Twin Peaks: A Lynching Part One (Strange Skins Digital)

The return of Twin Peaks should not be underestimated. Other offerings from the Nineties are back in force, like faded pop stars cashing in with a reunion tour. Peaks was always different. It was network programming with an art house sensibility, cunningly clad in the wardrobe of a Fifties soap opera. Co-created by David Lynch, it brought cinematic production values to the small screen and set a benchmark for the future direction of showrunner-led drama. It certainly lost the plot during its second season, yet remained a different kettle of fish throughout. Or more appropriately a piscine-infused percolator.                                                                                                                                                                                                         I got into the series during my turbulent teens, where its angst-ridden weirdness and distinctive characters struck a deep chord. Many of us assumed we’d never see the “place both wonderful and strange” again. Our hero Special Agent Dale Cooper was trapped in the upholstered netherworld of the Black Lodge and he would seemingly be there forever. Lynch vetoed all attempts to revive the concept. His parting shot,  prequel film Fire Walk With Me, famously opened with a TV set being smashed to fragments. Then came the news no-one ever thought they’d hear: Lynch and writer Mark Frost had re-teamed and the show was opening its portals to viewers a quarter of a century later.

In 1990 I was ready for Twin Peaks, I just hadn’t realized it at that precise moment. The saga quickly gained an inexorable hold on my melting pot of a mind. One of the cleverest things about the show was its deceptive air of cosy familiarity, despite frequent punctuations of shocking content. I looked back fondly at that period and thought I knew what to expect from my favourite programme. Boy was I ever wrong!

To date I’ve watched the first four episodes, cannily released in as big a chunk as Lynch would allow. My reaction to the first hour or so of the double-length opener was one of vague disappointment. It appeared to be a new Lynch project with elements of Peaks in the background. However the deliberately slow pace, combined with a constant undercurrent of menace, kept me interested. If you’ve seen the director’s Lost Highway or Inland Empire then this belated third season gives viewers something similar. The icy and detached atmosphere felt far removed from the little town we know and love. Much of the action takes place elsewhere, in big, anonymous spaces like New York and Las Vegas.

What I and no doubt many others were waiting for was to welcome Agent Cooper back into our lives. Lynch and Frost wisely include him early on in a cryptic sequence featuring the Giant (Carel Struycken, who is a bit shrunken these days) but he disappears after this to be replaced by new characters. These additions – featuring in disparate, Mulholland Drive-style plot strands – are fine, albeit there to act as chess pieces in the grand scheme. Unlike the original series the acting is rather stilted in places. This works well in terms of unsettling the audience but makes it tough to get invested.

As it transpires a few of them are soon out of the picture, most notably Sam (Ben Rosenfield) and Tracey (Madeline Zima), who are pretty much there to strip off and make out in front of a mysterious glass box he’s supposed to be observing. What happens to them is the revival’s first big scare and it certainly delivers. It’s worth mentioning here that Twin Peaks: The Return is much grislier than its predecessor, a quality Lynch blends with the abstract to striking effect.

Episode two gives us a proper reunion with Cooper in the red-curtained realm and promptly aces our expectations, via an absolutely extraordinary chain of bizarre and eerie events. The most surprising thing about this resurrection for me so far is the way Lynch and Frost seek to explain early on aspects that have been the source of rampant speculation for twenty-five years. Peaks was never heavy on exposition, in fact there was virtually none. But I guess they’ve made fans wait long enough – bold moves indicate fresh and exciting directions for the mythology of the Black Lodge.

Put simply, the creators do not mess about. The arrival of a tree with what appears to be a talking brain for a head takes Lynchians firmly back to the days of Eraserhead and its rubberized ghouls. The story then begins to tie in with the journey of Cooper’s doppelgänger, who replaced his likeness in the real world and has been roaming the land causing mayhem since the previous run ended.

There’s a rewarding sense of the strands coming together, which becomes increasingly apparent across episodes three and four. The writers have taken the  intelligent decision to show how the strange goings-on in Twin Peaks affected the country as a whole, before slowly drawing us back to the town for what is presumably going to be a hell of a showdown between the two Coops.

