Friday, March 31, 2006

Spike is back!

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I just saw the new Spike Lee film "Inside Man." It's a caper movie with no real caper; and as a thriller it doesn't deliver very many thrills. Yet I enjoyed "Inside Man" more than any other film I've seen this year.


Why? Well, there hasn't been much competition. But also because of the pleasure of seeing what could have been a fairly ordinary genre movie get imbued with some real directorial personality. Spike's roots are in New York, to my knowledge all of his films use the city as a primary setting. "Inside Man" takes place mostly in a pretty small area of Manhattan real estate, but there is "New York energy" in abundance. (a trite expression I know)

The central narrative of a detective (Denzel Washington) trying to defuse a bank robbery/hostage crisis is broken up with flash forwards in which Washington's character and his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) interview the hostages. It seems the detectives don't quite know the good guys from the bad, but I'll say no more on that. There's a mix of ages and ethnicities, and a bunch of great little performances from an ensemble of character actors.

Lee does make a couple of points about race. A middle-aged white bank employee's phone plays Kanye West as a ringtone, it's a light and funny way of showing the way hip-hop culture is everywhere. The one heavy-handed note is a brief animated scene - supposedly a video game - depicting black-on-black violence. It's irrelevant to the plot and Lee has covered the same ground in "Clockers."

One of the bank employees is a Sikh whose turban is removed by the police. As the detectives question him, he demands his turban and complains about petty racial slights (being taken for an Arab). Washington says "I bet you can get a cab though, right?"

I'm probably making a little much out of all this; the mystery plot which takes up up most of the story has some serious holes in logic and motivation. But it's a treat to watch a top director - who's worst films are still worth seeing - working so confidently in a new tone. A glance at Spike's credits reveals only a TV pilot on the horizon. I'm hoping the success of "Inside Man" will re-open some doors for Spike.

(image - www.jamiehughesphotography.com)

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Some websites you should see

Here's a quick rundown of a few websites you should check out. They're all of interest to me for one reason or another, I can't promise they've all got something to do with movies -

upstatelink.com - I write about movies & the arts for the print & online versions of this magazine. Also a pretty good guide to what's happening in Greenville, SC.

terryteachout.com - A blog about the arts written mostly by Wall St. Journal critic Terry Teachout. It's pretty New York-centric, lots of stuff on theater, jazz, and classical music. Teachout is very good on the state of the arts in our culture, and really captures the transforming experience of hearing/seeing/attending a great work of art.

centrestage.org - The 2nd best theatre in Greenville SC. Just did a Israel Horovitz play called LINE there.

upstateshakespearefestival.org -
The best theatre in G'vlle, and it's all outdoors!

vanessavaughnphotography.com - A great photographer, a beautiful person and a beautiful friend,

Friday, March 24, 2006

'The Shield' comes full circle

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I said it was going to be "mostly" movies, didn't I?

"The Shield" finished up its fifth and possibly next-to-last season on FX this week. If you don't know, the police procedural drama is set in a rough LA neighborhood and is centered around a "strike team" of tough cops led by Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis).

Vic and his teammates have done plenty of dirt over the years, and always managed to just escape criminal or departmental charges. But this season it looks like time may have run out. A dogged Internal Affairs cop (wonderfully played by Forest Whitaker) wants to nail the strike team for a variety of charges.

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When a series has been on the air for several seasons, critics frequently write about how the writers and producers have run out of ideas. Shows like The West Wing and NYPD Blue , beloved in the early seasons, fall out of favor.

When a star or a top producer leaves, sometimes the criticism is justified. But there's also an unwillingness to allow characters to change and grow. For instance, the optimism of the early episodes of West Wing would have seemed naive in season 5. Bartlet's second term was a parade of frustration and compromise, much like we find ourselves in now. To be sure, there were a couple of bum episodes. But the season (a transitional post-Aaron Sorkin year before the Alda-Smits campaign) was a fascinating exploration of how difficult it is for a second term president to accomplish anything.

But back to "The Shield." The season ended with one of the strike team commiting a terrible act, an act necessitated by a decision in the pilot episode to murder a fellow cop who was trying to bring the strike team down. Plotting like this rewards fans who stay with a show for the long haul. Look for the next (and probably last) season of "The Shield" next year.

Michael Chiklis image from Yahoo
"West Wing" image from softpedia.com





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Monday, March 20, 2006

John Cassavetes

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I've just finished a biography of the writer/director/actor John Cassavetes. Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes invented American Independent Film by Marshall Fine is a quick tour through Cassavetes' too short career and life. (He died in 1989 at age 59)

Cassavetes was a successful actor in theater and live TV who was just starting to break into films in the late '50s. He had married a beautiful woman (frequent co-star Gena Rowlands) and everything looked good. But he was frustrated with being merely a cog in the show business machine, so with the help of students from an acting workshop he had started he made Shadows in 1959.

Cassavetes' films were made with family and friends, often with Cassavetes and Rowlands' own money and little studio support. The pinnacle was A Woman Under the Influence in 1974, which netted Oscar nominations for Rowlands and Cassavetes. Watching the movie is a bit like overhearing your parents have an argument. There are moments of incredible tenderness and honesty, but also some awkward acting in small roles and embarassing scenes.

According to Fine's book John Cassavetes was a warm and encouraging man, always trying to get a new film or theater project off the ground. Some of his films aren't available on DVD, but the Criterion Five Films set is worth it if you've got the bucks.

If you're interested in film history and don't know Cassavetes' work, check out Accidental Genius.

Above image came from www.theyshootpictures.com

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Mission statement

This is a blog (mostly) about films and film-related subjects that interest me. I hope to spark some discussion about why certain films are good or bad, and to highlight some underappreciated films and directors. But, I 'll also feel free to get into music and books as the mood strikes me.

My qualifications: well, lots of watching, reading, and thinking about film. I'm a film critic for LINK magazine in Greenville, SC and you can check out my stuff at http://www.upstatelink.com .

I don't think I am a snob about film, although my taste usually runs away from standard Hollywood fare. But just to let you know where I'm coming from, here are a few things I won't be discussing -

-whether it was faithful to the comic book
-how cool the special effects were
-whether or not the co-stars are sleeping together
-how big (or small) the budget was
and all hype-related stuff in general...

I'll try to be honest, funny, thought-provoking, and generally worth reading.....