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August 2009

Scene4 Magazine Arts and Media: "The Brothers Bloom" reviewed by Miles David Moore

by Miles David Moore

I know I'm going to get in trouble with some of my family and friends by even approaching J.J. Abrams' retooled version of Star Trek. 

A number of them are devoted Trekkers—not Trekkies, mind you, but Trekkers, serious students of the various versions of Star Trek, its myths and its makers—and I'm not sure how they will react to the news that I loved the Abrams version, never mind that it essentially severs the future course of the USS Enterprise from the charts drawn by the late Gene Roddenberry.  At least one close friend—not a Trekker, but one who cares deeply about movies in general—thinks the new Star Trek has no reason for being; he concedes it's well-made, but says it's just another Fall Down Go Boom movie that leeches off the Star Trek franchise for a big payday, a movie that adds nothing to the Star Trek canon.


I dunno. In my opinion, if a movie entertains me, that's its reason for being.  I'm a casual fan of Star Trek; I remember the original series with affection as a boon companion of my childhood.  I have seen maybe two of the previous theatrical films, five episodes of The Next Generation, two of Voyager, and none of Deep Space Nine.  So I have no overriding loyalty toward any permutation of the Star Trek myth, just a desire that whoever is aboard the USS Enterprise, and whatever happens while they are aboard her, provide me with fun, thrills and excitement.  This the Abrams version of Star Trek did, outstandingly.

When I say Abrams alters the Star Trek canon, I mean it.   A black hole and a vengeful Romulan commander named Nero (Eric Bana) change the fates of planets and the history of the Confederation beyond anything Roddenberry would recognize.  More to the point for this movie, they make the lives of James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) far more tragic than before, and turn them into enemies. Kirk, in fact, is pretty much everybody's enemy. Far from the calm, deliberative figure made famous by William Shatner, Pine's Kirk is a total hotdog, an arrogant punk, boozer and womanizer of questionable judgment and honesty who cons his way aboard the Enterprise.  (Spock, not Kirk, is commander.)  Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Mr. Sulu (John Cho) and Ensign Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) share in the general loathing of Kirk; only Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) feels any friendship toward him.  (Scotty, played hilariously by Simon Pegg, isn't introduced till later—no fair saying how.)  Abrams' film gains power and poignancy from what the audience knows but the characters don't: that even Kirk undervalues Kirk.  The story of this movie, essentially, is how Kirk fights to gain what was his by right in a previous universe.


This, of course, was very clever of Abrams, allowing him to chart his own future course for the Enterprise and boldly go where Roddenberry & Co. had never gone before.  The big box-office numbers ensure Abrams will pilot future versions of Star Trek.  But we've all seen clever movies that had a big box office and that weren't worth the celluloid they were printed on.  I can't speak for everybody, but for me the Abrams Star Trek is a home-run hit clear out of the galaxy.  The action is thrilling, the humor sparkling, the sad parts truly poignant.  The opening sequence, which details the tragedy surrounding the birth of Kirk, is as nifty a creation myth as any science-fiction movie maker has ever come up with. The action scenes—of which, of course, there are many—are boffo; my own favorite was Kirk and Sulu fighting a duel to the death with enraged Romulans on the outside deck of a speeding spaceship.  Some critics—notably Roger Ebert—have complained that this movie is less Star Trek and more Star Wars, with the humanistic concerns that drove Roddenberry's vision largely absent.  Personally, I'm willing to allow Abrams to set up his own Star Trek universe, and see how he works it out in future films. Besides, the story of Kirk and Spock in this movie provides sufficient human interest for fans.


Abrams also does a creditable job with the writing and casting of the beloved Star Trek characters.  Some of the new actors (particularly Quinto and Urban) bear a thrilling resemblance to the original performers; others, such as Saldana and Pegg, put totally new spins on their parts.  In any case, all are very good.  Chris Pine, because his version of Kirk is so different from William Shatner's, has come in for some critical drubbing; personally, I thought he was just fine for the role as Abrams conceived it.  Pine's Kirk in some ways is a less shaggy version of his most recent previous role, as winemaker Bo Barrett in Bottle Shock—a character whose slacker ways mask his fundamental seriousness.  There is also a welcome appearance by the venerable Leonard Nimoy, playing the elderly, guilt-ridden Spock (no fair saying why he's guilt-ridden) to explain to Kirk, and to us, a crucial part of the plot.

Whereas some filmmakers boldly assume pre-existing movie myths, others boldly create their own.  One of the brightest and most playful of the latter group is Rian Johnson, whose Brick—a witty, highly stylized film noir set in a modern-day Southern California high school—is one of the outstanding films of this decade.  Armed with a budget more than 40 times that of Brick, Johnson has returned to theaters with his second feature, The Brothers Bloom.  If The Brothers Bloom lacks the concentrated brilliance of Brick, it has brilliance nonetheless, and in abundance.

Johnson is a director who doesn't just push the envelope, but the entire Office Depot.  The Brothers Bloom begins with a narration spoken by Ricky Jay and written entirely in rhyme (great shades of Max Ophuls and Jean Vigo), introducing us to the Brothers Bloom as children.  Dressed like a cross between The Blues Brothers and Waiting for Godot, the brothers work their first con on their fourth-grade classmates. The film then skips ahead three decades to the brothers—their wardrobe unchanged but their horizons considerably broadened—bringing a long con involving a jealous husband, a burning house and a shooting to a most successful end. 

