Archive for June, 2014

‘To sleep, perchance to dream’ — ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ remakes history with a not entirely entrancing extended catnap

June 28, 2014

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

In the year 2023, the new movie X-Men: Days of Future Past informs us, virtually everything is dimly lit, computer-animated or both. More to the point, plot-wise, giant shape-shifting robots are waging a deadly war against mutated humans and anyone sympathetic to them. The remnants of the the X-Men, a group of superpowered mutants, fight a losing battle over and over: Time and again, the robotic Sentinels discover and breach their hideout, slaughtering the mutants one by one, until they reach the inner sanctum and find that…nothing has happened.

The extermination of the heroic X-Men is repeatedly undone because of the duo of napper extraordinaire Bishop (Omar Sy) and psychic Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page). She’s able to project Bishop’s consciousness into the mind of his younger body, some hours or days in the past, which allows him to warn his colleagues of the impending danger and go elsewhere ahead of the Sentinels’ arrival. History changes at the very moment Bishop wakens, meaning that each deadly assault is completely lost to the universe but for Bishop’s memory of it.

Now Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the leader of the X-Men, has conceived a daring plan to end the war before it begins, to use the movie’s haughty phrase. Pryde will send Logan, code-name Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), into his younger body in 1973. His mission: To round up allies who will prevent the mutant Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, frequently wearing a blue bodysuit and heavy makeup) from committing the murder that triggered the destructive Sentinel-mutant war.

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Sweating the World Cup: Watching U.S. vs. Germany

June 27, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 27, 2014

I wrote the other day about my sports calendar. That post started out as…well, as this post, only I turned out to have written them in the wrong order!

Anyway, the United States men’s national team played Germany at noon Eastern time on Thursday for a chance to reach the knockout round of the 2014 World Cup. For months, Group G — U.S., Germany, Portugal and Ghana, which had knocked America out of the previous two tournaments — had been labeled the “Group of Death.” Out of this intimidating field of four, only the top two teams could advance.

The U.S. had beaten Ghana, 2-1, in its opening game, but the second match had resulted in an agonizing tie-from-ahead draw, 2-2. (Portugal’s last goal came in the 95th minute, the latest-ever regulation score in Cup history.) The Americans didn’t need a win to get to the tournament quarterfinals, but victory would guarantee advancement. Obviously, the stakes were pretty high.

I left home on my bicycle a little before noon and arrived after the match was under way. My viewing venue was Bull McCabe’s, an Irish (er, Scottish? No, Irish…I think) pub in downtown Durham. Four years ago, when the World Cup was staged half a world away, in South Africa, I’d watched the matches at Bull McCabe’s.

But the bar is now very different from the way it used to be — at least on the outside. Back then, fans packed themselves at tables inside the humid, crowded bar. Presumably, that happened on Thursday, too, but I sat myself down on one of the benches in the small sward beside Bull McCabe’s. This space, once essentially vacant, has been transformed into a sort of beer garden; sometime over the last year, the bar added an exterior patio, and table service is now available outside.

So instead of being hot and sweaty inside a bar, I was hot and sweaty outside a bar — and also exposed to direct sunlight. I later learned that these conditions were more or less diametrically opposed to those in Recife, where the match was played in an ongoing downpour that had drenched the Brazilian city overnight.

And what of the game itself? It was riveting, both because the outcome was so important and because the score remained so close.

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Seasons of sports: One fan’s calendar

June 27, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 27, 2014

I make no bones about it: I become a soccer fan every few years, whenever the American men or women are competing in the World Cup. I have nothing against the Beautiful Game (football or footy or fútbol, as it’s widely known outside of the States) but my sporting agenda is too packed for me to indulge anything beyond this kind of sporadic soccer fandom.

Football, by which I mean American football, has been my top sports passion for years: College football through the end of the regular season, the National Football League after that. My attention shifts to college basketball once the Super Bowl has been played.

Once, I was a fanatical and relatively informed baseball fan; now, spring is a bit of a sports breather for me. I pay minimal attention to the start of the Major League season, even though everyone has a shot at the playoffs at the start of April. (Actually, my interest is low sort of because everyone has a shot at the playoffs at the start of April.)

Come May, I sometimes let the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League playoffs hover on the periphery of my consciousness. Occasionally,  I’ll take a closer look if there are compelling narratives. Such was the case this year, with San Antonio attempting to avenge its loss to the Miami Heat in a rematch of the 2013 NBA finals and the New York Rangers seeking to win their first Stanley Cup in 20 years. (For many decades prior to 1994, Rangers haters would boisterously chant “1940! 1940!,” a taunting reminder of when the boys in blue last topped the NHL.)

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Apocalypse now (and again and again and again): Time loops, action and drama mount in the science fiction/action hybrid ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

June 26, 2014

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

Author’s note: This post originally indicated that the novel on which Edge of Tomorrow is based was first published in 2009. However, that was the year that the first English-language edition of the book appeared; in July 2015, I changed the post to show the year of the book’s actual debut, which was 2004. MEM 

Edge of Tomorrow is an action-packed science-fiction movie that could be remembered as a classic of its kind.

The elevator pitch for Edge of Tomorrow is basically Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers, only it’s far better than either of those predecessors. I rather dislike Groundhog Day, but its premise closely tracks Edge’s.

The man at the center of the action is one Maj. William Cage (American superstar Tom Cruise, looking much younger than his 51 years), a public-relations specialist. In the not-too-distant future, Cage is suddenly drafted into what is supposed to be a surprise counterattack against the murderous aliens who have colonized most of Europe. The operation is a complete disaster, but humanity gets a stroke of luck: The bumbling Cage comes face to face with a special variety of one of the aliens and is able to kill it.

In doing so, Cage co-opts the alien’s power to warp time — that is, to reset the day. Every time he dies, he finds himself shunted back to a moment before the operation starts, which gives him a chance to try different tactics in the battle against the alien species, called mimics. (If the movie ever explained why the invaders have that name, I missed it.)

Cage’s efforts to turn the tide of battle seem hopeless at first, but then he gains an ally: the beautiful, charismatic and deadly Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a ruthless soldier whose heroic efforts spearheaded the first successful counterattack against the mimics. She’s uniquely suited to help Cage, not just because of her proficiency at killing but because she previously possessed the time-bending power.

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Skewing old: A brief look at the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie songs

June 25, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 25, 2014

The other day, I was tweeting about films when Groundhog Day came up.

I’m not fond of that movie, and I said so. A disgruntled follower complained that we might tell him that The Blues Brothers wasn’t the greatest movie of all time.

I got curious and checked the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best comedies. Much to my surprise, I found that The Blues Brothers doesn’t appear on the list at all.

I also stumbled onto “100 Years…100 Songs,” the institute’s list of the best American movie songs, which was released in 2004. This caught the eye of another of my Twitter followers, who groused that a song from The Muppet Movie was ranked, but nothing from Purple Rain.

Frankly, I’m a huge fan of The Muppet Movie’s “Rainbow Connection,” which appears at No. 74 on the list. I certainly think it deserves to be there.

My theory is that Purple Rain, the 1984 feature starring the artist (then, formerly and once again) known as Prince got snubbed because the AFI jurors aren’t in the movie’s demographic. In other words, the panelists were too old and too white to appreciate Prince’s movie and music. Read the rest of this entry »

From ouch to itch: My encounter with the hornets’ nest

June 23, 2014

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

For me, midday Friday was characterized by Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! By now, the repercussions of that incident boil down to Itch! Itch! Itch!

After bicycling home from a coffee shop Friday, I took my two-wheeler to the side of my house.

Now, over the time I’ve lived in this rental, much of the foliage on and especially alongside the property has sprouted unchecked. In the little-used backyard, this isn’t really an issue; the vines are welcome to overgrow the fence as much as it wants.

This isn’t a problem in the front yard, either. There are two bushes that flank the path to front door. In their shaggy state, their stray branches scrape anyone who tries to walk between them. This is only a minor annoyance, however, because one is free simply to walk around these plants.

So the real challenge is on the one side of the house where I keep my bicycle chained to the backyard fence. The abundant branches and vines have encroached on the space, which was relatively narrow to begin with.

On Friday, I was struggling to raise the bike into its usual spot without being scratched by the plants when I felt something on one of my legs. I looked down and noticed a hornet, which I hurriedly brushed away.

Then, as soon as I’d returned my attention to wrestling with the bicycle, I felt more movement on my legs. I looked down again and saw that there were hornets on both legs.

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North Carolina Republican tries to tarnish Obamacare for the crime of … mandating maternity coverage!

June 21, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 21, 2014

A short item that Tara Culp-Ressler posted at Think Progress caught my eye on Thursday.

Mandy Cohen of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who is due to give birth in about three weeks, recently appeared at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing entitled “Poised To Profit: How Obamacare helps insurance companies even if it fails patients.”

During her testimony, Rep. Mark Meadows pressed Cohen about a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires insurance companies to include maternity coverage in all new plans that they sell. The Republican representative, whose district covers the mountainous western corner of North Carolina, asked if there other coverages that insurers must sell (and which ipso facto consumers must buy) because of Obamacare.

Cohen: It depends on your personal family situation and your medical situation. I’ll say as an internist, and a primary care doc, that sometimes you don’t know what that medical situation will be going forward, and that’s the nature —

Meadows: But maternity is one that you can probably analyze pretty well for someone who’s in their 50s.

Cohen: Right, but it’s a minimal essential benefit we wanted to make sure every American has.

If this is going to be one of the GOP’s main points of contention about the Affordable Care Act, then the law could well have a very rosy future. Is it unfair for people (read: men) to pay for coverage that they aren’t going to use? Perhaps so, but that’s also a fundamental component of insurance.

And let’s remember what the health-insurance market was like before Obamacare mandated maternity coverage. The National Women’s Law Center released a study in early 2012 that captured many unsavory aspects of those not-so-good days.

Back then, gender rating — that is, charging women more than men for comparable coverage — existed without restriction in 36 states. Businesses with mainly female work forces were “routinely” charged more than others, the center reported. This disparity affected many hospitals, medical offices, pharmacies, community-service organizations, and home-health-care and child-care businesses, all of which skew female.

But gender rating may have had the biggest impact on the individual market. “Even with maternity coverage excluded, nearly a third of plans examined charged 25 and 40-year-old women at least 30% more than men for the same coverage,” the report stated (emphasis added).

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What would a Tea Party utopia really be like for women, disenfranchised voters and the poor? Don’t look to Slate’s Reihan Salam for answers

June 20, 2014

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

Reihan Salam, a conservative writer who became a regular Slate columnist this spring, has tried to picture how the United States would look if it were ruled by the Tea Party. He calls this conservative fantasyland Teatopia.

Most of Salam’s piece revolves around subsidiarity, which boils down decentralizing government. If the federal bureaucracy of Salam’s vision — which the author describes as a thought exercise, instead of as a future that he would necessarily endorse — isn’t exactly small enough to drown in a bathtub, it might at least be spare enough to fit in one:

Tea Party conservatives … favor voluntary cooperation among free individuals over local government, local government over state government, and state government over the federal government. Teatopia would in some respects look much like our own America, only the contrasts would be heightened. California and New York, with their dense populations and liberal electorates, would have even bigger state governments that provide universal pre-K, a public option for health insurance, and generous funding for mass transit. They might even have their own immigration policies, which would be more welcoming toward immigrants than the policies the country as a whole would accept.

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A young woman hunts for the truth in the understated, powerful ‘Ida’

June 14, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 13, 2014

Ida, the 2013 film which director Pawel Pawlikowski wrote with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is the powerful story of a young woman who must grapple with her family’s shadowed past and the fallout of the previous generation’s war.

The movie, which is set in Poland in the mid-1960s, revolves around Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who is poised to become a nun at the rural convent where she has apparently been raised since infancy. Days before Anna is scheduled to take her vows, her mother superior tells her that the convent had repeatedly written to her aunt, asking her to pick up the girl; the aunt, her only living family member, declined to do so. The nun vaguely but firmly instructs the Anna to travel to her relative’s city apartment. She tells the young woman to stay there as she needs.

The aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), is a stern, trim figure who initially has little use for any echoes of her past. But she soon reverses course, welcoming Anna into her home and introducing the girl to some of their shared history. Wanda, a lifelong city dweller whose sister was Anna’s mother, agrees to drive the young woman to the small town where her parents were farmers before the Nazi invasion.

Anna’s parents — who, unbeknownst to her, were Jews — are dead, but no one knows where they are buried. The two women decide to find the grave, visiting the people who took over the property that once belonged to Anna’s family and tracking down the ailing elderly man who had once protected them from the crematoria of the Holocaust.

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Gigolo meets Hasidic widow. Oddity ensues in John Turturro’s new movie.

June 12, 2014

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

Against all odds, Fading Gigolo is an oddly a strangely charming feature starring, written and directed by John Turturro.

The film hinges on three relationships. One involves Turturro’s character, a lonesome jack-of-all-trades with the unlikely name Fioravante, and his longtime friend and mentor, Murray (Woody Allen). Murray is closing down the New York City rare bookstore that was started by his grandfather and has been in the family ever since, a transition that leaves “Mo” at loose ends. A joking exchange with his rich, glamorous and randy dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), who longs for a ménage à trois, prompts Murray to persuade his buddy Fioravante to become a prostitute.

The sophisticated but taciturn Fioravante is a reluctant gigolo; still, women love his quiet confidence, dark looks and trim body. Mo proves to be an enthusiastic pimp. Within moments, thanks to the power of montage, he’s recruited a variety of clients, and the boys are soon rolling in money.

One of the clients is Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), an Orthodox Jewish widow whom Murray meets while she combs through the lice-infested hair of his stepkids. Although her community’s strict customs forbid a man from riding in the back seat of an automobile with her, and bar women from displaying their real hair in public, Avigal travels to Fioravante’s apartment for a massage. The tightly wound single mother sheds tears when Fioravante’s bare hands gently touch her skin.

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