Thursday, September 9, 2010

Kelley Vs. Nakamura: Pop Culture Cornucopia Part Duex!!

In my most recent posting, I compared the approaches of two filmmakers by focusing on their most recent flicks. Edgar Wright’s SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD and Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS were examples of cinematic pop culture commentary/homage. I recently caught another two films back to back that are approached with a similar motive in mind. And deal with a comparable conceit: the end of the world. They are not post apocalyptic. They both deal with happenstance and coincidence, intertwining tales that eventually lead up to a defining moment.

Both films owe a lot to Tarantino’s fantastic PULP FICTION as they also share a gene with Robert Altman’s ensemble dramedies and P.T. Anderson’s MAGNOLIA and BOOGIE NIGHTS. And like BASTERDS and SCOTT PILGRIM, both films are peppered with references to other movies, music, television programs and the myths vs realities that have served to promote a legend surrounding such myths.

The better known of the two films is Richard Kelley’s SOUTHLAND TALES. Rather than wax on about the merits or demerits of Kelley’s opus, I’ll just flat out say that it’s a fascinating mess. In contrast, I’ll also be discussing Yoshihiro Nakamura’s FISH STORY, a surprisingly effective, genuine sleeper of a drama comedy.

SOUTHLAND TALES is meant to be an adult graphic novel on celluloid. It takes place in an alternate “today” where Bush is president, the Iraq War wages on and yet the world is more technologically progressive than we are in real time. There is also the idea that our “government” may or may not be a fascist state (although no one seems to actually be oppressed in any way) and there is some Marxist underground movement fighting the good cause although we never know whether what they are fighting for is any worse or better than the established status quo. Oh, and a nuclear bomb went off in Texas. In fact, not a whole lot makes sense in this movie. In fact, the movie is supposed to be a comedy. But it’s not funny. In fact, the screenplay (written by Kelley) is terrible.

However, that’s not to say I was bored watching this. It’s got that train wreck quality where you do find it interesting in it’s awfulness. For one thing: it’s very well produced. In some ways it reminded me of the flawed but oh-so-much-better STRANGE DAYS directed by Kathryn Bigelow. They both deal with a potential, near apocalyptic future. They both deal with some very advanced drugs. They both have their conspiracy story structure. They are both informed by popular music (in their own way). But SOUTHLAND isn’t just well produced it’s over produced. Kelley just keeps throwing things at the screen as if he’s waiting for something to stick. Just anything. And yet the best concept of the movie, the one that is probably the only truly, intentionally intriguing thing in the film, is thrown away as an after thought. Or presented as a weakly told punch line. And there is a significant waste of talent involved: The Rock, Cheri Oteri, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Christopher Lambert (?!), Jon Lovitz, Miranda Richardson, John Lorroquette, Nora Dunn, Wallace Shawn, Sean William Scott, Justin Timberlake. No one in this film is defined. They are just foreground for the background. The characters they play and the types they represent are not fulfilled in any particular way. So, Timberlake gets stoned and has a musical sequence. What for? Oh, and he’s the narrator. Why? Sara Michelle Gellar is a porn star with a successful talk show. Who cares? Miranda Richardson is a right wing puppet string holder who watches a lot of TV from her command center-lair. And…. what’s the point? Oh, and The Rock gets to act against type by playing a popular action star (whom most of the population in this film seems to never recognize unless it serves the script to do so) who isn’t all that courageous.  But he’s just silly and weird.

And people do things just… because. For no reason a character picks up a bazooka and fires it into a floating dirigible thus killing most of the cast. Some agents of the underground are not exactly on the same side (I think) and do their turncoat thing although it’s not clear if they are truly turncoats or whatever. Or just rival guerilla factions. One moment Mandy Moore can’t stand her action star husband (as it is a marriage of political convenience). Heck, he isn’t even the father of her child. But when she reappears later in the film she’s out of nowhere in love with him.

You got a headache yet? Need some aspirin? Screw that comparison to STRANGE DAYS. This film is more like that Peter Sellers’ wtf epic CASINO ROYALE.

That is the essence of SOUTHLAND TALES: it is the director’s “tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” Kelley really has nothing to say here. It’s all about tossing up a lot of “cool” and “really heavy” ideas that don’t a movie make.

Now compare this to Nakamura’s FISH STORY. I’ll set up the premise and nothing more: Three characters are hanging out in a record store for what may be the final hours of everything as we know it. One character plays a rare recording of an unknown punk rock song from the mid 70s – a song produced two years before the formation of The Sex Pistols. What follows is a eulogy to myth making and the butterfly effect of historical events leading up to the outcome of the present day. And the result is a real gem of a film.

SOUTHLAND TALES deals with the cause and effect that could result in an apocalypse.  FISH STORY deals with the cause and effect that could result in the prevention of an apocalypse. For SOUTHLAND, on paper, while the idea of a near apocalyptic story featuring spineless action stars, shell shocked war heroes, porn stars, fascist governments and a whole lotta’ satire sounds great in a “hey, I love Kurt Vonnegut and this sounds like something he’d write” kind of way, the result is a train wreck (albeit an interesting one to watch). FISH STORY is the complete antithesis, it’s concept sounds really trite – that music can save the world – but the result is a delightful, imaginative and sometimes sobering look at the human condition. It’s almost the movie SOUTHLAND TALES should have been. The left field moments are well balanced by the more down to earth ones. And, ultimately, every moment contributes an importance to the overall “big picture.” And just when you think it might jump the rails in being too precious, too “pink” in that overly cutesy, saccharine way that seems indicative of Japan Pop, Nakamura tempers his story with very effective satire and a tongue in cheek style that is disarming and yet not condescending to his overall concept. If you seek a clue in terms of what I’m talking about, just read the film’s title: FISH STORY. It’s actually a punch line in of itself. But see the film and find out why.

Like Tarantino and Wright, Kelley and Nakamura pepper their films with pop cultural allusions. Kelley brings up references to KISS ME DEADLY (the best Apocalyptic Noir ever made), pulp movie heroes, music and a crap load of literature (Philip K. Dick and T.S. Eliot to name a few). But with SOUTHLAND it comes across as too show offy, too clever for it’s own good. And oftentimes pointless and downright vague in its intent. Whereas the pop references in FISH STORY are not only pleasantly surprising but also work to forward the plot of the flick.

I highly recommend (if you’ve got the stamina) checking out both films back to back like I did. Really makes for an interesting comparison. But I would save Nakamura’s FISH STORY for last to end your evening on a positive note.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a fun experiment! I've debated whether I ever want to slog through Southland Tales, but if it's for comparative purposes I might give it a go.

    A stuntman I know once referred to Southland Tales as the worst movie he was ever involved with. And he was in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. And I think Transformers. ...not a ringing endorsement.