The snare of obsession – Whiplash (2014) Review

Whiplash posterFor many, jazz music is characterised by a lyrical fluidity and looseness of structure. It’s a genre that lends itself well to improvisation, the ability to go where you like in a musical sense evoking an easy-going freedom, practically the essence of cool. But this coolness is earned – no ordinary musician can pick up an instrument and do Gershwin proud. The greats only became so due to countless hours of hard graft not seen by the casual observer. They pour their blood, sweat, and tears into reaching the top, and it’s this fluid combination that fascinates Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a film about the pursuit of perfection, and the cost when it becomes an all-consuming obsession.

The premise is as economical as the film itself; Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a first-year at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York. He’s a drummer and nurtures ambitions of reaching a level of brilliance occupied by his heroes, like Buddy Rich. He catches the eye of conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) who is in charge of the best jazz band at the school. Andrew makes the cut but quickly realizes that Fletcher will go to extremes to get the very best out of his performers.

Right from the outset, Whiplash feels stripped down, closer to bare-bones storytelling than most features, and this approach is not simply restricted to the narrative. The style of the film is clean and uncluttered; the script is unencumbered by rambling dialogue, the colour palette is specific, and the cinematography is beautifully precise. In some cases this could amount to a cold and lifeless film, but contrarily this assured approach gives the film style and sets it free, so that unfettered by anything to weigh down its pace it thunders along with electricity in every frame. Whiplash is simply exhilarating, combining drumming scenes shot like an action film with the visceral intensity of a war film, all set to an infectious rhythm.

Whiplash Andrew

The exhilaration that this film produces comes in large part from Simmons and Teller, who both turn in career best performances. Their teacher-student relationship is what the whole film pivots around and what gives it a building energy. Fletcher is a character that inspires fear and reverence in equal measure and it’s easy to see why. Simmons fully conveys controlled ferocity so well that it starts to become unnerving when he talks at a normal register for too long. His presence alone is enough to dominate every scene he’s in. Simmons is likely a shoe-in for an Oscar but I feel credit is better shared equally with Teller whose visible stresses are lent emotional power by his boyish innocence. The former is the flint to the latter’s steel and when Simmons strikes, sparks fly.

There are more people in Andrew’s life but their relationships with him appear only to mark the extent of his obsession and the toll that it takes. This is necessary to achieve a singular focus and make Whiplash a study of the price of achieving perfection. Fletcher’s actions – whether done out of true conviction or true cruelty – are quite obviously dangerous and condemnable, but likewise are the extreme lengths that Andrew goes to become great not also condemnable? Is this really the only way to becoming a legend, and is it worth the cost? Chazelle’s script gives us all we need to ponder this and wisely leaves the uneasy questions to linger beyond the film’s bravura crescendo.

Transatlantic Trickery – The Parent Trap (1998) Review

The Parent Trap posterI miss you, Concorde. The skies aren’t the same without you, and neither would the saccharine ending of The Parent Trap be the same without your supersonic capabilities. If that isn’t reason enough for it to make a return, I don’t know what is. Seriously Disney, buy Concorde.

First things first, The Parent Trap is a significant film for its leading lass, Lindsay Lohan, as this was her big screen début. With the days of adolescent trouble merely a glimmer on the murky horizon, she embodies that fresh-faced innocence that so many of the great child actors possess, all smiles and sweetness. But it’s not just her adorability that she has to rely on for her first role (or two). Being asked to play twins is no easy task and certainly a challenge for an actress so young, yet she pulls it off with ease transitioning smoothly from well-spoken Brit to laid-back American. Speaking of the duplication on display, the effects team are deserving of praise for replicating Lohan seamlessly so that the question of ‘How?’ never lingers long in the mind.

Lohan plays the identical twins – separated at birth, one for each parent – who inadvertently reunite at Camp Walden where they initially clash but when forced to room together figure out what their parents never bothered to tell them. Strange parenting if you ask me, keeping each twin in the dark, so what of these parents?

We’re told from the opening scene that they met and married on the QE2, borne on a sea of romantic dinners and swing music – who wouldn’t want to get hitched with all that going on?! But their separation, shrouded in mystery for most of the runtime, has taken them back to their respective homelands where they have become rich and successful, never even thinking to mention the other’s existence to their half of the twins. It’s all seems a bit flimsy but it doesn’t matter because they are such charming people, lovingly devoted to their respective child. The performances of Natasha Richardson (seemingly channelling a bit of Emma Thompson) and Dennis Quaid are spot on for endearment and by the time we’ve got to know both of them the only question we’re left with is, “Why aren’t these two together?!” followed by, “They should be together!”.

"Elementary, my dear Lohan."

“Elementary, my dear Lohan.”

Which leads me to a few minor grumbles. There’s a staggering amount of wealth on display, on both sides of the Atlantic: A butler?! A London town house?! A mansion?! An expansive vineyard and ranch?! I find it hard to think that many kids will relate to that standard of living. This fortune also creates the film’s villainess played by Elaine Hendrix – a Hollywood starlet on the outside and mean gold-digger on the inside. She wouldn’t be here if Quaid’s wine was corked, so it’s pleasing to find that she’s just the right amount of haughty and beauty. As mentioned, the back-story that holds the plot together is also a little weak, and we’re never explicitly told what tore these two utterly wonderful people apart. It must have been something truly awful.

However, to the film’s credit, this hazy nature of past events is in keeping with one of the themes of the story – forgiving the past and letting bygones be bygones. The disagreement of the parents was 11 years ago, whatever anger sparked it has all but faded, leaving the strong presence of why they fell in love in the first place. Reinforcing this is the great double performance of Lohan, whose rosy outlook brightens every scene and forces her estranged parents to remember the good.

And there’s a lot of good; the film is stuffed with charm and humour, from Jesse’s tearful realisation to a man in a suit and bowler hat cycling past the London home. The latter being a childlike stereotype but never out of step with the sunny world of the film. It’s basically like a warm hug.

At its centre The Parent Trap has a big heart even if its thick candy coating is sometimes hard to swallow. It’s hardly a surprise though and is what we’ve come to expect from Disney – fairytale endings that leave a smile on your face. A paraphrasing of the last lines sums it up pretty well:

“…c’mon, Nick, what do you expect? To live happily ever after?”
“Yes.”