Tuesday, January 6, 2015

'Whiplash' review

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job." This quote from the terrifying and intensely frightening drum instructor Terence Fletcher cuts to the heart of his character and the core of Damien Chazelle's fantastic jazz epic Whiplash. A thrilling film about the search for perfection and greatness, Whiplash dazzles, provokes and leaves the audience buzzing for days. It's rare for such an entertaining film to have you still contemplating its themes days later, but that's exactly what happens with Whiplash. Led by brilliant central performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, a pounding and energizing jazz score, and and an ending that will have you leaving the theater with an indescribable feeling, Whiplash is one of the very best films of the year, an invigorating, masterful piece of cinema.


Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a drumming student at one of the most prestigious and recognized jazz schools in the country. He spends his days practicing, hoping that he gets noticed by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the man that can make him a star. When he gets placed into Fletcher's studio band, Andrew finds himself in a world of hell that he could have never imagined. Fletcher's violent, intense style of teaching pushes Andrew and his band mates to their deepest limits. But Andrew is not deterred- he is determined to reach the level of greatness and perfection that Fletcher demands. Whiplash chronicles Andrew's search for artistic brilliance and the unique dynamic between him and his brutal instructor that could help him reach the top.

Whiplash cost $3.3 million and was made in 19 days. For a film made on such a tight budget and in such a short amount of time, Whiplash is amazing. This is an incredible achievement, a film that manages to feel both personal and ambitious in its scope and themes. Chazelle is literally chronicling the growth and birth of an artist and it's something that I don't think I've ever seen before on film. Andrew's journey is a lot of fun to watch, but Whiplash wouldn't work without the presence of Terence Fletcher. With Fletcher, Chazelle has crafted a perfect foil for Andrew and one of the most memorable screen characters in recent years. The dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher is terrific and it's what makes Andrew's struggle and rise to greatness so entertaining and inspiring.

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons dominate Whiplash- all of the other actors take a back seat to these two awesome performers. Teller portrays Andrew's drive and struggle with passion and intensity and he gives his all to this character. It's a shame that he was thrust into an incredibly tough year in the Best Actor category, because he gives one of the best performances of the year. Andrew's evolution from shy loner to driven jerk to fresh superstar is astounding and it's Teller that brings him to life.

Even though Teller's performance is deep and moving, it's undoubtedly J.K. Simmons who steals this movie. Granted, he was given a terrific character to work with, but this is still an absolutely astounding acting achievement. Fletcher verbally and physically attacks his students throughout, yet he occasionally shows a bizarrely interesting soft side. But as soon as you start to think that Fletcher might not be such a bad guy after all, he strikes again with some sort of new terror for Andrew to endure. Fletcher is evil, but there's definitely a method to his madness. He is calculated and coolly manipulative, doing whatever it takes to create the next great artist. Simmons will surely win the Oscar for this dazzling performance. He's near perfect in this film.

What makes Fletcher such a unique antagonist is that he has a motive and you can understand why he does what he does. In one of the best scenes of the film, Fletcher tells Andrew the story of Charlie "The Bird" Parker and what it took for him to be great. According to the story, Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Parker's head, nearly decapitating him. Parker was initially discouraged, but when he was over the sadness, he went home and practiced and practiced until he became as good as he could be. Fletcher hopes to find that next great drummer who is, like him, on the hunt for greatness and perfection. It could be Andrew, but we just don't know.

Although the actors are all fantastic, director/writer Damien Chazelle deserves a lot of the credit. Chazelle's previous credits include Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and the screenplays for Grand Piano and The Last Exorcism Part II. Grand Piano is a decent little thriller, but nothing that he had done before would have made me think that he would make a film as brilliant as Whiplash. Not only is the script dynamic and compelling, the direction and editing is fantastic. Chazelle knows when to hold a shot and when to cut back and forth. He obviously has a deep knowledge of what it takes to make a great film and I have a feeling that he will be making movies for a very long time.

The music is another element that makes Whiplash a masterpiece. Since the film is about jazz and the New York music scene, the soundtrack for this movie really needed to be good. And it's not good, it's awesome. A mix of classic drum tracks and improvised solos, Whiplash's score is a total knockout. The jazz will have you dancing in your seat and it highlights the emotional intensity of the film. When the movie gets intense, Whiplash's music becomes darker and more subdued. But when this film is rocking, the music is electric.

Whiplash is a technically brilliant film, but its heart and soul is with its two major characters and their relationship. Fletcher is obviously an abusive, cold and evil person, but the film asks us to consider whether it was all worth it. Especially towards the end of the film as we watch the pinnacle of Andrew's artistic maturity, we have to ask ourselves: was Fletcher's "tough love" motivation what made Andrew great? Whiplash is great because it entertains and asks those interesting questions in equal measure.

Whiplash is truly one of the best films of the year, an engaging, funny and entertaining drama that also manages to frighten, inspire, dazzle and terrify. It's a roller-coaster ride of emotional highs and lows, highlighted by two absolutely brilliant performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. While Whiplash chronicles the birth of a great artist, I believe that this film also announces the arrival of Damien Chazelle as one of our generation's best filmmakers.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.6/10)


Image Credits: Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire, EW, Geek Nation, Moviefone

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