From today's Oregonian....
The bizarre period docudrama "Changeling" kicks off in March 1928, with phone-company supervisor Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) offering the following words of wisdom to her 9-year-old son Walter: "Never pick a fight. Always finish it.... To some people, responsibility is the scariest thing in the world."
She's lecturing young Walt about a fistfight at school and his long-absent father. But her words are really one of those screenwriter's tricks -- where a seemingly innocuous conversation foreshadows the rest of the movie with all the subtlety of a well-swung two-by-four.
Hours later, Walter vanishes without a trace. Five months later, the LAPD tells Christine they've found Walter in Illinois, and arranges a press-event/reunion on a train platform.
But the boy that steps off the train isn't Walter. And a scandal-plagued LAPD captain (Jeffrey Donovan) craves positive press so fiercely, he'll commit Christine to a mental hospital rather than admit to an honest mistake.
For the rest of the movie, only a crusading pastor (John Malkovich) and Christine's moxie can test the notion that "you can't fight City Hall." But will she ever find her son?
This incredible true story was culled from public records by screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski ("Babylon 5"), and it has the sweep of a James Ellroy novel -- drawing in corrupt cops, courtroom dramas, back-room dealings, protests, crusaders, mental-health reforms and assorted dark secrets I won't spoil here.
But I have to wonder: Was Clint Eastwood really the best director for this project?
Don't get me wrong: Eastwood is a national treasure and a steady hand and a Hollywood icon and all that. But if you look at his most successful pictures as a director, I'd argue they tend to be the more intimate, stripped-down dramas with genre trappings and smallish casts ("Unforgiven" being the pluperfect example). Those sorts of movies favor his no-nonsense, almost perfunctory, shoot-the-rehearsals approach to filmmaking.
(Putting it another way: I don't think it's a coincidence that Eastwood's more linear "Letters from Iwo Jima" got more Oscar attention than its companion piece, the epic, time-hopping "Flags of our Fathers.")
I only bring this up because "Changeling" is an extremely weird and frustrating viewing experience -- and I think it's extremely weird and frustrating because Mr. Eastwood, 78, can't be bothered to wrangle the vast material into a tighter shape.
The movie and screenplay are at their best during the Kafkaesque nightmare scenes where doctors and cops get in Christine's face, trying to twist her into thinking she's wrong, deceitful or insane. Straczynski's dialogue is great here, almost "Twilight Zone"-ish, with Jolie shuffling through a tall deck of reactions as sinister actors (especially Donovan) tell her, "'All I'm saying is you're in shock and he's changed. It’s not Walter as you remember him… That's why it's important that you take him home on a trial basis.... His identity has been confirmed by the best minds in child identification."
But taken as a larger piece, the movie just kind of lopes along. It keeps your interest, because the story itself is so strange -- but it also lingers on possibly unimportant details and never builds a real drive train of suspense.
Angelina Jolie is terrific in certain scenes, but she's not always well-used. In individual moments, she gets to cut loose and puts herself through the emotional paces as Christine desperately tries to circumvent various bureaucracies to get at the truth. But then Eastwood will run off for 10 or 20 minutes to explore another thread of the case -- to show us an entire death-row scene we didn't need to see from beginning to end, say, or to linger on a police investigation in the desert, or to show us the electroshock therapy of a supporting character (Amy Ryan) who only appears in a couple of scenes. Suddenly, Jolie is spending long stretches of movie doing little more than having a tear run down her face while she peeks out from underneath a variety of cute flapper hats.
Eastwood and Straczynski also give the story roughly 50 endings, and the director can be too melodramatic or on-the-nose. For example: Did he really need to cast a woman who looks like Nurse Ratched to glare during those electroshock scenes? There's a wandering quality to the picture that makes it feel like several different movies crudely stitched together: a '40s woman-in-trouble melodrama, a socially conscious courtroom drama, an "L.A. Confidential"-style thriller.... I worry that in their quest to fit in all the outlandish real-life details, the filmmakers never quite made up their mind in the editing room.
