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Kicking the Tweets
Friday
Oct172014

Whiplash (2014)

A Snare for the Dramatic

Damien Chazelle knows what the hell he's talking about. Whiplash's twenty-nine-year-old writer/director went through the ringer as a music student, and came out the other side an accomplished, inspiring filmmaker. His story of a first-year drummer at a prestigious New York jazz conservatory (whose hard-nosed instructor pushes the limits of his drive and abilities) is lively, bloody, and merciless. We've seen art-school dramas before, but rarely do they get the details so right. 

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a hot-shot jazz obsessive who, like his classmates, wants nothing more than to win the approval of top instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons)l--and a spot in his elite band of upper classmen. Familiar as the premise may sound, this is not Fame, which followed multiple students on their journey to musical greatness. Nor is it An Officer and a Gentleman, wherein the broken-down-by-his-superior-officer soldier still finds time to get the girl by the end credits. Whiplash strays into Full Metal Jacket territory, with a hellfire confrontation between Fletcher and a chubby, insecure student (C.J. Vana), whom he nicknames "Elmer Fudd". But it's not a riff on that movie, either.

Chazelle zeroes in on Andrew's obsession with greatness. The kid practices for hours every day. He barely sleeps, and sometimes carves out time to catch a movie with his dad (Paul Reiser). He meets a student from another school, named Nicole (Melissa Benoist), and they sneak around on Andrew's muse: the sweaty, unforgiving pursuit of jazz mastery.

Andrew believes that notoriety in Fletcher's band will accelerate his education and career. His focus narrows dangerously, and he drifts into an underhandedness that leaves us wondering: can one be great if they waste time being a decent person? If so, is greatness worth pursuing? Chazelle poses this question a few different ways: at a contentious dinner between Andrew and his college-jock cousins; during a hard conversation with Nicole, during which Andrew checks out and his ambitions take over; and in a dozen close-ups of gaping finger wounds and blood spattering across cymbals like water in a sizzling pan. Whiplash is a possession movie in search of an exorcist, where the tormented soul must decide whether or not it wants to actually disentangle itself from the demon within.

Whiplash mostly knocked my socks off. Chazelle establishes a narrative rhythm that harmonizes perfectly with soul-screaming music and two lead performers who will command attention and appreciation once this film goes wide. Teller continues to explore his range as the cocky outcast; having recently graduated from high-school-student roles (with memorable turns in the Footloose remake and, especially, in last year's The Spectacular Now), his latest films feature not-quite-adult characters bobbing for air in the real world. What Andrew lacks in interpersonal skills (he's literally been locked up in padded rooms most of his life, playing drums) he makes up for in drive and ability. Teller doesn't play like an actor who had to learn a skill for a part: to this non-jazz aficionado, he was utterly convincing as a born performer wringing every bit of fluid from his body to achieve perfect time.

The same is true for Simmons. He's the drill instructor, the twisted authority figure, the cranky boss from hell. In short, he's a composite of his two most famous characters: Oz's white-supremacist bully and Spider-Man's blow-hard newspaper editor. His performance is grounded in empathy and compassion for kids who don't realize how damned hard it is to make it as a musician--especially at the level they aspire to. When Fletcher holds up a session for six hours in the middle of the night, so that three students can squeeze out a couple of notes to his exacting standards, I felt the exhaustion, the throbbing muscles, the disappointment. But I also appreciated Simmons' ability to sell us on a teacher determined to not let mediocrity pass (at one point, he admonishes Andrew, "There are no two words in the English language than 'good job'").

Despite this considerable praise, Whiplash finds itself out of tune in more parts than I'm comfortable giving a pass. Though cutting and delivered with conviction, Simmons' dialogue is often attention-grabbing in all the wrong ways. His slurs against races, sexes, and the mentally challenged feel forced--as if Chazelle didn't think we'd get just how intimidating Fletcher is without cartoonish diatribes. In fact, there's more intimidation in Simmons' reflexive, stop-the-music fist gesture than in any challenge to a mousy student's masculinity.

