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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

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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-

Self/less (2015)

Selfless-posterThe most surprising thing about Self/less occurred approximately 115 minutes into the film itself, when it revealed that Tarsem Singh was the director. Tarsem is known for lavish visual cinematic canvases such as The Cell and Immortals, and to realize that this is the same man responsible for an otherwise disappointing and visually mundane sci-fi thriller, well it was a shock. Why hire a visual stylist and then restrict him to such a limited palate? Self/less is an intriguing premise (borrowed a tad from Seconds) and it keeps all the interesting ethical and psychological questions at bay to follow a generic thriller formula. There’s not one real surprise in this film; even the reveals and surprises will be easily telegraphed. Ben Kingsley plays Damian, a dying rich man who undergoes a risky experiment to live longer, having his consciousness transferred into a younger human host played by Ryan Reynolds. It’s another chance to be young, party, enjoy sexual relations with women who are more likely to go home with somebody who looks like Reynolds. There’s a catch: if he stops taking his special red pills, the host’s brain will take over control. That’s because, surprise, the bodies aren’t grown in labs but are human volunteers. Here could be some topical class exploitation and social commentary, but Self/less ignores the more intriguing direction at every point to play it safe. Damian finds his host’s family and from that point on it’s a series of chases with bad guys. One of those chases is actually fairly entertaining, utilizing a conjoined automobile in a clever and devastating way. It never feels like Reynolds and Kingsley are playing the same character. Reynolds’ charm is subsumed by this role and he feels adrift. I’ll admit that this movie is efficient and each scene pushes the story forward; it’s just the direction of that story I’d like to alter. Alas, Self/less is a competent but fairly underwhelming thriller that squanders its premise.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Immortals (2011)

Director Tarsem Singh has only made two movies but is widely regarded as one of the finest visual artists working in the film medium. He’s made tons of commercials, which is apt because his first feature, 2000’s The Cell, felt like the world’s longest perfume ad. While amazing in its design, the movie was incredibly stupid. I haven’t seen his other feature, the more personal work The Fall, a movie that nobody wanted to make. It’s probably because they regrettably saw The Cell. Now the guy seems downright prolific, with a Greek mythology action movie in release and next year an update on the Snow White fairytale, the first shot in the Great Snow White Duel of 2012 (Kristen Stewart stars in the other, next summer’s Snow White and the Huntsman).

In 1200 B.C., King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) is marching an army across Greece, laying waste to city after city. He’s looking for the mythical Epirus Bow, believed to be the only weapon capable of unleashing the titans, who were imprisoned after a war with the Olympian gods. Mankind’s only hope is Theseus (Henry Cavil), a strapping young lad born into low class. His real father is Zeus (Luke Evans) who keeps tabs on his spry son by posing as a wise old man (John Hurt). Phaedra (Freida Pinto) is a virgin oracle, a priestess who has been granted prophetic visions. Theseus rescues her and other prisoners of Hyperion. Together, they must find the bow and convince their countrymen to fight against the overwhelming forces of Hyperion. In the meantime, Zeus has sworn death to any god who interferes in the affairs of man and helps Theseus on his important quest.

One word I feel accurately that sums up the experience of watching Immortals is… “viscera.” This movie is obsessed with filming the destruction of human bodies in the most gloriously beautiful ways possible. The violence and gore are given an intensely operatic boost. One moment involves a god zips around the slow-moving mortals, smashing one head after another with his humongous war hammer. The scene plays out at a slower speed, allowing the explosions of glistening blood and skull to fill the screen, each a mesmerizing fireworks display of human goo. The visuals are often a balletic, phantasmagorical, Grand Guignol display of human carnage. When you watch this at home, you may need a squeegee to clean your TV. It’s mesmerizing to watch, getting lost in the painstaking yet sumptuous visuals, even when it’s buckets of spaltterific gore. There’s one scene involving a sledgehammer that’s guaranteed to make every male in the theater uncomfortably cross his legs. The final image is also memorably striking – the sky filled with thousands of battling titans and Olympians, suspended high in the air and hacking and slashing away (Grecian weather report: 50 percent chance of blood showers. Bring an umbrella).

Tarsem never skimps out when it comes to the look of his movies. Immortals looks like a living Renaissance painting; the director of photography should be credited to Caravaggio. Unlike Tarsem’s earlier films, this movie does not take place within the realm of imagination, but that doesn’t hamper the movie’s aesthetics. Taking a cue from the golden-hued Greek/Roman epics of recent year, notably Zack Snyder’s 300, the film exists in a heightened reality. We’re dealing with mythology after all (more on the specifics of that later). The iconic imagery of Greek mythology is all there, stunningly realized in lavish CGI and a production design that is frequently jaw dropping. The action sequences are resolutely exciting, with special mention for the climactic gods vs. titans battle. The gods, decked out in spiffy gold armor and capes, bounce off the walls aided by Matrix-style moves and slice and dice their wicked immortal brethren in creatively gruesome ways. It’s a thrilling sequence that almost makes you forget the movie’s catalogue of sins.

