Archive for February, 2018

The movie version of ‘The Martian’ is surprisingly relevant to our historical moment

February 28, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 28, 2018

Mars isn’t a very hospitable environment for humans. It’s cold and it lacks breathable atmosphere, accessible water and arable soil. In short, you wouldn’t want to be left behind there by your five crewmates when your base is suddenly hit by a massive sandstorm and a piece of debris crushes your spacesuit transponder and knocks you out and renders them unable to find you as they’re staging a hasty retreat to orbit and the spacecraft that will carry them home to Earth.

However, that’s exactly what happens to astronaut Mark Watney at the start of The Martian. More than three years ago, regarding Andy Weir’s blog-turned-self-published-novel-turned-conventionally-published-best-seller The Martian, I wrote:

Watney, who’s well-trained and naturally innovative, jury-rigs a series of solutions to each of his problems using techniques and technology that I imagine would be available to someone in his situation. He recycles his bodily waste, converts the floors of his living quarters into a potato farm, and scavenges hardware in an effort to reconnect with Earth. Weir structures his book with an exciting, if somewhat predictable, problem-assessment-solution-resolution cycle that repeatedly gooses the tension levels.

Director Ridley Scott (AlienBlade RunnerGladiatorBlack Hawk Down and Prometheus, among many others) and screenwriter Drew Goddard (the horror movies CloverfieldThe Cabin in the WoodsWorld War Z and a number of TV shows) gave The Martian a faithful adaptation with their 2015 movie. As Watney, Matt Damon narrates some of the action, which — like the novel — falls into a predictable pattern over its middle third.

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Robert Zemeckis’s thrilling ‘Allied’ tells the story of two married World War II spies who may not have managed to come in from the cold

February 27, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 27, 2018

Robert Zemeckis’s 2016 World War II movie, Allied, is a terrific thriller starring Brad Pitt as a Royal Air Force spy who learns that his wife may be a Nazi mole.

The film begins in 1942 in an isolated stretch of desert outside Casablanca as Max Vatan (Pitt) parachutes in to rendezvous with Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), a Frenchwoman who’s laid the groundwork for a plot to assassinate Germany’s ambassador to Morocco. (Why would doing so offer the Allies any advantage whatsoever in the war? Unclear, I confess.)

When the pair both manage to survive the dangerous mission, Max’s bosses in the British intelligence bureaucracy give him permission to bring Marianne to England and marry her. Within months, if not weeks, of Marianne’s arrival, the duo are joined in matrimony, and she is pregnant with their daughter.

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David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’ explores the complicated saga of a twisted California killer

February 23, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 23, 2018

David Fincher’s sprawling 2007 thriller, Zodiac, tells the true story of the hunt for a notorious California serial killer through the eyes of a cop tasked with finding him and a cartoonist who became obsessed with the case.

The movie begins on the evening of July 4, 1969, when a gunman fatally shot a 22-year-old waitress and seriously wounded her friend in Vallejo, and ends with a short coda in the early 1980s. (This was actually the Zodiac’s second confirmed attack.) Although one of the last scenes shows Mike Mageau, the survivor of that Vallejo incident, identifying a suspect as his assailant, no one was ever formally charged with the Zodiac’s murders.

That lack of closure is one of several frustrating things about Zodiac, which begins as a rather conventional movie about a serial killer and then evolves into something more complicated.

Early on, the narrative focuses on a crime reporter and political cartoonist at San Francisco Chronicle, to which the killer repeatedly sent missives, and depicts a number of vicious attacks. After one of these — the October 11, 1969, killing of cab driver Paul Stine — two San Francisco homicide detectives steal much of the spotlight.

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Michael Mann’s 1986 thriller ‘Manhunter’ misses the mark in several ways

February 19, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 19, 2018

In 1986, Michael Mann was arguably at the height of his influence. He was creator and executive producer of the hit TV crime series Miami Vice, then in its second season. He also found time that year to direct Manhunter, a suspense movie based on Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon.

That 1981 volume featured the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter, infamous cannibalistic serial killer who would mesmerize readers in Harris’s follow-up, The Silence of the Lambs. Jonathan Demme directed a film version of the best-seller in 1991, three years after the novel’s publication; in so doing, he brought forth an indelible performance from Anthony Hopkins as the sly, seductive but deeply corrupt Lecter.

The unforgettable character became so popular that Harris went on to write two novels centered on the serial killer, both of which were brought to the screen. Further, the murderous shrink inspired Hannibal, a TV series that ran for three seasons and fleshes out the doctor’s murderous exploits before his capture.