I also didn't appreciate the utter lack of repercussion in one character's two obvious crimes: an instance of public assault, and another of leaving the scene of an accident. In the moment, these scenes work very well, dramatically--but I was left scratching my head for minutes afterwards when the next plot progression didn't involve this person skipping practice to meet with a parole officer.

There's a final itch I just can't scratch here, one that would plant us firmly in spoiler territory. I'll leave it alone for now, except to ask anyone who's seen Whiplash whether or not they "get" Reiser's character's reaction to Andrew's big decision at the climax of the film. It's a puzzling note that feels disappointingly false.

Quibbles aside, Whiplash is one of my favorite films of the year. You'll be hard-pressed to find two more passionate, committed performances in 2014 than those of Teller and Simmons. And Chazelle announces himself as a young creative force to be reckoned with. Just as Billy Bob Thornton blew up after turning a short film into 1996's Academy Award-nominated Sling Blade, Chazelle expands his own short as a feature-length powder keg that, I hope, will ensure we hear more from him in years to come. His honest, refreshing voice made my spirit dance like a fool.

*Vana also bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Vincent D'onofrio.

Friday
Oct172014

Rudderless (2014)

Sentimental Values

Like the songs at the heart of its story, Rudderless is a powerful yet incomplete artwork. Billy Crudup plays Sam, an advertising executive so focused on work that he doesn't even know his college-age son, Josh (Miles Heizer), is a prolific songwriter. Josh dies unexpectedly one morning, leaving behind a box of unproduced demos and half-finished lyrics. Two years, one ruined marriage, and a sea of alcohol later, Sam's ex-wife, Emily (Felicity Huffman), presents him with a box of Josh's things. The broken drunk, who now lives on a boat and paints houses to get by, takes up the mantle of performing his son's music at a local bar.

First-time feature director William H. Macy and co-writers Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison turn in a fine film that will likely remind seasoned viewers of other movies. The trouble is, Rudderless contains many glimpses of greatness that are undermined by ham-handedness and clichés. Anton Yelchin is the eager townie who latches on to Sam's music. Laurence Fishburne is the cranky guitar store owner who also slashes prices on sage advice. Sam doesn't tell anyone that the songs are not his, causing a second layer of trouble in the third act.

I've been sworn to secrecy as to the precise nature of that layer, which is a shame. What begins as a somewhat unique story of a dad's efforts to create both a connection to and a musical legacy for his estranged son quickly escalates to an entirely new level of mind-blowing moral dilemma for the audience. It's an elegant manipulation on the part of the filmmakers to give us key information about the characters only after we've become invested in them. By not allowing preconceptions to shade their story, Macy and company give us something to leave the film with, besides remarkable performances.

Crudup and Huffman are stellar here, in roles that could have been weepy, TV-movie stuff in lesser hands. They reminded me of Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole, which covered similar territory (Rudderless substitutes folk-rock for crying and comics). Both sets of actors dial back and thus dial in on the universality of grief--which sometimes manifests as big emotions, but just as often comes out in wistful, resigned stares.

My only grievance against Rudderless (and it's a big one) is Macy's cloying need to balance out his weight-of-the-world themes with goofiness. I appreciate the desire to add levity (or just variety) to the proceedings, but everything that's not earnest drama just falls on its face--and nearly drags the rest of the picture with it. From Yelchin's Scrabby-Doo enthusiasm in the first part of the film (he mellows, thankfully, into a refreshingly low-key cadence later on), to the broadly drawn community of affluent boaters who form Sam's "neighborhood", Macy, Twenter, and Robison too often flee to the opposite end of the honesty spectrum when their movie threatens to get too heavy.*

The filmmakers stumble when they shy away from the raw and unflattering elements that make their movie so special. I'm reminded of Begin Again, which was also about lost souls finding musical inspiration in unexpected places. One film knows it's a comedy with dramatic undertones; the other is a drama that thinks it has to be funny. Ironically, Rudderless' greatest commentary on mourning may be the handful of ways it falls just short of realizing its full potential.

