Armitage flying, or: Into the Storm rocks!

[Warning: spoilers.]

Saw Into the Storm tonight, which stars Richard Armitage, twice in a row. It’s the epitome of an entertaining, visually stunning weather disaster film with tons of a thrills, a minimal plot, and something for everyone who’s willing to let themselves go on this ride. I gasped a few times, cursed a few times, laughed a few times, was extremely worried at least once, and left the theater smiling at the changes wrought in the characters — exactly the function of a film like this one. Into the Storm offers audiences a quick, attention-getting, simple story that demands little and gives back a lot, a perfect summer film.

Screen shot 2014-06-26 at 12.10.08 PMAs those of us who have followed the film for two years know, the film centers on the experiences of residents of the town of Silverton on the day of a disastrous weather event and the activities of a series of storm hunters who drive in to witness it. We follow three separate groups — the Fullers, Gary (Richard Armitage), Donnie (Max), and Trey (Nathan Kress), bedeviled by struggles getting along with each other; Donk (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (Jon Reep), two local thrill seekers; and a group of storm hunters led by Pete (Matt Walsh) and Alison (Sarah Wayne Callies) along with their camera people, Jacob (Jeremy Sumpter), Lucas (Lee Whittaker), and Daryl (Arlen Escarpeta), who seek to capture film of the perfect storm in their mega-tank, the Titus, out of a variety of sometimes uncomfortable motivations. Eventually the groups meet and cooperate (in a typically polite midwestern manner, I have to say) when the appearance of a tornado on a scale “that has never been” puts them in situations and causes personal catastrophes that reveal and force the characters to confront and overcome the fault lines of their relationships.

into-the-storm-nathan-kress-max-deaconTo put it mildly, the plot of this film is extremely simple. In interest of full disclosure, however: someone sent me a working copy of the script anonymously when Armitage was first cast and it was called still called Category 6. I’ve been dreading the plot of the film for two years because that script was horrid. What we get here is a colossal improvement over that one. Even so, the script gives the film only one strong dramatic problem (the struggle for survival), and all of the other subplots (Gary Fuller’s struggles with his sons; Donnie’s crush on Kaitlyn and his regret over his last encounter with his late mother, which in turn is poisoning his relationship with his father; Trey’s conviction that his father thinks he’s irresponsible or incompetent; Alison’s worry over her daughter and conflict with Pete; Pete’s desire to see the tornado from the perspective of G-d; Daryl and Jacob’s conflict over Jacob’s reluctance to continue with the storm hunters) are subsumed to the characters’ need to weather the storm and come out on the other side.

still-of-richard-armitage,-nathan-kress,-ron-phillips,-matt-walsh,-sarah-wayne-callies,-alycia-debnam-carey-and-max-deacon-in-into-the-storm-(2014)-large-pictureHearing two disparate groups respond to the film around me made me think more about the film’s potential appeal. At 8:30, the cinema was half full, mostly with people thirty years younger than me. In other words: Nathan Kress’ fangirls, not Richard Armitage’s. At 10:45, the noticeably smaller audience was a third single men of all ages who might have been “geek / likes action films / likes screen destruction”-types and the rest mixed, mostly small groups of late teens and early twens and straight couples; the younger teen crowd was totally absent. Nary an Armitage fangirl there, unless perhaps one of the moms that accompanied some of the younger groups. To me, those audiences explain a lot about the film. We’ve got a parent / child conflict that makes the father look too strict; a budding wannabe romance that’s sweet and the most emotionally revealing element of the film; a loving mother who wishes she could spend more time with her daughter; two thrill seekers for comic effect; and a heck of a lot of thrills, chills, spills, and abundant CGI for excitement. Note that we’ve got two single parents — the prevailing family structure in the U.S. at the moment — and the potential for romance is left in the subtext. The film also includes the necessary, very American-coded (gratuitous flag warning) feel-good ending about how we will work together and overcome whatever challenges the universe puts in our path, which read to me like the CNN coverage of the Oklahoma tornadoes of 2013 minus Wolf Blitzer’s interview with the atheist.

