Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Movie Review: "Whiplash"

Bearing the Whiplash
By Rainey Wetnight

“I’m a vulgar man, but I assure you, my music is not.” -Tom Hulce as Mozart, from the 1984 film Amadeus

“…That he may sift you as wheat.” -Luke 22:31, King James Bible

What kind of movie deserves two epigraphs in its review? One of the most harrowing films of 2014. On its promotional poster, it has been described as “electrifying,” “challenging” and “entertaining.” In the comments for a playlist of its soundtrack, a YouTube commenter said, “[sic et scriptum] i was so captivated with this movie. that i didn't eat any of the nachos that i bought. i ate them when i got home and just started thinking about the movie.” When film-goers completely ignore their zesty, sodium-imbued concessions to watch the screen, someone had better sit up and pay attention.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sure did. Not only was Whiplash nominated for Best Picture, but J.K. Simmons also won the Oscar for Actor in a Supporting Role. Yours truly contends that Simmons was the lead, although intense Miles Teller portrayed our drum-thrashing protagonist. Who was in control of the entire hour and forty-seven minutes we spent inside their world of musical refinement?

Young Andrew Neyman (Teller) seeks one goal: greatness. His area of expertise - nay, the center of his life - is jazz drumming. Posters of Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker adorn his spartan dorm room, which has barely enough space for his bed and his drum kit. That’s all he needs: to eat, sleep (which he finds increasingly hard to do) and play. Practicing, at first a chore that he endures in good spirits, soon becomes a painful and bloody obsession. Once he is chosen, Neyman is already past the point of no return.

The chooser is none other than Terence Fletcher (Simmons), head of the top jazz orchestra at New York’s fictional Shaffer Conservatory. Not only does he never suffer fools, but he ejects musicians that he suspects to be fools from his band. Consider the case of one stocky student: “There’s no [expletive] Mars Bar down there,” Fletcher snaps, accusing a floor-gazing trombone player of being out of tune. As it is, the guilty party is sitting nearby, but the band’s high priest opts to send his fleshier scapegoat away.

The man sneers. He swears. He rants and raves. He hurls a chair at Neyman. He comes up with the most innovative invective since Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket (to which this movie’s been compared). What’s all this supposed to accomplish? Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the exact same aim the military has: to mold boys into men who can perform one task to perfection. There is no margin of error in war; it’s either kill or be killed. Neither is there a margin of error in Fletcher’s orchestra. It must conquer in competitions or lose favor in the ears of discriminating judges. Therefore, the teacher becomes the drill instructor. All should go well for our rising star if he yields to the breaking of his body, mind, and spirit.

The thing is, aren’t those three aspects of humanity the ones you must use to be a superb drummer?

Fletcher believes that the way to turn neophyte “squeakers” into virtuosos is through a combination of grueling ordeals. He uses enough profanity, racial and ethnic slurs, homophobic taunts, and misogynistic comparisons to fill up at least four episodes of South Park. One might argue that any athletic coach would do the same. However, that’s not whom Neyman is expecting at the front of the band room on his first day. Not only that, but Fletcher makes them toil over their instruments for far longer than the allotted class time. One particular scene drives this point home, starring three different drummers and their hot-headed hortator. Originally, that was the title of the man who beat time for slave rowers on Roman triremes.

Is this comparison too grim? I’ll return to it later. For now, I’d like to address the delicate issue of balance.

If there was anything the movie Black Swan taught us, it’s that art should not consume one’s whole life. In the beginning of Whiplash, Neyman clearly understands this. He strives to be a normal college kid in the midst of abnormal circumstances. He attends the movies faithfully with his dad (Paul Reiser), chows down on unhealthy food, and even finds a winsome girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). However, as Fletcher and the band consume more of his time, he discovers that he has to drop activities and people that he once considered essential. An ambition such as his leaves room for nothing else, no matter what the authors of best-selling business books say. When he breaks up with Nicole, it’s a mercy; when he does the same to his father, he’s being cruel and not kind. What drives his ruthlessness? It isn’t just his teacher, or his love for jazz. It’s his consummate fear of being an unrecognized failure. Balance is for people who can put their passions into perspective. Our hero won’t, and eventually finds that he can’t.

