Blu-ray Review: Changing Lanes (2002)

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Obviously it’s an understatement to say that life is full of contradictions but an especially challenging one is trying to figure out when to remain still and when to fight back.

It’s a lesson that’s extraordinarily hard to pass on to the next generation—wanting to ensure that they don’t become violent bullies but at the same time (or at least it my point-of-view) reminding them that if they are being struck, it’s definitely okay to stand up for themselves. Provided, that is, that any physical response they make to defend themselves is purely in self defense. But, as we all know when tempers flare-- lines get crossed fast and the victim can become a bully shortly after the first punch is thrown.

Filmmaker Roger Michell’s Changing Lanes—a cinematic representation of an angry moral minefield—raises all of these contradictions and questions shortly after the film begins when two men with completely different backgrounds (both undergoing an overwhelming amount of stress) collide in a traffic accident during the a.m. rush hour on New York’s FDR drive.

Intriguingly, we discover that both men are on their way to settle legal situations. On the one hand we have Samuel L. Jackson as a recovering alcoholic Doyle Gipson who's preparing for his last plea to the family court judge to receive visitation rights to his children. And to balance out the equation, Gipson is matched with Ben Affleck’s smooth-talking yuppie Gavin Banek who is on his way to present an important series of documents in an ethically shady case that’s netted his law firm a ridiculous sum of money.

While it’s Affleck’s speeding Banek that crashes into Gipson, the two begin go through all of the motions they’re supposed to as responsible citizens by trading insurance information and ensuring the other person is okay. However, while Gipson wants to do everything by the book—Banek’s patience wears thin after a few seconds of requisite cordiality before his privileged sense of upper class entitlement and legal ease takes over. After he tries buy off Gipson with a blank check for the damage done to his vehicle, he feels his work is done and-- ignoring Gipson's request for a ride-- Banek leaves the scene of the accident with the thoughtless comment, “better luck next time.”

Although most audience members by now would simply assume that Banek is the villain and Gipson the unlucky hero—both men prove in their subsequent responses over the course of a very long, sinister Good Friday that they’re more than willing to bully and push back. And in doing so, each one ratchets up the level of pain in actions that go well beyond self defense into the realm of deadly serious attacks.

To their credit-- especially since the film is already a bit overly exaggerated and heavy-handed as it is-- filmmaker Michell and his screenwriters Chap Taylor and The Player scribe Michael Tolkin genuinely make an effort to sidestep any major “black and white” racial overtones, aside from one killer scene where Jackson gets the chance to deliver one of his trademark long monologues to two racist strangers while discussing his idea of a perfect Tiger Woods ad.

Yet—and despite the fact that from the earliest scenes the characters are presented on the surface as generic stereotypes (of both “race” and “class”)—Affleck and Jackson bring a great amount of layers to the roles that find them playing decidedly against type. To this end in both the press notes and behind-the-scenes documentaries, the former acknowledged he’d never had the opportunity to really act prior to this film (following Pearl Harbor up with Lanes) and the latter enjoyed the opportunity to play an uncool, unhip square for once.

However, the racial inequities, class struggles, religious symbolism of Good Friday and idea that both men were different levels of ethically ticking time bombs are laced throughout. Although on the surface they appear to have nothing in common—on that particular day when their vehicles and lives intersected and we realize they had an obscene amount to lose, their similar natures come out. As a result, they go into urban warfare using everything at their disposal when Banek tries to manipulate Gipson into giving back an important legal file he accidentally left in his hurried escape from the traffic accident and is too impatient to just meet up and talk things out.

However, life in an untouchable skyscraper gives Banek the edge to seriously destroy at will in an effort to save his career, marriage, and reputation when the file isn’t immediately returned. And although his former lover and colleague (Toni Collette) stars as his “conscience,” she also provides him with the contact information of a man (Dylan Baker) who can speed up the recovery process by taking a white-collar criminal approach to ruining Gipson.

