#6 – Brick (2005)

Brick (2005) – Run Time: 109 Minutes

One Line Synopsis

A neo-noir about a high school student (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who probes the dark underworld of his school after the mysterious death of his ex-girlfriend.

Best Reason to Watch

1. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Quickly becoming a star in Hollywood, Levitt officially shed his sitcom self with this breakout role

2. Director Rian Johnson‘s debut

3. An immense enjoyment of 50’s detective jive talk

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#4: Shallow Grave (1994)

Shallow Grave (1994)

One Line Synopsis

In Danny Boyle’s directorial debut, the bond of three twenty-something friends struggle with the discovery their new flatmate dead, naked, and laying beside a bag full of cash.

What Did You Miss?

Not every director has an inauspicious, humble debut in their film-making career. Right off the bat, Danny Boyle hit the triumvirate dream scenario for a novice filmmaker with Shallow Grave: critical acclaim, financial success, and a stylistic calling card of a high quality, well-crafted movie made on a tight budget.

Until the recent critical successes of Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, Boyle rarely cracked the list of premier working filmmakers. Yet his recognizable techniques and visual leanings were evident immediately.  Shallow Grave began a fertile trilogy of films. 1996’s classic Trainspotting and the oft-overlooked A Life Less Ordinary (1997) featured continued collaboration with an up-and-coming star in Ewan McGregor, the talented screenwriter John Hodge, and cinematographer Brian Tufano.

Shallow Grave employs a recognizable plot trajectory also utilized in Trainspotting. The film starts off with young people having fun only to descend into a spiral of madness. Shallow Grave’s opening montage is of three snarky, fun-loving roommates interviewing potential candidates to fill their flat’s fourth bedroom; posing invasive, shocking, or utterly nonsensical questions to amuse themselves at this person’s expense.

Full of upbeat UK dance music by artists like Leftfield, visceral jump cuts, and plenty of playful “fucking with you” interviews, these scenes are prototypical of Boyle’s canon.  He employs comparable enthused, fun-loving openings in later films, from Mark Renton’s gleeful race and memorable voiceover through the opening of Trainspotting to James Franco popping wheelies at dawn around Utah’s Blue John Canyon in 127 Hours.

The sarcasm and witty roommate repartee comes to a dead halt, literally, about ten minutes into Shallow Grave. Soon after the new roommate moves in, the flatmates find his body locked in his bedroom next to a bag full of cash. The dramatic side of Shallow Grave quickly moves to the forefront, swiftly spoiling all the fun.
The narrative film turns into a gloomy thriller of paranoia, replete with the requisite shadowy lighting and stark colors, as well as recurring thematic elements of water and drowning. The group’s decision regarding what to do with their freshly deceased roommate slowly tears them apart, becoming an urban adult version of Lord of the Flies. In less capable hands than Boyle’s, this story could become very generic, very quickly.  Shallow Grave takes the simplistic tale of trauma and collective secret-keeping to a complex exposition of the divisiveness of a windfall and how quickly it can tear the fabric of friendship apart.

In Shallow Grave, you witness the genesis of a great director, the nascent stages of McGregor’s meteoric rise as an actor, and an interesting psychological thriller full of topnotch twists, impressively made on a tight budget with a script full of pitch perfect dialogue. If you haven’t seen Shallow Grave, I’d say you’ve missed a lot.

 

Thoughts & Notes (for after the movie… may contain spoilers)

– This film is plentiful with bits and references that will recur in later Boyle projects and especially in Trainspotting.

  • A deceptive narrator type starts both films off with a humorous, lengthy and fantastic voice over. Both are by McGregor.
  • Shallow Grave has many allusions and visions of characters being underwater when being in trouble. Trainspotting‘s most infamous scene is where McGregor as Renton dives into possibly the most disgusting toilet swims around looking for drugs, which one would think would have to be the visualization of a character hitting rock bottom.
  • In the segment where two characters have decided to free themselves of the burden of the money by buying a few video cameras and having fun, we are also introduced to a crawling baby doll. During Renton’s crazy withdrawals segment, he freaks out when he sees a crying, crawling baby approach him on the ceiling.
  • An obvious affinity for the band Leftfield as they appear in both soundtracks. The use of music in Boyle’s films are very memorable including the perfect use of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” in Trainspotting, VAST’s “Touched” for The Beach, Beck’s “Deadweight” in A Life Less Ordinary.

– Writer John Hodge has a pretty sizable role in the film as the lead investigator on the case DC Mitchell. There is a very weird moment near the end where they are photographing the scene of the crime and McGregor appears to be alive and stabbed as he talks to him. As this is happening, the film’s final reveal is happening simultaneously with the lead female Kerry Fox thinking she made a clean getaway but finding out she was duped.

Hodge wrote Boyle’s first four films until Boyle started utilizing Alex Garland, the writer of the book The Beach which Hodge converted into a screenplay. Boyle’s most recent films, 127 Hours & Slumdog MIllionaire, have been written by Simon Beaufoy who had his breakthrough writing The Full Monty.

– The writing has that trademark witty banter styling of the mid-90s that is prevalent in many indie films you see today. But as the seriousness disappears so does the chatter. The dialogue in the film is a sign of the characters spinning out of control. The situation has become so serious that even the biggest smart-ass can’t come up with a few punchy stabs at a flatmate and it becomes a variety of melodramatic confrontations.

– The film makes excellent use of an inanimate object as a character in the film. In this case it is the stark, red phone that starts as something humorous but eventually becomes an implement of fear and paranoia. This is done in many films, mostly horror films like Scream, but the use here is just another excellent example of the tensity that can be caused just by a sound or the absence thereof.

– Here’s a few of my favorite scenes to watch out for:

  • Favorite reference: McGregor watching the infamous final scene of Scottish cult classic The Wicker Man as one of his roommates is spiraling into paranoid insanity.
  • McGregor look down the barrel of a drill (pictured above).
  • The robbing of a man through an ATM shot through security camera viewpoint.
  • One of my fascinations is to age a movie by the technology used in it; The big cell phones, the bulky laptops, the video cameras.
  • Christopher Eccleston hanging upside down from his legs through the opening to the attic like a weary monkey.
  • Favorite line: When talking to his female flatmate near the film’s penultimate dramatic showdown he tells her to blame the whole thing on him if it goes wrong,  and says “That’s important to me, to die misunderstood.”

#3: Homicide (1991)

Homicide (1991)
101 mins.

One Line Synopsis

A Baltimore cop (Joe Mantegna) becomes torn between what he thinks is a major murder case and the death of a old Jewish woman with a family that has strong political connections.

What Did You Miss?

Although it takes place in gritty Baltimore and centers around the homicide detectives, Homicide is not connected to the mid-to-late 90s TV show of a similar name. Despite that fact, if you ever enjoyed Andre Braugher & Kyle Secor’s aggressive, visceral cases you will probably enjoy David Mamet’s third directorial effort.

If nothing else, I can’t think of a movie that has a story centering around an underground, American-based Israeli counter-racism intelligence unit lurking in the shadows. The movie is full of excellent hints and clues, not the average run of the mill crap but unintelligible clues at first look that make perfect sense when they are revealed.

One great scene involves Mantegna running into a religious man studying the codes of the Book of Esther. When trying to explain its intricacies of the text to Mantegna, he implores him to read the text himself. Mantegna tells the man that although he is Jewish, he can’t read Hebrew. The pious man retorts, “You say you’re  a Jew, and you can’t read Hebrew. What are you, then?”

What are you is the essential question for almost everyone. It is such a striking question, in a pivotal and pitch perfect scene. It is a scene that usually is some lame revelation of a missing fact in the average writer’s hand but Mamet turns the scene into something immensely more meaningful. It is a wonderful, essential scene of exposition in film. An early inkling of some of Mamet’s writing on essays on antisemitism that have popped up throughout his career.

The film also features the always excellent supporting man in William H. Macy (another Mamet favorite) as Mantegna’s partner. His role is memorable for its high-speed style retorts and commentary. The film is full of fast-talking, overtones of strong racial and anti-semitic overtones (the Jewish “k” word popped up at least fives time, haven’t heard it in so long it still shocked me).

