RUNNING TIME: 145 mins/160 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
2005; a nuclear attack wipes out part of Texas, and three years later America is a virtual police state, with the government taking control of nearly every part of people’s lives for ‘their own good’, while both public and private concerns are desperate to prevent new technology that makes energy from water from being introduced in the gasoline-starved nation. A Marxist underground group based on the West Coast is determined to bring down the federal government. In this chaotic environment the lives of three people become intertwined; action movie star Boxer Santaros who has amnesia and thinks his latest script could be really happening, porn star Krysta Now who’s reinventing herself as a television pundit offering her views on politics, contemporary culture, and teenage sex, and police officer Roland Taverner who taken the place of his twin brother….
The ‘difficult’ second film can often be difficult indeed. Writer/director Richard Kelly made an impact with Donnie Darko, the mixture of science fiction, madness, surrealism and ‘80s nostalgia flopping at the box office but immediately finding a good reception from movie fans after something a bit different from the norm. But its success obviously went to his head, because with Southland Tales he made a movie which only he may ever understand. Now of course one doesn’t always have to understand a film to enjoy it, and, this being my first viewing, I actually thought that it would be a rewarding experience. After all, I’m someone who counts David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky among my favourite filmmakers. But their films flow, often have a dream logic, make a bit of sense of a subliminal level. We absorb a great deal, even if we don’t always ‘get’. But this one is a borderline catastrophe, a jumbled mess that’s sometimes interesting but is generally pointless apart from some satiric jabs at the American election, celebrity culture and a few other things which Kelly is pointing a finger at, and which to be fair are still with us today and perhaps in even worse form. You could even say that the way it’s all been cobbled together in a seemingly random fashion is a neat commentary on how bewildering and belligerent the USA was, and is – and by dent the world. But I’m probably just clutching at straws here. The borderline incoherence, the arrogant pretentiousness with little to be pretentious about, and the way that the performers seem to have been given hardly any direction and consequently either just look bored as they deliver flat line readings or mug, soon results in something that’s almost a chore to sit through. I’m sure that my face soon began to look as bored as those of some of the actors did.
Kelly wrote it shortly before the September 11 attacks, and its main target was Hollywood in what was originally a light hearted caper story, but after the incident he rewrote his script to make it more political and kept adding bits even during filming. The latter was slated to begin in July 2004, but various delays meant that it didn’t hit the cameras until August 15 the following year. Southland Tales was initially planned to be a nine-part “interactive experience”, with the first six parts published in six 100-page graphic novels that would be released in a six-month period up to the film’s release, with the latter comprising the final three parts of the experience. A website was also developed to intertwine with the graphic novels and the film itself. The idea of six graphic novels was later narrowed down to three, written by Kelly and illustrated by Brett Weldele. Kelly had to shoot on a pretty low budget despite the ambition of the script. He sent the organisers of the 2006 Cannes Film Festival a rough cut on DVD assuming that it would not be accepted. Much to his surprise though, they loved it and wanted the film entered in competition for the Palme d’Or. However, the unfinished work met with a very negative response and caused Universal to sell the rights to Sony, who agreed to release it and provide money to complete the visual effects as long as Kelly shortened it, which he did by 15 minutes as well doing some restructuring. It still met with a very poor critical and public response. In a 2013 interview, Kelly said he considered this work as “the thing that I’m most proud of, and I feel like it’s sort of the misunderstood child or the banished child”.
Now I’m still trying to make some sense of what I’ve just seen, and not in a “that was puzzling but I’m enjoying thinking about it and am coming up with my own theories” way. No, more in a “I don’t particularly want to think much more about such an infuriating mess but I guess I have to in order to do this review”. Southland Tales does begin very well with camcorder footage of a party. After passing the masses congregating in the garden, we enter the house and see a young boy playing with some balloons. Suddenly we see a flash through the window, the camera goes fuzzy for a second, and then we go back outside and see a mushroom cloud in the distance- and it really does look scary and convincing. But everything goes downhill from now. For the next few minutes we find out what happens next in the world through the ‘Doomsday Scenario Interface’ which is rather like the TV one in Starship Troopers. Mock footage, drawings and animation tell us that war follows and oil becomes scarce. The narrator is Private Pilot Abilene, a war veteran who mans a gun post atop a beach cafe, played by Justin Timberlake. He’s the one who probably comes off best out of the cast, seemingly having fun delivering some of his nonsense with some seriousness. We then join the other main protagonists, but for a while we also keep returning to Abilene giving us more background. For goodness sake why couldn’t we get all this stuff in one go? It would have then been a bit easier to get into the film proper even though it still would be been hard what with the overload of the stuff that’s thrown at us, as if Kelly wanted us to be confused right from the offset. I did chuckle nervously at the information that people’s movement are limited and the internet is heavily censored considering the time that we are currently living in, but nothing much is made of this.
We first see Dwayne Johnson’s character waking up on a beach. He’s typically bland, though he does twiddle his fingers whenever he’s thinking about what to do. The next time we see Boxer, he’s in bed with porn star-turned TV star Crysta Now [named because she’s “ready Now”], though the events that led him to get together with her can apparently only be learned by reading one of the graphic novel prequels. Jesus Christ, what kind of movie deliberately leaves out material that you can only learn from a comic? Crysta seems to represent America’s hypocrisy on sex, continually using it to sell [there’s even an advertisement where one car is mounting another from behind] yet still being “a bisexual nation living in denial”. Well, I think that’s what she represents, she may not represent anything at all. After all, so much of this movie seems to involve hurling stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Boxer is married to Madeline, daughter of Senator Bobby Frost who’s engaged in a campaign to win the California election. Crysta is actually part of a plot to blackmail Boxer and the Frost family by a neo-Marxist group. One of their leaders heavily resembles Karl Marx just so that we get the point. Then there are the twin brothers Private Roland Taverner and Officer Ronald Taverner. Roland has been kidnapped so that Ronald can pretend to be him in his job as police adviser to Boxer as research for his next movie which Boxer is also going to direct, though this is also part of a plan to implicate Boxer in a double killing. As if Boxer isn’t going through enough, his screenplay, which predicts the end of the world, is known by some people who haven’t read it and he sometimes slips into said screenplay himself, becoming his character in it Jericho Kane. Oh, and then there’s also this Fluid Karma energy system, which is necessary, but the powers that be don’t want to give it to us. And a group called USIDeath is out to destroy the Orwellian security firm US-IDent.
Much of this probably sounds more interesting than it actually is on screen, despite Kelly cramming it with allusions to the arts, which just tend to increase the feeling of a filmmaker pretending that his film is far, far cleverer than it actually is. There’s a strong Biblical element to the overall plot which is especially indebted to the Book of Revelations, but the trope of a Messiah is really mouldy now and needed far more than Kelly’s bizarre excuse for plotting for it to seem even slightly fresh. And, no matter how many references to things as different as T. S. Elliott and Robert Aldrich he hurls at us, it also feels like showing off rather than being genuine organic incorporation of ideas and themes from other sources, and it all matters naught if we’re not invested in what’s taking place on screen and don’t give a damn about any of the people we see on it. His army of characters could have been narrowed down to about six or seven, though some of them do make an impression, two good examples being Amy Poehler and Wood Harris who are given some amusing beasts as the leading activists, and ice cream man/weapons dealer Walter Mung, played by Christopher Lambert who for the second time in his career is in a plot about a futuristic corporation that devises a planetary energy shield with undesirable side-effects. Nice to see Poltergeist’s Zelda Rubinstein too, and John Lovett is really formidable in a very untypical part. But most of the performers have been set adrift by their director who doesn’t seem to have been properly focused on almost any aspect, be it the bland look with either lazy or clumsy camera placements [some nice steadicam work though], or the lumpen pacing that actually slows down rather than speeds up during the supposedly more exciting final act with its shootouts, bombs, and so forth.
Nothing breathes in Kelly’s film; it probably needed to be an hour longer to properly incorporate everything. Of course it’s always nice to have a politically-minded film that mocks both sides for a change, while some scenes do surprise, like a planned finger severing that becomes a hand severing. There are some genuine chuckles such as a staged row between a couple where the promiscuous woman just wants “to suck cock” which seems like a soap opera parody, and the music of Moby generally blends so well with the images that it’s almost as if they were edited to it, though a very slow dance sequence where both of Boxer’s women move with him on stage must be one of the most pointless bits in the entire film -and I haven’t yet mentioned the big number with Timberlake, where Pilot takes a mysterious drug called ‘bleed’ and heads off to a hallucinatory bowling alley where he lip-syncs through an impromptu music video of the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done”, drinking Budweisers and pouring them over his head in a parody of product placement, as leggy dancing girls cavort around him. It’s quite memorable. The premise of the media giving a false impression of events, and the government using entertainment to keep us from following the real news, is an important one because it’s something that it’s very true in some respects, but the film going so far as to critique an often incoherent form in such an incoherent way just leaves one annoyed. Saying all that, perhaps the oddest and most annoying thing about it is that, now I have unfortunately thought more about it, its plot may not actually be that complex. At all. Maybe it just seems that way because of how it’s presented, perhaps to create an illusion of depth which really isn’t there if you work out the events and remove the references. But one can only groan at a film which finishes with a supposedly profound line which makes use of a regional slang word that usually means something else; to those not in the know it just sounds hilariously wrong.
2-DISC LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
New 2K restoration by Arrow Films, approved by director Richard Kelly and director of photography Steven Poster
High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation of the 146-minute theatrical cut
Southland Tales utilises several different colour palettes, and all of them are very well showcased on this Blu-ray. I can’t compare it with the 2008 release from Universal, but if Kelly and cinematographer Steven Poster approved it, then I’ll take their word for it. Grain is evenly managed and blacks exhibit very little crush. Of course the weakness of much of the CGI is probably more obvious in Hi-Definition than it would have been in previous formats.
Original lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo soundtracks
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Audio commentary on the theatrical cut by Richard Kelly
Recorded in 2008 for the Blu-ray/DVD release that came out then, this track really sums up the major failing of the film. While he does point out locations, tells us the odd tidbit like the people in the opening scene being locals he just filmed, mentions deleted footage he hopes to put back in and talks about themes, right from the very start where he says that it’s about Barak Obama and John McCain and the choice between the two, Kelly spends most of the time discussing and clarifying a plot he made muddled and confusing in the film, yet he fails to explain why he made it so hard to make out, except for frequently referring to these graphic novels which apparently explain a hell of a lot. He seems totally unaware of the ridiculous and insulting [to the viewer] nature of his approach, even when he explains that final line.
It’s a Madcap World: The Making of an Unfinished Film, a new in-depth retrospective documentary on the film, featuring contributions by Richard Kelly and members of the original crew [50 mins]
Split into three parts with no option to play them all together, this is nonetheless a solid ‘making of’. We learn that due to the budget – which was three times less than what it should have been – every stunt had to be done in the first take, that they never even got the rights to “All These Things That I’ve Done”, and how the cast were encouraged to improvised. I can’t help but admire Kelly when he says how he never takes the easy route in terms of filmmaking, and he even thinks Southland Tales is unfinished and wants to complete it one day. I’ll be there – third time lucky maybe. A shame that no cast members show up, and I could have done with some onset stories, but this is still most definitely worth a watch.
USIDent TV: Surveilling the Southland, an archival featurette on the making of the film, featuring interviews with the cast and crew [33 mins]
This and the following extra were on the Universal release. This older ‘making of’ benefits from having appearances by many of the cast, who all say what they think the film is about and don’t always seem sure, and footage of some major sequences being shot. Curtis Armstrong [Dr. Soberin Ex] says how his agent cried after reading the script because it was so baffling, Wood Harris [Dion Element] says how his blood squib is like “a hard slap on the chest”, and costume designer April Ferry and production designer Alex Hammond detail their work. This is an interesting companion piece to the previous featurette with not a lot of repetition from one to the other.
This is the Way the World Ends, an archival animated short set in the Southland Tales universe [9 mins]
An excellent, thought provoking little treat beginning set initially in a future dominated by sea creatures. One tells another of how this came to be, and we get some strong images of war, nuclear devastation and great use of certain colours spreading everywhere, before a climactic reference to the original Planet Of The Apes.
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacey
Limited edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Peter Tonguette and Simon Ward
High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation of the 160-minute “Cannes cut”, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006
I must say, the thought of sitting through an even longer version of Southland Tales didn’t fill me with excitement. I ended up half-watching it while doing other things, though I did keep a look out for extra material. Things are different right from the offset where we get a longer camcorder sequence and now with another Moby track. This weakens the realistic feel of the scene, but does make it feel more like the rest of the film. Then we have no Doomsday Scenario Interface, just Pilot explaining a few things, which is much better. Kelly obviously thought he needed to give us much more background than he did in his this cut, but went overboard and unleashed a deluge of information upon us, and did it in an infuriatingly staggered way too. Soon after this we have a scene which Kelly later shifted to around half way through, a meeting between the Baron and Hideo Takehashi the Japanese Prime Minister. A few other scenes may also have been moved. Most of the minor characters get extended dialogue scenes and even a few new ones, allowing us to get to know them a bit more, and one character Serpentine explains her actions at the end, clarifying some matters. The unfinished CGI matters little as most of it didn’t look finished in the theatrical cut either. There’s more Moby music too.
Though I didn’t think I’ll say this, I enjoyed this Cannes Cut a little more and think that Kelly weakened his film in cutting it down, even though it still doesn’t really work.
For fans of this film, this is easily its best release, especially with the inclusion of the Cannes Cut. As a movie, I’d struggle to recommend it to others though.