Whiplash

Miles Teller Whiplash

When an aspiring drummer, Andrew (Teller), registers at a world-renowned New York music school, he fast realises that his drum kit isn’t the only thing that requires a thick skin.

Nothing sounds more like vanilla than a film about drumming. Drums are the Steady Eddie of instruments; the “not cool enough to be featured on our Unplugged album” rhythm-keeper of all bands. Spending two hours with drums and/or a drummer sounds like something I would checkout of post-haste. It is for that very reason that I am surprised that Whiplash has a strong chance of remaining top of my Film of the Year 2015 list.

My surprise was short-lived, however, because Whiplash was not really a film about drumming. The instrument was the vessel through which the story was told, and this was a story of pain, perseverance and the pursuit of perfection.

Much of the narrative was focused on the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher; the young student vs the bastard tutor (and bastard is a light word in this context), similar to the character dynamics in Full Metal Jacket. Teller’s characterization of the quiet, socially awkward protagonist should have been recognized in this year’s Oscar nominations, especially considering J.K. Simmons was given the nod as Best Supporting Actor. Both of these actors gave standout performances, their relationship dissected with nuanced excellence. Teller usually plays the wise-cracking jock, yet this role was a complete departure for him as he showed a tense vulnerability on screen.

The last film directed by Damien Chazelle, Grand Piano, also dealt with a talented protagonist playing a musical instrument, but instead of a vacuous plot carrying one-dimensional characters, Whiplash bears the hallmark of greatness, which is also a theme that is deeply explored in the film. Andrew has engulfed his life in drumming. Rather than developing relationships with family and friends, he sacrificed everything in an effort to be the greatest drummer of his generation; he opted for CDs over conversations; his sticks over a girlfriend. Every literal and metaphorical knock back drove him harder to prove the greatness he desired, which at times became cringe worthy to watch. At times the movie became a little far-fetched from a plot perspective, however the events helped to act as a visual metaphor for Andrew’s unrelenting drive to be the best.

Clearly a film about a drummer needed to have scenes of drumming, and they absolutely delivered. There was a wonderful adventurousness to the camera, with the drum kit and the drummer being shown from all angles, and the editing had a kinetic feel to it that reminded me of the music video to The Chemical Brothers – Star Guitar. At points I felt myself simultaneously gritting my teeth, nodding my head and tapping my feet.

Even if Whiplash is usurped as my Film of the Year, the movie about a drummer, which isn’t about drumming, will remain long in my mind. La La Land, Chazelle’s next movie, released later this year, is a piece of cinema on which I will be keeping a very close eye.

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12 Years A Slave

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One of the front-runners of this year’s Oscars is 12 Years A Slave, Steven McQueen’s latest attempt at the marriage of art and narrative film. The movie is based on the true story of Solomon Northup: an artisanal son of a freed slave, who finds himself kidnapped, taken to Georgia against his will and sold into slavery to a number of slave owners.

The fact that this story is true (and apparently not the only occasion someone was illegally sold into slavery at the time) is shocking enough, but McQueen does not shy away from showing the true brutality and undignifying existence for black slaves in the 19th Century. There are a number of scenes that are so harrowingly realistic, and acted upon a knife’s edge, that they will have you turning away out of respect for the victims of the torture. There is more genuine, effective horror in this movie than in any lowbrow torture porn flick and it is very difficult to watch.

A huge factor in how difficult the film is to watch can be attributed to a fantastically nuanced performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as the protagonist, Northup. Ejiofor changes how Northup holds himself throughout the film; he is a proud violinist with a loving family at the beginning, and by the end he’s a complete shell of his former self, hunched and invisible when white people are around. There were some great turns from Nyong’o, Cumberbatch and Dano, but I am not sure Brad Pitt worked in his role. I also felt that sometimes, the main antagonist, Epps (Michael Fassbender), was played too much like a Disney villain, which may have been a decision on McQueen’s part to create a foil to the nuanced Northup. Whenever he explode in a fit of entitled white Christian rage it felt like the movie was trying to fit into generic narrative conventions of good vs bad, which cheapened the movie for me somewhat.

As with any McQueen movie it is shot beautifully; we get the lingering mid shots and close-ups of peoples’ faces for which the director is known. Whereas other another director would chose to end a scene when an audience would expect, McQueen managed to draw out the rawest emotion by having the nerve to leave the camera rolling just that little bit longer. In a movie such as 12 Years A Slave – a movie that is so deeply-seated in visceral emotion – this technique worked extremely well. If Shame was McQueen’s breakthrough movie, then 12 Years A Slave is his masterpiece, and I very much doubt his marriage of art and narrative cinema will ever be as popular.

