Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Fantastic Fest: Richard Kelly's SOUTHLAND TALES

Big, ambitious movies that succeed are wonderful things because when someone takes a risk that pays off, you're happy that their hard work is being properly rewarded. But big, ambitious movies that fail (even fail miserably) are in some ways more intriguing, because they usually contain a lot of good ideas and are made with a certain amount of intelligence but can't quite get their shit together. It can be a matter of too many cooks spoiling the broth or one cook stirring the pot for so long that the flavor is sucked out, but such pictures can be fascinating for what they didn't get right than for anything they did. They're not always "car wreck"-type pictures, but they're sometimes greeted as such and occasionally they're either later regarded as camp classics (MYRA BRECKINRIDGE; CANDY) or they eventually find an appreciative audience (1941; HEAVEN'S GATE). And a few of them even go on to be re-appraised as being ahead of their time and classics of cinema, such as BLADE RUNNER, which is currently on re-release. Ambition can make up for a lot when a movie fails overall; you can't hate it, can't discard it, you've got to give the film props for not wanting to be like other movies, even though it's not really good enough to succeed on its own terms.

I think you can tell where I'm going with this.

Richard Kelly's SOUTHLAND TALES is a mess. Dense and unfocused, over and underwritten, lacking in subtlety and heart, it's really all over the place in ways that no major movie has been in some time. Certainly not lacking in ideas or scope, it feels like a BBC mini-series that should be 6 hours long but instead lasts 2 1/2. It's a massive stew made of beef, carrots, potatoes, broccoli, liver, donuts, pepperoni, chili peppers, Marshmallow Peeps and Captain Crunch... well, you get the idea. It demands you pay strict attention to everything that's going on (which is never a bad thing), but when a film is almost all plot, plot, plot, even the smartest of us can get lost. Before the film started, Fantastic Fest founder Tim League announced to the audience that if they had to go to the can then they should go now, because the film was long and if they left at any point they might get lost when they return. You make an announcement like that, it should really come across as a warning of sorts (and knowing Tim, it may well have been) and though I confess to having to make wee at one point, I doubt that was the reason I wasn't quite getting it all down. To quote The Beatles, it's all too much for me to take.

But within the parameters of this (or I would think any) review of SOUTHLAND TALES, I have to take my hat off to Kelly simply for attempting such a massive project in the first place. It's always possible that 25 years down the line we may all be talking about what a misunderstood masterpiece SOUTHLAND TALES was, so let me cover my ass a little and applaud Kelly for shooting for the moon while so many other films barely even try. You wish you liked it more, wished that it worked and that you could say that your patience was rewarded by film's end but that just isn't it, I'm afraid. In attempting to tell the tale of the end of the world in 2008 Los Angeles, Kelly has truly bitten off more than he can chew; he's got ideas, theories, and creative impulses that work only in spurts and don't make for a cohesive whole. The film is one part drama, one part science fiction, one part satire, one part action and none of them are satisfying. Allow me this one example: Dwayne Johnson (who's very good here) plays an action movie star who suffers from amnesia who shacks up with Sarah Michelle Gellar, a former porn star. Johnson's character is actually being used as a puppet by two sides of the political spectrum who want him as a spokesperson for their cause (both of which have become radicalized due to further terrorist attacks in the U.S. and extensions of the Patriot Act). Throughout the course of the story, he becomes involved with time travel, political assassination, crooked cops, Mandy Moore (OK, that part's not so bad), suicide bombings and a barrage of other events that are simply too much for one movie, much less one character. Johnson's performance is actually pretty brave in that he also takes chances and isn't afraid of looking silly, even stupid, but for someone who is supposed to be the center of the movie, it's impossible to truly embrace his character if he's always being shuffled around. He's the hero, we get that much, but by film's end how much do we actually know about him? I honestly don't know. There's a lot of that throughout SOUTHLAND TALES.

So the film's failings are in all the big stuff, but there are small surprises throughout and people who enjoy seeing insane movie casts will find SOUTHLAND TALES to be their film of the year. I always love it when two actors of differing types share the screen and here we get Johnson opposite Zelda Rubenstein, Christopher Lambert with Cheri O'Terri, Wallace Shawn and Bai Ling all among the wild combos. Certain scenes work very well, such as a pair of musical numbers (one of which has Justin Timberlake lip-syncing to The Killers), enough to bring you back into the film's groove and appreciate, even if it is for a short period of time, what Kelly is trying to do. And I have to respect him for at least trying to address our post-9/11 world in a manner that attempts to entertain as well as intrigue, but if he had found a way to reign it all in (even after he continued to edit after his disastrous 2006 Cannes screening) he might have truly had something. What's he's got is basically like another DUNE, although not as good; something too big and sloppy to pin down but too much movie to dismiss. A disappointment? Sure. But I'd take this kind of disappointment over standard movie mediocrity any day of the week.

PS - I happend to be sitting next to Kelley at our big festival excursion to Smitty's in Lockhart before the movie and spoke to him for a bit. Very nice fellow, and he seemed to take the film's more-subdued-than-usual-for-an-Ain't-It-Cool-News-screening reaction fairly well.

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