31 May 2015

Review: Whiplash

(Dir: Damien Chazelle, 2014)

Synopsis for a film that's going to greatly appeal to me - an intense drama about a jazz drummer's aspiration and fight to be one of the greats. I'll freely admit, Whiplash had me won over before I even saw it. But don't think for a minute that the excessive levels of anticipation brewing on my part clouded my judgement. You've heard the word on the street right? Everyone's saying it. This film has impact. It hits until you're left with hands bloodied from fraying wooden sticks. Pounding like sweat dripping from a body flaying itself to push harder, faster, more savagely, just to keep that double-time swing rhythm going. It's insistent. Impossible to ignore.

It's a character study meaning success hangs, mostly, on the two central performances. Miles Teller's Andrew is arguably a little bit one note, never really fleshed out beyond a little parental back story and a girl introduced to serve but one purpose. But it's that sustained desire to prove himself and be something incredible that pushes him and makes him interesting. To throw in anything else to bulk up his character might just feel too distracting. His relationship with J.K. Simmons' Fletcher is what this is really all about. The jazz heavyweight, the perfectionist, the dominator, the abuser. This is a man seemingly nonchalant about the destruction he leaves in his wake as students line-up for the rare chance to impress him, never knowing what they're really getting themselves in for but unable to find the will to leave either. It's a towering performance made all the better by fleeting moments of humanity which almost come as a curveball and test our sympathies. Simmons is superb and Teller is thoroughly convincing in his pursuit and particularly behind the kit.

But it's musically where everything ultimately coalesces. The focus is of course the drumming and what we see on screen is utterly impressive, but all of the music we hear is brash and sinuous, providing a cadence that flows at a satisfying pace. Without spoiling anything it builds to a crescendo that is gripping, logical and oh so utterly satisfying, whilst also proving that not every piece of music or film needs a coda. In many ways it's a slight film but the volatility bubbling underneath every time Simmons and Teller are on screen together, mixed with the sparklingly barbed dialogue, make it an electrifying experience. Whiplash is most definitely my tempo.

Review: John Wick

(Dir: Chad Stahelski, 2014)

For such a seemingly inconsequential film, since seeing John Wick a few weeks ago I've not been able to stop scratching the small itch that dictated it needed a review. Some films just do that to you. This was a film riding high on a sustained buzz in the run up to its release in the US last Autumn, which was hard to ignore. And from a UK distribution point they definitely screwed up by letting it vanish into a black hole for months - by the time it eventually came out here a bunch of people I knew had already watched it online, mistakenly believing it had been and gone at the cinema already. But that buzz continued upon its release here, and I've got mixed feelings about that. Perhaps that's why I was so compelled to write about it?

John Wick is not as good a film as all of that excitement makes out. It is a good action film and it is a hell of a lot of fun, but this disparity exists more because of what's not seen rather than what is. The whole way through there are intimations to Wick's past and why he is so feared, even by the boss of a Russian crime syndicate (Michael Nyqvist). It's clear that there is a very rich story to tell here but it's constantly skated over or left teased to allow for more action, which really starts to feel repetitious as the film progresses. The initial fifteen minute set-up of what sets Wick off is arguably the best bit of the film - as ridiculous as the premise sounds (man exacts copious amounts of revenge on the people who killed his dog), it's handled in such an interesting and heartfelt way you fully feel why he's suddenly reverted back to his old death-dealing ways. But this also means that after swathes of action we need more of this, rather than a non-stop cavalcade of shooting and fighting. It's hard not to be struck by the similarities to The Equalizer reimagining that came out last year, but that ultimately ends up being a better film because it takes time to regroup and reload, whereas John Wick lacks the inclination to really do so.

Keanu Reeves is perfectly cast as Wick - he has the physical presence and right look, as well as the action chops, but really he is so suited to this role because it requires him to wear a singular expression that works for him. That's not intended as a slight on the man's acting abilities because I am a fan of his, but he just carries the "I'm insanely pissed off and will wreak havoc on you" attitude so convincingly. An early phone call with Nyqvist's character exemplifies this perfectly (would that moment have worked so well with any other actor?), but when he does articulate why he is so hell bent on revenge it is exquisitely delivered. And then he kills some more bad guys. Nyqvist adds very little to the film unfortunately although his character's son, the catalyst for all this, is played in an effectively hateful way by Alfie Allen that means his comeuppance can't come soon enough. Whilst the array of recognisable faces that pop-up in fun supporting roles is a nice added bonus.

Recent news that a sequel will be forthcoming with Reeves reprising the role is good, as it feels like there's a lot more tell in this little world. But that's exactly the problem with John Wick, it's too content to constrain itself by going for all the action, rather than delivering on all the little teases to something better. The action is good, it's violent and bloody as it should be in a film like this, but all without offering anything we haven't seen before. We just need to see more of the man beneath. I hope that doesn't get forgotten next time.