Bill Paxton in FrailtyFRAILTY

Until it flirts with supernatural looniness in its last reel, Bill Paxton's directorial debut Frailty is a strong, scary, deeply affecting piece of work - so good, in fact, that it easily ranks, thus far, as 2002's finest film achievement.

Which is not to say that it's a completely enjoyable experience; like all great horror films, Frailty knows that what isn't shown is oftentimes more disturbing and terrifying than what is, and many audience members, if the screening I attended is any indication, will find the film just too much to take. In the film, a disheveled Texan named Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) enters an FBI office and tells a glowering agent (Powers Boothe) that his now-deceased brother, Adam Meiks, is the serial killer the agency has long been searching for. It turns out this may be a hereditary trait, as Fenton describes, and we see in flashback, his upbringing with his brother and father (Paxton), and the time Dad began hearing the voice of God, which ordered him to begin destroying demons on Earth who have assumed human form; Dad convinces himself that destroying demons doesn't constitute murder, as the victims aren't really human.

What follows is a lacerating portrait of religious fervor and madness, and the heartwrenching sight of a seemingly respectable man unraveling in front of his children; Frailty digs deeper into the heart of psychosis than the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind does. As photographed by Jaws cinematographer Bill Butler, the film looks and feels like a nightmare, with Paxton's alternately serene and crazed portrayal perhaps the most deeply frightening screen image of fatherhood since Jack Nance in Eraserhead. As a director, Paxton tightens the screws so effectively that when the requisite plot twists and reversals come near the end, they're more bothersome than enlightening; Paxton shows such a firm hand with stark realism that the movie's supernatural elements feel tacked on. Yet there's no denying that Frailty remains a powerful, gut-tightening piece nonetheless. It hasn't been designed for consumption by the cineplex masses, but for sheer power, magnificent performances (by the child actors, as well), and exquisite execution, it's not to be missed.


Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck in Changing LanesCHANGING LANES

Like Frailty, Roger Michell's Changing Lanes is a refreshingly complex, sensational new release; also like Frailty, it doesn't go seriously wrong until its finale, which has the distinct feel of being added after preview audiences moaned about it being "depressing." While traveling on a New York freeway, lawyer Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) gets in a fender-bender with recovering alcoholic Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson); instead of exchanging insurance information, Banek, who's running late for court, writes Gipson a blank check and leaves him stranded amidst traffic. But Gipson doesn't need money; he needs time: He, too, is due in court, to testify at his children's custody hearing. Arriving late, Gipson finds the court has already awarded sole custody to his sons' mother. Gipson has nowhere to vent his blinding rage, but, ah, what's this? The legal briefs Banek needs for his case, which he mistakenly left with Gipson at the scene of the accident? So begins Changing Lanes' cat-and-mouse game, in which Gipson attempts to extract revenge on Banek, Banek retaliates, and as the entire film takes place on one Good Friday, suffering-and-redemption issues abound.

If there were a dictionary entry for "Professional Hollywood Thriller," the poster for Changing Lanes would accompany it; the movie is sleekly designed, beautifully paced, and edited with razor-sharp precision. But that wouldn't hint at its surprising depth. The film smartly shows that neither lead character is right or wrong in his actions - the script is co-written by Michael Tolkin, of The Player and The Rapture, who is Hollywood's king of moral ambiguity - and so your sympathies are constantly vacillating between the two; as events escalate, you find yourself as on-edge as Banek and Gipson. Director Michell does himself proud handling the film's heightening tension, and even prouder with his work with the actors. Affleck, who has seemed like a lummox in his most recent film work, is focused and touching (he has one spectacular, wordless scene listening to a terrifyingly venal monologue by Amanda Peet, playing his wife), Jackson is typically spellbinding in his righteous indignation, and the supporting ensemble couldn't be improved on. Just when you think you won't see a better character performance all year than Dylan Baker's turn as a thrillingly self-satisfied Mr. Fix-It, along comes Sydney Pollock as Banek's icy father-in-law, and then the remarkable Kim Staunton as Gipson's angry ex-wife, and the movie also finds room for the likes of Toni Collette, William Hurt, Richard Jenkins, and Matt Malloy. The very last scenes let you down - they make achingly clear what we had already assumed - but until then Changing Lanes is a real treat and, particularly for a springtime Hollywood release, a major accomplishment.


Cameron Diaz, Selma Blair, and Christina Applegate in The Sweetest ThingTHE SWEETEST THING

Has there ever before been so charming a performer in such a charmless vehicle as Cameron Diaz in the female-empowerment gross-out comedy The Sweetest Thing? The film's ridiculously thin plot concerns Diaz's knockout party-girl deciding to take a chance on true love with an engaged man (Thomas Jane); Diaz and Jane meet, fail to hook up, and then do hook up roughly an hour of screen time later. And the filler in between? Jokes involving urine, semen, vomit, oral sex, maggots, penis size, and the elderly proudly barking the F word. (The film's producers might imagine this scatological romantic comedy will appeal to all demographics, but my guess is that it will instead alienate everyone suckered into sitting through it.) As I've stated time and again, and no doubt will again in the future, there's nothing wrong with nauseating gags that are actually funny; except for co-star Selma Blair's mortifying trip to the dry-cleaner's, though, nothing in The Sweetest Thing qualifies. The movie is obscenely ill-directed (by Roger Kumble) and embarrassingly overplayed in minor roles - though co-stars Parker Posey, Jason Bateman, and Georgia Engel provide minor amusement - and I found myself staring at my watch far more often than anyone should in the course of seventy-five minutes.

So how did this monstrosity, with its beyond-witless script, lure the effervescent Cameron Diaz into starring? My hunch is that she's a not-so-secret, raging (but never naked) exhibitionist. Scene after scene finds her happily mugging and dancing in her underwear, turning on no one so much as herself - she's like a female Tom Cruise who gleefully admits to her megalomania - and it becomes clear that the material she has to work with doesn't matter a damn so long as she gets to show off her midriff and megawatt smile. Her guileless abandon keeps you smiling with her almost throughout this wretched picture, even while you're privately thinking that, in reality, Cameron Diaz might be completely insane.

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