Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake, Nora Dunn, John Larroquette, Holmes Osborne, Cheri Oteri, Lou Taylor Pucci, Miranda Richardson, Wallace Shawn, Christopher Lambert
Written and directed by Richard Kelly
Distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
So it’s finally here. The DVD release of Southland Tales, Richard Kelly’s highly anticipated, much delayed follow-up to fan favorite Donnie Darko. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely yes — and then some. Frankly, I’m still catching my breath over its intensity. This fucker is deep. Even better than its predecessor, Tales mixes and crosses genre lines to such a degree of success that this reviewer cannot help but rate it 5 out of 5. Is it a perfect film? Not quite. But it merits a perfect score nonetheless. Its one or two flaws only contribute to its greatness since they underscore Kelly’s balls-out approach to his subject matter. And there are a lot of subjects to be covered, among them: the current conflict in Iraq and war in general, corruption in the government, the oil industry and corporate America, the pervasiveness of the media and our obsession with pop culture, science and its at times reckless disregard for the consequences of experimentation, sexuality and pornography, religion, and humanity as a whole. Inserted into the dialogue are song lyrics, Bible verses, and lines of poetry, most notably from Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men. Realistic looking TV news spots, radio sound bites, subversive websites, political messages, and musical performances (I’m not joking) are blended in with the live action. Did I mention it’s comprised of three chapters, starting with #IV (Nos. I-III are available as a graphic novel), and takes place in 2008 during a Presidential election? It’s a complete in-your-face look at what’s happening around us today, and the parallels and insinuations are unmistakable.
The storyline goes something like this: On July 4, 2005, atom bombs were dropped on Abilene, Texas, plunging the US into WW3 with the bulk of the Arab world, North Korea, and the remaining Axis of Evil members. Now it’s three years later, the country is in upheaval, and Boxer Santaros (Johnson), an action hero celebrity and husband of Madeline Frost (Moore), the daughter of the Republican VP candidate (Osborne), awakens on an LA beach with amnesia as the result of … something. We’re not sure at first what happened to him, but it’s okay because he’s hooked up with porn star/reality TV show hostess with the mostest Krysta Now (Gellar). They share some sort of psychic connection and together have written “The Power,” a screenplay that seems to be coming true, meaning there are only three days left before the apocalypse. Subplots weave in and out of Boxer’s world and each other’s. Neo-Marxists who are headquartered in Venice Beach are at odds with USIdent, the Administration’s newest way to keep track of everyone and ensure that the terrorists don’t win. Think Homeland Security on mega steroids. No side is portrayed as better than the other; Kelly pokes fun at both equally. The two main Neo-Marxists, played flawlessly by Nora Dunn and Cheri Oteri, each have plans involving Boxer and the peculiar Taverner twins (Scott, in a dual role). The details on what the twins’ exact purpose in all this is don’t become clear until the latter part of the film, but they are pivotal to the resolution of events.
Then you have Baron Von Westphalen (Shawn) of Treer Corporation with his “Fluid Karma” and fucking (literally) cars that never run out of energy. We just won’t mention that pesky rift in the time/space continuum he created. One of the most engaging characters is Starla Von Luft (Michele Durrett). Stuck in a humdrum job at USIdent and a huge fan of Boxer, Starla gives him information that validates the impending end of days. It’s a small part, but Durrett nails it. And I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned Justin Timberlake yet as narrator Pilot Abilene. He does a bang-up job in the film’s big production number that’s part Busby Berkeley/part Julie Taymor.
Madeline’s mother (Richardson) is the brains behind the USIdent machinery, but she’s becoming like a machine herself, constantly glued to her massive bank of TV screens that broadcast every detail of the world around her. If Timberlake is the voice of Tales, then she’s its eyes, watching everything but seeing nothing. There’s more — much more — but this should give you a general idea of how ambitious a project Southland Tales is. It’s extreme sci-fi combined with intelligent drama alternating with outrageous spoof. In the DVD’s only featurette, “USIdent TV,” the sets are described as forming a “tapestry of art and politics and the overall insanity” of the situation at hand. Well, I’d say that Richard Kelly has formed an inspired and amazing tapestry of his own. Tales‘ brilliance lies in its effortless melding of so many different themes into a cohesive concoction that teeters “this” close to overkill and pretentiousness but consistently manages to pull back just in time and laugh at itself.
