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Reviewing the movies of 2014, Part XI: Whiplash

Updated on February 15, 2015

The Whiplash Effect

2014 has been a pretty big year for movies. Granted, there were very few true breakout hits--nothing on the order of Frozen comes to mind. As hits go, the conversation has been dominated by a mere handful of films, although some of those have been big: The Lego Movie, Maleficent, Guardians of the Galaxy, American Sniper, maybe Gone Girl. But a few films have managed to sneak past the box office and still make a huge splash, perhaps none more so than Whiplash. Who would have guessed at the start of the year that a film from a sophomore feature director with a largely unknown star (Miles Teller), a gifted and beloved but only moderately well-known character actor (J.K. Simmons), a former TV star (Mad About You's Paul Reiser) and a gifted up-and-comer (Glee's Melissa Benoist) would manage--without making more than $10 million at the box office--to be both an Oscar nominee for Best Picture and EASILY the second highest-ranked film of the year on IMDb (#38, behind #21 Interstellar and before #133 Gone Girl)? Caught me by surprise, at least. The film has little chance in hell of WINNING Best Picture, but this is a case where at least being nominated is pretty awesome. More importantly, though, is the category in which the film IS likely to win, Best Supporting Actor. J.K. Simmons is a supremely talented individual who I truly feel has been cheated out of at least one prior Oscar nomination; he should have been nominated in 2007, if not for Juno than at least for Spider-Man 3--I think his performance in the former was one of his best, and easily Oscar-worthy, and his performance as J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's three Spider-Man films was one of the few things about them that EVERYBODY seems to agree was pretty awesome. That he is FINALLY getting some serious recognition is long overdue; he has mostly swept the awards season thus far, and is one of the closest things to a lock in this Oscar race. What's more, his performance truly IS an Oscar-caliber one, and one of the best this year. So, without further ado, a film that can give you at least one confident vote to cast for your office Oscar pool...

Whiplash

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'Good job.'"

Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is an asshole. He does not care if he hurts your feelings. He fully believes the above statement, which he shares at one point with his student Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller). And he is a gifted musician and conductor with a great ear for talent and music, a talent which he uses to make himself lord and master of his students, until the day one of them learns to truly overcome his oppression. Watching Whiplash is not always easy, but that's part of the point. Fletcher (and by extension the film) openly challenges society's notions of what constitutes "appropriate" mentorship, and what is crossing the line. Channeling R. Lee Ermey's drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, as well as some of his own darker or less pleasant roles, Simmons gives Fletcher a presence and command that is undeniable, and that makes the audience truly feel for his students. Not to be outdone, Miles Teller gives Nieman JUST enough spine, just enough spite, to keep going, to not back down. If anything, Nieman's almost too much like his mentor, making him occasionally hard to get behind, especially during one particular scene involving the lovely and talented Melissa Benoist, whose character Nicole learns the hard way what it's like to love a man like that. Though Benoist has a very small role, she does a great job; indeed, the performances throughout the film are quite good to excellent, bolstering the feel of realism the film nicely conveys. The camerawork, the makeup, the attention to making the performances look and sound real, all add up to make a pretty durned solid film, with one heck of a great soundtrack. This is definitely a film that screams out for a Best Use of Music in Film category at the Oscars; Benoist is also a solid argument for Best Bit Player/ Cameo--Female.

The basic plot of the film is pretty simple; Andrew Nieman is practicing drums one night in an empty classroom in the conservatory where he studies, when he is visited by Terence Fletcher, the conductor of his school's prestigious Studio Ensemble. Fletcher gives little indication that he has been impressed, but before long picks Nieman for his ensemble. Thus begins a battle of wills between the two, with many others caught in the line of fire. That's pretty much it, at least without getting into spoilers. This is a film, much like the jazz music that permeates its every fiber, that really is more about the mood and the tempo than it is about story. That said, there is a solid story to be had here, and Damien Chazelle very probably deserves his nod for Adapted Screenplay. Indeed, the film deserves all five of its nods, and that's certainly always a good thing.

Final Analysis

Whiplash 8.5/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Picture, Director (Damien Chazelle), Actor (Miles Teller), Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Supporting Actress (Melissa Benoist), Adapted Screenplay (Damien Chazelle), Cinematography, Production Design, Makeup, Film Editing, Original Score (Justin Hurwitz), Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing; arguably so for Costume Design. Nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Adapted Screenplay (Damien Chazelle), Film Editing and Sound Mixing. The kind of film that SCREAMS OUT for a Best Use of Music in Film Oscar; also, with Melissa Benoist a STRONG argument for Best Bit Player/ Cameo--Female.

Will purchase? Hells yeah! It may take a bit, but I will get this one on blu-ray.

Three reviews in a row of films by the same writer/ director, huh? Anyway, I've still got a few films on the slate for this week. Hopefully most of them will be as good at living up to or even exceeding expectations as the films of the past few weeks. Good luck to those of you participating in any Oscar-prediction contests, and as ever, happy viewing!

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