Archive for November, 2012

Season of the fink: ‘(500) Days of Summer’ offers a quirky but not always satisfying vacation from (some) romantic comedy conventions

November 30, 2012

Director Marc Webb’s 2009 romantic comedy tries to break the romantic comedy mold.

And it tries hard — it really does! Instead of beginning with boy meets girl, (500) Days of Summer (parentheses in title — quirky!) actually starts with its male lead’s post-breakup meltdown. As his two best buddies and his sister try to console him, distraught Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) moans that the woman who has broken his heart is the One with whom he was meant to spend his life.

As the movie’s narrator warns us, this is a story about love — not a love story. The female lead herself warns Hansen early on that she doesn’t want a boyfriend. But Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have switched things up: In this movie, it’s the man who needs a commitment! (Gender role reversal — so unusual!)

The winsome heartbreaker here is Summer Fynn (oddball name — how indy!), winsomely played by Zooey Deschanel. Fynn and Hansen cross paths at a small greeting card company in Los Angeles where he is a frustrated architect cum writer and she is a Michigander cum Los Angeleno. She has just moved to California (simply because she wanted something different — mark of a free-thinker, y’all!) and gotten a job as an assistant to the card company’s CEO.

Fynn is irresistible to men although she is of average height and weight, the narrator rather irrelevantly notes. Hansen, who believes that everyone has one and only one soulmate thanks to a serious misreading of the movie The Graduate, falls for Fynn the moment he sees her. Then he discovers that she’s exactly the right kind of quirky: She likes the Smiths and all the other stuff he does! Hansen tries to play things cool, but it’s clear that he’s in deep trouble. Read the rest of this entry »

The rather dull story of one man and a dog on the fringes of Sandy — Part 2 of 2!

November 29, 2012

Note: This is the conclusion of a two-part post about, well, the rather dull story of one man and a dog on the fringes of Sandy. Click here to read the rather mundane beginning of this story!

***

It was around 8:30 Monday evening, at the height of the storm, when the power died.

R’s house is well stocked with flashlights; I broke out a few. Without electricity, I knew that I would have only a few hours for messing around with any of my digital devices. But the Internet was out, of course — or at least, the wireless router had no power to distribute its signal inside the house. And anyway, I was too keyed up to do much reading, either online or in print, because the wind was still shaking the house vigorously.

I ended up going to bed. There are windows in every room on the second floor of R’s house, but the ones in the bedroom where I typically stay aren’t very big. Yes, the wind was still blowing, but I was warm beneath the covers and Lucky was curled up comfortably beside me. It was hard to feel terrified. In fact, it was hard to stay awake; before much time had passed, I fell asleep. Read the rest of this entry »

The rather dull story of one man and a dog on the fringes of Sandy — Part 1 of 2!

November 28, 2012

Note: This is the first entry in a two-part post about, well, the rather dull story of one man and a dog on the fringes of Sandy. The not-so-exciting conclusion of this rather mundane tale will appear on this blog tomorrow!

***

It didn’t occur to me when I went to New York on Oct. 22, 2012, that my stay there might be extended by a week.

The trip had been on my calendar for a while. I had volunteered to dog-sit for a personal I’ll refer to as R, who was flying out to the West to visit family for a few days. Happily, my journey to New York would not only enable me to see old friends, it would also allow me to obtain a well-maintained used car at a good price.

R was set to fly out on Thursday, Oct. 25, and return the following Monday. As R’s departure approached, R and I were both aware of Sandy, the large storm that was moving north. As it happens, my schedule is flexible, so I was happy to ride out the storm if need be. I figured my return drive would only be delayed by two or three days at worst.

The dog I was caring for is a four-year-old, 70-pound yellow Labrador named Lucky, a very friendly and good-natured dog who is precious to R. As well behaved as Lucky has been, in my experience, I had no wish to bring her to a shelter unless it was absolutely necessary. I also wanted to minimize whatever hardship the storm might impose.

So as Sandy’s chances of affecting the greater New York metropolitan area grew from highly likely to a dead certainty, I made plenty of preparations. I stocked up on groceries. I filled my car’s gas tank. I bought a 15-pound bag of dog food and left it in my trunk in case Lucky and I did need to evacuate. Read the rest of this entry »

Haldeman’s SF classic ‘The Forever War’ proves to be timeless in more ways than one

November 27, 2012

In 1974, Joe Haldeman published a science fiction novel called The Forever War. Its subgenre, military science fiction, made it a clear heir to Robert Heinlein’s classic 1959 book, Starship Troopers. And just like its predecessor, Haldeman’s work also became a revered science fiction novel.

