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 … Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)


there’s something impenetrable about this film, like watching the action pressed up against the (convex) glass (of the lens), the film doesn’t let you in, and what is annoying is that the effect seems deliberate, or the makers disinterested, as if Soderbergh doesn’t care

the sound mix (or the system I heard it on) didn’t help, with the dialogue fighting to stay above the surface of the funky Lalo Schifrinesque score, Soderbergh is self-consciously experimenting with sound, dropping foley and sound effects from some action sequences to see if he can create emphasis and impact when it suddenly returns, but what this also produces is distance, you don’t feel the action half as much, and this loss is more noticeable because the production design is relatively realistic, with a very detailed and specific use of location

Soderbergh isn’t the only one exercising his technique, screenwriter Lem Dobbs (who also scripted Soderbergh’s ‘Kafka’ and ‘The Limey’) is playing a game of delayed exposition – better than premature exposition! We are playing catch up throughout, piecing together the conspiracy, but this does not significantly increase our identification with the protagonist, as it might have done (in a Hitchcock thriller). In fact, we are not being placed in the protagonist Mallory Kane’s shoes, but rather we find ourselves in the position of the innocent dude who helps her escape from the first fight in the diner. Mallory takes his car (at gun point) and, not wanting to lose it, he accompanies her. For some reason, she recounts the whole story as he stresses in the passenger seat. She tests him on it, as if she were trained him as her witness, though there is no pay-off to this at all. The kid just disappears from the plot.

it’s a chase movie told in for the large part in expositional flashbacks, so it’s significant that the protagonist effectively narrates (or cues) these flashbacks from the driver’s seat and also that she does not appear to be struggling to piece it together – it is we who are struggling! (So what is the status of the flashbacks scenes in which she is not present? Is she imagining them, guessing that they must have occurred, or has the screenwriter forgotten his own structuring device?)

it’s a chase movie so what’s at stake is obvious – the bad guys want to kill the protagonists – and yet these stakes are insufficient to make us (me) care, no effort is made to induce identification or sympathy with Mallory – all we can do is cheer her on as she kicks her opponents corrupt arses, this is not unusual in martial arts action flics, the story model is the ‘hero who will not be stopped’, but this places a greater burden on the star’s charisma, unfortunately, Gina Carano’s doesn’t register very high on the scale (neither does Steven Segal’s or Chuck Norris or JCVD, et al.), though I confess I found her very fetching and wanted to be the one she came home to after a long day’s of pointing guns at people

it also places a burden on the action: the close combat was pretty enjoyable, when the sound effects were present, in particular the quasi-sexual business with Michael Fassbender

I didn’t quite get why was she leaving her employer? This is crucial to the plot and would’ve been a way in to her character, but the exposition was opaque or perfunctory on this point, effectively, the Barcelona job, the centrepiece of the plot, was her last job (for him), and yet the script shys away from stating this – too hackneyed? Her employer knows this, but we don’t see him make a concerted effort to persuade her stay and, wait, he turns up at her apartment immediately after the job offering another gig and she doesn’t tell him she’s through, she merely complains about having to leave again so soon and not doing ‘eye candy’ roles. Why don’t they have it out there and then? Are they too poker-faced to even discuss things? Was the script hinting at a failing romantic relationship? Was she not planning to leave at all? (If so, why set her up at all? Is this last job so lucrative that he won’t need to work again?)

the plot, with its delayed exposition, exposition after the fact, was an intellectual puzzle no more than that

she retreats to her father’s isolated house in Arizona (?) or thereabouts, where an anticlimactic fight takes place, but this character is  inert, and, for an ex-military man, a writer of action thrillers (or were they military history?), surprisingly passive. Opportunities were missed with this character. He could have been the key to getting inside Mallory’s world. The story doesn’t push far enough. She has this eternally safe place, her father. It should have taken it away from her. Either by killing him, or threatening to, or alternatively, by involving him in the conspiracy, making him betray her … he could, for example, have been more of a righteous ‘patriot’ and repudiated her for her alleged crimes. Losing her Daddy would have been an emotional trauma for the hero …

you need to open the doors and let the viewer feel the warm breath of the human, if only for a moment, as they cry in despair

this film was too cool and clever for its own good