Who is to blame, if blame should be assigned? Perhaps the answer lies with one more character, who never shows his face: Brandon Casey, a former student who had been in Neyman’s shoes (although on saxophone, not drums). Fletcher sheds tears upon the news of Casey’s death, but for whom is he weeping, and why? The film is ambiguous on this point, for good reason. It’s one more turn of the screw, one more lash of the whip upon his protégé’s back - and ours.

In the final scene, what is the meaning of Neyman’s thousand-yard stare? It shows triumph and tragedy in equal measure, the look of one who knows what perfect obedience is - a slave who has, at long last, pleased his master. Whether he has overcome his master is a question with which we all should wrestle.


Monday, March 2, 2015

Unreleased Final Project: "This Sharp Chain"

In retrospect, I wish I would have submitted this for my final writing project in my Kankakee Community College writing course. However, I feared it was way too personal, but not for this obscure blog:


“There is now in my mouth, this sharp chain,
And it never comes out.” 
- Richard Burton, as Dr. Martin Dysart in the 1977 film Equus 

The Normal is the sharp smell of disinfectant in a doctor’s office. It is the red A on a report card, not the B or C; such grades are beneath the daughter of two teachers. It is singing “The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that’s the book for me!” with all your heart, never daring to believe that Crime and Punishment is better. It is the slim body, the intimate circle of friends, the furtive love of “boy talk”, and the date to Prom. It is the good-natured acceptance of boredom in school and life, because that is its essence. More than anything, however, the Normal is an able body. Can you walk, talk, jump and stretch? Moreover, can you run a relay race in satisfactory time, and do the Flex Arm Hang? If so, then give thanks. You’re Normal. The “indispensable, murderous God of Health,” as Dr. Martin Dysart puts it, has highly favored you.  

I have been cursed. Cerebral palsy is my diagnosis, written in artificial blood by the white-coated priests of our Deity. Add to that a latent co-morbidity of major depression, present since childhood but only showing itself in my college years. I have other diagnoses as well, informal but no less official: poor, oversensitive, socially awkward, unemployed. They mark me as an anomaly - no longer a Freak of Nature, because that’s not politically correct. Instead, I am the one who’s “struggling, but hanging in there.” I’m the maiden aunt who “waits for the right person, who’ll come along someday.” In church, I am not exactly “lost”, but I’m “not a real Christian.” I believe in a savior called Jesus, but not the workhorse’s life attached to Him. I vote, but my concerns go unheeded after my ballot slides into the box. I’m a minority, but too much of one.

What about you? You, too, may have struggled to be Normal. You may have felt the stomach-churning fear of bullies that no roller coaster ride can equal. You might have sat rigid in class, praying that the teacher wouldn’t call on you to read or answer math problems at the board. When basketballs and volleyballs came hurtling at your face, you ducked, being more willing to lose than to win.

Eventually, however, the Normal turned its countenance upon you. Your coordination grew, in body and in spirit, and no longer were you alone. You were welcomed into the fold of Husband, Wife, and Children, House and Home. Your work qualified you, and God unified you. I, however, remain set apart. If the Lord chooses whom He will, so does the Normal. I do not begrudge you at all. I only wish I was Chosen as well.

For now, like Equus in chains, I struggle against the bit that has been prepared - and forged - for all of us.

Friday, February 27, 2015

My Final Project for the Beginning Writers' Workshop at KCC


“What is this place?” I asked my extraterrestrial Visitor.

The two of us gazed down on the expanse below. Through a combination of electrochemical and pheromone signals emanating from the Visitor, I was able to understand when it spoke to my mind: Look. The planet above which we hovered was swarming with shuffling creatures.

We call this the Null World, the Visitor said.

The beings upon it looked so familiar, although I didn’t know why. They were of various shapes and sizes - tall, short, spindly, round - yet based upon the same blank template. They ambled past each other heedlessly, either not knowing or caring that others were nearby. I noticed two things right away: they were hooked to at least one portable object, and parts of their faces were oddly misshapen.

Their noses are the first to atrophy, said the Visitor, followed by their ears. Their tongues, which were once so useful for the formation of words, now only help them to swallow. Their devices keep them alive.

“Devices?” I asked, feeling queasy. I didn’t want to know what they were, but some part of me already did.

“Maybe try and communicate with one of them,” I said. “Telepathically, like you’re doing with me.”

