‘Whiplash’, ‘Blackhat’ and ‘Into the Woods’ reviews: Choose ‘Whiplash’.

Miles Teller (Andrew Neyman) and J.K. Simmons (Terence Fletcher) in Whiplash
Miles Teller (Andrew Neyman) and J.K. Simmons (Terence Fletcher) in Whiplash

Whiplash is an awesome, AWESOME film. Go watch it.

Really. And I’m not just saying it because it’s my movie. J.K. Simmons has been sweeping up practically all the Best Supporting Actor trophies on the awards circuit since December, and when you watch his performance as the sociopathic, impossible-to-please band conductor Terence Fletcher, you’ll understand why. Not only understand — you’ll see reflections of your worst bosses, your fiercest teachers, and bullying army drill sergeants in him, dialed up to 10,000. He’s like the “Tiger Mum” of Asian culture, except more abusive, since you’re not his child and he certainly doesn’t have any love for you.

The film is about a young drummer, Andrew Neyman (played by an intense and appropriately douchey-at-times Miles Teller) who wants to be in the famous studio jazz band of the music conservatory he’s attending. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your views of his methods), the band is ruled by a tyrannical band conductor with a temper that makes his students cower in instant obedience and absolute silence the moment he walks into the room (anyone you know who inspires this sort of reaction from the people under him/her?), and a penchant for physical and verbal abuse, should anyone even play a microscopic differential off his tempo. Which is exactly what rains down on our poor unsuspecting drummer on his very first day in the band, in what I feel is the absolute best scene of the movie. And there were many fantastic ones.

J.K. Simmons as your worst nightmare of a band conductor in Whiplash
J.K. Simmons as your worst nightmare of a band conductor in Whiplash

Lesser men would quit the band immediately, or be browbeaten into living out their days hoping they never screw up and get on Fletcher’s bad side. Not Neyman though, who goes back more determined than ever to prove that he’s a drummer worthy of being the next Buddy Rich. His ambition is fuelled by Fletcher’s seeming impartiality in awarding spots to those who can play to his satisfaction. Unfortunately for him, Fletcher’s levels of satisfaction fluctuate like a crazy stock market barometer, and as quickly as he awards chances, he takes them away. Being the driven, passionate drummer that he is, Neyman finds this unfair of course, and gets into shouting matches and scuffles with his fellow drummers and with Fletcher himself, setting the film up as an intense battle between two people — one who wants desperately to succeed, and the other who seems hellbent on stopping him.

Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman, playing till he literally bleeds in Whiplash
Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman, playing till he literally bleeds

Fletcher is an extreme case of a mentor pushing a student to his limits, but while such methods may cross the line in the Western world, you can very well imagine that’s how Chinese coaches train Olympic gymnasts (or any other competitive sport athletes) to win gold. I’m pretty sure I’ve watched quite a few martial arts dramas where the “shifus” force their disciples to train under even harsher circumstances. Fletcher is uncompromising in his search for perfection, but Neyman is the only student who rises to his challenge and practises till he bleeds, deliberately lets go of his chance for a romantic relationship so that he can be free of distractions (this is where the douchey part comes in), and even goes berserk at one point. Of course, he regrets some of his decisions later, but is it worth it in the end? It’s up to the audience, who is presented both sides of the argument, to decide which is more important. Do you want to be great or would you rather settle for less, have friends and a social life? Can you withstand the sacrifices it takes to achieve greatness?

This is a movie that I wish everyone who wants to pursue excellence in anything, or who has suffered under a difficult teacher who accepts nothing less than perfection, or underwent some tough army drilling, would watch, because we can all relate, and we can all learn something from the film. Even though it’s a little extreme.

J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash
My favourite quote from the movie: “There are no two words more harmful in the entire English language than ‘good job’.”

Meanwhile, I also watched Blackhat. What I liked about the movie — and went to watch it for — was Chris Hemsworth, the international cast (including Singapore’s very own Adrian Pang) and the international setting. What I didn’t like? Everything else.

Chris Hemsworth as genius hacker Nick Hathaway in Blackhat
Chris Hemsworth as genius hacker Nick Hathaway in Blackhat

On paper, it sounded great. Chris Hemsworth was my main draw, but Tang Wei, Wang Leehom and Viola Davis are good too, and I was curious how they would do the whole East-meets-West team-up. Plus, as I mentioned in my “Movies Coming Soon” post, where I put it under the movies I was excited about, director Michael Mann is known for good movies like The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, Collateral etc., even though his last two movies — Miami Vice and Public Enemies — didn’t do well at the box office. In the wake of the Sony hack by North Korea, such a cyber thriller would seem more timely and pertinent than ever.

But nope. Blackhat turned out to be a “visually muddled, dramatically clumsy cyberthriller” (Variety). There were too many long moments of quietness, and zooming into the wires and circuits and whatever as electrical currents travel to relay commands, only to end with the oh-so-climatic moment of an unseen person pressing “Enter”, before the camera zooms back out and then something *FINALLY* explodes. For a thriller, it could have had more action, and its action could also have been better shot. There was lots of shaky cam, which I hate. The fight scenes were done so choppily, which makes me suspect they had no idea what they were doing and they were experimenting with effects they thought were cool. Well, they aren’t. Also, the picture changes continuously between raw grainy images and sharp images, which makes it look like the film was shot by several different cinematographers. Or directors. The styling was so reminiscent of Michael Mann’s last film Public Enemies, that at times, I thought I was watching Public Enemies in a different setting. And I did not like Public Enemies.

Even so, I didn’t expect Blackhat to tank as badly as it did. It opened in 10th place with US$3.9 million in its first weekend in the U.S., which is terrible for a wide release, and means the production company will definitely not recoup back its US$70 million budget, and that’s not inclusive of the marketing costs. (Meanwhile, in that same weekend, American Sniper broke records EVERYWHERE to earn US$89 million in its first weekend over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, far outpacing runner-up The Wedding Ringer which opened at US$20 million. Which we were delighted to hear about, because it’s our movie.)

Tang Wei (Chen Lien) and Chris Hemsworth (Nick Hathaway) in Blackhat
Tang Wei (Chen Lien) and Chris Hemsworth (Nick Hathaway) in Blackhat

I hope this doesn’t mean Chris Hemsworth will have less opportunities to play characters who aren’t Thor or The Huntsman. His In The Heart of the Sea, which was supposed to come out on 12 March, has been moved to a December release date, a move suspected to boost its Oscar chances. (Though it could also be to distance it from the clunking Blackhat.) He looked really good in Blackhat (though he could have buttoned up his shirt more, instead of draping it haphazardly over his partially bared chest. I know he has great abs, and Asia is hot and humid, but I like my men clothed more than I like them naked, partially or not.) But that’s all I can say for him in that film. And it’s not even that he can’t act, because he can. It’s that the whole film — the snoozy and at times ludicrous story, the patchwork cinematography, the sloppy editing, etc. — didn’t do any favours to any of the actors giving it their best shot.

On a somewhat related tangent: Another movie flopping like a fish out of water now is Johnny Depp’s Mortdecai, which earned a paltry US$4 million in its first weekend. It’s Johnny Depp’s fifth flop in a row where he’s the leading man, and while I have absolutely no intention of watching Mortdecai, it is sad to see the career of someone whom you used to like go down the drain. Long before Robert Downey Jr. re-broke out with Iron Man, Johnny Depp did it with Pirates of the Caribbean, and was Disney’s superstar until they bought Marvel and RDJ became their superstar. (Definition of “superstar” here: the guy they are willing to negotiate ridiculous salaries with, so that he will come back for the next film in the franchise. Which is exactly what they did with Johnny Depp so that Disney could make Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. As a result of the whole film being a blatant cash grab, it sucked balls, even though it earned over a billion dollars worldwide.)

James Corden (The Baker), Emily Blunt (The Baker's Wife) and Meryl Streep (The Witch) in Into the Woods
James Corden (The Baker), Emily Blunt (The Baker’s Wife) and Meryl Streep (The Witch) in Into the Woods

Also watched Into the Woods. It was fine? It felt long though, because where fairytales usually end at happily-ever-after, there was still half-an-hour to go before the movie/musical ended. The happily-ever-after took so long to arrive at in the first place that waiting for the movie’s twists to play out tried my patience. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if I liked the songs more — after all, a musical is only made memorable by its songs — but I can barely remember them now. It was fun watching Meryl Streep be an old hag though, and then later a glamorous witch. But Anna Kendrick’s heaving bosoms were very distracting.

I saw quite a few families with kids watching the show, but I really wouldn’t recommend bringing kids to watch this movie. It’s more adult fare than anything else, what with its dark themes and subtext that will probably fly over your kids’ heads, and no straightforward happy ending. Unless you’re all for exposing your kids to the harsh realities of the world at an early age, in which, go ahead.