Archive for December, 2014

Turing’s tests: ‘The Imitation Game’ is a superior but tragic biopic about a brilliant but lonely intellectual

December 31, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 31, 2014

What makes life worth living? Why should society — why should anyone — value a man’s existence and accomplishments?

Those are some of the questions Norwegian director Morten Tyldum poses with his new feature, The Imitation Game, which examines the life and work of pioneering British computer scientist Alan Turing.

The movie has three interwoven narratives. The shortest, but arguably the most heart-wrenching, shows a roughly 15-year-old Turing at boarding school in the 1920s. Turing, played with touching vulnerability by Alex Lawther, is bullied mercilessly by his classmates — all but one, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon), who shows appreciation for Turing’s quirky personality as well as his impressive intellect.

The grown-up Turing whom we see throughout the rest of the movie is less vulnerable — at least superficially. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s ongoing 21st-century update of the character and Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness) portrays the main character as he first strives to crack Nazi German cryptography in World War II and then, in the early 1950s, tries to deflect the inquiries of an overenthusiastic Manchester detective who suspects Turing of spying for the Soviet Union. (To avoid spoilers, I’ll confine most of my commentary to the movie’s World War II narrative.)

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The intriguing biopic ‘Theory of Everything’ is marred by an unearned upbeat ending

December 28, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 28, 2014

The Theory of Everything, English director James Marsh’s new feature, is a domestic drama that documents the romantic and marital relationship between Jane and Stephen Hawking.

Marsh and his screenwriter, Anthony McCarten, working off of Jane Hawking’s memoir, begin their tale in 1963 at Cambridge University in England, where he is a brand-new doctoral candidate in physics and she is studying medieval European poetry (apparently as an undergraduate). There’s an instant attraction between the pair, played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, when they spot each other at a party.

The fair-haired scientist is barely bold enough to act upon it and start chatting up the pretty brunette. (Barely — at evening’s end, Jane walks off but then dashes back and hands Stephen a napkin with her phone number scribbled on it.) After some stalling, the atheistic Stephen intercepts Jane, a devout Anglican, outside church one Sunday morning and invites her to his family’s home for lunch. Jane tolerates his quirky, brilliant and opinionated father and siblings (Stephen’s mom seems to be perfectly agreeable) before consenting to go to a spring ball with him after he announces to his kin that she’s already agreed to be his date.

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Despite its overlong titles, strained premises and avant-garde structuring, Yann Martel’s ‘The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios’ is a marvelous anthology

December 26, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 26, 2014

Yann Martel is a Canadian author whose second novel, Life of Pi, published in 2002, was a best-selling critical success. It won the prestigious Man Booker Prize, awarded to the best English-language novel published in the United Kingdom, and was the basis for an excellent film adaptation directed by Ang Lee, which appeared in 2012.

Martel’s first book is an excellent anthology from 1993 called The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories. As the title story suggests, the edition has plenty of quirky elements. Two of the four stories are clearly experimental fiction, while the title story itself could arguably be classified as such.

That title story has a convoluted premise that shouldn’t work. The unnamed narrator launches the tale by describing his friendship with Paul Atsee, a 19-year-old freshman, which begins when the two meet at college. (The setting is the fictitious Ellis University in the equally fictitious municipality of Roetown, which Martel situates just east of the actual city of Toronto.) At the time, the unnamed narrator was a 23-year-old senior working as an orientation volunteer, but the differences in age and experience are no barrier to the relationship: “[R]ight away I liked Paul’s laid-back, intelligent curiosity and his skeptical turn of mind. The two of us clicked and we started hanging out together.”

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Coincidence: On my tour of the popular culture of 2012, my trip to Las Vegas and Yann Martel

December 23, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 23, 2014

Lately, entirely by coincidence, I’ve been reading and reviewing book and movies from 2012: Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, Ben Affleck’s Argo, Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night and (back in September) Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Now, entirely by coincidence, this week, I’ll have two blog posts connected to Canadian novelist Yann Martel.

Why? Coincidence.

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The unlikeliest of buddy movies: ‘Life of Pi’ puts a teenager and a tiger together at sea

December 22, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 22, 2014

Ang Lee’s 2012 feature film, Life of Pi, is a brilliantly realized adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2002 book, which features a bizarre premise. For the bulk of the picture, the eponymous Pi — rhymes with pie the dessert; is actually pi the mathematical constant — is stranded on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.

It’s to the credit of Lee, screenwriter David Magee and the entire crew that this fantastic scenario plays out convincingly. Plaudits are especially due Suraj Sharma, the first-time screen actor who portrays Pi throughout most of the movie and who, for perhaps two-thirds of the running time, is the only person on screen.

Pi’s companion bears the name Richard Parker thanks to a clerical error at the time of purchase in which the animal’s name was transposed with that of the hunter who captured him. He used to be on display at a zoo run by Pi Patel’s family in Pondicherry, India. When local authorities announce their desire to repossess the zoo’s land, the Patels decide to move to Canada; they arrange passage aboard a freighter so they can accompany their animals, most of which will be sold in North America.

Tiger and teenager come to be trapped together in a lifeboat after an immense storm sinks the freighter. This is shown in a spectacular and frightening sequence that, in terms of cinematic impact, may outdo even the meteorological monster shown in The Perfect Storm.

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Wrestling with words: An attempt to unpack the meaning of Don DeLillo’s ‘Point Omega’

December 20, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 20, 2014

On one level, Point Omega, the slender 2010 work by American novelist Don DeLillo, is the tale of a social and intellectual seduction that is interrupted by inexplicable tragedy.

The two primary characters are Richard Elster, a 73-year-old former adviser to George W. Bush’s presidential administration, and Jim Finley, a 30-something filmmaker who is determined to make a documentary about the older man. Most of the book takes place in Elster’s isolated cabin in the Colorado Desert, about 180 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Much of the book consists of long meandering philosophical discussions between Elster and Finley, such as this exchange from the first chapter:

“Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resemble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability. These were words that would yield pictures eventually and then become three-dimensional. The reality stands, it walks, it squats. Except when it doesn’t.”

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Some degrees of separation: Not entirely random notes about Ben Affleck, Dennis Lehane and Christopher Nolan and blogging

December 19, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 19, 2014

One interesting thing about blogging that I learned this fall is that it helps me make connections — often completely unexpected ones.

I don’t just mean the kind of free-association stuff that happened in my car — well, in my head while I was driving — Wednesday night, which I wrote about yesterday. I mean things like actor-director Ben Affleck’s connection with novelist Dennis Lehane.

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There I was, driving in my car, thinking about a lake named Carr… Err, I mean Kerr

December 18, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 18, 2014

On Wednesday evening, I was making a short drive to a local coffee shop. I fiddled with the radio and found myself listening briefly to a North Carolina State men’s basketball broadcast on the school’s flagship station, Raleigh’s 101.5 FM WRAL.

I didn’t listen very long before changing the station, and I didn’t pay much to what I heard, but broadcaster Gary Hahn uttered a sentence that stuck in my mind.

“When you’re feeling it, when you’re a shooter, the basket looks as big as Kerr Lake,” Hahn exclaimed. He was discussing a hot-handed player — presumably senior guard Ralston Turner, who scored 33 points in the Pack’s 83-72 home win over Tennessee.

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Like father, like son? Identity is inextricably tied to parentage in Nick Harkaway’s ‘Angelmaker’

December 18, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 18, 2014

Absent parents loom large in the fictional realm. A key component of the original Star Wars trilogy is Luke Skywalker’s gradual discovery of the particulars of his parentage (especially the villainy of his father, the genocidal Darth Vader) and Luke’s struggle to develop his supernatural powers without being consumed by his own dark, angry impulses. The rebellious nature of the alternative timeline’s James Tiberius Kirk is shaped in large part by the absence of his father, George, whom director J.J. Abrams killed off in the opening sequence of the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Likewise, the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man makes the research and relationships of Richard Parker, father of the orphaned web-slinging Peter Parker, a key plot point in both of the series’s first two outings.

I’d wager that matters of parentage are even more prominent in British fiction. After all, the United Kingdom has been ruled for centuries by a hereditary monarchy, with power passing (at least in theory) from one generation of royalty to the next.

A major storyline in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy involves Aragorn assuming the position of king of Gondor that, according to genetics and custom, is rightfully his. My recollection of the books is hazy, but in Peter Jackson’s wonderful movie adaptation, when the audience initially encounters this character, he goes by the name of Strider and appears to be a well-trained woodsman accustomed to operating on his own — hardly the résumé of the standard fantasy prince.

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Fiction and non-: Sorting history from invention in the movie ‘Argo’

December 17, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 17, 2014

Recently, I wrote about the excellent 2012 thriller Argo, which won the Academy Award for best picture. I was curious about the fidelity of the movie to the real-life events it depicts: The covert extraction of six United States Foreign Service employees who escaped the American embassy in Tehran when angry Iranians captured it on Nov. 4, 1979. Director Ben Affleck plays the hero of the piece, CIA agent Tony Mendez, a specialist in so-called exfiltration operations.

The very broad outlines of the movie are true: The CIA did create a phony movie company that purported to want to film a science-fiction feature named Argo in Iran; Mendez and the six fugitive Americans, who took shelter with Canadian diplomatic personnel, posed as Canadian moviemakers on a location scout and flew out of the country using that cover. A makeup artist named John Chambers (played here by John Goodman) was a key part of the fake production company. In real life, as in the film, this dummy corporation took out ads in trade publications and generated press coverage.

It turns out, however, that screenwriter Chris Terrio took liberties with many of the details of this caper. (Terrio’s script, which was based on Mendez’s memoir and a Wired magazine article by Joshuah Bearman, won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.)

For instance, the British didn’t turn away the fugitive Americans, as one of the film’s characters says. In the first six days after the embassy was captured, five Americans moved in a group to half a dozen different locations. One of these was the British embassy, which they left with the agreement of the U.S. and U.K. governments because Iranians had attacked British diplomatic properties. (The British embassy was actually captured for a brief period.)

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Louts and strivers, united by their desire to exploit the weak: H.G. Wells expounds a dark vision of humanity in ‘The Invisible Man’

December 16, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 16, 2014

Herbert George Wells’s sixth book, The Invisible Man, in 1897, continued a very productive writing career that had begun in 1895 with the publication of a debut novel and two other works. Wells’s first volumes included a short-story collection, a comic novel (The Wheels of Chance, which revolved around bicycling), and four science-fiction novels. One of those works, The Wonderful Visit, is obscure; the others are anything but.

The Time MachineThe Island of Dr. MoreauThe Invisible Man and Wells’s seventh book, The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, develop seminal science-fiction tropes. Not only are these themes — time travel, scientific overreach, all-out war against implacable alien foes, the ability to move without being seen — threaded throughout the history of science fiction, Wells’s very stories themselves have been produced for television and film many times.

Since 2004, no fewer than five movies inspired by The War of the Worlds have been released; it was also (very loosely) the basis for a 1980s TV series and a classic 1953 movie. The most recent Island of Dr. Moreau film appeared 18 years ago; it followed in the footsteps of three 1970s adaptations as well as versions from 1959, 1932 and 1921. There have been five movies based on The Time Machine, with a sixth due out next yearThe Invisible Man has inspired an even longer string of movie and TV screen (non-)appearances, including a TV series unfamiliar to me that aired from 2000 through 2002, although the book’s most famous screen incarnation might still be the 1933 version starring Claude Rains in the title role.

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Science fiction and sociology: Considering ‘The Time Machine,’ H.G. Wells’s pioneering science fiction novel

December 13, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 13, 2014

The year he turned 29, Herbert George Wells published his debut novel. It was the first of dozens of volumes penned by Wells and the start of an incredibly fertile period for the author. Within four years, Wells had produced seven books, four of which made a lasting impact on the then-new genre of science fiction.

These volumes were the science fiction novels The Time Machine and The Wonderful Visit and the short story anthology The Stolen Bacillus, all published in 1895; a third science fiction novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and a comic novel, The Wheels of Chance, which plays off of the newfound popularity of the bicycle, both published in 1896; and two additional science fiction novels: The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, published respectively in 1897 and 1898.

In 2003, the Barnes & Noble Classics imprint compiled The Time Machine and The Invisible Man in a single volume that included a timeline of Wells’s life, a short biography of the author, explanatory and interpretative notes, and four contemporary reviews of the two works. The biography and notes were written by Alfred Mac Adam, a professor of literature at Barnard College (who, interestingly, appears to specialize in Latin American literature).

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Belief and disbelief: Rolling Stone cuts journalistic corners, and vulnerable assault victims are likely to bear the brunt of the impact

December 11, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 11, 2014

I don’t know exactly what went wrong with the reporting and editing of “A Rape on Campus,” Rolling Stone’s attention-grabbing Nov. 19 feature story about an alleged sexual assault at a University of Virginia fraternity house.

We do know that there are serious questions about the anecdote at the heart of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s feature. The gang rape that she described in detail may not have happened at the Phi Kappa Psi house, or it may not have involved a member of Phi Kappa Psi. Or perhaps it never took place at all. We still don’t know for sure.

But for weeks, Rolling Stone asserted that it had rigorously fact-checked the account of Jackie, the student (her last name did not appear in the story) who claimed to have been brutally gang-raped in the fall of 2012, when she was a freshman.

That changed on Friday, when, after copious evidence emerged that the publication had seriously failed to verify some aspects of the feature, the magazine acknowledged that the story had serious issues. Now, Rolling Stone says that it will re-investigate the article in order to give readers a full understanding of what happened on the evening in question.

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Science-fiction novel ‘Assault on Sunrise’ depicts a monster movie brought to life

December 10, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 10, 2014

Assault on Sunrise, a 2013 science fiction novel by Michael Shea, boasts a nifty premise but suffers from indifferent execution.

The novel is set in Sunrise, a small town in mountainous Northern California. Some of its residents have roots in the area that go back generations; others are “ex-extras,” people who once lived in the sprawling Southern California urban-ghetto nightmare that’s known in the book as the Zoo.

