It’s interesting to hear that Phone Booth‘s screenwriter is Larry Cohen, who was very active in the late 1960’s and 70’s as a TV writer because this movie thinks that it’s about the excitement that can only be found in that earlier era in New York City. Within its boulevards is Colin Farrell‘s character Stuart Shepard, a publicist/professional who wears expensive Italian designer suits but wears them two sizes too big so he still looks like he’s from the other boroughs. His Point A is Times Square, the most ideal place to make business calls while dragging some nerdy-looking assistant named Adam (Keith Nobbs) who’s unknowingly working for free. His Point B, across a strip club on Eighth Avenue, is where he calls Pam (Katie Holmes), using a phone booth so his wife Kelly (Radha Mitchell) won’t see a record of this courtship. But apparently they’re not the only two who know about this infidelity, as a sniping stranger (Kiefer Sutherland) threatens that if Stu hangs up or doesn’t obey the stranger’s orders, he will die. Then a confrontation happens where the stranger offers to shoot a man assaulting Stu, which the latter accepts, inadvertently making the prostitutes on the street as witnesses on the accusing him as the killer, getting the police’s attention (Forest Whitaker plays police negotiator Captain Ramey). And when both the women in his life come to the scene, the stranger threatens to kill them both.
There’s something lost in translation in its attempt to capture the metropolis’ vibrancy and the few New Yorkers who happen to be annoying, the little screens within a big one and turquoise cinematography making for an ugly aesthetic. The stranger’s purpose in kidnapping Stu is to make the latter confess his sins, having done this earlier to upper-class child molesters and real criminals. With this revelation Stu makes an appeal that he’s not as bad as the stranger’s other victims. I suppose the film is trying to make the point that like most people, Stu tries to justify their little, personal transgressions by telling themselves that their impact isn’t as large. And in confronting Stu’s situation, Farrell shows that he’s in his best when deconstructing the masculinity with which he’s built his stardom and makes way for his weeping, vulnerable self that he’ll bring in later projects like In Bruges. But by inflating his effect towards others it just makes me care less about his character.
Mother, where do you live? In the sky, the clouds, the sea. Give me a sign.
We rise, we rise. I’m afraid of myself. A god he seems to me.
What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? Oh, to be given to you into me.
I will be faithful to you. True. Two no more. One. One. I am. I am.
The first scene involves dried blood in Janusz’s (Jim Sturgess) face. His interrogators bring out the witness against him – his own teary-eyed wife – with the same viscera, and I remember the only bone that the Academy has thrown towards this movie. There’s more of that as we follow Janusz’s story as he gets in and escapes from a Siberian prison camp, taking six other men with him, most of whom have invited themselves to the grueling journey. There are these male movie stars efficiently worn down and their skin dried from the cold weather to mix with and placed behind the extras playing prisoners.
The make-up goes with the harsh conditions the men meet when they do escape, the snow on their beards while crossing the snows of Siberia and the Himalayas, the bites of cheeks in their stop at a mosquito-plagued lake or the sores on their faces as they walk the desert. The back and forth between the rugged terrain and the rougher faces and bodies of the characters make a balance between the two aspects of the film. The frozen and mummified corpse of a blind boy who escapes with them but doesn’t even get out of the Siberian forests, flaky skin and chapped lips a la Sergio Leone, swollen feet when they try to cross the Gobi. The effects are realistic, seamless but not too gruesome. Even if it is make-up, it complements the pathos that the characters face during this epic journey.
The film actually begins with title cards indicating three people making it to India. Not having read the source material, which other three won’t make it? You’d think the top billed cast members would, but it’s more complicated than that. I also like how the film handles its ‘Survivor’ like inevitability, as some who do not make it get elegies and close-ups, some just get a cross and are left, and one person, afraid, just chooses not to move on.
The film switches languages, although the story justifies it. Ed Harris‘ Mr. Smith is American so he doesn’t have to hide, even if he does speak some Russian to Mongolian horsemen they meet in the desert, but the film’s top billed stars are Anglophones who sometimes speak a Slavic language. I wonder if the language aspect of the film will be more constant if , say, Bela Tarr directed it. Colin Farrell‘s Valka does the most heavy lifting with the accent work, making the language bullying and threatening. He stabs a prisoner in the stomach for not giving him the latter’s sweater. Saoirse Ronan‘s mysterious Irena is the weakest link with her accent, at first sounding like a mix between Teutonic and her native Irish. However, she saves it by singing in Russian with Valka, finally her secret as a street urchin revealed. Other cast members are known in their homelands, the film’s casting then serves as a way to introduce world-class talent and faces outside Hollywood.
The film shows the vast, almost impenetrable landscapes, even if they’re sometimes bordered by the figures of the people escaping. Nature is depicted as a hardship, sometimes unknowingly marked by political forces. The group crosses Mongolia only to find a big hammer and sickle on a free-standing structure, and now they have to change their plans, asking each other, as Irena does, whether other faraway countries like India are ‘free.’ The visuals of the landscapes are accompanied with bombastic and percussion-y music, making the audience feel like these men just want to get through without meditating nature’s beauty.
The beauty they see instead is in each other, as Tomasz the artist (Alexandru Potocean), draws his companions. The other members get ahold of these drawings and take time to complement its resemblance to photography. They remember, for instance, if he has captured Irena’s smile. Zoran (Dragos Bucur) promises to get them published. The film’s editing and structure consist of landscape, expository dialogue, cut to different landscape, the edges between scenes aren’t smooth.
The characters don’t seem to want to know about each other. During the first half hour, the prisoners are divided into cliques and are discouraged from talking to each other, a trait they have learned to practice during their escape. That’s until Irena comes along to ask them questions about themselves. In doing this Irena treads troubled waters, as she helps the audience find out which one still has allegiances to the Party that imprisons him, which innocent looking face has killed someone, or why in general did they get to Eastern Europe and therefore prison. There are signs on the ravaged areas they pass that inevitably remind them of their pasts.
Their character developments aren’t on the surface neither. Janusz, whose kindness Smith calls a weakness, makes him unlikely to become the leader of a group of men tougher and sometimes older than him. However, his kindness goes hand in hand with his perseverance that helps, through words and actions, him and the others go on walking. Zoran, who doesn’t cook nor hunt, eventually becomes useful as he tries to help build camps, but this evolution isn’t screamed out on the script and neither are their differences. Their search for freedom reveals their intelligence and the survival skills they’ve gained during and before their escape. Nonetheless, this film isn’t devoid of clear humane actions. Kindness finds ways into little actions, leading to Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård) carrying Irena even if she slows them down. Their histories full of betrayal and cruelty would not allow them to leave anyone behind until their last breath.
The film’s ending, just like the way it begins, with what seems like unnecessary exposition and feels flat and unfeeling, Janusz’ feet going halfway across the screen as it plays a montage of the dates of the rise and fall of Communism. I’d call this film impressionistic if it wasn’t glossy and beautiful. 3.5/5
During the first half of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”, I asked myself “Where was this going,” “When is it gonna end.” Terry Gilliam films promise you a lot of fantasy but the first half shows in the aughties’ version of grunge – alcohol, London traffic, tattered costumes, all three revolving around the travelling circus, especially the immortal Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), the film’s troubled storyteller. He has lost control of his show, the world has lost interest in his stories. Add Tony (Heath Ledger) to the mix and his presence and suggestions add conflict to the other members of the cast-in-wagon (Andrew Garfield, for instance).
A part of ‘Parnassus” also feels like a perfume ad, Valentina (Lily Cole) floating in the air, her dress swirling, her arms reaching towards the oversized flowers and high-heeled shoes while Imaginarium Tony (Johnny Depp) dances with an elderly woman. That doesn’t mean I have a prejudice against this former model, it’s the other way around. Nonetheless, the occasionally frustrating glimpses in the imaginarium are a bit distant and CGI for me to look at it with wonder.
The Imaginarium Tonys (also Jude Law and Colin Farrell), despite being a part of the fantasy world, actually grounds the film. The most emotionally gripping parts of the film are when Tonys personal troubles follow him in the imaginarium. It would have been nice to see Heath in these parts because they’re the meatier part of the role, but the incorporation of four actors in one role is well done.
The film ends with Plummer being another beggar, the fantasy world gone. His old friend Percy (Verne Toryer, not a cameo) wonders if the beggar is the Great Doctor Parnassus. Is greatness compromised when life drags on?
I also caught “The Last Station” this past Wednesday, which was a little more even. The peaks and valleys of each character are charted in placed where you will know to find them. If I did not end up watching the film, it would be immortalised in my mind as the one where Countess Sofya Tolstaya (Helen Mirren) breaks plates and shoots a gun as shown in the trailers. It’s more than that, but there’s still some genre conventions within it. Got a problem with melodrama?
I wanna talk about the nuances in James MacAvoy as Valentin Bulgakov, the way MacAvoy is the best male crier in the industry, this time keeping himself still yet making the moment raw. How the film does not take his away from a shot when he goes from one emotion to another. How the other characters does not allow him to evolve from a spineless intellectual. How a beard does not make a man.
Helen Mirren also makes me doubt my choice as putting Gabourey Sidibe as my Oscar choice, although Sidibe is still number one. Sofya makes the characters around her listen to every word without making it look wink-wink nudge-nudge. You sympathize with her as extremist Tolstoyans like Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) try to take away her influence from her husband. Yet her last request to her husband to come home with her still sounds duplicitous.
We see the film in Bulgakov’s eyes. However, as much as all these characters tugging at each other is sometimes fun to watch, but I still wonder who is the centre in all this intrigue.
- I’m pretty sure Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal were drinking during their drinking scenes. I know the teary eyes and the blushing cheeks when I see ’em. My friend Matt called it method acting.
- Watching Bad Blake be an asshole, be sandbagged, and have sex with Maggie Gyllenhaal made me feel really uncomfortable. No pathos nor tragedy is conveyed, just plain awkwardness.
- Don’t wanna hate, but watching Bad Blake shirtless is tolerable unless he stands or sits up.
- Kudos to the cinematographers for the colours in the movie, the cameramen for getting into Jeff Bridges’ face, the location scouts. Great movie in the technical aspects.
- Sure, it’s Jeff Bridges, but he wasn’t the best this year. But then it took me two months to get Colin Firth in “A Single Man.” Will I change my mind about Bridges by May? Also, Maggie Gyllenhaal only had one great scene. Jeff Bridges has zero, or at least he does a little nuance-y things instead of having a bait-y scene, which is typical and refreshing compared to other people’s work. But still, Colin Firth and for that matter, Samantha Morton, got robbed.
- Jean Braddock is not professional. I’ve made out with older men after a few drinks before, but not while working and not while a babysitter is looking after my child at one in the morning. The rest of the movie made it look like Bad Blake had her on his fingernail, which isn’t her fault at all. And although I’m not an expert at her oeuvre, I’ve never been convinced that Maggie Gyllenhaal can play someone trashy enough to do these things.
- If my creative writing prof saw this movie and heard Bad Blake sing, “The sun shines brightly,” he would cut a bitch. It’s the sun. Sometimes it’s yellow, white, but it’s always bright.
- Colin Farrell is a good fit as Tommy Sweet, but he should have shown his face more.
- This movie featured a mostly healthy relationship between a grown man and a child. Finally.
- Time went by really fast watching this movie, and I haven’t said that about a movie I liked in a long time.