Saturday, June 28, 2008

But First, a Funeral

Looking at himself in the mirror that day, he couldn't tell how old he was. Sure, he knew how old he was, but either his eyesight or his mind was partially deceiving him. The grays in his hair seemed to be hidden, the lines around his eyes were gone. Perhaps it was the uniform. After all, he hadn't worn it in a long, long time.

Those were the days. He had escaped relatively unscathed from nearly a decade of service in the Army, but many of his friends had not. Drinking buddies were now lying beneath Mother Earth. Others were making their ways through life missing an arm, a leg, or both. Or all.

It wasn't fair.

Who was he, after all? Often he was referred to as a jerk. A know-it-all asshole who would just as soon shoot his superiors in the back as he would his enemies. So far in life, by his own measure, he had accomplished nothing. Why was he spared?

Certainly, he knew, his old friends were more deserving of a good life. Even the relatively few medals on his chest reminded him that he always fell a little short of the accolades. Not that he minded. He was a bit camera shy, after all, but his friends were red-blooded heroes. And the man in the mirror was not.

He took a breath, straightened his uniform as well as he could. It didn't fit as well as he remembered. A little tighter around the waist, a little looser around the shoulders. But it was his. He had earned it. His friends had died wearing it. And he would put up with looking a little out-of-place in order to honor them... because who else was left to do so?

As he exhaled he realized one strange, yet completely natural, truth. He had to live for all of them. Accomplish all of things that they, together, should have accomplished. His life must turn around, for his existence now had a meaning far greater than he deserved.

Yes, he thought. Great things will happen. For those whose only future is the eternal silence, the eternal darkness, that is memory.

But first, a funeral.

Friday, June 27, 2008

10 Underrated Movies

Have you ever seen a movie that seemingly nobody else you knew had seen? And wondered why the Hell that particular movie wasn't some uber-box office smash? Well, I have. Far too often, great movies are overlooked by the less-than-bright average American. And I just feel like ranting about that.

Anyway, the list:

1. 28 Weeks Later - most horror sequels suck. This one... doesn't. A believable script coupled with a semi-plausible premise following the semi-plausible 28 Days Later, I'm quite surprised it didn't do better at the box office. Effortless characterization builds on real life cliche and provides a thrill ride in which you're finally not rooting for the monsters to rip apart the inept protagonists. While I'm still leery of the announced 28 Months Later, because of 28 Weeks Later, I'm actually sort of looking forward to it.

2. Arlington Road - predating 9/11, this ultra-creepy and ultra-paranoid tale of terrorism only became more relevant after the fall of the Twin Towers. Expertly crafted, the film featured downright disturbing acting from Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack, and should be revisited. A subtly powerful film made even more powerful by real world events.

3. Dark City - before The Matrix asked pop culture "what is real?," Dark City cerebrally presented the question in the form of a neo-noir science fiction film, replete with trench coat-wearing aliens. Arguably a superior film to The Matrix, the mood more intense, the tone more realistic, but the marketing... well, that was non-existent. Director Alex Proyas' feature followup to The Crow, this one is a must see.

4. The Iron Giant - Yep, a cartoon. And not just any cartoon... it's easily one of the best of the last 10 years, and with the possible exception of Lilo & Stitch (another underrated film), the best science fiction cartoon since, well... I'll get back to you on that. Funny, touching, and all-too-human, this should be in the movie library of every self-respecting parent.

5. Robin Hood - no, not the Kevin Costner vehicle, the one with the guy from Sleeping With the Enemy. Undoubtedly a victim of Prince of Thieves syndrome, this film was not theatrically released in the United States, despite starring Uma Thurman as Maid Marian. More traditional than the Costner film, it still took enough liberties with the original Robin Hood tales to remain an enjoyable, not too predictable film.

6. Ronin - quite possibly Frakenheimer's true masterpiece (see The Manchurian Candidate), this late 90s film was everything a spy thriller should be: taut, exciting, and completely unpredictable (what the fuck was in the case?). Featuring an all-star cast led by Robert DeNiro and Jean Reno, it's a strange wonder this didn't blow the top off of the box office. Also features the best car chase ever filmed.

