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Review: “Brick” (2005)

How far can a movie coast on style? If Rian Johnson’s snaky-plotted, murky, hyperarticulate “Brick” is any indication, the answer is “far, very, very far.” There’s not one element left uncalibrated, from the score (equal parts “Chinatown” and “Casablanca”) to the colors (all gray-tinged) to the dialogue (make friends with words like “yegg” and “reef worm”). Shot for shot, “Brick” looks and sounds so unassailably cool that if the characters don’t hold water, well, we barely notice.

Certainly modern movie characters who spout off lines like “the ape blows or I clam” or “I’m not heeling you to hook you” are jarring enough, but Johnson goes one better by setting “Brick” in a SoCal high school that exists as its own society (like “Heathers” sans smartened-up Valley Girl affectations). There are caste systems to be maintained, mores to be observed; there is protocol to be followed. And save for the vice principal (Richard Roundtree) and a mother or two, there are no adults in sight in this world, the students — all precocious enough to put those long-winded “Dawson’s Creek” mopers to shame — are free agents in this eerie, surreal blur of a world.

One of the amazing things about “Brick” is the way Johnson draws us in (granted, it takes a good 30 minutes, a discerning eye and a fair amount of patience) and coerces us into accepting this eerie world as reality. Panache can do that to a viewer. The young actors, particularly the versatile Joseph Gordon-Levitt, work hard to sell the concept: Brendan Frye (Gordon-Levitt), a high school pariah by choice, gets a panicked call from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). She’s in trouble, she says, and that’s all he gets before he finds her dead body near a sewer. Determined to help the only girl he ever loved, Brendan and his pal The Brain (Matt O’Leary) make like gumshoes. (When do they have time for class, you ask? Homework? Showers? Best not to ask too many logical questions.) Their sleuthing leads them to an underground drug ring headed by The Pin (Lukas Haas, scary in his supernatural calm), who never leaves his oafish, loose-cannon bodyguard Tugger (an explosive Noah Fleiss) far behind. Haas and Fleiss have the chops to turn their characters from harmless kooks — a pusher with a cane? — into men (albeit young ones) no one should want as enemies.

From here the complications flower. Also in the mix are Laura (Nora Zehetner), a pretty socialite who’s more conniving than she looks; Kara (Meagan Good), a wannabe femme-fatale; and Dode (Noah Segin), Kara’s flunky and a hopeless drug addict who knew Emily more intimately than he’ll admit. All have varying degrees of involvement in Emily’s mysterious death, but Johnson deserves credit for making their parts seem more intricate than a series of “aha!” moments. Although there is a lot of talking, there’s also a surprising amount of violence and one hell of a pedestrian-plays-chicken-with-a-car sequence. In all honesty “Brick” is such a complex film that it rewards multiple viewings (in this way it’s a fitting precursor to “The Brothers Bloom.”) The director demands that the audience do the work in unraveling the story; even though the characters provide explanations, we’re not sure we can trust them. And Johnson plots the movie in such a way that even though we see events happen, what we’ve seen only makes sense at the end … and maybe not even then.

So yes, the script, the dense plotting, the ripped-from-Raymond-Chandler dialogue — all require a willful suspension of disbelief to work, but once the surrender happens the full ambition of “Brick” crashes down. Stupefying, isn’t it, that a film this high-concept could keep us riveted until the bitter end? Gordon-Levitt shoulders much of this responsibility, and what a performance he gives. He’s always had chameleon-like talents; here he takes that to another level. Gordon-Levitt nails what few emotions the closed-down Brendan lets slip; he lets the character fill him up top to bottom, and he lends “Brick” what little (very little) emotional authenticity it has. With him doing the selling, there’s no choice but to buy in.

Grade: A-

10 (working) directors I love

Parters in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Partners in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Steven Spielberg is not on this list.

You want a controversial statement? Well, there it is. After “Crystal Skull,” don’t even think of saying his name to me. And since I’m apparently flirting with controversy and confrontation today (I’m tarty like that), here’s another: You won’t see Ridley Scott’s name here. Peter Jackson’s been given a pass. Ditto George Lucas.

However, here are a few directors who make the cut. Some are obvious (see No. 1), others are a tad obscure and some are maybe even a little questionable (hey, I never said I was mainstream):

1. Joel + Ethan Coen — The shock! The pure and utter dismay! Right … anyone who knows me knows that I’m a late-in-life Coen convert, so my decision to award them top honors is hardly surprising. But, really, could any two directors be any more deserving? This is the duo that gave us terse, meticulously paced masterpieces like “No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo” and “Blood Simple” and inspired, idiotic comedies like “The Big Lebowski” and “Raising Arizona.” That warped humor, that eye for minute details and foreshadowing — love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t deny Joel and Ethan have imagination and talent to burn.

2. Clint Eastwood — Eastwood’s a prime reminder that we should never go for the knee-jerk sneer of disdain when an actor steps behind the camera. For as fine an actor as Eastwood is, he’s an even better director with a knack for casting (who but Hillary Swank could have made “Million-Dollar Baby” so hopeful and bittersweet?) and a desire to plumb the dark depths of the human psyche (see “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” and “Changeling”). What’s more remarkable is the fact that, at 79, he’s only nicked the surface of his directing abilities … and that’s a miracle in itself.

3. Martin Scorcese — Let’s go ahead and state the obvious: Nobody makes gangster sagas like Martin Scorcese. It simply can’t be done (not even by the Coen brothers). He is the modern master of the genre. But what people forget is that he’s a genius when it comes to creating movies that explore man’s darker side, the blind rage and the ambition and the fear that take us to evil places. From “The Aviator” to “Cape Fear” to “The Departed,” arguably Scorcese’s magnum opus, this is a director whose take-no-prisoners approach translates into stunning films.

4. Christopher Nolan — It would be easy to think Nolan’s such a hot commodity because he reinvigorated the long-dead and much-maligned Batman franchise. Though he did that, and radiantly, he also makes movies that are rather fearless in the way they jumble our concepts of linear time and play with human memory (“Memento”) and challenge us to play architect in order to find out what’s really happening (“The Prestige”). His films demand intelligence and vigilence, but the payoffs are extraordinary. My only question: After “The Dark Knight,” how can he do better?

Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz, King of the Sadsacks

5. Todd Solondz — Solondz is a director who’s hard to like, much less love. He makes experimental little films about ordinary people with few redeeming qualities, odes to the pathetic masses leading lives of quiet desperation. Even worse, he makes the kind of movies that contain no traces of optimism, or hope, or anything resembling closure (re: “Storytelling” and “Happiness”). But in a world where fluff like “The Proposal” lobotomizes us regularly, isn’t that kind of terribly refreshing?

6. Sam Raimi — How unfortunate that these days Raimi is known as “the guy who directed those ‘Spiderman’ movies,” for there was a time — long, long ago, in the ’80s — where he made the kind of unapologetic horror camp (the “Evil Dead” series) that delighted and repulsed us. He jumps from serious movies (“A Simple Plan” is the quintessential thriller) to “Spiderman” to the recent “Drag Me to Hell.” And he never takes himself too seriously. What’s not to love?

7. David Fincher — Fincher has made a very fine career out of making very fine thrillers that possess a kind of bruising intensity, sly, punishing humor and startling intelligence. (He is, after all, the man who gave us “Fight Club.” Yes, “Fight Club.”) It’s his niche, and if he rarely strays from it, well, it hardly matters — he’s so good at being dark and twisty (recall “Se7en”) we don’t want him to. Then he brains us with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and now he’s making a movie about the creators of Facebook. I sense that Fincher’s zigging when we expected him to zag … and I dig that about him.

8. Steve Buscemi — There’s not much difference between Steve Buscemi the actor and Steve Buscemi the director. In his performances, he gives us fully realized but completely understated characters like Seymour in “Ghost World,” who use bitter humor to keep the world at a distance. In his movies, like the exquisite “Trees Lounge” and the haunting “Lonesome Jim,” he creates worlds where people are subdued and real and loose ends are left dangling. And, in his way, that makes him one of the most amazingly observant directors working today.

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

9. Alexander Payne — Payne is one of those directors who lives to frustrate his fans because he makes sharp, attentive, penetrating satires/character studies (“Election” and “Sideways,” you may have noticed, appear proudly in my Top 100) but he makes far too few of them. This speaks, no doubt, to his meticulous nature, since his films are flawless. So I have but one request, Mr. Payne: More please, and the sooner the better.

10. Sofia Coppola — It’s the eternal question: Will Sofia ever live up to her last name? Or live down that dreadful performance in “Godfather III”? Given the fact that she’s created films as innovative as “Marie Antoinette” (criminally underrated) and stunning sleepers like “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” she’s well on her way. There’s a few more masterpieces in her yet.

Honorable mentions: Tarsem Singh (“The Fall”); Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”); Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Stop-Loss”); Pedro Almodovar (“Todo Sobre Mi Made,” “Volver”); Quentin Tarantino; John Hughes; Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”); and Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”).

Convoluted “Brothers Bloom” signals emergence of bright new talent

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Brody, Weisz and Ruffalo get their con on in "The Brothers Bloom."

Rian Johnson is the Lucinda Williams of Hollywood. In his career, he’s directed precisely two feature-length films, “Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom,” both imaginative and damn-near brilliant. The former, an indie gem about a high school loner determined to find his vanished ex-girlfriend, signaled the appearance of a fledgling talent. But the latter? Johnson’s second creation shows that talent in full, crazy-twisty inventive bloom. Worry not that he’s sold out, for a bigger budget and three top-list talents have done nothing to dampen that indie creativity.

Such innovation becomes evident early on in “The Brothers Bloom,” a kind of fairytale/Picaresque novel hybrid about two long-con operator brothers bilking a clueless mark out of her inheritance. The mastermind is Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), a showboater who loves the game as much as he loves the money it produces. He’s a showman, writing all kinds of symbolism (which no one’s smart enough to catch) into his cons. Pulled along for the ride is his weary younger brother Bloom (Adrien Brody). Bloom wants out, mostly because he’s not a real person; he only plays the parts his brother writes for him. “He’s written me as the vulnerable antihero, and that’s why you think you want to kiss me,” he tells the leggy brunette he meets in a bar. Bloom’s an island, he knows it and he wants no more of his grifter lifestyle.

Until he meets Penelope (Rachel Weisz). The eccentric serial hobbyist gets drawn into the con to end all cons. And it’s a doozy, spanning continents and involving a creepy Beligian (Robbie Coltrane), an alluring explosives expert (Rinko Kikuchi), an eighth-century manuscript and a mysterious Russian fellow named Diamond Dog (Maximillian Schell), dastardly despite his lack of depth perception.

Rest assured there’s much more to the story than this, but it’s important to go into “The Brothers Bloom” with little information. The storyline’s something of an elaborate hamster playground, a maze with overlapping subplots that run smack into other subplots; some of these lead back to the beginning, while others point toward the numerous conclusions. Yet the strategy isn’t entirely successful. Fool moviegoers once, maybe twice, and they’ll likely stick with the gimmick. (It does, after all, reward intelligence.) Do it too many times and it becomes downright annoying. Thus, for awhile, all this conning and reconning and unconning seems enough to drown out all my chatter about Johnson’s ingenuity.

But wait. There are saving graces in “Brothers Bloom,” and they come in the form of inside jokes, cinematography and acting. Johnson peppers all sorts of puns and tricks in that add a sense of mischief, from obscure literary references to split-second sight gags. Then there’s Steve Yeldin’s cinematography. His work is fairly impressive, with his lensing capturing the landscapes (Montenegro, Prague) in a way that gives the film a timeless, expansive feel that seems a fitting backdrop for the essence of Johnson’s characters.

And, oh, the characters. Ruffalo’s an actor with a gift for understatement who trafficks in little expressions, so it’s nice to see him take on a character who thrives on melodrama. He deserves more than a little credit for making Stephen, a control freak with a serious God complex, someone worth liking. Weisz, underappreciated as a comic actress, finds spunk and optimism in Penelope, who grew up a shut in and now views the world with more interest than fear. Her energy seems overwhelming at times, sure, but there’s a childlike wonder that charms more than it irritates. And anyone who follows Brody knows his characters are all about externalizing the internal using just the eyes. He’s perfected the sadsack look — vulnerable antihero suits him better than self-deprecating wiseass suits John Cusack — but lets his eyes suggest more than plain old misery. Watching Bloom warm to Penelope, who’s every bit as stuck and lost as he is, is more honest than it ought to be in about professional liars.

Then again, “The Brothers Bloom” isn’t exactly a color-inside-the-lines con movie. There’s more heart than brain but less brain than ambition. Maybe Johnson shoots a little too high, maybe he tries a little to hard to be clever. But I can’t shake the feeling this guy’s got a masterpiece in him somewhere, and I can’t wait to see it. Talent like this is rare and refreshing.  

Grade: B-