[Screen It]

"WHIPLASH"
(2014) (Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A 19-year-old drummer must contend with an abrasive and abusive instructor who's determined either to make him the best he can be or destroy him and his future.
PLOT:
Andrew Neiman (MILES TELLER) is a 19-year-old drummer who dreams of being as good as his idol, Buddy Rich. When he's not watching movies with his dad, Jim (PAUL REISER), at a theater where the girl behind the concession stand, Nicole (MELISSA BENOIST), has caught his eye, he's practicing his art. And that's because he's enrolled at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory where everyone hopes -- but also sort of fears -- that the notoriously prickly and perfectionist instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. SIMMONS) might chose them to be in his select class.

He does indeed pick Andrew as an alternate to first seat drummer Tanner (NATE LANG), and it's not long before the first-year student takes over that position. But his ego gets crushed, not only when Fletcher berates and belittles him in class, but also when he brings in another drummer, Ryan Connolly (AUSTIN STOWELL), who could easily take his place. Determined to be the best, Andrew focuses solely on drumming and gets even better. But it's unclear if that will be good enough for Fletcher, especially as the band starts making public performances where the conductor expects nothing but perfection from his students.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
When I hear about musical prodigies -- you know, the young kids who seem to have the ability to play the guitar, piano or what have you so deeply imbedded in their DNA that they don't need lessons to sound perfect -- I have to admit I'm insanely jealous. Okay, maybe not insane along the lines of investing in their future careers, but certainly jealous that they possess such an innate ability that, alas, I most certainly do not.

I've always wanted to play some sort of musical instrument, but I seem to have some natural block in regards to having my hands do two different things simultaneously. If you need me to bang on the drums with the same beat and tempo or play the same keys on a piano with both hands, I'm your guy. Anything more complicated than that falls out of my ability. Then again, perhaps with enough practice I might be able to perform something halfway decent. Or with the right instructor or, if you will, coach in my past, maybe, possibly, I coulda been a musical contender.

That is, as long as said source of motivation and pushing toward excellence wasn't anything as remotely intense as Terrence Fletcher. He's the fictional antagonist in "Whiplash," a terrific music drama about a gifted young drummer (Miles Teller) who wants to be the next Buddy Rich, but finds himself in the path of the buzz saw personality of his school's top instructor (J.K. Simmons).

The basic plot isn't anything we haven't seen before in many a film about a coach/teacher/mentor inspiring and pushing his or her young charge to become a better ball player, musician, student or, quite simply, to live up to their potential to be a good person. You know, the protégé is gifted, but something's holding them back, so the older expert does something unorthodox not only to get their point across, but also ingrained in the noggin of said student.

Yet, there's something about the way in which writer/director Damien Chazelle has positioned his story and the characters within it that results in a completely mesmerizing experience. Much of that stems from positioning two strong personalities -- one in the position of authority and superiority, the other as the young upstart -- and then letting the resultant sparks fly as they clash and interact.

Teller, one of our most gifted young performers working today, plays a an ambitious young man who's mixed talent and hard work (he practices until he literally bleeds) into landing a prestigious position at a top-notch music academy. He's a driven guy, but when he breaks up with his new girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) and then puts some college jocks in their place while having dinner with their parents and his dad (Paul Reiser), we realize there's also a cocky obsession with being the best in the world, both in his mind and that of the public.

Simmons, on the other hand, plays his character like an escaped and decidedly deranged Marine drill instructor who somehow got into the music biz and is channeling Louis Gossett, Jr., R. Lee Ermey and any number of other hard-nosed, abrasive and abusive, and foul-mouthed drill sergeant characters from films of old. Countering Teller eventually going hardcore, Simmons briefly has his character show human emotion and that introduces more depth, especially when we begin to question whether that's genuine or just yet another form of manipulation.

That's part of the fun of watching the film -- beyond listening to the terrific jazz music at play -- where we don't know if Simmons' character is motivated by a tough love approach of getting the best from his students or if he's truly some sort of sick psycho getting his kicks by tormenting his students who he knows won't stand up to him. And it remains in question throughout how much abuse Teller's character will take, if he's going to stick through it all, or if he'll perhaps do something drastic.

I certainly won't give away how that ultimately plays out, but let's just says there's a solid twist and then concluding performance number that will really knock your socks off. Featuring terrific performances and cinematic chemistry between the leads, solid writing, above the board directing and a great soundtrack, "Whiplash" surprised me a lot, is one of my year's top picks, and should hopefully earn some award love from the Academy and other end of the year voters. It give it a 7.5 out of 10 -- with both hands.




Reviewed November 17, 2014 / Posted November 21, 2014


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