Thursday, March 31, 2011

Book Review: What's so great about Christianity

Dinesh D'Souza, a Christian apologist, author and public speaker, published his book "What's so great about Christianity" in September 2007. In his book, he tackled against a lot of famous atheist books by authors such as: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Victor J. Stenger. D'Souza deeply explored the topic of Christianity from both atheist/theist point of views. Therefore, each chapter follows a similar structure: he usually starts each chapter of the book by stating the case of atheism, and then debate for the case for Christianity.

In this book, D'Souza covered a diverse topics of discussions, for example: the modern prejudice against Christianity in the western culture, the myth that modern science has replaced God, to philosophical debates. My favorite parts are the modern science and philosophy sections. In the modern science section, D'Souza debunked the myth that science and Christianity are incompatible, by pointing out that modern science actually has a root in Christianity. In "the argument from design" section, D'Souza, quoting "anthropic principles" and argued that the latest scientific findings actually support the case for the existence of God rather than disproving it. D'Souza criticized Darwinian evolution. but left the possibility for theist evolution. D'Souza also used a handful of famous philosophical arguments such as: Kant's Enlightenment Fallacy, Pascal's Wager, and Hume's case against miracles to debate for the case of Christianity.

I read this book more than 2 years ago, and I have to say that D'Souza did a great job at debunking a lot of the atheist books, and he debated in very intellectual, analytical and logical manners. I think this book really succeeded as a Christian apologetic literature, because D'Souza didn't employ the typical defensive methods, common in many Christian literatures, but instead he met all the atheist or anti-God arguments head on, and defeat them on its own terms, and deployed arguments that are a lot more sophisticated and intelligent than Dawkin's or Hitchen's atheist statements.

If you are looking for a Christian apologetic literature that approaches the topic from a more analytical, factual and logical manner, then this is the book for you.

Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Video game Review: Dragon Age 2

Two years ago, the video game developer Bioware released a well crafted Role Playing Game "Dragon Age: Origins". A title claimed to be the "spiritual successor" to the legendary RPG Baldur's Gate series. The story featured an epic adventure to save a kingdom from the invasion of a monstrous horde known as the dark spawn, set in the fictional world of Thedas. The first Dragon Age was received with overwhelmingly positive reviews from both critics and users, and won numerous awards for RPG game of the year in 2009. Now, 18 months later. The sequel Dragon Age 2 is released. Game developer Bioware has promised that Dragon Age 2 will be an improvement from Dragon Age: Origins. However, have the promises being delivered in the sequel? This is what I will talk about next.

Since the release of Dragon Age 2, the reviews from the critics have been positive. However, the user review is extremely negative, this is a very strange phenomenon. However, one thing can be certain is almost everyone agrees that Dragon Age 2 is not as good as Dragon Age: Origins. So has Bioware really taken the franchise a step back? Well, let's have a look at this game in detail.

First of all, the story:

The story of Dragon Age 2 is a very interesting one. The entire story takes place over a 10 years period. Where initially the story started at the same time as the event in Dragon Age: Origins. For those who have finished the first Dragon Age game, the player can import their save games into Dragon Age 2, and see impacts of their decisions from the first game take place in Dragon Age 2. The player will be Hawke, a refugee from a village called Lothering, destroyed by the dark spawns during the event from Dragon Age Origins. Hawke took his family, and together they fled to a city in a kingdom across the sea known as Kirkwall. Upon arrival Hawke's family, together with other refugees fleeing from the dark spawn invasion were refused entry into the city. The orders from the authority was to only accept the refugees who they deem can bring contributions to Kirkwall, especially the rich ones. Hawke came from a poor family who were once nobility in Kirkwall. Through special arrangement Hawke managed to get his family into the city, and settled his mother in a slum like district called low town.

I am Hawke!

The city of Kirkwall is divided into several districts, examples including the area infested with low life criminals such as dark town, the area for the rich known as high town, and low town which is the dwelling place for the poor etc.. The design was really good, and the design really reflected the rich and poor disparity and tension in the society of Kirkwall.

The entire story of Dragon Age 2 mainly takes place in the city of Kirkwall, with a few locations outside the city that the player will visit occasionally. The story develops as Hawke rises from a mere refugee to the champion of Kirkwall. Now, this is what I really like about the story of Dragon Age 2. Unlike other games, in Dragon Age 2 you won't be thrown into an epic quest right at the start. Instead, you start as a refugee in a foreign city, where the story unfolds as you try to survive in the city. The story, however will evolve differently according to the decisions made by the player in the game. A lot of times, the choices the player have to make are morally ambiguous, where there is no clear right or wrong. However, all choices will have consequences later on in the game.

