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Universal // R // February 17, 2009
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 5, 2009 | E-mail the Author
It was
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supposed to be a day at the movies — a lazy Saturday afternoon of Charlie Chaplin, maybe some ice cream, and just a chance for a mother and her son to spend some time together — until Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) was unexpectedly dragged into work. With a kiss on the forehead and a promise of a trip to the Santa Monica pier the next day, Christine grudgingly left her nine year old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) at home. She'd return to an empty house. There isn't any sign of a struggle, though: Walter simply isn't there, and an increasingly frantic search through their sleepy suburban neighborhood doesn't reveal any trace of the bright-eyed little boy either. The police dismissively shrug Christine off as just another hysterical mother. "He'll turn up by morning," the officer insists, the sound of his rolling eyes ringing clearly through the other end of the receiver. "They always do." Walter's bed is still empty the following morning, though, and it would stay that way for five interminable months.

The Los Angeles Police Department is a public embarrassment as the roaring twenties lurch to a close, plagued by accusations of graft and gross incompetence, not the least of which is their inability to solve the disappearance of young Walter Collins. They need a round of good press to smear away the scandals, and after stumbling upon Walter a few aimless months later, Captain J.J. Jones (Burn Notice's Jeffrey Donovan) makes it a point to invite along everyone in L.A. with a pen or a flashbulb to capture the Collins' reunion. It's not quite the photo opp Jones has envisioned, though. As the boy steps off the train, there isn't a long, teary-eyed hug; a half-confused Christine Collins quietly mutters, "that's not my son." It's been months, though, and he's been through hell and back. Walter's just lost weight, she's assured. Jones asks Christine to try the boy out for a few weeks, as if he's something out of the Sears-Roebuck catalog she could just ship back if dissatisfied. She grudgingly agrees.

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doesn't take, though. Once a doting mother, Christine is cold and detached to this boy claiming to be her son. She pleads with Jones to keep searching, but every argument she makes — that this boy is three inches shorter than Walter and has been circumsized — is quickly and rationally explained away by a parade of condescending experts. The L.A.P.D doesn't take action until Christine tries to take her case public. Their response isn't to reopen the search for Walter Collins, though; it's to have his mother committed to a mental ward where she's poked, prodded, and humiliated to force her to dismiss her claims against the department. Christine refuses to relent, though, but as much as she's been forced to endure over the past six months, the most devastating news has yet to come...

There's a certain path a film like this seems destined to take. In lesser hands, Changeling would've strayed wildly from reality, shoehorning in a sympathetic cop who falls madly in love with Christine, leading up to some sort of high-octane shootout in its final moments before drenching a teary reunion in syrupy strings. This script by J. Michael Straczynski — the first feature film from the creator of Babylon 5 — prefers instead to more faithfully relate the facts of this actual case of a child gone missing. Its structure steps away from convention as well. Changeling is divided into three clear and distinct acts, each of which feels like a separate movie in its own right. I'm intrigued by the very different emphases taken by each of these segments; Changeling as a whole may not feel as cohesive as director Clint Eastwood's films have traditionally been, but each act is intensely focused in its own right, uncluttered by unnecessary characters or meandering subplots. Because Changeling upends itself several times, shifting into entirely different directions, its pacing is never given a chance to drag. Its daunting runtime may approach two and a half hours, but Changeling scarcely feels any longer than usual.

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takes somewhat of a classic approach to its characters. Rather than being fleshed out through long, meandering backstories or awkward exposition, they're rendered entirely through the strengths of their actors' performances. These characters are written as fairly simplistic archetypes — the unwavering determination of a devoted mother, bureaucrats blinded by self-interest, a radio preacher (John Malkovich) on a mission to expose corruption, a cackling psychopath, the morally upright lawyer, and a quiet child glimpsed almost entirely through sharp angles and ominous lighting — but that just gives its cast a blank slate to inhabit. Eastwood has a talent for coaxing the best from his actors, and Changeling is propelled by a set of wonderful performances, headed by a leading turn by Angelina Jolie that has deservedly been nominated for an Academy Award. Jolie completely escapes into her role, painting Christine Collins as a determined woman whose somber and steadfast nature in the wake of her son's disappearance occasionally gives way to an incendiary temper. This would have been a lesser and unrecognizably different film with anyone else in the part.

