Archive for August, 2012

‘One Hour Photo’ exposes one man’s shattered psyche

August 29, 2012

During the short prologue of the 2002 feature One Hour Photo, a detective sits down in an interrogation room with Sy Parrish. What, the officer asks the sad-sack loner across the table, did Will Yorkin do to get you so upset?

The rest of this gripping 90-minute movie is dedicated to answering that question — and to explaining just what Parrish ended up doing to Yorkin. It’s soon evident that Parrish’s psyche is as badly cracked as the windshield of his car, and writer-director Mark Romanek does a masterful job of developing suspense as the main character moves closer and closer to the breaking point.

Will Yorkin is a handsome and successful young businessman with a picture-perfect life. He and Parrish have never met, but the latter is intimately acquainted — or so he believes — with Yorkin, his lovely wife, Nina, and their adorable 9-year-old son, Jake.

For more than a decade, Nina has brought all of the family’s film to be developed at the “Sav-Mart” discount store photo lab that Parrish runs. To fill the void in his life, the friendless Parrish has obsessively collected, framed and mounted the Yorkins’ vacation, birthday and other snapshots over the years. He drives by their sprawling modern house and pictures himself as good old “Uncle Sy,” someone who has a place in their hearts and lives.

Sy’s boss, Bill, knows that something is amiss with his buttoned-down photo lab manager; he warns Sy to shape up, but it doesn’t help. As Sy’s life spins out of control, he works harder and harder to insinuate himself into Nina, Will and Jake’s hearts. And when he discovers that the Yorkin family isn’t as perfect as he thought, it seems Sy might stop at nothing. Read the rest of this entry »

A flashy but deeply flawed hero saves lives with ‘Schindler’s List’

August 28, 2012

At the start of World War II, a flashy businessman named Oskar Schindler detected the scent of something precious: opportunity.

In the fall of 1939, Schindler, a German living in occupied Krakow, Poland, was wining and dining Nazi officials and looking for a way to make money. After learning of a recently bankrupted factory, he tracked down its former accountant and quizzed him on the business’ fundaments. The suspicious accountant, Itzhak Stern, throws in with Schindler’s decidedly unorthodox business plan. Thus was born an unlikely, and nearly miraculous, partnership that wound up saving some 1,100 Jews from the Nazi death machine.

The story of that alliance is at the heart of Schindler’s List, American director Steven Spielberg’s 1993 outing. (Actually, it was his second picture that year, released after Jurassic Park.) Spielberg is perhaps the most successful director of all time. His credits include influential blockbusters such as JawsClose Encounters of the Third KindE.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and the Indiana Jones movies; other adventure movies such as A.I. Artificial IntelligenceSaving Private RyanMinority Report, Catch Me If You CanWar of the Worlds and The Adventures of Tintin; and more serious dramas such as The Color PurpleEmpire of the SunAmistad and Munich.

Having said all that, and without having viewed many of Spielberg’s acclaimed pictures, I’m prepared to argue that Schindler’s List is one of Spielberg’s most powerful features. Spielberg presents this story of the Holocaust in straightforward fashion, showing atrocious deeds with minimal moralizing or mawkishness. The film also brings forth some fascinating characters — Schindler himself, who has more substance than his outer flash would suggest, as well as the mostly stoic Stern and Schindler’s other crucial business partner, a vicious Nazi officer named Amon Goeth. Read the rest of this entry »


August 27, 2012

In the weeks since I’ve started this blog, a number of readers have been kind enough to like and follow it. By way of thanks, I’m going to highlight some recent posts by these fellow bloggers that I found interesting.

• Lesley Carter takes a look at Wentworth Mansion of Charleston, S.C., for her Bucket List Publications travel blog. The post is illustrated with a number of gorgeous photos.

• Cristian Mihal reviews Yesterday’s Gone, a serialized novel by Sean Platt and David W. Wright about a Rapture-like scenario in which most of Earth’s population suddenly vanishes.

• Mihal discusses his personal experiences as struggling new writer.

• The Palisades Pete blog has a really nifty format. Every post provides 10 facts about its subject. Here are 10 facts about the original TV Superman, George Reeves; William Wallace, who fought for Scottish independence; and Lois Lane, Superman’s girlfriend. Did you know Lois had her own comic book, which ran from 1958 to 1974? News to me! Read the rest of this entry »

Doctorow recounts the lives of quirky, quintessential New Yorkers ‘Homer & Langley’

August 27, 2012

American historical novelist E.L. Doctorow revisits a familiar stomping ground, the New York City of decades past, in his 2009 novel, Homer & Langley.

