Sunday, May 4, 2008

"Southland Tales"

2006; written and directed by Richard Kelly

It's hard not to open up a review of Richard Kelly's second film without mentioning his first, Donnie Darko. Released a few months after 9/11, Darko's strange and swirling mix of time travel, teen tragedy and a giant rabbit named Frank was just not the movie America wanted to see at that point in history. Even given the presence of an unknown Jake Gyllenhaal in what is still one of his best and most appealing roles.

But time passed and the film caught on after its DVD release, becoming a cult hit that challenged viewers to solve the puzzle inside a high-school romance within a satire that was all part of a larger and lovingly recreated late-eighties period piece. What audiences ignored shortly after 9/11 became, a year or two later, a very necessary and relevant film for a lot of people in their twenties and thirties.

So it's difficult to dismiss Southland Tales as a fractured and uneven piece of political criticism and speculative storytelling, put together by a hot young writer/director who suddenly found himself the Next Big Thing with a budget to match. Even though it is all of those things.

The film opens with the 2005 nuclear bombing of Abilene, Texas, but takes place three years later in a 2008 that is both comfortably familiar and eerily different. America the brave has become a country where governments and corporations profit from a climate of fear. Interstate visas are required of all travelers, black-clad cops roam the streets of Los Angeles, and a new federal entity, USIdent, now patrols television and the Internet in an effort to combat terrorism.

Dwayne Johnson, AKA "The Rock," plays a movie star named Boxer Santaros who's married to a woman with strong connections to the Republican party. Only he's been missing for three days and has a girlfriend, Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Geller) who's a porn star with a public access TV show and a thriller script she's shopping around town.

Meanwhile, a radical left group known as the New Marxists has kidnapped one of the new cops named Roland Taverner, played by Sean William Scott, who also plays Roland's twin brother Ronald. Oh, and there's a new source of energy powered by ocean waves called "Liquid Karma" that has also become a hot new street drug.

And there's a presidential election going on. And a conspiracy to release video of Boxer and his girlfriend. And the whole thing is narrated by Justin Timberlake, playing a wounded Iraq War vet.

Or at least, I think so.

Through most of Southland Tales I felt like I was seeing a fantastic mess unspool in front of me. It was strange and beautiful and smart, like a date with a hottie who's a great conversationalist but doesn't always make sense and might just be more than a little crazy.

At times, I felt like Kelly wanted me to feel like I was watching a David Lynch film -- specifically Mulholland Drive, which also takes place in Los Angeles, plays with time shifts and dual identities, creates a mood of accelerating dread, and features a vocal performance by Rebecca del Rio. At others I saw glimpses of The Fifth Element, Soylent Green and Network.

It's not a film for everyone. But as a friend of mine occasionally says, "If you like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like." And I did.

Yes, to some Southland Tales might seem like a picture put together from the parts of two or more separate jigsaw puzzles. (It's not an unfair criticism). But just as psychologists say that fear and excitement are two different responses to the same stimulus, so too is your reaction to Southland Tales. You may find it confusing or mysterious, sharply observed or blunt, surprising or bumpy. So much depends upon who you are and what kind of mood you're in when you see it.

One thing that's clear: Kelly's obsessions are on full display in Southland Tales, and some of them make Donnie Darko's questions about time travel seem like high-school stuff. Politics and the drive for power, entertainment and the desire for fame, the existence of the soul, personal freedom versus safety, even a character that gets shot in the eye like Frank the giant rabbit -- they're all here, writhing together beneath the heat of the California sun and under the eye of a vast and chaotic universe.

The cast -- led by Dwayne Johnson looking like he just stepped out of a video game, and Seann William Scott looking better than I've ever seen him -- is largely made up of a dozen familiar faces from television sketch comedy shows: Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri, Nora Dunn, Will Sasso and John Lovitz, just to name a few. I have to wonder why Kelly chose these actors to people his universe. Is he making a statement about the improvisational nature of political actions and their responses, a comment on the humorous nature of life during even the most troubling times, or merely saying the joke is on us?

Like so much about Southland Tales, I don't know the answer to that. I may have to see it again to make up my mind. Or a third time, or even a fourth.

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