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.

‘Neruda’ Review (The Hollywood News)

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With non-centrist politics and concepts of left and right starting to gain a foothold in the mainstream media after a long period away, it’s timely that Pablo Larraín (director of Jackie) has made Neruda. Based on true events, it gives an account of Chilean Communist politician Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), whose opposition to the American-influenced regime of President Videla led to him going on the run in 1948, with ambitious fascist detective Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) in hot pursuit.

Neruda isn’t just a man of the people but a revered poet, so has a hold on the oppressed populace that the authorities can’t match. Despite not being able to leave the country, he manages to hide in plain sight thanks to his extensive support network – a source of frustration to Peluchonneau, who feels the weight of his illustrious father behind him and is determined to make his mark on history by apprehending the rogue senator. At the core of the drama is the interaction between these two men, who barely meet, yet constantly speculate about one another via narration. It should be said this is one of the few cases I’ve experienced where a film is best enjoyed if you speak the language. The subtitles and similarity in the actors’ voices made it confusing for me to work out who was speaking at times, though this is a minor quibble.

The creation of art plays an increasingly significant role in the action, the chase being depicted as an epic narrative with Neruda wielding the pen. Though Peluchonneau also has his artistic side, grappling with the conventional crime novels Neruda leaves him by way of a tease at each location where he inevitably eludes his pursuer. With his short stature and sniffer dog features, Bernal is a dynamic but doomed figure. He starts off thinking he’s got his prey sussed out – “Communists don’t like to work, they’d rather burn churches,” he remarks at one point. However after a while he gradually begins to understand his role in Neruda’s story, leading towards an unexpected destiny. This idea is given free rein in an abstract last third, which will either be emotionally satisfying or a baffling curveball depending on your view.

Gnecco projects an understated charisma as Neruda, in a portrayal that appears to be very much warts and all. He is a great artist but is also shown as a frequenter of prostitutes and a stubborn friend and husband, giving his protectors the slip to go wandering and turning his anger on those who love him. He is caught in that strange place between man and legend, at one with the people whilst associating with the elite. A particularly interesting scene is when he’s challenged in a restaurant by a member of the public who asks in the event of his taking charge: “Will we be equal to him or equal to me?” These aspects of his character are ably brought to life by the actor. You can’t help but be reminded of Jeremy Corbyn, who’s fond of quoting Shelley to inspire voters and perceived as part of an upper echelon that apparently contradicts his populist stance.

Larraín ensures the world of freedom and imagination is never far away, from his use of deliberately retro back projection during car scenes to the jump cuts which create a jarring yet dreamlike effect during some of the exchanges.

This is a film of delicate twists and turns and it doesn’t arrive at the brutal conclusion you might think it would. At the same time it gives you a fascinating portrait of someone who believed that one day love and hope would ultimately triumph over fear.

 

This review first appeared on THN.

“An instant classic.” Arrival DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

Those who have given up on ever seeing an original film again may take comfort from the presence of director Denis Villeneuve, who has carved himself a niche somewhere between well-trodden territory and new ground. His next release is Blade Runner 2049, which sees him in the tricky position of following Ridley Scott‘s futuristic masterpiece. What presumably got him there was Arrival, an assured and powerful sci-fi epic that amazingly is Villeneuve’s first attempt at the genre.

Amy Adams plays grieving and disconnected linguist Louise Banks. Now if you think linguistics isn’t going to make the most compelling subject for a story think again. Her recruitment into a multi-government effort to communicate with the occupants of several large, monolithic objects which have appeared over skies across the globe forms the basis of an instant classic. As she and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) gradually begin to piece together the purpose of the octopus-like “Heptapods” visit, they feel the weight of world expectation behind them. Meanwhile US Army bigwig Weber (Forest Whitaker) is being leaned on by his superiors to obtain fast results.

This push and pull illustrates one of the film’s big questions – are the superpowers capable of understanding the mysteries of the universe when they can’t trust each other for five minutes? Crucial to the struggle at the heart of Eric Heisserer‘s screenplay (based on a short story by Ted Chiang) is Adams’ lead performance, another effortless example of her star quality. She was the filmmaker’s only choice for the role and you can see why. Renner, Whitaker and the under-used Michael Stuhlbarg are decent, but merely incidental in a narrative that Adams dominates from start to finish. Finally we have a major genre movie that does everything AND has a female perspective.

For an alien encounter story, the feel is surprisingly intimate. Much of the action takes place either within the network of tents where the military have set up shop, or the interior of the spacecraft, a design triumph that acknowledges the likes of HR Giger but which also has a stunning simplicity. This is a sparse and elegant production of looming shapes rather than slithering monsters. It’s intelligent and complex but also accessible and moving. The increasing public disquiet is only shown via screens, ramped up by a deluge of media speculation, reinforcing the idea of a bubble.

Aside from an actress in charge of proceedings, there’s nothing that new on display: like Interstellar, Arrival pays tribute to 2001, both in terms of the central character’s personal odyssey and the striking black shapes heralding the appearance of an alien civilization. However, while Christopher Nolan‘s film boggled your eyes and shattered your eardrums with its central concept, Villeneuve delivers something more nuanced and distinctive. His take brings us familar subject matter in a way that hasn’t quite been seen before, derivative yet challenging. The reveal of the Heptapods’ ship fuses extraterrestrial engineering with nature in an astonishing helicopter shot which marks him out as a visual stylist to match Blade Runner‘s Ridley Scott. On the audio side, composer Johann Jóhannsson‘s score is a stirring mix of deep, Inception-style tones and intricate, exotic composition.

Unusually for a DVD, the extras are quite meaty, befitting the weighty ideas behind the tale. The main featurette – Xenolinguistics: Understanding Arrival – is an absorbing overview. At one point Villeneuve tells the interviewer he felt he couldn’t make a sci-fi movie in Canada… the home of David Cronenberg! How times have changed. But then Arrival rewrites the laws of time altogether. Like the best entries of its type it is a strong comment on humanity and how being confronted with something truly other uncovers the best and worst in us all.

 

This review appeared on THN.

‘Jason Bourne’ DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

jb-1The last entry in the Bourne franchise was 2012’s The Bourne Legacy starring Jeremy Renner. While that became a one-off, it’s worth examining the character’s true legacy before diving in with this review. The original trilogy helped cement Matt Damon‘s position in Hollywood. Paul Greengrass‘s involvement from part two onwards gave the series an additional layer of quality. More than anything, the films had an impact on movie action in general. When Daniel Craig took the role of 007, it was no coincidence his adventures were “back to basics” in nature, a single shot saying more than a million bullets out of a machine gun ever could.

Identity through to Supremacy appeared to offer a complete journey for Jason Bourne. Despite this, Damon and Greengrass have got the band back together for their riskiest mission yet: an extra helping that tries not to tarnish what has gone before. Have they succeeded? Well, on the whole yes, though there are a few bumps on the road as they go.

Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse have developed their hero’s personal odyssey further by revealing hitherto-unknown information about Bourne’s involvement in Operation Blackbriar (the covert assassination league he blew wide open during his last outing). When former ally-turned-Snowden-esque-hacker Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) contacts a broken-down Bourne about this explosive development, the scene is set for him to return from his exile as a bare knuckle boxer and set the world to rights one more time. It’s a logical but well-worn approach, though in fairness the strength of the franchise was the way it put a new spin on hackneyed spy thriller clichés rather than innovate itself.

Drawn back into the fray like a chiselled moth to a flame, Damon’s Bourne runs up against an impressive trio of villains. Tommy Lee Jones‘s weathered CIA chief Robert Dewey wants the rogue operative permanently erased. Alicia Vikander‘s ambitious and fetching Heather Lee represents the changing face of intelligence, believing Bourne can be brought back into the fold. Meanwhile Vincent Cassel’s “The Asset” becomes the latest relentless Euro-henchman to be put on Damon’s tail, a man of steel with old scores to settle.

Inevitably it’s more of the same controlled chaos, with Greengrass’s handheld camera roving amongst the fist fights and destruction at breakneck speed. The unflinching pace doesn’t make up for repetition and an overall lack of meat. However some intriguing snippets of Bourne’s character are in evidence – most notably the way he distances himself from Nicky’s counter culture activities. He may be fighting the system, but at heart he’s an establishment man, a strand which gives credence to Vikander’s belief he secretly wants to return to duty.

She is the film’s strongest element, Lee possessing equal capacity to wear either the white hat or the black. Damon can do this sort of thing in his sleep and the same can be said of Jones, who is a welcome presence. Cassel’s ageing hard man is also highly watchable. Like a lot of these big action projects, it could have done with being a bit shorter and not all the fresh ingredients work. Riz Ahmed‘s social media mogul doesn’t add much to the narrative, aside from making the basic point that Dewey’s world is changing.

Ironically the climactic chase has all the extravagance of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond, a sign that maybe the series is running low on inspiration. The team have had a good run, and made a sizeable mark on the genre – as Moby’s excellent Extreme Ways kicks in over the end credits, it might be time to admit those ways are now the old ways.

 

This review first appeared on THN.

The Commitments 25th Anniversary DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

tcTime for people of a certain age to start feeling old. It’s been a quarter of a century since director Alan Parker introduced us to an unlikely soul combo whose legacy still lives on via a hit stage show and countless concerts. So while their onscreen fortunes turned out to be mixed, The Commitments‘ place in popular culture is assured.

Opening with a bustling Dublin street market with second hand goods, fiddle players and horses, this marks itself out from the blockbusters of the time as a gritty take on Roddy Doyle‘s source novel. Fast-talking wannabe music mogul Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) has a simple idea: reasoning that the oppressed Irish are “the blacks of Europe”, he wants to assemble a world class soul outfit from local talent. But like the best band stories the road to success is paved with false starts, egos and copious amounts of drink and swears. In fact the production may hold the record as the most expletive-laden popular movie of all time, if not the twentieth century.

Sitcom stalwarts Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were the perfect pairing to guide Doyle’s salty characters and quotable dialogue to the big screen (they even manage a cheeky reference to their defining show The Likely Lads along the way). Saxophone player Félim Gormley explains how he came by his instrument – “My uncle gave me it when his lung collapsed.” – and lead singer Andrew Strong gets the job after Arkins sees him giving an impromptu drunk performance at a wedding, one his star turn can’t even remember doing!

What contributes to the longevity of The Commitments is Parker’s decision to go with unknown actors. Some of them went on to greater things (notably Bronagh Gallagher, who appeared in The Phantom Menace) but on the whole this was their first and only shot at world domination. This means the film still has that layer of authenticity which could have been diminished if you spent two hours spotting the famous faces. The cast are likeable and clearly revelling in the easy going yet edgy atmosphere Parker creates. They’re all good, but special mention must be given to Gallagher and Johnny Murphy‘s Joey “The Lips” Fagan, who gets his pick of the women and who may or may not be a raging fantasist. Then there’s Strong, with his weathered vocals and extraordinary range of facial expressions.

The power behind the story is the filmmaker’s ability to deliver a convincing band, as well as conveying the rough and ready nature of creating musical fusion. Whether winging it through a chaotic set or flowing together like cream and coffee, you buy into their tale, and even hope they find the notoriety they crave. It’s a particularly inspirational movie for a generation all-encompassed by the Simon Cowell approach to talent nurturing and speaks to viewers on all levels.

For this milestone, a solid range of extras has been added for the release. Parker himself is on commentary duties and the way it all came together is chronicled via several documentaries from past and present. If you Try A Little Tenderness you’ll find yourself rooting for this Chain Of Fools, whose distinctive journey will keep you laughing through to The Midnight Hour. I’ll shut the f*** up now.

This review first appeared on THN.

Batman: The Killing Joke DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

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DC’s Cinematic Universe is getting a rough deal with critics, but the brand can take solace in the fact its animated division is a runaway success story by comparison. From Batman: The Animated Series onwards, they’ve maintained a consistently high standard and it made sense for the company’s best-loved graphic novels to start getting the adaptation treatment.

Classic Joker tome The Killing Joke had everything going for it on paper: innovative writing, striking art and a definitive stand off between two iconic characters. Unfortunately for movie producers the book is on the slender side. In attempting to expand it to feature length director Sam Liu and writer Brian Azzarello wind up hitting some obstacles.

Overall the script captures the main and somewhat controversial events of the source material. Following an uninteresting additional segment in which Batgirl attempts to earn her stripes alongside the Dark Knight, we get to the meat of the matter – the Clown Prince of Crime’s diabolical and kinky plot to unhinge Commissioner Gordon as a fatal blow against his mortal enemy.

In what is seemingly his swan-song as the animated Joker, Mark Hamill bows out in customary style. His voice has notably aged, giving the villain’s machinations a rich and deeply sinister quality. He’s by far the strongest element of a production that is seriously close to the bone by Saturday morning cartoon standards. However in presenting the tale within the awkward framework of a tinkered narrative Azzarello and Liu highlight the film’s main flaw: the story works much better on the page. The tragedy of the Joker’s past and the ruminative nature of his “final” confrontation with Batman is perhaps best appreciated in pencil and ink, where comic writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland‘s masterpiece could be absorbed at a slower speed. Here they’re brief and intriguing but nothing like as powerful.

Fans of the novel might also be disappointed that Bolland’s work is paid lip service only, replaced by a standardized animation style that doesn’t make an impact outside of the odd intricate backdrop or movie reference (if you liked Christopher Nolan‘s take, there’s a brief moment that’ll tickle you).

Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (Tara Strong) is given more to do, but the development tails off, with an epilogue of sorts tacked onto the conclusion and arguably fudging it. The famous ending is recreated from the book whilst also cutting through its ambiguity.

I’m really not sure what the character of bog standard Romeo gangster Paris Franz (Maury Sterling) was supposed to bring to proceedings. He merely adds to the icky atmosphere of sexual violence that wasn’t strictly required. Kevin Conroy goes gravelly as Batman, though disappointingly the cowled hero fades into the background for this outing. Twin Peaks legend Ray Wise voices the Commissioner – while Wise is a great actor his performance for me was too genial. I’d’ve paid good money to hear his version of the Joker though!

The result pales next to the original, but then that was always a safe bet. Reworking Moore (uncredited as usual) showed a level of insanity befitting the movie’s antagonist and a straight and shorter translation of the text could have hit home harder. Despite this, The Killing Joke gives an impression of the pitch black innards of the novel, and for that at least it deserves some praise.

This review first appeared on The Hollywood News

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.