A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Whiplash” 11.13.14

Winner of both the Audience Award and the Special Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival 29-year old wonder kind writer/director Damian Chazelle knows his music. Having been raised in a musical family himself and joined the band in high school. It would only make sense that his debut feature; given that he’s so young, would have something to do with music. I had heard about this one following the Sundance hoopla, and noticed that it had taken home the 2 coveted awards that I had mentioned above. So based on that and that alone I knew I was going to see it. Then I saw a trailer for it that pretty much knocked my socks off it looked so good. I did however think for a second that it looked strongly similar to Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010) about a ballet teacher who pushes one of his students too far. Except here it looked like a musical teacher who pushes his drummer student too far. Which left me slightly skeptical. That and while I’ve liked some of the work of its 2 leads in J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, the former of whom is one of the better “character” actors of our time but one whom I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a lead role from what I can recall. And the latter, Miles Teller, who prior to this I was only familiar with in his small but memorable role in John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” (2009) and as the lead in last year’s mediocre “The Spectacular Now” (2013). A film in which I thought got more credit than it deserved. But after hearing such good things about the film following the festival circuit, particularly that of the 2 actors who received a lot of buzz for their performances, I decided to check it out. What sealed the deal for me was having a lengthy discussion about it with one of the theater reps who spoke incredibly highly of it and who books movies at one of our commercial theater chains that tends to show a lot of the Academy bait-type movies early in the Oscar season. Before those movies get catapulted out into wide release later in the year as they start to get noticed via word-of-mouth. So, I went to see it and just barely chose it over Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s “Birdman” (a hard decision to make let me tell you). But one that I had nothing but the utmost confidence in.

The opening shot introduces to our first of 2 main central characters, Andrew (played by Miles Teller), in a pan in shot playing a drum solo that tips off the audience right away to the fact that he’s some sort of prodigy of sorts. Which is confirmed soon after when we find out that he is currently enrolled in a prestigious (though fictitious) music conservatory college in New York City. One in which even Andrew himself claims is “the best in the country”. Andrew, like most people who devote 100% of their life into honing their craft so that they can be the best, is a bit of a ghost to most of his classmates who seem to be able to maintain other interests outside of their area of study like most college students. He’s got no friends, is painfully shy, and spends his free time going to the movies with his father (played by Paul Reiser). He’s a second year, 19-year-old, back up drummer in class. Who basically just flips pages in the second seat waiting for his chance to be a core player. That chance comes one day in the form of the school’s most prestigious musical teacher, Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons), who also happens to teach the most reputable musical group in the school. One in which every student’s lifelong dream is to get into and play for him. Well, Andrew gets such an opportunity which elevates his confidence to ask out the attractive young girl who works at the movie theater he goes to with his dad. Everything seems to be going good for Andrew. At least for a short while until he gets his first crack at performing for the infamous Fletcher, and soon learns that there’s a method to his madness. The two then go on to develop a teacher-student relationship. A dynamic in which I haven’t seen since R.Lee Ermy’s Sargeant to Vincent D’Onfrio’s Private in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) or more recently Vincent Cassel’s dance troupe instructor with Natalie Portman’s ballet dancer in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010). Can Andrew rise to the challenge to fulfill his passion of becoming the best drummer at the school? Maybe one of the all times greats? Will Fletcher help bring this young prodigy get to the top? Or will his perfectionist and unorthodox methods of teaching act as a roadblock to him achieving his dream?

