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Movie Review: The Adjustment Bureau (2011) March 30, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews, Reviews.
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The other day I had a choice of Battle: LA and The Adjustment Bureau, and the general consensus with friends was the former, so I went with it and had a decent time (review here).  The Adjustment Bureau was supposedly ‘crap’ and ‘boring’, though one voice of reason suggested that it was ‘better than expected’.

To be honest, I had really wanted to see The Adjustment Bureau.  From the trailer, it looked like one of those classic sci-fi thrillers (and as I discovered, it was loosely based on a short story by Philip K Dick, the man responsible for Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report, but of course also Paycheck and Next) where you don’t know what the hell is going on but it’s nonetheless all very exciting and thought provoking.

As it turned out, The Adjustment Bureau was both different to what I expected and better than I expected.  If you go into it thinking it’s going to be anything like Blade Runner, Total Recall or Minority Report, you’ll probably come away bitterly disappointed.

There are thilling moments, but The Adjustment Bureau is at its heart an epic love story between a budding politician (played by Matt Damon) and a contemporary dancer (Emily Blunt).  And while it has sci-fi elements and a sci-fi feel to it, it’s not really sci-fi either.  Does fantasy romance with a religious slant count as a genre?

There’s not much of a mystery involved either as you discover what the ‘Adjustment Bureau’ really is relatively early on.  That’s because the focus of the movie is always firmly on the love story.

Therefore, whether you believe in the romance plays a huge part in whether or not you can appreciate the film.  I must admit I was one of the ones that did, mainly because of the excellent chemistry between Damon and Blunt.  Ordinarily I would have thought such an obviously contrived romance would be cringeworthy, but I actually found it rather sweet.  Maybe it’s just the romantic in me.

So while the film was a slow crawl in parts and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you think about it, I’m going to go out on a limb and say I enjoyed it.  It’s really a fable about fate and love, and gets you thinking about free will, chance, and whether there are people out there who are meant to be together.

3.5 stars out of 5

Book Review: “God, Actually” by Roy Williams August 10, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews.
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The obvious cover design is a good indication of the type of people 'God, Actually' is targeting

The obvious cover design is a good indication of the type of people 'God, Actually' is targeting

Here’s my long overdue review of the book ‘God, Actually’ by Australian writer Roy Williams, a former lawyer who struggled for years with his faith.  It was a gift from my devout Christian friend, who has recommended many such texts to me over the years in his attempts to convert me (after I told him I read ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins!).  And I must say, out of all the things I have read, ‘God, Actually’ is the only book that has really done anything to clarify some of the fundamental issues I have about religion and Christianity in particular.

I should make it clear from the outset that you are unlikely to find any ground-breaking arguments in this book.  So if you don’t start off with an open mind, you’re likely to scoff at what Williams has to say.  However, what I did like about the Williams’ approach is how he applies (or at least tries to) reason and logic to religious issues and does not take an unreasonable, hard-line stance to the more controversial questions.  While I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, he does end up espousing a form of ‘liberal’ Christianity that I think a lot of people on the fringe can relate to, and perhaps even believe in.

Who is Roy Williams?

We’ve all seen those Christian books written by ‘former skeptics’ on the shelves; people who were once atheists that became advocates because of some life-changing experience or because they actively sought God.  Sure, it makes the book seem more compelling and the transformation more amazing, but when you actually read a couple of pages you realize that these people were probably (closet) Christians all along just using a clever marketing ploy.  They never answer the tough questions that true skeptics or unbelievers would ask.

And so I had my doubts about the author when I first started reading the book.  A former lawyer, Williams claims he was a skeptic about Christianity for most of his life, even though his great-grandfather was a Presbyterian minister.  It was not until his mid-thirties, through ‘prodigious reading’, parenthood and a bout with depression that he became a true Christian.  Is this guy a Christian in skeptics’ clothing or a genuine converted?

Well, a bit of both.  Reading ‘God, Actually’, I got the feeling that Williams was not a ‘pretend atheist’, but the seeds of Christianity were always inside him, ready to bloom.  He had a Christian upbringing and never strayed too far from the church, though his heart was not in it and was disheartened with it all.  However, he says that his journey back into Christianity occurred when he and his wife decided to send their daughter to Sunday school.  That raised alarm bells – why would someone who was truly skeptical about Christianity want to do that?

Nevertheless, I didn’t allow that to cloud my judgment when it came to the merit of Williams’ arguments.

Main issues covered

The book is divided into 3 parts.  Part 1 covers ‘Reasons to Believe in God’, in which Williams tackles evolution and the human mind, in particular the emotion of love.

Part 2 discusses ‘Reasons to Believe in Christianity’, which explains why Christianity ought to be preferred to other religions – and the reason, of course, is the ‘evidence’ of Jesus and his resurrection.

Finally, in Part 3, Williams provides answers to some common objections to Christianity, such as suffering, other religions and the concepts of Heaven and Hell.

What I liked

What I liked most about Williams is that he does not talk down to the reader – he merely offers his personal point of view on why he believes the arguments against God are unconvincing to him, and why the arguments for God are.

However, just like the way Christian apologists can find a way to break down any argument propounded by atheists, I have no doubt atheists can do the same to all of William’s arguments.  But Williams doesn’t deny this – he is putting forward his view and hopes to convince the reader.  As he says, if he can convince just one person, then his job has been a success.

From the start, Williams tells his reader that it is impossible to be 100% certain about the existence of God (think of the implications, he says!), and thus it is necessary to adopt a deductive approach.  Faith is ultimately required.  It’s a reminder that no matter how much you read about religion, at the end of the day, it’s a matter of faith – either you have it or you don’t.

Williams is what I would call a ‘liberal’ Christian, and in some ways that may be problematic because many fundamental Christians probably won’t agree with his views, particularly those on the difficult issues of abortion, euthanasia and cloning.  But because it emphasises substance rather than form, the Christianity that Williams advocates is one that a lot of non-believers may accept.  For instance, he recognises that culture plays a crucial role in shaping a person’s religious beliefs, and that God (if he exists) will take a fair and overall approach to evaluating a person’s life when they die.  So someone who was born, lived and died in a place without access to Christianity will not be judged unfavourably.

On the issue of evolution, he puts forward a view that is not new, but is at least plausible from a logic standpoint – that evolution does not disprove God; rather, it’s just the mechanism of God’s design.  On Jesus, he puts forward a compelling case based on the Gospels, deduction and comparisons with other deities, much like Lee Strobel did in The Case for Christ, but more objectively.  It doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s well-argued and a solid discussion nonetheless.

Another thing I liked was the constant references to literature and films in his examples and analogies – like Shakespeare, Jane Austen and The Matrix.  Needless to say, I could relate!

What I didn’t like

While Williams starts off well in tackling the main arguments raised by atheists, as he moves on, he too often lapses into preach-mode, citing verses from the Bible as evidence and proceeding on the basis that God exists as fact.  He may start off on a topic objectively (or at least try), but he can’t help but make the same mistake that a lot of Christian apologists do.  For example, Williams uses the emotion of ‘love’ as justification for God’s existence – because it’s such a wonderful thing.  But that argument depends on the presupposition that God exists, not the other way around.

Another common trap that Williams falls into (and to be fair, many atheists do too) is that he sometimes argues why people SHOULD believe in God rather than whether God exists as a matter of fact.  For example, he says that we should believe in God because of his love for us, or because he ‘created’ us.  But God either exists or he does not – whether we SHOULD believe in him is irrelevant.

Williams also makes some incorrect or dubious assumptions.  For instance, he suggests that humans are wired by God to believe in a deity – but judging from the number of atheists and agnostics out there, the applicability of that statement is limited.  He also says that people must seek God to be saved – but what if someone really tried, really put in an effort, and yet still didn’t find God convincing, or believed in the wrong God, or a different God, or no God at all?  That seems awfully unfair if God punishes you for not reaching the conclusion that he wants – especially if he was the one that ‘created’ you to be this way.

There are also some inconsistencies in Williams’ arguments.  On the question of suffering, he says that God doesn’t intervene when humans suffer because of free will.  That I understand.  However, on the other hand, when things are favourable (eg we haven’t been blown up by nuclear weapons despite numerous close calls), Williams attributes this to God’s grace.  God either intervenes or he does not.  To say God does not intervene because of free will, and then to say the fact that we have not blown ourselves up (something totally within the control of humans) is evidence of God’s grace is inherently contradictory.

But perhaps Williams’ biggest problem is that he too often explains something by saying that it simply ‘rings true’ to him.  The thing is, the same argument won’t necessarily ring true to everyone, and it may actually have the opposite effect.  What if something rings true to him but rings false to someone else?  Does that mean his instincts are right and the other person’s are wrong?  I understand it’s a personal view but it doesn’t make a good argument.

Oh, and I didn’t like Williams’ explicit use of his ‘lawyer’ training to support his arguments.  For example, he applies his lawyer skills to the inconsistent records of Jesus, in particular the Gospels.  He says he would be more skeptical if all the records matched up.  Well, aren’t inconsistencies the first thing that a lawyer would look for?  Sometimes that’s all it takes to generate reasonable doubt.

Conclusion

‘God, Actually’ provides viable alternatives to atheist theories.  Whether they convince you or not is beside the point – what it does well is put holes in some atheist arguments and suggest that these arguments are not irrefutable.  In a way, this book best helps people who are ALREADY believers in the Christian faith who have doubts because of atheist theories and arguments.  Williams’ arguments may put away those lingering doubts.  But what it falls well short of is convincing atheists from switching sides or agnostics from falling towards Christianity.

That being said, it’s about as objective of a book as you can expect to find from a Christian apologist.  It would be great if one of these books could be written by a genuine agnostic and not someone who has already fallen firmly into one side or another (Christian or Atheist) and analyses the arguments objectively without providing a subjective conclusion – instead, allowing people to decide for themselves.

[PS: for those with a bit of time, check out this thread on Dawkins’ website where his loyal supporters trounce poor Roy Williams’ book and then the man himself when he joins the discussion.  It’s highly entertaining and somewhat cringeworthy at times – but what it demonstrates is that no matter how hard Christians try, some people will never be convinced.]

Movie Review: Angels & Demons (2009) May 16, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews.
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Angels and Demons

Yesterday I saw Angels & Demons, you know, the highly anticipated follow-up to the controversial (and hugely successful) The Da Vinci Code, also adapted from the novel of the same name written by Dan Brown.

After the somewhat modest reactions to the The Da Vinci Code (which I actually think deserved more credit), my expectations were held in check this time.  Another good thing is that it had been so long since I read the book that I had kind of forgotten what it was all about.  Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised.  It was fun, exciting, and the pieces came together at the right moments.

In short, it was a vast improvement on the first film and I totally enjoyed it!

Background

Angels & Demons the book is a prequel to The Da Vinci Code, but the movie is filmed as a sequel (and there are several references to the events of the first film in the opening scenes).  As per my review etiquette, I won’t divulge plot details, but given the success of the novel, it’s safe to assume most people at least have an idea of what it is about.   All I will say is that, like its predecessor, Angels & Demons is heavily influenced by religious themes and involves a desperate race against time that leads to a lot of running around.  Whereas The Da Vinci Code was set predominantly in Paris, Angels & Demons leads you through a breath-taking adventure through the various attractions and sights of Rome and Vatican City.

Action, action and more action

Dan Brown’s novels are known to unveil at neck-breaking pace.  However, unlike the book, many felt that The Da Vinci Code movie was, frankly, a bit of a bore.  Angels & Demons doesn’t suffer from the same problem because it’s made as more of a popcorn movie with full-throttle action right from the beginning, rarely pausing to catch its breath.

The difference is in the adaptationThe Da Vinci Code movie was bogged down by the need to fully explain its complex conspiracy theories, and despite doing so very well (and innovatively), it led to dull patches that killed the momentum.  Director Ron Howard certainly learned his lesson, because even though the plot and theories of Angels & Demons also require a fair amount of explanation, this time they did it right – by giving you the essentials upfront and then feeding you bits of information at a time so that the pace never sags for very long and things are kept moving.

Though I couldn’t recall much from the book, Ron Howard definitely changed or deliberately left out certain parts of the storyline in the film – and I think it was for the better.  To be honest, the conspiracy theories in Angels & Demons sounded pretty silly when transformed from the page to the big screen (and coming from me that says a lot because I tend to believe in a lot of that stuff), so I felt it was a smart choice to leave the emphasis off all of that and focus on keeping the foot on the gas pedal.  There’s probably another reason why they decided to do it, but I won’t say because it may lead to a potential spoiler.  Nevertheless, the end product was much closer in style and pace to the novel than The Da Vinci Code was, and therein lies the biggest contrast between the two films.

Cast

The mullet is gone

The mullet is gone

Terrific all-star cast.

Of course, Tom Hanks returned as professor Robert Langdon, sans the infamous mullet from last time (I still think the new hairdo is a FAIL, just not an EPIC FAIL – perhaps he needs sideburns or something).  Hanks clearly got into good shape to portray the character, as evident from his very first scene, but there was still some awkwardness to him.  Maybe he just wasn’t the right choice for Langdon, but it’s too late now because like it or not the character will forever be associated with the actor.

The big upgrade was Ayelet Zurer (Israeli actress best known from Munich – the film not the city), who portrays the scientist/sidekick to Hank’s Langdon.  As much as I like Audrey Tautou (from The Da Vinci Code), Zurer’s chemistry with Hanks was so much better, and she more than holds her own in the film.

I was glad to see Ewan McGregor (as the ‘Camerlengo’) again on the big screen after bumping into him in person while vacationing in Berlin.  By the way, he was brilliant in the role.

There were other solid supporting roles too, such as Stellan Skarsgard as Commander Richter of the Swiss Guard and the always trusty Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss.  Note both names were changed from the novel.

Special Effects

Ron Howard and his special effects team really worked miracles in Angels & Demons, because despite the film being set almost entirely in Rome and Vatican City, the Vatican made it virtually impossible for them to shoot there.  And yet you would have never noticed if no one had told you.

I don’t know how they did it, but it must have involved building full-scale replicas, smaller scale replicas and lots of digital effects.  Really just shows you can pretty much do whatever you want in movies these days (as long as you have the budget).

There were also some other sensational special effects sequences that were done with amazing realism, though I can’t discuss them without spoiling the plot.  You’ll just have to watch it!

Religious Themes

I found it interesting that the Vatican basically condemned this film before it even began shooting.  It probably had a lot to do with the anti-church reputation The Da Vinci Code had developed, but I actually thought that Angels & Demons had a pro-church and pro-faith undercurrent.  Sure, there were some thinly-veiled criticisms of the Catholic Church, but on the whole the film did a decent job of reconciling science and religion, and reminding everyone that religion is, ultimately, a man-made thing that is not perfect.  Perhaps Catholics might even find the film uplifting.  Regardless, I’m sure the boycotts are already in motion.

Dan Brown

Angels & Demons, apart from being a fun action flick, really reminded me of what Dan Brown is capable of. You see all the copycat authors that are out there today and it tends to dilute what Brown accomplished with his two most popular novels.  Seeing the film made me remember how great the storyline was and how brilliant Brown was in being able to link everything together so intricately, making all the pieces fit so perfectly.  A mind-boggling amount of research and thought must have gone into it.  It’s a great example for aspiring writers who want to pen the next international bestseller.  Brown may not be a great (or even good) writer but he’s put a lot of effort into creating these engaging stories.

This has definitely reinvigorated my enthusiasm for Brown’s upcoming new novel, The Lost Symbol, which is coming out this September (s0me preliminary thoughts here).

Final Thoughts

In all, Angels & Demons is a great action film (with a little extra) that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.  It’s a movie that caters for a wide audience.

Those that have been to Rome or the Vatican will get a kick out of seeing all those places being used in the film (I had a few ‘remember that place?’ moments myself).  It’s also good for people who haven’t, because it will probably make them want to go now!

I’m sure those who have already read the book will enjoy the film because it is genuinely exciting and captures the thrill ride entailed in the novel.  However, I think those that will like the film most are those who haven’t read the book (and there’s probably not many out there), because they will be even more impressed by the scale of the story and the way the symbols, conspiracies, science, religion, action and storyline is all woven together.

Just go in with an open mind, don’t expect everything to make sense, take the conspiracy theories with a large chunk of salt – and you might be surprised how enjoyable the film can be.

4 out of 5 stars!

Seven Degrees…thing… March 2, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Uncategorized.
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Just a quick one.  It’s been a while since I was tagged by Digital Dame for this Seven Degrees of Separation thing.  I’m ashamed to admit I still don’t know enough bloggers to pass the baton to, but nevertheless, here are 7 random facts about me.

1. I have a deep fascination in the supernatural and things we can’t explain, like ghosts, the afterlife, and UFOs.  Despite not having any personal experience with any of them (though I have read extensively and know people who have had experiences), I believe all three exist, especially the first two.  I have been struggling with religion for years (still am) and I consider myself an agnostic theist.  At least for now.

2. I am a huge, massive, enormous movie buff.  I watch around 3-4 movies a week per week during my studies, and averaged at least 1-2 even when I was working crazy hours.  I try not to discriminate between genres – I just like to enjoy good movies and even the occasional guilty pleasure.

3. I don’t drink alcohol.  Don’t mind a tiny sip at formal functions but if I had a choice I wouldn’t drink at all.  The reason: I simply don’t like the taste, and frankly I don’t understand all the fuss.

4. I can speak and read four languages at varying levels of fluency (the threshold being that I can carry on a normal conversation with it).

5. I write, eat and play racquet sports (and bowling) with my right hand but in all other sports I favour my left.  This could be the result of me being born left-handed but taught how to do most things with my right.

6. I’ve learnt various musical instruments throughout my childhood and a small part of my adult life – piano, recorder, violin and guitar.  I can’t play any of them.  In fact, I was so bad at the violin that I was encouraged to quit.

7. I love Japan – in particular the food, the cool technology and the wacky culture.  I’ve been there at least six times (I think) and I’ve even lived there for six months (where I met my wife, who was also on exchange over there at the time).

And there you have it.

Does the Bible prohibit shorts in basketball? January 29, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Basketball, Religion.
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And you thought your basketball shorts were long

Basketball shorts are getting ridiculously long these days.  But then again, who would want to go back to the days when you couldn’t distinguish them from your sister’s bike pants?  Don’t answer that.

basketball-pantsA friend of mine alerted me to this ESPN Page 2 Article about Christian high schools in America that play their basketball games in long pants (there’s a video of this at the site) – not because they’re trying to take long shorts to a whole new level – but because of what the Bible says.

(more…)

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