How, exactly, does one begin to process all this?

The only way one can, I suppose — one scene, one instance, one moment at a time.

After all, it’s been 25 years and,  despite Laura Palmer’s promise, until it was first cryptically hinted at via twitter, then officially announced what already feels like countless months ago, I think it’s fairly safe to say that none of us thought this would happen. And yet, happening it is — “again,” as its promotional materials point out. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks has, indeed, returned to television. And it’s been a “pinch yourself to make sure it’s real” night all the way.

Damn, but they did a good job of keeping all the details under wraps, didn’t they? In a world where the president of the United States feels compelled to spill classified info to the Russians in order to prove his dick still works (and that Mr. Putin’s money was well spent), it may be hard to believe that anyone can keep a secret anymore, but up until that red carpet (or should that be Red Room?) Hollywood screening the other night, nobody beyond the principals involved had any idea what was in store for us. No leaked scripts or rough-cuts or dailies. No wayward comments during interviews that hinted at just a little too much. Nothing. We went into this one as blind as we all did — scratch that, as those of us who were around did — when the original Twin Peaks first aired on ABC way back in 1990.

The fair question to ask, then, after all this time — is this even the same show?

Well, yes and no. In much the same way that the maligned-at-the-time-but-celebrated-now “prequel” film, Twin Peaks : Fire Walk With Me marked a distinct tonal change from its small-screen progenitor, Twin Peaks circa 2017 both looks and feels entirely different than each of its forebears, and that’s as it should be : technology has moved on (this one’s shot in HD by the great Peter Deming), actors have aged, the budget’s bigger (Lynch having temporarily abandoned the project — God, remember that? — when it wasn’t), and being on Showtime means you can show tits, ass, blood, and viscera — all of which are reasonably well-represented in the two “part” (don’t call ’em episodes!) premiere “event” that just finished airing.

And yet those are all superficial changes. What strikes me as the greatest departure of all is the overall shift toward a slower, more measured, and decidedly more somber brand of storytelling than us old-time fans may be  accustomed to. The pacing of these first two parts is more akin to Lynch’s still-criminally-underappreciated Lost Highway than it is to “old-school” Twin Peaks, each rather lengthy scene dripping with both import and inherent tension in a way that simply can’t be faked. As we progress from Red Room/Black Lodge to the town of Twin Peaks “proper” to New York City to Buckhorn, South Dakota — and back, in turn, to each again, at least once — the daily minutiae of the various fictitious “lives” on display is given more-than-ample breathing space, and seemingly “unimportant” events, such as setting up an array of video cameras or waiting for someone to come to the door, play out very nearly in real time. This is, I admit, something that takes some getting used to — particularly as far as the scenes with the dude in New York who’s hired to observe a seemingly empty glass box go — but it ensures that when things do happen, they pack an enormous wallop. I’d tell you to ask that kid in the Big Apple I just mentioned, but alas, he’s in no shape to answer questions right now.

Death is, in fact, a constant specter hanging over the proceedings here — the inimitable Catherine E. Coulson, better known as “The Log Lady,” gives a heart-wrenching performance shot shortly before her demise that bravely incorporates aspects of her own illness; David Bowie’s Phillip Jeffries and Don S. Davis’ Major Garland Briggs both play significant roles by way of mere mention in the same scene; the late Miguel Ferrer will be along before too long — and, of course, there’s Laura Palmer. There’s always Laura Palmer. Is she alive? Is she dead? Is she both and neither at the same time? Actress Sherly Lee is shown as having aged naturally, and when she finally plants a kiss on Agent Cooper’s lips it consummates what for many of us was the real, if entirely unspoken, love story at the heart of Twin Peaks as we knew it — but then she undergoes a transformation that further reinforces the idea that this isn’t, nor will it be, the Twin Peaks we thought we knew at all.

Except, of course, when it is. Paradoxically, the “unreal” world of the Red Room is where we find the most familiar faces — The Giant (Carel Struycken) kicks off the nostalgia parade followed in short order by Laura, Philip Gerard, the one-armed man (Al Strobel) — hell, even Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) turns up eventually. Change, evolution, and metamorphosis seems to be the through-line connecting all that goes on/has gone on beyond the scarlet-colored veil — exemplified most noticeably by “The Arm” (which sure ain’t an arm anymore) — so be forewarned :  if you thought that time stood still for anybody trapped in this parallel (un?)reality, think again.

And that seems doubly true for Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper, who’s apparently spent the better part of the past quarter-century sitting in the same chair. Or at least one of him has — his “BOB”-possessed doppleganger, last seen bleeding from the forehead and saying “How’s Annie?” over and over again front of a broken mirror, is busy raising all kinds of hell on our side of the dimensional divide, and his story provides the nearest thing to a straightforward and completely accessible plotline so far. That doesn’t mean we know where things are headed for him yet — not by any stretch — but his motivations are clearly spelled out in a way that little else here is, and MacLachlan just plain acts his ass off in this starkly uncharacteristic role. He even goes toe-to-toe with the great Jennifer Jason Leigh (his head and hands, mind you, being at entirely different level vis-a-vis her form) and dominates the screen to the point where you do a hey “hey, wait, isn’t that—?”-style double-take after she first makes her appearance. Put simply, he’s real good at being real bad.

My theory — and keep in mind, it’s only a theory — is that the emergence of “BOB” into our world via Doppleganger Dale is going to prove to have been the catalyst for a sort of “overall darkening” that’s taken place. Ya see,  2017 Twin Peaks, at least to date, seems to exhibit almost none of the charming quirkiness that endeared so many to the show last time around, the noble-but-brief efforts of Lucy Moran (Kimmy Robertson), Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz), and Horne brothers (blink and you’ll miss Ashley Judd as their new secretary) Ben (Richard Beymer) and Jerry (David Patrcik Kelly) notwithstanding — and in its place we have a town where the mill stands in ruin, Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) orders heavy equipment for a paranoia-fueled secret project deep in the woods, neither of the Sheriffs Truman (could a surprise appearance from Michael Ontkean at some point down the road be this series’ best-kept secret of all?) bother to show up for work, and Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) has graduated from “Invitation To Love” to graphic, “law of the jungle” nature documentaries. The ever-noble Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) seems, as ever, to be the only one who just might have at least an intuitive understanding of what’s going on, but to this viewer, at least, it seems pretty clear that somewhere along the way, something went seriously wrong.

And yet, just when all seems ireevocably lost, we’re treated to a final scene at the “Bang Bang Bar” roadhouse, where Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz) still tends bar, Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick) still drinks and gossips with her girlfriends, James Hurley (James Marshall) still stops in for a beer, and the nearest thing to a young version of Julee Cruise sings on stage. It’s all wrapped in a wistful, nostalgic glow that Lynch delivers with something akin to what I can only, and no doubt inadequately, describe as beauty tinged with sadness, and for those who were feeling out of their depth and/or comfort zones in the first hour-and-forty-five, it’ll most likely reel ’em back in — snap! — just like that.

As a study in contrasts, then — both with its previous version and, most interesintgly, with itself — the first two parts of Twin Peaks 2017 border on the downright breathtaking. Whether we’re looking at a grisly (to put it mildly) quasi-ritualistic murder scene in South Dakota, watching the black-and-white flooring of the Red Room shift, rise, and fall, seeing “Bad Dale” drive a muscle car in the middle of the night, or even just staring into that (usually) empty glass box again, it’s impossible to turn away. Joe Bob Briggs once said that  the cardinal rule for what makes a great drive-in movie is knowing that “anyone can die at any time” — Lynch and Frost one-up that here, though, by giving us a show where anything can happen at any time.

It’s happening again, indeed — and for the very first time.

 

Another new one for Graphic Policy website —

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A couple of years back, the cartoonist formerly known as Al Frank, new moniker of Casanova Frankenstein in tow, burst back onto the alternative/independent/underground scene with the sixth issue of his long-dormant (how long? Try two decades) series The Adventures Of Tad Martin, and my mind was flat-out blown. A harrowing, brutally honest, emotionally naked, scream-from-the-gut autobiographical tale of the hellishly bad marriage, drug addiction, health problems, and psychological issues that had consumed his life in then-recent years, drawn with anything that was handy on anything that was handy (mostly composition book pages, but restaurant guest checks, napkins, and even the back of prescription labels would do in a pinch), it did considerably more than scratch the itch many of us had been suffering from for years with the absence of new autobio material from masters of the form such as Chester BrownJoe Matt

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Review : “Luke Cage” #1

Posted: May 21, 2017 in comics

My latest review for Graphic Policy website —

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Like a good number of folks, I was sorely disappointed when Marvel Comics decided to pull the plug on David F. Walker and Sanford Greene‘s superb Power Man And Iron Fist series after an all-too-brief run, but at today’s “Hollywood First, Comics Second” iteration of the so-called “House Of Ideas,” I guess it was too be expected — after all, Luke and Danny both have “stand-alone” series going on at Netflix, and are apparently only “allowed” to team up as part of the forthcoming The Defenders, so it only stands to reason that the same set-up would would be making its way over to the printed page. On the plus side, Walker is still writing the new solo Luke Cage book, but still — you knew damn well going in that the light-hearted, comedic tone of PMIF would probably go by the wayside in favor of a more…

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Sufficiently convinced that I had a solid handle handle on the oeuvre of no-budget UK filmmaker Richard Mansfield thanks to his decidedly lackluster 2014 effort The Mothman Curse, I nonetheless decided that my constitution was probably resolute enough to handle at least one more product of his imagination, so a mere 24 (or so) hours later, I logged onto Amazon Prime and, noticing that his latest, 2017’s The Demonic Tapes (also, it would seem, streaming in some markets under the title of Fright Christmas — though at least, as of yet, not available on Blu-ray or DVD with either name attached to it) was right near the top of the “recently added” horror queue, rather reluctantly pressed that little “play” arrow and hoped for the best. Or at least for better.

The story in this lean (as in 71 minutes) number, reportedly made for the princely sum of four hundred pounds, focuses on an unnamed man (portrayed by one Darren Munn) who, alone for Christmas, decided to force some holiday “cheer” upon his home by digging out the old artificial tree from the basement, only to have his attention diverted by a dusty old box he finds down there that seems to have faint,almost moaning, noises coming from it. Who can resist a find like that, right?

The box contains an old-school dictaphone machine and a bunch of micro-cassettes, and of course he listens to them, only to become immersed in a tale of supernatural intrigue relayed by semi-renowned London-area psychic medium Claire Reynolds (played/voiced by Alice Keedwell, who actually does double duty here as — well, more on that it a minute), who has quite a story to tell even though she’s dead  — a yarn about a spooky and vengeful entity known only as “Mr. Sheets” who, as luck would have it,  just happened to be haunting our nameless protagonist’s very own house way back in the hazy past of 2003. And at Christmas time, no less!

A return visit is no doubt in order — ghosts, as a general rule, tend to show up whenever somebody’s investigating them — but he kind of keeps to a safe distance until our “hero” decides to track down Claire’s identical twin sister, Sarah, who warns him to give the whole thing up and maybe find himself a new place to live while he’s at it. He does neither, of course — we wouldn’t have much of a movie otherwise — and that’s when Mr. Sheets (who is, quite literally, a dude wrapped in a bedsheet) decides he’d better make his move and get this nosy bastard out of the picture for good.

Folks who’ve read my review of The Mothman Curse — or, even worse, actually seen the flick — will undoubtedly spot more than a few plot similarities between that earlier movie and this one, but the good news is that this flick is far more successful when it comes to exploiting admittedly age-old horror standards. Mr. Sheets is surpsingly creepy in his utter simplicity, he comes and goes with suitably-staged mysteriousness, and Mansfield seems to have developed a solid handle on when and how to deploy his necessarily-minimal array of sound effects in a manner that accentuates the understated power of his visuals. Competent-bordering-on-good performances from his tiny, and quite obviously amateur, cast make The Demonic Tapes a far more watchable affair than its predecessor, it’s true, but it’s our writer/director’s much more confident approach to his craft on a stylistic level that makes the greatest difference here. We’re still dealing with a fairly basic, even time-worn, premise this time around, sure, but the “art-house movie minus the resources” aesthetic that Mansfield seemed to at least be trying to go for earlier is something that he actually achieves this time around, and the end result, while far from revelatory, is a well-worth-your-time ghost story that might even freak you out on occasion.

I guess the lesson here, then, is never give up on even the most seemingly-hopeless micro-budget horror director. Richard Mansfield circa 2014 looked like a guy who would be better off hanging up his hand-held camera and seeing if the local hardware store was hiring. Richard Mansfield circa 2017, by contrast, looks very much like a guy who just might have a bright future in this business after all.

The name Richard Mansfield is not, I would assume, one known to very many, but I’d been hearing a little bit here and there over the past few years about this UK-based “micro-budget” writer/director and his production outfit, Mansfield Dark Productions, from fellow aficionados of cash-strapped filmmaking,  so when I noticed that a number of his flicks were available for streaming on Amazon Prime, I thought I’d give at least one of ’em a go and see what the less-than-buzz was all about. As it turns out, I ended up watching two, but we’ll get to the other one in our next review. First up : 2014’s The Mothman Curse.

Looking every bit like the one-thousand-pound (reportedly) production it is, this “supernatural thriller” certainly bases its entire shtick on the tropes one is used to from the “found footage” sub-genre, but can’t be fairly said to fit into said “family” of films in and of itself — it just looks, feels, sounds, and essentially plays out like one.

Cue lots of hand-held “shaky cam,” wildly varying sound levels, grainy-ass “night vision,” and wooden, amateurish acting. And yet Mansfield, no doubt forced to go with a “low-fi” vibe by dint of sheer necessity, doesn’t for one minute sell this as being a “mockumentary” of any sort. The story of overnight museum workers Rachel (played by Rachel Dale) and Katy (brought to “life” by Katy Vans) even, and obviously, plays the old “give characters the same name as the actors portraying them” card, but at no point are we told that they went missing and these tapes are all that was found to provide clues as to their disappearance, etc. In fact, the plot is pretty straight-line-from-A-to-B stuff. Purportedly living in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, they’ve heard tell of the so-called “Mothman,” of course — as have we all by this point — but when they begin to notice a strange and enigmatic shape out of the corners of their eyes with greater and greater frequency, they decide to to do a good and proper “deep dive” of research into the phenomenon, which apparently raises their would-be antagonist’s hackles, because he starts to make his presence more directly felt (and eventually seen) by means of crawling quickly across the ground, knocking on doors and then promptly running away, all that good stuff. He’s onto them, goddamnit, but he’s going to take his time and drive them crazy with paranoia and fear before moving in for the kill, ‘cuz that’s what spooky creatures like him do.

Shot almost entirely in black and white (with a bit of green here and there to denote when the lights have gone out), Mansfield seems to want to convince you that he’s making some kind of “art-house” flick here rather than just a cheap one, but he doesn’t strike a very convincing stylistic pose as far as that goes — I don’t know if the DVD iteration of this film available from Wild Eye Releasing features a commentary track or not, but if it does, I’d be curious to see how far he goes toward explaining/justifying this aesthetic. To me, it just looks like what we’ve got here is a guy doing some on-the-job-training when it comes to  getting the hang of using decade-old technology — which doesn’t preclude him from accidentally nailing a handful of legitimately effective shots — but who knows? Maybe I’m not giving him enough credit for trying to be a stylish visionary with next to nothing at his disposal.

Or, hell, maybe I’m giving him too much by even entertaining the “hey, this is all one purpose” possibility. After all, Mansfield doesn’t seem all that concerned with eliciting decent performances from his two principal leads — or, for that matter, from his small handful of supporting players. The Mothman him/itself is considerably more effectively realized, and the fuzzy image quality helps to no end in that regard given that seeing him clearly would probably show he’s just some dude in a cheap costume, but seriously — nothing else on offer here in terms of production values/quality gives any sort of hint that our cost-conscious autuer has any ambition to punch above his low weight class. The film seems very much resigned to its fate rather than one that looks for creative ways to seem like more than it is.

Pacing is another big problem here — I’m all for a slow burn, absolutely, but is more like a glacial fizz-out. Tectonic plates move more quickly than The Mothman Curse, and deliver considerably more “bang” when they do, finally, shift after millennia. Shit, the actors even speak slowly much of the time, essentially padding out what by all rights should be about a sixty-minute short (-ish) film to a seemingly-interminable 80 minutes, which is barely above the minimum a production can clock in at and still call itself “feature-length” with a straight face.Sure, it seems a lot longer, but this flick wastes time and stretches shit out to a degree that would make even master hustlers like Nick Millard envious.

So, yeah, getting to the end of this one was a rough slog. Watching the flagpole rust is probably a more involving endeavor. But hey — what the hell do I know? Somebody, somewhere, must have liked this, because Mansfield is still at it, presumably — hell, hopefully — honing his craft as he goes along, building a mini-“empire” that, as we’ve already established, at least enough folks are paying attention to in order to keep it going as a viable concern. Our guy Richard may even be pursuing his movie-making career on something resembling a full-time basis by now, in which case more power to ‘im.

Still, from all evidence on offer in The Mothman Curse, I don’t think a sane individual would invest another hour-plus of their existence in another Mansfield production. But a “sane individual” is something no one’s ever accused me of being —

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Near as I can tell, Marvel is doing precisely fuck-all to commemorate the 100th birthday of the man who created pretty much their entire corporate universe, but DC , to their credit (not a phrase you’ll hear coming from my mouth very often) seems to think that a century of Jack Kirby is very much worth celebrating indeed : we’re four issues into the year-long Kamandi Challenge as we speak, the superstar creative team of Tom King and Mitch Gerads has just been announced as helming a forthcoming Mister Miracle revival, and Gerard Way‘s still-nascent (and, to date, uniformly interesting) Young Animal line has now gotten in on the act, as well, with the release of the first issue of the six-part Bug!  : The Adventures Of Forager. Chances are there will be even more to come as the year proceeds, but as far as company-wide love letters…

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Odds are pretty good that the 50%- or- so of my regular readers (not that there’s anything “regular” about any of us, of course!) who speak fluent “comic book-ese” are well aware of the industry’s sorry ethical history, but for the other half who are blissfully unaware of how badly outfits like Marvel and DC have put the screws to the creative geniuses who dreamed up their billion-dollar properties, the reality can be shocking : Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster selling away the rights to Superman in perpetuity for the princely sum of $130 just before they were shipped off to war because they wanted to provide a little something for their families in case they didn’t come back home; Jack Kirby’s struggles just to get back the thousands of pages of original art he drew of the hundreds of characters he invented and his family’s subsequent legal battles after his passing; Steve Ditko living in a shabby apartment above a skid-row thrift store while Spider-Man raked in a fortune — these are just a few of the more obvious and egregious economic injustices that are all too common in comics history. But no list of ignominious funnybook rip-offs is complete without mentioning the saga of Bill Finger.

Who was Bill Finger? Well, according to pretty much every first-hand account of the situation, he was co-creator of arguably the most famous (and profitable) super-hero of them all : Batman. Not that you’d know it by reading the credits in every DC comic published over the last 75 years, though, because according to them, Batman was “created by Bob Kane.” And Bob Kane died a very wealthy man thanks to that little credit line, while Bill Finger passed away in 1974, an anonymous jobbing freelancer living in reduced circumstances who took a secret to his grave that almost no one wanted to hear.

