***/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer
screenplay by Russell Gewirtz
directed by Spike Lee
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING
***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B
starring Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Adam Brody, Sam Elliott
screenplay by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley
directed by Jason Reitman
by Walter Chaw You make mistakes as a film critic sometimes and, unlike a lot of professions, when you flub, you do it for the record. I underestimated Spike Lee's 25th Hour badly upon its release a few years ago, misunderstanding it, fearing it, seeing it as a mediocre film when, in fact, subsequent viewings have revealed it as possibly Lee's tonal masterpiece. My inclination, then, is to overcompensate with Inside Man by offering it every benefit of the doubt beforehand, during, and now--by trying hard to overlook the first bad Jodie Foster performance I can remember as well as a mishandled denouement that stretches the picture past the point of recoil. But even with a jaundiced eye, Inside Man cements Lee as one of the few filmmakers with the brass ones to comment on the race schism, and to shoot (with assistance from ace cinematographer Matthew Libatique) a post-9/11 New York with the gravity of a heart attack. In his individualism, though, that almost-shrill dedication to pumping fists up familiar channels, Lee raises a few eyebrows (and elicits a couple of grins) for posing his Nazi villain in various desktop-photo tableaux with other twentieth century, profiteering, conservative ogres like George and Barbara Bush and Margaret Thatcher. It's an interesting companion piece to V for Vendetta in that way, at once a melodramatic throwback and a progressive scalpel. It's blaxploitation, Seventies paranoia, and the latest Spike Lee Joint from Ground Zero.
Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) has been implicated in an evidence embezzlement probe, but when a New York bank on financial row gets knocked over by a band of eurotrash commandos led by garrulous Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), Frazier's on the case, Dog Day Afternoon-style, partner Bill (Chiwetel Ejiofor) at his side. Inside Man drops that film's title (Serpico's, too), decking Frazier out in a cheap white suit and raffish hat that segue brilliantly into the closing shot of a black man in a wife-beater, standing in front of a vanity while in the foreground, a luscious lady in recline dangles that hat off some manicured, impatient toes. That somewhat reductive instinct to simmer the bones of complexity until it's all a thick soup of familiar saturated flavours makes the picture post-modern in its self-conscious shout-outs to Lee's video library and body of work--and evocative, too, in the surprisingly cheesy desire to honour the double-meaning embedded in its title. There's not so much an "inside man" in the caper of it, see, as the film is about the contents of a man: the various indignities and desires, compromises, and moments of pyrrhic revolt that make the rest of the surrenders a little easier to stomach.
Consider the interrogation of a Sikh teller who complains of being called an Arab and having his turban arbitrarily confiscated by the police, but who agrees to cooperate once Frazier defuses the situation by joking that he probably doesn't have any trouble getting a cab. Or the bit where the identity of one of the robbers hinges on her "exquisite tits" and, after a detainee takes umbrage at too close a scrutiny of said rack, Lee cuts to a woman's sweaty cleavage as she tries to poke a hole in the bank's floor. "You can't hide that kind of quality," says one witness, referring to her shapeless jumpsuit. In this leering and practiced nudge-nudge misogyny, there's suddenly here another statement on the impossibility of disguising a truer nature beneath not only clothes, certainly, but also the veneer of civilization. She is what she is and he is what he is. And lest the naturalistic fallacy be indulged, I don't think Lee is excusing us our animal natures, but rather illustrating--as he always has, in his way--that things are hooked in there a helluva lot deeper than skin and tits.
It's not terribly deep as insights go, but when Spike connects on one of his roundhouses, it feels like the gospel. You look at Christopher Plummer getting a haircut in a "gentleman's club" manned by black men in pastel suits as Foster's frigid, shadowy information broker lays down the law and it plays a lot like a paranoid fantasy of ten Jews in a luxury cave in the Bahamas, rigging Wall Street and the Super Bowl. But then there's Willem Dafoe's weary SWAT captain, or the bank manager whose cell phone is programmed to ring with hardcore gangster rap. Lee's simplicity is as knotty and dense as the tangled thrush of race and gender relations, and by being so bold as to proclaim this shitty, meandering genre picture to be about Nazi gold (no kidding) and the importance of being Shaft, suddenly Inside Man becomes vital and engaging in a way that doesn't end in the scrotum, even if it starts there.
