Mark Palermo on important and self-important movies.

There’s growing attention on the teenage noir Brick. The low-budget debut (shot for only $500,000) of writer and director Rian Johnson has been anticipated as the next big thing since its 2005 Sundance premiere. It’s easy to foresee impressionable filmgoers holding it up as definitive, but Johnson doesn’t deliver much beyond the initial novelty.

@body alt:It’s a conceit intriguing enough that one’s curiosity may spur just from seeing whether it can work. Johnson sets hardboiled film noir dialogue and story tropes within a contemporary high school setting. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the Bogart-afflicted Brendan, who gets lured into investigating the seamy underworld (as much as suburban California gets) of his murdered ex-girlfriend’s drug-troubled last days.

Brick offers the succinct pleasure of seeing a new director trying something new. What stands in the way of Johnson’s attempt (keeping it grounded as an experiment) is that he never convinces us these segregate genres belong together. The clever notion of presenting high school life with the artificiality of a high school play is not compelling in practice.

Adolescence in Brick feels too rehearsed. For all its perceived indie cred, it hasn’t the understanding of sexual anxiety and awakening that humanizes better “dark” teen movies like Donnie Darko and Carrie, not to mention Hollywood soda pop Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Idle Hands, Sixteen Candles, House Party and Not Another Teen Movie. There’s difficulty in identifying real people beneath Johnson’s stylish throwback dialogue. Brick goes past using floral language as an interesting touch because of how relentlessly talky it is. Even promising star Gordon-Levitt gets stuck so deeply in his snarky-skeptic routine, it overtakes him. We’re never given a reason to care about Brendan.

Johnson does better with The Pin, the movie’s crime boss, played memorably by a malnourished Lukas Haas. The humour of the school drug dealer operating from the basement of his oblivious mother isn’t lost on Brick. When it fumbles the more serious moments, Johnson at least shows visual promise. Despite some crutches, like being over-infatuated with lens flares, there’s a precision to his image design—even distinguishing SoCal from other films through lingering overcast skies. One day soon, he could make a movie as important as Brick is self-important.

United 93

Everyone knows where they were when 9/11 happened, but the helpless feelings of that event have been buried with its use as a historical marker. Paul Greengrass’ United 93 looks away from present cultural jadedness to the simple reality that terms like “post-9/11” want to sanitize: A lot of regular people were killed that day. Told from the perspective of the passengers who fought back against terrorists on United Flight 93, as well as the workers in air traffic control centres, Greengrass attains a matter-of-fact style that comes close to the futile aim of objectivity. It’s chilling in its simplicity. Only in his shaky-cam aesthetic does the documentary realism feel forced and nauseating. The rest, even in details of bureaucrats who constantly yell over each other, returns a recent moment to its initial chilling power. Call it exploitative if you choose—a desire for movies that don’t remind us we’re alive. United 93 evokes some of the grief experienced when those news reports hit. It’s art against complacency.

Remind us you’re alive. write:

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