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« Is Something the Matter With Economics? | Main | Sole Creators? »

July 27, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm not sure why the small action thriller "Cellular" wasn't a big hit. Right from its opening couple of minutes, I found it whizbang enjoyable. It delivers a pinpoint focus on great-ride style entertainment; hypercompetent chases and crowd scenes; and fun and attractive performers showing off lots of performing pizzazz.

I wonder if the film's marketers made the film appear to be too edgy. In fact, it's a squarer, more eager movie than the film's campaign made it appear. It seems, in other words, like the kind of film audiences love to make their own.

For one thing, of course, it has a fabulous exploitation-style thriller hook: A kidnapped woman frantically dials a random number and connects with a shallow beachboy. To try to save her (and, later, her family), these two strangers have to stay in touch via his cellphone. If their connection breaks, it's all over.

Wowee: This hook is cheap, it's sleazy, it's too clever by half -- and, I don't know about you, but it's got me watching. Good grief, but I do bow down before an effective narrative hook. Larger question: What's not great about a great hook? Is the creation of an effective hook a trivial achievement? I can't see why we should think so. And "Cellular"'s hook strikes me as being in a class with such classics as "D.O.A." and "Speed." ("D.O.A." -- he's been poisoned; he's got only two hours to live; but in those two hours this hero who, for all intents and purposes is already dead, is going to track down the man who killed him. "Speed" -- if the bus dips below a certain velocity, the bomb goes off.)

So: a great hook, a lot of professionalism and energy … But, as it turns out, more than just that. The movie is also full of ingenious twists, turns, double-backs, and surprises; it hustles you past the unavoidable implausibilities very enjoyably; it's canny about judging its changes of pace; it knows when and how to jack the stakes up; and it maintains a cheerfully knock-it-around and enthusiastic tone. It's lean and fresh; it's short, it's exciting, and it's occasionally quite funny. It ain't much -- a B movie with a live spark. But that's a kind of ain't-muchness that I adore.

"Cellular" may just be a nifty thriller-exploitation concept well-fleshed-out. But this movie makes that kind of plot-and-concept-driven approach look like the way to go. The writers, directors, actors, and stunt/action teams all gave the film much more than they needed to. David Ellis -- a longtime stuntman, stunt coordinator, and second-unit guy -- directed with a lot of alertness to where the fun might be found. Chris Morgan wrote the superduper, resourceful final script from an original idea by Larry Cohen, with input from the director, some of the actors, and -- who knows? -- maybe the film's caterer too.

All the film's participants seemed to be having a virtuosic amount of creative fun with the project. As the beach dude with the cellphone, Chris Evans has some of Brandon Fraser's amusing sheepishness and big-lug cluelessness, but he's also a trim, handsome package, and does a good job of growing into an action hero before our eyes. Kim Basinger plays the kidnapped mommy, and she's reliably pink, blonde, and damp. William Macy supplies soul and humor as a henpecked good cop on the verge of retirement who finds himself in the midst of the action. And Jason Stratham manages to put a few new spins on the cliché role of the got-it-all-together, leather-jacket-wearing chief baddie.

A couple of reservations: Basinger's histrionics and intensity aren't exactly in keeping with the rest of the movie. On the other hand, her Method-exercise messiness does work, in a way: It gives the film some "real"-seeming emotionality that helps save it from being just an amusing goof.

And -- sigh -- I do wish that contempo B movies had more stylized looks. I wish they were visual treats. Some of the old B movies -- the films noirs, the small horror pix -- established dreamlike universes that were so extreme and transporting that the watching these tacky movies could remind you of attending operas or of reading poetry. Color film and our expectations of naturalism seem to have put an end to that particular tradition. "Realistic" (viewed as a style) is what we expect these days, and by god realistic is what we get. Well, 90 percent of the time. A couple of exceptions to my rule: "Breakdown" and "Joy Ride," two modern B's that showed how a modern color movie can generate some trash poetry and set a real tone.

Still: Whew, what a picture. "Cellular" is physically smaller -- more obviously scaled to B-movie size -- than such otherwise-similar, hyperefficient, all-in-one-day, near-real-time, countdown-style thrill machines as "Speed" and "Die Hard." And it has a scrappier, more working-class-guy feel than either of those films do. Whether or not you think "Cellular" is in the same class as "Speed" and "Die Hard" may depend on whether you applaud these facts. I applaud 'em both.

Incidentally, a brief pause to acknowledge one undernoted achievement of "Cellular." Small bit of movieworld Tacit Knowledge: The existence of cellphones has been a nightmare for the creators of thrillers. Thrillers thrive on "blocking mechanisms," and cellphones have taken a trustworthy and satisfying blocking mechanism -- the fixed land-line -- out of circulation. With cellphones common, heroes no longer need to run down the block to get to a phonebooth. And who cares if the badguy rips out the phone lines? People trapped in a locked office can pull out their Treos and dial for help anyway.

"Cellular" takes these thriller-making difficulties and turns them into thriller-making advantages. The filmmakers of "Cellular" embraced the fact of the cellphone. Cellphones have their own spooky qualities, after all. For one thing, a cellphone is nothing if not mobile. You can be on the phone while still being on the move. So perhaps the dramatic quandary isn't that you can't get to to a phone; perhaps the dramatic quandary is that you can't let it go. And god knows cellphones are flukey -- what with their lousy coverage and battery problems -- as well as sociologically annoying and hilarious. Why curse the cellphone? Why not instead use the cellphone as a pretext for an exciting whirl through some of the facts and conditions of our new overlapping wireless lives?

So: Why wasn't "Cellular" a hit? I have no idea, but I sure got a kick out of it.

You can buy "Cellular" here.



posted by Michael at July 27, 2005


It sounds pretty good---although I admit to not having even heard of it, let alone seen it. And I totally agree with you---a good "hook" is worth a million words, so to speak. And "Speed" and "Die Hard" both had tee-riffic hooks. (And so did "D.O.A."---that re-make was the first time I remember seeing Meg Ryan). It even got "Speed" past Keanu Reaves and got "Die Hard" past the fact that I could never really imagine Bruce Willis' character and his screen wife as actually being married. It just didn't matter. "Die Hard" and "Cellular" have something else--a good supporting character---like Alan Rickman and William Macy.

The minute you mention "cell phone" I think--omigod---how charged was the battery? Did she start getting the "low battery" beep at a crucial moment? Keeping them charged is one of life's big challnges!

I think movies like this are a big reason to go to the movies.

Posted by: annette on July 27, 2005 11:05 AM

"Cellular" may not have been a hit because audiences nowadays like to see their B-movies dressed up like A-pictures. For example, last year's "Collateral" had a downright Larry Cohen-esque "hook", but that didn't stop Michael Mann from making a poetic-philosophical "important" movie with big time Hollywood movie stars.

I don't mind these inflated B-Movies, but I always find it refreshing to see genuine B-Pictures, like this year's "Land of the Dead".

Another possible reason: "Cellular"'s plot had twist and turns, but it didn't have one of those forehead-slapping "gotcha" moments like last year's low budget horror flick "Saw".

Also, unlike "Saw" or "Sideways" or "Kill Bill", "Cellular" didn't appeal to a specific group that could get behind it and give it a big "word of mouth"/internet/special interest publication push. I think "Cellular" is a moive that most people would find enjoyable, but its not really one that most people would get _excited_ about.

I went to see it in the theater on its opening weekend because I'm a big Larry Cohen fan, which is a pretty small demographic. Whenever I recommended it to my friends, they gave me an "Are you serious?" look.

Posted by: Jon Hastings on July 27, 2005 11:26 AM

A hook in the movies is not much different than a popular music hook and John Popper layed it out for us:

If I'm doing my job, it's your resolve that breaks
Because the hook brings you back
I ain't tellin' you no lie
The hook brings you back
On that you can rely

A hook only becomes a hook if it's used skillfully. Remember that movie where, in the trailer, the police guy tells the terrified woman that the creepy calls are coming from inside her own house? Great hook. For the trailer. The movie had nothing else.

A hook is just a clever and engaging précis of an idea. If the idea is thin or nonsensical or doesn't enlarge or fulfull the hook, you may have a terrific trailer, but a disappointing movie.

Posted by: Sluggo on July 27, 2005 12:10 PM

I have lost the ability to distinguish A's and B's. Are A's the ones with the bluescreen acting and computer generated action?
An A ought to be one that is beautiful (makes you see the world you thought you knew differently and has characters you can get involved with (I wanted to say 'care about' but that is not always true). Collateral comes to mind. Most people living in LA don't recognize its beauty. Collateral hits you in the face with it and shows you new dimensions. And the story and characters grab you before you can think about how unlikely it is. Is it merely a B?
If it is, then what is an A? Is it a budget-determined definition? Is B a critic's sneer?

