Sunday, November 18, 2007

Southland Tales

I’ve been looking forward to Southland Tales for literally years now, and it’s tough for any film to live up to that burden. Luckily, early buzz about the movie was awful, lowering my expectations, but not awful in a way that made me uninterested in the film. After finally seeing this movie, I can certainly see why people called it a disaster, on a lot of levels it is, but it’s also got some of the most transcendent moments I’ve seen in recent cinema, and a unique spin on reality that’s unlike anything else out there. It’s clearly a flawed movie, but any movie with this much good stuff is worthwhile.

I loved Donnie Darko, it’s one of the best debut films of all time, and a perfect fusion of sci-fi content and ideas with a strong emotional core. However, Richard Kelly’s subsequent fucking with the movie for the director’s cut did not inspire confidence for future efforts. He didn’t seem to understand what made the film work, and the more he worked with the movie, the worse it go.

Southland Tales contains a lot of Donnie Darko, but it feels more like a followup to the Kelly scripted Domino, a movie that much like Southland is overflowing with digressive narrative strands and an odd blend of sincere emotion and over the top comedy. Until I saw Southland, I focused on Domino from a directorial point of view, Tony Scott’s acid trip cinematography and editing were my initial take away, but it’s clear that the script was more than just a work for hire job.

Let me start with the bad on Southland. The movie is incredibly disjointed, and takes a long time to settle into any sort of comfortable tone and reality. Due to the constant media intrusions, it often feels like we’re watching a summary of events, not experiencing the reality of events themselves. This isn’t helped by the lengthy prologue that sums up the state of things in the film’s universe. This and the Donnie Darko: DC make it clear that Kelly doesn’t need to tell us everything about the universe. He may know a whole bunch of details about what’s going on, but virtually nothing in the voiceover narration tells us something we need to know that we can’t pick up on from what we’re seeing. The same is true of the film’s opening, all we really need to know is there was a nuclear attack and now we’re in a police state. The details distract from the emotional reality of the story, and don’t add that much.

Having a disjointed, cobbled together film isn’t necessarily a problem. 2046, a film that was also re-edited following a negative Cannes response, is quite tough to follow, jutting off in countless narrative directions. However, rather than trying to explain all the details of the future world, or the 60s stuff, Wong Kar-Wai immerses us in a central emotion. Even if we don’t understand what’s happening, we’re feeling something. Kelly eventually gets us to a place like this, but it takes a while.

I read one critic who said that the film should have been cut into a 90 minute avant garde film, something I’d actually agree with. The movie has about 90 minutes of absolute brilliance in there, but then there’s a lot of material that doesn’t go anywhere. Most of that stuff comes early on, and centers around one of the neo Marxist cells. The Cheri Oteri and Amy Poehler stuff just isn’t very good, despite the presence of Avon himself, Wood Harris. This story sets some stuff in motion, but it had the least compelling characters, and is likely what soured a lot of people on the film.

The two most compelling characters are Boxer Santaros and Krysta Now, played by two talented actors who all too rarely get material up to their caliber. The Rock is a really charismatic guy, who can do a specific type of role really well. I don’t know that this role fully takes advantage of his talents, largely because he spends much of the film timidly reacting to stuff, not actually acting.

Krysta is Sarah Michelle Gellar’s best role since Buffy, she absolutely nails the character and I found myself wanting more screentime for her. You could have done an entire movie just about that character. She’s an embodiment of the media at this moment, and it would have been interesting to get more insight into her inner emotional world. How can someone who’s perceived as a symbol exist as a person?

The movie takes a while to congeal. The opening has some strong stuff, but it’s more a collection of sketches than a coherent narrative. The frequent tonal shifts make it hard to relate to the story on an emotional level. But, around the midpoint, things start to come together. The scene at Frost’s house is where we move beyond random episodes and get a more clear narrative. Now, I don’t mean to imply that episodic storytelling can’t work, or knock this other stuff as “filler.” But, in a movie like this, you need some kind of connection between the stories to make it worth watching as more than a bunch of skits. Look at a film like Magnolia, which even before the characters meet, feels tonally and emotionally united. You have a sense of momentum and stylistic immersion.

