'Southland Tales' (2006) DVD Review

March 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Oh. My. God. Where to begin?

The film is a total mess: the plot is totally incoherent; the dialogue is drivel; the characters are shallow, unbelievable caricatures; and the acting borders on poor to so-so. The film wants to be everything and ends up being nothing. I have seen a few people try to defend this film, claiming that because it is conceptually interesting and has a few impressive set-pieces, it should be given the benefit of the doubt. This is just totally mistaken. The film is terrible – and, I mean, really really bad. Just because it contains a few clever ideas, it doesn’t stop it from being crap.

Here’s the synopsis: “El Paso and Abilene, Texas have fallen victim to twin nuclear attacks on July 4, 2005 – a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions which has sent America into World War III. The PATRIOT Act has extended authority to a new agency known as US-IDent, which keeps constant tabs on citizens – even to the extent of censoring the internet and using fingerprints in order to access computers and bank accounts. In order to be able to respond to a newfound fuel shortage in the wake of global warfare, the German company Treer designs a generator of inexhaustible energy which is propelled by ocean currents, called “Fluid Karma”. Unbeknownst to anyone but its inventor Baron Von Westphalen and his closest associates, the generators alter the currents and cause the Earth to slow its rotation, ripping holes in the fabric of space and time.

In Los Angeles, a city on the brink of chaos overshadowed by the growth of the underground Neo-Marxist movement, the film follows the criss-crossed destinies of Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), an action film actor stricken with amnesia; Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), ex-porn star in the midst of creating a reality TV show; and twin brothers Roland and Ronald Taverner (both played by Seann William Scott), whose destinies – on one evening – become intertwined with that of all mankind.”

Okay, you got me, I didn’t write the synopsis, some guy on Wikipedia did, but you know what? Without Wikipedia I certainly wouldn’t have been able to sum up the film as accurately as that, because it’s so damn convoluted. I mean, just look at that summary: Krysta Now, Boxer Santeros, Baron Von Westphalen (how many funny names can you fit into a film, and then hope it will be taken seriously?); Fluid Karma (please); amnesia (never heard of that story device before);  “ripping holes in the fabric of space and time” (haven’t heard tha- oh, wait, that’s right, Donnie Darko). Obviously you shouldn’t judge a film like this, but in this case, it really is a true indication of the quality of the film. Even The Fifth Element didn’t seem this ridiculous – and, by god, it sure tried.

Let’s start off with the good, first.  Some of the films larger scenes are visually impressive, there is no doubt about that. The ending with the mega-zeppelin being launched and Justin Timberlake’s character’s drug sequence-like-thing with him singing to The Killers All These Things That I’ve Done are both awesome feasts of eye-candy. Richard Kelly has an eye for the visual arresting and it shows, but he lacks one of the basic ingredients of a great director: he seems incapable of telling a story. In Donnie Darko he got away with this for reasons I won’t go into here, but in this film his weakness really shows.

Interestingly, Kelly released a mini-series of three comics prior to the film’s release, in order to give the audience a little background before going into the film. This just says it all, doesn’t it? I read the comics a long time back but the two things I remember were that I hated the art style, and that the story was just dumb. I come to the film now, having mostly forgotten the comic books, and I can tell you that I had very little idea of what was going on through-out. As a viewer, it feels an awful lot like Kelly is trying to intentionally make the film incomprehensible in order to hide its rather superficial, shallow core. As I watched the film I became gradually more suspicious, tired and irritated over this. And, of course, when the plot is finally explained – and may I add, very crudely – at the end of the film, you realise just how incredibly stupid the whole story is.

The film seems to be just as schizophrenic as the characters it shows on screen, veering wildly from dead-pan serious to political satire to dark comedy. Half the time I’m left wondering if I’m supposed to be laughing at the dialogue because it’s supposed to be that ridiculous, or that it just is that corny. It’s altogether representative of the film that not only is the narrative structure a total disaster, but that the tone of the film is all over the shop.

And then you have the acting, which isn’t terrible but isn’t brilliant either. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has to hold the screen most of the time and, to be fair, he has a pleasant on-screen presence, but he just doesn’t have the acting chops to carry the film (yet). For some reason – and I’m not sure if he was directed to do this – he is constantly twiddling his fingers, and I think it’s supposed to be a sign that he’s anxious, but it looks extremely contrived. In fact, every character in this film is so off-the-deep-end, quirky, eccentric it completely alienates you from the characters. They are, in fact, so bizarre and ridiculous – and not in an ingratiating way – that there’s a massive disconnect between the viewer and what’s going on on-screen. “This is the way the world ends” hmmm? I tell you what, I don’t really care.

What really gets me though – and just generally bugs the hell out of me – is Kelly’s constant pop-culture referencing to just about everything under the sun. From classic 1950s film noir to Philip K. Dick to T.S. Elliot: nothing is left untouched. And all of this wouldn’t matter if the way it was done was meaningful or interesting, but, as it stands it, it feels highly superficial. It feels like name checking and to no real purpose other than for the sake of it, and instead of coming off clever, it just makes Kelly look foolish.

The film is more of a cartoon than anything else, because nothing is believable. From the characters to the world they occupy, none of it feels plausible. The central conceit of Southland is that, after two terrorist attacks, the U.S. Government extends The PATROIT Act and decides to go to war with the entire Middle East. Doesn’t anybody else find this implausible? Likewise, the creation of US-IDent is another aspect of the film that lacks credibility. A lot of the ideas in the film, while colourful, often feel artificial and unbelievable. The way in which the government is portrayed in the film is so incredibly simplistic that it just loses all credibility. Likewise, the characters who work for the government are either evil or morons, or evil morons – whatever.

By now you must think I hate Richard Kelly for what he’s subjected me to with this abomination, but I don’t. Donnie Darko is one of my favourite films and, while flawed on some levels, is brilliant on others. Kelly is a visionary in his work, and it’s partly because he has the balls to even attempt films like this; for that, I applaud him for his efforts. He seems to be a guy who has loads of great ideas but doesn’t know which ones to keep and which ones to throw away. The man needs an editor – big time. But back to the main subject of discussion, Southland Tales: it’s rubbish; don’t waste your money.

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