Friday, January 27, 2017
What is real? Who are you? What do you need to become whomever it is you wish to be? Never have these heady questions been so thoroughly explored in a movie as they are in the 2011 documentary Kumare. New York born and New Jersey bred director Vikram Gandhi set out to look at spiritual leaders, professing a lifelong skepticism of anyone who claims to be more holy or more enlightened than anyone else. He was raised strictly Hindu, studied religion in college, but it never clicked with him. Among other things, there was always the resistance to leaders. Gandhi ultimately decided to take on this subject by becoming a guru himself. So he grew out his hair and beard, put on flowing robes, began carrying a walking staff with the Om symbol on it, and affected an Indian accent inspired by his grandmother. All with the idea of “let’s see what happens”. Will people follow this nonsense just because it comes from an exotic looking man with an accent? The social experiment could’ve gone terribly wrong, and the movie as well. But as Vikram says, it ended up being about “the biggest lie I ever told, and the greatest truth I ever discovered.”
He set up shop in the Tuscon and Phoenix, AZ areas, gained followers in yoga communities by spouting philosophy of real and gibberish words and yoga moves. He had practiced yoga for years himself, so his moves looked authentic. He led a “blue light meditation” meant to connect everyone through their blue light. But it was nonsense. He would preach to his followers that they, not he, had the answers. He repeatedly told them he was not who he seemed to be. "I am the biggest faker I know,” he says to them at one point. But people just dismiss that as guru Kumare's deep humility and allow their spiritual hunger to guide them back over and over again to Kumare and his teachings.
This may sound like the seeds of a prank movie, something Sacha Baron Cohen might dream up to put next to his Borat and Bruno characters. But Kumare is much deeper and more ambitious (and good hearted) than that. Kumare was started as a trick, but his teachings became a sort of "you already have all the answers" or "salvation lies within" kind of teaching that many self-help teachers and even religions preach. “You are the guru” he repeatedly tells them. Are we not all our own gurus?
So the movie then starts to consider the question of: if you achieve some amount of enlightenment from working with a fake teacher, is that enlightenment fake? The teacher didn't achieve it; the enlightenment was your own. Should you feel duped because you reached a place of higher truth for yourself in a different way than you thought you did?
That may make this movie sound like some highly intellectual exploration of these ideas, a dry and possibly unengaging scholarly exercise, but that's not the movie that Vikram Gandhi made, nor even the character that Kumare is. Kumare is very funny, and the movie is as well. I never felt it looking down on these people who come to Kumare for spiritual growth. Instead it looks at them and says, "wow, people are so hungry for connection and self improvement that they're willing to listen intently to a man who's telling them that he doesn't have the answers and is a fake."
The people open up to Kumare about their troubled relationships and childhoods and see the caring and loving eyes putting their full attention on them. That would be enough for any of us. How often do you feel like you truly have someone's 100% attention focused directly on you and lovingly listening to your every word? That could make being around Kumare intoxicating.
And this is where Vikram Gandhi starts having some serious internal conflict. He never meant to make a fool of anyone; he was really just conducting an experiment. But he’s actually making a difference in people’s lives, a real, tangible, happiness that is radiating through these people who’ve struggled through addictions, abuse, uncertainty, and more. He’s not trying to swindle anyone out of money, or sleep with all the women the way that some of the guru’s were that he began the project covering. One of his students worked two or three jobs to support her four children who are now grown and out of the house. She now feels guilty when she does anything for herself. Kumare is helping this woman heal that pain. That’s real. Just because Kumare is a character doesn’t negate that progress and much needed and deserved happiness.
What is he doing to these people? How will they react when he tells them he's not who they think he is? He has to tell them, he has to come clean, but what will that mean? Will people feel betrayed? Will they realize that his "it's all inside of you already" teachings were still true no matter what source they came from? Vikram struggles mightily with when and where and how to reveal his true identity to his disciples. He realizes that Kumare is who he wishes he were in his every day life. Not the fake accent and robes, but the attentiveness, the being fully present and aware and engaged with every moment in life. Really listening to people and communing with them from his heart. Why isn't he like that all the time? Kumare isn't just a character, it's inside him. It all came from him. Why can't he live his life that way? Is that how easy it is to become the one you long to be? Just do it?
