Tag Archives: C

WHAT IF

The real question about this romcom, yet another about a couple obviously destined to fall in love who instead spend most of the running-time trying to be just friends, is: what if the attractive cast had been handed a good script? Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan are pleasant, attractive young people and work hard to give the movie a spark—as does the interesting supporting cast. But the basic plot is brainless, and barely a sentence of the dialogue sounds as though it might actually ever be spoken by a human being—it’s just too cute and clever by half, the sort of stuff that tumbles from the fingers of writers weaned on sitcoms. It’s also strangely raunchy—why all the references to excrement, for example, though they’re all sanitized by referring to it naughtily as “poop” or smugly as “feces”? Whatever word is used, they all point to a poverty of imagination on the part of scripter Elan Mastai (adapting a play called “Toothpaste and Cigars” by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi). (A similar lack of courage is shown by the distributor’s decision to change the title from “The F Word,” under which it was screened at the Toronto Film Festival. “F” for “Friends,” get it?)

We first encounter Wallace (Radcliffe) clambering atop the roof of the Toronto house where he lives with his sister (Jemima Rooper) and her young son Felix (Lucius Hoyos). Turning on his cellphone, the sad-sack fellow listens again to the message left more than a year earlier by the girlfriend who cheated on him, which led him to drop out of the med school they both attended. (The gag is an updating of one from Arthur Hiller’s “The Lonely Guy,” where it was fresh and better used.) Since then he’s eked out a kind of living writing instructional manuals. But at a party thrown by his old college roommate (and still best friend) Allan (Adam Driver), the pathetic fellow meets Allan’s cousin Chantry (Kazan), with whom he has an instant rapport. Wallace thinks it might evolve into something more, but finds out that Chantry, a successful animator whose drawings occasionally float across the screen to give the otherwise earthbound picture some visual pizzazz, has a happy homelife with her long-time boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall), who’s in the Canadian diplomatic service.

But that doesn’t stop Wallace and Chantry from developing a friendship that both intend to remain strictly platonic. Of course it’s a struggle for them both, since their attraction is clearly getting serious despite the efforts of both to keep it in check. We watch with increasing dismay as the script repeatedly replays scenes of Wallace desperately trying to restrain himself and Chantry questioning her commitment to Ben after he takes a long-term assignment in Europe and she’s offered a promotion that will take her to Asia. Matters certainly aren’t helped by intervention from fast-talking Allan and his high-spirited girlfriend (later wife) Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) and Chantry’s libidinous sister Dalia (Megan Park). The fact that Wallace, whose parents cheated on one another, has a phobia about becoming the third part of a romantic triangle and following in their footsteps is, moreover, matched by Chantry’s horror at the idea that he’s been manipulating her to nudge along a break-up with Ben so that he can be with her. Naturally everything works out in the end.

If all this sounds trite and formulaic, that’s because it is. The makers try to camouflage things with loads of self-consciously “cool” dialogue, and the cast—especially Radcliffe—deliver it at a rapid-fire clip that director Michael Dowse apparently intends to recall the spitfire approach of forties screwball comedy, but the lines are mostly uninspired and the swift pace feels more desperate than enlivening. That doesn’t mean that Radcliffe and Kazan don’t remain likable presences. The “Harry Potter” kid has been proving that there’s life after Hogwarts for him for some time now, and shows that he can handle romantic leading man status, even in inferior material. Kazan looks a bit wan compared to her turn in “Ruby Sparks,” which she had the benefit of writing herself (as well as playing against her real-life significant other Paul Dano, who always brings out the best in his co-stars), but she remains an ingratiating presence. The supporting players are good as well, with Driver showing particular promise as Wallace’s down-to-earth pal, even if he’s stuck with some of the most implausible lines. At the other end of the spectrum is Spall, who fails to find just the right balance between charm and oiliness.

Rogier Stoffers’ cinematography presents Toronto as a nice setting for the picture—it’s a special pleasure to see the city playing itself rather than standing in for New York or another US city. The other technical credits are solid down the line.

In fact, “What If” has so many good ingredients that it’s sad to see it wind up as unappetizing as the “Fool’s Gold” sandwich it repeatedly brings up in connection with Elvis Presley’s death. The formulaic premise and self-indulgent writing defeat the best efforts of a likable cast.

INTO THE STORM

“Suds in the Cyclone” might be a better title for this old-fashioned disaster movie, a “Twister” on steroids that employs massive amounts of CGI imagery to depict the destructive impact of a bevy of tornadoes on the fictional city of Silverton while ladling on soap opera clichés to add a “human” touch. The bulk of the movie consists of the visual effects that show buildings, cars, planes being shattered and swallowed up in the funnels as electrical lines pop and the sound engineers pour on the wind and thunder. But of course a few human beings, or what passes for them in movies like this, are necessary, though in this case they’re played not by the often over-the-hill stars that populated the pictures Irwin Allen used to make but actors who at best you might dimly recall from their previous work.

A good many of the tissue-paper-thin characters are storm chasers led by Pete (Matt Walsh), a cynical veteran who tools around in a self-designed tank-like vehicle he calls Titan, equipped not only with state-of-the-art cameras but grappling hooks that can go deep into the ground to provide ballast against high winds. Since he’s missed out on the action of late, he’s reluctantly accepted the aid of pretty meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), who tracks storms via computer data rather than the instinct Pete prefers to depend on. They have helpers in blasé veteran driver Daryl (Arlen Escarpeta) and his buddy, nervous novice cameraman Jacob (Jeremy Sumpter), as well as a guy named Lucas (Lee Whittaker), who’s absent for much of the picture but shows up in the final reels to serve as another potential victim.

There are also locals, of course, most notably widower Gary Morris (Richard Armitage), the Assistant Principal at the town’s high school, where his sons Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress) are compiling the senior class video diary and preparing to shoot the outdoor graduation ceremony. But Donnie will hand all the duties over to Trey in order to accompany pretty classmate Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam-Cary), for whom he’s long harbored a secret crush, to a deserted factory to get some footage for an essay she’s submitting to colleges. The only other Silverton residents of note are Donk (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (Jon Reep), a couple of local yokels who risk life and limb in crazy stunts to get shots of the twisters on their cameraphones.

This line-up should let you predict fairly accurately what’s going to happen. Some of the characters will perish and others survive. Some will be imperiled while others will act courageously to rescue them, occasionally sacrificing themselves in the process. And Donk and Reevis will show up periodically to do their Two Stooges shtick and provide low-grade comic relief. Surrounding the main cast are lesser folk who will run in screaming packs away from the storms or be given a moment or two to register as types—the nerd, the jock, the officious principal, the cantankerous neighbor, etc. It’s well-nigh impossible to care much about any of these people despite strenuous script efforts to get you to (by harping on the difficulty Gary’s had showing affection for his boys after his wife’s death, or on Allison’s concern about being separated from her little daughter), because they’re sketchily written and played without particular distinction by a cast of relative unknowns—though some viewers will recognize Kress and Sumpter from their juvenile roles, or Armitage from his work in “The Hobbit,” or Callies from “The Walking Dead,” or comedian Walsh from “Veep.”

But in a picture like this it’s the destructive effects, not the people, that really matter, and they’re technically better than you might expect, though obviously computer-generated. The integration of live-action footage into the background visuals is less convincing: the sight of the characters running around while huge hunks of debris are swirling around them strains credulity, and one scene obviously designed as a “money shot”—in which a character is dragged in flames into a funnel that’s caught on fire—is particularly poorly done. Some problems also arise from the decision to frame the entire narrative in terms of a “found footage” compilation, since it’s difficult to believe that much of what we’re shown could have been shot during such a calamity, especially since cinematographer Brian Pearson has happily eschewed the use of the hand-held shaky-cam technique in favor of shots that are fairly stable and secure and editor Eric A. Sears has stitched them together quite crisply, resulting in a mercifully brief 89-minute running-time. Brian Tyler’s score sounds fine, when one can hear it over the din of the sound effects.

“Into the Storm” doesn’t carry the wallop that “Twister” did in 1996, simply because CGI has gotten so pervasive by now that viewers are blasé about the visual wizardry. And despite the absurdity of the plot the picture is painfully earnest, except for the tedious redneck shenanigans of Donk and Reeve. But while one might regret that there are no sharks in the whirlwinds, the movie will probably satisfy those looking for a cinematic roller-coaster ride that requires no thought or emotional investment.