REVIEW: Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006)

"My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself." This is how Inside Man, Spike Lee's new film and most mainstream effort to date, begins with Clive Owen staring point-blank into the camera - similar in fashion to The Libertine's opening, but executed here with a bit of extra forty-acre flare. Those first lines are fair warning, because as the 129-minute film carries on you'll absolutely have to abide by them to fully appreciate the intricately woven heist plot.

Much of the critical reception for this film has been excellent and loaded with praise of Lee's upheaval of the genre by delivering originality in spades. The praise is dead on - no matter how many times you've watched Dog Day Afternoon or how many episodes of CSI you've TiVoed, this will be a brand new experience that will keep you intelligently guessing until the end. Along with the fresh plot layout and character development, Lee also brings suspense through subtlety. The first person to notice something amiss at the bank in question is a dopey cop who calls in the situation and investigates further, only to find himself on the business end of a handgun, being warned that if anyone comes near the front door they'll be shot. Soon afterward we see an arrival sequence in which four cop cars, an armored vehicle and several sniper squads barge into the street, nearly breaking the proximity rule. The subtle effect Lee adds is a shot from inside the bank, giving us the robbers' view of the situation and elevating the tension to new levels. I'm sure there are several more of these brilliant directorial decisions throughout the entire piece, but I wouldn't have consciously picked up on them due to the unfamiliar atmosphere generated by the film and its progressive developments that kept my mind at work.

Some of the choices made by the filmmakers do seem out of place or innefective, such as the overrused slow-pan close-up intended to generate false suspense. Lee's signature actor-on-a-platform-attached-to-the-camera shots (which I would refer to more briefly were I able to recall their proper name) are also present and occasionally awkward in this context. I'm merely noting these as things that could have been better, though. They are barely worthy of being called blemishes.

Christopher Plummer has been showing up more and more lately in films like Alexander and The New World and his presence is more than welcome as his small yet pivotal performances are always excellent, and he shows through with another well nuanced character here. Also featured is Willem Dafoe in a non-controversial role that wouldn't have been nearly as cool if it weren't Dafoe in its shoes. The three major players, Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster deliver as expected. I've never been a fan of Washington's natural cool, but he was working for me as the new detective, probably best described as a knight in tainted armor. Owen gives me another reason to like him while Foster finally proves that I have reason to like her. The remainder of the cast does its job well, considering more major roles from those of Kim Director and Chiwetel Ejiofor to the minor ones of the hostages.

Something I really liked a lot about Inside Man was actually the end credits. They were laid out in a manner that was fair and all-encompassing, showing Spike Lee's director credit not on an individual card but instead on a list among the other important filmmakers involved. Even the intern program and orchestra were credited, something I haven't seen (or noticed, at least) in the past. The song playing during the credits, Chaiyya Chaiyya, is also super cool.

Inside Man isn't something that requires a big screen, but I definitely recommend checking it out eventually. It's solid as a rock and there's sure to be at least something you'll enjoy.

I noticed at the end of the film that the man in Denzel's apartment is holding a bottle of Da Bomb, a drink introduced in Lee's 2001 masterpiece, Bamboozled. It's Da Bomb baby, Bomb - It makes you get your freak on! I didn't see, however, the other Bamboozled product - Timmi Hillnigger clothing. That's not to say it wasn't there!


REVIEW: V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2006)

In futuristic Britain, under totalitarian rule, Evey (Natalie Portman) is rescued by a mysterious, Guy Fawkes mask-wearing terrorist (Hugo Weaving) after being caught out after curfew. As she slowly learns more about him, she becomes tangled in his revolutionary plot to take down the current government. Adapted from a graphic novel and produced by Andy and Larry Wachowski, V For Vendetta is the feature directorial debut for James McTeigue and it lives up to the massive hype.

McG, when tying the bow on his commentary track for Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, says that to make a film contemplating the human condition is a great thing, but making a film that forgets it is also great. Vendetta finds a perfect middle ground, being an ever-intelligent and politically meaningful experience while also being insanely entertaining. There were several times when I actually had to quell the urge welling up inside to stand and cheer - moments justified by those two excellent qualities of the film culminating in sights and sounds to conjure pure exhilaration.

I was not all that excited to see this film, but I had confidence that I'd like it enough to go opening day. What really took me aback was how much I loved it. The construct was utilized superbly, particularly with the Evey character serving as the consensus' point of relation. After a purposefully over-dramatic display from the man who calls himself "V," she utters, "Are you like, a crazy person?" and from that moment on the film exists as a picture of a dystopian future with a raw and exponentially tangible sense that it will indeed be reality, despite the dramatic nature of certain scenes. Evey's further hesitance will land on target for people who might see V as a villian to begin with - him technically being a murderer and terrorist.

The film always kept me guessing with its story progression and filming techniques - a feat rarely accomplished anymore. The decisions made as to how the story is wrapped up perfectly fit the meaning behind it all and form a lasting impression that is not likely to soon be forgotten.

