Posts Tagged ‘Whiplash’

oscars

I don’t normally make Oscar predictions because I’m terrible at it. I’ve learned that my flaw is an inability to vote with my brain over my heart. So every year I watch my more level-headed friends do the victory dance after being crowned champion of our annual Oscar ballot contest.

But the Oscars are tomorrow, and I’ve been neglecting this blog since Sundance, so I thought I’d cobble together some thoughts on the big six races (because let’s be honest, that all we really care about).

Best Supporting Actor

Ever since I saw Whiplash at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival last January, I’ve been waiting for the well-deserved furor to build around J.K. Simmons. His turn as a megalomaniacal music instructor is explosive, fascinating and terrifying and despite excellent competition from Edward Norton and Ethan Hawke, the statue is his to lose.

Will win: J.K. Simmons

Should win: J.K. Simmons

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Best Supporting Actress

I’ve written in the past about my love for Boyhood, and I’ll certainly continue to do so in the future. But while that story centers on a child, it is really the adult characters that ground and sustain the 12-year journey and particularly Patricia Arquette.

As a single mother raising her raising her children and fighting through a string of lousy boyfriends, Arquette is raw, natural and heartbreaking. The story ends with the titular boy headed off to college with the whole world and his future at his feet, but the real emotional punch is Arquette, alone in a drab apartment with the better years of her life behind her.

Laura Dern and Emma Stone are both terrific in Wild and Birdman, respectively. And any time Academy-favorite Meryl Streep is in the running it complicates things, but Arquette has swept every award show so far and I can’t imagine her streak ending at the big show.

Will win: Patricia Arquette

Should win: Patricia Arquette

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Best Actor

To me, 2014 was the year of Boyhood and Birdman, and since the lead actor in Boyhood was an untested child actor who was far from consistent over the 12-year shoot, that means 2014 was the year of Michael Keaton. He was already a good actor, but in Birdman we saw just how great he can be when handed the right material and director.

But, this is the Academy, and they can do some strange things sometimes. The Oscars love real people, like the characters played by every actor in the category BUT Keaton. They love physical transformations, like the nose Steve Carell hides behind in Foxcatcher or the ALS cocoon that slowly envelops Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. It also never hurts when a movie is both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, like the gangbusters business that American Sniper is doing.

I still think Keaton has the edge, if nothing else than because he’s a veteran actor who’s never been recognized before. But if Redmayne ends up on the stage tomorrow night I’ll be disappointed but not surprised.

Will win: Michael Keaton

Could win: Eddie Redmayne

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Best Actress

A lot has been said about how there’s not enough good roles for women in Hollywood, and this year’s Best Actress crop would certainly suggest that. Try as I might, I just can’t get excited about this year’s race. Still Alice? Two Days, One Night? I would imagine most people have neither seen those films nor even heard about them.

The smart money is on Julianne Moore, but if it were me I would give the statuette to Rosamund Pike for her work in Gone Girl. It’s not easy to steal the spotlight on a David Fincher film, but Pike (who has swam just beneath the surface of fame for a decade) delivers an Amy Dunne who is aggressive and vulnerable, sexy and repulsive. She also delivers the most memorable sex scene of Hollywood’s modern era.

Will win: Julianne Moore

Should win: Rosamund Pike

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Best Director

Again, Birdman and Boyhood. Boyhood and Birdman. Either one could win either this category and/or Best Picture. But Best Director goes beyond making a great movie and what Richard Linklater accomplished with his 12-year passion project simply must be recognized. This is the category to do it in.

Will win: Richard Linklater

Should win: Richard Linklater

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Best Picture

I already picked Birdman as my choice for best film of 2014. It’s unique, inventive, daring and filled with star-caliber performances. It’s the kind of film that captures the magic of the movies and reminds you why you want to spend your time in a dark room in front of a glowing screen.

Boyhood is incredible, don’t get me wrong, but its power comes from its ability to capture the quiet simplicity of everyday life and its slow evolution over time. It’s normalcy, on the big screen, in a way that few other narrative features have displayed. But Birdman is fantasy, it’s jazz, and as I’ve said before, it’s darned fun to watch.

But that’s my heart talking. My head knows that Boyhood has so far earned more awards from the other guilds and that its somewhat rare for Director and Picture to split. I give the edge to Birdman, but that might mean another year of someone else’s victory dance.

