March 31, 2009

Changeling (2008)

In 1926, James E. Davis became Chief of Police of the City of Los Angeles, California; where he formed his infamous "gun squad": a 50-man team destined to blast crime without mercy. Unfortunately, the form of extra-judicial punishment delivered by the gun squad only brought even more violence to the streets, which along with the corruption inside the department and the incompetence of the police to solve crimes resulted in a huge amount of bad reputation for the LAPD. It was under this circumstances that the strange case of Christine and Walter Collins took place, the case of a missing child that the LAPD wanted to use to boost its reputation but that ended up uncovering the terrible and corrupt methods used by the department to silence its enemies. More than 70 years later, scriptwriter and journalist J. Michael Straczynski learned about the case and, fascinated by it, decided to take it to the big screen, writing a screenplay and sent it to his agent. Interested in the case and the period setting, director Clint Eastwood decided to take the project.

Titled "Changeling", the film tells the story of single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), whom one day in 1928, returns home to discover that her son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), is missing. The LAPD opens an investigation about it, and several months later, the department informs Christine that her son Walter has been found alive in another state. Incredibly happy about the news, Christine awaits eagerly for her son, whose return is announced by the LAPD as a great triumph. However, when Christine meets the boy the police claims is Walter (Devon Conti), she claims the boy is not her son. Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), head of the department's Juvenile Division, insists the boy is Walter and pressures Christine into taking him home to avoid a media scandal. Despite this, Christine begins a crusade to find her real son and gathers consistent proof that the boy is not her son. Knowing that Christine's actions may become dangerous to the police, Captain Jones decides to send her to an psychiatric hospital. But Christine won't let them to silence her.

Completed after a lengthy work of research, J. Michael Straczynski's screenplay for "Changeling" is a heavily detailed account of the Collins case, including its connection to the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. But even when Straczynski offers a complete overview of the case (straight from historical records), "Changeling"'s focus is entirely on Christine Collins and her crusade to prove that the boy the LAPD claimed to be her son was an impostor, and that her real son was still missing. On this aspect, "Changeling" is more a drama about the disempowerment of women than about the mystery itself, as it follows the attempts done by the LAPD to silence her, reflecting the ways women were treated in the past when they became trouble for the male-dominated police department. Under this focus, Straczynski also makes the point that the brutal methods employed by the corrupt police department to cover its mistakes and protect itself were as terrible as the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, as they were done by those supposed to protect and serve the society.

With themes such as rampant police corruption, authority abuse, and the loss of innocence of a rising city; director Clint Eastwood evokes in "Changeling" the tone and mood of film noir to tell the story of Christine Collins' fight against the system. To achieve this atmosphere, Eastwood puts to great use the remarkable job done by cinematographer Tom Stern, who gives the film an antique visual look that suits nicely the period setting. Taking a subtle, restrained approach to the film's subject, Eastwood avoids to fall in overemotional melodrama or in the cheap sensationalism, and remains as objective as possible, keeping true to Straczynski's compromise with the historical account of the case. While it's one of the biggest productions in his career, Eastwood's film flows in a very intimate way, focusing on the characters' humanity and their interactions. Also, it's worth to point out the great work done by the visual effects team, who manage to recreate Los Angeles' old landscape and prove that digital effects are not an exclusivity of the more fantastic genres.

Leading the cast is Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins, the single mother who must face not only the tragedy of losing a child, but also the oppression of having the police working against her. In what's probably an atypical role for her, Angelina Jolie brings back that talent that seemed to be hidden behind the whole celebrity image of her recent years. As Collins, Jolie is subtle, restrained, and surpassing all the expectations, manages to portray Collins' mix of fragility and strength with a very natural and believable charm. As Captain J. J. Jones, Jeffrey Donovan is excellent, representing remarkably not only the historical Captain Jones, but also the whole image of 1920's corrupt LAPD. Playing Rev. Gustav A. Briegleb, the man who helps Collins to keep fighting, is John Malkovich, who once again delivers a great performance, even if he's role is toned down in favor of Jolie's. Finally, two actors make excellent jobs even if their roles are also considerably smaller: Michael Kelly as Det. Lester Ybarra, and Jason Butler Harner, who plays Gordon Stewart Northcott.

Impeccably crafted and filled with a powerful message, in "Changeling" director Clint Eastwood delivers again an excellent movie that manages to deal with one of Lost Angeles' most lurid events with taste, class, and surprisingly, objectivity. Granted, it could be said that the movie does have a strong dose of social message about police corruption and women's rights; but the whole thing is executed with such a restrained pace and is so faithful to the historical facts, that it never feels tiresome or boring in the way it handles its message. If anything, the film may feel a tad typical in its presentation, although certainly the scope it has goes beyond the constrains of any genre. While not exactly a film noir, it's easy to make a connection, and not only because of the setting, as "Changleing" does offer the whole oppressive atmosphere and mystery that filled those classic films. The key difference being that, due to the focus on Christine Collins and her crusade, "Changeling" deals a bit more with emotions, as it's through her that we experience the cold fist of the 1920's LAPD.

A visual joy that brings back memories from the classic era, "Changeling" may not rank amongst Clint Eastwood's best films as a director, but in the end, given the talent the legendary actor has developed in his years as a director, it's still far superior than most filmmaker's work. While a bit slow at times, "Changeling" is quite a mesmerizing experience thanks to its recreation of the period and wonderful visual look. It's good to see that Angelina Jolie has more in her than the celebrity image the media has built around her, and thanks to Clint Eastwood, "Changeling" is a great reminder of her talent. Personally, I find in "Changeling" yet another proof that if there's a true heir of Hollywod's style for making classic, that's Clint Eastwood.


March 17, 2009

Watchmen (2009)

Between the years of 1986 and 1987, DC Comics published a twelve-issue comic book limited series that would change the history of the medium for ever: "Watchmen". Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, "Watchmen" was revolutionary in the way it deconstructed the superhero concept, in an elegy of sorts in which the superhero was seen not as the epitome of perfection, but as humans with their own problems and traumas. Based on the idea of how the existence of superheroes would affect the real world; themes such as vigilantism, power politics and nuclear war are touched in a dense, complex story that proved that comic books could be an art form too. As expected, a respected and influential work like "Watchmen" would attract filmmakers almost since it was published, but the difficulties of the adaptation had the project in development hell, despite having directors like Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Peter Greengrass attached to it at times. 22 years after its publishing, director Zack Snyder decided to film the project many considered "unfilmable".

The story in "Watchmen" is set in 1985, in a world where masked vigilantes have been around since the 40s. The existence of costumed adventurers changed history, proving decisive for everything from politics to pop culture, specially since the appearance of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the world's first real superhuman. However, by the 80s, superheroes (except Dr. Manhattan) are outlawed and the Cold War's tension is on the rise. One night, government agent Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered, and the only masked vigilante who remained active outside the law, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), discovers that Blake was actually another vigilante, The Comedian. Assuming that someone is killing former "costumed adventurers", Rorschach decides to warn his former partners: Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). Nobody takes him seriously, but as Blake's past gets uncovered and nuclear war becomes closer, the most important question is "who watches the watchmen?"

Writer Alex Tse was the man signed for the monumental challenge of transforming Moore's heavily detailed and complex graphic novel into a realizable screenplay; and considering the difficulty of the task, it can be said that Tse did a more than satisfying job. As faithful to the comic book as possible, Tse keeps the 80s setting and remains true to the characters' identities and the story's themes. While certain aspects were done in a more realistic way, the plot's essence remains intact, with the mystery about the Comedian's death and the ominous threat of nuclear war being the core of the plot. The way the characters are fleshed out in the movie is excellent, as Tse allows them to grow the way they do in the comic, with their origins and motivations explored with great care and detail (to the point of having dialog copied verbatim). "Watchmen" was always more a drama about superheroes than a typical superhero tale, and Tse keeps true to that line by making an intelligent, powerful story that captures that revisionism of the superhero theme.

The most noticeable thing about director Zack Snyder's work in "Watchmen" is definitely his passion about the project, as the meticulous care in reproducing the look and atmosphere of the celebrated comic book is certainly worthy of respect. Just like he did in his adaptation of Frank Miller's "300", Snyder takes the pages of "Watchmen" and brings them to life as faithfully as possible, covering as much detail from Gibbons' art as possible. With a gritty visual look by cinematographer Larry Fong, Snyder creates an appropriate atmosphere of impending doom and urban decadence that suits the story perfectly, and surprisingly, his "realistic" take on the visual look of the characters is for the most part appropriate. Unfortunately, in his passionate focus on translating faithfully the novel to film, Snyder seems to have sacrificed a bit the storytelling of the movie, as while it's clearly what Moore and Gibbons left on paper, sometimes it just doesn't work that good, perhaps proving right when author Alan Moore said that "Watchmen" was just not cinematic.

As the outlaw vigilante Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley delivers a truly amazing performance bringing to life the borderline psychotic personality of a man obsessed with an extreme form of moral absolutism. Haley's work is truly worthy of praise. Equally remarkable is Billy Crudup's turn as the superhuman Dr. Manhattan, a man with godlike powers but who feels more and more detached from humanity as time goes by. Patrick Wilson plays Dan Dreiberg, alias the second Nite Owl, a technological wizard who followed the steps of his childhood hero, but who feels hard live a life without the aid of his costume. Wilson is very good in his role, but he's certainly overshadowed by Haley and Crudup. The same applies to Malin Åkerman, who plays the second Silk Spectre. While her work is not bad, she's nowhere near the quality of some of her cast mates. Finally, Matthew Goode is Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias, the world's smartest man and an extremely wealthy industrialist. His work in the role is good, but he is certainly the weakest link in an overall good cast.

As written above, Alex Tse's screenplay for "Watchmen" is certainly a masterpiece of scriptwriting, and definitely a lot better than what everyone was expecting. While there were some changes done, as an adaptation, everything of importance is there, and probably more. Unfortunately, while Tse's screenplay is miraculously a tremendous work of art, Snyder's directing fails to truly deliver the full power the story has. Don't get me wrong, against all odds, director Zack Snyder has pulled off a fantastic movie that dares to go where few blockbusters would (An R-rating for starters); but still, his desire to translate every panel in the comic result in an uneven pace that makes the film suffer a bit. While some bits flow nicely, others move with a vertiginous speed, with lines of dialog being said without caring about timing or rhythm, as if Snyder had felt the need to rush the work to get as much of the novel on screen as possible. Still, it's not a problem as big as it may sound, as it's only really noticeable in a couple of scenes (although those are a couple of important scenes).

I guess nobody was really expecting "Watchmen" to finally hit the big screen, but at last it did. And while Zack Snyder's adaptation of Moore and Gibbons' novel may not be perfect, it's probably as close as we'll get to have a proper version of "Watchmen" on film. Fortunately, the core of what made "Watchmen" so revolutionary in print is still there: the dramatic deconstruction of the superhero myth, stripping it from all its values to find the human inside every superhero. A brutal and unmerciful deconstruction that surprisingly, in the end it's also a celebration of everything that superheroes mean. The position of hero, of a society's watchmen, is always a difficult one, full of morality issues and complex dilemmas. Like the novel did, this movie invites us to ask one more time: "who watches the watchmen?".


March 15, 2009

Låt Den Rätte Komma In (2008)

Ever since the publishing of John Polidori's "The Vampyre" in 1819, the folkloric figure of the vampire, that mythical undead being who survives by drinking blood, entered the world of modern fiction. 78 years later, Bram Stoker's highly influential novel, "Dracula", would finish to integrate the vampire to modern culture. After that, the vampire has been a constant theme that lurks in horror fiction, mainly because the attractive and interesting traits of the vampire figure make it very useful to deal with a wide variety of topics. From dashing hero to atrocious monster, the vampire has taken many roles and symbols through its existence on modern fiction, and another proof of the fascination it has on us is 2004's Swedish novel, "Låt Den Rätte Komma in" (literally, "Let the Right One In"), by writer John Ajvide Lindqvis. A supernatural tale of horror and romance that deals with issues like bullying, murder and pedophilia, "Låt Den Rätte Komma in" became a bestseller in its native country, and fortunately, it also became a new chance for the vampire to get into the big screen again.

In the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a lonely 12-year-old boy who is regularly bullied at school. Living with his mother in an apartment building, Oskar spends his time meditating alone and dreaming about getting revenge from the classmates who bully him. One night he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), a strange pale girl who seems to be of his same age. Eli has recently moved to the building and comes out only at night. Despite Eli's reluctance, a bond is formed between the two kids, and soon they become close friends, meeting at the building's courtyard or communicating between the apartments via Morse code messages. Eli begins to encourage Oskar to fight back those who bully him, and gives him the strength he needs to stand up. But Elis is not without problems herself, as she is a vampire and needs blood to survive. Her "father", Håkan (Per Ragnar), has been killing local residents in order to provide blood for Eli, but one night he gets caught, so he disfigures himself to avoid being identified. Eli finds herself alone, but Oskar's willing to let her in.

