Friday, November 21, 2014


WHIPLASH: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, directed by Damien Chazelle (106 min.)

My fourth grade music teacher told my mother I had a tin ear. And like that, m career as a musician went out the window. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of music in all its forms, I am a novice. I don't grasp the inner workings of tempo and bars, beats, etc. But I love listening to so many different types of music, and I understand the emotion behind the artwork. Jazz and blues are arguably the most emotional genres, created more through the feeling in the soul than the notes on the sheet.

Tell that to Terrence Fletcher, the maniacal perfectionist band leader in Whiplash, one of the most ferociously emotional and compelling films of 2014.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a jazz drummer at Shaffer, the finest music college in the United States. Andrew lives and breathes his craft, practices endlessly, obsesses unhealthily. The fact that he even got into the school speaks to his dedication and his raw talent. His father, played modestly by Paul Reiser, is a successful high school teacher, but what does that matter? Andrew has dreams of being Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker. But Parker died alone of a heroin overdose in his early thirties. Andrew says he'd rather alone in his thirties and have everyone talk about him than live sober into his nineties and nobody know the talent he had.

The college has certain caste systems, and the most coveted position is to be in the competitive jazz band under the control of Terrence Fletcher, played with almost unbearable ferocity by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher sees something in Andrew and plucks him from the understudy position of a house band to join his core group. This is when the sadistic psychological warfare begins.

Fletcher is feared by everyone in his band. Nobody makes eye contact with him. He is a borderline psychotic perfectionists, dressed always in black, every stitch of clothing in perfect order. Fletcher preys upon his students, especially Andrew, whom he drives into masochistic practice sessions where his hands blister and bleed. There is a fine line between firm coaching and abuse; maybe that line isn't so fine, because Fletcher manages to cross the line with ease, hurling insults at his players like the jazz riffs they are trying to perfect. In one scene, Fletcher forces his three jazz drummers to try and perfect a tempo that I dare anyone to try and pick up on.

But Andrew is not to be denied his chance. He knows he is good, he knows he is the best, and he works to be the absolute best, even fleeing the scene of a shocking accident to try and make it to a competition on time. He tries to date a pretty young girl, but promptly ends that because he knows he will be insufferable to deal with.

The way Andrew is able to stand up to Fletcher's mental abuse becomes the focal point of the story. Miles Teller, who is steadily becoming one of the most powerful young actors in Hollywood, dominates his scenes, even when Simmons works at his very best to take said scenes over. The push and pull between these two actors working ferociously to destroy one another is some of the best acting of the year.

Director Damien Chazelle does impressive work here, focusing on the tiny details of the musical instruments that form a jazz band. The spit and the polish and the tuning and the beats are all impeccably on display here. I didn't know a thing about jazz drummers going into Whiplash, but it didn't matter. It's hard to believe a film with such a docile subject at the surface could be one of the more intense films I have ever seen, but that is certainly the case. Here is one of the best films of the year, one that will certainly be overlooked at awards time. Maybe that makes the most sense, because jazz drummers' fame is mostly all in their head.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why I Love The Movies...

I've tried for years to pinpoint the time in my life where I fell in love with the movies, but I can't quite find that singular moment. Because I was too young when I fell headlong into film, too young to remember now, at 33. There are flashes in my memory about certain pictures from my youth, but no patient zero. I'm almost certain there was an earlier time in my life, but the earliest moment I can remember falling head over heels in love, and I do mean in love, with the movies, was watching Superman II in my grandmother's sunroom in Texas. I was five.

My grandmother had taught me to read at a very early age, in that very same sunroom. I don't think for a moment she realized sitting me down in front of a VHS tape of Superman II would resonate more than sounding out sentences in her lap. But it did, and it has, because it is where I always begin when I map out my love affair with cinema. I found myself amazed as I watched Christopher Reeve fly through the air, terrified as General Zod took over "the Planet Houston." I felt genuine emotion when Clark Kent was beaten to a pulp in that diner, and there was definitely exhilaration in my heart when he finally bested his enemies in his fortress of solitude. Of course I had no idea what I was watching, or the quality (or lack thereof) of Superman II. But I did, and I do, remember those feelings.

The rest of my single digit years is a bit of a blur, as it is for everyone, but I do know most of it was spent talking my way into seeing certain movies, and watching movies like Star Wars, Harry and The Hendersons, and The Neverending Story as many times as I could. Once I gained control of my own memory, and those images have since remained, I have collected the memories of film in the encyclopedia of my imagination. And I always waned to know who was responsible for what I was seeing. I knew these magical images didn't just appear, because I paid attention to the credits and wanted to figure out who made this film, and another film, and so on...

I have always earmarked points in time based on movies I have seen. I remember seeing Snow White in its theatrical re-release in the 80s, in a theater in Garland, Texas. And I remember going with my other grandmother. My mother, who arrived late, tried to get in but the screening was sold out. I remember seeing EdTV on my sixteenth birthday in Mesquite, Texas, with a group of friends who surprised me. I remember being 16 and trying to sneak in to see Scream 2. We were caught and asked to leave (and we had bought tickets to Home Alone 3, a dead giveaway). I remember going every Saturday in high school to see the latest movie with my mom, who was up for just about anything. She did make us leave in the middle of Natural Born Killers, and for that I don't blame her. I remember seeing The Departed twice in two different theaters while I lived in Oklahoma City, I remember staggering out of the theater in Fayetteville, Arkansas after seeing 12 Years A Slave.

And I remember, most of all, when I saw Carlito's Way.

My family knew from an early age that I was able to separate the reality of the world from the imagination of the movies. I watched movies that most kids my age would never be able to see. One of those films is Carlito's Way, which I saw with my grandmother (who also loved movies) at a mall theater in Dallas. But, as I have been able to pinpoint times in my life with movies I have seen, Carlito's Way will always stick with me for what happened that night, when I got home and my mother told me she had a brain tumor.

My grandmother, my mother's mother, the one who taught me to read and showed me Superman II, had died from a brain tumor two years earlier, and the news that my mother had this same affliction completely destroyed my world. I still remember my dad crying in the background, and the universe disappearing as I sobbed in my mother's arms. She would beat the cancer, and she is still living today and is staying busy with her three grandchildren. And Carlito's Way would forever be linked to my life. That is what people often overlook, the way films can add a signature to moments in their own personal history. There are important things that happen in our life, and if we all think hard, we can remember what movies were out at the time.

I went with the satus quo in high school, seeing movies like 10 things I Hate About You so I could keep up with the girls. But I would regularly go home with my Blockbuster rental of Dog Day Afternoon or Amadeus and absorb myself into the art. I became the movie nerd in high school, the movie buff in college, and the "movie guy" in life that all of my friends and acquaintances come to when they need a trivia question answered. "Who played that guy in that thing?" I got ya.

That is what is so crucial about film, the way it can take you back to an important part in your life like a song or a smell. But the power of film in my memory goes beyond most people. The movies pull emotions out of you, and some of the most important films can push you from one feeling to another. Some movies like Reservoir Dogs can throw you headlong into an anxiety-laden story. Rocky can swell your heart with pride. The fact that Cast Away was able to make me sob over the loss of a volleyball speaks volumes to the power of film. Sometimes, movies can take you from laughter, to fear, to anxiety, to sadness, and the range of emotion is what is so powerful. You can feel all of these things, and then walk out of the theater and leave those emotions behind, regardless of what they are.

I love the history of films, and I love what it takes to get a single film released. I love that there is something universal in moviemaking in every aspect, and I love the way movies have dogeared the story of my life. Without movies, I might be lost in this world.

I love when a movie makes me laugh and cry and hang on to my seat, all in the span of two hours. I love when a new movie star emerges. I love finding out about new directors. I love the biggest films (if they are made well) and the smallest films (for the fact that they were made at all). I love the perfect line in the best scene in the smallest movie, and the best scene in the right spot of the biggest movie. I love the explosion at the right time, the twist, the horror, and the comedy. I love when a film challenges me to the ends of my imagination, to the ends of my mind. And I love when a film realizes its there simply to make me laugh or make me shake my head at the absurdity of it all.

And I love that I will be able to show my son all of the movies I can think of, that he is an empty slate right now and I will be able to see his eyes when they widen at the sight of Darth Vader for the first time.

I love the movies.

Friday, November 7, 2014


INTERSTELLAR: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, directed by Christopher Nolan (159 min.)

There may be warts in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. I spotted a few. But in the end, I didn't care much about the warts, because what I just endured was an overwhelming and ambitious work of art. Interstellar will pull your mind apart with its ideas, and visualize said ideas in awe-inspiring ways. What depths this film goes to, what dense philosophical and physical thoughts it tackles, and what a beautiful and glorious experience.

Like any worthy space epic, Interstellar travels to the stars to say something about those of us back here on earth. Christopher Nolan has reached for those stars, surpassing them to find new galaxies of thought, and his screenplay bends the mind and his camera thrills the eyes.

It is the near future, and the earth is trying to rid itself of the human race. Dust storms regularly ravage the landscape, militaries have been abandoned, and the world's food supply is dwindling. The world needs farmers, not idealists, as the human race has devolved into a primal survival mode. Matthew McConaughey plays Coop, a former NASA pilot who turned to farming when the world needed less space travel and more agriculture. He has a dutiful son and precocious daughter, Murph, who admires him. Strange things begin to occur, a code is discovered amidst the dust and debris of a massive sandstorm. The clues, which I don't want to detail, lead Coop to a secret base hidden in the hills.

This base is all that's left of NASA, suspended several years back, but reinstated in secret because they are planning on one more mission to try and save humanity. The mission involves a wormhole on the outskirts of Saturn's orbit. A dozen missions have traveled through this wormhole to another galaxy, and three have touched down on planets. But there has been no contact with the three explorers, because time creates a tricky paradox in alternate galaxies. Now, the heads of NASA need Coop to pilot the next mission and try and find out if any of the three planets are inhabitable. How long will he be gone? Nobody is sure. Against his daughter's wishes, Coop accepts the mission, and travels to the wormhole and beyond with Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi).

The early scenes on earth try and wrangle in the emotion of the situation, but the film doesn't truly take off until the characters take off themselves. The space expedition occupies two thirds of the picture, and Nolan and his team have crafted a beautiful vision. I don't want to get into many details, other than to say the crew clearly makes their way to the planets, where Nolan is able to stretch his imagination. The first planet has a gravitational pull from a nearby black hole that is so extreme, it causes some real danger with the crew involving time. The direction the film takes after this first planetary encounter is beyond comprehension.

I want to abandon any plot descriptions here. Mutterings have been out there about the emotional side of Interstellar, and at times I can see what people might be talking about. There are some moments in the narrative that are highly emotionally charged and effective, and some that fall a bit flat. But to dismiss this film based on small moments like those would be foolish. Those are nits to pick, and Interstellar is not a film about small moments, but a big, sweeping epic about big ideas. Discussions of love, sacrifice, and who or what can possibly be done to save the planet occupy large spaces of the dialogue, and push the trajectory of these characters towards the mind-bending conclusion.

Comparisons are certainly going to be made to other science fiction films like 2001, but this has almost nothing in common with Kubrick's film. Interstellar is a picture unto its own existence, and no matter how clumsy a few moments might be along the way, those moments are quickly shed by the raw power of Nolan's ideas.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

FOREIGN CORNER: The Vanishing (1988)

It boggles my mind why director George Sluizer would remake his own 1988 masterpiece, The Vanishing, and completely sabotage it with a cheap ending to appease American audiences. His original version is a chilling, minimalist exercise in mood and atmosphere, and the bleak ending is the only ending that makes any sense. The American version, which Sluizer helmed in 1993, is Network TV thriller quality in comparison.

I saw the American version as a teen, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, and Sandra Bullock. I imagine most did stateside. I was intrigued and enjoyed the picture, because I had no knowledge of the original's existence. The ending didn't bother me because I knew no better. But, after seeing the original film, the ineptitude of the remake is astounding, and what is even more astounding is the fact that Suilzer directed both and even decided to alter the original.

But, enough about the shoddy remake, what of the original?

The plot and the direction feel nearly identical through the majority of The Vanishing. Gene Bervoets and Johanna ter Steege play Rex and Saskia, a young married couple on holiday in France. As the film opens, they have a minor setback in their travels which leads to a domestic dispute, but they make up once they arrive at a gas station to grab beer and soda. This is when Saskia, who goes into the station while Rex waits by the car, vanishes into thin air. Rex grows increasingly concerned as it becomes evident Saskia has disappeared. He begs desperately with the owner of the station to let him get the coins from a coffee machine because their might be fingerprints of the abductor. He has a polaroid of Saskia leaving the gas station, but the distance is too far to discern any details.

This is when The Vanishing begins its parallel story lines. We go back and forth between Rex, three years later and still debilitated by Saskia's disappearance, and we meet the abductor several months before the incident. The abductor is Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), an unassuming family man hiding a serious sociopathic streak. The story tells us Raymond abducted Saskia very early, the rest of his story revolves around his method and his madness.

Eventually, Raymond approaches Rex, who has gone on television to plea for information about Saskia. Rex had a girlfriend who left him because she couldn't take his obsession anymore (although that same girlfriend hangs around for plot purposes in the American remake, another gross miscalculation).

I don't want to detail anymore of the story because the surprises, while individually minute, add up to a fascinating examination into the mind of a madman disguised as the patriarch next door. The Vanishing is moody and deliberately paced, dissecting the importance of closure versus impending doom. There is no direction for the film to go other than the direction it does go. And yet, Sluizer decided to completely change things for dumber American audiences.

But is that fair to audiences stateside? Are audiences here so fragile that they cannot deal with bleakness and despair? There have been nihilistic pictures in this country for years and years, so I will never understand why Sluizer decided to compromise his own brilliant vision to sell a few more tickets.

But then that explains it, doesn't it? More butts in the seats is more money in the pockets.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


NIGHTCRAWLER: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, directed by Dan Gilroy (117 min.)

Jake Gyllenhaal's performance in Nightcrawler is so hypnotizing, so oddly brilliant, so completely unforgettable, that everything else gets absorbed into his mesmerizing vortex. What an odd and unforgettable movie, something utterly unique but with all the right echoes of past characters and images in legendary films. It is one of the very best films of the year, and Gyllenhaal - who has been building to something like this - has reached a new summit in his career.

Lou Bloom is one of those loners we all know from the movies, less of a loner and more alone. Lou lives in a tiny apartment, drives a tiny car, and lives an inconsequential life as a bargain-basement thief. He will steal and sell things like copper wire and manhole covers to make a living wage. But something is not right with Lou and this is evident from the get go. He speaks robotically, as if everything he says was written as stereo instructions, or if everything he has ever learned he learned from sterile website copy. Lou has no friends, no family, and no ability to interact with anyone on a social level. Needless to say, Lou Bloom is a fascinating film character.  If you squint, you can see Travis Bickle with an internet connection.

One night, Lou stops at a freeway accident where a woman is being rescued from a burning car. A camera crew arrives on the scene and films the accident. The cameraman, Joe (Bill Paxton), is a freelancer who sells his footage to the news channel with the deepest pockets. This sparks an idea in Lou, and he uses his stolen-goods savings to buy a cheap camera, a police scanner, and he hits the streets waiting to catch that right crime at the right time.

It isn't long before Lou captures the right footage a little better than the next freelancer - mostly because Lou has seemingly no understanding of social boundaries or morals - and sells the footage to Nina (Rene Russo), a news producer for a local LA station who wants ratings more than morals. Lou and Nina develop a curious relationship as Lou continues to succeed in getting the exclusive footage of murders, accidents, fires, shootings and stabbings. As great as Gyllenhaal is here, it mustn't be overlooked that Rene Russo, as a former news anchor fighting her age with eyeshadow and heavy blush, delivers one of the best performances in her career. Nina has been around the block and she thinks she knows how to handle someone like Lou.  But, the thing is, she has never seen anyone like Lou. None of us have for that matter.

Pay attention to the rhythm of the scene between Lou and Nina, where Nina begrudgingly accepts an invitation to dinner. Pay attention to the way tones shift but Lou remains flat and direct. It is a stroke of brilliance in screenwriting and execution by two actors hitting all their notes.

Lou's business takes off and he brings on a homeless kid named Nick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant, who seems just as happy to have a friend as he is to get 30 bucks a night. Lou gets a better camera, a rather auspicious cherry red Dodge Charger, and all manner of technical devices that make the inside of his new ride look like a police car itself. As Lou and Nick prowl the night streets of LA, events unfold and the picture builds and builds to a stunning conclusion. First time director Dan Gilroy, who also wrote Nightcrawler, has a firm grasp on what a powerful character the Los Angeles night can be, teaming with cinematographer Robert Elswit to capitalize on the iridescence of the flickering LA skyline, generating a visual buzz.

As I said, Gyllenhaal has been building to a performance like this in his career. His introverted, compelling turn in last year's phenomenal Prisoners seems to live on the opposite pole of his acting talents. As Lou, Gyllenhaal captivates, he pulls everything into his orbit. The way he explains everything so robotically, with an oblivious and gleeful social ineptitude, is nothing short of incredible. Lou's obsession with the scoop leads him into precarious situations where someone with even an ounce of social awareness would be frightened, yet he remains calm and focused on the task. He will stop at nothing to succeed, even if that means cutting moral corners to eliminate any competition or interference, no matter where said interference may come from.

Nightcrawler is completely engaging, a slow-burning picture with great payoff and sharp wit and satire regarding media immorality. It may very well be a masterpiece. And everything starts and stops with Gyllenhaal's performance, which will forever exist somewhere near the top of his career highlights.