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May 11, 2009

DVD/On Demand Reviews

Saw a bunch this weekend. But no Star Trek. Ah, well. There's good stuff to rent.

Changeling. Highly Recommended. Clint Eastwood produces and directs (from a script by a Babylon 5 writer) a based-on-fact nightmare.

In 1928, a switchboard supervisor's (Angelina Jolie) child goes missing. The LAPD, corrupt and power-drunk beyond anything seen even in LA Confidential, stumbles upon a grifter kid and gives the kid to her, claiming "We found your kid. Let's have a photo op showing our amazing policework and improve our woeful image with the public."

She immediately objects: But this is not my child. It doesn't even look much like him. Almost nothing at all, really.

The police captain (played by Burn Notice's Jeffrey Donovan) insists she's just a hysterical woman, and she should take the kid home anyway, on a "trial basis," just to see what she thinks when her "head clears."

Well, it turns out the kid is three inches shorter than her son. And his dental records don't match, according to his dentist. And his teachers don't recognize him either. And, oh yeah, he's circumcised, which her own boy wasn't.

She's told by the cops, and their on-the-tab psychiatrists, that kids can change a lot in three months. And, sure, sometimes they get circumcised at age 12. Lot of funny things happen. Plus, you're hysterical, and if you keep this nonsense up, we might have to commit you to a mental hospital as a delusional psychopath.

Just a really good movie, from start to finish, which actually comes closer to being a Kafkaesque/Twillight Zone horror movie than an urban crime drama. Though there is crime. And some brutal axe murders. And a nightmarish spell in a psycho ward. And general nastiness.

But everyone in the cast is pretty strong (except for Jeffrey Donovan sometimes misplacing his Irish accent), with John Malkovich playing sort of against type as a good-hearted (but intense) pastor who comes to Jolie's aid. And despite the seriously dark subject matter here, Eastwood manages to keep a ray of light shining in to keep int bearable as an entertainment.

That's kind of a tough trick, now that I think about it. If he pushed the rough stuff any harder the movie might have fallen into the category of "admirable and well-done but simply unwatchable because it's so awful."

Really good, and I can pretty much say anyone would like this. Except... well, if you have kids... or are bothered by some of the content matter I've mentioned... it's lighter fare than you might guess (and, again, I'm wondering exactly how that was accomplished), but it sure ain't sunny. Angelina Jolie, I guess, keeps us rooting for her as the woman who just is not going to quit no matter what the cops do to her, and somewhere in the back of our minds I guess we realize the cops aren't going to get away with this -- after all, "based on a true story" and all. Obviously, at some point, the conspiracy must have been revealed.

But that doesn't mean it's going to have a happy ending, either.

Doubt. Recommended. Much better and entertaining than I expected, especially as I generally don't like dramas and especially don't like dramas about the Catholic Church.

I also thought I didn't like Meryl Streep. Turns out I was wrong.

This is based on a play, I'm pretty sure, and I was ready for that style of filming that makes it obvious it was based on a play -- the staginess, the lack of use of lots of different locations resulting in a claustrophobic and inert feel, etc. Which I hate. But that trap is completely avoided -- Shanley filmed this like it was always intended to be a movie, and, apart from the one-on-one character confrontations, nothing really that would tip you this was originally a play.

Plus, the one-on-one confrontations are good, and you're waiting for them, rather then dreading them as typical filmed-play yelling-and-overemoting-at-each-other stuff.

The plot, if you don't know, is that Phillip Seymore Hoffmann is a progressive-minded head priest at a Catholic school around 1964, popular with the congregation and especially the kids he teaches because he's secular in his outlook and comportment, and has an easy, "I'm no different than you" rapport with people. Amy Adams is a young and naive nun/teacher; Meryl Streep is a hard-ass "conservative" nun -- retrograde, really -- and a real ball-buster.

Like -- she thinks ballpoint pens are sinful. No, really -- she thinks ballpoint pens are sinful. (Sloth, I guess, or whichever sin deals with penmanship.)

Based on very flimsy evidence, Amy Adams raises her "concerns" that Hoffman might have had inappropriate sexual relations with a troubled, lonely new boy at the school, which Meryl Streep seizes on, as she's always been suspicious of Hoffmann anyway. He wears his nails long, for example, looking a bit effeminate, and he gives sermons which seem to champion sins like doubt as virtues.

And he uses a ballpoint pen. (No, really -- she notices that.)

Despite the filmsiness of the evidence against him, though, Hoffmann sure acts like a guilty man. "Did he say anything?" he wants to know (i.e., "How much evidence do you already have against me?"), "which is usually the sort of things a guilty man says.

An odd dynamic occurs -- the evidence against Hoffmann is very filmsy, and yet... he manages to convince us he's probably guilty anyway. And Meryl Streep should come off as unreasonable and even paranoid in her certitude about his guilt, and yet seems probably, or least maybe, right.

The other odd thing is that Meryl Streep's character is of course the stereotypical Hollywood repressed-sexuality bad guy, like John Lithgow from Footloose in a nun's habit. But she's not. What makes this character work -- and why I'm psyched to see her appear on screen each time -- is that she's sarcastic and funny in her narrow-assed judgmental ball-busting. (Think Angela from The Office, only smarter and more self-aware.)

Phillip Seymore Hoffman's "young progressive priest" is the one that would stereotypically have the sense of humor in a movie; but he doesn't, really. He's earnest, at least when he's not being evasive.

It's Streep with all the biting remarks and deadly sass.

The movie lapses into Deep Philosophical Question to Send the Play's Audience Out the Doors With at the very end. A character (I won't say whom) exclaims "I have doubts!" sort of out of nowhere, and the movie is precious -- annoyingly so -- about giving us doubt about what exactly this character might be expressing doubt about.

The man's guilt? The church itself? God's existence? It could be any, or all, of those -- but the film actually gives us no hint whatsoever, expecting us to discuss this later.

No sale, pal. If the author won't discuss what he wants us to discuss, I'm not going to have discussions about which discussions he wanted us to discuss.

That minor (but kind of annoying) blemish at the very last line of the picture aside, it's solid all the way through. A story that might have been overly intellectual and abstract is instead filled with real, living human beings; a story that might have been trite and cliched instead seems fresh through defying easy expectations; and a story that might have been too dreary and dark for most is instead pretty lively and, at times, chuckle-out-loud funny.

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posted by Ace at 09:09 PM

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