Sunday 15 August 2010

Did Jesus exist?

A group of self-described "Jesus mythicists" have announced a $1,000 prize for anyone who can write an essay proving the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. The 2011 Historicist Prize will be awarded to the author of any essay demonstrating that Jesus lived--in the opinion of the judges. Who are those judges? Members of the Mythicists' Forum, the creators of the prize: Earl Doherty, Robert M Price, René Salm, Frank R Zindler.

The caveat is that you must pay $50 to enter the competition. "If no submission demonstrates the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, then there will be no Real Jesus Challenge Award (Historicist Prize)."

This is bizarre. Who would want to pay to have their essay judged by an institution whose existence depends on disagreeing with the conclusions of the essay?

The obvious-but-flawed comparison would be with the JREF, the skeptical institute headed by James Randi, which offers a $1 million prize to anyone who can show evidence of a "paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event." In their case, however, participants agree to the conditions of the test and its outcomes in advance, and the claims are tested according to scientific principles and judged by independent scientists.

The Mythicists' Forum, on the other hand, will judge the winner itself and on its own principles. The prize stems from a corresponding Mythicist Prize, which awards $1,000 to the winner of an essay that "sheds light on the origins of Christianity and, at the same, time, supports the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist." The first such competition was held in 2010, and no one won, although two participants were given honourable mentions.

I propose another challenge. Pay $50 and demonstrate to a panel consisting of Lee Strobel, Dinesh D'Souza and Ravi Zacharias that God does not exist. If they agree, you get the prize. If they disagree, they keep the money. Deal?

Saturday 14 August 2010

2010 film journal

This is a regularly updated list of films I have watched in 2010.

Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959). One of Sirk's most in-your-face films, packed with emotion, but very effective and with moving performances by Lana Turner and Juanita Moore.

Shoot 'Em Up (Michael Davis, 2007). Entertaining and absurdly over-the-top pastiche of the action genre, with wall-to-wall gun fights and lots of humour.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers/The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2002, 2003). The second two films in the trilogy are better-paced and more exciting than the first film, with quite the best effects I've seen in a feature film.

The Man Who Could Cheat Death (Terence Fisher, 1959). Not terrible, but certainly one of Fisher's most under-realized efforts for Hammer, filmed rather conventionally.

Juggernaut (Richard Lester, 1974). Disaster thriller with an array of intriguingly sketched minor characters and a keen sense glimpse of the '70s British social context, alongside a suspenseful plot.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001). Lush-looking fantasy adventure based on Tolkein, but I must admit I still don't get the hype.

Baisers volés, aka Stolen Kisses (Francois Truffaut, 1968). Parisian anti-hero Antoine Doinel is now in his twenties and still running from life in this erratic comedy-drama.

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger, aka Never Take Candy from a Stranger (Cyril Frankel, 1959). Gritty Hammer thriller about child molestation, fairly straightforwardly done for the most part, but with one of the studio's most memorably sinister monsters in Felix Aylmer's Clarence Olderberry.

Antoine et Colette (Francois Truffaut, 1960). Charming short film continuing the exploits of Antoine Doinel from the director's earlier Les 400 coups.

Tombstone (George P Cosmatos, 1993). Generally very good reworking of the Earp-Holliday story, although the ending is anticlimactic and unnecessarily sentimental.

The Reptile (John Gilling, 1966). Sharp, atmospheric Hammer horror based on an original story, and containing all the cherished Hammer ingredients.

The Full Treatment, aka Stop Me Before I Kill! (Val Guest, 1960). Psychological thriller that has some effective moments, but is generally too talky and 25 minutes too long.

The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (Terence Fisher, 1959). Hammer's take on the Jekyll-Hyde story; imperfect, but intelligently scripted, and intriguingly visualized.

The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009). Highly dumb, but also very funny comedy about a stag trip to Vegas that goes horribly wrong.

House on Haunted Hill (William Castle, 1959). Ridiculous, yet entertaining horror, but well done for what it is.

The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955). Wonderfully ironic, almost whimsically executed black comedy, filmed beautifully in autumnal Vermont and with one of Bernard Herrmann's greatest scores.

Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954). No less perfect than one expects from the Master of Suspense.

To the Devil a Daughter (Peter Sykes, 1976). Rather plodding horror spectacle, but with a few points of interest, including highly original scoring by Paul Glass. Until recently, this was the last horror film to be made by Hammer.

The Karate Kid (John G Avildsen, 1984). Eighties hit that still holds up surprisingly well.

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (Jack Sher, 1960). Though lagging at times, this fantasy holds a lot of charm, and is supported by a particularly strong, witty Bernard Herrmann score.

The Flight of the Phoenix (Robert Aldrich, 1965). Subversive drama helped by strong characterization and an excellent ensemble cast.

Equilibrium (Kurt Wimmer, 2002). Essentially a variation on Fahrenheit 451. Despite the plot lacking consistency, and the action being silly and out-of-place, overall this emerges as a moving, involving futuristic drama.

The Omen (Clive Donner, 1976). Supernatural chiller that ranks among the scariest films of all time.

The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001). Tightly crafted comic drama filmed with poignancy.

The Plague of the Zombies (John Gilling, 1966). Atmospheric Hammer horror with a particularly fine cast headed by Andre Morell and John Carson.

Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978). The best of Romero's zombie films, and one of the most memorable in the genre.

Carry on up the Khyber (Gerald Thomas, 1968). A rare Carry On film that takes the series to an entirely different level of wit and hilarity.

Carry on Behind (Gerald Thomas, 1974). Amusing entry in the Carry On series, and certainly one of the better of the later films.

Rasputin, the Mad Monk (Don Sharp, 1965). Christopher Lee delivers one of his most memorable performances in this enjoyable piece of pseudo-historical hokum from Hammer.

Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders, 2009). Smart, hilarious spoof of the '70s blaxploitation genre, looking impressively authentic.

Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1997). A pleasing mixture of gentle, quirky comedy and warm humanity that quickly became the director's brand following this solid debut.

The Far Country (Anthony Mann, 1954). Another compelling psychological western from director Mann and star James Stewart, excellently handled and stunningly shot as expected from their collaborations.

Gunfight at the OK Corral (John Sturges, 1957). Elegant retelling of the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday story (second only to My Darling Clementine), with a firm emphasis on the friendship, nicely portrayed by Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003). Disturbing, complex documentary about the family of a Long Island teacher accused of sexual abuse.

Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaran, 2007). Absorbing, brilliantly designed apocalyptic drama with a sterling cast in Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore and Pam Ferris.

Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958). Psychologically compelling western, despite Gary Cooper and Lee J Cobb being too old and too young for their roles, respectively.

The Crow (Alex Proyas, 1994). Fair revenge, comic-book style action, occasionally too sentimental.

The Damned (Joseph Losey, 1963). Gritty Hammer sci-fi with good location shooting, a mostly strong cast and an intelligent script.

The Man from Laramie (Anthony Mann, 1955). Engaging psychological western with strong performances from James Stewart and Donald Crisp.

Kill Bill: Volume I (Quentin Tarantino, 2003). Fabulously executed action movie with brilliantly stylized violence and a darkly comic tone.

The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002). Well-made and fairly spooky supernatural chiller.

Silent Hill (Christophe Gans, 2006). Banal horror film, all style and little substance.

Maniac (Michael Carreras, 1963). Disappointing thriller from a brilliant producer who never quite got the hang of direction.

The Snorkel (Guy Green, 1958). Hammer suspense film that has some very effective moments, although a few opportunities are missed.

Cash on Demand (Quentin Lawrence, 1961). Tense, small-scale Hammer thriller with good characterization and excellent performances from Peter Cushing, Andre Morell and Richard Vernon.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (Freddie Francis, 1968). Reasonable addition to Hammer's Dracula series that looks fantastic, even if it lacks the sophistication Terence Fisher brought to the subject.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (Terence Fisher, 1965). A fine piece from Hammer Films, with a particularly haunting and atmospheric first half.

Les quatre cents coups (Francois Truffaut, 1959). Involving drama of a delinquent's stifled upbringing in Paris. It captures its location and era memorably.

Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939). Warm, but down-to-earth drama, well written and directed, with the various elements of humour, melodrama and romance finely tuned.

Land of the Dead (George A Romero, 2005). One of the weaker and sillier entries in Romero's zombie series, but it's fun for what it is.

