Southland Tales (DVD)

Southland Tales DVD (click for larger image)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.

Southland Tales DVD (click for larger image)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.

Southland Tales DVD (click for larger image)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.

Southland Tales DVD (click for larger image)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.

Special Features

  • “USIdent TV: Surveilling the Southland” featurette
  • “This Is the Way the World Ends” animated short
  • Trailers


    5 out of 5

    Special Features:

    2 1/2 out of 5

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  • Debi Moore

    I'll see you on the other side...

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    • The Buz

      There is plenty of stuff I don’t find amazing. There is plenty of stuff I don’t find even remotely good. Why even ask that? I found Southland Tales to be an exceptional film. An AMAZING film. I’m sorry you didn’t. To each his own.

    • Terminal

      “Going from Stiffler to Officer Taverner and the Scorpion King to Boxer Santarios…who would have thunk it?”

      I know, being actors and all. Incidentally I thought they were the worst. Scott still really hasn’t convinced me he’s anything but that character. Just curious, Buz is there anything you DON’T find “amazing”?

    • The Buz

      Loved every second of it. The last time that I wanted to watch a movie directly after I viewed it for the first time was Battle Royale. This movie was absolutely AMAZING. I agree with everything WIB said. Also probably Scott and The Rocks greatest roles to date. Going from Stiffler to Officer Taverner and the Scorpion King to Boxer Santarios…who would have thunk it?

      Beautiful film. I can’t wait to watch it again.

    • Messiahman

      Though I don’t think it’s flawless, I lean far more toward Morgan and W.I.B.’s opinions on this film. It doesn’t work as a whole for me, due to Kelly’s biting off more than he can chew and losing focus, but man, there are plenty of brilliant parts.

    • thedudeabides

      Wait a minute… reviews here go against the grain?


    • G.D.

      Deep? Wow.

      I would call this very shallow and painfully obvious.

      It was a beautiful looking film and the acting was mostly very good but it was so painfully obvious and just unbearable to watch.

      I thought Timberlake was great, his ‘musical number’ was one of my favourite parts.

    • Terminal

      “From some of the comments here, it almost seems like unless a review goes along with the majority, then it’s somehow not valid or worthy of consideration and is something to be ashamed of for years to come.”

      No ma’am, tis not the case at all; you read it all wrong, it’s a healthy disagreement and some tomato throwing. Though if you DID like Rob Zombie’s Halloween then yes. 😛 I kid!

      “Personally, I’m much more interested in reading (and writing) reviews that go against the grain rather than just follow along with what everyone else is saying.”

      I agree. I however dislike reviews going against the grain for the sake of going against the grain.

    • Morgan Elektra

      WIB, now you know why I’m moving back to NY. 😉

    • The Woman In Black

      As I’ve seen in the case of Southland Tales, one man’s ‘awesome’ has been a lot of people’s ‘awful.’

      “A lot”, yes, but certainly not all. Along with Morgan’s, a solid third of the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes have been positive. Also, Nathan Lee of The Village Voice named Southland Tales the best film of 2007, J. Hoberman of The Village Voice named it the 4th best film of 2007, and Manohla Dargis at the New York Times had it in her Best of 2007 as well. Not too shabby all in all; maybe I need to move to New York to find ‘my people.’

      From some of the comments here, it almost seems like unless a review goes along with the majority, then it’s somehow not valid or worthy of consideration and is something to be ashamed of for years to come. Personally, I’m much more interested in reading (and writing) reviews that go against the grain rather than just follow along with what everyone else is saying.

    • Morgan Elektra

      I’m not assuming anything, I’m having an opinion. As I didn’t find either film garbled or incoherrant, that had nothing to do with me thinking they were intelligent. I thought they were intelligent because they focus on topics and tell stories that are thought-provoking, and often serve as a starter for interesting and intelligent conversations between myself and others I know that like them.

