Whiplash: JAZZ. IS. STRESSFUL.

Whiplash

As a precocious young teen I was fond of listening to the irregular time signatures of Dave Brubeck’s Quartet. A friend of mine once told me his parents couldn’t stand to listen Brubeck’s music because it was too hectic. “Those squares!” I scoffed into my ‘spresso. “Jazz ain’t hurtin’ no-one”. Oh how wrong I was.

Soon to be Reed Richards in the upcoming Fantastic 4 reboot, Martin Teller plays a promising young drummer prodigy – Andrew- who is rung through his bandleader’s regime of grueling practice and putdowns. The bandleader, Fletcher, is played by a ballshrinkingly intimidating J.K. Simmons.

Andrew needs to be the very best at what he does, but can only find appreciation in the most unforgiving environments of rigorous training. His achievements are dismissed at a family dinner party, even though he is in within reach of being the world’s best drummer. Even less impressed is Fletcher, who is witheringly dismissive of a “good job”, and physically abusive when faced with imperceptible inconsistencies of rhythm.

Like this year’s Foxcatcher the film plays a twisted version of the Rocky narrative. Our hero rises, stumbles at a crucial moment, but ultimately rises against the odds toward transcendent success. It even sees the impact it has on those who love Andrew: a lovely turn from Paul Reiser as his sweet natured father, and Glee’s Melissa Benoist as his ruthlessly dismissed girlfriend. But instead of high fives all round, the climactic scene of triumph is a troubling watch, as a strategically broken Andrew finally matches Fletcher’s expectations. Fletcher is proven right, but only in the light of Andrew giving himself to his regime. Andrew is complicit in his success, a complicit victim in an abusive relationship that skews any attempts to label him as a victim.

No film about a in a jazz film would be complete without a soundtrack. Unlike many films about people trying to break into the music scene, the music itself is already fully formed. It’s powerful, hard, bright music that starts when Fletcher says so, and more importantly stops at Fletcher’s word too, who fills the silence inbetween with barking demands.

Director Damien Chazelle who also wrote the film, claims that the story is based on personal experiences as a percussionist in a jazz band. His musical sensibilities certainly comes through his editing, which drives a heightened tension through stabby staccato cuts without drowning the film in stylism and takes the film home in  under 2 hours. Which is about as long as my heart could hold out. If you can stand it I strongly recommend.

Birdman: Everything’s great. Except for the film. Which is fine.

Birdman_courtesy_Fox_Searchlight

The film is technically brilliant. Things are happening on screen that are worthy of genuine pause where you ask “How did they do that?”, which is something that doesn’t come to mind very often in this age of the CGI spectacular. Now we are so swamped with impossible images it is easy just to dismiss visual spectacle as ‘computers wot dunit’. Whilst this is incredibly ignorant of the hard work a special effects teams put in (something that the film industry as a whole seems guilty of too) it is sometimes difficult to get immersed in the wonder of what is being seen and instead much easier to accept it at face value.

Director of Photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, continues to amaze off the back of long take behemoth Gravity. Although the image never seems to cut, we still see transition in time over a few days, and impossible journeys from the bowels of the St James Theatre through the skies above Times Square and extended New York.

The cast is given a rare opportunity to show off their chops in takes that defy the expectations of what a film crew can maintain. In a way this seems to be the reason why Director Alejandro González Iñárritu chose to shoot in extended takes. We are supposed to see the process of acting happen in real time, both within the characters and the actors playing the characters. It’s all very meta, especially with the casting of Michael Keaton who has protested against claims that his has been actor is a reflection of himself, even though both the character and he are most famous for roles as superheros in films that were released in the same era (in a passing comment by an interviewer in the film it is revealed that the last Birdman film was released in 1992, the same year as Keaton’s last outing as Batman in Batman Returns).

It’s a bit of a disappointment that the overall effect isn’t particularly revealing. The meta is only there for meta’s sake. And Actor’s can be eccentric or even difficult/needy? As an observation it’s hardly ground breaking. And if that’s the message of the film I think Cronenburg takes the prize home for smashing, burning, strangling and poisoning the point home in this year’s Maps to the Stars (2014).

The psychological element of the film is more fitting to an out and out genre film rather than the genre defying drama the film actually is. Keaton’s character is either hallucinating or genuinely has some superhero powers that he shares with the fictional Birdman. When he is alone, Riggan has powers of telekinesis and flight. If this was part of a genre film this could be interesting, but within the context of this comedy drama, whether or not he actually has these powers is almost irrelevant, and more of an excuse to show off what can be done within a long take.

It is an incredibly impressive film, and all of the separate elements are exceptional, but as a combined whole they don’t stand on each other’s shoulders. Cynically speaking it stands a strong chance (and deservedly so) in many categories in the upcoming awards season, but certainly not best film. Not exactly a harsh criticism to say this isn’t the best film of 2014/15 is it? But certainly reflective of a kind of disappointment in this reviewer.

Paddington Bear

Paddington-Movie-Wallpaper

It feels like it has been on the cusp of release for about 2 years! This could be due to the release of a poster about two years ago by an overzealous marketing department. But if this was done to give Director Paul King a bit of breathing space to realise how he was going to put this 60 year old franchise on the big screen, well, fair enough.

King has done an excellent job adapting the franchise in live-action. The sugar rush surrealism of King’s other works – Bunny and the Bull and The Mighty Boosh – has been tamed to serve the childlike wonder of a talking Bear looking for a new home in London.

Unlike a lot of CGI adaptations of an illustrated character, it takes a little while to visually identify Paddington as the actual Paddington from the books. Especially towards the beginning when he hasn’t yet got his signature coat. I never really thought about him being an actual bear with fur and teeth. But after he’s plonked in London, his real-like fur works to fit him in the ‘real’ world: a ‘realistic’ London that is recognizable, if a little well to do.

Ben Wishaw works perfectly as the voice of Paddington, and suggests that Colin Firth was right to step down from the role like the gentleman he is. The rest of the cast represents a smattering of British standards, and a jolly good job they do too. Sally Hawkins is the mum who still has a spark of wonder that her husband (Hugh Bonneville) must remember with the aid of bumbling Paddington. Eslewhere there are roles for Julie Walters as a Mrs Bird the housekeeper, Jim Broadbent as Mr Gruber, and Nicole Kidman doing another baddie turn as Millicent the taxidermist.

Teetering on the edge of twee, King masterfully executes a kindly and sweet adaptation of the old bear. Some bits are maybe a little too much for a younger audience, especially Kidman’s taxidermist intentions, but perhaps my only serious criticism is that for a film that so strongly promotes immigration and multiculturalism… well, there isn’t much in the way of non-white, non-middle-class figures in the main cast.

Nonetheless it is a very heart-warming experience with an important message that isn’t told too heavy-handedly, and disarmingly irony free. Jolly good.