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Wednesday, January 28, 2009 

Rock Steady

"I've got knives in my eyes, I'm going home sick."

Spend any amount of time talking to me about movies and eventually I'm going to feel the need to bring up Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Though, truth be told, I'm not sure what I'll say first or in what order I'll assemble my praise but an adulation shower will be forthcoming so have an umbrella handy. I'll talk about how his talent was basically unknown to me until he started doing movies because I was never a fan of "3rd Rock from the Sun." I'll praise his brave career choices and his opting to do small independent movies like "Mysterious Skin" and "The Lookout," marveling at how he somehow managed to embody such commanding screen presence growing up in the world of television sitcoms. And inevitably, I'll make my way to the hard-to-categorize whodunit, "Brick" (2005).

“Emily said four words I didn't know. Tell me if they catch."

The first thing people notice (and write about, and now I've somewhat inadvertently joined them) about Rian Johnson’s “Brick” is the language. "I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed," Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Brendan Frye says at one point. And even though it is during a somewhat heated argument between the two of them, even his assistant vice principal has to compliment him. “Nicely put." Brendan smugly gives credit where it is due: "Accelerated English." It is just that type of hard-boiled inside vernacular that teenagers use to block and insulate themselves from adults (and their multiple, rapidly-changing meanings) that actually set this whole tale in motion. After Brendan receives an unexpected, vague and panicked phone call from his ex-girlfriend and shortly thereafter finds her dead body, he begins his own private investigation, determined to make sense of her cryptic last call to him and find her killer.

"I need words."

JGL is a teenaged version of Jack Nicholson's gumshoe Jack Gittes in "Chinatown" just decidedly more deadpan and glum with a heap of intensity and attitude simmering just beneath the surface. Mostly an outsider aside from the only associate of his we see (appropriately nicknamed The Brain, who assists him in unraveling this mystery and with whom he shares some typically slick back-and-forth banter with), but Brendan isn’t necessarily ostracized. His loner status is completely voluntary. You get the impression that he willingly resides at the fringes of the pack because he feels he shares nothing in common with his peers. Or maybe he doesn't view them as his "peers" at all. He seems to understand in a very mature way that the cliques and parties and social circles and events don't matter in the long run but he still adheres to the hierarchy, politics, knows who's who, the various ins and outs, while standing back and at times, even appears slightly amused at how the puppet theater all plays out.

"The ape blows or I clam."

As far as the world Brenan inhabits, his high school isn't at all like Beverly Hills 90210 or even Dawson's Creek. Rather it is an unseemly and seedy, David Lynchian alternate universe where murderously criminal-minded kids run the local underworld; where “bulls” are cops, a “burg” is a town and a “yeg” is a tough and it's not uncommon to see students cutting backroom deals with the assistant vice principal (coincidentally portrayed by another famous private dick, "Shaft"'s Richard Roundtree). Only here could a student say the town’s drug kingpin is “supposed to be old…like 26” without a hint of irony and have it be taken with even a modicum of seriousness. Brendan navigates this somewhat unpredictable territory, filled with an assortment of sirens, jocks, bullies and burnouts, with a quiet and determined intensity and encounters all manner of Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler-like clichés. You’ll find, like the classic detectives of the past, he’s also capable and willing to mix it up physically when he has to, as well.

"You're a quite a pill. Why'd you take a powder the other night?"

The resident femme fatale, Laura (Nora Zehetner), exudes a natural and demure girlishness that belies her possible deadliness. Zehetner does a superb job of emulating the demeanor of vixens past, lowing her voice to a slow and deliberate, yet sophisticated and seductive muted whisper, making cryptic comments that hide ulterior motives and saying just enough to make you wonder if she really doesn't know anything or if her entire lexicon is just naturally filled with a library of unintentionally inviting double entrendres. Brendan isn’t so easily swayed and immediately identifies her as a potential liability. "I'm not heeling you to hook you. I. Can't. Trust. You. Brad was a sap, you weren't. You're with him, so you're playing him. So you're a player. With you behind me, I'd have to tie one eye up watching both of your hands. I can't spare it."

"Better stop meeting me in the open, too. I'm gonna start getting visible. I need you on the underneath.”

Rookie director Rian Johnson’s debut feature and tribute to noir set in a San Clemente, CA high school won the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision in 2005. Not only does it have style to burn but it’s a very dark and smart homage that stands on its own as opposed to being some run-of-the-mill indie movie where the young actors pretend to be grown ups and do adult-like things for the amusement of those who might familiar with the genre’s typical conventions. It would also be a great way to introduce a curious teenager to detective stories. And if you don’t believe that the kid from “3rd Rock from the Sun” can carry a movie or be a convincing leading man, brace yourself for a very pleasant surprise.

I pretty much read all of your blogs and I don't agree with most of them ( with the exception of the interview Justin Slayer! Part 2 please) but in this instance I 100% agree with you with JGL talent and how this movie wouldm't hold much weight without him. Now, I can't wait you dissect a another classic like Desperado/Once Upon a Time In Mexico!

I appreciate the shout (I think!) I might get to Desperado if I feel like I have enough to say about it. Part 2 of the Justin interview is a possibility...sometimes you just have to wait for something interesting to happen. Let's see how his new company goes.

Saw this summary on HBO...

BRICK, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Hass, (2005) ***, Ranking up there with the hard-boiled best of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler is this cracking good noir crime thriller. Set in a contemporary L.A. high school, it's the tale of a brainy loner (Jospeh Gordon-Levitt) investigating a murder. (Crime Drama, 110 Mins.)

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