Friday, March 31, 2017

Lovely Rita: “Power Rangers” Reboot Morphs into Semi-Decent Entertainment

It's not an April Fool's joke. I didn't hate “Power Rangers.” Of course it's not really that great of a movie, but it's far from terrible, and feel just unoffensive enough to make it worth existing. While the trailers promised Transformers-level action and dumbness, it's far better than those eye-roll inducing excuses for entertainment. Those nostalgic for corny entertainment from their childhood will certainly be curious about “Power Rangers.” See it because Elizabeth Banks is in it and hams it up nicely. And stay because it's definitely not the worst thing you'll see in the theater this year. It doesn't focus on endless, repetitive action scenes; character development somewhat exists here if you can believe it and it's probably because an Oscar-nominated screenwriter actually wrote this thing.

Taking a cue from many other superhero, comic, and other big screen reboots, “Power Rangers” is a gritty take on the corny 90s kids show about teenagers who fight weird monsters and aliens in bad rubber suits, morph into bright, colorful uniforms, and ride around in vehicles shaped like dinosaurs. Every single episode followed the same lame formula and kids (myself included) ate it up for some reason. No, “Power Rangers” doesn't need to exist. It's not going to change lives of its audience or win awards. But you can see a modicum of talent bubbling beneath the surface here.

The five young actors (who are supposed to be teenagers but are clearly too old to be in high school) are actually pretty decent and do a good job at making their characters likeable, relateable, or at least have more than one dimension. Newcomer Dacre Montgomery, taking on the role of rebellious good-looking jock whose injury has crushed his football dreams, is quite charismatic in the role of Jason. He'll eventually become the Red Ranger and be the group's leader. There's forlorn cheerleader Kimberly (Naomi Scott) who becomes the Pink Ranger. The nerdy, semi-autistic genius Billy (RJ Cyler) as the Blue Ranger. The mysterious loner Zack (Ludi Lin) who's the Black Ranger. And Trini (Becky G.) the fiery Latina whose parents don't understand her, as the Yellow Ranger. The film certainly takes its time with these kids and it's for the better. Once they actually become Power Rangers all the good character stuff gets traded in for action.

And then of course there's Elizabeth Banks who's in this thing for some reason. I'm guessing she lost a bet. But then how does one explain the appearance of both Bryan Cranston and Bill Hader? It doesn't matter. These actors careers are safe. There's nothing particularly horrible here. Banks hams it up as Rita Repulsa who was actually a ranger back in the day (in the day of the dinosaurs to be exact) and betrays the group killing all the other rangers. And she's somehow revived in modern day. The five teens stumble upon five colored coins that gave the rangers their power. The rest is history. Screenwriter John Gaitins does his best with the silly source material. It's pretty much played straight and works decently enough. Director Dean Israelite is having fun here and you can see he has a fun visual eye. There's even an early scene involving in a long take in a pickup truck that's quite impressive.

“Power Rangers” is really dumb, harmless fun. It's not nearly as bad as some terrible big budget movies and it's not as well-done as the really good ones. The film is perfectly fine fan service. It takes its time focusing on the characters which makes the film sort of feel like The Breakfast Club meets Marvel. I didn't hate it.  GRADE: B-

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Crawl Space: Bring an Extra Pair of Underwear to See “Life”

Can I even write a proper review of the new scif-fi thriller “Life?” I missed 20% of the film: I was so scared I had to look away on several occasions. It takes a lot to scare this cynical horror fan but when you leave the theater ready to hold back tears of fright because of how intense the previous movie-going experience was, you know you've seen a completely successful horror film. “Life,” a sci fi-horor film that works as a cross between “Gravity” and “Alien” is an extremely intense thrill ride. Even if it owes a lot to the great films that came before, its realistic approach makes it an extremely powerful, and suspenseful movie filled with unforgettable moments of gross-out horror and poignant moments of characterization. Fasten your seat belts, because this is one bumpy ride.

“Life” begins by introducing us to a group of scientists aboard the International Space Station on a mission that has to do with studying the possibility of life on Mars. When they discover a single celled organism the crew, and the entire world, are fascinated by the discovery of life outside our planet. But this little guy isn't quite what it seems and it begins to grow exponentially to the point where it does what it wants when it wants to do it. Soon wonder turns to horror as the crew members are picked off one by one. There's medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), quarantine officer Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), engineer Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds), ISS pilot Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), and ISS commander Olga Dihovichnaya (Katerina Golokina). These are the characters and part of the fun of the movie is figuring out who's gonna die next.

The film works so well because of the realistic nature of its setting. It's not set in a distant future with unfamiliar technology like “Alien.” It's set in a real place, the International Space Station. It asks the question, what if an antagonistic life form got on board. So those who thought “Gravity” was missing a rapidly growing alien creature will certainly be please with “Life.” Relatively little known Swedish director Daniel Espinosa directs with stunning precision. DP genius Seamus McGarvey's camera glides around the space station impressively and the film opens with a thrilling, long take sequence that has nothing to do with alien lifeforms. And the script is from the guys who wrote “Deadpool” and “Zombieland” of all things. The film moves along swiftly, though I'd argue the film's third act isn't as strong as what came before, and is not overly complicated with unnecessary exposition; the film is wisely more interested in scaring the audience than confusing it. And even if it's not the most original of sci-fi thrillers, it thankfully doesn't have the most annoying cliche of all: the human villain.

It's safe to say that “Life” was one of the scariest experiences I've ever had in a movie theater. Don't take that statement as hyperbole. It's an extremely intense experience that earns its frights. The visual effects are extremely well done, and don't let the fact that the creature is CGI fool you: it's disgustingly designed and completely terrifying. Those with weak constitutions may need to seek the shelter of a friendlier, nicer film. Let me suggest “Beauty and the Beast.” That film will make you leave the film singing. “Life” will make you leave the theater physically rattled. I wouldn’t have it any other way.  GRADE: A-  

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Working Dead: While Nothing Groundbreaking, “The Belko Experiment” is Disturbing, Exploitative Fun

I've never seen “Battle Royale” so I can't bear witness to its disturbing quality, but as far as films about children murdering each other it must be a pretty messed up experience. The “kill or be killed” premise isn't something brand new. It's even more recently gone mainstream in the form of “The Hunger Games” series in which teenagers and children are forced to murder each other in a post-apocalyptic dystopian society. “The Belko Experiment” takes the “kill or be killed” premise into the office working environment. The film follows the employees of a Bogota, Columbia-based company as they're forced to play a deadly game by an unknown adversary. Cue people being shot, stabbed, and maimed in variously disturbing ways. And it's funny. That's because the guy behind this craziness is James Gunn who can go from horror such as “Dawn of the Dead” to quirky dark comedy like “Super” to populist summer blockbusters like “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

There was an old couple in the theater when I saw “The Belko Experiment” and I always wonder how certain people find their way into certain movies. Perhaps they saw “Spring Awakening” on Broadway and are big fans of Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr. who plays the likable Mike Milch. Perhaps they recall Tony Goldwyn (not cast by accident since his characters always seem to go to dark places) from his turn in the 1990 romantic classic “Ghost.” He plays CEO Barry Norris. Or, turning to television, perhaps they were big fans of “Scrubs,” as character actor John C. McGinley plays Wendell Dukes who constantly and creepily leers at Mike's girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona). There are other cliched characters including the friendly pothead, the friendly chubby lady, and the friendly gay guy. Maybe this couple was big fans of Australian director Greg McLean who gave us the fantastically creepy horror film “Wolf Creek.” I assume this cute elderly couple are just messed up people who enjoy exploitative graphic violence.

And that's exactly what the film is most concerned with. I think there's a point somewhere in Gunn's tight script about the corporate work life and the boring routine of the office workplace. It's an observation of how disturbing human behavior can be when in put in such a dire situation and pushed to the limits of survival. The film threatens to become almost too much to bear; in this current world the image of people being shot in the supposed safety of a work environment is almost too distressing. But the film finds a good balance of humor to balance out the darkness. McLean's film is almost unbearably suspenseful; it's so fantastically paced, there's hardly much room to breathe.

“The Belko Experiment” is fast-paced, violent, disturbing, and shamelessly ridiculous. It also makes you laugh despite the fact that it threatens to become too overwhelmingly dark. It will certainly be not everyone's idea of a good time at the movies. You're really just watching people be violently murdered for an hour and a half. And even if the premise isn't quite the most original, it provides a place for those of us willing to travel to the darkest recesses of the human mind. See it for the disturbing premise, stay for the death by tape dispenser.  GRADE: B+

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Belle of the Ball: Live Action “Beauty & the Beast” is Luscious & Fun, if a Bit Padded

There definitely is something there that wasn't there before. And that's not necessarily the best thing. The groundbreaking 1991 animated musical hit “Beauty & the Beast,” hot off the heels of the equally iconic “The Little Mermaid,” set a new standard not only for Disney but for animated films in general. Clocking in at 84 minutes, the film was swift yet majestic, stunningly animated, and absolutely fun. The film was brilliant and remains so, but there really wasn't all that much substance behind it. 

Enter a new era where classic Disney animated films get the live action treatment because now we have the technology to see dishes sing and dance. But with a new runtime of 129 minutes the glossy new Disney musical threatens to overstay its welcome. Filled with extra somewhat sub-par songs (only in comparison to the superior originals) and mildly unnecessary plot elements disguised as character development, “Beauty & the Beast” is a really fun movie with great performances, dazzling musical moments, and fun bursts of humor; though it might be a bit overstuffed for its own good. It's not quite as garish as the live action “Alice in Wonderland” but not as emotionally rewarding and visually lush as “The Jungle Book.” I have no qualms about recommending “Beauty & the Beast” to every single person who is excited as hell to see it.

We've sort of entered a new era for the movie musical. Directors are more interested in filling out their casts with great actors who can sing decently instead of decent actors who can sing great. And that's fine. Emma Watson, still hot off her longtime run in the Harry Potter films, stars here as Belle. She's the girl whose nose is always stuck in a book and her fellow villagers think she's a freak. Then there's the walking pile of testosterone Gaston (theater-trained Luke Evans who steals the show) who pines for her affection. Belle's father (Kevin Kline) unwittingly ends up locked in the castle of a monstrous Beast (Downton Abby's Dan Stevens), who is actually a handsome asshole prince who was cursed by an enchantress along with the rest of his servants; they're all threatened to stay as inanimate objects for eternity unless the Beast can learn to love and earn someone else's love in return (but we all know that). Belle, being the strong willed woman she is, defiantly replaces her father as the Beast's prisoner and so begins a tale as old as time in which a beautiful book smart townswoman learns to love the hideous hairy beast who's keeping her prisoner. The ick factor is almost more obvious in live action, but I digress.

Ninety-nine percent of the audience going to see “Beauty & the Beast” will already be completely familiar with the film's entire plot line. More importantly, how exactly are the songs? They are good but different. Tempered exceptions are beneficial here. They don't quite sound the same as the animated film and that's completely fine. The actors all have decent voices, they wouldn't have been cast otherwise. But technology isn't just used to make a clock and a candelabra come to life; they also help actors' voices sound better. Watson has a beautiful voice even if it's not that particularly impressive. Stevens doesn't get to do much singing as the Beast (he does get his own original song towards the end) but he's very good as well. The Be Our Guest sequence, like the animated original, is still the showstopping number and Gaston's song is still a really fun sequence as well.

Director Bill Condon knows how to make things familiar and fun and while the recognizable moments are spot on, it's the new elements that fail to conjure much excitement or interest. There's a somewhat boring sequence that finds Belle and Beast in Paris but it's over quickly enough. There's more backstory which is appreciated more than it's actually necessary. The animated film's characters are pretty one-note to begin with so it's obvious screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos tried their darnedest to give these characters three dimensions.

Overall “Beauty &  the Beast's" successes triumph over any failures. It's definitely middle of the road where Disney live action remakes are concerned. The cast is strong and the musical sequences are fun; I imagine many will be wiping away tears. I found myself not all that emotionally invested in the story (The film's two minute trailer is more emotionally rewarding in my opinion) but it was downright fun and entertaining even if it could have used a little bit of tightening up. The visual effects aren't nearly as impressive as last year's Oscar-winning “The Jungle Book” but that's fine; the filmmakers have turned an animated hit into a live action film that seemed like a completely daunting task and it's perfectly fine. Audiences are eating this up and I'm not surprised, it's a culinary cabaret.  GRADE: B

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Ape of Wrath: “Kong: Skull Island” is a Spectacular 70s Style Action Adventure

When I think of “Kong Kong” and the 1970s, the terrible “King Kong” remake with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange comes to mind. Oh my, how far the Eighth Wonder of the World has come. A completely different take on the legendary screen icon King Kong, “Kong: Skull Island” is an exquisitely photographed, superbly thrilling wartime action-adventure. Set in the aftermath of Vietnam, the film finds a group of adventurers and soldiers ready to explore an uncharted island and are completely unaware of the horrors that await them. The film is filled with suspenseful action set pieces, interesting characters, an unabashed sense of fun throughout, and is a darling tribute to 1970s action adventure cinema.

Can it be said enough how much I adore the look of this film? It's so beautifully photographed by DP Larry Fong that I just wanted to lick the screen. The film proves that this guy can shot a film that isn't drenched in grays and blacks (he shot “Watchmen” and “Batman v. Superman:Dawn of Justice"). The film has a stark color palate that evokes the time period in which the film takes place: the early 1970s. The movie finds the mysterious Bill Randa (John Goodman) trying to get funding for an expedition to a mysterious uncharted island in the Pacific. The island is surrounded by raging storm clouds and has somehow miraculous preserved the land in a prehistoric state. A large group head to the island including a team of soldiers led by Prestan Packard (Samual L. Jackson), adventurer James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), wartime photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), among many others. Before the group and its fleet of military helicopters even have a chance to land, a familiar giant ape rips most of them out of the sky leaving a handful of survivors whose goal is to now just to get off the island.

Kong isn't the only beast on the island. There are plenty of other large, exotic, and deadly creatures that take out the rest of the group one by one. In this way, “Kong: Skull Island” works in the vein of many other fun adventure films, like “Jurassic Park” (and the recent and excellent “Godzilla”) in which humans try to survive among large predators hellbent of making them their next meal. There's not much in the way of fascinating plot; this after all a fun monster movie, but the script provided by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, is completely adequate. They create some fun characters and with director Jordan Vogt-Roberts stage some delightfully thrilling action sequences and a surprising amount of fun, comic relief.

Much will be said about this new take on Kong, as it completely differs from the wonderful 2005 version by Peter Jackson. That was a straight up remake of the 1933 classic. “Kong: Skull Island” is very much its own thing. There are recognizable elements including the previously mentioned prehistoric creatures and, of course, a giant man-made wall. The film interestingly set in the aftermath of Vietnam makes for a fascinating setting and Vogt-Roberts gives the film an appropriate look for the time period. Classic rock songs blare on the soundtrack and the visual elements involved are simply scrumptious. And while the film isn't nearly as emotionally wrenching as Jackson's film, the film does find a sweet spot between action and emotion.

“Kong: Skull Island” is a rip-roaring good time. It's visually appealing, terrific special effects, a strong cast, and a delectable sense of style. The evocation of war films like “Apocalypse Now” and its brethren will not be lost on film nerds of a certain age. And the fact that the film will begin a franchise filled with famous cinematic monsters is just the tip of the iceberg; this monster mash is king.  GRADE: A-

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Hugh Grit: Hugh Jackman Hangs Up His Claws in the Emotional “Logan”

I've never found any reason to enjoy any of the Wolverine-centered X-Men spin-off films. Until now. “Logan” is “The Dark Knight” of the X-Men films; a gritty, dark take on an iconic superhero that is constantly engaging and surprisingly emotionally raw, if a bit overlong. One always has to ask, Does the world need another X-Men film? Do we really need to hand our money over to watch Hugh Jackman slash people with his steel claws, even if this time there's more blood? The answer is now an astounding yes. “Logan” reaches new heights for a comic book film. It goes much further than most comic book film adaptations have, considering a majority of them are popular because of their family-friendly PG-13 rating. Like the serious cousin to last year's delightful and successful “Deadpool,” “Logan” is a wonderful return to form for the long-running franchise.

Is it just me or does “Logan” remind anyone else of “Terminator 2?” There's a grizzled badass main character who teams ups with and protects a kid on a cross country trip with a smooth talking, cyborg-like bad guy hot on their trail. Oh, and there are awesome action scenes every once in a while. The film is set a bit further in the future where mutants seem to be a rare breed; Wolverine (Jackman) is a bit older, more grizzled, and his beard is a bit longer. He works as a limo driver and is taking care of a much older, ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and an albino mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant). He inadvertently gets stuck taking care of a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen, brilliant in her film debut) who also happens to have mutant powers suspiciously similar to Wolverine. We quickly recognize the mentioned “Weapon X” program and a bad guy named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) is after the mysterious girl. Why anyone would want to know any more about the story than that is beyond me.

“Logan” like the previous Wolverine pic “The Wolverine” is directed by James Mangold. But unlike, “The Wolverine” which was a mild success with plenty of fans, “Logan” is a richer, more fascinating and worthwhile film. We've seen Jackman play his character ad nauseum for the last seventeen years and he slips into the role like a comfortable pair of shoes; and he's still fascinating to watch. It all feels like it was leading up to this. Him being paired with not only an older Charles Xavier, but with a young girl is a fascinating dichotomy. This familial relationship between the characters makes for rather interesting plot points and must certainly be a joy to the actors who get to actually emote when they aren't busy graphically chopping limbs from enemies' bodies (oh my this movie earns its R-rating).

Even a comic book film can have great characters, an interesting story, and a strong emotional pull. There have been many great examples of the genre over the last few years. In this overly crowded marketed to death movie market, there are still big budget, studio movies that can be very well made and they mostly start with a pretty solid script (from Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green). Even if the film threatens to overstay it's welcome, it's a really engaging film with likable characters, fun action, and enough humor to balance out the well-earned drama. This movie will earn every dollar it's got coming to it.  GRADE: A-