Southland Tales
Sony Pictures // R // $28.95 // November 18, 2008
Review by Aaron Beierle | posted November 1, 2008
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Director Richard Kelly scored a few years ago with what turned out to be one of the biggest cult movies in years, "Donnie Darko". His follow-up, "Southland Tales", sees Kelly trying to be bigger, cult-ier and more mindbending than "Darko" was, and the results initially were met with dismay - festival screenings at Cannes in 2006 were supposedly something of a disaster, and the picture went unreleased. Kelly went back to the drawing board, and the result in a tighter film with a larger effects budget.

The result is utterly bizarre and the plot too detailed and fractured (Kathryn Bigelow's 1995 "Strange Days" did this sort of thing in a much more straightforward manner more than 10 years ago, and I have to say, I can't believe it's been that long since that movie) to tell completely, but - in its own abstract mess of a way - works here-and-there and is certainly never dull. The film opens in 2005, as nuclear explosions destroy the Texas towns of El Paso and Abilene.

World War III breaks out, and by three years later, the world is a different place - cyberspace is now being watched by USIDent, an extension of the Patriot Act that removes every bit of privacy left - now everyone is watched, everywhere. A group of neo-marxist revolutionaries are gathering to try and overthrow USIdent and oil has gotten scarce enough that alternate fuel is in serious demand. A scientist (Wallace Shawn) has just figured out a way to make a new form of fuel called Fluid Karma that also acts as some sort of superdrug.

Meanwhile (there's a lot of "meanwhile"s in this movie), actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) has been missing for days, and has just been found in the desert with a case of partial amnesia. In reality, he's married to Madeline (Mandy Moore), daughter of presidential electorate Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne). After coming back from the desert, he picks up an affair with porn actress and reality TV phenomenon Krista Now (Sara Michelle Gellar).

Boxer works with a local police officer named Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) to research the character in a screenplay he's written. However, there's another character played by Scott who may be Roland's twin brother...or something. There's also a soldier (Justin Timberlake) who narrates the picture and, according to newsflashes ( throughout the picture, is providing some sort of "tell all" about what has happened to him in battle. There is, believe it or not, a sizable amount more to it than that. There's even some sort of catfight/ballet thing between the Gellar and Moore characters.

I suppose it was by intent, but the film's varied performances don't work to its advantage. You have actors acting like they're in a serious drama and there's another group of actors who chew scenery. That's an issue with the movie itself - it tries to blend sci-fi, comedy, drama (and about 15 other things), but the movie doesn't bring all these varied elements together in a way that seems seamless. As for the performances, Scott and Timberlake surprisingly offer two of the film's better performances. Johnson and Gellar also aren't too bad, either. Cheri Oteri, Moore and Shawn don't fare quite as well, with Oteri and Shawn going too far over-the-top, even for a picture like this. And is that director Kevin Smith under a ton of make-up?

Speaking of "Strange Days", the whole thing kind of resembles "Strange Days" re-imagined by Terry Gilliam, with a hint of Paul Verehoven. It's not as good as that may sound as it is, as even in this edited down form, it feels like a few too many parts were tossed overboard in the process of trying to edit the thing down to version that would be deemed more "releasable", and the film feels like a few parts are noticably missing. I've never seen the original version of the film, but - oddly enough - wouldn't be against the opportunity to see how Kelly tried to compress it. Still, despite all of the film's excesses - and there are more than a few - there's pieces that work marvelously and occasional ideas that peek through the muddier aspects of the picture. It's an ambitious film, but it feels like Kelly lost control of it somewhere along the way and while it may be something of a mess, it's an oddly hypnotic one.


VIDEO: "Southland Tales" is presented by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in 2.35:1 (1080p/AVC). The results are terrific, as cinematographer Steven B. Poster ("Donnie Darko")'s sleek, sometimes bleak cinematography is certainly done justice. While the DVD edition of the film looked terrific, this Blu-Ray edition does boast some visual upgrades, especially improved detail and a greater sense of depth to the image over the somewhat flatter looking DVD.

The source used is in pretty tip-top shape, with nothing to be found in the way of specks, marks or other flaws. A little bit of grain is seen in some scenes, but the grain remains very light. While a couple of light traces of edge enhancement were spotted, the film otherwise appeared very clean and smooth on this edition. Colors looked appropriately rich in some scenes and subdued in others. Black level also looked solid, while flesh tones looked accurate. While not a giant leap up in terms of quality over the very nice DVD, there were still certainly visible improvements on this Blu-Ray presentation.

SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. The film's audio isn't particularly aggressive, but the surrounds do kick in at times during the more intense sequences, such as the stretch towards the end. The sound mix also does a terrific job presenting Moby's very enjoyable score. Audio quality is marvelous, with crisp, well-recorded dialogue and effects.

EXTRAS: What many would have liked on the DVD release of the film (well, aside from some sort of director's cut) shows up here: a commentary with director Richard Kelly. The director offers a somewhat low-key commentary, but the track provides a reasonably good overview of the project, from some production difficulties (trying to pull off a series of effects shots with a budget of $18m, some story elements/subplots that were deleted, etc.) to working with the cast to locations to story and the upcoming election. While there are some moments of Kelly narrating the story, he generally stays on course and provides some solid insights into the making of this ambitious film.

The other terrific extra that's new to this edition is "The Prequel Saga", which gives viewers a chance to go through the three graphic novel chapters that tell the story leading up to the film. While the interface does require clicking through (a slideshow feature would have been nifty), this is a great bonus.

We also get an excellent "making of" that was carried over from the prior DVD edition, as well as trailers for other Sony titles and the 9-minute animated short, "This is the Way the World Ends", which was also on the prior release.

Final Thoughts: While probably one of the more debated films of the last couple of years - either you'll like (or at least appreciate) this film or you're going to turn it off before it's over - I found enough about "Southland" to like, despite the fact that the film has some problems with tone and performances. The Blu-Ray edition offers better audio/video quality, as well as a more hefty set of bonus features. Recommended as a purchase for fans, while I'd recommend those who haven't seen the picture start with a rental.

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