The latter group agreed to be bit players in the movies, risking their lives against artificial monsters created by Hollywood studios in return for big payments. (Apparently the extras can get the biggest checks by having the most dramatic and visually striking encounters with hostile creatures.)

As the book starts, every so-called live action movie has been “cammed” in immense controlled environments that only simulated the appearance of being outdoors. That’s about to change, however. Panoply Studios mogul Val Margolian has covertly arranged for every resident of the town of Sunrise to be indicted for murder on trumped-up charges. That enables him to purchase a contract with the state to execute the townspeople by filming their fight against a flotilla of artificial oversized wasps and mantises.

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Nobody knows his face, but everybody knows his name (and story): Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’

December 6, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 6, 2014

Everyone knows the basic setup of the world of Batman, one of the great comic-book heroes. Heck, millions of people could recite it in their sleep. It goes like this:

Bruce Wayne, the only son of billionaires, was orphaned by a gunman at an early age and raised by Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family’s loyal butler. Determined to fight the endemic crime of his native Gotham, the so-called Dark Knight dons a cape and cowl and equips himself with a cornucopia of fantastic gadgets in order to help Jim Gordon, the city’s trustworthy police commissioner, apprehend bizarre and menacing villains.

In 1989, the quirky director Tim Burton launched a Batman film franchise, featuring an unlikely choice — mild-mannered comedic actor Michael Keaton, a.k.a. Mr. Mom — in the lead role. Burton’s quirky, sometimes over-the-top gothic realization of this noir-ish comic-book universe proved to be immensely popular. Batman garnered $40.5 million in its first weekend, dwarfing the previous best opening of a superhero movie (Superman II, which took in $14.1 million in 1982).

Burton’s quite excellent Batman went on to total earnings of more than $250 million and helped spawn a legion of superhero movies. They included Batman Returns, which saw Burton and Keaton reuniting for a decent 1992 feature, and two extremely cheesy, greatly inferior further sequels: Batman Forever (1995), directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Val Kilmer in the title role; and Batman & Robin (1997), again directed by Schumacher but this time starring George Clooney.

When, in 2005, Christopher Nolan came out with the insipidly named Batman Begins, a cinematic reboot of the Caped Crusader, I wondered why, exactly, the movie was necessary. What novelty could be mined from the genesis of Batman, whose origin story even the highest-browed of potential moviegoers knows by heart?

I never did see Batman Begins in the movie theater. But I did watch it, on a fiasco of a date, at a free outdoor screening in Raleigh’s Moore Square Park in the summer of 2005 or 2006 (if memory serves).

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The moral stain of torture: Some things to keep in mind while we await the Senate report on CIA interrogation

December 4, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 4, 2014

In March 2009, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.), respectively the chairwoman and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced that their group had agreed on a bipartisan basis to review

• How the [Central Intelligence Agency] created, operated, and maintained its detention and interrogation program;

• How CIA’s assessments that detainees possessed relevant information were made;

• Whether the CIA accurately described the detention and interrogation program to other parts of the U.S. government, including the Office of Legal Counsel and the Senate Intelligence Committee;

• Whether the CIA implemented the program in compliance with official guidance, including covert action findings, Office of Legal Counsel opinions, and CIA policy;

The 2009 announcement also said that the committee would evaluate intelligence “gained through the use of enhanced and standard interrogation techniques.”

“Enhanced interrogation” is, of course, a euphemism for actions that most people would call “torture.”

Work on this Senate investigation spanned about five years, culminating in a report of about 6,000 pages. In early 2014, the committee submitted a 480-page executive summary to the White House. The Obama administration, including CIA officials, redacted the summary in ways that rendered it unintelligible and unsupported, according to complaints from Senate committee members.

The administration redactions came to light in August. The executive summary has remained in limbo since then.

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An unexpected lyric: A previously unknown (to me) Sinatra song suddenly summons nostalgia

December 2, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 2, 2014

Occasionally, echoes of my childhood home pop up at the least expected times — and in the least expected songs.

That’s just what happened to me around 2:30 this afternoon when I was sitting in DaisyCakes, a bakery in downtown Durham, N.C. The sound system was playing classic big band songs, one of which was sung by Frank Sinatra.

“Let’s take a boat to Bermuda,” crooned the man with the golden pipes as the song began. “Let’s take a plane to St. Paul.”

Nothing too remarkable here. But my ears pricked up midway through the next couplet:

Let’s grab a kayak to Quincy or Nyack.
Let’s get away from it all.

Quincy is a city of about 93,000 residents located some 11 miles south-southeast of Boston, Mass. One could kayak — or, more plausibly, sail in a boat powered by wind or an engine — from downtown Boston through the mouth of the Mystic River, pass Logan International Airport, take a southerly turn through the Boston Harbor Islands and proceed into Quincy Bay before landing at Merrymount Park in Quincy. I’ve never been to Quincy.

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