Up in the air: J.J. Abrams juggles balls aplenty in a dynamic, overstuffed ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

August 28, 2014

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

Star Trek Into Darkness, director J.J. Abrams’s second entry in the rebooted Star Trek series, is packed to the gills with characters, plot threads and action. Unfortunately, the 2013 film is guilty of trying to do a bit too much.

Into Darkness is fun, no doubt. It recapitulates one of the most popular narratives in the Star Trek oeuvre: The story of Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered warlord who was frozen in a cryogenic tube and exiled from Earth after the bloody Eugenics Wars of the late 20th century. Gene Roddenberry’s pioneering 1966 television show featured Khan as the villain of the week in “Space Seed,” a first-season Star Trek episode; 16 years later, the character formed the dark heart of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which many still consider to be the best of the franchise’s dozen movies.

Abrams’s movie combines elements of both outings while adding plenty of new twists. Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch, charismatic but far paler than any man playing a character named Khan should be) and his frozen coterie of superhumans are discovered by a Starfleet commander other than the Enterprise’s James T. Kirk, and Khan’s 23rd-century machinations take quite a bit of unraveling as our heroes seek to learn just who he is and what he’s about. (As superfans already know, the movie is chockablock with dangerous newfangled torpedoes, and there are a pair of characters named Marcus, but there are no signs of the U.S.S. Reliant or the planet-shattering Genesis project.)

The film begins with an action sequence on the planet Nibiru, where Kirk (Chris Pine) breaks all the rules to preserve a primitive civilization and the life of his first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto). The opening act sets up several character arcs by displaying Kirk’s immaturity and Spock’s refusal to engage with the emotional needs of his friend (Kirk) and lover (communications officer Uhura, played by Zoe Saldana).

A few minutes later, a Starfleet facility in London is destroyed and a gunship kills several officers at fleet headquarters in San Francisco. This prompts a furious Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to dispatch Kirk to the Klingon home world, Qo’noS (pronounced Kronos), with orders to kill the fugitive responsible for both attacks. But it turns out that the fugitive is not who he seems, and neither are some of the other characters who are either crewing or focusing their attention on the Enterprise.

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Crimes and misdemeanors: Considering criticism of The New York Times’s Michael Brown profile

August 26, 2014

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

The New York Times published dual profiles Sunday of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. The former man, of course, is an unarmed 18-year-old who was killed this month  in Ferguson, Mo., while the latter man is the police officer who fired the deadly shots.

The profile of Brown, written by John Eligon, was poorly received. The sticking point was essentially this, the fifth paragraph:

Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.

The complaints seem to boil down to the following two points:

• Why does Eligon mention Brown’s very minor offenses — experimenting with alcohol and drugs, scuffling at least once, making rap music — when these are things that many, many teenagers have done?

• Why does Eligon characterize the shooting victim as “no angel,” which many read as an implicit condemnation of Brown’s character?

I’m not impressed by either of these objections. Let’s examine them in order.

The first complaint is by far the flimsier one, to my mind. Brown’s use of drink and drugs, his one known fight, and his rap music are relevant because those are among the things that Eligon found in his reporting.

And Eligon didn’t exactly focus on Brown’s possible failings to the exclusion of all else. Here is the very next paragraph in his story:

At the same time, [Brown] regularly flashed a broad smile that endeared those around him. He overcame early struggles in school to graduate on time. He was pointed toward a trade college and a career and, his parents hoped, toward a successful life.

Might it have been better to put more emphasis on these details? Perhaps. But if the profile’s fifth and sixth paragraphs had essentially been flipped, I have a hunch that critics still would have focused on references to some of Brown’s questionable behavior.

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Life, fictionalized: Richard Linklater creates an interesting prototype in ‘Boyhood’

August 23, 2014

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

In 1991, Houston-born writer-director Richard Linklater released a shaggy dog of a movie with the title Slacker. Playing more like a documentary that switched subjects every five minutes or so than a traditionally structured movie, the film featured characters with names such as Should Have Stayed at Bus Station (played by the director himself), Grocery Grabber of Death’s Bounty, Espresso Czar/Masonic Malcontent, Happy-Go-Lucky Guy, Two for One Special, Traumatized Yacht Owner, Guy Who Tosses Typewriter and Handstamping Arm Licker. Over the course of about 97 minutes, Linklater’s camera restlessly moved from one character or group to another over the course of a day in the life of Austin, Texas.

Linklater’s newest movie, Boyhood, features a more typical narrative, and yet it’s hardly a typical feature. In fact, it’s rather like a reverse-engineered Slacker: Rather than focusing on various people who cross over — or at least near — each other’s paths during one day in one city, Boyhood follows a youngster, his family and their doings in different parts of Texas over the course of 12 years.

And when I write “12 years,” I mean that literally: Filming began more than a decade ago and continued every year or so as Linklater reconvened his core cast of four actors. (A few secondary characters appear in multiple segments.)

Boyhood’s story, to the extent it has one, involves families dissolving, forming, dissolving and reforming in varying permutations over the years. The divorced mother and father, played by Patricia Arquette and regular Linklater trouper Ethan Hawke, change from dissolute slackers (he more than she) to respectable professionals, making plenty of mistakes along the way. (She, perhaps, more than he.) Young Mason Evans Jr. (Austin native Ellar Coltrane) starts out as a young video-game-obsessed slacker who eventually develops a passion for music, art, photography and girls. In his spare time, the teenager Mason cultivates a personality that is both laconic and iconoclastic.

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Knee, arms, wrists, hands — meet pavement (or, the tale of my minor bicycling catastrophe)

August 20, 2014

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

Ouch, I did it again.

Just as I’d started to forget all about my swollen ankle, I got myself into another mess.

On Sunday afternoon, I was bicycling around my childhood home. For the past four days or so, I had been riding about a mile to the end of the road that runs by my old elementary school and then turning around.

But in the interests of stretching my wings, I’d decided to change up things. Instead of turning to pass the school, I zipped along a road that carried me over a local highway. I started moving by side streets and extended driveways that I’d barely seen despite having frequented this road for decades of my life.

But my poor underutilized legs and lungs were feeling stressed, so I decided to turn around without exploring any of these obscure byways. There was little traffic, so I executed a lazy turn at an intersection and tried to begin building up speed for the uphill ride back home.

I ran into trouble at a T-intersection that I’m very familiar with from years of driving. My memory is a bit hazy, but I recall there being two cars at the spot: One waiting to make a right turn to go down the hill, and another waiting to move onto the road I was traveling. (Which direction? To the driver’s right, perhaps, but I’m not sure.)

I was moving at a pretty fast clip, so I decided for safety’s sake to slow down slightly. I also recall spotting a divot in the road ahead of me, which I tried to steer around. This, I think, was my big mistake.

Suddenly, the tires slipped. My two-wheeler tilted toward the road, and my body started dropping onto the asphalt. The exact sequence is lost to me, but in short order, my left knee absorbed no small part of the impact; the back of my left hand and wrist ever so briefly touched the ground; the right side of my right knee touched down even more briefly; and the outside part of my right hand and arm brushed the earth. I remember that at some point, the left side of my helmet hit the ground and glided for a few inches — possibly farther than that.

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Fascinating premise, flat drama: Light comedy and heavy philosophizing go nowhere in Allen’s ‘Magic in the Moonlight’

August 16, 2014

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

The newest Woody Allen movie, Magic in the Moonlight, revolves around the question of whether the universe is wholly confined to scientifically observable phenomena or whether there might exist spirit or spirits unseen. The irony is that writer-director Allen, in this movie, has crafted a subtext-free dramatic venture, one limited almost exclusively to superficial appearances and to the literal words and events that it depicts.

