Tuesday, 29 July 2003
On the Street: Summer can seem like the slow season for DVD, but we have another week of sleeper films that folks are bound to discover. On deck from Columbia TriStar is David Cronenberg's Spider starring Ralph Fiennes, as well as the indie dramas Better Than Sex and The Whole Wide World. The little-seen, critically acclaimed The Quiet American starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser is new from Buena Vista, while MGM has the relationship drama XX/XY on the shelves. DVD fans looking to get in the mainstream will have no problem finding Fox's two-disc Daredevil starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, while Steven Soderbergh's Solaris is sure to frustrate as many of the director's fans as it engrosses. Coming out of the vault at Home Vision is Mike Nichols' 1973 The Day of the Dolphin starring George C. Scott. And fans of the silents can pick up a European classic, 1927's The Chess Player, new from Image. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 28 July 2003
Disc of the Week: It's somehow fortunate that Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg would segue from being one of the premiere directors of horror films to an art-house favorite. His idiosyncratic interest in body-mutation horror always had a deviant perverseness removed from, and more shocking than, the slasher films made popular by the likes of Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter his art has always been a little stranger, and more personal. From his first feature-length effort, 1975's Shivers, Cronenberg's fascination with disease and distortion was evident, making him famous with such titles as the 1981 cult classic Scanners and his most commercial hit so far 1986's The Fly. But along the way Cronenberg's respectability accrued and the gore elements diminished, leading to the more psychologically horrific Dead Ringers in 1988; it featured the performance(s) that made Jeremy Irons' career (so much so that Irons thanked Cronenberg when he won his Oscar). Though some may be disappointed by the lack of on-screen violence in his later works, Cronenberg's desire to explore perversity is still insatiable as the controversy and brilliance of his 1996 effort Crash shows. But if there's been a leitmotif in his recent films, its been the blurring of perception and reality, hinted at in 1983's Videodrome and delved into deeper with Naked Lunch (1991), M. Butterfly (1993), and eXistenZ (1999). With Spider (2002), the director takes this fascination even further by exploring a story via the mind of a schizophrenic. Though it may appear a minor effort on initial viewing, in part because the cast is kept small and the film short, Spider is a complex, deeply involving study of a man's mind that becomes more engrossing with each repeated viewing.
Portrayed as a mumbling half-there psychotic, Dennis "Spider" Clegg (Ralph Fiennes) begins the film by re-entering the normal world after spending some time in an asylum. It's obvious from the get-go that he won't fit in, but he's supposed to live in a halfway home run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). Nicknamed as such because he's good with his hands, the story of Spider's life unfolds as he writes it down in incomprehensible squiggles in his journal. This allows him to watch the younger version of himself (Bradley Hall) go through the events that led to his trip to the asylum, as he tries to put the pieces together that caused his mother's murder. At first Spider studies his parents: He had an uneasy relationship with his father Bill (Gabriel Byrne), a heavy drinker and plumber whom the young Spider often had to fetch from the pub, while his mother (Miranda Richardson) doted on him and treated him well. It's when Spider witnesses his father beginning a relationship with a whorish woman named Yvonne (Richardson, again) that he feels his father wants to replace his mother with Yvonne. But the further he delves into his past, every woman in Spider's mind becomes replaced by the image of his mother including Mrs. Wilkinson. The story Spider tells and what he thinks happened grows increasingly obscure, until the truth finally emerges.
Working from Douglas McGrath's adaptation of his own novel, Spider is a meditation on Freudian angst that twists and turns in unexpected ways. But what may be most impressive about the film is Cronenberg's ability to tell that story through Spider's refractive and terribly unreliable point-of-view while still giving his audience all the information necessary to put the pieces together (a talent that become obvious the more the film is watched). Though the plot seems slow, everything is done so deliberately that every action and element of the story has a ramification. For instance, the movie sets up rules regarding Spider's point-of-view (which never are directly explained) where one should note the distinctions between the reality of what Spider witnesses as a child and the scenes he makes up for himself; the difference is a clue that allows us to learn more about Spider and the truth of his circumstances. As such, and as good as Fiennes is at playing a convincing schizophrenic, it is Miranda Richardson who impresses here, playing three roles that convey what is real and what isn't, while Gabriel Byrne manages well in a part that makes some of his character's actions part of Spider's fevered imagination. In another director's hands, the film might seem like a gimmicky murder mystery along the lines of Donald Kaufman's The 3, but with Cronenberg's skill the picture delves into the mind of Spider we are allowed to empathize and understand his troubles that much more.
Columbia TriStar's new DVD release of Spider presents the film in an anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Though not a full-blown special edition, the set comes with some nice supplements: First off is David Cronenberg's audio commentary, and it's one of the most insightful tracks to be found. Cronenberg has never shied away from discussing his cinematic intentions, and he dissects his own film with a keen eye. One wishes more commentators brought as much to the table as he does. Three featurettes are also on board, including "In the Beginning: How Spider Came to Be" (8 min.), "Weaving the Web: The Making of Spider" (9 min.), and "Caught in Spider's Web" (12 min.), all which offer interviews with Cronenberg, screenwriter Patrick McGrath, producer Catherine Bailey, and the cast. Spider is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Three new summer flicks arrived in theaters over the weekend, and while some contenders ran neck-and-neck, Dimension's Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over was the uncontested winner, taking in $32.5 million for writer/director Robert Rodriguez, using the popular film-brand and 3-D effects to draw family audiences. Doing less well as a sequel was Paramount's Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life starring Angelina Jolie, which took in $21.7 million for fourth place, less than half of the original's $47 million break. Meanwhile, the racehorse drama Seabiscuit starring Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges took in $21.5 million for fifth the film's critical plaudits means it likely will build momentum over the next several weeks. However, reviews for Spy Kids were mixed, while Lara Croft earned several negative notices.
The past weekend marked the first time the top five films on the chart earned more than $20 million for the weekend Buena Vista's Pirates of the Caribbean held on to second place with $22.4 million and a blistering $176.1 million over three weeks. Sony's Bad Boys II starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence also had a strong frame, taking third with $22 million and $88.4 in 10 days. But Warner's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines looks to be on the slip after one month, with new films driving its weekend take down to just $5 million, and Fox's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen isn't doing much better with the threat of retiring to the cheap screens with just $52.7 million to its credit. Doing nearly as well with less than one-tenth the budget is Fox Searchlight's 28 Days Later, which has garnered $37.2 million so far. And off to DVD prep is Paramount's The Italian Job, which has been a $92 million winner in a crowded summer market.
Arriving in theaters this weekend is Gigli starring the extremely overexposed Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, as well as the comedy sequel American Wedding. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mr. Beaks has posted sneak-preview of Fox's two-disc Daredevil, while new reviews this week from the rest of the team include Solaris, The Quiet American, Better Than Sex, La Femme Nikita: Season One, Spun: Unrated Edition, The Day of the Dolphin, The Whole Wide World, And God Spoke, The Chess Player, XX/XY, Spider, and Magnificent Warriors. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 22 July 2003
On the Street: It's the doldrums of summer, which means most street weeks are good opportunities for catalog collectors. Criterion's on the board this morning with Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D. as well as The Honeymoon Killers and The Pornographers, while Fox has unleashed some of their Hong Kong holdings, including City Hunter, Hong Kong 1941, Magnificent Warriors, Magnificent Butcher, and Naked Killer. Fans of Jackie Chan and/or Owen Wilson can get a look at Shanghai Knights, Kevin Spacey can be found in Universal's The Life of David Gale, and out from New Line is an infinifilm release of Final Destination 2. But don't overlook a few choice items, in particular the Euro-noir thriller Read My Lips and drug-fueled Spun from Columbia TriStar, as well as the recent adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby from MGM. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 21 July 2003
Disc of the Week: No filmmaker thrived more ecstatically within the parameters of Italian Neorealism than Vittorio De Sica, the brilliant actor turned even more brilliant director who contributed to the highly influential, if short-lived, movement four of its most enduring works: Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief, Miracle in Milan, and the most heart wrenching of them all Umberto D. These films all featured non-professional actors and were shot on-location in the blasted, postwar streets of a miserable, poverty-stricken Italy. For De Sica, they were a reaction to, in the director's words, the "collective cauterization of emotion" prevalent in the country; ergo, by placing his slender narratives knee-deep in the raw despair of everyday life, he was using the medium to call attention to the struggles of his desperate countrymen. Unfortunately, by 1952, audiences had wearied of this stridently conscientious brand of cinema, while the novelty of the style's immediacy had, through repetition, lost its ability to captivate critics (it wouldn't be long before the French New Wave would adopt the basic tenets of Neorealism, muss it up a little, and subsequently turn the film world on its ear). For these reasons, Umberto D. was a massive flop, effectively killing the movement in one fell strike, and relegating the film itself to relative obscurity as a lesser work in De Sica's oeuvre. Only recently, thanks in part to Martin Scorsese and his filmic travelogue of Italian cinema, Il Mio viaggio in Italia, has the film been rediscovered by modern-day critics, who not only regard it as a classic in its own right, but as perhaps the ne plus ultra of De Sica's phenomenal career.
The title is an abbreviation for the film's main character, Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), an elderly pensioner who is perhaps the loneliest man to ever occupy the screen. His sole companion is an expressive mutt named Flike, with whom he lives in a decrepit boarding house where he is continually nagged for back rent by a snobbish and cruel landlady/madam who rents out Umberto's room by the hour to illicit paramours. Also taking up residence in the apartment building is the housemaid Maria (Maria Pia Casilio), an unwed mother-to-be who is the only non-canine sympathetic to Umberto's struggles. But while they're fond of each other, there is no depth to their relationship beyond one of mutual commiseration. Besides, due to their poverty, there is very little they can do for one another; Umberto's most pressing concern is to pay his 15,000 lire debt to his landlady, which she refuses to accept piecemeal. But all Umberto can do is sell his most valuable possessions, and one imagines he's down to the dregs of these items. Compounding his misery, and likely stemming from his frenzied activity, the old man catches a case of tonsillitis that lands him in the hospital a not unwelcome turn of events, as his lodgings there, including free meals, are probably far preferable to eking out his living on the streets. But while he's convalescing, Flike, whom Umberto left in Maria's care, disappears, leading to a desperate search that ends at the city pound, where De Sica ratchets up the viewer's anxiety to match Umberto's by highlighting every perilous end that the dog could've met. After a few excruciating minutes, however, Flike turns up, and the pair are happily reunited; a warmth that quickly freezes over when Umberto returns to find his room torn to pieces. With his eviction imminent, Umberto resolves to find Flike a home, setting up one of the most heartbreaking final acts in film history.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Umberto D. would've been a blunt instrument of unearned sentimentality, but De Sica's profound interest in the intricacies of human behavior precludes even the slightest hint of such shamelessness. It's important to remember that, while Neorealism sought to capture the gritty everyday-ness of Postwar Italy, De Sica was a master of shot composition and, most crucially, comedic staging, where he compared favorably to the likes of Chaplin (cf., Umberto's failed foray into begging). Some have viewed this measured technique as a betrayal of the movement's pseudo-documentary aspirations, but that is to miss the point entirely. Indeed, Charges that De Sica's works are somehow hampered by their contrived narratives seem broad and poorly considered when one realizes that he's using the ordinary and the banal to make the plight of the underclass tangible. And none of his films bear this out more triumphantly than Umberto D., where De Sica lingers on life's little indignities (e.g. the protracted sequence in which Umberto frantically goes vendor to vendor outside of the dog pound, ultimately purchasing an overpriced glass just to break a large bill so that he can pay a taxi fare he can already ill-afford) to engender not pity, but empathy for his downtrodden protagonist. But while the state's discarding of Umberto and his elderly brethren is certainly a concern for De Sica, the depth of his outrage stems from what the director called a "lack of human solidarity", and even his main character is not above criticism for his own selfish tendencies. In Umberto D., De Sica mourns not the unjust ignominy of old age, but the death of human compassion and the willingness to authentically communicate with those around us. When, in the end, it is a victory that that most basic trust between man and dog has been reestablished, it's not difficult to infer that, in De Sica's estimation, the more complicated relationship between man and man is positively doomed. It is difficult to imagine a time when a filmmaker has been more brutally honest with his audience.
Criterion's new DVD release of Umberto D. features an excellent full-screen transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras include a condensed history of the filmmaker titled "That's Life: Vittorio De Sica" (55 min.), in which the charming director himself gives the viewer a first-hand account of his illustrious career, aided by clips of his films and various interviews culled from premieres, television appearances, and behind-the-scenes features. There also are a number of essays on the film by film critic Stuart Klawans of The Nation, Umberto Eco, Luisa Alessandri, Carlo Battisti, and a reprinted remembrance from De Sica himself. Also on board is a new interview with actress Maria Pia Casilio (12 min.), who made her screen debut in the film. Umberto D.: The Criterion Collection is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Will Smith and Martin Lawrence climbed to the top of the box-office chart over the weekend with Sony's Bad Boys II the collaboration with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay raked in $46.7 million, tripling the debut of the original movie back in 1995. Arriving a bit lower on the list was Universal's spy-spoof Johnny English starring Rowan Atkinson, which managed $9.3 million for fourth place, while New Line's teen flick How to Deal starring Mandy Moore took in just $5.8 million for the eighth spot. All three new arrivals earned mixed-to-negative reviews from critics.