It’s once this particular cyber attack is leveled in destroying Gipson financially that the film (which had already been moving from angry towards ferocious) becomes downright psychopathic and mean-spirited as a sort of twenty-first century version of Falling Down. And accordingly, the men take their frustrations out on each other in the most reprehensible of ways involving frightening Gipson’s children and nearly killing Banek on the road.

At its surface, of course, it's meant to illustrate the lesson that we never know exactly what’s going on in another human being’s life at any given moment. Yet, what started as an ingenious if obviously magnified and slightly dubious thriller of rage-fueled revenge gone wild instead falters given the exaggerated circumstances of the men and consequently turns into an absolutely repugnant depiction of attack and counter-attack run amok.

However, this being said, Lanes was critically lauded upon its initial release for its provocative approach and unabashed depiction of the very worst urges lurking in the hearts of men. Despite this, I feel pretty confident in the assumption that the film would not have been nearly as well received if Michell and his writers hadn’t tacked on a protracted penance filled ending which simply appears out of nowhere like a speeding car as the filmmaker’s attempt to crash some semblance of hope into the narrative.

Bolstered by a brilliant concept and terrific performances—especially by Jackson, Collette, and Sydney Pollack as Affleck’s boss and father in law—the film manages to push well past plausibility and audience empathy for the characters in its grueling final act in its transformations of two ordinary men who become the worst of bullies, never sure if and when they should step back and call a truce or just pummel each other beyond recognition.

And it’s in this strange attempt at marrying these two conclusions after we’ve just experienced one horrific event after another to the point that we no longer care about Banek or Gipson (or honestly 90% of the film’s cast) that made me question the filmmakers motive for Lanes as anything more than just in the end a clunky grown-up version of an after-school special.

Aside from the heavy-handed Good Friday religious symbolism that pervades, the work had enormous potential as a definite morality play set in contemporary America. In fact, seeing the film again now in a world where it seems that every week another citizen goes off the deep end and causes violent chaos in a gory shoot-out, it’s even timelier today than it was in 2002.

However, simplicity instead of exaggeration should’ve been the goal of those involved to try and make the two characters even remotely relatable or worth the investment, in lieu of depositing them in elaborate “schemes” and only-in-Hollywood plot points.

For this is especially the case as it concludes disappointingly with a reaffirmation of the same two stereotypes of the men that had opened the picture rather than making us feel that-- despite the excellent turns of the men portraying them-- Banek and Gipson had really changed all that much after all. Thus, Lane’s “happy ending” is damned in the end because it isn’t genuinely earned in the least as anything over than a convenient screenwriting contrivance.

With the theatrical trailer being the only special feature upgraded to high definition, we’re treated to the familiar yet interesting behind-the-scenes making-of-featurettes the include interviews with the cast and crew, an extended scene and deleted ones. Likewise, it contains a feature length commentary track by the director who-- after Lanes-- moved his career into far creepier territory with the eerie Enduring Love and excellent yet disturbing film The Mother (both of which starred the man who would become James Bond a.k.a. Daniel Craig).

Of particular interest to fellow writers would be the “Writer’s Perspective” extra that includes some insights from Michael Tolkin who was brought into work on the completed screenplay (always a sign that Wonder Boys, The Hours, and No Country for Old Men super producer Scott Rudin knew it was in trouble at the structural stage).

The Blu-ray itself is of excellent quality with first-rate sound throughout in one of the best Paramount soundtracks included on their slate of impressive 5/19 Blu-ray releases (that also included 3 Days of the Condor, Paycheck, Enemy at the Gates, and The Machinist) and a very sharply defined visual presentation that adds extra clarity to some of the tight, boxed-in shots, rapid-cuts, and darkly lit scenes.

Heightening that sense of feeling like a caged claustrophobic victim-- the Blu-ray completely pulls you in with an exceptional transfer of the unique production design and visual style, even if at times you'll have to remind yourself that there's no one you can push back amidst the chaos since after all, it's only just a film.

