Hidden Netflix Gems – Southland Tales

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Most viewers, even those who eventually became its biggest fans, initially found Richard Kelly‘s debut feature, Donnie Darko, to be strange, convoluted and challenging to fully comprehend on a single viewing. However, compared to his 2006 follow-up, Southland Tales, Darko now seems like Where’s Waldo? Perhaps the absolute craziest film ever made, Southland Tales is a wild ride through pre-apocalyptic paranoia, fevered hallucinations and madness that really defies any kind of classification. It is pulpy, surreal, funny, political and, above all, very weird. I won’t try to convince anyone that this film is a success, per se, but its wild ambition and complete originality make it well worth a look.

Southland Tales takes place in a near-future alternate reality, after nuclear attacks taking place on the fourth of July, 2005, have begun World War III. Post-9/11-style paranoia abounds, and the world is in a far-reaching energy crisis, which the wealthy Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) is attempting to alleviate with his new energy generator, Fluid Karma, which uses the ocean’s currents as a power source. The only problem with Fluid Karma is that it is altering these currents, causing the earth to slow its rotation, and ripping holes in the space-time continuum. This space-time rift seems to be particularly felt in the criss-crossed destinies of the film’s main characters: Boxer Santaros, aka Jericho Cane (Dwayne Johnson), an amnesiac action star who may have become the main character of his own screenplay; Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star and social activist who co-wrote the screenplay with Boxer; and Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), a cop who may or may not also be his own twin brother, Ronald.

Does that all make sense? Obviously, not even close, and believe me, there’s much, much more going on in Southland Tales, including but not limited to: a brilliantly strange musical interlude featuring Justin Timberlake in a blood-soaked T-shirt; a neo-Marxist conspiracy involving no fewer than four former Saturday Night Live cast members (Jon Lovitz, Nora Dunn, Cheri Oteri and Amy Poehler); and, of course, that screenplay written by Boxer and Krysta, which may or may not foretell the end of the world as we know it. For good measure, the film also features Kevin Smith as a mad scientist and Christopher Lambert as an illegal arms dealer who sells his wares out of an ice cream truck, as well as hilarious philosophical dialogue like “Teen horniness is not a crime,” and “Pimps don’t commit suicide.” Southland Tales is gloriously chaotic and incoherent, similar to being plunged headfirst into the fever dream of a stoned pop-culture addict. It doesn’t completely make sense, even after multiple viewings, but it is an endlessly fascinating mess.

  

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Red State

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

I am always excited to see my favorite filmmakers stretch beyond what they normally produce and explore other genres. For that reason, I applaud Kevin Smith for stepping away from the talky, visually underwhelming comedies for which he is known with his latest film, Red State, a nasty, tense, visceral thriller that, while satirical and occasionally funny, is miles away from a comedy.

Red State is a cinematic middle finger to the vicious, hateful Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, an organization best known for the highly tasteful and respectable practice of protesting funerals in order to garner controversy. Though Phelps is eventually mentioned by name in the film’s narrative, his overt fictional surrogate is one Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a malevolent, fire-and-brimstone preacher who looks a bit like a more diminutive Kris Kristofferson with eyeglasses. Cooper and his followers regularly hold demonstrations in which they hold up signs offering such charming sentiments as “Anal Penetration = Eternal Damnation.”

As the film begins, it tricks the audience into expecting the kind of lame teen sex comedy that detractors of Smith’s Mallrats or Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back might expect from him. High school students Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) receive an invitation for group sex from a mysterious woman Jarod met on a sex chat site. Being the horny teen boys that they are, they borrow a car from Travis’s parents and head out to the trailer home of the woman, whose name just so happens to be Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo). Of course, Cooper is a common name and the boys are way too horny to think twice about it, nor do they seem disturbed by her insistence that they chug a couple of beers before getting down to the “devil’s business,” so of course they are quickly drugged into unconsciousness and wake up in a world of horror. The boys soon find out the hard way that the Coopers hate not only homosexuals, but any type of “deviant” sexuality or immorality, which includes teen boys curious about group sex with an older woman.

One of the things that works so well about Smith veering so sharply away from the type of film for which he is known is how unpredictable the film quickly becomes. We assume from the start of the film that Travis is the main protagonist, but quickly find that no one is safe in this nasty, uncompromising movie. Likewise, ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) doesn’t show up until the beginning of the film’s second act, at which point he becomes the main protagonist. Goodman is excellent in the film, but the true star of the show is undoubtedly Michael Parks as Abin. He manages to be hateful enough to boil the viewer’s blood while simultaneously displaying the kind of natural charisma that makes his followers’ hero-worship all too believable.

Throughout his career, Smith has been criticized for a lack of visual style as a director, and he seems to have taken this particular criticism to heart. In some of his later period films, he seems to have been actively trying to step up to this challenge, but this is the first film I’ve seen from him that really knocks the visual style out of the park. This is easily my favorite Smith film since Chasing Amy, a film that Smith claims he made for his gay brother to make up for a shortage of gay characters in romantic comedies, and that same sympathy for issues of civil rights for homosexuals is at the heart of this one. Part torture-porn, part action movie and part satire, Red State is a very mature work for Smith, a film that shows his tremendous growth as a writer and filmmaker without being pretentious about it.

