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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“I have a license to carry in New York. Can you believe that? Nobody knows that, [Applause] somebody attacks, somebody attacks me, oh, they’re gonna be shot. Can you imagine? Somebody says, oh, it is Trump, he’s easy pickings what do you say? Right? Oh, boy. What was the famous movie? No. Remember, no remember where he went around and he sort of after his wife was hurt so badly and kill. What?  I — Honestly, Yeah, right, it’s true, but you have many of them. Famous movie. Somebody. You have many of them. Charles Bronson right the late great Charles Bronson name of the movie come on.  , remember that? Ah, we’re gonna cut you up, sir, we’re gonna cut you up, uh-huh.

Bing!

One of the great movies. Charles Bronson, great, Charles Bronson. Great movies. Today you can’t make that movie because it’s not politically correct, right? It’s not politically correct. But could you imagine with Trump? Somebody says, oh, all these big monsters aren’t around he’s easy pickings and then shoot.”
~ Donald Trump

“The scene opens the new movie. It was something Ridley Scott told me a long time ago, when I was on my eighth draft of Blade Runner. He thinks it’s my fault, which it probably is, but it’s also his fault, because he kept coming up with new ideas. This time, he said to me, “What did Deckard do before he was doing this?” I said, “He was doing what he was doing, but not on such a high level. He was retiring androids that weren’t quite like Nexus Sixes, like Nexus Fives, kind of dumb androids.” He said, “So, why don’t we start the movie like that?” He always had a new beginning he wanted to try. Let’s start it on a train, let’s start it on a plane. Let’s start in the snow. Let’s start in the desert. I was writing all that. He said, “What if Deckard is retiring an old version of Nexus?” Right away I was feeling him, like fate, and he said, “There’s a cabin, with soup bubbling on the stove …” When he said soup boiling on the stove, I said, “Don’t say any more! Let me get home.” I wrote a scene that night. Just three or four pages. Deckard retires this not-very-bright droid, and you feel sorry for him. It’s like Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men. It’s just those two guys, with Deckard as the George character and the droid as the Lennie, and Deckard doesn’t want to do it. But then the droid gets mad, and then Deckard has to do it. The audience thinks he killed someone—he reaches into the guy’s mouth and pulls off his whole jaw and we see it says made by tyrell industries or whatever. I wrote that scene and took it to Ridley. I was proud of it. I remember standing and watching him read the whole thing. He loved it, but no. There are a lot of scenes that didn’t get in, but I never forgot that one. I wrote it as the beginning to this new short story called “The Shape of the Final Dog.” I’d always wanted to have a dog that wasn’t real, so I wrote one into the scene at the cabin. After Deckard retires the droid, he’s getting ready to take off and he wants the dog to come with him. The dog rolls over and keeps barking with his mouth closed. The dog’s an android dog. I thought, If there’s ever a new Blade Runner, we’ll have to use this scene. Three weeks go by, and I’m working on the story and it’s ready to hand in. The phone rings. Someone with a posh English accent says, “Would you be available in ten minutes for a call with Ridley Scott?” These people are so important they don’t waste their time on voicemail. I said, “I’ll be here.” Ten minutes go by and Ridley calls. “Hampton! Did you know, I think we’ve got it together to do Blade Runner a second time?” I said, “You finally got so hard up you’re calling me.” I knew they’d been looking for a year. People had been telling me, “You’ve got to call Ridley,” but I was a little chagrined or embarrassed. I thought, He’ll call me if he wants. Ridley said, “We’re interested in whether you have any ideas.” I said, “Funny you should ask that question. Let me read you a paragraph.” I walk over there with the phone and I read him the opening paragraph. And he says, “Fuck me. Can you come to London tomorrow?”
~ Hampton Fancher