THE PATH to greatness is littered with casualties in the brilliantly realised coming of age drama, Whiplash, writes Alistair Harkness
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: JK Simmons, Miles Teller, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Star rating: *****
Movies love to sell the myth that talent will out, but Damien Chazelle’s jazz drama Whiplash puts forth an alternative theory that it needs to be dragged kicking and screaming out of those in possession of it – preferably after breaking them with emasculating insults, slaps to the face, deranged mind games and the odd chair flung at the head. Those, at any rate, are the techniques deployed by Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), a black-clad, half-mad jazz band leader who subjects the music students of the New York conservatory where he works to the kind of debasement more redolent of boot camp than band camp.
Repeatedly bringing practice sessions to an abrupt halt with a clenched fist and barely concealed contempt for those who can’t quite keep his tempo, he thinks nothing of forcing students to spend hours rehearsing the same two bars or kicking in-tune musicians out of his studio for being too intimidated to have confidence in their own abilities. Fuelled by an apocryphal story about the abuse meted out to Charlie Parker in his salad days, Fletcher’s drive for perfection is sadistic, and he finds the ultimate masochist for his particular brand of instructional torture in Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a young jazz drummer with aspirations to be the next Buddy Rich. Andrew’s a nice kid, with talent and drive, but none of the life experience his heroes had by the time they were his age. As such he has a sort of sick desperation for a mentor or a father figure, someone who will push him out of his comfort zone.
His own father, played by Paul Reiser, is a high school English teacher, and while they have a good relationship, indulging in a weekly movie-watching ritual at a local cinema, he’s haunted by a naïve perception that his father’s acceptance of his life as a divorced teacher and father might be masking failed dreams. He can’t help but wince at the way his dad doesn’t even react to someone bumping into him at the cinema and, newly emboldened by his interactions with Fletcher, acts out at a family get-together, rejecting his dad’s placid nature to take down his cousin’s meagre sporting achievements and Willy Loman-esque belief in the value of being well-liked.
This simmering sense of shame and insecurity is more explicitly played out in his burgeoning relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a directionless student who sells him popcorn at the movies. He finally plucks up the courage to ask her out after joining Fletcher’s band, but later cruelly rejects her, imagining all the ways in which the future demands of their relationship will detract from his ability to forge his career. It’s a painful and uncomfortable scene, but Teller’s performance – his face etched with the awkward pain of a 19 year-old who deep down isn’t quite sure if he believes what he’s saying – elicits as much empathy for Andrew as it does sympathy for Nicole, particularly as he moves his mattress into the practice room and hammers away at his kit until his hands bleed.
Here Whiplash recalls Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler/Black Swan diptych in its fidelity to depicting the physical punishment involved in performance and the film is given added veracity by a cast – including Teller and Simmons – comprised of actual musicians. Mostly, though, this is a film about the toxicity of talent: what it does to those who think they’ve been earmarked of greatness and those who have charged themselves with being the custodians of that greatness.
The film’s greatness comes in a large part from the performances, with Simmons in particular adding texture and substance to Fletcher in a way that makes it possible to simultaneously revere and revile him – just as Teller’s Andrew does. But the film succeeds as well thanks to Chazelle. A former drumming prodigy himself, he deploys his camera with a rhythm that conveys the dazzling intricacies of the music and he sketches out the psychologically and physically combative relationship between Andrew and Fletcher with an ambiguity that enables Whiplash to remain true to its jazz spirit. Utilising the rise-fall-redemption character arc beloved of all movies about sporting greats or the performing arts, Chazelle treats it like an old standard, laying down the expected beats with masterful precision so he can eventually riff around them. The predictable plot lines set up by his characters’ behaviour don’t limit the story, in other words, they set it free, with the show-stopping finale becoming a space for a pure exploration of Fletcher’s belief that there’s no more damaging phrase in the English language than “good job”.
Whether you end up embracing or rejecting that, Chazelle isn’t interested in sweetening the experience with a placatory love-and-family-trump-all message: raw talent finely honed can be a beautiful thing to behold in and of itself, regardless of how destructive it may end up being.
American Sniper (15)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Star rating: ***
Clint Eastwood’s directorial prolificacy has made him a bit hit or miss as a filmmaker, but when he narrows his scope to the interrogation of certain iconic aspects of the American character – as he did with the western in The Outlaw Josie Wales and Unforgiven, and himself in Gran Torino – he’s better at bulls-eyeing his targets. A case in point is his new film American Sniper, which uses the story of the most successful marksman in the history of the American military to examine the addictive nature of warfare and the saviour complex used to mask it. Zeroing in on Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a Navy SEAL who achieved his dubious notoriety – he was nicknamed “The Legend” – after making a 160 confirmed kills during multiple tours of Iraq, Eastwood adopts the “aim small, miss small” mantra Kyle adheres to during the film: eschewing wider debates about the validity of the war in Iraq, but leaving us in little doubt about the wider physical and psychological consequences of combat as he follows this one story to its strange end-point.
