(Sometimes Dangerous) Drums
Reviews by Ken Burke
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To further my attempts at making these reviews useful in your movie choices/ interested reflections upon films you’ve already seen/reasonable substitutions in some cases for actually seeing what I’m writing about, I’m going to experiment with a new format this week for those times when I’ve got more than 1 filmic consideration to explore (especially when they have no organic relationship except for what I might have tried to impose upon the group), with ongoing hope of keeping the commentary from turning into an-as-yet-undiscovered William Faulkner novel, as I’m easily prone to do (especially with my trademark standard deviations—such as this one). I’d appreciate any feedback from any readers (regular, irregular, or first-timers) about how/if this approach works for you, so thanks in advance for comments on any aspects of this blog. As always, though, I encourage you to take my Spoiler Alert Notice above seriously, especially concerning the mighty Whiplash, which is just opening this coming 10/17/2014 weekend in my San Francisco area, so it may also be new (or soon will be) to your location as well.
An aspiring jazz drummer at an acclaimed music school has dangerously-bad-problems with his teacher/conductor, intent on pushing his students to their limits or beyond.
What Happens: 19-year-old jazz drummer in training, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), at the top-rated (but fictional) NYC Shaffer Conservatory of Music has raw talent (with “raw” as the operative word for such a musician given that they aren’t really considered to be properly "hitting" their stride unless their hands are bleeding all over the drum set from pounding the skins—no electronic drums in this world) which appeals to feared teacher/director of the school’s elite Studio Ensemble, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), so Andrew is recruited into the group, at first just as an alternate turning score pages for the core drummer but soon he’s been promoted to that post, earning no admiration from his displaced colleague or the other more-advanced-students in the band. However, Fletcher’s admiration soon wanes as well when Andrew can’t quite find the proper tempo for one of Fletcher’s signature demonstrations of his students’ abilities, “Caravan” (written by Juan Tizol, first recorded by Duke Ellington and members of his orchestra [under the name of Barney Bigard and His Jazzopators, conducted by Bigard] in 1936; if you like, you can listen to this version under Ellington’s name from 1937 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3R35V5LsYY; another jazz standard, from which this film takes its title as you’ll hear quite a bit of in it, is Hank Levy’s “Whiplash” [couldn’t find the composition date], with this version at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1Omi6HkmSw—I’ve included both of these links so that you could experience more “normal” renditions of both these songs without the driving tempo—and drummer emphasis—that you get in this film with Fletcher’s intensified-arrangements). After Andrew endures a constant stream of verbal insults, a chair thrown at him to illustrate Fletcher’s frustration (and to parallel his story to Andrew about how a cymbal thrown by an angry drummer is what encouraged young saxophonist Charlie Parker to fully devote himself to his art so that he could later transform into the legendary “Bird” [for more on his life in music, see Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film, Bird, with Forest Whitaker as Parker]), plus the inclusion of yet-another-younger-drum-student to intentionally put further pressure on Andrew, things reach the (literal) breaking point when the group has to travel to a nearby state for an important competition.
Through no fault of his own, Andrew finds himself on a bus with a flat tire so he’s running late to get to the stage even after renting a car near the bus stop; despite his hot-headed-confrontation with Fletcher about playing the set anyway, Andrew finds that he must rush back to the car rental company for some misplaced items but on his return he’s broadsided by another driver. Running now back to the venue, bloody and disoriented (this part is a bit over-the-top-melodramatic, especially with how close the auditorium seems to be you have to wonder why he didn’t just run there in the first place), he slides onto his stool just as the music begins but can’t concentrate, finally collapsing. As Fletcher tries to get him off stage, Andrew strikes his mentor, which leads to his dismissal from Shaffer (along with Fletcher’s, as Andrew quietly joins in with secret testimony initiated by another abused student’s family to have this tyrant fired from teaching). They meet up again, though, with Fletcher asking Andrew to join in with a group of musicians he’s about to showcase at Carnegie Hall (which, in the light of the theme of this film, recalls the old joke: A stranger in Manhattan asks a old man on the street, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The old man replies, “Practice, practice, practice!”), but instead of playing “Caravan” as intended, Fletcher surprises Andrew with a tune he doesn’t know, played in the double-time-tempo that Andrew struggles with the most. His performance is subpar so he just walks off the stage in frustration before storming back on to begin an impromptu drum solo which he segues into “Caravan” as the rest of the group backs him up, keeps going over Fletcher’s in-his-face-protests, then explodes into an astounding performance that justifies all of the emotion and tedious work he’s endured up to this point, as we fade out with the climatic crescendo.
So What? The sort of music you’re familiar with will probably determine which drummers come to mind when you think of masters of their genres. Given that much of my focus has been on mainstream (now evolved into oldies) rock the names that come most easily to me are Ringo Starr (The Beatles), Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones), Mickey Hart (The Grateful Dead), Keith Moon (The Who), and John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), of whom I’ve seen only the first 3 live in concert and will never see the other 2 because of their respective deaths in 1978 and 1980. My favorite percussionist, Alla Rahka, however, doesn’t play a standard drum kit with sticks at all but instead uses his lightning-fast-hands on the Indian tablas; fortunately for me I did see him twice back in the late-1960s-mid-1970s-period when I lived in central Texas, accompanying the equally-masterful-sitarist, Ravi Shankar (if you have an extra 18:42 I encourage you to listen to their astounding rendition of the Dhum (Dadra and Fast Teental) raga from the Monterey Pop [D.A. Pennebaker, 1968] documentary at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lk60O bnbIOk [if time is short for you (it certainly wasn’t for these Indian musicians; this raga is simply one part of their 4-hour-set at that concert] please note that the final 1:42 is just sustained applause; however, if this sort of music moves you to find even more then here’s Shankar and Rahka again, this time at the even-more-famous 1969 Woodstock festival with a 21:31 evening raga, Majh Khamaj at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IEetKrEmfiI—from their 40 min. set played in the rain—but with no full accompanying film footage, as this performance was not in any of the various cuts of Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock  documentary, although here’s a brief look at the end of their artistry that night at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEXVVq0h7Ak]). Why I’ve included all of this percussionist information is to assure you that even if—like me—your musical awareness isn’t too sharp on great jazz drummers like Gene Krupa (there’s a movie biography of him too, The Gene Krupa Story [Don Weis, 1959], with Sal Mineo in the title role but the drumming done by Krupa) and Buddy Rich (here’s a video of one of their famous “drum battles” from the 1950s at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nu1teeixmpw), you can still find plenty to appreciate in Whiplash with little to no background knowledge of jazz based on: the virtuosity of Teller doing his own drum work (and bleeding) throughout the film; the reality of the life-choice-difficulties faced
by any artist (or, really, anyone with a goal that requires intense preparation through long hours of skill-building) in trying to find a way to accommodate a fulfilling personal life during those agonizing, heartbreaking, backbreaking formative years (Andrew decides to break it off with fellow-student—but from Fordham, in the Bronx—Nicole [Melissa Benoist], despite being very attracted to her, because he knows he can’t give her the time that a decent relationship deserves); and the aesthetic/ethical-conflict embodied in Fletcher, a man with great intentions to bring out the best in his students (which would also feed his ego in being recognized as their mentor) yet possessed by intolerable methods of pushing his protégés so terribly hard that many of them suffer physical or emotional (or both) breakdowns that ruin not only their potential careers but also their health, as well as their abilities to appreciate what levels of talent they do possess rather than always seeing themselves as incompetent failures for not living up to the generally-impossible-standard that slave-drivers (an undertone reference to the film’s title, beyond the obvious song noted above where Andrew must immediately prove his worth in the ensemble by playing it correctly on first try) such as Fletcher require in their blind quests to unleash the next “Bird” (Fletcher says he never had a student truly capable of that anyway, although what he experiences with Andrew’s finale must cause him to reconsider that negative remark, in at least this one case).
Chazelle, as writer-director, notes that Whiplash comes from his personal experience in all of these areas: “There are a lot of movies about the joy of music. But as a young drummer in a conservatory-style high school jazz orchestra, the emotion I felt the most frequently was a different one: fear. Fear of missing a beat. Fear of losing tempo. Most overwhelmingly, fear of my conductor. With Whiplash, I wanted to make a movie about music that felt like a war movie, or a gangster movie—where instruments replaced weapons, where words felt as violent as guns, and where the action unfolded not on a battlefield, but in a school rehearsal room, or even on a concert stage.” Put this all together and you'll see why this work was lauded at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and hopefully will prove as popular with general audiences as it has so far with critics.
Bottom Line Final Comments: At Sundance last winter Whiplash received both the Audience Award for Dramatic Films and the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Films, a very difficult task to accomplish (only Quinceañera [Richard Glatzer, 2006], Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire [Lee Daniels, 2009], and Fruitvale Station [Ryan Coogler, 2013; review in our July 16, 2013 posting] had previously accomplished this since the event began in 1984 [when I attended in 1998, Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre) won both the Audience Dramatic Film award and the Filmmakers Trophy for Dramatic Films (given by a panel of directors), the only competitor to do so during the years (1989-1999) that all 3 of these prizes were given; no film ever won both Grand Jury and Filmmakers Trophy for Drama]). While I wouldn’t recommend something just because it got a statue of some kind (don’t even get me started on a good many of the Oscar winners compared to the nominees that I think should have won; Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941] not getting Best Picture will just have to stand in for all of the other mistakes made over the decades by the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) nor do I know what all was screened at Sundance last January, but I do know that Whiplash seems highly deserving of its current accolades, with possibly more to come this winter when various cinematic-award-nominations are announced (some might see it as merely a higher-quality Rocky [John Avildsen, 1976] where the hard-luck-frequent-loser finally triumphs, but I—as someone who endured the “tough love” attitudes of some of my studio art teachers decades ago in college, which did benefit me in later life even without pursuing a painter’s career—think Whiplash is a lot more substantial than that); personally, I hope that high recognition comes for J.K. Simmons who displays an amazing range as the goal-driven Fletcher (“That’s not my tempo!”), helping me dispel the queasy feeling I get every time he pops up in one of those Farmers Insurance ads as the all-knowing “Professor Burke.” (I keep wondering if one of my former students made it big in the copywriting business and used that name to get back at me—but what makes me think that any of my students would be that successful to begin with? [Just kidding, for those of you in that category who may well be reading this … or were until my bad joke].)
I’ll close out this round of comments with the disappointment that no accessible video yet exists of that amazing scene of Teller's drum-solo-conclusion (maybe if anyone’s reading this in a year or so you could check out YouTube after the DVD is released—although you can read more now about Teller's preparation in the October 17, 2014 edition of Entertainment Weekly in Sara Vilkomerson's sidebar article called "Bang the Drum ... Furiously!" [you have to have a subscriber's account to get to this version, then work your way through this issue to the Movies reviews section, or just see pp. 50-51 in the print magazine]), with its accompanying energy-driven-swish-pans (another Citizen Kane influence, just as the many interesting angles and compositions of this film show a fine understanding of contemporary photography) between the rapid motion of the drummer and the building intensity/admiration of the furious-morphed-to-awestruck-conductor, so instead I’ll offer you a closing Musical Metaphor that’s truly a metaphor in that it’s more about the same kind of energy but driven with piano rather than drums, Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” (from the 1973 Yellow Brick Road album that Elton’s now celebrating the 40th anniversary of with a tour that I mentioned in my last posting [October 9, 2014, reviewing Gone Girl (David Fincher)—where I’ve added one last previously-forgotten-insight in the Comments section at the bottom of the page—and The Drop (Michaël R. Roskam)] provided me with useful inspiration for musical selections this week and also in next week's round of reviews) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T92k1Nz5NIE, the opening number for the current concert and one that delivers the same sort of sustained energy that Teller leaves us with in that stupendous solo to close out Whiplash. The concert in this clip is from Elton’s October 2000 “One Night Only: The Greatest Hits” at NYC’s Madison Square Garden (“Practice, practice, practice!” will get you there as well), but what I saw was very similar, if not even more of an up-tempo-rendition that Conductor Über Alles Fletcher would well appreciate.
