November 11, 2008

REVIEW: Changeling (C-)

A full disclosure before I address this movie: For the last decade, there has been no actress who's bothered me more than Angelina Jolie. I don't know her and I don't mean to make any personal judgments about her. I think she has acting talent and I commend her efforts (whatever her motive) for bringing awareness to the plight of refugees worldwide.

But that doesn't mean I have to respect her lifestyle and it doesn't mean I have to like her movies. It doesn't mean I have to fawn over her children or her fashion sense, or that I have to ignore the fact that as arguably the most overexposed celebrity in the world, it's virtually impossible for her to disappear into any role. It doesn't mean I have to drop to my knees while she simply alternates between sexy killer (Tomb Raider, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Beowulf, Kung Fu Panda, Wanted) and tortured hero (Beyond Borders, A Mighty Heart, Changeling). It doesn't mean I have to listen to her pretentiously deliver the wisdom of an old soul as she waxes nostalgic about Hollywood's golden years (she's the oldest 35 year-old I've ever heard; you're not Meryl Streep, honey). And it certainly doesn't mean I have to accept the ridiculous notion that she has "died for my sins". Please.

I say all of this as a defense, because if you know this about me (and enough people do), you're ready to dismiss my criticism for Changeling as criticism for Jolie. But it's not. There is plenty enough wrong with this movie that has nothing to do with her, and it wouldn't be fair to tear down a movie for one performance anyway. Jolie gets a pass for this one, even though the costumed character of her Oscar-baiting performance reminded me more of an emaciated clown than a distraught mother. To be most accurate, this was Madame Tutli-Putli brought to life (let's forget I recently made the same comparison for a different movie). But Jolie was fine in her part, predictably balancing elegance with extreme emotional outbursts. So if wasn't her that I had a problem with, what was it?

For starters, the lack of a compelling story. On the surface, the true life tale of a mother battling with the corrupt L.A.P.D. over the true whereabouts of her kidnapped child sounds fascinating, but digging deeper it ends up being a bit of a bore. Equal parts Zodiac and L.A. Confidential, it lacks both the chilling moments of the former and the suspenseful intrigue of the latter. There's almost no way to form a natural connection with the characters (natural being the operative word, assuming you can ignore the manipulative filmmaking), which makes sitting through it for 141 minutes pretty tiring. There's a noirish feel around the entire production (especially in the visual style and setting), but Changeling is glaringly lacking in two of the most important elements of noir: character and tone.

Who are these people, and why should we care about them? Christine Collins (Jolie) is depicted as a saintly single mom, but we know literally nothing about her aside from the fact that her husband left her and her son, and now she works as a manager at the telephone company. She’s certainly the victim of a great tragedy here, but I guess I needed something else to latch on to. Besides, it seemed more like Angelina Jolie playing Angelina Jolie than anything else. Give me more background on Christine Collins and I’ll be better able to empathize with Christine Collins.

Even more one-dimensional than Collins is Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan from USA’s “Burn Notice”), the tough talking L.A.P.D. cop who writes his own rules, emotionally wavers between mildly annoyed and extremely irritated, and, for no identifiable reason, speaks with an Irish brogue. In the other corner is John Malkovich (Burn After Reading), a historically great actor who recently seems to be phoning in these blaring performances just so he has an opportunity to shout on cue. Add in a stereotypically insane villain, some annoying kids (who apparently don’t age at all during their adolescence), and evil mental hospital nurses who look like they just came off the set of an old horror movie, and you’ve rounded out the overall poor cast of characters. If not for Christine’s boss and Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) showing some flashes of believable emotion, there might not be a real person on screen throughout the movie.

In fact, the cityscapes and period touches feel more realistic than the people speaking, and it would be fair to predict Changeling receiving some Oscar consideration for its art direction (an opportunity for Best Costume was missed by having Jolie wear the same outfit throughout the movie). Beyond that, I would be surprised if the movie made any splashes during award season.

Oh wait, I forgot. The person responsible for this mess is also the person most beloved by the Academy in recent years: Clint Eastwood.

To take nothing away from a legendary career that spans four decades, I wonder if anyone has yet to gain the courage to tell Mr. Eastwood that his recent projects (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, all three Best Picture nominees or winners) aren’t quite as good as he’s tried to make us admit. The guy has a gift for manipulation, and I’m talking about his filmmaking, not his business practices. In Changeling, it’s evident in the cheap thriller moments (chicken spooks detective at ranch) and subliminal musical scores (throughout the legal proceedings), as well as unnecessary flashbacks (the ax and the ruler) and exaggerated running time (just because it’s long doesn’t mean it’s epic).

Angelina Jolie saves the world again at a theater near you...

I don’t want to call Changeling a bad movie as much as I want to call it a missed opportunity. On paper, the story really should have made for something more substantive, more moving or at the very least, more relatable to 2008. Kids are still going missing and the L.A.P.D. is still accused of corruption, but Eastwood fails to connect any dots and make this story relevant in the way that (never thought I’d compare these two “directors”) Ben Affleck did last year in Gone Baby Gone. Alright, so that movie took place in the present day – maybe that’s unfair. But at least Gone Baby Gone was mostly entertaining, wasn’t it? The same can’t be said for Changeling. Now excuse me while I inexplicably buy a ticket to see Eastwood’s Gran Torino next month…

Writing - 6
Acting - 7
Production - 6
Emotional Impact - 6
Music - 4
Social Significance - 5

Total: 35/50= 70% = C-


  1. Well, Dan, I has some serious issues with this film as well, but I can't quite go as low as the C- you gave it here. (I gave it 3 and a half of 5) My wife loved it, and some other bloggers here have sung it's praises including Miranda Wilding and Matthew Lucas. I am closer to you, but not all the way there, as the production design, period detail, and even the performances were all pretty much top-rank. Even the Eastwood score (which I see you didn't care for) was very effective. Was it on par with LETTERS or MYSTIC? Of course not. But I liked it more than MILLION DOLLAR BABY for whatever that's worth.
    Now to the agreement: Jolie, which good, was all surface and all crying. The film's screenplay wasn't deep enough as it never successfully probed the relationships between her and the two boys, real and replacement. Even the sociopolitical thread was all cliched and predictable. The film was a blend between CUCKOO'S NEST and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, evincing neither of that duo's stronger insights.
    By your letter grade system I give it a B-.

    But you really have again gotten to the bottom of this. Kudos.

  2. I liked this quite a bit more than you did. I think it went on too long and seemed like two different movies for a while, but I found the emotional impact was quite strong. Not Eastwood's best work, but still a strong effort.

  3. Emaciated Clown? Hilarious!

  4. I really, really liked this movie. I can certainly see the criticisms leveled against this film (and admit to them in my own review) but I thought the whole effort worked beautifully. Even *gasp* a surprise to myself that I wouldn't have a problem with Jolie receiving an actress nom for her work here. I thought she handled the devisive character well- and it was the small moments that got me. The way her voice cracks a little when she makes that first phone call to the police or the way she almost receeds into the background around all the police men... I thought this worked nicely.

  5. Holy F, buddy. Ha ha.

    You know. even though we TECHNICALLY disagree (I gave CHANGELING 3 stars out of 5), you make a LOT of valid points that I do agree with wholeheartedly.

    For whatever reason, Ms. Jolie just doesn't send you. I can TOTALLY understand that as there are some A list actors and big time celebrities that are (inexplicably) popular that don't exactly do it for me either.


    I think you know who some of them are, Danny.

    What can I say? One person's trash is another person's treasure.

    Truthfully, though I admire Ms. Jolie, I don't think I can call myself a fan any more. I may feature her and Brad at CP in the future. I may not.

    I hasten to state that this is my personal take and I mean no offense to anyone.

    There is NO QUESTION IN MY MIND that ANGELINA is beautiful, charismatic and possessed of great talent. I think that she has also worked very hard for a lot of memorable causes and that certainly is to be commended.

    But there are three things that bug me.

    For a free soul that's lived her life EXACTLY as she pleased, I am conservative about ONE THING ONLY. I do believe that, if people are going to have kids, then they should be married. That's the only time that you'll see me propping that particular institution up.

    But yeah...

    Kids deserve a stable home with two parents that are genuinely committed - and living together is NOT a real commitment. I know. I've been there a few times and frankly that was why the arrangement was so attractive to me.

