Thursday, February 26, 2015


(US - 2014)

It's almost impossible to watch WHIPLASH and focus on anything other than the Oscar-winning work of J.K. Simmons. The veteran character actor gets the role of his career here and absolutely runs with it. As music conservatory instructor Terence Fletcher, Simmons time and again takes the character to just the point where one step more would be over-the-top, and he pulls it in. His words, his delivery, his mannerisms, his body language, and his facial expressions all come together with lightning-in-a-bottle perfection as Simmons creates one of the most indelible characters in recent years and certainly one of the best performances you'll ever see. He really is that great. He's so great, that it's easy to forget that he's not even the star of the film, and that lead Miles Teller also turns in an award-caliber performance that was doomed to be overshadowed by Simmons. Teller is Andrew Neimann, a jazz drumming student at the prestigious (and fictitious) Shaffer Conservatory in NYC. A loner, Andrew spends his free time obsessively practicing and watching movies with his high-school teacher dad (Paul Reiser), a single parent and failed writer whose wife walked out on them when Andrew was a baby. These are crucial bits of information that Andrew tells Fletcher after the abrasive instructor selects him for the school's featured studio band. It takes one minor mistake in tempo for Fletcher to take Andrew's family history and hurl it back at him as "motivation." Respected and feared by his students, Fletcher is intimidating, manipulative, unpredictable, volatile, sadistic, reassuring, seductive, and probably psychopathic. His criticisms target weaknesses, his insults degrading and frequently sexist and homophobic. These teaching methods, which make R. Lee Ermey's drill instructor in FULL METAL JACKET seem approachable by comparison, push the students, especially Andrew, who's willing to put everything aside--from his dad to his nice girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist)--to be everything Fletcher demands he be.

One of the most talked-about films at Sundance 2014, WHIPLASH's buzz has been so centered on Simmons and his character that it's easy to overlook the work of Teller, who's almost as great in his own way (it helps that Teller is an experienced drummer who's played since he was a teenager). Andrew becomes so obsessed with nailing his parts, working until the blisters on his hands turn into open sores that bleed all over the drum kit, that he seems to have no love for the music. He's often irresponsible and as he spends more time with Fletcher, develops a sense of entitlement that alienates him from the other players in the band. Fletcher sees the talent in Andrew and pushes him to the brink of madness to bring it out of him. Expanding on a 2013 short film that also starred Simmons, writer/director Damien Chazelle, himself a former jazz drumming prodigy (he also wrote the goofy thriller GRAND PIANO and, improbably enough, THE LAST EXORCISM PART II), shoots these sequences in ways that maximize that tension, at times coming perilously close to provoking an anxiety attack in the viewer. It doesn't take long for your stomach to be in knots whenever Simmons purses his lips, shakes his head, and makes his hand gesture to cut the music and start over ("Not my tempo!"). The last third of the film heads in a rather unpredictable direction for an ending--keep thinking of that Charlie Parker anecdote that Fletcher keeps telling--that's open to interpretation (some dazzling camera work in that climax, too). Though it's filled with music and scenes where people practice music, WHIPLASH isn't really a film about music. It's a film about drive, ambition, obsession, abuse of power, and one that questions whether such abhorrent teaching tactics really work, and though some instructors like Fletcher exist, it's doubtful one that vicious would keep his job for very long. Other than one really boneheaded misstep (I think we can all agree that the movie almost shits the bed with that car accident and what happens immediately after), from which it somehow recovers, WHIPLASH is emotionally draining, exhausting, terrifying, traumatizing, superbly-acted, challenging, and unforgettable filmmaking that leaves you feeling almost shell-shocked when it's over. (R, 107 mins)

(UK - 2013; US release 2014)

The Elijah Wood-headlined GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS came and went with little notice in a 29-screen 2005 theatrical run, but when it hit DVD and cable, the British import about football hooliganism became a legitimate BOONDOCK SAINTS-level cult sensation with impressionable adolescent males. It's not a very good movie, but in subsequent years, it also generated interest thanks to SONS OF ANARCHY's Charlie Hunnam being the second lead, and it led to a straight-to-DVD 2009 sequel GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS 2: STAND YOUR GROUND, with only supporting actor Ross McCall returning from the first film. Now there's GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS: UNDERGROUND, an in-name-only third installment in a franchise that's been retooled as a vehicle for DTV martial arts star Scott Adkins, who's done some terrific work in several films by action maestro Isaac Florentine, most recently the outstanding NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR. Unfortunately, GSH: UNDERGROUND (titled GREEN STREET 3: NEVER BACK DOWN in the UK) won't go down as one of Adkins' better efforts. Cliches reign supreme as Danny (Adkins), a one-time leader of West Ham's Green Street Elite (GSE) football firm who left the neighborhood and never looked back, is pulled back into his old life when his obnoxious, hooligan little brother Joey (Billy Cook) is killed in an epic hooligan brawl. Hooliganism has gone underground, and the secret, BLOODSPORT-esque fights have gotten much more violent than in Danny's heyday. Working with hands-tied detective Hunter (fight coordinator Joey Ansah), Danny puts his aged and out-of-shape old crew back together for several montages as they prepare to enter what's basically the Hooligan Kumite to find the firm responsible for killing Joey.

With a rudimentary plot that plays more like Van Damme's KICKBOXER set in the world of soccer hooligans, GSH: UNDERGROUND is a straight 90 minutes of formulaic predictability, from the character arcs to the big reveals to the tournament inevitably in montage form set to a score that sounds like the result of Survivor hooking up with the keyboard opening to Journey's "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)" while West Ham climbs the tournament standings, shown superimposed over the montage action. The fight scenes are boring, the direction by James Nunn (TOWER BLOCK) pedestrian, and the kitschy throwback soundtrack too overbearingly '80s sounding for its own good (check out the Asia-sounding closing credits tune and you'll see what I mean). Even the usually reliable Adkins is dull, begging the question, who is this movie for?  Adkins' audience isn't going to like it, and GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS dudebros will probably react that same way HALLOWEEN fans did when HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH came out, the difference being, there likely won't be a critical and fan reassessment of GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS: UNDERGROUND years down the road. (R, 94 mins)

(US - 2014)

Or, KILLING THEM BLANDLY. Shot in 2012 as GOD ONLY KNOWS (and still sporting that title at the end of the closing credits), this Boston-based character piece from TRUCKER director James Mottern is one of the dullest mob movies ever, awash in cliches and getting nothing from the black hole in the center of the film that is Ben Barnes. The hapless British actor, fast becoming the patron saint of long-shelved trifles (THE BIG WEDDING, LOCKED IN, SEVENTH SON) is one that Hollywood keeps trying to make happen, with no success after playing Prince Caspian in the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA films. Here, Barnes is in way over his head, failing to rock a Baaahston accent as Nick Tortano, a soldier in the Vitaglia organization. A low-level fuck-up, Nick is credited with whacking a guy--it was actually pulled off by his buddy George (Boston-based rapper and crime movie fixture Slaine, previously seen in GONE BABY GONE, THE TOWN, and KILLING THEM SOFTLY)--and gets made by boss Sal Vitaglia (a comatose Harvey Keitel) as a result. Meanwhile, Nick finds himself in a star-crossed, secret romance with Ali Matazano (Leighton Meester), the daughter of Vitaglia rival Tony Matazano (an embarrassingly hammy Ritchie Coster), which threatens to erupt into an all-out mob war.

BY THE GUN wants to be one of those MEAN STREETS and FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE-type films focused on the nickel-and-dime elements of mob life rather than the glitz and glamour of THE GODFATHER, but instead of being gritty, it just comes off as forced and utterly phony, as if Mottern had the actors study Richard Pryor's "Mafia Club" bit for inspiration. Perhaps with a better actor in the lead and some more engaged or even appropriate supporting actors, things could've turned out differently (who thought it was a good idea to cast Toby Jones as a mob enforcer who calls himself "Daylight"?), but Mottern and screenwriter Emilio Mauro--neither of whom are likely to be mistaken for Martin Scorsese anytime soon--never get any momentum going. BY THE GUN gets off to the most sluggish start imaginable as roughly 35 minutes are devoted to Nick going around and apologizing to the Matazano family after his younger brother Vito (Kenny Wormald) insults Ali. Nick is shown as a punk and a fuck-up, so it's hard to buy that he'd be made so quickly (in a ceremony where Keitel mispronounces "Omerta"), but nothing in BY THE GUN makes much sense. Scene after scene depicts a bunch of hot-tempered mob guys getting in each others' faces about "this thing of ours" and yelling variations of  "FUCK YOU!" and "SUCK MY DICK!" and an argument between Nick and his bitter, blue-collar father (Paul Ben-Victor) has such insightful nuggets as "You come around here, tough guy?  Huh, big shot?" as he throws his son's money back at him, barking (wait for it) "This smells like blood!" and "I'm glad your mother isn't here to see what you've become!" Really, all that's missing is someone saying "Hey, bada-bing!" Former New England Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain has a supporting role as a Matazano strongarm, and Slaine manages to rise above the rest and deliver an actual performance, but it's not nearly enough to save this tired, monotonous, lethargically-paced dud that you've seen a thousand times before, but rarely quite this bad. (R, 110 mins)

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