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Archive for the ‘J.K. Simmons’ Category

La La Land

17 Dec

La La Land – directed and written by Damien Chazelle. Musical Dramedy 128 minutes Color 2016

★★★★★

The Story: A to-be actress and a to-be jazz pianist strive for their callings and their love for one another, both in the big-time.

~

How joyful it is to have a good old fashioned Hollywood musical to top off the Holidays, not the cherry on the sundae, but the sundae itself!

It may be observed that Ryan Gosling is more of a dancer than Emma Stone is and that Emma Stone is more of a singer than Ryan Gosling is, but put them both together and they spell why bother. They’re easy, they’re difficult, we want them to work it out. And will they?

As they go about their business in Los Angeles, where she is a barista on the Warner’s lot, and he is tinkling out dread pop tunes under the baleful gaze of J.T. Simmons, the piano bar restaurant owner, we are treated to massed production numbers played out around swimming pools and on the tops of stalled rush hour cars.

But there are two greater treats in the picture – three if you count Ryan Gosling ‘s miraculous spectator shoes – which he never takes off as the years roll by – and the first of these is a hill-top dance duet which is a masterpiece of simple choreography in concert with two performers caused to be willing to be in such concert that you leave knowing the story has told us, if they don’t quite know it themselves, that they are in love.

The second of these greater treats is a monologue Emma Stone does as an acting audition for a film. I say not one word more about any of this or these.

The film resembles New York, New York, with Emma Stone in the Lisa Minnelli part and Ryan Gosling in the Robert De Niro part, except that Gosling is more convincing as a musician, and, of course, De Niro is never convincing as A New York Jew, either there or in The Last Tycoon. He was and has remained a New York Lower East Side, Little Italy Italian. So, on the level of acting La La Land is the more satisfying picture.

Ryan Gosling is a cold actor. And I like him for it. It suits the cool, hip flat affect of a jazz person, because they’re a lot of them like that. But I like that quality in him anyhow. It reveals a certain ruthlessness of temperament which does not seek approval. Not too many actors get far as cold actors, but some do, and there are some I like a good deal. Barbara Stanwyck was one. Gosling’s face is a mask that reveals everything. Everything that belongs to his part, and nothing besides. I honor him for it every time.

So, do go to see La La Land. Waiting for the show to start, I nipped in to catch the end of Jackie. Six people were in the multiplex. All I can say of what I saw is that Natalie Portman has misconstrued the role and is not talented enough to play it even had she not misconstrued it, that the authors have misconstrued the picture, and that Billy Crudup is a top-flight talent no matter what. La La Land was mostly full and ended up, having gone through some interesting, and difficult passages, with an audience satisfied.

 

 

 

Off The Map

05 Jul

Off The Map – directed by Campbell Scott. Family Drama. 108 minutes Color 2003.

★★★★★

The Story: The difficulties of a family living on the edge at the edge are exacerbated by the arrival of a tax man from the IRS.

~

One of the great actors of my heart is here, and what puts her there and here?

Unforced excellence.

Vladimir Horowitz: forced excellence. Artur Rubenstein: unforced excellence.

Glenn Close: forced excellence. Joan Allen: unforced excellence.

Here she allies with a good script, an unusual story, fine direction, art direction, cast, costuming, filming, and the landscape of northern New Mexico, all of which she fits into with an ease that seems long-standing.

New Mexico is not part of the United States, of course, so who should enter into the world Joan Allen’s character inhabits but the IRS. That world is one she and her husband have forged in a high desert wilderness to live self-sufficiently: no phone, plumbing, electricity, money. They live from barter, cunning, and what they find at the town dump.

They live in a house of their own construction. They live clean and they do just fine.

Outwardly. But inwardly tensions hum – not because of lack of love or the want of an indoor toilet. Their 12 year daughter is itching to split. Their best friend is going to buzz off and get hitched. The father and husband languishes in a six month’s catatonic depression.

Have I told you enough to lure you? A little more may help: the best friend is played by the redoubtable J.K. Simmons, the husband by Sam Elliott, the annoying and resourceful daughter by Valentina de Angelis , and the IRS man by Jim True-Frost, to see whom is to love whom.

True-Frost plays the teacher/cop in The Wire, and it was great to see him play this major and pivotal character who treks in on foot to this remote holding. Of course, the focal character is the mother played by an actress of such genius you don’t even realize she is one.

Her simplicity of detail. Her ability to pay attention without drawing attention to the fact she is doing so. Her bearing inside her personal space, which lends conviction to operating in a way of life her character would be long accustomed to. I list no more. You can find her virtues for yourself as you watch what is, in fact, an ensemble piece.

In aid of which I have to stop here, lest I go on to praise and thus give away the unfolding and nature of this generous and unpredictable story, the aptness of the writing, the understanding of the direction by Campbell Scott, and the enchantment of New Mexico.

Find it. See it. Enjoy the dickens out of it. Let me know how you liked it.

 

Whiplash

20 Mar

Whiplash – written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Drama. 106 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: At a New York jazz conservatory, a young drummer is brutalized by his teacher.

~

Whiplash is an essay on teaching. J.K. Simmons is to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for it – although it is not a supporting role. It is a leading role as by nature of the material it has to be.

However, setting that aside as a failed fait accomplis, the story succeeds in presenting a tyrannical bastard whose uses his position as teacher to run riot over those in his care. The story fails on another ground, however, which is to make plain that the teacher he plays is insane, wrong, and lying. And that there there is no advantage whatsoever to endure or outlast his tutelage.

J.K. Simmons plays the teacher who bullies and slaps his pupils. They are all males and he revels in homophobic put-downs of them. He calls them faggots and cocksuckers never calls them anything else. “Okay, ladies,” is his greeting when walking in the rehearsal room door. He is capricious in his treatment of them and widely contemptuous. His encouragement of them is to shame them.

We have had enough of this sort of teacher in our lives. The lie they tell us is that they are behaving vilely toward us for our own ultimate betterment, that we may exceed ourselves in high art. They are reducing us to tears and fear and zero self-esteem, they say, so we may surpass ourselves and become names to be reckoned with. It is a complete lie. What they are doing is seeking dominion, and that is all they are seeking.

We have had enough of such teachers. We have enough of such teachers as Madame Sousatzka. We have had enough of the tyrannical behavior of Sanford Meisner, the overbearing queening of Stella Adler, and the brutality of Kim Stanley when she taught in New Mexico. Their purpose was not to liberate their students to the full potential of their talent but to reduce them to an audience merely – an audience which they as actors no longer or never did command.

It is exactly the same as the motive of Adolf Hitler, whom as we know had no strategy whatsoever for what he was doing in Europe, save to dominate it. We see it in his speeches and his acts. And they succeeded. To what good end? None.

Likewise, in Whiplash the virtuoso performance that we see is not that of the drummer who is badgered and nearly killed by the demand for subservience. The virtuoso performance is that of the actor playing the teacher. His domination dominates the show and creates it.

And it must be understood that such a performance can only take place when the actor is given the chance by the script to reduce another human being to ashes. As with Hitler, so with Professor Fletcher. So with Bette Davis in her heyday at Warners. Not only in seizing dominion over the set, but in her actual life, and not only there, but in her big virtuoso fliteing scenes when she tells some male character off in a movie – scenes written especially for her – and thrilling to behold. Thrilling to imagine that we ourselves might tell someone off just like that. Wow.

Better not.

Egomania run rampant. Humans playing God.

Not a good idea.

Not good for whom?

In Whiplash we are not asked to examine the question what effect this might have on the person doing it. The life and art of Bette Davis disappear for the last forty years of her life. What about that? No. What we are asked to behold is the effect on the student. This the film makes clear for a while, but finally does not make clear.

Does the student ultimately benefit by his teacher’s brutality? Or not.

The young man is cast and played admirably by Miles Teller.

His lesson, from all this though, is what?

Does he triumph at the end because he has been browbeaten? We don’t know. All we know is that he takes over the orchestra itself by starting up and setting the beat for a Carnegie Hall number as Professor Fletcher is announcing it to the audience. But what is the action here?

Is the drummer proving the teaching method to have been fortifying to him?

Or is the drummer acting separately, independently, and apart from it?

All we see is the action by the drummer, which is to seize dominion from the conductor, Fletcher. That’s all we see.

So is he doing to Fletcher what Fletcher was doing to him? Is he beating Fletcher up in public?

Of course, the drummer seizes power over the moment, the band, the conductor on anger. And he plays the drums on anger.

For only anger can do this. Only anger can fuel a display of dominance. Only anger can Hitlerize over the pupils of a Sanford Meisner or a Terrence Fletcher or a nation.

The pretense on display before us, which is that Fletcher then recognizes the drummer’s sovereignty and partners up with it, is bushwah. Dominators do not twin. They are solo acts. As the drummer is a solo act.

Is the drummer’s solo also toxic? Also a feat of egomania? An act of ruthless self-indulgence?

Is human anger always toxic?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Depends.

It is useful to set this rendition of teaching next to another presently before us, that of Kevin Costner in Mcfarland USA.

Yes, the coach there makes the boys exert themselves beyond their current level. Of course he does. That is what coaches do. And the coach he plays has been demoted to the outpost of Mcfarland because of an out-of-control anger.

But that is not what we see in the coach now. What we see in him now is steady application of long-distance running drill fueled by encouragement – not by demeaning the team, not by calling the boys faggots, not by reducing them to humiliation, tears, and fear. The actual dominion in that Chicano community is that of the mother serving Costner his food in no uncertain terms. The dominion is family. The moral of the story is that the race is won – in the Carnegie Hall of cross-country running – not by the best runner but the worst runner of all. And everyone benefits.

When pianist Sviatoslav Richter hitchhikes to Moscow at age 19, he has been playing the piano all his life but has never had a piano lesson in his life, but he goes there to play for Russia’s greatest teacher Heinrich Neuhaus. Richter auditions. Neuhaus whispers into the ear of the person next to him. “I believe he is a genius.” Richter stays in Moscow and, being without funds, camps out for a good while by sleeping in Neuhaus’s apartment under the piano. And Neuhaus kindly teaches him the few things Richter has yet to learn. He turns out to be the greatest classical pianist of the last half of the 20th Century.

That is a story about how a great teacher deals with talent. A hard home, under a piano, yes, but not a hostile home.

But the great fact about teachers of art, cruel or kind, is that they presently learn that not one student in a million has any talent at all. What students get out such schooling is an immersion in a sport or art which will enrich their lives forever – and better their lives too for the effort and the victory of the effort. And what the students will learn of craft may indeed aid them to become but to become no other than competent amateurs, devoted aficionados.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Not a thing. But to listen to J.K. Simmons as Fletcher talk about his great purpose in battering his students, to hear him compare himself to someone who by throwing a brass cymbal at a player turned that player into Charlie Parker is be asked to swallow a consummate arrogance as a consummate kindness. It is not a kindness. It is the reverse. And it has nothing to do with teaching. It is the reverse.

J.K. Simmons is the virtuoso artist here, not the young man who plays the drums. For Simmons is given the anger scenes to play, and, even when they are not anger scenes, anger is what the character desires to run and will contrive to run given any cue whatsoever. Rage is the touchiness of an absolutist agenda. Rage is the frustration of an inflexible expectation.

Almost all of this the script delivers to us and so does Simmons. All save the writing, playing, and direction of the final lie in the jazz dive toward the end, where Fletcher reveals his holy strategy to the drummer.

This is not played as the hollow hyperbole of an absolutist agenda that it is. It is played as the Greatest Ideal In All Teaching – just as all absolutist agendas are presented. Granted Simmons as an actor must believe Fletcher’s doxology is true, good, and necessary. But what the player and the script and the director have not given us is the empty inhumanity in Fletcher his behavior is meant to supply or disguise. Fletcher weeps at the death of a talented musician he once taught. What he tells his band is that the young man died in a car accident; what actually happened was the young musician committed suicide. Brought on by Fletcher’s hounding of him. What a phony!

We are offered a good many things by this film, however. And it is well worth seeing. Not because of the violence Simmons is able to body forth so well – after all he is a first class actor ripened up by Oz for such roles. Rather it is also well worth seeing for the handling of the material itself in its display before us, the pulse of big band jazz playing, the mis-en-scene of a music school, with its dank corridors and uninviting ambiance – enough of a counterpoint to encouragement without Fletcher’s tyranny present.

Miles Teller is a lovely actor as the drummer. And in his hands and those of the cinemaphotographer we get a full experience of the dynamics of drumming itself.

The movie also tells its larger story well and honestly. It won Academy Awards For Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing. And, of course, Best Supporting Actor. You will not disagree.

 

 
 

Thank You For Smoking

07 Nov

Thank You For Smoking –– directed by Jason Reitman. Satire. A ruthless lobbyist for the tobacco industry is taken to task by all who surround him, but wins through to give everyone cancer. 92 minutes Color 2006.
★★★★★
A gem of a comedy made possible only by the perfect casting of its leading roles of the Senator who opposes him being played by William H. Macy, and by Aaron Eckhart as the lobbyist. Macy is one of those actors who is always inherently funny because he is always on the verge of being exposed as humanly fallible. There is that in his broad flexible features which no passing shrapnel can miss. To illustrate it, watch the marvelous little scene in the Extra Features in which he offers his assistant a bottle of maple syrup. Catch the expression with which he ends the scene, his mouth opening slightly, with a tiny shaking of his head. As for Aaron Eckhart, once again he has a role proper to his instrument. Often cast as a leading man, which he is not, here he is ripe in his true vocation as a character lead. For there is in him such a balance between a person who cannot be any better than he is and another perhaps better person he does not know anything about, even by suspicion. This gives him a corner on the market of lovable rotters, such as no actor has had since Lee Marvin expired, although I do not really know how lovable Lee Marvin actually was. Eckhart has more than a scoundrel or scamp in his nature. He is able to play the modern machine-brained swine like no one else, and this is one of those roles. He plays the man who has chosen to be a foxy Yuppie monster –– Eckhart’s every assay into these characters plays like a hostile takeover of all human decency. And we love him for it. Robert Duval brings additional comic weight to the show as does J.K. Simmons, both of whom play Eckhart’s bosses. The piece is brilliantly written and directed. It is filmed like a puppet show, perfectly. Satire is a form of comedy we do not fall off our chairs laughing over. Satire is a form of comedy we remain in our chairs to gleefully relish.

 
 
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