Monthly Archives: January 2015

Review – Whiplash (15) [2015]

Whiplash - title banner2

Star Rating: 5/5

Director:

  • Damien Chazelle – Guy And Madeleine On A Park Bench, La La Land

Cast:

  • Miles Teller – Project X, 21 & Over, Divergent, La La Land
  • JK Simmons – Spiderman I-III, Harsh Times, Up In The Air, Terminator GenisysLa La Land
  • Paul Reiser – Aliens, Purpose, Life After Beth, 6 Miranda Drive
  • Melissa Benoist – Glee, Danny Collins, Billy Boyd
  • Austin Stowell – Dolphin Tale I & II, Love And Honour, Behaving Badly, Higher Power

Music Composer:

  • Juston Hurwitz – Guy And Madeleine On A Park Bench, La La Land

When one sees artistic greatness, whether it is in drawings, music, film, theatre, sport or otherwise, it is natural to gawp and marvel. Great artists, irrespective of their medium, always have stood and always will stand head and shoulders above their competitors. But what does it take to be an artistic great? How does one become a great in their respective field? Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s absolutely brilliant film, may answer those questions.

Andrew (Miles Teller) looking and listening to his mentor, the conductor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) as Fetcher gives him some advice.

Andrew (Miles Teller) looking and listening to his mentor, the conductor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) as Fetcher gives him some advice.

Whiplash is a drama, centred completely round Andrew (Miles Teller), a nineteen year old jazz-drummer who goes to Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in America. There, he comes under the tutorship of conductor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), who pushes him hard, first, to enable Andrew to enter into his band, wherein they play a piece called ‘Whiplash’; and, second, in his attempts to make Andrew an artistic great.

Whiplash is an entertaining and pulsating film, with some exceptional performances. In an interview, Miles Teller spoke about the energy coming off the screen throughout the movie. And he’s right, although he also modestly downplayed his own role in making Whiplash come alive because Teller is superb as Andrew.

Samuel Delaney in About Writing explains that for one to achieve artistic excellence one must (metaphorically) punish oneself, make sacrifices, and suffer. In Whiplash, viewers witness Andrew punish himself, make sacrifices, and suffer as he pushes himself to breaking point to have a chance at becoming a great drummer. Better still, though, viewers feel Andrew’s agony as well as the sweat and blood dripping off him. It may have helped Teller that Whiplash was shot over nineteen (uber-intense) days, with him working eighteen to twenty hours under the camera’s gaze. When Andrew is exhausted and feeling the pressure it is probably genuine. At the same time, the intensity of the filming schedule could have hindered Teller. So, it is to Teller’s credit that he is able to perform to such a high standard under exhausting circumstances. He deserves his BAFTA nomination in the Rising Star category as, in part, he provides the energy that radiates from the screen during Whiplash.

Andrew taking out Nicole (Melissa Benoist), and they discuss their respective ambitions in life

Andrew taking out Nicole (Melissa Benoist), and they discuss their respective ambitions in life

Yet, as good as Teller is, it is his character’s mentor who steals the limelight. JK Simmons is terrific as Terence Fletcher and it is no surprise that Simmons has been Oscar nominated for his performance as Fletcher. Fletcher is intelligent and passionate, yet he is also manipulative, nasty, vicious and utterly ruthless. When he walks into a room, one senses the fear he induces into his students. But is Fletcher a sadistic prick and a bully? Or is he a good mentor and an effective motivator? It would be easy to answer in the former. But Niccolo Machiavelli writes in The Prince that it is better for a leader to be feared than loved because fear forces people to go the extra mile when they wouldn’t otherwise. Additionally, one could believe that the motivational methods of Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manager of Manchester United Football Club (MUFC), were not always too dissimilar to Fletcher’s, and the success Sir Alex achieved at MUFC between 1986-2013 was extraordinary. Therefore, one should bear in mind the writings of Machiavelli and the feats of Sir Alex before criticising Fletcher. There is logic behind his methods.

