Southland Tales


Rating 3½

Written and directed by Richard Kelly

Starring a cast of thousands, including Dwayne Johnson,
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore, Kevin Smith, Bai Ling, Holmes Osborne, Nora Dunn and Cheri Otari

Had Francis Ford Coppola been a cyber-geek and made ‘Apocalypse Now’ in 2005, rather than in the late 1970s, it would have been called ‘Southland Tales’.

That is my first impression of this strange film, Richard Kelly’s belated follow-up to his 2001 cult classic ‘Donnie Darko’.

I have also identified a touch of the Coen Brothers about it, particularly during the musical sequence featuring Justin Timberlake’s character, which put me in mind of the surreal musical-dream sequence in ‘The Big Lebowski’. There are many other films that could be referenced – I’ve heard mention of ‘Dr Strangelove’ and ‘Strange Days’. I can understand this.

I suspect the main thing that will come to mind for anyone who knows anything about ‘Southland Tales’ is the savage reaction it received when a work-in-progress copy was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2006. Most critics dismissed it as an abominable disaster. Kelly re-edited the film and secured funding to complete the special effects and other post-production work. It was finally released into American cinemas in November 2007 and in Britain a little under a month later.

The reviews this time were still negative, although not as hostile. They all referred to the screening at Cannes and it does seem as if it will never now be viewed without pre-existing bias, apparently negative in most cases.

I haven’t read ‘Two Roads Diverge’, ‘Fingerprints’ and ‘The Mechanicals’, the three comic books that form the backstory to the film, except for the extracts that have turned up on-line. Having seen the film, I don’t think is necessary to do so – and having no interest in comic books, it is not something I am planning on doing. I didn’t find the film difficult to follow or think the message was particularly complicated.

Either this means I am a genius, which I most certainly am not, I am a simpleton who managed to arrive at a meaning by the very virtue of not understanding the complexity of it all, or the film is nowhere near as convoluted and difficult to follow as the critics have led us to believe. I think the last suggestion is the most likely.

It is unfocused - and I will want to watch it a few more times - but it wasn’t any more “out there” than ‘Donnie Darko’. It shares with that film references to theoretical physics, time travel and religion. What it perhaps lacks is the same emotional resonance that Kelly achieved in his first film. There was a real substance and heart to characters like Donnie and Gretchen, but that is harder to find in this new film.

It is too long. There is nothing wrong with a film lasting over two hours. Many films last over two hours. The Paul Thomas Anderson film ‘Magnolia’ is over three hours long and worth every minute. However, in the case of ‘Southland Tales’, I think twenty minutes could easily have been shaved off the running time without compromising the story. It does flirt with tedium in places and it did start to drag a little bit towards the end.

I went in biased in favour of the film, and not just because I like Sarah Michelle Gellar. I am always suspicious of very hostile reviews, which I tend to think often harbour an underlying agenda. Having said that, I was a little bit worried that the film would prove to be as bad as some of the reviewers have suggested.

At first, I wasn’t sure about all the cyber stuff. I found it distracting and visually chaotic to the eye, but I soon got used to it. The film dragged a little bit at times – and my viewing pleasure wasn’t helped by the uncomfortable cinema seat and lack of decent leg room (I am very tall). Also, someone in the audience nearby constantly crinkled sweet papers, which I found diverted my attention away from the screen. Usually, these things don’t bother me, but this is a film that does require concentration. Roll on the DVD release!

The acting is fine. I don’t have a problem with anyone, although I do find Bai Ling rather odd – and not especially likeable, to be honest. Justin Timberlake impressed me. Equally, I thought Mandy Moore did a good job. Dwayne Johnson did what was needed of him in the lead role. I thought he was very good. I also thought Seann William Scott was excellent.

I knew this wasn’t a vehicle for Sarah Michelle Gellar, but I was a little bit disappointed that we didn’t see more of her. Krysta Now is a fabulous character and when I came out of the cinema I couldn’t help but think it would have been interesting to have the whole film devoted to her. As it exists, it is not a meaty role, but once again Gellar proves that she is a decent and underrated actress.

‘Southland Tales’ is not, I suspect, a classic film. It is not a great film. At least, based on one viewing that is my initial impression. However, it is an interesting and unusual film and it is a lot better than the critics would like us to believe. Contrary to some opinion, it doesn’t prove that ‘Donnie Darko’ was a fluke.

It might be a film of limited appeal, but it cannot be faulted for its endeavour to do something unusual and thought provoking. Richard Kelly probably has stretched himself too thin here and tried to create something too ambitious, but if it is a failure, it’s a fascinating one.



whitelabcoat said...

My biggest problem is trying to find the time to see this. But, I want to. Very badly. So, not having had the opportunity to watch it yet, I'll simply express my vicarious disappointment that Gellar isn't all over every scene! Still, looking forward to it when I do get the chance. And it'll be nice to see Mandy Moore in something other than "Saved" that doesn't make me wish the term 'romantic comedy' had never been invented.*

(*Not even Lauren Graham could stop me loathing "Because I said So")

alienlanes said...

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the film since going to see it, which I think is often a sign of a good film, or at least one that warrants watching again. I hope to do just that during this coming week before it disappears out of the cinemas. Gellar is definitely underused, but she’s great value in the handful of scenes in which her character Krysta Now appears.

I haven’t seen ‘Because I Said So’ and I have no particular plans to do so. I recall seeing trailers for it. That was enough to put me off.