Movie Reviews: Antwone Fisher, The Life of David Gale and Phone Booth
by jerry salisbury
On December 6th, 1967, a child was born to a young 19-year old single mother. The circumstances of his conception are unimportant for the purposes of this review. He was immediately put up for adoption because his mother could not afford to give him the life that she felt he deserved. So he was adopted by a loving wonderful family, given every opportunity to grow, excel and learned about the potential of the world around him. By most standards, he was successful. He has traveled the world, served his country and always tried to be the best person that he knew how to be. Yet, his life feels empty, unfulfilled, directionless, empty and frustrating. The answer to why has baffled him for years. In Antwone Fisher, the magnificent directorial debut of Denzel Washington, the title character goes through a similar sort of internal conflict. He lashes out at others, but doesn't completely know why, he talks to and doubts himself often, and lives with the scars of an upbringing that no one should have to go through. Yet still he perseveres, inspired by people who care, and ultimately finds himself and the answers he seeks. The story isn't original or unique, but it is true, it is real and it is delivered with the delicate force of a confident storyteller. In all, this film is a painful, yet joyful cinematic experience.
In the films opening scene, Fisher stands in a golden field, staring up at a white door. Behind it, is a room full of loving, caring people who welcome him and seem to want him. Then near the end of the movie, the title character defines his life to someone as I have above. The scenes are emotional, honest and powerful; a testament to both the writer and the actors performing them. The themes of these scenes are setup by, and resonate through, the entire film. His life has been a tortured one. He claims to have come from "under a rock", because of all the burdens that have been heaped upon his young life. He was born in prison, his father died before he was born; his foster mother was controlling, physically and verbally abusive and tore him down at every opportunity. Yet, he never gave up. He fought forward, he survived, he succeeded despite it all, and this is his story, in all its glory and inspiring splendor. For those who don't know, this is based on a true story. Fisher was a security guard at Sony Pictures, and his story was so intriguing that someone suggested he write his autobiography. The book, Finding Fish, is the basis for the film, and the actor who portrays him, Derek Luke, was a co-worker who didn't want the film makers to know his connection to Fisher so as not to bias the decision. As in most true story adaptations, there is a bit of dramatic license, but for the most part I believe most of it is pretty true. Washington realized that the facts of this story told a pretty strong tale so I'm guessing he didn't tinker with things too much. Some may see the story as tugging at heartstrings, or overdone for the sake of emotional manipulation, but in truth, Washington hits all the right notes with his delivery. Even his side story, which I thought at first to be excessive and unnecessary, becomes relevant and is just another nail in the solid foundation of this story. There are so many amazing scenes in this movie, some shocking, others heartbreaking, and others just simply too powerful and touching for words. Fisher's abuse by an Aunt, Davenport's Thanksgiving invitation, Fisher's aforementioned confession about his life, and the subsequent scene of a welcoming dinner, so many that I've probably left some out, but after you see them, you won't forget them.
It is hard to imagine someone out acting the amazing Denzel Washington, but newcomer Derek Luke may have just done it. His portrayal is incendiary, touching, heartfelt and intense. He gives Fisher a sense of empathy where most would have given up long ago. It is hard to believe this is his first movie, because he gives the character a complexity and depth that some seasoned actors still haven't mastered. His debut performance is on par with that of Edward Norton in Primal Fear, with its complex intensity and depth. Yes, his performance is that good. There is something about Denzel and a uniform that brings out great performances. Films like Glory, Crimson Tide, Training Day and now here show that he can still shine even in the background. This is a sign of a modest storyteller and talented actor. Washington shows yet another facet of his repertoire by being able to step out of the spotlight, yet still shine. As a director, he shows the patience to realize that fancy camera tricks and angles aren't necessary when the subject matter is this powerful. He simply lets the story tell itself and focuses the camera in the right places at the right times. As an actor, he still manages to give a memorable turn as a doctor who changes one man's life, while also discovering something about himself.
Ultimately, Antwone Fisher is an inspiring portrayal about finding who you are, by discovering who you were. The search for answers and our purpose in life cannot always be found inside ourselves. Sometimes we need help, we need other people to show us, guide us, and help us along the way. This is a movie about a man who finds all these things, and discovers that life can be a happy place with the right people in your life. This movie will have different effects on different people, but if it does no touch you down to the depths of your being and make you cry in appreciation and admiration, then you need to get a heart. Maybe this movies relation to own experiences intensified its effect on me. Yes, I was the person mentioned above, and although I did have a much better upbringing, I still suffer from the doubts, the conflicts and the unknown aspects of my purpose in life. There are answers I do not know, and in light of this movie and other recent events, I am now more determined than ever to find my answers, my purpose, and my reason for being here. Thank you Denzel, thank you Antwone, and thank you to everyone in my life who has cared. Antwone Fisher has left an indelible mark on my life, and I think it will on yours as well.
The Life of David Gale
Statistics do not lie, even if they can be manipulated. 44% of the executions in the United States take place in Texas. During his term as governor, George W. Bush was infamous for his oblivious, almost yeehaw attitude towards capital punishment. Almost like he wore it as a badge that his state had not only a murderous, bloody reputation, but also the ethics of the whole process were questionable at best. It is fitting and intentional I think, that The Life of David Gale is set in Texas. The film takes an intentional jab at Bush and his politics, but wavers and teeters on actually making a solid statement. The film drones at points, but is deep and insightful at others. It becomes a compelling contrast, reflective of the whole capital punishment debate. Unfortunately the film falls badly at the end, becoming an indecisive mess. In my eyes, it didn't ruin the movie, but it certainly diminished the power of its message and its story, and wasted a decent story idea.
This is a story that while it may lack believability or possibility, is definitely rooted in irony and impassioned political belief. David Gale is a University of Austin philosophy professor who also volunteers for a capital punishment opposition organization called Deathwatch. Gale is intelligent, articulate, but far from perfect. He drinks to an excess and loses his will power one night when a student confronts him at a mixer. This leads to a criminal conviction and starts the ball of the story rolling. As the film opens, we see a young woman running and know that by the end, we'll understand why. Well, we kind of do but aren't ever really sure why. She is Bitsey Bloom, a tabloid reporter who lands an interview with Gale after he is convicted of the murder of a co-worker and (here comes the ironic platform that the movie is built on) is sentenced to die. While this little twist could have made for a powerful movie, Parker sometimes gets lost in anxiety to tell the details of the story. This story could have benefited from some trimming of the fat and a tidier wrap up to it all. In any movie that builds itself around a political stance, there is bound to be conversation afterwards. In a movie with this time of ending, even more conversation is bound to occur. The conclusion requires some thought, which may or may not be worth your time and energy. I got it as much as I could, but couldn't help feeling a bit cheated and like I'd been taken for a ride on the wavering politics of the writer and director.
There is a delicate balance that must be taken when using a back-story to lay foundation and attempt to generate an emotion for its main protagonist. By remaining subtle and patient (such as Dead Man Walking), you can elicit the right touch of empathy. But excess and overkill creates ambivalence and frustration, which tend to cause backlash amongst the viewers. This film passes subtlety, wanders into overkill several times, but never completely immerses itself in it. This is usually Parker's style, using visual and emotion over actual story progression (The Wall, Evita, The Commitments). Apparently story structure tends to throw Parker a bit off of his game, and he does seem a bit out of sort during certain points of the film. Certain dialogue between Bitsey and the intern, prolonged focus on Gale's story as its recounted, and a clumsy resolution show that Parker is still a bit rusty as a storyteller, but his point is driven home nonetheless.
Forget about your own personal opinion on the matter, the film can't make up its own mind how it feels about the subject, so neither should you.
Spacey's performance is the glue that keeps the wheels on this film, as it usually is. He shows various aspects of his acting repertoire, from intellectual, to vulnerable, to lecherous, to sympathetic and pained. Linney doesn't really get to stretch her now obvious ability to intensify and embody a role, while Winslet fills in a spot that any actress could have done. Still, carried by Spacey, the performances are acceptable enough in light of the problems with the story and the ending.
Ultimately, The Life of David Gale is a thoughtful but meandering statement about both sides of the death penalty. If you want to incite a room full of people, usually bringing up the topic of capital punishment will do it. People's views of the subject go to the extremes, from solid support to solid opposition, It is an argument that transcends social and financial classes and is bound to create a rift in even the most peaceful and intellectual crowds. The Life of David Gale is Alan Parker's philosophical, but slightly overblown and laborious perspective on this controversial argument. While the story touches on the deeper issues, it lags and becomes typical in bits of its execution. This film is yet another case where a more compacted effort, with a slightly different focus, could have been a more powerful film. But since the film was released in this time year, which is usually a cinematic graveyard for the studios to parade out their less than confident efforts, it shows me that this may not have been the best that this story could have been told. The film is sure to be discussed for its resolution, and some of the choices it makes and the stances it takes. I applaud Parker for having the guts to do this movie, but wish he had cut some of the fat out to intensify his message. I am also thankful that he never really seems to take a position on whether he is for or against capital punishment. Some may call it wavering, I call it balanced politicizing. Films that lean too hard one way or another often get distracted and drowned in politics rather than focusing on message. Life shows both sides of things, stumbling a bit in the end, but still gives us something to think about by the characters words.
I've found that it's either feast or famine when comes to the films of Joel Schumacher. It is baffling how the creator of the emotionally charged Tigerland and the cult-classic Lost Boys could also have churned out the franchise killing drivel of Batman and Robin. It's all a matter of focus I believe. When he sets his mind to it, he can really create a powerful cinematic experience, as he has with Phone Booth. This intense, moralistic cat and mouse showcases two great talents an interesting concept and dilemma that to which most of us can probably relate. Facing the true nature of who we are is difficult enough as it is, but doing it under duress can be a dangerous potentially lethal epiphany. Phone Booth takes this aspect of self-discovery and turns it physical. Using a combination of the credo that image is everything, it distorts reality while exposing it to show us the true nature of how people are. Those who look like they have it all together usually do not, but they have mastered the art of the balancing act so well, that they lose themselves in it and often forget who they are. The film succeeds because it doesn't fall into any of the numerous plot holes and devices that littered the path of the initial plot idea. Instead, it takes a focused, intense approach, sidestepping predictability, swerving around distractions and save a mildly unnecessary motivational inclusion from the sniper and delivers everything at just the right tone to get the message across. By keeping it short, simple and to the point, Phone Booth lives up to its potential that it could have easily and comfortably lost.
I once wrote a paper in high school English about the destructive nature of social cliques. I stated that people would do anything for status, even if it meant forsaking everything that they were inside. I wrote that people wear masks everyday, to hide themselves from what they fear others will see, and to hide their own insecurities from themselves. Often, someone wears the mask for so long that it becomes permanent, and they become something that they never intended, but cannot control. This is Stu Shepard to a tee. He is a seemingly high-powered publicist, who can talk a much better game than he can actually deliver. He manipulates media outlets, he bullies his assistant, he makes false promises to his clients, and he is juggling a wife and a girlfriend while misleading those who can benefit him by playing on their own desire for what he tells them he can offer. He is the truest representation of a false idol. But all that changes when he answers a ringing phone in one of the last vestiges of antiquity, an old fashioned phone booth in a questionable section of West Manhattan. On the other end of the line is a chilling, God-like voice set on toying with Stu like a puppet to get desired results. You see, Stu has not been the most forthright, honest person and the voice knows it. The voice claims to be able to know all, see all and oh by the way, he has a high powered rifle trained on the booth, in case Stu gets any ideas about running or trying to get help. So he turns the booth into a forced confessional for Stu, making him jump through hoops and admit his sins to cleanse his soul. The motives for this are never totally explained, but we are given a cursory background of two other people that he's "relieved" of the evil inhabiting their soul. This wasn't really necessary, since the air of mystery is one of the cogs that drive the suspense here, but it is never dwelled upon that much, so it's forgivable. After the sniper proves his intentions and claims are serious, by shooting a bystander whom Stu has had a conflict with, the police show up and the movie takes another turn, becoming a combination Dog Day Afternoon/Fugitive-style thriller. The film touches on the aspect of the public perception and obsession. But as with other aspects of the story, such as marital and sexual problems, internal strife amongst police officers and a stereotypical rapper that seems like the horrible love child of Eminem and Bobcat Goldthwait, these are added in for flavor and never become excessive or distracting. The short running time of just over 80 minutes shows that Schumacher has realized all of the good elements of his story and compacted them into a successful delivery without adding in too much filler. In doing so, he places the success of the film on three elements, his script, which is sharp, insightful and believable, his performers, who are for the most part (save the eye-candy emptiness of Mitchell and Holmes) up to the task, and his ability to combine all of these and deliver a message, using creative camera angles and effect. For the most part, he succeeds.
Farrell is well utilized as Stu, balancing his handsome arrogance, with his fearless self-exposure to create a character that we mutually loath, empathize admire and envy. Combine that with the chilling calm confidence of Kiefer Sutherland's mere presence (not to mention that voice which sends chills and fear to anyone with a conscience, hell, he made me want to confess to things I hadn't even done just out of sheer fear) and you have two performers playing a deadly chess game that we are the forced to witness.
Ultimately, Phone Booth is yet another social commentary of self-discovery with dark, twisted edge that it never loses. It is so easy to lose ourselves in the frustrating but seemingly necessary motions that life forces us to go through. We feel like we have to run to keep up with things, even if it results in us compromising whom we are to do it. The film could have grandstanded itself into a morality tale about the power of the truth, instead it balances between that and the intensity and pressure that fear can cause inside us. On first glance, Schumacher seemed to have painted himself into a similar corner that David Fincher did in Panic Room. He sets his entire film in a confined space, and then limits the mobility of the main character by using fear and intimidation. Fincher made it work, and so does Schumacher. He keeps things focused and proves that when he keeps things simple, sans explosions, car chases, fight scenes and all (as he did with star Colin Farrell in Tigerland), he can actually be an effective filmmaker. With Phone Booth, he may force everyone to look deep inside them the next time they hear a ringing phone.
Also, check out other reviews by Jerry at his own site, The Reel Rambler