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Joel Schumacher has directed some of the most infamous blockbuster bangs (Falling Down) and burps (Batman & Robin) in his time, so his seal has become a measure of some speculative quality, but not a certainty that a film will warrant both your time and money. This time he gives his Tigerland protégé Colin Farrell a movie to carry on his own. It’s an interesting early addition to the young Irishman’s burgeoning portfolio and hints at the potential for some truly great performances to come—though we’re still waiting. Once his character, Stu Shepherd, is sketched out, the film speed-dials us into his central dilemma and Farrell’s in nearly every scene from then on. It’s a dedicated main performance that keeps the whole together and is perhaps the film’s second strongest merit.

Phone Booth
Film
Stu Shepherd is a small-time, big-talking PR man dealing out face and front to his clients and their paymasters for his self-serving gain. We’re quickly shown he’s a fast (phone-) talker, strutting the Manhattan sidewalk with little regard for the feelings of others. In tow is his unpaid and over-abused dogsbody. Stu’s condescending attitude to his lackey adroitly sums up his insecure power-posing and exploitative attitude to those around him. Soon he’s abusing his position to continue cracking on to an attractive and naïve client, Pamela McFadden (Katie Holmes), as always using a public phone box so his trusting wife (Radha Mitchell) can’t discover the call on his mobile.

When the call ends, the phone rings and Stu answers. Soon he’s in spiralling peril as his caller is revealed as a stalking psychopath who knows uncomfortable personal facts about him, forces him to stay on the line and do as he says. And he’s got a high-calibre sniper rifle trained on him and will kill. With the premise set up, the piece plays itself out in real-time. Shootings, blackmail, double-crosses, brinkmanship and revelation ensue while Stu has to stay on the line. Things go public when the police, led by Forrest Whittaker’s troubled detective, arrive on the scene, with news cameras swiftly following behind.

That’s the basic plot and this is, in my opinion, the film’s primary merit. It’s refreshing to see a Hollywood film based around an idea (be it a simple one), rather than just a name or a series of set pieces exploding from one to the other. Its low on special effects and adrenaline action and high on sparring dialogue—well, it is about a phone-call—as it takes its initial premise as far as possible, whilst trying to ratchet up the tension and keep the narrative credible. It just about works and the result is a laudable and diverting film experience. As a whole the piece is as tight and functional as the phone box and doesn’t give itself much room to pull many surprises before Stu’s ordeal is over, but ultimately this is where its charm lies. Everything on screen, from the small cast to the tiny physical setting has to function for the idea, such are simple plot’s confines, and it’s all so apparent.

Phone Booth
Shifting camera work, from mid-distance frames of Farrell in his confinement, circling dollies outside the booth, to overhead and fish-eye frames inside, create the necessary claustrophobic fear. Judicious use of split screen action during calls keeps the pace up and the action close on Farrell—but it actually serves a more prosaic purpose. Whilst it avoids jump cutting between phones in two completely different settings, it allows subsidiary action that drives things to the next scene to take place in the background and we don’t get bogged down with just (at times, slightly simplified) phone dialogue.

The brisk script keeps things bubbling along fairly well, with Colin’s performance investing more dread and adrenaline as time passes. Along the way it tries to be clever by debunking some of the clichés about the killer’s motivation that umpteen movie formulae lead one to consider. In the end, however, it comes across as not that clever a device and a little bit forced.

Again, though, this is part of the film’s appeal. The skeleton of the movie feels very much on display. It’s at its most enjoyable when you look around the straightforward set-up and acting to see the bones serving the narrative. Strategically placed and revealed posters, graffiti and advertising around the booth all allude to the situation. A street-seller winding and setting up toy robots point starkly to Stu’s powerless predicament. It’s as if Schumacher is pointing out that he is revisiting, or revitalising, some of the basics of his craft, and that’s he’s quite good at them actually, thanks very much. It’s an original idea portrayed It makes for an undemanding sniff of fresh air.

The lead performance needed to be bold throughout to keep the piece together and us interested in Stu’s predicament and, as already mentioned, Farrell acquits himself well. The reliable Forrest Whittaker does his best with the detective’s conflict of self-doubt and experience, but he’s capable of much more breadth and subtlety. Kiefer Sutherland seems to relish his killer-at-the-end-of-the-phone role and brings to it a healthy balance of menace and intelligence, without verging too close to B-movie parody.

Phone Booth
On a more subtle level the film makes some dry comments about the demise of social value amongst the depersonalisation of modern communications and the voyeuristic underbelly of reality-style television viewing. The former’s presence bookends the film by first travelling down to earth from a comms relay satellite and ultimately back up again. The latter’s most prevalent and pervasive incarnation, the on-the-scene live news coverage, is present and correct. It’s not all that subtle.

Video
The film’s visual style meters out the film’s tone expertly. Everything is blue bleached in a very Minority Report vein and encapsulates the world in which these people live. Street scenery is faceless and washed out, bright, happy colours are dulled and faces pallid, as if sickened by this way of living. Everyone is coldly bluffing someone else on these streets. It’s fast and exciting, but doesn’t look fun or that estimable. The 2.35:1 presentation of this transfer does credit to this visual setting. There is crisp delineation between light and dark when required and there is very little white-on-black flecking to speak of. Just about everything looks sharp and clear, even in the split-screen scenes, and this compliments the piece.

Audio
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack’s as functional as anything else in this film, which is in keeping with the sense of simplicity. When the split-screens slide in, characters speak from appropriate sides to positive effect. Kiefer Sutherland’s voice floats all around, which can emphasises a sense of his control over the environment but also gets a bit irritating at times. The music is understated and plays to the tension when required and when it isn’t really needed, isn’t really there. The surrounds similarly never overstate their presence. Their use is economical throughout, perhaps a little too sparse, not really taking full advantage of the 5.1 track’s potential in situations where there is a cityscape or when circling the booth.

Extras
For a stripped down, small-scale movie about a guy in a phone box, very little padding might seem fitting, but it’s still disappointing.

Phone Booth
An easy-on-the-ear commentary from Schumacher provides able detail and anecdote about the LA location shoot and its technicalities to keep it interesting. Schumacher regularly lavishes great praise on his star’s performance, but remains silent for Farrell’s emotional dam-bust towards the end – which he wrapped in one impressive take.

The commentary’s best viewed in close conjunction with the Making of documentary. There are brief inserts from most of the cast (but no Forrest) and Schumacher, and some key members of the crew. Together they highlight the benefits and difficulties of Schumacher’s ten-day ‘continuity’ shoot, filming everything in temporal sequence rather than jumping the schedule backwards and forwards, as do most shoots. Schumacher describes it as one of his craziest undertakings but essential for allowing the cast, including the extras, to experience the characters’ emotional journeys as uninterrupted as possible. The end result may be testament to this decision, but you do get the idea that everyone else had to deal with the added stress of making it happen. For example, to maintain a realistic sense of one nightmare afternoon’s daylight, for ten days the crew stretched and retracted sheets over entire building fronts to reflect or absorb changing sunlight onto the set.

The continuity shoot also highlights the quality of Farrell’s performance once again. He got through an awful lot of dialogue in a very short space of time and carried it off with great style and verve.

A minor final point—the disc’s option menus are all sited in and around the phone booth itself (on the ceiling, the keypad, etc), accompanied by Sutherland’s menacing voiceover. It’s nothing fancy and there are much better menus out there, but is done quite well, in keeping with the rest of the film.

Phone Booth
Overall
Schumacher’s decision to scale things down from pomp and razzle-dazzle has provided a showcasing vehicle for Farrell on the way up to just that (e.g. Daredevil). This film serves them both well and the result is a diverting short movie. Again, it’s nice to see an ‘idea’ movie played out effectively. The film tries to do exactly what it says on the tin and shows you how its doing it at the same time. It’s carried by enough style and panache that this doesn’t detract from the experience or make the set-up seem too contrived. For this reason, perhaps more than the narrative itself, Phonebooth will stand up to a few repeated viewings until you’ve stripped it of its gristle. The overall package is generally effective and at least the slim extras add to the bone-cleaning process. Definitely worth a casual look.


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