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Horror films are about what a culture fears. The Call (as much a horror film as a thriller, at heart) is not so much about generic movie fears, like random abductions and physical torture, but alienation and abandonment—heightened by technologies like the cell phone, which has monopolized communication. Today, we conflate communication with being connected, with being plugged in.
"Don't forget me," Casey (Abigail Breslin) pleads with her mother—in a recorded message—in the film's most brutally honest emotional moment. When faced with possible immanent extinction, one yearns for neither scores of contacts nor dozens of virtual "friends" but one true, human relationship.
The dehumanizing effects of technology are at the core of the smarter, more difficult movie hovering around the edges of The Call. Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) works in a glorified cubicle called "The Hive," complete with a "Quiet Room" where 911 operators can reflect after a "bad" call if they inadvertently violate the directions to not become emotionally invested in their caller's situation.
One trainee complains that the hardest aspect of her job is the lack of closure: protocols designed to keep emotions at bay eventually strip the operators of that which makes them human. The operators don't simply use machines; they are pressed to become machines themselves. Even the opening aerial shots present the city as a giant, complex organism, in which the individual voices flooding the call center are no more distinguishable from one another than the cars crawling like insects on the freeway.
After young Casey is abducted and put in the trunk of a car with nothing but an untraceable cell phone, her operator asks her to look out a hole in the trunk for some distinguishing feature of the landscape that might help rescuers locate her. "It all looks the same," Casey laments—which might, unfortunately, be taken as meta-commentary on the boilerplate movie she finds herself in.
Perhaps not surprisingly, as The Call moves forward it stops trying to be fresh or original. Even its visuals become more rote. No shot is as interesting as the first one, and all the creativity goes into keeping the situation in stasis (for this plot, Jordan has to be able to stay in contact with Casey, but not locate her), rather than moving it forward. After the film's set up, we know nothing is going to happen to Casey (or Jordan) until the end of the film, so any efforts to escape have to fail.
But it gets worse: if the first act is slightly original, and the second act somewhat rote, the third descends quickly and enthusiastically into farce. Smart scripts show that characters are smart by having them figure out things that others can't; dumb scripts make heroes look good by having them see (or hear) the obvious clues that everyone else in the film inexplicably missed. Visual references to other, better, movies (The Silence of the Lambs, Blue Velvet) hint at director Brad Anderson's ability to imitate the right movies, but screenwriter Richard D'Ovidio can't keep a setup from not looking like the last five minutes of any random episode of Criminal Minds.
Our age venerates self-expression—something our technologies make possible—but we're rarely about whether anyone is actually on receiving end of our Tweets and blogs and podcasts. Connection, then, can suggest a providential, invisible hand operating beneath the surface of apparent randomness. There is nary a reference to religion in The Call; Jordan's strategy for giving Casey hope is not to invoke God but to remind her that they are both Sagittarii—which means they are both fighters. But when Casey's call first come in, Jordan, who has given up taking calls, only happens to be walking past the operator. That seemingly random act is a message pointing her in the right direction.
The providential coincidence, a staple of Victorian literature (and recurs in modern, theistic films such as Bresson's A Man Escaped), was used to reassure an increasingly doubting age that there was rhyme or reason to events that seemed increasingly random or inexplicable. But the modern and postmodern age tends to dismiss coincidence as meaningless clusters within large pools of data (or sloppy writing by lazy writers). So while The Call flirts with the notion that the identity of the speaker offering reassurance on the other end of the line actually matters, it never really addresses the implications for those outside the story—for the scores of those crying out for help who get routed to a different operator.
Oscar Diggs (a.k.a. "Oz") calls out to an unnamed and otherwise unacknowledged God at the end of the prologue to Oz the Great and Powerful, a sort of prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Having used a hot air balloon to escape the circus strong man—who is threatening to injure him for pitching woo at the wrong young lady (and jeering at the jilted lover from a safe distance)—he is buffeted by a CGI tornado that throws 3D shrapnel through his basket and threatens a little more than his pride.
"I'll do great things!" Oz promises whoever or whatever might deliver him, a better illustration of the Kubler-Ross principle of the bargaining stage than of repentance. Lest we get too distracted by the special effects, Oscar repeats, "I can change!" He responds to a scary but safe crash landing with "Thank you, thank you. You won't regret this!"
If the viewer harbored any hopes that this conviction will last longer than the scene itself—that Oz the Great and Powerful might turn into a tale of redemption or reformation—are quickly dashed. Once Oscar sees a pretty girl (Mila Kunis as Theodora), he falls easily back into his rakish ways. "Don't think of them as lies," Oscar insists to one character who tries to nudge him towards the straight and narrow path. "Think of them as stepping stones on the road to . . ." Yes, yes, we get it, truth and goodness are for rubes and simpletons; does it really matter how he ends that sentence?
It would be easier to overlook Oscar's aborted conversion or relegate it to a clumsy, rote, aside were it not for a prolonged and problematic plot thread that has the people of Oz mistaking (or are they?) him for the fulfillment of the prophecy that states that a savior will fall from the sky and save them all. As Oz take-offs go, Gregory Maguire's Wicked contained some anthropological indictments of religion—it divided people and made them more easy to conquer—but it was more palatable than Oz the Great and Powerful's tired take, that the phoniness of carnival magician is at the core of all faith. "When we do believe," Glinda insists, "anything is possible." Sorry, but no, that's not true, and faith in faith is a poor substitute for faith in something real. Otherwise the film wouldn't need Oscar to pretend in order to bring the people together.
Oscar's transformation is not the only one the film fumbles. Theodora's transformation into the Wicked Witch is portrayed as half Oscar's fault, half Evanora's, her sister (Rachel Weisz). Kunis is a tremendous and underutilized talent, but even she can't gloss a script that can't quite figure out how to get from point A (sincere, good witch) to point B (villain of the next movie) while making Oscar somehow both the catalyst for her change but not responsible for it in any way that really smarts. (Surely I am not the only viewer who thinks Theodora's name—"lover of God"—is itself a backhanded dig at religious belief? It is the sincere believer who is most easily fooled, most easily offended, most easily hurt, and most readily turns to rebellion to justify her own hurt.)
Some viewers will be grateful to have anything PG to take their kids to, and others will embrace the film's attempts to sidestep the endorsement of redemptive violence. But the film's anti-religiousness is a bit of a poison pill to swallow along with the good stuff.
And there is something mildly smug and a little misogynistic about Oscar's public offer of amnesty (a pale shadow of the deeper virtue of forgiveness) to Theodora as she flies away, defeated. Boys will be boys, and men will be boys on occasion, but woman no redemption knows: isn't Oscar going to lie to Dorothy Gale and try to trick her into murdering Theodora in The Wizard of Oz? Having found himself in the path of all "good hearted souls" after repeated coaxing and wooing, his (and the film's) lackadaisical attempts at reconciliation seem strangely pro-forma and obviously half-hearted. Mistakes were made, but it's time for the movie to end, so no more nonsense about mixed parts, goats to the left, sheep to the right and no questioning that adjudication allowed.
The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, a period when international fascism was rising and it was apparently sufficient to explain a villain by saying, simply, that she was evil. But in 2013, that's an unfashionable explanation. A movie like Argo comes with a two-minute prologue explaining why the angry mob is so angry; the Wicked Witch was not born evil, she simply had a broken heart. Even Michael Foster, the garden variety serial killer of The Call is given a needless and easily discarded back story to explain why he only kidnaps, tortures, and murders blonde teenagers.
That these attempts to explain evil are so half-hearted and so easily dismissed—when the final showdown with Theodora or Michael comes, explanation and empathy melts away to give room for self-righteous vengeance—raises the question: Why were these back stories necessary in the first place?
The easy answer is that they are a concession to the forces of political correctness. But maybe something in us needs to be transformed or redeemed, something that longs for the killer to be unrepentant. That way, we can simultaneously exact vengeance and claim that we were ready to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Oz the Great and Powerful is a soft PG. The flying monkeys might be a little intense for younger viewers, especially as they are edited to startle rather than truly scare. Theodora's transformation into the Wicked Witch might also be disturbing, though it is milder than that of The Hulk in The Avengers. There is some kissing but no sex or nudity to speak of, although the sexual jealousy encouraged by Oswald might be over the heads of younger viewers. The Call, on the other hand, earns every bit of its R rating. Several people are killed in particularly gory ways—stabbed repeatedly, set afire—and one character is tortured while under sedation but still conscious. There is a prolonged kissing scene between Jordan and her boyfriend, and the villain cuts off Casey's shirt, leaving her with just a bra for the last 20 minutes of the movie.