Next time, you’re sitting in front of the TV, waiting for an intelligent “cop torn between allegiances film,” slip in David Mamet’s Homicide and enjoy. Maybe even make it a Mamet marathon. A few nights filled with House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Spartan, and Homicide sound like a perfect way to spend a weekend.

Additional Thoughts:

  • David Mamet’s recent output has been a mixed bag of late; the good – he created the excellent, yet overlooked TV series The Unit, the same goes for the the “spook”-jive lingo of Spartan and the bad – the boring comedy of State and Main and the overrated, boring MMA-flick Redbelt.
  • Homicide is a the type of film that no longer gets made due to the ridiculous amount of police procedurals that have filled the airwaves in the last twenty years  (weren’t there 14 Law & Orders, 9 CSIs, along with NYPD Blue, the previously mentioned TVHomicide: Life On The Street). Even though new ones pop up every year with a few new twists like Life (a personal favorite), Life on Mars (time-traveling cops), The Unusuals (a mid-season replacement a few years back about quirky cops on quirkier cases), the art-form of a quality, intelligent cop movie. These films come in one of two flavors these days, the super-cop type like the Die Hard series or the dirty cops like Training Day and Brooklyn’s Finest.
  • It is amazing what an amazing director can do for an average actor. Mantegna has two truly excellent film performances and they were both before 1992 and under the direction of David Mamet, this film and the excellent con-man flick House of Games. Even though he is still working and recognizable, this is a man who really hasn’t had a quality performance in 20 years. Ok, I’ll give you Airheads! But in 1994 Mantegna starred in Baby’s Day Out as Eddie the Kidnapper and it’s been all downhill from there. Who thought all these baby movies were a good idea? This era gave us the Baby’s Day Out , the Look Who’s Talking series, Baby Geniuses, all leading up to the penultimate over-exposure of a terrible idea with those E-trade talking baby commercials. Let’s ban the talking babies for a few decades.
  • Another thing to keep your eyes out for is the excellent low light cinematography as most of the movie takes place at night, in the shadows with limited lighting. It’s not surprising to see Roger Deakins as the cinematographer, who has long been the Coen Brothers go-to behind-the-lens man take Mamet’s vision and give it a complementary visual palette.
  • The film is available on the Criterion Collection and includes this excellent, insightful essay by Stuart Klawans.

#2: After Life

After Life (1998)

One Line Synopsis

A group of guides help their guests choose one memory to take with them after their deaths.

What Did You Miss?

It’s not surprising that the great films most will miss are sad, small budget, foreign dramas that are crafted with precision, passion, and love. While I am by no means, an expert (or lover) of Japanese films in general, this gem has just about everything you want from a truly memorable film watching experience.

Do not confuse this film with the supernatural thriller from 2009 After.Life starring Liam Neeson and Christina Ricci despite the similar titles

Sadly, this is one movie that you wouldn’t stumble over copies at Blockbuster (when it wasn’t bankrupt) or get recommended along aside every other choice your add to your Netflix queue. While I believe the film is available from Netflix on DVD, it is otherwise only available for purchase for about $30 bucks.

Director Hirokazu Koreeda does the masterful job of creating a realistic, graceful, understanding post-existence locale. The film takes a delicate matter of pondering what happens to people after they die. A cross-section of characters of all ages and types have to literally view their lives on film, relive their whole lives visually and select a moment that portrays its essence. The fallout from that choice is that they lose everything else. It is an ingenious premise that is adeptly portrayed like no other film that I have ever seen.

Recently, there was an article, I believe in Esquire, that asked why there were no good movies or scenes about heaven. They are always lame and cloudy. Hell is much more fun, apocalyptic, and worthy of a shoot-’em-up action flick. What kind of action would happen in a place that most people consider perfection? A place where there is supposedly no strife, bickering, or dealing with the minutiae of daily life. There may not even be days. How do you envision a place like this and more likely to make it dramatically intriguing? To me, filmmakers have portrayed heaven often when there are portraying characters dreams, worlds of alternate existence. A film like Inception or What Dreams May Come or The Matrix or Waking Life deal with it as alternate/subconscious dream states yet no matter what the darkness, fire and decay of hell seep in.

But for After Life, the threat is not there. This is a place of solace, understanding, and yet a burdensome task to those who are employed to assist in it. So to me, After Life is the most moving, realistic portrayal of the penultimate out-of-body experience, a film that truly makes you think and ponder what will be on your video hard drives when you make the next step.

#1: In The Company of Men

In the Company of Men (1997)

One line synopsis

Two misogynist businessmen (one played by Eckhart) cruelly plotting to romance and emotionally destroy a deaf woman.


Why Should You Watch It?

Not to be confused with the recent, decent Up In the Air-light The Company Men starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Coach from the 90’s ABC sitcom “Coach,” In The Company of Men is is the of genesis of two notable careers in film. Aaron Eckhart and director/writer/playwright Neil Labute  met at Brigham Young University.

Eckhart’s role of scheming Chad is the perfect exhibition of hiss acting skill, a role that requires the perfect amount of charm with possibly the healthiest dose of nastiness-per-moment-on-screen. Eckhart has gone on to a wide array of roles from Erin Brockovich to Thank You For Smoking to this weekend’s Battle of L.A. but every time I see him pop up on-screen the first thing that comes to mind, “I should watch In The Company of Men again.”

Scene from In The Company of Men

The man who supplied this perfect role is Mr. Labute. Originally performed as a stage play, Labute took two weeks on a $25K budget and created celluloid gold coming in at a brisk running time of 97 minutes. I think it’s about time for a clip. (Note: this clip has quite a filled with off-colored language but it still fucking hilarious.)

Labute followed this film up with a few interesting and entertaining productions such Your Friends & Neighbors with Ben Affleck and Eckhart again as well as the overlooked Nurse Betty with Renee Zellweger. How quickly things can a promising start can turn to crap?

Labute is still making movies although none that most people would want to watch unless your idea of a good time is watching Nicholas Cage in a remake of The Wicker Man or Chris Rock in an even less unnecessary remake of Death at a Funeral. Maybe one day Labute will come back from the dark side but at least there is one gem in his filmography.

 

Some More Thoughts (mostly random mental connections):

– My hopes for Labute’s career were very high coming off this film but after some entertaining and interesting work on his follow-up

The film seems heavily influenced by David Mamet’s fantastic Glengarry Glen Ross, which also was a stage play adapted to the screen. If you’ve seen the film, try to remember back how many sets there were. Off the top of my head I remember the office and the bar outside of those two the film takes has a few random exteriors. It’s story driven by dialogue and character. Note to aspiring filmmakers, the best way to make an excellent film on no budget is take notes from Men and Glengarry Glen Ross. Here’s a famous clip from the movie. If you can write something a monologue like this, and get someone to masterfully deliver it like this much-younger version of Alec Baldwin, then you’re already on your way to stardom. Good luck with that.


The Statement of Purpose

What is a blog that nobody will read without a statement of purpose?

Go Crazy Paul!

Back in the olden days of the internets, I made a Word document that was created with the intention of becoming a AOL homepage to be called The UAG or the “Under-appreciated Actor’s Guild”. A few days later, after months of hard work the hard drive fried and the project died there. (Note: This list included some quite amazing break outs including Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Peter Stormare, Aaron Eckhart, and a few more that I can’t recall. Maybe I should have tried to be an agent.)

The UA was to be an offshoot of a Steve Buscemi Fan Club Homepage, which is still located on tripod (another pre-historic relic that still survives, and outlasted AltaVista sadly). Despite my love for the man, I am still shocked he is starring on a HBO series.

The idea has always festered in my mind until it sprang a leak a few weeks back at a weird Asian place in NYC that had 5 different menus which a limited amount of proper English. Prompted by my friend Dave who is one of many who is always looking for something new or something he missed, especially when it comes to movies. So for Dave, here it is.

I’ve decided to start this blog with the intention for bringing to light a few things, expanding the horizons of some even in this current world of multitude with practically every movie ever made at your finger tips.

Yet have you ever been staring into this abyss of everything and wonder to watch? Too much choice can leave you flabbergasted. So once in a while, hopefully semi-frequently, there will be a post here, bringing to light something you might have missed. A movie most have missed? An album that eluded the not-so-attuned ears of the world? There is a goldmine of greatness every day that is oft overlooked and I plan to bring it all to light. OK all is a strong statement, let’s say most. Maybe a sliver?