Guest review … Blood on the Cymbals: The Splashy Brutality of Whiplash

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[Image Source: Google Images]

Last year about this time, my talented pal Rebecca Biber and I traded point/ counterpoint on The Grand Budapest Hotel. I loathed it (see here), and she loved it (see here).

Twelve months later, we find ourselves at (not quite as extreme) loggerheads over the similarly Oscar-recognized film Whiplash (now available on DVD/Blu-Ray and via streaming video). It was one of my top three films of the year (alongside Nightcrawler and Foxcatcher). I daresay for Ms. Biber … it would not be similarly ranked (though she did seem to enjoy aspects of the film).

Check out her assessment of Whiplash below, and you can revisit my take here.

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[Image Source: Google Images]

Blood on the Cymbals: The Splashy Brutality of Whiplash

By Rebecca Biber

Accuracy. That’s the object of the game—and the mind games. Tempo accuracy, pitch accuracy, being on time for the gig and keeping yourself and the music in irreproachable order. And in its evocation of certain states of mind or stages of life, Whiplash is fairly accurate. But the film suffers from a cluster of small miscalculations, dropped beats, and overeager entrances.

I went in hoping to experience, for once, a film about musicians that was believable, at least on the order of good fiction. My hopes had been dashed over the years by healthily-hyped but thoroughly disappointing movies from Shine to Hilary and Jackie to Mr. Holland’s Opus, only to be renewed by meaningful cinematic pieces like Ray, Bird, and A Late Quartet. It might not make sense, at first, to lump these all into the same genre: after all, some are biopics, others are purely fictional; some treat classical musicians’ lives and careers while others depict jazz musicians. But they are all of a piece, in that they all portray stereotypes of struggling artists. Brilliant artists consumed and, usually, destroyed by mental illness, substance abuse, personal grief, or all of the above. Whiplash is in the same vein, but the twist is that the tortured young artist here chooses to be at the mercy of a merciless mentor.

Whiplash started out as a portrayal of music school I could relate to. The protagonist, Andrew Neiman, faces competitiveness, endless rehearsal and practice, and the utter loneliness that accrues from living only for the pursuit of perfect musicianship, deriving one’s sense of self exclusively from that, rather than from any internal or family-based sense of worth (despite the best efforts of warm Jewish dad Paul Reiser). People do practice to the point of injury. The presence of women in jazz is still, sadly, negligible. Music professors and students have a relationship closer to that of master and apprentice in a medieval trade guild than the service-oriented relationship prevalent in the wider academic world. Often, our mentors are not people we like. They are sometimes people whose appeal as role models is lost on anyone other than their devotees. Certainly, J.K. Simmons’s portrayal of Terence Fletcher is over the top in its vitriolic verbosity and turn-on-a-dime moments of sweetness contrasted with utter sadism. Young Neiman readily begins to adopt Fletcher’s ways, turning tough guy himself and taking out his anger on peers and drum heads like.

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[Image Source: Google Images]

And here’s where writer/director Damien Chazelle started to lose me. When you are portraying a specific world, such as that of a conservatory, you must adhere to the governing rules thereof. Its jargon, its specific codes of behavior. Any musician watching the film can’t help but be annoyed by the errors piling up: a sequence depicting rising piano notes showed the pianist’s hand moving down the keyboard. One doesn’t scribble over the charts in ink, because all of the (expensive) music is on loan from the school. Music professors and students don’t fling or destroy their equipment, no matter how frustrated they feel (again, following genre pattern: a bizarre scene in Hilary and Jackie has Emily Watson freezing her cello, and a fistfight in A Late Quartet endangers priceless violins more than the men themselves). You can’t actually live in a practice room. Worst of all is the over acting. The more intensely Neiman plays, the more spasmodically his face contorts. He spends the entire film convincing us how hard he is working. Take a look, sometime, at a percussionist playing a strenuous piece: he or she will be almost preternaturally still, facial features showing a Zen-like concentration and focus of energy.   To put it another way, when you are working extremely hard at the instrument, there is no time or attention left to devote to grimacing and mouthing swears. (The over-playing phenomenon is my only complaint about the otherwise excellent Charlie Parker biopic; Forest Whitaker should have noticed that a saxophonist’s fingers move minutely when playing fast and that enthusiasm or inventiveness at the instrument does not translate to frenetic physical movement. The sound is bop, the technique used to achieve it bears no visual resemblance.)

