The Curious Case of Benjamin Button(12/27/2008)

            After sixteen years, David Fincher still has one of the best track records in all of cinema.  With Fight Club and Se7en he more than secured his place in film history, and even his lesser works like The Game and Panic Room are extremely well made and more or less do what they set out to do.  I had some issues with last year’s Zodiac (mostly the fault of the script), but it was so amazingly ambitious and well directed that it still managed to secure a place on my year end top ten list.  In fact Fincher’s latest film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, shows that Zodiac was the beginning of a great new page in the filmmaker’s career.

            The opens with a rather unusual prologue about a blind clockmaker who, out of grief for his son killed in the First World War, built a clock for the New Orleans train station that would tick backwards in (metaphorical) hope that time would go backwards and bring back the fallen soldiers.  The day the war ends, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born “under unusual circumstances.”  The baby boy is a brittle infant with wrinkled skin, a doctor who examines him say that if he didn’t know any better he would say the child was an old man at the end of his years.  The boy’s father panics and abandons him on the steps of a nursing home, there he’s found and raised by an orderly named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who tells everyone that Benjamin is her nephew.  It soon becomes apparent that as Benjamin grows in age, mentality and in stature, he is in fact becoming younger in appearance and vitality.  Somewhere around age ten he meets Daisy (played by Elle Fanning at this age and later by Cate Blanchett) the daughter of one of the home’s inhabitants.  They’re technically the same age but Benjamin looks significantly older then she does, all the same they fall in love at first sight.  The film continues to chronicle Benjamin Button’s life from birth to death.

            The film, loosely based on an obscure short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, seems to be a meditation on the phrase “youth is wasted on the young.”  I’ve never been a fan of that phrase; the comeback I’ve developed to it is “retirement is wasted on the old.”  Button’s childhood is never that great, he’s forced to live in a retirement home and is never really able to play with other children except Daisy.  His old age isn’t great either, it would seem that the grass isn’t very green on either side of that fence.  The truly good days of Benjamin’s life are the portions where he’s about 20 to 60, or rather 60 to 20, that’s the period where he’s physically and mentally able to truly enjoy life.  One can tell why this view of life would appeal to 46 year old David Fincher, 47 year old Brad Pitt, and even to F. Scott Fitzgerald who was 25 when he wrote the story.  Although it is likely a depressing thought for the 63 year old screenwriter.

            Between this film and Zodiac, one can definitely and evolution in Fincher as an auteur.  In Fincher’s pantheon, the film definitely has a close kinship with Zodiac.  Both films cover a much larger scope then Fincher’s previous work which mostly consisted of stories told over the course of a few days or in a case of Fight Club maybe a year.  Zodiac followed a criminal investigation over the course of about a decade, but this new film chronicles a man’s life a full eighty years.  Like that film, this is sort of a story that kind of sits there existing.  It’s characters do not have clear motivations that are accomplished by the end as one would see from a conventional seminar formulated screenplay.  The challenge with such a story structure is that everything that the film shows needs to be pretty interesting, and sure enough it is.

First and foremost this film confirms beyond any shadow of a doubt that David Fincher is an absolute master of his craft, not that anyone really doubted that to begin with. Like all of Fincher’s previous work, this film manages to tell its story with keen technological proficiency and inventive devices that keep the film energetic and fresh throughout it’s rather long run running time.  Fincher has never been one to shy away from going using visually impressive set-pieces in order to further the story.  A great example of this is a scene from Zodiac where time passage is shown by the newspaper headline scrolling across the walls, or another such scene were the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge is shown at a rapid pace.  The same kind of trick is present in The Curious case of Benjamin Button as well.  There’s a really nice scene where an event’s probability of happening is outlined as a series of coincidences, a montage that helps to destroy possible criticism about the random nature of the event.  There’s also a really exceptional montage later in the movie, one of the best such montages I’ve ever seen to show the passage of time.  These are the kind of special touches you get to expect from a David Fincher film.  It’s also got a sea battle which is really, really, really top of the line.

One thing here that’s very different from Fincher’s previous work is its tone and subject matter.  Fincher has long been known for really dark, gritty, R-rated movies like Fight Club and Se7en.  No one in this film gets his fingers crushed into a door and there’s not a single head-in-a-box either.  In fact there’s a sense of whimsy to the film that may feel more at home in a Spielberg film then a Fincher movie.  This could have been a very bad thing, but Fincher never allows it to be.  Whimsy is something that can quickly derail a movie if it isn’t earned; you really need to care about a story or else whimsy will just seem manipulative and lame.  This never occurs here, all of the film’s whimsy is earned.  From the strange prologue, through a running gag about lightning, to the haunting final shot, I think this completely manages to live up to all the “magic” so many Spielberg wannabes miss the mark on.

Technologically speaking, every element of the film is top of the line.  Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is straight up amazing, Alexandre Desplat provides a very appropriate score, and Donald Graham Burt’s production design is out of this world extraordinary.  But the thing that makes this movie really stand out is the makeup and the visual effects that were used to make Benjamin Button the backward aging freak that he is.  As a child/geezer, Button is played by a variety of stand-ins with names like Peter Donald Badalamenti, Robert Towers, and Tom Everett.  What’s amazing is that I have no idea what point in the film Fincher stopped using stand-ins and started using Brad Pitt, the makeup is that seamless.  This is simply the best aging makeup/technology I’ve ever seen.  All of these amazing effects are there to serve the story, and it’s really nice to see a character drama being a medium for amazing special effects rather than some sort of comic book movie (not that there’s anything wrong with those).

Brad Pitt does everything he can to work through all the makeup, I think he does everything he needs to do for the role, but this isn’t really an actor centric movie and it doesn’t really lend itself to the really impressive kind of acting you’re going to see in something like Doubt.  Benjamin Button is a fairly stoic character, one who’s forced to mature early and he doesn’t really emote greatly throughout the film.  Blanchet doesn’t really have a whole lot to do either.  Taraji P. Henson really stands out in the movie because she has a character that’s a bit easier to love then the more tortured leads. 

The movie reminds me a whole lot of Stanley Kubrick’s massively underrated masterpiece Barry Lyndon.  The two films couldn’t be more different in tone, pacing, or style; but the underlying film is pretty similar.  Both films chronicle the entire life of their title characters, for adventurous youths to domestic middle age, all the way to an old age in which the character’s problems finally catch up with them.  They’re not individual stories so much as meditations about what the grand sum of a life can be.  It’s a movie which will suck you in and have you transfixed on the cinema screen for its entire 159 minute runtime as long as you’re ready to take the ride.

**** out of Four

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DVD Catch Up: Man on Wire(12/23/2008)

            Like any other type of cinema, there are many different varieties of documentary.  Michael Moore’s brand of first person issue exploration is one brand that’s pretty popular, another important variety are those that are filmed on the spot from beginning to end, and finally there’s the historical documentary; one’s made many years after the event and told through archival footage, new interviews, and reenactments.  James Marsh’s new documentary Man on Wire is of the later variety. 

            The film tells the story of Philippe Petit, a French acrobat who made headlines in 1974 when he illegally tightrope walked between the towers of the World Trade Center.  I’m not spoiling anything when I say that he succeeds at his stunt, he’s alive and well today and modern interviews from him are featured throughout the film.  The film recounts Petit’s obsession with the building, one that predates even the construction of the structure.  It shows the meticulous plan constructed by Petit and his co-conspirators to break into the building, sneak to the roof, shoot an arrow to the other tower, and finally string a rope across for his daring stunt.

            The documentary in many ways plays out like a heist movie, one that ends with Petit’s stunt instead of a score.  Marsh acknowledges the similarities and gives the interview subjects nicknames like “The Inside Man” or “The Australian.”  Later the participants flat out say that part of the fun of the endeavor was that it was like a bank robbery.  The comparison is apt.  Petit had to “case the joint” to plan out the stunt, acquire disguises, make fake IDs, and finally sneak in undetected.  Among their most brazen acts involved getting a tour of the building while claiming to be from a French architecture journal. 

            Oddly, Petit’s stunt was never caught on videotape.  We see older footage of him walking across the Notre Dame and an Australian bridge, but the World Trade Center crossing was captured only with still pictures.  Ultimately, this might only make Petit’s act seem all the more outrageous because the stills give the impression of what was going on while still leaving a lot to the imagination.  The sight of him walking slowly in amateur video footage might have been a much more anticlimactic conclusion had such footage ever been shot.  Really, the thought of crossing the wire is a lot more grand than footage of him actually doing it.

            I can’t help but wonder how this documentary would have played out if Petit hadn’t made it across that wire, if he had fallen to his death midway through his feat.  It might have played out an awful lot like Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, a story of a man tragically killed by his seemingly insane obsession.  Of course history is always told by the winners, and unlike the aforementioned Timothy Treadwell, Petit is alive to defend himself.  One does wonder about his mentality though, would it not have been just as difficult to cross that length of wire if it were a safe distance from the ground?  If risking his life was the source of his thrill couldn’t he have just as easily played a game of Russian Roulette? 
            I can’t say that a lot of these questions were really answered.  Petit never quite explains what drove him, he simply says that the idea just popped into his head; when asked about his motivations by the press he copped out and said he had no reason.  Frankly, I can’t quite believe that Petit is shallow enough to risk his life without any reason, and if he did he’s a really shallow person.  Ultimately the film works better as a heist story then as a character study, and this is disappointing.  It says something when the most critically acclaimed documentary of the year is basically a very well crafted heist film.  Filmmakers working outside of the documentary field who make simple well crafted heist films don’t get half the praise that this documentarian has.  Does this say something about the standards people have for documentaries?  Perhaps, or maybe this one is simply overrated.  I don’t want to sound too negative though, I like a well crafted heist film as much as the next guy.

***1/2 out of four

Doubt(12/222/2008)

            I grew up raised in the Catholic Church.  It was a very nice welcoming place.  Masses were long and boring, held in a large kind of spooky cathedral and led by a dude in an elaborate robe, but everyone was pretty nice.  I’m no longer religious, but the church had nothing to do with this, my experience was far removed from the usual catholic reputation of conflicted, guilt-ridden, and brooding people.  The church I grew up in was a lot different from the way Catholicism was at the beginning of the century.  The new film, Doubt, is partly about the struggles that occurred at mid century which shaped the church into the welcoming thing it is today.  It’s also about the child abuse scandal that dogs the church to this day.  More importantly it is about a woman, who in the depths of her heart is struggling with the faith she has lived with for decades.

            The film is written and directed by John Patrick Shanley and based on his own Pulitzer Prize winning play.  Set in New York circa 1964, the film is about activities in a catholic school.  The principle of this school is a nun named Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) who lives up to the ruler slapping reputation of nuns at catholic schools.  As a principle she’s mean, controlling and unapproachable, very much a member of the old school of Catholicism.  The priest of the dioceses is Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), someone of the new school of friendlier Catholicism.  Aloysius is clearly not fond of Flynn, but she hold back from openly criticizing him because she respects the hierarchies of the church.  A young and naïve nun named Sister James (Amy Adams) begins to notice Flynn holding an oddly close relationship with the school’s first African American pupil (Joseph Foster), Aloysius begins to suspect Flynn is behaving abusively.

            This is certainly not a film intended to show off the technical proficiency of the filmmakers.  The camera work is consistently competent, and Roger Deakin’s cinematography is quite crisp, but this is a theater adaption through and through.  The stage version was set up to be a piece with only four characters, while the film mostly follows suit, it is opened up a bit.  There are plenty of extras in the school; there are scenes of the characters interacting with students and scenes of the characters interacting with other clergy members.  The characters occasionally go outside, but at the end of the day this is very much a story where a few characters have very long conversations with each other.  Still, they adapt this for the screen about as well as they can, they don’t pull silly stunts in order to make it cinematic but they expand it enough to be its own entity.

            I think what makes the film so special is that it challenges you to like someone who’s not likable, and hate someone who is likable.  It would have been so easy for John Patrick Shanley to write a story where the potentially abusive priest were a staunch traditionalist and harsh disciplinarian, and the nun standing up to him was likable, friendly and reform minded woman who you really wanted to cheer for.  Shanley doesn’t take this easy and conventional route.  Instead he’s set up a morality tale that forces the viewer to come to grips with which character they relate to and more importantly why they relate to them.  Your opinion of the characters will change by the end, then change back, and maybe change again. 

            The major roles here have been filled by top Hollywood talent, and at the head of it all is Meryl Streep.  Streep hasn’t been working on this level for a while; she’s been doing a lot of less prestigious work lately.  She has a big challenge here in that it is essential that she makes the audience relate to her character, but the convent lifestyle is not exactly the easiest one to relate to.  She needs to exhibit a lot of material through simple looks and line deliveries, all while trying desperately to behave with the kind of restraint and dignity that her character would demand.  Streep exhibits a great amount of personal strength on her character’s behalf and does it through the simple authority of her line deliveries. 

Frankly, I can’t imagine anyone else doing this role as well as Streep does here.  She has a reputation of taking a new accent with every role, and this is no exception.  Here she has the slightest Bronx accent, it’s the type of thing 99% of actresses wouldn’t have bothered with, but it really changes a lot about the character.  It explains why the local parish is so important, and it generally gives the viewer a better idea of where she came from in life.  I think this is a tremendous performance that’s been perfectly balanced throughout the film.

Going up against Streep is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who also has a difficult balancing act.   He needs to control his every look and motion, every line delivery.  He has to sell himself as an innocent man, while allowing the possibility of his character’s guilt to still be there, but ever so slightly.  Viola Davis has been getting a lot of huge marks for her role as the mother of the potentially abused child.  She only really has one longish scene, but she still leaves a big impression.  If anyone is a weak link here it’s Amy Adams.  Adams is quickly becoming typecast into naïve bubbly roles, and this isn’t a lot different from what she’s done elsewhere.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call her poor, but she isn’t working on the same level as the other three performers. 

These actors are working with an excellent script that features awesome dialogue.  The characters here, especially Aloysius, talk in way that’s a tad formal, but still conversational.  Basically, these are people that would never dream of using slang, but they’re still just talking to each other.  Despite all the formality, there’s still some really snappy dialogue on display here.  Aloysius speaks with strong, really well crafted sentences and argues with complete confidence.  There is a surprising amount of humor in the script given the subject matter, Shanley plays around a lot with the fact that these are nuns we’re dealing with, but they’re still human, and when they’re planning out the school activities like it’s a day at the job.  Pay close attention to the first and last lines, I think a lot of the film’s meaning can be grasped from these two moments.

I must also say that the movie is marred by a horrible trailer which gives way too much away.  I can’t blame the movie for bad marketing though. John Patrick Shanley has written a great play here, I can totally see why it won a Pulitzer.  Everything I liked about the film version almost certainly comes from that play and the way it’s performed by these actors.  Everything else is perfectly competent, but not amazing.  So, what we’ve got here is a great play being performed greatly with production that, if nothing else, usually stays out of the way. 

**** out of Four

DVD Catch Up: The Fall(10/5/2008)

            The Fall is directed by a fellow who only goes by the name Tarsem.  I always have something of an irrational suspicion of anyone that only goes by one name, but I must say this guy fascinates me.  Tarsem (real name Tarsem Singh Dhandwar) was a director of music videos (including the famous R.E.M. “Losing My Religion” video!) before he came out with the Jennifer Lopez vehicle The Cell in 2000.   I rented The Cell once, but was never able to finish it due to a scratched up disc that crapped out about halfway into it.  What I saw was very visually innovative, and I’m not sure why I never got around to checking out the rest of it.  Tarsem wouldn’t make another film for another six years, a work called The Fall, which debuted at the Toronto international film festival way back in 2006 and proceeded to sit on the shelf for almost two years for one reason or another.  Finally in the summer of 2008 the film would see a release with “presented by” credits going to fellow music video alums David Fincher and Spike Jonze.  I finally caught up to it shortly after its DVD release.

            The film begins in 1920s Hollywood and follows a 10 year old girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), an immigrant with a broken arm staying at a hospital.  There she meets Roy Walker (Lee Pace), a stuntman who’s bedridden after a stunt gone wrong.  After a little chat, Roy begins to tell Alexandria an elaborate fantasy story, this story within a story takes up a lot of the film’s screen time and it the source of most of the film’s visual imagination.  This story is set in some kind of 18th century near east fantasy realm, and follows five warriors who all want bloody revenge against the evil Governor Odious. 

            The catch to all this is that Roy isn’t really committed to the story he’s telling, he’s doing it as part of a Scheherazade scheme in order to trick Alexandria into bringing him morphine.  He begins by telling a pirate story, but quickly changes it to something else when Alexandria tells him she doesn’t like pirates.  This is a clear signal to the audience that Roy is making this story up as he goes, and this makes all the difference because it gives Tarsem the ability to take the story in all kinds of crazy directions in order to justify his visual imagination, and there’s an explanation for it in the story. 

