By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Sundance 2014 Reviews: Overnighters, Whiplash

OvernightersIt’s enough to describe The Overnighters as a documentary portrait about the efforts of Jay Reinke, a pastor of a local church in Williston, North Dakota. His “overnighter” program, where Reinke welcomes blue-collar men into house and home as they try to find work in an emerging oil boom, has both positive and negative ramifications, and it’s putting a strain on the community.  Zooming out from Reinke, though, and we see the town of Williston as part of a bigger picture. In essence, Williston is a nexus and meeting ground for some of the most critical problems plaguing the United States, giving director Jesse Moss the chance to weave a more tangled web of substance abuse and criminality, unchecked capitalism, and the limits of forgiveness. In short, The Overnighters is a snapshot of broken America, seen through the lens of a small town as it grapples with burgeoning industry. It’s fascinating.

In its exploration of Williston, The Overnighters creates a continuously evolving subject out of Reinke, spanning a range of emotions and revelations that dramatically change how we perceive his motives as the film progresses. Throughout the first act, Moss depicts the pastor as a modern saint; a man who literally sings God’s graces and goes out of his way for his fellow man. Initially, it’s extremely humbling to watch someone selflessly practice the virtues of “loving thy neighbor.” Potential overnighters can stay at Reinke’s church, and the most he asks of you is to come to mass and avoid spilling coffee on the carpet. It’s his biggest pet peeve.

Then again, even in these scenes of heartwarming fraternity, there’s always this nagging feeling that Reinke’s generosity is perhaps misguided and downright bizarre, as if there’s something unhealthy or otherwise unspoken that drives his desire to help these men. Many of the overnighters have questionable pasts, though, so either Reinke has a habit of harboring drug addicts and sex offenders, or this problem coincides with the greater concern of a ravaged national economy and unskilled laborers being forced to move out-of-state for reliable work. Later in the film we’re pulled by an ethical tug-of-war of wanting to help others versus maintaining a safe society and a stable family life, and it’s a lot to think about.

Inevitable secrets emerge and the town council gets involved, and it’s more than reasonable that citizens of Williston would be upset by a surge in squatters who live in parking lots and walk the streets drunk. Of course, this raises the question: if Christianity (or simply being a good person) involves love and forgiveness, when does accepting the sins of others become inherently dangerous? Moss follows Reinke as he explains himself door-to-door, and it’s clear that many families have difficulty looking past the unsightly mobile homes and undeniable sketchiness of living around the corner from known sex offenders. Their perspective isn’t at all unexpected, but there’s enough success stories coming out of Reinke’s charity to make this ultimately a tough call. “I’m broken. We’re broken. Broken people need love,” Reinke says at one point.

As a film about the extent of this program, The Overnighters succeeds brilliantly in showcasing Reinke’s particularly interesting Catch-22. Looking at Williston as a by-product of national issues, however, and the film reminds us of that troublesome intersection between NIMBYism and goodwill in a time of severe unemployment. This is a standout documentary at Sundance 2014, and one that has far more in its constitution and its relevant subtexts than originally anticipated.

 

Whiplash-4091.cr2

If Sundance is a festival known for igniting careers overnight, then let it be so: Damien Chazelle’s opening-night stunner Whiplash unleashes a new momentum to his name and his work (known previously for 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), and deservedly so. In the process, Miles Teller comes away from last year’s Sundance gem The Spectacular Now with an even higher profile. JK Simmons’ accomplished portfolio is topped again with a high note.

Based on the Sundance 2013 short by the same name, Chazelle tells a fuller version of his prodigy story: Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a gifted jazz drummer at New York City’s prestigious Schaffer Academy, is discovered practicing one night by the sociopathic Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), Schaffer’s Studio Band conductor. Seeing in him a vast potential, Fletcher pushes Nieman to the limits of his wits, his patience, and his ability, trying to find within Nieman the Next Great Musician. In the process, however, Fletcher vaults the lines of appropriate conduct, throwing objects, shouting profane insults, and axing members of his band for good with little to no warning. In other words: if you’re out of tune or not on his tempo, you had better duck—or be prepared to prove your ability until your hands are literally bleeding.

But Nieman’s no pushover, willing to sacrifice family, friends, and romance to fly his drumming career into the stratosphere. We watch with great pleasure as an immovable object meets an unstoppable force, and the interactions between Nieman and Fletcher are rarely calm. The dialogue exchanges are sharp, not flat; Chazelle’s script is filled with as many one-liners are there are drumlines. Simmons’ range of rage (and ability to turn it off) is a thrill to watch, while Teller’s facial contortions as he drums like a madman are simply excruciating. And how the film manages to make Miles Teller look like a legitimate drumming ace is an achievement in something, be it creative cutting, special effects, or what-have-you.

While the steps Chazelle takes to set Nieman’s prodigy arc in motion are sometimes contrived, the performances and energy from Teller and Simmons are more than enough to make up for the fact that Whiplash has (very) predictable beats, save for an ending that strays from convention into something that is relentless, fast-paced, and utterly astounding. Comprising much of the film, the extended scenes of talented musicianship—solo or otherwise—treat us to some of the finest fictional music montages we’ve ever seen.

On that note, the editing in the film is incredible. Paying attention to every instrument in the Schaffer Studio Band, Chazelle shows the action from a multitude of angles and depths. Macro close-ups of everything from reeds to spit valves to Nieman’s bloody high-hats make Whiplash just as visual a feast as it is an aural one, and it works so very well. This direction style isn’t limited to the instruments, however, as Chazelle employs a similar style of elliptical editing and unusual camera angles to quicken the pace and provide some extra (and appreciated) detail.

Returning to the performances of Miles Teller and JK Simmons, as their excellence makes the film what it is: both play their head-butting parts in perfect concert, feeding off their characters’ stubbornness to create electrifying drama. For better or for worse, though, Whiplash hardly ever stops to catch its breath. That said, I’d argue this sells the film’s larger theme of going big or going home in a way that’s observable both behind and in front of the camera, as the talent on either side is most assuredly going big. It’s hard to look elsewhere for a fiction film this strong about drumming, let alone music; going further, the archetypal story of becoming the very best at something is served with strength and style.

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“TIFF doesn’t make attendance numbers for its Lightbox screenings publicly available, so it’s difficult to gauge exactly how many filmgoers the Lightbox is attracting (or how much money it’s bringing in). But the King Street West venue hasn’t become a significant draw for film enthusiasts. The Lightbox’s attendance has plunged – 49,000 fewer visitors last year, a drop of 27 per cent, according to figures recently reported in the Toronto Star. Its gallery space – designed to showcase the visions of cinema’s most iconic filmmakers – saw most of its exhibitions staff quietly axed this past fall. And its marketing barely escapes the Lightbox’s walls. Unless you are a TIFF member or one of the city’s most avid filmgoers, you could walk by the Lightbox and remain blissfully unaware of a single thing that goes on inside. TIFF “still has a world-class brand,” said Barry Avrich, a filmmaker and former board member, “but it’s going to take some fresh vision from retail, consumer programming and marketing experts, given how the lines have become intensely blurred when it comes to how people watch film. They will have to experiment with programming to find the right blend of function and relevance.”
~ Globe & Mail Epic On State of Toronto Int’l (paywalled)

“I’m 87 years old… I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive… The only fear I have is how long consciousness is gonna hang on after my body goes. I just hope there’s nothing. Like there was before I was born. I’m not really into religion, they’re all macrocosms of the ego. When man began to think he was a separate person with a separate soul, it created a violent situation.

“The void, the concept of nothingness, is terrifying to most people on the planet. And I get anxiety attacks myself. I know the fear of that void. You have to learn to die before you die. You give up, surrender to the void, to nothingness.

“Anybody else you’ve interviewed bring these things up? Hang on, I gotta take this call… Hey, brother. That’s great, man. Yeah, I’m being interviewed… We’re talking about nothing. I’ve got him well-steeped in nothing right now. He’s stopped asking questions.”
~ Harry Dean Stanton