Archive for September, 2015

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.

Versus (2000)

Director: Ryuhei Kitamura

Starring: Tak Sakaguchi, Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka, Kenji Matsuda

Some movies are so completely insane that you can’t help but love them. Ryuhei Kitamura’s “Versus,” influenced by such American pictures as “Highlander” and “Evil Dead,” is this kind of movie. Ryuhei Kitamura, who had originally intended to make a sequel to his short film “Down to Hell,” tweaked his idea into a genre-defying tale so bizzare that it leaves its entire cast of characters nameless, instead affixing mere descriptions. The resulting two-hour extravaganza of silliness amuses far more than it confuses.

At the film’s beginning, we are let in on a little-known secret: There are 666 portals on Earth (you can see where this is going) which… sure enough… are gateways to the other side. A secluded forest in Japan, also referred to as “The Forest of Resurrection,” is home to the 444th portal. Our first bit of action takes place in the 10th century, where we see a samurai fighting against a large group of zombie-like samurai. Successful in his conflict with the zombies, the samurai is then quickly dispatched by a mysterious figure. The samurai had backup, but his partner arrives too late to help him. Now in the present day, two escaped convicts enter the Forest of Resurrection. One of them, Prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi), looks very much like the second samurai who was late to the battle 1,000 years ago. Almost immediately, the two convicts are confronted by a Yakuza gang who have taken a girl (Chieko Misaka) hostage. Glances exchanged between the Girl and Prisoner KSC2-303 would seem to indicate that at least one of them recognizes the other somehow, even if they don’t yet know why. Prisoner KSC2-303 kills one of the Yakuza after which, to everyone’s surprise and alarm, the corpse stands back up as if still alive. Everyone shoots it several times until it finally drops dead.

Confused by this latest turn of events, the main Yakuza member (Kenji Matsuda) shoots and kills Prisoner KSC2-303’s nervous partner in crime, hoping to test a theory. As suspected, the corpse stands up just as the dead Yakuza member had, and is taken out just as swiftly. In the confusion, Prisoner KSC2-303 and the Girl escape. Although one of the Yakuza catches up to them and engages in hand-to-hand with Prisoner KSC2-303, they abandon this fight when the other Yakuzas are left to deal with the recently re-animated corpses of all the people they’ve killed and buried over time in the Forest. Eventually, the number of zombies grows so large that the Yakuza call for a trio of assassins as their backup. It’s about this time that the leader of the Yakuza, referenced only as the Man (Hideo Sakaki), shows up. Just as Prisoner KSC2-303 resembles the 10th century samurai who couldn’t save his partner, the Man resembles the mysterious figure who killed him. The Man is upset with his men for losing their hostages. He kills them and two of the assassins and turns them all into his undead minions.

Doing the job the Yakuzas were supposed to do, the Man tracks down the hostages. When he does, he tells an inquisitive KSC2-303 that the three of them (The Man, The Girl, KSC2-303) are all reincarnated souls. The Man is trying to complete a centuries-long quest whereby he intends to open the portal and gain power in the process. To do this, the Man believes he needs to sacrifice the Girl, KSC2-303 tries to stand in his way and is killed. The Girl uses her blood to restore KSC2-303 to life and giving him a second chance against the Man, but not before the experience gives him a vision of the past. His 10th century self killed the Girl rather than allow the Man to use her to obtain the power he desires to this day. He avoids having to make this sacrifice by virtue of her having used her powers of resurrection on him. It’s now KSC2-303 whose blood the Man needs, but KSC2-303 is able to defeat his enemy this time. An epilogue, set 99 years in the future, shows the two enemies, newly resurrected, once again squaring off. The setting is one of post-apocalypse, shockingly brought about not by the Man, but by KSC2-303.

As I’ve indicated, the plot of this movie is beyond silly, but never in the many times that I’ve watched “Versus” have I ever been bothered by that. I don’t even care about the fact that we never learn anyone’s real name. I like the comical, over-the-top approach to the violence, and the equally over-the-top performances from some of the supporting cast. Favorites include Kenji Matsuda, who looks like an Asian Benicio Del Toro and displays manic behavior on par with Nicolas Cage at his most unhinged, Minoru Matsumoto as the accident-prone Yakuza member, and Yukihito Tanikado as one of the two cops giving chase to KSC2-303 from the prison to the forest. Tanikado’s cop character is fond of exaggerating everything about himself, most notably bragging about being “500 times stronger than Mike Tyson!”

