Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Movie Review: Capote

Truman Capote was one of the most famous writers in America, known for his flamboyant mannerisms, provocative conversations, and his tendency to fabricate stories about people he knew. He was openly gay and well known for his high-pitched lisp and flamboyant dress. He is also famous for his literary works (Breakfast at Tiffany's) and the book, In Cold Blood, which Capote called a non-fiction novel, and which is the focus of the movie Capote. In 1959, there was a 300-word article in the New York Times which described the murder of a family of four in rural Kansas. Capote became fascinated with the story and, together with Harper Lee (the author of To Kill a Mockingbird), travelled to Kansas where the murder took place and began to interview people who were associated with the family and the two men who were accused of the murders. Capote decided to write a book about the murders and their aftermath called In Cold Blood. During the time he was researching the book, he became very close to Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr), one of the murderers. Smith and his collaborator in the crime, Richard "Dick" Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), were convicted and sentencing to hanging. Capote is a remarkable movie telling this story from Capote's point of view. Capote (brilliantly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman who one a Golden Globe award for best actor) is torn between his compassion for Perry Smith and his "need" to manipulate and use Smith to write and complete his book. Capote was a genius but also very lonely and, as Honeycutt has said, '... is a man easily imitated, yet hard to pin down, a slippery devil who took one guise after another to cover up the loneliness of his personal nature and his genius. Hoffman gets it all.' He struggles with his conscience and is almost completely undone by the inner turmoil he experiences. And this is what makes the story fascinating. Truman Capote was a truly enigmatic figure and plays out the ambiguity that we all feel at times when we experience competing, equally strong desires which are not equally moral. Philip Seymour Hoffman is not the only outstanding element of this film. The script is excellent and the director (Bennett Miller) has taken his time in telling the story so the narrative never seems rushed. And the supporting actors are all excellent. Capote will haunt your thinking for days to come after you leave the cinema. My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5) Positive Review 'Capote represents something unique in cinema.…Most eye-catching for critics and audiences in the weeks to come will be Philip Seymour Hoffman's brilliant metamorphosis into the persona of the late author.' - Kirk Honeycutt/The Hollywood Reporter Negative Review 'Aside from yet another solid performance from Catherine Keener-playing a Harper Lee just preparing to publish "To Kill a Mockingbird," and here to act as Capote's unheeded moral conscience-that's the ONLY reason to see Capote.' - Ken Tucker/New York Magazine Content Warning Some violent images and brief strong language Related Links

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Movie Review: Jarhead

Jarhead is not your typical war movie. Based on marine Anthony Swofford's bestselling book about his training, pre-Desert Storm experiences in Saudi Arabia, and fighting in Kuwait, it is more about waiting for action than action itself. If you go to see this movie expecting lots of action and mayhem, then you will be disappointed. Jarhead starts out the way a lot of war movies do -- with Swofford going into a basic training program where psychological manipulation are the order of the day. We expect the movie to follow along in the normal cliches -- but it doesn't. From what I have read, this movie is a very realistic portrayal of what it is like to be in the US marines. Swofford is part of a sniper group who develop an "intimate" relationship with their gun and they, and their fellow soldiers, are primed to go into action to kill the enemy. But when they get to Camp Pendleton on a mission to protect the Saudi Arabian oil fields, most of their time there is spent waiting for action and we see the frustrations, anxieties, and tensions build between the men. Through the eyes of Swofford we experience the way that soldiers become scarred more by the dehumanizing process of getting the men ready for war than by the war itself. There is no romanticising feel good buddy movie here. Another thing that makes this war movie different to others in the genre is that it is apolitical. There is no preaching about the rightness or wrongness of war. We are just shown what it is like and what happens and, although there are sublte undercurrents of political and moral issues, the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions and place their own interpretation on what is presented. This approach places this movie above the crowd and provides a genuinely fresh and confronting experience about war that refuses to glamorise it. Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent as Swofford and the cinematography is, at times, stunning - particularly in the case of the oil fields on fire during one scene when they were lit by Sadam Hussein's army. Jarhead is an important movie in the way it brings home the reality of the nature of conflict in modern warfare and some of the effects it has on the young soldiers who are placed in a situation that no one should have to suffer. The wars in Iraq will have a psychological effect for many decades to come. It's a tough, demanding, devastating film to watch but well worth the time and money to do so. My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'The sum of the movie is devastating. One takes out of it a sense that the human cost of our endless adventure in Iraq is going to be incalculable, perhaps catastrophic -- a psychological time bomb that will be exploding for decades to come.' - William Arnold/Seattle Post-Intelligencer Negative Review 'Jarhead virtually begins with a rip-off of the basic-training sequence that opens Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket."' - Jonathan Rosenbaum/Chicago Reader Content Warning Pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content

