18 March 2008

SOUTHLAND TALES (Dir. Richard Kelly, 2006, US) - Kelly misfires with his follow up to Donnie Darko

When Richard Kelly, the writer and director of Donnie Darko, screened his latest film at Cannes in 2006, most of the audience and critics did not know how to respond other than with a consensual look of bewilderment, confusion and even, dare I say it, inspiration. Nearly 2 years later, Southland Tales was finally released in UK cinemas without any real marketing push or buzz that came with Kelly's debut feature, Donnie Darko. The fallout from the Cannes screening has become somewhat notorious, with the studio intervening and advising Kelly in how to best salvage a film which he had written way back in 2001. Apparently Kelly was forced to shorten the version that premiered at Cannes to an acceptable audience length, which essentially means, he was told to dumb down his original artistic vision. So what we have actually been given is the studio's version of Kelly's original cut which will be probably show up some day changing our opinion on the film. Like Donnie Darko which is considered to be a cult film, Southland Tales is one of those films which you know will eventually someday, maybe in five or ten years time, find an audience that appreciates what Kelly was trying to do and say about contemporary American society. Personally, I feel much is wrong with this film, particularly a weak cast which is comprised of extremely superficial non-actors like Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott and a creepy Jon Lovitz who I had assumed was given his marching orders by the Hollywood brass way back in the 90s when Billy Crystal threatened to make another City Slickers movie just so he could get make sure his friends got paid. Anyway, the film does start quite convincingly, engrossingly should I say, anchored with a droll voice over by Justin Timberlake, we are presented with a futuristic vision of American society that is still trying to come to terms with the political and economic ramifications brought on by World War III - another favourite Hollywood device, the apocalypse. For around thirty minutes in which Richard Kelly is busy setting up the science fiction context and we are becoming familiar with characters that have jumped out of a noirish pulp novel, Southland Tales begins to get under your skin, especially with it's inventive use of montage and new media split screen commentary. However, the rest of the film is very disappointing and I felt that Kelly almost could have made a better mini series for television because he has too many characters, storylines and situations occurring all at the same time. The narrative exposition was overwhelming enough but once the film gets started it becomes totally pointless and frankly stupid. Many critics have said that Southland Tales will divide audience opinion, and it is a film that will provoke an either I love it or hate it critical response. I didn't hate this film nor did I love it, I just felt that Kelly is wasting his time, returning to material which he has already explored so well in his debut feature. The failure of Southland Tales also underlines the pressure many promising film makers are under once they have made a film of some cinematic importance, as is the case with Richard Kelly and Donnie Darko. It will be interesting to see how Richard Kelly bounces back from the critical and commercial disappointment of Southland Tales, or perhaps by the time his next feature is out in cinemas his second film will have achieved the cult status of his first.


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