In continuing release, Buena Vista's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl continues to be a big hit, taking in a solid $33.3 million in its second frame and a 10-day total of $132.2 million. Falling much further behind is Fox's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen starring Sean Connery, which earned $10.1 million from its second weekend and now holds $42.4 million overall. However, Warner's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is shaping up well, remaining in the top five after three weeks and $127.7 million to date. In the meantime, Sony's Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle looks to be on the slip after $89.1 million in one month. And off to DVD prep is Universal's Bruce Almighty, which is now closing out a $235 million run.
Arriving in cineplexes this Friday is Seabiscuit starring Tobey Maguire, which will be joined by even more summer sequels, this time Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mark Bourne has posted his final review in Warner's first Chaplin Collection series, Limelight, while new stuff this week from the rest of the team includes Shanghai Knights, Final Destination 2: infinifilm, City Hunter, Hong Kong 1941, Magnificent Butcher, Naked Killer, Shanghai Surprise, Nicholas Nickleby, Umberto D.: The Criterion Collection, and Read My Lips. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow to let you know about this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 15 July 2003
On the Street: It's another quiet Tuesday on the DVD street as the studios wait for everyone to return from summer vacation. Headlining our list this week is MGM's The Billy Wilder Collection, which includes some previously released titles and a few new ones like One Two Three, Avanti!, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and Kiss Me Stupid, while catalog action from the Lion includes Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, White Lightning, and Revenge of the Ninja. Warner's got a pair for Civil War buffs with the epic Gods and Generals and the 1996 miniseries Andersonville, while TV fans can look for both The Best of Friends: Season Three and the complete Friends: Season Four. And it looks as if Woody Allen's complete film oeuvre is now on disc the movie-spoof What's Up Tiger Lily has finally arrived from Image. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 14 July 2003
Disc of the Week: Having been in the motion picture business for some 30 years, legendary actor James Cagney decided to go out on a high note in 1961: He starred in Billy Wilder's Cold War farce One, Two, Three and then retired from the industry (it would take another 20 years for Hollywood to lure him back, for a cameo in 1981's Ragtime). An odd combination of fast-paced screwball comedy and political satire, the movie offered director Wilder (who fled Germany in 1932 as Hitler ascended to power, several members of the director's family later perishing at Auschwitz) an opportunity to poke fun at Berlin's volatile politics and take a few swipes at his home country's post-Nazi culture; the movie also afforded the 62-year-old Cagney the chance to sink his teeth into one last meaty role while making a few sly jokes about his own public persona in the process. Shot on location in Berlin as east-west relations were deteriorating daily, the film was completed as the Berlin Wall was under construction three weeks into production, permission to film in East Berlin was revoked, forcing Wilder to construct a replica of the Brandenberg Gate on a back-lot in Munich. With that sort of political stress, plus a young co-star who kept upstaging him and one scene that took a total of 52 takes to complete, the aging Cagney may have decided to retire out of sheer exhaustion.
In One, Two, Three, Cagney plays C.R. MacNamara, an executive with the Coca-Cola Company's West Berlin office. Having been demoted from his prestigious post as head of the company's Middle Eastern division (the bottling plant was burned down during a riot when Benny Goodman's plane was delayed by a sandstorm), MacNamara is driven to sell the soft drink behind the Iron Curtain. Loud, proud, and every bit the ugly American, he also wants to be named head of Coke's European division, based in London. So when he gets a call from Atlanta asking him to keep an eye on his boss's 17-year-old daughter (Pamela Tiffin) during her visit to Berlin, MacNamara sees it as not just his duty but as his shot at the big time. The girl, however, gets involved with a vocal young communist named Otto Piffl (Horst Bucholz), and MacNamara has to straighten everything out before the girl's parents arrive in Germany, all the while juggling a trio of Russians who want to bring Coke to Moscow, a wife (Arlene Francis) who's sick of traveling the world, and a voluptuous blonde secretary (Lilo Pulver) who wants to take more than just dictation.
That Coca-Cola is not just MacNamara's employer in One, Two, Three but also a major thematic element is notable. To supply American servicemen with soft drinks during World War II, Coca-Cola set up bottling plants in Europe and the Pacific, giving citizens of other nations their first taste of Coke and setting the stage for the company's phenomenal worldwide growth after the war. By 1961, a bottle of Coca-Cola was with the possible exception of the American flag the symbol that much of the globe most closely associated with the United States. In making MacNamara a Coke executive, Wilder cannily created a character who represents the Cold War ideal of the capitalist American a big-mouthed, xenophobic blowhard bent on global domination. Cagney begins the film with this small history lesson in voiceover: "On Sunday, August 13th, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation's capital, where Roger Maris was hitting home runs number forty-four and forty-five against the Senators. On that same day, without any warning, the East German Communists sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. I only mention this to show the kind of people we're dealing with real shifty!" Cagney's performance is breathtaking, with some of his lengthy monologues snapping along so fast and furious that one can become almost hypnotized that he's rattling off so much dialogue without a break indeed, the aforementioned scene that took 52 takes is just seven takes short of Wilder's all-time record, directing a befuddled Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. As the hot-headed young Red, Bucholz seems hell-bent on acting Cagney off the screen through sheer volume and fury; years later, Cagney would remember that this was the only time in his entire career he ever worked with a competitive, uncooperative actor, saying that Bucholz resorted to "all kinds of scene-stealing didos, and I had to depend on Billy Wilder to take some steps to correct this kid. If Billy hadn't, I was going to knock Bucholz on his ass which at several points I would have been very happy to do." With none-too-delicately delivered jokes about the Third Reich as well as digs at both Communist culture and American imperialism, One, Two, Three is about as subtle as a hammer to the head but it's often hilarious, and a delightful cap to Cagney's illustrious career.
MGM's new DVD release of One, Two, Three part of their "Billy Wilder Collection" is a spare disc, offering a very nice transfer in either anamorphic (2.35:1) or pan-and-scan options. Like most of Wilder's films, there's not a lot of contrast in his black-and-white presentation, and the entire movie has a soft, monochromatic tone without many deep blacks. There's some occasional scratches and specks, but overall it's very clean. The monaural Dolby Digital audio is sometimes inconsistent in volume, but otherwise very good. The original theatrical trailer is the only extra; it hasn't been restored with any care, but it's interesting to see that the film was sold not so much on Cagney's fame as it was on Wilder's, attempting to lure audiences by invoking Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. One, Two, Three is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Avast! Buena Vista's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl starring Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom cruised to the top of the box-office chart over the weekend, taking in $46.4 million since Friday and a stellar $70.4 million since its Wednesday debut. Arriving in second place was Fox's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen starring Sean Connery, which managed $23.2 million, falling far short of the summer-blockbuster numbers it was aiming for. However, both new films were able to best last week's winner, Warner's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which slipped to third place with $19.6 million in its second frame and $110.4 million to date. Critics heaped praise on Pirates, while Gentlemen earned several unkind notices.
In continuing release, MGM's Legally Blonde 2 dropped to fourth place in its second outing, taking $12 million since last Friday, but its $62.8 million purse has made it a certified hit for star Reese Witherspoon. Rounding out the top five is Pixar's Finding Nemo, which now stands at $290.8 million after seven weeks. And Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle has scraped up $81.6 million so far. Fox Searchlight's 28 Days Later is turning into a small hit for director Danny Boyle with $28.4 million in the bank Universal's The Hulk has stashed much more cash ($124.7 million), but it's actually dropped below Boyle's low-budget zombie flick despite being in release just one week longer. And headed for the cheap theaters after a two-month run is Warner's The Matrix: Reloaded, which will finish around $275 million.
Bad Boys II starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence arrives in theaters this Friday, along with the spy spoof Johnny English with Rowan Atkinson and John Malkovich, and the teen romance How to Deal starring Mandy Moore. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mark Bourne continues his look at Warner's "Chaplin Collection" titles with a review of The Great Dictator, while new stuff from the rest of the team this morning includes Laurel Canyon, Revenge of the Ninja, Kiss Me Stupid, White Lightning, One, Two, Three, and Burnt by the Sun. It's all fresh under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 8 July 2003
On the Street: Those of you who are spending a lot of your hard-earned cash in the movie theaters lately will happy to know the DVD street is quiet this week. Fox's Phone Booth starring Colin Ferrell is a nice throwback to B-film stylistics, while Columbia TriStar's Basic reunites John Travolta and Sam Jackson in a lightweight military thriller. Coming out of the vault at Columbia is 1959's The Mouse that Roared starring Peter Sellers, as well as the rap mockumentary Fear of a Black Hat. TV fans can look for Warner's La Femme Nikita: Season One. And it's still Chaplin month around here, particularly with Image's release of the collection Charlie Chaplin: Short Comedy Classics. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 7 July 2003
Disc of the Week: For B-movie fanatics, it was more than a little gratifying to watch some of Hollywood's biggest names ravenously circle Larry Cohen's crackerjack script for Phone Booth (2002) a few years ago. At the time of this feeding frenzy, it had been a decade since Cohen a veteran screenwriter who cut his teeth writing for some of the best television shows of the 1960s , including "The Defenders" and "The Fugitive" had gotten a whiff of the mainstream, being relegated mostly to banging out grade-Z schlock for directors like Mark Lester and William Lustig. But suddenly there he was, watching the likes of Michael Bay, Will Smith, Jim Carrey, and Tom Cruise clamor for a shot at pulling off the writer's 30-year old idea about a hapless schmuck being pinned down by a sniper in a New York City phone booth. It's an intriguingly simple premise that's pure Cohen. Throughout his career, he's given birth to some of the most irresistibly loopy, and controversial, cult films ever made: God Told Me To posited a mass killing spree in which all of the assailants claim divine inspiration for their actions, while Q, The Winged Serpent concerned a mythic Aztecan beast that's nested at the top of the Chrysler Building. Cohen's stories, like the best pulp entertainments, possess a lurid hook. And while it's no surprise to find studios once again mining his fertile imagination, it's just a little curious that, given the paucity of workable ideas out there, they took so long to rediscover him.
Logistics and scheduling eventually knocked all of those big names out of the running for Phone Booth, which is probably just as well. This is a movie that needed to be shot on the fly and on the cheap, which is precisely what director Joel Schumacher has been doing since the gaudy debacle of Batman & Robin threatened to end his career. Schumacher has re-teamed with perpetual star-on-the-rise Colin Farrell, who plays Stu Shepard, a Bronx boy turned fast-talking PR maven. Like his fictional predecessor, Sidney Falco, Stu mostly shuns the office, keeping his ear to the street for any juicy info that might help his present clients, or curry favor with potential ones. In other words, he lies. This deception extends to his personal life, where he's carrying on an affair with a naïve young actress (Katie Holmes) unbeknownst to his wife (Radha Mitchell). And, like all great liars, he's careful, too making calls to his illicit paramour from a Midtown phone booth lest his wife find the other woman's number on the cellular bill. But someone has been watching this double-dealer with intense interest, and on this particular day he's viewing Stu through the lens of high powered rifle's scope. After Stu hangs up on his girlfriend, the voyeur (Keifer Sutherland) puts in a call to Stu's phone booth. Instinctually, Stu answers. At first, he's dismissive of the sniper, but after the wacko makes a damaging phone call to Stu's wife, he begins to take him more seriously. And yet this isn't good enough for the sniper after allowing a dispute between Stu and a trio of prostitutes to conflagrate into violence, the faceless gunman takes advantage of the confusion and shoots down an innocent bystander, which gets pinned on Stu. Soon enough, the police show up, and the beleaguered bullshit artist finds himself truly lying for his life.
