Southland Tales

dir. Richard Kelly

To dismiss Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko follow-up, Southland Tales, as a disaster is too simplistic. It is indeed a muddled, overreaching, and astoundingly pretentious mess. But there's also a lot of talent on display, and few films are as likely to provoke, and even enrage, viewers this year. Much like Mulholland Drive (a film it desperately wants to be), Southland Tales refuses to cough up easy answers; unlike Lynch's film, however, you can't help but feel that the only journey Kelly is taking you on is one deep inside his own bong.

Set during the election of 2008, three years after a nuclear strike on a Texas suburb, the film trucks in extreme post-9/11 absurdity. The government has cracked down Big Brother–style, and radical liberals—dubbed "neo-Marxists"—are plotting a revolution in the streets of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, a mysterious drug has hit the streets from the frontlines of Iraq, a vacant porn starlet (Sarah Michelle Gellar) looks to create an empire, a strange new energy source known as "Fluid Karma" is about to be unveiled, and a major movie star (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) may or may not have gone missing. Sprinkled among these boggling scenarios are moments of outright lunacy, some inspired (a man whose reflection seems to be lagging) and some agonizing (Justin Timberlake lip-syncing to the Killers while blond bombshells dance Busby Berkeley–style on Skee-Ball machines around him).

For a while all this nonsense is entertaining to watch. Kelly piles mystery upon mystery, and as you wait for him to bring it all together the sheer audacity on display threatens to win you over. But by the time the chaotic third act arrives it becomes apparent that, as with every great high, the comedown reveals little beyond foggy absurdity. The idea of The Rock onboard a zeppelin attempting to explain quantum physics may have seemed genius when it was conjured from the clouds, but in action it's simply ridiculous. Southland Tales, despite all its creativity, makes you feel like the only sober one in the room. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

King Corn

dir. Aaron Woolf

Directly inspired by Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma—which concerns, in part, the cheap, corn-based feed and high-fructose corn syrup that find their way into each and every component of a meal at McDonald's—this documentary follows two affable Yale grads named Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis as they set out to grow a single acre of the yellow stuff. After signing up for the obligatory $28 government subsidy, Ian and Curt buy some herbicide-resistant seed and get to work. Only these days, it doesn't take much actual work to grow conventional commodity corn. There's plenty of time to explore the story of how corn (and its nutritionally suspect products) became the primary staple of the American diet.

If you've already read The Omnivore's Dilemma, King Corn will be fascinating. If you haven't read it, the facts will come as a shock. Corn became ascendant not just because of improved agricultural practices and increasingly sophisticated technologies, but because the United States government made a 180-degree turn in its agricultural policy. Before 1973, the main idea was to maintain high corn prices to keep farmers across the Midwest in business. After 1973—thanks to the cheap-food policy of Richard Nixon and his secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz—the goal shifted to producing as much corn as possible. Instead of loaning farmers money in off years and paying them to withhold unwanted corn from the market, the government started giving guys like Ian and Curt a set amount of money per acre planted. Commodity corn flooded the market, and energy-intensive processing techniques—from recipes for ethanol to the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup—took up the slack.

With an elegant argument presupplied by Michael Pollan and a cute stunt to hold it together, it's almost unbelievable how well King Corn resists falling into the gotcha journalism of the average agitdoc. Even the aged Earl Butz and a perky spokesperson at the high-fructose corn syrup factory are allowed to have their say. It's a smart, funny, respectful movie about a subject that—in the wrong hands—could've put wonks to sleep. ANNIE WAGNER

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

dir. Zach Helm

Before we tear this work to pieces, let's have a look at what the media has recently said about its director, Zach Helm: Variety magazine called him one of ten writers to watch; Esquire magazine called him one of the "Best & Brightest"; and Fade In magazine designated him as a person who must be known—meaning, not to know him is to be out of touch with the trends and happenings in Hollywood. Helm is the man of the moment. The Hollywood machine believes in him, and wants the public to believe in his genius. He wrote the script for Stranger Than Fiction, and if that ain't a smart movie, what in the world is?

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This is how Hollywood thinks. It looks for a man who will do something new and yet not change the order of studio production; it wants to work with inventive people but also with people who can work within the system. Helm is such a man, and Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is his directorial debut. Natalie Portman and Dustin Hoffman are his stars. The stage is set. The financial sorcerers have turned the turtle over and looked into the belly of the future: It's full of money. What can go wrong?

Everything is wrong with this film. In it, zero is new; dead tired are its plot, imagery, themes, and acting. The movie wants to look and feel fresh, but it instead presents us with a series of heavy corpses: the corpse of the music, the corpse of the set design, the corpse of the dialogue. Even the special effects are not special. The story is so bad I refuse to recount it. I will, however, say this: If Natalie Portman were not beautiful, there's no way I could have survived/endured/stomached the screening of this film. CHARLES MUDEDE