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Richard Kelly's Ugly View of Dystopia... or the Second Coming of Heaven's Gate
May 20, 2008
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
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In 2001, Richard Kelly premiered a strange film entitled Donnie Darko at the Sundance Film Festival. Months later, the film was released in theaters but was largely ignored until its release in DVD a year later. Since then, the film has become a cult classic as it launched the careers of siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone while also making Richard Kelly a hot new director. When the film's cult grew, so did the release of a director's cut both in theaters and on DVD as Kelly continued to maintain a high profile as he wrote the screenplay to Tony Scott's film Domino. Then in 2005, Kelly returned to direct his next feature which is an ambitious story about post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in the lives of various people in three days during the Fourth of July weekend. The film would be called Southland Tales.
Written and directed by Richard Kelly, Southland Tales is a multi-narrative story set in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles on Fourth of July weekend 2008. The film follows the lives of various characters including an amnesiac action film star, an ex-porn star, and twin brothers as they deal with the bleakness of the world around them. With an all-star cast that includes Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Mandy Moore, Miranda Richardson, Nora Dunn, Justin Timberlake, Jon Lovitz, John Larroquette, Wallace Shawn, Kevin Smith, Lou Taylor Pucci, Beth Grant, Bai Ling, Will Sasso, Holmes Osborne, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Zelda Rubenstein, Janeane Garafalo, and Christopher Lambert. Southland Tales, despite its concept, is a messy, incoherent, and purely self-indulgent film from Richard Kelly.
It's Fourth of July weekend in 2008 which would mark the third anniversary of the nuclear bombing of a small Texas town that began World War III. With the Patriot Act in full power, gasoline and alternative fuel resources in decline, and America on the verge of chaos. An action film star named Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) is in the desert with amnesia as he arrives in California. After being captured, he meets with a former porn star-turned reality TV show host Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) as the two collaborate on a screenplay. Boxer learns that Krysta is part of a neo-Marxist movement led by her manager Cyndi Pinziki (Nora Dunn) who is trying to combat a Republican Presidential candidate Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne) and his wife/head of US-IDent Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson).
Meanwhile, the neo-Marxist movement learns that a scientist Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) is trying to create a new source of alternative fuel as he is endorsing Senator Frost. With the war still waging on, Frost hopes to have a Republican victory in California as the neo-Marxists have taken a racist LAPD officer named Roland Tavener (Seann William Scott) hostage while using his twin brother Ronald to impersonate him. Ronald accompanies Boxer, who joins in to research his film role, as the two go into hijinks where a domestic dispute that was supposed to be routine went crazy thanks to a rogue cop named Bart Bookman (Jon Lovitz) who is also a neo-Marxist with his girlfriend Zora Carmichaels (Cheri Oteri). Boxer and Ronald run in fear as Boxer has an encounter with Baron and his cohorts that included his mother (Beth Grant), Dr. Soberin Exx (Curtis Armstrong), Katarina Kuntzler (Zelda Rubenstein), and Serpentine (Bai Ling).
With Pinziki and Frost's advisor Vaughn Smallhouse (John Larroquette) trying to negotiate over terms about the release of a possible sex tape between Boxer and Krysta Now, Boxer's wife Madeline Frost Santaros (Mandy Moore) wants the tape blocked. With Boxer returning to his home, he is now believing that he's Jericho as he's made contact with a woman named Starla Von Luft (Michele Durrett) about his screenplay. Santaros escapes the Frost home to meet with Von Luft as things get crazy when an Iraqi war veteran named Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), high on a new drug, kills her. Ronald Taverner had just escape and learned something powerful is going on with his right hand as did his twin brother as the two try to find each other.
Ronald seeks help with a secret arms dealer named Walter Mung (Christopher Lambert) while Roland gets help from a local drug dealer named Martin Kefauver (Lou Taylor Pucci). With Krysta now getting possession of a video tape that could incriminate her, she makes her own deal with Smallhouse as the night approaches for what could be the end of the world. It is there at a party for a new Zeppelin that the Taverner twins and Boxer learned what happened to them a few days ago.
The concept of Southland Tales about the end of the world emerging on a Fourth of July weekend with intertwining storylines, multiple characters, and themes of social and environmental unrest is a very good concept. The problem is that it's a good idea on paper. On film and in script, it's a mess. A bloated mess that has too many characters, too many stories, too many situations, and nothing to gel on. It's clear that there's a conflict between two groups. The problem is that it gets confusing on who is working for the neo-Marxists and who is working for the U.S. government. Some characters start of as neo-Marxists and then become pawns for Frost and company. It becomes confusing.
The script doesn't have a sense of cohesiveness nor any characters with the exception of the Tavener twins and Boxer Santaros, that have any depth or development. Instead, Kelly brings out caricatures of individuals that looks like they've come out of films by David Lynch and Gregg Araki. Kelly's claim that the film is meant to be a satire but there's not much to satirize about except reality TV and pop stardom in the form of Krysta Now. The dialogue is stylized for some characters yet it sounds very ridiculous coming out of the mouths of the actors while what's even worse is the film's voice-over narration from Pilot Abilene. The narration brings nothing but a bunch of strange and inane philosophies while the reading by Justin Timberlake sounds very flat and lifeless. Then there's story and plot. There's nothing clear in what it's trying to say and though things do clear a bit in the third act that involves time travel as well as motivation for two of its lead characters. There's no payoff even though something happens but what is the aftermath?
If Kelly's demands for the audience to be very attentive to the film in script, then the demand for the film in his direction is too overwhelming. Kelly had intended it to be a much bigger experience that is interactive with the audience that included a graphic novel that preceded the film. The problem is that Kelly is trying to create a film that is strange enough for an art-house film audience while using big stars for a mainstream audience and he succeeds in neither. The problem is that Kelly is too enamored with the film's concept and is convinced that the film should be seen more than once to understand the story. Kelly's demands for an audience is too much for a mainstream audience to handle while an art-house audience are smart enough to know when a film should be seen twice.
Kelly's demands for the audience are marred by his bad choices in the direction. The awkward framing, compositions, and no depth of field for the films exterior and interior settings really create a film that is messy. Plus, Kelly's knack for bending genres, that worked in his previous film Donnie Darko, fails because he tries to do too much. He tries to make it into a comedy, action, drama, satire, sci-fi, and also, a musical. There's a couple of musical dance numbers where one of them is based on a drug trip where Pilot Abilene is lip-syncing to the Killers' All The Things That I've Done with back-up dancer and it's an extremely baffling scene that really confuses the audience into what they're seeing. While there's a couple of interesting moment in the directing including a tracking shot of the MegaZeppelin scene, the rest of the film falters with inane special effects, chaotic conflicts, and everything else where the result is a bloated mess that doesn't make any sense to its audience.
Cinematographer Steven B. Poster does have some nice coloring but due to Kelly's direction, he is given nothing to do as he's forced to emphasize on lighting style that doesnt have any depth at all. Neither does Sam Bauer's editing that at the film's theatrical 144-minute running time, lags in pacing, tries to go for style, and doesn't add anything to the film other than the fact that more scenes should be cut while its approach in the intertwining stories makes it confusing. Production designer Alec Hammond and set decorator Tracey A. Doyle does an OK job in some of the film's set designs though it's most notable achievement is the pristine look of the MegaZeppelin. Costume designer April Ferry creates interesting costumes for the actresses involved yet the look at times is very cartoonish and lacks any real depth.
Sound designer/editor David Esparza also doesn't do anything brilliant that's expected in a film that bends genre as his work in some of the action sequences are average at best while a scene in a gun battle tends to be very muddled more in part due to the direction. The visual effects by Thomas Tannenberg does have nice touch for its mix of animation and computer graphics in some sequences but the rest of it isn't very good at all, notably the climatic scene along with the MegaZeppelin is poorly made. The film's music by renowned electronic-pop artist Moby is dull at best. Originally supposed to be a collaboration with Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, Moby's score fits in the mood with his ambient setting though the addition of pulsating, techno beats create a sense of distraction and at times, doesn't fit in with the mood of the film.
The soundtrack is a tribute to classic alternative music of the 90s with bands like Radiohead, Jane's Addiction, the Pixies, Blur, Big Head Todd & the Monster, Elbow, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club along with the Killers, Louis Armstrong, Beethoven, Muse, Waylon Jennings, and an original song for Sarah Michelle Gellar's character that's a bad impersonation of Britney Spears music.
The casting by Mary Vernieu and Venus Kanani though is an interesting ensemble. There's very few people to stand out as nearly every actor in this film has little to work on while it's clear that the film features cameos and character actors where sometimes, their appearance or presence tends to be a distraction. Cameos from Kevin Smith as a legless war veteran, singer Rebekah del Rio from Mulholland Dr.as a singer, Janeane Garafalo as a general in the final party scene, Christopher Lambert as an arms dealer in an ice cream truck, Eli Roth as a man killed in a toilet, and Sab Shimono as a Japanese prime minister don't really add anything since they're just cameos.
Garafalo's appearance is only brief which suggests her appearance was supposed to be bigger but never made it into the final cut while Smith is barely recognizable in his own role. Comedians Will Sasso as Krysta's bodyguard, Amy Poehler as a poet, and Cheri Oteri as neo-Marxist are very bad with Poehler and Oteri not given anything funny to do with Oteri being way over the top in her role. Jon Lovitz also suffers in his role as rogue cop where he ends up being very silly.
Wood Harris as a famed rapper doesn't make much impression nor does Jill Ritchie as one of Krysta's girlfriends while Mike Nielsen as a government spy isn't memorable at all where he's in the film for one minute and then, he's gone. Michele Durrett also suffers the same fate just as her character was getting a bit interesting despite her own exaggerated performance. Famed character actors Curtis Armstrong, Zelda Rubenstein, and the always enjoyable Beth Grant as the Baron's cohorts are practically wasted since they just show up and say their lines while Bai Ling as Serpentine makes more of an impression that's really more of a distraction than a performance.
Nora Dunn is okay in her role as Cindy Pinziki but her character lacks any real sense of clear motivation while John Larroquette looks bored in his role as Vaughn Smallhouse. Lou Taylor Pucci is also okay in his role as drug dealer talking like a rapper though he does manage to make an impression in the film's climatic scene.
Wallace Shawn, a great character actor, sadly doesn't really get to do anything but squirm and act slimy as if that's all he's given to do. Holmes Osbourne also doesn't get anything to do but act awkward and such while Miranda Richardson, sporting a Texan accent, is kind of annoying in the film and doesn't get anything to do than sit, talk in a Texan accent, and watch a lot of TV screens. Mandy Moore gives a flat, uninspiring performance where all she does is nag and be a glorified trophy wife which is sad considering that Moore is more talented than that.
Sarah Michelle Gellar is okay in her role as a former porn star turned entrepreneur though sadly, Gellar doesn't get to do anything but look pretty, act like a dumb blonde, and that's all which is sad considering she's far more talented than that through her work in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The film's most baffling and certainly, the worst performance is Justin Timberlake as a war veteran who likes to get high and shoot people while voicing some of the worst narration ever committed on film.
Seann William Scott, who is known as the obnoxious Stifler in the first three American Pie films, is good in his dual role as twin brothers who hold the key to the conspiracy that the American government is doing. While Scott does get to have a few, funny one-liners, he does manage to show his skills as a dramatic actor in the third act where he gets to do a lot despite what little depth and development his characters had to work with. His performance proves that he can do more than just being Stifler.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is also good as Boxer Santaros and his character alter-ego, Jericho Cane (a nod to both Chris Jericho and Kane) where he has this great presence that's expected from an action film star but also a sense of humor in how jittery he is when he's nervous. While the dialogue he's given doesn't work for him, Johnson at least does his best to his charisma and presence to give a good performance to prove that he's more than some big tough guy.
When the film premiered in an unfinished, 160-minute running time at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, the film was one of three American film competing for the Palme D'or that also included Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette and Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation. While the other two films received mixed reviews, the unfinished cut of Southland Tales received the worst reviews of any film that was playing at the festival.
The screening itself was even worse with audiences walking out of the film and boos as producers and executives for the film were worried. Kelly went back to the editing room to finish visual effects and cut 20-minutes of his Cannes cut for nearly a year as the director also added a graphic novel as a prologue to the film. Yet, when Kelly released his finished version in 2007, the film still didn't score with critics nor moviegoers as its notoriety is still intact.
For anyone who loved Donnie Darko and anticipate the upcoming film The Box in 2008 or 2009, should best avoid Southland Tales. Fans who like dystopian films should stick to watching Terry Gilliam's Brazil while those who like ensemble films should stick to the work of Robert Altman, or for those who are into weird stuff should stick with David Lynch and Gregg Araki. While Richard Kelly is certainly a talented director, his ambitions for this film is a reminder of what happens when a hot director is given carte blanche to do anything and fall flat on his face. The sad truth about this film is that Richard Kelly created a very self-indulgent, nonsensical film that expects too much from its audience. In many ways, Richard Kelly's Southland Tales is an exercise in excess in the same way Michael Cimino had killed his own career with his notorious 1980 flop Heaven's Gate.
Richard Kelly Reviews:
Donnie Darko (2001):
The Box (2008):
(Coming in Fall 2008)
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: None of the Above
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age
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