  

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BLU-RAY REVIEW: Red State

Kevin Smith’s first foray into the horror genre has been a long time in the making, but after finally watching “Red State” (which could have been titled “Why You Shouldn’t Troll for Sex on the Internet”), it’s easy to see why he had so much trouble securing financing in the first place. And no, it’s not because the film is especially violent or controversial – it’s just not very good. The whole thing is a half-baked idea at best, filled with characters so inconsequential that they don’t even deserve to be given names. Though the film starts out with a fairly promising setup – three teenagers are lured to the small town of Cooper’s Dell with the promise of sex, only to become the latest victims of a crazy religious cult – it quickly abandons the horror angle and devolves into a more generic action-thriller.

The fact that Smith promoted “Red State” as a horror movie may reek of false advertising to some, but it’s hardly the only sting of disappointment that you’ll experience from the film. The unpredictable detour that takes place at the end of the first act isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s very poorly executed, due in large part to the paper-thin story. There’s just not a whole lot to the movie apart from the initial setup, an unnecessarily long sermon delivered by Michael Parks’ zealous cult leader, and an even longer climactic shootout that might have seemed ridiculous if the film hadn’t already lost all credibility. The only saving grace is John Goodman as an ATF agent assigned to bring down the cult, but that’s mostly because he gets all the good lines. If there’s one thing to be grateful for, it’s that the movie clocks in at a brisk 88 minutes, because there aren’t many other reasons why you’d want to subject yourself to “Red State” beyond sheer curiosity.

Click to buy “Red State”

  

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Non-Oscar movie news

As I write this the announcement of the 2010 Academy Award nominations is literally only a few hours away — and I’ll most certainly be discussing them tomorrow — but this late bird has some other worms to catch, starting with goings on up in Park City.

* Yes, Kevin Smith and the premiere of his long planned “Red State” is the talk of the geek movie blogosphere today. Sundance can be a real circus and Smith was, I gather, both ringmaster and clown as he jokingly joined the protest staged by the detestable, publicity loving, Westboro Baptist Church who apparently noticed that Smith was attacking them. That was followed by a 26 minute pre-screening talkathon — which I’ve yet to bring myself to watch, though I’ve read the highlights — in which he announced his plans to distribute the film himself.

As for the response to the movie goes, the reviews have been extremely interesting. The fact of the matter is that Smith has so gone on out of his way to attack film critics, it’s kind of hard for any of us to have an opinion of one of his films that isn’t colored by the silliness at this point. No surprise, then, that reaction has been dramatically mixed. Not everyone even agrees if it’s actually a horror film or a religious-themed thriller. Sort of a more violent and bloody, less musical, version of the 1973 “The Wicker Man.”

Avatar* Speaking of talented makers of entertaining but highly imperfect films whose need to communicate can often place them at cross-purposes with themselves, James Cameron has told Entertainment Weekly that he’s working on the screenplays for two “Avatar” sequels with the intent of releasing them over Christmas of 2014 and 2015. To his credit, I think, Cameron says he’ll donate some portion of films’ grosses to environmental charities, who can use all the help they can get, considering our planet seems to be melting right at the moment.

* And speaking of directors who at times have worked at cross-purposes with themselves, no one has ever done so in grander fashion than the late Orson Welles. It’s starting to look like his legendary unfinished 1970s project, “The Other Side of the Wind,” may finally get a release of some sort. Because Welles never edited most of it, there’s a school of thought that the film should be released only in unedited form. This is one of the more stupid schools of thought I’ve encountered. Thank goodness, DVDs can make the unedited rushes available to anyone who wants to imagine how the man might have edited the film itself, but rushes are not a movie.

As far as other “lost” Welles films, Kevin Jagernauth mentions a miraculous restoration of his badly truncated, “The Magnificent Ambersons.” I’d settle for a decent restoration/re-release of his Shakespearian opus, “Chimes at Midnight.”

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* Chris Hemsworth — aka Mighty Thor, God of Thunder — has seen the Avengers script by Joss Whedon and, guess what, he thinks its “incredible.” Ordinarily, I’d be skeptical of a star’s good opinion of his own movie, but this Browncoat needs it to be incredible. It better be incredible. No pressure, though.

* Another Sundance sale. For what sounds like a small but intense love story, “Like Crazy” fetched a relatively big price.

* Sam Raimi is still chatting up the possibility of some kind “Evil Dead” reboot.

* An item left over from last week relating to another kind of evil dead: Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles’ “The Dictator” based on a novel claimed by an obscure author you might have heard named Saddam Hussein. This is one movie I really have to see.

* I really enjoyed interviewing Morgan Spurlock and he was as nice as could be, but he failed to mention anything about his latest, very clever sounding stunt-documentary “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” which has been getting great press at Sundance. Jerkface.

  

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Totally random movie moment #1

We’re deep, deep, deep, in the holiday doldrums as far as movie news and trailers go. Since I don’t feel like paying any attention whatsoever to Kevin Smith’s latest answer to the question “What is the stupidest possible way to react to some bad reviews?” that really leaves nothing to do but present Bruce Lee playing a game of death with Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

  

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