‘Burn After Reading’ – Another Darkly Comedic Film From the Coen Brothers

WRITER’S NOTE: Ralph Garman selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 14, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” It was an excellent selection on his part.

WOW! That was quick! Following Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning masterpiece “No Country for Old Men” in 2007, they gave us their follow-up of “Burn After Reading” a short later. Some filmmakers take their sweet time following up a cinematic triumph of theirs, but the Coens did not want to waste any time. This film follows the tradition of them making a movie which is the polar opposite of what they previously gave us. Most reviews at the time mentioned of how the Coens went from making “Fargo” to giving us “The Big Lebowski,” and how they went from “The Man Who Wasn’t There” to “Intolerable Cruelty.” With these brothers, it is always important to expect the unexpected because they are never out to do the same thing twice.

I’m not going to bother comparing “Burn After Reading” to “No Country for Old Men” because the only thing these two have in common is they were made by the same people. It’s like comparing the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” to Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves,” and this threatens to say more about the critic than it does about the films themselves. This particular one is more of a lightweight effort you could ever expect from the Coens, and it is a reminder of how hysterically dark their comedy can get.

“Burn After Reading” is a crazy movie to say the least, and it does not really have a plot as much as it does a plethora of characters who are unleashed on us through a selfish act of utter stupidity. As a result, there is no rug of any kind which can tie this room of a movie together. The main drive of the action comes from Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) who discovers a disk at the gym he works at which contains classified information from a former CIA operative, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). Along with his fellow co-worker, Linda Litzke (the always fantastic Frances McDormand), they both connive to act as “good Samaritans” and give the disk back to Osborne, providing he pays them several thousands of dollars as a reward. Naturally, this plan, which was not given much thought to begin with, goes awry and involves many others in this scheme, all of whom are never entirely sure of what they have gotten themselves into, or of whom they can trust.

Let’s look at the characters, shall we? Chad is a personal trainer at the Hardbodies gym who is, to put it mildly, rather dense and not playing with a full deck. His manager, Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) doesn’t want to get involved in this blackmail plan, but he simultaneously has a huge unrequited crush on Linda, and she is upset because her insurance won’t cover the various forms of plastic surgery she wants to get. In the meantime, she is going through the motions of internet dating and ends up meeting Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Harry is actually married and in the midst of an affair with Osborne’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), and she herself is planning to divorce her husband who is now in the midst of writing his memoirs. In the midst of all this, CIA Officer Palmer DeBakey Smith (David Rasche) reports to his superior (the priceless J.K. Simmons) of the goings on, and of the ways they are going to keep this all under wraps.

Are you with me so far? Clearly, this is a movie which will benefit from more than one viewing to keep up with everything. Like I said, there is no real plot to speak of, other than the blackmail of Osborne Cox. While in some movies this would be an Achilles heel, it works for the Coens as it allows you to keep guessing as to what will happen next. Just when you think you know where things are going, it has another surprise up its sleeve. There were moments both funny and shocking, and I was eager to see what would happen next.

“Burn After Reading” combines a lot of actors the Coen brothers have worked with over the years like George Clooney and Frances McDormand, and they also got to add newcomers to their strange cinematic universe like John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. It’s a kick to see all these actors let their hair down in a film which was never meant to be taken seriously by anyone.

The most inspired performance in this movie comes from Pitt. Clean shaven, thin, buff, and an avid bicycle rider, his character is a hilarious creation of a physically fit moron who has no clear idea of just how in over his head he is. It was funniest performance since his ultimate stoner of a character, Floyd, in “True Romance.”

Another one who is a huge kick to watch here is Clooney as he blows away just every bit of coolness in his system to play an increasingly neurotic philanderer who is always on the verge of anaphylactic shock as he keeps warning everyone he hangs out with about his life-threatening allergies. To see Clooney let loose here is a reminder of how he constantly tries in real life to not take himself too seriously. It also makes you wonder if he and Swinton will ever be in a movie together where they play characters who have a healthy relationship with one another. Keep in mind, they previously appeared together in “Michael Clayton.”

It’s actually a shock to realize this is the first time Malkovich has ever worked with the Coen brothers. He lets it all out here as a CIA operative who quits his job after being demoted in part because of his drinking problem. To see this actor go completely nuts at all the complete idiots he has to deal with is such a hoot. Not many actors can play a character who is quick to absorb the situation they are in and yet still remain in the dark when it comes to the truth of the matter. Malkovich may prefer the stage to the silver screen, but it is always great to see him do something like this.

Frances McDormand gives this movie one of its most lovable characters, in a manner of speaking, as she makes Linda into someone who wants to be free of the ravages of getting older. Seriously, give McDormand the smallest role in a movie, and she always succeeds in making it one of the most unforgettable. If you would like further proof of this, check her out in John Sayles’ “Lonestar.”

Richard Jenkins ends up giving us perhaps the saddest character here, and it is one we hope we don’t end up being. You know, that one person who is forever punished eternally with the pangs of unrequited love. Throughout, Jenkins shows you in his eyes of how much he wants to be with Linda, and he reminds us of how he remains one of the most dependable character actors working in movies.

And I loved the scenes between Rasche and Simmons in the offices of the CIA and how flippant they seemed about the situations which occurred here. I have yet to see another movie where you have CIA members seeming rather laid back in the decisions they make. It never comes down to doing what is best for their country, but of how to make this strange chain of events not get too overwhelming or hectic. Their inconvenience is the biggest problem because it involves secrets getting out, and of more responsibility and paperwork. Seriously, who wants that?

“Burn After Reading” may not be on the same comedic level of brilliance like “The Big Lebowski” or “Raising Arizona,” but it sure is a lot of fun and filled with more daring and originality than many movies which came out in 2008. Many have described it as a “trifle” from the Coens, but you have to admire what they accomplished here as it never fails to entertain from start to finish. We can also take comfort in the fact that these brothers continue to entertain and enthrall us from one film to the next, and their artistic brilliance never lets us down.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

One From Jason Reitman: Up in The Air

A life without many, if any, emotional attachments seems like an appealing lifestyle to many, especially for those who are ever so career minded. To not have to worry about kids because you don’t have any, and to not get involved in serious relationships with others leaves you with a lot of room to breathe in. But what happens when something comes along to shatter the façade of this lifestyle? Will you be able to handle it without reverting to your old ways? Will it make you realize just how lonely a person you truly are to where you have no idea how to alleviate this permanent state of solitude you are stuck in? One thing’s for sure, this kind of life is not meant to last forever, and eventually you will be greeted with an unexpected awakening. Hugh Grant got to play a character who lived this kind of like in “About A Boy,” and George Clooney came to play a similar one in Jason Reitman’s brilliant film, “Up in The Air.”

Based on the 2001 novel by Walter Kim, Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man whose job is to travel all over the country to corporate offices to lay off employees. Companies hire people like Ryan so that their bosses can easily squirm their way out of this depressing part of the job (pussies). What he does feels a bit similar to the sad duty military officers or police officers have in telling families their husbands, wives or long-lost relatives have died. While Ryan is not informing anyone of a dead family member, the people on the receiving end don’t really react all much differently. Still, he sees his job as a service as he tries to make them see this is not the end, but simply the beginning of a new life. In addition, he also conducts conferences where he talks about “emptying the backpack” of attachments and things you don’t really need. Hence, the backpack is clearly symbolic of his life at this point for there is not much of anything inside of it.

The perks of this unappealing job? Well, it does allow him to travel on airplanes for over 300 days out of the year. He does have a puny one-bedroom apartment back in Omaha, Nebraska, but he is barely there. For him, the airports and airplanes feel like his real home, so his address truly is up in the air. Still, he has the same problem those seriously addicted to social media have; a serious fear of human contact. They say they don’t want any personal attachments in life, but it speaks of some deeper fear they may not be aware of consciously.

Clooney gave one of his very best performances in this film, and he has always been great at playing the world-weary man who has seen just about everything. From a distance, this almost seems like a walk in the park for him as this movie’s trailers have him flashing that famous grin of his every five minutes. But he brings a real depth to a really well written character, and despite the fact he plays a man none of us would want to meet ever, he makes Ryan Bingham likable and very sympathetic.

Ryan ends up capturing the attention of another corporate employee who spends more time in the air than in the office, Alex Goran. She is played by Vera Farmiga, and she is as great in the role as she is seriously sexy! The first scene between these two reminded me so much of the scene in “Jaws” where Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss compare their scars as they show off all these executive cards and credit cards which they have earned from travelling so much and for staying in the same hotels. The chemistry between Clooney and Farmiga is instant, and it sells us on their budding relationship almost immediately. You want their characters to end up together as they are essentially the same person, although Alex puts it in another way:

“I’m like you with a vagina.”

