Posted by: kfugrip | January 9, 2008

One hundred nineteen: Southland Tales


Southland Tales, written and directed by Richard Kelly, was a film that made it onto my “10 movies to see this fall/winter list”. I’ve been aware of the film since reading out it online and one of my former S.C.A.D. classmates, Brett Weldele, drew the prequel comics and he’s a badass. Though I wasn’t a big Donnie Darko fan, the film was filled with interesting visuals and I was looking forward to Kelly‘s follow-up. Here it is.

Southland Tales is an indescribable mess of a movie that involves the apocalypse, religious imagery, porn stars, and militant leftists. Read this for a “synopsis” if you’re curious how someone that isn’t me would describe it.

What I liked: There are some interesting and memorable visual moments in the film. The glowing ice cream truck floating with a man standing on it and a giant blimp in the background. That’s a unique visual. I really like the idea of taking a drug and being the star of your own musical number as your drug-induced-fantasy. The fact that said drug induced fantasy, from a war vet/good-ole-boy involves drinking a can of beer was perfect. I like a lot of the ideas in this film. They would work perfectly in a comic book because the images and meandering plot translate better in the longer, drawn, form.

The opening of the film, with a faux home video showing the mushroom cloud dropped in the distance was an inventive and powerful way to begin the movie. Another powerful visual.

What I didn’t like: Where to begin…? First I’ll say that the synopsis that I wanted to give for this movie is: Southland Tales is a case study in bad decisions and what-not-to-do. It should be avoided at all costs, even as a warning.

The biggest reason that this film fails is casting. I wouldn’t say this film was cast against type so much as it was cast with no idea of how people work together. I hate the term chemistry but the chemistry in this film is non-existent. Most of these people aren’t good actors anyway so turning them lose in this convoluted mess was a mistake. The Rock works as an action star, because he is, but he’s the only accurate casting. An argument could be made that Bai Ling was well cast but she’s a nothing character, a device to exude cigarette smoke and exaggerated dance moves, not a character at all. An extension of the casting was the performance choices, and by that I include directorial input. The performances display no subtext. If there was any subtext then Kelly seems to have told the actors to play that as close to the surface as possible. Cheri Oteri and Jon Lovitz are shining examples of shallow performance in this movie and it doesn’t help that their character’s depth is nonexistent.

One of the bigger distractions in the film is the sudden appearance and repetition of the Rock’s twitching fingers. It’s a mannerism and I think that Kelly and the Rock have mistaken mannerism for performance or character. Apparently when Boxer Santaros (the Rock) is nervous he taps his fingertips together in front of his chest. Is this an intro to theater class or a feature film? It appears to me (though I was not present during the shooting of the film) as though the actor came up with the mannerism (“I’ve got an idea. Why don’t I do this…”) and the director though it was a good idea (it’s not) and decided to let him do it in ever scene. Why would you do this as a director? He must have thought that it was revealing and interesting to have his character display a mannerism lifted out of the silent era. It may seem like I’m nitpicking but this is a microcosm of decisions made throughout the film.

I sense an attempt at “coolness” in the film. I hate when a director (or writer or actor) tries to make something “cool”. What often happens is, like the nerd character who comes to school in a leather jacket with his hair greased back, it comes off as disingenuous. I can hear the director on set saying to himself, “that’s cool”. I’m sure that Kelly thought it was cool when Bai Ling‘s character has smoke coming out of her mouth in every shot during a long shot-reverse-shot sequence with the Rock. It’s not cool, it’s distracting and irritating. If he was shooting for camp, then he’s on the right track but you can’t then try to have serious melodramatic moments. It’s a balancing act that Kelly doesn’t have the skills to pull off at this point.

While I like many of the visuals in this film, the physical graphics involved in the opening and any technological element (like a newscast or the ) was ugly. I think I read that there were budgetary constraints but that’s no excuse and neither is satire (or camp). The two SUVs having sex is a funny idea but was one of the worst animations I’ve ever seen. It takes me out of the movie when the visual effects are so amateurish. The faux metal graphics and overly busy designs in the exposition heavy opening almost caused me to leave but I knew that I couldn’t write about the film accurately if I were to leave so early.

The attempts at pop culture satire in the film were juvenile and obvious. Even the use of pop culture phrases like calling oneself a pimp was off. It would have been more interesting if the Rock was a pimp, so when he says that he’s a pimp and pimps don’t kill themselves it actually has some resonance. There isn’t a single moment in Southland Tales that Boxer Santaros acts like a metaphorical pimp. He has sex with a porn star… that’s as close as we get to seeing the character as anything more than a series of takes and mannerisms. Again, we are seeing the most shallow of cuts into what people are like when we watch the characters parade on the screen here.

The ending, with it’s forced symbolism and heavy, heavy, exposition, was anticlimactic to say the least. I appreciate an Altman-esque convergence of characters at the end of a film, in fact I love it, and while the elements were in place for Southland Tales to have an interesting ending to the convoluted mess, it failed. Even the tracking shot (could have been steady-cam) through the well dressed party guests aboard the zeppelin, was poorly done, giving us no sense of what these people are about or what kind of world they inhabit. Shots like that, long takes through crowds, are famous for setting up worlds with the visuals and the snippets of conversation we catch. Kelly didn’t pull it off. The only thing I remember from that shot is Bai Ling dancing before the camera takes off through the crowd.

I could probably go on about the details of the film that bothered me for another 1000 words but I think that it all comes down to casting and the director’s decision making. If you recast the film it doesn’t make it a good film but perhaps it taps into the Thomas Pynchon-like enormity of the subject matter by taking away the distraction of seeing Cheri Oteri, Jon Lovitz, Wallace Shawn, Sean William Scott, etc… as characters that manage to be bizarre but not interesting.

I considered raising all of my netflix ratings by 1 star so that this movie, along with Boondock Saints, could occupy a spot as worst movies I’ve ever seen. Of course I’ll not do that because it’s a bit extreme (only a bit though). Watching Southland Tales has made me want to see some movies I would normally never see (like: In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale or National Treasure II) in an effort to gage how bad Southland Tales is within the context of similar films (if there are any films similar to Southland Tales).




  1. I still don’t understand the hate on Boondock. I get that the director’s an ass, and some…most…of the action sequences are way over the top, some of it is pretty disjointed, and there is nothing remotely special about the cinematography, and even a borderline offensive character from Willem Dafoe, but as a kick ass revenge movie, it suffices. Its not deserving of any academy awards, but come on, worst movie of all time?

    I’ve asked you this in person and your head almost exploded, so I thought I’d ask on your blog. That way I’m not there to acknowledge the head shaking ignoring of the question.

  2. It has been awhile since I’ve seen that piece of garbage (Boondock Saints) so it would be difficult to give you a solid, point-by-point breakdown of what is so terrible about it. I love that in your defense of the movie you are basically an apologist, listing things that are terrible about the movie and then saying ‘but’, followed by “it’s not the worst movie of all time”. I find that funny and emblematic of what is wrong with that movie when someone defending it provides fodder for criticism.
    That said, why do I say it’s the worst movie of all time? Well, because the entire movie is set up to be “cool”. Two scenes that I remember, Dafoe’s character at the scene of the crime, listening to classical music, and deduces what happened and the scene where the two heroes fall through ceiling and while dangling, shoot a room full of guys. Both of these scenes were written to be “cool”. They aren’t, however, and I will go ahead and say that anything that tries really hard to be cool. There is a difference between a cool scene coming organically out of the story, and writing a scene to be cool.
    Also, Ron Jeremy is in this movie. You know that the writer/director thought that was “cool”. I can just hear him saying to the casting department “I want Ron Jeremy for this part. It’ll be awesome.”. Not only is that kind of stunt casting distracting and stupid but Ron Jeremy is a terrible actor and his part is awful, a non-performance.
    So, basically the Boondock Saints is the opposite of everything that I stand for as a storyteller. Worst movie, ever.

  3. I understand where you are going with the “trying to be cool” rather than “just being cool” thing. But as with many things, that really is a matter of perception.

    I loved the classical music crime scene. Thought it was brilliant and cool.

    The dangling from the ceiling and shooting everybody in the room I thought was a clear departure from the other action sequences in the movie because its a joke. They have been arguing about the rope being useless, then they comically fall into the room, the rope saves them, and the intense slow motion sequence begins. The whole sequence is a joke.

    That being said. The director is an ass. He does very much “think that he’s cool”, so to say that the film felt like it was trying to be cool is not a surprise. Probably not everyone can pick up on that like you can. I certainly didn’t. Anyway, for me, it succeeded. I did in fact think it was cool.

  4. I don’t care about the director being an ass (which he is and that film, Overnight, about him is good). I think you’re giving him too much credit in any case, in particular with the “dangling” scene. It’s not a joke, there is no irony in the movie, though he does make jokes (Dafoe calling his lover a bitch… or something like that), the scene is intended to be a serious action sequence and really cool… see… because they fall into the scene… see… and then it’s all slow motion… see… and they kill all the gangsters… sweeeeet.

    I hate it. At least with Southland Tales there is a mind at work behind the movie, not a jug of beer.

    Also, I believe that the reason I’ve never told you about my reasons for disliking the movie is because Kelly instructed me not to fight about it.

  5. Well, yeah…fighting’s no good. Are we fighting?

  6. No, we aren’t. Kelly just knows how incensed I get when discussing the merits (lack thereof) of Boondock Saints and she didn’t want that directed at you. We’re fine.

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