Friday, December 28, 2007

Southland Tales

I saw the final theatrical showing of Southland Tales last night, Richard Kelley's follow up to Donnie Darko. I am going to put major spoilers here because I think spoilers are the only way anyone will be convinced to see this, if they are going to be convinced.

Since the film is impossible to summarize let me point you to Nathan Rabin's discussion of the movie as part of his excellent My Year of Flops series. Here is his summary, which you can click to read his whole article:

Southland Tales opens with a nuclear blast in Texas in an alternate-universe 2005 and an endless orgy of voice-over narration from Justin Timberlake that explains and explains and explains without really explaining anything. The U.S., it seems, responded to a nuclear attack on July 4th, 2005 by taking a fierce rightward turn. World War III brought the pain to Iran, North Korea, and various other supporters of evildoers and a sinister entity called US-IDENT spies on the American populace and polices the world-wide webernet with an iron fist.

A revolutionary group known as the neo-Marxists populated disproportionately by distaff Saturday Night Live alums (Amy Poehler, Nora Dunn, Cheri Oteri) has brainwashed an Iraq War veteran played by Seann William Scott as a way of faking a Rodney King-like videotape exposing police brutality in hopes of instigating a revolt against the repressive new social order.

Meanwhile, an amnesiac action star with ties to the Republican party (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a real-life action star with ties to the Republican party) has written “a screenplay that foretold the tale of our destruction” yet is ignored, no doubt due to serious third-act problems and weak characterization, along with his girlfriend, a porn-star/current-events-chat-show-host and one-woman media empire played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose most recent release is a pop single called “Teen Horniness Is Not A Crime.” ... [And] the whole thing might just be an elaborate religious allegory. Or not.

The religious allegory he is talking about is glossed by a article, which argues that the film is a "semi-straightforward" adaptation of the Book of Revelations. The Salo article is taking the film much more seriously than the film allows -- you can compare Kelly to David Lynch all you want but he is not David Lynch.

Southland Tales is a total disaster of a film: the first act is too confusing to follow as a movie -- we just jump from non-sense set piece to non-sense set piece: Justin Timberlake reading from the bible and T.S. Eliot, dwarfs in see-through rain coats. Much of the second act was so annoying it had me looking at my watch to see how much more of this I had to endure -- we often talk about films being "trippy" or "drug induced" but in the case of much of Southland Tales this seems sadly literal rather than metaphorical: at many points you feel you are watching a movie based on the first draft of a screenplay written by smart but stoned high schoolers. There is an extended, self-serious conversation about characters who have not had a bowel movement (the film's words) in 6 days, and whether animals want to have bowel movements or not.

But by the third act I have to admit I was strangely engrossed in the weirdness. Stunt casting had a lot to do with my enjoyment -- I think I would have had no fun at all if I did not know these actors. The Rock, in particular, is really funny because he is in many ways a standard action hero, but he also does goofy really well, which we need here. Southland Tales is by no means a good film, but where else are you going to see Wallace Shaun dressed in a baroque black cape with his hair cut into three triangular sections open mouth kissing Bai Ling? Will Sasso leading a team to kill Miranda Richardson, who is taken down by a guy with a read Mohawk and an Uzi? Do you want to see John Lovitz in a "straight role" as a silver haired psycho racist cop? Than this is the film for you. How about Cheri Oteri as a Neo Marxist gunned down by a bullet from a mounted gun? How about a computer generated sequence in which two SUVs -- the cars -- have graphic sex? How about Rebecka Del Rio singing the National anthem? How about the Rock threesome slow dancing with Sara Michelle Gellar and Mandy Moore? Saturday Night Live's Nora Dunn electrocutes John Larroquette in the groin. How about that spooky woman from Poltergeist intoning the words to a Jane's Addiction song to the Rock while standing in a tableau on a baroque staircase while holding a blinking blue globe, just before the Rock gets into Robert Mitchum's car from Kiss me Deadly? How about Christoper Lambert as a guy who deals weapons out of an ice cream truck? How about a kid shooting down a computer generated "mega-zeppelin" with a rocket launcher from off of the ice cream truck as it floats in mid-air? How about an un-recognizably fake-aged Kevin Smith and Booger as super-scientists? How about Justin Timberlake lip syncing to a song from the Killers in a bloody shirt with dancing 40s nurses in an arcade? How about the phrase "I am a pimp and pimps do not commit suicide" as a serious biblical motif? Apparently, in a subplot that was edited out, but which will surely be available on DVD, Jeanane Garafalo plays a military general.

Southland Tales is a total disaster, and you will be bored an annoyed. But gets a lot of extra points for audacity, and the creation of surreal unforgettable things.


Mikey said...

Hey Geoff - just passing through. Your comments chime a little with this (good) piece archived at Salon from 15th Nov. I can't post the link in full, but if you search the site for Southland Tales you'll get it.

It includes the following neat quote that actually piqued me for the movie:

"Johnson's collection of Shatner-esque line readings, nervous tics and one-liners that seem drawn from never-completed Michael Bay movies ("The fourth dimension's going to collapse on itself, you stupid bitch!") is brave and often funny, but never suggests a recognizable human being. Then again, "Southland Tales" isn't about human beings, or at least every time it tries to be it virtually falls apart."

For some reason I've always found The Rock to be an utterly likeable actor, and the above partially puts a finger (puts a partial finger?) on why.

I just got back from I Am Legend, which I found to be interesting for a number of reasons, a few of which were perhaps intended by the film's makers. Interesting, mind, but never compelling. Seen it? I'd be happy to post a few of my thoughts - although I wouldnt go so far as an actual 'review'.

Happy holidays and all that.

Patrick said...

Have you read the prequel graphic novel yet? The film is intended to be parts IV, V, and VI of the entire story. I don't think it'll help at all in terms of the merits of the film, but it might make the "story" more comprehensible...

Anonymous said...

i don't get it. i loved this movie and i thought it was totally touching. hmm.

Geoff Klock said...

Mikey -- thanks!

Patrick -- I have not but the Salon article tells you how the graphic novels inform the movie. It sort of explains more of the plot, but it is also more of the same insanity as is in the movie, so I bet you break even in the end.

Anon. Touching how? That Blur song is pretty amazing, but I cannot feel for characters that act so inhuman, because I cannot understand them. Do you feel bad for the woman who demands the Rock let her give him a blowjob in public or she will shoot herself -- and then gets killed, for example? The movie goes out of its way to alienate the audience, so I cannot imagine that a connection between the audience and the characters could possibly be what it is going for. I think the movie would like you to feel for the state of the world today, but again, it is too much of a mess to have a coherent point. Obviously it wants to say something about violence, and Iraq, and 9-11, and our culture of CCTV and fear, but I have no idea what it is trying to tell me.

Geoff Klock said...

Anon -- compare the film to something by Whedon for a counterpoint -- he always clearly identifies in the sci-fi fantasy stuff where the emotional realism is, where the audience connects emotionally. For example, under the mythology of Angel and his curse that if he gets perfect happiness he will lose his soul and turn evil, is the story of a girl who loses her virginity and how the man she thought she loved turns out to be not who she thought he was. I get that. Southland Tales is doing nothing like that, or is doing it so badly I cannot even see the attempt.