The movie plays fairly fast and loose with the Greek lore. The Theseus of legend was mainly known for slaying the ferocious Minotaur, the guardian of a great labyrinth. His father was Poseidon, not Zeus. Some versions even have Phaedra falling in love with Theseus’ son from his first wife (Theseus was a busy boy, taking after his father). These details, and more, may seem inconsequential but if they’re going to be so loose in the adaptation, why even bother keeping the name Theseus? Immortals does have an interesting albeit brief bit where the Minotaur is seen as a human warrior wearing a bull mask made of barbed wire. Short of the gods and titans, there isn’t any depiction of the supernatural occurring on Earth. The monsters and mythic creatures are absent, leaving some Greeks to question the validity of the gods. The movie takes an unexpected twist early by declaring, in a self-serious tone, that immortals can… die. It seems that the gods just discovered one day that they could kill each other. I would have liked to be there for that discovery (“Yeah, go ahead and lick that electrical socket.”). The film lays out that the titans and the gods were one in the same, it’s just that the winners of the battle of the heaven called the losers “titans.” If they’re the same then why do the titans act like feral monkey creatures and look like ashen, Hindi gods (no disrespect, one billion Hindus)? Have they simply gone wild after being locked away in such a unique prison? When they fight, the titans move at the speed of mortals, not gods. I also believe the titans were supposed to be considerably larger.

But as enchanting as the visuals are, there are still the other senses that are criminally malnourished. The screenplay by brothers Charlie and Vlas Parlapanides is about as bare-bones as you can get. It’s your basic hero’s quest, trusting young stud Theseus with finding a magic item and stopping a bad man. If that sounds plainly generic then congratulations, you’ve seen more than one movie with men in togas (Animal House does not count). Mysterious parentage? Check. Close relative that dies early to spur vengeance motivation? Check. Noble sacrifices by members of his team? Check. Eventual intervention of the gods? Check. What I just described could also have been the plot for 2010’s joyless Clash of the Titans remake. What’s up with Zeus and these noncommittal gods? He refuses to get directly involved in the affairs of man, but if King Hyperion releases the titans (should have gone the long route and unleashed the Kraken) then the Olympians are jeopardized. It seems like they have an interest in giving Theseus a mighty assist. The magic item, a bow that creates unlimited arrows when plucked back, is pretty much a forgotten relic. It gets used, I kid you not, exactly three times in the entire movie. All of this fuss over a super weapon that the characters can’t be bothered to utilize. They’d rather fight it out with a traditional bronze sword. What exactly does it mean to be immortal when even the gods can die? King Hyperion says he’ll be immortal by essentially raping a nation of women, keeping his bloodline alive for centuries (the Genghis Kahn defense, your honor). But if having kids is being immortal, I think we’re setting the bar pretty low.

The Phaedra character is so underwritten that she almost comes across as a parody of the role of women in these guy-heavy action spectacles. As portrayed, Phaedra is the definition of convenience. She doles out a prophetic vision to save the day, provides some grade-A eye candy thanks to the splendor of Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), and even casually slips into Theseus’ bed for a deflowering (sorry guys, it’s clearly a body double). She will be haunted by visions of the future until the moment she loses her virginity. Let’s stop and think about this. Having one member of your team be able to SEE INTO THE FUTURE seems like a decisive tactical advantage. I understand the lure of a naked and willing Pinto, but Theseus needed to think beyond the needs of his little Greek. In an abrupt and off-putting turn, Phaedra is never really dealt with in any capacity after this seismic bout of lovemaking, nor do she or Theseus talk about what has transpired. She just provided some casual sex while the hero was recuperating and then checked out. Her major prophetic vision of Theseus and Hyperion joining sides is also just forgotten, turning out to be a letdown.

The actors were basically hired for their visual appeal, and to that end they succeed. Cavill (TV’s The Tudors), tapped to wear Superman’s cape in 2013 by Zack Snyder, is suitably buff and hunky. His performance is rather flat, no matter how many times he makes his eyes go big with anger. In contrast, Rourke (Iron Man 2) will chew whatever scenery he can find. His flamboyantly costumed villain at one point seems to wear a lobster claw on his head. He wants to punish the gods because they refused to intervene when Hyperion’s wife and child were slaughtered. When the gods do intervene to save Theseus, that’s when the character should go off the rails. Rourke just plays it in the same sleepy menace. Pinto gets to stare off into the distance regularly and pray. It’d be a stretch to say that the material challenges any of these actors.

Immortals is a testosterone-soaked action movie that feels like it minored in Art History. The production design, CGI, and practical special effects, all attuned to the extraordinary vision of Tarsem, makes for a brilliant looking movie with several sequences of memorable carnage. But we entered the age of “talkies” since 1927, and Immortals suffers when it concerns dialogue, story, characterization, and acting. The movie is a pretty loose adaptation of Greek mythology, falling back on a rote hero’s quest and leaving plenty of narrative dead spaces for the visuals to fill in the interest. Even a movie as visually resplendent as Immortals can only go as far as its story will allow. In this case, Immortals might just be the best-looking piece of borderline mediocrity you’ll ever see in your life.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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.

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