All posts by tfuglei

A Quiet Place

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By his own admission, John Krasinski isn’t a “horror guy.”  The affable paper product salesman from The Office expanded his repertoire to include an ecology-centric drama with Matt Damon and some gun toting military hagiography for Michael Bay, but to think of him as the mastermind behind what may well be the year’s best horror thriller was a stretch, even for he himself to believe.  However, the actor went through a life altering event that’s speared hearts with existential dread throughout history:  He became a parent.  Every mother and father knows the many joyous moments of having children are also spiked with a multitude of anxieties and fears.  Their health, safety, and future are all perilously stacked in your lap, and when they’re grown you may come to discover all your efforts preparing them to stand on their own two feet are futile in the face of a harsh world.  Krasinski wrapped these sensations together into a small, simple and striking monster movie concept to deliver A Quiet Place, which like recent predecessors from new horror directors such as It Follows and Get Out, sticks a very harsh landing in its own right.

As effective as those two films were in delivering slow build creeps and racial justice messaging, respectively, neither put you on the edge of your seat the way A Quiet Place does.  With its sterling sound design and lengthy passages of a family needing to make next to no noise in order to survive, the film draws a silent theater audience inside its world to an almost unnatural degree.  I guarantee it’s a shared experience at the movies unlike any other, and in many respects is more immersive than a big budget 3D IMAX affair.  Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen grabs us and holds us with plenty of closeups.  And the cast, led by Director Krasinski and wife Emily Blunt, are as steadfast and sympathetic as you can imagine.  They lead a nuclear family through a monster filled wasteland, where ropy menaces that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Stranger Things come running—very, very quickly—at any significant sound.  Their lethality is established early, and while our heroes are granted a variety of dialogue filled moments, the creatures are never far away and always on the hunt.

For a young filmmaker who professes neophyte status in the genre, Krasinski certainly builds a thrill delivery device with seeming ease.  He draws us into this menacing little universe in no small part by focusing on what planted the germ of the concept in the first place, family.  The parents and children teeter between functioning at a high level considering the circumstances and being obliterated in mere seconds throughout the film, as the elders try their best to impart the smarts and sense to their children necessary to survive beyond them.  It’s a quick, easy and utterly effective metaphor, bundling every danger that could befall your child into a species of predator that can pop into their lives and end them at any moment.  Is this broad concept new to horror?  Of course not.  But adding the tweak of silence and a bevy of good acting makes A Quiet Place one of the most intense movies to come along in years.  Internet scolds may pick and pry at the edges of the film’s logistics here and there, yet the dark, pulse pounding movie magic cast throughout this thriller is strong.

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Ready Player One

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Ernest Cline’s 2012 novel Ready Player One has been dividing geek fandom since it hit the stands; for some it’s a delightful menagerie of 80s pop culture, and for others it’s warmed over name dropping with little originality.  The book is actually somewhere in the middle, a decent concept in these increasingly virtualized times that often lacked compelling characters and followed the pat three act arc so closely it’s got a magical cyber key to demarcate each one.  Cline received a rare blessing indeed when Steven Speilberg’s schedule actually lined up to allow his directorial involvement with the project to go forward, and we the audience are now treated to more than a few dollops of nostalgia mixed in with whip-crack visuals and a streamlined adventure fable that will inspire more than a few ear to ear grins.

Credit is due to Cline and co-screenwriter Zak Penn as well; digging through the variety of movies, characters and music the considerable Time Warner archive has to offer, they’ve swapped out a majority of the book’s references for new ones, completely trashed entire quests in favor of newer and better ones, and even managed to make the central love story pop—certainly moreso than it did on the page.  A game cast spends the majority of its facetime behind motion captured avatars, but in the real world (a surprisingly small-feeling backlot set of dirty streets and the offices of Corporate Evil Personified) we enjoy our time with the likes of Olivia Cook as the plucky Samantha and Ben Mendhelsohn, well on his way to being cast as the villain in every film from here on out.  New additions include TJ Miller’s alternately ominous and hilarious virtual henchman and Hannah John-Kamen as the IRL enforcer.  Our main hero, Parzival/Wade, isn’t much more than a video game hero writ large himself, but there’s more than enough going on at all times that we never feel too cheated by a fairly two dimensional lead. Readers of the source material who feel out of sorts after the significant changes to the early missions will be comforted by the spectacular finale, which keeps the important bits from the book and adds a few delights on top.

