Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Not a moment too soon

Here's a good article on whether or not it's too soon for movies about 9/11. The conclusion: no. I agree. On some level I do understand the gut reaction against films like "United 93" or "World Trade Center" - after all, there's something obscene about the concept of exploiting tragedy for commercial gain, and it goes without saying that no major studio is going to release a film without thought of profit. Call me naive, though, but it seems highly unlikely that profit is the main motive driving these projects. I'm guessing it's a mix of motives, some nobler than others - the best being a genuine desire to honor those who died and the courage of those who tried to save others, the least worthy being the ambition to create an "important" movie that will be recognized as such. Goldstein's point is that historical events like 9/11 almost need to become the stuff of movies and other art while they're still relatively fresh - or else they risk being lost or obscured in our collective cultural memory.

And he's right. But I think the discomfort with having Hollywood take on 9/11 also goes back to a residual, knee-jerk assumption that movies - especially anything resembling a "disaster" movie, as opposed to a war movie or a Holocaust movie - are entertainment rather than art, whatever the fine line is between the two. And it feels wrong to be entertained by something that we know caused so much tragedy so recently. Is it any different, though from creating or contemplating "art" that aestheticizes pain, grief, and horror? The difference may be one of degree rather than anything else.

Let's be thankful, at least, that the green-lighting powers had enough sense not to turn these movies over to Michael Bay and/or Jerry Bruckheimer.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The "Inside Man" of New York: Spike Lee plays it cool


directed by Spike Lee
starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Love him or hate him, Spike Lee demands our full attention, and usually gets it. He’s one of the few high-profile American directors today who can truly be described as incendiary—which is why it’s so intriguing to watch him play it cool in the heist movie of the moment, “Inside Man.” The flame is still there, but it’s on low, and the film feels unusually relaxed for a Spike Lee joint.

As such, “Inside Man” is a refreshing change of pace, even for those of us who like angry Spike, and he’s being suitably rewarded for turning down the heat. The movie’s on track to becoming his most commercially successful so far and by far, and the critics have been largely kind, though not too kind to suggest that Lee is slumming for the sake of the almighty dollar. Such insinuations strike me as pointless: a good genre movie is still a good movie, and one with a director’s distinctive stamp is even better. “Inside Man” delivers on both counts.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you know everything you need to know. In a New York minute, a small group of masked men (and one woman) hold up a bank in Manhattan, seal the doors, and take everyone in it hostage. The ringleader, who calls himself Dalton Russell (Clive Owen, struggling slightly with an American accent), communicates demands to the police that sound like the typical demands in a high-stakes hostage situation. Too typical, in fact, for NYPD detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), who’s called in to negotiate the situation, and who quickly senses a deeper game. He doesn’t know, however, what Russell is really after, and neither do we, at least initially. Only one person seems to know, and that is the president of the bank himself, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer). Realizing that his darkest secret is in jeopardy of being pried from its vault, Case brings in the highest-of-the-high-level damage control. Enter Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a behind-the-scenes power broker with mysterious lines of influence that include having the mayor of New York, among other people, permanently in her back pocket.

I’ll spare any further plot details: like most heist films, this one undoubtedly has as many holes as a slice of Swiss cheese—yet like said cheese, it holds together well enough. As far as pure ingenuity and pacing are concerned, “Inside Man” is fair to middling. It begins with snap and builds the tension nicely, but begins to lose momentum at about the two-thirds mark. What keeps you watching is not so much the MacGuffin—the “why” behind the crime—or even the “how” that’s explicitly stressed by Russell in his opening monologue, but rather how the characters behave and interact with one another in response.

A lot of that is owing to the actors, of course. This is a cast to die for, though for the most part it’s somewhat underutilized. I’m disappointed to report that Jodie Foster’s character is essentially superfluous. Still, it’s fun to watch her exude that trademark Jodie Foster steeliness, this time lacquered with an extra layer of frost, as she strides purposefully up and down the corridors of power on killer heels. We’re tipped off to her iciness from the moment we see the exaggeratedly sleek modernist lines of office and her exquisitely tailored power suits, all in varying shades of white or ivory that set off her pale fine-boned features: “white” by art as well as name. Yet it’s a credit to the actress, not her wardrobe assistant, that we feel a genuine chill when she warns Frazier that her bite is much worse than her bark.

Meanwhile, the talented and magnetic Chiwetel Ejiofor (doing better with the accent than Clive Owen) as Frazier’s second and Willem Dafoe as the captain on security detail are around just enough to register their presences, but not much beyond that. This is basically a two-man show, and luckily for the movie the two men are well matched: Denzel has the weight, Clive has the muscle. There’s always been an undercurrent of brutality to the latter that rarely works its way to the surface; it’s what made his performance so devastating in “Closer,” and part of the fun of “Inside Man” is trying to figure out whether it will do so here—that is, whether his bite is worse than his bark. Denzel, for his part, does what he does best: play a smart, square guy who turns out to be smarter and less square than he seems at first.

Apart from the acting, what makes “Inside Man” stand out from the pack is its setting in present-day New Yawk, in all its dirty, sulky, shuffling, head-spinningly multicultural glory. Though carefully packaged as a heist/hostage flick, with a few rather campy nods to film noir, it has a tang that only Spike Lee could have provided. Lee has an acute eye for the diversity that’s a living day-to-day reality, rather than a meaningless p.c. buzzword, in this town and the decidedly un-p.c. responses that are its byproducts. Some of the film’s funniest and most improbable moments are also its most sharply observant: Frazier playing a recording for the crowd and asking if anyone can identify the language (sure enough, someone comes forward); a hot-to-trot Albanian immigrant attempting to negotiate her own side deal with the police; and Frazier’s deadpan retort (possibly the best line in the movie) to the complaints of an angry Sikh that he’s always being pulled aside for “random” post-9/11 searches. In his depiction of New York, Lee has no problems being an equal opportunity offender: casual racism and sexism are amply on display here, presented with bite but less than his usual ire. Again, he’s keeping it cool: not condoning it, just noting its existence as an almost incidental observation.

Every now and again, though, hints of the Spike Lee we love—or love to hate—pop up, as when Russell finds a black kid playing a handheld video game that looks like a version of “Grand Theft Auto” targeted at gangsta-rap fans. The game could be something straight out of the brilliant (and severely underrated) “Bamboozled.” Russell’s response, however, could not. In no other Spike Lee movie would a white man get away with offering a moral comment in this context. But in this movie, it’s a hint. Lee is keeping the lid on, and Dalton Russell is the man who gets away with everything. That’s what makes him, and the movie, so ineffably and attractively cool. The cool may be a fleeting episode in Spike Lee’s career (I rather hope so), but there's no denying it’s enjoyable while it lasts.


The "Man" she's not, but we love Amanda Bynes anyway


directed by Andy Fickman
starring Amanda Bynes, a bunch of other Gen Y actors, and David Cross

It takes a certain amount of ingenuity to translate Shakespearean comedy into a modern teen movie, and the silly but enjoyable "She's the Man" shows just enough to get by. That the comedy in question is Twelfth Night both helps and hurts. As I was recently discussing with a friend, Twelfth Night is a sheer delight, but at bottom it’s a goofy play with a frankly unbelievable (and biologically inaccurate) premise: It assumes a twin sister and brother can look so alike that all it takes for the sister to be mistaken for the brother is to dress like him. (Actually, that’s not completely impossible: I know someone whose sister looks more like him than his own identical twin does.) Complications ensue when the twin sister, Viola, falls in love with a Duke who thinks she’s a boy, while the woman he’s in love with (or thinks he’s in love with) falls for the hapless Viola.

Translated into contemporary terms, and I quote directly from the movie’s poster, “Duke wants Olivia who likes Sebastian who is really Viola whose brother is dating Monique so she hates Olivia who's with Duke to make Sebastian jealous who is really Viola who's crushing on Duke who thinks she's a guy...”

Close enough, except who’s Monique? Who cares? In this version, Viola (Amanda Bynes) is a gifted soccer player who resorts to desperate measures when her high school cuts the girls’ soccer team out of its budget. Shortly after getting the bad news, she discovers that her twin brother Sebastian (James Kirk) is secretly shipping off to England to play a gig with his band, even though he’s supposed to start prep school in a few days. Since it so happens that this Illyria Prep (get it?) is the arch-soccer rival of Viola’s own Cornwall High, Viola decides to try to pass herself off as Sebastian while he’s playing hooky, make the Illyria guys' soccer team, help defeat Cornwall, and thereby show that girls can play soccer as well as boys. All of that happens in due course, though not without the requisite series of comic and romantic entanglements along the way. Viola/Sebastian’s roommate at Illyria, Duke (Channing Tatum), turns out to be that eternal female fantasy, the sensitive hot guy, while Viola herself, despite acting like a complete goober as a boy, attracts the interest of Olivia, the object of Duke’s affections. The improbability of this setup reaches a fever pitch of absurdity when the real Sebastian returns and no one seems to notice the difference between him and Viola. Still, by then you’ve either suspended your disbelief or you haven’t, and the payoff is a perfectly madcap “big game” that will have you in stitches either way.

In any case, realism is hardly a priority in the weirdly timeless world of Illyria and Cornwall, where debutante balls and kissing booths are apparently quite normal, and where everyone has cell phones but no one seems to use the Internet. “She’s the Man” got a rewrite from Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, the screenwriters behind “Legally Blonde” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” and bears their imprint in every line and beat of the movie. Subtle it’s not—in fact the comedy is so broad it may make you wince, especially the scenes involving Viola’s lunatic, decorum-obsessed mother—but it has a bright, bubble-gum, you-go-girl spirit and tongue-in-cheek perkiness that keep things rolling merrily along. It’s not quite enough, however, to overcome the disturbing sense that this is yet another synthetic teen product with interchangeable parts for actors: Tatum looks like Josh Hartnett; the guy playing Justin, Viola’s caddish ex, looks like a blond Chris Klein; the girl playing Monique, the nightmare girlfriend, looks like a bitchier Winona Ryder; the guy playing Paul, Viola’s best gay pal, looks like Jude Law; and the girl playing Olivia looks like every third blonde in Hollywood.

Everyone, in short, looks vaguely like someone else—everyone, that is, except for Amanda Bynes, bless her chipmunk cheeks and enormous sea-green eyes. (Oh, and comedian David Cross, who randomly turns up here as the eccentric, slightly creepy principal of Illyria.) “She’s the Man” was made specifically for Bynes (trust me, I know), so it should hardly come as a surprise that the movie rises and falls by her performance. There’s no question Bynes makes a very unconvincing and strange-looking boy, and her attempts at guyspeak are ludicrous. Yet there’s something so endearing and winsome about her, even at her hammiest moments, that it’s easy to understand why a studio would bank a project of such uncertain marketability on her appeal. In one particularly cute scene, Viola/Sebastian is pretending to bench-press but is really watching Duke. She tries to do it inconspicuously at first, then abandons pretense and just ogles him with adorable googly eyes. That moment pretty much sums up the movie: ostensibly, it’s about Amanda Bynes going stealth as a guy, but in the end, it’s really just about Amanda Bynes, in all her irrepressible, irresistible girlishness. If you can accept that, you’ll have a good time with “She’s the Man”; if you can’t, you’re better off avoiding it.


Also saw:


directed by Michel Gondry
written by and starring Dave Chappelle (duh)
featuring Kanye West, Mos Def, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, the Fugees (reunited!), others I probably shouldn't be omitting

One day in 2004, before his abrupt retreat from the public eye, Dave Chappelle came up with the great idea of sponsoring a free concert, featuring his favorite hip-hop artists, in the heart of Brooklyn, NY. He then came up with the even better idea of inviting people from his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, to attend at his expense, and filming the whole saga. The result is "Dave Chappelle's Block Party," a warm, easygoing, surprisingly low-key tribute to music as the universal unifier. Not that Chappelle, being Chappelle, doesn't throw in some acidically funny observations on race, ethnicity and urban culture. But ultimately he's a uniter, not a divider, and lets the musicians speak (and sing, and rap) for themselves. It's a dream of a lineup, though some of the performances are oddly edited - why, for instance, tantalize us with the prospect of a reunited Fugees and then cut off their set midway through their signature song? Still, we're compensated by some lovely offstage bits that involve Chappelle jamming with the musicians and doing comic riffs in between, and an Ohio university marching band that he invites to participate in the concert. The mere sight of the students' faces, bright with excitement at the prospect of the party of their lives, is enough to make you believe that sometimes, with the right music and the right mood, we all really can just get along.