Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why “Changeling” Doesn’t Deserve an Oscar

Hey guys,

This is my time of year when I’m usually hopping from theater to theater to catch all of the latest Oscar contenders. I love it! I live for GREAT FILMS! Bring it on! Give me your best shot!


Yeah, well, there are some very slim pickings this year, sad to say. Regardless, I’m going to blog about those films as I see them. And I just got back from seeing Changeling and thought I’d try to get my thoughts down while the movie’s still fresh on my mind.

Warning – lots of spoilers!

Well, this film just doesn’t work. The whole endeavor felt so flat. We sat in the back row, which I love to do so that I can also watch the audience. I could tell it didn’t connect with the audience, as many people seemed restless, shifted in their seats, and one woman sitting in front of me kept checking the time on her phone. At times, the film tested my patience, too. So I thought I’d try to identify some of its problems and see how my brilliant readers also felt about it.

* Lack of tension. This is yet another example of why I feel we’re in
a screenwriting state of emergency because so many writers have no clue about the importance of good tension to make a film great. Mr. Straczynski made a number of missteps in this category. First, the kid. The kid suddenly disappeared. Later, everything is explained to us either verbally or though flashbacks with voice overs, all of which undermined tension. The story unfolds in a way that EXPLAINS too much after the fact, which completely deflates all the scenes of tension because it already happened and we already know the outcome. We’re not IN the moment WITH those characters hoping against hope it’ll work out AS it happens. Only then would we, as an audience, be persuaded to truly care. It’d also be far more compelling if Mr. Straczynski established the threat of the serial killer first and gave us dual storylines – one of the mother frantically trying to find her son and another of her son while he’s in custody of this serial killer, locked up in his chicken coop, and how he ultimately helped that other boy. That approach would’ve come alive to us and the audience would’ve been more involved. Other ways the film lacked tension – the serial killer was never a threat. We watched him try to skip town, which is certainly not as engaging as watching him try to kidnap children. He was never a threat to the police either or to the cop, Ybarra, who was snooping around his farm. I have to agree with Berardinelli: “The central problem with Changeling is that the lengthy secondary story of Ybarra's investigation and the revelations surrounding the serial killer come across as unnecessary appendages rather than important aspects of the story. Every time the movie strays from Christine and her crusade, the film loses energy. There's enough going on with the main character, who suffers grief at losing her son, goes through a One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest phase, and ends up in direct conflict with the police department in a court of a law, that the introduction of a murder investigation muddies the waters. Changeling feels long and cluttered because it is long and cluttered.” Straczynski also established early the corruption of the police department. Reverend Briegleb tells Christine about the “gun squad.” Yet, these guys never play a part in the narrative and Christine is never put into a position where she thinks they may be trying to kill her. All of that “gun squad” talk felt like a setup without a payoff. Another aspect that robbed tension is that Straczynski protected Christine for most of the story by making her a media darling. In doing this, practically everyone in L.A. is on her side rooting for her, and it’s no surprise at all that others will fight on her behalf. Once she was locked up in the insane asylum, she also became passive the remainder of the story because by this point so many other people were fighting for her cause. Whose story is this? The people of L.A. fighting for Christine Collins or Christine Collins? Once you take the story out of her hands, everything falls flat.

* Weak scenes. Straczynski uses his writer’s pen more as a blunt instrument than a tool for a devoted dramatist. We had blunt, obvious characterizations. Good guys were good. Bad guys were bad. Christine Collins is a victim. Okay, we get that. So what? How are you going to make the experience of this story interesting? You have to add a few layers of complexity to heighten the drama. An example would be the scene in the house with the boy that’s pretending to be her son. What happens? He says “good night, mom,” or something like that. She blows up and tells him to never call her mom ever again. She screams at him. In the next scene in his bedroom, he’s lying in bed with his back to her strangely and pretending to sleep while she apologizes and tries to persuade him to confess that he’s not really her son. That’s weak to me. It’s all so very obvious. The boy’s character was cold and aloof and unengaging and so obviously not her son. A good dramatist would’ve aspired to give us so much more emotional mileage out of those scenes. The boy could’ve been more proactive to lie and convince her he’s her son. There could’ve been the
subtext of desperation behind his words to convince her that would’ve added some much needed emotional layers to that scene. Yes, he’s pretending to be something he’s not but we’d feel for him.

* Christine had too much emotion and not enough depth. I thought, “how many more times will we have to watch Angelina Jolie cry?” I believe she cried so much because her part was underwritten and deflated of
depth. Jolie didn’t have much else to do.

* The ending went on too long. He should’ve ended the story shortly after the hearings and the trial.

Have you seen it? What are your thoughts?



Lucy V said...

Well I don't fancy watching it NOW, lol

Though to be fair the likelihood of me watching Angelie Jolie in anything much is slim, she has replaced Julia Roberts as *the* actress who gets on my nerves for no other reason than she just does. My own problem, not hers, natch.

So MM, what's a girl gotta do to get a link round here? Something rude I hope... Or is this 'cos I flirted with Unk that one time?? Mmmmm???

James said...

He's a comic book writer.

That's not a slam. I'm just saying ease up a little on the direct attacks on the writer :p.

"Straczynski uses his writer’s pen more as a blunt instrument than a tool for a devoted dramatist. We had blunt, obvious characterizations. Good guys were good. Bad guys were bad. Christine Collins is a victim."

Again, that comes from the comic book writing. All those things are attributes on the written not moving picture page :p.

If we are talking about a mark of the times, where I see the bigger folly, is in directors having an inability to capture the tone and translate to the screen. That is the director's job, not the screenwriters.

Film is a collaboration of talents. Seems awfully harsh to single out the writer in this case.

Despite Clint Eastwood's recent critical success, he is still the director that has given us such gems as BLOODWORK and SPACE COWBOYS.

"The ending went on too long. He should’ve ended the story shortly after the hearings and the trial."

Who is "he?"

The writer -- or the director? If the film goes on too long, that is completely at the hands of the director.

Sam Mendes chopped off the beginning and ending of Alan Ball's AMERICAN BEAUTY.

I'm not defending the movie.

I'm just saying, I find it interesting that you seem to be dumping 100% of the fault on the writer.

Particularly, because I find your insight to be so spot on an overwhelming majority of the time, I find this a little much. My 2 cents~

Jason Bellamy said...

MM: I couldn't agree more ...

- about the lack of tension ...

- about how Christine becomes a pawn in what is supposed to be her story (glad you noticed this, few have) ...

- about how Jolie is given little to do but emote (or not emote, given the scene); there's no real character there ...

- about how the whole bloody thing goes on far too long, which suggests to me that the screenwriter was drawn to the factoids of the whole event, rather than the emotional journey of Christine Collins ...

- about how it's slim pickings this year. Ugh.

Unknown said...

I haven't seen the movie, but I read the screenplay from the link you provided (thanks!), which may be an entirely different experience. But I agree with you on some things.

1) The 'gun squad' didn't seem to go anywhere. They just wanted to establish the corruption, but I believe that was already established through the Reverand's radio show.

2) The ending was way too long. It needed to be chopped. I kept thinking: when is this over?

2) Um. There was way too many people on her side. Quite honestly, while reading this, I was never ever worried that Christine wouldn't win. Not for a second. Because the only people not with her were the police, who were outnumbered by the press, etc. Even the judge was on her side. Not sure how this could be corrected. But I knew as soon as the Reverend reached out to Christine, that she was going to be fine. And that was in the beginning! So there's that major lack of tension.

3) I was confused at the ending, too. Did the police tell the boy to lie, or did the boy lie on his own? Not sure, but it makes a big difference. I felt like it was all misunderstanding, and that just felt cheap to me. Again - maybe seeing the movie would be different.

Disagree on:

--The serial killer. I feel like if we know what happened to Walter right away, that takes away the question that was always in my mind: What really happened to him? Or is Christine really crazy? The way it was written, it felt like the audience wasn't supposed to get a good look at the real Walter. Ever. So we weren't really supposed to know if maybe, just maybe, Christine lost her mind? Even she doubts herself for a second at the train station.

But I liked the way the serial killer was slowly, piece by piece, woven into the story. I liked how Christine was sitting in the police station when the call came in to go check out the ranch - for a completely different reason, of course.

You know this will probably win an Oscar. All the right names are attached. My vote is for The Duchess, which I thought rocked (although I think that would be adapted screenplay, based on a book).

Anyhoo. Just some thoughts. Back to work. =)

Sabina E. said...

I saw it. It's a bit hard for me to comment since I am deaf and there were no subtitles in the cinema but I did read the synopsis on Wikipedia (I know, I know) so I knew what the movie was about.

I LOVED the serial killer and the very short scenes of him killing kids, but they didn't show it outright. It was very creepy, sad and disturbing. It made me feel for those terrified kids. My heart raced so much in the dark and I was like "oh my god I'm so glad this didn't happen to me as a kid." hearing those kids screaming made me scared, too.

I also thought the serial killer's performance was excellent. It made me hate him and loathe him as much as I hated Paul Dano's preacher character in THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Maybe he deserves an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actor, but that's my opinion.

thirdly i LOOOOVE the grayish tone of the entire film. the cinemateography was beautiful.

fourthly. I thoight the flow of the film wasn't too bad.

fifthly, Angelina Jolie was alright. Not her best performance, but not her weakest. I used to love her before she became POPULAR and now I'm sick of her, so I agree with Lucy.

sixthly (or is that sixly?) I thought it was a bit disoriented because the film changed focus from the mom to the police squad who were hunting down the serial killer, to the psychotic patients in the ward, to the serial killer, to the corrupted LAPD. you know what I mean?

in all I'd give the movie 8 out of 10 stars

Anonymous said...

The movie didn't connect with the audience? Funny, opinion polls seem to indicate quite the opposite:

"The movie elicits anger and frustration, keeping moviegoers absorbed throughout; it earned a superb must-see 92 per cent approval." (

"He's a comic book writer."

Actually he's been writing for TV for 15 years before switching to comics (ironically, the biggest problem in the transition, according to him, were the "non-moving pictures"). And black vs white characters aren't usually a problem with his scripts - Londo Mollari of Babylon 5, anyone? Though I agree that in this case the characterization falls a bit flat.

About the tension thing: I'm not sure they were going for tension. He said he wanted to try something outside the usual conventions, writing sort of an article or a report translated into film. In other words, recount the facts, not create a mystery. That's the nature of experiments - for some they succeed, and for some they fail.


Scott said...

MM, do you think the fact that it was a true-life story helped or hindered the film? Do you think if the film was a completely new story, they would have resolved some of these issues, or are they fundamental errors?

I have not seen it, and I dont think I want to considering some of the reviews I have seen. Life is too short to waste on well-meaning but dull movies.

It does seem like slim pickings, but dear God I hope AUSTRALIA is really, really good. I think thise is the first time in years where i have hoped for a movie to be so good. Mainly because I am from Australia, and it will help our film industry so much.

Kwinnky said...

JMS (who has written much more then comic books) went out of his way to stay true to what really happened. I'm not sure that's what I'd do, but he's written much more than I.
There probably wasn't enough about the main character to make her three dimensional.

Mystery Man said...

Lucy – No! You’ve got to see it to tell me what you think! BTW – You’ve been added! I’ll be visiting your blog periodically.

James – Thanks for that. It’s just, you know, from my own experience, when a scene isn’t working, more often than not, it’s my fault. And I can just tell when the writing causes a scene to be weak. But I’m not attacking anyone. I just have to call it as I see it. Also, when I post articles, I admit that I’m open to being wrong. I’ve gotta be honest to my readers in my articles and about my thoughts and feelings so that my brilliant readers will correct me when I’m wrong. It’s pointless otherwise, isn’t it? Thanks for the thoughts.

Jason – Great post! Thanks for that.

Lisa – Ya know, there were other setups and payoffs that didn’t happen that kind of bugged me beyond the “Gun Squad.” There was also the manager that offered the promotion to Christine Collins for a spot in Beverly Hills, I think, which never played out in the story in any respect. In fact, I felt rather indifferent toward her relationship to him. Also, it was news to me that Ybarro had a photo of Walter Collins. Since when did she have a photo and gave it to the police? I think that should’ve been setup somehow. Plus, who knew that there were so many missing children? Great thoughts about the serial killer. I don’t know. We always knew that she wasn’t crazy, didn’t we?

Deaf – I really thought the actor that played the serial killer was fabulous. And I completely agree. This was a beautifully mounted production. Great comment about losing focus. I agree. Something wasn’t right.

Saida – You mean this same film that’s a SPLAT on the Critic’s Tomatometer? Here’s the thing, and I mean this most sincerely. I feel no animosity toward anyone involved in that production. I wish everyone only success. But I will be honest with my readers about my observations. It just didn’t work for me, and I needed answers why for my own personal benefit. A failed experiment is a learning experience is it not?

Scott – Depends on the writer. In this case, I think it hurt the film because it felt like the characters were secondary to plot. Characters always come first. I could be wrong. I saw a link earlier today that Luhrmann is still trying to finish the film!

Kwinnky – Yeah, it’s a tough story to tackle any way that you look at it.


Anonymous said...

MM, I meant the audience, not critics, respectable or otherwise. The 92 percent stem apparently from an exit poll. Even at RT the user ratings (again: NOT talking about critics) are at 86. Look for audience polls, boxofficemojo, Yahoo, Fandango, elsewhere - you'll find a similar picture in most cases. For you it didn't work, and that's fine with me. To everyone their own opinion. But that it didn't connect with the audience is not what I saw, read or heard.


Anonymous said...

One other thing – have you actually read those "reviews" at RT? I've some issues with the script myself, but the amount of backlash this movie is drawing out of sheer hatred for Jolie, Eastwood, and/or Straczynski is unbelievable. I've a hard time taking reviews seriously that argue they can't separate Jolie's tabloid image from her performance, that simply trash her acting with no other argument than it is "terrible", or even go into her private life? Reviews that basically call Eastwood an Oscar whore who should finally retire? Reviews that call Straczynski, who's written more than 200 TV episode scripts and a standard textbook on scriptwriting, an "untrained newcomer writer"? One even called him a "cartoon writer" (incidentally, quite a few of those reviews were written by young film school graduates. I don't suppose envy of a guy who's never attended a film school, who's writing for superhero comics and TV, and has still reached a level of success they'll probably never achieve can be a contributing factor?)

Please don't get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that any of this applies to you, MM, and again, I’m not saying the film or the script is perfect. I've quite a few issues with it myself. I’m merely trying to put the tomatometer into perspective. The movie missed winning the Palm D'Or at the Cannes film festival by merely two votes and was met by an eight minutes standing ovation there. Cannes reviews were very favourable with only a few exceptions; it got brilliant reviews from Variety and Hollywood Reporter. The backlash and "rotten" reviews only started at the NYFF.


Mystery Man said...

Saida - No, I have not read all the reviews, only the critics I trust, like Berardinelli. While I wouldn't support anyone that's being vicious in a review, there is definitely something off about Jolie's performance and something weak about the writing, which is kinda hard to nail down, but everything else seemed fine to me. The production was just gorgeous. I also don't believe there's a lot of hatred out there for Eastwood or Straczynski. There was universal raves for "Letters of Iwo Jima," and I just think that when it comes to an Eastwood film, they expect greatness and were disappointed that they didn't get it. BTW - the standing ovation at Cannes is not an indicator of greatness. Believe me when I tell you that happens regularly because most of the people in attendance for the first showing are personally invested in the film in some fashion. Please don't get me wrong either, Saida. I certainly don't mind any disagreement and if I'm off or wrong about anything, absolutely feel free to call me on it. It is quite nice to meet you. Tell me, what issues did you have with the film?


Anonymous said...

Many things that are mentioned in other reviews I've no problem with; the subplots, genre caleidoscope, multiple endings etc. are perhaps unusual but I'm ok with it.

My main issue is with the characterization (quite unusual for Straczynski, who normally writes very good characters) and related to that I find the screenplay quite manipulative. For instance, look at Collins' conversation with her son in the beginning of the movie. In addition to being the heroine fighting the LAPD in the story, Collins here is idealized as the model mother who teaches her son responsibility lessons. Similar conversations later in the phone company - she is idealized as the model female worker on her way up. I also could have done without her reciting Fantasy hero John Sheridan's line "never start a fight but always finish it." Good line for a Fantasy hero, but a tad unbelievable for a working mother in the 1920s. These might appear as minor things, but the effect is that Collins is idealized in far more respects than being the heroine who stood up to the LAPD.

When you look into the real case, there are subtle changes that aren't really important for the overall story but have an effect on the audience's perception of the characters. For example, according to LA Times articles it wasn't Ybarra (who is a fictional, composite character) but Jones who extracted the truth from the Sanford kid. In the film you have Jones quarreling with Ybarra over the issue, with the effect that he looks all the more the villain. The events in the mental institution (lobotomy, electroshock therapy) are also unlikely: According to what I found on the internet, those "treatments" weren't introduced until 1936 and 1938, respectively. Then, in the film it is presented as if Collins was left by her husband because Walter was born. In reality he was in prison - I saw no mention of Walter's birth playing a part in it. This presentation makes Collins appear as the victim of male lack of responsibility on yet another level. I could go on with more examples, but I think you see what I mean by "manipulative"? It's probably done with the (conscious or subconscious) intention to create sympathy for Collins, but for me it worked the other way round, creating a distance. Less would have been more. The screenplay looks to me as if written in a "wrath of justness", and I think it just goes overboard. The whole thing comes across with all the subtlety of a steamroller, flattening all nuances and character complexities (again, unusual, though not entirely unprecedented for Straczynski). Unfortunately Eastwood seems to have felt likewise, and rather than toning it all down a bit, he reinforced it in his direction.

A few minor things: I could also have done without Collins fainting into Briegleb's arms, or her being saved from electroshock therapy at last second, or her smashing plates (though that's Eastwood's fault, that's not in the script that way).


Anonymous said...

Ah, forgot the part about Cannes. I'm aware that standing ovations aren't unusual there - at Cannes, they are counted per minutes. Eight minutes are a lot, even for Cannes ;) You can evaluate the Cannes reception, as far as critics are concerned, here: (Changeling is listed as "The Exchange")


Lucy V said...

Okay, MM - just for you I will watch it. Please be aware though I will be waiting for the DVD, because I don't *do* cinema darlink! Not because I don't like it, but because I'd rather do something else (ahem) on the odd occasion I can actually get a babysitter.

Mystery Man said...

Lucy - Woo hoo!

Saida - Truly superb comments. Loved every word and really appreciate your thoughts.


Unknown said...

JMS has been trying to get this screenplay made for years I think. It was pointed out on a different board forum that he used parts of the the screenplay (which he described as having been optioned many times) as a sample in his tome 'The Complete Book of Scripwriting' (it was then called 'The Strange Case of Christine Collins")

Some of the comments on the film (haven't seen it yet but intend to) revolve around it's focus on moral righteousness and justice at the expense of story. This in some respects is quite JMS in a way - if you've followed his posts about writing way back when he was doing B5, he has very strong opinions about getting a message or point across when it comes to his work. If you like, he's articulating a vision. And in his background was a stint as reporter at one point I think.

Mystery Man said...

DQ - Thanks so much for those thoughts. With respect to his articulation of strong opinions, just because he has strong opinions and wants to beat the audience over the head with them does not necessarily make for strong writing. In fact, I'd argue that his approach is quite weak. You may want to consider a recent post on Ikiru. One of my readers, MaryAn Batchellor, commented, "This film is my benchmark in that its message is spoken with a soft voice and a pounding heart." That's the way to go, if you ask me. In any case, I really appreciate your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Maybe this will be of interest for you (it's a podcast with JMS on Changeling):

With respect to the issue of "getting messages across", I actually read quite the contrary statements. "My job is not to reinforce your personal political, social or religious beliefs. My job is not to reinforce MY personal political, social or religious beliefs. Then it isn't art or storytelling anymore, it's simply propaganda. My job is to tell this story, about these people, AS people, as mixed and varied as they are today." (you can read the entire post here: For the most part in B5 I think it worked very well. It mostly *didn't* work when, like with Changeling, it comes to the topic of corrupt government authorities. ;) That seems to bring out the worst in him.


Anonymous said...

BTW, RT posted an analysis yesterday, saying that if they only counted the UK reviews, Changeling would be at 83 percent fresh. They attributed it to "differences in taste".


Anonymous said...

This is a good movie with a good story. Angelina Jolie is good in the role of Christine Collins

Mystery Man said...

Saida - Interesting. Thanks again!

Lucy - It is an interesting story. I'll definitely give you that.


Anonymous said...

There are an awful lot of urban legends out there what JMS allegedly did and didn't say, mostly without ever actually providing a quote (though it's quite easy to find them, provided they exist). If I come across something I know is incorrect, I can't keep myself from setting it right. :) The site I referred you to is a collection of a vast amount of usenet posts he made on writing back then ( They're also quite entertaining at times.


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