Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Rule of Four

I really wanted to like this book, and in many ways I did.  But I still finished it somewhat disappointed, and--even worse--I felt that while I was reading it.

I think the problem is that this book tries to do too many things at once.  That is its selling point, its victory and its curse.  It screams "We're not just The Da Vinci Code!" and yet on some levels it is, with much better writing and characterization.

But it lacks Dan Brown's (albeit superficial) tension.  There are no cliffhangers.  There's really no suspense.  You don't really care who the villains are--and the characters don't seem to, either.  There's a nice relationship (in fact, the girl deserves better), but I didn't care, except that I felt bad for the girl.

But while I felt bad for her, I realized that it didn't matter, and for God's sake let's get on with it.

If you liked rich-school hijinks, a la 1983's Class (You remember, with Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Jacqueline Bissett and Cliff Robertson?), then you'll like the Princeton antics described here.

But I didn't care.  Just bring on the book, the mystery, the characters, the murders.

If you liked the almost-homoerotic tension between rich schoolboys, a la A Separate Peace, then you'll enjoy that part.  I hated A Separate Peace, and I hated that part of this book.  C'mon, bring on the book, the mystery, etc.

If you liked good writing, you'll like that part.  I do, and I did. But...Does the writing have to be that good for a book like this?  I guess you can have it both ways.  Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose and Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost come to mind. But...the sometimes great sentence seemed superfluous here.  While I was waiting for it to get back to the mystery, I often read a great sentence that shocked me out of the book.  I actually uttered "Wow" a few times, out loud.  But...

Surprisingly, this book was not quite the page-turner I'd heard about.  The word on the street was so high on this one, that maybe my expectations were unfair.  I don't know, but I'm confident that this book would have been much better with all of the Princeton kijinks taken out, as well as least half of the Separate Peace nonsense, and tighten up the mystery and the murders.

On that last point, another problem here is that you don't have time to wonder (or, to even care) who the murderer is.  I mean, there are only two options, and then one of them turns up dead.  Not much of a mystery, really.

The direction of the writing also doesn't let you think about it.  You just go along with it all and wait for it to be shown to you.  It gets buried behind the other stuff.

And so I have to say I liked it, but with reservations.  It ultimately disappointed me, but I acknowledge that it's well-written, though maybe I needed the more base of writings here.  It tries to be both The Name of the Rose and The Da Vinci Code, but somehow doesn't end up being either one--and doesn't even, somehow, fall between the two.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Terminator: Genisys

If you like action movies with great visuals and a reminder of your movie-going past, this is the summer action movie for you.  But if you're looking for a really good sequel that moves the story of the Connor family, with Reese and a cyborg and a liquid-metal thing duking it out in present-day, in 1984, and in future L.A.--well, you'll be a bit disappointed here.

Maybe it's unfair to compare, as James Cameron's first two films were almost perfect movies of their type.  Plus, this latest is more of a reboot than a sequel, and the ending practically shows you how the next one will start.  Some movie needed to veer the series off its finished course, and this was it.

But there's still a lot wrong.  Some of them include (and, yes, there may be SPOILERS here):

* Ah-nuld's Terminator (and perhaps Ah-nuld himself) should never be called "Pops."  By anyone.  Even his own kids.

* Exposition and info-dump are sometimes necessary in films like this, but such info. needs to be delivered by someone who speaks English better than Ah-nuld does.  It's not that he doesn't speak the language well; it's that he doesn't enunciate it well, and it's grating in a movie if you have to listen to him and figure it out.

* This movie tries way too hard to be as "funny" as the second one.  I never found that one as amusing as many did, either, mostly because Edward Furlong's voice sounded like someone had just stepped on a cat's tail.

* James Cameron understood that story trumps special effects.  Genisys doesn't.

* Ah-nuld's smile is more creepy than funny.  It's even creepier since it's creepy-trying-to-be-funny.

* Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor was as jacked as a movie heroine is likely to ever get, surpassing even Sigourney Weaver's Ripley.  Emilia Clarke, playing a Sarah Connor who has known since she was nine that she would grow up to be kick-ass Sarah Connor, needed to be just as buff here.  She wasn't.  Part of the problem is that Emilia Clarke couldn't get jacked because she has to be in Game of Thrones, too.  (Daenarys as a buff dragon queen simply wouldn't work at this point.)  Another problem is that she's simply too pretty in a soft-looking kind of way.  And maybe she always will be.  (Linda Hamilton was just as pretty, jacked or not.)  But she's soft, and she stays that way.

* Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, in this movie, have zero chemistry.  When they kiss and declare their love for each other (they have to, or John Connor doesn't get born), you won't believe it.  To be fair to the actors, the script gives them zero chance to actually fall in love, anyway.

* Jai Courtney was also in the last Die Hard movie, which worked as an awesome action movie, but failed miserably in its attempt to be a Die Hard movie.  This movie works the same.  A good action / special effects movie.  A bad Terminator movie.

* And Michael Biehn needs to get more credit for his role.  Jai Courtney does not measure up here.

* Emilia Clarke tries her best, but she doesn't exactly catch Linda Hamilton's grasp of the character.

* The original, 1984 Terminator and the sequel's liquid metal monster are done away in quick fashion here, to mostly good effect.  The biggest problem of the movie, though, is that the real villain is (SPOILER) John Connor, and that absolutely does not work. Sarah doesn't seem to care that it's her son killing everyone (though, of course, he kind of isn't, yet) and Reese doesn't, either.  It's a mess.

* The script also mandates that John Connor was fooling everyone all the time, including in his rare scenes from 1984.  Though he could be considered a victim of SkyNet when Reese was sent back, he just doesn't hold up in any way as a good villain.  And it's 3 (often, 4 or 5) against 1, which seems unfair.

* This is a concept movie that never unveils itself.  SkyNet is the internet, of course.  And this movie, much like the second, is a warning about letting computers run everything.  (WarGames and every other flick of this type were, too.)  This one goes the extra step and posits the dangers of being too connected, via phone, laptop, iPad, iPhone, or whatever the hell your electronic addiction is.  But it loses its own point amidst the failed attempts at humor and significance.  This movie would've been much better had it just played it straight.

* And it doesn't cover any new ground at all, since it tries to follow the first two, yet break off from them, at the same time.  (It pretends the 3rd and 4th ones never happened, which perhaps we should as well.)  Maybe you can't do both simultaneously.  (And there was a nice tip of the cap to Cameron and his famous True Lies scene, too.)

Well, you get the idea.  It's a good action flick, and I didn't feel like I'd wasted my money or time, but beware that it is what it is, and it's not what it tries to be.  Do not expect a Cameron Terminator.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman

Remarkably easy-to-read and interesting account of the accumulated (by Ehrman and many others, but mostly by Ehrman, who self-refers almost to the point of annoyance) evidence of the actual, historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. This stuff is usually very dense, very academic, and a real snooze if written badly.  But Ehrman--an intelligent person, versified in ancient Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and an acknowledged (and, truth be told, self-acknowledged) expert in ancient Christianity and Judaism, and a distinguished, award-winning professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Department of Religious Studies--is also a gifted writer.  He has written over twenty-five books, including five NYT bestsellers.  His gift is that his prose sounds like he's talking right to you, or leaning on a lectern, facing his students.  He's right there in front of you, talking with you, not to you, and not down to you.  His writing is conversational, not pompous.

And it's thorough.  Exhaustively so.  Unlike a lot of writers of this stuff, he backs up every single assertion, all the time.  And he has the obvious knowledge to back it all up, too.  I've read a lot of this kind of thing--lots of Ehrman, but also Vermes, Eisenman, Theiring (who can get a bit hysterical and unsubstantiated), many of the Dead Sea Scrolls guys, etc.--but Ehrman is by far the most lucid, the most investigative, the most historical, the most thorough--and the easiest to read.  No small feat, that.

And he says things you can (usually) look up on your own.  Some of the things he points out have been rocking around my noggin for some time, and yet other things--sometimes head-slappingly simple--were brought to my attention here, and I feel the fool for not thinking of them myself.
Like what?  Well, among the many things:

--Did Mark, Luke, John and Matthew really write the Gospels with their names on them?  I've thought "No," for a very long time, and I've had good reasons, all of them via literary analysis (all backed up by Ehrman).  But he also throws in a little common sense, such as:

* The four Gospels were written by different people who were not followers of Jesus, scattered throughout the lands, forty to sixty years after Jesus died.

