Friday, March 24, 2017

Review | "Power Rangers"

The original "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" series is one of those pieces of my childhood of which I am under no rose-colored illusions about its quality. A goofy recut of the hit Japanese series, "Super Sentai," managed to turn a single formula (evil alien creates monster, Power Rangers overpower monster, evil alien makes monster grow, power rangers call on Megazord to defeat monster) into an 800+ episode phenomenon. Yet looking back on the series' roots, it's clear what a campy, goofy property this really was. Gritty reboots of 80's and 90's properties are all the rage right now, capitalizing on millennial nostalgia for the movies and shows they grew up with.

As a childhood fan of the show, I approached the remake with trepidation. Would it be a pointlessly gritty retread, the kind of edgy-for-edginess-sake reboot that tries way too hard to appeal to newer, more jaded generation (far too cool for the brightly colored camp of the original)  while capitalizing on millennial nostalgia? Or would it be just a silly as its predecessors?

From L to R: Naomi Scott as "Kimberly," RJ Cyler as "Billy," Dacre Montgomery as "Jason," Ludi Lin as "Zack" and Becky G as "Trini" in SABAN'S POWER RANGERS. Photo credit: Kimberley French.
Interestingly enough, director Dean Israelite (Project Almanac) walks a fine line between both scenarios. His Power Rangers is under no illusions about how goofy its premise is, and as a result never takes itself too seriously. It's certainly a more grounded take on the material, without the over-the-top camp that made the original so singularly bizarre. But it it manages to keep its tongue planted firmly in its cheek without being an ironic parody of itself. It knows it's silly, and embraces it; charting a new path and a  new tone without straying too far from the foundations it was built upon. The rangers are still five "teenagers with attitude." In this case, five screw-ups who land themselves in detention before finding themselves in a quarry one night where they discover 5 mysterious power coins that appear to give them super powers. Underneath the quarry, they stumble upon an ancient spaceship, where a robot named Alpha 5 (Bill Hader) has been waiting with an alien named Zordon (Bryan Cranston), who is trapped in the walls of the ship. Zordon tells them that they have been chosen to be the Power Rangers, destined to protect the world from Rita Repulsa (a delightfully over-the-top Elizabeth Banks), a former ranger from Zordon's own prehistoric team, who seeks to resurrect her monster, Goldar, and destroy the world. In order to defeat her, these five teenagers from all different walks of life must rely on each other, because only together as one team can they defeat the evil sorceress and bring peace to the world.

Power Rangers' theme feels especially timely. It was certainly always there (if a bit on the nose in its color assignments), but in the 2017 take there's a very blatant theme of strength through unity, where people of every color and creed must put aside their differences and come together for the common good to become something much better than themselves. The team is nothing without any single one of its members. The plot is pure superhero pulp, of course, but Israelite has a clear love for this material. Zordon, Alpha, Rita, Goldar, and the Rangers may only bear passing resemblance to their Clinton-era counterparts, but the un-pretentious spirit of the original series is alive and well - only new and improved.

Trini (Becky G, left) and Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks, right) in POWER RANGERS. Photo Credit: Kimberley French
Sure, it's got more dutch-angles than you can shake a stick at, to let us know how edgy and new it is, and the 5 rangers are mostly bland and anonymous (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl scene-stealer RJ Cyler is the only real standout as the autistic Blue Ranger Billy Cranston), but there's just something so refreshingly un-ironic about it. Sure, it's a major visual departure from the TV series, but it really needed to be to be taken seriously. It's also practically a feature length advertisement for Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, but the product placement is so hilariously random and winking that it works in spite of itself.

That's part of what makes Power Rangers so deeply entertaining - its refusal to be a gritty, serious-minded take on something so ridiculous, and its equally admirable refusal to condescend to that same material. Israelite is fully aware of how aggressively un-cool the original show is to modern sensibilities, but he doesn't leave its sense of humor behind. Those who didn't grow up with the show may find it a bit silly, but you almost have to admire the gleeful abandon with which it dives into this universe. It's a somewhat radical re-imagining, but it just works, managing to pay homage to its roots while crafting a new version of the familiar mythology. It's a wildly entertaining piece of fan service that has no illusions about what it is or what it's doing, embracing its inherent ridiculousness with an infectious sense of fun and excitement. It's a kids' movie for children of the 90's, and fans really couldn't have asked for more. This critic, for one, loved every minute of it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

POWER RANGERS | Directed by Dean Israelite | Stars Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Becky G, Ludi Lin, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Banks, Bill Hader | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, language, and for some crude humor | Opens today in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Soundtrack Review | "Logan"

James Mangold's Logan is not your typical superhero movie. While my review of the film itself will appear in Thursday's print edition of The Dispatch, I wanted to highlight one of the film's strongest elements on its own - Marco Beltrami's unconventional score.

The character of Wolverine has never had a strong thematic identity to carry him through the eight X-Men films in which he has appeared, and while Beltrami also scored Mangold's The Wolverine in 2013, he starts with a clean slate here. Right away it is clear that this will not be a typical superhero score. Beltrami starts things off with a simple piano motif in Main Titles, it's minor chord progressions reflecting Logan's loneliness. The introduction of a wailing harmonica at around the 1:30 mark announces the film's western influences, recalling the spaghetti western scores of Ennio Morricone.

Much of the score dwells in the background. Laura has an eerie kind of ambiance to it (recalling the quieter moments of Beltrami's western score, The Homesman), while The Grim Reavers and Old Man Logan have a more dissonant sound. Old Man Logan brings back Logan's piano theme from the main titles, establishing the melody as the grizzled Wolverine's primary musical identity. Alternate Route to Mexico really kicks the score into high gear, with a suspenseful string line that accompanies Logan's attempts to evade detection by mysterious agents who are looking for mutants.


Beltrami does fall back into some generic sounding action material, as heard in bass-heavy tracks like That's Not a Choo-Choo, X-24, and Farm Aid that rely on synths and pulsing rhythms, not unlike Beltrami's work on Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma. Things get interesting, however, in El Limo-nator, which introduces a honky-tonk piano into the action, reinforcing the score's western flair . The thematic material for Laura, Logan's young charge, begins to take greater shape in Gabriella's Video, as Logan discover's Laura's true identity. Minimalism is the name of the game here, with its use of ambient synths and wind-chimes, but the effect is lovely. It reappears in Goodnight Moon, grounding the score in a kind of quiet humanity.

It's interesting that Beltrami chose to anchor the score with a piano, especially as Logan's main identity. There's something familiar about the piano that speaks of home and family, and Beltrami uses that to his advantage here, giving us a haunting melodic texture (rather than a hummable theme) to represent the grizzled old hero. The piano motif reappears in You Can't Break the Mould and Up to Eden, before bringing the score to a heartrendingly restrained finale in Don't Be What They Made You. Without a recognizable thematic identity from the past, Beltrami chooses instead to bid farewell to Wolverine with a quiet and aching piano solo, before rounding out the score with a full presentation of Laura's theme in Eternum, with its western piano and harmonica accents. The album is closed out by three meandering bonus tracks that are intriguing from an orchestration standpoint, but ultimately add little to the album.

Superhero scores tend to be defined by their action music. And while there are some strong action tracks here - Forest Fight is the closest the score gets to grand-scale action scoring, before slipping back into the atonal suspense of Logan vs. X-24, the quiet moments are what really define Logan. Don't come to this score expecting larger than life heroics. Like the film itself, it is a dark and introspective score. But it's also one of the most unconventional and effective superhero scores  to come along in a long time. It may not always be an easy listen, but Beltrami wisely chose to give the character a harsh and gritty musical identity, whose rough exterior belies a tender heart. It never overstates its purpose, but the effect resonates long after the credits roll.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available for digital download. On CD March 31.