Monday, 20 November 2006

Brick (2006)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 17th September 2006.

BrickIt seems like only a couple of weeks ago that my friend Brian Sibley, was enthusing about Brick on The Michael Parkinson Show on BBC Radio 2, and here it is on what looks on the surface to be a fairly lavish 2-disc DVD already!

Brian's opinion of the film seemed to coincide with that of most of the press reviews I've read and these are pretty unanimous in the way they talk about the film. This is a film with dense language, set in a quirky, 'unreal' High School world with film noir influences. Almost all reviewers have commented on how 'original' the film is, how 'talented' or 'brilliant' the writer/director' is and almost all conclude with the opinion that 'people will either love it or loathe it'.

Which all made me a bit nervous. Just what was Brick going to be like?

In fact I think it's a very simple to describe. It's film noir - following the very clichéd, predictable storyline of that genre, with all the usual ingredients (cold 'detective', dead body, femme fatale, police informant who's at times useful and other times not, devious protagonist with double-crossing allies). This is a story that has been told MANY times before, albeit one obfuscated by introducing a couple of ideas to apply some smoke and mirrors to the lack of originality in the plotting.

Writer/director Rian Johnson talks about The Coen Brothers'Millers Crossing as having started his whole obsession with the film noir genre, but not having seen that film (yet! It's in the 'To be watched' pile) L.A. Confidential and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang were the most recent variations that immediately came to my mind.

What Johnson does, which earns him all those 'brilliant' and 'highly original' plaudits, is deliberately obfuscate the usual film clichés that would otherwise lead audiences down an overly-familiar path, by setting the whole thing in a high school. Of course that introduces a new problem: it's no good diverting an audience from one direction, but then pointing them in another that's equally clichéd. High school films usually involve the sort of teen-soap that Hollywood bombards us with on an almost-weekly basis. As the Johnson himself puts it (several times on the included extra's) "Brick is to High School what Gotham City is to New York City". Introducing dense language is the trick used to immediately throw the viewer even further off the film noir/high school cliché scent.

I wish someone had explained these two embellishments (high school and dense language) going in, and I might have understood more from the start instead of wondering why the first half hour or so seemed so impenetrable and, frankly, just plain weird.

You can probably gather from the comments above that I don't really subscribe to the overly-generous plaudits that have been heaped on the director. I think it's far too early to tell yet whether there's any genuine talent here, and much of the 'originality' the critics are shouting about is just a natural process that comes from the fairly obvious problems of trying to disguise a predictable story that's been told in a formulaic manner far too many times before.

Where I DO give the director credit is for his casting, and the way he is able to use the 'real life' high school experience (the paranoia of those corridor looks, being a kid in the wrong clique, rich kids vs poor kids etc) to re-enforce the traditional cliches and paranoia of film noir. The whole project could so easily have turned into an arch or camp mess, and that it doesn't do so is down to the brilliance of all the casting and, presumably, the way they were guided by their director.

I wouldn't want to single any of the cast out because they are uniformly excellent. But, this being a low budget indie movie, virtually all are unknowns, so it's probably worth mentioning the only two familiar faces that do show up, albeit in very unfamiliar roles. The 'young Sam Spade' detective Brendan Frye is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, proving that his amazing performance in Mysterious Skin wasn't just a flash in the pan. And Emille de Ravin, while having limited screen time, plays a character very different from her Claire character in Lost.

I found myself having mixed views on the film. While admiring the clever mash-up of styles, the acting and, in particular, the clever use of sound and music, the downright 'no budget' indie feel of the whole thing was rather off-putting. The dense language requires concentration every minute of the time, and that makes the film hard work at times. There are also one or two scenes that don't quite work for me. Building up the main villain as 'the king of all bad asses' before revealing him as disappointingly normal is a common cinematic trick, but having the villain diminished by his mother offering everyone orange juice seemed to me to step into inappropriate 'arch bordering on camp' territory.

Bottom line: I think those critics excited about Rian Johnson's writing and direction, rushing to assign sobriquets like 'brilliant' and 'talented' to the director, based on a single effort which has been seven years in the prepping/making, are being premature and over-stating the directorial flair somewhat. As usual your mileage may vary, and nobody could dismiss the film as 'uninteresting'. If you can get past the obvious low budget (MUCH too obvious at times, particularly with some of the sets used), there's no denying it's a well crafted and constructed piece.

Brick screencap

The seemingly lavish two-disk presentation turns out not to be so lavish after all, and whilst the asking price is not unreasonable, one has to ask why on earth a second disk was needed, other than to give a false impression of a pumped-up package.

There's no chapter index or leaflet (although, annoyingly the specially prepped white 'brick of cocaine'-colored case does contain a slot for one. The film transfer is pretty much blemish free, but the problem is the source material which is often unnecessarily dark and murky, and at times much softer than it should be - this is not a DVD that you'll be using to show off the picture on your big plasma screen, but then, with an alleged total budget of $450,000 how could it be?

The Director's Commentary, much like the film, successfully walks the very thin line between two conflicting styles. The best DVD commentaries are informative and reveal new insights into the film-making process, the worst are just an excuse for old friends to hook up and swap small talk or gossip that's of no real interest to anybody outside their small group (or stalker-fans!). The commentary here tends to do a bit of both: The director gives a lively, enthusiastic introduction and then, one person at a time for 5-10 minutes, brings a cast member into the screening room to discuss their involvement or swap anecdotes. It works - just!

There is a half-hour 'UK exclusive' interview with the director which I found interesting for two reasons. Firstly because it's the first time ever someone has looked EXACTLY how I'd pictured them based on just hearing their voice! Secondly (and more importantly!), because it's effectively a more detailed version of the introduction we've heard on the commentary, helping to fill in some of the detail on the genesis of the film, the raising of finance and the casting.

There are eight 'deleted/extended' scenes that mainly provide a bit of back story for a couple of the characters but are pretty disposable, two equally redundant demo auditions from a couple of the cast members, and a very disappointing director's video diary - disappointing because it turns out to be just four minutes of shaky hand-held footage of the director on a UK press tour, which shows how soul-destroying these things can be when you're not known or don't have 'cult of celebrity' appeal where the mainstream media are concerned. The stand-out extra by far for me was an 11-minute featurette on the music - one of the most inventive and interesting, if extremely low budget (are you sensing a theme here?!) movie music features I've seen on a DVD - Good stuff!

While thinking that the judgment 'You'll either love it or loathe it' is a cop-out, I can't think of any other way to describe the film and this DVD. I fell somewhere between the two extremes, but I suspect most will gravitate to one extreme or the other. For me this was a worthwhile purchase, if not quite the classic I was hoping for.

Brick screencap

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