Aaron Eckhart's tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor also visits an exclusive, plantation-era gentleman's club in Jason Reitman's indie cause célèbre Thank You for Smoking, an adaptation of Christopher Buckley's arch novel about a few weeks in the life of one of the most despised people, engaged in one of the most despised professions on the face of the planet. Like the surface revelations of Inside Man (that men look at women's chests and that we notice that people are of different races), the revelation of Thank You for Smoking--that cigarettes aren't good for you--is notably beside the greater point that we're seeing a lot of movies now in which people in positions of power at every level are portrayed as venal, ineffectual, opportunistic liars desperately in need of (and/or deserving of) being put down with extreme prejudice.
The obvious problem with Thank You for Smoking is that it's at least a decade past its sell-by date for satires of how we're manipulated by media messages (certainly by the evils of Big Tobaccy); the virtue of it is that it's a tight, slick piece of amoral black comedy centered around an asshole (and Eckhart hasn't been this good since his last great asshole turn in In the Company of Men) who doesn't spend a lot of time rationalizing the evil that he does. It's a film, then, for word junkies and spin-doctors who get off on semantics and out-smarting debate opponents even when they're defending the weaker flank. Its wider appeal, though, is ironically predicated on the extent to which much of its audience gets off on thinking they're gaining some sort of insight into anything other than how deliciously wicked is this yuppie Mephistopheles. (Meaning, essentially, that most have been seduced by the bad guy, which Reitman neatly underscores by portraying the Media as the ogre for Just Telling the Truth. Meaning that for all the liberal drum-beating, Truth is still the bad guy.) So the Devil is attractive. As messages go, Milton told us that in the seventeenth century. We could argue that Eve learned it some time before that.
But Thank You for Smoking is slippery as hell. It identifies the last smokers in mainstream movies as the "RAVs" (Russians, Arabs, and Villains) on its way to manipulating its audience into hissing at an opportunistic young reporter (Katie Holmes) who trades on her--there's that phrase again--"exquisite tits" in order to write an extremely frank, entirely accurate story on the life of a tobacco lobbyist. In so doing, the picture demonstrates that if the last smokers in entertainment are bad guys and Europeans, the last irredeemable wrongdoers are journalists. We're slaves to conventions and images and saucy turns of phrase (another subplot involves the campaign of fey, Birkenstock-wearing Vermont senator Finistirre (William H. Macy) trying to get a skull and crossbones printed on every pack of cigarettes), the film tells us, and then it proceeds to use images and conventions and saucy turns of phrase to manipulate our sympathy with this self-proclaimed shark. The lobby of a Hollywood production company features a big-screen playing killer whales exuberantly playing with dying seals, and the head of said company (Rob Lowe) is reverently said to "really love Asian shit" in the middle of sand gardens and silk kimonos. It's loony-tunes and it's exactly the tenor of Los Angeles, just as the rest of it is exactly the tenor of the Beltway, just as Eckhart (and J.K. Simmons as his cigar-chewing boss, Robert Duvall as a julep-slurping tobacco baron, and on and on) are exactly the tenor of unctuous power brokers, rigging Wall Street and the Super Bowl from a luxury cave in the Bahamas.
Thank You for Smoking is a beauty: an honorary Neil LaBute picture about how easily we fall into moral ambiguity that exposes your own moral ambiguity. Light on the contemporaneous insight, it is instead, like Inside Man, doing the you-Nietzsche/it- Abyss polka. Although there's a lot that's wrong with both, each is saved by this meshuggah audacity regarding the function and potential of film to be genuinely lawless, even ebullient, in describing the ways that monkeys don't ever change. Why fight it?
THE DVD - INSIDE MAN
by Bill Chambers Universal presents Inside Man on DVD in separate widescreen and fullscreen editions--we received the former for review. Letterboxed at 2.38:1 and enhanced for 16x9 playback, the film transitions smoothly to the format; neither edge-enhancement nor the dread 'Universal jaundice' rear their head, and shadow detail is exceptionally strong. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio could be a tad louder and the mix itself isn't terribly expansive, but the dialogue is crystal clear and both bookend versions of "Chaiyya Chaiyya" encircle the viewer as if forming a conga line. On another track, Spike Lee delivers a typically inconsistent feature-length yakker, although he's a little more enthusiastic here than usual, maybe because--as he says off the top--it's his birthday.
