Cell movie poster

I did have the opportunity to read Stephen King’s “Cell” while I was on vacation in Hawaii. It’s not one of King’s best novels, but it was an entertaining read as it delved into our increasing obsession and dependence on technology, in particular cell phones. When the novel was released in 2006, cell phones still had a bit of a ways to go to get to where they are today; devices that can do just about everything and anything in our daily lives except make coffee. But now it’s 2016 and we have long since reached that point where we can’t bear to live without our cell phones and are a slave to them.

A movie adaptation of “Cell” had been in the works for years and Eli Roth was originally going to direct it, but that didn’t work out. Now it has finally arrived in theaters and can be quickly added to the garbage heap of terrible Stephen King adaptations like “Maximum Overdrive” and “The Mangler.” While its subject matter is still timely, “Cell” quickly devolves into just another zombie movie where the clichés are rampant to where we know exactly what to expect to where any suspenseful moments it hoped to have are rendered moot. In short, it is an uninspired retread of “28 Days Later,” a movie this one can only dream of being as terrifying as.

“Cell” opens up on Clayton Riddell (John Cusack) getting off his flight which has brought him back home, and he is eager to reconnect with his wife and son, both of whom he has been estranged from for too long. But it doesn’t take all that long for all the fellow travelers around him to start losing their minds and convulse to where they start attacking everyone and everything in sight. Clayton manages to escape the airport and teams up with subway worker Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson) and Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrman) to find a safe haven away from those infected with the cell phone virus that controls the actions of everyone infected by it.

The movie gives us sights and sounds we have seen endlessly in one apocalyptic movie after another. We see scenes of cities in utter ruins, cars turned over, survivors travelling through empty roads and fields, etc. All this does is remind me of other movies that are far scarier and more unnerving to where it’s tempting to turn off “Cell” and watch them instead. There’s almost nothing to separate this film from others of its genre, and it becomes a glum and languid bore of a motion picture that feels too long even at 98 minutes.

Watching John Cusack here made me feel sorry for him. After suffering through a number of bad movies these past few years, he delivered a truly great performance as the elder Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy” which proved he still has much to give to the world of acting. But here in “Cell,” Cusack just looks bored and barely interested to be a part of this particular Stephen King adaptation. His character is just another father trying to get to his child to ensure his safety, and the actor just goes through the motions with little to show for it.

Samuel L. Jackson fares a little better here as Tom McCourt as he gives a performance that is subtle instead of bombastic. The “Pulp Fiction” actor effortlessly turns his character into an everyman who has seen far too much in this lifetime to where this apocalyptic situation is no different to him than being a soldier in a foreign land. Jackson has been in countless movies over the years, many of them flat out bad, but there is no doubt that he will survive this critical catastrophe to give us great performances in the future.

What’s especially galling is that both Cusack and Jackson starred in another Stephen King cinematic adaptation almost ten years ago, “1408,” and that proved to be a scary time at the movies. Why they couldn’t bring the same enthusiasm they clearly had on that one to “Cell” almost feels like a mystery.

But then again, we shouldn’t be blaming the two stars as much as we should be blaming the director of this uninspired mess, Tod Williams. Back in 2004 he gave us the blistering drama “The Door in the Floor” which starred Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger as a couple forever torn apart emotionally by the death of their sons. It was a breakthrough feature for Williams as he got some of the best performances out of Bridges’ and Basinger’s careers, and he dug deep into the lives of unlikable characters whose psychological wounds were too deep for us to look away from. A few years later he directed “Paranormal Activity 2,” a sequel which proved to be as terrifying as the original. And considering how terrifying the original was, that’s saying a lot.

Those two movies show Williams to be a huge talent behind the camera, so it is very hard to understand why he couldn’t make “Cell” the least bit scary or unnerving. King’s novel dealt with material that was familiar to him, but the writer made “Cell” more than just another exploration into the end of civilization as we know it. Williams doesn’t bother to do that here as he simply throws out one tired cliché after another at us, and some scenes are so badly lit to where it’s impossible to figure out what is going on. This is also not to mention the horrible CGI effects on display which illustrate how this low budget horror movie had an even lower budget than others.

This all leads to a climax which is not at all satisfying, and an ending that is unforgivably confusing. King’s conclusion to “Cell” was a bit anticlimactic and too ambiguous for many readers, but it was still a haunting conclusion that Williams doesn’t bother to include here.

Adapting Stephen King novels to the silver screen has always been tricky as filmmakers have to balance out their attention to both the gory aspects of his stories and the characters which inhabit them. Perhaps Williams tried to do both here, but he’s not able to shock us or care about the protagonists at the center of “Cell.” What we get instead is a very below average genre movie that isn’t worth anyone’s money or time. That should more than explain the studio’s decision to dump it in a handful of theaters this past weekend for a limited release. Do audiences even know “Cell” is out in theaters this weekend? Well, even if they do, I can’t blame them for not caring.

* out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016. All Rights Reserved.


The Innocents

The Innocents movie poster

The Innocents” is one of those movies which just washes over you. Anne Fontaine has directed it in such a way to where it never calls attention to itself. Instead it just sucks you into its post-war setting to where you never question the attention paid to the period detail, and you enter the lives of these characters in the same way the movie’s protagonist does as you make the same discoveries as she while the story unfolds. It feels like it has been a long time since a movie has had that effect on me, so that makes this one rather unique.

The movie takes us back to December 1945 in Warsaw. The second World War has ended and Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge), a young French Red Cross doctor, is treating the last batch of patients who survived their time in the German camps. One day she comes into contact with Benedictine nun who begs her to visit the covenant she lives at, and it is there where Mathilde shockingly discovers several nuns who are pregnant, one of which is about to give birth. These nuns were raped by Soviet soldiers, and the covenant is desperate to keep these incidents as its inhabitants are fiercely private and eager to avoid shaming and persecution from the new anti-Catholic Communist government. But as their strongly held beliefs continually clash with harsh realities, they become reliant on Mathilde to help their sisters with a condition forced unto them.

“The Innocents” covers a part of history that many, including myself, were not aware of before. It was inspired by Madeleine Pauliac, a Red Cross doctor, who documented in her notes the story of these nuns who were raped by Soviet soldiers as much as 40 times in a row. It’s an infuriating crime that many will still not admit happened even though historians know full well that it did. To see it covered in this movie feels like an overdue recognition of the cruelness many women were forced to experience against their will. I came out of this movie angered at what happened to these nuns, and that’s the way I should have come out of it.


Fontaine’s previous films include “Gemma Bovery,” “Coco Before Chanel” and “The Girl from Monaco” Along with screenwriters Sabrina B. Karine, Pascal Bonitzer and Alice Vial, she has given us a tale where the views and beliefs of believers are forced to clash with those of non-believers. This is always a fascinating debate as our views on religion and God always differ in various ways. Because of this vicious crime that has been perpetrated, the nuns have to confront how their beliefs are threatened and forever changed by it. And then there’s Mathilde who is not a believer but shows no hesitation in helping those who are. This brings about many fascinating conversations which make you wonder if much has changed in the years since World War II.

I’m not familiar with Lou de Lou de Laâge’s work as an actress before this movie, but she is perfectly cast here as Mathilde. Here is a doctor, let alone a female one, who risks her life to help those who could be unfairly persecuted for reasons we would never accept today, and she barely bats an eye in the face of adversity. De Laâge is a natural as she makes Mathilde an especially brave character, but one who is simply doing her job to help those who need mending. Other doctors in that same situation might have stayed away in fear of severe consequences, but de Laâge gives us one who is not out to be a hero in the slightest as she is simply doing the job she was trained to do.

Vincent Macaigne also gives a fine performance as Mathilde’s superior and lover, Samuel. At first it looks like these two will have a relationship not unlike the one Peter Benton had with John Carter on “ER,” but theirs proves to be more complex than that. They fall for one another not out of lust but necessity as their lives may be snuffed out on the front lines before they know it, and that makes what they go through especially unpredictable. Macaigne makes Samuel into a doctor who could have easily fallen into clichéd conventions, but he turns him into a fully fleshed out character who is ready to overcome his deeply held prejudices to help those in need.


Then there’s Agata Kulesza who portrays Mère Abesse, the Mother Superior of the covenant. This is the movie’s most complex character as she struggles to keep all the nuns in line while committing rash actions to protect them from what she feels would be an unbearable derision. In another movie this would be a character you would come to seriously hate, but here she is a person doing what she can to keep her sisters in line with the faith while doing things they will come to hate her for. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Mère comes to show how that is the case.

In some ways “The Innocents” could have dug deeper into the themes it explores as the movie feels like it only goes so far. Also, its conclusion feels a bit too pat as such circumstances can never be easily solved in so simple a fashion. Still, a movie like this is an immersive experience which demands your attention in a way few others do. Many I know have a ridiculous aversion to movies with subtitles, but I invite them to put that to the side as this one covers a part of history that can no longer be ignored. In a day and age where women are still not considered equal to men, this one reminds us of how that should never be the case.

PLEASE NOTE: “The Innocents” will open on July 1st at The Landmark in West Los Angeles and on July 8th at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino, Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Edwards Westpark 8 in Orange County.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * ½ out of * * * *