There is a simplicity, a certain tightness, to the film Whiplash that likens it to a dynamic piece of music. Which makes perfect sense, as this searing double character portrait focuses on a music prodigy and the relentlessly demanding teacher who almost breaks him. Miles Teller, who has brought forth consistently good work since coming on the scene with The Spectacular Now among other projects, more than carries Whiplash and proves himself as a formidable lead.
As Andrew, Teller creates a character we all know—someone so wholly possessed with the desire to be great at his craft (drumming in this case), but perhaps also dealing with some residual self-esteem issues that make it difficult for him to discern when enough is enough. After making it into the top class at the most prestigious music school in the country, he falls under the precise tutelage—and vigilant eye—of Professor Fletcher, played to perfection by JK Simmons (Juno, Spiderman). As incredible a job as Miles does, this film belongs to Simmons, who is nothing short of incredible. Similar to (and even scarier than) Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, the audience gets a sense of who this guy is even when he’s not onscreen. The effect of his performance is just as overpowering as the performance itself. Both actors, in the end, say so much about what it means to be consumed by creativity—the good parts and the bad.
The few scenes Miles shares with Glee’s Melissa Benoist are also on par with the rest of the film; Melissa shines as a down to earth girl who is faced with Andrew’s drive and passion for music and how it might not leave enough room for her. Miles uses these scenes to further illustrate a young adult who is struggling to find a place at the top, even if it means not taking care of himself.
Thanks to a smart script, clean direction and some of the best acting of the decade, Whiplash has a lot to say about creativity, music, drive, passion, and life in general.
Whiplash is in theaters now on limited release.
An alien horse of a different color? The Guardians quintet, serving up their best Star Wars.
Well, it’s official: Marvel can officially do no wrong. The new franchise launcher Guardians of the Galaxy, based off of one of the wackier comics from the annals of the legendary comic brand, is barely in theaters and it already has one of the best Rotten Tomato scores out there. And it must be said, it’s a real head scratcher—for all its visual glory, its forced heart n soul (the film is stuffed chock full of montages featuring folksy rock tunes from the later 20th century), there isn’t much new here at all. While this intergalactic saga may feel like a devout homage to Star Wars, it’s arguable whether copy would be a more apt description. The list of Star Wars moments in this film is long, from a viewfinder in the film’s opening that is a replica of R2D2’s projection, to a planet-destroying villain donning a black cowl who speaks to a wrinkled evil overlord on a giant screen.
And a note on the villains here—why do the bad guys always want to destroy everything? After Thor, Lord of the Rings and countless other sci-fi and space fantasy tales featuring cosmic baddies hell-bent on ending the galaxy just cuz, we gotta say, that isn’t really cutting it anymore. A bit—no, a ton—more character development would have served everyone here.
And that brings us to the Guardians themselves. The saving grace (or rather, the crowning achievement) of this film are the 5 actors who portray the Guardians, to varying degrees and in various media, and they do phenomenally well with what they’re given. But it must be said, for all their witty banter and electric chemistry, they’re mostly just there, and we get only the vaguest of references as to how or why they become who they are: the always-poised and brilliant Zoe Saldana is a slick operator as a mysterious assassin, but what makes her tick? Who has she killed? What’s her story? And Rocket Raccoon, voiced by a brash Bradley Cooper, is a super complicated engineered rodent of some sort, but how the heck did this earth creature end up this far in outer space? Why does he talk? Maybe the director could have forgone at least one (or three) of the music montages in order to ground his characters a bit more.
As for the lead in Guardians, Chris Pratt turns on the charm to the max, and he just barely holds it together. Pratt might as well be wearing a T-shirt that says, “I wish I was Harrison Ford”. He’s more than upstaged by Saldana, Cooper (shameful if you think of it, since he plays a 2.5 foot tall raccoon), and Dave Bautista as Drax, who delivers some of the best one liners. Amidst all the sci-fi frill, the actor to steal most of the film for me was The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker as Yondu, who has the most badass weapon in the entire movie (and curiously, also the smallest). Oh, the metaphors…
read ‘em and weep, friends!
