Sunday, July 30, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming: The Franchise is Reborn

We all know the Spider-Man jokes. This franchise has been re-booted endlessly in the past decade and everyone regarded the advent of Tom Holland as yet another fresh-faced Peter Parker/Spider-Man with the deepest apathy. Why do we need to reboot this ailing franchise? How could it possibly be any good? What is the point? Well, the point is that it isn't just anyone rebooting the franchise. Marvel has officially joined forces with Sony, and the resulting Spider-Man: Homecoming is spectacular.

First off, some critical story elements. The studio has wisely shied away from the origin story. The tale picks up right where we left off with the new Spidey's appearance in last year's Captain America: Civil War. Therefore, we don't have to go through the rigamarole of watching him being bitten by a radioactive spider, having Uncle Ben utter "with great power comes great responsibility," etc. Ben's dead, Peter Parker has his powers and is swinging around Queens being a friendly neighborhood vigilante, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is going to help him become an Avenger. So this is really the origin story of how Spidey became an Avenger, but is also a tale of how a scrawny 15-year old learns to harness his power to become a genuine superhero that fights supervillains armed with extraterrestrial weapons.

Like with any Marvel movie, there's a ton of action courtesy of Michael Keaton as the villain, Vulture, who is manufacturing crazy weapons using alien technology that he smuggles from the sites of every Avengers battle. He is a formidable opponent for Peter and there's a certain amount of meta joy the audience can experience on two fronts: first, the Vulture is a lot like the Birdman, and second, it's hilarious to see the former Batman now playing a Marvel villain.

But the action is not what's important about this movie. What is important is Marvel's ability to inject every single film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with humor and character development. Throw in a brilliant sidekick in the form of Peter's best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), who is thrilled to bits when he discovers Peter's secret identity, and you've got the makings of a fine teen comedy. In fact, this is the first Spider-Man who legitimately seems like he belongs in high school. While there's a need for some crime fighting and avenging, the movie is mostly about Peter's foray into adolescence and the complications that causes, which are oftentimes worse than the complications of being a superhero. Holland is a terrific actor and his Spider-Man is both heroic and awkward, a potent combination that allows for much hilarity.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a legitimately entertaining film that doesn't require you to be steeped in the MCU. You can enjoy it entirely on its own merits and have a grand time. There is a big twist towards the end that genuinely surprised me, and my friend Laura and I had moments when we actually gasped out loud. The fact that a Spider-Man movie can still contain surprises is quite astonishing, so tamp down your incredulity and give this movie a chance. The franchise is in good hands once again.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry: Learn About the Universe in an Afternoon

The title tells you everything you need to know. Neil deGrasse Tyson's Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is a collection of essays he has written over the years that briefly explains some of the most fundamental and perplexing issues that physicists and astronomers (not astrologers) have grappled with over the centuries. From the Big Bang to Dark Matter, you will be treated to a rapturous scientific breakdown of everything that makes our universe so fascinating, simple, and complicated.

It's certainly a tall order to explain the universe in a little over 200 pages, so don't expect to be thoroughly enlightened by the time you finish this book. I devoured the entire thing in an afternoon and while I was able to follow along fairly well thanks to my scientific education, I still found my head spinning over the chapters on dark matter, dark energy, and Einstein's greatest blunder being that he called lambda, the cosmological constant, his greatest blunder. While it's easy to finish this book off quickly, you will want to revisit certain chapters after you're done to really savor all that information and try to wrap your head around issues that puzzled Isaac Newton.

If you've seen Tyson on talk shows or watched him educate the populace in the new Cosmos, you know that this man is passionate about science. And that passion is evident in every sentence in this book. I've never listened to an audiobook, but as I read this book, I could hear Tyson's voice in my head, excitedly mixing fundamental scientific facts with fun historical anecdotes, and going off on tangents to discuss the sociopoloticial implications of all this knowledge. My favorite chapter was "The Cosmos on the Table," a disarming dissection of the Periodic Table that took all the elements I had mindnumbingly memorized since my high school Chemistry days and gave each one a charming and unique story about its origins, mythological nomenclature, and other assorted tidbits that made me view this taken-for-granted table in a whole new light.

Of course, the final chapter of the book is the most moving, where Tyson is at his most poetic and persuasive. His love for the infinity of the universe is infectious and it is remarkable to see the solace he derives from scientific certitude and the thrill he anticipates in what science has yet to discover. Tyson has a way of explaining the universe that makes it beautiful no matter what you believe in and also makes our petty human squabbles seem tame in comparison with the vastness of what surrounds us. There is so much that humankind has discovered, but there is still so much that we do not know, and Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is an excellent start to your scientific education.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Baby Driver: Cinematic Choreography

Sometimes I forget why I love the movies. I watch too many mediocre ones in a row, or (especially during Oscar season) I see too many depressing dramas that are wonderful but definitely don't bring me joy. Thankfully, last weekend I saw Baby Driver, a movie that reminded me of everything that is remarkable and uplifting about cinema.

First off, no this isn't a movie about a baby driving a car. It is an R-rated action film about a getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort), who is capable of miraculous things when he's behind the steering wheel. He has tinnitus, so to drown out the ringing in his ears, he listens to music on his iPod nonstop. What this means is that the entire film is scored with incredible music and every piece of action is choreographed to take place in time with the music.

What do I mean by choreographed? Exactly that. This movie is what I imagine synesthesia must feel like, where you experience something through different senses than usual. You don't just hear the music: you can see it and feel it. People are slamming car doors in time to the beat, firing off gun shots in rhythm, tapping their fingers in time with the piano melody, and in general, moving and swaying to an infectious groove that won't quit. This is a movie that deserves the Oscar for Best Editing, because it is seamless in the way that every shot meticulously matches the music and complements every single movement made by the actors. It is balletic and brilliant and I was mesmerized throughout. You can watch the entire opening scene set to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms" on YouTube, but for my money, there's nothing to beat the crazy sequence set to "Tequila."

Writer-director Edgar Wright is a fantastic filmmaker and he had the idea for Baby Driver 22 years ago. This idea has been marinating in his brain for two decades, as he evolved from a student filmmaker to the universally-hailed auteur of the Cornetto Trilogy. And that passion and attention to detail is apparent in every frame of this film. There is no way Wright could have made as stunning a picture if he had acted on his idea 22 years ago. But by perfecting it in his mind over all these years, what you see on screen is a movie where every scene is thoughtfully crafted, precise, and poetic.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the performances. Elgort is an ideal protagonist, moving with a loose-limbed lollop that seems tailor-made to accompany the soundtrack. Yes, there are multiple think-pieces about what a punchable face he has and how it's weird that this character is a white boy, but I personally didn't care because I was too busy getting swept away by the soundtrack and incredible stunt driving. The best performance in the film might actually belong to Lily James, whose turn as the delightful waitress Deborah is calculated to calm your nerves down and inject some much-needed sweetness and light into this otherwise testosterone-fueled romp. Don't spend too much time analyzing her motivations -- this is not a movie that is going to win awards for its screenplay -- but sit back and enjoy the adorable love story play out between her and Baby. Their conversation about songs featuring their names is enough to make one swoon.

In case it isn't apparent to you already, I have no reservations about recommending Baby Driver and particularly recommending that you watch it in a movie theater to get the full effect. This is a movie that needs to be seen in cinemas, because it is an audiovisual tour de force that will grab you from the very first second and only release you as the end credits roll. Treat Yo Self this weekend and experience one of the best movies of the summer.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Magic in the Park

Shakespeare in the Park is my favorite NYC summer event. I don't get the chance to go every year but this week, I won tickets to the opening night of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play that I have loved since I was a child. I had never seen a live production of it, and this was the best possible introduction.

It had been several years since I had read the play, so when I read the synopsis in the playbill, I was startled to remember what a weird and wonderful fantasy it is, with trickster fairies and mismatched lovers, all ending with a play-within-a-play that, to me, has always been funnier than anything ever written in the English language. And given that the majority of the show takes place in a forest, there could be no better setting for this production than the beautiful Delacorte Theater, with Central Park's trees swaying in the background, birds swooping around (and OK, fine, the occasional helicopter), to transport the audience into the very heart of the play.

This production boasts a stellar cast, but the person I was most excited to see was Annaleigh Ashford. She is a renowned musical theater actress, but I adore her because of her work on Masters of Sex. And boy, she does not disappoint. She has the most impeccable sense of comic timing, whether it comes to delivering Shakespeare's lines in the most emphatically hilarious ways possible, or taking a pratfall in the most inelegant way calculated to generate mirth. Snobs who think dramatic actresses are putting in more work than comedic ones should watch this performance to get schooled.

The other interesting bit of casting is the fairies, helmed by the regal Phyllicia Rashad, who plays Titania. Director Lear deBessonet has made an inspired choice of casting older actors to play all the fairies, instead of the usual batch of teens or twentysomethings. It brings into question why we ever expect fairies to be spry little Tinkerbells; they're supposed to be wise and magical, no one said anything about never going gray. Sure, it's a little incongruous to see a bunch of senior citizens called Cobweb and Peasblossom traipsing around the stage, but you certainly get used to it.

And finally, we get to Pyramus and Thisbe, the play-within-a-play that has always been my favorite part of this story. Danny Burstein is magnificent as Bottom the Weaver (like Ashford, he has a remarkable sense of just how to deliver Shakespeare's lines for maximum comedic effect) and the entire hapless production put on by the theater novices is giggle-inducing from start to finish. At last, I got to see someone play "the chink" and "Moonshine" (and the man in the moon), and my heart was glad. And honorable mention to Jeff Hiller, whose high-pitched declaration of "O Pyramus!" is seared onto my eardrums forever.

As always, the Public Theater has delivered an outstanding production, designed to make every novice and expert fall in love with Shakespeare's work all over again. The splendid set design and lighting elicits gasps of wonderment, the twinkly fairy costumes and brightly colored "Athenian" garb are eye-catchingly perfect, and the musical interludes keep your spirits soaring between every act. As declared in the playbill, the sole purpose of A Midsummer Night's Dream is to evoke joy. It fully accomplishes that goal.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Tour de Pharmacy: Gloriously Dumb

Two years ago, I wrote a rave review about 7 Days in Hell, an HBO tennis mockumentary starring Andy Samberg that was all of 45 minutes long and was hilariously dumb and satisfying. I could literally take that review and re-post it here with the title changed to Tour de Pharmacy, but that would be cheating so I won't.

Co-creators Samberg and Murray Miller are back with a sports mockumentary but this time the subject is a fictional 1982 Tour de France race that featured doping scandals, cross-dressers, corruption, and good old-fashioned full-frontal nudity. There is so much to love about this film that I don't know where to begin. J.J. Abrams, who has a cameo as one of the talking heads in the movie (the amazingness of this film should already be apparent from the fact that they randomly have Abrams in the cast), probably delivers the most apt summary of the film, when he waxes poetic about the character development and perfect script of this absurd race.

This movie has the best comedy cast you could hope for - seeing all these actors pop up on your screen is half the fun, so I won't name names. Just prepare to be delighted, particularly by the one cameo of an actual athlete who features prominently in the whole affair. The script is packed with utterly spectacular jokes and if you don't find yourself bursting out laughing at least once during this inane spectacle, the only explanation can be that you're dead inside. Even now, I keep giggling about a joke involving cheetahs that is SO DUMB but SO GOOD.

Look, I get it, not everyone likes these kinds of comedies. They are hyperbolic and silly and bonkers from start to finish. But I truly view Tour de Pharmacy as an exquisite piece of craftsmanship. It is a tightly edited, joke-dense, lovingly shot and acted piece of epic comedy gold. And with a 39-minute run time, it does not remotely overstay its welcome. I could have easily watched a feature-length movie about this stupid race, but that just proves the director, Jake Szymanski, and writer, Murray Miller, know the true secret to comedy success. Leave the audience wanting more.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: The Title Says It All

Let's be honest - One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter is the best title you've seen in a long time. I cannot for the life of me remember where I first read about this book, but I saw the title and immediately placed it on hold at the library. And once I started reading, I had that exhilarating feeling of meeting a kindred spirit.

The author, Scaachi Koul (the "c" -- the first "c" -- is silent), is a Canadian culture writer for BuzzFeed, but her family originally immigrated from Kashmir. As a Canadian-Indian (and a multitude of hyphens besides), her writing grabbed me from the first sentence. The book is a collection of essays that cover a series of topics ranging from a fear of flying and hatred of shopping, to ruminations on Indian weddings, fairism, and rape culture. No matter the topic, Koul manages to make it hilarious, insightful, and terrifying, a potent combination guaranteed to speak to any man and woman, but particularly resonant for a brown feminist living in North America.

It is always difficult to write about a book of essays. Each story is so perfect that I never want to give away my favorite lines as readers should be able to experience them in context for themselves. So if you feel that way, stop reading right here and go pick up a copy of this book. However, for those of you in need of more persuasion, here are some of the moments that spoke most to my soul. Having just returned from my cousin brother's wedding in Geneva, the following lines made me laugh out loud:

"There are two types of people who insist that Indian weddings are fun. The first are white people, who are frequently well-meaning but stupid and enjoy things vaguely different from themselves by exoticizing them....The second type are any people who have never actually been to an Indian wedding in India with Indian people...Indian weddings are a lot of things, but 'fun' has never been their purpose."

And the following observations about why she became a writer in the first place, and why it is so important for media to diversify to reflect more than white male voices, speak to why this book touched my heart so deeply:

"My version of media is one that looks like other people, because I remember being a little girl and wishing I read books or magazine articles or saw movies about people who even remotely looked like me...It changes you, when you see someone similar to you, doing the thing you might want to do yourself." 

If that doesn't convince you to read One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, I believe we have officially reached an impasse (also, there's a 99% chance you are a white man). This book came to me at an eerily perfect moment in my life. I hope someone reading this review will have a similar experience where they find a voice that is similar to theirs, and is reassured that their foibles and insecurities are shared by generations of women across the world. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Wonder Woman: What We've Been Craving

I had no desire to see Wonder Woman. Which is shocking, because as someone who generally likes superhero films, is all about female representation in Hollywood, and applauds films that pass the Bechdel test, this movie should have been a no-brainer. But the fact that it was from the DC Comics universe made me think it would be dark, dismal, and dull. When a Wellesley friend of mine asked if I wanted to watch it, I initially declined and then said, oh fine, let's get this over with. And when the credits rolled, we stepped out of the theater, stared at each other with bright eyes, and said, "Oh my God, that was incredible!"

It's hard to explain why this movie matters so much. There were many think-pieces and a great deal of feminist rhetoric around the movie, being that it was the first superhero(ine) film to star a woman (Gal Gadot), and also be directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins). But that all seemed like overblown hype. I had already seen Black Widow kick ass through various Marvel movies, that was enough right? Nope. After watching Wonder Woman, I realized how naive I had been. And honestly, I think that will be any woman's reaction to this movie. Watching it is an exercise in realizing how much you were secretly craving something that hitherto never existed. 

The first half of this movie takes place on the Amazonian island of Themyscira (fancifully known as Paradise Island, but not in this movie that assumes nothing fanciful about a tribe of independent warrior women). We get to see the young Princess Diana as she grows up on this island and hungers to be a warrior like her admired aunt, General Antiope (a superb Robin Wright), despite the reservations of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). However, there's no stopping Diana, so Antiope eventually takes her under her wing and trains her up to be the warrior who will eventually become Wonder Woman.

The movie is a classic origin story, with the conceit being that Steve Trevor (the charming Chris Pine) washes up on shore in Themyscira as a spy fleeing from the Germans in World War I. Diana and the Amazons defend him, and Diana realizes it is her destiny to leave her home behind and venture outside to keep humanity from destroying itself. There's a lot of mythology and history wound up in this tale, which is always fun, but ultimately the second half is both funny and action-packed as Diana learns how the real world works and how human beings can be both brave and despicable.

There was a point in this movie when I worried that Chris Pine was going to take over. He led the hapless Diana around London and mansplained the world to her, while she stared around in wonder and played dress-up. However, my worries were quickly banished once the action began; perhaps, that initial trepidation was a necessary highlight of what women face everyday if they don't have the luxury of whipping out a sword and lasso and punching a guy's lights out. But even these action sequences had an ethereal perfection to them that made me get misty-eyed. I thought I had been growing weary of action sequences in movies, but it turns out I was just weary of watching men whale on each other. Watching women fight (especially with other women during the training montages at the beginning of the film) with grace, and power, and defiance is overwhelming. Apparently this is what had been missing in superhero franchises all along.

So more of this please. More women, more action, more comedy, more compassion, more superpowers, more magnificence. Wonder Woman is a brilliant start but it certainly should not be the end. People complain of superhero fatigue, but that's simply because we haven't had enough superwomen. With Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins leading the way, this genre has been revitalized in spectacular fashion.