Boyhood and Whiplash

I was sick last week, so I didn’t get around to reviewing anything. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t seen a boatload of movies that need to be mentioned. (A BOATLOAD!) So, beginning this week, and for the next few weeks, I will be talking Oscar nominated films, because, if you didn’t know this already, the Oscar nominations have come out.

I don’t and won’t watch the Oscars – I stopped doing that many years ago – but for some reason, I have this compulsion to see the films about which everyone is chattering. Of the films nominated in the major categories – Best Picture, acting various, screenplay, directing, editing, costume, production design, and cinematography – I have seen everything but Selma, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, Two Days, One Night (I doubt anyone in Omaha or Council Bluffs have seen that), Still Alice (ditto), Inherent Vice, The Judge, Ida, Mr. Turner, and Unbroken (wow, more films than I thought) – BUT, I plan on seeing some of those this weekend, and a few are coming out soon on DVD, so …

In most instances, I don’t agree with the back-slapping and hearty rounds of hurrahs. Quite the contrary. I find that most of the time, I sit stonefaced while I watch the most lauded films, and then spend days wondering how everyone managed to see a different film than I did. The first example of this is Boyhood. Written and directed by Richard Linklater, the six-time nominated drama is, in my opinion, a “gimmick” film, and by that I mean I think it is getting so much notice, because it was filmed over a period of 12 years with the same actors. It has been nominated for, among a few other things, Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Ethan Hawke), Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette), Director, and Original Screenplay. It has a running time of nearly three hours, so those of you who know me, know that I got my DVD in the mail, saw that running time, and immediately, emitted a sigh and a groan. I don’t like that kind of time commitment unless a film is directed by someone I really love, and Linklater ain’t that guy. After the DVD sat for a few days, unwatched, by my player, I decided to send it back. Then, my moviegoing buddy asked me if I ever watched the film. I said, no, explaining how I hate long films. He asked if I wanted to see it with him. Yes, I said, and off we went to the cinema. About 15 minutes into it, he turned to me, and said that a story had better develop soon. It never really did. We both came away scratching our heads. Why in the world was everyone in love with this film?

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

First of all, I’m going to be pedantic here and say that the film is misnamed. The title indicates that it will be about “boyhood,” and for me that covers the ages 5 to 12. This film, finally, ended with the main character Mason (Ellar Coltrane), entering university. At this point isn’t it now about manhood? And what really constitutes “boyhood”? For this poor sod, it’s about having your single-parenting mom (Arquette) move you and your sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter who is a truly horrible “actress) to another city so she can get a university degree. Meanwhile, your dad (Hawke), who has been doing whatever he’s been doing in Alaska, shows up and throws a curve ball into your existence. The remaining years captured on film are punctuated by watching your mom make more bad decisions regarding men, enduring alcoholism, lots of fighting, and other moments I can’t even remember. It was a blur. That’s how exciting it was.

In many ways, three hours isn’t even remotely adequate enough to cover 12 years of a person’s life, but in this case, it was longer than it needed to be. Way longer. And if you are going to cover that much ground, how about you hit the bloody highlights of a life? Not everyday banality that I can experience without having to shell out $7 for a ticket. I told my moviegoing buddy that if I had actually put this disc into my player, and I had watched it by myself, I don’t think I would have made it past 15 minutes. I would have popped it out, and sent it back.

Boyhood is like watching a high school film project. The acting is, for the most point, amateurish – I’ve never thought Arquette could act her way out of a paper bag; the directing choices, uninspiring, and the writing, nonexistent. I’m convinced that he had a script, but decided to throw out 99 percent of it so that everyone could just improvise; my moviegoing buddy claims that the director didn’t have a completed screenplay when he started, and instead just kept adding to it as the years progressed. Either way, we agree it wasn’t good; it was unfocused, with poorly fleshed out characters. Arquette’s Mom is, I think, supposed to elicit our compassion, but she just came across as someone who kept making really bad/dumb decisions, and who was rather shrill. I never saw her as a great or even adequate parent. Hawke’s Dad is the only character that changed from beginning to end. Mason just bumped along.

I’m not the biggest Hawke fan – he’s grown on me over the years – but since he was the only one who seemed to be acting in the film, I developed this intense desire to “whoop” it up whenever he turned up on the screen. At least when he showed up, I knew there would be someone making an effort. Does he deserve an Oscar win, though? In that supporting category, I have only witnessed Edward Norton in Birdman, and he was essentially playing an extreme – I hope it was, anyway – version of himself. By contrast, J.K. Simmons, who is a great, underrated character actor, absolutely slayed the competition with his flawless performance in Whiplash. He scared the holy crap out of me.

Speaking of Whiplash, this is a film that deserves the Oscar and critical buzz.  When I first heard about the Damien Chazelle-written and directed music drama, I had no interest in it. After all, how interesting or compelling can a film be that’s about a 19-year-old drummer (Miles Teller) who is trying to make it in a prestigious music conservatory? Doesn’t that sound like MTV’s version of Fame? But whoa was I wrong. Whiplash is intense and engrossing with terrifyingly exceptional performances by Teller – why didn’t he get an Oscar nom? – and Simmons, who makes every Navy S.E.A.L. drill sergeant on film seem like a pussycat. His character, Fletcher, is verbally abusive, casually hurling expletives, hate speech, and nasty character assassinations at every one under his tutelage. He’s an off-putting, abrasive, offensive piece of work, and yet, I found myself laughing – probably because Simmons delivers the bullet train rapid dialogue with aplomb – as often as I was cringing. This guy deserves an Oscar win. No discussion on this matter. And take a gander at the guy’s arms. He’s been working out.

J.K. Simmons in Whiplash. © 2014 - Sony Pictures Classics

J.K. Simmons in Whiplash. © 2014 – Sony Pictures Classics

Teller does too, deserve the Oscar win that is, if only he had the opportunity to do that. I don’t know if the music produced on the soundtrack came from his drumming or not, but who cares. He was playing the hell out of those drums, and unless he is some kind of drumming prodigy, I imagine he spent many months in training sessions that left him as sweat-drenched and exhausted as he looks in the film. It is mesmerizing to see him go to town on that drum set. I wouldn’t be surprised if that blood and sweat were real. You have to see it to believe it. I’m really glad that I got to see him in Whiplash – named for a jazz song that the students learn to play – because up until now, I can’t say that he’s made much of an impression on me, and I’ve seen him in Rabbit Hole, Footloose, and Divergent. In fact, with the exception of Jamie Bell as The Thing, looking over the cast of The Fantastic Four really put me into a stupor. Now I might check it out. Teller is playing Reed Richard/Mr. Fantastic, a character played not too long ago by Ioan Gruffudd. I guess I always have time to back out of this decision.

If you see one Oscar nominated film, showing at a cinema near you, consider making it Whiplash if for no other reason than the ending made me want to stand up and shout, “YEAH!” Remember how Jack Black told those kids in School of Rock that the purpose of rock (we’ll say all music here) is to stick it to the man? Well keep that in mind when you see Whiplash. The word triumph gets thrown around way too much by critics, and yet that word is pretty apropos when it comes to this film. Really amazing effort. By the way, Whiplash has five Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, and Sound Mixing.

Just so you know, reviews that will be coming in the next few weeks: The Imitation Game, Big Eyes, American Sniper, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, and, if I can manage it, Selma. We’ll see. Newer films include Blackhat and Predestination.




Author: Julien R. Fielding

Julien R. Fielding has been reviewing films, and covering the entertainment industry, for more than a decade. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, horror, action, and anime. She authored the book, Discovering World Religions at 24 Frames Per Second.

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