Will win: Birdman

Should win: Birdman

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I’ve put this off long enough.

I love movies — I assume that much is clear. And I love recognizing good movies. There are few things that warm my heart like a friend telling me that my recommendations prompted them to seek out a new film.

Ranking movies, however, is torture, and especially this year was tortuous. But as Shakespeare said, brevity is the soul of wit, and a list of 10 films is much more digestible than an incessant profusion of cinephile fandom.

So here are my Top 10 films of the year, beginning with number 10. And bear in mind that almost every day I’ve changed my mind about the ordering of the top 3 and will likely continue to do so after I push “publish.”

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10. Wild

A good character study is hard to come by these days, but Wild paints an engaging and at times hypnotic portrait of a woman putting the pieces of her life back together after being shattered by grief. The movie, set in the isolated, wandering expanse of the Pacific Crest Trail, tracks Cheryl Strayed as she battles the elements and her inner demons through California and Oregon. Wild jumps between beautiful vistas and moments of tense menace as Cheryl encounters both man and nature on her quest, while giving us a glimpse into our heroine’s mind through scattered glimpses at her past.

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9. Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler is, in a word, intense. As a morally ambiguous video-journalist capturing the nocturnal evils of Los Angeles, Jake Gyllenhaal creates a character that is a volcanic cluster of manic energy barely contained by a smiling, steel-eyed shell. But Gyllenhaal’s performance, incredible as it is, is only one of the many triumphs on which Nightcrawler can hang its hat. Director Dan Gilroy fashions a pulpy, lacerating examination of our blood-soaked craving for carnage media, making the audience complicit in morally ambiguous attempts to get that perfect shot of a crime scene or traffic accident’s aftermath. The movie starts on edge, stays there, and culminates in one of the most thrilling car chases ever captured on film, underlined by a pervasive sense of unease, and curiosity.

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8. Life Itself

It’s hard to love movies without loving Roger Ebert, the celebrated entertainment journalist who approached film criticism from the perspective of the American public rather than the self-aggrandizing intelligentsia. His reviews were sharp, witty and thoughtful, offering constructive criticism when needed and effusive praise when deserved. And in Life Itself, we get more than some two-dimensional portrait. We see the fight against alcoholism, the petty squabbles with his on-screen partner Gene Siskel and the moments of depression as he battled the illness that took his voice and ultimately his life. But throughout his life, he remained a champion of film as an art, or as he described it — in one of my favorite quotes — as an empathy machine.

And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

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7. Gone Girl

Can you ever really know another person? That’s the question at the heart of Gone Girl, David Fincher’s twisty, and twisted, adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller. At the heart of the story is the failed marriage of Amy and Nic Dunne, a pair of New York City journalists turned Southern suburbanites whose professional and emotional resentments toward each other reach a critical, and deadly breaking point. Fincher’s moody pallete, showcased in films like Se7en, Zodiak and The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, proves perfect for Flynn’s tale. It’s a seedy tale of heroes and villains where every character is a little of both. If you haven’t seen the movie you’ve probably read the book, and if you haven’t done either then you’re just doing it wrong.

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6. Interstellar

There’s only a handful of American directors with the industry chops to attempt a movie like Interstellar — a mega-budgeted original work of science fiction that would rather play with space-time equations than laser guns and explosions — and thankfully Christopher Nolan is one of them. Having earned his keep with the Dark Knight franchise, Nolan was given the keys to the kingdom to make his 3-hour epic about love, family, wormholes and 4th-dimensional extra-terrestrial beings.

For some, it was a little long in the tooth. For me, it was a hypnotic roller coaster ride, beautifully shot and elegantly constructed, that I never wanted to end.

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5. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson only knows how to make films one way, and that either works for you or it doesn’t. The director’s hyper-stylized whimsy and dollhouse set design exists in a world that is pseudo-fantasy and often surreal. With Budapest, Anderson created one of his most expansive worlds, largely centered in a luxury hotel but more broadly in fictional pre-WWII Europe, and populated it with some of his most colorful and winning characters, none more so than Ralph Fiennes’ dedicated concierge Mr. Gustave H. It’s a film filled with humor, thrills and a fair amount of melancholy sadness, all placed within a visual masterpiece.

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4. Snowpiercer

American cinema has long been fascinated with the end of the world, but few post-apocalyptic stories have created a vision of the end as simultaneously bleak, bizarre and fascinating as Snowpiercer, the graphic novel adaptation directed by Bong Joon-ho. In a world covered in ice, the last remnants of the human race inhabit a train perpetually circulating the globe, divided into a very literal caste system with the affluent and comfortable occupying the front — near the engine — and the huddled, starving masses populating the back — or “foot” as the deranged villain played by Tilda Swinton explains. The conditions lead to revolt and a slow and steady push to the front of the train, with each new car providing Bong Joon-Ho with an opportunity to create a fully encapsulated micro-world for our heroes to explore and fight through.

Put simply, there’s just nothing like Snowpiercer, which avoids stereotypicality at every turn, subverting expectations and leaning, full-tilt, into bonkers banana land. It may not be the best movie made this year, but I would say it’s the first thing you should make sure to see.

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3. Whiplash

“There are no two words in the English language more hamful than ‘good job’.”

So goes the mantra of Terence Fletcher, the sadistic music instructor played to perfection by J.K. Simmons who berates his students into excellence in Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.” Fletcher’s latest target is Andrew (Miles Teller) a drummer who just might have it in him to be one of the greats if he can push himself hard enough, or be pushed hard enough without breaking.

In Whiplash, first time director Chazelle creates a haunting story of master and pupil that vibrates with crashing intensity. Under his direction, Teller’s drum solos have more energy than even the most expensive Michael Bay action sequence. It’s an incredible feet for a young filmmaker, that suggests very interesting things to come and all but certain Oscar nomination for J.K. Simmons.

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2. Boyhood

Filmed over the course of 12 years, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a triumph of filmmaking that sees a family age and evolve literally before your eyes. Setting aside the technical achievement of the film’s existence, which can’t be ignored, Boyhood is more than just a gimmick. The story told, through the eyes of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is a beautiful, natural, soft-spoken thesis on life, from childhood fears to first crushes to the precipitous approach of adulthood. It’s a bold, daring project, that highlights what film is capable of as a storytelling medium.

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1. Birdman

You could talk a lot about the incredible performances in Birdman, from A-list stars like Edward Norton and Emma Stone to against-type casting like Zach Galifianakis to the central role of Riggan Thomson played to droll perfection by Michael Keaton. You could talk about the meta-commentary on fame, with a former superhero franchise actor making an artistic comeback by playing a former superhero franchise actor attempting an artistic comeback.

You could talk about the technical wizardry of the film, edited to look as though it was filmed in one continuous sequence, or the way it uses visual tricks to play with its surrealist elements, tip-toeing between what is real and what is imagined in the delirium of Thomson’s decaying mental state.

You could talk about the soundtrack, an at-times cacophonous jazz riff of percussion instruments that perfectly captures the frantic not-quite-right mood of the film.

You could even talk about the story, which revolves around the staging of a Broadway play and which gives you a peak into the interworking of the NYC theater world.

But really the only thing you need to talk about, and what ultimately makes Birdman the best movie of 2014, is how it’s just so much darned fun to watch.

 

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*Note: This review was first published during coverage of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

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I like Miles Teller. I liked him in The Spectacular Now, I liked him in the Footloose remake and I liked him in the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be 21 And Over. But his performance in Whiplash is what I like most.

In Whiplash, Teller eschews his typical Gen-Y Vince Vaughn cool guy to play a drummer named Andrew so singularly-driven by his desire to be the best that he is misanthropic, abrasive and willing to undergo what can only be described as emotional (and sometimes physical) torture at the hands of his director, a terrifyingly volatile and terrific J.K. Simmons. Insulted and occasionally assaulted, Andrew only hunkers down further to practice until his hands literally bleed.

It’s hard to explain exactly how he does it, but (the shockingly young) director Damien Chazelle portrays a series of jazz music performances with the same pulse-pounding tension of a Paul Greengrass car chase. In J.K. Simmons he creates a true villain, sneering and dangerous, and the cat and mouse between teacher and student escalates to a fever pitch typically reserved for thrillers where lives are at stake.

