Power Rangers

Children of the 90s can rejoice. Your childhood will not be besmirched by a film that takes your memories and mangles them. The new version of Power Rangers should be exactly what you want. It takes a stupid premise, removes the ridiculous, adds some real teen angst, and comes up with a popcorn film that won’t make you hate yourself for going.

 

My kids were just the age for the show when it first aired. They liked it well enough but they never obsessed about the “Green Ranger” the way some kids at the time did. As a dutiful dad, I endured the cheese factory that was “The Mighty Morphin Power rangers Movie” in 1995, but I have not revisited it since then. My kids grew up and out of this phase and we moved on to other things. I thought I was done with all of this, but nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. The film makers of today are the children of yesterday, and apparently they needed to have a worthy Power Rangers reboot. OK,  here it is.

There are two things about the movie I’d warn you about, after that, everything else is on you if you are interested. First, there is a crude old joke used in the introduction of the first of our soon to be hero kids, that is disgusting and probably not something that should be heard by anyone under thirteen. My guess is that it was included to get the film up to a PG-13, because a PG rating would just not be enough for the cool kids. Every other reference to a four letter word is turned into a joke without actually saying the word. So the film pushes the edges by playing it safe. The second warning is that the film is long. It is over two hours, and the Rangers don’t morph until well into the second hour. That’s a lot of back story, exposition and set up for the comic book action we will want. It does however give the movie a little more seriousness and it feels like a movie, not a cartoon show simply blown up to the big scree.

That said, if you don’t mind weird monsters and karate mixed with some Transformers style effects and action, you should enjoy this film. Elizabeth Banks and Bryan Cranston add a bit of depth to the cast, which otherwise consists of five young actors I’ve never heard of before. They all seemed perfectly acceptable for their roles. Billy and Naomi are the two with the most interesting background. The film gives a nod to special needs communities and also makes a plea for redemption of stupidity. None of which should be taken very seriously but it was nice anyway.

 

I doubt that I will ever see this again, except in passing as I scroll through channels, but someone out there is going to love this. It takes something completely disposable, and treats it seriously for two hours before we can dispose of it again. Millennials  may now celebrate, now let’s get some Junior Mints and remember the past as being better than it really was.

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LIFE

[This is traditionally a spoiler free site. This review may have content which indirectly gives away some plot elements. Sorry, but the movie turned me a bit reactionary.]

I will hold my powder dry until the end of this post. There are so many things I liked about this movie that it would be a disservice to start with the thing that irritated me the most. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the strong points at the outset and hope that my ire calms down enough to be fair to the movie. “Life” is a horror film in a science fiction atmosphere. That makes it sound derivative of “Alien”, but that’s OK because as great as “Alien” is, it is also a product of ideas that came before it, and it made a great film, so this could do the same.

An International Space Station, set up to process materials from other planets, (basically Mars), receives a sample back after the delivery capsule encounters some problems on it’s way to them. A group of six scientists and engineers are ready to take possession and begin analysis in the safety of space, above the Earth. Naturally things do not go as smoothly as expected. Proof of life beyond our planet becomes an international moment of celebration, but the initial joy of the scientists becomes dread as the life form begins to develop some dangerous characteristics.

As with all horror films, the group of potential victims is faced with a variety of options. Almost all of the choices are bad and most of the actions of the crew will in retrospect seem foolish. An early mistake that supposedly can’t happen allows the life form access to a larger area of the space lab. This sequence happens so fast that it is difficult to tell exactly what happened. However, the sequence that immediately follows is the best section of the film. Astronaut Ryan Reynolds attempts to rescue his comrade from a seemingly sudden attack. Just like in “Alien” someone has to break the protocol to allow events to play out. Immediately we get a sense of the power and potential intelligence of the new life form. Just as with Alien, the use of fire is not particularly effective.  The results are gruesome and frightening in a very tense five or six minute scene. It is exactly the kind of thing you hope for in a story of this type.

It begins to feel like we are playing out the “Ten Little Indians” scenario in a horror film one more time. We are given glimpses of the personalities of the crew and one by one they will be killed by the monster. A few red herrings are set up and the plotline plays them out reasonably well for a while. The visual effects of the activities on the station and the movement of the creature are very disturbing and effective. The actions of stars Jake Gyllenhaal , Rebecca Ferguson, and the rest of the cast, sometimes are heroic, sometimes lucky and occasionally clever. For most of the ride we get the kinds of action and suspense that we paid our money for. Just as I thought last year’s “The Shallows” was a reasonably entertaining variation of the “Jaws” concept, I found this to be a pretty effective variant on “Alien”. That is until we get to the Ian Malcolm moment.

[Potential spoilers. We wary of proceeding].

