Saturday, October 30, 2010

Movie Review: Summer Coda

summer coda

Summer Coda is a languid, relaxing, summer movie set in Mildura’s  (Victoria, Australia) stunning orange groves.

Heidi (Rachael Taylor) is travelling back from the US to her birth place to attend her estranged father’s funeral. She hasn’t spoken to him since she was seven. She needs to bring this part of her life to a close. As she hitchhikes her way there, she is picked up by Michael (Alexis Dimitriades) and a friendship forms. After the tense funeral and subsequent wake, Heidi decides to stay on for a while to work through her emotions, relationships with family, and the deepening romance between her and Michael. She is employed on Michael’s orange grove as a picker. As she works alongside the regular itinerant fruit pickers, an undercurrent of tension mounts which confuses Heidi. Something is not right and she doesn’t know what it is.

Summer Coda is a very slow, gentle, beautifully nuanced story where most of the action is emotional and character-driven. It’s about grief, relationships, and the struggle to resolve pasts that haunt us. Taylor and Dimitriades are both good in their roles and the relationship they form is believable.

While it is a good movie, it does tend to lose momentum at times. It’s a thoughtful story and provides a refreshing relief from the more sensational fare on offer. It may be one you choose to wait for on DVD.

3half-stars

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Recent DVD Releases and Recommendations

iron_man_2_movie_poster

Iron Man 2

4-stars

Positive Review
‘Iron Man 2 sets gold standard for sequels thanks to Robert Downey Jr.'s Stark performance.’ – Joe Ne

harry-brown-2009-movie-poster

Harry Brown

4half-stars

Monday, October 18, 2010

Book Review: Road Out of Eden

I usually enjoy books that describe the spiritual/religious journeys of people. But LouAnne White’s Out of Eden – From Adventist to Atheist doesn’t quite achieve the qualities it needs to make it worth the price. I will approach this review by addressing two aspects of the book: the personal journey of the author; and the quality of the book.

The Personal Journey

Out of Eden tells the story of LouAnne White as she journeyed from Seventh-day Adventism to her current position of atheism. Her story is deeply  moving as she recounts experiencing what she labels child abuse. She writes:

Growing up in Adventism or in many religions where a religion is pushed upon a child’s mind to be absolute truth is in my experience a form of emotional and psychological child abuse. (p. 14)

White describes how, for example, her father would tell his children, when they were young kids, ‘that there were bears under our bed in order to keep us from getting out of bed at nighttime.’ (p. 15) She was taught that God’s love is conditional on being good. For White, her upbringing occurred in

… a very controlled and legalistic environment. Besides feeling guilt and shame from believing that God was judging me on a constant basis and determining my salvation based on my performance there was also the threat of judgment and hell fire that was used to control our actions. It was emotional blackmail. (p. 16)

White also describes how some of the unique doctrines of Adventism, such as the endtime scenarios arguing that Sunday laws would come in and persecution and death could result by not keeping Sunday as the Sabbath, led to a fearful relationship to God and religion.

After exploring the ideas and experiences that provided her with a very negative view of God and religion, White tells us how she went ‘from one extreme to another’ and, like the prodigal son, sewed her wild oats in the ‘”sinful world”’. Her “rebellion”, however, resulted in mounting feelings of guilt which led her to intermittently return to church, be rebaptised, only to leave again. Guilt and perfectionism sent her from bad to worse as she returned to the writings of Ellen White, Adventism’s prophetess. On the basis of her writings, she joined an extreme, cultic offshoot of Adventism that emphasised perfectionism and the keeping of a long list of rules derived from Ellen White’s writings. LouAnne documents about 43 of these rules covering just about every aspect of life — eating, drinking, dressing, sex, and on and on.

Her marriage to a member of this cultish form of Adventism, initially believed to be an “equally yoked” marriage, turned out to be hell as her husband emotionally abused her under the guise of religious piety.

LouAnne  always had a desire to find the truth. And so she begins to study into the early history of Adventism and discovers what many had before her — the tendency of Ellen White to use her authority to control people and discourage them from questioning her writings. Quotes from Ellen White were read to LouAnne such as:

It is Satan’s plan to weaken the faith of God’s people in the Testimonies (the “testimonies” were her [Ellen White’s] writings (sic) Next follows skepticism in regard to the vital points of our faith, the pillars of our position, then doubt as to the Holy Scriptures and then the downward march to perdition.”

Quotations like this clearly strike fear into the heart of someone who wishes to think and question their faith. But LouAnne persisted in her search, discovering the many Adventist leaders and theologians who have been evicted from the denomination or defrocked of ministerial credentials for their questioning of official doctrine, including Desmond Ford in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Finally, she leaves Adventism and then, as she continues to explore and discover, she realises, at age 50, she has moved away from religion altogether and adopted atheism. LouAnne describes how she struggles with old emotions and, in particular, the difficulties dealing with family members and others who are intolerant of her thinking and deciding for herself.

LouAnne’s journey is an interesting one and many who have travelled a similar journey will no doubt relate to her story. And it certainly raises issues about the nature of some forms of religion that are fundamentalist, sectarian, legalistic, and cultic in their approaches. Her story also shows how a person may experience severe emotional consequences, such as depression, for many, many years.

For all these reasons, there are many worthwhile aspects to this book.

The Quality of the Book

While the above positive aspects of the book can be identified, overall, the book is of a very poor quality and standard. Essentially, it needs a good editor to guide the writing and publication. It is full of grammatical and formatting errors that make the book irritating to read. It is clearly self-published and suffers for it. The presentation of the book is amateurish.

More seriously, in those places where White discusses the information she based her decisions on, much of the text is either a direct copying of source material or “dot-pointed” noting. While all of this material is acknowledged, it means the personal dimension of the journey is lost, apart from a few comments here and there by White herself. In the chapter on ‘The Origin and History of Religion’, the major source is D M Murdoch’s (aka Acharya S) Origins of Christianity and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. There are pages of material uncritically excerpted and presented as dot points to the reader.

Acharya S believes that Jesus was not a historical figure and that Christianity’s construction of Jesus is based on a range of pagan myths from various cultures. Nothing new in that. However, relying on Acharya S to make decisions about factual matters may not be very wise. She has been widely criticised, even by skeptics like Richard Carrier and Robert M Price (who also, by the way, believes that Christ was a mythological figure). So her ideas and theories are, to say the least, contentious, even from the point of view of those who agree with the idea of a mythological Christ.

The point here is that the material offered by White as evidence she considered in her move from Christianity to atheism is highly questionable. At least, to be fair minded, White should offer a critical view of this material.

White also cursorily surveys various reasons to abandon Christianity. Rather than articulate her own reasons, however, she summarises a pamphlet by Chaz Bufe, a contemporary anarchist author (according to Wikipedia). The summarised criticisms of Christianity are sweeping generalisations with no careful distinction or criticism made about them. For example, ‘Christianity is based on fear.’ Well… certainly, much of Christian theology is certainly based on fear. But not all of it. And one could argue, for example, that the New Testament specifically emphasises love as the basis and motivation of true religion. Not only that, much contemporary scholarship in Christianity itself criticises a fear-based approach to religion.

Or, ‘Christianity is anti-intellectual, anti-scientific.” Yes, fundamentalist brands of Christianity are; but any well-informed person will be able to easily identify many, many segments of Christianity that value intellectual activity and scientific enterprise.

In a remarkable irony, after citing all this material on the mythological Christ, White writes:

In light of this entire ridiculous repeating of fables down through history that has obviously been used to create all the different criteria for a deity for all the different cultures including the Christian deity and the fact that the few mentions of Jesus from historians came about during a time of rampant forgeries by the early church I must conclude that Pope Leo X hit the nail on the head when he said:

What profit has not that fable of Christ brought us!” – Pope Leo X (p. 96, emphasis in original)

The irony? This alleged quote from Pope Leo X is completely inauthentic! For a detailed account demonstrating how this quote is derived from a satirical, anti-Catholic work by John Bale (1495-1563) click here. So one must ask the question: How well did White critically examine what she accepted as she read these works critiquing Christianity?

Summary

So Road Out of Eden is a mixed bag. The best parts are where White focuses specifically on her own experience, in particular, the emotional dimensions of her upbringing and the impact of that on the rest of her life. Her struggle to come to terms with her belief system and the confinement of legalistic, perfectionistic religion convey a sense of frustration, pain, and courage, as she tries to make sense out of her experiences. If the whole book had focused on this and had the benefit of a good editor, there would be a great book here. But the poor writing and presentation, and the uncritical repeating of secondhand ideas of others, reduces its value and makes it an unreliable guide for anyone else to follow the same intellectual journey.

2half-stars

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Movie Review: The Town

Bank heist movies are a dime a dozen. But the Ben Affleck-directed The Town stands head-and-shoulders above the rest of them in some important ways.
The Town opens with a number of quotes informing us that Charlestown, a blue-collar neighbourhood in Boston, is a place where crime is a part of everyday life. In fact, it is America’s capital for all sorts of nasty activity including bank robbery. Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) has grown up in this neighbourhood where a life of crime is passed down from father to son. Doug is the brains behind a group of ruthless gang members who are planning a bank robbery. Doug is desperate to leave Charlestown and make a new life for himself. But his friends expect that never to happen — certainly not until they have made all the money they need.
During the action-packed heist, Doug forces the bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), to open the safe. Because the robbers are all in masks, they are not able to be identified. When the robbers leave the bank, they take Claire as a hostage, covering her head with a bag. Once clear of the bank, they drop her off, head still covered, at a beach, telling her to keep walking until her toes hit the water. She is terrified and traumatised.
But then the gang discover she lives near them in the same neighbourhood. Has she seen too much? Might she recognise them somehow? What is she saying to the tenacious FBI agent who is investigating the crime. One of the gang would rather kill her than take any risks. But Doug wants to proceed with caution. So he tails her to see if he can determine whether she represents any danger to them. Then he goes further and makes actual contact.
And, of course, Doug becomes attracted to Claire and begins to establish a relationship with her. And so begins a tense romance with Doug living in two worlds and the inevitable stress that results. I shall tell you no more … the rest of the movie is premised on this relationship and is set alongside the attempts of the FBI agent to bring the robbery gang down.
The heist narrative of The Town is not really new. If that were all there was to this movie, it wouldn’t be much of a movie at all. What makes it special is that it is character and place driven. The quotes referred to above that appear at the start of the movie, drive home the fact that this story is as much about Charlestown as it about anything. And then there are the characters. Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) all put in excellent performances and the relationships between them all provide the backbone of the movie. These relationships are sensitively and subtly drawn and we come to care deeply about them, particularly the two leads.
This is the second major film that Ben Affleck has directed. His previous one, Gone Baby Gone was excellent. But in The Town Affleck shows us how much real potential he has, building on the stunning co-writing he did for Good Will Hunting so many years ago. The action sequences are excellent, the dramatic tension palpable, and the cast give us believable characters that are flawed in very human ways. It’s a great movie.
4half-stars
Positive Review
‘A rich, dark, pulpy mess of entanglements that fulfills all the requirements of the genre, and is told with an ease and gusto that make the pulp tasty.’ – Lisa Schwarzbaum/Entertainment Weekly
Negative Review
‘Given the debased standards of action cinema these days this might be enough to make The Town a hit. But almost everything else about the movie is badly off balance, starting with Affleck's decision to cast himself as the implacably sexy and good-hearted Doug.’ – Andrew O’Hehir/Salon.com

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Movie Review: Buried

It is hard to believe that a 90 minute movie with only one actor and only one location — an old wooden coffin buried underground — could hold one’s attention. But Rodrigo Cortes’s Buried does precisely that.

Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is working in Iraq as a US contractor when he is attacked by a group of Iraqis and knocked unconscious. He wakes up to find himself buried alive in a wooden coffin with nothing but a cell phone and a cigarette lighter. He has until his oxygen runs out to escape. Can he do it?

The first seven minutes of Buried are unbelievably tense as we live through the first moments of Paul waking up to his fate. The tension is unrelenting and we wonder how is it going to be possible to do anything with this situation to keep our interest. But just as we are about to give up thinking that this is going to be 90 minutes of monotonous claustrophobia, things start to happen that keep us on the edge until the very last frame (literally!).

This movie should have been impossible to make but here it is! And it is brilliant! There are nasty surprises and twists, brilliant acting by Reynolds, and a wonderful script. And everything that happens inside that coffin is absolutely real and believable.

I won’t tell you anymore. Go see it.

4-stars

Positive Review
‘In theory, we go to movies for enjoyment. Director Rodrigo Cort├ęs inverts that notion with Buried, a terrific, claustrophobic, fist-clenching film in which he tortures his audience in exquisite fashion.’ – Bill Goodykoontz/Arizona Republic

Negative Review
‘Rodrigo Cortes keeps the action bound to the box, limiting his lighting to naturalistic approximations, so that much of Reynolds's performance consists of him grunting and heaving in the dark.’ – Karina Longworth/Village Voice

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Saturday, October 09, 2010

Book Review: The Reason Driven Life

The moment I began reading Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life I didn’t like it. It was immature, simplistic, theologically inadequate, and ripped biblical verses from their context. But I have come to dislike it even more now I have read Robert M Price’s The Reason Driven Life: What Am I Here On Earth For? Price’s book is a brilliant critique of fundamentalist Christianity as illustrated by Warren’s book. And while Price is responding specifically to Warren, one doesn’t need to have read Warren’s book.

Price is an intriguing character. He has been a fundamentalist evangelical, a pastor of a liberal Baptist church, and came to eventually reject theism altogether. Reading his life story, as described in the introduction to the book, one can see he was a very committed fundamentalist Christian practicing as one would expect of a Christian in this tradition — attending church, having daily “quiet time”, training for Campus Crusade for Christ, president of InverVarsity Christian Fellowship, and so on. He has doctorates in theology and New Testament. He describes himself as a humanist and is currently, I believe, a member of the Episcopal Church. Price is also a fellow of the in(famous) Jesus Seminar and sometimes describes himself as a Christian atheist. He has also authored a number of books on the historicity of Jesus which he questions.

I recently heard Price speaking on a podcast addressing atheists who, in his view, disrespect the Biblical documents in the way they dismiss them. He argued that atheists need to at least treat the biblical documents with the same regard they treat other great classics of literature such as The Iliad. Instead, because of narrow-mindedness, many of them are blind to the Bible’s beauty and wisdom, even if they do not take it literally or accept the absolute claims made for it by fundamentalist Christians.

Hearing how Price spoke in such respectful language regarding the Bible and the deep scholarship and expertise he clearly had prompted me to buy The Reason Driven Life and have a read. And what a read!

Price’s essential message is that fundamentalist Christianity is narrow-minded, immature, and unthinking. In forty short chapters (emulating Warren’s book) Price explores the characteristics of fundamentalist Christianity and suggests that they:

  • are obsessively focused on continual religious activity to the exclusion of living life to the full
  • place people in a double bind of valuing the self and denying the self
  • deny scientific discoveries and understandings of human nature and existence
  • confuse and equate limited human perspectives and interpretations of the Bible with the very voice of God
  • take an immature approach to living life and making decisions and, instead, place this responsibility on a god who is constantly intervening even though it makes no sense to do so
  • constantly experience anxiety and depression at not measuring up to what is understood to be God’s standards for living and behaviour
  • discourage thinking and promote the need to adopt the absolute truth as understood by the denomination or church
  • require conformity to the group rather than development of individuality and uniqueness
  • construe as heretical any position that does not conform to denominational creeds and reject independent thinking
  • use friendships and other relationships for evangelising rather than experiencing these for their own value
  • and much more…

Price most definitely has a point! Anyone who has grown up in, or lived in, any religious group that leans towards a fundamentalist milieu will have experienced many of these things. Thinking — real, genuine, independent, critical thinking — is not high on the agenda. And many fundamentalist Christians, under the guise of faith in God, live lives of egocentric wish fulfilment. For many, God is more interested in them getting a car park or finding their keys than rescuing the millions of men, women, and children who suffer natural or moral disasters around the globe. Or God is mostly concerned about correct belief, defined by them, than about genuine loving of others.

There is an enormous amount of benefit in reading Price’s book. One of the most liberating paragraphs is found in the introduction where he says that he

…does not much care what you end up believing, partly because you should not jump to conclusions. Part of living the reason-driven life is that you no longer feel the false urgency to make up your mind right now what you believe. You realize you are not under any deadline. Nor are you likely ever to arrive at some definitive truth. Your thinking about the meaning of life will be an ongoing project, its own reward. And the conclusions you do reach will be tentative and always open to revision in light of new insights you may encounter.

This is, indeed, a liberating position to take in life. One of the features of fundamentalism is a constant need to be certain. The degree of certainty one feels is often made a matter of life and death. But with maturity comes an approach to living that does not require certainty about everything. Living with uncertainty and adopting one’s right to think for oneself rather than being told what to think is sometimes painful but always liberating.

For some Christians reading Price’s book, there will be many things unacceptable. For example, Price denies the historicity of Jesus and the reality of a personal God. In his view, there is inadequate evidence for either. He deeply respects people’s right to believe in either or both and he associates with Christians, even to worshiping with them and identifying himself as an Episcopalian. At times, he has accepted the term ‘Christian atheist’ to describe his perspective although he prefers to be called a humanist.

The Reason Driven Life is a fascinating book by a fascinating author. His essential critique of fundamentalist Christianity (his primary target) is often apt and accurate. Despite different readers probably rejecting some parts of the book and some of his ideas, it’s a good wakeup call to fundamentalist Christians to start thinking more seriously about their religion and their faith.