Saturday, October 11, 2014

Review: Whiplash

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
It never ceases to amaze me how people can get up in front of a group of complete strangers and either play an instrument or sing. I'd imagine it's a nerve wracking experience for novices. So, imagine how you'd feel if you were a music student and your instructor were R. Lee Ermey's drill sergeant from "Full Metal Jacket."

On the one hand, this sort of sums up Damien Chazelle's sophomore feature and Sundance sensation, "Whiplash," although I'm selling it short. The picture is brilliantly acted, but also so intense and fast paced that you'd think the picture were a thriller and not a story set in the world of music.

Miles Teller, continuing to stand out among his generation of actors, plays Andrew, a musician studying at a competitive New York music conservatory in the hopes of being a jazz drummer. Andrew has just the right amount of talent and cockiness to ensure that he might just make it. During the course of the picture, he grows a thicker skin, makes some mistakes in his personal life and goes head to head with a borderline sociopath.

His teacher, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is the type of instructor whom everyone wants to impress due to his ability to push his students to success. On the other hand, the man is a nightmare. During sessions, he barks all manner of insults - from the anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic sort to picking on students due to their weight or mistake of alerting Fletcher to their own personal backgrounds - and gets up in his students' faces. He slaps Andrew when he misses a note, humiliates students in front of his class and is prone to throwing chairs and all other manner of objects.

Chazelle appears to be drawn to the world of music. His first feature, "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," was a breezy film that included dance numbers, but "Whiplash" is a beast - and that is certainly the appropriate word here - of a different nature. This is an assured work by a talented filmmaker and a deeply personal movie. And it's a prime example that a unique approach to storytelling can make any material gripping. It says something about Chazelle's capabilities that the film's finale, which involves an extended drum solo, makes for one of the year's most intense sequences.

"Whiplash" was one of the biggest critical hits at this year's Sundance Film Festival and it's easy to see why. This could be the film that solidifies Teller's status as a major actor, much like "Winter's Bone" did for Jennifer Lawrence. And I like how the filmmakers make his character likable enough that we want him to succeed, but also a flawed individual, which is most obvious during a dinner scene with his family and another during which he breaks off a budding relationship.

And those who think of J.K. Simmons as the kindly father from "Juno" will quickly put that performance out of their mind as they witness his transformation into the borderline psychopathic Fletcher. This is one the year's biggest surprises and one of its best films.

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