Adapted to the screen by the bestseller's author, John Ajvide Lindqvist himself, "Låt Den Rätte Komma In" is a powerful, melancholic tale of horror that despite the toning down (or complete removing) of several themes of the novel, it still is explores the dark side of humanity in the tragic tale of the love between a lonely kid and his vampire friend. The story's greatest strength is certainly the way the characters are developed, with the relationship between Oskar and Eli taking the central focus of it. But even with a tender love at the center of it, the world of John Ajvide Lindqvist's "Låt Den Rätte Komma In" is a harsh, realistic one, so harsh that the existence of vampires isn't really that terrifying when compared to the bleak world where Oskar has to grow up. The realism extents to the vampire theme too, as "Låt Den Rätte Komma In" doesn't attempt to glamorize (or modernize) the vampire condition, but instead chooses to represent the classic myth with all its "rules" without any concession: the life of a vampire isn't a romantic one, not even an easy one.

Director Tomas Alfredson makes a great job in bringing to life the cold, lonely world of "Låt Den Rätte Komma In", as he conceived an atmosphere that perfectly represents the feeling of alienation that's present in both kids' lives. With a superb work by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Alfredson creates a beautiful, poetic film that's emotional and tender without being schmaltzy or childish. The innocence and purity of the bond formed between the kid and the vampire speaks louder than the clichéd teenage angst of other vampire-related love stories. At the core, it's still a horror film, but the horror is subtler, based more on the disturbing images it evokes than on the graphic violence it shows. It's restrained, sober style taking back the focus of the horror to the darkness, to the unseen, leaving the work to the imagination instead of spiting out every move. Alfredson's use of silence is masterful, and coupled with Van Hoytema's beautiful cinematography, result in the haunting atmosphere of a film in which images speak more than words.

Acting in the film is really amazing, with young actors Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson (both 11 years old at the time of filming) delivering remarkable performances in the lead roles. As the fragile Oskar, Kåre Hedebrant is excellent, very natural and believable as the bullied little kid whose life is lonely and miserable until that strange girl appears. With a face full of melancholy and wonder, Kåre is a wonderful Oskar, but if he is wonderful, Lina Leandersson takes it to the next level as Eli, the mysterious vampire girl. Looking wise beyond her years, Lina portrays perfectly a vampire trapped in the body of a 12-year-old kid, with the maturity that gives age and the fragility that gives the discovery of love. Both actors have great chemistry as a couple, which instrumental for the film as in the end it's their character's emotions what drive the film. The rest of the cast is for the most part effective, although the film revolves completely around the two young lead actors. Still, Per Ragnar is good as Håkan, and young Patrik Rydmark is excellent as Oskar's bully, Conny.

A fascinating tale of romance and horror, "Låt Den Rätte Komma In" once again resurrects the myth of the vampire, but by taking away the glamor and taking it back to its roots as a tragic, monstrous curse, it surprisingly humanizes it. Facing a bleak world filled with murderers, drunkards, bullies and broken homes, both kids are not that different in the end, as the fragile 12-year-old boy and the older vampire trapped in a kid's body appear as equals, both being misfits in such environment. And they need each other: Oskar needs the confidence and strength Eli gives him, while she needs the innocence and purity his love offers. As written above, some of the themes the novel handled were eliminated, but still, the essence of John Ajvide Lindqvist's book remains: the dark side of humanity is far more terrible than any monster. Sober and low key, Alfredson's "Låt Den Rätte Komma In" moves in silence and flows at a much slower pace than most modern films of the same type, as it opts for suggestion instead of explanation. This approach takes horror back to where it's scarier: in the imagination.

Filled with a chilling atmosphere and beautiful visual poetry, Tomas Alfredson's "Låt Den Rätte Komma In" is a breath of fresh air for the horror genre that shows that there's more about it than graphic violence and jump scares, as it can also evoke powerful emotions and still be a disturbing thriller. Granted, it may be too slow for some, but personally, I think that its restrained, subtle approach was the best way to properly tell the story without falling in the schmaltzy clichés of similar romance stories. It's respect for realism and extreme care for detail certainly help in this aspect too. "Låt Den Rätte Komma In", or "Let the Right One In", is definitely an original and inventive story that seems to remind us that way before being cool and hip, vampire stories used to be disturbing too.