Tuesday, November 28, 2006

'Arrows for the War' (The Nation)

Here's a fascinating article from The Nation by Kathryn Joyce entitled Arrows of War about a recent new movement called Quiverfull. The members of this movement believe that people should accept whatever number of children God gives them and avoid all contraception or family planning practices. They believe that God is going to change the world by them producing as many children as possible and outnumber those who are anti-God. It makes for interesting reading and shows, yet again, how some people are prone to extremist views of Scripture.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Movie Review: The Prestige

The Prestige is a very clever, demanding movie which is structured around a stage magician's trick. The movie itself is a beautifully crafted illusion that is truly mindbending. The title of the film refers to the final phase of an illusion. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two stage magicians in turn-of-the-century London who were both friends and who, through an incident during a stage illusion, become bitter rivals, always trying to outdo each other with the ultimate illusion that the other can't explain. Their rivalry eventually becomes an intense battle where both are obsessed with winning, willing to sacrifice everything in the process - those they love and their morals. The movie begins with Borden in jail for the murder of Angier -- but not all is as it seems. We are taken back to the beginning of the story and we follow the journey of these two men as they ruthlessly battle with each other. The actual plot of the movie is difficult to describe without giving anything away -- so I won't. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan are responsible for the screenplay with Christopher directing (the Nolans brought us the brilliant Memento). The Prestige is superbly crafted - plot, cinematography, acting (except for Scarlett Johansen who, disappointingly, is not up to her usual form) - all providing a rich, engaging, intelligent piece of entertainment that will leave you scratching your head when you leave the cinema. Those whose appreciation of good film has been dulled by late night television movies may find it unsatisfying -- it is hard work. Not your average film by any means! The Pledge is likely to be an Oscar contender next year. Definitely worth a look! My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'To talk more about the movie's layers is to risk giving away too much. I'll say only that this film confirms Nolan's status as the director whose work I look forward to more than any other.' - Lawrence Toppman/Charlotte Observer Negative Review 'Thus, we find ourselves watching an ice-cold movie about competition that contains not a shred of rooting interest.' - Mick LaSalle/San Francisco Chronicle Content Advice violence and disturbing images AUS: M USA: PG-13

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Book Review: Why Good Arguments Often Fail

It is a well known fact that people are rarely persuaded to change their point of view on something just because an argument is good. Why is this the case? James W Sire tackles this important issue in his book Why Good Arguments Often Fail: Making a More Persuasive Case for Christ. Sire is an apologist for the Christian faith so this book has as its ultimate goal helping Christians to think more carefully about their own beliefs and about the ways they persuade others. Despite this, it is valuable, in a general sense, for the perspective it brings on persuasion and argument. The book is divided into three parts: 1) Common Logical Fallacies; 2) Good Arguments that Often Fail; and 3) Good Arguments that Work. In the first part, Sire shares a brilliant story that makes the point that logic is not always as useful in real life as it is alleged to be! He then surveys some of the most common logical fallacies committed by people, giving real life examples. He makes the important point that everyone can commit these fallacies, including Christians about their own beliefs. The second part of the book examines the role that arrogance, aggression, cleverness, misreading the audience, worldviews, relativism, and moral blindness play in arguments not working. The last section looks at two good arguments that work -- the Apostle Paul's presentation in Athens to non-believers and an argument that Sire himself has frequently given - and draws out practical principles for making arguments more persuasive. It's an excellent little book, superbly and simply written, excellent examples illustrating the points the author makes, and full of profound insight about human nature and the way it often prevents us from discovering or accepting the truth. The book concludes with an extensive annotated reading guide for further study. All Christians should read this book - even if it is only to get our own thinking in order and to promote intellectual humility in our own approach to thinking. Related Links

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Movie Review: The Road to Guantanamo