Spielberg injects just enough heart and soul into Ready Player One to make it the rarest of birds, a film adaptation that improves upon the book in any number of ways.  As an architect of much of the cultural magic that the book celebrated, he seems a natural choice, but in fact it’s his longstanding mastery of the mass entertainment that makes him the perfect fit.  He knows where to drop a joke, how to make use of a Hollywood classic or two, and when to keep things moving forward almost despite the digital barrage of characters and action swirling around every inch of the frame.  Cline’s been writing a sequel that no doubt will give another filmmaker the opportunity to step into this playland in a few years, but I’ll be surprised if it lives up to the gleeful ride Spielberg and his cohorts have cooked up here.

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Black Panther

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Shoehorned into an already well stuffed Marvel sequel (and…let’s do Giant Man!) in the successful Captain America franchise was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it origin story for T’Challa, better known to fans as The Black Panther.  A marvelous mid 60s creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, this hero defined aspirational black culture—a king from the fictional African country of Wakanda, rich enough in natural resources and groundbreaking technology that the influence of the white western world was not only unnecessary, but actively avoided.  Despite the rush job in Civil War, that film did a fairly good job of introducing Chadwick Boseman in the role, giving him a tragedy to rise above and an enemy to vanquish.  Considering the popular reaction to the character and an increasingly diverse Hollywood, it makes perfect sense that the Marvel Machine would give Black Panther his own film.  The biggest questions for the production probably revolve around how well such a film would balance action movie hijinks with themes of racial justice and history;  I’m glad to report that Boseman, director Ryan Coogler and an extremely talented cast of supporting characters storm through thrilling paces and deftly deal with a variety of elephants in the room using equal parts style, humor, character and heart.

Boseman, coming off an underappreciated turn in last year’s Marshall, has quickly joined his DNA with that of the Wakandan king and protector.  He strikes a perfect balance between heroic swagger and humble duty to his people, and as noted early and shown often, it’s a tough job that will take more than birthright to master.  He’s aided by a cadre of magnificent women, a sister, a lover and a lieutenant who exhibit mastery in their respective fields of science, spycraft and soldiering.  There’s an ongoing debate over what kind of role in the world a hyper advanced but secretive nation should play, which along with many nice touches including but not limited to some fun tech upgrades (this is Marvel, after all) to T’Challa’s classic costume end up serving as subtle but overarching metaphors on race and society, both from the past and very much today.  This leads to one of the best-conceived and executed villains of the MCU, Killmonger, played with anger and menace by Michael B. Jordan as the natural corollary to T’Challa’s thoughtful grace.  All heroes must pass a variety of trials by fire, and Killmonger brings both physical and spiritual obstacles to batter our protagonist with that truly lead to a transformative character arc while illustrating several complicated dichotomies between the foes.  The rest of the players involved soar—even Martin Freeman as the overwhelmed CIA operative Everett Ross gets some heroic notes—and by the time the dust has settled, we’re staring at what may become one of the most popular Marvel heroes to ever splash across the silver screen.  As names like Hemsworth, Downey Jr. and Evans age/expense out of their seemingly iconic roles, Boseman and a few other young upstarts appear to be more than ready to take on whatever challenges Marvel Studios cook up for their ever-expanding fictional universe.

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The Greatest Showman

 

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Critics and audiences alike embraced Hugh Jackman’s R-rated finale (we’ll see about that) as the Wolverine character earlier this year in the highly successful Logan, but I have little doubt the star was more excited about the release of his light-as-a-feather biopic musical of Phineas T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman.  The X-Men made him a star, a franchise player and no doubt a millionaire many times over, but Jackman’s always wanted to sing and dance his way into your heart, not stab his adamantium claws through it.  A longtime stage performer, he lent his star power to the immediately cancelled Viva Laughlin television series—apparently viewers weren’t ready for a Vegas-set musical weekly in 2007—and found Oscar nomination glory belting out Jean Valjean’s songs in Les Miserables.  It’s no surprise, then, that he’d gladly jump into this role, a modestly budgeted tale about the birth of the best known circus and its risk taking founder.  Whether or not it works probably depends entirely on how open the particular heart in the theater seat is to the musical form itself.

To those who peruse the genre with regularity, there won’t be too many surprises here.  A plucky American myth about a poor kid turning his dreams into reality and riches, set to regular breaks into song with lavish attention paid to costume, set, lighting and choreography throughout, The Greatest Showman checks the boxes like clockwork.  The music itself reminds one less of Rent or Hamilton than Katy Perry; syrupy inspirational pop that reinforces the easy ideals of belief in oneself, true love, overcoming obstacles, etc.  In other words, the music of the musical, sadly, isn’t one of its high points.  That said, each sequence is lovingly conceived and shot by special effects coordinator turned director Michael Gracey, and the dance sequences are anywhere from solid to spectacular depending on the given number.  The cast isn’t given anything groundbreaking or unpredictable to do, but seem to get caught up in fearless leader Jackman’s clear enthusiasm for the project, so there’s a genuine spring in most everyone’s steps even as we’re moved dutifully through the rise, fall, and of course rise again of the titular character.  Every time Barnum is about to turn to complete narcissism, a vibrant new musical sequence or grounding romantic interlude with steadfast wife Charity (Michelle Williams) pops up to remind us that we, too, love this scallywag.

Before I make it sound like The Greatest Showman is barely more than a brightly colored candy wrapper ready to blow away in the wind, it should be mentioned that the film has a bit more to say than white guys in America really can make it after all.  As long as you’re not looking for anything approaching a docudrama recounting Barnum’s original “employees” being purchased slaves, or a deeper exploration of the exploitation weaved throughout the whole concept of a freak show, you’ll find some comfort in the script’s earnest attempts to cast the circus entourage as outsiders getting their own shot at fame, glory and perhaps even a measure of equality.  Jackman’s Barnum is himself a poor kid at heart running in (and yet always just outside of) wealthy circles, and the class warfare that permeated 1850s America and hasn’t exactly disappeared in 2017 informs large swaths of his character arc.  Thus the fizzy charms of a film seemingly based more on sound and spectacle than anything else actually find some social justice underpinnings that, if not exactly creating true gravitas, make The Greatest Showman appear to care about more than just a quick good time.

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Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!

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The President is a liar and a rapist.  Hurricanes rain down biblical style wrath the likes of which this country hasn’t seen in generations.  Man’s inhumanity to man is a relentless drumbeat of daily headlines, and basic civility between those who agree on almost but not quite everything seems ready to collapse at any moment.  This is the world of 2017, and this is the world that birthed Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! A defiant howl against what feels like the breakdown of society itself, the film isn’t crafted for the faint of heart, nor should it be.  Audiences and critics are rejecting it in droves if opening box office numbers and review amalgamation sites are to be believed, perhaps expecting the mainstream horror thriller the ad campaign deviously promises and then being truly horrified at the ugly Dorian Gray-style mirror the film holds up to America’s face, filled with corrupted beauty and mob mentality madness.  There’s no doubt that you the viewer are meant to walk out of the theater in a brutalized silence, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t a high wire act masterpiece.

Aronofsky’s quite comfortable swimming in the same dark waters that Lynch, Bunuel and many other surrealists dive into with regularity; he’s made a career of it, and on occasion even found critical and box office success doing it, as in the identity bending Black Swan.  With Mother!, he’s doubled down on a symbolism filled nightmare scape, mixing and matching plenty of horror tropes (a disturbing house, plenty of blood, stranger danger galore) but never allowing the flow to fall into anything approaching a genre comfort zone.  He’s taken the angelic face of Jennifer Lawrence and turned it into a trap for all of us, with the camera locking in on her increasingly confused, angry and frightened visage throughout—while the lead performer should be our guide throughout the story, she’s given no tools to work with, no road map, no explanations, so neither are we.  Javier Bardem is her chilling man child of a husband, an artist whose focus on adulation over accomplishment serves as a cutting parody of the aging celebrity with a trophy wife as well as a none too subtle nod towards the current resident of the White House.  As their pristine renovated home turns into a demonic bacchanal, with characters blinking in and out of existence and humanity portrayed as little more than an internet comment section run amok, Aronofsky drags the viewer alongside Lawrence into chaos and madness with relentless glee.  It’s this glee at how emotionally disturbing Mother! is that I suspect is putting off many theater goers; sometimes the first swipe at a piece of art this brazenly obtuse yet intimate is so effective that it sends its audience screaming for the exits.  Have great faith that, while you may be repelled by what the film puts you through, it’s all very much part of the plan.

