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Friday, October 31, 2008

Changeling

Changeling. What a word. It could mean so many things. I have a relative who at one time fancied himself a modern day Jessie James. If ever there was an argument for being born with a “bad gene” it would have to be my cousin Jim. He spent most of his teenage years in juvie and when he wasn’t locked up he should have been. By the time he was 18, the State had already put his name on a pair of prison skivvies in anticipation, knowing it was just a matter of time. They even had a cell on reserve. That’s how notoriously well-known he already was as a minor.

I remember during one of his brief “respites” into the free world, a k a paroles, he dropped by my place (which was suspicious enough since we had never been close), and when I left the room to get my purse (he wanted to “borrow” money I knew I’d never see again, natch), I came back into the living room to find him on a chair trying to light one of the wooden ceiling beams on fire with a Bic™ lighter. Obviously he was not only a petty crook and druggie, he was also a lunatic arsonist in the making. And not a particularly bright one, since it hadn’t occurred to him that a) the wood was fireproofed, b) I’d be right back, c) I’d pull the chair out from under him, and d) he might be bigger than me but when anybody tries to burn down my house I’m going to find the inner strength in me to kick the bejeezus out of him, family or not.

Now, this isn’t what made Jim a
Changeling. That came about a couple of years later when he decided to rob a bank. That’s right. I have a would-be bank robber in my family, and he’s one of the lesser criminals I can claim on a shady branch of the family tree. Anyway, Jim wasn’t exactly an expert gunslinger going into the bank and when he shoved a revolver into his pants as he got out of his car it went off and so did his all-beef giggle stick. Voila! Suddenly he became a Changeling!


Here’s where I should probably interject a public service announcement and offer a tip (so to speak) to potential bank robbers everywhere: When considering your choice of attire for the job, you should always go for tight jeans AND briefs. The briefs, in particular are important because they are made with a single band of stretchable elastic around the waist unlike those damning boxer shorts with their bunched up tiny “accordion” pleat waistbands and loose, no-catch, leg room. It’s the pleats that you have to look out for when slipping your gun in your pants. They are like the devil’s wee fingers reaching out to snatch that trigger. If you haven’t made sure the safety is on you may find that your twig and berries get picked off, and if they are, without the resilient cradle of a cotton brief to slow down their trajectory, they may well speed down a pair of baggy khakis and your pubic privates will suddenly become very public pubics.

This was back in the 1980s and when Jim got to the hospital the doctors took one look at the hole where once Beefy McManstick resided and knew of nothing more to do with the space than to re-wire his urological system and sew up the void. McManstick meanwhile was never recovered but was thought to have taken his escape through a nearby drainage grate and was shortly thereafter providing a Thanksgiving buffet to a family of rodents in the sewer system below.

Eventually Jim had a change of heart, found God (don’t they always in prison?), and upon release after ten to fifteen years, embraced his long role as Bubba’s beyotch and took it one step further. He had additional surgery, this time reshaping his “Barbie”™ smooth nether region into something Barbie (and Ken™) could only yearn for. Following facial feminization surgery, breast implants, laser hair removal, and lots of Botox and the application of trowels-full of make-up, Jim got a court order changing his name and gender legally from Jim to Kim and now I have a cousin who bears an eerily aging resemblance to Angelina Jolie.

Fortunately, Angelina Jolie still looks like her own youthful self, and she is dealing with a completely different type of
Changeling in her latest movie of the same name. In her Changeling, Angelina plays Christine Collins, a struggling single mother in 1928 Los Angeles. She works as a roller skating supervisor of a crew of long-distance telephone operators, a job that makes it difficult sometimes to arrange for home care for her nine year old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith; making his big screen debut… okay, he had a bit part as a baby in 2002’s Reckoning, but that doesn’t count.

When Christine is forced to leave Walter unattended one Saturday with his assurance that he can take care of himself, she is horrified then to come home to an empty house. It is apparent he has been missing since before lunchtime, and, after searching the neighborhood, she can find no one who has a clue as to his whereabouts. The police won’t even respond until the next day, and when they finally do, they treat her and the case as a casual every day event. Now, this film is supposedly based on a true story, so I’m going to assume über-director Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers) built Christine’s character on transcripts of actual events, but she does seem just as feisty (a polite euphemism for ‘ballsy’) as Angelina Jolie herself. Well, Christine is just not going to roll over and forget about her son, and so she begins her own campaign of harassing the police captain assigned to the case, J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan; Hindsight). What Christine is not necessarily aware of, at least at first, is how corrupt and poorly perceived the LAPD is with the general public, especially thanks to the weekly radio show of evangelist Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich; Beowulf), who is committed to exposing all the crimes and fraudulent goings-on inside the cop shop. The one thing they didn’t need right then was a high profile missing kid case.

What could be a simple “Where’s Waldo?”… I mean “Where’s Walter?” scenario is anything but as the film turns into a multi-layered suspense tale with a dozen questions floating all at once. The police do return Christine a boy swearing to be her son, but only she rejects that notion. The press loves the mother and son reunion, and Captain Jones bullies her to believe the lie, at least in public, but still she doesn’t. So who is the faux Walter (debuting Devon Conti) and what has happened to her real son? And once those questions are even hinted at with possible answers more and more developments spring forth like ghastly nightmares too horrible to imagine.

For Jolie, who discovered she was pregnant with what are now the world famous twin Messiahs, Vivienne and Knox Jolie-Pitt, making a film with such a high level of anxiety and a storyline driven by the abduction and possible murder of her son must have been exhausting. Worse yet, standing in front of young Devon Conti and screaming “I am not your mother!” in scene after scene must have been frustrating and an acting challenge that required dozens of takes. It’s hard to imagine Angelina easily forming those words yet alone releasing them from her balloon-shaped lips. Is there ANY child Angelina doesn’t want for her own? I daresay there were Child Protective Services officers on hand to make sure the dozen or so child actors working on the movie were safely returned to their proper parents at the end of each day’s shooting and not snatched away by the kid-greedy Jolie-Pitt clan.

Changeling is a beautifully filmed period piece, miraculously recreating 1928 as if one is looking through a crystal clear window into the past. Eastwood, a longtime composer in addition to director, has provided a haunting but not overwhelming original score that highlights the anxiety, hope, and despair that fills Christine’s heart. The script, by J. Michael Straczynski (writer and executive producer of tv’s “Jeremiah” and “Babylon 5” series) is near epic in scope, covering the story of Walter’s disappearance from so many angles that it sometimes seems overwhelming, perhaps like it felt for the real life Christine. If anything, it only seems to lose steam towards the end because it can’t miraculously produce answers for all of its own queries and generate the cinematic “happy endings” we are usually spoiled to expect.

Like all Eastwood movies, Changeling has a social message or two woven into the fabric of the tale, and this is reminiscent of his Academy Award winning Million Dollar Baby in that way. Here, he wrestles with capital punishment, police brutality, the courts, and, in an off-hand way, deadbeat dads who skip out on their kids and their responsibilities.

Changeling is a chilling tour de force for Angelina Jolie and the Academy Award for Best Actress is hers to lose come next February. If she’s not off scooping up some more kids in Africa or Samoa or some god-awful third world place like The Bronx, then she ought to plan on picking up a little gold guy named Oscar in Hollywood. He’ll be waiting around on February 22nd.

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