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Posts Tagged ‘RJ Cyler’

It’s strange how ignorance can sometimes be a source of shame and sometimes a badge of honour: just the other day I was slightly embarrassed to have to admit to a friend that I’d never actually seen, read, or otherwise experienced any version of Ghost in the Shell prior to seeing the new movie, whereas in another conversation I happily informed anyone who’d listen that I had only the scantiest knowledge of the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

This is possibly just an age thing, as the Rangers were aimed at an audience at least one generation younger than me when they were first unleashed upon the world in the 1990s. We are basically talking about a TV show with an attached line of toys (or possibly vice versa, I suppose), all concerning a team of superheroes (if doing karate while being a different primary colour from the person next to you is enough to qualify as a superhero these days) fighting unlikely monsters. Needless to say, it had its origins in a Japanese TV show entitled Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger, and the US adaptation went on to be terribly successful. And as we are now living in 2017, where nothing which was once popular is ever allowed the luxury of a quiet and dignified death, the whole concept has now been revived and generally polished up for a movie, directed by Dean Israelite.

Things get going on prehistoric Earth, where Power Ranger Zordon (which is a fine name for a pulp SF character) has just received a whupping from the evil Rita Repulsa (which, um, isn’t). Zordon and Rita are played by Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Banks, who are both very capable and respected artists and thus presumably either being extremely well remunerated or forced to perform at gunpoint. Zordon cops it, but not before putting Rita’s plans on hold, in the hope that a new team of upstanding Power Rangers can be assembled in the meantime.

We then skip forward to present day California and the town of Angel Grove, where a quintet of disparate (and, of course, carefully diverse) teenage misfits find themselves coming together seemingly at random. (They all have various relatable teenage issues, of course.) The location for this is an old quarry, where they eventually discover some multi-coloured ‘power coins’ stashed there by Zordon 65 million years earlier, at the start of the film. Odd things start to happen, such as them finding themselves suddenly able to jump over houses in a single bound.

Another visit to the quarry leads them to Zordon’s old spaceship, which is in remarkably good nick, and a comedy-relief robot. Together the robot (Bill Hader) and Zordon’s CGI head handle the necessary exposition – buried under Angel Grove is the ‘Zeo Crystal’ (uh-huh) a semi-mystical object intrinsic to the existence of life on Earth (uh-huh) and Rita Repulsa’s target. As chance (and the demands of the plot) would have it, Rita is back in the area (uh-huh) and planning on building a giant robot out of tooth fillings (uh-huh) to dig the Zeo Crystal up, with horrible consequences for everyone (uh-huh). Our troubled teens have been selected to take on the roles of the Power Rangers, provided they can master the necessary skills. ‘Tell me, have you ever morphed before?’ enquires Zordon, gravely. ‘Only in the shower,’ replies Black Power Ranger (Ludi Lin). (In case you’re wondering, our teenage heroes are played by actors who are 20, 22, 22, 23, and 29.)

Well, I tell you, folks, despite hearing a generally positive buzz about this film, I spent quite a few happy minutes thinking of some zingy put-downs to sling its way if it turned out to be a load of gruelling old rubbish: ‘don’t go-go anywhere near it’ for one; ‘only watchable under the influence of morphine’ was another. I share these with you now, because I can’t actually use them – Power Rangers is, um, surprisingly non-terrible. Well, that’s not quite true, but it’s terrible in the best sort of way.

Can I even call it terrible? Some of it is actually pretty good, particularly the playing of the young cast, who do have chemistry together. Seeing the trailer for this movie, my first thought was ‘This looks rather like Chronicle‘ (a 2012 superhero-SF movie), and this does carry through into much of the actual film (Max Landis, who wrote Chronicle and worked on this one for a bit before being fired, felt the same way, apparently): this has a bit more heart and a bit more grit than you might expect, all things considered.

Then again, this is a Power Rangers movie, and you do have to worry about things like tonal appropriacy – I saw this film in the ‘family matinee’ strand down the local multiplex, with the rest of the audience made up entirely of very young boys and their fathers. This may be the core audience for Power Rangers, in which case you have to question the appropriacy of the 12A UK certificate, the inclusion of jokes about lamb-shanking bulls, a subplot about sexting, and so on. Despite the premise, this often feels like a film aimed at a young-adult (or maybe even older) audience, with lots of hot-button topic issues being touched upon – Yellow Power Ranger (Becky G) has a minority orientation, Blue Power Ranger (RJ Cyler) is somewhat autistic (‘I’m on the spectrum,’ he declares – ‘Is that a workout programme?’ asks Red Power Ranger (Dacre Montgomery), who’s a bit of a jock), and so on. Pink Power Ranger (Naomi Scott) is still a girl, though.

This emphasis on characterisation (and, as you can perhaps see, some decent jokes) means that Power Rangers doesn’t quite feel like a traditional superhero origin movie (which is basically what it is) for most of its running time. All the mighty morphin’ is held back until the third act, at which point the film basically turns into a massive advert for toys, but by this point you should be interested enough to stick with it until the end regardless.

The film has been somewhat tongue-in-cheek prior to this point, and Elizabeth Banks has clearly figured out that hers is a role that requires the kind of performance which registers on the Richter scale, but… ‘Tell me where the Zeo Crystal is!’ demands Rita, threatening to kill one of our heroes. ‘It’s under Krispy Kreme Doughnuts!’ squeaks Blue Power Ranger, who has somehow figured this out. ‘What is this… Krispy Kreme Doughnuts?’ hisses Rita, before setting off to activate her tooth-filling robot. ‘Guys, we have to stop her before she reaches the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts store!’ cries Red Power Ranger. (Things go on in a similar vein at surprising length.)

