Sundance 2014 Capsule Review: Whiplash, or The Most Unconventional David Vs. Goliath Story in Years


If Miles Teller doesn’t become a superstar, I’m leaving Earth. At the young age of 26, with less than five roles completed, he’s already become the quintessential man: blowing away critics, fans, and movie lovers everywhere with his charismatic smooth delivery. Last year he carved his place in Hollywood with an incredible performance in The Spectacular Now. Sure, he’s had parts in a few teen comedies aimed for a teen audience, but when the role demands it, he has shown the world he can project maturity with fresh vibrant sincerity. Once again, Teller has commanded the screen with fierce determination in Damien Chazelle’s second feature, Whiplash.

Whiplash follows Andrew Neyman (Teller)  — he’s a freshman in college and wants to be the best jazz drummer at his East Coast music conservatory. Neyman doesn’t have any friends — which is by choice — and the closest he has to a social life is seeing movies with his father (played by Paul Reiser). This is Okay with him because playing the school’s drum set after hours is what stimulates him most; he wants to become a legend and nothing will get in his way. When he’s finally selected as an alternate backup drummer in the school’s prominent band taught by the well-regarded but ruthless music conductor, Terence Fletcher (in a staggering performance by J.K. Simmons), he feels like he’s already on top. But this isn’t a fairytale, and Neyman quickly learns he’s going to have to fight harder, play faster, and challenge the one person he admires most — Fletcher — no matter what the consequences are. 

From the moment Simmons shows up on screen, to the last frame he’s in, Simmons gives one of the most energetic (and quite terrifying) performances of his career. His Terence Fletcher teaches by inflicting fear and emotional pain. Instead of finding what his students are good at, Fletcher sniffs out their weakness and exploits it. To him, this form of teaching will filter out the worst of the best. I can’t remember the last time a film pushed its actors mentally as well as physically, but Whiplash brings the pain as our two leads battle out their differences.

What makes Whiplash so compelling is the war between our two leads — aside from Simmons’ machine gun spray of expletives at his students (and a thrown chair here and there) — there’s not much dialogue exchanged and not a single punch is thrown. These two spill blood (literally) with what they are good at: Neyman beating the drums as hard as he can, and Fletcher screaming in Neyman’s face that he’s not playing the drums good enough. Both want the same thing, but these two in the same room is like watching a tornado meet a volcano. Whiplash is a fierce story about determination, loss, pain, and following your heart no matter how poisonous it can sometimes be. 

Favorite Films of 2013

Another year, another batch of Top-Films-of-the-Year lists will be coming your way soon. Below is mine - films are listed in no particular order. Enjoy. 

THE KINGS OF SUMMER - Reviewed for Twitch


THE WAY, WAY BACK - Reviewed for Twitch


THE SPECTACULAR NOW -  Reviewed for Twitch








UPSTREAM COLOR - Reviewed for We Got This Covered


MAN OF STEEL - Reviewed for


PRINCE AVALANCHE  - Reviewed for We Got This Covered










SUN DON’T SHINE - Reviewed for Twitch




Honorable Mentions: 

AFTERNOON DELIGHT - Reviewed for Twitch


C.O.G. - Reviewed for Twitch

Films I missed lots of folks are heehawing about:





NEBRASKA (Update: This is my favorite film of the year.)

Films I watched and liked just OK lots of folks are heehawing about:




Anticipated films not released at the time of this post:

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (Update: didn’t care for this one)

AMERICAN HUSTLE (Update: I liked this one)

HER (UPDATE: Warner Bros. sent me a For Your Consideration screener of HER. It’s a solid film but not a favorite of the year.)

Sundance 2013 Review: THE SPECTACULAR NOW is an Important Coming-of-Age Movie About Teens for Adults

The late John Hughes was the man in Hollywood who understood teenagers and teen angst better than anyone else in the industry. He knew how to tell beautiful stories about how sometimes being young can be weird and confusing, and brought this to life on film flawlessly. The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles are timeless classics, not only because they’re good storytelling and star Molly Ringwald, but because their depiction of high school life is still accurate to this very day. The older the audience is, the more the films become relatable. This brings me to James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, which is perhaps the most important adult-oriented film about the victories and woes of high school life in the last decade.
Free spirited closet-alcoholic high schooler Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) has many talents, but making good decisions is not one of them. At the near-end of his senior year in high school, his really hot girlfriend dumps him for a silly reason (and possibly for another guy). Like any other recently dumped closet-alcoholic who lives on a steady diet of whiskey, he pursues exciting opportunities in the field of getting piss drunk and waking up dazed and confused on strangers’ front lawns. Standing over him during his latest outing is Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), who stops on her morning paper route to check to see if he’s dead. After collecting his thoughts, she helps him find his car, which he somehow lost during his drunken slumber the night before. 
Aimee’s not the most popular kid in school. In fact, she goes unnoticed by even the uncoolest of uncool kids, and the closest she’s had to a guy flirting with her is when he asked if she’d tutor him in Math (it was Sutter, the day after they first met). Seeing something special in her, Sutter begins an unlikely friendship with Aimee, which takes them on a journey of something much deeper and more satisfying than both originally imagined. 
Sutter and Aimee’s chemistry is dynamic and they hit it off immediately. What helps is Sutter’s fearless resolve to live in the now, which in turn helps Aimee loosen up to embellish her life a little bit.
Director James Ponsoldt really knows how to bring out the spectacular wow in his actors. Last year, in his sophomore feature, Smashed, he gave Mary Elizabeth Winstead room to shine in a career-defining performance. After seeing her poignant and courageous performance of a struggling alcoholic, I will forever be a part of the MEW fan club. MEW, by the way, peeks briefly into this film.
The lead in Ponsoldt’s latest is Teller. He had a very small role in John Cameron Mitchell’sRabbit Hole, and his little screen time showed he had a lot of bite in him. In The Spectacular Now, he chews up every scene he’s in. His performance as the cool Sutter is effortless and the most entrancing portrayal of a calm but persevering high schooler I’ve seen in years. Sutter really winds around the heart - his pizzazz is surprisingly unassuming, which makes every guy want to be him. He’s so adventurous, he even commits the unspeakable crime of falling in love with the school dork. He lives how he wants to live and that’s in the now - right in this moment. But remember, he’s heavy on the sauce, so a lot of hard life lessons lie ahead of him. No matter how daring you are, life will still suck the proverbial donkey dick when it wants to. 
Shailene Woodley co-starred in last year’s hit, The Descendants. She’s not even 21 and already on her way to leading lady status. She may play the harmless loser here, but Aimee’s determination to win at life is incredibly endearing. This is due to Woodley’s onscreen charisma. Big things are coming her way. There’s also a great cameo from Kyle Chandler as Sutter’s deadbeat father. His screen time is short, but it’s one of the best performances he’s ever given. 
The Spectacular Now is adapted from the novel of the same name by (500) Days of Summerscribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. These two gents clearly know a thing or two about heartache. They say a movie will never be as good as the book, but perhaps they’ve broken that trend with the aid of Ponsoldt. I haven’t read the book, but when I left the theater, I felt like I was punched in the heart and strangely enough, loved it. 
There are dozens of teen films that stop being appreciated at a certain age. I can’t remember the last time I watched Drive Me Crazy for its profound and important underlying messages. Films like Drive Me Crazy are fun when you’re 16, but lose their appeal when you’ve grown up and realize the only cool thing was the soundtrack, which now sucks. The Spectacular Now will be remembered as a high school movie with a determined message - that living in the now is a constant change, whether we’re ready or not. This is the most important coming-of-age movie you’ll see this year. It’s so beautiful it hurts my feelings. 
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