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Reach out and shoot someone

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Joel Schumacher's new thriller, Phone Booth, illustrates once again the weird and ambiguous relationship between popular cinema and its temporal context. Originally scheduled for release many months ago, the picture disappeared, at least for a while, until the manhunt for the Washington, D.C.-area sniper ended with the apprehension of the suspects. The distributors apparently believed, with some justification, that a movie about a sniper might verge on bad taste and might well disturb a great many people.

            With an almost comical efficiency, however, now that the headlines no longer scream of a random and inexplicable terrorism, and the tension has abated, the formerly touchy product now appears. It's no longer quite so threatening a reflection of reality, no longer quite so inadvertently immediate, yet somehow the picture probably derives at least a little benefit from recent history and the fickle public memory.

            Phone Booth establishes an ingenious --- perhaps too ingenious --- sniper situation, in which a highly skilled gunman engages in the extended torment of a victim and the police. Through the sort of electronic expertise that abounds in movies, the sniper (Kiefer Sutherland, as a disembodied voice on the telephone) discovers the dirty little secrets of a sleazy publicist for showbiz small-timers, played by Colin Farrell. Using the threat of a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight and a laser aiming device, he pins Farrell in a Manhattan phone booth and promises to kill him, his wife, his girlfriend, and anyone else who strikes his fancy, unless Farrell publicly confesses his sins. After some initial disbelief and a good deal of sparring, the publicist comes to believe the rifleman, who convinces him by shooting another man who wants to use the booth.

            The movie soon resolves itself into a long cat-and-mouse game, with the sniper taunting, menacing, and humiliating Farrell, who degenerates in the process from a defiant wise-ass to a quivering mass of jelly. To maintain interest in the essentially static situation and constricted frame, the director employs enough visual diversity to delight even the artiest film buff --- quick cuts, racking focus from closeups to long shots, varying film speed, inserts, split screens, multiple images, etc., etc. When half the NYPD arrives, along with the SWAT team, the wife, the girlfriend, hundreds of spectators, and, of course, all the TV networks, the movie takes on some minor subplots --- and now and then, as when a gaggle of hookers wants to use the booth, some raunchy humor.

            The picture achieves its best moments through the varied camera work and the generally competent performance of Colin Farrell, who once again displays a mastery of American accents. He argues, cajoles, curses, trembles, weeps, sweats, and whines in all keys throughout the length of the film. However, this ultimately makes his character so tiresome that when an audience member rudely shouted out, "Just shoot him!" I was inclined to agree. Forest Whitaker helps out now and then as a detective with his own issues, as he puts it, which allow him to understand the plight of the man in the booth.

            The script makes a few attempts to suggest some meaning in the ubiquity of the telephone in contemporary life: its susceptibility to eavesdropping, its role as a conveyor of insincerity and falsehood, its paradoxical tendency to isolate and alienate, its ability to enslave its users. Phone Booth also, however, displays a silly and juvenile concept of theme in its portrayal of the sniper as some sort of avenging angel out to punish evildoers.

            The sniper informs his victim that he has already chalked up a German porn czar and a rapacious CEO on his scorecard (both deserving targets), which hardly explains his fixation on Farrell. He forces the man to confess to his wife, the cops, the spectators, and the vast television audience that he's a phony (there's quite a lot of that around), that he wears fake Italian suits and a knockoff watch (oh, please!), and desires other women (goodness, even Jimmy Carter admitted to that). All those horrible "crimes" hardly qualify the man as some great sinner deserving a terrible punishment.

            Phone Booth at times resembles something like a vehicle for Colin Farrell, who's hot these days, allowing him a whole movie and a claustrophobic set to strut his stuff. At other moments, it tends to look like some Hollywood high-concept flick --- say, The Sweet Smell of Success meets Dog Day Afternoon. Its central performance and its dazzling camera work now and then suggest something of a tour de force, but unfortunately, the intellectual and emotional content of the script cannot match the inventiveness of its images.

            The picture might finally resolve into another telephone movie: Sorry, Wrong Number.

Phone Booth, starring Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell, Katie Holmes, Paula Jai Parker, Arian Waring Ash; written by Larry Cohen; directed by Joel Schumacher. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.

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