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Friday, June 23, 2017

TV Review: The Putin Interviews – Revealing a Man Instead of a Monster

During the fourth hour of The Putin Interviews, a four-hour Showtime documentary directed by Academy Award winning film director Oliver Stone, there is an extremely salient moment that encapsulates the dynamic of what is actually happening during these interviews with the Russian president. Stone tries to set up an entrance shot of Vladimir Putin coming into a room. He asks Putin to go all the way down the hall, and the man willingly complies. When ready for him to enter, consummate filmmaker Stone repeatedly shouts, “Action,” but Putin doesn’t come into the room.

Slightly frustrated, Stone enlists the assistance of interpreter Sergei Chudinov, who calls out to the president in Russian. A shot from another camera shows Putin grinning slightly and then looking at the camera and winking. After Stone shouts “Action” one more time, Putin comes strolling down the hallway baring two cups of coffee – one for Stone and one for him. The scene plays out perhaps not as Stone had hoped, but does more to establish the characterization of his protagonist than even the director could have imagined.

Yes, Putin is the protagonist of this film, and it is best to watch this astounding Showtime production as we would watch Stone’s Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, or JFK – as a film that is a work of art. From the opening credits depicting the former Soviet Union turning into Russia, we get stark visuals accompanied by Jeff Beal’s powerful musical score, and that sends a signal of portent of what is to come. This feeling of being dropped into a different, perhaps even an unusual, world is more than upheld as Stone has made this a documentary that is a chronicle of a man and the country that he obviously loves.

Splicing in archival photos and news footage of various world events and leaders appropriate to the conversation of the moment, Stone more than keeps the four hours interesting. Of course, as a director Stone has always known the secret that keeps us watching – establish your protagonist and have the audience become invested in the action – just watch Charlie Sheen as Chris Taylor in Platoon or Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July to understand what I mean. These characters are underdogs who have the deck stacked against them, but we root for them to succeed because we realize that the world around them is unfair and out of control.

Hard to imagine Vladimir Putin as a protagonist or an underdog? Let alone one we can root for? Perhaps the greatest strength of film is it cannot only change hearts but also minds. If you were expecting Putin to come across as an arrogant, ruthless dictator as he has been often depicted, you are in for a rude awakening. Either Putin is the best actor to be the president of a country since Ronald Reagan, or he is genuinely a person with feelings and opinions and they are worthwhile to understand and process.

What sets this film apart from some of Stone’s greatest works is that Stone himself is a character in this film. Clutching his yellow legal pad of notes, looking a bit rumpled at times like Detective Columbo, Stone huffs and sometimes puffs as he tries to make sense of the low whispering voice of Chudinov, who talks lowly as Putin answers questions in order to convey a translation to keep things moving. Credit should be given to this young man for his tenacity in a difficult situation. However, it is Stone’s facial expressions and reactions to Putin that are most telling – we get a sense of exasperation and at times admiration – but we must remember that Stone’s day job is director and interviewing may not be his greatest strength, but he manages to push and prod but as respectfully as possible.

I have heard some complaints that Stone did not ask Putin difficult questions about human rights violations, Ukraine, Crimea, lack of viable opposition candidates during his long reign (Putin has been in office since Bill Clinton’s presidency), and treatment of the gay community in Russia. Stone does touch on some of these things, but Putin is masterful in his manner of formulating a quick (and some would say elusive) response.

When asked about gays in the military, Putin somehow veers into a story about not showering with a guy on a submarine – even though he is a judo master and implies he can protect himself. The bizarre response (perhaps something is lost in translation or not) borders on homophobic, but then Putin tries to save himself by saying, “We have to reinforce family values. But that doesn’t mean there should be persecutions of anyone.” Stone lets this go – as he does other things that people might find a particular weakness of the interviewer – but it does seem as if Putin feels he is coming off well even when he does not.

These interviews were conducted over a two-year period (June 2015 – February 2017) – in the Kremlin, Putin’s plane, at a hockey game, in a car with Putin driving, and outdoor locations. While one could expect a film interview to be rather static, Stone manages to keep things flowing and Putin seems a willing participant in the choreography throughout. Even when Stone mentions the film Dr. Strangelove and Putin indicates no familiarity with the work, the scene shifts to Stone and Putin actually watching the film. Although it is hard to judge Putin’s reaction to the movie (his expression changes very little throughout four hours), the fact that he is willing to sit through the film to understand Stone’s feelings about the Cold War says more about his personality than some of us might be willing to admit.

When Stone attends a hockey game where Putin will be a player, Stone playfully asks Putin if the opponents are going to play hard against him and even check him. Putin seems amazed by this question and wonders why the other players wouldn’t treat him as just another guy – maybe because they could end up cracking boulders in Siberia? We do get the character development Stone (and I’m sure the clever Putin) intends – hey, the president is just one of the guys.

Occasionally, Putin’s cleverness gets him in trouble. When Stone asks him if he ever has bad days, Putin dryly replies, “I’m not a woman, so I don’t have bad days.” Stone immediately calls him out for insulting “50 percent of the American public,” but Putin seems unruffled. He responds, “I’m not trying to insult anyone. That’s just the nature of things.” Honesty? Without a doubt, but concerning nonetheless for its implications for women living in Russia, but once again Stone lets it go.

Despite these stumbles, there is a feeling that Putin is human and far from the monster people like Senator John McCain have painted him to be. Even when Stone brings up the senator from Arizona and the derogatory things he has said about Putin, the Russian leader reveals that he likes McCain and respects him for being a war hero and dedicated to his country. It is not the answer we are expecting, and most of the interview seems to be full of surprises as to how Putin reacts to events in the U.S.A. and around the world.

The interview gets most interesting to me when Stone asks Putin about his personal life. Putin talks fondly about his parents and seems to hold them in high regard, but the most moving moment is when Putin discusses his children and his grandchildren. Paternal pride gleams in his eyes, and it is obvious that he loves them and wants the world to be safe for them. I came away from these moments thinking not only that this man is no monster, but that he seems like he wants his progeny to have a bright future, so it appears even more unlikely that he wants his country to have any kind of war that would threaten that possibility.

Sitting back and evaluating the four hours of interviews, my impression is that Putin is a complicated man to understand but also someone who speaks bluntly and honestly. Putin also comes across as intelligent, cunning, and acutely aware of the impact interviews with someone like Oliver Stone will have on the American public. Even though he knows he will always have his critics, Putin seems to be betting that these interviews will open the American people’s eyes and make them rethink their feelings about him.

I feel that these four hours are essential for their historical significance as well as for what is happening in the world today. Imagine if Harry Truman had four hours of an interview with Josef Stalin and what a valuable tool that would have been. I am assuming that everyone in Washington will be studying these interviews for a long time to come, and if they are not they should be.

Oliver Stone has given us a memorable documentary film experience that, though highly orchestrated and carefully edited, should be appreciated as a work of art right up there with his greatest works like Platoon and JFK. In doing so he has also opened a window into the mind of one of the most important people on the world stage. I highly recommend peering through that window for an experience that is as enjoyable as it is unforgettable.

*For information about The Putin Interviews episode times click here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Why Mother’s Day Is Like Christmas While Father’s Day Is More Like Arbor Day

Okay, fellow dads out there, let’s just admit something straightaway – the kids are not making you breakfast today. In fact, if you are like I am, you are making the kids breakfast while mom has her usual “sleepy Sunday.” Sure, we understand Mommy had a hard week, and it is nice to get to spend time with the kids since you don’t get to do so on school days – even if it entails standing over the stove flipping flapjacks, scrambling eggs, and cooking up some bacon.

Usually on what we call in this house “Mother’s Day Eve,” I am making certain the kids have prepared their homemade cards (Mommy prefers those) and have gifts purchased for them to give Mom in the morning. If they have created something in school (this year my son made a small flower pot and planted seeds for a flower), this is also put aside. My card is already written and my gift is wrapped.

In the morning, I will run out really early to get flowers because fresh ones are always best and stop at Starbucks to get Mommy her favorite java. When I get home, I will get the kids up, tell them to be quiet, and let Mommy have her “sleepy Sunday.” When Mommy awakes, breakfast will be made and presented to her in bed (if she desires that) or in the breakfast nook, where presents will then be laden upon her Highness. Yes, she is Queen that morning and we her subjects bow accordingly. Oh, come to think of it, she’s royalty every other day as well, but I am okay with that too.

I have always told myself that this is just the way of things. I recall as a kid that Mother’s Day was all marching bands and fireworks, while Father’s Day was more a few sparklers and a whistle. My Dad never seemed to mind, and he appreciated getting the new tie and the shaving cream and the screwdriver with changeable tips. Dad always smiled and took it like a champ, so why wouldn’t I follow his lead when I became a father? Well, of course, I did.

Today I am not expecting much, and that in itself makes things go better. Every year a week before Father’s Day I will get, “Do you need anything at Home Depot?” as Queenie is walking out the door. I could, if given the time, probably make a long list, but I might blurt out, “No, I’m good” because I don’t want to have to return anything and that is usually what happens when I get something from Home Depot, if I’m lucky enough to get a gift receipt.

Oh, and there is no such thing as Father’s Day Eve here. No preparations were underfoot last night. I am certain I will just get homemade cards from the kids (which I love and will keep forever), but I don’t get gifts. I am not certain if Her Majesty got me anything (last year I got a Mets cap which was fine), but I figure keeping my expectations low is best.

The kids did ask me a few days ago what I wanted, and I should have said, “To sleep late, have brunch made for me, and then be able to watch the Mets game and switch channels to check out the U.S. Open.” Of course, none of that is going to happen. My son thinks it is a day when we should go to the park and play catch and for me to pitch to him so that he can hit baseballs and have me run all around the field fetching them. But, hey, I did that with my Dad as a kid so I guess this is my payback.

If you think I am exaggerating the situation here, let’s look at some numbers. According to an article on, Americans will spend $7.4 billion less on Father’s Day than they did on Mother’s Day. Mostly, Dad gets a card – 61% of consumers will buy the old guy one; however, 81% get Mom a card. I would guess that the other 19% accounts for kids making them for Mommy. I am not sure if 39% are making them for Dad, but you never know.

