Listen Up Philip and Whiplash reviews

David Gritten / 05 June 2015

Saga's film critic, David Gritten takes a look at a film about a writer's life in Listen Up Philip, and recommends Whiplash, a study of a young musician pushing himself to the absolute limit in pursuit of possible greatness.



In cinemas: Listen Up Philip

Now here’s a film to divide audiences sharply. Jason Schwartzman, a deft master of deadpan, plays Philip, a New York writer in his 30s with a successful debut novel behind him, in a state of pure dread about the publication of his second. A difficult man, to put it mildly, Philip unilaterally decides not to do any publicity or interviews to promote his new work, to his publishers’ dismay.

And on the social front, he picks fights with his ex-girlfriend and his current girl-friend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss from Mad Men), behaving insultingly and derisively towards them. He’s an unusual character in film – a leading man playing someone apparently without one redeeming feature.    

Initially, it can feel quite bracing and amusing, listening to the rants of someone completely indifferent to social norms. And Schwartzman is decidedly up to the task. But the film, written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, meanders alarmingly, suddenly fixing on other characters (notably Moss’s Ashley) for long periods.  

There’s some respite in the shape of Jonathan Pryce, playing Ike Zimmerman, a once- respected novelist who hit a rough patch, quit Manhattan, and now has a quiet place in the country. (Ike and Philip both appear to be loosely based on the novelist Philip Roth.)

Feeling alienated by his own city, Philip decides to join Ike, before drifting off to a college teaching gig, which predictably he also comes to loathe. Some consolation in these latter sections is provided by the refreshing screen presence of Joséphine de la Baume, as one of his fellow academics who regards Philip with a humour knowingly mixed with pity.

It’s not for everyone, to be sure, and I can confidently predict some audiences will loathe it. But it has its moments, and writer-director Perry deserves credit for writing a highly literate, witty script, with a lovely, eloquent narration delivered by actor-playwright Eric Bogosian.

Out on DVD: Whiplash

It’s tempting to describe Whiplash as a motivational movie, though as its story unfolds it’s doubtful if anyone watching would wish to suffer the nightmare of pushing oneself to the absolute limit in pursuit of possible greatness. Its hero is Andrew, a talented young drummer (Miles Teller) who enrols in an exclusive New York music conservatory and comes under the thrall of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a hard-driving teacher whose methods are so strict they border on sadism and emotional abuse.

Fletcher detects a sensitive streak in Andrew, zeroes in on it and makes his life an utter misery. He humiliates the boy in front of his colleagues in the conservatory jazz band. He proffers praise, then abruptly withdraws it. He yells at his pupil and roundly insults him. In Fletcher’s eyes, this is a pathway to perfection, stripping away all Andrew’s softness and diffidence, until all that remains is a burning desire for greatness in his chosen field.

If this makes Whiplash sound like uneasy viewing, it’s very close to the truth. You find yourself cowering as you watch one verbal assault after another raining down on the boy. Still, Andrew is made of sterner stuff than he seems: he ditches a sweet girl-friend early on, judging her to be a harmful diversion and impediment to his success.

As the film progresses, it poses the question about how far anyone is prepared to go to excel at their chosen skill. The fact that Andrew’s hands start bleeding through incessant practice around the halfway mark indicates the kind of intensity under examination. This is a brilliant, startling film from young American director Damien Chazelle, one that gets inside the nervy, heightened mood of its two major characters, searingly depicting the issues at stake.

Young Teller is very fine indeed, but as Fletcher, it’s J.K. Simmons, a veteran character who has appeared in dozens of films, who walks off with the acting honours. Literally so: he deservedly received the best supporting actor Oscar for his riveting performance.

 

And speaking of the Oscars, here’s a curiosity – Whiplash was highly regarded by the American Academy this year, winning two more Oscars aside from Simmons, for film editing and sound mixing, and being nominated in two further categories – one for best picture. I understand that it had the lowest US box-office gross (a paltry $13 million) of any title nominated for best Oscar in recent years.

One understands it’s not exactly a crowd-pleaser, and at times it’s a pretty jolting ride. But Whiplash deserves to be seen more widely, and one hopes its DVD release this week will bring it a wider audience. It’s a skilful, clear-eyed examination of ambition taken to the very edge of self-destruction.

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