This film was preceded in 2000 by hype: it was a smart sci-fi horror film that would revolutionize a stale etc.
Movies are often preceded by hype – have you ever noticed this? Whenever a big budget film arrives, countless advertisements appear, all of them telling you to see it. How convenient. Almost as though someone’s being paid off. The human race sickens me. Anyway, I rewatched The Cell to see if it was as good as I remembered. Then I realized I’d never watched it in the first place.
It’s about a psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) who performs virtual-reality based therapy on coma patients, entering their minds and speaking to them inside Plato’s cave. After a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) lapses into a coma while in police custody, she jacks into his mind to learn the location of his latest victim.
It’s indeed a “did I watch this?” kind of film. The story blurs into other “smart” serial killer movies like Silence of the Lambs, The Bone Collector, and Se7en. Even the title seems designed to be forgotten. The surrealist moments are great but the real-world scenes are thuddingly generic: how many shots of grizzled detectives standing and shaking their heads around crime scenes do we need?
Ignore the cop show crap and you have an oblique, arty film set in the disturbed (and disturbing) psyche of a sociopath. D’Onofrio’s mental landscape is basically a Saatchi exhibit on a bad batch of PCP, and J-Lo sees creepy dolls, mutilated animals, bondage equipment, and so on in her quest to finally understand why Private Pyle stole that jelly donut.
Some sequences are almost brilliant enough to redeem the film. When Lopez enters the throne room and encounters the King (and a driving, one-note stab of brass ratchets up the tension)…well, I was hooked. It was beautiful and frightening. It would have been even better if something had happened, but Lopez leaves the dream without payoff.
A recurrent problem with The Cell is that it doesn’t know what to do with its visuals. They’re strangely unmotivated, just hanging in the air without connection to the story. The surrealist stage dressing produces horror and awe, but it doesn’t build, it only exists. Much of the film’s imagery cannot be explained except as a show-offy director demonstrating knowledge of Very Important contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Ermin, and Sarah Lucas. Remember those three women, staring open-mouthed at heaven? Does this relate to the story or characters in some way? Nope, it’s an Odd Nerdrum painting. Name-dropping done on a 33 million dollar budget.
It’s frustrating to watch genuinely inspired scenes (suspended in a glass cube floating in space, Lopez pushes her way out of the top…and discovers it’s actually the bottom!) squandered amid “quotations” and “references” to whatever the YBAs and the New Contemporaries were doing that year. Who cares? I don’t like that stuff to begin with, and why not make your own art instead of regurgitating someone else’s?
Would the mind of a serial killer really look like a disturbing Alice in Wonderland mindfuck, as movies perennially portray it? I don’t know. When I read the Isla Vista shooter’s manifesto I was amazed at how dull and flat he seemed. More like a line drawing than an actual human. He wanted to be cool – that was his only ambition. When skateboarding became popular at school, he skated. When hackeysack became popular, he kicked a little bag around.
Like the film’s director, he spent a lot of effort imitating cooler kids, and when he saw behavior he couldn’t copy (boys having romantic encounters with girls), jealousy and frustration drove him to kill. Delving into his mind was somewhat interesting, but it wasn’t a Hieronymous Bosch painting. If you want a vivid mental landscape, mindjack a furry. That’s where the action’s happening.
The Cell is the first film of Tarsem Singh, previously (and afterward) known as a music video director. The pipeline from there to directing feature films is a troubled one. Music video directors tend to make films that focus on sets, sets, and more sets, with plenty of open space for a nonexistent rockstar to cavort around in. Movies need to be more than stage dressing.
Singh is obviously talented, with a good visual eye. I enjoyed a lot of the shots and costuming, and so on. But again, he’s mostly dropping names, not making a movie. The most famous scene in The Cell is the horse guillotine…
In the comments, various people offer analysis (“this boy’s mind had a morbid fascination with dissecting everything and seeing on the inside, not afraid to see the blood and guts. At the same time doing it in precise surgical fashion – each segment equidistant”), as if it’s not just ripping off Damien Hirst’s Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything.
