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Veteran 911 operator Jordan (Halle Berry) takes a life-altering call from a teenage girl (Abigail Breslin) who has been kidnapped and thrown into the trunk of a madman’s car.  But, with the clock ticking, Jordan soon realizes she must confront a killer from her past to put an end to a serial killer’s haunting rampage. (From Sony’s original synopsis)

Call, The
Director Brad Anderson is definitely an interesting filmmaker. My enthusiasm in a film will usually rise significantly if his name is attached, yet, strangely, I’ve never fully loved any of his films. Session 9, his 2001 ‘breakthrough’ feature – following two romantic comedies I’m guessing most fans don’t even know he made ( Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents) – is decidedly creepy and well-crafted, but is clearly written around a limited location and not particularly eventful. His next film, The Machinist is a brilliant practice in production design and cinematography, but its supposedly twisty plot is remarkably predictable and Christian Bale’s grotesque weight loss sadly overshadows any of the thematic or narrative weight. His entry in the Masters of Horror series, Sounds Like, is super slick and easily one of the most filmic of all the episodes, but was, again, emotionally barren. Anderson is a very good visualist with very interesting ideas that can’t seem to cross the line into genuine greatness. I say this not having seen either Transsiberian (which I’ve been told is a mini-masterpiece and failed to find a copy to watch before this review) or Vanishing on 7th Street (which is on Netflix, so I probably should’ve watched it). I’m also ignoring an entire career’s worth of television direction ( The Shield, The Wire, Fringe), so take my words with the appropriate grain of salt.

Anderson’s latest, The Call, is probably the most mainstream-friendly, categorical thriller he’s made yet. It isn’t aspiring to be a masterpiece – it was shot on a modest budget and is largely built around star Halle Berry’s performance (which is, for the record, pretty good, though it follows the same arc the rest of the film does). Anderson has clearly been brought onto the project as a director for hire (Berry was actually hired before he was) and, according to specs, he had basically no script input. This is at once disappointing, because Anderson is an interesting filmmaker who probably needs to grow personally as an artist, and ideal, because Anderson has such a strong visual sense that he’ll undoubtedly bring something special to the otherwise nominally intriguing premise. For The Call Anderson is very clearly running on TV director mode, rather than hyper-stylized horror director mode. The camera work is loose and handheld, and the editing is busy, but not at the risk of crisp, sequential images. Anderson’s herky-jerky attempts at jump scare tactics are more silly than frightening, but he expertly wrings a lot of tension out of the material without cribbing too much from Hitchcock. The limited budget does make the film feel smaller than I’m guessing the filmmakers intended and recalls an entire genre of television entertainment. At times, The Call is indiscernible from an ever-growing collection of made-for-TV police procedurals, like CSI, Law and Order: SVU and especially Criminal Minds. This is probably because it was originally intended as a television pilot.

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The screenplay, which reminds me of Larry Cohen’s phone-themed duology, Phone Booth and Cellular (thematically and conceptually), is written by Richard D'Ovidio and based on a story by him, Nicole D’Ovidio, and Jon Bokenkamp. D’Ovidio’s has co-writer credits on Exit Wounds and Thir13en Ghosts, but is otherwise a mostly unknown Hollywood entity. The first two acts are incredibly tight and perfectly paced. Anderson’s aggressive editing makes an impact, but the storytelling makes sense and is punched up with clever little details. The events unravel with relative unpredictability, too (even though the damn trailers gave away more than they needed to). Had The Call been a short, it would’ve approached greatness. Then things start to spiral a bit out of control once the third act rolls around. The writers have a clear understanding of how a 911 dispatch job works and strong sense of their lead character, but their kidnapper/killer is a weak cliché (Norman Bates meets Buffalo Bill meets Frank Zito) and the second he becomes a central part of the story, everything slows to a crawl and the seams of the tightly-knit screenplay begin to split. Every character also turns into a frustrating idiot. Sadly, as The Call morphs into an unremarkable serial killer movie, Anderson is also clearly enjoying himself more as a director. When placed back in his wheelhouse, he gets busy with grotesque production design and eerie imagery. Unfortunately, the final effect is more Saw sequel than The Machinist revisited.

Call, The


The Call was shot using Arri Alexa and Phantom Flex digital HD cameras and is presented on Blu-ray in full 1080p, 1.85:1 video. Anderson has been working with various digital cameras since Session 9 in 2001 (it was shot using early Sony CineAlta cameras) and developed much of his style around the advantages and limitations of the format. He and cinematographer Tom Yatsko take the most advantage of HD digital’s abilities with darkness, shooting several scenes using almost pitch-blackness. The good news is that even the most dreadfully dark sequence is clear and sharp enough to discern. This smooth darkness extends to the shadows of the film’s lighter scenes as well. These dynamic ranges are thick without hard contrast edges, making for relatively natural texture levels and fine detail (the third act is notably sharper in terms of contrast and shadows, making for crisper overall textures). The only ‘problems’ arise when the brightness has to be cranked up to capture fine details in the under-lit trunk scenes. Here, the edges of the frame persistently glow green and overall noise levels are increased. The digital photography is also well-utilized to achieve the intended ‘sterile’ look. The colours are definitively ‘digitally,’ including those unnatural oranges and teals we’ve all gotten so used to, but the overall palette is reasonably eclectic, though the contrast of the almost overwhelming coolness against poppy warm bits do grow a bit stale. Gradations are mostly smooth, outside of those slightly noisy, super-dim scenes and edge haloes are minimized to only a couple of wide shots.

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Anderson’s films (at least the ones I’ve seen) have all been very concerned with the layered mechanics of sound. In particular Session 9, which involves characters listening to a series of mysterious audio tapes, and Sounds Like, which is entirely built around the central character’s hypersensitive hearing and aural hallucinations. The Call Blu-ray features a very strong DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack that falls very much in line with the director’s other films. The sterility of the imagery extends to this mix, which utilizes silence just as readily as noise. The most aggressive sound is devoted to the music and occasional bout of cop or car chase action. These bits are well-represented directionally, but the designers seem to be having more fun layering ambience, especially on the highway and dispatch floor. They also make good use of subjective sound. When Jordon panics, the ambience is sucked out of the channels and crumbled into warbling bass. When Casey is trapped in the trunk, the sounds of the tires on the road and the bassy buzz of the kidnapper’s classic rock/’80s pop radio is situated in the appropriate channel with the appropriate compression of sound. Workhorse composer John Debney’s score is driving and electronic in a way you don’t hear so often anymore. The more abstract keyboard sound is given a nice swirl throughout the stereo & surround channels and the pumping drum sound gives the LFE a hefty workout.

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The extras begin with a commentary track featuring Anderson, producers Michael A. Helfant, Bradley Gallo and Robert Stein, screenwriter Richard D’Ovidio, and actresses Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin. This appears to be a Skype-based commentary, based on moderator Gallo telling us that some participants are located in different cities. Gallo taking point as moderator works very much in the track’s favour – he has a clear plan of attack and questions each participant as the film ticks by. Some of it is screen-specific, but it’s more of an elongated group interview than a standard commentary track. The structure ensures that discussion down-time is limited to a handful of short ‘breathers.’ There’s also a little too much discussion based around describing the plot and themes, as if we hadn’t already seen the film, but the overall effect is informative, well-paced, and tonally balanced. The participants are also good at praising the cast and crew without making it sound like a requirement.

Up next is an alternate ending (00:50, HD, almost identical to the one in the movie), followed by a selection of four deleted/extended scenes (4:20, HD). Emergency Procedures (14:50, HD) is a sort of catchall behind-the-scenes featurette that covers writing, casting, Anderson’s direction, acting, make-up, and the logistics the shoot. The disc also features Inside the Stunts (7:00, HD), Michael Eklund’s audition video (7:50, HD), set tours of the call center (4:50, HD) and the lair (3:30, HD), and trailers for other Sony releases. Interview subjects throughout the extras include Anderson, producers D’Ovidio, Helfant, Gallo, Stein, and Jeffrey Grau-, make-up artist Tom Floutz, stunt coordinators Kanin Howell and Mark Chadwick, prop master Neil Mather, production designer Franco G. Carbone, and actors Berry, Breslin, Michael Eklund, Michael Imperioli, and David Otunga.

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There is almost an hour of breathless, expertly-crafted intensity nestled within The Call’s 94-minute runtime (about six of those minutes are credits, by the way). Unfortunately, the last act is a tragic mix of every serial killer movie you’ve ever seen, revealing the film’s TV pilot roots. The final product is 2/3rds worth your time (even the ineffective romantic relationship between Berry and Morris Chestnut serves something of a purpose) and 1/3rd genuinely bad. Those that weren’t bothered by the final act have a nice Blu-ray to look forward to, however. The disc has a clean overall HD presentation, a very strong DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack, and a decent collection of extras, including a well-moderated group commentary track.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.