Now onto other recent cinematic offerings that shouldn’t need as much elaboration from me as this one did because of the greater-name-value of their stars and the more-extensive-media-coverage that they’ve already received, although The Two Faces of January has been in some markets for 3 weeks already with only $216.5 thousand in domestic grosses to show for its largely-overlooked-presence, while Whiplash made a bit over half of that when it debuted in just 6 theaters last weekend (expect additional good press for Whiplash as well as strong ticket sales, but you might check back on the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic links noted below as more reviews are rolling in), so I’d better start by pushing The Two Faces ...'s vacation-gone-bad-thriller a good bit as well.
The Two Faces of January (Hossein Amini)
In 1962 a wealthy American tourist couple in Greece link up with a young male guide who provides much more than translations when things turn horrible for the husband.
What Happens: Time: 1962. Place: Athens. Main characters: Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst) MacFarland, a wealthy American couple on vacation who meet up with a charming young American hustler, Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who scams money from other tourists but does know several useful languages, with a claim that he’s the son of a Harvard archeologist. The couple has dinner with Rydal and his date, then on the way back to their hotel Colette drops a bracelet in the cab; when the young man attempts to return it, he finds Chester dragging an unconscious body through the hallway, the result of him overpowering a private detective sent by Chester’s brokerage-firm-clients to get back money swindled from them. (I got the sense those clients were mobsters but that may have been a mistake; I got to the theater about 5 minutes late for the start of the show so I may have missed something more important than I've yet to realize. My apologies for any wrong directions I imply here based on that opening gap.) Rydal helps Chester get the guy back to his room (ah, for the narrative convenience of the days when hotel keys had the room number right on them)—with only Chester aware that he’s dead—then they all rush out with just a couple of suitcases (Chester’s has a false bottom under which he keeps a large stash of cash), the MacFarlands leaving their passports behind. Rydal arranges with one of his cronies (for a hefty price, of course) for fake passports to be created, but the dead man’s picture’s already in the papers, other guests saw him being carried into the room, and the left-behind passports turn the MacFarlands into easy suspects, so, again with Rydal’s help, they head off to Crete to avoid capture, awaiting delivery of their new identities.
However, as they’re taking a bus into the countryside (after a tense night where wife and interloper become increasingly close while jealous, angry husband just gets increasingly drunk) Colette is nervous that she’s been identified (their pictures are now in the papers as well, along with radio reports of the crime), so they continue their journey on foot, taking nighttime shelter in the ruins of King Minos’ palace at Knossos (I guess in those days important archeological landmarks were easily accessible and unpatrolled—still hard to believe, though). Disputes break out among the 3, based somewhat on Chester’s awareness of Rydal’s flirtation with Colette (along with her acceptance), so older man knocks out younger companion, then leaves him unconscious after his wife accidently falls off a staircase to her death. Chester makes the rendezvous to retrieve the fake passports but Rydal catches up with him on a large ferry back to Athens where they each threaten the other, then manage to make it through immigration at the airport where Rydal claims Chester as his father. (Did the passport forger give the couple his buddy’s surname? That’s another item not clear to me.) Chester buys 2 tickets for Frankfurt, then slips out to catch a different flight to Istanbul; however, Rydal catches up with him again, only this time he’s in police custody working with the law to get a confession from Chester about how Colette really died so that circumstantially-rigged-charges against Rydal will be dropped. They meet to settle accounts but Chester picks up on the sting operation, running away into the night’s crowded streets as does Rydal. However, the cops prove adept at tracking them down, shooting both of them—Chester fatally, but not before he confesses all of his crimes thereby clearing Rydal as this family tragedy (full of not only mate-intruder-conflicts between the 2 men but also a sense of Freudian father-son-battles over the “mother” as well) comes to a ignominious close.
