Archive for September, 2013

An efficient, intriguing and gorgeous ‘Riddick’ almost lives up to the high standards set by ‘Pitch Black’

September 30, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 30, 2013

In 2000, writer-director David Twohy helmed a modestly budget science fiction actioner named Pitch Black. The film, made for $23 million, starred Vin Diesel as a violent criminal named Richard B. Riddick who is stranded along with a handful of other people when their commercial transport crash-lands on a backwater desert world.

The tautly paced 109-minute movie begins with the thoroughly harrowing crash. Every subsequent bit of the story chronicles the castaways’ battle for survival — a struggle that sometimes pits them against each other even as the group must face down swarms of malevolent predators that soon emerge from their new surroundings.

Riddick, a violent and menacing presence whom a lawman named Johns struggles to contain, is the dark heart of Pitch Black. But to its credit, the film — co-written by Twohy along with Jim and Ken Wheat — is populated with several other fascinating characters. Viewers are not only entertained by the action sequences but intrigued by the task of working through just what is happening on the planet and by puzzling out just who among the survivors might be trustworthy.

Pitch Black was followed by a 2004 sequel, Chronicles of Riddick, another collaboration among Diesel, Twohy and the brothers Wheat. I’ve only seen this film in parts (much in the same way as I initially became familiar with Pitch Black), but I know it works a much broader canvas. The film dispatches its antihero to at least two different worlds and pits him against a villainous horde intent upon conquering the universe.

Chronicles of Riddick, which was made for about quintuple the budget of Pitch Black, opened to a lukewarm critical reception and reportedly made back only about half of its budget.

For the recently opened Riddick, Diesel has reunited with Twohy, who this time goes solo on screenwriting duties. The new movie has a scaled-down story and budget (just $38 million) in comparison with its predecessor. It looks stunning, efficiently cranks up the tension and delivers reliable thrills, but unfortunately, it lacks some of the zip of the original.

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Two men enter. Hilarity ensues: A tribute to Key and Peele

September 28, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 28, 2013

As I wrote last month, for years I have lived without a television in my various homes. And as I alluded to in that piece (without saying it explicitly), for years I went without watching much in the way of web video.

Why not? Well, there were various reasons. (There always are with me.) One was that during two lengthy periods from 2008 through 2011, as web video was really taking off, I didn’t have Internet available at home. Another was that my tentative experiments watching web videos weren’t very successful: For whatever reason, they just didn’t load or play very quickly on my Macintosh laptop.

My aversion to web videos started to change in mid-2012, after I got a tablet. Web videos still sometimes can take a second or so to load on the device, and occasionally the playback annoyingly stutters or pauses when it outpaces the download. But this seems to happen relatively infrequently with the tablet.

So I ended up spending time with the tablet’s YouTube application, finding videos that I liked and subscribing to the “channels” that purveyed those videos. While I branched out a bit, discovering the Crackle service, my preferences when watching videos on the tablet boil down to these characteristics: short and funny.

By short, I mean no more than five or six minutes (but not ultra-short, which I consider anything shorter than two minutes). By funny, I mean — well, take a look at the channels to which I’ve subscribed: College Humor. Funny or Die. How It Should Have Ended, whose humorous animated shorts improve on the endings of popular movies and video games. The Onion. Screen Junkies, who first drew my attention with their hilarious Honest Trailers. (Sample lines from their skewering of World War Z: “[A]nother zombie movie… But this time, it’s got Brad Pitt! Get ready for the big-screen adaptation of the best-selling novel that’s got everything you loved about…the title! And nothing else.”)

But that’s not all! Here are some of my other channel subscriptions: Sarah Silverman. Comediva, whose work puts female comedians front and center. Potter Puppet Pals, which spoofs the Harry Potter series. Rachel Does Stuff, which boasts singing, stand-up comedy and sketches from Rachel Bloom. 1A4Studio, which condenses popular films into hilarious one-minute animated “speedruns.” TransolarGalactica, which puts a darkly comedic spin on space opera.

Oh, and then there’s Comedy Central.

Which brings me to the point of this post — the confession that I must offer to ease my troubled soul. You see, my friends… My name is Matthew E. Milliken, and I have Key & Peele fever.

Who or what, you may ask, are Key and Peele? I’m glad you asked! Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are comics who have an eponymous variety show airing Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. ET on Comedy Central.

And did I mention that Key and Peele are downright hysterical? Because they are.

You may already know Key and Peele from their first East/West College Bowl skit, which lampooned the names of NCAA football players. Or perhaps you caught the duo in 2012 portraying President Obama and Luther, his “anger translator.” If comedic parodies of horror films that not-so-subtly comment on societal racism is your bag — that’s a well-established subgenre, right? — then perhaps you’ve seen Key and Peele’s “Suburban Zombies” sketch. Or maybe your passion for social justice and hiphop led you to see the pair’s Gandhi vs. Martin Luther King Jr. entry in the second season of the “Epic Rap Battles of History” web series.

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The man from Paint Creek might be more competitive the second time around

September 26, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 26, 2013

For months, there have been whispers and rumblings that outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry may mount a second campaign for president, following his roundly criticized effort of late 2011. The latest such story came Saturday courtesy of Politico’s Anna Palmer, who wrote, “Perry certainly appears to be laying the groundwork to make a potential run possible.”

The excellent American Prospect contributing editor Paul Waldman saw Palmer’s story and jumped on it. Color Waldman skeptical — make that extremely skeptical — that the Texas Republican is capable of redeeming himself from his infamous “oops” moment during the Nov. 9, 2011, debate in Rochester, Mich.

You should read all of Waldman’s story, but here’s the nut:

[I]t’s true that lots of people were more successful in their second run than their first. Mitt Romney, John McCain, Al Gore, and Bob Dole all got their party’s nomination in their second try. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush all made it to the White House after failing the first time they ran. Is Rick Perry the equal of any of them? I’d say no, but he surely thinks so. Which means we might be able to look forward to a whole new set of hilarious gaffes.

I’m no Perry fan, but I think Waldman may just possibly be misunderestimating — to borrow a word from a previous Texas governor — the man from Paint Creek.

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Thoughts on Arizona State vs. Stanford, winning ugly and winning championships

September 25, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 25, 2013

Stanford’s 42-28 home win over 23rd-ranked Arizona State on Saturday night left many Cardinal football fans with an unpleasant aftertaste.

The reason wasn’t the margin of victory — 14 points, the same as in Stanford’s 34-20 win the week before at Army — so much as it was the contrast between the home team’s play in the first and second halves. Specifically, the problem was how ragged the Cardinal looked during the final quarter, in which ASU strung together three straight touchdowns. Stanford had leaped out to a 29-0 lead after the opening half and a 39-7 advantage after 45 minutes. After three quarters, ASU was just 3-13 on third-down conversions, compared to 7-11 for Stanford, and had held the ball for a little more than 19 minutes.

The Sun Devils faced third down five times in the final period. They made three of them and converted on fourth down the other two times. ASU had 417 yards on offense for the game; a fairly astounding 195 of them came on their trio of fourth-quarter touchdown drives, per my count.

By contrast, the Cardinal had three possessions in the final quarter and punted on all of them. The first two of those Stanford drives were led by backup play-caller Evan Crower, who handed off six times for a net gain of 13 yards. The team’s final drive, led by starter Kevin Hogan, covered 40 yards and led to Jordan Williamson’s successful 24-yard kick; despite that, the hosts missed on all four of their third-down tries in the final stanza. Ultimately, 87 percent of Stanford’s offensive yards came over the first three-quarters of the game.

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How to photograph a college football game in seventy-six easy steps

September 21, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 21, 2013

Step 1. Have your sibling give you a birthday present of tickets to watch Stanford football play at Army on Sept. 14, 2013. This is a game you’ve been awaiting for years because of the nature of college football intersectional scheduling (and also because you live on the East Coast and your alma mater, Stanford, is in California).

Step 2. Put off asking someone to accompany you to the Stanford-Army game. Repeat for weeks and weeks and weeks.

Step 3. At not quite the last minute (six days before kickoff), ask your pal “Jay” to accompany you to the Stanford-Army game.

Step 4. At not quite the last minute (the night before the game), print out your e-tickets to the game and purchase a parking pass.

Step 5. At not quite the last minute (shortly before leaving the house to pick up Jay and go to the game), ask to borrow your parent’s Samsung compact digital camera with the excellent zoom.

Step 6. Pick up Jay outside his home shortly after 9:30 a.m. on game day.

Step 7. Thoughtlessly proceed to take perhaps the worst possible route between Jay’s home and the highway you plan to take to West Point. Not only is the route circuitous, it passes through a number of Orthodox Jewish and/or Hasidic Jewish communities. And not only does the circuitous route pass through a number of Orthodox Jewish and/or Hasidic Jewish communities, this happens to be Saturday, the sabbath day, when truly observant Jews refuse to use automobiles and instead walk everywhere. And not only does the circuitous route pass through a number of Orthodox and/or Hasidic Jewish communities on Saturday, this particular day happens to be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest of Jewish holidays, which means that there are lots of people walking. And not only are there lots of pedestrians, a noticeable number of them are walking not on the available sidewalks but beside them. And not only are some of these people walking on the street, instead of watching where they’re going, some of them are reading (presumably) prayer books as they go.

Step 8. Because Jay hasn’t had breakfast, search for a bagel place to patronize. Because neither of you are particularly familiar with the area where you are, this involves nearly turning into a strip mall that lacks a bagel place; actually turning into a strip mall that doesn’t have a bagel place but is immediately adjacent to a strip mall with a bagel place; and turning, finally, into a strip mall with a bagel place.

Step 9. Drive toward West Point, N.Y.

Step 10. Bypass the first turnoff for West Point because it’s clogged with traffic.

Step 11. Bypass the second turnoff for West Point because it won’t lead to a lot where you can use your parking pass. Also, it’s clogged with traffic.

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The invisible man as prism: ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ helps convey the story of 20th century American civil rights

September 20, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 20, 2013

Near the very beginning of the cumbersomely titled Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the camera flies quickly over a vast field in such a fashion that budding cotton plants are, at least at first, indistinguishable from the sun-dappled waves of the ocean.

We are seeing a Macon, Ga., plantation in 1926, a place and time where young Cecil Gaines and his family and friends are little better than slaves. After Thomas Westfall — a white man and a land owner, or at least the son of one — rapes Gaines’ mother, Earl Gaines confronts Westfall verbally. Westfall pulls a gun and shoots the other man in the head as the horrified 8-year-old watches.

That event forever changes the world for Cecil. Matron Annabeth Westfall takes young Gaines under her wing with a mixture of kindness and cruelty; mere seconds after Earl has been shot to death, she curtly tells the child to stop crying and informs him that he’ll become a “house nigger” now.

Young Gaines takes to his new life as a serving boy. But at age 15, believing that Thomas Westfall was bound to take his own life, Gaines runs away and becomes the protégé of a butler at a hotel in North Carolina. A few scenes later, a middle-aged Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is working as a butler at a fancy Washington, D.C., hotel in the 1950s; a few scenes after that, the husband and father joins the domestic staff of the White House under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The Butler, as I shall refer to it, is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, who literally served every American president from Harry Truman through Ronald Reagan. Allen’s life, as originally chronicled by Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood, has been adapted for the screen by Danny Strong. The feature is directed by Lee Daniels, whose last two outings were The Paperboy (2012) and Precious (2009).

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A few answers are revealed, but many mysteries abound after Stanford’s 34-20 win against Army

September 16, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 16, 2013

Over the past four years, I’ve been fortunate enough to see my beloved Stanford football team play in person an average of once a season, despite living on the opposite side of the country from my alma mater. (I’m separated by a distance of 2,800 miles and 44 hours of drive time, according to my smartphone map program.)

I got my latest opportunity to cheer on my favorite team from the stands this past weekend when the Cardinal visited the U.S. Military Academy in upstate New York. West Point isn’t far from where I grew up, and I was lucky enough to be treated to a pair of tickets by a sibling.

So I was there in Michie Stadium when the team kicked off its second game of the 2013 season. After four quarters, fifth-ranked Stanford had earned a 34-20 victory over Army. But I found myself coming away with plenty of questions — some of them easily answered, some of them unanswerable at the moment.

Here’s a look at what I saw and what I wondered about after the Cardinal moved to 2-0 on the young year.

• Question: How good will Tyler Gaffney be this year?

Answer: Very. T-Gaff left no doubt that he is primed for a terrific season after posting his second straight game with more than 100 rushing yards. In fact, Gaffney — who took a break from football in 2012 to play minor league baseball — improved on his performance against San Jose State in the opener.

He rushed 20 times in each of the first two games, racking up 104 yards (5.2 yards per carry; long of 16) and two touchdowns against the Spartans and 132 yards (6.6 ypc; long of 25) and one score vs. Army. No. 25 went for two catches and 20 yards in the first game of 2013 and accounted for a single 23-yard touchdown reception in the second game.

Many folks thought that the Stanford ground game would miss a beat after the graduation of Stepfan Taylor. But all indications are that those folks thought wrong.

• Question: Why has David Shaw been talking about running-back-by-committee when Gaffney has been so spectacular in the early going?

Answer: Unclear. Maybe Gaffney played below his current level during preseason camp. Maybe his chief rival, Anthony Wilkerson, flashed far more potential during summer practice than he’s shown in the first two contests. Maybe Stanford’s coach wanted to make it harder for opposing coaches to prepare for the Cardinal. Read the rest of this entry »

A new hope appears in Syria, but Assad’s chemical menace likely can’t be removed peacefully

September 12, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 12, 2013

After some Keystone Kops–like antics and contortions by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Obama administration, a partial solution to the brewing Syria crisis suddenly emerged Monday.

Kerry in one breath raised and then dismissed the possibility of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turning over his entire chemical weapons stock as a way to deter possible American military strikes. Within a matter of hours, both Assad and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, had tentatively endorsed the idea. We’ll have to see what emerges, but this is a positive development.

Which is to say, it’s a positive development in the short term. I’m cautiously optimistic that Assad, Putin and the Obama administration can reach a bargain that staves off American military intervention in exchange for securing Syria’s chemical weapons. (Ideally, Syrian chemical and suspected biological weapons will be identified, secured and ultimately destroyed.)

Having fewer deployable weapons of mass destruction loose in the world — or in the hands of despotic or untrustworthy regimes — is obviously a very good thing. Averting American missile or bomb strikes that had a high potential of killing innocent civilians and a low potential of deterring future WMD use is also a very good thing. Preventing some kind of boots-on-the-ground intervention, and all the bloody consequences that are inextricably linked to those actions, is even better.

If Assad were to retain his chemical weapons, the best case is simply that nothing happens — the weapons see no further use. But plenty of much direr scenarios could easily unspool if Syria retains its WMDs. Perhaps Assad would gas more civilians. Or al Qaeda, which has loyalists among the rebel fighters, might capture his chemical and possibly biological weapons and attempt to use them, either in Syria or abroad. Read the rest of this entry »

Considering employer-sponsored health insurance, Obamacare and the (possible) ruination of American health care

September 10, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 10, 2013

Last week, I started looking at the case against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as made by the Senate Conservatives Fund. The fund’s website has a fact sheet that offers some tangible reasons to be leery of Obamacare, including poll results showing that 41 percent of business owners put off hiring new workers and 38 percent delayed plans to expand expressly due to the health care reform law.

But not everything in the fact sheet is solid. Let’s start with this short excerpt from page two of the three-page document:

Obamacare will destroy American healthcare. 
• CBO estimated a loss of employer-sponsored coverage for 7 million people.

In February, the Congressional Budget Office released a set of projections for the next decade finding that “In 2022, by CBO and [the Joint Committee on Taxation’s] estimate, 7 million fewer people will have employment-based health insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act.”

But wait. How exactly does such a decrease constitute the destruction of American health care? One of the reasons many people think health-care reform is necessary is that the private health insurance market has plenty of gaps: A number of employers don’t offer coverage, and many individuals can’t — or, sometimes, simply don’t — purchase insurance on their own.

Another problem with our current system is that people are reluctant to leave or switch jobs because they’re afraid of losing health care coverage. This phenomenon is called job lock. A 2004 study by a Heritage Institute scholar found that “for married women with employer-sponsored insurance, having an alternative source of coverage increases their likelihood of becoming self-employed by 75 percent…” If Obamacare works as planned, the exchanges would free up more married women to launch their own businesses. Isn’t that a good thing? Read the rest of this entry »

Football, television and beer: Rambling thoughts on these three things

September 9, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 9, 2013

At the beginning of 2002, I moved out of my childhood home (at a rather advanced age — but never mind that) and into a small studio apartment on Broadway near Columbia University, where I was then pursuing graduate studies at the renowned journalism school. One of my grandmothers lived in Murray Hill, another Manhattan neighborhood, and I would typically visit her at least once a week.

We would sit and talk, and we would go out to eat for dinner, as I remember. But many afternoons, I would disappear into her bedroom for a few hours. That’s where grandma kept her television — a popular entertainment device (as you know) that I did not have in the cluttered studio where I lived.

Like many people, I have a love-hate relationship with television. I find it entertaining and boring and seductive and frustrating. I frankly love to tell people that I live without a television.

Or, to be a bit more accurate, I loved telling people that I live without a television. I hate that at this point in the early 21st century living without a TV no longer marks me as a particularly distinctive individual.

The issue here, as with so many facets of modern American life, is the Internet. Thanks to YouTube and Hulu and Netflix, and probably other stuff that I’ve yet to encounter, one can live without a television and yet watch oodles of its programming on one’s computer. Much of this streaming content is relatively current. Some of it is made available, legally or not, as it is actually being broadcast.  Read the rest of this entry »

Conservatives vs. Obamacare: Looking at (and debunking) part of the case against the ACA

September 7, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 7, 2013

The conservative crusade against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act continues apace.

Let’s be clear, to borrow a phrase from the president: There are a number of reasons why the health care reform law is so loathed on the right. To cite just one factor: It passed Congress in 2010 without a single Republican vote.

And yes, this is a big and complicated law that tackles a huge swathe of our society and economy. There’s a chance that the so-called Obamacare legislation will work brilliantly. There’s a chance that Obamacare will fail spectacularly. My hunch is that the law will work, but in the manner that many large projects work — that is, imperfectly.

Glenn Kessler, the main Fact Checker columnist for The Washington Post, had a post Tuesday morning examining three particular claims made by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in a television ad inveighing against Obamacare.

Here’s how Cruz starts off the spot: “There’s bipartisan agreement that Obamacare isn’t working. Democratic Senator Max Baucus, the lead author of Obamacare, says it’s a huge train wreck.”  Read the rest of this entry »

The gangster, his love, the aristocrat and their friends: Notes, questions and rambling ruminations upon revisiting Fitzgerald’s American masterpiece, ‘The Great Gatsby’

September 4, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 4, 2013

I started reading — or re-reading, rather — The Great Gatsby on the evening of Labor Day. By the time I put the book aside, I’d read to the final page, and it was early on Tuesday, Sept. 3.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel is, of course, an American classic. I believe I read it originally in high school, or perhaps junior high school. It has, of course, been adapted for film five times, including both a 2000 TV movie and this year’s Baz Luhrmann big-screen adaptation. I have, to the best of my recollection, seen none of these features, although the Luhrmann film brought me back to The Great Gatsby: A relative bought a paperback edition of the book tied to the movie release, which paperback was passed on to me. (There’s a chance I may have been shown the 1974 Gatsby film, starring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston, in school.)

One of the hallmarks of revisiting works of art is the extra insight one gains upon subsequent perusals. Perhaps I should feel more mature when I spot things that I’d never before seen; instead, however, this phenomenon makes me acutely aware of my past immaturity. “How could I have missed this or that aspect?” I ask myself. This time around, I was surprised by how obvious a gangster Meyer Wolfsheim seems. (In addition, I identified quite strongly with the narrator’s fixation upon Wolfsheim’s grotesque nose hair, which diverts attention from the rest of his personage. I’ve had to fight that kind of distraction myself.) 

I’m also shocked not just by how imperfectly I’ve appreciated a book or movie but by how little of its plot I have remembered. Spoiler alert: I did recall the fatal car accident near the conclusion to The Great Gatsby; I did not remember the identity of the victim, or how the victim was tied to the other characters, or that the car crash led (with an assist from Tom Buchanan) to Gatsby’s murder. Oh, and memory had also elided pretty much everything about the desultory New York City excursion that preceded the crash. These are pretty important things to have forgotten!  Read the rest of this entry »

Running on empty: One young man wrestles with life decisions both big and small in Updike’s ‘Rabbit, Run’

September 3, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 3, 2013

Harry Angstrom is a man in nearly constant motion, yet he usually seems to be falling behind. The 26-year-old protagonist of Rabbit, Run, the 1960 John Updike novel, is a perpetual man-child: He has the body of an adult but the moral sensibilities and decision-making abilities of an adolescent.

When the book opens, Angstrom — Rabbit to his high-school classmates — is walking along an alley when he comes across six boys playing basketball. Although he is wearing a business suit, he joins in their game:

In a wordless shuffle two boys are delegated to be his. They stand the other four. Though from the start Rabbit handicaps himself by staying ten feet out from the basket, it is still unfair. Nobody bothers to keep score. The surly silence bothers him. The kids call monosyllables to each other but to him they don’t dare a word. As the game goes on he can feel them at his legs, getting hot and mad, trying to trip him, but their tongues are still held. He doesn’t want this respect, he wants tot tell them there’s nothing to getting old, it takes nothing. In ten minutes another boy goes to the other side, so it’s just Rabbit Angstrom and one kid standing five. This boy, still midget but already diffident with a kind of rangy ease, is the best of the six; he wears a knitted cap with a green pompon well down over his ears and level with his eyebrows, giving his head a cretinous look. He’s a natural. The way he moves sideways without taking any steps, gliding on a blessing: you can tell. The way he waits before he moves. With luck he’ll become in time a crack athlete in the high school; Rabbit knows the way. You climb up through the little grades and then get to the top and everybody cheers; with the sweat in your eyebrows you can’t see very well and the noise swirls around you and lifts you up, and then you’re out, not forgotten at first, just out, and it feels good and cool and free. You’re out, and sort of melt, and keep lifting, until you become like to these kids just one more piece of the sky of adult things that hangs over them in the town, a piece that for some queer reason has clouded and visited them. They’ve not forgotten him: worse, they never heard of him. Yet in his time Rabbit was famous through the county; in basketball in his junior year he set a B-league scoring record that in his senior year he broke with a record that was not broken until four years later, that is, four years ago. Read the rest of this entry »

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