Every so often an actor or actress comes along that finds their way into my blind spot – that place in my cinematic field of vision where I know the name and I probably recognize the face, but I just can’t connect the two. It isn’t a reflection on the talent, it’s simply the law of large numbers: I process so much film-related information from the last century that some stars – old and new – get a little lost in the field … that blind spot.
Most recently, that blind spot dweller is actress Chloë Grace Moretz.
The Atlanta-born Moretz has an impressive resumé for a 17-year-old, with numerous high-profile TV episodes (live action and voice work) and three dozen (!) films to her credit, including 2010’s Kick-Ass and Let Me In, and 2011’s Hugo. Given how competitive the world of child acting is, no one has the career she’s already had without doing good work and making smart choices.
Thus my befuddlement over If I Stay, a film that neither showcases her talent nor proves any shrewdness in her (and/or her management team’s) decision-making skills.
The drama, from director R. J. Cutler and based on the YA novel from Gayle Forman, is told along two timelines. One timeline is the tragic day in the life of Mia Hall (Moretz), a gifted teenage cellist and Julliard hopeful. On a fateful snowy day when schools are closed, the family decides to go for a drive because the roads don’t look too bad. An oncoming truck hits black ice on a winding road and crashes into the family head-on, leaving death and serious injury in its wake. Mia’s body is in a coma, but her spirit has an out-of-body experience that allows her witness everything that happens after the accident.
The second timeline is a series of (mostly) linear flashbacks that tell Mia’s story from childhood to current day, with a large portion of the story focused on her cello playing and her young love with Adam (Jamie Blackley), a high school classmate who plays guitar and sings in an up-and-coming Portland punk band.
As Mia relives her past and tries to make sense of her present, her future – her life – hangs in the balance.
I don’t think Moretz will ever find her way back into my blind spot, because it’s hard to forget anyone who is in one of the worst films of the year.
The troubles with If I Stay begin at the film’s foundation: its script. Of course with any film the script is critical, but a film like this, where the tragedy occurs early, requires strong storytelling and character building. We haven’t had a chance to connect with the characters, so we have to be transformed from passive eyewitnesses to tragedy (occurring to a family we just met) to vested members of that family. It never happens.
The flashbacks are stilted and the characters are walking clichés. Rocker parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) breed a classical cellist and make sacrifices when they hear how good their daughter is. A rocker boyfriend can’t be more opposite than the girl he loves but they fight to make it work despite their differences and conflicting career paths. A grandpa (Stacy Keach) seeks personal redemption through his granddaughter because he may have blown it with his son.
Even the hopes of attending Julliard are sullied by a mawkish contrivance that has the school’s yea/nay letter arriving the day of the accident, although after it occurs, of course. You see, the roads aren’t too bad for a family jaunt, but they are bad enough to delay the mail. Other contrived conveniences like this occur throughout.
The direction is no better than the script. Cutler, whose area of expertise up to this point has been documentaries, is simply not up to the task of creating the necessary fictional structure and flow to make the film work. Even if you blame the script for the flaws of the family, lovers, and relationships, Cutler is fully responsible for the film’s two key components: the car crash and the portrayal of Mia’s out-of-body existence.
The execution of the car accident is simply dreadful. This is a PG-13 film, and while that doesn’t mean it needs the maximum bloodshed allowed in a PG-13 film, it shouldn’t look like a driver’s ed safety film, either. Nothing about the incident – and especially its aftermath – is remotely believable.
As for Mia’s spirit-self, she can’t pass through solid objects like doors, and if that’s “the rule” then that’s okay. She never opens her own doors (although she seems to be able to touch solid objects), but Cutler doesn’t take the opportunity to portray her as subtle, either. She never slips through an open door; she dashes at opportunities like a track star being encouraged by her coach. It’s exhausting to watch.
Cutler’s lumbering direction is not helped by his technicians, either. Editor Keith Henderson finds moments in almost every scene to introduce an awkward cut or a clumsy shot selection. Cinematography from John de Borman is far too soft throughout, which actually causes the occasional moment of confusion as to when the story is in flashback versus present time. Even composer Heitor Pereira‘s score fails to capture the right mood at the right time.
All that remains is the acting, which is mostly lifeless. The weak script is no help, but beyond that, there is no chemistry between the parents, the kids, the parents and the kids, or Mia and Adam. Liana Liberato is okay as Kim, Mia’s best friend (but in a limited capacity). As for Moretz, the camera loves her (especially with all of those soft filters), and she has her moments with what she has to work with, but when history writes her tale, this will be a minor, if not unmentioned, entry.
If I Stay is loaded with amateur flaws, and it isn’t a film so much as it is a theatrical release of a made-for-TV After School Special. And even then, there isn’t anything special about it.
The idea exploded 15 years ago with the enormous success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, and reinvigorated itself with 2007’s Paranormal Activity. Since then, it hasn’t looked back. And while horror is the main genre that utilizes this sub-genre to full effect, thrillers, sci-fi movies, and even comedies have exploited the found footage concept.
Every year sees numerous found footage film creations, and 2013 was no exception, highlighted by the excellent sci-fi space thriller, Europa Report. Also released in 2013 was another non-horror found footage film, The Upper Footage. The indie crime thriller, directed by Justin Cole, brings with it more than onscreen drama. It brings some offscreen drama, too.
Four 20-something Children of the One Percent – Blake (the Alpha Male), Taylor (the Alpha Moll), Devon (the Obnoxious One), and Will (the Nice One) – hit the New York City streets (via limo) in search of a good time, fueled by booze and substances of varying affect and street value. After a series of starts and stops, party favors are procured, Devon picks up a girl named Jackie, and the gang takes their limo back to Blake’s high-rise apartment (the one with the devastating view of the city) for a good time over a long night. Will, a vlogger, films the night for posterity.
But Jackie isn’t a seasoned partying veteran, and the voluminous combination of clear liquid and white powder is too much for the newbie. After a violent vomiting episode in Blake’s toilet, Jackie dies. With the camera still rolling, the high society foursome makes poor decision after poor decision when trying to determine what to do next.
The “offscreen drama” that I reference in the open of The Upper Footage pertains to the notion the events in the film were thought to have actually occurred, even beyond the usual “Is this real?” buzz that can surround a found-footage film. News outlets were convinced the footage was real. Entertainment shows featured the footage in televised stories. Young female celebrities of considerable notoriety were thought to have been involved. The film was even protested to the point of being pulled from NYC theaters because people thought a girl REALLY DIED (which would make this a snuff film of sorts). But this “marketing” feat – something that rivals (and in certain aspects surpasses) what The Blair Witch Project achieved – turns out to be the film’s greatest enemy. Without it – without the idea that the events of that evening happened as they were captured on camera – the film is mostly lifeless.
No sooner does it fade in, it stumbles as it labors through six minutes (!!!) of title cards dissolving in and out, presenting a long, at times arduous backstory about footage and extortion and lawsuits and pixelated faces and on and on. The intro has moments of interest, like when the Entertainment Tonight footage rolls and when Quentin Tarantino‘s name is invoked (trust me, it’s not worth explaining), but to sit through hundreds of words – even if the film had turned out to be a masterpiece – is far too much to ask. A more created method filling in the past needs to open the film, not a short story.
Once that sequence ends, what is offered is a tale told in two acts. The first act is nothing more than an edited “you are there” night on the town with the young and privileged. The foursome (with an occasional fifth, Chrissy, who seems to be there only to serve as a punchline for misogynistic barbs about how willing she is to have sex) rides around New York City, talking about nothing even remotely interesting or significant, complaining about having a hard time scoring drugs, and trying to figure out what to do. It has a real feel to it because the camera is all over the place, as if Will turned it on and sometimes shoots things and other times forgets it’s there, but that puts so much more importance on what is said, and what is said is nothing different than what you might hear in a food court at a shopping mall on a Friday night. Simply put, listening to bored people talk is boring.
The second act kicks off with an intense start when, after some apartment partying, Will finds Jackie dead in the bathroom. It’s here that the realistic camera work, and especially what you hear offscreen, is bone-chillingly realistic. The panic from the living room in the apartment sells the scene entirely.
And then everyone is back on camera and ad-libbing ad nauseam about what to do, grinding the film to a halt once again. There’s some occasional mild interest once they get Jackie’s body out of the apartment (of course they don’t call the police), but as the young and privileged, they make scores of poor decisions. Unfortunately for them (and for you), you could not care less about them because they have done absolutely nothing to endear themselves as people.
The way the film ends … that is, the way it ends before more title cards appear … is quite good, but there is so little to like in the run up to the conclusion that it simply doesn’t matter.
If you are curious about the girl with the pixelated face in all of the pictures, that’s Jackie. The hook is that her face has been obscured out of respect to her family – a clever conceit, I admit, as is the absence of any acting credits in the film or on IMDb. There’s even a suggestion (with a title card!) that a sex scene is edited out for the same reason. And yet seeing her slumped dead, head in a toilet, stays in. Oh, the filmmaking here.
The Upper Footage is a film built on a house of cards that crumbles under the weight of its reliance on its own gimmick – a gimmick that has long since been exposed. Without the thrill of wondering if the events actually happened, watching the film is an exercise in watching a mediocre improv troupe pretend to be brats with bad judgement and even worse decision-making skills. All that’s missing is the Friday night food court.
Disclosure: The producers made available to me a streaming copy of this film for review purposes.
My first recollection of movies being described based on an “elevator pitch” was in 1994, when Jan de Bont‘s Speed was released and touted as “Die Hard on a bus.” That unwittingly unleashed a slew of “Die Hard on a …” imitators, none of which are worthy to be compared to the 1988 groundbreaker, with the exception of the aforementioned Speed and Andrew Davis‘s Under Siege (1992), which was sold as “Die Hard on a ship.”
The elevator pitch is still being used to perfection by Hollywood today – and even the name Die Hard, some 25 years later, is still being invoked: two 2013 releases – Antoine Fuqua‘s Olympus Has Fallen and Roland Emmerich‘s White House Down are both “Die Hard in the White House.” (Neither are worthy, for the record.)
Now in 2014 comes my first experience with an elevator pitch spun from an elevator pitch. Where Speed was touted as “Die Hard on a bus,” Eugenio Mira‘s Grand Piano has been called “Speed at a piano.”
Five years ago, Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) was the greatest concert pianist in the world. But a terrible mistake at the end of a so-called unplayable piece – “La Cinquette” – was deemed “The Great Screw-Up” and drove Tom into retirement. In the present day, Tom is relectantly poised to make a comeback, spurred on by his movie star wife Emma (Kerry Bishé). Adding pressure to the evening is the fact that Tom will be playing the piano that once belonged to his late, beloved mentor. Like Tom, his mentor was the only other pianist known to be able to play “La Cinquette.”
Tom has no plans of playing that piece until he sits down at the piano in front of the large audience. When he opens his sheet music he finds a message scrawled in red: “One wrong note and I’ll kill you.” The written threats continue and he is directed to put in an earpiece. Speaking to him (and hearing him) is his would-be assassin (John Cusack), who spends the rest of the evening torturing Tom from afar with everything from intimidating language to pointing the red dot of a high-powered rifle’s scope on the sheet music to firing a silenced round into the floor next to Tom. Tom is ultimately forced to play “La Cinquette” (lest his wife be killed), and his anonymous tormenter has a curious reason for making him do so.
The core concept of Grand Piano is wonderfully fraught with tension. The notion of a concert pianist making his improbable (albeit begrudging) comeback under such enormous pressure, and then intensifying that pressure ten-fold with the threat of being killed should he play a single wrong note, is practically Hitchcockian. The problem is that the conceit is so structured that screenwriter Damien Chazelle doesn’t have the storytelling acumen to keep the story plausible.
The comparison to Speed is a accurate one, but it’s also a good exercise in compare-and-contrast. With Speed, the “one false move and your dead” peril is based on active movement (don’t drive the bus slower than 55 MPH), which allows for some of the great set-pieces to naturally evolve: managing that feat in traffic, and with people on the bus, and with a partially unfinished freeway (not to mention an in-motion rescue attempt). With this film, the “one false move and your dead” peril pertains to … Tom’s hands. The only thing he needs to keep moving at the right speed are his hands. Where do you naturally go from there? Chazelle and director Mira answer that question by forcing action – by spreading outward instead of tightening inward – usually to the point of ridiculousness.
Most of the problem occurs within the context of the story. Even looking past the fact that the opening minutes needlessly stress and re-stress “The Great Screw-Up,” the rest of the story demands you to believe that no one else in the audience or in the orchestra noticed the laser point on the piano, the cellphone next to Tom’s leg that he uses to send an emergency text, or the threatening bullet that oh-so cleanly enters the stage floor. And that’s just the action onstage. Yes, there is action offstage because Chazelle and Mira can’t possibly sustain any length of time onstage without becoming quickly boring or even more preposterous.
Sadly, offstage is no more plausible. The action that takes place involving Emma’s insufferably two-dimensional non-celeb BFF Ashley (Tamsin Egerton), as well as Ashley’s kept boyfriend Wayne (Allen Leech), is laughable for all the wrong reasons. At the end of the film, there is a reveal that invokes memories of Now You See Me, and in the worst possible way.
With that to work with, Mira tries to visually inject life into a story that is thematically still. He does so by wildly overplaying camera movements (another negative comparison to Now You See Me), trying to make the you believe that more is going on in the film than is actually happening.
The performances are about as good as the material will allow them to be, but in the end it’s the material that undermines the film. The filmmakers could have had something special had they embraced the Hitchcockian side of the conceit and gone smaller and more intimate, like Rear Window or Rope. Instead, they turned Grand Piano into a riff on Speed, and in the process brought a clever idea to a grinding halt.