Friday, November 14, 2014

WHIPLASH: The Film Babble Blog Review


Opening today at an indie art house near you:

WHIPLASH (Dir. Damien Chazelle, 2014)


Miles Teller, who I initially disliked as a douche in the asinine 21 & OVER but thought he redeemed himself as a drunk in THE SPECTACULAR NOW, puts in a sharply superb performance as a determined student drummer squaring off against his hard-ass teacher/conductor played by J.K. Simmons, also in one of his finest performances.

Taking place mostly in a dark rehearsal room at the fictional Schaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan, the film follows Teller’s Andrew Neyman as he wins a spot in the prestigious school’s band, and undergoes tons of verbal, and some physical, abuse by Simmons’ cruel conductor character Terrence Fletcher.

Simmons’ Fletcher is a brutal bully who believes in pushing his students beyond their limits to achieve greatness. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’ he tells Teller.

Teller’s Andrew, who worships at the altar of drumming legend Buddy Rich as we can see from the books, CDs, and posters on his walls, is so driven to be one of the greats that he takes Simmons’ trash talk, but he is quickly approaching his breaking point.

On the side, Teller dates Melissa Benoist, who he had a genuine meet cute with at a movie theater he and his father (a nicely understated Paul Reiser) frequent, but their courtship doesn’t last long as he feels he needs to completely focus on his craft.

In the film’s most compelling sequence, Teller struggles to get to a concert on time after his bus breaks down, he leaves his drum sticks at a car rental agency, and he gets into a major automobile accident on the way back from retrieving them. He makes it there, albeit covered in blood with a broken hand, but blows it by dropping one of his sticks. It’s a grippingly stressful and electrifyingly edited third act starter that sets us up perfectly for the film’s musical showdown climax.

The movie is impressive on all fronts. Both Teller, who it should be noted does all his own drumming, and Simmons deserve awards season action – but in my book (or on my blog) it’s Simmons, who’s a better villain here than the over-the-top ones in most Marvel movies, that should get at least an Oscar nomination for his stunning work here.

The film itself, the feature length debut of writer/director Damien Chazelle, is impressive for its tight narrative construction, especially as it was shot in 19 days on the low budget of $3 million.

Sure to make my top 10 movies of 2014, the beautifully abrasive WHIPLASH takes its name from jazz composer Hank Levy's 1972 standard that Teller nails in his audition, and it features a bunch of blustery big band compositions that keeps the film bumping from beat to beat. It never rushes or drags, to use the parlance of Simmons (“Were you rushing or were you dragging?”), and there’s not one wasted moment that I can recall.


WHIPLASH may leave you feeling as bruised, and bloody as Teller, but you won’t feel beat down by it. It’s ultimately an inspirational tale that if you haven’t had to overcome the tyranny of a control freak asshole you can still relate to, but if you have, man, it will hit you hard.

More later...

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Keira Knightley Floats Through The Lackluster LAGGIES


Now playing at an indie art house near me:

LAGGIES (Dir. Lynn Shelton, 2014)



Maybe 2014 is the year of the bad title (see: EDGE OF TOMORROW). Titled SAY WHEN (which isn’t much better) in the UK, Lynn Shelton’s sixth film concerns Keira Knightley as a woman in her late ‘20s lagging behind in her life with little direction or motivation. 


Although she has an advanced degree in counseling, Knightley spends her days in a slacker job as one of those street corner sign spinners - a gig her insurance salesman father (Jeff Garlin) gave her – and her nights with her doting long-term boyfriend (Marc Webber).

When Webber starts to propose at the wedding reception of one of their friends (Ellie Kemper) Knightley freaks out and flees the party, and on the way out she catches her dad cheating on her mother.

Shortly afterward she stops at a grocery store and a group of teenagers headed by Chloë Grace Moretz ask her to buy them beer. Considering it a rite of passage, Knightley obliges then finds herself hanging out with the kids in a park until late that night.

Deciding that she needs a break from things in order to get her shit together, Knightley asks if she can stay at Moretz’s for a week while she tells Webber, her friends and family that she’s going to a week-long career seminar.

Knightley is found out almost immediately - before she even spends one night hiding in her new teenage friend’s bedroom - by Moretz’s divorce lawyer father played by a jaded Sam Rockwell who jokes: “Hey, did you hear the one about the grown woman who started hanging out with pubescent kids?”

LAGGIES isn’t bad, it’s just blah. It has cute moments, and some well observed humor but there’s not much to it. Knightley does a good job, especially with her convincing American accent, as do Moretz and Rockwell but this material – written by first-time screenwriter Andrea Siegel just goes through the predictable motions.

