Miles Teller drums and J.K. Simmons berates in ‘Whiplash’ (Sony Pictures Classics)
A brutal and (literally) bloody musician’s tale that’s about many, many other things besides music (surprise), Whiplash was the little awards film that could. While never quite making a splash along the lines of a Boyhood or The Imitation Game, it plugged along for months on little more than sheer word of mouth. Just like movies used to do.
Whiplash, which was ultimately nominated for five Oscars, will be available next week on DVD and Blu-ray. My review is at Film Racket:
In Damien Chazelle’s steam-heated pressure cooker, socially maladroit student Andrew (Miles Teller) is determined to be a brilliant jazz drummer. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the demon-teacher at a New York music conservatory who Andrew thinks guards the entrance to greatness, sees potential in this student but won’t let him past without a serious flaying. From the second Andrew steps into Fletcher’s studio band, the insults and cutting remarks fly from Fletcher’s lips. The only question seems to be how long Andrew can tough it out. But since he and Fletcher have a surprising amount in common, the story then becomes more about who will outlast the other…
You can see the trailer here:
The writer at rest: ‘Life Itself’ (Magnolia Pictures)
One of the better documentaries that ever-so-briefly graced screens in 2014 was Life Itself. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and based in part on Roger Ebert’s memoir, the film is a fascinating and curiously life-affirming story about ambition, creativity, and getting on with things.
Life Itself is available on DVD today; my review is at Film Racket:
James takes Ebert’s 2011 memoir as his source document. From there we get Ebert’s memories of growing up as a precociously verbal only child in downstate Illinois. (“My mother supported me like I was the local sports team.”) He describes himself as not just a born writer but a born journalist. This was not a kid who wanted to just write for high-brow publications. He wanted to be read and heard by as many people as possible. Thus the career that arced from working-class daily paper to syndicated TV show and appearances on Carson and Letterman. When called upon he could pen a learned piece for Film Comment (as he did in response to a Richard Corliss piece that called him out as an egregious “thumbs up/thumbs down” simplifier and bottom-racer). But as much as he admired the Pauline Kaels and Andrew Sarrises of the world, that was never going to be him…
Here’s the trailer:
‘Snowpiercer': We’d like a seat in first class, please (Anchor Bay)
Bong Joon-ho is a South Korean director who isn’t a household name in the States but by all rights should be. In his newest film, Snowpiercer, he imagines a quasi-steampunk post-apocalyptic thriller that’s also a handy little morality tale about class inequality.
Snowpiercer is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. My review is at PopMatters:
The physics of Snowpiercer’s futuristic plot are as stripped-down as the backstory is convoluted. Every human being left alive is on board one train snaking across the frozen wasteland. First class is up front, replete with late Roman Empire consumption and a mindset best described as rave-club Borgia. Everybody else is crammed cheek-to-jowl in the filthy back of the train. Those in back want to get up front. All that stands between them are many locked doors, squads of malevolent guards, years of social conditioning, and Tilda Swinton acting like a toothy Margaret Thatcher after one too many gin and tonics…
You can see the trailer here:
Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter in their Galapagos garden, c. 1932 (Zeitgeist Films)
A Nietszche-loving disgruntled German doctor and his worshipful, sickly wife; a “Baroness” who believes no man can resist her; an isolated island; weaponry and jealousy. How could anything go wrong? The story of how it really, really did is the subject of The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, one of the year’s curiouser documentaries.
The Galapagos Affair is on DVD and Blu-ray now. My review is at PopMatters:
In 1929, a certain kind of European man apparently thought nothing of packing up and moving himself and his family to a remote cluster of islands far off the coast of Ecuador … The first couple to arrive on the tiny and uninhabited island of Floreana was Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch. From his and Dore’s writings, it’s clear that Friedrich was a walking stereotype of the clueless Germanic intellectual, so slavishly devoted to his beloved Nietzsche that reality didn’t stand a chance. A successful doctor who believed society to be “a huge impersonal monster,” Friedrich moved them to Floreana in order to “make an Eden.” That they were both married at the time to other people and didn’t know much of anything about surviving in the wild wasn’t deemed an obstacle…
Here’s the trailer:
One of last year’s great but overlooked dramas and one of its better-than-average FX blockbusters are hitting DVD and Blu-ray today.
John Wells’ star-stocked adaptation of Tracey Letts’ sprawling and brawling Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a dysfunctional Oklahoma clan is perhaps a little too truncated but mostly hits it out of the park. For once, Julia Roberts proves herself to be not only not done with acting but able to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Meryl Streep. Full review
The second of Peter Jackson’s all-too-much trilogy on The Hobbit packs in even more non-Tolkien material to its middle-part travelogue following the intrepid dwarves and hobbit on their way to steal back the stolen riches of Smaug the dragon. Better by far than the first bloated entry, and possessed of a greater sense of rollicking adventure, still in need of a good pruning. Full review
Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung compare styles in ‘The Grandmaster’
The great Hong Kong romantic Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love) hadn’t completed a feature film since 2007’s misfire My Blueberry Nights. So it was pretty good news to hear that his latest film was going to be a classic martial-arts extravaganza, reuniting Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi with The Matrix choreographer Yuen Wo Ping.
The Grandmaster, which received well-deserved Oscar nominations for cinematography and costume design, will be released on DVD and Blu-ray next Tuesday. My review is at PopMatters:
“Don’t tell me about your teacher,” says Ip Man (Tony Leung) at the start of Wong Kar Wai’s dreamlike heartbreak of a kung fu film, The Grandmaster, “or brag about your style.” Using that same steady humility flecked with a hint of the sardonic that’s made Leung such a crucial counterweight to the Hong Kong school of overkill filmmaking, he preemptively bleeds the hot air out of what’s to follow. This is a good thing, because that scene is intercut with the already-legendary scene in which Ip Man faces down a dozen or so adversaries in pouring rain. He dispatches them all with practiced ease but not a whiff of arrogance, just as the real Ip Man’s student Bruce Lee would do on film decades later…
Here’s the trailer:
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, still romancing each other in ‘Before Midnight’
In 1995, Richard Linklater impressed with Before Sunrise, a sharp, talky piece about Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a traveling American who meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a beguiling young French woman, on a train. Nine years later, in Before Sunset, the two meet again, nine years older. Both films were redolent with romantic longing and possibility. Now in Before Midnight, the two are married, and it doesn’t seem like mere love is going to cut it anymore.
Before Midnight is available today on DVD and Blu-ray. My review is at Film Racket; here’s part of it:
Before Midnight turns out to be a bright, good-humored, and painfully combative love story that stings more than it soothes. In it, modern cinema’s most enduring couple discovers what life is like after peeling back the veil of conjoined love and discovering the specters of selfishness lurking behind. Every moment of this swift yet relaxed film (time-compressed like the first two, it all happens over just one sunny day and moonlit evening) feels like a negotiation or a skirmish, viciously fought…
You can watch the trailer here: