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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Note Perfect

Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Published Wednesday November 26, 01:33 am
A first-time filmmaker creates maybe the best movie of 2014

Whiplash

Roxy (opens Friday 5)

5/5

Whiplash — the well-deserved winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the last Sundance Film Festival and a smash success at TIFF — is much, much better than a first feature has any right to be. It’s provocative, intelligent and so intense it could provoke anxiety by proxy.

Rookie director Damien Chazelle (inexplicably, the writer of The Last Exorcism II) has come up with a tightly wound piece of cinema of a quality that even many veteran filmmakers could only dream of achieving once in their entire careers. The stakes remain relatable at all times, even though the film focuses on the pursuit of excellence, a pursuit that’s often both unrewarding and misunderstood.

A wonderful Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) is Andrew, an eager music student at the best conservatory in New York. Andrew has drive and talent as a drummer, so he’s quickly scooped up by Mr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) for his jazz band. To say that Fletcher is the toughest instructor at the academy would be a massive understatement; in order to help his students achieve greatness, he pushes them far beyond what’s proper — and then even further. Mind games and physical punishment feature prominently in his teaching toolbox, and he firmly believes the two most damaging words in the English language are “good job.”

Fletcher’s unapologetically harsh technique destroys Andrew’s relationships both within and outside of the academy, but here’s the kicker: the kid reaches unexpected heights as a drummer. The question the film stubbornly refuses to respond to is whether it’s all worth it.

Simmons is phenomenal as Fletcher. (He could scare the pants off Vern Schillinger, the neo-nazi character he played in Oz.) A master manipulator, Fletcher can treat you like garbage and use personal information against you, yet you’d still want his approval. His voice seldom rises but his words couldn’t be more bruising, to the point of making the audience uncomfortable. Simmons deserves many awards for this role.

Teller matches him beat-by-beat, with the additional difficulty of having to play the drums while he’s at it. In an interesting bit of casting, the amiable Paul Reiser (as Andrew’s dad) is presented as Fletcher’s counterpoint. Is his affable but uneventful existence really something to strive for?

Whiplash does more than just pit student against teacher to create drama — it also explores the madness that accompanies the notion of “drive.” Sure, Charlie Parker is still remembered as a drumming great today, but he died in his 30s, broke and full of heroin. At a certain level, balance stops being a possibility: the quest for greatness can wreak havoc in your personal life, but are family and friends compensation enough to give up one’s dream? The answer is proportionally less obvious the more professionally successful one is.

Every scene in Whiplash serves a purpose. The perfunctory-looking romance between Andrew and a concession stand attendant informs the character just as much as his relationship with Fletcher. The particularly tricky ending, a sequence that brings both journeys — and some serious emotional baggage — together is electric, working as a conclusion but also opening a whole new can of worms.

A wonderful film.

 

1,000 Times Good Night

Roxy

3/5

A common (and absolutely true) complaint among female actors of a certain age is the lack of interesting roles, especially in comparison to their male counterparts.

It seems like Juliette Binoche didn’t get the memo.

Binoche continues to kill it on a regular basis, with some of her most interesting performances (Certified Copy, Clouds of Sils Maria, Camille Claudel 1915) coming fairly recently. And I can’t be the only one to believe that the latest Godzilla could have been a lot better with her and Bryan Cranston as the true leads, as opposed to the bored-looking Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

The ambitious, if flawed, drama 1,000 Times Good Night puts her to good use. Binoche is Rebecca, a skilled war photographer who gets too close to a suicide bombing and ends up wounded — a development that might be the final straw for her family. Her husband (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones) is considering divorce; he still loves Rebecca, but the stress of her job is proving too taxing for their daughters. Rebecca attempts to be more of a mother, but her passion for her job might be too strong for her to resist.

The story does a good job of dissecting the tension between family and career — the shortcomings of both are on display, and the protagonist is genuinely torn between the two options. Sure, Rebecca loves her daughters, but considering her job is changing the world for the better (the movie isn’t subtle about this point), can she just give it up? The film doesn’t offer clear answers, because they don’t exist.

Good Night is handsomely shot in locations as diverse as Ireland, Kenya and Morocco (standing in for Afghanistan), and Rebecca’s conflict pictures look very real. On the downside, its portrayal of a photo-journalist’s life is off-puttingly unrealistic: deadlines be damned, and budgets aren’t an issue.

A more realistic approach to Rebecca’s profession would have done wonders for 1,000 Times Good Night, but it’s nonetheless a solid film that’s worth checking out.

 

Penguins of Madagascar

Cineplex

3/5

My expectations for Penguins of Madagascar were fairly low: I didn’t care for any of the three earlier Madagascar movies that spawned the characters, and this year’s animation offerings have been all over the place — from superb (The Lego Movie) to god-awful (The Nut Job).

But when Penguins opened with narration by Werner Herzog, I began feeling much more optimistic. No movie clever enough to recognize Herzog’s influence in the documentary genre could possibly be all bad.

Penguins of Madagascar is a breezy (but completely self-aware) romp in the vein of the most over-produced of James Bond’s adventures. The troops are reinforced with excellent voice work from Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich as celebrity guests.

The original foursome — Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private — cross paths with Dave (Malkovich), a deranged octopus who once upon a time was displaced by the penguins as the New York Zoo’s main attraction. Now, he wants to take revenge by turning the flightless birds into monsters, assuming that once their cuteness is gone they’ll suffer as much as he did.

And Dave (aka Dr. Octavius Brine) isn’t the only problem around. The North Wind — a powerful band of do-gooders — is in hot pursuit of Dave. They don’t play well with others, leading to a leadership struggle between Skipper and Classified (Cumberbatch), the alpha-wolf in command of the Wind.

There are no big lessons to learn in Penguins of Madagascar, aside from some good-natured platitudes that get thrown in here and there. The action sequences are non-stop, matched only by the sassy dialogue. (If you hate puns, stay away from this movie.) It’s a children’s movie that provides laughs for both kids and adults, much more in line with DreamWorks Animation’s early work like Shrek than later efforts such as Rise of the Guardians. Considering some of the competition this year, that’s more than enough.  

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