Monday, 12 January 2015

Review of Whiplash (2014)

"Whiplash" works because it is a film about understanding. It places us in the company of two very different characters and by the end, we feel as though their arcs have been fully drawn, and an understanding, or acknowledgement of sorts has been reached, where another film may have settled on base Mannichean motivations. It also works because the writer/director Damien Chazelle has created a piece of primal, almost tribal film-making. It is about a young jazz drummer studying at Shaffer Music Conservatory, Andrew (Miles Teller), who yearns to be "one of the greats", as he puts it. He practices alone in a room. returns alone to his apartment at night, and seemingly does not do much else, until one day Fletcher (J.K Simmons), a seasoned and spiteful music tutor, spots him and gives him a place in his band. Andrew has waited his whole life for this.

Fletcher, it is revealed, is a creature of pure malice. Simmons' (sure to be Oscar-nominated) performance reminded me of Peter Capaldi's spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker from the TV series "Thick Of It", although R. Lee Emery's drill sergeant from "Full Metal Jacket" may be the more recognisable comparison. Every other word from his mouth seems to be a profanity, a sexual exclamation, or a combination of the two. He quickly browbeats Andrew, brings him to the brink of tears, playing malicious mind-games. It is here that one should pay attention to the dialogue; look at how sharply the exchanges are worded, and how Fletcher so incessantly picks apart what Andrew says.

Fittingly, this is Simmons playing new notes, a sort of fleshed out version of the kind of persona he hinted at in his work in Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy. It's also the kind of performance that tends to overshadow a film- as I say, it will likely net an Oscar nomination, and rightly so. But the core and heart of the film is Andrew. Aside from his performance in Project X, he is an actor I am unfamiliar with, but I truly felt like he bared his soul for this film, emotionally and physically. The nature of the drumming he does is brutal and intense, and as best I could tell it was his drumming and not the work of a stand-in or CGI.

But more than this, the film is the most wonderful example of the Bildungsroman, and it all hinges on the fact that Teller is a supremely drawn character. I was reminded of Patrick Fugit's intrepid Rolling Stone report in "Almost Famous", and the eponymous Jack in A.M Home's masterful debut novel; two beautiful, believable characters. He navigates the pitfalls of early adulthood with as much confusion and guile as the rest of us did, but he also carries at his core and undervalued characteristic in American films; determination. I believed that he wanted to be the best drummer he could possibly be, and he carried me along with him. The fantastically drawn scene where he tells his potential love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist) that he cannot be with her because he must prioritise his drumming almost seemed like an affront to all those films where the principle interest of the teenage characters is sex. He even has a loving relationship with his dad (Paul Reiser). How rare is that in a film about teenagers!

This determination also creates an unusual dynamic with Fletcher. Andrew, understandably, resents the barbaric treatment Fletcher dishes out, but almost against himself he can't help but be drawn in by how Fletcher pushes him into being the best drummer he's capable of being. As I have said, the film is about the pair trying to understand each other, and this is principally a film about understanding. When we do learn about Fletcher's philosophy, we nod along with Andrew.

The film is also as physical as the drum solos Andrew puts himself through. It has a constant, under-lit, high contrast look throughout which has the effect of making us feel like we're constantly in the backrooms, rehearsing, and never in the limelight; a nice mirroring of Andrew's feelings throughout. It is also the work of a director who knows how every single scene, every single shot, should play out, whether it's by shaky-cam, or mounted tripod, or with a shot arrangement to match the throbbing drum solos (in the magnificent, nine-minute finale). Were this not the year of "Birdman"'s one-shot tour-de-force, this would be a lock for best editing and perhaps best cinematography.

Finally, the film has a commitment to credibility and character which is unusual in American underdog movies like this. There is the feeling that at any point, the film could have turned into a thriller, or aped the Rocky structure with the "will he win the final concert?!" tropes. To its credit, it does not. Two-thirds in, it completely abandons structure and instead pursues the course of action that would have followed, instead of egging the audience into anticipation. As a result, it's far more tense and taut (I was wriggling in my seat in places) than if we were being dragged along by third-act revelations and the like. And it most certainly does not settle on some hokey epigram like "follow your dreams".

I believed this film completely. I believed the characters, the scenarios, the relationships, how it was made, and the things the film stood for, and it was a joy to believe in them. It moved me, exhausted me, touched me and thrilled me. It's a faultless exercise in technical and emotional content, and a supreme piece of entertainment, one that will, if there is justice in the world, go on to become a modern classic.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Review of Kelly + Victor (2012)

Kieran Evan's "Kelly + Victory", based on the book of the same name by Niall Griffiths, opens with a sequence in which the eponymous Kelly (Antonia Campbell Hughes) watches a moth fly against a window. She is passive. does she empathise with the moth? Is she torturing it? Enjoying it suffer? We don't know, and will never know. Already an ambiguous tone is set here, in which we are shown the actions of characters without being told what they symbolise. The next scene, where Kelly meets Victor (Julian Morris) in a night-club on his birthday also highlights perfectly a certain poetic realism the film tries, and succeeds, and juggling throughout. Deep, romantic cello music plays, signalling a romantic union, but it also fades into the thumping 4/4 beat of traditional club music. The scene is also shot in a way that recalls a similar scene in Xavier Dolan's "I Killed My Mother", all red-lighting and smoke. In a sense, we are being given a real view and a romanticised, stylised view.

This, bravely, does not let up throughout the entire film, this expert balance of feeling and description, the simultaneous poeticisation and commitment to realism. It works brilliantly.

We follow Kelly and Victor home. They flirt. Talk. There's a certain spark here, and it's testament to the actors that we feel it ourselves. They are even comfortable enough around each other to take drugs. As sure as night follows day, they are making love, in a wonderful, beautiful scene. And before we know it, in the throes of their love-making, she has slipped her hands around his wrist and is strangling him. Wordlessly. There's something at the outer fringes of communication going on here, a mutual bond happening before us.

I've described up until about ten minutes into the film, and won't describe much more other than to say that, as you have probably guessed, their relationship is charted from this point onwards, and that the film is equal parts dual-character study and wonderfully rendered love story. I was impressed at the length to which Evans allows us to come to know the pair, and as a result the length to which we come to care about them. I have rarely become so invested in the fate of two characters, and a great, quivering, fragile emotional intensity is achieved by the final frame. There's a master's touch at work here, and it surprises me that this is Evan's first feature. This is the kind of masterpiece a director can only really dream of achieving.

What it hinges on, primarily, is its presentation of human sexuality, and whilst you may be thinking from what I have described that this is a document of an S+M relationship, this is no British '50 Shades of Grey'. Look at the scene where Kelly goes to an actual dominatrix's dungeon, and is visibly uncomfortable, where surely she should be in her element from how she's treated Victor. Instead of being about sadism and masochism in the traditional sense, the film is a document of two people who happen to satisfy each other in the most peculiar ways. The film is more of a rumination on the ways we psychologically medicate and express ourselves through sex.

It also, lovingly, describes British life in a way I greatly related to. I loved the scenes set in pubs, pub gardens, art galleries, and the countryside. Victor so adores the countryside is a lovely little touch that draws out his character and inspires awe in the viewer; we almost feel as one with nature as we watch it. Cinematographer Piers McGrail, who had worked in short films before this, has drawn a picture of the world as sensuous as the kind found in a Malick film, and as sensual as the kind found in a Marquez novel. And he has composed two masterful shots which will stay with me for some time; I won't say what they are, but they are climactic scenes in more ways than one, and focus on the solitude of the characters at respective points. Even picturing them in my head stirs deep emotions in my heart.

This is a rare, rare film. It's a cruel, harsh, wonderful, tender piece of work that with skill and precision uses two actors and their bodies to highlight the minutiae and great wonder of human sexuality. I was reminded of a number of other masterpieces of sex; Crash, Secretary, Shortbus, Shame, and in fact this film stands among them. It is a poem, requiem, hymn, soliloquy to the human body and the things we are capable of doing to ourselves and others.

It could even be one of my films of the decade come 2019, and believe me reader, that is not something I say lightly.