There have been so many movies, especially in the world of independent film, about young people having trouble transitioning into adulthood – Jason Reitman’s YOUNG ADULT comes to mind – so the beats are all too familiar. Anyone watching this film will know that Knightley is going to break up with her boyfriend back home and end up with Rockwell, and the realizations that our protagonist has that get her to that point are so obvious and spelled out.

Like Moretz’s subplot about whether or not she should tell a boy she likes him at the prom, there’s nothing really interesting going on here. There’s very little conflict, and it’s light on moments of insight or drama (though Kemper puts in some of her best acting in a coffee shop confrontation scene with Knightley), as Siegel’s script just skirts the surface of these situations set mostly in Seattle suburbs. It simply doesn’t breathe any new life into the ‘wake up and take control of your life’ trope.

LAGGIES, which I would've called FLOATING because it's something Knightley's character says about herself more than once the movie, joins the sad club of lackluster indies that have quickly come and gone this year including the abysmal MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN, the depressing LISTEN UP PHILIP, and the fake film noir of THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY. Just like those forgettable films, LAGGIES doesn’t just fail to connect with audiences, it fails to connect period.

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Thursday, November 06, 2014

INTERSTELLAR: The Film Babble Blog Review


Opening Friday, November 7th, at multiplexes from here to beyond the stars...

INTERSTELLAR
(Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)


Despite some spectacular set-pieces, Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated outer space epic INTERSTELLAR is a massive misfire. 

It so wants to be for our times the profound experience that 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY was to the late ‘60s, but with its problematic plotting, pretentious dialogue, and cringe-worthy convolutions of the cosmic variety, it’s more M. Night Shyamalan than Stanley Kubrick.

Set in the near future on a dying, dust stormed-out Earth, an intense Matthew McConaughey, acting like he rehearsed his lofty line readings while being filmed driving his Lincoln to the set every day, stars as a former NASA test pilot, a widowed farmer raising two kids (Mackenzie Foy and Timothée Chalamet).

With some cajoling by a ghost who apparently lives in the bookcase in Foy’s bedroom, McConaughey leaves his kids behind to travel on a spacecraft with a small crew (including a short-haired Anne Hathaway as a head strong scientist) to another galaxy to find a new habitable planet for the human race.

Michael Caine, who must really get along with the filmmaker as it’s his sixth role in a Nolan film, again brings his fading yet still stirring gravitas to his part as Professor Brand, the physicist who’s in charge of the secret mission, and is also Hathaway’s father.

By way of a wormhole near Saturn, which is pretty cool if you can rid your mind of the extremely similar scene in STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, McConaughey, Hathaway, and fellow explorers David Gyasi and Wes Bentley (and a robot named TARS voiced by Bill Irwin) find a possible candidate planet but there’s a mighty catch in order to check it out. You see, because of it’s a proximity to a black hole, every hour on the planet’s surface will equate to seven years back on Earth.

So while McConaughey and crew battle the ginormous tidal waves of that inhospitable world, his daughter and grow up to be Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck, both bitter at their departed dad in different albeit not very impactful ways.

To go any farther plot-wise would be Spoiler City, and the exposition-filled (and fueled) turns of Nolan’s screenplay (co-written with brother, Jonathan, a frequent collaborator) are too messy and strained to describe. This is especially true pertaining to what I guess is a surprise cameo that McConaughey and Hathaway encounter on a bleak, ice planet in the film’s second half (Nolan really must liked shooting in the snow, see INCEPTION).

Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema captures Nolan’s imagery sweepingly - a large portion of the film was shot with IMAX cameras - and there are moments in which the movie’s ambitious vision comes close to exhilaration, but what should’ve been a spiritual successor to CONTACT unfortunately brings to mind the title of another McConaughey movie: FAILURE TO LAUNCH.

Movie fans can expect to be reminded of many, many other movies while watching INTERSTELLAR, from the aforementioned 2001 to Phillip Kaufman’s THE RIGHT STUFF (a 1983 historical drama about pioneering astronauts, for you young folks) to such sci-fi staples as ALIEN, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, FORBIDDEN PLANET, and everything that’s ever had the word “Star” in its name. However, Nolan’s overwrought opus amore often recalls scores of sci-fi failures such as THE BLACK HOLE, MISSION TO MARS, SIGNS, and, uh, lots of movies that have had “Star” in their titles.

Also, GRAVITY did the ‘let’s see A-list actors struggling for survival in outer space
 scenario way better. On top of that, its colossal lack of emotional pull really hinders its climax which never comes close to making anything near satisfying sense.

I take no pleasure in saying that while INTERSTELLAR is Nolan’s most audacious and certainly his most personal film, it’s easily his worst work, and the biggest cinematic letdown of 2014. Because it’s not without visual power, and some invested acting, many critics will praise it, and it will definitely get some award season action, but me, I’ll be over there, on the side, standing behind BIRDMAN.

More later...