7. Titanic - What's that you say? How does the highest-grossing film of all time wind up on an underrated list? Well, ask anybody you see what they think of the film and they'll be likely to respond the same way: the ending is good, the rest sucked and put me to sleep. Obvious bullshit, but what can you do? Don't give into peer pressure. This film was great, this film is great, and even if you can't stand Leonardo DiCaprio, this film still holds up well. James Cameron's masterpiece, even if you do like Aliens better.

8. TMNT - yes, another cartoon, albeit a computer-animated one. A fresh update of everyone's favorite mutant martial artists, this film failed to captivate the American public, despite its obvious nostalgia, excellent action sequences, and a solid (if formulaic) plot. The duel in the rain is quite possibly the coolest animated fight I've ever seen (and, yes, I've seen The Animatrix). My only hope is the relative failure at the box office won't prevent sequels.

9. Unbreakable - forget the vastly overrated The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable is M. Night Shyamalan's true magnum opus. Admit it, you hated Signs the second time you watched it, and you know that The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening all suck. This comic book movie without a comic book was all character, which is very, very hard to pull off in such a genre. Perhaps Bruce Willis is on to something... M. Night needs to make a sequel to this. He's already proven he can't do much else.

10. Willow - a cult classic, but still a near-forgotten entry in the lore of fantasy films. Despite being clearly a Star Wars clone, this film had everything one could want in an adventure movie. Short heroes, tall heroes, beautiful villains/heroines, and funny brownies. Not to mention the coolest hero name since Han Solo (Madmartigan, anyone?). Ron Howard didn't get enough credit and George Lucas got too much, but Willow is an awesome film.

That's it for now, folks. I'll probably do another list soon as there are a few more films I feel are vastly underrated (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Thin Red Line, Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, and Road to Perdition, to name a few).

Anyone got any to add?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Angel George Carlin

Although I grew up listening to snippets of Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy, and the oft-overrated Andy Kaufman, it was George Carlin who was my first real introduction to stand-up comedy. Oddly, my first memory of Carlin was hearing a joke concerning an "unwilling sperm recipient" that severely offended my father. Again, it was just a snippet on the radio, played between some boring talk-show segments while my dad was driving me home from school.

Fast forward a few years and The Jerky Boys are a huge hit. For whatever reason, it was during this time that my friend and I decided to really get into comedy routines. We had gone to the record store and purchased some albums. What he picked is lost within my memory, but I plucked Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics out from the not-too-wonderful selection.

Imagine my surprise when I went home to listen to it... and heard the very joke that had offended my dad.

George Carlin was, by definition, no angel. The man cursed and cussed his way into American pop culture. He criticized religion and firmly held his atheist beliefs. Perhaps his definining "fuck you" moment to the world was his appearance as a Cardinal in Kevin Smith's Dogma. Whatever the man had to say, he said. Whatever the man had to show, he showed. And, boy, did it piss a helluva a lot of people off.

But there's clearly one aspect of Mr. Carlin that everyone, even his enemies, had to respect. His insight into the human condition was above and beyond the average person's, and it is very possible that he was the only 20th Century comedian who truly "got it."

To him, nothing was clearly black and white. All things were good and evil, including good and evil. There were schisms to everything. Mankind, itself, is a dichotomy. One need only to listen to Carlin's routines to pick this out. The disgusting was beautiful (there's a famous blowjob joke that comes to mind), and the beautiful was disgusting. You probably remember the many instances of Carlin as the grumpy old man with a lot to say, but do you remember Carlin as the kind, gentle "Mr. Conductor" on PBS' Shining Time Station? A dichotomy, indeed.

A favorite thing of his to do was to analyze the English language, and, by proxy, language in general. We've all heard of his "Seven Dirty Words," but many are unfamiliar with his near obsessive breakdowns of euphemisms and what he called "two-way words" (i.e. prick).

It was because of this last curious hobby that George Carlin is a hero to me. Through his political and chastising commentary, he displayed that he knew the power of words. He knew they could shape politics, religion, and other world perspectives. He knew words could start and stop wars, better society, and destroy civilization.

And he also knew that, in the end, words were just words. Empty, abstract; with no natural relevance. They were just there. There, because mankind created them. Created, ultimately perhaps, so that George Carlin could make us think... and make us laugh.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

War: What is it Good For?

My intent is not to get too political here, but as I'm head-first into a ton of history at the moment, I've been finding the liberal peacenik question "what is war good for?" a little odd. Not that I'm a war mongering conservative asshole, mind you, but it is definitely a funny question ask. Especially because the answer is, well, it's good for quite a bit.

Let's just work within our own history, shall we?

First of all, war gave us our independence. We are no longer British citizens, at liberty to British taxes and governmental whims. Sure, we might have just replaced one set of jerks with another, but at least now, by law, we are represented in government.

Second, war eradicated one of the follies of human history: slavery. No war? Then, to be blunt, blacks (and other minorities, likely) would still be tilling our fields for zero pay and the occasional lashing.

Third, war eliminated two of the arguably most evil empires in the history of the world. Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan. Hitler is dead and his empire is gone because of his opponents' willingness to go to war. The same can be said for Tojo and his ilk. The Jewish race is certainly happy we went to war, and so am I. Further irony is added due to the party affiliation of the US President that brought us into the war, but I digress.

There are many, many other examples of this throughout world history, but I'm not going to go into them all. Thanks to the US education system, you probably wouldn't be familiar with any of them, anyway.

My point here is not to suggest that war is a fine way to go about one's business, but it is not the all-encompassing "bad" way to get something accomplished. Sure, it sucks, but sometimes it is necessary... and often is the best course of action a people can take.

And, no, I'm not implying anything concerning our current global climate... I'm just making a point from a historical perspective (never mind a technological one). Basically, it takes completely ignorant people to suggest that war is good for nothing.

Seriously, where have they been?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Where is My America?

America is my home. And I love this place. Sure, there are hiccups in its growth; there always have been and there always will be. That will never change. But the America I see on television and read about in magazines and newspapers is not "my" America. "My" America doesn't seem to exist at the moment, and I'm wondering like Hell just where the fuck it went.

America is an agnostic country. It was set up that way by our Founding Fathers who, though largely Christian, knew that a nation's survival in the future would rely on its ability to be open to all beliefs and philosophies. Don't believe me? Read the Constitution. Find me a reference to the Christian God. And while you're doing so, don't forget to read the passage that states "... no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." It's in Article VI in case you don't know.

You see, our Founding Fathers didn't want us fighting over religious viewpoints. Why bother, after all? People will believe what they're going to believe. Jefferson and Adams knew there would be enough fighting over pure politics, why bring religion into the mix?

But that America doesn't exist.

Where is my America that banded together for almost 5 years in order to rid the world of the oppressive and dehumanizing regimes of the Germans and the Japanese? Of course there were dissenting opinions, but we were almost completely unified in that cause. Why? Because it was right.

Where is my America that watched in awe as the space race took to the stars? Sure, there were people too poor to follow it on television. Sure, there were people too uneducated to really know what it was all about. But find me someone who was alive back then who didn't at least know it was happening... or who wasn't proud about it. Were were practically unified in that cause. Why? Because we were the greatest nation on Earth and we could do it.

Where is that America? Where is the America who bonded together to support a single cause so clearly right that, regardless of political, social, and religious differences, we had no choice but to support it? Where is the America who bonded together to cheer on human achievement so clearly great that, regardless of background, we couldn't help but realize we were chasing greatness?

Are you gone, America? Are you so distraught at all of the new artificial divisions created by associations, groups, unions, and societies that the next great movement will go unnoticed? Are your people so selfish that individual has moved above country on the ladder of importance? Have you lost the ability to handle your so-called melting pot?

Where are you?

I think you're still there, somewhere. Of course you're there. You're just waiting for the religious, cultural, and social in-fighting to stop long enough to show your true colors again.

You're not worried about the political fight. America was founded on political fighting. The aforementioned Jefferson and Adams disagreed on everything political, yet lived and died the best of friends. I only hope you didn't die with them.

And I know you didn't. Your eagle still flies; it's just looking for a safe place to land. But it won't find it until there's another cause, another chase, that will unify your people long enough to remind them that America is great only because its people can be great.

Too bad they're too busy fighting each other to notice your wings are getting tired.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Every Man a Rifleman

There's the Army. There's the Marine Corps. On paper, almost 100% identical in tactics, strategy, logistics, and mission. Sure, the Marine Corps is dictated by one more sentence regarding its ability to be "directly controlled by the President" (which is, so sad to say, mere lip service) and the word "amphibious" is replaced by "airborne" when pertaining to the Army, but you get the point.

Ideally, these services are identical, save for method of deployment and primary objectives. Practically, however, these services are as different as two land-based military branches run by the same government can be.

For those who aren't familiar with my (highly-researched) opinions, let me back up a tad... I believe the United States Marine Corps should not fall under the umbrella of the Department of the Navy, but should in fact belong to the Department of the Army. Basic and intermediate trainings of both the Army and Marine Corps should be identical and, in fact, shared. Their recruiting and logistics systems should be combined. Long story short: the Army and the Marine Corps should be a single branch of service.

Regarding this, however, the theoretical philosophical basis of the Marine Corps is far, far better than the theoretical philosophical basis of the Army (which, as far as I can tell, doesn't have one). In the Marine Corps: "every man a rifleman." This translates to every Marine (male or female) being fundamentally and undeniably a member of Marine infantry, regardless of a Marine's listed job title. While this may make little difference on the actual modern battlefield, given the current dynamic of military strategy and logistics, it does make quite a bit of difference in the day-to-day workplace of a military branch. Yes, most Marines will admit that the "every man a rifleman" is more slogan than reality, but the very fact that the slogan exists is probably effective enough.

In the Army there is a definitive differential between a combat soldier and a support soldier. Not only in training, but in professional attitude. The support soldier exists for one reason and one reason only: to support the combat soldier. There is no need for an admin or finance clerk, or a legal assistant, or a mechanic, or a cook, save for supporting the infantryman (or woman) and his kin. That's all, nothing else.

And therein lies the problem. Support soldiers tend to feel that they run the Army (which, in point of fact, they basically do) and there is a bit of a prejudice against the actual reason for an army's existence, which is the aforementioned combat soldier. These support soldiers live in air conditioning, are usually less physically-fit than combat soldiers, do not train as hard for field operations, and basically treat their role in the Armed Forces as a typical 9 to 5 job (yes, there are exceptions, but everybody knows what I'm talking about). I will go so far as to claim that these "support specialists" are not even true soldiers.

And this needs to be fixed. And quickly.

The Marines do it. All Marines undergo basic combat courses on a semi-regular basis. And I'm not talking about little field exercises or what the Army refers to as "Sergeant's Time." I'm talking full-on schools designed to keep all Marines combat-ready. The clerk, the cook, the air conditioner mechanic. All of them. Why? Well, because in the Marine Corps, "every man a rifleman."

Philosophically, it's perfect for an armed service. EVERYONE should expect to fight, kill, and die, regardless of what their "day job" is. The Marines beat it into their recruits from day one. The Army? Not so much. In fact... not at all.

Almost immediately, the Army separates its combat soldiers from its support soldiers by way of a training system referred to as OSUT or "One-Station Unit Training." Basically, specific combat arms MOS' go to combined boot camp and specialty schools that only that particular MOS goes to. Logistically and financially, OSUT is almost undoubtedly the preferred method of training. However, practically, OSUT is likely the very reason for the attitude split so painfully evident in the ranks of the Army.

The solution is simple. Get rid of OSUT and go back to "everbody" boot camps and combat arm AITs. Require non-combat specialities to attend a combat training course similar to the USMC's MCT (Marine Combat Training) course. Optionally, bring back the specialist ranks for those support soldiers who are not "combat qualified." However it gets done, put the Army back into the hands of the people who should run it: the combatants.

Every Soldier Infantry. How's that sound?