Review: Southland Tales (2006)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #679

Number of Views: One
Release Date: May 21, 2006 (Cannes)
Sub-Genre: Dystopian/Satire
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $17,000,000
Box Office: $374,743
Running Time: 160 minutes
Director: Richard Kelly
Producers: Sean McKittrick, Bo Hyde, Kendall Morgan
Screenplay: Richard Kelly
Special Effects: Matt Kutcher
Visual Effects: Danny S. Kim, Olcun Tan, Thomas Tannenberger, Sherman Toy
Cinematography: Steven Poster
Score: Moby
Editing: Sam Bauer
Studios: Darko Entertainment, Persistent Entertainment, Cherry Road Films
Distributors: Samuel Goldwyn Films, Destination Films, Wild Bunch, Universal Pictures
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake, Lou Taylor Pucci, Miranda Richardson, Wallace Shawn, Bai Ling, Nora Dunn, John Larroquette, Kevin Smith, Todd Berger, Holmes Osborne, Wood Harris, Cheri Oteri, Jon Lovitz, Jill Ritchie, Amy Poehler, Curtis Armstrong, Beth Grant, Christopher Lambert, Zelda Rubinstein

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Gary Jules “Mad World”
[2] Blur “Tender”
[3] Krysta Now “Teen Horniness Is Not A Crime”
[4] MobyMemory Gospel”
[5] PixiesWave of Mutilation”
[6] The Killers “All The Things I’ve Done”
[7] Black Rebel Motorcycle Club “Howl”

Never let it be said that timing is anything less than everything. When Donnie Darko was unleashed on an unsuspecting Sundance audience on January 19, 2001 it appeared as though the stars were aligning for its fresh-faced director, Richard Kelly. The crowd were in raptures, word duly spread, and a theatrical release was planned for October of the same year. Then September 11 happened. With the whole of America, and indeed the world, in a state of intense shock, it was deemed insensitive to market a film which hit so close to home and, as a result, it mustered a measly $7.3m at the box-office. However, eventually life went on and gradually audiences discovered what is widely regarded as one of the greatest movies of its decade, if not an entire generation. With justice now served, suddenly Kelly was considered the man with the plan. I guess it’s right what they say. It’s a very, very mad world.

The thing about being the cock of the walk is that it customarily concludes in clucking and plucking, should your next egg hatched be at all irregular. Little was Kelly aware that he had set the bar way too high and the media, who take almost as much pleasure from heralding heroes as they do celebrating their subsequent failures, placed him on a lofty pedestal, perched precariously between their cross hairs. For his next trick, Kelly planned to fuse several different genres, and expectations were unsurprisingly stratospheric. The difference now was that he had a tidy $17m budget to play with and could scale up his vision considerably. However, while Southland Tales must have seemed a sure thing on paper, it all began to fall apart at the post-production stage.

Perhaps it was a tad hasty on his part submitting a work-in-progress print to Cannes but, to give him his dues, they lapped it up like a mutt would feces and hinted at its Palme d’Or credentials. Tickled pink, Kelly had unwittingly placed himself under tremendous pressure to get the thing in the bag before its May 2006 unveiling. Many of the visual effects weren’t ready come the screening, editing hadn’t been completed, and the 160 minute cut delivered elicited a response from the crowd that I’d imagine still haunts his soul to this very day. The verdict was in and, just as projected, it was unanimous. It wasn’t the pointing, mocking or booing that I find most despicable, but the fact that certain audience members saw fit to shake their fists in rage. It was as though he had just headbutted an owl in plain sight of all of them. Real “Get him lads!” kind of hard knocks.

You’re likely wondering where I figure into all this spite and propaganda. That’s simple, I refuse to donate a flying fuck or three deep-sea shits to tittle-tattle. Southland Tales could have turned out to be the stinkiest ass turd ever shat into my toploader but that would make an off-duty anarchist such as I desire to enjoy it all the more, just to rattle some cages. Mercifully, it hasn’t come to that as this over-bloated blimp of a movie consists of far more than hot air. Indeed, I’m sure I just spotted Tangina from Poltergeist huffing helium over by the deviled eggs.

Does it make a solitary slather of sense? Please allow me to deflect that poser with one of my own – Have you ever licked a frog? It has a narrative if that counts. As a matter of fact, it has a fuckload of them. One minute it’s tackling the ever topical subject of homeland security, the next time travel, then reciting biblical verse, breaking out into impromptu music videos complete with product placement, and slipping in all manner of wink-wink infomercials and breaking news reports just to ensure that we remain thoroughly bamboozled. Any attempts to keep up with the pace are likely to prove utterly fruitless and may well result in a ruptured aneurysm. But do you know what? I loved every demented minute of it.

I suppose you’ll be expecting a synopsis now right? You may want to be careful what you wish for but far be it from me to withhold information. Just don’t come crying to me when those temple veins start bulging. It’s July 4th, 2005, and the threat of World War 3 is hitting far too close to home for comfort. Nuclear warheads have already been deployed resulting in the obliteration of half of Texas and the American people are staring directly down the barrels of something truly cataclysmic. We’re talking constant surveillance, martial law and over 300 million very worried faces. To make matters worse, all this global warfare has resulted in a severe worldwide fuel shortage, although the Germans of all people appear to be throwing us a well-timed bone.

You see, mad scientist Baron von Westphalen and his associates have managed to concoct a source of inexhaustible energy propelled by the perpetual motion of ocean currents, and are calling it “Fluid Karma”. There is one iddy-biddy little hitch in that this process is causing a rift in the space-time-continuum large enough to fly a mega-zeppelin through, but what’s a little quantum entanglement between friends? Had I mentioned that the entire populous is under 24-hour surveillance and human rights are effectively zilch? If it all sounds mighty heavy then fret not as the new single from porn-star and one-woman media empire Krysta Now will be available for download from midnight and it really is dreadfully catchy.

Okay so we may have skipped forward a few years or so but all that doom and gloom was beginning to give me face ache and you can always count on throwaway pop drivel to put the worries of the world in sharper perspective. So what if the War on Terror is looking unwinnable, the War on Teen Horniness is raging on and that takes priority in Krysta’s world. And if it’s top of the agenda for Krysta, then however many million Twitter followers are going to want to hear about that shit too.

You can always count on music to bring people together. Perhaps if Donald Trump had released an EP of love songs just prior to being elected into office, then a few less people would wish to cave his cranium in with a blunt object every time his loose lips flap. If you ask me, we could all take a leaf out of Krysta’s book. Besides, you should see how far she can launch a ripe cherry tomato from her vulva while varnishing her toe nails. Screw thermonuclear weapons and all the ensuing fallout, you ever been hit in the eye with speeding salad garnish?

Don’t ask screen action hero Boxer Santaros as he’s having enough trouble just remembering what decade he’s in. Having mysteriously disappeared from at a charity scavenger hunt days earlier, Santaros has resurfaced in Santa Monica and, while seemingly unharmed, has been stricken by amnesia and is keen to keep any movements on the hush-hush. I make him right too as his wife just so happens to be the daughter of the Senator and the Republicans have their panties all bunched up trying to pinpoint his coordinates.

It’s not easy keeping a low profile looking the way he does; all ripped and devastatingly handsome. Thus he has assumed the identity of Jericho Cane, the lead character in an apocalyptic screenplay called The Power that he wrote with confidential fuck buddy, the whore of Babylon herself, Krysta Now, as luck would have it.

It would appear our big tough ape has guzzled too many cans of the new energy drink she just launched as he’s more than a little twitchy and appears to be suffering from some kind of Taurine withdrawal. Or perhaps all that teen horniness is starting to rub off.

Meanwhile, over at Venice Beach, a group of neo-Marxists are hatching a cunning plan to stick it to the Republicans and have not altogether legitimately recruited two of LA’s finest to assist in their treachery. Twin brothers Roland and Ronald Taverner may look identical, but you really don’t know the half of it and that’s a quarter more than either of them know right now.

Xenophobe Roland appears to have gotten the rough end of the deal as he’s currently high as a kite and tied up in the back of an arm dealer’s ice-cream van. Meanwhile, it’s six days since poor Ronald’s last bowel movement and he’s now expected to babysit Boxer, a man who shits himself at the first whiff of a quarrel, while the actor researches his upcoming film role. Sweet irony.

You may recall I mentioned something earlier about Boxer Santaros being married into the Republicans. What I may have negated to mention is that Krysta’s bestie Cyndi Pinziki has ties with the neo-Marxists and, when teens are done getting horny, they also love to natter.

So let’s have a mid-point recap shall we? Boxer/Jericho is out on the beat with Ronald not Roland. One of them appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown and can’t remember shit; the other hasn’t taken a shit for almost a week, making him the most constipated man on the entire West Coast and quite possibly the messiah.

