Monday 31 July 2017

Power Rangers, Wakefield, and The Incredible Jessica James: Your Week In Film (July 31-August 6)

No, no Power Rangers: Yet another reboot for the blockbuster scrapheap

This week's best and worst in UK home entertainment on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. The films featured here are all available to buy, rent or stream now, unless otherwise stated.

Ratings guide: WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

Above anything else, a Power Rangers movie should be fun. In fact, it should be fun with a capital F. It should also be fast-moving, full of quips and jokes, and clever little nods to the original TV series and their Super Sentai roots. It should be stuffed with action from beginning to end, and our team of heroes should be suited up and kicking weird alien bottom inside the first half-hour. It should be no more than 100 minutes long, yet its army of young fans should bounce out of the cinema as high as kites, having experienced a visual sugar rush like no other. In short, it really shouldn't be anything at all like director Dean Israelite's Power Rangers (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) W, which is angsty, interminable and deathly dull. The only reason it isn't my least favourite film of the year so far is because Assassin's Creed exists.

We're on Earth millions of years ago, and Bryan Cranston - yes, that Bryan Cranston - is Zordon, the Red Ranger whose original team are betrayed by the Green Ranger, Rita Repulsa. To destroy Rita and stop her universe-conquering plans, he sacrifices himself and all life on the planet (including the dinosaurs), hiding five special Power Coins as insurance, just in case she ever returns. Cut to the present-day and a team of high-school misfits discover not only the coins but also the old Rangers' spaceship, complete with Zordon, whose consciousness has been downloaded into the vessels' computer system (very handy for purposes of exposition). Suffice to say, Rita (Elizabeth Banks) stages a comeback and our team of troubled teens have to prove themselves worthy of stepping into the hallowed Power Ranger suits so they can stop her evil schemes all over again.

Even with Ken Loach in the director's chair and Daniel Day Lewis as its star, no film containing characters called Rita Repulsa, Zordon, Alpha 5, and Goldar is ever going to be taken seriously, so quite why this film adaptation of a TV show that was every bit as campy as the 1960s' Batman needs to play it so straight - like some super-powered Breakfast Club - is beyond me. I like the fact our gang of would-be Rangers is diverse - an autistic African-American, a Chinese-American, and a young woman questioning her sexuality, but it's undermined by the lumpen nature of Israelite's storytelling. The film's biggest no-no is how long it takes for our protagonists to actually get into costume (or, in this po-faced version, armour) and swing into action. By the time they'd finally suited up - some 90 minutes in - I was checking my watch at regular intervals. The last half-hour at least delivers a passable blockbuster finale featuring Rita, Goldar, and all the Zords you can handle, although the special effects are pretty run of the mill for this kind of caper, and the Krispy Kreme product placement is unforgivable.

Zord of doom: Dean Israelite's film takes forever to get going  

Viewers of US TV's political satire shows will recognise the funny, self-assured and very tall Jessica Williams from The Daily Show. Apparently, she was one of those offered the full-time presenting gig when Jon Stewart decided to hang up his spurs in 2015, but turned it down to move her career off in a different direction. The first fruits of that decision can be found in likeable rom-com The Incredible Jessica James (Netflix) WW, in which she stars as the titular New Yorker, an aspiring playwright on the rebound from a long-term relationship (with Lakeith Stanfield's Damon). Her friend (Noël Wells) sets her up on a blind date with Chris O'Dowd's recently-divorced app designer, Boone, and the pair conduct a low-key romance of sorts while trying to work out their feelings for their exes.

Incredible does get a lot right. Despite her heartbreak, Jessica's hunt for romantic fulfilment isn't her main goal; it plays second fiddle to her desire to be a writer - a nice change of focus for a rom-com even in this day and age. Also, little to nothing is made of the interracial nature of her relationship with O'Dowd. In fact, there isn't a single joke based upon it, which is commendable and surprising (although Adam Sandler's Sandy Wexler managed the same feat earlier in the year). Williams and O'Dowd are perfectly charming leads, too, their seeming lack of chemistry perfect for a film about two mismatched people with unresolved issues in their personal lives. We like the idea of them as a couple, yes, but don't believe for a moment that either's future happiness depends upon it.

All that said, writer/director James C Strouse's movie isn't perfect and far from Incredible. An hilarious opening scene aside, its script just isn't funny enough, and, for someone who constantly tells us how much she loves the theatre, somehow I never fully believed in Williams' character. Perhaps if we'd actually seen or heard something from one of her plays it would have helped, especially when we're being asked to root for her talent and big career goal. 

Jess friends: Williams and O'Dowd have their ups and downs

Bryan Cranston has done some terrible old guff since Breaking Bad finished (Godzilla, Why Him and the aforementioned Power Rangers), but Wakefield (DVD and VOD) WWW marks a sterling return to form for the man who was Walter White. Here, he plays Howard Wakefield, a high-flying attorney who, feeling increasingly estranged from his wife and twin daughters, fakes his own disappearance. Instead of changing his identity and running off to Canada with a woman half his age, however, he holes up in his garage and spies on his family through binoculars. Despite having a lovely house only a few metres away, Wakefield lives like a vagrant, foraging through bins for food and clothes, all the while becoming filthier, shabbier and lonelier.

Based on a 2008 short story by E L Doctorow, there are certainly shades of Walter White here, although the secret Wakefield is keeping from his family isn't quite in the same ball park as being a murderous drugs kingpin. Wakefield is certainly every bit as arrogant as Heisenberg, his masculinity every bit as toxic. Hilariously, he's convinced he's the hero of his own story, despite a mountain of evidence suggesting otherwise. Events are shown exclusively from his point of view - the character even provides a voiceover - and yet he still manages to come across as a tantrum-throwing man-child who simply doesn't deserve the family and job he has.

You wonder at first if he has suffered some kind of nervous breakdown. But, no, this is a man out to punish his wife and kids - the former for supposedly flirting with other men, the latter for ignoring him. It's a fascinating and brave character study of someone spectacularly unsympathetic. Director Robin Swicord (who has mostly worked as a screenwriter previously) creates two convincing, contrasting worlds - the warm and lively family home in which Wakefield's wife (Jennifer Garner) and her daughters continue to reside after the disappearance, and the titular character's dank, cobwebby garage. It's an obvious but nevertheless powerful metaphor for the huge gulf between them, as well as their contrasting states of mind.  

Wake up call: Cranston is back to his best in an unusual drama

Finally, I imagine Whit Stillman comedy Damsels In Distress (MUBI) WWW would delight half the people reading this blog, and cause the other half to throw stuff at their TV screens. Divisive is probably the word for it. If you enjoyed the writer/director's Love & Friendship and The Last Days Of Disco, you will lap up this college-campus-set tale of a group of self-important young women, led by Greta Gerwig's insufferable but fragile Violet. But I'd be lying if I said the 2011 film wasn't incredibly arch and perhaps even a bit smug. It is, however, frequently very funny, and clearly an inspiration for Noah Baumbach's excellent Mistress America (2015), which features Gerwig in a similar role.

What I shall be watching this week: It looks like it's going to lose a ton of money, but I can't wait to see Luc Besson's Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, which opens in the UK on Wednesday.

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