Ab-normal Beauty (2004)

Director: Oxide Pang

Starring: Race Wong, Rosanne Wong, Anson Leung

Several clichés exist regarding photography. Among them, two of the more prominent ones are “A picture is worth a thousand words” and “Take a picture! It’ll last longer!” Moments in time can fade from memory forever without this visual aid. Even in the case of a movie, if it goes unseen for long enough, it can be forgotten. I don’t know exactly how many years have passed since the one and only time I had previously seen “Ab-normal Beauty,” but it was long enough ago that I had managed to combine my recollections of it with another movie all-together. What that other movie is, I still don’t know (and that will be an investigation for another time), but what I do know is that the overall tone of “Ab-normal Beauty” and the film’s final thirty minutes or so took me completely by surprise.

Our main character is a real piece of work. Jiney (Race Wong) is a talented, award-winning art and photography student, and yet she’s unsatisfied. She has grown tired of taking the same boring nature photographs, looking for inspiration elsewhere. Jiney finds it at the scene of a fatal car crash (the same one depicted in “Leave Me Alone,” directed by Oxide Pang’s brother, Danny). Jiney’s inspiration grows into obsession, as she actively seeks to capture “the moment of death” wherever she can find it. At first, this is limited to the killings of chickens and fish at a food market, but soon even that is not enough. Eventually, Jiney is able to film the before, during and aftermath of a suicide, the deceased having jumped from the roof of a tall building.

I would say that this has been a slow descent into madness for Jiney but, in reality, the movie begins with her coming off as somewhat unhinged. Her lesbian friend Jas (Rosanne Wong, Race’s sister) worries for her, especially when Jiney turns the topic of conversation towards suicide. At first, it sounds like it’s just a matter of not being loved enough by her own mother, but it goes deeper than that. Some emotional scars were developed at an early age when Jiney’s cousin raped her, after which she pushed him down a flight of stairs, killing him. When she tried to talk to her mother about it, she was believed to be making it all up. That doesn’t leave much room for her mental anguish to do anything but stay bottled up.

Just when Jiney’s death obsession seems poised to carry her into the next step of committing murder in order to get her next great photograph, with Jas’s help she removes the temptation by destroying all of her macabre work. But all is not over, as shortly thereafter Jiney receives a package in the mail containing a videotape. When she watches, what she sees horrifies her. A girl is chained to a chair and slowly beaten to death by an unknown assailant. Jiney and Jas come to believe that the person responsible has to be someone who knew of Jiney’s obsession. Their one and only suspect is Anson (Anson Leung), a fellow art student whose only crime was being interested in Jiney. He did send her a video, it’s true, but by e-mail. The video in question was a music video meant to impress Jiney, not frighten her.

This is where the final, dark half-hour kicks into gear. Jiney later receives a second videotape from the same source. Another girl is shown chained to a chair and is beaten to death. Jiney recognizes immediately that the girl is her friend, Jas. She has no time to grieve before she is taken by the killer, and becomes the next girl to sit in the chair. With several cameras pointed at her to capture every angle, Jiney begins to understand what’s going on. The killer intends to show Jiney that, unlike her, he is committed to his obsession with death. Upon getting him to drop his guard, Jiney manages to break loose and hang him with his own chains. His identity concealed, Jiney removes his mask to reveal a face she recognizes from a prior meeting. The flashback is so brief that it leaves me a little confused. I think that he’s meant to have been the waiter at Jiney and Anson’s lunch date, but I’m not 100% sure. I suppose I could have gone back and checked, but I didn’t bother.

I’ve had my fill of Asian supernatural horror, which includes “The Eye” (another film by the Pang brothers). Thankfully, there is nothing supernatural about “Ab-normal Beauty.” There is, however, a certain disconnect created by the Cantonese-to-English translation, resulting in subtitles that often make no sense. Still, this robs nothing from Race Wong’s strong performance as Jiney. Pretty good for a Cantopop singer (she and sister Rosanne form the group 2R). It’s also clear that the people behind the camera have just as good an eye for what makes for good imagery as does Jiney. It’s just too bad that the story wrapped around them isn’t a more compelling or memorable one. I’ll be more likely to recall the basic elements of “Ab-normal Beauty” this time simply because I’ve chosen to write about it. Taking a mental picture helps the memory last longer.

April Fool's Day (1986)

Director: Fred Walton

Starring: Jay Barker, Deborah Foreman, Deborah Goodrich, Ken Olandt, Griffin O’Neal, Leah Pinsent, Clayton Rohner, Amy Steel, Thomas F. Wilson

The only way that the slasher formula has been able to survive for as long as it has is by occasionally subverting the audience’s expectations. There’s only so many times you can do the Final Girl vs. Psycho Killer scenario before the audience goes numb to the action, believing that they can write the scripts themselves. How many holiday-themed horror films are out there, now? Even by the mid-1980’s, there were quite a few, most of them relatively indistinguishable from one another. Some people like it this way. It’s comforting. I understand that, but what I can’t understand is how anyone could have expected a movie called “April Fool’s Day” to behave like a traditional slasher movie. If there’s one thing that’s notable about the 1st day of April, it’s that you can’t believe anything you see or hear.

During Spring Break, eight college friends come together to vacation at a secluded island mansion owned by their mutual friend, Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman). A dark cloud is cast upon the proceedings when an accident on the ferry ride to the mansion results in a graphic facial injury to the deckhand. When the friends arrive at the mansion, they find that every last corner of the place has been set up with various practical jokes. Some are having a harder time maintaining a sense of humor than others, but everyone is doing their best to put the recent tragedy out of their minds. Things once again take a serious turn, and suddenly no one is laughing anymore.

Skip (Griffin O’Neal) is the first to go missing. Kit (Amy Steel) manages only a brief glimpse of what she is convinced was Skip’s corpse. Arch (Thomas F. Wilson) is next, being hung upside down and nearly bitten by a large snake before someone sneaks up on him. He is soon followed by Nan (Leah Pinsent). The remains of all three are discovered when Nikki (Deborah Goodrich) falls in the well. Alerting the authorities does the group no good; there’s no passage off the island until the weekend is over. Up until now, the thought has been that the incident with the deckhand is what has sparked their troubles. But those who remain begin to notice some rather disturbing behavorial changes in Muffy. Soon, only Kit and Rob (Ken Olandt) are left to try and figure out what’s going on. A trail of clues presents itself, and Kit and Rob follow them like bread crumbs. They learn of Muffy’s insane, violent twin sister Buffy, who has escaped from a mental hospital. Not long after, they come across the severed head of Muffy, thus revealing that the “Muffy” who has been their hostess for the weekend has been Buffy all along. Buffy then shows up with a knife and begins chasing after Kit.

Although the body count in this movie has been high, all of the deaths have taken place off-screen. There’s good reason for that. Just when things are beginning to look dire for Kit, she opens a door to reveal… all of her friends alive and well?! Each of their disappearances, it turns out, coincided with their being let in on the gag. Even the deckhand, completely unharmed, had his role to play. The story about the crazy twin? Well, Muffy explains, that’s only a half-truth. She does have a “crazy” twin, her brother Skip (whom everyone had been led to believe was her cousin). What had been taking place was this: Muffy hopes to turn the mansion into an attraction where people can come and participate in a staged murder mystery. But Muffy needed to be sure it could work, and so planned a dress rehearsal. What better test subjects than her best friends? Kit is understandably furious, as the others no doubt were at first, but eventually she comes around and everyone celebrates a gag well played. There’s an extra ending where it looks like Muffy is being legitimately murdered by Nan, but it’s just another prank. Fool me once…

What initially drew my attention to “April Fool’s Day” was the casting of both Amy Steel (“Friday the 13th Part 2”) and Thomas F. Wilson (“Back to the Future” trilogy). However, what really cinches it is that twist ending, showing that this slasher film is not really a slasher film after all. That wins extra points for this quaint little movie, which might have been forgettable otherwise. Whether you’ll have a good time watching it may largely depend on if the unconventional conclusion bothers you, as it has done for some. It shouldn’t. At just under ninety minutes, “April Fool’s Day” has a brief story to tell and doesn’t get bogged down with boring subplots like some other titles in the genre. If you’re a bit squeamish, don’t worry, as what little blood there is in this movie is fake even within the context of the story. As for its re-watch value, well, I’ve seen it twice now and actually had more fun with it the second time, armed with the knowledge of just what the heck is going on. I don’t generally care for practical jokes, myself, but this movie is one “April Fool’s” prank that I can get behind.

The Thing (1982)

Director: John Carpenter

Starring; Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis, Thomas Waites

Second to waking up to a world where you’re the last man standing, the idea of being unable to distinguish friend from foe that wants to copy and destroy you is one of the most terrifying thoughts that I can conjure. In the 1950’s, there were several tales of fiction which fed this particular fear. One was the 1951 science fiction classic “The Thing from Another World” which was based on the 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. One of the very first films about a hostile alien force, it made other, similar films like Ridley Scott’s “Alien” possible. The John Carpenter-directed remake of “The Thing” is less a re-telling of the 1951 film than it is a closer adaptation of the original source material.

The film opens with an alien spacecraft crashing to the Earth, and then moves ahead to the winter of 1982, where an American research team located in Antarctica have their quiet operation interrupted by a nearby research team composed of Norwegians, who are inexplicably chasing a husky with a rifle, thermal charges and a helicopter. All but one are killed when one of the thermal charges misfires and destroys the helicopter. The surviving Norwegian gets a bullet through the eye, courtesy of one of our defending American scientists. The Americans, led by R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), bring the dog inside their compound. They move to investigate the Norwegians, wanting to know just what could have possibly driven them to hunt down that dog. When they arrive at the camp…. or what remains of it…. they discover inside the charred remains of some hideous looking thing that actually has a few human features. Being the scientists that they are, they bring it back with them to their base. Big mistake.

They find out, as soon as they put him in with their other sled dogs, that this one is not a dog at all. One shocking special effects sequence later, and the “dog” has begun to absorb two of three huskies. After a quick blast from their flamethrower, the scientists find that this…. whatever it is…. was not just absorbing the other dogs. It was beginning to copy them, and would have finished the job had they not acted so quickly to stop it. Suddenly, a fear overwhelms the group: That “dog” had been running loose for quite a while before they put it in the kennel, and it had been alone with more than one of them for extended periods. So, who among the research team is really them, and who is a copy? Another question that comes up but that is answered by another helicopter search is how long it had been here. Frozen solid for 10,000 years, apparently, and they have the Norwegians to thank for digging it and its spaceship out of the ice.

Foolishly, they have kept both the creature from the Norwegian site and the faux huskies, and when one of them is left alone in the room with the Norwegians’ “thing,” he is absorbed just like the dogs were. His friends destroy it but one of them, Blair (a moustache-less Wilford Brimley) suffers a nervous breakdown. He’s just calculated that the entire world’s population could be overrun by this thing in a little more than three years, and he’s determined to see that doesn’t happen. He sabotages the helicopter and the radio, and also kills the remaining dogs. He’s put away in the tool shed for his own health, but the damage is done. All contact with the outside world is gone. Worse still, they cannot run the standard blood test because all the blood packs have been destroyed. Three more lives are lost when Norris (Charles Hallahan) appears to suffer a heart attack but is proven to be a copy when Dr. Cooper (Richard Dysart) attempts to defibrillate him and has both arms chewed off by Norris’s “torso.” Not long after this, Clark (Richard Masur) is shot through the head by MacReady when Clark attempts to stab him from behind.

Finally, a blood test is improvised by MacReady, touching a heated copper wire to a blood sample from the thumbs of Cooper, Clark, and each surviving scientist (except for Blair, still exhiled in the tool shed). Through this test Palmer (David Clennon) is I.D.’ed as a copy and destroyed, but not before taking Windows (Thomas G. Waites) with him/it. MacReady and three others are found to still be human, and they move to test Blair as well. The tool shed, at first glance, appears empty, but they realize Blair has dug a tunnel underneath where he has been building what looks very much like a small version of the alien spacecraft that crashed to Earth. “Blair” absorbs two of them, leaving MacReady to fend for himself while Childs (Keith David) is nowhere to be found. MacReady uses the dynamite they’ve set up to destroy “Blair” and their entire research facility. Childs shows up out of nowhere but, realizing just how futile it is to go on distrusting one another, he and MacReady share a drink as they “wait a while” and “see what happens” as the temperatures continue to plummet to hazardous levels.

While I’ve observed and participated in much of the displeasure over the growing trend of horror remakes, I cannot deny that there have been some which I felt did manage to outdo the originals. I count “The Thing” among this select group, and John Carpenter’s direction has an awful lot to do with it, as do the spectacular makeup effects (the REAL star of this movie). Carpenter almost didn’t get the job at all, as Tobe Hooper had been the original choice. It’s the first of his movies for which Carpenter didn’t compose the score himself, but I’d like to think of Ennio Morricone as a more than adequate substitute. I’m also impressed by the film’s defiance of the unwritten rule that you must have at least one female cast member in a horror movie. We don’t get to know these twelve men as well as we did the crew of the Nostromo in “Alien,” but I don’t think the movie would work half as well if we did. More intimate knowledge of what makes each individual tick might clue the audience in too quickly when one of them has been copied and replaced. Sadly, “The Thing” did not perform well at the box office in 1982, thanks in large part to Steven Spielberg’s more family-oriented sci-fi adventure about an alien being who gets stranded on Earth. However, the cult status which “The Thing” has sustained for over three decades now proves it to be a modern sci-fi/horror classic, and a must for anyone’s video shelf. When it comes to the subject of copies, one should not fear “The Thing,” but embrace it.

Black Christmas (2006)

Director: Glen Morgan

Starring: Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Hudson, Lacey Chabert, Kristin Cloke, Andrea Martin

A pile of crap, by any other name, would still be a pile of crap. The original “Black Christmas” (made in Canada in 1974 and starring Olivia Hussey of “Romeo & Juliet” fame) was the first movie I chose to write a review for my Reel Affinity blog. A big reason for that was my love of horror movies and that film’s importance to the genre’s history, but also because it is a very suspenseful film. It’s good to know that Glen Morgan, the writer/director of the 2006 remake, feels the same way. That makes it all the more disappointing that his tribute to “Black Christmas” is as terrible as it is.

Going with an approach that Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” remake would also foolishly adopt the next year, “Black Christmas” right away decides the thing to do is to take what was originally a mysterious, spooky and unseen villain and give him a backstory filled with the generic abusive childhood with absolute trailer trash parents. Well, actually, Billy’s biological father is a kind soul… so, naturally, he has to die a gruesome death with his son in full view of the whole thing. Billy’s origin story shows him to be afflicted with an extreme form of jaundice (giving his skin a radioactive yellowish glow), locked up in the attic by his deranged mother and stepfather… and, oh yeah, at the age of 12 he’s raped by his mother and is thus both the father AND brother to Agnes! Ewwwww. Eight years pass and, on Christmas Eve 1991, Billy disfigures Agnes by tearing out her right eye (and then eating it!), as well as killing his mother and stepfather, making Christmas cookies out of his mother’s skin while he waits for the cops to show up. Again with the “ewwwww.”

Now, it would be bad enough if the movie had contained just the one scene of someone having their eyeballs forcibly removed and then consumed, but “Black Christmas” gets downright obsessive about it! Almost every kill scene has something to do with the aforementioned gruesome act. On top of being grotesque even for those well-versed enough in horror films to have a strong stomach, it’s also devoid of creativity. Half the fun of slasher films is the endless possibilities for elaborate death scenes. But “Black Christmas” doesn’t care about any of that. It doesn’t even take care of all the backstory crap in one lump as a prologue, in my opinion, as it should. As a result, what little plot the movie possesses is put on hold and suffers every time another flasback sequence is inserted.

I suppose now’s as good a time as any to briefly touch on the part of the story which takes place in the present day. I’ll only give it as much attention as the writers did. So, Billy breaks out of a psych ward, but the murders at the sorority house begin before this even happens. This lets us know far sooner than we should be finding out that (for no apparent reason) Agnes is in league with her father/brother despite having been disfigured by him. As if the proceedings weren’t absurd enough already, it’s painfully obvious that the character of Agnes is played by a musclebound man. About the only drama going on is that Kelli (Katie Cassidy) is having to deal with Kyle (Oliver Hudson), an unfaithful scumbag boyfriend whose eventual death is cause for celebration rather than despair. The only cast member from the 1974 version who makes an appearance here is Andrea Martin, this time playing house mother Mrs. Mac. Other than Mrs. Mac, the only character who retains the same name is Clair. When she goes missing (having been Billy’s first victim), a family member shows up looking for her, this time her older sister. Too many of the death scenes are lumped together, and it leaves us without some of the more appealing characters for far too much of the film’s final act. And speaking of the climax, the scenes in the hospital (present only for an extra “boo!” moment and chase sequence) can’t help but feel tacked on.

Depending on whether you are watching the US or the international version, certain death scenes are different, as is the ending. Either way, it seems pretty clear this movie wasn’t made with a sequel in mind, and that’s probably a blessing in disguise. The only moment of humor comes in the US version of Melissa (Michelle Trachtenberg)’s demise. She gets scalped from behind when a pair of ice skates is hurled at her head, the skates being a reference to the actress’s previous film: Disney’s “The Ice Princess.”

It’s really impressive, the depths of mediocrity to which 2006’s “Black Christmas” sinks. While the movie’s plot differs wildly from the original, certain key elements of the 1974 film are cherry-picked and thrown in out of context with reckless abandon. Puzzling is how everyone involved was able to package this ugly mess, put a bow on it, and present it as something other than what it is. In all the promotional material, much is made of how this movie is really suspenseful and creepy and not at all like the standard gorefests that audiences have become used to… except that’s exactly what this is. Taking a line from the original, one of the two “making of…” featurettes tucked away in the special features of the DVD is entitled “What Have You Done?” As fitting a question as any.

Halloween 2 (1981)

Director: Rick Rosenthal

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Charles Cyphers, Lance Guest, Pamela Susan Shoop

When preparing for my 2nd annual October horror marathon, it made too much sense not to pick things up right where I left off in 2014. Conveniently, the first movie on my list does exactly that, both in the sense that it is the first sequel to John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and that it begins immediately where its predecessor ended. Although the two are written by the same people (Carpenter and Debra Hill) and feature Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance as its stars, “Halloween” and “Halloween II” are different animals. “Halloween” was a labor of love, a suspenseful stroke of genius, and stands as an all-around horror classic whose influence can still be felt today. “Halloween II,” meanwhile, is an enjoyable thrill ride that is influenced by the very slasher films which the original “Halloween” made possible.

Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) gives chase to Michael Myers, who has fled the scene after Loomis foiled his attempt to murder Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). Somehow, Myers was able to get up and walk away after taking six slugs in the chest from Loomis’s revolver and falling from a second story balcony. To Loomis, this seems to confirm what he’s been saying for the last fifteen years: Michael Myers is inhuman. The town of Haddonfield, Illinois has already had a rough Halloween night, with three teenagers killed. But Michael is far from finished. After murdering an unsuspecting elderly couple and the curious teenage girl in the house nextdoor, he sets his sights on Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, where Laurie Strode has been taken to recover from her injuries.

This hospital, I should point out, is the last one you’d ever want to go to for medical attention. Forget the fact that a soulless monster is descending upon it. The place is horribly understaffed; the few who are there either show up late for work or fraternize with one another when they should be working. This is especially troublesome when you consider that the place comes equipped with a nursery… which we only see once and afterwards are supposed to forget even exists. I can play along with that. But if the size and dedication of the staff leaves something to be desired, the security in this dump is inexcusably bad. There seems to be only one security guard on call, and he’s watching “Night of the Living Dead” on TV when he should be paying more attention to the surveillance cameras. You know, just in case an escaped mental patient with a butcher knife decides to waltz in the back door. Speaking of which, where’s the police detail that should be guarding Laurie’s hospital room at all times?

Dr. Loomis, who also should have thought to check the hospital first, spots someone wearing a familiar-looking mask walking down the street. Loomis almost shoots him, but the person steps out in front of an oncoming police vehicle, is pinned against another car and burned beyond recognition by the resulting gas explosion. There is no quick way to identify the body until later when inquisitive teens start asking around regarding the whereabouts of their drunken friend, Ben Tramer (the boy whom Laurie confessed to having a crush on in the previous film). While Michael is busy picking off the hospital staff one by one, Loomis is out discovering things about him which, while revelatory to the good doctor, are ultimately detrimental to Michael Myers’ position as a force of nature and personification of Evil. At the elementary school, Michael has scribbled the word “Samhain” in blood on a blackboard, which is meant to provide an explanation for why Michael is so damned unstoppable. Next, Loomis is told of the blood ties that link Michael to Laurie Strode. Not that we needed a reason for why Michael’s been stalking her for the past twenty-four hours. John Carpenter is said to have written this part of the script during a late night drinking session. Whether that’s just a joke or not, I don’t know. Honestly, I think the real reason this was done was because of the popular twist ending to “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Learning of the brother/sister relationship between Michael and Laurie causes Loomis to forcefully insist on the car being turned around, in the direction of the hospital. It is there that this series’ Van Helsing and Dracula have their final confrontation. What’s that you say? There are five other sequels (not counting the unrelated “Halloween III”)?! Well, yes, that’s true, but the continuity of those sequels is all screwed up, and it’s further complicated by the fact… not a theory, but a fact… that both Loomis and Michael die in a gas explosion at the hospital. No matter what “Halloween 4” does to retcon this event, there’s no plausible way around it. The only survivors of this mess are Laurie and a paramedic named Jimmy (Lance Guest), although the latter suffers a rather nasty concussion.

There was never any way that “Halloween II” could have hoped to be better than the original. Not when you sap all the mystery out of the Bogeyman and make it possible for him to die. Not when the majority of the cast is more memorable for how they die than for who they are. In the strictest sense, “Halloween II” really is just another slasher film. However, it is an early 80’s slasher film and, although there were excruciatingly terrible entries even during that period when the genre was in its prime, “Halloween II” is among the better ones. Donald Pleasance is terrific. The murder sequences, not as iconic as the ones from “Halloween,” are still highly imaginative. My favorite is the double murder of Karen (Pamela Susan Shoop) and Budd in the hydrotherapy room. While Budd is dispatched quickly, quietly and behind a closed door, Karen’s death by scalding hot water is prolonged, brutal, and hard to watch… just as it should be. If you’ve seen “Halloween” but have somehow managed to skip this one, just remember not to set your expectations too high and you should be fine. If you’re one of the few left who has never seen “Halloween,” watching “Halloween II” first is still an option because you’re never made to feel as though you’ve missed out on important details. Either way, only diehard fans of the series need continue on from here.

Whiplash (2014)

Director: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

I was somewhere around my mid-20’s before I was able to fully appreciate jazz music. Pity, because as a trumpet player in my high school concert band, I could have easily signed up for the jazz band as well. Jazz has a certain energy to it that no other form of music can quite match. You can feel the passion that goes into every performance. (If you can’t, then you know it’s not being done quite right.) Good jazz grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go until the final note has been played. Movies have the same potential to capture their audience’s attention. The good ones are an amusing way to spend a couple of hours of your life. The great ones, like “Whiplash,” are an unforgettable experience that you wish didn’t have to end.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a first-year jazz student at New York’s Shaffer Conservatory, dreams of one day taking his skills as a drummer to another level. Andrew doesn’t just want to be great; he wants to be one of THE greats. One day, while practicing, he captures the attention of respected conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Andrew is invited by Fletcher to join his studio band as an alternate to the core drummer. To Andrew, this guy seems warm and friendly. Quickly, however, Fletcher’s abusive, sociopathic perfectionist side is revealed as he verbally berates any and all band members who display even the slightest inability to keep tempo. Andrew himself draws Fletcher’s wrath during a rehearsal of Hank Levy’s “Whiplash,” after which he practices hard enough to take what he sees as his rightful place as core drummer.

During this same time, Andrew enters into a relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a sweet movie theater concessionist and student at Fordham University. Almost right away, it’s clear this pairing will never last. Andrew is driven, with a clear career path in mind. Nicole, on the other hand, hasn’t a clue what she wants to do with her life, doesn’t have a major and, being from out of town, doesn’t even like the school she attends. It’s difficult to glean just what, if anything, the two might have in common. Citing his need to concentrate on his drumming, Andrew confesses that Nicole will be too much of a distraction and decides that a clean break would be better than a long drawn-out period of pointless arguing, neglect and resentment between them.

A tragic story relayed by a tearful Fletcher about a former student who died in a car accident serves as as sign of things to come when, late for a competition, Andrew himself gets into a (non-life threatening) car accident. His injuries cause him to badly flub his performance, upon which Fletcher informs Andrew that he is “done.” Pushed to his breaking point, Andrew attacks Fletcher in a moment of pure rage, an action which gets him expelled from Shaffer. It turns out that Fletcher’s former student who died had actually killed himself. In a moment of total submission, the parents’ lawyer acquires Andrew’s anonymous testimony of abusive behavior from Fletcher, which gets the conductor fired from Shaffer.

Part of Andrew’s need to make something of himself as a musician has been rooted in his situation back home. His mother left him and his father when Andrew was very young. Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) is a schoolteacher, but one who has done nothing to distinguish himself. No one in his family encourages his drumming; in fact, Andrew is only ever asked about it as a courtesy. His father sees it as a way for him to burn out fast and die young. The only source of approval left to Andrew was Fletcher. Now with that bridge seemingly burned, Andrew appears ready to abandon his dream. Flash forward to several months later, where Andrew wanders into a jazz club where Fletcher is a guest performer. The two meet, have a talk, and before you know it Fletcher has convinced Andrew into playing for his band at a festival concert. It is there that Fletcher reveals that he knew all along that it was Andrew who got him fired. No “Godfather”-like kiss of death here. An attempt at public humiliation almost results in Andrew leaving the stage for good, but he defiantly returns to perform the drum solo of his life. It is in this moment that Andrew has pushed himself beyond his perceived limitations, Fletcher has found his prodigy and Andrew’s father, who genuinely loves him, has learned some things about his son that he might have known years ago had he only thought to pay more attention.

Performances such as these cannot be adequately described with words. They must be seen and heard to be fully appreciated. The music, although not as good as when performed by the artists who originally created them, is still superb. In particular, “Whiplash” and “Caravan” (the song that brings the house down at film’s end) are my favorites. As good as the music is, the acting is that much more astonishing. I’d never heard of Miles Teller before seeing “Whiplash,” but I hope I’ll see more of him soon and that the awful “Fantastic Four” reboot won’t do any permanent damage. Then, of course, there’s J.K. Simmons. I’m not sure where I first saw this guy in action, but the earliest thing I remember is 2002’s “Spider-Man,” where he played the perfect J. Jonah Jameson. He’s since put on memorable supporting performances in movies like “Juno” and “Burn After Reading,” as well as featuring in TV’s “The Closer” opposite Kyra Sedgwick. Not to mention those funny Farmers Insurance commercials. But it’s Simmons’ turn as Terence Fletcher which is his finest work to date. It’s thanks to him most of all that “Whiplash” will be remembered for years to come.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle

Among the most commonly misinterpreted films I’ve come across over the years, one of the best all-around has to be Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” Between the critics who denounce it for being too violent and the casual viewers who mistake the pretty straightforward ending for an imagined scenario that takes place only in the mind of the main character, they all seem to miss what’s truly at the center of this picture. The greatest movie of Martin Scorsese’s career does have its moments of violence, yes, but they are few and far between. Nor is it a story that is strictly about 1970’s New York. What happens here could happen anywhere in any time period. The story presented here is of one man’s feelings of isolation brought about by his complete lack of social skills. In order to alleviate the pain caused by his loneliness, our main character (note that I’m not using the word “hero”) sets out on a mission to save someone else from their own miserable situation. In this way, he believes that his life might finally count for something.

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is that sad individual. A twenty-six year old former Marine, Travis has taken a job as a New York taxi cab driver because he suffers from insomnia. We are meant to assume this condition has been brought about by his experiences in Vietnam, although if you’re looking for specifics beyond that, don’t bother. One day, while driving past the Presidential campaign headquarters for candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), Travis spots a beautiful blonde in the window named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and is instantly smitten. He walks in under the pretense that he wants to volunteer for Palantine, but really all he wants is to take her out for coffee and pie. He observes that she doesn’t seem happy at her job. He’s offering to rescue her from the confines of that boring office with all of those equally boring people who can’t possibly respect her. Out of curiosity more than anything, she agrees.

The first date goes well enough that Travis pushes for a second, this time at the movies. What Betsy doesn’t realize is just what kind of movie theater Travis has in mind. You see, before meeting this woman with whom he has become hopelessly infatuated, Travis would routinely visit the local porno theater. Not that he goes there to relieve any sort of tension, mind you. It’s because he’s been so immersed in the ugly parts of this world for so long that he mistakes this as being a completely normal place for couples to go out on a date. (For the record, the film playing at the XXX theater is the 1969 Swedish sex education film “Language of Love.”) Disgusted, Betsy storms out and hails a taxi cab to take her back home. It’s immediately after this that the movie’s best scene takes place.

Everyone, including people who’ve never seen “Taxi Driver” before, knows about the scene where Travis stands in front of a mirror and poses the iconic question, “You talkin’ to me?” But that happens much later. The scene which I am “talkin'” about sees Travis sometime after the aborted date on a pay phone calling Betsy in an attempt to apologize for his mistake. He tries to set up possibilities for future dates, asks if she received flowers sent by him, and offers other cringeworthy questions and comments. As though the movie itself agrees with us that this scene is getting too painful to watch, the camera moves over to the adjacent hallway to give Travis a little privacy. This scene establishes better than any other just what kind of feelings this movie is trying to pry out of its audience. Above all else, Travis is a man to be pitied.

Having failed so completely with Betsy, Travis’s last chance at relevancy comes in the form of a twelve-year old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). He pays for her as any regular customer would, but he doesn’t want to make it with Iris. He wants to rescue her. The question that is never definitively answered is whether or not Iris actually wants to be rescued. She points to a bad relationship with her parents, although as with Travis’s time spent in Vietnam we never hear anything about it beyond that, never any hint as to why she ran away from home and began a life of selling her body for money. Just as he did with Besty’s co-workers, Travis takes an immediate disliking towards Iris’s pimp Matthew, a.k.a. Sport (Harvey Keitel). Armed to the teeth with illegally-purchased firearms, Travis has become obsessed with the idea of killing the Presidential candidate, but narrowly escapes arrest or worse when the Secret Service foil his attempt. Instead, Travis heads back to the brothel to rescue Iris. It is here that the most intense piece of violence occurs. The camera, which had been squeamish in that earlier scene, does not shy away once during this entire sequence, eventually giving us an aerial view of the situation.

Apart from the aforementioned phone call scene, the other moment which I patiently wait for ever time I watch “Taxi Driver” is the breakfast scene where Travis first tries to convince Iris to leave the streets of New York behind and go home to her family. In a manner of speaking, the two are polar opposites. Iris is a young girl whose circumstances have caused her to grow up faster than she was meant to at her age, while Travis is a man whose mental and social hang-ups have stunted his personal growth. Up until this moment, Robert De Niro has been the most dominant force driving this movie, but then suddenly here comes young Jodie Foster, already displaying the immense talent that would eventually win her not one but two Oscars for Best Actress more than a decade later. Foster and De Niro were both nominated for “Taxi Driver” but, criminally so, their work, especially for the scene at the diner, went unrecognized. I would also be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the score by Bernarnd Hermann (the last of the brilliant composer’s distinguished career), a beautiful jazzy composition that becomes its own character.

Finally, I want to address something that’s been eating at me since I finished my latest viewing of “Taxi Driver.” The film has been frequently compared to the John Ford western “The Searchers,” citing similar plotlines. I hadn’t paid any attention to the comparison until now. In “The Searchers,” John Wayne’s character goes on a personal mission to rescue Natalie Wood from a tribe of Indians who took her captive years earlier. But the catch is that the girl, who has since gone native, may not actually want to be rescued. Hell, in “Taxi Driver,” Sport even refers to Travis as “Cowboy.” Although I am admittedly not a fan of either John Wayne or “The Searchers,” this revelation has changed the way I look at “Taxi Driver,” a movie I already considered to be among my favorites, for the better.