Exclusive Interview with Alfred Molina about ‘Love is Strange’

Alfred Molina Love is Strange

He has played a variety of characters in movies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Prick Up Your Ears,” “Boogie Nights,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Not Without My Daughter” to where it seems like he can play anybody (and he probably can). Now Alfred Molina takes on a more intimate role in Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange” where he plays George, a Catholic school music teacher who, as the movie starts, marries his lover of 39 years, Ben (played by John Lithgow). They have a joyous ceremony, but once word reaches the school of George’s wedding, they subsequently fire him. This leads to a great deal of upheaval in the newlyweds’ life as they are forced to sell their apartment and spend time apart for the first time in years as they search for more affordable housing. The situation weighs very heavily on George to where he feels like he’s failing Ben and everyone around him.

It was a great pleasure to speak with Molina while he was doing press for “Love Is Strange.” It turns out that he and Lithgow have been friends for many years, so the fact that they have great chemistry onscreen should be no surprise. In addition, I also asked Molina about how sees the world of independent filmmaking today, why Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” inspired him to become an actor, and of what it was like to shoot this film without any rehearsals.

Love is Strange movie poster

Ben Kenber: Since you and John Lithgow have been friends for a long time, did the chemistry you two developed onscreen come easy to you?

Alfred Molina: Yes, it did. I think the advantage of being friends with John, having had a relationship as friends, helps us both in a way. For me, it just meant there was shorthand already in place. There was an ease and a rapport and a relaxation between us that was very easy and also very conducive and helpful for the roles we were playing. I think we would’ve still enjoyed the fact that we are friends if we had been playing adversaries in a movie or a good guy, bad guy. But the fact that we were playing a couple in a long-term relationship, I think our history as friends only helped and sort of aided that.

BK: What I really liked about this movie is that what the characters go through is quite ordinary, but it takes on a different feeling here. We don’t see enough movies these days about regular ordinary people, and the problems the characters go through here feel quite epic.

AM: Yeah. People lose their jobs, people lose their homes and it’s always bad news. But it happens very often for the most trivial of reasons, and I think the fact that Ira Sachs and (co-writer) Mauricio Zacharias created a couple who, by their very ordinariness, when this crisis happens to them, it takes on epic proportions. And like most crises that happen to ordinary people it becomes huge because normally in our own lives we don’t have the power or the means to overcome them quite so easily. It takes time and I think the fact that George and Ben are, for all intents and purposes, a very ordinary and a very anonymous couple adds to the strength of this story.

BK: I also wanted to congratulate you on receiving the Spotlight Award from the Creative Coalition at Sundance for your work in independent films. How do you think the world of independent films is faring today? Has it gotten easier to make them or harder?

AM: Well, I think it all depends on one’s perspective. Independent moviemaking is always a challenge. I think whenever you’re working on projects that don’t have immediate commercial appeal and you’re working outside of the studios, especially on low budget films where you’re really scrambling to raise $2 or $3 million to make a movie or however much it is, you’re working under all kinds of restrictions and challenges and the biggest one of course being time. You don’t have time. You very often don’t have time to absorb any mistakes or any accidents or anything that happens that kind of works against your schedule, so it’s always a challenge. But I think the fact that there are so many independent movies finding an eager audience means that there’s something being done right and well. There is an audience out there for good stories. There’s an audience out there for well-made, well-crafted, sincere movies about real people in real situations, and I think the reason why there’s an audience is because of the way cable TV, for instance, has welcomed movies. So many directors and writers and actors are now working on cable shows because that’s where some of the best movies are being made where young directors are getting the chance to make their films and tell their stories. The relationship between the product and the audience has changed a lot. There was a time when you were working on television that you were very much the guest in someone’s house. But now cable has changed all that because you’re paying for it. Also, our TVs have gotten bigger so it’s like watching a movie, and if you’ve got a 50-inch screen in your front room, the ratio is pretty typical of a small movie house. You can be watching movies at home and I think that changes the dynamic between the product and the audience, and there’s an audience out there for small films. The independent industry lurches from one crisis to another, and in those ups and downs there’s some great movies being made.

BK: I’ve talked with a lot of indie filmmakers recently and they usually get a shooting schedule that’s 30 days if they’re lucky, but those schedules keep getting shorter as time goes on.

AM: That’s right, yeah, because making movies gets more and more expensive. But there will always be an independent director, writer, actors who want to continue to work in that milieu because ultimately that’s where the most interesting stuff is happening. I can only speak for myself, but I think that’s where the best films are being made.

BK: Your character of George has a great line in this film where he says, “Life has its obstacles, but I’ve learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.” I think it’s very interesting in that George teaches at a Catholic school and has for many years, but the school doesn’t always respect the individual that he is.

AM: Absolutely, and I think that’s a great shame for anyone who’s in the same position as George; losing your job or losing your home or being chastised by society in some way because of who you choose to love and who you choose to spend your life with. As a heterosexual that’s something I’ve taken completely for granted. I can take it for granted that I can love whoever the hell I want and no one can stop me, but my gay friends have only recently begun to enjoy that right. So I think that’s why lines like that in the movie are terribly important and very, very resonant not just for gay men and women but for everybody. I was talking today with John (Lithgow) about how… He’s only been to a few gay weddings in recent years, but we both found them incredibly moving. Weddings are moving anyway. Anybody who confidently stands up and says I want to spend the rest of my life with this other person is making a very dramatic and a very moving and emotional statement, but when it’s two gay people you know that it’s not just full of the romantic and emotional power of the moment. It’s full of years, sometimes decades, of struggle to reach that point, so it has even more significance.

