Friday, September 18, 2015

What Have I Done?

You might remember my spring cleaning period, where I unloaded a barrage of mini-reviews (well, if seven paragraphs still counts as "mini") to slough off the weight of just how many films I had seen that I still needed to review. You may remember this because it was literally a week ago. Well, guess what? Even though I still need to finish off my Chucky and Wes Craven marathons and tackle the current movies I've seen this month before the Halloween season comes crashing down in earnest, I went ahead and watched three more movies this week. I've made a huge mistake.

Year: 2014
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A young drummer takes a class with an angry, abusive teacher in an attempt to push himself to be the best.

It’s not often that my interests intersect with the year’s Oscar noms (The House on Sorority Row was snubbed!), but just last year a miracle happened. The scrappy horror production company Blumhouse took a break from making piles of money to assist in the creation of Whiplash, which went on to sweep all the Academy Awards categories that nobody particularly cares about. Despite its minted status as an Oscar flick, it still has the stylistic trademarks of a Blumhouse production, and that’s what makes it a fascinating watch.

The limited sets, small cast, and stylistic experiments typical to low budget horror filmmaking are all reinterpreted to this new genre, which is admittedly a horror story in its own right. Centering primarily on Miles Teller’s ingĂ©nue Andrew and J. K. Simmons’ domineering professor Fletcher, these two become locked in an emotionally brutal and occasionally violent enterprise: turning Andrew into one of the greats. This brutishly simple story requires a lot of its audience, asking if the pursuit of fame and talent is truly worth the price one must pay.

The plot is straightforward as all hell, which allows director Damien Chazelle free range in visually portraying it. He doesn’t go institutionally crazy with that freedom, but he taps directly into the film’s adrenal gland, sending shock waves of pure electricity through the audience. I suppose it goes without saying that the cinematography and editing adhere to the beat of the music played in the film, but there’s so much more than that to chew on.

The yellow, underlit music room casts a sickly pall on all who inhabit its space, red blood splashes vividly onto stark white drums, and the rapid cuts abruptly stand stock still to emphasize intense moments. There is no act of cinematic upheaval more profoundly affecting in Whiplash than its fearless finale, an audacious sprint to the finish line that combines rapid whip-pans, whirlwind cutting, and oppressively extreme close-ups in a mesmerizing effort that instills the feeling that the action is happening so fast, the film can’t even keep up with itself. When it finally lets up the sense of release is so drastic that you’re forced to sit there a minute, processing in stunned awe.

It’s a cool film, with two unforgettable actors behind wheel. Miles Teller finally breaks free from his Zac Efron/Skylar Astin twentysomething hell to deliver a well-rounded character that portrays raw, open-faced ambition in a frankly alarming but thoroughly committed manner. His fire is matched with panache by J. K. Simmons’ powerful hurricane of a performance, swinging from stone-faced impenetrability to spittle-flying rage beast. It’s stunning, nuanced stuff that simultaneously humanizes the characters yet exposes their darkest flaws.

The best thing about this crackling, angry film is its awareness of how insulated its world is. After all the fighting, screaming, bleeding, crying, and chair throwing (that music room has the world’s most resilient walls – definitely call their contractor next time you need remodeling done), it’s still only jazz. Time and again, the film reminds the characters just how little everybody else in the world cares about jazz. It leaves you with a bittersweet taste and compels you to consider the consequences of the sacrifices people make for their art. It’s a daring, kinetic picture and more horrifying than half the Blumhouse stock. Check it out!

Rating: 8/10

House of Wax
Year: 2005
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Chad Michael Murray, Elisha Cuthbert, Jared Padalecki
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A group of college students on a road trip get stranded in a town with a house of wax run by two maniacal brothers who murder tourists and turn them into wax figures.

2005 was such a barren wasteland for horror that we ended up with House of Wax, a remake of a remake. But, although it’s hardy a cinematic triumph, House of Wax is intriguing for several reasons. First, it is a reinterpretation of a classic Vincent Price property in the immediate wake of the zeitgeist hit Saw. Second, it’s actually a pretty beautifully shot little movie despite its host of remake calling cards, like uselessly pretty actors, a nigh-on nonsensical plot, and drama that’s shallower than a dorm shower.

Let’s linger on that first one, shall we? Where the Vincent Price flick was of sanitized 1950’s vintage, the new House of Wax was born into a meaner epoch, smack dab in the middle of the rise of torture porn. As a result, there are obviously much more prolonged and miserable scenes of people being chained to giant metal contraptions and whatnot. Really, it comes with the territory. But the striking thing about House of Wax’s new grim perspective is the artistry put into rendering the gore as realistically as possible.

From close-up grue like superglued lips and peeling wax skin to the realistically bloody aftermath of punches and blows, House of Wax makes an art form of turning the stomach. And the biggest showstopper of the film transcends even the gooey carnage, abuilding made entirely of wax melting to the ground. It’s visually arresting stuff, and if I rated films solely on effects, House of Wax would be an unequivocal 10/10.

Unfortunately I rate films on a variety of criteria, and in nearly every other respect, House of Wax fails spectacularly. One of the film’s most notable deficits is the acting. Featuring a notorious performance by the self-indulgent heiress Paris Hilton, the stakes become ludicrously low as she fails to entirely convince that she isn’t already made of wax. Any performer in the world would look like Brando when compared to Little Miss Trust Fund, but by golly do her co-stars push to give her a run for her money.

To be fair, providing motivation for the mountain of dumb-ass white horror character decisions that comprise the plot (“Let’s wander into a closed house of wax! And take a ride from a stranger whose car is decorated with rodent carcasses And then go home and floss with a rusty chain saw!” At one point, a hapless teen literally runs into a wall.) would be a challenge for Stella Adler herself. But wet-behind-the-ears stars Elisha Cuthbert and Jared Padalecki flail to find any sort of purchase on the impenetrable blocks of dialogue and Chad Michael Murray’s strained attempts to portray an “edgy” and “hard” criminal type just one year after A Cinderella Story are flecked with flop sweat and patchy stubble.

The basic story structure starts off interesting, splitting up the core cast between widely disparate locations, but it devolves into an aimless piece that reliably and impressively fails to follow through on the tortured seedlings of themes it attempts to plant, like the idea of two sets of twins facing off (Cuthbert and Murray are ostensibly siblings, although her brunette weave – probably mandated to accentuate Hilton’s golden tresses – isn’t doing her any favors) or small town vs. city living.

Luckily, as I mentioned before, the film is kind of disproportionately gorgeous, with dizzying, roving camera shots that highlight the moody gothic lighting scheme. It’s unfair, really, because the quality cinematography (as well as the terrific gore) prevents me from unequivocally panning the film like I urgently desire to. The acting might be dramatic backwash, the killer might look suspiciously like Tommy Wiseau, and the plot might be risibly coherent – bordering on absurdism – but there’s just enough to make it a remotely pleasing remake. Yay!

Rating: 5/10

Obvious Child
Year: 2014
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A heartbroken comedian sleeps with a cute stranger and discovers that she’s pregnant.

Whatever else it may be, Obvious Child is a charming film. It is also a romantic comedy, no matter how much its glowing reviews attempt to push and prod it into a  more agreeable shape. Along with that genre comes a bricklike tome of rules and conventions that the film does a great deal to subvert, but it can only do so much.

For a lot of the time, Obvious Child is astoundingly typical: a drunken montage of leaving voicemails on the ex’s phone, the sassy gay friend who can hardly keep from gagging on the arch dialogue jammed with ultrahip slang words that haven’t even been invented yet, a protagonist that spins world-shattering problems out of a situation that could easily be cleared up with a thirty-second conversation… It’s sweet, but you’ve had this dessert before. If it’s not Jenny Slate, it’s Julia Roberts, Katherine Heigl, Reese Witherspoon, Cameron Diaz, Meg Ryan, Marilyn Monroe.

But the thing is, it is Jenny Slate. And it is Gillian Robesspierre, directing and adapting a feature version of her 2009 short film. And where the film breaks from romantic comedy convention, it breaks hard and fast like an unleashed puppy. [MID-FILM SPOILERS ABOUND IN THE REMAINDER OF THIS REVIEW] Where Obvious Child could easily have been a female-centric Knocked Up riff, it bites down and takes the risk to discuss what that film was too terrified to contemplate: what if abortion really is the right decision in some cases?

Telling even a dopey, generic story with that backdrop is a bracingly fresh approach, and Obvious Child’s social impact is practically limitless. It juggles all the trials of that decision (weighing your options, deciding to tell the father, examining one’s own moral principles) in a raw, straightforward manner without dropping the cheery torches of humor and new love. 

I just wish it were a tad funnier, you know? It’s never unfunny, but a lot of the humor is far from groundbreaking. Thinking back, there’s only one line that legitimately stuck with me and a couple of the more vulgar scenarios tickled, but the bulk of the film is deliberately low key and indie chic. It’s as if they didn’t have the budget to cover the medical expenses of keeping people in stitches.

Luckily, Jenny Slate manages to keep it all together. Her performance is unequivocal proof that, in order to be a good comedian, you must be a deft storyteller. So much of the film requires her to wring humor from moments of genuine emotion and she fearlessly bares her soul for the good of the story, always keeping herself comfortably far from flying over the top and turning into an SNL sketch.

Her character takes “flawed protagonist” to an almost surreal level (and her best friend/foil Gaby Hoffman – who gladly drops everything and does Jenny’s job while she mopes in a box – is clearly a figure from high medieval fantasy), but she manages to cobble a likeable, effervescent presence from the wreckage. And when all is said and done, the films speeds by like a hamster on crack.

It’s a lopsided flick, but as a first directorial effort it’s spectacular. There are certainly kinks to work out, but Robespierre is a woman to watch out for. She has delivered a tight, silly, emotionally honest flick that goes for the jugular of typical social norms. It might not have you rolling on the floor, but it’s important, well crafted, and – most of all – just darn pleasant.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 2010

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