Review: “Whiplash” (****½)

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Miles Teller and JK Simmons star in “Whiplash.”

“Whiplash” was—hands down—one of the two best narratives at the 2014 Savannah Film Festival (the other being “Two Days, One Night”). After it won both the Dramatic Jury Prize and the Dramatic Audience Prize at Sundance, a fast train of lofty expectations was set in motion—with J.K. Simmons’ Oscar campaign leading the way.

Although the trailer and word-of-mouth had prepared me adequately for what to expect, I was caught off guard by just how electric this film is. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are singularly both very good, but it’s the dynamic between them that creates a powerful surge that courses through the film before an explosive ending.

These two aren’t solely responsible for the success of “Whiplash,” however. Writer and director Damien Chazelle gives us the most focused and intentional direction in any film from 2014—and it’s only his second feature. While Linklater or Iñarritu helmed more ambitious projects that reach across time constraints and genres, Chazelle hones in on a practically tiny story and gives laser-focused attention to all aspects, allowing it to be fleshed out completely but still remain very lean.

Robust scenes of musical performance are finely tuned and expertly edited, easing into the bigger picture that basks in the golden glow of the cymbals and flows like molten caramel. Despite the incredible energy that exists during so many scenes and some solid supporting performances from Paul Reiser and Melissa Benoist, its all about Teller and Simmons and their nearly two-hour tête-à-tête.

Teller—who is quickly hurdling towards marquee name status—has essentially been an annual guest of the Savannah Film Festival since being honored with a Discovery Award in 2010 for “Rabbit Hole.” Unfortunately, he was shooting another film at the time and couldn’t make it (although his whole family was there for the screening).

“Whiplash” gives us a lot to be excited about—the continued rise of Miles Teller, the breakthrough of J.K. Simmons from well-known character actor to soon-to-be Oscar-winner and the welcomed arrival of striking filmmaking talent in Damien Chazelle.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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