The Oscar Reviews: The Bipolarity of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash

I will firstly state the obvious fact: Whiplash is not an accurate representation of the Jazz genre, in more technical areas of it at least. It has garnered its fair share of criticism from reviewers for its rather uncompromising and dictatorial portrayal of a jazz conductor/teacher.

Whiplash is compelling. Nerve racking. It has an industrious approach to nail biting drama. And so, solely for its dramatic excellence, I give it a 10 on 10.

The film is about an impossibly abusive Jazz teacher at a fictional musical institution in New York and an overly ambitious drumming student.

That does not, in any way, take away the credibility of this film as an ineffably mind-numbing drama. From the get go we can feel the tension bearing down our necks, as it does on Miles Teller’s character Andrew’s, from the very first appearance of Jonathan Kimble “J. K.” Simmons’ Terence Fletcher.

J. K. Simmons played J. Jonah Jameson, the dictatorial boss of the Daily Bugle in the original Spiderman trilogy. Miles Teller is a new yet extremely talented actor who has recently featured in the romantic drama Two Nights Stand. Whiplash is his defining performance. He gave it his all.

The film is accurately named Whiplash. Terence Fletcher lashes at your soul and whips out every ounce of confidence. He is scary. Okay, that is an understatement. How do I put his attitude to words? I am a man who is obsessed with verbose, but I am at a loss of words to describe how truly terrifying J. K Simmons’ character is.

I have recorded the scariest parts of his performance to upload as a visual reference for the readers. But I will write a few of them out as well.

Screenshot (4601)The first of them being Miles Teller’s first take in the practice sessions. Simmons starts off with patience, asking Teller to match his desired tempo. Teller fails repeatedly and Simmons stops him every time, asking him to redo it; then Simmons lets Teller continue playing for an extended period of time, Teller is visibly happy…and bam! He narrowly escapes a metal contractable chair chopping his head off. Simmons hurls the chair out of the blue at a rugby-esque pace. And then he doesn’t stop at it. He approaches Teller and hounds him for an answer. Was he too fast or too dragging. Teller says I don’t know. Simmons insists. Teller responds. Simmons blasts him with racial and homosexual and parental slurs and Teller weeps, and Simmons ups the ante by 10 notches and bombards him with verbal abuse the equivalent of a Hydrogen Bomb. And he doesn’t stop at it. He also inflicts physical abuse by repeatedly slapping Teller real hard while hurling abuses at him.

Its psychotic. Really psychotic. And though many reviewers found this as unrealistic, trust me…I have seen and experienced teachers at school behaving in a very similar manner and still going unscathed and continuing with their jobs.

Screenshot (4605)Then in the second notable scene – prior to a performance before a musical evaluation committee – he rambles to his students saying, “I will not have my reputation tarnished by a bunch of f***ing limpd****s sour note flattered under girlfriends flexible tempo dips***s.” and then he tells a poor fat boy who he had kicked out abusively before to “Stay out of my f***ing way or I will demolish you. I can still f****ing see you mini-me!”

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He reminds me of a mentor I once had, someone who had mentally abused me for a long period of time…making me feel crap about myself and my talents. An Egotistical douchenozzle.

Screenshot (4609)In the third notable scene, he holds his students hostage for 5 hours while he makes his three drummers go through hell by repeatedly making them play and instantly stop and play and instantly stop because he cannot find them playing fast enough. He hurls insane abuses at them without giving his students a second of respite. The abuses he uses are too personal, immensely racist and outright homophobic.

He makes them take turns, not letting them have water, not letting them take a moment to gather themselves….they tire out and they cannot drum fast enough…but he doesn’t stop. And then Teller’s character starts his final turn and he drums at F1 racing speed constantly for two whole minutes; his hands bleed and Simmons forces him more, hurling abuses and smashing things…and then stops him saying, “You earn the part.”

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It looks really unrealistic to cosy reviewers who’ve grown up in very cultured environments of gentlemen. But, such abusive teachers do exist. A moral education teacher in my school punished a 15 year old for speaking during a lecture by making him do 300 sit-ups under the noon sun out in the playground in the peak of a simmering summer temperature of 48 degrees Celsius. The student had an iron rod in his right thigh due to an accident, and he begged not to be punished. He was threatened…he continued…he died due to exhaustion right on the spot. The teacher was left scot-free.

Damien Chazelle is a 30 year old film-maker and Whiplash is his second film as a director. He cites his music teacher in his school as the inspiration for Simmons’ character. He – unlike Andrew – quit on music and pursued film-making instead. He has now received several Oscar nominations for the film. And deservedly so. The film is compact. It is concisely shot and precise on its acts. There is a growing tension with the growing tempo of drums and drama.

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Also to be noted is the effect Simmons has on Teller subconsciously. Even though Teller resented Simmons at first, his will to be the best and accept Simmon’s dictatorial tutelage led him to act as cold as Simmons and he very rudely and bluntly breaks up with his girlfriend – who is a sweetheart; he demeans her.

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In the fourth notable scene, Teller’s character – after being awarded with the spot to perform – reaches the auditorium 20 minutes before the performance. Not really late considering he had to travel outside the city and his bus had a puncture and he had to race a rental car to the auditorium. Simmons tells Teller that he is giving his spot away as punishment. Teller loses it and demands that it is his rightful spot. Simmons disagrees. Teller insists on ragingly. Simmons says Teller doesn’t have his drumsticks and that he won’t be allowed to play if he doesn’t get them back. Teller had forgotten them at the car rental shop. He drives there and gets the sticks and races back, but is hit by a truck and his car is crushed completely. He crawls out of the debris, gathers the drumsticks and limps to the auditorium in time.

He gets onto the stage, bleeding from his hands and his face…completely wrecked and in need of medical assistance. Yet he performs until he falls exhausted midway. Simmons, contrary to the audience and Teller’s expectation, doesn’t express a hint of sympathy. He says, “You are done. You are out.” Teller loses it and attacks him in front of the entire audience, swearing at him and pouncing upon him in rightful resentment until he is dragged away.

It is insane. As a result Teller is dismissed from the institution. His father appoints a lawyer and they persuade him to anonymously report on Simmons. Teller is reluctant at first but agrees eventually. Simmons is fired from the institute.

Later Teller meets Simmons at a bar where the former instructor is playing piano for a jazz group. They share a rather educated conversation and Simmons insists that he has never felt guilty for his actions and never will and that what he does is for the betterment of his students because, in his words, “The two most dangerous words in the English language are: Good job.” He later offers Teller a spot in a grand jazz performance. Teller – unbeknownst to Simmons’ ulterior motives – accepts.

Teller calls his ex and asks her to attend the Jazz performance and share a pizza, only to be declined and informed that she has a boyfriend now. He is left to rue his wrongdoings.

On the performance night, right before the orchestra commences, Simmons walks up to a very gleeful and placid Teller and says, “I think I’m f***ing stupid.” Teller, bemused, asks, “What?” smilingly. Simmons says, “I know it was you.” referring to his exemption from the institution due to Teller’s anonymous complaint.

He doesn’t stop there. He tells the audience that they will be playing a new standard, while he had told Teller that they will be playing Whiplash and Teller must play because he knows it like the back of his hand.

Teller is dumbfounded. Simmons turns to him and smirks and conducts the performance. Teller, knowing jacksquat about this new piece and not having the musical sheet for it, embarrasses himself on the drums and ruins the performance much to the chagrin of the audience, and his peers.

He walks off and Simmons is overjoyed. Teller’s father embraces him and says “Lets go home.” Teller refuses and returns to the stage. Simmons is about to make an announcement. And as Simmons as three words, Teller starts playing the drums and breaks his speech, embarrassing Simmons and saying, “Follow my cue.” Everyone has to follow it of course and Simmons conducts it. The performance is brilliant but even when its done Teller doesn’t stop and continues drumming at inhuman consistency. Simmons asks him to stop. Teller is deaf to all opposition and starts to give the performance of a lifetime. Simmons is furious and envious at first but as he sees Teller give an awesome performance, he aids Teller in continuing the momentum. They both smile and Teller proceeds with the performance…drumming solo for 6 mind-blowing minutes and then he comes to an end of it and smiles. And then the screen fades to black.

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I recommend this film to my readers, though not gladly because that would be sadistic; it is a truly torturous film.

~ Zalysar Cuvegis.

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The Oscar Reviews: In Appreciation of the Birdman Soundtrack (and everything else in it!)

Oscar night is up next month. Save American Sniper the contenders for the Best Motion Picture Award are flawless.

BoyhoodSelmaThe Grand Budapest HotelThe Imitation GameThe Theory of EverythingWhiplash and Birdman (also known as The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I have absolutely adored every single aforementioned film. My first view of the contenders was The Grand Budapest, and I loved every itty bitty bit of it because: Wes Anderson!

Benedict Cumberbatch gave a gut wrenching performance in The Imitation Game and Eddie Redmayne made sure he gives Smaug a fight to the announcements with an uncannily terrific performance as Professor Stephen Hawking. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood saw Ethan Hawke return for yet another decade spanning film, and to see Ellar Coltrane grow up on screen in just under 3 hours was beautiful. Selma and Whiplash were hauntingly endearing to watch.

But the film I abso-frickin-lately enjoyed is  Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Birdman.

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And my number one reason for it? The Soundtrack. THE SOUNDTRACK. It bloody deserves an Oscar. Antonio Sanchez has already won an award at the Venice Film Festival, where the film debuted in September. The soundtrack in the film, which is mostly comprised of captivating drums reminiscent of the New York street music scene, has a life of its own; it is an active player, the most important character in the film. Its outright genius. It draws you in, it bloody draws you into the claustrophobic lobbies and gives you a rush. It maintains a constant playful, energetic and lively upbeat; gives you an effing adrenaline rush. It also keeps the comic undertone of the film up and cawing from start to end. I’d run out of parables to describe it if it were performed right before me.

