Whiplash Movie Review

JK2Disclaimer: This review is largely spoiler-free

A few weeks ago I reviewed George Miller’s screamingly loud and bone-crushingly good Mad Max – Fury Road.

This week’s movie, Whiplash, breaks only a few bones, but is almost as loud, and is definitely as good.

I’ll start with an admission: I’m late to the party. Very late. 2014’s Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, has already earned three Oscar wins and numerous other accolades. That said, it’s my opinion that not enough people have been exposed to it. So if this review convinces even one person to check Whiplash out, I’ll claim success.

So…

Like Jazz music much? Maybe? Maybe not so much? It’s ok. While planted on my couch during a 1AM Redbox DVD screening of Whiplash, my first worries were: ‘This is a jazz movie. What was I thinking?? I should’ve picked something else. Or maybe just watched some porn.” And yet, two minutes in, any fears of drowning in discordant jazz and wonky music vanished. Into. Thin. Air.

Early on, we see a different J.K. Simmons than we’re used to. Gone is the friendly guy from the Farmers Insurance commercials. Gone is the affable, calm dude from J.K.’s previous films. Instead we get a badass. And I’m serious. As Fletcher, the leanest, meanest jazz instructor ever, J.K. is shredded. He’s an all-black-wearing, door-slamming, fist-shaking maniac. He’s a force of f’ing nature.

And it’s apparent he’s made it his mission in life to mold Andrew (played to perfection by young and talented Miles Teller) into the planet’s best drummer…or kill him in the process.

JK3

“Faster!”

As an interesting aside, it should be noted that Miles Teller played ALL his drum pieces. He had a head start, being born of a musical family, but even so. His dedication to learning some of Whiplash’s more extreme rhythms is admirable, and adds tons to the movie’s realism.

So what’s it really about?

Whiplash is primarily a struggle between two men. Fletcher’s win-at-all-costs mentality are at permanent odds with AndrewFletcher wants perfection, nothing less, from his musicians. And perhaps no instrument requires perfection more than drums. Andrew’s willing to bleed to become the best, but still manages to be overwhelmed by Fletcher’s never-ending stream of F bombs and insults. As the movie drums on, literally, the questions become: “Is greatness only achievable under enormous pressure?” and “Is there a such thing as going too far to win?” I know what MY answer is. If you watch or have already watched Whiplash, I want to know YOURS. Because therein lies Whiplash’s soul. It’s Pain versus Reward. Sacrifice versus Greatness. Living a full life versus Having a Singular Dedication. The movie puts us in the proxy position of asking how far we’d go to be the best at something.

Would you bleed? Would you suffer? Would you give up every comfort? Most of us wouldn’t. But perhaps Andrew might.

The supporting cast is small, but more than capable. Veteran Paul Reiser plays Andrew’s concerned but ultimately powerless father. Beautiful Melissa Benoist charms as Andrew’s unfortunate love interest, Nicole. Austin Stowell and Nate Lang are formidable rivals in the studio for Andrew to wage war against. They’re all very good, but reduced to mere pawns in the Fletcher v Andrew struggle. And that’s ok. This isn’t their film. It’s J.K.’s and Miles’.

As another aside, if you like drums of any kind, you’ll love Whiplash’s talent, if nothing else. The speed and excellence demanded in the film transcend genres. It’s obvious this isn’t a movie about jazz at all. It’s about power, skill, and using means to justify the ends. But even if you don’t care about all of that, the drums…are…epic.

Let’s be clear. I Redboxed Whiplash on a hunch. I’d never heard of it prior to plugging it into my DVD player, and I’d no idea what to expect.

…which made it all the better when it turned out to be fucking awesome.

Rent it. Watch it. In the dark. Preferably alone.

And when you’re done, check out my latest philosophy title here.

Love,

J Edward Neill

What if…? The Wizard of Oz were a dark fantasy movie

Witch

 

Welcome to the fourth installment of the What if…? series. Previous entries include dark remakes of The Lord of the Rings, Sleeping Beauty, and Star Wars. Like Mick Jagger, I see a red door and I want to paint it black.

Recently, I sat down with my son to watch The Wizard of Oz. I had plans to let him watch while I cooked, cleaned, and otherwise carved my way through the day. He’d watch a classic, and I’d get stuff done. It was a perfect plan. Etched in stone. Stronger than the foundations of the world. Right?

Wrong

Twenty seconds in, we were both hooked. I’ve never seen a kid so rapt and silent, and I’m not even talking about my son. Every cool memory of watching The Wizard of Oz as a boy flooded my wee black little heart. I never got to my chores. We sat there, my son and I, and soaked the movie up in all its glory. We loved it. There’s no other way to put it.

