Under the Radar Movies: What If

MV5BMTcyODc4Njg4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDIwNDA4MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_What If is a delightful rom-com starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. The story has been done to death before: “boy meets girl; girl has long-time boyfriend; boy  and girl become become “only” friends; boy and girl realize that they are meant for each other.” But smart dialog, good performances and great chemistry between the two leads raises this above a normal cliched rom-com.

Radcliffe plays Wallace, a man burned out on relationships and has ostensibly given up on them. He meets Chantry (played by Zoe Kazan) and they have an instant bond, but Chantry already has a long-time, live-in boyfriend. The two decide to be “just friends.”

Predictably, Wallace  and Chantry become interested in each other more than either want to admit. The plot does contain stock rom-com tropes, but Zazan’s and Radcliffe’s performances and smart dialog elevate this above the normal rom-com fare.

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What If

Even if you hate rom-coms, it is worth a look for the good performances and great chemistry between the two leads.

Skip it if you can’t Radcliffe as anyone else other than Harry Potter.

– Steve

 

Rudderless

MV5BMjQwNTI2MTA0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODc1NzkzMjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Rudderless is the story of Sam (played by Billy Crudup) whose son dies in school shooting. Sam goes from being  a successful, highly-paid advertising executive to living on a boat and painting houses.

Through happenstance, Sam discovers a box of his son’s recorded songs. He listens to them and begins to learn them, eventually working up the courage to play one of them at an open mic in a  local dive bar.

Sam catches the attention of Quentin (played by Anton Yelchin) who is about the same age as Sam’s son would have been. Quentin is a local small-time musician and is duly impressed with the song Sam had played. Quentin wants Sam to form a band, and after some considerable pestering, Sam relents. Soon after, two more musicians join the band, which achieves some local success playing the songs written by Sam’s deceased son. Unfortunately, Sam does not initially inform his band members of the source of the songs.

A startling revelation in latter third of the movie forces the viewer to look at the circumstances of Sam, his son, and Quentin in a different light. The revelation darkens the tone of an otherwise uplifting movie about a father coming to grips with the death of his son.

Rudderless is the first film directed by William H. Macy (who also as a small supporting role in the movie). A stunning debut, and hints at great things to come.

The songs in the movie stand out; they are catchy, funny and poignant, sometimes all at once. Crudup and Yelchin give credible musical performances.

Rounding out the cast is Laurence Fishburne as a music-store owner.

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Rudderless

Worth a look if you like movies about music.

Skip it if school shootings upset you.

– Steve

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whiplash

MV5BMTU4OTQ3MDUyMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTA2MjU0MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Whiplash at its core is about greatness and the lengths that ambitious people will go to achieve it.

On the one hand, there is Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for the role. He truly deserved it as he delivers an electrifying performance. Fletcher, a brilliant but nefarious instructor,  leads the jazz band at one of the country’s best conservatories. He drives his students hard to achieve greatness. He is looking for the next Charlie Parker and will do anything to bring this out in a student. Often, he crosses the line with verbal, emotional and physical abuse.

On the other hand, there is Andrew (played by Miles Teller.) He is ambitious and talented. He is a student and wants to achieve greatness in jazz drumming, but lacks focus. His hero is Charlie “Bird” Parker, a giant among jazz musicians. (Parker unfortunately died a drug addict at the age of 35.)

Fletcher discovers Andrew one day after hearing him perform with another band at the conservatory. Fletcher senses greatness in Andrew and invites him to play in the most prestigious band ensemble in the school. Almost immediately, Fletcher starts to berate Andrew. He goads Andrew, pushing him to the limit with insults and physical assaults.  He capriciously replaces Andrew with other drummers to make him work harder to keep his position in the band.

The movie is stark and brutal in its depiction of Fletcher trying to bring out greatness in Andrew using extreme methods; at times it’s hard to watch. Andrew puts up with abuse because he senses greatness in himself and feels that only by pushing himself will he be able to achieve greatness. But pushing himself too hard eventually costs him: his hands bleed from practicing his drumming for extended periods; he gets into a car wreck because he is frantic to make a performance. (His hand is so banged up from the accident that he fails the performance miserably as he can’t hold onto the drum stick.) He breaks up with his girlfriend because he believes that she will only hold him back and even come to resent him for placing his dream of greatness ahead of her.

Whiplash is a fascinating (if brutal) look into greatness and the lengths that people will go to and the abuse that they will endure to achieve it. The movie is non-committal as to whether browbeating and/or abuse is the best way to bring out greatness in a performer. The film ultimately leaves this up to the viewer.

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Whiplash

Worth a look for a fascinating look into jazz, and what it takes to excel in that world.

Skip it if you are sensitive to verbal and physical brutality.

– Steve

 

 

A Walk Among the Tombstones

MV5BMTQ3NzY2MTg1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODY2Njk4MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Based on the 1992 mystery novel by author Lawrence Block,  A Walk Among the Tombstones concerns the adventures of former-New-York-City-cop-turned-unlicensed-private-detective Matt Scudder.  Scudder is an alcoholic who let his drinking impair his judgement while on the job with the NYPD which resulted in his dismissal.

Block as written 17 novels with Scudder as the protagonist, and are well worth seeking out if you like gritty crime novels.

As A Walk Among the Tombstones begins, the brother of a wealthy drug dealer contacts Scudder hoping that he will look into a problem. Against his better judgment, Scudder goes to see the drug dealer. It seems as though someone kidnapped his wife, demanding a ransom. The drug dealer negotiated the ransom, paid it but found his wife cut up in bags in the trunk of a car. The drug dealer wants Scudder to find the person or persons responsible in order to exact revenge.

Scudder reluctantly looks into the case. He is conflicted about helping a drug dealer, but wants to exact justice for the murdered wife. As he gets deeper and deeper into the case, he comes to a startling realization: the kidnappers are targeting criminals who are unlikely to involve the police. Furthermore, the kidnappers are sadistic; torturing their victims for sick thrills before killing them.

Things come to a head when the kidnappers abduct the teenage daughter of a Russian drug dealer. Scudder (again reluctantly) becomes involved to get the daughter back before she is tortured and killed.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a taught psychological thriller which relies on suspense rather than mindless action or shooting sequences. Scudder is a damaged man, an alcoholic who lost his job because of drinking on duty. Despite this major flaw, Scudder is a good PI who solves his cases through information rather than shooting. In fact, by helping those in need, Scudder may even be seeking redemption.

Worth a look if you like hard-boiled PI stories or film noir.

Skip it if torture and violence make you queasy.

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A Walk Among the Tombstones (DVD)

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A Walk Among the Tombstones (novel)