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 close personal acquaintance 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 »

Double-Oh-Seven hits the mark — again — in Daniel Craig’s third Bond outing

November 17, 2012

Director Sam Mendes’ new feature, Skyfallis a solid-verging-on-spectacular outing by everyone’s favorite 50-year-old British spy.

Actor Daniel Craig returns for his third outing as James Bond. Just as importantly, so does the writing duo of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who co-authored the scripts for the excellent Casino Royale (2006) and the fun but not quite as good Quantum of Solace (2008), Craig’s first two go-arounds as secret agent 007. The third member of Skyfall’s screenwriting triumvirate is John Logan, replacing Paul Haggis, who co-wrote the previous two Bond films.

The cinematography and the stunts are spectacular, the cast is easy on the eyes but fully capable of conveying human emotions when called upon to do so, and the plot is hard-driving. The overall tone remains hard-nosed, but there’s room for a few touches of humor as well as vulnerability on the part of both Bond and his unsentimental spymaster. Judi Dench reprises her role as M, the MI6 head, in what may be one of her last appearances due to her advanced age and uncertain health.

Javier Bardem makes a relatively late entrance as the requisite super-villain, a slightly campy but nonetheless menacing character with bleached-blond hair and unfortunate dental issues named Silva. The top-notch cast also features Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory, a government official whose oversight M and Bond both quickly come to loathe; Naomie Harris as a spy whose ability, looks and style rival Bond’s; Albert Finney as Kincade, an old acquaintance of Bond’s; and Ben Whishaw as the young, new, quirky and occasionally impertinent quartermaster, Q.

The players also include Bérénice Lim Marlohe as a Bond girl (although this new trio of Bond pictures has manipulated that archetype in interesting ways); Rory Kinnear as M’s aide de camp, Tanner; and Bill Buckhurst in a short but moving cameo as a Bond compatriot.

The action takes place in Istanbul, Shanghai, Macao and the United Kingdom, all of which appear absolutely gorgeous as lensed by Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins. (I watched the film on an IMAX screen, and everything looked wonderful.)

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I am the walrus: A bumbling functionary gets things moving in ‘District 9’

November 15, 2012

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp spins an absorbing science fiction tale in his outstanding 2009 debut feature, District 9.

The story is centered on a pleasant, bumbling corporate drone named Wikus Van De Merwe. (His first name is pronounced “VICK-us,” I believe; I confess to having no idea how his surname should be pronounced, even though it’s spoken multiple times throughout the movie.) A mid-level manager for MNU, a multi-national corporation, Van De Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley) has just won a big promotion: He will lead the effort to resettle the residents of a large slum near Johannesburg.

This being a science fiction movie, those residents are not black people but aliens. The prawns arrived in 1982 when their massive spaceship came to hover over the South African metropolis. Although it wasn’t clear why they traveled to Earth, the malnourished aliens — evidently leaderless and unable to control their vessel — were resettled in the so-called District 9. In Johannesburg circa 2010, they are looked upon by many South Africans, black and white, with roughly the same contempt that white residents of the nation visited upon black residents during its segregationist apartheid era.

Early on in the eviction effort, Van De Merwe discovers a mysterious device in one alien’s shack. Before he can bag and confiscate the item, it sprays him in the face. Within hours, his body begins changing — his fingernails fall out, he loses control of his bowels and he vomits at a party.

It soon becomes apparent that Van De Merwe is being turned into a prawn by the fluid. MNU discovers that he is capable of operating prawn weapons, something humans had previously been unable to do because the technology is inert unless used by those with alien genes. Van De Merwe is slated for vivisection.

He escapes and flees to District 9, where he begins to unravel the mystery of what is happening to him and how the changes can be reversed. In so doing, he forms an uneasy alliance with one alien — and he sets in motion a chain of portentous events.

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Means vs. ends: Account of bin Laden’s assassination raises uncomfortable questions

November 14, 2012

Author’s note: I have written two posts inspired by Mark Bowden’s nonfiction book The FinishTuesday’s post reviewed the book. Today’s post considers some of the philosophical and moral issues raised by the book.


As Mark Bowden makes clear in The Finish, his new book on the killing of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, several different tales have been told about the notorious terrorist’s final moments.

Obama administration officials initially indicated that bin Laden sought to use his youngest wife, Amal, as a human shield, and that he was killed in a firefight. Bowden and Nicholas Schmidle, in The New Yorker, write that the wife moved between bin Laden and the Navy SEALs who were moving into the compound. I gather that No Easy Day, a memoir by the pseudonymous Mark Owen, a SEAL who participated in the raid, makes no mention of Amal but says bin Laden’s bullet-ridden body was in a much gorier condition than the two journalists have written.

A serious question — prompted in part because of the differing accounts of those final moments — emerged nearly as soon as the world learned that bin Laden had been shot and killed. The question: Why hadn’t the United States captured the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks so he could be put on trial in a court of law?

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Bowden chronicles a top terrorist’s take-down in ‘The Finish’

November 13, 2012

Author’s note: I have written two posts inspired by Mark Bowden’s nonfiction book The Finish. Today’s post is a review of the book. Wednesday’s post considers some of the philosophical and moral issues raised by the book.


Mark Bowden is a respected investigative journalist with nine books to his credit, among them Black Hawk Down, the gripping true story of a military operation gone awry in the Sudan.

Given his background, it’s little surprise that the dramatic killing of Osama bin Laden — which is now perhaps the most famous special operations mission in history — drew Bowden’s interest. Nor is it a surprise that the author has produced a fascinating account of the mission that arguably made President Barack Obama able to win a second term in office.

By now the broad outlines of the raid on a large but obscure private residence in Abbottabad, one mile away from Pakistan’s military academy, are well known. As typically told, the story begins when Obama ordered American intelligence agencies to prioritize locating bin Laden, the notorious terrorist and al Qaeda founder who helped launch the deadly Sept. 11, 2001, assaults on New York and Washington, D.C.

When spies tracked down a courier linked to bin Laden, they discovered a familiar-looking thin, tall man pacing in the compound where the courier lived. Obama and top officials began sorting through probabilities and options. Once drone and missile strikes were dismissed as being too crude and leaving too much uncertainty, a special operations team began planning and practicing for a raid near the capital of what is ostensibly an allied nation.

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Fascinating tale of ‘Alien Hunter’ fails to hit mark

November 9, 2012

Nearly everyone is taught not to judge a book by its cover, but it’s not always a lesson that sticks.

Take the case of Alien Hunter, an obscure (at least to me) 2003 science fiction outing featuring James Spader. It is not a book, of course, but a movie; the point is, I found it hard to resist forming conclusions based on the picture’s lurid green and yellow poster. Everything about the artwork and type (“Earth just got its final warning!”) screams B movie.

Spader’s appearance in the infamous 2000 sci-fi flop Supernova certainly did nothing to discredit my assumptions about Alien Hunter.

But while watching Alien Hunter just the other night, I found that my conclusions didn’t quite pan out.

The beginning is certainly not promising. There’s a brief opening set in New Mexico circa 1947, in which something mysterious and other-worldly appears to occur. We then switch briefly to Antarctica, where a mysterious signal has been intercepted, before popping into the 2003 classroom of University of California at Berkeley lecturer Julian Rome (Spader).

An expert in communications and decryption, and an infamous Lothario, Rome used to be an “alien hunter” with the discontinued SETI project. (The acronym, many readers will know, stands for search for extraterrestrial intelligence.) A colleague asks him to examine data on the signal; soon, Rome is flying to an isolated Antarctic base.

The outpost’s small crew is holding a block of ice containing the source of the signal in its maintenance bay. The ice is melting rapidly, but that’s not the only thing cooking at the small scientific base. It turns out that Rome’s former lover, Kate Brecher, is one of a trio of scientists conducting potentially ground-breaking agricultural experiments there. The sexual tension between Rome and Brecher as well as Rome and a technician named Nyla Olson is soon dialed up to maximum.

Rome is still analyzing the signal when the melting ice reveals an unusual pod. Goaded mainly by a hot-tempered Irish scientist, Michael Straub, the crew decides to cut the object open. It is a decision they come to regret…

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