Whiplash – Review

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Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
Written and Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Metacritic Score: 88
IMDb Score: 8.6 (As of Apr. 15, 2014, it’s #38 in IMDb’s Top 250 movies of all time)
Winner of 3 Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Best Sound Mixing and Best Movie Editing. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay
One of the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Films of 2014

Rated R for strong language including some sexual references

To some, greatness is purely of means to have talent to perform greatness. To others, it’s the achievement of years of blood, sweat, guys, sacrifices and heart breaks to finally attain it. Whiplash takes the latter route in what can best be called Good Will Hunting if instead of Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire, you had R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket calling him a “pansy ass queer boy who should just stop being a pussy and start scribbling those numbers and letters on the damn chalkboard.”

Actually, I would love to see that movie as well.

Andrew (Teller) is a prodigy on the drums that has enrolled into a prestigious school of music to pursue his passion of being one of the best drummers in the world. Within a certain period of time, he becomes a part of the school’s main band, led by Terrence Fletcher (Simmons). Throughout the movie, you watch a relationship bore out of admiration, constant abuse and the pursuit of perfection.

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This movie reminds me a lot of one of my all-time favorite movies: My Dinner With Andre. In some of the best scenes of that film, which is about two playwrights having dinner and talking about their lives, there is a palpable intensity that comes from just someone speaking and emoting, done with a measure of quiet reservation and a sear of dark humor.

This movie is like that but with music. Beautiful, intense and absorbing music. Replace the talking with the creation of sound and its destructive power and you have a movie that oozes a style of its own; something moving not by pulling heartstrings, but by punching your gut, pulling your hair to stand you back up to breathlessly watch the madness.

Welcome to Whiplash, a movie that does more in its 107 minutes to inspire to push yourself to unforeseen limits in its intense music sessions that most, if not all, sports movies do to the same (Rocky, Remember the Titans). The movie’s sole plot line: hell, its sole purpose, is to show the destructive nature of pushing your boundaries to become the best.

With its single intent, the movie does it incredibly well. It shows this incredible tit-for-tat relationship with a white knuckle intensity and tinge of dark humor that keeps the movie flowing throughout most of the film. When the film stays on this dynamic, it has a pace that jars the senses and tests your feelings about both characters.

In one of the few performances that deserve the praise its received, J.K. Simmons personifies the unrelenting pursuit of perfection. Clad in all black and burrows an intensity that are more on display with movies involving psychosis and murderers, his performance is at times a hard to watch explosion that you can’t look away from. Yet, Simmons grounds the character so perfectly without it feeling scenery chewing, which is amazing due to the personality of Fletcher.

Miles Teller also deserves praise for playing this intense, suffering youth that is the subject of Simmons’ emotional damaging. His performance, while not as layered as some, showcases in an understated way the emotionally draining and psychologically damaging effects of the intense learning environment he’s being put on. The character could have been a standard, boiler-plate stand-in for Fletcher’s vitriol, but he adds to the significance of the main theme of the story.

For a feature debut, Damien Chazelle wrote and directed a film that has both a sense of despair and accomplishment that few movies have achieved. The film is shot in almost pitch black when in Simmons’ is on scene, which adds to the pervasive nature and power that the character (and actor) has on the overall story. His writing of both characters are equally grounded and theatrical: he has a way of making these characters feel larger than life without feeling unbelievable.

Finally, the music, even as it repeats as often as it does, is one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a movie in a long time. With the movie being about a drummer, you hear a lot of drums in the soundtrack, but it’s hot use of jazz tones and powerful trumpets and saxophones is immediately intoxicating to the ears. This beautiful use of music also helps add the intensity when you see Simmons’ character wave his hand to stop.

So, it’s obvious there’s a lot to love about this movie, but there is a significant drawback to this film: everything else. Thankfully, everything else is literally 10 – 15 minutes of the film spanned out throughout, so you’ll not have to deal with it much. Both Paul Reiser and Melissa Benoist’s characters are unnecessary in this film: almost to the point where they serve little purpose except to fuel the ongoing transformation of the main character.

In fact, with the exception of those two characters, no other characters are even given worthwhile time or depth, which is surprisingly a plus in this film since the intensity of the two main characters is what the movie is about. Literally, this movie would have been best served as a movie about just these two characters and I wish Chazelle took the option of just doing that.

One last gripe: The last 15 – 20 minutes is questionable, though it doesn’t detract from the film necessarily. To some, it won’t bother them at all. To others, it may make Fletcher seem like a cartoonish villain, but in my opinion it’s a gripe worth noting but not to detract from the film.

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Few films pull off being a “less is better” movie, but Whiplash not only pulls it off, it creates an intense and powerful film through its use of music and dimly lit scenery. Simmons is simply incredible in his performance; Teller nearly matches it with a quiet intensity. Aside from ancillary characters, this movie is about as rudimentarily perfect as the two character are striving to be.

And it will leave you breathless by the end.

4.5/5 – Simmons is incredible, as is Teller. Chazelle’s drearily, yet upbeat direction creates a spellbinding look at the often insane pursuit of perfection.

The Wiz Says #18

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