Film Reviews

Southland Tales (2006) – Blu-ray Review

How do you follow a film that was initially declared a flop but then went on to gain a worldwide following due to its own unique and offbeat charms? That was a question that writer/director Richard Kelly had to find an answer to.

The film in question being 2001’s now cult classic Donnie Darko, which concerns the plight of an awkward teenager, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who gets informed by a mysterious figure in a bunny costume that the world is ending in 28 days. Donnie Darko is a psychological thriller with elements of black comedy and horror thrown in, and with its talk of time travel and a great 80’s pop/rock soundtrack, it’s now easy to see why Richard Kelly’s debut effort has gained such a following.

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Fortunately for Richard Kelly, he already had an idea for another movie: 2006’s Southland Tales. An epic vision informed by the likes of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick – the man who wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in 1968, which was famously turned into science fiction film classic Blade Runner in 1982, Southland Tales brings in the apocalypse; social, economic and environmental issues; time travel; conspiracy; the media; and terrorism, to make a big, rambunctious movie that sits on the line between big masterpiece and big mess.

The plot of Southland Tales concerns movie star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) who, after mysteriously vanishing and then turning up with amnesia, plans his next film with porn star and wannabe entrepreneur Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and troubled policeman Roland Taverner (Sean William Scott), who holds the key to a big conspiracy. After two towns in Texas are destroyed by nuclear attacks, America is sent into a state of panic, hysteria and anarchy leading to World War Three (which is actually a satire on America’s “War on Terror”).

We see this satire on the war on terrorism in a post-9/11 world played out through a soldier (Justin Timberlake) who seemingly looks on at almost all the action, acting as a narrator of sorts, which ties in with the constant surveillance the PATRIOT Act has given to a new agency, US-IDent. US-IDent have censored the internet, and fingerprints are now required to access computers and bank accounts. Add to this a fuel shortage due to global warfare, that leads to generator being invented that, unknown to everyone except the generator’s inventers, alters the oceans’ currents, which causes the Earth to slow its rotation, therefore ripping holes in the fabric of space and time, and Southland Tales can be seen as quite a terrifying dystopian vision!

There is a certainly a lot going on and not a lot of it makes sense. Southland Tales seems to struggle to get a flow or coherent thread going, jumping from one subject and/or character/s to the next, making it somewhat impenetrable. But having said that, like Richard Kelly’s debut Donnie Darko, it has a unique, offbeat quality and vision all of its own, and there is something quite gripping and entertaining about the whole thing. Not to mention at times genuinely funny and exciting. You just have to plug yourself in, pay attention and go along for the ride. You might not have a clue what’s going on but you still might enjoy yourself.

To their credit, the cast do a great job with what one imagines must have been a complicated script. Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sean William Scott all do fine jobs largely playing against type with characters that are interesting to say the least. Justin Timberlake does a solid job as the disillusioned soldier (also involved in one of the film’s most offbeat scenes; a music video-style routine to a cover of The Killers’ hit single ‘All These Things That I Have Done’) as do Lou Taylor Pucci, Miranda Richardson and Mandy Moore, who have smaller but memorable appearances here.

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There are some good extras on this Arrow Films release of Southland Tales, including both the 145-minute theatrical cut and the 160-minute Cannes cut of the film; audio commentary on the theatrical cut by Richard Kelly; a new in-depth documentary on the film, titled ‘It’s a Madcap World: The Making of an Unfinished Film’; ‘USIDent TV: Surviving the Southland’- an archival featurette on the making of the film; ‘This is the Way the World Ends’ – an animated short set in the Southland Tales universe; trailer and image gallery and a reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork. There is also a limited edition collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Peter Tonguette and Simon Ward.

Overall, Southland Tales is one epic and entertaining mess of ideas that’s as confusing and weird as it is slick, eye catching and interesting. The critics may not have been too kind to the film on initial release, and it’s not hard to see why, but going into Southland Tales with an open mind may reap some rewards.

Southland Tales is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

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