Saturday, October 11, 2008

Fantastic Fest Fan Fiction: Rain Johnson's THE BROTHERS BLOOM and J.L. Vera's SOUTH OF HEAVEN

The ex-wife of a dear friend of mine had a thing for STAR TREK fan faction. As a Trekkie and would-be writer herself, she had this fascination with what fellow fans would dream up for the TREK characters, especially if they took things into wild directions, like the ones where Kirk and Spock are gay lovers. These kind of things are fascinating and depressing by equal measure, since so little of it is actually any good, but it's certainly of interest to see just what exactly people make of a favorite TV series or movie or comic when it's put into the hands of its fans, because that's when their fantasies really come out into the open. Whether it's finally giving Uhurah the chance to pilot the Enterprise or to find out just what would happen if the characters from The Lord of the Rings visited FANTASY ISLAND, one thinks that their imagination is truly going wild,when in fact their imagination is incredibly limited, since they really didn't create any of this stuff to begin with. If I put my French fries on top of my hamburger, it doesn't make me a great chef, it just means that I'm slapping two favorites together to spice up something I already love, nothing more.

I couldn't help but think of this equation while watching two of this year's Fantastic Fest features, Rain Johnson's THE BROTHERS BLOOM (which screened as one of the Ain't It Cool News Secret Screenings) and J.L Vera's SOUTH OF HEAVEN, which take a fan fiction approach to pulp materials and both come up short. It's very obvious that both writer/directors have a love of the works of writers like Mikey Spillaine, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake and a host of others, and they both work at adding their own personal spins to it, though not quite hard enough. Vera's is more cartoonish, saturating his screen with bright digital colors and very over-the-top violence, while Johnson wants a comical con men fairy tale mixed with a love story. Both are operating on the director's love of this kind of material, along with fantasies of what their ideal pulp fiction-type story would be and neither of them work, though one works much better than the other. I could give them points for wanting to mine material that isn't some comic book or Spielbergian early 80s fantasy flick, but the fact is that neither film is successful in their attempts, so I can't. It's OK to make something in the style of a favorite subgenre, but you can't wallow in its excesses and think you're going to come up with something unique because you're just going to end up looking like a geeky fanboy, albeit one who happens to read.

SOUTH OF HEAVEN is the worst offender of the two, a movie that reels solely of the director's fantasies of what his ideal movie would be, other than the idea of (god forbid) actually entertaining an audience. I would lump it in with all of the Tarantino wannabes of the mid-90s, but the cartoonish spin that Vera puts on it (a very obvious Warner Brothers influence here) separates it from the rest of those, if only slightly. This doesn't excuse Vera for the talkative hit men, serial killers and thieves, though, and I'll tell you all right now that I actually walked out of this one about halfway through. After a certain point I'd figured I'd had enough, though at what point exactly I can't remember, but at about the thirteen monologue in (no joke, though I'm probably not right on the number), I knew I wasn't going to subject myself to this anymore. This thing was not going to improve and I was not going to see the light, so it was best that we part. So while SOUTH OF HEAVEN does not represent the typical kind of fanboy cinema of this days and age, it nonetheless is a movie made only because someone has seen too many movies but doesn't really know how to make a film that is really their own as opposed to making a smorgasbord of their favorite kind of movies. And that's the kind of movie I no longer have any patience for, so include me out.

Much better by comparison (which is still damning with faint praise), Johnson's THE BROTHERS BLOOM is a dangerous balancing act of a movie, an attempt to make a whimsical crime movie, and when was the last time we saw one of those work? Again, Johnson is playing favorites here - a desire to replicate a dream movie in his mind - but unlike his previous film, BRICK, which was a picture that took a subgenre and successfully turned it on its ear, BLOOM just doesn't come together. Johnson is packing in too much here - it's a family story, a comedy, an action movie, a heist movie, a love story, a travelogue, a con story - and there's no real focus, at least none to my point of view. I was with it for a bit, but eventually I was lost in one double cross too many and I started to not care a little after halfway through. The plot isn't really what Johnson cares for, anyway; it's really more about the characters, which is as it should be, but everything is pretty damn predictable, so once you've figured out where that's going to go well before the film actually gets there, you don't really care. The performers are all pretty good - not that there are any bad ones in the bunch - with Rinko Kikuchi offering the real spark of life that the film needs. Even though she only has a few lines, she lifts the film up through sheer presence and I think I stuck with the film mainly because I wanted to see what she was going to do next. She's sensational, and I'd love to see her get an Oscar nomination because she does this all so well that she makes the film a little better than it really is. It's one of those situations where you ask yourself why they couldn't have made the film about her instead of the Brothers Bloom, because she's so much more interesting. Nevertheless, you're glad she's there, and at least as far as she's concerned Johnson's fantasies and my own happen to coincide, so I have no complaints there. As for the rest of THE BROTHERS BLOOM, thanks for giving us this peek at your bookshelf, Rain, but can you go and make a real movie next time, OK?

1 comment:

Rodney Perkins said...

The biggest flaw in South of Heaven is the failure to synthesize all of the influences into a cohesive whole. Considering this is a first-time effort with not a lot of money, I think its a good effort. Once the writer/director figures out how to synthesize all of those influences, he has the potential to be a strong new voice. Frankly, the only difference between this and what Tarantino has been doing forever (and ever and ever) is synthesis. Tarantino just figured it out before he made his first film.