In “Jurassic Park”, the character of Ian Malcolm explains very simply that  “If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is. …”Life” finds a way.” We might be lead to believe that this is a description of the science team, and that gives us the rooting interest that an audience will need. Unfortunately just as most of the characters make a mistake  or bad choice along the way, just as we think the writers responsible for “Deadpool” and “Zombieland”  are about to show that they can find a way the make “Life” work, …they choose poorly. The twist suckerpunch at the end of the film destroys most of the goodwill the film built up for me. There were a lot of other options that could have been more satisfying, but no, the film makers go for a big finish and they flop.

There will be people out there who like the choice made at the end, I think those people are wrong. It denies the value of most of what we saw for the opening hour and forty minutes of the film. I saw this coming as soon as a sequence continues past a natural stopping place. I guess I could do what some folks do, step out at that point, or turn the movie off before the finale. That’s not in my nature. Which is why, like Sky Masterson I say, “Daddy, I got cider in my ear.”

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

There is a world full of film bloggers who dislike the whole idea of live action remakes or reboots of classic animation films. They regularly let it be known that there is no need for a live action film, that the existing version is excellent and, “gasp”, the production of such a movie is a money grab. Well those are all ideas that I can sometimes understand, they often get bandied about without regard to the product for which those comments are intended. I try to hold my opinion until I see each film and I do my best to judge it by it’s own merits. That goal is exceptionally hard to achieve with the current “Beauty and the Beast”. The animated film from 1991 is beloved by many, and I include myself in that group. It holds a pivotal place in my nostalgia file, since my kids were the perfect ages to see that film when it came out and we lived on a steady diet of “B & B” video watches for almost five years. Although I try to avoid other reviews and certainly spoilers on line, it is hard to exclude them entirely, and I’d heard one of the regular guests on the Lambcast, knock this version for being lifeless. So although I wanted this film to be a success, it was with some slight trepidation that I approached the screening. To put it mildly, there is nothing to worry about, this film is solid.

 

The legend of the original animated design of Belle was that they wanted her to resemble Julia Roberts. I think we can dispense with that image. Emma Watson is a fantastic fit as the heroine of this story. She has the pluckiness that we want out proto-feminist character to deliver and the charm that we remember. I think her voice is very solid as a singer and the big numbers at the beginning of the movie are carried off with aplomb. She also seemed to develop some chemistry with the Beast, through hard work as an actor in some pretty well filled out sections of the film. The transformation from antagonist to friend and love interest was very believable in this version of the movie. I also thought her relationship with her father was more adult like and based in a long standing status rather than just being patronizing.

There are places in the film where there are additions to the well known story that I think work, but there are also a couple that seem unnecessary. I don’t know that the enchantress that places a spell on the castle and town, needs to be a character after the first sequence. I did like the fact that the town was included in the enchantment, which helps to explain a couple of minor inconsistencies in the ’91 animated film. The character of LeFou changes in a couple of ways. Much has been made of the character’s “identification”, and those that are bothered by that sort of thing will probably ind the slight bit of humor related to that offensive. I wonder if that alteration is the justification for turning the character into a more sympathetic figure toward the end of the film. As if an orientation transplant also requires a morality defense. It’s just a thought I had as I was considering the whole film. It doesn’t qualify or disqualify the movie for me.

 

Here and there are minor changes in scene and blocking. Gaston, as played very effectively by Luke Evans, is introduced in much the same manner but already as a suitor for Belle, in fact she has turned him down before. Their interactions have less of the comic effect than the animated film was able to achieve, and that is a small drawback, but the back story of Gaston as a soldier  makes some of his attitudes a little more sensible. His temper issue, which replaces the blackmail into marriage strategy of the animated version, is a lot more logical and it also justifies LeFou a bit more.  Another set of background issues concerns Maurice, Belle’s Father played by Kevin Kline. Instead of being an inventor, he is an artist, and some of his work is mechanical like clock making. I suppose it makes sense to enlarge the part if you are going to expand the film and hire an actor of this stature, but I don’t know that we needed to know all the history of their departure from Paris to the provincial areas.

The Beast himself, is seen early on as an adult, although they disguise his appearance a little for the reveal at the end. This was another place where the story gets expanded. It seems the young Prince, when denied maternal oversight became a reflection of his father. Not much was told to us about all of that, but because we get a little more of his origins, the library becomes more important as a way of connecting Belle and he. One of the minor criticisms of the animated film is the quick step to love that occurs. I think this is a little more realistic in timing, although it still happens faster than one might expect.

I may be an outlier on this film. On the podcast that I was a guest on today, two of the other participants were quite harsh in their judgments and the other was mildly enthusiastic. I’m all in, so take that for what it is worth. If you are interested in hearing the discussion, I will be posting a link when the podcast gets published. Until then, you are invited to be my guest, and enjoy this tale as old as time, without worrying that all those little people in the provincial town you find yourself in, will judge you too harshly.

Kong Skull Island

There is no news here. This is a big action film with a giant ape that fights humans an monsters on an island. It is pretty much what you expect it to be. It is entertaining while you watch it and forgettable almost immediately. You will have enough time to consume your popcorn, but I don’t expect there to be deep conversations into the night over the nuances of the story. Samuel Jackson may be playing Captain Ahab or Colonel Kurtz, trying to win the Vietnam War after we abandon our ally, but  that plotline goes no where except to create a little motivation for otherwise foolish choices by a professional.

Tom Hiddleston seems to be auditioning for his role as the next James Bond by playing a SAS agent, out of service but willing to contract for a fee. He is supposed to be the hero part in the movie and he was fine, but the character is so thin that we don’t get much rooting interest. Academy Award Winner Brie Larson is on hand as a photo journalist who smells a story. It’s never clear how she got authorized to be there but that doesn’t matter. I was completely surprised that the film is set in 1973. I suppose there are story issues that are easier to sell that way but it does seem a bit disconcerting. John C. Reilly is part Rip Van Winkle and part Dennis Hopper when the expedition gets to the island. Somebody on the writing team must be a Cubs fan because that is a thing here.20170116_130706

Anyone who has seen a King Kong movie before, knows that Kong is a double edged sword. He is as scary and dangerous as hell, but there are always other things that are more frightening and dangerous, including mankind.  There is actually a subtle environmentalist message in the movie, but I doubt anyone will notice it between all the helicopter crashes and monster battles. The tribesmen on this version of the island are just as silent as the ones in the Peter Jackson film of a Dozen years ago, but they are less malevolent and apparently wise in the balance of nature. They have the role of religious shamans who convey wisdom to the modern world but do so in a silent manner.

John Goodman got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in conjunction with the release of this film. This is a good sized part but nothing special as far as his performance. It would have been so much more befitting if the honor had been bestowed on him last year. Samuel Jackson is a lot more subdued than he usually is, I don’t think I can remember one  use by him of his favorite adjective. There was a nice call back however to his role in Jurassic Park. That was entirely fitting given the nature of this film being about giant monsters on the loose on an island.

You are probably aware that there is an after the credits scene. It is entirely there to set up a series of future films featuring Kong. The studios that combined to create this movie are trying to set up a cinematic universe which will support all kinds of 50s monsters being in a story. It will probably work, this movie will do business until another action film worthy of our attention shows up. Until then, check your common sense at the service counter and pass the Hot Tamales. They will go well with the butter oil in the popcorn, and they will be satisfying for about the same amount of time as this film.

Logan

The X-Men franchise has been going pretty strong for the better part of two decades now. Both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have grown older in their roles as Wolverine and Professor Xavier. I don’t know how they will replace Jackman, but Stewart has been gracefully edged aside for James McAvoy in the last few outings, including a dual casting in “X-Men: Days of Future Past“. The two of them have been cast in this capstone film, which basically cements their exits  from the franchise. This episode is tonally very different from any of the other films, including the last outing for Jackman which was “The Wolverine” back in 2013.

Most of these films have been cartoony super hero stories with a new “big Bad” to fight against in each edition. There is some subtext about ethnicity/sexuality and culture but usually it comes down to some big action sequences that everyone is looking forward to. “Logan” has plenty of action scenes but they are mostly a series of mutants versus mercenaries, and usually involve a car chase or two. No stadiums are lifted into the air, the Statue of Liberty is not at risk, and the wold does not seem to teeter on a single moment. The darker subtext here has to do with genetic manipulation for intentional purposes. Since the film is set ten years in the future, it is safe to make some jokes about GMO crops and GMO humans. The Frankenfood that most alarmists are worried about is mocked, but the human process is the thing that provides some depth to the movie.

 

Let me share a quote with you from my review of the 2013 film: “ I know the film is PG-13 because we get only one f-bomb, and the blood from all the fighting and evisceration that is taking place, stays mainly on the characters. Body parts don’t come flying off the screen, there are no fountains of blood spraying the walls, and the violence remains mostly in the imagination.” Apparently, director/writer James Mangold felt the same way, or else he read my comments and decided to fix this deficiency. “Logan” is R-rated for blood and language. It’s not a surprise that when freed from some contractual restrictions, Wolverine would find colorful uses for the f-adjective. What is a little more of a shock is the degree to which the claws get set free. The number of times the three prongs end up in the head, throat, or chest of a bad guy rivals John Wick’s kill count. It gets a little wearisome at times. Let’s throw in another character with claws, and the dismemberment, decapitations and general viscera is way up. If you have trouble with violence that looks really violent, then this film may not be for you.

I mentioned that the tone of the movie is different. Both Charles and Logan have medical issues in this movie. In a different X-Men Universe, there would be brilliant blue furry mutants and mystic scientists working to discover solutions for their problems. Instead, we have a pair of overworked caregivers who are struggling to get by while hiding from the world. Some vaguely hinted at disaster has made the X-Men disappear. Getting the pill count and schedule is hard enough, but some characters also need assistance in going to the toilet. That’s not something you will see in the comic books I bet. Another thing that will show how different and dark this world is, no one is spared in the story. Sympathetic characters die and often in gruesome ways. I thought we were being set up at one point for a secondary character to use some skills that are human based, but no. As soon as we hear about those accomplishments and start thinking of how they might be used, the character is dead. The warmth of friendship or humanity is held out only long enough to make us feel something when it is snatched away.

Overall I liked the movie quite a bit, but I have my reservations. The violence is continuous without the self awareness of a movie like John Wick. There is background missing that would make the story a little more interesting, and just as we get some monologing to  explain it, a bit of violence jumps in and cuts it off as if to say “That’s not the story we are telling here.” This is really an elegy for the X-Men characters we have known and a passing of the torch to new mutants. It feels like the studio has set up the whole franchise for a second reboot since they got started. The Deadpool 2 teaser at the start of this film has nothing to do with this movie except for a brief reference to Logan as a joke. The mood of the opening teaser is incredibly different from the movie that follows it. The final tip off for where this is all going to end up is contained in the use of a Johnny Cash song in the trailer and a different Cash song in the end credits. The dire and desperate voice of Johnny Cash is a natural for Mangold to use. He was after all the director of “Walk the Line”. It is also a Cliff Note sized clue that this movie is a tragedy and not an adventure.

Get Out

Last night I had a disappointing experience. We decided to watch a horror film and we chose “The VVitch” because we’d heard a lot of positive things about it. Maybe it works for other people but I was not happy. In fact I found it quite irritating in the way the story gets resolved, or at least sort of resolved. Today, to wash the bad memory out of my brain, we picked another widely acclaimed horror film. This movie is more contemporary and it has an interesting perspective on the world. I’d seen the trailer and I was afraid it was going to be a polemic on white privilege, instead, the movie twists the idea of cultural appropriation in a way that is totally off the wall and satisfying.

Daniel Kaluuya is a name I did not recognize, but he was in a movie I saw a couple of years ago, “Kick Ass 2”. His part in that movie was not significant, but his role in this movie is impressive. He is the lead and he carries most of the drama and horror of the film on his shoulders. The only thing I know Allison Williams from is the highly criticized Peter Pan Live form a couple of years ago. She was also very good in this film and her character has surprising elements to it that will turn the story at some points. Three other well known old timers are also in the cast. Bradley Whitford from the West Wing and “Cabin in the Woods” plays the neurosurgeon father of Rose, the white girl that is dating Kaluuya’s character Chris. Dad is just enough of a social justice liberal to be disarming, but still he and his wife player by Catherine Keener, are just a little off.  Mom is a psychiatrist who uses hypnotherapy to help clients deal with smoking and other issues. At first they seem just a little odd but as time passes, Chris begins to listen to the doubts that he might be expected to have as a lonely black face in a well off suburban neighborhood. The third character played by an old hand is Jim Hudson, another blind character played by Steven Root. He turns out to be a key element of the reveal when it shows up.

 

The slow burn creep factor in this movie is exquisitely patient. We know things are off but we have no idea exactly what is going on. Chris gets warnings from his friend Rod, who is concerned about him going into the country with all the white people.  Rose is supportive in the way a girlfriend ought to be, but she is also a bit nonplussed by the potential of her black boyfriend meeting her parents without their knowledge of his background. All of the family friends that show up at the parents house are also a little too awkward and direct about Chris and his ethnic difference. There are a couple of disturbing or frightening scenes that involve the servants at the house, and there is definitely a Stepford Wives feel to the goings on.

The twist comes and it is a dozy. Suddenly things are more frightening than they might have appeared and the story gets clever with the social conventions but maybe a little to direct with the horror elements. Rod gets some great sequences that add some comic moments to the film, and that makes the story feel a lot more believable than it otherwise would have. I can’t give away anything, it’s not my style to do so, but I can say that the story is a lot more satisfying than the psychological supernatural film I saw last night. The wrap up to this film may be more conventional, but at least it feels like it is part of the story that we have been watching.

Writer /Director Jordan Peele is a guy I recognize but I have not really paid much attention to. I have seen the routine with the substitute teacher, in fact, I plan on using it in my classes. As an actor, I remember him from the “Fargo” TV series, as one of the FBI guys who screws up massively. This film shows that his talent is not limited to comedy and he clearly understands the check points for a good horror film. This probably does not need any recommendation from me, the movie is doing good business after all, but I will be telling anyone who will listen, this is worth your time. As I said to my daughter at the end of the film, “Now that’s how you make a horror film!”.