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Insomniac Movie Theater: Southland Tales

by Trevan McGee on April 28, 2011

in Columns,Insomniac Movie Theater

Before I go into this week’s entry, I need to admit something that may alienate people right away, or at the very least, make my case a lot harder to establish — I hated “Donnie Darko.”

Okay, “hate” is a strong word. Probably too strong, but I think the movie is a bunch of loosely defined Sci-Fi elements attached to a story that never really develops into a substantial narrative. I’d go a step further and say that there are three things that make the movie memorable: the introduction to Jake Gyllenhaal, the visually striking nature of Frank The Bunny and this scene, which I love:

Did you catch the Seth Rogen cameo?

Anyway, there are a few other music video elements to the movie that director Richard Kelly throws into Darko that work, but none of them hit with the inventiveness of this scene, which essentially tells us everything we need to know about Donnie’s high school in two-and-a-half minutes, rather than over the course of a few dull scenes where we meet the players and learn the social structure.

So, why the strong words about “Donnie Darko”? Honestly, it’s the fervent cult that sprung up around the movie that really pushed me into disdain territory. Maybe that says more about me, than the film, but give me a mediocre work of art that people rally around or canonize and it’s my natural instinct to shrink away. I’ve also had to endure plenty of the “You don’t like ‘Donnie Darko’? That movie’s amazing,” talks.

Anyway, I mention all of this because my natural repulsion to the movie Kelly is most remembered for would make my response to “Southland Tales,” his critically and culturally reviled follow-up, a foregone conclusion.

But quite the opposite. I love “Southland Tales,” specifically because it functions as a the continuation of a lot of the elements seen in “Donnie Darko.” It’s also worth noting because it’s one of those movies that makes you wonder not why it exists, but how it exists.

I won’t bother recapping the plot, it’s definitely convoluted and definitely warrants being seen and unpacked by the viewer, especially considering many will likely have different interpretations. My only advice would be to not take the easy out and instantly write “Southland Tales” off before the credits roll.

What I will say is that it’s Kelly’s most ambitious film and while ultimately, his vision fails, there’s enough bizarre originality on display here to make it memorable and worth at least a second view. All of his tells as a director are present and accounted for — the inventive camera angles, the creative in-camera effects, the cast of memorable characters, an ending that asks more questions than it answers and oh, those music video segments I mentioned earlier? Kelly takes his eye for sharply cut montages or inventive follow-shots like the Darko video embedded above and turns in a piece of pop art that smarter people than I (read: The A.V. Club) have labeled as one of the best scenes from the last decade.

Out of context that scene makes only slightly less sense than it does in context, but that’s fine. What it does do a serviceable job of encapsulating is the restlessness of a returned soldier who once had a purpose and now scrapes by dealing drugs in addition to working glorified security. Justin Timberlake’s character isn’t buying the U.S.O. show. He just wants to drink cheap beer and be alone in his head.

“Southland Tales” is a great 2 a.m. movie, most likely for all of the reasons it didn’t find an audience — it’s slap-dash, confusing and a fantastic excursion into bizarre performances from an odd collection of actors including Wood Harris, Cheri Oteri, Wallace Shawn, Kevin Smith in terrible old man makeup, Janeanne Garofalo, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, Christopher Lambert, Jon Lovitz, Mandy Moore, Dwayne Johnson, John Larroquette, Bai Ling, Amy Poehler and Miranda Richardson. It’s a Six Degrees of Separation gold mine and if anything, you can default to “Hey! That guy’s in this?” mode, should you get sick of trying to keep track of the plot.

The fact that the movie plays like a fever dream compliments being half-awake quite well, possibly allowing you to function on the same wavelength as Kelly when he made this. But there’s not much more I can say about “Southland Tales.” It’s just one of those movies you have to see in order to understand the legend behind it. Now it’s on Netflix Instant, so it’s never been easier to get ahold of.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dave April 28, 2011 at 10:15 am

Glad to see there is someone out there that shares my disdain for Darko! Can’t speak to Southland Tales, but I will give it a shot now (actually saw it on Netflix instant last week & wondered if it was worth a watch).


2 Brian April 30, 2011 at 1:50 pm

I love this movie. Great for when you want a film that absolutely brings the crazy!


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