Thursday, November 22, 2007

Southland Tales

I had a friend in college - well, he's still my friend, but he was also my friend in college - who had the Most Convoluted Idea for a Movie Ever. Even now, I can recall bits and pieces of the premise. An epic adventure about two characters who run away from their homes and drive halfway across the country on a search for some legendary underground drug dealer, encountering all manner of inexplicable goings-on and inscrutable characters along the way. It was, of course, completely unfilmable, a jumble of concepts, inside jokes and metaphysical horseshit that meshed into a coherent story only inside the fevered imagination of a 20-year-old pothead.

How I wish Richard Kelly had the good taste to keep Southland Tales to himself, for use exclusively as stoned late-night conversation fodder! To him, I'm sure this schizophrenic camp fantasy all makes sense. Perhaps its looping, ponderous meta-meta-meta-meta-narrative, based on a needlessly complex dystopian timeline, even has something significant to say about our present American reality to Kelly. To me, it felt like having a stranger take a dump in my brain. These ingredients may have once been nutrients, but they have no business rattling around inside my cerebellum.

Where to begin? I don't mean this review...I mean, writer/director Richard Kelly (who previously made the far-better Donnie Darko) obviously had no idea where to begin Southland Tales. So he opens the film with what feels like an eternity of dry, boring exposition. Justin Timberlake narrates - in a disinterested monotone voice-over, mind you - the future of America, in brief. But, you know, not actually all that brief.

I mean it. Nothing happens for a long time in this movie. We literally get an image of a computer desktop with little windows popping up showing us brief clips from a variety of fictional future events, from a nuclear bomb in Texas to the return of Republican power in the Congress to the massive, permanent extension of invasive government surveillance programs. Kelly knows as well as anyone that an audience will lose interest in this kind of elaborate backstory after a few minutes. This is the cinematic equivalent of the first 100 pages of a Michael Crichton novel, the part where he has to prove he knows how to do research before the dinosaurs come in. There's really no excuse for a professional screenwriter to begin a movie this way.

And it's not as if hearing all this backstory makes the action of the film any clearer or easier to follow. After the set-up finally ends (finally!) and we're introduced to some actual characters, it's still impossible to get any kind of handle on what's happening. Rather than moving from Point A to Point B, Kelly gives us scene after endless, clunky, disconnected scene, proceeding nowhere, crammed to bursting with reams of baroque, inessential details about this imaginary world. But none of these scenes are clever or interesting, and there's certainly nothing that moves the movie forward, the logical progression of events being apparently anathema in the Southland of mid-2008. Southland Tales is so slow, I'd swear the film itself was unspooling at less than 24 frames a second.

Still, despite my own bewildered confusion, I shall do my best to give you some notion of the horrors that await you on your journey to the Center of Richard Kelly's Mind-Grapes.

Famous action movie star Boxer Santaros (The Rock) returns from the desert to Los Angeles with total amnesia, having completed some sort of strange mission but knowing nothing about who he is or where he has been. Somehow (I'm not sure how), he hooks up with ambitious porn queen Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar Prinze). Together, they have written a screenplay called "The Power" that (we're told) accurately foretells the end of the world.

I've never been a huge fan of The Rock as an actor, but Southland Tales is clearly his weakest performance in any film I've seen. He can't seem to decide if the film's meant to be a comedy, so he plays some scenes really broad and wacky and other equally ludicrous scenes in total deadpan. He also has this mannerism of twiddling his fingers (I think it's supposed to indicate nervousness and anxiety?) that gets really overused. It's kind of cute (if a little zany) the first time he uses it, but after the 10th or 12th, you want to smack some sense into the guy. (That's not funny if you do it throughout an entire 2.5 hour film, jackass!)