Of course, there is a third wheel to balance things and give a little more perspective on the story. That third wheel is Natalie Keener, a recent graduate from Cornell University who has a lot of smarts, but who also has much to learn about the real world. Natalie is played by Anna Kendrick, and she is wonderful here. Natalie is here to prepare Bingham and his colleagues for a new way of firing employees; they will do it online from the comfort of their own offices. So basically, it makes a depressing piece of business all the colder. It also threatens Ryan’s way of life as he lives to be on a plane instead of his tiny dump of an apartment, and while there will always be change, his resistance to this change is very understandable.

With this development comes the road movie part as Ryan takes Natalie to different cities across the country to show her how he does his job, and of how the use of computers will detract from it and his frequent flier miles rewards. Kendrick does brilliant work in taking Natalie from being confident yet naïve to vulnerable and sad. None of the education she got could ever have prepared her for the unpredictability of a job which is never easy no matter how it’s done. Seeing her address a corporate meeting to her doing a drunken karaoke rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” should give you an idea of the range she has as an actress.

Watching Clooney instruct Kendrick on how to pack her suitcase and leave stuff out she needs is hilarious as it reminds me of my parents constantly begging me to put everything in one suitcase when traveling. This way, I won’t have to check any luggage in. I don’t know about you, but I get so sick and tired of hauling a suitcase all over the place when I have my messenger bag to worry about already. Who packed this suitcase anyway? Okay, I’m getting off track here…

“Up in The Air,” was Jason Reitman’s third film and, along with “Juno” and “Thank You for Smoking,” he showed us how infinitely talented he is as a director. He even makes this movie even more authentic to those times of high unemployment by casting real people who have lost their jobs. This brings a lot more reality to the movie and reminds us of how unfair life can be despite our individual efforts to do the best job possible. Reitman also does not sell out the movie with a false ending where everything is wrapped up neatly. In fact, it proves to be far more devastating than I ever could have expected.

Reitman also populates the movie with other great actors who make as strong an imprint on the film as the leads do. Jason Bateman plays Bingham’s boss, Craig Gregory, and this role is the flipside of the manager he played in “Extract.” It turns out Bateman can be charming in one role and utterly smarmy in another with no problem. Amy Morton is also really good as Ryan’s estranged sister Kara, a woman suffering through her own midlife crises which her brother makes look like he is getting through it with no problem. Melanie Lynskey (great in both “The Informant!” and “Away We Go“) is a wonderful presence as Julie, Ryan’s younger sister who is about to get married. I was also surprised to see Danny McBride here in a slightly more dramatic role as Julie’s soon-to-be husband, Jim Miller. McBride definitely has some funny moments, but he really sells himself as a man who is not sure if he’s doing the right thing or not.

I also have to give a lot of credit to some actors who make the most of their respective cameos. Zach Galifianakis gives this movie one of its funniest moments as Steve, one of many fired employees whom Ryan has had to face. Looking at the things his character could have done had he been fired by his cowardly boss instead is hysterical. Then you have J.K. Simmons who gives his suddenly jobless character of Bob a morbid sense of humor as he manages to contain himself in his understandably pissed off state. When Ryan ends up making Bob see this is not an end but a beginning, Simmons takes this character from being depressed to being aroused with possibilities he thought were long since lost to him. Simmons is onscreen for only a couple of minutes, but he infuses his role with a dry sense of humor which makes his performance especially memorable.

Another thing I really loved about “Up in The Air” is how wonderfully complex the characters are, and this includes the ones who are only onscreen for a few minutes. We may have the stereotypical traits of each character nailed into our heads, but they keep revealing different parts of their personalities in ways which truly surprised me. Once we have these characters figured out, another layer is revealed which affects their relationships with one another quite deeply. I would love it if more movies allowed to have more multi-faceted characters in them instead of just succumbing to one-dimensional freaks who exist to annoy the hell out of you.

“Up in The Air” was far and away one of my favorite films of 2009, and it is interesting to watch it again years later during a time of a frightening global pandemic. On top of many worried about their health and toilet paper, this pandemic has left a record number of Americans out of work. This film was quick to remind me of what it was to suddenly lose a job and how to move on from there. It also has a cameo from Young M.C. who sings his hit song “Bust a Move.” He certainly has gained a lot of weight since the 1990’s. Then again, I should talk (sigh)…

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Spider-Man 3’ is a Major Disappointment

Spiderman 3 poster

After the brilliance of “Spider-Man 2” one of the best comic book movies ever made, “Spider-Man 3” proves to be an astonishing disappointment. Even though this sequel has the same actors and directors as its predecessors, they are faced with a screenplay with too many characters, too many subplots which don’t reach a satisfying conclusion, villains who are not very satisfying, and some character choices which feel out of place in a movie like this.