At heart Tales is a comedy, but rest assured Kelly paints it black, as black as can be. Every bit of silly slapstick is countered by something brutal or ugly. Kelly set out to emphasize stupidity and keep the viewer on edge, always tingeing the gaiety with cutting satire, and mission accomplished. Sometimes I think people forget how great movies can be when character interaction and social and political commentary are done really well. And Southland Tales does it better than anything I’ve seen since Magnolia nearly ten years ago. It would be equally at home in the Seventies alongside Altman’s and Ashby’s best, most thought-provoking works. Comparisons can also be made stylistically to David Lynch, Fight Club, and (maybe it’s just me) American Graffiti. Kelly’s vision is crisp and clear and, most importantly, he’s smart enough to surround himself with people whose talents equal or exceed his own.
First off, it must be said that Southland Tales looks magnificent. That breath I mentioned in the first paragraph? Kelly, his DP Steven Poster, and editor Sam Bauer took it away on a regular basis during Tales‘ almost 2-and-1/2-hour runtime with all the eye candy they offered. It’s a crime it wasn’t able to be seen by more people on the big screen. Every detail contributed to the filmmakers’ accomplishments from the set design to the costumes to the effects and stunts. And the music. Moby helped Kelly make pure movie magic with some of the choices here. Good stuff. The chief weaknesses are a couple of characters that fall flat and the slightly muddled, theatrical ending, but neither is enough to mar the overall satisfaction to be derived.
Enough beating about the bush, you’re probably thinking. What about the acting? Can The Rock actually carry off the lead role in a “serious” film? Is Gellar destined to play the same one-note character over and over? Chris Lambert?!? Where the hell has he been? What’s with all the SNL people? Is there any blood? Don’t ask me how, but just about everybody pulls their weight and comes off convincingly. And yes, there are some surprisingly violent scenes that will please genre fans but shouldn’t be too off-putting to more mainstream viewers. Johnson truly shines as Boxer, displaying both high power movie star wattage and a gentle vulnerability. Even so, it’s the women who stand out the most. Along with the aforementioned Dunn and Oteri, Richardson and Gellar add nuances and layers to their characters that lesser actresses would never have reached. And it’s a kick to play the name game as one familiar face after another comes across the screen. “Look! It’s that guy … and that guy … and Zelda Rubinstein. Wait! Is that Kevin Smith?” Kelly definitely showed he knows a thing or two about compiling a first-rate ensemble cast and using them to the best of their abilities.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Sony was able to muster much in the way of DVD extras for this release. But they have no problem filling up the empty space with previews of their products. A whopping 15 trailers are included for such diverse fare as Guy Ritchie’s upcoming Revolver, The Tattooist, April Fool’s Day (keep moving; nothing to see here), Gabriel, and the very trippy looking (please don’t let it be like The Number 23) The Nines. Relating to Southland Tales, there’s a 9-minute animated short called “This Is the Way the World Ends” and a 33-minute featurette entitled “USIdent TV: Surveilling the Southland.” The short introduces us to an octopus dad explaining to his young son how humans were destroyed due to their inability to get along with each other. It’s nice enough, but I would have also liked to see some deleted scenes and more in-depth Q&A’s with the cast and crew. The interviews included in “USIdent TV” are adequate but hardly scratch the surface. Everything is squeezed into segments of a few minutes each whereas I wanted to hear more about the process Kelly went through from script to screen to post and beyond. And of course there’s no commentary. Boo. A film like Southland Tales is tailor-made for repeat viewing what with the crawls at the bottom of the fake news reports, the complexity of the set decoration, and all the underlying symbolism; having a commentary track to listen to during the 3rd or 4th run-through would be ideal.
Alas, no such luck. But I don’t mind too much. Movies like Southland Tales don’t need to be overly explained. They’re visceral experiences meant to leave you guessing … and thinking … and chuckling over the absurdity of it all. All the while terrified by its inevitability. Jon Lovitz describes it as an “impenetrable and intriguing” story. I just call Southland Tales a damn good movie that gets it totally right.
5 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5
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Get both the DVD and The Prequel Saga graphic novel collection below.