Saturday, April 15, 2006

A Brick of Gold: First Time Director Hits Paydirt

Saturday April 15, 2006

San Diego—Rian Johnson has good reason to smile. Last year, the 31 year-old San Clemente native sold his cinematic debut, Brick, to Focus Features for a cool $2 mil. The deal was sealed after the movie won a special grand jury prize for “originality of vision” at the Sundance film festival. Now, following a limited release, Johnson’s nifty little pic has the nation’s critics buzzing; not since Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), has so much talk surrounded a new indie talent—talk so thick you could slice it. The big fat question remains: What’s all the fuss?

Brick is a hard-boiled mystery thriller in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest,” the filmmaker explains. The twist? “It’s set in a contemporary California high school because that’s the only way I could truly update the genre without appearing gimmicky.”

“Gimmicky” is how some have described the movie’s dialogue, a hodge-podge of rapid-fire slang lifted from the pages of Raymond Chandler’s and Dashiell Hammett’s yesteryear noirs. In the spirit of those tales, teenagers in Brick don’t talk like teenagers; they spit jive and sling lingo like heavies in 40s crime fiction. The novelty was a gamble by Johnson, who feared audiences might find the choice laughable. Despite a handful of detractors, the critical response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Michael Atkinson of The Village Voice calls Brick a “spectacle of nerve,” praising its use of noir as “a near-tears metaphor for pre-adult isolation, insecurity, and self-destruction.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times applauds Johnson’s “absolute commitment to his idea of the movie’s style.” And Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers describes Brick as “the stuff that dreams are made of.” If reviews are scant on plot, it’s because the set-up is standard pot-boiler grist—what makes the movie jingle is Johnson’s spellbinding sensibility.

Last night, the movie premiered in San Diego at the Ken Cinema in Kensington. The overly caffeinated college crowd was hungry for a good mystery; most were local film students itching to feel out the film’s director, curious how he did it. Following the screening, Johnson hosted a Q&A during which he explained exactly how he did it. After graduating from USC’s film school in 1997, Johnson spent the next year writing the screenplay for Brick; the next six years were a whirlwind of setbacks and minor disappointments, as the project saw talent and financing come and go. Eventually, Johnson resolved to raise money from friends and family, with a final estimated budget of half a mil. With financing and talent secure, Johnson and crew began shooting the movie on 35mm in a grueling 20-day schedule. According to Johnson, the actual set-up went smoothly, considering he had six years to pre-visualize and storyboard each shot. Once the footage was in the can, he edited the entire film on his G-4 Mac. Reflecting on the seven years it took to get Brick to Sundance, Johnson noted, “It really was a labor of love.”

The results are nothing short of breathtaking.

Though the movie’s repeated locales hint at budget limitations, the film is a solid piece of craftsmanship, a logically fluid narrative moving quickly from a “whodunnit” to an existential treatise on contemporary teenagerdom. Flashy cuts and wham-bang camera movements are never superfluous; never do they detract from the story, calling attention to themselves. Always in control of his camera, Johnson commands the genre with gravitas and style. You forget you’re watching a novice. For the duration of the story, you’re in the hands of filmmaker.

Not everyone is so quick to agree. An audience member told this writer that Johnson had “nothing without the stylized dialogue.” “If Johnson had made Brick as a regular 40s noir, the movie wouldn’t hold up—the plot’s been done before, and the dialogue isn’t as smart as it is in LA Confidential.” What about the sly parallel between hard-boiled fatalism and teenage angst? “That was never his intention. He even admitted that was a fortunate result of a different intent.” Then what precisely was his intent? In his own words: “The detective film has been done so many times that we only see it as parody these days; my goal was to update the genre so that people take my story seriously.”

Seven years of determination? A special grand jury award at Sundance? A $2 million payoff from Focus Features? And, now, critical acclaim? Hollywood is taking you seriously, Mr. Johnson.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Sick and the Dead: Staying Alive in Hostel Territory

If you prefer more blech for your buck, check out this week's latest theatrical frightfest, Eli Roth's Hostel. The movie follows two American males, Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), on a European vacation packed with sex, drugs, and alcohol.  After finding a kindred spirit in fellow wanderer and Euro-native Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), the two trek to a Slovakian hostel where, local rumor has it, the women will fulfill their every desire. At first glance, everything lives up to expectation--the beer is always flowing, the atmosphere is inviting, and the women are unbelievably gorgeous, and willing. Eyebrows and questions alike are raised, however, when Oli leaves without a "fare-thee-well" and winds up missing. Little do the others realize their newfound friend is being tortured by one of the oldest rules of horror films: the most "sexually liberated" or "obviously ethnic" character is first to die. Too bad for Oli, he's both.

Oli's sudden absence is eventually explained by the presence of an underground gaming company. "Elite Hunting," as a business card advertises, caters to the rich and privileged, offering those with gilded pockets opportunity to act out their darkest fantasies on human abductees. It's obvious these fantasies are of the S&M kind, as each room is arrayed with a variety of mostly sharp, mostly metallic instruments--from dental picks to chainsaws--which can inflict nothing less than pain on the unfortunate. After Josh goes missing too, it's up to Paxton to make the connection between his buddies' disappearance and Elite Hunting. As for the ensuing gore...I'll let you fill in the gaps.

As far as horror films go, Roth's second feature (his first was Cabin Fever) is something of letdown. The characters are marginally developed, just enough to be recognizably above "sub-human." Josh is the closet homosexual, whose precoital fear is mistaken for virginal shyness; Paxton has been blessed with a backstory (as a teen, he witnessed a child drown; its mother's scream still haunts him), endowing him with the movie's only altruistic moment: after narrowly escaping Elite's hunting grounds, he returns, risking life and what's left of his limbs to save a screaming woman from her tormentor. The scene recalls Pulp Fiction when Butch returns to save Marcellus Wallus from his homosexual captors, and hints at the degree of originality at work in Hostel.

In fact, most of the movie's better moments are cinematic regurgitations. Roth tries to slice beneath the surface, playing with familiar themes of voyeurism, fantasy, and wish-fulfillment, but forgetting to say something original of his own. Sensing the vacuous nature of his own subject, Roth falls back on the oldest trick in the book: pointing the finger at the audience and implicating them in the violence. More offensive than extreme close-ups of human gristle on a drill bit is the assumption that viewers are just as morally corrupt as the members of Elite Hunting (even if it may be true); there is a great deal of black and white between watching a Hollywood simulation of violence and violating the human rights of another, no matter how grey Roth wants to make it.  By the movie's end, this feels like a weak attempt to ascribe meaning to a story short on substance.  

When it works, Hostel suggests the events could happen to you. When it fails, the movie offers nothing more than gross-out gags and telephoto gore. I suspect, despite its failings, many youngsters will be drawn to this movie on account of Quentin Tarantino, who gave Roth his seal of approval. Too bad it's not a more worthy product.