Monday, March 24, 2008

Southland Tales

Director: Richard Kelly
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore
Running Time: 144 min.
Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

For the past two years or so I’ve been telling anyone willing to listen that if something were to happen to me like, say, accidentally getting hit by a MAC truck, that my only request is that it occurs AFTER I’ve seen and reviewed Southland Tales. To fully understand why requires a little bit of explanation. You see Southland Tales is what I like to refer to as a "Jeremy Movie." Such films, which only seem to come down the pike every few years, follow a certain set of rules. The first of which is usually that they don’t follow any. They’re also self-indulgent, tend to make little or no sense on an initial viewing, take huge risks, feature insane casting and sometimes, but not always, are directed by a filmmaker who just doesn’t seem to give a shit whether their movie is embraced by the public.

These films often elicit harsh, polarizing reactions from audiences and critics. When I tell anyone I happen to love one of them I can read the frustration on their faces, even if they’re too polite to say anything. They just can’t stand it. The second I saw the trailer for for this I thought: "Awesome. Richard Kelly made a really insane film…just for me." Well, me and just a couple of other people who might be crazy enough to appreciate what he’s trying to do. Nearly everyone else will probably despise it.

Southland Tales is the most ambitious, self-indulgent film to ever be released by a major studio. By comparison, Kelly’s own Donnie Darko and last year’s Grindhouse look like tame, mainstream crowd pleasers. It’s a sci-fi epic, a dark comedy, a drama, a romance, a musical, an action-adventure and a religious allegory all rolled into one messy inaccessible package. It’s also the most biting political satire since Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. In presenting a dystopian fantasy, it ends up saying more about the world we live in than any of the heavy-handed political dramas Hollywood force-fed us over the past year.

Its nearly 3-hour cut at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 screened to the harshest reception there since The Brown Bunny. This cut is shorter at 144 minutes, but I can see how Kelly would’ve needed more time to tell such an expansive tale that bursts at the seams with such force and energy. Its reception at Cannes makes perfect sense. This isn’t a movie for film festivals, critics or even most audiences. Hell, this isn’t really a movie for anyone except a few. But for those few it will be very special. A little while back I almost felt the need to actually apologize for liking Juno, a polarizing movie reviled by many. You won’t be able to beat an apology out of me for this one.

It’s an alternate 2008 and the country is in political, social and environmental upheaval. A set of nuclear attacks in El Paso and Albilene, Texas in 2005 have set off a chain of events that has led America into World War III. We’re told this via clever Fox News-like visuals and a T.S. Elliot and Robert Frost quoting voice-over supplied by wounded Iraq War vet, Private Pilot Abiline (Justin Timberlake). The government responds by beefing up the Patriot Act and creating USIDent, an oppressive "Big Brother" police state. With a gas crisis on its hands the country makes a deal to use an alternative source of energy known as "Liquid Karma," the brainchild of mad scientist Baron Von Westphalen (The Princess Bride’s Wallace Shawn). The fate of the upcoming election rests solely on the electoral votes in the state of California.

Amongst the political unrest, extreme liberal cells to emerge, specifically a group called the Neo-Marxists. They’ll stop at nothing to destroy USIDent and break the Republican stranglehold in office, using movie star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) to do it. Having recently disappeared in the middle of the desert, Boxer has returned to the California Southland with a mysterious case of amnesia, which right after impotence has to rank as the next worst condition with which to be afflicted if your wife is Mandy Moore. He’s shacked up with porn star and aspiring reality talk show host, Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). They’re working on a screenplay, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the events that unfold in this film.

Boxer becomes the target of an extortion plot by the Neo-Marxists to bring down his in-laws, Republican Presidential candidate Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne) and his Lady MacBeth of a wife Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson. The other two pieces of the apocalyptic puzzle are twins Roland and Ronald Taverner (both played by Seann William Scott). And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the plots and sub-plots contained within this jam-packed film or how they merge together for a visually stunning July 4th finale that takes you as far down the rabbit hole as humanly possible, owing more to Donnie Darko than you might expect.

It’s literally impossible to see this film once and attempt to make any sense of it at all, much less form an opinion on it. This creates a problem because an initial viewing will be so frustrating for most audiences that the last thing they’d want to do is revisit it, which is a shame because they’d be missing out. I’ve only seen it twice and I say "only" because I still don’t believe I’ve come anywhere close to extracting all there is from it. I don’t think I ever will. But it is amazing how much you pick up on in another viewing because it’s structured in such a way that you really do have to pay attention to every little detail. The narration. Those tickers at the bottom of the screen. The frequent news updates. They all play a role in filling in the blanks and dropping hints. The plot is complicated in its details, yet so meticulously crafted and constructed that from a big picture perspective it holds together in some sort of insane way when you step back and look at it all. More directly, it’s an extremely loose and very clever creative adaptation of the Book of Revelation, which is quoted many times during Timberlake’s voice-overs throughout the film.

As I experienced Southland Tales I could swear it must have been based on a comic or graphic novel because what’s onscreen comes so close to creating a living, breathing comic universe. As it turns out, the story is Kelly’s creation and while graphic novels were released separately from the film, they’re based on his screenplay, not the other way around. Not unlike George Lucas with Star Wars, Kelly had originally envisioned this as a nine-part series. What we get here is the final three parts entitled: Part Four: Temptation Waits, Part Five: Memory Gospel and Part Six: Wave of Mutilation. The graphic novels are prequels and this method likely alienated mainstream moviegoers who could point to it as yet another example of Kelly’s self-indulgence. To an extent they’re right, but I’d argue the three parts we get here wouldn’t be necessarily any more comprehensible if we had more background. And the prologue (which the studio pushed Kelly to include) does help make sense of this…if you pay close attention to it.

If I could compare it to any film, the closest it comes to matching, at least in tone, is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But it really isn’t like that movie at all, or like anything else for that matter. Kelly wears the influences of David Lynch, George Orwell and Phillip K. Dick proudly on his sleeve, yet he somehow still manages to build a universe that’s completely fresh and original. The movie is also incredible to look at with visionary production design and special effects that, if the film had been better received (or received at all) could’ve warranted Oscar consideration. Moby’s synthesized dream-like score seems almost ingrained into the fabric of the film and story itself. It’s hard to imagine any other composer’s work being as close of a match to this challenging material as his. Music also provides the exhilarating centerpiece of the film, a Justin Timberlake lip-synched musical number set to The Killers’ "All These Things That I’ve Done." After watching it you won’t hear that song the same way again. I have no idea how much was paid for the rights to use it, but it was worth every penny.

If someone asked me what my dream cast for a movie would be, the list would read almost exactly as you see above. It’s almost surreal seeing these names assembled together for one film. You may have noticed for the first time the conspicuous absence of "The Rock" moniker in Dwayne Johnson’s billing in the credits and the ads for the film. It’s appropriate. As a wrestling fan I was disappointed when Johnson hung up his trunks and retired for a movie career. If you looked at the long, unsuccessful list of wrestlers who’ve tried acting you’d know where I’m coming from. That disappointment officially ends now. I don’t want ever to see this guy anywhere near a ring again. I had a feeling he’d star in a great movie eventually, but I didn’t think it would be this early. The role of Boxer is right up his alley and Johnson deftly handles some of the most difficult material an actor can be given: the frustrating, incomprehensible kind. He’s no fluke and that this flopped won’t hurt him in the slightest. His performance drives the movie.

Sharing top acting honors with him is Sarah Michelle Gellar, who gives real heart and depth to what should have been the shallowest character in the film while Seann William Scott comes closest here to fulfilling the potential we’ve been suspecting he had all along. As the narrator, Timberlake is our eyes and ears in a story where we need a lot of help. Compared to his larger recent roles in Alpha Dog and Black Snake Moan, this doesn’t let him show as much dramatic range, but of the three, his work here is the most memorable…and craziest.

One of the biggest thrills in this is for me was seeing actors who I never thought would get a good role again (some of whose careers peaked a decade ago) finally given a chance to impress. You really get to see them like you never have before. Jon Lovitz as a psychotic cop. John Larroquette as a clueless Presidential advisor. Christopher Lambert as a weapons dealer. MadTV’s Will Sasso as a drug-dealing movie producer. Saturday Night Live’s Amy Poehler as an unhinged "performance artist." The biggest surprise of the film is another SNL vet, Cheri Oteri. Anyone familiar with her work on that show will be surprised that as Zora Carmichaels, the leader of the Neo-Marxist movement, she actually gives one of the strongest dramatic performances in the film… a dramatic performance made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s given in the midst of a screwball comedy.

As Madeline Frost Santaros, Mandy Moore’s free fall of terrible film choices comes to a screeching halt. It isn’t a big role yet in some strange way it ends up being one of her most exciting and, much like 2004’s Saved, represents the risky parts that for whatever reason she’s strayed away from. A completely unrecognizable Kevin Smith (looking EXACTLY like music producer Rick Rubin) even cameos as a military expert, who may have the answers everyone’s looking for. Also, keep an eye out for the appearance of one of America’s most hated directors in a "blink and you’ll miss it" moment. There are so many wild performances and cameos its impossible to single them all out and I know I’m missing many. When there are this many big names in a movie there’s a tendency for it to become a massive distraction but here there’s none of that. Everything is dead-on.

Regardless of how important it is for filmmakers to take risks and give us something we haven’t seen before, most don’t because they’re not given the creative freedom and the few that are know that walking this close to the edge is too dangerous for their careers. There’s much less downside when you have modest goals. No one will ever accuse Richard Kelly of lacking ambition or playing it safe. That says something, and it's something we desperately need more of. I’m not praising this film to be cool or different. Nor do I think being ambitious and risky automatically qualifies a movie as brilliant. You shouldn’t take chances just for the sake of taking them. The risks have to be good ones that pay off. And I’d never imply anyone who hates the film just doesn’t "GET IT." Even those who love it will probably never "get it." From where I’m sitting, the mystery accounts for much of its appeal.

Despite my admiration for Kelly’s previous feature, I’m far from one of those Emo, glue sniffing, wrist-slashing Darko fanboys who would have salivated over anything he put up on screen. I knew what I was getting into and expected to be entertained, but was also fully prepared for the possibility I’d hate it. Either way I knew I’d be getting something daring and original. There’s just no telling how something so "of the moment" and reflective of our times will hold up over the long run, but I have this sneaking suspicion it’ll age very well.

I’ve been very critical of films incorporating, or even worse, preaching politics, but when presented in the context of such a creative fantasy, it goes down so much easier. It helps that Kelly is an equal opportunity offender, hilariously taking swipes at both sides. It works as a hysterical spoof of everything from YouTube to cable news channels to celebrity culture. Maybe it’s just my weird sense of humor, but I laughed harder during this than any mainstream comedy in years. Labeling this a masterpiece is false advertising if only because it’s just such a beautifully flawed mess. Perfect in its imperfection.

In a rare, welcome case of an actor not running for cover when their film flops, Sarah Michelle Gellar has been vehemently defending Kelly and the movie. She told Sci-Fi Wire:

"You know, at the end of the day, I hope people talk about it. That’s the whole point of it. It’s not a movie made for every audience. This isn’t a film made to go across the board. And what I love about it is, I went and saw the new cut with, like, five people. And afterwards for about three hours we all talked about it, because everybody took different things out of it. She added that "The true fans, the people that are the Donnie Darko fans, that are my fans, Dwayne’s fans, I think they’re going to enjoy it. And you know what? Those are the reasons I make movies."

She offers up a much better defense than I ever could. If you want a sterile, emotionless exercise (albeit a very good one) then see No Country For Old Men. If you feel like being challenged, then see this. Sometimes I’m asked which kinds of movies excite me and get my pulse racing. Pop in this DVD and you’ll have your answer.

I was counting down the days until its theatrical release but was then disappointed when its run came and went within a week. But interestingly, when I went to pick it up the DVD this past week it was almost sold out everywhere. Either the stores didn’t order enough copies or, much like Donnie Darko, there may be a second life yet for this film. I have a theory (which admittedly isn’t much of a stretch) that Kelly deliberately set out to make a cult film with Darko. He’d probably even admit it himself. That goal seems even more intentional here since he now actually has a cult to cater to. This already feels like a cult classic so it shouldn’t be long before it unofficially becomes one.

It’s shocking Kelly was given this much freedom by the studio but even his biggest detractors have to give him credit for abusing the privilege and making the movie he and his fans wanted to see. It’s so challenging, visionary and daring he may have also just lost some of those very fans he was making it for. That any cut of this almost totally impenetrable film was even released at all is somewhat of a miracle. It was worth the wait for me.

I’ve never really had the burning desire to write or direct a film. I know my limitations and far prefer writing about them. But if I did, I do know the type of movie I would want to make … and Richard Kelly has filmed it. He even stole my cast. For nearly two and a half hours all my crazy cinematic dreams played out on screen. I still haven’t completely processed what I saw, but I know I’ll be returning to it over and over again. While nothing makes me happier than singing the praises of an underappreciated, overlooked film that needs the support, it is awkward recommending one most of you will hate. But love it or hate it, no one can deny that they’ll only ever be one Southland Tales.

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