Thursday, July 22, 2010

New discoveries

Oh how I love The Cell.

And one of the great things about coming back to a movie you love for the first time in five or six years is the new discoveries you hadn't yet made during the previous viewing, either because you didn't notice them, or you hadn't yet had the life experiences that would make those discoveries relevant.

Last night, as I watched Tarsem Singh's masterful blending of the Silence of the Lambs-style serial killer movie and the Jacob's Ladder-style head trip for about the third time all the way through, I was awash with new discoveries. Such as:

1) I knew I had seen footage from Fantastic Planet before. When I saw Rene Leloux' trippy 1973 animated film about a wondrous planet where humans are the pets of giant blue creatures 20 times their size, something about it struck me as familiar. It turns out, a couple scenes from this film appear on the TV set of Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) when she's relaxing at home after a long day. (And has just smoked a joint, which is appropriate for that film.) It was cool to see this film -- which I saw for the first time two years ago, have now seen twice, and am considering buying -- appear in another visually breathtaking film that I admire terrifically.

2) Dean Norris plays an FBI agent. That's right, the guy who I now know as Hank Schrader from Breaking Bad is one of the team of FBI agents who hunt down Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio).

3) And so does James Gammon. That's right, the recently deceased cantankerous old coot (that's the role he always played, anyway) appears here on the same team. I loved the guy in Major League, where he played the manager, so it felt ordained somehow that I should be inadvertently paying him tribute, after he died last Friday at age 70.

4) Peter Sarsgaard is in this thing for like a second. It wasn't his first movie, but it was early enough in his career that I never thought twice about the guy who appears very briefly as the fiancee of the missing girl Julia Hickson (Tara Subkoff).

5) The director actually used his first name and last name. As the credits roll over those endless dunes, part of an impressive opening that prepares you for the film's one-of-a-kind art direction, I noticed that the director is listed as "Tarsem Singh," not the single-world moniker "Tarsem," as I'd previously thought, and as he's sometimes credited. I feel a little more comfortable when people have two names -- I argue that's one of the main reasons McG is not taken more seriously -- so this was a pleasant surprise.

6) Jennifer Lopez is lit beautifully. A friend of mine used to laugh at the scene where J-Lo is walking around her kitchen in her underwear, then bends down to feed her cat -- and it does serve as a somewhat obvious attempt to give the audience a little bit of Jen's goods. But one thing I noticed throughout the film is that Lopez is shot like a movie star, shimmering in almost every scene -- the luminescence that comes off her is almost magical. Yet it doesn't undercut the credibility of the film in the slightest.

7) Jennifer Lopez can actually act. J-Lo is not known as an actress of particular range, but I found myself admiring her work in this movie more than I'd remembered. I especially like the scene that's depicted in this poster, when she's had a break with her reality as a therapist entering the dreams of her patient, and entered into a new reality, where she's the idealized slave of an evil tyrant. Staring blankly forward, as if your mind has been erased, does not seem like it should require too much talent, but Lopez really nails the expression here -- and it's creepy as hell.

8) Acting tells stories, not dialogue. Speaking of facial expressions, I absolutely love this moment -- I was actively waiting for it -- where the FBI agent played by Jake Weber answer his cell phone, and the caller on the other end apprises him of a break in the case. Singh holds the shot for about ten seconds without Weber saying anything beyond the initial greeting, and then, right before he cuts, Weber's face changes -- his eyes shift, and gives this perfect little expression that I can only describe as a smirk of recognition. For some reason that moment has always stuck with me as a shining example of cinematic minimalism. But what I discovered on this viewing is that this is a film made up of such minimalism, especially in the expressions. There's also the scene where the endlessly watchable Pruitt Taylor Vince -- you know, the guy with the twitchy eyes, otherwise known as pathologic nystagmus -- is telling Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) that there are no other options for getting through to the catatonic Carl Stargher. When he digs up a Hail Mary from the recesses of his brain, he doesn't need to say anything -- he just needs to alter his expression ever so slightly to register the "Eureka!" moment. Next shot is of a helicopter landing outside the research center where Catherine works, and that's all you need to know. The other element the script chooses to underplay is the childhood trauma suffered by Novak, which is only hinted at -- and which is all the more effective for that reason.

9) Vincent D'Onofrio makes an incredible villain. This is more something I was reminded of than something I discovered. But how terrifying is D'Onofrio in all his incarnations? Whether it's the real Stargher, sitting naked in a bathtub, humming silently to himself while expectorating small streams of bathwater, or the dream Stargher, with flowing robes that are so long, they cover the walls of his massive throne room, the man is consistently disturbing.

10) Amazing visuals must serve the story, or else they are just masturbation. Singh made another film that came out a few years ago called The Fall, which features many of the grandiose palaces, stark deserts, and ridiculously ornate costumes you see here, as well as a plot that's split between the real world and a fantasy world. But that movie was ultimately disappointing because the story was not interesting. No such complaint about The Cell.

11) And to prove it has a good story ... I actually found myself getting choked up at the end, when (SPOILERS!) Peter finally discovers the location of Carl's final victim, moments before she'll drown in her cell, and saves her from that terrible fate. As she's lying in his arms, crying, it's a catharsis for both of them, and for us.

Two other things I've always loved about the movie, but would like to mention again:

1) That awesome scene where the horse is sliced into sections. This was the moment when I knew The Cell wasn't fucking around, and that I was in for something new, something exciting, something that might push the limits of my personal tolerance for graphic imagery. (For the record, the horse is not killed by this dissection -- its internal organs are all functioning fine, thank you very much.)

2) The cacophonous music. The opening scene reaches a delirious climax as the out-of-tune, Middle Eastern-sounding horns build and build. Then there's a more traditional symphonic cacophony as the FBI storms Stargher's house. Like many other moments in the film, these scenes brought chills of intense anticipation down my spine.

So, what movie do you need to pop in again, to make some new discoveries that'll help you fall in love with it all over again?


Anonymous said...

Vincent did an awesome job of portraying Carl S. It's rumored he has a role in the up coming Captain America movie. Would love to see him take the villain role in that movie as well.

Vancetastic said...

Indeed, agreed! He's relaxed a little bit into his Law & Order persona in recent years, and I'd love to see him back being the chameleon he was early in his career. Thanks for the comment!