Let me get a couple of things off my chest:
1. Dear Old Man Who Laughs At Everything,
First, don’t insult me for not knowing which words to capitalize when starting a letter. My gut says none but my heart says all. This is in no way a reflection of “kids these days” or how text messages have ruined my generation’s ability to write
good well. Second, we just spent the last two hours together. And by together, I mean you and I spent the last two hours with your wife and four other elderly couples in our theater on a weekday afternoon. I know what you’re thinking. What is this young whippersnapper doing in this theater? A theater known for catering to the elderly with a senior discount that is legitimately the best deal ever? But what I can’t get out of my head is that grumble-laugh that erupted from you each and every time J.K. Simmons shouted an obscenity or insult. Which was basically the entire movie. With how loud you were laughing, people in the hallway probably thought we were watching a comedy. Sure, some of those laughs we shared together, but it scares me to think about how hilarious you found everything. Anyway I’ll see you back here tomorrow? I hear they’re screening a matinée of Le Week-End.
Sincerely, Damien from Flashback/Backslide
2. Unnecessary Confession #1: I have a weird problem where I mime the reactions of people on-screen. When a character smiles I instinctively grin like an idiot. Not because I’m happy that the character is happy but because I can’t help myself. If they raise their eyebrows, I raise my eyebrows. If they cock their head, I cock my head. With all the toe-tapping, head-bobbing and crying in Whiplash, I must have looked like a crazy person as my face contorted to follow the leads. Maybe my elderly friend was laughing to distract the rest of the audience from my spontaneous facial spasms. Thanks guy.
Chest lightening over. Review begins….now:
For the last month I have desperately tried to see Birdman, Foxcatcher and Whiplash only to be thwarted by spotty showtimes, family events and natural disasters (slash mild snowstorms). Last week I almost drove 100 miles and crossed into Canada, that friendly, socialist devil to the north, to watch Foxcatcher in Toronto. Before I snapped on my snowshoes and headed north, I checked the showtimes one last time and saw a single, lonely showtime for Whiplash at a local theater with major senior discounts. Thankfully the international journey was put on hold but if the only theater that showed Whiplash ever again was in Toronto, I’d gladly parka-up and make the long trek. Damien Chazelle’s film is without a doubt one of the best films I have seen this year. Over the last month I’ve delved deep into the Marvel world and I may be reaching the limit of comic-book movies one human can watch in such a short span of time. After hundreds of explosions and thousands of strange one-liners, Whiplash is a welcome return to intense, intimate dramas.
Over the course of a surprisingly brisk 106 minutes we watch Terrence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) take Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) to the brink and back. Really, there are few speaking roles in the film apart from the two leads but they both deliver remarkable performances. Teller is the perfect casting choice for Andrew, an aspiring jazz drummer in Fletcher’s band at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory. With skill not apparent from his work in Divergent and The Spectacular Now, Teller manages to breathe life into both sides of Andrew; the vulnerability and naivety along with the cruelty and obsession. Lucky for me, the aforementioned old man sitting next to me (sans tonic and gin) added his own commentary, helping the entire audience realize early into the movie that Andrew’s drumming “is starting to be an addiction,” in case that wasn’t made clear by the raw, bleeding hands Andrew plays with as he drums for hours into the night. Thanks old man. You’re the best. Andrew’s obsession and internal dichotomy are largely brought on by his exposure to the two-faced Fletcher who balances dashes of coddling with handfuls of belittling. I once overheard a high school coach report, through a thick fog of delusional grandiosity, that his goal is to make athletes “hate and despise him” so they could “harness” this anger and whip it into a cocktail for success. Fletcher’s philosophy has a similar end game. Much of his internal musings are laid out late in the film when he intimates “I push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that’s an absolute necessity.” J.K. Simmons plays basically his version of J. Jonah Jameson from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, taken to the absolute harshest conclusion. In many ways his role is more similar to his work in Juno and the Farmers Insurance Commercials. Don’t fact check that. His portrayal of Fletcher is incredible and worthy of the praise he has been given.
Director Damien Chazelle, a terrifically named man, captures these two performances in an unforgettable film. Chazelle’s pacing is perfect as he expertly guides us from the innocence of Teller’s start at Shaffer and crescendos into a dramatic final performance on-stage, one of the most remarkable finishes of any movie this year. In those final minutes the film accomplishes what so many movies try and fail. It brings us a perfect synthesis of film and music, accompanying Teller’s skilled drumming with equally engaging camera shots timed with downbeats and bass smashes. The closest comparison to the cinematography I can find is Pixar’s animated work. Because of its medium, Pixar isn’t tied to specific camera angles and jumps and whirls around its characters to play with the audience’s perspective. Think of scenes from The Incredibles or Finding Nemo. In other words, Whiplash’s music scenes are shot like action scenes and contain the motion implied by the music. These scenes are refreshing and allow for Simmons to appear even more menacing as he cuts the melodies with a silent, closed fist. The most recent musically-steeped film I remember watching (other than Frozen) was Inside Llewyn Davis. Chazelle offers much livelier musical sections than the Coen brothers 2013 film. Part of the blame is at the feet of the genre’s the two films feature, jazz and folk respectively, with jazz being relatively more fun and energetic. Part of it is also Chazelle’s direction which is more active than that of the Coens who use extended still shots to capture Oscar Isaac’s performance. Those familiar with Chazelle and his debut film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, another musically inspired film, will find it unsurprising that the director’s vision has been praised so much this year. Whiplash, only his second film, has earned a seat at the Awards-show table and hopefully will come away with decent hardware and recognition for Chazelle and the film’s stars.
Bottomline: This will probably finish as my favorite film of 2014 (so far. I still have a few to see). This is definitely the film I’ll recommend and rewatch most from the year. I doubt other films like Gone Girl would be as enjoyable on fourth and fifth viewings but I think I would still enjoy Whiplash.
Thanks for reading!
Entertainment Weekly’s Best and Worst Films of 2014. (spoiler alert, Whiplash ranks as the best)
Sundance Review: ‘Whiplash’ Starring Miles Teller Leads With The Different Beat Of A Very Different Drum. By James Rocchi.
P.S.: The MARVEL BLOGATHON is almost here! Flashback/Backslide needs your help reviewing all of the Marvel films. Plenty of great films are still available to be claimed!
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