The tale of the Collyer brothers is narrated by the younger sibling. “I’m Homer, the blind brother,” he discloses in the novel’s opening line. Doctorow’s narrative takes us from the brothers’ childhood in the early 20th century until — well, I don’t want to reveal the ending, although it is relatively well known.

That’s because Doctorow’s story is based on the actual Collyer family; the rather notorious Homer and Langley were inheritors and longtime residents of their parents’ elegant home on Fifth Avenue in upper Manhattan. A great deal of the narrative appears to have been invented by Doctorow, although just how much is unclear; the hardcover edition of Homer & Langley that I read had no author’s note, unfortunately, and Doctorow’s website does not appear to explain how the novel deviates from real life.

In any case, Doctorow’s fictionalized Collyers were born around the turn of the 20th century; Homer, the younger by two years, is a gifted pianist. A quick check of Wikipedia and some other sources indicates that the actual brothers were born in the 1880s; that Langley was four years younger and a gifted pianist; and that Homer actually practiced law, rather than Langley, as in the novel. Truth and fiction concur with on Langley’s enthusiasm for fad diets of his own devising. Read the rest of this entry »

A note to readers

August 25, 2012

Thanks for visiting my blog!

I have not worked to publicize or promote this site or its contents, and it has garnered only a small amount of traffic. However, it has been gratifying to see readers click on and like my posts, and it’s been great to have people sign up for notifications about new posts.

Please allow me to make two requests. First, if you like what you read, please tell other people about it and invite them to take a look. And second, by all means please leave comments on these posts. Even a short bit of feedback would be appreciated!

That said, thank you again for reading! I hope you continue coming and enjoying what you find here!

Follow-up: ‘Capricorn One’ and ‘Angle of Repose’

August 25, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 25, 2012

Author’s note: This post was updated on July 24, 2015, after I discovered that the links were broken. Those have since been fixed. In the case of the Szebin article, I’ve linked to the invaluable Internet Archive because the original host,, is no longer active. As always, thanks for reading! MEM

I wanted to follow up on two earlier postings.

After I wrote my review of the 1978 movie Capricorn One, I read three interesting articles that related to the film.

In 2007, Deborah Allison contributed an essay to M/C Journal about film novelizations and the two different versions that were written for Capricorn One. She raises interesting questions about how novelizations are crafted — they are often based on early scripts that may differ significantly from the finished film — and what constitutes the “definitive” version of a story.

In 2002, Colette Bancroft wrote a comprehensive feature story about the many different conspiracy theories that assert that the Apollo moon landings were fake. It’s a perceptive round-up, in my opinion. She writes: “That a conspiracy like this would have involved thousands of people, all of whom would have had to agree to participate — and keep silent about it for more than 30 years — doesn’t seem to faze the believers. Especially the ones who have a video or book to sell.” Capricorn One, which of course was inspired in part by these conspiracy theories and may also have served to fuel them, is referenced. Read the rest of this entry »

James contemplates the end of the world in quiet, haunting ‘Children of Men’

August 24, 2012

In the year 2021, no human child has been born for nearly 24 years. England is one of the few remaining bastions of civilization. Oxford historian Theo Faron, 50 years of age, contemplates his species’ impending doom with a detached eye. But when he’s approached by an emissary from a small group of motley would-be revolutionaries, he discovers, against all expectations, that there may be hope for the future.

This haunting vision of Britain in decay is detailed in The Children of Men, a 1992 novel by the esteemed British writer P.D. James.

Faron, her protagonist, is a keen observer. But he also embodies the apathy that has overtaken nearly everyone in England. He occupies a five-story house; it has been his alone for a year, ever since his wife left him for an artist. The marriage was a bad match from the start. Its eventual doom was sealed in 1994 when Faron backed over and killed the couple’s 15-month-old daughter, their only child. Read the rest of this entry »

‘An Ordinary Man’ comes face to face with genocide in harrowing memoir

August 23, 2012

In 1994, Paul Rusesabagina was managing a luxury hotel in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. As civil war broke out and ethnic tensions were ratcheted up by both the rebels and the corrupt government, Rusesabagina sought to maintain a normal life for himself, his family, his employees and his guests.

But on April 6, the president’s plane was shot down, and all hell broke loose. The nightmarish aftermath of that assassination is detailed in gripping fashion by Rusesabagina and co-author Tom Zoellner in the 2007 memoir An Ordinary Man.

The events of spring 1994 are today known as the Rwandan genocide. Perhaps 800,000 men, women and children were slaughtered over the course of three bloody months. Many victims were of the Tutsi ethnic minority; others were members of the much larger Hutu ethnic group who were targeted for trying to protect their fellow Rwandans from violence. As much as three-quarters of the Tutsi population were murdered.

The killers and victims were often acquainted. One widely listened-to radio station dehumanized Tutsis and their sympathizers by repeatedly calling them cockroaches. Once the killings began, Rusesabagina writes, the station would broadcast minute-to-minute reports as certain targets were hunted down in the streets.

In a report on Rwanda 10 years after the killings, The Economist — which estimated that between 500,000 and 800,000 died — wrote: “It was perhaps the fastest genocide in history, although the killers were mostly armed, not with guns or poison gas, but with farm tools.” Read the rest of this entry »

Danger propels Connelly’s ‘Nine Dragons’ at breakneck pace

August 22, 2012

I have not been a true mystery fan for quite a while, but I have read and enjoyed a number of Michael Connelly novels over the years. This American crime novelist is in peak form with his 2009 entry in the Detective Harry Bosch series, Nine Dragons.

The book opens near the end of a dull early September work day in the Los Angeles Police Department’s special homicide squad room. Bosch has been idle for a month and is itching for a case.

The call comes on the second page. Bosch and partner Ignacio Ferras are dispatched to Fortune Liquors in the city’s dodgy South Normandie neighborhood. Owner John Li has been shot to death behind his counter; footage from the store’s security camera has been stolen, but clues suggest gang involvement.

Unfortunately, the immigrant victim’s family — a Chinese-speaking mother and her daughter and son — do very little to point the police toward a specific suspect. Bosch, chafing at the lack of progress, takes his frustration out on his regular partner and on Detective David Chu, who is drawn into the case. It doesn’t help matters that the slow-moving investigation appears to have developed a serious leak. Read the rest of this entry »

‘Gentlemen Broncos’ takes a quirky ride through small town, fantastic fiction

August 21, 2012

The 2009 independent film Gentlemen Broncos has plenty of amusing and charming moments, but taken as a whole, this picture is uneven at best.

The plot revolves around Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) and his mother, Judith (Jennifer Coolidge), who live in small-town Saltair, Utah. Benjamin has written a bizarre science fiction epic, “Yeast Lords.” But things go badly after he first shows it to two new friends and then submits it for a contest being judged by a famous but now struggling science fiction and fantasy author.

Fellow home-schoolers Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and (Héctor Jiménez) buy the film rights to Benjamin’s story with a $500 check but approach the project in unfortunate fashion. Even worse, Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement) publishes “Yeast Lords” in his own name, under the title Brutus & Balzaac, after making a number of his own regrettable creative changes.

Angarano strikes a lot of high notes as a lovable loser, and Coolidge is excellent as his mother, who is desperate to help herself and her son realize their dreams despite major obstacles. Clement (a co-creator of the parody band Flight of the Conchords, which also became a fine TV series) is simply delicious as the pompous Chevalier. Read the rest of this entry »

‘Capricorn One’ chronicles deadly conspiracy with verve

August 20, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 20, 2012

When I was but a wee lad, there were a number of science fiction films that I was too young to see. Alien, for one; Outland, for another. These were sophisticated movies full of darkness and violence, meant for adults, and not suited for anyone younger than, say, 12 or 13 years old.

But as a science fiction fan, I was well aware of these pictures. And as an avid reader given relatively free rein by my parents and teachers, while I may not always have been able to see these movies, I was able to read their novelizations.

That was the case with Alien, which I in fact did watch on video at home at a relatively young age. The impact of that film’s vicious surprises may have been blunted by my advance knowledge of them, but I still thrilled to the picture and am a fan of it and (to different extents) its three sequels.

And I read novelizations of many other movies, including Outland. Among them was the book version of Capricorn One.

(Alien and Outland were adapted, like more than a dozen other films, by the prolific Alan Dean Foster. Capricorn One, Wikipedia tells me — providing illustrations to back its assertion — had, unusually, two novelizations: One by Ken Follett, which was published in his native Great Britain, and another by Ron Goulart, for the American market. I suspect that I read the latter, as I’m American, and because the cover of the Goulart version seems rather familiar.)

Capricorn One and Outland were both directed by Peter Hyams, who directed 17 feature films released between 1974 and 2001. (Those figures are from IMDB; that averages out, by the way, to slightly less than 18 months for each new picture.) These outings, respectively from 1978 and 1981, sandwiched Ridley Scott’s Alien, the seminal science fiction-horror masterpiece that premiered in 1979.

These three movies have a number of things in common, beyond their being science fiction thrillers. Like George Lucas’s 1977 blockbuster, Star Wars, these pictures largely eschewed sleek futuristic production designs  in favor of gritty environments. Even when these films depicted interstellar travel, as in Star Wars and Alien, or an off-world colony, as in Outland, they featured gadgetry that seemed at most half a step beyond the technology at hand at that moment in history.

As a youngster, I was obsessed with the science and science fiction of space travel. My childhood took place a relatively short time after the heyday of humanity’s space endeavors — NASA’s manned Apollo moon missions, the Skylab flights — and near the start of a relatively active follow-up phase that included the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous, the debut of the space shuttle, the mechanized Voyager and Pioneer interplanetary probes, and a series of Soviet manned satellites.

So real life and the gritty, realistic-seeming production designs of the science fiction movies of this era combined to convince me, at least at some gut level, that outer space adventure was a very real possibility. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s a hard day’s night for Auster’s ‘Man in the Dark’

August 19, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 19, 2012

It had been a while since I had read any work by Paul Auster, but I’ve always enjoyed his novels. Therefore, I eagerly bought his 2008 book Man in the Dark when I came across it the other week.

One issue Auster has probed repeatedly over the years is the nature of story-telling, and he returns to it in this tale. The narrator, August Brill, is lying sleeplessly in his bed — “another white night in the great American wilderness” — as the book opens. (The title works on multiple levels.)

Brill, a retired critic and one-time philanderer, lives in Vermont with his only child and his only grandchild. Theirs is a house of heartbreak. He is slowly convalescing from a car crash, the daughter is struggling to finish a biography and to put her philandering ex-husband out of mind, and the granddaughter is trying to come to grips with the death of her boyfriend. Read the rest of this entry »

Robinson charts intriguing voyage in ‘The Dark Beyond the Stars’

August 18, 2012

While browsing the science fiction section of a used bookstore some days back, I noticed a hardcover copy of The Dark Beyond the Stars. I had read this 1991 Frank M. Robinson novel many years ago, and I believe I still have the trade paperback version of it (somewhere!).

Unable to resist revisiting an old friend, I bought the book. It was a good call.

This first-person story is told by Sparrow, a 17-year-old technician and space explorer. At the beginning of the book, a traumatic fall on the surface of an inhospitable planet erases virtually all of his memory.

And so the reader discovers the intriguing patterns and puzzles of life aboard the generation ship Astron at the same time Sparrow does. The pinnacle of human achievement, at least up until the point it was launched, the ship has been voyaging for 2,000 years in search of life. Thus far, none has been discovered.

The ship’s captain, Michael Kusaka, has been at the helm since the mission began; unlike his crew, who have normal life spans, he benefited from treatments that have prolonged his existence indefinitely. And unlike many of his subordinates, who believe the quest for extraterrestrial life to be a fool’s errand, Kusaka is determined to press ahead.

Matters come to a head when the captain plots a course across the Dark, a vast void beyond which lie star systems that could harbor life. But Astron is deteriorating, and the crew fears that without opportunities to replenish supplies, the ship will fail before it reaches the far side. Read the rest of this entry »

In which I try to write something original and insightful about ‘Husbands and Wives’ 20 years after its release

August 17, 2012

The 1992 comic drama Husbands and Wives opens in the Manhattan apartment of Gabe and Judy Roth (writer-director Woody Allen and Mia Farrow) shortly before they have dinner with another married couple, longtime friends Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis).

Things go off the rails almost immediately when Jack and Sally make an announcement. They are splitting, they say calmly. Gabe and Judy are astonished. How can this be after they have spent so much time together? What does this mean for the Roths’ own marriage?

Jack and Sally try to reassure them, saying that the decision is mutual and amicable, but the Roths have trouble accepting the change.

So do Jack and Sally once they start trying to deal with the practical realities of their divergent lives. With different degrees of enthusiasm, they take younger lovers. Read the rest of this entry »

Man’s dark side comes to light beautifully in ‘Moon’

August 16, 2012

I recently rewatched Duncan Jones’ Moon on DVD. If you have any interest in science fiction, or even if you’re an aficionado of intelligent and offbeat films, you should definitely see this if you have not yet already done so.

The 2009 movie stars Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, an astronaut who is finishing a three-year solo stint at an energy mining base on the far side of the moon. Because of an equipment glitch, Sam communicates with his employer and his wife and baby on Earth by exchanging one-way video messages; his only company is a sympathetic robot called Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

The isolation is clearly wearing on Sam, and strange things start happening in and around the base. Help is available for him — but dark discoveries are at hand as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Outer space mystery ‘Polaris’ attracts but does not hold attention

August 15, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 15, 2012

I recently read and raved about Chindi, a 2002 novel by the prolific science fiction author Jack McDevitt. Therefore, it was with great anticipation that I plunged into his 2004 offering, a far-future mystery called Polaris.

I found the setup for this book irresistible. (I purchased both it and Chindi on a recent trip to the new location of Falls River Books in Raleigh, N.C.) Polaris is an interstellar yacht carrying some of the Confederacy’s most celebrated figures on a once-in-a-lifetime junket: They have traveled to an uninhabited solar system to watch its encounter with a disruptive rogue star.

But the captain and her six passengers never return from their voyage. A rescue crew finds an empty Polaris drifting in space. The disappearance of the seven souls she carried is never explained. 

Sixty years later, adventurous antiquities dealers Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath manage to acquire some objects from the Polaris moments before a bomb destroys an exhibition of artifacts from the ship. The pair soon twig to a mysterious conspiracy. Someone is very interested in the surviving items — and may be willing to kill for them. Read the rest of this entry »

McDevitt probes alien mysteries in ‘Chindi’

August 12, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 12, 2012

Jack McDevitt’s 2002 novel, Chindi, is a fun science fiction romp about explorers who get in over their heads.

This is the third of at least six novels in McDevitt’s so-called Academy sequence, which involves the 23rd century exploits of interstellar voyagers pursuing relics of ancient spacefarers. The hero of Chindi and its predecessors is a no-nonsense captain known as Hutch.

I hadn’t previously encountered Priscilla Hutchins, and I don’t believe I’ve read any of McDevitt’s novels before. But Chindi grabbed my attention almost immediately, and I plowed through the book enthusiastically. Read the rest of this entry »

Army detective unravels drama and danger in ‘Zero Day’

August 11, 2012

Novelist David Baldacci has sold more than 100 million books, but I mainly knew him from viewing the covers of his books. I was happily surprised, however, by his 2011 thriller about a murder investigation in rural West Virginia that is tied to a sinister plot.

Zero Day revolves around John Puller, a former Army Ranger who saw combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the book opens, Puller is a special agent in the service’s Criminal Investigative Division.

He is dispatched to the remote town of Drake after a Pentagon intelligence officer and his family are slaughtered there. Bodies pile up quickly after Puller’s arrival, but clues are scarce. The deaths seem to be connected, however, to a very successful locally owned coal mining company.

With the aid of a whip-smart local police sergeant named Sam Cole, who has close ties to the mining mogul, Puller eludes multiple assassination attempts and begins penetrating the deceptions that have been strewn across his path. And he discovers that tiny Drake has drawn the attention of the Department of Homeland Security, who may be gambling with the lives of its residents. Read the rest of this entry »

Keats explores virtue and vice in ‘Book of the Unknown’

August 10, 2012

Jonathan Keats weaves intriguing and baffling fables about medieval Jewish society in The Book of the Unknown.

This 2009 collection, subtitled “Tales of the Thirty-Six,” revolves around the Kabbalistic notion that there must be at least 36 righteous people — the Lamedh-Vov, which is Hebrew for that number — at any time in order to justify humanity in the mind of God. “Without them, the world would be doomed,” the author explains.

Your preconceptions of sainthood are likely to be confounded by this American writer, however. The righteous folks described here include a fool, a liar, a gambler, a whore, a false messiah and a murderer.

Some of these characters find redemption through love. “Alef the Idiot” (as his tale is titled) achieves greatness both despite and because of his dealings with a demon, who persuades the mortal to surrender his soul; his intense bond with his wife helps erase his sins. “Chet the Cheat,” a professional sin eater, “Heyh the Clown,” an unusual circus performer, and “Yod the Inhuman,” a golem, all make sacrifices to alleviate injustices suffered by others. Read the rest of this entry »

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