Two very different but equally powerful films will play at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. Whiplash follows the harrowing trial by fire in the education of a young drummer, while The Tale of the Princess Kaguya recounts through eloquent animation the story of a magical Japanese beauty.
Director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash began life as a short at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Short Jury Award and then received funding for a full-length feature. The movie begins with Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller, who has played the drums from the age of 15) practicing on his drums. A beginning student at a Juilliard-like music school, he is driven by ambition to become a world-class drummer. He soon clashes with his macho, egocentric, even sadistic band instructor, Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons).
Fletcher singles out Andrew in rehearsals, then prods him with relentless, over-the-top performance demands. Fletcher’s speech is peppered by the foul language of a drill sergeant. While other students fall by the wayside, Andrew takes on the challenges implicit in his mentor’s vicious taunts. He finds himself in and out of favor with Fletcher, but continues to practice his instruments to the point of exhaustion, bloodied fingers, and more.
Fletcher denounces the phrase, “good job” as a despicable compromise in the search for his particular view of excellence. He offers a chilling view of how to inspire students to give their best, and his tactics come close to turning him into a horror-film monster. In the process, the film raises questions about the nature of ambition, the value of obsession, and the relationship between mentor and protégé. Justin Hurwitz’s powerful score re-enforces the intensity of the director’s engagement with musicianship and aspiration. Expect to see Oscar nominations for both Simmons and Teller, as well as the director.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which is hand-drawn, announces its 10thcentury fairy tale roots in the beginning scenes, where a bamboo cutter, voiced by James Caan, discovers a tiny princess inside a luminous bamboo cane. Magically, the Princess Kaguya transforms herself quickly from infancy into young adulthood.
Inspired by the discovery of gold and silk fabrics, the bamboo cutter and his wife move to the capital city of Kyoto, where they hope to give the princess a life in keeping with her station. The princess finds herself attended by a courtier who names her Kaguya after the moon-like light she radiates. She also falls under the tutelage of Lady Sagami, a governess who wants to enhance her natural beauty by artificial means and tries to educate her in the ways of the court. Dazzled by her beauty, a number of suitors, including the Mikado or emperor of Japan, woo the young princess, but Kaguya misses her simpler life in the country and has no use for the elaborate gifts her suitors try to tempt her with. Instead she remains attracted to the young hunter, Sutemaru, whom she grew up with in the country.
Director Isao Takahata’s animation richly evokes the beauty of the princess and the world she inhabits in a tale thought to be Japan’s oldest recorded. As one of Studio Ghibli’s co-founders, the director celebrates the natural world and brings a fluid freedom to the animation. In addition to James Caan, viewers may recognize the voices of Mary Steenburgen as the bamboo cutter’s wife, Lucy Liu as Lady Sagami, Beau Bridges as Prince Kuramochi, and Oliver Platt as Lord Minister of the Right Abe. Like Whiplash, look for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya in the ranks of Oscar nominations.
“Whiplash,” Thursday, November 20, 7:30 pm; Friday, November 21, 4 pm; Sunday, November 23, 7:30 pm.
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguyi,” Saturday, November 22, 4 pm.
All films at M.V. Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. For information and tickets, see mvfilmsociety.com.