Monday, November 12, 2007

Pop Culture Meltdown

Aly's benevolence allowed me to sit in on a sneak preview of Richard Kelly's Southland Tales today at Plaza de Oro. Right around the time I felt like I'd seen Kelly's previous effort, Donnie Darko, enough times that I finally felt like I understood it, I first heard about Southland Tales. That was in 2005. Nearly two-and-a-half years later, this film is finally hitting theaters. Funny, when I think about it. I first blogged about the similarly themed Inland Empire back in May of 2005 and saw it last August, meaning I actually had to wait even longer for Southland Tales.

Was it worth it?

Yes and no. I liked the film in theory and I liked parts of it, but as a whole, sprawling epic to sit through in a theater with one other person — another reviewer who writes for another paper and who left a half-hour before the film ended — it never really ties up into anything that makes sense. And that's being said by somebody who could deal with Inland Empire and who loved Donnie Darko. It's not the unwatchable disaster some reviewers have made it out to be, but it definitely shows that quite a bit was edited out of the final product. (Whether that would have made the film made any more sense, I don't know.)

In writing this review, I could feel a small modicum of Kelly's pain. The first draft ran about a hundred words too long, and I had to pick through the various points I had made a edit out what I ultimately deemed to be extra. I couldn't in good conscious omit the reference to Matthew Barney, for example, but the evaluation of Cheri Oteri's dramatic acting fell by the wayside.

Some of the chopped-out points appear below.
Pop Culture Meltdown

Can a film capture the current zeitgeist and still be an utter failure?
On paper, any work that faithfully re-creates the cultural components of a given point in time must inherently be good, in the sense of art imitating life. However, Southland Tales — Richard Kelly's directorial follow-up to his cult hit mindbender Donnie Darko — ultimately fails to coalesce into a good film. Kelly, who also wrote the film, manages to include everything — Hollywood, a presidential election, war, porn, reality TV, terrorism, the energy crisis, indie music, Christianity, time travel, Southern California wildfires, the looming apocalypse, and Bai Ling — but warps them until the pieces no longer fit together. Not that they necessarily jive in the non-Kellyverse, of course, but audiences will leave Southland Tales with their heads swirling.

Now the world's most comparatively slim plot summary: Actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, formerly "The Rock") awakens in the Nevada desert without his memory and promptly hops atop porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), with whom he writes a screenplay about the end of the world. Meanwhile, a cop and his twin (both Sean William Scott) tangle with some liberal revolutionaries headquartered in Venice Beach. Then everything goes boom.
Johnson, Gellar, and Scott — each of whom were more celebrated stars with the long-delayed Southland Tales first went into production — acquit themselves admirably enough, creating fleshed-out characters amid the chaos. The preponderance of Saturday Night Live alums rounding out the cast succeed just as often as they fail but, overall, underscore the satire of the pop culture-as-reality dynamic. If all that wasn't enough, Kelly also manages to pay homage to surrealist greats David Lynch — Mulholland Drive's Rebekah del Rio cameos — and Matthew Barney — Cremaster-style kickline girls and an ominous zeppelin also appear. In short, a hot mess, but one that offers enough aesthetic stimulation and food-for-thought that one can't discount it altogether.

Given the brink-of-disaster state of the world about to receive Southland Tales, maybe it makes sense that the movie that creates an off-kilter but not-to-off version of reality doesn't succeed. All this apocalypse talk has this reviewer wondering if we won't either.
The spare bits:
  • First, Justin Timberlake. Not great as the film's narrator and, arguably, the fourth-most important character.
  • I'm pretty certain most of the characters' names mean something, but I don't have the energy to look into it at the moment. One exception: The blimp Jenny von Westphalen takes its name from Karl Marx's wife.
  • Oddly, Southland Tales has more in common with Domino — the biopic that Kelly penned but didn't direct — than Donnie Darko, what with all the pop culture mishmash.
  • Some of the special effects really shine. Others look like something from the first season of Buffy. Maybe it's a lame quibble, but the clunkier computer-generated graphics drew me out of the movie.
  • Music plays a bigger role than I thought, and I went in knowing it has musical numbers. The film has three chapters: "Temptation Waits" (a song by Garbage), "Wave of Mutilation" (like The Pixies song), and "Memory Gospel" (the Moby song). It's neat. Moby himself did a lot of the soundtrack, but it rarely feels like you're stuck in a theater listening to Moby. But you are. Also, the fact that the big musical number involves The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done," which doesn't date the scene as badly as I thought it made. Remember, this would have been so much more of-the-moment had the film come out in 2005.
  • Another thing that dates the film: It stars Fat Will Sasso, formerly of Mad TV. The actor has since slimmed down to the point of being almost unrecognizable. I call him Skinny Will Sasso now.
  • Another weird connection to Inland Empire: Sarah Michelle Gellar's character leads a dance routine with three other porn stars. It reminded me of the hookers doing "The Loco-Motion" enough that I now have "The Loco-Motion" stuck in my head again.
  • The SNL-ers are hit and miss. Cheri Oteri, for example, does a lot better that you might think with her role, a scheming double agent and stand-up comedian. That's saying, of course, that your expectations are appropriately low. Jon Lovitz, however, comes off as just Jon Lovitz in a cop costume. Nora Dunn does well, but mostly because my memories of her on SNL are fuzzy. (I was young, it was on late, her reruns don't air that often.) Amy Poehler's scenes, however, could have easily been lifted from Upright Citizens Brigade sketches. In one of them, her character actually plays a character. Janeane Garofolao's role of Gen. Teena MacArthur was edited down almost into non-existence. As near as I can tell, she only appears once in a crowd scene near the end of the film.
  • Miranda Richardson, who plays one of the villains, looks and sounds so much like Julianne Moore I thought she was her and thought Moore had her name removed from the billing and all promotional materials.
  • Wallace Shawn looks like an extra from the David Lynch version of Dune, which begs some very unfortunate comparisons.
  • Five words: Bai Ling plays Bai Ling.
  • Kevin Smith apparently appeared in the film, at least according to IMDb. Who knew?
  • Zelda Rubenstein, the psychic midget from the Poltergeist movies is not, in fact, dead and is instead in the film as a creepy old woman. I wonder if she's going for a record for "actress with the longest career of playing a creepy old lady."
  • Am I crazy, or were Ali Larter and Mary McDonnell supposed to be in this movie?
  • I get the whole Book of Revelations analogy, but for the life of me I'm not sure whether Sarah Michelle Gellar, Bai Ling or Mandy Moore was supposed to be the Whore of Babylon.
In short, not a great movie and not even a good movie, really. But one with enough potential that I have something to chew on tonight.

1 comment:

  1. I was interested on seeing what a skinny Will Sasso looked like, so i looked him up on IMDB. Did you know he used to be a wrestler, or maybe he just appeared on WWF as spectator like 30 times?