Friday, November 5, 2010

More Evil than Originally Predicted

On request of my roommate Danny, I watched Southland Tales recently on DVD. Now that my brain has reconstructed itself from it's emergency shutdown, I'll tell you about it.

Southland Tales claims that the story within is how the world ends: not with a whimper, but with a bang. In it, action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) has been kidnapped and woken up with little to no memory about who he is, including the fact that he's son-in-law to the Republican V.P.-nominee for 2008. Taken under the wing of former porn star and wannabe reality TV star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Santoros writes a screenplay for a new film that tells a story about the end of the world, and tags along with Officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott)  to research the part. Only thing is that Taverner has been kidnapped and replaced by his twin brother Ronald, a member of the local neo-Marxist movement with an agenda against the US government, which has become an overbearing Big Brother and a Goliath war machine after atomic attacks in Texas in 1945. Meanwhile, scientist Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) has created a new energy source, called Fluid Karma, that promises to save the US Treasury, which has nearly bankrupted itself with worldwide conflicts in which most of the country's young men are drafted and sent to far away places, most never to return.

He's a pimp daddy
It's understandable that so many people would dismiss the film when it came out, first at Cannes in 2006 and when it hit limited theaters the next year. The story has so many parts, and they're so disjointed, that expecting a coherent story to come of it would be like wishing for a true Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The entire thing is narrated. end-to-end, by Justin Timberlake's Iraqi war veteran Pilot Abeline, who survived friendly fire to return home, and somehow is in a position to uncover and relay the event of the entire story to us. This unfortunate element proves to be necessary as the entire film would be complete unintelligible without the unfocused, revelation-quoting diatribe of a depth-less character to tell us exactly what's happening at any given time. Characters are introduced but never put into context with one another, and yet the people on the screen apparently learn things about one another that are never uttered in their presence. Whether this is simply inane scriptwriting or a side-effect of the post-Cannes re-editing may not be entirely unknown, but what is certain is that director/screenwriter Richard Kelly (known far and wide for a movie I haven't seen, Donnie Darko) had a lot to say but like so many who try to get it all out in one burst, can't quite get it out right.

Dark and soulless, just like his music career
The acting is interesting, if widely scattered in terms of character depth and acting talent. As the lead role of Santaro, the man formerly known as The Rock stretches himself a little thin, though you wouldn't immediately imagine an action movie hero, even one with amnesia, to be that big a difference from his true persona. Actually, the character goes through something of a nervous breakdown, and that's where Johnson becomes unbelievable, as his character goes from swarthy rock god to nervous mess back to rock god over the course of the film, all seemingly on his own. Scott is actually better, though not by much more than his usual output. His twin brothers are often drugged, knocked out or otherwise incapacitated, hearkening back to some of Scott's earlier comedic work. But at least here he's no disappointment, although that may be only in relation to the rest of the cast. Gellar is about as good as you would expect from her, as her character of a porn-star-going-legit runs away from her and she doesn't have the charisma or chops to pull off the role. Timberlake puts on the best performance of his career, though as a poorly-written characterization of damaged soldiers coming home from overseas. He has the opposite problem that Gellar has, as it takes most of his charisma to make the figure remotely interesting.

"So when can I see your gun?"
The film is filled with juicy bits, mostly coming from the supporting cast. Wallace Shawn is delightful as the villain von Westphalen, though no more so than he had been as Vizzini in The Princess Bride or Mr. Hall on Clueless or currently is as Cyrus Rose on Gossip Girl. A song and dance scene featuring Timberlake was enjoyable. A great scene of a staged domestic dispute between underground rebels Amy Poehler and The Wire's Wood Harris is hilarious. Cheri Oteri as a feminist warrior is somewhat predictable but nevertheless funny. And Zelda Rubenstein is perfectly cast as a sidekick to the evil professor. But these parts are largely overshadowed by lameness, such as wasting Miranda Richardson as Santaro's mother-in-law, the head of US-Ident, the government program that spies on US citizens. Mandy Moore is similarly misused as Santaro's wife, a bitchy and spoiled woman who adds nothing to the story. And Bai Ling as a seductress amounts to less than nothing (seriously, besides an episode of Lost, has Ling been in ANYTHING good??). A dreadful final thirty minutes of overlapping, inconsequential madness doesn't help these poor sheep, and these drag the film down farther than could ever be imagined.

Yes, folks. That's the limit of "The Rock"'s acting ability
Southland Tales's biggest problem is the ideas it introduces. The problem is that the thoughts and interesting things brought into the film are unused, usually scrapped at the earliest convenience for a new, more insane idea, which is then thrown out and so on and so on, until the final product matches little what you expected might happen based on the information provided over the course of the film. By the end of the film, I had to laugh and shout at the TV to keep everything in focus, that this film was in fact a travesty of the potential it could have had. Even it's cooler sci-fi elements are completely glossed over, until they are finally revealed at the end. An end I couldn't wait to arrive.

He was a cop for Halloween
As you can probably guess by now, I absolutely HATED Southland Tales. I thought it was a dreadful piece of pap that took some original and insightful ideas and shat all over them, all in the name of art. That Kelly has been hired to make more movies after this bomb is shocking, even if it was just The Box. After confronting Danny with my opinion of his recommendation, he told me that the first time he watched it, his reaction was somewhat similar. However, upon subsequent viewings he liked it more and more. There are apparently also a series of graphic novels that tell a prequel story that explains the main tale much better. That won't be something I undergo, however. I see too many films these days to bother checking under every nook and cranny for info and additional story to a film unless I REALLY liked the main material.

Southland Tales is not that film.


elmo said...

GAAAAHH!! I love love this movie so much I can't even read your review... maybe when I calm down.

elmo said...

GAAAAHH!! I love love this movie so much I can't even read your review... maybe when I calm down.

elmo said...