Whiplash-Teller and Simmons-Drums


This is an exciting time for cinema. There are new voices emerging. Xavier Dolan’s ‘Mommy’ received 4 stars from me. Dolan is 25 years old. Damien Chazelle, the writer-director of ‘Whiplash’ is 29 years old. They both have the directorial chops of a master filmmaker. They both feel like the future.

‘Whiplash’ tells the story of a jazz drumming student, Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) whose relationship with his teacher/conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) ends up being a kind of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ hell. Call it ‘Full Metal Julliard’.

The movie is beautifully edited (and I hope the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences remembers to include ‘Whiplash’ in the Best Film Editing category because there won’t be a better edited film this year). The editing may not seem natural at first glance but it becomes natural as the film progresses. At first, the editing is admittedly jarring, but in all the right ways– in the most percussive, interesting way possible. It feels urgent and jagged, cutting and panning with the beat of the drum – it feels like jazz itself. Credit editor Tim Cross and cinematographer Sharone Meir for making us feel as if we are on stage with these performers.

Even with a budget of $3.3 million, ‘Whiplash’ was a challenge to get made. Mr. Chazelle had to develop ‘Whiplash’ as a short film to help serve as a proof-of-concept for the feature-length product. J.K. Simmons played the same character in the short. Getting a long-established character actor to work on a short for free is not an easy task – Simmons must have known he was going to be a part of something truly special.

As of this moment, I would say that J.K. Simmons is a lead contender for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He is never less than riveting here and it is not surprising to see how much emotional range this actor showcases. When he employs his barbarous methods of teaching, he is terrifying – hurling metal chairs, cruel name-calling, playing inhumane mind games, pitting his students against each other, and physically torturing Andrew with repetitive drum solos even as he is bleeding all over the drum kit. But, even in subtler, quieter moments – when he surveys a student leafing through a new musical composition from measure to measure, Simmons, with the perfect amount of sarcasm simply states “Cute”. We are drawn to him.

Teller, who was so great in ‘The Spectacular Now’, does the best work of his young career here. He finds the perfect note for his character in his ability to interweave insecurity and over-confidence, two seemingly disparate characterizations at the core of young talent.

Fletcher is gonzo. His character is pitched a relentlessly high level of intensity, but necessarily so. ‘Whiplash’ is told from the student’s perspective and to this kid, Fletcher is a God. In the wrong hands, Simmons’ character could have easily been a caricature. We notice there are layers to him – there is a tragedy that occurs and for one brief scene, he seems “normal”. There is also a scene where Fletcher and Andrew are almost meeting on equal terms and they have a very different kind of interaction from the explosive ones preceding it. When Fletcher is in that classroom teaching, he is putting on a persona – he becomes this unstoppable, borderline sadistic monster that you have to overcome in order to achieve any measure of greatness.

Beyond the electrifying performances, and beautiful aesthetics, ‘Whiplash’ is a movie with a lot on its mind; it has a lot to say about artistic demons, and the cost of ambition, but is most concerned with providing two hours of disturbing entertainment value; it’s almost Kubrickian in that regard. There is a very challenging theme here that I will do my best to explain. There is no shortage of movies about how inspirational teachers are. This movie obliterates that notion, and perversely crosses a giant X over pictures like ‘Dead Poet’s Society’, ‘Dangerous Minds’, and ‘Freedom Writers’. There is a world of difference between doing your best at something and being the best at it. Fletcher sees greatness in Andrew, and because he sees such potential, he sets out to destroy his student. He believes that if Andrew can overcome that, he will be remembered as one of the musical greats. I believe the movie allows us to decide for ourselves whether that is right or wrong. There certainly is an argument to be made here – that true greatness springs from adversity, so sometimes we need to fabricate adversity in order to make people great. “There are no words more harmful in the English language than ‘Good job’” Fletcher says. In this back-patting era of diplomatically wording constructive criticism where participant medals are valued as prized possessions, ‘Whiplash’ presents a convincing argument. However, on the flip side is the question as to whether or not it is all worth it. We witness a lot of collateral damage in this picture.

In a movie filled with many memorable moments, the one that has festered into my psyche involves the climactic scene where Andrew’s father (wonderfully performed by Paul Reiser) peers in from the stage entrance to watch his son (who has been put through the ringer) perform. Mr. Reiser without any dialogue effortlessly transmits every thought going through his character’s head – this look of shock, confusion, and elation more or less signals what this movie is about.

‘Whiplash’ refers to a piece played multiple times throughout the film. But, it’s a perfect title. It leaves us in a state of astonished enervation. ‘Whiplash’ is one of the best films of 2014. It truly is a great movie. Maybe because it knows a thing or two about what greatness means. Expect Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Screenplay, among others. QED.




I have noticed that all my Letterboxd followers have given ‘Birdman’ an A+ grade, and a number of my Twitter followers are hailing it as the best film of 2014. ‘Birdman’ will not be on my list of the year’s best films, but despite some quibbles, it is worth seeing. I view ‘Birdman’ as a technical triumph, but it comes at the expense of substance.

Michael Keaton, who is enjoying career rejuvenation (thanks to the huge splash ‘Birdman’ made at the Venice Film Festival) plays a version of himself essentially. He plays a movie star best known for a screen role of a winged, masked crusader. In real life, for Keaton, that superhero was Batman. For Riggan Thomson, Keaton’s character in ‘Birdman’, it is Birdman. Interestingly enough, there are actors from other superhero flicks (Emma Stone from ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ series, and Edward Norton from ‘The Incredible Hulk’) and I believe it ties into the film’s commentary about commercial entertainment and the Hollywood blockbuster mentality.

Riggan distances himself from Hollywood – he doesn’t want to be remembered for playing Birdman. So, he scrambles to open a play on Broadway costarring characters played by Norton and Naomi Watts. Riggan is filled with doubt and uncertainty about this endeavor, much of which seems fueled by ego rather than a desire to contribute to the arts. And while I admire director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarratu’s change of pace from weighty dramatic fare (‘Biutiful’, ‘Amores Perros’) and his attack on a film culture that allows movies like ‘Transformers’ and the Happy Madison pictures to succeed while artistic pursuits flounder, I don’t believe ‘Birdman’ has “higher meaning”.

Much of the material is familiar territory. The presentation, however, is something to marvel at. ‘Birdman’ appears as if it is unfolding in a single, unbroken take. As the camera swoops and circles around its characters and the interior spaces of the theater, I didn’t notice a single cut for about the first 100 minutes of the film. From a production standpoint, ‘Birdman’ left me in awe. I wanted to know how it was made. I wasn’t surprised to discover the cinematographer was Emmanuel Lubezki, whose magnificent technical work in ‘Gravity’ also left me in awe. He won the cinematography Oscar for ‘Gravity’, and he may very well win it for ‘Birdman’; Lubezki pulls quite a visual feat here, which makes up for a lot the script’s shortcomings.

I didn’t love ‘Birdman’ but I think it is reasonable to expect Oscar nominations in the following categories: Best Picture, Actor (Michael Keaton), Actress (Emma Stone), Supporting Actor (Edward Norton), Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. QED.




There is an early scene in ‘Fury’ in which Brad Pitt’s heavily scarred Army leader character talks about killing as many Germans as possible. It’s hard not be reminded   of Pitt’s Aldo Raine character in Quentin Tarantino’s outstanding ‘Inglourious Basterds’. ‘Fury’ is as conventional a war movie as ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is unconventional.

It is April 1945. As the Allies push German forces back into Germany, Sergeant Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) commands a Sherman tank called Fury. The five-man team consists of Gordo (Michael Pena), Bible (Shia LaBeouf), and Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal). The crew, which has been together since the North African Campaign, loses their assistant driver and machine gunner, and they aren’t particularly happy to see his replacement, Norman (Logan Lerman). That is because Norman has only been in the war for eight weeks and has only been trained as a typist – he has never even fired a weapon before.

Norman’s inexperience causes him to throw up while cleaning up the pieces of his predecessor in the tank, and even worse, costs the life of another tank commander during an ambush. Wardaddy forces Norman to make his first war kill, and he begins to toughen up.  Wardaddy then takes Norman to meet a local woman and her younger cousin in a small German town (I’m going to assume Norman was a virgin until this moment). The younger cousin, played by Alicia Von Rittberg, is absolutely stunning. At this point, it becomes clear that Wardaddy is favoring Norman.  This scene, which starts off beautifully, goes on for far too long. It is reminiscent of the extended dinner scene in ‘Apocalypse Now Redux’, which of course, wasn’t included in the original theatrical cut of ‘Apocalypse Now’ because it didn’t quite work.