Last year audiences had the same disdain for Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, a similarly singular workout that never commits to being a “horror movie” until it’s so far beyond that definition that it’s achieved True Art status, which isn’t supposed to be easy and rarely tries to be.  That film’s disgusting deconstruction of America’s dedication to surface above all else is mirrored in the layered but loud assault on our society’s treatment of the planet and each other in Mother! It starts with a telling sequence that I’ll not spoil here, but hints at cycles of behavior that are as old as time, and as inescapable.  Darren Aronofsky blew through the first draft of this script in five days by his account, and the resulting film feels every bit the guttural reaction to 2017 that you’d expect from one of America’s leading provocateurs.

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Requiem for a Dreamer: The Twin Peaks Finale

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Stephen King once described the act of writing as telepathy; across time and space, the writer plants thoughts into readers and an unbreakable connection of minds is formed forever.  From a cinematic standpoint, David Lynch holds dreams in similar esteem.  His dreams become ours as we examine every frame of his output, lean in to hear what detail the sounds we’re hearing may offer, wrestle our left brain down so that our right brain might take flight and understand the dream on levels rarely captured by mere words.  It’s no mistake that the most ostensibly good realm we travel to in Twin Peaks: The Return is a theater, resplendent in nostalgic black and white, often showing its residents the ‘reality’ of a world more familiar to most of the characters, but cast upon a movie screen.  And what is that reality?  Much consternation has been stirred up over the course of the new Peaks’ 18 episode run about what parts of what we’re seeing are actually real.  The question itself probably gets a chuckle out of Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost, since if a fictional town populated by actors that’s always been on the verge of bleeding into the surreal and supernatural (and often ultimately does) is a baseline of reality, then we’re already starting far, far from home.  Dating back to Eraserhead, the auteur has seamlessly weaved dreams and nightmares together, perhaps reminding us of our day to day existence just enough that we’re consistently startled by the frequent additions of madmen, monsters, magic and mayhem.  This spurs many to attempt to ground his work in something more understandable to everyone who exists on terra firma, to sort and categorize and separate elements into their individual truths.  But to him, they’re all pieces of the same painting, different colors swirling together and apart to present a picture of a dream—not a picture of reality.

So, Twin Peaks: The Return has finished, our final visit to this place and its many levels of existence may well have happened this past Sunday night.  To complete one of many mirroring tricks used throughout the series and the invaluable film cohort Fire Walk With Me, once again we’re left with a downbeat cliffhanger of sorts, surrounded by loose ends, promised little by way of resolution.  The seemingly happy sendoff that an entity as fundamentally good and admirable as Special Agent Dale Cooper deserves is nowhere to be found, and it’s looking quite likely that he’ll continue searching for it forever anyway, turning up from time to time like his fellow missing Blue Rose cohorts only to disappear into the ethers to swing at windmills again and again.  In nods if not true deference to viewers who were sticking around more for the ‘quirky soap opera’ aspects of the original than the darker subtexts and storylines, Lynch and Frost tossed up a few small stories about old fictional friends of ours with happy endings:  Nadine lets Ed and Norma finally be together, Ben Horne continues his path to redemption by staying true to his wife in the face of temptation, Bobby Briggs lives up to his honorable family name as a sturdy lawman in the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department.  Then again, we may never know the fate of his daughter who, like mother Shelly, is prone to poor romantic choices and may have given her life for them.  Fan favorite Audrey Horne looks to be trapped in a level of nightmare well beyond a bad night’s sleep, but details are few and hardly forthcoming.  Even the series finale itself serves as two sides of a coin, with the first hour offering the satisfying takedown of the loathsome Evil Cooper the previous episodes appeared to be building towards and the second hour casting increasingly dark shadows on anything approaching a positive outcome.  Indeed, before the first hour’s up we’re already seeing that much if not all of Cooper’s journey back to lucidity was most likely his own dream; the immediately gratifying but increasingly silly battle and assembly of many of this season’s heroes in one room, resplendent in Wizard Of Oz style pluck and smiles, doesn’t hold up very well as we see his face superimposed over the proceedings.  Cooper’s always been an extremely smart character with great intuition, but in many respects, he usually comes up short.  He’s barely allowed to enjoy this victory before going off to attempt another, while any boundaries between what’s perceived as real and dream are shattering before his eyes and ours.

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Anyone who feels like a mean trick is being pulled hasn’t been paying attention.  Talk of dreams, questioning whose dream we’re a part of or witness to, these are discussed early and often throughout Twin Peaks, not to mention Lynch’s overall filmography.  The surprisingly large influence of missing agent Phillip Jeffries (played originally by the dearly departed David Bowie, now ably substituted for with a cosmic coffee pot) on the new series comes into play here as well—we’re warned as far back as Fire Walk With Me that “we live inside a dream.”  Lynch clearly loves playing in the dream factory that is cinema, but there’s also an odd, almost masochistic adherence to the truth that he forces his characters to accept.  In Lost Highway, Fred creates a fantasy world of fast cars and faster women to escape into when the reality of his crimes becomes too much, but the illusion breaks down and he’s violently shoved back into the darkness of his true self.  Similarly, Diane Selwyn crafts a beautiful dream of mysterious adventure in Hollywood as Betty in Mulholland Drive, yet an hour and a half of respite from reality is all Lynch allows her before her murderous acts draw her to despair and, ultimately, suicide.  In Twin Peaks, characters such as Dale Cooper and Laura Palmer are clearly on the right side of the good/evil dichotomy, but they’re not spared the truth either.  Cooper, a victim of his own hubris, clearly states “the past dictates the future,” then promptly runs off into another dream dimension or two to try and change that past.  Does he in fact save Laura Palmer from that fateful night in the woods on February 23, 1989?  We’re shown a reality where that appears to be the case, yes.  On the ever present flip side, though, we’re also shown another reality, wherein faces don’t match identities, lovers become leavers, Cooper himself is unsettled, uncharacteristically violent and attempting to complete his mission of saving Laura Palmer and bringing her home in an increasing fog.  Harkening back to the Hard R Hardy Boys hero of Blue Velvet, he barks “Leave her alone!” at some cowboy thugs, then dispatches them with only a shred more restraint than his evil doppleganger would have. This, the final incarnation of Cooper that we’re left with, is an amalgam of all the Coopers we’ve come to know throughout Twin Peaks, good and bad, thoughtful and simple, observant and confused.  Laura hasn’t skipped merrily out of the Black Lodge into a cushy life/afterlife herself; when Cooper finds her, she’s been oddly absent from her waitressing job a Theresa Banks-style 3 days, has no knowledge of her former identity, and is entangled in yet another mystery we won’t get to the bottom of involving a corpse in her living room.  They journey together on lonely highways seemingly more appropriate to Evil Coop’s travels until they arrive at the Palmer home, which of course is not the Palmer home.  The Chalfont/Tremond story, heard before, offers little by way of a road map to sanity, and we’re left with an utterly confused Cooper, stumbling around in the street next to a horrified Laura, screaming in terror—the antithesis of the seeming relief and release seen in the closing moments of Fire Walk With Me.

Usually this part of an essay is dedicated to tying the loose threads together into explanations, conclusions, answers.  Unfortunately for those in need of such things, Lynch has increasingly moved away from these as his career has worn on; unsurprisingly, leaving pat resolutions behind has led to his most striking and lasting work.  Breadcrumb trails of numbers, visual clues, notable repetitions and more will keep internet sleuths and theories afloat for decades to come, no doubt.  Yet the perplexing, mesmerizing finale stands as a tribute to this American maverick’s complex and intuitive take on life itself.  Cooper may well be on an endless fool’s errand to try and fix the unfixable, to erase the history of incest and murder that came to roost on the shoulders of Laura Palmer many moons ago.  Laura, an avatar for goodness in a harsh, unforgiving world, doesn’t get to escape to a new reality or settle back into her old one.  These truths are as close to closure as we’ll be offered.  Lynch and Frost stated early and often that solving Laura Palmer’s murder was something they never wanted to do.  Given the opportunity to return to her story and the town of Twin Peaks, it should be no surprise that leaving Laura’s mystery wide open is the final gift we’re given.

