Wednesday, May 15, 2013


As a long-time fan of “quirky” movies, I was predestined to enjoy Richard Kelly’s debut feature film, the quirk-filled Donnie Darko. Taken as I was with the theatrical release, I was very excited about the upcoming “Director’s Cut” and to prep for it, I listened to the director’s commentary on the original DVD. About ten minutes into it, director Kelly said something that threw me off completely:

“And from this point on we’re in the alternate universe…”
“What?” I said. I literally said this to the television and demanded Kelly to repeat what he said. I’d watched Donnie Darko a couple of times prior to the commentary and his pronouncement caught me completely off-guard, making me question not only my understanding of his movie, but his understanding of his movie. Like most viewers, I considered the titular Donnie’s journey throughout the film to be a Lynchian dreamscape while his awake body quivered with fear over nuclear destruction, just as we all did in the ‘80s. When I viewed the “Director’s Cut”, I saw where Kelly labored to leave additional clues to time travel and alternate time lines, but I still felt, in the end, that I never would have come to those conclusions without him telling me. His commentary definitely changed my view of the film. Where before I thought it was enjoyable, trippy and intelligent, I was now thinking of it as a muddled, metaphysical mess.
So it came as no surprise to me when  his sophomore film, the $17 million dollar-plus Southland Tales, with its stunt cast and visual tics, I viewed it as a plainly, laid-right-out-there-in-front-of-god-and-everybody, muddled, semi-metaphysical mess, albeit with some ham-handed satire. I enjoyed it, in much the same way I love fever dreams like Forbidden Zone and Dr. Caligari, but my final thought was that every scene was terrific, but none of them were actually in the same movie.
The film’s sprawling narrative takes us from a nuclear blast in Abilene, Texas, in 2005, to the “present” of 2008, where America is in the middle of a tight electorial race (the shudder-inducing Clinton/Lieberman vs. Eliot/Frost), is under the constant watch of Orwelian surveillance via the company USIDent (overseen by Bobby Frost’s wife, Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson), is on the threshold of a new Tesla-esque machine that will turn the ocean into a perpetual motion machine of renewable energy, and an extreme Democratic Left-turned-terrorists, weilding guns and poetry and going under the umbrella of “Neo-Marxists”.
But that’s all background. The meat of the story involves an action movie star named Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) (married to Madeline Frost, daughter of Republican VP nominate Sen. Bobby Frost), who has been missing but was found with amnesia by porn-star-turned-talk-show-host Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar, who’s line about “I like to get fucked and I like to get fucked hard. But violence has no place in porn. That’s why I don’t do anal.” Surely caused some fanboy heads to explode.) The two of them wrote a screenplay called The Power, in which both will star, that tells about the last three days of the world, as prophesized by a newborn baby that has not produced a bowel movement in almost a week. To research his part, Krysta arranges for Boxer to ride-along with Officer Roland Taverner (an appropriately bewildered Seann William Scott).
Parallel to this, a Neo-Marxist group run by Cindy Pinziki (Nora Dunn) and Zora Carmichaels (Cheri Oteri) have hatched a plot to rig the election using “donated” severed thumbs, whose prints can be reused in multiple districts. Cindy (as “Deep Throat 2”) is also in possession of an incriminating sex tape starring Boxer and Krysta that could only spell scandall to the Frost campaign if released. In exchange for this tape she demands one million dollars and a vote of “Yes” on “Prop 69”, which will limit the powers of USIDent.
The third part of their plot seems to have been Zora’s brainchild. She forces the amnesiac Ronald Taverner to kidnap his twin policeman brother to pose as him and manipulate Boxer’s ride-along. The plan is to catch “Roland”, a “racist cop”, gunning down activist performance artists Dion Element and Dream (Amy Poehler), using blanks and squibs, of course. Once Boxer catches this assassination on tape, it can be used as further leverage against the campaign and Frost advisor Vaughn Smallhouse (John Laroquette).
Thirdly, there is Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), grandson of Karl Marx’s wife Jenny Von Westphalen, who is the genius behind “Fluid Karma”, the gigantic machine that harnesses the oceans waves to produce a continent-wide energy field to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil—from which we’ve been embargoed anyway due to four Middle East Wars (Iraq, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan). But the Baron, far from a philanthropist, wants to use Fluid Karma for world domination.
Finally there’s the narrator, Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a disfigured war vet, omnicient from his perch in an anti-aircraft turret, who has ties to the major players, deals a drug version of “Fluid Karma” from his arcade on the Santa Monica pier, and warns us from the beginning, “This is the way the world ends: not with a whimper, but a bang.”
This reworking of the T.S. Eliot poem, “The Hollow Men”, is reiterated several times throughout the film. As are lyrics from Jane’s Addiction’s “Three Days”, The Killer’s “All the Things I’ve Done” (which is used as an extended music video-dream sequence starring Pilot Abilene and a group of nurses who are meant to look like Marilyn Monroe, but bear the platinum locks of Jean Harlow). The question is, are these lines meant to represent the weight of the narrative, or are they misdirects, giving over the propecy to dialogue like, “I am a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide.”?
I’m going to make a grand, sweeping statement that anyone will find Southland Tales impenetrable on first viewing, and may very well conclude at the nebulous anti-climax that it isn’t worth a second. That was certainly my attitude as the credits rolled. But something nagged at me. And continued to nag at me for a couple of years. Was there more to this pseudo-satirical jab at celebrity worship, government over-reach, fascism, Marxism, action film parody and theoretical physics than just all of the ingredients fed into a salad shooter and sprayed all over the viewer? Or is this another Donnie Darko, that will only make complete sense to its creator?
As I’ve found, on subsequent viewings, that the answer is probably a combination of the two.
When Kelly debuted a rough near-3 hour cut of Southland Tales at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, it was met with jeers, boos and walk-outs. Notoriously, Roger Ebert wrote that it was as big a disaster as his most-hated The Brown Bunny. But Sony found promise in it and agreed to bankroll $1M worth of visual effects for completion if Kelly agreed to lose at least 20 minutes of running time. 