While we would like to think this is not a contest, a national survey reveals that if it were Dad would lose handily – kind of like Wonder Woman vs. Batman – and the numbers are gruesome. 78% of the respondents indicated that they would choose celebrating with Mom over Dad if the holidays fell on the same day. While citing many reasons, the most glaring one is “Mom is the favorite parent.” That, fellow dads, is the coup de grace. Ouch!

Of course, we dads are complicit in all this because of a most salient reason – we not only accept this as the way it is but we encourage it. We were all kids once too, and at least I know for sure that I pampered Mom and showered her with attention and love and gifts because I wanted to do that. I think it was less that I felt she needed it but more that I needed to do it. My father never seemed to mind and, come to think of it, I got this way of thinking by observing him with his mother.

The truth is that I was in the room when my wife gave birth to my kids. Any dad who has witnessed this miracle one or more times can attest to the fact that he would never be able to handle it. Just giving my wife ice chips while she lay there in labor made me shiver. I saw the almost incalculable pain that she endured, and the amazing thing is even after giving birth to our first child she wanted to go through the ordeal again, while I would have been running out the door.

The pain of childbirth alone gives Mom the right to be celebrated and be the royalty in the house, but that is not the only reason. As I saw growing up and now as a married man, it is the Mom who keeps a household together; she manages to be the loving glue that binds all, and through her dedication, strength, tenacity, and love a house becomes a home.
When I am with the kids and my wife is not home, well something tangible is missing. We are still a family, but we are like a boat with a hole in it. When she comes home, it is as if all the water gets bailed out immediately and smooth seas are ahead. That is just the way it is and I appreciate that.
So today is not going to be a big celebration but a quiet one. As I was writing this, my son already came into my office and gave me his card. He told me the teacher had to help him with the front, but I understand that. I love the card anyway, and I too think the homemade ones are the best.

But I must end now because he is up and hungry. The others will be up and hungry too soon enough. I have to go make breakfast, but I’m okay with that. It’s Father’s Day and I am going to perform my usual Sunday routine as if it were any other Sunday.
Come to think of it, that is a happy Father’s Day. No contest there at all.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Adam West Will Always Be My Batman

While the death of iconic Batman actor Adam West at 88 years of age saddened me, I realized my “old chum” had lived a long life and that helped a bit. Still, the loss of this man with such a distinctive voice who played my favorite superhero with such panache is a slap in the face realization that yet another piece of my childhood is gone.

Many years ago, I recall vividly how my friends and I were all talking about our favorite comic coming to life on TV. This anticipation was fueled by TV commercials and magazine articles regarding the new series that would debut in January that year. Lucky for me my father had given the family a terrific Christmas present – a new color TV. Up until then I had watched Soupy Sales, Bugs Bunny, and The Wonderful World of Disney in black and white, and seeing that NBC Peacock in “living color” rocked my 6-year-old world.

Whatever expectations I had about Batman were immediately met and then some. Judging from my reaction and that of my friends the next day in school, we had all gone to first grade heaven after seeing that initial episode on a Wednesday evening (Riddler was the “Special Guest Villain”), and with a cliff hanger ending and a voiceover telling us to be back the next night at the “same Bat-time and same Bat-channel” to see what would happen, we were all definitely hooked.

The show came to us in brilliant color, so having that new TV was truly advantageous. The exaggerated sets, labeled props (Bat-computer, Bat-poles, etc.), and the zany costumed villains all seemed to pop out of a comic book come to life. When Batman and his trusty sidekick Robin (Burt Ward) would fight them and their henchmen (sometimes wearing shirts with numbers like the Thing characters of Dr. Seuss), colorful words like ZAP, POW, ZONK, and BIFF would appear on screen just as in the comics.

It would be easy to dismiss the campy villains played by great actors and actresses – Joker (Cesar Romero), Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Catwoman (Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt), and many others – as silly, but photographed at odd angles within lairs that seemed both threatening and like someone’s fun rec room, they had enough sinister intensity about them to scare us into thinking their nefarious plots just might work.

Of course, the most important character of all was the titular superhero. West's Batman/Bruce Wayne, as in other versions of the story, is the product of his past – criminals murdered his parents. Raised afterwards by loyal and loving butler Alfred (the impeccably dry witted and funny Alan Napier), this Bruce Wayne is far from the brooding Dark Knight of the Christopher Nolan films or even the earlier Michael Keaton versions. While those depictions seemed to only increase Batman’s gravitas as a character, they failed to capture the essence of the TV series (and great 1966 Batman movie) which had levity woven throughout but a dash of solemnity here and there to remind us that Batman was not just fighting the bad guys but had a conflict with the duality of also being Bruce Wayne.

What Adam West did with this character is truly amazing, but I felt at the time that my parents (and other adults) thought it was just a kids’ show or a passing fad (they had been wrong about the Beatles too). They didn’t get West’s portrayal the way we younger viewers did, and I still feel after all this time that West managed to convey to us that he respected the Batman character despite the apparent frivolity of the series. He spoke his lines not with tongue-in-cheek (as many wrongly assumed) but rather with gusto and full appreciation even if they seemed nonsensical, and what truly mattered most was that West connected with those viewers whom he knew were getting it.

Over the last few days I have been talking to friends and family about our favorite scenes, and it seems all of us could never forget the one from the movie when Batman hung from a helicopter ladder with a shark on his leg. But I find one even more memorable and hilarious – the one in which Batman desperately tries to dispose of a bomb and is greeted with all the stock characters that he is sworn to protect. It is in this scene that West speaks the immortal line of dialogue: “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”

I think fondly of watching West as Batman as a kid, and remember being devastated when the show went off the air. Many years later I started watching the show again with my son (who oddly enough was 6 just as I had been when the show debuted). He immediately got it just as I had – Adam West’s Batman in this way is timeless. It is reassuring now seeing the show again with him and affirms my original feeling about how great the series was. Also, my son much prefers West’s portrayal over the darker film versions from recent years, although he loved the Batman in The Lego Batman Movie, as I did too, for that character is much more Light Knight than Dark.

So, all these years later, Adam West is and always will be my Batman. He captured the right amount of humor, decency, honor, and bravery in playing a character that appealed to the kid that I was and the man that I became. I realize now that the Batman films of recent years, despite being critical and popular success stories, lost the zany and uplifting aspects of the TV series. While I enjoyed those versions, I never felt completely satisfied with any of them. Now I understand why – while trying to undo the Adam West version of the character they inadvertently reinforced its essence, which is still bringing joys to millions of fans all over the world.

I am sorry to know that Adam West has gone on to that big Batcave in the sky. I can only thank him for being an indelible part of my childhood and for bringing continued joy to my son and to generations of fans old and new. Rest in peace, old chum.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Wonder Women – Ariana Grande, Gal Gadot, and Patty Jenkins – Show Us the Way

Two weeks ago, a suicide bomber’s attack on Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester, England, left 22 dead and over 50 people wounded. Most young people would have been so shaken and frightened by what had happened that they would have rolled up in a ball and hid in a dark room somewhere; however, that was not the way Ariana Grande saw things. This brave and determined young woman was intent on doing something to help those hurt by the attack and also show the world that these kinds of incidents would not have their intended effect of stopping people from going out and enjoying their freedom to go to concerts and do other things.

Grande somehow managed to gather acts such as Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Pharrell Williams, and Cold Play to perform at her One Love Manchester concert at Old Trafford Cricket Ground, raising $13 million for the victims’ families and entertaining 50,000 fans in the process. This bold and dynamic action proves this young woman’s grit and fortitude and is a shining beacon of hope that crumbles any chance of the terrorists succeeding at what they hope to accomplish.

If you were watching the show (as many people around the world were), the exuberance of each performance and the reaction of the crowd were more than the right antidote for what happened two weeks before (and also on Saturday in London). By the time Ms. Grande sang a tear-provoking and powerful performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” it became clear that her concert was more than anything about love and its overwhelming ability to rally the human spirit.

Meanwhile this weekend in movie theaters Gal Gadot exploded on screens across the country and around the world as the iconic Wonder Woman. And if Ms. Grande proved that love is what the world needs now, it also requires a depiction of a strong, powerful, and independent female who can kick the bad guys’ butts as well as Batman or Captain America.

It seems crucial that at this point in time when women are being targeted, as was the case in the Manchester bombing, that the world sees a woman taking on the traditional male role and shining bright. Gadot, who already made an impression playing this character in Batman vs. Superman, really takes the opportunity in this film and makes more than the most of it. 

Gal Gadot gives us a hero we can admire, whether we are male or female, and sends a clear message to those who would repress females that women can do anything. Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is brave, loyal, and yet has a sense of innocence and goodness that truly brings this character into a new light for audiences.

The third member of this dynamic trio is Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, who can be credited with the vision that has made the film such a great success. Beside infusing this familiar tale with a spontaneity and zest that many superhero flicks seem to lack, she also has shaken up the genre – a female lead and female director can take a film just as far as a male lead and male director – and that is something that has long been needed in filmmaking in America.

This past weekend’s box-office numbers saw Jenkins's Wonder Woman rake in the highest opening take ($103.1 million) for a film directed by a female director. The film is not only a financial success, but critics and fans are raving about it and that has not always been the case for films in this genre of late. Jenkins has crafted her story in a way that has a wider appeal than the usual superhero movie, which usually targets a predominantly male audience.

These three Wonder Women set hearts a flutter this weekend, but also made a difference in tangible ways. While raising a good deal of money to help the victims of the Manchester bombing, Ariana Grande stood up for the freedom of expression not just in England but the world over. Her One Love Manchester concert rocked not only because it featured great music but due to the crucial message that love and unity are the ingredients for a better world and that violence in all its horrific forms will not deter people from doing what is good and what is right.

Gal Gadot has arrived in a really big way, and she becomes an inspiration for girls everywhere. More importantly, Gadot’s character is crucial for boys who will be initially attracted to her appearance but will learn a lesson – women and girls can do anything men and boys can do – and that is needed now more than ever. Other female actors who long to be action heroes or cast as a lead in a film should thank her because their chances of being considered for those roles have gone up exponentially.

And then there is Patty Jenkins, strutting into the old boy’s club (that Hollywood still seems to be) and throwing her hat into the middle of the ring. She will now rightly compete with male directors on a more even playing field and hopefully this will open doors for other female directors to follow her lead and get a bigger piece of the action.

This past weekend three wonder women – singer Ariana Grande, Israeli actress Gal Gadot, and American director Patty Jenkins – rose above the detritus of horrible events and shone a dazzling and reassuring light for all the world to see. Congratulations to this dynamic trio on a job well done!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Binge Watching the Original Twin Peaks and David Lynch Films – Prep for the Agony and Ecstasy of Twin Peaks: The Return

After watching the first episodes of director David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, the deliciously morbid yet delightfully obtuse follow up to the original TV series, I realized that I needed a refresher course in all things Lynchian (if there is not such a term there should be).
Since I hadn’t seen the original series since it was cancelled 26 years ago, I remembered much of it but had forgotten many things. My first order of business was to watch the series again, but I could not find the VHS tapes that I religiously recorded every week so long ago. They exist somewhere in the netherworld of my garage and basement which could be considered my own Black Lodge, but that’s another story.

Thanks to Netflix, I was able to binge watch all 30 original episodes this past week. To say it was an exhausting but rewarding experience is less an understatement and more the product of absorption and assimilation of Lynch’s oeuvre, which in large doses rattles the brain and crosses the eyes. Still, by watching not as it was meant to be watched (one week at a time and anticipating the next episode) I reaped many rewards as well, and this crash course in all things Twin Peaks reminded me of the quirky humor, the off dialogue, and the zany array of characters which was kind of like a marriage of the old TV series Green Acres and The Twilight Zone.

I am not saying that one needs to watch the original series or even have had seen it long ago (as I had before my binge), but the little inserted gems in the new series are so much more appreciated if you have had a refresher course. One thing that completely stands out is the feeling of confidence the old series provided via the exuberance of Kyle MacLachlan’s performance as Special Agent Dale Cooper. Whether being confronted with a naked teenage Audrey Horne (Sherylin Fenn) in his bed or French-Canadian gangsters ready to kill him, Cooper went about his business with an attitude that promoted smiles and also a feeling of security.

Especially missing from the new version is Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), who together with MacLachlan’s Cooper formed an incredible if unlikely cop duo – the out of town Fed and the hometown cop – and their bond carried the series in many ways that kept it from being an ordinary police procedural. Harry’s willingness to follow Cooper’s lead and Cooper’s respect for Harry’s knowledge of the town and area worked well, and even when Cooper is briefly suspended from the FBI in season 2 Harry quickly deputizes him to keep the team together. In the new version Harry is supposed to be quite ill and his brother Frank (a terrifically deadpan Robert Forster) has taken his place in charge. Since they have yet to have a scene together we will have to wait to see if there is any similar connection between these two men.

Unfortunately, as of now, the new version of Cooper (after the first five episodes) is difficult to accept, but there is an understanding that he has been locked in the Red Room in the Black Lodge for 25 plus years makes it more believable. His reintroduction to the real world is culture shock after being in the company of giants, dwarves, the One-armed Man, and a talking brain atop of a tree. He also left behind the specter of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), whose murder he solved and yet left many questions remaining after his disappearance.
We have only seen snippets of the old gang back in Twin Peaks (mostly at the Sheriff’s Department), but the feeling that time has advanced and that still things remain the same is evident. Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) and Andy (Harry Goaz) are still a couple and seem as cluelessly happy as ever. Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) has a mane of gray hair but he is still on the job and in contact with the Log Lady (the late Catherine E. Coulson) who relays messages from her log via phone now. We get a brief glimpse of Shelly the waitress (Mädchen Amick) in the bar with friends and James Hurley (James Marshall) with shaved head and no doubt still riding his hog, but none of this is satisfying if you are expecting one big happy reunion.

In episode 5 we do see Shelly again and Norma (Peggy Lipton), and they seem closer than ever, but we really don’t get the feel of the Double R (that diner was like the heart and soul of the old show) and the big moment occurs there when Shelly’s daughter Becky (Amanda Seyfried) comes in to make a delivery from the bakery and to beg some money from mom. She goes driving off with her junkie boyfriend (Caleb Landry Jones) who looks like he’s made up to be a zombie on The Walking Dead. Their subsequent dangerous car ride features Becky staring up at the sky in the speeding convertible, and we start wondering if she is just going too closely down the path that Laura Palmer once tread.

Sadly, the old characters are on the periphery (hopefully just for now) while the Good Cooper is returned from the Black Lodge and assuming the identity of a second dopplegänger named Dougie, who is married to the beautiful Janey-E (Naomi Watts). The first dopplegänger is Evil Cooper who has beaten and murdered people before getting an attack just as Good Cooper emerges into the real world, causing him to crash his car and throw up what looks like creamed corn and his stomach lining.

At this point we are not sure where the narrative will take us, but that is why it is helpful to get back to my binge. Besides watching the old series, I also immersed myself in three Lynch films: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Mullholland Drive, and Eraserhead. I actually just finished Fire Walk With Me and, judging from its harrowing and distinctly dismal story, I am thinking that Twin Peaks: The Return is going to be more like it than the old series.

The other two films are not what we traditionally want from movies, at least that is if we want a distinct and linear story and a clear and satisfying conclusion. Mullholland Drive starts off almost like traditional film noir, but it quickly devolves into something unexpected and yet at times wonderful but ultimately depressing. Eraserhead is another matter entirely, starring the late Jack Nance (who would go on to play Pete Martell in the old Twin Peaks) as Spencer in a world that could be right out of the Black Lodge. Here we have a baby that looks like a reptilian and a Lady in the Radiator (don’t ask) that may be a distant relation of the Log Lady.

What I got from watching these Lynch’s films and the old Twin Peaks is not only a headache (from thinking too deeply) but also a handle on what is happening now in Twin Peaks: The Return. Instead of expecting the trappings of the old series: Cooper’s chipper attitude, his dictated recordings to Diane, copious cups of black coffee, generous helpings of cherry pie, and the soap opera-ish drama about who is sleeping with whom, we should welcome this new version of the show which is as different as a cell phone is compared to an old rotary dial job.

There are dubious pleasures in the new series, especially the return of Albert Rosenfield (the late Miguel Ferrer) and FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (Lynch himself) as Cooper’s hearing challenged supervisor. When they go to visit Evil Cooper in jail someplace in South Dakota, it is hilarious to see Cole react to this incarnation of Cooper. Later on as Albert and Gordon discuss what happened, the two are well aware something is wrong and mention Blue Rose (a crucial element from Fire Walk With Me), which gets me thinking that connections are going to come that link everything together.

The problem with David Lynch is also a joy, as we expect the unexpected and assume that nothing is insignificant, no matter how tangential it may seem. When Evil Cooper gets his one phone call and pushes buttons that make lights and computers screens flash on and off throughout the whole prison, it could be just a one-time thing or his utterance into the phone “The cow jumped over the moon” may bring hell upon the warden and his guards. We can never know with Lynch and that’s the delight to be found in his work.

On the other side are the fans that want the old Twin Peaks – the Bobby and Shelly and Norma and Big Ed and Ben Horne thinking he was a Confederate general one. They want Audrey flirting with Good Coop and Donna and James kissing in the dark; they want the quirky characters like the Log Lady and Andy and Lucy and Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robie) and Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) with his colored lenses in his glasses.

We do get a Jacoby doing a web show where he rants and raves about things wrong in the world. We get a glimpse of Nadine looking on approvingly and we also see Jerry Horne (Michael Patrick Kelly) having a little weed while enjoying the show. In the end Jacoby shows the shovels he had spray painted gold and is hawking them to be used to shovel the manure – a shot of him standing in excrement is included. Whether this means anything or nothing to the bigger picture cannot be determined at this time, but it may be just a way to check in on some of our old friends.

There are also scenes of Dougie going to work in Las Vegas and having a conflict with a colleague (Tom Sizemore), but certain words like “case files” and “agent” seem to click something in his brain, and he is still drawn to drinking coffee which may be a sign the old Coop is in there just waiting to burst forth. For those viewers who are bothered by this slow transformation process, let’s make it clear that Lynch does not care if you like it or not. For him it’s not arriving that matters but getting there.

Earlier we saw the real Dougie’s hooker/friend (Nafessa Williams) find Cooper’s old The Great Northern Hotel key in her car and deposit it into a mailbox. That act will no doubt be important, perhaps just as important as FBI Agent Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell) noticing that Evil Coop and Good Coop’s fingerprints don’t exactly match. Or maybe that box in Buenos Aires that may be in the office of Phillip Jeffries (the late David Bowie) who disappeared in that city will turn out to be crucial since it crumples into a little chunk after Evil Cooper’s cryptic call. There is just no way of knowing what will happen with Lynch – think Spencer and the Lady in the Radiator at the end of Eraserhead. What we see as a happy ending is not Lynch’s definition of it. 

So, after watching the films and the old series, I would say Good Cooper is right where he needs to be right now – staring at a statue outside the office building and holding those case files. How he gets back to being the real Dale Cooper shouldn’t be exasperating but part of the experience. And, perhaps, Dougie never becomes the real Good Cooper again just as Don Draper in Mad Men never became Dick Whitman again. What we want for Cooper is to be the effervescent FBI agent drinking a cup of black coffee with a grin and giving a thumbs up, but that Cooper may never return, and for now I am okay with that because Lynch is giving me something I haven’t had in a long time – a TV show that is unpredictable and volatile morass where anything can happen.

I am looking forward to jumping on board for the next 13 episodes for the ride even though I have no idea where I am going because with Lynch it is all about the journey – one I wish would not end. Man, I am just loving this series!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Hate Crime Committed Against LeBron James – A Teachable Moment for Us All

On the basketball court he is king – LeBron James is arguably the best player in the history of the National Basketball Association. While some people will talk about the accomplishments of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, LeBron rises above them and the rest in his ability to guide a team to victory through the power of his performance and personality. Currently, he is perhaps the greatest athlete in American sports and one of the most recognizable persons in the world.

Sadly, despite all his success and fame, there are some who will not appreciate him because of his race. The vandalism of LeBron’s Los Angeles home was bad enough, but the perpetrators also painted the N-word on his front gate. This reprehensible act rises to the level of a hate crime, and the LAPD is investigating it as such. This may seem inconceivable to some in 2017, but many people realize that race is a factor in their daily lives and that prejudice is something that has not gone away.

For the sports fans who idolize LeBron, this may seem impossible to rationalize or understand. More importantly, for the children who are basketball fans and follow their favorite basketball player, they are left wondering what is wrong with the world. That is why this situation cannot be allowed to be just let go – it is a teachable moment for us all, but especially for the kids.

LeBron has reacted with the dignity and honesty to what happened to his home, which is not his primary residence. While explaining that his family is safe and that is most important, LeBron said, “But it just goes to show that racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America. Hate in America, especially for African-Americans is living every day. Even though that it's concealed most of the time, even though people hide their faces and will say things about you, and then when they see you they smile in your face. It's alive every single day."

Coming from one of the greatest sports figures this country has ever known, this is a powerful indictment of a society that has not evolved as much as many of us wanted to believe. With all the efforts of educators to teach the darkness of slavery and its ugly legacy, we have still not done enough. The lessons of the Civil Rights Movement and the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echo across the decades, but they are still not enough. Even the election of an African-American as President of the United States has not been enough – and Barack Obama was certainly also a target of hate due to the color of his skin. Racism keeps rearing its hideous head, and this time as we witness it once again in the attack on LeBron James’s home.

LeBron went on to say, “No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough. And we've got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America.”

Although he spoke eloquently, LeBron’s words will not be enough, but they should be heeded. By speaking out before the NBA Finals, LeBron is using one of the biggest sporting events of the year to highlight the disparity that still exists in our country. The social inequity that he has cited must be condemned and all Americans must rise to the challenge to make every effort to bring about necessary and compelling change to our nation.

So, yes, this is a teachable moment for us all – teachers, parents, and their children. Instead of ignoring the matter as it often has been ignored because it makes people uncomfortable, we must address the issue of race in America and maybe experience a good deal of discomfort along the way until significant progress is achieved.

Dr. King once said he looked forward to the day when his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 54 years after he uttered those words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, it is obvious we have not reached that place Dr. King sought – at least not yet. We owe it to our children and our children’s children to make Dr. King’s dream a reality, and we can only procure such a world for them through a concerted effort that does not begin tomorrow or next week but today!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

TV Review: Twin Peaks: The Return – Is It Future or Is It Past?

The past is not dead; it’s not even past.
-William Faulkner

* There are some spoilers in this review.

As I watched and re-watched the first two episodes of series creators Mark Frost and David Lynch’s surreal, stunning, and sensational Showtime reboot of Twin Peaks, I kept thinking of Faulkner’s words and the feeling of being between two (or more worlds). In a telling moment in the Red Room the One-Armed Man (Al Strobel) asks “Is it future or is it past?” and we have no idea what the answer could be. There is a sense of familiarity that is jarred by the reality that time and space have taken us far but never away from this narrative and these wonderfully odd, strange, and grim characters that inhabit it.

Twin Peaks: The Return is more than a reboot and beyond a season three, so much so that it is hard to categorize it other than it seems to be an extension of a story that needed to still be told – Lynch himself has said as much. And for we fans of the original series who savored the two seasons we were given (yes, the end of season two took its toll and only we truly loyal fans hung in there), we knew there had to be more than that horrific ending when Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) smashed his head against the mirror and saw the image of the savage killer Bob (the late Frank Silva) in the shattered glass.

We have been waiting all these years, and now the story unwinds slowly, like jagged yet beautiful bloody shards of that mirror floating across the years and coming back together gradually to fit together like razor-sharp puzzle pieces that may finally give us the answers we have been long awaiting.

There is so much going on in these first two episodes (which really just run together as one whole) that much of what happens seems like spoiler territory; however, the events that happen are just seedlings that are being sown masterfully by Lynch (who directed these two and all 18 episodes of the series) in his chaotic, gradual, procedural, and surreal style that is so jarring and yet so welcome. Damn, I missed feeling this overwhelmed, intrigued, and frustrated watching TV for too long (26 years to be exact).

Hearing people talk about the series since the premier on Sunday, the watercooler buzz has been that Frost and Lynch borrowed from Lost, Stranger Things, Fargo, and True Detective, but I was quick to point out the truth is that those series borrowed from what Lynch had done so long ago in the original series, which was more than ground-breaking and as I recall a game changer for television shows. People were like “You can’t do that on television” and Frost and Lynch just said, “Oh, yes we can.”