* According to the Gospels themselves, Mark was the secretary of Peter, and Luke, a physician, travelled with Paul.  So what they give us is second-hand information, at best.  They were written independently, though the later ones definitely had the earlier ones (including a few--Q, L and M--that have not survived) around, and borrowed heavily from them, sometimes verbatim.

* Most Gospel manuscripts that have survived were copied about one thousand years after the original copies.  And they are written in highly-educated, upper-class Greek.  Jesus and his disciples did not speak Greek.  His disciples certainly could not write in Greek.

* In fact, they may not have been able to read and write at all.  As Ehrman points out, many studies have shown that literacy in the ancient Middle East was about 10%, max.  And in Palestine it may have been as low as 3%.  And who would that 3% be?  The nobility.  The rich.  The people who had the money and the time to be educated.  And who were the disciples?  Fisherman.  Jesus himself was a laborer, a tekton--one who works with his hands.  (This could also mean a blacksmith or a stonemason, but the general consensus is that he was a carpenter.)  As such a person, he would've not built wooden cabinets or buildings, but simpler things for a poverty-stricken town like Nazareth--yokes for oxen, or gates.  At any rate, there would not have been much time or money for any of the disciples to read or write.  Jesus may--and only may--have been able to read a bit because he clearly knew his Old Testament, since he often quoted it verbatim.

* The Gospels are often contradictory of each other, and are often historically inaccurate.  For example, was Jesus born in Bethlehem, or Nazareth?  Constantly Jesus is referred to as "Jesus of Nazareth," or, more simply, "the Nazarene."  But according to Luke--and only Luke--Caesar Augustus imposed a tax on "all the world", and so everyone in the Roman Empire had to take part in a census so they'd be registered to pay this tax.  And so Joseph, a direct descendant of the ancient King David, and Mary had to trek to Bethlehem, and that's where Jesus was born.  In a manger, visited by the three Magi.  You know the story.  But, turns out, there is no record (and the ancient Romans kept lots of records) of Augustus imposing a tax.  Luke claims the census happened "when Quirinius was the governor of Syria," and while, of course, Herod was king.  But, turns out, Quirinius did not become governor until ten years after Herod died.  And, for all that, how logical is it that everybody in the Roman Empire had to stop what they were doing, and trek perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles to go to a place where their ancient ancestors were born over a thousand years ago?  That doesn't make any sense at all, does it?  But Luke, and only Luke, says it did.  Why?  Micah, an Old Testament prophet, said the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and Jesus wasn't.  This bothered Luke, and so he fixed it.  There's a lot of that kind of thing here.

* The Gospels have obviously been altered by the many hundreds of scribes who have copied them.  One clear example is the story of the woman being stoned to death by the crowd.  Jesus tells them to knock it off, "lest he who is without sin cast the first stone."  This is one of my favorite Gospel stories, but there's a problem.  Out of all the thousands of Gospel manuscripts and fragments throughout history, it is only found in John--and only from about the Middle Ages to today.  Older manuscripts of John's Gospel do not have the story.

And there's hundreds of more examples.  But does any of that prove that Jesus didn't really exist?  Nope.  Of course not.  If I mess up a fact about JFK's life, does that mean JFK didn't exist?  The point is, though, that Ehrman argues for the historical existence of Jesus, since there's apparently a growing legion of people who do not believe Jesus ever existed--the so-called "Mythicists."  (That Jesus was just a myth, get it?)  I also believe that Jesus existed, just not in the incantation presently popular in America, especially in the South.  What I call "Joel Osteen's Jesus."  (You can look that reference up.  When you do, ask yourself, Could that be what Jesus really wanted?)

Ehrman is an agnostic, as am I, sometimes.  I think.  I sort of vary back and forth between believing and being an agnostic.  I'm never an atheist.  Anyway, this is fascinating reading.  It's set up as an argument against the Mythicists, but the real meat of the book is in his evidence of Jesus's existence, and the vast, incredible number of ways--99 % of it via literary analysis and his knowledge of ancient manuscripts and ancient Judaism and Christianity, and 1% sheer common sense--in which he proves it.

Considering our current political / educational / religious American society (and how did it get to be that our laws and our education are tied into an uneasy, un-Constitutional hybrid of these three?), this is a work that deserves--and desperately needs--to be read.