Eric Geman | Sunday, 07 December 2008

Ageing but still playing a carnal role - ****

After several degrading supporting roles in silly films like The Love Guru, Ben Kingsley reminds us what a great actor he is with his portrayal of the leading character in Elegy.
He plays David Kepesh, a professor of cultural criticism who still seduces starry-eyed female students into brief affairs. His latest conquest is Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz), the daughter of Cuban immigrants. After she graduates, he starts dating and sleeping with her.
Unlike all the previous occasions, David becomes emotionally involved with Consuela and she’s more than a willing lover. But because he’s 30 years older, he fears the seemingly inevitable, that sooner or later she’ll leave him for a young man.
Elegy is based on the short novel The Dying Animal by Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Roth. Offhand, I know of three film adaptations of Roth’s novels. Goodbye, Columbus (1969) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1972) weren’t released locally.
The Human Stain (2003) was shown but it didn’t do him justice and it’s taken Spanish director Isabel Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer to achieve that.
The cultural background is pleasing but the focus is firmly on the protagonist and the conflict he personifies, that of ageing while the mind remains as before and David continues to play a carnal role in life.
Incorporating a sizeable amount of the novel’s text, the screenplay combines with Kingsley’s portrayal to give an in-depth portrayal of David.
Penelope Cruz doesn’t have half the screen time that Kingsley does but she provides the film with its fulcrum. Her performance is wholly convincing and it’s among her best work.
And there are valuable supporting performances from Patricia Clarkson as David’s long-term lover, an unusually restrained Dennis Hopper as his faithful poet friend and Pater Sarsgaard as the son he abandoned.
Character-driven, the film is intelligently structured so as to deal with the character development first. David starts as very unlikeable but as the film progresses, we can relate if not identify with him and his dilemma.
Yet, there’s no attempt to make David appear sympathetic and the film is piercingly honest throughout. The big plot developments come at an advanced stage and build up to a very poignant climax.
Coixet makes Elegy a consistently thought-provoking film and she does it with great subtlety. It’s ironic and all the more rewarding that it should be a female director who provides a meaningful insight in dealing with such particularly male issues.

(Elegy was withdrawn from release a day after I reviewed it).

Eastwood errs - **

Watching Ridley Scott giving a pale imitation of his usual self in Body of Lies was bad enough. But reviewing Changeling is almost a personal defeat because I’ve admired and championed Clint Eastwood throughout his career and never more so than when he started directing. And yet, despite the unusual case it deals with, Changeling is mundane.
On March 10, 1928, single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) returned home to find that her nine-year-old son, Walter, was missing. She reported his disappearance to the Los Angeles police who gave it very little attention.
Months later, Christine is told by Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) that they’ve found Walter. The police organise a publicised reunion with the press in attendance so as to get some good PR to counter their justified reputation for being thoroughly corrupt.
Christine is shocked to find that the boy is not her son, her case is taken up by the Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a preacher with a popular radio programme but Jones ignores and later, accuses and offends Christine.
When she goes to the press, Jones has her committed to a lunatic asylum. Meanwhile, police detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) drives to the Northcott Ranch to catch and deport a juvenile illegal immigrant.
The youth’s capture led to what became known as The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, one of the most notorious cases in 1920s California and which could have been linked to the Collins case.
Changeling has two major handicaps, screenwriter writer J. Michael Straczynski and
Director Clint Eastwood. Straczynski is mainly a TV writer and, not surprisingly, Changeling unfolds like an inferior made for TV film with a superior budget and production values.
The script is so dull as to neuter the many opportunities the original case presented. Its sole purpose seems to be to set up a number of set pieces, the likes of which we’ve seen several times over. It contains no characterisation and the characters’ function is merely to advance the plot from point A to B.
Eastwood’s story telling skills are nowhere in sight during most of Changeling. He directs the proceedings in a slow, flat manner and, given its melodramatic tone, the film resembles a 1940s melodrama.
The period re-creation is lavish and convincing though the era’s hats and make-up often make Jolie look ghastly. There are no interesting shades of grey. Everyone is depicted in shades of satanical black or virginal white and since there’s no characterisation there are no performances.
Eastwood seems bent on making a near documentary and he’s been courageous enough to remain faithful to the ending of the actual case, even though this prevents the film from having closure. But I’ve seen documentaries that would put Changeling to shame.
At the other extreme we find melodramatic depictions like those in the asylum. It’s only during the brief exterior sequences of the possibly linked investigation that Eastwood recovers his original style.
Here, his direction is faultless as he’s understated without detracting from the chilling nature of the case. That temporary exception emphasises the main problem with Changeling- its telling is just too ordinary to deserve attention.


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