Film reviews: Whiplash | Wild | American Sniper

Whiplash. Picture: Contributed
Whiplash. Picture: Contributed
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SIOBHAN Synnot reviews the week’s big films and latest cinema releases

Whiplash (15)

Director: Damien Chazelle

Running time: 107 minutes

Star rating: ****

DRUMMERS tend to be the butt of musician humour. How can you tell a drummer’s at the door? He doesn’t know when to come in. Yet one of the best films of 2015 – and yes, I know that we’re only 11 days into January – is not only about a duel between a skins basher and his mentor, but a movie that even has the chutzpah to begin with a slow-building drum roll to itself, as the camera tracks down the dark corridor of a New York music academy. Eventually it arrives at 19-year-old Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) pummelling his drum kit.

Neyman wants to be a jazz drummer like Buddy Rich – a nod to the kind of pitfalls he’s rushing towards, since Rich was a belligerent exhibitionist who 
was notoriously abusive to other musicians. Not that Neyman has any of Rich’s arrogance at this stage. He’s a quiet young man, living on a budget and pouring all his energy and ambition into paradiddles. And naturally he’s thrilled when jazz instructor and bandleader Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) offers him a place as understudy drummer in his band.

Fletcher is regarded as a music god, but it turns out he’s the Old Testament kind. A raging pedagogue, his practice sessions are exercises in humiliation where he deploys a brand of pungent invective that would make the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket swoon with envy. Like drums, he believes students should be hit regularly, and he’s awfully fond of the apocryphal story where drummer Jo Jones throws a cymbal at a teenage saxophonist during a jam session to punish him for losing the beat. This incident supposedly spurred a young Charlie Parker to practise harder, and eventually take flight as the Bird that everyone reveres.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle knows this intense world of youthful dedication. As a teen he was a jazz drumming prodigy in a hyper-competitive school with an abusive instructor, and still recalls cowering behind his kit while his teacher bawled him out: “You’re rushing, you’re dragging, not my tempo!” Chazelle also understands and is intrigued by the physical cost of performing music for extended periods.

Why does Neyman endure the abuse? Chazelle suggests that, at some level, he buys into his teacher’s no pain, no gain philosophy, sensing that his easy-going father (Paul Reiser) or his nice waitress girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) won’t push him to excel. So he practises till his hands are shredded, and submits to Fletcher’s tough love, minus the love.

“Not my tempo,” may become one of the catchphrases of 2015: it’s how Simmons silences his band, snapping his hand into a closed fist, as if snatching his music away from these knuckleheads. Charlie Parker died at 34, broken by drugs, liver disease and heart problems. Could Fletcher’s brutal mindgames build an artist, but also kill a man? That’s something to talk about on the way home, along with Simmons’ stark performance, and the way he and Teller create a pas de deux which sometimes hits fervent greatness – especially in its ridiculous, percussive apocalypse of a third act. Like Black Swan with drums, Whiplash digs its own relentless tempo. n

Twitter @SiobhanSynnot

• On general release from Friday

Wild (15)

Star rating: ***

“YOU ever think about quitting?” someone asks the diminutive hillwalker with an oversized backpack and undersized boots. “Only once every two minutes,” comes the wry reply. In 1995, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) set herself the challenge of walking the 1,000 mile Pacific Crest Trail alone, as a means of physically putting some distance between herself and her divorce, drug abuse and the death of her mother (played wonderfully in flashbacks by Laura Dern).

Unashamedly gunning for life-affirming territory, this showcase for producer-director Witherspoon finds an engaging, steady rhythm. The film is particularly good on Cheryl’s encounters with the men she meets on this macho trek. Some seem dangerous, but turn out to be more interested in grabbing red liquorice sticks from the glovebox than her. Some are just insensitive – a journalist (Mo McRae) offends by typing her as his first lady hobo. Others repay her kindness with menace.

Nick Hornby does a grand job of adapting the Cheryl portrayed in Strayed’s book Wild, ditching a lot of her self-absorption and making the screen Cheryl funnier and tougher. However, he can’t resist letting his music fanboyishness bleed into the film; playing Simon & Garfunkel’s version of the Andean folk tune El Condor Pasa three times sounds more like the choice of the fiftysomething author of High Fidelity than a depressed 26-year-old woman with two boots full of blisters.

• On general release from Friday


American Sniper (15)

Star rating: ***

US Navy Seal Chris Kyle (beefed-up and bearded Bradley Cooper) was one of America’s most talented and therefore most lethal snipers. In the course of four tours of duty in Iraq, he shot insurgents, members of al-Qaeda and, if necessary, women and children. A gun-toting hero who tussles with the morality of the end justifying the means? No wonder American Sniper attracted Clint Eastwood as a director.

After the flat notes of Jersey Boys, this is a return to form for Eastwood, who imbues Kyle’s split-second crosshair decisions with real weight. Unfortunately, away from battle zones his biopic resorts to standard issue soldier drama: Kyle’s domestic disconnect is overfamiliar, from his unease in a people carrier to the teary wife (Sienna Miller) who warns “we may not be here when you get back”. Cooper gives a commendable, committed performance, but it’s a pity Eastwood prefers the legend of a heroic patriot to the complex and flawed human recorded in Kyle’s own memoirs.

• On general release from Friday

Testament Of Youth (12A)

Star rating: ***

Juliette Towhidi adapts Vera Brittain’s poignant memoir, with luminous Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) smartly cast as the writer and pacifist who fought for her right to be educated and endured personal losses in the First World War. A respectable and respectful heartbreaker. Kit Harington, Taron Egerton and Colin Morgan also star.

• On general release from Friday

Taken 3 (12A)

star rating: **

Liam Neeson is once again the mature action hero who makes pensioners in the audience sit a little taller in their relaxed-fit jeans. This time, he’s the one being pursued – by Forest Whitaker and the LAPD – for a crime he didn’t commit. Contains Dougray Scott, and an astonishing sequence where Neeson wades through a full sewer and someone evidently thought “this would be a good time for plangent pop song”.

• On general release