Monday, October 27, 2014

Whiplash, or: How a Movie About Drumming is Possibly the Scariest Movie of 2014

There's a scene in Whiplash where Andrew (Miles Teller, gradually building up a pretty great filmography with his best work so far) tells his would-be girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) that he can't date her because he is too focused on his drumming. He refuses to not only allow himself to resent her for wanting to interrupt this focus, but also to stop her for resenting him because she'll only be second best. He reasons that he is doing this not because he wants to be "great", instead wanting to be "one of the greats."

There was something so strange about this scene. At the beginning of the film, Andrew coyly asked Nicole out after months of going to the cinema where she worked and thinking he might have a shot with her. This happens midway through the film, where Nicole could be the only really positive connection (besides his father) he has in life, and yet he chooses to pursue his dreams of being one of the greats. Usually, we'll have a love interest helping the wannabe hero on his way, but the film doesn't have time to waste on human connections. It only has time to spare to tell a story of blood, sweat and tears.

No, this isn't some action/thriller a la The Equalizer. Instead, this is a drama about a first-year student at one of the top music schools in America hoping to achieve his dreams and aspirations of being the next big thing in drumming. Stripped away of a love interest, a highly dramatised back story explaining why Andrew must achieve his dream and a tear-filled speech about how he'll overcome adversity, this film leaves us with the raw, unflinching core of achieving something great: perseverance. This portrait of perseverance is splattered with hands covered in blood and blistered and sweat dripping off cymbals, and also the dark and intimidating figure of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, who is terrifying and certainly deserves the Oscar buzz), a music instructor who will stop at nothing to achieve absolute perfection.

Whiplash is probably more terrifying and intense than your average horror fare. Who knew that a film about a guy drumming could have you coming out the other side feeling exhausted and hoping that your hands haven't spontaneously grown blisters like the ones that Andrew deals with. What you really come away with, though, is questioning what can truly make someone "one of the greats". We now live in a society where there are plenty of inspirational quotes to keep you going through life, all with the same kind of message: "just do it, don't let anyone get in the way of your dreams, you can do it no matter what." Whiplash presents a message that is somewhat the antithesis of that, showing a more discouraging side to achieving the big dream, mostly in the form of Fletcher. This is a guy who knows that musical perfection can exist out there, but this is only found by exceeding expectations. He isn't the guy that will tell you to practice until you physically can't take it any more, he's more interested in destroying you emotionally to see if you still want your dream.

The film begs the question: why would anyone keep going under the mentorship of Fletcher? He hurls chairs at Andrew while he's drumming, uses Andrew's own personal problems against him, he forces three drummers to drum non-stop for hours on end in order to find a tempo that seems unachievable. You can look at it this way: most of us would just give up and walk away, knowing that Fletcher's kind of discouragement is probably correct and maybe you're in the wrong career. Andrew sees Fletcher as a villain to conquer, perhaps as a human form of his own self-loathing. Andrew is driven to hell and back by Fletcher. Does it make him a better drummer? Maybe. Does it make him better as a person? No. Fletcher is the thing that Andrew must overcome, and is the real thing that keeps Andrew going. For that reason, the film is pretty conventional in its narrative, being a simple tale of the villain that must be overcome by the hero. Through the drumming context though, the film has a more unconventional way of telling an age old story.

