Friday, November 7, 2008

Changeling (2008)

Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, with its impeccable, Oscar-worthy period detail, art direction, costuming and production design, seems to largely exist as an homage to the films of the time in which it is approximately set. Its narrative commencing in 1928, the film concluding in 1935, it is as though Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski painstakingly developed a film that, in its almost quaint recreation of the tropes, dynamics and almost elementary superficial ingredients, seeks to soak in the touchstones upon which many a picture at that time period were based. Those pictures, both celebrated and derided as “women's pictures,” and, until the mid-1930s, they were astonishingly free of regulation, like all Hollywood films. No film at the time of its release could have been called “pre-code,” because firstly the films that were released before 1930 arrived at a time before the Hays Production Code was instituted; “pre-code,” post-1930, is ironically a false label, as the Hays Production Code was adopted by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association on March 31, 1930. However, the code would not be enforced until 1934, bringing an end to the liberalness that characterized the content of an entire host of films that delved into the licentious and lewd. Changeling, however, has more changeless qualities, in a single sense, that being its focus is more on the melodramatic telling of a woman's story, making this emphatically a “women's picture” melodrama that at various dates in Hollywood's treatments of same could have starred Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, even Marlene Dietrich (lastingly and iconically in the “pre-code” era for these aforementioned ladies, but later for all as well), Susan Hayward, Faye Dunaway and Meryl Streep.

Changeling delivers all of the paraphernalia necessary to evoke images of Crawford or Stanwyck being persecuted, punished, scorned, threatened, bullied and held back. Dealing with a system of men unwilling to remotely accommodate their innermost desires, rooted in palpably drawn conceptual scenarios, these heroines were routinely relegated to draconian reformatories (here the psychopathic ward of Los Angeles) after tangling, unsuccessfully, with the all-powerful authorities. The “pre-code” emphasis, however, is lessened by Angelina Jolie's Christine Collins being painted as a saintly figure by Eastwood. Unlike the psychologically rich, verbally confrontational and societally marginal protagonists like Stanwyck's Kitty Lane in Shopworn, however, Collins is actually bordering on being introverted, her fate as a single parent after the abandonment of her son's father resignedly accepted, if not ever forgiven, her dapperly presentable countenance, highlighted only by mascara and optically gleaming, contrastingly colorful scarlet lipstick—almost bedecking against the grimly dismal chiaroscuro and noirish palette Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern untiringly engender—makes her both more vehemently moralistic and consequently less interesting than the “pre-code” ladies, and, defined as she is by the circumstances of the narrative, more reactively etched than comprehensively forged. This, a Ron Howard-touched (he is a producer), somewhat blandly unfolded tale, is more Stella Dallas meets Silkwood and Erin Brokovich, a film about a beleaguered muted force of femininity that is designed to inspire the audience. Unlike other films about a missing loved one today, Changeling does not opt to be a thriller, but a “based on true events” saga, painted with no distractions, so much as an almost ambling cinematic documentation.

The appeal of the content to the director is apparent. With a score by Eastwood himself, of repetitious but mellifluous quality, he repeats the melancholic and nostalgic melody so haunting and memorable in Unforgiven. Like A Perfect World and Mystic River, Eastwood's latest attempts to reconnoiter the horrors of child abduction (echoing both pictures with the emphasis of a boy entering an automobile with strangers), and, connecting this film to the 2003 Boston-set crime drama, wrestling with the yearning for rectitude in the face of such pulverizing despair and violation. (In one interview at the time of the Sean Penn-starrer's release, Eastwood opined that of all crimes, the abduction, molestation and perhaps murder of a child is most deserving of the penalty of death.) In this doubtless worthy objective, however, Changeling manages to veer off course, leaving Collins alone for intermittent stretches of the film's runtime, and, in some ways becoming a different movie from the one early scenes of relative domestic tranquility, intruded upon by the demands of Collins' vocation, as a forthright police officer (Michael Kelly, so riveting as a serial killer in TV's The Shield, responsible for murdering over twenty people in that series and burying many of them, here a stand-out among the cast members as the cop who discovers a shallow grave of a similar number of murdered children) investigates a serial killer's many killings, all poured into one piece of land.

The patina of the film is informed to a great degree by the drawing of the characters. Eastwood allows Collins' enemies to play absolute, unremitting foils, with the heinously corrupt police captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) almost moustache-twirling in his badness, followed by the sinister doctor at the psychopathic award, as frequently redoubtable light-and-shadow patterns noirishly cascading against his smarmy, pensively flagitious face. After Collins is given a changeling by the Los Angeles Police Department, she is made to look like a fool or an insane woman. At the psychopathic ward she is victimized by the head doctor and remorselessly cruel nurses. Set at a time of supposed “Progressive enlightenment,” an era in which a Supreme Court case in the spring of 1927 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declaring in his decision in favor of state-ordered operations of salpingectomy in Buck v. Bell, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Nascent in the time of the Enlightenment, perversely culminating in the twentieth century, reliance on and fervent belief in the cold hand of the experts, and social engineers among the elites, aided and allowed horrors as depicted in Changeling.

John Malkovich gives his Reverend Gustav Briegleb a sotto voce, sensitive demeanor, soft-spoken and tender in his firm and unbending criticisms of the corrupt and incompetent Los Angeles Police Department. It is not a showy performance, but it is especially welcome, as it stands as a bulwark of moderation and force of understated intensity against the almost ceaselessly upset Jolie. She is a gifted actress, and is beautiful, but pondering the picture, it is difficult to remember a scene in which Jolie's Collins does not cry. In the early, prologue scenes leading to the disappearance of her son, which seem rather superfluous in their length (with some necessary ones, such as one in which the mother measures her son's height, which will become a major plot point, and Collins remarking to her son that the stated policy of the Collins household is to never start fights, simply to finish them—which has resonance throughout the film, though is sadly vocalized again at a time most unnecessary) as they do little to construct the person whom the audience is instructed to follow, Collins, besides making the simple point that mothers love their children.

Numerous visual cues are almost inelegant in their obviousness and manipulation against the mainly classy proprioceptors of the film's formal makeup, methodical pacing and straightforward framing on Eastwood's part, such as a moment meant to convey suspense, as Collins, like a whore with a heart of gold (Amy Ryan), beaten by a cop client wanting to hush her up, who plays the part perhaps Stanwyck could fill in another film about another woman, the wisecracking, truth-telling brazen hussy, is nearly given shock-treatment, with only a second to spare, before Reverend Briegleb arrives to her rescue, a moment that leaves the olfactory sensation of a cheap parlor trick. A long shard of cigarette ash falling to the ground as a pivotal revelation is bestowed to the audience; flashes of random corrupt and vicious ruffian “Gunman Squad” policemen conducting illicit business as Malkovich's Reverend Briegleb pulls the curtain in order to let Collins see the truth of the police department sworn to protect and serve, making the scene play, again, like a television movie, or in any event a movie significantly different in tone from the one commenced.

Eastwood, however, is to be given credit for knowing what kind of film he is, in his own way, honoring, as he lets his picture begin with the old, classic black and white Universal logo, finally concluding the picture as same. And that is most fitting, decorously and thematically. The film may become lost, it may, almost incongruously, both overreach and dither, often simultaneously, but its beginning and ending recall some of the zestfulness lurking beneath the celluloid of classic potboiler melodrama. This most certainly is a melodrama, and like countless melodramas of the 1930s, it finds itself in a courtroom—indeed, two courtrooms—before definitively closing its story. And at that courtroom the villainous police captain, Jones, as played by Donovan and directed by Eastwood, behaves like a vastly different captain in a vastly different setting, Lieutenant Commander Queeg, dementedly ranting, his bellicosity billowing and bubbling as he furiously defends his actions after the fact. All he needs are steel balls to spin in his palms as he confronts the lawyer pitted against him, S.S. Hahn (a scene-stealing, gravitas-conveying Geoff Pierson). And while Changeling has many an error in judgment to criticize, there is one moment of sheer poetry for which one should thank Eastwood. And it is made all the more delightfully rich due to its apparent quaintness. Collins, upon leaving the psychotic ward, marches down the street, the air wafting through her newly free nose and mouth, she likewise inhales a piece of horrifying news from a newspaper boy, an occurrence of limitless recurrence in the films of this time period. A beat. She is in disbelief. She faints, and, her frame consuming the entirety of the frame, begins to fall, almost surely doomed to land on the hard unforgiving street. And, as the viewer is completely certain of what will next transpire, out of nowhere, from outside camera range, behind the lady, a figure, blocked from the audience's view, catches her. It is a vivid, exceedingly fecund moment of simple, startling beauty, wordlessly communicating the altruistic strain of life, and the singularly comforting portrait of the compassionate, charitable individual standing alongside the sufferer of dire straits and ostensibly insurmountable odds.

28 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

At the end of the day I dare say I am on the same page with you here. CHANGELING exhibits deft craftsmanship and accurate textures (nice of you to mention those timeless Universal logos too) all of which engulf (as you mention)period detail, art direction, costuming and production design. And you also seem to have nailed it with your acknowledgement that while the film looks right and sounds right, somehow it's NOT really right. Certainly this is a terrifically entertaining movie, but it's "all surface." It doesn't probe deeply into Crying Jolie's character. (again a point that you broached, and one which for me was the biggest flaw) In the pantheon of Hollywood cinema, in the "women's pictures" of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Marlene Dietrick (specifying the lead in SHOPWORN, a film you reviewed recently) the Jolie character is poorly etched, with little psychological insight into the relationship she had with both her real child and the changeling.
The 'unremiting foils' paragraph does broach the issue, however, that had me quite angry during the film (as it would have with most) and that's the issue of police corruption, which in this case sustained one of the most abhorant and unjust incarcerations on record. It was nice to see John Malkovich (yes you are quite right there that he delivers on his 'subtle' portrayal) coming to the forefront to help save the day.
You chose not to speak too much about the 'flashback' sequences and that heinous character all that much, which tells me something about how those scenes didn't flow within the narrative in a seamless way.
Still, the film entertains, and it contains another memorable, if repetitious score by Eastwood (again you said as much yourself) and like LA CONFIDENTIAL and others, justice wins in the end.
It's a reasonably good film, just not a great one. I think we both said as much in our respective reviews.

Very nice essay as always.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam, for your thoughts. I am not surprised you are largely on the same page as I am. For me, however, I'm not sure I would call it "terrifically entertaining"; for one thing, it's just too endlessly dire and bleak. All of your main points, however, especially relating to Collins and her creation by the screenplay and Eastwood, are shared by me.

Most of the flashbacks and the heinous killer scenes, while fairly successful on their own terms, never entirely congealed with the primary "arc" of the film. However, it does point to a film that is surprisingly appropriate to be released on a widescale pattern on Halloween, what with the gruesome axe-murderer deliriously enjoying his most evil hobby.

Eastwood's interest in abducted boys persists as intriguing in this "based on a true story" melodrama.

Interesting, also, that while the women Stanwyck, Crawford and Davis played were spirited and strong enough without male interference, Collins has to be saved by men in different ways multiple times; naturally, as a film based on a true story, this most cohere to greater "realism," but, again, as I write in my review, it consequently makes the film less vibrantly interesting than it honestly should have been.

I am probably too hard on this picture, in some ways, at least. It's clearly well-made, and despite its languid pacing and 140-minute runtime it remains rather engrossing throughout. Yet the pieces of a much greater film seemed to be either be misappropriated or, like Collins' son, missing.

Sam Juliano said...

Alexander, I sometimes blend the concept of "entertaining" with "engrossing." CHANGELING had a number of issues (I gave it 3 and one-half of 5) but I must say I was never bored even for a second.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, I understand, Sam.

vanessa said...

I want to see this so I didnt want to read your review but I couldn't stop reading it. Very good review and it makes it sound interesting but very flawed.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the kind words, Vanessa. I do recommend people see it and make up their own minds. In spite of certain matters I'm unnquestionably glad I saw it.

sluggo the clown said...

clint eastwood was an ass@#$% who forced that wife he had in a lot of hos movies in the 70's and early 80's to have abortions. and he acted in tough guy movies thiinking it was realistic into the late 80's like deadpool. but he does choose a good subject for this movie it seems to me. maybe he is better as writer director than actor. funny you mention the shield bbecause that is the best show out there and you need to do a review soon.A BIG ONE!!!!!!!! after the shield is finished the only good show on fx will be testees and don't forget about nip tuck. thats my friends favorite show. he just turned 7 last month and we are really looking forward to this season. this is a reason i identified with changeling because when i abduct young boys i always deposit them in near a chicken coop. just one of those funny coincidences. oh well i think i will go slaughter a panda bear now.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, sluggo the clown, for several disturbing pieces of information there.

Dean Treadway said...

I haven't seen the movie, so this is not a comment on your perception of it. But could I comment on your writing? Though I admire the ideas I think you're trying to put words to, I find your writing to be a little circuitous. There's many a sentence here that needs a split. I know you have great things to say--I just don't wanna have to read each sentence four times in order to glean good things from it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Dean, thank you for stopping by and commenting. And thank you for the note of advice. This is probably one of the most rambling reviews I have written (possibly the most), primarily because I had such conflicting thoughts and feelings about the film. However, that is not in any way an excuse, and I certainly understand your point here.

Anonymous said...

An extremely long-winded 'review' with a faintly condscending attitude toward Eastwood's movie that made my eyes glaze over after about the third line. You're trying much too hard to impress. Remember; brevity & clarity in reviews are always appreciated. Waffly film school level diatribes like this are not.

Tony D'Ambra said...

I suggest "anonymous" put his money where his mouth is, and reveal his identity. If you don't have the decency to put your name on the line as Alexander does in every post, then keep your comments to yourself.

Sam Juliano said...

I agree with Tony. Signing "anonymous" is the true sign of cowardice.

Allan Fish said...

Hmm, I may be a little under the weather, but hopefully not too under the weather to know that this is not Knock Alexander Coleman day.

I may have ribbed Alexander once or twice for his, shall we say, non-succinctness, but despite my disagreements with Tony d'Ambra on other things, I think he's right that just leaving Anonymous is rather sad. It's the equivalent of ringing someone's doorbell and running round the corner to hide. Criticism must be constructive, but how is it constructive when one is essentially arguing against a question mark.

Good will come of it, however, and Alexander will only get, I won't say better, but more flowing a writer.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, I can certainly withstand criticism. I'm sorry you did not care for the review, Anonymous. My only criticism of your criticism is your suggestion that I'm attempting to impress. My Changeling review is the product of someone who pounds out about 97% of his reviews and then quickly posts them. They almost surely could all benefit from greater examination on my part before they are posted, but ironically the informal nature of a blog has always allowed me to not feel too guilty about not being more thorough. If I came across as condescending, it is entirely my fault again, though. I was legitimately interested in trying to delve into my own thoughts and feelings about the film, in which I found at least some value.

Thank you for stopping by and commenting, however. No one need defend me, though I appreciate the kindliness displayed by my friends above.

Finally, I apologize for the rambling review. It probably flows the least well of any review I've written in a long while. I honestly had many ideas and thoughts as I watched the film and probably became too caught up in them to see that I was doubtless going to lose people in all my obsessions. I'm sorry.

Sam Juliano said...

You need not apologize to anybody Alexander. You are one of the nicest people on the net, forever gracious, forever humble, forever accomodating. And you are a fabulous writer to boot. Perhaps Mr. Anonymous should put his pen to paper and see what he or she could come up with.

ranch wilder said...

anonymous reminds me of the obama impostors who called into radio shows pretending to have recently changed their minds about who they were voting for and pretending like they were average people when in reality they are professional political operatives getting paid by the campaign probably. anonymous could be clint eastwood himself alex.

Matthew Lucas said...

Great review. I agree wholeheartedly. You highlight one of the qualities I think many critics have overlooked, in that it is trying to evoke not just a period, but the films of a period.

I too thought it rambled on too long, but I really did like it. It's had for me to not like an Eastwood film these days.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Matthew, I appreciate that. I wasn't sure what critics were saying until I finished the review and started looking. I was surprised to see that most of the points I bring up here were nowhere to be found. Oh well!

Ranch Wilder, an interesting comparison.

Daniel Getahun said...

Can always count on you for a historical insight. Well done. As far as "anonymous" goes, well I've had plenty of those stop by for some fun at my place (most recently for my Ballast review). You know what you're doing, and you don't need to change anything. Better writing should come naturally and through practice (at least that's what I tell myself), and it's worth mentioning that pretty much all of us who are doing this are doing it late at night - for free.

Anyway, back to the movie: "Unlike other films about a missing loved one today, Changeling does not opt to be a thriller, but a “based on true events” saga, painted with no distractions, so much as an almost ambling cinematic documentation."

This is one bit that I have to raise a hand against. In fact I felt Eastwood sometimes TRIED to make it a thriller - as Matthew has said and as you hint here, it's almost as if there were two movies going on here, and I didn't appreciate the "scary" one.

I'll also have to go up against you and Sam about Malkovich, who I thought only had two speeds here, neither of which were really subtle. I liked the original speech in the church, but after that it seemed to devolve into just a bunch of yelling, all the time.

Anyway, you know that this wasn't my favorite of the year, so most of my observations were nitpicky!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Daniel, for the very kind words as always. Whenever I land myself some free time I'll be sure to take a good long look at your piece on this film.

The truth is, I don't think we differ that much, except you found it boring; I found stretches of it to be tedious, at least nearly boring, but it never quite fell apart like that for me in the way it did for you.

Concering Malkovich, well, to be honest, I thought he was rather restrained considering what the screenplay demanded from his role. However, you disagree; there's little that could change one's mind, I believe, about a performance. If it doesn't work for you, it just doesn't.

Actually, you make a great point about there being a "scary" part, and like Matthew says, there seem to be two different movies vying for attention here. That more thriller-esque portion does not ring true, and seems to belong to something not dissimilar from a Hannibal Lecter movie or something. And when Eastwood and the screenplay did insert moments of suspense, I found them to be quite unbelievable--most notably, I thought, Collins nearly being electro-shocked until the Good Guys come storming in to save her. That scene strains all kind of credulity to me, and as I noted, I believe it was a cheap parlour trick that did not belong in this film at all.

The black and white characterizations did become tiresome, too, which seems to be a gripe of many of Eastwood's harsher critics arguably stemming from Maggie's family in Million Dollar Baby. I'll have to think a little more about that crtique of Eastwood's, but it seemed to be truer here than ever before in my opinion.

Thanks for the comments, and like others, the defense. Haha.

Lucy said...

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

Dorothy Porker said...

This is less a review than sheer poetry, Alexander. You are a true wordsmith. Excellent analogies and wonderful insight. And God, Buck v. Bell? As someone who loves both film and the law, color me impressed.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the very kind words, Dorothy! So good to see you here. Yes, looking at Changeling was drawn just as much, if not more to, the historical aspects of the picture. And I love studying the law. :)

Wendy said...

Such a nice review! This was a trademark Clint Eastwood film, but I felt it was very different from his other works such as Million Dollar Baby. For once, I had no problem with Angelina Jolie's acting - so powerful yet understated acting - although her character was too saintly for my taste. Yes, the movie was a bit flawed in places, but it left me breathless by the time the end credits started rolling. Finally, Hollywood did something right!

Above all, it was the story that had the biggest impact on me, and I hope I can find a movie or book as good as Changeling.

If you’re a fan of the movie Changeling and want to know more about Sanford Clark and Gordon Northcott, I just learned that writer Anthony Flacco has a publishing deal with Sterling for The Road Out of Hell: Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Wineville Murders. It’s being described as a psychological thriller written in cooperation with the adult living son of Sanford Clark. The book, I’m told, will be out in Fall ’09.

Alexander Coleman said...

Wendy, thank you for the kind words, as well as stopping by, reading and commenting.

And I'm happy to hear you loved the film, even if I could not. I agree that Jolie occasionally enriches the role with her feline ferocity, but like you say, the character is painted as too much of a saint.

Thank you for the head's up about the forthcoming book. Sounds interesting.

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