Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Changeling (2008)

Changeling (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

Changeling is Clint Eastwood's middling account of the struggles of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mom who loses her son (Gattlin Griffith) and when the L. A. police reunited her with a different boy, protests and because of that, becomes hapless victim of the embattled police force's determination to salvage whatever integrity and reputation it has left under the inept and corrupt leadership of Chief Davis (Colm Feore). The film has the same somber and sober tone of Eastwood's post-Unforgiven (1999) Oscar baits (Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)), where the pessimistic core dressed in multi-million dollar gloss of the films is often mistaken as aesthetic sophistication and thematic depth, thus garnering much popular and critical acclaim for what basically is heavy-handed humdrum.

Undoubtedly, like most of Eastwood's more recent features, Changeling is visually wonderful. Cinematographer Tom Stern paints this unideal Los Angeles with muted hues that seemingly allude to the moral and political condition of that era: hazy, fading, paling. 1920's-Los Angeles is impressively recreated, from the rows of suburban homes that house the newly affluent middle class to the decrepit abandoned farm in the outskirts of the city that becomes the setting of the horrendous massacre which is the core of the narrative. Populating these structures and edifices are citizens and transients who are occupied by their respective little businesses involving family and employment. The atmosphere of moral and political disarray is conveniently hidden by the bright Californian sun, until an impetus for its timely revelation occurs.

The film primarily concerns itself with Christine's own little entanglements which quickly transformed into the gargantuan task, the aforementioned impetus, of defeating the seemingly indestructible authority, something which she was volunteered for not by her own choosing but by fate and the repercussions of living in a corrupted city. J. Michael Straczynski, in his screenplay, is adamantly straightforward in forwarding the virtues of his headstrong heroine, but in so doing, branches into a myriad of unwieldy subplots and introduces a bevy of mono-dimensional side characters, including Rev. Gustav Briegleb (played with predictably boring enthusiasm by John Malkovich), a Presbyterian minister whose consistently forceful verbal attacks against the police and mental manipulation of Christine feels obnoxiously monomaniacal, Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), the bad cop whose quintessential grimaces leave nothing to the imagination, and Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), the serial killer whose attempts at moral and psychological vagueness is more unconvincing than unsettling.

Eastwood's usually guileless and elegant storytelling seems inappropriate for Straczynski's pulpy material. There is a suspect air of reverence, facilitated by Straczynski's over-respectful tribute to his obscure protagonist, Eastwood's consistently competent although unremarkable direction, and Jolie's uncharacteristically quiet but effective turn as the perpetually suffering Christine Collins, that permeates throughout the film. It is an air of reverence that is particularly suffocating and this film, from its introduction of depicting Christine as timid yet industrious single mother (we see Christine at her workplace, well-loved, responsible, and diligently skating around her workplace before returning home to tend to her son) to the emotional trials she patiently goes through, delivers in unrelenting doses.

Changeling is a masterpiece to stubborn Eastwood-followers, gullible feminists, and connoisseurs of high melodrama and manipulative weepers. I also suspect fans of Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), and Manderlay (2005), all of which depict women suffering through very cruel twists of fate, would be comfortable seeing Jolie bullied by the police into accepting a stranger as his son, dragged into the loony bin, and stripped and washed like filthy cattle, among others. To present-day cynics, or even those of us who have admired the simplicity of Eastwood's storytelling, Changeling is a disappointment that borders on being torture.


Lucy said...

This is a good movie with a good story. Angelina Jolie is good in the role of Christine Collins

pacheco said...

For me, Changeling really had no clue what it wanted to be. At any point in time, it was a Lifetime Original Movie, it was Erin Brokovich, it was Girl, Interrupted.... The film became laughable in its character logic.

Not to mention that the film played to the audience way too much. When Amy Ryan punched the Dr., it was solely there to get the audience going. There were way too many speeches directed to the audience, explaining the film's themes ("Never let go of hope" and junk like that). Then the trial of the PD, which we saw play out almost in its entirety despite knowing (through basic film logic) what was going to happen. That tells me that, again, the film was just hoping to get the audience fired up and cheering at the downfall of the "bad guys."

Really, it was just such a mess to me, and yet the crowd around me ate it up with a spoon.

Now, regarding that last paragraph...

I really like Breaking the Waves (though I've only seen it once in the 5+ years of owning the DVD), and I think Dancer in the Dark is absolutely brilliant brilliant brilliant (I've seen it a few times, but it's very difficult to do so). I'm not afraid to admit that part of me likes the "women suffering" aspects of those films. That's not to say that I enjoy the suffering of women... you know what I'm trying to say here. Are they melodramatic? Yes. Are they manipulative? In a way, I think. But I've seen much more blatant films in the "chick flick" genre (any film based on a Nicholas Sparks book is a shoe-in).

I think von Trier has a goal with his films and he accomplishes them. There are elements of intelligence and truth to his films (and no, it has nothing to do with the stripped down handheld aesthetic). Now, whether or not you actually like those goals is something completely different.

Geez Louise, those are a lot of parentheses...

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Pacheco and Lucy,

Lucy: I'm glad you enjoyed this.
Pacheco: Parentheses are good, hehe. I enjoyed Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark too despite their being melodramatic and manipulative (they're undoubtedly manipulative; having the women undergo extreme pains and tribulations, and for what? to escalate audience pity? I'm exactly not sure). You're correct with Changeling being unsure of what it wants to be... I half wanted it to be a thriller, but then it just went nowhere...

Noel Vera said...

my problem with Von Triers is that he's so hungry to have his women suffer he breaks story and emotional logic to have his pain cake and eat it (in Breaking he should really have her repeat herself a few more times, and give us a better idea of the town's reaction to what she's doing; in Dancing there's just too many chances for her to get off for me to believe she'd actually hang).

Kubrick would've handled Dancing better--see Paths of Glory.

Best thing in this movie was the serial killer.

Oggs Cruz said...

I didn't think the serial killer is as convincing as I wanted him to be. This film has been compared to Laughton's Night of the Hunter, which I thought was vastly superior, with a villain, far more interesting, intriguing, and chilling than Eastwood or his screenwriter can imagine. I'm imagining Eastwood is channeling a bit of Laughton here, with the serial killer giving off an alluring moral vagueness, but the caricature sadly doesn't succeed. Oh, he could've fired Jolie, Malkovich and cut all the weepy women moments, and just make a film about the killer and his massacre of the children but I suspect that would be eerily similar to Mystic River.

Edward Copeland said...

Jolie's constant scream about wanting her son in the pervasive TV ads when in first opened sort of turned me off wanting to see the movie at all, giving me too many flashbacks of her over-the-top wailing after receiving the bad news over the phone in A Mighty Heart.