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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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‘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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Sofia Coppola’s ‘Somewhere’ (2010) Takes Viewers Where They Need To Go: A Review

Sofia Coppola’s ‘Somewhere’ (2010) Takes Viewers Where They Need To Go: A Review

Sofia Coppola’s ‘Somewhere’ (2010) Takes Viewers Where They Need To Go: A Review

Sofia Coppola’s 2010 film Somewhere tests viewers right out of the gate with an opening visual that hints at a Ferrari driving laps in a long continuous and monotonous shot. We see brief glimpses of the car and hear its roaring engine, but while that noise would seem in contrast to much of the rest of the film, it serves as an excellent precursor to the director’s surprising indy gem.

Somewhere follows Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco, a Hollywood star who lives at the famed Chateau Marmont on Sunset. Johnny has access to all the trappings that fame provides – money, sex, partying and recognition – but his life seems alarmingly empty in his moments of solitude. Even pole dancing strippers (the Playboy Mansion’s Shannon twins) can’t get a rise out of him. He’s bored with their routine and inside his life’s routine, despite his affable attempts at pleasing those he encounters. Publicists and makeup artists treat him like the puppet he is, despite his star status. He’s not a reluctant star but his life clearly beckons for more.

Somewhere movie strippers

A pole dance is supposed to be erotic but in this case, the reality is more comedic.

Enter his estranged 11 year old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), who’s shorter visit turns into a longer several week stay. She cooks for her Dad and Johnny takes her to Italy, where he is presented an award in comedic fashion. His frequent dalliances with beautiful women carry on, but Cleo’s presence changes him, particularly when she finally leaves. She never imposes on him and clearly loves her, which has unlocked something that may have been missing in his day-to-day. He was having more fun than he realized and without her, concludes being by himself sucks. He feels aimless and despite appearing to have it all, wonders where he’s going in life. The film’s still tones throughout show you Johnny’s slow burn to reach this point. Somewhere is the contrast to HBO’s “Entourage”, and Johnny Marco needs someone like Johnny Drama to keep him going.

Coppola succeeds in showing us an attractive Hollywood lifestyle and balancing it with the non-glamorous realities when the action isn’t happening or when the cameras aren’t around. Somewhere never dictates to us. It keeps the allure of a Hollywood life alive but also shows the potential for emptiness when the lights fade. It’s a film that is both a challenge at times (at least 12-15 minutes without dialogue to open the film) and rewarding, as it gets under your skin and begging you to think about it more. It’s at that juncture where any film succeeds. It has to take you somewhere and kudos to Somewhere for doing just that.

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‘Edge of Tomorrow’ Movie Review: Tom Cruise & Emily Blunt Battle Alien Forces

‘Edge of Tomorrow’ Movie Review: Tom Cruise & Emily Blunt Battle Alien Forces

Tom Cruise & Emily Blunt Battle Alien Forces In Summer’s ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

Edge of Tomorrow promises science fiction smarts, audacious and exciting visuals and a challenge to the minds of general audiences over the age of 13. With the citizens of Earth at war and in a fight for its very existence with alien forces, Edge ramps up the usual war angle and throws in a time-warping twist to the proceedings. What results is summer entertainment of a quality order, one that it’s star, Tom Cruise, has not seen for some time. If you think of Oblivion when coming to see Edge, think again then start your thought process over.

Edge sees Cruise’s Cage, a military man who’s never fought, trapped in a warp where he joins fresh recruits for a battle with aliens for Earth’s survival. This war with the aliens, however, is doomed to fail as Cage soon discovers. But Cage has a special blend in his blood that sees him reliving the same day over and over again. Think Groundhog Day, which is the natural comparison. His bad dream becomes the key to possibly winning the war, but will require the ultimate sacrifice on his behalf.

edge of tomorrow pic

Cruise wouldn’t mind rolling, lighting and smoking Blunt in ‘Edge.’

Cage meets Rita (a fetching, but tough Emily Blunt), the ultimate war-fighting heroine who happens to have had a similar blood affliction in the past. They form an underground alliance in order to try to win the war without anyone (the military authority in particular) being the wiser. Alas, things do not go as planned, naturally. Writer Christopher McQuarrie, best known for penning The Usual Suspects, manages another mind-bender and shows off his versatility with this futuristic, war-related piece.

Swingers and The Bourne Identity director Doug Limans’s Edge of Tomorrow displays flair, humor and originality throughout its two hour runtime. Cruise and Blunt share surprisingly palpable chemistry despite the fact that they barely know each other in the film’s context. Edge is at times heart-breaking, humorous and humiliating (to it’s lead any way). The sci-fi fantasy does a good job at keeping the viewer’s interest and playing out to a satisfactory end. This deserves your attention at some point.

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Christian Bale-Led ‘Out of the Furnace’ (2013) Movie Review

Christian Bale-Led ‘Out of the Furnace’ (2013) Movie Review

Christian Bale-Led ‘Out of the Furnace’ (2013) Movie Review

Christian Bale stars as Russell Baze, a poor Pennsylvania mill worker who gets himself imprisoned for killing innocent people during a drinking and driving accident. This absence forces him to miss out on looking after his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), who suffers from rage and mental stability issues after four tours in Iraq. They both lose their father during Russell’s imprisonment and Russell also loses his girlfriend Zoe Saldana to a local cop (Forest Whitaker) during his stretch.

Upon release into the world, Russell tries to lay low, while Rodney does the opposite. Unable or unwilling to find fulfilling work, Rodney fights for chump change in illegal underground boxing matches with seedy inbred types in uncontrolled environments. He is paying off a debt to a local drug(?) Lord John Petty (Willem Defoe), but little does he know that Petty owes the unscrupulous and menacing Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) a debt of his own. These debts come to a head and heads (literally) will roll. This draws Russell back into a scene and life he clearly wants no part of, but alas, such is the life of a man with little to live for.

Bale Out of Furnace

Christian Bale’s Russell Baze (and his rifle) get pulled back into a life he disdains.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) brings the world to life. There is the law and the other side and a thin line separates the two. He places us in a world that few sane men would choose to enter, but is also probably all too real. That is one of the strongest traits of the film. He also draws a strong cast together and gets a particularly stellar performance from Woody Harrelson. Harlan’s vengeance and never say die attitude hang over every frame he enters.

Still, it’s Bale’s Russell who anchors the film and while his pain and internal struggle is felt, he kind of feels a hair underserved by the material. Affleck, though good, seems a touch miscast as a brawler, considering his slight frame, but thats a minor quibble. The film seems to be a bit of a missed opportunity in that it gave us glimpses of a menacing world, while not quite throwing us into it with no way out. It never reaches the heights you feel it is capable of. It’s a slow burn that doesn’t have the thrilling climax you are hoping for, satisfactory as it may be. I wanted to have a burning passion for Furnace, but instead feel a bit conflicted like it’s lead character. Maybe that’s a good thing.

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Movie Review: Director Wes Anderson’s Unique ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ Inspires, Confounds

Movie Review: Director Wes Anderson’s Unique ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ Inspires, Confounds

Movie Review: Director Wes Anderson’s Unique ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ Inspires, Confounds

The Grand Budapest Hotel (GB as it’s known and will be referred to) is Wes Anderson’s highest grossing film to date. It continues in the tradition of recent Anderson works such as Moonrise Kingdom, where intricate worlds only he can create are inhabited by rich, unique characters. GB delivers Anderson mainstays such as Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, but among many adds Adrien Brody, Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori into the mix. The story follows Rovolori’s Lobby Boy of the “grand” hotel and his mentor Fienne’s M.Gustave, as they serve as an Abbott & Costello like duo for the audience. The story is told in semi-modern time narration (1982 I believe) flashing back 50 years to be told in essential flashback form.

Some potentially distracting elements must be accepted when you realize that Revolori and F.Murray Abraham play the same character, as does another character in a later reveal, when the two younger and older versions absolutely look nothing alike. Taking that leap of faith aside, what you get is typical Anderson. M.Gustave wins a big prize (the genius painting ‘Boy With Apple’) after the death of one of his lovers and hotel guests over the years passes away. The family of the deceased then plots to frame M.Gustave as her murderer and chaos ensues. Typically rich and detailed settings loaded with Anderson’s specific quirky charm are on full display. It will likely delight fans, while pushing some critics to call for more diverse film creations. This is a tough call and a difficult way to judge someone’s work, as once filmmakers leave the confines they are known for people often complain, yet here, with Anderson staying in his comfortable lane, we are not as excited by the outcome as we could hope to be.

GBH

Anderson veteran Jason Schwartzman and newbie Jude Law help ‘GB’ come to life.

The film is shot largely in 1:33-1 ratio, so not the widescreen we are accustomed to, a choice I could have done without but understand why it was made to serve the story. A large ensemble of mostly monotone characters inhabit this film, as is becoming the norm for the acclaimed filmmaker. While it’s great to see Harvey Keitel back from Moonrise, one actor who never seems to quite fit in Anderson’s world is Edward Norton. He’s a talent who has thrived in darker, more complex roles (Fight Club, American History X) and to see him reduced to a sideshow, small character actor in each of Anderson’s last two movies doesn’t really add up. He’s not the quirky type and Anderson’s films call for qualities even some great actors don’t quite nail. Still, it’s nice that Wes can pull so many talents together at one time.

The film is solid, entertaining, amusing (there are numerous laughs) and wholly intricate. A few sequences, including a prison break, are truly the thing of beauty. Anderson’s style is duplicated and followed by nobody. He owns it. Still, while the chase is interesting and bordering on fun, nothing overly surprising happens and that is where the investment in the process becomes questioned. Anderson’s fans can focus more on the detail with which he is increasingly becoming known for, while a critical eye will ask why there wasn’t more emotional involvement. The film is adults child’s play (maybe that should be known going in), so despite some adult themes and a nice caper, murder and chase yarn, the stakes never seem so high that it is enthralling. A great performance (Fiennes) and strong writing aside, this one creates many questions for the future for fans of Wes’ work. My companion opined that maybe the stakes weren’t high enough. In that sense, I concur that while they may have been, the “feeling” was that they weren’t. The director can continue to churn out similar works for years, but his challenge will be to continue to push the boundaries (which he does in GB to some extent via language and world creation) of the territory he so clearly now occupies. GB is a nice visit, but whether its a place to repeatedly stay is the question.

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