Archive for April, 2013

‘The Beginner’s Goodbye’ serves as a field guide to one couple’s starter marriage in Anne Tyler’s most recent outing

April 30, 2013

The Beginner’s Goodbye, the 2012 novel by accomplished writer Anne Tyler, begins with something of a feint.

“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted,” writes the author of The Accidental TouristBreathing Lessons and Saint Maybe.

But Dr. Dorothy Rosales, the late wife of narrator Aaron Woolcott, hasn’t exactly returned from the dead. And her — let’s call it a manifestation — turns out to be a much less prominent component of Woolcott’s tale than the opening line suggests.

While The Beginner’s Goodbye is certainly not a tale of the supernatural, neither is it the love story that a plot outline of the book might suggest. The story moves from a table-setter to Rosales’ death and Woolcott’s tortured, slow initial recovery from this sudden blow. Then the rather prickly and stand-offish narrator delves into his courtship with the equally (or perhaps more?) prickly and stand-offish Rosales.

Only then, more than halfway through this slender volume — fewer than 200 pages, plus a 10-page reader’s guide in the 2013 trade paperback I had — does the late Rosales begin appearing to the bereaved widower.

The title The Beginner’s Goodbye is patterned after a series of self-help books released by a Woolcott-family-owned publishing company. That’s appropriate, because this somewhat puzzling short book is less a traditional novel than a meditation on the grieving process.

But for all its quirks, Tyler serves up her usual highly polished brand of writing, and her characters — although somewhat limited in their range of emotional response — are clearly delineated. The Beginner’s Goodbye is not only enjoyable in its own right, it’s full of philosophical meat for both the serious reader and those of a more superficial bent. Tyler and high-end literature aficionados should enjoy this short book, and it has enough quirky appeal to delight others as well.

Private eye struggles to make a dark and drama-filled journey in Lehane’s ‘Moonlight Mile’

April 29, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 29, 2013

A dozen years ago, private investigator Patrick Kenzie sent Beatrice McCready’s husband to prison. Kenzie discovered that the man had kidnapped the couple’s niece, 4-year-old Amanda McCready, after being appalled by her mother’s dangerously neglectful attitude.

At the beginning of Dennis Lehane’s 2010 novel, Moonlight Mile, a nearly bankrupt Kenzie is on the brink of finding long-sought gainful employment in the midst of the Great Recession. But he puts off accepting a job offer after hearing Beatrice McCready’s desperate new plea for help locating Amanda: “You found her once. Find her again.”

Where has the 16-year-old Amanda gone and why? What happened to Sophie, her high school friend, and to Sophie’s boyfriend, both of whom are also missing? What should Kenzie think about the neglected childhood Amanda led after he restored her to the custody of her careless mother? And does this new case truly offer a shot at redemption for the awful fallout from the first time Kenzie found the missing McCready?

Lehane, the author of Mystic RiverShutter Island and The Given Day, is a master story-teller. (I’ve read the latter two of those books in addition to Moonlight Mile.) But in comparison to the other Lehane volumes I’ve consumed, this work — per, the sixth featuring Kenzie and his partner-turned-wife, the former Angie Gennaro — is a bit of potboiler.

Still, Moonlight Mile is a solid and compelling detective story, with punchy but realistic dialogue, sharply drawn characters and an intriguing plot. Most any lover of mysteries should enjoy this novel, and I will gladly be reading more of Lehane’s work.

Pediatric psychiatry and mass murder intersect in Lisa Gardner mystery ‘Live to Tell’

April 26, 2013

Boston Police Sgt. D.D. Watson is on a date one hot August night when she’s called to a three-story house in the working-class neighborhood of Dorchester. The home’s five residents have been brutally attacked. Four are dead, including the children; the father dies at the hospital.

The next day, Watson is summoned to a vermin-infested house in Jamaica Plains on the other side of town. Again, everyone here — a man, a woman and four children ranging in age from adolescence to infancy — has been slaughtered.

These two cases in Lisa Gardner’s 2010 novel, Live to Tell, initially seem to have little in common. But it soon emerges that children from both families spent time at the same acute-care psychiatric ward.

The ward employs Danielle, a psychiatric nurse. She’s spent most of her life thinking of herself as a victim after her father killed his wife, his two other children and himself while sparing her. Co-worker Greg, a tall, athletic man easily capable of inflicting the knife wounds found in the corpses, has a similarly tragic past; he has also surreptitiously, and suspiciously, been working with families of the clinic’s patients. And the clinic is frequently visited by Andrew, a charismatic new age healer who turns out to have a secret or two of his own.  Read the rest of this entry »

‘Olympus Has Fallen’ flies high on fast-paced plot and high-impact violence

April 25, 2013

Director Antoine Fuqua has crafted a hard-hitting action picture in Olympus Has Fallen, the new thriller about a fiendishly complicated attack on Washington, D.C., that results in America’s president being held hostage.

Gerard Butler stars as Secret Service agent Mike Banning, a former military man who manages to infiltrate the White House even as a terrorist group aligned with North Korea finishes a brutal takeover of the president’s residence. His archenemy is Kang, played by Rick Yune, whose extreme cruelty is matched only by his cunning. Kang is backed by turncoat former Secret Service man Forbes (an oily Dylan McDermott) and a gang of anonymous henchmen who put up little resistance as Banning shoots, slashes and chops his way through the increasingly rubble-filled building.

The supporting cast includes Aaron Eckhart as President Benjamin Asher, Ashley Judd and Finley Jacobsen as the other members of the First Family, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Morgan Freeman and Robert Forster as government officials, and Radha Mitchell in a small role as Banning’s wife.

While the plot is clearly derivative of Die Hard, down to the doomed mid-picture intervention by a squad of heavily armed soldiers, the execution is fresh enough and the cast appealing enough to make the endeavor work. A caution for the young and the faint of heart: The picture, scripted by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, is more than deserving of its R rating. Banning has no mercy for his foes, and the film’s victims of violence include unarmed civilians as well as armed good guys.

In Matheson’s ‘Legend,’ the build-up may often be slow, but the payoff is typically deadly

April 22, 2013

The premise of I Am Legend is almost primal in its appeal. To use the tag line on a recent edition of this Richard Matheson, in the eponymous novella, “The last man on Earth is not alone.”

So powerful is the concept of this 1954 story that I Am Legend has been filmed not once but four times, with varying degrees of fidelity. (I’ve seen none of these movies, the most notable of which have starred Vincent Price, Charlton Heston and Will Smith.)

The original story by Matheson centers on Robert Neville, a seemingly unremarkable suburban Los Angeleseño who appears to be the only man to have survived intact a plague that converted the world’s population into vampires.

Neville alternates between despair and resolve. Matheson follows him as he makes his daily rounds: Killing vampires in their slumbers and researching possible causes and cures for the plague on sunny days, maintaining and fortifying his home on cloudy ones.

The author deftly paints the psychological stresses his hero suffers. Neville is very much an Everyman, or at least he fits the image of John Q. Public that many 1954 magazine readers likely had. He’s handy with tools but has limited ability to absorb the scientific knowledge that could lead him to an antidote. Still, he makes do, fighting off the temptations of alcohol and suicide.

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The understated but touching ‘Remote Area Medical’ shows America’s unmet health-care needs

April 11, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 11, 2013

At its most basic level, the new documentary Remote Area Medical is about a free three-day clinic that the organization of that name staged at Bristol Motor Speedway over an April 2012 weekend.

But just as sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar, this documentary about a free clinic in rural, mountainous Eastern Tennessee is not just a documentary about a free clinic. When Remote Area Medical was founded in 1985, its mission was to bring health care to inaccessible parts of the Brazilian rain forest. Today, 60 percent of the Nashville, Tenn., group’s work is done in the United States.

“We have people with desperate need within our borders,” one interviewee tells filmmakers Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman. (None of the speakers are explicitly identified in the movie.) “Remote Area Medical — we don’t have to go too remote.”

Another interviewee, a patient at the Bristol clinic, says she wishes America’s decision-makers could see the consequences of their choices. Indeed, this viewer couldn’t help but wish that hundreds of U.S. Senators and members of Congress and their key staffers would be forced to watch this film and then spend a few hours discussing possible remedies. (Whether they might choose, after doing so, to repeal, change or keep intact the reform program commonly called Obamacare is outside the scope of this review.) Read the rest of this entry »

Oskar Schindler, a slick and self-indulging saint, spares lives amidst Nazi atrocities

April 9, 2013

In 1980, the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally went shopping for a briefcase in a Beverly Hills, Calif., luggage store. The store’s owner, Leopold Pfefferberg, was one of about 1,300 mainly Polish Jews whose lives had been spared during World War II by the heroic efforts of Nazi industrialist Oskar Schindler.

It was a fateful meeting: After years of attempting to interest a writer in doing a full-length treatment of Schindler’s story, Pfefferberg finally found a receptive ear.

Keneally went on to interview 50 Schindlerjuden in America, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Israel and West Germany. With Pfefferberg, he visited European locations frequented by Schindler and the people protected during the war. Keneally’s researches and other efforts went on to inform the 1982 book Schindler’s Ark, which was published in American under a title well known to moviegoers: Schindler’s List.

The book is categorized by its author as a novel, and Keneally admits to having made “reasonable constructs of conversations of which Oskar and others have left only the briefest record.“ However, it reads as a work as journalism, with speculation and extrapolation on certain matters clearly labeled as such by Keneally.

I recently read an American volume of Schindler’s List and found it to be an incredibly moving tale. (This was no surprise; Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film adaptation of Keneally, which I watched last summer, had a similar effect upon me.)

A paradox lies at the heart of this book. In his inimitable fashion, Schindler merrily wined, dined and bribed Nazis as part of a determined effort to spare the lives of about 1,300 workers and their families at his kitchenware and munitions plants in the ancient Polish city of Cracow and, later, the rural Czechoslovakian outpost of Brinnlitz. To find this story inspiring, as I do, is simultaneously to embrace and to deny the backdrop to this feat: The six million European Jews cruelly murdered by Hitler and his armies.
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CIA officials walk viewers through the methodical, sometimes misguided ‘Manhunt’ that led to Osama bin Laden

April 7, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 7, 2013

When commercial jet planes struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, most Americans had not heard of al Qaeda or the rich Saudi Arabian who headed it.

That was not the case for the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency unit that tracked al Qaeda’s leader. Alec Station, founded in 1995, knew that Osama bin Laden had declared war on America, and they had tied him to a number of terrorist operations around the world as the man who had either directly ordered or given other organizations funds to facilitate them. Al Qaeda itself had carried out deadly 1998 attacks against two U.S. embassies in Africa as well as one against the U.S.S. Cole.

Alec Station had been issuing warnings throughout 2001 that a large Qaeda operation, evidently targeting the United States, was in the works. Their inability to determine just what would happen, and where, would end up haunting many of the unit’s members; it also led, perhaps unfairly, to some blame for the 9/11 terror attacks being laid at their feet.

Prior to the Sept. 11 assault, the so-called Sisterhood that tracked Islamic terrorism was looked down upon by many others in the CIA. Analyst Cindy Storer tells documentary filmmaker Greg Barker in Manhunt, his new feature-length film, that she was counseled on one performance review that she was too passionate about finding bin Laden.

Once al Qaeda’s 19 hijackers brought down the Twin Towers and brought jihad to the headquarters of the world’s most powerful military, that all changed; resources poured into counterterrorism operations.

The attack on American soil prompted other modifications as well. “We changed the rule book a bit,” says former CIA field officer Marty Martin, who was brought back after 9/11 to lead the agency’s war on al Qaeda. “We were empowered more. We did get a bit more aggressive.

“My job is to kill al Qaeda,” Martin continues in the film. “Either get shoulder to shoulder with us or get out of the way.”

Yet even with these transformations, the bin Laden hunters spent nearly 10 years exploring dead ends and delving into dark places before they could find the world’s most-wanted terrorist.  Read the rest of this entry »

One small-town team’s aspirations for basketball adequacy fuel moving documentary tale in ‘Medora’

April 5, 2013

After I watched the new film “Medora” Friday afternoon, I mused about how easy it would be to reinvent this sports documentary as a Hollywood feature. Let’s call this invented picture “Jockstraps.” Here’s the elevator pitch: A team of scrappy, lovable small-town losers join together to overcome personal problems and end an oppressively long basketball losing streak.

Thankfully, “Medora” has some — and only some — of these narrative elements but shares none of the glibness of my imagined high-school sports romp. There are no Hollywood-handsome 20-somethings hogging the spotlight in this picture, which was co-directed by Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart. (The latter man created Found magazine and may be familiar to listeners of “This American Life.”)

Instead, we have a collection of frequently awkward real teenagers, their faces blemished by asymmetrical lines, acne and scraggly facial hair. At once sadly and refreshingly, these (yes) scrappy but lovable losers don’t overcome all of the challenges they face.

The Medora Hornets’ first-year coach, police officer Justin Gilbert, opens the picture berating his squad for a pathetic fourth-quarter effort in which they were held scoreless. Gilbert, a charismatic and handsome young man, has to walk a fine line — he must shatter his charges’ complacency about losing without breaking their spirit.

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The atom truly is our friend, Robert Stone argues in pro-nuclear power documentary ‘Pandora’s Promise’

April 4, 2013

Shortly before the screening of his new documentary Thursday morning, Robert Stone took the podium to note that his first movie had opposed nuclear power. In that regard, his personal journey has served as something of a model for those of the five individuals he features in “Pandora’s Promise,” a beautifully shot and well-paced feature-length movie that makes a powerful case for embracing nuclear power.

“Pandora’s Promise” is centered on one journalist and four committed environmental activists; all, like the director himself, opposed nuclear power for much of their adult lives. This is partly because of atomic energy’s early link to nuclear weapons, which devastated two Japanese cities and were test-fired some 2,000 times over the years, one interviewee tells us.

Three disasters involving nuclear plants — Three Mile Island in Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979; Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986; and Fukushima in Japan last year — also helped to reinforce public leeriness toward atomic energy. This tendency was embraced whole-heartedly by environmentalists and stoked by popular culture; Stone shows clips of “The China Syndrome,“ which was released shortly before Three Mile Island, and “The Simpsons,” in which the cartoon boob Homer Simpson examines diagrams and wails, “Who ever thought that a nuclear reactor would be so complicated?!” (Interestingly, that film, which starred Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, came out 12 days before the Pennsylvania plant ran into trouble.)

These mishaps were clearly frightening, and widespread ignorance and misconceptions about radiation did nothing to salve public fears about nuclear energy.

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