Impressions of … Sound of my Voice [Zal Batmanlij]

unconvincing, that’s really all I have to say about this, but …


… I suppose it’s worth pausing to consider why that might be:

the scenario is quite simple, a twenty-something couple are planning an exposé of a mysterious cult, the documentary will launch their careers, but deeper personal motives drive their interest in the subject, will the mysterious leader be exposed as a charlatan? or will their (hidden) scepticism be overcome by the enigmatic leader, Maggie?

yet it’s not entirely clear what is at stake?

for us to want Maggie to be exposed, we’d need to be shown examples of the damage she has done, but the script (by director Batmanliji and star, Brit Marling) doesn’t go there, not until the final act and then it only hints previous activities, in fact, after treading a precarious line between faith and reason, the script falls on the side of the believer, the two would-be journos are naive and presumptuous – they haven’t done their research – and one of them, Peter, is clearly in need of long-overdue therapy, this is where it gets interesting, could it be that Peter’s vulnerability will lead him to destruction? almost, the script goes there, but it leaps into the final act too soon, before they’ve had time to dig the hole deep enough

I suspect it was for the viewer the screenwriters were digging the hole, the revelation at the end may surprise Peter, but it is designed to confound our sense of certainty – “so you thought you knew the score”, it seems to say, and I’d reply “yes, and so what?” … nothing is at stake and the film ends just getting as it was getting interesting

(sometimes screenwriters mistake twists for endings – but “peripeteia ain’t no catharsis,” as Aristotle Onassis used to say)

I’m getting ahead of myself here, it wasn’t the end that was the film’s undoing, it was the beginning, the poorly-handled exposition:

we join the two journos as they are guided through the elaborate procedure which precedes the meeting of the cult members, it’s their first time, but we’re told they’ve also been through a long preparation, you have to wonder what was the substance of that preparation because the script has Maggie deliver an introductory speech, telling us how she came to be in this world and kindly dramatized for us in flashback, after the meeting the two journos discuss why they’re making this exposé, as if they hadn’t already been through it, in other words, it is written as it were day one, when for those involved day one has long gone, more egregious exposition is yet to come, we’re served the back stories of our two journos as flashback montages with a voice-over, without any justification

this is poor writing, but there’s also a lack of substance:

the softly-spoken sylph-like Maggie is not your usual charismatic prophet, it’s an interesting choice, seduction over sulphur, but because she’s a bit of a tease and favours hints over hard sell, neither we nor the cult members get much of an idea of what she promises, they must have some idea, but we never find that out, you’d have thought the journalists would’ve been curious …

you wonder what the story would have looked like if told from the point of view of a genuine believer, the arc from conversion to disillusionment would have been far more precipitous, in learning the truth they might have lost something, and there would be opportunities for more drama, passing through betrayal, then the twist could work

it might also be a pretty good set up for a TV drama series



Impressions of … Safety Not Guaranteed [Colin Trevorrow]

this is a charming if slight indie rom-com stroke whimsical sci-fi caper inspired by a classified ad which appeared (I’m told) in Backwoods Home magazine in the Nineties:


Trevorrow’s film concentrates on the first part of the ad – the need for a partner on the mission – but neglects other aspects of the ad: the matter of payment is passed over, weapons and self-defence are played for laughs, and most glaring of all, we hear little of the startling assertion that he’d already been back: the first question you’d ask is ‘what was it like?’ or ‘where did you go?’, but the journalists – implausibly bank-rolled by their provincial print magazine – see the story as a (mocking) character piece and the guy himself doesn’t really mention it (in fact, it appears he’s still putting the finishing touches to his machine, so why did he claim to have done it before?)

you wonder what kind of person would place this ad? a certifiable comedy genius would be my answer, although with ‘certifiable’ I do intend the mental health connotations of the word, Trevorrow hypothesizes a kind of charismatic loser, intense and vulnerable, but then decides he’d prefer him to be a winner …

there’s a curious, refreshingly tentative, almost-romance at the centre as one journo (a very watchable Aubrey Plaza) poses as a would-be time-traveller, with the issue of trust doubling nicely in both romantic and adventure plots, while Mark Duplass is suitably intense as the paranoid inventor, perhaps too intense, this guy was too close to madness for the relationship to have a future, meanwhile Jake M Johnson steals the pic as the hack more interested in reviving an idealized adolescent romance, the script serves him well, a lazy arrogant asshole, a familiar type, whose vulnerability retains our sympathy, especially in a lovely impassioned speech delivered to the virginal (male) intern: “why are you sitting here? why would you be sitting at your computer, you’re a young man, you’ve got the whole world ahead of you, I’m asking you to be a man and try, are you ready to have a crazy night with me, ’cause I’m ready, say you’re ready, say you’re ready”. Great comic writing, nicely delivered

this is the kind of indie which could have been made by the studios, a film that will lead to bigger things to all (though Duplass has already made that journey)

the ending is a serious, though sincere miscalculation

Impressions of … The Comedian (Tom Shkolnik)

I wanted to like this, I really did, I have a lot of sympathy with their attitude to filmmaking, their pursuit of a kind of raw, emotional realism, an antidote, perhaps, if not an opposition to the growing dominance of the over-determined, script-centred model …

but it failed, and worse, its failure empowers the enemy (if you’ll forgive the hyperbole)

this was half a film, or two-thirds, to be more precise: the narrative ran out of energy, no, it didn’t run out, it just stopped, and in place of a final act, or whatever you want to call it, was a long, banal conversation with a taxi driver, culminating in a platitude where there should have been an answer, one leading to dramatic action and ideally further ambivalence, you wonder if the production ran out of time and papered over the gap with this excuse for an ending? or did they actually think it was adequate? – they can’t possibly have intended this ending … can they?

we were presented with an intriguing character, a soft-spoken thirtysomething comedian whose on-stage persona is aggressive and confrontational, but the ‘script’ failed to explore this tension, yes, he was a homosexual (and this was parsed as if it were some kind of revelation or shock), yes, he was confused by his attraction to his beautiful female flatmate and his sweet new male lover, unable to commit to both, so we needed to be watching him attempt to resolve this, that’s to say, trying to resolve it, or alternatively actively making it worse, through which, ideally, we would get a better of sense of who he was … but the writer declined to venture an answer, or even a hypothesis, the character’s aggressive on-stage was thus merely incidental

guys, it’s not enough to merely present a character, expressing an attitude to filmmaking is not enough, nor is it enough – though it’s an achievement – to go out and get some good performances in the can, and when your goal is authenticity one really live scene – the homophobic abuse on the bus – is not enough, not when you’ve got a whole bunch of hackneyed ones around it, the most egregious being every moment in the call-centre offices – how many times have we seen this scenario? (an example of something being both true to life and a cliché)

if this is a fresh voice, then Shkolnik has only managed to clear his throat