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  • I finally completely unsubscribed all my email accounts from the DCCC’s parade of sad, so I can laugh at stuff like this now.
  • This is a real accomplishment. It’s not only an uncanny channeling of our 37th president, it’s also hilarious and legitimately insightful. Only problem is that if the real Nixon were alive and tweeting today, there’s no way he’d be this candid.
  • Leonard Cohen, unlike just about everything, gets better with age:
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God's_Not_DeadI recently watched this film, which I would imagine is of some interest to you all, and have a few things to say about it:

Yep, it’s the smash-hit (relatively speaking) Christian-themed film you’ve perhaps heard of, and boy does it stink. How to describe God’s Not Dead? Just imagine that Crash forgot about race, found Jesus, and then watched a few seasons of The Newsroom. It’s in line with the steadily diminishing returns of the “everyone is connected” subgenre of films revolving around a single theme that everyone discusses all the time to the exclusion of everything else, sounding more like position papers than human beings. (Everything is indeed connected, in that the writer’s lack of artfulness connects them all.) It also dumps far too many characters and subplots into what is essentially an hour and a half film (plus a fifteen minute concert sequence that could have lasted one or two). And yet the movie constantly puts on the brakes, with scenes that last too long, scenes that have no point, and an entirely redundant comic relief subplot, as though the filmmakers felt we constantly needed to catch up to the breakneck pace of happenings in the film. As it turns out, if you have no interest in developing your characters or working on satisfying payoffs for them, you can stick in about 30 or 40 without having to worry about cluttering up the works too much. Or having to worry about telling an interesting story.

The problems really begin with the title. God’s Not Dead would be a great title for a pamphlet and a decent title for a book, but it’s a bad title for a fictional movie. Movies are about things happening, not things being. A title using a form of “to be” should be a red flag for a movie (Everything Is Illuminated immediately comes to mind). The Fight For God would be, in my opinion, a little better. Since I do believe in giving credit where it’s due, I will say that this movie reflects to some extent the professionalization of Christian-right themed films in that it is competently shot, and the professionalism here is light-years beyond what one used to see with, say, the Left Behind movies. Since the story requires little of the stuff that would tend to make this film a fiasco before even considering the content (CGI effects, action scenes, complicated acting) it doesn’t embarrass itself on a technical level too often. I seriously doubt this sector will ever generate great art, though, due to an inability to process ambiguity on behalf of both the creators and the audience. Without that, their output is doomed to artlessness, blunt evocations and on-the-nose speechifying. And so it is with this movie. The “spine” of the film is the conflict between fakey-name student Josh Wheaton (sounds more like a Mad Magazine parody of Joss Whedon than a real person’s name) played by one of those young Disney stars you might be vaguely aware of and Professor Jeffrey Radisson, who is played by Kull The Conqueror himself, Kevin Sorbo. Sorbo is a philosophy professor who acts like a conservative Christian take on a college professor, not only ostentatiously asserting that there is no god, but dedicating the entirety of the first class to a jeremiad on the topic. He then goes so far as to promise the entire class A’s if they unanimously sign papers stating simply that, “God is dead.” All are apparently willing to do this except for our hero, which leads to Sorbo challenging Joss Whedon, er, Josh Wheaton, to prove the existence of God, which apparently consumes every single class session going forward, to the detriment of what is apparently a wildly ambitious entry level philosophy curriculum that includes the utterly non-entry level Michel Foucault, as well as non-philosophers like Noam Chomsky and Richard Dawkins. If this film had been set in 1969, it might have had some semblance of reality. It is, of course, not set during an era where Marxist faculty and the like are common on our nation’s college campuses, so the whole thing does for religion what the Death Wish sequels did for crime. Sorbo’s character’s unprofessionalism would not be tolerated at any real institution of higher learning, and given what he puts poor Joss through, it would be easy to imagine him getting sued for religious discrimination. Hell, the ACLU might even defend our Joss in that case, but regardless he’d have a very strong legal case. In any event, the “debate” plays out exactly how one might expect, with equal doses of smarm, glibness and sophistry which all too often accompany religious-right messaging. This movie’s idea of a devastating putdown is when Joss responds to Sorbo quoting Dawkins by quoting a biologist saying, “Philosophy is dead.” The whole thing takes a turn for the sublime when Joss asks earnestly why Sorbo, and by extension non-evangelicals, hate him. It takes some balls to ask that after flat-out stating that nonbelievers are amoral monsters.

