Monday, May 21, 2007

Inside Man


Inside Man is a heist caper with a twist, which should come as no surprise since heist capers generally exist for the twist. Nonetheless, Russell Gewirtz’s script provides a twist that is both satisfying and largely unexpected. Clive Owen is great as Dalton Russell, the man behind the heist, and the script keeps you guessing about his intentions. This is not to say that the whole movie follows suit. Sloppy and clich├ęd characterizations of the main characters including those played by Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Willem Dafoe weaken the movie considerably.

For instance, in an attempt to make Washington’s Detective Keith Frazier look like a real man, the writer gives line after line of uninspired verbal foreplay between Frazier and his girlfriend. They are static throughout the film: sex-crazed over each other at the beginning and sex-crazed over each other at the end. Though there is little actual screen time devoted to this relationship, the time that is spent with them makes the film feel immature.

Some of the comic bits come off as forced, much of the time the music doesn’t seem to fit what’s onscreen, and some of the choices in cinematography stick out like a pair of sore thumbs.

Before I get into my complaints about the camerawork, let me preface this by saying that I have been reading some books on film in the last few years, and they list all these rules about what types of camera angles should be used, and what makes for a “good” shot, etc. Like most everyone, I kept asking, “Well, why does it matter?” But it wasn’t until I saw this movie that I realized that these rules do make sense. So please forgive this momentary trip into the theoretical, but the two following examples taught me something about camera use that I had never really considered before.

The first is a montage of Russell (Clive Owen) after the heist is in full swing that climaxes with an orchestral flourish and a very overt shot that employs a rotating camera around Russell standing in the vault. My wife and I looked at each other wondering, “What was that about?” There was nothing new or climactic about the moment, but the importance with which it was handled made you think it had some special significance. Another such use of odd camera work was found in a scene between Jodi Foster and Peter Kybart, designed to further establish Jodi Foster’s character as one tough cookie. This scene, too, uses a revolving shot; this time around Foster and Kybart. And it’s just distracting. I see this revolving crap used a lot these days, and very rarely is it used in a way that actually adds something to the scene at hand. A simple separation sequence between person A and person B would work just fine, but it’s as if directors and cinematographers are convinced that every shot needs to look cool. The problem with this practice is that when striking moments are needed, you’ve already depleted your arsenal of striking shots, so the real climax is now robbed of some of its grandeur by irresponsible use of dramatic camera work when it’s unnecessary.

This same scene with Foster and Kybart is also filled with explicit language that shrunk my suspension of disbelief to the size of a mustard seed. And now, I’m going to follow one more rabbit trail to a long-held pet peeve of mine. When Jack Nicholson is onscreen in The Departed spewing the F-word over and over, I believe it. I mean the guy means business. I may not agree that this kind of language is good or proper, but it does make sense in context. It doesn’t feel contrived or forced. But, sometimes people throw expletives in to make them sound cool, and it just doesn’t work. Even in Pulp Fiction, as soon as Tarantino shows up on his cussing binge, he’s lost me. He’s not a realistic cusser. He sounds ridiculous. His writing is incredible, but his delivery of it is just not credible. The same goes for these two here in this scene. It’s not believable. It reminds me of a kid who’s gone to a Christian school all his life then shows up as a freshman at a public high school and starts trying to impress people by cussing. As before with the camerawork: if you’re going to use striking language, use it when its convincing and actually adds some punch to the narrative line or adds some color to the characters.

In spite of all these negatives, I was impressed by the overall narrative and theme, and this is a testimony to the fact that the screenwriter’s role is very important. Without the clever plot, the movie falls apart, and even with all its foibles the movie succeeds (at least partially) because the screenwriter had a good idea and wrote a good story. He didn’t write necessarily the best dialogue or protagonist character development, but overall, I’d say he did a pretty good job. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a great little bit in the middle of the film in which a captive boy shows Russell his new favorite PSP game. The game looks very similar to Grand Theft Auto, and we get to see the action as Owen directs his character onscreen to shoot someone. After the opponent has been reduced to an unconscious heap on the side of the road, text pops on screen that says, “Kill that N****!” a command he obeys as the character’s head explodes. Russell looks up at the boy in wonder as the kid congratulates him for robbing the bank. Russell responds: “I have to talk to your father about this game.” Now, that’s some good social commentary!

** out of ****

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