Yet, the film carries a pretty heavy message. Andrew is so young and embarks on his new college life with plenty of ambition to be amazing, which I find is something that is severely lacking in people my age. This is a time when you're supposed to have lots of friends and get the girls and have fun, but Andrew is the person who ditches his one human connection for practising the drums into the wee hours of the morning. Perhaps he has a little too much of that fresh-faced optimism that people his age have, and that makes him such an easy target for Fletcher. But you have to wonder what writer/director Damien Chazelle is really trying to say about the power of being "one of the greats", particularly in the music industry, in times like these when anybody can become famous on YouTube or on any one of the many talent shows. Someone as young as Andrew isn't supposed to be great because he hasn't had a lot of experience, but with someone as discouraging as Fletcher, why would you want to get any more experience? Andrew doesn't seem to be a particularly great drummer at the beginning and is more in tune with his dreams rather than his raw talent, so will practising for hours on end help him achieve his dream or does he just lack the talent? What is it that makes someone one of the greats? Fletcher seems to think he knows, Andrew thinks that he has what it takes. The blood, sweat and tears are certainly indicative of Andrew earning his right to say "ya know what? I'm trying really hard and I'm putting in the effort to become great." And yes, we as an audience want to give him a gold star and yell at Fletcher for being too harsh on him. Because that's the society that we've become: one obsessed with rewarding people for looking the part and putting their participation flag up, instead of going beyond expectations.

I think what Chazelle is trying to say with Whiplash is that we're a society who barely allows someone to dream enough to become one of the greats, and because just being is enough. The ones who genuinely try, like Andrew, are destined to be discouraged by people like Fletcher who won't settle for enough in a society where you barely need to even be enough. He then punishes Andrew - who thinks he's enough - to the point where he longer wants to be any more than enough. Though the film doesn't stake a claim in showing how those who aim low will always succeed, it does show that those who aim high and destined to have a tougher time.

And that's what makes Whiplash possibly one of the scariest movies of 2014: why should my generation even bother having ambition or value a hard-working ethic? Why try too hard if it has little gain? Will we even be capable of producing "one of the greats"?

Pretty scary stuff.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Five Years Ago Today I Started This Blog (and now a soppy post ensues)

So here we are, at the five year anniversary of this little corner of the web. It is weird to think of this time five years ago where I would have been furiously tapping away at the big keys of my Dad's desktop PC to create my paragraph-long thinkpiece on Let the Right One In. Okay, so thinkpiece is a loose term for this very vague review. The ironic thing is, I wrote that review in my first year of high school. Just recently, I wrote an essay on the same film for my first year of university (which got an A, so apparently I'm smart). So why's this important?

Usually, I'd have some post to celebrate an anniversary with all of these thank yous and lists of movies that have meant a lot during the years. And believe me, I've thought about this five year anniversary and what I'd do for it for the last couple of years. But I've said it before, and I'll say it again: this blog has been a great way to track the way I've grown up. Through my changing movie tastes (hello not watching Hannah Montana: The Movie for 'fun') to the way my writing has developed to how my life went through all of these strange milestones. It was great for those formative high school years, figuring out all those weird questions of "who am I, what am I doing, what will I choose as my career when I can't even decide to have for breakfast this morning?"

Admittedly, this year has been a strange one where everything has changed in so many ways. Gone are the days of having to go 45 minutes to get to a cinema and instead I've been to the cinemas 37 times this year (so almost once a week). I've gone from only ever living in three different houses in my life to living in four different places in one year. I've learnt about the perils of referencing (can't we all just use one referencing style instead of jamming MLA, Harvard, APA and Chicago into one semester?!), how to put up with constant abuse from the engineers about the fact that my Arts degree 'will not get me a job', the weird feeling of being in a relationship with someone who is too good to be true. So while my blog has been the perfect thing through a whole lot of transitions, it hasn't been all that present this year as I've been making some of the biggest transitions in my life.

And believe me, it isn't like I haven't tried. I've written so many drafts for posts and just got to the point where it no longer makes sense, so I delete it. I would love to throw my hat into the rather expansive ring of thinkpieces about Gone Girl, but a) I'd just be fangirling over how perfect Rosamund Pike was and how David Fincher's direction was ON POINT, b) I'm still feeling guilty over dragging my boyfriend to see it twice and c) there's so much discussion on it, where do I even begin? I would love to tell y'all about how my life did not turn out like Before Sunrise or The Spectacular Now (actually, it kinda did...). I would love to write another post on how much I love Shame or how much I want Interstellar to be in my life right now or how much The Equalizer rubbed me up the wrong way.

