November 18, 2007

REVIEW: Southland Tales (D)

Background: Director Richard Kelly’s breakthrough film, at age 26, was also his first feature: the cult classic Donnie Darko, which made a star out of Jake Gyllenhaal. As he also did for Darko, Kelly wrote his long-awaited second film, Southland Tales, which is part of a six-chapter story – the first three chapters in graphic novel form, the last three chapters in the movie. Kelly has moved away from a character-driven story this time, as seen by the sheer numbers of stars in the cast. And by stars I mean pop stars, not necessarily actors – consider Mandy Moore, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Justin Timberlake, and SNL’s Cheri Oteri and Amy Poehler. You'll recognize almost every single character from something - seriously, everybody from Jon Laroquette to Vizzini from The Princess Bride to Booger from Revenge of the Nerds to Christopher Lambert, none other than Highlander himself. Despite the high wattage names and cult favorite director, however, Southland Tales was totally and unabashedly rejected at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, drawing boos, jeers, and the lowest scores given by voters. Despite this, Sony picked it up and reworked it with Kelly for what they hope is a better popular reception from his devoted fans.

Synopsis: (First, know that this movie has deservedly been labeled "unsynopsizable." I'll do my best.) In July 2005, Abilene, TX is the site of the first nuclear attack on America. Timberlake's character narrates a montage of what happens in the post-apocalyptic U.S. over the next three years - security crackdowns, closed borders, government surveillance, etc. The story picks up in July 2008 in what used to be L.A. but is now called the "Southland." As the country is preparing for the 2008 presidential election, a famous actor (The Rock) has been kidnapped and is cavorting around Venice Beach with "neo-Marxists" (Oteri, Poehler) and a porn star (Gellar). Two Iraq veteran buddies (Timberlake and Seann William Scott, a.k.a., Stifler) are dealing with their own issues - psychosis/drug addiction and amnesia, respectively. A weird German doctor has developed a new form of energy called Liquid Karma off the Santa Monica pier, and the U.S. government has some kind of Big Brother surveillance program monitoring everything. A corrupt police officer (Jon Lovitz), a crazed ice cream truck driver (Lambert), and a bald pimp (Mad TV's Will Sasso) float in and out. Throw in about 20 more characters and 20 more storylines, and you're about there, but don't forget a lot of cryptic dialogue about the end of the world. The finale brings us to election day on July 4th (uh?) in downtown L.A., where the inaugural launch of a Liquid Karma-fueled blimp is threatened by a do-rag-wearing white kid with a rocket launcher standing on top of the supernaturally floating ice cream truck, inside of which the neo-Marxist/Iraq veteran/Hermosa Beach cop (Scott) is trying to talk his clone (from another dimension) out of committing suicide. Have I left anything out? Yes, a lot.

I Loved:
+ Richard Kelly's ambition - it was kind of a cool idea, and it looked real slick.

I Liked:
+ The delayed reflection in the mirror scene.

I Disliked:
- Lou Taylor Pucci (from Thumbsucker) as a bizarre wannabe gangster/army recruit.
- The predictable opening explosion - hmm, idyllic neighborhood home video...what could possibly happen?
- Bai Ling as...I don't even know what her character was supposed to be. Same goes for Kevin Smith and about 10 other people.

I Hated:
- Mandy Moore's screen time.
- The outrageously misplaced music video for The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done."
- The Rock's finger fiddling -
- Justin Timberlake's smirk - why was he always on the news, anyway?
- So much more, but what I've listed is what comes to mind first.

Writing - 5
Acting - 6
Production - 5
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 5
Significance - 4

Total: 33/50= 66% = D

Last Word: Uggh. Southland Tales was just a complete mess, and a huge disappointment. It was ambitious, yes, unique, sure. Does that alone deserve my praise? I'm afraid not. I can't believe Richard Kelly was so surprised at the boos he received at Cannes. It just proves that he thought his outrageous plot and absurd characters were going to be unconditionally loved - just because they were outrageous and absurd! Sorry, bud. Parading around a bunch of D-list stars with ridiculous character names and no plot may have sounded like a good idea, but whatever he had in his mind completely got away from him. I don't think I "didn't get it," and I don't think the director's cut will tie any loose ends, but probably create more. If he was trying to be David Lynch he should have been a lot darker and creepier. Otherwise, stick with your strength - a character-driven story. Yes, Donnie Darko was completely bizarre as well, but at least the focus was on one person in one place at (almost) one time. And it was great. Unfortunately, Kelly bit off a lot more than he could chew with Southland Tales, and he's now officially 1/2. I'll see his next film only because he's proven he can make a great one, but I'm going to be reeaaly wary.


  1. I ended up giving this my best and worst ratings, simultaneously. Even if you hated it, you have to say that you were, if not entertained, at least not bored. If an interesting failure of a movie, complete with hints of brilliance (not to mention the whole ambition thing) thrown in. I still recommend it to people, if for no other reason to get their reactions and be able to talk about it with them.

    I'll probably own it on DVD, too. I know I'm playing into their hands, but I want to watch it more to see what else I get out of it.

  2. I was entertained for the first half, but I really started to tune about near the end, especially on the blimp.

    But, as you said, this is the kind of "bad" movie that I could recommend, too. You might hate it, you might love it, but it's unique enough that it will help you refine your taste a little bit.

    Regarding the DVD, I'm unlikely to get it, but I'll concede that you might get more out of the movie. Let me know...


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