Two great directors, two critical A-bombs

Joe Shearer

Courtesy Sony Pictures

Credit: Ron Soltys

So, a couple of future, notable cult films hit theaters in late 2007. You probably didn’t even know it; probably never even heard of them. Of the few cinemas these reels occupied, they were in and out like a soon-not-to-be-virgin on prom night. (Sorry, cheese comes standard when talking cult flicks.)

Last week, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment quietly released both Southland Tales and Revolver to DVD. These movies — the former directed by Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) and the latter, Guy Ritchie (Snatch) — share a few similarities, like big-name stars, confusing plots and critical snubs.

First off, let me say I, along with many critics, loved Kelly’s 2001 debut, Donnie Darko, and Ritchie’s witty crime capers. Who couldn’t love a giant evil-looking bunny rabbit and smart-ass Cockney gangsters? Naturally, I had to see for myself if these directors’ latest works were as uninspiring as the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer portrayed.

What’s the verdict?

Let’s begin with Southland Tales, an ambitious, sci-fi portrayal of the last three days before the apocalypse. Led by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Justin Timberlake . already scratching your head? The odd casting choices are the least of your worries.

After a couple nuclear attacks in Texas, partially shown in an unnerving opening sequence, the government cracks down, and a seemingly random, hodgepodge of events begin three years later to help bring about the end world. Confusing doesn’t begin to describe the 144 minutes of action, comedy and philosophical and religious undertones, undoubtedly one of the reasons critics were so frustrated with this messy epic.

Of course, most of them probably didn’t read the three prequel graphic novels, unlike yours truly, who went the extra mile. This definitely helps the viewing portion of the story as you try to keep track of the seemingly infinite amount of characters and futuristic climate (set in not-so-distant July 2008 amidst a heated presidential race).

As a standalone presentation, I can understand critics’ gripes about the movie. I watched it with my ex-girlfriend, who hadn’t read the graphic novels, and I could only imagine how lost she was while I was trying to piece it all together. A short recap in the beginning tries to catch you up on what’s happened so far, but it’s a lot to comprehend.

Eventually, you just have to give up trying to understand and take in the cool things you never thought you’d see on film. The musical interlude with the synchronized dancing, bleached-blonde nurses and Timberlake’s character Pilot Abilene singing the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” is so delightful, you’ll wonder how Kelly isn’t also making music videos.

Johnson and Sean William Scott show they are capable of more than typecast roles, and even Jon Lovitz’s small role as a mysterious cold-blooded cop is a nice little bonus.

Tales is the kind of movie where if you like it, even just a smidgen, you’ll probably want to go back again and again to soak in Kelly’s deranged little universe. As enticing as it is visually, the music with the scenes is something that’ll keep them burned in your memory. It can be quite addicting.

Not as convincing is Ritchie’s Revolver. Despite the even worse critical reception, I was thinking, “Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham — how can you go wrong?” Well, it did go wrong, but in a noirish B-movie kind of way. In other words, it’s not a complete waste, but it does have its problems.

Completely lacking from this wannabe Fight Club is Ritchie’s brilliant wit and sense of humor. It’s almost as if he tried to make the film too serious, forgetting even if we don’t get his work with the first viewing, at least we laugh. Oh yeah, sure, you’ll chuckle a couple times, but don’t look for a character as audacious as Brad Pitt’s Mickey in Snatch.

Andre Benjamin (of Outkast) isn’t entirely convincing as one of two guys forcing Statham to pay them to save his life, and there’s not a whole lot of depth to Ray Liotta’s mob boss character. On the other hand, Statham injects this otherwise stiff ensemble with some witty first-person narration that, along with the lighting and confusing plot, gives the flick the perfect pulp, film-noir feel. He’s great as the man trying to piece everything together.

And what is everything, you ask? Again, like Kelly’s film, Ritchie doesn’t make it easy. An ex-con (Statham) is released from prison to find Liotta’s thugs trying to kill him. He runs into two seemingly shady men (Benjamin and Vincent Pastore) who offer to protect him on the condition he gives them every penny he makes. Who they are and what their intentions are isn’t completely clear right away.

While the film may get bogged down in ideas and concepts, it’s enjoyable enough to check out once, if not for Statham’s battle with himself in the elevator toward the end of the movie.

Let’s be clear here: Neither of these movies is Mulholland Drive. Yes, they’re both confusing, meandering stories you want to solve so you can pat yourself on the back and sound smarter than all your dolt friends who ask, “Uh, wait. What’s going on, now?”

But honestly, you’re not going to crack Southland Tales, and Revolver isn’t exactly a movie you want to watch repeatedly. The reassuring aspect about both of these films is that they were made in the first place, especially something so random and layered as Southland Tales.

If nothing else, appreciate the fact not all movies are created with cookie-cutter precision. But like the government after twin nuclear attacks in Tales, studios probably won’t be as likely to go along with something so controversial and risky for fear of another critical detonation.

Joe Shearer is a senior magazine journalism major and an all reporter. Contact him at [email protected].