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Review: Whiplash

The thrill of watching Fletcher and Neyman’s fray unfold is intensified by Damien Chazelle’s attention to the craft and challenge of musicianship.




Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash ends, as all things should, with a drum solo, a furious yet precise assault of clattering cymbals and skins enacted by Miles Teller’s Andrew Neyman, a prodigious drumming student at the fictitious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in midtown Manhattan. It’s the percussionist’s final parry in his duel with Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a sadistic conductor and senior-level instructor at the school. As Neyman’s solo grows more complex and immense, the studied technique that he’s spent the entirety of the film trying to hone breaks out into wild, exacting ambition, an exhilarating final movement in a film deeply concerned with the limitations of control, and how that influences the measure of mastery.

The thrill of watching Fletcher and Neyman’s fray unfold is intensified by Chazelle’s attention to the craft and challenge of musicianship. Teller, a drummer for over a decade, does the lion’s share of his character’s playing, and Chazelle captures the astonishing physical ability, pain, and exhaustion that comes from trying to catch up to the likes of Buddy Rich and Max Roach. That’s mostly Teller’s own blood on the drum sets, and the other members of Shaffer’s core band, to say nothing of the other drummers in the film, are portrayed by trained musicians as well. This decision lends the film authenticity for sure, but it more importantly frees up Chazelle to use his camera more freely, without having to constantly hide stand-in performers and shoot around the mere illusion of talent.

Much like his protagonist, Chazelle shows a newfound formal control in Whiplash that was ever so slightly lacking from his exuberant debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and a vital tendency toward transcending that rigor. Working with DP Sharone Meir, the writer-director develops his own jazzy visual style, using close-ups of Fletcher’s hand motions, or the brushing of a young woman’s hair around her ear, to convey explosions of desire and anxiety. And in the finale, as Neyman faces a daunting Carnegie Hall crowd, Chazelle matches the volatile melodic curves of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” with a visceral, rhythmic combination of pans, push-ins, close-ups, and tracking shots to convey the exciting tumult of Neyman’s talent taking full flight.

In Chazelle’s script for this year’s Grand Piano, a pulpy extortion plot is utilized as a nifty metaphor for a late master pianist’s ghostly hold on his favored student. Whiplash builds off of this idea, as Neyman’s increasing attraction to Fletcher’s manipulative fits of curse-laden fury begin to sculpt him professionally, but also seem to chip away at the quiet good humor and graciousness he gets from his father (Paul Reiser), a failed author turned English teacher, and a revealing mirror image of Fletcher. There’s an early charming scene where Neyman takes Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a cute concession clerk at his favorite cinema, out for pizza, and for once admits to a vulnerable nostalgia for his home, a need for looking back. Later, Chazelle smartly shows the decay of this personal softness in two subsequent scenes centered around intimate meals, including a riveting sequence at a family friend’s house where Neyman begins to mimic Fletcher’s penchant for lacerating criticism.

Whiplash works off of a familiar dramatic two-hander, but Chazelle refuses to define them in familiar terms. The fight between Neyman and Fletcher is less about realizing potential held back by pain and psychology than it is about defining and recognition of talent. Fletcher is fond of the famed story of Jo Jones tossing a cymbal at a young Charlie Parker’s head, and his weakness is his own nostalgia for that age of prickly, tough, and brilliant musicians, and a wanting to recapture that time. In essence, Fletcher has never been interested in training and developing musicians, but rather in creating his own legend, making his own Jo Jones story through bullying and duplicity. Chazelle’s script makes this Achilles’ heel clear when Fletcher uses the death of a prized pupil to create the myth of a prodigious talent taken too soon, a cowardly, showy lie he uses to excuse his own role in the young musician’s untimely passing.

Ultimately, Chazelle has crafted a blistering indictment against those who’ve given in to the comforting cynicism that the great age of an art form has already passed. And considering the massive contingency of cinephiles and film scholars who still see the death of New Hollywood as the end of “serious” film culture, it’s not hard to see where the writer-director connects this to his own life and career. Beyond that, Chazelle goes onto suggest that a strict reading of technique is just as damaging as this obsession with the past, as if a great work of art can be quantified simply on the honing of its formal elements. Though Neyman showcases virtuosic skill by the end of the film, his rebellion comes from bucking Fletcher’s sense of control, by literally ignoring his role as conductor. Chazelle doesn’t belittle Fletcher’s positive influence on Neyman’s ability and style, but he’s emphatic about recognizing that moment when the rules congeal into restraints, and idols become something like adversaries.


Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang Director: Damien Chazelle Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2014 Buy: Video



Review: Never Fear Is Driven by Its Maker’s Personal Demons

If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Ida Lupino’s own.



Never Fear
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films/Photofest

In a 1985 interview with DeeDee Halleck conducted at the Chelsea Hotel, filmmaker Shirley Clarke stated that she made films about African-Americans as a way of working through her own ambivalence about being a woman in a male-dominated culture: “I identified with black people because I couldn’t deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt….I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in.” One can detect a similar tendency in the work of Ida Lupino, whose independently produced dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s tackled hot-button issues such as rape, bigamy, and unwanted pregnancy. These films are no mere homilies on contemporary social problems, but complex and deeply personal explorations of what it means to be an independent woman in a world ruled by men.

Lupino’s pioneering work is suffused with a profound sense of alienation and self-doubt. Her films are about people whose conventional middle-class existence is suddenly, sometimes violently, upturned, causing them to feel completely unmoored. No longer sure of where they’re going in life or what they truly want, these people find respite away from their old life, in an unfamiliar place with a new potential lover. And Lupino tells these stories with an empathy that’s striking for its directness and lack of condescension.

Such is the case with the first film Lupino directed completely on her own, Never Fear, an emotionally complex drama about a young dancer, Carol (Sally Forrest), who seems to have it all, as she’s just gotten engaged to her partner, Guy (Keefe Brasselle), and their careers are on the verge of taking off. But then, all of sudden she’s stricken with polio, and everything changes. Carol, depressed and bitter, enters a rehab facility where she eventually makes strides toward walking again, thanks in part to the inspiration of a hunky fellow patient named Len (Hugh O’Brian). As Carol struggles with her own will to get better, she grows increasingly distant from Guy, urging him to keep pursuing his dancing career rather than settling down into a conventional job selling pre-fab “Happy Homes” as he waits around for her to recover.

Free of the noir-ish inflections Lupino brought to her other films—most notably The Hitch-Hiker, and the rape sequence in OutrageNever Fear is directed in a simple, straightforward style that bears comparison to the stripped-down neorealism of Roberto Rossellini. Lupino is captivated by the process of physical rehabilitation, offering detailed observations of Carol’s stretching routine, swim therapy, art classes, and, in one show-stopping sequence, a square dance featuring lines of wheelchair-bound patients twirling each other around in consummately choreographed synchrony. Carol is clumsy and awkward as she struggles to operate her wheelchair, a marked contrast to the film’s opening scenes, in which Carol and Guy move together with lithe sophistication as they perform a romantic swashbuckling tango.

Never Fear’s subject matter was personal for Lupino, who survived polio after an attack in 1934. But the filmmaker isn’t merely interested in the physical ailment itself, but also in the complicated pressure that recovery places on Carol. There’s a tension in the film, which was released at the height of the U.S. polio outbreak, between what Carol wants and what the men in her life want for her. When Carol begins to reject her own treatment, it’s in part because she’s rebelling against the expectations that her doctor, her fellow patients, and especially Guy have placed on her. “Be a woman for me,” Guy asks of her, but the demand is counter-productive, as Carol can only truly recuperate when she decides to do it for herself.

In Carol’s dilemma, one can sense Lupino wrestling with her own artistic ambitions, coming to grips with the reality that as the only woman director working within the Hollywood studio system in the ‘50s, she too would have to accept the guidance of the men around her, and in so doing she would be forced to bear the weight of their expectations for her—their demands, hopes, dreams, and pity. Unfortunately, Never Fear closes with a cop-out, a last-minute reconciliation that cheapens Carol’s hard-fought struggle to learn to live on her own terms by suggesting she’s fundamentally lost without a man. Almost as if the film is embarrassed by its own denouement, the final screen assures us, “This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage.” If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Lupino’s own. Never Fear wasn’t the end for her either, but merely the start of one of the most unique and pathbreaking directorial careers in Hollywood history.

Cast: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Rita Lupino, Herbert Butterfield, Kevin O’Morrison, Stanley Waxman, Jerry Hausner, John Franco Director: Ida Lupino Screenwriter: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1950

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.



Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

Watch Stay below:

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.




Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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