Friday, January 6, 2017

13 CAMERAS (2015) [Paul's Review]

Ryan’s marriage is falling apart.  His wife is pregnant and can’t eat swordfish, but guess what he brought home for their dinner party?   And he’s late for the dinner anyway, because he was busy getting busy with his pretty assistant.  He confides in his friend Paul, and, wouldn’t you know it, Paul tells his wife who turns around and tells Ryan’s wife.  So the next thing Ryan knows he’s out on his porch with nothing but a bag full of clothes.  And, just when you think Ryan has hit rock bottom, the mistress-assistant turns up bound and gagged in his basement.  It all looks awfully swordfishy for Ryan.  How is he going to wiggle out of this one?

It’s a solid set-up for a thriller, but unfortunately for 13 Cameras, that previous paragraph is not the set-up, but the whole movie.  And though it could be told in a single awkward dinner party evening, it takes a whole hour and a half of your life and weeks of the characters’ lives to get out.  And once it’s out, Brad is promptly brained by a ballpeen hammer.  The hand on the handle of that hammer belongs to their creepy, mouth-breathing landlord whom they met when they moved in!  A few minutes later, the credits roll and that’s that.

13 Cameras tells two stories at the same time.  In one, Ryan’s marriage is falling apart.  In the other, their landlord is spying on them through tiny surveillance cameras.  Sometimes he comes by the house when they’re gone and installs cameras in the basin of the toilet and then uses their toothbrushes.  Eventually he kidnaps the assistant and keeps her hostage in the basement of his rental house while Ryan and Claire are still living in it, which seems like a really bad idea except as a contrivance to make it seem like the two stories are related by putting them in the same house.  It’s two stories on two stories!
Thus, with the landlord, we watch the dull and predictable demise of a doomed marriage between a heartless dickbag and a witless pregnant waif.  When the landlord attacks them in the last fifteen minutes, they’re all like WTF since they didn’t even know the landlord was even a character in the movie of their lives.   I was so relieved that the whole thing was coming to an end that I didn't even care that the cameras aren't a factor in either of the two stories or that I don’t know a whole lot about the landlord beyond "garden-variety heavy-breathing pervert" (to the movie's credit though, this is something the actor, Neville Archambault, does really well).

13 Cameras mildly fulfills the obligatory voyeurism-nudity expectation with a few shots of Ryan’s mistress in the shower.  We see her naked torso while the movie cuts back and forth to the creepy landlord googly-eyeing her delicate parts on his PC.  Interestingly though, when the wife, Claire, takes a shower, he also watches her, but this time only through the cameras that give a tight-framed shot of her face.   It’s refreshing how the landlord respects the terms of the actresses’ contracts.

With the exception of Archambault's lumbering creep, the performances are fairly shallow, with PJ Moncrief succeeding perhaps too well in making the audience detest Ryan.  The characters are unlikeable and unrelatable, probably owing to the fact that they don’t talk human talk and seem either pointlessly mean or annoyingly helpless.  The two exceptions might be the mistress, who seems understandably self-hating for getting involved with Ryan, and the friend Paul, who is annoyed that he ever became friends with Ryan in the first place.   

The big thing I couldn't get past, however, was the two-plots problem.  But this is really difficult to explain without developing far-flung analogies.  

It begins with these statistics of dubious value in the opening placards.

From those, you think that this movie is going to be about the invasions of privacy and dangers of undetected surveillance.  But then the cameras don’t really do anything—it’s not like the creepy landlord uses them to terrorize his victims—it’s just, like, what he watches when he’s chilling at his pad and no one’s the wiser.  

Let’s put it this way, the fact that someone is watching Ryan and the fail parade of his marriage is disturbing in a similar way that bed mites are disturbing.  Throw up a couple placards about all the microorganisms that live in our beds and eat our dead skin.  Millions!  In our beds!  Every night!  It’s a little unsettling.  So then the movie starts and we watch Ryan and his mistress and his wife going about their affect-less parody of suburban life. And every so often the film cuts to microscope shots of bed mites, eating cells of dead flesh, and then back to them talking in bed or sleeping or banging or what not.  What they’re doing in bed is not the point.  The point is that they don’t even know that the bed mites are in there with them!  Icky, sure, but not really thrilling.

That is, Ryan and his self-hating admirers don’t have a camera problem, they have a psycho pervert landlord problem.  But they don’t even know about that problem until the very end of the movie.

Another analogy?  Sure, why not.  Imagine a movie that begins with placards about the dangers of choking on walnuts.  Millions of walnuts are sold every day, the placards tell us.  Hundreds of people have choked on walnuts and other hard grains since 2005!  Got it?

And then the movie starts, and you watch Ryan feebly try to deceive his pregnant wife who is clinging desperately to both her marriage and her belly.  Cut to Claire buying groceries, and slow-motion zoom in on the checker’s hand as he slides a bag of walnuts across the scanner.  Watch out girl!  But, na├»ve and undeterred, Claire just goes about her day—she doesn’t know that her husband is cheating on her, and she doesn’t know about the legumes of terror in her grocery bag! Dialogue happens: why are you late for dinner?  Lots of traffic.  Whose panties are these?  I don’t know, not mine.  Oh, ok, I just found them, and, say, do you want to decorate the nursery with me? 

A few minutes in though, the music gets creepy, they both go to sleep and the camera pans through the darkened and empty house to focus on . . . a dish of walnuts!  This continues throughout the movie, which is basically a soulless and clunky domestic drama intercut with shots of the walnuts.  One time, Claire even picks up the walnut and is about to put it into her mouth when she’s distracted by her phone.  She drops the walnut, and it rolls under the couch.  The camera follows it.  The walnut rolls to a stop and abides.  Waiting.  It’s a metaphor or something.

Tension builds, Claire figures out that he’s having an affair?  How?  Because her friend tells her (how’s that for clever denoument?).  And this all unravels in between even tighter, closer, bigger shots of the walnut under the couch.  Until, at the climax, Claire collapses by the couch, “how could you?” she asks, and one of her hands knocks the walnut out from under the couch.  It rolls to a stop between Brad’s feet.  He picks it up absently.  He cracks it in the nutcracker.  It’s all he has left, this dry morsel of bitterness.  Claire watches as he brings the kernel to his mouth.  Is this it? 
And then a large figure comes flying through the door with a ballpeen hammer, kills Brad with it and yells menacingly at Claire.  Who is it?  From the close-focus shot of the walnut lying, as self-satisfied as a walnut can look, in a puddle of Brad’s blood, the camera pans up to reveal . . . the check-out guy from the grocery store!  It was him all along!   

Nuts, man.

Questions for Joe:
1.  Were there really 13 cameras? 

JD: Holy shit, dude, I still can't believe it was the check out clerk.

2.  The cop in the final scene has a band-aid on his face.  Why?

JD:  It could have been a shaving cut. Jesus Christ, how many people do razors cut every day? You know I have one of those in my HOUSE? What if my cat got a hold of it?

3.  The landlord, at one point in the movie, touches Claire’s belly and says “girl.”  But at the end of the movie we discover that she had a boy.  Should you be embarrassed if you guess at the sex of an unborn child and get it wrong?

JD: Oh wow, he did get it wrong. What is the point of that? He should have told her a name he liked. "You should name her Walnut." Expecting parents hate that. Not as much as getting hit with hammers, but still.

4.  Why doesn’t the landlord keep his captives in the soundproof dungeon he has at his apartment?

JD: Well, if the married couple found her he could always turn it back on them and dangle the security deposit in their faces. He could also threaten to expose Ryan's affair. And if Ryan were like "Prove it, big shot" oh boy howdy, would he have the proof RIGHT there.

5.  Why doesn't Claire confront Ryan about the strange panties she finds in her laundry?

JD: Were those strange panties? I didn't pick up on that. I was just sitting there, breathing heavily and looking uncomprehendingly at a woman looking at panties. Fuck. I wonder if the pervert landlord picked up on that detail. Did he do a better job of watching the movie than I did?

6.  How do the filmmakers know that 8,000 people were watched without their knowledge in their homes last year?  Does it count if it's just your cat giving you the ol' kitty-cat death stare while you're sleeping?

JD: Given the dangers of nuts, I googled the number of times cats have killed people. And aside from sitting on baby faces, cats haven't killed anybody. They're like the idiot, cross-eyed, psychos living in our houses, watching us, planning murder, and failing at it. But what if they got our razors? Would you let your cat shave you? 

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