I hadn't hear or thought about distinguishing movies like this for many years.
In any case, I will set up Cellular on Netflix when my son gives me a slot.

Posted by: Ralph on July 27, 2005 01:03 PM

I've always wondered about the "impossibility" of doing expressionistic cinematography in color. One of the major reasons for expressionism both in German silents and in Hollywood sound movies was that extreme lighting and camera angles were cheaper than doing elaborate sets. This rationale which would still seem to recommend the style in low-budget contexts today.

But it seems as if in the 1950s after color came in, Hollywood tried a bit of color expressionism, found it seemed a bit old-fashioned or something, and chucked it. And everyone since then has assumed that expressionistic lighting and camerawork was a dated concept, and can only relate to it as a sort of period look.

My suspicion is that it's never really been tweaked enough systematically to make workable in a low-budget context...but it could be.

I could be wrong about this, of course, but I've always wondered.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 27, 2005 02:14 PM

I'll have to watch it. I keep wondering about the future when the cellphone is implanted in our brains. How will we keep 10 billion people from just barging in without an invitation?

Does Angel Heart qualify as a B-grade movie? It's one of my favorites. Right up there with Touch of Evil for invoking... well, evil! Angel Heart evokes one of the most sinister worlds I've ever encountered.

And, am I wrong, or are comments posting becoming embarassingly polite?

I addressed this subject on my weblog yesterday:

What happened to the great shouting matches and flame wars that characterized the early years of weblogging? Have we all matured?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on July 27, 2005 02:14 PM

I liked it and thought it was a moderate hit, actually.

The things that may have kept it moderate were they didn't sell the concept well in the trailer (if I recall correctly), the title is not evocative, and it has a "kids in peril" subplot which turns some parents off. My wife won't watch any "kids in peril" movies because they get her too wound up. They even add a level of grimness I don't enjoy unless it's handled really well. Cellular did a good job in that dept., imnsho.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on July 27, 2005 02:51 PM

I saw the trailer for this movie and thought it was an interesting hook, one worth seeing, in any case. I completely missed any theatrical release of it though, and I had been looking.

You're right on the money about how cell phones can reduce the tension of a thriller. I was thinking how some of the recent movies I've seen would have been destroyed had they chosen to bring cell phones into the picture-- It seems most screenwriters prefer to just leave them out. Another movie that I believe plays with the conventionality of cellphones was Phonebooth. Hopefully some more screenwriters will be up to the task with dealing with issues cell phones present and making them sources of, rather than detractors from, the dramatic tension.

Posted by: . on July 27, 2005 03:20 PM

Like "Cellular", "Phone Booth" was derived from a Larry Cohen "idea". His next movie, "Captivity" seems to be a variation on the premise of "Saw", which is unfortunate because I was hoping he'd follow up "Cellular" with something like "Modem" or "Wi-Fi" so that film buffs could refer to these movies as Larry Cohen's Telecom Trilogy.

Posted by: Jon Hastings on July 27, 2005 03:28 PM

Movies today generally need fairly potent star power if they're going to become breakout hits. The teens who make up such a high percentage of the moviegoing population aren't particularly interested in a movie where the lead actress is older than many of their mothers.

Posted by: Peter on July 27, 2005 04:17 PM

It wasn't a hit because it was predictable, dumb, and overacted. Duh!

Posted by: Edgy Mama on July 27, 2005 04:45 PM

Annette - exactly! (re: battery)

Staying on the topic - imagine updated Blowup based on sudden battery loss in digital camera...[or whatever they're using...memory card?]

Posted by: Tatyana on July 27, 2005 05:25 PM

My husband is a cinematographer - he loves to play with expressionism in a color film and has done it on several low budget of them being Blue Hill Avenue which came out in 2003 for about a week and a half at theatres but you can get it on dvd - it was shot in 35mm. Of course, with the onset of HDvideo taking over film, more and more people are going to HAVE to get creative with the lighting otherwise it just ends up looking like really pretty video (btw, my husband thinks video is the work of the devil no matter what form it takes).

p.s. I love your blog and just discovered you today.

Posted by: Bad Maria on July 27, 2005 05:27 PM

Annette -- That's a nice evocation of how "Speed" and "Die Hard" hit you! Someone once said that the art of making a genre picture is in delivering what's expected (otherwise you're being an arty twit and violating legit genre expectations) but doing so in fresh and unexpected ways. And someone else once said that the hardest of all genres is the action thriller -- we've all seen so many of them, and how many fresh ways can you come up with to make a bomb ticking seem exciting again? So I've got the deepest respect for those handful of action thrillers that really make me sit up -- "Speed," "Die Hard" and now "Cellular" all qualify for me. I wonder if I've missed some that I'd enjoy ...

Jon -- Smart thinking about why "Cellular" didn't click bigger. And I'd never even heard of "Saw," so thanks for the rec. Is that another Larry Cohen-generated thing? The man does have a way with a concept.

Sluggo -- You've got my brain chewing over the distinctions between hook, concept, trailer, and pitch! Why aren't film critics writing more about these crucial matters?

Ralph -- You sound like a long-time film buff. Film buffery can be wearying sometimes, can't it? You grow through various phases -- falling in love, rebelling, settling in, losing interst, going looking, etc. Are there developments these days that prick your interest? Don't pay attention to me, but the generally-accepted rap on A pix and B pix is roughly this: There used to be prestige, headlining movies -- A pix. These were carefully thought through, enlisted topflight creative people, and worked from the material in the direction of the pitch. Hollywood gave itself awards for its A pix. Then there were B pix -- small, scrappy, often made by tiny studios, starring maybe someone you've heard of, maybe not, and working often from an great idea for a poster backwards to the production of the movie itself. What's happened since the Boomers have taken over Hollywood is that A pix have largely vanished (exceptions allowed for), and B pix have taken over. Exploitation ideas, working from the poster backwards, etc -- only now they're given big budgets, big stars, and big pushes. Kind of a reflection of the way Boomers love pop culture so much that they've pushed it to the center of the culture, and there's very little "mainstream" and square culture left at the heart of it all. Lots of people like sitting around wondering what's happened to B pix -- what are the current B pix? Ie., where are the unpretentious, fun, resourceful, poetic-in-spite-of-themselves movies of today? On TV? Skinemax movies? I'm not sure there's a good answer to the question, but it can be a fun one to think about.

FvB -- You've said a mouthful. Color's great, but it's also been, in many ways, a kind of creative curse. And it's played some hard-to-explain role in a generalized preference for boring-realism as a standard style. I marvel that more movie people don't give themselves license to make big, bold, simple color choices, and then see how it plays. I don't watch TV much, but when I do it often seems to me that TV people take many more interesting visual gambles these days than movie people do. At least when they aren't searching and bobbing and weaving and boring me with their "immediate," "reality"-style camerwork ...

Shouting Thomas -- So you're an "Angel Heart" kind of guy! I should have guessed. Hot, cheesy, pretentious, oversexed, lurid -- what's not to like? Actually not one of my faves (though I did love Lisa Bonet's nipples, erect even in death). But it's certainly the kind of overripe thing I can imagine loving.

Yahmdallah -- You're right about the "kids in peril" theme, it does seem to distress a lot of people, understandably enough. Funny though: given how preoccupied Hwood is with the theme of the wonderfulness but the precariousness of the yuppie life (SUV, big house, kids, soccer, etc), how could they do without the kids-in-peril thing? I wonder if they've worked themselves into a corner with it.

"." -- You're raising another interesting question about thrillers, which is: as technology grows more pervasive and more "transparent," what's going to become of thrillers? How about when no barriers to anything exist any longer? Hard to imagine generating thrills from such a situation. Will they all occur in cyberspace itself? Or maybe in people's heads? Or maybe the taste for thrillers as a genre will disappear? It'll be interesting to watch developments.

Jon -- It is pretty funny the way Cohen wrings his ideas dry before moving onto new ones. Cheap, opportunistic -- gotta love it. To be slightly less light-hearted, I do gotta love Cohen in many ways. His ideas (and his approach to moviemaking) really do have some traditional-style exploitation juiciness. (Unlike anxious-corporate-style filmmaking.) And I really gotta love that.

Peter -- Sigh: you're right. Always gotta factor in (and factor in bigtime) the "teenager" element. Grrr: Why do the rest of us have to spend so much of our lives submitting to teen tastes? Screw 'em , sez I. Let's put teens back in their place. It's an ugly and unfortunate couple of years, smelly, foolish and pimple-ridden. And the best way to deal with it is to enjoy the occasional sexy and talented teens, and otherwise look the other way. I wonder if we'll ever see an "adult" culture again in this country ...

Edgy -- Not a fan, eh? Have you gone for any recent action thrillers? I do enjoy a good one.

Tatyana -- I think you've got the Larry Cohen touch! It could be worth millions. Enough with all this "art" crap.

Bad Maria -- Thanks for stopping by and joining in, as well as sharing the info. We've spent a lot of time on the blog yakking about video and movie (and photographic) imagery, and trying to sort out how the transition to digital is affecting culture generally, so I'm eager to hear more from you! Interesting times, no? You've got me remembering a cinematographer I know slightly who says he kinda likes DV but who also laughs at HD video. Beats me why, but I'd sure love to find out more.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 27, 2005 08:53 PM


I'm not so sure you'd like "Saw"--Cohen had nothing to do with it, although its premise is very Cohen-like (in that Cohen's next movie, "Captivity" has almost exactly the same premise).

"Saw" is kind of a variation on David Fincher and Andrew Walker's "Seven": it is graphic, nasty, and not very pleasant. But it is pretty well done: I think its sharper than "Seven" and I found the "gotchas" (there are a couple) to be a lot more shocking/surprising than in "Seven" (or "Memento" or almost any other recent "gotcha" movie, for that matter).

What is kind of amazing about "Saw" though is that it was made for $1.2M and ended up earning around $55M at the US Box Office. It also had a very low (almost non-existant) marketing budget, relying on internet/word-of-mouth a la "The Blair Witch Project".

To put that in perspective, "Cellular" cost $25M and had a marketing budget of $20M (money which was not well spent, it seems). "Collateral" cost $65M and had a $40M marketing budget. Kind of puts an interesting spin on the whole A/B-movie concept.

Posted by: Jon Hastings on July 28, 2005 10:31 AM

Michael: "what are the current B pix? Ie., where are the unpretentious, fun, resourceful, poetic-in-spite-of-themselves movies of today? On TV? Skinemax movies?"

I've often wondered what future film buffs will rediscover from our era that we are too obtuse to recognize, the way people in the fifties missed the film noir style evolving under their very noses.

And then it hit me.

I've been thinking about Carroll Ballad's new film lately. It's another of his animal pictures (Never Cry Wolf, The Black Stallion) and everyone agrees it's marvellous, but the studios are only giving it a release in two or three cities so far.

The Hollywood studio mindset today is similar to the old TV concept of "least objectionable programming", which means interesting films simply don't get released. They're still in the vaults though, and I think the rediscoveries of the future will be mostly from this group of movies - the ones that never saw the light of day because they weren't dumb enough for the LOPers. The best films being made today are the ones we never even see.

It's funny that Hollywood seems to be getting more LOPpy than ever just as TV is abandoning that mindset in favor of "narrowcasting".

Posted by: Brian on July 28, 2005 11:04 AM

I think Michael has mentioned some important cellphone qualities that make them workable in thrillers---coverage problems, battery problems. Heck, just leaving it in the car when you need it inside. Also, calls made on them can't easily be traced---keeping the bad guy on the line in order to "trace the number" is less relevant. Plus, they still can't always save the day. Not to get too realistic, but plenty of people called on their cell phones from the WTC on 9/11...everybody could hear what was going on, nobody could do anything.

Posted by: annette on July 28, 2005 11:49 AM

Michael -

One possible reason why the movie industry so heavily targets teenagers is the belief that teens, far more so than any other demographic group, are willing to see a movie they like twice or even more frequently while it's in the theaters. I don't know to what extent this belief is based upon market research and to what extent its mainly just "conventional wisdom."

Posted by: Peter on July 28, 2005 01:32 PM

John Huston's Reflections In A Golden Eye was a film in color in which the color was limited to the yellow band of the spectrum. Would this qualify as an expressionistic use of color? I don't know. But it was a very effective/affective use of color.

Posted by: ricpic on July 28, 2005 03:17 PM

if you liked phonebooth, you might like fleep :D


Posted by: georgio on August 1, 2005 06:07 PM

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