Review: Sound Of My Voice

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I knew absolutely nothing about Sound Of My Voice going into watching it so I was very pleased to find myself really enjoying it. It’s all about a couple who are documentary filmmakers who go undercover to join a cult. The cult is headed by a mysterious woman named Maggie who claims to be from the future and the couple want to expose her as a fraud because they think that she is going to end up having all the members commit suicide.

Sound Of My Voice is a hybrid of the drama, sci-fi and thriller genres that actually makes you think. Instead of relying on special effects or gore it has a story that makes you question your own sense of reality. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with special effects and gore, but it’s nice to be able to see a film that doesn’t rely on gimmicks in order to tell a story. Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling have effectively written a screenplay that relies on how the main characters face the prospect of whether or not Maggie is actually from the future. Throughout the entire film I was trying to figure out whether or not she was, because there are several different avenues you can take to draw your own conclusion. This isn’t a ‘black and white’ film; there are no wrong or right answers.

The characters Lorna (Nicole Vicius) and Peter (Christopher Denham) are a couple who live together and yet by the end of the film they seem like strangers to one another. The dynamics between the two of them are played out really well, because they are both affected by Maggie, and each takes a different path as to what they truly believe. Personally, I can’t stand it when characters don’t change at all during the course of a film, so this aspect of the story was very original. Lorna and Peter go into the cult for the same reason, to make a documentary, but by the end of the film they come out as two completely different people. Both Vicius and Denham are good in their roles and bring a believability to the characters and their actions.

The main character in Sound Of my Voice is Maggie and she’s played convincingly by Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the film. She’s a very complex character, because she claims to be from a future in which food is scarce and resources very limited, and yet exudes this peacefulness. I would expect somebody from the future to be in a more of a panic about trying to tell people about what is going to happen, but perhaps the character is more believable because she doesn’t fall into that stereotype. Instead of running around like a chicken with its head cut off she has decided to train people in order for them to become good survivors in the near future.  You really won’t be able to quite figure out whether Maggie is for real or just a con artist until the end of the film, then you can easily jump to the conclusion that you want to have. In a sense Maggie becomes what we want her to be.

A lot of Sound Of My Voice takes place inside a basement, where the cult meets. As well as co-writing the screenplay Zal Batmanglij also directed this and for a film with limited location shots it really is quite stylized. I didn’t get the sense that this was a cheaply made film or that they had a limited budget. A talented director is one who can take what they have and make the most out of it. I noticed that he uses quite a lot of tight shots in the basement scenes, which makes sense since that is such a small area to shoot in, but it also gives the sense of life closing in on the cult members; that their little circle is what stands between them and possible destruction.

I am a huge fan of post-apocalyptic films, and Sound Of My Voice has a story that precedes that kind of genre of film, since it takes place before the world changes for the worst. Or does it? Is Maggie really from the future, or are the cult members doomed?

 

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Review: The Lords Of Salem

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The Lords Of Salem is a strange film. Not in a bad way, mind you, but quite different. If you have watched any of Rob Zombie’s films prior to this pretend that they don’t exist, because this is like nothing he has made before. Admittedly, I am not a huge fan of his other films. However, I actually enjoyed this movie for what it is; a strange trip.

The plot of this film is pretty basic. Heidi (Sheri Moon) is a DJ in Salem Massachusetts. One night she is given a mysterious record in a wooden box by a band called The Lords. After she plays it she, and other women, start experiencing strange dreams and such concerning a past coven of witches who were burned at the stake. There is of course more to the story than that, but everything else is secondary to the main plot. It is all mostly focused on Heidi and what happens to her as a result of the evil music she hears. All of the other characters in the film that she interacts with are concerned for her in one way or another; they either want to harm her or help her according to their own needs.

What impressed me the most about The Lords Of Salem is the fact that it’s directed quite well. Rob Zombie has moved away from his slice and dice approach of film making into a dark and moody style that is much more mature and enjoyable to watch. Contrasted to his earlier films this actually comes as a bit of a surprise. It’s like somebody sat him down and made him watch some old school horror films and told him that he should aim for those instead of trying to make a music video. Because of all of this it is more easy to concentrate on what is happening to the characters because you aren’t being thrown all over a room trying to figure out what the hell is going on. I see this as maybe a sign that he is maturing as a director and is perhaps beginning to choose substance over style.

