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Richard Kelly

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The Oughts in Film: Part IV (25-11).

Hello again, and a happy New Year’s Eve to you and yours. Well, I thought this Best of the Decade would end up being four parts, but now it’s looking like five. The recaps for this last twenty-five got so long that MT seems to be consuming the bottom of the entry as I write.

So, with that in mind, here’s #’s 25-11 for the Oughts, with the top ten of the decade to follow in due course. If you’re new to this overview, be sure to check out part 1, part 2, and part 3 before moving on to the…

Top 100 Films of the Decade: Part IV: 25-11
[The Rest of the List: 100-76 | 75-51 | 50-26 | 25-11 | 10-1]
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008/2009]


25. Donnie Darko (2001)

From the original review: “All in all, this is a marvelously genre-bending film with wonderful anchoring performances by the Gyllenhaals. I think I liked this movie much more for not knowing a lot about it going in, so I won’t mention the particulars here. But it’s definitely worth seeing. Extra points for the soundtrack, which with ‘Head over Heels,’ ‘Love will Tear Us Apart,’ and ‘Under the Milky Way’…reminded me more of my own high school experience than any other film I can remember. (The Dukakis era setting helped, since that was my own eighth grade year.)

I almost took this movie out of the top 25 on account of its association with Southland Tales and The Box, and even the director’s cut of this film, which snuffs out a lot of this movie’s weird magic by slathering it in needless Midichlorian-style exposition. As I said in my recent review of The Box, Donnie Darko seems to be a clear and undeniable case where studio intervention saved a movie.

Nevertheless, part Philip K. Dick, part John Hughes, Darko was a touching coming-of-age story (thanks in good part to Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne as Donnie’s cranky but loving parents), a decently funny satire about the vagaries of small-town life (think Sparkle Motion, “sleep-golfing,” and the Love-Fear axis), and a trippy sci-fi/psychological thriller. (Was Donnie really talking to a demon-rabbit from the future, or was he just off his meds? The original version muddles this question a lot better than the Kelly cut.)

Whether or not Richard Kelly just got struck by lightning here, everyone else involved clearly brought their A-game to this production. Two Gyllenhaals got on the Hollywood board with this flick, although Maggie would have to wait for Secretary to really break out. The Michael Andrews score contributed mightily to the proceedings, as did the Gary Jules cover of “Mad World,” which got a lot of run in the Oughts, from Gears of War to American Idol. And there are plenty of quality performances in the margins, from the late Patrick Swayze riffing on his image, to Beth Grant typecasting herself for the decade, to Katharine Ross coming back for one more curtain call. Fluke or not, the original version of Donnie Darko was one strange and memorable bunny, alright.


24. High Fidelity (2000)

From the year-end list: “An excellent adaptation of a great book, even if I preferred the Elvis Costello britrock emphasis of Hornby’s tome to the indie Subpop scene of the movie.

Charlie, you f**king b**ch! Let’s work it out!” Arguably John Cusack’s finest hour (although 1999’s Being John Malkovich is right up there, and I know many might cite the Lloyd Dobler of old), Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity has continued to grow on me over the years. If it counts as one of David Denby’s slacker-striver romances (see the discussion of Knocked Up at #40), it’s definitely the one that hits closest to home for me.

The first thing people usually remember about this movie is all the Jack Black/Todd Louiso banter in the record store. (“It’s a Cosssssby sweater!“) And it’s true — All of that stuff is both really funny and all too telling about the elitism and obsessiveness inherent to the fanboy mentality — “Don’t tell anyone you don’t own ‘Blonde on Blonde’! It’s gonna be okay.” Besides, let’s face it, this entire end-of-the-decade list is really just an extended High Fidelity-style Top 5 (and I had a great time back in July organizing my history books chronologically, a la Rob’s record collection.)

Still, as with the book, High Fidelity‘s killer app is really the dispatches filed from Rob’s romantic life, as he ponders what went wrong with his Top 5 Crushes gone awry. (“We were frightened of being left alone for the rest of our lives. Only people of a certain disposition are frightened of being alone for the rest of their lives at the age of 26, and we were of that disposition.“) There’s a lot of truthiness throughout High Fidelity, from Rob’s catastrophic hang-up on Charlie (Catherine Zeta Jones) to his eff-the-world rebound with an equally besotted Sarah (Lili Taylor), to his single-minded infatuation about whether his ex, Laura (Iben Hjejle), has slept with the loathsome new boyfriend, Ian (fellow Tapehead Tim Robbins in a great cameo) yet.

In short, I’d argue High Fidelity gets the inner-male monologue closer to right than any flick this side of Annie Hall. In the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson, it’s funny because it’s true.


23. In the Mood for Love (2000) / 2046 (2004)

From the original review: “Since I spent Friday evening watching In the Mood for Love — a tale of a romance-that-almost-was, told in furtive hallway glances — and 2046 — a broader and more diffuse disquisition on love and heartache — back-to-back, here’s an Profiles of the Future, and oodles of quasi-scientific Trek-speak like “the altruism coefficient” and vaguely threatening flimflam like “the Human Resources Exploitation Manual.” The end result is subtraction by addition — the longer Kelly ties himself and his characters up in nonsensical knots, the more and more ludicrous the whole enterprise becomes. (Apparently, the first cut of this film was over three hours long — baby Jesus wept.) In fact, Kelly throws so much at the wall here to see what sticks that he completely forgets about the money. Once the million is paid out, our couple locks it in their safe and never mention it again…um, ok.

Sure, there are a few moody images interspersed throughout The Box, as well as solid performances by Marsden and Langella and brief, enjoyable turns by wily veteran hands James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, and Celia Weston. (For her part, Cameron Diaz seems off.) But, otherwise, The Box is eminently missable — it would probably seem an even worse disaster to me, were it not for the lingering stench of Southland Tales. Here’s a proposition for you: Keep your ten bucks and go let someone else see it — preferably someone you don’t know.

Button, Button.

Decision time: The trailer for Richard Kelly’s The Box is now online, with Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella. Hmm, I dunno. I liked the Matheson short story, and the Twilight Zone version from the ’80s was solid enough. But I’m not sure how you’d pad this out to feature-length and not make it ridiculous. And, besides, Kelly still owes me money for Southland Tales.

Not with a Bang but a Whimper.

Well, I guess nobody can doubt its commitment to Sparkle Motion. But, sadly, the sprawling, incoherent Southland Tales, the second film by Donnie Darko creator Richard Kelly, is a ghastly trainwreck, and easily the worst film I’ve seen in a theater since 2003’s Gods and Generals. As I said to my brother on the way out (and as David Edelstein also noted), it makes the excellent Donnie Darko look worse in retrospect (and goes a long way toward explaining why the needlessly expository Darko Director’s Cut is so much less satisfying than the original version.) A hackneyed, overwrought stoner mishmash of leaden political satire and borrowed apocalyptic sci-fi influences, Southland Tales is so terrible I left the theater irritated that it even got made. It’s not so-bad-its-good…it’s just bad. Really, how does a movie this lousy get filmed? How do the actors and everyone else involved not see they’re in the midst of a disaster? And why didn’t marginally more talented folks like Kevin Smith or Eli Roth take a break from their oh-so-cutesy cameos and give their boy a heads-up? As it is, Southland Tales basically feels like something composed in the back of a high school notebook, amid album cover doodles and lyrics about being misunderstood, after a long night at the bong.

As Southland Tales begins in the near-future of 2005 (which should give you a sense of how long this film was stuck in development hell), a family barbeque in Abilene, Texas is disrupted by nuclear devastation, and WW3 begins in earnest. As then explained in voiceover by a disfigured Iraq vet (Justin Timberlake) over an impressive infotainment presentation (probably the best thing about the film), the US is now at war with Dubya’s entire Axis of Evil (and Syria to boot); the world is facing a global oil shortage which may be alleviated by a newly-created hydrothermal energy source known as Fluid Karma; the Department of Homeland Security has taken NSA wiretaps to the next level and fashioned an Orwellian nightmare known as USIdent; “Neo-Marxist” (really?) cells have sprung up around Venice Beach, CA to fight Big Brother; and the crucially important election of 2008 pits the staid Democratic ticket of Clinton/Lieberman against the sinister Republican team of Eliot/Frost (both poets which Kelly quotes throughout like they’re going out of style –They’re not.)

Finally, to kick off our story (which is apparently Part IV of a larger, presumably even more boring saga), we learn that an impressively-tattooed, Schwarzeneggerian movie star with top GOP connections (The Rock) has shown up in the middle of the desert suffering from amnesia, and has been taken under the wing of talk show hostess/porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her drug dealer roommate (Will Sasso). Got all that? We also discover along the way that the GOP and the Fluid Karma gurus (more on them in a second) might be in cahoots, that the NeoMarxist underground is basically run by former SNL alums (and poor, poor Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) — guess he won’t be making fun of McNulty anymore for 300), that — paging Mr. Darko — there may be a time travel aspect to all of this, and that the secret to everything may rest on a pair of twin brothers (Seann William Scott), who find themselves getting drugged and/or knocked out a lot. Oh, and since JT keeps quoting Revelations over various scenes, its a solid presumption that the End of the World is more than likely on hand too…Bummer.

If this all sounds splendidly bizarre, well, it’s not. Southland Tales‘ strained attempts to come off as surreal might have worked if they had seemed effortless, but sadly they always feel here as if they required Herculean labor. Too much of the dialogue is drowning in exposition or weighed down by ponderous nods to Eliot, Frost, Revelations, etc. (I fear Kelly defenders will cite these to argue the film has hidden depths, when really they just expose how often Tales languishes in the shallows. But, admittedly, they might seem profound if you were completely baked out of your gourd.) Kelly has also clearly tried to give this project some weirdness cachet by dint of offbeat casting — the film is overloaded with C-grade celebrities and former ’80s icons. Case in point: Early in the film, we meet the team behind Fluid Karma, and they’re — I kid you not — composed of Wallace Shawn (best known for his “inconceivable” rants in The Princess Bride), Bai Ling, Zelda “Poltergeist” Rubenstein, Beth “Sparkle Motion” Grant, and Curtis “Booger” Armstrong. This sort of thing is good for a chuckle every so often, but after awhile — John Larroquette plays Karl Rove, Christopher Lambert drives an ice cream truck — it all just seems glommed on and irritating, particularly since Kelly seemingly expects the sheer presence of these people to do all the heavy lifting.

So what’s good about Southland Tales? Lordy, not much. As I said earlier, the satirical CNN of the near-future is well-constructed. The cast do what they can with what they’ve got, and most of ’em rise above the material: The Rock is charismatic enough to jet by, Seann William Scott at least seems like he’s trying, and Justin Timberlake redeems himself with one of the better scenes in the film, a lip-synched video to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” (which nonetheless comes off as a Big Lebowski ripoff set to ski-ball, and mirrors quite closely the “Happiness is a Warm Gun” routine from Across the Universe earlier this year.) But these brief moments are by no means enough to recommend this dismal misfire of a film. Let me put it this way: I really liked the original version of Donnie Darko (note the rotating header), I really like cutting political satire and big-think sci-fi (for a classic example of how to do it right, see Brazil), I really like seeing semi-forgotten actors find work (see my post on Matt Frewer and Watchmen earlier this week) and I hated — hated — this film. You’d be hard pressed to find someone more likely to give Richard Kelly and Southland Tales a larger benefit of the doubt than I did going in, but this movie is rambling, incoherent, puerile, and, worst of all, tedious. Revelation 3:16: So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Tales of the South.

The trailer for Richard Kelly’s much-anticipated Southland Tales, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake, Miranda Richardson, Cheri Oteri, Janeane Garofolo, Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, Kevin Smith, Amy Poehler, John Larroquette, Bai Ling, Wallace Shawn, Christopher Lambert, and Wood “Avon Barksdale” Harris — Yeah, I know, weird, right? — is now online. I just hope it’s more like the theatrical Donnie Darko than it is the director’s cut.

Tales of the South.

SNL alums Cheri Oteri and Amy Pohler fill out the cast for Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, his followup to Donnie Darko (notwithstanding a writing cred on Domino.) Besides boasting a strange, Darko-ish website, Tales also features a cast that’s multiplying faster than transdimensional zombie bunnies, including the Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Miranda Richardson, John Larroquette, Jon Lovitz, Jill Ritchie, Will Sasso, Wood Harris, Bai Ling, and Wallace Shawn.

Dominy Darko.

Keira Knightley explains her bounty hunter backstory in the new extended trailer for Domino. This still seems like a Tony Scott schlockfest — In fact, it looks like outtakes from Man on Fire. But, as I said last time, I’m curious to see what screenwriter Richard Kelly has brought to the table.

Keira Fett.

Bounty hunter Keira Knightley gets backup from Mickey Rourke, Delroy Lindo, and Lucy Liu in the new trailer for Domino. This looks like a standard helping of grainy-flashy Tony Scott hokum, but Donnie Darko writer Richard Kelly’s presence is an X-factor.

His Darko Materials.

“I can do anything I want. And so can you.” So, with or without Frank the Bunny, I went to catch Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut Friday afternoon. While still very enjoyable, a lot of the fun of the film (reviewed earlier here) is in not knowing what exactly you’re in for, so the movie admittedly does lose a step after another viewing. And, like the official website, the Director’s Cut has a Midichlorian problem…elements of the film that are better left unexplained are now laid over with pages from Grandma Death’s time travel tome. As a result, some of the more memorable scenes (particularly the “Mad World” montage at the end) suffer. Still, if you haven’t seen DD (or, like me, saw it only on DVD), it’s a genre-bending marvel that’s definitely worth checking out on the big screen. (The film now also includes the deleted scenes from the DVD, such as the excised Watership Down subplot, and several shots of a 2001-esque eyeball, as seen in the trailer.)

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