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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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin