Inside Man’s Not So Lousy; Plus: Spike and Me on TV

Spike Lee’s Inside Man, from a screenplay by Russell Gewirtz, has been so exhaustively excoriated by my esteemed colleague, Rex Reed, in this paper two weeks ago that I hesitated at first to bring up the subject at all at this late date. For one thing, Mr. Reed gave away every last plot twist in the movie with a tone of dismissal, and this has always been regarded as a no-no in the reviewer’s professional code of ethics. Truth be told, I have been a frequent offender myself in this practice, though I usually warn my readers in advance that for the purposes of analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the narrative, I am going to have to spoil the “fun” of their being surprised by an unanticipated plot reversal.

I don’t entirely disagree with Mr. Reed’s suggestion that the plot of Inside Man is little short of preposterous as it plays out, though I didn’t find the enterprise as a whole as painfully unbearable as he did. This would not be enough to make me re-review the movie, as it were, for The Observer’s readers, if it were not for some additional elements in the viewing equation dictating my response.

For one thing, Inside Man is to my knowledge the first Spike Lee–directed feature to be No. 1 at the box office in the first week of its release. With Mr. Lee nearing 50, he has been banging at the door for close to 20 years, with 15 or so shoestring or close-to-shoestring productions garnering more personal publicity than commensurate critical or popular applause. One could conclude that he has made a second career of shooting off his mouth, and as one of the victims of a Spike tongue-lashing, I speak from bitter (though not entirely undeserved) experience. After all, I started all the negativity by declaring that he was a better actor than a director, and that his “artistic” flourishes were generally pretentious and extraneous to his narratives.

As it happens, I associate him with one of the most miserable media experiences in my life, though I don’t blame Mr. Lee nearly as much as I do the celebrated “social conscience” of Ted Koppel on one of his old Nightline programs. I had been invited to appear with Mr. Lee and fellow black civil-rights activist and filmmaker Ossie Davis (1917-2005) at about the time in the late 80’s or early 90’s when Norman Jewison had been scheduled to direct Malcolm X and Mr. Lee had loudly and publicly protested that no white director was “qualified” to bring the story of Malcolm X to the screen. It soon became evident that I was on the program to support Mr. Koppel’s contention that Mr. Lee’s expressed attitude was an example of “reverse racism,” but I was having none of it in view of the shameful racial bigotries that have marked so much of American film history. I said so despite the negativity flowing between me and Mr. Lee—indeed, Mr. Koppel was visibly agitated when I noted at the outset that I seemed to be the “token white” on the program. Nor was he conspicuously enchanted when I suggested that blacks were entitled to employ almost any tactic they saw fit to get into a game from which they had been so long excluded.

Nonetheless, throughout the program I was dumbfounded by Mr. Koppel’s singularly totalitarian technical M.O., which served to keep me from making any actual direct eye contact with Mr. Koppel, Mr. Lee or Davis. Before the show, Mr. Lee and Davis sat with me in the studio. Once the show was to begin, we were each escorted into separate booths, each with a monitor and a man operating a camera. When Mr. Koppel wanted to put any of us on the screen, he pressed a button, and he pressed another when he wanted to take any of us off. I had never been on a show like this before, and I have never been on one since. I began to understand what the Stockholm Syndrome was all about once I realized that Mr. Koppel had life-and-death power over the duration of my television exposure. I so yearned to say anything that would keep him happy with me on the screen that I tried to be clever but modest, compliant but original, cheerful but serious. Of course, I failed dismally. Zap went Mr. Koppel’s finger on the out button, and zap went the strings of my heart.

Anyway, Inside Man starts encouragingly enough with a seemingly well-organized bank robbery, full of technological expertise and flavorsome urban angst. Clive Owen’s Dalton Russell seems to have matters well in hand as the evil-genius narrator. The special effects look expensive and are executed with an efficiency that suggests that producer Brian Grazer has given Mr. Lee enough money to be slick in the old, despised Hollywood manner. I was glad to see Christopher Plummer as Arthur Case, the bank president bearing the guilt of something evil hidden in a safe-deposit box.

I gloried in the sheer spectacle of Jodie Foster as Madeline White, an exquisitely groomed, fearlessly feline fixer striding on her high heels and her high horse into one supposedly perilous situation after another. Pure fantasy—but why not if the budget can afford it? Some snappy dialogue even reconciled me to the idea of Denzel Washington as Detective Keith Frazier, a hostage negotiator still learning the ropes, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Detective Bill Mitchell, his equally sassy sidekick—two elegantly named dudes with quick comebacks for every crooked municipal situation and crucial inner-city balcony audience.

The problem begins when we start to suspect that, despite all the petty humiliations inflicted on the hostages, nothing really nasty is afoot. The pretended malignancy is without fangs or even teeth: Mr. Owen’s ringleader, like Mr. Washington’s cop, are both on the side of the angels in redressing an ancient grievance connected with the Holocaust. Nothing is stolen from the bank except a jewel misappropriated long ago. No one is killed or even hurt, despite all the noise and hoopla. The guns are all fake, as is the apparent killing of a hostage supposedly recorded by a police camera.

The trouble is that the audience has been led down a garden path for much of the running time by a profusion of tough talk and menacing gestures. When the hostages are told to strip down to their underwear so they can don masks and painters coats that make them indistinguishable from the already unrecognizable bank robbers, the resultantly titillating striptease is immediately de-eroticized by the ridiculous refusal of a woman of a certain age even to partially undress.

The prevalence of larcenous subjects in movies these days doesn’t disturb me in this real-life Gilded Age of rampant acquisitiveness, luxurious display and all-time levels of income inequality. What surprises me is that the increasingly squeezed middle class hasn’t taken to the streets as the economically threatened students in Paris have. The next best thing is fantasizing about redistributing the wealth by watching photogenic felons in movies and on television trying to reorder the pecking order in our capitalist society without violating the taboo against collective effort. Long live American individualism and exceptionalism!

Hopeless

Svetozar Ristovski’s Mirage, from a screenplay by Grace Lea Troje and Mr. Ristovski (in Macedonian/Albanian, with English subtitles) fully lives up to its opening quote from Nietzsche: “Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torments of man.” The film’s protagonist, 12-year-old Marko (Mustafa Kovacevic), is a seemingly indestructible witness to and victim of the chaos and corruption in the new state of Macedonia. His father is an irresponsible drunk and gambler; his mother is a screeching shrew. Marko is bullied by a group of fellow students with familial ties to the corrupt police. His teacher (Marko Nadarevic) is an ineffectual pedagogue who cannot keep order in his own classroom, but he promises Marko that if the boy enters his poetry in an international contest and wins, he’ll be given an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris.

Marko is frequently beaten by the bullies who equate his comparative bookishness with effeminacy, but this avenue is never explored. Instead, Marko is gradually disillusioned to the point that he borrows his father’s revolver to mete out retribution to those who have abused and deceived him. (The director himself has abandoned Macedonia to live in Canada.) In the film, Marko never goes to Paris; instead, he is left at the end after having pulled the trigger of a gun with which he has achieved some revenge for his lost hopes. It is not often that one is confronted with a cinematic social statement so nihilistic and so devoid of hope—not merely for an individual, but for the whole world around him. The character of Marko himself is far from crushed in the process, but is instead somewhat liberated by taking matters into his own hands.

Strangers Off a Train

Sarah Watt’s Look Both Ways is derived from her own screenplay, with animated sequences on which she collaborated with Emma Kelly and Claire Callinan. The combined effect of the live-action and animated cinematography is one of piquant paranoia, hysterical hypochondria and merrily mordant melancholy. In Ms. Watt’s world in a ramshackle community somewhere in southern Australia, we are all by extension accident-prone—or think we are or at least hallucinate we are—and when we are done with our visions of disaster, the omnipresent media pick up where we left off. If you don’t enjoy being reminded that we are all going to die some time or other, some of us more outlandishly, more outrageously and more ridiculously than others, you might want to pass on Look Both Ways. (I am reminded that American visitors to London were once given two life-saving words as a pedestrian’s mantra: “Look right!”)

As it happens, I was amused by the bubbly fun that Ms. Watt generated with her hybrid form of storytelling. Her director’s statement is certainly forthright enough: “I remember sitting on a train, thinking about what my fellow travelers weren’t revealing to me. Were they on the brink of something wonderful or something terrible? Could one person’s knowledge help another?

“I also imagined our train hurtling over the railing and into the chemical storage facility—killing us all in a poisonous inferno. Was anyone else feeling the same way? I set out to make a romantic comedy, but the stuff of most people’s lives includes what we think of as tragedy, so Look Both Ways ended up a bit of both, I guess. I like searching for the universal aspects of people’s experiences, in both the big and the little things. I tried to keep everything as real as I could to allow people to receive the film as part of their own experience, and to bring their own lives to it.”

In this last-named objective, I think Ms. Watt has succeeded, at least as far as this reviewer is concerned. Perhaps he happens to be of an age to heed Yogi Berra’s sage advice to attend other people’s memorial services because otherwise they won’t attend your own. More likely, Ms. Watt succeeds because she seems to have poured so much of herself and her profession into her lead character, Meryl (Justine Clarke). Meryl is a carelessly dressed painter, who, after fantasizing in playful cartoon-speak about any number of violent occurrences, happens to witness a freakish real-life accident: A slow-moving freight train crashes into a man on the tracks who has tripped and fallen while trying to rescue an imperiled dog.

The reverberations of this accident extend far beyond Meryl when a journalist named Nick (William McInnes, Ms. Watt’s real-life husband) writes up the accident for the local newspaper as a front-page think piece on the vagaries of existence. Nick first encounters Meryl on the site of the accident and eventually tries to date her. In the meantime, he is diagnosed with a pernicious form of cancer and a discouraging prognosis for his own survival. The painterly side of Ms. Watt is shown in an exploration of the malignant inroads of the rampaging cancer cells inside Nick’s body. We have become acclimated to this invasive form of animation in medical dramas like House and Grey’s Anatomy, and medical crime shows like CSI and Bones.

The other strands of the narrative in Look Both Ways are picked up by the accident victim’s widow, the guilt-ridden engineer who drove the train into the victim, a pregnant ex-mistress of one of Nick’s journalistic colleagues contemplating an abortion, and various sets of parents coping with the demands of their children. The often-intersecting characters are rendered in virtually perpetual motion as they seek to pull together the connections that seem permanently unraveled. Look Both Ways isn’t a great film; it’s a bit too tentatively exploratory for that. But it is a marvelously promising first film, and Australia continues to amaze us with its steady procession of deliciously appealing young actresses. What is going on in that outback anyhow?