Santaros apparently doesn't realize that he's really the husband of Madeline Frost (Mandy Moore), daughter of the powerful Senator and Vice-Presidential candidate Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne). Senator Robert Frost, by the way, is keen on quoting the famous poet of the same name, particularly the "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood" line that's probably the only Robert Frost quote 99% of Americans know. This imagery, of the two roads and one being untraveled, comes back in excruciatingly on-the-nose, obvious fashion late in the film. It feels more like self-congratulation than anything else, a filmmaker warning you 20 times about what he's going to do and then demanding respect after he finally gets around to doing it.

Okay, so, in order to prepare for his role in "The Power," Santaros goes on a ride-along with a cop, Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott). Taverner, and his twin brother Ronald, have connections to the underground radical Neo-Marxists, who seek to bring down the company that runs all the government's surveillance, US Ident.

These stories are intertwined with many, many others. We follow a cop played by Jon Lovitz who has hooked up with another one of the rebels, played by Cheri Oteri. Wallace Shawn portrays a brilliant scientist who may have invented a perpetual motion machine capable of cleanly providing the world with energy. Timberlake's narrator even appears during the film, dealing a mysterious futuristic drug that's based on the same technology as Shawn's energy machine. (I think he's actually dead, though...Discuss...) Amy Poehler plays another radical with a really stupid plan to embarrass and discredit Taverner. Christopher Lambert appears in the film driving an ice cream truck around but otherwise not really doing much. There's a wacky musical number, a bunch of crap about the space-time continuum, a really slack dance sequence and, of course, several midgets. Because it's just not a surreal indie film without a midget.

Most of this garbage is just odd for the sake of oddity. Southland Tales occasionally gets weird or silly enough to elicit a giggle. Like, any time Jon Lovitz is called upon to say something severe or tough, or the surprise first appearance by Curtis Armstrong (better known to the world as "Booger" from Revenge of the Nerds) or the CG car sex scene. There's definitely an attempt by Kelly to play off his Donnie Darko success by concocting another apocalyptic sci-fi comedy loaded with Jesus symbolism and also an attempt to replicate some of the style of David Lynch.

In addition to the aforementioned midgets, we get lots of random shots of fires, mysterious backlit foreign-accented conspirators with strange haircuts, portentous non sequitur dialogue and Rebekah Del Rio performing a traditionally English song in Spanish. (You'll recall, she sung Roy Orbison's "Crying" in Spanish in Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Here, she sings the American National Anthem in Spanish.) Some scenes, particularly all the sequences focused on Wallace Shawn and his team of scientific weirdos, feel almost like a parody of Lynch's style, but I'm not sure this is intentional.

For the most part, Kelly seems to be taking this material seriously, which is of course the problem. He's clearly a creative and even funny guy, but his skills as a political satirist and social commentator leave much to be desired. Southland Tales clearly seeks to make some kind of critique, both of our politics and our media. The main on-screen drama is constantly being interrupted in favor of simulated "media" - newscasts commenting on the main action, snippets of broadcasts from background radios and TV sets, the aforementioned and highly intrusive computer readouts introducing us to various facets of future-America. But it doesn't add up to anything. What's Kelly's take on media? That it's a tool for government propaganda? That's it's full of meaningless drivel with no connection to reality? That it numbs the populace into a state of disconnected apathy? The film seems to say all of these things and none of them, and it certainly doesn't present even these basic kinds of observations convincingly or with anything that could be considered a real perspective.

Despite the obvious time and care spent crafting every nuance of his fictional universe (there's even a series of comic books setting up the story of Southland Tales in greater detail, in case 2.5 hours of blather isn't enough for you), there really isn't much of interest going on, in the margins or otherwise. This is a world that is, in many ways, too similar to ours to work as effective metaphor or as an intriguing setting for an ensemble dramedy. I guess the chat show that Krysta hosts from the beach is supposed to comment on the vapidity of shows like "The View," and the government's fear-mongering over nuclear attacks from Syria mirror our own leaders' obsessive push for war with Iraq and Iran, but it's so similar to our present reality, the points don't really get driven home. We're treated to many, many shots of US Ident's surveillance technology, but we don't really see anyone use them for anything. The system just looks like banks of monitors covering every wall. They have no meaning to us aside from set design, and yet opposition to their invasive control drives the entire film. What are they being used for? What hold do they have on those being watched, and the watchers?

Kelly's so busy worldbuilding to bother giving his story some actual stakes or momentum. As a result, he's made a flat, ceaselessly dull disaster, a movie that's, in its present state, thoroughly unwatchable. I'm not sure how I managed to sit through all 140 minutes.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson's saga of the early California oil industry, There Will Be Blood, is based very loosely on Upton Sinclair's novel, Oil!. According to the writer/director Anderson, he started out adapting that novel, intrigued by its visceral descriptions of the hardships faced by oilmen in this era, but strayed from the source material more and more, turning away from "living history" and focusing more on the psychology of protagonist Daniel Plainview. Though he abandoned much of the action and purpose of Sinclair's muckraking book, Anderson has nevertheless made a film that feels like a dense work of literary fiction.

The film has been described frequently as "strange," or "bizarre" or "difficult," and I think this is a reaction to the depth and intensity of Anderson's examination of Plainview, which is a kind of focused character study increasingly uncommon in the cinema. (It recalls the more esoteric Hollywood films of the '70s in some ways, and Blood is dedicated to Robert Altman, whose work was clearly influential to Anderson. But its hard to find true comparisons with this movie even among the classic Westerns and period films of that era).

Plainview, portrayed by the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis, is quite simply one of the most fascinating cinematic creations of this decade. How far from the traditional modern film performance is Day-Lewis here? Honestly, it's like night and day. This guy can suggest a vast spectrum of emotion without uttering a single word. There's a scene in which he explodes in rage at a business rival in a crowded restaurant, but the sour glare he initially shoots at the man is almost more alarming than the final, violent confrontation. Even modern actors whose work I really enjoy, like Clive Owen or Tony Leung or Naomi Watts or Phillip Seymour Hoffman, none of them have this kind of presence on-screen. The comparison to Day-Lewis' work in Gangs of New York is an obvious one, but I think he's even better here - less cartoonish, more repressed, at least twice as angry but unable to find a way to express that or any other emotion. I thought for sure that Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men would be my favorite turn by any actor this year, but it's only one week later and I've had to rethink that stance...

We follow Plainview's career and personal life from 1898, when he labored in isolation as a silver miner, until the late 1920's, when he's an angry old curmudgeon living off his ill-gotten gains. We find him, pickax in hand, chipping away at a wall of rock desperately hoping to find something valuable. His chosen work is painful and dangerous, and he spends the vast majority of his time completely alone. After several years, he has saved up enough to start his own oil company, and develops an unerringly reliable sense for where to find oil and how to exploit whatever locals are sitting on top of it at the time.

He essentially becomes a traveling salesman, journeying across California convincing people that he will share the wealth of their property once they've signed everything over to him. Therefore, Plainview must appear to be a good, honest, salt-of-the-earth type individual, even though it's clear to the viewer from fairly early on that he doesn't care about anyone or anything save wealth and status. He adopts the orphaned son of one of his employees who dies on the job, takes in a man claiming to be his long-lost brother, and even attends the local church even though the notion of humbling himself before God seems to turn his stomach.

He needs the citizens of Little Boston, who sit atop one of the largest oil finds in the West, to see him as one of their own, so he must work God rhetorically into all his grandiose speeches and even make nice with the preening reverend of the local church, Eli Sunday (a terrifically disturbed performance from Paul Dano). Going through the motions of being a good man, however, cannot actually make someone a good man, and this principle alone appears to disprove the very basis of Christian thought. (Or does it? During one of Sunday's sermons, he claims that, even though he may wish everyone on Earth can be saved, the truth is that they cannot. Is this acceptance of the existence of evil among humanity a fundamental Christian principle, or the antithesis of Jesus' inclusion-focused? And isn't this an interesting conversation for an American MOVIE to spark?)

Much of Daniel's story concerns his need to coddle religious believes with his personal disgust with religion. A scene in which Sunday "saves" Plainview's soul in front of the entire town, shot entirely in close-up on Day-Lewis' pained grimace, tells you all you need to know about these men and their relationship. This is not about God and salvation; it's a power struggle, one man using his position in the community to bend a stronger man to his will. Brilliant, intricately-detailed work here from Anderson, Day-Lewis, Dano and cinematographer Robert Elswit.

The entire film, really, is a tribute to Elswit's keen eye and gracefulness with the camera. During the Q&A session after the film, moderator Judd Apatow (no, I don't know why he was there either...), in between painfully lame wisecracks, noted that the film was shot very simply and in a straight-forward manner. Anderson agreed, saying that he was limited by shooting most of the film out of doors, but I think he was just trying to be nice because, to my mind, this could not be more wrong. Blood is, in fact, far more understated than Anderson's other films (particularly the stylish and spazzy Boogie Nights), but it's not exactly Ozu either. There are numerous amazing long-takes, swooping tracking shots and breathtakingly scenic vistas. (One incredible early shot moves from Day-Lewis' battered form pulling himself along the rocky ground up to the mountains in the far horizon, showing you just how far he has to go to find civilization. Hardly a simple, straight-forward bit of imagery). The use of earth tones, viscous blacks and various shades of brown, also struck me as rather masterful, draping the entire film in filth and grime, just as the main characters spend their time rooting through soil and dirt in their quest for financial gain.

The entire art department has done phenomenal work here, bringing this era to stunning life on screen. Though, as I've said, the film focuses on Plainview's damaged psyche and deteriorating relationships, the visuals provide a tremendous insight into the conditions of early oil fields, the nature of the oil business at the time and the rough and thoroughly alien landscape of California only a century ago. (The film was shot in West Texas because nowhere in California actually looks like this any more.)

There Will Be Blood is an amazing movie; a hugely-entertaining, often-hilarious, darkly troubling, thought-provoking, informative, frightening, expertly-made epic. It opens right around Christmas and I will be seeing it again at that time. I love this time of year; I actually get to go see good movies in the theater, an excruciatingly rare event from January to October.

Durpa Durpa Tweedley Durpa Durp...Have I Converted You Yet?

Wow...This "defense" of religion from Christianity Today is seriously one of the silliest, least-convincing cases for faith I have ever read. It's as if writer Stan Guthrie assumed that, by citing single sentences from various other writers on the general topic of religion, he could forge a compelling argument through an act of sheer will. It doesn't work...Kind of sad, really.

Let's face it: Atheism is in. Not since Nietzsche have disbelievers enjoyed such a ready public reception to their godless message—and such near-miraculous royalties. But even that hasn't put them in a good mood. Snaps Christopher Hitchens, who wrote God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons
(although not, presumably, the pronouncements of atheists), "Many of the teachings of Christianity are, as well as being incredible and mythical, immoral." A feuding Richard Dawkins suggests that believers "just shut up." Apparently, they didn't get the tolerance memo.

I'm not 100% certain that atheism is "in," though this would be a question worth exploring. "Does the relatively recent national discussion about atheist belief in our culture necessarily mean that there are more atheists, or could it just be that the atheists who have been here all along suddenly feel a bit more empowered to state their beliefs openly?" Guthrie's not interested in this question, however, because he'd have to do "research" and consider "evidence." And just making up lists based on nonsense is easier.

So here we go...

Creation: The universe, far from being a howling wasteland indifferent to our existence, appears to be finely tuned through its estimated 13.7 billion years of existence to support life on this planet. Tinker with any one of scores of fundamental physical laws or the initial conditions of the universe—such as gravity or the cosmological constant—and we would not be here. As physicist Paul Davies has admitted, "I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact."

Seriously, religious people? I don't ever want to hear this argument again. I am tired of this discussion, because it never ever changes. You think the alignment of conditions that support human life on Earth must have been the work of a celestial being, I think it all just kind of came together here, and if it hadn't, we'd all be alive and evolving on some other planet, because the universe had pretty much infinite opportunities to make this work. (How can you say anything is impossible in an infinite system? Doesn't the lack of time make anything pretty much possible if you include enough variables?) This argument makes it sound like the Earth just appeared one day in a vacuum, looking exactly the way it does now. The universe is MASSIVE and it has been around for longer than any of us can fully comprehend in our primitive brains.

Also, I don't care what single sentences, robbed of their context, a random physicist might have uttered. That doesn't make it any more or less likely that humans are alive on Earth because the specific conditions that support our life existed on this planet. (Also, I don't think there's any such thing as a brute fact. There are facts and non-facts.)

Beauty: Beethoven's Ninth, a snowflake, the sweet smell of a baby who has been sleeping, and a sunset beyond the dunes of Lake Michigan all point to a magnificent and loving Creator. And isn't it interesting that we have the capacity—unlike mere animals—to gape in awe, to be brought to tears, before them? Truly did David say, "What is man, that you are mindful of him?"

To me, nothing confirms my atheism more than music. Just as Stan here can't bring himself to believe that anything as intricate and perfect as Earth just sprung up one day, I can't believe that any person was able to compose the "Ninth Symphony." And man did. A person, not a God. It exists because we made it, not because some deity squirted it into being. That's humanism, brah. As for the sunset on Lake Michigan, it is also beautiful, and it is not human-created, but we can explain it. And if we were alive on some other planet, and sunsets were blue-black and ugly, we'd probably have found them beautiful too, after several thousands of years. You come to appreciate what you know.

And of course it's interesting that we've evolved consciousness to appreciate such things. what? How does that prove Christianity? At this point in the essay, Stan seems to realize that he's falling into the Intelligent Design trap, making his case for religious really just a case for some kind of external, intelligent Creator-God-Thing. So he has no choice but to painfully, and ludicrously, shift gears. This is when shit starts to get funny.

New Testament reliability: Compared with the handful of existing copies of seminal ancient works such as Homer's Iliad, the New Testament's provenance is far better attested. There are thousands of NT manuscripts in existence, some made within mere decades of the events they report. Scholar F. F. Bruce said, "The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar."

'Kay, I'm no historian by trade, but even I know that's bullshit. We have primary sources attesting to Caeser's reality as a person, including HIS OWN WRITINGS about his military campaigns. (Check out Mahalo's Julius Caeser page to give them a read.) Jesus may certainly have been real; so far as I know, the case is still out, though the majority of actual real professional historians I've heard speak on the topic tend to opine that he's representative of a number of prophets and rabbis from the time, not just one guy.

It's this sentence that's so stupid: "some made within mere decades of the events they report." But we have documents that report on events in their own time! This is not some golden standard for historical accuracy. "Some people wrote some stuff that contradicts other stuff within a few decades of when this theoretical stuff happened! Case closed!" Finally, "Scholar F.F. Bruce"? Nice try...Make that evangelical Bible scholar F.F. Bruce. Of course he thinks Jesus was real. It was the basis of his religious faith not to mention his life's work!

This article is titled "Answering the Atheists." So, in seeking to affirm that the New Testament is a reliable source for accurate historical information (and even scholar F.F. Bruce admitted it was "imprecise"), this is what Stan comes up with. Yikes...

Scripture: Unlike other religious texts, the Bible gives us the good, the bad, and the ugly of its heroes: Abraham, Jacob, David, and Peter among them. Further, Scripture's message rings true. It has been said that human depravity is the only religious doctrine empirically verified on a daily basis. And the Bible's gracious solution to our predicament, Christ's atoning death on the Cross, uniquely emphasizes what God has done, not what we must do, for our rescue.

Here's about the point when I kind of give up on Stan. This just doesn't make any sense at all. For real. It's a bunch of random sentences that line up at all, clumsily ordered into paragraph form. Try to unpack the argument he's making now.

The Bible's message "rings true?" REALLY? doesn't so much ring true to me, what with the constant contradiction of scientific principles and reliance on fairy tale logic. (Does the story of Jonah and the Whale "ring true"? What about a man who can heal the sick, walk on water, transform water into wine and raise the dead? The whole point of "faith" is that this stuff doesn't ring true and you have to kind of force yourself to believe it.)

The Bible's "gracious" solution to our unnamed predicament was a man being tortured and assassinated? That's not so gracious. I could think of a lot cleaner, neater ways for us all to be saved than a guy being stabbed, nailed to a cross and pecked at by crows.

I don't even understand the last sentence's basic meaning, so lets move on.

Jesus: Christ's life and teachings are unparalleled in world history, as any Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim—or atheist—worth his salt will admit. Napoleon reportedly said, "I know men, and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and whatever other religions the distance of infinity."

Now we're supposed to take Napoleon's word for it? The guy responsible for at least six million European deaths? What a good Christian he was...

And that first sentence is just horrible, ugly Christian supremacy stated as fact, the equal of saying that "The white race is just unparalleled in world history, as any African or Asian or South American worth his salt will admit." If a Muslim "worth his salt" really felt that Christ's life and teachings were unparalleled in world history, why would he be troubling himself with this Muhammad fellow? True, if everything Christian's believe about Jesus were true, he'd be a fairly remarkable specimen - a compassionate half-divine educator and prophet who walked around, healing the sick and speaking about peace and love. But that's only if you believe everything that Christian's believe, and this article is supposed to explain why Stan is a Christian. So it's unfair that we be asked to accept all the doctrines as true from the get-go.

The trilemma: C.S. Lewis, commenting on Christ's claim to divinity, said: "You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

I've seriously heard this argument since junior high school. They must teach it to the fundies at a seriously young age.

Which is too bad, because it's stupid, and it's going to make it harder for these young people to fully understand the nature of logic and rhetoric in later years. Again, this only works if you FIRST ACCEPT that everything the New Testament says is true. If Jesus is being accurately quoted for the entire book, then yes, he's either a crazy person, a bullshit artist or the son of God.

But what if he's being misquoted? This book was, after all, written by his own followers years after his death, when they were feverishly trying to convince the maximum number of people possible to accept him as the son of God, a decision that often meant being fed to lions, tortured or just plain executed. There was a huge benefit to flubbing the truth, would you not admit, and no downside? And it was unlikely that anyone could prove he wasn't the son of God because he was dead and it was fucking Biblical times. Proof didn't really enter into the conversation.

So C.S. Lewis is trying to urge non-Christians to make a decision based on...Christian doctrine. Solid...

It just goes on and on like this, and frankly I'm bored, but I can't finish this post off without including this priceless quote:

"While many Christians have behaved badly, Christ specializes in turning sinners around. What other faith can boast of a Chuck Colson?"

Yup, you've got me there, Stan. There's only one disgraced for Nixon Chief Council and rabidly right-wing nutjob Charles Colson, and he plays for your team. This is the same guy that blames American decadence for terrorism:

There was a brilliant but paranoid Egyptian writer by the name of Sayyid Qutb, imprisoned in Egypt in 1956. In 1970, he published a book, In the Shade of the Koran, attacking the West as totally corrupt. Qutb knew what he was talking about. He lived in the U.S. for a time and saw our decadence. He also read Western philosophers like [Martin] Heidegger and [Jacques] Derrida and other intellectuals who hated the West. And he read all the anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic literature.

Qutb's In the Shade of the Koran unequivocally advocates killing of "infidels." He was executed by the Egyptian government, but his brother, Muhammad Qutb, escaped Egypt, went to Saudi Arabia, and became a professor at the university. One of his star pupils: none other than Osama bin Laden.


He's the same Charles Colson, a shining light of truth that confirms the essential rationality of the Christian faith, who said that the illegal immigration problem stems from legal abortion:

Not really much to add to that. It's like praising Judaism because, hey, we gave you Jackie Mason AND David Berkowitz!

[Hat Tip: Sullivan]