So what’s the deal? How could The Wiz get any better? How dare I dream of what it’d be like to change it? It’s already perfect in every way, right? Right??

Maybe…

What if I tweaked the movie? A lot. What if it was a dark fantasy epic, an adult, R-rated, midnight-hearted feast? What if, instead of an American classic families crowd on couches to watch every year, it was a movie that dropped your jaw open, terrified you, and made you geniunely fear for Dorothy and her friends? What if…indeed?

 Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. First and foremost, and I know I’ll get killed for this, but the dark version of The Wiz can’t be a musical. It just can’t. Instead of songs about rainbows and yellow brick roads, dark Dorothy needs to dream these things. As in dream them between her nightmares. Because let’s face it, this poor little girl almost lost her dog, ran away from home, whirled through an imaginary (or real?) tornado, and fell under the constant threat of a wicked witch. If she has dreams, at least some of them will be bad. So instead of cheery songs, I want scenes of her dreaming of the good life sandwiched between scenes of her dreaming of the horrors (let’s face it, Oz is a pretty messed up place) surrounding her.

Now that the singing is gone (or at least changed) we move along to the Witch. The bad one. The bad one who doesn’t have a house on her. She’s pretty creepy in the original. She’s got the evil castle, an army of flying monkeys, another army of British-guard looking dudes, and some nasty ideas for using her magic. So yeah, the foundation is laid. What we need now is screen time. More of it. I want to know why everyone hates her. I want to know why she’s wicked. Moreoever, I want her to win once in a while. Instead of getting walked on by Glinda, mildly splashed by Dorothy, and dismissed by Oz, I think she needs to kick some ass first. Why do the Munchkins hate her? Is it her green face and hook nose, or did she enslave an entire Munchkin city to build her castle? Why does Oz want her gone? Because she’s un-dateable as a fellow practitioner of magic? Or because she’s threatened to use her spells to corrupt all he’s worked to build? Give us 700% more Witch. And let her F things up in ways that obnoxious Glinda can’t just dismiss with a wave of her wand. Please?

And while we’re on the subjects of Glinda and Oz…

I’m fine with Oz the way he is. A megalomaniac. A king by way of opportunity, but not birthright. A techno-genius in a otherwise medieval-ish land. A liar and a faker, but ultimately not too terrible a guy. But once again, I need more of him. The movie is named after this dude, so let’s give him his due. I want secret labs beneath Oz. I want technological devices meant to destroy the Witch (and her sister) but not yet ready for service. If she has evil spells and armies of nasty critters, perhaps he has equally formidable forces. Fewer critters, but better weapons. More power, but more reluctance to use it. C’mon Dark Oz. Step it up.

And Glinda… Oh Glinda. If you can undo anything the Witch does with a wave of your wand, maybe you should do more. As in lots more. As in use your magic to take the bad Witch down. Otherwise, I need a reason. Maybe Glinda is a coward at heart. Maybe she’s only allowed to (total cop out) use her magic for good. Or maybe she once was a bad witch, and now she’s having doubts about destroying someone she used to be. Or maybe, deep down, she knows the Wicked Witch would crush her in a duel. Yeah. That’s the reason I’m going with. Glinda’s good ain’t good enough. She’s nothing but a meddler, a poker in the fire, but ultimately unable to stop the bad girls.

OzDirtRoad

The brown-scale stays. Eeriest part of the movie, in some ways, the colorless plains of Kansas.

Who lives:

Since it’s all just a dream (I think) and Dorothy’s friends are manifestations of the people she knows in real-life, we can’t kill off as many good guys as I usually would in a dark fantasy movie. So…the Scarecrow, Lion, Tin Man, ToTo, and Oz are all spared, as is Dorothy herself.

Who dies:

 Enslaved Munchkins who build the Wicked Witch’s fortress. Glinda’s sister, in a flashback being cooked by the Wicked Witch. Some of the flying monkeys and Oh-E-Oh! soldiers, cut down by the newer, badder Tin Man.

  And last but hardly least: the scenery. To grit up The Wiz, we need sharper, more monolithic representations of the wholesome set pieces in the original. The Wicked Witch’s Fortress: Smoking, haunted, macabre, and surrounded by a poisonous lake. The Emerald City: Huge and bustling, stuffed to the nines with Oz’s devices, inventions, and gadgetry. The Munchkin Village: Cute and merry as ever, but lying in the shadow of the previous village, turned to ash by the Wicked Witch. The Yellow Brick Road: Clear and easy to follow in some places, shrouded in darkness at others.

Oh, and btw, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are at heart magical beings. I mean…a metal man, a dude made out of horse food, and a talking lion…I figure all three were created either by Oz…or quite possibly even by the Witch herself. Dark Wiz of Oz will explain. Even if briefly.

Final disclaimer: the original movie kicks the shit out of my dark imagining. Don’t for second think I hope otherwise.

Catch you later,

Buy this.

J Edward Neill

 

 

Aim to Fall Short

 

The_Book_of_Mormon_poster_2_

Before I get onto the subject at hand (the bravest and boldest thing I’ve ever done: praising the most-praised thing of the last decade), three quick bits:

1) I missed my last two posts due to the holidays, traveling, lack of wi-fi, and a harsh but luckily short head cold. Won’t happen again.

2) More importantly, I want to say congratulations to John McGuire for releasing his first novel, The Dark That Follows. I was one of the few that got to read the first draft, and I can’t wait to see what he’d done to it since. Pick it up and support the next square in this artistic quilt called Tessera we’re trying to sew.

3) Belated Happy Holidays.

Now that that’s over with, I move on to the point of this post:

I FINALLY GOT TO SEE THE BOOK OF MORMON THIS WEEKEND.

WARNING: We at Tessera have a No Religion / No Politics rule (which I endorse – I say enough biased and antagonizing shit in my own life), but, due to the nature of The Book of Mormon, the topic of religion will come up, but only in passing. However, if I say anything that I think anyone can at vaguely-kinda-at-all interpret as being maybe offensive to someone anywhere, I will write it in bold. Hopefully I won’t have to use that, but I figure it’s good to have it as a fail safe. Okay? Cool. Onto talking about the play…

So I don’t believe in God.

Wow. That came in useful right-quick, huh?

I state the above not to provoke, but because I think it’s pertinent when I talk about how much I love The Book of Mormon. Because, contrary to the opinions of a few, it is not an anti-religious work. Far from it, actually. It actually endorses having some sort of belief system, and a community based around it, to help you get through life. It’s primary thesis seems to be that while, yes, most religions look super-silly from an objective view, that doesn’t make them any less real to their practitioners, and it doesn’t mean they’re not an important part of the human condition. It is actually a plea for religious tolerance; the most Unitarian, “whatever gets you there gets you there” piece of popular art I have ever seen.

What The Book of Mormon is, though, is a searing screed against fundamentalism. It, not religion, is the true target of its derision and cutting humor (as well as a number of other topics).

But see, I’m just not non-religious. I am also largely anti-religious.

And again, I say that only to express that I should hate The Book of Mormon just based on its general conceit.

But it is impossible to do so. To hate The Book of Mormon. And not just because it is hilarious and smart, with curtain-to-curtain memorable songs and characters, and manages to be shockingly funny and genuinely moving…sometimes at the same time, but because it makes its case so well it almost wins me over to it. It makes me see the value of faith and religion. More than anything ever has, really. At the end of the play, for a few brief moments, I felt like a person of faith, moved by the words and sounds and ideas presented on stage.  I shrugged it off quickly, but still, for a man like me, that’s quite an accomplishment.

To those unfamiliar, The Book of Mormon is the multiple-Tony Award winning musical created by Trey Parker & Matt Stone (“South Park”) and Robert Lopez ( Avenue Q ). It opened on Broadway in 2011 to some of the best reviews in the history of theater and became an instant sensation. Tickets were both nearly impossible and impossibly expensive to get. The production I saw, at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco, was part of its second U.S. tour. And it was still sold out, three years later, and the balcony seat I had was not cheap. This is a production that will be going on for a very long time.

bookofmormon-29e2b4c3aa2823816edf3d11925282cf13c08171-s6-c30The play is the story of two young Mormon boys about to go out on their first mission. Elder Price is a superstar and is destined to change the world with the power of his faith, destined, he believes, to do “something incredible.” Elder Price is awesome. Just ask him.

Elder Cunningham, who Price is paired up with on their mission, is not awesome. Well, he is, really, but he’s not an awesome Mormon. In fact, he hasn’t even read the book. And he’s also a compulsive liar, prone to making things up and telling stories, most of them cribbing characters from things like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. He is not a model Mormon; he is not a model anything.

The two men are sent to a village in Uganda to convert the Africans there to Mormonism. The place they arrive is in desolate shape: poor, hungry, ravaged by AIDS, and under the boot of a vicious local warlord obsessed with female circumcision. Elder Price, despite his iron clad faith and God-given ability, has a very hard time seeing how he can baptize these folks into the Church of Latter Day Saints. Drama, doubt, and disappointment ensue.

And also lots of singing and dancing and jokes and profanity and a hundred other things that will make you smile ear to ear.

That’s all I’m going to talk about the story. I knew most of it going in. Not from doing research, but from downloading the soundtrack from iTunes several years ago and listening to it constantly. I know every word of the soundtrack. Just the songs alone, without the benefit of the play, are still amazingly funny and tell a story. So, to be honest, I was already a fan of The Book of Mormon before I ever saw The Book of Mormon.

Obviously, this late into the show’s run, most of the original Broadway cast have moved on. The cast I saw was not the cast that originated the parts. But the players in the San Francisco production acquitted themselves fabulously (sorry. musical review. must use “fabulously” at least once). The Saturday night audience ate it up and I loved every second of it. One of the best musicals I have ever witnessed, maybe the best, my other favorite being Spring Awakening.

So, in other words, “thumbs up”. I’m SURE the folks from the play will be relieved to get my endorsement. It may be the thing they need to put them over the top.

But what I really want to talk about isn’t The Book of Mormon (“Could have fooled me, asshole!”) but how Book of Mormon made me feel afterwards. On the train back from the theater, I fell deeply into a state of joyful melancholy that I call the “Genius Hangover.”

It’s a feeling I have encountered many times.

Experiencing something so brilliant – a play, a movie, an art exhibit, a TV show, a video game, a concert, a public speech, anything – always leaves me with conflicting feelings. Firstly, I am elevated, inspired, and, well, fucking jazzed. I walk out punching the air, ready to go. Determined to run home and write. Juices flowing. Basking in the glory of art and what it can do and the limitless heights it can reach. You can’t wipe the smile off my face. I probably skip down the street. It is quite a high.

I mean, a HUMAN BEING made that. A human being like me–

But not like me. Uh-oh. This is where the second wave of emotions comes in to ruin the party, creeping up through the cracks in my joy and strangling it like weeds:

Jealousy and despair.

Because I will never make anything that good. Oh man. I just won’t. I mean, that is world-class. That is classic. It will be remembered for all time. It’s not that I just won’t make something like that, it’s that I can’t . The person or persons who made that are more talented than me. And that’s a hard pill of an egomaniacal narcissist (read: artist) like me. I know I’m talented. I think I’m very talented.

hemingway-for-whom-the-bell-tollsBut I’m not For Whom the Bell Tolls talented. Not Seven Samurai talented. Not “West Wing” talented.

I’m not The Book of Mormon talented.

So the high I get from seeing something amazing and the depression I get from seeing something amazing come together to create the slurry of a mood I call Genius Hangover. It usually sticks with me for a day or two. A combination of an overwhelming desire to create something great and a sadness that I’ll never create something as great as whatever inspired me.

Weird, I know. But it happens every time. I’m used to it. I just embrace it, let it happen, and it passes and I move on.

It also lead me to another one of my philosophies of writing, which I think makes the second one I’m going to bore you with, the first being my Theory of 10%.

This philosophy can best be summed up thusly: Aim to Fall Short.

I know it doesn’t seem very motivating; it will never be featured on a kitten poster in your office.

Here’s the thing. I will never be my artistic heroes. That’s okay. Because my heroes are bad-ass and legendary. Nobody is them but them. I’m sure most days they weren’t even them. I’ll take two examples from my list above: For Whom the Bell Tolls and “West Wing”.

I will never be Ernest Hemmingway. I will never be Aaron Sorkin.

But every word I ever write is and will be a futile attempt to be.

I believe that you should strive to be as good as your idols. Look at them (artistically) as what you want to be and go for it. You will fail. Oh, you will fail. I’m never going to write like Ernest Hemmingway. Do you know how I know that? HE’S FUCKING ERNEST HEMMINGWAY. It’s as simple as that.

But what I think is this: of course you will fall short of your heroes. And when you do fall short, when you’ve maximized your talent and done your best, that is where you find your voice. You will discover the parts of your work that are innately you, the things that come out no matter how hard you’re trying to be someone else. You’ll learn your strengths and weaknesses and how to capitalize on both.

Every sentence I write, I want it to be a good as my favorite passage in all of literature:

“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”

Not one of them ever has been. Again, HE’S FUCKING ERNEST HEMMINGWAY.

But in that failure, in those cracks, I find myself.

This concept may not work for everyone, but it works for me.

Anyway. Aim to fall short. That’s a piece of writing advice you didn’t ask for and probably shouldn’t heed.

So, to wrap it up: Sorry I missed some posts, Book of Mormon kicks ass, and I’ll never be Ernest Hemmingway.

Book of Mormon

Over the next weeks I’ll be delivering my annual Best Films of the year list, as well as something on 21st Century Romance films (spurred by seeing Spike Jonez’s Her – talk about Genius Hangover), and maybe something about having fans or the closing of Blockbuster or what I made for dinner. I don’t know. Making this up as I go along.

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