Movies

The Force is Strong with J.J. Abrams

Today it was announced that J.J. Abrams will return to the directing chair for the final (for now) installment of the Star Wars saga, following the recent parting of ways between Lucasfilm and Colin Trevorrow (or, as some would say, after he was fired). Frankly, I’m excited. I loved Episode VII: The Force Awakens and I’m a big fan of his work. From Lost and Felicity to Super 8 and, yes, even Regarding Henry, Abrams has a knack for compelling storytelling and strong character development. Heck, he brought an epic franchise back to life after a tumultuous and CGI-ridden trilogy of prequels. He deserves some respect, as he often gets chastised for the fact that for some die-hard Star Wars fans (a categorization that I include myself in) he didn’t deliver a perfect movie. Look, not sure we’ll get anything more perfect than Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, so let’s not be so harsh. Other misgivings included that Force felt like a carbon(ite) (sorry!) copy of Episode IV: A New Hope. Well, to me, he handled the film with such care, affection, and general badassery I could feel it oozing from the screen—and as that die-hard Star Wars fan, I couldn’t ask for much more than that.

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Is Spider-Man: Homecoming the most patriotic movie of the year? Yes, yes it is.

*This commentary contains minor plot spoilers

I wasn’t particularly pumped, or even ready, for a new Spider-Man film. Heck, I didn’t even care one bit to see the Andrew Garfield/Marc Webb films, as I felt those were simply too soon for a reboot of our web-slinging friend. The first two Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi-helmed Spider-Man films set the tone and standard for our modern-day superhero blockbusters, and then everything just felt too soon in an onslaught of superhero movies to follow (except for Spider-Man 3…it was never too soon to move on from and forget that calamity). But funnily enough, it’s already (only?) been 10 years since Tobey Maguire last donned the Spidey suit and here we are with a second reboot. It’s as if we can pretend the Garfield/Webb films never existed at all (sorry, Andrew).

All of this is to say, when the production of this film was announced, albeit now officially a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I was underwhelmed. Then I saw Captain America: Civil War, and thoroughly enjoyed the tease of this new Peter Parker, played with charisma and a youthful energy by Tom Holland. Yet, I still wasn’t entirely convinced. I mostly enjoy the MCU movies, but as someone who never read about these superheroes’ escapades in comic book form growing up, I don’t go running to the theater with every release. It definitely took seeing the positive reviews flowing in that changed my mind. Fine, I’ll go check this one out.

Cut to sitting in the theater and enjoying every minute. I could elaborate on the spot-on casting of Tom Holland or the subtle layers of villainy behind Michael Keaton’s Vulture, or even how much I loved seeing the faces of Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr, and Martha Kelly in smaller roles. No, what struck me most was how relevant the film felt, and yes, even how patriotic it is. It’s a politically tumultuous time in America, where it can be challenging to feel proud of the country’s image and reception abroad, so it was extremely satisfying to see a story, even if fictional, that showcases some of the great and even messy things about this country.

Usually Spider-Man is such a staple for representing New York City, specifically Queens. I can’t admit to knowing much about Queens, having never been to that borough, but I hear that this movie does the borough and its accompanying community justice. I’ll go a step further and say that it’s utterly patriotic to boot (but not in a, you know, Nationalistic sort of way, thank goodness). Let’s consider the content:

The diverse cast. Like I mentioned before, Peter Parker lives in Queens and his neighborhood and high school reflect how diverse any major city (and even suburbs) is in today’s America. And even though diversity is something to celebrate, it’s handled here as a non-issue—as it should be.

Peter is smart and so are his friends. So many American kids are smart and talented, yet often in pop culture it’s looked down on and characters are labeled as geeks and nerds. Here, these kids’ brains are touted (one plot point revolves around an academic decathlon!) and even the guy who is somewhat the stand-in as “the bully” character is just as smart and goofy as the rest of Peter’s gang thanks to his side hustle as a DJ.

That whole Washington Monument set piece. What’s more patriotic than high school students going on a field trip to Washington, D.C.?

“Protesting is patriotic.” Martin Starr delivers this line as the academic team’s teacher, and boy is this something we’ve heard a lot lately in the American zeitgeist. There’s nothing quite more American than this country’s history of activism and protecting the right to free speech.

Themes of capitalism and class struggles. Michael Keaton gives us a powerful monologue that explains his grievances and the background for why he’s become a villain (in our eyes). He essentially bemoans the structures of capitalism and the American workforce, how he gave and gave and got nothing in return while the ‘bigger guy’ (aka Stark Industries) profited. So he took matters into his own hands to provide for his family. All about that American Dream, baby.

We don’t know if we should root for or against Tony Stark and Stark Industries. What’s more American than supporting big box companies while simultaneously despising them? We live in a world where it’s hard to avoid the largest corporations yet they structure our lives in subtle and not-so-subtle ways (see note about capitalism above). We support Tony Stark because the narrative of these MCU movies constructs that perspective for us, yet Stark Industries and even the Avengers have created a lot of collateral damage and have ruined people’s lives in the process.

Punk rock reigns supreme. Speaking of capitalism, the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Pop” plays not once but twice in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thanks to punk’s anti-mainstream undertones (albeit a bit ironic to be placed in a big-budget blockbuster), the American punk rock movement is as essential to American music as any other genre and lends voices to those who feel sidelined and undervalued by mass culture and politics.

No matter which way you spin it, Spider-Man: Homecoming IS patriotic: it deals with messy, complicated facets of American society, showing not only the diverse faces that make up the American populous, but also the diversity of thought and opinion. All the while, a teenage boy is full of hope and determination to make the world a better place with his own American Dream in mind, rejecting a job offer to join the Avengers. Let’s just see how he feels when he hits 30 and if he peddles back on those ideals of his.

The Influence of David Bowie in Pop Culture

There’s no doubt that the late David Bowie was an innovative, influential, genre-bending artist. And who didn’t love him, at least in some capacity? From the casual listeners to the fanatics, Bowie had an impact on all of us thanks to his presence in the pop culture zeitgeist—and a unique presence at that. I grew up getting into movies and television at an early age—probably too early—thanks to my parents’ interests. But I can’t say the same for music. Music for me was something that I later had to discover for myself, and a lot of that started in middle and high school as I became more and more in tune with my personality and growing tastes. Movies and TV were a gateway for me in learning more about music, and I was certainly someone who loved buying movie soundtracks (I still have the Batman Forever soundtrack, on cassette tape, because…you know…”Kiss from a Rose”). I’m pretty sure I knew who David Bowie was, and was aware of this guy called Ziggy Stardust, as a young child, but it wasn’t until he started popping up on soundtracks of movies that I got into in middle school that I actually started listening to him. Below I’ve rounded up just a few of the movie scenes that either play his music or reference him in some way, plus television shows that either feature Bowie or are dedications to him. I’m sure there are plenty more that I’m forgetting here, or just am not aware of, but that just goes to show how influential he was, and will remain to be.

2001’s A Knight’s Tale has to the real first time I remember hearing a David Bowie song and thinking, “What song is this? I love it!” The characters of this medieval set piece dance to “Golden Years,” and it’s a funky and hypnotic affair. Plus, I always think of Heath Ledger dancing when I hear it now. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

About a month after A Knight’s Tale was released, here comes Moulin Rouge (a movie I was certifiably obsessed with), which features three Bowie songs. You have his cover of “Nature Boy,” then Beck covers his “Diamond Dogs,” and then of course the Elephant Love Medley, which samples and adapts the lyrics of “Heroes.”

 

Adam Sandler must be a big Bowie fan, because at least two of his movies reference the songs “China Girl” and “Space Oddity.”

The Wedding Singer

Mr. Deeds

 

And maybe Drew Barrymore has a thing for him too, because in the sequel Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle we get a short scene of her character having an alter ego, Lady Insane, complete with Bowie’s Aladdin Sane makeup, at the :50 second mark. Get it??

 

This is so random, but I saw the movie Bandslam on a bus in South America. It was a very long ride, so I had no real choice but to watch it. I somehow remember the plot, that the teenage protagonist’s music idol was David Bowie. Here’s an awkward scene where he tries to make some moves on Vanessa Hudgens, while voice-overing a letter to Bowie.

Who can forget this scene in Inglourious Basterds, leading to the climactic burning down of the theater? You’ve got your lady in red, and set along to “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” this montage is moody and quintessentially Tarantino and Bowie.

I can’t find the right clip, but “Moonage Daydream” pops up in Guardians of the Galaxy, as our heroes travel through space. Perfectly fitting for our Ziggy.

Another one where the clip just isn’t out there, but I wrote in my post about my favorite pop culture moments of 2015 that I loved the montage in The Martian when “Starman” graces our ears. This fan-made video gives you the idea of how those iconic guitar riffs set to outer space, and the moving, human story of The Martian, gel together so well.

My favorite Kiwi folk duo are also Bowie super fans. The sixth episode of Flight of the Conchords, aptly named “Bowie,” features not only their own song in the style of Bowie, but also features Jemaine Clement doing several specific Bowie impersonations.

“Bowies in Space”

 

For some reason a couple of years ago, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly decided to remake, nearly word for word, the “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” video that featured David Bowie and Bing Crosby. It ends with a classic proclamation from Bowie (aka Ferrell), yelling, “I’m David fuckin’ Bowie!” Indeed.

And then there’s Bowie’s cameo on Extras. To think that Bowie himself did this speaks to his sense of humor. And it somehow turns the lyric “little fat man” into a catchy tune.

Ren Reviews: The Martian

The following review contains spoilers to the plot of The Martian. You’ve been warned!

The Martian is the film we need right now. When the news shows us horrific and confusing things day after day, we need something like The Martian to show us what it means to work together—whether it’s to save one man’s life, or to preserve the importance of working toward something bigger than ourselves in an unpredictable world.

I finished the novel The Martian (written by Andy Weir) moments before seeing the film. Literally. If you don’t already know, the story is about astronaut Mark Watney, who gets stranded on Mars by himself after a mission goes badly and his crew believes him to be dead. From there the plot revolves around Watney figuring out how to survive and how NASA back on Earth can help, if at all, in the process to somehow bring him home. I will say, I didn’t love the book. I liked the overall story, and enjoyed the surprisingly humorous tone, but it was exhausting at times to get through. I suppose reading some 500 video-diary entries from Watney’s POV will do that to you. And perhaps that was the point, to make you really feel the length of time that Watney had to survive on his own. But I was still excited to see the film because the story lends itself to amazing visuals, what with it being in space and on Mars and all.

Luckily I was right—I found the film so much more enjoyable. Matt Damon brings the perfect amount of wry humor to his characterization of Watney, and a perfectly cast crew on the Hermes spaceship (including Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, and Michael Peña) have wonderful little moments with one another. A couple things I didn’t love, particularly in relation to the book, was the “7 months later” time jump. That never happens in the novel. We continue to read daily updates (it skips days here and there), but never do we jump forward in that way. It takes away from the degree to which Watney struggles to survive. Maybe we could have seen a montage of sorts to see how he passed the time during those seven months. Plus, there are several more obstacles, almost deadly ones, that he faces while driving to the second MAV (his only option for getting off the planet), including losing all communication and being completely disconnected from NASA and the Hermes crew (and after working so hard to get it in the first place!). Of course, a film has to work within a certain time frame, unlike a book, so I can see why such things were sacrificed.

But here’s a couple more things I did like, and what I think makes this film a superior one—and something we haven’t seen in awhile. The cast and characters are diverse and we see not only a nation but the world invested in Watney’s, and ultimately the crew of Hermes’, safe return to Earth. The mission becomes a joint effort between the United States and China and in the process science and pioneering become bigger than just one country’s interest. Also, this is a story about survival and the drive to do whatever it takes when you’re facing extremes odds…odds that are severely against you. Speaking of whatever it takes, this story is about problem-solving. Watney is constantly a living example of ‘trials and tribulations,’ and so many people at home are doing the same. There’s a real sense of camaraderie between the NASA employees, even when personality types may clash or employees may be sleep-deprived in the process. There is one scene that particularly moved me, thanks to a little help from David Bowie. There’s a simple montage about two-thirds of the way in, with Watney on Mars, the Hermes crew on board, and various NASA employees in different settings—Bowie’s “Starman” plays as we go back and forth between the characters, all of them doing various things, from the quotidian to the important work needed to be done for the rescue mission. There was something so simple and beautiful about it, with this great rock song setting the perfect tone for the film.

In a world with bad news on a daily basis, we’ve also grown accustomed in recent years to pop culture that focuses on anti-heroes. We’ve begun to always root for the “bad” guy. Instead of a sci-fi story with a sadistic edge or a story with a clear antagonist who’s out to stop Watney, The Martian is a rarity in our entertainment landscape of dramatic stories. No one roots against him. And it was honestly a nice change to see unfold. This story has one objective—to bring Watney home—and the film succeeds in doing just that. Fortunately along the way we get to hear some sweet disco songs and David freakin’ Bowie.

Ren Reviews: Magic Mike XXL

There’s a movie-going experience, and then there’s a MOVIE-GOING EXPERIENCE. My trip to the local movieplex to see Magic Mike XXL was most certainly the latter. I went on opening night, to a 21+ screening. Need I say more? A theater full of mostly women, and a few brave men, made for one of the most fun and ridiculous MOVIE-GOING EXPERIENCES of my life, hence the ‘all caps.’ I’m usually annoyed by lots of chatter during a movie, but Magic Mike XXL is the perfect movie to scream in anticipation, giggle at grown men gyrating, and throw your hands in the air in a slow-mo “lasso” motion when those iconic first beats of Ginuwine’s “Pony” starts playing. It is also a perfect movie for dropped jaws when you just don’t know how else to react. And all us strangers shared in the magic that was Mike and his crew of male entertainers—a special moment indeed. Ultimately, Magic Mike XXL was the movie we were all hoping Magic Mike was going to be. Now we can move on from that (Goodbye, Alex Pettyfer!), and just go on to enjoy Magic Mike XXL in all its glory.

Here’s my “recap” of the film—the most GIFable movie of all time.

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The Boys Club

When the Oscar nominations were released last week, there was much discussion and attention to the glaring lack of diversity among the nominees, specifically in the acting categories. While a more diverse body of actors and creators is certainly needed, and ultimately reflects the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry overall, there was little attention given to the fact that none of the Best Picture nominees are about women or the lives of women. I have yet to see American Sniper, Selma, or The Imitation Game, but as far as I can tell from the marketing these three films revolve around men. Sienna Miller stars alongside Bradley Cooper in Sniper, but again, it’s a focus on him, the sniper (it’s in the friggin’ title…same with Birdman…and Boyhood). Keira Knightley was nominated for The Imitation Game, but in the Best Supporting Actress category. The only minor exception to this is Felicity Jones’ Best Actress nomination for The Theory of Everything. As great as she is here, and plays a complex woman with her own struggles (but strength too), the film is ultimately a story about Stephen Hawking. The film does, however, give more equal weight to both characters and how their relationship builds and adapts to the situation at hand. According to the Bechdel Test, four of the eight movies pass, but narrowly, so clearly we have a situation going on here.

So, what does this mean for the current state of film? I’m not sure, because there were films last year that managed to showcase females. Obvious Child comes to mind. “Controversial” subject matter aside, it was a much more modest film in budget and release, but an honest and hilarious story about a young woman, and a great female friendship to boot. On the other end of the spectrum, you have one of the biggest box office hits in The Hunger Games. Both of these films were critically well received, so what gives, Academy? Perhaps this is due to the fact that the Academy is mostly made up of men. Or maybe it digs deeper at the limited amount of women who are able to get their projects made. Either way, there’s still plenty of progress to be made for women to have more of a presence in the shape of multi-dimensional and authentic women.