Twin Peaks: The Return – Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride!

twin-peaks-cast-reunite-on-ew-covers

Writing a review of the first two episodes of Twin Peaks, or Twin Peaks: The Return, if you will, is a difficult task for a number of reasons.

Firstly, reviewing any David Lynch production is tantamount to trying to explain a night of fractured dreams to someone using only the art of mime. No amount of wild gesticulation can adequately communicate so much that’s based on symbolism and mood. Lynch’s tales come complete with codes to be deciphered and visuals and sound that defy narrative description but stain themselves onto the viewer’s psyche like blood on a carpet.

Secondly, these first two episodes are part of what Lynch sees as one eighteen hour long movie broadcast across consecutive weeks, so trying to make sense of the overall narative arc now is an impossibility. Especially given the Lynchian parameters as mentioned above.

What I can say is that it is both the Twin Peaks longtime viewers have come to love (or loathe) and yet it isn’t.

Familiar characters are introduced leisurely across episodes one and two (and “leisurely” is a word I’ll come back to), particularly in regards to Agent Dale Cooper still being stuck in The Black Lodge after twenty five years, but we’re also thrown into the deep end with a bunch of new characters – a young man in New York city watching a strange glass box, a principal in Buckhorn, South Dakota who may or may not be responsible for the brutal killing of his school librarian.

These new locales (and the vastly enlarged cast, including Matthew Lillard, Ashley Judd and Jennifer Jason Leigh in episodes one and two) open up the canvas of the series, giving a much more expansive feel to events. How Lynch will tie all these together with the more familiar surroundings of Twin Peaks (the town) is anyone’s guess. Or maybe he simply won’t.

Lynch moves everything along at a deliberate, leisurely pace, sometimes wonderfully frustratingly so. The episodes feel like absolutely nothing else on TV right now and that is a complete joy. The thought of spending another sixteen hours being amused, mystified, frustrated, amazed and horrified makes me give a big Cooper-like thumbs up to see how television drama has evolved to a point where an idiosyncratic master of dreamscape storytelling like Lynch can be afforded the opportunity to unfurl his tale in exactly the way he wants, at the pace he wants, without the horror of network executive notes telling him to hurry things along because he might lose those viewers not up for the journey.

Massive bouquets of blue roses should be showered upon Showtime for giving Lynch the room to breathe that modern cinema seems to have lost the possibilty of doing.

If you love his work, Twin Peaks: The Return will be like mainlining pure David Lynch. If you’ve resisted his unusual charms then this might not be the show for you. If you’re a complete newbie, then you’re in for an experience like nothing you’ll have seen on TV before: treading the gossamer line between dream and nightmare.

Either way, load up with pie, donuts and coffee, buy the ticket and take the ride. Who knows where Lynch and Twin Peaks will take us!? But I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange…

Iron Fist – Not Such A Master of Kung Fu!

marvel-iron-fist-netflix

Regular readers will know me as an unabashed fan of the Marvel franchises, heck I’ve even been known to say kind things about Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. This act alone, while possibly wiping out any standing I have as a critic, should firmly place me as a fully-fledged Marvel geek. I carry my F.O.O.M. card proudly.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I have to label Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix their first real misfire.

So full of problematic elements it’s kind of difficult to know where to begin, but let’s start with an issue common to all the Marvel/Netflix shows: folks, it’s just too darn long! The first four or five episodes are a genuine slog to sit through, it’s the first Marvel effort I’ve had to convince myself to continue. All of the Netflix shows have suffered from this, eight or at most ten episode seasons would make things feel far more palatable. It’s possible a shorter season would have made Iron Fist more entertaining but then there would still be… well, Iron Fist.

Boy oh boy, the showrunners make Danny Rand, A.K.A. Iron Fist, tough to like. Brash, entitled, aggressive and… well, I’m not quite sure what else he’s supposed to be. There’s a final moments line about Iron Fist becoming a shining beacon in the darkness, yadda yadda, but by this point we’ve sat through thirteen episodes of him generally acting like a complete ass to everyone around him with only a few glimmers of anything nice from star Finn Jones shining through.

And, Marvel… come ON!! Thirteen episodes of Danny Rand wandering about in a hoody is just plain dull. Audiences are now so well versed in the Marvel world that we’re quite happy to accept masks and long johns… Thor and Doctor Strange even wear capes. Without the costume this frequently comes off like just another straight-to-DVD action flick. The costumes are what makes the characters visually distinctive, so please stop wussing out when it comes to getting your characters to suit up!

Finally, for a series about a legendary, mystical kung-fu dude, the fight choreography was unforgivably dull. There wasn’t a single sequence with the gusto or panache of Daredevil season one’s hallway fight or season two’s stairwell scrap.

There are still pleasures here, including Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, an increasingly important thread in the Marvel Netflixverse (ouch) and the nods to the wider universe are fun – not to mention vital since Iron Fist leads to the forthcoming all-star mash up show, The Defenders. Good value is also provided by Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup’s Meachum siblings, whose arcs are infinitely more interesting than that of Jones’s Rand (who pretty much remains an ass throughout).

But these few pleasures are unfortunately outweighed by a storyline that’s too afraid to let the crazy elements of its central character through, and so it ultimately lands with a dull thud instead of a kick to the groin.

Sorry Marvel, you know I love you, but Iron Fist felt more like a limp slap.

The OA -A Metaphysical Triumph!

oa

When Netflix drooped the trailer for their new show, The OA, last week, it raised a lot of questions. Happily, by the climax of the eight episode show, the creators are happy to answer some of them, leave others hanging, and gift you with a whole bunch more.

Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, in their third collaboration together (after the films Sound of My Voice and The East, both well worth seeking out, by the way), this tells the story of Prairie (Marling), a young woman who returns home after disappearing several years before. That she was blind when she vanished and returns with sight is only one of the many mysteries explored across the series.

The OA asks big questions, explores wild concepts but never strays away from emotional truth. In fact it’s an amazingly affecting story and its climax left me in floods of tears (for a number of reasons I’ll avoid for the sake of spoilers). Suffice to say I needed to sit and quietly process what I’d experienced before starting this review.

It’s a bold, smart story, subtly creepy, a psychedelic head-fuck, desperately sad and astonishingly hopeful all rolled together in one tour de force of script, casting, directing and acting.

Allow yourself to be pulled along by it and you’ll be enveloped in a philosophically challenging, emotionally captivating drama unlike anything Netflix has produced to date.

Now that issue of allowing yourself to be pulled in is an important one. In this post-truth age of ever deepening (and often fully justified) cynicism, The OA could be seen as frequently skating close to thin ice. To get maximum effect from Marling  and Batmanglij’s story you will need to loosen up and go with the flow. Do so and you’ll be rewarded with a truly exceptional experience, occasionally frustrating but wildly ambitious and wholly satisfying.

Let’s have more from Marling and Batmanglij please, Netflix, because The OA is an absolute triumph!

Sweet Christmas arrives early with Luke Cage (No Spoilers)

netflix-luke-cage-trailer-01

Riding the crest of a Blaxploitation wave, Luke Cage was created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr. and George Tuska (with help from Roy Thomas). It’s taken a long time for one of Marvel Comics’ most important black heroes to reach the screen, but boy has it ever been worth the wait.

With this latest series from Netflix, the cooperation between the two companies has really hit a creative peak. Featuring often lower key (but always entertaining) superheroics, touching on hot button topics to give the drama satisfying depth, and with a top notch cast (highlighting beyond due but very welcome diversity, which also extends to the production team behind the cameras), Luke Cage comes in both barrels blazing and feels as unstoppable as its titular hero!

We’re introduced quickly and confidently to the cast of characters – central to which is Harlem itself, given far more of a distinct personality than Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil and Jessica Jones – in a relatively slow burn first episode, in fact the pacing throughout is charmingly classical, there’s no tearing through ADHD storytelling – everything proceeds at an even, steady tempo, giving characters time to live and breathe and allowing us to understand or care about each one. By about the third episode this approach really starts to pay dividends and then with episode four giving us a revised version of Cage’s origin from the comics, suddenly everything seems to click into place and you realise you’re hooked for the rest of the run. It’s an approach that will give this show long legs and I suspect will play well for repeated viewings (and yes, this is definitely a show that will stand up to more than one watch).

As I mentioned earlier, the cast is uniformly excellent. Colter is magnificent, striding through the episodes like a powerhouse (or even a “Power Man”, a neat in-joke used several time in early episodes – a name used by Cage in the comics), completely owning his show – all quiet dignity with fire and steel just below the surface. Cage is morally conflicted, enough to ensure there’s more than a single layer to enjoy, but at his core he is filled with a sense of righteousness and acts on that until the world forces him to step out of the shadows.

In one scene midway through the season, Cage eulogises the death of a neighbourhood friend and in doing so, gives a stirring speech to rival the kind usually given by the likes of Captain America. Cage is firmly established here as not just as man who will do whatever it takes to get the job done, but as a man to look up to, a hero.

For old time fans longing to see Cage in his traditional comic book outfit of metal headband and yellow blouson, let’s say you won’t be entirely disappointed (though you’ll be glad it doesn’t hang around long – some comic book conceits don’t translate to film). That’s just one of many nods to the character’s four-colour origins and to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s also a stronger sense here of the Netflix shows slowly coming together, as we gradually head towards the eventual team-up series, The Defenders (in fact, now we’re only waiting for the last of the key characters to be introduced, in next year’s Iron Fist).

They say a hero is only as good as his or her enemies, and Luke Cage has some great villains. These aren’t pantomime, moustache twirling cardboard cut-outs, however, Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard (as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Mariah Dillard) are nuanced people, misusing the tools of power and money, both of who believe themselves to be the hero of their particular story. There are great fireworks here, not only between them and Cage, but between each other, and we’re allowed to feel empathy towards them as much as we’re allowed to find their actions repugnant. It’s this kind of layering which elevates drama and what helps to make these shows so engrossing. Cottonmouth and Mariah are fine additions to the Netflix rogue’s gallery established by Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk and David Tennant as Killgrave. Ali brings a lizard-like cunning to Cottonmouth and Woodard is sharp and brittle, making it as pleasurable to spend time in their company as with the lead character.

Simone Missick gives us a great Misty Knight, another name which will send frissons of glee through comic book readers, her resolve in the law becoming increasingly conflicted by both the corruption she sees around her and the growing issue of superhuman vigilantes. In fact, she’s so good I’d be interested to see her go onto her own show (and be given the bionic arm she sports in the comic books). There are more than strong suggestions that Knight is already “enhanced”, so the rest wouldn’t be that huge a leap.

On the downside, this still suffers from an overlong running time. Like all of the Marvel/Netflix shows to date it’s at least three or four episodes too long. A more sensible eight to ten episodes per season would really have helped every show, and Luke Cage suffers from some narrative diffusion in later episodes (and a less effective villain) in the season’s second half.

Luke Cage is also gifted with a fine soundtrack, with both its funky as heck, 70s soul-inspired music score as well as excellent diegetic and non-diegetic use of soul, r ‘n’ b, blues and hip hop – the sequence of Cage rampaging through one of the bad guys’ stash houses set to Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Bring Da Ruckus’ is particularly inspired and indeed, kickass rousing. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be whooping as Cage smashes his way through armed henchmen using a ripped off car door as a shield. I know I was.

And let’s not beat around the bush here, this is an important show for Marvel, the diversity behind the scenes and onscreen is both vital and energising. The show takes the time to bring in real world issues that affect a community like Harlem, and doesn’t shy away from wider issues of race, diversification and bigotry. It’s all handled deftly and intelligently, mixed in well with the superhero antics.

Marvel TV is already streets ahead of its cinematic kin in terms of diversity, having already headlined its first female lead we’re now given Marvel’s first headlining person of colour (and yes, I know we’re getting Black Panther and Captain Marvel movies, but Netflix will probably be on second seasons of their two shows by the time the films are released). These things are important. They matter. More so than ever in a world where a candidate for the U.S. presidency can openly spout invective of racial hatred. The fact that Marvel hit the target with superb dramatic productions each time is the icing on the cake!

Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has done something I wasn’t sure was going to be possible, he’s continued the upward ascendancy of the Marvel/Netflix productions and, Sweet Christmas, he and his talented cast and crew have given us the best version of Luke Cage we could ever hope to get.

Welcome back, Jean-Claude Van Johnson

JCVJfinal

There are certain sentences you never expect to find yourself typing, one of those being: the funniest show on TV right now is executive produced by Ridley Scott and features 1980s action movie star, Jean-Claude Van Damme.

But there it is. One of three new comedy episodes aired by Amazon for their pilot season, the fate of the shows will be determined by the responses they receive, and I can only hope that by spreading the word like this, I’ll be helping Jean-Claude Van Johnson go to a full series, because it’s something quite special.

The story posits that Van-Damme has been appearing in B-grade actioners for years simply as a smokescreen for his real job, a covert ops agent. The episode opens with him in the midst of ennui-riddled retirement, gliding around his magnificent home on a Segway and microwaving Pop Tarts.

A chance encounter with the love of his life at a pop-up ramen restaurant sees him hankering to get back into the field, but age has taken its toll and he’s no longer quite the splits-capable Muscles from Brussels  of younger days.

Van Damme has eased into a fine and often remarkably subtle comic talent, providing laughs big and small, frequently at his own expense, and the writers and producers have garnished their star with some finely observed and detail-driven humour (note the parade of dog photos he walks past in his living room, or the name of the community that houses his mansion – Circles On The Point – literally, going nowhere). That the episode ends with a reworking of the theme song from 1970s sit-com Welcome Back, Kotter is perhaps the final topping on this Belgian waffle.

If this goes to series (and you should all go out and watch this now, then write to Amazon, your local broadcaster, MPs, doctors, vets and anyone else who’ll listen to your pleadings), I hope it continues to mine the rich seams of self-depreciation and even poignancy that run deep throughout the pilot.

And really, who doesn’t want to see Jean-Claude get out of the house more to beat people up!? Or get beaten up himself, as is likely the case here.

Welcome back for the first time, JCVJ.

Looking For The Perfect Beat But This Ain’t It – The Get Down

the get down

Baz Luhrmann’s swirling, sprawling new series for Netflix, The Get Down, came with such promise.

One of the channel’s most expensive series treads on fertile ground, chronicling the black and latino generation who revolutionised music by breaking from disco to invent hip-hop, and set against the tinderbox background of the Bronx in the late 1970s. This is vast, dramatically untapped territory, and it’s an important point in cultural history.

Rather than a straightforward drama, the show, created by Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis, tries to edge towards the wild, freewheeling and highly theatrical approach Luhrmann has used in films like Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge. Sometimes this works, the sense of mythologising feels note perfect against the backbeat of hip hop, and during the musical numbers it hits an undeniable, infectious energy, and of course the soundtrack is blistering.

Unfortunately, and all too frequently, the theatricality feels like a let’s-just-put-the-show-on-right-here high school play, and distances us from the hollow, one dimensional characters – youngsters fighting against familial and societal barriers to realise their dreams. It’s mythology writ small, rather than large.

The cast try hard, injecting spirit into their roles (particularly Justice Smith, Herizen F. Guardiola and Shameik Moore, who manages to make his character likeable despite being saddled with some seriously irritating whirling dervish mannerisms) but they’re swimming hard against the tide of bombast and cliche. If you think Martin Scorsese & Mick Jagger’s Vinyl lacked depth, you’ll find much of this thinner than a 1980s flexi-disc.

Ironically, and particularly in the pilot episode, it feels like a show at war with itself, neither theatrical enough or dramatic enough, leaving it stranded in the middle of the dancefloor making some particularly awkward moves.

The show does seem to stand a little steadier on its feet by the last episode, so perhaps there’s hope for the next six episodes (which will air next year) but right now it feels like too little, too late. I went into this with a palpable sense of excitement, but found myself mostly unmoved.

This is a story waiting to be told and a record waiting to be spun, but Luhrmann and Netflix have skipped the groove on this one.