Monday, October 13, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Men Behaving Badly

Actor J.K. Simmons has carved out quite a career for himself playing an array of characters we love to hate, including Oz's neo-Nazi gay rapist Vern Schillinger and hardboiled newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in the first Spider-Man movie trilogy. Simmons reaches new heights with his ferociously manipulative, borderline bipolar performance as a university music professor with ethically-questionable teaching methods in Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, now playing in Los Angeles and New York before expanding nationally. One of the rare winners of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it is an intensely exciting, unforgettably dramatic ride.

Professor Terence Fletcher (Simmons), of the esteemed though fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York, recognizes great potential in sophomore drummer Andrew Neiman (the most impressive turn yet by rising star Miles Teller, of Rabbit Hole and Divergent), who makes a naïve mistake in confessing "I want to be one of the greats." Fletcher accepts Andrew into his award-winning jazz ensemble and immediately begins a process of battering his pupil psychologically and even physically. Tears are shed, motivations are questioned, rental cars are wrecked and blood is vividly spattered on white drum heads by the time Neiman finally gains the upper hand on his well-meaning but deeply disturbing (and possibly closeted) mentor.

"Precision" is the name of the game in Whiplash, both on screen and behind the scenes. Between Chazelle's direction and tight script (expanded from his original, award-winning short film), the terrific lead performances as well as Paul Reiser's brief but impactful appearance as Andrew's concerned father, Sharone Meir's golden-hued cinematography and Justin Hurwitz's superb jazz score (arguably the best of its kind since Elmer Bernstein's for 1957's Sweet Smell of Success) there are few false notes/moves. Unfortunately, Andrew's budding relationship with movie theater snack bar attendant Nicole (Melissa Benoist) is the film's weakest element, especially since Nicole ultimately serves as little more than a pawn in the increasingly high-stakes chess game between her bf and Fletcher.

Chazelle writes in the film's press notes, "I wanted to make a movie about music that felt like a war movie, or a gangster movie, where instruments replaced weapons." In this unusual regard, he has definitely succeeded. Whiplash could well garner end-of-the-year awards attention, of which Simmons' performance is especially deserving.

Another male, real-life figure currently being shown behaving monstrously on theater screens in LA and NYC is Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler's right-hand man before and throughout World War II. The Decent One (German title: Der Anständige), an extraordinary if necessarily unpleasant documentary by Vanessa Lapa, recounts Himmler's life story largely through his own words via personal diaries, letters and home movies discovered after he committed suicide.

Born in 1900 and raised Roman Catholic, the seeds of discontent were apparently sown in Himmler early on. "People don't like me," he wrote while a teenager. "I never reveal my troubled thoughts and struggling soul." This is also the time period when his radically nationalistic, xenophobic leanings began. Himmler's disgust of Jews and homosexuals (he especially abhorred the "idealization" of Oscar Wilde), despite his belief that "the man of the Nordic race is the most beautiful man," was honed during his college fraternity years.

Himmler joined the Nazi party in 1923 even though he accurately predicted their political stance would "lead to bloody war," and quickly found favor with Hitler. He organized the soon-to-be-Führer's early rallies and was appointed both head of the fearsome SS and Chief of Police. In this capacity, Himmler ordered construction of the first concentration camp at Dachau and ordered that all Communists and gay men (before Jews even) be rounded up and sent there.

Much of the archival footage in The Decent One is of excellent quality including, tragically, scenes of Jews being executed in mass graves. The documentary concludes with the horrific views of piles of dead, naked bodies that confronted Allied liberators of the camps, while voice over narration from a letter Himmler wrote to his wife during the war reads "Depite all the work, I am doing fine and sleep well." Insightful and infuriating by turns, Lapa's film is one of the most potent exposés to date — as well as one of the few surviving insider accounts — of Nazism and its self-described "decent" architects.

Meanwhile, both men and women behave badly in the current, deserving blockbuster Gone Girl. I am loathe to reveal any of the numerous twists and turns of David Fincher's film adapted from Gillian Flynn's bestseller, with Flynn herself providing an excellent screenplay. Suffice to say it is the best, most satisfying mystery/psychological thriller in a long time. It also works as a wicked satire of married life, police procedurals and modern media's tendency to report "the facts" without first verifying them.

Out actor Neil Patrick Harris plays a shadowy supporting role, and his gay fans may be shocked by both the (hetero)sexual lengths to which he goes as well as his character's ultimate fate. If you haven't seen Gone Girl yet, what are you waiting for?

Reverend’s Ratings:
Whiplash: B+
The Decent One: A-
Gone Girl: A-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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