How is greatness made? Hard work and dedication, sure, but can truly great figures of history get there through normal circumstances or is there a deeper pain that must be confronted and overcome? Is it worth pushing these figures away from the possibility of a normal life in order to serve a higher calling? The new music-based film Whiplash, one of this year’s very best, deals with these concepts with brutal honesty and feverish intensity. It sometimes feels like a companion piece to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which also dealt with the darker side of ambition and the potential perils of perfectionism.
Miles Teller, one of the best young actors working today, plays Andrew Neiman, a freshman jazz drummer who is just starting out at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music. After drumming in a practice room late one evening, he is discovered by the conductor of the school’s lead jazz band Terence Fletcher, played with merciless tenacity by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher sees potential in Andrew and invites him to play in his group but after a verbally abusive confrontation with Andrew on his first sit-in, it’s clear that Fletcher’s teaching tactics will push him further than he’s gone before.
It’s hard to overstate just how good Teller and Simmons are here. Both do so much to defy the typical teacher-student role conventions seen in lesser films and instead create believable characters that are morally complex and psychologically compelling throughout. Fletcher is generally monstrous and Andrew is often sympathetic, if by necessity, but each character is given a fair trial and first-time director Damien Chazelle doesn’t give us an easy sense on which character is right or wrong in what they’re doing. He gives us the opportunity of perspective and allows us to make up our own minds; a refreshing concept.
Another refreshing aspect of this movie is the way it doesn’t bind itself to traditional Hollywood storytelling methods. There are subplots involving Andrew’s caring father and also his temporary girlfriend that serve the story purposefully but the majority of the run time is tightly focused on the relationship between these two complicated characters. It also doesn’t shy away from mental and physical anguish associated with being the best in a highly competitive field. There are no convenient montages of steady progression; we see all of the tears, sweat and yes, blood, along the way.
Chazelle uses these tortuous settings to create a relentlessly tense and downright dangerous atmosphere that had me pinned down from beginning to end. There’s an anxious, propulsive energy to Whiplash that gives it a bracingly unpredictable quality, especially leading up to and including the film’s spellbinding climax which further showcases Teller’s amazing abilities behind the drum set. Frankly, I’ve never seen a movie that was this singularly focused on music performance and as a musician, I was thrilled and delighted to find a film that dealt with the subject passionately and intelligently.
Those who like their movie franchises unnecessarily drawn out and bloated, fear not: the final chapter of The Hobbit series is upon us at last and I fear that not even the most staunch Tolkien devotees will find much to like in the joyless obligation that is The Battle of the Five Armies. The whimsy and wonder of the previous entries has been replaced with stilted dialogue and endless barrages of computer generated chaos. In fact, this film was previously subtitled There and Back Again but unfortunately, The Battle of the Five Armies turns out to be a more fitting title after all, as the majority of the run time is dedicated to the titular conflict.
We pick back up right where the previous movie left off, with Smaug on his way to terrorize the small town of Esgaroth as Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman, and the Dwarves look on from the Lonely Mountain. After the great dragon is vanquished by Bard, played by Luke Evans, the fate of the vast treasure at Erebor becomes uncertain. Led by the fearless Thorin, played by Richard Armitage, the Dwarves defend their treasure against the Middle Earth armies of men, Elves and Orcs (frankly, I couldn’t tell you after seeing the movie who the Fifth Army is).
From the Helm’s Deep battle in The Two Towers to the battle at Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King, large scale showdowns were an integral part of the success of the Lord of the Rings franchise and they used to be one of director Peter Jackson’s fortes. Some of the sequences in this film feel like a parody of Peter Jackson’s directing style, whether its characters taking long pauses to speak amongst hundreds of characters fighting around them or the hilarious over abundance of Orc beheadings that used to be treated as a novelty in the LotR series but is literally done to death in Five Armies.