How his disciples react to the bombshell I’ll leave for you to discover, but I’ll say that I wonder how I would react if I was one of them. I wonder if I’d have a different feeling about the movie if I weren’t looking in from the outside. If a man had led me into some happier place in my mind, I’d likely be pretty pissed that that man was a fake. But seeing the movie as I do, I see that Vikram Gandhi has a good heart, and Kumare brought that out even more in him. He even says, “My idealized self is Kumare.” And aren’t we all looking to become the best version of ourselves?
Thursday, December 1, 2016
Rick and Morty is one of the best shows I've ever seen. A ridiculous sci-fi comedy that also has a ton of heart, Rick and Morty is the brainchild of creators Dan Harmon (creator of Community) and Justin Roiland (who voices both title characters). It follows the adventures of mad scientist Rick Sanchez, an alcoholic misanthrope, and his grandson Morty Smith, a 14-year-old regular seeming kid. The rest of the family often gets roped into some things too, or are just on their own great stories. Beth (Sarah Chalke) and Jerry (Chris Parnell) have a crumbling marriage, while their daughter Summer (Spencer Grammer) is a pretty typical 17 year old girl. The stories range from exploring weird alien lands, to accidentally fracturing time, cloning, hopping into infinite alternate dimensions (or sometimes watching the TV from those infinite parallel universes), alien parasites burrowing into memories, and oftentimes a b-story of Jerry and Beth's failing relationship that manages to be both sad and hilarious.
One of my favorite things about the show is how it explores a lot of traditional sci-fi concepts, like alternate universes and things like that, with both a humorous and playful side but also a real emotional weight to it. Morty and Summer hate that their parents are always fighting, and part of the reason they want to go with Rick on his adventures is to get away from their crazy parents. Jerry and Beth got pregnant in high school and married because of that, staying together "for the kids" but hate each other for it. Still, over time their relationship has developed and they do really care for one another. Beth's anger at not achieving the career goals she had (she's a horse doctor who dreams of being a surgeon who operates on people) and Jerry's timid mediocrity (mixed with a misplaced sense of self importance) often inform hilarious stories, and it isn't depressing like it may sound.
But the key relationship that drives the show and keeps me coming back again and again (I must've watched all 21 episodes four or five times now) is between Rick and Morty. Rick is the smartest man in the universe, while Morty is naive and good hearted but not exactly Einstein. Rick is constantly half drunk (or often full drunk), and Morty has to navigate the outlandish worlds and creatures Rick has them stumble into. Occasionally those creatures even turn out to be Rick's and Morty's from other dimensions. Rick really cares about Morty even if it acts like he doesn't (at one point even using math to prove to Morty and Summer that Grandpa Rick thinks they're pieces of shit).
In addition to the great regular voice cast, there are also a ton of terrific guest voices on the show. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (Key & Peele) play time cops, Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants) plays a pedophile jellybean, Alfred Molina plays the Devil (who Rick calls "honky ass motherfucker"), Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) plays a singing gaseous creature, Christina Hendricks plays a hive mind planet of people that Rick dates (while Patton Oswalt is a rival hive mind jealous of the attention Rick gets), Stephen Colbert plays a scientist who is almost as smart as Rick, John Oliver as Rick's partner in an scheme trying to set up an amusement park inside the human body (with Dana Carvey as the voice of the body, in a Fantastic Voyage/Jurassic Park type episode), Werner Herzog is an alien giving a speech about humanity's dick obsessed humor, and many more.
We also meet characters like Rick's best friend Bird Person, old family friend Mr. Poopy Butthole, genetic experiment Abradolf Lincler (where Rick combined the DNA of Lincoln and Hitler in an attempt to make a superior leader), and so many other great one off characters that you just want to revisit soon.
