Archive for December, 2015

The writer and the Red Scare: ‘Trumbo’ looks at the man who defied Congress and won two Academy Awards in the process

December 28, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 28, 2015

Director Jay Roach’s lively new biopic, Trumbo, tells the story of a leftist Hollywood screenwriter and his tangle with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Veteran actor Bryan Cranston (the star of the acclaimed TV series Breaking Bad, who had minor roles in Argo and Godzilla) headlines the movie as title character Dalton Trumbo. A labor activist and American Communist Party member, he also happened to be one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters.

Trumbo’s story tracks what I know about the actual historic events, which a few web searches seem to confirm. America’s pivot from World War II to the Cold War meant that the Soviet Union, our allies in the crusade against Nazi Germany, quickly became our enemies in the sublimated struggle for world domination. Although fairly sudden, this change in relations between American and other Western Allies and the Soviet Union was very real — recall if you will Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech from March 1946. And it prompted some Americans to focus their animus on the sociopolitical philosophy of Communism, a dynamic that went on to cause a tremendous amount of needless harm.

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Bong Joon Ho’s unusual ‘Snowpiercer’ is a harrowing and haunting post-apocalyptic science fiction film

December 23, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 23, 2015

When Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer came out in 2013, the science fiction film was widely acclaimed. I hesitated to see it, however, because the premise — a new Ice Age has caused the extinction of all life on Earth but for the passengers and crew of Snowpiercer, a nuclear-powered train that endlessly circles the planet — and the plot — brutal oppression incites a violent revolt — seemed dour and depressing.

I was right, but so were the critics: Snowpiercer is a harrowing, haunting and beautiful movie. Its protagonist is Curtis (Chris Evans, best known for playing Captain America), a man in his mid-30s who has spent half his life aboard the train. Curtis is widely respected among the downtrodden proletariat who are packed into the car at the end of the titular snow-piercing train. The movement is nominally commanded by Gilliam (John Hurt), but everyone except the man himself recognizes Curtis as the rebellion’s true leader.

With the aid of a mysterious mole among the elite classes who inhabit the posh cars at the front of the train, Curtis and Gilliam devise a plan that will help them gain control of the very front of Snowpiercer — specifically, of the engine that powers the train. They begin by foiling the gates that keep the huddled masses (literally) compartmentalized and contained at the rear of the train. This allows them to liberate Namgoong (Song Kang Ho, also known as Kang-ho Song), the technician–cum–drug addict who designed the train’s security system.

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The American way of death: Assessing 2015 mass shootings in the United States

December 22, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 22, 2015

The gun massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 dead on Wednesday, Dec. 2, followed shootings and a five-hour-long siege at Colorado Springs, Colo., Planned Parenthood clinic that left three dead on Nov. 27. And that attack, of course followed one at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., that left 10 dead on Oct. 1.

But it’s not as if gun violence in America took a two-month holiday between Roseburg and Colorado Springs. In attempt to understand the extent of mass shooting incidents in America, I went to the Gun Violence Archive and downloaded its data on 2015 mass shootings.

The site defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are “shot and/or killed in a single event [incident], at the same general time and location not including the shooter.” I realized afterward that what truly interested me were what the archive categorizes as mass murders, in which four or more people are “killed in a single event [incident], at the same general time and location not including the shooter.”

The archive hasn’t broken out data on gun massacres (as I will call them) separately from mass shootings, but I did some number crunching using their information. I found that there had been 300 mass shootings in which 341 people were killed and 1,212 injured. Read the rest of this entry »

On the artistic and cinematic merits of ‘Aliens’

December 21, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 21, 2015

Back in July, I referred to James Cameron’s 1986 movie Aliens as seminal. I actually called it that twice, first in my review of Edge of Tomorrow (a.k.a. Live Die Repeat) and then in my writeup of Nick Cole’s 2014 novel, Soda Pop Soldier, which happens to pay homage to the Cameron film. (Rather improbably, the narrator of the book has not seen the movie.)

When I wrote those blog posts, I wanted to link to something that would back up my assertion about the importance of the movie. But I couldn’t find something that struck me as definitive, such as an entry on one of the American Film Institute’s lists of the top movies, and I didn’t want to get bogged down.

So I did what I often do when I’m looking into a topic: I opened a bunch of links and then I left the tabs open in my web browser for months.

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Recent Readings for Dec. 20, 2015

December 20, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 20, 2015

• “Devils, Deals and the DEA: Why Chapo Guzman was the biggest winner in the DEA’s longest running drug cartel case.” In 1992, the Drug Enforcement Agency decided to dismantle a Mexican drug-running organization known as the Arellano Félix Organization, or AFO. One supervisor estimated that the task could be completed in six months; ultimately, however, the agency pursued the case for nearly two decades. David Epstein examines the long-running probe, looking at how and why it left a number of loose ends that still haunt some of the men who worked the case.

• “Now Louie Gohmert and Fox News will mansplain Planned Parenthood: The new lie right-wing men can’t stop pushing.” Peter Dreier describes the life and career of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, whom conservatives are fond of calling a eugenicist and a racist, despite her ties to black progressives and civil-rights leaders. Sanger (1879–1966) was the sixth of 11 children:

Her mother, Ann, was a devout Catholic and the strong and loving mainstay of the family. When she died from tuberculosis at age fifty, young Margaret had to take care of the family. She always believed that her mother’s many pregnancies had contributed to her early death.

Sanger longed to be a physician, but she was unable to pay for medical school. She enrolled in nursing school in White Plains, New York, and as part of her maternity training delivered many babies — unassisted — in at-home births. She met women who had had several children and were desperate to avoid future pregnancies. Sanger had no idea what to tell them.

• “What Kind of Person Calls a Mass Shooting a Hoax?” Six-year-old Noah Pozner was one of the 26 victims of the shooting. His parents, like relatives of all the victims, have tried for the past three years to refute skeptics who claim that President Obama or his cohorts faked the massacre in order to become what gun-rights activists like to call “gun grabbers.” Mike Spies profiles a prominent Sandy Hook truther, Wolfgang Halbig, who insists that the Dec. 14, 2012, killings at a Connecticut elementary school were staged.

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Been there, done that: John Carpenter’s ‘Escape from L.A.’ is a lackluster sequel

December 15, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 15, 2015

John Carpenter is one of the all-time great directors of horror movies. His 1978 feature, Halloween, practically invented the slasher flick out of whole cloth. A number of the director’s pictures involve the only type of horror that I like watching — the kind that comes with a science-fiction twist. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is one of the best examples of the subgenre, rivaled perhaps only by Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), which explores the same sort of body horror as Carpenter’s picture.

(Not coincidentally, Carpenter co-wrote his first feature, the 1974 student film Dark Star, with Dan O’Bannon, who was one of Alien’s co-writers.)

Other than Halloween and The Thing, Carpenter is probably best known for Escape from New York, his 1981 science fiction/action movie in which Manhattan has been converted to a prison island to which convicts are permanently banished. The movie boasts a terrific premise and was a perfect reflection of a time when many Americans viewed cities — and New York City in particular — as dangerous dens of decay and iniquity.

The feature also benefited tremendously from a glowering Kurt Russell, who starred as Snake Plissken, the taciturn ex-Special Forces war hero-turned-prisoner who’s ordered to retrieve the president, and the vital information that he carries, before the explosive charges that have been implanted in his body detonate. (The government trusts Plissken only as far as it can bully him.)

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Things to go, see and do in Durham: Part 3

December 14, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 14, 2015

Recently, I was asked about things to visit and do in Durham, where I’ve lived for about seven and a half years. I’ve split my response, which has been lightly edited, into three blog posts. The first one was about Duke-related places; the second was about Durham’s non-Duke stuff; and finally this one covers a few miscellaneous items. Enjoy!


The website of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau should be your first stop when you have questions about visiting the city and county of Durham or any of its attractions, restaurants or events.

Durham has some excellent coffee shops, about which I could write many many words. One of the coolest is Cocoa Cinnamon, which has a lovely outdoor seating area. Unfortunately, the limited indoor seating means that the shop can be very crowded when rain or cold temperatures prevail. Cocoa Cinnamon is located in a relatively new entertainment district north of Durham Central Park, which itself is north of downtown. (This part of town lacks a widely agreed-upon name, to the best of my knowledge.) The owners of Cocoa Cinnamon are preparing to open a second location in Western Durham. I also highly recommend Respite Cafe near the Brightleaf Square shopping and dining complex, which is between downtown Durham and East Campus.

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Things to go, see and do in Durham: Part 2

December 13, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 13, 2015

Recently, I was asked about things to visit and do in Durham, where I’ve lived for about seven and a half years. I’ve split my response, which has been lightly edited, into three blog posts. The first one was about Duke-related places; this second one is about Durham’s non-Duke stuff; and a third one covers miscellaneous items. Enjoy!


American Tobacco Historic District
300 Blackwell St., Durham, NC 27701

This complex, once the Lucky Strike cigarette factory, now houses restaurants, offices, residences and a small movie theater devoted to documentaries. The large, rambling courtyard hosts concerts during the warmer months; it also has a stream running through it that visitors can enjoy following any time of year. The facility has no retail shopping to speak of, but there are multiple places to get a bite to eat. American Tobacco Campus (or sometimes ATC), as it’s called, is across the street from the Durham Performing Arts Center, a.k.a. DPAC, and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, a.k.a. DBAP. Be sure to stroll through ATC if you’re going to see the Bulls host a Minor League Baseball game! The Diamond View complex that surrounds the ballpark has additional dining options in a variety of styles and price points. Of all the places in this list, this is closest to downtown Durham — just a short walk across the railroad tracks.

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Things to go, see and do in Durham: Part 1

December 12, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 12, 2015

Recently, I was asked about things to visit and do in Durham, where I’ve lived for about seven and a half years. I’ve split my response, which has been lightly edited, into three blog posts — this one about Duke-related places, a second one about Durham’s non-Duke stuff, and a third one covering miscellaneous items. Enjoy!


Duke University Chapel
401 Chapel Drive, Box 90974, Durham, NC 27708

I haven’t spent much time at any of the Triangle universities, but I personally find Duke’s grounds to be the most distinctive and the best of the Big Three for just walking around and soaking in the college atmosphere. (Note: This applies to West Campus, which some consider the institution’s heart, and to East Campus. Central Campus is best not mentioned, unless you’re visiting the Nasher or Sarah Duke Gardens.) For young kids, the best part of Duke to visit is probably the university chapel. Check in advance for tours or musical performances. The chapel is closed for renovations until spring 2016.


Cameron Indoor Stadium
115 Whitford Dr, Durham, NC 27708

College basketball fans either love or loathe the Duke University Blue Devils, which plays in one of the most famous arenas in the NCAA. I believe Cameron is generally open to the public for visits. During parts of the season, you can find Krzyzewskiville — a campsite inhabited by rabid student fans — set up outside the building. A museum and hall of fame is located next door to Cameron in the Schwartz/Butters Athletic Center at 306 Towerview Dr., Durham, NC 27708, 919-613-7500; it’s free of charge and open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on most weekdays, with additional hours tied to basketball and football games.

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2015 Pac-12 football championship recap: Two teams played; the better team prevailed.

December 9, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 9, 2015

In every good action movie, there’s a part, often around the halfway or two-thirds mark, where the hero is given cause to think that she or he might be overmatched.

During Saturday night’s Pac-12 championship game between the USC and Stanford football teams, that part came, on cue, in a sequence that began in the second period and lasted until late in the third quarter.