If anyone wants MY TAKE on a fun way for HBO’s GIRLS Season 3 to have started, here it is…
While this new Disney film is ostensibly a love letter written by Disney to itself, the sometimes startling insight it provides into the creative temperament and process is more than welcome. Telling the dual story of both a young and older PL Travers, irascible writer and creator of that well-known nanny Mary Poppins, Banks has all the trappings of a ‘timeless Disney classic’ – replete with emotional music, sweeping cinematography and a tearjerking plot. At the core of this piece is a woman so vulnerable, so sensitive, her artistic sentiment is in danger of snuffing itself out in the breeze. And the two actresses who capture her are the incomparable Emma Thompson as the grown and accomplished author, and beautiful young newcomer Annie Rose Buckley, who in addition to a stage-ready name, has gorgeous auburn locks and an angelic, innocent look.
That very innocence is what’s at stake here, in a film that explores that intangible moment when childhood shatters and gives way into adulthood. It happens early and with brute force for the young girl who would one day create Mary Poppins, when she begins that unfortunate process of self blame and even hatred that happens all too frequently to those young adults who are creatively gifted and often burdened with an acute sensitivity to the world around them. In Travers’ case, it’s at the hands of her well-meaning but desperately unstable (and alcoholic) father, played beautifully by Colin Farrell (in some of the best work of his career). And the story of her childhood provides a beautiful backdrop to Thompson’s part, in which the grown woman travels to hopping 1960s Los Angeles to meet with Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks) to discuss (or rather, naysay) the details of turning Poppins, up until then a treasured literary character, into the timeless cinematic icon she is to become.
Saving Mr. Banks rests on brilliant performances small and large, from Thompson in usual powerhouse form all the way through to Bradley Whitford, BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman, who play Disney’s insanely talented music and story team who must convince the unimpressed (and downright grouchy) writer that the studio has what it takes to do justice to her beloved heroine Mary. Thompson’s relationship to Mary Poppins, as well as the other characters in that world (notably Mr. Banks, who is a thin foil for her real father), is the tripwire to a whole cavalcade of both comedy and drama here, since the actress and filmmakers dutifully respect what it means to create a character and the terrifying prospect of letting that character and story out into the real world.
Look for another brilliant cameo, by Brothers & Sisters’ Australian-born Rachel Griffiths, who plays the woman who would inspire the magical nanny, seen through an impressionable child’s eyes.
Sitting in a press screening for Thor: The Dark World (after waiting on a long line, which is all but unheard of for press screenings), it’s easy to remember what being a fanboy is like. We have to give credit where credit is due: for all the bank-breaking, louder-than-thunder effect and circumstance of these superhero ‘event’ films, Marvel has succeeded, more often than it has failed, in providing good old escapist fun by way of that standard fanboy text: the comic book.
Sure, a film about an intergalactic Viking warrior-god is one of the tougher sells to come out of the still relatively nascent movie powerhouse Marvel Studios, now that effects can all but match the whimsy of comic book creators. But thanks to director Kenneth Branagh, the first Thor never took itself too seriously and managed to dazzle both visually and performance-wise. A sequel to a film about an intergalactic Viking, of course, is an even tougher sell, and although the storyline is grade-A filler (more like a nice bland grade-B), the actors are game for some fun (yay Kat Dennings!) and, in true fanboy form, the flying scenes are just so cool it’s hard to say no to enjoying this film.
After an extremely exposition-heavy opening involving ancient evil and a maiden in peril (those clunky comic book plots don’t just explain themselves), the action truly gets underway, but nothing really sticks until Tom Hiddleston’s tortured and mischievous Loki, the quintessential Misunderstood Son, resurfaces. Like in the original film, the fraternal rivalry between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor (who is increasingly like a chiseled show pony with lots of cooler stuff happening around him) and Loki is more than compelling, the only thing keeping the very long-feeling second act afloat here.
But the sheer technics of this film succeed in picking up the slack, where in most other genre films they are not nearly enough to make up for gaping holes in character or plot. Here, character and plot are fairly thin, but they are there. As the resident maiden-in-peril Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who surprisingly signed on for a much meatier role in this second go-round) discovers strange anomalies in the physical world, we go along for the ride as she and her team discover—and play with—gravitational inversions and mini-wormholes. Later, there are those remarkable bad-guy flying machines, which manage to reinvent the aerial battle scene yet again, and added on top of that are some amazing anti-matter bombs that literally suck victims right out of existence. Fanboys rejoice!
It’s hard to believe, but we are already coming to the end of ‘Phase 2’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—the honchos over there were smart, mapping out their strategy for blockbuster domination—and without revealing too much, the wackiness of Phase 3 awaits us next year with Guardians of the Galaxy.
In the increasingly rabid race to turn the next popular YA book series into a Harry Potter-size hit film franchise, there have been some surprises (The Hunger Games) as well as more than a few casualties (the latest of which was this summer’s already forgotten Mortal Instruments).
Enter Lionsgate Films’ contender Ender’s Game, in which Orson Scott Card’s award-winning YA sci-fi work is brought to life with a gaggle of fresh faces, as well as some old familiars. Harrison Ford headlines as the domineering Colonel Graff, who is as active as can be expected as a military commander not currently at war: many of his scenes tend to blur into one another as he gets lost in increasingly complex analyses of Ender with his military cohort Gwen Anderson (the benign Viola Davis).
In truth, the most surprising thing about Ender’s Game is, as a film about the prospect of intergalactic warfare, just how slow and cerebral it can be. Ultimately, it’s too slow, depending far too much on weak characterizations: practically every character whom Ender encounters has it in for him, bad, but with no real explanation. Why all this youthful militancy? The only one who is different, dutifully so, is Hailee Steinfeld, a tall young athletic fighter who warms to Ender as inexplicably as everyone else shuns him.
Coupled with this is the phantom menace of the alien race which attacked Earth years before the events of the film; we see this in news footage and snippets, but never really get a sense of the actual threat posed by these beings. Yes, the presence (or not) of the threat plays a part in the film’s plot, but in order for that plot to move and keep us along for the ride, something needs to be at stake. There were many moments during Ender’s Game when that something was far from clear.
What makes the film watchable, in the end, is Ender himself, played by Asa Butterfield (of Hugo and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). Inexplicably captivating, this otherwise shrimpy young thing has a certain swag and an intelligent, quiet intensity that make him compulsively watchable. It’s a shame that so much of the film remains marooned in the ‘game’ of military training (amounting to space-age Quidditch), and only at the film’s end does Ender truly strike out on his own to find himself.
What the Carrie remake teaches us: More kids should be reading Stephen King
In spite of his place as one of the bestselling authors of all time, Stephen King is often overlooked for the quality of his stories, for their sometimes far-reaching social ramifications. Carrie is the first, and perhaps most pristine, example of this. But with the release of yet another iteration of his pivotal first published novel, this a full-fledged Hollywood remake of Brian De Palma’s artfully horrific 1976 treat, the tide may finally be turning.
The story of Carrie is simple enough— a meek and unpopular high schooler, here played by YA sensation Chloe Grace Moretz, is routinely tormented by the Mean Girls and ignored by the Hot Boys, but she has nowhere to turn: her unhinged and fanatical mother (a lackluster Julianne Moore) is abusive in a different, but even more harmful way at home. Soon, the girl discovers she has a power, a fiercely strong telekinetic force, which she tries to keep under wraps. But when the social situation at school goes from bad to way worse, thanks to a particularly vindictive queen bee (standout Portia Doubleday), the elements are set in place for a prom that no one will soon forget (to say the least).It’s none too surprising to see this remake now, what with the appearance of school bullying as a ‘trending topic’ in recent years. And the filmmakers dutifully upgrade the bullies’ treachery to include Facebook and Youtube, trying to be as relevant as possible. If only the film as a whole could have been as relevant as the topics it brings to light.While it’s commendable that director Kimberly Peirce (of Boys Don’t Cry renown) and screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (of Glee) returned to the source material and looked askance of De Palma’s film, the new Carrie fails to step out from the shadow of its predecessor. The main reason for this: the new movie is too clean. While Sissy Spacek brought an awkward, waif-like energy to this antihero in the original film, acting so strange that it’s almost understandable why she would be so ostracized, Moretz plays Carrie straight as an arrow, as just a scared little lamb from the start, a victim who hasn’t truly earned her victimhood.
As for her mother Margaret, the new film does give Julianne Moore a few extra scenes to flesh out the character, but when considering Ms. Moore’s kooky turns in films like Magnolia and Safe, the end result here is rather humdrum: far from Piper Laurie’s gloriously off-kilter (and Oscar-nominated) portrayal of Carrie’s mother in the first film. The casting here was perfect, but the direction seems to have been misguided.
