Like Rats in a Maze

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So, like… I haven’t been in the target audience of Young Adult fiction for a little under a decade now and when I was part of it, I was already looking for the door, so I might not be entirely in the know about these works. To my memory, the only major series I’ve read were Harry PotterTwilight, and The Hunger Games. But, like, there’s usually some kind of social observation in the heart of it, no? Like hamfisted, absolutely undiluted social observation that you would have to be not paying attention to the unsubtle dialogue to miss. The Hunger Games had classism and the exploitative nature of the media, Harry Potter had a wizard version of the Ku Klux Klan that got more and more time as the main antagonists, Twilight for all that it ranks at the bottom barrel of things I’ve read and watched even has some muddled attempt at determinism (and Mormon looking views on romance).

So, we get The Maze Runner – one of these young adult works that I hadn’t even heard of until we suddenly had a film adaptation come out in 2014 and make enough money to have another aim at being the next Hunger Games-level box office franchise – and I just don’t get what the fuck it’s trying to be about.

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I mean, I get what it’s trying to taking inspiration from – Terrence Malick’s landscape photography in consideration of how the majority of the movie takes place in an entrapped area of forestation (and I don’t mean to insult Malick but comparing him to a movie as terrible-looking as The Maze Runner), Lord of the Flies in how it revolves around a bunch of kids isolated from society trying to create their own community – but it doesn’t seem to have anything to say about any of that. Which is not only shocking, it just kind of makes me feel like I wasted my damn time worse than I already dreaded before spending two hours watching the thing. Like there was nothing to gain and it was philosophically and thematically empty from a genre that proudly wants to proclaim its themes and philosophies, adolescent as they may be, in a very urgent way.

Maybe the original novel by James Dashner, which I frankly have no intention of reading, does a better job of dicing up a message out of it. Maybe more likely is how the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim (yes, the president of NBC News, that same guy. No sarcasm.), Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin is so distracted by the necessity of stacking exposition dump upon exposition dump to slowly seep out some summary of what is happening to actually concern itself with depth and theme. I don’t think that excuses itgiven that Divergent – another flipping Young Adult novel adaptation that’s desperately tried (and hilariously failed) to be the next Hunger Games – was also a movie packed to the brim with world-building exposition dump and you’d still be able to takeaway that story’s appeal to the importance of individualism, even if you had watched it blindfolded or with earmuffs or upside down (not at the same time, though. Be serious.) Still it’s just plausible that such was the case with The Maze Runner.

Those exposition dumps happen to be showing us how a young man we learn later to be named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) is thrown into a large plain of grass called the Glade inhabited by several other boys mostly devoid of personality beyond their pragmatic status and none of these statuses seem remotely interesting except that of a Runner, the boys who are selected to run everyday into the walls that surround their little plain and try to find a way out of the maze within, running back to the community before the doors to the wall close every night and trap them in the maze lest they be attacked by a bunch of giant CGI monsters called Grievers. This is like… the premise of a movie, not a full on plot and yet it takes The Maze Runner more than 2/3 of its runtime to lay that all out. It’s not even world-building because everything they’re explaining and elaborating on is confined to the Glade and the Maze, nothing else.

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And some of these things are of course delivered in some manner that has to do with the element of cutting and framing in cinema, like the sort of impressively trapped and uncomfortable flurry of opening shots where Thomas is practically launched into the Glade in unstoppable motion and quickly shifted from surrounding him from dark walls behind a steel cage into surrounding him from blinding light and laughter and boyish eyes no less confusing before he faceplants from fear. But that’s like it. That’s the only worthwhile moment conceived out of Wes Ball’s direction in the whole movie. The rest of that exposition through cutting is in the case of randomly clunked up flashbacks of Thomas’ time before the Glade, spurred on by Teresa’s (Kaya Scodelario) arrival into the Glade. Kind of glad there’s no “sexual tension” amongst these apparent teens played by guys in their 20s and 30s, but like… there’s practically no reaction to her arrival.

None except from the central antagonist Gally (Will Poulter), who brings the closest thing this movie could ever have to tangible conflict given how much of it is still just developing itself. Like all the other boys, Gally supplies more exposition but this time with a permanent scowl (without much effort, Poulter is best in show given how his face – particularly his eyebrows – compliments angry looks and he has an imposing build) and a tone of “I don’t trust these new folk” towards Thomas and Teresa (even though the implication is that THEY all were slowly sent into the Glade progressively so, like, aren’t they all new folk?).

Anyway, I think the film eventually figures out it’s running out of time and tries to have the reveals expand more in scope in a more accelerated fashion as it reaches its end and tries to actually make good on suggesting the state of a world beyond the maze, but it all felt like ambling and idling until the last three minutes when the literal plot police (I mean, fucking literal!) show up and tell them what’s going on with the franchise beyond before scooping them up and taking them out of the movie.

I mean, I get that maybe the premise of The Maze Runner isn’t my thing. But it’s not my thing because it seems like a concept that, unless under a skilled writer and director, can only be hamstrung be its self-imposed limitations. And I don’t think high enough of Young Adult works to think they usually house skilled writers and directors. And Ball and company have to work sooooo fucking hard to make a movie feel as unrewarding a waiting game as this. So why put myself through this? You assholes saw Maze Runner: The Death Cure enough to have it top the weekend box office and forced my fucking hand and now I’m covering it. I hate you all.

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Severance Package

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The Belko Experiment is the sort of premise that, unless it has an immaculately talented director behind the wheel who could balance it all, could almost only go in one of two directions – it could either be a broad comedy doubling as light satire or it could be a cold harsh and cruel picture that’s a tense watch, though not a hard watch. I don’t think a movie with this many pieces that would make us go “but how the fuck does THAT work logistically?” could survive trying to play things too straight-faced and serious.

And so James Gunn’s screenplay for The Belko Experiment ends up a double-edged sword, in how it does have a broadness to it in the mystery behind its central location – an apparently outsourced office for Belko Industries all the way in Bogotà, Colombia that is outrageously guarded with military-grade weaponry and prison looking concrete gates on the outside, though still seeing the need for indoor security headed by the casual Evan (James Earl). The also ridiculous logic behind employees agreeing to painfully implanted trackers or the building of steel doors to cover up the entire building could like wise not be entirely taken straightfaced without being a total wink at how far people are willing to go to be offered any position, though that’s just too general here already. And especially when a voice on the loudspeaker (Gregg Henry) announces to its employees that they must kill each during an allotment of time or they will utilize the explosive trackers to kill many more. It’s not hyucks, but it’s got heightened distance. If anything, the only element of the film that doesn’t seem to have an actual business atmosphere analogue is how all of the management heads, including COO Barry (Tony Goldwyn), are former military with heavy combat experience, thus having a head up on the men and women beneath them that they can kill, but overall it’s an unsubtle portrayal of competitive work environments except with physical violence instead of the downsizing and staff cuts.

And so, Gunn’s script able to sell these with enough humor behind it desperately wants to be something of a comedy and satire. Indeed, the film even includes in its large ensemble many of Gunn’s regular actors, such as Henry, his brother Sean, and Michael Rooker (Gunn remains a producer on the film and I’m sure he was slated to direct at one point). There’s also one very recognizable comedic character actor in the form of John C. McGinley. So humor is in the idea of this movie to especially sell the commentary of cutthroat office atmospheres.

And unfortunately, director Greg McLean is just not funny.

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Mind you, McLean is actually a wonderful idea for a movie about the brutality of others desperately shedding each others’ blood and as a result The Belko Experiment ends up working very capably as a thriller. It should be no surprise that the director of the nihilistic and overwhelming Wolf Creek is able to carry this movie’s stakes and horrors (though I’m not certain I’d call this a horror movie). Not enough to make this into a nailbiter, but given the amount of familiarity the premise of “put people into a room and make them slaughter each other in order to make a statement” at THIS point in the decade, it’s amazing to have any amount of tautness in the atmosphere at all.

And to be quite real, McLean certainly feigns in the direction of some amount of irony. It’s hard to deny that in how editor Julia Wong uses the occasional Spanish covers of classic rock tunes such as “California Dreamin'” into a rhythm for which our hearts jump on each shot and axe to the face (Wong, easily the movie’s best weapon, also has a way of utilizing cuts just at the moment of a body part giving way to the film’s not-quite-severe gore – enough to let us see the ugly viscerality of it and sell it before she cuts to the next element of the scene leaving it still fresh in our mind when we move on).

That honestly leaves the cast themselves to be guided by McLean to turn into sweaty and harried blood-covered beings who have two particular types – those who can’t grapple with this kill-or-be-killed environment or those who are eager to just step all over their peers – and the cast, mostly fronted by either John Gallagher Jr. or Melonie Diaz (as the unfortunate new recruit) all know how to turn their bodies into collapsing alarms of panic. And once again McLean, Gunn, and Wong structure all this material into several diverging storylines so that we can capture enough of the characters to make it hurt more when we see their grisly demise, the same sort of multi-narrative angle Battle Royale perfected with the premise beforehand.

Basically, it’s not reinventing the wheel and I can’t figure out anything within it that makes it a must-watch. But The Belko Experiment is not anything less than a decent bloodletting thriller as well, short enough not to outstay its welcome and shallow enough to prevent the nihilism within it from ruining our day.

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Sofia Coppola’s Tenchi Muyo

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I don’t think I can blamed for feeling that sometimes feminine-focused storytelling is better understood by women. While of course Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood did fantastic work with their adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s A Painted Devil back in 1971 under the title of The Beguiled, but Sofia Coppola’s remake of their film is a lot more relaxed and confident about the complexities of its characters in a way that Siegel and Eastwood couldn’t be. Indeed where Siegel had to grab every incident in the plot and squeeze out the most melodrama he could possibly stomp out of a story that feels alien compared to the rest of his work (save for possibly another Eastwood collaboration – Two Mules for Sister Sara, though I have not seen that one), Coppola’s treatment of this material is more chilly and sleepy. And that’s appropriate since she’s a lot more familiar about the malaise shuttered women feel in a singular location for an indefinite amount of time, surrounded by the harsh masculine violence (portrayed by a brilliant sound mix just distantly implying the battles occurring).

In Coppola’s The Beguiled, she explores that malaise through the tale of Martha Fansworth’s (Nicole Kidman) girls school in the middle of Civil War-torn Virginia as one day her young student Amy (Oona Laurence) brings the wounded Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). Bringing a smoldering and helpless man into these four walls obviously sends a shockwave through Farnsworth, her teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and the five students, including and especially Alicia (Elle Fanning).

Young women locked in four walls and that empty time and space informing them. This is exactly the type of material she’s been working with for much of her career – her first three features The Virgin SuicidesLost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette especially. And while probably more plot-driven than either of those three films, Coppola ends up finding a way to let The Beguiled simmer into just watching all these characters who don’t know how to respond to each other bounce off the walls emotionally. Gorgeous walls they are too, designed by Anne Ross in light pinks to feel like a pale ghost of a house trying to dress itself up for company but giving way to beiges failing to hide the school’s emptiness. And captured in lyrically soft lights by Phillipe Le Sourd that let those colors blanket the scenes in bored yet distinct ways. It’s a lovely film to look at and thereby a lovely one to live in despite the characters we’re living with, all vulnerable in some way, all trying to hold control over the situation so they’re not obliged to one another. So that I find Coppola’s Beguiled better, by a sly margin, than Siegel’s Beguiled should not be a surprise to anyone who knows me except for maybe those whose opinions usually align with mine and diverge at this point by disliking the movie.

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Can’t bring myself to blame them. If there’s one place Coppola fails in Siegel’s stead, it’s that her Beguiled is so lax that it doesn’t bother to scrounge up any momentum as a thriller*. While that might add to a violent jar when the third act escalates, at no point in the movie – even at that first act – does it feel like it’s anymore than a really spiteful character drama without the slightest hint of danger. That’s probably not aided by fact that in an ensemble almost entirely personified by different levels of repressed female sexuality (this feels a lot sexually heightened than Siegel’s film, but it’s still there – especially in Farrell’s chemistry with Dunst) and varied in responses to that repression, the odd man out is Farrell. Maybe this is just as a unfortunate result of having seen the original first, but Farrell – extremely attractive as he is – does not have an ounce of the sexual charisma that Eastwood had as McBurney. Nor does his about-face around the second half of the film feel much dangerous as it is presented like a kneejerk response to misfortune. And that’s troubling, given Farrell has shown all throughout his career that he’s capable of both sex appeal and heightened antagony (I particularly think, funny enough, of another remake performance – Fright Night – combining both). In any other movie, Farrell’s muted performance would have been adequate. In the context of this heightened conflict of sexual wiles and manipulation, it’s an outright liability.

As for liabilities in the ensemble, the biggest one is not who is on-screen, but who isn’t. The black slave character of Hallie, previously a grounded presence that suspected McBurney early on, ends up removed on Coppola’s part (explained as her feeling unqualified to talk about slavery). Ignoring the evident collapse of the third act’s tension by taking away a character apprehensive to McBurney’s presence and thereby straining the already pretty languid pacing, I don’t really find much argument against the fact that deciding to make a Civil War film while consciously removing a pre-established black character is erasure (although Ira Madison III – among others – argues otherwise). In either case, the drama has to be entirely rearranged by Hallie’s presence and so Coppola as writer and director has more heavy-lifting to do.

I think she pulls it off and earns her Best Director Award from the film’s 2017 Cannes premiere, providing a film that balances the atmosphere in an uncanny way between the funereal and the flowery and brings a shudder to me while she also composes a forceful clash of charms from at least three different powerful personas on-screen (Seductive Fanning, Matriarchal Kidman, Erotic Farrell; on top of the brilliantly withdrawn Dunst and the impressive informal arc from innocence to complicit darkness in Laurence provides. I only regret that an actress as talented as Angourie Rice doesn’t get much to do). It’s not as overt as its predecessor, even in the carnality of certain relationships. I find that a boon, letting The Beguiled wrap around me into an ennui relatable to the characters on screen and nestling itself nicely into the output of a director I’m always ready to revisit.

*The guy I watched Coppola’s film with was actually surprised after-the-fact to find out that it was supposed to be considered a thriller. He hadn’t seen any advertising of course, which angled Coppola’s film as a horror film (I probably wouldn’t have convinced him to see The Beguiled with me if he saw those trailers).

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Our Hospitality

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It’s already shocking enough to imagine Clint Eastwood as the centerpiece of a film about female sexuality… kind of. The fact that he’s the smoldering handsome slab of manliness that women are all over is completely expected of Eastwood, but that he’d be willing to play that objectified role in a movie more indebted to the perspectives of the women surrounding him and how they respond to his presence rather than just how much of a sexual dynamo he is is what makes me surprised at the man’s involvement at the peak of his grizzled masculinity.

That this generous ensemble look into the shuttered lives of frustrated women in the depths of the Southern summer heat like a Tennessee Williams work went gothic is directed by Don Siegel, Eastwood’s regular collaborator and who probably surpassed Sergio Leone as the biggest hand in coding Clint Eastwood as a lonely tower of violent machismo, is fucking mind blowing.

Because The Beguiled, adapted into a screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp (pseudonymed due to Maltz’s blacklisting into “John B. Sherry and Grimes Grice”) and based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, is frankly successful at shading in dark the stresses of these women in their humid prison, something the qualifications of both of its most prevalent authors (Eastwood being the one who introduced the material to Siegel).

Those women being Miss Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page), the sophisticated and maternal headmistress of a girls’ school run in the middle of the Mississippi woods and one of only three adult figures around, the others being frail teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) and weathered slave Hallie (Mae Mercer). The school is surrounded inescapably by the chaos of the Civil War and that chaos leaves in their midst one day the near-dead Union Corporal John McBurney (Eastwood), who young child Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) finds and helps bring to the school even after McBurney alarmingly kisses the twelve-year-old girl – ostensibly to hide from Confederate troops seeking him, but in an unmistakably sensual manner.

From McBurney’s entrance into the walls of the school, The Beguiled becomes most interested in simmering the sexual tension slowly to a boil based on the various ways every single inhabitant responds to the sudden presence of this rugged piece of virility healing in their comforts. Martha quickly announces her intentions to relinquish McBurney to the Confederate troops once he heals, but clearly finds McBurney an entertaining replacement for her late brother. Edwina is positively smitten by him in an unhealthy pushover way. The eldest teenage student Carol (Jo Ann Harris) is lustful and attempts to seduce McBurney. Hallie is reasonably conversational but more than a bit wary of McBurney’s intentions.

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This is a story that could easily develop into “guy trapped among libidinous woman must escape these crazies” and to be fair, I’m not entirely convinced that’s not what Siegel’s picture is. While the movie is interested into what brings the women into such malaise, it’s hard for Siegel to make a movie starring Eastwood not mostly interested in Eastwood and The Beguiled feels most tonally engaged when it gets to function as thriller with the women, but I’ll get to that soon. Still it is clear early on that McBurney is more than a little bit manipulative (though his injuries are legitimate and life-threatening) and he’s aware of the carnal inhibitions he is ripping out of the women all around him. As Eastwood’s chilly and smug inhabitation of the role informs us, McBurney’s certainly trying to turn those things to his significant benefit and the movie is only waiting for it to blow up some explosive manner, which it does in the third act thanks to the unhinged high-scale performances of cold and deliberate Page and especially Hartman, who gets to take hold of the conflicted feelings of lust and rage that Edwina has beaten over her in an explosive scene connecting the second and third act and spins between them in a deliriously pitiful yet vicious way.

Page and Hartman are supported by Don Siegel’s possibly most nakedly heightened work to date, indulging in flashbacks to the potentially sordid affair between Farnsworth and her brother to punctuate the ugliness behind Page’s facade (as well as certain ones introduce to us how clearly McBurney is not above dishonesty or self-preservation), the occasional double exposures on images to establish a meditative mood that still manages to hold an edge on the characters, or Lalo Schifrin’s score rising like steam in a boiling pot to warn us of the duplicity still in delicate choral strings. And we still don’t get to the most outrageous element yet, Bruce Surtees’ use of shadows into sculpting scorned female gargoyle faces on Page and Hartman at their most enraged. Up until that climactic sequence, Surtees is restrained in framing the house as anything more than an innocuous yet prison-like cage for the women, partly funereal with just enough delicacy in its soft tones to give the visuals a lilting feel. Mind you, there are those who might consider these elements hokey or overwrought and they do handily seem dated in a manner that feels less digestible if you aren’t quite into it. For me, I eat that right up and find it utterly compelling as thriller.

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After all, it’s what heightens the film enough to melodrama so that Siegel and company into slapping one in the face with the toxicity of the situation, from McBurney’s smug ability to take hold of these women in a creepy manipulative way unconcerned with their well-being (or any principles at all, one of the most horrifying moments late in the film where he goes on edge and threatens to rape the characters now that he’s much once he’s asserted his masculinity at gunpoint), Edwina’s helplessness in her own self-destructive path throwing away the security she previously had in this aristocratic home, Carol’s excitement at exploring her newfound sexuality with a tall male object to aim her open blouse at, Hallie’s necessary resilience to the cruelty of McBurney and the Farnsworth clan (another flashback cutting into a sinister exchange as through triggered by past trauma to Hallie), and above it all Miss Farnsworth herself psychologically fencing with McBurney to contain control of her girls for completely selfish reasons as McBurney attempts to put her under his wiles and avoid being further under her mercy as he already is.

But perhaps the true indicator of there being no moral center in The Beguiled, only culpability in human darkness, is the young child Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), who is our first character – the one who finds the half-dead McBurney – who is kissed on the lips, who remains so smitten by McBurney that she spends an amount of the runtime his biggest advocate against being turned over to the Confederates, and at the end has a very key involvement in the lethal finale of such a sharp and moody descent into the vices and violence of repressed sexuality.

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The Emoji Movie

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The arc of O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s character of Dan Pinto in director Matt Spicer’s film Ingrid Goes West begins and ends with “gullible vaper who loves Batman”. There is next to nothing in Spicer and David Branson Smith’s screenplay that gives him any real sense of depth or inner personality beyond being a vehicle for the protagonist, Ingrid Thorburn (a perfectly-cast Aubrey Plaza), to manipulate in her quest for the acquaintanceship of social media personality and photographer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olson). And what Jackson does with the character is a frank miracle, injecting his own casual personality into such a paper-thin character in a measured sense not only to make his eager infatuation with Ingrid feel charismatic and genuine as well as the Batman element to turn from what could have read as just an annoying running gag into an endearing part of Dan’s personality, but to also make it believable that he’d be at once frustrated and willing to aid Ingrid even when Spicer and Smith’s script go way off the rails into a third act that just seems out of the realm of escalation the movie established before. Jackson turned an underdeveloped side character into one of the most enjoyable personalities in film in 2017 and that’s somebody who has the third-most screentime (possibly less).

Plaza leaves him behind in a role that Spicer and Smith are much more generous towards: given that it’s the central personality of this whole study, Ingrid’s psychology is something the viewer gets a lot more access to than is probably comfortable but the movie doesn’t demand sympathy for her so much as establish her as a mentally broken figure in a world all but happy to leave her in the distance between Instagram screens and let Plaza ride on that with the rope it gives her. And Plaza doesn’t showboat it – she knows simply by utilizing her facial muscles, she can imbue a frightening darkness to mix into her character’s sadness and loneliness. She can turn all of her wide-eyed attempts to re-assess her status with Taylor as a “friend” into both transparency and something inhuman. Her attempts at seduction towards Dan and slightly frazzled acts of “calm” around Taylor and her fatigued husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) are all sycophantic without wanting to be. And in the end, Plaza can turn this premise of cyber-stalking within desperation into a tragic portrait of a very tragic character without wanting to be on Ingrid’s side.

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There is however a point where Spicer and Smith try to skew the movie towards Ingrid’s sympathies in a foot-shooting way with Billy Magnussen playing a version of Freddie Miles to Ingrid’s Tom Ripley that is so sociopathic and intolerable you want to beat him to death. And there’s no way that’s not on purpose in a premise where what Plaza does is no less descipcable and dangerous towards everyone in the movie herself (she’s the one who imposes violence into the film and she does it in her very first scene). In any case, Magnussen is the closest anybody else in the still great cast comes to reaching Plaza and Jackson’s level and it still doesn’t seem to touch their work.

Anyway, I seem to have went through all that without mentioning that Ingrid Goes West is in fact a comedy. The kind of cringe comedy that makes one find themselves in the line between vomiting or laughing and, while I am in fact not familiar with Plaza’s work in Parks & Recreation, I would like to think it’s a well-known fact that she can provide comedy like second-nature to her. I also haven’t seen The To Do List, but I’d imagine Ingrid Goes West is a sober version of that premise – witnessing Plaza frequently embarrass herself and put herself in positions that could only end badly due to her lack of social development.

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In any case, some of that comedy wants to sharpen itself into social satire of different sorts and I can’t see Ingrid Goes West making it all the way through on those aims. It functions perfectly well in recognizing how social media – namely Instagram – allows us to totally wipe our hands clean of people needing true connections around us and how it enables self-destructive behavior in people who don’t know better. But anything beyond that loses gas, it’s not interested in finding a visual mirror to the flashy and superficial style of that online celebrity style (or even in selling the drabness of Ingrid’s life previously) and the portrayal of Los Angeles living within Taylor and Ezra is stereotyped and shallow in a manner that I don’t think the movie is really aware of (it’s only through Olson and Russell that we get a true sense of lived-in atmosphere and inner conflict within their characters).

3/4 of the main cast are all Hollywood royalty themselves and, while Ingrid Goes West doesn’t need to be self-aware like that, it leaves a lot of avenue to comment on privilege and how Ingrid loses her mother shortly before the film, but then that’s just me commenting on what the film isn’t rather than what the film is.

In the end, the cast does so much more heavy-lifting for the movie than they should but the fruits of their labor is visible on-screen. They can’t turn Ingrid Goes West into a deepened cornucopia of millennial commentary the way that the script wants to be, but they provide a group of people who do have their own lives surrounding the one perspective we are tied with that leads to more psychological juxtaposition and they provide one hell of a great comedy/thriller. If functioning brilliantly as genre piece and character study is all you can do, that’s not nothing and 2/3 is still a win in my book.

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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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I don’t really have a rebuttal against all the observations people have used as criticisms toward David Leitch’s 2017 action film Atomic Blonde. Yes, its narrative presentation is overcomplicated. Yes, it’s aggressively stylized to a degree that will probably put off anyone who is even slightly reticent to the cartoon theme park presentation of end-of-Cold-War Berlin. And of course, the big one – it all seems to be in service to a scheme that is less than the sum of its parts. I understand the frustrations that presents and how it might cause an unhappy viewing experience, but my only possible response is… that kind of is the point?

Far be it from anyone to assume that we get depth from a sensory popcorn summer movie (and Atomic Blonde is absolutely not all that deep), but we have here a surprising character study told largely not only via the overlabored layering of the story (including a frame narrative that serves no other purpose than to establish the unreliability of it all) but the very broad stylization no different than the likes of John Wick. Which is appropriate.

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You see, Leitch was a part of the two-man team that directed John Wick (uncredited alongside the credited Chad Stahelski, who directed Wick‘s 2) and it seems the aspect of that film that covered Wick’s one-track mindedness and emptiness of soul came from Leitch, though he also kept around the ability to frame and cut (alongside editor Elisabet Ronnaldsdottir) amazing action sequences that really sell the brutal toll MI6 and the Cold War take on agent Lorraine Broughton’s (Charlize Theron) body. More than functioning as just a film stacked with action setpieces, those setpieces are meant to be full of stress and impact, all the more so that when we watch Lorraine suffer through bruises and struggle to stand, we know just where that hardship comes from.

And what does Lorraine, MI6, and company get for all of this pain and the body count she leaves behind and the overcomplication of her mission to find a stolen list of undercover double agents for the West end of the Berlin Wall? Practically nothing. The story based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City (which I have not read and thus can’t say how close it follows that work) is close to the end of the Cold War as the Berlin Wall is about to collapse. There’s no reason for the US, UK, West Germany, and East Germany to take their fight for land to the bitter end and yet here we are witnessing Lorraine, MI6 rogue David Percival (James McAvoy), and other agents violently looking to get on top of others at a point where their efforts will not matter in the least.

How can they push themselves through this nihilistic uncertainty? Well, that’s where the style comes in and how they sell themselves into it. Not only does Lorraine manage to make it out on top of her constant fistfights, she also makes it look way too good from her incredible outfits designed by Cindy Evans from the blood red stilettos she weaponizes early on to the cold white overcoat she dons swinging around her as she whips and swings around police officers. Nevermind the way she has to give a different context to her story within her interview with superior officer Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA officer Kurzfeld (John Goodman), repeating exactly what we just saw but with an amount more insincerity than we would have received just witnessing the events.

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Or Percival, who is energized by McAvoy clearly having the time of his life, just eagerly shedding as much “English” behavior in himself as possible so he could slip into the wonderfully carnivalesque hedonism of this wonderland blue Berlin surrounding (captured by Jonathan Sela going a bit too high on the color correction but still retaining a sharp and bold style that makes the film eye candy to a fella like me) and dressed like if Eminem was a military officer. If Atomic Blonde wants to establish Berlin as a fantastical state of mind, McAvoy is its perfect anchor into that state, other than its astonishingly enjoyable needle drops of 80s contemporaries.

There are characters in Atomic Blonde whose biggest functions are to express anxiety at the pointlessness of it all and end of casualties for their lack of conviction unlike Lorraine or Percy and that’s the thing. Even if this brutal hard conflict full of blood and bruises is just days away from ending, it’s still the days that count and a dizzyingly fight for survival. It’s the kind of tired darkness that inhabits a John le Carre novel but it doesn’t feel miserable thanks to having the energy of a punk rock concert and I’m thankful for it for that. It’s the sort of feeling when you’re just trying to dance to forget how hopeless your life is.

There is purpose to the mission still and to what Lorraine does and the twisty tangles behind discovering that true purpose is understandably frustrating but that can’t help but aid Atomic Blonde‘s needs to be a truly fatigued spy story where it takes harder work to think about it than its worth without losing an ounce of that excitement. It’s the type of thing that keeps it being a fun movie while establishing that spy work is not fun.

So anyway, I said Atomic Blonde wasn’t deep and I still maintain that it isn’t. And I do hear all the complaints out. But it feels so much more intelligent as a popcorn film than I think people are giving it credit for and at the very least, nothing negates the fact that Leitch has supplied yet another feature’s full of phenomenally tangible fistfight setpieces from a stairwell one-shot to an audacious backdrop of Stalker in a cinema. Near the end of a disappointing summer, I’m about prepared to call this my favorite movie to come out during it and a valuable attempt to salvage it.

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I’ve Got a Blank Space, Baby, and I’ll Write Your Name

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It’s really really tough to approach Death Note with an open mind, though I try, and I don’t mean it in the same way everybody else does. Much as I am indeed a fan of the original manga and anime series revolving around the notebook that can kill any person whose name is entered on it, it is simply as a casual one and I was more than open to a new take of the story. But I’ve never really been fond of Adam Wingard’s style of horror (of which Death Note is only cursorily such) and while I’m interested in what he could do without his partner-in-crime Simon Barrett at the pen, teaming him with Jeremy Slater – writer of the disastrous Lazarus Effect – is something I’d imagine to be an even worse scenario than Wingard/Barrett. And the result feels emblematic of the problems I have with both authors.

Slater’s is easier to identify, the guy has such an impatient want to do everything possible at once with a story that he can’t actually recognize his limitations or streamline them into a singular narrative. To be fair, this is one of my biggest problems with the original Death Note source but this adaptation is much more concentrated being in 101 minute form and so it stares at me in the face harder. The movie will glance for two seconds at infamous serial killer “Kira”‘s cult-like following and then forget about it for an hour. Or leap a whole step in developing the relationship between Light Turner (Nat Wolff, a grievous Achilles heel for the part) and Mia (Margaret Qualley) enough that we could buy it as anything more than puppy love that stemmed out of their involvement in the “Kira” murders and vigilante justice partaken by Light’s Death Note. There’s an even bigger leap with the animosity between Light and detective L (Keith Stanfield) as L confronts Light with nothing more than circumstantial evidence despite the movie insisting he’s smarter than that.

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The biggest sign of Slater’s inability to make a decision on what he wants Death Note to be is the fact that it starts off feeling like it’s ready to turn into an irreverent gore-a-thon at the first death, a messy decapitation, and the few following after, but suddenly (and you can pinpoint exactly when the moment is because it fades to black right before) wants to be a seriously cliched mystery thriller of wits between two characters where Light is simply not compelling enough to make it an interesting fight (L on the other hand has moments that seem like a whiplash of logic on paper but Stanfield valiantly makes them work as much as possible – there’s only two scenes where I think he fails).

Making it even less interesting is Wingard’s unfortunate inability to treat the material with anything more than an attitude that “this is a ridiculous premise so we’ll just make it all seem dumb”. His continued insistence on treating his films with a detached sense of irony (as is the case in You’re Next and The Guest) only leaves me as a viewer with a frustrated lack of obligation to give a shit about Light’s struggle to stay ahead of the investigation running after him and Mia, headed by his father (Shea Whigham, the only other good presence in this movie besides Stanfield, this time by embodying his own arc about a father desperately trying to keep his son in his life). I don’t think it’s an accident on his part to focus more on Light/Mia than Light/L and make the former relationship so absolutely unbelievable in its lack of chemistry or sincerity to do anything more than make a punchline of its extremely contrived and conventional third act, but it is a big mistake that invalidates the hour and a half I spent watching. The glibness might have been tolerable early on when full of splashy gore effects for every sudden death, but at its climax, the movie ends up infuriating.

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Let alone how much of the movie feels like Wingard is ashamed of his work, what with the matter of having Ryuk (motion-captured by Jason Liles; voiced by a disappointingly neutral Willem Dafoe), the Shinigami Death God attached to Light’s Death Note, be forced into a corner as much as they can to cover up the effects work and having almost no involvement in the plot proper except to be a red herring. And then there’s still the matter that this is aesthetically one of the least interesting things Wingard ever made. Despite a nostalgic light opening montage and a wonderfully gruesome middle aftermath setpiece, almost everything else in the high school scenes is shot flatly beyond arbitrary Dutch angles. It’s ridiculously boring to look at otherwise and the most only other inspired moments in the film aesthetically are retreads of better scenes in Wingard’s filmography (the climaxes of The Guest and Blair Witch, both I’d daresay the only great moments in his career and both better movies than Death Note). The only time it gets to feel like it has personality is with needle drops that undercut the moment so abruptly it just reminds me of Wingard in the studio, giggling “this is such a dumb story”.

It may be a dumb story, but you made it. You directed it. You made decisions that establish its lead character as a totally idiotic fool and took it in terrible creative directions when there were obviously better paths to take. Being surprised that Death Note is being ripped apart for a movie where it feels like the director didn’t care whether it was good or bad is like being surprised when you drop dead after writing your name in the Death Note.

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It Comes and Goes at It Pleases

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There’s a letterboxd post by Julian Towers that essentially sums up Trey Edward Shultz’s sophomore feature It Comes at Night as a feature-length episode of The Walking Dead and I honestly cannot imagine a more apt way of describing the movie (well, maybe a more competently-made version too with less budget). It is similar in aesthetics right down to the worn grey and charcoal color palette that establishes our horror film as grounded post-apocalyptic atmospheres, it is similar in character relations and tensions being the true “incidents” that pace to efficiently use the runtimes, and they’re both thematically shallow enough to only sum up themselves as “people don’t trust each other in times of strife and that leads to everybody dying.” This was not revelatory well before The Walking Dead’s premiere in 2010, let alone 7 years later, and none of the characters or plot developments provide anything new or of interested beyond that very simply concept.

This is a shame because Shultz is no slouch as a craftsman and I can’t imagine anybody walking out of It Comes at Night thinking it was a remotely lazy film. Far from it, a movie this efficient in trying to make its post-apocalyptic world, on the tail of an epidemic, is clearly not going to get away with laziness and yet despite largely remaining on the perspective of the young Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) – there are very notable exceptions to this but nothing that I want to say hurts the film – there’s a sense of the world beyond our periphery being ravaged and torn without any doubt about it. The movie smartly begins this by showing upfront the effects of this contagion and how very easy it is to suffer from it, as Travis’ grandfather Bud (David Pendleton) is infected within the walls of the family’s secluded wood-surrounded sanctuary and quickly dispatched with by Travis’ father Paul (Joel Edgerton) and mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo).

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Hence the ability to set up tension easily with anybody who approaches the family’s home since we’re seen how severe it is and the explanation on why Paul is immediately hostile towards an intruder one night named Will (Christopher Abbott) arrives desperately trying to find supplies and shelter for his own family – wife Kim (Riley Keough) and child Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) – again wasting no time in establishing how shaky the co-living arrangements of the two families will be in such a desperate time and the certainly that Paul will possibly kill Will and his family if the slightest thing goes wrong.

Obviously, this is the sort of movie that goes wrong. It doesn’t waste any time with things going wrong, even before the families move in, there is ever the slightest belief that Will is hiding something or that something unusual happening is his fault. And Schults plays up that ambiguity as much as he can, leading to a portion of the film leading into the finale act that uses Travis’ nightmares (most of the film is stuck in Travis’ perspective and there are places where it helps and places where the movie knows it shot itself in the foot) and the ever-constant vigilance of their dog Stanley to play with the paranoia and the uncertainty of a sequence of events that leads to the untangling of their tense peace.

And that’s frankly all Schults can play with in this story. Which is sadly why I’m not impressed with It Comes at Night. It’s incredibly shot with the darkness of the film whole enough to direct our eye to one of the few things to be lit, complemented by a weathered and battered physical home design to keep us aware of the walls surrounding the characters, the bright red door that spells flat-out danger beyond, and even in the light through windows of day, the winding claustrophobia of all the hallways around. It Comes at Night is a very visually dark film, dark enough to earn some amount of horror that the otherwise misapplied marketing promised*. Its cast are all dedicated to selling the paranoia and confusion of the film and making their lives as destitute as possible.

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But it doesn’t… have anything to say. It’s such an empty movie. That may be deliberate for the nihilistic intent of the film, but it doesn’t feel rewarding in that nihilism nor even profound. It’s a collection of post-apocalyptic tropes that amounts to as much thematical material as… well, as an episode of The Walking Dead, like I said. “Bad things happen when you mistrust people” and that’s it. It seems to be wanting to at least make up for that emptiness in psychological exploration, but that doesn’t really work out when the movie moves back and forth between Travis’ perspective and Paul’s – both distinct enough as moods, without much distance between how their mindset is at the beginning of the movie and how it is at the end of the movie (I am somewhat interested in Schults’ debut Krisha which is a psychological thriller, but the staticness of Travis and Paul as characters makes me uncertain now).

I don’t know, all I could think after watching the film (other than the fact that it felt like a shallow re-do of The Witch) is how I could easily have had a short story version of this film and not lost one single element. It Comes at Night clearly wants to be more than it actually is, but it doesn’t itself enough rope to be much more than a disposable genre film.

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*and boy did that end up shooting it in the foot. For It Comes at Night is NOT a horror film and pitchforks were raised over its marketing, ruining its financial performance.

25 for 25 – Tears in Rain

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Like I said just before, two movies battle for the spot of My All-Time Favorite Movie and I don’t want my decision to end on the film Blade Runner to imply that I actually give the edge to it as my favorite (even as it appears as number one in the actual posted list from last year, I find myself more and more aligned with Casablanca as I grow older), but mainly the fact that Blade Runner and I happen to share the exact same birthday: 25 June, so given that the special occasion of this series of reviews is in fact my 25 birthday on that day (35th birthday for Blade Runner and the year of its imminent sequel in October Blade Runner 2049), I may as well finish up on that very film that shares its nascency with me. And sure, it came out a full 10 years before I came to the world, it also didn’t truly earn its canonical status in cinema until the misnomered “Director’s Cut” (based on director Ridley Scott’s preferred notes without his direct involvement) came out on the exact year of my birth. So there’s squaring all of the anniversary and yearly stuff and blah.

The house cleaning in that above paragraph doesn’t even square the multiple cuts of Blade Runner that do exist in many forms, the most notable distinction being in which versions have the narration and what note it ends on (some have a direct statement as to the nature of the lead character’s existence, one infamously has an optimistic ending tonally separated from the rest of the movie). I just wanna be clear – ANY version of Blade Runner could be my favorite movie, I love it that much. But to identify what I’m talking about, my preferred version is the 2007-released Final Cut which is essentially the director’s cut (i.e. no narration, “unicorn dream”) with cosmetic changes that fix up any flaws and make it feel modernized and high quality in its visuals.

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For you see, Blade Runner is a movie extremely reliant on its visuals and atmosphere for my high praise of it*, being involved in two of the most visually demanding genres in any form of art… science fiction and neo-noir. Demands that cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and designers Laurence G. Paull and David Snyder and concept artist Syd Mead are all willing to meet with, providing a decrepit zombie of urban Los Angeles in 2019 that can only barely stand to feel dynamic based on the poisonous neon lights threatening to evaporate the near-constant rain. It’s like if somebody caught pre-Giuliani New York City on its worst day and decided to give it glowsticks to cheer it up but that only depressed it more. That compliments the pessimistic mood of Blade Runner and meshes well with the nihilistic ideology of the noir genre without even having to deliver a single line of dialogue. Sure, these days that sort of aesthetic is seen in any given dark future picture, but Blade Runner originated most of it and feels like an assemblage of the perfect amount of pieces the same way that Halloween feels so with the slasher genre. And all that style is in benefit to the story, it’s not just what we’re looking at here but what it tells us in an unspoken way:

What it tells us is the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-Blade Runner – police hired to kill synthetically created humans known as “replicants” in 2019 – who is pulled back into the profession after the escape of four Nexus-6 brand replicants, the ones most highly capable of emotional responses to their scenarios and the most updated model: imposing Leon (Brion James) who initiated this search after his attempted murder of an active Blade Runner, sharp Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), naïve Pris (Daryl Hannah), and her leader boyfriend Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Deckard’s investigation takes him to the creator of replicants himself Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and the discovery that his assistant Rachael (Sean Young) is in fact a highly advanced form of replicant. So advanced even she doesn’t know she’s a replicant.

Batty has his own problems: The Nexus-6 has a built-in fail safe of a four-year lifespan and so he’s on the hunt for Tyrell in order to acquire the opportunity for an extension on he and his fellow replicants’ clearly numbered days.

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The themes immediately write themselves – the identity crisis of Rachael discovering most of her life to be a fabrication, the dehumanization and amorality of Deckard’s line of work, the existential crisis facing Batty as he faces his own mortality – it doesn’t take much to understand what Blade Runner will explore just from a synopsis or flesh those out (and I do believe Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ script very loosely adapted from Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does the bare minimum of its requirements), but that doesn’t mean there is a whole range to the mysteries and answers Blade Runner tries to provide in the span of itself, as well as its dissection of its central genres. Just looking at the two lead performances from Ford and Hauer – Ford was very famously antagonistic to Scott and the material, yet that contempt for the movie ends up being its best friend in how it translates to cynicism and reluctancy for a character that doesn’t want to be doing this job in the first place. In a genre like noir where apathy and inevitability hang over the protagonist like cigarette smoke, we have a genuinely apathetic presence from an actor’s genuine attitude. And Hauer himself is so excitedly controlled and deliberate in his movement that it demands our eyes look at him when he enters the room, the chill of his eyes promising a savagery that we are paid with the film’s pseudo-slasher final chase, and coldly intellectual in even his expression of sorrow and pain at his comrade’s slaughter that we can believe he’s trying to understand these emotions developing in him while finding profundity in his actions and words (not for nothing can he sell sci-fi jargon like “I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhausen Gate” and make it possibly my favorite line of dialogue of all time. In fact, the whole “Tears in Rain” holds me down) and believing him as artificial perfection. He’s like a child who learned to run instead of walk and is now trying to figure out walking. It’s incredible.

Now, very few intellectual subjects interest me more than the concept of the self and what it means for such an intangible abstraction to give our individual lives such weight. And it’s a very scary topic, one that it’s easy to fall into several downhill spirals. Scott, in one of the few times his attempts at pop philosophy actually works out, provides one of the most welcoming explorations of that concept in Blade Runner and that all comes from how he knows the darkness of those intellectual corners can be given visual root within a city made up almost entirely of shadows without weak lights visually defining what’s on-screen in a minimalist fashion. Our mind fills out the rest of those shadows or we just leave them be, depending on how we look at things. And Blade Runner‘s ambiguity on certain plot threads allows that same level of impressionism on its narrative (though I personally feel there is a direct answer to the “Is Deckard a replicant?” debate within the Director’s and Final Cuts; one that seems to be contradicted by the existence of a Blade Runner sequel where Deckard is still a character). And that versatility to what the viewer gives or takes away only once again goes full circle to the film’s attempts to square with identity and what truly makes one human. Is it their deeds, is it their makeup? Is there actually an absolute answer?

I dunno, but I like thinking about it and for some reason, despite the pessimism of its visual world, I like doing it within the realms of Blade Runner‘s universe. Drifting away from the barely consequential plot to think about it in the middle of the heavy rain (Blade Runner is probably why I love rain) and under the lullabies of Vangelis’ pensive and mechanical synthesizer score (Blade Runner is probably why I love synthesizer music as well). Inside the broken blue-hued shells of the metropolitan nightmares that remind me of living in Far Rockaway provided by its matte paintings and its model visual effects (some of the best practical effects live inside of Blade Runner matching up to 2001: A Space Odyssey in their tangibility and surpassing it outright in imagination and fantasy). It’s all a space for me to draw out my thoughts in between the movie’s runtime. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again and let it be the final note on this movie and this very review series: my greatest dreams live inside the world of Blade Runner.

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*And indeed, I find it very interesting that I can have Casablanca vie so heavily for my favorite movie slot based on its narrative construction and Blade Runner based on its aesthetic. What a split in me.

Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

25 for 25 – Hard-Boiled Gumshoe

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Full Disclosure: If there is ever going to be a movie that makes me highly jealous, it’s Rian Johnson’s Brick. It’s not just the sort of movie I wish I wrote, it’s the sort of movie I wish I had made.

Which is more true than you think, since I spent a portion of my senior year in high school trying to re-adapt the script which I found online (and with Johnson’s knowledge and blessing) as a sort of therapeutic exercise and a chance to stretch out my filmmaking skills and while that never came to fruition or completion, the creative ideas that I came up with about the script are still so stuck to my mind that I usually picture them first when I think of Brick before I think of anything. Anyway, here we are today with Johnson directing the new Star Wars film and the most-acclaimed Breaking Bad episodes and me just kicking myself for never using that correspondence to try to work as an production assistant or something.

C’est la vie, because no matter what, once I actually watched the movie for the first time after scrapping the whole thing (I think it’d be around 2011 or 2012, half a decade after the film premiered), it ended up being a compelling, enjoyable work of neo-noir high school drama and the worst part of all is that it actually feels kind of effortless in Johnson’s strapped-cash lo-fi yet aesthetically interesting direction. Like TV shows like Veronica Mars are eager to showcase their detective yarns and while I haven’t watched Riverdale, I can’t possibly imagine that sort of movie not trying hard.

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Johnson’s film is relaxed and unassuming in a way neither of those two works could be, despite being no less heightened (maybe even more heightened) in its noir trappings than certainly Veronica Mars at least is. The very dialogue of the movie is not the sort of talk a high schooler goes through, all sharp and angry snaps with old-school hard-boiled crime novel slang, the kind that would make language feel dangerous back in prohibition era but now just feel dated in a very classical way. Which is very easy to do when your movie is essentially Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

This is not a secret Johnson hides or is even ashamed of. In interviews, he’d openly state The Coen brothers’ own pseudo-adaptation of Hammett’s works Miller’s Crossing as the biggest influence on Brick, Hammett’s book is the blueprint, no question. The character relationships, the dialogue, the plot structure, entire scenes are verbatim taken from the book and they just change phrases like “arrest me” or “administrative hearing” to “suspend me” or “parent-teacher conference” to fit the context.

In case, that Maltese Falcon slip doesn’t let loose the plot: Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt back when he was making interesting indie and pseudo-indie role choices and as a result giving the best and most challenging performances of his career) gets in contact from his long-estranged ex-girlfriend Em (Emilie de Ravine) where she sounds completely frightened and stressed, but when he tries to ask what her call is about, she uses phrases and terms that Brendan can’t make heads or tails of, though Em is not intending to be cryptic. Clearly, trouble is up and Brendan tries to get a pulse on it but before he gets half an idea, she’s killed. And now Brendan’s hanged up on trying to find out who put her on the spot to for that bullet, getting himself embroiled in the drug trade of the elusive Pin (Lukas Haas) and a femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner) who is so obviously tangled in this without Brendan being able to figure it out at first.

Now you can’t tell from that very small synopsis, but when you watch the movie, if you know your noir, you can map it out: Em is Miles Archer, Laura is Brigid O’Shaughnessey, there’s a missing brick of heroin that’s essentially the Falcon MacGuffin itself, the very self-aired Pin is Gutman, the hot-head enforcer Tug (Noah Fleiss) is the young gunsel by Gutman’s side, Em’s current druggie boyfriend Dode (Noah Segan) gets slapped about enough he’d have to be Joel Cairo. But while Brick can’t hold a candle to John Huston’s masterpiece adaptation, Johnson really isn’t trying to.

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Brick uses Hammett’s book as a launchpad for having and eating its cake at the same time. Most high school movies, even the ones that are entirely generous to their characters’ viewpoints like the John Hughes works, they have a narrative context that high school is itself this little microcosm of behavior, that the characters are in their own world separated from reality. And Brick is no different, essentially establishing that from the very first hallway locker scene with a ring of the school and keeping that going in almost entirely setting itself at Johnson’s former high school in San Clemente, California and Richard Roundtree’s authoritative vice principle popping to remind us that the weight given to these situations are not really much once they leave school, let alone the way they talk barely jiving with high school lingo* in the early 2000s (I was still in middle school in the year of its 2005 Sundance premiere and was just a month away from going to high school when it got its 2006 US release). And yet they still have oh so much weight and part of it is just the hardened dignity the cast provides every single one of their roles (except Haas knowingly establishing the Pin as an absent-minded pathetic and disappointing figure from the moment he goes into a tangeant about bats and horses; it’s also not for nothing that the only parental figure we see is for the one character that’s obviously in his 20s compared to all the teenagers).

Cliques and gangs are just a staple of modern high school and have been since before I went to high school. It’s not something to scoff and pretend doesn’t happen and most importantly there is a murder at the very center of it of a very troubled girl (and that’s only the first murder; the body gets a boost by the finale). And while Johnson’s script cares very much about this matter as does Brendan (and visually gives it infectiously moody lo-fi shadows accented by his cousin Nathan’s score), potentially the most cold-souled person in the whole movie (Gordon-Levitt gives him a harsh jaded cynicism that is very unproportional for any teenager and easily explains why he’s always the most hated person in the room, but obviously it’s an attempt at Humphrey Bogart cool that also makes him fascinating and in control), it also establishes the lack of awareness on the school’s part, let alone the police. That’s possibly the most nihilistic approach you could ever provide for a high school movie, where there are no adults to care even if you disappear for a good week and you barely have enough time to sleep, let alone go to class.

Anyway, I’m making it sound dark and serious and I think that’s essential for explaining how Rian Johnson’s Brick made understand just how versatile noir is as a genre template for application, because Johnson’s that smart of a writer and that inspired as a director, but it’s also incredibly fun to watch somehow through this darkness. It’s one of the most deliberately funny non-comedies I’ve ever watched and I know that’s tough to believe but the way Johnson stages Gordon-Levitt beating information out of Segan is its own screwball comedy there, Meagan Good as the vampish ex Kara stands out as such an outrageous and dangerously sexy cartoon that you can’t help wishing she had more screentime, Brendan’s deflections of Roundtree like a Howard Hawks film, football jock Brad Bramish (Brian J. White) is a punching bag acting how every picked-on kid in high school must have imagined their big dumb quarterback bully (it also has to be said how both that character and Brendan are exaggerated caricatures of high school tropes and noir tropes and yet it’s obvious Brendan is cool to the movie but not to the crowd and Brad is cool to the crowd but not to the movie).

Rian Johnson wants you to fun with Brick more than he wants to find it dark and he’s capable of pulling it off without removing any what makes it a compulsive mystery. If that’s not a sure sign of his tonal skills and the ability of noir to at once darken and ridicule subjects within the same context (something he experimented with later on in the 2012 time travel noir Looper), then I don’t know what is.

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*The very moment I decided to can my version was when a collaborator during pre-production complained that “people don’t talk like this” and trashed the whole script. It was seriously discouraging to have a guy so thoroughly miss the point.

Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!