Another thing worth mentioning is that, Hawke will meet many characters during the story, and will have many companions. Each of the companions will have their own story and quest, and their unique characters. The results of their quest will also affect how the story evolves, and venturing with them is a very engaging gaming experience, because they will react to all the choices you made during the game, and become either friends or rivals. In my opinion, the companions in Dragon Age 2 are much better than the companions in Dragon Age: Origins.

Hawke doesn't travel alone, he always has mates watching over his back!

During Hawke's time in the city, Hawke will be involved in different political intrigues. These tensions are usually the results of prejudice, bigotry, greed, differences in belief, and sometimes racial tension. As you play the game you will realize that the problems and flaws in the city of Kirkwall are not really that different from the ones in our own world.

Another recurring theme from Dragon Age 2 is the struggle for a society to accept refugees who seek asylums. In the game, the refugees are shunned from entering the city of Kirkwall. They can only be accepted unless they are rich, or can prove themselves to be able to contribute to the city. Further on in the story, the refugees are treated poorly in Kirkwall and are categorized as second class citizens. I wonder if the story writer is trying to send a message behind the story about the way first world countries treat refugees.

Anyway, the story telling in Dragon Age 2 is very unique, but done in a way that is very personal and engaging. Which I think is far superior than the story in Dragon Age: Origins.

Gameplay and design:

The combat system has been renovated, compared to the first Dragon Age game, the combat in Dragon Age 2 is a lot faster. Gone are the "5 seconds to swing a sword" style combat, and in its place the sword actions are now replaced by a series of combo moves that are similar to attack moves in Devil May Cry series. However, Dragon Age 2 is not an action game, the combat still requires the player to employ carefully planned strategies and tactics. Bioware just made the combat in Dragon Age 2 appear more action-packed by changing a few rules in the combat system.

Overall, I think the combat system in Dragon Age 2 is better than its predecessor. I only have two complains about the combat system:

1) The removal of the tactical camera in the PC version, this means the player no longer have the choice to look at the area from the top and make strategic decisions during combat.

2) The blood and gore during the combat is over the top, the bodies of your enemies will just "explode" when they die. I stab my enemy with a puny dagger and their body literally EXPLODED! I mean, what the heck? Come on Bioware, be realistic here...

Ha! You are about to explode because I stabbed you a.. dagger?

The inventory system is a lot more streamlined compared to Dragon Age Origins. Now the inventory menu has different categories: weapon, armor, amulets/rings/belts, potions, and junks. This makes inventory management a lot easier and saves a lot of headaches that were caused by the "dazzling" inventory system in Dragon Age: Origins. But there is one major flaw to the new inventory system, and perhaps the biggest disappoint in Dragon Age 2 is that the player can no longer equip their companions with different armours! This is really lame! I mean, if your Hawke is a warrior and you find a good robe for a wizard, you can't do anything with it but to sell it for cash.. how crap is this!

The character level up system is similar to the first game. Where the player can invest attribute points and skill points when a character levels up. The player will be able to customise the level ups for all of the companions as well. Specialization points are given at level 7 and 14 like in Dragon Age: Origins. Overall, the character level system hasn't been changed much except the introduction of a few new skills.

The player will get to choose either playing as a male or female Hawke. Each gender will have three character classes: warrior, mage and rogue. Each class has its strength and weakness. This has been very well implemented in Dragon Age 2, as the strength and weakness or each class has been greatly emphasized. Each gender is fully voiced, gone is the mute hero from Dragon Age: Origins.

As I mentioned earlier, most of the game takes place inside the city of Kirkwall. Therefore, by the end of the game the player will be relatively familiar with all the locations inside Kirkwall. The city is well designed and feels more lively and populated compared to the cities in Dragon Age: Origins. However, here comes another major flaw of Dragon Age 2. While it is understandable that most locations remain the same in the city, but it is quite outrageous that the maps for the dungeons are re-used all the time! Therefore, almost all the layouts of the dungeons in Dragon Age 2 are identical. I wonder if Bioware rushed the release of Dragon Age 2 and just couldn't be bothered with designing different dungeons.


The graphics in Dragon Age 2 has been improved. It looks really pretty and the character models are lot more detailed like in Mass Effect 2.

Sound and music:

The sound effects are very good, whether it's the clashing of swords or explosions of fireballs. You will have to keep the volume down for this one. The voice acting is really well done and bring the characters to life. The soundtracks are composed by award winning composer Inon Zur (Icewindale 2, Fallout 3, DA:O).

Final score:

Story 9.5/10 - The unique style of story telling in Dragon Age 2 is what sets this game apart from many games. Bioware has fully utilised the dark fantasy world of Dragon Age in this game. The story is about the survival and the rise to power of a refugee in a xenophobic society intolerant of foreigners. The story and settings reflect much of the problems in our own world, where themes such as prejudice, bigotry, greed, freedom, tolerance, oppressions and racial tensions are deeply explored. As a Christian playing this game, it made me think about what God says about these issues. Such as do not oppress the immigrants or refugees (Leviticus 19:33-34, Exodus 22:21, Deuteronomy 27:19 and so on..) and many more. I think the world of Dragon Age is probably what our world have been like in the last few thousand years. The Bible commands us to treat each other with love. It is more than just "acceptance" or being "tolerant", because loving other people is not just merely acknowledging their existence amongst our own. Love is about giving and sharing, and evidently from our own history, giving and sharing has never been one of humanity's strength. In a modern world where tolerance is in high demand, we ought to wonder if tolerance is the solution to the problems in our society according to our post-modern philosophy. Or perhaps, the only and real answer is what has been in the Bible all this time.. love? This is a topic worthy of exploring.

Gameplay and design 8/10 - The revamped gameplay in Dragon Age 2 is welcomed, the combat is more fun and the inventory system is simplified in a good way. But problems such as: the removal of tactical camera, inability to equip armours on companions, over the top blood and gore and the repeated use of dungeons are major annoyances that really hold back the praises to Dragon Age 2.

Graphics 8.5/10 - The graphics in Dragon Age 2 is pretty and has been improved since the first game. However, compared to some major upcoming RPG titles such as Witcher 2 and Skyrim. The graphics of Dragon Age 2 is not on the same standard.

Sound and music 9/10 - The soundtracks are atmospheric, and the sound effects are great.

Violence: Extreme - Too much unrealistic blood and gore! I wonder if the ability to make people explode by stabbing them with a dagger is meant to be a humorous relieve? What was Bioware thinking?

Sex/nudity: Low - Compared to Dragon Age: Origins, the sex scenes has been toned down a lot. In Dragon Age 2, there are only kissing scenes and there are no nudity scenes.

Final verdict 8.7/10 - Dragon Age 2, is a very good game that is worthy of addition to any RPG fan's collection. The story has great values and reflects some of the deepest problems in our own world. However, design flaws such as the repeated use of dungeon and the removal of tactical camera make one wonder if Bioware has rushed the release of the game for more commercial gain. This, is what I think is behind all the outrage and complains from the players across the world. Having said that, Dragon Age 2 is still very epic and will provide between 30~40 hours of gameplay, and it is an extremely engaging experience. A fan of RPG should not miss this one.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Book Review: Legend of Drizzt Anthology - Short story: Dark Mirror

Are you a fan of Tolkein's Middle Earth mythology? Personally, I find the fantasy world that Tolkein created to be fascinating and adimirable. However, have you ever wondered why is it that in Middle Earth, one's judgement of a good or evil character is always based on racial heritage? For example, how can Aragorn be sure that every orc that he so eagerly slain is really evil in nature and deserves to die? What if there was one orc that was good in nature that he killed unknowingly? I am not saying that Professor Tolkein was a racist or anything like that, but we have to admit that in the Middle Earth saga, the rule of thumb for the judgement of a character is by the reputation of their racial heritage/background instead of their individual character.

Introducing Drizzt:

20 years ago, author R.A. Salvatore decided to create an anti-stereotype fantasy character. A drow elf named Drizzt Do'urden. The saga of Drizzt became very well known, and the story of the introspective drow ranger resonated with many readers' hearts.

To give you some background into Mr. Salvatore's creation. Drizzt is a drow (a dark elf with black skin and white hair), Drows were once elves who turned evil because they decided to worship an evil goddess. The drow society is female dominant, and it is a culture where survival and gaining power means everything. As a result, the drows are reputed to be an evil race in this fictional world.

Drizzt, was born in an underground drow city, and was brought up as a warrior. However, his trainer (also his father) taught Drizzt good values and belief that are uncommon in the drow society. Therefore, when Drizzt grew up, he was in constant conflict with following the evil culture in the drow society. Which led to his eventual exile from his homeland. Drizzt went to the surface world, seeking to start a new life amongst the surface folks (human, elf, dwarves. etc..), amongst the races that are supposedly "good". However, Drizzt was shunned wherever he goes, because of the evil reputation of his race. After two decades of roaming on the surface world, Drizzt eventually moved to the region known as the "Spine of the World", a region of gathering of outcasts from the society. At the Spine of the World, Drizzt was befriended by a grumpy old dwarf, and his adopted human daughter, as well as a ferocious young barbarian and a cunning halfling. It was amongst his true friends that Drizzt finally found a place that he can belong to. Therefore, Drizzt represents a lot of things parallel to our society. He is immigration, assimilation, refugee, and a victim of prejudice. Although the saga of Drizzt are not Christian novels. But in some way, I think Christians and Drizzt have one thing in common, that is we are all sojourners in this world, and will never belong to this world because of our belief.

Since 1988, 19 Drizzt novels have been published and the saga is still continuing, the first 6 books were amongst the best stories in this long going franchise. Last month, Salvatore published a new book, "The legend of Drizzt anthology". This is a collection of all the short stories (relating to Drizzt) ever published in various magazines. In this book, there are 12 short stories. But today, in this review I would like to talk about one particular short story from this collection. This is a little story that has touched my heart deeply, and I would like to share this story and my thoughts with you, this story is called "Dark Mirror".

The story:

In "Dark Mirror", after acquiring some fame for his heroic deeds in the surface world. Drizzt, on a way to visit a friend encountered a group of farmers, and agreed to help them to track down a band of orcs. The orcs have apparently kidnapped some villagers from a small village called "Pengallen". After Drizzt located the captives, to the surprise of Drizzt he found a goblin among them who acts differently compared to the "normal" goblins (the golbins are usually described as evil, wretched creature with hideous appearances). Drizzt is even more surprised to discover that the goblin, Nojheim, is a slave to the leader of the town. Out of curiosity and sympathy, Drizzt decided to intervene and tried to save the goblin from slavery. However, at the end of the story Drizzt came away with something more...

The story was told from first person narrative, from the perspective of Drizzt. This is a story so unique in its concept. Because at this stage of Drizzt's life, he was very used to killing creatures that are reputably "evil" (such as orcs, goblins and orges) without giving too much thought. The author has turned the situation around in this story, and conjured a goblin character, in many ways similar to Drizzt, and use that to punch Drizzt in the face by forcing him to re-collect his own identity as a dark elf and see the connection between himself and the little goblin.

In this story, the goblin Nojheim is much like Drizzt. Nojheim is unlike the rest of his goblin kins, and has no intentions to harm anyone. After Drizzt found out the fact that Nojheim was a slave bound to the human villager. He was infuriated and encouraged the little goblin to fight for his right. For me, the most memorable moment of the story was a conversation between Drizzt and Nojheim, where Nojheim reminded Drizzt that people do often more than just discriminate others based on the reputation of their heritage and background, but even more people also judge others based on their appearances. When someone who doesn't fit the stereotype comes along, people often feel uncomfortable because their traditional understanding is disturbed. As Nojheim said to Drizzt that if he let the villagers know that he is not an evil goblin, it will probably just make his situation even worse, because Nojheim is the "dark mirror" to their consciences. Personally, I think the entire conversation really brings up something sinister buried deep in our hearts in the way we judge people in our society.

The end of the story is a tragic one, it ended with a shocking image of the little goblin slave been executed by its owner, while Drizzt stared helplessly at the body of the dead Nojheim hanging on a pole, his stiff limbs swaying in the cold wind. The villagers boasted about the execution, saying the execution of the goblin is justified, because after all, "all" goblins are not only hideous in appearance, but also evil by nature without exceptions...

It is human nature to classify other people for our own understanding. But should there be a boundary to this classification? How far is too far? This short story does more than just sending anti-stereotype message. The author is asking a deeper and disturbing question about ourselves, it is something you can take away with you after reading the 40 page story.

Rating: 5/5 - This has to be my most favorite story written by R.A. Salvatore, and one of the most meaningful fantasy tales I've ever encountered. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Video game preview: Dragon Age 2

2011 is going to be one great year for RPG fans! A variety of block buster titles will be released this year. Starting from Dragon Age 2, The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, Fable 3 to the highly anticipated TESV: Skyrim. So far, several less famous RPG have already been released, such as Arcania Gothic 4 and Two Worlds 2. The 8th March marks the release date for the successor to the epic game Dragon Age: Origins from 2009, Dragon Age 2.

The developer Bioware has created the fantasy fictional world of Dragon Age, a traditional Tolkein styled fantasy world with a twist. It is a dark fantasy world filled with problems such as: greed, prejudice, racial discrimination and bigotry (much like our own), and don't forget the dark spawns (similar to the orcs) who are a constant threat to the already shaken human world and their alliances. In Dragon Age 1, Bioware did not utilise this fantasy world quite well, and although Dragon Age 1 was a good game it suffered from a lot of problems.

2 years later, Bioware is releasing Dragon Age 2, and the information makes Dragon Age 2 sound promising. I downloaded the demo of Dragon Age 2 from Bioware a few days ago. The first thing I noticed is that Bioware has totally renovated the combat system in Dragon Age 2. Now the combat feels more fluidic, faster and a lot more action oriented. Most of the attacks consist of combos, and the attack animations look awesome. In Dragon Age 2, the player gets to play the game as Hawke, a refugee from a destroyed village called "Lothering". Hawke fleed with his family to the kingdom of Kirkwall from their doomed village. In the game the player will take control of Hawke and rise to the status of champion of Kirkwall through a 10 year period. Where the decisions the player makes during the game will have surprising consequences that will show up as the story progresses. This is quite interesting, and I can't wait to see how this new concept will play out in Dragon Age 2. The player will have three choices of character class: warrior, assassin, and mage. Furthermore the player will get the choice to be either male or female, with options to customize facial appearance. The new addition is that in Dragon Age 2, both male and female characters are fully voiced like in Mass Effect 2. The levelling system has been changed, and now the player will strength their characters according to skill trees and adding points to character attributions.

Watch the trailer of Dragon Age 2 (video credit to

The dialogue system has been changed as well, in Dragon Age 2 the dialogue options are presented around a wheel, similar to Mass Effect 2. From the demo I can already tell that one of the strengths for this game is going to be in the story telling and the in game character development.

The graphics of Dragon Age 2 has been slightly updated, although it is not going to be comparable to Witcher 2 or Skyrim, but it is still well designed and beautiful to look at.

From the demo experience, Dragon Age 2 looks promising, and the developer has promised between 30-40 hours of gameplay. I have pre-ordered it from Steam and got a huge discount (But I don't think the discount is still valid because the pre-order period has expired). Now I am just waiting for Steam to unlock the game for Australia release which will be tomorrow.

Stay tuned for a more in-depth review coming soon! (well, I have to finish the game first to review it..)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

TV series review: Spartacus - Gods of the Arena

Following the success of the Sword and Sandal TV series, Spartacus - Blood and Sand in 2010. Starz decided to make season 2 of Spartacus - Blood and Sand. However, the lead actor "Andy Whitfield" (Spartacus) was ill. This gave opportunity for a Spartacus prequeal to be made. The result? Well, Starz made a 6 episode prequel called, Spartacus - Gods of the Arena which was screened recently, and the season finale was aired last week.

Gods of the Arena, features the story of the time before the arrival of Spartacus at the house of "Quintus Batiatus" (Spartacus' mater and gladiator trainer). At that time, another gladiator "Grannicus" was the champion of Capua. Grannicus, was a champion that on the surface, appears to be lacking discipline at first look, but actually has a good code of honour in his character. While several characters from Blood and Sand were also present. This was when the Doctore hasn't resumed his title and was known as "Oenomaus", "Crixus" was a just new recruit to the house of Batiatus, and Quintus' father "Titus Batiatus" was still alive. The story line is an interwoven tale between Quintus' struggle against his foes to make the house of Batiatus the best gladiator trainer in Capua. As well as the story for the rise of Crixus and the friendship between Grannicus and Oenomaus. At the same time, Quintus was trying to break away from his father's mould. Once again, the story shows that Quintus, like his fellow Romans would do anything to gain power and advance in his social class (or "station" is how they called it back in those days). As I watched Quintus' actions in Gods of the Arena, and Blood and Sand I couldn't help but feel that the slaughter of Quintus and his wife at the hand of the gladiators at the end of Blood and Sand was but a consequence of their own evil deeds.

Overall, the story was intriguing and well written, and mostly unpredictable. The action scenes are spectacular, the cinematography is treated with slightly overexposed lighting as in Blood and Sand. Giving the atmosphere and feel of Zack Snyder's 300. I really liked the characters of Grannicus and Crixus.

The violence and sexual contents in Gods of the Arena is just as extreme and intense as Blood and Sand. Therefore, this TV series is R-rated (personally, I think it should have been X-rated). The theme of master and slavery system in ancient Rome is explored, and the corruption of the Roman system is once again shown in full scale as in Blood and Sand.

In Gods of the Arena, it was revealed that some gladiators sold themselves into the gladiatorial bussiness willingly, for pursue of glory and money. Most of them tasted gruesome death in the arena. As I watched Gods of the Arena (and Blood and Sand), I couldn't help but be reminded of Romans chapter 6, about how through receiving Christ we are free from the slavery of sin, and the impact of early Christianity in ancient Rome, and how that have brought hope to many who were hopeless slaves in that social system. The finale was Gods of the Arena delivered breath-taking TV entertainment, only one word can be used to describe this series, "awesome".

Final score:

Story 8.5/10 - The 6 episode prequel has an intriguing and unpredictable plot, with lovable characters and deep character development. This series was so gripping that I watched all 6 episodes in one day. Especially the final episode, as IGN review described it as "incredible".

Cinematography 9/10 - The action scenes are very well done. The colour contrast was similar to 300, but it was beautifully done. The production value of the entire series can rival that of a big budget Hollywood historical epic.

