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Shrewsbury, Massachusetts- A pickle back is an unusual cocktail combination that has been sweeping the countryside. The pairing is simple: one shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey immediately followed by a shot of pickle juice. It seems like something that shouldn’t work, yet oddly does. The brine of the pickle surprisingly compliments the harsh flavors of the whiskey. It was a feeling that came to my mind the other day when I saw, back-to-back, a fitting double feature.
Whiplash tells the tale of Andrew Neyman, a young man struggling to make it as a jazz drummer in a highly competitive music academy. There he butts heads with his aggressive, but driven teacher Terence Fletcher. What starts as an opportunity turns into a twisting game of chess between two men driven by the same goal: to be the best. Birdman weaves the story of Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor trying to revive his reputation by headlining a show on Broadway. Dealing with issues in his personal life and difficult actors, Riggan struggles to make people see him as more as a man who used to play a superhero.
These two films were a happenstance double feature, something I saw just because I wanted to see both films. Yet what became unexpected was the surprisingly fitting pairing the two films had with each other. Whiplash and Birdman are remarkable films, searing with artistic craftsmanship and spellbinding visual flair. Both directors Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman) have complete control over their worlds and bring the audience in for an engaging ride, though they do so completely differently.
Whiplash grabs you from the very first instance, Chazelle grabs you by the labels and hurls you into the world of jazz drumming and never lets up. Each sequence cuts with remarkable pacing that never lets up until you are left shaking at the edge of your seat. Birdman on the other hand takes its time working its artistic magic on you. Inarittu is known for having more contemplative, atmospheric work and Birdman draws you in and takes you on a fascinating and gradual ride. Whiplash’s editing knocks you out, while Birdman’s edits remain hidden as Inarittu attempts to make it all one fluid shot. Both films are molded differently, yet are talking about the same thing.
Ambition and success are often two mutually exclusive things, though they are also very dangerous things. In Whiplash, Andrew is driven purely on ambition because he wants to be considered one of the greats: to be the next Charlie Parker, to be the next Buddy Rich. His drive goes to massive extremes and one is left to ponder if pursuing one’s dreams is worth all the hardship that he has to endure. Riggan Thomson on the other hand has already had success and completely squandered it. Doing theatre, a world he’s not completely familiar with in order to feel like a true artist again. Both leads struggle to claw their way to the top from nothing and to get the high from being the best that they can be.
It’s why watching these two films back to back is the cinematic equivalent to a pickle back. Whiplash is the Jameson: harsh, biting, and searing with craftsmanship. It’s impossible not to make a reaction after consuming it and will leave you shaking. Birdman is the pickle juice: you know it’s going to be odd and you’re not sure if it will actually work. Yet, when you consume it, it cancels out the taste and feeling of the whiskey, mellowing your palate and leaving you satisfied. Both films have gravitas and they work surprisingly well together to create an ambitious double feature.
This is also thanks to the powerhouse talents of the cast. Miles Teller pulls out the best performance he’s ever had as Andrew and his drive is well reflected by JK Simmons’s (now considered the front-runner for Best Supporting Actor, as well he should be) Fletcher. The relationship between these two characters, each driven by ambition keeps the film alive and they carry the film on their shoulders. Meanwhile everyone in Birdman gives it their all to great success. Michael Keaton gives it his all as Riggan and headlines a consistently stellar set of performances from Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis.
Whiplash and Birdman are absolute knockouts and stand out as captivating pieces of filmmaking. If one had to be better than the other, Whiplash fights its way for that title, easily being one of the most important films of the year. Birdman is equally recommendable, but while both films are similar, they are still vastly different. Whiplash is a freight train, pulling you along for a intensified tour while Birdman takes a step back to meditate on life and what it means to be a success. Both films hit with tremendous power and are easily two of the best films of the year. What started as an impromptu visit to an art house cinema turned into a divine cinematic experience. No one would have predicted that a film about a washed-up superhero actor and a film about a young jazz drummer would ever work on their own much less together. But these two films compliment each other like Jameson and pickle juice. So drink up.
Whiplash and Birdman are playing at select cinemas around the country and together at Kendall Square Cinemas in Cambridge. Go to http://www.landmarktheatres.com/market/boston/kendallsquarecinema.htm for details