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Archive for August 2011

The old college try

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MOVIE REVIEW: The 5th Quarter. PG-13.

OK, I don’t want to seem like the bad guy who disses a good-hearted movie. The 5th Quarter is a case study in teamwork and courage in college football. It’s an inspirational story of a family overcoming grief, of good coming out of tragedy. And it’s a gentle commercial for organ donation.

Wonderful aims, all of them. But they’re set forth in such heavy-handed manner, the film gets in its own way.

Andie MacDowell and Aidan Quinn as Maryanne and Steven Abbate give the open-hand salute, the central symbol of 'The 5th Quarter.'

It starts extremely slowly, with tame sequences establishing the Abbate family as close and loving. The three sons trade so many hugs and smiles and even kisses with parents Maryanne (Andie MacDowell) and Steven (Aidan Quinn), even Norman Rockwell would blush.

All that is a setup for the death of son Luke, who dies at 15 after he accepts a ride with a drunken classmate. The death sends the family into grief that is tested further by Luke’s stated wish for his organs to be harvested and donated.

After the funeral, the family begins to unravel: Maryanne sinking into depression, Steven throwing himself into business, Jon hitting the bottle. Jon’s football coach at Wake Forest University urges him to practice with them, but his heart isn’t into it. He finally agrees to work with a private trainer.

Jon finally returns to Wake Forest and asks to play wearing his brother’s Number 5 jersey. He emerges as a spiritual leader for the team just where they need it — in the ratings cellar of their football conference. His new drive and maturity prove infectious, and their season hits a winning streak.

Steven and Maryanne, too, pick up the spirit of honoring Luke’s memory, attending games and trading salutes with Jon on the field: a raised hand with fingers splayed, for the five people whom Luke’s organs benefited. The rest of the crowd takes up the gesture, forming a forest of raised hands.

Aidan Quinn is a veteran actor of 45 feature films including Avalon, The Assignment and Legends of the Fall. In this one, though, he chews the scenery as Steven Abbate. At Luke’s funeral, Steven waves away the pallbearers and pushes his son’s casket out himself, weeping loudly all the way. Steven later praises Jon’s maturity in about five sentences more than he needs. And when he gets a visit from a woman who received Luke’s heart, Steven actually presses his ear to her chest, crying as he listens to the heartbeat.

Quinn’s scene-chewing, though, may be at the behest of writer-director-producer Rick Bieber. MacDowell, best known for her roles in Groundhog Day and Four Weddings and a Funeral, turns in a smooth, nuanced role as Maryanne, from the warm and doting wife to the troubled, bereaved mother.

But much of the film belongs to Ryan Merriman as Jon. Already a veteran actor at 27 — with such credits as The Ring 2, Final Destination 3 and the TV show Pretty Little Liars — Merriman is credible in each phase of Jon’s development: slightly randy college student, drunken rebel, athlete fighting back to fitness, spiritual anchor for both team and family.

Religious content is kept light but constant. Characters cite Bible verses in speeches and other public comments, more as spiritual atmosphere than to teach. They pray for God not to help them win, but simply to help them play their best. It’s a refreshing change from the cynical attitude in many films toward anything religious.

If only the rest of The 5th Quarter were that subtle. Did Bieber have to lay a moody pop or folk jingle over nearly every scene that didn’t have dialogue? There are enough songs to fill an album — and in fact, they’re selling one, on iTunes. Still, at least one, Live and Breathe by Stacy Earl, is an evocative song.

And Bieber didn’t forget the theme of his film. Its website provides a link to the Luke Abbate 5th Quarter Foundation. The site is meant to warn parents and teenagers about the dangers of drunk driving. It also urges the value of organ donations, as Luke donated his.

There’s also a link to DonateLife.net, which promotes the same cause.


Written by Jim Davis

August 26, 2011 at 2:52 am

Posted in christianity, culture, film

A creationist trip to the Galapagos

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DVD review: ‘The Mysterious Islands.’ Provident Films, 90 minutes.

Creationists now have their own documentary about the Galapagos Islands with The Mysterious Islands. Not to be confused with Jules Verne’s 1874 novel, this film looks at a trip by a team from the Institute for Creation Research to the famed Pacific islands in 2009, on the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species.

This visit, however, changes little. In this documentary, the Galapagos are still full of beauty and wonder — but mainly a stage for creationist teachings.

Marine iguana "sneezes" excess salt in 'The Mysterious Islands.' (Photo by Joshua Phillips)

Focus and narrator of the film is 16-year-old Joshua Phillips, son of team leader Doug Phillips, who snaps pictures and asks questions. It’s a good decision: The rest of the team are rather colorless, despite the cowboy hat on another member, John Morris of the Institute for Creation Research.

They tramp around the islands, dive the waters and paddle through a mangrove swamp. They marvel at the creatures, including giant tortoises, cormorants, sea lions and white-tipped sharks. Want to play a drinking game? Take a swig every time someone says “amazing” or “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Truly, the Galapagos Islands pack more than their share of wonders. The Erwin Brothers film outfit aptly captures cavorting seals, basking iguanas and diving blue-footed boobies. Music composers Paul Mills and Ben Botkin match the visuals with adventure-music orchestrations, echoing tribal drums and “Ooooh-ing” choral pieces. They should release a separate CD.

But it’s all just window dressing for the real theme of The Mysterious Islands: that all the life forms at the Galapagos were created, rather than evolved. Take the famous Darwin finches, whose beaks vary greatly by the island. Morris and other creationists argue that the genetic “information” for the feature, rather than being acquired through mutations, was already embedded in the birds’ DNA all along.

Similarly, they look at the marine iguanas’ talent for “sneezing” out excess salt absorbed from the ocean. The creationists argue that the lizards are a good example of “mediated design,” a variation of existing characteristics. But hold on. If the iguanas have traits that other iguanas don’t have, how can the creationists say the traits were always there?

Seal seems to pose for remote camera. (Courtesy, Provident Films)

The film then drifts from the islands into territory familiar to anyone who knows ICR material: All creatures have appeared suddenly, rather than evolving; there are no intermediate forms; each animal reproduces “after its kind,” as the Bible says; the Earth was created “not very long ago,” not the billions of years that evolutionists say; and if you believe in evolution, you can’t believe in God.

The creationists go into some length on that last point. Not only does evolution serve atheism, they argue; it’s also responsible for racism, Marxism, Nazism and eugenicist theories that led to abortion. This is guilt by association on a massive level: If you’re for evolution, you’re in bed with the biggest villains of the 20th century.

“There’s no way to reconcile the Bible and the Word of God with evolutionary thinking,” a team member says. He doesn’t try to account for Christians, like Francis Collins or John Polkinghorne, who do so.

The Mysterious Islands DVD has a subtitle mode, apparently to help you absorb the teachings. But the subtitles are full of embarrassments, like “it’s” instead of “its,” “who’s” instead of “whose,” “loose” instead of “lose” and “lightening” instead of “lightning.” Apparently a copy editor wasn’t part of the team.

A final irony hits as The Mysterious Islands flashes a quote from Darwin: “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” This after 90 minutes of one-sided propaganda.

If creationism does interest you, the film’s website is worth checking out. It has a free, downloadable discussion guide in .pdf form. It offers a rundown on 20 kinds of animals around the Galapagos. There’s even a bio of Darwin — as a misguided theorist.

Written by Jim Davis

August 12, 2011 at 4:43 am

Website review: Real Clear Religion

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From the folks who created Real Clear Politics comes a faith-based version, Real Clear Religion. A two-word review: Bookmark it. If you want to keep on religion news, this free site is a gift that keeps giving.

The low-graphics, fast-loading homepage has a simple list of the top 12 headlines for each day. The stories come from secular outlets like Slate, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune and The Atlantic Monthly, as well as religious publications like the National Catholic Reporter, Christianity Today and Religion News Service.

Some rights reserved by Dominique Godbout

Issues include sex abuse, China’s problem with the Catholic Church, the recent fracas over circumcision in San Francisco, the deaths of John Stott and Amy Winehouse (in separate stories, of course), and the Broadway play based on the Book of Mormon.

Real Clear Religion also posts think pieces. One is a column from Religion Dispatches suggesting that atheists get involved in interfaith work. Another examines The Role of Men in Religious Terrorism — a journalistic minefield if ever there were one.

One nitpick: the text size. It’s small. Sure, you can make it larger with your browser, but that makes the section titles start to run together.

A bonus is a topics page. It lists articles by title, from ABC to Fred Phelps to Newt Gingrich to Vatican City to Yom Kippur.

And if you like the Real Clear approach, check out their sister sites in world news, business, science, energy and sports.

The video section is especially compelling, with clips from all over the world. A recent page featured reports on a mine blast in the Ukraine, Islamic militants in Indonesia, Europe’s bailout of Greece, and the killing of Libyan rebel leader Abdel Fattah Younes.

Written by Jim Davis

August 1, 2011 at 2:43 am

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