Clocking in, sans credits, at a lean 75 minutes, Phone Booth takes a while to warm up. Initially, Farrell's Bronx boy is a tad too old country Irish in his accent, but once he's under fire the desperation comes pouring out of him, and the young actor puts on a show worthy of his press clippings (one has to enjoy the obvious irony of watching a crass publicity creation like Farrell play a starmaking spin doctor). Meanwhile, Schumacher, with an assist from gifted cinematographer Matthew Libatique, turns in his most confidently stylish work since The Lost Boys, which is probably due to this being the best script he's had to work with since then. Indeed, Cohen's screenplay succeeds so marvelously at placing the viewer in that phone booth with Stu because the writer's written himself into the predicament as well. How does one keep this poor schlub stuck in the booth for an hour without straining credibility? Cohen has stated in the past that he prefers not to know where he's headed when writing a screenplay, and his script sizzles with the excitement of a clever scribe surprising himself with each twist and turn. This thrill of invention freshens up many of the stale genre conventions, including the antagonistic relationship between Stu and the hostage negotiator (Forest Whitaker), who establish an unspoken shorthand once the latter figures out the bigger picture. Most enjoyably, though, Cohen uses his pulp premise as a means to rail against any number of pet peeves. In this case, it's PR and the culture of spin that has turned this country into a nation of liars trying to cover up misdeeds both big and trivial. As Sutherland's sniper character draws out of Stu, under the threat of death, the kind of bluntness he's been spending his whole life trying to suppress, it's not hard to imagine Cohen cracking a devilish grin as he checks off one more target on his naughty list. And while Stu's sins pale in comparison to the sniper's previous targets (a pederast porn king and an embezzling corporate CEO), the cautionary notion of an avenging angel a sort of Clarence with a twelve-gauge keeping us honest in our dealings with others is a real corker.
Fox's new DVD release of Phone Booth presents the film in both anamorphic (2.35:1) and pan-and-scan (1.33:1) transfers with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The disc's only extra, aside from a theatrical trailer, is a commentary from Joel Schumacher that is a little too long on generous plaudits for his cast and crew, in between which are sandwiched a few genuinely interesting tidbits about the two-week production. Whether or not they are worth seeking out depends on one's tolerance level for excessive praise of minor elements like (most annoyingly) the film's background performers at the expense of a substantive discussion of the screenplay's provocative, if insistent, themes. Perhaps the director's highest compliment was paid in his execution, by simply staying out of the script's way. Phone Booth is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to the top of the box-office heap over the weekend with Warner's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which dominated the Fourth of July frame with $44 million over the past three days and a $72.5 million take since its debut last Wednesday. It was the second week in a row that a super-hyped summer film failed to break $50 million, but the numbers still gave Arnie the best debut of his career (over Batman & Robin's $42 million), as well as the second-highest-grossing R-rated debut ever (behind Matrix: Reloaded's $91 million). Arriving in second place was MGM's Legally Blonde 2, which corralled $22.9 million for the frame ($39.1m since Wednesday) for star Reese Witherspoon. However, springing a leak in sixth place was DreamWorks' Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, which managed just $6.8 million ($10m since Wednesday) from family audiences. T3 earned many positive reviews, while critics were mixed on Blonde and Sinbad.
In continuing release, Sony's Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle slipped from last week's win to the third position with $14.2 million and a solid $67.2 million over 10 days. Disney's Finding Nemo remains a top-five ticket after six weeks and $274.9 million to date. However, Universal's The Hulk remains on a precipitous slide, with the summer event film taking just $8.2 million in its third week for a $117 million cume. Paramount's The Italian Job continues its slow burn, now holding $84 million, and Fox Searchlight's 28 Days Later is showing solid audience retention with $20.6 million after two sessions. Headed for the off-ramp is Universal's 2 Fast 2 Furious with a modest $2.4 million weekend. And gone to DVD prep is Sony's Hollywood Homicide, which will finish in the $30 million neighborhood.
Coming to a theater near you this weekend is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen starring Sean Connery, as well as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl with Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom. Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mark Bourne has posted his review of M2K/Warner's Modern Times, part of the new Chaplin Collection, while new stuff this week from the rest of the team includes Basic, Fear of a Black Hat, The Mouse That Roared, You Only Live Once, Under Capricorn, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, Phone Booth, and There's Something (More) About Mary. Everything's been added to the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow with news on this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 1 July 2003
On the Street: We know that a national holiday is just around the corner, but for Chaplin fans, today might as well be the biggest of the year M2K and Warner have delivered the first wave of special editions of their Chaplin holdings with The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and Limelight, all in two-disc boxes or a big eight-disc set. Martin Scorsese's much-discussed Gangs of New York is out in a two-discer from Miramax, while MGM's international catalog proffers include Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, and Jules Dassin's Never on Sunday. Paramount has caught the Polanski wave with his 1976 The Tenant, while fans of the rom-coms can pick up How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. Columbia TriStar's rolling us back a few years with Party Girl starring Parker Posey. And if you're looking for a cheesy good time, New Line's The Real Cancun is hard to beat for shameless, voyeuristic fun. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment: