Movie Reviews

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.

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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’s Reviews: Muppets Most Wanted

 

For me, the Muppets encapsulate my childhood, teenagehood, and yes, even adulthood. I don’t think I’ll ever not love what the Muppets are all about. They’re about friendship, about laughter, about believing in yourself and others – so much so that you’re willing to be blown out of a canon, be thrown out of an airplane while stuck in a crate, or ride a bike while standing on one frog foot. I grew up watching the many stages of the Muppets – from the original movies, videotapes of 80s-era TV Christmas specials (I still watch A Muppet Family Christmas every year without fail), the ever-so-adorable Muppet Babies, to the 90s-era Muppet Treasure Island and The Muppet Christmas Carol, to the more forgettable and awkward Muppets Tonight (on TGIF!) and their take on Oz starring huge sensation Ashanti (remember her?), and finally to 2011’s fun ‘comeback’ in The Muppets. Some reincarnations are better than others, but the recent two films, including the newly released Muppets Most Wanted, take me back to the original vision created by Jim Henson so many decades ago.

Muppets Most Wanted provides another caper-themed story, but unlike 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper, Ricky Gervais’ Dominic Badguy is pulling a fast one on Kermit and Co. The story follows the felt gang (via train because why not) as they go on a world tour after their success during their previous movie venture (The Muppets) and quickly poke fun at the zeitgeist of today’s sequel obsession. The movie takes us to Germany, Spain, Ireland, England, and lastly Russia where Kermit has been sent to the gulag in a case of mistaken identity with the world’s most dangerous and wanted frog, Constantine. For any Muppet aficionado, this plotline may feel reminiscent of The Muppets Take Manhattan when Kermit suffers from amnesia while the rest of the group tries to make him come to his senses.

Overall, the film successfully delivers charm, wit, and slapstick humor at once. It also delivers some great toe-tapping tunes. And if you know anything about the film, you’ll recognize song composer Bret McKenzie’s presence immediately, as many of the songs feel very Flight of the Conchords-y. My personal favorite, and the one that made me laugh the most, was the Constantine-led “I’ll Get What You Want (Cockatoo In Malibu),” sung to a skeptical Miss Piggy, which felt similar to Conchords’ disco-inspired “Something Special for the Ladies.” To make it more obvious, and awesome, Jemaine Clement makes an amusing cameo as a Russian prison inmate.

I also appreciated the European cultural and social references, even if teetering on the edge of being overly stereotypical. However, instead of these being a slight to a European way of life, such as Ty Burrell’s Frenchman immediately going on an eight-week paid vacation the moment his job was done, I felt that the movie was actually, albeit subtly, critiquing aspects of American culture (after all, director and co-writer James Bobin is English). Speaking of Ty Burrell, I found his Interpol officer, alongside CIA agent Sam the Eagle, incredibly entertaining and nuanced.

If you are even the slightest fan of the Muppets, I guarantee that you’ll enjoy this film. The movie did, however, remind me of the strange limbo that is the Muppet audience. Is this a film targeted for children? Or is it strictly for adults? The list of celebrity cameos would definitely make it seem the latter. I personally enjoyed the cameos, but I’m fairly certain that most kids don’t know who Tony Bennett, Danny Trejo, Christoph Waltz, or even Celine Dion are. Heck, do they even know Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, or Ty Burrell, the three main human stars of the film? With the exception of the Muppet Babies cartoon, I think the Muppets tend to target the adult demographic (without ever being too adult), yet their marketing strategies may point to other target demographics. I feel this is probably why the past Muppet efforts sometimes fall flat at the box office, proving that not only is it not easy being green, it’s also not easy making green. But I have no doubt that future film and television endeavors from the Muppets and the Jim Henson Company won’t continue to deliver the same charm, the same idiosyncratic musings on our cultures, and the same warm and fuzzy memories – literally and figuratively.