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‘Whiplash': Miles Teller music drama drumming up strong reviews

“Whiplash,” writer-director Damien Chazelle’s high-intensity drama about an aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his domineering teacher (J.K. Simmons), has been grooving to steady buzz since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and won the top two U.S. dramatic prizes.

Set to open in Los Angeles and New York on Friday before expanding in the coming weeks, the film is once again garnering very strong reviews, with critics praising Chazelle’s precise direction and Teller and Simmons’ committed performances.

Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Nashawaty says “Whiplash” is “the most electric movie I’ve seen so far this year.” Simmons has “rarely been allowed to sink his teeth into a character like this. He’s brutal and manipulative, and you can’t take your eyes off him. And Teller, with his baby face and air of easily wounded vulnerability, makes Andrew someone you pull for despite his jerky arrogance.”

You don’t have to be a jazz fan to enjoy the film either, Nashawaty adds: “If you can appreciate the sight of two totally dialed-in performers simmering until they boil over, that’s enough.”

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Slate’s Dana Stevens echoes those sentiments, writing that Chazelle’s film is “put together like a jazz set, with long virtuosic solos, repeating themes, and intimate, slower moments alternating in jagged syncopation. Even if you couldn’t care less about jazz drumming, though, ‘Whiplash’ is a thrill to watch.”

She adds, “This teacher-pupil conflict is well-trodden dramatic ground, but Chazelle and his cast invest it with fresh energy, making the outcome of a series of college jazz competitions feel as unpredictable and exciting as a season of major league sports.”

A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd writes, “‘Whiplash’ spends most of its fleet, exhilarating runtime obliterating every sentimental cliche of the inspirational-teacher genre. More ‘Full Metal Jacket’ than ‘Dead Poet’s Society,’ the film is an epic battle of wills between two fanatical artists, one doing everything in his power to painfully make a master out of the other.”

Dowd adds that Teller gives “what will hopefully be a star-making performance,” Simmons is “magnetically loathsome,” and Chazelle delivers “a breakthrough.”

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In a more measured review, the Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek writes, “for the first two-thirds, at least … ‘Whiplash’ soars.” In its weaker moments, she says, the film suffers from the over-the-top nature of Simmons’ character, “a cartoon bad guy masquerading as a complex one.” Even so, Simmons himself is “terrific, giving some shape, dimension, and sandpaper edges to a character that’s little more than a writer’s construct,” and Teller, with his combination of “braggadocio and vulnerability,” is “marvelous.”

Zacharek adds, “If ‘Whiplash’ doesn’t quite hang together, Chazelle has still managed to pack it with some wonderful ideas: A sometime jazz drummer himself, he understands — and conveys — the way improvisation, when you hit the groove, can feel like flying.”

The New York Observer’s Rex Reed also gives a positive review while saying the film stumbles a bit toward the end. He writes: “Culminating in a series of plot twists that eventually strain credulity, the film wears down the patience of the viewer … but there’s one final drum solo that explodes in a scorching musical showdown between prodigy and conductor you can’t afford to miss.”

And, Reed adds, “Teller is so compelling as the flourishing drummer that I was transfixed by both his acting and his playing,” and Simmons’ “vicious ruthlessness provides such ballast to his co-star’s determination to survive every humiliation with dignity that the movie bristles with the richness of a duet in a jazz concerto.”

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