1395682362000-1SNEAKPEEK-INTO-STORM-MOV-62983740If we consider those audiences, the film, its extremely simple plot notwithstanding, serves exactly the people it is supposed to. That doesn’t leave it without a certain tension in approach. I found very little left of the “found film” genre that Armitage said attracted him to the project. That idea seems to influence mostly the film’s very effective beginning, in which — after a jarring opening scene that left both audiences I saw it with gasping — we see the world from the lens of various characters’ video cameras. The emphasis on personal perspective — one character looking at another — gradually wanes, in the atmosphere of increasingly bad weather, to a focus on the storm itself and a resulting reliance on all the things the visually daring Steven Quale can do with wind machines and CGI. That second emphasis — there’s no other way to say it than to note that the storm sequences are both absolutely convincing and extremely visually stunning; I was flabbergasted both times — also made its mark. The phase of the film from the point at which Pete leaves the concrete structure to get in the Titus till his death repeatedly left both audiences with which I saw the film gasping and cursing. When Pete’s screen went blank, like many people around me both times, I breathed out “holy shit.” Neither of these approaches are problematic in themselves, but the way they’re cut together means that the most effective personal drama comes in the first two thirds of the film, when characters are still interacting with each other either on screen, or in very close quarters. Into the Storm almost feels like a different film after the point at which Gary rescues Donnie and the plot shifts to the attempt to save the people still sheltering at Silverton High School. Not a bad film, but a different one.

tumblr_n4elwoUGmH1qedpmgo6_500Given one predominating audience demographic, then, it’s no surprise that the script gives Donnie most of the best scenes. And Max Deacon does a fantastic job with them time after time. This is not stealing the show, since Donnie is the main character of the film among the humans, or at least co-equal with Gary. From Donnie’s spat with his father at the beginning (a scene added in pickups, if I remember correctly), to his shy but supportive approach to Kaitlyn; from his discussion with her, once they’re trapped, about his regrets about his last encounter with his mother to the “last vid” he makes in which he apologizes to his father, plausibly in hopes of not repeating that scenario, script and Deacon’s performance make Donnie the most effective dramatic element in the film.

And now to Armitage.

While films like this never win anyone awards except possibly the SFX guys, and while his opportunities to show the full extent of his chops are strictly limited by the script, Richard Armitage is excellent in it, and not just as an odoriferous wet button-front cotton shirt and damp wool suit model. Respect for Armitage on that line, though. This job must have been like filming the stone giants scene in the Hobbit every single day of the shoot, minus the prosthetics. I think there are only two or three scenes in which the man is actually dry.

vlcsnap-2014-08-08-04h02m53s54Armitage gets lead billing but — setting aside the storm, which determines every plot twist but is completely silent and frighteningly destructive, just like a real tornado, although less arbitrary than a real one, since all the deaths in this film serve dramatic purposes — Gary’s a co-protagonist with Donnie. Because we never see the world from his camera perspective in the first two thirds of the film, though, we learn less about Gary’s inner life — we look at him, not with him. The structure of the film makes this a significant dramatic obstacle for any actor to confront. Gary’s at risk of being reduced to a jerk or a hero with nothing in between. Quale noted in an interview that Armitage demoted Gary from principal to vice principal. Good move, Mr. Armitage — the resulting status conflict creates the entire growth potential for the character. At the beginning Gary’s harried, unable to communicate with his sons, and (from Trey’s perspective) unhappily henpecked by his principal. In the course of the film, however, driven by fear for Donnie’s welfare, he gradually stops deferring and starts taking charge. I really do see in this Armitage’s description of Gary as an Everyman in the throes of a challenge, except that I feel Armitage has understated that development. Dominated by his single-minded motivation of finding Donnie, he becomes capable not only of challenging the principal and getting the people out of the school or physically saving his son — but more importantly, of expressing love for his sons verbally in ways that they are able to accept and find convincing.

nathankresstweet3The script doesn’t give him much, so Armitage does all of this with his body. Seen from that perspective, something I find fascinating after only two viewings is the way Armitage creates and charges Gary’s walk. Gary’s physicality (as we now know, Armitage’s method of entry into many of his characters) is energetic and yet, at the beginning, appears repressed or sublimated — he seems all energy and nowhere to go when he puts stuff into his car and responds in frustration to Donnie’s challenge in the driveway. He seems a bit stiff when directing the traffic flow during the storm, but that determination and the totally spot-on physical conservatism of the American high school administrator are transformed under the pressure of circumstance. Gary seems like a different man when he walks out of the school the first time to find Donnie. Another step comes when Gary (suddenly benefiting from Armitage’s native physical confidence) prevents Alison from blowing away. Gary’s energy under the hood of Armitage’s physicality is most pronounced during Donnie’s rescue — we get the sense of a man who will simply tear himself apart on steel girders while pulling his son out. If Armitage still has significant water fear, it’s totally invisible when he dives into that pool to get Donnie, so possessed by his will to overcome is Gary; the character’s frenetic attempts to make Donnie breathe again carry the unbelievable overwroughtness of the desperate father. And yet we see all that without lacking for the characteristic Armitage tenderness when he holds Donnie then, or when he gives Trey back his knife, and then embraces his son, at the end of the film. Indeed, it seems, the physicality of rescue opens up the possibility of emotional openness in a way that Gary is unable to show at the beginning of the film.

BtaZeXKIAAA0TTVIn a script that gives the actor so little latitude, Armitage is both perfect for this role and totally transforms it. This film will no doubt be termed an action film and perhaps some of us will look down on it for that. But when Armitage uses his body so effectively to create a character — when it’s precisely the actions, the movements, the energy, the motions, that tell the story of Gary Fuller and his transformation to everyday hero, that attitude seems a bit reductive. Action-man, maybe. But an action man who can tell a whole story with his body.

And yes. He looks good wet. Oh, my goodness. Not to repeat myself, but. Holy shit.

A few odds and ends I want to mention:

  • As we’ve discussed repeatedly, my biggest worry about Armitage in this film had been the correct performance of the American accent. I did not notice any problems at all in the huge theater, nor any issues with a nasal timbre in his voice. A lot of his speech was obviously added during ADR, and I imagine that he did it in 2013 after he’d been living in the U.S. for some time.
  • On that note, funny that they inserted a line about Hurricane Sandy although principal photography was completed before that event.
  • You’d never know that Alycia Debnam-Carey and Max Deacon were not native middle-class American teenagers.
  • In my considered opinion, this film will certainly not harm Armitage’s career. I’m open to the possibility it might have no effect — but I think a lot of people will see it just for the SFX. There’s no stigma attached to this kind of thing. During the trailers directed at these audiences tonight, I saw Nicolas Cage in an apocalyptic film; Jake Gyllenhaal in something that seemed to be about crashing cars; a huge panorama of familiar faces including Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson in a third action film; and Denzel Washington in something about confronting the Russian mafia (in addition to two horror flicks with actors unknown to me). This sort of film, directed at this sort of audience, is exactly how the big names keep doors open for themselves these days.
  • One thing that irritated me as a plot element: These characters would certainly know that you can’t outrun a tornado in a car and particularly not in a U.S. school bus. If you can see a tornado through your windshield or in a mirror, abandon the car and seek the lowest point, like a ditch or ravine. The concrete abutment was also a decent shelter, but it also ended up in the path of the tornado. If you stay put, the tornado will probably pass you by. If you run from it by conventional paths, odds are decent that it may overtake you because tornadoes follow paths of least resistance.
  • Did anyone else notice that in the trailer the principal cites Thoreau while in the film he cites Updike? Updike’s kind of edgy for an Oklahoma high school.

vlcsnap-2014-06-26-12h25m41s188While acknowledging the boundaries of this genre of film in terms of acting and plot, I thought the characters good, the first two-thirds of the film truly dramatic –if not deep — in effect, and the last third simply a visual stunner and an on-the-edge-of-my-seat thriller. I really enjoyed it both times. I could absolutely take my nieces or my father and they would both enjoy it. I won’t see it in the theaters fifteen times as I did for the Hobbit films, because the dimensions Armitage’s role simply don’t bear that kind of scrutiny. But I certainly plan to see it at least two or three more times before it goes. And I definitely want to see those tornadoes — and Richard Armitage’s face — on the UltraScreen.

~ by Servetus on August 8, 2014.

37 Responses to “Armitage flying, or: Into the Storm rocks!”

  1. Totally agree with you on this one. Glad you changed your mind on the accent. Great dialog coach for Richard, Max and Alycia! No idea that you had seen the script. I saw or read one Swetnam interview that he did his first script draft in about 4 hours. EEK. Would you agree that the cast did some improvisation to improve the picture? Apparently it was James Cameron’s suggestion to have Trey get his knife back. Looking forward to my next viewing. Cheers!