Stephen, the older brother (Mark Ruffalo), lives entirely for the con. "He writes cons the way dead Russians write novels, with dramatic arcs and embedded symbolism and shit," explains the younger brother (Adrien Brody), who is never called anything but Bloom.  Bloom's lack of a first name emphasizes his lack of identity; throughout his life, he has always played whatever character Stephen needed to work the con at hand, and now he wants to know who he really is.  "All I want is an unwritten life!" Bloom says early in the film.  Stephen admonishes him: "There's no such thing as an unwritten life." 

Bloom runs off to his hideaway by a mountain lake in Montenegro; Stephen tracks him down to persuade him to work one last con.  The new mark is Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), an heiress whose circumstances have compelled her to live as a near-recluse on her vast New Jersey estate.  Stephen divines, correctly as always, that the lovely, naïve Penelope is dying for some romance and danger in her life.  Using Bloom and a fake rare manuscript as bait, Stephen proposes to give Penelope some putative romance and danger, in exchange for a few of her many millions.


From the time Bloom rides his bicycle down a steep hill into the path of Penelope's canary-yellow Lamborghini, everything goes flamboyantly wild, with only Stephen—and Johnson—knowing exactly what's going on. With the addition of Bang-Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), the brothers' resident explosives expert, the little group follows a zigzag course from Greece to Prague to St. Petersburg, filled with everything from romantic Mediterranean cruises to exploding castles.  Along the way, the brothers meet up with their Belgian confederate, Max the Curator (Robbie Coltrane) and with the Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell), their old mentor-turned-enemy.  Things go mostly to plan, with Penelope showing an unexpected talent of her own for flim-flam (just what does she tell the chief of police in Prague?).  But one vital thing goes wrong, as Bloom for the first time violates Rule Number One: Never Fall in Love With a Mark.


It becomes fairly evident by the end of The Brothers Bloom that Johnson wouldn't mind terribly if you see the story as an extended metaphor for making a movie.  Stephen is the image of the imperious, controlling director, an Orson Welles filming an everlasting F for Fake, seemingly able to manipulate even the weather to his own purposes. Yet when something unexpectedly goes wrong, he's just as nonplussed as everyone else.  Meanwhile, Bloom the searcher for genuine experience is lost without Stephen, unable even to steal an apple without getting caught.  One can by extension regard Penelope as the loyal audience, forgiving everything as long as she's entertained; Bang-Bang as the technical wizard without whom Stephen could not work his magic; and Max and the Diamond Dog as friendly and unfriendly studio execs.

Throughout The Brothers Bloom, Johnson's sheer joy in film, and the tricks you can play with it, is boldly in evidence.  The larger budget and broader canvas of The Brothers Bloom allow him to do more than he could in Brick; there are dazzlingly funny sequences throughout, as when Penelope demonstrates, in a series of quick cuts, the various disciplines she has mastered in her seclusion—ending with her juggling chainsaws while riding a unicycle.  However, the broader canvas also diffuses the film's focus, so that often it verges dangerously on becoming precious.  Several of the film's detractors have accused Johnson of aping Wes Anderson.  Not being one of those critics who sees every movie in release, I have not seen any Wes Anderson movie except Rushmore, so I can't speak to any similarities between Johnson and Anderson.  All I can say is that whenever The Brothers Bloom seems about to go irrevocably off the rails, Johnson finds some bit of funny business, or some moment of genuine warmth, to bring it back on track.  The previous comparison of Johnson with Jean Vigo was not made lightly.

It helps that Johnson has his own technical wizards.  Photographer Steve Yedlin, who worked with Johnson on Brick, contributes richly glowing images of some of the most beautiful panoramas Europe has to offer. Another welcome holdover from Brick is Johnson's cousin, composer Nathan Johnson. Nathan's experimentation with unusual combinations of instruments, and with musical styles from polka to punk, is the perfect aural companion to his cousin's idiosyncratic style.

There is a hint of real tragedy at the end of The Brothers Bloom, and that proves the measure of the film's success: the sadness feels earned, and not gratuitous.  Without giving away anything, Johnson's final message is one as old as the cinema, or indeed the theater: a noble lie, told out of love, is the greatest con of all.

As with Brick, Johnson chose his cast wisely here.  Although there is no extraordinary standout performance like Joseph Gordon-Levitt's in Brick (Gordon-Levitt has a cameo at the beginning, as does Nora Zehetner, Brick's femme fatale), the entire cast performs impeccably.  Mark Ruffalo neatly captures Stephen's genial charisma and fundamental mysteriousness, and Rachel Weisz is so softly, dewily beautiful as Penelope that you want to hug her early and often.  Adrien Brody was particularly well-chosen to play Bloom.  There is something about Brody that suggests characters from both Dostoyevsky and Kafka— the intellectual but powerless man trapped by fate and his own convoluted thoughts.  Roman Polanski used that quality brilliantly in The Pianist (winning Oscars for himself and Brody in the process); M. Night Shyamalan used it badly in The Village.  In The Brothers Bloom, Johnson uses Brody superbly, with director and actor collaborating to add layers of comic poignancy to the film.

Like Brick, The Brothers Bloom probably will annoy as many filmgoers as it pleases.  But Rian Johnson already has won a loyal cult, and it is certain to grow. Any filmmaker as gifted as Johnson deserves to work his long con.  May it be a very long one.


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©2009 Miles David Moore
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and
the Film Critic for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read his Blog


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

August 2009

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