*Late in the film, Sam gets drunk and decides to "stick it to the man" by driving his boat through a regatta. While his neighbors are indeed stuffy, rich, and lame, their greatest crime appears to have been constantly reminding Sam not to pee off the side of his boat. Macy exalts this moment of boozy triumph in a way that recalls the end of One Crazy Summer, while earning neither our sympathies nor our cheers.

Friday
Oct032014

Gone Girl (2014)

Alien Abduction

David Fincher enters the 2014 Oscar race with a broken foot and Scotch on his breath. Gone Girl tops my list of Year's Worst films, and I'm still in disbelief that the force behind Se7en and The Social Network delivered such listless garbage. If you're a fan of Gillian Flynn's best-seller, prepare to be entertained (I guess). If, like me, you've only seen the adaptation's trailer, steady yourself for some dashed hopes. Marketed as a roiling cauldron of domestic-violence and mystery, Gone Girl boils down to a tone-deaf stab at black comedy: it's Basic Instinct as an art-house sitcom; Schinlder's List with slide whistles.

It's my own damned fault. Like the perpetrator of Flynn's missing-wife plot, Fincher and company leave clues right out in the open. When a host of comic actors popped up, I thought, "How nice to see Tyler Perry, Casey Wilson, and Missi Pyle working on their dramatic skills!" I was met instead with a gaggle of cartoon characters: the slick, white-collar lawyer; the obnoxious, redneck neighbor; the Nancy Grace-style news-magazine host. Ben Affleck plays the object of their suspicion, a wealthy-by-marriage writing teacher suspected of doing something awful to his not-quite-beloved Rosamund Pike. Sadly, he takes the role seriously, in an off-putting universe of shrill Muppets and black holes where characterization should be.

Like a fool, I trusted Fincher (and Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay) to deliver the taut Whodunnit promised in the previews. You might argue that I should have A) read the book, and B) not held the film accountable for its marketing. The first point is moot, as movies should stand on their own. The second will only get you so far down the logic path: one shouldn't sit down to watch Lincoln, for example, and wind up with Movie 43.

Indeed, Fincher believes, I assume, that he's fashioned a black comedy about the tribulations of marriage. In practice, it's an uneven farce that would stink of incompetence were it not for the brand names involved. Nick (Affleck) and Amy (Pike) are characters defined not by events that we see, but by narration and dialogue that is ascribed to them. Their past and present meld together as Amy's "Dear Diary" flashbacks intersect with the present-day disappearance investigation, but there's no transition between love-struck courtship and bitter married couple. They love each other, then they don't. Nick is a nice-guy slacker (except when he's not), and then a scheming, physically abusive creep (sometimes). Amy is at once brilliant and the kind of idiot who gets caught with thousands of dollars in cash on her person--twice.

These aren't people. They're pawns in a tolerance game perpetrated on the audience by Flynn and Fincher. How many plot twists can we accept; how un-relatable can two people possibly be; how flat and un-engaging can a cinematic mastermind's latest film look--before throngs of opening-weekend suckers call "Bullshit"?

Gone Girl is like a bad Law & Order two-parter that learned viewers will abandon at the third commercial break. Like a hundred (or hundred-thousand, for all I know) semi-procedurals before it, the film hits us with red-herring suspects, red-herring motives, and even red-herring omniscience--all of which hinge on a big, third-act reveal. Fincher's film has about four major reveals, and each one is so gob-smackingly ridiculous that I constantly found myself wishing the material were in better hands.

As a David Fincher fan, I can't believe I just typed that and didn't delete it.

