23 April 2009

Changeling (2008)

I was conflicted about seeing this film. I almost always like Clint Eastwood's directing style, but I almost never like Angelina Jolie. Eastwood's view through the camera lens is clean and pure. It is like looking up from a book when you have been reading all day, and suddenly all the words that have been swimming in front of your eyes are gone. Jolie, in most of her films it seems, is either a caricature or empty (See my review of Wanted). But Eastwood manages to sand down the rough edges. In fact, even-handedness is the word of the day with the film.
Changeling begins in 1920s Los Angeles, an idyllic, bygone existence. Mrs. Collins is a single mother of a nine-year old boy, Walter. The two have carved out a simple, if predictable, life together. It then chronicles the horrific serial killer that is uncovered while investigating the child's disappearance. His mother (Jolie) is adamant that they boy returned to her by the insistent LAPD is not her son. Afraid to be further reviled and embarrassed the force seeks to subvert Mrs. Collins' protestations -- first by threat, then by committing her to an insane asylum. Using the excuse of her delicate femininity and the stress of losing her only son as an excuse, they inflict rigorous physical and emotional torture. Their object is either to break her will, or keep her in the sanitarium -- either way, she is prevented from speaking to the press or being believed. Finally, an astute (and not corrupt) detective takes an interest in the case and the pieces start to make sense.
Eastwood's steady direction makes this film work. It easily could have become a vehement, man-hating manifesto. Instead it lands as an anti-corruption treatise and interesting historical chronicle of a story lost to time. It encourages the spectator to rethink what is "crazy", what we believe in ourselves and of others. It encourages the audience not to give up. Although she is "saved" by a man, it is not because he is a male figure that he helps. He is a character who believes in fairness. And, in fact, she was just as tormented by women in her stay at the asylum. It is the detective's fairness, and Eastwood's attempt at fairness, that allows the film to stand as a fully-explored tale. It also deftly handles what is an awful series of murders. Eastwood puts across the terror of his victims and the helplessness of their situation without making a gory mess of things.
As usual, Eastwood's art direction brings to life a Los Angeles of the past -- one that is so important to understanding the context of the story (the color choices alone warrants an article). It also features a typically-simple musical motif. Changeling is not ground-breaking, or even surprising, but it is solid filmmaking with an interesting story to tell -- which is hard enough to achieve anymore.
Also starring Jeffery Donovan, John Malkovich, and Michael Kelly.

07 April 2009

Lured (1947)

This fascinating, well-paced and superbly-acted film has somehow managed to slip away unnoticed in the annals of classic film. It stars a young and cheeky Lucille Ball as an American chorus girl/hoofer in 1940s London. Her best friend disappears after answering an ad in the personal section. While questioning the spunky Sandra, Scotland Yard enlists her help to find the poetic killer who lures young girls with his unusual writing. She answers the ads, under the watchful eye of the detectives, and tries to ferret out the murderer. Her adventures lead her to meetings both frightful and funny.
Along the way, she bumps into the ever-charming George Sanders, man-about-town. They find romance but as the net closes in around the culprit, she begins to suspect her fiance may be out to get her.
Ball is gorgeous, stunning and is wielding her own brand of sass in this film. It is a brilliant example of what she could do, without the pratfalls and slapstick of 1950s television. Sanders is as devastatingly suave as ever. He gleefully combines the sophistication of his role in Dorian Gray, the stoic mind of his doctor in Village of the Damned and his slightly sleazy charm from Rebecca to create his most well-rounded character to date. Charles Coburn is delightful as the reliable chief inspector at Scotland Yard. There is a lovely, funny and slightly off-balance small role for Boris Karloff, as a mad fashion designer. He seems to be thoroughly enjoying the chance to be completely off-the-wall. Also enjoyable is the slow character arc displayed by Cedric Hardwicke as Sander's secretary. This cast is perhaps so vibrant due to the even-handed direction by Douglas Sirk.
Fans of Sirk may feel a bit uneasy about seeing a film of his in black and white, and a suspenseful noir to boot. But only his touch could have made this what it is. It is beautifully shot, taking full advantage of light and shadow, black and white, and all the greys inbetween. The dark, sinister London nights are crooked and winding, to be sure, but we are led there by a shining, innocent (but hardly naive) red-head. There we meet interesting characters and almost forget we are on the trail of a killer.
Luckily, this film was recently released on DVD by Kino Video - no excuse in waiting until it comes on TCM again to check it out.