Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Southland Tales - DVD Review

Originally posted on March 26, 2008. Reprinted with permission.

I normally don’t review DVD’s, as usually I have seen a movie upon its theatrical release and then written about said movie at that time. In the case of Southland Tales, it had a very limited run and I didn’t get a chance to see it in theaters. Also, determined as I may have thought, I also failed to read the three graphic novels that preceded the film in the storyline of the film. I was very interested to see this movie nonetheless. It was the second film from Richard Kelly, writer and director of Donnie Darko. Starring The Rock and Stifler in a futuristic, dark comedy/sci-fi movie (with a love story and a musical number) about the end of the world, I referred to it as Total Rundown, never guessing how that movie would parallel this. The movie had a disastrous screening at Cannes two years ago and has been engulfed in rumors ever since. To be fair, not every film in progress shown at Cannes is Apocalypse Now. Some films get the Brown Bunny treatment. Critically panned, Kelly labored another year in post production to trim the film and work on many of the effects shots. However, I’m sure that neither the running time nor the look of the picture are what turned people off, it had to be the story.

Southland Tales is a film about the state of America in 2008 after terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb over Texas. Meanwhile, the war on terrorism is being fought on three new fronts besides Iraq, bringing back the draft. While oil prices soar, new energy sources are being developed to better fuel the America’s fighting machines. And as the Republican-led government begins to take tighter control over it citizens, while trying to win the electoral votes in the crucial state of California, cells of resistance fighters begin to crop up and take measures to fight back. All these plotlines figure very heavily into the narrative, are centralized in Los Angeles and explained in the first ten minutes of the movie. Then the focus shifts to two characters. Boxer Santaros is a movie star, who wakes up with amnesia and starts to figure out what happened to him, while he researches for his upcoming role as a cop in movie he wrote, which tells the story of the end of the world, as he has imagined it. He teams up with Officer Roland Taverner, who is being used by the resistance to stage a murder for political purposes by impersonating his brother, a police officer. As Boxer is trying to figure out the difference between what he knows and what he is told, by his wife, the daughter of a US Senator and by Krysta Now, the porn star that has been caring for him, Roland searches for his brother. And the entire movie is narrated by Justin Timberlake, as a Bible-quoting veteran from Iraq. Ironically, it takes almost as much time to explain the movie as it does to watch it.

To get the basics out of the way, it is a finely made film. Dwayne Johnson, the Rock, is as you have never seen him, simply amazing. Alternately cool and cowardly, his character of Boxer seems to channel Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory and even elements of his former WWE personality, carrying this entire film on his tatted up shoulders. If it’s any indication of the kind of roles he would like to take on, he had a great career ahead of him. Similarly, Seann William Scott is fantastic as Roland/Ronald, proving that the dude really can act. He has much of the film’s heavy work at the end and plays it great. The rest of the cast including Mandy Moore, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake and Nora Dunn are excellent as well. And Kelly casts a number of lesser seen actors like Curtis Armstrong, Christopher Lambert and Wallace Shawn and a multi decade reunion of SNL players including Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri, Jon Lovitz and a ‘blink and you miss her’ Janeane Garafalo. The film looks amazing as well, with the new money from Sony wisely spent on effects that do not seem like an alternate future, merely a very close one. But as I said, I don’t think people had a problem with any of this.

The film is foremost a political satire, as Kelly states. It questions not only government in general, but the Bush administration specifically, the war in Iraq and its young veterans, environmental concerns, the entertainment industry, religion and faith, sex, drugs and anarchy. Underneath that is a story about two men who become inadvertently involved in a tear in the very metaphysical fabric of the universe, bringing with it inexplicable weather phenomenon, time travel, geothermic energy sources, the collapse of the fourth dimension, the end of the world, sex, drugs and anarchy! Is it a convoluted labyrinth of a screenplay? Absolutely. Should we have expected anything less from the director of the movie about the time-traveling teenage superhero in the 80’s who is guided on his journey by a six foot tall bunny? Absolutely not. In this time of cookie cutter summer blockbusters, by the number romantic comedies, dreadful dreck posing as parody and unbelievably absurd message movies, isn’t I nice to know a director can still go Michael Cimino on that ass? Sure, it is huge and ambitious and slightly taken with itself, but who has the brass to make a film that strays from the norm and dares to present a radically different point of view? Who uses wrestlers, pop singers, improv comics and a vampire slayer to tell a story of despair, dissent and destruction? Who else would openly attack the government methods behind surveillance, the voting process, the energy crisis, homeland security and the war on terror? Besides Kelly, there’s only George Clooney and he’s too busy taking care of Darfur to direct another good night, and good luck. That, dear readers, is courage that should be admired.

Furthermore, Kelly has said that the movie requires repeat viewings, which is not a selling point necessarily, but something that inspired the cult of Darko and also makes classics of such films as Blade Runner, which tends to be under appreciated in their own time. The problem here is not with Kelly, but with audiences and, admittedly, with critics. Even before Internet, the rise of the movie critic, particularly in film, had overcome the scholars and theorists of film. Reviews can help or hurt a movie, but there was a time when film criticism was considered an integral part of the film society and the creative process, and not merely a part of the marketing campaign for the movie. People with no knowledge of Bazin, Sarris or Kael can easily use blogs, message boards, newspapers and radio to spread their infectious and often inaccurate critique of a film o people who know even less than them. Therein, it becomes a larger issue with how audiences react to what they are presented. It is easy to dismiss a film as confusing and therefore, stupid or bad. It’s easy to say one doesn’t like it and not have a significant reason to defend their stance. I, on the other hand, can find many reasons to dislike any number of films, some of which is viciously dislike. Which is not to disparage someone’s taste, for some people like Coke, some people like Pepsi. But, if I find a film confusing, I don’t lay blame on the film, but on myself. What am I not getting about the movie that is escaping me? For if you believe as I do, that cinema exists as an art form that an artist, or group of artists in film, creates in order to express themselves, their emotions and ideas. We are all humans, living and sharing this world for as long as Richard Kelly thinks, and if one person can explain who they are through a painting, a poem or a film, surely the rest of us can tap into the common human experience and discover what they are trying to say? You and I must dig deeper and find the truth behind the words and colors and sounds to explore another side of the prism. Because to deny yourself the chance to experience something new, is to deny the very purpose of life.

Southland Tales directed by Richard Kelly, starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Seann William Scott is available on DVD from Sony Pictures.

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