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"Inside Man", "Thank You for Smoking", and "Tsotsi"

"Inside Man"

Spike Lee’s heist film is the latest chapter in his ongoing chronicle of New York City, but it’s one you can flip past.   Driven by justice rather than lucre, a master thief (Clive Owen) seizes hostages at a bank which was founded on dirty deals with the Nazis.   Denzel Washington is a hostage negotiator shaded with moral ambiguity.   None of these characters is particularly memorable, although Jodie Foster registers as a fixer for the powerful named Ms. White, a sleek blonde in cream outfits.

Teeming with life, Lee’s fiery pictures at their best capture the city’s vitality and contagious anger, its noise and heat.   (My favorite Lee film is still “Crooklyn”, a warm and funny yet unblinking look at family life in 1970s Brooklyn.)   In this film, little is done with the idea of the melting pot held hostage aside from knowing nods to post-9/11 racial profiling. And while some of the dialogue stings (“When there’s blood on the streets, buy property”), other lines are tired genre clichés (“Respect is the ultimate currency”).   We expect greatness or disaster from Spike Lee, not a solidly crafted mediocrity like this.

"Thank You for Smoking"

This dark satire about an amoral spin-doctor for Big Tobacco doesn’t compromise, but neither does it go quite far enough.   Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a wolfish PR man who dreams up a campaign to market ciggies by hiring Hollywood to script stories showing smoking stars, thus inciting the militant wing of the public health movement to promise to assassinate him.   Meanwhile, a do-gooder senator threatens congressional hearings on affixing the skull and crossbones to packs of coffin nails.

Spinning deadly rubbish into gold, so gifted with gab that he can convince a cancer survivor that the patient has no better friend than Big Tobacco, Nick’s tapped into the zeitgeist.   Since the narration by Nick encourages identification with him, there’s a sly tension between the film’s satire and its own tweaking of P.C. sensibilities.   Kudos for ignoring the formulaic character arc calling for the antihero to grow a soul, but in the end the film is smart rather than brilliant, sporadically very funny but not quite as sharp or wicked as its reputation.  

Tsotsi, a young leader of a tiny crew of ragamuffin thugs in Johannesburg, carjacks a wealthy woman and discovers her baby in the backseat.   Forcing a young mother next door in the shantytown to feed and help care for the child, the brutalized and brutal youth learns of the fragility and sacredness of life.   This year’s Oscar winner for best foreign language film, “Tsotsi” is an affecting story of the class divide in modern South Africa, where impoverished kids sleep in stacked sections of pipe.   Staying with me are the eyes of the young shantytown mother, angry and scared under duress, later seeing through Tsotsi to a decent nature that never had a chance. 

- Apr 10, 2006

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