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Southland Tales

Year: 2006
Production Co: Cherry Road Films
Director: Richard Kelly
Writer: Richard Kelly
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Mandy Moore, Miranda Richardson, Curtis Armstrong, Zelda Rubenstein, John Laroquette, Janeane Garofalo, Christopher Lambert, Bai Ling, Jon Lovitz, Amy Poehler, Lou Taylor Pucci, Kevin Smith, Justin Timberlake
This is one of those films that will go down in movie lore, one nobody's seen but everybody assumes is bad, using it as an example of what goes wrong in Hollywood along with Heaven's Gate and Pluto Nash.

Famously booed at its Cannes debut, director Kelly went on the defensive, saying the effects hadn't all been completed and it wasn't the final cut.

But the meme had spread, and even the authoritative Total Film reported on it with an embarrassed, apologetic tone in acknowledging how bad it looked. Movie fans everywhere wanted to love Kelly's Donnie Darko follow-up no matter what it was.

But it's an example of how you shouldn't believe the reality distortion field of a movie and just dive in yourself. Not only is Southland Tales not a train wreck, it's a very good movie full of interesting ideas, written, performed and directed well. There are indeed some Lynchian asides that tax the mind and don't go anywhere, but there's enough here you can follow to make it a good story as much as a good movie.

For one thing, it has a very strong tone, a personality all its own most movies can't generate with an entire franchise. Every frame is touched by the heart and soul of Los Angeles locales like the bohemian enclave of Santa Monica and watching it makes you feel you know the rhythms and flavours of the city intimately.

It also takes a melting pot of contemporary issues - from the Iraq war to the fuel crisis to pornography - and mixes them together as well as many past classics like Repo Man (auto repossession and alien visitation) or From Dusk Till Dawn (a heist movie and vampirism).

The story as I saw it was deceptively simple. It's 2008 - only a couple of years hence at the time of release - and the economy and environment are collapsing (scarily pertinent as I write this in early 2009). A shadowy private contractor populated by enigmatic scientists whose motivations are unclear have created a massive, secretive offshore power generator based on top secret technology.

The power source is related to a strange rift in the space/time continuum that's opened up in the desert outside the city, and when action film star Boxer (Johnson) wakes up in the desert with amnesia, a fidgeting, skittish shadow of his former self, a lot of people are very interested in his fate and what he does next.

His life becomes embroiled with a porn star (Gellar) developing a reality TV show, but try as I might even now I can't remember what she has to do with the central conspiracy. It's one of the aspects that might be only loosely related.

There's also an urban task force cop and Iraq war veteran (Scott) who apparently has a twin brother that's actually the secret to the energy rift in the desert and holds the key to Boxer's identity and why he went missing and woke up in the desert.

And they're all being watched. One set of eyes belongs to a private security company with political links led by a fierce overlord in Miranda Richardson. She has a political agenda to bring Boxer in because of a script he's written depicting the end of the world that aligns a little too closely with the very end known to the powers that be. The others belong to a marine manning an offshore gun battery (Timberlake) who narrates the whole thing and turns out to be a war buddy of the cop.

Surrounding them all are a collective of activist guerrilla artists trying to smash the establishment, a coterie of political advisors trying to shepherd a corrupt senator to the Presidency and more.

Does it all make perfect sense? Not at all. The kernel of the story for me - the conspiracy about the time rift - was great and had a satisfying payoff. Did it look great? Absolutely. Did every scene or character have something to do with the plot (s)? Not in the least, but there's another filmmaker I've mentioned in this review whose movies make far less sense than this and yet don't attract half the critical drubbing Southland Tales has.

Maybe Donnie Darko promised too much, and everyone expected another mind bender that made sense when you think about it (although Donnie Darko didn't make any sense to me before I saw Kelly's cut).

But with Kelly now working on the adaptation of the old Twilight Show episode The Box, it seems everyone - including himself - would rather forget Southland Tales exists. Don't join them.

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