Tuesday, September 19, 2006

 

Spike's 2nd 2006 home run


By Edward Copeland
Spike Lee has roared back in 2006 in a big way. I had all but written off the talented filmmaker, but then this year brought a one-two punch of a great documentary and a great action film. Inside Man actually preceded his great When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, but I just caught up with it on DVD and I was impressed. It's probably the film of his I've liked best since his work in the early 1990s.


Looking back at old reviews of his films I wrote at the time, I noticed the recurring theme of fault usually lay with Spike Lee's screenwriting. In the case of Inside Man, he works from a script by first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz and it seems to have freed Lee up as a director and he moves this heist thriller along at a breakneck pace with much style.

Sure, he still feels required to use that damn moving sidewalk shot that he's been using in practically every film he's made for more than a decade, but it's so brief that you let it slide. Hell, Lee even manages to get a score from his favorite composer, Terence Blanchard, that enhances the film instead of serving as a suffocating distraction.

The story, which I'll only provide in the vaguest of terms in order to let the movie unfold for those who haven't seen it, concerns the takeover of a Manhattan bank by a team of thieves led by Clive Owen. Thanks to a vacationing detective, Detective Harry Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner Detective Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) get the assignment, despite the fact that Frazier remains under suspicion for stealing some money from a case. The setup seems familiar from many other films, most notably Dog Day Afternoon and more fictional heist tales, but Lee and Gerwitz's script keeps springing surprises on the audience and makes the entire enterprise fresh. On top of the great performances by Washington and Owen, who has to act most of the time beneath a mask, Inside Man also includes a mysterious fixer played by Jodie Foster in her best role in ages and the bank's aging founder (Christopher Plummer) who secures her services to make certain that some things in the bank don't get out with the robbers. I can't recall a performance from Foster that seems less mechanical or embraces glamour the way she does here as Madeline White. Her screen time is limited, but she gives the movie a jolt every time she appears, whether she's opposite Washington, Owen or Plummer.

Still the real star of Inside Man is Spike Lee, who seems to have rediscovered his talent both in fiction and documentary. After many years of disappointments from him, it brings a smile to your face to know Lee still has it. It makes you wish Woody Allen could follow his cue and film someone else's script. Aside from the great movie itself, the DVD offers an often funny commentary by Lee (so much so that he often cracks himself up). He even offers advice (If you ever meet Christopher Plummer, do NOT bring up The Sound of Music) and gives lots of insight as to how shots were set up, asides about gangsta rap and even frequent updates about how the movie crew's baseball team performed. Inside Man provides a great ride — and I for one am grateful that Spike Lee seems to be back and I hope he gets to make his long-sought project with the 93-year-old Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) about Joe Louis.


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Comments:
I'm in near total agreement with you about the film - it's a fun ride, well-paced and with enough of an edge to stand it apart from most films of the heist genre (even though the screenplay does, in many respects, travel well-tread ground). Foster's performance is probably the only thing I don't entirely agree with you on - I thought she did a good job, but in my estimation, she still seemed rather mechanical. It's a quality that actually works to her benefit in the context of this role, since the character is the kind of shrewd operator who plans out all her moves three or four steps in advance - perhaps intentionally, the performance does feel more pre-meditated than spontaneous (I think it's that quality that also served her quite well in Silence of the Lambs). Still, some of her line readings sounded a bit stiff. You say can't recall a performance from Foster that seems less mechanical - how about Taxi Driver? To my way of thinking, she's never quite matched the unforced naturalism she displayed in performances from the early part of her career.
 
I didn't connect the two thoughts as cleary as I meant, but when I referred to Foster's performance, I meant her recent work, not of all time. Taxi Driver, of course, is still the tops.
 
I just loved Inside Man and I can't wait to watch it with Lee's commentary...
 
I enjoyed the film as well as Washington's performance, but I thought Jodie Foster was exceptionally, student-film-level awful. In a sense I thought this was her most mechanical performance ever, or at least the one that most exposed the strained, rusted mechanics behind her screen persona. Kudos to her for trying to do something different, but curses for failing so humiliatingly and making me watch it.
 
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