Speaking of Charlie Parker, it seems that all jazz students and jazz films have to invoke the Bird legend. The story that Fletcher and Neiman volley between them has become both a cautionary tale and a gauntlet thrown down to those who might not have the personal tenacity to achieve the fulfillment of their talent through practice. But the Charlie Parker story—that he thought he was good until a better musician took him down a few notches by tossing a cymbal at him onstage—doesn’t fit with the narrative of Whiplash or, more generally, with the story of a striving music student. Parker was a gigging musician, not a conservatory boy. And the privileged few who gain admission to conservatory go there looking for toughness, not for pats on the back. That the audience is supposed to disbelieve or admonish Fletcher for his ruthlessness is, itself, unbelievable, as his brand of humiliation coupled with exactitude is unusual only as a matter of degree, not of form. Once the narrative turns to the question of Fletcher’s ouster from his position, the movie wants to have it both ways. Either we are viewing a film about politically correct university dons fearing a lawsuit from appalled parents, or we are seeing the raw process of how music students get toughened, personally and professionally, in their closed rooms.

Neiman, as a character, also wants to have it both ways. He craves Fletcher’s approval, yet questions his decision making and, in fact, sabotages his bandmates by performing unprepared (and possibly concussed). He wants to be a decent guy—or at least receive the benefits a nice guy is entitled to—but not have to answer for his failures. This characterization struck me as the truest part of the film: the essentially conflicted kid/young adult, aspiring to professionalism but achieving a kind of precocious crankiness instead. (Full disclosure, as an undergrad music major I was once broken up with by a guy because he said he needed to practice more. I got a slightly shorter version of the speech Neiman delivers to his girlfriend Nicole in the film.) Certain plot points do follow a strange internal logic: when Fletcher pulls the rug out from under Neiman yet again, the trick only works because Neiman has chosen to isolate himself from his peers through personal nastiness, modeling his mentor. Had he had even one friend in the band, that guy would have said, “Hey, what do you think of that last-minute set list change?”

Biber and Sexton

Biber and Sexton

Kudos for the one moment of absolute accuracy Chazelle delivers on the nature of music making: Neiman, at the dinner table with some obnoxious jock cousins, gives as good as he gets in a fight over whose activities matter more, athletes or musicians. The young drummer has just described winning a competition with his select ensemble. One of the cousins says, “But how can you judge a music competition? Isn’t that subjective?” And Andrew replies, flatly, “No.”

Some things that appear vague or subjective are in fact easy to discern, if your senses are attuned: either a drummer is rushing or dragging the tempo. Either a professor corrects his students effectively, caring only for the music itself, or creates unnecessary personal drama which takes focus away from the music. I didn’t buy the central conceit of the Fletcher character, despite Simmons’s compelling performance. There are many ways to motivate, and the most effective motivators don’t get personal because they don’t need to. It’s gratuitous, like Neiman’s flashy fills at the beginning. It belies the idea of superb performance. If you want a student to count in 14/8, you don’t get in his way by throwing around insults and ethnic slurs. The audience is supposed to see Fletcher’s method as leading inevitably to Neiman’s success, but it doesn’t. Achieving conservatory admission, being in the right place at the right time, an ability to collaborate (which Neiman sorely lacks): all these things will count more than a semester under the tutelage of one crazy guy with a really good ear.