In about two months, though, Eastwood is releasing his next directorial effort: a stripped-down story with thriller trappings called "Gran Torino," about a bigot (played by Eastwood) reluctantly drawn into the violence-torn lives of his next-door neighbors. I'll bet good money it’s better than "Changeling."
C; 141 minutes; rated R for violent and disturbing content, and language.
'Changeling' (The Oregonian, Friday, Oct. 31, 2008)
From today's Oregonian….
I come not to bury "What Just Happened?" the movie, but to praise "What Just Happened?" the book.
(Well, and to bury "What Just Happened?" the movie -- which director Barry Levinson has rendered drab and humorless in the way the source material really, really isn't.)
The book is terrific. It's producer Art Linson's jaded memoir of his unfortunate run at Twentieth Century Fox in the late '90s -- during which he produced a modernized "Great Expectations," a barely seen ensemble comedy called "Sunset Strip," and "The Edge," which you may know by its alternate title, "The Movie Written by David Mamet in which Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin Fight A Bear." Even Linson's quality pictures during this stretch, "Fight Club" and "Pushing Tin," either failed to find an audience in theaters or left executives scratching their heads in an era of higher concepts and lower risk-taking.
Linson has produced bona-fide classics including "Heat," "The Untouchables" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," and in print this experience seems to give him a surprising fearlessness. Over barely 150 darkly funny, fast-moving pages, he names names as he explains how the business end of Hollywood works, detailing executive cluelessness and celebrity meltdowns -- including one infamous temper-tantrum by Alec Baldwin after "the suits" dared to ask the star to shave his beard.
The movie, unfortunately, is kind of a drag.
Linson, who wrote the script, has created a producer character named Ben (Robert DeNiro) to tie together the book's anecdotes. Except that Linson doesn't really use any of the book's anecdotes, except for that bearded temper-tantrum (recreated by Bruce Willis, who gamely plays himself). Instead of Linson and other characters cackling and cringing and casually lying in the face of epic professional failure, as they do throughout the book, Linson has Ben shuttling between his ex-wives (including Robin Wright Penn). We watch Ben attend an agent's funeral and a Vanity Fair photo-shoot and get dressed in front of mirrors and have phone calls with other men getting dressed in front of mirrors. He also takes dull meetings and sits in test-screenings with listless audiences. And we watch Ben's cachet slip away as he deals with both "the beard situation" and a pill-popping British director (Michael Wincott) who wants to end his pretentious-looking Sean Penn thriller with a dog graphically taking a bullet in the brain.
Making the movie a more story-driven, roman à clef companion piece to the text would be just fine if the movie preserved one crucial element from Linson's book: its wicked tone, the way it captures the Schadenfreude-choked gallows humor Hollywood people use to survive a business that by its nature includes a certain percentage of gambling and failure. But Levinson -- continuing the tone-deafness he exhibited in "Man of the Year" -- keeps the film locked into a sort of low-key middle-aged depression. (Someone uses the phrase "mayonnaise in a sad sandwich" during the course of the story, and it describes the tone perfectly.) There's no deeper sense of Ben's passion or humor, no argument why we should root for him to survive the worst week of his life in the movie business; instead, Levinson just makes that business seem like a relentless, family-destroying downer.
C; 107 minutes; rated R for language, some violent images, sexual content and some drug material.
'What Just Happened?' (The Oregonian, Friday, Oct. 31, 2008)
From today's Oregonian....
"RocknRolla" represents a creative retreat for writer/director Guy Ritchie -- thank God. After leaving a fat bootprint in British crime cinema with his caper comedies "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch," Ritchie seemingly lost his fool mind: He remade "Swept Away" with wife Madonna and mixed gangsterism and mysticism in the incoherent train wreck "Revolver." His audience pointed, laughed and left.
