Book Review: ’3096 Days’ by Natascha Kampusch

April 3, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I find long-term abduction stories fascinating. What kind of a person could do something so cruel to another human being? What kind of human being could live through such cruelty?

A few years back I read Alan Hall’s Monster (review here), a horrific investigative study into the case of Josef Fritzl, who kept his biological daughter Elizabeth in a dungeon for 24 years as a sex slave. Earlier this year I tackled Elizabeth Smart’s My Story (review here), the account of her harrowing 9-month abduction at the hands of a deranged couple in 2002.

After reading My Story I decided first-person accounts of such stories were probably best avoided as Smart’s book underwhelmed due to her weak writing, but I decided to ignore my own advice after coming across 3,096 Days, penned by another Austrian abductee, Natascha Kampusch, who was held captive from the ages of 10 and 18. After breezing through it in a few days, I now have to backtrack from what I said about first-person accounts, because 3,096 days is not just the best abduction book out there — it’s one of the best first-person true stories and finely written autobiographies I’ve ever read.

Natascha Kampusch was an unhappy, overweight and introverted 10-year-old who was on her way to school after a fight with her mother when she was tossed in a van by Wolfgang Priklopil, a mentally ill recluse who appeared polite and “normal” to locals. She would spend the majority of the next 3,096 days in a steel-enforced dungeon in Priklopil’s house that brought back memories of Josef Fritzl’s house of horrors. She would be starved, subjected to mental and physical abuse and torture, and living in constant fear of her bi-polar captor. By the time she was escaped, at age 18, Kampusch was a shell of a person, barely 40kg (despite being 175cm) and terrified of the free world she faced for the rest of her life.

This is a remarkable book. Kampusch’s writing is nothing short of amazing, considering she lost more than 8 of the most important years of her education. On the other hand, she spent a large proportion of her time in captivity reading, writing and educating herself, so in that sense it’s not surprising that she comes across as such a seasoned writer.

Some credit must go to her co-writer Heike Gronemeier and her English translator Jill Kreuer, but there’s no doubt that the bulk of the book is entirely her own words, because only she could describe — in tender, beautiful and heartfelt prose — the complex emotions she has towards her ordeal and her abductor whom she mostly calls “the kidnapper” in the book.

In many ways I found Kampusch’s writing almost Anne Frank-esque, not just in her observations and views on life but in the way her words manage to evoke a pure emotional response. Her descriptions are dramatic yet unpretentious, piercing yet comforting. I don’t know how she does it but there were so many passages where I found myself in awe of with her ability to hit the mark.

When I read Elizabeth Smart’s My Story, I complained about my inability to connect with her psyche and how the things she said often felt like “justifications” for her seemingly bizarre behaviour (such as squandering many obvious opportunities for escape) rather than “explanations” of why someone in her position might act that way. With Kampusch, it was the opposite. Even though she was criticized just as much as, if not more than, Smart for her behaviour, I understood where she was coming from perfectly. Had I not read her book, I too might have been baffled as to how she could go out with her kidnapper in public, and even on a ski trip, without reaching out for help. But after reading about the the depths of her fear and the grip Priklopil had over her, everything made sense.

Another impressive thing about 3,096 days is Kampusch’s insights into Priklopil, from his personality and mental illness to his upbringing and unnatural relationship with his mother. You can tell that despite everything he put her through, she had a special connection with him, and how could she not when he was the only person in her life, the only person she spoke to and interacted with, for 8.5 years? I was impressed with the way she saw him as not just an evil man (the way Smart saw her abductor), but as a complex person who could show kindness and vulnerability but also had a terrifying darkness that constantly threatened to overwhelm him. As she said, children who are ill-treated and abused by their parents and guardians still love them, and I suppose that goes some way towards explaining her feelings towards Priklopil and why she wept when she found out he had thrown himself under a train after she escaped.

I was also impressed with her refusal to accept that she was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, saying the label oversimplifies the complex relationship she had with her kidnapper. You can tell she has put a lot of intelligent thought, research and effort into analysing her ordeal and her emotions in the years since she was freed. Instead of trying to forget and put those eight years of her life behind her, which would have been impossible anyway, she is doing her best to make sense of this atrocious, meaningless crime committed against her.

(By the way, I am in no way trying to demean Smart or her experience. She had a completely different type of abductor and the period of her captivity was not so long that she could develop any positive feelings towards the perpetrators. But the contrast between the approach of the two books and the way their respective stories were told is stark, probably something akin comparing this the quality of the writing in this blog to that of the New Yorker.)

The only genuine fault I can find with the book is Kampusch’s refusal to talk about her sexual abuse at the hands of Priklopil. While she admitted in interviews that she was raped several times during her ordeal, in the book she sidestepped the issue by saying that there are some parts of her capture she wished to keep private (she did say that Priklopil chained her to his bed but mostly just wanted to cuddle). You can’t blame her for not wanting to talk about something like this, but the omission does spark concerns that perhaps Kampusch could be leaving other details out as well. It’s unfortunate because she already has so many doubters, many of whom believe she is hiding something. I can only repeat what I said in the case of Elizabeth Smart, which is unless you personally experience what they’ve gone through you have no idea how you’d react in the same situation.

Ultimately, I am certain that 3,096 Days will resonate with me for quite some time. It’s a fascinating read that’s harrowing and hard to stomach at times, but I found it contemplative, empathetic and truthful — in the sense that not everything in life is black or white, good or evil. It’s a testament to Natascha Kampusch’s courage, her strength, her intelligence, and I’m glad I was fortunate enough to have come across this inspiring book.

