May 22, 2010

Southland Tales

Last night, I saw the worst movie I've ever seen in my life.

I don't say that lightly. I don't have a new "worst movie ever" every other week. The worst movie I ever saw was for fifteen or so years Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson)'s Bad Taste. It wasn't until 2005 that I saw the execrable Princess Aurora, a well-shot film that made me want to smack its writer/director upside the head for its depraved moral message and ludicrous ending. Now, five years later, we have a new world champion of suck.

My readers, I give you Southland Tales (2006).

This movie earned a whopping $350,000 worldwide, on a budget of about $17 million. One would hope this would be enough to ensure writer/director Richard Kelly will never work again, but if his previous pretentious sewage Donnie Darko is any indication, this film is bound to be seized upon as a work of genius by pseudo-intellectual hipster halfwits on DVD. The film is anti-government, filled with cryptic dialogue, and doesn't make any sense, the perfect movie for anyone who wants to maintain the illusion of deep thought without all that bothersome thinking. If a film is impossible to understand, every interpretation of it can be 'deep'.

I'm no stranger to bad movies. I've seen two and a half films by Uwe Boll. (In the Name of the King was putting me to sleep halfway through so I turned it off and played with my guinea pigs for an hour.) Three by Ed Wood. Two by Michael Bay. I'm sorry to tell you this, Kim Ki-duk, but you have been dethroned as the most godawful director in the history of human civilization. Mr. Kelly has taken your crown.

It's bad, folks. Shockingly bad. Not bad in a way that's fun or entertaining. Not bad in a way that's fascinating and impossible to look away from, like the aftermath of a terrible automobile accident or an unbelievable terrorist nuclear attack on Texas. No, it's bad in a way that makes you long for the directorial mastery of Coleman Francis. Whenever I hear the song "My Humps", I shed a single tear as a tiny piece of my soul dies. After ten minutes of this movie, I searched for a straight razor to run across my jugular. After watching the whole movie, I was ready to blanket the planet in nuclear weapons, rendering it uninhabitable to remove the danger of anyone else's ever seeing it.

What's it about? Don't ask me, I only watched it. I can't give you a plot synopsis. I can't even confirm that the film has a plot. All I can tell you is the background, which the film takes great pains to explain since it doesn't have any impact on the events about to unfold. Two cities in Texas have been nuked by terrorists...I guess. The narrator claims this started World War III against the Axis of Evil, but the two cities aren't strategic targets or even population centers and seem more like the kind of place a terrorist group would choose to bomb because they can't reach anywhere vital.

In the wake of these attacks, the government goes full on fascist with an even Patrioty-er Patriot Act. Well, kind of. "Clinton" is running for president (Barack who?) against guy-who-isn't-named-Bush-but-is-still-Republican-and-therefore-the-fascist-guy-we-don't-want-to-win-the-election. So apparently we aren't fascist yet, but we will be if Hilary doesn't win. So the Neo-Marxists want Clinton to beat the fascist candidate, even though we already appear to be fascist, what with the new Orwellian government agency USIDent keeping tabs on everyone and cops gunning down unarmed people in their own homes in front of witnesses. Or maybe not. Resisting the fascism of the not-yet-fascist government are the "Neo-Marxists", who also operate as terrorists. No, really. Because Marxist terrorism is a grave threat in today's world. How prescient this film is! The Neo-Marxists don't kill people, though. Instead, they blackmail the fascists by taking pictures of an actor who supports the fascist candidate making out with a porn star instead of his wife, which will cause them to lose the election. Clever, eh? How could the fascist guy win if a famous guy who supports his campaign cheated on his wife? Brilliant! Writer/director Kelly, my hat's off to you, sir. You have your finger on the pulse of current events.

What else has this dastardly fascist government been doing? Anyone faint of heart had better leave the room....okay, ready? They've invented environmentally-safe perpetual motion technology. Those bastards! This technology, dubbed "Liquid Karma", uses the movements of the ocean to power the country in a way that doesn't cause any harm to the surrounding environment and removes the need to use any other natural resource to generate energy. Now you see why the Neo-Marxists simply must bring this government down! Viva la revolution! Vote Clinton '08!

If you think this synopsis is confusing, try watching the film. Better yet, don't.

The performances are terrible, with only one exception: Wallace Shawn, in full Christopher Walken mode. (Meaning, he either didn't get any direction from Kelly or recognized the direction he got as the codswallop it was, so he just fell back on his default quirky performance.) Fortunately, Wallace Shawn is extremely good at doing Wallace Shawn, and his every appearance on screen lifted me up just a little from the morass of crap I was drowning in. Everyone else is either terrible or forgettable. The Rock is a capable actor, but he either didn't realize that Kelly's direction would make him look like an ass on camera or he didn't have the decency to give Kelly a People's Elbow instead of listening to him. Cheri Oteri reminds me why Saturday Night Live hasn't been relevant in 15 years. Stifler looks lost, whether because the script is a half-baked collection of ideas stolen from actual artists or because he himself is a cretinous sub-human with no more sense than God gave a turnip, I couldn't tell you. Sarah Michelle Gellar is convincing as a skanky pornstar until she attempts to act. Jon Lovitz is as expressive as a wax dummy of Keanu Reeves. Mandy Moore is unrecognizable and Not In This Film anyway. Christopher Lambert (seriously?) is along for the paycheck. Bai Ling is dressed in a sexy outfit and given a disastrous hair and make-up job that nullifies her sexiness entirely. John Larroquette gamely tries to give a performance but is constantly sabotaged by how inconsistently dopey his character is. I didn't know Miranda Richardson played the film's antagonist until I read its Wikipedia page; certainly the film itself gives no such indication.

No piece of overlong, pretentious tripe would be complete without a dream sequence that comes out of nowhere, has nothing to do with anything, and has no effect on subsequent events. Because God hates me, Kelly's got us covered: Justin Timberlake's inexplicable musical number that is somehow "the film's heart and soul", according to Kelly. Timberlake also narrates the film, but nothing he says helps us understand it. He is a soldier who mans a giant gun turret on the southern California beach. Yep, if the North Korean navy evades our entire Pacific fleet, bypasses Japan, and chooses a crowded public beach as the focal point of its amphibious invasion of America, by gum, we've got soldiers there to defend it! Timberlake's character is also a user of Substance D--err, I mean, Liquid Karma. Wait, what's that you said? Liquid Karma is the technology that allows the movement of the tides to power the country, so how can it be a narcotic? Because drug use was a big part of some of Philip K. Dick's great works, so Kelly shoehorns it into his Dickwankery whether it makes sense or not. Actually, Kelly does anything whether it makes sense or not.

Now, I don't quibble when people say something is the best or the worst in the world. I don't say to them, "Don't you mean, the worst movie that you've seen?" It's a silly thing to say. Of course I mean the worst movie I've seen. That doesn't even need to be stated. In this case, however, I did specifically start off this rant by saying it was the worst movie I've seen rather than the worst movie ever made. Why?

This movie seemed tailor-made to piss me off.

First, it's post-apocalyptic, one of my favorite genres and a genre that's very hard to do well (Zardoz, Waterworld) but can be very powerful when it is (The Road Warrior, Wall-E). This one isn't.

Second, it's a storytelling mess. Nothing makes any sense. Scenes begin and end at random. Some characters speak entirely in non sequiturs. The rest speak in circles. There's no identifiable protagonist or main story thread. Characters enter and exit the film without rhyme or reason. There's an annoying narrator who adds nothing and is not involved in the story. There is no sense the film is building to anything. The scenes could be reshuffled in any order and I don't see how it would make a difference. The ending implies (I think, I'm just guessing here) that everything that came before it was pointless.

Third, it's nothing but a pastiche of better stories. The dialogue is yet more tiresome aping of Tarentino, all discursive ramblings about nothing or discursive ramblings that appear to be about nothing but are really about something. (Christ, people, Pulp Fiction came out sixteen years ago!) Two of the characters (Taverner, Luft) have names from Dick's works, and then the Jon Lovitz character actually quotes half the title of one of Dick's books (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said). The whole style and feel of the film--the drug use, the multiple people, the anti-government paranoia--are all imitation Dick. The non-linear nature is very faux-Gilliam. There are a few halfhearted attempts to rip-off Blade Runner, but Kelly can't even figure out Ridley Scott's film, much less figure out how to copy it. Ah, Ridley Scott, before he caught Oliver Stone-itis and starting making big, dumb Braveheart clones....

Wait, where was I? Oh yes--fourth, Kelly profanes two of my personal greats by invoking them in a vain attempt to salvage this trash. The embarrassing attempts to ape Dick have already been noted. Then, just to pile on the insults, Kelly includes a snippet of my favourite piece of music. That's right, he pisses on Beethoven's grave by including a bit of the Ninth Symphony, Second Movement. Not just my favorite symphony, but my favorite movement of that symphony.

I about lost it at that point. I don't remember much of the last ten minutes of this absurdly long film. (Two hours and twenty-four minutes, really?) I can tell you that it's badly-acted, nonsensical, and doesn't resolve anything. So, in keeping with the rest of the film. Oh, and it included an out-of-nowhere dance sequence and an explosion that meant...something.

Or nothing, if I understood the ending. I wouldn't bet on it.


  1. You made me laugh. And oddly want to watch the movie. :o

  2. That is a very witty review. And I agree with what you said. I saw Southland Tales and turned it off about 3/4 of the way through the movie. I thought maybe I just didn't get it, but maybe it's just so convoluted, know one can get it. In fact until your review, I forgot all about it, memorable it isn't. Anybody who is thinking about seeing it, throw yourself in front of a moving train. That would be more enjoyable.

  3. Indeed, you have a huuuuugggggeeee.....