Thursday, May 5, 2011

Movie Night #6 Director's Edition: Richard Kelly

Wow. Thank you all for the huge support these past few weeks. The offices of PORTEmaus are buzzing with excitement over the surge in traffic. Sidenote my personal office is wherever my phone is at and I have some free time, typically the D train on the way to and from work. We all hope you continue to enjoy reading the latest from myself, Mr funkowitz and our two newest contributors, Gonzi Supreme and Hudson Hawk.

Alright enough gushing, today I am going to focus on the works of Richard Kelly. A young director who exploded into a cult favorite with Donnie Darko. His latter two films were polarizing at best with Southland Tales being heralded as ambitious but incomprehensible, and The Box as a boring and uneven homage to the 70's thrillers of Polanski and Roeg. As with any movie night I hope that I can either expose you to these movies for the first time or cause you to revisit them with fresh eyes, because for me Kelly is an exciting and insanely creative director. His creativity can definitely get the best of him as we will explore in Southland Tales, but his work is always fascinating and mysterious.

Kelly's first film was Donnie Darko an homage to eighties teen comedies that take place in suburbia, with a bit of science fiction and time travel thrown in for good measure. Like his other two films Kelly packs the film with symbolism and meaning, you could spend hours talking about any of his films and the different levels they work on. Whether that's a good thing or bad thing i'll leave that up to you. That aside this is easily his most watchable film and the one that gets the most time spinning in the PS3. Taken at face value it is a story of smart young man going through his teen years who happens to have hallucinatory visions of bunny rabbits. Watching the film again I forgot just how funny the movie is. Kelly strikes a nice balance between the light and the weird with this one having Daveigh Chase provide some nice "cute" as Donnie's little sister, or Patrick Swayze as a sleazy self indulgent motivational speaker.

I love that in watching this film you can see him trying out different techniques that he will use later on or drop altogether. There is one instance when tears for fears is playing and the camera starts off sideways and then slowly revolves around to be properly aligned, also he plays with speed ramping here. These are two techniques that he drops altogether from his next two films focusing instead on his use of framing. He like's playing with center framing his main character in order to create a sense of awkwardness whether its Donnie walking up the halls with an axe, Boxer Santaros walking up the steps at Santa Monica Beach hoping not to be hit by a gun tower, or Arthur running from the "zombies' in the library. He uses it in such a more subtle way than someone like Wes Anderson, but that's another article.

From the start it's clear that Kelly is in a class all his own. His films are never easy to categorize and usually require some sort of qualifier in order to peg them in any sort of genre. Darko is exactly the same, I had never seen a film quite like it that managed to juggle so much story and make it coherent, but Kelly rushes out of the gate with great aplomb. Anyone who has read my last installment of Movie Night knows i love Science Fiction, and when someone can weave it into this kind of teen family drama it's something I'm excited to see, and here he begins his love affair with time travel. It's interesting to see how different he approaches time travel here than in Southland Tales. Where in Southland Tales, time travel seemed to be the cause much of the events that we see take place. In Donnie Darko we see time travel as a tool used to prevent events that have happened stop from happening. So for anyone interested in discovering someone new if you haven't seen this film already Donnie Darko is a great introduction to Richard Kelly.

Southland Tales is a tale of alternate future in which a terrorist attack was launched on Texas to ignite world war 3. Kelly shows us the results of our response to this attack creating a sattire of pop culture, current politics, and the role of media in our current society. Also the world seems to be approaching apocalypse.
To try and explain the plot further would result in an even longer tha normal post(I know this seems shocking given my track record but its true). Rather I will touch upon different plot threads and themes in the film.

Yes, the story is convoluted. Yes, enjoyment of the film will increase with each viewing. The main problem I have with most critics is that they go into most films expecting a straightforward plot, so when a film like this comes out they struggle to wrap their heads around it. The film has a story, but Kelly has made a film showing us the last few days before the end of the world and what happens to be happening in Los Angeles at the time. It is less worried about getting from plot point a to point b than it is with giving you an overview of the current state of the United States. Once you can get standard expectations of plot out of your head then you can begin to appreciate just how complete of an alternate reality Kelly has made.

Ultimately what he shows us is a world imploding on itself. Reality, fiction, media, politics all of it is bleeding into one another as the world gets closer to apocalypse. Boxer Santaros begins living out the very screenplay he's written, Pilot Abilene a scarred(literally) ex soldier who mans a gun tower at Santa Monica pier shares the name of the location in Texas where the madness started from a terrorist attack. Krysta is perhaps the greatest example of what a giat clusterfuck the world has become. She is a porn star, prophet, handbag entrepreneur, talk show host, who works with a radical liberal group to fix an election. Roland Tavener spends the whole time walking around in a daze not realizing he's his own brother and that they are in fact the same person. These are just a few examples but each acts like a vacuum sucking the people around them into unrealistic and seemingly illogical situations such as the shootout gone awry with jon lovitz or krystas dance "orgy" with mandy moore as the senator so eloquently put it.

People like to call this movie a scattered mess, and to a degree I would have to agree with them, but that's kind of the point. The world he's showing us is in complete chaos, and it definitely shows throughout the film. The chaos that exists is constructed by Kelly and i'm sure each bit is intended. Kelly is a smart director who sometimes let's his overwhelming creativity get the best of him. If you look at his films they show a definite growth over time. With Darko being where he tested the waters on a lot of different fronts both theme related and aesthetic related, here in Southland Tales it is unbridled Kelly and he let's loose all the crazy that's in his head to give us a complete view of a different reality, and finally with the Box we see him begin to hone his craft and focus his talent to tell a much more coherent story. Through each of the films though we see how interest Kelly is in the supernatural creeping into our reality, as well as the idea of fate and free will which he uses time travel a lot to portray this. I for one love Southland Tales and urge you all to take a second look, whether you like it or not it will be sure to cause some amazing conversations. I'm going to finish this write up with a quick talk on a specific scene. When we are introduced to Roland Taverner he stands in front of mirror in a police uniform playing with his reflection. The reflection is a few seconds behind Roland and he keeps messing with it to see what's going on. This sums up a lot of the film as well as the relationship between film and viewer. Its like the reflection is struggling to catch up to reality. Much like the viewer struggling to keep up with the craziness that's ensuing on scene, or even the characters struggling to keep up with how quickly reality is changing. Wifi energy is being unveiled, an election is taking place, soldiers are everywhere, riots are beginning, and our characters are just trying to get through their lives to find their place in the world and they are just as confused as teh viewer is as to what that is. Is Boxer a prophet? or an actor? or a future politician?. Is Roland a cop? the savior? or is it his brother? The movie doesn't provide answers to any of these questions, but just like the reflection with time we catch up ourselves and can make up our minds as to what we just saw.

Which brings us to The Box, previously adapted as a Twilight Zone episode from a story by Richard Matheson. The Box tells the story of Arthur and Norma who one day receive a package from a mysterious stranger informing them that if they push the button on the box they will receive one million dollars, but someone, who they do not know, will die. Relatively simple right? Well this is Richard Kelly we're talking about, he takes that seedling of a story and makes something so unexpected out of it that I'm going to try and walk around it because the story unfolded so beautifully. I spoke a bit with Mr. Funkowitz about this film and his biggest complaint was that Kelly takes a simple idea and over complicates it. I, obviously, disagree with my very benevolent employer. This is my favorite Richard Kelly film, and the one where I feel he begins to come in to his own as someone we all need to look out for.

So let's touch on the story for just a minute. The "premise" all happens very early on and what the film really is, is about the aftermath and consequences of their decision. The film takes a pretty hard sci fi turn at one point and then just keeps going. When we saw the pillars of teleporting water I knew that no matter what i was sold on this film. What really sells it though are his actors. James Marsden and Cameron Diaz play the main characters with as much confusion and surprise as the audience, they are a perfect representation of your everyman and everywoman. Which allows the films big theme of consequence and free will to play out and resonate with such a wide audience.

Kelly nails the tone and feel of this film perfectly setting up a tension early on and never letting go. This feeling of suspicion is taken throughout the whole film as our characters constantly feel like they're being watched or in danger. I love Polanski and Roeg and this film plays like one of their films if they ever decided to put a sci fi edge into one of their thrillers. Now the pacing of Polanski is very deliberate and can definitely turn some people off. This film is not like Southland Tales, where he's throwing a million pieces of information at you a minute, the film progresses steadily towards an unbelievably finale. Kelly holds his shots for an extra few seconds here and there to make a point, or he throws in an insert of something seemingly bizarre like a group of motel residents standing at a pool. All of this helps to set the tone that he wanted to establish. This, like his other two films, require some work to pay attention but patience and astute observation in all of his films is always rewarded. By the end of the film we see how a simple decision by a young couple has effects on a global scale.

That's about it for my first focus on a single director. I could go on and on about these films because they are all so dense and layered. I had a lot of fun going through these movies again and I hope some of you out there discover these for the first time or at least give them another shot. Don't agree with something i said? strike back in comments i'd love to hear what you have to say


One last thought - Saw Tron and Tron Legacy back to back...underwhelming. And to a self proclaimed nerd I'm just as surprised as you are.

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