Did I say ripping off? I meant quoting. Art builds on art – everyone knows this. It’s the highest form of appreciation to just put a famous work of art in your movie, unaltered, with no commentary or context. You’re quoting. Quoting is good.
What isn’t good is The Cell’s casting. Maybe don’t cast a massively famous sex symbol your quiet, mousy psychologist: Jennifer Lopez hasn’t a prayer of inhabiting the role written for her. Vincent D’Onofrio is a good actor, but he’s very wrong in this. He’s a blue-collar truck driver who comes off as a dangerous, slack-jawed idiot. We don’t believe for a second that a man like him would have an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary art, or be hip to the London YBA scene. His pudgy, brutal face is impossible to feel sympathy for, which sours all the smarmy crap at the end. The killer was abused as a child! All he needed was a hug! Spare me.
The film, like its characters, fails to handle the distance between dream and day. Time and time again, the movie pulls us out of surreal fantasy and into its own stupid version of reality, so the usual Hollywood cliches can appear (the ticking clock, the generic FBI agents, etc).
The Cell is a disappointment of the worst sort: a bad movie that could have been a good one. It sends phantasmal imagery soaring into the air…and then shackles it to millstones of literalism and pretentiousness, sending it plummeting to the ground. I wanted something more or new. Not flashbacks to a tearful child being yelled at by his dad. I’ve seen all that before, and I don’t care.
Here’s an idea: why not reveal at the end that everything we thought we knew about D’Onofrio’s childhood was fake?
We’re in the mind of an unhinged lunatic, after all. Are his memories reliable? D’Onofrio has every incentive to distort the facts to create sympathy for himself – couldn’t his shallow redemption arc at the end be yet another trap for Lopez? Why wouldn’t a man capable of murder also be capable of deceit?
There’s not much I can add to the The Thief and the Cobbler’s legend except to say “yes, it’s that movie.”
It’s the troubled masterpiece of Canadian-British animator Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, etc). He was an obsessive perfectionist/auteur in an industry with little tolerance for either of those things. It’s said that The Thief and the Cobbler took thirty years to make, but that’s not quite true. The film was never finished. The Thief and the Cobbler took thirty years to not make.
This adds to the film’s aura: strictly speaking, it doesn’t exist. But its legacy mainly rests on the fact that it has possibly the best 2D animation ever seen in a feature-length workprint.
It’s 90 minutes of an animator making cel sheets his bitch. The film is beyond technically impressive and approaches “insane”. Richard Williams storyboards things you’re never supposed to do in 2D animation and then does them twice, backward, wearing Persian slippers. Revolving POV shots. Crowd scenes. Textured fabric. You name it, this movie has it. The only computers involved were the ones that processed the bankruptcy and liquidation of his studio.
Any animation nerd can quote favorite moments by heart. Tack tumbling out of his workshop, with dozens of individually animated tacks spilling from his pockets into Zigzag’s path. The Thief crawling through the palace sewer system, with pipes bulging out comically. Zigzag climbing a spiral staircase. Tack fighting the Thief for Yum-Yum’s shoe inside the MC Escherian palace. The Thief getting thrashed by polo players, with the ball implausibly following him around like a target-seeking missile. The dolly shot of One-Eye’s camp, zooming out from the middle of his iris.
And of course, the destruction of One Eye’s massive war machine, which is so excessive and overstimulating that you’ll snort coke just to calm down. It’s not just animation for animation’s sake, either. The film has a lot of style, and evokes the mythical Orient far more effectively than, say, Aladdin (which comes off as American teenagers at a Vegas hotel by comparison). The Thief and the Cobbler looks the way a Persian carpet would if the stitches could move.
Margaret French’s story (a simple fairytale) isn’t that interesting when stripped of its visuals. It’s a good example of how technique itself can be art: instead of animation being used to tell a story, a story is used as a scaffold for animation itself. Which is fine, although it requires a shift of thinking for people used to stories being paramount.
The characters are stock archetypes: Tack is a silent film hero, the Thief is a silent film villain, Nod is a sleepy king, One-Eye is a barbarian invader. Zigzag (with a cel-sheet chewing performance by Vincent Price) is a hilarious camp villain. The characters’ behaviors are as simple as their movement is intricate: this is a movie simple enough for the smallest child to understand.
The tale of the movie’s production is long, harrowing, and (ultimately) tragic. After decades of tinkering on the film (with a few injections of cash from such parties as the House of Saud), Williams finally received full financing in the late 80s. This lifeline became a noose. When he failed to deliver the film on time, the project was taken away from him, and auctioned off in a lowest-bidder situation to whoever would get it done cheaply.
That someone was Fred Calvert, who “finished” the film in 1993. I don’t mean he completed The Thief and the Cobbler. I mean he slapped together a film-shaped object for as little money as possible, which incidentally contains some of Williams’ animation.
Calvert is defined by The Thief and the Cobbler‘s destruction the way Richard Williams is defined by its creation. Fans universally regard him as having ruined the movie. He’s the ultimate bad Hollywood stereotype: the studio hatchet man. The movie’s final gag (which involves the thief ripping the film from the reel and stuffing it into his pocket) seems eerily prophetic.
Yes, it’s hard to excuse what Calvert did. His new scenes look as shoddy and cheap as a Saturday morning cartoon: they stick out like twine and tissue paper holding together fine damask curtains. Calvert didn’t “edit” Williams’ footage so much as randomly guillotine it into shape. Important parts of the story are now gone: we don’t see Zigzag attempting to feed Tack to Phido, which lessens the poetic justice of Zigzag’s death. The brigands have nothing to do in Calvert’s version, while in Williams’ workprint we see at least see them fighting in the final battle. Scenes of soldiers dying were shortened or cut (for violence?), which leaves us wondering where One-Eye’s army went.
Calvert added four songs, because animated musicals were big that year. We shall not speak of these songs, because they make getting crapped on by an elephant seem like a joy.
In September 1993, the film saw limited release in South Africa (why?) and Australia (why?). It was released again in August 1995 after a further round of destructive edits and general stupidity. (Fun fact: the green women were cut because they could be interpreted as One-Eye’s sex slaves…an edit personally requested by Harvey Weinstein!).
Neither release made money. The total production budget was in excess of $25 million, and although the movie’s box office profits are unclear due to the film’s complicated release history, they couldn’t have reached a million dollars. Shovel twenty five million dollars down a garbage disposal unit, and then sell a small piece of beachfront real estate in Florida. Congrats: you’re financially ahead of the Thief and the Cobbler.
Calvert minimized his role in the disaster, saying he never had creative control over The Thief and the Cobbler, and that most of the bad decisions (such as the songs) were forced on him by higher-ups. True or false? Who knows? Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.
But Calvert can be defended a little, too. At least he can say he delivered a finished film. Mangled and butchered though it was, his movie exists. Richard Williams couldn’t finish his after thirty years and God knows how many millions of pounds. Look at the work print: it still wasn’t close to being done. The princess was still half-animated. Critical scenes did not exist.
Calvert made some defensible decisions. He tightened up the story. The main villain (One-Eye) is established right at the start, instead of coming out of nowhere in the second act, and he has a better voice and a better death (his concubines throw him into the burning wreck of the machine, instead of sitting on him). The Thief’s characterization is more defined: he now has a fetish for golden things specifically, instead of just stealing everything he can. Detours (such as the maid from Mombasa) are cut, and the movie is better for it.
Blame should go to Williams as well as Calvert. The perfectionism that made The Thief and the Cobbler great also dug its grave: why did he waste so much time animating superfluous scenes of the Thief? They’re fun, but they’re not the movie. There’s enough effort on the screen to make three animated films, it just wasn’t used efficiently. He was his own worst enemy. There’s a saying in Hollywood that if the audience leaves praising the set design, the film is a bomb. The Thief and the Cobbler’s workprint is all set design.
