WHIPLASH REVIEW

As someone who devoted most of their formative years to music, I can say with confidence that the music making process can get intense. Tempers can easily be tested and the potential for embarrassment is always on the cusp. Lifelong insecurities come from this stuff.

With Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle understands that undercurrent of emotion (himself a former music student) and mines it for all it’s worth. The story of a jazz drumming student pushed to his absolute limit by a ruthless instructor, Whiplash is a far more intense experience than a majority of thrillers and a kinetic, disturbing look at the lengths one will go to reach their potential.

War is hell but music can be pretty close. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a young prospective drum student at one of New York’s premiere jazz academies. It’s there that he catches the eye of music maestro Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) and is given his big break into the world of top-tier jazz performance. Little does he realize that Fletcher sees greatness in him, which means he’s about to launch a full-scale psychological campaign against Andrew to bring that greatness forward.

It’s compliment that can’t bestowed on nearly enough movies but it absolutely fits here: Whiplash is never boring. Chazelle delivers a taught, skillful film that asks questions about what it takes to achieve greatness and whether greatness through adversity is the right path. The game of war between Teller and Simmons is amazing to witness, with each subsequent moment of the movie feeling like it’s reaching the razor’s edge. Chazelle knows that in the world of competitive music even the most innocent mistake, like misplacing a music folder or not adequately practicing come rehearsal time, can cause a panic attack — something he very well may be out to incite.

Of course, so much of that is due to the cast. Teller ditches the smarmy Vice Vaughn impression and plays a real, layered, driven individual. Through him we see both the triumphs and sacrifices that come with going for the gold and are asked “Is it worth this punishment?” Or rather, would I literally bleed as much as he currently is for my craft?

Which brings us to Simmons, who is nothing short of a knockout as Fletcher. The actor is constantly riding the line of being ridiculous in his abrasiveness, but by god it works. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the writers have given him a very difficult, duplicitous character to work with; after doing something reprehensible, we’ll see hints of humanity and maybe even empathize with him, which is usually followed by him doing something every more appalling. Simmon’s performance as this battering ram of a person, understandable in purpose but deplorable in methods, is a standout.

Equal if not greater praise has to be given to the editing of Whiplash for keeping things constantly on the point of panic. Jazz is alive in the very fiber of this film’s being. The big band performance sequences are some of the most comprehensive, memorable portrayals of music performance put to screen thanks to the deliberate, mathematical way in which they’re put together. Maybe the sequences themselves come close to being long in the tooth, much like Simmons’ performance, but they always hit the right note by the end. The effect is absolutely heart-racing.

It’s stunning how lean and mean (emphasis on the latter) Chazelle’s sophomore effort is. Its universal themes are explored in depth without being heavy handed, the performances are killer and the intense emotion of the piece pulls you in for good. Simmons’ Fletcher may believe that “good job” is a poisonous phrase, but it’s a vast understatement when it comes to Whiplash.

9/10

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BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) REVIEW

From the opening drum riff and the very first image of a comet burning bright in the sky, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu makes it clear that you will be using your brain throughout Birdman. The Mexican director establishes from the get-go that his story of a former Hollywood star grappling to put together a Broadway production will be an “ideas movie.”

True to his word, Birdman is rife with ideas, both thematically and in technical experimentation, that throw caution to the wind and just go for it. As one might expect, some ideas stick and some do not, but among the best of them is the decision to bring in both Michael Keaton and Edward Norton to really show us what they’ve got.

In an effort to escape his image as an aging celebrity, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is writing, producing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Apparently the universe has other plans, as Riggan is pushed to his wits end by the antics of a new, difficult costar (Edward Norton), who has set his sights on Riggan’s troubled daughter/assistant, Sam (Emma Stone). If that’s not enough, Riggan also must ward off a venomous theatre critic intent on sinking the show, as well as his own impending mental collapse, brought on by the less-than-helpful disembodied voice of the character he made famous, Birdman. Oh, did I mention he may also be developing telekinesis?

At the core of things, Birdman is about Riggan’s descent into madness, and on that level, the film is well done. It can not be stated enough how much Keaton’s performance adds to the pathos of the movie, with the veteran actor expertly carrying the film. It’s Keaton’s comeback show but Norton, Stone, Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan all make their presences known. Horrible as it sounds, the plot points of Riggin’s downfall are delightful to watch in that special, dark comedy type of way.

It’s in how Inarritu goes about showing that story that things become a mixed bag. Some gimmicks are actually really cool and others show that the director is too preoccupied with making “art” that the natural intrigue gets lost in favor of manufactured intellectualism. Much as I hate calling things pretentious, this fits the bill in more than one area.

In the camp of things that are awesome, Antonio Sanchez’s 100 percent drum kit score (barring just a few classical soundtrack interludes) pays off, flooding the film with improvisational street beats that marry the film’s spastic psyche with the rhythms of New York City.

Perhaps the biggest trick Innaritu tries to pull off is the illusion that Birdman is one long, continuous camera take. While it sounds awesome in theory (especially considering Gravity‘s Emmanuel Lubezki handles the cinematography), the trick works amazingly for scenes with a lot going on, bobbing and weaving in between different character actions, then often fails in the slower sections of the story, leaving in the vacuums of momentum that editing could have rightfully done away with. By the end, most of the film’s pacing is shot.

Outside the main dilemma of Riggan’s fall from grace, Innaritu and his co-writers have a lot to say on the state of film vs. theatre, criticism, relevancy in the modern age, etc., but it too often feels just like a superficial look at these ideas (better than nothing, I guess). Character nuances are spelled out plainly in monologues, rather than shown naturally — again blurring the line between cinema and theatre for the worst.

And where would the film be without a helping of magical realism, highlighted beautifully by Riggan’s zany hallucination of Birdman himself, taunting the actor to abandon his quest for artistic integrity with lots of ‘splosions, which audiences apparently eat up. It’s a fun sequence and the most bombastic moment of an otherwise downplayed area of the movie.

Birdman is worth the price of admission alone in watching Keaton and his fellow co-stars do their thing. And while some of Innaritu’s artistic nuances definitely work — weird as it sounds — it’s hard not imagine what the film could have been if the filmmakers had played things just ever-so-slightly more straight.

7/10 

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAKSHOW EPISODES 1-3

When it debuted in 2011, the most profound thing about FX’s American Horror Story wasn’t its blend of psycho-sexual horror, rather its ability to make the kitchen sink route work, throwing as many horror plots and nods out there as they can and still bringing it all together nicely.

This ambitious approach worked really well for showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Fulchuck for a while, giving us two stellar seasons of the anthology series: Murder House and Asylum.

But after a lackluster third season, Coven, and the first three episodes of the hotly anticipated fourth season, Freakshow, in the bag, the major flaw of the series’ design is starting to show. Simply put, diminishing returns are catching up fast.

Freakshow takes us to Jupiter, FL, circa 1952, as conjoined twins Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson in a dual role) are forced to join one of the last remaining freakshows in the country after they are implicated in some suspicious criminal activity. Run by Mistress Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), a limelight-hungry German ex-pat, the community houses such mistreated “freaks” such as Jimmy, the Lobster Boy (Evan Peters), Ethel, the Bearded Lady (Kathy Bates, sporting the most confounding accent this side of Baltimore) and Meep the Geek, who makes his living biting the heads off chickens.

Things quickly go from crazy to mental breakdown with the arrival of strongman Dell (Michael Chiklis), whose history with Ethel and ambitions to assume control of the show over Elsa cause sparks to fly. Not only that, the Jupiter police are dead set on punishing the freaks, while a shifty conman and his assistant (Dennis O’Hare and Emma Roberts) are plotting on getting their hands on the twins for reasons that might be described as museum related.

Lest we forget, there is also a murder clown making the rounds in the Jupiter area doing exactly what you would expect murder clowns to do.

This synopsis is only referring to the first three episodes and only covers about half of the story arcs already established.

It’s a lot to keep track of, and while there will always be plotlines that are more interesting than others, everything this season just feels like the air has been let out. There’s no shortage of great visuals going on, with Paulson’s performance as Bette and Dot providing a fascinating look at acting, while Twisty the Clown Killer is every bit as terrifying as people may lead you to believe.

And yet, the show hasn’t yet tapped back into that magic that kept you tuning back in, week after week. Characters, despicable as they usually are in this show, haven’t shown the type of charisma that past years have, with the mute clown assuming the role of most intriguing character over the usually terrific Lange, who is saddled here with her least interesting role on the show to date.

AHS certainly isn’t known for pulling its pieces together early on (mystery, people) but the current plotlines they have going don’t seem to demand any continued investment. Here we go with another love triangle, only this time it’s with the conjoined twins, the lobster boy and the faux fortune teller (sounds awesome on paper, we’ll see how it goes on film). Meanwhile the strongman is a jerk because he’s impotent, because sympathy. Even the appearance of a ghostly freak legend (Wes Bentley) on Halloween hasn’t reached its potential thanks to him being overly conversational.

Part of the problem early on might be the fact that each early episode runs upwards of an hour, as opposed to the standard 43 minutes, without much justification. If there was an abundance of cool things going on, this would be awesome; as is, it just feels like we’re getting less for more.

[At least part of this problem could be solved if someone just sat Ryan Murphy down and screamed into his face that “THIS IS NOT GLEE.” Every episode thus far this season has featured a hackneyed musical number, owing to the fact that somehow this freak show is focused around singing. This was a cute, inventive turn that one time they used it in Asylum; it then became questionable when they kept bringing in Stevie Nicks in Coven; now the tired gimmick needs to be retired. Forever.]

Freakshow still has plenty of time to pick itself up, starting with this week’s concluding chapter to the annual Halloween episode, so who knows, maybe this season can pull off the hat trick and get back to greatness. But just going by these first few episodes, it simply looks like they’ve hit that point with all great TV shows and are running on a definite lack of steam.

DRACULA UNTOLD REVIEW

Like the main man himself, the mythology of Dracula has been around for a long, long time.

With Dracula Untold, we have an attempt to go back to how it all started with the Prince of Darkness receiving an origin tale that screams “Game of Thrones meets gritty superhero reboot origin.” — Dracula Begins, if you will.

While it may be a pretty derivative way of handling the material, and the film certainly isn’t high art when it comes to story or characterization, Dracula Untold overcomes its roadblocks by putting stake (get it) into simply being a fun, energetic time at the movies.

When the Sultan demands his son as an offering for his army, Vlad Dracula (Luke Evans), known once as The Impaler, strikes a deal with an ancient evil and is granted three days to eradicate his enemies with all the powers of darkness at his disposal. However, if he gives in to his unrelenting thirst for human blood within those three days, then he is cursed to roam the Earth forever as a creature of the night.

It has not been a good year for revisionist action films based on literary characters (maybe it’s due to the whole “revisionist action film based on literary characters” part). This summer’s Maleficent was an abscess of wonderment while this past winter’s I, Frankenstein was a bigger abomination than its title creature.

Really, it’s not like Dracula Untold is the Dark Knight of the unfortunate subgenre, either. First-time director Gary Shore and screenwriters Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama play the story out in completely routine fashion — gee, I wonder if Dracula will ultimately become Dracula? — with a lot of the main cast, like Sarah Gadon and Dominic Cooper, just there to be necessary pieces in the puzzle. The film’s story is nothing if not straightforward and predictable, with a healthy dash of unintentional dopiness thrown in, just for good measure.

However, the deciding factor here, above all else, is that the film is largely really entertaining. While not big on dramatic depth, Shore tries many inventive visual ideas in showcasing Dracula and his powers, a large majority of which pay off. For an action-horror movie, the blend between the two is surprisingly fun to watch, as visual representations of Drac’s nocturnal POV and his ability to transform into and control bats are slickly rendered on screen.

Although the film has some blood let out of it by the PG-13 rating, which keeps things from getting too graphically sloppy, the mood and efforts to adhere to mythology are spot on here. It makes no bones about going for a GOT feel, but Untold‘s moody visual aesthetic — shot in atmospheric Nothern Ireland — feels genuine, while its depiction of both vampire lore and the Dracula legend is a nice callback to the classic days of horror. Ramin Djawadi’s score also carries a lot of weight to it, excellently mixing the Gothic tones of Dracula, as well as the medieval action heft of GOT.

To its credit, it’s also not a terribly long film, whizzing by at around 90 minutes, giving us just the bloody meat of things.

Evans has natural star charisma, and unlike many of his previous roles, he actually gets to put it to good use here. As a torn warrior, fighting against his own urges and past life (as well as the obvious invading army), Evans has the act down. As the undead nocturnal predator of nightmare lore… not quite there yet. That particular creature is embodied here by Charles Dance’s elder vampire, an eye-catching mustache twirler who could have an interesting role to play in future films in this franchise.

And yes, it’s quite possible this could be the first in Universal’s new monster series, picking back up with Alex Kurtzman’s Mummy remake. In that case, starting off as a medieval actioner is fine, but the series will benefit much more going forward by abandoning the war approach in favor of atmospheric horror and a much better script.

The good casting choices, strong tone and impressive visuals, however, can live on.

6.5/10

GONE GIRL REVIEW

Appearances can be deceiving.

At face value, Gone Girl, the film adaptation of the 2012 novel by Gillian Flynn, presents itself as a mystery thriller, not terribly unlike any other. But as events unfurl in this tale of the aftermath from a wife disappearing, everything you think you know gets thrown up in the air and the film becomes something else entirely.

Something sinister; something you won’t see coming; something that will knock you flat on your butt, time and time again, then consistently draw you back in before pulling the rug out again.

Any project of director David Fincher has some guaranteed level of quality but Gone Girl isn’t just quality — it’s superiority.

On the day of their five-year anniversary, struggling bar owner Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), has vanished, leaving behind only a series of anniversary riddles and a broken coffee table. What starts off as a community search for the missing Amy eventually starts to cast doubt on Nick’s side of the story. Is this really a kidnapping or is murder the more likely rationale?

[As a general disclaimer, so much of the surprise of Gone Girl comes from the, well, surprises. It doesn’t take long at all before a slew of amazing twists make their way into the story, blowing minds and bladders. I’ll do my part to keep them from you if you do your part to avoid them at all cost before the movie. Deal?]

It’s not hard to see Gone Girl as a very unique type of flower. On the outside, Fincher has constructed a very technically detailed, perfectly designed blossom. Shots are composed to the brink of perfection — very much in line with Fincher’s compulsive eye for detail — while the shifting perspectives in the plot paint an idyllic picture, lulling you into a false sense of security.

Then the pedals start getting peeled back and the thorns spear through. Flynn’s story (which she adapted into screenplay format for the film) continues to top itself in depravity after a point, while the author’s acerbic wit shines through in a number of terrific monologues and interactions, throughout which there is a whip-smart sense of humor despite every subsequent moment of the movie pushing into sicker territory.

Ever since the book was first released, there has been the question of whether Flynn’s story is feminist or misogynist. Sorry to say, but it doesn’t seem likely that the movie will put that debate to rest (I’m inclined to think it’s a bit of both, for reasons better left unspoiled.) But trust me, this isn’t the only thing the movie will have you thinking about. Gone Girl is nothing if not an intellectual farmers market of ideas on psychological motivations, media coverage in personal crisis’ and what ‘s really at the heart of a marriage. It’s hard-hitting stuff that’s presented in a masterful way.

It’s no coincidence that Gone Girl is out right at the beginning of awards season because the film has the potential for some serious gold. Fincher cements himself at the top of the directorial achievement roster for the year with this moody Rubik’s cube, even though the only problem the film has comes from his not being able to power through to the end, similar to his remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Similarly, Flynn’s brilliant writing sucks you in from moment one and deserves any and all acclaim that comes its way.

Affleck does well in his role as the embattled husband (all worries about Battfleck are pretty much gone), and The Leftovers‘ Carrie Coon steals scenes as Nick’s sardonic sister Margo, but this is Rosamund Pike’s show. Embodying the visage of classic film noir actresses, Pike is stunning in her role and makes the movie just as much as Flynn’s writing.

Gone Girl is the anti-date movie. It takes the concepts of love and marriage and blows them all to hell. Fincher and Flynn’s work is intelligent and finely crafted and the cast performances are impeccable. Like a great piece of art, it enters your psyche with its profound observations and refuses to leave. On that level alone, there may not be a better film this year.

10/10