“Crisis Hotline” (2019) Indie Film Review

Erotic thriller with a shocking twist. Mark Schwab’s Crisis Hotline is an indie film that is reminiscent of Psycho IV, yet is budding with originality. It’s not often that we see fresh or original interpretations of past premises, but this film provides audiences with a new lens through which to explore heartbreak, guilt, and abuse of power. The small cast and two primary locations allow audiences to focus on the conflict between the crisis hotline operator and the caller. But down the rabbit hole the audience goes as the caller elaborates on why he is making a decision to harm himself and others. Despite the excellent hook provided by the opening scenes that setup the intriguing premise, the tone of the film shifts back and forth from heavy drama to psychological thriller to an erotic love story. Thus, leaving the film searching for what it wants to be. The screenwriting suggests that the writer was experimenting with genre, but didn’t commit to any one to a signifiant level, so there are tropes of all the aforementioned. What sets this film a part from many others that possess some of the same characteristics is that it features a predominantly gay male cast. What I appreciate about the characters is that their sexuality isn’t the focus of the story; truthfully, you could replace this cast with a heteronormative cast, and the story could play out similarly. However, the choice to make the characters gay does allow Schwab to explore relationship dynamics not often seen in films. While the premise may be intriguing, the execution lacks precision brought on by the underdeveloped plot and mostly flat characters.

A race-against-time thriller that highlights the potentially darkest sides of the social media phenomenon. Jaded by the job of managing an LGBT crisis line, Simon (Corey Jackson) finds that most of his callers are using the service for reasons that would qualify as being certainly less than a crisis. That all changes when he gets a call from Danny (Christian Gabriel) who says he is in the process of killing himself. Instantly gripped by his first real case, Simon does his best to connect with Danny and find out why he has come to consider such a drastic action. As the tale of Danny’s journey is unraveled through the use of flashback sequences, we discover a young romance, a troubling network of individuals, and a dark secret. (IMDb)

Although the characters are mostly flat, that doesn’t mean that they lack relatability. In fact, the characters of Simon and Danny are highly relatable. We’ve all been jaded over something in our lives. Maybe it’s failed relationships or perhaps it’s work related. Whatever the case, we’ve all been there. Simon goes into this shift with the same feelings that some of us may have experienced in our own jobs. Those in the service industry can definitely relate to that. Maybe you’re a Danny; you know what it’s like to be the new guy in town without a system of established friends and trying to date. Or you’ve been betrayed by someone you loved after having gone a long time just going through the motions of dating to the point you can provide an analytical breakdown of the steps, rises, and pitfalls. When Danny calls Simon to explain why he is intending to do himself and others harm, we can place ourselves in Danny’s shoes because perhaps we have been extremely heartbroken over a terminated relationship. He is our conduit through which we experience the plot of the film. He is a de facto narrator, and as such, because he is expressing suicidal and homicidal ideas, he is established as an unreliable narrator. But we have no choice but to listen to him because he must provide “the context” for Simon to process the severity of the call. Simon must establish the legitimacy of the call before contacting the authorities because there have been many false crisis claims in the past. In many ways, we are like Simon, listening to every word and trying to piece together the puzzle. There is no dramatic irony in this film, so we learn as Simon learns. The scenes of Simon listening to Danny are the scenes that I feel work best because that is when tension is at its highest.

Without getting into spoiler territory, I want to touch on how the film explores heartbreak, guilt, and abuse of power. Heartbreak is evident from the onset because the caller speaks to his broken relationship with Kyle. But when Simon suggests that the caller is going to extremes over a bad breakup, the caller draws Simon in closer to reveal the sordid, disturbing context of the broken relationship. Though Simon listens to a soft spoken Danny on the phone, it is clear that he is experiencing immense psychological pain. The heartbreak is more than sadness over a relationship that is over, it goes much deeper because of the sadistic betrayal that is slowly revealed over the phone call exposition. In addition to the exhibited heartbreak, the caller hints at the guilt he feels for some of his decisions, but the full extent of the guilt is not realized until the end of the film. I appreciate the film exploring not only the heartbreak of relationship loss, but the guilt parties feel in the aftermath. Lastly, the film comments on gross abuse of power. Through the conversation on the phone, Simon learns that Kyle’s employment may not be on the up and up, despite Kyle explaining to Danny that his employers were not involved in anything illegal–just sleazy. But Danny slowly begins to understand the degree to which Kyle’s employers hold him a captive employee. While the focus is on Danny and Simon, the film provides context for the audience to realize that the love of money is the root of all evil, and can reduce people to zeros and ones. Evaluating persons as a commodity is a dangerous slope that can lead to one’s destruction.

Thematically, the film works very well. The premise feels fresh, and the character setups are interesting. The weakness in this film falls on the screenplay that lacks direction. Although the plot is initially interesting and starts out gripping, it was stretched too thin to fill a 90min run time. Thankfully, the twist at the end helps to justify having sat through the poorly paced scenes. Not that this needed to be a quickly paced film; on the contrary, this is a story that needed to be a slow burn. But a slow burn does not mean that scenes should be poorly paced or longer than they need to be. Alfred Hitchcock stated, “start your scene as close to the end as possible.” And to Crisis Hotline’s credit, some scenes are tight and effective. But there are many that feel like they could have moved the plot along more efficiently. While I may be coming down hard on this film for it’s weak plot and lack of character development (when there was such an opportunity to explore these characters further), it provides audiences with a some great atmospheric scenes, a believable love story, and some rather suspenseful moments. I appreciate the film for not including explicit sex scenes, because then it’s entirely possible that it may have felt too close to a porno with a loose storyline. It has a good story idea with relatable characters and an intriguing premise.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“The Circle” movie review

Tries for a perfect circle, but winds up more like an oval. Full of endless circular logic and irony, director James Ponsoldt’s The Circle depicts the story of a not-so-distant future, or perhaps an alternative present, in which one company dominates digital media, data gathering, and surveillance services. Based upon the four-year-old novel by author Dave Eggers, you’ll notice some stark similarities between this motion picture narrative and the smash hit TV series Black Mirror. The biggest difference between the two is that The Circle is fast-faced and poorly written whereas Black Mirror is a slow-burning but well-written anthology series. In addition to the similarities between the aforementioned, there are certainly elements of The Truman Show in this movie as well. With a powerhouse cast, brilliant composer (Danny Elfman), and excellent editing, The Circle appears to have what a blockbuster needs; however, the hollow characters, poor character development, fractured subplots, and overall diegesis hold the film back from reaching the impact that it could have had. Having taken a digital media and privacy class in graduate school, and published a few articles, this is a film that I was looking forward to in order to analyze how the social commentary or commentary on the human condition regarding reasonable expectations of privacy and big data were integrated into the plot. Sadly, the screenplay was not strong or developed significantly enough to provide big data and privacy discussions.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) hates her job at the water company, so she is incredibly excited when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) lands Mae an interview at The Circle, the world’s most powerful technology and social media company. Mae’s fear of unfulfilled potential impresses the recruiters at The Circle and she lands the opportunity of a lifetime. After Mae puts herself into harm’s way but rescued, thanks to The Circle’s newest surveillance and data gathering system, she is encouraged by the company founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) to take a more active role in technology development by participating in an experiment that puts Mae’s life on display for the world (in the vein of The Truman Show) to see. Once Mae turns on that camera, she has more “friends” than she ever imagined and becomes an instant online celebrity. Unfortunately, this decision will affect those closest to Mae and the negative ramifications will reach far beyond her inner circle and begin to impact humanity at large. Sometimes, people just don’t want to be found or be “social.”

For all The Circle has going for it, the weak screenplay keeps it from being the blockbuster that it so desperately wants to be. A great movie typically begins with solid writing, and that is what’s missing here. After five minutes (or so it seems) of opening title logos, perhaps that is indirect evidence that there were just too many hands in the pot, each trying to take the movie’s narrative in a different direction. Much like Frozen plays off like two different movies crudely sewn together, The Circle appears to be one movie for the first two acts, but takes an unexpected and unfulfilling turn in the third. A couple of conspicuous unanswered questions come after Mae meets TrueYou designer and founder Ty (John Boyega). He designed the platform that launched The Circle. At one point he asks Mae to meet him in a secret tunnel (where all the servers are stored) and tells her that “it’s worse than I thought.” Great opportunity to introduce intrigue, suspense, and more. The problem is that the audience is never told what Ty finds or what happens with what he found. You can remove that whole subplot and the movie remains the same. There are other subplots that are nicely introduced, but never carried out as well. Any or all of them can be removed and the film proceeds the same. Not good. If you can remove several subplots or unfulfilled turning points and the film’s diegesis remain largely untouched, then you have poor writing. The third act in and of itself leaves audiences with a hurried ending that does little to provide closure to the narrative; however, it does support the film’s circular logic and irony. Hardly satisfying.