V for Vendetta is one of a kind - an enigma of a film that must be seen in theaters. I may say from time to time that a movie 'blew me away,' and those films are, of course, excellent in their own respective ways, but V nearly literally did just that.


REVIEW: The Libertine (Lawrence Dunmore, 2005)

Enter the promiscuous John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester - writer with an aggressive inclination for debauchery and drink, living in the post-plague 17th century. He is summoned back to England by King Charles II after a year in exile and takes a struggling actress under his indulgent wing. Johnny Depp adds another magnificent performance to his collection in the long-shelved film adaptation of Steven Jeffreys' biographical play.

The Weinsteins nail a homer! After all the fantastic productions they accomplished with Miramax such as Scorsese's Gangs of New York, I was psyched to learn they were moving out from Disney's ever business-minded shadow (which will hopefully dissipate with Steve Jobs as a major stockholder) with TWC, The Weinstein Company. At the outset of 2006, however, their schedule was loaded with silly films that were the opposite of promising. Though in the midst of all the computer-animated kids flicks and redundant romantic comedies, The Libertine must have been passed over in the listing - possibly because it was filmed and set aside for about a year - but it comes through now as an excellent surprise.

The lead actor, who needs no introduction, should be draw enough to the newly wide-released film that was supposedly on limited release November 23rd (a date that prevents me from saying it is the first great film of 2006 a la The New World and Match Point) but he is worthily accompanied by the eclectically excellent John Malkovich (who also serves as co-producer,) the eternally miraculous and wonderful Samantha Morton and emerging star Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day, Doom.)

It came as no surprise to learn that The Libertine is based on a play of the same name because it feels very much like an elaborate stage show - it is in fact loosely framed with the idea of a play being written about the Earl. Steven Jeffreys, who penned the original piece, brilliantly adapts it for the screen. He channels Shakespeare with lush, darkly humorous dialogue and story progression, kicked off by Depp's spellbinding opening soliloquy. The subsequent scenes flow on as long as they need to, similar to those of Angels in America, developing a detached, dream-like trance for the audience.

The realistic, Oscar-worthy costuming provides subject matter that brings the dizzyingly involving and granular photography to a more intriguing level. We are given a realistic look into the feigning glamour of the times from long wigs to pasty makeup, transparently offset by the surrounding murk of the streets and brothels.

Director Lawrence Dunmore's debut is not to be missed in theaters. See it before it gets stuck in smaller venues - the big screen/surround sound experience is highly recommended and well worth it. Join me tomorrow when I enjoy it again!


REVIEW: Just Friends (Roger Kumble, 2005)

Chris Brander, widely classified as a dweeb in high school, has shaped up over the past ten years and become a major record executive with a glamorous life. When he mistakenly returns to his hometown, he runs into his old best friend, Jamie Palimino, and the strong crush he's harbored for her resurfaces. Many obstacles stand in his way to love, though - competing men, a pesky ex and the dreaded "friend zone." Ryan Reynolds, Amy Smart, Anna Faris and Chris Klein join up for a youthful romantic comedy under the helming of Sweetest Thing director Roger Kumble.

I've loved The Sweetest Thing for years. The cast of that film clearly lauded Kumble's efforts there, but I was still wary that while he did do very well, he wouldn't have a film worth watching without the excellent screenplay writing of Nancy Pimentel. Just Friends thankfully proves me wrong, but not to a vast extent. It's a very passable experience worth watching, but it's no diamond in the rough.

Beyond the acting, which is consistent with the cast members' respective filmographies while also being uniquely funny, the effort that was possibly exerted in the entire production, pre- and post- included, is somewhat questionable. The supporting characters are annoyingly over-the-top caricatures, the majority of the jokes fall flat on their prosthetic-enhanced faces, the sound mixing is downright awful... yet there is something that somehow clicks about this comedy that makes it flow. Compared to movies like Two Weeks Notice that are burdened with cliche, Just Friends blends the predictability of its genre with an irreverent cartoon style that I, for one, was engaged with.

As mentioned before and is worth mentioning again, the cast really takes this movie to a different level than it probably deserves while also serving as delicious eye candy for those interested. Ryan Reynolds has quickly become a reliable comic actor with his off-beat timing. Here, his quips joust and mesh perfectly with the off-the-wall acting of underestimated beauty Anna Faris, featured here in possibly her craziest role yet. I have never been keen on Amy Smart, but she succeeded in winning me over the instant she stepped on screen - a worthy romantic interest. I've also never been so hot about Chris Klein (except for those five minutes in which I thought I liked the Rollerball remake) and I'm still not, but he pulled off a great jackass. Even the young Christopher Marquette gives an impressive comedic performance.

If you want to support your happy mood or you need a pick-me-up, Just Friends is a live-action cartoon to cozy up to with a warm blanket and some hot cocoa. You're sure to enjoy at least some portion of it, and you won't be bored. Make it a day-date.


REVIEW: Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (Gough Lewis, 1999)

Grace Quek, born in Singapore and raised in London, was at one time the most famous famous adult film star in the world. After starring in many films under the stage name Annabel Chong, she attempted to have sex with 300 men in a single day - a feat that would double the record set by a sex worker in Amsterdam. Ex-boyfriend Gough Lewis follows her experiences after the 1995 event in this acclaimed documentary that uncovers her motivations and delves into her deeper, more private side.

The college student and unique personality that is Grace easily remains herself with the trailing camera, providing an authentic glimpse into her daily life. Issues of gender equality, depression and especially sexuality are explored and attacked through her experiences. She lives how she wants, has a worthy message to deliver, and meets with plenty of opposition along the way.

Adult stars such as Jasmin St. Claire and Michael J. Coxx have appearances, expressing their own respective takes on Grace. I get the feeling some of their words and actions have been taken somewhat out of context, but they round out the film's expressed viewpoints nontheless. Also heard from are Grace's parents and friends, some of whom are ignorant to her status in adult cinema. Between these people and Grace herself, we join an emotional journey of social acceptance versus social change.

Surely provocative conversation - and potential steamy action - will be the result of viewing this well-assembled film. The issues involved are similar to that of Laurel Canyon, this time presented in a different context - reality. Why is sex so foreign to mainstream culture? It is the ultimate happiness. It is the ultimate human purpose... yet it is rare and often shunned. Grace suggests that it is far from being bad, and goes further with her core intention in proving that women are just as capable as men in being sexually superior.

During the event that set this media focus in motion, Grace managed to reach 251 men before submitting to pain. Her views, alternative to the moral majority, have in turn been rightly made public. If you are intrigued by the real world of adult film and open to exploring sexuality, you won't go wrong with the eye-opening Sex: The Annabel Chong Story.


REVIEW: Ultraviolet (Kurt Wimmer, 2006)

In the distant future, disease has separated humanity into two cultures: The familiar breed and a new, physically and mentally enhanced vampire type. These transformations are taking place in growing numbers, and the sub-species is now being viewed as a threat by the government. Milla Jovovich stars as an enhanced being who protects a child caught up in the societal feud in Kurt Wimmer's directorial follow-up to 2002's Equilibrium.

If you've known me for a while, you probably know I'm a sucker for ass-kicking-chicks flicks. Tank Girl, Underworld and Jovovich's other slick ass-kicker, Resident Evil: Apocalypse are all proud selections from my DVD shelves (Screen Gems does my body good,) so it should come as no surprise that I was highly anticipating Ultraviolet's release. My growing excitement as the release date crept up bordered in giddiness. Now that I've seen the movie... will it end up among my DVDs? Only if I'm bored in Best Buy one day.

Wimmer's creation starts strong with an enticing credits sequence involving excellent comic book art, but my heart did a swan-dive the instant I saw Cameron Bright's name. I had no idea the blander than bland child from Godsend and Birth was a supporting cast member, and had I known it would have most certainly been a hesitation. He bugs me beyond belief with his expressionless deliveries - downers for any film he appears in. As soon as the credits ended, however, I was shown that his inclusion would not be the worst aspect of what was to follow, simply described as a bastard hybrid between The Transporter and the film adaptation of Aeon Flux.

It's baffling that some people must have thought the ideas brought to life in the movie were good ones. Sure, there are a few interesting ideas such as the Gravity Recalibrator device, but they suffer in their murky confines, remaining underused with leftover potential. The first half of the film overloads itself with other gadgets, leaving us with a lot of colloquial sci-fi lines akin to the parody ad from in Thank You For Smoking, "Thank goodness we invented the whatever device!"

I cannot yet say whether the soft resolution of the cinematography was necessary for the computer-effects heavy compositions - which are nicely symmetrical but ultimately fail through poor execution - or if it was simply an unavoidable mishap - one that leaves some scenes at a complete loss (I.E. Violet explaining her tattoos). What I can say is that they are headache-inducing and they visually destroy several close-ups. The actors' features are lost in the odd streaks that look like someone poured water on an oil painting before it dried.

Possibly the most disturbing thing about the holographic production of Ultraviolet is the script. It features some of the worst writing I have ever heard, loaded with sorely dramatic repeat-takes (a strong peeve of mine) and awful lines that aren't even so bad they're good. For example, the title character says with an unavoidable bland tone when faced with an opposition of about 20 soldiers, "You are all going to die." I'm quaking. The final battle between good and evil impending, the villian (Nick Chinlund) says "It is on," to which Violet replies, "Yeah it is." I can really feel the tension!

At its core, Ultraviolet is in the right spot, but it relies too heavily on gimmick, shrouding the good buried deep inside. If you're into Jovovich, as I definitely am, you won't be let down but you certainly won't find anything else of merit. Thankfully what flair is there promises to be well worth a few rewatches on DVD due in part to eye-candy but also to a massive so-bad-it's-good factor.