Where Whiplash started in the realm of believability, it ended in the realm of pure fantasy, and a dark fantasy at that. That’s not an objection, as the idea of mentor and protégé meeting in a cruel yet mutually pleasurable musical duel could only occur in that cloudy realm where the audience agrees to sit through a five-minute trap set solo and the competition judges don’t disqualify the ensemble. In a way, this skewing of the music movie genre was much more enjoyable than the preposterous treacle of Shine or the bloodless melodrama of Hilary and Jackie. But it was mere entertainment; it stopped short of genuine emotional plangency. There was no one to sympathize with, and no one to root for, except maybe the patient horn section that saw the whole episode through with true professional aplomb and jazz cool.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Talk of the Town features Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Thanks to Jennifer Romano and Talk of the Town! Read here. Quote from yours truly: “As my blog rolls into another year of entertainment, rife with comic book adaptations, sequels, Oscar bait, arena shows, and theatrical productions big and small, sometimes I wonder if I am choking the life right from this hobby of mine. Can you imagine if every time you saw a film that your OCD tendencies forced you to rush home, throw some quippy hoo-ha on the internet, and wait eagerly for 3.5 comments to appear? Ah, well, it’s still too much fun to stop now—anticipate Volume THREE Roy’s Movie Migraine shortly.”

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

BONUS: Enjoy this fabulous new blog entry from my mom Susie Duncan Sexton – provocative and fun! Read “Got (almond) milk? Books, movies, politics, culture, and AGRIganda” by clicking here.

Excerpt: “Regarding BUT HAVE YOU READ THE BOOK jazz, my mother ALWAYS asked that question. Guess what? She very seldom had actually read the books herself; I preferred to write my book reports based on the more enjoyable movie versions!”

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Even though I am too old to be doing all these silly things

I am very lucky to have parents who continue to support and celebrate everything I do, even though I am too old to be doing all these silly things. My dad always makes a point to brag about me at his weekly Rotary meetings in Columbia City, Indiana, the small town in which I grew up and where my parents still reside. Below is a snapshot of the front page of the latest Rotary newsletter – you can see a mention of me and the latest book in the lower right corner. Thanks, Susie and Don – love you!

Axle Grease RRR2

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Soon to a theater near you: Fifty Shades of Grey … the birthday party

Spotted this unfortunately delightful mix of film and event promotion yesterday at Ypsilanti’s Rave Theater. Fun for the whole family!

Fifty Shades of Grey birthday!

Perhaps the party-goers will need entertainment? If so, we Penny Seats will be happy to assist!

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Volume 2 is number 2 … right now on Amazon

Thanks, everyone! What an exciting Oscar Nomination Thursday for Reel Roy Reviews! Get your copy of the latest volume here.

 

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Thanks to Columbia City Post & Mail for coverage of Volume 2!

Thanks to the Columbia City Post and Mail for this coverage of the release of Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2: Keep ‘Em Coming – available now to order at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Reel-Roy-Reviews-Keep-Coming/dp/0692360433/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

Post and Mail coverage of RRR2

Click to view larger version

 

Volume 2 now available on Amazon – just ask my parents!

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

You can now purchase Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2: Keep ‘Em Coming!” on Amazon in whatever form you like (paperback, Kindle … well, that’s about it). Click here – please, click here – buy the d*mn thing. It’s good – I promise! :)

Wait … if you don’t believe me … just ask my parents. They are TOTALLY objective here …

Excellent – honest – fun – intelligent reviews! These reviews of current films and concerts are perfect pieces reflecting the state of entertainment and the amount of creativity, or lack of creativity, that is found in each endeavor. And unlike some reviewers who take themselves too seriously, Roy uses humor and good sense to make this book enjoyable and pure pleasure. Highly recommended. – Don Sexton

Night at the Museum

Night at the Museum

About time a genius emerged from our vast family tree…and here he is…brilliant, fair-minded, entertaining, and provocative. The other genius in our genealogy served as Harry Truman’s secretary…so it has indeed been awhile. Buy this book…volume II and enjoy the reverence for and keen judgment of the film industry…casts, characters, scripts, cinematography, special effects or lack of them, themes, and all delivered with authority and humor from an astute author and fun and witty critic! He is the best! Gene Siskel, move over!Susie Sexton

So, there you go! And if you can’t trust the parents of a shameless self-promoter like me, whom can you trust?

Legal News coverage: Law firm VP to publish second book of film and media critiques

Thanks to The Legal News for this coverage (click here for digital version) …

RRR2 Legal News Coverage 1 7 14

“Keep ’em coming!” is something Roy Sexton’s readers have said frequently over the past dozen months since the release of his first book of film reviews, Reel Roy Reviews: Keepin’ it Real.

000_0007Sexton, a resident of Saline/Ann Arbor, started out penning saucy missives about the latest Hollywood blockbusters at his blog www.reelroyreviews.com, but lately he has been writing more about theatrical productions, concerts, and other live musical performances, as well as conducting the occasional interview.

In his latest book Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2: Keep ‘Em Coming!, Roy reviews Sting’s new musical The Last Ship, offers musings on shows by Lady Gaga, Cher, Randy Newman, and Katy Perry; and has written one of the snarkiest pieces you will ever read about a Transformers film.

hindbaugh__me__edna__don_and_roy_0005Open Books Technical Editor Kelly Huddleston observes, “Honest, humorous, witty, delightfully snarky… Sexton’s approach to movie, concert, music, and theatre reviews rivals that of legendary Gene Siskel. If you loved the first volume, then you are sure to enjoy Volume 2: Keep ‘Em Coming.”

Fellow author Tom Joyce (The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report) adds, “The guy’s obviously a hardcore film geek, who’s seen a ton of movies and has a good sense of what makes a quality film. But there’s an element of populism to his approach that I see lacking in a lot of film reviewers. He understands that sometimes you’re just not in the mood for a transcendent redefinition of the cinematic art form. Sometimes you just want a fun night at the movies. In other words, he doesn’t review like a serious student of cinema, so much as a regular person who just happens to really like movies. And, since that description fits me and — I’d venture to say — the vast majority of movie viewers that makes his reviews enormously engaging.”

Legal News RRR 2 Banner

Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 1: Keepin’ It Real was released on the Open Books (www.open-bks.com) imprint in February 2014, and this second volume is available for pre-order now (print edition and digital downloads distributing mid-January 2015). Both volumes will also be available on Amazon, iTunes, and Nook. The books can be found in Southeast Michigan at Dearborn’s Green Brain Comics and Ann Arbor’s Bookbound and Common Language book stores.

animals_and_us_0010In the second volume’s introduction, Sexton writes, “As my blog rolls into another year of entertainment, rife with comic book adaptations, sequels, Oscar bait, arena shows, and theatrical productions big and small, sometimes I wonder if I am choking the life right from this hobby of mine. Can you imagine if every time you saw a film that your OCD tendencies forced you to rush home, throw some quippy hoo-ha on the internet, and wait eagerly for 3.5 comments to appear? Ah, well, it’s still too much fun to stop now—anticipate Volume THREE Roy’s Movie Migraine shortly.”

Sexton, son of Don and Susie Sexton, grew up in Columbia City, Indiana. His mother (www.susieduncansexton.com) is also a published author, whose two essay collections Secrets of an Old Typewriter and More Secrets of an Old Typewriter, are published by Open Books.

Roy earned his Bachelor’s degree from Wabash College in 1995 and is a 1997 graduate of The Ohio State University, where he earned his Master’s degree in Theatre. In 2007, Roy graduated with his MBA from the University of Michigan. He is a graduate of Leadership Detroit, is a governor-appointed member of the Michigan Council of Labor and Economic Growth and was appointed to the Michigan Mortgage Lenders Association Board of Governors in 2012. He is currently participating in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce’s yearlong Leadership A2Y program, and he is an active member of the Legal Marketing Association.

animals_and_us_0003Roy has been involved on the following nonprofit boards and committees: First Step, Michigan Quality Council, National MS Society, ASPCA, Wabash College Southeast Michigan Alumni Association, Penny Seats Theatre Company and the Spotlight Players. Sexton is Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Trott Law, P.C., a Farmington Hills, Michigan-based real estate law firm.

Prior to joining Trott, Roy spent 10 years in various planning and communications roles at Oakwood Healthcare System, serving as the Corporate Director of Strategic Communications and Planning. In this role he led a staff of 20 marketing professionals and developed the strategic direction for the $1 billion health care system.

wedding_of_susie___don_0005Sexton has been an active participant in the local theatre scene for nearly twenty years, having appeared in a number of productions. Sexton most recently performed in The Penny Seats’ sold out run of the Tom Lehrer cabaret Tomfoolery at Conor O’Neill’s in Ann Arbor. Prior to that, Sexton had the lead role in Ann Arbor’s Penny Seats production of the Neil Simon/Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh musical Little Me, playing seven different characters. He is a co-founder of the theatre company. He was featured as Professor Callahan in Legally Blonde the Musical at Farmington Players, and he played Georg Nowack in She Loves Me with The Penny Seats. He has also appeared in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), What Corbin Knew, Oklahoma!, The Pajama Game, Company, Bells are Ringing, Rags, Side by Side by Sondheim, The Taming of the Shrew, Fiddler on the Roof, The Fantasticks, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Ah, Wilderness!, God’s Country, The American Clock, As You Like It, Tartuffe, The Battle of Shallowford, Trout, and The Merchant of Venice. He is also an active cabaret performer.

Sexton comments, “Thanks to all those people out there who support with their time, their money, their attention popular art in all its varied forms. Now go see something fun and tell all your friends about it! That’s the best kind of reviewing in the world.”

Yup, I’m singing on another fun Hard Taco song – this time, “Attack Ads”!

Das BootHappy New Year! Enjoy the latest from Zach London and Hard Taco (and, yeah, I’m singing on this one along with Matt Cameron and Brent Stansfield and Lauren M. London and Rebecca Biber). Zach writes, “The Hard Taco song for January is called, ‘Attack Ads.’ I hope listeners know me enough to recognize that this is not simply a send-up of our political system. Nor is it a style-parody of songs that mimic political farces. Rather, it is a lyrical pasquinade that deconstructs the recipe for lampooning pastiches that impersonate parodies of political spoofs. In other words, it is a Gobstopper of satire, with so many layers that no one is cultured enough to appreciate it on the level it was intended.” Enjoy!!

 

Click here to listen …

 

EPSON MFP imageHey, be sure to sign-up for his blog. It comes out the first of every month, is chock-full-of-fun, and is FREE!

You can find all of Zach’s Hard Taco music history at hardtaco.org … and here are shortcuts to all the other songs I’ve been privileged to perform with this talented crew – click title to listen/download (free!):

 

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! Go to www.open-bks.com to pre-order the second volume!

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the bookstore … bam, the sequel!

RRR2 CoverJust when you thought it was safe to go back in the bookstore … bam, the sequel! Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2 coming January 2015 – here’s the announcement from the publisher:

“Keep ‘em coming!” is something Roy Sexton’s fans have said frequently over the past dozen months since the release of his first book of film reviews, Reel Roy Reviews: Keepin’ It Real.

Roy started out penning saucy missives about the latest Hollywood blockbusters, but lately he has been writing more about theatrical productions, concerts, and other live musical performances, as well as conducting the occasional interview.

In his latest book Roy reviews Sting’s new musical The Last Ship, offers musings on shows by Lady Gaga, Cher, Randy Newman, and Katy Perry; and has written one of the snarkiest pieces you will ever read about a Transformers film!

RRR2 Headshotkid_stuff_0002Fellow author Tom Joyce writes, “The guy’s obviously a hardcore film geek, who’s seen a ton of movies and has a good sense of what makes a quality film. But there’s an element of populism to his approach that I see lacking in a lot of film reviewers. He understands that sometimes you’re just not in the mood for a transcendent redefinition of the cinematic art form. Sometimes you just want a fun night at the movies. In other words, he doesn’t review like a serious student of cinema, so much as a regular person who just happens to really like movies. And, since that description fits me and — I’d venture to say — the vast majority of movie viewers that makes his reviews enormously engaging.”

Lucy Jif for Banner

About the book: http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews-2/about-book.html

About the author: http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews-2/about-author.html

Pre-order: http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews-2/buy-book.html

 

 

 

And enjoy this video of my mother Susie Duncan Sexton and me on The Kevin Storm Show, discussing animal rights, theatre, culture, and more … and if you’ve ever wondered what radio people do while their on-air guests are talking, now you know! Definitely some unintentionally ironic comedy here …