Se7en (David Fincher, 1995). Dark, noirish thriller that really comes into its own in the last half hour, thanks in no small part to its trio of stars.

The Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960). Despite the convoluted story, this is deservedly loved of Hammer films for its impressively lavish production values. Camper than usual for the studio.

Dracula, aka Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958). The definitive adaptation of Stoker's novel, with pretty much every element judged perfectly.

Teen Wolf (Rod Daniel, 1985). Comedy about a teenage werewolf, generally unremarkable, but a nostalgia trip for children of the '80s like this writer.

Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956). Poignant drama, handled with customary style and substance by Sirk.

Night of the Living Dead (Tom Savini, 1990). Pointless remake spoiled by overacting and unsuccessful attempts to invest the plot with social meaning.

I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943). Supremely sinister, finely tuned and justly celebrated horror from Val Lewton at RKO.

The Ghost Ship (Mark Robson, 1943). Taut thriller with Skelton Knaggs particularly effective in an uncredited role.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher, 1969). The most polished of the Hammer Frankensteins, with an exceptionally sharp script and a very sympathetic creature in Freddie Jones.

Frankenstein Created Woman (Terence Fisher, 1967). Wry, thoughtful entry in the Hammer Frankenstein series, intelligently scripted and with Peter Cushing at his best in a well-written part.

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004). Distinctly British, very funny mixture of comedy and horror.

Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999). Exhilarating drama paced so well that three hours passes by like less than two. A true ensemble piece, boasting remarkable performances from the likes of Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore and Jason Robards.

The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932). One of Karloff's finest turns, in a classy and supremely creepy horror movie that has aged much better than the studio's Dracula (1931).

About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2003). Comedy-drama crafted with superior storytelling ability by a very talented director. Cynical in the right way.

Murder at the Gallop (George Pollock, 1963). The second in Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple series. The chief delights here are the scenes Rutherford shares with husband Stringer Davis - a brilliant comedy pairing.

Murder She Said (George Pollock, 1961). Agatha Christie mystery with emphasis on the comedy. Margaret Rutherford is delightful as Miss Marple, and James Robertson Justice is particularly funny.

The Last Man on Earth
(Ubaldo Ragona, Sidney Salkow, 1964). Apocalyptic horror from the intelligent mind of sci-fi writer Richard Matheson. Good, despite the poor dubbing in places.

The Curse of the Werewolf (Terence Fisher, 1961). Classic Hammer horror featuring a seminal werewolf makeup, genuine scares and excellent production values.

Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977). Witty, engaging, well-directed romantic comedy; Diane Keaton steals the show in the title role.

Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986). Interesting and involving quasi-Hitchcockian thriller with surreal, Lynchian elements.

The Revenge of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1958). This is where Hammer's Frankenstein series really came into its own, with a heavy dose of black humour and pathos added to the Gothic horror mix.

The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957). Pioneering in terms of colour Gothic horror, if fairly conventional in other respects.

The Crazies (George Romero, 1973). Pseudo-zombie horror, generally well done, with disturbing undertones.

The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952). Sharp, witty drama, deftly and stylishly executed by director Minnelli with a pitch-perfect cast.

The Terror of the Tongs (Anthony Bushell, 1961). Visually wonderful Hammer thriller that unfortunately suffers from a slow pace and clumsy direction.

Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967). Andrew Keir makes a fine Quatermass in a suspenseful adaptation of the '50s sci-fi serial that remains gripping from beginning to end.

Quatermass 2 (Val Guest, 1957). Again, intelligently scripted by Kneale. A tight thriller, despite (once again) Donlevy's lacklustre performance.

The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955). Richard Wordsworth steals the show in this well-directed sci-fi, scripted intelligently by Nigel Kneale. Brian Donlevy is stiff as Professor Quatermass.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Terence Fisher, 1974). Hammer sequel constrained by a low budget, but a sophisticated end to a sophisticated series.

From Hell (Albert & Allen Hughes, 2001). Stylish fictionalization of the Jack the Ripper case, with impressive turns from Johnny Depp and Ian Holm.

The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953). The first of Mann's westerns with James Stewart, this has all the elements that made their collaborations a success, including involving characterization and psychological drama.

The Wolfman (Joe Johnston, 2010). Slow in places, with some daft story elements, but overall good, old-fashioned horror fun of which 1940s' Universal would not have been ashamed.

Captain Clegg (Peter Graham Scott, 1962). Underrated Hammer adventure, boasting a strong story, a witty script, tight direction and an ensemble of excellent performances helmed by Peter Cushing, Patrick Allen and Michael Ripper (in his finest hour).

The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960). The hammy title role fits the often-hammy Laurence Olivier like a glove. This absorbing drama benefits from an excellent sense of time and place, thanks to the extensive location filming in the Lancashire seaside town of Morecambe.

The Pirates of Blood River (John Gilling, 1961). Smart-looking pirate adventure that makes the most out of Hammer's tight budget.

The Devil-Ship Pirates (Don Sharp, 1963). Entertaining Hammer swashbuckler with a strong performance by Christopher Lee.

Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998). Quirky comedy-drama that expertly balances the absurd and the believable in a story with genuine warmth.

In the Mood for Love (Kar Wai Wong, 2000). Intensely moving and sensual love story set in 1960s Hong Kong. A beautiful film with a beautiful, stunningly costumed, totally entrancing star in Maggie Cheung.

Mr Sardonicus (William Castle, 1961). Gothic horror, mostly silly, but as entertaining as you would expect from Castle.

Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 2004). Macabre vampire yarn with an enjoyable black comedy element, based on the book by Anne Rice.

The Mummy's Curse (Leslie Goodwins, 1944). Mediocre entry in Universal's rather dull Mummy series, but not the worst, and it has a few sinister moments.

(William Castle, 1964). Slightly silly psycho-thriller, tailor-made for star Joan Crawford. The director pushes the limits as usual, and it has great camp value.

(Ruben Fleischer, 2009). Very funny zombie comedy whose highlight is a hilariously and brilliantly absurd cameo appearance from a movie legend.

The Evil of Frankenstein (Freddie Francis, 1964). The weakest in Hammer's Frankenstein series. Patterned after the Universal monster movies of the 1930s and '40s, it lacks the sophistication associated with this era in Hammer's history, and Terence Fisher's absence as director is sorely felt.

The Gorgon
(Terence Fisher, 1964). Gorgeously shot Gothic horror-fantasy from Hammer's finest director.

The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk, 1958). Sterling melodrama with the strong direction we expect from Sirk.

Night Passage (James Neilson, 1957). Handsomely mounted western. Enjoyable, but it nevertheless pales next to James Stewart's western collaborations with director Anthony Mann in the same era.

Legend (Ridley Scott, 1985). Visually charming fairy-tale fantasy that should be seen with the Jerry Goldsmith score to be appreciated. Tim Curry gives a scary performance in an impressive makeup.

Terminator: Salvation (McG, 2009). Passable action sequel that takes itself a bit too seriously compared to the earlier films in the series.

Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935). Very witty and very, very queer. A masterpiece of pathos, black comedy and horror, pulled off brilliantly by a talented cast (Karloff, Lanchester and Thesiger standing out), fantastical design by Charles D Hall, sharp script and direction, and a pioneering musical score by Franz Waxman.

(James Whale, 1931). Definitive adaptation of Shelley's novel, with Boris Karloff evoking terror and sympathy in equal amounts.

The Mummy's Ghost (Reginald Le Borg, 1944). Another outing for Universal's Mummy, again fairly plodding, with occasional creepiness from John Carradine.

The Mummy's Tomb (Harold Young, 1942). Lon Chaney, Jr, lumbers around as clumsily as the script in a part that could just as easily have been played by a stuntman. At least the emphasis is firmly on the Mummy's antics, rather than comic relief, as in The Mummy's Hand, which preceded it.

21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003). Involving, expertly handled drama with a concept and structure that could easily have become convoluted and pretentious in other hands. Excellent performances from its quartet of stars.

The Mummy's Hand (Christy Cabanne, 1940). Rather flat by Universal's high standards, with far too much comic frippery and very little horror.

Cat People
(Jacques Tourneur, 1942). Noirish horror with the atmosphere and creepiness expected of director Tourneur and producer Val Lewton.

Dance of the Vampires, aka The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski, 1967). Parody of the Hammer horror, with a dry, cynical sense of humour, and looking particularly lush.

(Rob Reiner, 1990). Capable adaptation of the Stephen King novel, thanks in large part to its small-but-strong cast, headed by Kathy Bates as the psychotic Annie Wilkes.

(Zack Snyder, 2009). Pleasingly original take on the cult of the comic book superhero, with a striking film noir style and fun action, but its length and pretensions work against it.

Phantom of the Opera
(Terence Fisher, 1962). Despite flashes of brilliance, this Hammer version of the famous horror tale never quite takes off, mainly due to the characters' weak motivations and the rather contrived subplot.

Sherlock Holmes
(Guy Ritchie, 2009). Splendid-looking, superbly paced detective mystery that is both freshly original and true to Conan Doyle's creation.

(Marc Forster, 2005). Surreal drama that held my interest, but was way too stylized.

In the Mouth of Madness
(John Carpenter, 1994). Apocalyptic horror in the vein of HP Lovecraft, well-crafted and suitably scary.

Event Horizon
(Paul WS Anderson, 1997). Sci-fi horror that boasts impressive effects, but feels a bit empty.

Taste of Fear
, aka Scream of Fear (Seth Holt, 1961). Highly suspenseful Hammer thriller, handsomely mounted by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. Style and atmosphere more than make up for the plot holes.

The Body Snatcher
(Robert Wise, 1945). Impressively creepy horror with a wonderfully semi-comic turn by Boris Karloff in the title role.

Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson, 1945). Proving that while Universal reigned in the monster genre, producer Val Lewton's films for RKO were superior for genuine terror, suspense and atmosphere.

Stranglers of Bombay (Terence Fisher, 1959). Grisly Hammer thriller based on the Indian 'Thuggee' cult of the 19th century. Tightly directed by Fisher, as you would expect.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow, 2003). Enjoyable action movie, inferior to the first two in the Terminator series, but still fun.

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). Stunningly designed futuristic film noir.

Adventures in Babysitting (Chris Columbus, 1987) Dumb, juvenile fun. This has a lot of nostalgic value for me.

Friday 13 August 2010

Nailing another evangelical myth

A few months ago I began addressing "myths about leaving fundamentalism." I'm laying off the "fundamentalist" word here, because it can be more trouble than it's worth, but I'll say that the myth I'm about to address here is characteristic of a certain type of evangelical Christian--certainly in the charismatic and Pentecostal churches I once belonged to.

This is the myth: Non-believers know deep down they're being drawn towards (the evangelical) God; witness to them and pray for them enough, and eventually they will be born again. For the believer, even showing a hint of interest in Christianity is evidence of this almost irresistible urge to convert.

I had this notion once, too. My attitude toward non-believers was: How could they not know how much they need this? In my mind, "unsaved" family and friends were empty, and they knew it. If they were honest with themselves, they knew the gospel was true, or at least they felt a strange compulsion to find out more. For this reason, I lived most of my born-again Christian life thinking that the conversion of others was not only possible but likely.

This conception leads to awkward conversations like the one I had yesterday with an old college friend. Said friend knows that I am now openly gay, theologically and socially liberal, and about as far from evangelical as you can get. The occasion was my mention that I had read a sermon by a mutual college friend online. He replied that he was glad I was "getting back into it," and I quickly clarified that by no means was this a sign I was returning to anything--or even thinking about it. I was just reading a sermon by someone I knew because it piqued my interest.

"LIAR." (The block capitals were his. This was an internet messenger conversation. He was being a bit tongue-in-cheek, sure, but his point was serious.)

I could hear the cogs whirring as we continued the conversation. Praise God. The Holy Spirit is working on Dave. He won't admit it, but he's being drawn back into the fold.

I explained it as best I could like this: You suggesting there's a realistic chance I'll return to evangelical Christianity is like me suggesting you're going to become a Muslim or start a new career as an accountant. The thought is alien to me.

You may as well tell the average Joe they're going to move to Africa and live with lions for the rest of their lives. Keep giving them the safari pamphlets, but unless they already have Mowgliesque inclinations toward chumminess with feral cats, they're probably going to stick with their day job and their reasonably priced semi-detached house in Manchester.

Some people do have that feeling of something missing and get that irresistible urge to convert to evangelical Christianity, no doubt. Most people, however, don't.