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To make sure the drums don’t have too much on their delicate shoulders, the camera work by Emmanuel Lubezki is so intimate and exciting. I love the handheld camera work, especially when it works hand in hand with the soundtrack every time a character walks through the iconic lobbies. I enjoyed the pace of the cameraman and the very personal angles at times, like the one where Michael Keaton is highlighted from under his chin and the other when Edward Norton is followed around. Also noteworthy is the lighting in the film. I love the lights. They capture New York’s Theatre scene in its crudest beauty. I love the soft glows, the faint hues, the shadow work. It is an irreplaceable mood setter of the film.

_AF_6405.CR2 Now transcending to the next cog of this enigmatic piece of cinema: the performers. Michael Keaton and Edward Norton steal the show from the get go. Edward Norton is my all time favourite actor and he was one of the first reasons for me to watch this film. And O boy, did he perform! That cheeky bastard brought his usual behaviour with directors into his performance and rocked it naturally. A moment he is this eccentric douche nozzle – aye, that’s my term for an A-hole; it sounds cute to say out aloud – another moment he is this semi manipulative do gooder; and then he is on the stage being a natural perfectionist knowing his trade like his own twisted brain. He is connected to Naomi Watts, to Emma Stone, to Michael Keaton…and he sort of brings them all together while he keeps his calm and chills in the isolation chamber of his brain.

birdman-21-258-3 Michael Keaton – the titular Birdman – must have had several tongue in cheek moments throughout the course of the film’s shooting. Birdman, in this film, was released in the year 1992, somewhere around the same time as Michael Keaton’s Batman films. And he is pretty much super famous for being Batman…I mean the whole “I am Batman!” thing started off with him, he owns that line. In the film, under a different name, he is famous for literally the same role; albeit that of a feather donning superhero.

birdman-2014-movie-review-21803177 It might have been easy for him to play the character, showing off to the audiences a inhibited and riddled-with-befuddlement side of his which he possibly hides post his Batman days. In other words, it was a well paying and very, very satisfactory exercise in unburdening expression for Mister Bruce Wayne.

That other growling baritone voice in his head – reminiscent of his Batman time – was unapologetically straightforward, and very funny. It was a joy to watch all sides of Michael Keaton – the scared wuss, the egotistical douche nozzle, the passionate actor, the compassionate father, the inconsiderate colleague, the determined director, the nervous producer, and the fantastical Birdman!

birdman_stone Emma Stone was fun. She is always fun to watch. She is adorable and she knows it, yet she loves snarking like a puppy and owns it like a boss. Her character was refreshing to watch; she’s got absolutely nothing to do with the production, she contributes zilch, and only goes around being a chatter who wants to be a loner…in short the perfectly imperfect broken child of a once famous and 40s crisis hit actor. I love how she is messed up in the head and goes straight for the guy who is mano-a-mano with her dad. All she wants is her escape and she will find it one way or another. In conclusion, she was fun.

Screenshot (4595) Naomi Watts is a lovely lady. I have sort of a crush on her since her Peter Jackson’s King Kong days. That does not cloud my examination of her performances though, and in all honesty she seldom disappoints. Her desperation to realise her broadway dream, a somewhat similar role to one of her old movies, was a nice angle to view from.

Screenshot (4589)The scene where she is weeping and self loathing, knowing not what to do with herself even though she is passionate and when Michael Keaton barges in and gives her a powerful pep talk and leaves, that was great to watch. In seconds she transforms from a nervous self critic to a confident babe and schools Andrea Riseborough before making out affectionately with her.

Screenshot (4594)Andrea Riseborough is a talented and truly charming actress and she deserves more prominent roles on a frequent basis like this one. She carries herself really well in the role of a confident yet doubtful actress.

Screenshot (4592) Her character is feisty and likes to take the cream off the shake for herself. She knows her place in the production and knows how to get things done around and be there for her colleagues/lovers/friends.

Andrea Riseborough

Amy Ryan was our bridge to Michael Keaton’s past and present and family in the film. She is the sympathetic voice of reason, the unforgiving divorcee and a nostalgic lover who is afraid of her past yet reminisces its glory moments.

And lastly Zach Galifianakis. I missed this man. He was less comedy and more of an authority in the film, but nevertheless attention grabbing (in the right sense). 

Fun fact: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone – the three protagonists of the film – have all played superhero and comic book characters in the past; namely Batman, The Hulk and Gwen Stacy.

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To conclude, everyone was right to eagerly anticipate the film. Its worth every dime. It replenishes that broadway dream inside of you and takes you on a little tour of the theatre’s perilous mirths with an endearing camera and an awesome soundtrack. Its my joint favourite for the win with The Grand Budapest Hotel.

My ratings are much like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, but a little more fair as this was truly flawless: straight 10 on 10, a 100 on 100.

~ Zalysar Cuvegis