So What? My eternally-marvelous-wife, Nina, noted to me that Isaac reminds her of a young Al Pacino (a thought that always raises her heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature), which got me thinking that Mortensen reminds me of a young Ed Harris—although that doesn’t stir any physiological response from me. (Sorry, Ed. To finish this line of thought, however, I guess Dunst just reminds me of an older Kirsten Dunst, one who’s not only endured the trials of being Mary Jane Watson, in love with a never-home-much-superhero in the first Web-Slinger trilogy [Spider-Man, 2002], Spider-Man 2 , Spider-Man 3 [2007—all directed by Sam Raimi] but also has seen the world come to a horrific end as Justine in Melancholia [Lars von Trier, 2011—the subject of the first Two Guys in the Dark film review, posted on December 12, 2011, with rookie-layout-sloppiness and not nearly enough pictorial support for the as-usual-endless-text]; of course, screen-death seems to be a natural fate for any actress who makes the mistake of wandering into Spider-Man’s lair, whether she gets it after her time with Spidey is done—as with Dunst in Melancholia and … January or even while the current movies are still in progress, as with the accidental demise of Gwen Stacy [Emma Stone] in the very recent The Amazing Spider-Man 2 [Marc Webb; review in our May 8, 2014 posting].) None of this is particularly relevant to The Two Faces of January (an interestingly-ambiguous title, seemingly referring to the Roman—not Greek, mind you, although there was talk of going to Rome at one point in this film—god for whom that month is named, who had a face on both the front and back of his head so that he was always aware of the past even when contemplating the future, therefore making him the patron deity of beginnings and endings such as transitions, gates, doors, passages, births, journeys, and all other beginnings and endings including war [when the door to his temples were open] and peace [when those doors were closed]), but it does present us with the interesting phenomenon of seeing recognizable-actors in offbeat roles compared to much of the rest of their careers, forcing us to adjust our expectations and analysis as to what’s now on screen rather than what we’re trying to impose on these folks from our past experiences with the cast.
In the case of Mortensen, he’s a lot more tense and reckless than we’ve come to know him as Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011; review in our January 6, 2012 posting), Nikolai in Eastern Promises (Cronenberg, 2007), Tom Stall in A History of Violence (Cronenberg again, 2005), or the returned king Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson; 2001, 2002, 2003), so it’s nice to see him in a more vulnerable, desperate mode, still a man of some action but essentially more of reaction until he’s finally trapped in his escape attempts. As for Dunst, she’s already had a varied career (as indicated by the roles noted above, as well as stretching from the persona of put-upon-proto-Beatnik-“queen” Caroline Cassady in On the Road [Walter Salles, 2012; review in our March 29, 2013 posting; Mortensen was also in that one in a minor role] to the post-modern version of an actual queen in the title role of Marie Antoinette [Sofia Coppola, 2006]), so in … January we get a career-recapping-range from her as naïve tourist, to conflicted paramour, to disturbed victim on the run, with all of these transitions done quite successfully. Then we have Isaac, hardly recognizable here as the scruffy, self-centered folk-musician from Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013; review in our December 27, 2013 posting) but instead a commanding presence compared to his traveling companions, who keeps us guessing about how much we can believe of his stated autobiography but leaves us impressed with his resourcefulness which overshadows most of what the MacFarlands can come up with (short of Chester’s stress-induced-bribes). Some have complained that these characters aren’t well-developed enough (I don’t agree), while others would have preferred more process and conflict in the seemingly-evolving-love-triangle, but this plot is about Chester’s steady deterioration at this own hand rather than being undone by a more dynamic rival so I think that part’s well in command also. Watching the subtle-to-frantic-interplay among the 3 leads ultimately is this film’s strength (along with great scenery in Greece and Turkey).
|Knife on the Water|
A successful Chicago lawyer begrudgingly comes home to Indiana to help defend his father, a renowned local judge, on a murder charge but Dad’s not very cooperative.
What Happens: Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.), a hotshot Chicago defense lawyer (whose only problem is the pending divorce from his cheating wife, along with the added pressure of taking care of his beloved little daughter) is called home for his mother’s funeral to Small-City-Somewhere … oh, Carlinville, Indiana (a fictional town; this movie’s mostly shot in various Massachusetts locations) … a place he detests because of a younger life of bad memories and an ongoing feud with his self-righteous father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), whom everyone respects and calls Judge (even his children, minus the respect aspect for Hank), as he’s the long-time-local-magistrate (42 years on the bench). Through various family interactions and conversations we find that older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) had a promising high-school-baseball-career, with the big leagues an easy assumption until his hand was injured in a car wreck with Hank driving, setting up a lifetime of angry recriminations from the Judge, counter-anger-guilt from Hank, and frustrated attempts to get past all this from Glen, who also has the responsibility of looking after youngest brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), a developmentally-delayed-adult with a fascination for shooting and projecting Super-8mm film footage. Adding to the complications in Hank’s hometown is his lingering fascination with old girlfriend Samantha Powell (Vera Farmiga)—who’s still interested in him as well but is comfortably settled with ownership of a diner, as well as a bar, but no interest in following Hank to Chicago (she also has a young-adult-daughter, Carla [Leighton Meester], who provides crazy complications because Hank got cozy with her at that bar the night of the funeral before knowing that Sam’s her mother, let alone the guilt he feels after becoming convinced that he’s the long-ago-father). All of this intrigue could easily have been set aside by Hank, who leaves in an “I’m-never-coming-back”-huff after yet another nasty exchange with Dad, yet he’s called back from the airplane by Glen with news that big trouble has cropped up for their father, that trouble being the death of a local jerk who was given a lenient sentence long ago by the Judge (because in this troubled guy, Mark Blackwell [Mark Kiely], our usually-fierce-jurist saw echoes of his own troubled adolescent, Hank, so he tried to give the other boy another chance after a disturbing offense—a break not offered to Hank, whom he sent away to juvenile detention for a few years in a “tougher love” move, leading to Hank leaving home at 18 causing a rift between Mom and Dad—only for the elder Palmer to find himself now full of anger and remorse because Mark killed his girlfriend years ago and has just returned from prison) but is found run off a road on that fateful night of Mom Palmer’s funeral, with his blood on the grill of the Judge’s damaged Cadillac that no one else is allowed to drive.
After initial refusals, the Judge sees that the case against him is growing stronger (his only alibi is that he can’t remember what happened that night but swears—with few believing him—that he’s still on the wagon after many years sober; however, what we and Hank learn is that he’s got a major case of colon cancer so that the chemo drugs he’s taking have side effects that include memory loss, a reality he doesn’t want known because it could jeopardize the previous year’s worth of sentences he’s handed down in his courtroom as well as put a major stain on his legacy, an important factor for him) so he finally accepts Hank on his defense team (necessary because his local, out-of-his-league-lawyer, C.P. Kennedy [Dax Shepard], is better at throwing up before court begins than he is in planning an effective strategy, especially against the wily special prosecutor, Dwight Dickham [Billy Bob Thornton], determined to find the Judge guilty of first-degree-murder). Hank’s defense is highly-effective toward the end, but just when it seems that it’s mission accomplished the Judge starts volunteering information about how he probably did kill Blackwell, even though he never intentionally set out to do so, forcing Hank to pull out all of the secrets his father wanted hidden, resulting in a not-guilty-verdict for murder but 4 years in jail for intentional homicide, a defeat of sorts for Hank. Still, the Judge is released after 7 months for humanitarian health reasons, the father-son-battle is patched up on a fishing trip when Dad finally admits that Hank’s the best lawyer he’s ever seen then dies right there on the boat (bringing up another Nina reminder, but more of her own metaphor this time, with connected memories of The Godfather: Part II [Francis Ford Coppola, 1974] where we have Duvall as Corleone family attorney/adopted brother Tom Hagen and John Cazale as another short-of-a-full-deck-brother, Fredo, only this time it’s Duvall’s character who dies on a lake at the end of the movie [however, all of that got her thinking of Pacino again so we didn’t talk about much else for the rest of the night; she saw him in a play in San Francisco once, with his intensity still seared into her memory—of course, given that he’s a handsome Italian she could have seen him spitting gum on the sidewalk and she’d still be enthralled by the action), leaving us later with Hank in the empty courtroom seriously eyeing that judge’s chair (the same sort of important empty chair under the opening credits of Godfather 2, so maybe there’s more to Nina’s ruminations than I first realized, given that Tom Hagen would never have been allowed to fill the Don's chair rather than one of his biological sons) after having resolved the final family crises (that Glen’s the father of Carla, from a brief affair when Sam was mad at Hank for leaving her; meanwhile, Hank’s daughter, Lauren [Emma Tremblay], paid a weekend visit to the town during the trial and liked it so relocation won’t be a problem for either of the Chicago Palmers) as well as showing some leniency of his own when he returned to the big city to finish the trial interrupted by Mom’s death, allowing the mismatched prosecutor some slack in successfully going after another of Hank’s obviously-guilty-clients.
So What? As with The Two Faces of January, the primary thing The Judge has going for it is a consistent encounter for us with high-quality acting, especially in the harsh confrontations between 2 highly-formidable-screen-personalities, Downey Jr. and Duvall, despite their 34-year-age-difference (Duvall has about a 20-year-career-head-start on his castmate, along with the only Oscar between them [Best Actor, Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford, 1983)], although with the various Iron Man/Avengers movies Downey Jr. has undoubtedly hauled home more cash). Both of these guys are used to imposing themselves on a scene, so we witness some irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object-clashes, especially in the final courtroom scene where the Judge tries to fire his son as a defense lawyer rather than bring out the truth about how his clarity of mind might have impaired his judicial decisions while on the chemo treatment but is forced by the now-presiding-judge to answer Hank’s questions, a situation that ultimately sets him up for the relative win (not guilty of premeditated murder) in his own trial. Beyond that, internal family clashes aren’t much new (something of that sort comes out on roughly a weekly basis—such as mostly recently with The Skeleton Twins [Craig Johnson] and This Is Where I Leave You [Shawn Levy], both reviewed in our September 25, 2014 posting), nor is the sentimental pull of repairing what once was broken by returning to your roots or at least recognizing what you may have lost by drifting away from them (Jersey Boys [Eastwood] and even Maleficent [Robert Stromberg] follow this theme; review of the former in our May 27, 2014 posting, the later in the June 6, 2014 one) a concept much beyond standard melodramatic expectations, situations that have led a good number of critics to be quite hard on The Judge (just as he was on his own rebellious-teenage-son)—almost a tie (a huge rarity) between Rotten Tomatoes at 47% positive reviews, Metacritic at 48% (more details in the links below if you like)—but I find the sights of Duvall and Downey Jr. each pushing for recognition of their respective characters’ legacies (and theirs as actors), as well as the effectively-crafted-courtroom-strategies between Downey Jr. and Thornton to be quite engaging, with the satisfying-but-somewhat-unexpected-resolution (after seeing too many years of TV lawyers hardly ever losing any aspect of their cases) that the Judge does have to be held somewhat accountable for Blackwell’s death, that the Hank-picked jury (a bunch of folks he calls “crackpots” [with bumper stickers such as “Wife and Dog Missing, Reward for Dog”]) doesn’t just ignore the termination of a member of the community (even a nasty one who met up with the Judge at a convenience store on that fateful night, sneering that he could now take a short stroll to piss on both his ex-girlfriend and Mary Palmer’s graves) but requires some action against the killer, even if it likely was more accidental (rainy night, impaired driver) than intentional. Sure, there are clichés in The Judge, but the story’s not crawling with them as some other reviews have attempted to argue.
Bottom Line Final Comments: The ultimate question that this movie asks—and that we need to ask of it—is whether Hank’s long-delayed-homecoming (not just for his father’s trial but more for the implied aftermath of re-embracing his past, given the seemingly-built-in-satisfaction awaiting him with Sam as a long-term-companion and that empty judge’s chair in the courthouse practically engraving itself with his name) can prove satisfactory for him after all of those years away, estranged from everyone in his family, along with anyone else in town who might remember him. The Judge wants us to believe that such a reconciliation-followed-by-a-fundamental-change-of-lifestyle is both a viable conclusion to this story and a satisfying change of pace for formerly-fiercely-driven Hank, especially given his many years helping the sort of people he represented avoid justice while now he’s setting himself on the road to render judgments on defendants like these when they're found guilty by a supposedly-more-justifiable-legal-system in Carlinville. (Or, to put it another extra-textual way, can you really believe that Tony Stark will retire from his Iron Man identity to just quietly use his technological resources to help bring peace and justice to the world? Downey Jr. just gave us an answer to that question by agreeing to keep that character going through several more years of various Marvel-Disney-movie-manifestations, but maybe Hank sees a different path.) Clearly, many of my critical colleagues aren’t buying this (Disneyfied) vision of “happily ever after,” which I admit is very optimistic for this character, even in a fictional universe. Still, I enjoyed watching the family dynamics explored in The Judge, found the performances to be appropriately witty, serious, or touching as the context called for (especially a “tender mercies” scene in the bathroom where the Judge is losing his facilities and his dripping rectal stool, tries to reject help from Hank, finally allows his son to carry him to the shower for cleanup, all the while with Hank trying to keep his daughter from coming in to preserve some dignity for his Dad while sparing the child the embarrassment of seeing the grandfather she’s just getting to know in such an ungainly situation), and overall notably enjoyed more positive than negative in the experience. There are 2 other options above that I find even more worthy of your time, but this one’s not a bad choice at all.
Rather than come up with separate, additional conceptually-related-tunes to go with these last 2 reviews I’ll offer just this 1, at http://www. bbc.co.uk/programmes/ articles/2R3PxWX7hzMb 8lNZs3Ngz5L/god-only-knows, which I happened to stumble across recently on the Internet. It’s a remake of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” (from their 1966 album, Pet Sounds), produced by the BBC with a huge group of very talented musicians (including original composer Brian Wilson [co-writer with Tony Asher]) in an effort to raise funds for the BBC’s Children in Need charity and to draw attention to their new BBC Music project. However, I do think that while this specific song is referring to whether a current romantic connection will continue between the singer and his (as well as her, in this updated version, with the many various vocalists) love interest, it also has relevance for our 3 cinematic concerns this week in that regarding the circumstances they present—a developing musician trying to overcome the obstacles of a dismissive, tyrannical teacher in order to be one of the few who’ll ever break out of the anonymous pact of hopefuls; a man whose disreputable actions continue to escalate until his situation spirals out of control; a son trying to help his father in a terrible legal situation where years of intra-familial-hostility are pushing both of them to a point of no return—truly only someone with the insight of an all-knowing God could predict what success any of them would find because each of our protagonists must face unexpected circumstances that could easily help or hinder their desired outcomes. Anyway, it’s a rationale that “plays” well for me (plus I was mesmerized by this collective performance and wanted some excuse to shoehorn it into this review), but even if you don’t buy any version of this song as relevant to these cinematic comments at least you’ve got a marvelous rendition of Wilson’s tune to enjoy until I return next week with another debuting film, a very independent production featuring an excellent performance by Jason Schwartzman—as an even more unlikeable artist than Llewyn Davis—in Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry).
If you’d like to know more about Whiplash here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwAMEdCmP7Q (3:03 interview with actor Miles Teller from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival—mostly very superficial, though, so here’s another interview [5:48] at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHtRhESo9Q0 from Sundance 2013 with Damien Chazelle, the writer/director of the short film version of Whiplash which became the current feature version under his command this year; Jason Blum, one of the producers, and Jason Reitman, one of the executive producers of the feature, are also in this second interview)
If you’d like to know more about The Two Faces of January here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62yiSJ7zif8 (26:00 Part 1 of the press conference from London with screenwriter [adaptor]-director Hossein Amini and actors Oscar Isaac, Kirsten Dunst, and Viggo Mortensen [audio a bit low so you’ll have to pump it up to full blast]; look over in the strip of options to the right at this site and you might find the 10:30 Part 2 of these interviews or if you don’t see it when you open the above link here the second part of this interview is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9h8kq6pIhQ)
If you’d like to know more about The Judge here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wo2tDN9-Ouo (36:05 press conference at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival with director David Dobkin, producers David Gambino and Susan Downey [Robert Jr.’s wife], and actors Vera Farmiga, Dax Shepard, Jeremy Strong, Vincent D’Onofrio, Robert Downey Jr., and Robert Duvall)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.