Sheri Moon has annoyed the hell out of me in every single Rob Zombie film that I have watched before this. I would literally want to throw a shoe at the TV and tell her to shut up. Everything about her, from her voice to her manner irritated me. Imagine my surprise when I watched this film and I couldn’t even tell that is was the same actress. Whereas, all of her previous characters were hyper and annoying, Heidi is played as a totally different kind of woman. I really liked learning that Moon can actually act. Who knew? It even got to the point where I felt sorry for the character because of all the strange crap that she goes through. If somebody would have told me before watching this that I would find Sheri Moon to be a good actress and able to play a sympathetic character I would have thought they were on crack.

There are quite a few famous horror film, and otherwise, actors and actresses in Lords Of Salem. Ken Foree, Meg Foster, Bruce Davison, Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn and Maria Conchita Alonso are all in this. I recognized just about all of them because I’m a film nerd like that. The only one that surprised me was Meg Foster, who plays an evil witch named Margaret Morgan. She has so much make-up on her that I quite honestly couldn’t tell who she was. Perhaps the scariest looking person out of that whole list was Alonso because it looks like she has gotten some major plastic surgery done. Seriously, I think the woman can now appear as a creature in horror films without any make-up. Just say no to plastic surgery folks! Everybody is really good and there isn’t a bad performance out of anybody, which is yet another new aspect of a Rob Zombie film.

The screenplay, also by Rob Zombie, is pretty interesting despite the fact that he got the whole witch thing wrong. We all know that the people who were convicted of witchcraft in Salem weren’t really witches who worshiped Satan, right folks? They were either practitioners of folk magic, or simply people who others didn’t like. Seriously, that’s all they were. Now, I know this and I’m sure others do as well, but I’m guessing that there are going to be some naive or ignorant fans of his that are going to actually think that the witches from Salem worshiped Satan. There is a large modern Wiccan community in Salem and I can’t imagine that they are too happy about any of this. Then again they have made a mint off of tourists going to Salem to see witches so maybe they are all excited and popping the cork off of some champagne. While he has gotten the history all wrong I will give him some leeway because it’s a horror film and not a documentary.

The last 30 minutes of The Lords Of Salem deserves its own paragraph. It goes from Heidi to having some bad dreams to out-and-out strangeness. It’s as if Zombie watched some films by Jean Rollin and the TV show Twin Peaks and decided to mash them together into this strange surreal acid trip. That’s not to say that it’s awful or anything like that, just very, very surreal and not like anything he has done before. Considering the plot of the film it kind of makes sense in a way. I mean, all of these strange occurrences are happening to Heidi, and the end of the film is aabout how all of her issues are resolved. I don’t think that Zombie could have made the ending in any other way, because that would have taken away from the rest of the film.

The Lords Of Salem gives me hope that Rob Zombie has it in him to make really great films. While it isn’t perfect by any means, it’s really interesting and that is in part what makes a film fun to watch.

Review: The Sweeney

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Last night the husband and I sat down to watch The Sweeney. It is a 2012 film based on a British television series that was made in the 1970’s, and since I’m an American I had never heard of it before. The Sweeney is about an elite London Metropolitan police unit called the Flying Squad, who try to find the perpetrators of an jewelry store heist in which a woman gets killed. It stars Ray Winstone as DI Jack Regan, who despite some setbacks, refuses to give up on the case.

The main things that impressed me about this film were the fight scenes, car chases and gun shootouts. There are many of them and they are very well done. In Trafalgar Square the suspects rob a bank and Regan and his crew go after them. It’s not done on a set, or at a location that could maybe pass for the famous place; it was actually done at Trafalgar Square. I can’t think of another film that has actually shot an action sequence at that location, so the entire fact that they were able to do that effectively on a relatively small budget is outstanding. It took the director, Nick Love, only six hours to film that entire scene. When you watch the film it’ll make you wonder how the hell did he do that! The whole film looks really nice, which proves that you don’t need a huge budget to make an action film. In fact I would encourage independent filmmakers to watch this in order to see for themselves that a small budget doesn’t mean you have to skimp on the details.

