It turns out that Saturday was Movie Day again, with a couple of screenings at the Writers Guild Theater. (Actually they had more than a couple, but two was my limit -- and the third one overlapped with the Northwestern football game. Alas, they lost to highly-ranked Nebraska, so it wasn't all roses...)
Both movies were terrific, though you've likely only heard of one.
That one was The Judge, and the acting between Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall is every bit as wonderful as you may have heard, or gleaned from the TV ads. Duvall especially is wonderful at this crusty, stubborn, curmudgeonly best. But Downey goes up against him toe-to-toe and holds his own.
I like courtroom dramas, so that helps, too, there the courtroom takes a backseat here, and family dynamics and small-town life interviews with it all. And that weaving isn't superfluous, but fits well into the drama and dynamics of the main plot.
(Side note: at one point in the film, we're told that Robert Downey Jr.'s character went to law school at Northwestern University. And the person he's talking to respond, "Oh, wow, that's a great school.") This is not why I liked the film. But it was good extra topping...)
I think it goes on a bit long in a few places, and though it never delves into soap opera it comes close a few times. Most notably with the use of the hit-the-nose on the head "challenged" younger brother. There's also a sub-plot point about the daughter of a friend whose resolution gets unrealistic glossed over too much. But those things are minimal, and overall things are terrific.
My one quibble has zero to do with the story or characters, and is largely personal about the production. One of the points of the story is that Downey's character grew up in this tiny town in Indiana that he couldn't wait to get out of. He goes back for his mother's funeral, driving along roads through deep cornfields, and ends up having to stay when his father gets involved in a death. I watch the end credits all the way because, having a lot of relatives in Indiana and spending a great many summers there growing up, I thought there was no way on earth it was filmed in the state. It was no Indiana I recognized -- when he gets to the town past those cornfields it quaint, utterly charming, surrounded by lush forests, on a lake with a waterfall in the middle of town. It looked like New England, or perhaps the Pacific Northwest. And indeed, it was not filmed in Indiana, but Massachusetts. My quibble wasn't that it wasn't filmed in Indiana -- that was largely curiosity about my perception -- but rather that this town was so enchanting that I found it hard to be convinced that someone would be that anxious and itching to leave it as soon as possible ("You're still here???" he asks an ex-girlfriend from high school), and still be as galled by it all these many years later as he arrives, muttering under his breath while driving through the adorable main street, "Nothing's changed." To be clear, I can understand why anyone would want to leave any town that wasn't The Big City, if that's what they want. And I suspect that, as Nell Minow pointed out to me in her movie reviewer mode, that he mainly wanted to leave his dysfunctional family (or father), rather than the town itself. But they make too many references to the small town that I think they do man that, too, specifically. And this wasn't a dusty, two-bit nothing of a town -- it has a majestic domed courthouse in it, for goodness sake -- and didn't really jibe with the perception we're supposed to have of a tiny town in Indiana he hates so much he's never wanted to admit he's from there. Again, though, this has zero to do with the film, but just a production values choice, and it's just a personal reaction, knowing Indiana fairly well, mainly recognizing that they didn't film it there. The movie was still really good.
The other film you've likely not heard of, or maybe only in small mention. It's called Whiplash -- and though you might not have heard of it, it won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival. And on the Rotten Tomatoes website, it has a remarkable rating of 96%.
It is probably the most breathtakingly riveting on-the-edge of your seat film you have ever seen about a music conservatory.
That's not a joke, or hyperbole. It tells the story of a young kid who wants to be a great drummer, and the teacher who pushes him and everyone to breaking points. Yes, I know that that sounds like a pretty basic plot we've seen before, but it does it with an gripping intensity and takes turns that films like this just never have. You remember the unrelenting drill sergeant that Lou Gossett Jr. won a Best Supporting Oscar for in An Officer and a Gentleman? And the maniacal drill sergeant in Steel Metal Jacket, directed by Stanley Kubrick? They may well take a distant second to the music teacher played spectacularly by J.K. Simmons. (You may not know the name, but you know him -- the psychologist from Law & Order, the father in Juno, and the dean of Farmers University for the Farmers Insurance ads.) But though in many ways a cliched type of character, the way he's written -- and most especially performed -- there is nothing cliche here, but a range of shadings. It's not that he's a Big Meanie of a Teacher Who's Really Nice Underneath, but a rich character who's intriguing to watch.
Just to be clear, this is not Mr. Holland's Opus.
There's a terrific performance by Miles Teller as the young musicians, made all the more remarkable when you realize that he did all his own drumming. That might not sound like much, but...really, trust me, it is. He's driven to be "one of the greats," and the movie doesn't work unless you believe that he can be and that you live through the unrelenting, driven practice he puts himself through. (He had been a drummer earlier in life, but still was put through a great deal of re-training before production, by the writer-director Damien Chazelle, who had been a drummer and student at a music conservatory.) And just as the teacher goes off in a few unexpected directions, so too does Teller's character, as the story looks at the nobility of having a drive, along with the question of limits.
As just one example of the movie not fitting your pre-conceptions, there were so many twists in the final sequence (some of the twists big, though some just small turns) that I counted five different places I thought it would end.
Chazelle says that as unbelievable as the physicality and pressures of music school may appear, everything in the film either happened to him, or to friends of his. And he's been told subsequently from other music students who've seen the film that they've been through worse. It's not that this is the way all music conservatories are all the time, he's said, but that it's not uncommon.
The film is wonderfully written, and superbly directed, all the more impressive since it's his first feature. You really are out of breath during sequences -- at times it's almost too intense to the point of nearly uncomfortable -- and when the film ends, there was an almost palpable exhalation of release in the theater, including several actual yelps of appreciation and relief. But that "almost too intense" quality is the story it's telling. (Oddly, it's not a film whose story stuck with me deeply after leaving the theater, though the sensibility of it certainly did.)
Paul Reiser gives a very affectionate performance as Teller's father, and Melissa Benoist (who I didn't know until after is a regular on Glee) is terrific as a girl who Teller very understandably falls fall.
There are some things about some developments in the last third of the film that stretch credibility a bit and feel a touch forced -- one scene when the kid is driving to a competition is utterly unrealistic to the point of head-shaking, and there are a few moment in that multi-turning last scene (one especially) that goes a bit too far, but overall this feel bone-gritty real, something you don't tend to see too often about films about a music conservatory. And it's not all Great Kid-Mean Teacher. There are a range of layers to sift through.
There's no way on earth that a trailer can convey the gripping intensity and different directions of the film. But they do a pretty good job conveying a sense of what you're about to see, that this is not what you think you know about studying to be a musician.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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