New movie releases this week include Katherine Heigl’s return to the big screen, plus The Promise, Truman, and more
Matthew Lickona 6 p.m., April 21
The fundamental idea -- a thriller tethered for almost its total running time to a public telephone, squarely in the telescopic sights of a taunting sniper -- had reportedly been around long enough for scriptwriter Larry Cohen (subsequently the writer-director of such disreputable entertainments as It's Alive and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover) to have dangled it in front of Alfred Hitchcock, a plausible temptation for a director who once confined a thriller to a lifeboat. The seeming omniscience of the shooter, the loftiness of his perch, the sinfulness of his chosen victims, and above all the preternatural clarity, resonance, and amplification of his voice over the wire (he comes across more like HAL in 2001 than like your average phone caller) lend him a godlike quality that is not altogether tarnished in the unsatisfactory conclusion. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. The immediate question of how the situation can be sustained for an entire movie is quieted in the early stages by such diversions as the streetwalkers who want their turn at the phone and the sidewalk vendor with his battery-operated toy robots -- as well as by our recollection of such telephone-tethered thrillers of the past as Sorry, Wrong Number and The Slender Thread. We know it can be done. And the longer-range answer to how the situation can be sustained for feature-length is simply that the length of the feature (minus those interminable closing credits) is barely an hour and a quarter. In truth, it would have made more sense had Larry Cohen dangled the idea in front of Alfred Hitchcock for use on his weekly TV series. Half an hour, certainly an hour (minus commercials), would have been plenty for this little gimmick. What makes it seem much longer than its meager hour and a quarter is that the script was not fortunate enough to land in the hands of a mechanical genius like Hitchcock, but instead in the stone hands of Joel Schumacher, who takes the gimmickiness of the premise as his license for gimmickry of all kinds: CG imagery, Koyaanisqatsi-style pixilation and slow-motion, blue and blanched deep-freezer color, fish-eye lenses, split-screen insets in various positions within the frame. That sort of thing provides the strongest circumstantial evidence that the director might identify himself with the sniper, one god to another: they both apparently believe that someone else's bad behavior licenses their own worse behavior. Colin Farrell, Forest Whitaker, Katie Holmes, Radha Mitchell, Kiefer Sutherland. 2003.