New York Film Festival: Part 1
By Johnny Pomatto
I have not had a more thrilling film-going experience this year than I did at Damien Chazelle’s WHIPLASH. Even as I’m writing this, I’m still trying to catch my breath. Miles Teller plays Andrew, a student at a prestigious music college where he dreams of becoming the next Buddy Rich, while drumming in a kind of JV jazz class. One day, after a chance encounter with Terence Fletcher, the school’s star instructor played by J.K. Simmons, he’s called up to Varsity. Forgive the sports analogy, but this film is likely to rile you up in ways a tense sporting event would. Andrew is constantly competing in this film, at first against other aspiring drummers looking to take his spot, but ultimately against himself. How far is he going to push himself to be a great drummer? Does he quit when his hands start to bleed, or does he reapply an extra layer of Band-Aids? Andrew’s father, played by a perfectly understated Paul Reiser, starts to look at his son as if he’s become a drug addict, and in many ways he has. Though Andrew reaches multiple moments that many would consider a breaking point, something keeps pushing him forward, and that something is Fletcher.
J.K. Simmons is a beloved character actor who has stolen numerous scenes out from under stars in films like “Juno,” “Burn After Reading,” and “Spider-Man.” If he lives another 30 years and acts in a movie a year for the rest of his life, Terence Fletcher will still be the role that he’ll be remembered for. Tender and smiling one moment and barking like a drill sergeant in the next, Fletcher is a man that you might not have thought was inside Simmons, and no description can truly do him justice. Loose skin hangs off his chin like he’s a wrinkled Shar Pei, but the skin covering his bald scalp is as tight as a drum, so much so that you can see veins pulsing underneath. At the end of the first scene, in which Andrew joins the band and is reduced to tears by the mental and physical abuse Fletcher directs towards him, the audience erupted in murmurs of nervous laughter. Not because they had seen something particularly funny, but because they were desperate to break the unexpected tension that was coming off the screen. I felt like Fletcher was yelling directly at me while watching this film, and I became conscious of sliding down in my chair in an effort to hide from him. This is the start of what I assume will be a long awards season for Mr. Simmons.
In praising Simmons, I don’t want to detract from the remarkable performance that Teller gives as well. Though he’s admitted that he had played the drums recreationally before signing on to the film, the physicality of his hands in the movie will make you believe that he’s been preparing for this all his life. Already on the rise these last few years after stellar performances in “The Spectacular Now” and “Rabbit Hole,” this is the moment where I decided that any upcoming performance by Teller would instantly become required viewing. Chazelle himself attended music school from drumming, so one can imagine he must know a little of the truths hidden inside the dramatization. He also wrote the screenplay for the silly but surprisingly effective Hitchcockian thriller “Grand Piano,” which makes me consider the possibility of a whole new movie genre: the musical thriller. The photography so gorgeous to look at that you would never have guessed that this film was shot in only 19 days. Nothing seems rushed about the pacing and tone. The entire film has a beautiful bronze wash over it, as if every shot was filmed from inside the bell of a trumpet. A scene depicting Andrew completing a ferocious drum solo is shot with an energy and rhythm not unlike the boxing scenes in “Raging Bull.” By the time the film reached its climax that is ambiguously equal parts rousing and tragic, I felt like I had lasted twelve rounds in a boxing ring. I was exhausted, yet exhilarated, and eager to experience all of it again.
MAPS TO THE STARS
If David Cronenberg can make his sweet, native homeland of Canada into a nightmarish world, just imagine what could happen if he set his sights on the dark recesses of Hollywood. Well we need imagine no longer. Adapted by Bruce Wagner from his own novel, Cronenberg’s MAPS TO THE STARS views Hollywood as a literal Hell. No map required, this Hollywood could be located on the same road as David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” and Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons.” It’s not surprising that this was eagerly embraced at Cannes this year, as it shows Hollywood at its absolute worst, with Julianne Moore (who won the Best Actress prize) as the ultimate despicable, aging starlet. It’s everything that they should and do hate about us. This is also probably why MAPS TO THE STARS has already opened in many parts of the world, but has yet to land distribution in our country, perhaps because the industry doesn’t enjoy having a mirror held up to itself.
Multiple facets and generations of the industry are represented in the film. At the center of everything is the Weiss family, supported by their superstar young actor son Benjie, who is on the wagon after a stint in rehab at age 11. When we first see Benjie, well played by Evan Bird, he’s visiting a young, make-a-wish fan in the hospital and scoffs when he finds out that she doesn’t have AIDS. “Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma? It either is or it isn’t.” He’s a delight. His father is played by John Cusack, as a full of it new age healer to the stars, and Olivia Williams plays mom and manager to Benjie. Separate from the Weiss family is Havana Segrand, (the aforementioned Julianne Moore), who is finding herself literally haunted by visions of her more famous dead mother, just as she’s lobbying to recreate the role that made her mother famous in a new remake. And bridging these two stories together is Agatha, played by the always-excellent Mia Wasikowska, a newly arrived mysterious stranger with scars on her face and arms. One gets the sense that she was once literally and figuratively burned by Hollywood, and perhaps she’s come back to finish the job.