What can I say about this film other than that it was nothing short of exceptional. Easily the best part of it for me were the 2 very fine lead performances on display. It’s refreshing to see such a great script whose characters get played by 2 actors – one who’s relatively new to the game in the form of the young Miles Teller, and the other by a veteran actor like J.K. Simmons whose been in the business for years but mainly as a character actor in bit parts. Both are outstanding, particularly that of Simmons, and both of whom should get some serious awards attention as the critics and Academy start rolling out their nominations in the next few months. Secondly, like some of my favorite films do, it plays into several genres. It contains a sports drama element like 2002’s “Drumline”, part musical, psychological thriller, even at times borderline horror film like the aforementioned “Black Swan” (2010). Though don’t be fooled – at its very center it is first and foremost a concert film, and one of the very best I’ve seen about music in as far back as I can remember. The way the script and cast of professional jazz musicians bring the music to life really needs to be seen to be believed. At its core it’s really a film about the love for music and the lengths some people will go to be the very best. Which zips, booms, and bangs music and breathes new life into the genre with its great jazz, swing, and bebop score. The last thing I think is important to point out, is the testament to the truly great script which never panders to the audience, even if in the first third I thought I had the rest of the film figured out. The way in which it shifts gears in plot and keeps the audience guessing the 2 lead characters’ motivations to me was executed perfectly. Did I also mention it’s incredibly intense yet also an incredibly confident story and assured piece of filmmaking? And one that will have you on the edge of your seat from about a third of the way in until it’s wonderful grand finale. Don’t be surprised if this picture winds up being a dark horse for Best Picture, and one or both of the 2 leads gets Oscar nominations as the year comes to end. This is a smart, well executed and acted sports drama/thriller, about one very unique relationship between mentor and pupil. Which also happens to be one of the year’s best pictures that should easily land a coveted spot on my list of the top 10 films of 2014.

[A-]

5 thoughts on “A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Whiplash” 11.13.14

  1. Yea, I always seem to like JK simmons in his roles like in Juno or as the boss in Thank You for Smoking. I hate the movie, I Love You Man, but him specifically as Rudd’s Dad with his son Andy Samberg ‘as his best friend’ are 2 great characters regardless
    Look fwd to seeing him in more of a main role

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  2. JK Simmons must be on the same diet & workout routine as the NFL referee, Ed Hochuli. Holy shit, he was jacked up in this.
    This movie was very cool.

    Heard a lot ewwws & awwws from the crowd in the packed theater I was in, each time JK Simmons laid into his students – as the extremely intimidating music instructor. Some of his outbursts were f*ing great. I do like your comparison of his character to the Tough-Love Drill Sargent from Full Metal Jacket.
    I thought this movie was filled with a ton of standout scenes – for example: I really enjoyed the Dinner Table scene where Miles Teller’s character fires back at his family when they’re not showing him much love for his musical passion & are overly focused on the 2 boys college football careers (that rant where Teller points out that they freakin’ play “Div. 3” football & will never hear from the NFL was 1 of many brilliant moments in this).

    90/A-

    What made this movie fantastic (& I’d say better than Black Swan) in my opinion was the ending. That ending sequence (from right about when Miles Teller happens to find JK Simmons playing the piano @ the Jazz club to when the credits roll) was one of the better ending sequences I’ve seen in a long, long time. & it was PERFECTLY capped off with that exchange of glances between the 2 main characters & then, bam, credits roll. Totally satisfying.
    I guess the crowd agreed with me about the ending in the movie theater I was in.. cause literally – really everyone in the theater clapped when the movie ended. Man, what an awesome ending. That was a fun experience at the movies

    Right now, I’d say this sits @ about the # 3 spot in my stack rank for the year (Boyhood still being #1 for me & Gone Girl #2). Next up for me to see based on your review / recommendation will be Birdman

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much. It sounds like we both saw it in similar surroundings in that both the theaters we saw it in were sold out. Which I always think adds to the overall experience and that’s why you’ll always hear me stressing to people why it’s important to try and catch certain types of films with an audience.

      I mostly agree with your comments regarding the Simmons’ unorthodox methods of teaching. However I thought those parts were a little over done. I mean I got it – he was a tough instructor who was unbelievably hard on his students. So while I found those particular scenes to be effective from a “shock the viewer” stand point I think they could have maybe toned it down a little bit and we would have still gotten the same sense of the ferocious music teacher that he was. That being said, I still thought J.K. Simmons was perfect in this role and he is so convincing in it that it seems like it was tailor made just for him (kind of like how I felt about Michael Keaton in “Birdman”). If he doesn’t get a Best Supporting Actor nomination it’s going to be a major oversight on behalf of the Academy.

      I too liked the scene at the dinner table. I thought it expertly captured the competitive nature that was such an integral part of the film. That and it’s a common theme among famiilies to try and make whomever’s son or daughter out to be better and more successful than the other. My favorite scene personally was when the Miles Teller character was staying late along with the other two drummer stand ins rotating in the drum seat and playing until the Simmons character felt like they “got it”. I thoght that really captured well how far Simmons and his students were willing to go in order to be the best.

