“I warned you about 1408,” Samuel L. Jackson’s enigmatic Dolphin Hotel manager Mr. Olin booms in the direction of Mike Enslin (John Cusack), trapped in the supposedly bedeviled hotel room in this cinematic incarnation of Stephen King’s short story of the same name. The concept is deliciously simple -- Enslin, a successful author who makes his living harping on supposedly haunted locations, takes on the Dolphin Hotel’s infamous room 1408 for his next assignment. Ignoring the imploring of Mr. Olin, Enslin settles into 1408 and quickly realizes he’s well over his head -- probably around the time the insanely creepy placement of "We've Only Just Begun" by The Carpenters shatters the silence of the amply-sized living space. Director Mikael Håfström uses special effects sparingly but very effectively, establishing the unpredictable metamorphorsis of the room that includes an absolutely fantastic scene of literal reality shattering toward the end of the film. Cusack is mostly on his own as Enslin and he delivers a surprisingly measured performance that banks fruitfully on his damaged humanity. Enslin is in many ways a great candidate for 1408, with his own share of emotional baggage, the spirits possessing the room can unlock and juice for maximum psychological damage. While not especially memorable, "1408” is skilfully directed and a pleasure to take in and shudder and shake at in appropriate moments. [B+]
"Dog Day Afternoon" (1975)
Not much more needs to be said about Sidney Lumet’s terrific heist film, “Dog Day Afternoon,” but what another stroke of genius to build tension by creating the picture as a botched heist where the thieves are trapped inside on a hot afternoon in New York City (OK, it’s based on a true story, but still). The film gets most of its mileage from its two leads, the manic and loose-limbed Al Pacino playing the two-time loser Sonny at his very finest and the frightened, and dim-witted Sal (a wonderfully dumb John Cazale). The job is just supposed to be your average bank job in Brooklyn, but due to a comedy of errors, everything goes wrong, the police arrive and the inept criminals way in over their heads are forced to take hostages and hole up inside hoping the mayor will meet their demands. The volatility escalates as the situation stretches out while the cops (an excellent Charles Durning) try to negotiate with the mercurial and sweaty bank robber, clearly on the edge. Later on (spoiler in case you haven’t seen, and why on earth haven't you?), we learn why Sonny’s so nervous; his lover (Chris Sarandon) tries to talk him out of the robbery and we discover the machinations behind the crime is motivated by Sonny’s desire to get him a sex-change operation. It’s a fascinating twist to a classic and gritty nail biter. [A]
Honorable Mentions: The eagle-eyed among may have noticed a few gaps here, mostly involving films set entirely on trains. But with "Unstoppable" on the way, we're saving those for a rail-bound feature next week, so be patient. Otherwise, there are a few films that are worth mentioning, even if they depart from their single location a little too much to be included here. Polanski's "The Tenant" is a minor work from the director, but not uninteresting, and is let down by the central performance -- in this case, Polanski himself. The astonishing one-take "Russian Ark" is an extraordinary feat of filmmaking, even if it sometimes feels more like an art installation than an actual film. And Lars Von Trier's "Dogville" and "Manderlay" are both excellent, although the single-location setting is a Brechtian conceit, rather than a true entry to the genre.
Otherwise, Duncan Jones' sci-fi "Moon" is mostly set in the confines of a space station, although occasionally makes excursions onto the lunar surface. Similarly, both "Sunshine" and "Das Boot" are set entirely within spaceships/submarines, but the locations are big enough that they don't quite qualify, and Kevin Smith's "Clerks" stretches to two different locations, and the street bridging them. This year saw two other thrillers which didn't stray far from a single place. One, "The Disappearance Of Alice Creed," was enjoyably twisty, nasty and well-acted, the other, the M. Night Shyamalan-produced "Devil," was... not. Finally, no one had seen Frank Capra's "Arsenic and Old Lace" recently enough to write it up, and, although it's stagy in a way that, say "Rope" isn't, it's still worth checking out, if our faded memories of it are accurate.
-- Mark Zhuravsky, Jessica Kiang, Katie Walsh, Tan Nguyen, Kevin Jagernauth, Oli Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez