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Understanding Screenwriting #109 The Call, No, Ginger & Rosa, Joyful Noise, San Antonio, Castle, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #109: The Call, No, Ginger & Rosa, Joyful Noise, San Antonio,  Castle, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Call, No, Ginger & Rosa, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: An Appreciation, Joyful Noise, The Law West of Tombstone, Background to Danger, San Antonio, Castle, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein was shocked, shocked I tell you, that I was critical of a director he loves, John Boorman, and especially his work on Point Blank (1967). I’m sure David realizes that part of a brief in a column dealing with screenwriting and screenwriters is to keep a jaundiced eye on directors. Given that, I don’t consider the director “as some species of sous-chef.” While any idiot can direct a film, directing a film well is a whole other matter. The problem I have with directors in general, and Boorman in this case, is that they assume that directing style is all. It’s not, and directors like Boorman who sometimes treat it like it is end up making very uneven films. I tend to prefer directors who make a real effort to understand what the script is about and how best to present it. One of the reasons Henry King had such a long and successful career is that, every time he’d be assigned a screenplay, he’d sit down with the writer and spend at least a couple of weeks going over the script in excruciating detail to get a sense of what the writer intended. You very seldom hear of directors doing that these days, and I think movies are poorer for it.

I agree with David on Alain Resnais’s Providence (1977). There’s one that really needs a DVD release. Your attitude toward it will change every time you see it. And for his suggestion that Smash should deal with a revival of a Stephen Sondheim show, how about Merrily We Roll Along? There are at least a couple of stage directors, including one here in L.A. who have figured out how to make it work.

The Call (2013; screenplay by Richard D’Ovidio; story by Richard and Nicole D’Ovidio and Jon Bokenkamp; 94 minutes.)

Finally! The first three months of 2013 weren’t a good time for American films (and the audience noticed, as attendance is down 12% from the same time last year). The only new American film I came up with before this that I wanted to write about, let alone see, was Side Effects (see US #108), and I avoided Gangster Squad, Identity Thief, and Jack the Giant Slayer because of bad reviews. Though reviews for The Call weren’t that good, my wife was having people in for the day to shampoo the carpets, so I really wanted to get out of Dodge. And boy, I’m glad I did, since it’s a terrific little thriller. The writers have limited credits among them, but they’ve done a good job on this one. We jump right into the action as Jordan, a 911 operator, takes a call from Leah Templeton, a teen alone at home who hears somebody breaking in. Jordan tells her what to do, and Leah ends up under the bed. Leah’s phone disconnects and Jordan hits redial. The phone rings, the intruder hears it, finds Leah and we learn later on kills her. Boy, talk about a bad day at the office for Jordan.

When we next pick up Jordan, she’s a training instructor for potential 911 operators. We have already seen a little of how “the hive” works, so Jordan’s job gives us exposition that we need at that point. Jordan is taking her trainees past an operator who picks up on a call from…another teen, Casey, who’s been kidnapped. The young operator is too rattled to handle it and Jordan, very reluctantly, steps in. And we’re off and running. The writers have really done their research, and the first two thirds of the film is a brilliant use of what 911 operators can and cannot do. Usually in a movie they’re just a voice on the phone; here we get great details of how the system works. Casey has been thrown into the trunk of a car. Her cellphone has been smashed, but she has her friend’s cell, which is one of those nothing-facy throwaways…without a GPS system. So Jordan has Casey knock out the taillight of the car and wave out. Well, that sort of helps and then it doesn’t. Casey ends up sharing the trunk with a dead body, which proves useful.

Yes, a film with a woman in a 911 call center and another in a car trunk is action-packed. The producers were originally going to shoot it in Canada, but at virtually the last minute they got a tax break from the state of California and so filmed in the Los Angeles area. That gives the filmmakers the chance to show lots of action above, on, and below the freeways. But all that non-stop action does get repetitive and the writers were right to shift gears from action to suspense, in spite of some critics complaining about the last third. We get Jordan on her own, and for her personal reasons, figuring out where Casey and her abductor are. And she can’t call for help because she’s out of range for her cellphone. As she’s looking for them, we discover more or less why the abductor has taken Casey, and it’s not what we suspected, but much, much creepier. So the writers shift again, this time from suspense to horror—and a very knowing horror. At one point we’re introduced to a room in the basement and see Casey’s horrified reaction, but we don’t see to what. We assume that the film’s Mrs. Bates is there, but that’s not exactly it. We do get more action when Jordan finds them, and then a twist ending that I love, even if I know it’s at least partly to allow for a sequel. And although the way it’s handled is hugely satisfying on its own, I’m not convinced a sequel is such a good idea. What makes this film fresh is the look at the job, and we will have already had that by the time the sequel rolls around.

Speaking of directors, here it’s Brad Anderson, who has an interesting résumé. He wrote and directed the charming Next Stop Wonderland (1998) and the strange but amusing Happy Accidents (2000). He wrote and directed the wonderful Transsiberian (2008), which I wrote about in US #3, and a lot of what I loved about that film (suspense, action, interesting characters) are at play here. I have no idea how much he worked on this script with the writers, but he was a perfect choice to direct. And Halle Berry was the perfect choice to play Jordan. She’s interesting to look at (as is Queen Latifah; see below for details), and you may have forgotten she’s a terrific actress. This film opened much better than expected. If there was any questions before it opened that Berry was a star, both commercially and artistically, consider them now answered.

 

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