Saban’s Power Rangers

Posted on March 23, 2017 at 5:28 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, language, and for some crude humor
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi peril and violence, some disturbing images, explosions, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 24, 2017
Date Released to DVD: June 26, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B0727PMH49

power rangersWhy why why why why make the popular series for children into a PG-13 movie? Why emphasize that decision in the very first scene with a crude joke about bovine body parts? Why drag the origin story on for an hour so we don’t get to the good stuff about the powers of the Power Rangers until the movie is half over?

These were among the questions I pondered between glances at my watch as I slogged through “Saban’s Power Rangers,” a big-budget theatrical version of the television series created by Haim Saban (originally “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers”), based on the Japanese Super Sentai show about teen superheroes (and using some of its footage).

Our soon-to-be heroes meet in “Breakfast Club”-style detention. There is the handsome quarterback (Dacre Montgomery as Jason), the cheerleader kicked off the squad (Naomi Scott as Kimberly), the self-described crazy loner who cares tenderly for his sick mother (Ludi Lin as Zack), the nerdy guy on the autism spectrum (RJ Cyler as Billy), and the sullen new girl (Becky G. as Trini).

The blah-blah: an ancient civilization perished fighting Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a rogue former Power Ranger who wants to destroy everything. Tens of thousands of years later, our merry band of misfits all happen upon the same power-granting “coins” of different colors (but apparently all the same powers) and learn that their job is to continue the fight, as Rita returns. Their challenge, as she gains her powers from chomping on jewelry and pulling the fillings out of the teeth of homeless people (she feeds on gold), is to learn to use their powers and work as a team (with the only white male Power Ranger as the leader), figuring out how to morph (manifest their primary color-coordinated armor/uniforms) and learning about Rita and her army of rock creatures. They also have access to some very cool Morphin Power Rangers weapon vehicles, but we don’t get enough time to really enjoy them.

Rita’s challenge is to find a last missing infinity stone, I mean crystal, hiding (I am not making this up) in a Krispy Kreme store. I’m not sure if I was the marketing department of Krispy Kreme that I would chose this form of product placement, but, to be fair, they do say the name a lot and a character does stop mid-chaotic fight for the future of the universe to eat a donut. And the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles already have pizza on lockdown.

This uncomfortable mixture of teen angst (Sexting! Disappointing parents!) and cartoonish violence only comes alive when Banks is on screen, clearly having way too much fun swanning around as the embodiment of evil. Bryan Cranston is wasted as an Oz-like talking head and Bill Hader does not have enough to do as a cute little android sensei. The teens are bland and forgettable. The final action sequence departs from the series’ tradition of covering the actors’ faces with the costume (making it easy for them to switch out performers who left or asked for too much money). We see their faces, but it is still hard to remember which one is who.

Long-time fans will get a kick out of glimpsing some of the original stars, hearing a bit of the show’s theme song, and a couple of inside references. But that doesn’t make up for a Power Rangers film that is sadly lacking in any narrative or emotional energy.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi peril and violence with characters injured and killed, explosions, guns, a character impaled, some disturbing images, brief strong language, teen drinking, and crude sexual humor.

Family discussion: Why was it difficult for the Power Rangers to learn how to morph? Why were the Power Rangers all kids who had gotten into trouble?

If you like this, try: the television series and the “Transformers” movies

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Based on a television show DVD/Blu-Ray Stories about Teens Superhero

Table 19

Posted on March 2, 2017 at 5:59 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, drug use, language and some brief nudity
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, no one hurt, medical issues
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 3, 2017
Date Released to DVD: June 13, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B06XYSX6KQ
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2017
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2017

I know. They hate the term. But it is impossible to talk about Mark and Jay Duplass (as writers, anyway, aside from their work as actors, directors, and producers) without the dreaded term “mumblecore,” which was applied to their early microbudget work because of the improvisational, shaggy-dog, millennial-ness of their work. Traces of that remain in “Table 19,” cross-bred with a more conventional romantic comedy, and it turns out to be a welcome blend of sweet and sour. This is not the usual Jennifer/Jessica with a quippy best friend, a meet cute, and a makeover.

We’ve all seen that placecard and most of us have been seated by it: the table for leftover wedding guests who aren’t the family or close friends of either bride or groom but somehow had to be included. Eloise (Anna Kendrick) provides the fellow denizens of the dreaded Table 19 with the inside scoop. Back just a few months earlier, when she and the bride, her oldest friend, were planning everything together, Table 19 was for the people who did not fit in anywhere else, the people who had to be invited but who the hosts were hoping would not make it, still sending a gift from the registry.

The characters may be third-tier in the minds of their hosts, but they are played by top tier comic talent. Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson play a married couple who have fallen into a marital death spiral of bickering that makes them miserable and humiliated, but they cannot seem to find their way out of it. Stephen Merchant is a cousin of the groom who seems unfamiliar with social interactions of any kind. “The Grand Budapest Hotel’s” Tony Revolori is a teenager with raging hormones but no idea of how to talk to girls. June Squibb plays the bride’s first nanny.

And then there is Eloise, once a maid of honor and dating the bride’s brother/best man (Wyatt Russell), but, since they broke up two months earlier, stuck at Table 19, on the other side of the ballroom, near the restrooms.  We know she almost didn’t come; she even started to burn the invitation. But for some reason, she was determined to be there, and there she is, on the wedding table island of misfit toys. A mysterious and handsome man appears and he has an English accent and a way with an aphorism. Could he be her Prince Charming?

Very able performers make up for some story shortcomings, including a too-neat resolution that I’m guessing was recut after test screenings. Kendrick is as always a marvel of precision, heart, and comic timing, so every time things start to go off kilter, we know she will get us safely home.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language and comic mayhem, brief comic nudity, drinking and tipsiness, marijuana, and sexual references including adultery and pregnancy.

Family discussion: Why did Eloise go to the wedding? How did sitting at Table 19 make it possible for her to acknowledge her feelings? What’s your funniest family gathering experience?

If you like this, try: “Rocket Science” with the same director and star

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Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray Romance

Get Out

Posted on February 23, 2017 at 5:44 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references
Profanity: Some strong language including racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and very graphic and scary peril and violence with very disturbing images and sounds including surgical situations, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 24, 2017
Date Released to DVD: June 7, 2017
Copyright Universal 2017
Copyright Universal 2017

Two caveats before I begin the review: First, I am not very knowlegeable about horror films and therefore do not have the context I normally bring to evaluating a film. Second and more important, this movie has complex themes about race and privilege that I do not pretend to have authority to speak to. I strongly recommend that people who are interested in understanding this film read the perspectives of critics who are African-American or people of color, and I will post links to some of the ones I especially admire at the end of this review. With those limitations in mind, here are my thoughts on “Get Out,” in my opinion a superb film on many levels.

Writer/director Jordan Peele, like his “Key and Peele” partner Keegan-Michael Key, is biracial, which gives them both a lifelong experience with being both part of and observer of black and white culture and a lifelong fascination with code-switching, as we saw in their film “Keanu,” written by Peele. Moving from comedy to horror, Peele continues to explore the themes, giving depth and emotional power to a genre film. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, who carelessly purloins historic settings as a shortcut to the audience’s emotional investment so he can get right to the gore, Peele cannily plays the conventions of the genre and the discomfort and hostility about race off of each other.

It is one of the most terrifying prospects of ordinary life: meeting the family of the significant other. This familiarly excruciating prospect can be played for comedy (“Meet the Parents”) or drama (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”), but horror is perhaps its best fit, with room for some comedy and drama as well. The fact that Rose (“Girls” star Allison Williams) has not told her parents that her boyfriend of five months, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is black, adds another layer of tension. She assures him it does not matter. “They would have voted for Obama for a third time if they could!”

Kaluuya gives a star-making performance with help from cinematographer Toby Oliver, who makes this that rarest of movies, one that knows how to light African-Americans, especially those with darker skin, so that we can really see what they bring to the role. Watch his face in the early scenes as Chris navigates the fatuous pleasantries of Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, both excellent), and then the bro-ish thuggery of Rose’s brother, and then the condescending appraisals of the friends who all seem like they are on their way to the yacht club. We see him calibrate each of these interactions, trying to be a good sport, trying to go along, trying to make his girlfriend’s family feel comfortable with him, but starting to lose his patience. One of the film’s many shrewd understandings is the way that a lifetime of having to reassure white people that he is not going to hurt them or make them uncomfortable makes him slow to pick up on or slow to doubt himself about the creepiness of Rose’s family. An early scene, where Chris and Rose get questioned by a highway patrolman after hitting a deer is subtle but sharply drawn. And before you can say “foreshadowing,” Chris is getting a tour of the house and Rose’s dad is explaining that the basement had to be sealed off because of black mold. Hmm. And did I mention the prologue when a black guy walking down a peaceful suburban street is followed and then captured? And that the only person of color beside Chris at the party (the always-great LaKeith Stanfield) is strangely subdued and doesn’t know about fist bumps?

It would be a disservice to say any more about the plot. I won’t spoil the twists. I’ll just say that Peele knows what scares us and how to scare us and make us enjoy it, and gives us a lot to think about about some comedy as well. And that it may be that the scariest thing about the movie is the reminder that it has taken far too long to shine the correct light — literally and figuratively — on stories that should be told because they are just that good.

I recommend these reviews: Travis Hopson, Aisha Harris, Jeffrey Lyles, Kevin Sampson, Stephen Thrasher, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Odie Henderson and Stephen Boone. Also, this piece on conversations with interracial couples who have seen the film.

Parents should know that this is a horror film with theme of racism and exploitation, extended peril and violence including gun, choking, and bloody, graphic, and explicit medical images and sounds, characters injured and killed, suicide, references to sad loss of a parent, some strong language including racist epithets, sexual references and a non-explicit situation, and smoking.

Family discussion: When does the story turn from insensitive to offensive to sinister? What makes Chris decide that he has to leave?

If you like this, try: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Wicker Man” (original version) and “The Stepford Wives”

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DVD/Blu-Ray Horror Race and Diversity Thriller

John Wick Chapter 2

Posted on February 9, 2017 at 5:25 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol, drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very intense and graphic violence, many characters injured and killed, suicide, many disturbing images, guns, chases, knives
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 10, 2017
Date Released to DVD: June 13, 2017
Copyright 2017 Summit
Copyright 2017 Summit

A little bit of a spoiler alert here: this time the dog does not die. Other than that, “John Wick Chapter 2” is pretty much what you saw in the first “John Wick.” Once again, this is a movie about a good guy who happens to be an assassin, going after the bad guy assassins, in an assassin demimondaine with cool details but mostly a lot of assassining. Director Chad Stahelski, a martial arts instructor turned stuntman in films like “The Crow” and “The Matrix” makes these films from a stuntman perspective. The intricately choreographed stunts are shot like a Fred Astaire dance number. That means the camera sits relatively still and lets the action tell the story rather than tricking it all up with quick cuts and fancy angles. And the stunt settings are imaginative, including ancient Roman catacombs and an art installation that is like a super-sized funhouse mirror display.

In the first film, retired assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is mourning the death of his wife, the woman for whom he quit being a paid killer so they could live happily ever after together. She had arranged for an adorable puppy to be delivered to him after her death. The spoiled, hot-headed son of a crime boss kills Wick’s dog and takes his car, so Wick gets out a sledgehammer to smash up the cement he laid down metaphorically and literally over his arsenal and stockpile of gold coins, the preferred currency for Assassin World. Some 70 kills later, including the son and his dad, the movie ended.

Chapter 2 has Wick getting his car back, and when we see him laying down that cement again, we know it’s time for the doorbell to ring.

It turns out you don’t get to retire twice. An old colleague shows up with a marker. And, as hotel for assassins proprietor Winston (Ian McShane) helpfully reminds us, there are only two unbreakable rules in Assassin World: no spilling blood in the Assassin Hotel chain known as Continental (we’ll overlook that tussle with Ms. Perkins in the first film), and all markers must be paid. Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) wants Wick to kill his sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), so he can take her place on the Assassin World ruling council. Wick says no. Santino burns his house down.

No time to stop to dig up the arsenal again. Lucky for us, as this means some of the film’s highlights, when Wick meets with his weapons “sommelier” (“Spy’s” Peter Serafinowicz) and his tailors, expert in the art of exquisite fit and bulletproof fabric. Then it’s off to the catacombs for a rather unexpected encounter with Gianna, followed by an Assassin World APB when Santino offers a $7 million reward for killing John Wick.

So, basically another FPS game, as everyone comes after Wick, including Common and Ruby Rose, and he goes after everyone. There has to be a Chapter 3, right?

The details are stylish and a lot of fun, especially Lance Reddick’s imperturbable concierge, a room full of 1940’s-style plugboard and vacuum tube female operators handing out assassination assignments, Rose’s acrobatics and her sign-language threats (she does not speak), and everyone’s exotic tattoos. (Wick’s, usually translated as “Fortune Favors the Bold” is really more like “It is only the strong that the Goddess Fortuna comes to save.”) It is delightful to see Reeves paired again (briefly) with his “Matrix” sensei, Laurence Fishburne, here presiding over an intelligence network of apparently homeless people. It nicely balances the gory images to keep us in a world where we are relieved that the local cop (the always welcome Thomas Sadoski) appreciates that all this killing has nothing to do with the normal rules. Contrary to Winston, in this world there is only one rule: don’t get in the way of entertainment, and this movie obeys.

Parents should know that this film includes constant strong and very gory violence with guns, knives, fights, suicide, many characters injured and killed, many disturbing images, very strong language, and briefs nudity.

Family discussion: Why are the two rules important? Should there be any others?

If you like this, try: the first “John Wick” and “Shoot ‘em Up”

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Action/Adventure DVD/Blu-Ray Series/Sequel

The Ringer

Posted on December 20, 2015 at 3:49 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language and some drug references.
Profanity: Some crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Scenes in bar, character chews a cigar
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, serious injury played for humor
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 23, 2015
Date Released to DVD: March 23, 2016

The single most interesting aspect of The Ringer, a movie about a man who pretends to be disabled so that he can compete in the Special Olympics, is that the movie was made in cooperation with and with the endorsement of the Special Olympics organization, and 150 Special Olympics athletes appear in the film.

Unfortunately, the story of how the movie got made is much more interesting than the formulaic story of the movie itself. Steve (Johnny Knoxville), a nice non-disabled guy who needs money to help someone get an operation pretends to be “high-functioning developmentally disabled” to compete in the Special Olympics. He assumes that as a former high school track athlete, he will have no trouble winning, so that his gambler uncle (Brian Cox) can win a huge bet, paying off his own gambling debts and getting the money for an operation. Of course Steve (1) learns that he is the one with the more serious disability, and (2) meets a very pretty volunteer at the Special Olympics (Katherine Heigl as Lynn). You know the rest.

The one thing that is not formula in this movie is its portrayal of the developmentally disabled athletes as loyal, dedicated, smarter than most people think, and very funny. While the non-disabled people in the movie are often clueless, inept, or corrupt, the Special Olympians are on to Steve almost immediately, and they don’t just out-smart him; they out-nice him, too. They become the first real friends he has ever had.

This aspect of the movie provides some fresh and funny moments, but too much of the film is taken up with sub-par “jokes” like Steve’s uncle registering him for the competition under the name of a notorious serial killer and a man having three of his fingers cut off in a lawnmower. The developmentally disabled cast members show considerable charm, especially Edward Barbanell as Steve’s roommate, Billy.   Barbanell contributed the movie’s funniest line and delivers it with exquisite comic timing. But a lackluster script and charm-free performances by Knoxville and Cox don’t do justice to the Special Olympians in the story or in the cast. Furthermore, despite its best intentions, the use of non-disabled actors to play disabled characters in many of the key roles gives the film an air of condescension that is never fully overcome. I’m glad the Special Olympians have been recognized in a mainstream Hollywood movie; I just wish it was the movie they deserved.

Parents should know that the movie has some crude language and crude humor, including getting hit in the crotch. Characters drink (scenes in a bar) and smoke (Steve’s uncle is constantly chewing on a cigar).
Families who see this movie should talk about friends and family members with disabilties and how to prevent prejudice against them.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy an old movie called Miss Tatlock’s Millions, in which a man pretends to be a long-lost heir who is developmentally disabled so that he can get the money. They will also enjoy Stuck on You (some mature material), directed by the Farrelly brothers, who produced this film. They cast disabled performers in all of their movies and the credit sequence in Stuck on You has a lovely speech by one of them about how much the experience meant to him. A scholarly article from Disability Studies Quarterly explores the portrayal of disabled people in the Farrellys’ movies.

Families who see this movie should talk about what Steve learned from his experience and why.

Families who want to learn more about how this movie was made can learn about what it takes to be a Special Olympian.   I recommend this report from the magazine of the Special Olympics organization and this statement from the heads of the organization about what they hoped the film would accomplish:

“Laughing at a person and laughing with a person are very different forms of humor, and it is our belief that this comedy will give audiences the chance to laugh with Special Olympics athletes while appreciating their joy and wisdom. Equally importantly, we believe that the stigmas presented in the early scenes of the movie will be seen as folly by the end of The Ringer. Many of us know all too well how hurtful insensitive words can be. Special Olympics hopes people seeing the movie will be inspired to reach out to people with intellectual disabilities and say, to quote Special Olympics athlete Troy Daniels, ‘Come sit by me’ – a simple gesture that reflects a world of acceptance and mutual respect.”

The Special Olympics, founded by Eunice Shriver, the sister of President John F. Kennedy, now serves more than 1.7 million developmentally disabled athletes in more than 200 programs in more than 150 countries.

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Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray Sports
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