Southland Tales

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Synopsis

In 2001, writer/director Richard Kelly achieved cult status with Donnie Darko, an assured debut feature exploring deep existential questions through the lens of 80s nostalgia. Five years later, he followed up with a more ambitious and even more beguiling sophomore effort, in which forces of totalitarianism and anarchism collide against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic, near-future world – the beguiling and baffling Southland Tales.

Los Angeles, 2008. As the city stands on the brink of social, economic and environmental chaos, the fates of an eclectic set of characters – including an amnesia-stricken action star (Dwayne Johnson, the Fast & Furious series), an adult film star developing her own reality TV project (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Cruel Intentions) and a police officer whose identity has split in two (Seann William Scott, TV’s Lethal Weapon) – intertwine with each other and with the whole of humanity.

A darkly comic futuristic epic that speaks as presciently to our turbulent times as it did to the American socio-political climate in 2006, Southland Tales receives a fresh – and timely – lease of life with this new, director-approved restoration.

Picture 8/10

Arrow Video presents Richard Kelly’s sophomore film, Southland Tales, on Blu-ray in two versions: the theatrical cut and the Cannes cut. Each version is presented on its own individual dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode in the aspect ratio of about 2.39:1.

Though it appears the film was shot on film, Arrow’s notes indicate that both cuts were edited and completed through a 2K digital workflow, from which digital internegative files were created. These files were then used to create film negatives from which theatrical prints were made. Arrow specifies their restoration for both versions were sourced from the original digital internegative files.

Outside of colour grading I’m not sure what else may have gone into the restoration; the film was completed digitally and was also one of the earlier titles to come out on the Blu-ray format, so I can’t imagine much was required. I last saw the Sony Blu-ray well over a decade ago, so I only recall that it looked “fine,” and though I can’t compare directly to the Sony release, as it stands, this current presentation certainly looks good. It’s sharp and detail is excellent, and the colours are perfectly saturated and manage to pop from the screen at times. Some low-lit shots (like an early one of Boxer Santaros waking up on the beach) look a bit muddy, but this is more likely inherent to the source due to the original lighting; outside of that the black levels inky and deep without crushing out details.

Print damage isn’t an issue that I can recall, but since the film was edited and completed digitally, I’ll confess I wasn’t paying as close attention as I probably should have since it was technically still shot with 35mm film. The encode itself is generally clean, but there can be a graininess to the image (maybe from the original film grain) that can come off a bit noisy, especially in a handful of the foggy coastal scenes. It’s hard to say if this is a product of the original scan of the elements or anything to do with encode, but it’s a rare occurrence. Kelly and others mention in the special features the film is technically “unfinished” and most of that shows up in the special effects: it looks as though some CGI was done cheaply and in haste and there are instances where aliasing artifacts are present. This, again, is inherent to the film itself and nothing to do with the encode.

As to how the two versions compare, I could not discern any sort of difference between them, which isn’t too big of a surprise. Both look good.

Audio 8/10

Both versions come with two audio options: a 2.0 PCM stereo soundtrack and a 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround soundtrack. I viewed both versions of the film with the 5.1 surround soundtrack.

Though I could see newcomers coming to this thinking it’s an action film (the cast and premise might lead them to that conclusion) it's ultimately not, and more “talky” in nature, and the soundtrack reflects that. Dialogue sticks primarily to the fronts and moves between the three speakers as needed, and it sounds clean and sharp. Music is heavily used throughout the film and it fills the environment as needed, depending on the setting. Background and ambient noise are also mixed appropriately, and the effects can be very distinct in the rears at times. The few more action-oriented scenes do make decent use of the whole sound field, and effects move cleanly and effectively around the viewer. The lower frequency also receives ample use, booming a handful of times, but never in an overbearing manner. Range is very wide and the track can get loud in places, but nothing important gets drowned out.

Overall, I wouldn’t say the track is demo worthy, but it’s mixed nicely and perfectly serves the spirit of the film.

Extras 8/10

Arrow has put together a decent little special edition here, though it doesn’t reach the levels of their edition for Kelly's Donnie Darko, and it leaves off one feature I would consider important. The bulk of the features are included on the first disc in the set, which also houses the theatrical cut. From the original Blu-ray edition Arrow ports over Richard Kelly’s solo audio commentary. I was a bit frustrated with this track and eventually I did start skipping through it. Though Kelly talks a little about the project from inception to filming, recalling stories from the set and what it was like working with his cast, he spends an incredible amount of time explaining the movie, giving background to everything and running through the plot as it unfolds, which pretty much highlights how convoluted and hard to follow the film actually is.

Arrow then includes a couple of features around the making of the film, including an older 34-minute behind-the-scenes featurette called USIdent TV: Surveilling the Southland. This one is definitely more along the lines of a studio produced DVD supplement, but it’s an above average one with decent interviews with Kelly and other members of the crew and cast. Dwayne Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar pop up quickly but the more revealing interviews are probably with the likes of Wallace Shawn and Jon Lovitz, the latter of whom explains he had no idea what his part in the film was after reading the script, but he oddly came to understand when he filmed his scenes. It’s also amusing to see some of the film’s practical effects being pulled off.

Much better, though, is the newly produced making-of entitled It’s a Madcap World: The Making of an Unfinished Film, divided into three parts (Through the Looking Glass, This is the Way the World Ends, and Have a Nice Apocalypse) and running a total of around 52-minutes. Featuring Kelly, producer Matt Rhodes, production designer Alec Hammond, and director of photography Steven Poster (all participating remotely) the making-of goes over the entirety of the film’s life cycle, from its inception as an idea to its disastrous Cannes premiere and eventual theatrical release. Kelly seems a bit more forthcoming here compared to the commentary, and all participants acknowledge the film is—at the very least—a bit of a mess, but they’re all obviously proud of it and their contributions. The reasoning behind the scattershot nature of the film becomes a bit clearer here as Kelly explains the initial concept for the film: a simpler film about a group of L.A. comics trying to pull off a heist. It’s obvious that those initial characters morphed into the neo-Marxists in the film (I base that on the fact SNL members were primarily cast in those roles), and elements of that plot remain, but Kelly's own post-9/11 anxiety fueled what the film ultimately turned into after he kept adding ideas without bringing himself in. Some the crazier elements, like the whole time portal thing, came about during actual filming.

Budget was also an issue, though I will say that Kelly and his crew impressively got around a lot of that, and the film’s production design is one of its more impressive elements. Unfortunately, the film needed more work and no more money was available, so it premiered at Cannes unfinished, with Kelly hoping a US studio would pick it up for distribution there (Universal and others had done the initial investment in return for overseas distribution) and maybe give him more money to put the final touches on it. Despite the premiere being a failure, Sony did pick it up, but they gave Kelly very little money to work with to complete it, and all on the condition he cut the film down. They then had to do what little CGI enhancements they could with the added problem of having to reedit the film.

Despite the dryness of the overall production of the documentary (thanks to COVID) the production of the film is still very fascinating, and I appreciated the more forthcoming and honest nature. A solid new contribution from Arrow.

The disc then presents a super-bizarre animated short that loosely takes place in the same universe as the film. Entitled This is the Way the World Ends, it revolves around a crudely animated squid teaching his grandson squid how humanity destroyed itself (yep). This is then followed by a large image gallery featuring over 140 production and “glamour” photos. It then closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer.

The second dual-layer disc then houses the Cannes cut of the film, which runs about 15-minutes longer. I can’t say this version of the film is significantly different from the theatrical cut, at least in how it presents the story: it’s still convoluted and all over the place, and what’s going on isn’t all that clearer. But I will say some elements make a bit more sense, and I think the film flows a bit better, the editing coming off less haphazard.

For example, the exposition-heavy opening that I feel kills the film from the get-go (it gets dragged out for what feels like an eternity) has been mostly excised. It still opens with the home video footage from Texas, though it now runs a bit longer and is in a different ratio, and then the nuclear strike. From here the intro focuses on the “Fluid Karma” business and Wallace Shawn’s character, getting those plot details out of the way instead of spreading them out through the film. A scene awkwardly inserted later into the theatrical version, involving a businessman giving up his pinky finger for access to Shawn’s technology, is now in the opening, and it actually feels better placed here (I'm guessing Kelly couldn’t part with the scene when doing the theatrical version and couldn't fit it in the opening).

