Friday, November 7, 2014

THE KEYS TO A SUCCESSFUL CAREER: TALENT, HARD WORK AND MORE THAN A LITTLE INSANITY

Original caricature by Jeff York of Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHTCRAWLER. (copyright 2014)
The 2014 film year has already been distinguished by movies with a decidedly dark slant to them. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is not your typical Wes Anderson whimsical comedy, but rather a biting commentary on racism, the class system and fascism despite its candy-colored decor. THE LEGO MOVIE may have been aimed at 6-year-olds but the romp was as cynical as any of Christopher Nolan’s superhero movies. GONE GIRL is not just a thriller, it’s also a searing indictment of the compromising institution of marriage. And the brilliant BIRDMAN is both an affectionate love letter to the theatrical world as well as a brutally scathing takedown of the egos in show business.

Now along come two movies that are so dark, so bleak, and so black of heart, that they almost could be horror films. And both contain a ‘villain’ with borderline personality tendencies that are truly terrifying and might even be sociopathic. And each film has a lot to say about America and in particular, what it takes to succeed in the modern world. The films are NIGHTCRAWLER and WHIPLASH. Even their names are rather frightening.

NIGHTCRAWLER could easily be the name of a horror movie and true to form its protagonist is a man who’s essentially a monster. Jake Gyllenhaal, in a career best performance, plays Lou Bloom, a petty thief who stumbles upon a car accident one night and watches as a freelance videographer films the scene for a local news station. Suddenly, he sees a way to make money as well as a name for himself.

Bloom starts to bloom in his chosen career path as he starts racing across the streets of LA looking for the latest accidents, murders, and crimes to film. He’s intrepid and immoral, and willing to do anything to get the most lurid shots for a voyeuristic TV audience. He’ll even tamper with a crime scene or move a dead body to get a better shot. It skyrockets his career and buoyed by it all, he starts extolling his success philosophy to both his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) and the station producer (Rene Russo) buying his bilious tape. It’s the same bullshit that you’d find in a Tony Robbins tape or any self-help book, and it’s clever how writer/director Dan Gilroy uses it to expose the crap that is the cliched American Dream formula.

One of the most amusing things about this dark comedy/thriller is the way in which Gilroy has directed Gyllenhaal to play Bloom. He is a man who doesn’t close his eyes to any of the ugliness, thus he barely blinks in this movie. Bloom has an aggressive staring gaze, like a predator considering prey, and it's both eerie and amusing. The shrewd actor even lost 30 pounds to give his hungry hunter a hollowness. There is no core to him. And the weight loss helped make Gyllenhaal's large eyes pop even more. They seem to be akin to his camera lens, all seeing and unwilling to look away. 

Bloom triumphs again and again in the story, and he becomes addicted to it. Ultimately, he starts creating the stories to keep his camera rolling. He even allows himself to become the news towards the end of the film, and again, reaps heaps of glory, albeit for a story he set up, starred in, and shot with his ever-present camera. Bloom’s complete lack of journalistic ethics makes the blurring of the lines between good reporting and bad reporting at the heart of movies like NETWORK (1976) or BROADCAST NEWS (1987) seem almost quaint by comparison. And Bloom’s sensationalized, over-the-top work isn't much different from the utter hysteria the cable news media created these past months with their breathless coverage of Ebola or ISIS. NIGHTCRAWLER couldn’t possibly be any timelier. It’s an up-to-the-moment cautionary tale about the faltering morals of our news media and its  insatiable catering to an audience's that devours fear and misery on a nightly basis.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Miles Teller and JK Simmons in WHIPLASH. (copyright 2014)
Bloom may fancy himself a connoisseur in a way, but he knows it's not exactly art he's creating. Nonetheless, the question of art is precisely what's at question in WHIPLASH. Here writer/director Damien Chazelle deals directly with what one suffers for their art, specifically the struggle of a young musician to make it in the world of jazz. His protagonist is Andrew (a brilliantly nuanced Miles Teller) who's a young drummer trying his best to meet the exacting standards of his brutish and dictatorial teacher Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons). It's all about the thin line between a dedication to one’s art versus obsession. 

Andrew is good enough to make it into the top jazz band in a performing arts college (a take on Julliard), but he's not sure he has true greatness in him. He wants to become a legend in the mold of  Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich, but what does it take to get there? Can pushing yourself through endless practice get you there? When talent and hard work isn’t enough, what becomes the X factor that pushes you into true excellence? Is it insanity?

Fletcher seems to believe that if that's necessary, than so be it. That's why he's pushing his students to the brink. That’s why he’s willing to bully, terrorize and physically assault his charges to get them to dig deeper. For him, the end result of true greatness justifies the horrible means. And he thinks nothing of methods that  include physical assault, verbal abuse, and driving a student to the edge of mania.  

Fletcher may be a monster, but he’s not all black despite his rather Johnny Cash-esque wardrobe. (That costuming choice is a bit on the nose.) And the casting of Simmons was a stroke of genius as he’s capable of even making assholes into sympathetic and relatable characters. Every time he was onscreen as bellowing newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in the SPIDER-MAN movies, he was an absolute treat to watch. Here, he does something similar, turning Fletcher into both a terrifying jerk, but a funny one as well. Not since John Houseman’s pudgy face stared down Timothy Bottoms in 1973’s THE PAPER CHASE has an educator been so leeringly LOL.

Fletcher goes too far, no doubt, as no teacher has the right to slap students or slur their heritage or sexual orientation. My God, his anger issues are as brazen as his brass section! Still, this instructor knows that playing up the fears of failure in an artist can amp up their will to survive and strive. It's a pact with the devil the ambitious Andrew is all to willing to succumb to. Like Lou Bloom in NIGHTCRAWLER, he wants to be a huge success as well, and he's willing to do almost anything to reach such lofty goals. Andrew bleeds, sweats, loses sleep, turns away his kind-hearted dad (Paul Reiser) and adorable girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), and even drives recklessly to get to a concert to play - all to be the drummer of his dreams. And Fletcher’s.

Teller does an amazing job of portraying the character and he  demonstrates some truly astonishing work on his drum kit too. We remain on his side every step of the way, even when he starts to go mad. And by the end, when the two men finally get on the same page together,  the two see eye to eye, literally, over what matters - the music. You can hear the difference that Andrew’s perseverance has made in his extraordinary climatic performance. 


The takeaway from both of these dark films is that hard work and talent no longer ensure career success. Something else is required to give it a push, be it shamelessness, brass balls or utter insanity. It would appear that crassness and craziness are the new paradigms of the job market.

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