Saturday, October 04, 2008

NYFF 2: Changeling

reporting from the New York Film Festival

I really wanted to love Changeling, the latest Oscar-Bait pic from Clint Eastwood. I find the period of the 20s/30s a fascinating time in American history. I love Angelina Jolie. And yet... Goddamnit. I can't say that I loved the picture or even liked it, really. Clint loyalists might think I had it in for the picture, what with my history of finding Eastwood films indulgently reviewed/awarded in the past, but I was rooting for it early on, even trying to ignore the pleasant but awkward score (That's Clint's doing again, you know how he likes to tinker with themes). Yet once the picture got going I just couldn't find much to root for.

A couple of early scenes at home and at the workplace provide Changeling with interesting period detail and establish Mrs. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) as a self sufficient woman and capable single mother. We learn that her husband fled many years ago leaving her to raise the child alone. She's also a supervisor at work with possible management in her future. All of this, the screenplay (by J Michael Straczynski) reminds us, is taking place in a time in which women were expected to be meek and dependent. Women were supposed to obey the patriarchy without question. This friction between nature (Christine Collins inner character) and nurture (time period specific sexism) is both an ideal setup for and an obstacle to the drama to come. After Christine's son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) goes missing she must fight an uphill battle with the patriarchy, excuse me, the LAPD. They're at best incompetent and at worst purely evil in their disregard for her son's well being. They even return to her a boy who is not her son at all. The evil LAPD (they should all be twirling mustaches) even throw poor Christine in an asylum when she won't accept the strange child as her own flesh and blood.

Somewhere buried in the heavily detailed procedural crime drama that Changeling becomes after Christine is locked up, is an interesting story about a woman finding her strength against significant odds in a time long before women's liberation and only a decade after women were granted the right to vote. Unfortunately the movie as directed and scripted works against this potentially thrilling internal drama. The plotting and direction can't decide which kind of movie this is: melodrama, courtroom, serial killer picture, procedural, period epic?

Unfortunately, the casting also gets in the way. Angelina Jolie's screen presence is, as everyone knowns, competent and forceful which is usually a good thing. Unfortunately her largeness somewhat robs Mrs. Collins of the journey from socially conditioned feminine weakness to lioness strength that we need to watch her stumble through. Jolie is technically proficient enough in these "womanly confusion" scenes but they don't feel organic to the actress and there's no surprise or reveal once she starts fighting back. Changeling might have been a better film with a less formidable icon at its center; an actress like, say, Amy Adams, might have had more success forced as she would have been to fight against her own girlishness to find the strength for the character transformation. What's missing in the role is the trained humility and period-specific weakness that Mia Farrow sold so superbly in Changeling's time frame contemporary A Purple Rose of Cairo. We can never doubt that ANGELINA JOLIE (capitals intended) is a woman of fortitude and perseverance. As an actress she's practically a modern superhero.

That said, I've little doubt that Jolie will receive her second Oscar nomination for the role as pundits have been predicting, even in a crowded Best Actress race. Eastwood even throws the Academy a shout out (within the movie's period context of course). Jolie's performance will play exceedingly well in short form, bursting to the seams with "Oscar clip" moments it is: shouting, crying, proclamations for justice --she's especially good in an interview sequence in the insane asylum when you can see her strategizing emotional responses and doubting herself. Clips might be the best way to experience this handsome looking but overlong, overwrought film. The plot is complicated -- it even loses focus on Christine for a surprisingly length of time -- but the picture is not.

In its opening frames Changeling takes us on a welcome trip back in time to the ancient Universal logo and then a black and white shot of Los Angeles. As it nears its subject, mother and son, it gradually imperceptibly turns to color. That's often a neat trick in the movies but with Tom Stern (Clint Eastwood's favored DP) behind the camera it's also not all that much of a transition. Inky blacks and subdued color are favored to such a degree that one wonders why this team, also responsible for the shadowy Million Dollar Baby and the nearly colorless Letters From Iwo Jima haven't just succumbed to their urges and made a true black & white picture. Black and white describes the film's characterizations, too. The film sparks colorfully a bit in the presence of a vivid supporting cast but mostly, like Jolie, they're trading on their screen presence and not the demands of their respective roles. Jason Butler Harner, who understands how to sell both time period and grinning pathology, will impress many in the breakout role of the infamous Gordon Northcott but the only character that isn't instantly easy to pin down as simply Good or Evil is the policeman (played by Michael Kelly) who serves as the bridge between Changeling's two halves. Changeling's title accurately reflects its early creepy child switch and its relentlessly mediocre shift from melodrama to true crime story. A better more disciplined film would have earned that title in a more ambitious way. It's a shame that there's so little real fluidity, few emotional surprises and no transformative character arcs within the sprawling story. C