BK: That’s a very good point. In recent years, we’ve had movies like this and “The Kids Are All Right” which are about gay couples, but the fact the couples are gay becomes irrelevant because they deal with the truth of what married life is like and the struggles which come with it.

AM: You ask anyone who’s active in any kind of human rights or equal rights campaign and I’m sure they would say that their ultimate goal is to no longer have to have conversations like this where one sexuality is no longer relevant. Whenever I come across any kind of vaguely homophobic sentiments I’ve gotten to ask people, “When did you first realize that you were straight?” It’s amazing the reaction that gets because they don’t know how to answer, and the truth is that no one should have to put up with being asked that.

BK: I once read that you said you have to believe in what you’re saying in the same way your character does. Whether it’s Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler you’re playing, you have to portray them honestly and accurately regardless of whether they were good or bad. A lot of actors like to change material to where it suits them better, but I liked what you said because it goes the fact that the part is not about you, it’s about the character you’re playing.

AM: I’ve always regarded my job as being about serving the character regardless of who the character is. At a certain point taking on a job and then once you signed the contract and taken the money then saying “oh by the way I don’t think my character would say this” or “I don’t think my character would be like this,” that’s a conversation that one should have before you sign the contract and take the money. Once you have committed to something, you should be committing to the same things that everyone’s agreed on. Just as an act of creativity, you’ve got to give the same amount of dedication to whether you’re playing Adolf Hitler or Mother Teresa.

BK: I also read you were inspired to become an actor after watching the movie “Spartacus.” What was it specifically about the movie which inspired you so much?

AM: You know, I don’t know myself. It was so long ago and I must’ve been about nine years old when the film came out. I just remember coming out of that film just knowing that’s what I wanted to do. I don’t mean I wanted to be a gladiator, but I just wanted to be doing that; making films, being in films. I’m not quite sure what it was that prompted that, but it was a very powerful feeling.

BK: There were no rehearsals of scenes when it came to filming “Love is Strange.” How did this affect you as an actor?

AM: Well it was an interesting process really because normally you have rehearsals and work things out. I would hate for you to think that it was due to a lack of preparation; it wasn’t that. Ira Sachs, our director, came to the project impeccably prepared. What he didn’t do though was that he didn’t have us rehearse the scene and then play into the camera what we had rehearsed. He just wanted us to go into the take with the camera running and to just discover it in the moment. That was a very refreshing way to work, I loved it. I’m looking forward to doing it again. It’s very rare that directors give you that kind of freedom and also, given the fact that we were under the severe constraints in terms of time and money, it worked out well.

BK: “Love is Strange” seems to give the audience a very unique look at New York whereas other movies tend to portray it as a crime ridden place among others things. Would you say this movie gives a more accurate view of New York than other recent films have?

AM: Well, I think it’s as accurate a view of New York as any other movie. I don’t think the view of the city that the movie has is a negative one by any means. The city looks beautiful in this movie especially in that last sequence with that sunset and the two young characters on their skateboards. It’s a beautiful, beautiful ending to the film. Because it’s the most photogenic city in the world, any film that takes place in New York has to deal with New York as a character in the film. There’s nothing nondescript about New York. It’s a unique looking place. No other city in the world looks quite like it, so I think it’s something any filmmaker has to embrace.

BK: The interesting thing about the way Ira Sachs frames this movie is that it could’ve taken a huge political stance but he doesn’t which feels quite appropriate. He’s not taking issue with anybody, but he’s takes good observations of the Catholic doctrine and how it affects certain people.

AM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not a political film; it’s not a diatribe on the state of gay culture or the Catholic Church. It’s a domestic story. It’s a love story set against some real events that happened to real people, and I think it makes some very wry observations about the city and about New York real estate and about the conditions a lot of people live under. It’s not a message movie. What drives the movie is a kind of deep humanity.

I want to thank Alfred Molina for taking the time to talk with me. “Love is Strange” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

 

‘Rachel Getting Married’ is one of Jonathan Demme’s Best Films

Rachel Getting Married movie poster

One of the many things I have discovered about life is it is really easy to hate someone or be angry at them. As negative an emotion as it is, there is an unmistakable power from it which really makes you feel alive. At the same time, it is much harder to forgive that person for what they have done to you. You get so sick of someone getting the best of you to where you desperately don’t want to look like the fool. But eventually, it should become clear that the one person you really need to forgive most is yourself. This can be much harder than forgiving someone else, but it is necessary as it keeps you from sinking into the hideous swamp of bitterness which can eat you up. But can you forgive yourself when you have done something horrible and can’t you wipe away the cloud hanging over your existence because of what you have done? I would like to believe the answer is yes, but others may disagree.

Rachel Getting Married” is a movie about forgiveness, and the rough road people travel to get to it. It is also a movie about family and togetherness, and the joy of life. It almost moved me to tears the same way “Lars and the Real Girl” did as it deals with the saddest of things while surrounding itself in an atmosphere of love and much-needed togetherness. This is one of Jonathan Demme’s best movies as well as one of the very best of 2008. I really loved “Rachel Getting Married” and found myself wanting to hug all the characters in it. It is a movie of raw emotions, and I love seeing movies with this kind of power more often than not.

Anne Hathaway gives a phenomenal performance as Kym, the wild child of a Connecticut family who gets a vacation break from her current rehabilitation facility to go home for her sister Rachel’s wedding. It doesn’t take long to get an idea of how much of a “bad egg” she appears to be to everyone around her. As she goes into a convenience store to get a Pepsi, the female cashier behind the counter says, “Didn’t I see you on ‘Cops?’”

Kym is a full-blown drug addict and has been for several years, and while her family is happy to have her home, there are also raw emotions simmering just below the surface and waiting to come out into the open. We feel this tension from the very start, and it is illustrated in Hathaway’s face as we see her feeling like the wallflower at a party. While everyone is happy for the bride and groom, she is sullen and lost in a moment she cannot escape from. As the movie goes on, we come to see the reason for her self-destructive behavior and why she acts the way she does. I will not mention what it is here as it might take away from the emotional impact you will experience watching this movie.

This movie feels a lot different from others Demme has made in the past. He filmed the movie with high definition cameras to capture the movie on a more intimate level, and it feels like he really let the actors loose from start to finish. It is handheld camerawork going on here, so this will probably drive those who couldn’t stand all the shaky camerawork in “The Bourne Ultimatum” or “Cloverfield” crazy. While some people may experience motion sickness from this, I had no problem with it as the camerawork helped illustrate the emotionally fragile ground the characters are walking over, and how easily everything could come tumbling down.

What is so great about Demme’s direction is how he makes us feel like we really are attending the wedding along with these characters and sharing in the joys and sorrows of everyone involved. These characters feel so real, and it is so great to see no Hollywood artifice on display here. There have been so many big Hollywood movies dealing with families and marriage, and I find myself increasingly avoiding them. But the actions in “Rachel Getting Married” never felt staged for a second, and I loved that. Everyone in this movie feels like people we know from our own lives, and it connects us all the more strongly to what they go through.

“Rachel Getting Married” also, like all of Demme’s movies, has a very eclectic mix of music in it from the offbeat to the international. His movies don’t just have their own signature look, but their own significant sound. One character makes beautiful use of a Neil Young song as he sings it to another person. The audience I saw this with at Landmark Theaters in West Los Angeles were as silent as the characters onscreen during this moment, and I’ll never forget that.

I also loved how the soon to be married couple is an interracial couple, and no one ever brings this up at all. I guess none of the characters see it as an issue worth addressing. Hallelujah!

The script was by Jenny Lumet, and she gives her characters a vibrancy which elevates it from the couples we usually expect to see in movies like these. Her screenplay does tread familiar scenarios and storylines of the addict trying to go straight, but it finds its own voice and way of saying things to where everything feels fresh and new.

Demme always brings out the best in all the actors he has ever worked. There are many great performances to be had here, not just Hathaway’s. Rosemarie DeWitt plays Rachel, and she is a wonderful and real presence to be had in this movie. She goes from being so happy to seeing her sister Kym to being utterly exasperated and strung out that she is at home. It is clear that Rachel wants Kym to be well, but she constantly worries Kym will ruin the wedding in one way or another. Both Hathaway and DeWitt work really well off of each other as two sisters desperate to connect with one another despite the emotional damage between them. There’s a touching moment where Kym comes back from a rough night, and Rachel washes her clean in the shower as if she is washing her sins down the drain.

I also really liked Bill Irwin as Paul, Kym and Rachel’s dad, who is so happy to see his daughters under one roof, while at the same time harboring scars which will never fully heal. We also have Debra Winger, an actress we don’t see much of these days as the girls’ mother, Abby. She has great scenes with both daughters as she allows us to see beneath her seemingly calm exterior to the distrust she has had for Kym after all this time. The big scene between Hathaway and Wagner where the truth comes to a head is riveting and painfully raw as they each try to come to grips with the tragedy they both had a part in but are hesitant to take full responsibility for.

“Rachel Getting Married” is not just a triumph of acting, but also of writing and direction. All three elements come together to create a powerfully moving film about the flawed and fragile nature of humanity, and of the struggle for forgiveness. The movie has a very improvisatory feel to it and, despite the serious nature of the film, you cannot help but feel everyone had such a great time making it. You feel like you are with these families every step of the way, and you revel in their celebration of two families coming together as one. The reception near the end of the movie is one of ecstatic joy and happiness, even while some have wounds which take them out of the present.

But the person who carries this movie from beginning to end is Hathaway. Many see this as her escape from those “Princess Diaries” movies as she rids herself of the ever so clean image we have had of her. Truth be told, she has been doing this already with “Brokeback Mountain” and “Havoc,” but this should fully complete her transition to becoming an adult actress. All the Oscar talk she has been getting is justified. Kym is not an easily likable character, but Hathaway gives her a heart and soul and makes you care deeply about Kym all the way through. The moments where Hathaway does not say a word, her face does the acting and reveals a very uncomfortable soul trying to fit into a place which was once her home. She does brave and amazing work here, and she proves to be a dramatic force to be reckoned with.

“Rachel Getting Married” further shows how brilliant Demme is in getting to the wounded humanity of all the characters he observes. There is not one moment which feels faked in this movie, and it never really falls victim to any clichés that could easily tear it apart. This is another movie you don’t watch as much as experience, and I am always on the lookout for those. It also kept reminding me of the song “To Forgive” by The Smashing Pumpkins which kept playing in my head throughout:

“Holding back the fool again
Holding back the fool pretends
I forget to forget nothing is important
Holding back the fool again.”

