Monday, November 19, 2007

LIMITS OF VISION: SOUTHLAND TALES and TRANSFORMERS

”If Southland’s smugness doesn’t get to you, then its barriers of built-in self-protection should. The film is designed so that any of the obvious critical grenades one can lob at it can be deflected with the force of a fly swatter: try “scattershot,” “messy,” “inelegant,” “politically confused” and its defenders will follow the Richard Kelly line, that it’s supposed to be that way (its idiocies and logic lapses are safeguarded by the fact that all its characters are idiots or amnesiacs), and what better way to deal with the “current moment” than to stab out in all directions, using a host of multimedia techniques, juggled genres, tonal inconsistencies, etc.? Yet Kelly can’t harness all of these approaches: it’s an actual mishmash disguised as an intended mishmash, lacking not in narrative coherence so much as a verifiable ideology. Comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut only make the mousiness of Southland all the more evident: it’s the filmic equivalent of the diary doodling of a high-school daydreamer who just read Cat’s Cradle for the first time.”

-- ReverseShot’s Michael Koresky on writer-director Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales

Southland Tales aims for disorientation right from the get-go, using a multi-screen, mutli-tasking Windows 2008 approach to its overstimulated narrative, a wide-screen pop nihilistic jamboree. It’s all in service to an overreaching satire on-- or is it a barely-exaggerated representation of-- our overstimulated, distracted, disjointed times. (The unwashed masses who make it all the way to the end—I barely did—won’t be surprised to find out the movie literally is, as implied in its chapter IV, V & VI structure, the middle section of an equally overstuffed graphic novel.) But, as Michael Koresky implies in his piece for ReverseShot, an excellent rejoinder to the defensive feints and jabs of positive assessments from the likes of Amy Taubin and J. Hoberman, it’s a disorientation that is also meant to mask the movie’s essential inability to grasp onto any one idea long enough to ride it to its logical conclusion.

Both Taubin’s and Hoberman’s reviews spent unusual (for them) amounts of space on the film’s beleaguered history and on trying “desperately” to describe the plot (“desperately” is Taubin’s word of choice for the futile endeavor). And Hoberman finally just gives up and goes with, as Taubin would have it, the movie’s lysergic flow—“Southland Tales is obsessed but not overweening, free-associational yet confident,” he writes. “Kelly's movie may not be entirely coherent, but that's because there's so much it wants to say.” I’d say it’s a movie that seems to want to rack up points—and it’s doing just that in some circles, judging by Hoberman’s comment—based on the sheer volume of shots that miss the target either partially or entirely.

I got the feeling that if Southland Tales were more coherent, Kelly and his defenders might feel the movie was less provocative, might have to admit to its conventionality. But there’s just no way to get the post-millennial hangover really throbbing unless Kelly throws as much at the screen as possible and scrambles the audience’s perceptions to the point that they’ll wear down and accept just about anything (or, worst-case scenario, reject it all). The problem is, Kelly mounts and paces his counterculture screed with the shallowest of understanding, as Koresky observes, of the history of the Marxist extremism he’s skewering, and he employs the same tiresome cartoon buffoonery with which he pole-axed right-wing conservatism in Donnie Darko to the right-wing nut jobs running loose here. And he’s no more subtle as a simple storyteller. The director deliberately cuts back and forth between the three main protagonists with thudding, dispiriting, metronomic reliability—he brings the same unwavering gravity, and the same tin ear and eye for witticisms and slapstick, to each new set piece, until the movie, for all its P.T. Barnum craziness, achieves a singular kind of cacophonic monotony. He doesn’t have much knack for the on-screen violence he likes to occasionally employ for shock effect either. I felt sorry for Sab Shimono, who gets his hand chopped off on screen, not because, hey, that’s gotta hurt, but because Kelly lets him writhe on screen unblinkingly, for an embarrassing length of time while the stump sprays red and cosmeticized freaks Wallace Shawn and Bai Ling, the chopper, look on amused.

Unfortunately, the rest of the actors simply seem confused. Whether we’re in the company of the amnesiac movie star turned dazed political activist (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, amusing even when he’s cued to perform with a weird series of tics that wouldn’t have seemed subtle in The Perils of Pauline), the amnesiac Iraq war veteran-turned cop (a one-note Seann William Scott), or the scarred, glowering Iraq war veteran-turned-civilian guard (a scarred, glowering Justin Timberlake, spouting Kelly’s favored Revelations quotations) stationed on Venice Beach, all of whom may represent three sides of the same fractured personality in Kelly’s vision, they’re really only ones and zeroes, pawns in Kelly’s digi-carnival free-for-all. And to no great end-- the movie spends all its energy alternating between high-tech horror-comedy and surrealistic fantasy that it quickly loses its fizz in a Panavision screen filled with white noise. Venice Beach, of course, is already ground zero for pre- and post-apocalyptic freaky self-expression, where all the elements of the end of the world gather for the big bang. (“The world ends not with a whimper, but a bang,” goes the oft-repeated turn of phrase which is meant to be grimly funny, but just sounds leaden coming out of Timberlake’s mouth). But despite Kelly’s every-shot-a-new-cameo approach (Cheri Oteri, Nora Dunn, Christopher Lambert, Zelda Rubenstein, John Larroquette and, in a heavy-duty make-up appliance, Kevin Smith head a small army of folks you never want to see on screen again after this) and the presence of Gen Y hotties Sarah Michelle Gellar and Mandy Moore (neither of which have much to do), none of them are much more than celebrity eye candy. Kelly doesn't even display much feel for even this most textile and obviously cinematic locale-- Venice here hasn't the sinister fire that Kathryn Bigelow and Matthew F. Leonetti briefly infused it with in Strange Days (The brackish cinematography is by Darko’s talented Steven Poster). Southland Tales is apocalyptic comedy from a director too busy raising the stakes on his own nascent reputation as a filmmaker to set up a good, honest laugh, much less one that catches in our collective throats, as the world turns in the shadow of a mushroom cloud.

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Richard Kelly makes sociologically, psychologically tinged science-fiction puzzle boxes that are, when they are amusing (Donnie Darko), more fun in the contemplation than in the figuring out. (If anyone ever did make a convincing case for a through line in Southland Tales, then I fear we’d all really be in for a dour time.) Michael Bay, on the other hand, makes big, loud Hollywood movies that go boom. And even counting the segments of the downright weird Bad Boys II that were chunks of inspired highway mayhem, there isn’t a movie in Bay’s oeuvre that isn’t at least almost entirely stupid. Transformers doesn’t really change that formula— in fact, its stupidity is right there on the surface. The director doesn’t try to trick it up (The Island) or make you seem like a poor sport for not swallowing it whole (Armageddon). Transformers is, in every significant way, the ultimate Michael Bay movie, the essence of his arrested adolescent aesthetic— reduced to its essentials, it is nothing more than a bunch of big, overgrown boys (and a couple of young female beauties too, of course) playing in the desert with big toys (based on actual toys). The difference is, Transformers is also, despite my every instinct to resist it (and I tried to resist it), a lot of fun and, as much as a movie about 10-ton heavy metal warriors from outer space can be, it has a lightness of spirit.

I was too old to have ever been caught up in the original wave of Transformers mania in the ‘80s, so the movie’s bid for nostalgic sympathy holds no sway over me. But these shenanigans, mounted with the seriousness a 10-year-old would bring to a scenario of intergalactic warfare carried out between plastic Megatrons and Optimus Primes on Earth’s neutral backyard soil, are pitched perfectly, backed up by the year’s gaudiest, funniest special effects. And Bay makes a rare right choice when it comes to the human beings too—choice ham steaks like Jon Voight and Kevin Dunn play it straight, Shia LeBeouf displays his usual sharp way with words and that sleepy stare of disbelief, and best of all, John Turturro brings an edge of uncut weirdness by playing the whole shooting match straight as an arrow (until he takes off his government suit, that is). I got a huge kick out of watching all these actors delivering neat, no chaser, all their nonsensical dialogue, much of which surrounds what a race of Autobots, who for some reason turn into vehicles, will do next in their quest to turn downtown Los Angeles into a rock quarry. After seeing it on DVD, I actually regretted avoiding this one in theaters this summer. And I still wanted to see a real movie after seeing Transformers, one that knows that value of a held shot or a brilliant acting turn (up next: No Country for Old Men?). But for once, Bay’s excesses seemed innocuous, almost (dare I say it?) charming in their simultaneous fluidity and the lunk-headed aggression of their CGI campaign to sell action figures. Maybe the dumb mechanics of Michael Bay are less nutritious than Richard Kelly’s striving, self-important satire (I said maybe), but at least I didn’t feel cheated afterward. Richard Kelly is selling high-tech snake oil, but Michael Bay’s biggest crime this time around is truth in advertising.

7 comments:

bill said...

I had no interest in either one of these movies. I enjoyed "Donnie Darko", but in interviews about "Southland Tales" Richard Kelly has come off as unbearably smug, self-important, and quite frankly stupid, and he turned me right off his latest opus. Plus, the reviews haven't helped.

And my ability to appreciate big dumb action movies has sadly waned. I'm not trying to puff myself up by claiming I've matured, or anything; I just simply don't enjoy them very much. But now I'll have to add you, Dennis, to the admittedly small but influential group of people who have basically said to me that if I have any shred of appreciation left for such movies buried deep within me, "Transformers" will root it out. Sigh...maybe I'll rent it this weekend.

Grover said...

Haven't seen Southland (though i could - I'm shocked at how widely it's been released - it's showing in three theaters within driving distance - to compare, that's two more than are currently showing No Country For Old Men).

Transformers was a major disappointment as a theatrical experience - mostly, I think, because I sat too close to the screen and was, therefore, completely lost during the action sequences. When my friends later oohed and aahed over them, all I could wonder was which thrashing blur of metal they were talking about. Needless to say, the rest of the movie, which I thought was mostly stupid and only occasionally charming, didn't do much for me in that context. Personally, I would've rather seen more of an ET story (at first, don't get me wrong, I wanted to see shit blown up as much as the next guy). I think if the film had focused more on what's his face (the kid) and his car, and saved the military BS (and btw, Michael Bay is THE greatest military propogandist of his generation) for later, it would've been a much cooler movie.

Bob said...

I guess it's my turn to be the cheerful (?) semi-contrarian. Haven't seen "Southland Tales", and my DVD of "Donnie Darko" sits, unseen -- but Richard Kelly did write a hoot of a strange-oh bad/great script for the my ultimate quasi-guilty pleasure, "Domino" a couple of years back. I'm kind of expecting..hell, I don't know what I'm expecting this one, but I'm sure I'll see it, eventually.

And, as for "Transformers" -- it was a rare theatrical walk-out (using a free ticket). I wasn't one-bit charmed by it and was increasingly annoyed by the bad jokes and the fact that the male characters all have precisely one trait that's not exactly unusual (Shia LaBoeuf as a teenage boy who...likes girls; Josh Duhammel as a soldier who...would like to not die, etc.) while the female characters have no non-physical traits at all. I'm used to cardboard characters, but this was more like onion skin. Wet onion skin.

For me, special effects have always been a secondary pleasure, and now that they're relatively easy, sort of tertiary. I miss Ray Harryhausen. Somehow, when they were harder, they were also more fun. Otherwise, they should be in service to the story -- that's why LOTR worked so beautifully not because it had great SFX, but because it used them so well.

I actually liked "The Rock" a great deal more (at least I remember a couple of decent characters and some funny dialogue in there, though perhaps the mind plays tricks), and will return to my "avoid M. Bay like the plague" M.O.

bill said...

I couldn't get through "Domino". Or, rather, I kept dozing off (I was taking medication at the time which caused this) and by the time the movie was over, I'd missed probably a good half hour, in bits and pieces, and I just didn't care. But I saw Tom Waits's appearance, which was a big reason I rented it in the first place.

If Kelly ever gets around to adapting "The Box", based on the Richard Matheson story, I'll give him another go. Until then, however...

Peet Gelderblom said...

I'm no Bay fan, but I went to Transformers together with my oldest son and we had a ball together. Giant robots, huge explosions, sweating hardbodies and an overdose of testosteron: This movie practically delineates Bay's comfort zone. As long as he sticks to these parameters and not an inch further, I'm game.

L. Rob Hubb said...

Saw SOUTHLAND last night and just finished writing about it on my blog...

Bottom line: SOUTHLAND TALES is the BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS of the Millennium Generation.

patrick said...

Dwayne Johnson and J.Timberlake are surprisingly talented actors; but i'm still trying to figure out what Southland Tales was about... maybe it's really obvious, i.e. life in Los Angeles is blurred, cluttered, flashy and not always meaningful.