Friday, April 07, 2006

Brick - Movie Review

Brick 2006

The dead girl with secrets. The embittered outsider anti-hero. The aloof crime boss. The thug for hire with the twitchy trigger finger. The femme fatale. The stool pigeon. The man with all the answers. The good time gal who knows more than she should. All of these trademark characters from the “Film Noir” sub-genre of cinema are represented and exemplified in the latest addition to the catalog – “Brick”. With a twist.

From the opening scene of “Brick”, the genre mixing stylized gem by newcomer Rian Johnson, we know we are in for a dark, nihilist trip. We are also aware that this will not be your typical homage to “Film Noir”. For all the main characters are teenagers and the setting is a Southern California high school. While this may at first seem to be a bit of a stretch – we quickly realized that a high school is the perfect backdrop for a cinematic world typically filled with disillusioned outcasts whose alienation from society leads them to commit desperate acts, often involving violence or morally ambiguous motivations that teeter on the edge of guilt or paranoia. In short. Your typical high school.

Brick” exists in a cinematic wonderland affectionately dubbed “Film Noir” by those nutty Cinéastes. Film Noir is a much misunderstood genre. Typically set in the criminal underworld of gangsters, molls and petty hoods – it derived its heritage from a mix of the “Gangster” flicks of the 30s crossed with the darkly lit and atmospherically framed masterpieces of “German Expressionism” to form a unique art form that is pure cinema. And while many of the great “Films Noirs” are among some of our most treasured movie memories, many incredibly bad films have been made in recent years that claim to be inspired by this elusive genre. We’re looking at you Quentin.

At its dark core, “Film Noir” is as escapist as one can get in Film. The characters are stock creatures that exist in the morally corrupt world of booze, cigarettes, drugs, murder, mayhem and everything else that makes life worth living. We don’t go to see “Films Noirs” to get a slice-of-life moviegoing experience. We go to be entertained and drawn into a netherworld of low-life types who know how to handle a gun, slap a broad and pour a stiff one all in the same frame.

As Brendan Frye, the anti-hero protagonist, Joseph Gordon-Levitt secures his lead as the perhaps the most talented actor of his generation. While many will know him for his sitcom TV past, his breakthrough performance last year in the wonderful film adaptation of Scott Heim’sMysterious Skin” laid the gauntlet down for his competition. He was terrific as the hooker with a heart of lead. Here he plumbs the potentially lethal depths of wisecracking anti-hero without resorting to caricature. He also knows how to handle the elliptical jazz rhythms of the intricate language that is the most stunning feature of the screenplay.

Brick” made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and has already been hailed as a breakthrough premiere feature for the talented writer, editor and director – one Rian Johnson. While it is still in limited release, it has already split audiences and critics alike for its dense, argot ridden dialogue that definitely takes some getting used to but pays off beautifully in the end. By tipping his hat to the great “Films Noirs” of yore, Mr. Johnson recognizes that the essential link between his teen interpretation and the great ones is the use of an intimate language that bonds the characters to their insular world and provides the passageway for the viewers to steep themselves into this highly stylized cinematic landscape. You don’t have to understand every reference to get the feel, texture and richness of this decidedly made-up but engrossing tale.

But if language were all that Mr. Johnson brings to the table, we would have been better off reading the screenplay. What we enjoyed most was his visual flair and ability to depict a dark and sterile environment that frames the action and still manages to allude to the present day hormonally challenged setting. The high school is series of empty concrete vistas, the crime lord’s lair a refurbished basement office devoid of clutter and hilariously indicative of his youthful status with his doting mother doling out cookies and orange juice to his coterie of thugs. By updating the 1940s dialogue and character types into the present day youthful terrain, Mr. Johnson never falters in finding a cinematic balancing point.

While the lead performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt provides the solid center to the flick, he is ably abetted by several equally talented youngsters. Lukas Haas is perfectly cast as the club-footed, drug dealing criminal kingpin known casually as “The Pin”. His tall, looming shadow and incongruously elfin features lend him an otherworldly quality that is used to great advantage in his almost constant stillness. He is the looming dark overlord of the acne set. And at the ripe old age of twenty nine when filming “Brick” one has to wonder if there is a “Picture of Dorian Gray” snapshot of Lukas in his attic. Does this kid ever age?

Matt O’Leary as “The Brain”, the go-to-guy on campus for all the answers – provides notable support as the Rubik’s Cube solving geek whose owlish spectacles track the comings and goings of the students involved. Along with Lukas and Joseph, Matt is the most comfortable of all the actors with the tricky dialogue and adds an immeasurable amount of believability to the proceedings. (For a view of the younger Matt’s fine work – go rent the criminally ignored directorial debut of Bill Paxton – “Frailty”.)

These three are the prime stand-outs amongst the actors. The supporting players while perfectly cast for their types register in varying degrees of acting skills. Noah Fleiss as the brutish “Tug” has mastered the required scowl and muscle flexing but lacks the polish to sell his big moment completely.

Nora Zehetner as the femme fatale Laura Dannon is a lovely creature who can certainly fill out her kimono, but misses the mark when it comes to the clinch. Her best scenes involve her presiding over the Google Generation elite at her parent’s monstrously posh home, scene of a masquerade party that serves as the starting point for our hero’s quest for answers. We loved her youthful grace as she first tinkers away at the piano and later quietly seduces our protagonist by candlelight. It is only in her final scene decked out in 40s drag, replete with feather headpiece that her youth betrays the required gravitas.

Emilie de Ravin of television’s “Roswell” and “Lost” fame – has unfortunately been portraying victims for too long, so her brief turn as the doomed Emily Kostach lacks the power but still fulfills the essentials. Although she makes a boffo corpse! (Oh lighten up; we aren’t spoiling any surprises – the beautifully restrained opening scene depicting her untimely demise kicks off the search for answers for our young jaundiced hero.)

Meagan Good saunters across the screen in the kind of role that was Rhonda Fleming’s stacked bread and butter back in the 1940s Noir masterpieces. Here she is sufficiently capable of strutting her stuff and tossing off the one liners, but her character does seem the most forced of all the melded archetypes.

And “Shaft” himself turns up as the Assistant Vice Principal whose watchful eye descends on Joseph Gordon-Levitt in times of need. Whose needs remain in question. But it does provide a nice scene between the two that helps define the scope of the kiddie warfare.

Although when all is said and done, this film remains the brainchild of Rian Johnson. Under his assured eye, several key scenes smolder with visual delight. The baiting and pummeling between our hero and the main thug, who engage in a violent test of wills in an empty parking lot. The brilliantly filmed chase sequence which reverberates with heel to concrete rhythms and crescendos with a literally mind numbing gong. And the junior gangland climax at the kingpin’s lair that settles everyone’s hash in the most unpleasant manner.

Brick” manages to sell a high concept mix of classic and modern, and while it may stumble a bit and pick up a few bruises along the way it is ultimately a polished film that succeeds on its own merits. It’s labyrinthine language and masterful visuals are as intoxicating and satisfying a cinematic dessert as the aromatic mix of “coffee and pie, oh my!” Bless you all!

(End note: To our fellow Asphalt Jungle dwelling Film Noir fans - great news! Coming soon, a six week retrospective of some of the great Film Noir "B" Films from the 40s to the 60s at Film Forum. Stock up on your smokes and go!)

Written, Edited & Directed by Rian Johnson

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan Frye
Lukas Haas as The Pin
Matt O’Leary as The Brain
Nora Zehetner as Laura Dannon
Noah Fleiss as Tugger
Emilie de Ravin as Emily Kostach
Noah Segan as Dode
Meagan Good as Kara
Richard Roundtree as Assistant VP Gary Trueman

Cinematography by Steve Yedlin
Film Editing by Rian Johnson
Costume Design by Michele Posch
Original Music by Nathan Johnson
Production Design by Jodie Lynn Tillen
Set Decoration by Shara Kasprack


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