The Visitor widened its two black, gleaming eyes, until they morphed into one that spanned the bridge of its tubelike nose. I saw it focus upon one of the figures below, and the image grew ever clearer. The creature himself - a bald-headed male - was intensely focused upon the flat screen that he carried. Two seconds passed, then five, then ten. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingle as my galactic guide attempted to reach the creature’s mind. Apparently, this telepathy did not only affect its potential recipient.

Nevertheless, the male did not react. He simply moved on, leaning in closer to his beloved tech-wear.

The Visitor drooped its head: I said “Hello”. After hesitating, it let its one eye separate into two again.

We looked at the creatures again. Despite all of their aimless shuffling, their fingers fluttered with manic purpose. They mashed and swiped their thumbs against screens that only they could see, and bobbed their heads to musical vibrations they could only sense - not hear. I shut my eyes tightly against the scene.

“What’s wrong with them?” I asked. “Why don’t they notice each other, or even themselves? Huh?”

They fear death, and seek to escape it by uploading as much information as they can through their technology. Unfortunately, what they’re actually doing is downloading themselves onto these devices. They want to live forever, and in pursuing such a goal, they die. 

This paradox was too much to bear. I kept my eyes shut, shaking my head over and over. It couldn’t be.

It is, my companion replied, and that’s why I’ve come for you.  

The Visitor soothed my mind, and the Null World - Earth - disappeared.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Writing Challenge: "Laughs at the Library"

This is the second writing challenge posed to me by Chris and Jerri Schlenker from my "Beginning Writer's Workshop" course:


There are several reasons why our local library is one of my favorite places. For starters, the dusty scent of old tomes combined with that of fresh paperbacks sends me reeling back to my childhood. So do the helpful librarians, several of whom I’ve known since then. Of late, however, my newest reason to love the library is Junior High Game Day. I know what some of you are thinking: “Junior high kids are actually fun?” 

Yes, indeed. One day per month, our librarians invite local children from sixth to eighth grade over to play board games. There are several, including chess, Apples to Apples (a perennial favorite), Monopoly (with electronic banking so you don’t have to perform the arduous task of making change), Twister (which I never play for fear of breaking one or more of my appendages), and Trivial Pursuit (very rarely utilized). 

This last is because the questions are way too hard for post-Millennials: “Who was the first U.S. President to ride in a car?” One kid’s answer: “George Bush!” I pointed out that automobiles were invented in the late 1800’s, not the early 2000’s, so he bravely gave it another try: “Abraham Lincoln!” The actual answer is William McKinley. I confess that the only other thing I know about him is that he was assassinated by a Polish man named Leon Czolgosz. If I have my Slavic pronunciation right, that’s “tsol-GOSH.” The only reason I recall that is because of his last name. I’ve tried to master Russian and failed, so there you go. 

Anyway, that’s why we don’t play Trivial Pursuit. Another big hit at Junior High Game Day, at least when I remember to bring it, is Crappy Birthday. I have no idea if that’s because the gifts depicted on the game cards are so funny, or because the kids are legally allowed to say “crappy” at the library. Perhaps both. Each kid takes turns being the “birthday boy” or “birthday girl”, who is a judge of sorts. All the other kids have five “gift cards” in their hand, depicting horrible presents such as forty gallons of nacho cheese, a decorative urinal, a peeing statue, and so on. The player with the “birthday” has to pick the present they would hate to receive the most. The kid who had that card in his or her hand gets a point. Five points wins. 

“What’s a ‘bid-it’?” asked one boy (not the same one who guessed “George Bush” for the Trivial Pursuit question). He held up a card showing what looked like a large toilet. Blushing a little, I explained that the word was pronounced bidet, and it was “a special toilet that washes you after you go to the bathroom.” Immediately, another boy cried, “I want it! I want it!” Everybody else cracked up, including me. “Who wouldn’t want that? That’s a great present!” he added. More guffaws. Yes, this is a true story as well. 

Such laughs at the library!

Writing Challenge: "A Great Day"

This challenge was posed to me by Ann Goza, from my "Beginning Writers' Workshop" student group on Facebook. I am to write 500 words or less on the subject, "You know it's going to be a great day when..."


You know it’s going to be a great day when you get to sleep in. Not only is it your day off from work, but if you have kids, they’re on a field trip for school - and you DON’T have to chaperone. So, at 6:00 AM, you snuggle back under the covers and enjoy at least three more hours of rest. Your pet joins you as a comfy bio-pillow.

When you finally do get up, you discover that your significant other has finally broken out the cappuccino machine that you gave him/her last Christmas. Over a steaming cup with extra foam, you engage in friendly discourse whilst still in your pajamas. With a sultry wink, you’re asked the question: “Should I take a shower before…or after?” You respond in kind, according to your preference, surprised that such a high pronunciation of the word “Yee!” can emerge from your throat post-children. You, my friend, are on a roll.

Thus satisfied on both the gastrointestinal and libidinal fronts, you “start” your day after discovering that it’s actually 11:00 AM. Out of a simultaneous sense of habit and duty, you glance toward your treadmill in the bedroom. No, you think, casting a baleful glare at the contraption. I don’t have to do that today. Instead of putting in your required thirty minutes of hard labor outside of the office, you open a book. You haven’t had any time to read it lately. Your favorite mystery/romance/horror extravaganza has been almost permanently replaced by The Poky Little Puppy and, disconcertingly, Walter the Farting Dog. 

Thankfully, the kids aren't here, but do you know who is? Your favorite talk show host during lunch. Your significant other is out doing something or other. Therefore, you revel with perverse glee in the eternally-shocking paternity revelations of Maury Povich, If you’re a more health-conscious sort, you watch that one  episode of Dr. Oz that you’ve had on DVR for two months. Duly admonished, you wash the dishes and promise that you’ll get back to the treadmill and vegetables tomorrow. Today you had to have grilled cheese.

When your significant other returns, s/he poses you a challenge: Another round of you-know-what, or a round of competitive golf on Xbox Kinect? You pick the golf first, with the other activity as a little forfeit. The loser has to submit to the winner’s best impression of Christian Grey from 50 Shades. You’re game. Against all odds, you also emerge victorious! Then again, you dimly suspect that your SO was “showing off” some brilliant “parking lot shots”. However, who cares? To you go the spoils of both love and war.

You eat an early dinner at your favorite Italian place with actual wine, because the kids aren’t around. You even share a portion of tiramisu for a “pick-me-up” that you know you’ll need tomorrow. Oh, well. To finish off your great day, when you tuck your little ones into bed, they decide to give you five hugs apiece.

Short Story: "Called to Account"

This is a writing challenge posed to me by Chris and Jerri Schlenker from my "Beginning Writer's Workshop" course:

A 500-Word Short Story by Rainey Wetnight, a.k.a MsFicwriter

“Mister Edmonds? Would you step into my study for a moment?” 

“Certainly, your lordship.” This isn‘t good. If Lord Marsdale wants something, he summons me to the parlor or dining room. I’m being called to the carpet, but what ghastly infraction have I committed? 

Once he’s seated behind his mahogany desk, he places his fingertips together in a pyramid shape. “It seems that two thousand pounds has gone missing from my bank account.”

“Sir?” Calm down. Keep your tone neutral. 

“I find it rather odd, Edmonds, that just one week ago you were requesting some time off.” 

“I - That is true, but I don’t take extravagant holidays. A fortnight in the country is enough for me.”  

He ignores this. “The only three people on these premises with access to my finances are my wife, my valet Coe, and you - for household expenses. Have you been making withdrawals without my knowledge?”

My spine stiffens. “I would never do so, sir, especially for such a large sum. Have you questioned Coe?” 

Lord Marsdale raises an eyebrow. “I shall, but I thought I’d start with you. What are you not telling me?” 

Square your shoulders. Head high. Stand up straighter. “I have been perfectly aboveboard with you.” 

“Yes, you have, and I applaud you for that. Such is why I’m surprised at your reticence now.” 

“Reticence? My lord, I have done absolutely nothing. Theft is far below me, and these accusations, with all due respect, are far below you.” Good. Keep questioning his honor, and putting him on the defensive.  

“Sit down.” 

He’s kept me standing this whole time. Foolish move. I could have bolted, but didn’t. Why? With cautious grace, I take the one seat across the desk from him. I want him to speak next, and to keep on speaking.  

“Have you been having any financial difficulties lately, Edmonds?” 

“Related to my duties, sir? Of course not. I make a point of budgeting wisely, for this estate and myself.” 

My employer leans forward half an inch. “What about the evening gala for Lord Steyne and his wife?” 

I cringe. “It was their anniversary, and so I purchased food and wines according to their particular taste.” 

“Aye. In this case, ‘their particular taste’ happened to dig us five hundred pounds into the hole…” 

The edge in his voice is growing sharper. I’ve got to nip this in the bud. “What can I say?” I shrug. 

“The Steynes were quite pleased, but I was not. I gave you a reprimand, which you seem to have ignored.” 

“No, sir! I’ve striven to be frugal in our dinners, especially in the servants’ kitchen - less meat, more meal.” 

“Bravo.” He lets his hands slip down onto the desk, and then curls them into fists. “Now I want the truth.” 

I give him a slow, oily smile. “Why don’t you ask your wife? Your beloved Mabel, who is now my beloved?” 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Movie Review: "Borgman"

Beguiling Borgman
By Rainey Wetnight

“I saw a magician.” -Isolde, the daughter of one of the two main characters in this fascinating fable

Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) first appears in the lives of an upper-middle-class family as a homeless man. All he wants is a bath, he says, because he is “quite dirty”. One might wonder why he doesn’t ask housewife and artist Marina (Hadewych Minis) for something to eat first, but it turns out he has his reasons for wanting to be clean right off the bat. Her high-profile TV mogul husband, Richard (Jeroen Perceval) is immediately suspicious - so suspicious that he attacks Borgman and almost kicks him to death. To make up for this violent outburst, Marina offers the gray-bearded tramp not only a bath, but a meal and a night in her summer house. “I’m sorry,” she says, but Borgman replies sympathy won’t cut it. “I’m in pain,” he informs her. “Nurse me.” She does, over the course of a few days, but Marina is the one who needs help.

Why? Clue number one: One opening scene of Borgman involves a priest. Two: There are also two men with the holy Father, one with a makeshift spear and the other with a shotgun. Three: See the italicized quote above. However, our villain is not just any magician, or even any evil magician. He can make a little girl’s fever vanish (as well as himself), but for what purpose does he need a surgical team? Like a regular stage prestidigitator, he has several assistants, namely Ludwig, Pascal, Brenda and Ilonka. “You’re early,” he tells two of them that Marina can’t see. “Off with you”. However, they’re currently in greyhound form.

With all this supernatural weirdness going on, what’s just as intriguing are the tense familial dynamics. Marina feels underappreciated, mostly by her husband. A gardener (disposable yet biodegradable) looks after the grounds, while a beautiful nanny named Stine looks after the children. Surprisingly, there’s none of that kind of hanky-panky going on, but someone sure is looking to wreck this supposedly happy home.

The best scene in the movie is a late one, a family dinner to which Borgman and his friends are invited. However, despite their malevolent nature, their being present isn’t really necessary in order to make these solid suburban citizens tear at each other’s throats. Richard has just been fired, and the son of his former boss also happens to be at the table: Stine’s new boyfriend. As before, Richard springs into action. He aims to pummel this threat as he had the bearded, tattered old one, but Marina immediately stops him. Later she asks her gardener for a favor: “He has to die, Camiel.” Is her request utterly unreasonable?

What director Alex van Warmerdam excels at is subtlety: the sound of flies buzzing whenever a certain character is around, shots of glasses of dark red wine, the harried scraping of a knife on buttered toast, and metaphors of kisses and a white child near a lake. Even though his touch is deft, sometimes it’s almost too light. You might start wishing that the protagonists would just go off the proverbial deep end already and quit standing on the diving board. However, once they do, it’s absolutely riveting to watch.

In most movies about a capital-A adversary, the main character knows pretty quickly with whom s/he’s dealing. Negotiations ensue, the rate of exchange for temporal happiness is revealed, and a deal is made (blood-signed contract optional). In this one, though, the Tramp can take his time. In one hour and fifty-two minutes, he slowly worms his way into the hearts and minds of his human prey, discovering and warping their desires. “There will be consequences,” Borgman warns Marina when she wants to hire him as the family’s new landscaper. However, she barely bats an eyelash. Does she not suspect…or not care?

Calamity befalls us in several ways. We can lose our jobs, our homes, even our families, due to events that we neither plan nor control. However, with actual evil - as with a fictional vampire - you have to let it in.