Tuesday, April 15, 2008

WORST MONTH EVER: Worst of 2007 (Part II)

You know that person who can't seem to utter one word that's not drenched in sarcasm? And this sarcasm isn't even the funny kind, but rather just the way they know how to talk? Southland Tales is this person, and it's just one of the movie's maddening shortcomings that add up to make it one of the worst movies of the year, and one of the biggest disappointments in a long time. At some point in time I was excited about this movie, and why not -- it would be director Richard Kelly's long-awaited follow-up to his breakthrough Donnie Darko, with a bigger budget and cast. Donnie Darko worked because it combined an intriguing web of science fiction with a youthful late 80s innocence, against the backdrop of a wonderful soundtrack and numerous memorable scenes. I'd like to believe that at some point Southland Tales had a few of these same qualities, starting with a good sci-fi story, but in Kelly's attempt to add socially relevant themes and quirky characters and ideas, the project was slowly distilled into pure, unintelligible garbage.

If you make it to the end of Southland Tales, there's a few sci-fi story elements that come together somewhat and may pique your interest, but many people will turn the movie off after two hours of watching The Rock trying to act confused, Cheri O'Teri waiting for something funny to say and Justin Timberlake waiting for his video inside the movie to begin. There's also a lot of news reports desperately trying to add sight gags (such as gratuitous Bud Light sponsorship, which is frequently revealed to look just like water ) and many attempts at porn jokes. Somewhere under all of this is a movie about a mysterious, fantastic new energy source that promises to revolutionize the world, and the hope and paranoia that spring from it. But this represents ultimately such a small part of the movie, and is buried under attempted political commentary, bad jokes and lots of yelling. Through all this, Kelly has made the decision to have all the dialogue and action done in a half-hearted Christopher Guest kind of constant satire, and it never works. You feel like the characters want to say something clever, but there's nothing there -- and the few times a promising joke comes up, it's mostly ruined by bad timing.

After reading the multitude of bad reviews this movie received, I was still interested to see it because of Kelly, who I thought had a long career ahead of him. Now? Outlook not so clear. Shooting on Southland Tales was delayed over a year, and by the time it premiered at Cannes 2006 Kelly still had unfinished special effects that required more money. Distributor Sony agreed to give Kelly more funds in exchange for cutting down on the film's length (originally 160 minutes trimmed to 141), but the final effects still look mostly terrible. Kelly started writing the project shortly before 9/11, but radically changed it after the attacks. What was once about blackmail, a porn star and a few cops had morphed into a six-part sci-fi saga and (in Kelly's words) "a musical in a post-modern sense of the word in that it is a hybrid of several genres. There will be some dancing and singing, but it will be incorporated into the story in very logical scenarios as well as fantasy dream environments." Told in six parts, the final three would be Southland Tales and the first three published as graphic novels.

Kelly's project didn't cost anyone too much money, but the director himself may bear the most pain as he obviously had plenty of pride and imagination invested here. Most disappointing to his fans is the fact that Kelly's memorable style from Donnie Darko is mostly absent in Southland Tales. One of the few recognizable traits of the director contained in the movie is his eye for oddball casting: Wallace Shawn, Curtis Armstrong and Zelda Rubenstein all get plenty of screen time -- and is that Christopher Fucking Lambert driving an ice cream truck full of guns? Okay. Donnie Darko had Patrick Swayze and Katharine Ross, but those choices seemed to make sense with the overall tone of the movie -- having Curtis Armstrong stand in the background as a would-be henchman just feels dumb.

If there's one element of Southland Tales that tells you everything you need to know about what kind of movie it is, consider its closing line: "He's a pimp, and pimps don't commit suicide."


Andy Nowicki said...

I tried to watch this movie, but it seemed like it was going to become a pain in the @ss to have to follow, so I stopped after about 30 minutes. I may try again sometime, but I'm not sure.

As an English teacher, I was interested in all of the Eliot/Frost references. Any idea what that was all about?

Adam Ross said...

The presidential duo goes by that name, but I can't remember any allusions to their poet namesakes. Then again, I'm not much of a poetry expert. I think it's safe to say you didn't miss much.

Andy Nowicki said...

There were at least two references to T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost. The narrator (Timberlake with a fake Southern accent) makes reference to the famous line from Eliot's "The Hollow Men," "This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper." And some other character (I had trouble following who everybody was) recites the final stanza of Frost's "The Road Less Travelled" at a meeting of some kind.

What I was wondering was whether the filmmaker was using these poets' words in some clever or meaningful way, or if it was just a case of literary references for literary references' sake. I'm inclined to think the latter, though I really can't justifiably condemn the movie as pretentious crap, since I haven't watched it all the way through to confirm my suspicion that it is.

Mobile said...

I'm not much of a poetry expert. I think it's safe to say you didn't miss much.

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