Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Southland Tales”

Dear Frank,

Let’s get right to it. It is hot, I have had two drinks and what I know about Southland Tales at this moment is that I am glad to have had those two drinks before starting to watch it. So here we go!

For the record (she wrote while Netflix Instant loaded), I actually like and respect writer/director Richard Kelly to some extent, largely thanks to the same instincts that lead me to seeing Sucker Punch opening weekend. Short version: I respect crazy when it operates in cohesion with creativity. This, like many of my other annoying habits, hasn’t done me a tremendous amount of good.

Opening scene: A children’s party in Texas is interrupted by nuclear bombs. Whoops! Then it’s time for a dramatic exposition/news report hybrid: In the not-too-distant-future of 2008 (this movie was released theatrically in 2007), the draft gets reinstated, World War 3 has begun and everything is the worst thanks to the Middle East and our dependence on oil. On the plus side, things go well for the Republicans. Short version of all this exposition — American has disintegrated and we’re all fucked.

Yeah, that's an elephant banging another elephant. All class, right here.

Time to meet The Rock! (I know, he’s Dwayne Johnson now, but I still like calling him The Rock.) He’s playing an actor who disappeared for three days and washed up on the beach. Also time to meet Justin Timberlake! He is a scarred soldier sitting on a gun turret on the Santa Monica pier while reading out loud from the Bible. Oh good. That always leads to subtlety.

This movie, by the way, is so far entirely narrated by Justin Timberlake. Which goes far towards improving it because I am pro-Justin Timberlake, mostly because of his ability to improve everything he touches, from things that were already quite good (The Social Network) to otherwise (this movie).

He just quoted T.S. Eliot. DOUBLE PLUS SUBTLE. As a dyed-in-the-wool hardcore liberal hippie feminist, I do enjoy that the Republicans are the bad guys here — there’s a whole bunch of Miranda Richardson looking glamorous in the secret office where the Republicans control the Internet and watching things on security cameras. Also, someone quotes Robert Frost. Slightly more subtle than Eliot, I suppose.

Not quoting poetry? The Rock. He is just an actor writing his screenplay foretelling society’s doom with porn star Sarah Michelle Gellar. Oh, Buffy. She is here to sell it! It being her many projects, including a talk show about teen horniness. (“Teen horniness is not a crime” is one of the many many stupidly great non-sequiturs to come from this movie, as well as a teen pop sensation!)

Also there are scientists creating alternate energy solutions. This is apparently important! That is what I’m assuming, anyway. Also, there are Marxists involved? Wait, Neo-Marxists. Of course.

Frank, let me pause here to offer a complete list of the well-known actors in this movie: Curtis Armstrong, Nora Dunn, Sarah Michelle Gellar, The Rock, Christopher Lambert, John Larroquette, Bai Ling, Jon Lovitz, Mandy Moore, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Miranda Richardson, Seann William Scott, Wallace Shawn, Kevin Smith, Justin Timberlake, and Eli Roth. These people all agreed to appear in this film of their own free will. And most of the performances are pretty good! (If not good, then certainly committed.) It is really important that we all take note of this fact and acknowledge it as proof that anything can happen in this world. ANYTHING.

Oh, something I’ve forgotten to mention is why I keep calling everyone by their actor names. It is because every character name is stupid and nonsensical. Two hours and six minutes to go. Frank, it’s time for drink number three.

Venice Beach, it appears, is a hotbed of criminal activity, including Cheri Oteri trying to buy bullets with a personal check. There’s a cool bit where you see Seann William Scott’s reflection and it’s a half-second off or so; he’s being forced to do something by the Neo-Marxists because they’re holding his twin brother hostage.

Apparently that something is pretending to be a cop and letting The Rock follow him around for movie role research? The role being a cop/schizophrenic in the movie about the end of the world he wrote with Buffy? Oh god drink more Liz. Drink more. Especially now that Seann William Scott is talking about “the N-words.” And how they’re “everywhere.” Oh, but he’s joking! Never mind.

Um. Short version. Let’s do that. The police, operating under orders from Miranda Richardson (who is the Rock’s mother-in-law? I think) raid the Neo-Marxist compound where Seann William Scott’s twin brother (also played by Seann, so let’s just call him Seann 2) is being held. People get shot, but Seann 2 escapes ohgodwhocares.

Oh, meanwhile, Seann 1 has lunch with the Rock at my favorite restaurant on Venice Beach, the Sidewalk Cafe, where I had a very good breakfast sandwich once. They talk about Philosophy And What Not. (PAWN happens a lot in this movie, for the record; I’m glad it breaks down as an easy-to-remember acronym.) Then the Rock follows Bai Ling into Small World Books (which really exists right next to the Sidewalk Cafe) where some old ladies feed him some shit about his screenplay and science.

Okay, I’m not paying attention to this scene where Amy Poehler and Avon Barksdale from The Wire yell at each other oh my god this movie. Wait! Now I have to pay attention, because it was called in as a domestic disturbance and Jon Lovitz (also a cop), the Rock and Sean William Scott went to investigate, and Jon Lovitz killed Avon and Amy (boo!) and the Rock made an awesome scared face and ran away.

UH OH THE ROCK'S ASCARED!

The whole point of the Neo-Marxist plan was exactly that — to capture a racist cop committing a double murder on film thanks to the Rock’s camera — but I don’t think it was supposed to be Jon Lovitz? Oh who cares it’s a fucking miracle when one plot element connects to another in this goddamn movie.

Who’s ready for another drink?!? It’s me. If you were wondering.

Seann 2 is sleeping in a dumpster. Seann 1 just got hit by a car. They’re both fine. Nothing matters ever.

The Rock gets picked up by a limo and brought to the house of his in-laws; his wife, Mandy Moore, is unimpressed. She does decide to bring Buffy to the house to defend her crimes? What crimes those might be, aside from sleeping with The Rock and writing a shitty screenplay with him, is unclear. Also, Mandy’s pregnant? With someone else’s baby? Oh, god, I would say I’m confused but that would involve caring.

Buffy flees after telling The Rock she loves him. Hooray! Oh, not because of that. But because the movie is halfway over!

Oh, so apparently Justin Timberlake’s character is a big deal because he represents one of the soldiers who the American military tested “fluid karma” on, which gave soldiers telepathic abilities and may also lead to the creation of an alternate energy source? We’ll see if that matters at all.

HOORAY! The only scene I was really interested in seeing has finally arrived: Justin Timberlake lip-dubbing The Killers in the arcade of the Santa Monica Pier. I effing love this arcade, largely because of my barely maintained skee-ball addiction, and it’s nice to see it immortalized in film; this scene, of course, comes out of nowhere and has nothing to do with what this movie calls a plot, but it’s still pretty wonderful.

Oh, by the way Frank, this movie has chapter names that I’ve been ignoring because this is not Star Wars, but just so you know we’re now on chapter six. “Wave of Mutilation.” Only one hour left! Seann 1 is looking for his brother. Just so you know.

We’re clearly nearing the dramatic climax of the movie, otherwise known as “everyone sits around with cocktails and is miserable.” The Rock and Mandy Moore struggle to reconnect. The Neo-Marxists head downtown to fuck up a 4th of July concert being held by the Republicans.

Oh, they’re also launching a Mega-Zeppelin (sure) that a whole bunch of the people in this movie happen to be riding on which we know because of the incredibly long montage showing them all hanging out at a fancy party on the Mega-Zeppelin. PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD LET IT EXPLODE SOON.

The Rock ditches Mandy Moore to go skulk around on the Mega-Zeppelin, where he confronts a small pack of scientists who tell him that the doomsday scenario in his screenplay is ACTUALLY REALLY HAPPENING. They talk about PAWN and physics stuff and The Rock sounds very well informed — until they start rambling about how they need to send two identical human souls into the this rift that’s popped up to save the world, through some sort of magical handshake. OH I WONDER IF THE SEANNS MIGHT BE INVOLVED WITH THAT?

And Kevin Smith shows up! I think.

No, that's really Kevin Smith! I think.

Fighting breaks out downtown. The Rock warns his in-laws that they need to evacuate Mega-Zeppelin. The Seanns are reunited! And then they shake hands, which triggers some magical glowy effect… Oh, but that shouldn’t distract us from the Neo-Marxist raid on the secret location where the Republicans are controlling the internet or the Rock, Mandy Moore and Sarah Michelle Gellar having a nice little dance number on the Mega-Zeppelin stage.

Big American party! Everybody disco dancing!

Now everyone is pointing guns to their own heads. Well, one of the Seanns and the Rock are, anyway. And me. I didn’t mention that, though, because I figure it goes without saying. TWELVE MORE MINUTES TWELVE MORE MINUTES MAYBE LESS IF THERE ARE A LOT OF NAMES IN THE CREDITS–

OH WAIT! Someone (this kid who’s been riding around with Seann 1 and ended up on the top of the truck that started levitating when the Seanns inside shook hands) shoots a missile at the Mega-Zeppelin! ALL MY DREAMS HAVE COME TRUE.

Shit blows up. Fireworks. The Seanns merge into a single Seann. Humanity is saved? Who knows. The end. SWEET BLESSED FREEDOM.

I’ve done a very poor job, Frank, of explaining to you some of the more complicated storylines of this film. That is because as I miiiiiiight have mentioned once or twice, there’s no real cohesion to what’s happening. (Oh, and liquor does not smooth the path. Instead, it makes you fall asleep about an hour before the end, requiring that you finish watching the fucking movie the next day and just prolonging the ordeal.)

I have heard that the movie makes a lot more sense if a) you’re extremely familiar with the Book of Revelation or b) you read the 360-page graphic novel prequel. But the latter requires a level of patience that’s currently beyond me.

Perhaps that’s the point of Southland Tales — to depict the breakdown of society with a movie that is breaking down before our very eyes? I almost have to believe that, because this movie demonstrates an amazing commitment to individual moments. With the exception of the exposition-heavy PAWN bullshit, there are some inspired seconds of randomness that are unlike anything you’ll ever see before. And The Rock gives a fantastic performance! When he says “I’m a pimp. And pimps don’t commit suicide,” you BELIEVE HIM.

I mean, Frank, I don’t know what it means. But for some reason, I believe.

Love,
Liz

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About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller, based in Los Angeles, is a writer for the screen and the web, her work including G4's Attack of the Show and the tech blog GigaOM. She also co-hosts the podcast Timey Wimey TV, contributes to the video curation site Here's Some Awesome, and tells her friend Frank about stuff at Liz Tells Frank.

Posted on August 2, 2011, in All the Spoilers, Movies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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