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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