    • Terminal

      Fair enough, M.E. But man, I’m thinking Kelly was a one trick pony with “Donnie Darko.”

    • Terminal

      Your theories are good if faulty.

      I loved Donnie Darko.

      But to assume the movie is intelligent because it was so utterly garbled and incoherent is hysterical.

    • Morgan Elektra

      I’m with WIB on this 100%. At the end of Tales, I felt almost exactly the same as I felt at the end of Donnie Darko…. as if I had just experienced something entirely unique that would take a good long while to wholly digest… but I loved every minute of it.

      The great thing about Kelly’s films is the extremely high rewatch value. Every time is almost a totally new experience, like looking at an incredibly complicated piece of sculpture from a different angle and realizing different qualites it has.

      The acting was fabulous and funny across the board. Each new role I see Timberlake take on makes me more and more impressed with him as an actor. And the rest of the cast… talk about an ensemble! Every single role was played by a recognizable face, I think. And everyone was great.

      As for not getting it… I never understood that with Donnie Darko either. Both films make plenty of sense to me. I love that Kelly assumes his audience can think for themselves, as opposed to spoon feeding simplicity. He may not be for everyone, granted… but for those of us who’s boats he does float, he does it amazingly well.

    • Uncle Creepy

      Oh, it was torturous alright!

    • Tristan Sinns

      Hah! Funny Games was meant to be torturous though 😀

    • Tristan Sinns

      Pffft, I mean I have *not* seen it. Let’s blame the cold medicine.

    • Uncle Creepy

      “that people have liked…and gotten shit over BUT still like”

      We’re few, we’re proud, according to some, we’re also blind! LOL

    • Uncle Creepy

      I dunno Tristan, as far as I’m concerned you’re in the dog house for Funny Games. What a piece of shit!

    • Tristan Sinns

      I am as of yet unvisited to the Dog House 8D

      Gimme time…

      That said, I have seen Southland Tales, but am actually looking forward to it.

    • Terminal

      When I’m done with WIB. These tomatoes were expensive, you know.

    • thedudeabides

      Now is this classification based on movies that people have liked…and gotten shit over BUT still like – OR movies they’ve praised, gotten shit over and recanted on?

    • Uncle Creepy

      Ah yes, Pulse! Feel free to send tomatoes hurling this way!


    • Terminal

      Creepy and Pulse.

    • Terminal

      You’re right WIB, and the grass is always greener on the other side, two wrongs don’t make a right, and always look before you leap. As I’ve seen in the case of Southland Tales, one man’s “awesome” has been a lot of people’s “awful.” Hehehe. 😛

    • Uncle Creepy

      I think we all have at least one that put us in the doghouse:

      Foy — Gingerdead Man
      WIB — Southland Tales
      Creepy — Tamara
      Kasch — TCM The Beginning
      Nomad — Hannibal Rising
      Butane — Romasanta: The Werewolf Hunt

      LOL, what else was there?

    • The Woman In Black

      One man’s awful is another’s awesome. That’s why we added that “write your own review” feature. No big deal; I can take the heat — I’m used to being out on a limb alone around here. There are many films I love that the majority hates and vice versa. I must admit, however, that I’m floored by how many people claim to have not understood Tales. It’s pretty obvious to me what Kelly was going for, and I was right there with him every step of the way with my mind wide open and totally blown.

    • Terminal

      Oh boy, Foy will have GingerDead Man on him, and WIB will have this on her for a long time. Heh. As for this, I’m stunned it even garnered that high a rating. It’s awful, absolutely awful.

    • Foywonder

      Finally, someone here has written a review that trumps my 4 Knife GINGERDEAD MAN review in terms of “Are you kidding me?”

    • Uncle Creepy

      Yep, this is gonna be a love it or hate it type movie for sure.

      I dug it.

    • ruffbuffy

      Okay, this movie has to be one of the worst films of 2007. I’d really like the 2 and a half hours of my life back please.

      Avoid this movie.

    • gabrielenriquez