Blu-ray Review: A Bug's Life (1998)

Since Disneyland is known as "The Happiest Place on Earth," it only made sense that Walt Disney Home Entertainment would become associated with Pixar Animation Studios. And this is especially fitting for--as every successive behind-the-scenes making-of-documentary has revealed over the course of Pixar’s unprecedented string of hits—Pixar Studios seems to be the happiest place on Earth to work.

Obviously not getting the memo that most people loathe their jobs, every time I catch a glimpse of Pixar-- and especially as witnessed in the recent feature-length documentary included on the WALL-E multi-disc DVD and Blu-ray release as well as in a few shorter extras like the "Filmmakers’ Round Table" on A Bug’s Life--it seems as though while they work incredibly hard at Pixar, their work is made all the more joyful since it’s derived from “play.”

And it’s precisely this sense of exhilaration of, “hey, I wonder if I could…” or drawing inspiration in not only the sources that amazed the filmmakers in their own lives but the very bugs and leaves outside their building that makes the films crafted by Pixar some of the freshest and most blissfully upbeat works being released today whether they’re animated, computer animated, or consist entirely of live action.

And over the years, they've managed to tap right into what makes a great story in addition to pinpointing how to marry the idea of a hero’s journey (and indeed the Joseph Campbell paradigm is a Pixar staple as it was for Disney) with so many inventive jokes that viewers need to take in their films at least a few times to catch a few throwaway lines of dialogue. Comprised with a plethora of in-frame gags that have threaten to get lost in their incredibly rich, detailed, and precise backgrounds, the Pixar works are equally dynamic since--with WALL-E being a notable exception-- they usually boast a rather large ensemble of characters.

Perhaps in terms of scope, their biggest challenge is evidenced in the 1998 feature A Bug’s Life, which-- following the international success of Toy Story-- sent filmmakers John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton looking for as the tagline promises “an epic presentation of miniature proportions.”

Noted in the Blu-ray's Round Table as the “hardest film” that Pixar studio has ever worked on yet the one that is still the most fun, it marked the last time that the entire company was all working together in tandem on the exact same film. And in this regard it was a necessity since-- despite the rather simplistic story about a lovable outsider hero-- the animators made it incredibly hard on themselves by tackling straightaway all of the toughest obstacles to incorporate in their medium. In other words, they did what most animated movies try to avoid at all costs in creating a “cast” of thousands and working with the difficult challenge of translucence, light and shadow by accurately depicting the world of bugs in the sun, in anthills, and more.

At its core, as countless fans, critics, and scholars have noted, the film’s plot blends the same premise utilized in Akira Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai (remade in the United States as one of the greatest westerns of its time in The Magnificent Seven) as well as the Martin Short/Steve Martin/Chevy Chase pre-Tropic Thunder style joke about actors getting mistaken for real life heroes in the ‘80s comedy Three Amigos.

However, intriguingly Lasseter cites two rather surprising influences on the Blu-ray. First he acknowledges that a screening of Michael Bay’s The Rock made him realize they needed to shift the focus from a gigantic ensemble to a main character (with Dave Foley’s bug standing in for Rock’s action hero Nicolas Cage). And secondly although perhaps less startling but still an intriguing choice since Pixar broke free from the musical mode of its associated company, the guys list the classic Walt Disney Silly Symphony short Grasshopper and the Ants as one that deeply affected the filmmakers and it's not only included here complete with an introduction by Stanton and Lasseter but can also be seen on Disney’s new Wind in the Willows release.

Yet masterfully and much like the studio did in similar efforts like Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc. and others—even by going for something with a massive scope and A Bug’s Life-- the film by far surpasses them all just in its sheer magnitude and overwhelming amount of characters. Moreover, they were able to dwindle it down to precisely the right essence of what makes something a great story. Likewise, they concerned themselves with the goal that audiences of all ages would be with them every step of the way, especially children who found a majority of the humor of the same year’s thematically similar DreamWorks release Antz going way over their heads.

The plot of the film is rather simple. Namely, Kids in the Hall and News Radio’s funnyman Dave Foley voices the well-intentioned but accident prone ant Flik who-- after trying to stand up to the group of bullying and manipulative grasshoppers (led by Kevin Spacey as Hopper)-- finds he’s jeopardized his entire community when Hopper forces them to supply the grasshoppers with double the amount of food they’re usually forced to fork over.

Realizing there’s no way the ants will be able to supply the violent and intimidating grasshoppers and provide themselves with enough to eat, he’s ostracized by the ant colony’s royal council but promises the Queen (Phyllis Diller) and her daughter, the Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and the youngest royal highness Dot (an adolescent Hayden Panettiiere filled with pre-Heroes spunk) that he will return with a group of hired warrior bugs from Insect City.

Determined to find a tough crew to fight Spacey’s gang of grasshoppers-- in a freak coincidence and comical misunderstanding, he mistakes a newly fired troupe of circus bugs for the real thing and enlists them in his crusade for victory. Upon their return to Flik’s home, it doesn’t take too long for the circus bugs (including David Hyde Pierce, Denis Leary and others) to realize that instead of the entertainment gig they thought they’d book, they’d been hired as gladiatorial brawn. And although predictably Flik starts to become the fool of the colony once more, soon they all pull together to try and defeat the villains.

Filled with some great jokes that take advantage of the flawed communication as the circus group promises the ants “when your grasshopper friends get here, we are gonna knock them dead,” and a nice bit with Denis Leary as a ladybug named Francis who--perpetually tired of being mistaken for female because of his species—gets in touch with his maternal side, A Bug’s Life is a whole lot of fun, never overstaying its welcome in a brisk ninety-five minute running time.

Furthermore it simply dazzles with its incredibly detailed animation that's on display during some exciting action sequences that rival that of Michael Bay's Rock but Bug's Life surpass Bay's films’ tendency towards stock characters by excelling in bringing out the humanity, heart, and humor in its numerous supporting players.

Having delivered the film in DVD’s first ever all-digital video transfer for superior quality without “film” elements and even going as far as to ensure the full screen version of their film maintained the highest level of quality by handling it themselves to adjust the characters to ensure everything fit in the different frame size—the first ever CGI animated feature work to have been “presented in a scope ratio of 2:35:1”—that simply thrilled in DVD format, astounds on Blu-ray.

With gorgeous clarity of the highest order-- within moments, you’ll experience greater appreciation for the translucence of the leaves and color differentiation pouring out from every pixel in 1080 HD. And added to this is a spectacular sound mix as an English 5.1 DTS-HD master audio track that brings the multiple speaker theatrical sequence home to the point where you can even tell just watching it without a speaker hook-up as certain lines of dialogue go quieter in favor of the soundtrack making it beg to be appreciated with a first rate sound set-up.

Additionally, the disc that also includes the ever-popular BD-Live Network also gives fans redeemable movie cash to see Pixar’s new film Up along with an extra Disney File Digital Copy of the feature that is accessible on both Apples and PCs.

And although its characters aren’t as instantly or universally recognizable as Woody and Buzz Lightyear from Toy StoryA Bug’s Life’s phenomenal success including the sophisticated and sweet short Geri’s Game which earned the studio an Academy Award and further solidified their exceptional tradition of first-rate short films a la vintage Disney.

Likewise, it not only foreshadowed the studio’s reputation in the years to come but made its alliance with Walt Disney not only a match made in movie heaven but ensured that from then on, children’s entertainment would continue to improve, inspire, entertain, and above all provide unparalleled joy as Pixar and its many competitors all strove to raise the bar a little more with every film.

Thus in the end, while we can’t all be quite as happy at work as the folks seem to be at Pixar—it’s thanks to Pixar and other studios that help promise its audience that they’ll always be there the same way Disney was and still is to pick us up whenever we may need it whether its through the toys in Andy’s room or the country bugs that live just outside Insect City.

