Friday, December 9, 2016

Movie Review: WHIPLASH (A Retrospective)

Whiplash is a 2014 Best Picture nominee with a performance by the Best Supporting Actor winner of 2014, J.K. Simmons. The film is directed by Damien Chazelle and, in light of the upcoming release of his wildly critically exalted film La La Land, I will be taking a look back at this other directorial effort. The film stars Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, and Mellissa Benoist. It follows the story of a young drummer who gets an opportunity and endures a punishing music instructor dead set on making him one of the greats.

Whiplash is a brilliant film. It was my personal favorite film looking back at 2014 (although I confess I saw it for the first time much later). What makes Whiplash brilliant is a wonderful combination of quality performances, a thought provoking topic, superb direction, and excellent musicality.

From a performance perspective, Teller and Simmons have by far the most to do in this film and they both deliver their parts superbly. Teller plays a character that has to show you an emotional struggle and make you buy in to what he is going through and he does so excellently. He also shows an ability to make you buy into his drum playing ability which is essential for this film to work in the slightest. Simmons plays a character that in many ways resembles the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. In fact, I think his beratement of Teller and other characters in the film is superior to that wonderful effort and provides so many of the best cinematic insults of all time.

On top of the performances, the film dares to ask the question of whether art and greatness are more important than an individual’s psyche or livelihood. What is most shocking about it is that the film may answer that question in a way most wouldn’t expect just being presented with the question. I think this is a really powerful thing about the film and makes you think and care and invest in everything going on in it.

Additionally, the film has brilliant direction. Chazelle clearly has a handle on his craft in this film. Everything looks beautiful and comes together seamlessly to make this a great film. Each piece serves its function and the skill of a director in managing all these things going on and making sure they work together is what makes all the difference. This film could have been extremely pedestrian, but because of what Chazelle did it was next level excellent. From start to finish. On the subject of finish, and without spoiling anything, this might have the best ending to a film I have ever seen.

The final great thing, and the true hero of this film is the music. It is great exciting jazz with wonderful flair. This film is just as brilliant to listen to as it is to watch. Film is both a visual and an auditory medium and Whiplash takes advantage of both in ways that most films could only dream of.  Moreover, this film uses a unique instrument, the drums, that people are not necessarily used to hearing as a focal instrument. Often drums are percussion and background beat; here they are the absolute star. All of this comes together with sheer brilliance.

I have next to nothing bad to say about Whiplash. It is a small story, perhaps, and there are some elements to the Miles Teller-Melissa Benoist relationship that feel unnecessary, but as a general matter all of these still work in a film that is outstanding. Whiplash is a near perfect film and it is that because of brilliant performances, interesting story, great direction, and solid musicality. Absolutely a must see and it is easy to see what people are excited to see in La La Land.

Ryan’s Score: 9.5/10

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