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13 CAMERAS

Voyeurism has always been a part of human life, it seems, but it appears that our super-wired culture has made it ever more pervasive. The idea of being constantly watched without knowing it is the narrative crux of “13 Cameras” (originally titled, rather inappropriately, “Slumlord”), a tale of home invasion by electronic surveillance that adds a few twists to the rather simple plot, some of which, unfortunately, carry a strong dose of implausibility.

The boogeyman is Gerald (Neville Archambault), a thoroughly seedy, unkempt fellow who happens to own the attractive if somewhat isolated Southern California house he rents to young yuppie couple Ryan (P.J. McCabe) and Claire (Brianne Moncrief). Though she’s rather put off by the malodorous man, the place, complete with swimming pool, is entirely too good a bargain to pass up, and they’ve quickly moved in with their dog. Ryan regularly goes off to work in the city, while the extravagantly pregnant Claire begins obsessively decorating the room they’re turning into a nursery. Gerald, meanwhile, sits at a console of monitors where he, with even more determination, spies on their every move via the battery of miniscule cameras he’s situated in the place, using what he sees as an invitation to self-stimulation.

But the couple’s happiness turns out to be deceptive. Ryan is having an affair with his pretty assistant Hannah (Sarah Baldwin), and she’s getting impatient over his reluctance to dump his wife for her. Her insistence on calling him at all hours and even showing up at their doorstep makes Ryan increasingly scared that his current arrangement could blow up in his face. No wonder that his friend (Jim Cummings) urges him to end things with Hannah, while his wife (Heidi Niedermeyer) commiserates with Claire as she grows suspicious of Ryan. And Gerald is watching closely as everything slowly unfolds. But, of course, he doesn’t merely watch. As the situation develops he feels the need to intervene.

At the very least what Gerald does when Hannah decides enough is enough stretches credulity. It’s bad enough that Claire and Ryan moved into the house without questioning the need for Gerald to keep a locked “maintenance closet” in the hallway, but the way in which he now employs it not only borders on the ridiculous but crosses the line into absurdity with the addition of a few tacky bits of sound-proofing foam. And when things in that basement-posing-as-a-closet begin to go awry and an inevitable confrontation between Gerald and his tenants occurs, one not only has to swallow the notion that there are no neighbors within earshot to hear the shouts for help, but accept the cliché of cell phones that stubbornly refuse to function precisely when they’re most needed. An epilogue only accentuates the ludicrousness of the final half-hour.

There’s compensation, however, in the performances. Archambault is certainly creepy, and the fact that Gerald is a gruesome cipher only makes him more effective, while McCabe positively exudes callowness and both Moncrief and Baldwin prove pretty damsels-in-distress. One can also appreciate the tension that first-time writer-director Victor Zarcoff and his editor Derek Desmond bring to the first hour of the picture (the moody score by Paul Koch also helps), and the fact that except for a few instances, cinematographer Jess Dunlap eschews the jerky hand-held moves so overused in today’s horror flicks, opting for steady widescreen images that are well-framed, even occasionally elegant. And though the final act veers off the tracks, one can at least be grateful that the gore quotient is, compared to most today’s horror films, remarkably restrained.

It doesn’t so much remake formula as tweak it, but despite a few serious logical lapses down the stretch, Zarcoff’s slow-burning debut generates some genuine chills.

MILES AHEAD

This quasi-biopic about Miles Davis is obviously a labor of love for Don Cheadle, but it’s doubtful that viewers will respond to it with much affection. One can respect “Miles Ahead” for trying something different from the usual rote chronological approach in such films, but its solution proves more frustrating than enlightening.

The idea, one supposes, was to construct the picture like jazz improvisation, with wild gyrations—some fact-based, others totally invented—that would somehow cohere into a unified whole. Thus the establishment of a fictional encounter between Davis (Cheadle), during his late ‘70s reclusive, unproductive period, with an aspiring reporter named Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor). Their odyssey is connected with the script’s MacGuffin—a recent session tape by Davis that’s lusted after by his record label and by unscrupulous promoter Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has a young trumpeter (Lakeith Lee Stanfield) in tow. The theft and recovery of the tape involves confrontations and even a car chase and shootout, but the important aspect of the recording is that it reveals the nature of Davis’ isolation and points toward the recovery that led to the revival of his career.

This overarching tale—most of it fictional—is interrupted by flashbacks, most focusing on Davis’ marriage to Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a dancer whose attraction to him was undermined by his extreme possessiveness, as well as his addiction to drugs and alcohol. The suggestion is that the collapse of the marital relationship was a major cause of his professional descent—a theme “Miles Ahead” shares with “I Saw the Light,” the recent biopic about Hank Williams.

One has to admire the dexterity with which Cheadle, his co-writer Steven Baigelman and editors John Axelrad and Kayla M. Emter manage to stitch all the disparate material together into a reasonably smooth entity, even though the shifts in time and focus do demand persistent attention. Visually the film also deserves respect, with production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Gersha Phillips successfully capturing the look of the period (or rather periods), though Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography occasionally appears ragged, particularly in the ill-advised chase scenes involved in Davis’ efforts to retrieve that sessions tape—sequences that might be intended as riffs similar to those in jazz performance but come across as rather messy.

More consistently enjoyable is the musical side of things. Robert Glasper’s original score is melded nicely with cuts from Davis’ own records, and the combination dovetails imaginatively with the narrative transitions. One might well wish, though, for more examples of Davis’ artistry, which is given rather short shrift until a concluding concert sequence in which he performs with other musicians—again, an imaginary confection that also uses animated images from Davis’ own paintings. It points to the resurrection of Davis’ career in the eighties, but that productive part of his professional life is only hinted at rather than shown in any extensive form.

Throughout, however, Cheadle demonstrates his chameleon-life skill in capturing the various states of Davis’ persona at different points in his life. It’s a striking performance, if one that attends to the surface of the man more than his inner psychological makeup. McGregor is hampered by a character that’s a cliché from the start, as is Stuhlbarg; and similarly Corinealdi is hampered by the fact that Taylor is barely explored, presented only as a supportive woman who ultimately gets fed up with her husband’s recklessness. Stanfield has a few good moments as the ambitious up-and-comer.

It’s indisputable that the film is ambitious as well. Unfortunately, it’s a case of ambition exceeding actual accomplishment—Cheadle tries for a high note in “Miles Ahead” that he never manages to reach.