The Cell


The Cell

Jennifer Lopez is terrified of horny men.

(2000) Science Fiction (New Line) Jennifer Lopez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vince Vaughn, Dylan Walsh, James Gammon, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Musetta Vander, Colton James, Jake Weber, Tara Subkoff, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Peter Sarsgaard. Directed by Tarsem Singh

Really, the more I see ex-music video directors (such as The Cell‘s Tarsem Singh) take on feature films, the more I realize how excruciatingly painful to watch a two-hour music video would be.

Catherine Deane (Lopez) is a social worker who by some strange pseudo-science can enter the minds of comatose patients. Of course, I’m sure Jennifer Lopez enters the minds of a lot of men, but we won’t go there. Currently, she’s attempting to help a young scion of a billionaire with somewhat unencouraging results.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, serial killer Carl Stargher (D’Onofrio) is happy as can be, having constructed a diabolical device that will automatically drown his young, nubile female victims without Carl even being present (naturally, a bank of video cameras capture every morbid moment of their final struggles). A marvel of modern technology, that.

He doesn’t realize how close the FBI, led by twitchy agent Peter Novak (Vaughn) is to him. When they finally break down his door, Carl is already face-down and – you guessed it – comatose, the victim of a schizoid virus or some other such babble. With a victim locked in Carl’s Infernal Machine at an unknown location, time ticking away, you can guess what happens next. Uh, huh; an excuse for Jennifer Lopez to wear a lot of striking, exotic costumes and more important to Tarsem, a chance for the director to show off his visual style honed in dozens of music videos, notably R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”.

Tarsem suffers from the “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome, a disease especially prevalent among ex-music video directors. “Art for art’s sake” may be MGM’s motto, but, pragmatically, it doesn’t work in movies. A movie isn’t just a series of images strung together; there has to be some sort of story, a reason for watching those images. If the story is mediocre, all the beautiful pictures in the world won’t save the film.

To make matters worse, the movie often violates its own internal logic – for example, as the social worker points out ad infinitum throughout the movie, it often takes a child months to build enough trust to let her in, but the serial killer only takes a single session! As we all know, serial killers are known for their trusting natures.

A trip inside Jennifer Lopez’s brain wouldn’t be as fruitful as the one we take here. Assuming there was enough room for anyone else in there, considering her ego, we’d be assaulted by letters 40 miles high in garish, blinking neon blaring “I’M ALL THAT & A BAG OF CHIPS.” Believe me, honey, you’re not. For his part, Vaughn showed most definitely that he was to become a star of the future. He has for the most part made good on that promise, largely because he’s learned to choose material where he has more to do than just smirk.

To Tarsem’s credit, some of the visuals and special effects are very nice indeed, but for the most part, its eye candy for its own sake. Frankly, Da Queen and I got more of a kick from the two guys in the row behind us discussing the philosophical implications of The Cell and its somewhat overbearing subtext of redemption and absolution when we saw this in a theater back in the day. Guys, you’re watching WAY too much of the Independent Film Channel.

By the way, what is up with film credits? Do we really need to see everyone’s name who is even vaguely connected with the movie? On the credits for The Cell you will see (I’m not making this up) the identities of the salad chef and of Jennifer Lopez’s bodyguard. I imagine the guy who cleaned up after the movie’s canine star will be graced with a poop wrangler credit next.

Roger Ebert, a voice I normally respect, did cartwheels over this movie which mystifies me to this day. The more I think about The Cell, the lower its rating goes, and if I don’t stop here, it’s going to get a zero rating, which really isn’t fair. It’s not completely without merit, but as fantastic as the visuals are, the movie is ultimately unsatisfying. Too many special effects and not enough solid writing, plot and characterization a dull movie makes – eye candy is tasty but doesn’t make for a satisfying meal.

WHY RENT THIS: Some amazing visuals and Jennifer Lopez’ exotic wardrobe.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A story that violates its own internal logic and falls apart over it’s own ponderous weight. A major case of “Look Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is violence, sexuality, bad language, nudity, and bizarre images. Unless your kids are fetishists, you might want to steer them away from this.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Scenes in the movie are inspired by artwork by such artists as Damien Hirst, Odd Nerdrum and H.R. Giger.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The two-disc Platinum Series edition includes an interactive map of the brain that gives more information than you probably want on the subject, as well as an empathy test that allows you to determine how you handle your emotions. Good, free therapy.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $104.2M on a $33M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: The Back-Up Plan

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Secretariat


Secretariat

Secretariat is neck and neck.

