2015 has barely arrived already we have a strong contender for the film of the year.
Inspired by writer-director Damien Chazelle’s experiences in a fiercely competitive high school jazz band, Whiplash is an electrifying tale of a 19-year-old drummer’s bruising battle of wits with his monstrous college tutor.
As the title intimates, pain is acute in Chazelle’s lean script that pulls no punches in its depiction of the pursuit of musical excellence, which propels the self-destructive student to the brink of a mental and physical breakdown.
Drumming sequences are edited at a frenetic pace, spattered with the real sweat of lead actor Miles Teller, who performs all of the energy-sapping solos as if his life depended on it.
It’s a bravura performance complemented by JK Simmons’ jaw-dropping portrayal of the foul-mouthed, bullying conductor, who verbally abuses students that fall short of his impossible demands for metronomic and percussive perfection.
Staring at his terrified charges, Simmons’ musician-turned-mentor preys upon teenage fears and insecurities, kindling intense rivalry between band members for his own sadistic pleasure.
Early in the film, he picks on one nervous trombonist’s weight and snarls, “I will not let you cost us a competition because your mind’s on a Happy Meal and not on pitch.”
He’s just getting warmed up.
Whiplash delivers one emotional wallop after another as lead character Andrew practises until his hands bleed and Simmons belittles those herculean efforts by growling, “Is that the fastest you can go? It is no wonder Mommy ran out on you!”
We root for the beleaguered 19-year-old with every display of frenzied stick-work, urging Andrew to wipe the smug grin off teacher Terence Fletcher’s face.
Our investment in the characters is immense and Chazelle rewards us with an astounding denouement that saps every ounce of energy from our bodies.
We’re delirious, euphoric and physically spent.
Star Rating: 4½
RottenTomatoes.com Rating: 95%
In 1994, 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed decided to come to terms with the death of her mother by embarking on a gruelling 1,100-mile solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, passing through California, Oregon, and Washington.
She was ill-prepared for her odyssey, weighed down by a cumbersome backpack overstuffed with useless items including the wrong gas canister for her cooking stove.
Alone in this unforgiving wilderness, Cheryl initially relied on the kindness of strangers to survive, but gradually nurtured her survival instincts to overcome her fears and the perilous terrain.
She subsequently penned the moving memoir Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail, which British novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy) has adapted beautifully and elegantly for the big screen.
Anchored by a tour-de-force performance from Witherspoon that has earned her an Oscar nomination, Wild is an emotionally uplifting drama that celebrates the endurance of the human spirit and the restorative power of a mother’s love.
Jean-Marc Vallee, who helmed yesteryear’s Oscar winner The Dallas Buyers Club, directs with flair, juxtaposing the picturesque splendour of Cheryl’s surroundings with the internal darkness that nudges her to the brink of self-destruction.
The fragmented timeline doesn’t impact greatly on dramatic momentum and Hornby sketches some powerful scenes of threat and self-reflection including a moving encounter on the trail with a woman and her grandson that finally opens Cheryl’s floodgates and loosens ours too.
Star Rating: 4/5
RottenTomatoes.com Rating: 91%
Heroes come in many shapes and sizes.
Born and raised in Odessa, Texas, Chris Kyle became a professional rodeo rider until injury forced him to reassess his priorities.
He enlisted with the military and his keen eye – nurtured by his father who taught him to hunt at an early age – set Kyle apart as a sniper.
During four tours of duty in Iraq, he gained the reputation as the most lethal sniper in American military history, with 160 confirmed kills to his name.
Such was his notoriety, the enemy nicknamed him “The Devil Of Ramadi” and put a sizeable bounty on his head.
When Kyle eventually returned home, deeply scarred by clashes with insurgents and the deaths of his brothers in arms, he gradually regained his humanity and reconnected with his family by working with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
American Sniper unfolds from Kyle’s fervently patriotic perspective and the lack of narrative balance might trouble some audiences.
Director Clint Eastwood is more interested here in the psychology of a father and husband than wading through the murky politics and morality of modern warfare.
Battle sequences are choreographed with meticulous precision and Bradley Cooper, who bulked up for the role, affects a drawl to perfection as he conveys the demons that haunt Kyle and drive him further from the people that love him the most.
Sienna Miller is solid in a meaty supporting role, reminding Chris of his responsibilities to his family as well as his country.
Star Rating: 3½
RottenTomatoes.com Rating: 74%
Testament of Youth
Published in 1933, Testament Of Youth was the first instalment of memoirs by feminist writer and pacifist Vera Mary Brittain covering the years 1900-1925.
In those pages, Brittain relived her harrowing personal experiences of the First World War in the wider context of the shifting political landscape, and gave a voice to other women, who had watched loved ones head off to fight and never return.
In 1979, the BBC produced a six-part mini-series based on the book, casting a fresh-faced Cheryl Campbell as the fiercely independent heroine.
It’s fitting that BBC Films should be one of the creative forces behind this handsomely mounted big screen adaptation.
Testament Of Youth is almost the right film in the right place at the right time, coinciding with centenary commemorations of the First World War.
James Kent’s film is suitably respectful and sombre, and Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is a revelation in her first leading role in an English-language production, capturing the spirit, defiance and brittleness of a young woman who holds firm to her convictions at a time when women were preferably seen but not heard.
Testament Of Youth is a visually arresting portrait of those tumultuous years of blood-stained European history and director Kent demonstrates moments of brio.
However, for all its physical splendour and Max Richter’s elegiac orchestral score, the film doesn’t stir the heart, even with Vikander wringing herself emotionally dry as Vera’s dearest friends become casualties of the conflict.
At 130 minutes, the ambitious running time sags noticeably in the middle act, but thankfully regains momentum and composure as Vera’s cosy existence is steadily reduced to rubble.
Star Rating: 3/5
RottenTomatoes.com Rating: 83%