In terms of the allegory here, The Circle is a Google-like company with Apple’s technology. Eamon Bailey is a Steve Jobs type innovator with characteristics of Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt. Thankfully, The Circle does not represent any one company, but rather combines all the most notable innovations and technological achievements of Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, and more into one globally dominating company. Antitrust issues are introduced early on, but again, that’s never fully developed. The movie highlights many issues faced by private citizens, governments, and digital data driven companies today; therefore, it sets the foundation for a movie that could have been thought-provoking, but the writing hinders that ability. The irony in the movie is for every digital answer to streamlining services or bolstering conveniences, a little privacy is eroded each time. Pretty soon, if one shares enough information, the idea of privacy is extinct. Privacy was central to the plot, but it just wasn’t handled in the most effective way. Concepts such as “off the grid,” self-proclaimed “celebrity,” and “calls to action” are displayed and discussed in the film, connecting this augmented reality to real-world issues each of us encounter or think about. One particularly interesting theme in the movie is deep friendship. Unfortunately, this was not fully fleshed as is the case with most of the movie; but still, it does get touched upon.

Exploring digital media and privacy is something I have written on within the last couple years. More specifically, I explore how entertainment media companies collect big data, and the privacy issues faced therein. In 2016, I published a short series of articles on the Walt Disney World Magic Bands entitled “Magical Data Collection.” You can read those articles by clicking HERE.

If you were hoping for another film like the brilliant Social Network, then you will undoubtedly be disappointed. Films such as The Circle should be memorable, but unfortunately this one is very much forgettable. Coincidentally, the movie itself is as hollow as the plot and characters.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

Unfriended

Unfriended-posterBe careful what you post. Universal Pictures’ Unfriended is a new breed of horror that will have you terrified from beginning to end. Despite watching, what amounts to FaceTime/Skype, iMessage windows, and Safari the entire time, this film will keep you on the edge of your seat as the horror unfolds and the mystery comes closer to being solved. The studio that essentially invented the American horror film is back to the forefront of the minds of movie-going audiences everywhere with this spine-tingling and groundbreaking method of visual and visceral storytelling for the screen. A new take on the tried and true ‘ghost vengeance’ horror plot, Unfriended will have you completely hooked from the time the entity shows up in the group video chat. Of course, you will likely be asking yourself throughout the movie ‘with friends like these, who needs enemies?’ Although this is a revolutionary new concept, I feel strongly it should remain a one-time thing.

Unfriended is about a group of friends who encounter what they feel is a glitch in their group video chat. It isn’t long before the group deduces that the glitch is a molevolant individual hell-bent on seeking revenge for a shaming video that was posted to to the internet one year prior that was also the driving force behind a local high school girl’s suicide. With all the friends denying that they had anything to do with the video and gross taunting and shaming, the “ghost” engages them in a little game of “never have I ever…” that has deadly consequences.

This is one of those horror films that is pretty well straight forward. So, I don’t really have a whole lot to critique. The direction, writing, and score were excellent and the pacing of the film was spot-on. It’s a very well crafted and produced horror film that will likely become a cult favorite of those who appreciate and thoroughly enjoy this genre. Although there isn’t any traditional cinematography in the film, the camera acts as the eyes of one of the characters as we stare at her computer screen the entire time, and effectively communicates the focus of a given point in the story. One of the technical elements that stands out to me is the editing. Now, on one hand, it does not look like an incredible amount of talent and time would go into a film such as this; but, that is the beauty of high quality editing. The fact that it does not feel “edited” is proof that the editor did an excellent job in cutting the thrilling narrative together. My biggest negative critique in the production is the fact the respective wifi signals weren’t disabled when the power goes out. Unless each of the characters was using a battery powered hotspot or had a cellular/data signal in their computers, when the power disconnected, the wireless internet signal should have died too.

Although there isn’t really much in the way of character development, each of the characters can be read as possessing one of more of the infamous ‘seven deadly sins.’ This metaphoric perspective can be extended to the manner in which the various characters die during the movie. One of the characters possesses the “sins” of gluttony and sloth very clearly, another exhibits traits of wrath and greed, one of the friends is very prideful, showing acute signs of the sin of envy are seen in one of the main characters, and the sins of lust and bearing false witness (yes, I’m aware this isn’t one of the “deadly sins”) is demonstrably shown by the main protagonist. The aforementioned character traits are showcased throughout the narrative and are directly related to how each of the characters die. Yes, even the virgin dies in this film that breaks away from many horror tropes.

Gather a group of friends and head to the movies to be thrilled during this horror film for the social media enthusiasts. Watch as high school drama goes way overboard and has deadly consequences. This is definitely a great date movie because I guarantee that you will be able to put on the “movie move” (as coined by Carmike Cinemas). If you don’t know what that is, you probably need to go on more dates.

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