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Posts in Category: 150 Films

150 Films #21: Brick (2006)

Part of the point of this project is to ask the question, “How has time changed my opinion of these films?” After 20 films, I’m surprised to find only two have been Sells. In point of fact, just my memory of re-watching these movies for this project made me think at least five were on the Sell list, so that’s pretty weird.

However, Brick is the first movie I’ve looked at again and literally asked the question, “Why did I like this in the first place?” With my other two Sells—The Apartment and Being John Malkovich—I know exactly why I loved them, and I think I have a pretty good understanding of why I no longer do. Brick, on the other hand…

“Terrible” is too strong a word, but almost from the beginning, I felt two things very strongly: the subject matter is too dark, but most of the characters are too “indie quirky”—extremely annoying. I love the premise of “high school film noir,” which is perhaps the first piece of evidence to explain why I loved this movie. Outsized emotions was a common feature of Golden Age films, so even the grit and violence of classic film noir don’t diminish its heightened drama. In the modern world, where else would one find such high emotion than high school? When I say the subject matter is “too dark,” I mean this movie doesn’t deal in a typical teenage story. It centers around a murdered girl and a brick of heroin. Yes, high school kids use and sell heroin. Yes, high school kids murder each other. But that’s not a conventional teenager’s story, so the mash-up itself is not quite convincing.

Neither is the language. It doesn’t bother me that these characters speak in machine-gun rhythms; it’s that writer/director Rian Johnson’s bizarre, made-up patois doesn’t sound like a film noir character any more than it sounds like teenagers. The prose is too purple and cutesy, and when combined with the goofy characters (at times intentionally comical, but mostly just annoying), it’s just… None of it works for me.

Sure, the passing of time changes things. My visceral reaction to The Apartment came from its romanticizing “White Knight Syndrome”; there’s some of that here, too, in that Brick‘s plot focuses on the efforts of a young man to rescue a fucked-up girl he’s in love with (but who doesn’t love him back). I wonder, though, if the main issue here is how fresh a film like this felt in 2006. Three years before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the 2009 book that both popularized and ruined mash-ups, this felt new and vibrant. Unlike the previous year’s Sin City, Brick was not so slavish about aping the look and tone; instead, he used the style—dense plotting and rapid dialogue—to tell a crime story about kids. It was also not as tongue-in-cheek or overtly comedic as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, another noir homage; nor as dour as A History of Violence, nor as classical as Match Point.

At the time, it felt smart, vibrant, and new. Now? To me, at least, it feels like a calling card that looks pretty good visually and brims with ideas and emotion—but it tries way, way too hard without quite succeeding.

Keep or Sell? Sell

Up Next: Bridesmaids (2011)

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150 Films #22: Bridesmaids (2011)

Putting aside the extended diarrhea gags and Wilson-Phillips cameos, what remains is the story of a loser. Some complain Bridesmaids (and Judd Apatow-produced comedies in general) tend to overstay their welcome; while I tend to think this is true in the case of the James L. Brooks Lite films Apatow directs himself, Bridesmaids takes its time in order to show just how low Annie (Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay with Annie Mumolo) has sunk.

What hurts the most is that Annie was once on the cusp of greatness, and we bear witness to the aftermath. Following Irene Cara’s sage advice, she took her passion and made it happen, opening a small Milwaukee bakery that folded in the wake of the 2008 crash. She blew her savings trying to save it, and when she failed, her longtime boyfriend skedaddled. When we meet Annie, she’s forced to share an apartment with two obnoxious roommates (Matt Lucas and Rebel Wilson); she works as a clerk in a jewelry shop managed by her mother’s AA buddy (Michael Hitchcock); and she waits around for obnoxious fuck-buddy Ted (Jon Hamm) to call her when he gets the whim, hoping one of these days he might want more.

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150 Films #23: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Perhaps the most influential single sentence in my life came from a music theory professor in my first year of college. We simultaneously studied symphonic form and the great symphonic composers, who developed the form over time. At one point, a classmate pointed out a legitimate puzzler: “Why is it that we’re studying these rigid rules all symphonies are supposed to follow, but every time we learn about a great composer, what makes them great is all the ways they broke the rules?” The professor, without a second thought, simply said, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.”

I’ve tried to determine if he was quoting someone or simply had this bon mot teed up for a question he got every semester. The jury’s still out (the internet attributes similar quotes to Picasso and the Dalai Lama, both debunked), but it’s sort of irrelevant. I heard it first from this professor, and the single mission statement kinda snapped my creative thinking into laser focus.

I try to let new artworks wash over me, to experience them in the moment. When something truly affects me, I try to puzzle out after the fact why. When you watch enough movies, read enough books, listen to enough music—well, maybe I’m just tough on art, but it takes something special to fully entrance me. In my quest to know everything, I’ve always tried to understand why some things work so well, some things don’t work at all, and some things hit a few sweet spots but don’t really do it for me. This has led to a pretty strong interest in different aspects of art (especially narrative art), including genre conventions, semiotics, and just figuring out why some types of stories keep getting retold (not to mention the relationship of a genre’s popularity in the sociopolitical context of its times).

Some people find this stuff extremely boring, uncreative, mechanical… To me, these are the rules, and I want to learn them. I tend to gravitate toward movies that break them, so I think I find the rules themselves interesting so I can understand why one form of “rule-breaking” works so well for me while others don’t. More often than not, it comes down to rules broken by someone who understands them (like David Lynch, who has the tools of a master storyteller combined with a total disinterest in conventional storytelling), versus someone who doesn’t (I guess I’ll use human punching bag Troy Duffy as an example; his Boondock Saints is arguably the most popular of the vast ocean of shitty crime movies that tried to imitate Tarantino without understanding how he both used and broke “the rules”).

I’d say horror films have fallen under the microscope of analysis moreso than perhaps any other genre. I can see a number of reasons why. Cinéastes have to wonder about the perverse pleasures of horror, which more or less take conventional tropes (a damsel in distress and a formidable villain, for instance) and take them to depraved extremes. Even when they use common narrative conventions, why do audiences flock to stories designed to scare and shock? From a sociological and psychological perspective, it’s worth exploring.

More importantly, horror (especially in film) provides innumerable knockoffs and cash grabs of a successful formula, and so analysts and scholars ask, “How did the elements of past horrors lead to this one successful formula? Why did that formula endure? What are the conventions that make up the formula, as distinct from other horror films and other films in general?” Fucking nerd shit, right? But asking and answering so many questions about horror films has led to a surprisingly detailed cataloging of subgenres, character archetypes, and peculiar tropes. So much analysis has led to a wave of metafictional horror comedies, distinct from earlier horror comedies that mainly mine laughs from absurdly horrific situations. Examples include Ash fighting his own hand in Evil Dead II (1987), or possibly my favorite line in any horror movie (from 1985’s Re-Animator: “What would a note, Dan? ‘Dead cat, details later’?”

Some of these “meta” horror comedies are quite effective with both scares and laughs, but few attempt what screenwriters Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon do in The Cabin in the Woods: they mine most of their laughs by seeking to provide an explanation for the least plausible aspects of an archetypal slasher movie. Why is there always an obnoxious frat dude hooking up with a slutty bimbo? Why is there always a comic-relief stone and a “virgin”? The answer, in this film, is that some god or other demands a “voluntary” sacrifice. A secret government installation nudges our heroes/victims in the right directions, secretly supplying them with drugs to make them dumber or hornier, turning up heat to ensure the nudity that will leads to sex. The choices are volitional only in the most superficial sense, just enough to appease these ancient gods.

In 90 minutes, Goddard and Whedon made a film that manages to push so goddamn many of my buttons, it’s like they made a movie just for me. Elaborate-to-the-point-of-absurd government conspiracies? Sure! Funny genre deconstruction? Yup. Legitimate scares despite the knowing winks to the genre? Check. An unexpected exploration of free will? Yeah, it even has that! It finally builds to a third act so demented, chaotic, and gory, I’d challenge any horror fan not to fall in love. Of the wave of meta horror over the past 10 years, I’d call The Cabin in the Woods a high-water mark not likely to be surpassed.

As we push through 150 Films, it will become clear that many of the comedies I enjoy feature a heady dose of genre deconstruction. The reason, I think, is clear: when a filmmaker knows the rules and deliberately breaks them to get a laugh, I giggle and clap my hands like a small child.

Keep or Sell? Keep

Up Next: The Castle (1997)

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150 Films #24: The Castle (1997)

For a number of reasons, I tend not to enjoy movies about “dumb” characters. Topping that list is problem the “wisdom of a simpleton” condescension, where the plainspoken dullard is the only one who can overcome the cynical manipulations of those dang intellectuals. Boy, do I hate that move. Also, I tend to feel bad when characters get mistreated because they’re dumb, either because the filmmaker wants me to feel bad, or because they want me to laugh at the dummy. Finally, I get supremely frustrated when a filmmaker tries to use a character’s ignorance or stupidity as a kind of straw man, vilifying a character through his or her simple-minded (typically narrow-minded) viewpoint.

How does The Castle manage to make a movie centered around a not-very-bright family and get it exactly right? I’ve asked this question every time I’ve watched The Castle—several times since I first saw it seven or eight years ago—and in this essay, I’m forcing myself to come up with an answer.

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