Those of us who live in Australia know about Guantanamo. One of our citizens, David Hicks, is imprisoned there and our government is doing nothing about the abuse of his human rights (the right to a fair trial, amongst others). He is not alone in his incarceration. Over the years, around 750 people have been held by the American government without charge on suspicion of being involved in terrorism. Of the 750 prisoners, only 10 have ever been charged with a crime and there has never been a conviction. Prisoners are tortured on the assumption that they are guilty in an attempt to get them to "confess" to their crimes. The Road to Guantanamo is the story of three English Muslims - Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed, Shafiq Rasul, and Monir Ali - who were arrested and imprisoned at Guantanamo because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. This docudrama tells their story. Even if they had been guilty, and if what this movie shows about their treatment in Guantanamo is true (and there is no reason to disbelieve it given what we know from other sources), then what is going on there must be some of the worst abuses of human rights we have seen. Asif (Arfan Usman) travels to Pakistan to meet his future wife. When he gets there, he rings home and invites his friend, Ruhel (Farhad Harun) to join him to be his best man. He agrees and flies to Pakistan with two other friends, Shafiq (Riz Ahmed) and Monir (Waqar Siddiqui). Whilst walking around the streets they enter a mosque and hear a religious leader speaking of events in Afghanistan and calling for humanitarian aid. They decide to take a trip to Afghanistan to see for themselves what is happening there and to lend a hand. Through a series of coincidences and misunderstandings, three of them (Ali disappeared during a mass exodus of Konduz and has never been located since) are handed over to the US military and, ultimately, sent to Camp Delta, the "interrogation centre" in the US Army's base in Guantanamo, Cuba. The three men have become known as the Tipton Three. They were held for two years until they were finally released without charge or apology. What happens to the Tipton Three is very difficult to watch. They are tortured, abused, and humiliated in unimaginable ways in an attempt to get them to "confess". The drama is interspersed with brief interviews of the three men telling parts of their story. The cinematography is incredibly realistic -- deliberately designed to give us a sense of the events being filmed in real time. The performances of the non-professional actors is authentic -- they look so much like the real men that it is hard to tell the difference. How these three men survived their ordeal and remained sane is incredible. The way they were treated by the US soldiers is completely immoral. Ironically, outside the Guantanamo facility, there is a sign saying how the US wants to preserve freedom. The treatment of people at Guantanamo is absolutely contemptible and shameful. I was seething with anger when I left the cinema - the hypocrisy of a country which sanctions others for abusing human rights is, itself, blatantly and self-righteously ignoring them. The Road to Guantanamo does not prove or disprove the guilt or innocence of the Tipton Three, although it does assume they have done nothing wrong. The motivation behind their actions and decisions has been hotly debated. But that is not really the point of the movie. It is to describe their experience as they see it. It's a very tough 95 minutes, but it is an important and powerful film - absolutely essential to see to remind us of what evil can be perpetrated in the name of freedom. My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5) Positive Review 'A film that must be seen to understand the sad truths of our times. It's been made with a sensitivity and creativity that's come to exemplify Winterbottom's work.' - Ruthe Stein/San Francisco Chronicle Negative Review 'By inviting us to take on trust the Tipton Three's accounts of what they were doing in Afghanistan, Guantánamo falls into a familiar trap of agitprop filmmaking - turning the victim into a hero. The movie gives us no particular reason to believe that they were up to anything nefarious - or that they weren't.' - Ella Taylor/LA Weekly Related Links Content Warning Language and very disturbing violent content AU: MA US: R

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Movie Review: Flags of Our Fathers

War is often on our minds nowadays and cinema reflects that concern. But many movies are more interested in underlying issues than merely describing the events. And that is the way it should be. Clint Eastwood's latest offering, Flags of Our Fathers, tells the story of the famous image you can see at right. During WWII, the US landed on Iwo Jima, a very small island of great political and strategic significance. There were thousands of Japanese soldiers holed up and the US Marines casually landed thinking there was noone there -- then found themselves in the middle of a bloodbath. During the following days, the US finally dominated the island and the famous photograph was taken and became a rallying point for the US. The government capitalised on it by bringing back the surviving soldiers in the photograph to raise money to finance the war effort. The only problem was that what looked like a heroic action in the middle of battle was not what it appeared to be. I won't go into details about the events, suffice it to say that Eastwood strips away the mythology surrounding this photograph, showing how a whole idea -- a concept -- can be fabricated and used to seduce a nation.Cynical cinema goers may expect a movie like Flags of Our Fathers to be jingoistic. But Clint Eastwood is a director who rarely portrays things as simplistically black and white. Here we see all sorts of tensions in real characters who struggle with moral questions, both on the battlefield and back home. The battle scenes are powerfully and realistically rendered -- reminiscent of the famous opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. CGI is used to stunning effect as we see a vast fleet of battleships converging on this small island. This is alternated with close up shots of the men in the thick of battle trying to deal with an overwhelming flood of death and then scenes back home as the "heroes" are manipulated to propogate their inspirational valour while underneath they suffer from guilt and vulnerability. Flags of Our Fathers is a powerful, unsentimental film that avoids overly criticising the US goverment or blindly praising it. In many ways it's a simple story that speaks for itself and shows how easy it is to believe what we want to believe -- and how easy it is to get those who desperately need something to hang on to in desperate times to believe what we want them to. Flags of Our Fathers is the first of two movies Clint Eastwood is directing about this same event. This movie portrays the story from the point of view of the US soldiers. In his next movie, he will be depicting it from the Japanese perspective. This should be fascinating -- for how often do we take the time to try to understand things from more than one point of view? My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'As he did in "Unforgiven," "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby," Eastwood handles this nuanced material with aplomb, giving every element of this complex story just the weight it deserves. The director's lean dispassion, his increased willingness to be strongly emotional while retaining an instinctive restraint, continues to astonish.' - Kenneth Turan/Los Angeles Times Negative Review 'Flags of Our Fathers fails as fact or legend. It's woefully incompetent as narrative moviemaking.' - Michael Sragow/Baltimore Sun Content Warning Sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language AUS: MA USA: R

Monday, November 06, 2006

Movie Review: God On My Side

Whatever side of the political or religious walls people come from, they like to claim that God is on their side. Many of you will immediately think of Islamic extremist terrorists who blow themselves up in the name of God. But there's another group that wants to claim God is on their side and managing world affairs to God's timetable. They are represented by the Christian televangelist/broadcasters who come together once a year at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Texas. Andrew Denton, an Australian TV personality who conducts in-depth interviews on a weekly show (Enough Rope), travelled to Texas to find out more about this group and has produced a compelling documentary, God On My Side. Denton is very respectful as he wanders around the convention asking believers about their views. Apart from one or two moderate individuals who seem to have an intelligent head on their shoulders, these fervently faithful followers of God are, at one moment embarrassingly absurd and, at other moments, terrifyingly fanatical, and yet at other times laugh-out-loud funny. There is noone more dangerous than a person who knows they are right and knows that God is working through them. Dogmatic arrogance can lead to all sorts of evils -- some "benign" and some downright terrifying. The strongest thing that came through for me in watching Denton's superb documentary was the inpenetrable certainty of these believers who, while finding war, famine, earthquakes, and tsunamis sad, also "celebrated" these disasters and suffering as sure signs that Jesus was about to return and put everything right. The range of views of Denton's subjects ranged from the downright ridiculous to those who were more balanced and thoughtful -- from the man who tries to convince Denton that little beads of Spirit light have appeared on Denton's hands as a sign of the end to a director who was critical of some of the ways Christians represented their faith to a man who was content to stand back and, with a cynical smile, say he didn't share the rest of the convention's theology. Doug Batchelor, an American televangelist, features quite a bit in the documentary and clips from a film he has produced are included showing, in graphic detail, the fate that awaits the wicked (death, disease, drowning, rocks falling on them) as the righteous (all white and radiant) are transported up into the sky to meet the Lord. It doesn't take long to realise that, underneath all of the promotion of the latest technology (machine and psychological) to spread the gospel, there is a lot of money and a huge political agenda. George Bush is God's man for this hour in world history and the decisions he is making are the decisions that God wants. And those decisions may, if necessary, include war and, for one person, the reluctant use of nuclear weapons if it means that events work out well in the Middle East. This is scary stuff that makes us realise that there is extremism and fanaticism on both sides of the religious and political divide. God On My Side is not all serious -- there are some wonderful comedic moments (although, these are not always intended to be so by the people concerned!) and some who seem to have a genuine story to tell about how God has rescued them from a life that was on the rocks. It would be so much more believable, though, if everyone wasn't so well-dressed and seemingly well off! God On My Side is a must-see movie. It is funny, scary, disturbing, fascinating. In many ways, it is a simple observation of a slice of modern Christianity. Denton remains respectful, gently probing, asking some difficult questions. When Denton places a single verse of Scripture on a black screen at the end of the film, the point hits home -- the contrast is telling (I won't spoil it for you by telling you what it is). God On Our Side is Denton's debut documentary and it is possible to criticise him for not being ruthless enough in uncovering the darker side of the convention along with a few issues that are slipped over with little attention -- abortion, gay marriage, creationism/evolution. But Denton is calm and clearly engenders trust in his subjects -- much as he does on his television show. He never takes a cheap shot even when interviewing the most bizarre of his characters. But Denton's humour twinkles through on more than one occasion and his narration keeps the film moving along smoothly. Don't miss this movie -- and make sure you stay through the credits. Those in Australia will be fortunate to see it on television later this year (2006). But seeing it on the big screen is worth it. My Rating: **** (out of 5) AUS: PG

Sunday, November 05, 2006

"I don't know" - the most important thing to be able to say

Sir John Houghton is a physicist considered to be one of the world's experts in global warming. He was Professor in Atmospheric Physics at Oxford University. He has won a number of awards including Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. He is also a Christian. Have a listen to this interview with PBS's Bill Moyers on the program Faith & Reason where he discusses his views on science and faith. He concludes with the assertion that one of the most important things a believer needs to be prepared to say is, 'I don't know'.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Movie Review: Children of Men

Terrorism. Illegal immigration. Racism. Religion. Inhumane refugee camps. Euthanasia. The divide between rich and poor. Global warming. All of these features of our modern world are prophetically envisioned in Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of PD James's dystopian Children of Men. We are in London in 2027 and the world has fallen headlong into violence and moral chaos as a result of oppressive government policies and the fact that there are no children left on the planet. The world is in shock as they gaze at the ubiquitous TV screens where newsreaders are announcing that the youngest person alive (an 18 year old) has just died. The future is hopeless -- women are infertile (for some unknown reason) and avoiding governmental fertility checks is a crime. A group of scientists are rumoured to be working on the problem of women's infertility -- The Human Project. Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a one-time activist, lives moment to moment in this world surviving on alcohol and cigarettes and an unfulfilling job. Walking the streets is dangerous -- bomb blasts can rock the streets at any moment; gangs roam the roads attacking at random and harassing civilians. The streets are littered with filth and vermin and illegal immigrants are hoarded into wire cages for transportation to refugee camps. Governments operate on the basis of fear. It's a grim but believable world. Theo's world (such as it is) is turned upside down when he is kidnapped by a band of underground activists who want him to obtain travel documents so they can escort a black woman out of the city to safety. He discovers she is pregnant. As far as anyone knows, she is the only woman to be pregnant in the whole world. Suddenly, she becomes the centre of political rivalry -- whoever has her will have power. Theo decides to help her travel to a meeting point out at sea where she can be taken by ship to The Human Project -- a sanctuary of safety where her child can be cared for. On the way, he is helped by the eccentric Jasper (Michael Caine) who lives in an isolated house caring for his wife who is now a non-responsive survivor of brutal torture -- torture by her own government justified by the fear of terrorism. Children of Men is superbly shot with depressing colour and a brilliant rendering of a future world that is not so different from the present to be unrecognisable, but very different in so many significant ways. Cuaron has taken incredible risks in bring this story to the screen. Every shot is laden with incredible detail and, if you can take it all in fast enough, the backgrounds contain allusions to an array of contemporary issues that trouble our planet so that, in every scene, there is a shock of recognition. The acting in this film is excellent and conveys a constant sense of anxiety. Children of Men is saturated with ideas about issues that should concern us all. There are a number of biblical allusions in the film (eg, note the name Theo; a child with no known father; a traitor.) Some may feel let down by the ending. But that is only to undervalue the journey on the way. Children of Men is a thinking person's sci-fi drama/thriller that will haunt you. It's a demanding, intelligent, intense film that is most definitely worth the effort! My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5) Positive Review 'Based on the PD James novel, this futuristic London thriller is so well filmed and acted that it grabs hold of us and never lets go.' - Rich Cline/Film Focus Negative Review 'An ugly mix of contemporary issues is hacked to unrecognizable bits in this tame, at times insipid thriller trying to impress with impossibly generic analogies to our own time.' - Boyd van Hoeij/European-Films Content Warning Strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity AUS: MA15+ USA: R