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Code Unknown

In the shadow of Da Vinci, Cannes '06's first great film: A visionary American comedy about the end of times

Kelly's second feature is as talented as—and even more ambitious than—his debut, the cult hit Donnie Darko. A high-voltage farrago of unsynopsizable plots and counterplots, Southland Tales unfolds—mid–presidential campaign—in an alternate, pre- and post-apocalyptic universe where Texas was nuked on July 5, 2005, and a German multinational has figured out how to produce energy from ocean water. The mode is high-octane sci-fi social satire; the cast is large and antic (with wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as an anxious, amnesiac action hero and Sarah Michelle Gellar biting down hard on the role of socially conscious porn queen Krysta Now).

Essentially, Southland Tales is a big-budget, widescreen underground movie. ("Star-Spangled to Death," one colleague commented as we left the screening.) Filled with throwaway gags and trippy special effects, it's a comedy as well. Philip K. Dick is the presiding deity—the movie is thick with drugs, paranoia, and time-travel metaphysics—although Karl Marx (and his family) keep surfacing in various guises, including the last remnant of the Democratic Party. The film is a mishmash of literary citations, interpolated music videos (mainly with Justin Timberlake), and movie references—most obviously to Robert Aldrich's apocalyptic noir Kiss Me Deadly—but it's even more concerned with evoking the ubiquitous media texture of contemporary American life. The film is a mishmash of literary citations, interpolated music videos, and movie references—most obviously to Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly—but it's even more concerned with evoking the ubiquitous media texture of contemporary American life.

At two hours and 40 minutes, Southland Tales flirts with the ineffable and also the unreleasable. There's no U.S. distributor; nor does the movie's humor, much of it predicated on a familiarity with American television, political rhetoric, and religious cant, seem designed to travel easily. Received with a lusty round of boos and a smattering of applause, Southland Tales provoked the festival's most negative press screening and hostile press conference since The Da Vinci Code. The first question suggested (incorrectly) that Kelly's movie had set a Cannes record for number of walkouts and asked the director how he felt.

Socially conscious porn queen: Gellar in  Southland Tales
photo: image.net
Socially conscious porn queen: Gellar in Southland Tales

Why was the Kelly Code too much to take? Sensory overload is certainly a factor, but unlike Da Vinci, Southland Tales actually is a visionary film about the end of times. There hasn't been anything comparable in American movies since Mulholland Drive.

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