Spike Lee's "Inside Man" isn't the work of an outsider, the kind of iconoclast filmmaker that Spike used to declare himself to be back when he did films like "She's Got to Have It" or "Do the Right Thing." Gone are the deep reds, bright oranges, warm yellows of his favorite cameraman Ernest Dickerson, replaced by Matthew Labatique's gray concrete and dim daylight. Gone are the in-your-face close-ups, the actors addressing the camera head-on while they deliver hilarious, often profane tirades. At one point Denzel Washington, playing Detective Keith Frazier, finds himself going down the street in an effortless glide, but it's more a reminder of or tribute to the Lee we used to know than a return to old form.
The plot, by newcomer Russell Gewirtz (it's his first big-screen script), is satisfyingly complex in a shallow way, the quickly sketched characters in effect enacting a game of high-stakes chess. A bank robbery staged by one Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) and three other collaborators quickly turns into a hostage drama, and Det. Frazier is called in as hostage negotiator; a subplot involving Arthur Case, the bank's Chairman of the Board (Christopher Plummer) has him hiring mysterious power-broker Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to protect the contents of a nonexistent safe-deposit box in that same bank. Plot twists and shadowy deals ensue, as Russell confronts Frazier and then White, and Frazier begins to realize that this is more than just a robbery.
Courtney Solomon's "An American Haunting" right off takes a high spot on my list of the five most awful pictures this year, even if the year's only half over. Solomon's only other credit as director is the screen version of "Dungeons and Dragons," and while I failed to catch that earlier opus, I can't believe it could possibly be worse than this. Swish-pan camera moves; Cuisinart shock cuts; candles and fireplaces that flare up as regularly as in a theme park ride; a loud standard-issue "haunted house" music score, accompanied by equally loud standard-issue "haunted house" sound effects--Solomon trots out every cheap scare tactic developed during recent years in the hope of getting a rise out of his audience, then trots them out a few more times, in case we don't get the point the first time.
Worse than the repetition is the silliness. John Bell, the haunted family's patriarch (Donald Sutherland), goes out hunting in the woods and is assaulted by what he claims to be a wolf, but the way the scene is shot and edited he could have been attacked by a rabid throw rug; the daughter Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is dragged by some invisible presence in circles on the floor (leaving claw marks on the hardwood), and slapped so hard on both sides of the face you can't help but think of a Tom and Jerry cartoon (Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack!). Later Betsy escapes by horse carriage and Solomon cuts to a point-of-view shot of the spirit soaring out the window and dive-bombing the carriage, sending somersaulting through the air like a stray "Dukes of Hazzard" stunt car. The movie becomes such an insult to the intelligence you can't help but wonder: are these people trying to be deliberately funny? Because they're not scaring us--the attempts are sophomorically sad--and it's difficult to keep a straight face.