CHANGING LANES (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Roger Michell

Written by: Chap Taylor, Michael Tolkin

Starring: Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette, Sydney Pollack, Richard Jenkins, William Hurt, Amanda Peet, Dylan Baker

Is it really so strange to think that a simple road rage can escalate into something even more dangerous? There have been plenty of six o’clock news stories that began with road rage and ended with someone being either injured or killed in the street. CHANGING LANES is a thriller revolving around two very different men whose lives literally collide on the highway and the rapid downward spirals they both take. Featuring a big name case (even at the time) and clearly made with a substantial budget, the film was a box office success and praised among critics. Now that over a decade has passed, it seems like it’s been forgotten in the annals of cinematic history. Although I wouldn’t say it’s a great movie, as it does have some big flaws, it is a decent enough and (at times) unconventional thriller.

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Gavin is a cutthroat successful lawyer. Doyle is a recovering alcoholic. Both men are headed to the courthouse for entirely different reasons. Gavin has to get some files there in order to avoid being sued and Doyle has a hearing for joint custody of his children. After an accident leaves Doyle’s car totaled, Gavin writes a blank check and drives off without even giving the poor guy a ride to the same building he was already going to. Quickly discovering that he left an important file on the side of the road with Doyle, Gavin tries to get the document back. This is difficult, because Doyle is intent on teaching this hotshot lawyer a lesson in ethics. Ironically, this results in a dangerous feud between both men doing horrible things to make the other’s life as miserable as possible.

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CHANGING LANES is remarkable in its buildup to the actual collision itself. The viewer is introduced to both Gavin (Ben Affleck) and Doyle (Samuel L. Jackson). Affleck is usually hollow, but every once in a great while, he puts in a decent performance. Gavin is one of these cases. Samuel L. Jackson is the real standout of the entire film. I felt for the character of Doyle. The sheer amount of frustration he was experienced permeated through the screen and into my own emotions. Needless to say, I was on Doyle’s side the whole way, but other viewers may feel differently. This may be thrown into the same type of character battle as HARD CANDY, meaning that viewer’s may be manipulated into switching sides on more than once. In this respect, an interesting conversation among fellow film buffs might be why you were rooting for who at what point in the film.

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There are plenty of familiar faces in the supporting characters as well. While Toni Collette (THE WAY WAY BACK), Richard Jenkins (KILLING THEM SOFTLY), and Dylan Baker (TRICK ‘R TREAT) show up through Affleck’s storyline, the only real memorable side-character of note in Jackson’s life is his sponsor played by William Hurt (MR. BROOKS). Hurt also delivers the best piece of dialogue in the entire film. You’ll know it when you see it. However, there is one character whose appearance is damn near pointless and that’s Gavin’s seemingly emotionless wife played by Amanda Peet. This actress can range from good to terrible, depending on which movie you’re watching her in. She’s just plain wooden in CHANGING LANES. Some might argue that’s the point of her character, but I feel the purpose she appeared in two scenes for would have been more impactful, if she had more of an emotional range.

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The premise of CHANGING LANES is a great one and could make for a fantastic movie. This is the case for the first hour, then things steadily begin to strain credibility and go over-the-top. The running time is much longer than it should have been. As stated before, the plot is gripping for the first hour and then it significantly overstays its welcome. Just when the film should be at the highest peak of intensity, it decides to wax on about philosophy and how thin the line that separates ethics from chaos is. If the film had saved maybe one intense dialogue for the ending or used the significant one that William Hurt goes on about, that would have been more than enough. Instead, the message is as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face.

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CHANGING LANES begins with a bang and concludes with a whimper. To make matters worse, the ending is tied with a little bow on top that felt out-of-place in the story that had been taking place for the past 90 minutes. Samuel L. Jackson is great as a character unlike many others he’s played. Affleck is better in this film than all of the roles that have earned him the rotten reputation he has among the general public. The real problems come from the overlong running time and the not-so-subtle repeated moral of the story. CHANGING LANES would have been great as a tighter film that stayed true to the tone of the first hour. Instead, it’s a decent watch, but it’s not one that I’ll be adding to my collection. Worth a rental.

Grade: B-

BURN AFTER READING (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language, Some Sexual Content and Violence

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Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring: John Malkovich, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons

The Coen brothers have a unique filmography to say the least. Mostly covering dark thrillers and quirky comedy, they have never made what many would consider a normal movie. This is a total blessing. BURN AFTER READING came at a bit of a bad time for them. They were fresh off the heels of the Best Picture winner NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and this was the next film…a dark comedy that really has no real plot to speak of. In fact, this is more of a series of connected events than an actual story and they received a lot of flack for this. This was a bit unfair to the movie itself, seeing as everyone was comparing it to the best of the siblings’ work. BURN AFTER READING is hysterical in most respects, even if it leaves something to be desired.

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Osbourne Cox is an alcoholic former CIA agent with an explosive temper. Katie Cox is his demanding unfaithful wife. Harry Pfaffer is a former body-guard and Katie’s secret lover, despite being a married man enjoying getting a run whenever he can. Linda Litzke is a woman obsessed with bettering herself through plastic surgery while also working at the gym, where the fitness crazy Chad Feldheimer also works. While there are slight circumstances that connect all of these people, their lives are about to collide in horribly hilarious and darkly violent ways that may lead to the untimely deaths of a few of them and other awful fates for the others.

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I don’t exactly want to reveal anything further about the plot, because the less you know, the more you’ll enjoy this movie. It’s a comedy of errors on an epic scale. This is much like the same kind of oddball comedy that the Coen Brothers previously dished out in RAISING ARIZONA and THE BIG LEBOWSKI, although this time the stakes are more grisly and violent. The colorful cast of characters make for a massively entertaining experience. Much like THE BIG LEBOWSKI offered an excuse for Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and John Turturro to act like immature lunatics, BURN AFTER READING brings in a class of serious performers (including George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, and the always kooky John Malkovich) to act like insane people. It’s a blast to watch

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The non-existent narrative, despite working wonders, also gives off some sense that the film is wandering without a sense of purpose or even a coherent storyline. The running time feels a bit too long in the tooth for a “plot” of this structure or lack thereof. It’s an oddball quirky dark comedy that fulfills its requirement of making the viewer laugh a lot, but also leaves something to be desired. This is the equivalent of the Coen brothers bringing the closest thing we’ll get to popcorn-crunching entertainment from them.

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It feels like it’s missing something integral to making it an A-grade movie, but it seems like the narrative itself may be the cause of this problem. The rushed climax also may not suit everybody’s taste, but I found the final scene to be the funniest moment in the entire film. In the end, it’s a weird slice of entertainment delivered by the esteemed Coen brothers. That’s worth far more than many modern so-called comedies…

Grade: B+

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