            These visuals do indeed live up to Tarsem’s reputation.  The film’s art direction is really creative, and the costumes are absolutely outlandish.  I also really like how Tarsem is willing to really pull the camera really far and let the visuals play out in massive scale.  This is a rare thing in this world of close-ups and small scope.  I’d call the film completely original if it weren’t for the fact that Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen weren’t so similar to it in style, tone, and set up. 

            As Roy gets to be in a worse and worse mood, the story within a story begins to get darker, but that’s about as deep as this project gets.  Ultimately, The Fall seems like a fairly shallow film.  The story within a story doesn’t amount to much, it just sort of exists.  Shallow though it may be, the film works very well in the moment, it’s a fun movie to watch and the production design is pretty neat.  For this reason, I’m more than willing to recommend the film, but I don’t think it’s going to have a whole lot of shelf life.

*** out of four

Milk(12/19/2008)

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            What’s interesting about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to office in America, is that throughout his entire career he never reached higher office then City Supervisor (essentially synonymous with city council).  I for one barely even know what a City Supervisor is; it’s one of those offices at the bottom of a ticket that you tend to just follow a sample ballot in order to pick.  It’s who Milk was and what he did with the office that made all the difference.  Milk was never really trying to be a politician; he was trying to be the head of the gay rights movement.  At this he succeeded, thirty years after his death he remains the most visible and clear leader that movement has ever seen.  It would seem that he’s a figure as important to Gus Van Sant as Malcolm X was to Spike Lee or Jim Morrison was to Oliver Stone.

            The film begins on the fortieth birthday of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the day he meets his future lover Scott Smith (James Franco) at a New York bus stop.  They decide to travel to San Francisco where they can live a more open lifestyle.  They set up a camera store in the Castro district, but discrimination from local businessmen inspires Milk to unite the homosexual population politically.  The film follows him through three failed elections and through his eventual political success and his securing of a spot at the head of the Gay Rights movement.  Along the way he meets his rival and eventual assassin, a fellow city supervisor named Dan White (Josh Brolin).  The whole film is narrated via a framing device where Milk tells his life story into a tape recorder, a tape which is only meant to be listened to in the case of his death by assassination.

            Gus Van Sant is a filmmaker who emerged as the director of such independent gems as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho but somewhere around the turn of the millennium he decided to quit worrying about accessibility and start making highly experimental micro-films like Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park.  These experimental films were definitely interesting, but they didn’t really make me salivate the way they did to some critics.  I’ve been waiting for a while to see him get back to making “normal” movies without going to outrageously far into the mainstream a la Finding ForresterMilk is just such a film, it is accessible without being needlessly flashy.  This is exactly the tone that a sweeping biopic needs, and Van Sant’s direction should disappoint no one unless they were expecting the film to be two hours of Harvey Milk doing paperwork and having banal conversations before getting shot. 

            Sean Penn gives a fine performance as the title character, he looks and sound just like the real thing and he also acquires a lot of the guy’s energy and mannerisms.  That said, I can’t help but be a little less impressed by actors mimicking real people then I once was.  It was damn impressive the way Jamie Fox was able to inhabit Ray Charles, but then Joaquin Phoenix inhabited Johnny Cash just as well the next year, and the year after that we got to see Helen Mirren and Forrest Whitaker mimicking real people just as well the next year.  There’s something just a little less impressive about watching Sean Penn pull off the same trick again this year.  It’s certainly not Penn’s fault that his role emerged late in this trend, but still I can’t help but not react with the same enthusiasm to this kind of work as I once did. 

            The rest of the cast is also quite good.  Jame Franco is great as a character that matures alongside Milk and really seems a lot different at the end as he does at the beginning.  Emile Hirsch is fresh off his excellent work in Penn’s Into the Wild, and he’s almost unrecognizable as Cleve Jones, an angry young guy who Milk recruits to use his skills as a “prick” in fighting for the gay rights movement.  Alison Pill is also very good as the Milk’s lesbian campaign manager Anne Kronenberg.  I do however take issue with the performance of Diego Luna as Jack Lira, one of Milk’s lovers.  Lira appears to be a very strange, disturbed person from moment one and frankly I think Luna went a bit over the top in the role.

            Special note should be made of Josh Brolin’s work here as Dan White.  Brolin delivers another fine bit of mimicry, he looks just like the real guy and between this and his work in Oliver Stone’s W. he’s proven himself the best impersonator of the year.  As a character, Dan White is quite interesting.  Van Sant gives a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of White here, and the film is better for it.  Throughout the film White acts with a degree of civility toward Milk despite an obvious discomfort toward him.  The murders White commits seem less motivated by hatred then they do by a sense of political betrayal and, on a deeper level, a sense of anger that there is less of a place for his conservative attitudes in an increasingly progressive San Francisco.  The movie may have completely gone off the tracks if they had portrayed White as a raging homophobic villain.  Most of this material is reserved for a truly vile bitch named Anita Bryant who Van Sant wisely depicts only through archive footage, in any other form she would be too horrible to be believed.

            One of the problems with biopics, is that anytime they seem to be doing something cliché or conventional, the obvious counter argument is “that really did happen, I’m just telling it like it is.”  For this reason it’s a bit awkward to call something cheesy, but the film falls into a few very blatant biopic pitfalls on occasion.  I’m thinking in particular of a wheelchair bound adolescent who randomly telephones Milk on two occasions, both suspiciously useful ones to the plot, in order to tell him how inspirational Milk’s work is to him.  This may well have happened, but it sounds way too close to Lou Gehrig promising a dying child two homeruns for comfort.   Another issue is a moment I don’t want to give away, but it’s a traumatic event in Milk’s love life.  Normatively it serves no real purpose other than to raise stakes that didn’t really need raising, and it doesn’t emotionally effect him in the rest of the movie nearly as much as it should.  Again, these may well have been true events, but they feel like clichés and are not really necessary in the first place.  I think Van Sant would have been wise to cut them.

            Ultimately, I think what really prevents Milk from being an exceptional work is that the Harvey Milk depicted works better an inspirational figure then he does as a dramatic character.  Van Sant sees Milk as an almost Gandhi-like saint; he’s just not the most complex character out there.  There’s a moment midway into the film where Milk says that one of his strategies would be to expose people who were in the closet.  One person mentions that this would be a violation of a right to privacy, and Scott Smith points out a degree of hypocrisy in that Milk was closeted well into his thirties.  Van Sant doesn’t press the issue much beyond that, and that’s about the closest the film ever comes to exploring anything about Milk’s life that could be seen as controversial to the film’s target audience.  Of course Van Sant likely sees Milk as a hero, but that doesn’t mean he can’t try to look at more nuances.  For instance, Spike Lee clearly admired Malcolm X, but he had no hesitance to have the protagonist of his biopic say and do a lot of things that the film’s audience wasn’t going to agree with.

            Milk is a very energetic biopic of an important American.  I certainly recommend the film to anyone with even the slightest interest in the subject, or to anyone that is interested in watching a very well made drama with a very good cast.  The film occasionally flirts with greatness, but it never quite transcends the biopic genre. 

***1/2 out of four

Changeling(12/11/2008)

            Many people have hostile reactions to the Academy Awards and their many mistakes, but I’ve always defended them.  They provide a nice summation to a year of film, and more importantly it helps a lot of good “prestige movies” get made every year.  However, one thing I don’t like about them is the effect they can occasionally have on critics when they want to lobby for certain pet films; actually that’s not so bad, but it is a problem when they start lobbying against perfectly decent movies that they don’t want to win.  I frankly suspect that this is what happened with Clint Eastwood recent film Changeling.  In the context of the Cannes Film Festival the film received some pretty good marks, but once it was released in Oscar season critics suddenly turned on it, it currently sits at “rotten” on the tomatometer. 

            Why the sudden change of heart?  Frankly I suspect it was because of the same kind of anti-lobbying I was talking about earlier, that critics are trying to keep the film from getting to much Oscar buzz because they don’t see it at Oscar worthy. Well, they’re right, this shouldn’t win the Oscar.  It’s not very deep, and it’s not very original, but I don’t see what would drive anyone to go so far as to call it bad unless they have completely unreasonable standards.

            Set in 1920s Los Angeles, the film tells the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother working as a calling board operator.  One night she has to leave her son alone for a night so she can work an extra shift, and when she gets home he’s gone.  She runs to the police who are initially uninterested, but eventually they launch an investigation.  After many sleepless nights, Collins is finally called and told that the police have found her son.  She arrives at the train station only to see that the child they have found is not her son.  The police refuse to take no for an answer and assume that the stress of the situation has driven her crazy.  Collins embarks on a quest to right this wrong, but finds herself blocked by a wall of corruption in the LAPD.

            What first strikes the viewer about the film is its beautiful art direction and set design.  The film has a very elaborate period setting; there are dozens of 1920s costumes, cars and streetcars all over the place.  The period L.A. on display here is large and alive, and it’s packed with all sorts of old-timey props, it’s a setting very reminiscent of Curtis Hanson’s excellent L.A. Confidential.  The sets her are almost too good; they’re so detailed that they can sometimes be a distraction.  Surprisingly, this reminded me a lot of another festival favorite, The Wackness.  That film was so obsessively hell bent on reminding people what 1994 was like that it felt sort of false, all those pop culture references wouldn’t have jumped out at those characters in those two hours of life as aggressively as the filmmakers would have you believe.  Like that film, Changeling veers dangerously close to letting obsessive period detail over power the story, especially in the first act.  Eventually though, I settled into the world of the film, and this stopped being a problem.

            Angelina Jolie has had an interesting career in that she’s the only woman in Hollywood who could be called an action star, what with her roles in movies like Tomb Raider and Wanted, but she can also hold her own in prestige pictures.  Male stars frequently do the same, but when actresses do their slumming it’s usually more in the vein of romantic comedies.  Because she so frequently stars in movies that target fourteen year old boys as their key demographic, between that and tabloid stuff it can be easy to not take Jolie seriously, but this is a mistake.  When given good material like this Jolie can be a fine actress.  Here she gives the kind of old school, movie star performance that we don’t see so often anymore, she seems to be channeling someone like Ingrid Bergman or Joan Crawford in her work here.  She has a lot of big emotional scenes with a lot of yelling and crying, a very juicy part for someone looking to show off, on that easily could have been done over the top.  However, Jolie is very good at doing these kinds of big moments without going too far and she usually stops just short of overacting.   

Last year Jolie reestablished her acting chops with the Michael Winterbottom film A Mighty Heart, where she played Marianne Pearle.  Interestingly, her character here is also a woman desperately seeking a missing family member.  The two characters are quite similar, they both possess a great inner strength and their both absolutely determined.  The difference is that this strength emerges in separate environments; one lives today and the other lives in the 1920s, where strength like this in a woman is scoffed at.  If nothing else, Changeling is an excellent portrait of what it was like to be a woman in the bad old days.  When Collins tries desperately to explain the situation to the police she’s dismissed as an irrational woman.  They also try to paint her as some kind of slut, trying to shirk personal responsibility in order to live a swinging single lifestyle.  Eventually the police get to the bottom of the situation simply because they’re more willing to listen to a twelve year old boy as a witness then to a fully grown woman.

The film also has a great supporting cast.  John Malkovich has a really nice turn as Gustav Briegleb, a radio minister who wants to help Collins out as part of his larger campaign against corruption in the LAPD.  Many films have good villains, but this one has two.  Jason Butler Harner plays a psychotic man related to the case, and does so very interestingly, but the antagonist that really leaves an impression is a horrifically corrupt police Captain played by Jeffrey Donovan.  There are also a number of child actors in the film who all perform very well for their ages.

Unfortunately, the film is marred by a drawn out third act complete with multiple false endings.  It felt like Eastwood simply couldn’t decided what moment to end his film on, and he just kept on going through the history of the case and the life of Christine Collins.  Does this ruin the movie? No, not to me anyway.  I’m not the type of person who’s going to let twenty imperfect minutes ruin the preceding two hours of solid cinema.  I’d maybe have more of a problem if this ending material was outright bad, but it’s not, it’s just kind of excessive.

Changeling is a fine piece of old fashioned cinema.  It takes a great yarn, one that would be hard to believe if it wasn’t based on a true story, and tells it very well.  It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and it isn’t any kind of masterpiece.  It is however a solid effort.  I can understand critics not getting to jazzed up about it, but I highly suspect the motive of those who outright dismiss it for minor flaws, especially if they praised last year’s far more muddled film of similar subject matter Gone Baby Gone.  That movie was Mystic River lite.  With Changeling, Eastwood has shown exactly how much better he could have made that film.

*** out of four