Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Weird, Dark And Complicated, Southland Tales Might Be The Best Political Film In Years.

The Good: Pleasantly weird, An amazing cast, Surprisingly good acting
The Bad: Light on bonus features/No director's cut
The Basics: Delightfully confusing, but with the realistic complications of a vast network of individuals acting on their own motivations, Southland Tales mystifies its way to success.

When it comes to watching new films, there are very few films I want to see without knowing something about them on one level or another. Life is too short to waste my time with lousy movies (though, strangely, when it comes to new films, I seem to be willing to sit through anything I can screen for free), so I usually like going into movies knowing something about them. The exception to that is when there is a director I trust. If a film is good enough, it "buys" my immediate interest in the writer/director's next film. So, for example, P.T. Anderson and Terry Gilliam get my money consistently because they have both made films which are perfect. So, when I saw and enjoyed Donnie Darko (reviewed here!), writer and director Richard Kelly instantly earned my attention for his film Southland Tales.

Truth be told, getting Southland Tales out from my local library was not a random thing. I wanted to see Southland Tales, because I had followed the tumultuous history of its production. The SciFi Wire reported extensively on the problems Richard Kelly was having in getting the film released and I was completely fascinated about it. Unfortunately, the SciFi Wire upgraded to a more flashy, Flash-based system that takes forever to load on my computer (or crashes it altogether), so I never learned how the problems were resolved and that the film hit theaters. As a result, I was pleased to get this in and watch it.

Southland Tales, which had a plot that I knew nothing about in advance, is just what I would have expected by the writer and director of Donnie Darko. Richard Kelly both wrote and directed Southland Tales and it is stylish, weird and smart. It is like a postapocalyptic story that mixes Dark City (reviewed here!) and Mulholland Drive. Usually, if I figure out what other movies a film is like, I tend not to enjoy it, but Southland Tales got me into it right away.

Following a nuclear attack in Texas in 2005, the United States goes to war throughout the Middle East and Asia. As the wars rage on, the oil supply is so compromised that alternative fuel research becomes a real, vital and immediate need. The United States fractures over opposing viewpoints and the 2008 election hinges entirely on California's electoral college votes. In order to influence the 2008 election, a network of seemingly unrelated people attempt to affect vice presidential candidate Senator Bobby Frost.

This takes the form of Frost's son-in-law, actor Boxer Santaros waking up with amnesia and taking up with porn star Krysta Now, who is trying to sell a reality show. Boxer is manipulated through an encounter which puts him at an apparent crime scene where a racist cop shoots two people and he suffers a psychotic break. But the wrong cop is actually the twin brother of a man close to the conspirators. As he and Boxer each try to figure out what the agenda is of the neo-Marxists, the creator of an energy source called Fluid Karma and a pilot who has gone missing (and probably crazy) they both find themselves running for their lives or beaten on by friends and enemies alike.

Sound weird? It is. Does the plot summary read as confusing enough that you're still not really sure what the movie is about? Well, then, you're on the same page as virtually everyone else who has seen the movie. Southland Tales is a trippy film (the story takes an abrupt stop to have Private Pilot Abilene, the missing pilot) experience a drug trip music video which arguably has nothing to do with the rest of the film. This is a movie that puts style in front of comprehension and it does that magnificently, though it is presented with voiceovers which explain a lot of the most basic plot points. The only real issue viewers are likely to have is with figuring out how what they are told relates to what they are seeing on screen at any given moment.

Fortunately, there are answers, but the viewer must be patient for them and they have to put up with a lot of technobabble to get there. The film is deeply concerned with politics in one scene - not just American electoral politics, but radical feminism and antiwar messages - and alternate realities in another. Throughout the film, the government is painted as a nefarious spying organization which has taken over the Internet as best it can. And with the mix of advertising saturation, violent crime and the creation of a feasible pop culture in this altered United States, this all seems real . . . when it is not being completely surreal.

Part of what makes it work is the amazing cast. In addition to great character actors like Wallace Shawn and Miranda Richardson and dignified mainstays like John Larroquette and Seann William Scott (who is plausibly dark and humorless in his part), the cast is driven by unlikely cast members who give great performances. Bai Ling has a weird, minor role which she carries wonderfully and Mandy Moore's few scenes have her portraying a character who seems about as confused as the audience. Even Sarah Michelle Gellar gives a decent performance, though she is playing a somewhat over-the-top ridiculous porn star.

The true acting surprise comes from none other than Dwayne Johnson. Johnson plays Boxer and he has an unlikely sensibility to his performance in this. Instead of playing the heavy, he plays a realistically confused man, damaged by the machinations he is a pawn in. What makes his performance so good is his body language. When menaced, Boxer has a nervous tick and it is weird, consistent and well-conceived.

On DVD, there is only a featurette on the government spy network and an animated short. They are cool, but viewers who either enjoy or don't understand the film are likely to want quite a bit more.

Amid spiritualism, alternate energy sources, drug use and government spying, there is a story in Southland Tales. But to understand it all is likely to take multiple viewings and the film does not fall into any easy niches. As a result, it becomes difficult to discuss. Those who like science fiction with political depth and movies that are surreal, like those of David Lynch, are likely to love this film. I'm one who likes dramas to have a story and character development, but when there's enough to come back to because I didn't understand all the layers, that's a rare thing. Southland Tales is one such film and I'm looking forward to my next viewings, though honestly, I am hoping there comes a time when a director's cut with Kelly's true, original vision, becomes available. I'm betting it wouldn't have the explanations and lacking the voiceovers, it's quite possible the movie becomes even more ambiguous. I could live with that.

For other trippy films, please check out my reviews of:
Sucker Punch
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus


For other movie reviews, be sure to check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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