Violence Extreme - This is just as violent as Blood and Sand. For example, in the first 2 minutes of the first episode, there was a scene depicting a gladiator's head being sliced in half during a match. The amount of blood and gore is more than anything you'll ever see in a media production. Well, that's until you see Blood and Sand of course.

Sex/nudity Extreme - In the same fashion as Blood and Sand, there is a sex scene every 5 minutes. The Romans were so corrupted and perverted, and I think that the downfall of the Roman empire must be accredited due to their sexual immorality...

Final verdict 9/10 - I think Gods of the Arena is even better than Blood and Sand. It has a great storyline, interesting characters and awesome fighting scenes. Personally, I really liked Gods of the Arena, and cannot wait for Blood and Sand season 2 which will be released next year. However, I really think the series should have been X-rated (so as Blood and Sand). Once again, although this is a great TV series but I would not recommend this to most of my friends, because I know most of them don't have the stomachs for the intensive content presented in this show. You have been warned if you decide to watch this.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Movie review: Bigger, Stronger, Faster

A lot of people admire athletes. From football players, swimmers, boxers, UFC fighters, cricket players, tennis players, body builders.etc.. A lot of our society's cultures are influenced by sports. For example, in Australia, on the night when state of origin takes place, just look at how involved people become watching the show. During these nights, people from all age, gender and background come together to cheer for their favourite player to score, to play football, to perform at their best. Sport and its fans, is a global phenomena where people become emotionally attached to watch their heroes perform and win. Winning is cool, but what about when athletes cheat to win? What defines cheating? This is the topic of this 2008 documentary.

Bigger, stronger and faster is a 2008 American documentary film directed by Christopher Bell, about the issue of steroid use as performance enhancement drugs, and how the use of steroid is connected with the American dream. The documentary started with Chris telling the story of how he grew up in the 70~80's idolizing icons such as Arnold, Hulk Hogan, Silvester Stallone, and how that affected his brother and him. His two brothers and himself thought that by becoming strong and muscular, they too can become famous and live out the American dream. Therefore in their teenage years they started lifting weights. Two of his brothers, Mike and Mark then went on to play football in high school, and in order to become better at the sport, they started using anabolic steroid, and eventually they both landed up becoming professional wrestlers. His older brother Mike wasn't successful because of various substance abuse, while his younger brother Mark stopped wrestling because he had a family and needed to settle down.

However, both of his brothers didn't stop using steroid. Mike continued to use steroid because he always had dreams of one day becoming a famous wrestler and movie star. While his younger brother Mark kept on using steroid because he wanted to be a champion at powerlifting, a recreational activity in his leisure time. Chris, at this point is convinced that his brothers were cheating because he thinks using steroid is cheating, and was not happy with the negative effects of his brothers' obsessions on his family, especially his parents and both of his brothers' wives.

The documentary then started to explore the legality issue of steroid use, and how Chris discovered that all his heroes, Arnold, Sly, Hulk Hogan etc.. the iconic American heroes were all on the juice. The documentary then explored the issue of using steroid in sports. It turned out that a lot of famous athletes were all using performance enhancement drugs. From baseball players to champion athletes. The side effects of steroid use is discussed next, where it raised questions as whether if anabolic steroid is really that bad for people.

The documentary goes beyond the issue of anabolic steroid use, and examined the lack of consistency in America's view of drugs, cheating and what people will do to achieve success. By raising arguments on what is defined as cheating, and raising issues such as: Tigerwood's laser enhanced 20/15 vision, musicians using anxiety reducing drugs, student taking drugs to help them study better, fighter pilot takes Amphetamine, so on and so forth.

The documentary concluded with Mark bench pressed 700 pound in a powerlifting competition while he is on the juice, while Chris' remarked that steroid is not the root to his family's problems, it is merely a side effect of being American.

I was really glad that I saw this documentary film. I think this documentary raised two issues to think about:

1) Body image: Although I've never lived in America, but I too was an 80's kid who grew up in the era of Arnold, Sly, Rocky, Rambo, Terminator, professional wrestling and all the iconic muscular, sports oriented heroes. I guess my mindset has also being affected somewhat by these muscle heroes. I dare say that I am not the only one, otherwise why would people care about body image so much these days? The standard of beauty is so often measured by body fat percentage, just look at how many people eat salad for lunch, take nutrient supplements even they are not doing exercise, and are always watching that they don't gain weight/fat on their bodies. It is questionable whether if the whole "eat healthy and live healthy" social reform is really that healthy for the mind. My grandma never paid attention to these healthy things, and she ate stir fry meat, vegetable and rice everyday yet lived till the age of 95 just fine... do people follow these "healthy habits" because they want to be healthy? or is the reality that they just want to look good?

Personally, I have been doing weight lifting for almost 12 years now. It is a recreational hobby I've enjoyed doing. I have seen people (with my own eyes) who do all sorts of things to themselves to get "bigger, stronger and faster", and how that attitude leads to the imbalance of their purpose in life. At the same time I've also experienced suspicious looks from my Christian brothers and sisters because of my passion for the sport, which has brought a lot of frustrations in the past. My task is to stand firm and rely on Christ, be true to God and myself in the face of both sides. Many times I wish I could have been more upfront and talk to them about the purpose of life, but I always fall short under the fear of being thought of as "judgemental", a label that our society tends to place on Christians partially due to pop culture influence.

The Bible does say you have to look after yourself, but when your life is dominated by thoughts of wanting to improve your body image, then it is an idol and it will make you its slave. One of the most touching moments in this documentary film is when Chris' mother, while in tears say to him that, "every sinew and bone in his body is made by God, and he is what God wants him to be like. He doesn't need to go and use steroid to make himself look physically better." As Christians we need build our confidence based on the fact that we are children of God, instead of relying on our abilities to improve our worldly qualities.

2) The issue of cheating - Unfortunately, our society is one that will always measure our worth base on our performances. People will always, to a certain degree treat each other like commodities rather than as fellow human. Emphasis on personal qualities often precede emphasis on virtue, value and belief when it comes to our society's way of judgement of character, it is unfortunate and a big problem in human relations. In a culture where everyone likes the winner, sometimes it is really hard to keep up the integrity and not to cheat. The Bible says we should only have one audience, that is God (Galatians 1:10). Living for God is not about how well we can perform, but it is an action and thought as a result of love for God (Matthew 22:37-39). Therefore, we ought to give all we are and all we have to the Lord, instead of trying to cheat to get to a certain place to win people's approvals.

Christopher Bell is right in saying that steroid isn't the root to his family's problem, it is merely a side effect of being American. He is implying that the root of the problem is actually the success driven society in America, which is true because an idol drives people into slavery and death. Chris' brother Mike died at the age of 37 in the rehab centre, the cause of death was never reported, had he realised that his worth was not measured by his athletic abilities and success, but measured by the fact Jesus had died for him, his life could have been totally different today.

Final score:

Story 8/10 - The documentary did an excellent job at relating the case of Bell brothers, and their pursue to be powerful strong men to the bigger issues buried deep inside the American society.

Cinematography 8/10 - The film was shot in real documentary style, I was never bored throughout the entire film.

Violence none

Sex/nudity none

Final verdict 8/10 - Who is your master? Body image? Success? Praises from people? Whatever it is, if you choose the wrong master it will not be good for you in the long term. This is a gritty, interesting and well filmed documentary. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

TV series review: Spartacus - Blood and Sand season 1

Remember the classic movie "Spartacus" in 1960 starring Kirk Douglas? Well, Starz has made a TV series out of the story of the famous Gladiator who led a memorable rebellions against the Roman Empire around 74~71BC. Is it a good show? This is what I will like to talk about here.

A word of warning up front, at the beginning of each show, the viewer is first greeted by this warning message "The show is a historical portrayal of ancient Rome society and the intensity of the content is to suggest an authentic representation of that period". The result? Well, Spartacus Blood and Sand is like 300+ The gladiator, with overexposure of colour contrast like 300 but with such extreme blood, gore, violence, perversion, sex, nudity scenes that makes any R-rated tv series or movies look like some Disney family entertainment.. you get the picture.

The question is, do all the violence and sex scenes mean something? Well I think the violence and sex in this R-rated TV series are necessary. Why? Let me start by introducing some story element here.

The story started as we are introduced to Spartacus, a Thracian. His tribe made a mutual agreement with the Romans to denfend their homeland. The Romans dishonored the agreement, ordering the Thracians to advance the army in a different direction leaving their villiage unprotected. The Thracians led a rebellion against the Romans so they can return and defend their village. This lead to Spartacus and his wife's capture by the Roman general Cladias Glaber. Spartacus was sold into slavery and his wife shared the same fate. He was brought to Capua, scheduled for execution in the gladiator arena in a fight against four gladiators. Somehow, Spartacus bested and killed the four executioners in the arena and was purchased by a lanista (slave master, trainer of gladiators) Quintus Batiatus. Spartacus was sent to the training house, where he met the gladiator champion Crixus, a fellow trainee Varro and the whip wielding trainer Doctore. It is there Spartacus began his journey filled with blood, death, loss of friends, being betrayed, and lots of pain and grief, forever hoping that one day he can re-unite with his wife.

