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Case Number 13240

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Southland Tales

Sony // 2006 // 144 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // March 18th, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Brett Cullum's got soul though he's not a soldier. And he's never been in a jam where an eight ball, a porn star and a tattoo parlor can't straighten things out.

Editor's Note

Our review of Southland Tales (Blu-Ray), published November 17th, 2008, is also available.

The Charge

Vaughn Smallhouse: Are you Deep Throat 2?
Krysta Now: Oh, I'm not in that movie.

Opening Statement

The most daring film of 2007 as well as the most maligned, Richard Kelly's apocalyptic Southland Tales is his follow-up to the cult hit Donnie Darko. Anyone who found Kelly's first film hard to follow and headache inducing better get an extra large bottle of aspirin to sit through this one. It is stylistically more challenging, makes far less sense, and feels a full hour longer. Fragmented, visually stunning, and nearly impenetrable, this film is not for the faint of heart or unadventurous. But if you're up for a sprawling epic / black comedy / drama / science fiction / political satire / media indictment / tone poem, this is the one you can't skip even though you probably already have at least once. Welcome to the 2008 election as seen through an LSD junkie's eyes.

Facts of the Case

In an alternate history…

El Paso and Abilene, Texas have been nuked out of existence on July 4th, 2005. The Patriot Act has been expanded dramatically, and the Republicans have set up borders on every state and a way for the government to control the Internet. America is at war, and the draft has been reinstated. A fuel shortage has prompted German corporation Treer to design a generator of energy that runs on ocean currents called "Liquid Karma." The film haphazardly follows an army of major players in the end of the world.

Thrown in to this apocalypse happening right now landscape are the following:

• Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Be Cool)—Very politically important action star who is suffering from amnesia, and at the start of the story being hidden by an ambitious porn star. Think Arnold "Ah-nahld" Schwarzenegger lost in a post-nuclear stream of pop culture hanging with Arianna Huffington meets Jenna Jameson instead of his own wife. Oh yeah, and he has cowritten a screenplay called "The Power" that will change the course of history…or at least it will predict the end of the world. Did I mention he's also the biggest whimp in this entire film? Careful viewers will realize his tattoos represent almost every major religion of the world.

• Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott, American Pie)—Police officer of Hermosa Beach, California. He's being held hostage by radical liberals. He holds a key to the end of the world.

• Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott, Dude, Where's My Car?)—A neo-Marxist identical twin of Officer Taverner. He's impersonating his brother. He holds a key to the end of the world.

• Kyrsta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy the Vampire Slayer)—The ambitious porn star working on her own reality show, clothing line, perfume products, energy drink, pop music, and politically radical campaign for Proposition 69. She is harboring the action star key to the Republican Party's future and the end of the world script. She has the goods on him and his wife. Oh yeah, and she has cowritten a screenplay called "The Power" that will change the course of history…or at least it will predict the end of the world.

• Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson,Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)—Boxer's high powered Republican Senator's wife mother-in law, and the heavy baddie of the film. She is head of the operation by the government to track and censor everyone and everything called IDENT. Think Hillary Clinton on the other side of the fence with a "hurt everyone" agenda.

• Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake, the pop star bringing "Sexy Back")—A disfigured Iraq War veteran who narrates the film, and does a major musical number in an arcade where he lip synchs to a hit by The Killers. He is the doomsday prophet with a chorus of Marilyn Monroes to back him up.

• Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn, The Princess Bride)—A bad guy who has harnessed the power of the ocean with what he calls "Liquid Karma." He is also working on a car that runs on sea water, and who's major ad campaign is the vehicle humping a gas powered one.

• Vaughn Smallhouse (John Laroquette, Night Court)—Smarmy advisor to Republican Senator Frost.

• Madeline Frost Santaros (Mandy Moore, American Dreamz)—Wife of the action star and daughter of the Republican Senator. Fanatically bitchy!

• Bart Bookman (Jon Lovitz, The Stepford Wives)—An LAPD cop who has a secret and a shock of white hair.

• Simon Theory (Director Kevin Smith, Clerks)—Iraqi War vet who has no legs and is working for Baron Von Westphalen.

• Serpentine (Bai Ling, the mysterious Asian woman of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and The Crow)—Mysterious sexy Asian lady who chain smokes and wears wigs. A real stretch for the actress.

• Various radical liberals are played by women from Saturday Night Live throughout the years.

• Carlos Amezcua plays himself, a news reporter.

• Rebekah Del Rio (Mulholland Drive) plays herself, a trippy Latino torch singer.

Also featured are the short psychic from Poltergeist (Zelda Rubinstein), star of Highlander Christopher Lambert, quirky character actress Beth Grant (Donnie Darko), stage legend Wood Harris, George W. Bush, Booger from Revenge of the Nerds (Curtis Armstong), and many other notables and new faces.

Begin annoying product tie-in side note
Originally this whole project was intended to be a nine part interactive experience with six graphic novels released before the theatrical debut, and the film serving as the last installments of the story begun in those publications. The graphic novel clears up a lot of the events that setup the film's story. The three chapters in the movie share their names with a song by an alternative music artist. "Temptation Waits" is a song by Garbage; "Memory Gospel" is a song by Moby (who also composed the film's score); and "Wave of Mutilation" is a song by The Pixies. The graphic novel's first six chapters were released, but they were put out in only three volumes which fans will want to track down. To make this easier there is a single extra thick collection called Southland Tales: The Prequel Saga. Happy eBaying to anyone interested.
End of annoying product tie-in side note

The Evidence

It's a frustrating film which is overly ambitious and far too obtuse for its own good. Yet Southland Tales is never boring, always beautifully executed from a production standpoint, and quirky as hell from top to bottom. It's a mess. It's also really really cool. Kelly has lived up to the expectations everyone had of him, and emerged as a populist mix of David Lynch and Terry Gilliam. There are no likable characters, the whole thing is way too dark and cynical, the acting is never believable, the politics are annoyingly overplayed, and the whole thing manages to charm you in to being impressed somehow. Southland Tales is admittedly a tough nut to crack. It's filled with so many references and so much self-conscious irony it is rendered nearly impossible to make sense of at all. Still, there are sequences that are dazzling. The director plays to his strengths which include fusing a wonderful hip soundtrack and score (provided in large part by Moby who has never scored an entire film) with strikingly strange images. That's also the director's weakness if you haven't figured it out yet.

The movie started out in concept as a musical indictment of Hollywood with a far different story. Kelly began writing the script well before 2001 and September 11th, but the attack on the World Trade Center changed his course and vision. If you recall Donnie Darko got a shortened theatrical run thanks to the events, and Kelly was impacted on several levels including personally, financially, artistically, and as an American. So instead he decided to take on topics like civil liberties and homeland security issues. Some claim this is a twist on the Book of Revelations from the Bible, and I can see that in part. We have a prominent whore, plagues, war, earthquakes, red tides, and even ID cards that mark everyone. But there are so many other references as well, and truly this is a mishmash of many other things. Richard Kelly sought to combine the sensibility of pop painter Andy Warhol with the science fiction noir of Philip K. Dick. He's claimed influences as wide reaching as Kiss Me Deadly (even samples of the score from the noir classic are played), Pulp Fiction, Brazil, and Dr. Strangelove. It attacks Republicans and Democrats alike with the Right becoming police state fascists and the Left becoming Marxist terrorists. There has never been anything like Southland Tales, but many people will find that as much of a blessing as it is praise.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The trouble never seems to end for Southland Tales, and you can tell. The film stopped and started production several times over, and it got more and more warped as the project went on. By the time it debuted a the 2006 Cannes Film Festival it was widely considered an unsalvageable mess. The boos were deafening, and it was considered the most hated film at the French festival since The Brown Bunny bombed in the same venue. It scored the lowest with audiences of almost any movie screened at the Festival. Kelly did some editing taking out twenty minutes, and added the Justin Timberlake narration to clear things up. The studio and distributor were nervous about the release, and decided to limit it. The budget was somewhere between fifteen and sixteen million dollars, and the box office totals of the theatrical run were impressively low making it a costly failed experiment that made Grindhouse look like a runaway success. According to Box Office Mojo it grossed $275,380 in North America and $81,028 overseas. This flick made a total of $356,408. Roughly the audience for this movie was less than 50,000 people. Will it ever find its demographic?

The DVD won't help, but it can't hurt either. The super widescreen transfer looks sharp and crisp. Colors pop almost unnaturally, and that's totally by design from the original print's hyper stylized graphic novel palette. The five channel Dolby surround track envelops the murk appropriately. Technically things look and sound very good. Extras include a very unhelpful animated short called "This is the Way the World Ends" which has radioactive green globs giving us a history lesson about the end of days. Also included is an appropriately nontraditional behind the scenes featurette called "USIDENT TV: SURVEILLING THE SOUTHLAND." It was filmed on the set by Kelly and his team, and it is presented in the same style as the movie. It serves in lieu of any commentary, and does a nice job of giving us insight about the project. Sony does a bang up job of getting this one out there, and I'm glad to see a solid transfer matched with extras.

Don't think it's flawless though, because there are gripes with the DVD despite the slick Sony package. Twenty minutes of this film were cut out after the Cannes screening, and we get none of the sequences back either in the film or in a deleted scenes section. Janeane Garofalo's parts are completely missing still, and many people claimed she was pretty good in the original cut. Most of the footage was a subplot between Kevin Smith and Janeane Garofalo's characters (Simon Theory and General Teena MacArthur) where they discussed Operation Serpentine Dream Theory. I guess we'll never see those sequences again, and all that remains is a glimpse of Garofalo in the climax. Somebody also should have found a way to either put the graphic novel material on here or summarize it somehow. Maybe a nice CD-ROM feature? It didn't happen. And good Lord, a cast commentary would have been an absolute gas for this one. They really missed the boat on some fun features that could have been constructed easily.

Closing Statement

You will more than likely not like this movie. If you do sit down and watch it, you will probably hate it, and you will probably never forget it either. You will hate yourself for not seeing it, or you will hate yourself if you do see it. The self loathing part is inevitable, and oddly enough that may be the strongest message Southland Tales has to offer. Many will skip this one, many already have, and many should skip it. It's nothing like Donnie Darko, and the damned thing doesn't work on many levels. That doesn't stop it though. Don't believe the hype this is simply a sophomore slump for Kelly, it's a mess that will have its champions. I also firmly believe his vision wasn't compromised too much despite all the infinite revisions. What Kelly has done is make a spoof of what the times we live in truly are, and the devil is in the sardonic details not the muck heavy plot. The world is a frightful mess, and Kelly decided to make this a fair representation of that. I'd much rather see a movie overloaded with ambition than one that is satisfied to recycle the same old safe crap we've seen time and time again. This is a brilliant misfire, and I embrace it wholly for being a daring film that takes no prisoners. Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted. And this film may be part of the future of cinema. I can't wait 'til this guy makes another one.

The Verdict

Guilty of being a sprawling mess, Southland Tales is either utter insanity or sheer genius. The jury will never decide, and something tells me Kelly wanted it that way.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 95
Acting: 95
Story: 95
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 2.40:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 144 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Concerts and Musicals
• Cult
• Drama
• Exploitation
• Fantasy
• Science Fiction

Distinguishing Marks

• Animated Short "This is the Way the World Ends"
• Behind the Scenes Featurette


• IMDb
• Official Site

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