INSIDE MAN (2006, Spike Lee, seen in theatre)- this heist movie finds Spike at his most playful in years, clearly enjoying manipulating the genre mechanism for his own enjoyment, and it's infectious. Despite the fact that it's about a bank robbery-turned-hostage situation, the film makes no bones about the fact that there's something else afoot- flash-forward scenes of NYPD detectives/verbal sparring partners Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) interrogating suspects and former hostages are interwoven throughout, dispelling any suspense as to their fates- but somehow the gambit works, mostly because it clues us in to the idea that we're supposed to be concerned more with the underlying reasons behind the robbery rather than the outcome. Also, rare for a film of this sort, the cops are more engaging than the crooks- Clive Owen's thief spends most of the film with a mask over his face, and generally plays his usual cool customer, while Washington, Ejiofor and company get to engage in fun, loose banter while sifting through the clues and sorting out the problems. Questions abound in retrospect- the age of the Christopher Plummer character seems something of a stretch, and there's the matter of some documents which for some reason weren't disposed of years ago- but in the moment it's a good time. Also, Bollywood music rules, especially when you don't expect to hear it. Rating: **1/2.
PARADISE NOW (2005, Hany Abu-Assad, seen on DVD)- pretty much the most middle-of-the-road movie one could expect about suicide bombers, and that's the problem- an issue this heated shouldn't go down as easily as it does here. For one thing, it's extremely polished filmmaking, with handsome widescreen photography and smooth camerawork that's often all too noticeable (particularly the PT Anderson-style gliding dolly shots)- I'm not asking for scruffy, grim'n'gritty handheld all the time, but a less conventional style might have made the film more impactful. Limiting the time frame to the final days before the central friends/bombers were set to strike was a nice touch, although surprisingly little comes from this- like a more expository ELEPHANT, PARADISE NOW doesn't really explore its characters in depth, aside from relating a formative incident in the family life of Said that led to his militance. There are a few good moments in the film, mostly involving the temporary disappearance of Said during an aborted mission, but surprisingly little insight into the situation. In the end, not so much a botch as a missed opportunity to really say something about an important contemporary issue. Rating: *1/2.
WOLF CREEK (2004, Greg McLean, seen on DVD) [SPOILERS!!!!]- one of the best horror films of recent years, largely because it drops nearly all the bullshit trappings of the genre in favor of more primal scares. As in the original TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, the protagonists of WOLF CREEK find themselves in the middle of nowhere, although unlike that film they do encounter someone who seems friendly and helpful. They more or less make smart decisions throughout- sticking together when they're lost, making conversation with and volunteering to pay the genial guy who inspects their broken-down car- but unlike most horror films, which punish the characters for being stupid, boorish, mean, or promiscuous, the evil here is inescapable. Mick is a truly nasty piece of work, and his cruelty is all the more frightening for coming seemingly out of nowhere- one minute he's shooting the bull with you by the campfire, the next you awaken in a garage, bound and gagged. It's this bleak worldview that really distinguishes the film from others of its ilk. Charges of misogyny are probably warranted- the film lingers much more on the fates of the girls than it does on the lone guy, for one thing- but the impact of the film is undeniable. This is hardly your garden-variety splatter-film escapism, and I'm guessing that the nihilism had as much to do with, say, Ebert's zero-star review of the film as anything else. To which I say, yeah, it's bleak and unpleasant, but what did you expect? That's what it was going for, and it did its job. Whether that's a worthy goal is up to you, I suppose. Rating: ***.
- Happy Birthday Elton John. I don't usually cover celeb birthdays, but since I've been listening to his stuff a lot lately I felt compelled to chime in next time. Before his Disney/Broadway/"Candle in the Wind '97" phase, he was a damn fine performer, with half a dozen great albums under his belt. My favorite? Hard to say, although I've probably listened to CAPTAIN FANTASTIC AND THE BROWN DIRT COWBOY most frequently (that's probably the one with the best listen-through potential, although MADMAN ACROSS THE WATER is damn good too). So what about you guys? Any favorites?
- New Pet Peeve dept.: credit card companies make millions of dollars from people per year, if not more. Don't you think they could afford to pay for postage on their envelopes? Come on, it's not like you're a nonprofit organization. That's just cheap, guys.
- I'm not longer in last place in my NCAA tourney bracket! Woohoo! I don't follow sports in general, but I like to enter contests like this, and this year I flipped a coin to pick winners (aside from the highest seeds, which I predicted automatically in the first few rounds). I've got Villanova winning, and they're still in the tourney, so that's something, right?
- I'm already ready to be let down by SNAKES ON A PLANE. I mean, there's no way it could be as awesome as it sounds. That said, the hype is getting a tad out of hand.