Southland Tales

Southland Tales

 

I don’t know if the roughly 140 minute version of Southland Tales that made it to DVD is a butchered or merely abbreviated version of a masterpiece, but what I just saw is an unholy mess. I’m one of director Richard Kelly’s apologists for his divisive film Donnie Darko, one of the few movies able to choke up this grown male Dork Reporter. Like Southland Tales, it was heavily edited down before release, and the original theatrical version doesn’t even make logical sense. Its emotional appeal is hard to pin down, and yet I found it hugely involving and moving. I was rooting for Kelly on his big follow-up, and even though it made the best-of-the-year lists of both The New York Times and The Village Voice, I guess I’m on the losing team now.

The opening moments recall Cloverfield and Jericho with accidental home video footage of a nuclear attack on Texas. A long barrage of infographics, television fragments, and narration follows, outlining a tremendously involved backstory. Kelly has obviously created a huge fictional universe, the bulk of which proves superfluous to the comparatively simple story that concerns the bulk of the film that follows. Perhaps Southland Tales is the first entry in this Kellyverse, and indeed, it is comprised of four chapters (starting, no doubt modeled after Star Wars, with Chapter 4). But after this failure it’s hard to imagine Kelly securing the funding to complete additional chapters (at least as films; television or comics seem both more appropriate and more frugal).

Wallace Shawn and Bai Ling in Southland TalesBe thankful I couldn’t find a still of them making out

The ensemble cast is extraordinarily weird, featuring The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, and a complement of little people. No less than five past and present Saturday Night Live cast members also appear: Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, John Lovitz, Nora Dunn, and Janeane Garofalo (credited but I think I only spotted her in one shot near the end). Rounding it out are Miranda Richardson, John Laroquette, Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale in The Wire), and Kelly booster Kevin Smith. And is that the weird little French woman from The City of Lost Children? You haven’t seen a movie until you’ve seen one with Wallace Shawn and Bai Ling making out. But in a way I suppose that makes sense; they are both aliens from another planet. Different planets, maybe, but still.

Justin Timberlake in Southland TalesJustin Timberlake shills for Budweiser (not shown)

The music is likewise eccentric: Jane’s Addiction’s punk/prog masterpiece Three Days figures in the dialogue as an enigmatic prophesy and as the introduction to the official movie website, and Moby does his best Vangelis impression for his original score. Justin Timberlake (filmed in separation to most of the action) serves as narrator but also stars in a bizarre musical interlude and/or Budweiser commercial and/or Iraq war commentary: “I got sold out by I’m not a soldier.” And, why not toss in pop star Mandy Moore?


Official movie site: www.southlandtales.com

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9/11-ploitation: J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield

Cloverfield movie poster

 

First of all, let me just say I get it.

I get that Cloverfield is meant to be a modern day analogue of Godzilla. I get that postwar Japanese moviegoers witnessed an enraged giant lizard borne of nuclear technology stomp Tokyo flat in an unstoppable pique, and I get that Godzilla became a classic for that very reason. I get that we Westerners were long due to be attacked on film by own very own allegorical creature as pop therapy for our terrorism anxieties.

Perhaps we need that movie some time. But significantly more advanced than Godzilla in terms of visual style and special effects, I don’t think Cloverfield is that movie.

As a longtime fan of J.J. Abrams from Alias and Lost, and made a helpless sucker by the film’s clever marketing, I very much wanted to love Cloverfield. However, I found it extremely difficult to watch and to like, for two basic reasons both related to my being a New Yorker for a decade & change: I. unlikeable and unrealistic characters, and II. what can only be described as 9/11-ploitation.

I. THE CHARACTERS

We know the backgrounds of only two characters, Rob and Beth. Rob has recently been promoted to Vice President of an unspecified type of company at an improbably young age, and is about to leave for a long business trip to Japan. In my understanding of lifestyles of the rich & beautiful in New York City, such young execs were more commonly found in the dot-com 90s economy, but even now still exist in scrappy new media companies like CollegeHumor.com. But let’s assume Rob helped invent the next Facebook and move on.

random hot girl in CloverfieldYowza howza! Yes, it’s true, all New Yorkers go to parties like this all the time.

We don’t know what Beth, his one true love, does for a living, if anything. She lives with her family high up in the northern tower of the Time Warner Center (more on that later). Her stunning looks and wardrobe might peg her as model, but she appears to be a socialite born of privilege. But far from the slow trainwrecks that are Paris and Nicky, Beth appears to be a sweet, sober girl. In fact, she leaves a party not unconscious in the back of a limo, but out of propriety, to go home to bed, alone.

Us regular joes are supposed to identify with and care about these people? For all its faults, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (another monster-attack film touching uncomfortably upon domestic disaster in a post 9/11 world) featured an everyman type character in auto repairman Tom Cruise. To be fair, Godzilla was full of white-coated scientists and teeth-gritted soldier-types, so the genre doesn’t exactly call for comparatively boring lower wage-earners that don’t live in luxury condos and party in downtown lofts.

II. 9/11-SPLOITATION

Godzilla was utterly frank in linking the monster with the horrors of the nuclear age. So if Cloverfield’s beast is a personification of terrorism, how does the metaphor fit? Did US military adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq unearth the monster? Is the beast a heretofore undiscovered subterranean oil-feeder, angered by our draining the earth’s supply of fossil fuel? Without a clear metaphor, Cloverfield just seems to enjoy alluding to the superficial events and imagery of 9/11 without any depth: skyscrapers “pancaking” themselves flat, streets filling with clouds of debris, ash-coated survivors struck numb. I’m not against popular fiction using metaphor to touch upon raw nerves that maybe need to be tweaked now and then… but is Cloverfield it?

New York City burns in CloverfieldDon’t worry, New Yorkers, it’s only a movie.

One of the film’s key set pieces is set atop the twin towers of the Time Warner Center. The allusion is clear, but it’s a stretch factually. Are there residential apartments in the TW Center? As both a New Yorker and Time Warner employee, this is news to me. I should also add that the geography of Manhattan as seen in the film is just this side of realistic. In a space of about 6 hours, it’s plausible the characters could make it from lower Manhattan to the roof of the Time Warner Center at the southern foot of Central Park (assuming, that is, that their young thighs are capable of the trek).

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is one example of a sci-fi thriller that has worked well enough to illuminate concerns of the times to warrant multiple remakes. Just to name three: the original took on McCarthyism, the Abel Ferrara 90’s version looked at obedience and conformity in the military, and Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty found the story useful as a satirical critique of high school peer pressure. But none of the various Bodysnatchers films presented us with recreations of cities pressed flat; were contemporary Japanese made sick by the sight of their horrors anthropomorphized in a giant lizard? Seeing my home city’s skyline smoking and collapsing was not something I would call cathartic.

I saw the film early evening on opening day, with an audience full of kids just out of school. The movie went over like a lead balloon; the conclusion was loudly heckled and booed. I suspect the kids mostly objected to the unconventional structure and ending. Which is, for what it’s worth, what I found best about the film: it provides a very movingly unexpected happy ending.


Official movie site: www.cloverfieldmovie.com

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The Lady in the Water

The Lady in the Water movie poster

 

I don’t know where to start with this one. I’ve been a M. Night Shyamalan fan from the very beginning, even when the role was better described as apologist. Even to a fan, nearly every film comes with a "yeah, but…" disclaimer: The Sixth Sense is an excellent piece of slight-of-hand with some genuine emotion, but let down by an extended montage at the end recapping events recontextualized by the already-clear Big Plot Reveal. Unbreakable, my personal favorite, is a remarkably mature character piece on a real-world Superman, but whose comic-book origins probably alienated a mainstream audience that wants its comic book movies clearly signposted by garish costumes and action set pieces. Signs is a perfectly crafted sci-fi thriller that doubles as a wildly funny comedy (an intentional one, I should be clear… more on that later), but the delicious suspense is nearly ruined in the end by the filmmakers’ overconfidence in their shoddy CGI alien.

The Shyamalan backlash started as soon as The Sixth Sense, perhaps in direct correlation with its box office take, with people falling over themselves claiming to have detected the Big Plot Reveal well ahead of time. But with The Village, the time for fans’ dithering began: if not nearly as bad as its critical reception, it was a disappointment. A promising scernario satirizing the contemporary situation in Bush’s color-coded police state is stifled by a lack of humor uncharacteristic for the director, not to mention an underwhelming twist ending without the emotional punch of The Sixth Sense.

The classic Shyamalan film is a schematicly constructed jigsaw, which in itself is a great pleasure. But in The Lady in the Water, the tail wags the dog to an even greater degree than The Village. Humorless, pretentious, and forehead-slappingly… well, sorry for the cheap shot… stupid.

Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966)

Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD movie poster

 

Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D., the second Dr. Who feature film, follows Dr. Who & The Daleks by one short year, and clearly betrays where the public’s interest lay at the time by ditching any mention to Dr. Who in the title. The first film largely disregarded the TV show’s premise and continuity, and the sequel similarly plays fast and loose with its own predecessor. Dr. Who has yet another young female relative, a niece named Louise? Why does she call her uncle “Doctor”? Did Barbara elope with that twit Ian? At least Louise is much better looking, so one mustn’t complain. Otherwise, the screenplay is loosely based on the original 1964 TV serial “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” starring William Hartnell. It follows the original farily closely, especially in the early seqences showing a war-ravaged London and the iconic image (well, to Brits, anyway) of a Dalek rising out of the Thames (actually better realized in the original – here they cut away from a Dalek head poking out of the water and back to it fully emerged).

It’s just barely slightly better in terms of action and spectacle (the Dalek flying saucer ain’t half-bad, considering), but nevertheless just as mind-numbingly stupid. Let’s start with the title. Why is it set in the future? Everyone’s dressed in 1960s clothing, with contemporary rifles and cars. If there’s nothing gained, it might as well be set in present day. Plus it would be that much more of an exciting thought for kids to to imagine an invasion might happen today rather than next century.

Look out, Robo-men! Why did the Robo-men take off their helmets and suddenly become human again when the Doctor simply orders them to attack the Daleks? And why do they scream like girls? Why do the Daleks have fire hydrant guns? Why do the Daleks only take male prisoners? What do they do with the women?

Of course, there’s also the music. After another set of pointless psychedlic opening titles, a sequence depicting a bank robbery is set to… Beethoven? WTF? After that we get a generic lighthearted score, determinedly whimsical even when Dr. Who discovers a corpse. Incidentally, this Doctor is badass. Crossing the countryside on foot, a Robo-Man orders him to halt. The Doctor shoots him and turns right back to map. “As I was saying…”

And finally, why did the Daleks invade England? The “magnetic influence of the North and South Poles” is located under Watford, of course!

Dr. Who & The Daleks (1965)

Doctor Who and The Daleks movie poster

 

Dr. Who & The Daleks is the first of two feature films based on the classic BBC TV series Doctor Who. They are, as the fans say, “non-canonical,” and thank god for it. The TV series was a true all-ages affair; typically enjoyable for children, but with extra layers of subtext for grownups (or at least attractive ladies for the dads). But this movie is dumbed down to the point where it’s dull and condescending to even the youngest audience member.

Screen legend Peter Cushing plays “Doctor Who” (in the movie, that’s apparently his actual name) as a silly old (human!) man, a harmless mad scientist. The other characters don’t fare well either. The original TV Ian and Barbara were intelligent and capable, both with the noble profession of school teachers. This Ian is a total prat, serving mainly as comic relief, and Barbara is reduced to a screaming plot device.

Other things grate to fanboys (it’s “the TARDIS,” not just “TARDIS”!) and regular viewers alike (the music is wretched). Truth be told, cheesy effects and silly technobabble are actually great pleasures to be found in the original series, but the extra money spent on the movie must have gone to the wrong places (the sets and extra Dalek props, evidently). The advanced Dalek technology includes lava lamps (I’m not kidding). And make up your minds, Daleks, is it a neutron or neutronic bomb?

And finally, if it’s pitched so low, what are the moral lessons it has to teach youngsters? Based on what The Doctor has to teach the naive glam-rock aliens threatened by the Daleks, don’t trust anyone who claims to want to help you. Instead, fight and kill them.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001 A Space Odyssey movie poster

 

One of the best movies ever made, on one of the biggest screens in New York. What could be better?

It’s taken me many years and many viewings to realize that the movie is actually very, very funny. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, coming right on the heels Dr. Strangelove, but the sombre serious air about the film disguised some of the comedy to my young mind watching the movie every year uncut on a Philadelphia VHF channel. Just a few of the many huge “jokes” packed into the film: the entire human condition condensed as chimp pantomime, fantastic visions of the future punctured by hilariously closed-minded humans more interested in sandwiches, and the most naked human emotions shown on screen coming from apes and computers as opposed to supposedly evolved humans.

2001 On the web: Kubrick 2001 presents an elaborate, though sometimes silly, animated explication. Then there’s The Underview, in valiant opposition to the scheming dedamned’s autoguard, helpfully including the complete Zero Gravity Toilet instructions.