The Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

When a veteran 911 operator takes a life-altering call from a teenage girl who has just been abducted, she realizes that she must confront a killer from her past in order to save the girl’s life.

The Call is a tense thriller that fully explores and delivers on its premise. Everything feels like it’s happening before us. Solving one problem creates another and time always seems to be running out. I watched this with my family and it was so gripping that they became totally responsive to it. They were covering their eyes, flinching and screaming at the television at different points.

Thriller movie elements aside, director Brad Anderson brings the audience inside the world of police procedures and emergency call centers. It is well researched and minute with its real world details. The things that we don’t like to know or look at in real life crimes and murders are drawn as a source of tension. The stress and emotional detachment that is required in being an emergency operator is incorporated dramatically into the story. Together this washes away the genre conventions of a typical cop film and instead feels like we are looking into the lives of real-life police officers handling crime.

This is not Halle Berry’s most demanding performance but she does effectively transport the audience into her plight. Berry plays a lot of emotions despite being confined at a desk for a majority of the film. It’s a very pronounced performance. Morris Chestnut seems too aware of himself to really convince me of his character. It seems like he’s always detached from his own environment. There’s a bit of a sick pleasure in watching Abigail Breslin being kidnapped because she was so profoundly annoying in Definitely Maybe. That’s probably me being mean. But here, Breslin plays the situation very real. Michael Eklund is convincingly creepy as the scene-stealing villain. The scariest thing about serial killers or murderers in real life is that nobody ever looks like a serial killer. They all appear as normal people and are protected by the benefit of the doubt. Eklund’s character practically shifts the film into horror film territory.

As it moved toward to the finale, even on the very edge of my seat, I was still secretly wishing for something to really wow me at the end. I don’t know if it was because I liked The Machinist and developed an expectation from Brad Anderson. There were about two three ways the story could have finished that would have been fine, but nothing mind-bending. But it did deliver. My secret wish was fulfilled. The finale to The Call is a gutsy, left-turn ending that pulled the rug right under me. As it went to black, my mouth went agape pondering about what the fates of all the characters.

With the current trend of long running two-hour films, any film that has the discipline to wrap up around 90 minutes is praiseworthy. There is no fat to be trimmed here. The Call might be a film that goes unnoticed under the radar with its lower budget and hype. I saw it on DVD myself. It is the tensest movie I’ve seen this year. Hopefully there’s less lag time from now till Brad Anderson’s next project.

Drug War by Johnnie To

Drug War by Johnnie To

Police captain Zhang (played by Sun Honglei) partners with a drug lord named Timmy Choi (played by Louis Koo) after he is arrested. To avoid the death penalty, Choi agrees to reveal information about his partners who operate a cocaine ring. Zhang grows suspicious of Choi’s honesty as several police officers began a raid on the drug ring.

Drug War is a crime film made and released in Mainland China by a Hong Kong film company. Naturally there is going to be an element of political compromise. All the policemen are Mainland Chinese and all the drug dealers are from Hong Kong (Take a guess which side wins in the end). Nationalism in movies has never really bothered me unless it’s oozing with disgustingness (i.e. Michael Bay’s Armageddon). That is not the case here and I don’t have a problem with that. My interest is not the politics, but rather what Johnnie To will bring to drug film set in Mainland China. The answer? Not too much.

What’s missing from Drug War are the Johnnie To quirks. The zany off-the-wall characters who have speech impediments and odd ticks are gone. The dramatic noir lighting, minimalistic stage-like blocking or themes of brotherhood are gone. Even the gunplay is less stylized and presented in a realistic fashion. I don’t miss any of these specific quirks or tropes, but without the idiosyncratic Johnnie To stamp, what’s left is a very straightforward police procedural.

The characters are servicing the plot, which is odd for a Johnnie To film because usually it’s the other way round. We don’t get insight into the distinct personalities of the drug dealers or police officers and their relationships (like in Election, an ensemble piece where it manages to characterize the supporting characters). We don’t know if they have family members or girlfriends waiting for them at home or any backstory. The story is simply moving beat-by-beat linearly on the central question of how trustworthy Louis Koo’s drug lord character is. There’s nobody you’re supposed to be rooting for, but things are continually changing and you simply watch awaiting the final outcome.

To, a director and producer with his own production company, has always been best when he has free reign. The limits of To’s free reign authorship is that he is very culturally rooted to Hong Kong and possesses a firm voice regarding to its politics (Election), economic condition (Life Without Principle), daily life in Hong Kong (the office politics in Needing You), or even local nostalgia (Throwdown, Sparrow). As exemplified in 2008’s Vengeance, a project which was co-financed by French financiers and starred French rock singer Johnny Halliday, To’s directorial voice is weaker when he steps outside of his comfort zone. The three Hong Kong actors casted alongside Johnny Halliday to couch the star for two thirds of Vengeance mirrors the Milkyway regulars who show up as the seven Hong Kong drug bosses in Drug War’s denouement. It’s like he is trying to recalibrate the film by filling it with things he’s familiar with. However, there is no sense of To’s personal perspective on the topic of drug running, drug addiction, crime or how the police work in China through the film’s story, themes or characters. That makes a bit tame because To has fared much better in the past.

In context to Johnnie To’s back catalogue, Drug War will be remembered for pushing the boundaries with the Chinese Film Bureau. The Mainland police are shown working undercover and solving crimes, having gun battles with criminals and some even dying in the line of duty; these are all images that were previously not allowed to be shown in a Mainland theatrical release. Yet now we are seeing them onscreen. So that is a proper achievement that’s worth celebrating. The final product is probably more telling of Chinese film censorship than of To’s directorial sensibilities. But I can’t help but think that there is a grittier, nuttier version of Drug War lying in the corner of Johnnie To’s desk that is stamped “rejected”, namely the version of the story that he didn’t get to make.

Jack Reacher by Christopher McQuarrie

Jack Reacher by Christopher McQuarrie

A homicide investigator digs deeper into a case involving a trained military sniper who shot five random victims.

So on the height debate, I have never read the Jack Reacher books, so I do not have an impression of the character in my mind. However, it’s irrelevant that Tom Cruise is not 6″5. Hugh Jackman is technically much taller than Wolverine in the comics. And even though they make everybody taller than him in the movies (imagine the budget of apple boxes on every X-men movie), nobody’s arguing that his height ruins his performance as Wolverine. At the end of the day, it’s a question of medium. Lee Child stated that he wrote Jack Reacher to be 6″5 because he wanted Reacher to feel like an enormous presence in the reader’s mind. As film is a visual medium, one can build a person’s presence by adjusting how you film an actor and the actor can perform a larger-than-life personality in his performance.

That’s exactly what Tom Cruise brings to the table. Not since Collateral has Tom Cruise created such a powerful onscreen character. The Jack Reacher character embodies a lot of qualities that we enjoy seeing Tom Cruise play: a savvy maverick (pun intended) who can handle any situation and deliver funny zingers as he’s doing them. The biggest thing going against Cruise is his own stardom. With the amount of information we know about his personal life and his star power, some people may not buy Tom Cruise playing a “Man with No Name” archetype who is shrouded in mystery. It’s a legitimate argument, however, Cruise plays against his stardom as much as he can. I understand that Jack Reacher in the novel is a womanizer and they downplay that here, probably as a way to help shape Tom Cruise into more of a normal person for the movie. He does not grin his way through this role, and in the sum of it all it made a huge difference for me.

The film has an all round great cast. I’m a Werner Herzog fan and he was actually the initial reason why I wanted to see this movie. Herzog brings a chilling presence to his villain role that pushed me into nervous hysterical laughter every scene he was in. Knowing the funny stories behind Herzog, I would say it was 40% scared by his character, 60% laughing giddy because it’s Werner Herzog. Technically that means I’m taken out of the movie by having this pre-existing knowledge, but for me personally it engaged me even more.

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel is a story conscious cinematographer. He is aware that he’s making a crime thriller and uses cinematography to punctuate thriller conventions. He frames the shots in a way that maximizes the tension for each scene, keeping the viewer unnerved and agitated throughout the film. Deschanel understands that visual spectacle is most effectively earned when people believe what they are seeing. A noteworthy example is a car chase sequence in the film that is covered in a series of long shots designed to ensure the audience that Tom Cruise is indeed driving the car performing all the stunts. It was one of the best car chases I’ve seen in a long time.

Christopher McQuarrie is a competent director and I look forward to his work as a director. It’s nice to see a screenwriter make his way into a director and earn their visions. It shows in the film. The best part I enjoyed about Jack Reacher was that it reigns itself in. It understands set-up and payoff and plays like an old fashioned suspenseful thriller where the mystery patiently unfolds itself before the audience. Much of the fun factor comes from the fact that Jack Reacher is ahead of the film’s characters and the audience in figuring out what’s going on. It engaged me and I found myself shifting forward on my seat anticipating what was going to happen next.

I wish there was more I can say about how much I enjoyed it, but that’s about it. Tom Cruise, forget your beloved Mission:Impossible franchise