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Moral twilight: Angelina Jolie in Changeling.

Tragedy, Muted

By Laura Leon

Changeling

Directed by Clint Eastwood

 

Steeped in shades of muted grays and browns, highlighted by the bleakest sunlight this side of Albany in March, the 1928 Los Angeles of Clint Eastwood’s Changeling seems bereft of hope or potential. This is fitting, as, like Mystic River, this movie deals with the loss of innocence and the sometime inadequacy of justice. Eastwood quickly sets up the particulars: Single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a supervisor for Pacific Telephone & Telegraph, is devoted to her 9-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith). When the lad goes missing, and the LAPD tries to convince her that another child is, in fact, her son, Christine takes the gloves off, fighting the powers that be in a desperate bid to try to save Walter while there’s still a chance. But in trying to force the hand of LAPD Chief James “Two Guns” Davis (Colm Feore), Christine is hit hard with the cold realities of police brutality and a system in which women who don’t play nice get thrown—or, in a rare humorous moment, “escorted”—to the mental hospital.

Changeling, which is based on a true story, is at times moving, occasionally haunting, and almost entirely frustrating. This may be due to the fact that all concerned seem focused on a primary goal of netting Jolie an Academy Award. Hardly a scene goes by without a stark closeup of Jolie’s famous facial planes, crumpled in grief or defiantly stoic. Indeed, this is old-school movie acting, the kind of storytelling that gets its mojo from expressive faces, a la Garbo or Crawford. This should not imply that Jolie does nothing but make faces, because she does give a controlled performance that occasionally veers into real poignancy, such as when Christine breaks down when the imposter Walter impishly tells her, “Goodnight, Mommy.” “I want my son!” she shrieks, pounding her heart as if to stun it into renewed wholeness; the audience can’t help but feel the depth of her loss and frustration. The problem here isn’t so much Jolie’s performance as it is the fact that Christine, as scripted by J. Michael Stracyznski, is nothing more than attributes such as valiant and determined. In short, for all she’s going through, she’s thoroughly dull.

The search for a missing child, the runaround a frantic mother gets, the idea of a deeper conspiracy, all of this begs for a taut approach that enhances the inherent suspense of the plot details. Strangely, for so talented a storyteller, Eastwood lets the movie get away from him, diving headlong into subplots that don’t so much add to the labyrinthine mystery as they do the running time. Christine’s time in the mental ward riffs on The Snake Pit and Cuckoo’s Nest. One can almost hear the character making a mental to-do list, “Note to self: Take time to save women unjustly incarcerated by The Man.” Later in the movie, chunks of time are squandered ping-ponging between two courtrooms, one a case involving a serial killer (a chilling Jason Butler Harner) and the other a series of hearings on police corruption. Instead of adding to the story, both serve to prop up the already saintlike qualities of Christine, as if such were necessary.

Ironically, the best thing about Changeling is yet another story thread, this one infinitely more interesting and almost worthy of its own script. LAPD Detective Lester Yberra (Michael Kelly) takes on the mundane task of bringing in a Canadian youth reported to be living on a ranch in Wineville (now Mira Loma). The dust-covered shacks and wire chicken coops of the ranch lend an austerely sinister note to the movie, the only hint of danger and suspense that exists. In these scenes alone do we get the full sense of evil residing among us. Yberra’s decisions when it comes to listening to the boy’s tale, a modern-day horror story, and his actions taken despite orders from the top, make one wonder what makes him tick, and what happened to him afterward. Strangely, these are not considerations that come into mind with Christine. Perhaps this is because Kelly, unlike Jolie, masterfully underplays his role, making us think about the measure of this no-fuss lawman. Perhaps it’s because, in the all-out effort to direct Jolie to Oscar gold, Eastwood let Kelly do his own thing. Whatever it was, be thankful for it, because it alone gives Changeling its occasional glimmer of beauty.