Had Fincher and his team settled on a consistent tone, they might have made the film that's currently being hyped. At every turn, the drama is undermined by "snappy" dialogue that sounds like Kevin Smith copying the His Girl Friday screenplay while zonked out of his mind. The comedy depends on archetypes neither rooted in reality nor the story they're involved with (Patrick Fugit plays a young cop who hates Nick and believes he's guilty--for reasons neither stated nor implied). Like The Boxtrolls, Gone Girl features a lot of tedious "business". Though substantial in terms of run-time, it does little to hide the filmmakers' deist approach--dropping their central secret halfway through, and then walking away from the next hour-and-fifteen minutes.

Even my one glimmer of hope was clouded by ambivalence towards everything that had come before. Late in the film, Fincher stages a grisly, yet unsurprising murder (especially for fans of the aforementioned Basic Instinct). These darkly gleeful two minutes douse the screen in buckets of blood and excitement, both of which drain away at the scene change.

When I say that Gone Girl is one of the year's worst movies, I don't mean that it's technically deficient. Excepting the writing and the director's sensibilities regaring his actors' performances, most everything else here is top-notch. Fincher brings back many of his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo cohorts, such as cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, editor Kirk Baxter, and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. But they're given far less room to play than even on their previous book adaptation--which had already been adapted for film. No, the material is the culprit here, abetted by a dependably exciting director whose wicked, inventive sense of style seems to have momentarily vanished.

Friday
Oct032014

Left Behind (2014)

Rapture Sheet

Left Behind is an amazing film. By "amazing", I mean "awful". And by "awful", I mean "Wow!" I don’t believe in much, but I believe in Nicolas Cage as the consummate entertainer. For decades, he’s rocked intense performances both Award-worthy and atrocious--in films that could often only be described as the latter, had he not been in them.

That’s definitely the case with the newest adaptation of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkin’s faith-based apocalypse novel. To be clear, there’s nothing inherently un-cinematic in a modern-day telling of the Biblical Rapture story. But because this film (and the 2000 direct-to-video version starring Kirk Cameron in the Cage role) is targeted at a demographic who (mostly) likes their art squeaky-clean, Left Behind suffers from a Hallmark Channel harmlessness that in no way resembles a world in which millions of people might actually vanish into thin air.

Vic Armstrong’s film is achingly earnest, complete with an intrusive, syrupy score; flat, Hot Pockets-commercial lighting; and the kind of literal and visual speechifying that will make casual moviegoers’ eyes roll back in their heads as if moved by the Spirit.

That’s where Cage comes in. He plays atheist airline captain Rayford Steele with legit gravity, as compared to the CW smoldering of co-star Chad Michael Murray or Cassie Thomson’s misplaced “big break” enthusiasm. Cage’s experience and professionalism underscore the amateur-hour cheesiness of everything else on screen. From the lascivious framing of a promiscuous flight attendant, to the wobbly green-screen compositing on Cage’s face throughout the cockpit scenes, and a climax so ridiculous that I can imagine it only working on paper manufactured by Charmin, the bad material is conspicuous and uproarious.

To be clear: I’m not picking on this movie because it’s a religious film. I’m a huge fan of Stephen King’s The Stand, which, though not explicitly so, is a tremendously soulful examination of the End Times. More importantly, it has a villain. I understand that Left Behind is the first in a series of stories, and that the Anti-Christ is scheduled to pop up down the line, but we already have a ninety minute comedy about a troubled pilot trying to land an airplane—it’s called Airplane!.

The lack of a rival leads to a lack of dramatic tension. We know everyone will be okay (this is franchise territory, after all). And because this is a PG picture, we also know there won’t be any blood-curdling peril or even wondrous disaster images to ogle.

Which leads us back to Nicolas Cage. His performance is restrained, which, compared to the landscape, makes it insane. That insanity saves the movie and, in turn, the audience.

Sunday
Sep282014

Jimi: All is By My Side (2014)

How Many Licks Does it Take?

I was as skeptical as anyone, going into the Jimi Hendrix biopic, Jimi: All is By My Side. Overshadowing the early buzz about André Benjamin's uncanny and electrifying performance was news that a purple haze of rights issues kept writer/director John Ridley from using any Hendrix-penned songs in his film. That's right: no "Voodoo Child", no "All Along the Watchtower", no "Hey Joe". But Ridley and company rose to the challenge, making All is By My Side one of the most interesting films of 2014.

Ridley focuses on a single, seminal year of Hendrix's rise to prominence, sidestepping the traditional biopic structure with a narrative that's as fluid as its hero is aloof. This makes the two-hour run-time as bold a statement as Hendrix's playing "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" two days after the album's release, to a packed house that included George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

Those looking for an A-to-Z reporting on Hendrix will come away disappointed. Ridley and his team meddle with time, space, and media in putting together a film that aims to capture the "Jimi Hendrix experience" (sorry). Unlike the recent James Brown biopic, Get On Up, however, one can't simply do a re-edit and get a fuller picture of the subject's life. We learn much from dialogue, body language, and the way in which this movie about revolutionary sound frequently drops into silence. Hendrix's childhood is summed up beautifully in a heartbreaking phone call with his estranged father; no flashbacks necessary.

If comedian Bill Hicks was right, and Hendrix was some kind of alien space Jesus sent to teach us about love and to reinvent rock, then All is By My Side is the perfect movie to capture all the attendant weirdness that implies. Benjamin plays Hendrix as a spaced-out, supremely dedicated artist who doesn't quite get people. The film is a ménage à quatre between Hendrix, his music, and two vastly different rock groupies: Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), a British socialite who believes so fervently in the music that she temporarily falls victim to the man; and Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), a good-time girl who gets more than she bargained for when falling in love with a musical genius. As the film points out, Hendrix was a lyrical master of soulful and social observation, but he fell far short in the interpersonal relationships that should have, by all rights, informed his professed giant heart.

Ridley's experiment in stream-of-consciousness biography is not unprecedented. In fact, it's the perfect companion piece to Julian Schnabel's 1996 film, Basquiat. The two pieces are so similar that it's easy to wonder if Ridley simply swapped out 80s abstract art for 60s abstract guitar riffs. Both movies are about awkward, drug-abusing black artists struggling with identity and fame; both feature a dichotomy of key female relationships; both nail the ups, downs, and maddening spiritual contradictions inherent in having been born creative; and both are anchored by unforgettable star turns.

Yes, let's get back to Benjamin. Those who mostly remember him as one half of Outkast (aka, "Andre 3000") will be positively floored. Between him, Jared Leto, and David Bowie (who nearly stole Basquiat, playing Andy Warhol), there's almost enough contrary evidence to shrug off the "musician/actor" willies that have become cliche. I could dig into the nuances that made me love the job he does here, but my highest compliment is that he very quickly made me believe in Jimi Hendrix as a character--not as a historical figure or as an actor playing the hell out of a part.

He shares the screen with two admission-worthy actresses in Poots and Atwell; I don't want to give Ridley's script short shrift, but I was wildly impressed by the realistic characters they built. Just as Benjamin's Hendrix is a frustrating composite of post-racial humanism and base aggression, Keith and Etchingham come across as smart, head-strong women who put up with mental and physical abuse long after either should have sent Hendrix packing. Atwell and Poots help us understand why they stick by their man, to a point, without allowing their characters to come across as plot-necessitated doormats. A shout-out is in order for Ruth Negga, as well, who plays the eerily angelic dark conscience of the rock groupie.

It's weird to say that I neither noticed nor minded the lack of Hendrix's greatest hits in the movie. All is By My Side is such a bold portrait of attitude and art that I simply wanted to see and hear what the filmmakers would do next. We get a full sense of Jimi Hendrix as tinkerer, rebel, monster, and prophet. Ridley's alternately blissful, challenging, frustrating biopic is a fitting, shades-of-gray tribute to a man who saw everything as colors.