Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2013

The Call

Wow, you emergency responders are sure terrible at your job

Thanks to Brad Anderson and Halle Berry, 'The Call' is better than it should be . . . but that's not saying much

The Call
Tri-Star Pictures
Director: Brad Anderson
Screenplay: Richard D'Ovidio
Starring: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Michael Eklund, Morris Chestnut, Roma Maffia and Michael Imperioli
Rated R / 1 hour, 36 minutes
Opened March 15, 2013
(out of four)

The Call is a movie that's probably good for the careers of both its star actress and its director, but which is not worthy of either of their talents. It's good for Halle Berry because, as a thriller, it's just effective enough to put some distance between her and all the unlucky failures she's endured since the 1-2 punch of Monster's Ball and Die Another Day launched her to two separate pinnacles of her profession.

Need we recall the indignities of Perfect Stranger, the practically direct-to-video Dark Tide, or (shudder) New Year's Eve? No, friends, we needn't. The Call may not be a good movie (and hey, the last good movie she was in, last year's Cloud Atlas, was promptly ignored, misunderstood and forgotten), but it's no embarrassment, either.

And then there's director Brad Anderson, a consummate craftsman and skilled genre stylist who's gone perpetually underappreciated. This is the kind of thing he needs, if only to earn him a bit of cachet. I've long admired Anderson's work (even his often-disparaged Vanishing on 7th Street, which was a near-brilliant piece of abstract, atmospheric horror, pretty much only brought down by the bad fortune of having Hayden Christensen in the lead role), and I'm always happy to see his name pop up in TV credits in between movie gigs (with the likes of The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, Rubicon and Fringe on his résumé).

So in the end, this may have been a worthwhile pairing - a good actress whose talents have been wasted and a good filmmaker whose talents have been overlooked, teaming up for something that is, if nothing else, exceedingly marketable. I won't say the result is anything special, because it's not, but it may be a step in the right direction nonetheless.

What we get is a fast-paced thriller, skillfully directed and fairly well-acted, hampered by a script that's as brainless as it is witless. This is one of those movies that has you tearing your hair out not so much because it's exciting (though it certainly has its moments) but because all of its characters are idiots. The 911 operators are idiots. The cops are idiots. The gas-station attendants are idiots. All the drivers on the road are idiots.* The random dudes in the Lincoln Towncars are idiots. And the bad guy? Yeah, he's an idiot, too.

*The film's most realistic detail.

Here is a screenplay that has to make an actual effort to not let anything get done. Narrative convenience trumps all. Had the film taken the time to reflect on any of its internal logic, there wouldn't really be a movie. When you have to take that many shortcuts simply for your basic premise to exist, you're probably a lazy screenwriter.

In my recent review of Stoker, I argued that - in that particular film - standard logic was beside the point. And it was. In The Call, the opposite is true. Here, we're dealing with a real-world scenario driven by (at least theoretically) qualifiable human behavior and sense. And yet we're meant to believe that a calculating serial killer with a teenager girl locked in his trunk will, despite regularly pulling the car over to monitor and/or discipline his hostage, somehow never realizes she's carrying a cell phone that's been connected to 911 the entire time.

In fact, to continue that train of thought, how about: The fact that there are two - count 'em, TWO - different plot points that hinge on a woman accidentally dropping her cell phone (apparently a much more treacherous snafu than I would have imagined). Or this: The cops are tipped off to a location, they arrive, go through each room and determine, in what seems like only a few seconds, that there's nothing to see here and it's time to move on. Conveniently ignoring, of course, every single other possibility about that location - possibilities that a typical audience member is sure to think of.

But let's back up a bit and get to the plot, which on its face is a straightforward tale of kidnaping and redemption. Jordan Turner (Berry) is a 911 operator haunted by a mistake she made on the job six months earlier that cost a teenage girl her life. Now she has a chance to redeem herself, having caught a call from another teenage girl - who as fate would have it has been captured by the same man who killed the first girl! (!!) The girl is Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin), who spends most of the film inside a trunk while on the phone with Jordan. That's pretty much it, as far as setup goes.

It's a testament to Anderson's skills that he's able to get as much mileage out of the script as he does. There's nothing for him to really sink his teeth into, but he manages well enough (even if his efforts here still lack the energy and atmosphere of his best work). During the film's third act, our understanding of the story (and the killer) changes, and the movie shifts from chase/thriller/suspense mode into horror mode. And it's here where the other phone drops, to coin a phrase. I'll spare the details (which, in theory at least, give the film some dramatic dimension and shape), but suffice it to say the film stages its climactic sequences in not just an illogical way, but a rather dull and pedestrian one. The first hour or so may not be great, but at least it's wound tight; pity how it unravels.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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