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Friday, March 30, 2007
Bogart on a shoestring is a class act
By KAORI SHOJI
A woman with fur around her neck and her hair decorated by a huge corsage has her profile tilted toward a man. Her rouged lips are slightly parted and her lashes cast a seductive shadow on her cheek. This is it: a perfect 1930s film-noir moment. She could be Lauren Bacall; he could be Humphrey Bogart. The way they talk to each other recalls "The Maltese Falcon." But the time is now, the backdrop is a high school in Southern California and the movie is called "Brick" -- brainchild of first-time indies filmmaker Rian Johnson.
Johnson is obviously a bibliophile and a movie buff, with a special penchant for the film-noir genre. The dialogue in "Brick" is culled from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and their delivery is often an uncanny channeling of Robert Mitchum.
"Brick," however, is not just an exercise in nostalgic re-enactment -- Johnson translates and then transports the ambience of scratchy black-and-white classics to a texture of his own weaving. The brilliance of the scheme is that it's done in all seriousness, with high-school juniors saying things like "What first, tip the bulls?" and "You took a powder last night" as if they had been sporting fedoras and trench coats in their cribs. Johnson doesn't rely on anything so banal as an iconic wardrobe though; the characters appear in hooded sweat shirts and chunky sneakers and spoon cornflakes in lieu of dinner.
The protagonist is the pensive and introverted Brendan (excellently portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who still carries a torch for ex-girlfriend Emily (Emily de Ravin) two months after their breakup. So when she calls him all teary-voiced (mysteriously, he takes the call in a phone booth when he hears the ring) and then doesn't show at school, Brendan is immediately concerned and instigates a search. But none of her current crowd seem to know where she is and his one buddy with the nickname of "Brain" (Matt O'Leary) gathers info that she had become mixed up in the school heroin racket, controlled by someone known only as The Pin (Lucas Haas). Brendan realizes how much he and Emily had drifted apart, but like the detective heroes of old, refuses to see a nice girl "go to the dogs" without doing anything about it.
Endearingly, Brendan is far from the image of the tough-guy shamus: spindly, curly-haired and spectacled, his jeans folded sloppily around his ankles. The girls here are constantly reminding him: "You know, you're cute," but Brendan, typically, is not one to fall for easy bait.
For all his Linus demeanor, Brendan has lofty, if somewhat misogynistic standards and this was precisely why Emily had called off their relationship. ("Look at you, you hate the world!"). For his part, Brendan despised the prom king/queen aesthetics that governed Emily's new clique, and is mistrustful when rich-girl-cum Emily's new "lunch friend" Laura (Nora Zehetner) approaches him, offering to help find Emily. Sexy Laura is a femme fatale on a par with, say, Veronica Lake and the scenes where she subtly tries to manipulate Brendan (with words only -- she's evil but she's also classy) leaves you breathless with anticipation.
Johnson's storytelling doesn't flag for a minute. The stylish, tightly composed frames are not only easy on the eye, they invite endless comparison to old-style detective movies without being actual ripoffs. And the dialogue, though rapid-fire and often spoken through gritted teeth, is interspersed with crumbs of humor -- mainly allusions to home and family. Certainly Bogart had never had a need to "call my mom, tell her I'm gonna be late" in the middle of an investigation.
The whole package was filmed in the space of 20 days, the budget was on loan from friends and family and Johnson edited everything on his Mac. "Brick" reminds you of all that's wonderful about independent film, and how sometimes all you need to make a movie is a camera, a computer and a dazzling idea.