Problem is, I don't. I'll always look back to posts I wrote in 2011/2012 and most likely think "damn, I was such a good writer, what happened?" Thing is, I'm not the same person I was back then. The blogging world is not the same sanctuary it was then. I used to be very clear about what I wanted this blog to be like when I wasn't so sure of what I wanted to do with my own life. I've kinda lost that now.

This makes it sound like I will finally cut the cords on this wee high school project, but that's something I don't really wish to do. Especially considering my degree is really all about writing and I'm happiest when I'm writing, this is a good little haven to come back to. It just might be that I'm ready to take a new direction and stop wishing that I could be at the same stage of blogging that I have been through the past five years. Yes, it is a great thing that I have an online record of how much I've changed throughout the years. And yes, it is a great thing that I managed to (loosely) keep up with it for five whole years. So even though this seems like I'm moving on, let's just see it as moving forward.

(allow for soppy story to ensue)

Through going to the cinemas so many times this year, it has easily become my absolute favourite thing to do. I admit to still looking up at the light coming from the projector like I used to do as a kid, loving the waft of buttery popcorn smell you get as you come up the escalator, and being so comfortable in the warmth of the glow from the screen. I've seen some bad films this year, and I've seen some great ones (behold the wonder that is Boyhood), but no matter what film it is, I always love this stuff. Especially having someone to share it with now. And something that I've found while being at university is that passion does matter and passion is the only thing that'll get you through. So of course, I'd hate to lose this little corner of the internet that allows to me to express my passion. I've been kind of awful at it in the last few months, and I may continue to be awful at it, but I'll still be here in some small way.

So finally, I'd like to thank the people who have come and gone or stayed at some stage through the past five years. It has been a great time growing up with you guys, and I look forward to sharing some more thinklings and discussions with you.

And if I don't, someone just kick me up the butt for some encouragement, huh?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

19th Birthday Post - My Favourite Films About Growing Up That I Watched While Growing Up

This is a really dark birthday candle picture but I think it's pretty and there's no 19th birthday photos anyway
Hi, I know, two posts in one week...damn the world must be headed for an apocalypse or something. Rather, it is my 19th birthday tomorrow. Which is interesting because I feel absolutely no excitement for this new age because it doesn't really mean anything. It is like being 17 - that awkward gap between sweet 16 and the big 18. So when it came time for me to think about doing a birthday post, I really didn't have anything to draw on because there's no such thing as R19 movies here (although there probably would be, considering that New Zealand's rating system is just ridiculous) and I've already "grown up" since I have to pay full adult price for everything now.

Seriously, it sucks having to draw my attention away from the kids menu at restaurants because I'm an adult so I have to get steak.

In my thinking, though, I came to the realisation that even though 19 isn't a particularly special milestone age, this is the first birthday in my "new life", you could say. Gone are the days of growing up in a small town, since now I've lived in Christchurch for over six months and passed my first semester of university. I no longer have to go grocery shopping with mum but I can buy chocolate whenever I want which is honestly the best part of growing up. Oh, and did I mention that I have a cinema five minutes bus ride away, with three others within a half an hour radius? If that's not cool, then I don't know what is.

In a way, 19 is a pretty important age to be. Whereas 18 is the age where you get slapped with the label "grown up", whether you're ready or not, by the time you're 19 you've done a spectacular amount of growing up. Well, I guess that's just how I feel now since a lot has changed since I turned 18 (I say this every year, but I could probably say now that just about every aspect of my life is so different from what it was last year). In celebration of that fact, here's a whole lot of films that taught me a bit about growing up while I was growing up. Don't expect John Hughes films (don't get me wrong, they had their influence), but more a bunch of films that came out at vital times in my life and gave me a bit of perspective. And yeah, things get mushy.

