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Hidden agendas: (l-r) Foster and Washington in Inside Man.

Every Dog Has Its Day

By Ann Morrow

Inside Man

Directed by Spike Lee

Entertaining and cleverly involving, Inside Man is in many ways Spike Lee’s most enjoyable film. Ostensibly a crime drama about a bank heist gone wrong, the film is actually (as one character puts it) a riddle. And the riddle has to be solved to avoid a potentially fatal showdown. Inside Man (as the title teasingly suggests) is also about power, and the ingenious plot advances not through the tired tropes of a hostage situation, but through the various power plays that all characters—even disenfranchised immigrants—engage in. This being a Spike Lee film, it’s also about race, but Lee plays the race card fast and loose here, and the melting-pot populace of New York City is both part of the plot and fodder for some memorable zingers.

In a technically assured sequence, four robbers invade a bank disguised as painters and use flashlights to blind the security cameras. They then terrorize the customers without violence, forcing them into identical disguises complete with facemasks. At a nearby police precinct, Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington) is assigned to the case. Because he’s under suspicion for graft, Frazier is unusually eager to make good. However, his adversary, a gunman known only as “Steven” (Clive Owen), is far craftier than he anticipates. Both men stall for time, but what Frazier can’t figure out is why the robbers seem to want to negotiate rather than to make a getaway with the bank’s cash.

Taking an unusually personal interest in the situation is the bank company’s ultra-wealthy (and waspy) chairman, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer). Probably not as genteel as he appears, Case hires a high-end fixer named Madeline (Jodie Foster) to protect his interests within the bank. Madeline pulls strings with the mayor, the mayor puts pressure on Frazier, and Frazier pulls rank on the precinct’s by-the-book captain (Willem Dafoe). Meanwhile, the robbers stay busy with some inexplicable activities.

The safety of the hostages depends on Frazier’s ability to second-guess Steven. This cat-and-mouse game is puzzlingly complicated with flashbacks and fast forwards, most of them concerning the interrogation of released hostages who may or may not be insiders to the robbery. Lee’s flashy style seems intrusive at first, but eventually it pays off. In fact, all of the plot’s snarky transgressions and distractions pay off—“getting paid” is the film’s subtext, as illustrated by a young hostage who explains to Steven that his ultraviolent, handheld video game is all about “getting paid,” just like a bank robbery. Even Frazier wants to get paid: He’s hoping a successful outcome will get him promoted. But is Frazier just a cocky jerk who will get the hostages killed, or will his prickly egotism prove to be an advantage?

Playing a suave operator with a chip on his shoulder, Washington is a joy to watch as he reveals Frazier’s ulterior motives, simultaneous to Steven’s machinations within the bank. Owen, as expected, is a blast as the icily cool-headed crew leader; the casting surprise is Foster. Always admirable, she has rarely been this much fun. Her flabbergastingly confident fixer weaves through the plot with only her sex appeal (boosted by a killer blowout) and powerbroker contacts to manipulate the situation to her advantage. Lee has smartly lightened up since the moral bludgeoning of The 25th Hour, but Inside Man is no empty Hollywood thriller. The real kick to the film’s snappy ending is that the ultimate power play is to do the right thing—and get paid for it, too.

Shakey Ground

Neil Young: Heart of Gold

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme knows how to make a concert film; Neil Young: Heart of Gold sure is pretty to look at. As he did with Talking Heads in the sort-of legendary Stop Making Sense, Demme serves Neil Young well in this record of a 2005 concert at the Ryman Auditorium (former home of the Grand Ole Opry) in Nashville. The cameras pull you into the music-making, taking note of the skills and emotions of Young and his musical compadres, including longtime collaborators Emmylou Harris, Ben Keith and Grant Boatwright. (And a string section. And a gospel choir. And . . . you get the idea.)

Much of the material comes from Young’s most recent album, Prairie Wind, and that’s where the problem lies: It’s just not that interesting. Country rock has always been Young’s commercial touchstone, the genre he visits whenever he wants to get in touch with the masses (and move some product). It’s also the most polite, refined music he makes; he effectively puts his muse in a straitjacket, rendering her as immobile as Emmylou Harris’ face.

Now, you could argue that the Prairie Wind songs, written after the death of his father, and recorded while Young himself was facing a life-threatening illness, are sincere and heartfelt. True, but that doesn’t make them memorable. (The best songs in the show are 33 years old.) It’s also worth remembering that with Young, personal pain doesn’t make a direct connection to the art. His Trans album, you may recall, was an attempt by Young to communicate with his autistic child; the best song on the record, however, is a cynical tune about a guy ordering a sex robot.

It’s time to give Crazy Horse a call.

—Shawn Stone

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