It's a pretty dull weekend for new wide releases at movie theaters, unless you've really been waiting for children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day to be expanded to feature length. There's yet another Dracula movie, and The Judge, which was roundly jeered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
So why not wander off the beaten path a bit? Here are five movie choices — two brand new and three you might have missed — that are worth your time.
Whiplash: Toxic masculinity and drum machines
Director and screenwriter Damien Chazelle's Whiplash takes a story you've seen before — the sensitive young man who just needs guidance from an older mentor to become all that he can be — then places it in an unfamiliar setting and pushes it to its logical extreme. Its focused nature and close-up character studies denote it as an American independent film, but make no mistake — it's just a bit of a thrill ride as well.
In classic cinema terms, Whiplash is a two-hander, a film that primarily focuses on the relationship between two characters, usually men. (Romantic comedies, it would seem, don't get to be two-handers.) Andrew (Miles Teller) is a freshman at a prestigious music conservatory who wants only to be the greatest jazz drummer in the world. In order to accomplish this goal, he falls under the tutelage of Terence Fletcher (the great character actor J.K. Simmons), who pushes and pushes and pushes until Andrew can be pushed no more. And then Fletcher gives him a mighty shove.
At the center of Whiplash is the notion that perhaps true greatness requires a kind of sadism, that to turn yourself into a great artist or athlete or musician requires shutting out the rest of the world and giving yourself over to the process of honing your talent to a fine point. What's less clear is whether Chazelle thinks this is a good or bad thing.
The story is fundamentally tragic — Andrew loses pretty much everything as Fletcher relentlessly pushes him — but it's also interspersed with moments of triumph. It has its own version of the "big game," with the built-in drama of whether Andrew will succeed on the biggest stage of them all, but it also possesses a character-based climax that can be read any number of ways. (You will almost certainly debate this one after the movie's over.)
Ultimately, what's best about Whiplash is the way that it at once interrogates toxic masculinity, while also understanding how its allure can be so potent for damaged young men who simply want to make themselves into something worth noticing. Simmons has rarely been better, pacing the screen and fuming, and Chazelle films him often in extreme close-up, so he blots out everything else around him. He is at once man and monument, and all Andrew can see on his immediate field of vision. Chazelle elicits good performances from the rest of his ensemble, and even if the film is almost exclusively about men, it provides a useful window into a kind of highly masculine mentor-mentee relationship that quickly curdles.
Ultimately, Whiplash wants to celebrate the beauty of great art, while also understanding that the cost of attaining it sometimes requires turning off every part of yourself that's human and becoming a machine. Is that tragedy or triumph? Maybe it's both. Maybe it's neither.
Whiplash opens in New York and Los Angeles this weekend. It will be released in other cities beginning next week.
The Overnighters: Lost in America
Documentarian Jesse Moss's new film, The Overnighters, is one of the most powerful movies you'll see this year. It's also like being punched in the gut, over and over again. Moss displays a rare breed of patience as he follows around his characters, waiting for the fraught situation they've placed themselves in to boil over, and when it does, he's somehow there to watch as everything slides toward disaster.
But he's also one of the few filmmakers chronicling a current American reality, out in the middle of nowhere. Williston, ND, is a boomtown, its population exploding thanks to an oil boom boosted by the use of fracking. But where other films have examined the environmental toll of fracking, Moss is far more interested in the way it has turned Williston into a town divided against itself — and especially against the many (mostly men) who are moving there from all over the country, looking for decent wages and a good job. Not all of them will find it, and that will leave many of them homeless, in the middle of nowhere.
At the center of Overnighters is pastor Jay Reinke, a man who believes that Christian charity requires him to open his heart, his church, and ultimately his home to the men who keep streaming into Williston, letting many of them sleep on the church's floor or in their cars in its parking lot. What's fascinating is the way that Moss turns Reinke's quest into something that could either be a massive success or a huge failure in nearly every scene. What's even more fascinating is the way the film investigates how resistant Williston is to the notion of what Reinke is doing, and how prejudiced the townspeople are against essentially anyone who moves there from far away, no matter their race or creed.
Of course, in some cases, they have reason to be. Many who come to Williston are those who can't get work elsewhere — which includes a number of convicted felons and sex offenders. Reinke believes it's not his place to judge, that the men can live in his church so long as they abide by its rules. Others in the town are less welcoming.
Moss turns the endless open spaces around Williston into a kind of empty canvas filled with possibility. And he uses that tension perfectly throughout the film, as it attains a kind of inevitable, tragic weight. Reinke believes in understanding, in judge not, lest ye be judged. And the people of Williston probably say they do, too. But it's one thing to say such a thing, and it's another to actually live it. In its open skies and quiet pauses, The Overnighters explores that gap devastatingly well.
The Overnighters opens in New York this weekend. It will play in other cities throughout the fall.
Three in wide release
Not in New York or LA? That's fine, because there are three very good films in general release you might not have caught up with yet.
If you're looking for something with a scary movie bent, consider the thriller The Guest. It's not exactly a scream-a-minute film, but it boasts a great performance by Dan Stevens (yes, of Downton Abbey fame) and a premise that's irresistible. The family of a dead soldier welcomes his best friend from combat into their home, thinking him a very nice young man. Only then, people start dying around their little town. In some ways, The Guest plays as the overtly nasty flipside to The Overnighters, suspicion and dread running through it in equal course, and it boasts lively direction from Adam Wingard and a great script by Simon Barrett, the team behind You're Next.
Or maybe you're looking for something to take in with your kids. In that case, consider The Boxtrolls, the latest from stop-motion animation studio Laika, which also made Coraline and ParaNorman, both excellent riffs on the idea that most kids will enjoy some gently spooky scares. Concerning a society of trolls that has been raising an orphaned human boy, the film features your standard humans-vs.-monsters story, only it places us on the side of the so-called monsters, allowing for some lovely lessons in tolerance and never prejudging others. It's also got a terrific voice cast (including Ben Kingsley) and a troll city you may want to turn into a diorama in your own home.
Finally, if you haven't seen Gone Girl yet and are so inclined, that's definitely worth your time. It's not for everyone, but if you like it, you'll really like it. And even if you don't, you'll have something to argue about on the way home.
All three of these films are playing throughout the country right now.