Influenced by shows like The Simpsons, Futurama, and Doctor Who (directly parodied/homaged in the title music, which also has a hint of X-Files to it, now that I think about it), Rick and Morty goes right alongside those brilliant shows. There are belly laughs, chuckles, and everything in between in every single episode. With only 11 episodes in the first season and 10 in the second, there are no filler episodes. Each one is killer. The season two finale has one of the best uses of pop music I've ever seen in a show, as Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" is played to underscore exactly where Rick is at, and I won't spoil anything more than that.
So if you haven't seen this brilliant show, please remedy that quickly. The only downside can be the length between seasons, as season two ended in October of 2015 and we have yet to receive even air dates for season three. That said, it's one of the great shows and I'll wait as long as it takes to get more episodes.
The Lobster is one of the oddest movies I think I've ever seen. It's the first movie I've seen from Oscar nominated Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, his first in English, and I've actually seen it described as his most conventional and easy to get into movie. I thought the trailers looked weird, but hilarious, and I was excited to see it. After getting a great critical reception (90% approval on RottenTomatoes) I got even more intrigued. I knew from reading about Lanthimos's previous films that it would be bizarre, but I also knew it had Colin Farrell, who is a fascinating actor when he's not doing big budget Hollywood stuff. And it also boasted other terrific actors like Ben Whishaw, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, and John C. Reilly. So I took the dive and it was a much stranger journey than I would've expected, and I kind of liked it.
The movie is set in a world where people are not allowed to be alone, romantically. When David (Farrell) is told by his wife that she's leaving him, he gets sent to a hotel where he'll have 45 days to find another suitable mate, or else be turned into an animal. David chooses a lobster as his potential animal. He arrives at the hotel with his dog, who used to be his brother Bob. During his stay at the hotel, David meets some fellow singles (Reilly and Whishaw) and they talk, commiserate, and scheme to get mates. Something that also happens is that every day the hotel guests are driven in a bus out into the forest surrounding the hotel, given tranquilizer guns, and they hunt loners, people who've escaped the hotel or the city and live out in the woods. For every loner they bring back, another day is added to their stay at the hotel. We hear much of these happenings narrated by an unnamed woman (Rachel Weisz), who we eventually realize is reading from a diary.
All of this is told in an strangely stilted manner, from everyone and everything involved. The actors performances aren't what we're used to seeing. They're not unrecognizable, but they're just....odd. The production design is wonderful, the cinematography and framing of shots is fascinating and beautiful, but there's something off. It's almost like watching a bizarro world version of a Wes Anderson movie. Gorgeously made, lots of terrific actors, but not resembling reality in the slightest. Everything from the look, to the dialog (and the speech cadences as well) is completely it's own thing. Seemingly not informed by other movie or real life.
The first half of the movie is the much more interesting, as we explore this strange world. The second half, while still good, is the lesser even as it is the more conventional piece, as Farrell and Weisz develop their sweet love story. But while I laughed a lot at the trailers, the movie itself is so unusual that I often found myself feeling at too far a distance to be able to laugh at anything but the absurdity of the movie. Farrell and Weisz are able to add the only real bits of emotion found in the film, and their story is involving up to a point. But while outlandish and eccentric, the movie kinda dragged for me as it went along. This crazy new world we're introduced to and explore in the first half isn't really developed or expanded as well when we start to focus on the romance.
Overall, I liked it and would definitely recommend it as something to check out if a person was even remotely interested. It's stranger, and delightfully also more interesting, than the trailers made it out to be. More people need to see more odd things too, I think. We need more new things like this in the world. We may not always love the new things, but this is one I liked, am very glad exists, and happy that I saw it.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
Coming a little bit late to the party with this, but that's how it goes sometimes. Tonight I caught up to Zack Snyder's Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. While Snyder's previous entry, 2013's Man of Steel, had only a 55% critical approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com, I enjoyed many things about it. I liked Henry Cavill as Superman, the more serious tone (seeing as Superman has typically been one of the more light hearted superheroes), Michael Shannon's great villain General Zod, and I even liked the maligned decision of Superman killing Zod at the end of the movie, showing that he knew Zod would never stop and it showed that Superman knew Earth was his home now and he'd protect it at all costs. The movie wasn't without its flaws, but I still liked it overall. When this followup was announced, its title suggested at least a partial adaptation of the beloved Frank Miller graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, where Batman and Superman duel. Great news. I applauded the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman, though I was one of the few at the time, seeing how he's grown over the years into a much more interesting leading man (and overall artist, through his writing and directing) than his 90's and early 2000's output would've suggested. The first trailer got me very excited, as it did many people. I even got excited by the trailer for Snyder's next movie, Justice League, before I'd seen this movie. I stayed away while it was in theaters because of the ridiculously low RottenTomatoes score (27%), but knew I'd catch up eventually, so here we go.
With the chilly critical and audience reception, I wasn't expecting too much going into this movie, but somehow I still left disappointed.
Monday, November 14, 2016
Bobby Fischer was, by most accounts, the greatest chess player in history. He spawned generations of interest in the game, and in 1972 beat the Russians at the height of the Cold War. Then he disappeared from public life.
1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer is a movie of surprising depth and nuance. It’s the story of 7-year-old Josh Waitzkin, whom we follow as he climbs the ranks of the best child chess players in the country. And it’s the story of all the conflicting parental guidance he receives both from his parents, and his two chess teachers. The movie is a wonderful exploration of many varied themes, from the pressures of being a prodigy, parenting, the balance of pushing yourself while still maintaining a love of the game, sportsmanship, the nature of chess, and much more. It is a wonderfully layered movie that also doesn’t require any prior knowledge of chess to understand or enjoy. It is probably one of my most watched movies, and one that would be in my top 10 movies of the 1990’s.
Josh (Max Pomeranc), is just your regular 7-year-old kid growing up in New York City. When playing in Washington Square Park on his birthday, he sees groups of men playing all manner of games, and the chess players really grab his attention. He later asks his mom Bonnie (Joan Allen) if they can go watch the men in the park. Bonnie takes Josh and his younger sister and while nervously standing around, Josh watches as Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne) plays a game of chess while unleashing a constant stream of trash talk to his opponent, who ends up being a chess grandmaster come to hustle the hustlers in the park. Josh watches the board as the men play, and you can see that he just has an innate understanding of the game. Later, when Bonnie brings Josh back to the park to challenge a man to a game, Vinnie watches studiously as even though Josh loses, he uses his pieces in a very advanced way. Vinnie says he’ll be telling people in the future that he used to watch Josh play chess in the park just like people say they used to watch Bobby Fischer in the park.
Josh’s new found love and understanding of chess comes as a surprise to his father Fred (a never better Joe Mantegna), a sportswriter. He and Josh bond over baseball, but Josh is now becoming obsessed with chess. So Fred gets him a teacher, Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley). And this is when the movie really takes off. Josh becomes the most feared young chess player around, winning many tournaments around the country. Bruce teaches Josh strategy, history, and to stop taking his queen out so early. Vinnie, on the other hand, tries to teach Josh to play from his instinct instead of his brain. Vinnie says to Josh, of Bruce, “He didn’t teach you how to win, he taught you how not to lose, that’s nothing to be proud of.” Meanwhile, Fred takes so much pride in Josh’s success that he starts pushing him too hard, expecting nothing less than first place every time. Josh starts seeing his dad’s love tied to winning. Bonnie sees her son’s good heart, his fairness and decency, and is intent on protecting Josh from the dark side of sports that teaches you to hate your opponent, and to win at all cost.
Each character in the movie is given weight, depth, and motivation. Rarely do we see movies this well written. It was written by Steve Zaillian, who also made his directorial debut. Zaillian’s other 1993 screenplay, Schindler’s List, won him an Oscar. He would later go on to write movies like Mission: Impossible, Gangs of New York, Moneyball, and others, but to me his masterpiece is Searching for Bobby Fischer. It was adapted from the real Fred Waitzkin’s book of the same name. Now, although it was based on a non-fiction book, and features many real acclaimed chess players, that is not what makes it good. The most true to life “based on a true story” movie is still a fiction film. I don’t care if things didn’t happen in real life the way they happen in the movie, this is not a documentary and doesn’t claim to be. It’s a great movie and that’s what matters.
The exploration of prodigy here is fascinating. Fred is not alone amongst the overbearing, brash parents pushing their children. And we see the dark side of lives devoted strictly to one discipline. We see some of the great players in the world, ones that play hundreds of tournaments, who we’re told make only about $2,000 a year. So when Bruce and Josh meet a young rival whose teacher brags about how the child does nothing but play chess, no school, no family, only chess, they’re horrified. When Fred puts Josh into a private school, one that even has chess classes, Josh’s question is whether there are good things in the play yard to climb on. He’s seven. No matter what is projected on him due to his gift for chess, Josh is seven and still has the innocence and decency of a child. This is what Bonnie is so hawkish to protect. She cares only for her son’s happiness and protection of his inner self.
The acting ensemble is flawless here. Joe Mantegna is an underappreciated and underutilized actor, and this is his crowning achievement. He loves his son, he wants him to succeed, and he also sees that Josh, at seven, is better at chess than Fred has ever been at anything. Joan Allen’s Bonnie is full of love and acceptance and warmth. Laurence Fishburne, as Vinnie, is a little dangerous and unpredictable, but obviously cares for Josh and wants him to be happy too. Ben Kingsley makes for an intimidating teacher for young Josh, and we can see the bitterness in this man who was once a prodigy himself. And maybe Josh’s good heartedness can teach Bruce as much as Bruce’s expertise can teach Josh. Young Max Pomeranc gives what is likely my favorite performance from a child actor. He was chosen because he was a top chess player himself, and the filmmakers wanted to have the chess look real. But his sensitivity, intelligence, and inner strength make Josh one of the most fascinating characters in film, to me. The rest of the cast is littered with great character actors like Tony Shalhoub, Laura Linney, William H. Macy, David Paymer, Dan Hedaya, and more.
I would like to also point out the look of the movie. Shot by the legendary Conrad L. Hall (director of photography on movies like Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, In Cold Blood, American Beauty, and Road to Perdition), the movie’s loan Oscar nomination came for the cinematography. It is beautiful to look at, but not distractingly so. There is nothing show-offy about the photography here, but it should be a lesson to students of film in how to gorgeously make a movie that is mostly realistic interiors.
Overall, Searching for Bobby Fischer is a fascinating look at parental love, the conflicting voices and advice we let into our lives, and the effect (both positive and negative) of the competitive nature of sports. It’s a great movie, one that doesn’t get talked about enough.
Thursday, October 27, 2016
The Getaway is actually a pretty standard, though wonderful, crime drama for the first 3/4 or so of its pages. Doc McCoy and his wife Carol go on the run after a successful but messy bank robbery, while they try and elude the cops as well as Rudy, the bank robbery partner who tried double crossing Doc only for Doc to shoot him (Doc thought Rudy was dead, but he wasn't), who's intent on revenge. Doc is a smooth talking, fast thinking, tough as nails career criminal. Carol is a former librarian who Doc swept off her feet and who took very well to the quick thinking crime life, though she's not as good as she thinks she is and is in over her head more than she realizes. All of this was adapted onto the screen fairly decently, with the expected small changes here and there. But what McQueen fired Thompson over most of all, I think, is the ending of the book.
For some, the ending of The Getaway is what ruins the book, and for others it's what makes it. After reading it, I'm firmly in the latter camp. Once Doc kills Rudy, and he and Carol try crossing the border into Mexico, is when the book turns to the surreal and allegorical. The couple meet with Ma Santis, a criminal matriarch who hides them on her farmland from the authorities before securing them passage into Mexico so that they can go to "the kingdom of El Rey", a kind of off the map resort for retired criminals, ruled over by an imposing man named El Rey. Doc and Carol hide, first for two days inside of coffin sized underwater caves, then for another few days in a small shack disguised as, and built out of, a huge pile of cow manure. They are next put on a Portuguese fishing boat to sail into Mexico (as crossing on land would be too dangerous) before finally making it to and retiring in the kingdom of El Rey. Once in El Rey, they find living is not as easy as they thought it would be. El Rey is a kingdom of murder (but ruled as "suicide" by the local police), back stabbing, and dwindling finances until there's no money left and people are put into a village where no food is allowed and to survive the residents resort to cannibalism. So as to not run out of money, the couples that come there usually end up killing one another to save their precious money and not end up in the cannibalistic village. The book ends as Doc and Carol are trying to plot the other's "accidental" death. They have a drink and bitterly toast to their successful getaway.
So, one can easily see why the movie adaptations of the book chose to go for the "happy" ending of Doc and Carol making it over the Mexican border, giving us a sense of closure and reassurance that they made their getaway. But this is where the brilliance of the book is lost in the immorality of the movies. Doc and Carol are shown to be truly heinous people, murdering anyone who gets in their way. Rudy is felt to be the bad guy, and we are repulsed by his murders while we are a bit grateful our "heroes" are able to dodge setback after setback through their quick thinking murderous tenacity. We identify with Doc and Carol. When we consume things like this, we want our criminals to be likable and roguish, and not so different from the heroes on the other side of the law, just with bad circumstances. But Thompson's ability to get us to almost forgive these awful people their sins just because they're stylishly done in opposition to Rudy's similar but more crass behavior is simply brilliant writing. I'm a big fan of noir books and movies, and this is the most thought provoking one I've encountered. Just because Doc and Carol are our protagonists does not mean they're our heroes. There are no heroes in Thompson's world. They're not likable anti-heroes either. They're charming, sure, but they're terrible people who should not get a "driving off into the sunset after completing their getaway" happy ending. They don't deserve it, and Thompson doesn't give it to them. He makes them suffer and torturously betray their real love for one another in the name of "survival" in hell. They don't get a happy ending just because they're the main characters of the story. They're cold blooded killers, dropping more than a half dozen people without thinking twice about it.
One could get lost in the symbolism of the last 30-50 pages or so (it's 183 pages in total, so you'll only be out a couple of hours to read the whole thing). Carol struggling to cope with the reality of being in her cave. She's told to take the sleeping pills provided, to help her get through the claustrophobia that creeps in from being in the cave. She initially refuses, this part written in an almost stream-of-consciousness style from Carol's mind as she finally has to face all of her terrible thoughts, and ends up with cuts all over her body from trying to move around in the rocks, suffering in the coffin she put herself in, in every sense of the word. Waiting for days in the shit covered house, symbolizing the decay of their bodies, souls, and ultimately their relationship. Unable to get the horrid taste out of their noses and mouths. Flies and worms digging into the structure and eating at their nerves. The journey by boat, to me obviously representative of crossing the river Styx, on their way to El Rey. El Rey meaning "The King", and being the ruling Satan-like figure of this strange place. And they're put in these places by Ma Santis, "santis" meaning "of the family of saints". So a good person finally put them into their hell, even though it seemed like she was helping.
How often did a dimestore paperback crime novel have so much to talk about in it? I've never read any that had this kinda of surreal turn, which really threw me off initially though I ultimately loved it. It definitely makes me want to read more of Thompson's writing. Makes me wonder how faithful of adaptations The Killer Inside Me and Stephen Frears' The Grifters are to their sources. I am excited to explore more from Thompson now.
“Do you trust me now?”
“Less than when I didn’t trust you before.”
“Brad was a sap. You weren't. You were with him, and so you were playing him. So you're a player. With you behind me I'd have to tie one eye up watching both your hands, and I can't spare it.”
“You’ve helped this office out before.”
“No, I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.”
Writer/director Rian Johnson’s Brick is an odd movie. Dialogue like that, and even more rapid fire exchanges that happen between the characters, are taken from the noir detective writings of people like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. But Brick was made in 2005, which puts it about 70 years behind the times when it comes to its dialogue style. There’s a music to this dialogue like there is to Shakespeare, and it goes a long way in setting up the style and feel of the movie. Also like Shakespeare, you don’t need to keep up with each and every word to get the story. It’s there not just to set up attitude and atmosphere, but for you to come back to it again and again to discover more nuances and references and things like that. And like has been done multiple times with the Bard’s work, Johnson sets his noir detective story in the world of modern high school.
The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, who in the opening scene we see observing a body laying in the shallow water of an overflow tunnel. The body is that of his recently ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). Cut back to two days previous as Brendan receives a phone call from an obviously upset Em, asking for his help. But Brendan has trouble locating her and so begins his detective work that will lead him to her body and beyond in the next few days of his life. He crosses paths with all the usual archetypes of noir: junkies, drug dealers, hired muscle, information experts, unwanted attention from the authorities, and more than one femme fatale. Brendan is not afraid to dole out a punch, and takes many more than he probably would like. And in classic noir fashion, the plot becomes so convoluted that by the end we’re not quite sure if we have it straight, but it feels like we do and that’s what really matters.
Rian Johnson made Brick on a budget of $475,000, about 1.5% the money he later made the terrific Gordon-Levitt/Bruce Willis starrer Looper with, or roughly 0.2% of the budget he’ll likely be working with as writer/director of the next Star Wars movie. Johnson’s talents for dialogue, atmosphere, and working with actors was evident here at the very start. Gordon-Levitt has rarely been better (maybe in Mysterious Skin or The Lookout, which could both show up in this column in the future) and embodies the noir detective perfectly. He’s the smartest guy in the room, but that doesn’t keep him out of harm’s way. He plays everybody just as they’re trying to play him. He’s got it figured out, but has to watch and see if it plays out like he thinks it will. Although instead of the usual noir narration, Johnson has Brendan bounce his internal thoughts off of his informant, The Brain (Matt O’Leary).
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. One of the biggest stand outs being Lukas Haas as The Pin, the drug kingpin of the area (“he’s old, like 26” Brain tells Brendan in one of their rapid fire exchanges). Haas gives the character a certain gravitas and believability, while also some humor in what is a slightly ridiculous role in a movie that otherwise doesn’t wink to the audience in the slightest. Rian Johnson understands this need for some humor as well, and maybe plays up the ridiculousness a bit too much, but never enough to totally throw off the atmosphere of the movie. The other big eye catcher is Nora Zehetner as Laura, our femme fatale. Zehetner gives Laura the intelligence to match Brendan, the deviousness to match The Pin, and a sweet sexiness to keep us off guard about what her intentions are and whose side she’s really on.
But the main star here, other than Gordon-Levitt, is the style borrowed from that '30s and '40s noir. Maybe my favorite thing is Brendan’s penchant for talking on a pay phone. Johnson has said that the production department had to put those pay phones there, since although they were ubiquitous in the '30s and '40s, in the age of cell phones there aren’t any around anymore, at least in Southern California where the movie was shot.
Classic detective noir is a genre I love, but I would not have thought of transitioning it to a high school setting as anything more than a gimmick. Yet the transition works seamlessly, as the archetypes of noir all fall in perfectly with the archetypes of high school. Characters like a two-faced drama queen can literally be in drama class now. What would be “word on the street” stuff in classic noir, is now standard high school gossip. Secret meetings in noir can be boiled down to who you have lunch with in high school. And the junkies and burn outs of noir are now, well, the junkies and burnouts of high school. And the seriousness of the goings on in noir are nothing to the importance of high school, when everything feels like the most serious thing that ever happened.
Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have both done bigger things since Brick, but I’m not sure they’ve done anything better. This little Hidden Gem isn’t unseen, but it’s underseen. Watch it, then watch it again to see what you missed the first time around. I notice new things in it every tim