Thursday, November 06, 2008

Changeling, Pride and Glory: Two Sides of a Coin

I got to wondering today whether my movie critique posts to date actually qualify as "critical" in the strict sense of the word. I watch a lot of films, and find things to like about almost all of them - shouldn't the "reviewer" be a little more discriminating? Well never fear, today's posting was inspired by one fantastic film, and another that gives occasion to pull out all manner of metaphors evoking the noxious stench of spoiled eggs.

Shall we begin? There are movies to be considered!

Changeling (Clint Eastwood, 2008) (Park Lane) When Christine Collins (an emaciated Angelina Jolie, wasted away to Lara Flynn Boyle-esque skin and bones) waves goodbye to her son Walter one Saturday morning in 1928, she has no idea that she will never lay eyes on him again - and no inkling of the hell that her life is about to become. Walter ultimately became one of about 20 young boys brutally murdered as part of the "Wineville chicken coop murders" - but his mother's torment went far beyond losing her only son.

Enter the corrupt and scheming LAPD, which, desperate for good press, finds a random young boy and returns him to Christine despite her protests that he is not her son - who, among other things, was three inches taller and uncircumcised. With the help of Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovitch), a contemporary crusader against the LAPD, Christine begins a fight for justice that sees her publicly humiliated, slandered as a negligent mother and ultimately committed to an insane asylum on the authority of one police officer's signature.

Changeling is a very good film that interested and engaged me completely for 141 minutes, which is no small feat in his era of overly long epic-wannabes.

Perhaps the most compelling thing about Changeling is its lead actress, Angelina Jolie, who is usually cast in racier affairs by virtue of her "I could hurt you and you would enjoy it" sex appeal - we won't even talk about those lips. I must admit that although I greatly enjoyed Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the throw-away shoot-em-up vein and consumed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow gleefully, like a kid with a full cookie jar and a good hiding place, I have generally been pretty ambivalent about Jolie.

However, with Changeling I believe that I am reaching the same tipping point that I reached with Brad Pitt and even Leonardo DiCaprio some years ago - recognizing her as a great actress that does an unfortunate amount of Hollywood crap due to the misfortune (?!?!) of her good looks.

Jolie phones this one in. I think in particular of her first interview with the head doctor of the asylum. She has been forewarned by a fellow inmate that she will be diagnosed as: purely insane if she smiles too much; clinically depressed if she is quiet and passive; and catatonic if she remains neutral. As the doctor interrogates her about how she feels, we watch as Jolie tries desperately to decide how to act and react - and watch as terror builds in her eyes when the full degree of her helplessness becomes apparent. Chilling.

And this takes us to one of the prevalent themes in this film: the heartless dismissal of women in general by patronizing male authority figures. At one point in the film the chief of police is actually heard to mutter "women" in a frustrated tone as Christine (Jolie) responds in an understandably emotional manner to the situation she is in. Over and over we see how police officers, doctors and scientists dismiss her opinions and ideas solely because she is an "emotional woman incapable of logic." Frightening.

That being said, there is one other character that bears mentioning, as he is the only male figure who extends any sympathy to our protagonist: Rev. Gustav Briegleb. Played by Malkovitch as a sanctimonious but sympathetic champion of the damsel in distress, Rev. Briegleb occupies a purely utilitarian role in the story - we do not feel his passion or learn enough about the man to feel invested in his campaign against the LAPD. While Malkovitch is a reliably good actor, reliably good is all that he is in this role. A wasted opportunity.

Similarly, the set of the film should have been rich and lush, with a luster of the optimistic pre-crash flapper era shining from every surface (think the highly stylized presentation of New York in the Coen brothers' brilliant Miller's Crossing). Somehow this film makes 1920s LA look a little drab - which is admittedly in keeping with the somber tone of the story, but is a missed opportunity nonetheless.

No, this movie is Jolie's from the very beginning, and she brings enough to the performance to compensate for any deficiencies the production as a whole may suffer. I sense an Oscar nomination in the offing - and am eager to watch A Mighty Heart this weekend to get another dose of the Angelina Jolie that I never knew.

Pride and Glory (Gavin O'Connor, 2008) (Park Lane) While exiting the theater after watching Changeling, I caught the name Edward Norton on the poster advertising Pride and Glory. Throwing caution to the wind, I slipped into the theater and hunkered down in a prime seat with little idea of what to expect.

Sometimes you should quit while you are ahead.

Here we go: Respected elder "always played by the book" New York cop (Jon Voight) has two sons who are cops (Norton and Noah Emmerich) and a daughter married to a cop (Colin Farrell). I believe that they, to fulfill one of the checklist requirements for a New York cop film, are all supposed to be Irish - but the accents come and go willy-nilly, so it is hard to tell from one scene to the next.

Farrel is dirty, Emmerich tolerates his indiscretions because it makes him look good as station head, and Norton is tortured by a lie he told on the stand two years earlier to help cover up Farrell's earlier misdeeds.

When four random cops are killed in a vicious shootout, and Norton is assigned to the task force investigating the deaths. The investigation leads Norton to Farrell and Emmerich - didn't see that coming did you? - and necessitates a lot of soul searching (I can only assume from the wounded puppy look in Norton's eyes) before he ultimately turns them all in. Sounds simple enough, right?

Wrong, before this this bloated drama says die we are subjected to 130 minutes of gun fights, heads exploding over car windshields, mano-a-mano fist fights, heart-to-hearts with father, and out-of-left-field sub-plots involving Emmerich's wife's losing battle with cancer and Norton's pretty but pointless soon-to-be ex-wife. I actually believe that this film could have been made on a budget of about $35 if they had just patched together pomp-and-circumstance cop funeral scenes and gun battles from the numerous other really bad cop films that Hollywood foists upon us.

It is painful to watch an actor as capable as Edward Norton sink to this level - not that he hasn't done it before, but why is he doing it again? Does he choose his own films? Colin Farrell is acting at about the level he is capable of (I mean, he really has an Irish accent, so that alone explains his presence), but Norton is wasted.

And so are 130 minutes of my life. I considered walking out of this one.

Two Sides of a Coin
So those are the two sides of the coin: one film that achieves great things on the strength of one great actress' performance, and one drags a great actor shamelessly through the mud.

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