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'Phone Booth'

'Phone Booth' makes connection with fear

Friday, April 04, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

In a case of life anticipating art, the D.C. snipers began picking off victims six weeks before the original November release date of "Phone Booth." The movie stars Colin Farrell as a man who answers a ringing phone on the street and is told by an unseen gunman that if he hangs up or leaves the booth, he will be shot to death.

'Phone Booth'

RATING: R for pervasive language and some violence.

STARRING: Colin Farrell, Forest Whitaker, Kiefer Sutherland, Katie Holmes.

DIRECTOR: Joel Schumacher.

WEB SITE: www.phoneboothmovie.com


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At least they can't blame this movie for inspiring copycats -- or, for that matter, accuse it of ripping off the headlines. Ah, serendipity. Can't have too much of that -- how are audiences going to find out what they're supposed to think?

Some people already do, even though they haven't seen the movie. Those are the geeks who can't forgive director Joel Schumacher for his wretched "Batman" movies.

But that was the Schumacher who had too much money to spend. Give him a big budget and you're just asking for batsuits with nipples that encase characters devoid of personality.

Let him work on a shoestring, however, and this director is capable of turning out the tense little war film "Tigerland" or the grimy, disturbing and underrated "8MM."

He takes it a step further in "Phone Booth," which he shot in 12 days, with Los Angeles subbing for New York on all but one of them -- credit production designer Andrew Laws and cinematographer Matthew Libatique for fooling you into thinking it was West 53rd Street. The script is by Larry Cohen, famous for some of the more interesting blaxploitation and low-budget horror flicks of the 1970s.

The movie starts by introducing us to Farrell's character, Stu Shepard, a hustling publicist who conducts business simultaneously on two cell phones while stalking Times Square. As sharks go, Stu's a bottom feeder who, like his word, is pretty much good for nothing. He uses the phone booth at 8th and 53rd for one purpose: to call his mistress, Pamela (Katie Holmes). Using the cell phone would allow his wife, Kelly (Radha Mitchell), to trace the records of his calls.

He calls Pamela, invites her to meet him at a place nearby and hangs up. The phone rings. He picks it up. A voice says, "Isn't it funny? You hear a phone ringing and it could be anybody. A ringing phone has to be answered, doesn't it?"

Yes, but at Stu's peril in this case. The caller voices his threat and then demonstrates his ability to carry it out. That brings out the police, headed by Capt. Ramey (Forest Whitaker). They don't know who is on the other end of the phone, but they blame Stu for the sniper's dirty work. They issue the one command he cannot obey -- hang up the phone and leave the booth.

The tension mounts as Stu desperately tries to satisfy the smug, self-righteous sniper, even as his hopes of surviving diminish. Ramey confesses his own failings in hopes of connecting with Stu and convincing him to leave the booth.

And, of course, there are the media hordes, sending it out live to the rest of the city -- including, of course, Pamela and Kelly.

Schumacher's challenge is to keep the movie from getting static despite its enforced immobility. He succeeds by pulling out all the stops -- the camera swoops and pans around its location, with fast cuts and a feeling of spontaneity. Libatique used four cameras for some scenes, and as they scan the surrounding buildings or react to the cops arriving on the scene, you may feel like you're right there.

Ultimately, though, Farrell must carry the movie, and the Irish actor is as flawless as his New York accent as he runs the gamut of emotions. In virtually every shot, he's literally the man in the glass booth whose life is laid bare. Whitaker's laid-back persona offers the perfect counterbalance. Kiefer Sutherland, as the voice of the shooter, plays his head games well, with the mocking tone of a man who thinks himself invulnerable -- he's as hidden as Stu is exposed.

"Phone Booth" not only works as the character study of a sleazy man but also as a commentary on a society in which people routinely make public confessions of their sins while the media lap it all up.

The media have other things to do just now, of course -- the news just won't let "Phone Booth" alone.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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