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WHIPLASH Review: Yeah, But Look at the Results

Whiplash Poster 1One of my favorite childhood memories is the sound of my Babcia’s choir.  They sang in Ukrainian, a language I (sadly) never learned, but despite that, just the sound of the collective – the harmony, the power – filled the enormous church and made me feel good.  On occasion, I would go to choir practice with Babcia after mass.  My only memories of those experiences involve the choir director screaming at his singers again and again, cutting them off and making them start over, for hours on end or until his voice was shot.

I didn’t understand it then but I’ve come to since.  His high demand for perfection resulted in an amazing sound – a sound I remember and remember loving so much.  That high demand/high reward approach is at the core of Whiplash.

Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old jazz drummer and student at a prestigious music conservatory.  Andrew’s goal is not to one day be great; his goal is to one day be one of the greats.  There is a clear distinction, and Andrew knows it well.  Being a student at the school is the first step towards getting there, and he gets his next big chance when he is invited to be a member of Terence Fletcher’s (J.K. Simmons) band.  Fletcher is a teacher at the school with two distinct reputations.

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One reputation is that of recognizing great talent.  The school only accepts the best of the best, and Fletcher only works with the best of those.  The other reputation, though, is one of a cruel, sometimes abusive, teacher – one who berates his students with profanity- and epithet-laced tirades, all in an effort to bring out their best.  The results of the former reputation mask well the sins of the latter.

Andrew’s first role in Fletcher’s band is that of Alternate – a second-string drummer relegated to turning the sheet music pages of the Core drummer.  Hard work and a little luck change that, but being Core brings another level of demand from Fletcher that will either drive Andrew to greatness or drive him to insanity.

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Writer/director Damien Chazelle crafts and executes something electrifying in Whiplash.  The film is a simultaneously frenetic and fluid look at a familiar story, but Chazelle turns that story on its head with the first crash of Andrew’s cymbal.

The story is that of the obsession for perfection and the high price of greatness.  This is a tale usually told against the backdrop of athletics, where screaming is part of everyday communication, where berating a player is supposed to build character, and where “leaving it all on the field” typically involves blood loss.  Chazelle takes these clichés off the field of play and injects them into … a music conservatory?  Indeed, and to great affect.  Because such extreme behavior occurs in a place traditionally regarded as calm and reserved makes the behavior that much more intense.

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Dishing it out in the music room and leaving it all on the drum kit both rely heavily on the strength of the film’s co-leads, and those co-leads deliver, giving equally amazing yet wildly diverse performances.

The intimidation – and it is intimidating – is doled out with unstoppable might from Simmons.  Fletcher’s superiority is felt in his first scene.  Andrew is alone and practicing drums when Fletcher confronts him – not screaming, just being imposing.  It’s their first meeting.  The teacher verbally vivisects the student efficiently and effectively, leaving Andrew to wonder if everything he has been working towards for 19 years has been turned to dust in 90 seconds.  From that point forward, Fletcher’s intensity, in the hands of Simmons and like a Big Band Jazz chart, rises and falls in waves of seething emotional rage and quiet, psychological cruelty.  Fletcher is more than a music teacher – he is a surgeon and a butcher and he knows when to use which instrument to get the most out of his musicians – especially Andrew.

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As Andrew, Teller is revelatory.  Unlike most tales of young athletes on the brink of greatness, there is no swagger to Andrew, no cocksure chip on his shoulder that needs to be knocked off before he can rise to be a better player.  Nor, however, is there humility.  Teller creates Andrew as a painfully unassuming young man who knows he has the skills, but lacks that something extra to get him where he wants to be.  (His being a drummer makes sense, really; he’s hiding behind that kit and doing the workman’s work – keeping the beat – and letting the guys up front get the attention.)

Andrew evolves, though.  He becomes more confident in what he can do and what he wants to be, he becomes driven to the point of being singularly focused, and he even allows for the rare moment of arrogance, as evidenced by his devastating (Fletcher-like) commentary on his cousin’s pursuits in the (Division III) college football ranks.  Other than that, he keeps it all in check because he isn’t there … yet.

This is the Miles Teller The Spectacular Now teased us with.  This is the Miles Teller that Miles Teller needs to be.

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Chazelle’s master stroke is that while he takes the story off the athletic field, he leaves the athleticism in it – even the sweat, and especially the blood.  Fletcher pushes Andrew to the point that the young drummer bleeds from blistered hands and busted knuckles, leaving stains on snares and droplets on cymbals like a violent crime has just taken place.  And while Teller’s performance earns the sweat, he isn’t the only one flexing his physicality.

Simmons is like a cobra, lithe and sinewy, as he moves around the room listening to – and stopping and starting and stopping and starting – the music,  until he’s in Andrews face with fangs bared and ready to consume the boy for being off rhythm so slightly, only someone of Fletcher’s calibre could hear it.

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The film’s only weak point involves a romantic interest for Andrew.  As his confidence increases, Andrew gets up the nerve to ask movie theater employee Nicole (Melissa Benoist) on a date.  She says yes, a romance blossoms, but the romance must end because it takes a way from Andrew’s focus on being one of the greats.  In a film that does something different with other clichés, it sticks to the old playbook here, which adds nothing of value to the film and at times gets in the way.

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With a fabulous jazz score, incredible direction from Chazelle, and precision editing from Tom Cross (editing that the film lives and dies with, and oh how it lives), Whiplash is like nothing I have seen before.  The title might refer to one of the songs from the film, but as the closing credits roll, it isn’t surprising I grabbed the back of my neck and wondered what hit me.


JOHN WICK Review: Fortune Favors the Old

October 24, 2014 2 comments

John Wick PosterEven if you take The Expendables 3 off the table, 2014 has been quite the year for the aging action star.   (I take it off the table because aging heroes are the gimmick of that film and franchise.)  The year has already seen major releases from a half-dozen of the AARP’s toughest tough guys (age, title):

Arnold Schwarzenegger (67, Sabotage)
Liam Neeson (62, Non-Stop)
Pierce Brosnan (61, The November Man)
Denzel Washington (59, The Equalizer)
Kevin Costner (59, 3 Days to Kill)
Tom Cruise (52, Edge of Tomorrow)

Well, there’s a new kid on the (retirement community) block: the freshly-minted 50-year-old Keanu Reeves.  Like his peers, Reeves is no stranger to action films.  His two entries of cinematic consequence are as the centerpiece of The Wachowskis‘ Matrix trilogy and star of the great 1994 action movie from Jan de Bont, Speed.  Now, Reeves looks to prove he’s worthy of a seat at his fellow action elders’ 4:00 dinner table in his newest effort, John Wick.

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Reeves plays the title character, a retired hitman who left the business five years ago when he fell in love.  In the present day, his wife dies of a terminal illness and Wick finds himself alone, save the puppy his wife game him.  While out for a head-clearing spin in his ’69 Mustang, Wick runs into a hotheaded punk at a gas station.  The kid wants to buy his car.  Wick says it isn’t for sale.  The kid mouths-off in Russian.  Wick mouths-off back in Russian.  The kid and some thugs show up at Wick’s house that night, beat him up, kill his dog, and steal his car.

It turns out the kid is Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), son of Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist).  When Viggo learns his son did this to legendary killing machine John Wick, and when Viggo can’t reason with Wick, all hell breaks loose.  Wick comes after Iosef while Viggo dispatches his own men to stop Wick and puts a $2MM contract on Wick’s head, something that interests Wick’s old hitman friend Marcus (Willem Dafoe), as well as eager hitwoman Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki).

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Just like that cherry Mustang, John Wick runs on a lot of cylinders and it fires on almost all of them.  It starts with a near-perfect open that efficiently and stylistically establishes Wick’s tragedy and creates the conflict necessary to power the film.  It’s also where the legend of Wick is established, including the great line that, when compared to The Boogeyman, Wick is, “…the man you call when you want to kill The Boogeyman.”  During the open, first-time directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski establish a palpable sense of anticipation that things are likely to explode at any moment.

And explode they do, in action sequences that are often exhausting (in the best possible ways) and always stylishly choreographed.  This is where the past expertise of Leitch and Stahelski shines: stunt work.  With over 150 stunt-related credits between them, the directors thoroughly understand the physicality of an action sequence and how to make it look its best onscreen.  The fire is rapid and the body count is high, but the directors keep it all well-framed and well-paced.

The casting is great, too.  Other than Reeves, it’s a film built on character actors (with a fine cameo from David Patrick Kelly as a cleaner), all of whom understand how the sum of small parts can add up to one solid cast.

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And for all of the good things the film does, there are things it doesn’t do that work well, too.  Most importantly, the film never aspires to be something loftier, only to set itself up for failure (see: Lucy); it knows it’s about 90% style, 10% substance, and it maximizes that.  Wick isn’t some kind of super-assassin.  This is perfect, really, because his legend is that, but now, five years later, he’s a little out of practice, and he takes his shots as well as gives them (and he bleeds – considerably – in the process).  Wick also has several tattoos, seen only once (read: not exploited) in a quick shower scene.  The largest is text across his back, from shoulder blade to shoulder blade, reading “Fortes Fortuna Adiuvat”: Fortune Favors the Bold.

Screenwriter Derek Kolstad doesn’t load the dialogue with quips.  The humorous moments – natural tension breakers – are spoken mostly during pauses that levity lends itself to.  Also importantly, the filmmakers don’t sexualize Ms. Perkins.  Palicki, a beautiful woman and no stranger to the pages of magazines like FHM, could easily have been crafted as some type of widow-maker, a woman who uses her body to accomplish her mission.  Not here.  Here she fires guns alongside (or against) the boys.  She’s the only female character but she is treated as an equal.

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The film isn’t without its flaws, though.  The danger of high-octane action is that sometimes those rest periods feel a lot slower than normal; that happens here.  Other action movie clichés can be found as well, including a villain whose time spent chatting affords the hero an opportunity to recover; an overwrought (almost anti-)climactic hand-to-hand battle at the film’s end; and some structure and rules within the film’s criminal realm that are clever, but strain the believability of the “honor among thieves” code.  (These men and women have their own currency – it’s so odd.)  As for the directors, while their collective eye for style is sharp and their use of close-ups is effective, they are enamored with transition shots of the city from overhead, which grows tiresome.

Oh, and the film sadly underuses John Leguizamo (as chop-shop owner Aureilo) and Ian McShane (as a key player in that quirky realm).

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With a character perfect for Reeves’ stoic – at times emotionless – demeanor, and with subtle homage to films from action’s golden age, the 1980s (including Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Highlander), John Wick not only becomes a movie with connections to three previous decades’ worth of fine shoot-em-ups, it becomes one of the best action films of 2014.


DIVORCE CORP. Review: Money Changes Everything

Divorce Corp PosterLike many other things today, divorce has lost a lot of its societal impact, a lot of its shock value.  It wasn’t that long ago – certainly within the lifetimes of people alive now – that divorce was considered shameful and scandalous.  Today, divorce is commonly a headline or a punchline (or both); sightings of parents making kid-swaps in convenience store parking lots are routine; and just about anyone can spout the “50% statistic” about divorce.  People also know that divorce can be messy and expensive.  But a lot of people don’t know just how messy or how expensive it can be, and who – or what – just might be to blame for the muck and the money.  Director Joseph Sorge‘s Divorce Corp. attempts to make those things known.

The documentary opens with a little statistical rope-a-dope.  The first statement to appear onscreen is the obvious one: 50% of US marriages end in divorce.  It’s the next statement that goes for the knockout: Divorce is more than a 50 billion dollar a year industry.  That’s “billion.”  With a B.

Through the traditional combination of data-fueled graphs and animation, interviews with a wide variety of people, and a smoothly delivered narrative (courtesy of narrator Dr. Drew Pinsky), the documentary attempts to present the case that because the divorce industry – a euphemism for the US Family Court system – has structured itself in such a way that it acts beyond and above the law, it has become corrupt and favors no one but itself.  “Itself” is defined as the judges, lawyers, and other key players who make staggering sums of money.

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Divorce Corp. is a curious exercise in documentarian extremes.

To the positive extreme, the film uses a blend of data, cases, and interviews (with judges, lawyers, spouses, ex-spouses, and others) – and does so early and often – to expose the flawed construct of the US Family Court system, and does so by pointing out some things that maybe I should have already known.  For example, I never knew Family Court is a “Court of Equity,” not a “Court of Law.”  As such, no one has the right to an attorney in Family Court.  (The film makes a big deal of this, going so far as to state this denies people their constitutional rights to legal representation.  That’s a debate for another platform.)

Also interesting is how the film lays out the money trail to highlight that it isn’t just the lawyers that get rich.  Judges also get rich through various (legal) means, as do other players, like parenting evaluators (in custody cases) and court-appointed mediators.  There is then an overarching lather-rinse-repeat rhythm to the process, as lawyers file mountains of paperwork, which begets the filing of additional paperwork mountains by other lawyers, which motivates the judge to take additional action that creates the need for more paperwork, all of which goes on and on – sometimes for years and often times longer than the marriage itself – and adds up to stacks of cash.  (According to one statistic cited in the film, the average divorce costs $50,000 from start to finish.)

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To the negative extreme, though, the film goes to great lengths to find the ugliest “actual” stories to tell.  These are tales not just of greedy lawyers (one attorney boasts an hourly rate of $950), but of ruthless judges, unfit evaluators, and a system that thrives on the most corrupt strain of back-room quid pro quo.  In one tale, a judge strips custody of a woman’s children because she goes to the media.  In another, a father is arrested because he refuses to remove a blog that is critical of a judge.  And in the worst tale, a parenting evaluator who attempts to blackmail a mother is later found to be involved in or associated with behavior that (the film implies) belies the responsibility his formal role requires him to take.

Presenting these stories, and more like them, is the film’s great misstep.  Any good will gained in the early stages of the film (no matter how overzealously some of the “facts” are presented) is lost by the implications that the excessive (and excessively lurid) tales make.  Their cumulative narrative indirectly suggests that because the system is bad, and these particular people from within the system are bad, then surely all people within the system are bad.  As this message is pounded home, the film shifts from being a message movie to having an agenda.

I don’t know anyone in the Family Court system, but surely some of them are good guys.

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Divorce Corp. is at its best when it efforts to present information that exposes the considerable flaws in the US Family Court system.  Once it strays from that, though, it becomes nothing more than a series of salacious segments loosely attached to the social cause the first half of the film championed so well.