Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hey you kids, get off my lawn

My Second Chances series, in which I revisit popular films that underwhelmed me, runs on Tuesdays.

This will be the sixth movie I've reconsidered as part of my Second Chances series. I envisioned the series as a genuine opportunity to reconsider some acclaimed movies that other people liked more than I did. But I also thought it would be a good opportunity to bang on some movies I dislike. Writing negative things is much easier than writing positive things.

But the project has been skewed much more toward the former than the latter. I didn't think it would be that way when I ended up disliking the first movie I reconsidered, Gangs of New York, just as much as I disliked it the first time. But since then, from Hoosiers to A History of Violence to The Others to No Country for Old Men, I've liked each film better than the first time, and in some cases, a lot better.

So for my sixth second chance, I thought I'd give myself a softball, and I'd hate it out of the park. Rian Johnson's Brick was supposed to be that softball.

So much for best intentions. Or maybe, in this case, for worst intentions.

When I first saw Brick with my wife at our house a couple years back, we were instantly against it. One look at Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Brendan, and it was hate at first sight. I didn't like the way he looked. I didn't like the way he talked. I didn't like the way he dug his hands into his jacket pockets in every scene, no matter how improbable, even running that way at one point. I didn't like the way he used exclusively pay phones to talk to people, since you can't even find pay phones anymore these days, especially not standing alone on empty roads. I didn't like his stupid, bratty face. In fact, I didn't like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, period, for a long time after seeing Brick.

But in that last list of dislikes, I skimmed over the thing that really distanced me from Rian Johnson's movie: I didn't like the way he, or anyone in the movie, talked. Brick is obviously supposed to be a neo-noir, and it's heavily stylized because of that fact. For me, it was too stylized, and the dialogue was the most irritating part of that. These 21st century teenagers were talking to each other in a kind of 40's slang that I found highly distancing, and if finding it pretentious weren't enough, it also made it significantly harder to follow (or care about) the action. A sample line of dialogue:

"See The Pin pipes it from the lowest scraper for Brad Bramish to sell, maybe. Ask any dope rat where their junk sprang and they'll say they scraped it from that, who scored it from this, who bought it off so, and after four or five connections the list always ends with The Pin. But I bet you, if you got every rat in town together and said 'Show your hands' if any of them've actually seen The Pin, you'd get a crowd of full pockets."

And this line of dialogue is spoken by a character named The Brain.

Or how about this:

"I didn't shake the party up to get your attention, and I'm not heeling you to hook you. Your connections could help me, but the bad baggage they bring would make it zero sum game or even hurt me. I'm better off coming at it clean."

That one was Brendan himself.

To me, this all amounted to Rian Johnson trying to make a bunch of teenagers look too cool ... well, literally, too cool for school. And if there's one thing I hate, it's young people posturing. I'm only 36, not over the hill, but I've been quick to embrace the generation divide between myself and kids who wear their hair like the guys in My Chemical Romance. (I now know there is a word for this: "emo.") No one has hair like that in Brick, but the way they all behave like adults and act super arrogant and dismissive just rubbed me the wrong way. Especially that Gordon-Levitt fellow. I thought if only Johnson had a sense of humor about any of it, it would be that much more tolerable. I didn't think it was a badly made film -- worse, I thought it was a badly conceived film.

In fact, so much did I dislike Brick and all it stood for, I developed a two word dismissal that I used whenever possible:

"Fuck Brick."

Okay, thanks for indulging me -- I've gotten that out of my system.

And now I can shock even myself by saying that I liked Brick better this time.

Not at first. At first, as I heard that highly stylized dialogue tumble out of the characters' mouths, I tuned out all over again. I didn't try to glean meaning from the tortured sentences, and I didn't try to give it a second chance. In fact, I was on my laptop for much of the first hour. That didn't mean I wasn't paying attention, but it definitely meant my attention was divided.

But as Brick moved along, I started to appreciate the actual filmmaking more. One thing I noticed liking was the way Johnson filmed his stylized action. For example, the scene where Tug continues punching Brendan in the face next to his (Tug's) car. It plays at somewhere around one-and-a-half times normal speed, and it gains a real comical physicality as a result. I also appreciated the foot chase that Brendan ends by turning the corner, then reversing his steps and executing a sliding trip that sends his pursuer flailing into a metal pole. It worked for me.

The next thing to rehabilitate itself in my eyes was that too-cool-for-school attitude that I initially disliked so much. Implied in my criticism was that I was expecting some kind of realism from Johnson, that I wanted the kids to be goofy and unconfident, like some real teenagers are. That's simply not his intention. The film has a specific style for a specific reason. The characters in Humphrey Bogart movies are too cool for school. So why shouldn't these kids be? I started to view them as the genre archetypes they were supposed to be, not the real teenagers I once wanted them to be.

Then there's the idea that Johnson didn't have a sense of humor. In fact, quite the contrary. No, it doesn't show up too often, but when it does show up, that may make it all the more effective. If my complaint was that these kids were too mature and too cool, Johnson does all he can to deflate that in one funny scene in which Tug, Brendan and The Pin are all meeting for the first time at the house where The Pin lives with his parents. To underscore the fact these are kids, and perhaps even to make it seem like this is all some melodramatic role-playing game they're involved in, Johnson forces these three super-cool character to endure a scene with The Pin's mom, where she offers them juice and cookies. As powerful as they all are, in their own right, none of them are bigger than the etiquette and politeness involved with parental interactions.