There's a surprising amount of overlap between this and the video-based supplements considering the relative brevity of the latter, but on the other hand, nowhere else will you hear that Spike made the acquaintance of "William" [sic] Dafoe at a urinal. Lee also helpfully singles out ad libs and in-jokes: while I picked up on the Sal's Pizzeria gag, the identity of the actor playing the cop who delivers the pizzas sailed right over my head. Five elisions (in polished 2.38:1 anamorphic widescreen as well) showcase all of the interrogation room fragments in expanded and consolidated form as one twenty-minute sequence. These really get stagnant after a while because of the lack of variables in the setting and how they're photographed (a batch of unabridged faux-news reports is similarly wearying), but Lee's commentary revelation that they were mostly improvised initially finds us watching them with renewed interest.
"The Making of Inside Man" (10 mins.) uses a table-reading of the script as a framing device, with actors of Denzel Washington's calibre bemusedly introducing themselves to the room like it's the first day of school. While a bit too much emphasis is placed on producer Brian Grazer's astonishment that Lee was so cooperative (does he make a point of saying this about every director he gets along with or just the black ones?), the piece emerges as above-average propaganda through its insights into Lee's process--including his method of shooting with two cameras at once--and professional demeanour. Rounding out the disc, "Number 4" (10 mins.) invites the neo-Scorsese/De Niro team of Lee and Washington to wax nostalgic about their previous collaborations. Perhaps most impressively, Universal has nothing to gain by including this, as two of the four films discussed (Mo' Better Blues, Malcolm X, He Got Game, and Inside Man) belong to other studios. Only once does the offscreen interviewer actually prompt the pair, asking them to reflect on each other's signature work. (Tellingly, Washington lavishes praise on Do the Right Thing while Lee distils the paternalistic Glory to a single moment.) Amusingly, Oprah is regarded as a shill, albeit somewhat unintentionally. A semi-forced trailer reel previewing"House M.D.", United 93, and "Kidnapped" cues up on startup. Originally published: June 5, 2006.
THE DVD - THANK YOU FOR SMOKING
by Bill Chambers Fox presents Thank You for Smoking on DVD in competing widescreen and fullscreen editions--we received the former for review. The 2.37:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer is filmlike and sports reasonably supple contrast, although the colour palette seems extravagantly jaundiced. (Over at the reliable DVD MOVIE GUIDE, Colin Jacobson aptly compared it to "the yellow glaze on smoker's teeth.") While the accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is first-rate, I was surprised that the mix itself didn't have a little more juice to match the playful visuals. Two commentaries also append the film, both featuring hyphenate Jason Reitman, who's joined by actors Aaron Eckhart and David Koechner for the second yakker after flying solo in the first. By himself, Reitman struggles to fill 90 minutes ("I'm a big pizza eater," goes a typical observation), but thankfully he resists the temptation to narrate the action. Eckhart and an especially loquacious Koechner--who seems very much like his screen persona--bring out the raconteur in Reitman, though when the director excuses himself to take a leak threats to talk behind his back disappointingly amount to nothing. For what it's worth, the rumours surrounding Eckhart's sex scene with Katie Holmes being left out of the film when it premiered at Sundance are addressed and laid to rest in both yakkers.
Video-based extras include thirteen deleted scenes totalling 16 minutes with optional commentary from Reitman. Most of these were dropped because they interfered with either the pacing or tone of the film; happy to see the inexplicable alternate ending hit the cutting-room floor, and a meeting between Holmes's and William H. Macy's characters practically elided itself. ("We probably hurt the film's financial value for every frame of Katie we cut out," Reitman half-kids, but one imagines the opposite may hold true now that Holmes is a permanent resident of Never Never Land.) Next comes a segment of "The Charlie Rose Show" (18 mins.) reuniting Reitman (who resembles a slimmer Greg Grunberg), Eckhart, producer David O. Sacks, and source novelist Christopher Buckley. Here, the increasingly James Lipton-like Rose has a flash of insight that seems to catch Reitman, et al off guard whereby he links the appeal of protagonist Nick Naylor to the American cinema's deathless love affair with con artists. Two in-house featurettes--"Unfiltered Comedy: The Making of Thank You for Smoking" (9 mins.) and "America: Living in Spin" (5 mins.)--are wholly redundant and worthless in and of themselves, just glorified advertisements for something you already have in your possession. They join nifty poster, art, and storyboard galleries, the film's theatrical trailer, and a soundtrack spot in rounding out the platter. A Fox Searchlight reel cues up on startup. Originally published: October 2, 2006.