Gore-Gasm!

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To the fiery pit of Tartarus with the Oscars, the Emmys, the Daytime Emmys, the Tonys (that’s the one where they give awards to plays), the People’s Choice Awards, and the Golden Globes.  July 31st is far and away the greatest day on 2007’s entertainment calendar, as both 300 AND Pathfinder hit the shelves on DVD.  In case you’re some sort of Zach Braff fan pantywaist and didn’t see either of these, these films are about two of the ass-kickingest peoples in ancient history, the Spartans and the Vikings, doing what they do best:  killing people with swords.  If that’s not enough for you, Mary, then here are two little nuggets that ought to entice you into buying:

1.  Pathfinder is premised on what is perhaps the greatest idea in the history of movie-making:  Indians versus Vikings.  Also, the Viking chief is played by Brother Justin himself, Clancy Brown.   

2.  The theme of brave, righteous Spartan warriors standing tall in the face of despotism and decadence in the form of ancient Persia can be viewed as a thinly veiled “fuck you” to Iran.  So really, if you don’t purchase 300, you support Iran’s plan to get a nuclear bomb.  And the NSA knows all about it; you don’t think they can data mine that?

So buy ’em here, and here.

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The British Make the Best Polemicists (Quote of the Day)

From Christopher Hitchenslatest installment of “Fighting Words” on Slate:

Just look at the gang that strove to prevent the United Nations from enforcing its library of resolutions on Saddam Hussein. Where are they now? Gerhard Schroeder, ex-chancellor of Germany, has gone straight to work for a Russian oil-and-gas consortium. Vladimir Putin, master of such consortia and their manipulation, is undisguised in his thirst to re-establish a one-party state. Jacques Chirac, who only avoided prosecution for corruption by getting himself immunized by re-election (and who had Saddam’s sons as his personal guests while in office, and built Saddam Hussein a nuclear reactor while knowing what he wanted it for), is now undergoing some unpleasant interviews with the Paris police. So is his cynical understudy Dominique de Villepin, once the glamour-boy of the “European” school of diplomacy without force. What a crew! [George] Galloway is the most sordid of this group because he managed to be a pimp for, as well as a prostitute of, one of the foulest dictatorships of modern times. But the taint of collusion and corruption extends much further than his pathetic figure, and one day, slowly but surely, we shall find out the whole disgusting thing.

“According to Jim”: 6 Years. “Carnivàle”: 2?

walter-2.jpg by Civilizer 

I’m not saying anything very profound by asserting that most of TV is unadulterated crap.  It’s like saying that Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” theodicy is rendered irrevocably and eternally inadequate by the events of the Lisbon earthquake.  I mean, duh. 

Personally, I don’t mind that most of TV is a fetid cesspool of brain-dulling spew that caters to an audience that must be at least 85% drooling idiot.  No one’s forcing me to watch it, you know?  I can blow right by “The Apprentice” as I happily click my merry way over to “Planet Earth” on the Discovery Channel.  Or Book TV on C-Span.  Or Monday Night RAW.  If TV wants to suck, let it suck.  You can still manage to find some good stuff on there.  Or read, I guess.

That said, I do have a problem when the aforementioned good stuff gets pulled like an accordion player on Showtime at the Apollo.  This happens sometimes.  A really thoughtful, intelligent, intriguing show somehow sneaks through television’s Creativity FilterTM, doesn’t attract the same number of viewers as, say, Survivor 14: More Unlikable People Sweating, and goes off the air before it’s really had a chance to get off the ground.  The example most often cited of this sort of thing is, of course, FOX’s Arrested Development, which made it 2 or so seasons before the suits killed it.  In that short period of time, the show garnered about 20 Emmy nominations.  It was cancelled, fans gnashed their teeth, the media bemoaned the loss of another “smart” TV show, and then hyped another interview with Nick Carter about his new role as United Nations Dolphin Ambassador.  FOX’s Family Guy is another example, though that show was famously brought back following an unexpectedly strong performance in the DVD market.

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HBO’s Carnivàle is another show that was high on awesomeness and low on ratings that ultimately ended up cancelled.  The show was a deliberately-paced supernatural/historical drama (explaining why it was cancelled) that ran two parallel plot lines.  The first involved a laconic young farmhand named Ben Hawkins who joins up with a travelling carnival following the financial collapse of his family farm and the death of his mother.  It is soon revealed that Ben is endowed with supernatural powers of the healing and psychic variety.  Ultimately, we find that he is the Avatar of Light, a real cosmic A-lister who is charged with breaking a cycle of events that are to end with the Trinity atomic test and, perhaps, Armageddon.  The second plotline follows the ascent of a menacing Christian minister named Brother Justin Crowe (played by Clancy Brown!), who turns out to be Ben’s opposite, the “Usher of Destruction,” and the final Avatar of Darkness.  He is, as you might infer, a real asshole.  In any case, Carnivàle painstakingly crafted these two opposing tales into a weekly hourlong drama that was part religious allegory, part nouveau-Apocrypha, part human drama, and part supernatural/horror/suspense alchemical production.  The following cool things happen which automatically make Carnivàle better than 99% of shows currently on the air:

1.  In a dream/flashback, Justin as a young boy snaps a guy’s neck with his mind.

2.  Ben heals a paralyzed girl, and the act of doing so drains the life from some nearby vegetation.

3.  The Freemasons get involved.  Tip for all aspiring screenwriters:  you cannot go wrong with Freemasons in your film or TV show.   

4.  Brother Justin embraces his fate by announcing “I am the Left Hand of God.”  Maybe not as weighty and resonant as the wisdom of Simon Cowell, but still.  Sounds cool.

5.  Three words:  Spectral lynch mob.

And that’s just the non-spoiler stuff that I can safely reveal to anyone who might get interested in checking it out on DVD.  Carnivàle is easily one of the most well-done, creative productions I have ever seen, be it on TV or big screen.  Even during its slower episodes, it is an engrossing experience long on the “wide-eyes factor.”  It was probably these slower episodes that doomed the show, and that’s a shame; it’s clear from what was completed that writer/creator Daniel Knauf had big plans for the show and was going to weave real history into his fictional world to satisfying, perhaps chilling, effect.  Knauf had a six-year plan, with the show’s arc split into 3 “Books,” 2 seasons per book.  Had seasons 3 & 4 been produced, the show would have taken place between 1939 and 1940.  Seaons 5 & 6 would have comprised 1944-1945, leading up to the Trinity test.  In 1939 Germany invaded Poland and kicked off World War II, New York’s World Fair opened, and the Holocaust had been poisoning the world for several years.  All rich subject matter that the show could have woven into its plot.  Instead, HBO has decided they’re full-steam ahead with Big Love, which is a lead balloon of a show if I ever saw one.  Well, 10 minutes of one.  It had bored the hell out of me at that point.

There is still a chance that the show will be revived.  HBO has hinted that a television movie is possible, and a ratings success for the show might resurrect it.  I hope it does, and for the reason any TV executive should appreciate:  I want to see what happens next.

The official website can be found here.  A pretty good tribute to the show can be found here.  And buy the show here, dammit.

Ode on a Predator Drone

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Lately, the War on Terror hasn’t been going exactly the way the American intelligence community would like.  The recently released National Intelligence Estimate, the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies (not, however, the view of Cheney’s shadow government, which continues to pursue the completion of a mysterious device referred to only as “Project: Big Time“), places the United States in a “heightened threat environment.”  Citing al-qaeda‘s apparent regeneration of its “Homeland attack capacity” utilizing a safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and an ability to “leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-qaeda in iraq, it’s most visible and capable affiliate,” the NIE states that the group will keep trying to get their grubby little mitts on chemical and biological weapons, or nuclear material, and blow something up with them.  So, you know.  The usual. 

Also – and this is new – Hizballah might attempt a Homeland attack if it “perceives the United States as posing a direct threat to the group, or Iran.”  Personally, I think this one is a little bit cute – like the squeaky-voiced, Underoos-wearing pre-pubescent little brother sticking up for his big brother.   

The unspoken gist of the NIE is that by creating decapitation-happy nihilistic camel-jockeys al-qaeda in iraq, and diverting attention from the gathering clouds in the FATA, President Bush’s Iraq venture has ultimately strengthed al-qaeda‘s capacity to carry out a successful attack on U.S. soil.  (For a fuller explanation of this reading of the document, read Frank Kaplan’s recent installment of his “War Stories” column in Slate.)  That’s a lot of bad news for a 7-page government report.  Be that as it may, I am nevertheless pleased to report this one piece of happy news, a bulwark of good cheer amidst a sea of negativity:

The Predator Drone still kicks ass.

