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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.