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Movie Review: Southland Tales

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“This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but with a bang.”

Existing on its own, Southland Tales is a mosaic mess of a narrative. Yet, coupled with the three-part “Prequel Saga” graphic novel, Southland Tales is an acceptable and intriguing complexity. Think of the graphic novel as a prescribed dose of medication to treat a cluster headache prophylactically; without this dose, one would surely develop a painful attack of mangled ideas and unsure conclusions. However, with the first three chapters of back-story under your belt, the graphic novel makes the film (the final three chapters) smoother sailing, more enriching, and exponentially vast.

Writer/director Richard Kelly has crafted an intricate six-part saga — reminiscent of Star Wars, with its Roman numeral “episodes.” Only each chapter does not stand alone as its own feature. As a remedy, Kelly compounds IV, V, and VI into the two-hour and twenty-four minute motion picture and presents I, II, and III in the 311-page alternate medium. Coupling the film and its expansive graphic novel with its elaborate website, Southland Tales is more than a movie, it’s an interactive experience.

The titles of the six chapters read as follows: I: “Two Roads Diverge,” II: “Fingerprints,” III: “The Mechanicals,” IV: “Temptation Waits,” V: “Memory Gospel,” and VI: “Wave of Mutilation.” Between “The Mechanicals” and “Temptation Waits,” sits a prologue — mainly to clue in those who didn’t read the graphic novel. Featured are only snippets of the “Prequel Saga” and a brief introduction to assist in painting the picture. By no means does this preamble (a quick summary of chapters I, II, and III) serve as a replacement to consuming the graphic novel.

In the wake of two nuclear disasters in El Paso and Abilene, Texas on July 4, 2005, the world is a different place. The draft has been reinstated; strict borders have been established at state lines requiring interstate travel visas; and, the Republican regime keeps close tabs on its citizens through a colossal think tank called US-Ident — an extension of the Patriot Act.

As Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) reads passages from the Book of Revelations, a parallel story unfolds in the proceedings. Set in Los Angeles and leading up to Independence Day 2008, action film star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnston), porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and L.A. police officer Ronald Taverner (Sean William Scott) are at the center of chaos.

When Boxer is stricken with amnesia, Krysta guides him on a path that mirrors her screenplay, “The Power.” While Boxer struggles to remember who he is, he simultaneously serves as the pawn for a Neo-Marxist sect looking to bring down the federal government, the test subject for a German energy monopoly called Treer, the “pragmatic prevaricator,” and the sacrificial lamb for all of those involved. Above all, it is Ronald/Roland Taverner who hold the key to a miraculous conspiracy.

Not only is Southland Tales a study of an extremist sect’s attempt to overthrow political power and a testament to the bonding powers of a handshake among other things, but Kelly’s film is also a mesmerizing trip into the fourth dimension (similar to his freshman masterpiece Donnie Darko). More than anything, Southland Tales is a retelling of the Book of Revelations as predicted by a blonde porn-star/fashion designer/energy drink entrepreneur. As her vision comes to life through her screenplay, it results in the End of Days for the core characters. It’s just like she said, “When the power is realized, the world ends.”

In a world of mega-zeppelins, paladin bodies, US-Ident, Serpentine Dream Theory, “Fluid Karma,” and Neo-Marxists, Kelly’s creativity shines. One could say that there is enough packed into Southland Tales for ten movies. With that said, it is hard to believe that the original Cannes cut, which was booed resoundingly, possessed a longer running time. Nonetheless, in uniting the futuristic allegory of The Matrix, the LA perplexing profundity of Mulholland Drive, and the multiple character/biblical apocalypse of Magnolia, you arrive at Southland Tales — innovative in its own right, yet obvious in its stimuli.

Directorial influences are apparent in David Lynch (in its LA setting, dual character portraits, and inclusion of Rebekah Del Rio — all indicative of Mulholland Drive), Terry Gilliam (in its futuristic/satirical sci-fi sense a la Brazil), and Robert Altman (in its epic ensemble cast and texture). Literal poetry muses arrive in the form of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” and Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled” — hence, the Eliot/Frost ’08 presidential campaign. What’s more, the titles of chapters IV-VI are all derived from the name of songs by Garbage, Moby, and The Pixies respectively. In spite of the inspirations, Southland Tales is one of the most original cinematic works to date.

Getting back to the cluster headache metaphor… Southland Tales is more episodic than chronic. While the dual pattern of questions and craziness repeats itself, you will receive treated sustained relief if you come equipped with the back-story. In other words, read the graphic novel, and then place this picture into your DVD player. All the while, remain conscious that you are pressing the “on” switch on a motion picture vacuum; Southland Tales will suck you in on multiple levels and may cloud your mind with dust. Even so, sift through the filter; afterward, you will come to appreciate the cleanliness and the matter-of-fact involvement on multiple passes. 

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