British singer/songwriter/guitarist Anna Calvi has bloomed on her third release, “Hunter.” This is a powerful collection of songs propelled by drama and bold lyrics around gender and sexuality. She has one of those voices equally at home soaring or roaring or cooing, and ordinarily I’d be left a little cold by this kind of vocals, but not so in this case. Calvi’s guitar work is brilliant. I enjoyed the variety, ranging from swoony “Swimming Pool,” to dramatic, controversial “Hunter,” to snappy “Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy.” The penny dropped when I discovered the producer is Nick Launay; he adds heft and grace and, yes, drama, to every track. A risky, triumphant album, “Hunter” is well worth a listen.
Tread with care, filmmaker! Biopics seem to paralyze screenwriters and directors, so I approached “First Man“—examining the life of one of the Twentieth Century’s icons, Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon—with trepidation. I need not have worried. Josh Singer’s screenplay, closely based on James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography of the same name, is wonderful, focusing on both the astronaut’s inner life and the juddering, fraught, cramped life of space pioneers. Director Damien Chazelle has followed up “La La Land” with a filmic perspective of alternatively majestic and muted intelligence. Long at 141 minutes, it should have been ponderous but instead time in the cinema just slips away. And the acting! I’ve idolized Ryan Gosling since the masterpiece “Drive” and here he inhabits Armstrong, illuming both his social reticence and his driven engineering passion. Claire Foy – is there a part she can’t play? – steals the show as Janet Armstrong. The cinematography, the music, the pacing . . . all wonderful. So go see “First Man” to find out how deep and sharp movies can be at illuminating history.
Simon Mawer creates immersive character-driven novels of people intersecting with history, and “Prague Spring” is a wonderful example of his skill and humanity. In 1968, while President LBJ wrestles with the Vietnam War, in Czechoslovakia a flowering revolution of political and cultural openers, personified by Alexander Dubcek, moderate leader of the Communist Party, butts up against Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. Throw into this poised moment in history a mismatched hitchhiking couple from England and a young career diplomat in love with a Czech firebrand and you have the makings of either a turgid “based on a true story” recounting or something special, and Mawer achieves the latter. He effortlessly interweaves complex character plots with what happened leading up to the famous Soviet invasion. I felt I knew all the characters like my kin. England, Europe, and especially Czechoslovakia came alive to me, and I basked in reflections about that crazy Cold War era. I can’t speak highly enough of this unshowy minor masterpiece.
Dull as dishwater, that’s what a documentary about Facebook’s offshore content moderators – folks who view a potentially offensive or unethical image or video every ten seconds or so and make the binary decision of “ignore” or “delete” – should be. But no, filmmakers Hans Block & Moritz Riesewieck have created in “The Cleaners“ a riveting, artful meditation on censorship, ethics, social media, and propaganda. Employing moody music and clever shots of offices and people and faces, working to a careful intelligent scripts, and building in scenes from USA, Philippines and Myanmar, the film scrutinises the societal impact of Facebook and the content moderators themselves. We hear one moderator boast, “I’m passionate about my work,” but gradually we see that a never-ending barrage of beheadings, pornography, hate messages, and nutcases exacts a heavy cost on the moderators. The filmmakers stay out of frame and there are no Michael-Moore-esqe polemics, so you emerge from the cinema with senses and minds abuzz. A triumph of documentary creation, “The Cleaners” is a must-see.
The 13th book in Walker’s acclaimed Bruno Chief of Police series, set in the Périgord/Dordogne northernmost region of France, is a baffling reading experience. “A Taste for Vengeance” sees Bruno learning to manage his recent promotion to Chief Inspector while dealing with a gruesome double murder/suicide and teaching cooking in a friend’s class. It’s a mix of realistic police procedures and homely relationships that should have kept me well interested, and indeed so many aspects of this complex novel intrigue. The author is a smooth, adept stylist and the local setting and gourmand milieu are satisfying. But here’s the thing: the diabolically intricate “solve the crime” plot revolves around a multitude of police personnel from three countries working together to unravel suspects, all of whom are off stage. Not until towards the end does Chief Inspector Bruno confront evil face to face; this, I’m sorry to say, blunted the narrative force of what is otherwise an accomplished novel.