      Lastly, I COMPLETELY agree with your comment on the best part of the film being the last quarter of it. By that point I was like “where could they possibly go with this next”? Then Teller happens to stumble upon Simmons playing at the jazz club. And from that point forward it’s all about payback and it truly shows how much of an incredibly manipulative and horrible person that Simmons actually is. Him “inviting” Teller to come play with some of the greats in a fully packed audience where all the major music scouts will be. Only to wind up deceiving him. Teller is much too smart though and way too good of a player to be mocked like that and just walk off the stage. So he comes up with his own backfire plan and starts with what was maybe the best musical number/segment I’ve ever seen on film. And I think the “eye locking” part you spoke of was Simmons realizing that he had finally found his Charlie Parker with Teller realizing the same thing but giving him the fuck you eyes and basically stating “I will never give you one iota of credit for the monster jazz drummer that I’ve become”. Thereby taking away the one thing that Simmons had devoted his life to which was pushing all of his students to the limit in hopes that someday he’d be given credit for finding the next best thing.

      Currently stands in my #3 position behind “Birdman” and “Under The Skin”.

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  3. Whiplash A-. Fantastic film from start to finish and obviously good enough to garner the recognition it deserved come Oscar season this year. The role of Terrence Fletcher by JK Simmons was hand written for him, dont think there is anyone else out there who could have played the part better. Much deserving of the best supporting actor Oscar award. Miles teller also fantastic in this, being a huge fan of jazz music to watch an entire film and be immersed in the music was great. Always love ensemble piece orchestras in the jazz setting. A kid who wanted to pursue his dream of being known as one of the greatest in his craft makes this film. Simmons imo just never had the actual chops to be one of the greatest, but he has an unbelieveable ear for the music. He obviously with the tough love brings out the best in Miles Teller’s character. To me the true hero of this film is Damien Chazalle who immediately burst onto to the scene with this unreal script and direction, uniquely original (imo something that is seriously lacking in Hollywood). Speaking of Hollywood everyone must be blowing this kid up I would imagine at this point. Ive heard some pretty good drum solos over the years in jazz but that one Teller’s character had at the end was up there for sure. Love when Paul Resier looks out through the curtains and cant believe what he’s hearing out of his son, mouth agape, so was mine. Whoever was resposnible for the score and music direction did a phenomenal job. Fantastic film and one that will surely go down as one of the great music films of all time.

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  4. I’m glad it sounds like you agreed with me on my thoughts about this film as it sounds like we shared very similar viewpoints and feelings on it. First, I think you made a good point by saying that J.K. Simmons was perfect for the role as the lecherous musical teacher. I was telling people a lot this Oscar season more than any other, that in order to “truly” feel like such and such actor or actress deserved the Oscar you kind of have to be left thinking that nobody else could have possibly pulled off or put in a greater performance. That to me is what truly gives an Oscar winner true credibility. And Simmons emphasizes this point nicely in that the role almost seemed like it was tailor made for him. Which is pretty astonishing given the fact that he’s played a side bit/character actor in just about every film I’ve seen to date. But this performance catapults him into a different category and proves that he’s always had the talent (just maybe not the recognition) to play a role this substantial. I also think I touched on how impressed I was by Miles Teller’s performance and next to Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler” and Channing Tatum in “Foxcatcher”, looked at this as almost a sort of Oscar snub. At the very least he should have gotten a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. But he’s still incredibly young and shows great promise in the career he has layed out for him. Lastly, I agree that Chazelle is the star of the show here, being in that he adapted his own screenplay from a short or “treatment” as I like to call it, from a script he wrote years earlier. Pretty impressive for a 29-year old writer/director who virtually came out of nowhere and took 2 familiar yet far from household name actors and made such a remarkable film out of it. The fact that he grew up in a musical family and went to music school himself comes across in almost every creative decision of the film and lended quite a bit of authenticity to it in terms of feel and tone. This guy went from esssentially being a no name to writing and directing his own film which wound up garnering a Best Picture nomination and win for Simmons. And both deservedly so. I can’t wait to see what this guy has next up in his sleeve for us.

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