Monday, May 16, 2011

Rodney Stark: Cities of God

Mostly on a whim, I picked out another of his books, "Cities of God," on the urbanization of the early Christian church. The subtitle of the book reads: "The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome." I'm guessing Stark wasn't responsible for the subtitle, because his thesis is 1) Christianity began as an urban movement, and 2) Christianity didn't conquer anything.

Rodney Stark is a professor of Baylor University who specializes in the history and sociology of religion. He is best known as the author of "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success," which is an unabashed defense of the Middle Ages as an deeply rational era. In "Cities of God," he tackles the question of Christianity's early spread, grounded in a statistical-sociological perspective.

Friday, May 13, 2011

I Confess (1953)


"I Confess" is widely regarded as a mediocre entry in the Hitchcock canon. Certainly, in terms of the artistry and technical ingenuity, this film cannot compare to the greatest of Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre. Even so, the film wrestles with issues of truth, morality, honor and the Catholic practice of faith in an almost unprecedented manner. "I Confess" may be my favorite out of all the films of Hitchcock.

The premise is simple enough: a man is murdered and a priest hears the murderer's confession. Under Catholic canon law, a priest is barred from revealing any information disclosed under the seal of confession. To my knowledge, this prohibition covers all confessions, even those that involve a crime... and even if the priest himself is suspected for that crime.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thor (2011)

Ye gods.  Now that was a popcorn movie.  "Thor" is not a ground-breaking film: it is neither at the vanguard nor the pinnacle of a cinematic genre. It is exactly what it set out to be: an origin story for a superhero, a bridge between the science-fiction and the fantasy elements of the Marvel universe, and a film-length teaser for the coming 2012 blockbuster "The Avengers." Above all, it is an exceptionally entertaining example of sheer spectacle.

Rated PG-13 for stylized violence. This may be the mildest PG-13 I've ever seen.
"Thor" begins with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a film-scientist with a specialization in atmospheric astrophysics. Please, don't ask. Along with her hapless political-science intern Darcy (Kat Dennings) and her bemused mentor Eric Selvig (Stellan SkarsgÄrd), Jane is in hot pursuit of an Einsten-Rosen Tornado, because apparently wormholes look like giant wind funnels. When they finally see one developing, they drive straight into the cloud and nearly run over a man.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Part courtroom drama, part horror flick, and part biopic (inspired by the true story of Anneliese Michel), "the Exorcism of Emily Rose" is one of the few demonic-possession themed films that's actually worth watching.

Ever since Linda Blair freaked the living daylights out of audiences in the 1973 film "The Exorcist," films based on demonic possession have been a staple of the horror genre. Most of these films are content to rely on cheap thrills and special effects (contorted mannequins, "pea soup" projectile vomit, creative sound editing, etc.) It is a rare film that invests itself in the ideas behind the stories and takes the underlying doctrine seriously. "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is such a film.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences and disturbing images. This film is not for kids.

The story was inspired by the life of Anneliese Michel, a German Catholic woman who was believed to be demonically possessed. Her first experiences with this began in 1969, when she was 17. She continued to exhibit troubling behavior until 1975, when a close family friend noticed her behavior while on a pilgrimage to an unofficial holy site. In particular, this friend noticed that Anneliese was unable to walk past an icon of Jesus Christ or drink holy water, and began to suspect demonic involvement. She notified the local priests, who examined her and concluded (after consulting with their bishop) that it was demonic possession. The exorcism continued for nearly 70 sessions over ten months. In the end, Anneliese died of malnutrition, and the priests (along with her parents) were tried and convicted of negligent homicide.

Monday, May 2, 2011

North and South (2004)

"North and South" is a miniseries produced by the BBC, adapting the 1855 novel by Elizabeth Gaskett. Initially released with low expectations, it quickly won both an audience and a place in the pantheon of great costume dramas. It certainly deserves its accolades, though I can't help but feel it receives them for the wrong reasons.

As a love story, "North and South" is stellar, though it does seem to tread the same ground as "Pride and Prejudice." Margaret Hale is a clergyman's daughter, a young lady raised in the refined and insular South. But her father begins to question his faith, leaves the parish, and settles as a teacher in the industrial North. It is there that Margaret meets her One True Love: John Thorton, the owner of a cotton mill. She detests him immediately. He obliges by returning the favor. She thinks he's proud; he thinks she's prejudiced. But fate is an unscrupulous fellow, and besides, the crazy kids can hardly keep their eyes off each other.