This thread is for CFI movie buffs interested in films of interest to readers in the CFI forum. Can we focus (pun intended) on reviews? If members have added or diffenent opinions about a movie, it is hoped they will write their own reviews here, or start new topics for specific movies, as has happened with What the Bleep Do We Know.
I can get the ball rolling with the History Channel’s two-disk miniseries The Crusades narrated by Terry Jones (2001). I gave this five stars on Netflix, then checked the Netflix member reviews. Many were unsympathetic, saying it was too hard on the Crusaders. Here’s what I wrote.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by the level of cry-baby Christianity reflected in the member reviews of this excellent documentary. The best part is how well it demolishes the myth of valiant Christians motivated solely by their love of Jesus to liberate the Holy Land from the heathens.
The hallmark of a good historical documentary is that one can learn many things from it. Fortunately, religion is religion, history is history, and this is a carefully documented history told in balance from Christian and Muslim points of view. It no doubt upsets some people to discover that during the 12th century, Islam was flourishing while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages. Islam at that time was run by competent administrators, it did not persecute other religions; Muslims, Christians and Jews were living in harmony in Jerusalem and throughout the Islamic world, and Islam had beaten the West to what we call the Renaissance by 400 years. In those days, it really was they who were cultured and Westerners who were barbarians, as this story makes clear, sometimes in wincing detail. Think of it as a time when they were building libraries while we were still burning them.
[Former Monty Python member] Terry Jones cracking wise about this material might take some getting used to, but it helps to know, as you can read in his biography, that he really is a scholar in Medieval history, which is why History Channel chose him. I would also recommend “Islam: Empire of Faith” as a documentary to view before watching this one. Islam today makes little sense because so much of it has remained stuck in the 11th century. But back then, it really was an enlightened spiritual and cultural rebirth.
Elmer Gantry, Inherit the Wind and the “Scopes Trial” segment of Ten Days that Unexpectedly Changed America
This review includes two “oldies” and a related short documentary.
1960’s Elmer Gantry, starring Burt Lancaster, is based on the Sinclair Lewis novel about a charismatic salesman who rises to the top of the Prohibition Era tent revival preachers. While interesting in perhaps a three out of five stars sort of way, Elmer Gantry has not aged particularly well. Neither has Lewis’ novel. Both were “radical” for their times, but not for ours. The movie is a little slow to start, strong in the middle as Gantry gets on a roll, and adequate at the end, but the closing plot is a little confusing to modern viewers because both the reporter, who starts out to “get” Gantry, and Gantry himself, have changes of heart. These plot twists in a 1960s movie set in the 1920s were added to pacify fundamentalists.
Inherit the Wind (1960), about the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial,” stars Spencer Tracy as the Clarence Darrow character, Fredric March as the William Jennings Bryant character and Gene Kelly as the H. L. Menckin character. The acting alone is enough to carry this movie into the 21st century, but the level of knocks on fundamentalism in an Eisenhower-era movie is what will appeal to a CFIer. The movie is a fairly realistic dramatization of the trial and, as a side note, it can also introduce CFIers to H. L. Menckin, the great American skeptic, atheist, publisher, author, reporter and snob who delighted readers with his coverage of the trial. Find his scathing rip of the Bible-belt mentality, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” at http://writing2.richmond.edu/jessid/eng423/restricted/mencken.pdf.
“Scopes Trial” is a short documentary that does a fine job of explaining how the Monkey Trial came to be, what really happened, and the trial’s aftermath. It is one of Ten Days that Unexpectedly Changed America, a 2006 History Channel production available on Netflix and elsewhere. It’s a good warm-up for Inherit the Wind.
Origins: Nova and Physics: The Elegant Universe and Beyond
The two-disc Origins: Nova (Neil deGrasse Tyson, 2004) and four-disc Physics: The Elegant Universe and Beyond (Brian Greene, 2005) are just right for catching up on astrophysics. Origins takes viewers from the Big Bang through the formation of stars and planets, relativity, quantum theory, and into speculation about life off Earth (exobiology). Tyson is a master at bringing science down to Earth, so for an excellent, understandable and palatable view of who we are and where we came from, cosmically speaking, this explanation of Big Bang and its aftermath are “da bomb.”
Brian Greene covers this territory in depth, and he, like Tyson, is very good at explaining astrophysics. He takes The Elegant Universe one step further with an extensive discussion of string theory, the idea that far below the level of the quark, the universe is governed by vibrations called “strings.” String theory does work out mathematically, but it is theoretical, not a fact. Of course Einsteinian physics was once theoretical, but its predictions were proven true relatively(!) quickly after he made them. String theory tells us that our four-dimensional universe of 3-D plus time is the by-product of incredibly small vibrations wrapped in eleven-dimensional space with the possibility of multiple universes in parallel dimensions. Math is what separates string theory from science fiction, and Green himself is frank about it being a hypothesis that we are unlikely to prove true in our lifetimes. He then goes on to explain it on a two-dimensional TV screen with the aid of clear analogies and well-placed special effects.
He provides opposing scientific points of view but does not bring up a sideshow of interest to CFIers, namely the skeptical community’s divide over string theory. Skeptical Inquirer, for example, gave his book The Fabric of the Cosmos a negative review, dismissing the math as “hellishly complex” and suggesting that Greene is more of a string theory promoter than a scientist. That review did not leave much room for those willing can learn about the stringwagon without having to jump on it, a function these videos serve well. Quantum theory, remember, has hellish math and once had an important cadre of doubters.
This 2001 documentary, based on the book by theologian Karen Armstrong, is about history rather than theology. It spans the time from polytheism through the formation of the last big monotheistic religion, Islam. God, as it turns out, evolved from many gods that people could actually bend to their wills to become the omnipotent, distant figure worshiped by most today.
The evolutionary steps are gripping. Gods, for example, used to be very local so travelers would switch comfortably to different local gods as they moved about. Individual gods were represented by statues and drawings and placated by sacrifices. Getting rid of multiple gods, their statues and sacrifices did not happen overnight, even among the Jews who are credited with starting monotheism. And segments, like the reminder that Moses found his people partying as he returned with his famous tablets, can actually be amusing, even as the narrator explains why they happened and what they mean.
As monotheism progresses, the god(s) concept evolves through various stages from tyranny to love, from closeness to distance and from formlessness to anthropomorphism. Each prophet, including Christ who was not thought divine until long after he died, seemed to move their god further along, just as philosophers move philosophical ideas along over the centuries. God was not born into what he/she/it is today, and this makes interesting history, regardless of one’s beliefs or non-beliefs. Most of those interviewed are informed and easy to take, though there are a few theological moments, like explaining the nature of God or the Trinity where those doing the explaining have no choice but to fall into the documentary-proof abyss of belief. All in all, there’s nothing much to drive a CFIer from the screen and quite a lot to be learned.
These are two documentaries about the West Memphis Three, three teenagers who were charged with the murder of three little boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. It’s a fascinating case-study in law gone bad, made especially tragic by the circumstances that keep the accused behind bars to this day.
In Paradise Lost, we learn what put Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin behind bars. Three eight-year-old boys had been found dead by a creek. Two days later the police announced a capture based on Jessie Misskelley’s confession. The police did nothing but jump on the heavy metal teens and Satan bandwagon. They picked up Misskelley, who is borderline retarded, and grilled him for ten hours, none of which were recorded or in the presence of an attorney, and extracted his “confession.” The trial is documented and the police have no evidence, no motive, nothing but Miskelley’s now retracted confession. The boys also have an unseasoned public defense attorney. The most challenging part of the trial for CFIers is when a correspondence school “expert witness” takes the stand to say that murders this foul have to be the work of Satan-possessed teenagers. The jury buys it, Damien Echols gets the death penalty and his friends get life.
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations is about what happens when legal activists bring in independent investigators who determine from the absence of blood at the creek that the little boys met their fates elsewhere and were dumped at the creek (contrary to the prosecution’s theory). There’s also a very visible bite mark on one of the boys whose gun-totin’, Jesus-fearin’, vengence-seekin’, step-father, who appears in both episodes, falls under suspicion from the film crew. The bite mark does not match the dentition of any of the WM3, the step-father coincidentally has had all of his teeth pulled for “medical reasons”, and the prosecution continues to deny that there even is a bite mark.