Kyle’s reasons for signing up, aged 30, are rooted in a childhood hatred of bullies and impossible-to-fulfil dreams of being a proper cowboy, and these, together with the atrocities perpetrated against America in the nascent war on terror, make him a devotee to the cause. Framing the flashbacking first act with a terrible split-second combat decision Kyle has to make regarding a target, Eastwood thenceforth shows how war, death and destruction harden Kyle’s resolve while gradually destroying his connection to the world that he maintains he’s protecting. He does this in simple, unfussy fashion by cutting between the amped up action of Kyle’s military service and the relative quietude of life with his wife (Sienna Miller) and young family. It’s a technique that was used more effectively in The Hurt Locker, largely because it was done with less jingoistic fervour and less melodramatic overload, yet in following that movie, Eastwood has clearly been taking notes.
Cooper’s increasingly haunted performance grounds the film so that while corny war movie clichés abound (a grunt discussing how he’s going to propose to his girlfriend is once again a sure sign that there’s a bullet with his name on it), the action sequences that supply American Sniper with its jacked-up, heart-in-the-mouth tension don’t simply devolve into war porn. On the contrary, while they convey the excitement this modern frontier-style existence held for Kyle, the hollowness of that excitement, and of the simplistic ideology underpinning it, is gradually laid bare; its meaninglessness tragically reinforced by the film’s unexpectedly abrupt and random conclusion.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman
Star rating: ****
Self-absorption is necessarily rife in movies about people who make solitary journeys into the wilderness, but unlike the real-life protagonists of Into the Wild and Tracks, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) proves a much more sympathetic protagonist in this adaptation of her best-selling memoir detailing her 1,000-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Undertaken in the mid-1990s to “walk herself back” to being the woman her beloved mother raised, after her premature death from cancer sent her on a downward spiral of drug addiction and anonymous sex, Strayed’s journey is one that could easily have been rendered as a narcissistic enterprise on film. Instead it’s life affirming in the best way. Neither judging her nor glossing over her myriad faults, it puts us inside her headspace via flash cuts, snatches of music and interior monologues that help weave her jumbled back-story into her hike to show how the restorative power of the wilderness helps her make sense of what she’s lost. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) brings a real hallucinatory energy to all this while Witherspoon – saddled with an oversized rucksack – imbues Strayed with sly humour, vulnerability and a toughness that’s entirely credible. Flashbacks featuring a wonderful Laura Dern as Strayed’s mother also do a great job of showing why grief almost destroyed her daughter.
Testament of Youth (12A)
Directed by: James Kent
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Dominic West, Hayley Atwell
Star rating: **
Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir detailing her drive to study at Oxford and her subsequent experiences as a nurse on the Western Front are the source of this well crafted but dull period drama. Swedish actress Alicia Vikander takes the lead as Brittain and while she barely puts a foot wrong as the film rewinds from Armistice Day to show how Brittain’s independent, proto-feminist spirit formed the basis of her eventual pacifist point of view, the film as a whole doesn’t bring her story to life in any meaningful way. There’s no anger or outrage within the film to back up its heroine’s emotional turmoil, so in the end it comes across more as a movie about thwarted romantic love, with a series of doomed young men (led by Game of Thrones star Kit Harington) entering and leaving Vera’s life far too quickly.
Paper Souls (12A)
Directed by: Vincent Lannoo
Starring: Julie Gayet, Stéphane Guillon, Jonathan Zaccaï, Pierre Richard
Star rating: **
A belated Christmas release from Belgian director Vincent Lannoo, this Parisian romantic drama has a gooey, cosmic premise befitting the silly season. Five years on from the death of his wife, bereft novelist Paul (Stéphane Guillon) spends his days helping mourners express their own grief in written form instead of moving on with his own life. When a young widow (Julie Gayet) hires him to write about her late husband as a way of helping her traumatised son, Paul’s life is suddenly complicated – both by the romantic feelings she awakens within him and the fact that he awakens her dead spouse, Nathan (Jonathan Zaccaï). It’s at this point the film thoroughly jumps the shark. Failing to establish any Ghost-style internal logic to justify the sudden narrative leap, any worthwhile ideas simply get lost amid confused and silly plotting.
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