So, as I was saying, last week, I finally got a chance to watch Southland Tales, which was the (relatively) new movie from Richard Kelly. I really, really, really wanted to like it. I think Kelly's a talented director, I don't think there's any question about that, really. I'll readily admit that I haven't seen any of his other movies, but everyone knows that Donnie Darko was (and is) a classic. (And I'll get more into that in a bit...) But, as for his new effort...not good.
Southland Tales was not only ambitious, it was grand in scope. These are all good things. However, sometimes these kinds of things can get in the way of a good thing. And that's really what I think was the ultimate failing of this movie: it was a great idea that got lost in translation. I don't know whose fault that is/was, the big-budget studio that (inevitably) meddles with a director's vision or the director for getting a little over-ambitious. Regardless, though, the thing's a mess.
The best thing about Southland Tales was an amazing musical number with Justin Timberlake singing to the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done" and while it was a great scene, I'm not sure what it says about a movie when that's the best thing about it. There was certainly a theme: the movie was clearly about the apocalypse and there was a lot of the same tropes that we saw in Donnie Darko (the search for God, the question whether God's there at all, time-travel, parallel dimensions, etc.), but the message was muddled in every way. There was no clarity. And while I've never been one to need things to be clear (hello, Lost!) I'd appreciate some commitment to the ideas that you're trying to advance; enough commitment at least to try to let some people in on the secret, instead of simply obfuscating it. The dialogue was corny from the first moment of the film, and while I appreciate Kelly trying to break down stereotypes (if that's even really what it was), I did feel that the ex-porn actress angle just led to parody instead of anything serious.
In contrast, as I said above, I was inspired by the movie to look at Donnie Darko again, and it happened quicker than I anticipated, so I'm watching it as I type. There's no corny dialogue. There's a fluid plot, with some interesting deviations from the overall message, but every time it gets too crazy, there's some super-specific incident that gets back to the main theme. The movie tells one story. Everything in the movie relates to that story. That's a good work. That, to me, is the proof of a good work. I tell my students something that my best teacher ever told me: if you're trying to answer a question, re-read that question consistently throughout your answer. It will help you re-focus, it'll make your answer better, and it'll prove that you know how to talk about what you want to talk about. That's what Donnie Darko was. Proof that Richard Kelly knew what he was talking about. He had some interesting things to say about the above-mentioned themes and he did so wonderfully. (Did he answer those questions? I don't think so. But I think they're probably questions that aren't answerable.) Southland Tales, on the other hand, is a wandering answer. It's more like something that one of my 8th graders would write, meandering around the general ideas, with some shimmers of brilliance, but ultimately falls short.