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Driving Forces
By Shawn Stone

Changing Lanes
Directed by Roger Michell

With a title like Changing Lanes, you might think this is simply a film about road rage. It isn’t. It’s a compelling drama about revenge, redemption and the ways in which good and evil can uncomfortably coexist in one personality.

Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) and Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) are both on their way to court. Gipson, an alcoholic insurance salesman, has a child-custody hearing and wants to keep his estranged wife from taking their kids out of state. Banek is a high-priced Wall Street lawyer with a considerably less admirable purpose, but the stakes for his life and career are almost as high. When they get into a traffic accident, the too-busy lawyer leaves Gipson behind with a blank check and a cold “better luck next time.” As a result, Gipson misses his court hearing and loses his children. Banek, however, is in trouble, too: He left an important legal file at the scene of the accident, and Gipson has it in his possession.

The two men, both feeling angry, threatened and wronged, escalate this simple traffic accident into a life-and-death struggle. The plot twists might seem arbitrary if I were to detail them one by one, but they are infused with an almost spiritual dimension. Each turn in the action is a moral test for these men.

The original story is by newcomer Chap Taylor, who cowrote the script with Michael Tolkin. Tolkin, who also penned Robert Altman’s The Player, is very adept at dramatizing the moral crises of the ethically challenged. Their thoughtful screenplay presents two characters of surprising depth. Banek, like the smug, murderous studio executive in The Player, works in an utterly amoral business. In the course of this one awful day, Banek is forced to confront his capacity for both ruthlessness and mercy, and to decide what is most important to him. Gipson has his own demons, which include alcohol and a rage that, when he is pushed into a corner, can’t be contained. The story brings these two into violent opposition, and examines their conflict in the context of class, race and, for lack of a better word, fate. It is the spiritual dimension—again, familiar Tolkin territory—that resonates most after the film is over. As one character wonders, how, at the end of the day, can we balance the evil we do with the good?

Affleck is at his best with this kind of serious material; it’s his most interesting performance since Dogma. His low-key style also is an effective contrast to the volcanic presence of Jackson, who is riveting as a man trying to stay in control of himself in a world that is either indifferent or actively against him. Jackson has more nuance in his portrayal of rage than any actor working today.

There also is an unusually strong supporting cast. Toni Collette is appealingly blunt as Michelle, Banek’s ex-lover and only conscience, and William Hurt is sympathetic as Gipson’s alcohol counselor. It’s the villains who really shine, however: Dylan Baker as a happy-go-lucky hacker who can cheerfully destroy someone with a click of the mouse, Sydney Pollack as Banek’s oily, powerful father-in-law and senior law partner, and Amanda Peet as Banek’s rancid wife embody at least three or four of the seven deadly sins with chilling glee.

The Ratings War

No Man’s Land
Directed by Danis Tanovic

No Man’s Land, in Danis Tanovic’s scathing political comedy, is an entrenchment between the two front lines in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The trenches—raw gashes in the beautiful countryside—are mined, and through a humorous but completely believable sequence of events, Nino (Rene Bitorajac), a greenhorn Serbian soldier, is trapped in the camp with Ciki (Branko Djuric), a hardened but humane Bosnian fighter. Ciki’s comrade was just killed in a bombardment, but given the chance to execute Nino, he holds off. Ciki does, however, force the clueless young soldier to admit that the Serbs started the war. Nino is convinced that the Bosnians started the war, but he says what he’s required to, because Ciki has a gun and he doesn’t. Later, their positions will be reversed, but the audience still won’t know who started this incomprehensible conflict.

Writer-director Tanovic sets the action in 1993, during the war’s heaviest fighting, but far from Milosevic’s atrocities. The film has no ideology, only suffering—and blackly comic idiocy. Winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, No Man’s Land mines the farcical elements of this especially senseless war with insider realism and what comes across as a hard-earned sense of absurdity. Both qualities can be attributed to Tanovic’s experience as a documentary maker in Bosnia, yet it’s his compassion and nonpartisan objectivity that give the film an almost existential power.

Nino and Ciki once dated the same shapely blonde, but that does not change the fact that each is ready to kill the other at the slightest provocation. Then the supposedly dead comrade regains consciousness, only to be informed that he’s been booby-trapped. The audience is booby-trapped, too. What starts out as bleakly congenial comedy becomes more unsettling and involving as the plot grows more outlandish. Bored United Nations peacekeeping troops head out to rescue the trapped men but are ordered to turn back in response to the latest diplomatic maneuver. Returning to base, they encounter a camera crew from Global News Services (a thinly veiled CNN). Correspondent Jane Livingstone (the great Katrin Cartlidge) plays hardball with the U.N. general (Simon Callow), and it’s back to the entrenchment they go.

The international bigwigs don’t really understand, or care about, the conflict and its victims. They do, however, understand the importance of worldwide TV coverage. “Does our misery pay well?” asks the outraged Ciki. Djuric’s riveting, rough-hewn presence is the real deal—he’s a combat vet. The war may be going nowhere, but No Man’s Land’s escalating satirical strikes lead to a universal truth: It’s always the poor schlub in the trench who gets stuck holding the bomb.

