Luca Turilli is an Italian “shred” guitarist known for playing symphonic power metal: a fact you might not guess from reading his Wikipedia page.

Having always declared to love music at 360 degrees, Turilli has dedicated himself to multiple musical genres, ranging from trance and electronic music of his first compositions to symphonic metal inspired by the world of soundtracks and also to modern pop and piano compositions of his current productions.

I like how you find, quietly inserted in the middle, the thing that encompasses 95% of his work and the reason he’s famous. It’s like describing GW Bush as an “artist, author, philanthropist, public speaker, bicyclist, politician, and dog-lover”. There’s burying the lede, then there’s putting it in a lead-lined coffin. I respect not wanting be constrained by expectations, but give me a break: nobody hears “Luca Turilli” and thinks “trance music.”

Turilli isn’t the only power metal musician to enroll himself in the witness protection program (heard anything good from “heavy rock” artist Jorn Lande lately?). It’s an uncool style of music to make or listen to, particularly Rhapsody of Fire’s brand of it. Look at it this way: they have fourteen albums, which have a total of eleven dragons on the covers. That’s just too many dragons. Their Dragon-to-Cover ratio is 11/14, or 0.785, one of the highest ever reported.

Rhapsody of Fire was a great band, but also a punching bag. To many, their songs symbolized all the worst traditions of European power metal: riffless, orchestra-layered “conceptual” cheeseballs about a cave troll called Trarg. Luca Turilli was definitely the bandmember who chafed the most under the “flower metal” designation (as well as the D&D fantasy-style marketing enforced by their various  labels), and when he became a solo artist he couldn’t throw that stuff in the trash fast enough. Luca Turilli has seven solo albums, zero of which have dragons on the cover, giving him a D-t-C ratio of 0/1 and 0%.

But that’s what I find interesting about Turilli: the fact that such an important pillar of the power metal scene does not particularly like power metal. Maybe that’s the reason I enjoy him: he’s not Hammerfall or Dream Evil, turning the crank, producing bland genre worship until the day he dies. He wants more. He wants to progress.

Prophet of the Last Eclipse is a solo record he recorded in 2002. It’s possibly his masterpiece. It’s wildly original, filled with hooks, imagination, and a sense of wonder. There’s nothing wrong with it. The musicianshp

The electronic and film score elements are the first thing. Carmin Burura meets The Matrix vocals of “Aenigma,” or the pulsating glitched-up take on Italian operatic pop (?!) found in “Zephyr Skies Theme”. Nothing sounded like this in 2002.

Most of the album is fast, with “Rider of the Astral Fire”, and “Age of Mystic Ice”, and “New Century Tarantella” rampaging along like Rhapsody of Fire in full speed mode. Even here, there’s curveballs. “Rider of the Astral Fire” has a comical a-capella vocal section that sounds like a Danny Elfman soundtrack, and “New Century Tarantella” does for Italian folk music what Angra did for Brazilian tribal music.

Those are the worst songs on the album, by the way.

“War of the Universe” is an arresting and immediate opening track, with great melodies and a propulsive feel. Turilli likes writing epics, but he never goes wrong when he writes for the 4:00 minute mark, either.

“Demonheart” is savage and corroded, almost industrial metal in places, but with tons of speed and an addictive chorus. Olaf Hayer turns in another great vocal performance here.

“Prince of the Starlight” is the fastest song, and the second most formally elaborate. Helloween-style dual harmonies exist alongside Baroque cadences, electronic flutters, and a progressive jazz-sounding piano part. Often, Luca’s guitar parts are treated with phaser effects, and seem to needle and drill like laser beams bracketing a target. Alien-sounding, yet accessible.

But none of these are the greatest composition Prophet has to offer. That would be the 11-minute long closing track, “Prophet of the Last Eclipse”. After an eerie vocal intro, Turilli hits the afterburners hard, with fragments of shouted Latin (in mezzo-soprano and tenor vocal parts) swirling like leaves in the wake of drummer Robert Hunecke-Rizzo’s double-bass blast. The song is relentlessly heavy and crushing, delivering agitated verses and an immense chorus, before an extended guitar solo section, and then a final implosion into neotonal free-time music. I don’t know if this is the best song Turilli ever wrote. I do know that no better one came to my mind before I finished this paragraph. Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis. 

The limited edition of the album from Limb Music is worth getting. “Caprice in A Minor” is just filler – cool if you’re into classical music, I guess.  “Autumn’s Last Whisper” is an Icelandic neofolk ballad (with vocals from Rannveig Sif Sigurðardóttir) that sounds like it wandered in from a CD in a totally different aisle. But then there’s “Dark Comet’s Reign”, which is a monster of a track. It could have easily swapped places with one of the lesser uptempo songs on the main album release.

If you’re in the “power metal fan who’s becoming bored and jaded” group, this is (and has) everything you could possibly want. It’s over two decades old but still sounds fresh and forward looking. It’s as monumental and as well-constructed as an aircraft carrier: even in the lesser songs you’ll marvel at how tight and punchy the snare is, for example. I find this album infinitely more interesting than the post-Luca Rhapsody albums, or horrendous ripoff bands like Twilight Force. Who knew that trance musician Luca Turilli was capable of something like this?

 

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This film was preceded in 2000 by hype: it was a smart sci-fi horror film that would revolutionize a stale etc.

It’s amazing, the way movies are preceded by hype. Has anyone else noticed this? Whenever a big budget film arrives, countless advertisements coincidentally appear, all of them telling you to see it. How convenient. It’s almost like someone’s being paid off. The human race sickens me.

I rewatched The Cell to see if it was as good as I remembered it being. Then I realized that 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 in Plato’s cave, as it were. When a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) becomes comatose 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 messily 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 shaking their heads at 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.

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 it was frightening. It would have been even better if something had happened, but nothing does. Lopez leaves the dream without payoff.

That’s the other big issue with The Cell: 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, 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 the sum of their 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 glib 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. Here’s a tip: maybe don’t cast the most famous woman in the world as 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 winging into the air…and then shackles it to millstones of literalism and pretentiousness, plunging it 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 to be trusted? D’Onofrio has every incentive to distort the facts to create sympathy for himself – couldn’t his redemption arc be just another trap for Lopez? Why wouldn’t a man capable of murder also be capable of lying?

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There’s not much I can add to the praises The Thief and the Cobbler has received except to say “yes, it’s THAT good”.

It’s the troubled masterpiece of Canadian-British animator Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, etc), who was an obsessive perfectionist and auteur in a world that tolerates neither 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. Not that it needs aura. The Thief and the Cobbler is famous for having possibly the best 2D animation ever seen in a feature-length workprint.

It’s 90 minutes of a master animator making cel sheets his bitch. The film is beyond technically amazing, and enters the realm of insanity. 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 finalized his studio’s bankruptcy.

Any animation nerd can quote their 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 is a simple fairytale, and 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 beautiful animation. Which is fine, although it requires a shift of thinking for some people.

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. The Thief and the Cobbler’s destruction has defined Calvert the way its creation defined Williams.

Fans universally regard Calvert as having ruined the film. He’s remembered as 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.

It might be time for someone to defend him.

Yes, It’s true that Calvert’s work was horrible, and did great harm to Williams’ vision. 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 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.

He 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 keeping 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 at least 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 barely 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 almost 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.

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