However, whatever one may think of Fletcher and his methods, it is worth noting that audiences only see him through Andrew’s eyes. In an interview, Simmons said that there were some scenes of Fletcher filmed without Andrew present. These (apparently) would have given audiences another perspective on Fletcher’s personality, but the scenes were cut from the movie so as to preserve Whiplash as solely Andrew’s story. Simmons suggests that the lack of these scenes does not detract from the film and even enhances it. This probably means that the scenes would not have significantly altered our understanding of Fletcher, so instead of wondering what these scenes beheld we should commend Damien Chazelle for having the resolve to take them out of the final cut of the movie.

The price Andrew pays in his attempts to make it to being a drummer of noteworthy repute: sweat and blood.

The price Andrew pays in his attempts to make it to being a drummer of noteworthy repute: sweat and blood.

Nevertheless, it is not just for taking those scenes out that Chazelle should be commended. He should also be applauded for writing vivid dialogue and for giving the actors room to improvise in scenes to make the scenes more realistic. Similarly, Justin Hurwitz should be clapped for writing some wonderful music that builds on the tension that Andrew (and the audience) endures in Andrew’s attempts to reach the dizzying heights of artistic greatness.

All-in-all, Whiplash is a flawless and exhilarating film, with two phenomenal stand-out performers. On the surface, the movie is about the relationship between a pupil and his mentor, seen exclusively from the pupil’s angle. Yet, Whiplash has a deeper layer. It illustrates the level of dedication and self-torture one must go through to become a great in one’s artistic field and the type of mentor that may be required to attain artistic superiority over one’s rivals.

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Review – Exodus: Gods And Kings (12a) [2014]

Exodus - title banner

Star Rating: 3/5

Director:

Cast:

  • Christian Bale – The Machinist, The Fighter, The Dark Knight I-III, American Hustle, The Big Short
  • Joel Edgerton – Smokin’ Aces, Warrior, Zero Dark Thirty, The Gift
  • John Turturro – Anger Management, Transformers I-III, The Taking of Pelham 123, Hands of Stone
  • Aaron Paul – Mission: Impossible III, The Last House On The Left, Breaking Bad, Need For Speed, Eye In The Sky
  • Sigourney Weaver – Alien I-V, Ghostbusters I & II, Paul, The Cabin In The Woods, A Monster Calls
  • Ben Mendelsohn – The New World, Killing Them Softly, The Dark Knight Rises, Mississippi Grind
  • María Valverde – Body Confusion, The Anarchist’s Wife, The Liberator, Broken Horses
  • Ben Kingsley – Schindler’s List, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Hugo, Iron Man III, The DictatorKnight of Cups
  • Indira Varma – Rome, Basic Instinct II, Silk, Game of Thrones, Caesar
  • Hiam Abbass – Munich, Lemon Tree, A Bottle In The Gaza Sea, Nothing Escapes My Eyes

Music Composer:

In my review of Prometheus in 2012, I wrote that since Gladiator came out in 2000 all of Ridley Scott’s films have not been good enough for a director who once made Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator. Since 2000, Scott has consistently made disappointing films like Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood and Prometheus, while 2013’s The Counsellor was rotten to the core. So bearing in mind Scott’s portfolio over the last fourteen years, what could one expect with Exodus: Gods And Kings?

Pharaoh Rameses II (Joel Edgerton), the villain of the Exodus story, looking splendid and glorious.

Pharaoh Rameses II (Joel Edgerton), the villain of the Exodus story, looking splendid and glorious.

The film starts with (the anachronistic method) of a transcript, giving viewers the political context of the movie, as well as Moses’ position in Ancient Egypt. Subsequently, the film centres round Moses of the Torah and we follow him (Christian Bale) as a young adult living among the elites in Cairo; through his exile and marriage to Zipporah (María Valverde); to finally taking his place as the first leader of the enslaved Israelite/Jewish people and leading them out of Ancient Egypt via the Red Sea.

Exodus: Gods And Kings is a lively adaptation of the famous Biblical tale. The film is not absolutely historically accurate (especially if one swears by the Quran) and contains much artistic license. Some of the inaccuracies are avoidable, for example the number of years that the Israelites were enslaved for. But others inaccuracies are unavoidable and require the artistic license that Scott employs because there is no historical record of it; for example, where and what Moses did in exile.

If one can overcome these inaccuracies, one can appreciate many of the enjoyable elements of the movie. Scott impressively designs Ancient Egypt to give viewers a feel for how ancient Cairo and the slave city of Piton probably looked like; the battle at the start of the film is really good (although, strikingly similar to the battle in the opening scenes of Gladiator); the splitting of the Red Sea is refreshingly different from the conventional story (although, one recently saw a better example of what the film achieves in Interstellar); and the CGI plagues and godly miracles are emphatic and vividly memorable.

Moses (Christian Bale) speaking with Nun (Ben Kingsley), one of the enslaved leaders of the Jewish tribes in Piton, about the need to escape Egypt.

Moses (Christian Bale) speaking with Nun (Ben Kingsley), one of the enslaved leaders of the Jewish tribes in Piton, about the need to escape Egypt.

Furthermore, Exodus depicts Moses in an innovative and interesting way that is seldom discussed. This is important as Moses was a human being (who we know little about), so his (real or possible) flaws should be laid bare for us so we can assess what sort of a man he was. Exodus does this in a pseudo-intelligent manner and Scott should rightly be recognised for trying to do something different.

However, sadly, Scott undermines his idea of Moses, as well as the other key individuals from this period, with his poor choice of casting. Forget the racism issue (which Scott daftly fuelled with his lamentable responses); none of the actors in the main roles look their part. Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Aaron Paul and Sigourney Weaver do not look like they are Ancient Egyptian or Mediterranean, and no amount of spray tan and make-up can change that. And, also, what was Scott thinking when he chose Christian Bale to be Moses? How can Batman be Moses? It just isn’t believable, and if viewers cannot believe in the characters, it is an uphill struggle for the cast to come across convincingly.

In fairness to the cast, they are handicapped by the wretchedly written script that relegates all, but Moses, to one-dimensional characters. The biggest victim of the script is the main villain: Pharaoh Rameses II, played by Joel Edgerton. If Scott’s intention had been to make Rameses be Exodus’s Commodus, Scott fails miserably. One may have loathed Commodus by the end of Gladiator, but that was only because Scott gave him/Joaquin Phoenix the chance to be loathed. Scott does not give Rameses/Edgerton such a chance, consigning Rameses to a pathetic, ranting idiot, who is unfit to rule. This is a shame (and gratingly frustrating) because it is a waste of a talent like Edgerton, because it is contrary to history, and most significantly because one feels nothing towards Rameses by the end.

The plague of hail. This is one of the ten plagues that rains down on Egypt after Rameses refuses Moses' request to let his people go.

The plague of hail. This is one of the ten plagues that rains down on Egypt after Rameses refuses Moses’ request to let his people go.

Speaking of the end, it takes an Earth’s turn to get there. One cares so little for the characters in Exodus that the movie’s 150-minutes running-time feels like double that. To think that Gladiator, at 155-minutes, was longer than Exodus, is surprising as it felt shorter. This speaks volumes for just how much of a masterpiece Gladiator was, and how far Scott’s stock has fallen as a director since 2000.

Overall, Exodus: Gods And Kings is not a terrible film. One may object to the historical inaccuracies within the film, yet this cannot be helped due to the limited amount of source material available on the subject. Instead, one should enjoy the aspects of the movie that have been done well. That is, if one can overcome Scott’s glaring casting errors and the poverty of the script that leaves even Christian Bale, one of the most talented actors of the current era, struggling for conviction. But, then again, what did one expect from Exodus? Another film of Gladiator’s quality? Don’t be ridiculous! Just be grateful that Exodus is not another Prometheus.

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Review – Big Eyes (15) [2014]

Big Eyes - title banner3

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Tim Burton – Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks!, Corpse Bride, Alice In Wonderland I & II

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Danny Elfman – The Simpson’s, Spiderman I & II, Corpse Bride, The Next Three Days, Fifty Shades of Grey

When it comes to predatory animals, one knows to stay well away. Yet, when it comes to predatory people, for one reason or another, one does not always act with the same haste or caution. The consequences of this lack of haste or caution can be damaging to the predator’s prey. Tim Burton, back to his best with Big Eyes, shows what can happen to an individual who falls prey to a person with a predatory nature.

Walter (Christoph Waltz) standing over Margaret (Amy Adams) and admiring her work.

Walter (Christoph Waltz) standing over Margaret (Amy Adams) and admiring her work.

Big Eyes is a true story based on what happened to the artist Margaret Keane in America, in the 1950s and early-1960s. Margaret (Amy Adams), is a single mother to Jane (when small played by Delaney Raye; when older played by Madeleine Arthur), who draws children with unusually large eyes as a hobby to earn a bit of money.

At an art fair one day, Margaret meets the smooth-talking Walter (Christoph Waltz), another artist who claims that she has talent and that she could make fortunes from her work. Margaret becomes enchanted by Walter. Soon, they are married and work together to make serious amounts of money. But the more time Margaret spends with Walter, the more it becomes apparent that Walter is not all that he seems. Eventually, this leads to a courtroom battle over royalty fees for the drawings.

Big Eyes is a really enjoyable film. It has a well written script that is surprisingly humorous, and the two lead actors play their parts brilliantly. Amy Adams (as ever) plays her role convincingly; this time as a callow woman with low self-esteem, who is pressured into a situation whereby she allows herself to be downtrodden by her husband. Similarly, Christoph Waltz (as ever) is a joy to watch, despite being a domineering husband who takes advantage of a vulnerable woman for the sake of making a waterfall of money. The leering, Cheshire cat-like grin never leaves his face and the words that roll off his silver-tongue underlie why predatory people are as dangerous as their beastly cousins in the wild. (Both devour their prey, just in different ways.)

An example of the sort of drawings Margaret draws.

An example of the sort of pictures Margaret draws.

Nevertheless, it is not just the two lead actors that make Big Eyes so watchable. The film has the feel of a director who loved creating it. The topic of the movie is the perfect fit for Tim Burton. Several of his films, like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Mars Attacks!, James And The Giant Peach, Corpse Bride and Alice In Wonderland, all consist of characters with unusually (and creepily) big eyes. Consequently, Burton’s passion radiates from the screen, elevating Big Eyes to make it a more pleasurable.

One may feel Burton’s passion throughout the film, but that does not mean it is flawless, sadly. First, Burton uses the (jarringly) antiquated technique of a narrator at the beginning of the movie and at random points throughout it, to put forward information to the viewers. (If these pieces of information said by the voiceover are so critical to the story, why couldn’t they have been incorporated into the dialogue like everything else?) Second, certain elements of Walter’s life are never properly explored and are dropped as quickly as they are brought up. This is brow-raising to say the least.

Margaret, who by this point has drawn so many pictures with abnormally big eyes that she is beginning to them (maddeningly) in her own reflection.

Margaret, who by this point has drawn so many pictures with abnormally big eyes that she is beginning to them (maddeningly) in her own reflection.

And, third, although Big Eyes is based on a true story, there is no way that the scenes in the courtroom are what truly happened. The courtroom scenes are too ludicrous and too camp to have been true. But, in fairness to Burton, they are absolutely hilarious. And while one cannot ignore the unreality of the scenes, one must applaud Burton for his alterations as they enhance the scenes and the film’s enjoyment factor.

All-in-all, Big Eyes is a very entertaining and satisfying film. The movie is funny, has a good script, an even better cast, and a director who is in love with the subject-matter at the heart of the tale. Burton could have neatened Big Eyes further by using some more modern techniques to convey information, by tying up some of the movie’s loose ends, and by not making the film camp enough to slot into the 1980s.

But to focus on these matters too much is to do the film a disservice. Instead, one should focus on the primary moral of the story: notably, to stay away from predatory people because they can only have a detrimental impact on one’s confidence, one one’s self-esteem, and on one’s life in general, as Margaret Keane found.

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