Skip to main content

We're going to take the ATM machine with us to Mexico.

Southland Tales
(2006)

(SPOILERS) Richard Kelly’s (kind of) post-apocalyptic smorgasbord of science-fiction, politics, music and musing was memorably lambasted at Cannes in its unexpurgated three-hour form and subsequently mauled by critics and shunned by audiences. Check its IMDB score for confirmation that most are not on board with recognising it as a misunderstood classic. And that’s fair. A classic Southland Tales is not. On top of which, it’s certainly unrefined in some of its targets (Jonathan Ross labelled it “a bad, overlong student film” and there’s something of that messy over eagerness in its scattershot approach). This is, undoubtedly, an instant cult movie; indeed, Kelly could be argued to have self-consciously made a cult movie, always a dangerous intent. A cult movie which simply has too much going on to be rebuffed as “bad”, for all the hit-and-miss, slipshod structure and motive that even an insistently expositional narration fails to remedy. A mess, definitely, but an intermittently dazzling one.

Kelly was, of course, the bright young thing who made instant classic (and cult classic) Donnie Darko at only twenty-five years of age. Such achievement – one hesitates to burden it with Orson-ian comparisons – tends to beget a brutal downfall. It took five years for follow-up Southland Tales to arrive, during which time a director’s cut of Donnie Darko surfaced that managed to make most of us seriously question whether they were wrong about the writer-director, so wrong-headed and misconceived was it with regard to all the right-headed and strongly conceived choices in the theatrical version.

Southland Tales seemed to compound that, emphasising that Kelly was geared to indulge himself, fostering too much of too much, lacking the wherewithal to refine, filter and condense his ideas. The result was a confusion of them, rather than an embarrassment of riches (you can see this in his expansive multimedia designs for Southland Tales and the inclusion of The Philosophy of Time Travel in the Donnie Darko Director’s Cut). Perhaps that’s why he seemed to go in the reverse direction with The Box, adapting fairly straightforward Richard Matheson story Button, Button, which had already been turned into a succinct Twilight Zone episode. I liked that movie, but many did not, for whom it confirmed Kelly as a hubristic one-hit wonder, duly deserving to be cast out into the wilderness, never to come near a film camera again.

As such, his evident talents many seem have frequently been written off; I have hopes he may yet – Richard Stanley-like, only hopefully with a worthier movie – return. There are a several significant problems with the version of Southland Tales we have, even if neither is ultimately a deal breaker. The first is the worst, because when it’s at the forefront of the narrative, it’s inescapable and rather irksome. This is the aspect that makes Ross’ “student film” charge seem justified: Kelly’s shameless politicking. Apparently, he completed the first draft in 1999 (which would make him only just an ex-student, pretty much) but rewrote in the light of 911. Accordingly, it brings in such motifs and themes as police state/Homeland Security and alternative fuel, along with celebrity and its links with politics: “It’s political and it’s aggressive and it’s confrontational”. Which is exactly what a student would say.

Some of these ideas are quite cogent, and while OTT then, now seem entirely plausible, such as the UPU2 lookout tower/ gun emplacements bearing down on what is otherwise a business-as-usual Venice Beach. The garish crossover of celebrity and politics – although the porn star business may be a lurid step too far – is closer to The Running Man than anything that has come to pass, but Kelly’s thinking in the right direction with the blurring of media lines. And if he misses the commoditisation of the “green” movement, that’s generally the case with his getting caught up in the immediacy of current events rather than extrapolating the broader machinations behind them. Instead he offers the extravagant Fluid Karma energy source, an organic compound found beneath the Earth’s mantle (I’ve seen it suggested this idea is Tesla-ish, but I’m struggling there). Fluid karma is the creation of your classic mad scientist, one who wants to cause the end of the world by slowing the Earth’s rotation (and opening rifts in the space-time continuum). And also experiment on soldiers along the way (such as with, say, anthrax vaxs).

In other words, Kelly’s future global situation is quite compartmentalised. He can see an alternative technology making it to the public without suppression. Like Kubrick, he focuses on the potential terrors of a nuclear disaster rather than its use as a (then) sixty-year operation for instilling and propagating fear. He features some greedy, objectionable politicians, but the buck rather stops there. Worse, he makes a cardinal error of precise topicality, one Robert Zemeckis already succumbed to – for CGI-fiddly reasons mainly – in Contact: inserting a then-present President into his SF fantasy. There’s much concomitant commentary on Iraq and Middle Eastern conflict, but with hindsight, it seems little different to the kind of trendy concern all of Hollywood was showing (look at George Clooney, one of the most witless lackeys of the NWO ever, going all out). USIDent monitors the Internet, there are homegrown Neo-Marxists (now, this might have been resonant had Kelly identified them as government-created) and an election that seems, on some level, to believe party lines actually matter.

On the other hand, Kelly has created a wilfully dense, opaque narrative that requires considerable additional research to gain head or tail of. Much of the conversation revolves around the screenplay for The Power, a true story of the end of the world written by psychic porn star space case Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). In this screenplay, Kelly is mapping out The Book of Revelation, which Southland Tales the movie is also doing. So what’s the significance of this? There isn’t any. It’s just clever. And neat. And possibly – probably, since there’s a hefty dose of A Scanner Darkly in here, and Jon Lovitz’ policeman says “Flow my tears” at one point – highly indebted to Philip K Dick, for whom the barriers between created literature and reality were very, very blurred (I’m still wading through his Exegesis. I may be some time). That, and the retroactive time travel.

Then there’s the ice cream truck taking to the skies, an obvious homage to the peerless Repo Man – another movie heavily into nuke riffs, although much more wittily – and the character in Krysta’s screenplay being called Jericho Cane (entirely coincidentally, or was it, I watched End of Days the day before revisiting Southland Tales), the TS Elliot-quoting Pilot Abilene, and USIDent employee protective clothing that is straight out of Gilliam. It is possible to be over-referential. Jesus wins in the end, apparently – as signified by Boxer’s bleeding tattoo – which makes me wonder if Ronald/Roland, as Christ figures, represent Rudolf Steiner’s two Jesuses. 

I mentioned two problems. The second is that Southland Tales, in its ramshackle, uncoordinated way, needed to be a lot looser and irreverent to land successfully: an heir to the likes of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and Big Trouble in Little China. I’d say it’s closer to something like Wrong is Right/The Man with the Deadly Lens, itself a Dr. Strangelove imitator and extremely scrappy; Southland Tales is much better directed, but it takes pot shots in every which direction and only some of them get anywhere near their targets. And yet, you can see how tightly Kelly controls his vision on every level, which means that, while it doesn’t get there on its own terms, Southland Tales is often an entrancing film simply to watch.

There’s a quote that Kelly wanted to cast actors to showcase their “undiscovered talents”, but I find that very hard to believe for the most part. I’ll grant you Seann William Scott, who’s a standout in his twin roles and never once reminds you of the more comedic roles for which he’d been typecast. And Mandy Moore is a convincingly bitchy senator’s daughter. But Sarah Michelle Gellar as a porn star just shows her range ain’t all that, while Dwayne Johnson has repeatedly shown that his is meagre (I’d put Dave Bautista, John Cena and Jesse Ventura ahead of him; hell, even Roddy Piper, in the wrestler turned actor stakes). Johnson does some “innocent” shtick he recently used again in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but he isn’t fooling anyone.

Justin Timberlake, I’ll grant you, is pretty good, although his role is mostly voiceover (and miming to The Killers). As an ex Mouseketeer, he knows what it’s like to be MKUltra’d, so perhaps Pilot Abilene was close to his heart. I’ve too often been aware of Timberlake rather than an actual character in his performances, but this is something of an exception. Jon Lovitz also plays up his sinister side, always there in his comic performances, to good effect. But the likes of the great and diminutive Wallace Shawn – he even exclaims “Preposterous!” at one point – Bai Ling, John Larroquette, Curtis Armstrong, Nora Dunn and Zelda Rubeinstein are delivering exactly what you’d expect. As is Christopher Lambert as an arms dealer in an ice-cream truck. Miranda Richardson is also exactly what you’d expect by being really good, while Eli Roth gets killed on a toilet. Which is inevitable someday. Oh, and Kevin Smith in prosthetics. With a beard.

Perhaps if Southland Tales’ heavy emphasis on reacting to the world around it had led to real prescience, it might have been re-evaluated by this point. Unfortunately, it largely feels stuck in the groove of whatever it was ruminating on back then, a decade and a half ago. Yes, the police state mentality has gone through the roof, but Kelly is strangely too unwilling to slay sacred cows, or even to try tipping them. Nevertheless, Southland Tales is unique, and even the fact that it’s pseudishly setting out to be can’t get away from the fact that Kelly is a first-rate filmmaker. I’d like to see his director’s cut of this one.



Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.