Wednesday, March 22, 2006

First thoughts: INSIDE MAN (and L'ENFANT)

Spike Lee's INSIDE MAN (released Friday, March 24) emerges as the smartest Hollywood entertainment of the year thus far. Granted, the bar has been set low by the likes of BIG MOMMA'S HOUSE 2, but so it goes with the dead zone that is January-March. [From the looks of it, April isn't shaping up too strongly, and "the industry" usually goes to sleep from mid-August to early November, leaving studio-financed "dependies," studio also-rans that couldn't cut it in the more competitive months, genre pix, and whatever else happens to open to pick up the slack. This is no way to run a railroad. And the studios ask why grosses are off and attendance has fallen 9 percent.]

True, I liked RUNNING SCARED, but that ran out of gas quickly, and V FOR VENDETTA has little action/adventure for a movie touted as the first big action/adventure of the year. What it does have, besides a heap of well-worn totalitarian cliches and some nice jabs at current political malfeasance, is some refreshing moments; a nice little dance scene between Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving's V, scored to the outstanding Antony and the Johnsons, a smartly written and played death scene for Sinead Cusack; and a surprisingly moving anecdote, involving ill-fated lesbian lovers, that awakens Portman's consciousness. Indeed, the movie's most involving undercurrent is the suppression and expression of homosexuality in the film's loveless and unlovely England, which elicited mild but audible grumbling at the showing I attended from an audience primed to expect more CGI-enhanced knife fighting. Slipping all this into an action/adventure context, produced by Playboy-bunny chasing Joel Silver, may be the movie's most subversive achievement. But it won't buoy it at the boxoffice as word gets out.

So, then, to Universal's INSIDE MAN (I've seen maybe three other commercial films since the Christmas blitz). It's a heist picture, but a more thoughtful one than usual, with a minimum of far-fetched twists and plotting. One of the pleasures of blogging is that I don't do plot summary here (you've seen the trailers, commercials, and ads already and get the drift) but suffice it to say that a super-nattily dressed Denzel Washington (a detective) and a mysterious Jodie Foster (as some sort of power broker) are in pursuit as a determined Clive Owen robs a Wall Street bank, precipitating a hostage crisis and machinations by the bank's founder, Christopher Plummer, who has cornered the market on playing suave seniors of mixed motives. Assisted by DP Matthew Libatique (the twilight photography at the bank is extraordinarily atmospheric without falling into cliche) and a typically eclectic score by Terence Blanchard (a little John Barry-ish riffing here, a blast of Bollywood there), Lee secures a foot-hold in the genre, without too much of the woolly-headed rhetoric or affected filmmaking "style" that mars much of his work.

There is a political subtext at play, but Lee goes easy on it, easier than the messaging that was part of THE INTERPRETER or THE CONSTANT GARDENER. I'm not sure it would withstand a second viewing (how many thrillers do?) but Lee is very much in his element with this material, written by first-timer Russell Gewirtz with a nod toward the "New Yawkness" of the best film of its kind, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, provided by a similar cast of polyethnic actors in vivid supporting roles. While on a different level than Lee's best feature films (DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, and the underappreciated 25th HOUR), the snap and polish of INSIDE MAN helps relieve the frostbite that is a permanent feature of movies released at this time of the year.

Also in limited release this Friday is Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes' L'ENFANT, from Sony Pictures Classics. It's the fourth film I've seen from the prodigious Belgian duo, who specialize in humanist drama filtered through their documentary-trained cameras, and who shoot close and handheld to provide maximum absorption in the blighted lives of their bottom-rung subjects. [Maybe too close; sit farther back in the theater to avoid possible whiplash from the restless filmmaking.] And, I must report, it's the weakest; a little too schematic, as a feckless young thief thoughtlessly gives up his newborn baby to black marketers, then attempts to retrieve him. But, if not up to the standards of 1996's LA PROMESSE (the new film stars its now-adult lead, Jeremie Renier) or 2002's LE FILS, it is still miles ahead of the hand-wringing and special pleading that defines humanism in so many films, and is worth seeking out despite its imperfections.

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