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Ken Leung

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Turn You Inside Out.

Hearkening to the halcyon days of Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, Spike Lee’s Inside Man is a clever contraption indeed — a sleek, intelligent, well-acted NYC heist flick whose central scheme is more about subterfuge, cunning, and misdirection than technical gimmickry. (In too many films in the genre — The Score, or Ocean’s 11, for example — the robbers seem to be spending more on state-of-the-art equipment than they’d actually make in the grift.) To be sure, there are some implausibilities throughout, including pretty much all of Jodie Foster’s character and [Spoilers] the idea that Christopher Plummer would keep that Nazi paperwork lying around for sixty years, and the film’s last half-hour takes too long to put the story to bed. That being said, for the most part Inside Man is a slick caper film that offers both legitimately surprising twists and the satisfaction of seeing parts of a well-crafted scheme fall into place like tumblers in a lock. In the immortal words of Hannibal Smith, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Is that a spoiler? Well, no, not really. The movie (and the trailer) begin with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen, charismatic as ever) telling us he has conceived and executed “the perfect bank robbery.” Very soon thereafter, we watch Russell and three accomplices, dressed as painters, walk into a ritzy downtown Manhattan bank, bar the doors, and take hostage of the 20-30 unfortunate New Yorkers therein. Soon, led by detectives Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington, in top form) and Bill Mitchell (the always-excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) as well as a by-the books captain (Willem DaFoe), the NYPD surround the bank, and a protracted stand-off begins. Meanwhile, the bank’s president (Christopher Plummer) adds an X-factor to the equation by hiring a Fixer of sorts (Jodie Foster, as good as anyone could be in this goofy role) to resolve the situation to his own satisfaction. With the board thus set, the rest of the film involves the pieces moving — We watch the heist unfold over the course of a New York City day and night, punctuated by clips of Washington and Ejiofor interrogating the bank hostages after the fact.

Of course, this isn’t just a well-crafted crime film, but a Spike Lee joint, and it resonates in the details. (In its own way, I’d say this is as strong as Lee’s last movie, The 25th Hour.) As Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek notes in her positive review, “Inside Man is a movie that practices what Crash preaches.” It may be considered bizarre and even Oscar-noteworthy for people of different races and backgrounds to interact in the hermetically-sealed car-culture of Los Angeles, but New Yorkers have been colliding up against each other for some time now. And — unlike in Crash — Lee gets the feel right. (This is his thematic territory, after all.) Particularly noteworthy in this regard are the scenes involving a Sikh bank teller (Waris Ahluwalia) whom the robbers send out with their demands. On sight of turban, the cops immediately treat him like a terrorist bomber, and Ahluwalia manages to sound both terrified and fed up at the same time with the post-9/11 indignity of it all. True, some of the plot mechanics in Inside Man could be considered contrived, but, Jodie Foster’s corporate ninja notwithstanding, at least here the people seem real. (2nd Crash link via Listen Missy.)

Two for III.

In today’s movie bin, the full trailer for Brett Ratner’s X3: The Last Stand shows up online. Hmm, I’m still not feeling it. To quote an AICN talkbacker, “Too much wire fu makes Homer go something something“…although I did kinda dig the scene with Juggernaut chasing Kitty Pryde. (Insert your own I’m the Juggernaut, b***ch joke if you’d like.) Also out today is the new Japanese M:I:III trailer, now with considerably less Philip Seymour Hoffman.

2005 in Film.

Happy New Year’s Eve to everyone..I’m celebrating in San Diego with old college friends and likely won’t update again until 2006. So, without further ado, here’s the 2005 movie round-up. Overall, it’s been a pretty solid year for cinema, and this is the first year in the past five where the #1 movie wasn’t immediately obvious to me. But, still, choices had to be made, and so…

Top 20 Films of 2005

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004]

[Note: The #1 movie of 2005 changed in early 2006: See the Best of 2006 list for the update…]

1. Syriana: I know Stephen Gaghan’s grim meditation on the global reach and ruthlessness of the Oil Trade rubbed some people the wrong way, but I found it a gripping piece of 21st century muckraking, in the venerable tradition of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. True, Christopher Plummer was a mite too sinister, but otherwise Syriana offered some of the most intriguing character arcs of the year, from morose CIA Field Agent George Clooney’s ambivalent awakening to corporate lawyer Jeffrey Wright’s courtship with compromise. In a year of well-made political films, among them Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich, Lord of War, and The Constant Gardener, Syriana was the pick of the litter.

2. Layer Cake: If X3 turns into the fiasco the fanboy nation is expecting with Brett Ratner at the helm, this expertly-crafted crime noir by Matthew Vaughn will cut that much deeper. Layer Cake not only outdid Guy Ritchie’s brit-gangster oeuvre in wit and elegance and offered great supporting turns by Michael Gambon, Kenneth Cranham, and Colm Meaney, it proved that Daniel Craig had the requisite charisma for Bond and then some (and that Sienna Miller is no slouch in the charisma department either.)