That’s right.  This little bastard predator-drone.jpg 

has got to be the coolest piece of hardware in the War on Terror, hands-down.  Call it what you want – the MQ-1 Predator, a MALE (medium-altitude, long-endurance), a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), I call the Predator Drone a 27-foot long, 1,100 pound, laser-guided Hellfire missile-equipped $40 million piece of red, white, and blue American ass-kickery.

First used in the Balkans in 1995, the Predator has since been used in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Iraq.  It’s racked up a pretty solid trophy room in that time.  Credited to the MQ-1 are the deaths of abu hamza rabia, then the al-qaeda #3, who was killed (in his sleep!) in 2005 in Pakistan, bomb-maker and chemical weapons mastermind midhat mursi plus two other senior leaders in the ’05 Damadola airstrike, qaed senyan al-harthi (thought to be behind the Cole bombing) in Yemen in 2002, plus several near-misses of ayman al-zawahiri and osama bin laden.  And the Predator isn’t too “nose in the air” to go after simple foot soldiers.  According to the Air Force’s July 11 Airpower Summary, a Predator recently made terrorist mcnuggets out of a group of insurgents trying to plant roadside bombs in Iraq.

A-list kills aside, I think there’s a pretty simple reason why people in the military, as well as myself, are so enamored with the Predator Drone.  Namely, it’s like something from Star Wars.  No one in the armed forces leadership has ever came out and said it explicitly, but I think it’s pretty clear that the Star Wars movies inspire most of our advanced weapons technology (see Project: Big Time).  The prime example, of course, would have to be Reagan’s anti-Soviet missile defense system, the Strategic Defense Initiative, which came to actually be called “Star Wars” and was a really great idea except that it cost about a trillion dollars and was stupid.  Aside from the SDI, the military is working on pulse weapons, lasers, plus that thing that heats your skin like a microwave from 500 meters

It’s video-game quality weapons like this, ultimately (plus an abiding belief in democracy, freedom, and blah blah blah), that make me confident we’re going to win the War on Terror.  It’s only a matter of time before we roll out the BFG 9000, and when that day comes, it is my sincere belief that the Lincoln Memorial will begin shedding tears of patriotic joy.

Waziristan: Like the Hamptons, but for Terrorists

walter-2.jpg by Civilizer

The summer vacation season is now in full swing, with Americans cramming into cars, buses, and plush, high-tech, space-age plastic, angel-winged specimens of much-better-than-your-flying-tenement-Airbus A380 ‘murican aerospace technology, happily traipsing south to exotic climes while crude prices just as happily wave to them while heading in the complete opposite direction.  If you’ve got a trip planned, I hope it’s a happy one.  If, however, it’s Pakistan you’re heading to, maybe you ought to think about that Plan B at the time share in West Virginia.  Unless you’re cool with having a concierge who looks like this:

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“Would you like a reservation at the Peshawar Hooters?  The waitresses there are quite lascivious and sometimes drop their burqa to reveal some serious clavicle.  They are immediately killed of course.”

I kid.  The Hooters is in Wana.  In any event, Pakistan hasn’t really put its “best foot forward” on the tourism front in the past two weeks.  First there was the siege of the Red Mosque, home to a fundamentalist Islamic terror squad indelicately located smack in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and rumored to have friends in high places within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI.  The siege ended with a full-blown military incursion into the compound that left at least 87 dead, including 11 members of Pakistani special forces.  In retaliation, militants likely based out of the viper’s nest that is the Pakistan-Afghan border launched suicide attacks in Peshawar that killed over 70 people.  The violence of the past 14 days should serve as a reminder that while Iraq might be grabbing all the ink (totally coincidentally, the United States presidential election is right around the corner), we have a serious national security problem simmering in the border area of Waziristan that merits serious attention. 

Iraq’s battlestreets are likely training the next generation of jihadi foot soldiers and field commanders the way the anti-Soviet uprising in Afghanistan of the 1980s produced the current crop of battle-hardened Islamofascists, but the planning and direction for anti-superpower jihad 2.0 will likely come from Waziristan.  Here’s a map of the area:

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Waziristan is part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), a semi-autonomous, mountainous area on the Pakistan-Afghan border.  It’s mostly populated by Pashtuns, a historically fierce and independent ethnic group who subsist largely as shepherds and farmers; in their spare time, they enjoy polo (really) and blood feuds.  Skilled warriors who have lived in the region for centuries and therefore have an intimate strategic knowledge of the terrain, the Pashtun people are virtually impossible to dislodge from their homeland; the British and Russian empires learned this the hard way in the long-running episode of 19th and 20th century military and diplomatic stagecraft known as the Great Game.  What all this means is that Pervez Musharraf’s Islamabad government controls the area in name only.  The tribal chiefs and their allies control who stays, who goes, who is safe, and who is not.

In 2004, Pakistan’s government took a shot at upending this arrangement, and the army entered Waziristan gunning for al-qaeda and taliban militants.  The tribesmen took exception, and al-qaeda-allied fighters in North Waziristan humiliated Musharraf’s forces.  It is estimated that as many as 3,000 Pakistani soldiers died.  The result was Pakistan limping into a treaty with the North Waziri militants in September of 2005; the treaty provided for some reconstruction efforts from Islamabad in exchange for a promise from the tribesmen to not shelter foreign jihadists – in other words, keep their house clean and vermin-free.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way.  

The Peshawar bombings and suicide attacks of the July 12-14th weekend are a clear illustration of mounting terrorist strength in the border regions.  As these events continue to unfold, it becomes clear that the 2005 treaty essentially functioned to give the Taliban and al-qaeda some breathing room and allowed them to reconstitute both leadership and operational strength.  Where osama bin laden‘s gang used to have the sovereign nation of Afghanistan to plan their crimes, they now have a totally lawless area with no easily targetable power structure to disrupt.  Most worrisome, at least some of the extant terror factions are abetted by the ISI.

Washington, we have a problem.  The developments in Waziristan over the past 3 years represent, in my opinion, one of the “hidden costs” of the Iraq War.  Victory in the War on Terror will be predicated on the West’s ability to identify emerging terrorist safe havens and to disrupt existing ones, and to cultivate relationships with governments and indigenous populations in those areas.  While we’ve been funneling a disproportionate amount of money and intelligence resources to Iraq, the post-9/11 gains we made against al-qaeda and other terrorist groups are being rolled back as these networks rebuild and resurface elsewhere.  My point is this:  somehow, someway, we might secure Iraq.  But by then, who will rule the Maghreb?

But Still, It’s Probably Because of ‘Ferrners (Quote of the Day)

From Volume 11, No. 8 of the “Current Issues” letter from the New York Federal Reserve Bank:

The absence of any consistent pattern in the fortunes of individual industries suggests that while trade-related competition may have driven job losses in some sectors, layoffs in many other sectors occurred for reasons unrelated to trade.  Indeed, in a number of industries, forces such as technological change, investment overhangs, and changing consumption behavior are much more likely to have caused job losses.

That noise you hear is the sound of protectionist candidates everywhere gasping in horror as they realize their easily incited constituency will no longer blindly rally to the jingoistic complaint of unfair foreign competition taking away American jobs.  (Just kidding, nobody actually reads the “Current Issues” letter from the New York Federal Reserve Bank.)

Good Thing SOMEBODY Has Their Eye on the Ball

From Abdul Sattar Murad, governor of the Afghan province of Kapisa, interviewed in Newsweek:

The U.S. is not receiving full cooperation from Pakistan. Pakistan is cooperating, but the ISI faction, which knows where Al Qaeda is, is not really forthcoming to U.S. intelligence. Inside Afghanistan, there is also a lack of cooperation. The recent resentment created among former leaders who were involved in the war against the Taliban has created a gap between the government and these people, and this is naturally hurting the efforts to find Al Qaeda. Americans, again, are not receiving good information from those leaders, who can play a key role in capturing Mullah Omar and Osama, if he is in Afghanistan. Unless there is a change in this situation, you will see this gap increase day by day.

From Cindy in Covedale, who wrote into the Cincinnati Enquirer (scroll down to the bottom):

This year was the second time I attended Paddlefest to watch a family member participate. It is so neat to see the canoes in mass on the river. Your photos of the event were awful. The canoe with five people in it was fine, but with 1,500 people participating and 1,000 boats a picture of how unique it looks on the river would be better. The boats sitting on Public Landing was a stupid picture as well. And showing a picture of someone singing at the after-event had nothing to do with the event. Show the canoes or kayakers. Show groups paddling. Show them at the start when there were quite a few in water. Be on a boat for the best pictures of anything.

I’m really glad she spoke up.