I have always enjoyed Ray Winstone’s performances and this is no exception. The only issue I had at all was that he mumbled sometimes, and since I have only lived in the UK for six months I had issues understanding him. This happens whenever I watch any of his films so it’s all on me and not on him. If you are American I suggest you put on the subtitles; there is no shame in that! Winstone is gruff and tough and totally believable as a cop who will do a anything to get the villains. Ben Drew (Plan B) plays DC George Carter, who is Regan’s main partner in chasing down the bad guys. I am so far removed from popular culture that I had no idea who this guy was until I looked him up. There is a strong tradition of rappers becoming movie stars with mixed results and he is better than average at it, so he doesn’t bring down the film or anything like that. Finally, the last main character is DC Nancy Lewis, played by Hayley Atwell. You will most likely recognize her from Captain America. Her performance is adequate as a tough and sexy police officer. Quite frankly many actresses could also have played this part so there is nothing too special about her. There are many other recognizable supporting actors in this; far too many for me to name. If you regularly watch British films or television shows you will see many familiar faces.

The Sweeney has a pretty good screenplay but there is one major thing that bothered the hell out of me; the fact that Regan and Atwell were having an affair. Winstone is at least 20 or 30 years older than Atwell, so it wasn’t very believable. I know that many films these days have a much older man screwing a much younger woman and they make it seem like a normal occurrence, but it’s not! It’s a sexual fantasy perpetrated by filmmakers that has got to stop! Okay, end of rant! Since I have never watched the television show I don’t know how far off the mark the screenplay of the film is, but as far as original ideas go the story is pretty good. One thing that is different about this is that the top bad guy doesn’t really have many lines in the film. The good guys chase after this fellow and he’s pretty much this shadowy mysterious character. We barely learn anything about him, besides the fact that he’s Croatian. This didn’t really bother me or anything since the film is focused on Regan trying to find the guy.

All in all I can honestly say that I enjoyed watching The Sweeney. Even if you’re an ignorant American like me who has never watched the television series you will like this film. It stands by itself as a good example of a well made action flick.

Review: Enter The Dragon

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This is the best martial arts film ever made. It has everything; Bruce Lee, Bolo Yeung, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, well choreographed fight scenes, political talk against ‘The Man’, intrigue, and even pretty women. The last thing doesn’t really interest me that much since I’m a woman but I know that men have their needs!

Enter The Dragon is about a kung fu master named Lee (Bruce Lee) who enters a martial arts contest run by drug kingpin and slaver Han (Kien Sheh). Lee goes undercover to this contest on the behest of the British government who have been after Han for a very long time. I’m not going to give the ending away since I’m not assuming that everybody has seen this, but I can safely say that a lot of fighting happens and some people die. It wouldn’t be a martial arts film without any of that, now would it?

What makes Enter The Dragon the best martial arts film ever made? Bruce Lee. There can be no question that he was one of the best martial artists to ever live. Mainly because he didn’t follow any strict rules when it came to his style. He combined several different traditional forms of martial arts, and his own philosophy, to create Jeet Kune Do. Throughout the film his creation is shown in philosophical conversations between characters and during the battle scenes. Lee choreographed all of the fighting, which unlike a lot of modern fight scenes weren’t cut every two seconds to hide stunt doubles and the like. The mirror fight between Lee and Han is hands down one of the best martial arts fight scenes ever filmed. It has been copied many times in other movies but never duplicated in terms of quality. This is due in part to the direction of Robert Clouse, who really knew what he was doing in terms of filming action sequences. His use of slow motion techniques during some of the film doesn’t slow down the action, but rather make it all the more intense.

Besides Lee the characters Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly) are a hoot; Roper is an in debt gambler, Williams a street fighter from ‘the hood’. Their shared dialogue is very, very funny and brings some comic relief to the seriousness of the film. Bolo (Bolo Yeung) is another interesting character, an evil bad-ass fighter and one of Han’s men. You may recognize him from Bloodsport, in which he plays pretty much the same kind of guy. Nothing wrong with a bit of typecasting because he is quite a frightening looking fighter! I’ve always imagined Glenn Danzig watching Enter The Dragon as a kid, seeing Bolo, then thinking that he too could be a very muscular short dude! Don’t tell him I said that though! In the nunchuk scene you may be able to spot a very young Jackie Chan, who is an extra that gets beat up by Lee.

Enter The Dragon is a total product of its time. Made in 1973 there is quite a lot of political commentary which is very cool. How many martial arts films do you see these days that talk about ‘The Man’ and about how evil he is? None, and we are a worse off society for it! You can never say that Enter The Dragon doesn’t look dated because it does. This isn’t a bad thing since the sets, the music and even the costumes give it a certain feel. Yes, it can be seen as slightly cheesy, but to be honest what martial arts film doesn’t have it’s fair amount of cheese? The difference between Enter The Dragon and other films though is the fact that the production itself is very well done. It had a studio budget behind it and that made all of the difference. These days most martial arts films are straight to video without a great budget and they suffer for it.

The screenplay, written by Michael Allin, is a pretty simple good guys vs. bad guys type story, with some revenge thrown in for good measure. Han is the heavy who makes heroin and gets women addicted to it so that they can be sold as sex slaves, while Lee is the good guy who is ultimately out to get revenge from Han for the death of his sister. Everything else is secondary, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some character development going on. The character Roper actually evolves as the film goes along. At first we just think that he’s a self important idiot, but we learn that he’s actually a good guy who does the right thing when called to action.

As you can tell I love this movie. I first saw it as a child in a movie theater in the 1970’s and I know that it heavily contributed to my interest in action films. If watching this film doesn’t change how you judge fight scenes then there is something wrong with you.

Review: Universal Soldier

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I saw this for the first time in about twenty years last night and have decided to grace you with a review of it. It’s not every day that you see somebody taking the effort to review this film so consider yourselves all lucky!

Universal Soldier is basically about some dead Vietnam War vets who are somehow brought back to life and are genetically changed to become the ultimate soldiers. GR44 (Jean-Claude Van Damme) starts remembering what happened back in Vietnam before he died, takes off, and is chased by GR13 (Dolph Lundgren). GR13 was totally insane when he died and goes after GR44 even though he is told not to. There is pretty much the whole plot. It’s fairly simple, but then again this is an action film so you can’t expect Oscar worthy material here. The screenplay is by Dean Devlin and it’s directed by Roland Emmerich, who both worked on Stargate and Independence Day among other things. By knowing that you can pretty much guess what you’re getting; a basic action film that gets things done.

What surprised me last night about Universal Soldier was that it doesn’t look too dated. Since it was made in 1992 it doesn’t have what I call the ‘poodle perm’ syndrome. You know when you watch an 80’s film and there is no doubt it’s an 80’s film because every woman has an enormous perm? Yeah, that. Since it escaped that by the skin of its teeth it honestly looks like it could have been made recently; Van Damme and Lundgren looked way younger than they are now, but in terms of the production it was really well done. The stunts and chase scenes looked realistic, which could be down to the fact that there still weren’t that many CGI effects being done at that time since it was still too expensive. I think that actually helped this film because I feel that CGI effects would have made Universal Soldier look like a straight to video production.

During the time this was filmed Van Damme couldn’t speak much English, so according to Devlin they purposely made his dialogue short and to the point so that it would be easier for him to pronounce his lines. Yes, it’s easy to tell that the character isn’t a mental giant, but then again he’s been sort of dead since the Vietnam War so you have to give him kind of a break. Van Damme isn’t awful since he kicks much ass as expected and this is probably the role the made him really famous. By the way there are numerous shots of him naked from behind. Yes, as a woman, I can say that he has a nice ass. Don’t be uncomfortable, we’re all friends here! Anyway! I actually really liked Lungren’s performance because he makes GR44 not only nutty, but kind of funny at the same time. It has to do with how he delivers lines such as ‘They wouldn’t listen.’ when asked by Van Damme as to why he’s wearing a necklace of human ears. Have to admit that made me crack up, being the morbid person that I am.

The fight scenes are pretty well staged, especially the last major scene which was done in the rain. It’s actually kind of funny seeing a smaller man like Van Damme fighting a big guy like Lundgren, I mean the guy is huge! However, you can believe that Van Damme could possibly beat him just due to the tenacity of the character. He’s part superhuman since he was genetically enhanced, so if he couldn’t kick ass he would be in trouble. There is a good amount of gore and breaking of limbs, so if you like seeing blood coming out of the back of heads you’re in luck! Just to warn you there are some needle scenes that are pretty nasty, as in them being shoved into the back of skulls.

