Friday, July 28, 2017

July 2017 Pop Culture Roundup

More than a handful of items for July...

1. I read What Is the Bible? by Rob Bell this month. I'm a longtime Bell fan and always glad when he offers new writing. Here he makes the case for the Bible being more than what many think it is: not boring, not an instruction manual, not something to be merely taken literally. He shows this by uncovering some of the cultural meaning of certain terms and practices in various stories and passages, showing how clever and deep and rich and (often) progressive they are, as well as how they connect to each other. Bell's project is the sort that I've loved since my earliest days of seriously studying the Bible, and he offers many incredible insights in his signature acces
sible way.

2. I saw Spiderman: Homecoming this month, the latest offering from Marvel and the latest reboot of this particular superhero. We meet Peter Parker shortly after his appearance in Captain America: Civil War, where he's hopeful about future opportunities to work with Tony Stark and the other Avengers. This doesn't pan out the way he hopes, so he spends his time becoming acclimated to his new suit and double-life as a masked hero while dealing with some pretty standard teenage high school sorts of issues. But when he keeps having to mix it up with an arms dealer who occasionally dons a powerful suit that happens to look like a vulture, he discovers the superhero life is harder and more complicated than he thought. I'd rank this among the better Spiderman movies, but I'm not sure if it's ahead of the first two Maguire films. In many ways it's a standard Marvel movie, which is fine. I enjoyed it, but I've seen better comic book-based films this year.

3. I watched La La Land this month, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as struggling artists living in Los Angeles, each trying to make it in their own way. Eventually their paths cross, and two stories become one as they encourage one another in pursuing their dreams. The film is cast in the style of a classic Hollywood musical, complete with letterbox frame and the sorts of shots, fades and coloring that recall an earlier era of moviemaking. The songs and music are incredible, and the story has enough nuance to be more than a predictable cliché. I enjoyed this as an updated ode to the past as much as the plot itself.

4. I also watched Hell or High Water this month, an Oscar Best Picture nominee starring Chris Pine and Ben Foster as bank robber brothers and Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger chasing them down. It's like a modern western set in the Lone Star State, where Pine's character is trying to gather enough money to save his family's ranch due to the oil discovered underneath. There is some commentary on predatory practices of banks alongside scenes that alternate between showing the sleepy uniqueness of small town Texas and action sequences with guns and car chases. We see the world alternately through the eyes of Pine's brooding criminal trying to do right by his family and Bridges' wizened lawman, where one could conceivably pick either side and make a case, although I still found myself rooting for one a little more than the other. But I'll leave that as my secret and let you make your own judgment.

5. We finished the latest season of Doctor Who this month, where the Twelfth Doctor worries if he's lost Bill to the Cybermen while trying to steer Missy along a road of redemption. With the knowledge that this would be Capaldi's last series of adventures in the title role, there was still some mystery as to how his journey would conclude. And while we're given a certain amount of resolution for some characters, the exact fate of the Twelfth is still in the air; we have to wait until the Christmas special to see what will happen as he'll apparently be hanging out with the First Doctor for a while. The season as a whole was a good one. Bill was a unique companion who provided some fresh energy and interaction. I'll also miss Capaldi, as by the end he'd become one of my favorite iterations of the Doctor.

6. I binge-watched GLOW on Netflix this month, starring Alison Brie as Ruth, a struggling actress who lands an audition on a new women's wrestling show circa mid-1980s. It's based on the actual Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling organization that was introduced around that time, though this is not a biopic as far as I can tell. The show gives a great behind-the-scenes look on some of the ins and outs of wrestling, both in terms of training and production. This show maintained a great balance between drama and comedy (one of my favorite scenes is when Ruth performs a monologue from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" as a wrestling promo), and included some fun cameos from real wrestlers. I'll look forward to the second season when it comes out.

7. I was interested to hear the debut album by Offa Rex, which is basically The Decemberists plus English folk singer Olivia Chaney. On this first album, The Queen of Hearts, they cover and re-interpret a series of old British folk songs, which are beautifully and carefully arranged. Style-wise, some of it is familiar Decemberists, but Chaney's own wrinkles shine through and provide a new dimension that allow the entire ensemble to travel down new roads together. Here's the group performing the title track: