“Birdman” is technically astounding yet emotionally rich, intimate yet enormous, biting yet warm, satirical yet sweet. It’s one of the best times you’ll have at the movies all year and might just be the best movie of the year. A rare four-star review, at RogerEbert.com.
Sony Pictures Classics
Rated R for strong language including some sexual references.
Running time: 106 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
“Whiplash” puts us in the deliciously uncomfortable position of rooting for the shared success of two characters who are unlikable individually and toxic together.
It’s one of the most disturbing entertaining movies I’ve seen in a long while. The only thing I can compare it to would be watching a Stanley Kubrick film, although the second feature from 29-year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle couldn’t be more different stylistically from the chilly and precise work of the late master; it’s feverishly alive and relentlessly intense. Still, “Whiplash” similarly provokes contradictory reactions and emotions. It wows you and makes you squirm simultaneously. I can’t say I enjoyed myself, but I also can’t deny being dazzled.
Chazelle takes us inside an incredibly specific world of elite, New York City jazz musicians, and yet the desire for greatness he depicts is universal. The question becomes whether the characters take their quest too far to the detriment of their own health and sanity — which forces us to consider whether we’d go that far in our own pursuits if we were as gifted. Superficially, the mentor-student relationship at play here may look like the kind you’ve seen a million times before in films like “The Karate Kid,” where the teaching tactics seem questionable at first but end up yielding winning results when The Big Competition rolls around.
But “Whiplash” takes the notion of that kind of singular drive to an extreme and turns it into a psychotic obsession — for both parties involved. The fact that we’re not completely repulsed by these people has a great deal to do with performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons which are brimming with both power and vulnerability. Teller, as up-and-coming drummer Andrew Neyman, expands on the promise of his surprisingly subtle dramatic turn in last year’s excellent “The Spectacular Now.” He is not the glib party boy here; he does not want to be liked. And Simmons is just a beast. We haven’t seen him in such formidable form since his days as a neo-Nazi behind bars on “Oz.” Shiny and buff in a tight, black T-shirt, he is the most frightening villain you’ll see all year.
Simmons’ character, Dr. Fletcher, is the demanding conductor of a competitive jazz ensemble at the most prestigious music conservatory in the country. He is a walking, talking, living, breathing mind-fuck. He’s as brilliant at what he does as he is brutal to work for — and impressing him is all Andrew wants to do in life. Simply getting into this school isn’t enough for him; emerging as one of the greatest jazz drummers ever is the ultimate goal.
But this is no underdog, come-from-behind, feel-good tale of glory. This is “Dead Poets Society” with a sadomasochistic streak. Fletcher cruelly berates Andrew for the slightest perceived mistake (which actually might not be a mistake at all — he might just be messing with the kid for kicks). He throws chairs across the room as quickly as he hurls racial and homophobic slurs to cut his players to the core. He’s been so notoriously punishing for so long, it makes you wonder how’s he’s gotten away with his act all this time.
Andrew already had a tendency to be hard on himself, to withdraw from society in the pursuit of perfection. (His father, played in sweet and sympathetic fashion by Paul Reiser, is pretty much his only friend and a welcome source of warmth in the film.) And so a little blood on the drum kit — make that a lot of blood — is no big deal as he struggles to master the impossible tempo of the titular tune, “Whiplash.” It’s all part of the master plan, yet it’s agonizing for us to watch; if there’s a line between art and madness, Andrew gushes all over it. But just as painful is the way he rejects his would-be girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), the cute young woman who works the concession counter at his favorite arthouse theater, because his arrogance allows no room for other people.
As Andrew and Fletcher push and challenge each other — as they sometimes bond but mostly get under one another’s skin — Chazelle’s script takes some turns and offers some obstacles with outcomes that aren’t always entirely plausible. But it all leads up to the film’s exhilarating conclusion: an extended drum solo that will make you hold your breath in awe, wondering how much longer it can possibly go on. (Teller did much of his own drumming for the film, and his dedication adds to the immersive sense of authenticity.)
The scene is the ultimate example of the magnificent editing from Tom Cross, who deserves to win every award available to him and even some that haven’t been invented yet. The way he’s cut Chazellle’s film makes it move with such complex fluidity, it feels like jazz itself — constantly thrilling and challenging you at the same time, working hard but making it all look effortless. While Chazelle ponders whether such passionate ambition is worth the mental and physical toll it takes, the film’s final triumph provides no easy answers.
Bill Murray’s latest film, “St. Vincent,” isn’t exactly one of his greatest. It’s actually kind of mawkish and cringe-inducing. But we’re glass-half-full around here, so we’re going to seize the chance to turn this into a positive.
Murray stars as Vincent, an alcoholic, misanthropic veteran living in a run-down Brooklyn home. He finds his anti-social routine interrupted when a single mom (Melissa McCarthy) and her shy, bullied son (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door. Vincent ends up serving as de factor babysitter, which means taking the kid to the dive bar and the race track — and teaching him life lessons along the way, naturally.
It’s classic Murray curmudgeon mode. It’s also reminiscent of some of his better performances, which I pondered back in 2012 when Murray starred as FDR in “Hyde Park on Hudson.” This was one of the tougher lists to narrow down to five, so I’d love to hear what you guys would pick. Enjoy.
Five Great Bill Murray Performances
By CHRISTY LEMIRE
This week, with the opening of the historical romance “Hyde Park on Hudson,” I finally get to do a Five Most list I’ve been thinking about for a while now: my favorite Bill Murray performances.
His take on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt may not be some of his best work, but it’s an unexpected bit of casting, and it provides a great opportunity to reflect on the fantastically eclectic career he’s put together over the past three-plus decades.
So here are my picks in chronological order. Honorable mention goes to his supporting turn as trash-talking bowling champ Ernie McCracken in the underappreciated Farrelly brothers comedy “Kingpin” (1996), for the sweet hairpiece, if nothing else.
“Caddyshack” (1980): Murray was at the height of his “Saturday Night Live” cult stardom when he gave his enduring portrayal of oddball golf course greenskeeper Carl Spackler in this all-time-great raunchy ’80s comedy. The character is a little grungy and a little dangerous and more than a little off, but also strangely sweet and the source of endlessly quotable lines. Murray has said that people shout Carl dialogue to him all the time as he’s playing golf in real life — “It’s in the hole!” — hoping he’ll recite the words back. That’s how much this movie and this character still matter in our crowded pop-culture universe.
“Stripes” (1981): Murray is at his subversively charming best here in an early starring role as John Winger, a loser who decides to join the Army to be all he can be. He’s silly and sarcastic, confident and quick-witted, so naturally he has a little trouble respecting the authority of Warren Oates’ Sgt. Hulka, the platoon’s “big toe.” But he earns a loyal following, becomes an inadvertent leader and even gets the girl in the end. Murray plays beautifully off old friend Harold Ramis as his straight man, and the whole anarchic vibe from Ivan Reitman, directing one of his best films, is an excellent fit for the comic’s persona during this period.
“Lost in Translation” (2003): Murray earned an Oscar nomination for best actor for his portrayal of Bob Harris, an aging American actor who has schlepped to Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial that will pay him $2 million. He strikes a beautiful balance between lighthearted sarcasm and self-loathing as he forms an undefinable friendship with Scarlett Johansson, playing the bored, young wife of a celebrity photographer. To this day, I can’t listen to “More Than This” by Roxy Music without thinking of Murray’s delicate karaoke rendition in this lovely Sofia Coppola film.
“Broken Flowers” (2005): He’d already appeared with deadpan hilarity in perhaps the best segment of Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes.” Here, Murray stars for Jarmusch as a middle-aged Lothario on a halfhearted quest to visit old lovers in hopes of finding the teenage son he never knew he had. We learn about him — and he learns about himself — through his varied and unpredictable reunions with various ex-girlfriends. It’s yet another world-weary performance from Murray, but each incarnation of this persona reveals richness and shadings; his dramatic work in the later years of his career is just as strong in its own way as the wild comedy was in the beginning.
“One Chance,” inspired by the true story of unlikely opera singer Paul Potts, is pure formula. But it’s charming nonetheless thanks mostly to a winning performance from the irresistible James Corden. You may as well give in — he’s just going to keep singing at you until you do. I went easy on this one at RogerEbert.com.
“Whiplash” is at once thrilling and horrifying. The story of a talented young jazz drummer and his cruelly sadistic mentor features powerful performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons and editing so intricate and masterful, it feels like jazz itself. (Like, seriously, it should win every possible editing award there is.) I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed Damien Chazelle’s film, but I can’t deny that it put me on edge for the rest of the night.