tag: Film

Apr 2010

The Road

I read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize-winning book The Road when it was first published. It was one of the first novels I read upon my return to Dublin and it royally pissed me off. See, I’d written about four chapters of a book that — had I continued it — would have been described as derivative at best, and a total rip-off at worst. In my version, a boy and his mother were walking across a post-apocalyptic America in the hope of somehow getting a boat that would take them to Ireland. I vividly recall the moment, not far into The Road, when my rising frustration erupted into a bellow of “Fuck it!”

I threw the book across the room and went to see if anything of my own work could be salvaged. It couldn’t. Not only were the plots too similar, but — once I’d finally calmed down and read the whole thing — the central themes turned out to be almost identical. It’s fortunate that I hadn’t got further, I suppose.

The Road

Anyhoo, that’s neither here nor there. Having just watched the film, it’s that I want to discuss. And it’s a film that merits discussion. As regular readers of my writing will be aware, I believe that humanity is approaching a crisis… may indeed be in the early stages of it. I don’t believe we’ve reached the point where disaster and complete collapse are inevitable, though. I feel that the sooner we begin planning and implementing steps to avoid calamity, the more chance we have of preventing the sort of bleak outcome envisioned by McCarthy.

Our writers and film-makers — artists of any kind — are often the best weather-vanes our culture has got. Fiction about disasters, whether on paper or celluloid, is certainly nothing new, but the huge amount of it over the past few years seems, to me at least, to be an obvious response to our collective anxieties about Climate Change, peak oil… unsustainability in general. Storm clouds are gathering on our horizon and this has not gone unnoticed.

None of which is meant to imply that the grim and very upsetting picture of the future painted by McCarthy and John Hillcoat (the director of the film adaptation) is likely to happen, or even that I think it’s a genuine possibility. The dark view of humanity presented in The Road isn’t one I necessarily share. Certainly people are capable of even the worst of the atrocities described in the story, but I tend to question the proportion of “bad guys” to “good guys” (to use the parlance of the film). In both book and film we are presented with a world where the people determined to keep the fire of human decency alive are vastly outnumbered by those who have resorted to savagery. It’s my belief, and fervent hope, that this is a pessimistic assessment of the human soul.

The film itself is an amazing piece of work. From the opening scene of vibrant greens, yellows and reds — trees and flowers soon to be extinguished — to the dark browns and greys that characterise the blasted landscape of the majority of the film, The Road is never less than visually impressive. “Visually impressive” may seem like a strange way to describe a film that draws almost exclusively from a palette of washed-out grey, but there’s a haunting quality to the cinematography that prevents it from ever being dull to the eye.

The basic plot revolves around a father and son (The Man and The Boy) attempting to make their way south to the coast. The planet has all but died and almost everyone who remains has resorted to cannabilism to eke out some extra time. The Man is played by Viggo Mortensen in yet another role that marks him out as a truly accomplished actor. He was brilliant in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and even more mesmeric here as a man torn between his willingness to do anything to protect his son and his desire to offer the boy a glimpse of something other than the ugly brutality of the world they find themselves in. He wants to raise his son to be good and decent and noble, but is aware that those traits might well turn out to be liabilities… could even get him killed some day. In one of the central scenes of the film, the boy rebukes his father by telling him that he can no longer tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.

Indeed, we soon come to realise that just as the father is trying to teach his son to be one of the good guys, it is only through this very effort that he himself retains a grip on goodness. Without the need to provide an example to the boy, we suspect that Mortensen’s character would himself be lost; if not to brutality then certainly to death.

The young actor who plays Viggo Mortensen’s son — Kodi Smit-McPhee — is probably the weak link in the film. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a criticism of the kid. He truly and honestly does as good a job as any actor his age could do with the role and he certainly doesn’t constantly irritate the way so many child actors do. But the fact of the matter is, the kind of performance required by the role isn’t one that any child has the emotional maturity to achieve. As I say though, he does as well as anyone his age could and never spoils things.

Quite aside from anything else, Mortensen’s something of a method actor and his haggard looks suggest several weeks of borderline malnutrition. In the one scene where we see the boy’s body, his shrunken torso is clearly the result of some clever CGI… subjecting him to the kind of dietary regime that left Mortensen looking genuinely underfed would be nothing short of child abuse, and this is revealed in his obviously well-fed face. Again though, that’s hardly the kid’s fault.

One of the two most unpleasant images of the book was omitted from the film, but the other was retained (albeit only briefly). Indeed I was quite surprised that the film so rarely strays from the book. On the one hand this has made it a good deal better than almost any of Hollywood’s other apocalypse movies. On the other hand, it ensured that the relentlessly grim atmosphere of McCarthy’s original seeps out through the screen and leaves you feeling rather drained and mildly depressed after watching it.

That said, I’d recommend The Road to fans of good, thoughtful cinema. It’s dark, horrific at times and rarely offers a smile (there’s a single blackly cynical line from Robert Duvall’s character that provides perhaps the only humour in the entire film). Overall, The Road will leave you feeling quite deflated and perhaps even a little troubled. But for all that, it’s a fine film that never betrays the original vision of the book. And how often does one of them come along?

1 comment  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Mar 2010

Four Lions trailer

Still no news on an Irish release date, but the first feature film from ground-breaking broadcaster Chris Morris is poised to hit British cinemas very soon.

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Mar 2010

Avatar 3D

I went into this film with fairly low expectations. I’ve nothing against Hollywood blockbusters and feel no shame about admitting that Michael Ironside intoning “They sucked his brains out!” in Starship Troopers remains one of my favourite cinematic moments of all time. My tastes are quite eclectic; Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano is probably my favourite film-maker (in fact, I watched the glorious Hana-bi again recently. It really is one of the greatest films ever made… dreamlike, moving, violent, funny, hypnotic and as far from a Hollywood blockbuster as you’re likely to get), yet I’ve happily grinned my way through all four Die Hard movies.


Even so, I was quite sceptical about the latest James Cameron spectacular. I’d read some scathing reviews and pretty much convinced myself that the 3D technology wasn’t going to be effective.

That said, I wasn’t going to miss it either. Even the most negative review grudgingly admitted Avatar is visually spectacular. How could it not be, given the absurd amount of money spent ensuring it would be? Throw enough money at a cinema screen and some of it will stick. Plus, there was always a chance that the silly glasses would really work. So if I was going to see it at all, then it probably had to be on a big screen. It’s like being at a U2 concert or watching the space shuttle blast off… whatever you may feel about the content of the experience, if you’re close enough then the way it engages the senses is incredible. Our small monkey brains can’t help but be awed by the sheer scale of what’s happening.

And “awe” is not too hyperbolic a word to be bandying about when it comes to Avatar. The film didn’t just exceed my expectations, it blew them into a billion tiny glowing bits and sent them floating around me like a swarm of fireflies. The 3D effect was far better than I’d expected. It was genuinely magical at times. I’d never been to a 3D film before, but it’s safe to say I’m an instant convert. Thankfully it involved a good deal less “gratuitous objects flying towards your head” than I thought it would. In a movie low on subtlety, the use of 3D was immersive without being over-the-top. Credit to James Cameron for his restraint there, even if nowhere else.

Clearly he knew the visuals were breath-taking enough to generate plenty of “whoa!” moments all by themselves. The clever use of the 3D technology just draws the viewer that little bit further into the experience. So when one of the primary locations in the story is a tree that would dwarf the Burj Dubai, adding a convincing depth of field is more than enough to start the brain reeling. Forcing the viewer to duck as projectiles shot towards them every thirty seconds would merely serve to distract from the splendour.

Which isn’t to say that there’s none of that more obvious use of 3D. The plot of the film involves human colonists (in the form of a dastardly mining corporation backed by gung-ho space marines) trying to relocate, and eventually annihilate, the Na’vi (the indigenous culture on the ecologically pristine planet Pandora). The blue-skinned Na’vi fight with spears and bows-and-arrows. This, of course, allows the spectacular battle sequences to contain the requisite amount of “objects flying at your head” action.

In the reviews I’ve read, the primary criticisms of Avatar centre around the plot and the dialogue. With regards to the plot though, there’s a part of me that disagrees. Yes it’s simple. But, fantastical setting aside, it’s telling an archetypical tale that echoes back into history and is alive and well on our planet today. The destructive exploitation of our ecology at the expense of indigenous cultures — and ultimately ourselves — is not a tale that can be told too often. Nor too loudly. Especially now.

