Inside Man/Spike Lee

I was impressed with ‘Inside Man.’ The plot is pretty silly, and there is at least one enormous gaping plot hole (which renders much of the intrigue irrelevant), but this is a superior action movie/thriller. It is absolutely enthralling; not a moment seems wasted or dull. Denzel Washington is a joy to watch, and he plays well off all the other actors, esp. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Clive Owen (but not Jodie Foster, who is wasted), and makes them raise their game. He is so damn relaxed. The scenes where hostages are being interviewed after the heist is over are superb: funny, clever, full of little details that become relevant later (chewing gum). I am not really enough of a Spike Lee fan to say what makes this a distinctively Spike Lee Joint. Certainly the attention to race is unusual in a movie this kind, and the lighting and changing grain of the film betray some real craft. But since ‘25th Hour’ is my favorite Spike Lee film, I am not qualified to place this among his other work. Regardless, this is a highly competent movie, and a fine way to spend two hours.

One of the previews was for ‘Flight 93′ which I’m dreading because of the political/patriotic baggage that it will carry. But it is directed by Paul Greengrass, which might save the movie.

19 thoughts on “Inside Man/Spike Lee”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed Inside Man. I couldn’t help be reminded of Crash while watching this film; not so much the fatuousness of that film as the idea of cultures colliding in the big city. This Spike Lee joint manages to make a number of smart observations about race and ethnicity in a post-9/11 New York but Lee’s usual lububrious didacticism is nicely tempered by Brian Grazer’s commercial instincts. The first 25 minutes or so feel downright generic (did Tony Scott hijack Lee’s brain) but then those loopy, Spike Lee rhythms kick in and the film grows stronger as the characters grow more idiosyncratic. Spike Lee as a hired gun ain’t so bad; this is certainly the most fun I’ve had seeing one of films in a long while. Sure I can nitpick (do we really need another conveyor belt sequence in a Lee film–what exactly is that about anyway). The wonderfully structured screenplay kept me guessing, though I think the film could have been even tighter if Lee had cut about 14 minutes (Denzel’s scenes with the girl waiting for him at home weren’t necessary on any level). And Denzel Washington is a lot of fun to watch, but he is far smarter than the character he plays and that shows through I think. Still, this movie is entertainingly smart for a popcorn flick.

    Hey, Chris, I really enjoyed Jodie Foster’s work and character for what that’s worth. And I guess I missed the plot’s gaping hole . . . to what are you referring?

  2. Well–just back from a jaunt to NY, where I saw this fine film, and had just before seen Tristram Shandy, and planned this wonderful little post about narrative–and now my thunder is stolen.

    I’ll echo the above. I’ll doubly echo the love for Denzel W, who is easily having the most fun of his career–up there with Training Day and The Mighty Quinn.

    What makes it a Lee film? Well, some of the stylistic quirks. The attention to the interstitial social moments–all of his best films have what seem like unscripted encounters between characters, where they get to inhabit a moment that is unconcerned with the forward motion of plot. I also think Lee pretty consistently returns to a conception of people punching odd clocks, finding their way to get paid… from Mookie to Mo’ Better through the unjustly-neglected Summer of Sam, the unjustly-maligned Bamboozled, and the rightfully-appreciated 25th Hour, you’ve got these characters who make a living that isn’t entirely of their liking, yet they’re not half-bad at it, and they’re trying to find some way to make it count, or change. I don’t have much to go on here–but it struck me how Washington’s cop (or even Owen’s thief or Foster’s fixer) have identities strongly connected to the work they do. I bring it up just because it seems so common in his films, yet not so necessary for this particular work.

    What I had been interested in writing about was narrative. I adore heist films. David Denby once said that the pleasure of the caper is a stand-in for the elaborate technical apparatus of movie-making; that’s interesting, but off a bit. Heist films (in the more traditional versions) rely on a preliminary planning which, in effect, introduces the intended narrative. Then, the inevitable pleasures of the narrative going in some other direction.

    Even this film–which sets aside the actual planning and jumps right in–still plays with the “story” of the heist. In fact, it’s a major plot point: everyone carefully trying their best to recognize the conventions of the robbery plot, and then to tilt the narrative in their direction.

    I’m babbling, but contra Denby: heist films are about the possibility of an impossible, closed, perfect “safe” penetrated by an impossible, closed, perfect plot. And in the best instances–if not almost every instance–the perfect plot, like that perfect safe, is penetrated by digressions, accident, coincidence… and narrative–which had seemed so orderly, so predictable, so controlled–spins into inevitable chaotic/complex flux.

    Which is why I wanted to post on Shandy, too. Because the impossibility of telling a controlled story is also the center of this uncentered, decentering confusion of a novel–and at the heart of this fun, if not perfect adaptation. Like the novel, the movie begins at but never quite makes it to the birth of its narrator; its plot keeps getting hijacked (heisted) by interesting supporting characters, extended treatises on incidental matters, the every whim of its in- or overly-attentive narrator. Unlike the novel, the movie spins off into its own birthing, with a variety of sub- and sub-sub-plots about the making of this movie, the wandering eye and swaggering ego of its protagonist Steve Coogan, etc.

    Coogan and his co-star Rob Brydon make this movie; it is a lot of fun regardless, but their interplay–particularly in the opening chatter about Brydon’s teeth and the duelling Pacinos during the credits–was extremely funny.

    Two good flicks in one week. Anyone seen Vendetta? Hills Have Eyes?

  3. Oh yeah–

    The plot point–I have a guess. I was irritated by the video camera tomfoolery, but… did you have something else in mind, Chris?

    As to Flight 93… I was very, very interested in how they sold it as a thriller. And, damn, it was thrilling. I’m very curious if there will be any of the kind of reflexivity, the meta-thrills, I loved about Munich, or if it will both tickle the audience’s interest in the voyeuristic kick of the hijack and then slap them (us) for being so excited by piling on the cheesy sentimental bathos at the end….

  4. SPOILER: I just meant that we are sold on the idea that Owen is only really interested in getting the Nazi document, which he will use to get paid by Plummer, if only he can get out of the bank alive. But, a) he blows the blackmail idea by leaving the ring (which means that the Nazi document is redundant and useless to him), and b) if he can hide behind a false wall and then walk out with diamonds a week later, why does he need all the subterfuge? It could have been a straight heist movie (remember Bill Murray and Geena Davis in ‘Quick Time’?). Maybe I missed a plot twist, but it seemed to me that if you can get out of the bank with the loot, you don’t need the Nazi document angle.

    Maybe I was unfair to Jodie Foster in this, but she had a one-dimensional character (though she played the on dimension very well), and she had nowhere to go when it turned out that Owen knew about Plummer’s past.

  5. Well, the document is useless to him now that he has the diamonds. Plus, he (and Lee) get to have their cake and eat it to as leaving the ring will allow Denzel to follow its history and bring Plummer down as well. Interesting that Lee’s film takes on a pro-Zionist flava.

  6. Oh, and Mike, that new BK commercial “Big, Buckin’ Chicken” also seems to be all about the problems of narrative, because the impossibility of telling a controlled story is also at the center of this uncentered, decentering confusion of a Burger King commercial. Check it out!

  7. I guess my point is that the movie is organized around the idea that the robbers cannot escape with the loot. They are waiting around until Jodie Foster arrives to offer a large payoff if they can just get out of the bank alive. So they can then leave the bank without any loot (just the document). If, in fact, through the miracle of sealed rooms, the robbers can escape with the loot (or at least diamonds), the Nazi subplot is fun but no longer necessary.

    Still, it did not reduce my enjoyment of the movie. I just felt, dare I say it, *manipulated.*

  8. I always figured Mrs. White (a rockin’ character name) was in no way a part of Owen’s plan . . . she was simply an extra-ingredient for which he was very prepared (but it was always about the diamonds). The question I have is what did they do with all of that stuff they dug up? When a room in a bank which has been robbed suddenly shrinks by two to three feet, certainly some spatially motivated individual is going to notice, yes?

  9. I figured the Nazi doc to be a McGuffin–a way to keep our (and/or Ms. White’s) attention, but mostly a diversion to allow other things (the diamond theft, or just our fun watching a heist) to happen.

    The dirt bothered me. Even more–the cameras were deactivated, but there was a record of who was in the bank right before that. It seems to me that–when you pull together all the jumpsuited masses after the heist, and try to figure out who was a thief and who a hostage–you could just eliminate many through video footage.

    But then… what about, or could have been, or… Hitchcock used to disparagingly call people who complained about these kinds of what-abouts “the Plausibles”. So I tend not to worry overly much.

    Jeff, I’ll add a chapter on Burger King. Got me good, you bastard.

  10. FX’s “Thief” is pretty good. I’m sure it’s repeating throughout the week, I know it will only last six episodes, and have heard everything builds to the ultimate heist. Anyone else see it?

  11. we just returned from inside man. liked it a lot but both thought it could have been a little tighter. i don’t know if chris’ plot hole is a plot hole. the idea at the end, i thought, is that owen is a hired hand: it is the diamond merchant who engineers the whole thing–presumably to get the diamonds and also expose captain von trapp. the latter goal is achieved but owen lets denzel get the glory. and the dirt doesn’t go anywhere–they’re digging owen a toilet in his little “cell” and the dirt is presumably in there.

    the real mystery to me is why they decided to use rahman’s “chhaiya chhaiya” over the opening credits (see mani ratnam’s dil se to see it visualized in its original stunning context) and why they allowed that hack panjabi mc to desecrate it over the closing credits.

  12. I liked the use of “Chhaiya Chhaiya.” I assumed it was a Bollywood song (may be wrong) but found it to be, dare I say, Brechtian in its ability to defamiliarize or alienate the audience from certain generic expectations (they came for a heist film; they received more of a sociological critique than perhaps expected). Lee is probably one of the most Brechtian filmmakers in America though I’m not sure he would agree.

  13. yes, but for those purposes any song from any unfamiliar cultural context would have done. and even if they wanted a bollywood song perhaps they could have seemed even cleverer by getting one that had some sort of a lyrical (or original film’s narrative) connection to this film. but there are few songs anywhere as potent as this one in terms of getting people revved up, and perhaps that’s all lee wanted: get your attention, get you awake.

  14. Chris, Murray and Davis are in Quick Change. Just because I have become entirely pedantic rather than having anything interesting at all to say. I haven’t left the house to go to the movies in months.

    And it’s Big Fucking Chicken, Jeff.

  15. i loved this film. i think jodie foster acts for the first time since silence of the lambs. or maybe she acts in a different way from the one she uses in silence and just about every other movie after that, which is totally refreshing. she’s been acting the panicky female for two freaking decades, and this is a super welcome change of role for her. i think she does it magisterially. i think she lights up every scene she’s in. i think that, if it’s true that she doesn’t quite work well opposite washington (jeff i believe suggests that), it’s because she outshines him. also, it’s endlessly comforting to me that in this film she doesn’t pant. hallelujah. panting females are one of my biggest cinematic pet peeves, and i must say that inside man is not innocent of the panting female sin itself. fortunately this sinfulness does not involve foster. when washington goes through the hostage rooms, the only sound you can hear is that of whimpering female voices. the little boy is as cool as a cucumber, but the women are totally and vociferously freaked out.

    i found the film rather tight, unlike, i guess, all of you? i even liked seeing washington go home to his girlfriend at the end, because the ambience and lighting are oddly 50ish, a la easy rollins, and i enjoyed the nod to washington’s previous work and other persona. plus, it locates him class-wise, which is a nice touch, and useful in explaining the bizarre outfits he dresses in. SPOILER but i agree with mike that the cameras should have been able to tell the sheep from the goats, and that that is a slightly bothersome plot hole.

    i like how lee mixes races in a completely easy and smooth way, without any preachiness whatsoever. i also like the way he comments on race: washington’s clothes and mannerisms, the sikh employee’s complaints, the rabbi, foster’s and plummer’s upper class ease.

    MORE SPOLING. unlike many of you, i think the holocaust subplot is essential. it is what brings the film to a different psychological level. as mike points out, these are all people who are not above the lure of cash. at the same time, some idealism or conscience peaks out in all the characters once plummer’s nazi past is uncovered. i especially liked the scene at the barber’s. i thought for a second that foster would not take the money. but of course she does. it is her job to deal with the rich and infamous. at the same time, though, she looks pained and uneasy. that is a cool moment.

    i am not sure i found the grainy film during the interviews stylish. isn’t this becoming a little too much done? but some shots are fantastic, like the staircase of the courthouse washington descends towards the end. the image is vertiginous and disorienting, just like the events that are unfolding in his head. and i really like the sequence near the beginning in which the police set up the barricades, the yellow tape, the sharp shooters, the lighting and every other gadget under the sun. it’s such a poignant commentary on the ridiculously exaggerated role police play in the country’s daily life. Everything is also so damn overdone. lee dwells quite a lot on the way the hostages get roughed up when they emerge from the bank. i couldn’t help thinking (with bus 174 in mind), what will happen when cops stop worrying about US civilian deaths. when the “war on terror” expands so widely that the concept of collateral damage is applied within, not only without the country.

    inside man seems to comment on the tenuous, fragile boundaries that keep us civilized and decent. SPOILERS ALL THE WAY TO THE END. the scene that depicts that massacre that never happens is far from unrealistic. it is there with a purpose. every time anything at all happens at the door, the camera makes a point of drawing attention to the jittery shooters standing just a few feet away, with a role that is truly hard to understand. so, again, i like the holocaust motif, because it acts as a counterpoint to the barrage of meaningless violence (threatened violence is violence) on the part of the police. and it is a very cool touch when it turns out that the “robbers” never even had guns.

  16. for some serendipitous reason, some comments on 25th hour ended up in one of the borat threads. i watched this again last night because i am making my class see it, and i was moved just as deeply as, if not more than, the first time i saw it. this is a movie that complicates the response so 9/11 so wonderfully, it is really something. as michael and chris point out in the borat thread, spike lee does a tremendous job of connecting racism to self-loathing — and michael unravels this quite wonderfully. racism is of course something lee is always interested in, but i really like the way it gets tied into 9/11 in this film.

    at first this looks more than anything a film about nyc, with 9/11 and the uneasy living together of different races/social groups linked simply by the fact that they all connect to nyc. but then the long ending sequence, which is monty’s father’s fantasy of escape in a racially integrated west, brings to the fore the fact that all of 25th hour can be read as a commentary on whiteness. monty’s father’s fantasy is viable only for the tall, shapely white boy played by ed norton (and his puerto rican girlfriend). a black man, a korean man, an arab, a pakistani (to name a few of the people monty’s mirror image rails against) wouldn’t have that choice. even the character played by philip seymour hoffman wouldn’t have that choice. the wound of 9/11 festers with a racism the objects of which have nowhere to go.

    and of course monty’s friend frank (barry pepper) is a hyper -energetic wall street minion who plays gleefully with other people’s fortunes — which brings to mind not only the wtc, but also enron and worldcom.

    at the same time, this is not an angry film, but rather a deeply elegiac film, filled with hurt for new york and the messy, painful lives we make for ourselves and one another.

    even as one is brought to identify with monty’s despair at going to jail for seven years, the several hundred arab men our government “disappeared” on the aftermath of 9/11 and the many, many black men who endemically populate our prisons are never far off in our minds.

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