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The Surge: Debunking the Myth

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The Surge: Debunking the Myth

There’s an illuminating article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs detailing the events that led to the Sunni Awakening and the subsequent (relative) peace that has been credited to the U.S. troop surge in Iraq. Increasing opposition to the war among the American public and, in turn, the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 signaled to Iraqis—specifically the Sunnis, who viewed the Shiites, the U.S. and the Iraqi faction of al-Qaeda as occupiers of their land—that American troops weren’t going to stay indefinitely, thereby removing us from their shitlist and forcing them to protect their interests while we still had their backs. With Sunnis and the U.S. allied, they were able to eradicate much of the insurgent and intertribal violence in the Anbar Province. The lesson learned: the risk of abandonment will force the Iraqi people to action, and writer Colin H. Kahl proposes a “conditional engagement,” which entails “a phased redeployment of combat forces with a commitment to providing residual support for the Iraqi government if and only if it moves toward genuine reconciliation.”

The second half of the article comes courtesy of William E. Odom, a retired three-star General and former Director of the National Security Agency who believes that the focus should be on regional and tribal stability (as exemplified by the Sunni Awakening) rather than forcing a centralized democracy. Odom thinks the U.S. should leave Iraq post-haste; a gradual redeployment of troops, he says, would put our soldiers at risk. I’ve long held the belief that pulling out of Iraq unconditionally would be a mistake, that hemorrhaging begins the moment you remove the knife. And it’s just bad manners to walk into someone else’s house, make a mess and then leave without helping to clean it up. That is, if they want you to help. Two weeks ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he supported Barack Obama’s proposal that U.S. forces leave the country within 16 months.

Last week, John McCain took to calling Obama’s position “political,” telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that his rival “chose to take a political path that would have helped him get the nomination of his party.” Let’s say his claim is true (it’s not: Obama has been against the war from the very beginning and has always supported a timetable for withdrawal): If a “political” stance means changing positions to reflect voters’ will (and then, of course, following through by legislating policy as such), then “political” is exactly what politicians are—and should—be. The bigger problem with McCain’s latest attacks, however, is their inherent hypocrisy. The presumptive Republican nominee has changed his positions on almost every issue of substance, from taxes to energy to Iraq, while endorsements from religious leaders he once called “agents of intolerance” were greeted with open arms. All of these changes in position occurred during McCain’s campaign for his party’s nomination.

McCain’s most duplicitous position, though, is on none other than the big, throbbing surge. The senator and his surrogates have been attempting—and succeeding, largely—to paint the events of the surge as black and white. That Obama’s refusal to acknowledge the so-called success of the troop escalation is perceived as a negative by the general public underscores the lack of understanding of the multitude of factors that have helped quell violence in Iraq (to say nothing of McCain’s own apparent lack of understanding on the issue). The burden lays with both McCain himself and the “biased” media he’s been—to quote his presently “former” campaign advisor Phil Gramm—whining about for weeks. The media, in particular, has failed to convey nuance or correct guests when they regurgitate talking points or flat-out lies (they can’t all be Chris Matthews, for better or worse). Of course, simplifying—if not being completely dishonest about—the factors that led to the decrease in violence in Iraq by trumpeting the success of the surge could score Obama political points with certain segments of the voting bloc, which is exactly what McCain is accusing him of doing anyway.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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Music

Watch: Madonna Unveils Teaser Trailer for New Concept Album Madame X

The secretiveness surrounding the project isn’t surprising given that Madonna has been the victim of rampant leaks.

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Madonna
Photo: Instagram

Certain discrete corners of the internet lost their collective minds earlier this month when Madonna’s Instagram page, alternately littered with posts featuring the singer’s adopted twin daughters or snapshots of her recent photo and video shoots, was taken over by nine indivudal images comprising a large red “X.” The typically prolific celebrity ‘grammer remained relatively quiet over the next two weeks, intermittently posting images of the letter X in her stories, and slowly revealing the manifesto for Madame X, her first album in four years:

Madame X is a secret agent
Traveling around the world
Changing identities
Fighting for freedom
Bringing light to dark places
She is a cha cha instructor
A professor
A head of state
A housekeeper
An esquestiran
A prisoner
A student
A teacher
A nun
A cabaret singer
A saint
A prostitute

The album’s lead single, which could be out as soon as this week, is rumored to be a duet with Colombian reggaeton singer Maluma, but details are scarce. The secretiveness surrounding the project isn’t surprising given that Madonna has been the victim of rampant leaks since at least the turn of the century. The studio recordings for her last album, 2015’s Rebel Heart, leaked like a sieve, resulting in the arrest of an Israeli hacker.

This time out, the queen of pop has successfully kept things under wraps, but it seems that Madame X—a character perhaps inspired by the 1966 film of the same name starring Lana Turner—is ready for her close-up. Watch the teaser for the new album, directed by Steven Klein, below:

Madonna will reportedly perform new material from Madame X at the Eurovision Song Contest on May 14.

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Film

Jon Favreau’s Live-Action Remake of The Lion King Gets Official Trailer

The trailer for the photorealistic remake of the 1994 film is hellbent on proving that you can indeed step in the same river twice.

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The Lion King
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s The Lion King remains one of Disney’s biggest cash cows. (Adjusted for ticket price inflation, the film is the 19th highest domestic grosser of all time, behind only two other Disney productions, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and 101 Dalmatians, and just ahead of Fantasia.) Now Jon Favreau’s The Lion King is just around the riverbend, and the trailer for the photorealistic remake of the original 1994 film is hellbent on proving that you can indeed step in the same river twice. (See what I just did there?) While the look of the remake is miles away from that of the original, and you will never mistake Chiwetel Ejiofor’s voice for that of Jeremy Irons’s, the trailer certainly goes to great lengths to court the audience’s nostalgia for the original, with its tail-end more or less a steady procession of recreations of shots from the animated classic.

Favreau’s The Lion King stars Donald Glover as Simba, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, Billy Eichner as Timon, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala, Ejiofor as Scar, Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, John Oliver as Zazu, and James Earl Jones, reprising his role as Mufasa.

See the first trailer for The Lion King below:

Disney will release The Lion King on July 19.

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Film

Todd Phillips’s Joker, Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Iconic Villain, Gets Teaser

There’s a little Charlie Chaplin in the Joker’s steps early on, before madness grips him in ways that would probably make Pennywise shudder.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

Before today, a psychological thriller about the Joker directed by the man responsible for The Hangover series wasn’t exactly on our list of priorities. After all, we’ve been burnt way too many times by the Marvel and DC universes to summon much excitement even for a more character-driven, less action-packed affair fiercely devoted to charting the mental anguish of one of the comic book canon’s most iconic villains.

But our affection for Joaquin Phoenix, perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, knows no bounds. And based on the two and a half minutes we’ve just seen of Todd Phillip’s Joker from its first teaser, the film looks like it may be closer in spirit to Taxi Driver than to Zack Snyder’s smugly self-serious contributions to the superhero industrial complex.

At the very least, it looks to be a fine showcase for Phoenix’s blend of sadness, grace, fury, and, above all, precision. There’s a little Charlie Chaplin in the Joker’s step early on, before madness grips him in ways that would probably make Pennywise shudder.

Joker, the first film in a series of DC-based films separate from the DC Extended Universe, also stars Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Brian Tyree Henry, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais, and Shea Whigham.

See the first teaser trailer for Joker below:

Warner Bros. will release Joker on October 4.

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Music

Listen: Ariana Grande Drops New Single “Monopoly” with Victoria Monét

Yes, human pop song conveyor belt Ariana Grande dropped another new track today.

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Monopoly
Photo: YouTube

Human pop-song conveyor belt Ariana Grande dropped another new track today. Last week the singer hinted via Twitter that a release of “Monopoly,” a duet with frequent collaborator Victoria Monét, was imminent after the pair debuted the song live during a stop on Grande’s Sweetener World Tour. And here we are.

Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes, the hip-hop-inflected “Monopoly” doesn’t leave much space for Grande to flex her much-ballyhooed vocal prowess, though she does manage to sneak in a few whistle notes at the end. The track has prompted as-yet-verified rumors that the pop star is bisexual: “I swerve both ways, dichotomy,” Monét says before both women put a fine point on it: “I like men and women.”

The lo-fi video is slightly more successful, with emojis popping up on the screen while Grande and Monét playfully celebrate on a roofop. At one point, Grande swipes left on “haters,” “negativity,” and “Trump.” (Grande recently started an initiative called #ThankUNextGen to register voters for next year’s presidential election.)

Watch below:

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Film

Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, with Adam Driver and Bill Murray, Gets Trailer

It will be exciting to see how Jarmusch takes his transcendence of genre conventions to its breaking point.

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Dead Don't Die
Photo: Focus Features

Like most of you “ghouls” who’re reading this post, we can barely contain our excitement over Jim Jarmusch’s latest, The Dead Don’t Die, which tells the story of two cops (played by Adam Driver and Bill Murray) who must contend with a zombie outbreak affecting a small town’s citizens. Before today, not much more plot details were known, but now we have the first trailer to confirm that, well, matters of plot will probably be of secondary interest to Jarmusch than matters of tone. Jarmusch has always been known for his embrace of humor and transcendence of genre conventions, so it will be exciting to see how he takes these propensities to what we hope will be their hilarious breaking points.

The Dead Don’t Die, whose release date suggests that it will likely have its world premiere at Cannes (the festival will announce its lineup in two weeks), certainly looks to offer up the most deadpan take on a zombie invasion that the movies have ever seen. At least this much is certain as of now: that the film has amassed the “greatest zombie cast” to date with Driver, Murray, Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez, Rosie Perez, Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover, Austin Butler, Caleb Landry Jones, Tom Waits, RZA, Iggy Pop, and Carol Kane.

See the trailer below:

Focus Features will release The Dead Don’t Die on June 14.

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Features

Agnès Varda, Legend of the French New Wave and Beyond, Dead at 90

Varda spent the better part of her life ruminating on the nature of time, the interior and exterior lives of women, and the socially marginalized.

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Agnès Varda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Celebrated filmmaker Agnès Varda, who spent the better part of her life ruminating on the nature of time, the interior and exterior lives of women, and the socially marginalized, died today at the age of 90. According to a statement from her family: “The director and artist Agnès Varda died at her home on the night of Thursday, March 29, of complications from cancer. She was surrounded by her family and friends.”

Varda’s first film, 1955’s La Pointe Courte, has been acknowledged by critics as a forerunner of the French New Wave. She followed that with a series of shorts and, then, in 1962 with Cléo from 5 to 7, the film that would cement her legend. The film, starring Corinne Marchand and scored by Michel Legrand (who died in January at age 86), follows a Parisian pop singer in real time as she awaits the results of a biopsy that will determine whether or not her cancerous stomach tumor is inoperable. According to our own Eric Henderson:

All throughout, Varda captures the fairy-tale essence of early-‘60s Paris with a vivacity and richness that rivals Godard’s Breathless. Unlike her New Wave compatriots, whose talents were reared in part at film schools, Varda was trained in the field of photography and consequently films the city with a completely unique vision. Her framing teems with life at every corner: kittens wrestling in Cléo’s apartment, a child playing a tiny piano in an alleyway, and quarrelling lovers in a café. She demonstrates an unerring eye for complex compositions that still manage to delineate between foreground and background planes. And in the bargain, every one of the film’s gorgeously designed set pieces enhance our understanding of the character and amplify Cléo’s understanding of herself.

Varda met her future husband, Jacques Demy, in 1958 while living in Paris. They remained together until his death in 1990. Curiously, given how prolific they were as artists, the couple rarely collaborated: Varda has an uncredited role in Demy’s iconic 1967 musical The Young Girls of Rochefort and served as an executive producer on his 1971 drama Lady Oscar, and Demy co-wrote her 1991 film Jacquot de Nantes. Maybe that was because they were both drawn to different aspects of life and people’s relationship to them.

Varda’s fiction films, among them Le Bonheur and Vagabond, garnered much renown, but she’s now primarily known for her documentaries. According to Slant’s Pat Brown, in his review of Varda’s last completed film, Varda by Agnès, from this year’s Berlinale:

At one time she was best known for the narrative features she made during the first four decades of her career, but many of those films had a tenuous relationship to fiction, featuring as they do non-professional actors, having filmed exclusively on location, and, in the case of 1962’s Cléo from 5 to 7, taking place in real time. At the turn of the millennium—when Varda was 72—she and feature fiction finally broke up for good, and since then she’s made three celebrated documentaries: The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès, and Faces Places.

Faces Places brought Varda considerable acclaim. Made in collaboration with the semi-anonymous French street artist known as JR, the film tells the story of two Frances, one contemporary and the other made of memories and friendships from Varda’s life. Faces Places, which earned Varda her one and only Academy Award nomination, is, according to our own Peter Golberg, “a many-sided and meditative work that’s at turns delightful, saddening, yet always deeply personal, filled with uniquely Vardian chance encounters with people and places from Varda’s past while also focused on JR’s ability to use his art to engage people.”

We had the incredible honor of interviewing Varda on two occasions, once timed to the U.S. theatrical release of Faces Places in 2017 and two years prior to that timed to the one-week runs that her 1988 documentary whatsit Jane B. par Agnes V. and 1993 drama Kung-Fu Master! received at Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Varda spent her long life and career giving voice to the voiceless. Her wisdom and empathy knew no bounds, a raison d’etre that’s perhaps best understood in her own words:

We did look for optimism. We looked for energy, we looked for the energy of expressing that everybody could express his or herself. Because that’s important—that it doesn’t stay totally quiet. Every moment can be agreeable to people we meet. But there is no way to say that life is beautiful, let’s go on. But at the same time, I think you have to be fairly honest about not having a ridiculous hope, but let’s meet, let’s share, let’s use the empathy we have for people, let’s create moments in which people understand each other. I mean, that’s already a big deal, you know?

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Music

Listen: Sky Ferreira Drops “Downhill Lullaby,” Her First New Song in Six Years

The singer’s new single moves her even further from her sparkly synth-pop origins.

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Sky Ferreira
Photo: Capitol Records

Singer-actress Sky Ferreira breaks her musical silence today with “Downhill Lullaby,” her first new song in six years. The song is the first taste of Ferriera’s sophomore effort, Masochism, the follow-up to 2014’s crtically acclaimed Night Time, My Time. Produced by Ferriera, Dean Hurley, and Jorge Elbrecht, “Downhill Lullaby” moves the artist even further from her sparkly synth-pop origins (aside from the infectious “One,” her early work has been completely expunged from streaming and digital platforms).

The five-and-a-half minute “Downhill Lullaby” is a sweeping, string-laden dirge, with Ferriera’s self-deprecating lyrics snaking over and between the track’s winding bassline and meandering beat. With lyrics like “You ripped me open, then you kiss me,” the grungy song is a fitting introduction to the new album, but the singer’s uncharacteristically low vocal feels more like a parody of Lana Del Rey than a fresh direction for Ferreira.

Listen below:

Masochism is due out later this year on Capitol Records.

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News

Watch: Hold on to Your Obsessions with the Final Trailer for Season Two of Killing Eve

The new season may just give you nightmares, though none that Sean Delaney’s accent can’t soothe.

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Killing Eve
Photo: BBC America

We’ve already seen the first two episodes of the new season of Killing Eve, and since the embargo on reviews has now lifted, we can tell you that the series embraces a formal adventurousness in its second season that blows the first season out of the water. Season two picks up at the exact moment that the first left off, with Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) escaping in tense and almost balletic fashion from the bloody clutches of Villanelle (Jodie Comer)—or is it vice versa?—before the two are once again caught in a prolonged game of cat and mouse that plays out throughout much of Britain and, presumably, beyond.

