Technology with attitude

DVD/Blu-ray: "Red Lights" Burns Out, "Sound of My Voice" Mesmerizes

0

Opinions are like assholes; everyone’s got one. “Red Lights” has been damned as a borderline-campy disaster by the majority of overreactive critics, but a disaster this is not, just a remarkable disappointment. After trapping Ryan Reynolds into a wooden box for 2010’s tense stunt “Buried,” Spanish writer-director-editor Rodrigo Cortés now takes on the writing duties, assembles an impressive ensemble, and introduces intriguing ideas about rationality, faith, and skepticism for a potentially auspicious myster-thriller. Alas, by the end of “Red Lights,” it runs out of steam and most of the film’s built-up good will is lost.

In some big city (but filmed in Barcelona), skeptical, no-nonsense professor Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her young partner, physicist Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), specialize in investigating and debunking paranormal phenomena. They investigate theatrical so-called clairvoyants and, with technology, expose them as quacks. Then, the blind, Uri Geller-type psychic/healer Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), who suddenly disappeared after a skeptical journalist suffered a heart attack during his last act, finally comes out of retirement for one last tour—bend metal (i.e. spoons) and performing telepathic surgery are just two of his jaw-dropping tricks. Though Matheson tells him to stay away, Tom wants to investigate Silver. Is Silver really the great and powerful Oz, or just another charlatan?

For its first half, “Red Lights” gets off to a promising and pretty absorbing start. Weaver is in great ball-busting mode; her cynicism is fun to watch, and she adds some heartbreak in her backstory concerning her comatose son. The film also deserves points on technical prowess. Accomplished through Xavi Giménez’s brooding cinematography and keeping the lighting as dim as possible (is this Gotham City?), the film has a classy, menacing look and a nicely atmospheric mood. Then again, Cortés goes for a few too many easy “boo!” moments (a phone rings, a bird hits a window, someone suddenly appears at a window, etc.), accompanied by loud musical jolts, that they just become silly.

On paper, the cast couldn’t be better, but aside from Weaver, not many of the performances stand up to close scrutiny. Murphy is well paired with Weaver, but when the narrative changes its focus to him, his performance descends into such a high pitch and the character begins to make less sense. A major, on-the-rise talent like Elizabeth Olsen is given next to nothing to do as Sally, one of Matheson’s students. Because the film needed to incorporate a young female, she tags along with Matheson and Tom, and then suddenly becomes Tom’s love interest. Joely Richardson also has her back to the wall, relegated to being De Niro’s arm candy as Silver’s manager. Toby Jones, as one of Matheson’s ESP-testing colleagues, and Craig Roberts (who was so excellent in “Submarine”), as another student, also go to waste. Finally, as De Niro performances go, this one isn’t as lazy (“Little Fockers”) or as wasted (“Killer Elite”), but just average. Initially, he effectively dials it down, and thereafter turns up the histrionics. At least he gets to hide behind some cool shades.

Once a key character takes his/her exit near the halfway mark, the plotting becomes clunky and slowly comes apart when it should be building to a showdown of wits or something sinister. Instead, Cortés pulls a fast one on us, unless you knew Bruce Willis was dead all along in “The Sixth Sense,” with a sleight-of-hand twist that is underwhelming, overwrought, and over-explanatory nonsense. It’s a fraud itself, failing to coalesce with everything that came before and turning out to be less high-minded than anyone thought it was. With an effective thriller ahead of this one, Cortés’ “Red Lights” will be remembered as no more than a half-ambitious, half-dissatisfying footnote in his career.

113 min., rated R.
Grade: C

With its stripped-down, micro-budget approach, “Sound of My Voice” immediately plunges us into the world of a close-knit cult in the San Fernando Valley. Peter (Christopher Denham) and his girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius) pull their car into a suburban garage that’s not theirs and wait for further instructions. From there, a strange man comes out and hands them hospital gowns, which they get into after scrubbing themselves clean in the shower. Blindfolded and hands bound, the couple then gets into a van and is blindly lured into a basement. Peter knows the elaborate secret handshake ritual with Klaus (Richard Wharton), an older, bearded guide for their “unforgettable experience.”

Then they meet Maggie (Brit Marling), a frail but angelic-looking blonde woman, hooked up to an oxygen tank, who unveils herself from underneath a white sheet. With a dozen followers surrounding her on the basement floor, she tells them her story of how she woke up in a motel bathtub two years ago and felt alone with no memory, until Klaus took her in. Supposedly, Maggie is allergic to foods that aren’t organic and receives blood transfusions. As she claims from her tattoo of an anchor and the number “54” on her ankle, is she really a traveller from 2054? Or is the whole act baloney?

As we soon realize, Peter and Lorna are really journalists out to expose the prophetic Maggie as a con artist for an investigative documentary. These two, both with damaged pasts, are our conduit into the story and this mysterious environment. Though both are skeptical, Peter says “to see her is to believe her” and is willing to keep up their rouse as Maggie’s members, but Lorna calls foul on the woo woo and thinks they’re way in over their heads. Peter is also a substitute schoolteacher with an 8-year-old student, Abigail Pritchett (Avery Pohl), who might be able to prove Maggie’s true identity. The most unsettling sequence comes in the followers’ third one-in-the-morning session, where Maggie rewards them all with apples to eat and then says the fruit is full of poisoned logic, forcing them to vomit it up onto a tarp to prove their committment as true believers. Prior to this, Peter has ingested a transmitter to record everything, so he won’t follow suit, but Maggie forces anger out of him, as well as a tragic memory. Also pointing to suspicion, she sings a song from the “future” that ends up being The Cranberries’ “Dreams” from the ’90s.

An alluring, ethereal, and magnetic screen presence, Marling gave such a revelatory, achingly sad performance in her last film, and again here, she’s so understatedly convincing and transfixing to watch that it’s no wonder her “new members” would be drinking the Kool-Aid. She’s the one to watch, but the dogged-cum-obsessed Denham and more-levelheaded Vicius lend gravity to the film with their terrific performances full of raw naturalism.

Making his feature debut and co-writing the script with star Brit Marling, director Zal Batmanglij draws us in from the start, compels throughout, and only grows tenser. An intriguing science fiction concept elegantly executed with a tautness and intimacy, “Sound of My Voice” is just as contemplative and abstract as Marling’s last lo-fi effort (2011’s haunting “Another Earth”) but even more hypnotic. Rachel Morrison’s striking DV cinematography and spare, moody score (composed by the director’s brother, Rostam Batmanglij) help drape the entire film in a quiet, dreamy atmosphere. The scale is small and the story may be simple, but the filmmakers ask bigger, less simple questions about beliefs and skepticism for the audience to ponder and chew on.

Not only will one be left to question whether Maggie is really a traveller or a con artist, but the film is kept open to interpretation about itself. Does the ambiguous final shot have the merely grandstanding pretensions to leave you dangling, or are you satisfied with sorting it out for yourself? While last year’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was more of a character study with a cult-versus-reality backdrop, “Sound of My Voice” deeply observes the psychology of a cult but doesn’t stop thinking outside of the box to quite come together. A little hand-holding from the filmmakers might have been more satisfying of the conventional sort to take the story to the end, but it never fails to creep under one’s skin. From what we’ve seen of Marling, it’ll be exciting to see where her visionary voice takes her next.

85 min., rated R.
Grade: B +