Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth is the movie equivalent of the sort of clever one-act plays that were once popular in the theatre - slight but concise, meant to be enjoyed as part of an evening’s entertainment because they rarely resonated longer than their cleverness.
Colin Farrell is a nasty but small-fry New York publicist stranded in a phone booth off Times Square by a sniper who wants him to confess his sins to the world at gunpoint. While the unseen tormentor taunts him, Farrell is forced to fend off the platoon of cops who think he’s a killer, while breaking down in front of his wife (Radha Mitchell), the officer in charge (Forrest Whittaker), and a client he tried to make into a mistress (Katie Holmes).
Using split screens and an insistent, probing camera, Schumacher rides the drama of his slight story ragged, pushing the pace and maintaining the tension for as long as he can - barely 90 minutes in the end, including an ending that feels as tidy and arch as those one-act amusements usually did. Fittingly, the film on DVD comes as minimally packaged, with nothing more than a trailer and a director’s commentary track.
It’s often hard to remember what a charismatic leading man Yul Brynner was since his landmark roles in The Ten Commandments and The King and I seemed to fossilize his persona into a strutting, preening caricature of an authority figure.
Made in the same year as those two films, Anatole Litvak’s tale of the woman who almost convinced the world that she was the sole living heir to the Romanoff dynasty - based on a true story - won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar. Brynner’s performance as the exiled Russian General who cynically uses her to get at an inheritance, then falls in love with the pretender as she seems to regain her “memories”, is a marvel, full of charisma and a dashing physicality.
The film, in the end, deftly sidesteps the authenticity of the pretender by casting itself as a fable about the theatricality of life, and the longing to believe at all costs. Comes with a commentary track that includes screenwriter Arthur Laurents, newsreel footage, and an A&E Biography of Anastasia and the pretender.
La Femme Nikita (Special Edition)
If Luc Besson’s stylish thriller about a street urchin turned government hit woman had one lasting effect, it was to set in stone the visual vocabulary of the stylish thriller.
With its chic locations, balletic slow motion, impeccable if overdone art direction, and fascination with the various hues of blue available to a skilled cinematographer, it made an impression on movie and TV thrillers still visible today, and led to an American re-make with Bridget Fonda and a cult TV series. Never mind that the only real changes that happen to Anne Parillaud’s title character occur off screen, during a jump cut that spans three years. What Nikita feels isn’t as important as how she looks, and Parillaud - lean, lithe and leggy - does her job well.
Includes a newly shot documentary on the film, where stars Parillaud, Tcheky Karyo and Jean Reno get a chance to retroactively sing the praises of a film that has a lot to answer for.
This re-imagining of Animal House through the lens of the male early midlife crisis comes with the imprimatur of Animal House producer Ivan Reitman, the executive producer of this briefly hopeful lowbrow comedy.
A trio of buddies in their early thirties - sad sack Luke Wilson, reformed party animal Will Ferrell, and natural salesman Vince Vaughn - hit upon the idea of leaping out of the rut their lives have descended into by starting their own frat house, enlisting a mix of campus losers and fellow middle-aged misfits. The whole premise rides on the peculiar comic talents of the star trio, particularly Ferrell, whose stock in trade is spectacular self-humiliation.
As long as the story lets them cut loose and dive headlong into a welter of pratfalls, lewdness and obscenity, it rides on a bitter rush of piggish joy that most men would understand and enjoy. But unlike its venerable blueprint, which only picked up steam at its finale, Old School stumbles when the inevitable confrontation with the joykiller Dean and Authority at large takes the reins.
Comes fully loaded with outtakes and deleted scenes, a perfunctory “making of”, and a spoof of the fatuous cable series "Inside the Actor’s Studio", with Ferrell as that show’s unctuous, fawning host, interviewing the cast, including himself.
Never On Sunday
Flight Of The Innocent
Rhapsody In August
MGM has revisited its art film back catalogue with a series of bare bones reissues of foreign film hits from the last four decades. Jules Dassin’s Never On Sunday is the oldest of the bunch, a 1960 Oscar-winner that hasn’t aged well - you could call it My Big Fat Greek Vacation.
Melina Mercouri’s star turn as a gorgeous whore in a Greek seaside port still vibrates, but Dassin’s performance as an earnest American intellectual bent on reforming her is all mugging and double-takes, straight out of burlesque and b-movies. Besides Mercouri, the film singlehandedly turned Greece into a glamourous vacation spot and, along with Zorba the Greek, created the caricature of the brawling, dancing, lusty Greek that still persists today.
Carlo Carlei’s 1993 Flight of the Innocent is the story of a young boy who survives the massacre of his family in Italy’s violent, backward rural South and flees north in search of justice and redemption. The film’s lapses into “poetic” reveries and childlike dream sequences were a vice of art films all through the 80s and into the 90s, and suggest a generation of directors and writers who imagined that harsh reality could be overcome with a bit of inspiration. It seems like such a long time ago now.
Film legend Akira Kurosawa’s second last film, Rhapsody in August (1991), tackled the legacy of the atomic bomb with the same evocation of poetry and dreamlike imagery. It’s a child’s view of the legacy of the destruction of Nagasaki, and while the Japanese perspective is both rare and refreshing, it also seems somehow inadequate to its subject.
The insistence of the film’s most sympathetic character, a wizened grandmother widowed by the bomb, that “war is to blame”, feels unsatisfactory, and peculiar to its time, when war was a painful lapse to be avoided at all cost, not a cataclysm capable of erupting in our midst, anywhere, at any time. The abrupt ending, where the old woman and her family struggle against a sudden, violent storm, suggests otherwise, and has an unintended resonance today.