An Education - Earlier this year I outlined my intense love for this film, mainly because it shows the struggles of living up to unreasonable expectations in every way possible. I've always found myself to be a little bit of a Jenny, trying my best to do things that I don't really care for, working hard but hoping that there'll be a little bit of fun around the corner, and maybe being a little too 'pretentious' for my age (now I'm grown up and living with a whole lot of engineers, I'm just known as the weird Arts degree student). Just as the title suggests, it has always been a film that I go back to get an education, whether it be about getting a "real" education or an education from "the university of life".

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

NZFF Mini-Reviews: Frank, Locke, Maps to the Stars, Boyhood

Good things about going to university: having a cinema about five minutes away instead of 45 minutes away. Bad things about university: everything had to be due on the week when the New Zealand International Film Festival hit town, but through some pretty intense time management skills gained last year I managed to get everything done while escaping to the cinemas on four different occasions. Which, of course, is better than having to very selectively choose one film to beg my parents to drive me over for. Still, some pretty selective choosing went on here and I ended up seeing a very interesting selection of films: Frank, Locke, Maps to the Stars and Boyhood. I won't bore you with too many more details, so here's what I thought about them here:

I must admit, it has been a little while since a film really 'clicked' for me. Not really a fault of all the films I've been watching, it has just been a little hard for me to really escape into a film. Frank was the one that changed it all, though. To be honest, I thought it was going to be a little jarring watching a film where Michael Fassbender has a giant head over his head, but it really didn't take anything way from his performance. He was so fascinating to watch, particularly in the film's final act. However, you can tell that he really let himself go when he was wearing the mask, owning his craziness which fit in perfectly with the way the film unfolds.
The film zips and zaps from one extreme to the other with dizzying speed, becoming one of the darkest comedies I've seen in quite some time. It is made of all the tropes that would make your typical band road movie, but it is also a pretty interesting look at the connection between creativity and madness. While many have called out the fact that having the film centred on plain, wannabe musician Jon (played by the charming Domhall Gleeson who should probably be in everything), I thought it was a great way of grounding the material and always keeping the film in check. It isn't just Frank who is the eccentric one - his entire band is filled up with some pretty crazy characters who don't seem to be filtered. Jon provides a lens for keeping the film centred, and also, his reliance on social media is one of the better depictions I've seen of the internet in film (not sure why, but everyone always manages to get it wrong).
Basically, I had a really good time with Frank. It was so dark in some places, so light in other places, and just generally a pretty strange film that wore its heart on its sleeve. And again: Michael Fassbender is everything. Best performance from him I've seen this side of Shame, I'd say.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Can We Take a Moment to Remember How Blue Valentine is Still Devastating?

Few spoilers in this post, but I imagine most of you should have seen it back in 2011. If you haven't, grab the tissues and come back later.

Did you know that the most fun thing you can do on a Sunday afternoon before you go to work is rewatch Blue Valentine and spend a good 20 minutes crying over it?

Didn't know that valuable information? Well I can 100% confirm that while rewatching Blue Valentine may not be the most happy experience, it is an experience nonetheless.

A little bit of context: I first watched Blue Valentine when it first came out on DVD in July 2011, when I was a tiny 15 year old enjoying the last days of illegally watching R16s. I have not been able to go back to it since. Until there came a Sunday when I thought: "I've got a couple of hours to kill, let's watch the most depressing film in my collection this side of Revolutionary Road."

Apparently I didn't really remember the magnitude of absolute earth-shattering devastation that this film brought to my world. Or I was watching it with different eyes when I was 15. But holy heck is this film depressing.

One thing that really took me by surprise this time around was the way Derek Cianfrance loves playing with his narratives. One of my favourite films from last year was his sophomore effort The Place Beyond the Pines. Here was a film that easily could have been split into three parts, yet he expanded his narrative beyond what he could have. He didn't only show the cause, but also showed the effect. I talk about this a lot more in my review of the film from last year, but to put it simply: I really admire Cianfrance's ambition. We're too often brushing simple narrative ambition under the rug for the more complex, confusing narratives drawing in a plethora of realms (however, that does make for some damn good cinema when it's done right).


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