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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Two Roads Diverge

The wait for Richard Kelly's Southland Tales has been long. Very long. I'd even say it's been too long. In development since Donnie Darko wrapped in 2001, along with other writing and directing projects, the six years saw expectations rising to monolithic proportions. With a negative buzz overshadowing it (and the flood of even more now that it is out), I just wanted to speak up about why I really liked this film. And I mean I really liked it.

I'm not surprised Southland Tales has generated polarizing reviews. I could not tell you a clear-cut synopsis of the plot or what everything exactly means. I couldn't with Donnie Darko after my first viewing and it will take repeat viewings of Southland Tales to do the same. But that brings up an interesting question: is Southland Tales worth watching again and again? I say, by all means, yes.

This is one of the few films I've seen where a short and simple review cannot justify its merits or faults. If Donnie Darko was a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, then this is a 1,500-piece puzzle. Kelly definitely swung for the fences with a film that feels part-Short Cuts, part-Dune, part-Blade Runner and part-Donnie Darko. And those are just some of the comparisons I'd make.

I think the source of division people have with Kelly's films is based on each film's core. Donnie Darko is a tragic -- but strong -- love story, while Southland Tales is a dark -- albeit heavy-handed -- political satire about apocalypse. More people relate to love stories over political satires, but that doesn't mean satire is completely unwanted or less compelling.

For me, I found the humor and strong acting kept the film together. There's a lot of exposition, characters and interweaving plots going on, and they're all rather hard to follow. Reading the prequel graphic novel made things a little bit easier to understand, but still, there's a lot of information to process in its 144 minutes running time. But I felt the information was worth processing. Coming off of Donnie Darko, anything less from Kelly would seem like a safe cop-out.

As I walked out of the film as the credits rolled, I had a better understanding of how to enjoy a film without apologies. I may have heard a fellow audience member utter, "Wasn't that one of the worst films you've ever seen?" but considering some of Kelly's influences, I had to smile. It's all a part of the process. None of David Lynch's films (except for The Elephant Man) came out to universal acclaim. Heck, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me were considered by some as evidence that Lynch should never make a movie or TV show ever again. Yet he continues to make puzzling and challenging films. Films that I find worth viewing.

Lastly, I'll say this. A lot of people fall into this illusion created by marketing that the merit of film is primarily based on its box office gross. I highly doubt Southland Tales will do blockbuster numbers theatrically, but I wouldn't be surprised that it does well on rental. But does any of that stuff matter to me as a viewer? Not really. I argue the true success of a film is that it gets made and is available for people to see. And that's not something any Variety report, book about box office bombs, heated message board debates or rolled-eyed looks, can really take away from it.

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