Brick review (2005, dir. Rian Johnson)

In the 3rd term of my 5th year at primary school, Rosa disappeared. One day she was at school then…gone. I interviewed the whole playground to check alibis. (I knew how to do this from watching Saturday matin√©es on BBC2.) The trail went cold quicker than a corpse in a fridge. Nobody had seen anything, there was no body, and I’m pretty sure that the apple core left on the drain was a message to leave well alone. After three weeks I applied the screws and one of the teachers sang like a canary. Turns out Rosa had moved to Israel with her father. Oh well, on to the next case: The Mystery of the Dirty Mattresses, dumped next to the climbing frame.

Later, as a self-obsessed, bored teen, I would ask myself: “Where are all the murders to solve? Why can’t my life be more like a Dashiell Hammett novel? Why can’t I find my own femme-fatale (and not fat-femmes)?” Which is why this unique and beautiful high-school detective tale holds such a special place in my heart.

Think of film-noir and you probably imagine strips of light filtered through a venetian blind splayed across a ramshackle office. Maybe an immaculately dressed woman standing in a shadowy alley on an illicit rendezvous. Such images are part of a cinematic movement which emphasised style and mood as much as story. It came as a reaction to The Depression in the 30s and 40s with films made on tight budgets, borrowing heavily from German Expressionism and presenting cynical characters from the rougher end of town.

Rian Johnson’s Brick isn’t just a classic film noir transposed to a high-school setting. And it isn’t a parody of a detective yarn either. The story is too compelling in its own right to be written off that way. It gives an effective demonstration of how noir elements can be picked up, placed in an entirely different setting and still function. The dialogue in the film is a good example. Characters use their own form of slang and talk with the breakneck speed and economy of the very best detective stories. I guarantee that one view of this film won’t be enough to take in everything that is said.

Our hero Brendan (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is like the battered hero of Hammett’s bookThe Maltese Falcon, stumbling through the case and chancing on leads more through luck and determination than skill. Brendan’s girlfriend has turned up dead and the leads point to a crime boss known as The Pin (Lukas Haas) and his hired muscle, Tug. When Brendan gets too deep he is punished for it with violence. No noir hero ever had it easy.

With an obsessive zeal Brendan pursues the case, driving himself close to death. His one ally comes in the unlikely form of his bookish friend, The Brain. In Brick’s world adults are barely visible. The Vice Principal acts as embittered police chief to Brendan’s put-upon private eye while The Pin’s mother serves as jarring comic relief, pouring our young adversaries some country-style apple juice with a cheery smile.

Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone bears superficial comparison to Brick, both featuring young hoodlums and a world (largely) free from adult interference. The difference is that Bugsy exists only as parody; Brick has a reverential relationship with its source. Closer in spirit to Brick are films like Bladerunner and Chinatown, both of which took the feel of noir, added colour, moved the pieces around and then revelled in the atmosphere, perversion and violence of those classic detective tales. Brick also finds a cultural sibling in the form of the US TV series Veronica Mars about a seemingly unstoppable high-school super-sleuth.

This is a film about an underworld of 30s-style crime, long shadows, moodiness and danger re-purposed in a sterile Californian town. It is exciting, funny, tense and well-paced. It ranks with some of the very best modern detective stories and, with its youthful cast, is such a novel take on some well-trodden ground that I can’t help but recommend it highly.

Back at my own school, I traced the abandoned mattresses over the fence and through the woods. I was chased and nearly caught by some skinheads. Maybe it’s just as well my detective career ended there.


My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro) review (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

My Neighbour Totoro, from animation house Studio Ghibli, is a beautiful tale of humanity brushing against the gods of nature. There are monsters, but only playful, whimsical souls helping those who need it. And these creations sow the seeds of what comes in Ghibli’s far darker Spirited Away.

Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 by several prominent players in the animation industry. Outside Japan the best known of these is director Hayao Miyazaki. It owes its creation to the success of his eco-parable Nausica√§ of the Valley of the Wind. Since then it has almost exclusively produced his films. My Neighbour Totoro was released in 1988 to modest success. Only later, with repeated showings on Japanese TV, was it catapulted to success with the character of Totoro now one of the most popular in Japan. In some parts of the world he has the cultural pervasiveness of some of Disney’s beloved characters.

The slight plot opens with two young girls travelling to the countryside in the back of a ramshackle van with their father. They move to a summer house which exists in an indefinable place anywhere from modern day to the late 1800s. Peppered throughout are appropriated Western influences. There are buses and trains idling alongside old-English pastoral vistas and horse-drawn carts. Farmers work the land in peasant gear while younger women dress Little House on the Prairie-style. This post-modern mixing pot of charming styles reminds us that this is fairytale land and while anything is possible ultimately no one is going to get badly hurt.

The girls, Satsuki and Mei, clear out the long-deserted house, bumping into dust sprites (free-floating, sooty balls with eyes) and the initially scary old woman who lives next door. With the place occupied, the dust-sprites secretly process from the house that night, returning to the large camphor tree nearby; the home of the king of the forest, Totoro.

Mei finds him first. With her mother in hospital debilitated by Tuberculosis and her father out teaching, the girls have all day to explore. Finding a tunnel in the bushes, she follows it to the underside of the camphor tree and the home of Totoro. The king looks like a cross between a rabbit, a bear and perhaps a squirrel or a badger; it’s hard to tell. Totoro is characteristically hard to define. His eyes grow and shrink to extremes depending on his mood. The mouth grins toothily and then opens as wide as his own body. This “monster” may not move and act according to our physical laws but he allows Mei to fall asleep on his belly before delivering her, still sleeping, safely back to the family.

The tale treads some well-worn ground while Mei struggles to make herself believed. When older sister Satsuki meets Totoro at a bus-stop in the rain we witness two spectacular sequences from the film. His small umbrella creating a drumming noise as the larger drops of rain fall from the trees, Totoro jumps up and down, laughing with manic glee as he shakes more of these drops loose. They fall satisfyingly down on the umbrella as he revels in the “real-world” magic he has created.

Then there is the arrival of the film’s most wondrous creation, Cat-bus. The design recalls the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. The grinning face flows into a bus-shaped body with holes in the side serving as doors and windows. Travelling on about 12 small cat feet and with mice for indicator lights, Cat-bus runs through the forest ferrying forest spirits between the trees, invisible to the farmers he runs past. As with the Totoro’s body he stretches and contorts unnaturally.

My Neighbour Totoro is really about two young girls struggling to cope with the desperate illness of their mother. The forces of nature who rise up to help them bring to mind Pan’s Labyrinth and the vulnerable heroine who retreats from horror into a fantasy world. In the end, Totoro provides real physical and emotional help. It also features some of Studio Ghibli’s strongest character design. The creatures announce their otherworldliness through animation techniques that separate them convincingly and imaginatively from the “real” people.

This film will appeal to all ages and is a perfect demonstration of how a world without any real conflict and danger, un-rooted in any time and place, can charm and stun us with its magic.


Vanishing Point review (1971, dir. Richard C. Sarafian)

There’s a transcendental point you reach driving fast down a straight, deserted country road, turned on and tuned out. At one with the car, you forget your problems and switch all primary brain functions to moving as smoothly and effortlessly as possible. Check yourself in the mirror. That introspective face reflected back is Kowalski’s face. The face of a man leaving his demons behind in a cloud of dust.

Kowalski (“Christian name…and last name”) agrees to deliver a white 1970 Dodge Challenger from Colorado to Frisco in less than 15 hours. Such a high-speed run is welcomed by a man on the run from the ghost of a dead lover (a discarded newspaper reveals she died surfing at sea), a nihilistic career racing cars and a job in a corrupt police department that has left him disillusioned. On the road he is pursued by police from state to state as his journey intersects with drugs culture and the rawness of life in modern America.

The imagination of Super Soul, a blind radio DJ, is fired up by Kowalski’s challenge. He offers spiritual support in the form of a gloriously uplifting soundtrack of soul and gospel music and evangelical words of encouragement. They never meet except for a few reality-blurring moments when Kowalski talks back to him through the car radio.

Vanishing Point’s other major character is the Dodge Challenger itself. Richard C. Sarafian directs with a pornographer’s eye, always choosing the sexiest angle to shoot from, fetishising every wheel spin and drift. “Look at the curves down there.” “Look at the headlights on that!” This is the director showing you a thing of beauty in all its lascivious detail. And sitting emotionless in her driver’s seat is Kowalski; a god of the freeway. Living the American dream as a naturalised Polish immigrant, driving through the heart of the country where you get what you want, how you want, as fast as possible.

Despite the 1971 release date this is absolutely a product of the 1960s. Super Soul might be like a prophet to his fans (one child tries to touch his hand before a policeman pulls him away) but he is not immune to the racism of the era. His radio station is ransacked by white supremacists who smash the windows and equipment and beat up his engineer. Only Kowalski notices the hint of coercion in Super Soul’s performance after this, sensing that something bad has surfaced from the old days of America.

When Kowalski is forced by police road blocks to take a detour into the desert, he uncovers more facets of America. Nature nearly ends the journey there when he is bitten by a rattlesnake, but he is saved by an old man. Later the same man introduces him to the “new people” of America – young Christians singing of love and harmony in the wilderness. They are curiously unfriendly and ignore him in favour of the hedonism of their spiritual lifestyle. One strange interlude has Kowalski picking up two overly camp men on their honeymoon. They pull a gun on Kowalski who ejects them forcibly from the car. Is Sarafian saying that the new America is fostering gay men who represent danger? Or exploiting them to highlight the unbridled masculinity displayed by Kowalski? The intent is strangely garbled in these scenes.

Within the film, Kowalski meets several women who seem to remind him of his lost love, all of them displaying her defining long, fair hair or freckles. A petrol station attendant fascinates him briefly early in the journey. At a later stop-off, a naked girl on a motor bike rides out of the desert. They exchange friendly words and as he tries to leave she offers herself to him, suggesting he might be happier if he stays there with her, taking drugs and making love all day. Kowalski refuses and rides out. The third woman comes at night on the side of the road. A young Charlotte Rampling stands waiting for a ride dressed in a black shawl. Her loose, dark clothing suggests ancient times. Perhaps she represents the death of Kowalski’s lover in contrast to the life and freedom represented by the naked motorbike girl. Kowalski lets her in and in mystical tones she reveals that she has always been waiting for him, always wanting him. They get stoned and have sex. When Kowalski wakes in the morning there is no sign of her. Kowalski shrugs it off and the quest resumes. Curiously, this scene was cut from US prints of the film and was only present on the UK version. Although it has recently been reinstated in the US, it is odd that such an important scene was ever left out. Maybe it was thought too supernatural for a film setting out to tackle real issues.

The film ends where it began. The prologue to Vanishing Point finishes with two cars passing just before they reach a road block of unyielding bulldozers. The film freezes and one of the cars, the Dodge Challenger, fades out, leaving the other, a black Chrysler. Kowalski is now in the Chrysler, delivering it before his next mission begins; the chase back to Frisco in the white Dodge Challenger. This is one of many vanishing points in the film, where black and white cross. The haze on the horizon where the road disappears represents a physical vanishing point. The end of one phase of American history as it morphs into the next represents another. Maybe the wanton destruction witnessed in Kowalski’s racing career was his Vietnam. A place of extremes that leaves young men desensitised and emotionally wrecked. The analogy would be understandable given the mood of the country at the time the film was made.

In the small-town scenes the camera picks out the faces of old men watching on from behind screen doors or through their windows. Some wear cowboy hats, symbols of the old America. They don’t understand what’s going on. They remember the spirit of the old west: to ride out and explore the country. Kowalski represents that pioneering spirit, but he is largely indifferent to what he finds. It’s clear that the new America bears only a superficial resemblance to the old. Kowalski takes drugs to recapture the thrills of his racing days and to escape from the truth of his past. The lawless interstate journey inspires others to see him as a symbol of freedom. An outsider who has shaken off laws and social norms. Look closely at the end scene and you might be lucky enough to see the escape he yearns for. Or is he doomed to repeat events? The answer to that will require your interpretation and a scroll back to the start of the film.

Kowalski is a romantic hero living a life of hedonistic individualism that no one can tame. In refusing to obey the laws of the old order, he achieves near mythical status. In the telling of this story, Vanishing Point becomes an important film about the death of innocence in the wake of Vietnam, personal liberty, freedom of expression and the changes in American society from the 1960s onwards.


Trust review (1990, dir. Hal Hartley)

I only recently heard the news about the death of Adrienne Shelley. I feel bad because it happened in 2006 and I'd let her slip from my memory. In the early 90's I had her picture on my student wall and a medium-sized crush. Chances are you haven't heard of her though and that's OK because she never broke into the Hollywood big leagues. Shelley started her career a young, sweet and spunky actress working in small budget and short films. Later she added directing to her resume.

Tragically, just before the release of Waitress, her biggest film as director, she died when strangled in her New York apartment by an opportunist thief. The killer, in a perversely filmic touch, managed to dress the scene so it appeared she'd hanged herself. Shelley's husband and young daughter believed this for only nineteen days until her remorseful murderer handed himself in.

Of Shelley's acting work the best was under the directorship of Hal Hartley. And my favourite of those films is Trust. More on Adrienne Shelley can be found here: http://www.adrienneshellyfoundation.org/

The first thing to say about Trust is that work is required on the part of the viewer. This isn't a criticism but a warning for anyone new to the films of Hal Hartley. The characters all speak with the voice of the director; it's you who will invest them with a personality distinct from their creator. Let me explain:

Hartley's style is to direct his actors to speak their lines without betraying emotion. In turn the audience has nowhere to go but to project their own emotions, back-stories and desires onto them. None of the conventions of film drama delivery are followed. This is Hartley's universe and that makes it hard to break the layer of stylistic veneer he has brushed over this film. When you put away your preconceptions, fall into the groove and go with it, Trust is a cinematic treat that will have you eagerly hunting down more by this director.

The script is cynical and glacially cool, each character speaking with the same enigmatic voice; (Hartley's) voice. Everyone knows the cleverest thing to say at any given moment. There are no pauses, pondering or any kind of tic that might have a parallel in the “real world”. And all of this delivered to a mostly static camera. A camera that plays no active role in the narrative except to record the events and leave you to fill in the rest. A similar process can be seen in the films of David Mamet but the plot of Trust is less arch than, for example, Mamet's House of Game and without any of the twists and turns in the plot. But both regard film as an extension of the theatre stage, delivering complex, wordy scripts with a passive eye for motion.

Hartley casts the charismatic but criminally underrated Martin Donovan as television engineer Matthew Slaughter - a brooding, violent loner, who carries a live grenade at all times “just in case”. Matthew is an unnaturally talented repairer of electronics but finds himself unemployed after forcing his bosses head into a vice. His anger is exceeded only by that of his controlling father, who keeps their house spotlessly clean. This violent paternal OCD propels Matthew from the house and into a chance encounter.

Adrienne Shelley plays the immature and pregnant high school girl, Maria. Life is turned around for her when she announces her pregnancy to her family. Maria's father calls her a slut, she slaps him and he drops dead on the spot of a heart attack. All very cold, all very Hartley. Turned out of the house by her mother and abandoned by her jock boyfriend she is found by Matthew and reluctantly opens up to him. Luckily Matthew's overbearing father has left town for a few days allowing him to offer Maria place to stay. She repays him by discarding her clothes and cigarette butts all over the house. When the father returns the ensuing violence forces them both out onto the street again. A frustrated Matthew walks into and out again of his thankless television repair job, spitting bile at the world. Only in the face of Maria’s determinism to have her baby does he calm down and recognise a fellow pariah.

On the surface the story of a pregnant girl being turfed out onto the streets may sound an unoriginal premise, but Hartley peppers the whole thing with asides and nuances that take the film to an unexpected place. Look at the scene where a family friend gives an unexpected speech on how great it is to be pregnant, which is strangely incongruous given the context of the film. Another scene at the train station suddenly presents us unexpectedly with a group of men who all resemble Jaques Tati. Trust is not afraid to be surreal and in doing so avoids any detraction in not confronting head-on the abortion protesters that rear their heads when Maria visits a clinic. The fact that she decides to have her baby and then changes her mind when she falls in “love” is simply stated and the film never condemns or endorses her decisions.

Maria’s use of the “c” word in the abortion clinic, when discussing how her previous boyfriend sees her as a “thing”, is one rare moment of true shock. For one thing it seems unlike Hartley to use the word itself but very much his style in that it is delivered so nonchalantly. It prefigures the use of this word in American Beauty almost a decade later; coming again from the mouth of a high-school girl similarly delivered in an everyday manner. The teenage pregnancy plot also reminds us of Juno but Hartley's world is darker and spikier than that adolescent fable.

Motherhood plays a central role in Trust and not just Maria's impending birth. From Matthews absent mother who's dress Maria later wears to Maria's own controlling mother who throws her daughter out for murdering her husband only to let her and Matthew return in a moment of compassion. As we discover this is a ruse to let her try to set up Matthew with her older daughter Peg (played by a young Edie Falco from The Sopranos and Hartleys 2005 film The Girl From Monday).

What's surprising is the real beauty and charm that leaps out of this artifice as Matthew and Maria's relationship develops. When they discuss the nature of love and trust in Hartley's clipped dialogue you sense that these characters genuinely care for each other, for although the style works against them, the power of the relationship draws us back. One theory I have is that despite himself, Hartley allows the actors to sneak in elements of real emotion through his own almost Fascistic methods of film-making. It may seem far-fetched but Hartley's work is so knowing and so carefully constructed it seems a moment of weakness from him that he ever allowed these characters to become so likable.

Trust is a rare commodity. An independent film dealing with society’s outcasts that beats with a real heart at its core. Adrienne Shelley plays a tenacious and stubborn character with great strength and presence; a reminder of a talented life cut tragically short.