Book Review: Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible

The Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible is a mammoth survey of issues related to reading and interpreting the Bible theologically. It has received glowing accolades from scholars. It's aim is 'to provide clarification, analysis, an evaluation of various approaches to biblical interpretation currently available in the marketplace, with a view to assessing their theological significance -- in particular, their value for reading Scripture in and for the community of the faithful.' Included in the dictionary are articles on every book of the Bible outlining the history of interpretation associated with them, the books' message, their structure, major themes, and their significance for theology. The dictionary also covers the various literary genres found in the Bible and their role in theological interpretation. Want to know about African biblical interpretation? post-modern approaches to Scripture? art and the Bible? significant thinkers' approaches to the Bible like Karl Barth or Augustine? covenant theology? form criticism? the theme of law? medieval interpretation of the Bible? mysticism? slavery? You can find articles on all these and more -- the dictionary is packed full of fascinating reading on all aspects of theological intepretation of the Bible. If you have an interest in responsible theological interpretation of Scripture or just want to know about the richness of approaches to understanding the Bible, then this dictionary will be an excellent addition to your library. Related Links

Essay: The Vatican's New Stereotype

Andrew Sullivan has written a provocative essay arguing that the Pope's new policy on gay priests - that even completely celibate homosexual priests are not welcome - turns 'Jesus' teaching on its head'. You can read the whole article here.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Song of Solomon Illustrated

Here's a delightfully humorous illustration of what happens when we read poetry in a literalistic way, not taking genre into account when we study the Bible. Dean & Laura have produced a cartoon of the Shulamite woman in Song of Songs, chapters 4 & 7 if we take the language literalistically. You can see the text alongside the graphic at their website. This couple obviously have a wonderful sense of humour!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Victory for evolution in Dover (Geotimes)

Here's a news update  from Geotimes on the Dover Intelligent Design (ID) court case held recently. The Dover school board, just two weeks after the decision, voted to remove ID from the curriculum as a result of the judge finding ID to be "not science". You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Movie Review: North Country

North Country is the fictionalised account of the first major successful sexual harrassment case in the United States - Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines. Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) has left her husband after he has physically abused her. Along with her two children, she returns to stay with her parents in Northern Minnesota and finally gets a job in the local mines which is dominated by men, including her father, who are ruthlessly sexist and often highly misogynist in their approach to life. Josey is desperate to to earn her living to support her family while suffering an array of demoralizing abuses. Hers are considerably worse than what other women who work at the mine have suffered (although they are bad enough) because she begins to speak out about the harrassment, initially trying to deal with it within the management structures of the mine. Her foreman responds by telling her 'work hard, keep your mouth shut and take it like a man.' Finally, things become too much and she decides to take the mining company to court in a civil action. To do so she needs the support of a number of other women who are extremely reluctant to do so. I was deeply moved at the climax of the movie and Charlize Theron, who really acts rather than rely on her beautiful appearance, brillliantly portrays the profound effects of harrassment on women. She is completely authentic in this portrait of an oppressed woman who stands up against the Power of the company. Her supporting cast are also excellent including Sissy Spacek as her mother. The narrative thread consists of the court case leading up to the successful application for the class action with a series of flashbacks that explain the events. This is an important film, particularly when we realise that the events only took place in the late 80s and the case only finalised in the early 90s. Harassment of women in the workplace is an ongoing problem and needs to be exposed and dealt with. North Country will, hopefully, be a powerful witness to this problem that so many women face silently. My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5) Positive Review 'After "Monster," here is another extraordinary role from an actress [Theron] who has the beauty of a fashion model but has found resources within herself for these powerful roles about unglamorous women in the world of men.' - Roger Ebert/Chicago Sun-Times Negative Review 'It starts off well enough but slowly sinks under the leaden weight of its worthiness.' - Angie Errigo/Empire Content Warning Sexual harassment including violence and dialogue, and for language Related Links

Book Review: How to Read Genesis

If there is one book that needs to be read in our day and age it is How to Read Genesis by Tremper Longman III. There are so many competing approaches and interpretations of the first book of the Bible that it is often difficult to sort out which are right. Creation in six days, a woman from the side of a man, "sons of God" taking "daughters of men", a flood and animal rescue, dysfunctional families, and more. Who really wrote the book of Genesis? Is Genesis myth or history? How does Genesis relate to the flood stories of Israel's surrounding cultures? Are the days of creation meant to be taken literally? What is the relationship between the creation stories and the scientific understanding of origins? Why are there two accounts of creation in the Genesis? Questions. Questions. Questions. How are we to make sense of Genesis? Is there are right way of reading Genesis? Longman argues that, indeed, there is. In a superbly clear and sensible manner, he explores the book of Genesis with his reader and, in the process, identifies a series of interpretive questions for responsible reading of this intriguing opening to Scripture. These questions are derived from the nature of the book itself. They are:
  1. What kind of book is Genesis?
  2. How did ancient Hebrews tell stories?
  3. Was Genesis written at one time by a single person?
  4. What can we learn about Genesis from comparable ancient Near Eastern literature?
  5. When was Genesis written?
  6. What does Genesis tell us about the past?
  7. Does our knowledge of the ancient Near East help us understand Genesis?
  8. How does Genesis describe God?
  9. How does Genesis describe God's relationship to his people?
  10. How does Genesis fit into the whole of Scripture?
  11. What in Genesis is theologically normative for us today?
  12. What is my redemptive-historical relationship to the events of Genesis?
  13. What can I learn from Genesis about how to think and act in a way pleasing to God?
  14. How can I keep from imposing my own views on Genesis?

How to Read Genesis answers all of these questions in a model of clarity. In addition to the above, Longman also includes a final chapter on the special issue of how to read Genesis as Christians.

It may seem that a book on such important subjects would be hard to understand. Not at all. Longman writes plainly and engagingly in an easy-to-read style. And the book is only a couple hundred pages long. If you are looking for a responsible guide to reading Genesis then this how-to book is perfect for you.

Related Links

Monday, February 06, 2006

Schedule, Interrupted (Christianity Today Magazine)

Here's an absolutely delightful meditation on time and time management by Mark Buchanan - Schedule Interrupted. If you feel driven and time seems to get away from you, then this will delight your soul.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Good Religion, Bad Science (Spectrum)

The debate over whether Intelligent Design should be taught in schools continues to rage in the US. Those promoting this political change are not recognising the fact that Intelligent Design is a religious belief, not a scientific one. Andrew Hoehn in his Spectrum article, Good Religion, Bad Science explains what would happen if science, generally, began to apply Intelligent Design perspectives to the work they do. He then goes on to discuss how Seventh-day Adventists (SDAs), a denomination that has a history of support for religious liberty, should learn from their history the dangers of supporting the current political moves to give Intelligent Design equal time in the classroom. Although the article is written for SDAs, the points the author makes are relevant for all Christians -- we should be thinking much more carefully about this issue than we perhaps have done.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Movie Review: Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain is an over-rated, over-long story of two gay cowboys who have to hide their relationship as they struggle to live "normal" lives. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are two cowboys living in the early 1960s who get a job looking after a herd of sheep on isolated Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. They have to rough it, living in tents and on canned beans while one of them goes up to the top of the mountain each night to protect the sheep from coyotes while the other stays in base camp with the supplies. One night, the two "Marlboro Men" (just about every one of the early scenes evoked memories of these commercials) sit around the campfire drinking and talking and Ennis, who is supposed to go and mind the sheep, decides to have a sleep to let the alcohol wear off and set out early in the morning. The night is very cold and, during the night, Jack tells Ennis to come inside his tent to get out of the cold. As they lie next to each other, they are overtaken by sexual desire which takes them both by surprise and they engage in a loveless, violent consummation that leaves them emotionally reeling. They reassure each other, in the morning, that neither of them are "queer". But as they spend time with each other, their feelings for each other deepens. Ennis realises, however, that to make their relationship public would destroy them both in a world where to be gay was not to be a man. The only thing to do is to go back to civilisation and continue their previous lives where they get married and have children - Ennis to a lack-lustre wife (played superbly by Michelle Williams) and Jack to a rich Barbie-doll (Anne Hathaway). Four years later, Jack unexpectedly reestablishes the relationship and although, on the surface, they live "normal" heterosexual lives, albeit without passion, a couple of times a year, Ennis and Jack meet secretly on a series of "fishing trips" to continue their relationship - the best they can do in a world that would reject the type of relationship they are having. As the years go by, we observe the tension in their relationships with their wives and children and the pain they experience as they try to hide their feelings for each other. Ultimately, there lives both take tragic turns and those around them are deeply wounded by their unresolved relationship. Brokeback Mountain is based on a short story by E Annie Proulx but the film seems like a long story than a short one. The cinematography lingers on the magnificent landscape and the initial relationship of the two men is gently developed. The central sex scene is powerfully and aggressively portrayed and both Ledger and Gyllenhaal are convincing in their roles. Ledger, in particular, puts in a powerful performance as a withdrawn, emotionally damaged man who speaks little but, when he does, means every word. Gyllenhaal doesn't quite match Ledger's performance but doesn't do too bad a job. But Brokeback Mountain never seems to hit its mark. The story is superficial and seems to skim over important issues as it jumps from one rendezvous to the next. Their relationship seems more about lust than love although that is undoubtedly unintended by the director. We get glimpses of the impact of their secret on their wives and families, but not enough time is spent exploring these relationships and these important characters are marginalised (ironically reflecting the exclusion of women that most westerns manage). There are a few deeply moving scenes, but they are not enough to make up for the thinness of the narrative that holds them together. Though the film moves slowly, great slabs of time are leaped over in a disjointed fashion as if the director can't wait to get to the next meeting of the two men. The central theme of the narrative is universal - people sometimes fall in love but can't do anything about it. And for Ennis and Jack, the impossibility of their situation is reinforced by their being gay. But, in a sense, Brokeback Mountain is too insipid, too gentle, too cautious, too languid. It is an important film culturally in the sense that it should open up conversation around a number of prejudices and issues that need urgent attention. But apart from that, there are many more engaging offerings at the cinema than this. My Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5) Content Warning Sexuality, nudity, language and some violence Positive Review 'Brokeback Mountain is that rare thing, a big Hollywood weeper with a beautiful ache at its center. It's a modern-age Western that turns into a quietly revolutionary love story.' - Owen Gleiberman/Entertainment Weekly Negative Review 'This much-ballyhooed gay cowboy melodrama is an inert disappointment.' - Phil Hall/Film Threat

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Movie Review: Munich

At the heart of Steven Spielberg's latest offering, Munich, is a much-needed message about the futility of vengeance and the way it will always, frustratingly, lead to more suffering and violence. Munich is inspired by the true events of the aftermath of 1972's assassination of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by Black September, a Palestinian paramilitary organisation. Following the assassinations, Avner (Eric Bana), a former bodyguard to Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), is commissioned by her and her cabinet to go after the perpetrators and kill them. Avner is given four team members: Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a toy maker who used to disarm bombs and is now asked to make them; Carl (CiarĂ¡n Hinds), who cleans up the scene after each killing; Steve (Daniel Craig), the trigger man; and Hans (Hanns Zischler), who is a document forger. Avner's team are completely 'disowned' by the Israeli government and are paid anonymously for their services as they, one by one, track down and kill those on their list of names - paying a family mercenary group for information and resources. As they proceed with their actions, the moral clarity which Avner feels at the beginning becomes increasingly muddied along with his doubts about the actual involvement of some of the targets in the Munich attack. He moves his family to Brooklyn for safety as his paranoia accelerates. Despite the attempts to keep his identity secret, the Israeli government want the world to know that they are paying back those who have perpetrated crimes on their people, and Avner becomes identified with the killings. (Why the attempt to keep the activities secret whilst calling attention to them politically is never explained.) The ruthless killings take a permanent emotional toll on Avner and his team which affects his whole life and family, finally leading him into an isolated exile. Munich, although a little too long, is an intelligent, suspenseful thriller that demands a significant amount of energy from the viewer. This is a good thing -- too many movies demand nothing from us except to sit and passively absorb drivel. Munich has us leaving the cinema needing to work hard at thinking. The acting by Bana is superb and moving. The story makes it clear that ordinary people are engaging in extraordinary acts whose effects penetrate to the very soul. There are moments of heart-stopping tension, deep emotional sensitivity, and penetrating dry humour. Munich is a controversial film and Spielberg has been described as 'no friend of Israel' and his film has been criticised as an attack on Palestinians. Spielberg clearly doesn't want to take sides but, as a result, has ended offending both. The film is morally ambiguous in the sense that it doesn't give any easy answers. But it is powerful in its clarity at defining the issue itself. This is an indication of the moral potency of Munich because it is asking the viewer not to take sides, but to have the courage to look beyond the conflict itself to the universal moral themes that lie beneath the actions of everyone and to think through them ourselves. The moral issue of Munich is succinctly raised when President Meir, in an early meeting with her advisors, says, 'Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.' But Spielberg clearly wants to raise doubts about the validity of this moral premise. Later in the film, Avner questions the ethics of his government when he exclaims that, 'Jews don't do wrong because our enemies do wrong... If these people committed crimes we should have arrested them.' There is a massive difference between justice and revenge. The quote from Avner hints at this distinction and the film witnesses to the enormous difficulty that humans have in pursuing justice rather than allowing the lust for vengeance to push us into a similar evil to that which we are attempting to stop. When we consider the relevance of Munich to our present world, it doesn't take much effort to see that, with the threat of terrorism, each government (and we who are represented by them), must ask the same question implied by Meir's statement: How far are we prepared to go in compromising our own values to protect ourselves? We have already seen evidence of corruption in events surrounding the war on Iraq, the management of displaced peoples, and other political decisions made "in the interests of our freedom". And a shot with Avner's case-officer (Geoffrey Rush) walking with him along a Brooklyn waterfront with the Twin Towers behind them, makes the relevance of the film to our day even more poignant. In provoking us to think about these issues, Spielberg is truly a "friend" of all sides of conflicts. Without courageously dealing with the issues his film raises there will be nothing accomplished but more suffering, violence, and bloodshed. This is a very important film -- put it on your must-see list! My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'This is Spielberg operating at his peak - an exceptionally made, provocative and vital film for our times.' - Ian Nathan/Empire Negative Review 'It's too turgid and redundant to have any real impact. As a thriller, it barely thrills; as a lecture, it has nothing new to say.' - Robert Wilonsky/Dallas Observer Content Warning strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language Related Links