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New releases: Changeling, etc. 

Changeling

Like Mystic River and Flags of Our Fathers, Changeling is good, not great, Clint Eastwood — although as far as emotional resonance is concerned, the latest from the consummate director certainly reverberates more strongly than either of those other features. Based on a true story and brought to the screen via an ambitious screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski, Changeling stars Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins, a single mom whose only son (Gattlin Griffith) goes missing one fateful afternoon in 1928. The Los Angeles Police Department, mired at the time in corruption, spots an opportunity to do something right and eventually reunites the mother with her boy. The only problem is that they bring back the wrong child, but rather than risk further embarrassment for the department, a zealous captain (Jeffrey Donovan) decides to drown out Christine’s protests by any means necessary, including labeling her as an unfit mother. Eastwood’s stately picture slowly extends its reach, as various other plot elements circle the central story of a parent’s unbreakable bond with her offspring; while some suffer in the mix (John Malkovich, as a crusading reverend fighting for Christine’s rights, could have benefited from more scenes), the overall result is a movie that will disappoint only those who require tidy endings wrapped up in pretty bows. Along the same lines, those who find fault with the brutish depiction of Christine’s tormenters fail to grasp the patriarchy of the period (the story takes place a mere eight years after American women were given the right to vote); Jolie, on the other hand, understands this angle and aptly plays Christine as a woman whose frustrations with the system often match her fear for the safety of her child.

What Just Happened

From Sullivan’s Travels and Sunset Boulevard to S.O.B. and The Player, I’ve always been a sucker for movies about the movie business, since the inside-Hollywood info at the filmmakers’ disposal tends to reach the silver screen in a raw, uncut form that allows every blemish to be tantalizingly exposed and even magnified. What Just Happened, however, is only partly successful in its attempts to wallow in the wickedness of the motion picture industry, as a scattershot screenplay by veteran producer Art Linson (adapting his own memoir) perpetually keeps losing sight of the important targets. Robert De Niro plays Ben, who’s experiencing major difficulties with both films on which he’s currently serving as producer. The violent drama Fiercely (starring Sean Penn) is set to debut at the Cannes Film Festival, but a disastrous test screening places Ben in the middle of a spat between the studio head (Catherine Keener, again pigeonholed in the role of a frigid ballbuster) who wants to recut the picture and the director (Michael Wincott) who insists any changes will destroy the purity of his vision. Meanwhile, Ben is also having trouble getting Bruce Willis (as himself), the star of his next action movie, to shave an imposing beard that makes him look like a cross between Grizzly Adams and Santa Claus. Linson’s industry jabs are frequently amusing but rarely uncover anything we haven’t heard before, and his sidebars involving Ben’s family woes add nothing to the mix; meanwhile, Barry Levinson, continuing his career slide (from Oscar glory with Rain Man to 10 Worst lists with Envy and Man of the Year), directs with little sense of passion or purpose. There’s added (and perhaps unintentional) humor, though, when Willis, the star of Hudson Hawk and Armageddon (among many other stinkbombs), stands around yammering about his artistic integrity.

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