Will The Returned Return Again?

Sometimes the end should be the end. Some stories should remain concluded. There’s a reason why revenants are creepy, and TV land is full of evidence for this. No, I’m not talking about existential French horror – I’m talking about ITV’s Broadchurch, which came to its second end this week, though with a promise of more.

The first season of Broadchurch was nearly perfect in terms of what it was aiming for. Certainly the cast was one of the things going for it, but more than that it had a theme it committed to, and practically everything served that theme: the slow unravelling of a microcosm – a family, a community – due to a horrific deed. It’s not the most original of themes, granted, but Broadchurch handled it smartly and with honesty and the seriousness it called for. It stumbled towards the end, but it nevertheless ended up one of the most poignant British TV series in recent years, and definitely more consistently strong than the BBC’s uneven output in quite a while.

My thoughts exactly

Obviously it was tempting to bring back that world, those characters and especially those actors for a second series. A large part of what made Broadchurch so enjoyable was the David Tennant/Olivia Colman team-up; who wouldn’t go giddy at the chance of watching them for another eight episodes? Except that way lies fan service, which rarely makes for compelling storytelling. Broadchurch went into its second season with a proven cast of characters and actors that were enjoyable to watch the first time round, and there were enough story strands to pick up – but obviously no driving idea, no theme, that would give the continuation the sense that this is a story that has something to say. In fact, series 2 never felt like they started with anything other than the decision to do a second series, much to its detriment. The whole thing reeked of desperation and last-minute panic, resulting in a story that felt made up from one week to the next on the basis of some shaky brainstorming. What if DI Hardy had one of the people involved in his previous, failed case hidden away in a cottage in Broadchurch? What if that Susan Wright woman comes back to wreak ineffectual revenge against her estranged son, repeating what we already had in the first series? What if we got Charlotte Rampling but had no idea how to use her in an interesting way, so let’s say her character goes blind, her mother dies and she’s a closeted lesbian?

One of the what-ifs had more potential: what if Joe Miller, the man who turned out to be the killer in the first series, pleaded “not guilty”? What would this do to the community and to the family left behind? What goes on in a man who is culpable but desperately wants himself to be proclaimed innocent of the crimes he’s committed? Instead, this was wasted as we didn’t get character-driven drama so much as badly written courtroom melodrama with characters that wished they had even a second dimension. And we spent so much time with the underwritten dramatis personae of Sandbrook, Hardy’s previous case and a whodunnit that it was difficult to care about. The murder that launched the first series was meaningful, because it was specific: the victim mattered, the murderer mattered, because it was all about bringing a community close to its breaking point. Sandbrook, on the other hand, happened far away and could have been any case, really. It was irrelevant to Broadchurch. There were attempts at connecting the two cases in terms of themes and motifs, but they were half-hearted and ineffectual to the point of being a nuisance rather than an asset.

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The first series of Broadchurch still stands as graceful, moving TV, and a wasted second series doesn’t change that much. However, it doesn’t exactly fill me with happy anticipation to see, at the end of the final credits, the caption “Broadchurch will return”. Do they have a story worth telling? Or do they simply have a great cast in need of work and the hope that people will tune in on the strength of the original series? Do the makers of Broadchurch even have a clue what made the series work in the first place? I don’t think so, and no number of scenes with Tennant and Colman acting the hell out of a leaden script will make for a strong reason why Broadchurch needed to continue.

In fact, if a third series of Broadchurch is made and ends up as utterly superfluous as the second one, I’ll personally go and beat up the people responsible with my box sets of the fourth season of Deadwood and my 14-disk Complete Firefly.

You can find my previous comments on the second series of Broadchurch here.

Boom, bang, ta-tsk. Clang. Whoosh.

Whiplash does for music what Birdman does for acting: it shows the agony as well as the ecstasy that seems to come with the territory. Incidentally, both movies feature a lot of jazz. Whiplash tells the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), who is a passable drummer and wants to become a great one. He enrolls at Shaffer Conservatory in New York and starts playing in their Studio Band. If a jazz orchestra ever reminded you of a democratic collective, forget about it here. The band’s conductor and teacher is called Terence Fletcher, played by J. K. Simmons, and he is as sadistic as they come. When he enters a room, all dressed in black, his musicians snap to attention, like soldiers.

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Fletcher will make a great drummer out of Andrew, but it’s one hell of a deal: it might cost you more than you are willing to give. Plus you might turn out to be a despicable human being. That is exactly Fletcher’s mission: he wants to push his students so that the next Charlie Parker can become the next Bird. He sincerely believes that his oppressive teaching is the way to greatness. Listen to his definition of a good job. If you want to know about dominance and submission, seek no further. Look at this movie sideways, and it’s a horror film.

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Andrew sees through Fletcher’s methods, but here is the thing: just because you are able to spot a sadist doesn’t mean you’re not affected by him. Something is going to rub off. On the surface, Whiplash seems like an easy movie, but I am not so sure. Quitting doesn’t mean Fletcher has won any more than Andrew has lost. In a sense, you don’t quit at all. Andrew starts surprising even himself, in good ways and bad ways. Was it worth it, in the end? There’s only one way to find out.

Manly men doing manly things

Tony, Tony, Tony… You’ve spoilt me. After watching your intrepid adventures in gangland I’m finding it difficult to enjoy stories of bad men doing bad things that we’re supposed to cheer on. I want my hitmen and mobsters and soon-to-be legit businessmen, honest!, to be morally ambiguous and psychologically interesting. Tony, you’ve ruined me when it comes to enjoying a simple story of hard, ruthless men with chiseled jaws thugging for the camera.

Peaky Blinders is a handsome series, and it knows it. It preens and flexes, often in slow motion. It loves the fact that it got Cillian Murphy as a lead, and it loves watching Cillian be vulnerable yet ruthless as he rides horses, drives vintage cars, wields guns and punches other hard, though less pretty, men. It’s also this preening that is most frustrating about the series. Peaky Blinders has a hell of a lot going for it, from its production values to its fantastic cast. It’s gorgeous to look at and charismatic to boot, but it’s a guilty pleasure: guilty, first and foremost, for not making more of the potential it has.

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Perhaps it’s that I’m getting more moralistic as I get older, but I have to admit to finding the unreconstructed macho bad-boy attitude of Peaky Blinders tiresome. One of the innocent bystanders tells Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy (whose cheekbones could still cut through phonebooks), “You’re bad men but you’re our bad men.” That’s fine, but I’d like to have that badness examined. Instead, that line is exactly as far as it goes – in the world of Peaky Blinders, tribalism rules but it’s rarely called out. The exact same action is presented as slo-mo, hyper-masculine badassery if it’s done by our bad guys and as brutal thuggery if it’s the other side.

The series’ biggest potential lies in Helen McCrory’s Aunt Polly, who could put the fear of God into each and every one of the male Peaky Blinders, but at least as of the beginning of season 2 she’s also something of a cheque that yet needs to be cashed in. McCrory’s performance is magnetic, but the material is often thin, paying lip-service to complexity: we hear about past traumas, but we see too little of this reflected in her behaviour and personality. The same is true for most characters, in that they’re all given the veneer of three-dimensionality, but in practical terms they largely revert to stereotype, in the hope that the sheer handsomeness of the production makes up for the lack of depth.

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In general, the series tries to give its female characters agency, but all too often it defaults to the rule of macho: the women comment on the power differential, but in the end it’s usually the men with their fists, guns and posturing that are in the driving seat. Certainly, the world Peaky Blinders evokes is an ultra-male one, but then so is that of Game of Thrones, and that series manages to both show the powerlessness of its women characters and still give them agency. Peaky Blinders undermines the latter in ways that suggest it’s not entirely aware of doing so; in one of the climactic scenes in the first series, a woman with a baby carriage puts herself and her child between two warring factions, facing down both sides, but finally it’s not her who determines what happens next but the men with their guns. The scene plays as one of female agency – until that agency is shown to be irrelevant and of no interest to the characters or the series itself. We’ve had our scene of showing girl power, just don’t expect it to pay off.

As I’ve said: the potential is there. The actors are most definitely there, and the series has style up its smoke-shrowded wazoo. The character dynamics are also there, they just need to be committed to. The Rule of Cool is strong with Peaky Blinders – what it needs is to indulge a bit less in the music video slo-mo aesthetics and show a bit more of an interest in scratching the surface of its world and characters. Yes, Cillian Murphy sure is pretty; how much better would it be if the show put as much of an effort in making him complex? The material is there, the actors are game – what the series could do with is the ambition to be more than a pretty face.

How did we get here?

Inherent Vice isn’t really exactly the way you think a movie with a doper as its main character should be. Doc Sportello has a hard time about who knows what about which crime, and which suspect, and when and why and all of that. But neither can the audience. I think I lost the plot half an hour into the movie, and I think the same thing would happen to me if I read Thomas Pynchon’s novel it is based on. Inherent Vice might be about a P.I., but he is used as a character, not as a conduit for a whodunnit. Joaquin Phoenix plays him wonderfully. The notes he takes are the movie’s highlight.

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What drives Doc to investigate is that the case is brought to him by the lost love of his life, a beauty named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), a name that is repeated throughout the movie like a mantra. I am not entirely sure if she is really there some of the time. Other characters keep drifting in and out of focus. On the other hand, a character like Bigfoot Bjornsen, a hippie-hating crewcut copper, played by Josh Brolin, stakes his claim like a reality check. Just listen to him when he orders his pancakes at the diner. In a sense, Sportello and Bigfoot need each other: Bigfoot can heap his vitriol on hippie scum like Doc, and Doc has an excellent target for his bemused, woolly sarcasm.

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The movie doesn’t use one single scene to put us in Doc’s state of mind: no lens flare, no colorful caleidoscopic nonsense, no floating choruses. If you think something is not quite real, then it might not be, but then again, it’s hard to tell. There are no clear indications about where we are – we’re in California, sure, and it’s 1970 or so, but it’s like reality and Doc’s plane of existence run on parallel lines, side by side. The Summer of Love is already two years in the past, and Altamont has put a dent in West Coast hippie lifestyle. You can feel that Doc is no longer entirely carefree. Something, somewhere, is past its high point.

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Inherent Vice has a truckload of supporting roles and cameos: Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, Eric Roberts, Martin Short, Michael K. Williams, Maya Rudolph, Martin Donovan, Serena Scott Thomas, Michelle Sinclair, Owen Wilson. And many more, but I can’t remember them all. Some might complain that the movie is too long, and they might be right – but why would you want to kill such a nice buzz? A doobie takes as long as a doobie takes.

That’s some tasty bird, man!

It’s all about acting, here and elsewhere, in many ways, full to the brim, devil-may-care, and please-help-I-am-going-down. Riggan Thomson hears a voice, and sometimes that voice has a body, and it’s that of his biggest role, an action superhero called Birdman, and his voice sounds just like that of Christian Bale in the Batman movies. You know why that is, don’t you?

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Riggan’s nerves are frayed because he is going to star in his own stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He’s right to be nervous because other people have done very good things with Carver’s writing. You know about that, too, don’t you?

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Acting is about agony as well as ecstasy, with considerably more of the former. Riggan’s nightmare becomes worse when he has to hire Mike Shiner, famous and difficult, but he can act, and he will sell tickets. Shiner, who can only perform on stage, is Lesley’s boyfriend, and Lesley is also in the play, and when Lesley is kissed by Laura, we remember how Lesley once kissed someone else, also called Laura.

For everyone involved, theatre is a nightmare, addictive but entertaining, like an infinite jest, but look how it can also accommodate all kinds of people. Riggan has a daughter, Sam, just out of rehab, who takes care of his flowers and his make-up stuff and of the lonely concession stand. The rest of the time, she is up on the roof, thinking about thinking about jumping, and thinking about falling for a prick like Mike Shiner. Sometimes she prefers kissing, sometimes jumping seems like the better idea.

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There is also a megalomaniacal side to Riggan. He can move objects and people by sheer willpower, and he thinks he can make Tabitha write a favourable review. Since Tabitha gives him a look that reminds him of Lindsay Duncan, he is powerless. That look would make the Hulk shrink. Sometimes, theatre is about shouting and crying and deception and utter despair, sometimes it is about love and snogging, and about sharing a vagina.

There are cameos that refer to other things: Spiderman, Ironman, Superman. Chekhov’s gun. Scorsese’s feverish ambition. Macbeth‘s darkness. It will all make sense, in the end. So when you put yourself in Sam’s place in the last scene, who do you see hovering outside the window – Riggan Thomson or Birdman?

Solace for severed feet

Black Coal, Thin Ice is a Chinese film noir. The noir is mostly in the surroundings: the frozen ground, the sickly streetlights, run-down shops, derelict housing. People in this Northern city are cold, red-nosed, folded back on themselves. The landscape is bleak, covered in dirty snow and hard-baked ice. On slightly warmer days, there is thawed mud and the swarm-like soot of the coal-fueled power plants hovering in the grey sky. This is not a happy place.

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If the noir is the backdrop, then by contrast, the people might seem less mean, right? Of course this is a ploy to make us care about them a little more. But hang on – someone very twisted is dismembering men and throwing the limbs onto lorries that bring the black coal to the power plants. Two police officers and a few unlikely suspects lose their lives. Black Coal feels like the Dardenne brothers lost a bet and had to go film a James Ellroy screenplay in the Chinese province of their choice.

