Whiplash: Movie Review

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I had been waiting to see Whiplash ever since the reviews started pouring in.  Here was a movie right up my alley!  I love intense films between a small number of characters, because you get to spend a lot of time with them and dive deep into their psyche.  Well, nothing could prepare me for what I saw a few nights ago.  I saw about 270 films this year, and a number of TV shows start to finish.  Whiplash had the sort of finesse, quality, and precision a guy like me dreams about.  It’s without a doubt, my favorite film of 2014.  This review might seem a bit gushing, but I really don’t know how else to convey my experience.  I sat till the lights came up when it was over, then drove home about 40 miles with the radio off in silence.  I had to think.  The film had rocked me, and I related to the story on such a deep rooted level that it caused a sort of numbness.  How often do we get a movie this good?

Whiplash is the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old jazz drummer who, at the start of the film, is accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the United States. He begins dating Nicole, a college student working at a cinema frequented by Andrew and his father. He aspires to become one of the drummer “greats”, like Buddy Rich. With many of his classmates knowing that an infamous Shaffer conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is looking for a new drum alternate, Neiman successfully auditions for him and joins his class.  The story goes on to develop the teacher/student relationship between Andrew and Terence, an emotional powder-keg set to detonate at any moment.

Beyond the story and characters, what really knocked me out in the film was something I mentioned up top: PRECISION.  This film is incredibly precise.  For a film shot in 19 days and edited in 9 weeks, it’s a miracle of editing.  Every beat of the film feels perfectly crafted.  It may sound hamfisted to say the film is “pitch perfect” or “hits every note,” but it’s a gem.  I really hope it gets an Oscar Nomination for Best Editing.  It would take me forever to sit down and craft a game-plan to even attempt some of the sequences in the movie.  For a guy so young, Damien Chazelle shows a remarkable amount of craftsmanship.  It’s not surprising he’s being tapped for multiple projects going forward.  His DP Sharone Meir lenses the film with a beautiful pallet, helping Damien fully realize his vision.  The intense color in the film, particularly the warm tones and striking contrast lend to the film’s intensity.

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If J.K. Simmons doesn’t grab an Oscar this year I will be very disappointed.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a performance as good as Terence Fletcher.  The very first scene of the film tells us everything we need to know about him.  J.K. takes that instrument of his and knocks you out in a crescendo of vulgarity that scares you one moment and makes you laugh the next.  He was such a fascinating character to watch.  He (the character) is clearly great at what he does, but his abusive behavior with his students, his demeanor, and other aspects of how he carries himself makes you unsure of his intentions.  Is this guy just a jerk?  Does he relish it?  He strives for perfection, for greatness in his students, but his methods are questionable.  The film is basically a giant guessing game, with you almost wanting him to push his students and Andrew’s character at times, and in other moments you want to tackle him in frustration.  Like any great film, each new scene reveals something new about his character, and keeps the guessing game going.  What J.K. does so well is ride that line of anger and sympathy.  I’ve always found him to be extremely likable as an actor, and he brings a lot of weight to the role of Terence.  There’s a moment where he arrives in class to announce one of his former students is dead.  He is emotional, sincere, and clearly shaken.  It’s in those moments that he becomes something much more than a man who yells.  This is what a great antagonist looks like.  It would be so easy to make his character a brute who screams and yells profanities with no humanity.  In other hands, he’d be just another one-dimensional bad guy, square and boring, but Writer/Director Damien Chazelle rounds out his character on the page and J.K. gives him emotional weight.

Andrew Neiman played by Miles Teller is equally fascinating.  I’ve been watching Teller for a few years now, and he’s A-list talent all the way.  The upcoming Oscar race will likely secure that, when he gets his Nomination.  If he doesn’t, like Simmons, I’ll be hugely disappointed.  It would be fantastic if he won.  Teller plays the role of Andrew with as much intensity as Simmons, but his is more internal.  The most incredible scenes are those with him alone, drumming.  His intense desire for greatness and the brooding rivalry with Terrance portrays what might be the finest example of the artist’s struggle ever put on screen.  You wince while Andrew practices with so much rage that blood pours from his finger tips and hands.  He plays through the pain before finally dipping his hands into jugs of ice water.  He goes through one bandage after another for the cuts and blisters that constantly develop, worsen, and break open.  The film is a literal portrayal of the artist’s struggle as well as a powerful metaphor.