12 Years A Slave is not a film into which you should go lightly. The subject matter lends itself to some graphic brutality and devastating realism that is not for the feint of heart, however the central performance from Ejiofor is definitely a reason this should, and needs, to be seen by everyone.

Ernie’s 10 overlooked genre picks

Lauren is away enjoying her honeymoon (wooo), which means I’m holding fort for the week! So, without further ado…

10 overlooked films. 10 genres. None of these movies are mentioned in previous lists (but two I have reviewed: cheating, right?)!

1) Action: Tropa de Elite

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City of God is often lauded as the greatest Brazilian film of recent years, and deservedly so. That said, Tropa de Elite pushes it a close second, in my opinion. The sweaty, vibrant Rio is once again under the spotlight, but this time the focus is a team of expert urban police named the BOPE: Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais. It’s violent, funny, poignant and just fucking great. The sequel is as good as the original, and the final film in the trilogy is rumoured to be in production! Excelente!

2) Animation: Sword in the Stone

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As a child, there were few things as exciting and magical as watching the song Higitus Figitus (all the shrinking household objects!) in Sword in the Stone. Merlin was my favourite Disney character after Genie from Aladdin, and if you haven’t seen this 1963 classic then where have you been?

3) Comedy: Kenny

The proper use of sanitation equipment, as explained by Kenny (Shane Jacobson).
“There’s a smell in there that will out-last religion.”

A charming, sincere and heartwarming mockumentary about an Australian shit-shoveller called Kenny. The writing, although being very culturally-specific to Australia, delivers a universally-relevant protagonist; Kenny has a slight speech impediment but a huge heart. Much like Homer Simpson, Kenny is one of those characters you wish was a real person. It’s an utter success as a comedy, too, with some laugh-out-loud scenes milestoning the few touching moments throughout the narrative. You must see this movie; it doesn’t have 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for nothing.

4) Documentary: Restrepo

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We love documentaries here on Frame Rates (Blackfish, McCullin, The Summit, Searching for Sugar Man, The Cove), and Restrepo is no exception to this rule. Focused on a platoon of US soldiers, Restrepo is a visceral study on the effects of modern warfare; losing friends, winning battles and leaving loved ones are elements put under the microscope here. It’s harrowing, hard to watch but also exhilarating (if a bit “‘Murica, baby”, and is one of the more honest documents about the War on Terror.

5) Drama: The Hunt

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6) Horror: Excision

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7) Sci-Fi: Westworld

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Click click click click click. That is the sound of the killer cowboy hunting you. This is not a case of mistaken identity, but rather a case of machines going wrong. Westworld is a dystopian take on future theme parks, in which you can take vacations in bygone day; drinking in saloon bars, shagging disease-ridden hookers and gallivanting around the Wild West. That is until the wiring in one of the machines goes wrong and you are left fighting for your life! 1970s sci-fi at its depressing, paranoid best.

8) Thriller: Leon

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I don’t think this is that overlooked, however it is one of my all-time genre favourites. What starts life as a lone wolf thriller quickly falls into buddy territory, however the buddies are a middle-aged Jean Reno and a young Natalie Portman. Luc Besson’s best movie, alongside The Fifth Element, is a joy to watch, has some laughs juxtaposed with some epic violence and a turn from Gary Oldman that will require you make change of underwear upon finishing the movie.

9) War: Brotherhood

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It’s not cool to cry at movies, right? Well, regardless of the fact I don’t think that’s true at all, fifteen year old me was extremely shocked when salty stuff started coming out of his eye sockets after watching Brotherhood. A story about two brothers that find themselves on opposite sides of the Korean conflict, Taegukgi is hearthbreaking. I haven’t actually seen this in years, but I remember being absolutely astounded by the movie, and this is a reminder to myself to hunt this down and have a second viewing.

10) Western: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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Gotta be honest; I haven’t seen too many Westerns. Rango, 3:10 to Yuma, The Searchers, TGTBATU and True Grit come to mind, however what Andrew Dominik has achieved in Jessie James is nothing short of phenomenal. It’s like watching a series of perfectly-framed photographs, and the script is alright as well! Sam Rockwell, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck are brilliant, and even the often monotone Jeremy Renner pulls out all the stocks for this movie! It’s very slow and requires your undivided attention, but if you are in the right mood this will wash over you wonderfully.

A Dangerous Method


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If you’re a fan of David Cronenberg, like myself, you’ll probably consider him synonymous with visceral, violent and horrific imagery. In his first film, Shivers, he invented a new sexually-transmitted parasite – which looked like a cross between a penis and a turd – that freed humans of their inhibitions and turned them into sex-crazed maniacs. Shivers is gross, violent, disturbing, silly, and kicked off Cronenberg’s career as the master of body horror; horror that is concerned with issues of the physical body.

A Dangerous Method, in almost all ways, is the opposite. The film deals with the relationship between Carl Jung (Fassbender) and his patient, Sabina Speilrein (Knightly), and his long-distance working relationship with Sigmund Freud (Mortensen). If you know a rough history of any of the lives of these characters you will know their respective character arcs, but this isn’t going to ruin the movie for you.

There are many great things about A Dangerous Method. Of course, Cronenberg is comfortable with characters and dialogue, which shines through in a number of compelling back-and-forths between Jung/Speilrein and Jung/Freud. The way in which Cronenberg decided to shoot the psychoanalysis scenes is very interesting; we have a two shot of Jung and his patient that has them both in focus. To do this one guesses they shot each scene twice, once with the foreground in focus, and once with the background, and then stitched the two shots together in post, and added in the camera lens blurs to other parts of the frame, much like you would your Instagram photos (albeit with much more taste and class).

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Cronenberg plays with an audiences’ knowledge of depth of field to create a visual connotation; these scenes place Jung in focus yet he is in the foreground or background, almost in the head of his patient while they relay to him their inner thoughts. The cinematographer also makes early 20th Century Switzerland look absolutely beautiful, with rich vintage greens, yellows and reds washing over the frame. The production design works in harmony with the cinematography; the costumes and setting denote a period piece, all while we see the characters experiencing very modern-day human problems.

All that said, the film is not without its issues. Keira Knightly’s acting enthusiasm was evidently more a directorial choice than anything else, and because the movie jumps straight into the meat and bones, it’s very jarring. One minute her jaw is sticking about a foot out of her face, and then in the next scene she’s talking psychoanalytic nuances with Jung, which was strange. This was also a theme of the movie; it spans about a decade, so we see characters in different phases of their lives without so much as a second to readjust to the new time period. Also, if you’re familiar with Freud’s work you’ll know that he relates a huge proportion of repressed desires and emotions to sex. Obviously this needed to be addressed in the narrative, so we have a few graphic scenes, but I was more interested in the non-physical relationships of the characters. The sexual acts were also presented in an anti-erotic way, so even though we see Knightly’s nipple a few times, it’s not there to titalate the audience and I didn’t care for it at all.

A Dangerous Method is a good movie, but not a great movie. There is enough in there to make the story interesting, and it’s absolutely lovely to look at, but it’s not going to blow minds. Fassbender can do no wrong in my eyes, and I’d put him up there with Mikkelson, Gosling, DiCaprio and Hardy as the most exciting actors working in Hollywood at the moment, so check it out just for him! It’s only 99 minutes long!

J. Edgar

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On paper, a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover – founder of the modern Federal Bureau of Investigation and prolific figure in the shaping of the American justice system in the 20th century – starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Clint Eastwood, looks all kinds of fantastic. DiCaprio has more than proven he can handle the weight of big roles, and the meat of strong characters, and Eastwood has carved himself out a career as a highly-respected and competent director with critically and commercially successful films like Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers. Along with an excellent screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, most known for the decorated Milk, and a ridiculously impressive supporting cast, Dame Judi Dench and Naomi Watts to name a few, this film was poised to be as good as Eastwood’s best. Sad to say the film doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts.

Right off the bat, before the narrative even had a chance to get under way, the film had problems. DiCaprio’s interpretation of Hoover’s voice was more off putting than encapsulating and had the opposite of the desired affect, hindering rather than facilitating the character. DiCaprio, even on an off day, puts in a fine performance however fails to ever fully convince as Hoover. This is most apparent in the latter days of the story, where the heavy prosthetics combined with the caricatured voice makes the audience all too aware of the medium instead of the man. Armie Hammer, as life long friend, partner and colleague, Clyde Tolson, comes to life and anchors the film with a natural and faultless performance, however even he drowns in the overly-complicated and confusing narrative structure.

Eastwood and Black, in trying to deliver a well-rounded and complete look at the entirety of Hoover’s career, struggle to ground time, context and motivation. The narrative jumps around incomprehensibly, and nothing less than a substantial knowledge of the period would have been enough to follow the plot. The narrative’s non-linear structure meant it was difficult to process and understand the man that was J. Edgar. Touching moments lack weight and historic milestones are lost. Eastwood’s cinematographer captures the period with beautiful consistency, and Eastwood directs with an elegance and sureness that adds heft and visual weight to his character pieces, however, without the contextual and dramatic substance, this becomes superficial praise.

There is much to commend in J. Edgar; costumes, sets, performance, style,  however these are difficult to define and appreciate under the heavy fog of problems. Most damningly, the film, even with the huge amount of content, lacks pace. So much so, that at times it was boring. A man as intriguing as Hoover, in a period that defined law and order in the USA, should come shooting out the gates. Eastwood, in trying to cover too much, has created a confused biopic that struggles to pack the punch it should have delivered.