Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Atheists 52, Moderate Christians 14

If the polls are to be believed, atheists are among the least popular people in the United States. So it's somewhat surprising that two recent atheistic treatises, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation, have been so popular, mainstays on Amazon's bestseller list (though maybe the persecution complex is what's driving atheists to pick up these books).

With the exception of a sojourn earlier this year, when I argued in a movie nerd discussion group (don't ask) against Dawkins' thesis that science can theoretically prove that God doesn't exist, I'd been taking a long vacation from these debates. Religion is bad, their foundational myths have been disproven, the probability of God's existence (at least a God who actively interferes with the affairs of people) is close to nil, the moral teachings are suspect and contradictory, etc. -- I've heard it all before. The anti-religion arguments are mostly right, but sometimes the atheists are so frustratingly literal-minded and dogmatically rational that they turn me off. Frequently, atheists too easily dismiss the non-rational -- the spiritual or mystical experiences that often enrich human lives. People end up talking past one another, wasting everyone's time.

After browsing a few book reviews, I had dismissed Sam Harris as one of these literal-minded atheists who's obsessed with using scientific evidence to reject Biblical passages. These guys always miss the point of religion. So when Andrew Sullivan, self-professed "doubting" Catholic (whatever that means), started posting links to an ongoing internet debate on with Harris on his blog, I didn't even bother. But yesterday one passage grabbed my attention and so I checked it out: lo and behld, Harris is just dead-on. He doesn't just debunk myths; he gets at the *moral failing* of religion, and does so without dismissing spirituality. Sullivan, professional pundit and a sharp debater, can't so much as muster a whimper in response. It's a wholesale rout. Check it out.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Promises, promises

Believe it or not, there will soon be some serious movie-blogging on this site. Before that commences, though, just a few thoughts on the Oscar noms this morning. Everyone knew Dreamgirls will walk away with Best Picture, right? Isn't that what all the "experts" predicted?
AMPAS not only threw the pundits for a loop, what's shocking is that the "surprises", both moderate and shocking, were actually so damn pleasant. My favorite helming and performance of the year both nominated? Ponies for everyone.

* The best directing job of the year belonged to Paul Greengrass, whose United 93 hovers far above any other American film I've seen all year. After being shut out of the guild awards, everyone kind of wrote off United 93's chances for anything. Nobody wanted to actually sit down and watch this movie, it's been explained. Well, I guess the directing and editing branches did finally pop in the DVD. And perhaps they found themselves enthralled by not only by Greengrass's superior craftsmanship, the detailed recreation of that fateful morning, but also by its artistry. Misunderstood as either well-made atrocity porn or as an indictment of Bushie neglect, United 93 above all captures a change of a collective state of mind -- it depicts, with harrowing intensity, that five hour transition from the pre-9/11 world to the post-9/11 world, when Americans' entitled sense of invulnerability and innocence gave way to a new violent world where there are no safe harbors.

* Half Nelson (about which I hope to post something this week) is much more than just a Ryan Gosling showcase. But I can't complain about this mildly surprising Oscar recognition for Gosling's extraordinary if decidedly un-Oscar performance. At every opportunity Gosling eschews the scene-stealing histrionics that command Oscar attention in favor of portraying something far more unexpected and truthful (see, e.g., the confrontation with Mackie; the scenes in the teachers' lounge; going to his date's pad at 3 a.m. and high). If this nod, for my favorite performance of the year, calls attention to this remarkable movie, cool.

* "Treat FBI officers like mushrooms -- feed'em shit and keep 'em in the dark." Mark Wahlberg, after years of getting treated like an FBI officer, finally gets some much-deserved Oscar attention with the help of The Departed's screenwriter William Monahan, who created the poet laureate of profanity in Dignam. Monahan's nod's not a surprise, but his work better not lose out to that steaming dysentery shit castle Little Children (where the method of the storytellers is tell and show and then tell and then show the same thing again, in case the explanatory voiceover, the Taboo-sketch, and PowerPoint presentation making the same point failed to get through).

* Cinematography, Children of Men. Of course. In last year's The New World, Emmanuel Lubezski's delighted the senses with shafts of light illuminating untouched earth. In stark contrast to Malick's lush pastoralism, here Lubezski creates an equally vivid world, but one that's been utterly corrupted by the creations of men. Lubezki's jittery compositions and desaturated greys brilliantly imposes a kind of Holocaust-doc grimness and determinism onto the Big Brother dystopia envisioned by Cuaron and his art director (where's the art direction nod, dammit?). The result is a crackerjack concept, sci-fi realism, flawlessly executed. And yes, those trick shots -- esp. in the car with Julianne Moore and in the war zone -- were fucking awesome. But one gripe: While I'm sure not enough voters ended up seeing Agnes Godard's characteristically amazing work in The Intruder, did the cinematography branch also skip the shimmering nightscape of Miami Vice, easily the most beautifully shot movie of the year? And pity poor Steven Soderbergh, whose unfairly maligned The Good German was, if nothing else, a technical marvel.

* Unfortunately, the underrated Prestige didn't get recognized by the writers for the year's most profound screenplay. To my shock the Academy didn't overlook the dueling magician movie's art direction and cinematography, which had been undervalued even among movie nerds. Our focus on Nolan's narrative and thematic hocus-pocus mostly blinded us to the care with which Nolan constructs the visual design. Good job Academy actually paying attention to the cinematic properties.

* Other hits: Penelope Cruz in Volver. Not a surprise, but given Volver's rather stunning omission in Foreign Language, I'm glad she was able to hang on. And this just in: the Iwo Jima diptych is pretty damn good.

* Other misses: Sasha Baron Cohen. Come on. Ken Watanabe, I suppose. Haven't really caught up with the big Oscar-baits (still on tap: Pan's Labyrinth, The Queen, Dreamgirls, Babel, Notes on a Scandal, possibly Little Miss Sunshine), so kinda hard to gripe just yet.