Admittedly, Changeling boasts a better story than a screenplay, and Straczynski's inexperience as a feature film writer is especially evident in a muddled final act that seems unsure where to end. Its final few moments aside, though, Changeling carries an enormous amount of emotional weight that consistently feels earned and sincere rather than cloyingly manipulative. That's not to say that Changeling is altogether subtle in that respect, but I never felt as if the emotions of the moment were being browbeaten into me. This is a movie that also manages to be disturbing without ever reveling in graphic imagery. Changeling is visually sumptuous as well, and both its cinematography and art direction have been justly nominated for Academy Awards, directed with such an assured hand by Eastwood that the film is striking without leaning on unnecessary, distracting flourishes. Reactions from more seasoned reviewers and critics may be mixed, but I greatly enjoyed Changeling, enthralled by the film's harrowing true story and entranced by its performances. This isn't a flawless film, but it is quite a good one and is certainly a worthy discovery on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.

With its visuals deservedly nominated for a pair of Academy Awards, Changeling is as stunning as expected in high definition. Despite being set in the late 1920s and early '30s, the cinematography draws quite a bit of influence from film noir, and its deft interplay of light and shadow is especially striking on Blu-ray. Bolstered by robust black levels and a strong sense of contrast, its nostalgic, desaturated palette is immediately eye-catching as well. A few scattered shots look slightly murky, but clarity and detail remain consistently bold throughout. Universal has consistently impressed me with their day-and-date releases on Blu-ray, and Changeling matches the exceptionally high quality of their recent theatrical titles to date.

Changeling is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1, and its VC-1 encode is spread across a dual layer Blu-ray disc.

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As spectacular as its visual presentation is, Changeling may sound even better than it looks. It's mentioned several times throughout the extras just how bustling Los Angeles was even in these early days, and the size and scale of the roaring city are richly drawn in this Blu-ray disc's exceptionally immersive 24-bit DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack. From Model Ts breezing by in the background to bursts of flash bulbs, there's an enormous amount of color in the surrounds and a remarkably strong emphasis on directionality. Bass response is modest but appropriate, and the film's dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly throughout. It's also worth highlighting the strength of Eastwood's score. Rather than drenching the movie in traditional cloying, syrupy strings, Changeling prefers a somber sort of jazz instead that immediately sets the proper tone. Changeling is proof positive that it's not just overcaffeinated action movies that stand to benefit from first-rate sound design and lossless audio.

A lossy DTS dub in French has also been provided alongside subtitle streams in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.

  • Partners in Crime: Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie (13 min.; HD): This breezy, straightforward look at the making of Changeling quickly and efficiently covers quite a bit of ground: how its great many pieces fell into place with remarkable ease, Eastwood's approach to direction being such an accomplished actor himself, the cast learning stuntwork and how to take a punch from The Man with No Name, and the challenges of rolling the clock back eight full decades in Los Angeles.

  • The
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    Common Thread: Angelina Jolie Becomes Christine Collins
    (5 min.; HD): Despite being bookended by cursory comments from Eastwood and Jolie about her performance, "The Common Thread" is primarily a costuming featurette. Because it's squarely focused on a single character, this look at Jolie's wardrobe is more comprehensive than usual.

  • U-Control: There are three picture-in-picture options available throughout Changeling although only one can be automated at a time. Selecting the others requires repeated button clicks throughout the movie, and considering that there's essentially no overlap between them, it really just seems like interactivity is being unnecessarily forced onto users.

    "Archives" overlays photographs of the people and places featured throughout Changeling as well as newspaper articles, transcripts, and letters, and it's more heavily weighted towards the second half of the film. "Los Angeles: Then and Now" illustrates how profoundly Los Angeles has transformed over the past eighty years, offering brief looks at the settings of the movie — from Collins' suburban home to the mental ward where she was commited — in the here and now. This U-Control feature is most heavily weighted around a half hour of behind the scenes footage and interviews, and only a couple of sentences are recycled from the two featurettes elsewhere on this Blu-ray disc. Casting, the many challenges of shooting a period piece in modern day L.A., the state of mental institutions in the 1920s, the use of authentic dialogue in the courtroom scenes, and skulking throughout the U.S. and Canada to find precisely the right wardrobe are among the topics covered here.

    Although I do like the material offered throughout this U-Control feature, there's not quite enough for my tastes, and it strikes me as a poor design choice to have to constantly keep a remote in-hand when all of these options really should've been able to be played at once.

  • BD Live: Changeling does offer some sort of online functionality, but it's still inactive as I write this, and there's no indication what may or may not be offered down the line.

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The Final Word
Although J. Michael Straczynski's inexperience as a feature film writer is evident — this feels like an unpolished early draft — Changeling's truly outstanding performances, its dazzling visuals, and, of course, the steadfast craftsmanship Clint Eastwood brings to all of his films more than make up for its weaker spots. It may not have been lavished with quite as much attention in the press as Eastwood's Gran Torino, which bowed in theaters just a few weeks after this film, but for those who missed it during its initial run, Changeling is a movie that's well worth discovering on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.
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