Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

You’re so cool, You’re so cool, You’re so cool.

True Romance

It’s rare for a title to perfectly capture the spirit of a movie. True Romance does this, right down to its very core. It’s a movie about love, of course. The best ones always are. But it’s a love that extends far beyond the destined union of Clarence and Alabama; True Romance is an ode to pop culture, country style talkin’, The King, kung fu, sex, drugs and rock & roll written with the kind of passion only Quentin Tarantino could deliver.

But unlike Tarantino’s later works, which deliver the same cultural worship chock full of amazing dialogue and memorable references, True Romance is driven by the love affair at its heart, a completely unbelievable journey that somehow feels oh-so-right.

Why? Because it’s destiny. Why should everything work out for Clarence and Alabama, when they’re in over their heads, hunted by the mob, married and practically strangers? Because they deserve it, he says. And they do. That’s romance. Are they crazy? Absolutely. Violent? Without a doubt. But maybe their actions are excusable because they’re in love. Where would cinema be without violence, after all?

True Romance is a great film because it infuses Tarantino’s off-kilter cultural appreciation with a massive dose of lighthearted, downright sweet whimsy. The film clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously, and we are to accept that sometimes people fall in love and that’s just how it’s damn well supposed to be. Hans Zimmer’s score perfectly establishes the tone–at first it seems utterly bizarre and out of place, but gradually it begins to evoke the caution-to-the-wind love affair of Clarence and Alabama.

It’s not a love affair that gets development or depth. It is what it is, just as the movie homages and elaborate dialogue are only skin-deep elements that bind together a wild plot. But Tarantino has proven that the homage is an art of its own. This is a movie lover’s movie, made even better by the power of hindsight. Nearly twenty years after release, we can see True Romance as more than it was in 1993. It’s not just a movie in love with the idea of love and the glorified violence of the silver screen–it’s a movie in love with the 90s and the late 80s, or at least a movie that has come to define the culture of the time. So many of the actors went on to famous bigger and better roles, it’s easy to see the romance of them acting these small parts in a movie that, more than anything, wishes to say only this: movies are so fucking cool.

Amid the chaos of that day, when all I could hear was the thunder of gunshots, and all I could smell was the violence in the air, I look back and am amazed that my thoughts were so clear and true, that three words went through my mind endlessly, repeating themselves like a broken record: you’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool.

The American

The American

The American is an unusual film. It takes a familiar movie framework, the spy thriller, and gives us something we don’t expect. Unlike the Jason Bourne films that exemplify the genre, there is little quick-cut action and even less sophisticated spy talk for the protagonist to dazzle us with. Instead of taking on an assassination mission, The American’s Jack spends the length of a calm film studiously constructing a weapon, artfully piecing together a lethal sniper rifle that he hopes never to fire. More than a Bourne film, The American is like a subdued, emotionally distant cousin to Luc Besson’s Leon, and all we have to sustain us through the film is the beauty of the European countryside and the gravity of George Clooney’s performance.

It’s unusual–and unsettling–to watch Clooney in The American. He looks so much like the handsome, charming man we expect from Ocean’s 11 and Up in the Air. He’s mostly wearing his typical look–hair cropped a bit shorter, but still salt-and-pepper. Yet it’s amazing what difference a smile makes. Without that disarming charmer grin, Clooney in The American is cold and aloof, and it’s apparent early that the film will rest heavily on his acting. He certainly delivers, crafting a hunted killer who is cautious (paranoid) and troubled (tormented). Jack is never at ease, eyes always roaming for the assassin who could be lurking around any corner. The cinematography expertly keeps up, exploiting the twisted walkways and narrow European streets to heighten the suspense of looming attack.

What Jack yearns for more than anything is companionship, and the film ends just as this plot thread is really developing. Director Anton Corbijn clearly focused on Jack’s tormented soul, and spends much of the film exposing the audience to the nerve-racking life on the edge that Jack lives. The film cultivates a powerful atmosphere, but viewing it is an experience that mimics Jack’s own hollow existence. Many films give us endings that leave us yearning for more, but the best, like No Country for Old Men, deliver a satisfying experience until those final moments. The American, too, leaves us wanting more, but it’s lean on satisfaction.