I already had a problem with “Spider-Man 3” before I went in as there were too many villains for one motion picture. It would have been better for it to have just one villain for Spider-Man to face because it allows the filmmakers to give more attention to the characters to where they can become unforgettable. You can get away with two villains sometimes, but you are better off with one as this movie shows.

This ended up being the last “Spider-Man” movie Sam Raimi directed, and my original thought was he knew this would be the case, so he ended up putting in everything but the kitchen sink. In retrospect, I think the studio forced him to add characters who were big comic book fan favorites, and Raimi obliged even though there was little chance of those characters getting enough screen time. In the process of pleasing the fans, “Spider-Man 3” succeeded in alienating them by throwing things at us the filmmakers assumed we would like.

Spider-Man’s first nemesis is the New Goblin, same as the Old Goblin. We all know the New Goblin is actually Harry Osborn, played once again by James Franco, and he ends up giving his best performance in all of the “Spider-Man” movies here. Franco revels in going all over the place as he seethes at Peter Parker whom he is still convinced killed his father. In the process of trying to kill Peter, Harry gets amnesia and forgets about what Peter supposedly did. But this doesn’t keep Harry from messing with Peter’s life or stealing away those closest to him.

Then comes Spidey’s next darn nemesis, Sandman/Flint Marko played by Thomas Haden Church who was on a roll after his Oscar nominated performance in “Sideways.” This is an interesting villain as you can clearly see what drives him: his love for his sick little girl. While Church does what he can with an underwritten part which has him disappearing from the screen for far too long, he is nowhere as compelling as Alfred Molina was as Doc Ock was in “Spider-Man 2.” Flint never gets the chance to revel in his new-found powers, and he doesn’t feel as threatening as a result.

After that, we get yet another antagonist in the form of Eddie Brock who later turns into one of the most famous comic book villains ever, Venom. Now while I can see how Venom is such an immensely popular character in the “Spider-Man” universe, his appearance in “Spider-Man 3” feels like an afterthought. Furthermore, he is portrayed by Topher Grace who, while having given terrific performances in movies like “Traffic,” is completely miscast. Eddie Brock/Venom feels too broad as he is portrayed here, and we don’t get to invest emotionally in this character as much as we would like to.

Tobey Maguire has long since proven to be one of the best Spider-Man’s we have ever seen on the big screen, and the best acting he does here is with his eyes and face. He can get you right in the heart with just one look, and he never gives you a false emotion in any scene. This is especially the case in a pivotal moment between him and Mary Jane Watson which is truly heartbreaking to watch.

“Spider-Man 3” also sees the famous web-slinger exploring his dark side when an alien symbiote lands down on earth in his vicinity and infects him and changes his behavior. But things soon degenerate as Maguire is forced to play Peter as if he is some sort of emo dude to where he is suddenly struck with the urge to dance in public for no particularly special reason. Some of these scenes are amusing to watch, but they belong in a different film.

It also sucks to see the female characters underused here. Kirsten Dunst is back as Mary Jane Watson, and it’s great to see her again as she has been fantastic in this series. But in “Spider-Man 3” she doesn’t have much to do here other than end up in a perilous state and hanging on for dear life. You’d think at this point Mary Jane would realize she’s better off without Peter as her life remains in constant danger while they are together. How many times do you think you could take fighting for your life when your boyfriend is Spider-Man? Well, if you’re Jack Bauer, I guess you could do it quite a bit. This is regardless of the fact Mary Jane Watson is not Jack Bauer’s girlfriend, but anyway…

Bryce Dallas Howard co-stars as Gwen Stacy, a huge fan favorite of the Spider-Man series, but she gets even less to do than Dunst. I think Gwen ended up here because Marvel and Columbia Pictures insisted on her inclusion as they figured the fans were ever so eager to see this character in any “Spider-Man” movie at that point. Howard is a fantastic actress and makes for a very good Gwen Stacy, but this character has little purpose for being in “Spider-Man 3” other than to please the most die-hard fans.

