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It’s not his day: Colin Farrell (left) in Phone Booth.

Hanging on the Telephone
By Ann Morrow

Phone Booth
Directed by Joel Schumacher

Starring the intensely photogenic Colin Farrell, Phone Booth takes place almost entirely in the confines of a phone booth in New York City. The choice of Farrell is crucial to the film’s success—this improbable thriller is gripping from start to finish—since the actor’s charisma and deft shifts in attitude compensate for the monotonous setting. If Farrell’s Stu Shepard, a venial publicity agent, leaves the booth, he’ll be killed by a psychotic sharpshooter lurking unseen. Equally important is the menacingly dulcet voice of Kiefer Sutherland as the sniper who turns the tables on the fast-talking P.R. flack. Stu is not only pinned to the phone by the little red light of the sniper’s high-powered scope rifle, he’s psychologically ensnared by the mind games coming from the other end of the receiver. Caught in an act of moral transgression, Stu is at a decided disadvantage.

Written by Larry Cohen (screenwriter of the delectably sleazy Guilty as Sin, a 1993 legal thriller that pitted Rebecca DeMornay against Don Johnson) and directed with unexpected finesse by Joel Schumacher, Phone Booth gets off to an attention-grabbing start as Stu cruises Eighth Avenue, double-dealing on his cell phones and exploiting the admiration of his geeky assistant as he goes. Stopping to glean some sordid tidbits from a cop on the beat, Stu is told, “You put the ‘ho’ in show business,” but he’s got more on his mind than just pimping a Page Six item for a bratty white rap star. Sliding into the phone booth, he removes his wedding ring and places a call to Pam (Katie Holmes), “a pretty little actress” he represents. He tries to cajole Pam into meeting him at a nearby hotel bar, and as he exits the booth, he makes a big mistake: He answers the ringing phone. Before he’s put his wedding ring back on.

Cohen’s script was inspired by Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and written over the last two decades. Production wrapped two years ago, but the film was put on hold after the Washington, D.C.-area sniper murders. Both of these facts are relevant to Phone Booth, which has its finger on the pulse of today’s high-tech paranoia while evidencing a twisty craftsmanship that Hitch would be proud of. The film’s big pothole—couldn’t the vindictive sniper find a worse evildoer to torment than slimy little Stu?—is almost unnoticeable as the tension escalates and Stu’s cocky façade disintegrates, exposing the insecure Bronx boy underneath. This is Farrell’s finest work since his debut in Schumacher’s Tigerland, and he shows more resourceful talent here than his later, big-buzz appearance in The Recruit.

After the sniper picks off an intrusive bystander, the police, the media circus, and Stu’s wife, Kelly (Radha Mitchell), converge on the scene. Stu is the suspect, and amid the confusion, there’s an especially effective double-meaning exchange between Capt. Ramey (Forest Whitaker) and Stu that is really about putting a trace on the phone line without the sniper finding out. Stu’s survival depends on the rapport he establishes with the police captain, who has mental-health issues of his own, and the film’s subliminal theme on trust is more interesting than its puffed-up moral parable. Lifeboat it ain’t, but this shallow thriller stays absorbingly afloat.

Must We Dance?

What a Girl Wants
Directed by Dennie Gordon

When I was 18, the big cinematic thrill that most girls swooned over was Richard Gere, godlike in crisp Navy whites, striding into a factory to whisk poor girl Debra Winger off, presumably to a future of intense sex and happiness. Nowadays, teen girls are thrilling to the sight of Colin Firth—nearly as sexy as Gere was then but with the added boost of a Brit accent—whisking young Amanda Bynes off, albeit to the dance floor for a father-daughter waltz. Is it me, or does this elevation to teen-idol status of the father figure that is so palpable in What a Girl Wants just ooze a certain big ick factor?

A remake of a 1958 Sandra Dee movie (in which the teenage daughter was a supporting character), What a Girl Wants tries to repeat the surprise success of The Princess Diaries, which mined the same tired clichés—basically, down-to-earth Yank wows ’em at court and, in the process, gives stuffy Brits reason to loosen their collective collars. What the powers-that-be behind the Coalition of the Willing think of the movie’s depiction of the British as largely horsefaced, stuffy and ignorant is open to interpretation, but we do know that newspaper ads depicting Bynes in a U.S.-flag micro-tee giving the peace sign have been doctored to remove the offending symbol (the peace sign, that is, not the flag).

The movie, which was written by Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler with none of the grace of the pair’s screenplay for A Little Princess, relies on Bynes’ charm. And indeed, her Daphne is the poster child of what’s great about America: She’s optimistic, egalitarian, young and sassy. This, of course, plays havoc with the political aspirations of her father, Lord Henry Dashwood (Firth), who years ago was tricked into thinking that Daphne’s mom Libby (Kelly Preston) had dumped him. It’s a sticking point—one that the movie doesn’t do much with—that Henry never once tried to contact Libby, and that, now, when Daphne has found him, he prevails upon her to turn herself into someone more dour than Princess Anne, and informs her that he has become engaged to the harridan Glynnis (Anna Chancellor), mother of pasty-faced Clarissa (Christina Coles) and daughter of Henry’s political advisor Alistair (Jonathan Pryce). This guy may look great in a blue suit and tie, but what a sop.

What a Girl Wants is nothing but scattershot. Upon entering the country, Daphne meets Ian (Oliver James), and it’s instant love, but she goes scenes—seemingly weeks—without communicating with him, suggesting that perhaps Great Britain is without phone service or even regular post. Too many scenes exist just to show Bynes vamping in costumes, playing dress-up to an aural montage of ’80s pop. One such scene has her doing just this for Daddy, to his amusement—again, big-time ick factor. Not enough is done with the briefly hinted-at rapport between Daphne and her paternal grandmum, Jocelyn, who suggests that old age has taught her to look beyond propriety and value real love and understanding. Daphne hopes for a reunion between Libby and Henry, once Henry removes that stick from his butt, and we know that she’ll get it—plus the keys to the estate, an Oxford education, the boy, etc., etc. What a Girl may mock the aristocracy, but it holds dear to the very American ideal of having it all. After all, how else can one act exactly as one pleases—which apparently for Daphne means dancing in public to the music in her head—unless one has a very hefty security blanket?

—Laura Leon

That Negro’s Crazy

DysFunktional Family
Directed by George Gallo

Eddie Griffin tries, with DysFunktional Family, to break the conventions of the comedy concert film. While he’s not the first—both Margaret Cho and Martin Lawrence included background interviews and (in the case of Lawrence) fictional scenes in their recent concert films—Griffin and director George Gallo take these experiments one step further. Unfortunately, they don’t go far enough.

In this film, performance footage is intercut with interviews with members of Griffin’s family, and documentary scenes of the comedian visiting old haunts in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo. Most of these scenes are quite good. We meet his sweet-but-stern mother; a wistful uncle who spent most of his life in jail; and a wacky uncle with a remarkable collection of homemade porn videos. The way these scenes relate to Griffin’s routines about his family are funny and insightful.

It’s the concert bits that don’t work, and much of the problem lies with Griffin’s material. While he makes no secret of his admiration of Richard Pryor, Griffin’s imitative flattery is a bit too sincere. His take on race relations is often hilarious, but it’s Pryor redux—Griffin doesn’t add anything new. This is especially evident in his use of the “n” word. Pryor was the first mainstream black comedian to claim this as his own, to use it in a kind of liberating way, though he later repudiated it. Griffin says “nigger” almost as many times in the course of this 90-minute film as Al Pacino said “fuck” in the three-hour Scarface. (This isn’t exaggerating: Roger Ebert put an assistant to work counting.) The point? Other than as a way to punctuate his sentences, there doesn’t seem to be one. The transgressive moment has passed; in Griffin’s comedy, it plays as a kind of perverse nostalgia.

Not for nothing was Griffin perfectly cast in last year’s Undercover Brother; his whole act, his whole persona is straight out of 1975.

Griffin is on stronger ground talking about his family, having learned from Pryor that one’s painful personal history can often be hilarious to everyone else. He doesn’t do enough of this material, though—he wastes time on routines about sex and Sept. 11 that vary wildly in quality.

It’s likely that Griffin will move away from standup; DysFunktional Family was preceded by a trailer for his next feature comedy, My Baby’s Mama, and a sequel to Undercover Brother is in the works. This is good thing. Griffin has taken his persona as far, apparently, as he can—or as far as he’s willing to go.

—Shawn Stone

Pretty Vacant

All the Real Girls
Directed by David Gordon Green

The tagline for this movie is startlingly honest: “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl.” Set in a small, unnamed Southern town (the film was shot in North Carolina), All the Real Girls wants to be a heartbreaking tale of first love and a penetrating look at working-class life in a dead-end town. Director David Gordon Green and cowriter Paul Schneider (who also plays one of the leads) offer up oh-so- artful, fragmentary scenes weighted down with faux significance, while cinematographer Tim Orr presents autumnal images of extraordinary beauty, which possess all the punch of pretty postcards. In the end, the film doesn’t amount to much more than boy meets girl, boy loses girl.

Though barely out of high school, Paul (Schneider) is the town stud. He has bedded and abandoned dozens of girls. So it comes as something of a shock to everyone—including Paul—when he falls in love with Noel (Zooey Deschanel), who has just returned after years away at a boarding school. Happily, she loves him too. Her emotional openness disarms him; what she sees in him is never precisely established. (That’s love for you.) Of course there are problems: Noel’s brother Tip (Shea Whigham) is also Paul’s best friend, and Tip is not happy to see his sister become the stud’s latest conquest; as the new girl in town, Noel has many suitors; neither Paul nor Noel has a clue as to what they’re going to do with their lives.

The film moves along at an excruciatingly slow pace. It’s as if the director felt that the longer viewers are forced to look at the actors, the more insight they will absorb. Green is wrong—All The Real Girls is slow torture.

To put it kindly, the characters are ill-defined. Deschanel is one of the most promising performers to come along in the last year, with notable appearances in The Good Girl and Abandon, but she can’t do a thing with the incoherently conceived Noel. (Chalking up the character’s behavior and mercurial emotions to mere caprices of youth just doesn’t cut it. Besides, I couldn’t help wondering—who paid for her boarding school?) Same goes for the great Patricia Clarkson and the rest of the cast, an ensemble of talented unknowns: There isn’t a single fully developed character for the actors to work with, just a collection of cardboard working-class cutouts wallowing in pain and failure.

The gorgeous images offered up by the filmmakers stink with pretension. There isn’t a single authentic, believable frame in the picture.

—Shawn Stone

Your Brain on Drugs

A Man Apart
Directed by F. Gary Gray

The new Vin Diesel vehicle, A Man Apart, finds today’s hippest action hero cruising very familiar ground: drug trafficking along the California-Mexico border. Even buffer than he was as a new breed of secret agent in XXX, Diesel here plays a new kind of anti-narcotics cop, Sean Vetter. Sean and his posse are former gangbangers recruited by the DEA, apparently because their thuggish attitude helps them to infiltrate street-level dealing. What advantage “rolling” gives them once the submachine guns and chainsaws go into high gear in a Mexican strip club isn’t quite clear, but the unit’s urban cool does allow the film to strike a pose of gritty street cred. And clothes and lingo are about all that’s credible in this rambling update of Death Wish. Strung together from dated tropes from seemingly every drug-war movie ever made, A Man Apart is astoundingly awful.

Sean and his partner (versatile Larenz Tate) capture Memo Lucero (Geno Silva), the biggest druglord in the Americas, who is sent to a U.S. prison. Retaliation comes swiftly, and Sean’s wife is killed during a shootout in their Zuma beach house. Grief turns the tender-hearted agent into a crazed and ruthless operator, and although Sean is solemnly informed, “You should not have gone to Mehico,” he and his homies (including a gratuitous hiphop character called Big Sexy, who is onscreen just long enough for his drug-sniffing Chihuahua to make a bust) hit the trail of the cartel’s new kingpin, the homicidal Diablo, whom (in accordance with formula) no one has ever seen. The investigation takes the partners from a scummy apartment drug den all the way to a Mexican military airport hangar with barely time enough for a shave and a shower.

The script—which hangs on one tiny twist—appears to have been heavily tailored to expand Diesel’s range, providing him with high drama in a hospital bed, a heart-to-heart with the fatherly Memo, a drummed-up conflict with his loyal but straight-laced partner, and a moment of solitary introspection by the seashore. Diesel is a competent, often charismatic actor, but soul-deep emoting is not one of his strong suits—at least not in this slick hack job, wherein every attempt at jaw-dropping realism leaves the viewer slack-jawed by its tackiness. Among the flabbergastingly bad sequences is a double-cross shoot-’em-up with no clue as to who the double crossers are, and extraneous shooters who pop up like bonus points in a video game. The scene occurs atop a street painting of a face, and after the smoke clears, Sean is aerially viewed standing in the pupil of a rolling eyeball. Maybe what this emptily symbolic shot really means is that Diesel should stop being an action superstar so he can go back to being an actor.

—Ann Morrow

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