That’s the point, of course. There is no satisfaction for Jack in the life he has lived, even as he tries to leave it behind. The methodical construction of a deadly weapon focuses the film, and Clooney’s performance carries a power that lends The American a heavy sense of reality. Perhaps that’s why it feels all the more unsatisfying as the inevitable ending plays out and the credits roll. Does reality have to be so predictable and depressing?

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott gets it.

Question: how hard must a movie rock to escape from the pull of the Earth’s gravity, to jettison itself from our planet and our universe, and then to carve out its own world with the power of an electric bassline and pop-culture references to define a generation?

Answer: about as hard as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a nonstop whirlwind of energy which delights in cranking the fun up to 12 or 13–all the while winking back at us, because it knows a simple 11 would’ve sufficed.

Edgar Wright doesn’t settle for good enough.  Every inch of Scott Pilgrim is meticulously detailed, every scene packed with sounds and costumes and posters and special effects that, quite frankly, make Scott Pilgrim the film a more unique creation than Scott Pilgrim the comic.  In comics, onomatopoeia are almost necessary to transform the silent print medium into something we can fully relate to, but in film the audio pretty much takes care of that itself.  Yet this alternate reality, this wonderful vision of Toronto brought to life as a 21st century version of magical realism becomes more authentic and individual for all its comical sound effects, CG embellishments and narrative exposition.

Wright is relentlessly inventive, employing a dazzling variety of effects that blend together to create this coherent piece of media that doesn’t quite behave like any other movie out there.  And just when you think you’ve seen all the tricks, an old one will suddenly be used in a different way, as if the blend of sight gags and chiptunes and soundbytes and references could be endlessly combined in innovative ways.  This is just what we get.

A very few fans may gripe that Cera’s Scott isn’t the same as the Scott from O’Malley’s comics, or that the secondary cast are marginalized to make way for the hugely entertaining battle scenes.  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a movie that never slows down once it gets up to speed, and combat does take center stage.  But it’s only a sign of excellence that we want more time with these characters–they’re far from neglected, all played with style and talent, and besides, this is Scott Pilgrim’s show.  He kicks ass, smiles goofily, rocks his heart out and freaks out about his haircut in perfectly measured proportions.

If this is a genre film, I’ll be damned to tell you which one. No action movie has this kind of music, crafted by Beck and other visionaries into an intrinsic element of the film’s world.  No romantic comedy has this much cultural awareness, this keen a sense of the baggage we all carry with us writ large with glowing katanas and videogame sound effects.  And no comic film ever used the elements of comic books so blatantly or originally, mixing illustrations and wild camera technique and multi-frame action to suit the scene at hand.

I don’t know how it could be possible not to like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World when it enjoys itself so much.  As long as you’re willing to leave our world and travel to one very similar, which delights in the sights and sounds we’ve grown oblivious to and promises to one-up your expectations at every turn, you will find something to love in Scott’s fantastic battle.

The mixed up, muddled up, shook up world of The Other Guys


As a genre, buddy cop movies thrive on the cliche.  Oftentimes they are nothing but a series of recognizable cliches strung together, from the sassy love-hate relationship to the victorious shootout finale.  Sometimes they’re done well and you get Lethal Weapon.  Sometimes you get Rush Hour 3.  Adam McKay’s The Other Guys may share structure with those movies, but its tone is so utterly bizarre that between every bout of laughter, I was left feeling downright weird.

Ferrell and Wahlberg star as a number-cruncher and a screw-up who get no respect around the office, and hardly deserve to.  They’re pretty terrible police officers by movie standards.  When they happen to stumble upon a major case, they immediately screw it up, but keep doggedly pursuing it to prove they have what it takes.

The most interesting thing about The Other Guys is how McKay intentionally plays with the genre–the plot actually intentionally subverts a lot of predictable cop movie elements, and the action actually involves very little ass-kicking.  In one awesome White Stripes-driven scene, Mark Wahlberg wields two guns in a slow-motion shootout…and doesn’t actually seem to hit anyone.

The Other Guys does have a few problems, mainly driven by a minor identity crisis.  Yes, it’s a comedy first, but as the film draws closer to the end it begins to focus more and more on the nation’s financial crisis and the crimes perpetrated by mega corporations.  The ending credits even go so far as to provide facts and figures about the government banking bailouts and ludicrous salaries of CEOs.  It’s actually really disturbing, and retroactively paints earlier moments in a pretty dark light.  Michael Keaton’s turn as by-day police captain, by-night Bed Bath and beyond manager sounds funny and looks funny, but man is that a depressing image.

The Other Guys either needed a bit more comedy or a bit more serious cop drama–either way, the two made for a slightly uneven mix, which the writing capitalized on to make things even more awkward.  It’s hard to describe what makes the movie so downright bizarre–the writing and delivery are so off-kilter that they clash with the relatively realistic world Wahlberg and Ferrell bumble through.  It’s like this celluloid version of New York has its own reality–common for cinema, especially comedies or fantasies–where we don’t know quite how seriously we’re supposed to take things, which leads to quite a few “Oh man did that just happen” moments.

Even if the movie bounces kind of weirdly between farce and reality, the writing is spot-on most of the time and stays pretty damn funny throughout–though the film begins on such a high, it would be impossible to retain that momentum until the end.  You may finish the movie feeling as though you’re not quite sure what you just saw.  But for a genre movie, isn’t that the most pleasant of surprises?

Three Days of the Condor

I liked spy movies better when they used phone booths.

The paths we take to movies can be strange, sometimes.  Case in point: after I first listened to an audio book of John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief more than half a decade ago, Three Days of the Condor set up shop in a tiny corner of my brain.  Grisham’s shadowy assassin loves Three Days of the Condor because it’s familiar territory for him: a smart espionage thriller set in a world of hired killer, government operatives, and code names.  All I gleaned from the brief reference was that it was a spy movie with Robert Redford, and that was enough to keep it bouncing around in my mind until the time was right to finally see it.

And when I did, imagine my surprise when Redford turned out to be a computer geek (to the extent that was even possible in 1975) dealing with arcane bits of data in a cleverly disguised CIA office.  The technology of spy movies has certainly moved on since Three Days of the Condor was released — and it seems like the world has, too.  It’s a movie I’ve never heard mentioned or seen on TV, though perhaps I’m not talking to the right people or watching the right channels.  But you’d think one of the smartest thrillers ever made — with a talented pair like Sydney Pollack directing and Robert Redford starring — would show up a little more often.

Three Days of the Condor begins innocently, introducing you to a small group of CIA researchers, which makes their murder all the more abrupt when it happens.  From that point on, it’s intensity overdrive, with Redford gradually shedding his bookworm persona to become more confident, more daring, more in control.  Unlike most thrillers, in which the gun is the weapon of choice, Redford fights primarily with information.  For most of the film he’s fighting to figure out who wants him dead, and why, he knows it’s something he knows.  So he’s constantly thinking and planning, desperate to untangle the knot of secrets surrounding him before he’s caught.

The weakest link of the movie is Faye Dunaway’s presence as a requisite love interest.  Her acting is by no means bad, but after Redford hijacks her and her car and holes up in her apartment to lie low, their ensuing romance is slightly unbelievable.  Then again, it’s pretty standard fare for these types of movies — I don’t know if we can write it of as Stockholm syndrome or simply accept that people in emotionally charged situations tend to develop feelings for each other, but the romantic subplot is the only element of Three Days of the Condors that plays it by the book.  And really, it’s pretty hard to imagine anyone could resist Robert Redford in his prime.

We’re obviously geared to love Redford from the start, but Max von Sydow utterly steals the show during the finale, driving home a magnificently taut twist ending that’s far too good to spoil.  From the first time Sydow appears on screen, we know quite clearly that he is the enemy, that he is cold, merciless, and evil.  But by the end…he is, perhaps, the most respectable character in the film.

Watch Three Days of the Condors for the fun of keeping up with the plot.  Watch it for Redford or Max von Sydow.  Watch it for the 70s charm of ancient computers and phone booths.  But definitely watch it, because thrillers that brew intensity and brains into this fine a cocktail are few and far between.