    The Mother Teresa thing gets to me. Yeah, I know that she and Brad have a LOT of money and they have far more resources at their disposal than any middle class people that I can think of. But kids need time and individual attention and when there are MANY children that tends to fall by the wayside. It's a hell of a lot more difficult at any rate.

    PLUS they're talking about adopting MORE???

    I overlooked all of that for a while. But this is likely the end of the line for me - and I knew it was coming. She told PEOPLE magazine lately that she never wanted to get pregnant until she met Brad and then HE CHANGED EVERYTHING.

    Oh, holy mother of God...

    I wouldn't be pregnant if you gave me five million bucks. NO WAY IN HELL.

    But it's every woman's personal decision.

    What I don't care for is a woman saying that THE GUY changed her mind. It wasn't really your decision then? don't have a mind (or principles) of your own?

    True. None of these things are huge deals. But I was a enormous fan when she came on the scene and I've been cooling to her for some time now.

    I likely won't be a big supporter of her in the future.

    Back to the film...

    I'm with you on the fact that there is not a lot of character development. But I was genuinely entranced by ANGELINA'S portrayal (I think it's the best thing she's ever done besides GIA) and I empathized and identified with Christine enormously.

    Obviously, CHANGELING (as you stated) is nowhere near the level of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL or ZODIAC. (I gave both four stars out of five.)

    But, considering it was a Clint Eastwood film, I was pleasantly surprised. It was the grueling subject matter that prevented me from giving it four stars.

    But WOW. You call me passionate???

    That's one for the record books, Danny.

    Stake your claim and do it up righteously, darling...

  6. Fair points all, Sam. I knew I'd be mostly against the grain on this one, but I really found it a chore to sit through. I think I actually liked Eastwood's score, I just didn't like how it was used, if that makes sense.

    I definitely agree with your analysis of Jolie's character. It wasn't really her fault (although she seemed just fine playing dress-up for two hours) that her character was so thin. And the sociopolitical piece was nowhere to be found, unfortunately. Thanks for your thoughts, as always!

    Hmm...two different movies - I like that idea, Matthew. I won't deny people could be moved by this, and I'm not exactly saying that those who were moved were just manipulated by Eastwood, but I just couldn't find a way in to the emotions here. I was annoyed with most of the characters as they were with each other.

    Hehe, thanks Samsak - good to hear from you again! Hope it's going well in DC.

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Joseph. This is meant to be a place for discussion and not just agreement, so I appreciate it.

    I concede that her first phone call to the police was a highlight of the performance. Really the whole first half of the movie I thought she was fine. It was when she was ***SPOILER*** in the mental hospital and in the courtrooms later that I was less impressed. An Oscar nod? Not at all out of the question considering most people feel she was snubbed for A Mighty Heart last year. She still wouldn't get my vote for this, but I won't be surprised if it happens, especially due to the lack of competition so far this year.

  7. Well Miranda, we've certainly been around the block with this at CP, but I appreciate that you recognize my effort in focusing my criticism on Jolie to her movie roles and not her life.

    However, I will say that I'm hesitant to accept she and Brad as a model "family" for exactly the reasons you state. Something about her personal history and the speed with which they're acquiring kids makes me wonder what's in the future. Let's just say I find it hard to "believe" in the stability of a lot Hollywood marriages, or, in this case, "partnerships"(?). I'm not sure what they're waiting for, especially if he's the one pushing for more kids.

    But why should I even care about these people! I know nothing about them other than what I see on a screen.

    Well I'll tell you why, because somebody's telling me she's died for my sins, among other things. If ever there was a more disturbing example of celebrity worship, it's Brangelina.

    But this has nothing to do with the movie. She wasn't my issue with it. Didn't help, of course, but wasn't the main thing. My problem was Eastwood getting his paws all up in everything so much. You can tell a story without ***!!!TELLING A STORY!!!***.

  8. I'm with you 100% on this one, Daniel. The last time I can remember being this bored during a film was The DaVinci Code. Everything was painfully predictable. I felt like I knew how each scened ended minutes before it had concluded. All of the characters were caricatures (evil cop, grieving mother, slimy serial killer, screaming John Malkovich).

    I'm hoping he just got this one out the door so he could knock it out of the park with Gran Torino. I like Clint as a director, but this one was a phoned in mess.

  9. Well that's good - I knew there was a reason I skipped The Da Vinci Code, besides Tom Hanks' haircut.

    And yes, I still think caricatures were more present than characters, as we've both listed.

    I'm doubly anxious about Gran Torino because it was written by Minnesotans and was meant to be filmed here but Eastwood moved production to Michigan for a tax break. It's ridiculous that it involves the Hmong community here but wasn't filmed here.

  10. Well, remember when I said I'd try to find a little free time to read your review, Daniel? That was about half an hour ago, haha.

    Great job here, conveying just what it was about this film that failed for you. I find "based on a true story" films such as this to be occasionally difficult to "grade," as it were, but once you come to the conclusion that much of the occurrences were manipulated for the sake of a more conventional movie, it becomes easier and easier to either dismiss the movie or simply not care for it.

    The main disagreement you and I have centers around Malkovich; I thought he was solid, and I liked that he never seemed interested in chewing the scenery, something he can surely do. You thought he did, and he was just too much. It's strange that we had such a significantly different interpretation of him and his character.

    Nevertheless, again, great review!

  11. Thanks, Alexander. Yes, the Malkovich piece did get to me, as I mentioned, after the initial speech. That was a great introduction to his character, but by the time he showed up at the hospital demanding patient records, I was just seeing him turn on his "yelling Malkovich". He wasn't the dealbreaker, though.

    Your mention of the ***SPOILER***shock therapy "fake-out" was another example of the manipulation by Eastwood. That was really weak.

  12. "Your mention of the ***SPOILER***shock therapy "fake-out" was another example of the manipulation by Eastwood. That was
    really weak."

    I. Hated. That. Scene.

  13. I found it to be a bit emotionally distant at first, but by the end I got sucked into it.

    Maybe it's because I saw I brought my mom with me to the press screening.

    Either way, it had its weaknesses, but they didn't kill the film for me at all.

  14. Me, too, Alexander, though I kind of forgot about it until you mentioned it at CCC.

    Certainly watching it with your mom could have an effect on the emotional impact here, Matthew! I think I actually had the opposite experience as your - initially I was hooked in a little bit at the disappearance and "exchange", but soon I became more irritated than interested.

  15. JOlie's performance is not quite a dud. She does power. But her line-readings are either overemotional or completely flat. The "My name is Christine Collins ..." speech sounds like a propaganda speech being read by a POW.

  16. Haha, well I can see that. Sometimes she does switch gears too quickly. And I really didn't enjoy her at all in the mental hospital (speaking of which, why was she always wearing so much makeup there, even after being blasted by the water hose?). But I agree that it wasn't a complete dud - my main problems, as I said, were elsewhere in this movie.

  17. Just to weigh in, because it seems unlikely I will be able to post how much I detest this movie on my blog, I hated this movie. In my opinion, you gave it too high a rating. And I don't even have a problem with Jolie! I found myself laughing through the whole movie.

    [Nurse rushes through the mental hospital]

    "No! Stop! Don't fry her brains!"

    Are you serious? Soap operas have more believable drama. Jolie was fine, but the child actors were terrible. And the serial killer's over the top look-I'm-a-crazy-dude was not working for me.

    I can't believe I sat through the entire thing.

  18. Hehe, well you're in good company here, Kathie. I would have liked to see you take a shot at it anyway.

    The child actors were truly unimpressive. I was completely unmoved when the killer kid broke down, and about as annoyed with the imposter kid as Jolie was, if not more so.

    Was all of the blood splattering necessary, either?

  19. I am continually unimpressed by Jolie's performances and I don't think Eastwood is a great filmmaker.

    I can't decide whether or not I want to see this one. I'm curious because of the reviews, but I don't think I would want to pay money to see it.

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

  21. Well that's 0/2 for k, on Jolie and Eastwood. Others here enjoyed her performance (Lucy included - thanks for commenting), but few people are speaking up for Eastwood.

    Unless this gets Oscar attention (and I think Gran Torino has a better chance), I don't see any reason why you can't wait until DVD.


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