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Sarah Michelle GellarSarah Michelle Gellar - "Southland Tales" Movie - Salon.com Review
Saturday 3 June 2006, by Webmaster
As with most Cannes films, it’s not fair to write a full review of a film that Americans won’t see for many months; Kelly doesn’t even have a U.S. distributor at this writing. But given the spreading mood of disagreement here, it’s impossible to resist a few comments about this bewildering, overcooked and sporadically dazzling motion picture. "Southland Tales" is one of those movies that require extensive voice-over narration (by Justin Timberlake, I think) and complicated on-screen titles involving Roman numerals to get the audience situated and the story started. But the narration never goes away! And the first Roman numeral we see is IV! This is apparently because the first chunks of the story exist only in Kelly’s three prequel graphic novels (which may or may not actually exist).
It’s possible, even likely, that Kelly intends "Southland Tales" partly as a takedown of the prepackaged prequel-sequel fantasy industry, a running deconstruction of everything from "Star Wars" to "The Matrix" as soul-draining pseudo-narratives. There are moments when his satirical intention seems to shine through, as when Sarah Michelle Gellar, who plays the leader of a gang of porn stars (and performer of the hit song "Teen Horniness Is Not a Crime"), starts a Venice Beach bar fight that resembles the cheesiest moments of reality TV, and when the "neo-Marxist resistance" seeking to bring down the U.S. government turns out to be a handful of incompetent losers with an ice cream truck. They are described as "the last vestiges of the Democratic Party," and I don’t guess Al Gore would be terribly happy about that.
But the tone of "Southland Tales" is never remotely clear, and a lot of it is simply muddled, static and boring. Is it an elegy for a dying planet? A kitsch-riddled spoof? An attempt to infuse the action movie with the deadpan pop nihilism of Godard? I really have no idea. Furthermore, he’s constantly playing narrative catch-up, inserting awkward scenes where characters lock their knees and fill in some crucial background in stilted conversation. (And every so often, there’s more Timberlake.) You see, it’s 2008, and good Lord, a lot has happened in two years.
Somebody, although we never learn who, has attacked Texas with a nuke. Some baron (Wallace Shawn) who looks like a minor character from David Lynch’s "Dune" has invented a perpetual-motion machine that solves the American energy problem and will fuel ongoing wars in Iraq and Syria. The only downside to this new technology, it seems, is planetary insanity and a widening rift in the space-time continuum that may lead to the destruction of the world. Oh, darn!
Believe me, all that is much, much clearer laid out like that than it ever is in the film. An action star named Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) has foreseen the coming end of days in a screenplay he wrote with his porn-star girlfriend, Krysta Now (Gellar), and is wandering around Los Angeles acting like a nut job and reciting passages from the Book of Revelation. But Boxer is actually married to some other chick who’s the daughter of a famous evil senator and the witchy head of the new super-spy agency that has replaced all U.S. law enforcement, and Krysta, despite being a dumb bimbo, is tight with the lovable losers of the neo-Marxist underground. So there’s a problem of some sort and a bunch of characters we don’t know or care about get killed and Seann William Scott plays twin-brother cops, one good and one evil, or something like that.
There’s a giant zeppelin on its maiden voyage (and we know what happens to those). There’s a magic flying ice cream truck, fueled by the collapsing fourth dimension. There’s a music video by Timberlake, which is actually pretty hot but has nothing to do with anything else in the movie. There are plentiful references to the apocalyptic noir classic "Kiss Me Deadly," and a general aroma of "Robocop"/"Blade Runner" rip-off. There’s Boxer and Krysta’s clairvoyant film script (although we never hear or see any of it), and for some reason there’s a lot of discussion about sucking dick, although unlike in Mitchell’s film, we don’t see it happen.
I might not care about the incomprehensible plot, larded with biblical quotations and unspecific intimations of doom, and I might be willing to accept that Kelly has some kind of Godardian pomo deconstructionist hoo-ha in mind, if I ever believed he were in control of his material. But I think back to the pitch-perfect suburban surrealism of "Donnie Darko" and just feel sad. This is an overamped, lumpy, jumpy film that never establishes either its plot or its characters clearly, and the dialogue is often cringe-inducingly bad.
Yes, there are moments of pure visual magic here, and the scope of imagination and ambition at work in "Southland Tales" is everything you would expect. If Kelly recuts this, takes out all the nonsense and releases it as an experimental, almost wordless, nonnarrative film (at, say, 90 minutes) it might become a rare and beautiful thing. As it is now, it’s about the biggest, ugliest mess I’ve ever seen.