One of the only weak points in this film is the performance of Ally Walker who played the reporter Veronica Roberts. Quite frankly I don’t like female characters being thrown into action films when all they do is stand there and become part of the scenery. Rather, I like it when they take part in the action and can take care of themselves. Walker plays her like she’s a manic-depressive off of her meds. Then again she plays all of her roles like this, which has always annoyed me a bit. So, this is all about a weakly written female character and an overly enthusiastic actress. It could have been much worse so it really doesn’t affect the film too much, and when you think about it such female characters were common in the action films of the time, and in fact are still pretty common now.

Universal soldier is a fun action film that will satisfy the needs of any fan of the genre, so get out there and watch it.

Review: Oblivion

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Oblivion is the kind of film that if you reveal anything major about the plot you will give away a good portion of the movie. Since that is the case I will not be giving away plot details. However, if you have seen any of the below listed films you already know partially what is going to happen in Oblivion. In no particular order:

The Matrix

Moon

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

2001: A Space Odyssey

Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones

District 9

The Road Warrior

I could go on but you get the idea; Oblivion is not a very original film. It’s based on a comic book by Joseph Kosinski and Arvid Nelson, so that might explain things a bit. They took bits and pieces from films that are well known within the post-apocalyptic and sci-fi genres and made their own story. I’m not going to knock them for that since writers of comics and novels do that every single day. However, the ideas that have been lifted are very, very obvious. I don’t know how much the screenplay was changed from the comic, since I haven’t read it, but Kosinski was involved in that as well so I’m thinking that the film isn’t too far off from the original source. If the screenplay was more original I wouldn’t have been thinking of a whole list of different movies while I was going home last night.

The screenplay may be unoriginal but it really is a gorgeous looking film. With major studio money behind it the CGI effects are very top notch and nothing looked really badly rendered. The landscape of a wasted Earth seemed suitably dead and wasted. The Washington DC area reminded me of the video game Fallout 3, but that’s just because I’m a bit of a gaming nerd and hold a great affection for the ruined landscape of that city. I really liked how old skyscrapers were rendered to become a semi-permanent part of the environment. It was as if the buildings became useful to nature, which makes sense since that is what would happen to abandoned structures in the wasteland

Now, I was originally very torn about whether I was going to see this film or not because I think Tom Cruise is a total nutcase. I have a hard time watching films that he stars in without thinking about how he is very publicly brainwashed. However, I know it’s not fair to totally judge an actor’s performance on what happens in their private life so I decided to give him a chance. Cruise is pretty good in it but there are love scenes in the film which seem really added on. It’s like they are trying to prove that Cruise is a man’s man or something silly like that. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if he has something in his contract that stated that he must be portrayed as a sexy beast so that people can’t question his sexual orientation. I may sound like a conspiracy theorist but those scenes do seem pretty unnecessary in terms of forwarding the plot. If a man and a woman are going to be living in isolation for years of course you’re going to think they’re going to have sex, you don’t have to be shown it.

Towards the end of the film there is a MAJOR mistake that I immediately caught. It is so obvious that I can’t believe that Kosinski, who also directed this, didn’t catch it. It’s like he couldn’t quite figure out how to finish the film so he tacked on an ending and said fuck it. Either that or somebody majorly messed up in the editing room.  The only clue I’m going to give you is ‘the pod’. Unlike the director I don’t think you’re stupid so I know you’ll figure it out if you decide to watch it. One other thing, that may seem small and unimportant to others, that bothered me was the clothing of the non Tom Cruise characters. How the hell do characters find advanced tech clothing that fits them perfectly in the wasteland? Is there a wasteland store that sells new looking clothes? If you watch something like The Road Warrior, which is among the best post-apocalyptic films, you notice that characters are wearing clothes that look scavenged from different sources.

Loving both the post-apocalyptic and sci-fi genres I can appreciate the effort put forth when a director decides to make such a film. I know I have bitched about Oblivion quite a bit, but that’s because I think it could have been so much better. The screenplay is weak while the film itself is very nice to look at. I think that if you love sci-fi or post-apocalyptic genre type films you should see it because you’ll be entertained, but in the end I don’t think you’ll be overly impressed.