Nonetheless, it must be said that while this remake feels mostly unnecessary, any homage to Stephen King’s timeless story is a welcome one. With bullying still a major problem (perhaps some form of it will always exist), Carrie as an allegory to how children and teens treat each other in the real world was not lost on the director. Ms. Peirce is even ready to draw some surprising parallels between Carrie’s story and that of Brandon Teena, the murdered FTM trans person portrayed by Hilary Swank in Peirce’s groundbreaking debut Boys Don’t Cry. For Peirce, both stories feature “an essential protagonist with a hugely strong need. Carrie and Brandon both have similar needs, [they are] yearning to be accepted. Both live in small towns, tightly configured communities.”
While Brandon’s story is a true one and Carrie is of course fictitious, the parallels are there. Part cautionary tale, part revenge fantasy, Carrie takes the story of the victim to another level and shows bullies for what they are. It’s just another testament to King’s original book, how it can teach a lesson to practically any generation. Perhaps, if the novel had a rightful place as part of the American high school reading syllabus, some bullies would think twice before behaving the way they do.
Short Term 12
While her United States of Tara co-star Michael J. Willet is enjoying his status as everybody’s fave G.B.F., Brie Larson (Kate on Tara, and Cassidy in the simultaneously released Spectacular Now) brings us the troubled and many-layered lead character Grace in the new Short Term 12, a sensitively directed examination of life on the inside of a foster care facility and those who run it.
There is a right way and a wrong way to do a coming-of-age story, and the correct approach is one where the ‘coming of age’ part is barely felt – like in life, it just sort of happens. That is the case here, with several different ‘troubled’ teens who receive full, well-rounded treatment from writer-director Destin Cretton. None of these kids are defined only by that which troubles them: the resident ‘thug’ Marcus (the excellent Keith Stanfield) is so much more than he seems, as is Sammy (Alex Calloway), who doesn’t talk much and likes to pretend. These characters and others get to come to terms with their identities on all levels, showing sensitive, destructive, hopeless and hopeful sides, sometimes all at once.
The dark heart of the film, however, belongs to Larson and new arrival Jayden (the gifted Kaitlyn Dever, also appearing in The Spectacular Now), whose backstory spurs uncomfortable parallels to Grace’s own story of abuse. While Grace’s consequent withdrawal from the world might feel stark and overdone (when confronted with Jayden’s propensity to lash out, Grace all but stops interacting with others, including her boyfriend), it also is very, very real. With consistent performances and a patient, deliberate filming style, Short Term 12 is a worthy addition to a select group of films and other content about foster children, which includes White Oleander and ABC Family’s The Fosters.
Spectacularly Small & Simple
Sometimes, even those large ‘life events’ that are so often trumped up in film and television come and go with barely a flourish. Unsurprisingly, real life is often less stupendous than how it is portrayed in the stories we have come to love: prom, graduation, a first job, striking out on your own…all these moments are treated, refreshingly, with a subtle and healthy dose of reality in The Spectacular Now, which (naturally) focuses on the ‘now’ of it all as opposed to the hype and anticipation.
Before the press screening, (500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who adapted this work from author Tim Sharp’s acclaimed novel, appeared to ask us to tweet positive reviews of the film. They mentioned that they had set out to make a film like those of the 80s, suggesting aspirations of creating a John Hughes-like world populated by impressionable and sensitive teenagers bursting on the verge of adulthood. In that pursuit, they failed, but this is not necessarily a bad thing: the smallness of the film speaks to its realistic sensibility and tempered, subtle approach.
Which is not to say these teens aren’t sensitive or impressionable: the two leads, brilliantly played by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, more than carry the film, with pangs of vulnerability that literally bleed off the screen. Teller, having previously appeared in John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole and the Footloose remake, channels a bit of Seth Rogen here, as the school jokester who is equal parts smooth and goofy. With a slurpie cup or flask of alcohol always in hand, we wonder how he got like this, and the one minor detraction of the film is the very, very slow build in answering that question (there is a palpable feeling of waiting for something—anything—to happen somewhere in the middle there). When the answer does come, in the form of a storyline involving his absentee father, another question is raised: Why now? And other than his watershed relationship with Shailene’s character, that question goes largely unanswered. ‘Because I met a girl’ is just too easy.
As for Woodley, her natural quality is more than winning here: channeling an energy that’s just a touch more complicated than simple ingénue innocence, Shailene continues her streak of good work started in The Descendants. And she has nowhere to go but up, with a bevy of amazing projects coming up. Side note: keep an eye out for these two, Woodley and Teller to be exact, as they are both set to appear in the very hyped film adaptation of Divergent. …We can’t wait either.