When the screen isn’t filled wall to wall with incoherent and increasingly implausible action, we’re treated to meaningless subplots that crop up sporadically throughout. The most noxious are those involving an Elf-Dwarf romance that inspires some amazingly mawkish lines of dialogue like “he is my king but he does not command my heart.” This could possibly be forgiven if the acting was worthwhile but it consistently appears as though the majority of the actors are bored to reprise these roles. Least compelling among these actors is Lee Pace, who has proven again to be a colossal bore in his antagonistic film roles after his charming lead part on ABC’s Pushing Daisies.
While plodding through its comparatively gracious runtime of 144 minutes, there’s an unshakable sense of looming déjà vu as one watches this entry in the Hobbit series. It’s the feeling that everything we’re seeing has been done better before and even by the same production team, which is unfortunately the case here more often than not. I personally can’t wait for the day when all the Hobbit films are available on Blu-Ray and someone clever on the internet condenses the three into one cohesive piece of filmmaking. Until then, I can’t suggest that even diehard fans go out to see this thud of a conclusion.
After a couple near misses in the director’s chair, Chris Rock returns with his third feature Top Five, which isn’t without its drawbacks but ultimately comes across as Rock’s most honest film to date. The feel and premise recall the recently released Birdman, which both feature actors reflecting on their careers and striving to do more ambitious work in order for their fans and critics to take them more seriously. While the comedy here is decidedly more broad, both films know how to use comedy as a means of catharsis for their lead characters.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a washed-up comedian turned actor who threw away a successful stand-up career for a hit buddy cop franchise called “Hammy the Bear”, which has him running around in a bear suit and shouting catch phrases like “It’s Hammy Time!” As a backlash against the character, he chooses to star in an award-baiting, Haitian revolution movie called “Uprize” in hopes of winning back the critical admiration that he squandered with the “Hammy” series. While back home in New York to tirelessly promote the film, he is followed and questioned by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown, played with winning charm by Rosario Dawson.
Brown starts with softball questions about Allen’s career and his upcoming celebrity wedding but the questions grow more personal as the day goes on. It turns out that they both have more in common than they think and soon, an easy and likable chemistry forms between the two. Their scenes together make up the best stretches in the movie, whose New York street walk-and-talk style feel like Rock’s version of a Woody Allen movie. The dialogue, also written by Rock, covers Rock’s usual favorite topics of race and relationships but it aims to penetrate deeper into how these characters think and feel.
While I don’t doubt Rock’s merits as an actor or a writer, he still has room to develop as a director. This film has a start-stop, jerky rhythm to it, which is caused by sporadic flashback sequences that are very hit-or-miss on the whole. Some of those scenes just go on for too long, like a flashback to Houston in 2003 when Allen is recounting a “rock bottom” affair that is neither as comedically appealing or dramatically revealing as Rock thinks it is. Others work quite well, including an unexpected rapper’s hilarious rendition of “Smile” while he and Allen are staying the night in jail.
In many ways, Top Five also reminded me of the movie Funny People with Adam Sandler, who is among one of the film’s numerous cameos. Both star comedians who started in stand-up comedy, strayed away to advance their careers but yearn to return to the stage once again. There’s an excitement to performing stand-up that Rock captures well here in the scene after Allen returns to the Comedy Cellar for the first time in years. Likewise, both films also give way to melodramatic turns and meandering subplots but Top Five has enough to recommend to fans of show biz comedies and especially to fans of Chris Rock.
Documentaries can serve many roles: they can inform, they can influence and yes, they can bore. But some, like genre greats Hoop Dreams and Capturing the Friedmans, take a seed of an idea and pursue it with the dramatic precision of a fictional feature film. The result is an exquisite experience: watching a true story that feels like it’s being created before our eyes. That’s how I felt while watching The Overnighters, which I found to be one of the most compelling and transfixing documentaries that I’ve seen all year
The movie’s title refers to a program started by Pastor Jay Reinke at his church in Williston, North Dakota, which allows men who are effectively homeless to find shelter as they hope to take advantage of the rampant growth in the area’s fracking jobs. While this is clearly an overwhelming act of charity, Reinke’s plan soon comes under fire from a community whose recent population spike has also seen an increase in the number of felons and criminals residing in the small North Dakota town. When details of an Overnighter’s criminal past come to light, Reinke finds himself in a very public act of moral tug-of-war that threatens to erode his career and his family’s trust.
