Stephen Miller

Stanford PhD student, person, etc.

Review: Whiplash

In a year which gave us thrillers about missing persons (Gone Girl), WWII tanks (Fury), prison fights (Starred Up), threatened priests (Calvary), distopian uprisings (Snowpiercer), and a giant lizard fighting Walter White (you get it), you’d probably be surprised to learn that the most intense film didn’t involve any gunshots or explosions. It didn’t have any physical violence at all, unless you really want to nitpick. It was about drumming in a jazz band, and not much else.

Whiplash tells the story of Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a student at [basically Juilliard] who wants to become a great jazz drummer. He’s invited to join a competitive studio band whose conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), believes constant stress is the only path to greatness. If that means throwing chairs, spouting misogynistic insults, or forcing students to play the same three bars til their hands bleed, so be it. It’s like Jiro Dreams of Sushi’s nihilist cousin: where Jiro sees greatness as quiet dedication to a craft, Fletcher sees it as a state of constant panic.

Simmons is incredible in this. But for all the terror his performance brings to the table, the deepest stress comes from the musicianship he demands: the focused silence, honed instincts which could crumble from a second of overthinking, Fury tanks of adrenaline forced through a restrained staccato pinhole. It’s a unique brand of anxiety — like public speaking if you weren’t allowed to pause for air, or sports if there were nothing but free throws — and Teller emotes it all in his insane strive for perfection. He’s as monstrous as Simmons, and despite not being a professional drummer, makes entire story arcs rise and fall and rise again within a single drum solo. There’s no way to talk about Whiplash without using jazz lingo: the whole film is pulsing, electrifying, loose and alive with mechanical precision.

It almost gave me a panic attack, and you should definitely see it.

Review: John Wick

I think I’ve established by now that I’m not a B-movie guy. If a movie is too “dumb”, I can’t completely get behind it. It doesn’t matter that it was self-consciously dumb; it doesn’t even matter that I had a great time. I can have a great time watching corny reality shows and scrolling through cat GIFs too, but that doesn’t make me want to praise them. Sometimes a movie is just a couple hours of escape, but at its best, it lingers. Adrenaline alone doesn’t stick.

John Wick really puts those convictions to the test. At just over an hour and a half, it’s a lean, well-choreographed killing machine. Someone steals Keanu Reeve’s car and kills his dog. He’s angry, so he’s going to kill a lot of Russians. How many? All of them. Who is he? The guy who just did a backflip over your head, that’s who. Where did he come from? Too late for questions, he already shot you in the face to the rhythm of a thousand Linkin Park power chords. Considering how much world-building potential the film had — with social hierarchies, currencies, and codes of ethics that are hinted at but never explained — it’s clear that being plotless was a stylistic decision, not a necessity. It’s a decision that frees it from all of the groanworthy moments other action flicks feel obligated to squeeze in: theres no night in Gethsemane, no chubby coworker for Denzel to inspire, nothing but bullets and vengeance. That’s a smart trick, which Nicholas Sparks, porn directors, and Mumford and Sons have also learned: drop the difficult stuff and cut to the crescendo. It makes for a pure shot of adrenaline, a return to form for Keanu, and a whole lot of fun in the same way that playing a video game is fun. But it felt a little like cheating.

After technical difficulties made us scrap the entire first recording, Chris, Carson, and I did a much sillier re-review at:

Review: Fury

Call me a buzzkill, but my enjoyment of war movies is nearly always clouded by the message. In my mind there are really only two valid routes to go: War Is Absurd (The Grand Illusion) or War Is Hell (Thin Red Line, The Hurt Locker.) That doesn’t mean they all need to be depressing — Inglourious Basterds certainly wasn’t. But it’s hard to imagine a good reason for them to be uplifting. That point where the music swells, as Mark Wahlberg or Tom Hanks cling to life in slow-mo, feels uncomfortable when I remember the hundred slow-mo-free deaths of cartoon villains it took to get there. Necessary evil or not, the asymmetry between protagonist (for whom we’re spoon-fed infinite reserves of empathy, whatever their flaws) and enemy (for whom, without drastic acts of goodness or the outright betrayal of their leaders, we’re given none) is troubling. It may be true to the characters and the emotions of war, and it may even be beautiful — but it’s hard to want to cheer. I can’t quite express what tone /would/ be appropriate: it’s humanism and nihilism side by side, and it’s complicated. War movies are hard to make, and I’m glad I don’t need to.

David Ayer probably didn’t need to make one either, but here we are. Fury tells the story of a young U.S. soldier (Logan Lerman) on the German front in the final days of World War 2, thrust into a tank commanded by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt). It started out as a seriously promising War Is Hell movie: years of warfare have hardened the crew to barbaric proportions, and life inside the tank seems insane to the innocent recruit. “We’re not here for right and wrong, we’re here to kill Krauts” says Wardaddy, and I was pretty sure the audience was supposed to be terrified of that sentiment. But somewhere along the way the film pivots from War Is Hell to Hell Yeah, and by the Rambo-ish finale it’s hard to know how to feel — it doesn’t come across as a tragedy (innocent recruit becomes hardened) but a coming-of-age story (innocent recruit becomes a man), and the tonal shift is ultra jarring. It could have been great: I thought it captured the claustrophobia of tank warfare extremely well, and the (phenomenal) cast kept the tension cranked to 11 the whole way through. But I’m not sure it had a point. Fury was a tale told for pure adrenaline: full of sound, signifying nothing.

Wolf in White Van

“It was a simple truth, something self-apparent. Something somebody might point out to you in kindergarten: when your dad was little, your grandmother was just his mom. Like looking at a 9 upside-down. I pictured my dad as a teenager: hair combed straight and parted on the side, head cocked at the direction of a portrait studio photographer. Big smile and a far-off gaze. ‘Dad, I am so, so sorry,’ I said, and I could see the distance from the rim of the tower to the ground, all that wasted Kansas plain going on and on forever, soaking up daylight and cooling to an inky black at night that spreads out uninterrupted for so long that eventually you can’t see any tower at all.”

I finished “Wolf In White Van” a little over a week ago, and have been wanting to say something about it ever since. But I keep backing off, because I can’t fit everything I want to say about it in a reasonable form factor. Someone should read it and talk to me about it. Til that happens… “Wolf” tells the story of Sean, a 30-ish year old trauma survivor who operates a text-based adventure game via snail mail. The game details a never-ending quest towards the Trace Italian, a mythical refuge in post-apocalyptic Kansas. As the first-person account works backwards towards an (at first mysterious) accident, both the Trace and its creator become deeply intwined. Post-accident Sean exists in a world comprised of discrete moves and theoretical futures; everything is a jigsaw piece, a series of doors and alleyways, all occupying space. “Like most things [Mom] started to say about the accident, this went nowhere: there were too many places for it to go, so when it opened out onto its great vista of sad possibilities it just rested there, frozen by the view.”

It’s the first full novel by John Darnielle (i.e. The Mountain Goats), and I was amazed at how well his lyrical sensibilities were adapted to prose. It’s gorgeously written. Like his music, “Wolf” imbibes daily struggles with unblinking earnesty and romance, taking wild leaps from realism to fantasy mid-sentence while making perfect emotional sense. There are a handful of passages which blew me away in how well they communicated the feeling of growing up and forgetting, of “belong[ing] to a tiny secret brotherhood of people who’d forgotten something hard.”. Engaging, sad, and — like all of his work — extremely hopeful, it’s a book about seeking refuge whether or not refuge can ever be found. Because “It’s really just simple math, the whole of it. There are only two stories: either you go forward or you die.”

I really loved it.

Musical example 1: realism vs romantic fantasy

Musical example 2: loose associations, refocusing

Musical example 3: future possibilities, excape

Musical example 4: self-seriousness of youth

Review: The Guest

Expectations can heavily influence a movie-viewing experience, and in the case of “The Guest”, mine were high for all the wrong reasons. I knew two meta things about the film: it was a thrilling return to form, and it was near-universally acclaimed by critics and festival audiences. I also knew the vague synopsis: a young Iraq war veteran shows up at a family’s doorstep, and when they take him in, violent undertones begin.

What I’d failed to anticipate was the form it was returning to. “The Guest” is a heavy throwback to 80’s horror tropes, complete with neon title cards, an unstoppable baddie, and a Drive-style pop soundtrack juxtaposed against the bloodshed. But “Drive” it was not, nor did it try to be. “Grindhouse,” maybe. It didn’t elevate the ridiculous horror tropes — it respectfully (if not seriously) committed to them, squeezing them into an action/thriller synopsis where they don’t normally belong. It’s a clever inversion in hindsight, but in the present it was indistinguishable from the same one-dimensional thing it homaged. Maybe “genre movie” is my white wine, and above “$5 Trader Joe’s bottle” they all taste the same to me. Or maybe the emperor really has no clothes, and it was just dumb fun after all. Either way I had a fine time (way better than the terribly campy “Lucy”), but nothing special.

Thoughts about this and “Left Behind”, “Dracula Untold”, and Vincent d’Onofrio’s weight at:

Review: The Judge

There’s a whole universe of films which were meant to be half-watched on a Sunday afternoon while folding laundry or skimming Facebook. Two hour runtimes stretched to 3+ with commercials, they don’t want to surprise you or make you think — they just want to hang out for a bit. They present characters you recognize immediately, put them in predictably heartfelt situations, and coast through the wistful drama/comedy/drama slopes with just enough momentum to keep the wheels turning. No one can spoil them for you: even if you don’t quite know the trajectory the characters will take, you know where they’ll be when the credits roll. Cutthroat businesswoman learns there’s more to life than winning. Big city lawyer embraces his Midwestern roots and makes out in his empty high school gym. Designer puts his fiascos behind him and dances to Free Bird. Matt Damon buys a zoo.

You know exactly where everyone in The Judge is headed, but that doesn’t keep it from being a pleasant ride. Everyone is recognizable: Robert Downey Jr. the charismatic fast-talker, Robert Duvall the dad who never said he was proud, Vera Farmiga the small-town girl who doesn’t need to travel the world to have it pegged. They’re well-acted and fun to watch, and even though you can see their moves a mile ahead, there’s something comfortable about being able to predict the future. From Bon Iver-backed country drives to father-son shouting matches in the rain, it hits all the obvious beats that you’ll feel or hate depending on your mood. It’s not especially good, and definitely not worth rushing to theatres for. But there are plenty of worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Review: Gone Girl

I really can’t say much about “Gone Girl” without giving major plot points away. Its trailers and long runtime make it look like another slow burning whodunnit a la Zodiac, but it breaks that mold pretty quickly. On the other end of the spectrum, reviews are praising it as a high-concept exploration of modern marriage and trust, and I honestly can’t say I saw that either.

What I saw instead was directorial alchemy — a film which really deserved to come off as a low-brow slasher/thriller, elevated by sheer talent into something mesmerizing. That same something which put lightyears between Saw and Se7en is on full display here, and while it’s hard to explain, it’s easy to experience. Fincher glides through massive narrative switchbacks with unflinching (there’s a pun in that somewhere) confidence; every one of the 149 minutes is meticulously planned and drenched in style. Affleck gives a great subdued performance, Rosamund Pike is fantastic as [censored for spoilers], and even Tyler Perry shows up wigless and ready to bring it. Some of the satire was a little obvious, my inner Jezebel flared up during a few plot reveals, and I can’t say I was always tracking the character motivations. But every criticism was short-lived and almost seemed handed to me; there’s nothing I felt which the film hadn’t already thought of. It was messy, unsettling, and unexpectedly great. Avoid spoilers.

Review: The Equalizer

If you’ve seen the trailer for “The Equalizer”, you know exactly what to expect. Max Payne-esque vigilante seeks justice in a world that’s mostly made up of foreign drug lords, crooked cops, strippers in imminent danger, and 24 hour diners. Things escalate. Russians get involves somehow. Lots of people die, and never in the same way. Stuff explodes and the guy who did it doesn’t turn around to look. A final showdown involving rain.

In short, it was a pretty dumb movie on the surface — and there was nothing but surface. But after months of seeing mostly “critically acclaimed” VOD releases during the August/September slump, a dumb fun movie was exactly what I needed. Denzel is insanely watchable, and even if he’s just doing a ridiculous Brother Mouzone / Boondock Saints / elevator-scene-in-Drive mashup, the dude really sells it. For a film whose only point of view consists of the word “justice” in various tattoo fonts, I was surprised how much I was rooting for its lead. The script does a great job of balancing action and tension, and the 2+ hour runtime flies by with a quick pace and stylish, music-video-esque camerawork. I’ll never say it was a great movie. I’m sure I’ll never watch it again. But I had a lot of fun the first time around.

Review: The Skeleton Twins

Dysfunctional family: check. Gay character “bravely” portrayed by a straight actor: check. Grainy slo-mo flashbacks set to precious music: check. Sundance accolades mentioned in the trailer: check. On paper, The Skeleton Twins has all the trappings of a desperate-to-get-critical-attention indie flick. And in some sense, maybe that’s a fair description. It didn’t offer a particularly fresh perspective, and it hit more than its fair share of predictable beats.

I could argue about why it was better than its clich├ęs: the topic of depression is treated with way more depth than as an offbeat character quirk, the script has a real point of view, and it’s not afraid to take some surprising risks coughTyBurrellcough. But it doesn’t really matter to me. Sometimes (see: Smashed) a movie sells its leads so well that I can ignore its flaws and just enjoy the ride, and Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig deserve all the praise they’re getting for this movie. Their characters are fully-formed — especially Hader, despite my worries that he’d be played as a stereotype — and their (sibling) chemistry is really terrific. In the wrong hands the film would have felt trite and self-aware, but they make the dark feel genuine and the warm-and-fuzzies feel earned. So here’s another gift to the guy on iTunes who called me way-too-pretentious. I really liked this one.

Review: Ida

It’s easy to make a sad film about the Holocaust; it’s hard to make it small. Some stare straight at the atrocity (Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice) and evoke grand emotions, others focus on individuals (Life Is Beautiful) and the triumph of spirit, but almost all are direct and teary-eyed. Which isn’t a bad thing at all — it’s an important way to tell a story, just not the only way.

Ida is pitch black, but it’s decidedly not a tearjerker. The Polish film tells the story an orphan who is about to become a nun. Before taking her vows, she is asked to learn about her parents’ history and decide for herself whether this is the life she wants. But where most would linger on emotions, Ida (both the film and the character) disengages: the camera backs away, intense conversations end abruptly, and tears are replaced with long, blank stares. The result tells a powerful story which is beautifully shot, but (aided by the language barrier) sometimes frustratingly hard to engage with. If you’re patient with it, there’s a lot to love — the quietness makes the big moments feel louder by comparison. But if you don’t think you’ll like it, you’re probably right.

In this ep, Chris and I are livin’ la Ida loca: