Wednesday, May 2, 2007


Here I follow my review of 13 Tzameti with a review of another contemporary Noir film, Rian Johnson's Brick.

Brick's official site features an illustrated novella that really captures the spirit of the film:

If 13 Tzameti is a serious Noir film that dreams it is a parody, Brick is a parody that dreams it is a serious Noir film, and practically succeeds in transforming itself. 13's outlandish game of death and stark portrayal of abandoned humanity just escapes self-parody using increasing intensity and suspense, but Brick transcends parody by injecting humanity, and a convincing sense of place, into a script full of stereotypical characters and dialogue.

Brick is American director Rian Johnson's first film, which he wrote as well as directed. Johnson spent about double the production budget of The Blair Witch Project to make Brick (about $500,000 vs. $220,000 for Blair Witch) but grossed only 10% of Blair's box office ($3 million vs. $240 million for Blair Witch), which only goes to show that money really can't buy happiness. Admirers of Blair Witch must acknowledge that the internet marketing campaign that led to its box office success was a trick-pony will never ride again, and the film itself, while novel in many ways, wasn't strong enough to support anything but a sell-out, last-gasp sequel before the "project" came to a timely end. Brick is Mozart to the Witch's Salieri, and I hope Brick's DVD release and run on cable will raise a terrific film from the box office equivalent of a pauper's grave.

Johnson says he avoided mentioning the Noir genre during production to keep his actors from emulating classic Noir performances, but his script is full of Noir stereotypes. It isn't hard to identify the private dick, the hard-boiled police captain, the muscle, the criminal mastermind, the quirky mole, and the femme fatale in this film's lineup, even though its setting in an affluent suburban California high school is far away from the mean city streets that framed classic noir drama. Johnson even does some teleological character naming to help us get it; "Pin" is short for Kingpin, and "Tug" is just one letter short of a thug.

The loner detective of this tale, Brendan, pines over his estranged girlfriend Emily, who has begun to associate with the, "upper-crust," a group of rich and popular kids who partake of party drugs and transcend Brendan's low place in the school's social heirarchy. When they meet, Emily tells Brendan that despite her love for him, they can no longer be together, and she wants to make a new start for herself away from his bitter judgement of their fellow students that feeds his desire for isolation. The rules of high school society keep Brendan from pursuing Emily into her new world, and Emily disappears soon thereafter, leaving Brendan four clue-words in a desperate final phone call: Brick, Tug, "Poor Frisco," and Pin. With the help of Rubik' cube-master Brain and Assistant Vice-Principle Trueman (played by Shaft's Richard Roundtree), Brandon unravels a web of intrigue through the femme fatale's house party, the underworld gang's convenience store hideout, and his "showgirl" ex-partner's makeup station in the school's backstage green room (Nora Zehetner as femme fatale Laura and Meagan Good as small-time showgirl/drug dealer Kara highlight the supporting cast).

I won't reveal more of the story or spoil the film's resolution, but I have to share some of the Classic Noir dialogue that finds new life in Johnson' script:

Brendan Frye: Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.

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.
Assistant VP Gary Trueman: Fine. And very well put.
Brendan Frye: Accelerated English, Mrs. Kasprzyk.
Assistant VP Gary Trueman: Tough teacher?
Brendan Frye: Tough but fair.

Brendan Frye: Your muscle seemed plenty cool putting his fist in my head. I want him out.
The Pin: Looky, soldier...
Brendan Frye: The ape blows or I clam.

Making dialogue like this work outside of the purely comedic frames of The Naked Gun would be a tall order for any actor, but Joseph Gordon-Leavitt delivers it with just the right amount of irony and gravity; the film's other sterotypical characters succeed because of Brendan's credibility. Even as he is served country-style apple juice by the criminal Kingpin's mother and searches his school locker for cryptic invitations to rendez-vous, Leavitt keeps us in the heat of a murder mystery, never letting tongue protrude cheek. While watching Brick I felt like I had insight into a much larger and more dangerous world than a suburban high school, and Leavitt's portrayal of Brendan is the reason why. Though he keeps his game face on through the farce, Leavitt makes us believe that Brendan is truly lovelorn, and sad-but-wise enough to remain on the fringe of a high school scene full of characters who deserve his low regard. Johnson creates a world that matches Brendan's interiority; the colorless cement boxes of an anonymous high school set in a cloudy California winter is Brendan's natrual home, and Johnson's camera finds all of the shadowy corners that escape both sun and parental oversight.

I recommend 13 Tzameti and Brick for very different reasons but with equal enthusiasm. I found it impossible to avert my eyes from 13's horror of inhumanity, and Brick was so potently infused with both humor and the Noir hero's pain that my brain couldn't resist the contradiction. Johnson has achieved something special with Brick, and I expect the same from his next film, The Brothers Bloom, due for release in 2008.