Though material has been excised there is plenty of new material that circles around other material that was left in the theatrical version, though felt out of place. The biggest addition involves a soldier completely cut out of the theatrical version, played by Janeane Garofalo. Her character interacts with the general played by Kevin Smith, who remains awkwardly placed in the theatrical version (probably because his character eventually interacts with Johnson’s). His character and some other events that still exist in the theatrical version (including a shot around a single casket that differs from others in the same shot) make more sense now, and the eventual reveal of time portal no longer comes out of nowhere.

There other little additions: there’s more material around Johnson and Scott during the ride-a-long and the ending is a little different as well, though the outcome is the same.  There are some minor differences in ordering, like the reveal around a gun under Miranda Richardson’s desk coming sooner, though I can’t say why it does.

One of the more interesting changes, though, and probably one of the bigger helps in the flow of the film, is that the editing around the climax is completely different. In the theatrical version we jump around from event to event, back and forth, making it especially chaotic and harder to follow. In this version, the scenes are allowed to play out (for the most part) before jumping to the next one. I think Kelly was trying to increase the tension and push the energy by jumping between several sequences, but I don’t feel it worked. Letting the various scenes play out on their own without jumping between them, killing the flow of each one, works in the film’s favour.

Ultimately, I don’t think the film is saved in any way, but I did feel less frustration with this cut. Some of that could come down to me now being more familiar with the world of the film, so it made a fraction more sense, and it’s possible this version would have frustrated me more if I saw it first. Whatever the case may be, I do think I “prefer” this version.

Arrow’s included booklet (limited to first printings that also come with an o-sleeve) then features a couple of essays. The first is by Peter Tonguette and he offers a very passionate defense for the film that I caught myself going along with, even if it didn’t turn me around on the film. The second is a bit of a bizarre one by Simon Ward where he tries to recall the internet marketing for the film all from memory as none of this original online material is available anymore.

Which leads to the one big item missing from this disc.

For their edition of Pitch Black, Arrow was able to preserve the film’s web material, including web comics, videos, content and such, which was a huge addition since that stuff is very much in danger of disappearing. Sadly, for Southland Tales, that appears to be the case: it’s all gone, though Ward admirably tries to recall it all in his essay. What should be here, though, since it was on the Sony disc, are the graphic novels that compose the first three “chapters” of the film (the film’s “chapters” go from IV through VI). I’m a little bewildered as to why they’re not here, not even in a PDF format (I checked the files on the disc), but I would think it’s a very big omission. (As a note, Kelly mentions in the included commentary that the novels are a supplement on the disc, but that commentary was recorded for the original Sony disc so he’s obviously referring to that edition.)

Disappointingly Arrow doesn’t add any other new material (interviews with the cast would have probably been interesting) but the making-of and the inclusion of the longer cut should be enough for fans.

Closing

I can’t say that presentation is much better than Sony’s original edition, but the supplements are more geared towards the film’s cult fans (especially with the inclusion of the longer cut) and for that audience I would highly recommend this edition.

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Blu-ray
2 Discs | BD-50
2.40:1 ratio
English 2.0 PCM Stereo
English 5.1 DTS-HD MA Surround
Subtitles: English
Regions A/B
 
 High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentations of both versions of the film: the 145-minute theatrical cut and the 160-minute “Cannes cut”, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006   Audio commentary on the theatrical cut by Richard Kelly   It’s a Madcap World: The Making of an Unfinished Film, a new in-depth retrospective documentary on the film, featuring contributions by Richard Kelly and members of the original crew   USIDent TV: Surveilling the Southland, an archival featurette on the making of the film, featuring interviews with the cast and crew   This is the Way the World Ends, an archival animated short set in the Southland Tales universe   Theatrical trailer   Image gallery   Limited edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Peter Tonguette and Simon Ward