“Part of me feels like I got away with murder,” Mr. Kelly, 32, said in a recent interview in Manhattan. “It’s a film some people might consider an inaccessible B movie, and it’s been slaughtered at the biggest film festival in the world. They could have been like, ‘You want more money now?’” (NY Times, by Dennis Lim, 10/28/2007
Returning to the editing room, Kelly removed the requested twenty minutes, excising an entire subplot involving Jeaneane Garafalo as a military general working in collusion with Simon Theory (the gratefully-underused Kevin Smith), the only two upper brass who know the identity of the charred corpse found in Boxer’s SUV following his disappearance. Also reworked was the structure, moving a gruesomely funny scene involving the Baron and a Japanese business rival and the terms of a contract for Fluid Karma, from the first act to the second. Placing this scene later in the film manages to keep the Baron out of the “villain” role until much later. In the theatrical version, Wallace Shawn is simply a creepier version of The Princess Bride’s Vizini up until the “contract negotiation”. Further overtly villainous lines are also removed, but this also vagues up his connection to the Neo-Marxists, the identity of the burned corpse, and what role he expected Boxer to play in his scheme. While the Garafalo/Smith interactions didn’t add much to the plot (and only one scene with Smith had to be reworked to make it appear that he’s instead working under Nana Mae), but its removal makes a quick shot of Garafalo during the end celebrations a head-scratcher, but by this point, you should be through scalp and down to skull.
The real irony of the reworking is that the Cannes Cut is actually much more straight-forward of a narrative, inasmuch as Southland Tales can be considered straightforward. One thing that’s much more clear is how often Boxer slips into his character of Jericho Cane (an explicit dig/homage to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in End of Days) and the world of his screenplay when his psyche can’t handle the reality around him. Dwayne Johnson’s performance as Boxer among the highlights of the movie—when he’s stressed, he tents his fingers and twiddles them together, and to combat that he will “take a moment” and slip into the macho Jericho and, fortunately or not, the world of The Power. In the theatrical cut, this isn’t immediately clear and only alienates the viewer from the ostensible hero.
Kelly seems to have directed all of the actors to deliver lines as either stilted or overly-sinister. Then again, with so many hidden agendas, maybe it’s possible that every character suffers from some sort of identity crisis, even if they haven’t traveled back in time 69 minutes to meet their future selves.
The film’s primary problem lies in the fact that it does not stand alone as a film in its current state. It requires patience and multiple viewings, but, as I stated above, if one is feels completely disconnected from the characters by quirk and misdirected satire, those multiple viewings will not occur.
Then there’s the argument that Southland Tales was never meant to stand alone. Prio to the film’s release, Kelly wrote three prequel graphic novels which apparently give further clues to the story’s intricate mysteries: Abilene and “his best friend” (as he says in the last line of the movie) Roland Taverner were subjected to experiments in Iraq that resulted in a panicked Roland lobbing a grenade in Abilene’s direction, causing his disfigurement and PTSD. It’s also implied that Abilene and Taverner—and anyone who takes Fluid Karma injections—become telepathic. The comics also explain Boxer’s numerous tattoos and how he received them under Krysta Now’s guidance (including the portrait of Christ on his back that bleeds through his shirt during a critical point in the climax), and even why that dumb Killer’s song is relevant.
I came upon all of this knowledge after the fact, and in point of argument, rather resented it. I am aware, now, of the “immersive” marketing studios do now, leading fans to hidden videos and website scavenger hunts, but that still feels a bit like a cheat to me, especially if critical information is being withheld by this strategy. If the movie can’t stand as its own entity, then it isn’t really a movie, it’s something else. In this case, Southland Tales is a story told in six chapters, broken across three graphic novels and the three “chapters” presented in the film.
To call Kelly’s vision for the movie “ambitious” is akin to referring to the ocean as “damp”. Inspired by the events of 9/11, Kelly had a lot on his mind and did his damnedest to cram it all in: political culture, instant celebrity culture, the evils of the Patriot Act, the idea of perpetual war, PTSD, conspiracy and the near-magical realm of quantum mechanical coincidence.
It’s no wonder that any first viewing feels like a high-pressure mental delousing. As Kelly said in an interview for “You know, there’s always that risk [that the audience won’t get it]. But I think we’ve made it as accessible overload. It’s going to be overload. It’s one of those movies that’s going to melt your brain. It’s definitely going to melt your brain when you watch it, but I think it’s now going to melt your brain in a way where you’re understanding it just enough to keep going with it. And the important thing also is you’re laughing.” (Exclusive Interview with Southland Tales Writer/Director Richard Kelly By Rebecca Murray, Guide)
When Southland Tales was finally released, it was met with largely negative reviews. Because, no surprise, nobody knew what the hell to make of it. Over the years, it’s started to garner a cult following and has shown up on at least one “Most Under-rated Movie” list that I’m aware of. And that’s because the film, for all of its goofy obtusity, is worth multiple viewings. Like a character in a Dan Brown novel, on the second or third time through you start to see the connections, albeit slowly. You begin to see how pieces fit together—particularly if you pay close attention to the multiple computer-voice readouts of news reports that are ubiquitous in the soundtrack background. And if you don’t mind pausing every few seconds to read the scrolling info on Abilene’s laptop screen, other clues can be found and other connections can be inferred.
Between the Cannes cut and the theatrical, I found a very rich, dense and thought-provoking satire. Had I not heard of the Cannes cut and managed to run it down, to be honest I might never have revisited the film. But at least as far as Southland Tales goes, it’s not the “makes sense in my head” movie that Kelly thinks he made. Rather it’s a mystery puzzle box with clues scattered throughout the frames and running time. If you want to make sense of it, the movie demands your participation. Otherwise, you’re just stuck in a room with a bunch of folks with violent tourettes trying to explain the Book of Revelations.

[This article barely scratches the surface. Until I can further analyze this movie under controlled conditions, please check out this piece from

 And don't forget to pick up your copy of 

Fervid Filmmaking: 66 Cult Pictures of Vision, Verve and No Self-Restraint 

Now Available through McFarland Press


Friday, May 3, 2013

HAMMETT (1982)

[Image stolen from Wider Screenings]

As the picture fades up on the smoky visage of late ‘20s San Francisco, the following preface appears: “This is an entirely imaginary story about the writer Samuel Dashiell Hammett, who…in the words of one of his most gifted contemporaries…helped get murder out of the Vicar’s rose garden and back to the people who are really good at it.
“The detective story has not been the same since.”

Hammett, of course, is the author of The Maltese Falcon, a book and film that laid the floorplan for the modern day American detective story. A private eye is hired to find a mysterious object but after his partner is murdered during the investigation, the hero must look past the allure of the women, the danger of the men, and solve what has become a personal quest. Drawing from his own past working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, Hammett told tough stories with a tight, spare style, about hard men existing in a labyrinth of criminals. 

In 1975 Joe Gores, another private investigator-turned-author cast Hammett as the lead character in his fictional novel of the same name, giving the struggling writer a famous “one last case” that would test his limits and his honor before giving new spark to his creative output. As in The Maltese Falcon, in Hammett the murder of a good friend and former partner draws him into a web of corruption involving low lifes and “big money”. Not too long after its publication, director and producer Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to Gores’ book with the intention of  spearheading a new studio he’d established with fellow conquering hero George Lucas, American Zoetrope. Originally announced as a project with Nicholas Roeg, scheduling problems had Coppola looking elsewhere for a director. Having made up his mind that a European director would bring the correct mood to the project, Coppola approached German artist Wim Wenders, whose gritty The American Friend, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s own thriller Ripley’s Game, had garnered praise in both Europe and the United States in 1977. Wenders came on the job in 1978 to make his first American movie. But Hammett wouldn’t see a release until 1983.

