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BRICK

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas, Nora Zehetner, Matt O’Leary, Noah Segan, Noah Fleiss
Director:  Rian Johnson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Focus Features
Features:  See Review
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  August 8, 2006

“You better be sure you wanna know what you wanna know.”

Film ***1/2

Brick is a bold, bravura act of filmmaking that could have just as easily not worked as been successful.  But writer/director Rian Johnson’s vision was right on the money, and the result for me is one of the most savory, delectable movies of the year.

It’s a low-budget and gritty throwback to the classic film noir of the 30s and 40s, but told in modern times, and entirely with teenagers.  Fans of old school movie making like myself will appreciate it the most.  It’s not believable that these kids talk and act the way they do, but that’s beside the point.  Like in the days of Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, the dialogue is sharp, driven and purposeful, and an absolute delight to listen to.

I mean, when you hear a high school girl saying “Shut your yap and pour me one of those”, or an exchange that goes like, “Tip the bulls?”  “No, bulls jam it up”, you’ve entered another plane of reality.  But I loved every moment of it because every moment was true to its course.  There are no winks or asides to make you think it’s all a joke or a spoof.  These kids are dead serious, and so is Rian Johnson.  Apart from the delicious throwback to noir, I loved the fact that it actually achieved the rarely-hit mark of being an intelligent movie about teenagers when so many of those films only strive for the lowest common denominator.

It opens in classic style…a dead girl in a drainage ditch, with the sober, thoughtful eyes of Brendan (Gordon-Levitt) watching her.  What happened?  Flash back (what else?) two days earlier.  The girl?  A one time love of Brendan’s.  After a few months apart, she arranges a meeting at a phone booth (remember those?) out of the blue.  She’s scared, but can’t fully explain why.

With the aid of an all-seeing partner known as The Brain (O’Leary), Brendan decides to try and piece together what led to his ex-girlfriend’s death.  The trail leads to Laura (Zehetner) a beautiful but mysterious girl (naturally) with a highly appropriate name, a shady drug dealer known as The Pin (Haas), and his hot-headed muscle man Tugger (Fleiss).  Can I just pause for a minute and say…I LOVE these names?

Brendan approaches the mystery with savvy and guts.  He gets the crap beat out of him a couple of times, and spends a good part of the movie woozy from swallowing his own blood, but he’s unflappable.  No hood, no muscle, and certainly no sultry dame is going to get between him and the truth.

What Johnson has crafted is an exercise in pure style.  Despite a budget of only $500,000 and editing the movie on his home computer, he managed to hit the true dark heart and sole of film noir.  There are no dark alleys, no low brimmed hats, and no smoky offices, but the characters, the dialogue and the story are all true to Johnson’s inspirations:  Hammett, Chandler and so on.

His cast is top notch…if any of them didn’t deliver on the script with full conviction, the house of cards would have fallen down.  Every move in the picture feels like a risk.  But Johnson and his terrific young stars know how to play the risks and make them work.  You have to love scenes like when kids meet for shady dealings at the breakfast table of one of their suburban houses, with the smiling mom gleefully pouring orange juice and milk for the seedy characters.  Brilliant touch!

The best audience for Brick is probably people like me, who know the film noir genre pretty well inside and out.  I WISH the audience was today’s teenagers.  They could use a healthy, smart, and stylistically ambitious movie like this in their lives instead of another piece of schlock based on the latest video game.  I could see some high school achiever watching this movie and becoming inspired to be the next Rian Johnson.

Can I say for sure that most people will ‘get’ it?  I suppose not.  But it’s a rare occasion when I can sit down and write that a movie was an absolute pleasure to watch from beginning to end…that a young filmmaker took more than a few chances and made them work…that I felt like I was watching the blossoming of an extremely promising new talent. 

Brick affords me all of those opportunities.  And I, for one, can’t wait to see what Rian Johnson brings us next.

Video ***

Sure, the movie is low budget, but the limitations actually serve the style.  The story is gritty and so is the look.  Johnson doesn’t go the full light-and-shadows route with his style, but keeps it just ‘unclean’ enough to make the anamorphic transfer work wonderfully.

Audio ***

It’s dialogue-driven, of course, but there are some surprising moments that punch up the dynamic range, as well as quieter ones that really use the surround channels for nice ambient effects.  A nice 5.1 mix overall.

Features **

I enjoyed the commentary track with Rian Johnson…the best commentaries are hungry young filmmakers talking about their first low-budget effort.  He brings in as guests stars Nora Zehetner and Noah Segan, as well as members of his crew.  It’s an informative and entertaining listen.

There are also eight deleted/extended scenes and screen tests for Ms. Zehetner and Mr. Segan.

Summary:

A phrase like “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” gets bandied about too liberally these days, but in the case of Brick, it’s not just a description…it’s a mission statement.  Kudos to Rian Johnson for quietly delivering one of the year’s most original and best motion pictures.

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