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De Palma was forced to mask the faces in Redacted’s postscript, photos of bloody Iraqi corpsesmen, women, and children. I respect his impulse to shock us into further rage, but I didn’t look at them. The movie is plenty gut-wrenching until then. As to the charge of misogyny that follows the director everywhere: Anyone who sees the suffering faces of the victims in Casualties and Redacted knows that De Palma not only despairs over what he’s showing us but implicates his own mediumhis own male gazein the crimes against nature.

A colleague recently burbled to me that Southland Tales is "the worst movie of the year," and I could not disagree more. Yes, it’s astonishingly bad, but it’s far too demented to warrant that ultimate dishonor. The writer and director, Richard Kelly, gets points for going where others (sanely) fear to tread. In only his second film (his first was Donnie Darko), Kelly concocts a vast cosmology, the foundation for an apocalyptic parable that borrows from Philip K. Dick and dips into Revelations, Kiss Me Deadly, Yeats, and (in odd company) Robert Frost. World War III has erupted; Middle Easterners nuke Texas (Why Texas? Why not?); the government is run by totalitarians, among them Miranda Richardson as Cruella De Vil; mutant Iraq-war vets hover like lifeguards over Venice Beach; Wallace Shawn in transvestite makeup invents "fluid karma energy" to solve the energy crisis; and Nora Dunn masterminds a "neo-Marxist" rebel group with the aid of hard-core porn star Sarah Michelle Gellar. There’s time travel, too, as well as a paranoiac screenplay that begins to blur with realityor is the screenplay the real reality? It’s a lot to process, and I haven’t even mentioned the protagonist, amnesiac action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. the Rock), or Officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) and his mysterious twin, both of whom keep getting bonked over the head and who appear to be the key to an epic conspiracy.

Kelly aims high and must have shot off his own ear, which is the only way to account for the dialogue. Characters stare into the camera and intone things like, "This is the way the world ends, not with a whimper but with a bang"which is supposed to be a pithy reversal. Southland Tales doesn’t go off the rails because it never has rails to go off. Cobbling it all together, sort of, is narration by a disfigured vet, who supplies a liberal amount of exposition along with character insights"His heart was filled with despair"all of which was rerecorded after the cataclysmic Cannes Film Festival premiere that clocked in at nearly three hours. (This cut is a scant 2 hours, 24 minutes.)

Southland Tales casts a bad light, retroactively, on Donnie Darko, but Kelly tapped into something remarkable there: The movie’s adolescent messianic-suicidal fantasy did justice to Tears for Fears’ immortal lyric (sung in the film by Gary Jules, in a plaintive cover) "the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had." I’m talking about the theatrical version, though. For his director’s cut, Kelly added back scenes, and the marvelous central ambiguityis Donnie a savior, a nut, or a bit of both?was replaced by outright (and dumb) religiosity.

I’ve heard that some critics cherish the ambition and eccentricity of Southland Tales, and plan to celebrate and defend it. I say, bless ’em. Visionary follies need their champions. The climax does have a certain delirious lyricism, as a glowing truck (which has ruptured the space-time continuum) floats through the Los Angeles night toward a glass-bubble cocktail lounge hanging above a skyscraper while Moby washes it all in shimmering synthesizers. Love it or laugh at it, you will gaze on Southland Tales with awe.

Occasionally you see a documentary and it hits you how much you don’t know about someone who was part of your mental landscape. Bewigged and queeny, the late Charles Nelson Reilly was a presence in mine, via The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Match Game, and so many other seventies-TV excrescences. He didn’t arouse much of anything in me, but he does in The Life of Reilly, a film built around his autobiographical one-man show. Bone thin, in the late stages of the pneumonia that killed him, he doesn’t dish much about fellow actors, and he only alludes to his homosexuality indirectly, when he describes how an executive told him early on that there was no place on TV for queers. Mostly the film is a series of vignettes about his childhood and the eviscerating mother who’d give Noah Baumbach’s Margot the heebie- jeebies. A titanic force of negativity, she’d bellow, "Save it for the stage!" and in the end, he says, tenderly, she’s why he’s on that stage. It’s the spark that’s missing from Margot at the Wedding, the core of hope that makes this wispy documentary indelible.

Margot at the Wedding
Directed by Noah Baumbach. Paramount Vantage. R.

Redacted
Directed by Brian De Palma. Magnolia pictures. R

Southland Tales
Directed by Richard Kelly. Samuel Goldwyn Films. R.

The Life of Reilly
Directed by Frank Anderson and Barry Poltermann. Civilian pictures. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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