Deadpool

464-film-page-largeFourth wall jokes can’t save Deadpool from mediocrity.

Perhaps it’s because I’m not keyed into the comic book mythology behind the wisecracking, profane spandex superhero, but I didn’t find Deadpool to be the bout of fresh air that it was touted to be. Beyond the quipping, the fourth-wall breaking, the R-rated action and the small-budget feel, Deadpool is just another contrived variation on the superhero origin story.

The story focuses on Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds, in one of those this-character-was-made-for-them roles), former Special Forces turned mercenary, who finds love with escort Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), but whose happiness is curtailed by the discovery that he has multiple cancers. Desperate, he accepts the offer of a shadowy organisation to cure him in return for his services as a henchman, but said organisation subjects him to excruciating tortures that turns him into a disfigured mutant with freakish powers of regeneration. Horrified at his appearance, he avoids Vanessa while fixating on finding the people who made him into what he is, in order to force them to restore his appearance.

It’s ironic that for a character famed for his genre savviness, the film’s Deadpool falls for one of the oldest tropes in the book – the whole “I need to heal my deformity to be able to face the one I love” conflict. And it isn’t half as bad as the one depicted in the comics – he’s afflicted by crisscrossing keloid wrinkles but at least his facial proportions remain the same. And in the end, Vanessa does accept him for who he is, which, of course, he should have realised but doesn’t.

It’s symptomatic, really, of a bigger issue with this film – which is that Wade’s vulnerable, human side and his manic, hyper-violent fourth-wall breaking side don’t really jive very well into a cohesive whole. Perhaps the cocky, mouthy Deadpool persona is a way for Wade to mask his insecurities and anger under spandex tights, but it comes across in the film as Wade just vacillating erratically between either extreme, governed only by the rules of comedic expediency.

And Deadpool is already the best thing about the film, even if some of his quips try a little too hard to be provocative (cf “I’m touching myself tonight”). Colossus and Negasonic are endearing but somewhat tangential to the plot (and, as Deadpool says, the only X-men character licenses available on the limited budget). Everything else screams B-movie campiness, especially the cringingly evil bad guy Ajax, who is the ultimate in forgettable generic villain, evil for no other reason than sadistic impulse. Oh, and he can’t feel pain and therefore doesn’t feel anything at all, I guess.

Ultimately the film coasts entirely on the strength of the Deadpool characterisation and on extrinsic qualities: being an R-rated film in a PG sea of superhero movies, that defers to comic book fan sensibilities by remaining faithful to the spirit of the source material. But I suspect some things are best left in the medium in which they were created.

I give this film: 3 out of 5 severed hands

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Tower of Basel

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Despite the rather sensational blurb, Tower of Basel manages to be a somewhat clear-headed expose of the somewhat obscure but highly influential Bank for International Settlements (BIS).

The BIS is one of those unknown international institutions that no one seems to really know about. Yet, it has played a subtly significant role in shaping the international financial and regulatory landscape of the post WWII world. It is a bank owned by central banks, that performs financial services for these banks. It is a forum where central bankers the world over meet for sumptuous dinners, play golf with each other, and swap stories, all in the utmost  discretion.

In the book, Lebor lays out the surprisingly engaging history of the BIS, from its origins as an institution for facilitating German reparations after WWI, to the pivotal role it played in European integration and monetary union and its growth into a global financial institution and a hub of research and analysis.

But an institution like the BIS is no stranger to skeletons in the closet. Lebor goes into quite some detail about how the BIS became a tool for the Nazi-controlled Reichsbank. It authorised the transfer of BIS’ holdings of Czechoslovakia’s gold reserves to the Nazi coffers after the former’s annexation by the latter. During the war, it accepted looted gold from the Nazis as a form of payment for the latter’s debt obligations under the Young Plan.

After the war, the Bretton Woods Conference recommended that BIS be liquidated, but it survived this existential crisis and went on to shape itself to the needs of the postwar financial world. Over the ensuing decades, it built up a name and reputation for itself as a respected nexus for financial regulators and played a part in setting international financial regulations, all in the name of monetary stability. The BIS pushed strongly for European integration and the formation of a monetary union under a single currency. During the Eurozone crisis, the BIS holds partial responsibility for coordinating the tough austerity measures that some argue have made the crisis worse.

As an institution, the BIS is simultaneously a private bank and an outsized influence on financial systems and regulatory frameworks. This opens up manifold opportunities for conflicts of interest between its two roles – as a profit maximizer and as a regulator. Protected by a swathe of legal immunities and enjoying the patronage of powerful central banks, the BIS has considerable regulatory fiat, unencumbered by democratic accountability.

These are the qualities with which Lebor takes issue. From Lebor’s perspective, the BIS’ non-transparent, anti-democratic, and elitist nature has no place in the 21st century. After the 2008 financial crisis, with calls to break up large unwieldy banks with too much buying power, the BIS’ looming presence seems even more of an anachronism, vesting disproportionate amounts of influence on global markets in the hands of a few powerful and well-fed men.

In making this case, Lebor points to the various indiscretions that the BIS perpetrated with respect to its actions in World War 2, which were in part made possible by its legally protected, supranational nature. He also points to the tottering European integration project, spearheaded by the BIS, as emblematic of the split incentives of the bank – that the bank, influenced by certain factions within it, would push for financial regulatory arrangements in the Eurozone that would favor certain countries over others.

An interesting perspective that is introduced in the book is the notion of Nazi leadership continuity in the German financial sphere following the war, exemplified by the likes of Karl Blessing and Herman Abs, former Nazi party members who took up influential leadership positions in Germany after the war. Lebor’s implication that the essential German realpolitik imperatives have not really changed with respect to Europe, and that it pushed, through the BIS, the notion of European integration at least partly for self-serving ends – the creation of a large European market to service German exports.

I don’t know enough about the historical literature to make comments about the positioning of Lebor’s allegations on European integration and the role of the BIS in the post-war regime.  But I can say that Lebor has written here an intriguing and perhaps contentious tract, one that makes substantive comments about a secretive and unaccountable institution, but in doing so, does not descend into polemics. If anything, reading it has been an edifying introduction into a little-known part of the international network of institutions.

I give this work: 4 out of 5 gold standards

Captain America: Civil War

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Captain America: Civil War is a satisfying entry in the ever-growing pantheon of the MCU.

At this point, there are enough movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that the franchise has gained a certain predictability in how it structures its stories. Civil War is not exceptional in this regard.It conforms to the rules of Marvel’s superhero movie logic. It’s got the antagonist making convoluted plans that contain too many moving parts to possibly succeed, but it does. It’s got failures in communication that serve as a paper-thin pretext for team conflict (well, Rogers did try to tell Stark that he wasn’t the real enemy, but he only did it once). The narrative fits together too neatly, like a jigsaw. The Avengers sort themselves into opposing sides with a bit too much enthusiasm than is healthy for a team with that much working experience. Its view of political realities is binary and simplistic.

I’ve come to see these as not flaws, per se, but rather, elements of the logic that governs the MCU. These plot elements enable the spectacle that we so enjoy watching in Marvel movies. And it is probably remiss to judge Civil War by the standards of other films that are not in this mold. What matters is that Marvel’s movies have heart, humor and humanity (and fanservice), and I think Civil War abounds with those qualities.

It has heart because its main conflict is essentially an intimate one. The Civil War premise is a bit mutated from its comic-book form. In the film, the conflict is not so much driven by differences in politics, but rather, the interpersonal dynamics between Stark and Rogers). This seems sensible, because it’s hard, in the real world, to morally justify the Team Cap position that superheroes should be given license to operate unchecked. To assume so is to subscribe to a rather dangerous pessimism over the notion of institutional oversight of law enforcement. That’s vigilantism, essentially.

The filmmakers should therefore be commended for making this conflict less about differences in philosophy and more about Roger’s need to operate outside the confines of due process in order to save his brainwashed friend Bucky (and subsequently to defeat the Big Bad Baron Zemo), and being stymied by elements that believe, mistakenly, that Rogers has indeed gone rogue because of a philosophical hang-up about institutional oversight. That lends a moral equivalence to both sides, which is quite the achievement.

In terms of humor, Marvel continues the tradition of superhero quips, but there is also a good dose of physical comedy thrown in, mostly made possible by the inclusion of Ant-Man (in giant form) as well as the adolescent acrobatics of the new Spiderman (marking his first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after a spate of horrible, horrible movies made by Fox). That airport fight set-piece is completely senseless on a plot level – the Avengers destroy an airport in the process of settling a difference in opinion, which is ironically the kind of thing that the oversight was created to prevent in the first place. Nevertheless, it abounds with a kind of kinetic humor and choreography that lends visual interest and heft to them, giving them a weight that makes them feel more real than just a bunch of CGI sequences. Also it’s funny because the Avengers (save for Stark and Cap) seem to treat the fight as a fun diversion: an opportunity to unload their best quips and one-liners on each other.

It has humanity because it is one of the rare superhero movies that puts a price and a weight on the actions that its putative heroes have on ordinary people, beyond their utility as capitalist symbols of inspiration (and distraction) to the proletariat. Cool battles are not fought in a void, and although Civil War is a bit hypocritical in this respect, given that its setpieces do occur in places usually trafficked by people, that it acknowledges the human cost of these hijinks is apropos, especially in an era where superpowers unload ungodly amounts of ordnance in countries like Syria in a bid to perpetuate global justice, but instead incur collateral costs.

And it has fanservice, of course. The glimpses of Wakanda and the introduction of Spiderman and Black Panther do well for the film, upcoming movies, and are also good for the diversity and longevity of the franchise at large.

Now, if only they could cast an Asian superhero…

I give this film: 4 out of 5 broken Shields

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a fun, ravishingly beautiful game that is unfortunately stymied by one of the most uninspired plots in recent video-gaming memory.

Pop culture has a strange fondness for characters like Lara Croft and her ilk – brave archaeologist-adventurers who venture into ancient tombs and ruins and wreck everything in sight. Unfortunately for said ruins, such hijinks make for good films and video games. Rise builds upon the unique environmental challenge gameplay of the first game in the rebooted series and delivers it in a beautiful open-world package.

The game is set in the wildernesses of Siberia, and it’s a visual treat. Golden sunlight streams through ice-covered conifers. Deep snow deforms at every footstep. The visual fidelity isn’t limited to the environments. Characters, too, are rendered with intense attention to detail. Lara Croft is probably the most realistic character model I’ve encountered in any video game so far, just in her locomotion sets, facial textures, and motion capture alone. And PureHair technology makes Lara’s locks move with unprecedented realism, at a seemingly minimal performance cost.

The game has a good mix of linear gameplay segments and open-world free-roaming. The designers have gotten rid of most QTE events in the game, and made Lara’s movement more timing-based. Environmental puzzles also feature more strongly. The player is given a set of traversal tools to use to navigate the terrain. The basic gameplay loop here is to have Lara traverse a segment of landscape in order to reach the next story point or to access areas to obtain goodies.

Speaking of exploration rewards, Rise probably does collectibles about as well as they could have possibly done. The act of collecting these rewards is an act of grinding, of filler to extend gameplay and push the player’s reward buttons. In Rise, collectibles actually have some flavor text associated with them, which gives them some degree of narrative interest. It’s also one of the rare times Lara acts like a bona fide archaeologist.

The best parts of the game’s traversal mechanics, though, are the optional challenge tombs. These are extended puzzles, each pretty unique, that are hidden throughout the game world for players to find. They’re all spookily beautiful, well-designed globules of traversal gameplay, and the completion of each tomb grants Lara certain nice abilities that offer good gameplay perks.

Unfortunately, the game’s suite of mechanics and environmental and character designs don’t shine as much as they can, mainly because the game’s story is a total bore. The plot, which revolves around Lara’s quest for a MacGuffin that grants immortality, in a bid to restore her father’s lost reputation, is an exercise in staid tropes. The tone of the story is incessantly dour, gravid with pompous self-importance. The dialogue of the ostensible antagonists – an organisation called Trinity – is comically canned. The plot is riddled with plotholes and is rife with inexplicable worldbuilding. I am at a loss as to how this game could have won the Writer’s Guild of America Award for “Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing” in a nominee field that contained The Witcher 3. The writing feels almost desultory – fluff designed to get the player from point to point, as opposed to fashioning the gameplay around the story.

This is seen in the way the game depicts violence, for example. After the sensitive exploration of Lara’s growing capacity for violence as a justification for self-defense at first, Rise abandons that thread of Lara’s character. She is now a ruthless killing machine, mowing down faceless gooks with an assault rifle or silently feathering them with her bow and arrow. To be fair, she became one in the second half of the original, and she probably is one in Rise because of the need  to include shooty bits to sustain the market for games of this type. But the inclusion of options for violence, without the concomitant to reconsider the alternatives to violence that are workable.

The upshot is that Rise introduces thematic elements that are never consistently followed up on,  in part because of the exigencies of seeing storytelling as an accessory to gameplay. Lara’s determination to clear her father’s name suddenly turns into a desire to “save the world”, without explaining how she got there. There isn’t a quiet, character building moment in Rise. Every cutscene is filled with tedious exposition, signposted by the portentousness of the tone, all serving to briskly advance plot points at a steady pace.

As such, there is no space for authenticity or rawness in the Rise story. It is a carefully tweaked narrative package that merely serves as a thinly-veiled justification to get from point A to point B. The only good stories are pretty much the exploratory portions of the game – where Lara goes around, discovers crypts, enters tombs, and is herself – and flashes of her humanity shine through the cracks in her steely, self-serious facade, established by writerly fiat.

I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 icepicks