Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Making a name at all costs

“Whiplash” is unlike any movie I’ve seen before. On the surface it’s about a young drummer’s quest to become “one of the greats”, but it tells this story in a way which feels almost entirely original and incorporates the best elements of the drama, suspense and horror genres. Miles Teller plays Andrew, a student at the prestigious Schaefer Music Conservatory who is invited by Mr. Fletcher, a band leader he admires, to join his band. Within the first few minutes of class, Mr. Fletcher stops practice to announce there is an out-of-tune player. He gets within a few inches of the player’s face and before he’s even finished asking the player if he’s out of tune the student is on the verge of tears. Fletcher berates him and permanently dismisses him from the band. Andrew is soon the recipient of Fletcher’s anger as his face is slapped while he counts beats and is asked if the slapping is ahead of or behind the tempo. When not playing, the entire class sits quiet and rigid with their eyes toward the floor. They are fearful of what might come. Mental and physical abuse is a daily occurrence and Fletcher gets away with it because his pupils are all here to pursue a dream and will do nothing to jeopardize that. Pursue is too light a word; they are here to fulfill a dream. While unique in many ways, “Whiplash” has similarities to Darren Aronofsky’s great films “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan”. Just as those films depict people who live for their professions and include rich detail of the dedication (Mickey Rourke’s Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson tanning and dyeing his hair in addition to working out and Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers balancing on her toes until she breaks a nail off and dieting constantly) needed to succeed, “Whiplash” shows Andrew’s complete immersion in jazz. Deep in an obsession with maintaining a part in the band, Andrew clears his walls except for a poster of a jazz idol and holes up practicing until his fingers bleed. He then bandages his fingers and continues, his face contorting into a pained, determined and tortured countenance. Putting blood, sweat and tears into his work is not figurative for Andrew. Everything about “Whiplash” is expertly crafted and the structure provides character detail rather than simply lay out the order of scenes. About 15 minutes into the film when Andrew goes on a casual date to have pizza with a girl named Nicole he knows from the theater he frequents with his dad, it’s the first significant amount of time he’s seen outside the conservatory. He and Nicole talk about their lives and he learns she doesn’t know what she wants to major in and attends her college because she applied and got in. When she asks him why he attends Schaefer he replies without any hesitation, “It’s the best music school in the country.” Later, the two are in a diner and he coldly but honestly tells her they shouldn’t date because he can’t be distracted. Nicole leaves in tears and the waitress comes to the table with a pitcher of ice water. The movie goes from this to another pitcher of ice water. This time the camera stays on the pitcher as Andrew, practicing on the drums, plunges his bloody fist into it the water, turning it red. Another scene in which Andrew discusses success with his family is enthralling, disturbing and tragic as the dialogue crackles. Teller already has proven himself to be a fine actor with “The Spectacular Now”, but in “Whiplash” he gives what is one of the great performances in recent years. J.K. Simmons, who is always a strong actor usually seen in more lighthearted roles such as the dad in “Juno”, gives an impressively complex and intimidating portrayal of Fletcher. Much of the greatness of “Whiplash” is owed to the brilliant screenplay by Damien Chazelle, who also directed. It would have been very easy for Fletcher to appear as a one-note character. Instead, the viewer is never sure if Fletcher enjoys being abusive because he likes the power or because he genuinely wants his students to be great and this is way of getting them there. He tells Andrew, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

He shoots visions of Hell in the City of Angels

For anyone fearing there is no creativity in the movie business, “Nightcrawler” will restore their faith that there is still plenty of talent out there. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, the movie is that rare one that leaves the viewer wanting to see it again. This desire comes not only to be enveloped in the almost surreal, dreamlike atmosphere created by the filmmakers, but also to absorb some of its sharp dialogue which might have been missed during the first viewing. “Nightcrawler” is completely engrossing from start to finish and its screenplay, which ranks with those of “Stoker” and “The Place Beyond the Pines”, is the main reason. Gilroy has created a rich and thoroughly entertaining character. Jake Gyllenhaal portrays this character, Lou Bloom, with a wide-eyed zeal. Bloom puts himself on the fast track to become the most successful videographer of grisly accidents, fires and crime scenes in L.A. Renee Russo plays Nina Romina, a tough-as-nails news producer who is eager to bolster ratings and up her status. A lesser screenplay would have rolled out a tired and therefore boring indictment of the both the TV news business’ lack of decency and the public’s insatiable appetite for destruction. Gilroy is a much more thoughtful writer than that and for this reason “Nightcrawler” manages to build a fresh story in a familiar milieu. The film has received a comparison to “Taxi Driver” from “The New York Times” for its depiction of a lonely, unhinged protagonist, but the movie could also and perhaps more accurately be compared to “Scarface” and “There Will Be Blood”, since it depicts a character whose ambition holds no boundaries, moral or otherwise. Bloom’s first desire to become a nightcrawler (the term a rival videographer played by Bill Paxton uses for what they do) after he stops at a traffic accident and sees freelance cameramen recording the wreckage. Earlier that night Bloom unsuccessfully lobbied for a position, then an internship at a scrap metal yard. The owner declined, telling him (who was there to unload obviously stolen metal) that he wouldn’t have a thief working for him. The exchange between the owner and Bloom is within the first five minutes of the movie and it sets the stage for what will be a showcase of great writing. Bloom goes through a confident price negotiation process before pitching aggressively to the owner himself as a vital part of the organization. Later it becomes clear Bloom sees himself as an entrepreneur as he works to build his business, any business, from the ground up. Whether it’s learning the scrap metal business or selling graphic images to TV news stations is irrelevant as long as there’s room to grow. As soon as he sells his first video to Romina he begins hustling his way further into the station and higher up the ranks. He gives Romina a possibly earnest, possibly insincere speech about how an online business course he took taught him to look for a job combining his passion and talent and how he didn’t know before, but now he is certain TV news is where he needs to be. While the movie could most easily be labeled as an indictment of the TV news industry’s bloodlust and fear mongering, but when one looks a little deeper it’s clear “Nightcrawler” is a look at the dark side of ambition.It is by looking at the movie through this lens that Lou Bloom has more in common with Tony Montana or Daniel Plainview than he does with Travis Bickle. While Bloom is clearly a sociopath, he has much in common with many people today who desperately want to build something and make their mark. Bloom often speaks in business-workshop terms and phrases, seeming to be an amateur Tony Robbins or Robert T. Kiyosaki of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” fame. Based on the popularity of Robbins and Kiyosaki, many people are buying what Bloom is selling. One of the best scenes displaying Bloom’s slick businessman-like showmanship is when he meets an impressionable disciple for what this person thinks is a job interview. This young man (Riz Ahmed, amazing in this supporting role) clearly has had his confidence eroded from a hard road from an employment perspective and tells Bloom he was even homeless for a little while. Bloom needs someone to provide navigation and shoot a second angle while he’s trolling L.A. for footage and after a brief interview he offers the man the position. He asks Bloom how much it pays. “It’s an internship,” Bloom replies. When his employee balks at this, he tells him he’s offering him experience and it’s not at all uncommon for him to offer full-time jobs to his interns. His applicant, Rick, manages to talk him into a stipend of $30 cash per night and after they’ve been working together a couple months, Bloom has given his business a name and mentally structures it as a real company. It is within this imaginary structure that he tells Rick, who has been all-but-begging for his performance review that he has noticed his increased enthusiasm and therefore is promoting him to executive vice president. “What I am now?” Rick asks. “You’re an assistant,” Bloom says. Rick asks if it comes with a raise and upon being told to pick a number replies meekly he’d like $75 a night. Later, he asks for more. “We can reopen negotiations but when it comes to your career reputation, you can’t unring that bell,” Bloom tells him. Part of the fun of the Bloom character is not knowing to what extent he actually believes his pseudo-corporate talk and to what extent he knows he’s stringing his employee along and inflating his business’ and his status. As stated before, “Nightcrawler” is a movie worth seeing again and with plenty of dark humor, a twisted main character and insightful, revealing dialogue, it’s one which will be talked about and watched again for years to come, ideally on the midnight movie circuit.