MAPS TO THE STARS is often quite funny, but it’s pitch black tone won’t make you feel good about yourself when you laugh. Just when you’re appalled by Moore’s Havana saying something truly horrific, she’ll top herself in the very next scene by being even worse. Her Norma Desmond in yoga pants is the highlight of the film, though she’s only a small part of it, and the other characters don’t always feel like they’re filling out this epic with proper support. Even as the credits rolled, I felt like I barely got to know Cusack’s character at all. Every character in the film is potentially fascinating, but we learn a lot more about some than others, and I felt that this could have used an even larger ensemble, making the film feel more like a mosaic with characters brushing by one another, perhaps just barely, but in more meaningful ways. Even Wasikowska, who seems to be the central figure that links everyone to one another, doesn’t quite seem in control of her own story. Perhaps the real missing character here is Wagner’s narrative voice, which probably has more to say about all of these people than the dialogue ever does. Still, MAPS TO THE STARS is fascinating to watch and you often won’t be able to look away, though you may want to. While it could have cut a bit deeper still, it’s the first Hollywood satire I’ve seen in a long time that has the kind of bite that will leave actual marks.
WHILE WE’RE YOUNG
Even at my young age, I’ve felt the sting of the younger generation seeping into my territory. Walking a few blocks through Williamsburg can be somewhat disheartening, a cliché perhaps, but a true one. Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy WHILE WE’RE YOUNG is about a couple trying to cling to their past by embracing the future, and it should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who tries to do the same. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a couple who enjoy the freedom that being childless affords them, until they start to realize that they never take advantage of it. Enter Jamie and Darby, (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a bohemian pair who seem to live in the moment and embrace a new passion whenever they’re inspired. She makes avocado ice cream while he makes short, punchy documentaries about the friends he meets on Facebook. Josh is a documentarian too, but his films tend to consist of filming a Jewish philosopher talk to a camera for six hours. Josh bypasses feelings of jealousy and instantly tries to imitate Jamie’s life and attitude, bringing Cornelia along for the ride.
At times Baumbach’s film utilizes fairly broad comedic set pieces that don’t feel too far removed from a typical Ben Stiller studio comedy. There’s obligatory scenes in which Stiller picks out a new pork-pie hat, struggles to ride a bicycle, and even hallucinate on ayahuasca. Driver’s Jamie is so seductive and carefree that even though Josh knows his lifestyle can’t possibly amount to much, he wants to prolong his own youth so he keeps doing more and more things that the more sensible Josh would never approve of. The film almost plays like a backdoor Faustian tale, where at first Jamie makes Josh feel young and alive, then suddenly he realizes how old and unhappy he feels. This is where the film starts to feel like less of a comedic fable and more like a soapbox for Baumbach’s diatribes about youth culture. Baumbach definitely has something to say, but it sometimes feels a little forced coming out of Stiller’s mouth. Baumbach’s criticisms on modern documentary filmmaking sometimes feel a bit too specific and pointed, and while the third act of the film is interesting, I longed for some of the humor from the earlier scenes. It’s strange that this is the film Baumbach chose to make following his wonderful “Francis Ha,” since many of the characters in WHILE WE’RE YOUNG don’t feel too far removed from Francis and her friends, but they’re treated with a lot less affection.
The dour finale might have been a disappointment were it not for the exceptional performances from the four leads. This is Stiller’s best and funniest performance in years, even surpassing the excellent work he did in Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” I miss this Stiller and would love to see more of him. It was only five years ago I was seeing Driver tread water in dreadful Off Broadway plays. I never could have anticipated the turn his career would take, but now having seen him walk away with movies, no matter how famous and talented his co-stars are, I believe that his career is just about to take off. There’s no one out there like him right now and if he keeps taking such interesting and bizarre roles, I think we’ll see him with an Oscar statuette before long. Watts and Seyfried are both quite good in their roles, with Watts in particular showing some real comedic chops, but the film is dominated by the two men and their other halves get less and less to work with as the film goes on. It’s a real shame since Baumbach was able to capture such an authentic female voice in “Francis Ha,” that he doesn’t do it again here. Last but not least, the great Charles Grodin makes a welcome return to the big screen as Watts’ father, and seeing him interact with a few generations removed from him is an absolute joy. I hope he continues to pop up in more films, maybe even again with Stiller who seems to relish the task of getting scolded by the real Heartbreak Kid.
Baumbach has made a very funny comedy in WHILE WE’RE YOUNG and I fully intend to see it again. I wish that it didn’t dissolve into such a “message movie,” or perhaps I just wish that the message blended in better with the comedy. And I must say that I actually really identified with Baumbach’s opinions on the younger generation. It was nice to watch a movie that critiqued my generation but still managed to make me feel old. No, not old. Perhaps better to say, mature.
Hear more of Johnny Pomatto’s reviews on his podcast MOVIES AND FILMS WITH JOHNNY AND FRIENDS available on iTunes