Archive for July, 2013

Monsters! Robots! Clichés! Not entirely to its credit, ‘Pacific Rim’ has it all.

July 26, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 26, 2013

Every once in a while, there comes along a science fiction movie so novel and so well executed that its audiences stream out of theaters feeling as if they might step out into the night sky and simply take flight.

Pacific Rim, alas, is not such a film; in fact, it’s a badly flawed picture. But it is rather novel, and some of it is very well executed, and it is a fun flick — if one that fails to live up to its maximum potential.

The movie, co-written by Travis Beacham and director Guillermo del Toro, is premised on the notion that some kind of interdimensional rift opens up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. (That happens in 2013 in the film’s chronology — fingers crossed!) The rift repeatedly disgorges enormous monsters known as kaiju, each of which mercilessly pounds one Pacific Rim city or another before it can be dispatched by the authorities. In response, world powers band together to build multiple jaegers, which are similarly enormous fighting robots.

The jaegers successfully put down kaiju until one stormy night off the coast of Alaska in 2020, when a monster plunges its claw into the control pod of the Gipsy Danger jaeger and extracts one of the robot’s co-pilots. That marks a turning point in the war; by 2025, the arsenal of jaegers has been winnowed down to a handful, and humanity is attempting to seal itself off from danger by building enormous, purportedly unbreachable walls. (Oh, yes: And also by moving rich people a few hundred miles from the shores of the Pacific, a throwaway line reveals.)

The only trouble is, erm, that those unbreachable walls turn out to pose little resistance to the kaiju. Despite that inconvenient truth, the world’s nations are unwilling to recommit resources to the increasingly ineffectively jaegers. Consequently, a commander with the extremely unlikely name of Stacker Pentecost (!) embarks upon a last-ditch program to take the fight to the kaiju, rather than continue mankind’s losing game of defense.

Pentecost’s strategy relies upon a newly renovated Gipsy Danger and that jaeger’s surviving co-pilot, a retired “ranger” with the slightly less unlikely name of Raleigh Becket. Not only must Becket be able to step back into the cockpit where his co-pilot and brother was killed five years previously, he must identify and meld with a rookie co-pilot. Unfortunately, the best candidate for the job, one Mako Mori, is a woman whom Pentecost is determined to keep out of the cockpit.

Pentecost’s plan also depends on the two members of his crack — oops, better make that crackpot — science team being able to ferret out information that kaiju haven’t yielded despite a dozen years of urgent scrutiny by (presumably) the world’s best researchers. And it depends on one of those scientists being able to partner with a black market kaiju organ dealer to procure something no one has ever managed to obtain: a living monster brain.

Read the rest of this entry »

The retirees of ‘RED 2’ provide chuckles and thrills

July 25, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 25, 2013

RED 2 is an enjoyable but superficial romp that finally answers this inessential question: If you can’t have fun with the prospect of millions of innocent people being incinerated by a nuclear terrorist, what can you have fun with?

Director Dean Parisot’s sequel centers on retired/extremely dangerous — RED, get it?! — American secret agent Frank Moses. He finds himself unwillingly dragged out of a quiet retirement, along with his action-hungry girlfriend, Sarah, when officials suddenly begin asking questions about one Operation Nightshade. The pair join with Moses’ eccentric former partner, Marvin, to figure out why a botched long-ago operation in Russia has become newly relevant.

The fast-paced RED 2 sends the group to Paris, London and Moscow as they go about unraveling the mystery. Along the way, they tangle with Jack Horton, a murderous American officer who’s determined to keep Nightshade buried; Katja, a Russian frenemy whose old romance with Moses fuels an intense jealousy in Sarah; a retired British agent named Victoria who has been hired by MI-6 to kill her two former colleagues and friends; and Han Cho Bai, a deadly Korean mercenary with a grudge against Moses whom the Americans hire to assassinate Moses and Marvin. Read the rest of this entry »

‘The Last Lecture’ represents one professor’s legacy for his children

July 22, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 22, 2013

In 2006, a computer science professor named Randy Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, an especially deadly disease. The married father of three learned about a year after he first fell ill that the tumors had metastasized. He was told that he had only a few months of good health remaining.

While he was in treatment, Pausch was invited by his university, Carnegie Mellon, to give a lecture. He took advantage of the occasion to tell a packed auditorium about how he had lived his life. The talk, which was titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” was implicitly aimed at his three young children, who would grow up without him.

The presentation became known as “The Last Lecture.” That’s also the title of a book that Pausch co-wrote with journalist Jeffrey Zaslow. The volume was published in April 2008, about three months before Pausch succumbed to cancer.

I approached The Last Lecture knowing the general background behind it. Somewhat to my surprise, the book isn’t a transcript of the talk, although a few specific moments from the Sept. 18, 2007, lecture are described in detail. Instead, this is a memoir that delves into different episodes that informed the presentation.  Read the rest of this entry »

Word play: Man’s best friend

July 17, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 17, 2013

Man’s best friend. Man’s west bend. Man’s bed send. Man’s hedge bent. Man’s nest tends. Man’s quest ends. Man’s dread rends. Dan’s fed men. Fan’s edge fens. Tan’s hedge trends.

Man’s jest lends. Man’s breast condescends. Man’s test fends. Man’s vest mends. Man’s stressed wren. Man’s guest vend. Man’s dressed wen. Man’s pressed ten. Man’s pest Zen. Man’s zest wends. Man’s Midwest Brent. Man’s oppressed yen. Man’s incensed Ken. Man’s recessed Ben. Man’s depressed den. Man’s suppressed hen. Man’s progressed then.

Man’s chest pen. Man’s request lens. Man’s professed hem. Man’s rest descends. Man’s protest intends. Man’s interests rescind. Man’s coalesced oven. Man’s dispossessed clench. Man’s arrest trench. Vans suggest human. Crams southwest glen.

Man’s digressed inch. Man’s finessed bench. Man’s thirst quenched. Man’s infested mensch. Han’s regressed French.

Man’s obsessed finch. Man’s ingest dent. Man’s messed tent. Man’s tressed scent. Man’s compressed blend.

Tom Wolfe’s 2012 novel, ‘Back to Blood,’ presents Miami in oppressively granular detail

July 16, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 16, 2013

Tom Wolfe is an important writer who writes important books, an accomplished newspaper and magazine journalist, and a leading figure in the New Journalism movement. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Wolfe incorporated literary techniques into nonfiction writing. His best-known nonfiction books, all best-sellers, are The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), an anthology that portrayed American’s unique car culture in its title essay; The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), which chronicled the drug-addled antics of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters; and The Right Stuff (1979), which documented the early days of America’s space program.

The Richmond, Va., native pivoted into fiction with The Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel originally published as a serial by Rolling Stone in 1984-85. (When it appeared in book form in 1987, it too became a best-seller.) This tale of a New York investment banker who becomes embroiled in an inflammatory race-infused controversy launched a sequence of novels in which Wolfe switched modes. Instead of infusing journalism with literary forms, Wolfe was basing his fictions on in-depth reporting.

The Bonfire of the Vanities was followed by other tremendously successful novels grounded in journalism: A Man in Full (1998), which captured the personal journeys of a foundering Atlanta developer and a young man on the make, and I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), which showed a rural North Carolinian progressing through her freshman year at an elite private university.  Read the rest of this entry »

They say that the longest journey begins with a single step

July 15, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 15, 2013

They say admitting you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery. So here goes:

My name is Matthew E. Milliken, and I have toenail fungus.

(OK, so maybe they don’t say “admitting you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery” about toenail fungus. Please bear with me anyway, folks.)

Normally, toenail fungus is one of various frailties, failings and shortcomings that I simply keep to myself. But something happened the other week that prompted this confession.

There are various ways to fight and control — although sadly not to eradicate — toenail fungus. If memory serves, the therapies that can be brought to bear on disfigured toenails include pills, ointments, injections and even lasers. Read the rest of this entry »

25 listicles that I will never write

July 10, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 10, 2013

15 Grumpy-Looking Cats

Seven Lively Sins

Great Britain’s 10 Best-Loved Prepositions

13 Exemplary Uses of Onomatopoeia in 20th-Century American Children’s Literature

O-High-Ohhh!: The 11 Longest Punts in Ohio Pop Warner Football

17 Dog-Goned Good Dogs

Cappuccin-O: Nine Cutting-Edge Coffeehouses in Eugene, Oregon

14 for ’14: Knitting Blogs that Will Keep You in Stitches in 2014

Poe-Tay-Toe, Poe-Tah-Toe: Six Top Word Pronunciation Controversies

The Fulsome 15: Top Fullbacks of the National Football League Read the rest of this entry »

The undead populate the Big Apple in Colson Whitehead’s haunting ‘Zone One’

July 9, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 9, 2013

Colson Whitehead’s 2011 zombie novel, Zone One, gave me nightmares.

There are a number of reasons why that might have been. One is that it’s a horror novel — a tale of the zombie apocalypse — and a damn scary one, to boot. Another is that I rarely read or watch horror stories. A third is that the ending is quite macabre.

Zone One takes place over one weekend, but the events it portrays are pulled from the entire span of the protagonist’s life. He is one Mark Spitz (as he is nicknamed), a native of New York City’s Long Island suburbs who is now based in lower Manhattan — or Zone One, as it’s been dubbed. Spitz and his two Omega squad teammates are sweepers, tasked with entering every single space that might contain a zombie.

Actually, that word is never (to my recollection) used in the book. The monsters are instead referred to by one of two labels: skels, which are the typical mindless zombies that feed on people, and stragglers, which are a novel sort of undead that are frozen in place. Both kinds are to be shot in the head, bagged and hauled (or thrown) down to the street. There, following their collection by Disposal workers, the corpses are carried by horse-drawn cart for incineration at “Fort Wonton.”

Although Zone One is a massive reclamation project, it’s part of an even larger endeavor: The cleansing of post-apocalyptic America. The effort is led by a provisional government in Buffalo that issues pamphlets on “Living with PASD” (that’s post-apocalyptic stress disorder, natch) and is preparing for a global summit.

Mark Spitz is a damaged man, yet he is also — strangely — a flourishing one. In his journey through the zombie-riddled East Coast, he finds safety repeatedly, only to see it compromised time and again. Read the rest of this entry »

Finding unexpected connections between comedic improvising and fiction writing

July 8, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 8, 2013

This summer, I signed up for Improv 101, a class in improvisational comedy offered by DSI Comedy Theater in Carrboro, N.C. I had a lot of different reasons for doing so. Among them: I wanted to try something different; I wanted to do something funny; I wanted to explore my sense of humor; I wanted to meet new people; I wanted to get better at speaking off the cuff; I wanted to give a spark to my creative side.

Comedy, especially improvisational comedy, is a creative activity, of course. But something that surprised me was just how much the techniques our teacher, Brandon Holmes, taught us have in common with what I might have learned in a fiction writing class.

The fundamental tenet of improvisational comedy is “Yes, and —” which characterizes the improvisational comedian’s ideal response. For instance, if one character, or actor, or comedian, were to say, “You owe me five bucks for the bet you lost to me last week,” an excellent response might be “Yes, and I also promised to clean out your grandmother’s basement,” or “Yes, and I also owe my bookie $5,000 because of that big bet I put on Winnipeg to win the Super Bowl.”

The point of “Yes, and —” is to keep a scene flowing and developing. A lot of the humor in improvisational comedy comes not from specific jokes made by the performers but from the additional details and twists that appear when “Yes, and —” adds layers to the scene.  Read the rest of this entry »

Abortion, pregnancy and guns: Looking at some relevant numbers and legislation in North Carolina

July 4, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 4, 2013

Legislation cracking down on abortions popped up suddenly in the North Carolina legislature Tuesday afternoon, much like one of the quick-striking storms that frequently punctuate the Tar Heel summers.

According to The News & Observer of Raleigh, state Sen. Warren Daniel argued that the legislation is needed for women’s safety. Women “deserve the right to walk into a clinic that’s clean and safe,” the Morganton Republican said in one article. Another article quoted Daniel as saying, “We’re taking away the rights of an industry to have substandard conditions.”

But opponents of the bill claim that it is intended to reduce women’s ability to terminate pregnancies, an activity that has been deemed constitutional ever since the Supreme Court’s controversial 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade. House Bill 695, which is called the Family, Faith and Freedom Protection Act, would require any clinic that offers abortions to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. A Planned Parenthood representative told the N&O that none of its four facilities in the state currently comply with those regulations.

So how serious are safety concerns over abortion in North Carolina? As Daniel said, per the News & Observer, a Charlotte abortion clinic was shut down briefly this year because it improperly administered a drug. That’s one possible indication of problems.  Read the rest of this entry »

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