Showing 1 - 3 of 3 Reviews
Posted on 8/16/11 01:59 PM
Is it a sign that I am maturing as a movie critic that I can love a film's theme on a deeply personal level and still not love the film?
Most reviews that I've seen for The Pet discuss its "shocking" content. For many, no doubt, this will be the case. The Pet deals with the rarely-addressed topic of consensual human slavery, and explores this concept with very good attention to setting, direction and mood. Unfortunately, it fails in most other areas, and because of these, I cannot recommend this film, even not at all being personally shocked by its content.
The Pet can best be compared to Secretary, a movie that explored very similar concepts. Both dealt with powerful men looking for someone to train to their purposes, and finding it in a woman on the one hand meek and shy, and on the other full of the strong internal reserve necessary to see her offer for what it is: a chance to leave behind the burdens of an often ugly world with ugly people, and let someone else do the thinking for her, in exchange for her keeper's unconditional love and care. And the Pet does have moments where it shows the beauty of this relationship well. Unfortunately, unlike Secretary, these moments are mostly fleeting. On the whole the Pet is awkward, at times it's awfully contrived, and overall it leaves the viewer with a feeling that they've just watched an amateur film.
There are two targets for blame, and the first is Andrea Edmondson, who plays Mary, or eventually "GG". Put bluntly, she can't act. Now let me be clear and say that I'm easier on actors than most movie critics, and I know I probably couldn't do much better. But especially in a movie where the central conflict is a psychological one between her and her owner Philip (Pierre Du Lat), this constantly snaps us out of whatever spell The Pet tries to cast. She's unable to tap into the nuances of emotion that are so important to understanding her choices; and as a result, we are unable to tap into her.
A second problem that critically compounds this is the film's screenplay. The Pet does a good job at showing you the elements of GG and Philip's relationship. What it doesn't do well is tie them together. GG goes from perfectly docile to angrily denouncing her treatment to stripping right back down again and (literally) kissing Philip's feet without giving us any of the moments of contemplation in between in which you see her do the math necessary to make these internal adjustments. In Secretary, all of the film's best dialogue was unspoken. It was in the silent but deafening stares between Edward and Lee that their power battle raged. All those are gone here. Combined with Edmonson's emotive problems, this makes her character simply unreachable, and thus undermines The Pet's central goal of understanding why someone would willingly choose this life.
All this is not to say that this movie doesn't try. The Pet is filled with sundry images, situations and side characters waiting for a solid foundation from which to hang. Philip is both a bit better realized and acted. Though he could also use more subtlety in all areas, as well as maybe a solid flaw or two, his love for his pets is obvious and seductive. Other characters are even more effective, best among these perhaps being James (Aaron Patrick Freeman) a friend who deals primarily in the non-consensual side, raising his own pet acquired as payment of debt.
Perhaps the best "character" in the movie, however is Philip's home. A sprawling castle, he is a modern day Citizen Kane still looking for his Rosebud. When he finds it in Mary, who he renames GG for "Good Girl", and we see her curled out in his gently cruel tetrahedron of a cage, we feel his poetic power, and thus, start to understand her loyalty. His world is one of brilliant beauty. As we sink into it, it's not hard to understand how anyone would want to, especially when contrasted against her frat-boy jerk of a boyfriend.
But then in some of these secondary characters the film starts to fall apart again. Charles is such an utter prick that we can't even imagine how anyone would want to date him. And James's pet Taps was Nicky, and Nicky's boyfriend is so eager to just fork her right over as partial payment for his debts (and she is so quick to accept) that our disbelief unsuspends. Over and over we see what the elements of this world, but over and over again, they are thrown in with so little thought about flow that we can't accept them.
This is a true shame given that the film attempts to further address this concept by throwing in a audacious subplot. Philip is shown to be part of a powerful and sinister subculture of human trafficking. It shows, in other words, what actual slavery looks like, and how dangerous a game it is to keep these two worlds apart. And if it wasn't obvious just from the story itself, the movie's opening and closing title screens leave nothing to the imagination. Slavery is not having a choice, it boldly preaches, following with a long list of countries and what is believed to be their role in this trade, including the US. Few movies are as clear about their message as this one, and in that sense, it does make its point effectively. "Those are the slaves. Leave this girl alone," The Pet indirectly implores us. We're hard-pressed in watching this to come up with an effective reason to ignore this admonishment and stick our nose in where it appears its clearly not wanted by anyone involved.
This side story factors into the movie's conclusion, and the shame of the movie's shortcoming's becomes apparent then, as a ending of true poignancy is dulled by how forced the plot was in arriving at it. And as we see final shots of GG playing naked on the beach, we see The Pet's central missed opportunity. Whatever her other flaws, once Edmonson goes all the way, we truly see a pet. She embodies it. We want to love her the way we love any pet, and we feel Philip's pride and affection for her. But since we really can't feel how she got there, we ultimately miss out on that chance.