We’ve never known quite what to expect with this show. It’s gotten broader and wilder since we last saw it. The curveballs really do curve. Hopefully the fuller emphasis on arthouse will reap the benefits and Showtime will be happy with their investment. They surely expected it to be challenging, but maybe not this challenging. Still, like the various people who’ve tried to access the Black Lodge over the years, they wanted to get in. And once you’re in, getting out is a whole other matter.

 

This article first appeared in Strange Skins Digital.

Dad’s Army DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

DAThere were doubts over whether the original Dad’s Army would succeed. Its subject matter of World War II and the ageing Home Guard hardly filled BBC top brass with confidence, but it went on to become arguably its greatest sitcom hit. Fast forward forty-odd years to the new movie version – naysayers said it could never work, that director Oliver Parker couldn’t possibly recapture those nostalgic past glories. This time round they were right!

Opening with a standard spy movie chase that culminates in suitably daft fashion, we’re soon transported to the action-averse setting of Walmington-On-Sea, watched over with a rod of aluminium by the stubborn Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones) and his largely pensionable team. It isn’t long of course before they find themselves doing more than herding cattle, as the Germans infiltrate the community to retrieve information and the menfolk fall under the spell of a glamorous journalist (a well-cast Catherine Zeta Jones).

In fairness, Parker and writer Hamish McColl had an insurmountable task. As well as being a household favourite, the TV show was a period piece… the period being the 1970s, where its gentle humour felt fresher. It’s all a bit low wattage by today’s standards, and the show’s sweetness and pratfalls are replaced by lavatorial gags and laboured slapstick. Here Private Godfrey doesn’t just need to be excused, he ends up unburdening himself over Corporal Jones!

Probably sensing the national outcry over a cast facelift, Parker has gone above and beyond, hiring some unusually big names to fill the boots of Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier and co. This yields mixed results. Jones and Michael Gambon (Godfrey) are by far the best replacements but the other main performers struggle. Bill Nighy hams it up to the nines as Sergeant Wilson, in a turn that frequently puts him on a different planet. Crucially he lacks chemistry with Jones. The line up generally fails to gel, which is another great shame. Tom Courtenay takes on the fondly-remembered, dogmatic Jones, but lacks Clive Dunn‘s light touch, coming off as plain irritating.

McColl scores higher with the female contingent, promoting Mrs Mainwaring from an offscreen presence to a formidable front-of-camera battleaxe (Felicity Montagu). She’s a much better commander than her husband, shepherding the solid support of Sarah Lancashire, Alison Steadman, Emily Atack and in particular Derek‘s Holli Dempsey, who plays Frank (Blake Harrison)’s sweetheart, definitely one to watch. They display the British pluck that underpinned the series and while there’s an end battle that brings the men to the fore, writers Jimmy Perry and David Croft would have done it better and quieter. They also inserted intriguing nuggets of period detail into their scripts, something that’s glossed over somewhat in this incarnation.

It’s amusing enough, and the players provide guaranteed entertainment value (if only out of curiosity to see how they’ll measure up). As the sum of its parts however Dad’s Army is a misfire. We’re watching an elaborate recreation rather than a movie in its own right, and the producers should really have ditched the tributing and made something that marched more to its own beat.

This review first appeared on THN.

Flashback Feature: Roger Sterling’s Agencies Of The Future (Mad Men, The Hollywood News, Nov 2014)

MM 1Greetings and salutations. My name is Roger Sterling and I run Sterling Cooper & Partners, a thriving advertising agency in Manhattan. We have one rule – if you can successfully cross the street after a lunch meeting then you’re the man for us (tougher than it sounds folks). You may have read the opinions of my colleague Don Draper about the state of the industry and where we go from here. I like Don. Who doesn’t like Don? If you don’t want to sleep with him you at least want to shake his hand, hope some of that magic rubs off. But he isn’t the only one here with strong views as to the direction our business should be taking. In this feature I intend to highlight key areas of growth that can be capitalized upon to ensure the ad scene becomes a key motivator in peoples’ lives. Not just in a day-to-day capacity but in a way that expands the consciousness of the nation and that one day will eventually challenge the established social hierarchy. Now if you’ll excuse me I just tipped a mohito down my leg.