Just when that scene feels like it will never end, their orders come in and they are instructed to defend a vital crossing. But Fury becomes immobilized, and they must contend with the arrival of 300 German SS troops.

Writer-Director David Ayer gets the details right. ‘Fury’ is very grim, bleak, and tactile in its griminess, and the misery of it all. The muddy palettes of greys and browns, and buckets of gore bring to mind ‘Saving Private Ryan’, but I’m afraid many contemporary Hollywood War pictures have imitated this technique in trying to depict the true horrors of armed conflict. War isn’t romanticized here. It is a hell. And Ayer wallows in it. The action sequences, particularly the last one, are crisply staged.  The camerawork in contemporary war films tend to be overly frantic in order to illustrate the chaos and confusion, but I was grateful for being able to make sense of the action in ‘Fury’ (the movie employs actual tanks on genuine terrain).  

There are, however, big problems with ‘Fury’, which is why I’m not recommending it (particularly for those with weak stomachs). I’m afraid it comes down to the basics. Ayer has spent so much time on the look of ‘Fury’ that he has neglected to give the movie a soul. The outstanding technical achievements come at the expense of the imperative elements of a movie – you know, like narrative and characters.  I previously described what this movie is about in greater detail than I normally would for a review. I found it difficult to simplify the events of this film into a brief plot description. And that is because ‘Fury’ is about incident, not plot. The crew is given specific tasks, which they need to execute, and that’s about it. There isn’t a compelling storyline. The performances are good across the board (Brad Pitt is always good; the main surprise is from a grizzled Shai LaBeouf). But, the actors are trapped within their character constructs. They are completely devoid of shadings beyond the single trait that makes them a type. The intention may very well be that these characters are stripped of what they used to be and have fully morphed into these soldiers. This may work in theory, but without a reason to care for these characters, the film becomes dramatically inert and we are just witnessing a technical exercise with minimal impact.

David Ayer’s gritty cop drama ‘End of Watch’ made my Top 10 List of 2012. It had terrific shootouts, and chases, yes, but it also had great respect for its fleshed out characters. I deeply cared for the two honest cops played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. Ayer had all the right elements there. ‘Fury’ represents a greater scope and scale, and Mr. Ayer is unable to transfer what worked so well there into here.

Despite my above praise for some outstanding technical work, I can’t really say that the battle sequences fully work in conjunction with whatever story the movie is trying to tell. The barbarous nature of Ayer’s characters are revealed early on; there is some moral ambiguity with them. The problem with the movie is that by giving audience members a full-blown action extravaganza, such complexities are eradicated in a combat sense. It becomes a clear us versus them story. Good versus evil. And some of the combat is just a little too close to tank-based video game violence. There is a laughable battle sequence involving color-coded, light-saber-esque laser bullets. I’m sorry. The subject here deserves far more respect than the filmmakers are willing to give it.

I’ve spoken to a few people about ‘Fury’, and I suspect I will be in the minority on this one. They appear to be reviewing the film it could and should have been as opposed to what is actually on the screen. It is easy to admire this movie. It has good intentions. But good intentions alone do not make a good movie.  QED.

Gone Girl (Spoiler Territory)



‘Gone Girl’ is a terrifically entertaining motion picture – twisted, bloody, satirical, inventive, and brilliant. I want to see more movies like ‘Gone Girl’, and ‘Nightcrawler’, please. Usually, my reviews are intended for those who haven’t seen the movie I’m talking about. Not the case here.

If you have not seen ‘Gone Girl’, do not continue reading!!! (Though if you have read the book, you should be fine – I haven’t read the book, but I’m told that the film is a very close literary adaptation.)

The first hour of ‘Gone Girl’ will have viewers accepting scenes at face value. This includes the couple’s first meet at a party, the perfect proposal, and the inevitable disintegration of their marriage.

