Archive for August, 2013

Confessions of a reluctant hawk: Syria 2013 edition

August 31, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 31, 2013

President Barack Obama has declared his intent to launch military action against Syria; depending on if and when Congress gives its blessing, hostilities could commence within weeks — perhaps even days. I wanted to take some time to analyze the situation.

In July, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, said that there had been at least 100,000 deaths in the Syrian civil war. The two-and-a-half-year-old conflict is said to have prompted 2 million Syrians (half of them children) to seek refuge in neighboring countries — this from a nation that had an estimated 22.5 million residents as of mid-2013. Rebels claimed last week that government forces deployed chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, killing hundreds of people. The attack, which the United States officially believes to have been the work of the Syrian government, is said to have killed more than 1,400.

Syria has been ruled by the Assad family for 42 years; Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad as president in 2000. President Obama has called upon Assad to resign from office. Assad’s supporters include Russia and China; Iran, which is hostile to the U.S., is also among them. So is Hezbollah, a militant Shiite organization that Western many governments consider a terrorist group.

Unfortunately, the rebel coalition is not entirely filled with angels. There are reports that rebels massacred more than 100 villagers because they were Alawites, the same ethnicity as the Assads. At least one rebel faction has been linked to al Qaeda. Syrian leaders claim that the rebels themselves have used chemical weapons on at least one occasion — although evidently on not as large a scale as government forces are believed to have done.

With that in mind, let’s consider a few relevant questions:

• Does the United States have reason to intervene in the Syrian conflict?

Yes, but it’s virtually impossible to argue that our national security reasons are directly at stake. Instead, the best case is predicated on humanitarian and international law interests. Read the rest of this entry »

The House Republicans’ ‘Jedi Council’ seeks a way to balance the federal budget — but the path they’ll take is unclear at best

August 28, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 28, 2013

Last week, Jonathan Strong, a National Review Online political reporter, published a feature on the so-called Jedi Council. This group of Republican members of the House of Representatives formed in 2011 and has been meeting regularly ever since to plot their caucus’ budget strategy. The group currently has five members: Paul Ryan (Wisconsin), Jeb Hensarling (Texas), Tom Price (Georgia), Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Steve Scalise (Louisiana).

Ryan, of course, was the Republican nominee for vice president last year and chairs the House Budget Committee. All four of the other council members have led the Republican Study Committee, a conservative House caucus. Hensarling, a lawyer and businessman, led the RSC in 2007-08. The following two years, the committee was led by Price, an orthopedic surgeon. Jordan, a former Ohio state legislator with a law degree and has experience wrestling and coaching in college, took the reins in 2011. Scalise, a former systems engineer and Louisiana state legislator, did so this year.

As Strong tells it, the council concluded after Obama’s re-election that a budget fight in early 2013 would be disastrous for Republicans.

“There was a feeling from the five of them that if they had a debt-limit fight in February, it was inevitable that they were going to lose,” says a prominent conservative with knowledge of their deliberations.

The group formed a plan to “re-sequence” the budget fights to give the GOP more leverage. The idea was to punt on the debt ceiling for a while, let the automatic sequester cuts go into effect, pass the GOP’s budget, and then gear up for a big debt-ceiling brawl in the summer. Read the rest of this entry »

Warning: The greatest American heroes, Batman and Superman, aren’t played by Americans!

August 26, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 26, 2013

Last week, I watched The Dark Knight for the first time. If you have any interest in superhero or action-adventure films but haven’t yet seen this feature, well, why not? What are you waiting for? Get on that right away!

I don’t particularly want to review the film, but I thought it was everything I’d ever been told it was. I enjoyed it much more than Batman Begins, which was written and directed by the same team responsible for 2008’s The Dark Knight and this year’s trilogy capper, The Dark Knight Rises. In fact, this movie is probably the best superhero flick I’ve ever seen — although I ought to admit that I have yet to watch either The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises.

What I do want to do is write about two different subjects that The Dark Knight brought to mind. One topic is somewhat serious; the other is rather frivolous.

This post will concern the frivolous. Namely: What’s the deal with British actors playing American characters? In fact, what’s the deal with people born in the British Commonwealth playing iconic American characters?

You know who I’m talking about — or if not, you should. Henry Cavill, who plays Superman in this year’s reboot of that film franchise, Man of Steel, is British. Christian Bale, who (I should note) seems to be done playing the Caped Crusader after the three most recent Batman movies, was born in Wales. Daniel Day-Lewis won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Actor for playing Abraham Lincoln, the American president. The Londoner is the only person to win the best actor Oscar three times; Day-Lewis’ 2007 award, for There Will Be Blood, was earned for portraying an American oilman. (His first best actor prize for was playing real-life Irishman Christy Brown in My Left Foot in 1989.)

Of slightly less import, but still outrageous: Robert Pattinson, who plays American vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight films? He was born in London. Karl Urban from New Zealand plays Bones in the two latest Star Trek movies. That’s right: Dr. Leonard McCoy, physician from the future, the epitome of Southern chivalry of the 23rd century, is personified by a Kiwi! Read the rest of this entry »

The batboy, the Boss and the colorful team that filled the House that Ruth Built: Ray Negron and Sally Cook tell of ‘Yankee Miracles’

August 24, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 24, 2013

At 3:35 p.m. on June 29, 1973, on what should have been the last day of class for Queens student Ray Negron, the high school junior began to vandalize Yankee Stadium. Just as he did, a navy-blue town car containing two Yankees officials pulled up. Negron stood there, paralyzed with fear, as his companions fled from men they thought were undercover cops cracking down on graffiti.

Years before, Negron, a Yankees fanatic, had been able to scrimmage illicitly on the stadium’s hallowed field, thanks to sympathetic members of the ballpark cleaning crew. He thought he knew the historic ballpark at River Avenue and 161st Street inside out. On that summer afternoon, however, team security manager Frank Wilson and the other official escorted Negron into the stadium bowels, to a small police station that few even knew was located there.

Negron sat in the fetid holding cell, thinking about a wayward uncle who had met an untimely end after being drawn into a life of drugs and crime at an early age. He imagined how devastated his mother and stepfather would be by news of his arrest.

In fact, that aborted act of vandalism turned out to be the best mistake that Negron ever made. The other man who apprehended him was one George Michael Steinbrenner, a.k.a. the Boss, the larger-than-life team owner who decided to let Negron work off the damage he’d inflicted by apprenticing in the Yankees clubhouse.

Thus began a decades-long association for the Queens resident, not just with Steinbrenner but with the flagship Major League Baseball franchise.

This almost too-good-to-be-true anecdote helps kick off Yankee Miracles: Life with the Boss and the Bronx Bombers, the 2012 memoir co-written by Negron and Sally Cook. The volume affords a pleasant and sometimes surprising trip into the distant and recent pasts of the most famous team in all of American sports. Read the rest of this entry »

Talking about my generation? On revisiting the 20th century

August 23, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 23, 2013

On Tuesday, The Economist released what I thought was a surprisingly frivolous poll. (Especially coming from The Economist, for pete’s sake!) Under the headline “We still like Ike,” the publication trumpeted its findings that a plurality of Americans (18 percent) would prefer to go back in time to the 1950s above any other decade of the 20th century.

The older the age group surveyed, the higher its preference for the era of the Eisenhower presidential administration; 35 percent of those 65 and above picked the ’50s as their déjà vu decade. One-fifth of Republicans who were polled also preferred the 1950s, with Ronald Reagan’s 1980s coming in second and (interestingly) the tumultuous 1960s placing third among members of the Grand Old Party.

Among Democrats, the ’80s were the least popular decade of the latter half of the 20th century. The 1920s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’90s each were chosen by about 15 percent of Dems surveyed.

The least popular decades were the teens, chosen by 1 percent of poll respondents, and the 1930s, which covered most of the Great Depression and were picked by 2 percent.  Read the rest of this entry »

‘Mr. President, tear down this law’: Considering conservatives’ hostility toward Obamacare

August 22, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 22, 2013

With key deadlines for implementing President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act approaching — except for when the president himself puts them off, that is — a subgenre of conservative punditry has arisen. The theme that unites this new category of opinionating is that its authors all call for Republicans to unite around a replacement set of health care reforms.

It’s long been clear that Americans on the right dislike, if not outright despise, the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. Their opposition is ironic for at least two reasons. One is that the conservative Heritage Foundation devised the individual mandate to purchase health insurance that is at the heart of the plan.

The other is that Obamacare is predicated, through that very same individual mandate, upon expanding the customer base of health insurance companies. In other words, the Affordable Care Act is simply not a single-payer system, in which the government assures every citizen a minimal level of health care. And Obamacare really isn’t much of a step toward socialized medicine, which significantly increase government control or regulation of the people and institutions that actually dispense health care.

Back in June, Ramesh Ponnuru published a lengthy essay on the National Review’s website that took conservatives to task for

increasingly embracing [this] theory about Obamacare: It’s going to collapse of its own weight, and its failure could yield a sharp right turn in the 2014 and 2016 elections. That theory is probably wrong, and dangerously so. To be rid of Obamacare, Republicans will have to do more than just wait for it to go away — and more than they have done so far.

Recent public remarks by Obama reinforced Ponnuru’s criticism that GOPers need to get more specific about enacting a replacement for Obamacare. Read the rest of this entry »

Ambitious mix of action sequences and social justice ideas fuel Neill Blomkamp’s dynamic ‘Elysium’

August 19, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 19, 2013

Elysium is an action-packed science-fiction film with a heart for social justice.

Sadly, this fun, dynamic film has no real clue how to go about achieving social justice in the real, non-cinematic world. Still, the fast-moving storyline and appealing characters go a long way toward making up for that rather significant flaw.

The second feature to be written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, following District 9Elysium shares a number of things with its 2009 predecessor. Both take place in dusty, dystopian, urban futures. In both movies, machines hovering above Earth contain wonders that most humans are eager to obtain — wonders that also threaten to exacerbate existing inequality.

Elysium is set in and above Los Angeles in the year 2154. The film is named after a luxurious orbiting space station to which our overpopulated and polluted planet’s aristocrats moved themselves some years previously. The film’s hero is one Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), an ex-con who has been trying to walk the straight and narrow.

Da Costa works in an immense factory owned by Armadyne Corp., an arms maker controlled by the Elysium-based John Carlyle. After Da Costa loses his job thanks to an industrial accident, he turns to a crime lord named Spider for help. Before too long, Da Costa is shooting down Carlyle’s personal transport in an attempt to download the secrets in his head.  Read the rest of this entry »

The devil’s in the details: Heritage Action for America’s Obamacare poll may not say what Heritage Action for America says it says

August 17, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 17, 2013

There was a lot of buzz Wednesday around the release of a poll by Heritage Action for America, the political action wing of a respected conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. The telephone poll of 1,000 likely general-election voters in 10 different congressional districts found significant support for defunding the Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare. A majority of respondents also said that the prospect of a government shutdown did little to deter their desire to thwart the health care reform law.

Here’s the second paragraph of Heritage Action’s press release:

Independents in the survey strongly support defunding Obamacare by a margin of 57 percent to 34 percent. Further, only 20 percent of voters in these districts support going forward with Obamacare unchanged.

I want to focus on the latter sentence, which says that only a fifth of those surveyed want the health care reform law to be implemented without changes. The pollsters posed this question (see page 3):

Which of the following three views comes closest to your own?

1. I support the health care law, and think it should go forward fully and without changes.

2. I have concerns about the health care law, and think its implementation should be slowed down, and changes should be made to it.

— Or —

3. I oppose the health care law, and think it should be repealed.

Just as the press release states, 20 percent of respondents (200 people) opted for the first answer. The most popular option was the last one, calling for repeal, which 44.5 percent backed. Of the remaining respondents, 32 percent said they want Obamacare to be slowed down and changed, while a handful declined to answer.  Read the rest of this entry »

A restless 1960s kibbutznik seeks ‘A Perfect Peace’ in Oz’s inquiry on personal and community strife

August 15, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 15, 2013

Yonatan Lifshitz, age 26, isn’t sure where his destiny lies. But in the winter of 1965, Lifshitz — Yoni to friends and family — becomes convinced that he must break away from the communal Israeli farm where he was born and raised.

Lifshitz’s escape is both aided and delayed by the arrival at Kibbutz Granot of a mysterious young man named Azariah Gitlin. The gregarious foreigner makes quite a contrast with Lifshitz, a taciturn Israeli native. One thing they have in common, however, is their grandiose, unfocused ambitions.

They also come to share the social circle of the insular Kibbutz Granot. Yolek, a lion in both literal and figurative winter, is the patriarch of the Lifshitz clan and a co-founder of the kibbutz; he’s also a Labor Party official who once served in the Israeli cabinet. Yolek takes an immediate liking to Gitlin, an affection that is soon echoed by Yoni’s emotionally distant wife, Rimona.

The action in A Perfect Peace, the 1982 novel by Israeli author Amos Oz, spans a little more than a year. Gitlin finds his place at the kibbutz as Lifshitz works up the nerve to leave it — an adventure that seems liable to plunge the other characters into chaos. When Yolek passes the kibbutz reins to Srulik, his longtime associate, the former struggles to come to grips with his waning influence over family, community and nation as his successor strives to find his feet. Yolek’s friend and rival, the seemingly ineffectual Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, visits the kibbutz and is lectured by a wild-eyed Gitlin. (“If we Jews hate each other so much, why be surprised that the Gentiles hate us?” the young man asks feverishly.) The question of Yoni’s paternity, and of Yolek’s possible role in driving away his wife Hava’s other lover, is relitigated. Read the rest of this entry »

Woody Allen finds comedy (but not too much!) in the tragedy of ‘Blue Jasmine’

August 14, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 14, 2013

Author’s note: Having noticed a handful of typos and textual loose ends in this post, I made some adjustments on Aug. 21, 2015. I’ve used boldface (like so) and strikethrough lines (like this) to mark all but the most minor changes. MEM

When we first meet Jasmine, the antiheroine of Woody Allen’s new film, she is a character in free fall. Her successful but disgraced husband, Hal, recently committed suicide in prison; now destitute, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is flying across the continent to move into her sister’s modest San Francisco apartment.

Life with Ginger is destined to be rocky, we learn even before the two characters are shown in the same frame. Jasmine is a college dropout with no work experience, computer aptitude or other job skills, not to mention that she’s horribly whiny, spoiled, self-pitying and snobbish. Both Jasmine and Ginger (Sally Hawkins) were adopted, but the former had an excellent relationship with their parents, while the latter had a rocky one. (Ginger likes to joke, seemingly without bitterness, that Jasmine got the good genes.)

Those things alone would make the situation prickly. But there’s also the fact that the crooked Hal (Alec Baldwin) purloined the lottery winnings of Ginger and her then-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, demonstrating superb dramatic chops), thereby leading to the breakup of their marriage. And that’s not even mentioning the nearly immediate enmity that springs up between Jasmine and Ginger’s current fiancé, Chili (Bobby Cannavale).

This combustible mix forms the setup for Blue Jasmine, the 44th feature film directed by the astonishingly prolific Allen. Unlike the director’s three previous movies — You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (set in London), Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love — this picture is set exclusively in and around New York City and San Francisco. From a geographic point of view, it resembles the director’s 2009 movie, Whatever Works, which took place entirely in New York. (Several of Allen’s movies prior to Whatever Works had been located in Europe, especially London.)

The two features have more than that in common, though. Neither main character — Jasmine here, Boris in the 2009 film — cuts much of a heroic figure; it’s often hard to find them sympathetic.

But Blue Jasmine is much darker than Whatever Works. If that movie was essentially a comedy with tragic undertones, this one is a tragedy with comic notes. And while Whatever Works wrapped its narrative up with a nice, neat bow, Blue Jasmine arguably provides no such closure. Read the rest of this entry »

Two fine lead actors plus lots of action makes ‘2 Guns’ slick and stylish but empty fun

August 10, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 10, 2013

The Denzel Washington-Mark Wahlberg vehicle 2 Guns is a slick and stylish but vapid entertainment.

The movie, set alongside the U.S.-Mexico border, features its starring pair as Bobby Bean and Michael Stigman, handsome and dynamic crooks who have an in with the drug cartel run by Big Papi Greco. Bean (Washington) turns out to have more than a few secrets, the least of which is that his real name is Robert Trench. But Stigman has a secret or two of his own — as do all of the organizations with which he, Trench and Greco are connected.

2 Guns’ plot kicks into high gear when Trench and Stigman rob a small-town bank patronized by Greco. Expecting to come away with $3 million in drug cash, the men instead haul away an extra $40 million. That caper makes the two men into targets; they’re hunted not only by the enraged Greco but by an unexpected collection of players both known and unknown.

Naturally, the film features plenty of well-staged car chases, fisticuffs and gun fights, although the climactic battle isn’t quite as fresh (or as clearly executed) as preceding action set pieces. There’s also a plot that’s just twisty enough to contain a few entertaining surprises but not twisty enough to be unnecessarily confusing. Read the rest of this entry »

Fragrant flowers fill the New York City sidewalks with a certain kind of flair

August 6, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 3, 2013

Last week, I drove into Manhattan to meet an old school friend whom I had not seen socially in years. The rendezvous involved a fair amount of walking around the Upper West Side.

After dinner, Mark and I strolled downtown to get a drink at a wine and tapas bar he favors. We witnessed something that was perfectly mundane, at least for New Yorkers, yet struck me as being quite novel. We were passing a floral display that was being watered. Excess liquid dripped and splashed on the sidewalk. Fluid pooled and flowed across the sidewalk, draining toward the gutter. A burst of scent from the bouquets filled my nose as we ambled south along Broadway.

This is something that New Yorkers can see many times a day, but it had been years since I’d experienced it. Read the rest of this entry »

Rambling about (and aboard!) New York City’s Circle Line

August 1, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 30, 2013

Last week, I got to cruise around Lower Manhattan on the Circle Line. It had been approximately 10 years since I was last on the water around New York City, and far longer than that since I had last set foot aboard the Circle Line.

The Circle Line was an iconic part of my youth. The service’s tourist boats regularly ring Manhattan, circling the borough in jaunts of roughly three hours apiece. A trip on the Circle Line meant an opportunity to see skyscrapers iconic and otherwise, to feel the river breeze, and to pretend to be a Sailor and a Man of Action. (Pretend being the operative word there, as I became neither a sailor nor a man of action!)

My sibling now has little ones, and the Sibling, Sibling-in-Law and Parental Unit somehow decided — to my secret delight — that it would be a good idea to cruise en famille when the Sibling & Co. made one of their pilgrimages to the homeland.

The voyage that we took was (hum it with me! Yes, to the theme of Gilligan’s Isle!) a two-hour tour…a two-hour tour — not the iconic full-island journey of my youth but a semi-circle cruise. Be that as it may, the trip was fantastic, in my opinion.

We went on a mild mid-summer day; even so, the air conditioning in the cabin was a welcome relief, as was the breeze on the prow of the ship.

Our boat, the Circle Line Queens, backed out of its slip on Pier 83 at 42nd Street and Twelfth Avenue, in the Hudson River alongside the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, and pointed the bow south. The ship cruised between Manhattan and New Jersey; passed Liberty Island, the home of the Statue of Liberty; and turned around in New York Harbor to head north. We motored by Governors Island and up into the East River, between the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Read the rest of this entry »

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