Sorry about that. Where was I? Ah yes. The future of the modern day advertising agency. What role could a creative organization like Sterling Cooper & Partners play in shaping this great country of ours? Allow me to paint you a picture…

THE MEDIUM & THE MESSAGE

MM 2The President is sitting in the White House. He’s just had yet another meeting with the group of cotton-brained bamboozlers he calls his advisers. The country is in turmoil. There are riots in the streets. He’d call in the troops but they’re busy losing their lives in Vietnam. He has a headache, and who could blame him? What he needs is a message. A means of getting how he’s feeling out to the population that put him where he is. And who’s going to be doing that? You’ve guessed it. An ad agency. If you can sell a can of cream corn you can sure as hell get a man re-elected. Without sounding disrespectful, there’s virtually no difference.

In the future, all world leaders and men of influence will come to outfits like ours to impart their wisdom to the masses. There will be a room beneath the oval office that you can access via an elevator operated by some great-looking chick in a bikini.

Sorry, what was I talking about? That’s right, the advertising bunker! It’ll make the War Room look like my ex’s walk-in closet. The finest minds in the industry will steer the political and cultural trends. I’d say Don would be in that room but he’d probably be President by then.

WOMEN IN OUR INDUSTRY

At Sterling Cooper & Partners we’re proud to be progressive. Our female staff not only take messages and make the coffee. They also write campaigns and eventually stab their mentors in the spine. I like to think of our agency as a model for the path things are going to follow into the next few decades. To illustrate this let’s look at one of our most valued employees. Names aren’t important, but let’s call her Joan…

MM 4Joan not only participates in our light-hearted battles for supremacy, she also has a man working under her! This would be unthinkable at other firms, yet here a squeaky clean opportunist can worm his way into the attentions of a woman who really should know better. But I digress. (Though I would say I get the impression this guy buys his fruit upstate as well as downtown if you catch my drift.  Maybe we’re more socially radical than we’re letting on…)

HEALTH & HAPPINESS

MM 5

The biggest factor facing the way we do business is our mental and physical well-being. Creating ads for clients is like trying to share your steak with a hammerhead. Chunks will be taken out of you as well as what’s on the plate. That’s why we grease the wheels with alcohol, try and slow the hungry bastard down a little, but it can’t carry on like this. I may look like the love child of Howard Stark and Lena Horne, but believe it or not I suffered a mighty heart attack once. We’ve got to take the focus off lacquering our livers with liquor and find a more practical solution.

MM 6That’s why in the future all ad men will be fitted with stainless steel organs. Lungs for smoking. Liver for Sterling Cooper’s penthouse-sized drinks cabinet. And a cast iron spleen so I can deal with the ex-wife…

MM 7With these modifications in place there’s nothing an enterprising creative couldn’t do in his pursuit of a deal breaker. And if the eggheads are reading this, there’s a certain part of my anatomy that would benefit from an overhaul.

THE SPAGHETTI FACTOR

MM 8The other afternoon I was sitting on the roof of my building on a particularly hot day. As usual I was naked, I tend to think better that way, and as I placed one of my special orange pills on my tongue I came to a staggering revelation. The sounds of Hell’s Kitchen were drifting on the air. If New York is a kitchen I reasoned, then surely the different boroughs are saucepans. And what does that make us? Yes you’ve guessed it. We are all strands of spaghetti! Like a good bolognese the stuff at the top is rich and delicious but beneath it we’re all tangled together. We need to blend our minds so the strands merge to form something broad and supportive… like a sheet of lasagne! Society will be much better ordered with the sauce distributed evenly between layers. That way everyone gets a better bite at the beef and if you can make it up to the beschamel, well, good luck to you.

MM 9We’ve all got to get together people! Show those bureaucrats with their detachable faces that they don’t run the show. If we could all just strip naked and run into Central Park, using the conduit of the trees to channel our natural energy to create a shockwave that could wipe greed from the streets of the city, there’d be a free and groovy future from which we could all make a healthy profit!

My name is Roger Sterling and I am currently sitting in a pool of my own ingenuity.

This feature first appeared on The Hollywood News and was researched via this Vanity Fair article.

Columbo: How I’d Do It

PFColumbo is one of my favourite TV shows, and like many fans I wonder how it would work if it were brought back. In the twenty-first century the legacy is very much alive on social media and Columbophile’s recent post got me mulling definitively on the prospect.

It’s led me to think that, despite the absence of original star Peter Falk, the show really could be revived. Whether it should…? That’s a whole other question. Columbophile was highly eloquent about what he did and didn’t want, and we chatted briefly about it on Twitter. However the more I pondered it, the more I found myself going in a different direction. Eventually, like the little details that always bug the Lieutenant, the ideas soon crowded in my head and now it’s going to be cheap therapy for me to write it down.

I’m arguing that the format was as much a star of the show as Mr Falk. The simple concept of knowing who committed the crime from the outset is unique to Columbo and can’t be separated from it in my view. There are two major factors to the appeal of the series – watching the killer in the aftermath of the crime/waiting for him or her to be caught. And spectating as the high and mighty are brought down a peg.

The former will always be compelling. There’s a greater social context than ever for the latter. Donald Trump is aiming for the White House. Celebs achieve notoriety by showing up at various places. The cultural landscape is ripe for a Columbo’ing! Aside from the usual line up of prominent figures I’d have murderers more directly tied to real life “personalities”, so there’d be a satirical bent to proceedings. Columbophile makes a good point that – as with the classic 70s version – performers you associate with movies have decamped to television (one of the reasons the revival lacked sparkle). But there’s scope to put some less likely actors in the frame, along the lines of Johnny Cash‘s appearance in Swan Song. In this age of celebrity you might well see occasional thesps Taylor Swift, or Snoop Dogg being pestered by the great detective.

So a crucial element of a return for me would be a contemporary setting. Columbo is associated with the 70s, but back then it was cutting edge stuff, in terms of electronic music and presentation. I’d be more interested in pushing forward with the new rather than sticking closely to the old, and feel the staple ingredients would update themselves quite easily. The earlier episodes were an hour long, fairly similar to today. I’d keep the slower pace of course, in opposition to the CSI style – audiences wouldn’t mind and like before it’d enhance the old school battle of wits.

The small screen plays host to all manner of horrors, with the theatre of death having been ramped up to mega-levels in the decade or so since the last televised instalment. I’d make the murders pretty eye-popping at times, fiendishly-constructed and not shying away from gore. That’s not to say every week would see a flying head, but the new Columbo would be more wince-inducing and graphic. Mind you, its predecessor had a fair helping of nastiness – George Hamilton despatching a reporter with a poison cigarette in Caution Murder Can Be Hazardous To Your Health was uncomfortable viewing as I recall.

Last but not least, there’s the question of the lead actor. Peter Falk is a legend. That’s why I’d have no intention of trying to replace him, or echo his performance (though Jason Alexander would make a good Columbo in that mould). Instead I’d go for something different and cast Hugh Laurie

HLHis name has been speculated on previously and to me he’s a great fit. Columbo is full of surprises. Hugh Laurie is full of surprises. He can take the aloofness, the humour, the intelligence and gumshoe persistence, and roll it into a ball, creating a deceptive steamroller of a character. There’s no point in conjuring up Mr Falk. A fresh take on the concept requires a fresh face.

I’d shift the nature of the Lieutenant slightly, moving him away from the trench-coated bloodhound and more in the direction of slacker. To his opponents he’s a Cosmo Kramer-like “hipster doofus” (though he wouldn’t be walking into doors and so forth). Yet he epitomizes the person who looks all over the place, when really they’re paying strict attention, and waiting for the moment to strike.

That’s how I’d do it anyway.