SOUTHLAND TALES opens with home video footage of a garden party being held on July 4, 2005. All seems well: a bouncy castle blows in the gentle breeze, the sun is shining and the grown-ups chat lazily to each other as the kids play. But all is interrupted by a sudden explosion in the distance.

A futuristic news broadcast, meshing cartoons with computer graphics and live video footage, informs us of a huge nuclear attack upon America - effectively provoking the start of World War 3.

As the montage of news clips (a'la STARSHIP TROOPERS' newsflashes) continues, Pilot Aberline's (Justin Timberlake, ALPHA DOG) voiceover clues in on what we're seeing and the story we're about to witness.

He advises us that the nuclear attack led to extremely tight national security, including people needed special visas just to travel from one State to the next. He also tells us that these troubled times led to various extremist groups emerging across America, the most notorious being the Neo-Marxist Group. Finally, he informs us that the war has led to the virtual extinction of oil - and that scientists have been desperately trying to create an alternative source of fuel.

Then Abeline focuses his attention on Hollywood actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson [The Rock], THE SCORPION KING), and tells us that the remainder of his story will concentrate on this particular individual.

We learn from Abeline's voiceover than Boxer went missing for three days in 2008, somewhere in the Nevada desert. When he returned, his memory had been erased and US Government officials were eager to find out what had happened to him and how he'd managed to get back from the forbidden territory.

And so, with Abeline's commentary occasionally at hand to keep us from getting lost in the badly told plot, we close in on Boxer as his story begins to unfold.

We meet Krista (Sarah Michelle Gellar, THE RETURN; THE GRUDGE), a porn star who also hosts a popular reality TV show for Government-sponsored UNIDent (who, it seems, run the country along with every TV channel on offer). She has taken the amnesiac Boxer in and convinced him that he is her lover. Together they've written a screenplay together about the end of the world - starring Boxer in the lead role as a cop.

Unbeknownst to Boxer, Krista is also in cahoots with the Neo Marxist Group. She has a meeting with one of their members - porno director Cyndi (Nora Dunn, LAWS OF ATTRACTION) and divulges that Boxer is staying with her. Cyndi sees this as an opportunity to use Boxer as a pawn for getting the Government to meet her terrorist organisation's demands.

Her plan involves getting terrorist Robert (Sean William Scott, AMERICAN PIE; EVOLUTION) to kidnap his policeman brother and steal his uniform, then turn up at Krista's house and impersonate a cop offering to help Boxer research his role.

All Robert has to do is take Boxer out in his patrol car, while Cyndi and co film their conversation via hidden cameras.

Meanwhile, UNIDent - ran by the mother of the wife Boxer has forgot he has - have CCTV footage of Boxer's last known movements, which they are convinced proves he was abducted. Chief suspects are the Neo Marxist Group.

In the meantime, we learn that professor Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn, the voice of Rex in the TOY STORY films) has invented an energy source called "fluid karma", that controls machine remotely. Sure to revolutionise the world's energy markets, this is bound to put Westphalen in jeopardy at some point �

Also thrown into the equation around this point are Neo Marxist member Kenny (Mike Nielsen), who works undercover at UNIDent's offices, and the one woman he trusts - Starla (Michele Durret) - who is only too pleased to double-cross him.

With footage of Boxer sent to UNIDent, the film begins to take more shape as it becomes apparent that the Neo Marxists are using the actor as a tool in their attempts to win negotiations with the Government. They are demanding an amendment to the mysterious "Proposition 69" - but the Government will not listen.

So, the terrorists start to think of more elaborate ways to get their attention �

All the while, Iraq war vet turned drug pusher Abeline watches from the hilltops, occasionally returning with his narration - sometimes to steer us back on track and explain just what the fuck is going on, and at other times simply to quote passages from the Book of Revelations at us.

Along the way, we get midgets, toilet voyeurism, conversations about anal sex, characters talking out of synch with their own reflections, some nicely staged but all-too-brief shootouts, a bizarre musical interlude, someone quoting Jane's Addiction lyrics, a "twist" ending of sorts, and cameos from an insanely long list of well-known faces: Janeane Garofalo, Eli Roth, Christopher Lambert, Miranda Richardson, Zelda Rubinstein �

DONNIE DARKO smacked of being a film made by someone who thought he was clever. SOUTHLAND TALES smacks of being a film made by someone surrounded by people constantly telling him how clever he is.

In other words, writer-director Richard Kelly's second feature film is a self-indulgent car-crash of arrogant ideas and sub-plots so abundant that nothing is every fully explored or exploited to a satisfying level.

The storyline is here, there and everywhere: there's far too much going on and, while I enjoy the challenge of a non-linear plot, this is just all over the place. It makes no sense at all - just relies on it's "weird-for-weird's-sake" superficiality and unusual casting choices to get it by.

In it's favour, the film makes good use of it's big budget and looks incredible. The special effects, the computer graphics, the lush set designs - it's all beautiful to look at. And it's all wonderfully photographed by Steven B Poster (DONNIE DARKO).

Aside from that, and the occasional gag that actually works, this is horribly pretentious, arrogant filmmaking. From the bum-numbing running time to the narration that was added post-production after audiences simply didn't have a clue what this crud was about, this is painful.

As for the performances, I never thought I'd see the day that I said Scott was the best actor in a film. But, in an unusually reserved role, he shines against Johnson's embarrassingly dumb term as Boxer and Timberlake's frankly astonishing turn as a "creepy" soldier of fortune with a scar on his face. It's as if Kelly said to Timberlake "look scary for the camera" and Timberlake translated that as "try and make it look like you're having a really painful shit".

The film is presented in a gorgeous anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. Images are simply stunning - all sharp definition and perfectly balanced colour schemes. It's a superb presentation.

The English 2.0 audio (on the screener, at least) offered a good, even mix with optional subtitles available in � deep breath � English, Arabic, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish.

Static menu pages included a scene-selection allowing access to the main feature via 28 chapters.

The only extra on the disc is a very glossy and professionally edited Making Of featurette. This begins with Kelly informing us the film is a comedy about the end of the world, and that it's loosely based on Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken".

Kelly insists his film be seen as "a political satire about an alternate future" - then swiftly backtracks on himself, almost apologising in advance of anyone who thinks he's seeking comedy from issues such as terrorism. Somebody give this man the courage if his convictions!

Elsewhere the documentary offers lots of on-location cast and crew interviews intercut with clips from the finished film, but surprisingly for a Making Of there's not much in the way of actual behind-the-scenes footage.

At 33 minutes in length, it's arguably more than a mere vanity piece. Still, it could have been more enlightening. Optional subtitles are available for the same languages as included on the main feature.

It's a shame there's no deleted scenes on offer here. Although no doubt they'd just extend the viewer's agony, it would at least have been interesting to see the footage Kelly chopped from the film after it's disastrous "rough cut" screening at Cannes a couple of years ago.

Anyhow, I digress. Even in it's truncated 138 minute form SOUTHLAND TALES drags. It's an exhausting over-abundance of half-baked ideas and forced weirdness that grows tiresome within the first 20 minutes.

Sticking with it thinking it's all going somewhere just leaves the viewer more disgruntled when they realise, at the end of this indulgent mess, that the joke is on them.

I wanted to like SOUTHLAND TALES, I really did. The premise and the casting intrigued me. But, aside from very nice visual ideas, this is tortuous fare.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Universal UK
Region 2 - PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review