Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Mensa

I am now officially a member of Japan Mensa. Pretty sure I'm the only black member too, which is kind of funny.

I took the test and joined American Mensa and Mensa International a few months ago.

I am not especially interested in high IQ societies as a concept. I took the test as a personal challenge and did not assume I would pass. When I did and saw the cool discounts membership offers, I decided to join.

IQ is an interesting thing. I believe that it does matter, even if our tests are flawed. Intelligence is extremely relevant to social policy and our understanding of human behavior. I read The Bell Curve a while ago and found it compelling.

At some point I may write up a whole thing about intelligence, genetics, and the political implications of their relationship.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice Review




Batman vs. Superman is a grand dramatic deconstruction of superhero mythology – an ambitious film that ultimately does not live up to its big vision. It is, if you follow its marketing, at once a simple popcorn blockbuster action flick and also a modern day fable about the obligations of power and the will to do good in an amoral society. It is a story of three orphan boys – Lex Luthor, Bruce Wayne, Kal El, and their attempts to live up to their father's ideals, and the misplaced anger at god that the first two men focus on the third. Batman vs. Superman moreso than any other comic book movie in recent history is a film that had the potential to really transcend, but as one character in the film says of another, the movie “flew too close to the sun,” and ultimately crashed under its own weight.
 
To fairly criticize a film you have to understand what it is trying to do. Once you understand a film's goals, you can break down how effectively it accomplishes them. In terms of goals, some films are more ambitious than others. The Avengers, for example, had only a few simple goals: Put together a bunch of heroes against a decent villain, have tons of great action, and be funny. It succeeded in all three cases and thus was very well-regarded. By contrast, consider The Dark Knight. It had far more complex goals. It had to complicate and develop the story of Batman, introduce a new Joker, improve on the action and effects from the first film, tell the tragic story of Harvey Dent and Rachel, and all the while, tell a noir-ish story that exemplifies complex moral themes about sacrifice, justice, and the nature of heroism. It succeeded on all fronts, some spectacularly (Joker) and thus is by my measure a better film than Avengers.

Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are similar to Dark Knight in that they too are films with lofty ambitions. In that regard, I have a genuine respect for them, in the same way I respect the guy who falls short trying to paint a Mona Lisa more than someone content to make really good stick figures. I also respect Warner Brothers' willingness to take risks. They tried to appeal to nostalgia with Superman Returns, and failed. They went in the other direction and gave us not-your-daddy's Superman in Man of Steel. It was ballsy to go so dark and heavy with a character that iconic. In BvS, they go even further. They make Superman emotional and menacing at times, do away with Batman's no kill rule, and present an unsettling, mercurial version of Lex Luthor that fans are not likely to recognize. In a world of endless safe, soft remakes, reboots, sequels, and rehashes, I have to give credit when I see a big corporate studio put hundreds of millions of dollars into such a daring interpretation of their biggest properties.

That said, not all risks pay off in the end. One of the problems Warner Brothers has run into with Nolan and Snyder helming their DC properties is that their movies seem to assume that, for a movie to be 'serious', it has to be bleak and oppressive in tone. This is a false dichotomy; DC does not have to copy the light, popcorn-flick tone of Marvel to be successful. The issue is that the dark, angry tone worked for the Batman trilogy as his story is very much about the blacker parts of human nature. Superman, however, represents something different. His film needed a serious but more aspirational tone, something between The First Avenger and Interstellar. In fact the better parts of Man of Steel have that vibe, and it isn't just because of the soundtrack. BvS unfortunately doubles down on the grittiness, resulting in the narrative's inadequacies coming into sharper relief.

So what exactly is BvS trying to do and how well does it do those things? Lets start with the first question. It seems to me the movie has six goals:

1. Introduce Batman, give us his basic characterization, and establish his motive for fighting Superman.
2. Develop the character of Superman by having him wrestle with his role in the world.
3. Present a thought-provoking moral theme about accountability and power.
4. Introduce Wonder Woman, make her intriguing, make us care about her story.
5. Introduce a new take on Lex Luthor.
6. Build a foundation for the Justice League movie and other individual character movies.

As we have learned from Spiderman 3, movies with more than three or four big goals are likely not going to succeed at all of them. BvS is a movie trying to do a lot of stuff, even with a full three-hour runtime in the uncut R-rated version. Before I break down each goal and how the film did, I'll just give my basic grade for each one:

1. B
2. D
3. C
4. C+
5. C
6. B-

Lets start with the introduction of Batman. The movie economically gives us the tragedy of Bruce's parents in a well-done opening section. His motive for mistrusting Superman is established convincingly. I thought Affleck embodied the character with a quiet rage that worked well for the film's first half. In terms of the look – the suit, the car, the gear – this is probably the best Batman that's ever been put to film. I was even OK with him being willing to use lethal force as this is a much more jaded war-weary character whose no kill rule probably led to personal tragedy. Where it breaks down is in the film's final act. The setup for the fight involved a needlessly convoluted plot with Luthor forcing Superman to attack Bruce. They should have just let Batman strike first (there's even a great mention of the Wayne family having a heritage as hunters) by tracking Superman. Furthermore, Batman's change of heart regarding Superman felt really contrived and abrupt. Not much payoff for such a long-hyped showdown.

Superman is not done many favors by the story either. When he isn't being a tough guy, saying things like “consider this mercy,” and “I'll take you in without breaking you, which is more than you deserve,” he is either babysitting Lois or feeling sorry for himself. The relationship with Lois I felt dragged down his presence a good bit. What's more his one big opportunity to make a speech and maybe say something interesting is literally blown up. Superman has some great moments, to be sure. He genuinely tries to be a hero and is willing to sacrifice himself when needed. He also has some of the greatest visuals in the film. There is one really powerful scene where he rescues a girl from a fire and is surrounded by an awe-struck crowd. Unfortunately the movie just does not do much to improve the character.

Part of the reason the character is not served by the film is the fact that the core theme is basically abandoned by the film's final act. The story takes pains to set up a reasonable critique of Superman's choices with a subplot involving his intervention in Africa to save Lois. There is a fantastic montage featuring some very famous writers and thinkers that digs into some of the more abstract ramifications of a being like Superman. It's great stuff that the rest of the film does not live up to as the story instead opts for wacky villain plots, kidnappings, and monster fights. In The Dark Knight, the action of the story embodies the abstract ideas. “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the bad guy,” “We burned down the forest,” “When the chips are down these civilized people will eat each other.” The story's ending is powerful as a result. In BvS, by contrast, there's just a lot of self-serious talk divorced from heavily contrived fight scenes. As a result of this (and other reasons), the ending felt quite cheap.

As for Wonder Woman and Lex, I think both were a mixed bag. Gadot looked the part and was great in the action scenes. She just does not have much charisma out of the costume. Great actors own the role – make you feel like no one else could do what they did, like Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man or Ledger's Joker. I am pretty sure 100 other actresses could have done what Gadot did and likely better. Still, she wasn't bad, and her plot thread got me intrigued about Wonder Woman's story. I am looking forward to that film next year.

Eisenberg's Luthor was also interesting but flawed. I really respect what he was trying to do with the role. He did not ride the coattails of Hackman and Spacey, which is good as the cigar-chomping real-estate scheming Luthor of the 70's would have felt anachronistic. Instead Eisenberg went for a manic narcissistic millennial vibe. He speaks cryptically and drops lots of references, to show off his intelligence. He dresses like a hipster, plays pick up basketball, awkwardly flubs public speeches, and does inappropriate things with candy (I'll leave that to your imagination if you haven't seen it yet). He is young, a genius, and extremely rich, so it makes sense that he has some idiosyncrasies. I think Eisenberg succeeded in making the character unpredictable and unnerving. The problem is that he never came off as a true mastermind type of threat, and it is for a simple reason: His Big Evil Plan was dumb. I don't even really know why he hated Superman to begin with. In the comics, Luthor is one of the smartest men on the planet with ten different contingency plans and a thoughtful, humanistic motivation for hating Superman. In BvS, he's just a snotty weirdo who isn't even clever enough to stay out of prison.

Finally there is the question of future movies – the universe building. BvS does this in a few points. Batman's dream sequence which foreshadows the true DC big bad, Darkseid, is one of the film's most interesting moments. A cameo from the Flash at the scene's end will add to your curiosity. Beyond that what we get is a weirdly-timed montage of security footage confirming the existence of three other Justice League members. On the one hand, I like that the movie introduced the characters in a way that did not feel forced or interrupt the main story. On the other hand, it does feel cheap. It could have used some polish and maybe a bit more screen time. Suffice to say we now know that the next movie will feature Batman seeking out the other Justice League members. There is potential there for an quality, unconventional superhero movie if done right.

