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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014

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Halle Berry stars in "The Call" - now playing.
Halle Berry stars in "The Call" - now playing.

Don't pick up "The Call"

Director Brad Anderson is certainly not a household name, but he has quietly built a cult following with his small, but effectively moody and atmospheric thrillers. Films like "Session 9," "The Machinist" and "Transibberian," while flawed, showed Anderson had a great feel for crafting eerie, slow-building tension and intriguing mysteries with an unnerving grounding in humanity.

So how did Hollywood reward Anderson’s work? By tossing him "The Call," a generic and cliché high-concept horror/thriller with little to offer in terms of brains or thrills. Considering the talent on screen and behind the camera, it makes me more sad than mad.

Halle Berry (previously seen embarrassing herself in "Movie 43") stars as Jordan Turner, a Los Angeles 911 operator attempting to rebuild her life after a simple mistake on a home invasion call ended with a young girl’s murder. In order to limit the life-and-death situations she has to face and the ensuing anxiety, Jordan switches taking calls for teaching operators. After another young girl (Abigail Breslin from "Zombieland") gets kidnapped, Jordan is thrown on the line yet again in the hopes of saving the potential victim and getting some redemption for herself.

The first two acts of "The Call" play like a fairly generic, standard-issue women-in-danger thriller with a storyline that fluctuates between silly and frustratingly cliché. It’s a concept that seems better suited for an episode of a TV crime drama or made-for-TV thriller, and screenwriter Richard D’Ovidio doesn’t find much nuance to make it any better.

There’s some potential in a person being in a helplessly distant place while chaos reigns on the other end of the line, but the constant switching between Berry in the office and Breslin in a car’s trunk never taps into the horrifying tension and mystery of what could be happening on the other end of the line.  

Instead, we get the typical set of close-call thriller moments, featuring various idiotic onlookers (including Michael Imperioli from "The Sopranos") getting involved and subsequently getting murdered in broad daylight instead of calling the police (led by Morris Chestnut) right away and getting to stay alive.

The only thing D’Ovidio’s script abandons faster than logic – which only gets worse as the film progresses – is his characters. Once the titular call comes in, Jordan switches from anxiety-stricken and guilt-ridden to courageous crime fighter without turning back. Breslin – once on her way to a promising career with roles in hits like "Signs" and "Little Miss Sunshine" – is stuck screaming and crying in a trunk for the first 60 minutes and doing the same, but in her bra, for the last 30.

It’s all so trite that even Anderson doesn’t seem all that interested in the material. He fails to bring any of his signature mood, character or tension to the proceedings. Instead, he relies on Terry Gilliam-esque distorted close-ups and a bizarre choppy editing scheme (the film freezes for a second right before a blow strikes) that look more like the work of a hacky newcomer grasping at straws than a crafty, confident veteran.

The best you can say is that he keeps the ridiculousness moving at a decent clip.

Anderson and D’Ovidio finally start bringing some creepy atmosphere and elements to the last act – a bloody hideout, some unseemly details for our killer (Michael Eklund, who blandly sticks to cliché blank stares and panicky yells) and the ironic use of Culture Club’s "Karma Chameleon" – but that’s also unfortunately when "The Call" disconnects with reality and starts phoning the loony bin, or more accurately, the hack writer’s house.

There’s a twist – you already know it; it’s prominently used in the trailers and ads – that isn’t all that surprising, and even if it was, it adds little to the story. Jordan starts investigating dangerous locales late at night based on miniscule hunches without calling for help. And didn’t she have an anxiety disorder? Yes, she did, but never mind that; we have to have a preposterous climax, filled with horror movie clichés that were tired decades ago.

If you want to see a decent thriller, rent some of Brad Anderson’s other work. "Session 9" and "The Machinist" are both on Netflix Instant right now, and they’re creepy little projects that won’t insult your intelligence. Let "The Call" go to the answering machine. 

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