‘Top Knot Detective’ Review (Frightfest, THN)

Believe it or not, as the twentieth century was drawing to a close, there emerged a show so unique, so ground-breaking and above all so violent that it almost changed the face of the small screen forever. Ronin Suiri Tentai (or Top Knot Detective as it’s become known) showcased the unadulterated genius of Takashi Takamoto (above). A former pop star, he was unexpectedly asked by corporate employer Sutaffu to create a TV show.

The result took Japan by storm – Takamoto played Sheimasu Tantai, a samurai driven by bloody vengeance after the brutal “suicide” of his father at the hands of nemesis Haruto Kioke. Sheimasu used his dangerous and sexy skill-set to battle enemies both great and small. Not even children were safe from the surreal antics, with some of the content genuinely shocking.

That’s what was going on in front of the camera. But what about behind the scenes? The making of Top Knot Detective is even more of an eye-opener. Directors Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce have exhaustively drained the swamp of this bizarre production to bring unsuspecting viewers the truth behind the anarchic legend. The rivalries! Kioke was the son of Sutaffu’s founder and its main star before Takamoto stuck his iron in the fire. When he was rejected as the title character his bitterness ran deeper than a hippopotamus trying to sprint out of some quicksand. The romance! The addition of Mia Matsumoto to the cast as brave warrior Saku led to sparks flying between her and Takamoto. This tender relationship was savagely nipped in the bud when the big cheeses at Sutaffu learned of their clandestine meetings. The appalling crime! Tensions on the show went beyond creative differences, resulting in a gruesome discovery that will chill you to the core.

How could this fascinating and compelling tale possibly get any stranger? Read on to find out…

***SPOILER ALERT: Do not read on if you intend fully appreciating the warped artistry of Top Knot Detective***

They made it up. I’ll hold my hands up, they got me.

McCann and Pearce are to be applauded for creating something that looks and feels 100% real. They’ve captured the crappiness of bad TV and the authenticity of a documentary in a way I’ve never seen before. It’s quite an achievement to invent something from Japanese entertainment culture, which is notoriously outrageous anyway, and still make it convincing.

However once I discovered Top Knot Detective had led me up the garden path, I felt I’d been kicked in the cultural nuts. Now I know it’s a gag the power of the story is diminished. A narrative I was really invested in turned out to be an in-joke. A really well-executed one but an elaborate prank nonetheless. There’s plenty to admire here and I’d watch out for what the helmers do next. But with so much that’s enjoyably insane about the material they’re spoofing, is it really worth going to such lengths to satirise the extreme? To paraphrase the great Sheimasu himself, deductive reasoning must be applied to get the bottom of that mystery…

 

This review first appeared on THN.

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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.

‘The Night Manager 2’ & Other Unnecessary Sequels (The Hollywood News)

Richard Roper is locked up. His evil arms business has been shut down and the dashing Night Manager of the title survived with his hair in place and good looks intact. The end of the acclaimed BBC miniseries, based on the book by John Le Carré, brought with it an enormous sense of satisfaction. The story began. It held us enthralled for a few weeks. Then sadly it finished.

Or did it? Director Susanne Bier recently announced that development has begun on a follow-up script. It seems the broadcaster is thinking in terms of a franchise, and I for one am anxious. The original tale was so well told, what good could come from elaborating on it? In this era of binge-watching, it isn’t always the best idea to give viewers a tele-visual trough to gorge from. Surely sometimes one rattling good yarn is enough.

As the BBC head down what may be a disastrous path, let’s take a look at some other great shows that would have been better left as a one-time-only-type deal…

MURDER ONE

The first season of small screen pioneer Steven Bochco’s legal drama stood out from the pack, due to an innovative format which saw the entire run taken up with a juicy murder case. Boasting a charismatic, chrome-domed lead in Daniel Benzali, supported by the likes of Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson and Mary McCormack, the show was a forerunner of today’s tendency to devour a series in one sitting.

Unfortunately low audiences led to some fatal retooling for the second season, starting with the replacement of Benzali and a range of stories that failed to capture the imagination. Anthony LaPaglia tried his best to fill the shiny shoes of his predecessor but it seemed the creative team itself was on trial this time round. The verdict: cancellation.

TRUE DETECTIVE

In an age where TV dramas with big screen production values are commonplace, True Detective managed to plough a mighty furrow. The screen-burning combo of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson formed the epicenter of an intense and frightening journey into the dark heart of Louisiana, and the mind of a killer. Writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga worked exclusively on the whole season, giving it a consistent quality throughout.

However the decision to try and continue the series as an anthology turned out to be a misstep, despite the presences of Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell. Whilst the new narrative of inner city corruption in California was fertile ground for a crime saga, this second run never attracted the critical acclaim of the first, thanks to a tangled plot and a perceived lack of inspiration on Pizzolatto’s part.

BROADCHURCH

This British drama became a sensation during its first outing, the show’s Scandi Noir-inspired sensibility and slow-burning style reviving the corpse of the murder mystery genre. The revelation of who killed young Danny Latimer was carried on the front of every major newspaper the next day, audiences sharing the horror of stars David Tennant and The Night Manager‘s Olivia Colman. The title town would never be the same again, though the story appeared to come to an end once the crime had been solved. Creator Chris Chibnall had other ideas, announcing his intention to make the series the first in a trilogy.

Upon revisiting the seaside locale, it quickly became clear this strange direction was going to lead to a dead end. The Latimer thread received an unnatural extension, with the killer getting off thanks to the vagaries of the legal system. Meanwhile Chibnall inserted a backstory for Tennant’s abrasive detective in a less than compelling fashion. Series Three has been well-received, but Broadchurch must sadly live with the memory of a misfiring second instalment.

BLOODLINE

What looked on the surface to be yet another overheated family saga turned out to be anything but, as Bloodline took well-worn subject matter and made it soar in every department. The return of black sheep Ben Mendlesohn to the Rayburn fold and his subsequent web of lies and deceit spun toward a devastating Season 1 finale, the events of which were boldly revealed in advance at the end of the very first episode.

The mounting tension, as the Rayburns gradually pieced together what their brother had been up to with the clan’s hotel business, was nail-biting stuff, well-written and acted – set against the backdrop of the sweaty Florida Keys. With this tour-de-force of storytelling concluded, creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman opted to try and maintain the momentum, only this time minus Mendlesohn’s masterclass in conflicted villainy. After rave reviews for the first chapter, the reception for Season 2 was decidedly mixed. Why did they even bother?

THE NIGHT MANAGER

One of the most talked-about dramas of recent years, featuring a line up of British talent so hot you could toast a crumpet with it, The Night Manager took John Le Carré’s source novel (adapted by David Farr) and gave it a Bond-esque coat of gloss. In fact so convincing was Tom Hiddleston’s hero, the miniseries sparked strong rumours he was in line to inherit the mantle of 007 from Daniel Craig. This knuckle-gnawing suspense thriller about a hotel employee trying to bring down an international arms dealer (Hugh Laurie’s Richard Roper) had people tuning in by the millions.

Now the makers are attempting an audacious and arguably downright stupid manoeuvre: they are going to try and top one of Le Carré’s best-regarded works with their own sequel. Will Roper emerge from his exile (presuming he lived) to exact vengeance on Hiddleston’s frustratingly telegenic saboteur? Or is the title hunk of the hospitality industry about to further consolidate his status as a Bond in waiting with a whole new adventure, perhaps working undercover at a B & B?

How exactly it will pan out remains to be seen, but the BBC really are dancing on ice in steel-tipped clogs on this one. I enjoyed spending time with The Night Manager, but to be frank I’d rather check out while the going’s good.

 

This feature originally appeared on THN.

“Look man I jumped into it. It may f*cking suck.” Clayne Crawford Talks ‘Lethal Weapon’ (THN 2016)

lwClayne Crawford is going global as well as postal, taking over the role of Martin Riggs from Mel Gibson for Fox’s Lethal Weapon. In this interview I found his views on the small screen take to be refreshingly honest…!

Clayne Crawford: I was spending time with my family on my farm in Alabama when they called. I laughed in their face at the idea of even turning Lethal Weapon into a TV show, I said ‘You need to leave the fucking franchise alone, it’s great and Mel Gibson did such a wonderful job, I want no part of it.’ And that went on for about three weeks before I finally read the script…

In my heart I’m still just a kid, who wants to play cowboys. I love playing dress up, I’m a kid at heart and I love using that platform as a therapy for myself. So when I read a character who was broken and had lost everything and he channelled that through stopping bad guys.. y’know for lack of a better word he saves the day and he’s just this damaged guy, and he’s funny… I thought ‘You know what? Fuck it, if you guys really want me to do this let’s just go and do the best we can and if we fail miserably that’s okay, we’ll go do something else.’

Look man, I jumped into it. It may fucking suck. But I enjoyed the material, and I tried to bring honesty to everything that I did and I tried to forget the original film. I tried to bring Martin Riggs into the twenty-first century and here I am. We’ll see what happens man.

Me: I think a lot of people are looking forward to it.

CC: I think you’re wrong, I don’t think anybody’s fucking looking forward to it. (Laughs) Which is kind of a good thing because they’re going to think it’s such shit, that they’ve set the bar so low we can only succeed, right?

lw-2The most important question is will you be keeping the hair?

(Laughs) I’m going to be a little different than Mel. Part of me agreeing to this was… we all had to shed our preconceived ideas of this relationship between these two men and who Mel Gibson was playing Riggs in 1987. It’s 2016 and he’s quite a different guy. There’s a little bit of a different backstory… look man, I hope Mel’s not pissed off. That’s my hope, that if he watches this thing, if anyone watches this fucking thing, they’ll be entertained, and go on a fun ride for an hour.

 

This interview first appeared on THN.

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.

Maigret TV Review

RA MGeorges Simenon‘s vexed detective looks especially baffled in the form of Rowan Atkinson for this handsomely-mounted, curiously misjudged adaptation of Maigret Sets A Trap.

Paris in the Fifties is the setting, under threat from a serial killer targeting women in the night. After several months of investigations top police snooper Maigret is reaching the end of his rope with the authorities. It seems like his reputation will die with the latest victim. This doom-laden introduction, accompanied by an earnest soundtrack throughout, isn’t the best jumping in point. The film feels more like a finale than a debut (another has been made), and would have worked better at a point where you’d gotten to know the characters. Here you’re none the wiser about anything as everyone is so caught up.

Atkinson plays the title role in an otherworldly and preoccupied manner that I’m not sure is intentional. Like many comic actors who take on a straight part he appears to have shut down rather than emote. The director should really have tried to get more out of him. His detached performance isn’t a bad fit for the deductive stuff, but he sorely lacks much of a human dimension in scenes with his wife and colleagues. Perhaps future entries will see him relax a bit.

Simenon’s plot gets interesting at the halfway mark as Maigret determinedly holds onto his prime suspect despite mounting pressure to release him. It would help if you cared, but in fairness to writer Stewart Harcourt and members of the supporting cast (in particular Aidan McCardle) the production does manage a couple of tense sequences.

I would watch the programme again, to see how Atkinson develops and to enjoy the sharp suits and smoke-filled dens of iniquity. On this evidence however I wouldn’t place too much faith in Maigret 2016 cracking the case of this viewer’s loyalty.