those devices?), that often left me shaking my head with bewilderment. I noted at the end of Season 1 that the follow-up might bed down the overall narrative, instead the confusion, whilst not crippling, has deepened. I shall, of course, continue with the journey
I recall Hugh Howey’s Wool, which came out of nowhere as a sci-fi dystopian novel of striking originality, but fortunately the intricately unfolding plot was forgotten by me, for now “Silo” boldly attempts a ten-part TV show rendition. Great trepidation accompanied my viewing: how could they possibly convey the eerie nature of the underworld home for 10,000 people, its origins lost in time? I need not have worried. Showrunner Graham Yost has clearly spent unlimited funds on creating an evocative world, cast in dark hues and shrouded in mystery. The plot involves a series of characters, all played impeccably (but with specific mention of Rebecca Ferguson, striking as rebel Juliette), slowly starting to unravel the truth underlying the silo world. Attesting as much to Hugh Howey’s original wonderful plot as to the scriptwriters and directors, each episode is a standalone marvel, compelling, surprising, and inspiring. I commenced the series slowly but towards the end had to binge to satisfy an insatiable urge to discover the next layer of truth. The end-of-season cliffhanger is stunning. Is Silo the best streamer show of the year? Quite possibly.
An ex-war-zone journo who “saw the light” and became a birder, an educator about birds, and an activist for nature zones, Trish O’Kane has penned the flowing, enjoyable Birding to Change the World: A Memoir, chronicling her fascinating life passage. Especially intense and moving are the start and end of the book, the former describing how being wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans led to an epiphany, and the latter spanning her activism in Madison. Birding to Change the World is a story well told but it is also one of many recent book-length paeans to wilderness (especially grungy-looking wetlands) in a world where we seem content to let farmers and developers clear what little real havens of biodiversity remain on this planet of ours. An engaging, thoughtful read.
The first season of “The Lincoln Lawyer” felt very different to both the splendid Michael Connelly novel from which it sprang and the Matthew-McConaughey-starring 2011 movie, but it proved to be a sparkling example of the legal thriller genre (see my review). Second seasons often slump but from the opening, sprightly scenes, Season 2 is terrific fun. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo again revels in a great role and he is utterly captivating, buoyed by a fine supporting cast. The various stories, short-term and longer-term, enmeshing Mickey Haller, the self-styled best defense lawyer in LA, all work well. The cinematography portrays the city as a character, the dialogue sizzles, the script is taut, and the direction is tight. All up, Season 2 is a jaunty, involving crime series. We all hope for a third season.
Blessed are the poetic stylists of the world. One of those revered novelists that I can let slip by, Deborah Levy came to my particular notice with her 2019 novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, and her 2021 memoir, Real Estate, but I read neither. Such a mistake, at least based on her recent brief but fulsome novel, August Blue! Immediately launching into the tale of a prodigious concert pianist who fluffs a concert and then begins seeing a strange woman in European locations as she struggles to construct a new post-concert life, this stylish work invites close-up reading, paragraph by paragraph. Very “literary” in the sense of needing a reader’s concentration, the storyline is brisk and intriguing enough to generate huge existential tension, and I found the closing third, with its exploration of unhealed wounds from childhood, to be both moving and strangely pertinent to my own current life. Call me a fan now that I’ve read August Blue.
A pitch-black yet comedic revenge tale for women would not normally even come up on my radar but my wife was entranced by Bad Sisters, persuaded me, and rewatched it with me. Co-written by wonderful Irish actor Sharon Horgan, it dramatises the efforts of five close sisters to get rid of one of their husbands. The narrative switches between their bumbling killing attempts and a later investigation by two insurance adjusters (wonderfully played by Bryan Gleeson and Daryl McCormack). The script zings and the direction of the ten episodes is perfectly controlled and paced, with atmospheric cinematography in the Irish seaside country. Horgan herself is stellar as the sister elder, but the other four sisters are brilliantly portrayed by Eve Hewson, Sarah Greene, Anne-Marie Duff, and Eva Birthistle. Dark and hilarious and super-smart, Bad Sisters is a wonderful hybrid thriller.
Dennis Lehane is a superb writer of both thrillers and mystery novels, but over the last decade or longer, has shifted into the screenplay world, to fine effect. His forays into fiction have impressed but not astounded and it took me a long time to get round to reading his latest, Small Mercies, simply because I feared dropping him from my panoply of favorite authors. My concern was misplaced. Small Mercies is a return to top form, both a jagged, violent revenge/justice thriller and an in-depth, character-based dissection of inner Boston in the mid 70s. The plot is simplicity itself—a downtrodden single mother, searching for her missing teenage daughter, begins to encroach on the activities of the neighborhood’s ruling Irish gang—but the chapter-by-chapter unfolding of the truth is anything but simplistic, twisting unexpectedly and often shockingly. All this amidst oppressive heat and the turmoil of a school desegregation push… The author pulls no punches and, showcasing Lehane’s superb plotting skills, the climax is both revelatory and inevitable. The author is a flowing stylist with a real ear for dialogue, and the pages of the book seem to turn themselves. Welcome back, Dennis Lehane!