An early reputation as a classic high-wire British thriller drew me to the first episode of “Bodyguard.” The first long kinetic sequence, introducing us to bodyguard David Budd, riven by his Afghanistan military experience, thrilled me, and there is so much to like about the setup – Budd is assigned to protect ultra aggressive Home Secretary Julia Montague – and the atmospherics (the music, the stylish cinematography), and the scene mechanics. Richard Madden is stalwart as the simmering but professional Budd, and Keeley Hawes is sufficiently icy as Montague, but neither stuns in this initial episode, and the other bit parts seem rather humdrum. Worst of all, the episode ends without a climax, often a no-no for series’ launches. Summing up, I’m intrigued enough to watch onward but hey, Episode One is no narrative blitz.
It’s nigh impossible to properly maintain the rage into one’s sixties, so I don’t listen to much metal or proper punk anymore. But “Joy as an Act of Resistance,” the sophomore release of much vaunted Bristol band Idles, came so highly recommended that I had to give it a spin. What a beauteous surprise! Idles takes me back to the days of Spooky Tooth or Black Sabbath or Public Image Limited, a sublime marriage of raw-voiced vocal savagery, a bludgeoning band attack, splendid lyrics, and – this is an essential ingredient – an ear for melody amidst the fury. Much of the hype about “Joy” concerns its earnest lyrics, tackling familial violence, racism, prejudice and loneliness, but that’s just the icing on the cake of a potent brew. Standout tracks include take-no-prisoners “Colossus,” the whooping sadness of “Cry to Me,” and the pro-immigration “Danny Nedelko.” For once the beat-up makes sense: Idles have a long highly creative future ahead of them.
9/10, that’s how I rated the first mesmerising episode of “Maniac.” Did the rest of the first half of the season live up to that inspirational start? In essence, yes! Episode 2 is Annie’s partial backstory, while we see some of Owen’s fraught past in Episode 3. Episode 4, their first shared adventure while within the pharmaceutical testing, bewilders a bit, then Episode 5, set in a 1940s séance, takes off. I was hooked. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill fill their screens with riveting acting, the cinematography and music are superb, and the supporting characters keep expanding. Best of all, the sumptuous baffling plot continues to play out under perfect control, mystifying even more as it reveals. Bring on the season’s second half.
Riversend, a Murray-Darling basis town scorched by drought: the revered local priest shoots five parishioners in broad daylight before being shot himself. A year later journalist Martin Scarsden arrives to resurrect his career with a “post-trauma” story and plunges into a classic whodunnit of wicked complexity. Author Chris Hammer has us walking in Scarsden’s shoes from the first page and unleashes the clever plot with assuredness. The rural cast of characters in “Scrublands” is evocative, the writing smooth and assured, the politics of a country town in decline well drawn. I was reminded of Peter Temple’s jigsaw-puzzle mysteries, a supreme compliment. Beyond the masterful genre mechanics and storytelling, Hammer (author of an award-winning travelogue through the drought-stricken areas) features the unforgiving landscape as a major character. Riversend is introduced thus: “the midday heat, ferocious and furnace-dry”; a river replaced by “a mosaic of cracked clay, baked and going to dust”; the heat “tugs at him, seeking his moisture.” For once let me recommend a rural murdery mystery ahead of city-based crime fiction: this is a resounding triumph.
Is Teleman England’s best kept cult secret? Surely! Once dedicated to creating the perfect pop (indie-style) confections, they’re now a robust four-piece with imaginative, solid musicianship around keyboards and guitars, all circling around frontman Tom Saunders’ field-fresh vocals. After some more experimental outings, “Family of Aliens” sees them leaping back into bouncy, almost-dance-style, sparkling songs built around intelligent, evocative lyrics (“Dreams are going to drown you someday, you don’t even know how deep you’ve gone”). Standout tracks include plaintive “Sea of Wine,” the ear worm opening track, and the sweeping “Song for a Seagull.” Not a dud track on this career best: buy and tap your foot and marvel!