Today, BBC America has released the final trailer for the new season. Titled “Obsession,” the clip begins with Villanelle, healing from her injuries sustained from being stabbed by Eve last season, sneaking out from a hospital. I won’t tell you where she ends up, only that it may just give you nightmares, though none that Sean Delaney’s accent can’t soothe.

See the trailer below:

Season two of Killing Eve premieres on April 7.

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Games

With an Injection of Youngblood, the Wolfenstein Series Looks Fresher Than Ever

Did you get chocolate in my peanut butter, or did you get peanut butter in my chocolate?

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Wolfenstein: Youngblood
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

Did you get chocolate in our peanut butter, or did you get peanut butter in our chocolate? That’s the question on our mind looking at Wolfenstein: Youngblood, the upcoming collaboration between MachineGames (makers of the last two Wolfenstein games) and Arkane Studios (developers of the Prey and the Dishonored series). Though the newly released gameplay trailer looks every bit as gratuitous as Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus—at one point, a Nazi’s head pops off like a pimple, accompanied by a hearty “Fuck yeah!”—the game also boasts a variety of first-time features for the franchise.

Beyond the new alternate-history setting—1980s Nazi-occupied Paris—the nonlinear structure allows players to tackle the game’s missions as they best see fit, light RPG elements provide options for deeper weapon modification and cosmetic upgrades, and a co-op campaign (whether with an AI companion or a friend) will yield potentially refreshing new ways to slaughter fascists. As MachineGames’s Game Director Jerk Gustafsson notes of the collaboration between studios, “Sharing [our] respective expertise has not only resulted in a truly great and completely new Wolfenstsein experience, but it has also brought our two studios closer together in a friendship that will be of tremendous value in our continuous efforts to craft beautiful, original, and fun video games.”

Not to bury the lede, but the feature that has us most intrigued is the “Buddy Pass” feature that’s included with the game’s deluxe edition. Essentially, if you’ve bought the game, your friends can download and play it with you for free, which is good, because there should be as few barriers to entry as possible when it comes to killin’ Nazis.

For a glimpse at the blood-drenched story, which involves BJ Blazkowicz’s daughters—the so-called “Terror Twins”—searching for their missing father, check out the trailer below:

Bethesda Softworks will release Wolfenstein: Youngblood on July 26.

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Games

There’s Nothing Shaky About the Launch of the Firmament Kickstarter

The launch trailer seeks to cover every angle of Cyan Inc.’s pending project, and the funding they’re seeking.

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Firmament
Photo: Cyan Inc.

In the Kickstarter video that introduces us to Cyan Inc.’s newest venture, Firmament, a narrative adventure game built from the ground up for VR, the company’s long-time CEO, Rand Miller, notes that they “don’t just build games, but build worlds.” That’s a lofty proclamation that nonetheless feels accurate, based on Cyan’s 25-year-plus development work, from Myst and Riven to their previous Kickstarter-funded project, Obduction.

That experience shows in Firmament’s launch trailer, which seeks to cover every angle of the company’s pending project, and the funding they’re seeking. A small proof-of-concept segment shows how the game will appear both in VR and on flat screens, and though it focuses largely on a wintry setting, also shows off concepts for a variety of other worlds. So far as such Kickstarter ventures go in gauging audience interest, in under a day, Cyan’s already raised more than 20% of its $1,285,000 goal.

Perhaps that crowdfunding is due to the apparent trustworthiness of Cyan (given their previous two successful Kickstarter projects). Or, as we’d like to wildly speculate, maybe there’s some cross-genre intrigue, given that the mysterious little puzzle-solving device/companion at the heart of Firmament looks a bit like a Ghost from Destiny. More factually, Firmament’s worldbuilding looks engagingly complex and the brief story trailer sounds suitably dramatic, with three-time Emmy Award-winning sound designer Russell Brower (from World of Warcraft) serving as lead composer.

To hear and see the magical-steampunk aesthetic of Firmament in action, and to get a cryptic taste of its puzzles and storyline, check out the teaser below.

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