And so Ritchie's playing it safe, smart and old-school with "RocknRolla" -- once again spinning a complicated, funny yarn full of London lowlifes with vivid nicknames crossing paths over a MacGuffin. This time, the antique guns from "Lock, Stock" and the giant diamond from "Snatch" are replaced by a lucky painting. The artwork (which we never get to see) repeatedly changes owners during a bloody London real-estate war that draws in a rock-star junkie (Toby Kebbell), an aging fixer (Tom Wilkinson), a luckless tough guy (Gerard Butler), a Russian billionaire (Karel Roden) and a frosty accountant (Thandie Newton).
The story lacks the raw energy of Ritchie's late-'90s debut -- paintings and real estate ain't guns and diamonds, no matter how much blood you spill. But the movie's still marked by tight pacing, visual wit and a couple of giddy set pieces (particularly one where Butler can't shake two indestructible Russian thugs). Yes, Ritchie risks falling into a rut here, but it's still an entertaining, cleverly crafted rut.
B; 114 minutes; rated R for pervasive language, violence, drug use and brief sexuality.
On the Friday, Oct. 24 "Cort and Fatboy" broadcast, I talk about the weirdly recursive "Saw V" and the special-kind-of-fake "Pride and Glory."
But the real reason you should listen to this particular show is to hear David Walker pay tribute to two recently deceased friends: "Dolemite" star Rudy Ray Moore and local brother-in-arms Doug Baum.
From today's Oregonian....
There's a specific moment in the overwrought crime drama "Pride and Glory" that made me laugh out loud for all the wrong reasons:
NYPD cop Jimmy (Colin Farrell) is in the hot seat, being interviewed about an officer-involved shooting during a videotaped deposition with Internal Affairs. This is one of the most formal, protocol-driven, legalistic, high-stakes settings a policeman can face. One wrong word ends careers, families, lives. The tape will be watched by NYPD top brass.
And Farrell, God bless his caterpillar eyebrows, is calmly dropping three f-bombs into every sentence of his testimony -- in a way no cop ever would in front of real-life IA detectives. He's saying something along the lines of, "And then he took out his [bleepin'] gun and discharged three [bleepin'] rounds into the [bleepin'] suspect and boy it was a tough [bleepin'] call, sonny boy. My heart goes out to the poor [bleeper]. [bleep]."
Those weren't Ferrell exact words. But they definitely capture the vibe of "Pride and Glory" by that point: Too many people in the production seem to have learned what they know about street life from the movies, so their idea of "authenticity" means shouting every line in an overcooked dialect of unintentionally funny Tourette's -- where f-bombs begin and end each sentence and possibly break up the syllables between words. (Favorite example from the film: "I want his ass here forth-[bleepin']-with.")
In other words, "Pride and Glory" is a movie full of actors improvising their idea of how cops in a Scorsese flick would talk. It's a special sort of cartoonishness, a hard-to-pin-down brand of emotionally grandstanding fakeness you sometimes see in movies trying way too hard to be "gritty."
Like "We Own the Night" before it, "Pride and Glory" is the most depressing sort of not-that-great movie -- because it really, really wants to be an epic drama and a serious actor showcase, but it just can't close the deal.
The script (co-written by f-bomb specialist Joe Carnahan) feasts on the agonizing moral choices of two generations of New York's Finest. Four officers in the 31st Precinct are gunned down in a drug slum. The investigation draws in a clan of cops including Edward Norton, Jon Voight, Noah Emmerich and Mr. Farrell. Some of these men are complicit. At least one of these men is so nasty and corrupt, he threatens to scald a drug dealer's baby with a laundry iron.
Director Gavin O'Connor ("Miracle") does a decent job with the quiet moments: Norton's intimate witness interviews, family dinners, news choppers drifting quietly over a police funeral. Jon Voight gives maybe the greatest improvised teary-eyed drunk-grandpa dinner-table speech in movie history.
But whenever O'Connor tackles any sort of confrontation that requires peak emotion, the hilariously relentless f-bombs start flying and the actors pull out the choppers and start gnashing away at various bits of scenery, and in the quest for "grittiness," "plausibility" gets lost. This is especially true of poor Colin Farrell, who breaks his streak of strong performances with this motormouthed, two-fisted cuss-a-thon.
And don't even get me started about the climactic fistfight at the Irish pub. It's just ridiculous.
C-minus; 125 minutes; rated R for strong violence, pervasive language and brief drug content.
During the Friday, Oct. 17 "Cort and Fatboy" broadcast:
Slightly more profane version of a review in today's Oregonian....
"The Secret Life of Bees" falls into a loose, annoying subgenre of movies I'm going to call "Ya-Ya Sisterhood Bullshit." These movies tend to be based on the sorts of books Oprah likes to endorse, and they contain some or all of the following:
"The Secret Life of Bees" is based on a novel by Sue Monk Kidd. (You can find a set-visit article in the October 2008 issue of O Magazine.) The film is set in racially tense South Carolina in 1964, and concerns the awakening of 14-year-old Lily (Dakota Fanning). Lily flees her abusive father (Paul Bettany) with her African-American nanny Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) after Rosaleen is assaulted by bigots. Lily also has a secondary mission: She wants to travel to Tiburon to find out why her late mother abandoned her a decade earlier.
The movie shifts gears when Lily and Rosaleen hide out at a 28-acre honey farm run by the matronly August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her sisters May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Alicia Keys). It is, of course, paradise on earth.
From here, "Bees" becomes a Ya-Ya Bullshit magnum opus. Like "The Great Debaters" and "The Express," it takes bold stances on racism and abuse -- and by "bold," I mean "bold when 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?' was released 40 years ago." Honey and cornbread are lovingly photographed. Fanning and Bettany drawl like crazy. (Sample Fanning dialogue: "My whole life's been nothin' but a hole where my momma should have been.") The women hug and fight and play classical music and dress in Sunday finery while engaged in the art of sun-dappled beekeeping. Queen Latifah does a fine job gently spouting homespun truisms like, "Some things don't matter that much, like the color of a house. But lifting someone's heart? That matters a lot."
Performances range from very good to frankly kind of horrible. Fanning continues to have terrifying focus and maturity; Latifah and Keys bask in strength. (Keys really rocks a vintage NAACP t-shirt.) But the normally great Bettany is a violent slice of grease-dipped ham here, all room-smashing and bath-needing, and Okonedo can't seem to settle on her character's level of mental disability.
But mostly, I'm just allergic to the particular brand of cloying lies this movie tells -- to the way it's fundamentally irrational as it pushes cheap emotional buttons. Characters turn on a dime emotionally or die for nonsensical reasons just because it's time for Lily's story to move forward. And ultimately, if you think about it too hard, "Bees" is a movie in which a bunch of powerful African-American women get their lives upended and in some cases destroyed so a little white girl can feel better about herself.
C-minus; 110 minutes; rated PG-13 for thematic material and some violence.
'The Secret Life of Bees' (The Oregonian, Friday, Oct. 17, 2008)
From today's Oregonian....
I'll say this for the way-too-genial sailing-race documentary "Morning Light": It makes a lovely keepsake for its subjects.
This vanity project is produced and hosted by Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt. It follows 15 inexperienced Ivy League and maritime-academy students who spend six months training to race a 52-foot sailboat in the 2007 TransPacific -- "the Indianapolis 500 of the open ocean."
The doc plays like a failed reality show that doesn't want to offend, right down to the blatant corporate sponsorships: It's incredibly boring if you aren't a sailing enthusiast, and probably only a little less boring if you are. No strong personalities or major disagreements emerge. The kids' insights never go deeper than "The intensity on the boat is super-high." They also complain about the lack of Starbucks during their nearly 11-day race, and have to train around snowboarding injuries. Wah.
The camera can only film the on-deck action from so many angles before it gets repetitive. The musical score is pabulum. Race technology and tactics are barely explored, and you never get a sense of the larger field of competitors.
At one point during the big race, the kids get passed at close range by a team of pros so seasoned, they wrote the navigation software the kids use. I was begging the camera crew to follow them.
C; 105 minutes; rated PG for language and some rude dialogue.
'Morning Light' (The Oregonian, Friday, Oct. 17, 2008)
During the Friday, Oct. 10 "Cort and Fatboy" broadcast: