Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Cinema File #141: "The Call" Review

My first impulse upon setting out to review The Call is to say that it was much better than I expected it to be, but then I'm forced to wonder just why my expectations were so low in the first place. Maybe its the giant WWE logo I saw before the film started, but I bear no particularly animus to wrestling, and thinking back on the last WWE produced movie I saw, The Day, it wasn't terrible, and had a certain style and charm to it. Maybe the 1950's era whiskey swilling misogynist inside me just instinctively cringes at these one-strong-willed-woman-against-the-world character pieces. Or maybe I just haven't forgiven Halle Berry for that stupid Toad joke at the end of the first X-Men movie (or for that matter, B.A.P.S). In any case, The Call definitely did exceed my arbitrarily low expectations, and though it has its flaws, or rather one large glaring flaw, it's still a highly enjoyable thriller.

The Call is the story of a 9-1-1 operator on the phone with a teenage girl trapped in the trunk of a deranged killer. If you've seen the trailer or just know anything about movies in general, you've probably guessed that that isn't the whole story, and Berry's character doesn't spend all of her time on the phone. What she does when the line gets disconnected is something we'll get to when I discuss what I didn't like about the movie, but until the end of the titular call, The Call manages to wring out about as much tension from this scenario as one would think is possible, at least not without the constant moments of false hope reaching the point of ridiculousness. There are many moments in the movie that skate right up to the edge, and a pivotal one at the end that tips just over, but for the most part, I found myself completely on board.

The film spends just enough time getting us invested in the story before throwing us right into the trunk with our victim, and as we bounce back and forth between her plight and the surprisingly competent (for a movie) efforts of the police to rescue her, what could have easily been a tedious series of false starts ends up feeling like something I might call an emotional rollercoaster if I used really trite terms like "emotional rollercoaster." Being more of a horror fantasy guy, I don't usually enjoy these kinds of straight laced thrillers, as I often find Hollywood's attempt at imagining unique and novel human monsters to be somewhat lacking. Here, despite a completely unnecessary and particularly stupid and shallow motivation, we have a mostly silent maniac whose vacant stare and violent presence almost rivals Buffalo Bill in intensity. The most chilling moments I found were when he's almost caught and stops to think, and you practically see the gears moving in his head as he contemplates the best chance he has for escape, which almost always involves some degree of increasingly outrageous carnage and bloodshed.

I speak of the killer's character first, because of our two main heroic leads, our would-be rescuer and our hapless victim, the performances are solid, but somewhat one note. You know everything you need to know about both of these women from the first moment you see them, and can largely predict how they will react to the ever changing situation at every turn (that is until the end, which is only a surprise insofar as it is completely out of character for both of them). Berry is suitably passionate and vulnerable in her attempt to care just too damn much for her own good, and Abigail Breslin walks a fine line between fighting to survive and being too scared to think rationally, that she reacts as I imagine most people would in her character's situation. I can't really say either of them did a bad job, nor can I say that they could have done better, if only because they both fall into very small narrative boxes and fit in them as well as could be expected. I should make special mention of Morris Chestnut, who does everything in his power to present his dedicated police officer as actually deserving his job, so soon after portraying perhaps one of the stupidest members of law enforcement ever on film in Identity Thief just a few weeks ago.

I've been sort of dancing around it, but my biggest problem with this movie comes at exactly the point that I would consider the second act break, which is, to put it simply, that it should have ended there, and not proceeded into the third one. I won't spoil it except to say that what you see in the trailer of Berry's character taking matters into her own hands is the set up to the climax, and for my money, the change in location and uptick in action is not worth losing all the goodwill developed up to that point just to put our leading lady in peril you know she's going to get out of. The movie makes a huge deal about 9-1-1 operators needing to deal with the fact that they often don't get closure, and that once the line is disconnected, things are out of their hands, and while I completely understand why they ended the movie the way they did (for the most part), in retrospect I wish they would have stuck to that theme. It sounds like I'm arguing that this movie shouldn't have had any resolution, and I totally am, but unless you see the movie and see just how they did resolve things, I can't quite adequately explain why a more ambiguous ending would have been so much better.

And it wouldn't have been so bad if it had at least been more predictable. I know, that also sounds like a really weird thing to ask for in a movie, but in light of the twist ending that had me rolling my eyes into the credits, a standard good guy saves the day ending would have been a blessing. Don't get me wrong, we get that, and it is itself somewhat ridiculous, with Berry dealing the final blow in front of an American flag conveniently placed behind her to accentuate the fist pumps the moment is meant to elicit. But then the movie goes on for another few minutes, and while I won't spoil the ending, it requires the audience to forget everything they knew about our two heroines purely for the sake of a last minute shock, and even then it isn't all that jarring. I really don't want to give anything away, but I'm finding it hard to describe my problem without details, Suffice it to say, if they ever make a sequel to this, the revenge of the Young Blonde Kidnapper will be the direct result of the complete stupidity of a city official and a teenage girl who think they know better than the cops.

Still, overall, The Call is a very enjoyable movie with enough style and tension to carry you through until the end, where you just might struggle to remember the good things it tries so hard to make you forget about in the last fifteen or twenty minutes. Then again, maybe you'll like the ending, for what it lacks in logic it more than makes up for in visceral vicarious badassery. I didn't buy it personally, but then maybe I was still clinging to some of that weirdly elusive bias I walked in with. Or maybe I'm just an ass. I don't know. Give it a shot, see what you think. Whether you agree with me about the ending or not, there's easily still enough good here to justify the price of admission.

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