Friday, December 12, 2014

MIDWEST AUDIENCES WHIPLASHED AS AWARDS HIGHLIGHT A FILM THAT TOO QUICKLY DEPARTED

By Dominique Paul Noth

It flew in and out of Milwaukee theaters in November and doesn’t return to the popular but subsidiary DVD and cable markets until February 2015. Such is the fate of many small intelligent dramatic films that lack the cgi flash, big names and lavish studio budgets and public relations prestige of the competition.

J.K. Simmons as the legendary jazz teacher in “Whiplash.”
But suddenly thanks to one of its actors who has long deserved recognition, combined with the assured creativity of young director-screenwriter Damien Chazelle and his hyper interaction of jazz and psychology, “Whiplash” has emerged into prominence – a strange prominence because as the name of the film is bandied about on TV shows, the Midwest public must be asking “huh?” and “why can’t we see it?” 

Yet industry peers and critics have made it a presence in the televised awards previews and sweepstakes as the campaigns for best films of 2014 begin.

The deserving name –- a rare chance for a veteran character actor to show his chops on multiple fronts -- is J.K. Simmons. He has already been nominated for a Golden Globe (announced Dec. 9 for ceremonies to be telecast January 11) and has to be considered in the race for the Oscars and other major industry honors.  It is an absorbing presence so matter of fact as to be doubly potent -- a dominating music conservatory tyrant whose sadistic profanity and blind dedication to band excellence at any price should never be allowed near the eager budding talents that he prowls like a tiger does its dinner.

J.K. Who?  Does he really have a chance against such likely opposition as the better known Edward Norton in the year’s most honored film to date, “Birdman,” or against the always scary at awards time Robert Duvall in “The Judge” or any number of other so-called “supporting actors” who have full-bore studio ads behind them?

Actually, yes, because almost everyone in the industry has worked with Simmons and they pick the winners. Over three decades actors, crews and critics have learned to appreciate his easy power.  Simmons moves seamlessly, landing big moments of comedy and drama in ensembles for such films as “Up in the Air,” and “Juno” while anchoring countless TV outings -- the shrugging “either or” psychologist in “Law and Order’s” best years on TV;  the grumpy police chief on “The Closer”;  the bulging biceps menace of HBO’s “Oz.”

If that hasn’t made him inescapable to the public, there are also his commercial pitchman roles, currently for Farmers Insurance.

Another Simmons face promoinent
 in TV ads hawking Farmers Insurance.
He has been such a smooth veteran in countless sojourns that the industry insiders are heavy in his corner, delighted he finally has a role that is getting the spotlight. “Whiplash” also requires his particular gifts to ingratiate and explain himself even as he shreds his charges with his intellectual nastiness and domineering manipulation and profanity.

It’s not just that he makes a Marine drill sergeant seem like a pussycat in comparison. The cleverness with which he operates keeps us suspended in belief that so brutal and self-centered a talent could stun classrooms into obedience.  But anyone who has tried to become the best and has faced domineering excess personalities as influential mentors understands the attraction of such perfectionist flames. His moth in “Whiplash” is a 19 year old drummer with Buddy Rich desire and skill, driven past his apparent naive belief in his artistry to agony, self-adulation and arrogance.  Newcomer actor Miles Teller will have to wait his turn for awards recognition but surely lands as good as he gets in a role where his hands are bloodied from devotion to drumming and his mind is warped, manipulated and watchful simultaneously.

There are side performances here that are quietly revealing of the transformation -- Paul Reiser as the drummer’s loving father who senses what is happening, Melissa Benoist as the girlfriend rejected in his determination to be great. The drummer has cut off their human concerns with a cruelty that outdoes his teacher's, and that sets up the dramatic tension of who is really the manic out of control.  Has the teacher found his future great jazz star or his match in manipulation to achieve recognition? 

The movie understands the psychology and catches us up in the game. Simmons’ performance, different from how so many know him, makes us simultaneously loathe and understand the magnetism. Director Chazelle skillfully integrates editing with dialog and pounding music.   The only question on his future is whether there is another such tale within him, because this story of obsession with excellence has clearly taken over his life – first as a short film in 2013 to win funds at the Sundance Film Festival for the full version that opened the 2014 festival and now is being distributed by Sony. 

The film has the professional orchestral complexity associated with “Glee” without the clichés of the TV series, though it doesn’t totally escape the stagey  dramatic license of compressed confrontations.  Even students at a great musical conservatory wouldn’t allow such open frequent abuse though there is a sports arena motif in band competition that the film well understands.  There is an appreciation of jazz that combines excellence with horror at the power of  legend, and it is used to great emotional impact  in  the  7/8 “Whiplash”  time chart by Hank Levy  and Duke Ellington’s extended “Caravan.” 

It’s a film that deserved more public heralding and that may justify its sudden awards attention after so fleeting a national exposure.  Along with that, the public should appreciate what the movie peers apparently understand – it is Simmons' talent that helps keep us hypnotized by this battle of wills.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including theater reviews  at urbanmilwaukee.com.