Blog Archives

The Cell (2000) [Review Re-View]

Released August 16, 2000:

Welcome to the not too distant future where the miracle of science (i.e. red bodysuits and washcloths over people’s faces) allow you to transport your mind into that of another individual. So what happens when a serial killer snags a catch only to be dropped into a coma with no way of discovering where his victim is before time runs out? Well we send Jennifer Lopez into his head — duh! The Latina songstress (and as my girlfriend would say, “Thankfully song-less.”) transports herself to learn the secrets of Mr. Madman before his next victim becomes just a number on a sheet. Sound contrived, like the movie was in production before they had a workable script? You’re not alone. One-named director Tarsem is from the land of music videos but for the life of me I can’t think of one he’s done.

Perhaps the excruciatingly long Nine Inch Nails promo would be less frustrating if the outpourings of creepy imagery meant something. Despite the desire to explain the inside cerebrum of a crazy man, 90% of the imagery is there for the simple sake that it looks cool. Lopez plays Alice to a lumbering wonderland of dark images and a mind-numbingly clattering musical score. Would someone please explain to me why a CGI vine grew on screen for five minutes then went away?

Lopez speaks in whispers, Vaughn speaks like he’s on Ritalin, and the movie speaks that if you had abuse as a kid it’s okay to trap women in self-filling aquarium cubes and bleach them into albino Barbies. Won’t see that in your typical after school special.

The Cell may present some things you’ve never seen before, like a jack-in-the-box theme to twirling intestines, but too often it presents things you have seen much too often in film — boredom.

Nate’s Grade: D

——————————————————

WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I really thought The Cell might be better twenty years later but no. I was fairly critical back in 2000, referring to it as one of the worst movies of that year, and twenty years later it put me to sleep. Never a great sign for your entertainment. I had to re-watch the final act of this movie twice, and then I reviewed certain scenes a few more times just for good measure to make sure I wasn’t missing anything essential. The Cell doesn’t really play like a movie. It plays more like the film adaptation of a video game. The premise is promising, a psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) that has to venture into the twisted mind of a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) in order to extract key info before time runs out finding his latest victim. We got something there. However, the actual movie becomes little more than an enterprise for director Tarsem Singh (Immortals) to get drunk on his lavish visual self-indulgences. As my 18-year-old self observed, it does feel like a 90-minute Nine Inch Nails music video.

I suppose The Cell could have been a harbinger of a sub-genre of movies that has multiplied in indie horror, namely the atmospheric movie where the atmosphere is the entire point. Forget story, forget characters, forget setups and payoffs, forget basic emotional investment; the film is simply constructed to deliver strange and memorable imagery and an overwhelming feeling of discomfort and/or transcendence. This isn’t a new sub-genre. David Lynch has been dabbling in this realm for decades, and Terrence Malick fully converted around the time of The Cell’s theatrical release (granted his atmospheric dawdles are considered more high-art). Dear reader, I’ll fully admit my own filmmaking tastes and biases and confess this sub-genre rarely does much for me. That’s because, in my personal experience, the atmosphere gets repetitious and predictable and without greater investment I just grow bored. I completely acknowledge that there is an audience that feels the opposite, that celebrates the immersive quality of giving one’s self into the visual decadence of a filmmaker creating a vivid dream to tempt and confuse your senses. I get it, but it’s not for me, and so I found The Cell to be overall empty and tedious.

Credit where it’s rightfully due, the visuals on display are often striking and luscious, as are the amazing costumes that were shockingly not nominated for the Academy Award that year (The Cell did receive a nomination for Best Make-Up). The sequences are gorgeously composed starting with the opening of Lopez riding a black horse through the desert and then scaling the dunes, each shot so artfully composed that it could be mass produced as a postcard. Tarsem is a gifted visual artist and has been from his early days as an in-demand music video director in the 1990s (R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” En Vogue’s “Hold On”). The mind of a serial killer allows the man to open up the bizarre and grotesque imagery we would expect from that slippery setting. There’s one scene where a series of glass partitions slice a horse into slimmer portions and then spread out the still-breathing remains. There are definite nods to classical baroque painting, like Caravaggio. The various incarnations of our serial killer’s demons gave me a reason to keep watching. There’s demon horn version, giant purple curtain caped version, Alice in Wonderland version, and a final incarnation that resembles a Star Trek alien crossed with Michael Keaton’s Birdman. There is a draw to exploring a brain built upon trauma and abuse and mental illness. It’s like the horror version of Inception. However, while commendable from a production and visceral standpoint, the plot diversions have the feel of visiting the most messed up museum, taking in display cases and then moving onto the next. There’s little here beyond the superficial and the imagery, while artful, is too disposable and ephemeral.

I’m slightly surprised Tarsem hasn’t had a bigger career in feature films. He delivers pretty much what you would ask a visually decadent director to do with this material. It took him many years to get his next film up and running, 2006’s The Fall, and from there it’s been a series of studio-friendly jobs, each further neutering his distinct visual style (watch 2015’s Self/less and tell me it’s the same director of The Cell). He seemed like the kind of artist who might follow Michel Gondry’s (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) path but it didn’t seem to play out that way.

Music videos in the 1990s became the fertile training ground for Hollywood to snatch up-and-coming talent for their projects, but looking back, very few of those directors had lasting feature film careers. Not everyone is going to be a David Fincher or a Spike Jonze or even a Francis Lawrence. Many of the most influential and prominent names, like Hype Williams (Belly), Samuel Bayer (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2009), Joseph Kahn (Torque), Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways), Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), Jonus Akerlund (Spun), and Dave Meyers (The Hitcher 2007) only got one or two movies to prove themselves as long-form filmmakers. You have your directors that were attached to action movies, like McG, Marc Webb, Marcus Nispel, Mark Pellington, and most successfully, Michael Bay (strange that they all start with “M”). I’m sure my general ignorance of contemporary music videos (beyond Billie Eilish it would seem) has kept me from citing more names that made the big leap. I guess this paragraph was just examining that most prominent music video directors don’t seem to last in the studio system unless they can prove themselves to be reliable purveyors of mainstream action.

The only real actor worth noting here is D’Onofrio (Men in Black). He gets to be gleefully weird, his favorite kind of acting. He looks like he’s having fun scaring Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) and inhabiting the different demons of a very disturbed soul. Lopez is perfectly fine but almost entirely reactionary here, like she’s a video game avatar going from one dark corner to another as she clears stage after stage. Her biggest acting was simply putting on the weighty costumes. Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers) is completely wasted as a determined F.B.I. agent desperate to find the last victim before she drowns in one of those movie-world elaborate death traps. All of the scenes outside the killer’s psyche are a general waste and serve as monotonous running-time padding. That also includes a deleted scene, restored for the BluRay release, where the killer suspends himself from metallic piercings over a corpse and masturbates onto her body while watching another woman drown in his elaborate death trap. It’s so absurdly try-hard that it’s stunning. This scene offers no further insights into the character, only another gratuitous excuse to be transparently “edgy.”

Looking back at my original review at age 18, I’m struck by how much I agree with my younger self (good job, me). I didn’t have much to say beyond my general dissatisfaction with the boring narrative and the pretty yet vacant visuals. I would classify this review as one of my glibber entries, something I’ve noticed with bad movies and generally being a smart allecky teenager. I do think that perhaps I should raise my grade only slightly due to the level of visual flair. It’s certainly not a fun movie, or an interesting one, or even a good one, but The Cell is first-rate fetish wallpaper.

Re-View Grade: C-

Kinsey (2004)

Bill Condon’s probing, fascinating biopic of Indiana University sex pioneer Kinsey (Liam Neeson) could not come out at a more important time. Kinsey lived in the Dark Ages of sexuality and fought against what he saw as “morality disguised as fact.” Kinsey broke barriers studying the science of sexuality and gathered nationwide statements to amass the first thorough book on what’s under the sun and what’s going on under the sheets. Today, we live in a splintered world where people listen to information that affirms their beliefs, and tune out contradictory evidence even if it’s fact (look at the latest report on abstinence-only programs dishing out highly erroneous information). Kinsey railed against this dangerous line of thinking. The man was no saint and had issue comprehending some of the more complicated human emotions. Kinsey is exceptionally well acted and Neeson gives a career best performance. Kinsey is fearlessly graphic in its frank discussion but also enormously intelligent. The fact that conservative groups are actually protesting it shows that Kinsey’s work is far from over.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

No other movie had higher expectations than Spider-Man 2 and no other movie met and trounced those expectations than director Sam Raimi’s high-flying webslinging sequel. Spider-Man 2 was that rare sequel that excelled in near every way. The action sequences were lively and highly exciting, but what made Spider-Man 2 so thrilling was its success in building strong emotional characters. After all, how many superhero films are written by the writer of Ordinary People? (One wonders what he would have done with Catwoman) Alfred Molina, as Doc Ock, made for a great formidable foe and brought surprising humanity to the dastardly part. Spider-Man 2 was a momentous crowd-pleaser that also dazzled the hardest critics. It reaffirmed exactly what a summer popcorn film can make us feel.

Nate’s Grade: A

Along Came a Spider (2001)

Anybody not tired of the serial killer genre yet? To that one out of the millions who raised their hand in the far back – you’re in luck! Enjoy Kiss the Girls? That same one in the back is even more fortunate. Here comes Along Came a Spider and its banality will knock you off any tuffet. Is that a word even used anymore? Spider is a continuation of the characters in Kiss the Girls (even though Spider was written before Girls). Morgan Freeman returns as Alex Cross, a hard-nosed police detective and best-selling novelist on criminal profiling. He’s suffering from Cliffhanger syndrome: the amassing of guilt from seeing someone close die in the line of duty and blaming themselves for it. See Morgan lost a female partner in a botched sting that opens the film with the worst CGI scene I’ve ever seen. He has a scene of regret then moves on to the case at hand, only to inevitably have the situation come up again and be the test of his nerves. It’s all standard cliche.

The crime that draws all our characters in revolves around the kidnapping of a Senator’s daughter at a lofty private school in Washington D.C. This is no serial killer movie, no, it’s a kidnap movie. Whatever the crime this flick centers on it still follows the superfluous serial killer movie rules to a grizzled T.

Monica Potter plays a Secret Service agent assigned to protect the girl who becomes involved with the case with her extensive knowledge of the kidnapper, Professor Sonje (Michael Wincott). Potter has previously been seen as the sad wife in Con Air, the dead chick in Patch Adams, and the girl who stars next to the guy whose acting is all about flat-lining in Head Over Heels. So in these terms Along Came a Spider is a step up. Her character is pedestrian and un-involved. She has no edge or depth and every time she’s on screen.

Freeman, God love him, needs to start learning how to say “no” to any serial killer (kidnap film) offered to him. He’s a great actor but the Alex Cross solves killers (kidnappers) franchise isn’t one to tie his rope around. Freeman does his best and brightens the film when it sags, but even he can’t save it. And his Executive Producer credit seems all the more ominous.

Naturally, an audience is left to disbelieve some of the absurdities of the genre but Along Came a Spider piles them too high and too fast to disbelieve. The kidnapper disguises himself as a plump British history teacher for a whole two YEARS in preparation for his act. Two years?! What would happen if she ever transferred? The worst part is his name – Sonje. Every time I hear the name it makes me giggle a bit. I cannot take anything seriously when the bad guy is named Sonje (“We’ll do whatever you want Sonje, just don’t harm the girl!”). Sprinkle unintentional laughter throughout. And for kidnappers and criminals these have got to be the dumbest since Colonel Klink. There is a scene where the kidnapper gives the detained child a meal… with a fork and knife! It’s like going to a prison and giving certain members scissors and leaving them alone for two hours.

If you are having a serial whatever movie you must make your serial whatever man intriguing or turn the flick into a guessing game until the end credits. The serial killer (I’m saying this now because he does kill multiple people – so there!) in Along Came a Spider is bland as can be, despite the wonderfully rich and venomous voice of Wincott. How as an audience are we to be enthralled with a whiny adversary that bores us?

There are numerous other head-smacking absurdities. Like when our ace Morgan Freeman looks to a computer belonging to a suspect and instantly remembers an off-hand remark in one conversation that of course is the password. And he even spells it correctly with an inclusion of a symbol!

The movie is based on James Patterson’s novels all seeming to have nursery rhyme style titles. Directed by Lee Tamahori (Mullholland Falls, The Edge), it has moments of briskness that at least keep the pacing alive. On its whole the film still does not work. It feels like reheated serial killer (kidnapper) movie just out of a Tupperware container. Along Came a Spider is nothing new, nothing different, and nothing truly entertaining. Pray for Morgan Freeman please.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Thirteen Days (2000)

Another Kevin Costner film?! I’d rather suffer uncontrollable urination problems!” you could be saying to yourself. After Costner’s recent track record, hearing that he’ll have full Bostonian accent in hand seems a little nerve-racking. But despite Costner’s beantown speech 13 Days is a real surprise in just how much tension it actually wrings from the true story of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Though 13 Days will suffer from the same problem Titanic did, people know their history and know how it ends. Though we all know we weren’t obliterated in nuclear war (At least I hope the majority of us know) 13 Days shows us the suspense through back-door politics as a fly on the wall in the White House. The audience sees all the political wrangling and power struggles in this cat-and-mouse game that made two nations hold their breathes in a high stakes stare-down. Bruce Greenwood, mainly known for beguiling Tommy Lee Jones in an assortment of flicks, plays our Commander in Chief John F. Kennedy. Costner seems to be a presidential advisor that could easily be mistaken for JFK’s imaginary friend the amount of time they spend together alone. Steven Culp plays Bobby Kennedy, and the fab threesome make up the core team that handled this bombastic situation. Of course there are dozens of other individuals involved within varying degrees, with the military leaders wanting procedures to lead them to inevitable war with Communist Soviets.

The warhawks recommend a Cuban invasion whereas the option of a quarantine hangs in sight as well. Through the next trying thirteen days stress will accumulate as options become more clear as deadlines become clearer. The political maneuvering makes for a gripping story, though a tad punched up at certain areas. It proves time and again that history makes the best stories.

Let’s get down to what’s on everyone’s mind: how much is the suck-ratio zooming on Kevin Costner in this picture? Well, his accent is very very jarring to begin with but you kind of get used to it after ten minutes of wear and tear. Costner does an alright acting job but the real spotlight is on the Kennedy brothers. Greenwood and Culp turn in star-making performances that gives human glimpses to the already prolific Kennedys. Culp is outstanding as Bobby, showing that the superiors discount him because of his young age but that he’s a shrewd and thoughtful politician. Greenwood doesn’t exactly sound like JFK but he adds particular dimension to the man behind the center of the crisis.

13 Days is a prime example of showing how intense and frightening fiction can be. Director Roger Donaldson uses black and white interludes for no real reason, but his final product is one of nail-biting suspense.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Cell (2000)

Welcome to the not too distant future where the miracle of science (i.e. red bodysuits and washcloths over people’s faces) allow you to transport your mind into that of another individual. So what happens when a serial killer snags a catch only to be dropped into a coma with no way of discovering where his victim is before time runs out? Well we send Jennifer Lopez into his head — duh! The Latina songstress (and as my girlfriend would say, “Thankfully song-less.”) transports herself to learn the secrets of Mr. Madman before his next victim becomes just a number on a sheet. Sound contrived, like the movie was in production before they had a workable script? You’re not alone. One-named director Tarsem is from the land of music videos but for the life of me I can’t think of one he’s done.

Perhaps the excruciatingly long Nine Inch Nails promo would be less frustrating if the outpourings of creepy imagery meant something. Despite the desire to explain the inside cerebrum of a crazy, 90% of the imagery is there for the simple sake that it looks cool. Lopez plays Alice to a lumbering wonderland of dark images and a mind-numbingly clattering musical score. Would someone please explain to me why a CGI vine grew on screen for five minutes then went away?

Lopez speaks in whispers, Vaughn speaks like he’s on Ritalin, and the movie speaks that if you had abuse as a kid it’s okay to trap women in self-filling aquarium cubes and bleach them into albino Barbies. Won’t see that in your typical after school special.

The Cell may present some things you’ve never seen before, like a jack-in-the-box theme to twirling intestines, but too often it presents things you have seen much too often in film — boredom.

Nate’s Grade: D

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2000” article.

%d bloggers like this: