Saturday, April 15, 2006

Recent Watching: Hard Candy (2005)

The issue at hand in Hard Candy (2005)--a 32-year-old man who meets a 14-year-old girl online and takes her back to his house--is a serious one worth consideration but twenty minutes in, when the girl exchanges girl scouts for a more vengeful Mike Hammer-ish attitude, any sense of topicality vanishes. Hard Candy plays like a 17th century puritan witch-hunt but on kiddy porno: the movie revels, as did the puritans, in sadistically torturing others. It is a haughty stance, at once unsympathetic and uninsightful. The movie is not so much interested in socio-politics as it is in abusing it as a jump-off for an hour long torture sequence, as lacking in any moral standpoint as the characters are.

Since the film jettisons any serious social discourse, I’m not going to dwell on it. Cinematically, the film still belies its exploitive core with its compositions, carefully framed to keep the most disgusting moments off screen (such as the much hyped castration sequence). If on-screen the action is somewhat restrained, the soundtrack picks up the slack and delights in squishy, cringe-inducing sounds like someone hiding a whoopee cushion under their own seat during a family dinner.

What’s most enraging about Hard Candy is that its filmmakers are playing the audience for a patsy. Writer Brian Nelson and Director David Slade mask this amoral, one-note torture story with a topic that elicits extreme emotions from the audience: it tries to justify its own sadism through society’s intolerance for pedophilia. The movie waxes extremist like a moral equivalent to fascism: the demonization of the villain is aroused so easily the filmmakers hardly have to do any work. The girl,then, at once playing the hero and the psychopath, gets off the hook. This duality is not so much a contradiction as it is a necessity in the script: the movie needs a mechanism to fulfill society’s collective intolerance. Such a movie is so emotionally exploitive of the audience that we, the viewers, aren’t sure what to think: not wanting to condone the villain, and at the same time not wanting to let him get away with murder (among other crimes equally deplorable), the filmmaker has maneuvered the audience into a crossroad where personal feelings get in the way of both an aesthetic judgement of the film, as well as a more objective appraisal of how it handles social issues.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Recent Watching: Brick (2005)

A roguish, nerdy looking adolescent, spectacled and unkempt, trots across the parking lot to a gang of kids camped around a convertible. Their focus is on the letterman trumpeting about his football skills, the coach who refuses to acknowledge them, and the team that he could whoop single-handedly. As the rogue, Brendan Frye (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), sits on the edge of the convertible, the car sinks slightly, and all eyes turn on him. He stands up to the letterman the only way a nerd could: after hearing the letterman say, "Yeah," a half dozen times repeatedly, Brendan tells him to look it up in the thesaurus: "It’s under 'Y'," Brendan reminds him. Challenged to a fistfight, the roguish nerd trumps the letterman again, leaving him bruised on the pavement. Walking away, a late spectator asks him, "Was there a fight?" Brendan coolly replies, "Yeah, there was."

If this scenario seems like the fantasies of a marginalized high-schooler with a fondness for all things hardboiled, then you’re dead on: Rian Johnson's Brick (2005) assumes the semi-important mindset of adolescence and runs with it. The film is deliberate--for better or for worse--about everything in it. It's a series of winks at the audience and nods to Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett, and a thousand-and-one black and white gems that make up the film noir canon.

In the first moments of the movie, we are privy to a hidden moment that stays that way until well into the movie. Brendan discovers a blonde dead in the gutter--a secret grotto in front of a darkened cave. Rian Johnson, the film's writer and director, takes us back two days earlier to a phone call Brendan received from the blonde in the opening scene. She's scared out of her mind, too much so to tell him why, but she wants his help. The remainder of Brick centers around the who, what, when, where, why and how of all this: the movie is about answering questions.

What unfolds is a veritable checklist of noir must-haves: femme fatales, tough guys and lingo that exists purely for the reason of fulfilling some hardboiled desires that were aroused in the public consciousness sometime in the late 1920s and have yet to be fulfilled. Much like Mike Hammer in Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly, Brendan uncovers a seedy drug ring among the elite--this time high school rich kids rather the Mafia big-shots--with a missing bundle of dope at the center of it all.

In midst of this fantasy, classes, teachers and parents seem to be almost lost. They appear only occasionally: a mother who serves Brendan apple juice after being beaten by her son in the basement; a principal who tries to tap Brendan for information; and, in the dialogue, references to homeroom and parent-teacher conferences. Humorous asides out-of-place within the genre, they are supposed to signal self-awareness within the film, reminding us that movie is taking itself in stride, and we should take it likewise.

Only I can't. Its derivations and allusions make the film trite, not intelligent. Brick is not so much a part of any foundation for new cinema as it is another piece on the top of a firmly established pile. It doesn't so much explore a genre as much as transplant it, the way a spoof or satire would. In fact, Brick functions in the gray area between Godard's Band of Outsiders (1964) and your friend's gangster movie you acted in during high school.

Where Brick runs astray is when it eschews the organic for the contrived, when it opts to do what has been done before even when it is not in the story's capacity to do so. Brendan's motivation, for instance, remains unconvincing: does he seek out the woman's killers because he loves her, or because it is neccesary for the story to unfold? (Just as it unnecessarily for the protagonist to have a brainy know-it-all, ironically named Brain, and for every woman to be sex-crazed...) The characters that make up the drug-ring seem to be in such a spiral that Brendan's presence hardly has an impact: it is as though the shoot-out climax would have happened regardless of Brendan's involvement (only without him, the camera would not have been there).

What a film like David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005) offers that Brick does not is a complex mystery that works above the level of referential hee-haw that the latter is content with. There is a moment of revelation in Cronenberg's film that completely changes the main character; a similar revelation in Johnson's film is nowhere near as enlightening: when the darker side is revealed, it may be unexpected, but it certainly doesn't change much, expecting a few more issues that remain aggrivatingly unexplored.

Ultimately what was so unsatisfying about Brick is that its high-school, middle-class setting, which the film calls attention to so often, isn't dealt with in any insightful manner. Excepting for a few minor jokes (the funniest being an unknowing mother serving milk to a group of thugs crowding her living room in the middle of the night) it remains painfully in the background. The story, and especially the characters, are low-relief in the worst way: they're shallow because of flaw, not because of circumstance. And this is one facet that, regardless of intention, is inexcusable.