The Cell (2000)

I remembered really liking Tarsem Singh’s debut feature, The Cell, when I first saw it as a blockbuster VHS rental in my impressionable teen years in the early aughts. That fond memory has faded over the last couple decades as the details of the film itself became overwhelmed by critical complaints that it was a thematically thin bore and, frankly, by an increasing number of goodwill-tanking stinkers within Tarsem’s own catalog. I have since left The Cell behind as if it were a childish plaything, convinced that The Fall was the sole fluke when Tarsem had stumbled into creating a feature film worthy of his consistently stunning imagery. It was a pleasant surprise on revisit, then, that The Cell holds up to the exquisite nightmare I remembered it being in my initial viewing. Contrary to its reputation, Tarsem’s debut absolutely fucking rules, meaning the “visionary” director has two anomaly masterpieces under his name, and one of them stars Jennifer Lopez.

If The Cell is lacking anything that’s achieved more eloquently in The Fall, it’s certainly a matter of narrative & thematic substance. While the latter film is a morally complex exploration of the nature of storytelling, deceit, and imagination, Tarsem’s debut leaves all its ideas & plot machinations in plain view on the surface. Its dumb-as-rocks premise is an attempt to take the “Entering the mind of a killer” plot from Silence of the Lambs as literally as possible. That’s it; that’s the entire movie. JLo is our de facto Clarice Starling in this ungodly mutation of the Silence of the Lambs template, with Vincent d’Onofrio putting in a deeply creepy serial killer performance in the Hannibal Lector role (and Vince Vaughn taking over some of her on-the-ground detective work). Like in the psychedelic anime Paprika & the dream-hopping blockbuster Inception that followed nearly a decade later, JLo literally enters the subconscious mind of her maniacal serial killer patient via futuristic sci-fi- tech that essentially allows her to lucidly dream inside someone else’s head. Once lodged inside the nightmare realms of his twisted mind, she must race against the clock to discover clues that could save his latest potential victim from death (and hopefully help him heal along the way).

I could maybe see this Dream Police setup being disregarded as too convoluted or silly to be worthwhile in certain audiences’ eyes if the nightmare fantasy realms it facilitates weren’t so intoxicatingly lush. Bolstered by breath-taking creations from legendary fashion designer (and frequent Tarsem collaborator) Eiko Ishioka, The Cell often plays like a haute couture fashion show by way of Jodorowsky. Nature footage, fetish gear, and babydoll-parts art instillations serve as mood-setting set decorations for Ishioka’s designs, which look like they were inspired by the Royal Court of Hell. On its own, the police procedural wraparound story that fames those high fashion nightmares might have been the boring, thin genre exercise The Cell has been misremembered as. I don’t understand how anyone can indulge on the exhilarating drug of these high-fashion kink hallucinations and walk away displeased with the picture, however, as it sinks all its efforts into the exact sensual pleasures & dreamlike headspace that only cinema can achieve. It’s disguised as a single-idea genre film, but its ambitions reach for the furthest limits of its medium (and the medium of fashion while it’s at it, just as lagniappe).

If you boil down the most common complaints about The Cell to their most inane essence, the movie has been largely dismissed for following a “style over substance” ethos. This would be an incredibly boring take on any movie in my opinion, but it’s especially egregious considering just how exquisite the style is here (thanks to Ishioka, largely). My best guess is that Tarsem’s prior work as a music video & television commercial director had helped contextualize this piece as an exercise in pure style in critics’ minds, as he even calls attention to that professional background by recreating his sets from his “Losing My Religion” video in the killer’s troubled mind. Helpfully, though, he also calls attention to the aesthetic differences of this film and the grimy torture porn visuals that would soon become an industry standard. The next potential victim is locked in a time-controlled torture device (the titular cell) that will drown her if JLo doesn’t heal the serial killer in time, making the film’s real word setting feel just as much like a precursor to Saw as it is an echo of Silence of the Lambs. That grimy torture device helps establish clear, tangible stakes for JLo’s literal trips into the killer’s mind, but it also serves as a wonderfully illustrative contrast to the lush nightmare-couture of the dream sequences. In comparing that titular torture device to the serial killer’s nightmare realms, you can clearly see how Tarsem’s distinct sense of style transform a potentially mundane genre picture into an impeccable work of fine art – substance be dammed.

The only shame is that Tarsem’s struggled to repeat that miracle in the decades since, with one major exception in The Fall. Still, two five-star achievements in a single career would be an impressive feat for anyone. It’s a miracle that he got away with even that much.

-Brandon Ledet

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

I hate Westerns. I really, really do. When I was a kid in rural East Baton Rouge Parish (and especially when we went to visit even-more-rural friends and family in St Helena), they seemed to make up the bulk of television outside of primetime; moreover, family friends who were fortunate enough to own more than ten videocassettes (which was how I defined wealth then, and, perhaps, now) still had a collection that was largely made up of Western cinema. The filmic depiction of the mythological Wild West, with its overwhelming anxiety about bandits, borderline racist depictions of native people, the uniform whiteness of the protagonists (which led me, as a child, to be unable to tell characters apart), and overall bland cinematic eye really turned me off. I can barely even stand to watch the Western episodes of The Twilight Zone, my favorite show of all time; when one comes on during Syfy’s annual marathons, it’s the cue for me to go outside and get some fresh air.

There are exceptions, of course, to every rule. As a rule, I loathe musicals, but I can see the merits in, for instance, the Heathers musical, which I saw both in New York and in Austin, and I am more willing to accept characters breaking into song in animation, which is already acceptable removed from cinema vérité (Bob’s Burgers and The Simpsons most notably, but also more traditionally musical fare like The Little Mermaid). There are Westerns that I like, enjoy or otherwise feel something like fondness for; my grandfather loved Quigley Down Under and thus so do I, The Quick and the Dead is a fun movie, and Sergio Leone’s Westerns are cinematically engaging on a level that intrigues me. And, of course, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.

When The Verge did their write-up on 2016’s Magnificent 7 last month, they heralded its arrival in their headline: “behold, the progressive Western.” I didn’t see that review before I saw the film, but it was also the first thing that struck me about this film after I largely ignored the promotional materials. Although the film follows the structure of the original film (and, by extension, Seven Samurai), gone are the questionable and dated trappings of the old school Western, replaced with an easily digestible parable about capitalism and race dressed up in a gunslinger’s shoot ‘em up. And it’s pretty great!

Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) is a corrupt industrialist who has his sights set on Rose Creek, a mining town in northern California. He and his cohort of morally bankrupt private detectives, thinly veiled versions of the Pinkertons who broke up strikes in the real West, roll into town and burn the facade of the church, telling the townsfolk that he will return in less than a month to purchase the last of their hard-earned land for less than half of its worth, and they can either fall in line or die. Shortly thereafter, widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and her friend enlist the help of warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) when he passes through town in pursuit of a fugitive. Although he is at first reluctant, Chisolm relents when he hears that the Bart Bogue is behind this transgression, he agrees to help Rose Creek defend itself.

In a plotline that has been homaged from The Avengers to Star Wars (so much so that most viewers likely think it’s older than locomotion), Chisolm recruits six more men to join him: rapscallion sharpshooter and gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Mexican outlaw gunslinger Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Ruffo), legendary New Orleans rifleman “Goodnight” Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding associate Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Comanche wanderer Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio). The seven men come together (with Emma acting as a kind of alternate teammate in various situations) to try and teach the settlers of Rose Creek to defend themselves against Bogue’s imminent invasion.

I really enjoyed this film. Above and beyond the general thrill of a legitimately fun Western with clearly evil and less-clearly-good characters, I loved the subtext. Gone is the marauding bandito who terrorized the peasant village of the original, replaced by the face of true evil in every generation: avaricious capitalist men driven by their lust for and worship of material goods (and the power that they bring) with no regard for the cost of human life and dignity. Instead of helping to protect and serve the populace of Rose Creek from outside influence, the sheriff of the town has been bought and paid for by Bogue; the innocents who have entrusted him with their lives are mowed down by him for immoral reasons, just as we so often see the loss of life (largely of people of color) at the hands of modern police forces. The deputies of the town are amoral thugs with no sense of right or wrong, hired mercenaries with so much blood on their hands that they’ll never be clean; not only are they evocative of the Pinkertons but also of the PMCs used in Iraq and elsewhere, before and during the war on terror.

Standing in their way are a black man (given that the film is set in 1879 and the fact that Chisolm refers to living in Arkansas, he is likely to be a former slave), a Native American, an Asian man, and a Mexican sharpshooter (in one notable exchange, Vasquez remarks that there is no such thing as a “Texican,” illuminating the lie in the name given to him by others who sought only to steal the land and livelihood of himself and his people). Beyond these POC are other marginalized people, including a soldier with PTSD and an elderly man who has been declared useless by society. And a woman!

In a more traditional Western, Bogue would represent progress, the man bringing civilization to the “savage” western edge of the country, but here he is shown for who he really is, a corrupt monster who uses bullying and violence to make his mark on the world, and, ultimately, he is undone by a diverse coalition of men (and a woman!) who forsake old grudges (as seen in the interactions between Red Harvest and Jack Horne as well as Vasquez and Faraday) in order to prevent an evil reaping of innocent people. And, hey, it’s a surprisingly progressive film that you can probably get even your racist grandpa to watch. Check it out!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Adventures in Babysitting (1987)

EPSON MFP image

onehalfstar

campstamp

I know nostalgia is a huge factor among the film’s diehard fans, but I am in total disbelief over how beloved Adventures in Babysitting is in certain circles around my age range. Typically, I hate to be the sourpuss that takes shots at a decades-old cult classic, especially with something this goofy, but I don’t at all mind crashing the party here. This Raeganomics comedy is hot garbage, y’all. It’s offensively awful, painfully misguided & tone deaf in almost every single creative decision. If surrendering two hours of my life to Adventures in Babysitting enriched my soul or worldview in any way, I guess it’d be in how it taught me the poor, disabled, and POC folks who populate (i.e. infest & ransack) major American cities are scary & evil monsters best avoided or derided as punchlines. The’res a value to that life lesson, but it will vary greatly on how much of a colossal piece of shit you are or, more likely, how young & impressionable you were when you first encountered it.

It doesn’t all start off this dire. In its opening sequence Adventures in Babysitting pretends to be the fun, carefree teen comedy its title lead me to expect. Out of the gate, the film treats the audience to the always-enjoyable trope of the dress-up montage, complete with copious amounts of bedroom dancing set to sax-heavy 80s garbage pop. The fashion is on point, quite literally in the case of teenage Elisabeth Shue’s shoulder pads, which jut out at dangerously sharp angles. Shue’s babysitting protagonist Chris finds herself pining over a heartless dude bro with a Camaro, sighing “He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” Her dorky bestie Brenda (Penelope Anne Miller, of all people) delightfully retorts “He’s the only thing that’s ever happened to you.” Instead of going on a hot date with the dude bro, though, Chris finds herself begrudgingly babysitting a pair of fairly affable siblings: a little girl who’s hopelessly obsessed with Thor comics & her older brother who’s hopelessly obsessed with Chris. So far, so good: a serviceable, if formulaic setup for an 80s teen comedy. The film doesn’t derail until its plot kicks into gear and leaves the heavenly safety of lily white suburbia for a head first dive into The Big Bad City, with its never-ending supply of poors, ruffians, ruffian poors, and poor ruffians.

The social structure of Raegan’s America is a strict binary here: suburbia good; city bad. When the adorably incompetent (well, adorably as long as you can ignore the gender politics) Brenda finds herself stranded at an inner city Chicago bus station, Chris rounds up the kids under her care, along with their horndog tagalong buddy Darryl (the most despicable human being ever depicted in film), for a makeshift rescue mission. A blown tire on the interstate & a misplaced wallet drives them out of the suburbia-adjacent safety of their luxury vehicle & they find themselves face to face with an endless sea of impoverished reprobates. The first few real life black people the kids meet along the way are a car thief, a glasses thief, and a low level crime boss (who commands a small army of thieves). Other POC include a scary blues band, their barroom audience, and a gang of subway-hopping street toughs. There are Caucasian urban monsters too, including a physically handicapped & explosively violent truck driver, the oh-so-creepy homeless, and a mentally unstable man who’s all sexual leering & gun-waving danger. The big city of Adventures in Babysitting is a sprawling metropolis of mob meetings, spousal abuse, teenage prostitution, and crusted-over porno mags. The only relative safe haven in all of this is an all-white frat part (because nothing fucked up ever happens at those, right?), which is really just an extension of suburbia if you think of the parents’ money that makes it possible. At said kegger, Chris meets her hunk ex machina, a persistently selfless white knight frat boy who solves all of the kids’ problems in a few swift acts of flirtation-fueled kindness, helping bring Brenda & her concerned rescue party back to their suburban safe zone.

If I squint the right way I can sort of see the goofy slapstick comedy most kids grew up loving lurking somewhere under the gross class & racial politics of Adventures in Babysitting. The despicable cad Darryl (who’s all rape jokes, blacked-out party girl make-outs, and undressing the unconscious) aside, the main cast of characters come out mostly unscathed, however misguided in their abject, classist fear. The pint-sized Thor fan is particularly endearing as she dresses like her idol on rollerskates, gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up to a frat boy sporting Viking horns, and runs into a real-life version of The God of Thunder (a young Vincent D’Onofrio in what looks like a gay porno version of Thor moonlighting as a cash-strapped mechanic). Even Thor Girl gets dragged into the movie’s insufferable bullshit at times, though, like in an early scene where she apes her brother’s homophobia & another where she dangles from a skyscraper in a lifeless eternity of false suspense that drags on longer than the godawful clock tower scene in Back to the Future (another comedy that’s loved far more than it deserves, as long as I’m pissing on childhoods). I also was amused by the surreally ubiquitous nature of an all-important issue of Playboy magazine & the pissed off faces of a black nightclub audience as they await the performance of a monstrosity titled “The Babysitter Blues.”

None of these details amount to much consolation, though, considering the ungodly crass class-scare comedy they ultimately serve. However, I could see how this film could be remembered fondly as a campy adventure once a long enough passage of time erased the details of its beyond-problematic narrative. Adventures in Babysitting is a grotesquely hostile, spiritually rotted kids comedy that earns its 5 star Netflix ratings & warm, fuzzy memories purely off a wave of VHS-aided nostalgia. If you hold any love for this film, I urge you to keep the good vibes in your heart, but leave the endless rewatches in the past. Revisiting the film in a modern context can only serve to spoil the fun.

-Brandon Ledet