The ultimate result of the Trump presidency

Domestic breakthroughs are few and far between in today’s America. Congress is mired by gridlock, but gridlock on the fault of the voters, not the system. Lawmakers would be more willing to compromise if they weren’t scared of primary challengers and litmus tests of party loyalty. Making laws should be difficult and should be formed on consensus, not oligarchy. Lawmakers going to their far flanks are doomed to never reach agreement with each other and until that political fever breaks, passing laws will continue to stifle the American public. Regardless of the lack of legislative achievements, many fear the outcome of a Trump presidency as it continues to unfold and their fears should lie with the true purview of the American presidency: foreign policy. What is truly happening in the world today is an erosion of international perception of the American government, and that will be the ultimate result of the Trump presidency.

Ever since the end of World War II, the United States in conjunction with NATO have established themselves as the bastions of Western civilization, pushing the same fundamental ideals to the rest of the world in direct confrontation against Communism and now fanaticism: capitalism, democracy, an impartial judiciary, freedom of speech and religion. For many countries (Iran, Egypt, Vietnam), the push by the Western world was a facade of half-truths or outright lies, governments seen as chess pieces to a larger endgame as unpopular monarchs and dictators were financially supported by a country terrified of seeing more nations fall prey to Communism. After Vietnam and the birth of 24/7 media, democracy became a guiding pillar of US intervention. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, this system has rushed to every corner of the globe, met with open hands by some and resistance by others. Some countries, such as China, have embraced Western economic systems while shunning human rights while others have bought into the United States concept wholeheartedly.

For years, the United States and Europe remained united in their attempts to push their doctrine, utilizing free trade to engage with many different nations. The hope is that this constant communication and trade can introduce a system of a strong central government with checks and balances, capitalist society and basic human rights to nations that never had them before, creating a unified, prosperous world.

Regardless of whether or not you personally agree with capitalism or the United States dogma, the push into the world has been dramatic and swift. The problem for many is a feeling of invasion of culture as Western ideals clash with ancient philosophies in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen. A direct clash ensues as fears of racial and religious tarnishing erupts in places that for so long had were secluded in their own borders.

One need only look at the Middle East to see this clash result in bloodshed. What had always been apparent was that the United States was committed to weathering the storm against insurgents, backed by other countries of similar minds such as Canada, the UK, France and Australia. Today, those alliances are fraying and creating a dangerous future world order.

The Trump Administration’s natural inclination is to retreat from world leadership. They’ve pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran nuclear deal and have threatened to pull out of or dramatically change NAFTA. The one-on-one meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un appears to have yielded little other than a photo op. The President has routinely criticized NATO as not pulling its fair share and has frayed relationships with Germany, Canada, France and the UK. Immigration has slowed considerably under stricter policies enacted and isolationism is now the unofficial mantra of the Republican party. The argument that the United States is pulling too much weight and should be left to its own devices, with closed borders, is an antiquated, outdated idea of foreign policy. The world is too small today for isolationist thoughts. There is no going back.

Retreating from international order will only result in a vacuum of world leadership for the United States. China, Russia or other spheres of influence will move in and direct the order of international events. And these countries’ poor civil rights records will supersede our previous intentions.

There is plenty of debate on what creates terrorist organizations. Is it our presence in countries such as Saudi Arabia that ignites resentment or our absence that allows despots to assume power and blame outsiders? There’s a natural inclination to attack the ones at the top so it might not matter, but the only solution to international conflict is strong leadership and a united global community. A retreat from responsibility leaves the weak vulnerable to despotic forces much akin to the period between World War 1 and 2 when the League of Nations failed to maintain a global order and left a struggling Germany, Italy and Japan with no direction to turn to except fascism. This is not to say that the current state of affairs is going to lead to a World War III, but the ingredients are falling into place for a new world hierarchy with potentially catastrophic ramifications. For most, there has never been a world where the United States has not been the strongest, most prosperous country in the world. Waking up to find a new world order would be an unwelcome surprise, the results of which many can not even comprehend.

Without the United States’ leadership, Russia can continue to flex in muscles in an attempt to regain its former empire, Crimea just the tip of the iceberg in their pursuit. China can grow its economy exponentially with wider avenues for trade, dethroning the United States and costing us trillions of potential dollars. Terrorist organizations can gain in strength in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, threatening millions of lives and unstable governments, and they could acquire new methods of warfare such as nuclear and chemical weapons. And lest anyone think that the rest of the world is not our problem, history teaches us that fires started by our neighbors will eventually reach us.

This will be the lasting result of the Trump presidency: a fractured global community, unreliant on the United States, where power struggles between nations become commonplace and regional violence escalates. There is always the possibility that Trumpism will be a one-off. Many Republicans in Congress are squimish about shirking international leadership and have forced the President’s hand on a number of international issues such as sanctions against Russia and a commitment to NATO. Perhaps once the Administration has passed, there will be a return to normalcy.

But such a conclusion does not take into account the amount of damage by the time all is said and done. China or Russia may have swept in and taken the reins in Pakistan or Cameroon or El Salvador. ISIS or al-Qaeda may have grown resurgent. The European Union may fracture even more.

Isolationism may sound great in theory, but much like communism, it is a deeply flawed, dangerous guiding principle. Worldwide intervention and leadership is a terrible burden to bear with the potential for loss of human life and a confrontation against malignant forces, but it is the strength of our convictions that will ultimately save us. The world needs a shining light to push through against oppressors and the whims of corruption, and the United States is losing its glow. It is imperative it find it again.

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“Incredibles 2” not quite good enough

Many Pixar films have received sequels even when it didn’t seem as if they needed them. “Finding Dory”, “Cars 2”, “Cars 3” and “Monsters University” are all proof of that, essentially elevating secondary characters into primary roles and trying to create franchises when one story was simply enough. The examples above in general feel less than their predecessors because of a lack of ingenuity, a sense that their only reason for existence is money. Films such as “Toy Story” are inclined towards sequels because of a wide crew of characters whose relationships develop and a chance to build upon themes of maturation and family. The same can be said of the first “Incredibles” movie, a story that tackled the modern American family, mid-life crises and adolescent angst. Those themes translate to growth in another film, much how “Toy Story 2” and “3” built upon and deepened the themes of the first movie. “The Incredibles 2” manages to do some theme building and growth, but is hamstrung by some of the same problems that plague other Pixar sequels.

The film picks up right after the events of the first film. The Parr family must deal with the fallout from another botched hero operation, and Mrs. Incredible (Holly Hunter) is recruited by the Deavors, Evelyn (Catherine Keener) and Winston (Bob Odenkirk), on a reclamation project for superheroes. In a brand new family role, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) must help raise the family, Dash (Huck Milner), Violet (Sarah Vowell) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), a role he’s never had before.

The film does a good job of bringing new themes of feminism and family into the series. Mrs. Incredible is now the superhero star and Mr. is home, being a house husband. It shows how both responsibilities carry weight and importance for the good of the family. In fact, the film could have gone even further, especially in regards to the villain, whose motivation is clearly lacking after how integral Syndrome and his philosophy was to the first movie. Perhaps if the villain were a man-hating anarchist whose mission is to destroy male-centered hegemony or something to that effect. The greatest detriment to the film is its villain and how unimportant they are to the plot. There’s a slight theme about screens and how they control us, but it too could have been taken much deeper.

And as with other Pixar sequels, a secondary character is elevated to a major role in the sequel, in this case Jack-Jack. While entertaining at times, he soon overrides the plot, the same joke over and over again. It becomes redundant.

It’s still great to see the family in another adventure. The film is enjoyable with plenty of cool action sequences and funny moments. The animation looks great (aside from a few cartoony new superheroes) and incorporates the same vintage silver age of comics grandeur and sci-fi panache. But it’s all too familiar and lacks the depth of its predecessor.

*SPOILERS*

The plot is far too similar to the first film. The Incredibles family is forced into hiding, a secret benefactor tries to help them, drama ensues on the home front, the benefactor betrays them and the family must fight together to save the public. And the film ends exactly the same as the first with Violet dating Tony, the family together and fighting crime and hope for the future.

Something, anything different would have been appreciated. Perhaps there is a supervillain family that the team must confront and turn to their side. Perhaps the supervillains were being paid off by the government when the supers were banned to stop committing crime, echoing current fears about corruption. Or the film is set 14 or so years after the first one and the Parr family must deal with Violet going to college, Jack-Jack and Dash not getting along as brothers and other maturation issues.

The result would be a different story with a different conclusion. The family would have grown in some way, having overcome new dilemmas and conflicts. But director Brad Bird, as with many directors before him, was too enamored with his previous project and simply retread what worked.

 

“Solo” a mishmash of ideas and concepts

When you have too many cooks in the kitchen, the result can be a sloppy mess of mixmatched ingredients and half-baked concepts. Especially when you fire your cook when the meal’s almost done and hire another cook to try and salvage the dish.

“Solo” tells the beginnings of Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), a rebel on the planet Corellia trying to escape with his girl, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). A series of events leads him through the Empire, a band of new rebels and a group of smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) as well as future companions Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).

The film is now infamous for the firing of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller near the end of the film’s production. Ron Howard was brought on board and the result was a rushed schedule and costly reshoots. The final film is a conglomeration of different ideas and loose ends, some obviously Lord and Miller’s, some Howard’s and some the studio’s, specifically Kathleen Kennedy, whose reputation continues to take a beating with the constant behind-the-scenes drama that unfurls with each new Star Wars film.

The very idea of a Han Solo spinoff film seems uninspired, more like a safe excuse to make another Star Wars film; another franchise character, some small tidbits about his past and a whole new array of potential merchandise opportunities. Alden Ehrenreich is a serious step down from the charismatic Harrison Ford. Rumors of acting coaches being brought in during the shoot certainly must not have done well for his confidence and his chemistry with Emilia Clarke is lacking. He’s caught between trying to be the cocksure, charming Ford while being his own thing while adapting to modern day acting in contrast to the 1970s and 80s Ford style. It’d be difficult for any actor, and it just doesn’t work.

There are some fun moments to be sure. After a dismal first half, the film picks up with double-crosses, space battles and slave uprisings. There’s a few funny moments (probably delivered by Lord and Miller) and some of the action scenes are fun and interesting. But they’re surrounded by a production that feels mismanaged and lacking focus.

*SPOILERS*

If a Han Solo film needed to be made, a focus on Solo’s character was needed. How did he become who he becomes? The film does try to show how he gets the Millennium Falcon and how he meets Lando, but doesn’t show his character progression.

How did he become the burned-out, selfish renegade at the start of “A New Hope”? The natural progression would be from idealist to cynic. You can see during the film that’s where things were generally heading, but the character change is minimal at best, most likely because Disney was planning a sequel to complete the narrative (as evidenced by an open ending and an eyeball-inducing cameo from Darth Maul). For this to feel like an actual, complete story, Han’s character arc needs to be complete.

Imagine this: the film starts much as the film actually does; a young Han and his first love, Qi’ra, scrounge on Corellia, dreaming of getting out and being rich and happy. They make plans and try to ignore the destitution they live in. Then the Empire roars in and drafts all able-bodied men and women into the armed services. Han and Qi’ra are separated. He sees Qi’ra personally taken by an Imperial commander, a man who has a history with the couple and has always wanted Qi’ra for himself (let’s call him Zoran). Han eventually runs off from the Empire after he refuses to massacre the Wookies on an Imperial campaign, in the process saving Chewbacca. Chewbacca and Han connect over their lost loves, Han missing Qi’ra and Chewie, his life partner. They are recruited by Beckett who teaches them how to survive as smugglers (a la Oliver Twist), seeing in Han an innate gift for the job. Han is wary of compromising his morals, but Beckett promises that after their big score, which he’s been planning for years, he’ll personally take him to find Qi’ra. They gather a crew, including Lando, and, heist style, detail exactly how the operation is going to go down: a cosmic, fun, intergalactic scenario that barely succeeds, but ends in success. Beckett stays true to his word and takes Han to Qi’ra aboard an Imperial shuttle under the guise of an emissary to the Empire. There, he discovers Qi’ra has married the Imperial lieutenant, who is secretly working with crimelords on the side. Han tries to run with Qi’ra, but she is torn. She tries to convince him that she loves Zoran, but he doesn’t believe her. Then he is betrayed by Beckett as the old man makes a deal with the crimelords on Zoran’s side. Trapped and alone with just Chewbacca, Han becomes the bitter man we know. Chewie saves him by breaking him out and they escape. Qi’ra, realizing her love for Han, tries to abscond with him, but is held back by Zoran. Chewie and Han are trapped in an elevator shaft, but Qi’ra manages to make it to the control panel and release them, saving them as they blast off on a stolen ship into hyperspace. Qi’ra is detained by Zoran, her fate a mystery. We cut to a year later, Han a womanizer going from job to job with Chewie. They rendezvous with Beckett, cornering him in a bad deal with Lando’s help. The two men talk about their father-son relationship, talk about old times and how the world has led them to this place of eat-or-be-eaten. Han shoots Beckett before he can draw.

This sort of storyline would show a clear progression of Han’s character and a streamlined story, with more dramatic moments and actual sorrow, joy and tension. The new Star Wars films are too preoccupied with repeating the formulas of the past: shoot ’em ups, blasters firing, good and evil, etc. Branching out and trying something different would have gone a long way. The plot I outlined above includes some Dickens, some classic Western, some heist and some film noir. Not nearly enough thought beyond franchise building went into “Solo.”

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” continues franchise’s deeper morals

In its fifth outing, many find the “Jurassic” franchise lacking in originality and freshness. They’re tired of people running from through the jungle from blood-thirsty beasts. Evolve, change, they say. But the “Jurassic” franchise has never been coy about what it is: an action-adventure romp featuring dinosaurs. That’s what it always will be. No one criticizes James Bond or an Ocean’s movie for not evolving. Movies fit into their genres and reflect variations on a concept. So “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” in general succeeds because it doesn’t deviate from what works and yet it adds some new underlying themes about animal rights and mankind’s responsibility.

The movie picks up three years after the events of the previous film. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is spearing an effort to save the abandoned dinosaurs on Isla Nublar with an upcoming volcanic eruption promising to wipe them out. She gets help from a benefactor, Eli (Rafe Spall), who works on behalf of one of John Hammond’s old partners, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), to rescue the Velociraptor Blue. This leads her to reconcile with her old boyfriend and dinosaur trainer, Owen (Chris Pratt). Meanwhile, secrets about Eli and the Lockwood corporation begin to emerge, especially regarding Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon).

The film is sectioned off in two sections, one on the island to save the dinosaurs and then after the dinosaurs are captured. Unlike “The Lost World” which feels like two different films after a similar return to the mainland, the plot moves forward in a logical sequence to make a concentrated story. It builds off themes hinted at in “Jurassic World” about the rights of animals, corporate ownership and human responsibility. If an animal is created in a lab, does it have the rights afforded other creatures found in nature or is it the property of a company? What responsibility do Claire and Owen have in regards to their ambition overriding their judgment? Why do we have to keep relearning the same lesson about tampering with nature (with current connotations to global warming, warfare, etc.) before we stop doing it?

The film is far from perfect. The characters in general are still rather one-dimensional, especially in regards to the villains, who are cookie-cutter evil businessmen and hunters. Some depth (perhaps a character who changes his mind about his inhumanity a la Roland in “Lost World) would have gone a long way. Both Owen and Claire are given a wider role than in the previous film and their chemistry seems to have grown. Their previously forced-in romance feels natural here as does the weight of their past. Claire in particular is not the frigid damsel, but a fully-developed character who can get stuff done. If only Eli was given a little more development (though it is worth noting that previous films’ villains have also been giving little depth such as Hoskins in “Jurassic World” and Peter Ludlow in “Lost World”).

And the revelation involving Maisie is unnecessary and strange. The whole subplot involving the Lockwood corporation seems tacked on and not important to the overall story. It could have been just as easily any corporation and it would have served its purpose just fine.

