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Whiplash

The Theory Of Everything

December 4, 2014

Whiplash (****) R

For my money, director Damien Chazelle’s film Whiplash is the single best experience I’ve had at the movies this year.  The compelling performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are only two of the reasons why Whiplash is a must see experience for any self-respecting moviegoer. It’s an utterly compelling film from start to finish that never hit a false note. Some have mentioned some displeasure with the film’s third act but I simply didn’t find anything worth complaining about.  Whiplash had me in its spell from start to finish and that’s pretty rare these days.

Teller stars as Andrew Neyman. Andrew is absolutely consumed with becoming a jazz drummer to the point where nothing else in life matters to him, having witnessed firsthand the failures of his father’s (Paul Reiser) attempt at a writing career.

The one person who may prove to be a stumbling block to Andrew’s dreams is his music conservatory instructor, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, bringing to mind comparisons to R. Lee Ermey’s drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket).

Miles Teller & J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

When Terrence offers the up and coming musician an opportunity to join his band, Andrew believes the only way is up. Terrence’s adversarial style, however, proves to be more than Andrew bargained as time eventually reveals, and Andrew finds himself on the way to a breakdown.

Andrew awkwardly attempts to build a life outside of the world of jazz drumming but finds his attempts futile. He simply cares for nothing or no one beyond his dreams of becoming a world-class jazz drummer. This is illustrated in a subplot wherein he begins a tentative relationship with a girl who works at a movie theater he frequents. Andrew quickly discovers that a relationship would only get in the way of his plans, eventually breaking up with the girl in a heartbreaking, powder keg of a scene that resonated for me long after I had exited the my screening of the film. In short, for Andrew, jazz drumming is as essential to his survival as breathing.

I mentioned the performances of the Simmons and Teller but other interesting performances abound in the film during its unspooling. Paul Reiser, as Andrew’s failed artist father, is reminiscent of people many of us have met, who secretly harbor a desire to be great in the eyes of the world and who, for whatever reason, never quite got there, and resigned instead to a life of what-could-have-beens. I also enjoyed Melissa Benoist as Nicole, Andrew’s would be girlfriend, in the few scenes in which she appears. Her vulnerability in the breakup scene is enough to touch even the most hardened of hearts.

Whiplash is a great film for sure and it’s sad that the greatness of a film like this is the exception rather than the rule these days. Still, when a film this exceptional comes along it should be embraced. I’m urging everyone reading this to do just that. (At press time, this movie is playing in Charlotte.)

The Theory of Everything (***) PG-13

The Theory of Everything is a biopic and as such it covers the great physicist Stephen Hawking’s varied scientific theories and professional accomplishments but the biggest surprise is that the film turns out to be a compelling love story more than anything else.

The relationship between Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife, Jane (Felicity Jones) is front and center in the film and I guess that’s logical when one considers the film is based on Jane’s memoir, Traveling to Infinity, My Life with Stephen. The film doesn’t shy away from the challenges these two faced in their years together. Eventually, Hawking would end the marriage proving that even the most brilliant scientist can still be in the dark when it comes to matters of the heart, but that’s another story.

The film introduces us to Hawking in 1963 as a 21 year old, slightly awkward, Cambridge doctoral candidate who’s intent on finding the equation that will explain everything. Before he’s able to do that, he meets Jane and soon thereafter is diagnosed with a motor neuron disease and told he only has two years to live. In spite of the odds, the two young lovers press on, marry and raise a family, unsure of what is to come.

Of course, the renowned scientist would beat the odds, thusly creating a new set of issues in the process. Jane takes comfort in her religion and opts to get involved in a local church choir wherein she chances to meet widower, Jonathan (Charlie Cox). Jane and Jonathan develop feelings for each other but because of the delicate nature of the situation feel it’s unwise to act on their emotions.

Felicity Jones & Eddie Redmayne in ‘Theory’

A female caretaker hired to help with Stephen’s physical impairments only complicates problems.

The performances in the film are extraordinary, especially Redmayne in the lead role. Of course, he physically embodies the essence of Stephen Hawking, which made him an obvious choice for the part, but his performance goes beyond the physical stuff. Like all great actors portraying subjects in the public eye, you simply forget that you are watching a performance and utterly believe that you are seeing events unfolding in the life of the real Stephen Hawking. Jones is also quite compelling as Jane, possessing just the right amount of tenderness, vulnerability and spunk.

The problem with the film and the thing that keeps it from being the home run it should have been is its formulaic feel. Too often the film feels as if it’s a film made for British television audiences. Though it’s undeniably well made and interesting from time to time, it simply can’t escape the hangdog feeling of Oscar bait which pervade the proceedings.

Perhaps it would have been a bit more compelling had we had the opportunity to get inside the film’s subject’s head more often. As it stands, The Theory of Everything, is pleasant enough but not likely to set moviegoers’ souls on fire. (At press time, this movie is playing in Charlotte.

Questions or comments? Write Adam at filmfan1970@hotmail.com.

 

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