Funny, I thought Billy Corgan was saying “forgive” instead of “forget.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Norman movie poster

What I love about Richard Gere as an actor is his ability to play morally questionable characters with such a seductive charm to where I cannot help but root for him to succeed despite his morally dubious intentions. Whether he’s playing an infinitely corrupt cop in “Internal Affairs,” a fraudulent hedge fund manager in “Arbitrage” or a publicity-seeking lawyer in both “Primal Fear” and “Chicago,” Gere makes these characters hopelessly charismatic even as they sink deeper into a realm of lies, deception, and things much worse. Some actors are great at making you despise the villains they play, but Gere is brilliant at making you become enamored with the villainous characters he portrays as he makes breaking the law seem so seductive.

I was reminded of this while watching Gere in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” as he plays a man eager to achieve great success in his lifetime. While his character of Norman Oppenheimer is not as devious as Dennis Peck or Robert Miller, he’s a guy trying to sell everyone on his financial schemes which never seem to become a reality. When things finally start working out for him, they end up leading him down a road which could lead to either great success or tragic consequences.

Norman is a loner who lives in the shadows of New York City power and money, and he works hard, perhaps much too hard, at being everyone’s friend as he offers the elite something he can’t possibly provide on his own. His efforts, however, lead to little in the way of success, and his constant networking threatens to drive people away as people are easily annoyed just by the sound of his voice. Still, he comes across as a nice guy whom you wouldn’t be quick to shoo away because Gere convinces you Norman means well even as he manipulates those around him to his benefit.

But one day he comes across Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a charismatic Israeli politician who is alone in New York and at a very vulnerable point in his life. Norman seizes on this vulnerability and befriends Micha in a way few others would dare to, and he cements their budding friendship by buying Micha a pair of shoes. But these are not any ordinary pair of shoes which you would find at your local Payless Shoe Source. The price of this particular pair of shoes is the same as the average one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, and while Norman initially hesitates once he sees the price, he buys them anyway to gain Micha’s respect. This pays off big time three years later when Micha becomes Prime Minister of Israel as he quickly remembers what Norman did for him. From there, Norman bathes in the respect he has craved for such a long time, and he uses Micha’s name to achieve his biggest deal ever.

When we look into Gere’s eyes, we can see when Norman is lying and when he is being honest with those around him. While other actors would have played this character in a more stereotypical or annoying fashion, Gere makes him into a genuinely well-meaning person whom you find yourself rooting for even when he doesn’t have much to back up his promises with. We also come to see what motivates him: he has a desperate need to matter. He wants his existence to be a necessary part of other peoples’ lives, and this should give you an idea of just how lonely a soul he is.

Writer and director Joseph Cedar, who previously gave us the acclaimed movies “Beaufort” and “Footnote,” leaves parts of Norman’s life ambiguous to the viewer. Norman claims he has a wife and child, but we never see them. Do they actually exist? In the end, it doesn’t matter because Norman truly believes they do, and this belief empowers him to persist in achieving what would seem out of reach to everyone else. Even when he is manipulating others, he never comes across as less than genuine, and we can’t help but root for him.

Cedar made this movie as a re-imaging of an archetypal tale about the Court Jew. Those who, like me, were unfamiliar with this tale, it involves the Court Jew meeting a man of power at a point in his life where his resistance is low, and the Jew gives this man a gift or a favor which the man remembers once he rises in stature. To say more would give a good portion of “Norman” away, but learning of this tale makes one realize why the Jewish people are often closely associating with banking as the job of a banker was one of the very few career paths available to Jews in the past. So, the next time people out there say Jews are greedy with money, remind them we narrowed down their career goals for no good reason.

In addition to Gere, there are other terrific performances worth noting in “Norman.” Charlotte Gainsbourg, looking almost unrecognizable from her tour of duty with Lars Von Trier, co-stars as Alex, one of Norman’s many marks who somehow sees right through his ways to where she is empathetic to his struggles. Steve Buscemi also shows up as Rabbi Blumenthal whose synagogue Norman is trying to save from developers. It feels weird to see Buscemi in a role like this as he plays a decent man who wants the best for others as we are so used to seeing him play unsavory characters in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Con Air,” “Fargo,” and “The Sopranos.” Either that, or there are still movies of his I need to watch.

In a lot of ways, Norman Oppenheimer is a different kind of character from the ones Gere has played in the past, but it also isn’t. He has been great at portraying people who are not easily likable, but he makes us like them as he is infinitely clever at getting us over to his side. After all these years, Gere remains an excellent actor on top of a movie star, and we are past due in realizing this. He has never been just a pretty face, and “Norman” has him giving one of his best performances to date. I have no doubt there are many more great performances from him we have yet to see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Richard Gere and Joseph Cedar Talk about What Went Into ‘Norman’

Miami Film Festival at Olympia Theater - Opening Night

After all these years, I think Richard Gere is one of the most underappreciated actors working in movies today. Sure, he’s been a movie star for years, having appeared in such classics as “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Pretty Woman,” but I wonder if people in general see him as more than just another pretty face after all this time. Seriously, he has pulled off a number of unforgettable turns in “Primal Fear,” “Chicago” and “Arbitrage” which had him portraying morally duplicitous characters whom you cannot help but root for. The fact he has never been nominated for an Academy Award is baffling as he has more than earned his place among the best, and it seems like he still has to keep reminding us of how good an actor he is.

The latest example of this is “Norman” in which Gere plays Norman Oppenheimer, a humble New York fixer who lives a lonely life in the margins of power and money. He is a would-be operator who dreams up financial schemes, and he strives to be everyone’s friend as he networks with anyone who can elevate him in society. In the process, he gains the attention of Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkwnazi), an Israeli politician who has yet to fully advance in his career, by buying him a super expensive pair of shoes. When Micha becomes Prime Minister of Israel, he remembers Norman’s generous gift and brings him into his inner circle. This gets Norman to set up the biggest deal of his career, but it all threatens to end in an international crisis no one can walk away from in one piece.

Norman movie poster

“Norman” was directed by Joseph Cedar. His previous films include “Campfire” which earned him Ophir awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay, “Beaufort” which won him the Silver Bear award for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival, and “Footnote” which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. “Norman” was inspired by the archetypal tale of the Court Jew which involves a Jew meeting a man with power when his resistance is very low. The Jew gives the man an incredible gift, and the man remembers him when he ends rising in stature. The Jew then becomes a consultant to the man, but when the man becomes subjected to endless antagonism, he has no choice but to get rid of the Jew because the Jew is far too easy to get rid of.

The tale of the Court Jew is one I was not familiar with, and it was fascinating to hear Cedar talk about it when he joined Gere for an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Yes, this was the same hotel Gere romanced Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” and the irony of this fact was not lost on any of us. Anyway, Cedar got more specific about this tale with us.

Joseph Cedar: Aside from the type of personality that the Court Jew has to do what a Court Jew does, which is a combination of brilliance because otherwise he is not essential to whoever has power, and a flexibility which allows him to sell out. These are complicated characters that are in the gray area of many moral questions, and it’s part of what allows them to be of influence. But there’s another aspect to it that I think is extremely interesting me. I think all of modern progress is the result of some Court Jew, or at least in Europe. If you look at the great European monuments, none of them would have been possible without that relationship between a king, a duke, a prince or someone in power, and a Jew is able to finance things that the township or the common person, the farmers of whatever area they were in, would have never agreed to do. So rulers needed that function in order to do things that, in retrospect, we are all enjoying right now: art, culture in general, architecture. And then there are some things that are considered negative but are also important: armies, bridges. But it’s a combination of things which are objectively good together with things that are questionable. There are many taxes that Jews convinced their rulers to put up, so those taxes were seen as something bad for the people who have to pay them. But 500 years later, those taxes created beautiful cities.

Ben Kenber: Was there anything specific about the Court Jew tale which you really wanted to get across in this screenplay? It sounds like a tale many other writers are familiar with, and it has been told a number of times, but was there something specific you wanted to address?

Joseph Cedar: I don’t know. It was something I was attracted to in a very sincere way. It’s not that I was looking for this tale.

Richard Gere: Is it the fact that the Court Jew who would be sacrificed in the end and the easiest one to let go?

Joseph Cedar: I think that’s what makes this tale, this journey, this narrative so involving.

Watching Gere as Norman Oppenheimer reminded me of his great work in “Arbitrage,” “Primal Fear” and “Internal Affairs” as he is so good at playing immoral characters who somehow manage to bring you over to their side despite their duplicitous ways. But while Norman is trying to get the upper hand in a way which benefits him, we see he is a desperately lonely man who longs to be accepted by others. Deep down, we want to see Norman succeed, and you can see his lonely desperation in his eyes. This is what I asked Gere about.

Ben Kenber: The thing I love about your performance Richard is we can tell when your character is playing with peoples’ emotions and trying to get what he wants, and then there are other moments where you can see in his eyes that he is being truly honest with others. How challenging is that for you as an actor to pull off?

Richard Gere: Not so hard because he believes it every time. When he’s lying, he believes it. When he’s telling the truth, he believes it. As soon as he starts or if something happens, he has got to fix it. Someone confronts him and he’s got to make it sound like, “Well my wife babysat him…” Whatever the story is, but once he starts it, his fantasy life is so vivid to him that he totally believes it. Totally. So, to him there’s no difference.

Joseph Cedar: I believed you believing it.

Richard Gere: Well that was important.

I want to thank Richard Gere and Joseph Cedar for taking the time to talk with me. “Norman” opens in theaters on April 14, and it is a very good movie worth checking out.

Marielle Heller and Bel Powley Discuss ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’

Marielle Heller Bel Powley

The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, follows 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley, in a star-making performance) as she goes on a journey for love and acceptance, and as the movie begins she has already started to experience her sexual awakening. She becomes embroiled in an affair with Monroe Rutherford (Alexander Skarsgard) who also happens to be her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend. What results is an honest version of what it’s like to be a teenage girl, and the movie isn’t so much about sex as it is about finding your own self-worth which is very important for young people making their way through this crazy world we all inhabit.

This movie marks the directorial debut of actress and writer Marielle Heller, and I got to talk with her and Bel Powley while they were at The London Hotel in West Hollywood, California. One of the things I remarked about it was how beautiful the movie looked and of how it really transported the audience back to the 70’s. Granted, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” does take place in San Francisco, California which, after all these years, hasn’t changed much since the 70’s, but director of photography Brandon Trost still did terrific work in bringing us back to a time period which is gone but not forgotten.

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Marielle Heller: I love telling people that the same person who shot this movie also shot movies like “The Interview” and “Neighbors” because they couldn’t be more different in terms of content. But he is a real artist and I think he just did the most incredible job. He was so dedicated to making this film look and feel exactly how we envisioned it which was in some ways like an old Polaroid picture, but not with a hipster grossness on it. We wanted it to be really authentic to the story and to the characters.

Those who know Heller best know that she has been in love with Gloeckner’s graphic novel ever since her sister gave her a copy of it 8 years ago. She spent a long time trying to get the rights to adapt the book into a stage play, and she performed the role of Minnie Goetze herself in an acclaimed off-Broadway production. From there, Heller went on to develop “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” into a screenplay at the Sundance Labs, and the film eventually debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Having spent so many years with Gloeckner’s graphic novel, I asked Heller how her view of it has evolved from when she first read the book to when she began turning it into a movie.

Marielle Heller: The film version of the book had to take on its own new life and really shift and change because the narrative structure of a film has to have a different build than a novel can. You read a book and you put it down and you pick it up and you put it down and it can have a really episodic feel, and a movie has to have a really specific kind of emotional build. I had such reverence for Phoebe’s book. I loved it more than anything I had ever read before, which is sort of a problematic place to start an adaption from. It was too much love, too much reverence, and at some point I had to sort of give myself permission to destroy parts of what I loved too and let go of it and let the reverence go away. Things changed, storylines changed, so that was a big process and luckily Phoebe really understood that because she’s such an artist herself.

Heller also remarked about a conversation she had with Gloeckner during the making of the film:

Marielle Heller: She was like, “You have to do what you have to do for this process. I took my real diaries and I wanted to make them into a piece of art. I didn’t want to write a memoir. I wanted to change them and let them become something new and let them become a book, and so I put them through this big grinder and it came out the other side hopefully with some truth intact. But it was something new, and then you took it and you put it through another kind of meat grinder and out the other end came this other project and it’s something new and hopefully that kernel of truth is still the same.” So it’s been a long process and in some ways I internalized the whole book. I got to know it inside and out and then stopped looking at it and wouldn’t let myself look at it and let the movie just grow into something totally new.

Watching “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” reminded me of my favorite movies which dealt with adolescence and being a teenager like “Pump up the Volume,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” I love movies which take adolescence seriously as so many others treat it like life won’t get any better than when you’re young. I asked Heller and Powley what their favorite teen movies which they felt treated being a teenager honestly were, and their answer pointed out how those movies are missing a particular point of view.

Marielle Heller: I think there are a lot of movies that deal with adolescence in an honest way for boys. I hadn’t really come across ones that really dealt with girls in an honest way which is why I think we wanted to make this movie. I know I really related to movies like “Stand by Me” or “Harold and Maude;” movies that felt like they were, like you said, really respecting the characters and giving adolescents a voice in it. And John Hughes’ movies too like “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles.” Movies like that really did give voice to the teenager in a real way. And I guess actually that John Hughes did make movies about girls. “Sixteen Candles” was about being a girl, but we’re a long time from “Sixteen Candles.” We’re due for another one.

Bel Powley: I was a teenager six years ago (laughs), and I don’t think I related to anything. I found it really hard, and I think it honestly made me feel like really isolated and really alone. I think young female characters are presented in such flat, two dimensional ways especially when it came to sex. Like if you did have sex then you were this high school slut, or if you didn’t then you’re either frigid or you’re like this virgin waiting for your Prince Charming. I remember being so excited when “Juno” was coming out, and then it came out and it was like, well no one speaks like that. And also, she’s made to be kind of asexual. It was just so confusing to me, and I honestly didn’t relate to anything until “Girls” (the HBO series), and that was when I was like 19.

Hearing Heller and Powley say that makes you realize how important “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is in today’s cinematic landscape. For once we have a movie that deals with the life of a teenage girl honestly, and that makes it all the more important for audiences to seek it out in the midst of another overcrowded summer movie season. It is truly one of the best adolescent movies made in recent memory, and it deserves your attention far more than many others in this genre.

“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Alexander Skarsgard talks about ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’

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Alexander Skarsgard stars in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” as Monroe, an emotionally stunted man who finds himself in San Francisco, California and in a relationship with the free-spirited Charlotte Goetze (Kristen Wiig). But then he meets her daughter Minnie (Bel Powley) who is in the midst of her own sexual awakening, and she begins a complex love affair with him that will lead to even more awakenings about each other and their own self-worth.

I got to hang out with Skarsgard along with a few other journalists while he was at The London Hotel in West Hollywood, California to do press for “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Greg Srisavasdi of the website Deepest Dream asked Skarsgard how he goes about preparing for a role, and his answer illustrates why his performance as Monroe is so good.

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Alexander Skarsgard: The very first step is to connect with the material obviously. In this case, I thought it would be a really interesting challenge to play Monroe. I felt he could easily be a villain or just like a predator and I wanted to avoid that. I felt like I don’t think it will be interesting if you play it that way, and you make it too easy for the audience if they can just lean back and go, “Oh, bad guy,” and it’s not going to be interesting to the film. And that really intrigued me and I thought this would be a cool challenge to make this real and find moments where you might feel empathy and you might connect with him and almost like him, and moments where you don’t. I think it’s important to not have an opinion (about the character) in the beginning and to be open, and that’s when you go into that creative process of discovering and developing that character. You have to be very non-judgmental and be very open.”