There are other welcome returns in “Spider-Man 3” like Rosemary Harris who plays Aunt May, the Yoda of Peter Parker’s life who gives him the wisdom he needs to hear. J.K. Simmons remains the consummate scene stealer as J. Jonah Jameson, and he had me in hysterics from his first scene where his secretary reminds him to watch out for his high blood pressure. And yes, Bruce Campbell does his usual “Spider-Man” cameo, this time as a waiter desperate to help Peter and Mary Jane have the most wonderful of times at a restaurant. It’s always good to see Campbell in a movie no matter what kind of role he plays.

The climax has the Sandman teaming up with Venom to take down Spider-Man, and while it is an emotionally charged climax, we still come out of this movie very disappointed as it feels like there are so many missed opportunities. Once again, each of these villains are very underdeveloped to where the stakes don’t feel high, and everything ends up feeling far less exciting. Plus, we have seen Mary Jane in danger far too many times to where everything going on begins to feel boring and redundant. I ended up going on a bathroom break during the movie, something I usually never do, but I’m positive I didn’t miss much.

For what it’s worth, I liked how Raimi deals with the futility of revenge and how it destroys the soul, and he also shows how it is better to forgive. This is something I need to remind myself of more often. It makes for a strong moment between Peter and the Sandman as well as with Harry. It’s these moments where you feel the strength and pain of the characters ever so purely, and this movie could have used many more moments like these.

I couldn’t help but come out of “Spider-Man 3” feeling completely let down. “Spider-Man 2” was so good to where I couldn’t help but come into this one with high expectations. The fact everyone involved screwed this motion picture up feels utterly baffling considering what came before, and the disappointment this sequel generates really stings. I’d like to think that “Spider-Man 3” stands as an example of how not to make a comic book movie, but after watching “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” it is still a lesson everyone needs to learn.

* * out of * * * *

The Meddler

the-meddler-movie-poster

When reading the plot synopsis of “The Meddler,” I walked into it expecting a formulaic comedy dealing in stereotypes like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” did. Not that working with stereotypes is always a bad thing, but it can get old very quickly and leave audiences with not much that is worth remembering when they leave the theater. Plus, the movie’s story deals with a parent interfering in the life of their offspring at the most inconvenient time in their life, and how many times have we seen that before? We all know it will build up to that moment where the offspring will say, “Mom, I love you but will you PLEASE GET THE HELL OUT OF MY LIFE??!!” But despite this inescapable confrontation, we know everything will work out in the end.

Well, “The Meddler” turned out to be a pleasant surprise as it is a movie made from the heart more than anything else. A lot of it has to do with the fact writer and director Lorene Scafaria (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) based the story on her own mother and the relationship she had with her. But while this might sound like a buddy comedy, it’s really more about the mother and it gives Susan Sarandon one of the best roles she has had in recent years.

Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini who, as “The Meddler” begins, is staring listlessly at the ceiling fan in her bedroom. We learn Marnie was recently widowed and has since moved from the east coast to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). As the title suggests, she endlessly interferes in Lori’s life and then goes on to help others whom she feels need her assistance. But deep down she is still struggling with the loss of her husband, someone she was with for decades and who has now vanished from her life. While she looks very pleasant on the outside, Marnie is still struggling to come to terms with her husband’s death and is trying to find new meaning in her life.

What I loved about Sarandon’s performance is how she avoids the easy trap of turning Minnie into a simple caricature and instead turns this character into this wonderful human who is infinitely generous to a fault. Even as Minnie gets a little too involved in her daughter’s life, Sarandon never makes her seem the slightest bit aggravating. It’s also great fun to see her roam around The Grove as if it were Disneyland because it shows just how new to Los Angeles Minnie really is.

Sarandon also has a great foil to work with in Rose Byrne who plays Minnie’s daughter Lori. Byrne also could have made Lori, a writer for television, into a caricature, but she makes her into someone with work problems we can all relate to regardless of whatever industry we work in. Lori is enduring a lot of problems in her life other than her mother such as being dumped by her celebrity boyfriend Jacob (Jason Ritter) which still weighs heavily on her, and she is not sure how she can move on past her heartbreak. Ever since the scene in “Neighbors” where she succeeded in getting two college students to seduce one another, she has remained a terrific actress and one with very sharp comedic skills.

During “The Meddler,” Minnie is met by a couple of men who are eager to get to know her better. One is Michael McKean’s overly earnest Mark whose idea of a date is to take Minnie to the Holocaust Museum, but it’s hard to imagine anyone getting romantic over there. McKean is always fun to watch no matter what movie he’s in, and he makes the most of his limited screen time as a guy who can’t quite take a hint.

The other suitor is a retired cop turned movie set security guard who goes by the name of Zipper, and he is played in a scene-stealing performance by J.K. Simmons. While being upstaged somewhat by an awesome looking mustache, Simmons makes Zipper into a uniquely lovable guy, and he is wonderful to watch as he introduces Sarandon to his nest of chickens. We’ve seen this Oscar-winning actor go from playing a warm-hearted father in “Juno” to an insanely brutal music instructor in “Whiplash,” and this is not to mention his terrific work in the first three “Spider-Man.” But in “The Meddler” Simmons gets to play a role many of us haven’t seen him play before, a romantic leading man, and he pulls it off beautifully.

What makes “The Meddler” an especially strong movie is how genuine it is in its emotions. Not once did its story feel the least bit manipulative, and its portrait of people trying to move past the loss of a loved one feels authentic in its portrayal. Nothing ever feels cloying or artificial, and it also helps that Sarandon, Byrne, and Simmons are surrounded by a wonderful cast which includes “SNL’s” Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch (the moment where she tosses a baby shower gift aside is priceless), Jason Ritter, Casey Wilson and Jerrod Carmichael. Each actor succeeds in creating unique characters who are fun to hang out with, and watching them is a reminder of how there is never a role too small for an actor to play.

Although it deals with the heavy subjects of grief, heartbreak and losing a loved one, “The Meddler” proves to be a very positive movie which is optimistic in its view of life. In a time where many movies feature infinitely cynical characters, here’s one with a woman of a certain age (and lord knows there’s not enough of those) who is very giving and generous. Even when she appears to be more generous than anyone should be, we keep watching the movie with the hope her spirit will stay strong during even the toughest of times.

“The Meddler” was made on a low budget and on a very shooting schedule, and everyone involved succeeded in giving us something much better than we could have expected. Please don’t let the fact it is not a superhero movie keep you from checking it out.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Save

Whiplash

whiplash-movie-poster

Yes, I have had teachers in the past who succeeded in shattering my ego to where it took me an incredibly long time to build my confidence back up to where it once was. I think it’s safe to say we all have had at least one vindictive instructor at one time or another who made our lives a living hell and robbed us of our morale to where the emotional scars we received never fully vanished. But the experience does leave us with an important question; did we improve as students under that teacher’s tutelage, or were they just determined to make us feel infinitely miserable to satisfy their own ego? I’d like to think I got something from the most brutally honest teachers I have studied with because it will, at the very least, keep me from spitting in their faces with a bitter vengeance.

I think it’s likely you will be reminded of those teachers when you watch “Whiplash,” a perfectly titled movie which features the anti-Glenn Holland of music instructors, Terrence Fletcher. Played by J.K. Simmons in an utterly brilliant performance, Terrence is as talented a teacher as he is a terrifying one, and hopefully you have never had to deal with someone like him. But if you have, you have my deepest sympathies and I hope you have found a way to move past such a traumatizing experience.

Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old jazz drummer who is more than intent on becoming one of the greatest drummers who ever lived. Andrew studies at an elite music conservatory in New York and is working his way up through the ranks when Terrence comes upon him playing one day. Terrence says very little to Andrew and seems eager to see what the young man has to offer. But soon after, Terrence invites him to join his class which has the top jazz ensemble in the conservatory, and this gives Andrew’s ego a major boost to where he finds the courage to ask out Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the girl who works at the concession stand at his favorite movie theater.

Before the start of class, Terrence encourages Andrew to enjoy the process of playing and not to worry too much. But after class begins, Terrence quickly turns into a nasty SOB as he hurls insults as well as furniture at his students if they’re even the slightest bit out of tune. It takes almost no time for Andrew to incur his wrath, and Terrence shows no limit as to how far he will go in verbally abusing a student. He is determined to push Andrew beyond his limits and then some, and this leads to nights when the aspiring drummer becomes a water fountain of sweat and leaves with some nasty cuts on his hands to where band aids cannot stop the bleeding.

The effect Terrence has on Andrew is incredibly profound on him not just as a musician, but as a person as well. While he may be improving as a drummer, Andrew becomes an increasingly difficult person to get along with. At family gatherings, he comes to insult others who look down on his drumming aspirations, and he coldly dumps Nicole when he feels their relationship will get in the way of his mission to become the greatest drummer who ever lived. By the time “Whiplash” reaches its thunderous climax, you’ll be wondering who the victor of this tumultuous teacher/student relationship truly is. When you look at it closely, it could be either of them.

It doesn’t take much to see that “Whiplash” is a very personal story for Chazelle as he himself was a drummer in a high school music conservatory who lived in fear of his teacher and of screwing up a single note. Right from the start, he does an excellent job of setting up just how feared Terrence Fletcher is long before we see him viciously berating his students as if they have no reason to exist. Students stand rigidly at attention whenever he enters the room, fellow teachers don’t even hesitate to step out of his way when he bursts into their classrooms to find new musicians, and heaven forbid if you misplace your music or your drum sticks as you will suffer the man’s wrath in a way which makes you feel like you had it coming.

Now any actor can play a screaming jerk, but it takes a great one to make a jerk of a character into a fascinating and complex human being. This is what makes Simmons’ performance as Terrence Fletcher so damn good; he lets you know what he’s thinking without having to spell it out for the audience. Despite his brutally draconian ways, you can see he is searching for someone truly great and will do anything to get it. Seriously, he will do anything.

This all leads to the “good job” story Terrence tells Andrew, and I’m still thinking about what Terrence said long after the movie ended. On one hand, we cannot condone the way Terrence treats his students, but “Whiplash” has you wondering if being too nice to an aspiring student does them more harm than good. Sometimes brutal honesty is called for to get someone to learn, especially one who is determined to be the best at what they do. Still, there’s got to be a limit to how harshly you can treat a student before they suffer a horrific nervous breakdown.

Miles Teller’s star has been on the rise for a while now, and he’s turned in fantastic performances in the “Footloose” remake and “The Spectacular Now.” Teller was also in “21 & Over,” but the less said about that one the better. As Andrew Neiman, he gives one of the most exhausting performances any actor could have given in 2014, and there is absolutely no doubt he put his entire heart and soul into this character. Teller keeps pounding at those drums as if his life depended on it, and that really is his blood spattered all over the drum set (imagine how much money the studio saved on makeup and special effects). Teller shows a true fearlessness as he takes Andrew from being an easy-going guy to one who reaches his breaking point and then goes beyond it to where Terrence’s intimidating ways will not hold him at bay.

Writer/director Chazelle takes us on a journey which is as cathartic for him as it is for the rest of us, and “Whiplash” stirred up emotions in me I haven’t felt in a long time. It’s an amazing achievement especially when you take into account he had only 19 days to shoot this movie in. Few movies these days take you on such an emotionally pulverizing ride, and this is one of them.

* * * * out of * * * *

Please feel free to check out the interviews I did with Simmons, Teller and Chazelle on “Whiplash” on behalf of We Got This Covered down below.

Exclusive Video Interview with J.K. Simmons on ‘Break Point’

It’s been a very busy time for J.K. Simmons ever since he won an Oscar for his truly frightening performance in “Whiplash” as he has not been lacking for work in the slightest. We watched him steal scenes from Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator Genisys,” and now he steals the show yet again in the sports comedy “Break Point.” In it he plays Jack Price, a veterinarian, widow and father of two boys who were once a great tennis team but have long since become estranged from one another. When the boys decide to re-team to take one last shot at winning the grand slam tournament, Jack is pleased to see his sons playing together again. But will Jack be able to keep the peace when his sons inevitably clash over who’s the better player?

Now whereas many actors would take the father role and either overplay it or underplay it, Simmons finds a middle ground to where he makes Jack a believably down to earth guy who is relatable and someone you would really like to hang out with. He is such a wonderful presence in “Break Point” to where you want his onscreen sons to thank the lord they have such a wonderful father in their lives. The actor also brings his trademark deadpan humor to the role which is always a welcome addition.

Simmons sat down with me for an interview at the “Break Point” press day held in Los Angeles, California. He talked about his approach to playing Jack Price and how making the movie helped change his view on the game of tennis. He also talked about his experience making “Terminator Genisys” which allowed him to play the kind of character he usually doesn’t get cast as: a good guy.

Check out the interview above. “Break Point” is now available to watch on various formats. To find out how you can watch it, be sure to visit the movie’s website at www.thebreakpointfilm.com.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2015.

Break point movie poster

Save