p.s. Since you want to know about its Oscar chances as much as Clint does --what? He even references to the Oscars in his movie and in an endearing affectionate way -- I'll say this: It's a good bet for Angie, costumes and art direction. The rest will be tougher going. Of the supporting cast only John Malkovich and Jason Butler Harner are feasible and they're longshots at best and only in the race if voters go wild for the picture as a whole. The rest Director, Screenplay, technicals, depends on how well Gran Turino is received. If that other Clint pic is Oscarable it'll give voters a reason to pass here and still honor their favorite actor turned director/composer/producer. Which they like to. Current Oscar Predictions -they'll be updated on October 11th.


Arkaan said...

I don't think you need to be a Clint loyalist to find that hard to believe.


which part?

ah well. at least i won't be totally alone this time (and I wasn't on Flags of Our Fathers either thank god)
this is better than Flags of Our Fathers but it's not as good as Mystic River (which might be the Clint picture its most closely related to)

anyway... i'm so sad that i didn't love Angie in it though. I'm a fan.

Arkaan said...

That you might have had it in for the film. I've heard enough mediocre to bad reviews about it to be curious enough, but not to expect a lot (more specifically, I think the flaws you mentioned - Jolie, storytelling issues).

I admire Eastwood's speed (mainly because I think it's one of the great second acts in Hollywood, and how many "comebacks" actually get a fully fledged second act), and while I'm starting to believe that Eastwood really does consider the oscar a major part of his legacy (which I wouldn't/didn't believe in 2006) I find his speed more a product of said second act/the fact that he's in his 70's, so who knows how long he has left to do the work he clearly loves. I mean, wouldn't it be great if all legends were as active as he?

Nate, I say this as someone who was less impressed with both Mystic River AND Million Dollar Baby than you were, and still haven't seen Eastwood's war duo.

Arkaan said...

That you might have had it in for the film. I've heard enough mediocre to bad reviews about it to be curious enough, but not to expect a lot (more specifically, I think the flaws you mentioned - Jolie, storytelling issues).

Should be concluded by saying - are ones I imagined when hearing about the film (Jolie doesn't convince in period - too fully a modern creation; when I first heard about the film, I had genre questions and the trailer certainly re-emphasized how all over the map it was).


I agree on the active legend thing. I can't tell you how thrilled I'd be if Warren Beatty was directing every year. I mean.

heaven can wait
dick tracy

is a fantastic track record but oh well. not everyone can work at the speed that eastwood and allen do... although there is also something to be said for taking your time. One wonders how much better late period Eastwood and Allen pictures might be if they dwelt on their choices a little more....

Anonymous said...

i don't think jolie looks period enough.

chris said...

I may even more extreme on the anti-Clint train. I couldn't stand the melodrama of Mystic River, the rigid archetypes of Million Dollar, or the flatness of the WWII films. I do like a good kidnap story though, so I was hoping for something different here. Oh well, another hapless forced color scheme it shall be ("Ooh I haven't done tans and golds yet!" -Clint).

Sally Belle said...

I thought the same thing about Jolie when I first heard about this, and doubly so when I saw the first photographs. She does not "convince in period" She certainly looks and feels too "modern a creation". (Thanks to arkaan for that.)

And, like the poster, she is larger then life and, I would think, overwhelms the character.

I have Jolie as a pick for Best Actress, however, for the same reasons Nate stated in his review.
I would be happy to move her off, as I think this is a strong year for actresses. I would prefer not having her gain a nomination due to her gigantic movie star status, if there are other more worthy opponents!

Anonymous said...

If she wasn't able to get a nomination last year, and this year is much more packed, maybe the Academy will gladly skip over her again this year. Especially if Kidman, Winslet, and Streep live up to their performances/movie's expectations.

I was just reading another review (Hollywood Elsewhere) that wasn't impressed by Jolie's performance either. He called her very "one note" and already sees both Thomas and Hathaway (the other 2 actresses he's seen) ahead of her in the race. I'm sure the list will grow deeper when he see's Hawkins, Streep, Kidman, Winslet, etc.

Sally Belle said...

Oh, interesting! I have Thomas and Hathaway on my list as well.

I still have doubts, sorry, about Doubt, and Streep however.

Winslet surely will be included for one of the two films don't you think?

James Hansen said...

I liked this slightly more than you (maybe its just the subject matter, but the horrific scenes are real sharp and I always like Malkovich) but have many of the same reservations. I actually really like all of Clint's work since MYSTIC RIVER (FLAGS wasn't top notch, but I still think its interesting.) This certainly isn't MR, MDB, or LETTERS. Even in their most overt moments, they never felt as forced as CHANGELING does. Maybe its the Jolie/classic Hollywood form of only external acting, or maybe its something else. I don't mind the film being all over the place and shape-shifting (CHANGELING! GET IT!?) but it is much more scattered, much less refined than Clint's recent work. I think thats mostly the fault of the script and editing. There are 2 or 3 whole scenes that are totally unnecessary, and lots of moments that just come off all wrong.

I'm pretty skeptical about the Oscar chances. Jolie is a nom for sure, but I wouldn't bet on many other big awards. Who knows though... have to wait and see how it looks when it opens across the country.

Anonymous said...

I'll admit that I wasn't really amped about dealing with another Clint Oscarbait project, especially after being either on the "I'll begrudingly accept this as high art" train or the "this is halfbaked, overhyped nonsense" train with "Mystic River", "Million Dollar Baby", "Flags of Our Fathers", and "Letters From Iwo Jima". But after I saw the trailer to "Changeling" and saw how incredible Angelina Jolie was in those scenes, it became one of my most anticipated films of 2008, and that's still the case now. I thought that she was royally screwed out of a Oscar nomination this year for "A Mighty Heart", so that's probably fueling as much of the anticipation for the film as just wanting to see Angelina on the big screen again. But I'm holding out hope regardless that the film will be a great one, since there's been both amazing early press and unenthused reviews like this one. Guess that's just how it goes.

Anonymous said...

Changeling is not getting a BP nom. It got mostly mediocre reviews at NYFF, but great reviews at Cannes. I have a feeling the editing done after Cannes ruined the film like how the editign after Cannes made Blindness better.

Anonymous said...

Wow, lots of Anti-Clint Eastwood sentiments going on. I still have to wait and see the movie, but I am sure you all must be quite happy that the movie got bad reviews. If your blog is not entertaining, I wouldn't even read it. Try to be less bias for a change.

Cluster Funk said...

Hello anon, it's HIS blog! Of course there's a bias since the reviews are from HIS vantage point. Don't have to be in agreement to appreciate the film criticism and social commentary Nat doles out so generously. This is where he lives -- we're just visitors/guests.


anon --- you say bias i say tomatoh
wait... that's not right. "opinion"
yes, that's the word.

i can tell it's going to be an interesting season for best actress. there's already arguments going on behind the pundit scene about who deserves the nomination most: Hathaway, Leo or Jolie.

the correct answer is Hathaway :)

so many more still to come.

Glenn said...

At least Nat qualifies why he doesn't like the movie/jolie/eastwood whereas most people who cry outrage do not and, usually, have not even seen the film in question.

I was always skeptical of this film - I didn't give it any noms in my year in advance piece - and what if the movie disappoints at the box office? Not-so-positive reviews plus bad box office could spell Oscar poison. Look what happened last year.

Anonymous said...

Okay the reviews from Oscar Buzzers at the Oscar Buzz board at IMDB are all As and 8/10s..I'm guessing this film will be like Jesse James. Some may think it's too long like Nathaniel, others say its excellent like Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Michael Phillips, and Emanuel Levy.

Anonymous said...

would be interesting to read something about Julianne Moore's performance in "Blindness" compared to Jolie's--- probably Jolie has a better shot at oscar, but whose performance is actually better?

Guy said...

"the correct answer is Hathaway :)"

Ah, but the correcter answer is Kristin Scott Thomas ;)

(Yes, I said correcter. Passionate opinion does exciting things for grammar.)

Great piece, Nat. One wonders if people would be so upset about your "bias" if you'd written a positive review.

Anonymous said...

One wonders if people would be so upset about your "bias" if you'd written a positive review.

Nope. That was easy.


in a way early reviews are kind of annoying (even though everyone likes to read them) because the discussion can't really be about the movie because most haven't seen it. So it's not an even playing field.

i also wrote about memoirs of a geisha and flags of our fathers early and people really hated what i wrote. After the movies opened not one more piece of hate mail arrived about the negative reviews.

i'm not always wrong ;)

but i wasn't lying in the review. I DID want to love it. Love the time period. Love Jolie. was eager to finally love a Clint film so i could enjoy the abundant praise that is sure to come (it's a clint film. Even if it's not good --see FLAGS -- there will be raves. That's just a given. It happens with every auteur that's considered great) And i'm not a total masochist: in general I want to like everything because i'm sitting there in the movie theater. I might as well enjoy myself.

My clint hate is GREATLY exaggerated. I did give both Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River positive grades when they came out... but if you don't think they're masterpieces (which i don't) than you get dubbed a "hater"

ah well. maybe the BUSH era mentality ('you're either with or against us!') will disappear when he leaves office ;) and we can all understand that liking something but not loving it is not the same as hating it.

but it will be sad for me if Jolie wins for this because it will be MILLION DOLLAR BABY all over again: an actress getting credit because the role is so sympathetic. Sympathy should not win Oscars. Performances should.

Arkaan said...

You're not labeled a hater because of your opinions, you're labeled that because the gemini in you loves a double standard (and because you complain a lot about a film being good but not great.

Rick said...

Nat, I too think Mystic River , especially, was an overrated movie... I can't stand a mystery where out of nowhere the "bad guy" shows up and the audience has been trying to guess the outcome for 2 hours. The book made the story much more true to form. I felt cheated when I left that movie.

The Unforgiven is a classic.. also, Bridges of Madison County... which felt it was written by a POOR teenage author .. became a better movie because of the emphasis put on Fransesca ( Meryl Stree0 than the photographer.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Jolie will win oscar for this role. I think all of you are so hard on the movie is because people think it's a frontrunner. I actually don't see this movie as a frontrunner for Best Picture or Best Actress. It seems more like Blood Work. He is not looking for oscar for this movie, he is planning it with Gran Torino.

Plus, I really don't agree with nat saying people use sympathy to win oscar. If it is, then Sean penn should win for I am Sam. I mean come on, a mentally challenged adult male trying to win his daughter back. Also, the actor/actress have to be pretty convincing to make someone sympathetic, he or she should transfer that emotion to us. There are so many sympathetic characters out there in movies or TV but a lot of them just felt false and insincere. I mean, I really think Mystic River is boring, but at least I won't be going to this movie thinking it is an oscar prestige movie.


anon -- you're right that not every "sympathy" role wins oscars. but I think we can agree that it helps.

how to explain that second Oscar for Swank other than that she was playing a highly sympathetic character who had horrible tragic things happen to her rather than a complex individual with big flaws and questionable life choices that invite judgment just as often as sympathy (as all of her competitors were playing)

Angelina cries A LOT in this movie. and it's telling that it's going to be such an easier get for her oscar nomination wise than A MIGHTY HEART wherein she barely cried (though she's much better in A Mighty Heart)

and i'm already frustrated that HATHAWAY and LEO are going to have a harder time getting Oscar noms than JOLIE because you want to slap them just as often as you want to hug them ... and I believe that what people should be concentrating on is not whether or not they like a character but how well the character is being played.

Oh dear. I'm already "worried" for excessively famous millionaires like Anne Hathaway. THE CRAZY OSCAR RACE HAS BEGUN ;)

Guy said...

Honestly, Nat, I think Hathaway is ahead of Jolie in the Oscar race. Her film seems to be a lot more widely liked, for one thing.

I just don't know if that many people in the community are desperate to see Jolie win a second Oscar. Does anyone out there really want to see her rewarded twice before some like Kate Winslet (assuming she's good -- always a safe assumption) is rewarded once? I simply can't see Jolie winning.

Anonymous said...

To reply:
Well, I think if the actor is genuinely great, then no matter how sympathetic or unsympathetic the character is, he or she will always shine through. Otherwise, how can you explain last year Oscar wins for Daniel Day Lewis or Javier Bardam, both evil characters in the pure sense?

Regarding M$B, I don't think we actually get a lot of her past other then her monstrous family. Also, I think the role wins me because she is trying to change, to break out from her past ways.

I haven't seen Hathaway yet, but I hope her acting has improved since Becoming Jane, because her accent is as unstable as her character in Rachel Getting Married:)

Anyways, I think the final five might be:

Kristin Scott Thomas (crossing my fingers, and probably too hard to ignore)
Nicole Kidman
Meryl Streep
Kate Winslet (she might not win again, but she seemed to shout and throw things around a lot)

The last slot is probably competitive:
Jolie, Hathaway, Hawkins, Leo, or a dark horse (something we haven't seen or heard yet)

Guy said...

Michelle Williams in "Wendy and Lucy" could really be one to watch.

She's superb in the film, is having a great year professionally with strong work in "Synecdoche, New York" and "Incendiary," and people have nothing but goodwill for her.

Anonymous said...

Nathaniel R: But was Jolie still good?? I understand you thought Hathaway and Leo were better, but you compared her performance to Hilary Swank's in M$B which I loved and though she deserved the Oscar over Winslet. But I wouldn't mind if Winslet had won either.


sure Jolie was "good" I just want people to be "great" if they're going to be up for Oscars.