The characters are established as the types in which they appear – the distant husband, and the educated and ambitious wife who just wants to be a mom. Sixty minutes into ‘Gone Girl’, this all changes. Rosamund Pike’s character is alive and well and has gone to comically ridiculous lengths to fake her own murder (along the way, faking a pregnancy to the degree it is possible, and leaving Ben Affleck’s character in financial ruins). 

David Fincher is very much a cause-and-effect type of filmmaker, showing how one thing leads to another and another and another (almost always against a haunting, beautifully photographed backdrop). Just yesterday, I revisited Fincher’s ‘The Game’ and to me it was clear that Fincher is a “how” director rather than a “why”. A “why” director would have created a tidy ending for ‘The Game’; Fincher less so – he is more interested in process as opposed to resolution. And in ‘Gone Girl’, we’re able to see just how Pike fakes her death before returning home.  With Fincher being a “how” director, the “why” is left to us to figure out. Which leads me to a few questions.

Who in the hell is Rosamund Pike?

The Queen of Femme Fatales. Any other movie would have ended with Pike’s character getting away with the perfect crime and sipping a martini on a beach somewhere. We’re not even halfway through the film when this big twist is revealed.

Fincher’s “how” method is explained by Pike taking on a number of varied stereotypes – we see her on the run as she has her own interior monologue; her fake diary paints her as a woman victimized by her cold-blooded husband; when she’s at the motel, she is a Southerner on the run from a violent boyfriend; and eventually, she resurfaces as a survivor who is comfortable enough to give a version of her story on talk shows.  She is constantly shifting, and we’re constantly guessing, and that’s part of what makes ‘Gone Girl’ a perversely fun cinematic experience.

At one point, we discover that Pike has manipulated and severely toyed with not just Affleck, but a couple of former boyfriends as well. Neil Patrick Harris’s character is supposedly a stalker, but when we meet him, he doesn’t appear all that creepy. He isn’t a fully fleshed out character, but that isn’t a criticism, merely an observation. I think it is because everything we’ve heard about NPH has been from Pike’s viewpoint. And so, when he is brought on screen, he doesn’t seem real; instead, he appears as a manifestation of all these conflicting thoughts and ideas we have of him. Whatever disharmonic past these two had, they keep in touch through direct mail. Why? She needed an ace in the hole for this prodigious scheme. It is only when Pike and NPH connect that we are able to see Pike plot and scheme while she’s doing it. Here, she is in a situation where she ends up feeling as entrapped as she felt in her marriage with Affleck’s character. She’s too confined, she can’t go anywhere, and so she breaks out of it in her own ridiculous way. This leads to the film’s disgusting, bloody, Verhoeven-esque climax.

Why does she return home?

When Affleck’s character went on the talk show to tell his side of the story and apologized for his failures as a husband, he was able to turn around the public’s perception of him. The public is sympathetic towards him, thus messing up Pike’s plans. She didn’t buy into Affleck’s sad speech. But, when she saw him on television, she realized that this is the person she could be with. That he has it in him to be as manipulative as she is and they can make the best out of the situation they are in together. Returning home wasn’t part of her initial plan – she didn’t anticipate being robbed in the motel and having to resort to contacting NPH. In her mind, if she is able to return home, she is in full control of everything and the two can be honest about the manipulation – honest about their lies. Affleck has no choice. What is he going to do: breakup with the victim of a horrific kidnapping who was repeatedly raped? 

Is her story error-free?

Lord, no. But viewers of these talk shows accept it because her story is comprised of elements people want to believe. Or like to believe. Her market research consists of watching television and reading bestsellers. She knows that American audiences love pregnant women. So, she fakes her pregnancy and then commits the seemingly perfect crime by concocting the perfect rocky marriage.

Why does she do what she does?

Can we blame all this on Amazing Amy, the book character her life was the inspiration of?  Amazing Amy has it all, does it all, and is always right. Could these books be encouraging Pike’s character to be more amazing – be the one to outsmart everyone else and win the day?

So, what is ‘Gone Girl’ really about?

Those calling ‘Gone Girl’ the worst date movie in the history of the cinema are mistaken. It isn’t about marriage or relationships. It’s about how people take on a number of different roles, whether it is to reach a level of compromise with another person, manipulate them, or implicate them. The movie opens and ends with the same question – “What is really going on in your head?” There is no answer. QED.