Here’s the thing : almost everything you love about Batman was Finger’s idea. Kane’s original Batman sketch was of a dude in a red costume with stiff bird-like wings and a simple domino mask, but when he turned that sketch over to Finger one fateful weekend and asked him to see what he could do with it, the then-youthful pulp and comics writer let his imagination run wild and came up with the look of the Caped Crusader’s iconic costume, his origin story as a wealthy orphaned youth waging a one-man war on crime, his fictitious home of Gotham City, his world-famous “rogues’ gallery” of villains, his secret identity of Bruce Wayne, his butler Alfred, his sidekick Robin — all fingers point to Finger for pretty much all of that.

Kane was his boss, though, and so he was the guy who ultimately took the idea to National Periodical Publications (now DC), and who subsequently arranged the deal to give himself the sole “by-line” on all Batman comics for decades to come, even though all his scripting chores were “farmed out” to Finger, and in later years much of the art was handled by the likes of legendary illustrators such as Jerry Robinson and Dick Sprang. No matter. As far as the contracts with the publisher were concerned, Kane was doing it all. Even when he was doing almost none of it.

Hard-core fans knew the score, of course, as Finger’s story had been circling around the much-smaller-at-the-time convention and fanzine circuit for years, but the public at large was generally oblivious as to his silent contributions until quite recently. Author Marc Tyler Nobleman, who penned a children’s book entitled Bill : The Boy Wonder, can take a lot of credit for righting this historical wrong, since his dogged research was the “critical mass” ingredient that finally brought about the official recognition that Finger long deserved, but there were a lot of other folks, including Finger’s surviving family, who played a major part in it, as well, and all of their stories are finally given their due, as well, in the new made-for-Hulu documentary Batman & Bill, an intriguing “real-life detective story” from directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce that’s one of the more fascinating films of 2017 so far.

Nobleman is our suburban, middle-class, would-be Phillip Marlowe in this tale, but valuable context is provided by “expert witnesses” such as cult filmmaker/Bat-fanatic Kevin Smith, Hollywood producer/longtime fan Michael Uslan, Kane biographer Thomas Andrae, and my friend, noted comics historian Arlen Schumer, all of whom assist in laying out the basics of the “case” while our de facto “protagonist” does the legwork that eventually leads to the unearthing of a previously-unknown Bat-heir — Finger’s granddaughter, Athena, whose emergence onto the “scene” opens the legal floodgates that will eventually lead to “Batman created by Bob Kane withe Bill Finger” appearing on all comics, films, TV shows, cartoons, etc. featuring the Dark Knight.

If all of this sounds more than a little bit like a largely academic dispute among a marginal community of people with nothing better to do with their time, rest assured that Batman & Bill is constructed in such an engaging and accessible manner that even somebody who’s never seen a Bat-flick or a read a Bat-comic will find themselves inexorably drawn into the web of intrigue that Argott and Joyce expertly weave, and while Finger is long gone and obviously not able to speak for himself, the sincerity and earnestness with which others are able to speak for him paints a reasonably complete and consistently fascinating picture of the man who made Batman everything he ultimately became. If you like a good mystery, or a classic “underdog” story, or even a human-interest “docudrama,” then trust me when I say that you’ll find plenty to satisfy whet your cinematic whistle here.

Perhaps the best thing Batman & Bill has going for it, though, is that at the end of the day it’s that rarest of beasts : a truly inspirational tale of how one man’s sheer bloody-mindedness can galvanize others around him who have the power to effect change to do precisely that. Bill Finger may have been the unknown hero behind the hero everyone knows, but it took the work of a number of subsequent heroes to let the world know that. We should be thankful for each and every one of them, as well as the remarkable documentarians who recognized in their story so many essential human truths that we can all relate to.