Crime Story

RocknRolla

Directed by Guy Ritchie

From the opening shot, you know that the junkie with the giant crack bong, rock star Johnny Quid (Jamie Campbell Bower), is going to be trouble. There are other certainties to be gleaned from the slick opening of RocknRolla: The up-from-the-gutter, middle-age gang boss Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) isn’t as smart as he thinks he is; luck will eventually fail the smooth, corrupt accountant Stella (Thandie Newton); crooks One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba) will be put through hell, but probably end up all right; and narrator Archie (Mark Strong) will get the last word.

Writer-director Guy Ritchie slows down the usual frenetic pace for his latest sardonic, violent excursion into the London underworld. All the familiar elements are present—low-level hoods, vicious crime bosses, members of the thrill-seeking upper class, corrupt Russians—but deployed with less flash than usual. It’s a familiar Ritchie-esque tale of greed and cunning tripped up by the vagaries of chance, with the gods doling out brutally cold cosmic justice. This time around, however, it’s all made more vivid by having fewer characters played by better actors.

The plot is very much grounded in contemporary London, which, before the current world economic unpleasantness, was a place of rampant growth. Wilkinson’s gangster is a fixer, easing the path of developers by buying off city planners and politicians. His—and not a few others’—downfall is set in motion when he makes a deal with a Russian oligarch. The film spins this high-level corruption off into every nook and cranny of British society, setting off a couple of delicious subplots and layering in some tart social criticism.

One of the pleasures of RocknRolla is the smart, stylized dialogue, which necessarily stands out in a criminal milieu beset by crushing stupidity. For every philosophical, rich junkie like rock star Johnny Quid, there are a dozen doped-out losers wreaking havoc with their every dumb move. For every “honest” gangster like One Two or Mumbles, there are many more backstabbing thugs and Russian war criminals doing dirty work for dirtier oligarchs.

There isn’t much honor among these thieves, but what there is is best embodied by Mark Strong’s Archie. As the Lebanese spy boss, Strong stole the recent Body of Lies from Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe; his Brit gangster here similarly dominates. Archie’s moral code is compromised, but, the film suggests, it may be the best this rotten old world can hope for.

—Shawn Stone

Boos, Not Boo

The Haunting of Molly Hartley

Directed by Mickey Liddell

The only scary movie at the multi plexes for Halloween weekend (disregarding the horror-porn retread Saw V) was The Haunting of Molly Hartley, a bland pastiche that’s trick, not treat. The trick is that it isn’t about Halloween, as advertised, and it’s definitely not haunting. It’s not even coherent; a mishmash of religion, medical science, and satanic conspiracy, it lazily invokes the atmospheres of other scary movies (from Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcism of Emily Rose) without creating a narrative of its own.

A product from producer-turned-director Mickey Liddell, Molly Hartley opens with a flashback to the 1970s. A young couple in a spooky barn are interrupted by the girl’s father, a religious zealot who threatens to kill her before crashing his truck. Fast-forward to the present: Molly (Haley Bennett) suffers from headaches and nosebleeds, and is driven to her new high school by her worried father (Jake Weber). Within a few days, she is befriended by a Bible thumper, a bitchy punk girl, and the school’s handsome party boy, Joe (Chace Crawford). But Molly’s promising start at popularity is marred by hallucinations of being attacked by her mother, who is committed to a mental institution nearby. The supposed suspense comes from not knowing whether Molly is actually hallucinating, or if the visitations from her mother are real.

The story is so inoffensive that it shies from mentioning anything about Satan, even as it tries to develop paranoia about the intentions of the school psychologist, too-good-to-be-true Joe, and the school’s Jesus freaks. Bennett seems merely dazed rather than frightened as Molly, and Weber (the only cast member who can act) can’t do much with his role as an overprotective father who wimps out whenever he’s needed. At several junctions, the low-budget production seems to have snipped some footage to save money on special effects, or owing to an inability to create atmospheric camera work. Or maybe it was edited for a PG-13 rating. In any case, Liddell shouldn’t have bothered: This haunting is too tame even for tweens.

—Ann Morrow


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