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TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN

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David Lynch appeared to take his considerable toybox and go home after the brave foray into no budget digital filmmaking and self distribution—please don’t forget that he attempted this with Inland Empire long before every Tom Dick and Harry grabbed a camera at Best Buy and broadcast themselves around the globe—resulted in mixed to poor critical reception and little by way of box office.  He had his painting, his music, his American Spirits and his own brand of damn fine coffee, which is to say most fans increasingly had little to no hope he’d get busy lensing his own unique brand of fiction again.  Flash forward twelve years, or for the die hards, twenty five, and a minor miracle has started to roll out before our eyes:  18 new hours of Mark Frost co-written, David Lynch directed Twin Peaks.   The beyond influential show returned in May, flush in the middle of television’s so called Golden Age, a time when expectations for cinematic sweep on the small screen have never been higher.  We’re six episodes in and it’s time for a reckoning:  Is Twin Peaks as good as it was when it unknowingly launched so many serialized dramas?  The answer to this question rests entirely on how big a fan you are of the mind and sensibility that dreamed the whole thing up.

Which is to say, Lynch managed to convince (although he almost didn’t; he famously quit the revival over a budget dispute, but the cast and fans came together online to make sure the production would continue) Showtime to fund 18 new hours of his own uncompromising, post 2000 id to sneak into our homes under a well known brand.  Twin Peaks: The Return is both familiar and alien, probably close to impenetrable if you’re not steeped in the original show and its prequel, and a delight for those of us who appreciate a surprise and a challenge.  Familiar faces show up with regularity, but the most familiar, that of Kyle McLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper, is split into multiple roles in keeping with where he was left back in 1990 (trapped in the mystical Black Lodge, with an evil clone of himself let loose upon the world).  Over the first few episodes we jump around to places as far flung as Las Vegas, New York and South Dakota, meeting new characters and finding new mysteries that, on first blush, have nothing to do with the small town in the Pacific Northwest that harbors so many secrets.  Lynch cracks that toybox open and draws from everything he’s ever made, one minute staging an interdimensional breakout of our hero that feels like a mashup of Eraserhead and Inland Empire; the next, he’s channeling Blue Velvet’s horrific Frank Booth by way of Frank Silva’s Killer Bob—in the body of Kyle MacLachlan yet again.  And make no mistake, this is MacLachlan’s show.  He’s been given so many new notes to hit that it puts the viewer in a near-constant state of disconcertion—just the way Lynch intends, no doubt.  He’s taken a career-defining role and blown it open in all sorts of new directions, so far turning it into an even better crowning achievement than the magnificent original character was.

Catching references to earlier episodes, the film, and other Lynch works is a good piece of the fun, but the proceedings are once again grounded by Mark Frost, a seasoned television writer who maintains the ability to bring his partner in crime just close enough to terra firma that we’re clearly seeing a large and well-conceived interlocking mystery slowly spreading out.  We’ve had multiple murders, with a larger variety of law enforcement entities investigating them, and an increasingly large set of bad guys as well—some clearly not of this earth.  Each week brings a new twist, an old friend, and quite likely a road that will lead many characters back to Twin Peaks itself.  In addition to the mystery, though, there’s perhaps more humor than we’ve ever seen, dashes of the soapy drama that sucked in average viewers oh those many moons ago, and several striking moments of sentimentality that underline Lynch’s very idiosyncratic but near complete mastery of tone.  This new beast can switch between comedy, horror, steamy sex and indescribable surreality, all in the space of a scene or two.  In short, David Lynch is back in action, doing what he does best, and not caring one iota if you like it or not.  So far it’s a bravura reimagining and expansion of what fans knew and loved, or perhaps hated, about the original.  It’s clear that Lynch has keenly watched his progeny develop must-see serialized dramas like Breaking Bad and Mad Men (both of which are visually referenced throughout), mashed up the best instincts behind those shows with his extremely unique perspective and obsessions, and we the audience are all the better for it.

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