Friday, December 31, 2010

Movie Review: 3D TRON: Legacy (2010)


Back in 1982 I went off to see TRON at the movies and, if I remember correctly, enjoyed it quite a bit. Now, 28 years later, TRON: Legacy arrives at our screens in 3D – technology that did not exist back in the '80s. It’s a new story that loosely follows on from the first story but seeing the first movie is not necessary.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), once known as one of the world’s best video-game designers in the world, disappeared 20 years ago without a trace. His 27 year-old son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), is now a disinterested, disillusioned and rebellious owner of a massive software company about to float on the stock market and who is haunted by the his father’s mysterious disappearance. Pretty much all he does is try to interrupt the success of the company.

One of his father’s trusted colleagues receives a strange and unexpected message from a phone number which has been disconnected for years and which is located in an old games arcade previously run by Sam’s dad. As Sam investigates the source of the message he is drawn into a digital world in which his father has been trapped by a computer character he had created. Together, they will need use all their “gaming” skills to escape, aided by the beautiful Quorra (Olivia Wilde, House M.D.) who is a fearless warrior within the virtual world.

TRON: Legacy is pure entertainment with little of significance to say (although, there is the odd hint at the dangers of virtual worlds that become too realistic). The pace is uneven and the movie seems too long running at over 2 hours.

Technically, TRON: Legacy is very glossy with its over-hyped special effects that try too hard without success and, in my view, did not need 3D. It is interesting that the shooting of the film only took 64 days while the special effects that needed to be added afterward took 68 weeks! And this disproportionate emphasis on special effects shows in the movie’s overall dullness when it comes to the acting and narrative. The story is cheesy and clich├ęd, at times, and the acting is nothing more than adequate. It was hard to really care about any of the characters and viewing the movie always had the effect of being at a distance from the action. Film-makers need to accept that spending money on special effects and a good soundtrack (which it is) does not a movie make.

TRON: Legacy is a pretty average movie and looks even worse when compared to what we know is possible in a movie like Avatar, for instance. More attention to the story rather than special effects might have produced a very different result.


Positive Review
'On the heels of another revelatory turn in True Grit, Bridges is sensational again, here in a groundbreaking performance.' – Pete Hammond/Boxoffice Magazine

Negative Review
'Tron: Legacy will only be enjoyed by men in their thirties and early forties searching for a Proustian moment.’ – John DeVore/Premiere

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Movie Review: The Tourist (2010)

I wasn't expecting much from The Tourist. Everything I had read by critics had been negative. But I was pleasantly surprised by this clever crime caper.

The beautiful Elise (Angelina Jolie) receives a letter from her lover,  saying that it is dangerous for them to meet. So he has given her instructions on how to distract the police from identifying him. The police have been following her for two years waiting for Elise to contact her lover – a man who has embezzled over $2 billion. Elise is to allow herself to be tailed, hop on a train, pick a man of similar height and build, and sit down acting in such a way that the police will believe that it is him. While the police are distracted by all this, Elise will be able to be contacted by him. So Elise follows the instructions and the random man, of course, is Frank (Johnny Depp), who has recently lost his wife and who is overwhelmed by a random beautiful woman taking an interest in him. He soon discovers that he has become part of a cat-and-mouse game where his life is in danger.

Jolie and Depp are great in their roles. Jolie is consistently in control of the situation and clearly enjoys playing this game. Depp conveys a mixture of depression/sadness at the loss of his life, a willingness to go along with the bizarre events – he has nothing to lose – in a delightfully nuanced performance.

The plot is intriguing with a nicely revealed surprise at its climax. The story moves along at a good pace with some great scenery as we travel to Venice where most of the events occur. Venice is wonderfully portrayed and its waterways are used to great effect for some tense chases.

In my opinion, the critics who have come down hard on The Tourist, in particular criticising the chemistry between Jolie and Depp, have missed the obvious point that the relationship between them has been constructed for reasons other than romance. Frank is being used. Elise is in love with another man. If the chemistry had sparked a typical Hollywood romance it would have undermined one of the essential premises for the story happening in the first place.

The Tourist is not one of the best movies of the year. But it is good, clean entertainment with some subtle humour, good characters, and a decent story. It’s an old-style, Hitchcockian-flavoured, sumptuously photographed, espionage mystery. Check it out for a very pleasant couple of hours at the movies.


Positive Review
'If Elise and Frank are opaque to each other, they're opaque for a reason, as, sadly, lovers sometimes are. (Come to think of it, this picture has more in common with "The Lives of Others" than you might expect.)' – Stephanie Zacharek/Movieline

Negative Review
'In a year of craptaculars, The Tourist deserves burial at the bottom of the 2010 dung heap. It offers talented people trapped in creative inertia. A microscope and a search party could not discover any trace of chemistry between Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie.' – Peter Travers/Rolling Stone

AUS: M (infrequent coarse language and violence) – now showing
USA: PG-13 (violence and brief language) – now showing

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Holy Cheating?

I’m intrigued by the number of recommendations to pray for students around examination time – particularly the ones that ask God to help them do well in their exams. I can’t help wondering whether this is a form of holy cheating. Surely if God helps a person do better on an exam as a result of prayer but doesn’t help another student who hasn’t prayed, wouldn’t that be in the same category as a performance enhancing drug?
I’ve been trying to think of what one could pray for without cheating – better memory? answers to questions that haven’t been learned? increased energy after a hard night? Surely all of these are enhancing aspects that would provide an unfair advantage over others – cheating!
Maybe what students can pray for is the wisdom to know the relationship between hard work, lots of study, learning how memory works, critical thinking skills and good grades. Now that is something that could be prayed for! Let’s stop asking God to help our students cheat. Instead, let’s ask God to assist in making then better students before they enter the examination room.
POSTSCRIPT: I'm specifically referring to any prayer in relation to an exam that would involve God somehow giving a student an advantage over another student. As Christians, we are constantly exhorted to pray for things that are not appropriate. For example, a woman once told me that someone she knew would become a Christian because she had asked God to convert the person. But what about free will? God doesn't force people to accept God against their will - people have a choice and so for the woman to assume that someone she was praying for would definitely become a Christian, just because she was praying for them, attributes something to God that God would not do - as far as I can see from Scripture.
Asking God to help a person pass an examination by any supernatural means would be asking God to do something unethical. I work in a tertiary institution where, for example, it is forbidden to take notes into an examination. Students are severely punished if they are found doing so. So asking God to bring something to a student's memory in an exam by some sort of supernatural intervention, would be no different to taking notes in to the exam room.
Examinations are not the only place we hear Christians ascribing things to God that may be unethical. I have heard footballers claim God helped them win goals/games. Really? Is God intervening so that certain players/teams win a football game?
So: the point is - as Christians we need to think about some of the things we ask of God and expect God to do. What does the Bible say we should pray for? That is a question we need to all ask and spend our time praying for those things rather than asking God to engage in our sometimes self-interested desires. Check the New Testament some time to see the sorts of things we can legitimately pray for:
  • pray for our enemies
  • pray for the Holy Spirit
  • pray for wisdom
  • pray for peace
  • pray for joy
  • pray for healing
  • pray for one another
and so on...
I hope that clarifies things...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The debate begins (continues) again …

With the release of the next in the Chronicles of Narnia film series, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the debate over what is good and evil in literature rears its immortal head again. People who worry about such things want to characterise Rowling’s work (Harry Potter) as evil and Lewis’s (Chronicles of Narnia) as good even though they both use magic and mythology as central elements of the worlds in which the stories occur.

HarryPotterL_468x456 It seems to me that much of this discussion assumes the ability to categorise literature easily into "good" and "evil". I don't think it is that easy. Much overtly Christian literature has elements that I would be very wary of. And there is much that is overtly non-Christian that has much value. Surely the whole point of the need for discernment is because, in a beautiful fallen world, there is good and evil everywhere and we need to mine it for all it is worth. The human mind has the capacity to see and hear what it will in almost anything. If we wish to see evil - that is what we will see and hear; if we wish to see good - that is what we will see and hear. It is our initial frame of reference that determines, to a large extent, what we will see and hear. I don't think anything should be excluded from consideration and so would encourage all to readthe-chronicles-of-narnia-prince-caspian-20080422050922373_640w Lewis and Rowling and Tolkien and Pullman and much more. All creativity is evidence of the image of God in the world and to assert that only Christians can produce such slivers of imago dei is arrogant. Christians need to think critically about everything we read and permit expressions of God's grace in what may seem to be the most graceless literary places. The ruthless dichotomy of good and evil as if everything can be sorted in such a black/white way is, in my view, completely unhelpful.

Movie Review: Somewhere (2010)


Sofia Coppola’s (Lost in Translation) Somewhere is a movie of such ordinariness that it is extraordinary.

Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a Hollywood actor who lives the hard life – women and alcohol on tap, long hours, constant publicity, luxury hotels. But he is profoundly lonely and his life is a meaningless circularity. This frenetic lifestyle keeps the depression and boredom just at bay. The opening scene is symbolic of Johnny’s life. We see a dirt track with Johnny driving his sports car around and around for maybe five minutes. When he finally stops and steps out of the car, he stands with no sense of purpose.

Then he receives a call from his wife who is leaving and sending their 11 year old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), for him to care for her until Cleo attends an upcoming vacation camp. We then observe father and daughter as their relationship slowly deepens and, as a result, Johnny begins to revitalise his connection to real life.

Sofia Coppola has directed Somewhere with absolutely precise pacing. The film, on one level, is boring as it mirrors the deep boredom and pointlessness of Johnny’s life. Perhaps the first third of the film is a repetitive “documentation” of monotonous ordinariness. By the time Cleo, his daughter, arrives we are desperate for something interesting to happen. And Coppola makes a decision that means this movie transcends the typical sensationalism of the “Hollywood” movie – we have more ordinary life as father and daughter get to know each other as they do ordinary things together – go swimming, eat gelati, go to ice skating class, and talk.

As we watch this story unfold, it is rivetingly mundane and yet shot through with a message that the most important things in life are about relationships. Johnny is forced to confront the reality of his unreal life as a celebrity and he begins to discover a sense of purpose and meaning in his relationship with his daughter. This is the message of the movie – we are built for deep relationships which occur in the ordinariness of everyday life. Without relationship there would be nothing but frenzied despair.

Relationships bring us to crossroads in life and we are forced to choose a life of meaning or a life of meaningless based on how we respond to the relationships that are available to us. Johnny is forced to confront this decision. What and how will he choose?

Somewhere will not be a movie for everyone. It is an hour-and-a-half of tedium that seems interminable. But after persevering with it Somewhere’s message haunts us as we are confronted with our own lives of ordinariness and how and where we find meaning in them.

Somewhere opens in Australia on December 26 and is in limited release in the US on December 22.


Positive Review
‘It may not have Lost In Translation's reach, but it's original and smartly funny with top performances.’ – Ian Free/Empire

Negative Review
‘Somewhere has a lot of good impulses, and a salutary faith in an audience's patience; but the film's tone, in its script, performances and visual style, is studiously uninflected. It's a document of people seen remotely, maybe from outer space.’ – Richard Corliss/Time

Content Advice
sexual content, nudity and language


Thursday, December 09, 2010

Book Review: Absence of Mind

Science dominates our culture as the ultimate way of knowing. For many, if science can’t demonstrate it then it is not true. In her masterful book Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self Marilynne Robinson, an award-winning author of fiction, argues that parascientific writings have too quickly dismissed the mind’s own evidence of its nature.

Parascientific literature is that which is written in response to scientific discoveries which are assumed to bring about a radical change in understanding and a complete reversal of what is known before. These include the “discoveries” of great thinkers such as Darwin, Nietschze, Marx and Freud. It is often assumed that thinkers like these have turned around our ideas of human nature to such an extent that all that has gone before that moment has to be radically revised or jettisoned.

Robinson comments on writers such as Rorty, Dennett and Dawkins arguing that, while their intention to bring a rational approach to topics such as religion, they do not do justice to the inadequacies of a rationalist, positivist approach which is limited in its ability to generalise about such things.

The first chapter of the book deals with human nature and the way in which humans have expressed and recorded their own experiences and understandings throughout the millennia – and the way in which modernist thinkers have unquestioningly accepted that ‘… we have stepped over a threshold that separates old error from new insight…’ resulting in a ‘[t]riumphalism [that] was never the friend of reason.’

Robinson describes how she

… was educated to believe that a threshold had indeed been crossed in the collective intellectual experience, that we had entered a realm called “modern thought,” and we must naturalize ourselves to it. We had passed through a door that could swing only one way. Major illusion had been dispelled for good and all. What we had learned from Darwin, Marx, Freud, and others were insights into reality so deep as to be ahistorical. Criticism was nostalgia, and skepticism meant the doubter’s mind was closed and fearful. (p. 21)

For Robinson,

The great new truth into which modernity has delivered us is generally assumed to be that the given world is the creature of accident, that it has climbed Mount Improbable incrementally and over time, through a logic of development, refinement, and elaboration internal to itself and sufficient to account exhaustively for all the complexity and variety of which reality and experienced are composed. Once it was asserted, and now it is taken to be proved, that the God of traditional Western religion does note exist, or exists at the remotest margins of time and causality. In either case, and emptiness is thought to have entered human experience with the recognition that an understanding of the physical world can develop and accelerate through disciplines of reasoning for which God is not a given. (p.23)

All of this (and more that she discusses just in the first chapter!) has led to a situation where those writing from a perspective of science about things religious, have not successfully constructed arguments that satisfy the rigorous demands of science itself. Robinson has made it clear in interviews that she loves science and the cosmological theories that have been developed are beautiful – but they do not necessarily say anything that is automatically antithetical to religion and religious understandings of human nature.

In the second chapter of Absence of Mind Robinson turns to ‘the strange history of altruism’. Explaining the altruistic impulse in human behaviour that has been a contentious issue between evolutionary theorists and those that wish to affirm the self-sacrificial nature of altruism. How is one to understand altruism if everything must be explained in terms of the survival of a group or a selfish gene? Here, too, writers of parascientific literature confidently assert ‘…that science has given us knowledge sufficient to allow us to answer certain essential questions about the nature of reality, if only for dismissing them.’ (p. 33) One of these areas is the ‘felt life of the mind’ – the self-reporting of the subjective experience of a phenomenon like altruism is dismissed on the assumption that science can now explain everything including what is “really” going on with the mind. According to Robinson, ‘… the renunciation of religion in the name of reason and progress has been strongly associated with a curtailment of the assumed capacities of the mind.’ (p. 75)

The third chapter then turns to analysis of the ‘Freudian self’ and the often-forgotten fact that Freud’s psychodynamic theories were developed within a very specific historical, political, and sociological context. One of the problems with Freud’s theories is that they are mostly immune to scientific criticism and reduce, once again, the phenomenon of altruistic morality and other aspects of the life of the mind to seething, self-centred, obsessive drives that completely deny the positive subjective expressions of the mind as it tries to understand itself. As Robinson points out, Freud’s fundamental and pervasive premise about the mind is that it is not to be trusted. Since Freud, the mind’s subjective experience has been devalued in preference to the parascientific assertions that all can be reduced to the physical, chemical, and mechanistic rules of evolution.

Marilynne Robinson calls for a rethinking of our approach to mind and, in particular, a recognition of the condescending, arrogant approach of parascientific writing that assumes it has all the answer for the questions raised by the mysterious human mind. Robinson, as she has said elsewhere, loves science. But she believes it has its place and that it has neglected the best of what religion may offer in our pursuit to understand the mind. The long history of the mind expressing itself needs to be listened to and we need to resist the poor thinking of parascientists who wish to reduce everything to their perspective.

It is impossible for me to do justice to Absence of Mind in this brief review. Based on a series of lectures, it is a short book but each page requires deep thinking. It is a polemic against poor thinking and a call for deep inquiry that respects the intransigent mysteries of the mind. The language is often abstract but always prosaic with a vocabulary that provokes deep reflective thought. This is a book I am going to return to again even if only for the inspirational perspective that the mind is more than the sum of its physical parts, rationalist sociological processes, reductionist evolutionary forces, or unconscious negative psychopathologies. The mind is a mystery and that mystery will never be comprehensively quantified by limited perspectives that ignore the rich heritage the mind itself has produced – art, music, philosophy, religion. Absence of Mind is a great book and worthy of every thinker’s bookshelf.

- Steve Parker

Book details

Robinson, M. (2010). Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Steve Parker wants to stay in touch on LinkedIn



I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.

- Steve Parker

Steve Parker
Associate Dean (Teaching & Learning) at Flinders University
Adelaide Area, Australia

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