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Caller ID
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by Jay Seaver

"Won't tell you everything, even with *69."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: The filmmakers did a Q&A after "Caller ID", and it turned out to be sort of informative in learning where all the seemingly random elements came from. It was interesting, but probably not something that the average audience member will receive. And though it was a nice look inside the process, it didn't do a whole lot to smooth out what is a very disjointed movie.

Three college students who have known each other since high school are entering a special independent study in psychopathology, under the supervision of Professor Adam Whitney (Douchan Gersi). Each is given different assignments that they are not supposed to discuss with others: Miles (James Duval) is building and installing monitoring devices; Noah (Nathan Bexton) is watching horrific case studies; Dale (Denny Kirkwood) is monitoring Miles and Noah. Noah inevitably snaps, and he doesn't seem to be the first; a previous group of Whitney's students had their own issues. And it seems that Whitney's goals don't just involve the study of the human mind, but attempts to control them.

Caller ID can be immensely frustrating. There are times when it feels like filmmaker Eric Zimmerman tried to make the movie twice, running out of resources both times, and edited the footage together as best he could, piecing it together with text of patent applications and a mysterious voice leaving messages on an answering machine, railing against psychiatrists. There are some neat ideas in there, and, if you want to give it multiple viewings, you could probably piece together a story, but it's so tangled as to be nearly incoherent. It winds up feeling something like a conspiracy thriller, except that the conspiracy seems to be Whitney alone, and he doesn't seem to have any aims other than being creepy.

The film does have some success at giving off a creepy vibe; there are a few impressive scenes where characters are either losing their mind or something genuinely freaky is going on. The recorded messages make us nervous because they convey the feeling of someone who is genuinely damaged and mentally disturbed in a way that a pathology made up to fit a plot seldom does (Zimmerman told us were left on his machine over the course of a year by a very persistent wrong number). It's possible, I guess, to interpret this as the audience only seeing something large and sinister from the very limited perspective of these graduate students, but while that is fine in creating atmosphere, it doesn't do much in the way of story.

It's also difficult to get attached to any members of the cast. We're given fairly standard introductions to Miles and Noah, with Dale added to the mix, but they'll go and disappear for large chunks of time, with other cast members (John Cho's Kama and Roger Guenveur Smith's Blake, mainly) turning up and filling similar roles. Of all the students, Nathan Bexton probably stands out the most; he's the one given a role called on to show a lot of emotion that he nails pretty well. Smith is a little too cool as Blake, while Duval seems to be trying too hard as Miles. Douchan Gersi, meanwhile, is at least fun as the over-the-top vile Whitney, chewing into his villain role with enthusiasm. And while Kirkwood occasionally goes a bit broad with Dale, on balance he comes out ahead of the game.

A lot of the production could probably do with throttling back. During the Q&A, Zimmerman and Beston talked about how it was sometimes hard to keep ahead of technology while shooting over time, and how the cast was given a lot of freedom. Maybe they could have made an excellent movie rather than an interesting but disjointed one if they had locked more in from the start.

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originally posted: 02/10/10 14:21:21
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