Friday, March 15, 2013

The Call: Better hang up!

The Call (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: R, for violence, profanity and disturbing content
By Derrick Bang

This is a taut and tidy little thriller ... for awhile.

Unfortunately, the need to sustain the wafer-thin premise for 90 minutes prompts plot developments that are increasingly contrived, tawdry and — ultimately — downright stupid.

The calm before the storm: LAPD 911 operator Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) is good at
her job; indeed, she's one of the best. But all her training goes for naught when an
unknown nutjob goes on a serial kidnapping spree ... and worse. Alas, Jordan's
behavior will get pretty damn stupid by the time this numbnuts story concludes.
Not to mention exploitatively violent, with director Brad Anderson lingering almost lovingly on moments of gruesome death. By the time we hit the third act and its jaw-droppingly ludicrous conclusion, we’re firmly in the realm of exploitative trash.

Chalk up another dog on Halle Barry’s increasingly lamentable résumé. This woman has no taste or judgment whatsoever.

We also must wonder why anybody saw merit in Richard D’Ovidio’s brain-dead script, which feels like a one-sentence “What if” concept stretched far beyond its limits. I note that D’Ovidio had help from Nicole D’Ovidio and Jon Bokenkamp for the initial story, which staggers the imagination. It took three people to cobble together this laughable mess? The mind doth boggle.

That said, the first act is promising, as Anderson and cinematographer Tom Yatsko slowly swoop through the “hive” of the greater Los Angeles 911 call center, hovering over operators one by one, as they assess emergencies — and trivial nonsense — while logging details via an impressive computer interface. We finally come to rest on Jordan Turner (Berry), a crisp and efficient veteran who calmly handles everything that comes.

Including an inebriated “regular” who somehow seems to reach her whenever he desires. Which begs an obvious question — since I’m not aware that one has the option of requesting specific operators when dialing 911 — but hey, we’ll grant this rather odd detail for the sake of a quick smile.

The levity doesn’t linger, though, because Jordan’s next call comes from a terrified teenager who’s alone in her house as an intruder is breaking in. Jordan rises to the challenge, and one must credit Berry for navigating the escalating situation with a persuasive blend of calm and crisp efficiency; she does look and sound right for the part.

But it quickly becomes apparent — to us first, and then to Jordan and her increasingly concerned colleagues — that this is no mere burglary. This particular intruder’s intentions are far worse, and Jordan can only listen helplessly as the grim scenario unfolds.

A day or two later, the girl’s body is found.

Jordan blames herself, perhaps with slight cause. Her concerned boyfriend, LAPD cop Paul Phillips (Morris Chestnut, in a nicely modulated performance), reminds her that sometimes, despite their best efforts, bad things happen to good people. But Jordan can’t let it go.

Six months pass; Jordan has taken herself off active duty to become an instructor of fledgling 911 operators. Anderson now cuts back and forth between the call center and a plush mall, where the somewhat shy and conservative Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin) is enjoying a shopping excursion with her rather slutty friend.

The nature of Anderson’s directorial approach will be recognized by anybody with movie sense; one of these girls is about to become the unseen killer’s next target. And since Breslin is a well-recognized star, the smart money’s on Casey.

When the kidnapping goes down, Jordan naturally gets thrust back into her former role. At first, the now rapidly unfolding plot remains reasonably smart; the kidnapper smashes Casey’s cell phone before stuffing her into the trunk of his car, but fails to realize that she also has a second phone that her friend accidentally left behind. Casey therefore is able to call 911, but there’s an unfortunate hitch; this is a disposable phone, and so lacks the GPS elements that would allow her location to be identified.

Tension builds; what might the trapped girl do, in order to help the increasingly large contingent of LAPD cars and helicopters to find the car?

For a time, the answers to that question are both clever and resourceful, the fragile connection between Jordan and Casey adding to the situation’s intensity. Breslin matches Berry’s performance, channeling a level of terror fueled by the poor girl’s awareness of current events, and her realization that she’s next on the menu.

But things turn sour right about the point that a curious motorist (Michael Imperioli) realizes that something is amiss with the maroon sedan in the adjacent lane. A bit later, D’Ovidio reveals his trashy scripting sensibilities when the killer stops for gas. By now well aware of how the tone has shifted, we’re hardly surprised by the outcome of this encounter.

Not surprised, maybe, but perhaps saddened at the way a potentially smart script has devolved into a low-rent horror flick. And we haven’t yet begun to plumb the depths of D’Ovidio’s depravity, because from this point forward we enter genuine Ed Gein territory.

But even that can’t excuse the third-act contrivance that places Jordan herself in harm’s way. That a woman depicted thus far as smart and savvy, working in a law enforcement environment that grants assistance at the literal snap of her fingers, would suddenly turn into a clichéd horror flick victim who enters the haunted house by herself ... simply defies acceptance.

By this point, D’Ovidio’s script has fallen apart in numerous other ways, as well. A key detail regarding the state of the first dead girl’s body — something that would have prompted screaming headlines on the news feed we see Jordan watch — is “conveniently” left out, in order to “surprise” (read: disgust) us later on. And the notion that a prime “location of interest” would be wholly abandoned by the police is the point at which we simply must accept that this film’s writers are dumber than the characters they’ve concocted.

Then, too, Michael Eklund’s performance as the fruit-loop abductor is so over-the-top unhinged that it’s impossible to accept the eventual revelation — once his identity becomes known — that he somehow lives an ordinary life when not torturing young girls in order to stroke his sick fantasies. This guy isn’t merely bonkers; he has hair-trigger anger-management issues that would have erupted 15 minutes into the first shift of his day job.

All of which is a shame, because it means that Berry and Breslin could deliver Oscar-worthy performances, but it wouldn’t matter; indeed, both actresses do bring far more to the table than this tawdry little project deserves. But when things turn this sloppy and stupid, we can’t be persuaded to care.

Denise Dowse and José Zúñiga stand out as two of Jordan’s call center colleagues, but Imperioli is wasted in his bit part. Production designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone does a slick job with the 911 “hive,” but the rest of the film seems to have been shot within the standard-issue locales we see on dozens of cookie-cutter TV cop shows.

John Debney’s score is serviceable, appropriately augmenting the building tension, and contributing the obligatory musical “stings” during the various third-act horror-flick gotchas.

I can’t help thinking, given the final line in D’Ovidio’s script, that everything up to that point is mere window-dressing, in order to bring “ironic” closure to what has become a signature phrase. That’s a flimsy excuse on which to hang an entire movie, and — ultimately — glaring proof that we’ve just wasted an evening.

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