If you want to see a movie that explores the complexities of the chosen unequal relationship, see Secretary. Only see The Pet if you want to specifically see what could be so attractive about being one, and you're willing to wade through some very well-meaning but ultimately flawed cinema to get there.
Posted on 8/16/11 01:52 PM
For as important to the history of music as the Pet Shop Boys are - they have quietly become the most successful duo of all time - few people even know of the existence of their lone cinematic effort, and even fewer have seen it. Is this a bad thing? Even most of their fans say "no", and having seen it, it's hard to disagree with them. It Couldn't Happen Here is not a good movie, nor is it really an important movie. But from a certain perspective, it can possibly be considered an interesting movie. Maybe, in its own way, even interesting enough to recommend to the right type of movie lover.
ICHH is essentially an 82 minute music video using most of the Pet Shop Boys catalog, which at that point consisted of two albums plus their excellent cover of Always On My Mind, which would appear on their third. That is part of the movie's weakness. They simply didn't have enough music to do this concept justice. Songs repeat, both in part and in full. Some songs are recited as spoken word poetry after having heard them in full, often sounding just silly in addition to redundant. At one point the title song, with lyrics, plays above dialogue, leaving the viewer unsure where to focus. This is a curious disconnect for a duo who has made their living from knowing how to entice through music.
An early scene highlights this dissonance, while at the same time perhaps making the point of the movie. An apparently schoolboy version of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are watching a ferris wheel spin round, with one car after another filled with some type of adult idiocy gliding by. The closest the movie has to a plot has the Boys traveling the countryside encountering all manners of such absurdity, while Tennant, the duo's vocalist, sends postcards home about what it was like growing up; and in the process, most of what he describes winds up getting re-played out in front of him, like some recurrent nightmare. By the time we get to the dummy that waxes existentialist over the meaning of time in a cafe, we get what we think is the central theme: life, for those two, has been ridiculous, confusing, and horrifically boring from the start. And, rather than try to explain why, they have simply dealt with it all by being amused and detached from the whole spectacle, watching it all with a quiet and usually sad humor. And Tennant and Lowe are inviting you along so you can see it the same way for a little while.
This is all well and good, and certainly makes for a unique experience. It also makes it one we can empathize with: we've known half these clowns. But that said, it still doesn't make it a good experience. An early scene shows Lowe packing his bags and running away from it all. Well yes, a great many of us have run away from it all as well. So why are we now running back to it?
Neil Tennant has been quoted about this movie that it made him realize "one thing, that he couldn't act". Admirable though it is, I can fortunately disagree with this humility. Tennant and Lowe both do fine, even if it is only in the playing of themselves. We see them in the film as we see them just about everywhere else: silent, contemplative, a bit aloof without almost ever smiling, and Tennant occasionally punctuating the silence with singing, in his uniquely soothing voice. And when that starts, we're reminded why we put this film on. The Pet Shop Boys are fantastic musicians. As each song opens, it's hard not to sing along, even if almost none of the songs are about anything uplifting (of course, if you're no fan of them in the first place this point is moot ... but then, why the heck are you watching this?). Their brooding may not work as cinema, but it works fantastically as music. The movie's title track, a slow theatrical piece, sets a wonderful and appropriate mood for the film (even if, again, we hear it too much). And the song Rent, one of their most critically acclaimed, is put to a very elegant dance number - and since this movie is unreal right from the start, we don't even question it.
When we come to movie's conclusion in the dance hall with the Boys assuming their role as DJs, we see that this is where they have led us: the same path they were on themselves. No, we don't understand the point of the mass murderer masquerading as a on-and-off blind preacher, or a pilot screaming about dividing by zero while inexplicably mowing down our heroes in their car. They don't either. But whatever it meant, it got us to the disco. Here, it all makes sense. All of that is left behind. Here, just the music matters, just the feeling. The closing track "One More Chance" seals it: this is where they get to try again, and do this time do it their way.
Understanding this theme, can I recommend the movie? Not really. At the same time, there is far worse you can watch, and certainly you're not going to find all that many movies as unique as this. So in that sense, especially if you want to understand where the Pet Shop Boys are going with their primary profession, you could do worse with your time, and it is short as movies go. No, I can't really say that their method of dealing with the madness of civilization by being detached from it all is what I would do: on some level, I think this just feeds into exactly the problem that they themselves are reacting to. And yet, like the path of countless artists before them, this has led them to create some works of true beauty. So as we see them in their element, we listen to their preferred craft, and we see the crowd dancing in tune to them, it's hard not to be left with one admitting conclusion:
"Hey... if it works for you..."
Posted on 8/16/11 01:40 PM
Movies, like other social elements, tend to form groups. Typically these groups are general: genre, time period, etc. Sometimes they're more specific. One movie will get linked to another, usually more successful film. So is the case with The 13th Floor, which came out at about the same time as and was largely eclipsed by The Matrix.
So with 11 years hindsight, can we look back and conclude that this was fair? For the most part, I say yes. T13F pales in comparison to the Wachowski's lightning bolt. But at the same time, this is more a reflection on The Matrix than on this film. Taken by itself, The 13th Floor is quality, if forgettable, cinema.
Because T13F fits into the "What is reality" theme alluded to above, it's difficult to know exactly where to draw the line on spoilers. The movie meshes this pontification with an old-fashioned whodunnit, meaning that new revelations are constantly being thrown at the viewer. One thing I can safely say, however, is that the plot makes sense. Others have accused this movie of being confusing. I'm sure that's the case with some viewers. However, the reason for this is that the film takes its premise seriously, which in this case means that the narrative becomes something of a Gordian Knot. So if you aren't willing to untangle a multi-layered storyline, then this film might not be for you.
If you are, then you will see an interesting story about not just what reality is, but what our place in it is. And while it doesn't really blaze any new ground even discounting The Matrix, it recovers the same ground intelligently.
(MINOR SPOILERS BEGIN)
T13F reveals its alternate reality motif right from the start. Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is shown stepping into and then out of his virtual playground. While in, he tries to deliver a note to Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) about something extraordinary he has found; and in the real world, he is promptly murdered. Hall, an employee and close friend of Fuller, before he even knows that Fuller was trying to contact him, becomes the prime suspect, a situation compounded by the worrisome fact that he himself cannot remember what he was doing at the time of the murder.
Right from this start this assault of different puzzle pieces cues the audience to suspect everyone and everything. As a result, where the movie eventually takes it is someplace a lot of people will guess, though probably few of anyone will guess all of the details. Fortunately, the motivations for all of the characters, once you get to the point of figuring out what they all are in the first place, generally makes sense. Individuals don't just suddenly become antagonists because the film demands it. Even the less agreeable ones are as caught up in the confusion as we are.
Unfortunately this creates a significant flaw. Because the personalities of the characters involved change in conjunction with their jacking in and out, we're not really sure exactly who we are rooting for. This isn't to say that the movie doesn't have a clear protagonist in Douglas Hall. But even looking at him, we don't know him. Hall isn't developed well, and while that is partially due to the fact that doing so in the wrong way would reveal too much that the film is trying to keep secret until the right time, there is probably more that could have been done to flesh him out early to let us be with him, not just watch him. Other characters have this problem even more, though to some extent, that's also less of a problem, since as long as we're with Hall, we're sharing his suspicions.
This makes it a bit difficult at first to judge the film's acting, but once we know what we're looking at enough to be able to, we see a good set of performances all around. Perhaps the most straightforward is LAPD Detective Larry McBain (Dennis Haysbert), who nails the traditional role well without making it feel cliche. Whitney (Vincent D?Onofrio) also does a fine job in the numerous manifestations he inhabits: in all of his appearances, he seems to fit the part perfectly. Jane Fuller (Gretchen Mol) seems stiff and awkward at first, but again, you need to go the distance with her to understand her story, and doing so acquits her well. And Mueller-Stahl, who gets more screen time than you would guess given that he dies not 10 minutes into the proceedings, also slips into multiple worlds with an easy grace.
On odd point is that the movie, in a lot of ways, gets the virtual world right more than the real world. The simulated reality is 1936 Los Angeles and, though I can't really say so from direct experience, it feels like it fits. On the other hand, we have to stifle giggles when the computer in the 1990s is spitting out Star-Trek sounding alert messages, with the requisite big red timers in toe. Especially when so many other films have represented what modern technology actually looks like well, this is inexcusably lazy and sloppy.
While T13F will likely never get the reputation that The Matrix has for so perfectly fusing action and philosophy, this isn't a dumb movie. Good questions about the nature of the individual are raised, and more interestingly, this movie does not provide any clear answers. Different characters deal with the "reality" of their situation in different ways, and this does result in a decent enough dissertation on the nature of choice, free will versus programming. In fact, if this movie doesn't get a reputation for being a leader in this pack, it's not for not taking these ideas seriously: it's for simply putting them out there enough to make it clear that their story has a point, and then once that is established, simply moving on and telling it without getting too boringly ponderous. Here's the idea: now go form your own opinions.
If you are looking for a good, well-paced, well thought-out story and little more than that to fill the time some evening, The 13th Floor is a good pick. It is solid, well-crafted cinema. As long as you don't go into it with any higher expectations than that, you shouldn't be disappointed.