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What does it take to be truly great?  I can’t go on about the story without spoiling the film, but as a filmmaker, and someone who has always been artistic, I could understand the pain and the anguish Andrew was going through.  I’ve had my own days with bloodied hands, just different context.  I’ve thrown things, screamed obscenities, and boiled with rage, all for the sake of trying to create something.  The struggle is real, and the desire to be truly great at something without the blood, sweat, and tears, means little.  You’ll either bleed to reach for that greatness or you won’t.  Desire isn’t enough.  As Terence says to Miles at one point, “There are no two words in the english language more harmful than good job.”  While some may scoff at the sentiment, we live in a culture dominated more and more by the acceptance of mediocrity, school activities where everyone gets a medal to not cause “emotional distress,” and other sorts of conditioning.  Our military pushes our troops farther than they think they can go, not by holding their hand and giving them a hug, but through a level of intensity that is extraordinary.  To be truly great at something always requires more than you expect to give, and everyone needs someone in their life who’s willing to push them to the limit, and sometimes far over it.  Greatness is something few people achieve.  The question that Whiplash asks is: How bad do you want it?

Short Term 12: Movie Review

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Short Term 12 was a film I heard about but never got around to seeing.  I go to the theater often, and even though I’m in Atlanta, I often miss the smaller indies when they’re in theaters.  Thank goodness for Netflix!  What a gem this movie is!  It’s one of the best reviewed films of 2013, and it deserves every bit of praise it gets.  The concept of the film is simple.  A 20-something supervising staff member of a residential treatment facility for troubled kids navigates the waters of that world alongside her co-worker and longtime boyfriend.  That doesn’t sound like an exciting ride does it?  I’m almost positive that if I pitched that to friends, the response would be lukewarm at best.  “Why would you make that?”  “That sounds depressing.”  I can hear the responses in my head.  Despite the seemingly dry premise, the movie rises above, creating complex characters and deep human moments that put a lump in your throat.  Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton based the film on a short film of the same name, modeled after his experiences working with troubled kids.  The old saying “you write what you know” couldn’t be more true.  It might seem like I’m gushing too hard over this movie, like it can’t be as good as I make it sound, but it is.

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The subject matter makes the film difficult to watch at times. It’s not comfortable. It digs deep into the nasty side of life, but it manages to leave you with hope, and the realization that relationships are what make life tolerable, and only together can we heal.  This is why I love indie film so much.  Smaller character driven stories that dive head first into the human condition.  The performances are top notch, and every character gets their moment to shine, even the smaller supporting roles of all ages.  There isn’t a single moment in the film that feels fake, and I’m extremely strict on that sort of thing.  Brie Larson is a revelation in the role of Grace.  Who is this woman!?  She’s been in a few other things but nothing that lets her grab hold of a character like this.  If this had gotten more widespread industry attention, I bet an Oscar Nomination would’ve been a lock for Miss Larson.  Her co-star, John Gallagher Jr. from The Newsroom plays Mason, and he’s compelling in every scene he touches.  The relationship between Mason and Grace is more authentic and raw than most movies I see today.  They’re two people with dark pasts who’ve found one another.  Their love and romance is genuine and messy.  That gives things a dynamic you don’t see much due to the subject matter of their pasts.  Mason’s character is someone we all wish we could be or be friends with.  He’s fun, likable, and he’s been through hell, but that hasn’t broken down his personality.  If anything, it’s helped create it, and given him more vigor to understand and be patient with the kids he works with (and his girl), something I think we can all admit we suck at.  Another standout is Keith Stanfield who plays Marcus.  The only credit he had before this was The Purge: Anarchy.  He practically rips your heart out in the film, especially when he raps his “new beats” for Mason.  The scene starts with you chuckling, feeling sad soon after, then speechless.  All I could do is gulp when it was over.  I wish we had more scenes like that in films that cost 100 times more.  Are you listening Hollywood?

“Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.” – Marcus

Another surprise is Kaitlyn Dever as Jayden.  Like the character of Marcus, she has her own moment that leaves you speechless when she shares a story she wrote.  I won’t go into that any farther or I risk spoiling the film, but the scene is heartbreaking.  However, she also cracked me up more than once with her dry and sarcastic humor, though you know deep hurt has fueled it.  Humor is another area where this film excels which helps you navigate the darkness.  A scene where Jayden’s character has a disturbing meltdown makes you sad, but jokes a moment later diffuse things.  It’s a really weird mix of emotions, but it makes the film so enjoyable.  Later on in Act 3 we come to the films darkest and most intense moment, and even that moment is wrapped up with a humorous line, delivered again, by Jayden.  This film is an absolute rollercoaster of emotion that excels at every peak and valley.  Some may dislike the look of the film, which is very flat and desaturated, but I think the feel of the movie puts you in the moment.  I was never distracted.  The film almost feels like a documentary, with you peaking in on the real lives of those on-screen.

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I could go on forever about what makes Short Term 12 so good, but I think you need to see the movie for yourself.  I can’t wait to see what Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton cooks up next.  My expectations are very high.  Movies this authentic do not come around often.  These sort of films make me excited as a filmmaker.  You don’t need $10 million to make something great.  You do however need a fantastic script and great actors, something most people don’t have, but this film does.  There’s a reason this film dazzled critics and viewers alike.  Short Term 12 is an indie gem with heart and authenticity that can’t be ignored.

Short Term 12 is Rated-R for language and brief sexuality.