Deleted Footage, Audio Commentary by director, International Theatrical and Teaser Trailers, Director Profile, Audio Commentary by production team, Making Of: Special Effects, Production Design, Make-up & Costumes, DVD-ROM: Script to Scene & Game Demo "Cataclysm"Isolated Score; Brain Map & Empathy Test
ith the ability to draw such a wide array of both criticism and acclaim, I would venture to say that The Cell must have been a "good movie" indeed - after all, the bad ones are those scarcely talked about. Director Tarsem Singh's film directorial debut is the subject of a variety of debatable merits; is it a pretentious, over-saturated music video? Is it highly focused, creative visionary work? Perhaps it is a little of both. Only one movie every few years or so is indisputably perfect - a true masterpiece. While this is not that one film, it stands out from those "other" movies of the year by sheer prowess of cinematography. Singh pushes his crew to produce intensely rich visuals throughout the production featuring simple, yet seemingly innovative points of view. Real life (whatever that is) is nothing but ordinary compared to the appeal of cognitive landscapes and the things of dreams.
It comes as no surprise that New Line Video's release of The Cell is packed with features, but possibly the simplest aspect of the production is what impresses me the most. This is the first title I have seen that has Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks for the menus. I had long wondered to myself if it were possible, and can't think of a better example of the perfect fit of ambient, digital sound creating an eerie sensation as a precursor to the film. Another minor newness of design lies in one of New Line's usual features: the hidden ‘Special Thanks’ screen. Simply highlight and select the New Line logo at the main menu to view not one, but several contiguous pages of ‘Special Thanks’ to friends, family and lawyers. Personally, I think the pages that simply list off peoples' names should be axed as worthless, leaving only those with specifics such as authoring media houses and data contributors and such - actual useful information for somebody doing research. As thankful as the producers may have been towards Joe Blow for some random task or other, it does the rest of us zero bit of good to see that bit of trivia stated in the menus. Can you imagine an audio CD that contained an additional track with some producer iterating thanks to their best friends and production crew? No thanks: keep it in the booklet, bub.
But enough about the insignificant, on to greater things!
I vow to always watch a movie in its entirety for the first time before digging into the extras - I won't even watch the trailer before seeing it so as not to spoil anything. But when the fat lady sings, I jump right in. First stop: deleted scenes. This disc contains a selection of deleted scenes, each of which may have commentary with director Singh toggled on or off. Several of the outtakes were no more than a couple seconds, but the entire clip extends for at least a minute to give Singh enough commentary time. For a couple of them, it’s in your nest interest to listen to the commentary as the difference from the production scene is so slight that you might miss it. There is some sort of navigational bug that may pop up on various first and second generation DVD players that causes partial frames to be displayed, if at all, and halted navigation script. The problem occurs when switching between the deleted scenes, or after a deletion clip plays back and attempts to return to the menu. In each case I was able to simply hit the MENU button which in effect resumes playback where it stopped, the last playback being the previously played deleted scene, then hit MENU again to return to the deleted scenes menu and everything would be peachy. The disc also has a terrific making-of/special effects reel that's worth the sit. It contains the usual interaction with the actors, costume and computer effects artists - but there are some costume effects elements in The Cell that are just downright freaky (you'll see - I'm not gonna blow it here for those who haven't seen it) and it was cool to see how those were done. Beyond the vision, if there's one cool thing about Tarsem Singh, it's that he seems to like the sound of his own voice - the perfect candidate for a run-length director's commentary. He has some interesting things to say, particularly in regard to elements that he has taken and improved upon from other films, but I'm not all that sure what to think about how taken he is with eXistenZ, possibly one of the strangest sci-fi film in the history of modern filmmaking, touting itself with, "Makes the Matrix look like child's play!" - Yeah right... WEAK! Well anyway, I dig the top-level menu with rotating cubes and the big flaming box (although there don't appear to be any flames in the film itself, it's okay - they're being creative here. The disc has extensive cast and crew filmographies, but no background info on any of them, only their films listed out. There's a funny commercial on the disc - like the kind you might see on prime time television. The menu option is listed in the special features as a "DVD-ROM game demo" for the Home World / Cataclysm for sale at a bargain price only at Flipside.com like, fer sher dude. It has absolutely nothing to do with the movie other than being some whack attempt at generating additional revenue from DVD releases.
The disgrace of the disc-
I almost let it slip. I thought to myself, "you know, I could have made that mistake and would not have appreciated someone slapping it back in my face as if I didn't know." As initially noticed, it was small enough to qualify such a response for it. But then it got bigger, and started to spread, infecting other sections of the disc until, in the end, all that was left was a despicable joke. I'm referring to the various features on the disc that are entirely text-based - various frames of one to five sentences of pertinent information: your basic stuff. It started off as a fun, little, light-hearted self-analysis game in the interactivities section of the special features called the "Empathy Test". The Empathy test starts out with a brief explanation of the background and purpose of the test ending with, "This empathy test is not standardized assessment tool and should be used only for fun." Okay, so if I was going to be picky, I’d point out that they left out either an "a" or an "as an" - it's not a total loss, and most people will read right over it and not even notice. I went through the entire test and passed with flying colors - apparently I am pathetic! Err.. I'm empathetic. Well that was certainly fun, so I moved on to the "Brain Map". Useless factoids: my specialty. In ten pages of text content averaging three sentences per page, I stumbled upon seven additional grammatical errors and a complete absurdity: "Individuals such as cat burglars, surgeons and gymnasts have very developed cerebellums." Umm, excuse me, cat burglars? Do they have advanced training courses for that? How do you conduct a study of the cerebellum development of cat burglars, by putting an ad in the paper, "cat burglars wanted to volunteer for experimental brain development research"? In the least, they could provide resources for such off-the-wall data. The material really is good reading, somewhat pertinent to the movie even, but did this material even cross the editor's desk?
Yeah, yeah, okay, but what about technical appeal?
I suspect that the conceptual minds that thought up digital surround sound did so with films like The Cell in mind. Whizzing bullets, immersive explosions and zooming vehicles are super duper and all, but to me the technology compliments nothing so well as ominous, creepy sounds emanating from all directions, creating a nervousness all about, each sound pulling it's full weight in potential effect. The sensation begins in the menu system, makes natural progression in "real world" use, and dives straight into the unadulterated effects for which channel separation was invented.
Here's to a clear image of the future..
At first it just seemed like, "something's not quite right here.." There's something about the video quality on this title that disturbs me. Without knowing the precise details of the production work I cannot say for certain, but I suspect that what distracts me may be caused by too high of an MPEG-2 compression level. For lack of a more technically precise description, I witness what I call "color grouping" where the compression software will scan a frame and group together colors within a certain threshold, then transform them all to the same average level. As an example, imagine a shot that has a large portion of blue sky showing. Normally sky shots contain subtle gradients of color (transition between lighter and darker blues from one side of the shot to the other, be it left to right or top to bottom) but in this case it's possible for large "chunks" of the gradient to be grouped together as a single color. Consider this effect as applied to the entire visible portion of sky in the shot and what you get at full playback rate is a strange effect with chunky little sky-blue shapes dancing around. Actually it's considerably less obtuse on this production. I have seen the effect as described countless times on other titles, and it is indeed evident in The Cell, but it is not highly pronounced. It actually took me a while to put my finger on it and determine that this is what was catching my attention. Despite the color grouping effect, the video contains good detail, sharp color contrast and no evident film grain. In fact it's entirely possible that the color grouping effect that I describe may well be designed to cancel the effects of grainy film in transfers. Interestingly, the video contains a single blemish about 20 minutes into the film - what appears to be a nasty, gnarly human hair stamped forever into a single frame of the digital stream like some damn kid's bicycle tracks through the concrete of your freshly paved driveway. Hideous. But only one frame - remarkable that nobody noticed to remove it.
Further untamed ponderances..
As I think back on the several times that I've watched the film now, there are some mention-worthy points that stand out. First of all, I think I need no disclaimer to say that Jennifer Lopez is extremely overrated. Yeah, she's cute, but one of the fifty most beautiful people in the world? According to People Magazine she is - I guess it must be so! I mean seriously, who in their right mind insures their ass? Pitiful. Well anyway, she is "alright" in the role of Catherine Deane, but far from spectacular. She plays a child therapist who practices unprecedented, experimental medicine - we're talking borderline malpractice here from the dreaming beauty. On the flip side, I found Vincent D'Onofrio to be an excellent fit for the role of Carl Stargher, a troubled (to say the least) man who lives out his naughty, sexually demented fantasies with women - whether or not they are willing participants. His character presentation ranges from the gentle giant victim to that of a menacing, all-powerful deity. Why is it that these nutcakes always have strange names like "Carl Stargher", "Karl Childers" (Sling Blade/Billy Bob Thornton) and "Hannibal Lechter" (The Silence of The Lambs/Anthony Hopkins)? Creepy bastards. I look forward to seeing D'Onofrio along side Jodie Foster as a man of the cloth in next year's film, "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys". Hopefully he is actually wearing the cloth in this one. Vince Vaughn's character Peter Novak plays the FBI detective heading the investigation of Carl's little hobby. I find the role to be a waste of talent - if you want to see Vaughn kick some screenplay butt, check out Psycho (1998).
Initially I was tremendously pleased with The Cell proclaiming that I had a new favorite director. I take it back. I have a new director who I enjoy and who can take a seat right next to Tim Burton - and while he's sitting there, maybe he can get a few tips on character development. I really enjoyed The Cell for the pure eye-candy, spooky soundtrack and twisted villain. It's not technologically amazing, doesn't even contain a plausible foundation (brain wave transfer/tapping - bah, whatever), has weak motivation and development for characters, and creates relationships between them that leave you guessing (What's up with the Baines couple, Edwards parents? They act like they own the joint). There is a whole series of refinements that should have occurred at the script level before the film ever saw the light of day, but alas we are left in ineptitude. As such, film-wise we are left with surface-level enjoyment of presentation, as well as the thrill of a good head-case murderer. Coupled with a good set of special features, the DVD makes a case for itself to be investigated.