Even if you take the weighty and worthwhile topics of economic inequality and the nature of charity away from The Overnighters, you would still be left with a fascinating and deeply personal character study. Reinke is compelling for the same reason the main character in a fictional drama would be: we root for him and yet we can’t be entirely sure of his motivations. He consistently refers to himself as a deeply flawed man when confiding in the men that he shelters, although he generally comes off as a thoughtful, charismatic and generally kind person. “It’s easy to become a facade,” he states at the film’s opening, and we don’t fully learn the weight of what he means until the concluding moments of the story.
The entire structure of The Overnighters is similarly purposeful, which can be attributed to the keen eyes and ears of director Jesse Moss. In interviews, Moss has revealed that he originally went to Williston to capture the fracking story and how it affected the community but he shifted his story’s focus when learning of Pastor Reinke and his mission. This spontaneous shift in storytelling makes Moss’ film even more admirable, especially considering that Reinke’s culminating moment in the movie was almost entirely unplanned by the filmmaker.
I also admired Moss’ level headed approach to this material. This is a documentary potentially ripe for loads of political posturing but he gives each character room to express their thoughts and feelings freely instead of editing together a series of talking head interviews to hammer home a point. The Overnighters often plays like a parable for the cynical notion that “no good deed goes unpunished” but in Reinke’s case, the unravelling of that good deed reveals universal truths about the resiliency of the human spirit.
Most modern horror films don’t have as much patience or trust in their audience’s intelligence as The Babadook does. While most work on a surface level that mainly involve knee-jerk reactions and amped up music cues, there is a select class of films like this one that work on an intimate psychological level of dread and discomfort. For those reasons, among others, it stands out as one of the best horror movies of the past few years and certainly the most unique that I’ve seen this year.
Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a struggling widow and mother of a troubled seven-year-old named Samuel, played by Noah Wiseman. Through an early flashback, we find that Amelia’s husband Oskar, played by Benjamin Winspear, passed away the night of Samuel’s birth as he was rushing to drive Amelia to the emergency room. It’s made clear that the seven years of single parenthood haven’t been easy on either Amelia or Samuel and when a macabre pop-up book titled “Mister Babadook” begins appearing around the house, it unleashes the titular supernatural force that cruelly threatens to rob them of their sanity and their lives.
While the creature is only seen briefly during its moments in the film, its ominous silhouette alone creates a lasting impression and when seen in full, the Babadook reminded me most of a twisted combination of Nosferatu and Jack the Ripper. This archaic aesthetic is fitting, as the lighting and staging in the most climatic scenes feels like a throwback to silent era films. Even the majority of the effects are practical as opposed to computer generated, which lends a more realistic and grounded approach to scenes that may have otherwise come off as cheap or lazy.
Grounded is also a good word to use when describing the storytelling as well, which does involve supernatural elements like ghosts and monsters but is rich with subtext on human issues like the persistence of grief and the hardships of single parenthood. Amelia’s feelings of resentment and exhaustion towards Samuel exist long before the Babadook arrives in their home and director Jennifer Kent does a great job at materializing these impulses in a way that feels psychologically convincing and dramatically satisfying. While some scenes may be a bit too on-the-nose when tying the allegorical elements together, it’s hard to fault a debut film that’s striving to push an entire genre into more narratively complex territory.
It’s difficult, too, to understate the importance of Essie Davis’ performance to the film’s success. She’s a marvel to watch, conveying depths of anguish and rage underneath the guise of a mother trying to put on her best face for her child. When moments of brutal honesty do arrive, Davis delivers them with a frightening amount of conviction. She, along with director Jennifer Kent, have created a very special scare-fest that I hope will haunt audiences for years to come.