Having said that, I’m well aware that there’s an argument which says that particular story can’t be told in a Hollywood blockbuster. That the medium is the message. An argument convincingly put forward by Citizen S, with whom I went to see Avatar. She found the film entertaining and the 3D very impressive despite not being a fan of the Big Guns & Shiny Metal genre. But she looked upon me with something akin to pity when I started to praise “the message” of the film.

Avatar Big Mac meal

The Big Mac Avatar Meal: Not a parody

The essentially commercial nature of the enterprise undercuts and invalidates any anti-commercial message it tries to send. The calculated manipulative techniques used by the medium to generate the maximum audience, and then the businesses that have grown up to part that audience from their cash — from popcorn to action figures to… well, just think about that pictured tie-in, to the right, for a few seconds… these things are themselves precisely the kind of colonialism the film claims to decry. When the soundtrack swells with those “strings in minor key”, tugging your heart down proscribed pathways, and then shifts abruptly to major chords when the hero strides towards his destiny, you are being trained in a very specific way of looking at the world. And you’re being encouraged to have a hamburger and Coke while you do so. You just can’t dress up an anti-colonialist story about ecological sustainability in half a billion dollar’s worth of industrial light and magic part-sponsored by the McDonald’s Corporation.

I think that was the gist of her argument.

Certainly it began with: “it’s a Hollywood action film. Get a grip.”

And you know, despite the sensory delight and sheen of subversion, there’s certainly something to that.

Although I think perhaps it goes even deeper than that. When what is already the most successful film in history, turns out to be a thinly veiled attack on the very system that allows it to exist, it’s yet more evidence of our deep cultural crisis. Our collective schizophrenia.

Wouldn’t it be mind boggling to encounter a previously unknown Amazonian culture and discover that their most popular story-tellers regularly portrayed the tribe as cynical hypocrites filled with avarice and malice, always in the wrong? And yet the past few decades have been littered with fiction of precisely that nature. Whether it’s Dances With Wolves (of which Avatar is essentially a remake with an upbeat ending) or Cameron’s own Aliens (“You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage”) or the plethora of “apocalypse as thrilling entertainment” flicks. Besides our own, is there a single culture we’ve ever known, whose great stories and myths regularly portray themselves as the bad guys?

Whether or not we can take heart in the positive aspects of Avatar’s plot, it is clearly part of a body of work that suggests we are a culture in the grip of a nervous breakdown.

And how much hope can we take in the fact, that while the most popular film in history is not telling a story that celebrates unsustainability, its very existence does?

So to speak.

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Jan 2010

Chris Morris, film director

It’s a nailed-on certainty that the Daily Mail is going to have an outrage-athon when it’s released (the premiere is tonight at The Sundance Festival). But if the first feature film from Chris Morris (Day Today, Blue Jam, Brass Eye, etc.) is half as funny as this clip implies, then it’s also a nailed-on certainty that it’ll be worth seeing. Four Lions is being described as “jihadist comedy”.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Video

Nov 2009

The Invention of Lying

The Invention of Lying is painfully unfunny. Ricky Gervais is talented and can be a funny man, but he missed the target this time. A one-joke film in which the joke makes less and less sense the more you think about it. Within ten minutes I was finding the entire premise irritating rather than amusing. There’s a hint of clever satire but it’s completely drowned as a painful romance between Gervais’ character and one of the least likeable and sympathetic characters ever to appear on screen plays out in a world requiring more belief-suspension than is technically possible.

The Invention of Lying

The Invention of Lying: Not a funny film, sadly.

Nobody can tell a lie, it seems. You can just about buy into that idea for 90 minutes. But it appears that everyone must always blurt out their worst thoughts at inopportune moments even when not asked a direct question. Not that they’re in a constant stream-of-consciousness; it just happens for comic effect. So it becomes a world filled with obnoxious tactless morons, not honest people. Even that might have survived as an enjoyable film had the writing and plot risen above the average, but they don’t. The protagonist falls in love with the most shallow and unlikeable woman in a world full of them, making it impossible to feel anything but relief when she spurns his advances and incredulity when she finally succumbs to his charms. Charms which consist essentially of (a) that she occasionally laughs when he’s around — though we don’t actually see very much of that, and (b) his dishonestly-acquired wealth and success. Her conversion is complete when she encounters a “chubby” kid being bullied in a park in one of the most cringe-inducing scenes in cinema history (she didn’t want “chubby, snub-nosed children”, you see?)

An idea that might have had some potential is squandered by writing that tries at turns to be mainstream romcom, social satire and crass sex-comedy and never convinces with any of them. Overall, avoid.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Nov 2009


Sadly, despite high expectations, the last film I reviewed (The Invention of Lying) turned out to be a turkey. So I’m glad, this time, to be able to point you towards a comedy that’s actually funny.


Zombieland: A very funny film.

And Zombieland is just that — a comedy. If you’re in the mood for a horror film, or even for a comedy-horror film, then Zombieland won’t scratch that itch. There’s blood and gore aplenty plus more Harrelson-on-Zombie violence than you can shake a banjo at, but because the entire film is played for laughs, and because the violence is of the Itchy ‘n’ Scratchy variety (one zombie is even killed by having a piano dropped on it from a building), there’s never a single moment of genuine horror. I’m not even sure there’s a single moment where the viewer is supposed to jump in fright; it’s a screwball action comedy set in a post-Zombie-Apocalypse America.

But it’s a very funny screwball action comedy set in a post-Zombie-Apocalypse America. The film follows Columbus, a college student, as he survives against all the odds in a world where pretty much everyone else has become a zombie thanks to a contaminated service-station burger (“Remember mad cow disease? Well, mad cow became mad person became mad zombie…”) The four characters (and with the exception of one of the great “As Himself” cameo appearances in cinema history, and a couple of brief flashbacks, there are only four characters in the film — the rest are interchangeable undead) are referred to by the name of the town they were born in — the aforementioned Columbus who narrates with a wonderfully dry self-deprecation, the girl he’s trying to get together with (Wichita), her 12-year old sister (Little Rock) and the ass-kicking Tallahassee played by Woody Harrelson who gets most of the good lines and steals almost every scene (“When Tallahassee gets going, he sets the standard for “not to be fucked with”).

The central running gag concerns The Rules For Surviving Zombieland, as drawn up by Columbus, which appear as three dimensional text that interact with the scene whenever they’re referred to. It’s not overdone and because the film — aware of its limitations and realising it’s more a live-action cartoon than a feature film — is only 88 minutes long including credits, you’re left wanting more rather than ending up tired of the joke.

And speaking of cartoons, it didn’t surprise me to learn that the film was co-written by Rhett Reese, one of the writers of Pixar’s glorious animated comedy Monsters, Inc. Despite the over-the-top gore and violence of Zombieland, there’s a similarity to the humour that shines right through.

The motivations of the characters (beyond mere survival) are similarly cartoonish. The two girls are travelling across the country to go to an amusement park they used to visit. Columbus was originally trying to return home but quickly realises he’s playing the “cherche la femme” role. And Tallahassee’s on the road trip because he’s searching for a final Twinkie before they all go out of date (“Pretty soon life’s little Twinkie gauge is gonna go empty”). Together they kill a bunch of zombies in imaginative ways and exchange some of the funniest Tarantinoesque dialogue to hit cinema screens for a few years. The way Harrelson delivers lines like “I hate coconut. Not the taste; the consistency” or “I haven’t cried like that since Titanic” had me clapping my hands with mirth, and right at the end of the movie his delivery of the three words “It’s too soon” had me weeping with laughter. You’ll understand if you see it.

I’m struggling to think of a film I enjoyed more this year. It’s as low brow as they come. It’s unashamedly silly and lightweight and isn’t going to change anyone’s life. But it is pure, unadulterated fun. It had me laughing from the first scene and rarely let up until the credits arrived. If you’re haemophobic, then it’s probably not the movie for you. Everyone else should check it out for an hour and a half of genuine hilarity.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

May 2009

Ritchie Downey Holmes?

I like Robert Downey, Jr. I think he’s a genuinely fine actor though admittedly it’s been difficult to discern that amidst the CGI and explosions of recent movies.

I adore Sherlock Holmes. For all the flaws, they are ripping yarns and feature a truly engaging protagonist.

And although everything he’s done since has been mind-numbingly awful, I quite enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s first two feature films.

But I had real doubts that anything good could come from combining the three. If the trailer is anything to go by (and it may not be), I was sadly right about that.

Witness Sherlock Holmes as Action Hero and Ladies’ Man. Ouch indeed.

Tip o’ the hat to Chicken Yoghurt.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video, Opinion

May 2009

Movie annual

Almost a year ago, I succumbed to one of those little blog memes that involves listing a bunch of your favourite stuff. In that case it was choosing an album for each year of your life. Silly but diverting, and a bit of fun. Albeit a geekish kind of fun. And prone to throwing up some bizarre mind-benders. Strangeways, Here We Come or Sign ‘O’ The Times…? The very idea of trying to compare those two albums! So when all’s said and done, you go for the one that reminds you of that summer in Greece. And you slip a different Smiths album in somewhere else.

Anyhoo, an email arrived recently from Mahalia. It appears to have taken a year for someone to make the radical imaginative leap of substituting the word “album” with “movie”.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Apr 2009

Meandering nonsense

There’s plenty of catching up to do. Plenty of “Previous posts” links to be clicking. Though browsing through my blogroll, I find that it’s been quieter than usual all round. It’s not just been me.

Larry‘s only had four posts since Chrimbo for instance. Mind you, one of those was a video of a man playing Angels We Have Heard On High on a piece of broccoli. I’ll take quality over quantity every time, and it doesn’t get much better than a man playing Angels We Have Heard On High on a piece of broccoli.

An anecdote about my life as an engineer

John B’s been over in Haiti. I came within a mildly amusing anecdote of spending a few months in Haiti in 1996 but it involves a corporate blunder that’s almost certainly still covered by confidentiality clauses, so I’ll have to be vague.

At the time I was working for an engineering consultancy that specialised in managing medium-sized projects for US corporations (food and beverage mostly, but there was bits and pieces of other stuff). The company had built its reputation on handling projects in what were euphemistically known as “hardship locations”… Nigeria, Angola, Ghana, Tanzania, the Middle East, the Philippines. Though by the time I joined they’d shifted both into working in ‘first world’ countries and also to the “new hardship locations” of the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia.

In early 1996 a multinational corporation contacted us. An almighty cock-up had been made in Haiti and our company was one of a small group who had the expertise to put it right. Because there was a certain level of political sensitivity involved, there was a kind of “name your price” air to the whole thing. I put together our quote for the job and was encouraged to “be generous” with the budget by my boss; the company owner. I’m talking about the high side of reasonable here, you understand, not silly. The project had a healthy profit margin, but still we looked certain to win the contract.

I’d begun preparing to head out there. Seven of us would go out. Myself, a director of the company, and five engineers. After a couple of weeks, the director would head home and I’d run the thing for the next twelve weeks or so. It was to be the third project I’d managed, but the first in a hardship location… and what a location! Admittedly, our project would entail spending most of our time in a secure compound well away from population centres. So it’s not as if we were going to be hanging out in downtown Port-au-Prince every evening. All the same, it was a pretty daunting prospect and I had more than a few sleepless nights freaking out about it.

The day before I was due to fly out for a preliminary visit we got word that the project was put on hold. I don’t recall ever being so relieved. A part of me was excited by the prospect of visiting the place, but it was a small part. Overshadowed significantly, I might add, by a far larger anxiety about running a site office and managing a bunch of men, many of whom were twice my age, for three months. In Haiti. In fairness to my boss, and contrary to how I may come across here, I was actually quite good at that kind of thing at the time. It’s not like he was sending some blithering academic off to fix stuff in Haiti. Even so, I was mightily relieved when I informed the office secretary to cancel my travel plans.

The company was expanding at the time. We were being asked to quote on far more work than we could possibly do and despite moving to larger premises and taking on more staff, we were actually turning down as many projects as we were taking on. So losing Haiti wasn’t all that big a deal. Within a week I was looking at the schematics for a plant in Baku.

For the next couple of months the Haiti project was on-again / off-again. It was getting on my nerves, and it was pissing off my boss. Over a liquid lunch one afternoon, he brought up the subject and vented his exasperation at trying to get anything organised in Haiti. The place was, he assured me, impossible to deal with. This from a guy who’d built factories in Angola and Northern Nigeria.

“Yeah, and that’s without the voodoo! Just wait ’til one of the lads pisses off a local voodoo priest. It’ll be The Serpent and The Rainbow all over again”. I was laughing, but my boss’s interest had been piqued. What was The Serpent and The Rainbow, he wanted to know? I told him it was a book and then a movie about Haitian voodoo and was supposedly based upon a true story. We chatted about voodoo for a while and I told him to rent the movie from the video shop if he got the chance.

He did. And clearly a bit squiffy from a few ales, he sat down to watch it that evening.

Now, I don’t know about you, but there are one or two horror movies that — for me — stand far above the rest… films that got to me. Got to me at a level that most horror films, even the very good ones, never get to. Films that crept inside me and did nasty things to my mind when I lay down in my bed at night. And it’s not about the quality of the film; it’s about the time and place you see it. Set and setting. How you’re feeling, what’s been on your mind, what you’ve eaten, drank or smoked. For me, An American Werewolf in London was one of those films.

For my boss, it turns out, The Serpent and The Rainbow was one of those films.

We’d had that drink on Friday afternoon. By Monday morning he’d read most of the book and was in something of a state. That afternoon he made a call to New York and withdrew our involvement in the Haiti project.

Now, I’m not saying that we’d still have pulled out if economic conditions had been different and there hadn’t been other work to do. And the way we’d been jerked around for so long certainly hadn’t helped. But The Serpent and The Rainbow was very much the straw that broke the camel’s back. The fact that my boss rented that movie on that particular night and it scared ten shades of shit out of him is almost certainly the reason I didn’t go to Haiti in the mid 90s.

So yeah.

There you have it. Well, I did say it was a mildly amusing anecdote. Though I must admit, it certainly went on for longer than I’d anticipated.

But look, it is almost 4am. I’m very close to nodding off. And I wanted to get something up here tonight but the thing I’m writing about nuclear power isn’t quite right yet, and the thing about police brutality and civil protest just isn’t hanging together either. At least this meandering nonsense is labelled as such.

Mr. Byrne’s Big Suit Built
Gail Blacker

Is that one of the best film credits ever?

And is this one of the best opening paragraphs to a blog post ever…?

The approval ratings of Austrian rapist Josef Fritzl have fallen below Gordon Brown’s according to a Daily Mirror YouGov poll published today which suggests that Brown would win a 20-seat majority at the next election if the Conservative Party were led by Fritzl.

Certainly when you add it to the closing paragraph of Harry’s prior post, it’s clear that despite the lack of quantity, Chase Me Ladies, I’m In The Cavalry… is also still providing high quality:

I honestly believe him to be insane. And the fact that this very dangerous lunatic is still poking his nose into the Middle East shows that Blair remains one of the most serious threats to our national security, and that his arrest and execution should be matters of the highest priority.

Harry Hutton, Blair Must Hang

There have been plenty more pearls amongst the online swine during my absence. I’ll get to them in due course. I’m travelling a lot over the next couple of weeks. London. Then Serbia. But I’ll try to post as often as possible, even if only briefly. For now, I’ll leave you with Politicari + Virusi (Politicians and Viruses) from Serbian band, Disciplin A Kitschme.

Vocals, drums, bass and effects pedals. Who needs a lead guitar?

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Apr 2008

Southland Tales

I’ve just finished watching Southland Tales, the second feature film from writer / director Richard Kelly. His first, Donnie Darko, is one of my favourite films from the past ten years and — despite Kelly’s protestations that it’s basically a straight piece of science-fiction — I see Donnie Darko as one of cinema’s better portrayals of schizophrenia.

Southland Tales

Southland Tales, on the other hand, is indeed — fairly unambiguously — a science-fiction flick, albeit one which is a damn sight more psychedelic than most. Thematically, it draws heavily on Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron’s millennial thriller, Strange Days, as well as the little known, and rather under-rated, Wild Palms (a TV mini-series from the early 90s that still inhabits my dreams to this day, and which has forever coloured the 60s rock classic, House of The Rising Sun… a song that’s never been the same for me since soundtracking Brad Dourif’s death in Wild Palms). While structurally, Southland Tales is an ensemble piece that owes a great deal to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (released, incidentally, the same year as Wild Palms).

The first thing to say about Southland Tales is that it’s a mess. The second thing to say is that it’s a glorious mess. A beautiful, fascinating, utterly trippy mess. Unlike Donnie Darko, which combined a wonderful visual style with some compelling and engaging characters, Southland Tales is all about the style. Which is not to suggest that it’s a case of style over substance. The substance of the film — the ideas — make for a fascinating couple of hours, but there’s no emotional engagement with the characters (though, of course, it’s difficult for me to engage with Sarah Michelle Gellar as anyone other than Buffy… one of my all-time screen heroines).

And that isn’t a complaint about the acting per se; there’s just no emotional depth to the characters they are portraying. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson does as good a job as any actor could have with his character(s). As indeed do all of the others, though it’s only Seann William Scott and — oddly enough — Justin Timberlake who are called upon to provide any kind of emotional content; which they do competently enough.

The film opens in contemporary America. We see home-movie footage of an Independence Day celebration in Texas culminating in a shot of a mushroom cloud on the horizon. It then jumps forward a handful of years. We learn that terrorists detonated two nuclear bombs in Texas that day. As a result, the entire Middle East is a war-zone and the United States has descended into near chaos; with a brutal, repressive totalitarian government barely managing to stave off outright revolution. Police sniper towers dot the city (the film is set entirely in Los Angeles) and people are gunned down with impunity if there’s even a suspicion that they might be engaged in criminal activity. We also discover that the war in the Middle East has all but dried up the supply of oil from the region and America is close to collapse.

Now, if you ask me, that there is the guts of a great film and one which Richard Kelly — based on the talent shown in Donnie Darko — could have turned into a masterpiece. But to that is added yet another thick layer of ideas… in the desperate search for an alternative energy source, America has turned to a revolutionary new technology which exploits “quantum entanglement” in the ocean currents to produce limitless electricity which can be transmitted wirelessly to any location in America. This technology, however, is having unpredictable environmental effects.

So Southland Tales tries to address both The War Against Terror and a kind of accelerated Climate Change scenario. But that’s not enough. There’s yet another strand to the plot involving a strange new drug; Fluid Karma; which comes in several flavours providing a range of different mystical experiences. And on top of that, there’s rifts in space-time, time-travel paradoxes, messianic metaphors and a meta-narrative (involving one of the characters writing a screenplay that begins to mirror the plot of the film itself).

As I say; it’s a mess. But it’s a spectacular mess. Southland Tales is as far from the mundane mainstream as you’re likely to get and I salute Kelly for that much at least. It is — as mentioned previously — a very psychedelic film in places. Had it been released in the early 90s during my heavy-duty acid days, it would have utterly delighted me. Like Wild Palms, it would — I warrant — still linger in my dreams. With a clear head, however, it’s a rather unsatisfactory film overall. It never quite descends into sheer silliness, but it comes far too close for comfort and the Repo Man-esque allusions close to the end merely serve to damage Southland Tales by comparison. Whereas Alex Cox’s classic took a single concept and created a mythology with it, Kelly’s film takes a dozen concepts — each perfectly fine on its own — and fails to adequately explore any of them.

Overall though, Southland Tales is definitely worth a watch if you’re at all interested in non-mainstream cinema. It’s funny in places, always lovely to look at, and occasionally very very good indeed. The use of music — as with Donnie Darko — is quite wonderful. A track by The Killers (which I don’t actually think is a great song) becomes a bizarre hallucinogenic trip experienced by Justin Timberlake’s wounded and psychotic war veteran, while a line from Jane’s Addiction’s Three Days is turned into a kind of prophetic, mystical mantra.

Whatever you do, don’t watch this film expecting anything close to the quality of Donnie Darko. But don’t miss it either. As a piece of odd psychedelia it’s up there with The Monkee’s Head. As a feature film, it’s a complete mess.

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