Season 1 has 13 episodes, and the series ended with Spartacus' successful rebellion against his slave master Batiatus. This show is full of violence, sex and swearing words, pretty much every episode has scenes of decapitation, sex and constant use of F-words. For example, some of the scenes of disembowlment during the gladiator fights actually depicted internal organs flowing out from the slashed open stomach. While most of the sex scenes are quite explicit and are perverted. This demonstrated how morally defunct the Romans were back in the days. All in all, I think the violence and the sex is there to depict how disgusting and defunct the Roman society was back in those days. And if that was the director's intention, then I think the maker of this tv series did a good job at portraying the ancient Roman society.

An interesting thing I noticed in this show is that during that era, the Romans were pagans who were also polytheistic. It is worth noting that the Romans view of their Gods is one that is based on materialistic blessings. In other words, the Romans viewed their Gods as someone almost like Santa Claus, they believed that if they please their Gods by doing something then they will be granted with material blessings in life. There is no real relation between human and God in their religion, never mind real faith.

In the show, the slave master Batiatus and his wife are a couple who craves for power and will do anything to gain power. However, it is interesting to see that their fellow Romans also played games of their own. As if their entire Roman society is filled with treacheries, lies, murders, and sexual immorality. Honour and justice are but lip services, while the cultured and civilised appearances are put up to cover up for the animals they really are underneath. In many ways, I think things has not changed much since then, and much of our modern day society reflects the ancient Roman society. As I finished watching the series, I was fairly disgusted with the ancient Romans, but was also thoroughly disturbed with the reflection that our society bears shocking resemblance to the one depicted in this tv series.

Another theme in this tv series focuses on the master and slave system in ancient Rome. If you were a slave, then your life is pretty much worth nothing. A slave in that era had to obey whatever their master commands them to do. From killing, getting killed to having sex with anyone his/her master commands to. There is no dignity for slaves as human beings. As I was watching this series, as I felt anger for the injustice brought upon the slaves by their masters I also came to realize and appreciate the Biblical teaching from Roman chapter 6 more than ever, that through Christ we are no longer slaves to sin which leads to death, but set free to be slaves to righteousness which leads to real life. I wonder what the slaves in ancient Rome thought when they heard this, it must be the best news they've ever heard in their entire lives. By receiving Jesus as their saviour, they can hope and rest assured that they will receive the kingdom of heaven, when there will no pain nor suffering, and everything will be made right...

What about us? Although slavery no longer exist in our society (if you live in a developed country) but can anyone really claim that we are free? What about drug addictions? sexual addictions? Trying to gain power and money? Career growth? worry about retirement fund? popularity? always need good food and luxury cloth? worry about health? obsessed about beauty? addicted to coffee? attached to watch tv shows? addicted to video games? No matter who you are or what you do, we are all struggling with some obsessions that makes us slaves, because sin exists in our world. Spartacus led a rebellion against the Roman empire, it was an anti-slavery statement right into the Roman's face. His fight was the one for all people to be treated with the dignity they deserved, perhaps his vision was a kingdom for all. His actions and spirits are commendable, but as history told the tale, Spartacus ultimately failed and most of his comrades and possibly himself were killed in a battle. He is celebrated as a hero today. However, there is another man, Jesus who have died for us and have came back, he have defeated death and our slave master "sin". He promised that if we follow him then we can be free from slavery of sin, and one day receive the kingdom of heaven, which is something far better and important than a human envisioned "utopia". If Spartacus, someone who fought for equality of human, but have failed is celebrated as a hero, then what's stopping us from following and loving Jesus, who have died for us and came back to live, therefore defeated death/sin itself and promised us kingdom of heaven?

Final score:

Story 8/10 - The story is good, Spartacus' love and loyalty to his wife is truly moving. The story is also filled with political struggles and some surprise elements.
Cinematography 7.5/10 - Intensive use of CGI, lots of slow motions with awesome fighting scenes. The maker of this tv series unshamefully borrowed cinematography from 300, but did a good job.

Violence Extreme: I have never seen a more violent and gory media production in my entire life, get the picture?

Sex/nudity Extreme: There are sex scenes every 10 minutes in every episode. I think the sex scenes aroused more feeling of disgust towards the Roman culture rather than fuelling lust, but it depends on people. Still, I think there is just way too many sex scenes in this tv series, and many times it is quite unbearable.

Final verdict 8.5/10 - To be honest, I really enjoyed this tv series, this is one of those things that is good and terrible at the same time, and I watched the entire season in 3 days. It is a show about Spartacus and the gladiators. I think the show depicted the lives in ancient Rome really well, and also gave great insight into the gladiators. However, this show is NOT for the feint -hearted, and in my good conscience I cannot think of anyone I can recommend this show to , especially NOT amongst my circle of friends. A new rating should be introduced for this show, maybe like RRR-rated? Anyway, you have been warned! -