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‘Whiplash’ Movie Review: JK Simmons Pushes Miles Teller Past His Limits

‘Whiplash’ Movie Review: JK Simmons Pushes Miles Teller Past His Limits

‘Whiplash’ Movie Review: JK Simmons Pushes Miles Teller Past His Limits

What does it take to be great at something? In his book, “Outliers,” author Malcolm Gladwell posits it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. He references the Beatles played gigs all over London and a young Bill Gates spending his youthful downtime tinkering with supercomputers he just happened to have access to by way of circumstance. Hell, by Gladwell’s measure, you’d think Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” would be the Wilt Chamberlain story.

Though the old adage is “practice makes perfect,” coaching and mentorship also play an incredible part in individual achievement, as any sports fan can attest. A great coach takes the talent of his/her players and is able to maximize their ability through scheme and training.  With the right leader, a band of misfits can be turned into world-beaters as depicted in so many sports films. Of course, the mentor/mentee relationship requires equal amounts of talent as any anti-fan of the Oakland Raiders would be happy to tell you. Their carousel of wrong coaches paired with wrong players will never make a right, yet they keep trying anyway, god bless ‘em.

“Whiplash” is really just a sports film where the athletic feats are performed by young musicians attempting to lure their instruments into creating a harmonic noise. Yes, I feel about jazz the way your grandfather feels about rap music. But music is not the point of “Whiplash.” It’s about the abuse one is willing to endure in order to achieve promised greatness.

Contrary to what the title may have you believe, the film is not a misguided confederate sequel to “Django Unchained” following the Brittle brothers’ request for revenge. Instead, Andrew (Miles Teller) is a first-year drummer at a music conservatory who aims to achieve his dreams of being the next Charlie Parker (if you’ve never heard of Charlie Parker before, this movie will provide you with an education through repetition of the name, that he was a great jazz drummer). In order to reach such heights, Andrew hopes to be taken under the wing of Terrance Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), the school’s studio band instructor. Imagine Gny. Sergeant Hartman training soldiers to tune instead of torture and you have a good idea of Fletcher’s demeanor.

Whiplash pic

“I should bang chicks, not drums.” Miles Teller’s Andrew sits before his drum set in ‘Whiplash.’

Fletcher abuses his members more than a teenager post-masturbation discovery, but saves a special brand of slapping, screaming, belittling and bullying for the kid with the drumsticks. If Fletcher was teaching at a military musical conservatory, Andrew would be Private Pyle of Shit (which I didn’t know they stacked that high). Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser in a thankless role that’ll receive accolades purely because it’s Paul Reiser) recognizes the abuse, but is powerless to keep it from happening. He doesn’t seem to understand Andrew’s drive to be a jazz drummer, which is perhaps why Andrew is so keen on winning Fletcher’s approval, even if it’s inherently impossible. As Fletcher tells him at one point, “the two most harmful words in the English language are ‘good job.’” I’d have suggested “q*eer n*gger,” but in the character’s mind, praise is far worse than hate-speech.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle throws in a little subplot about Andrew and a budding relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), which he eschews in order to concentrate fully on his drumming, afraid she’ll be a hindrance to him reaching his goal (this is the part where if the movie was about rap music I’d quote Jeru Da Damaja’s “Me or the Papes,” “Ain’t no fiends/ coming in between/ me and my dreams,” but I fear Andrew knows as much about this line as I do Charlie Parker’s hits). This is a theme ripe for a film of its own. Though this story exists solely in the shadow of Fletcher and his tyrannical timpani, Chazelle dares to display what so many filmmakers shy away from in the form of an actualized “ask her out” scene. No punches were pulled, as he (and his characters) would continue to show throughout the rest of the film.

Teller is an actor who’s gained steady esteem since I first saw him in a small role as the supposed cool guy in the eternally amoral “Project X.” His rise is certainly not uncalled for as he apparently trained for two months to become a competent enough drummer to pull off the close-ups Chazelle required. His dogged determination mirrors his character’s drive. Chazelle lets his actor show off the acrobatics he’s acquired, allowing us to marvel at both he and the character. Even then, with Fletcher in the mix, it’s the musical equivalent of Paul Dano having a tete-a-tete with Daniel Day Lewis. Simmons embodies the larger-than-life monster that is Fletcher with a rage unseen since perhaps Daniel Plainview mined the west of black gold.  His clothes and shirt and bald head give the sense that his body was tuned tightly, probably by his asshole (which of course is his personality). His is the more demonstrable role, though Chazelle ensures Teller gets to be better than a board and hit back. It’s a marvelous mano a mano, with the performances serving to ratchet up tension throughout.

The story of an abusive mentor/mentee relationship is certainly well-worn in cinema. Chazelle just happens to dress it up in a unique world. However, the execution is anything but well-worn. The film is crafted with a precision of which Fletcher himself would approve. Though the film seems to take a cue from “Return of the King” and end a few different times, the final ending proves to be the most satisfying.

An affinity for jazz music probably won’t be the takeaway, but neither was it the intent. Instead, there’s a respect for the skill involved in order to play those instruments. The talent it takes to make art. This is only Chazelle’s second credit, so he undoubtedly has a long way to get to the 10,000-hour mark. However, from the looks of it, he may hit mastery level before he gets there. Must’ve had a really good teacher.

 

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‘Birdman’ Movie Review: Michael Keaton, Director Inarritu Take Film To New Heights

‘Birdman’ Movie Review: Michael Keaton, Director Inarritu Take Film To New Heights

‘Birdman’ Review: Keaton, Director Inarritu Take Film To New Heights

Birdman is not a movie that will sit well with everyone. Few films do. What Birdman is, however, is a thought-provoking, superbly acted, well-written and expertly directed piece of independent cinema that is a shoo-in for multiple nominations come Oscar season. It is a potentially game changing work that demands to be seen.

Birdman stars Michael Keaton as a washed up former Hollywood star trying to re-ignite his past success in a more respected medium on the New York stage. He plays Riggan Thomson, a man who will star in a play he writes and directs. His attempt to capture glory at St.James Theater on Broadway will be met with incredible amounts of skepticism and criticism, both internal and external. Riggan battles personal and professional problems throughout – a pregnant girlfriend, a reformed druggie daughter (Emma Stone), his ex-wife and co-stars (including a return to form from Edward Norton) to name a few. How can Riggan pull it off?

The story serves only as a backdrop to several more thought provoking themes on celebrity, artistic criticism, social media, typecasting and the fickle changing of a public’s tastes, to name a mere few in truth. There are so many questions asked and observations made in the film, with plenty of name-dropping to go around, that one can’t help but delight in it all. The inner-workings of theater and play performance are on display as well as politics and relationships not seen while the “show must go on.” It’s remarkably heady stuff.

Birdman Movie Pic

Michael Keaton’s Riggan is hounded by his (alter) ego, Birdman.

The true groundbreaking portion of the film is laid out by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros). Known for his Spanish-language works with interweaving storylines, here he manages the same feat while providing the illusion of one single shot throughout. No scene cuts or jumps from inside a car to a restaurant. Ever. Birdman is presented as if it’s done in a single take and while the film can be claustrophobic at times, that’s partially the point. It’s a marvel that will undoubtedly reap the appropriate rewards and depending on the financial success of the film, raises the bar for directors everywhere.

Keaton is excellent, though the same can really be said about the entire cast. I can see up to 4 or 5 acting nominations coming in various slots here and would be shocked if there aren’t at least 2-3 with Norton, Keaton and one of the female so-stars (Naomi Watts or Stone). Top notch acting, writing and directing in a singular piece; it’s how movies should be far more often. This may be the film that started a revolution in filmmaking, though I somehow suspect that a paying public and conservative Hollywood will not take the bait over time. Still, it’s an achievement that will not go unnoticed by film aficionados and Birdman deserves all the props it is all but certain to receive. At one point, a foreign journalist lauds Riggan for possibly doing Birdman 4, after watching this, if it was based on this film, you may indeed want that to happen. Birdman is my film of the year to this point and I highly doubt it will come to the ground based on the level it is soaring at for me.

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‘Gone Girl’ Review; Fincher’s Latest Confounds In More Ways Than One

‘Gone Girl’ Review; Fincher’s Latest Confounds In More Ways Than One

‘Gone Girl’ Movie Review; David Fincher’s Latest Confounds In More Ways Than One

One of the drawbacks of writing movie reviews is that as time passes the way a movie is perceived often changes and often times, with multiple viewings the nuances and quality of a movie come to light or not. Unfortunately, for review writing and for watching most movies in general, we do not have the benefit of time usually, as we see a movie once and write about it shortly or immediately thereafter. Details gain or become lost; the way a movie feels changes. I suspect, having now waited well over a week since I have seen David Fincher’s Gone Girl, all of the above will apply.

Admittedly I didn’t know what to expect going into Gone Girl, having never read the book (of the same name upon which it is based), and the trailers didn’t provide much to get excited about as far as I was concerned. My faith was placed in the director and to a lesser extent, it’s stars, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Gone Girl is about a the disappearance of Pike’s Amy Dunne, the wife of Affleck’s Nick, and primarily about whether or not Nick was guilty of the crime. However, the movie reveals more about how information is perceived, relayed and messages are distorted. It’s as much about the media and human emotion as it is about the whodunit aspects of the story.

 

Gone Girl pic

Who’s real and who’s fake? Anyone? Bueller?

The story is told in real-time with flashbacks or cut-to’s. If I gave away more information I might be spoiling an important part of the story. There are varying perspectives on the events and the families involved. Betrayal, revenge, guilt, tyranny, power, failure, jealousy, etc…all of these emotions come into play in the film. Nick must hire a high-powered attorney Tanner Bolt, shockingly well played by Tyler Perry, to deal with the fallout. His is one of the most pitch perfect performances in the film.

Gone Girl is a drama, a murder mystery and a thriller on the surface. There is a lot more going on underneath it all. At the same time, I couldn’t help but have the feeling of being a little let down based upon the quality of talent involved. It was a story well told, one that was cold and sinister, something Fincher is exceptional at, but I couldn’t help but feeling that there should have been more. Whether it was missing entertainment, thrills, chills or something, I felt like a good movie could have been great or exceptional. Perhaps upon my slam dunk repeated viewing(s) at some point down the road, I will come to the conclusion that it was all that and some.

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James Gandolfini Shines Brightly In His Final Film Role: ‘The Drop’ Movie Review

James Gandolfini Shines Brightly In His Final Film Role: ‘The Drop’ Movie Review

James Gandolfini Shines Brightly In His Final Film Role: ‘The Drop’ Movie Review

I’ll admit it freely – I wanted to see The Drop primarily because it was going to be James Gandolfini’s last time on the big screen (or small screen for that matter). In the same manner in which I turned out right away for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s A Most Wanted Man, The Drop represented a final opportunity to appreciate the work of one of my favorite actors of the past 15 years who has now been laid to rest. Fortunately, the film lives up to the man’s passing as a solid, and of course well-acted, mob-crime thriller.

Gandolfini stars as Cousin Marv, a bar owner (though only in name) who may or may not have mob ties. His bar, named Cousin Marv’s, is one of several “drop bars”, which are places where the mob rotates their dirty money through in order to hide it from prying eyes (i.e., the cops, thieves, etc.). The meek and quiet Bob (Tom Hardy) tends bar at his cousin Marv’s watering hole. Their relationship is complicated, one of mentor and mentee largely, that hints at something deeper.

The Drop

An acting legend and a new star. Where is James Lipton when you need him?

When Bob meets Nadia, an affair dealing with the mob, Bob, Nadia, Marv, his cohorts, a fresh out of prison legend (Eric), a cop, Detective Torres (the always enjoyable John Ortiz) and a cute pitbull, plays out in grand whodunit fashion. Allegiances are tested, people are backstabbed, true character is revealed, motivations questioned – with a thrilling ending that made a nearly two-hour film feel at least a half hour short. That’s the mark of a strong tale, it feels as if the time zoomed by.

Hardy leads the show here, with a quiet and reserved performance, but it is Gandolfini’s willingness to sacrifice the spotlight that ties the film together. His character acting nature, despite his star status, comes across as genuine and grounded, something other actors and audiences will miss well into the future. The Drop doesn’t drop the ball on J.Gand’s legacy, it only serves to enhance it. That is the mark of a strong film, one that is totally worth seeing for genre fans or fans of the leads.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman Shines One Last Time in ‘A Most Wanted Man’: A Review

Philip Seymour Hoffman Shines One Last Time in ‘A Most Wanted Man’: A Review

Philip Seymour Hoffman Shines One Last Time in ‘A Most Wanted Man’: A Review

In what is likely to be his last “starring” role (The Hunger Games sequels aside), A Most Wanted Man centers around the talents of fallen acting legend Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman plays Gunter Bachmann, a CIA operative in Germany who has been tracking the flow of shipments in and out of ports there. With his team in tow, targets are tracked up the food chain before moving in to secure an arrest. This leads to potential power struggles with other officials who have differing motives – personal or public gain, mistrust, etc. all being possibilities.

Gunter tracks a tortured Muslim with a checkered past entering Germany who seeks asylum. The man takes up residence with a group that helps him, including “social worker for known terrorists” Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). The man wants his dead and estranged fathers money, which is held at a bank run by Tommy Brue (Willem Defoe) and thus an intricate plot unspools as the CIA attempts to determine what this man will use the money for. American officials, represented by Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) come into play and eventually a deal is put in place to being a resolution to the proceedings.

The fallen Hoffman looms over McAdams as his presence does throughout this film.

Director Anton Corbijn (The American) shoots attractive locations mixed with unfriendly confines loaded with potential problems lurking around every corner. The source material is John LeCarre’s novel, and while the film can only develop so many characters, what does unravel in the spy film is a bit cold and calculating (not unlike Clooney’s film), rather than the thrilling kind (like say, the Bourne films). The film is interesting but not ultimately overly satisfying in and of itself, especially considering the possibility of seeing Hoffman in one of his last roles.

Seeing the film is an opportunity to pay respect to a sterling actor, but his role, while of course delivered in expert manner, lacks the flair with which one might hope to see him go out on a higher note. Perhaps it’s all appropriate in the end, as the character actor who won an Oscar and became a star, was always meant to be a talent utilized to serve the story, rather than to sit above the fray. A Most Wanted Man references the target in the film, but for audiences, it will be the chance to experience Hoffman on a big screen one last time. That in the end will have to suffice.

 

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Danny Boyle’s ‘Trance’ Puts Viewers in Mind-Spinning State: A Review

Danny Boyle’s ‘Trance’ Puts Viewers in Mind-Spinning State: A Review

Danny Boyle’s ‘Trance’ Puts Viewers in Mind-Spinning State: A Review 

Simon (James McAvoy) is an auctioneer indebted to criminals in Trance. When an absurdly expensive painting is stolen by Simon to help clear his debt, an accident occurs (he gets knocked in the dome) which leads to his obtaining amnesia. The rest of the film deals with uncovering the whereabouts of the painting.

To find out where the painting is, the criminal group, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel), goes the usual rout of torture. When that doesn’t work, they enlist a sexy psychiatrist/hypnotist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to unlock Simon’s mind. Eventually, she becomes embroiled in the plot heavily, trying to help find the painting due to her own boredom (or not). The plot weaves tangled strands of yarn in various directions as the con-game is played out in the film and on the audience.

‘Trance’ attempts to metaphorically blow minds. Subtle.

Trance is stylishly shot, with neon hues and warped camera work, and includes a solid, pulse-pounding soundtrack. The beauty can’t cover up its convoluted plot that shows itself layer by layer until all is “explained” in the end. These sorts of films can work (Confidence comes to mind), keeping the audience guessing in a whodunit fashion. However, Boyle’s piece seems too contrived and focused on style over substance.

This was billed as a return to Trainspotting-like form for Boyle in some parts. Alas, this simply is not the case. Perhaps the blame lies with the script, based on heavy trickery and deception. Perhaps Boyle deserves some wrist slapping too, since a director of his caliber should be able to do better. Films that need this much explanation rather than simply having the audience watch something unfold tend to fail. Regardless of Dawson’s full frontal sighting, Trance will leave you less dazed and more confused than Richard Linklater’s coming of age classic. In the end, that is simply not enough.

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Joaquin Phoenix Pimp Walks His Way Through ‘The Immigrant’: A Review

Joaquin Phoenix Pimp Walks His Way Through ‘The Immigrant’: A Review

Joaquin Phoenix Pimp Walks His Way Through ‘The Immigrant’: A Review

James Gray’s latest film The Immigrant, is yet another which stars the incredible talents of Joaquin Phoenix. It’s set in New York in the early 1900’s. A beautiful immigrant, Ewa (Marian Cotillard) and her sister flee Poland to the US, but fresh off the boat and due to strict rules, they face deportation. Phoenix plays Bruno Weiss, a man of potentially troubling motives, who offers Ewa a chance to stay in the US and make a living if she so pleases. Soon, Ewa is tossed into a role as burlesque star/whore for Weiss’ troupe of successful theatrical ladies. Weiss is essentially a pimp of his era.

Ewa trusts nobody, especially Weiss, and lives only to see her sister freed from the infirmary at the prison in which she is being held. She will do whatever it takes to survive, whether stealing, fighting or earning her keep in such a despicable manner to her soul. Ewa constantly wants to flee Weiss’ clutches, but his fancy for her and his ability to keep her fed and earning is tough to leave. A typical but powerful conundrum to be sure.

 

The Immigrant

The US can be a lonely place without a companion, as depicted in “The Immigrant.”

Eventually, a travelling magician, Emil (Jeremy Renner), who also happens to be Weiss’ cousin, falls for Ewa, creating a love triangle, the likes of which Gray is so famously good at bringing to the screen. The usual themes of jealousy, deceit and redemption are at play here. The film, aided by a sepia tone look, remains interesting, though paced a bit deliberately until a climax that also is right up Gray’s alley.

Joaquin Phoenix is perhaps the best actor working today. With the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, to me, Phoenix immediately ascends to the top of the heap, if nothing else, sharing the crown with a handful of other acting greats. Phoenix’s Weiss is tortured with an internal gnawing that reveals itself in a brilliant final scene of acting. Though the movie may not payoff in a manner satisfying to audiences, Phoenix makes Weiss as human as possible in a moment of significant catharsis. For that alone, I give The Immigrant a pass.

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Cate Blanchett Sparkles in Woody Allen’s 2013 Film ‘Blue Jasmine’: A Movie Review

Cate Blanchett Sparkles in Woody Allen’s 2013 Film ‘Blue Jasmine’: A Movie Review

Cate Blanchett Sparkles in Woody Allen’s 2013 Film ‘Blue Jasmine’: A Movie Review

There’s a thing I like to call “getting to a place” in acting. This primarily refers to an actor attempting to cry on film. Some are naturally far better at it than others. In Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett reaches this crescendo over and over in a sterling performance. Too bad the rest of the film doesn’t quite do enough to keep up.

In Jasmine, Blanchett plays Jasmine French, perhaps not her real name, though this is never entirely explained. Jasmine is down on her luck, supposedly broke and forced to move to a menial location in San Francisco to live with her estranged and kind-hearted half sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine is coming off of a tumultuous “break up” where her ultra rich, bastard of a husband (Alec Baldwin) deceived countless people in money laundering schemes, including Ginger and her then husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). The movie focuses on Jasmine’s present while flashing back to her past to show how she got here.

blue jasmine blanchett

A picture of isolation and despair, Jasmine (Blanchett) deals with her comeuppance.

Jasmine is saddled with drinking and drug problems, tumbling from high society to trying to find real work and put her life back together. Along the way she encounters good people and bad, while she always has an opinion of others shaped by her past. While Ginger works as a grocery bagger and sees a regular Joe greasy monkey, Jasmine desires to return to her past, seeking a man of substance and success. Once this finally happens, we wonder whether she has the fortitude to keep the relationship together and Allen’s film answers that question in pinpoint fashion.

Blanchett gives the performance of a lifetime in Jasmine, constantly under self torture and duress. She carries nearly every scene of the film, so while her character struggles to change, her acting echoes the same traits admirably. She was rightfully at least acknowledged for her work come awards season. The film however is a little too one note, if more the fault of the story than anything else. Everyone involved brings their A-game, but the story doesn’t reach the heights that Allen can sometimes touch and that ultimately keeps the film from being must-see entertainment. While Jasmine “gets to a place,” your emotions watching the film will be far more subdued.

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