Thursday, June 28, 2007

Brick

Film with Joseph Gordon-Levitt of Third Rock From the Sun. Written and directed by Rian Johnson.

The dilemma in reviewing/critiquing film, is just that--am I doing a simple review--this film was good and you should see it, or do I want to get into actual film criticism--this film was good in comparison to other films and here's why. The first should have as few spoilers as possible. The second may (depending on the reviewer) lay out every aspect of the plot, thus making it unlikely that you (the reader) will want to see the film any time soon.

I don't worry about this so much with books. If you want to read them, you will probably still read them. Since this film is two years old (and because I've been promising myself that I would try to flex these muscles) I'll try and give a brief critique.

In order to enjoy this film one must, first and foremost, buy into the conceit of the film, which is a film noir set in a modern high school. The characters speak as though they are in noir (my husband was not in the mood for this and left), they behave as in noir--somewhat free of the constraints and clutter of the real world, and the archetypes of noir are present:
The jaded and cynical loner, wounded in the past and hardened to avoid hurt again
The intelligent and helpful sidekick
The thug
The seemingly evil guy who just turns out to be wp/wt (wrong place/wrong time) and almost blows it all
The cool and clever villain
and
the women...

There's always a woman; there's usually two. I think the most "women" I ever saw in a film noir was in Out of the Past, the fewest--Double Indemnity {sidenote--most of the insurance people I work with have never seen DI. I find that somewhat upsetting}. This one has two (and a peripheral third). A blond and a brunette.

Our anti-hero, a tight-jawed and narrow eyed Brendon Frye, finds the blond face down in a culvert or overflow tunnel. Flash back to two days earlier when the blond calls him in a panic and the story begins, winding through teenage pregnancy, drug sellers and bricks of heroin before the murderer is brought to justice in true noir fashion.

When I say free of the clutter of the real world I mean that there never seem to be as many people around in a film noir as one would think there should be. In this, there is a notable absence of any adults for almost a third of the film and then there are only two--the villain's mother and the vice-principal who speaks to our hero like this:
Assistant VP Gary Trueman: You've helped this office out before.
Brendan Frye: No, I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.
and "cuts a deal" to give Brendan "room" to "bring in some meat." Any authority in your high school ever give you that much space?

As to the mother, she seems completely content with having some 30 young men in her house at 4 in the morning, half dressed like James Dean (white T-shirts, jeans) and the other half dressed like extras in The Godfather. I'll come back to this point later.

On the one hand it is a conceit, but on the other it seemed to reflect the feeling we have in high school--of being alone, adults seemingly on another planet, being "in" and hip the only thing important.

The film is shot in color, but as close to black and white as possible. Even when there is color--the red of a dress, the brown shag carpeting, it reinforces the neutral palette rather than detracting. It also echos the color schemes of later film-noirs such as Chinatown and even The Godfather. This may be southern California, but it is a washed out version.

Strangely enough, the film this reminded me of the most though, was David Lynch's Blue Velvet (despite BV's technicolor palette) with it's sense of having fallen through the normal, safe world into a disturbing and violent one that may or may not exist beneath every lovely exterior. In that same vein, it echoed Twin Peaks--these sordid lives being lived by teenagers under the noses of absent adults.

The director has an excellent eye. The shots are intriguing and well thought out (and would require another viewing for me to break down). In one scene Brendon is using a full-length
pivoting mirror to reflect light into a basement (he's as clever and ingenious as any noir hero), when he is rushed by the thug (named Tug). The mirror spins wildly on it's pivot catching the light and the camera lingers on it as the two boys scuffle.

There were only a few moments that, for me, really did not fit in the fine balance between homage and high school that the director otherwise captured. The first is the introduction of "the woman." She's sitting at a piano in a red Chinese Cheongsam, playing a tune and reciting the words of The Moon and I from the Mikado (which so hauntingly ends Topsy Turvy). Ok, it's a great song, and it sets her up as the femme-fatale, red dress and all (think Barbara Stanwyk's white/blond hair in DI, or Lauren Bacall leaning against the piano in Key Largo), but no high school girl, no matter how popular could get away with reciting that at her party. I'm sorry. Maybe if she were some crazy, drama school chick, but popular kids eat their own. Bizarrely, she's in Chinese garb saying a song from a "Japanese" operetta written by an Englishman. Later we get the peripheral girl dressed in full Geisha garb but she at least is in theater. She is also briefly dressed as Sally Bowles of Cabaret.

I already mentioned the villain's overly cheerful mother--is this woman sampling his heroin? The villain was played by Lucas Haas, which adds another whole layer to the meaning.

And finally, the intricate plots, frames and double-crosses are just not possible in the world of CSI. Even though real forensics cannot work the miracles of it's television counterparts, it is still not possible for our hero to walk away unscathed. He has hidden a body and then planted it, touched the murder weapon, been everywhere--bleeding much of the time and as much as confessed to a person of authority that he needed time to investigate. He also takes and throws an impressive number of punches and gets up again, knuckles intact (although his kick's to the legs and a particularly memorable act of tripping are fantastic). Again, it requires a large acceptance and immersion in the world the director is creating.

But, what is finally the strength of Brick is the writing--if you suspend disbelief, the writing is nearly as sharp as Dashiell Hammett. It is also quite funny. There are some brilliant put downs and exchanges.
Brad Bramish: Hey! What are you doing here?
Brendan Frye: Just listening. [long pause while Brad stares at him]
Brendan Frye: All right, you got me. I'm a scout for the Gophers. Been watching your game for a month, but that story right there just clenched it. You got heart kid. How soon can you be in Minneapolis?
Brad Bramish: Yeah?
Brendan Frye: Cold winters, but they got a great transit system.
Brad Bramish: Yeah?
Brendan Frye: Yeah.
Brad Bramish: Oh, yeah?
Brendan Frye: There's a thesaurus in the library. Yeah is under "Y". Go ahead, I'll wait.


Brendan Frye: Still picking your teeth with freshmen?
Kara: Well, you were a freshman once.
Brendan Frye: Way-once, sister.

{Sidenote: once I would have had to troll through the film hitting pause, rewind to get that--now someone's done it for me at IMDB. And before that I would have had to sit in a dark theater with a flashlight watching the film over and over again. 'Da internet, folks, bringing trivia to you when you need it.}

Think of "You know how to whistle don't you? Just put your lips together and blow." The writing is reinforced with an intricate but well thought out plot and by the conviction of the young actors, most notably Godon-Levitt, whom I've enjoyed since Third Rock. I am tempted, horribly to compare it to Bugsy Malone, but BM was young actors acting like adults as opposed to laying the adult language over this high school world.

2 comments:

Matt said...

The noir-homage tour de force for the last 2 decades, really, is Miller's Crossing by the Coens. My favorite film of all time. How's this one stand up to that dialogue?

Of course, the Coens are cribbing from Red Harvest by Hammett, which is the inspiration for Yojimbo by Kurosawa, Fistful of Dollars by Leone, and Last Man Standing. But still, I'm intrigued about Brick. I saw a preview before some movie last year before I left the States and I've wanted to see it ever since...

Novel said...

Hmmm... It's been about 10 years since I saw Miller's Crossing so I can't remember the dialogue. I also, for some reason, never quite thought of it as neo-noir, rather it's own thing. Although I think of Blood Simple as Noir... I will have to try and catch it again.

I love the fact that Red Harvest can become so many films. I actually enjoyed Last Man Standing though I had trepidations going in.

Good to hear from you.