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(2008) ** 1/2 R
141 min. Universal Pictures Distribution. Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Angelina Jolie, Amy Ryan, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Riki Lindhome.

/content/films/3250/2.jpgA fascinating true-crime story, elegant period detail, and Clint Eastwood's consummate filmmaking technique mask many of the flaws of Changeling, a would-be Oscar contender starring Angelina Jolie. Though Changeling depicts a boy's mysterious disappearance and inconceivable, perhaps related serial crimes committed by a madman, J. Michael Straczynski's well-researched script (or Eastwood's film anyway) tells something less than the whole story in order to encapsulate it within a 141-minute running time. Even setting aside this quibble, Changeling lacks enough grit and intellect to convert moody melodrama into thoughtful drama. As thoughtful as it gets: the doubly stated family motto "Never start a fight. Always finish it."

Jolie plays single mother Christine Collins, who in 1928 waited in vain for her nine-year-old son Walter to return home one night (Straczynski alters the circumstances slightly for dramatic effect). The stymied LAPD, already facing public outcry for being "on the take," believe some good press has landed in their laps when a boy turns up in Illinois and announces that he is the missing boy. Triumphantly, Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) proffers the boy to Christine at the train station, as the eager press awaits a photo op. With one look at the boy, Christine is crestfallen: this, she insists, isn't her son. Jones, knowing the police department can't afford not to have solved this case, proves equally insistent. He suggests the distraught Christine must be mistaken. "Try the boy out," he says. In a fog of emotion and confusion, Christine agrees to play along, posing for photographs and taking the boy home.

It's quickly apparent that "Walter" isn't whom he claims to be, setting off a chain of events that pit Christine and a newfound ally—radio preacher Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich)—against Jones and his cronies. Coercion is used against the innocent and the guilty, with women and, especially, Christine getting the worst of it. Collins' and Briegleb's heroism, then, becomes not only a crusade against police corruption but a feminist quest for social justice, eventually finding its way to an improperly institutionalized mental patient, a composite character played by Amy Ryan ("If we're insane, nobody has to listen to us"). A second composite character becomes involved: a detective (Michael Kelly), whose apprehension of another "lost boy" points the way to a psychopath (Jason Butler Harner) who may have the answers Christine needs. The mystery may keep audiences guessing, to a point, but there's never a question of where to point our righteous indignation, never a doubt that Christine is both victim and strident hero.

Though there's more truth than fiction here, it's a shame Straczynski felt the need to embroider the tale in spots and cushion it in others. Citing a desire not to indulge the story's more lurid elements, the film omits the psycho's real-life partner in crime (his grandmother, who he thought was his mother) and purposefully obfuscates the depth of his perversion (my kingdom for a James Ellroy!). The choices seem calculated to make the film more voter-friendly in Oscar season—certainly they don't serve the purpose of being as truthful as possible. Along these lines, Changeling amounts to an Oscar showcase: perhaps for Eastwood, as per industry standard; perhaps for Malkovich, cast brilliantly against type as a heroic stiff; and certainly for Angelina Jolie, who—despite giving one of her most resonant leading performances—can't quite shake the regal bearing that stands between her and a realistic Everywoman performance.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio

Street date: 2/17/2009

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Universal gives a typically flawless A/V transfer to Changeling. The image perfectly recreates Eastwood's visual design, with a spotless and attractive image that yields plenty of detail, even in shadows, and accurate color. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track offers subtle surround effects and presents a definitive home-video rendering of the theatrical soundscape.

Universal's U-Control is the main vehicle for the bonus features here: Archives pops up with photos, headlines and so forth from the historical record; Los Angeles: Then and Now uses vintage and contemporary footage and photos to compare 1928 L.A. to 2008 L.A.; and a Picture in Picture track includes behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast (including Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich) and crew (including Clint Eastwood, writer J. Michael Straczynski and producers Brian Grazer and Robert Lorenz).

Two other featurettes live on the disc. The first, "Partners in Crime: Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie" (13:33, HD) features behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Eastwood, Jolie, Malkovich, Straczynski, Grazer, Eddie Alderson, Gattlin Griffith, Colm Feore, Jason Butler Harner, Denis O'Hare, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, costume designer Deborah Hopper, production designer James Murakami, Lorenz, and location manager Patrick Mignano. The focus is on Eastwood's method, beloved by cast and crew.

"The Common Thread: Angelina Jolie Becomes Christine Collins" (4:58, HD) focuses, briefly, on Jolie's work, with interviews from Jolie, Eastwood, and Hopper.

Universal includes its My Scenes bookmarking feature and the BD-Live hookup to additional online content.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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