The movie is not seamless. Outside of the central duo the supporting characters serve mainly as placeholders. Paul Reiser, as Andrew’s father, is never quite established as supportive or discouraging and a throwaway plot with a romantic interest is introduced in what could only be a design to illustrate just how myopic Andrew’s interests are. In other words, she’s little more than a prop that demonstrates just how committed the musician is to his art.

But those critiques are minor, as Chazelle has crafted a film that is ambitious in its simplicity and utilizes sound to an at-times uncomfortably visceral level. Whiplash will leave you exhausted in the way that a runner feels after a sprint, pulsing with adrenaline and perspiring.

Grade: B+

*Whiplash opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 7.

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A Most Wanted Man

The always-enjoyable Philip Seymour Hoffman is deliciously sour in “A Most Wanted Man,”  but unfortunately he’s about the only intriguing part of this disappointingly lifeless adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy thriller.

The story follows Seymour Hoffman’s Gunther Bachmann, who heads up a covert anti-terrorist unit in Hamburg on the trail of a suspected terrorist who literally washes up on shore. Bachmann hopes the man can lead him upstream to bigger fish, but he’s under pressure from his superiors to act fast before any bombs go off.

A stellar supporting cast — including Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl and Robin Wright — are largely wasted as the plot tip toes forward in an attempt at slow-burn tension that ultimately fizzles. Le Carre’s work has been proven to be fertile ground for low-fi psychological spy games on the big screen with 2011’s excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But while A Most Wanted Man shares some of Tinker’s DNA, the former plays like going to the senior prom with the quarterback’s quiet, gangly, acne-faced little brother.

Grade: C+

Mitt

During the presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was frequently described as stiff, distant, unsympathetic and any number of other robotic adjectives. In “Mitt,” the documentary by “New York Doll” director Gregg Whiteley, viewers are promised another side of Mitt: the family man.

Whitely was granted extensive access to Romney and his family over the course of 6 years, and that access is apparent on the screen. We see the family praying together, eating dinner together, laughing together, and venting their frustrations together. What we don’t see, however, is any substantive examination of the candidate’s strategy, politics, or the general state of things during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

It’s a shame, as there are interesting stories to be told from Romney’s point of view, from his 2008 brawl with John McCain to his revolving door of challengers in 2012. The Romney candidacy is, in many ways, the perfect case study to demonstrated the fractured in-fighting of today’s Republican party, but all of that context is left on the cutting floor of “Mitt” in favor of what amounts to a two-hour family photo album.

The film is interesting in that it does, as promised, show a different side of the “flipping Mormon.” But that portrait will do little to satisfy audiences looking for intellectual profundity. It would appear that the cost of access, in this case, is a film with good intentions but where lost opportunities abound.

Grade: B-

Laggies

Director Lynn Shelton has become a Sundance regular with her films “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “Touchy Feely,” and “Your Sister’s Sister” and she continues that success with this year’s “Laggies,” which sees Keira Knightley as a late-20s woman dealing with a quarter-life crises.

Megan (Knightley) is living with her high-school boyfriend and twirling a sign on the side of the road for her father’s tax assistance agency after her chosen career as a marriage and family counselor didn’t take. After stepping out of a friend’s wedding she runs into a group of high school students including Annika (Kick Ass’s Chloe Grace Moretz) who invite her to hang out for the night. Soon, Knightley finds herself seeking refuge from her life by hiding out in the guest room of Annika’s house, where she meets single-dad Sam Rockwell, doing his typical witty, awesome, Sam Rockwell-esque thing.

The plot follows a familiar path but is saved from redundancy by its sincerity. The inevitable conflicts are not played for melodrama but instead unfold naturally, realistically and with a relatable heart that is both endearing and refreshing. Rockwell follows up last year’s The Way Way Back with another stellar performance that grounds the movie and keeps the laughs flowing. The result is the rare dramedy that excels in its simplicity.

Grade: B+

Love Child

In 2010, a newborn girl died from starvation while her parents were away playing video games into the night at a nearby computer lounge. They were charged with involuntary manslaughter and a key element in the case was whether or not their internet addiction minimized their culpability in the death of their daughter.

That case is the center of “Love Child,” a documentary that examines the online gaming culture of South Korea and the emerging cases of dangerously obsessive behavior that has resulted from the explosion of internet connectivity. The filmmakers interview police officers and attorneys involved in the case, as well as doctors and experts on the subject of internet addiction, in the attempt of painting a portrait of the couple in question, who clearly did not agree to be interviewed for the film.

That lack of access is the primary weakness of Love Child, which runs out of questions to ask early in its 75 minute running time. We hear about the challenges of internet addiction and the unique circumstances facing this couple — who relied on the sale of game-earned virtual currency for their income — from outsiders, leaving an emotional and contextual whole in the center of the film.

Grade: C+

“The Sleepwalker” is about a woman named Kaia who is renovating her childhood home with the help of her live-in boyfriend Andrew. One day, Kaia’s somewhat-estranged sister Christine arrives unexpectedly, followed by Christine’s boyfriend Ira.

I apologize for the straightforward synopsis but beyond what I have just described little about what transpires during “The Sleepwalker” makes sense to me. The characters behave in inexplicable ways, questioning and provoking each other, and much is teased out with little materializing by the end credits. We learn, through explicit and implicit means, that almost everyone in the film has passed through some form of sinister or traumatizing past, with the assumption being that some drastic turn of events is on the horizon. In the end some mysteries are revealed but its unclear why it matters, or why we care.

Other people may draw a completely different experience from “Sleepwalker’s” ethereal mythos. As for me, I was lost.

Grade: C-

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Whiplash

I like Miles Teller. I liked him in The Spectacular Now, I liked him in the Footloose remake and I liked him in the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be 21 And Over. But his performance in Whiplash is what I like most.

In Whiplash, Teller eschews his typical Gen-Y Vince Vaughn cool guy to play a drummer named Andrew so singularly-driven by his desire to be the best that he is misanthropic, abrasive and willing to undergo what can only be described as emotional torture at the hands of his director, a terrifyingly volatile and terrific J.K. Simmons. Insulted and occasionally assaulted, Andrew only hunkers down further to practice until his hands literally bleed.

It’s hard to explain exactly how he does it, but (the shockingly young) director Damien Chazelle portrays a series of jazz music performances with the same pulse-pounding tension of a Paul Greengrass film. In J.K. Simmons he creates a true villain, sneering and dangerous, and the cat and mouse between teacher and student escalates to a fever pitch typically reserved for thrillers where lives are at stake.

The movie is not seamless. Outside of the central duo the supporting characters serve mainly as placeholders. Paul Reiser as the father figure is never quite established as supportive or discouraging and a throwaway plot with a romantic interest is introduced in what could only be a design to illustrate just how myopic Andrew’s interests are.

But those critiques are minor, as Chazelle has crafted a film that is ambitious in its simplicity and utilizes sound to an at-times uncomfortably visceral level. Whiplash will leave you exhausted in the way that a runner feels after a sprint, pulsing with adrenaline and perspiring.

Grade: B+

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Whiplash-5547.cr2

Whiplash

I like Miles Teller. I liked him in The Spectacular Now, I liked him in the Footloose remake and I liked him in the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be 21 And Over. But his performance in Whiplash is what I like most.

In Whiplash, Teller eschews his typical Gen-Y Vince Vaughn cool guy to play a drummer named Andrew so singularly-driven by his desire to be the best that he is misanthropic, abrasive and willing to undergo what can only be described as emotional torture at the hands of his director, a terrifyingly volatile and terrific J.K. Simmons. Insulted and occasionally assaulted, Andrew only hunkers down further to practice until his hands literally bleed.

It’s hard to explain exactly how he does it, but (the shockingly young) director Damien Chazelle portrays a series of jazz music performances with the same pulse-pounding tension of a Paul Greengrass film. In J.K. Simmons he creates a true villain, sneering and dangerous, and the cat and mouse between teacher and student escalates to a fever pitch typically reserved for thrillers where lives are at stake.

The movie is not seamless. Outside of the central duo the supporting characters serve mainly as placeholders. Paul Reiser as the father figure is never quite established as supportive or discouraging and a throwaway plot with a romantic interest is introduced in what could only be a design to illustrate just how myopic Andrew’s interests are.

But those critiques are minor, as Chazelle has crafted a film that is ambitious in its simplicity and utilizes sound to an at-times uncomfortably visceral level. Whiplash will leave you exhausted in the way that a runner feels after a sprint, pulsing with adrenaline and perspiring.

Grade: B+

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