The Many (Frightening) Faces of Robert De Niro


As part of an ongoing summer campaign to catch up on the all-too numerous pop culture landmarks I’ve somehow missed over the years, I recently found myself watching two of Scorsese’s most famous movies, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, within the span of a couple days.   While both fantastic films, neither would top my list of Scorsese’s best.  But with all the acclaim Raging Bull gets, it would have to be damn incredible to outmatch my expectations.

As a boxing film, I think I prefer the story of Rocky more.  Stallone’s original manages to capture something special about boxing as a way of life.  It draws in the 70s culture, and admirably balances the sad state of urban decay with Rocky’s heart and clumsy romance.  But Raging Bull is an altogether different movie — after all, it’s based on a real man, a real story, and has a narrower focus.  And for the first time in a long time, it made me appreciate what an amazing actor De Niro is.  So when I was going into Taxi Driver, an idea was already crystallizing in my mind.  I wondered: would Travis Bickle disturb me more than Jake La Motta?

Few biographical films can match the intensity of Raging Bull.  Of course, few biographical films are directed by Martin Scorsese — but the cinematography, editing, and sound work during the boxing matches are absolutely incredible, creating this sharp, powerful edge that goes beyond the typical heavy-handed (no pun intended) sound effects of Hollywood brawls.

Still, as impressed as I was with the filming, De Niro’s acting undeniably deserves even more praise.  His portrayal of Jake La Motta had to be one of the most realistic — yet inhuman — performances I’ve ever seen.  He seemed all too believable at times, which was what made La Motta’s madness so difficult to watch.  In one moment, he clearly adores his wife and cares deeply for his brother.  In another, he stands in the ring, absorbing blow after blow as blood and sweat fly from his body, daring his opponent to continue, enjoying it.  I haven’t seen too many depictions of masochism in movies, but unlike Bill Murray’s hilarious bit part in Little Shop of Horrors, De Niro’s masochist is chillingly insane.

The way De Niro captures La Motta’s calm moments really highlights his shocking ones.  And as the film goes on, it’s not just the pleasure he pulls from violence that eats away at you — it’s his constant, neverending jealousy and insecurity, which builds and builds until it’s clear something is seriously wrong with him.

That’s about where Travis Bickle comes in.  Maybe it’s because Taxi Driver dips further into extremity than Raging Bull, or maybe it’s because I already knew more about the film’s main character, but I actually found Travis to be less disturbing than La Motta.  What’s interesting is how well De Niro plays crazy, but in completely different ways.  Travis is obviously unbalanced and deranged from the very start — he can barely relate to other people, suffers serious insomnia, and harbors a volatile anger that he gradually feels right in letting loose.  That he plans to die by story’s end indicates he simply can’t cope with the world — or how he sees the world, anyway — and has to simply mark it with destruction before leaving for good.

Given that Taxi Driver is fiction and Raging Bull is grounded in history, saying Travis is more of a character than LaMotta may seem pretty obvious.  But it’s true.  And what’s scarier to watch — a homicidal madman, only a step removed from serial killer territory, or a man subtly coming apart as his life progresses, who thrives on pain and slowly self-destructs, both in his personal life and his career?

Yeah, I guess both of them are pretty disturbing!  For my money, LaMotta is the true madman, and De Niro deserved his Oscar.  Maybe it’s time I watched Cape Fear.


I hope you're not implying that any day is unimportant at Cortex Semi.

For reasons I’m not sure I can fully explain — or even understand – Primer is one of the most unsettling movies I’ve ever seen.  Like the most important works of science fiction, it eschews drama for ideas, or an idea, in this case time travel.  Here is why this is great science fiction:

Compare Primer to Back to the FutureBack to the Future is a fantastic movie; it’s a classic adventure, fun and heartwarming and flashy and entertaining, which dances around the concept of time travel with faux-concern about disrupting the space-time continuum.  Doc Brown’s eyes bug out whenever Marty tries to change the future, but ultimately this issue is dismissed and relegated to something that concerns only these characters.  Recreate the past or your whole family will slowly disappear from a photograph, culminating in the erasure of your birth!  Back to the Future is Marty’s story, and the “right” thing to do in any situation regarding time muckery is to make sure everything turns out well for Marty.  Everyone goes home happy.

In Part II, you’ve got the evil Biff who uses knowledge of the future to get rich, rule the world, blah blah.  He’s a comical villain, his ancestor was a villain, his kids will be villains.  There’s destiny at work, here, and the grand design allows for the underdog McFlys and the mean old Tannens to be at odds forever, which makes for fun call-backs in the world of cinema.  What it doesn’t do is provide any sort of genuine questions of how time travel would affect real people.  And that’s fine — it doesn’t have to.

Primer does.  We see two men — two good men, kind and hard-working and smart — run aground the rocky morality of time travel.  We first see them labor, as scientists, to understand what they have created, and the implications of it.  We see them take great pains to avoid anything dangerous beyond their understanding — to prevent any sort of possible paradox, in case such an event may irrevocably damage their lives and the lives of others.  And when, inevitably, they begin to make meticulous changes to the future, we see the damage done to their own friendship.

Primer is certainly no cheeky adventure in a badass flying car, and even the inevitable destruction of the DeLorean does little to make a real case for the moral implications of time travel.  In Primer, we see the implications of their actions eat at the characters from within, just as the effects of their device eat at them from without.  In the end, the narrative becomes almost impossibly complicated — and it starts out pretty damn hard to follow.  But following the exact series of events isn’t really necessary.  It’s not the point.  Knowing that these men are dealing with forces outside of their own understanding, and seeing how power weighs on them is what makes this great sci-fi.  And, as I mentioned at the beginning, seeing what actions such believable, rational people will inevitably take is seriously unsettling.  Primer weighs heavy on the conscience.

A rational movie about time travel?  Yup, turns out it is possible after all.

Romancing in the Big Leagues


Perhaps he doesn’t deserve the credit, but ever since Judd Apatow re-branded the adult comedy scene with his balance of foul language and from-the-heart sincerity, genre movies have started to step up.  Of course, you’ve still got piles of shit like Meet the Spartans and plenty of chick flicks like Valentine’s Day that aim for the lowest common denominator.  Cheap, poorly written comedies and sappy, predictable romances will still be around to exploit the stupid and the emotionally susceptible.  But ever since Apatow came along with The 40 Year Old Virgin, and especially since he followed it up with Knocked Up, more than a few romantic comedies that looked bland and cookie-cutter have turned out to be — surprise! — quite sharp.

Enter She’s Out of My League — this is a funny-ass movie..  With the exception of Blood Diamond, no movie has surprised me as much from the trailer to the real deal.  Starring Jay Baruchel as the skinny loser guy with no self-confidence (but a heart of gold!) who somehow snags the hottest chick on the block, She’s Out of My League hardly steps outside the bounds of its genre expectations, but it sure plays well within them.  The biggest weapon in its arsenal is the supporting cast of lovable losers, who, again, couldn’t be much more predictable.  But it doesn’t matter — they’re funny anyway.

T.J. Miller, who you might have heard, but barely seen, as the likable camera-guy in Cloverfield, channels Seth Rogen in The 40 Year Old Virgin as the wildly inappropriate crazy friend with curly hair.  He threatens to steal the spotlight away from Jay, but Nate Torrence often gets to it first.  He simply radiates charming innocence, and any roly-poly grown man citing Disney movies as allegories for romantic situations is guaranteed to win a few laughs just on principle.  That he does it so well only makes his character more endearing.

With a couple great backers behind him and some laugh-out-loud dialogue guaranteed from their hang out scenes, Jay Baruchel carries the leading man position surprisingly well.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he’s from the Apatow school of young actors, having starred in the TV series Undeclared and popping up as a bit part in Knocked Up.  As he proved in Tropic Thunder, there’s something infectious about his nervous mannerisms and voice — which is exactly what She’s Out of My League needed, since it’s playing on our sympathy for Jay’s character Kirk throughout.  Kirk is a nice guy, though he doesn’t really know it, barraged with one horribly uncomfortable situation after another.  His job as an airport security agent actually seems pleasant next to his Nascar-loving, Branson-bound family, who have essentially adopted Kirk’s ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend into the family.