As for the rest of the movie: the most interesting subplot involves a militant atheist blogger/journalist (who for some reason covers religion, leading to lots of hostile encounters with people like the guy from Duck Dynasty) who finds out she has cancer. Unlike the stakes-less main plot, this is a story that has some actual interest, and it might have been interesting indeed to watch such a person have to struggle with feelings about mortality and spirituality that they thought they’d resolved. That could be interesting and dramatic. Unfortunately, this movie has no idea what it’s got and makes her moment of Seeing The Light as perfunctory as can be. That’s when you realize this character was just there to facilitate a couple of generic cameos of Christian warriors graciously defending their faith and nothing more (in roles clearly written to be as generic as possible, depending on who they could get for the money–in this case it was the Duck Dynasty guy, though Sarah Palin could have been easily dropped in with no rewrite needed). Oh, and Dean Cain is in the film as well. Let’s put it this way: his Superman days are long behind him, as he plays a puffy, rich douchebag who (uniquely) has no redemptive arc. He plays the journalist’s brother, both of whom are struggling to take care of their aged mother, who incidentally has my vote for the worst actor in the film. It’s a cliched setup as well, as she’s falling into dementia, but snaps in long enough to give us some old-fashioned gospel teaching. Because, you see, God Himself was protecting those neural pathways. There’s also a hilariously rushed subplot about a young Arab-American woman who is secretly a Christian being raised by a traditionalist Muslim father, the sort of story that I would not trust this kind of movie to pull off. It does not pull it off, and in fact rushes through the whole story, as though the filmmakers weren’t entirely comfortable with the subject matter. Last (and certainly least) we have two pastors–one who looks like the Backstreet Boys’ Nick Carter circa 2000, the other of whom can only be described as a Forrest Whitaker type–in a comic relief subplot as they try unsuccessfully to get to the Christian rock concert, in what has to be the laziest riff on Planes, Tranes and Automobiles I have ever seen. Believe me, there’s much more–among others, there’s a Chinese exchange student who becomes Joss’s Sancho Panza–but hopefully this gives you a feel. It’s also worth saying that none of these are, strictly speaking, characters. Sorbo comes closest to creating a character, as there is some depth to his characterization, but most of them exist in two dimensions at most, only there to make some point about religion and then leave, typically without a satisfying resolution.

