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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Thursday, March 30, 2017

I...Actually Liked the New Power Rangers Movie?

Apparently, I’m just going to be writing defenses of every at least vaguely-genre-ish, fairly-big budget action movie that sees semi-polarizing reviews from now on.* Last weekend, I saw the new Power Rangers movie, and I…actually liked it? That was probably the last thing I expected, and yet, it still somehow happened.

*Behind-the-scenes factoid: I came this close to writing one for X-Men: Apocalypse last year.

I mean, I watched the series back when I was little (a decade and a half or more ago at this point), but it’s not something I followed very closely as I got older (I could tell you it was still running, but that was about it), and I am under no illusions today about its quality. If not for rainy weather, a cheap ticket, and some sense of morbid curiosity, I might not have seen it at all. But I did, and it’s become probably my most surprising film of the young year.

My apprehension sprung mostly from early trailers selling the movie as some sort of dark, grim, serious take on the material, which seems like the worst idea possible. After all, at its core, Power Rangers is about a bunch of twenty-somethings pretending to be teenagers fighting ridiculous monsters in colorful costumes, then fighting the same monsters only larger, this time in colorful giant robots. That is the last thing that sounds like it needs a “serious, gritty” adaptation. But those trailers did the actual movie a disservice, as they did not fully capture the movie’s actual tone, which is the key to why it works.

See, the movie itself is “serious” in a way, just not in the way that I’ve been using; rather, it takes its characters seriously. Instead of giving everything a somber tone, it instead takes the characters totally earnestly, which is why they not only work, but are also one of the strong-points of the film.

I’ve seen some people say that the movie feels “embarrassed” to be a Power Rangers movie, and I totally disagree. This is, after all, a movie that not only fully indulges in multi-color battle suit martial arts battles and giant robot/monster clashes*, but even recreates shots from the original theme song and intro, complete with an arrangement of the awesome-but-totally-over-the-top theme song playing.

*Not only does it have giant robots fighting a giant monster, it also has it in clear daylight; as much as I loved Pacific Rim, the constant rain/nighttime aesthetic made it a bit of a headache to follow the action at times. None of the fight scenes here quite top those, but there’s something to be said for not straining your eyes too.

No, this isn’t “embarrassed” to be anything. Instead, it knows that the things that make Power Rangers, Power Rangers probably won’t translate to a two-hour movie, and something must be added. Dean Israelite and company decide the way to build up the story is to dig into the characters a bit.

If we’re being honest, the sort of characters used in the show are usually not interesting enough to support a two-hour movie. That’s not to say the movie’s Power Rangers are the most well-developed, compelling, three-dimensional characters, but they are definitely better than the original show, given that I had my mind blown while looking back and realizing that Rangers were sometimes swapped out for new casts mid-season. I have no memories of this; the characters just weren't distinct enough for me to feel especially strongly about the changes.

Instead, the young actors here turn in memorable and instantly-likable performances, to the point where I would be okay with more time being spent on just them hanging out together. They have a real chemistry. And the character arcs given to the Rangers are a little angsty and melodramatic…but they’re also playing teenagers, so it feels more understandable, and the actors do a pretty good job at getting you invested. And moreover, their reactions don’t feel too disproportionate, given the struggles they each face. I’d say that overall, the five Rangers feel like a good representation of today’s youth, in representation (even building off the tradition of the original), problems, attitude, and so on. The overall effect is that the movie feels something like “The CW’s Kung Fu X-Men, with a $100-million+ budget and a Giant Robot Fight Finale”, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

That’s not to say the movie is perfect. If you aren’t a fan of the over-the-top ridiculous that the series entails, this will do nothing to sell you on that. If you can’t stand teenage melodrama stories, same thing applies. On the less-dependent-on-personal-taste end, the third quarter of the movie moves away from the melodramatic and into the straight serious, which…doesn’t work as well, and it comes close to falling apart before recovering, and then we follow it up with the big action sequence, so it mostly washes the bad taste out of your mouth. Still, I sort of wish that third quarter had been cut down to give the first half more room to breathe. It feels rushed at times.

In the “not actually a problem, but I’ve seen people complain about it anyway” department, the heroes technically don’t go full “Power Rangers” until the last half-hour, but I’m okay with that, as it gives the conclusion an epic feel. My general stance is that if your superhero story isn’t interesting when the hero(es) isn’t in costume and fighting villains, it’s not a good story. And the melodramatic real lives here feel very at home in the world of comics and superheroes as a whole.

And one final (spoiler-free) note on the finale, while we’re on the subject: I can’t express how relieved I am that this movie tells a complete story. Sure, from what I’ve read, Saban is planning on making at least five more movies, which…may be a little much, but okay, sure, whatever, that’s just the day and age that we’re living in now, but the important thing is it doesn't bleed into this movie. There are small sequel hooks, but they’re the good kind, the sort that feels natural, and more like a shout-out or reference to the backstory that could easily be ignored if the creators decide to go a different direction rather than crucial scaffolding being set up to support an entirely different movie. Even Marvel, whose movies I generally enjoy, suffer from this at times. Instead, Power Rangers knows to tell a single complete story rather than leave all of its plot threads dangling for “To Be Continued”s.

So, overall, I’m definitely pleasantly surprised here. It’s by no means perfect, but if every major studio blockbuster were of this quality, we’d be much better off overall. The characters are interesting enough that I would be super interested in spending more time with them, which is always a good sign, and it delivers on all the awesome silliness you would want from a Power Rangers movie. If/When Power Rangers 2 comes out, I’m totally on board. The series seems to be in good hands.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Review

I finally finished The First Fifteenth Lives of Harry August by Claire North (the pen name of Catherine Webb) and figured I would take a few moments to jot down my thoughts on it. Let’s break this down into three sections.

The shortest review:
Yep, I liked it. Check it out if you get a chance!

The not-quite-as-short review: For those of you who need things like plot details or specific reasons a reviewer liked things, fine, I guess I’ll elaborate. As you might have been able to guess from the title, the titular Harry August is a special individual born in 1919, one who, upon dying, finds himself back at the moment of his birth with all of his memories from the life that he just died in. He meanders through life (er, lives) trying to figure out what this means and what to do about it before finally meeting a mysterious club of similar individuals. And after discovering this secret society, he learns something even more shocking: the end of the world is accelerating. Something has affected the future, and is drawing the apocalypse closer and closer to the modern day. And with this, we have our hook for the plot.

In actuality, the book drops this last bit of info immediately with no context before backtracking to explain, so the proper investigation into what’s destroying the Earth faster and faster comes sufficiently later in the story. A lot of time is spent explaining the nature of Harry’s ability and what he does with his many lives, followed by setting up the world and history of the Chronus Club.

A quick search online tells me that not everyone is fond of this fact, but I actually liked it quite a bit. It sets a nice, leisurely pace that gives you all the details necessary to feel immersed in this intriguing society. No part of it feels extraneous, and despite covering a lot of ground, it actually moves rather quickly, like a brisk but winding trek through beautiful and unexplored territory.

And the layout, which bounces between lives in a more thematic rather than chronological way, keeps you on your toes. Despite all the overlapping lives to keep track of, it’s actually pretty straightforward once you get a feel for things, and North does a good job of knowing right when the reader will have everything under their thumb and can take new, large developments on for consideration.

It helps that Harry makes for an interesting narrator, something of a curious philosopher who is forced into frequent deep introspection due to his condition; he’s too different to fit in with the “linears” (those who experience time once, then die), especially those of his era, but more inquisitive and restless than his peers. He takes on a wider range of experiences in his many lives than most of them, which gives each life a distinct feel. This has the interesting effect of giving a story with a very minimal main cast the feel of a more sprawling story with a wider, more spread-out cast. And each one being many of the same characters in different situations makes it feel like a series of “What If” stories. I’m a big fan of both things.

About halfway through the book, once the conflict proper has been brought to the forefront, the story shifts into something more chronological and driving, something of a multi-generational, science-fiction “Count of Monte Cristo”-esque revenge tale where we get to see a methodical and cunning protagonist slowly lay down the pieces to a large plan, which I am once again all for in a narrative.

If this still all sounds good to you, then you should definitely give it a shot. If you want to read any more, though, stick around for part three…

The even-longer-still-but-still-short review, this part of which contains plot spoilers, so maybe hold off if you want to keep it all a surprise: Some other stuff that I want to discuss about the novel: