Dunkirk: The Blood-Dimmed Tide

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That it's taken me almost a full week to process my reaction to Dunkirk should say a lot about the effect of the film. I'll usually watch a movie like this twice, once for the experience, a second time for the craft but my first thoughts after exiting the theater was that it was going to be a long time before I am prepared for that repeat viewing. No, I went in thinking this was going to be another war flick, another Nolan vehicle with some clever structure or idea that would engage my brain but about a third of the way into the story a thought surfaced like an enemy submarine in my mind: I am not prepared for this. And then it got worse. This is not to say it's bad or torturous, just that it's the most mature, relentless, grueling film that Chris Nolan has made so far, it fully establishes him as one of the preeminent writer/directors working today and if it doesn't snag him his Oscar in one of the two big categories I'm burning the whole building down to the ground.

Part of the reason I wasn't prepared for Dunkirk is that it's been a long time since I went to the theater to see an actual film film, as opposed to a Marvel movie or a popcorn summer comedy blah blah blah. I watch the heavier stuff at home where I can pause and control the pace or take a minute to distance myself from the ending of, let's say, Okja, that had me blubbering like a small child whose balloon had floated away. Instead, Nolan takes one of his greatest skills, building and compounding tension until it reaches some breathless, seemingly unending stress test, that he normally reserves for the second or third act of his movies and just does that from frame one of Dunkirk. The entire movie is an escalation of suspense that is a little difficult to watch at times as the existential nightmare relentlessly closes in on these laconic, defeated soldiers waiting on the beaches of France. Stylistically, this is going to be called a minimalist masterpiece in visual storytelling, deservedly so, but the real literal unseen champion of the film is also in the sound design which is fucking terrifying.

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The other thing that left me unprepared was my familiarity with both the history of the event and with war films in general. How much suspense could a movie create if you already know how it's going to end? A lot, it turns out. Particularly if there is no grand or epic score from James Horner or John Williams to tell you what to feel and when. Dunkirk is unique in that sense, it hits none of the normal beats that a war movie will do. No one is in charge, not really. There's no funny guy, or tough guy, or a hero type. To be completely honest, there really is very little actual combat that takes place outside of the aerial dogfights and nary a word of exposition or personal history from any of the principle characters. We never actually see the German army, which I found incredibly refreshing, too many WWII films turn into Nazi fetishism. Instead, the audience is left with the grim realities of the world coming apart at the seams. Something I like to keep in mind whenever I start a new book or a show on the subject, is that we view the second World War from the perspective of the victors. But, at the time, success, and as in Dunkirk, even survival, was far from certain. Before the events of The Miracle of Dunkirk, as Nolan points out, it was truly the darkest hour of Western Civilization to this point in history. If a killing blow had been struck, as it almost certainly was about to be, England and the rest of the United Kingdom have no standing army to defend against invasion. If England falls there is no need for legitimate defenses on the Western Front and Nazi Germany turns the full brunt of its forces on Russia and, instead of being stopped within sight of Moscow's towers, rolls on through, potentially knocking their last remaining foe out of the fight, thus completely securing Fortress Europa. This is assuming the North African campaign takes on a lower priority since the oil fields needed by the Reich would be supplemented by the Caucuses regions in….

Anyway. After a few days I changed my mind, I will be seeing Dunkirk again in the near future, specifically, in the theater because that's what the movie is designed for. Nolan is a film purist, a snob in the right kind of way who is keeping the actual medium (as opposed to digital) alive, and who rails against Netflix's distribution model or lack thereof. His theater is a sacred place and this is perfectly true of his latest. It feels important and it was difficult trying to start a review of a movie that just needs to be experienced, because that's what it was, an experience. Afterwards, I felt like I'd been through some shit, as opposed to having just sat in a comfortable chair eating a soft baked pretzel with a beer. The best description and compliment I can give Dunkirk is that after a good movie, I can talk about it freely, I like selling people on something that deserves to be seen. A really good movie will make me think and I'll compose some pretentious think piece on the themes and concepts explored. But this film left me speechless. I was sobbing a little with all kinds of emotions while I tried to remember where I parked my car and I made it about five minutes up the road before I broke down into an ugly cry. And what followed was that remarkable release of emotions, of, again, that tension, and it was as cathartic of a feeling as I've had at the theater in a long time. After years of being coddled and tickled by summer blockbuster fare and tentpole franchises, it feels good to be reminded what cinema and Christopher Nolan are capable of. Is this my favorite film of his? No. I probably won't throw it on in the background while I fold laundry or nurse a hangover some day. Is this his best film so far? Almost certainly, and that's saying quite a bit. Just. Be prepared.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming- Feels Like Summer

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This is going to be a less popular opinion than most and I usually don’t like taking a superior position to mainstream reviews but Spider-Man: Homecoming, in its perfectly safe, Marvel-approved, inoffensive, and un-challenging little package, feels much closer to a big budget special series of Agents of SHIELD than an actual addition to the Cinematic Universe. In fact, Spidey feels completely relegated to the JV squad throughout and, for an OG fan from back in the day, this is enormously disappointing. There are major issues with both of the previous film incarnations but one thing that they both did very well, that I now realize was taken for granted, is depict that sense of independence, ingenuity, and self-reliance Peter Parker has always had in the face of adversity and in Homecoming all those things are removed. Instead, this is once again Tony Stark’s world and we’re all just living in it and for Spider-Man to practically require permission and approval from Iron Man to be a superhero on a constant basis was massively frustrating. That aside, Tom Holland is more than capable and a real joy to watch and I get they are trying to reboot the character from scratch but this literal Marvel fanboy, this bumbling, insecure goof, this ain’t my Spider-Man.

Holy Blogpost McBloggington is this movie meta. Like. So meta. There are shots at all kinds of things from the previous Spider-Man movies to the unusual new hotness of Aunt May to Ferris Bueller (?!) to Donald Glover being…. weird Donald Glover. It’s self-aware to the point that I was starting to worry the post-credits sequence would just be a camera view from inside the theater just behind our heads. But this also allows the filmmakers and all six of the credited screenwriters to really have fun with the material which translates really well to the audience Marvel is aiming for: the casual summer blockbuster crowd. More devoted fans of the franchise (i.e. nerds and geeks and me) are going to call out Homecoming for being a big glowing pastiche of what has worked 17 or so times before, minus the stakes. To reference it again, the unfairly maligned Agents of SHIELD has plotlines that easily outmatch this film in terms of scale and scope and the final battle that takes place could have easily been lifted from the small screen. To put a finer point on it, nothing that happens in Spider-Man: Homecoming was an experience unique to the character in particular. To put an even finer point on it, any of the B-List heroes in the Marvel oeuvre could have substituted for Spider-Man at any point in this story and it wouldn’t have mattered. In fact, his actual powers, when not absent entirely, are occasionally inadequate or mocked throughout the movie which brings me to another complaint.

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At some point RDJ is going to bow out of the role and although I will certainly miss the actor’s undeniable charm and wit, my goodness, is Iron Man becoming the deus ex machina of the MCU. He really has turned into the Marvel equivalent of Superman crossed with a Swiss Army Knife where the question becomes, “Why bother have any other superheros show up, Tony Stark probably has an Iron Man suit that can handle it.” His suit is now some combination of Inspector Gadget and the original ’66 Batman utility belt which, luckily, has shark-repellent spray equipped because of course it does. When there are no restrictions on a character’s abilities there is no sense of suspense, no tension and Iron Man has become the screenwriter’s foil; it’s a lazy way to resolve any situation and making Peter Parker basically dependent on one of those suits to do everything is tragic beyond description. Okay, maybe not that bad, but this, again, ain’t my Spider-Man. This also presents the opportunity to make the same AI jokes all over again with a female version of JARVIS, this time voiced by Jennifer Connelly who is, in real life, married to Paul Bettany who voiced the actual JARVIS and is now Vision because META.

Okay, all kvetching aside, where Spider-Man: Homecoming undeniably succeeds is off the clock. The high school setting, this time around with convincing teenage actors as opposed to 30 year old men wearing backpacks, is as much fun as you’re going to have at the theater this summer. The whole cast is a joy, even the bully Flash Thompson, now Guatemalan instead of white and Thor-like, is kind of funny while being a jerk to Penis Peter. A particular surprise was one of my primary objections when the film was first being cast and it’s a complaint that got me in a lot of trouble with some female friends on social media. Up until the announcement of her role, I had never heard of nor did I know what was a ‘Zendaya’ and when I looked her up I recoiled in disbelief. I understand that she is a talented performer and actress, that I get, but my first impression was that she looked like someone had taken a Bratz doll and magically brought it to life. This is not a shot at her to be insulting, she’s undeniably beautiful but she’s also, in my mind, unrealistically beautiful. She’s a product of the fashion world, which is a world that I have no place in or love of, and I could not comprehend her existing alongside Peter Parker, who is destined to be a lowly newspaper photographer struggling to make ends meet. Lo the wrath I took on Facebook for objecting to unrealistic beauty standards. However, I will freely admit to judging a book by its cover, unfairly so, because this ‘Zendaya’ has some comedic timing. She was interesting and weird, if in a Disney Channel kind of way, and I look forward to whatever direction they are going with her, even if we have to wait for the sequel to find out what that is going to be. Plus, Michael Keaton is a national treasure. Seriously, just… be in more movies, dude.

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Is Spider-Man: Homecoming the Spider-Man movie we’ve been waiting for? The one we deserve? The redeemer of the franchise and the character? Sure, if you want it to be. I, however, will be waiting on the rest of the movies to find out. Because, as I’ve said before, this is not my Spider-Man but it’s not really supposed to be. The Web-Head I looked up to was closer to the kind of man that I wanted to be like: funny, independent, maybe a little bit lonely but certain of his responsibility. And seeing this nascent version of that man is okay, I forget that it’s not always my turn. Hopefully, the darker, more mature themes that made the Wallcrawler so compelling will find their way back into this version someday, but until then this will do just fine, in fact, it sincerely is an absolute blast from start to finish and is probably the funniest film in the entire canon. That being said, I really hope that Kevin Feige and company stop painting by numbers at some point and let these characters films grow up. The one thing that kept nagging at me from the beginning was the quaint, solitary SONY logo that appears before the opening sequence of the movie. After the scene plays out the MARVEL fanfare begins with it’s massive logo and hero cutaways and a jaunty version of the 80s Spider-Man theme plays, and you realize who is really in charge. These movies can continue to be a lot of fun without saying anything or taking any chances and if that’s what Marvel wants to keep doing, that’s certainly within their now considerable influence and power. But even though they left the man out with only so much as a passing mention, I remember what a certain someone had to say about great power.

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The Red Pill: Us Versus Them

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I went into The Red Pill, a documentary on the Men’s Right’s Movement directed by self-identifying Feminist Cassie Jaye, fully expecting my eyes to roll right out of the side of my head halfway through as I was largely prepared for the vitriolic, infantile babble that can often be found on Reddit, the comments section of YouTube, Facebook, and elsewhere whenever there is some women only screening of a movie or a female actress cast in a traditionally male role but something odd happened about five minutes in that I did not anticipate and it’s the same thing that seems to have happened to Ms. Jaye herself; I found they were making some interesting and often valid points.

*ducks incoming projectiles*

To be clear, a lot of the metaphors being used by some of the MRAs were inherently flawed, if well-intentioned. The first had to do with lumping all MRAs into the same group being similar to judging a snowdrift by analyzing one individual flake within it. Now. I understand the comparison, there is clearly a broad spectrum within this relatively fringe group and a few of the men interviewed were obviously educated and rational but when they start giving examples of, let’s say, gender inequality within the justice system with regard to custody battles and alimony, they end up using personal and, therefore, anecdotal evidence to describe a very large and complex system (like a snowdrift) that is unarguably flawed. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate their entire argument, as much as it encourages a necessary conversation on how gender biases can create injustices for all parties involved. And this is where Cassie Jaye does the thing that has not, to my knowledge or on a large enough scale, been practiced yet with regard to this movement: she listens. Rather than debate or try to deconstruct the logic of the men (and women) she interviews who identify and support this idea of Men’s Rights, she just sits back and pays attention to what they are trying to say. 

Having grown up with Michael Moore’s “documentary” style and The Daily Show since the Kilborn days, I can’t recall the last time I saw a piece on such a controversial and polarizing subject that was not in any way antagonistic or combative. If that’s the one thing that Cassie Jaye does best and most effectively in The Red Pill she also presents an undeniably skewed perspective that heavily favors the MRA side of the discourse. The men and women on the side of the movement are invariably its most grounded, well-spoken, educated supporters whereas the Feminist movement is represented by its most aggressive, shrill, disruptive agitators, the folks that carry signs to speaking engagements and chant ‘fuck this person’ on public streets and pull fire alarms as an act of civil disobedience. And this is an unfair representation of both sides because not all Feminists are total assholes, as the examples shown absolutely are, and not all MRAs are grounded, well-spoken, and educated; a whole lot of them are exactly as misogynistic, vile, and rape culture-y as they are depicted. But the idea that I think Cassie Jaye is trying to get across, and understand herself over the progress of the documentary, is that this concept of ‘sides’ is the first mistake that everyone is making, in particular with regard to Feminism.

At a later point in the documentary, Cassie interviews a woman who identifies as ‘Big Red’ who is, for all intents and purposes, an offensive caricature of an Angry Feminist/Social Justice Warrior come to life, she’s the embodiment of everything that the movements are known and, often, hated for and there’s a good reason for this: she’s a fucking idiot. Big Red is loud and curses a lot and not in a cool way, in a ‘Will you shut the fuck up while I’m talking again for, like, the billion-jillionth time…‘ (actual quote) and refers to the person she’s debating as a ‘dipshit’ among other things. After she tries to make the case that her Feminism is about gender equality across the board, her defense of why women are disproportionately favored in custody battles regardless of extenuating circumstances consists of, essentially, ‘Well, uhm, women have vaginas so, of course, their going to almost always be the more appropriate choice to be the caregiver.” Which is an argument in support of gender roles.

The point that is trying to be made, and something I am 100 percent guilty of contributing to, is that when the phrase Men’s Rights is used it is immediately perceived as being an attack on everyone who is not a man, it has a inherently aggressive connotation, and when I first heard it I thought the same thing as some of the more intelligible Feminists in The Red Pill. I thought, PATRIARCHY, and ‘men make more money than women’, and ‘oh boo hoo men are getting their feelings hurt’. Which is insensitive and reductive. And while I’m not agreeing with the entire premise of the movement itself, I failed to recognize the simple fact that I was perpetuating the ultimate problem behind, well, pretty much everything wrong with humanity; I was refusing to listen first and then formulate a thought. Because the assumption that I was making is that the MRA movement was somehow about fighting back against rights that were being taken away by the Feminist movement. I assumed that it was an attempt to reverse the progress that has been made to get everyone on equal footing and I incorrectly associated internet trolls with an actual message that was trying to be shared.

That message is just this: gender inequality is bad, period. And some times it swings the other way with regard to domestic violence, false paternity, alimony, child custody, and the odd circumstance where women are always evacuated from a sinking ship first. And that while it’s absolutely important to continue trying to advance equality for both genders it’s not exactly fair to say my issues matter and yours do not. Or more accurately as it is almost always phrased, my issues matter so fuck you, you little crybaby for bringing up your own, how dare you complain at all. The Red Pill also does not explore the darker side of the Men’s Rights Movement, the doxxing, the rape and death threats, the truly misogynistic crazies that misappropriate the entire concept who are sincerely afraid some kind of Amazonian Matriarchy is coming for our video games (absolutely fuck Gamergate while we’re on the subject) and if not acknowledging them was a conscious decision to avoid validating that aspect of it, I understand, however in not doing so the documentary fails to be as illuminating as it could have been. Instead, it feels cherry-picked which is not the worst thing considering how polarizing the subject matter is, it’s not meant to be the definitive article on MRA. Rather, it’s an introduction, the beginning of a conversation, one that I’m surprised to be more interested in and much more prepared for, now that I remembered how to stop trying to win every argument and just listen to what the other side has to say, even if, at first glance, they seem like a bunch of nut jobs. 

Wonder Woman: All The World’s Waiting

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Going into Wonder Woman, as I occasionally do, I was preparing an introduction or opening ahead of time that would address whatever rumors or controversy happened to be affecting a film at the time of its release which, here in Austin anyway, is this bunch of stupidity.  I had some snappy riposte, some witty insult prepared because I absolutely cannot stand this nonsense “Men’s Right’s” movement on the internet, I have nothing but contempt for it and its perpetrators. “Hmm, ….maybe not everything is about me.” – A quote from none of the people protesting a women-only screening of Wonder Woman.

But those thoughts and preparations evaporated from my mind about ten or fifteen minutes into the film for one simple and satisfying reason: I was having too much fun. Who cares what those folks think, the important thing is that DC and Warner Bros. have finally broken their streak of tepid, uninspired, soulless comic book adaptations and discovered the real joy that can be found in these stories and they did it with an unproven lead, an Academy recognized indie director, and a whole lot of moxie.

One of my favorite criticisms of Batman 5 Superman: Decolletage of Jurisprudence that perfectly and effectively cuts to the core problem with that film comes from comic book nerd, podcaster, and occasional filmmaker Kevin Smith, saying, “There seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding of what these characters are about. It’s almost like Zack Snyder didn’t read a bunch of comics, he read one comic once, and it was The Dark Knight Returns, and his favorite part was the last part where Batman and Superman fight.” Not being a particular fan of DC myself,  I was shocked to discover the animated incarnations of the Justice League on Netflix, such as Justice League: War and The Flashpoint Paradox were really fun and entertaining (here’s a lovely moment in the former that is directly lifted by the movie and is not a spoiler). The characters in DC comics actually have personalities and pathos and I wanted to see more. And unlike the Snyder interpretations, I didn’t feel depressed and exhausted after spending time with them. This is where Patty Jenkins, screenwriter Allan Heinberg, and Gal Gadot truly succeed with Wonder Woman: they figured out what makes her tick, what makes her naive optimism incredibly charming without it making her weak or foolish and that, despite being something of a fish out of water, her constitution or agency are in no way affected. She is, in some ways, analogous to Captain America in that way and the same thing I love about him I love about her. In an era of anti-heroes and tragic origin stories it’s incredibly refreshing to find a hero who does the right thing because it’s the right thing, who aren’t essentially trying to save themselves out of some misbegotten guilt complex but rather want to save the world simply because it needs saving.

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There is undeniably an undercurrent of inclusiveness running through Wonder Woman with an ethnically diverse cast that stands out anachronistically the same way as Steve Roger’s troupe did in Captain America: The First Avenger but there is also a casual self-awareness to it. The character Sameer (portrayed by Moroccan actor Saïd Taghmaoui) points out to Diana after her observation about gender roles, “I wanted to be an actor but… I am the wrong color (shrug). Everyone is fighting their own battle.” It also feels like the film wanted to say a lot more on the subject but was streamlined for wide release, which is understandable however I am hoping there will be an extended or Director’s cut that explores these characters in more detail. Ironically, although the inclusion of people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds is a nice gesture, without taking the time to flesh them out they end up seeming to be exactly what was trying to be avoid: two dimensional stereotypes. Points for the effort, though.

Now for the bad, because make no mistake, there is bad and it’s all in the third act. Anyone familiar with the other films in the series, at this point, is going be able to precisely mark the line of demarcation where the unique, endearing origin story is awkwardly and forcibly shunted into the rest of the DC Cinematic Universe, where Zach Snyder (thoughts and prayers with his family, by the way, all commentary aside) gets his dumb, clumsy hands all over the story and turns it into a murky, smoky, noisy exercise in smashing CGI actors together in front of a green screen. Don’t get me wrong, the heart and soul remain intact but are largely pushed into the background so that the movie can turn into everything that was dull and visually exhausting about the final battle in BvS:DoJ. There is also a completely nonsensical and unexplained head-fake in the final act that really has no place or necessity that I can come up with other than to simply have a twist of the sake of itself. This doesn’t entirely ruin anything since the whole last act feels so incongruous with the rest of the film anyway, but it does somewhat distract from the real emotional impact of the finale during which someone in the theater was inexplicably chopping onions near or around my vicinity. Which was weird, but hey, that’s what Austin is all about, right.

I’m just kidding, I cried like a little boy whose balloon floated away. Because movie. 

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Bottom line, what is good about Wonder Woman more than makes up for its deficiencies, it is without a doubt DC’s best extended universe offering and a sign that Warner and company’s course corrections seem to be in the right direction. There is a real concern for me, however, that the Diana, Princess of the Amazons, the sweet, sincere warrior with the mega-watt smile and an indefatigable sense of duty I found in this film is not going to be the Wonder Woman we get in the upcoming Justice League, that she will be replaced by some grizzled, bitter, steely-eyed grimace in a superhero outfit without any of the charm or personality. And if that’s the case, I’ll be severely disappointed. And then I’ll go back and watch Wonder Woman again because there’s this one part where she FLYING KNEE KICKS THIS DUDE THROUGH A DAMN WALL and it’s like KABLOOOOOM and she goes flying out after him and the music is like BWAOOWEDDDY BWAAAAAAAAOOOOW and you’re like, “HELL, YEAH.” Girl power.

 

 

 

Twin Peaks: The Return, Parts 1-4

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David Lynch, to the uninitiated, is a big ol’ weirdo in the sense that he’s one of the most brilliant and influential filmmakers of the last thirty years or so who is rarily talked about in the same breath as the other greats to come out of the 70s and 80s. His first film originally took him 7 years to complete and the grotesque experimental steam-punk nightmare Eraserhead immediately caught the eye of several other big name mainstream directors. George Lucas came knocking and offered him Return of the Jedi but Lynch went with the much more bizarre and difficult to adapt science fiction film Dune. He then went on to creep out the film landscape with surrealistic noir-ish thrillers like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive however categorizing them in that way does his work a massive disservice. David Lynch is, in reality, a genre all his own, particularly in the sense that a Lynch piece and reality are rarely in the same room together and although most of his films have gone on to achieve a cult-status in one way or another, the most mainstream success that Lynch has ever experienced was Twin Peaks.

How a writer depicts their characters can say a lot about how they interpret the people and the world around them and if this example is to be taken with Lynch it’s that he usually depicts them as either hapless rubes with dark secrets or sadistic monsters hiding in human flesh. There’s a consistent hokiness to each and every one of his innocent characters and normally this might be attributed to a talented technical or artistic director who is not great with actors. But this particular scene in Mulholland Drive refutes that. No, each and every detail means something and is intentional either to the story or, most importantly to Lynch, to create an atmosphere. And it’s this thing that pilots his work, a dream-like quality of impermanence and haunting, often deeply disturbing imagery with no regard for the audience’s well-being or permission that makes him the unique voice that he is.

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That stilted cloying quality that is found in many of the characters in Twin Peaks lends itself to one of his favorite tropes: affectionately depicting every day modern Americana and then stripping it down layer by layer to reveal some macabre underbelly of sexuality and violence. This is exemplified at the beginning of Blue Velvet when two teenage lovers go strolling through a picturesque park on a spring day only to stumble upon a severed human ear laying in the middle of the grass; it’s the juxtaposition of the familiar with the morbid. Twin Peaks, in this way, is more a parody of the popular soap operas in the 80s and 90s as depicted by a master of surrealistic horror and unfortunately the original series doesn’t exactly stand up over time. The ultimate mystery of who killed Laura Palmer is still thrilling and beautifully foreshadowed but there are so many side plots, some of them brutally obnoxious, and so many drawn out sequences of people weeping while holding each other as the maudlin musical score drones on it’s not going to be easy for modern audiences to absorb.

In the new Showtime revival of Twin Peaks much of the fat has been trimmed away and with the restrictions of network television have been lifted the results are much closer to his film work than the original TV series. While this might actually alienate both newcomers and fans of the original the only question that remains is whether or not it can stand alone as its own incarnation and in this it largely succeeds at being David Lynch’s vision. It feels like his universe and his imagination which, is to say, pant-shittingly frightening, indescribably weird, and more than a little funny. More specifically, it looks, feels, and sounds like nothing else out there and if there was any concern that he may have lost some of his edge with age it’s unfounded. As a director and the sound designer, he still so effectively fucks with the viewer at times it’s difficult not feeling like someone put the wrong kind of mushrooms on your pizza.

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As referenced by another publication, Twin Peaks: The Return might be the only show on television right now that can’t be spoiled in the traditional sense. For instance, (minor but obvious spoiler) the series opens with the first obstacle that the audience would expect: Agent Dale Cooper must find a way to escape the Black Lodge. And he does, kind of, but it’s less about the if and more about the how. And it’s just something that has to be experienced personally. Adjectives fail in the same way that someone describing a dream is never interesting because it’s so difficult to encapsulate what that dream really felt like, the familiar strangeness of it. This is the language that Lynch trades in, his canvas is that dreamscape where things sometimes are more sincere and important than what is happening in the real world or rather, his version of it.

It’s a good thing that Showtime is releasing the series in increments rather than all at once, it’s a show that shouldn’t be lumped in with the current binge-watching trend. At the risk of coming off cliche, David Lynch is an artist, not some Johnny Come-Lately with a camera and a dream and his work deserves to be processed, to be dissected in the way that only the internet can. Before there was Lost or The X-Files there was Twin Peaks and although it is way too early in the revival’s run to stake any predictions, Lynch might be the only one of the three capable of a satisfying ending.

HA! Just kidding. What the shit was that talking brain synapse/tree in the Black Lodge. What the hell did Dougie throw up on the ground and who was the eyeless lady who got knocked into space? WHAT WAS WITH THAT FLOATING TALKING FACE?! That was as much of an rational article as I could write without the utter insanity breaking through. More to come when the next part of the series is released….


Patriot: Suddenly Now I Know Where I Belong

Patriot is a confounding piece of television, in that I love it to pieces but when recommending it to people I find myself staring off into space trying to explain why. It’s easy to use certain adjective trains like surrealistic black comedy spy drama or describe it as comparable to the dry humor of the Coen brothers because while it is those things it’s also a tender and unique kind of weird that makes you lean in a little bit. It will juxtapose a pitch perfect awkward exchange of dialogue with a pratfall without missing a beat and then tap-dance deftly into what is essentially a spy drama. It’s The Bourne Identity mixed with Fargo crossed with a little bit of In Bruges and the main character John Tavner, portrayed with an eerie wounded intelligence by Michael Dormanalso happens to be an accomplished folk singer/songwriter with a bad habit of writing songs that literally recount his spycraft exploits. Oh, and it’s also beautiful. A lot of shows and films will suck the color and hue out of the frame to make things seem more dramatic or serious but what they fail to do to keep the viewer from getting lost in the greys and blues is compose a shot, and Patriot I could rewatch on mute.

