Power Rangers (2017)

I cried during a Power Rangers movie. I’m not sure if that’s something to be proud of or embarrassed by, but it’s true regardless. The last thing I would have expected from a superhero origin story that’s simultaneously a reboot of a 90s nostalgia property and a long-form Krispy Kreme commercial is that would bring a tear to my eye, but it happened several times throughout the latest Power Rangers film. Long before Power Rangers is overrun with alien sorcery, robot dinosaurs, and corporate-made donuts, it shines as a measured, well-constructed character study for a group of teenage outsiders longing for a sense of camaraderie, whether terrestrial or otherwise. Isolated by their sexuality, their position “on the spectrum,” their responsibility of caring for ailing parents​, and their past bone-headed mistakes, the teens who eventually morph into the titular Power Rangers are a broken, lonely lot. Their gradually-earned cohesion as a team of superheroes who sport what look like full-body bike helmets & drive robo-dinos through the streets of their home town looks an awful lot like nearly every generic action thriller released in the wake of the ongoing MCU & Transformers franchises, but it means so much more here than it does in the similar, but lesser work of its contemporaries. Just thinking about the film’s, “Together we are more” tagline gets me a little emotional. The only way you can earn that kind of genuine outsiders-vs.-the-world pathos is by investing real time & genuine effort in character work before your teen heroes suit up & kick alien ass, which is exactly what makes Power Rangers such an overwhelming success.

Now that I’ve gotten that confession about my idiotic blubbering out of the way, it’s time to admit that this is still a deeply silly film adapted from even sillier source material. It takes a long while before the audience gets to see fully-costumed Power Rangers battling their sworn enemy Rita Repulsa and her rock monster army of “puddies,” but the film announces the silliness at its core right out the gate. The very first scene in Power Rangers involves a prank that escalates to one teen jerking off a bull and another crashing into several cop cars. Off-handed references to cramming crayons into assholes & masturbating in the shower similarly cut through the heavy-handed teen drama, despite its team-building training montages and its campfire confessions about what’s been getting the poor lot down. From there, Power Rangers embarks on a daring journey of cobbling together several genre-disparate films from cinema past: The Breakfast Club (where a group of alienated teens on weekend detention struggle to relate to peers outside their respective social circles), Explorers (where kids stumble into an out-of-this-world adventure after discovering a real-life space ship), Chronicle (I have no idea what that one’s about; it just sounds right), and so on. Just about the only movie Power Rangers doesn’t resemble in some way is the 1995 feature Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, which arrived during a very specific era of ooze-obsessed children’s media. Instead of that film’s purple slime, you have to settle for a little post-Dark Knight grim & grime, but the 2017 version does find its fair share of heightened camp within its few recognizable actors: Elizabeth Banks as a drag routine version of Suicide Squad‘s The Enchantress, Bill Hader as a pot-bellied robot named Alpha 5, and Bryan Cranston as an all-knowing, floating alien head named Zordon (not to be confused with Zardoz), who more than vaguely resembles the Engineer aliens from Prometheus. And by the time the whole thing reveals itself to be a feature-length ad for Krispy Kreme donuts, the emotional resonance of its character-driven build-up is an absurd thing to have to reconcile with its campier tendencies.

The machinations necessary to set the cookie cutter plot in motion aren’t all that interesting to recount. Five teens gather at an operational gold mine for various personal reasons, discover color-coded Infinity Stones/Coins, board a buried space ship, and wind up staging a battle against a 65 million year old mummified alien and her gigantic, liquid gold prometheus. It’s all simple enough. Much like how Lucas Black spent the entirety of Tokyo Drift searching inside himself for the ability to drive sideways, these teens come together to look inside themselves for the ability to “morph” into their inner Power Rangers & form Voltron to defeat the evil, donut-eating space alien. If I were a little more academic and a lot more frivolous I’m sure I could mount an argument about how the team of horny teens’ initial failure to morph is metaphorically related to their frustrated inability to achieve orgasm. This subtext almost becomes explicit in a transition where the Yellow Ranger’s campfire confession of her closeted queer identity is immediately followed by Rita Repulsa appearing under her sheets and roughing her up in her bedroom. The truth is, however, that the gang’s transformation into an ancient, transferable line of intergalactic superheroes isn’t nearly as well thought-out or thematically rich as the various revelations of their troubled home lives, nor does it need to be. Beating up giant golden monsters in dinosaur-shaped mech suits is rad enough on its own not to require any such justification. This is a superhero origin story about a group of teens saving the world by learning to perform a communal, pro wrestling-style suplex on a giant space alien baddy. How much more plot do you really need?

I’m of two minds about the 2017 Power Rangers movie. On the one hand, I was totally on the hook for its emotional character work where isolated teens console each other with lines like, “You did an awful thing. That does not make you an awful person,” and discover a newfound sense of community among themselves. At the same time, I was tickled stupid by its robo-dino battles, donut-flavored ad placement, thrash metal Tai Chi, and self-deflating meta humor, like when Hader’s pudgy robot declares, “Different colors, different kids, different color kids!” Overall, this is a nostalgia-minded camp fest that’s not at all above cheap pops like briefly playing the 90s “Go Go Power Rangers” theme during its climactic battle. In the long run, it’ll likely lead to nothing more than a handful of forgettable, diminishing returns sequels. I still bought right into what it was selling, though, just like I greedily ate up every other recent reboot of similar bullshit media I loved as a kid: Ghostbusters, GoosebumpsTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc. Maybe that makes me a sucker & a rube, but this rube had a good laugh and a good cry at a kids’ movie this past weekend, which is more than anyone should have been able to ask for out of a property this old & this inane.

-Brandon Ledet

Advertisements

Love & Mercy (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

Biopics are difficult to make interesting. That may even be especially true about biopics that detail the lives of high profile musicians. It’s a genre so engrained in its own rote tropes that, no matter the level of talent involved, it’s always probable that the final product will feel more like a made-for-TV movie than an artistic endeavor. There are obviously a few exceptions to this conundrum, but the genre’s tropes are so well-defined that they’ve earned their very own (brilliantly funny) ZAZ-style spoof in Walk Hard. Walk Hard even took the time to spoof the subject of this review, Beach Boys’ mad genius Brian Wilson. When Love & Mercy shows Wilson struggling to wrangle French horns, dogs, and bobby pins in the studio, it’s near impossible to not think of Dewey Cox demanding lamas & fifty thousand didgeridoos. Luckily, Love & Mercy also chooses to play this moment for a laugh. If it had a straight face it would’ve been a painful cliché, something the film sidesteps entirely. That’s far from the only pitfall it sidesteps.

A large part of what makes Love & Mercy special in the context of the biopic genre is its intimate, bifurcated structure. Instead of telling the entire story of Brian Wilson’s life, the film focuses on two of his most significant moments. Both Paul Dano & John Cusack play Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy and the film is smart to not apply any pressure for them to tie their roles together, but instead allows them a lot of room to breathe & make it their own. It’s okay that that both Dano & Cusack feel like they’re playing different people because at the two points detailed here, Wilson was a different person.

Paul Dano, trying his damnedest to look slightly pudgy here, has to hold down the more cliché biopic moments of the film. Portraying Wilson while he was recording his masterpiece Pet Sounds & essentially losing his mind, Dano has to both go big & literally bark like a mad dog as well as understatedly smile like a pleased turtle because he knows he’s onto something special. Trying to move away from the group’s faux surfer past while simultaneously competing with both The Beatles and his own controlling father, Wilson was under an unfathomable amount of pressure at this point of his career. As he learns how to “play the studio” as an instrument and create an entirely new kind of pop music experience with Pet Sounds, he also loses a grip on himself, cracking under the pressure. Dano does a great job of balancing humor with poignancy in these scenes, but it’s a tough balance to maintain.

John Cusack’s scenes save the film from being too predictable. If it were just Dano’s scenes the This Is Really Important vibe would be overwhelming. Cusack picks up the story after years of depression & bed rest, showing Wilson squirming under the control of a controlling quack played by a sublimely menacing, clean-shaven Paul Giamatti. Helpless, Wilson falls for an in-over-her-head Chrystler salesman, played by Elizabeth Banks, who struggles with Giamatti’s Evil Doctor for control of Wilson’s autonomy. In several key scenes, Cusack isn’t even present for this half of the story, but whenever he is it’s a great reminder of just how wonderfully talented the actor can be when he sets his mind to it.

These two halves of the movies are woven together, told simultaneously. Although Love & Mercy cannot avoid every biopic trope out there, it does itself a huge favor by aiming for a feeling instead of a complete story. With phrases like “lonely, frightened, scared” and “Even the happy songs are sad,” the movie achieves a more accurate depiction of Brian Wilson than a straightforward telling of his entire life story, (Charles Manson, “Surfin USA”, and all) could possibly have accomplished. There’s a sadness to Wilson’s life’s work that is often overlooked, but expertly captured here. In an exchange with his abusive father, Wilson pleads that “God Only Knows” is “a love story.” His dad counters, “It’s a suicide note.” Love & Mercy does little more to tie its two disparate parts together than achieving this whimsical melancholy throughout and drawing comparisons between Dano’s Wilson’s controlling father and Cusack’s Wilson’s controlling doctor. The approach is impressive in both its audacity and its results.