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Soon enough, another suspect drifts into focus, but he dies fleeing from the cops, taking every chance of finding out motive with him. The cops realize that the dead men were the husband and subsequent boyfriends of a woman who is working at a dry-cleaner’s. She is petite, brittle, fragile. There is no way she could have dismembered those guys, is there?

The guy who tries to figure out things is no longer a cop, but a security man, divorced, awkward with women, and a drunk. His motorcycle is stolen in front of his eyes. People eat, drink, dance and fuck in cheerless, soulless places. They steal from one another, they shout, kick and stumble from one day towards the next. There is always noise: the rumbling streetcar, car alarms, fighting neighbors, washing machines, conveyor belts, trucks, brothels with hysterical customers, and a creaky, untrustworthy merry-go-round. Footsteps. Gunshots.

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And in the middle of this, there is that beautiful scene at the ice-rink that involves wonderful magic and subtle courtship. The final scene features daylight fireworks, which is one of the most fitting endings I’ve seen in a long time. Daylight fireworks is also the apt original title for the movie. Black Coal, Thin Ice doesn’t tell you an easy story, but there is a kind of stubborn hope in there, and the film knows where it wants to go underneath its rough-hewn surface.

Best served cold

I do like me a good revenge thriller – although I am also a bit of a moralist when it comes to the genre. The kind of film that takes revenge as a justification for two hours of Liam Neeson (or any other righteously growling alpha male) killing bad guys I can very much do without. If a film questions both the validity and the success rate of your average revenge spree, however, then give me more of that. Even as seemingly straight a revenge flick as Kill Bill complicates its heroine’s “roaring rampage of revenge” in a number of ways: by suggesting that vengeance may be self-perpetuating, by depicting the avenger as similarly guilty as those she wreaks vengeance on, by humanising some of the people at the receiving end of the Bride’s katana. Memento, The Limey, Inglourious Basterds, Oldboy (and in fact Chan-wook Park’s entire revenge trilogy): all of these show how characters may come to see revenge as their best course of action, but they equally suggest that vengeance has a way of coming back to bite you in the behind.

Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin may just be the most interesting revenge tale in years, and that’s in no small part due to its main character: Dwight, played by Macon Blair, is miles away from a Beatrix Kiddo or Charles Bronson in Death Wish, the granddaddy of revenge flick protagonists. With his scraggly beard and his wide eyes, he weirdly looks like the scruffiest, most frightened rabbit. Knives, guns and other stabbing or shooting utensils don’t look at home in his hands. And this drives Blue Ruin most of all: that Dwight may just be so much less capable at administering revenge than the people he’s avenging himself on. Already his murder of the man he presumes to have killed his parents is a messy act, and things don’t get any less messy along the way.

Does it matter that Dwight’s first victim turns out to be innocent of the crime he’s been convicted of? Blue Ruin presents his entire family as guilty in one way or another, and as entirely too ready to take up arms and reciprocate. Yet Dwight’s entire crusade seems misguided from the first: these are not the actions of a stable man, and definitely not those of a hero. When his actions endanger his sister and her family, he goes to warn her, after having gone off the reservation for years, and she tells him in a mixture of sadness and disappointment: “I’d forgive you if you were crazy, but you’re not. You’re weak.”

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It’s this sentence that resonates most with me. For a scruffy bunny of a man, Dwight proves helpless in some moments, surprisingly resourceful and determined in others – but is he weak? The code of traditional revenge thrillers is that vengeance is that someone becomes the instrument of justice when society fails to do so. They take this task onto themselves because no one else is up to it. Blue Ruin turns this onto its head: Dwight isn’t making anything better, not for himself and most definitely not for his sister. The man that did kill Dwight’s parents is long dead, and Dwight’s first victim simply took the fall for his cancer-ridden father. He continues his spree because he believes his sister may be at risk – entirely due to his actions – but the longer he goes on, the harder it becomes not to see this as an extended, roundabout suicide-by-irate-criminal-family.

Blue Ruin isn’t perfect. Some of it feels a little too derivative – there are distinct overtones of the Coens’ Blood Simple – and while it does what it does very well, I did wish it would try to do more. It’s a small film by design, and I’m fine with that, but seeing how well writer-director Jeremy Saulnier handled his material I couldn’t help wishing that he’ll be more ambitious in his next project. Nevertheless,   will stay with me, mostly for Macon Blair’s pained, frightened eyes – the eyes of a man who just about suspects that he’s in way over his head and that there’s no way this will end well for anyone involved.