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.

Part (one) of the problem – The Maze Runner (2014) Review

The Maze Runne PosterPerhaps the most unsurprising aspect of The Maze Runner – the latest member of the ever-growing club of Young Adult dystopian sci-fi – is that it is the first part in a trilogy, tasked with introducing us to its bleak world and investing us in its characters for the sequels that will inevitably be greenlit. By its very nature it must include set-up, but should it be allowed to get away with being entirely that? All preamble and no pay-off? Should it rather be self-contained, able to stand apart on its own without the help of its future episodic brothers? In a mess of absent exposition and unanswered questions, the films response is ironically very clear.

We are elevated into the Glade – a luscious forest and field area – along with our hero Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and a healthy dose of amnesia. In this area we meet a group of teenage boys, all of whom have entered in a similar way to Thomas, now eking out an existence in a well established mini-society. Questions abound like sparks but it’s here where the film shows its odd approach to pacing. For a community so rooted in co-operation, the boys are remarkably reticent about explaining things to their new compatriot, sometimes even refusing to answer queries like it’s an insult to even be asked by an amnesiac newbie. Clearly some exposition is needed, but it’s spread out thinly along the runtime that all conversations become laden with it, never allowing time for the characters to develop or the viewer to care about them.

The Maze Runner, 2014

And it’s a shame that it’s all exposition when there’s so much talent in the young cast list. On the whole their performances are good but seem to be held back by weak scripting. Aml Ameen gives a sage performance as the longest-serving Glader and his careworn Alby is perhaps the most compelling. Will Poulter plays the closest to an antagonist, zealous to protect and restore the status quo after Thomas disturbs it, but his motives are flimsy which never gives his stay-at-home attitude any weight. Likewise Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Blake Cooper are solid but sadly one-dimensional. The greatest waste is Kaya Scodelario, who appears late in the game as a connection to Thomas’ previous life but criminally nothing more. She’s likely here to foreshadow a greater role in sequels but comes off as the token female, given very little to do at all. The less said about the bland Dylan O’Brien the better, his clichéd amnesia robbing him of almost all interest.

Whilst little care has been given to its characters, the excellence of The Mazer Runner lies in its production design. The eponymous maze is brilliantly imposing, so gargantuan that it literally casts a large shadow over our protagonists. The maze is also old but of unknown age, its cracks and overgrown areas lending it a monolithic quality as if it has stood for centuries. Its constant presence lends the world a wonderful tactility and entices you to ponder on the nature of the world beyond the maze, and just who or what might be in charge of this diabolical lab-rat stunt. This is clearly the direction The Maze Runner is going in, namely the next instalment territory, but it does so with such determination that it completely forgets to have a satisfying ending. It completely forgets to be its own film. It’s perfectly fine to have ambiguity in a story, but when your finale feels entirely like the introduction to the sequel, and there is no ending, you’re doing something wrong. The Hunger Games does it right, so why can’t you?

I’ve got high hopes for the The Maze Runner: Part Deux, where I have no doubt things will start to make sense, but I rather wish someone had just given me the heavily edited highlights from part one.