For the record, I still don't like the dialogue.

Second Chance Verdict, Brick: It's not my favorite movie, but I will no longer slag it off to my friends.


Sam Turner said...

I really enjoyed reading that. I've never gone in to depth in looking at BRICK but I can tell you now that it is one of my favourite films and every time I see a post about it I'm compelled to read it and go back and watch it in equal measure.

I think your criticism of the dialogue bears up (I remember Univarn reviewing it recently and having a similar problem) but I would also say that the NEXT time you watch it, having changed your opinion on some key elements of it, I'd bet it'll bother you even less. I find that every time I watch it, I understand more of the it, rather than just hearing it which has a big difference on how much you can enjoy it.

As I say, really enjoyed reading that through.

Rick "That Hat" Bman said...

I hated this one when I watched it too... but I don't think anyone could force me to sit through it again. The dialogue wasn't the only thing that bothered me. I found the characters made really stupid decisions that made no sense what-so-ever. Everything about the movie bothered me even the way it was filmed. It felt like he was trying way too hard to make a film noir like movie. I love stylized movie but this one was over stylized to the point of distraction. Oh, how I loathed this movie.

Ryan McNeil said...

I've already gone on record as saying how much I admire that you're doing this series - though it would seem as though I missed an installment (NO COUNTRY) in my doc-fueled haze last week.

As for BRICK, count me as a person who digs the dialogue...but I can totally see how such a device is a love-it-or-hate-it technique.

Beyond the dialogue, what I dug most was the way the director tried to fudge the setting where a year is concerned (The reason for all the pay phones, and omission of any modern phone at all). The car is a bit of a tip off, but notice that none of the kids wear any particularly dated clothing either. Cool touch, no?

Notice too that the only adults we see are people in position of authority - the principal and the mother.

Effin' brilliant!

Glad to know you dug it more this time out. Who knows, two more watches and you might be angling to buy yoursaelf a copy!

Derek Armstrong said...

FI ... thanks for the compliment! There's no doubt Brick is very well made. I have a friend (who may comment later) who also disliked it, though not as intensely, on his first viewing, but says he loves it now after three or four. There's so many other films to see that I probably won't give Brick another viewing for five years, but the fact that I'll consider giving it another viewing at all is certainly positive movement.

Rick ... I feel you, man. Only five days ago I would have said the exact same thing. Which is why this project is interesting to me, to force myself to re-watch movies I didn't like, as long as most other people seemed to like them. I draw the line at movies that everyone thought was bad.

Mad Hatter ... I think I have an issue with stylized dialogue in general. At least the stylized dialogue is done reasonably well here, you just have to work to get through. An example of stylized dialogue that I thought was really terrible was in Serenity ... which I know is a favorite of some people as well, but which I don't think is acclaimed enough to qualify for this series. (Or maybe I'm just afraid that I would actually like Serenity on the second time, and I have to keep some films I hate untouchable.)

Derek Armstrong said...

Oh, and MH, to address your specific points ... yeah, I think those are smart touches. He didn't necessarily want these to be MODERN teenagers, just to be teenagers. In fact, all the note passing suggests a specific lack of cell phones. Johnson was smart to recognize that with the exception of a few prominent examples (The Departed being one), movies are better off without relying too much on the current technology we all take for granted.

The Taxi Driver said...

I'll go on record and say I loved the flick from the first watch. The dialogue didn't bother me if fact I embraced it because I embrace film noir and it seems to me that your biggest issue originally was with the film placing it in a modern setting in a context that didn't quite work for you, fair enough, that's valid.

However, what I like about the movie especially is how strange and errie the setting is. Although it takes place in a high school, it's a barren, empty school that seems to be almost existing in an alternate universe.

To build on that, I love the way Johnson subtly suggests that most of, or maybe all of this is happening in the main character's head. Look at that scene with the mother you reference again. She never directly acknowledges anyone in the room but the Gordon-Levitt character and then when The Pin gets up and does downstairs, watch his last step, his foot never hits and ground and he instead seems to vanish into thin air at which time the female character appears at the door, far too suddenly for her to have climbed the stairs and gotten around the Pin and out the door. It's all very surreal. I've only seen it once so I'm not sure if there are any other touches like that in the film but I bet there are.

Good write-up though. Glad you like it more.

DGB said...

Brick is one of those divisive movies. While I recognize that there is a talented filmmaker behind it but I didn't like it.

Derek Armstrong said...


Darn, you're making me want to go back and watch that scene again. But not enough to use up another rental on it so soon. I'll save that for the third viewing in five years.


Yeah, the divisive ones are the most interesting to discuss, aren't they?

Simon said...


I respectfully disagree, sir. Though you were entertaining in the process of upsetting me terribly.

Derek Armstrong said...

But Simon, didn't you take heart from the fact that the second viewing converted me from a total hater to a cautious accepter?

Simon said...

I will consider it.