The Cardinal entered the second period with a 3-0 lead and would add to it immediately. Everybody’s All-Everything, Christian McCaffrey, lined up on the left flank. On the first snap of the quarter, quarterback Kevin Hogan pitched right to Barry Sanders, who was lined up at tailback. As McCaffrey raced around the formation, Hogan — who was completely ignored by outside linebacker Scott Felix — stepped to his right and made his way past the line of scrimmage. Sanders made a short lateral to McCaffrey, who set his feet and lobbed a soft throw to an unguarded Hogan on the right side. The 11-yard touchdown was McCaffrey’s second scoring pass of the year.

The Cardinal defense forced a Trojans punt after just three plays, and McCaffrey went back to work right away with a 50-yard run on the first play of the new series, bringing the ball to the USC 15-yard line. Stanford would end up having third and goal at the 1-yard line, but Remound Wright was stuffed by Anthony Sarao. After a delay-of-game penalty, the Cardinal called in Conrad Ukropina to kick his second field goal of the night.

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Sex, death and money: The Coens’ ‘Miller’s Crossing’ chronicles the lives and loves of Prohibition gangsters

December 8, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 8, 2015

Miller’s Crossing, the third movie written and directed by the prolific cinematic siblings Joel and Ethan Coen, is a love story in which the central romance is wholly sublimated.

The movie’s main character is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), the No. 2 man in an urban crime syndicate in the Prohibition era. If a viewer weren’t paying close attention, she or he might think that Reagan’s love interest is Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), the calculating beauty whose brother, Bernie Bernbaum, becomes a bone of contention in gangland tumult.

Bernie (John Turturro) is a troublesome bookie who’s attracted the ire of a powerful Italian underboss named Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) because the former’s handling of betting on fixed fights has prevented Caspar from making major profits. Bernie pays protection money to Liam “Leo” O’Bannion (Albert Finney), Reagan’s boss and the big man in town. And Bernie’s sister is sleeping with both Tom and Leo.

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‘Good going, FAG’: The uneven, sporadically amusing satire of ‘Team America: World Police’

December 6, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 6, 2015

Team America: World Police is a sporadically amusing musical action-adventure movie spoof enacted with puppets by the creative team behind the ribald animated show South Park. If that sounds appealing to you, then by all means, make sure you watch this 2004 movie. (Actually, if that sounds appealing to you, then you probably watched this 2004 movie when it came out, or shortly thereafter.)

I’ve seen a few South Park episodes — enough to know that Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s creation is not exactly my thing. I find the show to be quite funny in parts, and there are a few episodes that I’ve really enjoyed, in particular “The Fellowship of the Lord of the Rings,” which is the episode with which I’m most familiar.

But South Park traffics heavily in coarse language, toilet humor and other vulgarities to an extent that makes me uncomfortable. (Call me a prude if you must.) That same tendency influences Team America: World Police, which I can’t recommend despite enjoying at times.

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Extraordinary circumstances prompt an ordinary man to stand against genocide in the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’

December 3, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 3, 2015

Hotel Rwanda, the 2004 drama that Terry George directed and co-wrote with Keir Pearson, is a movie that is tempting to look away from. It concerns Rwanda’s genocidal 1994 civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, a conflict in which approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered — more than a tenth of the nation’s population at the time. (In preparing this blog post, I saw one estimate that put the casualties at more than 1 million dead.)

I purchased a copy of the DVD in 2012 after listening to an audio version of An Ordinary Mana memoir about the genocide, but not until last week did I watch the movie. It stars Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered about 1,200 refugees from the genocide at the luxury hotel he managed in the Rwanda capital of Kigali. The real-life Rusesabagina co-wrote a memoir with Tom Zellner that was published three years after Hotel Rwanda was released, although his story inspired the movie; he himself served as a consultant for the picture.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found Hotel Rwanda to be a thoroughly watchable movie, despite the relentlessly grim true-life circumstances that frame the story. The script focuses on Rusesabagina’s efforts to navigate the perils of the civil conflict that erupts suddenly the morning after Rwanda’s president dies when his plane is shot down. We see Rusesabagina — a Hutu hotel manager, husband and father whose wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), is a Tutsi — negotiate with genocidal Interahamwe militia members, a laissez-faire Rwanda army general and various foreigners.

The latter group wield increasingly little influence on the bloody events that are decimating Rwanda, thanks largely to international apathy about what the world mostly views as a faraway slaughter involving inconsequential African peasants. One of the movie’s most poignant sequences come as foreign powers evacuate their citizens, a clear signal that they will do nothing to prevent further violence.

Hotel Rwanda occasionally comes off as preachy, mainly due to a few clunky-sounding speeches that George and Pearson put in the mouths of Nick Nolte, who plays a Canadian colonel leading a detachment of United Nations soldiers, and Joaquin Phoenix, who plays a righteous journalist who trusts neither himself nor the West to do the right thing. Thankfully, the movie is more interested in showing Rusesabagina and his wife react to and try to survive the ethnic purge that is being conducted right outside the gates of the Hotel Mille Collines in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

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Fantastic finishes for Hogan, Cajuste, Ukropina and co. send Irish hopes tumbling: Stanford beats Notre Dame, 38-36

December 2, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 2, 2015

After Conrad Ukropina’s 45-yard kick sailed through the uprights as time expired to give the Stanford football team a dramatic 38-36 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday night, I tweeted about it. Then I raised my hands triumph and ran around the sports bar where I’d been watching the game.

I’d heard a small group of fans cheering on Stanford. I headed their way to exchange high-fives and fist bumps with the men at the table. I lay on the floor and stared at the ceiling, pretending to clutch at my chest. As I tweeted, “I didn’t actually have chest pains — thank goodness. It was just, you know, cardiac Cardinal.”

Saturday night’s finish made for one of the most dramatic in Stanford history. What’s more, it came in a matchup of top-10 teams: The hosts were ranked ninth by the College Football Playoff selection committee, the visitors sixth.

I know what happened in the game, but I have a confession: I still don’t understand exactly why the outcome came to be. Suffice to say that it was an amazing game.

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Michael Mann’s complex, sprawling ‘Heat’ is one of the definitive crime dramas of the 1990s

December 1, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 1, 2015

Heat, the gritty, glamorous Los Angeles crime drama written and directed by Michael Mann, may be The Godfather of the 1990s.

I make that claim not because the 1995 movie runs nearly three hours, or because it stars Al Pacino, who played Michael Corleone in the Godfather series, or because it co-stars Robert De Niro, who played a younger version of Michael’s father, Vito Corleone (the part played by Marlon Brando in the original), in The Godfather: Part II, although I would maintain all of those facts certainly bolster my case. Instead, I write that because Heat, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather movies, is as focused on its characters’ family intrigues as it is on the criminal (and, in this film, police) activities conducted by many of those characters.

Take Vincent Hanna, the hotshot Los Angeles police detective portrayed by Pacino. He’s been married to his third wife, Justine (Diane Venora), for a number of years, but he remains stubbornly unwilling or unable to talk with her about the depraved crimes and criminals whom he investigates on a daily basis. Hanna’s stepdaughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman), is an adolescent on the verge of a nervous breakdown; in one of Heat’s earliest scenes, her inability to find a hair tie in the preferred color triggers a meltdown.

Neil McCauley, the master thief whom De Niro plays, has no family of his own (other than his crew, that is). One of McCauley’s accomplices, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) should be rolling in money thanks to the tightly knit gang’s exploits, but he’s gambled most of it away. Now his wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd), wants Chris to find a way to stop hemorrhaging cash and to turn legitimate without stinting on their lavish lifestyle. One of the movie’s key plot points involves both McCauley and Hanna uncovering the Shiherlis’s vulnerabilities and attempting to exploit them.

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