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Thursday, May 8, 2003 02:20 pm

Movie Reviews - Phone Booth, Basic, The Core and A Man Apart

Phone Booth

Who would have guessed that Joel Schumacher--the director of bloated, empty movies such as Batman and Robin and the Anthony Hopkins-Chris Rock spy turkey Bad Company--would be capable of delivering a riveting film that depends on economic, narrative filmmaking. He does just that with the taut thriller Phone Booth, a tight 81-minute claustrophobic roller-coaster ride. Shot in 10 days, the film is worthy of Hitchcock in theme and construction. Its star, Colin Farrell, finally gets a project that's worthy of his much-hyped talent--and delivers.

The last private phone booth in Manhattan stands on the corner of 53rd and 8th. It's scheduled to be demolished and replaced by a kiosk in 24 hours. That's one day too late for Stu Shepard (Farrell), a ruthless publicist. He makes his way to the booth to call Pamela McFadden (Katie Holmes), a young, hungry actress he longs to bed. Shepard can't use his cell phone because his wife, Kelly (Radha Mitchell), scans his bill every month. Unfortunately, the phone rings in the booth after Shepard has made his call. He answers it and a madman promises to shoot him from an undisclosed location with a high-powered rifle if he hangs up. To prove his point, he takes out an innocent bystander. Shepard is blamed for the killing, and soon New York's finest, led by Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker), have surrounded him.

A wicked morality tale ensues as the sharpshooter promises to start killing bystanders one-by-one unless Shepard publicly confesses his sins. Cocky, assured, and smooth in the beginning, Shepard is reduced to a humble, regretful, desperate man by movie's end. Farrell nails every moment along the way. It's an exhausting, dynamic turn and one that transcends the boundaries of this cinematic exercise.

It really doesn't matter who the gunman is and the script by Larry Cohen is smart enough to allow for various interpretations. Is he a random crackpot? An omnipotent, vengeful God? The publicist's conscience incarnate? The Caller, as he is listed in the credits, is brought to life by Kiefer Sutherland whose menacing voice has a natural intensity that perfectly suits this character.

This is surely Schumacher's best film. The directors' slick visual style is often used to distract audiences from the formulaic nature of his movies (Falling Down, Dying Young, The Client), but in recent years he's gone back to the basics with the off-beat buddy film Flawless and the Vietnam-era Tigerland. Both were valiant attempts to deliver character-driven stories sans Hollywood cliches. In Phone Booth, Schumacher fires on all pistons and trumps everything he's ever done before.

(Running time 1:21, rated R)
Grade A-

Basic

A group of six soldiers and their commanding officer, uniformed maniac Sergeant Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson), go on a routine training mission only to have just two of its members return alive. An intriguing web of deceit attracts a charismatic investigator eager to get to the truth.

That would be disgraced DEA agent Tom Hardy (John Travolta), called in by his old Army comrade Pete Wilmer (Timothy Daly). This doesn't sit well with regular army investigator, Lieutenant Julia Osbourne (Connie Nielsen), who isn't getting very far interrogating the two survivors, Dunbar and Kendall (Brain Van Holt and Giovanni Ribisi). Their conflicting accounts give the film a Rashomon-like feel and set up an engaging mystery concerning West's fate and the reasons why each of his recruits would like to see him dead.

Travolta swaggers with ease and gives his most assured performance in years. Nielsen is equally strong. And their chemistry is genuine and satisfying. With her turn here, as well as in The Hunted, the actress holds the screen with her formidable veteran co-stars. Jackson, as always, makes a strong impression, but his role is a supporting one--anyone hoping for a Pulp Fiction reunion between him and Travolta will be disappointed. Ribisi impresses as well, as does the always reliable Taye Diggs as the beleaguered cadet Pike, who has more than a few reasons to off his commanding officer.

Unfortunately, the script by James Vanderbilt and John McTiernan's direction aren't as solid as the cast. Intent on showing just how clever he is, the writer engages in misdirection again and again. It becomes clear in the film's first half hour that nothing we have seen is real and that all other facts that will be revealed to us are useless until we finally reach the conclusion. The film contains not one, not two, but three surprise twists. By the time it was done, I could have cared less who killed who, who was selling the drugs for what reason, and why the Hell the cult rock tune "Black Betty" was playing over the end credits. Vanderbilt fails to realize the law of diminishing returns. Basic would have been a far better film if it had just been a little more--you guessed it--basic.

(Running time 1:38, rated R)
Grade C

The Core

The press kit for The Core quotes the film's director, Jon Amiel, saying, "Basically, the film is science faction: a good dollop of science, a considerable amount of fact, and a wee bit of fiction!" I'm pretty sure he must have made the above comment with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The Core is pure escapist entertainment. Whether you will enjoy the film depends largely on your appreciation of 1970s Irwin Allen disaster movies such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno or the George Pal sci-fi extravaganzas of the '50s, such as When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds. This movie tips its hat to both of those filmmakers and plays like a pastiche of the disaster genre.

There's the world-threatening catastrophe, in this case the destruction of the electromagnetic field after the core of the Earth stops rotating. Space rays invade our atmosphere, bringing storms and heating up the planet. There has to be a rescue mission with only a million-in-one chance of success. The crew has to be a diverse and bickering team of heroes. Space shuttle pilot Major Rebecca Childs (Hilary Swank), navigation ace Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart), feuding physicists Edward Brazzleton and Conrad Zimsky (Delroy Lindo and Stanley Tucci), munitions expert Sergei Leveque (Tcheky Karyo), and fearless leader Colonel Robert Iverson (Bruce Greenwood) make up the group that will burrow into the planet to set off a chain-reaction of nuclear explosions to restart the rotation of the core. Stick (Alfre Woodard), the head of mission control, and Rat (D.J. Qualls), computer hacker extraordinaire, are on hand to fret and worry above ground as the crew goes through its paces.

Of course, unexpected difficulties will be encountered along the way, great sacrifices will be made, and deeds of noble heroism will be required. You can count on being able to easily predict the order in which the characters will die by how recognizable the actor is playing the part. You can also be pretty sure someone will say something like, "It looks like we're in the clear!" which invites nothing but more trouble. The most recent wrinkle added to the disaster genre: the destruction of a recognizable landmark!

Eckhart, Swank, and Tucci are as far away from their independent film roots as they can get and do fine. Lindo seems the most liberated, sporting a twinkle in his eye as he tears into his role of the slightly mad scientist. There is usually a genuine moment or two amidst all the chaos, and Karyo gets the honor of delivering it here when he proclaims, "I didn't come to save six billion people. That's too much of a burden. I came to save only three. I hope I'm brave enough to do so." The three he refers to are his wife and two children. It's to the actor's credit we don't laugh out loud.

(Running time 2:15, rated PG-13)
Grade C+

A Man Apart

Vin Diesel covers ground countless other action stars have covered before him. As Sean Vetter, he's a renegade cop who has problems following rules. When he and his partner, Demetrius Hicks (Larenz Tate), take down a Mexican drug lord, the bad guys take out Vetter's wife. Talk about poor sports!

This sends our hero off the deep end, and he wages a one-man war against the cartel. This, of course, gets him thrown off the force. Think that will make him give up on his quest for vengeance? Nope.

Nothing new here, but what separates AMan Apart from the pack of run-of-the-mill action movies is Diesel, who's often much better than the material. The actor handles the shoot-'em-up scenes with style and employs a smoldering intensity as he deals with his foes. But Diesel also brings to the role a sense of humanity. Vetter's pain and suffering is expressed with a poignancy that movies of this sort often lack.

Solid support comes from Tate, one of our most underrated film actors. Timothy Olyphant, as a wiseass drug dealer, steals every scene he's in. The script by Christian Gudegast and Paul Scheuring is lean and contains just enough humor.

What prevents A Man Apart from being a complete success is the erratic direction from F. Gary Gray. A swiveling, panning camera and rapid-fire editing generate more confusion than excitement. The film's centerpiece, a drug bust gone wrong, is thrilling and visceral, but the rest of the film lacks these qualities.

A Man Apart has been on the shelf for more than a year, as Gray and his star have been trying to come up with a satisfactory ending. They should have kept trying.

The conclusion they finally shot feels tacked-on and is anticlimactic. Advice to Diesel: Pair up with a solid director; there's no question you'd stand apart.

(Running time 1:49, rated R)
Grade B