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Home » Press Archives » Articles from 2014

The 2014 Toronto International Film Festival doesn’t really kick off until this evening, when the Robert Downey Jr. Oscar vehicle The Judge has its premiere, but I nonetheless spent a productive day catching up on a pair of well-received films I missed at Sundance last winter.

Laggies, director Lynn Shelton’s charming, rueful comedy about arrested development, features a winningly natural performance by Keira Knightley, an actress who is experiencing something of a mini-renaissance as she puts away the pouts and the corsets that had come to define her career. Here she’s Megan, a Seattle-area woman nearing the event horizon of 30. She’s found herself lost in that confusing age, pulled along by habit and routine, watching as her high-school friends, with whom she’s still supposedly close, settle into lives that don’t look much like anything she wants for herself. And so she’s gratefully rescued, or at least distracted, when she meets Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz), a mildly rebellious teenager who, unable or unwilling to see Megan’s obvious damage, takes a shine to this hip older woman.

As Megan’s odd relationship with Annika deepens, she also forms a charged bond with Annika’s wisecracking dad, played with near endless appeal by Sam Rockwell. Shelton being Shelton, very little in Laggies feels overly plotted or high concept, despite its vaguely gimmicky set up. Knightley navigates this laidback film with smarts and sensitivity, making a real woman out of Megan instead of merely a representative of the film’s themes. Who knew that Keira Knightley could trade all that pretty period decor for simple suburbia and find such lo-fi affability? She burrows more deeply into this performance than she has in years. Maybe ever. I like her in this frank but not-too-serious vein, as I liked her in this summer’s Begin Again. Sure, she’s also got the Alan Turing biopic, The Imitation Game, at this festival, putting her back into the world of stately period pieces, but I’m hoping that Begin Again and the wise, disarmingly friendly Laggies represent a new phase in her career.

Speaking of new careers, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s thrilling, muscular jazz drama Whiplash suggests that we might have a bold new auteur on our hands. It also makes a compelling case for its lead actor, Miles Teller, as a next-big-thing. Both he and Chazelle project a focus and intensity that are admirably free of irony or second-guessing. This is a hard-charging, brashly articulated movie about music, jazz drumming in particular, that trusts, and truly sells, the dramatic weight of its subject.

But, aside from the mesmerizing drum solos, the star of the film is J.K. Simmons, playing the profane, borderline sadistic conductor of a Manhattan music conservatory’s jazz band. Through startling shifts in bearing and temperature, Simmons never lets us rest comfortably in the easy assumption that this guy is simply an outright monster. No, he is actually real person, with all the shading that humanity implies, albeit a human who is thrown into fits of towering apoplexy when a student’s tempo is off. It’s a bruising, beautifully nuanced performance. While I found some of Whiplash’s blustery machismo off-putting, it’s a film that stirringly pays homage to artists’ furious pursuits of perfection. It makes stars of Chazelle and Teller, and hopefully will give Simmons the accolades his long, lucrative career deserves.