Whiplash – movie review


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As the end credits rolled I let out an uncontrollable cheer and burst into spontaneous applause.

It wasn’t a film festival premiere, it was a cold Saturday matinee in Edinburgh in early January.

But I had been emotionally unravelled.  I’d been through the wringer and had come out the other end a whooping fan boy.

Exhausted, I staggered from the cinema gasping for breath.  How on earth could a movie about a Jazz teacher and his drumming protege elicit such a visceral reaction? It’s hard to say why because on the surface (subject aside) there is little that’s fundamentally original about the movie’s structure.  But what there is, is two absolutely gut-wrenching and enthralling performances that smash your emotions all over the cinema.  Hits to the solar plexus are about the size of it.

The story concerns the relationship between a 19 year old drumming major in his first year at North America’s best music conservatory and his desire to succeed at almost any cost in carving out a springboard and a shop window for a future career as a ‘Lincoln Centre’ core member.

His tutor is, if anything, even more focused than he is, and certainly as unforgiving and intolerant of anything less than perfection as it’s possible to be.

The result is a fascinating emotional power struggle, shot through with manipulation by both protagonists.

Much has been said about JK Simmons’ barbaric performance as the tutor and Jazz Studio conductor who has expectations the height of Everest.  But far less credit has been given to the equally powerful turn by his pupil played by Miles Teller.  Simmons simply could not have achieved the heights he has without this perfect foil.

The film smoulders from the opening scene and aside from Simmons and Teller pretty much nothing else matters (other than Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich et al whose canon of work is electrifyingly brought to life by the Studio Jazz Band that Teller so wants, no needs, to join).

Much of it consists of boot camp scenarios where imperfections are punished again and again and again.  It’s these scenes that create the unbearable tension.  But punctuating these are the human side of it – like Teller’s inability to build any relationships at all, other than with his single father.  Drumming is always more important.  And not just drumming; but drumming fame.

Do not let the subject matter put you off.

Do not let the fact that this is a jazz infused hour and a half, much of it in performance put you off.

This really is a very special movie indeed and fully deserves a straight ten rating.

Important TV that should be part of the school curriculum


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An outstanding performance by Maisie Williams as teenager Casey (I don’t know her from Game of Thrones but if she’s as good on that as she is here it must be  worth watching) is at the heart of this brilliant one off C4 drama.

She singlehandedly carries a one hour drama about cyber bullying drawn from real world examples.

It dramatically personifies the impact of trolling in teenage circles and turns Maisie’s own trolling on its head through the use of a hacker who communicates directly with her in her bedroom and plays the role of a modern St Peter at the pearly gates holding a mirror up to her misdemeanours.

The film has many twists and turns and can never be predicted. It’s a tough role for a young actor to carry off but she succeeds with flying colours.

The lessons are clear and powerful. That’s why it should be shown in social education classes to demonstrate the extremes that trolling can get to.

As privacy compromises increase Google Glass is dropped


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Google Glass was always a pretty naff technology.  I mean, look at it.

The video demo’s I’ve seen are actually embarrassing and a little bit of sick comes up when you watch someone proudly running it through its very limited paces.

The users look like failed extras in Minority Report or maybe The Matrix.  (But perhaps they’d win a place in Doctor Who, c. 1979, or the original Star Trek – the TV Series).

But its downfall isn’t just technical ineptitude, or aesthetics.

It’s also about privacy invasion.

Walk into a bar with these dudes on and people think you’re the FBI, at best, or a hit man/burglar casing the joint.

It’s a case of function (or perhaps lack of it) over form and although it’s taken an eternity I think Google finally saw through the rose-tintedness and did the right thing.

More on invasion of privacy of a sort

On a tangentially related subject I’ve been keeping my mouth shut about the Charlie Hebdo killings, because it’s a very sensitive subject.  But there’s an elephant in the room that is gradually being noted as the initial shock wears off.  (Both Question Time and This Week touched on it last night, as did a report in this week’s Drum Magazine.)

It’s this.

Charlie Hebdo has (allegedly) been baiting the extremist fringe of the Muslim religion for some time; repeatedly running ‘sacrilegious’ cartoons.  (I think the use of the word cartoon is a deliberate ploy here to downplay their seriousness.

The fact is these are not ‘cartoons’ these are satirical political statements (in illustrative form) and are intended to lampoon and demean this extremist faction.

Now, I have no real issue with that in a world of free speech – most religions deal with it on a daily basis and although for some (many?) it may cause (deep?) offence they have a mechanism for dealing with it and rising above it.

The vast majority of Muslims do too.

But this is no typical group of people.  They are highly attuned to criticism and rather than ‘rising above and turning away from’ satire and criticism, as Mohammed preaches, they use it as an incitement to go to war.

They’ve set fire to Charlie Hebdo’s offices in the past as a warning and they’ve killed in Denmark.

But still Charlie Hebdo ploughed on.  Regardless of the danger.

Some call this brave.  Some call it foolhardy.

Whichever it is though, to constantly bait this extraordinarily aggressive and moral-free terrorist cell was to put Charlie Hebdo right in the firing line.  (Even the founder said so yesterday).

And that had real and terrifying consequences.

The value of privacy

People value their private values.  Whether that be a bar owner in Kansas who doesn’t want a computer nerd wandering around his space shouting commands to his spectacles or a deranged Muslim Fundamentalist looking to ‘protect his religion’ and seeking opportunities to put to use his extensive training.

It’s related.

And it’s all kind of scary.

 

Into the woods. Great, if you like Sondheim.


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I must admit I approached this having only just survived Les Miserables a couple of years ago.  As a result I feared the worst – not helped by the fact that the critics had not exactly been swooning over it.  But these are film critics with a healthy disdain for other forms of entertainment such as theatre, and most especially musical theatre.  The Sondheim purists have also had the knives out, but, hey, that’s like being harangued by a group of trainspotters.

The best advice I can give is; if you don’t like musical theatre stay well away.  And if you’re a Musical Theatre purist you may have a few hackles up.  All I can say to you is “get over it.”

If, like me, you love great musical theatre and great performances (on the whole) this will fill your heart with joy.

It’s no ordinary Disney movie either – a bit more adult themed and certainly no vacuous Little Mermaid fodder – but, nevertheless, it’s glorious entertainment from start to finish.  (That said, the younger children in the audience became a bit restless.)

The two most obvious comparisons are Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, starring Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.  That’s a fine film, albeit neither Depp nor HBC are real singers.

The other is the aforementioned, ludicrously awful, Les Miserables.  That film should have been put behind bars and the keys thrown away for crimes against music.

On both fronts Into The Woods walks away with all the prizes.

It’s a glorious romp, pulling together the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood into a completely new construct that pulls together the threads of what stands for goodness and badness in the land of fairy tale.

Wrapping it all together is the quest that a Baker (James Cordon; solid) and his wife (Emily Blunt; outstanding) go on at the behest of their neighbour, a witch, played show-stealingly by Meryl Streep. Depp’s cameo as the Wolf is passable.

The story cracks along at a furious pace for around an hour but slows somewhat in Act 2, nevertheless it’s an engaging and heartwarming tale underpinned by Sondheim’s astonishing score and hilarious and very clever lyrics.  It’s given great respect and delivered extremely well throughout by a great ensemble cast.

Another show stealer is the Princes’ performance of ‘Agony’ that’s hilariously OTT, as it should be.  And Frances De La Tour as the Giant’s wife raises many a chuckle.

It’s not absolutely true to the stage play (Disney sensitivities has softened some of its more adult themes) but Sondheim was engaged to write around this and the result does not spoil the story – although purists will argue this point.

In all, it’s not as challenging as the stage production and it seems to be undecided as to who its audience is – it’s quite surprising that Disney bought the rites given the above.

That said it’s a hugely enjoying distraction and two hours of wonderful escapism.

Birdman Review – You really will think a man can fly.


It starts with the poster and never looks back.

It starts with the poster and never looks back.

It’s as if Alejandro González Iñárritu and Michael Keaton have been on an unintended collision course towards the inevitable making of this arthouse meets superhero movie – although Kick Ass managed to subvert the latter genre it only did so on a single dimension; this does so on multiple levels.

To even allude to it as a Superhero movie is, of course, to massively understate what is a film bristling with more ideas than a month-long sabbatical at Stephen Hawking’s house.

It starts with the poster, moves onto the credits (the best I’ve seen for years) and then; scene one act one.

Every scene brings another “how did he do that?”  in fact “how did he think of that?” moment.

In fact the scenic structure is the first big jaw drop aspect of the movie given that, essentially, scene one act one is all there is – it, arguably, never ends.  Cleverly stitched together in the edit suite and captured by Emmanuel Lubezki the whole film is an homage to the ambitions of Orson Welles in his monumental “El Rancho” tracking shot from Citizen Kane.

Lubezki’s camera prowls the dressing rooms, corridors and backstage areas of a Broadway Theatre endlessly, where washed up ex-superhero (the Birman of the title) star, Riggan Thomas played in a career defining performance by Michael Keaton is mounting a self-funded, self-adapted, self-directed and self-starring play of a Raymond Carver short story.

The trouble is; it sucks.

But after the weak link in the four man cast is nearly decapitated during late rehearsals, a big box office stand in, Mike Shiner, ((played magnificently by Edward Norton) takes his place the day before the first preview.  Shiner may be a true star vehicle and ‘box-ioffice gold’  but his highly contrived method-acting is a massive pain in the ass and causes mayhem both on-stage and off.

Meanwhile, trying to direct the volatile Shiner plus his equally volatile girlfriend (more of  a cameo but again brilliant by Angela Risborough) Keaton’s character starts to fall apart, simultaneously haunted by his alter ego (the bird man that is embedded in his avian brain).

The action is relentless, breathtaking actually, as it is driven along by an incessant jazz drum solo that peppers the score.

Keaton looks and acts more and more like Bill Murray in his prime but his performance goes far deeper than anything I’ve ever seen Murray achieve (with the possible exception of Lost in Translation).  It’s dark, tragic and sensitive.

The awful relationship he ‘enjoys’ with his clearly disgruntled ‘assistant’ and rehabilitating daughter, Sam, played to scuzzy perfection by Emma Stone is remarkable.  In one scene Stone berates Keaton for his inept fathering skills to the point that you genuinely think her head might actually burst open.  It’s electrifying.

As the frankly bizarre story unfolds more and more levels of pathos, black humour and tension are introduced; the pursuit of short term fame is brought brilliantly to life when Keaton ‘trends on twitter’ after an inadvertent stroll through Times Square in his jockeys.

The veneer of fame and the dubiousness of acting ability – “You’re a celebrity not an actor” sneers New York Times theatre critic played viciously by Lindsay Duncan in another notable cameo just before she sets out to crucify him: just because she can.

And we meet up with Keaton’s superhero past an an entirely unexpected way.

The opening night of the play brings a denouement that I dare you to predict.

You won’t.

You can’t.

I’ve had my eye on Alejandro González Iñárritu since his debut feature in 2000, the heartbreaking Amores Perros, through 21 Grams and Babel and most recently the battering ram that is Biutiful.  All these movies deal in big issues around the human condition.  All break your heart in different ways and all are light, very light, in humour.  So for him to create a comic masterpiece such as this is all the more disconcerting really.  It has many, many laugh out loud moments but at its heart lies yet another big human condition movie.

How can one create true happiness in life when relationships are such fragile things in the world of celebrity?

What is art?

What indeed is fame?

As Andy Warhol said; we all have 15 minutes of it.

The trouble is, for many, the real stuff is like crack cocaine and we all know that’s a hard one to kick.