Whiplash (2014)

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*****/*****

The hiss of a snare. The boom of a bass drum. The harsh rattle of a symbol. What more could you expect from a film about Jazz music and drums than to have a faultless score?

With an intricate soundtrack, and carefully selected cinematography, held together by perfectly woven editing, Whiplash is hard to criticise.

Directed by Damien Chazelle, a drummer in his own right, Whiplash surrounds a young aspiring drummer, who has hopes of becoming one of the best musicians in the world. Enrolled in the top music school in New York, and the world, Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) is taught under the terrifyingly brutal instructor Terence Fletcher (played by J. K. Simmons), known for his short temper and cruel methods of teaching. The film follows Neiman’s journey to despair from Fletchers’ determination to find the next Charlie Parker.

Amongst this films’ many merits, is the acting skill displayed. J K Simmons brings a harsh and unwavering air to his character, making the audience feel tense as soon as Fletcher enters a room. A complete and absolute control over the other characters in the film, including Neiman, with an intensity that holds the films’ most climactic scenes in place. Matching this, is Teller’s characters determination to be the best, and to please Fletcher. A character you can’t help but feel sorry for, Teller’s initial muted performance of Andrew is effective in the way that pressure builds within his character. The importance of this is the development of character and confidence, and so forth the development of tension that comes to an explosive blow in the films’ final scene.

The cinematography is wonderful in the way that each singular shot looks as though it has been carefully hand-picked to have the perfect motivation. Each shot has its’ own purpose which can be singled out and picked apart. With extreme close ups of hands and drums in a blur of metal and flesh as Neiman’s hands are ripped to shreds by sheer force of will to be the best drummer. Match cuts of eyes as Teller and Simmons stare intently at each other, unwavering in their power struggle. And of course, framing that helps to capture everything inside the frame, excluding the outside world from this intense world of music and pain and struggle and reward.

It is hard to find fault in a film that covers all bases so beautifully and captures a kind of tension that has the audience on the edge of their seats from the very first beat of a drum right until the very last. There is something quite magical about a film that can manage to do this not just after the first viewing – but after every viewing.

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The Paperboy (2012)

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**.5/*****

The film opens in an interview style. Talking to Anita, an ex-maid for the Janson family, about the murder of the town Sheriff. She explains who she is, and the interview is intercut with images of Zac Efron, who is introduced to us as Jack Janson, the younger of two brothers.

Directed by Lee Daniels, this black comedy noir is based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Pete Dexter. The Paperboy is set in 1960’s Florida in the heat of summer, complete with period soundtrack and colourful costumes and interiors. It has a distinctly humid feel, sweat and grime pasted on each of the characters and building the sense that something big is constantly about to happen.

The Paperboy is narrated to us in part by Anita (played by Macy Gray). She is an all-seeing, all-being character, as the story is told from her perspective. As the audience’s friend (as well as Jack’s seemingly only friend), she dictates to us what parts of the story we are allowed access to, and which we are not; for example during a steamy scene between Jack and Nicole Kidman’s character Charlotte, she intervenes with “I think you’ve seen enough”, immediately followed by a fade to black and change of scene.

The film is very inventive with its’ use of cinematography, with extreme pans, slow zooms and use of split screen, in addition to overlaying shots of Jack and the clear blue sky, connoting the blissfulness of his infatuation with Charlotte.

The biggest issue I found with this film is the way that it constantly deviates from the main plot, which can often cause the audience to lose attention. It is pitched to the audience as a film about two brothers attempting to crack a murder case, but in actuality very minimal time is spent trying to locate the actual murderer or discover the truth behind the Sheriff’s demise.

In addition to this, it feels as if horrific and startling scenes are placed randomly in the film with lack of clarity and limited plot development – for example a scene in which Efron is stung by jellyfish and Kidman urinates all over his face, or the double rape of McConaughey’s character, Ward. The only development these scenes have is for a story to be leaked by the local newspaper and to reveal that Ward is a homosexual, both complete deviants from the original plot.

As much as this film is trashy and has many flaws, it also has it’s good points. The acting is as a whole well-rounded and skilfully achieved. Kidman’s character, Charlotte Bless, is a twist on the typical Southern Belle, equipped with a peroxide blonde wig and huge, spider-like eyelashes. Obsessive, crazy and sexually explicit, she is the perfect strong and vulnerable counter-part to the hormone-unbalanced college dropout that is Jack Janson. She is, however, hopelessly in love with the accused Hillary Van Wetter, played by John Cusack. A psychopath in his own right, they are seemingly well matched, especially during a rather uncomfortable scene in which they mutually masturbate during a prison visit. This is, however, short-lived, as he is released from prison and treats Charlotte without respect and visciousness. During a drawn-out montage of sexual aggression, Daniels intercuts images of pigs, alligators and a dead possum. This serves to accentuate his animalistic tendencies and ugly personality.

Of all the ups and downs that this film contains, all of this could be said to be made up by the intensity of it’s final scenes, and the elegance of it’s ending.

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

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***/*****

In true celebrity style, we hear about her before we see her.

The film opens, and we are greeted by a professional-looking Kristen Stewart. Complete with thick, round glasses and a mobile phone attached to her ear. Maria Enders is a famous actress, known to star alongside actors such as Harrison Ford, and Valentine (played by Stewart) is her personal assistant.

This film concerns Maria and her struggles with passage of time and age when her close friend and Playwright Wilheim Melchior dies, and his famous play is revived. She is asked to revise a performance of the play, but this time not as her original character but as the older counterpart. From this, I expected the film to be quite pretentious in its’ approach, with an interest in the psychological genre that the plot description insinuates.

Clouds of Sils Maria was, however, much more subtle and sophisticated, a seductive view into the mind of a woman who is not ready to let go of her original character in the play, Sigrid – and in this – her reluctance to embrace the withered and desperate nature of her new character, Helena.

Slow to start, I can appreciate the ominous and melancholy overtones, feeling uneasy without quite understanding why. Jo-Ann, the new Sigrid, is introduced as a troublesome teen, dazzled by fame with a penchant for conflict, a perfect counterpart to the emotional turmoil Sigrid causes to Helena, and in this, the emotional turmoil Jo-Ann causes to Maria later on. Having just finished a Superhero film (reflexive of Chloe Grace Moretz’ shoot to stardom through the role of Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass (2010)). We don’t see Jo-Ann in a physical way until halfway through the film, parallel to the delayed introduction of the main character at the beginning of the film – building questions and tension as to who they are and what they will bring to the film.

The cinematography displayed in this film is intelligent and engaging, with stunning establishing shots of the alpine landscape to emphasise the importance of the specific space that the film is set in, whilst also highlighting the loneliness of Maria’s individual struggle throughout the film. The isolated landscapes serve to parallel the emotional journey of solitude Maria has to face. In addition to this, age and passage of time is pushed to the forefront of the film through not only themes but also the intercutting of old cinema footage during Maria and Valentine’s visit of Rosa, Wilheim’s wife.

We follow Maria and Valentine as they rehearse for the revival of the play. It is interesting to note that Maria rehearses mainly with Valentine and not with Jo-Ann, especially as we have gained knowledge of the intimacy and closeness these characters possess as friends and work colleagues. This is reflexive through the way that Sigrid and Helena in the play are also friends and work colleagues.

Juliette Binoche captures beauty, elegance and strength, whilst also exposing the vulnerabilities and anxieties of a woman worn down by the weight of a play that has haunted her for twenty years. Her on-screen chemistry with Kristen Stewart is undeniable – a closeness is portrayed that each knows what the other is thinking or feeling, sharing the enormity of the task ahead. Stewart’s subtlety is to be credited here, serving as Maria’s voice of reason and travelling companion. In comparison, Chloe Moretz’ intensity and dazzling mischief is enchanting to watch, a twinkle in her eye that emphasises her knowledgeable feigned innocence.

I feel that this film has many merits. It calls into question ideas of achievement and happiness, and how much the passage of time and ageing effects the perspective that people have on the world and others around them, both in work and in personal relationships. Blending quiet, stunning scenery and close relationships with scenes of passionate despair give the film a sophisticated bleakness that serves to leave a mark on the viewer. The fault of this film, however, is the lack of response to Valentines’ disappearance and confused subplots. Jo-Ann’s personal scandal at the end of the film overtakes the shock of Valentines’ disappearance and Maria’s centrality in the film, which could be argued to be the point – Jo-Ann replacing Maria as the central character – however I feel that this undermines the carefully constructed tensions that have been built up throughout the duration of the film.