Blu-ray Review: Valkyrie (2008)

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Despite being born and raised in the era of “Free to Be You and Me,” following World War II, I never felt free to be German. Seemingly unable to escape my heritage because it is the country from which my last name is derived-- as a child if you were to ask me about my ethnic background, I'd list the other four nationalities first, drop an octave and then apologetically whisper “and German.”

It made little difference that my relatives had all arrived via Ellis Island and were not a part of Hitler's Germany-- for just like now we find so many people of Middle Eastern descent being typecast as villains in Hollywood films. For every year without fail and usually in the attempt to lure more Oscar nominations, studios release a plethora of World War II pictures filled with nefarious Germans, swastikas galore, and more points of view from the unspeakably horrific global war.

And while with greater education and cinematic offerings we’ve begun to catch new aspects of the war from foreign films like Black Book, Downfall, The Counterfeiters, and Nowhere in Africa—regardless of their origin, the films instantly makes the small amount of German blood in me boil and the results find me feeling irrationally guilty.

Last winter was no exception as once more theaters were filled with titles concerning World War II that ranged from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to The Reader to Defiance to the long-delayed Bryan Singer venture Valkyrie produced by and starring United Artists’ new studio head Tom Cruise.

Although as Oscar host Hugh Jackman even joked, basically nobody checked out The Reader (much to the surprise of everyone when Kate Winslet took home both a Golden Globe and Academy award for her little-seen role), the reaction to Pajamas was extremely mixed, and Defiance opened under everyone’s radar after the holiday season. Yet despite its controversy and ever-changing release date that once had been scheduled for Valentines Day of 2009, in the end it was the senselessly pre-judged and ridiculed Valkyrie that scored a major “V for Victory" both for United Artists and World War II movies as it became “one of the biggest grossing box office adult movies* of the past holiday season,” as the press release acknowledges. (* Yes, I didn't think the word order of "adult movies" was a great choice either.)

Although public perception had drastically improved for some of the previously questionable antics of Tom Cruise following his hysterical cameo in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder which may have helped turn the tide for a film that was receiving negative buzz way before it opened.

Whatever the case may be, in my view the movie is a success on a number of levels. Sophisticated and highly intellectual, the work which tells the true story of a brilliantly engineered plan headed up by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) and several other high ranking German soldiers to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944 engages you deeply into its suspenseful plot. This is all done via the painstakingly historical efforts put forth by Singer and screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie (Oscar winner for The Usual Suspects) and his co-writer Nathan Alexander.

Despite the fact that there were fifteen recorded attempts to take out Hitler, it was the amazingly methodical and meticulous organization of von Stauffenberg, a tight-knit group of officers and a network that expanded to seven hundred others that made Operation Valkyrie the closest the Germans ever got to putting an end once and for all to the madness of Hitler’s Nazi tyranny.

Curiously and despite the fact that it's a natural plot for Hollywood fodder, the story is long overdue for cinematic treatment and it’s one that as the Blu-ray for the release informs us, McQuarrie literally chanced upon while in Germany years ago researching something else entirely. When he noticed a small memorial of four soldiers including von Stauffenberg, he discovered that Germany’s involvement in the war was not quite as “black-and-white” as it has been portrayed for decades on the silver screen.

As the living grandson of the real von Stauffenberg explains, his grandfather like other men were proud to soldiers and serve their country and did not consider themselves to be part of the Nazi regime. Following an attack on von Stauffenberg’s 10th Panzer Division serving in Tunisia which left him seriously wounded (including the loss of one eye, a hand and other fingers), upon his return to his family and home in Berlin, he’s soon ushered into the ongoing plot and secret meetings among other disillusioned and disgusted German soldiers to eliminate Hitler.

However and despite a tense failed attempt to simply execute via a bomb in a move spearheaded by Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh)-- with von Stauffenberg’s level-headed assurance that there must be a plan to follow Hitler's demise, they realize that it’s a far more complex proposition than simply just walking up and shooting him at close range the way most had no doubt fantasized.

In addition to von Stauffenberg and von Tresckow, we meet several key players including General Frierich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), and General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) and more including some like Fromm who are fearful of what would happen if it goes horribly wrong.

Although once von Stauffenberg realizes that the best way to stage a coup and seriously deconstruct the military stronghold to immobilize the SS so that he and the others can work to set things right once the Fuhrer falls, the smartest yet most dangerous move is to use Hitler’s own Operation Valkyrie contingency plan against him.

Bravely rewriting it, setting new details into play and forming alliances with a string of like-minded soldiers-- von Stauffenberg never makes a misstep even when he’s face-to-face with Hitler himself and has to receive his signature on the new document.

Likewise, Bryan Singer doesn't miss the opportunity to use his penchant for suspense to punch up the execution of Alexander and McQuarrie’s dialogue driven script (inspired by HBO’s Conspiracy, ironically starring Kenneth Branagh). In doing so, he makes every scene a truly intense action sequence even when a pen and not a sword is used and this approach is precisely what made Valkyrie one of the most thoroughly gripping and fresh takes on the World War II genre in a long time.

Although initially, I must admit that seeing Cruise playing von Stauffenberg with the same intensity and style he injects into a majority of his interchangeable American hero films was a bit disconcerting. Moreover, I was also taken aback by Singer’s extremely odd decision to have his cast go with their natural accents (mostly British with the exception of Cruise’s contemporary American fast-talking rhythm) as opposed to striving for some sort of more balanced sound for the ensemble.

While the X-Men and Usual Suspects director explained in the production notes that adopting accents would most likely have distracted from the plot as a whole and he felt more inclined to just make the piece “engaging” rather than docu-drama like--given its meticulous attention to detail in filming for example some of the firing squad sequences exactly where they happened makes this deviation from authenticity increasingly hard to ignore.

Yet despite this choice, the film is a tremendous achievement and one that triumphs wholeheartedly in finally shedding light on this inspiring effort by soldiers determined that by not trying to counter the Nazi regime, the world would assume that Germany was simply Hitler’s Germany and not the country in which they loved and were proud to serve.

Loaded with bonus features including a second digital copy disc of the film to transfer to your compatible Apple or PC portable devices--per usual for Fox and MGM Blu-ray releases-- the clarity in sound and picture is first rate and manages to make it even more exciting than it was in the theatre. This is especially true considering that do to the intricacies of the script, we’re able to focus more on the many characterizations of the rather large ensemble involved when we have the chance to watch at our own pace and better digest information.

While Journey of the Valkyrie and two commentary tracks are included (including one with childhood friends and Usual Suspects colleagues Singer and McQuarrie and star/producer Tom Cruise and the other with writers) along with other featurettes that reveal just how much Cruise and some cast members looked damn near identical to the men they portrayed (see below)—the two standouts on the Blu-ray include a historical mini-documentary hosted by von Stauffeberg’s grandson called The Road to Resistance and a Q&A conversation hosted by Annette Insdorf with Singer and Cruise.

At last a film that illustrates the multiple layers of the war and educates viewers who may have easily jumped to the conclusion that Germany equals Hitler and Soldier equals Nazi as depicted in countless films—while some may still nit-pick on the accuracies of certain portions including von Stauffenberg’s motive or the film’s absence of an exact plan for how the new leaders would’ve found a way to stop the devastation—it’s a stellar and involving work.

Passionately made by Singer who recalls in a conversation with Insdorf that when he was growing up Jewish and obsessed with the war his two best friends just so happened to have been German born German Americans here in the states—Valkyrie honors the brave and intricate plan and similarly those involved. In other words, it reminds us once again of the important lesson that there’s so many sides to every story. And on a more personal note, after walking out of a WWII picture for the first time in my life, I finally felt not just "free to be" but very proud to be a German American.