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The ultimate hand: Part 3 of a very limited series

February 16, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 16, 2018

The very first royal flush that I was ever dealt was by far the most dramatic and rewarding.

I was playing in a friendly game sometime at the tail end of 2010 (I think). It was a small tournament, maybe seven to nine players in all. My hole cards this particular hand were either the ace and queen of diamonds or the ace and jack of diamonds. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say I had AQ.

The flop was almost as good as it gets given my hole cards: king of hearts, jack of diamonds, 10 of diamonds. When I took stock of the situation, I realized that I had Broadway, a straight to the ace, and that I was just one card away from a royal flush.

A bunch of people were involved in the pot. I don’t remember the exact sequence, but someone (possibly me?) bet on the flop. I think it’s also likely that someone else raised. Obviously, I hung in there.

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The ultimate hand — interrupted! Part 2.5 of a very limited series

February 15, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 15, 2018

I interrupt my series on royal flushes to offer a short primer on sorting all-in pots. (The reason for this will become apparent in part 3 of my very limited series.)

When three or more players go all in, multiple pots are typically formed. This isn’t always the case: If all but one of the participants have exactly the same amount of chips and the last participant has more chips, there would only be one pot. Be that as it may…

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The ultimate hand: Part 2 of a very limited series

February 12, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 12, 2018

The second of the three royal flushes that I’ve ever gotten was the least lucrative.

I think this happened sometime in the middle of 2016, though I could be off by a season or two…and by a year or so. I am certain that this hand was dealt in the same venue where I had a nasty late-game crack-up a few Junes back. (It’s possible that bad beat was the very same evening, and perhaps the very same tournament, as what I’m about to relate. But again, I can’t say for sure.)

We were at a table of probably six or seven people, with maybe three or four calling pre-flop. I think. It was early in the contest, and blinds were low — 300–600, I think.

I have a weakness for suited connectors, and I’m also overly fond of jack-10 whether or not they’re suited. I started this particular hand with jack-10, although I couldn’t tell you whether one or both of them were clubs.

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The ultimate hand: Part 1 of a very limited series

February 11, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 11, 2018

I’ve had three royal flushes in my lifetime. The most recent of them nearly escaped my attention.

The NCAA Division I FBS football championship was played on Monday, Jan. 8, and I wanted to watch the game. As noted previously, I (still) don’t have a television at home, and I generally don’t like streaming live video. (Before you ask — and I know you’re oh so curious — I have no particular reason for this preference.)

But rather than just go to a bar and watch the game, I decided to go to a bar and play poker and watch the game. So it was that for the first time in about seven months, I drove to a Cary, N.C., sports bar on a Monday evening to participate in a pair of World Tavern Poker events.

The early poker tournament that evening wasn’t memorable in any way. However, I wound up making a deep run in the second tournament, which had 28 players.

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The ultimate hand: A preface and primer

February 10, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 10, 2018

Most Americans are obsessed with the best of the best. For decades, children have been encouraged to dream big: Growing up to become president, for instance, or the richest person in the world. Some of our most successful movies involve people striving to become — and succeeding at being — the most accomplished or powerful person in a given arena. The GodfatherTop GunThe Lion King, the Star Wars and James Bond and Harry Potter franchises, just about any superhero feature — the list goes on.

A lot of poker players revere the straight flush. This is the best hand in Texas holdem, consisting of five cards of the same suit in order. It’s the kind of thing players dream of hitting, and many movies with poker scenes cater to this fantasy. The high-stakes poker sequence in the 2006 movie Casino Royale, for example, shows James Bond hitting a straight flush and collecting a massive pot against incredible odds.

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Double-Oh-Seven is by turns callow and caring in 2015’s fine but largely unsurprising spy thriller ‘Spectre’

February 9, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 9, 2018

Skyfall was released in November 2012, about five months after I launched this blog. It was Daniel Craig’s third appearance as James Bond, and director Sam Mendes’s first contribution to the long-running film franchise based on Ian Fleming’s espionage novels and stories. The plot wasn’t super-original — there’s a list of spies that could become public, à la the first Mission: Impossible movie; there’s someone from one of the main character’s pasts, out for vengeance, à la at least half of all action-adventure movies ever — but the action was well-executed and Craig, Dame Judi Dench, Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes lent the proceedings an air of excitement and gravity.

Skyfall also put into place some of the traditional elements of the Bond franchise that had been absent from the Craig movies, which are a sort of series reboot. (Bond had yet to earn his license to kill as Casino Royale opened.) We met Bond’s new quartermaster, Q (Ben Whishaw), a figure who I believe was missing from Craig’s previous pictures, and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), who had definitely been missing from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Moreover, a successor for Dench’s embattled spymaster, M, was established in the form of Fiennes’s Gareth Mallory.

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Tales from the free poker postseason

February 8, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 8, 2018

Author’s note: This post includes a brief reference to criminal activity that may upset some readers. I’ve placed a trigger warning to mark the relevant text. MEM

It’s been nearly nine months since I last wrote about poker. But my experience Tuesday night makes it time to revisit the topic.

For the season that concludes this week, World Tavern Poker retooled one of the various contests that it runs at each venue, replacing Big Spender with Best Customer. There are some similarities: Then and now, for each game, a tournament director awards a point to one or two players.

Previously, though, people were selected for (as the name states) spending the most money at the venue. Now, people are selected for making positive contributions to the competition. You can get a Best Customer point for bringing new players to the game, being friendly to other players, helping the tournament director or the servers at the venue or, as before, spending the most at the restaurant or bar.

There’s another change. Previously, a tavern’s Big Spender prize — a medallion — was handed to the person who accumulated the most points at that venue over the course of the season. Now, the top eight to 10 point-getters at the bar or restaurant face off in a short tournament. The winner receives the Best Customer hardware.

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Late-bird event, games 4–5, Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, Jan. 15, 2018

February 4, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 4, 2018

My third-round victory in the late-bird tournament left multiple players with two wins and one loss. Due to the spread tie-breaker, K— remained atop the table at plus-263; I was second at plus-22; the tournament organizer, my friend D—, was third at minus-18; and C— was fourth at minus-142.

Game 4 saw me face AZ, the Canadian player whom I’d beaten twice in the main event. She was in fifth place in the six-player division, having just defeated J— in round 3 to go to 1-2. (Poor J— fell to 0-3.)

AZ, playing second, took a 93-23 lead in turn 2 on the strength of a fantastic bingo, UNTINTED. This formation used an N from my opening move to swing a rare double-double. Because the play used two double-word-score bonuses at once, the total base value of the tiles (nine points) was multiplied by four instead of two — hence, 9 points × 4 = 36, which when combined with the 50-point bingo bonus yields a handsome sum of 86 points.

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Late-bird event, games 1–3, Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, Jan. 15, 2018

February 3, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 3, 2018

After finishing third in the two-day main event, I played in the five-game “late bird” event that closed out the Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament.

My first opponent was C—, a young man whom I’d defeated in both of our previous meetings. Entering turn 3, I held AEEIISU and trailed, 46-24; I traded out everything but the S, but instead of getting a balanced rack, I wound up with one that contained no vowels: DFNSTTV.

I was able to begin creeping back into contention with my sixth move, BEAST/FINDS 35, which left me trailing, 93-83. But I fell even further behind when C— responded to my ONO 9 with EX/NE/OX 38. The score was 150-92 at that point.

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A publisher finds her mettle during a fight over government secrets in Spielberg’s new historical drama, ‘The Post’

February 1, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 1, 2018

Steven Spielberg’s dozens of features are too numerous and diverse to categorize neatly. But if some hypothetical archivist were forced to sort the prolific director’s output into two boxes, she or he could do worse than to choose the labels “commercial movies” and “prestige movies.” Jaws (1975), the prototypical blockbuster, would belong in the first box; so would Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and the other Indiana Jones movies (the 1984 prequel and 1989 and 2008 sequels), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park (1993) and its 1997 follow-up, Minority Report and Catch Me if You Can (both 2002), War of the Worlds (2005) and other works, including the imminent Ready Player One and an upcoming Indiana Jones adventure.

Spielberg’s 2017 feature, The Post, belongs squarely with his prestige movies. It’s in good company, rubbing elbows with Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler’s List (1993)Amistad (1997), Munich (2005 again), Lincoln (2011) and Bridge of Spies (2015). Other than the director’s very first prestige picture, The Color Purple (1985), which was adapted from Alice Walker’s phenomenal 1982 novel, all of these highbrow movies are based on true stories.

The Post reunites the director with Tom Hanks. The star of Bridge of Spies plays against Meryl Streep as the editor and publisher, respectively, of The Washington Post. Today, the newspaper is an iconic American journalism institution, and Ben Bradlee and Katharine “Kay” Graham are legendary figures. But when we meet the lead characters, in 1971, they have yet to secure their legacies.

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