Saturday, August 15, 2015

Whiplashing of the Tongues: J.K. Simmons Behaving Badly.

Movie Review: Whiplash

Director: Damien Chazelle

Reviewed: 13 August 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

I don't like that Bobby Knight threw a chair at an athlete in a basketball game or practice. There were always rumors that my HS coach threw a desk once when a state qualifying athlete was late for the second time to practice and had to be kicked off the team publically. In my worst moments, I've berated students and been loud and obnoxious in ways that are infinitely embarrassing and hopefully not collected on film. There were rumors at a previous school I worked at about an overhead projector being tossed out a window to prove a point. Eruptions of fountains of anger and the ideas of brutal mentorship, hazing and hypocrisy, and the pursuit of greatness in art are at the center of Damien Chazelle's lean, often breath-taking film Whiplash with the centerpiece being a battle of wills between conductor/dictator Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) at a conservatory and his pupil of promise Andrew (Miles Teller), a drummer with high hopes. The film examines what is necessary to be truly great, with one character positing that a thrown instrument and cathartic challenge: To be great is to be pushed past your own limits. I think of the professor played by Stellan Skarsgaard in Good Will Hunting: "I was great BECAUSE I was pushed!" How much is too much is not a question that this film is really interested in engaging though, and by thinly developing Andrew and Fletcher, its third act holds it back from greatness.

Chazelle revels in establishing the mystique of Fletcher, a shadowy figure who haunts the hallways of the conservatory, intense in his nearly-military running of his classroom, frightening in his berating of his students (all male), but the implication is that he gets results, so he's allowed to be a monster. Simmons won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his visceral work here, and his relentlessness is shocking and impossible to look away from onscreen. Teller struggles more to convey Andrew's interiority, partially because though he's nearly in every screen, and the story is ostensibly about his journey, he does not narrate, he rarely talks through his thinking, and he remains a bit of a cipher. He loves to drum, drums until his hands bleed, and there's a bit about him trying to make his father (Paul Rieser) proud. However, the film suffers because of its thinly developed characters and plot contrivances in the last third. How long would a teacher like Fletcher be allowed to threaten his students? In the age of cell phones and secret videos, his vicious, virulent attacks would be broadcast more publically, I would think in this era.

Whiplash wants us to consider if some great art and greatness comes from being pushed past your limits. However, why does that pushing have to be so degrading? There's little interest or explanation for Fletcher's homophobia, anti-Semitism, or just plain nastiness, and without any context, it just seems like bullying to me. There's always moments of truth and confrontation in the classroom and as a coach of athletes, but does fear and threat of violence really carry someone into the next plane of their work? I keep coming back to the idea of is it better to be feared or loved, and the adage that fear lasts longer than love. The ending of the film is intentionally open-ended with the idea that the both pupil and master could be right, though I know less about how the pupil differs from the master here. The editing is truly wonderful (also Academy Award winning) with its musical, drum-beat punctuating rhythms, and for a film that seems to occur mostly in rehearsal spaces or performances around the edges of darkness, Chazelle delivers quite a potent experience despite its flaws. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Apatowed: Amy Schumer's Uneven and Often Funny Trainwreck

Movie Review: Trainwreck

Director: Judd Apatow

Reviewed: 13 August 2015

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

Judd Apatow gets in the way of his lead performer, the great Amy Schumer, in her first screenplay Trainwreck, where she plays that familiar trope of a successful writer whom we never see write or represent any of the discipline or interiority of a writer. That's an easy complaint, and one made by Film Critic Roger Ebert long ago, that to show such an internal thing as writing is a struggle in film, but I think more importantly, Apatow (and sometimes Schumer) do not know how to show her character, a successful writer who is a mess in her personal life, from out of control drinking and sexual encounters to failing to connect with her father and sister. There is growth, but it seems to happen off screen with very little sharing of it beyond an obvious shot or two. Regardless, Schumer is deeply funny and tremendously talented, and I hope this movie is the beginning of more daring, exciting work from her.

The film raised many questions for me, and I think those have percolated in the weeks since I have seen it. After a sharp, very funny opening flashback with Colin Quinn introduced as her father whose rant about monogamy sets the tone, the film hovers around ideas related to aging and growing up with Brie Larson playing her married sister while constructing Amy's office life in a much sketchier, incomplete, and unsatisfying way. Amy negotiates an unsuccessful relationship with boyfriend Steven (John Cena, hilarious), but when things go sour for him, Amy finds herself drawn to the subject of her latest article: surgeon Aaron (Bill Hader), a guy who is smart and funny and seems to have an instant chemistry with her. And, he also happens to be best buddies with LeBron James. Amy's journey of discovery about entering into a relationship with Aaron becomes juxtaposed against her relationship with her father, who is suffering from MS and in assisted living, and her sister with a more domesticated life.

What's to like: LeBron James. Let's just say it.  The guy is flat-out wonderful in this film, and the supporting cast in generally of John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, a slew of comedians in recognizable and unrecognizable roles does fine work. Schumer has some very funny moments herself, and her scenes with Hader work together, as do her scenes with Colin Quinn. I did not respond to some of the choices in the second half of the film, from the faux-chase scene to epiphanies that seem hollow and very one-sided. Hader's character misses opportunities for authenticity and development in the second half, as does exploring Amy's family struggles. There's much more here than in an average comedy, and for its high moments of laughter, I can nearly recommend it.