Mini Reviews (August 2014)
Salvage, When the Game Stands Tall, Into the Storm, The One I Love, Let's Be Cops, If I Stay
Salvage (August 9/14)
Though it opens with a fair amount of promise, Salvage ultimately establishes itself as yet another bottom-of-the-barrel low-budget horror effort that just doesn't have enough story to fill a feature-length running time. Salvage follows Lauren Currie Lewis' Claire Parker as she falls into the clutches of a maniacal killer named Duke (Chris Ferry), with the repetitive storyline detailing the protagonist's efforts at escaping a Groundhog Day-like loop in which she's murdered again and again. There's little doubt that Salvage fares best in its opening scenes, as filmmakers Jeff and Josh Crook have infused this stretch with a suspenseful and stylish feel that belies an obvious lack of production values - which does ensure that it is, at the outset, fairly easy to overlook the less-than-polished atmosphere and amateurish performances. It becomes clear, however, that the Crook siblings are unable to sustain the thin setup over the course of an 80 minute running time, with the meandering narrative growing especially problematic once the movie progresses into its tedious second half - as the focus is placed almost exclusively on Claire's interminable attempts at both escaping her pursuer and figuring out just what's going on. There are a few individually compelling moments sprinkled through this portion of the proceedings, admittedly, but for the most part Salvage just becomes a complete chore to sit through - with the anticlimactic finish confirming the film's place as an ambitious yet wholly misguided horror effort.
When the Game Stands Tall (August 21/14)
A strong contender for the worst football movie ever made, When the Game Stands Tall details the trials and tribulations of a high-school football team and their efforts to maintain a record-breaking winning streak. Filmmaker Thomas Carter, working from a script by Scott Marshall Smith, launches directly into the movie's football-obsessed atmosphere with an almost total disregard for narrative or character development, which ensures that When the Game Stands Tall alienates (and frustrates) the viewer right from the word go - with the hopelessly uninvolving, underwhelming vibe compounded by a total lack of compelling protagonists. (This extends even to Jim Caviezel's turn as the aforementioned team's coach, as the actor delivers a stiff, far-from-charismatic performance that's a far cry from his typically engaging persona.) Carter's surface-level approach ensures that one's efforts at building up any interest in or sympathy for the characters' ongoing exploits fall flat, with, for example, the sudden death of one player unable to make anything even resembling an emotional impact (ie the viewer has learned so little about this person that it's impossible to wholeheartedly care when he's murdered). The preponderance of head-scratching football sequences only perpetuates the movie's hands-off feel, and it goes without saying, too, that the film's climactic big game, which arrives about a half hour after what seems to be the big game, is as thunderously boring and mind-numbingly tedious as one could possibly imagine. It's finally impossible to regard When the Game Stands Tall as anything less than a total, colossal failure, with the movie standing in sharp contrast to such legitimately entertaining football flicks as Rudy and Remember the Titans.
Into the Storm (August 30/14)
Into the Storm details the chaos that ensues after a series of increasingly deadly tornadoes hit a small community, with the calamity affecting a ragtag crew of storm chasers and several teachers and students from a local high school. Filmmaker Steven Quale employs a found-footage structure here that's ultimately not as disastrous as one might've feared, as the director, for the most part, does a superb job of working around the limitations of the genre (ie there's a refreshing lack of shaky camerawork at play, as cameras are bolted onto fixed objects, steadicam-like devices are used, etc). And although the movie's various characters remain one-dimensional virtually from beginning to end, Into the Storm's myriad of action sequences boast an exciting, visceral feel that does, in the end, compensate for the otherwise unimpressive atmosphere (ie unlike many current summer blockbusters, Into the Storm manages to inspire awe with its larger-than-life set pieces). It's worth noting, too, that Quale, working from a screenplay by John Swetnam, delivers on the promise of the setup several times over, as the movie contains a number of sequences and images that one would expect and hope for out of such a premise. (There is, for example, an absolutely breathtaking shot of a character being sucked up into a twister.) By the time the engrossing climax rolls around, Into the Storm has certainly established itself as a better-than-expected summertime diversion - with the movie, despite its lack of stars and relatively low budget, managing to outshine most of its effects-heavy brethren.
The One I Love (August 30/14)
An unusual relationship drama, The One I Love follows married couple Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) as they agree to work on their crumbling relationship by traveling to a weekend retreat - with the journey taking a weird, inexplicable turn almost immediately. Prior to that point, however, The One I Love comes off as a better-than-average low-budget indie - as the movie, confidently directed by Charlie McDowell, boasts a pair of well-developed, thoroughly compelling characters at its center. (It doesn't hurt, either, that both Duplass and Moss are superb in their respective roles.) The familiar atmosphere persists until around the 15 minute mark, after which point scripter Justin Lader shakes things up by introducing an element of head-scratching mystery - with the appealingly baffling nature of this plot twist injecting the proceedings with a jolt of unexpected (and almost palpable) electricity. From there, The One I Love is concerned primarily with Ethan and Sophie's attempts at both figuring out what's going on and, eventually, dealing with the decidedly out-of-this-world situation - which does ensure that the film, in its midsection, adopts a regrettably repetitive and padded-out feel. Furthering the progressively less-than-engrossing vibe is McDowell's decision to kind of (but not really) explain what's going on, with the viewer's ongoing confusion making it more and more difficult to wholeheartedly care about the outcome of all this (ie rather than partially revealing what's going on, Lader should've just left the details of the movie's central conceit completely unexplained). Still, The One I Love does have its strong points, including a couple of fantastic lead performances, which does earn it a very minor recommendation.
Let's Be Cops (August 31/14)
Rarely as fun as one might've hoped, Let's Be Cops follows best friends Ryan (Jake Johnson) and Justin (Damon Wayans Jr) as they arrive at a costume party dressed as police officers and subsequently keep the uniforms on after discovering the power that comes with law enforcement. It's an appealing premise that's employed to pervasively underwhelming effect by filmmaker Luke Greenfield, as the director, working from a script cowritten with Nicholas Thomas, has infused Let's Be Cops with a lazy and palpably generic vibe that's compounded by an emphasis on eye-rollingly hackneyed elements (eg Ryan is disrespected by a group of obnoxious kids, Justin is ignored by his callous boss, etc). It's clear, too, that the hands-off atmosphere is perpetuated by Johnson and Wayans Jr's aggressively over-the-top work here, as the two actors, normally quite personable and charming, imbue their respective characters with a larger-than-life feel that grows more and more off-putting as time progresses (ie Ryan and Jake feel more like one-dimensional caricatures than characters). And while some of the early bits involving the protagonists' cop-related shenanigans are amusing, Let's Be Cops suffers from a second hour devoted almost entirely to Ryan and Jake's almost extraordinarily tedious efforts at solving a real-life crime - with the film sluggishly moving through one tired, hackneyed sequence after another. There's little doubt, finally, that Let's Be Cops squanders its seemingly foolproof setup to a rather disappointing degree, which is too bad, certainly, given the tremendous chemistry between the movie's two stars.
If I Stay (August 31/14)
Based on a book by Gayle Forman, If I Stay follows teen cellist Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) as she and her family are the victims of a deadly car crash - with the movie detailing Mia's ghostly efforts at deciding whether or not she should fight for her life. For the most part, If I Stay boasts the feel of a fairly typical teen romance - as filmmaker R.J. Cutler stresses Mia's growing bond with a hunky (and popular) classmate named Adam (Jamie Blackley). The charisma of and chemistry between the two leads goes a long way towards perpetuating the movie's watchable atmosphere, with Moretz and Blackley's strong work here perpetuated by the efforts of a strong supporting cast that includes Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard, and Stacy Keach. (The latter, cast as Mia's grandfather, is responsible for many of the film's more overtly affecting moments.) And although the whole haunting-her-own-life thing is, initially, rather underwhelming (ie it almost feels like an afterthought), this aspect of the narrative eventually adopts heartfelt qualities that become increasingly difficult to resist (particularly as the lives of Mia's family members hang in the balance). It's clear, however, that If I Stay suffers from an overlong running time that results in a palpably padded-out midsection, with the hospital scenes remaining a highlight, admittedly, and yet one eventually grows tired of the heavy emphasis on the on-again-off-again coupling between Mia and Adam. The movie benefits from an ending that's far less ambiguous than that of its source material, to be sure, and it's finally clear that If I Stay stands as a decent adaptation that could've been just a little bit better.