Dueling Critics is a Where Y’at feature where movie critics David Vicari and Fritz Esker engage in some Siskel & Ebert-style banter about a new film. For this installment, they discuss the music drama Whiplash.
Fritz: I've been seeing movies with you for over 10 years now, and I often have no idea how you'll react to a movie after it ends. But when Whiplash faded to black, I felt almost 100% certain you loved it, just as I did. Why is it one of the best movies of the year?
David: Well, this drama about a clash between a young drum student (Miles Teller) and his sociopathic instructor (J. K. Simmons) just explodes with such savage intensity from the word go. It's more riveting and alive than most films we see. The scenes of teacher and student locking horns are fiery and emotional, and the drumming scenes themselves are phenomenal.
Of course the performances by Teller and Simmons are great, but I would also credit writer and director Damien Chazelle for his confident direction and breakneck pacing. There are moments - like when Teller's character, Andrew, is racing to make a concert - that could have came off as silly or unbelievable in lesser hands. Wouldn't you agree?
Fritz: Yeah, the movie moves at such a breakneck pace that in the more far-fetched scenes like that, you don't have enough time to catch your breath and question what's going on.
What I appreciated about the writing was the accuracy and depth in which they captured a bully (Simmons) on screen. Bullies aren't lunatics all the time; if they were, people would easily dismiss or ignore them. They're unpredictable and keep their victims emotionally off-balance. They're also charming in small doses, just enough to make others want to please them or give them the benefit of the doubt when they should just run for the hills. Simmons is loathsome, but charismatic and intelligent enough to make you understand why people would buy into his abuse. How did you feel about its portrayal of an abusive, co-dependent relationship?
David: I felt it rang true. Just as an audience member I was buying the moments when Simmons' character was acting like the nice guy. I think we all want to be accepted, even by the bullies, so it's not a false notion when Teller's character wants to be embraced by this despicable teacher. Yes, they fuel each other, for better or for worse
Fritz: Right, people always take for granted people like Andrew's father (Paul Reiser), who are generally accepting and empathetic. People always focus on what they don't have, so they crave the approval of bullies and jerks. There's a romantic subplot in the film that doesn't get much screen time. Did you feel that added anything to the film, or was it the weak link?
David: The romantic subplot was there for a reason, and so was the fact that it doesn't get much screen time. I think Andrew's relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist) fits in well with the fact that this kid is obsessed with drumming and playing the game of psychological chess with his professor. He feels he doesn't have time for romance, but he doesn't have the foresight to realize he is on the verge of ruining his life. Did you feel there were any weak links?
Fritz: Not really, I felt the subplots with Nicole and Andrew's family served a purpose. As you say, that subplot and the one with his family show how you can ruin your life when you pursue one thing at the expense of all others.
Whiplash is a lock for my best list at the end of the year. Do you have anything else to add, other than that people need to give this movie a chance amidst the higher-profile November releases?
David: Only that Whiplash is definitely going on my best of the year list as well.