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Claustrophobes Need Not Apply: 16 Single Location Movies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
November 4, 2010 4:08 AM
7 Comments
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"Lifeboat" (1944)
Alfred Hitchcock certainly had a sort of masochistic creative bent for putting his productions into extra challenging situations, like say, within the confines of a lifeboat with eccentric diva (and noted panty eschewer) Tallulah Bankhead. Then throw in a set piece of a primitive leg amputation for fun! The WWII ensemble picture garnered Oscar noms for Best Director, Best Original Motion Picture Story (by John Steinbeck), Best Black and White Cinematography (give it up for ghosts of Oscar categories past), and a whole host of controversy for what was viewed as a propagandist portrayal of a Nazi captain who ends up aboard the lifeboat. The motley crew thrown together after a passenger ship and German U-Boat sink each other make up a little model U.N. of races, creeds and nationalities, and everyone's got to learn to get along in order to survive -- and not all of them do. Hitchcock presented himself with quite the challenge in shooting this film -- sticking a bunch of actors in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean doesn't give a director that many visual options, but he staged the actors within the frame in a dynamic layered way, utilized close-ups, and masterfully created a whole universe within the confines of the boat by simply filling the frame with characters. Despite the small location, the film never feels claustrophobic. Hitch also added on another storytelling challenge to his plate by completely eliminating the score (except for the very beginning and end), letting the audience not be influenced by musical cues, learning what they needed to know from the actions of the characters, Hitch’s unparalleled camera work and editing, and the desolate diegetic sound of the ocean slapping against hull. All single-location filmmakers out there: bow before your master. [A]

"The Breakfast Club" (1985)
The bane of high school existence -- aside from the awkwardness and not fitting in -- is detention, so it was kind of brilliant for John Hughes to use physical incarceration as an emotional metaphor for the angst and anguish all teenagers, no matter their station in school, feel. Perhaps not as claustrophobic as some films on this list, "The Breakfast Club" still fits the bill as the picture is entirely set within a high school on the worst day possible for an adolescent: a Saturday. You've seen it, so we don't need to tell you much more about this '80s classic that forces a nerd, a jock, an outcast, a criminal, and a priss to work out their collective issues, but it's an inventive premise that obviously worked in spades. There's a lot of anger and tears in the dramedy when the students in the film are forced to confront their fears and demons, but in the end it's this candid self-analysis that leaves them, and us the viewer, feel a little bit more understood in a world that's a largely cruel and unforgiving. [A]

"Buried" (2010)
The concept is simple: a man wakes up buried alive in a coffin and has to fight for his life. And to be sure, the Ryan Reynolds film got a lot of early buzz and heat for its ambitious conceit that found the actor onscreen, by himself, for the entire length of the film. And while Reynolds proves himself capable of maintaining a helluva presence for the runtime of the picture, it's too bad the script by Chris Sparling can’t match the energy put in by the film’s lead actor. Plagued with the issue of Reynold’s character having unbelievably strong cell phone service underground, the script only gets worse from there. In essence, "Buried” is 90 minutes of phone calls, and because those characters are only voices for Reynolds to bounce off of it quickly becomes apparent just how thinly constructed the entire enterprise is. Reaching for some narrative weight, the script shifts into some kind of late stage political statement but it fails to convince. Director Rodrigo Cortes does his best to creatively stage a film that takes place within a supremely confined space but there are only so many different ways you can frame Reynolds in a closeup. All smoke and no fire, "Buried" literally boxes itself in. [C-]

"Cube" (1997)
An exercise in doing a lot with a little, “Cube” was shot in 20 days on a single 14’x14’ set for just $365,000 CAD, yet spawned two subsequent films (a sequel and a prequel) and quite the cult following. It is a lean, absorbing piece of work in which the distinctly Kafkaesque gimmick (a group of strangers wake up in a nightmarish cube consisting of constantly shifting and almost identical-looking rooms, many of which are rigged to kill), like in all the best sci-fi, really only exists as an excuse to indulge in a little old-fashioned philosophizing and some “Survivor”-style power plays as temporary alliances form and crumble and people turn out to be Not What They Seem. We say like the best sci-fi, though, because even at its best, “Cube” never actually gets there; it neither takes that leap into the truly strange and/or twisted, like "2001," or even “Primer,” or “Pi,” but nor does it give us any actual answers, and so it rather falls between all available stools, with some rather threadbare acting and characterization causing it to fall short of being a “Sunshine”-style ensemble piece. But of course these are mostly comparisons with films that had many, many times “Cube”’s budget, so it’s maybe churlish to nitpick. If nothing else, we have it to thank for heralding the arrival of a very promising new horror/sci-fi director in Vincenzo Natali, who has since brought us the likes of “Cypher” and “Splice” (which we liked a lot), and is currently attached to that sci-fi Holy Grail -- an adaptation of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” [B]

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7 Comments

  • Olu | March 16, 2014 5:02 PMReply

    Arsenic and Old Lace is definitely as good as u remember. it is one of my all time favorite films and Cary Grant did a brilliant job as Mortimer Brewster as did Frank Capra as Director.

    Brit Film EXAM is great too. lovely debut.

  • Gene | November 4, 2010 11:33 AMReply

    Tape is such an exciting movie. Hawke is not bland; he's nuanced. Never saw his stage performance, but he is a great actor.

  • Ian | November 4, 2010 10:13 AMReply

    It's been a while since I saw it, but Radha Bharadwaj's "Closet Land," starring Alan Rickman and Madeline Stowe, managed to work the one set angle pretty well.

  • Bryan | November 4, 2010 8:07 AMReply

    Kudos on this piece. Good stuff. And do see Arsenic and Old Lace again. The reliably awesome Cary Grant is great fun.

  • jl | November 4, 2010 5:23 AMReply

    What about The Killing Room - really takes place in only the main room and the observation room.

  • cirkusfolk | November 4, 2010 5:19 AMReply

    I'm glad to see Tape was remembered, but wasn't both versions of Sleuth set only in the house? I can't remember.

  • Stuart Hazeldine | November 4, 2010 5:02 AMReply

    Er... guys, you forgot my film EXAM, which is entirely set in one room and happens to hit U.S. DVD in a couple of weeks (Nov 16th) from IFC Films.

    It may be a small movie, but... you know... BAFTA nominated, won the Santa Barbara Film Festival, sold to twenty countries... not an insignificant movie.

    S'okay... I forgive you...

    Stuart

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