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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"Phone Booth" (2002)
A testament to the survival of the high concept in Hollywood, screenwriter Larry Cohen’s pitch for this film lingered on the shelf for just over 40 years, having once been developed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock. The film ended up in development under the watchful eye of a considerably less-talented filmmaker, one Joel Schumacher, best known for permanently putting an end to the Batman franchise in the '90s. The end result is just about what you’d expect, although Schumacher does wrangle a compelling lead performance from a then-untested Colin Farrell (he had earlier worked with Schumacher in what amounted to the director’s best film of the aughts, 2000’s Vietnam training camp drama “Tigerland”). As singularly unfortunate douchebag publicist Stu Shephard, Farrell sweats, screams and tears at the glass compartment he is permanently enclosed in under the watchful eye of a nameless crackshot sniper (Kiefer Sutherland, who spends almost the entire movie cooly informing Stu of his imminent demise through voice-over and, unsurprisingly, nails it). Between the two men stands trusty straight-arrow black police officer archetype Captain Ramsey (Forest Whitaker, always reliable and bringing a certain degree of veneration to a tired stock character). To spoil the torments Stu undergoes and whether he ever exits the phone booth alive would undermine Schumacher's mushy dramatic turns -- when your whole film is a set-piece, there’s only so much gas you can burn out before things slow down to molasses. Luckily, “Phone Booth” keeps the tension on the up-and-up and turns in a serviceable, occasionally exciting and always watchable boilerplate thriller with a unique gimmick that, for the most part, wears off less quickly then you’d think. [B]

“Lebanon” (2009)
The very recent “Lebanon” makes this list not only because literally all of the action is seen from the vantage point of a tank, but also because this single location is used to startling effect. Samuel Maoz’s reconstruction of his own experiences as an Israeli tank gunner during the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon takes place (with the exception of the first and last two shots of the film) entirely inside an Israeli tank supported by a team of paratroopers who move into enemy territory on the first day of battle. The Maoz stand-in, gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat) remains holed up in this contraption for the duration of the film, along with his crew, headed by a commander who grapples with his men’s conflicting personalities. You’re no doubt familiar with the expression that when you put multiple people in a room for a long period of time, seams will inevitably come apart and they’ll come to blows. In “Lebanon,” the tank is barely even a room and the men will either live or die by the day’s end – and if not today, then tomorrow. The tank gives protection, but it is also a trap, one that has no way out, no emergency exit. If the tank burns, the flesh does too. “Lebanon” is balls-to-the-wall filmmaking and it should be seen, experienced, if not necessarily enjoyed. [B+]

"Panic Room” (2002)
For his follow-up to the originally critical and commercial failure “Fight Club” (we all know how that one turned out), David Fincher set out to give the modern thriller an injection of anal-retentiveness only a couple of visionaries in this business can dish out. With “Panic Room”, Fincher painstakingly outlines the design of a massive townhouse about to come under siege by three men of very different temperaments -- the hot-head Junior (Jared Leto), unhinged bus driver Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) and the complacent, though conscientious, safe cracker Burnham (Forest Whitaker, who between this and “Phone Booth” dominated the 2002 market on authoritative black supporting characters in enclosed spaces). The tension in this single location example comes from Meg (Jodie Foster) and Sarah Foster (Kristen Stewart, biting her lip with the best of them in an early example of the apathetic acting that would carry her through the 'Twilight' series), a mother and daughter whose only misfortune was moving in on the wrong day. Luckily, the house has a newfangled "panic room”, impenetrable and stocked with food and cameras surveying the house. The problem is the safe the thieves are looking to crack is in the room and they have every intention of getting in, short of blowing up the house. As directed by Fincher and (mostly) shot by Conrad W. Hall (the son of the late great Conrad L. Hall), “Panic Room” is murky, methodical and gorgeous but nothing more outside of a razor-sharp thriller with a tantalizing concept. Another film as testament to Fincher's micro-managing virtuoso technique, “Panic Room” is a nasty little lark from the filmmaker, but little more. Still, in the hands of Fincher, that puts the film head and shoulders above the competition. [B-]

"My Dinner With Andre" (1981)
Aside from say, Hitchcock's purposeful experiments and personal challenges (many of them listed here) Louis Malle's early-eighties talk fest may be the apogee of single-settings. Essentially an 110-minute conversation, "My Dinner With Andre," is exactly that, an extended dinner between two friends shot in real time discussing the nature of life, theater and more. The subjects are the peculiar actor Wallace Shawn and his friend and experimental theater director, Andre Gregory. Gregory is an inquisitive dreamer while Shawn is a more cynical typical New Yorker, and while there's little friction in their discourse, their subtle differences make for an absorbing dichotomy. While it also sounds like cinema verite gone wrong -- and it basically goes against every filmmaking and screenwriting 101 rule ever -- the dinner with Andre is absolutely engaging, watchable and engrossing. The tastemaking Criterion Collection didn't put it out as an artifact, they want to make money off it too, you know and they realize it's an ever-compelling film (and much-drier stuff does exist in their wares -- see single setting clunker "Secret Honor" by Robert Altman). During their supper, Wallace and Gregory touch philosophically upon subjects like the nature of life, existence and theater, but always with a open and inviting curiosity; there's no pedantic answers or postulating -- this is colloquy at its best. 100 minutes later when the breaking of bread is done and the wine is drunk, the friends go their separate ways and the audience is left to digest the thoughtful topics discussed. A convention-buster in every sense that defies almost every trope of feature filmmaking and storytelling -- it's not a documentary in any sense and heavily scripted based on real life conversations between the two leads -- "My Dinner With Andre" is that rare and enjoyable rule-breaker that every film lover should at least see once. [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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