Friday, April 11, 2008

Camera Obscura: Reasons To See 'Southland Tales

No movie is better at tackling the mood and madness of the current age better than "Southland Tales". It's no wonder it's gotten reviews ranging from awful to the best of 2007. It's an opera of our times, a comedy-sci-fi-musical-satire apocalypse which starts with a roaring barrage of nuclear blasts, oppressive media over-stimulation, and a host of plot threads and ideas that hit viewers like a shotgun blast. The movie is not, as some critics claim, a disaster, but it's a view on the disastrous world we inhabit.

I was constantly reminded of the kind of fearless satire of writer Terry Southern - who gave us such classics as "Dr. Strangelove", "Barbarella", and "The Loved One". The sledgehammer of satire strikes again and again, not worrying about achieving wisdom but more about achieving an approximation of the lunatic surrealism so constant in our culture.

The basic story is of an America torn by war, the return of the draft, fringe political groups locked in relentless conflict, media consumed with fame, with itself, with shock and awe, a society under constant surveillance, a fierce rush for alternative energy, self-righteous demagogues, a presidential election and much more. Honestly, as the movie unspools it's version of television as The Breaking News hub of consciousness, I was glad to see someone else had the same view of media today as I do - a glut of the popularity of the mundane and meaningless and a catalog of political in-fighting which is impossible to accommodate.

Now add in a story about rips in the space-time continuum and you have a story that could have been penned by Kurt Vonnegut. This movie instead is from Richard Kelly ("Donnie Darko") and while the story gets incoherent, that's part of the point. There's a whale of a cast too - Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore, Amy Poehler, Sean William Scott, Miranda Richardson, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Lambert and Rebekah Del Rio in the closing scenes doing an unforgettable version of the National Anthem.

Dwayne Johnson scores a bulls eye in the lead role here - playing a celebrity with political power and some mysterious amnesia who has a movie script which might save the world or destroy it. He's living with porn star Gellar, who is attempting to parlay porn into intellectual and commercial might. Johnson never winks or nods to the camera (nor does anyone else), playing the farce straight up.

There are some marvelous bits, like the references to T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost (and the Republican presidential candidates of Eliot/Frost versus the Democrat team of Clinton/Lieberman), a 'secret' energy source called Fluid Karma, and Justin Timberlake lip-synching The Killers. And a giant blimp.

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