Transhumanists speak about “paperclip maximizing”, conveying the idea that a superintelligent AI need not be malicious to screw us over. It might merely want to build as many paperclips as possible, until they cover the planet. No matter how benign or innocuous your goal (“make paperclips!”), it will destructive in the hands of a machine, because it can’t understand the big picture.
Williams was a human paperclip maximizer. He seems to have been guided by an imperative to make pretty animation, so he made more of it, and more of it, and more of it, and never knew when to stop. This would be fine, if he was spending his own money. But once outside financing gets involved, there’s only so long you’ll be allowed to chase a dream. If you owe a bank five dollars, that’s your problem. If you owe a bank five million, that’s their problem. Money always comes with strings attached, and when the sums are large, the strings become golden handcuffs.
The Thief and the Cobbler is a story of glory and grandeur, of madness and excess, of ruin and shadow and devouring flame. It’s also a film about a cobbler.
I’m swimming against the tide of popular opinion here, but I just don’t think pedophilia’s that great.
Like, academically speaking, what’s the sales pitch? Date someone with no money and no car? Someone who needs help with their homework and thinks PAW Patrol is the shit? No thank you.
Lolishit is a breakcore act. No idea who’s behind it. Probably the FBI. To explain, a “loli” is a very young (usually prepubescent) girl. A “lolicon” is a (usually male) person with an affinity for lolis. These are Japanese words – things the West regards as horrible misdeeds become almost acceptable when translated to Japanese, just part of the Oriental mystique. Japan just had its birthrate drop to 1.36 children per woman. Considering how obsessed they are with young girls, they don’t seem keen on creating any more of them.
Chest Flattener is the kind of cultural artifact that basically never existed before the internet. “Schoolgirl With Hair-Drills” kicks off the album with 180bpm breakbeats that chop like machine gun bullets. Everything is rhythm and groove. The only (slight) hint of melody is the shrieking, cut-up vocal samples from some anime I can’t recognize.
The other songs are the same. “MOEXTONE” is a speedcore/extratone track that sounds like it has a four digit bpm. Occasionally there are quotations from anime’s mash-up scene (Touhou, etc). “Deaf to All but the Misao”, for example, has a synth line highly suggestive of ZUN’s “UN Owen Was Her”.
Chest Flattener provides little ammunition for the critic. After 16 minutes, the album ends, and there is silence. It’s hyper-aware and deliberately disposable, and seems to have been created with a sneer. It’s not totally dashed off rubbish, but this isn’t music that was slaved over for months and months, either. It lives in the moment. Dies in the next. It’s froth, sparkling as it disintegrates. It’s memes set to music, yelling loudly because it will be forgotten tomorrow.
It combines a few different things – internet irony poisoning, anime mash-ups, the calculated pop-transgression of Shintaro Kago or Yandere Simulator, underground breakcore – and packages it all up under a “cover” that’s probably a picture stolen off Danbooru. If anything, Chest Flattener reminds me of a “metal” “band” called Sloth. They formed in the early 90s and were an actual sludge metal band, with albums and a label and so on. In recent years they have morphed into a terrible noise project run by an insane person. Under the Sloth name he’s released hundreds (if not thousands) of Bandcamp-only “singles” containing blasts of random distorted noise, with pornographic covers and titles like Sharing Treats With The Cat Is Where It’s At .
Sloth is the maximal endpoint of Lolishit. Basically, if music like this ever appears on your radar, it’s a sign that you’re spending too much time online and may want to quote touch grass unquote as the kids say now. Add it to a playlist and let the government add you to a watchlist.
(NB. Lolicons are not pedophiles. Why would you even think that? Their favorite loli is actually a 1000-year-old demon, or an android. Lolicons spend 10% enjoying lolis and 90% of their time lawyering excuses for enjoying lolis.)