Archive for November, 2008

Changeling

Thursday, November 13th, 2008—Film

Changeling (USA 2008, Biography/Crime/Drama/Mystery), Writer: J. Michael Straczynski; Director: Clint Eastwood

I can’t think of a strong way to start this. Maybe it’s because I just finished working or maybe it’s because Changeling didn’t inspire any strong feelings in me. I’m going to err on the side of ego and blame the movie rather than my writing stamina.

Changeling is based on the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), whose son went missing just outside of Los Angeles in 1928. The notoriously corrupt LAPD—who were more intent on saving face and appearing to have resolved the case than on bringing the right child home—deliver the wrong boy to Christine and refuse to acknowledge her claims despite seemingly undeniable physical evidence in her favour. When Christine publicly challenges the police, she is thrown in a mental institute until someone comes forward claiming that a serial killer may have murdered her son. Christine is freed, thanks to help from activist Reverend Briegleb (John Malkovich) and one of the few remaining honest detectives (Michael Kelly), and she makes it her mission not only to discover the truth about her son, but also to seek justice for the other women wrongly sentenced by the LAPD, and to overthrow the police force.

If that sounds like a convoluted plot, it is. The biggest reason Changeling fails is that it tries to fit two, possibly even three, movies into one. Searching for a missing child; exposing corrupt officials; capturing and prosecuting an alleged serial killer… Each of those would stand alone in a movie. To delve into all three takes away from the impact any of them has. Not having read any reviews before seeing the film, I was really surprised when the plot took a twist with the serial killer angle. It made the second half of the movie feel disjointed, as if the two story lines were fighting for room.

The script has other problems beyond its structure and outline. Most of the characters are extremely one-dimensional. As serial killer Gordon Northcott, Jason Butler Harner gives a good performance, but it’s thanks to his and director Clint Eastwood’s talents, not the dialogue.

Overall, I was left with the feeling that I’d seen it all before. Only better. Even scenes involving profoundly disturbing content—like electroshock therapy or a hanging—left me a little cold. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark had much more impact when they tackled such subject matter.

All this isn’t to say that there’s nothing worthwhile about Changeling. The production design and quality are outstanding. Changeling is meticulously blocked, lit and shot. The precision with which it was made reminds me of those black and white movies from the forties, where the actors can’t be an inch off their mark or the lighting won’t fall properly across their faces. Jolie works very well within this structure; she can drop a tear on the head of a pin, and is unquestionably good as Christine Collins.

With a few exceptions, Changeling is a very well realized production of a flawed script. But I don’t think the flaws were overcome. Anything dealing with such weighty subject matter shouldn’t leave me feeling so little. I recommend skipping this one. You can enjoy the same exceptional production value by renting classic films, like Casablanca or Mildred Pierce. And if you’re an Eastwood fan, you’re better off renting Million Dollar Baby, or the devastating Mystic River which features some of Sean Penn and Tim Robbins’ finest work.

Rescue Dawn

Saturday, November 1st, 2008—Film

Rescue Dawn (USA 2007, Action/Adventure/Drama/War), Writer/Director: Werner Herzog

I’ll be honest—I rented Rescue Dawn because Christian Bale is in it. I thought I’d have to struggle through the long action sequences just to see another of his performances. But it was nothing like what I expected. It’s an extraordinary film unlike any war movie I’ve ever seen.

Rescue Dawn tells the true story of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a German-American pilot who is shot down over Laos in 1965 during his first mission. He is captured and, after refusing to sign a document condemning the United States, is tortured and taken to a prison camp. There, he meets other prisoners of war, some who have been held for several years. And Dengler quickly sets about devising a plan to escape.

Rescue Dawn stands out so much because it’s a fresh telling of a man’s experiences in war, uncluttered by political or even structural agenda. Sometimes the film moves slowly. Other times, particularly towards the end, things get more exciting. But it never feels manipulative. Everything serves to show what Dengler really went through. And it’s a lot. Despite the horrors he faces, nothing can deter Dengler or cause him to lose hope. But it isn’t naïve optimism. It’s fierce determination from someone who has lived through the ravages of war and still believes that “the man who will threaten me hasn’t been born yet.”

It would be hard to believe a person could retain their optimism, let alone sense of humour and charisma, in those circumstances. Except that Bale’s portrayal is based on the rigorously researched Dengler depicted in Herzog’s 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The writer/director did his homework, and it shows in Rescue Dawn.

Beyond the insights Herzog and Bale give into Dengler’s character, the film is captivating because of the director’s technical and artistic gifts. Herzog is equally adept at following action as he is at capturing still, poetic moments. The film includes many beautiful touches and observations about life, like the scrawny dog who parades in front of the starving prisoners on his hind legs, hoping to be rewarded with a scrap of food. The imagery and rich symbolism in Rescue Dawn are rare in today’s films, particularly North American ones.

I feel like I’ve discovered a new world of filmmaking in Herzog. The only thing I’d heard about him before renting Rescue Dawn was that his 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man, about grizzly bear activist Timothy Treadwell, was outstanding (thanks TS!). It took me a couple years to get to it, but I’m about to watch Grizzly Man tonight, as soon as this post is up. I’m going to take a chance and recommend it now, though. The odds are good.