Skarsgard is best known for playing the vampire Eric Northman on the HBO series “True Blood,” and he has turned in memorable performances in movies like “What Maisie Knew,” “Melancholia” and “Kill Your Darlings.” What’s interesting about him as an actor is how he is able to derive such strong complexity in each character he plays. It made me wonder just how much he brought to the role of Monroe which wasn’t in the script, and I asked him if he prefers playing characters like Monroe over others. For Skarsgard, it all comes down to one thing.

AS: It’s all about finding depth and it doesn’t matter in what genre it is. I just wrapped a movie called “War on Everyone” which is a comedy by John Michael McDonagh who did “The Guard” and “Calvary.” It’s a weird, fucked up comedy about corrupt cops in Albuquerque. I play a coke-snorting alcoholic cop who beats up criminals and steals their money with Michael Pena as my colleague. I had an amazing time. It was so much fun and, tonally, very different from “Tarzan” that I finished just before that or this one. But what it’s always about is that you need to find depth in the character even if it is comedy. You can’t play a caricature, or you can but I just don’t find it interesting. I don’t subscribe to good versus evil unless it’s within you. I think we’re all struggling with that, good and bad, and I think we’re all capable of good deeds and bad deeds. It’s interesting in literature or movies when you find characters that are struggling with that, and if there’s no inner struggle then it’s not interesting to me.

Watching “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” reminded me of just how much I love movies which take adolescence seriously. Some of my favorite examples of those movies are “Pump up the Volume” and “The Breakfast Club,” and I’m convinced that everyone has their own favorite movies which really spoke to them about life as a teenager. When I asked Skarsgard to name a movie that spoke to him about the truth about adolescence, he instead thought of a book.

AS: The most obvious example would be “Catcher in the Rye.” I guess as a boy growing up, as a teenager you’re like yeah, I get it dude. But I don’t have one movie that stands out or where watching it was a pivotal moment of my adolescence. What was I into as a teenager? It was the 80’s, so it was “Star Wars” I guess.

Watching Alexander Skarsgard in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is proof of just how gifted an actor he is. The role of Monroe could have been reduced to being a mere one-dimensional character, but Skarsgard dove right into the complexities of this character and made him an empathetic one even though no one can condone his actions. It’s a fascinating portrait of a man who still needs to grow up, and it’s one of the many reasons to check out this movie on DVD, Blu-ray or Digital at your earliest convenience.

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James Vanderbilt on Making His Directorial Debut with ‘Truth’

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James Vanderbilt has been a prolific writer and producer in Hollywood for several years. His screenplay credits include Peter Berg’s “The Rundown” which remains one of Dwayne Johnson’s best action films, David Fincher’s “Zodiac” which was about the notorious serial killer who terrorized San Francisco back in the 1970’s and Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down” which dealt with terrorists attacking the White House. In addition, he was a writer and producer on “The Amazing Spider-Man” movies and “Independence Day: Resurgence.”

Vanderbilt now makes his directorial debut with “Truth,” the political docudrama about the 2004 “60 Minutes” news report on George W. Bush’s military service and the subsequent controversy which came to engulf it and destroyed several careers in the process. It is based on the memoir “Truth and Duty: The Press, The President and The Privilege of Power” written by Mary Mapes, a noted American journalist who was the producer of Bush news story, and she is played by Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. The movie details meticulously the research Mapes and her team did on this story and of how many came to sharply criticize the veracity of the information given. What started out as an expose of Bush’s service, or lack thereof, in the Texas Air National Guard becomes focused solely on the reporters involved to where broadcast journalism would never be the same.

I got to sit in on a roundtable interview with Vanderbilt at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California while he was in town to promote “Truth.” His desire to adapt this memoir into a film came from his infinite curiosity about broadcast journalism and how people in a newsroom work and put a story together.

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Ben Kenber: What made you decide that the time had come for you to step behind the camera to direct?

James Vanderbilt: I don’t know. Uh, foolishness? No, I was at a film school with all these people who really, really wanted to direct, and I always wanted to be a writer. It seemed like they were all looking at screenwriting as the stepping stone for the real job and so, being an angry young film student, I was totally resentful of them. Screenwriting is a craft and it’s got a great history, so I wasn’t the guy who was like “what I really want to do is direct.” I was lucky enough to have some films made and to produce some films and work with some really great directors, and watching them was actually the thing that made me go, I’d be curious to know if I could do that” Watching directors work with actors was actually the biggest thing which was fun for me to see and wanting to be a part of that, but as the writer and producer you want there always to be one voice to the actor. You never want the producer to come in and go, “You know what would also be great?” So, I always wondered if I could do that, carry the ball all the way down the field, and it came out of a very misguided desire to see if it would even be a possibility for me and if I would enjoy it.

BK: Did you enjoy it?

JV: I really loved it. I really loved every part of the process. It was just so exciting and fun.

BK: Doubt has become such a powerful tool over the years, and it really came down hard on this particular news story when it aired on television. Were you ever worried as a writer or as a director of getting caught up in that realm of doubt to where it was hard to distinguish between both sides of the argument?

JV: I don’t know about worried. We tried to present a bunch of different arguments in the film. It was important to us and important to me that the film was, although some might characterize it as trying to prove a point, not a film that’s trying to prove a point. What I love is seeing people come out of it discussing it and arguing about it, and that’s great to me. Seeing a married couple come out of it and one of them saying absolutely she should’ve been fired, and the other one going, “What are you crazy?” Apparently, I just enjoy discordant marriages (laughs). But the goal for me first and foremost was just to tell a really interesting story about this woman and what she went through and make it an emotional story. We didn’t want it to be homework. You want it to be a real tale and an emotional story. If audiences go on that journey and then maybe if they also think a little bit about media and where we are right now, all of that would-be gravy.

Enough time has passed since this “60 Minutes” news story premiered to where we should be able to view it more objectively, and “Truth” will give audiences a lot to think about as it is not so much about whether or Mapes got the story right or not, but of how much a casualty truth can be when it comes to presidential politics and personal bias.

“Truth” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Toni Erdmann

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It’s hard to tell you how to go into “Toni Erdmann” as it works as both a comedy and a drama. Some moments are truly hysterical while others are deeply moving as German filmmaker Maren Ade draws us into a story which takes us in completely unexpected directions. These days, only a foreign film can get away with what “Toni Erdmann” does here as it balances out both its hilarious and moving scenes for a nearly 3-hour running time. Yes, it’s that long, but don’t let this and subtitles give you a reason not to sit through it because you will be missing out.

We meet Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher who thrives on playing pranks and practical jokes on unsuspecting victims with tremendous glee. Winifred is eager to reconnect with his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is currently working in Bucharest, Romania as a business consultant in the oil industry. Ines is hopelessly addicted to her phone, as many of us are from one nation to the next, and she barely has any time at all to spend with her family as she is constantly called away to work. Following a sudden death, Winfried impulsively travels to Romania to spend time with Ines, but his unexpected visit cannot compete with her seemingly ambitious climb up the corporate ladder. Winfried at one point asks Ines what she enjoys most out of life, and she finds she cannot really answer the question as the term enjoyment is impossible for her to honestly define. These days, with everyone struggling to make a living, it’s very hard not to relate to how she feels.

After feeling quite alienated, Winfried decides to leave Romania and let Ines go about her hectic life. A few days later, however, Winfried reappears as Toni Erdmann, his alter-ego who presents himself as a life coach and consultant to Ines and her friends, and it doesn’t take long for him to draw a crowd with his effortless charisma. Ines is at first horrified by what her father has pulled off as she feels her career might be put in jeopardy as a result, but she eventually finds herself playing along as it gives her life a levity which constantly eludes it.

Watching “Toni Erdmann,” I kept thinking how a Hollywood studio would try to dumb down the material and force the director to cut the movie down to 90 minutes so they could maximize the number of screenings which can be shown in a day. I imagine producers were trying to do the same to Ade, but she apparently said deleting scenes would have hurt the movie’s pacing. Keep in mind, she spent over a year editing the movie and even gave birth to her second child in the process, so you cannot say she didn’t put a lot of thought into what she was doing here. The end result is a final cut which doesn’t have a single wasted shot in it as we watch Winfried and Ines struggle with this crazy thing called life.

Both Simonischek and Hüller are exemplary in portraying characters who could have been played far too broadly in any other movie, and the actors fully invest in the emotional natures of Winfried/Toni and Ines to where we are completely caught up in what’s going on in their minds. Just when you think each actor has given their best moment onscreen here, they come up with another one which has you in awe as well as in hysterics in regards to what they succeed in pulling off.

Winfried could have been a completely obnoxious and annoying father like many are in movies these days, but Simonischek makes him a wonderful presence even when Winfried, in his alter-ego of Toni, threatens to overstay his welcome. When he reveals who he really is to another person and why he is putting on such a disguise, it is a wonderfully moving moment as he is not greeted with disdain but instead with understanding and empathy. I imagine most parents are desperate to keep a strong connection with their children after they move away from home, so it shouldn’t be a big surprise when some resort to desperate measures.

Hüller gives us a character ever so serious in advancing her career in a male-dominated business, but she’s also not afraid of showing the bruises in Ines’ armor which come up when her world becomes too much to deal with emotionally. She also brilliantly takes her character in directions you couldn’t possibly anticipate, and this results in a musical scene and a birthday party, both of which need to be seen to be believed. She fearlessly dives into those moments with sheer enthusiasm as she soon finds herself battling against a lifestyle which has become far too suffocating to deal with.

“Toni Erdmann” is in many ways a comedy, but the comedy doesn’t just come out of its hysterical moments. It also comes out of the painful and awkward ones as humor at times becomes the only way to deal with the emotional hurdles life constantly throws in our direction. There is a seriousness to the subject matter as well as life and death are dealt with in equal measure. Taking this into account, it’s best to go in with an open mind as expectations will threaten your cinematic experience rather than inform it. What you can expect are a number of surprises you could never have expected, if that makes any sense.

Every once in a while, we need a movie which reminds us of the importance of living in the here and now as life becomes far too hectic for us to realize it. “Toni Erdmann” never tries to shameless manipulate its audience into feeling anything as we come to fully sympathize with Winfried and Ines to where we do see the importance of stopping to smell the flowers more often. Winfried’s last scene with Ines drives this point through as they come to realize how quickly time passes everyone by to where it is very hard to slow down for just a second. Please don’t try to convince me you don’t relate to this in the slightest.

I am still thinking about that last scene long after the movie ended, and of how Hollywood would never have let Ade get away with a nearly 3-hour running time. I’m convinced they would rather rush to get to the “live in the moment” scene in a mere 90 minutes because more screenings in a day means more money. Sometimes it is worth it to take the time to tell a really good story.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Meddler

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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 * * * *

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Whiplash

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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.