Allen’s protagonist is Stanley (Colin Firth), a magician whose brilliance is matched only by his cluelessness in social and emotional realms. When we meet him in 1928, on the eve of the finale of his European tour, he is about to embark on a vacation to the Galapagos Islands with his fiancée.

That all changes when Stanley receives a backstage visitor from Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), a childhood friend and longtime professional rival. Howard has spent the past few weeks at the French estate of the Catledges, a wealthy American family that has been divided by a young medium who purports to be in touch with the family’s deceased patriarch.

Howard has unsuccessfully striven to debunk the psychic as a fraud. When he beseeches his friend, who’s famous for exposing supernatural hoaxes, to lend a hand uncovering the scam, Stanley requires only a modicum of cajoling to get him to scrap his summer vacation. (The fiancée, featured in a single scene, hardly seems bothered that Stanley will be spending the next few weeks apart from her.)

Stanley’s first encounters with the supposed psychic, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), are intriguing. She instantly intuits his stage persona and holds a seance in which, somehow, a candle hovers in midair without any supporting mechanism that the skeptics are able to detect. When Sophie apparently discerns, from holding a strand of pearls owned by Stanley’s Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), who also resides in Southern France, Stanley immediately abandons his lifelong commitment to rationalism.

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We’ve paid the butcher, but for what? Deaths, injuries and financial costs of America’s misadventure in Iraq

August 12, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 12, 2014

It turns out that conservative firebrand Laura Ingraham has written off America’s war of choice in Iraq as an exercise in futility. Here’s what she said on a Fox television program on Sunday:

Now Iraq is worse off. I mean, I hate to say that, but Iraq is worse than before we went into Iraq. Christians are gone. There’s no sense of order at all. Saddam Hussein is gone. That’s a good thing, but what’s left? A more emboldened Islamic state. Not contained apparently even by U.S. air strikes.

I hope more Americans start to think seriously about the potential downsides of foreign adventures.

How expensive was this war — and how devastating to the nation we had hoped to uplift? I recently found a few different items that tell the sad tale, including one that ties in to Ingraham’s observation about what I’ll call the de-Christianization of Iraq — a story about Iraq being placed on a list of nations that violate religious freedom.

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Me vs. the hornets: Round 2

August 11, 2014

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

I stepped in it — again.

On Friday, my neighbor asked if I’d like him to trim my bushes around the house I rent. I happily agreed and zipped away on my bicycle.

When I returned home for lunch, the property looked much neater. Among other things, the branches that overhung the small space between the side of my house and the woods had been snipped. This made access to the area much simpler — I could just walk into it without having to push leaves and tree limbs out of my face.

Up until late June, I’d kept my bicycle chained to the fence in this spot. That changed after I stepped on a hornets nest — a mildly painful and fairly terrifying experience — which prompted me to lock my bike to the front porch.

But seeing the more-or-less well-kempt grounds, I decided it was time to give my old bike-chaining spot a go.

That proved to be a mistake.

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The old in-and-out: Obama, Bush and the removal of American troops from Iraq

August 9, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 9, 2014

There’s a tendency on the right to blame President Barack Hussein Obama for, well, just about every ill under the sun.

The conservative narrative goes something like this: Obama was inaugurated, and then everything went to hell. I’m oversimplifying the right-wing zeitgeist here — but, I would contend, only slightly.

A cursory examination of the Obama administration provides plenty of fodder for the argument that the president — through indifference, incompetence, iniquity or some mixture thereof — is ruining America. Gas prices rose sharply after the first president from Kenya Hawaii (oops!) took office. So did unemployment as the economy cratered. The deficit — and, as a consequence, the national debt — ballooned dramatically. Americans learned that under Obama, the National Security Agency was collecting unprecedented amounts of information about the calls we make and the e-mails we send. There have allegations that the Internal Revenue Service has been abusing its power to harass conservative nonprofit groups. And an ambassador was killed in the line of duty for the first time in 33 years.

Some of these complaints don’t stand up to scrutiny. Gas prices have risen under Obama, but they’ve never quite reached their peak of about $4.10 a gallon under Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush. The economy has ramped back upward. (The reasons for the slow recovery may lie beyond Obama’s control, much as the recession can’t be entirely attributed to Bush.) Many of the NSA practices seem to have begun under Bush. Protestations of outraged right-wingers to the contrary, IRS scrutiny wasn’t strictly limited to conservative groups. And recently, Republicans on a Congressional committee concluded that the administration was not responsible for any wrongdoing or gross negligence related to the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at a consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

One can certainly debate the various merits of Obama’s policies — although I doubt folks on the right will be able to bring themselves to say anything complimentary about health-care reform anytime soon, despite evidence that it’s workingObama’s military intervention in Libya was conducted in defiance of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, thereby leaving a permanent blot on the president’s record. (I object not to the intervention but to Obama’s refusal to obtain congressional permission for extended military efforts.) Obama’s embrace of the extrajudicial killing of American citizens is blatantly outrageous, and will forever stain his presidency. Moreover, the president’s failure to prosecute torture conducted under the auspices of his predecessor severely undermined his claim to any moral high ground.

Yet I write not to bury Obama nor to praise him. Instead, I want to consider one oft-repeated conservative complaint that has always baffled me: The allegation that Obama is responsible for the increasing chaos in Iraq.

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The mystery of the misunderstood Obamacare provision: Another take on the Halbig imbroglio

August 7, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 7, 2014

Feature or bug? That’s a crucial debate being contested as a result of the Halbig lawsuit, which is part of the right wing’s War on Obamacare.

Liberal commentators such as Brian Beutler argue that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provision that’s at the heart of the Halbig tussle represents a drafting error, not the intent of the law’s architects. To say otherwise is to dismiss as irrelevant the vast majority of the reportage and analysis that took place as the massive health-care reform bill was being crafted and implemented.

In fact, to adopt the now-popular conservative argument that Obamacare must be have been precisely designed to function exactly and only as it is written is to call into question the integrity of virtually everyone who discussed and wrote about the law as it was crafted, passed and initially launched.

After all, over that period, few if any people mentioned the supposed fact that Obamacare’s drafters intended to bar people who purchased health insurance through online marketplaces or exchanges that were run by the federal government. And the current conservative line is that the provision is a major feature, not a bug, in the health-care reform initiative.

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Did political convenience convince a conservative journalist to re-categorize a bug as a feature? An examination of the Welch–Beutler–Suderman spat

August 6, 2014

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

A Twitter feud between left-wing and right-wing pundits caught my eye last week.

The spat was launched by this tweet:

The difference between intellectual honesty () and a hackish attempt at oppo marginalization: ()

— Matt Welch @mleewelch 10:51 AM – 29 Jul 2014

Welch is the editor in chief of Reason, the libertarian magazine produced by the Los Angeles–based Reason Foundation. His tweet praised an article written by Reason senior editor Peter Suderman and published in Reason while panning one written by Brian Beutler, a senior editor at The New Republic, and published in that left-leaning magazine.

The articles promote dueling interpretations of the issue that many people refer to as Halbig. The tag comes from the plaintiff in one of a handful of pending lawsuits that seek to cripple the right’s favorite whipping boy, the Affordable Care Act.

The key to Halbig — beyond, of course, understanding that conservatives are obsessed with (a) opposing anything associated with Obama, especially (b) the health care reform law that is familiar known as Obamacare — is the question of whether one provision in that law means what it appears to say in the narrowest and most literal possible meaning.

This is the position on the right wing. As a result, they assert, buyers in states that did not establish their own online health-insurance marketplaces are ineligible for the tax credits that they were promised. In many cases, these subsidies make the coverage affordable.

Should this argument prevail, it could affect more than 7 million residents in the 36 states that rely on HealthCare.gov. (That’s the federally run website for comparing and purchasing health insurance plans offered by private companies; the site was created for residents of states that declined to create their own online exchanges.)

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