‘Carry the Rock’ elegantly explores the troubled history and contentious present of Little Rock, Ark.

May 22, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 22, 2017

Jay Jennings’s 2010 nonfiction book, Carry the Rock, is an excellent look at a small city in the American Deep South. The writer skillfully uses the 2007 football season of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., as a prism for examining the state capital’s fractured racial past.

Central — indeed, all of Little Rock — may be most famous for the contentious integration of the school in 1957, the anniversary of which was celebrated during the season Jennings tracked the Tigers football squad. Over the course of 230 expertly written pages, the author sketches the history of Little Rock from the time its eponymous riverside feature was first marked on a map (as le Petit Rocher) by a French explorer in 1722 up through recent years. Along the way, he introduces us to Central’s coaching staff, a few of the school’s notable players and alumni, and some of the current-day residents who shape the civic discourse of the city.

The man at the heart of Carry the Rock is Bernie Cox. Gruff, old-fashioned but soft-voiced, Cox had won seven state championships from the time he became Central’s head coach in 1975 until Jennings embedded with the squad. Cox developed a specific way of doing things over the years, and he demands the same consistency of his players:

Cox told the freshmen that when they went to the locker room that day, there would be a table and on the table would be a notebook and they were to print their names in the notebook, along with their student numbers — so if there were a dozen John Smiths in the school, there would be no mistaking which one it was — and the names of their parents or guardians. He never said “parent” without also saying “guardian” because he had learned over the years that many of his players didn’t grow up like he did, with a mother and father and siblings in the same home. Often the grandmother or grandfather would be the one in charge, or an uncle or aunt, especially when the mother or father was fifteen or sixteen when the player was born.

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Humanity has an inauspicious introduction to an alien organism in the sci-fi/horror movie ‘Life’

May 17, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 17, 2017

The grandly named 2017 movie Life is a grimly efficient horror flick set aboard the International Space Station in the near future. I use the word flick advisedly: This is a B-movie premise mounted on a very respectable $58 million budget.

The space station’s six-person course — ah, I mean crew — is working on a project called Pilgrim, in which an automated probe is returning Martian rock and soil samples to near-Earth orbit for analysis and experimentation. Matters get off to a rocky start when the probe is damaged by debris, which leads to a hair-raising high-speed rendezvous.

But that’s nothing compared to what happens when exobiologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) discovers that one of the samples contains a dormant single-celled organism. Once Derry brings the laboratory chamber’s temperature and atmosphere to Earth-like conditions, the microscopic creature begins first moving and then multiplying.

Humanity is captivated by the discovery, and an overjoyed elementary-school student names the life form Calvin on a live broadcast. No one is happier than Derry — although he and his crewmates will soon come to regret their finding.

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Confessions of a lifelong fraidy-cat; or, Why I (mostly) can’t abide horror films

May 15, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 15, 2017

When I was a child, I would sometimes glimpse horror films on television. These brief exposures inevitably made my pulse race and usually left me terrified, regardless of whether the scene showed someone being harmed or even threatened.

Once when I was 10 years old, my family and I attended a family gathering at my Great-Uncle Paul and Great-Aunt Jesse’s apartment in Queens. (Or maybe I was 8 or 13. Who knows?) The apartment’s combined living room and dining room was full of people. But one moment, when I happened to be facing the TV, I saw something that made me feel completely alone and utterly vulnerable.

There was some old 1960s movie on; I remember it being in color, although I couldn’t even tell you if the scene I saw involved a Frankenstein’s monster coming to life or a vampiric woman awakening. In fact, I’m not even sure if the sound was on or off. But just watching a few seconds of this production frightened me to the core. I think one of my parents — my mother? — noticed that I was petrified and steered my attention somewhere else, or perhaps got someone to change the channel.

It’s a weird childhood trauma to remember, if trauma is indeed the right word for such a minor ordeal. And yet thinking back on that moment — muddled though my recall of it might be — I get terrified all over again.

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Death doesn’t get in the way of a good time, even years after I first watched ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’

May 11, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 11, 2017

A few years ago, as I wrote Wednesday, I re-watched The Black Hole, a science fiction movie that I’d enjoyed as a kid but which seemed severely lacking when viewed through my adult eyes. The other day, I revisited Weekend at Bernie’s, a 1989 comedy that had struck my adolescent self as hilarious, despite being poorly received by critics upon its release.

Reader, I must report the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: I thought that Weekend at Bernie’s held up pretty well on my recent viewing.

The movie features a darkly hilarious setup. The two protagonists, young insurance-company employees played by Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman, get their holiday off to a rocky start when they discover that their boss and Labor Day weekend host, Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser), has just died. Because the pair wants to enjoy a few days in Bernie’s opulent beach house, they manipulate the corpse so people think that he’s still alive — much to the consternation of Paulie (Don Calfa), the drug-addled hit man who keeps assassinating Lomax on behalf of a mafioso whom the profligate Lomax has angered.

Director Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy KravitzFirst Blood and Uncommon Valor) and screenwriter Robert Klane (National Lampoon’s European Vacation) embrace the corniness at the heart of this premise. The cast goes for broke, too, especially Calfa, whose eyes seem to bulge more and more with every passing moment.

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Return to outer space — recalling another not-so-terrific science-fiction adventure from the waning weeks of 1979

May 10, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 10, 2017

Occasionally, YouTube’s algorithms offer up something interesting. That happened the other week when I stumbled upon some video clips excerpted from The Black Hole, the poorly received 1979 film that was the first-ever Disney production to receive a PG rating.

When I looked up the film’s release date, I found that it came out on Dec. 21, 1979 — exactly two weeks after the premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I went to see The Black Hole in the cinema during its initial theatrical run, which meant that that month was full of science fiction excitement and disappointment.

The nearest art-house cinema to my current home is the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham, N.C. The Carolina regularly shows old science fiction, horror and fantasy movies, and a few years ago, they brought in The Black Hole for a showing. Naturally, I went.

The film that had disappointed young me also disappointed adult me, albeit for somewhat different reasons. But that hasn’t stopped me from returning to movies (and occasionally books) that my younger self enjoyed. Which, not at all coincidentally, will be the topic of my next post…


My password security fiasco: Part 3 of 3

May 7, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 7, 2017

The first installment of my password security fiasco is available here; the second part is available here. 

Nearly five years ago, I wrote about my propensity for opening oodles and oodles of tabs on my web browser. Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that my email accounts are similarly stuffed with tens of thousands of messages.

Every so often, I try to weed out outdated, obsolete and unnecessary emails. I was doing that the other night when I spotted a notification on my Gmail web page stating that I was using something like 2.5 gigabytes out of my 15GB allotment. I’d seen this information before, but on this particular evening, some combination of boredom and idle curiosity prompted me to click the link that said “Manage.”

That opened a new tab that had three components. One was a solicitation to buy more storage from Google (15GB is the company’s free basic offering). The second component was a pie chart showing me how much online Google storage I was using. The third thing was a reminder that my Google storage was shared by three of the company’s services: Gmail, the Google email service; Google Drive, the company’s cloud (read: online) file storage service; and Google Photos, their cloud photo storage service.

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My password security fiasco: Part 2 of 3

May 7, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 7, 2017

When I left off my pulse-pounding story about forgetting my master password, I was discussing the trouble I had in recovering — that is to say, guessing — my password.

One of the problems was that I couldn’t just keep entering password guesses until I found the right one. If I entered enough incorrect phrases, LastPass would lock me out for five minutes. I’d wait a few minutes, repeat the cycle, and get no closer to having my passwords. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no other options for regaining access to my account.

Because practically everything on the Internet, and at least half the things on my smartphone, involves a password-protected account, I felt paralyzed.

For weeks, I contemplated setting aside a day just so I could guess my password. But the prospect was dismal, so I never did it.

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My password security fiasco: Part 1 of 2

May 6, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 6, 2017

In April 2014, I wrote about an Internet security flaw and my use of the password manager LastPass. Since then, I joined LastPass’s premium service, which costs what I consider to be an eminently reasonable $12 a year in return for the ability to use the service on my mobile phone.

I try to be diligent about updating important passwords every six months or so. But you know what they say about good intentions — as in, the road to hell is paved with them…

In February, Yahoo issued a warning about hacking that had affected its site. Alng with that caution came a wave of articles advising Internet users to change their passwords because of a newly discovered web infrastructure vulnerability. Since it was about time to update the entry codes on my accounts anyway, I spent the last night of the month at home getting started on just that arduous task.

One of the passwords I changed was the one on my LastPass account — my master password, as they call it. Unfortunately, when I went to log in to LastPass a day or two later, I found that I couldn’t remember my password.

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Donald Trump and Barack Obama: Examining off-the-cuff American history lessons from our two most recent presidents

May 3, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 3, 2017

I was tickled to my cynical core Monday morning when I learned that President Donald Trump had bloviated about Andrew Jackson, one of his antecedents in the Oval Office, and the Civil War. After all, who better than Trump — who in February became the first to discover, regarding health care policy, “It’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated” — to lecture the American public on history?

In an interview with SiriusXM’s Salena Zito that aired Monday, Trump said the following about the nation’s seventh president:

I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

There are plenty of analyses of (this edition of) Trump’s dunderheaded comments; see, for instance, this Jeet Heer joint at The New Republic. But it got me wondering: Did Trump’s predecessor, Barack Hussein Obama, ever speak extemporaneously about Andrew Jackson or the Civil War? And if so, had he ever made such dumbfounding remarks?

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Disappointed and thrilled: Memories from 1979’s premiere ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’

April 29, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 29, 2017

The original Star Trek series debuted on Sept. 8, 1966, some five years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. On July 20, 1969, about six weeks after NBC aired the show’s final episode, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon. It would be more than 10 years before any further live-action Trek appeared, in the form of 1979’s beautiful but ponderous Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The show did have some new on-screen life over this fallow decade. Twenty-two episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series featuring the original cast were broadcast over a 13-month period spanning September 1973 through September 1974.

But the franchise mainly flourished in other forms during the interregnum: Through print and reruns. A variety of comic books generally chronicled new adventures that hadn’t been produced for television, while a passel of prose books mixed adaptations of TV episodes with original stories. Reruns — aired in New York City and beyond by WPIX for years and years beginning shortly after Star Trek was canceled by NBC — presented the show more or less as it had been originally produced. (The “less” part came from two things — wear and tear on the film prints, which WPIX replaced with tapes in the 1980s, and editing to accommodate more commercials and other promotions.)

Information in 1979 wasn’t as easy to obtain as it is now, when lifetimes’ worth of video, audio and other content can be accessed nearly anywhere with a lap- or palmtop device. Still, newspapers, television and magazines — I particularly remember drooling over issues of Starlog — did an ample job of spreading the word about upcoming movies. And believe you me, I was very excited for the premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December 1979.

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