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The cast has more than a few hey I know that guy from something actors. Kurtwood Smith plays basically Red Foreman but with the advantage of some actual depth. Terry O’Quinn is a shady but mostly reliable paterfamilias. And Gil Bellows, who is also an Executive Producer, pops up in a minor role here and there. But the show belongs to Dorman who has the difficult task of portraying a kind of sensitive soul struggling with the loneliness and confusing nature of his job as a N.O.C. for the C.I.A. while also being sort of an asshole. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to work with and is forced to express what can be perceived as a kind of nihilistic resignation to the job by smoking a lot of pot and generally not giving a shit about day to day politeness or friendly interactions. He seems to be, outside of a long distance and sad relationship with a woman, purely about function separate from form except for the occasional open-mike night and it’s difficult to pin down or care for a character who never smiles and may or may not be a sociopath. But there is something familiar in John Tavner, something relatable in his melancholia and in the amusing and well-realized premise that even the job of an international undercover spy can be as tedious and absurd as any other.

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Let me walk you through our Donnely nut-spacing and cracked system rim-riding grip configuration: using a field of half-seized sprats and brass-fitter nickel slits, our bracketed caps and spray-flexed brace columns vent dampers to dampening hatch depths of ½ meter from the damper crown to the spurv plinth. How? Well, we bolster 12 Husk Nuts to each girdle jerry while flex tandems press a task apparatus of ten vertically composited patch hamplers then pin flam-fastened pan traps at both maiden apexes of the jimjoints.

Did I mention the prominent role industrial piping and welding plays in the story? It’s hard to keep track of how many different ways Patriot calmly steps off the path and wanders into some unexpected shenanigans that elaborately circle back to the main plot. Take, for example, the image above which is, in fact, the main character absconding with a half dozen or so prosthetic legs from what appears to be a water aerobics class. At face value this doesn’t make any sense at all but fifteen minutes later the scenes meaning is perfectly clear. And funny. And a little bit sad. Granted, not all tangents are related to the main plot, some are merely backstory, but there’s a delightfully disjointed narrative akin to Pulp Fiction or Go where the same event or interaction takes place just outside the view of another pivotal moment which increases in complexity deeper into the season.

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Again, it would be easy to dislike John Tavner for many reasons but adding that musical element is what elevates a very good show into something different. There are few instances throughout but one in particular where I sincerely wish this character or actor or whomever would actually put together an album that stays on message instead of careening off into stream-of-consciousness for humorous/narrative purposes. His style is some marriage between Matt Berninger from The National and Samuel Beam of Iron & Wine and it’s one of the few times where I wish there were more musical interludes in a show where I am thoroughly addicted to the twists and turns of the story. And again, I’m struck by how difficult it is to explain what Patriot is like with each part, the music element, the occasionally non-linear narrative, the dark humor, seemingly incongruous unless viewed as a whole but once that whole is put together there’s a joy to the material that makes you want to grab the nearest person and shout “You need to see this”. The last time I felt this enthusiastic about a new show was probably Stranger Things and while I’m not saying that I predicted its meteoric popularity or cultural impact….

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…. but from what I can tell so far no one appears to be watching. And I get that. When this appeared on Amazon Prime my brain formed the letters “MEH” in the sky above my computer and I went about my day. But then I found a review from a writer I happen to have a great affection for even though he goes on about The Good Wife far too enthusiastically and this writer that I like absolutely raved about Patriot, jumped up and down, literarily speaking, and insisted on at least checking out the pilot episode. Once I gave in and check it out I stopped. The next day I watched another episode. And so forth. Patriot is so good that I had to use all the self-control I could muster to not binge watch the thing and I still want to go back and rewatch some episodes.

Dennis (distraught): “I had an erection. Not from being in a room with a sex worker. I think mostly I was excited about helping you gather information and one thing led to another…and I didn’t even get any information. About where the girl in the passport is. I just got herpes.

Tom: “[To Dennis] Put down the phone, Dennis. You can tell your wife you slept with a prostitute. I’m okay with that, go for it. But you cannot tell her about this situation you were drawn into. [To John] Why…why was he drawn into this anyway?”

John (without emotion): “I needed his pee.”

COME ON. I don’t even know what else I need to say but the show is lousy with these kinds of exchanges and I present the same challenge as the other writer, in fact, I’ll double down. If you can make it through the cold open and the opening credits without Patriot sparking some well-deserved interest, I’ll eat this review. At the very least enjoy the haunting and beautiful title song:

 

Captain Fantastic: A Beautiful Mistake

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In an early scene in writer-director Matt Ross’s film Captain Fantastic Viggo Mortenson’s father character Ben finds his daughter reading Lolita, the controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov and he asks for her analysis. What follows is a pretty accurate assessment of Humbert Humbert’s pitiable obsession with a 12 year old girl and his daughter points out something intrinsic to the narrative: since it is written from the man’s perspective his actions seem justified, if only because he believes they are, and so you sympathize with him even though he is precisely a pedophile and a criminal using his understanding of love as an excuse for his actions. Although Ben Cash is neither of those things, this is a pretty astute foreshadowing of the rest of the film as his attempts to guide and educate his children, his love for them inspiring some very questionable, mildly illegal behavior. Ultimately, he is both the protagonist and antagonist and Mortenson does a great job with the material coming off believably as a brilliant Libertarian mountain man/survivalist. But if he’s lacking anything, and this could apply to the character as well, it’s heart. He’s not the most approachable person, evoking Ted Kacynski more than David Cassidey, and this is where the talented cast of children balance things out and it’s easy to immediately cheer for them, a difficult task from a group that is more or less a Doomsday Cult.

The cover of Captain Fantastic at first implied something akin to Wes Anderson and it’s important to note that this is pretty far from the case. Rather, it feels closer to David O. Russell and his earlier work about damaged outcasts looking for a sense of family. Thematically, however, this is the opposite of what this film is about. Family is all they have and although they are physically healthy and well educated the fact that the Partridge family bus is not a school bus at all but a prisoner transport is a pretty on the nose metaphor for their lives. It starts an interesting conversation about the concept of homeschooling, at one point Ben pits his 8 year old daughter against her two teenage cousins on the subject of the Bill of Rights, and although she is able to both recite them from memory and provide a detailed analysis this is treated as a victory for his family. But in reality, despite the fact that public schooling is a deeply flawed system the social skills that develop in those settings are undeniably critical to functionality and happiness in later life. We are, with rare exception, social creatures and while denying children the opportunity to make that decision for themselves is an absolute right that parents have, the results of such an experiment should be explored. My own experience involved my first roommate at tech school falling asleep every day in class because he sat up until 5am every night painting Warhammer figurines. Having never been on his own or under the supervision of adults who were not his parents he never developed a sense of respect for their authority or an ounce of consideration for his roommate who was trying to fucking sleep.

That being said, Ben Cash is honest and direct with his children at all times and this is undeniably admirable. Having grown up in a less than conventional environment I was always able to tell when adults were lying to me about mature subjects, however when folks did occasionally treat me with the respect that was usually afforded to grown ups I recognized it. Children are a lot more intelligent than they are given credit for and in a lot of ways can be better at processing information and better at detecting bullshit. So those grown ups that were honest with me I tended to trust more and the uncle that told me the “Clearance 7’2” sign that hangs over the drive thru at McDonald’s meant that they were on the lookout for someone named “Clearance” who was seven feet, two inches tall was generally not someone I relied on as much. For the record, I figured out what the sign meant before turning 20…..ish.

If I had to fault Captain Fantastic it would have to be in the third act and its emotional, if somewhat idealistic finale. The journey that the kids go on is different from their father’s and he rightfully exacts the price that he should for his myopic approach to raising children in the world we all live in, the one that is so often lethargic, ignorant, and materialistic. But the cost doesn’t stick. And instead of losing something permanently in exchange for what he’s taken away from his children which is, in a lot of ways, their actual childhood, he only glimpses what would in real life be more of an implacability. But that’s okay, this is not a deal breaker and this is not that kind of film. Like so many great ones that are overshadowed of late by blockbuster theatrical releases and sequels of prequels of CGI spectacle it’s important to remember that there are some that have have an actual heart. One with a lovely message that even an off-the-grid, Noam Chomsky worshipping, Renaissance Man wouldn’t mind his kids seeing. It’s about the strength and resilience of family and the ability to admit a mistake, even if it is an enormous perspective altering one. I am a big believer in the idea that sometimes it’s necessary to lose the path in order to find it again and if that’s too esoteric of an idea or sounds like fortune cookie wisdom, this may be too sentimental of an experience. Otherwise, there’s plenty of room on this bus.