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.

12 Years a slave. A landmark cinematic achievement.


12-years-a-slave-trailer

Steve McQueen, the actor, all steely ice blue eyes, furrowed brow and golden locks was a Holywood legend, “The King of Cool”.  His filmography is impressive (The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, Papillon, Magnificent Seven and Towering Inferno) yet the Academy only recognised him with a single nomination for his leading role, in the lesser known 1966 movie The Sand Pebbles, which he failed to convert.

No lifetime achievement awards either.  Nada.

And yet his name pervades popular culture as toweringly as the inferno he escaped from.

Fast forward to 2008 and and his namesake and former visual artist, (he was the official Iraq War artist in 2003) makes his feature movie bow.

By then McQueen already has an OBE (2002)  to his name, for services to the arts, before he even sat in a director’s chair -he won the highly prestigious Turner prize in 1999.

In 2011 he added a CBE to his honours.

Today he may be on the cusp of eclipsing the achievements of his illustrious predecessor.

McQueen honed his craft by making no fewer than 20 shorts before emabarking on Hunger; his breathtaking debut feature that tells the story of Bobby Sands and the “Dirty Protests” in Belfast’s Maze prison, with his, so far, ubiquitous right hand man, Michael Fassbender.

Shame, in 2011, continued his elevation to directorial greatness in a shocking tale of sexual addiction.

For me, it is something of a surprise that neither Hunger, nor Shame, were recognised in the best movie categories of either the BAFTAs or The Oscars, but that is all about to change with 12 Years a Slave.  Indeed it already has 10 nominations at the BAFTAs and surely chief amongst them is McQueen’s.

Whatever you may think of the movie itself it’s the point of it that deserves most attention and applause.  Now, that sounds worthy but it shouldn’t be seen as such because it is not just a monumental piece of filmmaking, but one with purpose, vision and bravery.

The first EVER feature film about slavery.  How can that be?

The politics of America that’s how.

Sure, Tarantino made a brilliant pastiche of slavery last year with Django Unchained, and for those of us of a certain age Roots long lives in our memory (but that was a TV series).  So too, Lincoln focussed heavily on the issue, but not the experience.

This, however, is a full on cinematic release described by one reviewer as the “greatest film ever made” that unswervingly captures the experience of one man kidnapped from a life of freedom, of privelage, in 1841 New York and transported to the sweltering cotton and sugar cane fields of the deep south.

What follows is almost two hours of unremitting injustice, backache, torture and frustration as the aforementioned Solomon Northup tries to prove his status as a free man, fighting injustice when he can but more often than not having to suffer in silence to protect his very existance.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the title role, is on screen throughout, sweating like no actor I’ve ever seen, in the oppresesive Southern heat and humidity.

His performance is both proud and defiant and as the movie progresses increasingly moving.

Once again Fassbender commands the screen as evil plantation and slave owner, Edwin Epps, but at times scenes are stolen by his super-evil wife played by Sarah Paulsen.

Brad Pitt scoops an important cameo role, perhaps thanks to his role as Executive Producer and, by all accounts, he is one of the main catalysts for the movie to happen.  It’s only fair that his character is a catalyst for the resolution of the movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch also puts in another fine cameo performance as the one “good guy” plantation owner and initial “owner” of Solomon Northup.  The counterpoint between him and the rabid plantation overseer Paul Dano is excellent.

Other supporting roles are well played but this is essentially Ejiofor and Fassbender’s movie.

No, it’s not actually, it’s McQueen’s.

This is a masterclass in direction with foot perfect cinematography and a very good score by Hans Zimmer.  The movie’s perfectly paced, with just the right amount of lingering mood and tense action.  One scene in which Fassbender’s concubine is whipped to within an inch of her life is truly appaling.  You flinch at every stroke. By contrast the scene where Northup simply turns his head right to left, up and down, as if to say “help” is breathtaking in its simplicity and resonance.

It WILL go down in history as an important document of America’s deepest guilt that festers even today, and McQueen WILL win both his first Oscar and a Knighthood.

Above all else though, it is a great, really great, movie.

Think The Diving Bell and The Butterfly meets 40 Year old Virgin and you still won’t be close


21 hours a day.  No wonder he wants to get his rocks off.

21 hours a day. No wonder he wants to get his rocks off.

This is a remarkable hidden gem of a movie directed with grace and understatement by Ben Lewin, a 67 year old director whose career has little in the way of highlights or recognition.  Until now that is.

His main protagonists, John Hawkes who was Oscar nominated for Winter’s Bone, Helen Hunt (who won one for As Good as it Gets) and William H Macy (Fargo nomination) tell a story as touching as any you will ever see that tries to make sense of whether sex out of wedlock as a (disabled) Catholic can be tolerated by those of great faith.

The good news?  It can.

What makes this trio of understated performances so remarkable is that they are all so extreme, yet constrained.

Firstly, John Hawkes (Mark) plays a 38 year old quadriplegic (a consequence of childhood polio), with a fine sense of humour, who lives 21 hours a day in an iron lung and desires nothing more than to have full penetrative sex and yet does not turn the role into a freakshow.

Secondly, Helen Hunt  spends much of the movie completely naked (as brave as it gets at 49) teaching Mark how to suck her nipples effectively, perform passable cunnilingus and generally satisfy her and himself – she’s a sex therapist.

And thirdly, William H Macy plays a cool dude Catholic priest that assumes the role of God, granting Mark the dispensation to get his rocks off free from the guilt of mortal sin.

What’s more, the supporting cast all put in excellent and mostly touching shifts that add to the overall quality of the movie.

It’s in places hilarious (although Seth MacFarlane would hardly agree), breathtakingly taboo (without offending anyone – including the four pensioners sat behind us) and moving.

What makes it work so wonderfully is what it doesn’t do or say.  Whilst issues surrounding morality must sit full square at the centre of the (based on true) story it’s not hammered home.  It makes no judgement and that’s in no small part down to the skill of director Lewin.

Very few people have seen this movie, more’s the pity, and the screening we saw was achingly badly attended.  Nonetheless it cost only $1m to make and grossed a modest (but profitable) $5m in the US.  I think it’s a sleeper of potentially Sideways proportions that will, over time, make the funders very large returns as its absolute honesty and sincerity wins it advocates like me.

Anne Hathaway is unbettable for Best Supporting actress at this year’s big hooley and she is by a distance the best thing about Les Miserables, but it’s a cameo role.  This, on the other hand, is a career defining moment for Hunt who would win every day in my book.  And I may indeed have a small wager on her at 25/1.

Django Unchained.


Yes, that really IS Samuel L. Jackson.

Yes, that really IS Samuel L. Jackson.

I’m not qualified to comment on the historical authenticity of Quentin Tarantino’s fully committed depiction of black American slavery in 1858 but I’m as qualified as anyone else to share with you why I, personally, think  this is another significant contribution to one of the greatest movie directing careers of all time.

With Django (the D’s silent you know) Tarantino cements his position in the top 10.

This is epic, just as Kill Bill (1 and 2) was, and proves that long movies don’t have to be padded out indulgences.  It grows in its impact with every scene and ends up a classic.

Spike Lee has problems with the depiction of slavery and I have to respect that as I, like Tarantino, am Caucasian.  At times it does seem to mock the plight of America’s black slaves but I feel sure that Samuel L Jackson (virtually unrecognisable) and Jamie Foxx saw more than a wage in choosing to star in it and I’m sure too that the judges of the Black Reel Awards which have given it six nominations are qualified to judge it on its merits as opposed to its politics.

Although described as a (spaghetti) western this is really a movie about slavery and not since ‘Roots’ has African American slavery been so prominently featured on screen.  Tarantino does not shy away from the subject matter or the vernacular of the time.  “Nigger” is used over 100 times in the script and not just by the slaves.  I had to refer to my copy of Filthy English: The How, Where, When and What of Everyday Swearing by Pete Silverton to establish whether or not MotherF@£$%er was currency in 1858 but there is evidence that points to its validity.  Just as well, because Samuel L J can’t really get through a movie without saying it repeatedly and he does so again, liberally.

There’s an early scene in which predecessors of the Ku Klux Klan hunt down Jamie Foxx, the freed slave and “black man on a horse!” who is bounty hunting with ex Dentist, Dr King Schultz (played entirely idiosyncratically by Christoph Waltz), their depiction is so funny that one has to question whether or not it’s really acceptable to laugh so uproariously at a subject matter so taboo; but that’s Tarantino’s gift.  It’s also his gift to spoof genres, mock convention (and history) mount lavish killing sprees and generally have a grand old time no matter the subject matter and that’s why we love him so.

Django is great fun, some say it’s too long but for me the movie simply got itself into a place (a little slowly I’d say) that fans of Tarantino would want to stay for hours.

Leonardo Di Caprio has not been this good since The Departed, (strangely not an Oscar nomination) and Jamie Foxx acquits himself well in a low-key, black Eastwood type performabnce.  But it’s Waltz that dominates in the acting stakes and his Oscar nod is fair reward.  There’s only one Chrisoph Waltz that’s for sure (and there’s plenty of it if you care to look – 101  acting roles to date to be precise.)

So, a little flawed (the start fails to quickly engage in gear) but unique and brilliant.  Go see it and forget the politics.  It’s a movie.

You can’t argue with the Metacritic poll of polls


Unless of course you don’t respect music critics.

Whatever you think I usually find Metacritic’s year ending poll of polls pretty reasonable evidence of what was best in a year and there is some sort of science to it.

Here it is…

metacritic albums of the year copy

By a country mile the Princely/Stevie Wonderey Channel Orange by Frank Ocean has won followed by another American Dance record (they do tend to dominate thanks to the profusion of rap magazines that have a vote).

Top of the rockers is Australian Beatles throwbacks Tame Impala and very good it is too (it won the NME poll).

Surprise of the year (to me anyway) has to be the showing of little talked about Fiona Apple’s fourth album  “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.”

My own personal favourite “Django Django” languishes in joint 23rd place without a single poll win.  Weird.

They do the same with movies…

meta movies copy

This too is interesting.  I’ve not seen the winning film, Katherine Bigelow’s Obama capture movie Zero Dark Thirty but I hear amazing things of it.  The Master (which I adored but divided audiences and critics alike) takes more winning slots but loses by a fair distance by virtue of being totally excluded from too many lists.

Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s latest, hasn’t made it to the UK yet I don’t think.  If it has it passed me buy and comes in third.  Likewise Lincoln ain’t here yet but it looks like a straight shoot out for the titular character’s portrayal by Daniel Day Lewis and Joaquin Pheonix for best Actor at The Oscars.

I actually only saw 6 of the movies on the list albeit at least 6 are unreleased so far in the UK.  My own favourite?  Argo, closely followed by The Master and then Beasts of the Southern Wilds.

In the shadow of all the King’s speech “the British are coming” claptrap there are a couple of overlooked gems.


It’s actually an Australian/UK co production driven by the Australian See Saw Productions/Films but I don’t want to be a pedant here.

And it’s pretty good too.

In fact in some ways it has become something of a phenomenon with applause ringing out across the land after each screening.

But it’s not all that is good about British cinema right now.  Putting to one side NEDS let’s focus on two Oscar nominees that I have read not a jot about in the past two weeks; Banksy’s Exit through the Gift Shop which I have yet to see but rates very highly on IMDB and Silvain Chomet’s The Illusionist.

Edinburgh is the star of this delightful movie.

Closely followed by the Highlands of Scotland

Lovely period detail

Whilst I liked The Illusionist more in my heart than my head, the fact that it has garnered an Oscar nomination should not be overlooked.

From a selfish point of view I wish it well because I know the producer, Bob Last, pretty well as he was our landlord when we established my first company, 1576.

It’s a charming, whimsical tale by the director of Belle Ville Rendezvous and it was largely created in Scotland (Edinburgh and Dundee). However it’s deeply disappointing that of the 33 production partner companies listed not one of them is Scottish.  In fact of the 26 funders not one of them is British and yet it was made here.

It only faces two competitors; How to Tame Your Dragon and – bugger – Toy Story 3.

It’s already won best animated movie at The European Film Awards but it’s dissapointing that it did not gain any recognition at The BAFTAs.

Anyway, it’s highly unlikely to beat off Toy Story 3, but maybe we should take a moment on Oscar night to toast Bob and Sylvain.

Cheers chaps.

Un prophete


I am not familiar with director Jacques Audiard’s work.  What I now know though is that he is a very skilled operator indeed as this gripping French thriller demonstrates.  Nominated for the Oscar for Best Movie in a Foreign Language it would appear it’s in a straight shoot out with Michael Haneke’s, The White Ribbon.

Both movies are terrific and both deal with the evil in man in very different ways.  In The White Ribbon it’s all about the gestation of fascism in a typically (for Haneke) underplayed, subtle and metaphorical way.

Here, Audiard goes straight for the jugular (and for those that have seen the movie they will know that this comment is pretty literal).

A Prophet (to give it its English moniker) is as graphic a prison drama as you’ll see. It focuses mainly on the relationship between a misfitting North African Muslim boy who is flung into an unnamed French gaol for mudering a copper and an aging Corsican mafia leader (played convincingly by Neils Arestrup – whom British viewers could easily mistake for celebrity chef Anthony Worral Thompson)

Separated at Birth? Neils Arestrup.

Separated at birth? Anthony Worrall Thompson

As the movie develops, the young Muslim, Malik (played with convincing menace by Tahar Rahim), becomes an increasingly trusted aide of the old master.  But the relationship is built on hatred and bitter distrust.

Malik, gradually gains the upper hand as he increasingly frequently gains passes out into the free world to carry out a variety of unsavoury tasks for gangland boss Arestrup, whilst fitting in a bit of empire building himself.

The movie is visceral, at times shockingly so, but never short of engaging and we build a close bond with Malik as his story unfolds.

An interesting device in the movie is to include a series of ghostlike appearances of one of Malik’s early ‘victims’; the ghost giving Malik premonitions that contribute to his ultimate nomenclature as “The Prophet.”

These have clearly been the inspiration for this brilliant government commercial…

So.  Who will prevail?  The Cannes Grand Prix winning A Prophet or the more cerebral and understated White Ribbon?

Well, my vote goes to Michael Haneke because, despite both movies being truly excellent, Haneke’s style edges it for me.

A great category in a relatively weak Oscars year.