The film is a popcorn-munching, high-octane thrill ride that’ll leave most viewers eager for a repeat viewing. The action set pieces are tense and interesting and the film sets up what should be another exciting chapter. Nostalgia still runs deep and drives the franchise too much, but as a solid action movie, it’s worth your money.

“Pitch Perfect 2” lacks harmony

Pitch Perfect (2011) is certainly not a great movie. It is a standard by the numbers film with some interesting, strong female characters. However, it seems fresh. There are independent women not reliant on male companions for success. The music and choreography are strong. There are funny moments and inside jokes that reward the audience. So there were strangely high expectations for the sequel. But comic sequels in general are hard nuts to crack, usually too dependent on the original, maintaining a joke’s original wit harder to pull off the second time around (just imagine creating a sequel for a joke you’ve already told). And so it is with Pitch Perfect 2, an all around bore of a film that succeeds at none of its predecessor’s strengths.

It’s been three years since the end of the last film. Beca (Anna Kendrick) is about to graduate and has taken an internship at a music producing studio. Her loyalties are split however by this new venture and her attachment to the Barden Bellas, a recent national disgrace who are competing for their survival at the world acapella championship. With the usual crew of Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), Chloe (Brittany Snow) and newcomer Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), they must band together to get through this latest challenge.

Movies need their protagonists front and center. They are the heart and soul of a film who enable an audience to channel their emotions. So it is strange that Beca has very little time in the film. What could have been a somewhat interesting dilemma (loyalty to one’s friends and confronting the future) is watered down by a continuous need to keep returning to less interesting characters such as Emily or Fat Amy (who is given far, far, far too much screentime- she works as comic relief in spare moments, not with her own storyline). Beca’s boyfriend, Jesse (Skylar Astin), is in but a handful of scenes, and they have practically no plotline together, their relationship one of the true rocks of the first film. In essence, the heart is ripped out of the film right from the get go, and we are given nothing to feel for.

Nothing in the film feels earned, creating more disinterest. We don’t see Beca really struggle with the decision of whether or not to stick with her internship or the Barton Bellas so when she does work things out at a retreat it feels hollow.

Perhaps the greatest flaw of the film is its reliance on the first movie. The filmmakers seem intent on revisiting every single element of the previous film. They revisit Bumper (Adam DeVine) and Fat Amy’s romance, make up a lame excuse for Chloe to still be at school (she’s flunked some course three times), bring back Aubrey (Anna Camp) for a pointless cameo, have Gail (Elizabeth Banks) and John (John Michael Higgins) making the same commentary jokes and even have the same structure of the first outing (a new girl enters the Bellas after an embarrassment leaves the team scrambling and that same young recruit makes a mistake at a sing off where the team needs to reconnect with their purpose in order to prove to the world at a singing competition how united they are).

Comedy sequels are so hard to pull off. Caddyshack II (1988), Fletch Lives (1989), Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) and Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988) are all testament to that. Audiences have forgotten them and so too will they will probably forget Pitch Perfect 2.

 

“Ocean’s 8” hits most of the right notes

The new craze in Hollywood is taking old franchises and rebooting them with an all-female cast. Never mind that this is just another excuse to stay away from original ideas under the guise of inclusion. Or undervaluing the fact that there is just as much discrimination behind the camera as in front of it (“Ocean’s 8” was directed by a man, Gary Ross). Can you imagine a franchise helmed by creative women and men, starring women and men in equal, genre-bending roles and full of inventive, original concepts not based on old franchises or the latest book series? Apparently, Hollywood can’t.

Rant aside, looking solely at the quality of the most recent female-led film, “Ocean’s 8” manages to be a fun, is ultimately less-than-fruitful, ensemble and another interesting heist film.

Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) has just gotten out of jail, but over her five years in incarceration, she has developed a plan to steal the famed Toussaint necklace, valued at $150 million. She gathers together a team, including her old partner, Lou (Cate Blanchett), jeweler Amita (Mindy Kaling), schemer Tammy (Sarah Paulson), pickpocket Constance (Awkwafina), hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna) and costume designer Rose (Helena Bonham Carter). Developing a plan to get noted actress, Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), to wear the necklace at the famed New York Met gala, the team works to enact a tightrope scheme that will make them all rich.

The film follows the heist plot to the letter: hatch the plan, recruit the team, enact the plan, navigate the complications, get out, deal with the twist and savor the winnings. It’s fun yet so familiar as to be boring at times. We know what’s going to come before it happens and though we enjoy watching it, our suspense is placated. A change in routine, especially in comparison to the previous films, would serve the story so much better. Perhaps a mole in the group. Perhaps a gigantic twist in the course of the plan (an even bigger trophy presents itself and the crew changes course). Something that makes the film feel different other than a female cast.

Or perhaps, in true feminist form, the film plays with sexism inherent. There’s a bit where Debbie’s relationship to her ex plays a role in the plot of the film, but this could have been stretched even further. Perhaps we see the backgrounds of other characters as well, treated like dirt in a male-dominated world. The heist then serves as a rebuttal to all the chauvinism they’ve had to deal with, especially considering that what they’re stealing is a diamond necklace, a symbol of princess royalty. If films are going to utilize (some may say pander) to feminism, they should go all out and really drive home feminist ideals.

The other thing the film lacks is a strong heart at its core. We don’t really get to know the crew’s inner demons and personal motivations. Why does Debbie want to steal the Toussaint necklace? Because it’s what she’s good at, she says. That’s not very interesting. If her family had failed to get the necklace in the past and that resulted in their capture, that’d be more interesting. Her motivation is vilification. Or if we saw a flashback of her past when she was young and how she fantasized about having this huge necklace, that would make her journey a childhood fascination. Similarly, we could learn about the backgrounds of the rest of the team and what drives them. Money is just not a very interesting motivator. Finding a deep, psychological driver for the team would really put us behind them and drive our emotions.

“Ocean’s 8” does do a good job of differentiating its characters. They each have a distinct personality, especially Anne Hathaway’s Daphne, and seeing how they bounce off each other is fun. The appeal of all of the “Ocean’s” films is the star-studded cast in a big plot production. There’s Sandra Bullock. There’s Rihanna. There’s Cate Blanchett. They’re doing a heist. It’s fun, and the film meets that level of premise.

A few changes to the plot and a deeper motivation would have really made “Ocean’s 8” a winner. As such, it’ll just have to settle for a fun night out at the movies.

“Filmworker” shows the dedication to genius

People are attracted to genius. It’s what’s driven legions to Albert Einstein or Leonardo di Vinci or Galileo. To be enamored with someone who is so committed and so influential breathes vigor into our lives. So when Leon Vitali, a trained Shakespearean actor decided he wanted to work with Stanley Kubrick, one of the most famed filmmakers of all-time, it’s a wonder if he knew just how maniacal his soon-to-be mentor would be. Warm and loving one minute, crazed the next, it is the mark of genius to demand perfection while not understanding the human cost such ambition requires.

“Filmworker” follows Vitali from his role in “Barry Lyndon” through the end of Kubrick’s life and his work on the film restorations of all of Kubrick’s films. In between, we see the intense dedication Vitali has for Kubrick, serving as his assistant after turning down a career as an actor, working day and night to put Kubrick’s vision onscreen. We wonder how any person could submit himself so entirely to another individual, especially someone who at times seems to take others for granted and goes through misdirected tirades. It’s an interesting story about dedication, art and mentorship.

Directed by Tony Zierra, the film does a good job examining Vitali, his story and how his relationships were strained by his devotion to Kubrick. It tries a bit too hard to illustrate his upbringing and tie Kubrick to his abusive father. Nothing, especially a biography, traces linearly from one point to another point through causality. People make decisions irrationally for subliminal and overt reasons. Trying to pinpoint Vitali’s reasoning is a fruitless endeavor. His dedication despite Kubrick’s rashness is what’s truly fascinating.

While interesting, the film could have used a little more budget and editing as it sags near the middle and has some odd jump cuts during interviews. It tries to end on a happy note, almost forcing it upon the viewer, when a much more nuanced approach may have been worthwhile. Is Vitali’s life a tragedy, a sort of bizarre comedy or something else? He claims it’s a happy story. The viewer may feel differently.

Understanding films from all angles