In my review of “Midnight Meat Train,” also directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, I indicated that the antidote to that experience was this movie, and that is a fact. It’s also a great movie to watch with a group of friends. Normally, I wouldn’t recommend a dubbed version of a film over the original language w/ subtitles, but “Versus” is the exception. The experience is mostly the same either way, but the English dubbing makes the funny moments that much funnier. If you’ve never heard of “Versus” before now (I hadn’t before my first viewing) and you like kitchen sink-type action comedies, seek this one out immediately.

Purple Noon (1960)

Director: René Clément

Starring: Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet, Marie Laforêt

As my country stands in unison to memorialize the lives lost fourteen years ago on this date, I found I didn’t have the stomach to sit through a movie based on the events of 9/11 for the purposes of a review. In fact, I wasn’t much interested in watching an English language film at all. The title I did choose… while completely irrelevant to this particular date in history… can resonate more with someone watching it for the first time now than those who saw it when it premiered 55 years ago. In the era of computer technology in which we now live, the crime of identity theft is a more common practice than it has ever been before. The fact that “Purple Noon” (or “Plein Soleil” as is its French title) is also based on an American novel which has sense been adapted for the screen here in the States might also give one incentive to check this one out. That would be a good instinct.

Penniless American Tom Ripley (Alain Delon), unsuccessful in persuading his rich acquaintance, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), to return to the States, opts instead to take over the man’s life. At first, Tom just wants the wealth he himself has not accumulated. But then he sees Philippe’s fiancée, Marge (Marie Laforêt), a woman whom Tom believes Philippe does not fully appreciate, and it adds incentive for Tom to carry out his plan. With the trio sailing together for Sicily, Tom overhears Philippe telling Marge of his intentions to cut their third wheel loose. The deal is sealed when, as a prank, Tom is marooned in the dinghy by Philippe and left in the sun for hours.

Back on board, Tom first plants evidence that makes it look like Philippe has been having an affair. Next, once Marge has gone ashore, Tom brazenly informs Philippe of his plans to murder him. Thinking it all a joke, Philippe encourages Tom to elaborate on his scheme. When he does, Philippe becomes visibly concerned, but doesn’t have much time to do anything about it before he is stabbed and his lifeless body thrown overboard. With Philippe out of the way, Tom can now lead a carefree life of luxury… or can he? One thing he hadn’t counted on was who might come inquiring as to the whereabouts of Philippe, such as Philippe’s friend Freddy, whom Tom had met earlier. Freddy gets too nosy for his own good, and Tom is forced to kill him. This draws the attention of the police, but in a way that actually benefits Tom, as the murder is pinned on Philippe. While he continues posing as Philippe in some cases, Tom also reverts back to his own identity when dealing with inquisitive police and with Marge, whom he has convinced Philippe has left and no longer loves her. In a way, we know this to be true, but only because Philippe no longer has a pulse. With the authorities now an ongoing nuisance, Tom continues to work on Marge until she finally submits to his advances.

The American novel on which “Purple Noon” is based is, of course, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith. The 1999 adaptation, this time using the original title and starring Matt Damon, can be said to be closer to the original source material, but this is not always a virtue. In this case, I think not, as Damon simply cannot match the power of Alain Delon’s performance. It is not easy to make a criminal likable in spite of all that they say and do, and therefore someone worth rooting for as in “The Godfather,” the greatest movie about crime ever made. “Purple Noon” succeeds in this as well, and even features an excellent score from Nino Rota, whose most famous film score is “The Godfather.”

Where I think “Purple Noon” succeeds the most is in the ways it convey certain character’s thoughts through imagery. There are two examples of this which really stand out. The first is the fish market scene. This scene comes soon after Tom has returned to land after killing Philippe. As he walks through the fish market, his jacket draped over one shoulder, he examines the various forms of seafood, all of which appear to stare back at him with their lifeless eyes in an accusatory manner. At the end of the plaza, he comes to a pair of scales used to measure out food portions. To the paranoid Tom, they may as well be the Scales of Justice. The second great scene comes when the police inspector comes to Tom’s hotel room to question him as to the known whereabouts of Philippe, the prime suspect in Freddy’s death. The inspector already has a suspicion that it may have been Tom, not Philippe, who committed the murder. To express this, he carefully nudges the door towards Tom, the mirror on the other side revealing Tom’s reflection.

The only place in which “Purple Noon” slips up is in its ending, choosing not to go with the one presented in Patricia Highsmith’s story. Suffice to say, there’s a good reason why more than one book exists in the Ripley series. Despite this misstep, I still think of it as the superior adaptation of Highsmith’s work. Watch it for Alain Delon, director Clément’s use of imagery and the beautiful scenery of late 1950’s/early 1960’s Italy, and you’ll barely even notice the subtitles.