Phone Booth (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #69

Your life is on the line.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 81 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 4th April 2003 (USA)
UK Release: 18th April 2003
First Seen: cinema, 2003

Stars
Colin Farrell (The Recruit, Total Recall)
Kiefer Sutherland (Flatliners, Dark City)
Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, The Last King of Scotland)
Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Silent Hill)
Katie Holmes (Wonder Boys, Batman Begins)

Director
Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, Batman & Robin)

Screenwriter
Larry Cohen (Maniac Cop, Cellular)

The Story
Slick, smarmy Stu uses the last remaining phone booth in New York City to call the young woman he’s trying to cheat on his wife with. Then the phone rings: there’s a sniper rifle trained on him, and if Stu doesn’t follow the caller’s instructions, he’ll die.

Our Hero
Stuart “Stu” Shepard, a slimy publicist who’s trying to cheat on his wife, strings along a kid with hopes of getting in the game, wears Italian clothes to make himself look better than he is, and is generally a dick to everyone. So not a very nice guy, really… but does he deserve to be shot by a sniper, hm?

Our Villain
A mysterious voice on the other end of the phone, The Caller has some kind of moral code, has demands of Stu to fit that code, and also has a high-powered sniper rifle that he’s not afraid to use on just about anybody. Surprisingly witty, too.

Best Supporting Character
Captain Ramey, the cop in charge of the situation once the police get involved, who is at least bright enough to realise there’s more going on than meets the eye.

Memorable Quote
(After cocking his gun) “Now doesn’t that just torque your jaws? I love that. You know like in the movies just as the good guy is about to kill the bad guy, he cocks his gun. Now why didn’t he have it cocked? Because that sound is scary. It’s cool, isn’t it?” — The Caller

Memorable Scene
With both his wife and mistress on the scene, and surrounded by police and news cameras, Stu finally makes his confession. A heartfelt monologue that is definitely a showpiece for Farrell.

Making of
The whole film was shot in just 12 days: ten days inside the phone booth and two to shoot the surroundings. To do this the crew worked “French hours”, which involves not shutting down the entire production for lunch (which just sounds logical to me), and was aided further by Farrell nailing some big scenes in one take.

Awards
1 MTV Movie Awards Mexico nomination (Best Colin Farrell in a Movie — see also: Daredevil)

What the Critics Said
“The triumph of director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Larry Cohen in Phone Booth is not just that they pull off the central gimmick but also that they fashion from it a creditable thriller. The result is a movie that combines a seriousness of purpose with a delight in craft in a way Hitchcock would have appreciated.” — Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

Score: 71%

What the Public Say
“It’s the kind of pulpy potboiler that is often wrecked by unnecessary padding, but the brisk no-nonsense approach here combines with its short length to make quite an entertaining off-beat thriller. Kiefer Sutherland’s vengeful psychopath who is only represented by a voice-over and a red dot for the majority of the film is the stand-out performance, but everyone involved acquits themselves admirably.” — Gary Anthony Cross, Film Noird

Verdict

Regular readers will know of my fondness for the single-location thriller, and this is one of the films that helped define that love. And events occur in real-time, which is just a bonus. Colin Farrell and Kiefer Sutherland are both on excellent form as the hostage who maybe has it coming and the hostage taker who maybe has a point. Larry Cohen’s screenplay takes a simple setup and follows it through, keeping it engrossing but still relatively plausible (something other such films struggle with in order to extend their concept), with some killer dialogue to boot. It all adds up to an immensely effective thriller.

Next time… yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for #70.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

2015 #3
Jim Jarmusch | 111 mins | TV | 16:9 | France, Germany, USA & Japan / English & French | 15 / R

Ghost Dog: The Way of the SamuraiWhen it comes to hitman movies, I’d’ve said there’s Léon and then there’s everything else. Now, I’d happily slot Ghost Dog in that gap.

This idiosyncratic drama-thriller sees reclusive samurai-inspired mob assassin Forest Whitaker hunted by his employers after a hit goes wrong (through no fault of his own). A sometimes funny, sometimes contemplative, sometimes innovatively violent movie, there are parallels with Léon, especially when Whitaker befriends a young girl, but it remains its own beast.

A somewhat meditative pace will kill enjoyment for some, but, for me, it’s perfectly balanced on the line between indie drama and crime actioner.

5 out of 5

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai placed 17th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

2014 #88
Barry Levinson | 116 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Good Morning, VietnamInspired by the true story of a US Army DJ in Vietnam during the war, the resulting film is a showcase for star Robin Williams — reportedly, his antics aren’t even close to what really happened.

Doesn’t matter though, does it, because this is Williams at his best. His radio monologues show off his fast-paced improvisational riffing — as hilarious as always — while the more dramatic parts engage with the conflict and remind us of the serious flipside to Williams’ considerable skills.

Comedy-dramas are notorious for not being particularly comedic or particularly dramatic. This is funny and engrossing enough to subvert that.

5 out of 5

Good Morning, Vietnam is on Film4 tonight at 11:25pm.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Panic Room (2002)

2011 #16b
David Fincher | 107 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Panic RoomPanic Room stands out as (arguably) Fincher’s most atypical film. Whereas his others are all epic, in one way or another, this is the exact opposite. It’s very contained, virtually the entire running time spent on one night in one house, alleviated only by brief outside bookends and a guided tour of the house at the start. Fortunately, it’s still an outstanding little thriller.

For a start, it’s still clearly a Fincher film (much more so than The Game) thanks to the visuals. So it’s quite dark and stylish, of course, which at least one review I’ve read credited much more to dual cinematographs Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji. Not to dismiss either man’s influence and skill, but, piss off. You only need to watch Fincher’s previous films (one shot by Khondji, the other three by three different DoPs) to see that this is a director who knows what he’s after visually (as if his reputation for shooting an obscene number of takes for every little shot didn’t suggest that well enough). To say it’s only thanks to Hall and Khondji that Fincher could produce such a good-looking film does the director a disservice.

Nonetheless, his style is even more evident in the distinctive, physically impossible swooping camera shots. The best known starts with Jodie Foster in bed at the top of the house, before plummeting down several storeys to find the burglars arriving outside, then following them around the house (on the inside) as they try to find a way in (from the outside. Obviously.), Shh!all the way squeezing the camera through banisters, coffee pots, and other assorted obstacles. There are several such shots, the majority early on (though not exclusively — witness the Hitchcockian transparent floor, for instance). This is presumably to help enliven the relatively slow build-up; later, the story’s inherent tension largely takes over.

That said, the story gets going quite quickly, and never drops the ball in the way such contained movies usually do. Even entertaining examples, such as Exam, tend to wind up with moments where you can feel the filmmakers stalling for time; Panic Room has no such scenes. As well as staving off audience boredom, it keeps the film tight, the action constantly pushing forward.

And talking of action, no review of Panic Room is complete without mentioning the slow-motion sequence. Other action scenes in the film are Burglars threeperfectly well staged and suitably tense or exciting as required, but Foster’s slow-mo dash for her mobile, and back into the panic room as the three burglars come pounding up the stairs, is one of those sequences that transcends the film it’s in to become a stand-out example of the form. Any skilled action director could have produced a good sequence at full-speed from that setup, but by switching to slow-motion Fincher stretches out the tension like an elastic band ready to snap, putting us on the edge of our collective seat as we urge Foster on through air that seems as thick as treacle.

Similarly, one must mention the title sequence. I like it well enough, but have never understood why it attracts so much fuss and attention. What’s so exceptional about it? Though I must confess to enjoying it more than I used to, which may just be years of being told how good it is.

Good thief, bad thiefOne other particularly interesting element is how we feel about Forest Whitaker’s character. This isn’t Ocean’s Eleven or what have you — the thieves are clearly the villains, and two of them are properly villainous, even if they’re also ultimately shown up as amateurish and a bit useless — but Whitaker’s character gains our sympathies; not as a charming rogue (see Ocean’s Eleven again), or in some kind of honour-amongst-crooks way, or even a wrong-place-wrong-time way, but genuinely as a human being. It helps make things a little different, a little more interesting. Especially at the climax, though I won’t spoil why.

Panic Room doesn’t have as much to say as Se7en or Fight Club, or even The Game, and it feels distinctly low-key after the lot of them — indeed, as Fincher seems to have followed it with a series of genuine epics, it’s increasingly the sore thumb in his filmography. Which probably does it a disservice because it’s a superbly made and entertaining thriller. Whereas before I would’ve happily shoved it to the lower end of Fincher’s work, I felt it had greater re-watch value than The Game and I now like it a lot more than I used to.

4 out of 5

Panic Room is on Film4 tonight, Friday 3rd October 2014, at 11pm.

I watched Panic Room as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.