For the past several years, I’ve gone down to the Chattanooga Film Festival – it’s one of my favorite weekends for film every single year. (You can see my previous year write-ups since moving to this blog here.) A festival that’s in love with genre films, trash cinema, and embraces the weird and wild, CFF’s philosophy is that every film is worth watching in some way, and it’s an idea I can always get behind. This year, I managed to get back down there for all four days, which means there’s a lot to talk about. Let’s kick it off with the first day, which featured an entertaining low-budget effort and then hit me with the low point of the festival, if not my moviegoing year.
One of the great joys of walking into movies at CFF is the fact that it’s one of the only times I ever get to walk into movies almost absolutely cold. Apart from the brief capsule synopsis provided by the festival, I almost never watch trailers, and don’t know much beyond the premise and some of the cast and crew. So when I read that Rock Steady Row was a story about fraternities that basically riffed off of Yojimbo with hints of Mad Max, that was enough to get me into the theater.
What I didn’t really realize about Rock Steady Row, though, was just how low-budget of a film I was getting into. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you – there’s a lot to be said for making the most of a low budget and turning out something that feels bigger and more ambitious than you have any right to be pulling off, and Rock Steady comes close to pulling it off sometimes. Essentially feeling like a feature-length student film, Rock Steady Row makes fun of fraternity culture, college tuition costs, the importance of bikes on college campuses, fraught gender relations/slut shaming, and all sorts of other issues that are almost always in the forefront on a college campus, often giving the film the feel of a bunch of in-jokes and pet peeves. The story of a freshman whose stolen bike leads him to play two fraternities against each other against what feels like a post-apocalyptic college campus, Rock Steady Row really just feels like a movie made to entertain your friends and make fun of the college where you all go.
And yet, none of that means that it’s not fun, even if it’s wildly uneven and its reach exceeds its grasp a lot. From pencil-throwing frat brothers to black market bike shops, it’s a film full of great moments that don’t quite cohere into anything that works. It’s often funny, packs in the enthusiasm, and you can’t fault it for being wonderfully, weirdly ambitious. Does it always work? Oh, definitely not. But it’s a pretty fun little movie nonetheless, if you take it for what it is. Rating: ***
A group of friends gets pinned down by a sniper on an isolated desert road, doing their best to survive against an unseen foe. And it’s all helmed by a cult favorite Japanese director. Great setup, right?
Well, you haven’t seen Downrange yet, because, wow, can you ever screw that up.
What’s remarkable about Downrange is how free it is of nearly every single redeemable quality a film can have. I get flak from a friend of mine that I’m often easier on films than I should be, and that I tend to be a “glass half full” kind of person when it comes to movies. But Downrange manages to rob me even of that pleasure. Acting? Well, nearly non-existent, although one actor brings enough for everyone with a gloriously absurd performance. Tension? Non-existent; the film is so badly framed, staged, and filmed that there’s never any sense of the geography of the area, and the pacing is so erratic that tension is never really allowed to build up or exist. Plotting? Oh, good god, no; the action here is absolutely ludicrous, with character motivations bewildering (and not conveyed by any sort of “acting”) or nonexistent and clarity baffling, and that doesn’t even get into the hilariously stupid and tacked-on ending. And even the action is horrible; setting aside the most ridiculous car crash I’ve seen in years, there’s never any sort of impact or craft present in any of the shootouts.
Downrange is the kind of movie that’s not just bad; it’s actively infuriating, and by the time it ended, I wasn’t just disappointed that I saw a bad movie, I was angry that I had wasted my time, angry that someone wasted money on it, angry that the festival booked it, and angry that anyone spent any time and effort attempting to make this sorry excuse for a “movie”. The one good thing? At least I hit the low point of the festival early – although, given that this may be the worst thing I’ve ever seen at the CFF, you could argue that the five-year wait for this bottoming out is too long. Whatever the case, it was an awful, excruciating experience. Rating: ½ (mainly because I can’t go negative on this scale)