Ultimately Batman v Superman is a missed opportunity – another ambitious big budget adaptation from DC that is bound to divide critics and fans. While Warner Brothers is already full steam ahead on Justice League and Wonder Woman films, I do hope they reconsider Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan's approach, if not replace some of these guys. They all have talent, sure, but it just has not translated into good Superman stories. I say this as a comic fan who is glad to see Marvel have some competition at the box office from more mature, challenging superhero movies. Here's hoping Suicide Squad and the next batch of non-Snyder DC movies can keep the genre interesting.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: Ghost in the Shell 2 - Innocence

The Perils of Trying Too Hard



I watched Innocence in theaters when it originally came out. I recall finding the film frustratingly dense in spite of its gorgeous visuals. As a fan of the franchise, I picked up the blu-ray a while ago thinking that a few years of maturity and a deeper understanding of the original manga might help me appreciate this film more. Alas, this was not the case.

Innocence is an ambitious film that tries desperately to repeat the successes of the first Ghost in the Shell film. It is a classic case of a work of art trying too hard. Where the film does not explicitly copy its predecessor (the opening montage, the festival scene, etc.) it awkwardly strives to achieve the same gravity of effect in its visuals and dialogue. Innocence is somewhat successful in the former area and deficient in the latter.

The film's greatest strength is its lush, exquisite imagery. There are numerous moments in the film where one could pause the disk and have a work of art on one's TV screen. In spite of a few jarring moments of badly mixed cell animation and CGI, the film is a visual feast on par with the original.

Unfortunately, the images lack the power they had in the earlier film because they are not tied to a coherent narrative. The actual plot - the sequence of events that occur in the film - is quite simple; a group of female sex doll cyborgs malfunction, two section 9 detectives investigate, they go to where the cyborgs are manufactured to learn the truth, and then the film ends. Like Solid State Society, the film takes its inspiration from Shirow's original manga. However the contrived, pretentious dialogue combined with the plodding pace (40% of the film's runtime is comprised of slow walking, scenery shots, and close-ups of basset hounds) makes the story feel vastly longer and more complex than it really is.

The basic problem with the writing can be summed up in one word: Quotes. Half of the dialogue is a quote. Does Batou have an opinion about one of the antagonists? Confucius quote. Does Togusa want to express his anxiety? Time for some 'Paradise Lost'. The film is saturated with dozens of quotes, from all manner of writers and philosophers. This over-reliance on canned smartness creates two huge flaws for the film.

For one it hurts the characters. The film does little to further characterize the members of section 9 (aside from a bit of development for Batou and Togusa's relationship). Having Aramaki and Ishikawa spout quotes instead of finding their own words does not allow us to get to know them as well as characters, as the quotes are clearly just sentiments Oshii (the director) wanted to express. The dialogue feels like a vehicle for Oshii's navel-gazing and not an expression of real people interacting.

Secondly, copious quote usage cheapens the effect of using quotes at all. The viewer finds that once the film is over, he can't remember any particular quote among the dozens he heard. The earlier film only used a handful, and as a result, its dialogue is much more memorable (I still recall the major's quote at the end, Corinthians 13:11). But in Innocence, with so many quotes from so many different sources, it is hard to know which to care about and why.

Bad pacing and dialogue are not the only problems with Innocence's story. There are a handful of exasperating scenes. In particular, the virtual experience maze I found to be tedious. It is only partly comprehensible because Batou is made to explain how he bested Kim's trap. What's more, the scene near the end where Batou scolds the little girl for not worrying about sex dolls is bizarre to me. In the original manga, it was bad enough for Batou to blame the girls and not their captors for the "innocents" (people who use a product premised on child murder are not terribly innocent in my view) who suffered from the sex doll malfunctions. Here, for Batou to worry about the dolls is beyond callous, and Motoko's concurrence ("If dolls could talk they would say 'I don't want to be human!'") is both asinine and damaging to her and Batou's characters. To

The last couple of frames of the film suggest that Oshii thought he was saying something profound about humans and their need to recreate themselves via dolls and cyborgs. Unfortunately, the film wasn't really concerned with making this or any other particular idea comprehensible. In fact I think many viewers will come away from Innocence with the feeling that the movie wasn't really speaking to them, but rather to itself. It's the same problem Donnie Darko had; as interesting as the film tries to be, it does not stand on its own as you need to read additional books and watch a different cut of the film in order to really get it.

It is a shame, because Ghost in the Shell is a powerful franchise that has always managed to be entertaining, exciting, and thought-provoking all at once. The further it removed itself from Shirow's somewhat campy original manga, the more consequential it became, first as the film, then as the brilliant Stand Alone Complex series and film. Innocence is a step in the wrong direction both in terms of style and substance.

I have yet to watch Arise but my expectations are not terribly high. I shudder at the thought of what Hollywood and Scarlett Johannsson will do to the franchise.