Film Review: Whiplash (dir by Damien Chazelle)


I really only need five words to review Whiplash:

J. K. Simmons kicks ass.

He so seriously does.  The deep-voiced character actor, beloved by fans of Allstate Insurance, Spider-Man, Jason Reitman, and the Coen Brothers alike, has been memorable so many times in the past that it’s easy to take him for granted.  However, with Whiplash, he proves himself to be not just a distinctive screen presence but to be a brilliant actor as well.  There’s a lot of good things about Whiplash but, ultimately, it’s Simmons who makes the film something more than just another promising indie film.

Simmons plays Terrence Fletcher, the legendary and feared conductor of the Schaffer Conservatory jazz band.  (We’re told that Shaffer Conservatory is the best music school in the country.  Of course, in a real life, the best music school in the country is located at University of North Texas, where I studied Art History but still enjoyed occasionally listening to the One O’Clock Lab Band.)  As played by Simmons, Fletcher is both a genius and a sadist.  When he talks about music, he does so with a passion that makes it impossible not share his love for all that jazz.  When he conducts his band, he does so with a cruelty that makes you question if the music is worth the cost of the emotional stability of the people playing it.  When he hears that someone is out of tune, he responds by reducing a musician to tears.  When he says, “Not my tempo,” it’s both a critique and a threat.  The fact that he’s creative and quick-witted with his insults does nothing to lessen the pain that they cause.

Fletcher’s latest protegé/victim is a talented 19 year-old drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller).  Andrew shares Fletcher’s love for jazz but nothing can prepare him for the lengths that Fletcher will go to manipulate him.  Whether it means insulting Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) or casually threatening to give Andrew’s spot away to another drummer, Fletcher’s nonstop and often viscous criticism makes Andrew a better drummer but also threatens to destroy his sanity.

Director and screenwriter Damien Chazelle understands that those of us in the audience have seen literally hundreds of films about intense teachers and the students that they teach.  Chazelle cleverly manipulates all of our expectations.  The minute that we expect Fletcher to say something encouraging or to reveal himself to actually be a compassionate mentor, Simmons instead barks out another insult or regards Andrew with a withering glare.  And, as we wait for Andrew to stand up to Fletcher or prove his mentor wrong, we are instead forced to admit that Fletcher’s approach does seem to be working.

When, towards the middle of the film, Andrew crashes his car while rushing to a jazz competition and then attempts to play the drums with both blood on his suit and a broken hand, you can’t help but both admire his determination and fear where that determination is going to take him.

As I said at the beginning of this review, there’s a lot of good things about Whiplash.  As you might expect for a film about jazz, it has a great soundtrack.  Miles Teller gives a great lead performance, one that may be overshadowed by J.K. Simmons but which — along with his work in The Spectacular Now — indicates that Teller is an actor to watch.  (We’ll just forget the fact that he was also in Project X.)  Some of the film’s best moments don’t even involve J.K. Simmons, instead they’re just scenes of Teller obsessively drumming until his hands are bloody.

But, ultimately, it is J.K. Simmons who truly elevates this film.  Simmons makes Fletcher into a truly fascinating villain, one who constantly leaves you guessing.  By the end of the film, you may not like Fletcher but you definitely can not get him out of your head.

Ultimately, the success of Whiplash stands as a tribute to the talent of J.K. Simmons.

“Shaft” #1 Brings Blaxploitation Bad-Ass To The Printed Page


Right off the bat, I should probably apologize for the misleading headline here — Dynamite Entertainment’s Shaft #1 (the first of a six-part series) isn’t “bringing blaxploitation bad-ass to the printed page” so much as it’s bringing it back to the printed page, given that “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks” actually started out life not on the silver screen, but in a series of pulp novels by the legendary Ernest Tidyman. And it’s probably down to the fact that Tidyman’s widow owns the copyright to the character of John Shaft that we even have this new spin-off comic at all, seeing as how negotiating a licensing rights deal with her is probably a lot easier than dealing with, say, MGM. Even so — am I the only one who’s surprised that this comic even exists?

I mean, when I think of licensed properties making the leap to the four-color world, I think Star WarsStar TrekBattlestar Galactica. Heck, this week Boom! Studios even released the first issue of a new Escape From New York ongoing monthly, and that didn’t exactly come out of left field in my estimation, but this? A comic based on a cult blaxploitation hero who “peaked” about 40 years ago in terms of his popularity? I gotta say, I didn’t see that one coming at all.


Still, I’m glad it’s here, and in the hands of writer David F.Walker and artist Bilquis Evely, Tidyman can rest easy in his grave — they seem to know what they’re doing every bit as much as Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree did when they translated the urban adventures of “the cat who won’t cop out when there’s danger all about” onto celluloid. Is this a good comic? Damn right.

Walker (who’s also penning a six-part Shaft prose story available by scanning QR codes included in the printed versions of each of the comics) has opted to go the “prequel” route here, taking us back to 1968 when a newly-returned-from -Vietnam John Shaft is trying to make a go of it an as Brooklyn-based amateur boxer. We learn a lot about our main character’s backstory here — certainly more than we ever did in the film — and I have to say that all the revelations we’re served ring very true indeed to the Shaft we’ve always known, while somehow being at least modestly surprising at the same time. The fact that Walker is able to convey all this info with a sparse and breezy prose style is an added plus, and while the main through-line of the plot is a pretty simple one — Shaft is ordered to throw a fight, what’s he gonna do about it? — that doesn’t mean the impact of our guy John’s decision, predictable as it may be, has any less of an impact on readers. He’s headed for big trouble, and I’m looking forward to it already.  This first issue is pure table-setting, to be sure, but where’s the harm in that? Set the table nicely enough and I’ll want to stick around for the meal.


The art from Evely, whose prior work I confess to being unfamiliar with, can also be fairly categorized as “not flashy, but certainly effective.” It’s pretty simple and straightforward, but displays a kind of professionalism and eye for craft that were more common in the comics of 1971 — the year that Shaft hit theaters — than they are today. It suits the subject and time period quite well and invests the  reader in the proceedings rather than alienating you with so much of the unskilled “flashier” art we find in, say, the average DC “New 52” comic. The panels in this book  look good without sacrificing realism and plausibility along the way, and  are more concerned with drawing you in than bowling you over. All in all, a job very well done.


As with pretty much all Dynamite first issues, Shaft #1 has hit the stands with about a bajillion different variant covers. I’ve included my four favorites with this review (by Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz, Francesco Francavilla, Michael Avon Oeming, and Ulises Farinas, respectively), and while they all portray a more Richard Roundtree-looking Shaft than Evely does in his interior pages (well, except for the one by Farinas, since that’s not Shaft at all, but the bad guy of the story), you really can’t argue with the awesome-ness of any of them. I opted for the Francavilla cover since I always opt for Francavilla covers, but I was sorely tempted by the main Cowan/Sienkiewicz one, as well. Any way you go, though, you can’t lose — either with what’s on the outside of the book or what’s in it. This is the John Shaft we’ve always known, but shown in a whole new light that I think almost all fans will appreciate.