Ronald is hanging with Boxer, Boxer is sleeping with Krysta, Krysta has blabbed to Cyndi, Cyndi is blackmailing the Republicans, the Republicans are desperate to find Boxer, and there’s currently an inter-dimensional rift in Nevada causing the Earth’s rotation to grind to a halt. I think that’s it. So who’s the shady looking fellow with the sniper rifle then and why is he reciting T.S. Eliot?

Don’t mind him, that’s Private Pilot Abilene, a veteran of the Iraq War and self-confessed people watcher. When not casting his crosshairs over the coast of Santa Monica, he can usually be found at the Fire Arcade, exchanging pot for Fluid Karma, shooting racy promo videos, sipping Budweiser and bending nurses over the pinball machine for the ultimate in trouser snake tilt.

The milky-faced cracker he just struck a deal with is Martin Kefauver and this wannabe “G” has a lot more on his mind than bitches and money. You see, Martin has recently been drafted to go to Iraq and isn’t relishing the prospect of frontline service, when he could be busting caps in asses right here in his hometown. If I were him, I’d take his new pal Ronald’s advice and join him on a random road trip to Mexico. Perhaps some refried beans will help dislodge a stool or two and they can form a mariachi group together. Now there’s a thought.

Fuck this for a game of inter-dimensional tiddlywinks. Attempting to explain the plot to Kelly’s film is like trying to stretch your legs in a smart car – utterly futile. I’ve barely even skimmed the custard and can feel brain freeze setting in; thus I think I’ll leave you good people to join the dots yourselves and wish you the very best of luck with that. You see, Southland Tales isn’t so much a movie as a time capsule, stuffed to overflowing with every last 21st century anxiety that came into the director’s head during its fever dream conception.

The problem is, folk tend to fear what they don’t understand, and when it finally dawned on the critics at Cannes, I reckon they were gripped by blind terror because they knew they’d be required to write 1,000 words about it and were just venting their frustration the only way they know how. This is where I differ from other commentators as, should I not fully comprehend something, then it fascinates me all the more.

I may have spent 160 minutes hanging on by my fingernails, but what a rip-roaring bloody ride it was. Besides, it’s not like the parts of Southland Tales are impossible to decipher; just that the sum of them may not stack up and that’s fine and dandy to a man who never much cared for mathematics.

It tickles me pink that Kelly consciously cast actors who are all too readily typecast and it actually ties in to the whole alternate reality theme rather splendidly, when you think about it. He gives us all hope of another dimension where Dwayne Johnson is more than just a Rock with an eyebrow, Sarah Michelle Gellar is smarter than your average spoiled rich bitch, Seann William Scott forgives Finch for banging his mom, Jon Lovitz hasn’t got time for mild grating, Christopher Lambert doesn’t look too rapey to distribute ice lollies to under tens, and where Curtis Armstrong can just be Curtis Armstrong as we wouldn’t have it any other way. Kelly gives each of them a shot at escaping their poky pigeon holes momentarily and every last member of this delightfully distended ensemble repays him in kind.

It seems ironic that Southland Tales was judged so mercilessly upon being tossed to the wolves of Cannes in 2006. You see, I believe the reason why they couldn’t connect was that nobody could at that point. 21st century anxiety was still all new to us then and we certainly weren’t ready to air our dirty laundry on social networks.

A decade or so later and Donald Trump now has his morning espresso sat next to a big shiny red button, O.J. Simpson is soon to be available for drive-by shootings and convenience store robberies, Kim Kardashian’s badonkadonk has edged Pluto out of planetary contention, Justin Bieber has finally sprouted a pubic hair he doesn’t piss through, and the only thing that has remained constant is that Betty White is still alive, God bless her. Which reminds me, I really ought to get round to posting this soon.

The upshot to being far ahead of your time is that, sooner or later, folk are going to catch up. I truly hope that is the case with Southland Tales as it really is an extraordinary motion picture. Be advised that primary viewing is likely to be inclusive of much bamboozlement, while resting assured that 320 minutes spent in Southland really isn’t that great a stretch. Kelly admitted himself that he’ll never likely make another film as good as Donnie Darko and, as much as it pains me to say this, perhaps he’s right. I mean, statistically speaking, it’s improbable right? That said, while Kelly’s “all important second album” may well have initially ended in a whimper, I’m damn glad I stuck around for the big bang.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Read Donnie Darko Appraisal
Read The Bad Batch Appraisal
Read Strange Days Appraisal
Read Mulholland Drive Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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