For the most part, Kirk simply absorbs the awkwardness, and only one or two moments in the film reach out of the screen and make you squirm in your seat.   It’s a nice change from comedies that revel hanging awkward terror in the air like an oppressive cloud, and it’s much more fun to gawk and how totally, dreadfully, shudder-inducingly awful Kirk’s family is.

The movie’s propelled along by an energetic soundtrack and solid cinematography.  The camera work isn’t anything revolutionary, but it puts a stamp of quality on the movie that’s yet another sign She’s Out of My League stands above the pack.  It may not quite pack the emotional power or humor of Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  But it ends in the best possible way: leaving me wanting more time with this particular group of misfits.

An Education in Disconnection

An Education in Disconnection

I think there’s a piece of me missing.  I didn’t know I was missing it until about three months ago when I first saw An Education.  The film was up for three Academy Awards.  And not throwaway awards, like sound editing or hairstyling.  We’re talking real awards: Best Picture and Best Actress.

I spent a couple hours watching An Education, and afterward I started to think something wasn’t quite right with me.  And ever since, that same niggling uncertainty will pop back up and gnaw at my confidence.  But today I found out for sure.  I watched Fish Tank.

Apparently 2009 was the year for depressing British adolescent flicks.  Or maybe those are the only kinds of movies British people make outside of the Bond franchise, and the two I’ve been exposed to are but the tip of a horrifyingly vast iceberg of teenage angst.  I really don’t want to know, because An Education and Fish Tank were enough to prove something to me.  Despite critical acclaim, despite passionate writing and emotional acting, despite powerful cinematography, I just can’t seem to care about young British girls and their experiences with older men.

An EducationWhatever part of my brain dishes out sympathy, it’s missing the receptor for the plight of the British youth.  After watching both of those movies, devoting four hours of my life to them, trying to appreciate them as the movie buff I aspire to be…mostly, I was just bored.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot in each film I can appreciate.  An Eduation captures its setting beautifully, applying this glossy sheen of wonder to the high society of 1960s Europe.  It’s like a perfectly-resored antique, and an absolute pleasure to look at.  I just couldn’t draw much of an emotional impact out of the story.  The problem sure wasn’t the acting; Carey Mulligan’s Oscar nomination was well-deserved, and Peter Sarsgaard exuded Child Fucker from the moment he showed up on screen (and seriously that Minnie/Bubbalub scene is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen).

Maybe that was the problem, actually.  When your movie is about a young girl falling for a dashing older guy who woos her with his charm and offers her the world, is there ever any doubt how things will turn out?  Watching An Education amounts to spending two hours waiting for something awful to happen, and then it does happen, and then people get over it and life goes on.  The story is told well, but it was destined to end the way it did from the very beginning, and didn’t bother to take any detours along the way.  It was a straight line from start to finish, and my sympathy didn’t make it far past the starting line.

Fish TankThen there’s Fish Tank, which took an altogether different approach to the same coming of age dilemma.  An Education seemed to show us that life is pretty amazing, as long as you don’t get tricked by charming child predators.  Fish Tank’s motif is more along the lines of Life Is A Bit Shit, and nobody is really ever happy about anything.  The protagonist, Mia, and her ghastly mother try to out-horrible each other because they’re both pretty miserable.  The mother is the party type, still trying to have a good time and acting like she doesn’t have kids to be responsible for.  And Mia has so much rage and angst built up she just hates everbody, and has to tell them at every available opportunity.

The whole thing is recorded with handheld cameras, and the style works perfectly to capture the low-class urban social system at work, high-rise tenements and cramped spaces.  Mia spends most of her time wandering aimlessly or dancing.  And her dancing is complimented several times throughout the film, though it mostly seemed awful to me.  But if there’s anything I’m less fit to analyze than the emotional state of a 16 year old lower-class British girl, it’s probably dancing.

The worst thing about Fish Tank is that the only character who is remotely appealing is mom’s boyfriend Connor, who, of course, turns out to be a double-life leading sleaze.  The depiction of Mia’s life is raw and just terrible enough to feel authentic, but is also borderline uncomfortable to watch.

When I think back on coming of age stories, there are plenty that resonate with me.  Quite a few of my all-time favorites are coming of age tales, in fact.  But all of them are a little more nuanced, complicated, or masked than either An Education or Fish Tank.  Take FLCL, for example, which buries a very sweet growing up story underneath layers of Japanese pop-culture references, robot fights, and a level of weirdness only Japan can cram into a couple hours of television.  Or Ferris Bueller, which begins as a story about a lovable slacker and ends as a much more poignant story about Cameron, and what happens to love and friendship after high school.

Fish Tank and An Education simply didn’t resonate with me that way.  Much as I tried, I couldn’t generate the sympathy to feel much for the girls, as horrible as their situations were.  Maybe it’s because the prospect of having my life ruined by a charming-but-ultimately-evil 30 year old man is utterly foreign to me.  But I found Joyce Carol Oates’ novel You Must Remember This to be far more gripping and emotionally powerful than either film, even though it told much the same story.  The power of prose over film, I guess.  Or it could’ve just been the accents.

Wait’ll you get a load of my felt fedora and spats.


When I watch film noir, I’m peering through a window to an earlier time, a window to a place I never lived in.  It’s a place where men dress in pinstripe suits and trenchcoats for breakfast, rarely go anywhere without a fedora and a cigarette, and drink their liquor straight.  And they drink it constantly.

Granted, it’s a world that never really existed — not the way Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s made it out to be, where every guy’s a tough guy with a square jaw and an oblique wisecrack waiting behind a grim smile.  But it’s always felt like an authentic world, real within the confines of its own imagining, reflecting a now-departed society where people really did talk tough and mysteries really did exist, if you bothered to follow the trail of breadcrumbs from shady alley to shady alley.

Maybe that’s why Rian Johnson’s 2005 neo-noir Brick is so wildly surreal.  Set in modern-day suburban California, Brick transposes the language of classic noir into rapidfire, jargon-saturated dialogue, as heavily stylized as Juno but with none of the whimsy.  There are no men in suits and coats, no cigarette holders, no fedoras.  In their place are boys, teenagers treating high school social circles with the same gravity as mobsters and racketeers.  And they deserve that world-weary treatment; Brick presents an unrelentingly dark disturbia, in which crime and danger hardly bother to lurk beneath the surface.

Noir has jarringly and unabashedly been stuffed into a high school, bringing with it the eerily empty streets and late-night meetings of the urban underworld.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, easily one of the strongest young actors of his generation, plays the classic loner — street-smart and tough enough to take a beating — searching for the identity of his ex-girlfriend’s murderer.  Brendan knows she’s in trouble, tracks her down, finds her dead; from there he’ll do whatever it takes to flush her killer into the open, even if it means dealing with heroin dealers and the cliques of rich kids manipulating everyone beneath them.

Brendan and his acquaintances clash with words loaded with venom, delivered at a youthful speed that matches or outpaces anything in classic noir.  It borders on campy, much like the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City, but Brick never crosses the line from heavy-handed to excessive.  Simply put, it just works.

The shoes match the man

The danger feels real, and Brick is emotionally tense throughout Brendan’s journey.  I was transfixed, trying to piece together the clues and figure out exactly how much danger he was in.  With everyone playing their cards close to their chests and Brendan stirring up the underworld with the grace of a sledgehammer, it’s easy to forget how young all these kids are…until Johnson points it out with a tongue-in-cheek scene featuring someone’s mom, or an ironic moment when a violent drug-dealer casually asks, “You read Tolkien?  You know, the Hobbit books?”

Coupled with Nathan Johnson’s score, with shifts from mournful horns and retro piano to jarring percussion to heighten the intensity of Brendan’s most dramatic moments, Brick does the unthinkable: it out-noirs classic noir, without a trenchcoat in sight.  Rian Johnson knew his material, and he knew it well — low angle shots create imposing characters, and wide shots highlight the solemnity of Brendan’s world, a series of empty rooms, empty halls, empty fields.  And in a modern touch, when there’s violence, the camerawork suddenly explodes into motion.

Brick is a film so lovingly crafted, smartly written and seriously acted that it deserves to be seen more than once…and maybe read again, on top of that.