The best part of these documentaries is how the story is told, one jaw-dropping revelation after another and the intransigence of a bureaucracy wedded to nonsense. There’s also a site with updates at http://www.wm3.org.
This one written by Jamal Qutan and the Rev Jim Huber has been knocking around on the internet for a while. It is a short film and an atheist parable (or at the very least a fable). Without giving too much away, I would have to say that the acting is rather better than you would expect for an amateur short (particularly the character of Mary). And the script is very economical in that it leaves pretty much nothing out. Watch it here if you haven’t already done so:
I suppose I haven’t been on this site long enough to unerringly make this judgment but I am pretty sure The Abyss would go over well with this crowd. Just be sure to get the *Special Edition* not the theatrical release. The only reason I haven’t bought the DVD is that I haven’t seen it on sale yet.
What can I say? I’m cheap!
PS - Maybe this is old news since it is an old flick but a lot of people seem not to have seen it. No SF fan should miss it.
The Discovery Channel’s 2003 Dinosaur Planet series of four episodes on two disks turned out to be quite interesting and an appealing way to attract viewers young and old to the science side of dinosaurs; though a word of caution that dinosaur predators might be too scary for youngsters.
Each of the four episodes, “White Tip’s Journey,” “Pod’s Travels,” “Little Das’ Hunt” and “Alpha’s Egg” has been extrapolated from actual dinosaur discoveries. “Alpha’s Egg,” for example, takes it’s story from the discovery of a Saltasaurus breeding ground that was flooded by an ancient storm. Alpha is almost eaten while still in her egg, but manages to grow to adulthood, with interesting scrapes with a predatory Aucasaurus named Dragonfly along the way. She eventually returns to the Saltasaurus breeding ground to lay her clutch, which is one of many that the rains and time will fossilize for us to find.
Purists may wonder if the dinosaurs’ chirps, roars and reactions might be too over-dramatized, but the CGI-animation and plot lines are very good on the whole, and the infrequent cuts to a modern palaeontologist who clarifies how we came by the underlying facts of these stories seem to be timed just right.
For kids, Bridge to Terabithia is surprisingly friendly to the unconventional for a Disney flick. A relatively positive tone about kids who want to find their own way rather than follow their parents’, and an appealing central character who doesn’t believe in god (or at least religion). At one point there’s a brief conversation about religion between three kids in which a 5 or 6 year old girl very seriously intones that if you don’t believe in the Bible god will “damn you to Hell.” Hard to miss how horrific and ridiculous that sounds parroted by someone so young. Maybe it just sounds that way to me because I already think the indoctrination of children in such ideas is awful, but I think it might make a tiny little point to someone not already so convinced.
Interestngly, I guess the author of the book is a Christian and sees hersef as a CS LEwis-style Christian writer. Definately not the sense I got from the movie at all. But the I’m surprised at the religious content I don’t remember from a lot of my favorite children’s books.
New documentaries: “War Made Easy” and “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War against the West”
“War Made Easy” documents the all too cozy relationship between the media and the government in advancing war as a foreign policy option. CFIers are already familiar with the media’s role in advancing nonsense. Media warmongering is the most egregious nonsense of all because it comes from news departments rather than entertainment departments, and this documentary uses 90% news department footage to debunk the media war game. Information on this low profile documentary is scarce, but there is a Variety review at http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117934412.html?categoryid=31&cs=1.
“Obsession: Radical Islam’s War against the West” is politically right-leaning, and though its message doesn’t seem to be any more, or less, propagandized than a Michael Moore piece or “War Made Easy,” it may be on the wrong side of PC for the art house circuit. Its title is clear about the documentary’s dim view of “radical Islam,” but apart from a brief disclaimer at the start of the film, it does not make much of an effort to balance radical Islam against moderate Islam. Such stereotyping tells us more about the stereotypers than the documentary, which makes its generous use of Nazis juxtaposed with radical Islamists and its images of cross-desecration little more than the fear-mongering propaganda that it criticizes radical Islam for spreading.
If this documentary was rated on a scale of four stars, I’d give it a five. It’s a Netflix find about the history of humanity as told by mitocondrial DNA that has passed from mother to daughter through the ages. Fascinating.