—Ann Morrow

Being Howie Mandel

Human Nature
Directed by Michel Gondry

Rhys Ifans, the Welsh scene- stealer from Notting Hill, is the funniest element in Human Nature, a mildly amusing comedy on the stubbornly uncomedic topic of the human condition. Ifans plays one of Desmond Morris’ naked apes—a feral human being—with shameless physical bravura: Not many actors could walk around with their butts hanging out for large chunks of screentime and maintain the humor of this indignity by regarding butt-nakedness as the height of unself-conscious naturalism.

The pathetically pale and hairless wild man is discovered by neurotically nitpicky behavioral scientist Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins) and his nature-loving girlfriend, Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette). Over Lila’s objections, Nathan holds the wild man captive in his lab, where he’s given the name “Puff” by Nathan’s girly-girl lab assistant, Gabrielle (Miranda Otto). With the help of electroshock behavior modification, the eager-to-please Puff is thoroughly civilized, to the point of being able to raise his opera glasses with one hand. On his first night of freedom, Lila gives him this universal advice: “When in doubt, don’t ever do what you want to do.”

What Puff mostly wants to do is to get it on with every attractive female he encounters, an impulse that Nathan curbs with enough voltage to shock Puff right off his feet. Nathan has a horror of “wallowing in dumb instinct,” as his anal-retentive mother (Mary Kay Place) puts it. Lila goes along with Puff’s unethical therapy because she’s desperate to hold on to Nathan, who has discovered that she is afflicted with abundant body hair resembling fur. Disgusted, he turns to the “conventionally feminine” Gabrielle, a phony mantrap. Lila has marathon sessions with a friendly electrolysist (Rosie Perez), which liberate her from her submissive role-playing to the not-so-alpha Nathan. The broadly drawn characters become less interesting after being forced to conform to the absurdist convolutions of the plot, which make Puff the star of a congressional hearing.

Written by Charlie Kaufman, the scribe behind the provocatively original Being John Malkovich, Human Nature is admirable for its attempt to be intelligent and different, but director Michel Gondry does not have the boundary-breaking imagination of Being’s Spike Jonze (though he nicely recycles some faux-woodland imagery from his Bjork videos). Nor does the screenplay have anything new to add to the observation that most of our evolutionary brainpower is applied to such ridiculous pursuits as three-fork table settings and excessive grooming. Most disappointing is the filmmakers’ shortfall of satire when relying on the standard wisdom that men want sex and women want a suitable mate for child rearing. And try as it may, the film never finds a middle ground between playing with feces and being one’s true self. But thanks to Ifans, it sure beats socio-anthropology class.

—A.M.

Say Your Prayers

Frailty
Directed by Bill Paxton

Rarely does a genre film so poignantly portray the uniquely acute stresses of the firstborn child in a single-parent household. Of course, those stresses are exacerbated when the parent is a father, known here as Dad, who claims that God (via a fierce angel) has given him and his two young sons, Fenton and Adam, a mission to destroy demons who are disguised as humans. The plan involves clubbing, abduction to a storm cellar, a gripping laying on of a hand, and an even more jolting application of an ax. Adam, 9, takes Dad at his word, but Fenton, 12, fears Dad may be insane. The ensuing friction between Fenton and Dad carries a biblical (Abraham and Isaac) dimension, and Matt O’Leary’s complex, intense performance of Fenton becomes the surprising centerpiece of the film. He is so taut, so natural, as to stand next to Sissy Spacek’s benchmark performance as the repressed victim of a religiously fanatic mother in Carrie.

Indeed, watching Frailty slowly unfold reminds one of elements from several effective genre films (including, even, The Usual Suspects), elements that in a less skilled treatment could invite unfavorable comparisons and seem ripped off, rather than honored and integrated into an organic whole.

Frailty is a very disturbing film, on the order of Henry, Portrait of Serial Killer and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (but without the sick aftertastes of voyeuristic complicity), and it is constantly absorbing as Bill Paxton expertly navigates the twists of the screenplay, which taps into material explored by Charles Laughton in his Night of the Hunter. One element that keeps Frailty different, however, is Paxton’s performance as Dad. Rather than underline the scary aspects, he emphasizes Dad’s goodness, his love of his family and his faith in God. Indeed, at several junctures in the film, one is tempted to indict God for the brutality inflicted in that name. And of course, it is impossible to watch the film without seeing parts of it as metaphors for the senseless, stomach-churning violence raging in the name of God today.

In terms of suffering for his gift (or curse, depending on your point of view), there are also hints of the remarkable television series Millennium, in which Lance Henriksen’s character was a man who could similarly feel the presence of evil and who suffered for his sensitivity. It is in this area that matters become nicely complicated, and we are forced to come to terms with blind obligation to one’s faith.

Paxton wisely lets the decapitations and dismemberments go unseen, and concentrates on the reactions of his actors, which allows him to build up an even greater degree of suspense. In fact, I almost wished at some moments that he would let us see some gore—just to relieve the tension of isolation by letting us share Fenton’s horror.

This is a remarkably assured directorial debut for Paxton, who proves his mastery of tone and atmosphere right from the unstable opening credits. He also proves a true actors’ director and derives splendidly economical and deft performances from Powers Boothe (as an FBI agent whose slow, contemptuous walk under those credits is quietly insinuating) and Matthew McConaughey (who got his start in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel), an underappreciated actor who provides the glue that holds the whole delicate construction together.

—Ralph Hammann


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