Whiplash and The Judge

J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller jazz it up, Downey and Duvall go to court.


Sony Pictures Classic

One of the several interesting things about Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, along with its combustible performances and the admirable clarity of its focus on complex music, is the moral ambiguity of its central characters. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a first-year student at a New York music conservatory, seems like a nice kid, earnestly dedicated to mastering the art of jazz drumming. And while his instructor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), at first appears to be a borderline sadist, we figure that his abrasive behavior must actually be a species of tough love, to be illuminated, in traditional movie fashion, by subsequent revelations in his backstory.

Neither of these initial impressions is entirely accurate. Andrew is more than dedicated – he's a near-monomaniac, driven to excel by his outsized talent; in non-musical settings, he's a bit of a prick. And although we're given glimmers of a concealed sensitivity in Fletcher's makeup – he tears up over the death of a former student, and is later revealed to be an elegant pianist – we come away from the movie realizing that his abusive behavior is more than the defense mechanism of a secretly soulful man: his sadistic inclinations are also a part of who he really is.

Simmons gives an explosive performance. Shedding the deft comic presence he's brought to previous films by Jason Reitman, the Coen brothers, and Sam Raimi (he was the blowhard Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson in Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy), Simmons reconnects here with the darker energies of Vernon Schillinger, the brutal racist he played for six seasons on Oz. His Fletcher runs the rehearsal room of his student band like a torture chamber, belittling the blowers of bum notes and pushing truly gifted players beyond the limits within which they've become comfortable. His rages are monumental: he reviles the young musicians as "faggots" and "Hymies," and questions the very presence of a female sax-player ("Is it just because you're cute?"). He throws chairs and instruments, and isn't above slapping faces, either. However, this nonstop abuse does have its intended effect – Fletcher's group is a consistent winner at regional band competitions.

Writer-director Chazelle, a onetime drum student himself, has infused the picture with the spirit of the late Buddy Rich, one of the greatest of jazz drummers. Rich was a master of rhythmic precision, but also a harshly demanding bandleader (his legendary rants documented on the surreptitiously recorded "bus tapes" that have delighted connoisseurs of invective for decades). Teller's Andrew idolizes Rich, studiously playing his CDs and keeping a photo of the man taped to a wall. If Andrew also has greatness in him, could the Rich-like Fletcher be the man to bring it out? Or will he crush him first?

Teller (of The Spectacular Now and Divergent) holds his own in some ferocious verbal duels with Simmons, and also demonstrates that he can really play the drums. (His teen-rock-band chops were bolstered in pre-production jazz bootcamp.) I suspect that a pro was brought in for some overhead shots, but in full-body views, Teller is convincing in his navigation of some formidable time signatures (Hank Levy's "Whiplash," an old Don Ellis big-band dazzler, starts out in 7/4, then doubles down to 14/8.) And Andrew's takeover of a faltering concert rendition of "Caravan," which he resuscitates through sheer force of groove, provides the most rousing scene in a movie that's not short on musical highlights.    

The care that Chazelle has taken with the music is laudable. Fletcher's student band is portrayed by real players (although the music we see them playing was largely pre-recorded). And he flavors the rehearsal scenes with well-considered cutaways: a floor tom being tightened with a tuning key, a trombone player clearing the spit valve at the end of his slide.

The picture has some distracting imperfections. A family dinner gathering is unclear in its composition, and a weak romantic subplot about a girl (Melissa Benoist) with whom Andrew is briefly involved feels vestigial. And Chazelle's basic concept – a sort of Full Metal Jacket music movie – is also a problem: it's hard to accept the notion that no one has previously filed a complaint about Fletcher's cruel humiliations. But Whiplash delivers in two important ways. It brings us an unusually detailed examination of young musicians' lives, and the very hard work they must do in pursuit of technical excellence. And more than many films in this vintage genre, it really captures the music, and brings it back alive.    

The Judge

Warner Bros.

The Judge is a small-town legal melodrama that pokes along for nearly two and a half hours, intent on reminding us how much better the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird was. The movie is redeemed – almost, but not entirely – by two bull's-eye star performances and some exemplary support.

The film is a pit stop in the blockbuster career of Robert Downey Jr., and it allows him to find fresh uses for his trademark verbal aggression and crackling energy. He's perfectly cast (in a movie assembled by his own production company) as Hank Palmer, a hotshot Chicago lawyer of negotiable ethics ("I respect the law, but I'm not encumbered by it") who makes a plush living defending deep-pocket dirtbags. ("Innocent people can't afford me," he explains.)

When news arrives that Hank's beloved mother has died, he's compelled to return to his Indiana hometown ("a corn-belt Bible-banging backwater," he says) for the funeral. There he consoles his two brothers, the listless Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and slow-witted Dale (Jeremy Strong) – who fill him in on the details of their mom's passing. ("They found her by the hydrangeas.") He's also forced to endure the unfading contempt of his crusty father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), a long-serving town judge who despises Hank's legal-weasel career and virtually everything else about him.

The story gets underway when the Judge (everyone calls him that) is suddenly arrested for running over and killing a local scummer named Blackwell (Mark Kiely). Years earlier, in his courtroom, the Judge had taken pity on Blackwell for a minor crime and let him off with a light sentence – only to see him return from jail and commit a particularly horrific murder. He dodged that charge, though, so when the judge saw him on the street again, might he have finally passed a capital sentence on this creep?With this malefactor back on the streets again, might the Judge have finally passed a capital sentence on him? A special prosecutor named Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) thinks so, and is determined to nail the Judge for first-degree murder.

Hank wants to use his big-time skills to conduct a defense for his dad, but the stubborn old man opts instead for the services of a bumbling local attorney named C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard) – who unfortunately has no criminal-law experience. What now? Guess.

This central action is shored up by a couple of heart-tugging subplots. Brother Glen once dreamed of a career in professional baseball, but has languished here in sleepy Carlinville ever since an auto accident crushed one of his hands. Then there's Samantha (Vera Farmiga), Hank's old hometown girlfriend, who now has a 20-something daughter (Leighton Meester) – whose date of birth appears to have been some months after Hank's last carnal encounter with her mother. In addition, Hank, who's being divorced by his wife back in Chicago, has a small daughter, Lauren (played by the very cute and quite accomplished Emma Tremblay), whom he flies in for a weekend to add some extra sweetness to an already sugary tale.

All of the subsidiary actors do top-level work, especially D'Onofrio, Strong, Thornton and Farmiga (who is however much too classy for a woman we're expected to believe would choose to live out her life in an un-happening burg like this one). But Downey and Duvall are the main event here. They grab their characters by the throat and never let go, guiding the movie from one showpiece scene to another – most notably, a bout of incontinence that's both startlingly graphic and uniquely moving. (Unfortunately, their most vivid face-off occurs in the middle of a howling tornado – that's how stormy their relationship is.)

It's too bad that director David Dobkin – who gave us the esteemed Wedding Crashers nearly a decade ago, but has since been responsible for films like Fred Claus – ignores more than one opportunity to bring this movie to an end, and instead stretches it out to a denouement in a fishing skiff on a sunlit lake that strongly, if not shamelessly, recalls a similar interlude in The Godfather: Part II, a picture in which Duvall, of course, memorably featured. The movie cries out to be tightened into something closer to a two-hour runtime. But Downey and Duvall, unlike the meandering story, never waste our time.