The movie that hit the screen starred Coppola regular Frederic Forrest as the writer, who is introduced typing away at a (fictional) manuscript entitled “Caught in the Middle”. He drinks whiskey and succumbs to crippling coughing bouts due to tuberculosis (a result of the Spanish Flu he’d contracted during his stint in the Army prior to World War I), but he gets the story finished and the audience gets to see the pictures formed by Sam’s words: his unnamed protagonist—likely the famous “Continental Op” character of his pre-Sam Spade works—and a shady red-head parked on a lonely river dock, waiting to do a final deal.
Real life comes calling without so much as a knock on the door. Hammett’s old partner, James Francis Xavier Ryan (Peter Boyle, who also plays the detective in Hammett’s story), needs his help in locating a young girl, Chinese immigrant by the name of Crystal Ling, who has gone missing from a gambling den owned by notorious rascal Fong Wei Tau. Sam is cozier with the local law than Ryan, so he needs his old partner to be his go-between, his “tin mittens”. Sam asks his muse, Kit Conger (Marilu Henner), the inspiration for the story’s “Sue Alabama” (real name ‘something Greek and unpronouncable’, he writes), to keep an eye on things while he’s out with Jimmy. Tough gal, Kit, and easy on the eyes. The kind of woman who greets you at the door with a sharp remark, like she’d been standing there all day sharpening it. Along the way he plans to mail out his manuscript. 

They’ve barely stepped foot in Chinatown before they pick up a tail (David Patrick Kelly), a young punk with a ruined voice and taps on his shoes, always giving him away. After some noise, Sam and Jimmy are separated. Loses his manuscript as well. Not too long after the rest of the players sleaze out of the woodwork. Newspaper man Gary Salt (David Lynch hero Jack Nance) is doing a piece on the Chinatown slave trades. His cop buddies (R. G. Armstrong as Lt. O'Mara, Richard Bradford as Detective Bradford) are quick to warn him away, to forget he’d ever heard of the name Crystal Ling. Somehow everyone is tied to the recent suicide of business magnate C.F. Callahan. 

By now, Sam’s up to his neck in it. He checks with his own eyes on the streets: Pops (Royal Dano) who runs a newstand and sets aside bottles for Sam, as well as the new issues of Black Mask Magazine bearing his name; then there’s the Old Man at the pool hall (played by Sam Fuller in a don’t-blink cameo); his personal chauffer, Eli the ex-anarchist and hack driver (Elisha Cook, Jr.); finally old Doc Fallon (Elmer Kline) who did the autopsy on Callahan. Seems the rich man did himself in with a half-dozen or so blows to the back of his head with a blunt object. Finally, the mystery leads to the richest men in California, all tied together by refined thug English Eddie Hagedorn (Roy Kinnear in a terrific nod to Sidney Greenstreet, introduced in a bathtub). Took a lot of twists and turns to get there. Fake-outs, murder, drugs, prostitution, pornography, blackmail, betrayal—it’s all laid out on the table, end to filthy end, and winds up with Sam, Kit and Ryan all standing on that narrow riverside dock, where the story began. 

Hammett is a fine nod to the genre Hammett helped create and Hollywood worked overtime to polish. Sure, maybe the plot is more Raymond Chandler than Dash, maybe the dialogue is punched a little too hard—particularly by Boyle who seems to barking from cue cards—and maybe, sometimes, the whole thing seems forced. And bound to interior Zoetrope-built sets, Hammett’s San Francisco seems too cramped and all kinds of phony, particularly exterior street scenes. But it manages to work, especially with Forrest helping it along. As Hammett, he’s tops. In the end, if all the pieces don’t seem to fit, if threads are left dangling while others tugged too hard, maybe that’s because life is messy. An obituary just seems like a neat little package; all the fat and flavor gets trimmed to fit it all in. 

In 1982, Hammett premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and received critical praise, but its theatrical release was inauspicious. It spent more time on HBO than it did on the big screens and it wasn’t given a proper DVD release until 2005, and even that was a bare-bones disc packaged with a handful of other Coppola productions. The story behind the movie and its journey seems even more convoluted than the fiction. 

According to Edward Davis’ 2005 article forIndiewire, “Wim Wenders Discusses Painful 'Hammett' Collaboration With Coppola,Friendship With Nicholas Ray”, the 33-year-old Wenders walked in to what he would later call “a long, amazing experience” and a “too good to be true” experience that would last more than five years. Working with four different writers over the period, Wenders oversaw more than 40 drafts of the script before he started shooting. Coppola was lost in the jungle shooting Apocalypse Now, so most of Wenders’ work was done 
[Photo courtesy of Arrow in the Head.]                                                 “under the radar”. When he                                                                                                        began shooting, having already been denied Sam Shepard to play the title character, Wenders’ version had Brian Keith, Sylvia Sidney and his new wife, Ronee Blakely, in the major roles, with an expanded part for his friend Sam Fuller. Filming was done on location in San Franciso, and it was distinctly different from Gores novel (in no small part due to a dispute with Hammett’s estate who objected to some of the more “on the nose” biographical content). While he shot, Wenders reworked the ending, changed it drastically, and no one knew what to make of it. 

According to Indiewire: “Actually it had not much to do with the script and there were even characters they didn’t even know,” [Wenders] said with a chuckle. “And they looked at it and said, ‘What are you shooting here?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, well, that’s the necessary ending for the film I’ve been making so far.' ” Suffice to say, production shut down immediately. Coppola then suggested Wenders stop the shoot and edit the film so he could understand the ending. “I didn’t have a choice anyhow,” Wenders said and then when he finished editing the film a year later, “Nobody liked it. At least the studio didn’t like it. Francis sort of liked it, but he said, ‘They think it’s way too lyrical and it’s about the writer and not the detective story we had given you’ …but they felt it was too slow and didn’t have enough action.”
Between 1979 and 1980, production on Hammett was halted while a new ending could be crafted. Coppola so liked what Ross Thomas had come up with he ordered the whole script rewritten. It took so much time that both he and Wenders were each able to shoot a new movie in the interim, with Coppola working on One From the Heart, which would lead to Zoetrope’s ruin, and Wenders shooting a personal exorcism of his experience in The State of Things.

Production resumed in 1981, after another waiting period so the sets could be rebuilt and Frederick Forrest could slim down, both consequences of One from the Heart. Once underway, the rumor mills began, with many sources insisting that Coppola directed the more than 90% of footage reshot. Sometimes Wenders disputes this, particularly in a 17-minute short documentary of the experience titled Reverse Angle. Sometimes he just avoids the question. 

Grudgingly praised at the time, Hammett is usually described as “messy” by contemporary critics, and that is a valid assessment. The mystery central to the story is a Gordian knot and solved in roughly the same way as Solomon, by simply chopping through it at the end, via a long –albeit beautifully-written and performed—monologue by Forrest. The fabricated studio sets do impose a sense of artificiality to the film and sometimes impedes the tone where the noir films of the ‘40s and ‘50s were able to work around such constraints. The camera work includes some shakey Steadicam but also a handful of grand crane shots swooping from rooftops to street level which add gravity to the picture. While Forrest and Henner display some crackling chemistry (they would marry and divorce over the course of the production), the real stars are art directors Angelo Graham, Leon Erickson, and Joseph Biroc’s photography, which brings every shot to life with a mixture of Edward Hopper and Will Eisner. Even some of the possibly intentionally-corny scenes—those out of Sam’s manuscript in particular—are beautifully composed, so it’s easy to forgive if an actor, especially Boyle, chews on the scenery a little too much. (Boyle, too, adds to the artificiality and never rings true as a person). Forrest and Roy Kinnear handle the tough guy dialogue the best.

The final product is flawed, to be sure, but is still a satisfiable little hard-boiled movie, standing tall between Chinatown on one end and Michael Winter’s version of The Big Sleep at the other end of the spectrum. Those familiar with Wenders more dreamlike work like Wings of Desire can imagine what his original now lost footage, photography first by Robby Müller (who would later shoot Wenders’ Paris, Texas), and then Philip Lathrop, whose work exists in the final cut just enough to allow him credit for 'other photography'.

Coppola wanted a European take on the American mystery, an outsider to look in and bring his own perspective. Ultimately, as far as the producers were concerned, Wenders was obsessed with solving the wrong mystery. As he writes on his official website, “Hammett: detective, writer—this aspect of the character fascinated me. And it was this aspect that blocked the shooting of the film for so long. I wanted to find a balance between the detective story and the story of the writer who begins to confuse reality with fiction.”   

Since the DVD is out of print, you can actually watch the whole thing HERE for just $1.99