I did not read Forever War until this fall, and I’m sorry I waited so long.

The book is the first-person account of William Mandella, who had wanted to become a physics teacher. His plans changed when the world government began drafting Earth’s intellectual and physical elite for the United Nations Exploratory Force. (“Emphasis on the ‘force,’” Mandella wryly notes.) The organization’s purpose is to guard Earth and its fledgling colonies against a mysterious alien race that has vaporized a colony ship.

Beginning in 1997 — remember when it was written! — The Forever War tracks Mandella through basic training, an early ground campaign against an enemy outpost and subsequent assignments.

Haldeman, who wrote this book as a master’s thesis, per Wikipedia, has enough sense of how the world works to interweave exciting bits with rather duller bits. Some of the early chapters deal with the rigorous exercises Mandella’s unit undergoes on the remote Plutonian moon of Charon.

“You might as well regard all the training you got on Earth and the moon as just an elementary exercise, designed to give you a fair chance of surviving Charon. You’ll have to go through your whole repertory here: tools, weapons, maneuvers. And you’ll find that, at these temperatures, tools don’t work the way they should; weapons don’t want to fire. And people move v-e-r-y cautiously…. Read the rest of this entry »

A few short notes about this here blog

November 26, 2012

Hello, dear readers.

Apropos of very little, I wanted to offer a few notes about this blog.

With some exceptions noted below, I have not requested or received any free items to be reviewed on MEMwrites; nor do I plan to request any. The blog is an entirely voluntary venture for which I am receiving no financial compensation. The only reward I derive from MEMwrites is the satisfaction I get from writing and from being read.

All of the books and movies that I have been reviewing on MEMwrites have been chosen by me without any outside prompting. With some exceptions noted below, I have purchased all of the books and movies reviewed on the blog myself.

Read the rest of this entry »

Prison-keepers and conscience: ‘None of Us Were Like This Before’ examines American torture and the toll it took

November 23, 2012

Freelance journalist Joshua E.S. Phillips begins his 2010 book with an innocuous report on the 2004 death of Sgt. Adam Gray, a 24-year-old native of central California. The military deemed it accidental, but his family and some of his fellow soldiers suspected otherwise.

Gray had served a year in the Middle East with a tank unit, beginning in March 2003, but his training for armored warfare was never called into play. Instead, he and his unit spent much of their time in Iraq conducting patrols and guarding prisoners. He came back a changed man, a darker person. He rarely talked about his war experiences, but when he did, he discussed torturing detainees.

Gray was stationed in Alaska when, a few weeks before his death, he tried to hang himself. On Aug. 29, 2004, he succeeded. He was found in bed with a plastic bag twisted over his head.

In None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture, Phillips argues persuasively that Gray was but one of many victims — including Afghanis, Iraqis and Americans — of torture. He also explores the many reasons why Americans tortured detainees, some of the myths surrounding torture and some of the corrosive effects that torture has had on practitioners and whistle-blowers as well as those who were its subjects.

Bush administration officials deliberately loosened some of the protections for individuals captured in what they called the global war on terror. Yet the administration also portrayed soldiers who were found to have participated in torture, such as guard as the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a few bad apples.

It now seems clear there there were far more than a few bad apples, although there remains some dispute over how much torture of detainees was official policy and how much of it was taken by low-level soldiers working on their own initiative. Phillips argues that whether officers explicitly embraced torture or not, many likely turned blind eyes to evidence of it.

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Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s a list of what I’m thankful for today…

November 22, 2012

Have a very happy Thanksgiving, readers!

Here are some things for which I’m thankful today:

• My health.

• My family: Dearly departed members, older members, middle-aged-ish members, younger members and dog members!

• My nation: The United States of America, be it right or be it wrong. This country is imperfect in many ways, and still it is also glorious in many ways. America does not yet fully live up to our ideals of freedom and justice for all, but it can be argued that our nation comes closer than any other place that is or ever has been on this great planet. When reporters carry word of places where innocents die violently, the rule of law is absent or badly corrupted and the will of the people is suborned to small and powerful groups, I am reminded how privileged I am to be an American citizen.

• My planet: Earth and its many varied and beautiful environments, flora and fauna. Humans have not always been wise or great stewards, but we have made some strides for the better. I hope that we will have a safe and beautiful place to pass on to many, many future generations.

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‘Mars’ answers the pressing question: Like, dude, what if we sent three slacker astronauts to Mars?

November 21, 2012

When I was in my 20s, I had a friend who decided that he might make a really great comedian, or at least a great comic writer. I recall numerous occasions (including New York City subway rides) when he would recount various ideas for comic sketches that he wanted to submit to Saturday Night Live. 

The only concept that I recall clearly involved an ATM for a sperm bank where patrons could make convenient withdrawals and (Wait for it! Wait for it!) deposits.

However good this notion may have been, increased exposure did nothing to increase the fondness that I and my other friends had for it. Hearing the concept described in public settings, such as the subway, were especially uncomfortable.

That memory came to mind the other night when I watched Mars, a quasi-animated feature written and directed by Geoff Marslett. (More on the meaning of “quasi-animated” later.) This independent picture is best described by — well, pick your favorite adjective for indie movies: quirky, offbeat, eccentric, unusual, eclectic, original…

The main storyline involves Charlie Brownsville, Hank Morrison and Dr. Casey Cook. In 2015, they crew Minerva I, the first manned expedition to the red planet. A subplot features Beagle 2, the real-life probe that crashed while attempting to land on Mars in 2003, and a fictional follow-up explorer named Art. (That stands for autonomous rover technology.) Art disappears on Mars near the spot where Beagle did, frustrating the roboticist and European Space Agency officials tracking the newer mission.

NASA grows curious about this site. It changes Minerva’s mission, steering its landing craft toward the probes, where the astronauts might discover…something.

Read the rest of this entry »

Psychological thriller ‘Unthinkable’ contemplates torture and ticking bombs

November 20, 2012

Special Agent Helen Brody and her Los Angeles-based FBI counterterrorism team have spent the past nine months keeping tabs on area Muslims whom some believe to have violent inclinations. They have yet to find any actual evidence of terrorism.

Suddenly, every television channel on the dial begins showing pictures of Steven Arthur Younger and three separate rooms. Younger, a white-skinned American man of no particular physical distinction, is reported to be armed and extremely dangerous; the public is asked to report any sighting immediately.

The next day, Brody’s boss, Assistant Director Jack Saunders, reassigns her team to an abandoned, isolated high school that has been repurposed as a secretive Army base. Saunders, Brody and her agents are then shown a video recorded by Younger.

Younger identifies himself as a devout Muslim. He has hidden three nuclear bombs in three American cities, he says. Unless his demands are met, the bombs will detonate in a few days, at noon Pacific time on Friday, Oct. 21. Younger makes no demands, instead proceeding to show three nuclear bombs in three locations. He displays and describes the bombs in great detail. He does not identify the specific locations or cities in which he has placed the nuclear devices.

The public has been shown still frames of the three rooms from the video, all scrubbed of any sign of a bomb. Brody’s team must find the weapons before they explode.

Read the rest of this entry »

No rest for the unworldly Schwarzenegger in uneven ‘6th Day’

November 19, 2012

Several weeks ago, I watched the 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Action Hero for the first time and found it engaging, if somewhat underwhelming. The other night, I watched a more recent Governator flick, The 6th Day; sadly, this 2000 picture is rather more leaden.

The setup is fine. In the near future, a human cloning experiment ended badly, for reasons which aren’t made clear, and the endeavor has been outlawed. Still, black-clad rich guy Michael Drucker is pursuing cloning by a variety of means, some but not all of which are legal. Drucker’s motivations are varied, with his desire to preserve his own empire playing a significant role.

One day, Drucker takes a few hours off for high-altitude snow-boarding. It’s a fateful excursion. After an anti-cloning extremist attacks the party, heroic family guy and helijet pilot Adam Gibson is covertly, illegally and mistakenly cloned by Drucker’s cronies. When he returns to his own house at night, Gibson is astonished to discover an identical version of himself enjoying a surprise birthday party with his wife, daughter and friends.

Gibson is standing by himself on his own front porch, still trying to process this unnerving sight, when a man and woman walk up. In a matter of seconds, the pair attempt to murder Gibson. This being a Schwarzenegger film, he escapes. A car chase and gun battle ensue, during which two of Gibson’s four pursuers are killed.

Ultimately, Gibson infiltrates Drucker’s corporate headquarters not once but twice. Before all is said and done, he achieves a sort of reconciliation with his identical twin. Guns are fired, goons are killed (some more than once), morality is debated, expensive-looking sets are wrecked and justice is served.

What surprised me about The 6th Day (a reference to Genesis, when God created man and woman, and the awesome power that some humans threaten to usurp) was that the movie’s nods to philosophy are more convincing and intriguing than its action sequences. Read the rest of this entry »

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