5/5

PS: 3,096 Days has been adapted into a feature film of the same name. I’m not sure if I will watch it, but here’s the trailer anyway. There is also full documentary on Kampusch’s story on YouTube called 3,096 Days in Captivity.

Oscars Adventure 2014

March 7, 2014 in Best Of, Entertainment, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

The pre-planned surprise selfie

The pre-planned surprise selfie

It’s been a while since I posted and I’m still kinda tired (with you know, stuff), but it’s time to recap my Oscars adventures for 2014.

Like last year, I served as a consultant to one of the subtitling teams for the TV stations in Taiwan, which is a long day but always tons of fun. The Oscars screen in Taiwan during the day and are broadcast live, but only with live commentators doing their best to interpret whatever they can. The subtitling team (which does loads of preparation in advance) will frantically start translating the dialogue starting from the red carpet show so that the subtitles can be applied and ready for the prime time rerun later that evening.

It sounds relatively simple but is actually a lot of work because translations of names of films and nominees need to be uniform and consistent, and there are always plenty of things that don’t go according to script. People can talk really fast and mumble, acceptance speeches can be long and rambling (not to mention include a whole bunch of names that need to be verified), there might be short clips (or even long clips) they play throughout the evening which will have to be translated, and the jokes are always difficult especially if they use puns or touch on obscure cultural references. And of course, everything needs to be cross-checked and double-checked before the subtitles are placed onto the screen and synced to match the dialogue.

It’s quite incredible watching the team, which is packed with the country’s best (and trust me, they are, because I’ve seen some of its worst), power through like a well-oiled machine. On top of that everyone is incredibly nice, professional, and simply a lot of fun. I enjoyed the camaraderie we had, one fostered by a collegiate environment where everyone was working towards a common goal, and that’s to deliver the best product possible for the audience. Most viewers wouldn’t even have picked up on the little things that the team fretted over, but we challenged ourselves to get everything right, and if not, as close as we could.

This was about as far as Ellen would go

This was about as far as Ellen would go

This year’s production was much easier to subtitle than last year’s thanks to Ellen, who was a fairly “no frills” host in comparison to Seth MacFarlane, who filled his show with glitzy extravaganzas galore. Ellen’s opening monologue did not contain any prepared video footage, there were no singing and dancing numbers in the opening monologue or subsequently from the host, and even the majority of presenters stuck largely to the scripts we received in advance. Even the red carpet, which usually presents plenty of headaches, was relatively straightforward, with few mentions of those difficult-to-pronounce designer names. So apart from a couple of rambling, semi-incoherent acceptance speeches (Steve McQueen in particular for Best Picture), the night was a subtitler’s dream.

I haven’t really read up much on what people thought of the ceremony, though the sentiment among some of the people I spoke to was that it was a fairly boring night. Not that there was anything wrong with Ellen’s hosting, it was just that there were no spectacular set pieces and, more importantly, there were zero surprises. Apparently, according to the experts I spoke to, every single category was captured by the favourite.

I had a look at the predictions I put together a couple of days out before the ceremony and it turns out I didn’t do too badly. Considering I guessed the short/foreign film and documentary categories and went for a few upsets when I should have just stuck with the favourites, a total of 14/24 is I suppose passable.

As for the night itself, I actually really enjoyed it despite its supposed predictability and notable lack of flair. The red carpet was, as usual, filled with bad hosts (Tyson Beckford in particular) and painfully awkward and uncomfortable moments, though this year’s felt slightly better than last year’s for some reason. Maybe it was Jennifer Lawrence falling over again.

Ellen was her usual wry, funny self, but still maintained an air of formality and delivered a classy performance that Hollywood’s night of nights deserved. Sure, there was probably too much product placement (Samsung) and the pizza thing, while funny at first, went on for far too long, but I’d give Ellen a solid B+ for what is widely considered to be the toughest hosting gig there is.

I've let it go. Have you?

I’ve let it go. Have you?

I loved the music performances, in particular Pink’s surprising rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Karen O’s The Moon Song, though Adele Dazeem’s (sorry, I mean Idina Menzel’s) Let It Go had to be let go after she struggled from the very first note. The moving In Memoriam section was particular painful this year with the likes of Paul Walker, James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman all unexpectedly making the list, and Bette Midler’s ensuing Wind Beneath My Wings was arguably the most powerful moment of the evening.

jim carrey

The presenters were largely forgettable, with only Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx really standing out at all for me. Actually, Harrison Ford stood out as well, but for the wrong reasons. I was telling one of my colleagues during the day that it’s rather amazing, given how many ridiculously talented writers there are in Hollywood, that the dialogue they come up with for Oscars presenters is almost always lame. My clever colleague speculated, probably correctly, that the writers felt they couldn’t be too clever or witty because they were pitching to such a wide audience, meaning they were likely targeting the pedestrian middle crowd. On top of that, there’s always the fear of being controversial or politically incorrect, so in the end we’re left with dialogue that’s effectively benign but also uninteresting.

And if you think about it, who can really blame them? Every idiot with a Twitter account has got an opinion these days. I mean, seriously, criticizing Jared Leto’s win because he’s not a real transsexual and for not thanking the transgender community in his speech, or labelling Ellen as “transphobic” for her Liza Minnelli impersonator joke? Come on.

lupita

As for the acceptance speeches, the highlight has to be the elegant and moving speech from Lupita Nyong’o, with the lowlight of course coming from the insufferable Matthew McConaughey, whose victory will surely take his Texan smugness to a whole new level. That said, I have to give credit where it’s due — Mr “Alright Alright Alright” is having a killer of a time as of late with a slate of great performances in solid-to-great films such as The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and of course, Dallas Buyers Club.

I predicted correctly that 12 Years a Slave would win Best Picture, but let’s face it, Gravity should have won, especially after Alfonso Cuaron rightfully took home the Best Director gong. What is it about sci-fi flicks that scares off voters? And one other thing — Spike Jones, won for Best Original Screenplay, really should have gotten a nomination for directing as well for his phenomenal work in Her. But unfortunately, he was squeezed out because the decision to nominate 9 films for Best Picture instead of 5 means 4 very deserving directors will miss out every year. And that’s just wrong.

In all, one of the better Oscar nights in the last few years, and a great, albeit exhausting, day for me as well. I hope to do it again next year.

Game Review: Grand Theft Auto V (PS3)

February 20, 2014 in Best Of, Game Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

GTA-V-big

I don’t get much time play video games these days, so when I do, it has to be something totally awesome. Grand Theft Auto 5 is such a game.

The first game I got on the PS3 was GTA IV, all the way back in 2008. I never got to finish that game, but I remember at the time thinking it would be very difficult for an open-world game to top it. Five very long-awaited years later, Rockstar has finally done it with GTA V,  one of the most immersive and entertaining games I have ever played — on any console.

Like its predecessors in the series, GTA 5 is also an open world which the player can run around and explore to their heart’s content. As usual, there is a central story line which requires you to complete core missions in order to progress in the game (if you want to eventually “finish” it), but if you want, you can just live a virtual life for as long as you want, wandering the streets, checking out the sights and sounds, or even just sit at home and watch TV while smoking weed (and yes, there are TV shows to watch and weed to smoke!).

I applaud Rockstar for taking their time to develop a real masterpiece rather than hastily belting the game out following the success of GTA IV. The world of Los Santos (a fictional version of Los Angeles) where the game is set is so vast, and the game itself has so many improvements and additions across the board that you can potentially spend more time playing GTA 5 than all of the previous instalments in the franchise combined (according to Wikipedia that’s 14 other games dating back to 1997).

It’s hard to know where to start when discussing this game, but I’ll give it a shot.

Graphics and cinematic presentation

I’ll start with the obvious, which is how amazing the game looks. When I played GTA IV I thought the graphics were incredible, but GTA V, despite being on the same console, blows it right out of the water. The characters have a smooth design that has this semi-realistic comic feel to them, one that is consistent with the rest of their surroundings such as animals, trees and cars. Of course, given how incredibly large the world in this game is — it’s literally an entire city with bridges, tunnels, beaches, oceans and buildings you can walk into — it’s unreasonable to expect the detail to be as spectacular or as intricate as some of the best-looking games on the PS3 such as say God of War III, but everything that needs to be there is there. Put it this way — the in-game graphics are every bit as good as the cut scenes.

gta sky

The other thing that immediately jumped out at me was the game’s cinematic presentation. The camera angles — whether during cut scenes, normal gameplay or specific missions — all have a cinematic edge to them, almost like you are watching a great film unfold. You can tell a lot of thought has been put into where the cameras are situated and how they can be used to capture the best angles. The way the camera angles chop and change is also very crafty, and I even noticed handheld camera techniques in some of the cut scenes. These are not things you would usually think about, but when they are done this well you tend to notice them.

Multiple playable characters

One of the main additions to GTA V is the introduction of multiple playable characters. As far as I know, in past renditions of the game you only get one character to play, which can sometimes get a little boring. This time, you get to play three very different characters. There’s Michael, the smooth, seasoned middle-age criminal with a dysfunctional family. There’s Franklin, a young gansta from the hood trying to work his way up the food chain. And there’s my favourite, Trevor, the psychopathic, sadistic hillbilly with anger management issues and a stubborn loyalty for his buddies.

Usually you can choose which character you want to play — you just need to press a couple of buttons and the camera pans to whoever you choose, wherever they are in the city  – but sometimes a specific mission might require a specific character, in which case the computer will designate him for you to use. Often there are also core missions where the three guys will team up, and you have to switch between them to accomplish different objectives. For example, Michael might be in charge of stealing computer data, while Trevor will protect him with a sniper rifle from afar, and Franklin will be in charge of the getaway vehicle.

The multiple character idea is a stroke of genius, but what is even more impressive is how well these vastly different characters are written and developed. Each one of them have their own personalities and quirks, and they are as well rounded as any criminal you might see in a critically acclaimed movie. The voice acting also does a great job of bringing them to life.

GTAV

In addition to the team missions, each character will have their own story arc and specific missions that only involve them. And because they are so different, you’ll tend to find that the missions are also very varied. Michael’s missions, for example, will often involve cleaning up after his dropkick son or skanky daughter. Franklin’s missions might involve a lot of driving and muscle work, while Trevor’s are usually about pissing people off and going on killing rampages. It provides wonderful balance and keeps the game fresh and unrepetitive, while also adding an extra layer of strategy to the team missions. Each character also has their own “special ability”, which can come in handy during certain missions.

Improved gameplay

The gameplay in GTA IV was already quite mature, but Rockstar still found ways to improve the gameplay in GTA V. One of the big additions is the shoot-and-cover element which I had already experienced in the excellent Sleeping Dogs last year. As this is a crime game, there are naturally a lot of shootouts, and during these scenes characters can find objects to help them take cover from enemy fire, but also quickly come out of cover to take their own shots. I really enjoy the shotoouts as they can get really epic, and often survival is contingent upon finding the right objects and locations to help you take cover from surrounding enemies.

Another addition that makes the game more physical is that in addition to running, climbing and swimming, players can propel themselves over objects when running, kind of like Parkour. Similar to an RPG game, characters can also improve their physical abilities, like running speed, stamina, ability to hold their breath under water, and shooting accuracy.

Immersive missions

The missions, in my opinion, are the biggest improvement in GTA V. In previous editions of the game, the missions usually had a singular objective, such as drive from point A to B, or kill person X, and when you achieve that the mission is over. They start off fun, but after a while they become really repetitive and almost blend into one another. The missions in GTA V are completely different. For starters, each mission has a story behind it and feels almost like a mini-movie. They are immersive, and they feel like they have a purpose. Secondly, rarely are the missions single-faceted. Most of them have multiple objectives that need to be achieved one after the other and you rarely feel like you are doing the same thing. Even the side missions (that don’t need to be completed to finish the game), which are called “strangers and freaks”, are a lot more well thought out than side missions in previous GTA games.

The core missions, in particular, are incredible and can take a significant amount of time to complete. Every now and then there will also be an opportunity to carry out a heist that can earn you a lot of money. But before you commence a heist, you need to do a lot of preparatory work, such as scoping out the scene, preparing vehicles and weapons, and selecting your crew. The better the crew members, the bigger the cut of the loot you have to hand over. It’s a lower risk, lower reward situation. Moreover, you usually have two choices of how to go about the heist. For example, one might involve stealth, and the other could be to shoot your way in. The best part about the heists is that they always involve all three characters who each have different tasks, so you have to keep interchanging between them to make sure you not only grab the loot but also get out alive.

During missions there are also lots of little things you might have to do, such as learn how to pilot of plane or helicopter, or drive a submarine or crane, or abseil down the side of the building. These all add to variations in the gameplay and prevent the missions from becoming repetitive.

Expansive world

Los Santos is so huge that it blows my mind. It’s a genuine metropolis that features all the same major regions and landmarks as Los Angeles. You can ride the ferris wheel at Santa Monica Pier, take a stroll along Venice Beach, go shopping at Rodeo Drive, take a drive into the Hollywood Hills or visit the TCL Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

The missions will take you all around the city, where you can find a lot of cool stuff to check out if you have the time to spare. You can actually go and play a full 5-set game of tennis or go for 18 holes on a golf course, and the amazing thing is that these mini-games are really fun. If you want to do something more constructive, you can go to the shooting range at the weapon store and practice your shots. Shop for clothes, get tattoos, practice your piloting skills, steal cars and store them at a garage, see your therapist, pick up a hooker off the street, or even drive a taxi to earn fares. Go to the cinemas to watch a movie or go get a private dance from a strip club. If you want to build an empire, start buying real estate and earn rent, but sometimes there could be problems you’ll have to go deal with in person. There are a zillion things to do, and even if you don’t play any of the core missions you can still spend weeks or even months exploring the world of GTA V.

GTA-V-Gets-Full-Map-Reveal-from-Fan-Community

Attention to detail

The makers of GTA V have, like they’ve always done, paid a lot of attention to detail, and I don’t mean just the graphics and the designs of the characters or their environment.  Each of your players has a smartphone which can be used to receive emails and text messages. You can also call people in your phone book to “hang out” or use the built-in camera to take photos, even selfies! Franklin also has a dog, which you can train to help you do things. They’ve even created a real-life iPhone/iPad app(it’s called “iFruit”) for you to train the dog and then sync it with the game. I haven’t had the time to do any of this but it’s fun knowing that they exist.

Things are always going on around you in Los Santos. The people on the street are a lot more interactive than they were in past games, and running into them can cause them to run their mouths, run off, or start a street fight. GTA V has also included some daily occurrences you can stumble upon — such as a robbery — and it’s up to you whether you do something about it. If you help someone chase down a pickpocket, you can choose to return the wallet for a reward or keep the wallet’s contents for yourself. Occasionally you might stumble onto someone apparently in need of help, only to find out that you’re being hustled.

I haven’t found many yet, but apparently there are also bucketloads of Easter Eggs to be discovered throughout the city, like a Walking Dead-style zombie, the Thelma and Loiuse car and a tribute to High Hefner’s Playboy Mansion. There are hippie cults, weed farms and nude colonies. Again, these are probably only things people with a lot of time on their hands will care about, but the thought and effort the makers have put into the game is undoubtedly impressive.

LS_Vinewood_ZonbieV

Summary

GTA V is by far the best-looking, most interactive, compelling and playable game of the franchise to date. The size of the Los Santos map in the game is apparently twice the size of real-life Manhattan. Just imagine how much effort went into creating every building, every car type and every minor character in a world of this size, and then to bring it all to life with great protagonists (and great interaction between the protagonists), an engaging script, exhilarating missions and hilarious dialogue.

Last night, for example, I played as Michael on a home invasion mission where I had to fend off multiple attackers to protect my family. Not long after that my cell phone rings and I have to decide whether I want to go rescue my son after he is kidnapped by people he trolled on the internet. As I chase off his kidnappers and drive him home, he tries to explain to me what “trolling” means. It’s genuinely funny stuff.

The GTA franchise has always very much been a very adult-oriented one, and it’s primary selling point is offering players the chance to be a reckless criminal without having to worry about the consequences. It’s escapist fun, and that’s all it is, so I don’t really understand all the criticism being leveled against the game. Yes, it is over-the-top violent but it’s not done in a realistic way, so it’s not at all confronting. Yes, the female characters are portrayed badly, but then again, the male characters are too, so why is the game misogynistic? The game actually provides some very interesting  and witty satirical insights into Western culture, pop culture and politics, and you just need to approach it with the right frame of mind to see them.

On the whole, GTA V is as close to a modern masterpiece as you can get on a console. It may lack that jaw-dropping “wow” power of some of the PS3′s most visually spectacular games, but whether it is in terms of storytelling, gameplay or lasting power, GTA V ticks all the boxes. Pound-for-pound, minute-for-minute of gameplay, it’s hard to find a game that’s better.

10/10

Tribute: My favourite Philip Seymour Hoffman scenes

February 6, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman

I’m still reeling from the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of my top five actors of all time and hands down one of the greatest thespians of his generation. Think of a non-heartthrob actor who can boast the same CV as Hoffman. Think of any actor who has anything close to Hoffman’s range. Think of any actor who can be as memorable in a cameo as in a lead role. You can’t. (OK, maybe you can, but there aren’t many, certainly not more than fingers on a Simpons’ character’s hand)

As a tribute to this great man, here are a baker’s dozen of my favourite PSH scenes of all time. Unfortunately, there are some great films from his body of work I either haven’t seen or can’t remember, like Scent of a Woman, Almost Famous, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Savages and Synedoche, New York, so these are simply based on what I have seen.

I think this small sample will show off just what a phenomenal actor he is. From serious leaders to manipulative bastards to poor saps to demented psychos to creepy perverts to insufferable douchebags, PSH can do it all, and he does it with the remarkable reliability and brilliant consistency we have come to expect from him…well, expected from him.The last time we will likely see him on screen is The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part II, scheduled for 2015, though apparently some of that appearance will be CGI (but not much, as most of the shooting had been completed). Until then, just keep watching these videos below.

13.  Mission Impossible III (2006) — Prologue

The only time I’ve seen PSF tackle the main antagonist in a movie, and he does so with a terrifyingly nutty coolness that makes even Tom Cruise seem sane by comparison. It was interesting to see him tackle such a villainous role (and in an action flick, no less) immediately after displaying his effeminate side in Capote. And the voice — you can’t top the voice!

12. Magnolia (1999) — Seduce and Destroy Hotline

Another Tom Cruise collaboration, this time in the brilliant ensemble film Magnolia. In this scene PSH is a nurse trying to track down the son (Cruise) of his dying elderly patient. It’s such a pivotal scene in the film, and such a difficult scene because it’s all done on the phone, and PSH does it in a way that is completely believable and captivating. The nervousness and desperation in his voice as he tries to get his point across without seeming like a lunatic is brilliant.

11. The Big Lebowski (1998) — The Butler

A small but memorable performance as the butler of the titular Mr Lebowski in this cult classic. His interactions with The Dude (Jeff Bridges) — seeing him try to inform, show off about his boss and withhold his disdain for his guest, is absolutely gold.

10. Patch Adams (1998) — The Prick

PSH is fantastic at playing douchebags, and in Patch Adams (where Robin WIlliams pretends to be a doctor) he is the ultimate douchebag — but a douchebag with a very good point. I don’t remember much about the movie itself but I have always remembered this scene, and the little bit after the rant where he pretends to return to his book is priceless.

9. The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) — Freddie’s Suspicions

One thing I have never forgotten about The Talented Mr Ripley is that tiny snippet of the annoying little laugh PSH does in the trailer. I said he was the ultimate douchebag in Patch Adams, but he’s probably an even bigger one here, and it’s great when he eventually gets his. But first, this wonderful scene in which he starts making Matt Damon (and the audience) very nervous.

8. The Ides of March (2011) — Blackmail’s Better

I loved The Ides of March, and one of my favourite scenes is where PSH gives Ryan Gosling a lesson on what it takes to make it in the political game. The composed fury, the ego, the coldness — it’s all masterfully portrayed here. Gosling’s not bad here either.

7. Capote (2005) — What’s the Name of Your Book?

One of the key scenes of PSH’s Oscar-winning performance in Capote, where death row inmate Perry discovers the name of Capote’s landmark book. The manipulation here is chilling, and there are few actors I can think of that could have delivered the same effect.

A bonus clip from the same movie is from the end, when Capote sees his “friends” off before they head to their deaths. It moves and angers at the same time. Amazing.

6. The Master (2012) — Confrontation

I wasn’t as high on The Master as a lot of other people, but no one can deny that Hoffman was brilliant as the manipulative and charismatic L Ron Hubbard clone. And he was arguably never better in this scene, when he confronts one of his naysayers and launches into a stoic yet unhinged defensive tirade. Loved the can’t-control-it profanity at the very end.

5. Doubt (2008) — Gossip Sermon

One of the most powerful scenes in a most powerful movie. PSH plays a priest accused of molesting a child and he cleverly uses his sermon as an opportunity to deliver a message to the two women (played by Meryl Streep and Amy Adams) who have been propagating the rumors. Enjoy this one because it’s a doozy.

4. Boogie Nights (1997) — I’m An Idiot

PSH can play gay too. This awkward yet heartbreaking scene from Boogie Nights is PSH at his absolute best.

 3. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) – Shut Up!

Such a random yet unforgettable conversation between PSH and Adam Sandler. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when you place well-timed profanity in the hands of a genius (and of course by that I mean PSH, not Sandler). I can never stop laughing at this.

2. Along Came Polly (2004) — Let It Rain!

Just to remind us how funny he can be again, here’s PSH in one of my favourite sports scenes of all time, the basketball game in Along Came Polly with Ben Stiller. It’s an average film at best, but this is one extraordinary scene.

 1. Happiness (1998) — Phone Scene(s) (but also just about everything else)

Todd Solondz’s Happiness is perhaps the most shocking uncomfortable black comedies I have ever seen, and much of that is thanks to the jaw dropping performance of PSH as the depraved sexual deviant Allen. There is no one I can think of that could possibly pull off this role (pun intended) other than him, and the courage for him to take on such a character without thinking it could destroy his career is impressive.

There are many hilarious PSH scenes littered throughout the film and these are some of my favourites. This first one is him making a prank call to Lara Flynn Boyle, the object of his lust and source of his self-hate.

This next scene is the introduction to the film, where he describes to his therapist what he would like to do to Ms Boyle. Be warned. It’s disturbing.

This third scene is the uncomfortable aftermath of the first scene posted above.

And lastly, perhaps the most controversial scene, in which he makes another prank call, this time to Ms Boyle’s sister, played by Jane Adams. I haven’t embedded the video but have set the clip to start where the call starts, but you can actually watch the entire movie if you so desire. It’s sick and twisted but also very funny if you can stomach it.

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7plOP4qlIo&t=29m34s

 Thank you PSH for the memories.

Comprehensive Review & Analysis: ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ by Reza Aslan

January 28, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Religion, Reviews by pacejmiller

Aslan sketch_10.indd

Like everyone else, I found the title Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth too provocative to ignore. “Zealot” carries certain negative connotations, and the use of the word in the title is clearly by design, intended to stir up a shitstorm which it of course did upon its release.

But beneath all the controversy, Zealot is actually a fairly readable, robustly researched academic work that makes a strong case that the Biblical Jesus Christ is a very different person to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. This is probably already something a lot of non-Christians, and even some more liberal Christians believe, but what this book does is flesh out all the arguments through an analysis of historical documents and the Bible itself, stringing together a narrative that delves into how the religion of Christianity was created in the first place.

Zealot is written by Iranian-American Reza Aslan, who coincidentally shares the same name as the lion from CS Lewis’s Narnia books, which are allegedly veiled Christian stories where the lion is actually God! A lot has been made about the fact that Aslan is a Muslim who converted from Christianity and that he currently works as a creative writing teacher. Both are accurate but overblown because he is also a scholar of religions, someone who holds a PhD in the sociology of religions from the University of California. And really, all you have to do is read a few pages of Zealot to realize that this is not some fanciful creative writing project of some Muslim nut trying to destroy Christianity, but rather a thorough academic work from someone who clearly knows what he’s talking about, or at least projects that image anyway. The Da Vinci Code this is not.

Of course, this is not to say Aslan’s theories about the life of Jesus are correct or that he doesn’t have an agenda (of course he does, and I think it’s motivated by $$$ more than anything else), but most of the accusations that have been hurled his way are pretty embarrassing.

Contrary to some reviews I have read about the book, Zealot is not a straight, blow-by-blow chronological biography of Jesus of Nazareth. The first couple of chapters set up the all-important historical background that helps readers understand the type of world Jesus was born into 2000 years ago, after which each chapter of the book tackles a different aspect or period of Jesus’s life through analyses of the Bible and other historical records. The final chapters, which I found the most fascinating, deal with the resurrection, followed by how Christianity as we know it came into being.

Zealot is also not a piece of “historical fiction” as some have suggested. Granted, Aslan does occasionally delve into what can be described as “creative non-fiction” in some of his descriptions, but to say he is just making things up is a gross exaggeration. For the most part, the book is driven by critical analysis that points out what was likely and what was not likely based on what we know about that time today.

Review

First and foremost, it is important to remember that Zealot is essentially an academic work that has been written with a wider audience in mind. There is accordingly a certain level of historical and religious detail and complexity in what Aslan writes, a lot of which would be difficult for the layman to follow, let alone fully comprehend.

It is a difficult book to get through at times because he blows through a lot of names of people and places very quickly, and people who don’t have at least a bit of knowledge about the Bible or this period of history could find most of it flying straight over their heads. Compounding the situation is that a lot of people back in those days have the exact same names, which means you might have to re-read certain sections if you want to fully understand all the details. I’ll admit I couldn’t be bothered most of the time.

Considering what a tough job it is explaining such a complicated part of history and the need to do it well, Aslan does about as well as you could have expected in keeping the narrative relatively simple and flowing. It is not easy to strike a balance between being comprehensive and informative against being readable and accessible, and I think the fluidity of the narrative and the confident voice with which the story is told is a testament to Aslan’s impressive knowledge of the subject.

The problem with Zealot is that the whole book is written under the presumption that Jesus was not, and could not have been divine, and the narrative is built entirely around the premise that the Biblical Jesus and the historical Jesus are two completely different people. What I mean by that is instead of analysing the available and reliable historical information to reach certain conclusions, Aslan appears to cherry pick parts the Bible and other ancient documents to back up his preconceived conclusion.

Another major problem, which Aslan highlights in the first few pages of the book, is that because there is insufficient information on certain details of Jesus’s life, he is often forced to make “educated guesses” on what was most likely under the circumstances. However, as he appears so self-assured about everything he says, it becomes difficult to distinguish between when he is making a statement based on irrefutable “facts” and when he is making a “guess”, which, even if ”educated”, could be biased or skewed so that he can reach certain conclusions that suit his agenda.

To get a clearer picture of how much guesswork was actually involved, you’ll have to rummage through the extensive notes section at the end of the book, which adds about another quarter to a third of the book’s overall length. I would hardly call this section compulsory reading because the majority of it is just additional sources for interested readers to explore. That said, there are some interesting bits in there that elaborate on a lot of the arguments Aslan makes throughout the book, though sometimes they actually undermine his theories by making you realise that there are equally convincing counterarguments.

Of course, if everything was as obvious as Aslan paints it to be, he wouldn’t need to write a book about it. I’m sure plenty of Christian scholars and apologists already have and will continue to poke holes in his so-called “facts” and “educated guesses”, which is simply something that comes with the territory when writing about stuff no one can really know about for sure.

On the whole, Zealot offers no earth-shattering revelations, but it is nevertheless a well-written book with a strong central argument. While not exactly a page turner because all the context and background it needs to constantly provide, readers interested in who the “historical Jesus” might have been should find it an educative and fascinating read.

Key arguments of the book

Aslan essentially summarises the central argument of Zealot in this paragraph: ”The firstcentury Jews who wrote about Jesus had already made up their minds about who he was. They were constructing a theological argument about the nature and function of Jesus Christ, not composing a historical biography about a human being.”

What he is saying is that the Bible is far from inerrant (as some loonies claim) and is likely skewed by evangelists with an agenda. He does a great job of providing the context in which the Biblical stories of Jesus came into being, explaining to readers that it was a very different world back then where 97% of people were illiterate and driven by superstitions. His analysis suggests that certain parts of the gospels were likely to have been completely made up by the writers or at least twisted to make Jesus’s life fall in line with Old Testament prophecies.

One technique Aslan employs is to compare and contrast the the gospels to show how the later gospels may have built on myths created by an earlier one. For example, he suggests that John the Baptist apparently once had a huge following as well, with some believing he was even greater than Jesus, but the gospels intentionally tried to lessen his influence and make it abundantly clear that, despite being a great man himself, John was nothing compared to Jesus. Aslan illustrates how through time, John goes from the one who baptizes Jesus to just bearing witness to Jesus’s divinity, when historical records suggest that Jesus likely began his ministry as just another one of John’s disciples and only built his own after John was arrested.

By the way, none of this suggests that Jesus is not who the Bible says he is. But what it does argue is that any suggestion that the Bible is an inerrant document is a joke, and that in reality it is a very flawed book driven by different agendas and plagued with historical and factual inaccuracies and contradictions.

So how did the documents that make up the Bible become this way? Aslan points the finger at Paul, a former Pharisee who never met Jesus when he was alive but inexplicably became a believer after a supposed miraculous meeting with a divine, post-resurrection Jesus, after which he started declaring himself greater than the 12 Apostles and as the one chosen by God to build a new religion.

According to Aslan, Paul (who is painted as a bit of a nutcase) had a different agenda and beliefs to the rest of the remaining members of the 12 Apostles and Jesus’s brother James, who advocated something much closer to what the real life (and non-divine) Jesus preached. Paul’s version of a divine Jesus was completely different and often contradictory to the Jesus who lived. It does not narrate a single event from Jesus’s life and provides little insight into who the living Jesus was — nor did he seem to care.

The two sides actually battled bitterly over Jesus’s legacy, leading to the Apostles demanding that Paul come to Jerusalem to answer for his deviant teachings in 57CE. It was not only the destruction of Jerusalem, which destroyed just about all records of Jesus’s life and link to Judaism, that Paul’s side emerged victorious.

“The transformation of the Nazarean into a divine, preexisting, literal son of God whose death and resurrection launch a new genus eternal beings responsible for judging the world has no basis in any writings about Jesus that are even remotely contemporary with Paul’s (a firm indication that Paul’s Christ was likely his own creation).”

Aslan goes on to claim that the only writings about Jesus apart from the so-called Q document that existed in 70CE were the letters of Paul, which became the primary vehicle for the Christian movement and a heavy influence on the gospels. Tellingly, more than half the 27 books that make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul. Two millennia later, as Aslan says, “the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.”

To be fair to Aslan, he is reasonably objective when it comes to certain aspects of Jesus’s life that might suggest divinity. For example, he admits that there is ample historical evidence that Jesus healed the sick and performed “miracles.” Aslan does, however, place Jesus’s remarkable feats in context by pointing out that so-called miracle workers were very prevalent back in those days (in fact, there was an entire industry), with the only difference being that Jesus did not charge for his services.

On the pivotal question of the resurrection, Aslan is unable to answer definitively, saying that it is a “matter of faith,” though he argues what is clear is that  if Jesus did rise from the dead he did not do so “according to the scriptures” (ie, it was not prophecized) as claimed in the Bible.

Aslan also concludes that the resurrection as described in the Bible is “not a historical event” because by the time these stories were written, six decades after the event, the evangelists had heard “just about every conceivable objection to the resurrection, and they were able to create narratives to counter each and every one of them.” The result, Aslan claims, is that the resurrection as described is not a historical event but “carefully crafted rebuttals.”

Having said that, Aslan also recognizes the wealth of evidence supporting the resurrection. “However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony,” Aslan admits in the book. As he points out, these people died not because they were asked to deny matters of faith, but because they were asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered. 

This may come as a disappointment to some readers hoping to find something that will challenge what are arguably the most incredible claims in the Bible, but full credit to Aslan for admitting that there is insufficient evidence to reach the conclusion that these miraculous things can be dismissed outright.

Other claims

Some of the other arguments Aslan makes and “facts” he points out in Zealot include:

- The term “zealot”, in the context of Jesus’s time, is someone who believes in only the one truth god and no others. That’s the “zealot” he is referring to in the title of his book.

- Practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth, including every gospel story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, was written by people who, like Stephen and Paul, never actually knew Jesus when he was alive.

- No one has ever seen the originals of the gospels and it is generally accepted that the gospels (with the possible exception of Luke) were not written by the people after which they have been named. Accordingly, it’s impossible to tell whether the copies (even the oldest one we have) that are in circulation now have been tampered with.

- People back in Jesus’s time did not have a sense of what the word “history” meant, meaning they were not documenting things for future generations, and what the writings meant was more important to whether they were factually accurate.

- 97% of people back in Jesus’s time (including possibly Jesus himself) were illiterate and prone to manipulation.

- “Messiah” did not necessarily mean “God” back in those days as the prophecies in the scriptures were not clear and were confusing and contradictory. There were in fact many messiahs throughout history and even just in Jesus’s time.

- The narrative of Jesus’s birth is riddled with problems and contradictions, including claims in a couple of the gospel that he was born in Bethlehem as opposed to the obscure village of Nazareth. Aslan says Jesus almost certainly had many brothers and sisters, which shoots a big hole in the Catholic claim that Mary was a virgin for life.

- Jesus started off as merely just another disciple of John the Baptist. Jesus’s earliest disciples only started following him after John was arrested.

- Contrary to claims, Jesus was in fact very aware of the political landscape. Aslan tears down the image of a Jesus who only cared about preaching the word of God. He claims that Jesus’s prophecies about being arrested, tortured and crucified could be seen as either made up by future generations or simply “predictable” because that’s what happened to every self-proclaiming messiah who dared to challenge Rome.

- Jesus’s so-called trial before Pontius Pilate was a complete fabrication as Pilate would have never given Jesus the time of day given that at least a dozen similar “trials” were conducted on the same day. Likely also to be a fabrication is the entire narrative from the Last Supper to Jesus’s arrest up until his crucifixion.

- The story that it was the Jews who wanted Jesus crucified made absolutely no sense. It was likely made up for a Roman audience and thus tried to shift the blame away from Rome, though as a result it has sparked 2,000 years of anti-Semitism.

- Jesus was crucified alongside other lestai, which Aslan claims actually means other revolutionaries like him, rather than the general “evildoers” used in Luke’s gospel because he was uncomfortable with its political implications.

- The truth is that Jesus was executed for sedition, not blasphemy for claiming he was divine as the gospels claim, as the laws state clearly that the punishment for blasphemy is death by stoning, not crucifixion. Aslan says the “flagrant inaccuracies” of the procedures and rituals and traditions in Jesus’s trial and execution show a complete lack of understanding by the early evangelists.

- Jesus’s predictions about the the arrival of the Kingdom of God and a new world order never arrived. In fact, Aslan claims that ”Kingdom of God” back then did not mean “heaven” as we know it and actually referred to a Jewish realm on earth where people followed the rules of a deity as opposed to a human king. The suggestion is that Jesus wanted to crown himself “king” of the new order, but a king who will serve the people as opposed to the other way around.

- Jesus did not perceive himself in the way early church leaders did. He never openly referred to himself as messiah or the Son of God (he actually called himself, ambiguously, Son of Man), which in any case did not mean that he was literally God’s offspring but was instead the traditional designation for Israel’s kings. Even King David was called Son of God multiple times in the Bible.

- Stephen, the first person to be martyred for calling Jesus “Christ” and stoned to death for blasphemy, had never met Jesus, was never involved in his life, nor witnessed his death. In addition, Stephen was not a scribe or scholar and did not know the scriptures well, plus he preached to an uneducated and illiterate crowd.

- Luke attributed a long speech to Stephen which was likely to have been made up. Luke says Stephen looked up to the heavens and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, which became a favourite image of the early Christian community — and that was how Jesus became God. As Aslan writes: ”One can say that it was not only Stephen who died that day outside the gates of Jerusalem. Buried with him under the rubble of stones is that last trace of the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth.”

- The original Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus, including remnants of the 12 Apostles, clashed with the Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews, the ones who claimed Jesus was God. And it was their conflict that resulted in two competing camps of Christian interpretation in the decades after the crucifixion, one led by Christian convert Paul and the other by Jesus’s brother James. Paul’s version of the divine Jesus won out after the destruction of Jerusalem.

- The story of how Paul met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, including his blinding and subsequent cure, is ”a bit of propagandistic legend created by the evangelist Luke, one of Paul’s young devotees,” Aslan contends, as Paul himself never recounts the story of being blinded by the sight of Jesus nearly a decade after the crucifixion.

- There are some great stories about the boy Jesus in the gnostic gospels, especially The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, in which a petulant Jesus flaunts his magical powers by bringing clay birds to life or striking dead neighborhood kids who fail to show him deference.

Conclusion

The ideas in Zealot will be debated to death and I don’t have the requisite knowledge to throw in my two cents about what I think of Aslan’s arguments, as compelling as they are. At the end of the day, no one really knows, or else there wouldn’t be a whole market of books advocating and dissing the truth of Christianity. What Zealot does do very well, however, is provide an alternate version of events to the Bible and point out likely fallacies of the Holy Book, which Aslan paints — at the very least — as an unreliable or undependable account of historical events. Ultimately, what you believe about Jesus remains a matter of faith, though having said that, Zealot could go a long way in helping you make or prevent you from making that leap.

Rating: 3.5/5

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