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PORN AGAIN: Sarah Michelle Gellar plays an adult-film temptress in 'Southland Tales.'

Dead Zeppelin

Everything but the bunny rabbit pops up in Richard Kelly's 'Southland Tales'

By Richard von Busack

RICHARD KELLY, of the cult film Donnie Darko, has been fine-tuning Southland Tales ever since it sank as a "work in progress" at Cannes in 2006. Is Southland Tales any more concise since 19 minutes have been snipped from it? You would have to ask someone who can afford the Croisette. What I saw is a repeat of the eschatological incoherence in Donnie Darko, only without the human-size emotions to rudder it. The film is a near-future vaudeville set in 2008, stuffed with Saturday Night Live performers all playing it serious. In this alternate-history story, the United States has been scared stupid by two nuclear attacks in Texas. In fear, we turned the government over to the Party of the Elephant (excerpted nature footage of two jumbos mating is Kelly's coarse but witty symbol of this victory). The surveillance state has triumphed, and state borders are on lockdown. As the 2008 election approaches, the Republicans are gaming the system to grab California's 55 sweet, sweet electoral votes. But this is just background. A sort-of Schwarzenegger (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, dithering his fingers like Stan Laurel being upbraided by Oliver Hardy) has been kidnapped by neo-Marxist terrorists/freedom fighters. Boxer Santaros is both a movie star and the husband to the daughter (Mandy Moore) of an important politician. Terrorists have made a honey trap for him, using a porn-star turned diva (Sarah Michelle Gellar, entombed in skin bronzer). Meanwhile, some New Agey German scientists have invented the perpetual motion machine. Their leader, Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), bears a disturbing physical resemblance to John R. Neill's drawing of the Wizard of Oz. He plans to launch his megazeppelin for the July Fourth festival in downtown L.A. This is obviously bad. A man who hangs out with Bai Ling and a tribe of insidious little people isn't going to be mistaken for the reincarnation of Mother Teresa.

Despite the effrontery of this end-of-the-world vision—larded with T.S. Eliot quotes and references to everything from Kiss Me Deadly to The Big Lebowski—Southland Tales is a mash without any ferment. The roundly unfunny attacks on the Republicans don't take this to the Illuminatus Trilogy/Kurt Vonnegut level Kelly is looking for. Without a pre-soaking in the three graphic novel prequels the director has published, it's almost impossible to catch up with this cooked-up mythology. A longer cut might make more sense, but it couldn't add emotion or suspense, or a mad-scientist speech to explain what's going on. This is the most disassociated bolus of political theater since 1979's Americathon. Like that film, which included 60 secondsof Elvis Costello performing "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," it is redeemed by a couple of musical numbers. Rebekah del Rio—whose spine-chilling "Llorando" in Mulholland Dr. won't be forgotten soon—performs a memorable cover of the National Anthem. Justin Timberlake, as a scar-faced veteran, performs a dance at a penny arcade. It ought to go direct to video rotation—just as Southland Tales ought to go direct to video.

Movie Times SOUTHLAND TALES (R; 144 min.), written and directed by Richard Kelly, photographed by Steven B. Poster and starring Dwayne Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar, opens Nov. 16 at Camera 7 in Campbell and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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