For aging Indiana University basketball fans, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” could have also been called “The Bob Knight Story.” The movie focuses on a self-centered egotist teaching at a college level who employs both vulgarity and physical assaults to produce greatness in his students. He was always the smartest man in the room, and he dismissed all critics with little more than a sardonic grimace.
However, in “Whiplash,” it is J.K. Simmons who gives a superlative performance as Fletcher, a demonic force putting together a small jazz orchestra at an upscale college. Arrogant and profoundly unlikeable, he holds your attention every minute he is on the screen. He routinely criticizes students in some of the most creative and totally unmentionable vulgar characterizations to hit the big screen.
Into this mix comes Andrew (played by Miles Teller), a first-year student seeking glory and recognition as a drummer. He falls under the tutelage of Fletcher, and it’s like watching a horror movie where he becomes possessed by the devil.
As noted, Simmons’ performance is so mind-numbingly spectacular that he has to be at least invited to the Oscar party. Again emulating Coach Knight, he has the philosophy that members of his team need to be physically and emotionally pushed if they want to be champions. As you watch Fletcher throw a chair and physically manhandle Andrew, you can almost see Knight grabbing both Neil Reed and Jim Wisman while later throwing his own chair across the court in a game.
Furthermore, Teller’s performance cannot be overlooked. Under Fletcher’s control, Andrew is on a quest to emulate other great musicians of the past, many who died young as a result of their excesses.
But Andrew’s goal is to be remembered, and in the process he mocks other kids playing football at a Division 3 school. After all, what did playing in anonymity amount to in the long run? He even dismisses his girlfriend, played warmly by Melissa Benoist, as she’s not focused enough to choose a college major.
Though largely overlooked, Simmons is a special actor. If there is any doubt, hunt down his superlative contributions to both “Up in the Air” (2009) and “Juno” (2007). And if you are trying to remember if you have ever seen young Teller perform before, then take the time to see this year’s “Divergent” and last year’s “The Spectacular Now.”
What makes this film so unique is the fact that the majority of scenes take place showing nothing more than Fletcher and his students practicing their skills. Whether you like jazz is irrelevant, as it is Fletcher’s verbal interaction with his students that ties you to the screen. As Fletcher told Andrew, the most damaging two words in the English language are “good job.”
So with apologies to Fletcher, this is a “good movie.”
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”
Despite its strengths, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” gradually devolves into a long preview for “Part 2.” My disappointment is based on the simple fact that I loved the two prior films, as Jennifer Lawrence’s role as Katniss Everdeen is overwhelmingly likely to stand the test of time.
However, in the third installment, Katniss is little more than an ancillary character who is called upon to appear motivated, confused and saddened. Ironically, the movie plays out largely as a psychological drama where Katniss is involved in only one brief battle where she unleashes her arrows at an enemy plane.
At times, the film depicts guerilla warfare as being largely a political rally. As examples, Katniss is constantly filmed to motivate the local populace against the government run by President Snow (Donald Sutherland). You then see Snow releasing video harangues to inspire his disgusted citizens to not worry, just be happy. You then observe several political speeches by the rebel leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) to a crowd of supporters holed-up in a large silo, and you are left wondering if their war amounts to little more than Presidents Obama and Putin insulting one another on TV.
Yet despite its shortcomings, several noted performances save the day. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy has now sobered up to the point where he is trying to regain Katniss’ respect. Elizabeth Banks is a sight for sore eyes, again playing Effie Trinket in a defrocked state where she tries to aid Katniss. Finally, you have to remember Natalie Dormer’s role as Cressida, a blonde rebel with the left side of her head shaved and tattooed. She directs the camera work as her crew follows Katniss into dangerous territory, and you can only hope to see more of her in next year’s conclusion.
While Jeffrey Wright commands attention as the high-tech guerilla member known as Beetee, the film seems to largely focus attention on the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Yet who can fault Director Francis Lawrence paying understandable homage to Hoffman’s legacy rather than the film itself. Additionally, Hoffman is quite good as he attempts to aid Moore’s guerilla leadership, and you can’t help but mourn the sad fact that this will be one of the last times that we see Hoffman in a new film.
There is a bit of energy at the end, when Katniss’ kidnapped lover, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) appears in TV interviews with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) where he supports President Snow. You strongly suspect that Peeta has been tortured unmercifully, and all of this has been left to unfold in next year’s final segment.
Let me close by saying that when I saw this film, I took my Saudi foreign exchange student. It was at 8 p.m. on opening night, and 75 percent of the packed theater were teenage girls. Given that my exchange student is 17, I think he enjoyed the crowd more than the film.•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or working diligently in his Pennsylvania Street office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.