22 January, 2007

Preemptive Democracy, Perhaps?

With each passing day, it seems that the U.S. faces more and more trouble with the international community. The most recent event of note in our ongoing struggles is the Chinese testing a missile capable of destroying low-orbit satellites. This story broke late last week and few new details have surfaced in the few days since then. The Chinese government is remaining uncomfortably quiet about the situation for some reason. Some assume that the success of the test came as a surprise to certain sectors of the government and the proper authorities to address the situation have not prepared themselves to issue a statement. The initial thought was that this was a test done by China to flex their military muscle, perhaps in an attempt to get the U.S. and Russia to the bargaining table to sign a treaty banning such weapons.

Such a treaty is not a novel concept and has been discussed for at least 15 years now. The U.S. has shown little interest in drawing up a treaty because it did not believe other nations possessed this technology and more specifically, the Bush administration vowed not to sign such a treaty because they did not want the U.S. to be limited in any way in their space activities. Most likely, a treaty won't be signed on this issue because Bush is still in office and prefers to "stay the course" on most issues. Additionally, it's unlike the U.S. in this day and age to receive a perceived threat like this and then act diplomatically on it. If the U.S. were to jump on and sign a treaty banning these weapons now, it will be like China is saying "told ya' so" in our faces, which is not a position the U.S. would like to see itself in.

If this is in fact the scenario we face, why didn't we just try to work out a treaty in years past to avoid ever getting to this point? The Bush doctrine holds preemptive war as one of its key points, but why not preemptive democracy? Why shouldn't the U.S. consider potential threats and act diplomatically in addressing them before they become fully realized? This most incompetent administration now has a new diplomatic problem to deal with on top of all they already have to deal with. Had they acted on the intelligence they clearly had that China wanted to sign a treaty banning these weapons and could eventually possess the technology, why not sign a treaty before Chinese possession of these weapons become a reality?

At one point, early in the presidencies of both George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao, many believed (or naively hoped) that these two men would be able to work together and bring down tensions between the United States and the People's Republic of China. The events of the last couple of years have done much more to increase tensions than most people probably could have anticipated way back when this hope was expressed. The United States stands at a historic crossroad right now to either enter a new era of widespread East vs. West tensions, reminiscent of the Cold War, or to quell these burgeoning tensions before they become too hot to handle.

I'm going to put my faith into my elected officials, both the newly elected ones in the Democratically-controlled Congress looking to make good on the promises they've made and the mandate for change they've been given and those in the White House, hopefully willing to strike a middle ground on top priority issues to make progress and to improve a legacy that currently stands about one rung above Richard Nixon's before it's too late. Anyone familiar with Phil Ochs' classic protest song "Here's to the State of Mississippi" or the reworked "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon" will enjoy this Pearl Jam reworking of the song into "Here's to the State of George W."

17 January, 2007

How Much Longer are We In For?

President Bush's new strategy for the Iraq War is to increase the number of troops over there. This move seems completely backward considering the sentiment of the American people and the members of Congress at this point. U.S. troop casualties continue to climb and the country is in Civil War. Something has to change but this is not the way to do it. This situation is immensely complex considering the tensions that exist within Iraq between the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds but this is also their country and they are probably best suited to deal with it. We do have an obligation to help out since we are completely responsible for the current state of the country but the government of Iraq needs to do its part too. The Senate is coming up with a resolution denouncing the new strategy and the war on the whole. As an alternative to increasing troop numbers, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) says the strategy should be "shifting the mission of U.S. troops from combat to training, counterterrorism and protecting Iraq's territorial integrity", according to MSNBC.com. This strategy will "Iraqify" this war and slowly lessen our involvement. Clean up after this war is our responsibility and we've tried our best by establishing a new government with a new constitution but civil war is an internal conflict and needs to be dealt with internally for the most part. If we can get a military force trained over there, they can get out and suppress the regional tension as they see fit. These people are of the country will be better solving the civil strife. Pulling out now is not an option so we need to do something else. Getting the Iraqi government to do their part is the most important factor to bringing this problem, or at least our involvement in this problem to a close. To conclude, Press Secretary Tony Snow would like us all to know why we should support the President's plan with a snide remark, rather than presenting us reasons or expert opinion and analysis: "The one thing the president has said is, whatever you do, make sure you support the troops, and the question people who support this resolution will have to ask is, how does this support the troops?"

16 January, 2007

Movies 2006

So I've decided to put together this list despite not having seen what I consider a few notable releases that may have a place high on this list if I had seen them. I'll start by discussing them:

Dreamgirls: This film could very well win the Best Picture Oscar this year, but I just haven't had a chance to see it yet. This one interests me but isn't going to be found anywhere on the list because I haven't seen it.

Little Children: This one has been getting great reviews, but I had no expectations as I haven't seen director Todd Field's previous film, In the Bedroom. I'll be sure to see this one when it comes to DVD, especially if it gets some awards this season.

Stranger Than Fiction: This is one I was really looking forward to but I missed it in theaters and will just have to wait until it comes to DVD.

The Good Shepherd: Robert DeNiro's second directorial feature looked intriguing, starring half of Hollywood and exploring the origins of the CIA. It's length and initial reviews discussing it's slow pace didn't make me want to see it, but encouraged me to spend my money on another film. I'll definitely see it when it comes to DVD though.

The Queen: This film is another likely Best Picture contender and I may still see it in theaters as it is going to see a rerelease this weekend. This one was playing very limitedly and didn't come on to my radar until late into its first run but its great reviews make me want to see it.

Letters from Iwo Jima: I have seen this film's companion film, Flags of our Fathers, but this one has barely played on more than a few screens so far and has logistically been out of reach for me to see. As soon as this one does expand to my area, I'll see it.

I'm not going to do a write up of every film I saw this year, but I'll discuss the ones I feel deserve mention. I'll begin with my least favorite of the year. I didn't see any films that I absolutely hated this year, but I did see a few that were mediocre. The three I saw this year that I liked the least were Beerfest, Night Watch, and Hostel. Beerfest had its funny parts. They were cheap laughs and you had to leave your brain at the door for this one but it managed to entertain for a little while. Night Watch is a huge film in its native Russia but I just didn't think it was that great. It is a trilogy and the story had me interested enough that I'll try to see the sequels when they come to DVD. Hostel was about on par with Saw and it was obvious it was trying to cash in on the same audience with its excessive gore and blood. It gave me some fun for an hour and a half and I'll probably catch the sequel when it comes to DVD too.

Here's some films that I believe were really good, but because I did see quite a few movies I enjoyed this year, didn't make the Top 15.

The Descent: I have not seen a new horror movie that I thoroughly enjoyed and was sincerely scared by. This movie came out of nowhere and was really creepy. It wasn't like most of the horror movies that come out today (ie, terrible remake/sequel or Saw/Hostel ripoff) and was actually a good film.

An Inconvenient Truth: Scariest movie of the year. This movie should not be scary but because of the state of the world, it is. This movie must be seen by everyone who cares about this planet, not to mention Al Gore is the man!

Clerks II: Kevin Smith does not let his fans down with this hilarious follow up to his no-budget debut that has become a cult classic. I loved it and look forward to what Smith has to offer in the years to come.

Inland Empire: It is hard to place this film anywhere on this list. I’ve moved it around a bunch of times and I’m not completely sure this is where I want it to be. This was an experience if any film has ever been an experience. The more I think about the movie, the more I seem to like it. In terms of giving you a plot, I can’t. Laura Dern is in this David Lynch film that is a true David Lynch film. The movie’s three hour run time is a little too long, but I remained enthralled throughout. In my mind, because I remained interested for the entire time, despite not knowing what was happening in the narrative (if there is one), I must have liked the movie. If you plan to see this one, buy into from the beginning, and it will be an incredible experience.

A Scanner Darkly: Director Richard Linklater continues to deliver high quality cinema with this pseudo-animated adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: This is a funny movie that very few people saw. It's offbeat and very unconventional but I really enjoyed it.

Superman Returns: I loved this one. I was incredibly happy to be able to see Superman on the big screen in a new film during my lifetime. I look forward to the sequels that are sure to follow.

The Fountain: This one kind of flew under the popular radar but it was a fine film. The plot was convoluted but the themes it delivered were very intense and the visuals were simply beautiful. Hugh Jackman puts in a great performance, perhaps the best of his career.

Brick: I love the classic noir films and this one puts a contemporary twist on the old formula and puts it in a suburban town with high school students.

And here are my Top 15 favorite films of the year:

15) Borat: This film certainly secured itself in the canon of American pop culture this year. Between such exaggerated statements as “the funniest comedy ever,” massive box office returns and a handful of law suits, there actually is a very good film. Sacha Baron Cohen’s alter ego, Borat Sagdiyev, stars as a Kazakhstani journalist sent to America to improve his country. In the process, real Americans are exposed as having the most outrageously inappropriate ideas about their own country and the rest of the world. Most of these ideas concern race, religioun and sexuality. These situations prove to be hilarious for the entire film. This film has almost been overexposed at this point though. With the character appearing every interview style television show on American television and even Saturday Night Live, Boratmania may have been a little bit too much for the legacy of this one. Either way, the film is hilarious and I doubt this is the last the American people will see of Sacha Baron Cohen.
14) Monster House: This was an incredible film and is fun for anyone to watch. I felt like the plot elements and characters in this movie belonged in a more adult movie but they all worked great in this animated film. This one really surprised me and was very well done visually.
13) Cars: Pixar is at it again, delivering animated films that everyone loves. The voice cast in this one was the most impressive of any Pixar film yet and the music was very well done. The car society created for this movie is very cleverly done and many of the jokes are above the intended audience of this film, which is great for older viewers.
12) Casino Royale: My god, is James Bond back. This film is the third major "reboot" (after Batman Begins and Superman Returns) and just had everything working for it: a Paul Haggis script, Goldeneye director Martin Campell returning to direct and Daniel Craig as the new James Bond. This film gives our generation a new take on James Bond and promises to revive this 40 year old series. I just hope Daniel Craig doesn't become too linked with the part that he can't continue doing phenomenal work as he had been before this one.
11) The Proposition: Guy Pearce stars in this western taking place in the Australian outback. I love westerns but many say the genre is dead. Less than 15 years ago Unforgiven won for Best Picture and in the past year we've seen this one and Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, both fine genre films, and next year we have The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford starring Brad Pitt. In addition, "Deadwood" is a huge hit on HBO. I'm hoping these factors will give way to somewhat a revival of the dormant genre.
10) Inside Man: Director Spike Lee gets some great performances from Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster and up and comer
Chiwetel Ejiofor. This bank robbery film is somewhat reminiscent of Dog Day Afternoon, one of my favorite films of all time, so I had no complaints.
9) Flags of our Fathers: Clint Eastwood keeps up the incredible directorial work with the first of his two Iwo Jima epics. The American half of the two films concerns itself much more with the homefront and the media's approach to the war. Adam Beach gives one of the best performances of the year, as a Navajo soldier unable to handle the limelight that his part in Iwo Jima has brought.
8) The Prestige: The second of two 19th century magician films to come out this year does The Illusionist a little better. With strong performances from Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson, director Christopher Nolan gives moviegoers yet another top notch film. This one may go unnoticed at awards time, which is too bad as it is one of this year's real gems.
7) Pan's Labyrinth: I was waiting for this one for a long time. Director Guillermo Del Toro completes a trilogy of dark fantasy films that also includes Cronos and The Devil's Backbone. This film was slower paced than I expected but was still very good. This one has a very good chance at taking home the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year.
6) Children of Men: Clive Owen can seemingly do no wrong. Everything I have seen him in so far I have absolutely loved. Alfonso Cuaron brings an incredible dystopian thriller to the screen that at points is eerily reminiscent of the United States today. I feel this film may fall under the awards radar as well seeing as it doesn't seem like the kind of film the academy would really go for. The film's plot and acting combine with the exceptional directing to make one of the best films of the year.
United 93: The first major film about 9/11 was released earlier in the year. This film tells the story of the only hijacked plane that did not make it to an intended target. The film features unnerving reenactments of the day’s events and brings back all the memories of the initial confusion and eventual horror. The film’s emotional core lies in the story of the passengers of the flight in the film’s title. Even knowing the story as well as Americans probably do at this point, to see it dramatized is not easy to watch. These were a handful of heroic people unwilling to let a few evil men do their worst. The story is so heroic it seems like it could be fictionalized, but these people all really existed and actually did what they did in this film. This is an extraordinary film and succeeds admirably as the first mainstream movie about 9/11.
4) A Prairie Home Companion: Here's a film that I'm really surprised hasn't gotten more mention in year end lists and awards. Director Robert Altman passed away about a month ago and this film marked his final directorial effort. The film adapts the long running radio program to film but with an all star cast that acts, improvises much of their dialogue and sings. The film's exploration of death adds another level to the film, making this easily one of my favorite films of the year.
3) Little Miss Sunshine: This one is this year's indie hit. Steve Carell was the standout for me in this film, although the entire cast is hilarious. This film is the best directorial debut I saw this year and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris show great promise as film directors in the future. This one deserves recognition at this year's awards, especially for the acting.
2) Babel: The final part to a trilogy of multiple story line dramas from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is the most intense movie I saw this year. The connections between characters are fascinating to watch unfold as the film progresses and the large cast has no weak links. With the conclusion of his first three films, all part of the same loose trilogy, I can't wait to see what the director will do in the future after such strong pieces like this from a relatively inexperienced director.
1) The Departed
: Well, I hinted at this quite a while back immediately after seeing the film. Martin Scorsese's work refuses to decline in quality more than 30 years after his directing career began. I really believe this could be his year to take home that elusive Oscar and it may even finally be the year that one of his films wins Best Picture, both which have never happened. The acting is superb all around, the story is awesome and The Departed blows the original Infernal Affairs out of the water. For my full thoughts, see Dearly Departed.

There's the list, and here are some final thoughts:

Three Mexican directors delivered three of the best films of the year: Pan's Labyrinth, Children of Men, and Babel. It's very promising to see quality film making continue to expand around the world. As quality cinema expands to all parts of the world, more and more people will be given the opportunity to see great art.

Although I didn't really mention them yet, I was really impressed with most of this year's big blockbuster releases. V for Vendetta was one of my favorite blockbusters this year and was just a small notch below the films mentioned above. The three big sequels this year, M:I 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest were better than, not quite as good as and just as good as their immediate predecessors and were all well worth 10 bucks to see in the theater.

Bring on 2007!