- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

If you want to catch up on some of the Oscar-nominated films before and after the big show Sunday night, you’re in luck — studios are releasing many of these films in the weeks surrounding the ceremony.

In the Valley of Elah (Warner Home Video, $27.95 for DVD, $35.99 for Blu-ray), for example, has the performance that got Tommy Lee Jones a best actor nomination.

Its writer-director, Paul Haggis, is one of the best known progressives in Hollywood. “I’m a little left of Mao,” he readily said during an interview in the District last year.

So, critics expected “In the Valley of Elah” to serve as his artistic riposte against the war. The film stars Mr. Jones as Hank Deerfield, a retired Army sergeant investigating both the murder of his son, who disappeared after returning home from a tour of duty in Iraq, and what his son saw while serving. In “Elah,” however, Mr. Haggis focuses not on why we’re in the war but rather on the people fighting it.

Mr. Haggis wrote two best picture Oscar-winners back to back, 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash” the next year, which he also directed. Puffing away on Native American Spirit cigarettes — polite to a fault, he asked for permission first — the Canadian-born director says the idea for “Elah” came before he had even released “Crash.”

“It started with some troubling videos I started seeing on the Internet that were getting around the official war censorship, which we have in all wars,” he says. One featured images of buildings blowing up and surgical strikes played over the song “We Will Rock You,” followed by a shot of a young man mugging for the camera with his arm around a burned-up corpse.

“I was so shocked by this,” Mr. Haggis continues. “You step foot in the sand over there, you’re a hero as far as I’m concerned. And yet, something’s happening.”

He began digging around, wondering if there might be a movie in it. “I start with a question, something that bothers me, and I don’t necessarily know what it is I’m going to do, or I might do nothing.”

Mr. Haggis listened to hundreds of veterans, and his film is inspired by a true story. “Reports are coming back about what our troops are facing over there, and I didn’t know what I would do in that situation,” he says.

Insurgents will send a child to stop a convoy so they can blow it up. When you come across a child who won’t move, what do you do?

“I don’t care about bad people and the bad decisions they make. I care about good people and the right decisions they make and how those right decisions will haunt you,” Mr. Haggis says.

And in the course of his research, the director found that many veterans are haunted.

“I consider myself a patriot. I love this country,” says Mr. Haggis, a dual-citizen who moved to the U.S. from Canada 30 years ago. He notes that if, as the Pentagon says, one in six Iraq war veterans has post-traumatic stress syndrome, thousands of young men and women have been deeply affected by the war but are being virtually ignored.

“We seem to be betraying the men while driving around with bumper stickers saying, ‘Support our troops.’ Something’s desperately wrong,” he insists. “And so I tried to put my politics aside and say, ‘Have some responsibility.’ ”

Mr. Haggis would like to see politicians put politics aside, too. “I’m very much against this war. I have been from the beginning. But there are people who strongly believe that we’re there for the right reasons. I’m not going to tell them they’re idiots — these are smart people,” he says. “And look, the Democrats got us into Vietnam, one of the worst wars of all time. We forget this. Everybody thinks it was Nixon — not true. Kennedy, one of our greatest presidents, got us in there. LBJ escalated that war. Democrats are just as guilty as Republicans in this case. I fear that all these people are running around saying, ‘Let’s get the Democrats in office, and they’ll stop this war.’ Nonsense. I don’t think we can trust politicians, one group over another. Democrats love to look tough — that’s the one thing they get criticized on, so they’ll go to war just to look good.”

Other Oscar releases of note:

American Gangster (Universal, $29.98 for DVD, $39.98 for HD DVD)— This film is up for two Oscars — one for Ruby Dee as supporting actress and another for art direction. Of course, it was the pairing of Denzel Washington as drug lord Frank Lucas and Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts — the cop pursuing him —that made this film so powerful. Yet, it doesn’t transcend its genre like, say, “Goodfellas” does. In a feature-length documentary on the making of the film, Mr. Washington recalls seeing the action on Harlem’s 116th Street when he was growing up in New York. “I didn’t know it was because a guy I’d meet 35 years later was supplying everybody with drugs,” he said.

The documentary is the best extra on the two-disc set, and it features interviews with the real Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts. They seem pretty happy to participate, although Mr. Roberts later complained that the film glorified Mr. Lucas. Mr. Washington has said he wouldn’t have taken the role if it had. However, being portrayed by the charming Mr. Washington would glorify anybody.

Gone Baby Gone (Buena Vista, $29.99 for DVD, $34.99 for Blu-ray) — One betting house has “Baby’s” Amy Ryan neck-and-neck with “I’m Not There’s” Cate Blanchett in the race for best supporting actress. You can see from a making-of feature on this disc how completely the pretty Miss Ryan transformed herself to play a drug-abusing mother whose 4-year-old daughter goes missing from their home in the working-class neighborhood of Dorchester.

She’s not the only one who strove for authenticity in the film. Another feature on the disc is completely devoted to how Ben Affleck, in his directorial debut, sought to re-create the Boston in which he grew up. That authenticity, in fact, seems a bit heavy-handed at times, but there’s no doubt that Mr. Affleck has made an affecting, surprising, thought-provoking film. It’s more compulsively watchable than another film made from a Dennis Lehane novel, Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” which got four Oscar nods to “Gone Baby Gone’s” one.

The DVD also has a behind-the-scenes look with Mr. Affleck (along with his star and brother, Casey Affleck) and a commentary with the director and his co-writer, Aaron Stockard. The DVD case also advertises an “eye-opening extended ending!” but this claim is rather oversold. Even Mr. Affleck admits that “calling this an alternate ending is a bit of a stretch”; the only addition is a few lines of voiceover by Casey Affleck’s private detective.

Michael Clayton (Warner Home Video, $28.98 for DVD, $35.99 for Blu-ray) — The basic outline of this film, which is up for seven Oscars including best picture, sounds tired: A cynical lawyer finds his soul again while working on a case that an evil corporation will stop at nothing to win. It just goes to show how little plot can matter. This legal drama is made compelling through intelligent direction by Tony Gilroy and intensely felt performances by George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack. That’s why this film has more acting nominations than any other this year. Extras include a commentary with Mr. Gilroy and editor John Gilroy and a few deleted scenes.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Presents: Academy Awards Animation Collection: 15 Winners — 26 Nominees (Warner Home Video, $44.98, DVD) — Some of the animated shorts in this collection, many featuring such familiar characters as Bugs Bunny, Popeye, Superman and Speedy Gonzalez, have never been seen on DVD before. Still, you’re likely to remember more than a few, like “The Milky Way.” This cute and clever cartoon, featuring three kittens who lose their mittens and take a trip to the stars looking for the milk their mother has denied them, won the Oscar for animated short film in 1940, the first non-Disney film to do so.

Extras include the short “What’s Cookin’ Doc?” which follows Bugs Bunny to the Oscars, and a new documentary, “Drawn for Glory: Animation’s Triumph at the Oscars.”

Some of the shorts also offer expert commentary. Director Eric Goldberg, for instance, discusses the MGM Tom and Jerry cartoon “The Cat Concerto,” an Oscar winner in 1947. There’s a great story behind this one: Warner Bros. released “Rhapsody Rabbit” the same year, and it had almost the same plotline and featured the same Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt; this time played by Bugs Bunny instead of Tom the cat. Mr. Goldberg also talks about the different animators who worked on the cartoon, pointing out their different styles. It’s a great cartoon, too, with lots going on. As Mr. Goldberg says, “What would a Tom and Jerry cartoon be without violence?”

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