Anonymous said...

sure Jolie was "good" I just want people to be "great" if they're going to be up for Oscars.
At Oscar Buzz on IMDB the users who saw the film said Jolie was remarkable and Oscar worthy. I'm surprised as a Jolie fan you thought she wasn't great.

Anonymous said...

BTW, the film got grade A reviews from Oscar Buzzers at IMDB. I'm still shocked that you didn't like the film? Would you say that Hilary Swank and Jolie's performances are on the same league? That would tell me a lot about what you thought of her performance, because Swank got a lot of negative backlash for her 2nd Oscar win.

Anonymous said...

Personally I don't believe the reviews so much. I try to watch a movie with my own eyes and find something that works or not works for me.

Glenn said...

Dude, you're basing judgements on what people at IMDb say? Yikes.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that the rush is there to reward Angelina with a second Oscar win, but a nomination is another story. The film seems too big to ignore, she was perceived as snubbed for "A Mighty Heart," voters might want her huge star power around this year (even better if Brad Pitt's nominated too for "Benjamin Button"), and with The Clint on her side, I have no problem placing her in my predictions. I think that the wishful thinking contender this year is Nicole Kidman. I think that voters are over her now that she's been awarded (not that I think she deserves that fate, but it's telling how many times she's been overlooked since "The Hours" for some of her best work for some blah replacements), and voters are also starting to turn against these epic, Oscarbait-on-paper big films now. I feel like the five will solidify to Angelina, Meryl (cuz she's Meryl), Sally Hawkins (comedy slotter, Mike Leigh film), Kate Winslet (perennial nominee, Leo/Kate reunion), and Anne Hathaway (the fresh, young nominee-in-waiting with a starring "feels like her time" Oscar vehicle all ready for voters to salivate over). I feel like this will be one of those years like 2006 where we'll know who the final five are fairly early on and it won't change all Oscar season, viable opponents or not.


anon 8:36 yeah, I think Swank is better in M$B if you must know. There's no missteps (whereas Jolie has a few problem areas) even though I think Swank's turn is still only a good committed performance of a fairly straightforward character rather than an award worthy take on a difficult acting challenge. The reason I had such issues with the win is that she was the worst of the nominees that year (by a large margin) and two of her opponents were LONG overdue for the actual statue. So it falls squarely in the realm of people voting based on emotion rather than discernment (my take at any rate)


You will feel for Jolie watching this movie. But who wouldn't? That's the role not the performance.

karl said...

I agree that AJ was too modern for the role but feel she did an excellent job. I wish I knew that the film was as dark as it is though. That dark twist, I didn't expect, sort of continues to haunt me. Parts of the movie were sickening which I could normally tolerate when expecting it. I thought the movie was based on the corruption of the LAPD so I was taken by surprise.

Anonymous said...

The Best Motion Picture of the year!!

The curious case of benjamin button
The reader/revolutionary road

Lucy said...

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

mario said...

i don't agree about Jolie at all, it wouldn't have been plausible to see a weak, naive woman fight so hard; if you look at the pic of the real Christine you can't imagine a cute woman playing her (not that Jolie resembles her in any way, but she doesn't seem naive and she's not cute), i thought jolie made you forget her kick-ass persona, she was so frail and refined and, well, delicate. When she confronts the killer in prison, Christine is acting against her nature, you can sense the turmoil inside.

This is a classic performance, one that could have been delivered by an actress of the 50's and you can telle this is what Eastwood and Jolie wanted for thus film.

This is a solid movie and you're underestimating it.

For you Mamma Mia and Sex and the City are better ?

Sometimes I wonder how can grown men have the same taste as vacant sixteen-year old girls

oh well


mario where did you get the impression that I liked MAMMA MIA! ???


Changeling is a way better film than Mamma Mia! (not that that's hard to accomplish)

Bill_the_Bear said...

First, my bias: I've never found Jolie to be a particularly good actress. She always seems to do nothing more than cover the range of emotions from A to B, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker.

Still, I thought she was better here than last year in A Mighty Heart, since her style of emoting fit the time period of Changeling better than it did the modern time of A Mighty Heart.

Still, I don't think she really deserves a nomination for this.

angelina jolie ciplak resim said...

She’s been busy helping her beau Brad Pitt promote his uber-hit “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” over in Japan, and earlier today Angelina Jolie did some promotion of her own.

Anonymous said...

I was shocked to find out the really poor performance of Jolie. with this movie, she exposed herself as maybe she indeed is, a beautiful woman, but a bad actress!