Ren Reviews

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.

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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: TRAINWRECK

*This review contains spoilers*

Like many other young adults, I saw Trainwreck over the weekend. I will go on the record and say that I’m a big fan of Amy Schumer (and pretty much the whole cast and director to boot) and that this movie made me consistently laugh out loud—or as the kids say, made me LOL (on second thought, are the kids still saying that?). The movie also made me cry. There were unexpected tender moments—and I was taken aback by Schumer’s dramatic, emotional acting chops.

However, I have a few hang-ups. The pacing doesn’t do the film any favors in selling the believability that Schumer’s character, Amy (natch), and Bill Hader’s character, Aaron, had made such a great bond in their courtship that they would go to the lengths they do in the story to be together. For the most part, Amy is truly a trainwreck. It’s not so much that she sleeps around and carouses more than the average person—it’s the way she sleeps around and carouses. In fact, she very much embodies the traditional male role that we typically see in (romantic) comedies. As funny as she can be, and deliver some great one-liners she does, the character can be infuriatingly pouty. Plus, we don’t ever grasp what it is that Amy likes about Aaron, or what Aaron likes about Amy. They have a few chuckles, and a few drinks, and then to his surprise, she takes him to bed on what we can consider their first date of sorts. And apparently for Aaron that is hook, line, and sinker. There are also no real stakes to their relationship. The audience is led to believe that they have great chemistry (and that she’s maybe becoming a better person because of him?) after a montage of them having fun dates traipsing around New York. That’s it. And when the big, climactic fight happens (as they always do), we’re not really rooting for either one of them.

Meanwhile, the film does have promising subplots that deliver great lines and laughs (memorable moments from Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Randall Park, Jon Glaser, Vanessa Bayer, Colin Quinn and Tilda Swinton) but feel lost at times in between the ‘love plot’ with Aaron. That all goes to say that I walked away from the film thinking, “So was that a parody of romantic comedies?” So many elements in the film are classic rom-com clichés: Amy works as a magazine writer (and apparently she’s really good at it yet we hardly ever see her work); Amy lives alone in a Manhattan apartment (in what world?); Aaron is a doctor to star athletes making for awkward cameos by said star athletes; there are ‘falling in love’ montages; Amy feels pressure from younger sister who has already settled down; there’s a climactic fight; there’s a climactic ‘rebound’ scene (this was just weird!); and there’s a climactic performance to win back the guy. I mean, this is basically How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. With the exception of the storyline with Amy’s dad, everything else falls in line with what nearly all rom-coms do. Yet, this movie apparently isn’t aware that it’s a parody in the way that They Came Together is. There’s no nod or wink that they’re in on the joke. And that’s surprising, coming from Judd Apatow—who, at least in his earlier films, brought us subverted variations on the rom-com canon (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up). I expected to have one or the other—and if you’re not going to do either, then be your own type of rom-com that doesn’t fall into these stereotypes.

And so again, I find myself confused at what this film is trying to say. If you’ve watched Inside Amy Schumer, you might think this is supposed to be an intentional parody. But it’s serious undertones suggest otherwise. We’ll never know what may have gotten left on the cutting room floor, or what kind of studio notes were pushed through, but it does seem that even the filmmakers weren’t sure what to make of the final product. Because instead of ending with concrete dialogue and feelings and wrapping up loose ends, we’re left with a bizarre* cheerleading routine performed by Amy to win back Aaron. Just like the entirety of the movie, it was random and confusing…but gosh darn it, it still made me laugh.

*Plot aside, this was genuinely well executed by Schumer. Brava, girl.

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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