That’s what we start to get into during the Frost house scene. The different worlds of the movie collide, and we get a bunch of jokes about cock chugging. At the same time, we get the trippy drug musical sequence set to the The Killers. I love musical sequences, and even if this one does feel a bit random, it works for me as a moment of spectacle.

But, apparently not for everyone. At this point, three of the six people in the theater walked out. I was waiting for this film for years and barely heard it was coming out. At the 9:30 PM screening on a Saturday night, there were six people in the theater. So, don’t expect big box office for this thing. I’m thinking it’ll be basically wiped out of theaters after Thanksgiving, an unfortunate fate for a movie that deserves to be seen.

The sequences on the zeppelin are gorgeous. I love the art deco meets THX-1138 design aesthetic, and Boxer’s uncertainty about what’s going on. Movies are such a tough thing because the moments that really work have a certain alchemy that’s impossible to know. It’s not about good writing, or even good direction, it’s about everything coming together to create a mood and feeling that immerses the viewer. That’s what the zeppelin stuff did to me, I was really feeling the movie at this point

The sequence that made the movie for me was the finale, once the two Sean William Scotts meet, and Krysta comes out to dance. At this point, I don’t really understand why she’s dancing, why her hair’s changed color, or what the significance is to the narrative, and the beauty of that sequence is that none of that matters. It’s about a pure filmic moment, the mask on Krysta, her embrace with Boxer as lights swirl around them and the subsequent dance with Frost’s daughter.

The music here, and throughout the film was phenomenal. Moby’s score created such a dreamlike mood, basically any time it was playing, the film was better. Part of the avant garde film suggestion above was likely motivated by the fact that the music unified everything, and created a consistent mood that was absent during the random comedy digressions. And, the music was never better than during that dance sequence. Cutting the zeppelin action with the floating ice cream truck and the kid standing on top of it was just dazzlng. That moment makes the film worth seeing, it’s one of the purest, most transcendent cinematic moments of the decade.

The film’s apocalyptic ending raises a lot of questions, but it’s most easily understandable on an emotional level. The zeppelin, where all the old order characters are gathered, is shot down, and a new order can begin from the fusion of two souls. The fourth dimension is ripped to shreds, and a new messiah is born.

I’m a bit iffy on the inclusion of the time travel stuff. It seems to come out of nowhere at the end of the film, and Kevin Smith’s dodgy acting doesn’t help sell things. I didn’t really need an explanation for why things happened, they just did and that was enough. I suppose it’s necessary for the ending to work, but it got a bit exposition heavy there. That’s another case where Kelly would have been better served by just leaving the viewer to interpret the goings on.

Take the Taverners. The two of them meeting each other is a perfect physical representation of our internal conflicts. Earlier in the film, Boxer talks about feeling like he has a thousand selves in him, united only by memories. So, this final image would literalize those multiple selves and in their fusion pave the way for a new world. It still works that way, but the time travel background clouds things a bit.

In the end, this is a rich and challenging film that succeeds despite some issues. I like to judge films by what they are. I’d rather see a movie like this that aims incredibly high, tackles a broad range of themes and issues, and doesn’t nail everything than a movie that aims low and achieves all its goals. I’d be suspicious of a “perfect film,” if you can make something that’s perfect, it probably means you’re not aiming high enough. Again and again you’ll see critics reward small movies that are well acted and made, but don’t ignite passion, that don’t have those cinematic moments I was talking about earlier.

At this point, TV has basically taken over storytelling and character development from cinema. Virtually no movie can match something like The Wire or John From Cincinnati in terms of character development and sustained story. What movies can do that TV cannot is create a specific mood, immerse you in a world. You go into the dark theater and get lost in the images. Movies should be a drug, taking you to a place you cannot go in real life, and that’s what the end of the film does. You are in that world, experiencing everything, and it’s awe inspiring. It may be a small piece of this large film that does that, but it’s that kind of moment that I watch movies for.