I must note that I was hooked from the very first episode of Twin Peaks back in season one. I recall never being so intrigued, disturbed, confused, and delighted while watching a TV show. The dismal beauty that Lynch brought to life had the amazing ability to make me feel totally lost but to a point that I somehow felt powerfully found. Happily, I have all the same feelings again as I am watching this new incarnation, and the nostalgic factor is compelling but subsumed by the notion that Lynch is making something old new again.

Many interesting choices are made to get us back into the world of Agent Cooper, and we begin with one of the most essential characters – the one around whom the first two seasons revolved – Laura Palmer (the still stunningly beautiful Sheryl Lee). First, we see the young Laura with Cooper at the Black Lodge in the Red Room – this is an alternate reality – and she tells Cooper that she will see him in 25 years.

Amazingly that scene is from the original series, and now just around 25 years later we are here again. An older Laura enters the Red Room wearing a long black dress and walking stiffly to the sound of what seems like a record being pushed backwards. This odd effect is appropriately unsettling. Cooper stares at her in disbelief because he (and we) know she was murdered more than a quarter of a century ago. Laura tells him, “I am dead, yet I live.” After a brief kiss, Laura is sucked out of the room screaming all the way, lost to Cooper once more, and later an image of her father Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) appears and tells Cooper, “Find Laura.” And I’m thinking, “Is it all going to revolve around Laura again?”

We also get a black and white scene with the Giant (Carel Struycken) who seems even more ominous aged; he still is offering Cooper information that we need subtitles to understand, but we still cannot be sure about what it all actually means. Later in color we see Cooper in the Red Room again, and the One-Armed Man is there and shows him that the dancing dwarf (Michael J. Anderson) has somehow become a brain stuck on a bare-limbed tree. The Brain reminds Cooper of his doppelgänger (the Evil Cooper possessed by Bob) and that Good Cooper can only leave the Red Room if Evil Cooper comes back in.

Evil Cooper is not quite a sight for sore eyes. Complete with long hair, spray suntan, a menacing expression, and clad in leather, EC looks like he escaped from an ‘80s rock band video. Now EC is driving hot cars, sleeping with hot girls like Darya (Nicole LaLiberte) and Chantal (Jennifer Jason Leigh) while also killing people in cold blood. Evil Cooper has a plan and seems to be on an inevitable collision course with Good Cooper as he embarks upon a trip with sinister intentions.

We do get glimpses of old characters we are happy to see back, even if it seems that they appear so briefly. While it is good to see these Twin Peak residents – Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn), Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), his brother Jerry (David Patrick Kelly), ditzy Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) and her Andy (Harry Goaz), waitress Shelly (Mädchen Amick), Laura’s mother Sarah (Grace Zabriske), James Hurley (James Marshall), and Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) – the most welcome face is the Log Lady (deceased Catherine E. Coulson) who is now depicted as quite frail and using an oxygen tank but still holding her trusty log.

Log Lady’s interaction (so far) is only with Hawk over the phone and it has to do with Agent Cooper. She tells Hawk “Something is missing” and then Hawk proceeds to go deep into the dark forest in an nerve-wracking scene that turns up something that may or may not be a way to get Cooper home.

Besides these familiar faces, there are other narratives interwoven into the episodes that are intriguing and haunting. One involves Scream star Matthew Lillard who plays respected high school principal Bill Hastings who lives in Buckhorn, South Dakota, and is being accused of murdering the school’s librarian Ruth (Emily Stofle) because his fingerprints are all over her apartment. He claims to be innocent and tells his wife Phyllis (Cornelia Guest) he “dreamed” it, just like Leland Palmer who didn’t know he was possessed by Bob and killed his daughter Laura; I have a feeling old Bill is in for a rude awakening.

Another of these new narratives involves a seemingly unoccupied luxury apartment in a New York City skyscraper where a glass cube is affixed to the wall with a portal that opens up to a view of the city. In this room on a comfortable sofa a young man (Ben Rosenfield) sits and watches the empty cube as he records it on cameras. A pretty young woman named Tracey (Madeline Zima) comes baring lattes but wants to get romantic on that sofa. When something dark and foreboding enters that cube, it looks like their erotic interlude is over and then some.

How all these seedlings will grow and intertwine cannot be determined yet, but that has always been the awesome draw of Twin Peaks – we don't know where we are going, we don’t know how we’re getting there, and we don’t know if we will even arrive, but we joyfully take the trip anyway.

Along with Frost and Lynch putting all their touches on the narrative and the visuals (now greatly enhanced with CGI especially in the Red Room scenes), we get Angelo Badalamenti’s music, including the haunting score that accompanies the opening credits – its deceptively simple but evocative strains still make me shiver as I feel myself entering a place I’m not supposed to be but have no choice but to enter.

The first two hours end with us back in The Bang Bang Bar where Shelly and her friends are partying just like it’s 1991. We go out with the slightly eerie and dreamlike song “Shadow” performed by The Chromatics, with lyrics like “I took your picture from the frame/And now you are nothing how you seemed” reminding me of that chilling photo of murdered homecoming queen Laura Palmer, whose death started this narrative 27 years ago.

Twin Peaks: The Return has me hooked just as the original did, so I am in all the way to the end. I may not know what is happening at times, but I am enjoying the hell out of this series, and ignorance has never felt more like bliss.