Inside Man is being called Spike Lee's most impersonal project, and, following the thoroughly personal headache that was She Hate Me, I take that as a relief. Besides, playing hack while subversively molding an anonymous hunk of genre granite into auteurist form is far from an uninteresting challenge for anybody who's flipped through Manny Farber's "Underground Films" ode. After all, Hawks, Mann, Siegel and Co. have in the past made a supreme virtue out of sewing palpitating idiosyncrasies into the fabric of studio assignments -- even Steven Soderbergh shaped his whorish Ocean's Eleven remake into a svelte soft-shoe. Lee, meanwhile, blares from within with jackhammer ready from before the credits, lest anyone forget who's rolled this Joint: Clive Owen, in frontal close-up, monologues on the perfect robbery as the background does the Vertigo tango, a fatigued trope the director by now brings out as if it were expected of him. Anyway, the obligatory heist-hostage list is checked off by Lee's swarming dollying and craning, with Owen and his gang marching into a Manhattan bank decked in industrial whites and shades, disarming security and holding down the pushy, garrulous New Yorkers within at gunpoint. The building is sealed, the NYPD and the media gather outside, and brash detective Denzel Washington arrives to negotiate; "C'mon, we've all seen Dog Day Afternoon," Washington taunts Owen, since he knows, as does even the sleepiest audience member, that the smooth operator inside is up to something more than raiding the safe.
Indeed, the bags of money in the vaults are of far less interest to the robbers than the deposit box owned by bank owner Christopher Plummer, who, his Barrymore profile introduced in the shadows, harbors dark secrets behind manicured suits -- bloody hands with roots down to the Holocaust, so Jodie Foster, a pricey problem-solver, is brought in to keep everything hush-hush. Nobody can put a lid on the noise when Lee is at the wheel, though, and the director, when not busy futzing with color filters, makes sure each and every cameo comes across extra-loud with ethnic shtick, from Willem Dafoe's "ragheads" crack to the Sikh clerk robbed off his turban to the Albanian hoochie who trades in a bag filled with unpaid traffic tickets for translating duties. Foster is "Miss White," literally, warning Washington of "matters above your pay grade." Whatevah: Lee huddles a rainbow coalition of Big Apple "types" and shoots for "racial tension" and "post-9/11 resonance," though the clearest sounds here are box-office ka-chings. Even as just a hired-gun workout, however, Inside Man is a limp ride that, for all the shove of the camera and the grabby intimations of buried corruption, is no different from a John McTiernan Joint. (Even the filmmaker's New York eye is palling: Richard Donner, an authentic hack, got more out of the city in 16 Blocks.) "I did it for the money," Owen muses about his arabesque, before adding that "it's not much unless you can see yourself in the mirror." Lee can attest to half of that, in any case.
After the synthetic abrasion of Inside Man, the calm of Duck Season is especially easy on senses. A one-legged bicycle chained to a post, kids on a swing next to a freeway, apartment buildings shot low at 45° against an overcast sky -- quotidian snapshots of a lazy Mexico City afternoon, shot in black-and-white and assembled by director Fernando Eimbcke into assured visual languor. Blackout, then fade again into the apartment where Daniel Miranda and Diego Cataņo, the two 14-year-old protagonists, are getting ready for a blissfully unattended day of Xbox and giant glasses of Coke. Next-door neighbor Daniela Perea, one or two years older, drops by to use the oven for a cake, but the boys are way too engrossed in their Bush vs. Bin Laden Halo match to mind much... until the power goes out. Cut off from the sounds of TV, the place soon notices car alarms in the distance or a dripping faucet, amplified by the ennui. How about ordering a pizza? The bike ride from the restaurant to the apartment, timed to a loudly ticking clock, occasions a spoof of action set-pieces, the deliveryman (Enrique Arreola) rushing up an endless flight of stairs to honor the 30-minutes-or-it's-free deal. Eleven seconds too late, the kids say, and refuse to pay; Arreola, for his part, settles in the sofa, providing the missing link for Eimbcke's deadpan Fab Four, amiably feeling the passage of time.
In between casual non-sequiturs ("My birthday is a palindrome," or "John Lennon was a woman"), the director gently allows slivers of narrative to slide through cracks of inactivity -- Perea's cake (later switched to pot-laced brownies) is being baked for her birthday, gone unnoticed by her family, Miranda's parents are separating, and Arreola recounts his previous job at a dog pound. Footage of the canine slaughterhouse jars the comic mood, but not enough to forgo a musical interlude later on, with our stoned quartet prancing in the living room and an anecdote about migrating ducks used to underline the transitory nature of adolescence; Miranda and Cataņo use the china as targets for their BB gun, while Arreola soaks in the tub and loses himself into a painting of inspiring tackiness. Jim Jarmusch, given a shoutout in the end credits, is the most obvious influence, although Eimbcke's nifty longueurs are thin next to the hepcat minimalism of Stranger Than Paradise, which scored a wider variety of rhythms (to say nothing of a more trenchant critique of human anomie) without having his camera peep out from inside an oven. (Eimbcke's characters, on the other hand, are less bleakly atrophied: if tangled too myopically in the present to catch all of the implications of their budding sexual yearning, the kids still have their whole lives ahead of them, and the older character, the delivery guy with unrealized dreams, is allowed the release of a rare camera movement, motoring away at the very end.) Ephemeral in its charms, Duck Season nevertheless offers a refreshingly dramaless miniature canvas.
The most Lonesome Jim can offer, however, is an unintentional parody of Sundance Hades circa 1996. "Good times a-comin'," goes the harmonica over gray views of Casey Affleck, a thin-voiced sloth, doleful fuck-up and premature ejaculator, coming back to his desolate Indiana hometown after striking out in New York City. His "chronic despair" isn't exactly lifted by pathologically sunny mother Mary Kay Place, pissed-off father Seymour Cassel, and suicidal bro Kevin Corrigan; hope arrives, sort of, via sweet-natured nurse Liv Tyler, who somehow takes a shine to the monosyllabic lump and literally glues on a smile on a poster of Hemingway, one of the grave idols plastered on Affleck's wall. Along the way, a grotty, blunt-smoking uncle (Mark Boone Junior) orders a human skull for his cranial collection, Place is mistakenly sent to jail for shilling drugs, and audiences wonder why Parker Posey isn't showing up. Not Another Indie Movie? Thankfully, irony is dodged by director Steve Buscemi's approach -- the irreplaceable actor, stepping here behind the camera once more, feels too much for his characters and their broken lives for lampoon, yet his lack of condescension is submerged by willful inertia. Miserabilist "quirkiness" has in the last ten years been synonymous with grainy independent fare, though Vincent Gallo, David Gordon Green, and Buscemi's own Trees Lounge have since shown how to push it beyond neurasthenic slogs. Enough moaning.
Reviewed April 6, 2006.