Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

July 17, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Those who have read an article or two on this blog might have noticed that I have what you might call a bit of a Planet of the Apes infatuation. I declared the franchise reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the best film of 2011. I declared its long awaited sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, my most anticipated movie of 2014. I’m not quite sure what it is, but there’s just something about the story, the franchise, that has me going all ape.

This time around, the story takes place about a decade after the end of the previous film, when the so-called Simian flu — the same virus that gave the apes their intelligence — has wiped out the vast majority of the human population. All that remains, as far as we know, is a group of naturally immune survivors living in San Francisco led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Desperate for a source of power, a band of humans led by Malcolm (Aussie Jason Clarke) venture into the woods, where they run into the protagonist of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and his growing tribe of smart apes.

Just like its predecessor, the humans in Dawn take a back seat to the apes, who are far more interesting and dominate the narrative. It was a necessary decision to abandon the human cast from the first film, in particular James Franco’s Dr Will Rodman, the man responsible for creating the Simian flu in the first place (Franco is too busy posting nude photos of himself on the internet anyway). This is because, as an ape film, it’s important to see Caesar’s continued growth into the great revolutionary leader he’s destined to be. In Dawn, he has established societal order in his ape tribe, built a home, and started a family. He is compassionate, loyal and intelligent — but he can still be a total badass when he needs to be.

Key returning ape characters include Maurice (Karin Konoval), the big, clever orangutan who acts as third in command and the apes’ voice of reason, as well as Koba (Toby Kebbell), the tortured, mutilated ape Caesar liberated in the first film who understandably has trouble containing his distrust for humans and his violent temper. The most important new additions are Cornelia (Judy Greer), Caesar’s partner, and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), their rebellious son.

On the human side, the central character is Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, but apart from him everyone else is underdeveloped. There’s his second wife, Ellie (Kerri Russell), and his teenage son, Alexander (fellow Aussie Kodi Smit-McPhee), plus a stereotypical human a-hole named Carver (Kirk Acevedo from Fringe), but none of the supporting human characters get to do much, not even the legendary Gary Oldman.

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To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the film is driven by the characters and their relationships. Apart from the bond between Caesar and Malcolm, which forms the heart of the film, there’s also well-executed conflicts between Caesar and his son Blue Eyes and with his second-in-command Koba. This could have very easily been a big, dumb action flick with lots of loud explosions, pointless violence and flashy effects (in the vein of Michael Bay), but director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), who took over the reins from Rupert Wyatt, managed to keep his focus on the things that truly matter.

Dawn is not just a humans vs apes story — it’s a tale of survival that traverses universal themes such as ingrained discrimination, tribal loyalties, political complexities and familial bonds. It’s Reeves’ ability to craft these themes amid the chaos and action that enable the emotions to resonate, and it’s also what makes Dawn more memorable than your average sci-fi.

There were perhaps some missed opportunities to explore relationships on the human side (in particular Malcolm and his son), and some audiences might be disappointed with the lack of prominent female roles (Cornelia, in particular, felt like a wasted character), though on the whole I felt like the script by returning writers Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa and new addition Mark Bomback (who has s chequered history with Die Hard 4 and the crap Total Recall remake but also the underrated Unstoppable and last year’s The Wolverine on his resume), was more than adequate.

Part of the reason the ape characters are so compelling to watch is because they come across as real people (even more so than the humans), but at the same time we are constantly reminded of how different they are and how dangerous they can be. All wonderful ape performances are again done by motion capture, and the technology is even more impressive than it was last time as the apes have a more expansive vocabulary and hence more facial movements and expressions. I’m sure real apes don’t look quite like the apes in the film, but what matters is that they look incredibly realistic, not only in their physical appearance but also in the way their bodies move and interact with their surroundings. There was not a second during the film when I thought anything looked unnatural or out of place, and full credit must go to the special effects team and the understated performance capture of the actors.

And it is thanks in large part to the special effects that Dawn contains some of the most epic battle sequences and fight scenes you’ll see this year. As the number of apes have increased dramatically, the scale of the action dwarfs that in Rise, with several sublimely choreographed scenes that had me staring in awe from the edge of my seat. Further, the violence was never without reason or purpose, so unlike some action flicks (cough, Michael Bay) I never felt like I was getting numb from it all. Apes against humans, humans against humans, apes against apes. It’s pure, satisfying, mindblowing entertainment.

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Having set myself up for disappointment by living in ape hype for the last three years, Dawn actually lived up to my unrealistic expectations. Yes, I admit I am partial to the franchise, but how rare does a blockbuster of this magnitude turn out to be as good as you predicted? While the film was different to what I thought it would be, it was still bloody freaking sensational. As tense, emotional and exciting as I had envisioned. As visually stunning as I had imagined. As epic as I had hoped. Sure, if you want to you can nitpick all day, about the weakness in the script, the lack of development of the human characters (especially the females), the Hollywood stereotypes and cliches, the too-obvious exposition in the dialogue, the untied loose ends, and so forth.

Ultimately, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about as close as you can get to the perfect summer blockbuster. This goes beyond just living up to its excellent predecessor — Dawn is to Rise what The Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars, what The Godfather: Part II is to The Godfather. It might not be as intelligent as it wanted to be, but it’s still undeniably thought-provoking. It might not be as emotionally involving as it could have been, but it still tugs at the heart strings. There could have potentially been more action sequences earlier on or a more climatic ending, but you can hardly complain about what’s already there. When you factor in everything the film got right and the complete-package experience that it provides, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is simply the most flat-out awesome movie of the year.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Now it’s another 2-year wait until the next instalment in the series, currently scheduled for July 26, 2016 release date.

Book Review: ‘Sycamore Row’ by John Grisham

May 1, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

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Alright, alright, alright.

So I picked Sycamore Row almost at random for one of my reads this year, knowing it’s yet another John Grisham bestseller but with no idea that it’s his long-awaited direct sequel to his debut novel, A Time to Kill. I’m not as high on Grisham’s first book as most of his other fans, but I thought it was a provocative and fascinating look into law and race in the United States, particularly in the notoriously racist state of Mississippi. In that book (review here), young hotshot lawyer Jack Brigance was tasked with defending African-American Carl Lee Hailey for murdering two white men who raped, tortured and nearly killing his daughter. It was a bit of a grind, a typical first novel that’s a overlong and filled with a lot of (occasionally misguided) passion, but I also can’t deny that there’s a certain charm and resonance to it.

The 1996 film adaptation starred Matthew McConaughey as Brigance, Samuel L Jackson and Hailey, and had a supporting cast with big names such as Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Ashley Judd and Oliver Platt. As I said in my review, the film is “a little self-righteous, melodramatic and contrived at times, but for the most part it was still an entertaining, thrilling, thought-provoking courtroom drama.”

And now the sequel, Sycamore Row, brings back Brigance as the central character in a whole new trial, one that is completely different to its predecessor but also tackles race issues in America’s deep south. The story is set in 1989, several years after Brigance got Hailey off murder (oops, is that a spoiler?) but remains affected by its outcome. He got the notoriety he sought but not the financial or career advancements he had hoped, and he and his wife Carly remain locked in a battle with the insurers over their burnt-down house. Out of nowhere, Brigance receives a letter containing the will of a wealthy white man who leaves the vast majority of his sizable estate to his black maid at the expense of his children, and thus begins a mammoth civil suit for the loot.

I was impressed by Grisham’s decision to switch the arena from criminal to civil this time. Most legal dramas are about murder, violence and sinister plots — after all, these sound the most enticing — but here Grisham does an excellent job of turning a will contest into an engrossing case. There are many characters and subplots weaving in and out of the narrative — there’s Brigance, bound to his duty to act for the estate but salivating at the financial windfall from a long trial, and at the same time worried that his drunken mentor, Lucien Wilbanks, is planning a return to legal practice; there’s Lettie Lang, the black maid and sudden but only potential millionaire, who has to deal with all the allegations against manipulation and misconduct of a frail old man while putting up with her deadbeat husband and family members leaching off her; there’s all the family members of the deceased, who hated him but would love some of his money to change their lives, AND all their lawyers, each angling for a slice of the lucrative pie; and of course, there’s the big mystery itself — why would the old man do what he did, if he did in fact know what he was doing?

Many of the old characters from A Time to Kill make a return, including Ozzie the town sheriff, former district attorney Rufus Buckley (played by Kevin Spacey in the movie), as well as hated divorce lawyer and Brigance ally Harry Rex (Oliver Platt in the film). It’s a testimony to the lasting power of A Time to Kill that I didn’t need much of a reminder to recall these characters I read about nearly three years ago. All of them, even the minor characters, are memorable and well-developed. I particularly liked the experienced lawyer Brigance found himself up against in the trial, Wade Lanier, who is a completely different breed to the despicable Buckley. Rather than creating yet another villain, Lanier is simply a formidable and respectable foe, someone who doesn’t mind resorting to dirty tricks but is never malicious or takes things personal.

Race is again the central theme of the book, as are the concepts of family and redemption, though this time Grisham takes a different angle. A Time to Kill was very black and white — those monsters deserved to die — but in Sycamore Row there are more shades of grey (there was even a section where Grisham questions the readers whether it was right for Hailey to have gotten off in A Time to Kill, irrespective of the injustice that was done to him). In the case of a will contest, Grisham asks why children should be obliged to look after a father who neglected them. But at the same time, why should a father leave his hard-earned money to children who wanted nothing to do with him? What is fair and what is just?

Those who have a keen interest in how the legal system works will also enjoy the painstaking nature in which Grisham goes through all the procedures leading up to the trial — even the tedious nitty gritty of it, from preliminary investigations to discovery, from pre-trial conferences to jury selection. It shows that Grisham is still passionate about the law, but on the downside more than two-thirds of the book elapses before the juicy stuff, the real trial, even begins.

It’s a long book at 464 pages for the hardcover edition, which probably means 700 pages or more for a regular paperback or large print edition. The strange thing for me when reading this book is that, despite all that happens throughout, it feels frustratingly flat, even at the supposed climax. It was as though Grisham was intentionally trying to avoid sensationalizing the story with a “slow-burn” narrative, one that plays on your emotions without being obvious about it. Part of the frustration probably comes from the feeling that you have a fairly good idea of how it is going to end, and roughly why it will end that way due to the obvious hints implanted in the story early on and along the way. Much like it was in A Time to Kill, you just know that the going will get tough and everything will appear lost before a rabbit is pulled out of the hat. I must also say that I didn’t really buy the ending, though I can’t explain why without divulging spoilers. Having said that, the final chapter steers the plot back towards more of a realistic and common sense conclusion, which at least mitigates some of the problems I had with it.

The result is a page-turner that falls short of being a compulsive page-turner. The novel keeps your interest because of the storyline and characters, but there’s also plenty of unnecessary padding. Some of it is interesting, some of it isn’t. There were a couple of times when I thought Grisham was trying to set something up for later, but the strand would never be resolved, leaving me wondering why he bothered sowing the seeds in the first place. I get the feeling that he or his editors could have easily pared back more pages to make it a smoother read.

Despite all the negative things I’ve said about Sycamore Row, I think it’s a superior novel to A Time to Kill. It’s not as compulsive, explosive or fast-paced as I hoped it would be, but I was still hooked into the story from the very first page and enjoyed reading it through to the end. It’s what Grisham fans have been hoping for ever since he penned A Time to Kill back in 1989 — a solid, emotionally satisfying sequel.

4/5

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Matthew McConaughey as Jack Brigance in A Time to Kill (1996)

PS: I read in an interview somewhere that there are talks for a film adaptation of Sycamore Row and Grisham is keen to have McConaughey and his smug face back as Brigance, notwithstanding the fact that the Oscar-winner is now 44 and nearly a decade older than the character.

Game Review: Grand Theft Auto V (PS3)

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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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

Book Review: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky

November 13, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

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I had been wanting to read Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower since watching his film adaptation — starring Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), Hermoine (Emma Watson) and Kevin (Ezra Miller) – earlier this year, a film (review here) that will most probably land in my top 10 for 2012 when I finally get around to doing that list (and I will, I swear!).

Some might have said I was setting myself up for disappointment by reading the source material after watching the movie version, but I ended up loving the book as well. Despite the fact that my own experiences in no way mirror that of the book’s protagonist, Charlie, the wonderful storytelling by Chbosky — through a series of letters to the reader, no less — conjured up all sorts of nostalgia, warmth and heartbreak. This is a great book for teenagers and young adults, not just because of the themes it tackles or the easy readability, but simply because it is a fantastic read.

Set in the early 1990s, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is all about Charlie, an introverted high school freshman coming off a the suicide of his best friend who remains haunted by the death of his aunt. He is shy, reserved and emotional, and it’s clear from the beginning that there is something about him that’s not quite right. There is an adorable naivete  about him; he’s intelligent but socially awkward, withdrawn but kind. He lives with his parents and a pretty older sister, and his older brother, a football star, has just gone off to college. You can’t help but like him, even though he is a 15/16-year-old who cries a lot and appears to have a more than a few screws loose.

Charlie tells his story to you through a series of letters to an unnamed older “friend”, but the book reads more like diary entries. It’s a clever device because it offers a portal into Charlie’s unusually mature and yet immature mind through his wide-eyed perspective of the world and makes you care about him despite being wary — because you know in the back of your mind that he is damaged, and you can’t quite put young finger on what could have caused it.

His life changes when he meets Patrick and Sam, a pair of step-siblings and seniors who take him under their wing. And so becomes a sweet and melancholic coming-of-age story about friendship, love, teenage angst and mix tapes (yeah!). It sounds corny and in some ways the book can come off that way, but Chbosky skilfully tackles difficult themes such as bullying, high school politics, alienation, drugs, suicide, depression, domestic violence and homosexuality in a way that feels natural and not at all exploitative or manipulative — and with a nostalgic handful of pop culture references (music, film and TV) from the time. Again, I think it goes back to the soft voice of Charlie, who is described by his friends as a “wallflower” (hence the title), someone who fades into the background and observes rather than participates.

Another aspect of the book I really liked was Charlie’s relationship with his English teacher Bill (played by Paul Rudd in the film version), who sees something in his quiet intelligence and love for reading. There are many references to classic books — such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, The Great Gatsby and Hamlet – which I think will be great for young readers.

Strangely, I think my love for the film has only enhanced my affection for the book and its characters. The book and the film are actually very different as far as adaptations go, and it’s a testament to Chbosky’s control over the material to be able to deliver the same tone and feel across two very different formats with distinct differences in storytelling and execution.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a book I would recommend to anyone who likes to read. It’s a short book (not much over 200 pages) and it’s a brisk and easy read packed with a lot of heart , pearls of wisdom and thought-provoking issues, but unlike a lot of other teenage lit it isn’t contrived and doesn’t shove life lessons in your face. I can definitely understand if people don’t like this book (for whatever reason, not just because of its themes), but for me it’s easy to see why it spent more than a year on the NY Times bestseller list and is published in more than 30 languages.

5/5

 
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