Sunday, May 18, 2014

Playing for time

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2006)

Inside Man almost earned more money in its first weekend than any previous Spike Lee movie in its entire run, and this seems to be exactly what the director needed. Lee could maintain a career making low-budget movies like Bamboozled and She Hate Me, but he clearly thinks he should be one of the preeminent American directors, and that takes money. So here he delivers a generally smooth heist thriller, sufficiently self-effacing that some reviewers hardly see his signature there at all. This counts as an overall victory, and if the payoff might be another Jungle Fever or 25th Hour further down the line, then I guess we can view matters with equanimity.

Inside Man

In Inside Man, Denzel Washington plays the lead detective on a hostage situation – a group of masked thieves has taken over a bank, and they’re sitting tight while activity swirls outside.  Clive Owen is the leader of the gang, and Jodie Foster is a smooth power player parachuted in by the bank’s owner (Christopher Plummer) to keep tabs on some personal interests. The film is mostly a procedural – a meticulous rendering of the police operation and of the interplay between Washington and Owen. Along the way, matters encompass war crimes, power politics, racism, institutional corruption, and – to an only minor degree – trouble at home.

In other words the material certainly has a potential scope that needn’t be beneath Spike Lee, and indeed for much of the time he does a highly intriguing job of ventilating the action through his customary technical acumen and imagination. The film incorporates flash-forwards (to subsequent interviews with the released hostages), fantasy visualizations, some direct-to-camera narration by Owen, and occasional use of Lee’s patented technique for divorcing a shot’s background and foreground. He has a great feeling for human interaction, with a very naturalistic portrayal of the police activity, and the film is uncommonly (if you didn’t know it was Lee) alive to racial diversity. This all confirms his continuing power as a filmmaker almost uniquely capable of accessible provocation.

Still, the movie left me feeling rather flat. Up until the last twenty minutes or so its promise seems intact (although it’s a little too long drawn out). Then the police get a breakthrough, and the film enters a different mode. Events now occupy a broader canvas, but also start feeling rushed and abbreviated, and the strands laid down earlier seem cursorily knotted together. The film has no ultimate institutional revelations, and even on the basic level of the plot delivers quite a bit less than it once seemed capable of. So that’s that.

Spike Lee’s Future

I couldn’t help thinking it would only have taken some modest adjustments to fix these issues, which raises the question of Lee’s continuing ability to diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of his own work. His last fiction movie She Hate Me was generally derided, and indeed had a lot of stuff that barely made any sense, along with undistinguished execution. But beneath all of that, the film’s project was rather unique – to investigate the possibility of a new paradigm for black men, one divorced from corporate servility and traditional sexuality, forged in the memory of undervalued black men who went before (the security guard who blew the whistle on the Watergate burglary is a frequent if insufficiently thought-out reference point). She Hate Me often had the feeling of a voyage of purgatory, although with Terence Blanchard’s melancholy music consistently suggesting a more ornate or elaborate odyssey than was visible on the screen. 

A director as talented as Lee should surely have been better attuned to some of the film’s obvious problems. But his films are far more works of instinct than of deliberation. As his critical status diminishes and his general celebrity status solidifies, he seems to spread himself thinner and thinner – the internet movie database lists 40 directorial credits of various kinds going back to 1977, but 18 of those belong to 2000 onwards. He makes videos, documentaries, concert films, TV shows, and now blockbuster movies. Just like the mastermind of Inside Man, this activity seems largely arbitrary, as if stalling for time until he can execute his real plan. Or until he identifies for himself what that plan is. But I think he’ll get there.

Thank you for Smoking, based on the popular novel about the tobacco lobby, is tremendously entertaining to watch, although thinking about it afterwards – and despite Aaron Eckhart’s great central performance as the lobbyist with a well-developed sense of moral relativity, who could argue Bush into turning Democrat - I find reservations piling up somewhat more easily than superlatives. So here goes. Although the movie moves breezily from Washington to Hollywood and many points in between, taking shots at senators and agents and big business and the press, I never really felt it had much ultimate point or specific satiric purpose (maybe that was clearer in the book). The closing lines reach for some concept of personal responsibility that didn’t seem integrated into the whole. It often plays like a series of sketches, lacking much sense of the world beyond the frame. A key plot point, where the lobbyist spills his secret to a seductive reporter, seems particularly hampered by excessive sketchiness. And perhaps most bizarre of all, no one in the movie smokes – something that adds to the sense of sterility, and seems pointlessly contrived at times. All in all, I would have preferred a more allusive approach to the material – like the job Spike Lee did on Bamboozled. I doubt that many will agree with me on this. Oh, did I mention that it’s tremendously entertaining?

Basic Instinct 2

The reviews for Basic Instinct 2 were so bad that the studio might be thinking of burning the negative, but I went to see it anyway. I had a hunch critics might be missing something (by the way, I’m the guy who wrote the only basically positive review of Gigli in existence). Well, I was wrong. It’s a tedious, sadly unimaginative concoction, set in a drearily evoked London, in which a psychiatrist (the charisma-free David Morrissey) slowly gets pulled into Sharon Stone’s web. Stone’s acting is obvious and campy and she barely seems integrated into the rest of the film. It’s all too restrained, squandering all opportunities for provocation or even titillation. I was particularly disappointed with this aspect, since I had this vision of a gung-ho Stone exposing something about neurotic British sexuality. But although the movie contains a fair bit of analytical blather, it’s generally an idea-free zone.

I read somewhere that director Michael Caton-Jones started work on the film within six days of completing another picture, and the thing frankly feels like the product of someone desperate for a long nap. And this basic instinct, at least, does transmit itself to the audience. You know, Spike Lee’s pulled off some pretty steamy scenes in his time. He could have done way better.

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