Now, I love doughnuts as much as the next person – actually, that’s a lie, I love doughnuts to the extent that my dietician is constantly in a strop with me – but the sheer brazenness of the product placement for Krispy Kreme in this film is utterly jaw-dropping. The film even pauses for a moment so Rita Repulsa can eat a Krispy Kreme doughnut within the store itself. I have no idea what percentage of the budget of Power Rangers Krispy Kreme stumped up for, but putting the brand at the very centre of the plot in this way is… either it’s an inspired bit of insanity that probably means this film is guaranteed to become a campy cult classic, or it topples the whole thing over into absolute absurdity.

Power Rangers’ heady mixture of teen angst, dubious jokes, plastic karate, epic over-acting, and blatant product placement really should not result in a functioning movie. And yet somehow it does, because this is consistently entertaining all the way through. Certainly, much of the film does not make any sense whatsoever, and the rest of it only makes sense in a way which is completely ridiculous, but you are carried along by some winning performances and clever direction, not to mention just how knowing most of it is. I imagine some people will sneer about this film on principle, but if this was a new property released under the auspices of Marvel Studios or even DC, I suspect it would have smash hit written all over it. All things considered I’m very glad I went-went to see it.

 

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Summer must be over: there’s a new Woody Allen movie coming out fairly soon, for one thing, while the supply of genuine blockbusters seems to have dried up and we are starting to see a trickle of what I can only call ‘quality’ films – not because they’re necessarily better than the more commercial fare that’s out in the summer, but because they seem to be pitching to a slightly more discerning audience. A case in point is Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which is out and about at the moment.

Me-and-Earl-and-the-Dying-Girl-UK-Quad-Poster-1024x768

An interesting title, n’est ce pas? It strikes me as being very carefully calculated to strike exactly the notes of honesty, black comedy, and shocking cynicism that the film-makers wanted, and it’s fair to say that this level of premeditation informs much of the content of the film. Thomas Mann (not the one you may be thinking of, book lovers) plays Greg, a Pittsburgh high schooler who has survived the experience largely unscathed, as a result of keeping an invisibly low profile and not really making any connections with anyone. The sole exception is his friend Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he spends much of his time making micro-budget film parodies.

This changes (inevitably) when his mother basically forces him to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a vague acquaintance from school who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. The two eventually become friends, and when Greg and Earl’s substantial back catalogue of films becomes public knowledge, the next step is obvious: make a new film to cheer Rachel up. But can Greg do this while still maintaining his studious detachment from any genuine emotional commitment? Or is it time for him to finally decide who he is and what he wants to do with his life?

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of those films which has been rather well-reviewed elsewhere, something which will no doubt be of great consolation to the producers as they consider the $1.3m shortfall in the film’s takings compared to its budget. In short, it’s clearly connected much better with critics than it has with the mainstream audience, and at first it is a little difficult to see why this should be.

It is certainly an extremely well-acted film, with performances from the trio of leads that would definitely be called star-making had the film been a bigger success. Olivia Cooke has impressed me in a couple of good genre movies in the past; she is equally good here in something much less genre-oriented. The film also contains some lovely miniatures, in the form of the supporting performances from Jon Bernthal, Molly Shannon, and the ever-reliable Nick Offerman.

And, I suppose, the film is filled with a kind of knowing wit and cine-literacy than seems practically machine-tooled to make critics fall in love with it. This may be a combination of high school comedy, tear jerker, and bildungsroman, but it’s one which is stuffed with references to Werner Herzog documentaries, Stanley Kubrick movies, various raves from world cinema, and so on. (Speaking personally, I’m finding it almost impossible to be less than lavish in my praise for a film which – for crying out loud – includes homages to Peeping Tom and the fifth ever Doctor Who cliffhanger, in the same shot.)

On the other hand, though, once you get past all the film references and dry humour there’s not a very great deal here that you haven’t seen before – and as the film goes on it does turn into something more approaching a conventional tear jerker. Rachel’s leukemia is of the photogenic, soft-focus, cinematic kind, of course.

And perhaps it’s here that the film’s calculatedly awkward and gauche stylings perhaps start to work against it – that title, as well as several other things which are present, appear to be an attempt to stop the film from becoming too sappy and sentimental, to position it as something more elevated – hip, but in an emotionally committed kind of way. Personally I thought the film made a pretty good fist of this, but it may be that the audience that turned out in droves for an unashamedly sentimental weepie like The Fault In Our Stars didn’t much care for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘s mock-cynicism, barely convincing though it is. (They probably didn’t go a bundle for the Werner Herzog references either, come to think of it.)

Certainly, I enjoyed the film a lot – there is much talent and inventiveness on display, along with some genuinely surprising moments – but, certainly as it went on, I found it wasn’t quite having the emotional impact on me that I’d expected, or that the makers would have hoped for. I could appreciate the skill and artistry that had gone into it, but the very nature of the thing as something so clever and knowing and aware of itself stopped me from making a genuine emotional connection with it. Which is ironic, given that avoiding this situation is on one level what the film is actually about. Still, it’s a carefully assembled package that has enough sincerity not to feel actually manipulative.

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