(Disney) Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwath, Fred Dalton Thompson, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Michael Harding, Nestor Serrano, Drew Roy, Dylan Baker, Kevin Connolly. Directed by Randall Wallace

There may be no other event as beautiful as a horse race. Something about a horse running down a track takes the breath away; while I’ve never been a huge fan of the sport, I understand the passion it inspires. It’s very easy to get caught up in.

Penny Chenery Tweedy (Lane) is a Denver housewife, raising four kids and living the life of the upper middle class when she gets a terrible phone call; her mother has passed away. She goes back home to Virginia for the funeral. Her father Christopher Chenery (Glenn) is ill, lucid only for brief moments. He runs Meadow Farm, a horse ranch that has fallen onto hard times. Penny and her brother Hollis (Baker) realize that there is a lot of issues to be decided about the farm’s future. Penny decides to stay on and close up loose ends; Hollis means to sell the farm and get what he can for it, but Penny is a little less crazy about the idea.  

Aided by Mrs. Ham (Martindale), the loyal secretary to her father and virtually a family member, Penny begins to take a closer look at the farm and finds that things are dire, but not irretrievably so. One thing they do have that is worth money is a potential foal that was sired by Bold Ruler, a champion sire. There are actually two foals, each with a different mare on the farm. The owner of Bold Ruler, Ogden Phipps (Cromwell), one of the richest men in America, made a handshake deal with her father that a coin would be flipped to determine which foal would go with him and which one would stay with Meadow Farm.  

In the meantime, Penny lets go of the trainer for the farm and at the advice of family friend Bull Hancock (Thompson), she hires Lucien Laurin (Malkovich), a well-respected trainer who had recently retired but was finding retirement doesn’t agree with him. Penny winds up losing the coin flip but gets the foal she wanted; Bold Ruler was known for siring very fast horses but the mare Somethingroyal had given birth to horses with stamina. The combination could create a potential superhorse, but Phipps goes with conventional wisdom and takes the progeny of Hasty Matelda, a horse that had delivered much more successful racehorses at the time.

When Lucien, Penny and groom Eddie Sweat (Ellis) witness the birth of the foal, they are stunned to see it rise up to its feet, something that takes most foals longer. Lucien is in awe; clearly they are in the presence of something very special.

Penny falls immediately in love with the horse whom she nicknames Big Red for its color; initially Lucien isn’t sure of the horse’s work ethic and is suspicious of his tendency to overeat but the horse that is named Secretariat (after ten other names had been rejected by the Racing Association) turns out to be a powerful champion.

Getting him to the Triple Crown races of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes will be a near-miracle; the farm is close to foreclosure and there is little money left. To make things worse, Penny isn’t taken seriously as an owner in a world that is dominated by men, mainly men from money (like Phipps).

Most people know the Secretariat went on to win the Triple Crown in 1973, the first horse in a quarter century to achieve that feat (Seattle Slew would win it in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978, but no horse has won it since). Some may well know the spectacular fashion he accomplished it in, but most people agree that Secretariat was the most dominant horse of his time, and perhaps ever. Perhaps only Seabiscuit alone was more popular than Big Red.

Like Titanic, the movie’s end is a foregone conclusion. What makes it interesting is the behind-the-scenes look at what was going on and what Penny Tweedy overcame. You can’t really call this an underdog movie, although Disney is marketing it as such; it would be like calling the story of the 1995-6 Chicago Bulls an underdog story. You can’t call the best athlete in his sport an underdog, and Secretariat fit that description to a “T”.

Director Wallace, who previously wrote Braveheart and directed We Were Soldiers and The Man in the Iron Mask, understood the dilemma of having a sports story without an underdog per se, so rather than focusing on the horse, he focuses on the owner and her battle to gain acceptance in the masculine hierarchy of the horse racing world.

Lane plays her as an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, she’s strong as steel, her daddy’s daughter who is unwilling to give up or give in. On the other, she’s a typical housewife of the late 60s and early 70s, the happy homemaker who cleans house, cooks dinner, raises the kids and supports her hubby (Walsh). Lane integrates both elements of the personality effortlessly (I suspect that she relates to Penny Tweedy very strongly) and makes the character heroic in her struggle. 

Malkovich can be a bit twitchy and he does have his quirks here, most of which the real Lucien Laurin possessed (the loud slacks, the hideous hats and so on). However, Malkovich reigns in his performance (no pun intended) quite well and allows the volatile Lucien to take center stage. Thompson and Glenn both are memorable in their brief screen time. Secretariat’s hot-tempered jockey Ron Turcotte is played by real-life jockey Thorwath and it brings realism to the racing scenes which are well-done in general.

The movie is going to inevitably be compared to Seabiscuit and that really doesn’t do it justice. That horse was an unlikely champion, a horse that didn’t come from bluebloods of breeding, but became a popular attraction as much as a racing champion (although he won his share of races). Seabiscuit was revered; Secretariat was respected.

There has been some complaining, mostly from Andrew O’Hehir of Salon Magazine, that Wallace, an avowed Christian, had turned the movie into a kind of Tea Party manifesto with overtly Christian themes. Quite frankly, while there is a quote from the Book of Job at the beginning and ending of the movie and a couple of hymns on the soundtrack, this is no more Christian than Braveheart was. As for its conservative leanings, well, I don’t think it was particularly endorsing a return to the period as O’Hehir seems to think it does as it was merely depicting that time. O’Hehir complains that no-one in the movie mentions the Vietnam War, and yet Penny’s daughter is shown to be an anti-war activist. Which war did O’Hehir think they were referring to?

Disney is known for their underdog sports stories, from Miracle to The Rookie to Invincible but this one doesn’t really fit the format, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can only watch Hoosiers so many times, after all. With the strong performances by its leads, racing sequences that utilize digital cameras to bring viewers closer into the action than ever before, this becomes a solid sports movie that doesn’t really fit the “underdog” label real well, but does fit in as quality entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Really strong performances by Malkovich and Lane, as well as some compelling racing footage.

REASONS TO STAY: Pales in comparison to Seabiscuit. I never got that sense of overcoming overwhelming odds that other sports movies portray.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words but mainly okay for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The trophy for the Triple Crown seen after the Belmont was the actual trophy won by Secretariat that was loaned to the production by the Kentucky Derby Museum. While most of the racing footage was recreations done for the film, the footage of the Preakness seen on the living room TV set of the Tweedys was the actual race footage from 1973.

HOME OR THEATER: In all honesty I’m really torn. Some of the scenes look really good on the big screen but at the end of the day, I think home viewing is perfectly okay for this one.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Red

New Releases for the Week of October 8, 2010


Secretariat

It's Secretariat by a nose!

SECRETARIAT

(Disney) Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Scott Glenn, Fred Thompson, Dylan Baker, Kevin Connolly, James Cromwell, Margo Martindale. Directed by Randall Wallace

This is the story of one of the most revered horses in the history of racing, Secretariat, who became one of the most dominant horses ever, becoming the first to win the Triple Crown in 35 years and setting course records that still stand. Director Randall Wallace has made quite a career doing movies about sports underdogs, and this one may well be one of his best yet.

See the trailer, interviews, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sports Biographical Drama

Rating: PG (for brief mild language)

Buried

(Lionsgate) Ryan Reynolds, Stephen Tobolowski, Samantha Mathis, Robert Paterson. A contractor whose assignment has taken him to Afghanistan wakes up to find himself buried alive. Armed with only a cell phone and a lighter, he somehow has to find a way to get someone to rescue him before his air runs out in 90 minutes. This was a major hit at Sundance and looks to be one of the better suspense films of the year.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for language and some violent content)

It’s Kind of a Funny Story

 (Focus) Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Viola Davis. A troubled young man decides to check himself into a mental institution, only to discover that he must reside on the adult wing due to construction on the teen wing. He is then taken under the wing of a quirky inmate, and a strong bond develops with each one being the perfect therapy for the other.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic issues, sexual content, drug material and language)

Khaleja

(Ficus) Mahesh Babu, Anushka, Prakash Raj, Suneel. An industrialist discovers iridium in the location where he is building his plastic factory, and in order to get his hands on the valuable element decides to marry off his daughter to the son of a local magistrate and thus gain the land as a dowry.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: NR

Life As We Know It

(Warner Brothers) Josh Duhamel, Katherine Heigl, Josh Lucas, Christina Hendricks. Two people who can’t stand each other are named by their best friends as guardians to their baby when their friends are killed in an accident. The two are at each other’s throats initially, but grow to realize that they need to work together for the good of the baby. 

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, language and some drug content)

My Soul to Take

(Rogue) Max Theriot, John Magaro, Emily Meade, Nick Lashaway. Master horror director Wes Craven returns with a new movie that will sure make this Halloween season more nightmare-inducing. Six teens born on the night that a serial killer was executed find themselves being picked off one by one. Could one of them be the killer, or is something supernatural going on? 

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence and pervasive language including sexual references)

Never Let Me Go

(Fox Searchlight) Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling. Based on a novel by the Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), the movie concerns some students at an idyllic English boarding school that hides a terrible secret about the future of the students and the meaning of humanity in general.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction Drama

Rating: R (for some sexuality and nudity)

The Stepfather (2009)


The Stepfather

Dylan Walsh has a point to make.

(Screen Gems) Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward, Penn Badgley, Sherry Stringfield, Jon Tenney, Paige Turco, Amber Heard, Nancy Linehan Charles, Braeden Lemasters. Directed by Nelson McCormick

Family is at the core of our value system. Everything we do, all of our decisions are made for the benefit of our family, at least so goes the theory. Of course, there are families and then again there are families.

David Harris (Walsh) wants a family in the worst way. He seems a nice enough man and when vulnerable divorcee Susan Harding (Ward) wanders into the grocery store he’s shopping at, they strike up a conversation, which leads to romance. David is a widower whose wife and daughter died in a car accident at the hands of a drunk driver, something that gets Susan’s nurturing instincts going into overdrive. Everyone, from the neighbors to Susan’s kids, think David is a heck of a guy.

The only one who doesn’t is Michael (Badgley), the eldest Harding. He’s been away at military school for some unspecified troublemaking and has just returned home. Something about David just doesn’t ring true to Michael, whether it’s the fact that David can’t get his daughter’s name straight or that he seems to have a creepy unnatural fascination for Michael’s girlfriend Kelly (Heard). Either way, Michael’s got his eyes on David and it isn’t long before he figures out the terrible truth.

You see, David is actually a serial killer (not a spoiler kids – this is revealed in the movie’s opening moments) who insinuates himself into a family, then butchers them when they don’t live up to his high standards of what a family should be. He also has no problems offing anyone who gets in his way, whether it is a nosy neighbor or Susan’s boorish ex (Tenney). It isn’t long before David begins to think it’s time to take care of his new family and find himself another.

This is the remake of a 1987 movie that starred Terry O’Quinn (John Locke of “Lost”) in the title role. That movie attained cult status after a mediocre theatrical run due to word of mouth video rentals, enough to spawn two sequels (one with O’Quinn and the other without). Invariably, this is going to be compared to the original.

The makers of the remake also were responsible for the Prom Night remake, which bodes ill for this one. Part of the problem is that they’re going for an entirely different audience; rather than hitting hardcore horror aficionados, they’re going for more of a teen audience, which means that they have to go for a PG-13 rating. That makes for bloodless horror, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but this is the kind of story that becomes more effective when you are a little more visceral.

While the cast is made up of broadcast and cable TV veterans, some very good (Walsh is excellent in “Nip/Tuck” while Tenney is a standout in “The Closer”) and some less so (Badgley in “Gossip Girl,” Turco in “The Agency”), Ward excels as the mom who is blinded to her new man’s darker side. Walsh does his best, but in the end he isn’t able to carry the role of the evil stepfather as well as O’Quinn did 20 years ago; in defense of Walsh, he isn’t exactly handed a whole lot to work with.

The results here is a movie that doesn’t really have the kind of cachet to interest teens, nor does it have the scares and the gore to capture a horror film fan. It therefore becomes neither fish nor fowl, satisfying neither audience. If I had any advice to hand out to the filmmakers, I’d tell them that when handed a horror movie, don’t hide behind terms like “psychological thriller” to justify your decisions; just go for the gusto and you’ll not only make a better movie, you’ll get more butts in theater seats as a reward.

WHY RENT THIS: The young cast certainly looks good in bathing suits.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Far too bland and bloodless for its own good, it’s a psychological thriller with few thrills.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a little bit of sex, as well as a few naughty words here and there. Mostly, the problem here is thematic and the images which can be pretty rough on the sensitive or the immature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The star of the original The Stepfather Terry O’Quinn was offered a cameo in the remake, but declined. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray comes equipped with the Sony movieIQ feature that periodically puts pop ups of trivia and factoids related to the scene you’re watching or the general movie overall.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

New Releases for the Week of October 16, 2009


What could be wilder than to howl at the sunset with your pack?

What could be wilder than to howl at the sunset with your pack?

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

(Warner Brothers) Catherine Keener, Max Records, Mark Ruffalo, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forrest Whitaker. Directed by Spike Jonze

One of the most beloved children’s books of all time is brought to life by innovative director Spike Jonze, who has Adaptation and Being John Malkovich on his resume, along with some of the most visually arresting music videos of the past 20 years. This is the story of Max, a young boy who feels neglected and misunderstood at home, and thus runs away to the island where the Wild Things are. The Wild Things long for someone to lead them and Max is more than happy to fulfill that need, until he discovers that leadership – and being a Wild Thing – is a much more complicated endeavor than he thought it would be.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements, some adventure action and brief language)

The Boys are Back

(Miramax) Clive Owen, Emma Booth, Laura Fraser, George MacKay. When an Australian sportswriter’s wife dies suddenly, he is left with a young son to raise on his own. His life is further complicated when a teenaged son from a previous marriage joins the family. The father, who had left most of the child-raising to his wives, decides on a unique method that causes some friction with other parents, but allows his boys to heal and thrive.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual language and thematic elements)

Law Abiding Citizen

(Overture) Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Bruce McGill, Colm Meaney. When an upstanding family man’s wife and daughter are brutally murdered, the pain he goes through is nothing compared to what happens when the ambitious district attorney cuts a deal with one of the suspects to testify against the others in exchange for a lighter sentence. Ten years later, the suspect is found murdered and all the evidence points to the family man, who warns that unless the flawed justice system is fixed, all those connected with the trial will die. As he follows through on his threat, the district attorney races against time to protect his own family and stop this law abiding citizen from exacting his revenge.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for strong bloody brutal violence and torture, a scene of rape, and pervasive language)

More Than a Game

(Lionsgate) LeBron James, Dru Joyce, Romeo Travis, Sian Cotton. This is a documentary about a group of five guys from Akron, Ohio – talented basketball players all – who come from a background of great adversity. Through teamwork, friendship and their own remarkable skills, they come together on a journey to a state high school basketball championship. Their loyalty is tested when the spotlight begins to shine on future NBA superstar James, who becomes the most heralded high school player in the land. This uplifting story will be augmented by rare video, home movies and personal interviews that will illustrate the cost of excellence, and that nothing is impossible when the will is there.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for brief mild language and incidental smoking)

Paranormal Activity

(Paramount) Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Friedrichs, Ashley Palmer. Here’s a movie that benefitted from a unique marketing campaign; the trailer consisted of views of an audience watching the movie during a preview screening, and a website was created for moviegoers to vote as to whether the movie should be given a wide release. The vote came in affirmative, so this movie is getting a much wider release. It also helps that the movie is said to be genuinely scary. The premise is simple – a couple who believe their house might be haunted set up cameras to capture what goes on in their house while they are trying to sleep. The general consensus is that this is not for those who are easily disturbed or frightened.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for language)

The Stepfather

(Screen Gems) Dylan Walsh, Penn Badgley, Sela Ward, Sherry Stringfield. A remake of the 1987 horror classic of the same name, a young man returns home from military school to find his mother co-habiting with a new boyfriend. Everything seems fine on the surface, but little things begin to crop up to make the young man suspicious of the new man in his mother’s life. As the facts begin to come to light, he realizes that this perfect stepfather may be hiding a darker side that could have deadly consequences for everyone the young man loves.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, mature thematic material and brief sensuality)

World’s Greatest Dad

(Magnolia) Robin Williams, Alexie Gilmore, Daryl Sabara, Michael Thomas Moore. In this movie directed by comic Bobcat Goldthwait, Williams plays a high school poetry teacher whose life hasn’t gone the way he envisioned it. His son is an insufferable prick, the beautiful woman he is dating refuses to publically acknowledge him and his career has stalled. A freak accident gives him the means to the fame and fortune he has always craved, but only if he can live with the circumstances under which he acquired them.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for language, crude and sexual content, some drug use and disturbing images)