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    • It wasn’t so much changing my mind as I was listening in a totally different atmosphere, I think — my laptop audio vs the huge audio of the theater. I just listened to it again on my laptop and I hear the things I heard before — but in that big atmosphere where the film is designed to be shown, it’s “good enough for jazz.”

      re: improv, yes, very much agree. But the focus of the film (balance between different plot lines) also changed a good bit.

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  2. Thank you for this, Serv. There is no question whether I will be seeing that film or not – it’s a must. But I will say that I have had mixed feelings so far, considering the mixed reviews so far. So your detailed review is a god-send, clearly telling us what that film is and what it isn’t. It’s good to hear that the accent is alright (something that would really bug me if it wasn’t), and that he gives his usual depth to the character. Glad to hear also, that the film went down well with the audience, too. I oddly look forward to seeing the film now, even though I am not a desaster movie fan.

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    • That was more or less what happened to me. I did see Twister (in Germany!) when it came out but this kind of film is not something I’d usually program for myself. Nonetheless it’s very enjoyable.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The storms were amazing! Very believable. The attempt to outrun the tornado made me roll my eyes a bit. lol Pete’s final ride in the Titus – the joyful expression on his face as he took in view from above! Seeing that, and knowing what was sure to come, made me feel slightly ill. 😦

    I definitely need to see it again because I kept getting distracted by seeing familiar scenery. I’m looking forward to seeing it with my teenage son this weekend.

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    • the storms: yes — transfixing. Conceding that these are much larger than any storm I’ve ever seen, for the first time I really “got” the impulse to stand and look at the destruction as opposed to running for shelter. The scene where Jeremy Sumpter’s character dies was fascinating. I’d read stories about that sort of thing from the 19th century, how bodies were sucked up in one place and deposited miles and miles further on, but I’d never thought about how a body would behave in a funnel cloud.

      Pete — yes. I didn’t know he would die until I realized he could never survive a fall in a setting like that. In the end, though, I was tempted to say, he got what he wanted, based on the ecstatic look on his face when he emerged at the top.

      scenery — that’s hilarious. Never thought about that.

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      • We saw some of the destruction up close, watched a scene or two being filmed, and drove some of those same roads. It was difficult to set those memories aside and just watch the film. I’m sure it will be easier next time I see it!

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      • I found myself clutching at the arm rests in an effort to hang on for Jeremy’s character. Obviously, it didn’t help! 😉

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  4. Thank you for an excellent review Serv. I’m not a disaster movie fan at all, and after the negative ones I’ve seen today, it looked like the only redeeming features it had going for me were RA and the company of RA friends (we will be seeing it at our Aussie meetup in September) but I feel more optimistic about it now. 🙂

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    • I would say that if you don’t like it by the time you see the first tornado, you’re not going to like it. You do have to buy into the premise of the film and sort of turn off any moralism you may bring to the story. I’m starting to look at the reviews now and I think this was hard for a lot of the reviewers. To me, though, criticisms that we shouldn’t make entertainment out of bad weather are a bit beside the point (it’s not like we’re going to stop films like this from being made) and no one should expect subtle dramatic moments while the characters are almost drowning in a vat of contaminated water while other characters are trying to clear a huge field of building rubble. If you can accept the improbable assumptions of the film you will probably enjoy it, though.

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  5. I’m so glad to hear you liked it, Serv! I haven’t seen it yet, but you’ve made me think that it will be definitely worth seeing.

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    • If you’re in doubt, go see it a matinee — 90 minutes and cheap. It’s no classic of world cinema but I wasn’t expecting that.

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      • I know, I’m not expecting classic — but then, when I think about some of the ballyhooed classics of the cinema and realize that I wouldn’t watch them if someone paid me, that’s probably just as well.
        Audiences seem to be liking the movie, and that’s a good indicator that I’ll like it too.

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  6. Thanks for this very in depth commentary on ITS. Planning to see it today and looking forward to seeing big screen Richard.

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    • There was originally a paragraph in here about how I want him to keep doing film, whatever roles he can get, just to see that face on the big screen. He doesn’t get anywhere near the closeup coverage here that Peter Jackson gives him, but even the quick scenes we get — esp Trey hugging his father at the end — just make me think “more, this man’s face was born to be projected onto a screen.”

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  7. June, I am looking forward to seeing a big screen Richard too. I’ve only seen him as Thorin and it’s not the same.

    I am seeing it tonight with my son (a movie buff), a close friend and her husband. I have been getting more and more nervous that they will all hate it. When my son looked at Rotten Tomatoes last night ITS was at 10% for critic reviews.

    I am so happy to read your review because I am much less worried now. Serv, you are amazing with your detailed review after seeing it twice. No pause, screen caps, etc to help you remember. I really appreciate the effort you put in and thank you sincerely. The fact that you will see it again is very encouraging 🙂

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    • I don’t know how a movie buff (I am not one) would feel about this. I also don’t have the whole panorama of disaster films in my mind to compare it to. But I think that makes me more like the typical audience member.

      Thanks for the kind words — makes it worthwhile to stay up into the wee smalls thinking / typing / writing.

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    • An online local business journal I receive led with ITS under their “On the Big Screen” segment 🙂

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  8. Thanks for writing a review and offering your thoughts. I don’t know when I’ll go see it, but I do want to see Richard on big screen as a normal human. (May there be many more.)
    I did enjoy Twister, but like many I’m not enamored of destruction thrillers. I’ll be clenching the armrests, but sacrifices must be made …

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    • I can barely remember Twister — other than having enjoyed it and that Helen Hunt was in it — which is probably the fate of this film as well.

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  9. Richard Roeper in his review of Into the Storm said… “Armitage is a British actor who looks and sounds like a poor man’s Hugh Jackman.”

    I might be cancelling my subscription to the Chicago Sun-Times …

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    • No idea what that means. “poor man’s Hugh Jackman”? Is Hugh Jackman so expensive? lol 🙂

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    • Clearly, he doesn’t know anything about Richard other than that he’s an import – typical. His remark comparing him to Jackman was just an attempt to be clever. The reviewer is the poor man’s critic. 😛

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    • I’m snorting with laughter,Rob 🙂 my daughter shakes head and says “Lord, ,what an idiot! ” .She’s quite protective about Mom’s fav actor.

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  10. Roeper replaced Gene Siskel on At the Movies

    I have emailed him before on other topics his usually responds.

    If anyone wants to ask him directly …

    His email is rroeper@suntimes.com

    Twitter handle is @richardroeper

    Needless to say, he give the movie Two Stars

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    • to be fair, critics look at these things from a different perspective than audiences do. You have to choose your critics well. It’s hard for me to imagine Pauline Kael (for instance) would have loved this film although I loved reading her reviews.

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  11. Pauline sort of started critical film reviews didn’t she? On Rotten Tomatoes the audiences seem to love it, whereas the critics not so much. But it is a fun summer movie not really Oscar fare. I think I will wait for VOD tho. Not sure I could handle it on the big screen.

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    • I think the FX probably need to be seen on the big screen to be appreciated fully — but they are frightening.

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  12. It made me think of this … no body puts baby in the corner

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  13. […] can read a review by Servetus that is very interesting.  Servetus is always so thorough when discussing anything.  I […]

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  14. […] take this taxonomy as “what I agreed with or what I didn’t” — I did publish my own review, so you can draw your own conclusions about […]

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  15. I really enjoyed (as always) your detailed analysis of his acting and what he brought to the Gary Fuller character. In retrospect, you’re right about how Gary grew from being henpecked and emotionally constipated to being a great leader under pressure. I had planned to go see the movie a couple more times, but now I’m looking forward to watching for the things you pointed out!

    reveilles (aka kaylenns 🙂

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  16. […] that I don’t love every second of it is taken by some readers as snark. On the other hand, if I’m not all that critical of it, because I don’t think the work itself asks to be taken …, then I get criticized for not being critical enough, too much of a fangirl. Or, in the case of an […]

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  17. […] after viewing 5 this afternoon, after my initial review based on two viewings, and further remarks for next two […]

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  18. […] accent — good on the “r,” for instance — and initial viewers were positive. My own initial reaction to the accent in the entire film was positive, which I think had something to do with the huge space in which I heard the film, and also the fact […]

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