Really, this is a wildly ambitious movie that wants to accomplish so many things that it would not be possible to bring them all to a satisfying conclusion in time, even if it wanted to. It’s also incredibly, remarkably lazy. So many things in this movie are obvious contrivances, and too many things break from reality in order to keep the script moving. Take the Muslim girl subplot, easily the laziest of the movie. She wears a head scarf when she’s being dropped off and picked up by her father, but at all times she’s wearing jeans and a shirt that shows her arms, which doesn’t really make much sense, it’s the least amount of effort to get the point across. Her secret faith is given away by her listening to a Franklin Graham sermon on her iPod, because in this universe an iPod continues to display album art at all times, even when locked (if it can even lock). Also, Franklin Graham? There’s a sneaky dogwhistle here I think, but I would imagine an actual Arab-American female gravitating toward Christianity would be highly unlikely to start with a man who is notorious for his unrepentant and repeated bigotry about Muslims and Arabs generally. Which, even if she’s left the religion, is still a religion that her family and friends believe in. She knows not all of its members are not monsters. The obvious interpretation of the scene is that “good” Arabs know old Frankie’s right-on, but Graham is such a tactless asshole I’d have to imagine any real-life person in her situation would be scared off rather than enticed by him. Ironically, this justifies the father’s fury when the he finds out about it, since her daughter is listening to a man who is forthrightly hateful toward people like him. The laziness extends omnidirectionally, from the lazy, shopworn arguments presented by JW, to the notion that an incoming freshman simply has to take this philosophy course right now with this professor rather than, you know, at any other time during the 4+ years he’ll be spending there to the utterly puzzling marriage Sorbo has to a devout Christian woman, which exists purely to provide a counterpoint to the high-flown liberal professorial culture. Sorbo mocks her views privately and publicly, makes fun of her for not properly storing wine, speaks foreign languages that she doesn’t know in order to make her look stupid. Though the movie at least is aware of the insanity of all this and gives us the one good scene of the film, where she decides to leave him and publicly humiliates him in the process, which is utterly satisfying payback. Ironic that it should come through the decidedly non-evangelical pro-divorce story beat, which also happens to be an even less-Christian moment of revenge. Not having thought all this through is another sign of laziness. But fuck it, it’s the one time this movie worked for me. The laziness continues through the largely boring, theoretically climactic Christian rock concert–not making a comment about that type of music, though if I wanted derivations of mid-period U2 I could merely seek out the real thing, so much as that the scene itself has so little of interest to the story going on in it. There is the very odd spectacle of a rock band projecting the lyrics of its songs behind them, which is something I’ve not seen outside of performers for children (where it makes sense as kids have to learn to read). The singer is perfectly audible but whatever. In any event, during this concert, the audience is encouraged to send texts saying, you guessed it, “God’s Not Dead” to I guess anyone. The best one is the Chinese exchange student sending this text–in English–to his unbelieving father, who the entire movie has spoken to his son in Chinese and isn’t shown to know a word of English. Lazy. (Also, the film implores viewers to text this out as well, in what has to be one of the worst-conceived flopped gimmicks of all time. Because, you know, texts do cost money…)

Ultimately, this is a pretty bad movie. It’s pseudointellectual, sprawling in a bad way, unevenly acted, and ambitious to an extent that it is unable (and unwilling) to execute. Kevin Sorbo and Dean Cain were both people I considered bad actors, but they tower over their castmates simply by knowing the basics of how to have basic presence and command attention on screen, and how to present even minimal amounts of subtext. The script is lazy and frequently breaks from reality when it needs to move a story forward, which is sure death when you’re trying to actually engage with it. Obviously I do not share the movie’s point of view, but it’s not designed to convince in any event, and it’s just not a very interesting or compelling movie in its own right. It’s alternates between defensiveness and self-congratulation, existing squarely in a world of derp. It’s not a bad movie to watch ironically with a group, though starting with Fireproof or The Christmas Blessing would be recommended over this in the Christian film subgenre.

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I love a good nihilistic neo-noir where everyone’s a lowlife, nobody learns any lessons and anything–literally anything–can happen. I appear to be in the extreme minority as these types of movies have been bombing for decades, though I’ll never stop standing up for great stuff like To Live And Die In L.A. and Blood & Wine. When done right, this kind of movie can hit both reality and fantasy in ways that more conventional films can’t, something like the aforementioned To Live And Die In L.A. embodies the ’80s aesthetic and values in the process of shredding them, simply by elaborating on where they logically lead. Also worth including in this group is the more recent The Ice Harvest, which is like the others in that it’s a well-directed film with similar themes and character types, and is also laced with mordant humor. I’d say that The Ice Harvest is the funniest of the three, though it’s no surprise since it’s directed by the late Harold Ramis, who made a good comedy or two. It’s a thriller set during the Christmas season about a mob lawyer played by John Cusack who robs the mob before the movie even starts, and the movie is about him essentially tying up loose ends before he leaves. Which is, essentially the plot.

Cusack’s a weakling, both physically and morally. Billy Bob Thornton is a full-on psychopath. Oliver Platt is Cusack’s pathetic would-be sidekick. Connie Nielsen is a full-on femme fatale, although at some points she can’t help but revert to the awful Southern accent she attempted in the legendarily shitty movie Basic with John Travolta, which is an excellent bad movie. (Some other time on that one.) And Randy Quaid pops up and does his Randy Quaid thing for a little while. The movie looks really great and since it’s set in Kansas, there’s a little bit of Alexander Payne in the style, both in the photography of gorgeous scenery and its observations about Middle America, however without that slight undercurrent of contempt that Payne sometimes brings to the table. Definitely worth your time.

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I’m interested in persuasive explanations for why Barack Obama’s approval ratings are squarely in the toilet, and haven’t budged for ages. Michael Kazin, unfortunately, does not present one here. While his main point that the president’s lack of focus seems intuitively true and might well be part of the puzzle, it’s nestled in a lot of Sorkin-style talk about the importance of rhetoric to channel moral leadership, a notion favored mainly by writers, and not so much by the basic research on the subject. That aside, the proverbial jaw went agape after reading this:

And if Obama is indeed as arrogant some say he is, then so were some of the more consequential chief executives who preceded himAndrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan.

Each of those four presidentsas well as greater ones like Lincoln and FDRbuilt loyal followings and retained them for nearly their entire time in office.

Putting aside Lincoln, who didn’t serve out his second term, and Jackson, who lived in an era where measuring public opinion didn’t really happen, this seems to be a bizarre reading that’s only barely not a complete inaccuracy due to the presence of the word “nearly.” Everyone knows Wilson trashed his coalition over the Treaty of Versailles, leading to a Republican romp at every level of government in 1920. Johnson tore his coalition asunder with Vietnam. Reagan only experienced a period of mild unpopularity after Iran-Contra, though it was enough to lead to a disastrous second midterm for the GOP in 1986. FDR’s second term was largely similar, including a disastrous 1938 election capping off two dismal, failed years. And going even further, Eisenhower unwisely embraced “right-to-work” laws and free-market agricultural policies without fixing the country’s recession, leading to a 1958 election which destroyed (albeit temporarily) the American Right. Grant actually lost renomination for a third term after running a corrupt (if in some ways enlightened) administration. Nixon had Watergate, Bush had Iraq, Truman had Korea, etc. If you define “nearly their entire time in office” as meaning “long enough to win a second term” then it’s fine, though Obama qualifies for that. And even Nixon managed to maintain a loyal following up until the end–it wasn’t like he was ever at 0% approval, after all. None of them were impossible to poll for approvals because they were within the margin of error, as the joke about former Israeli PM Olmert went.

Looking at all this, one would almost think that second-term presidents have a tendency to fall out of touch with the public, become obsessed with their own insular priorities, and thus make big political mistakes that cost them. I would argue this is true of Obama, who seems to be a little too interested in whichever foreign country Rice and Power tell him needs to be bombed. But it’s true of each and every one of these men. FDR’s fixation on court-packing, for example, whether or not he had a valid point, was a political disaster that ended the New Deal and rallied conservatives after four straight years of endless failure. That’s not what the public wanted of him, though after winning all but two states, a little hubris was probably unavoidable, and that’s my point. With this group, you’re talking about people who reached the pinnacle of power, who have been at the center of national and, indeed, world affairs for the better part of a decade, and for whom buying a meal is a distant memory. FDR–arguably the most canny and most successful politician in US history ever–still could not resist the temptation to think all those votes were for him personally, and that he would have massive support for whatever tangent he went off on. He had to have known better on some level but he couldn’t resist, and that’s the point. If the best can’t, the rest certainly won’t. I have reason to believe that Obama has desperately wanted to avoid this fate, but I think it’s unavoidable (unless you happen to be president in a massive economic expansion and a bunch of unlikable assholes impeach you, apparently the opposition being even more out-of-touch helps). I’d argue that the only distinctive thing about Obama relative to the group is that there’s no single bullet-point explanation for why he’s doing so poorly, considering an improving economy and an ultimately successful (though rocky) healthcare rollout. Could well be that people now associate him with the rest of those Washington bums they hate.

I have been super-busy recently and have had very scattered thoughts politically, but I do have a few crumbs:

  1. Lots of people have made the accurate critiques of the wisdom of giving surplus military hardware to places like Ferguson. I do remember that during my pre-2004 sorta-conservative days wondering why it was that all these suburban and small town/rural types were the ones so panicked about terrorism when the odds that terrorists will actually target them are essentially zero, assuming that al-Qaeda’s goal was to kill as many people as it possibly could. Exactly the wrong people were panicked. Now, of course, it seems like a pretty easy question to answer: tribalism*, id-centric thinking, paranoia, etc. all play their roles. If al-Qaeda ever get their fuck-up selves together to do another 9/11-style op it will be New York, LA, Chicago or Washington who will have victims, though if they were smart, attacking a place like Ferguson, MO, would cause a whole other level of panic that would suit their own ends perfectly. But that seems unlikely. In any event, I recommend adding this to the pile of things we’re talking about when we’re talking about Ferguson: the blatant tribal panic of the hinterlands.
  2. My basic take on Hillary Clinton is that she’d probably be a bit better overall on domestic policy than Obama–she comes from a generation of Democrats that sees public education as sacred, for one thing, while Obama’s a different story–and while she uses Republicans for her purposes she would go in knowing exactly what they are, rather than taking five-plus years to do this. But I have little doubt that she’d be a disaster on foreign policy. Maybe she’d be enough of a pragmatist to keep it in check, but she’s hardly encouraging me.
  3. Andrew Cuomo is an asshole.
  4. I’ll probably have to wait for four to five years until I get a real sense of Obama’s worked with Congress, you know, after all those folks start putting out their memoirs and talk to reporters. But I’d be willing to wager this was more typical than not.
  5. Speaking of the prez, at least the British press can assign blame over gridlock appropriately.
  6. The pro-life movement is the sleaziest in American politics, with no obvious second place. I’d argue that the oil/coal/gas and cigarette lobbies are vastly more principled by comparison. These folks simply have no scruples or restraint, plus they’re steeped in self-righteousness and utter moral relativism, an insufferable combination. Which is not to say that all pro-lifers are sleazy, etc. But for a group that occasionally gets respectful disagreement from liberals who are not “even the liberal” types, this is worth saying again and again. And the old adage about how great causes shouldn’t need to be sold with lies applies.
  7. The Pauls often are overrated by liberals–Rand Paul in particular doesn’t quite match up with what liberals wish he was (IMO, he’s a poor man’s Justin Amash). But he does have his uses.
  8. What’s different this time in Israel? Why now are the Chaits of the world buckling just a bit? Not because of what the government is doing, which is hardly new. Rather, the increasing feel that Israel is passing the point of no return with respect to (exploding) sentiments, unbridled nationalism, and suppression of dissent. As someone who at the same time scoffs at hyperbolic propaganda about how Israel is the “only democratic nation in the Middle East” or what have you (Turkey and Lebanon are an obvious rebuttal) but still also hopes that somehow the politics of a two-state solution can somehow work out, it’s enormously depressing. Netanyahu may well rule the country for another decade, but in the history books, he’ll be regarded as one of the greatest fools of all time. I’ve said it before and nothing has changed my mind.
  9. Amidst all this depressing shit, there are a few good things. Like a new Leonard Cohen album, soon. But in keeping with the mood:

* To be fair, I do believe liberals and conservatives are tribal, because humans are tribal. But liberals are in my experience a bit less so in general, and the ways in which it is expressed are vastly more subtle.

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Too busy to write a real post now, but I offer this:

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Saw a local event coming up that might be of interest to you, going on at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, CA:

brownlieb

Lieberman I understand, he has nothing better to do. But isn’t Scott Brown, like, running for office this year? Doesn’t he have more important things to do one month before election day, than having a “debate” with another has-been on the other side of the country? I guess this is his equivalent of the famous John McCain Saturday Night Live QVC sketch the weekend before the 2008 election, i.e. an obvious sign that he’s not taking it seriously because he’s given up. Doesn’t make sense as the move of a candidate focused on winning above all else, but as someone wanting to cash in on his rapidly waning starpower before another embarrassing loss in three months it makes perfect sense.

Why’d he even run in New Hampshire in the first place? What was he thinking? I swear, I would totally read a book about that story. Well, if it were a Kindle Single anyway. And one of the ones you can download for free. Then I’d definitely read it. What I’m really excited about is which state will Brown move to for his next run for office. West Virginia seems the obvious choice: the state’s Republican drift has outpaced the GOP bench, meaning that even blatant carpetbaggers can have a shot. I’m calling West Virginia.

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