3. Ballets Russes: Penguins and comedians, to the wings — The lively survivors of the Ballets Russes are now on center stage. Like the best in dance itself, this captivating, transporting documentary was at once of the moment and timeless.

4. Good Night, and Good Luck: Conversely, anchored by David Strathairn’s wry channeling of Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney’s second film (and second appearance on the 2005 list) couldn’t have been more timely. A historical film that in other hands might have come off as dry, preachy edutainment, Good Night, and Good Luck instead seemed as fresh and relevant as the evening news…well, that is, if the news still functioned properly.

5. Batman Begins: The Dark Knight has returned. Yes, the samurai-filled first act ran a bit long and the third-act train derailing needed more oomph. Still, WB and DC’s reboot of the latter’s second biggest franchise was the Caped Crusader movie we’ve all been waiting for. With help from an A-list supporting cast and a Gotham City thankfully devoid of Schumacherian statuary, Chris Nolan and Christian Bale brought both Batman and Bruce Wayne to life as never before, and a Killing Joke-ish Batman 2 is now on the top of my want-to-see list.

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: As I said in my original review, I initally thought Cuaron’s Azkhaban couldn’t be topped. But give Mike Newell credit: Harry’s foray into Voldemortish gloom and teenage angst was easily the most compelling Potter film so far. Extra points to Gryffindor for Brendan Gleeson’s more-than-slightly-bent Mad-Eye Moody, and to Slytherin for Ralph Fiennes’ serpentine cameo as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

7. King Kong: I had this film as high as #2 for awhile, and there are visual marvels therein that no other movie this year came close to offering, most notably Kong loose in Depression-Era New York City. But, there’s no way around it — even given all the B-movie thrills and great-ape-empathizing that PJ offers in the last 120 minutes, the first hour is close to terrible, which has to knock the gorilla down a few notches.

8. Capote: When it comes to amorality for artistry’s sake, Jack Black’s Carl Denham ain’t got nothing on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote. I think it’d be awhile before I want to watch this movie again, but, still, it was a dark, memorable trip into bleeding Kansas and the writerly id.

9. Sin City: One of the most faithful comic-to-film adaptations on celluloid also made for one of the more engaging and visually arresting cinematic trips this year. I don’t know if the look and feel of Sin City can sustain a bona fide franchise, but this first outing was a surprisingly worthwhile film experience (with particular kudos for Mickey Rourke’s Marv.)

10. Munich: I wrote about this one at length very recently, so I’ll defer to the original review.

11. Brokeback Mountain: A beautifully shot and beautifully told love story, although admittedly Ang Lee’s staid Brokeback at times feels like transparent Oscar bait.

12. Lord of War: Anchored by Nicholas Cage’s wry voiceover, Andrew Niccol’s sardonic expose of the arms trade was the funniest of this year’s global message films (That is, if you like ’em served up cold.)

13. The Squid and the Whale: Speaking of which, The Squid and the Whale made ugly, embittered divorce about as funny as ever it’s likely to get, thanks to Jeff Daniels’ turn as the pretentious, haunted Bernard Berkman.

14. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: Thank the Force for small kindnesses: George Lucas put the Star Wars universe to bed with far and away his best outing of the prequels. The film flirts dangerously with the Dark Side, particularly in the “let’s take a meeting” second act, but for the most part Sith felt — finally — like a return to that galaxy long ago and far, far away.

15. A History of Violence: I think David Cronenberg’s most recent take on vigilantism and misplaced identity was slightly overrated by most critics — When you get down to it, the film was pretty straightforward in its doling out of violent fates to those who most deserved them. Still, solid performances and Cronenberg’s mordant humor still made for a far-better-than-average night at the movies.

16. Walk the Line: Despite the great performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line ultimately seemed too much of a by-the-numbers biopic to do the Man in Black full credit. But, definitely worth seeing.

17. In Good Company (2004): Paul Weitz’s sweet folktale of synergy, downsizing, and corporate obsolescence was too charitable and good-natured to think ill of any of its characters, and I usually prefer more mordant fare. Nevertheless, the intelligently-written IGC turned out to be a quality piece of breezy pop filmmaking.

18. The Constant Gardener: Another very good film that I still thought was slightly overrated by the critics, Fernando Meirelles’ sophomore outing skillfully masked its somewhat iffy script with lush cinematography and choice Soderberghian editing.

19. Primer (2004): A completely inscrutable sci-fi tone poem on the perils of time travel. Kevin and I saw it twice and still have very little clue as to what’s going most of the time — but I (we?) mean that in the best way possible.

20. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronic-what? Andrew Adamson’s retelling of C.S. Lewis’s most popular tome lagged in places, and the two older kids were outfitted with unwieldy character arcs that often stopped the film dead, but it still felt surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Narnia, Christianized lion and all.

Most Disappointing: The Fantastic Four, which I finally saw on the plane yesterday — One of Marvel’s A-List properties is given the straight-to-video treatment. From the Mr. Fantastic bathroom humor to the complete evisceration of Dr. Doom, this movie turned out just as uninspired and embarrassing as the trailers suggested. Runner-Up: The Brothers Grimm. Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited return wasn’t exactly a return-to-form. But, hey, at least he got a movie made, and Tideland is just around the corner.

Most Variable: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: I still haven’t figured out how I feel about this one. I liked it quite a bit upon first viewing, but it didn’t hold up at all the second time around. Still, the casting feels right, and I’d be up for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, provided they turn up the Ford-and-Zaphod shenanigans and turn down the forced Arthur-and-Trillian romance.

Worth a Rental: Constantine, Aliens of the Deep, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island, March of the Penguins, The Aristocrats,Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Jarhead, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, The Ice Harvest, War of the Worlds

Ho-Hum: Inside Deep Throat, The Jacket, Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Ring 2, Kingdom of Heaven, Unleashed, Mr. & Mrs. Smith,
Aeon Flux

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Eric Bana, Munich; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; David Straitharn, Good Night, and Good Luck
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line; Naomi Watts, King Kong
Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale; George Clooney, Syriana; Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bello, A History of Violence; Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia

Unseen: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bee Season, Broken Flowers, Cache, Casanova, Cinderella Man, Crash, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Grizzly Man, Gunner Palace, Head On, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Match Point, The New World, Nine Lives, Pride and Prejudice, Serenity (although I watched all of Firefly last week), Shopgirl, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wedding Crashers

2006: Frankly, the line-up doesn’t look too exciting at the moment. Nevertheless, 2006 will bring A Scanner Darkly, Casino Royale, The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Inside Man, Marie Antoinette, M:I III, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Snakes on a Plane (!!), Southland Tales, Superman Returns, Tristam Shandy, V for Vendetta, and X3.

Itchy Feet and Fading Smiles.

In the midst of my pre-transit-strike christmas shopping downtown, I took an evening breather at the Angelika to watch The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s withering confessional film based on the divorce of his semi-famous parents (writer Jonathan Baumbach and film critic Georgia Brown) in Park Slope, circa 1986. The movie is mostly episodic vignettes in the life of a broken family and at times suggests a more misanthropic Me, You, and Everyone We Know. But it also feels scarily authentic and is probably one of the most convincing — and wryly funny — depictions of divorce I’ve ever seen on film, with particular kudos going to Jeff Daniels as the sad sack father in this outfit.

The story centers on 16-year-old Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg of Rodger Dodger, playing Baumbach’s alter ego) and his younger brother Frank (Owen Kline), as they try to navigate the fallout from their writer parents’ collapsed marriage. (The title of the film refers to a display of an underwater death struggle at the American Museum of National History, which is referenced several times as an apt metaphor for the younger Berkmans’ plight.) Walt sides with his father Bernard (Daniels), a washed-up author-turned-college-professor, while Frank enlists under the standard of his up-and-coming writer mother Joan (Laura Linney), who has a profoundly irritating habit of calling her children “Pickle” and “Chicken.” As the parents war over the details of their absurdly complicated joint custody agreement, both Walt and Frank begin to display increasingly bizarre behavior, with Walt pilfering Pink Floyd’s eminently recognizable “Hey You” as his own composition for the school talent show and Frank taking on the habits of the “philistines” his pretentious father so loathes, namely drinking, masturbating in public, and idolizing his goofy semi-pro tennis coach (Billy Baldwin, playing it broad).

With all due respect to the rest of the cast, most of the funniest (and most cringeworthy) scenes in the film are a result of Jeff Daniels’ terrific performance as paterfamilias-in-exile Bernard Berkman, one that should be on the warning label for anyone thinking of a career in academia. At once bombastic and deflated, Bernard is a terrible snob — he refers to Franz Kafka as “one of my predecessors” and can’t stop tossing off pithy and damning critiques of his son’s high school reading list (A Tale of Two Cities is “Minor Dickens,” for example.) At the same time, the wolves are at the door: Daniels’ eyes — hidden in the depths of his scruffy academic beard — have a furtive and hunted look, as if at any moment his wounded ego will cough up its last and he’ll collapse into a paroxysm of fatal self-loathing. Bernard basically deserves almost every indignity that’s heaped upon him here (with the possible exception of his wife’s serial infidelity, which, the movie suggests, may have originally turned him into this stunted, paralyzed pretender), but Daniels’ haunted resignation makes both the laughter and the pain stick.

The Devil Inside.

Seen tonight at a second viewing of Kong: the new trailer for Spike Lee’s Inside Man, a heist flick with Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Willem DeFoe, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Great cast, great director…yeah, I’ll see it.

The Real McCoy? / Snikt.

From Beauty and the Beast to a Beast of a different color, USA Today posts some stills from X3, including one of Kelsey Grammer in costume. I for one never imagined Beast as an irate leprechaun. Update: The brand-new teaser for Ratner’s X3: The Last Stand (Yep, that appears to be the title) is now online. Keep an eye out for Juggernaut and Callisto (also both in the official photo gallery), Dark Phoenix hangin’ with Magneto’s crew (the Brotherhood), and what looks to be a fastball special.

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