Friday, 15 July 2016

Review - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Ultimate Edition)

NOTE: This is a review of the Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman, which contains about an extra 30 minutes footage. I haven't seen the theatrical release, so that may account for my difference of opinion with most critics of this film.

Finally got around to watching Dawn of Justice. Gotta say, after all the hate that's been levelled towards this movie I was.. kinda pleasantly surprised to not hate it? There's no question that it's massively flawed. It tackles way too many things, takes itself way too seriously, misreads the characters making Batman into a thug (he straight up wastes so many dudes without batting an eyelid - HAH batting) and Superman into Batman, and refuses to pause for breath or take moments of levity which would provide some much-needed contrast to the relentless wall-of-noise the film (along with Zimmer's hyperdramatic score) throws at its audience.

On the other hand, this is a beautifully shot movie which fully embraces the mythopoeic nature of its source material in a way which distinguishes it from Marvel's offerings, and its many iconic set-pieces are by and large extremely impressive, well-executed and impactful. The problem is with everything that happens to connect those set pieces. Rather than developing our characters, establishing pathos, and giving them plausible motivations for their actions, the film relies heavily on weighty "themes" to hold everything together - God vs Man, Power vs Responsibility, Angels and Demons, Falling Fallers Who Fall and are Fallen, etc. - which is fine when these themes actually dovetail with the story you're trying to tell, when the film actually has a perspective to offer on those themes, a "moral" if you like. Dawn of Justice doesn't, though - all of its lofty ruminations are ultimately in vain when the thing that finally unites God and Man is the fact that their mums both happen to have the same first name. One gets the feeling that if Snyder hadn't crammed so damn much into this movie, he might have been able to tie its parts together a little more convincingly. As it is, one feels that one could randomly reshuffle many of the film's scenes with little consequence for the storytelling.

Ben Affleck is a *superb* Batman, and his scenes were the highlight of the film for me, wanton slaughter notwithstanding. The same goes for Jeremy Irons as Alfred. Jesse Eisenberg unfortunately overacts the role of Lex Luthor something dreadful, apparently attempting to channel Heath Ledger's Joker via Mark Zuckerberg in a manner that is unlikely to win any Oscars but will surely guarantee his continued typecasting as "generic mad genius". Henry Cavill is, again, well cast as Superman, but again spends most of his time moping rather than actually being Super so it's a little hard to tell.

On the one hand.. this is a joyless movie. It's pretentious, incoherent and too-often collapses under the weight of its needlessly self-imposed literary burdens. If this were a solo Batman movie - and it's very clear that Snyder is attempting to emulate Nolan's style - that might work, and indeed the Batman-driven scenes are the best parts of the film. On paper though this is Superman's story, but he never really gets to offer the much needed counterpoint of hope and heroism to Batman's cynical grimdark; instead we get both characters presented through the same gloomy lens and that corrodes the core of Superman's character.

On the other hand, it's hard not to be swept away by the sheer mythic spectacle of it all and I can't help but have a begrudging appreciation for Snyder's boldness in deconstructing Superman before his fans - if he'd just taken a bit more time to build him up before tearing him down, or if he had some inclination to put him back together again afterwards (like "sure let's tackle the problematic aspects of this character, BUT in the end hope is a pretty important thing which is ultimately worth clinging to and sometimes we do need heroes to inspire us") it might have worked out a little better. Hell though, for all its nuttiness, I enjoyed it. 7/10.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Wherefore Rationalia?

New Scientist - A rational nation ruled by science would be a terrible idea

Inane though Tyson's suggestion is, I can't help but cringe when people like Jeffrey Guhin (see article above) invoke Godwin's Law to attack "scientism" - a label which is itself problematic because while yes, there are certainly overzealous science enthusiasts out there, the term is too often used to attack anything its user doesn't like which happens to come from the mouths of scientists or science communicators, which makes it a tool of unreason and anti-science as often as it's a tool for legitimate critique of the overzealous.

Anyway, while I think the goal of a rational society is laudable, the trouble is it's never entirely clear what is meant by that. If we mean rational in the narrow sense of "sensible, intelligent, shrewd, judicious" etc., then of course this isn't a very contentious suggestion. Is anyone going to argue that society should be run senselessly/foolishly/unintelligently? This doesn't actually get us anywhere though because as soon as we start asking which policies are most sensible/intelligent/shrewd/judicious we're right back to square one, and while it might be a good start if we could agree to ground that discussion on empirical evidence, politics simply doesn't lend itself towards the kind of reductionism that hard scientists are used to - it's almost impossible to control for external variables in studying any substantive policy question, and it is very easy to find studies which will support almost any policy position you can think of, including ones which contradict each other. Don't get me wrong, empirical data is the best tool we have for testing the viability of political hypotheses, but you don't often get unambiguous answers.

The backlash to Tyson's comments though comes I think from a not-unjustified suspicion that his "rationality" entails something else, either a) the dubious assumption that the correct methodological approach to policy making would resolve this ambiguity, and/or b) a world-view, that is, a pre-established set of doctrines about what is or is not true which the architects of Rationalia have deemed fit to smuggle in under the umbrella of "rationality", as every utopian architect has done since the dawn of modern science.

Maybe Tyson is - in his own way - simply calling for a greater respect for reason and evidence in public debate and policy making, which I can 100% get behind, but if you want to advocate for a new form of government you need to actually apply that reason in order to develop some idea of how you're going to get there and what its institutional arrangements are gonna look like. Just saying "we should use reason" isn't very insightful, and it's a shame so many of science's more vocal advocates seem to think otherwise.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Review - The Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 2 is a technically competent but otherwise underwhelming sequel. The first film was a brilliantly crafted love letter to 1970s horror which perfectly walked the line between homage and pastiche while adding a few cinematic innovations of its own. The second obviously has similar intent - even opening with an interior shot of the famously odd windows at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville - but while Wan still knows how to shoot a great horror movie, he's apparently forgotten how to write one. All innovation is gone, and the film's attempt at homage is undermined by the countless tropes borrowed from other recent horror films. The storyline is plodding and nonsensical - I'd anticipated a twist which I'm convinced would have made for a significantly more satisfying resolution, and the fact that it's heavily foreshadowed by earlier events in the film makes me suspect that the original ending was sabotaged by studio-driven last minute edits, because they instead go with a Diabolus Ex Machina which tries to raise the stakes by throwing dramatic CGI at the screen but otherwise fails to bear any relevant connection to the rest of the story, notwithstanding Lorraine's "visions" earlier in the film which equally feel like last-minute additions.

The film generally feels very half-hearted in everything it sets out to accomplish. It wants us to care about the Warrens, so it throws out some superficially mushy dialogue about how they got together and has Ed gaze into Lorraine's eyes while he sings Elvis to some children, while completely failing to allow them to behave in any way like real human beings. Neither of them seem to show any particularly extraordinary expertise when it comes to dealing with the supernatural, either - they spend a lot of time rattling futilely at locked doors and Lorraine has a remarkable tendency to break down into a screamy teary mess anytime she sees something scary, not a particularly desirable quality in a paranormal investigator. The film also makes numerous nods towards the angst and desperation of the Thatcher-era, but just doesn't really.. do anything with it. "Hey look, these characters' struggles exist within a broader social context" - is that going to be relevant to the story in any way, directly or indirectly, literally or metaphorically? Hell no! But gosh, isn't it scary when the ghost forces the little girl to watch Maggie's speech on TV.

It's frustrating, because somewhere during the process of writing and editing this thing I'm sure there was a really good film. That's not the film they released, though. As it is, it's entertaining, and succeeds at being scary, because Wan's well and truly mastered the stock tricks of the genre at this point. It's a shame it can't do more to justify its existence, though, because there are a lot of superficially entertaining scary movies out there, and we know Wan can do much better. I'll give this one a 6/10.