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Oscar-winner Melissa Leo plays atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who infuriated people across America when she successfully sued to stop having religious prayers in public schools. She became a major public figure, often appearing in the media to provoke or debate people of faith. She and her son and granddaughter were kidnapped and murdered.

For more information about her, see this documentary:

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

Copyright LionsGate 2016

Copyright LionsGate 2016

Director David Batty is best known for documentaries, but he also made four simultaneous films about the life of Jesus (played by Selva Rasalingam) with every word from each of the gospels. I spoke to him about “The Gospel of Mark,” now available on DVD.

What is the most important thing you look for when you’re casting someone to play the role of Jesus?

Well, it’s somebody who looks and feels like Jesus. That’s the sort of silly, obvious thing. I think itm means somebody who has a presence. There are two things that for me you need to have for Jesus: one, he’s got to have physical presence so that if he’s in a room or a large scene with a lot of people you know immediately who Jesus is. And secondly, you’ve got to have a bit of a spiritual presence and that comes from being a good actor I think. I think the other thing actually which is important as well is the one thing that has always bugged me about other films about Jesus is that you often go for a sort of very Aryan white guys. There’s a sort of perception that Jesus was born in Europe or America. Well, he wasn’t. He was Jewish and he was Middle Eastern and so I wanted somebody who felt Middle Eastern. Bizarrely the actor that we used, Selva Rasalingam, who has now become a good friend of mine actually, he’s British but his background is actually Tamil. I think his father was Tamil, his mother was English or the other way around, but he has that Semitic feel to him, Selva, Semitic being Jewish, Middle East and that was very important to me.

How is the Gospel of Mark different from the other Gospels?

This is one film of four. What sort of fascinated me about the gospels is that it’s probably the only time in history where you have four full biographies of the same guy. They’ve all got similarities but they’ve all got differences and that’s what makes them interesting. The way I’ve always looked at it is a bit like four witnesses to an accident. If you ask four people who witnessed an accident to describe it they would all describe it in a slightly different way because they’ve each got a different angle and that’s what makes it interesting because you then get four different takes on the same life.

Now when we come specifically to Mark — it is obviously the shortest of the Gospels, it’s the first that’s generally thought by scholars to be the earliest although we always say “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” it should actually Mark first and John the latest. Mark for me is sort of “action man Jesus.” It’s the sort of Jesus as superhero if you like because it’s a very quite breathless gospel. Things just happen bang, bang, bang, bang, one after another. It has its own pace. It’s got a lot of detail about his ministry but it keeps the story really quite short and sharp. I think that’s really what distinguishes it from the others. It was quite refreshing doing it from the others because it was so short and sharp because you know some of the others, they can get quite long and because parts of the ethos of the project that we were doing was that we could not take anything out. We have to do everything. With some of the longer ones after a while it gets a little tough but I think Mark was nice to come to because it was just woof, straight off, go.

Mark has a lot of focus on the miracles and not much on the origin story, isn’t that right?

That’s true; that’s what I mean when I say He is sort of an action man. He’s constantly going from one miracle, one event, to another; it’s like a series of very short sharp events building up this character who is a miracle worker.

Tell me a little bit about some of the research you did to ground it in history as well as in the text.

My background is documentaries and I’ve done a lot of films about the history of the Bible and such like so I knew the territory quite well. Our aim was always we wanted to be as authentic as we possibly could, hence when we were choosing the locations and so forth, one of the big things was “Where do you shoot this to be as authentic as possible?” A lot of people say, “Why don’t you shoot it in Israel itself? Well, Israel is quite a small country, very much a modern country now, a lot of the sites are sort of polluted by modern stuff. We looked through other countries that looked very similar. North Africa had a very similar vibe to Israel and we eventually hit home Morocco. A lot of Bible films have been shot there so there were a lot of sets that were already built. That was handy for us but more importantly I think the landscape really does look like what most people say first century Palestine looked like. It’s dusty and hot but it still has got olive groves. A lot of the villages particularly when you get out to the wilder parts of Morocco are still mud built, very simple. And also the people there looked very Biblical.

Everybody else apart from Selva was cast in Morocco and one worry I had was that we would bring an outside actor in and he would stick out like a sore thumb, he just wouldn’t feel like part of this community but they felt very much like he looked and because Morocco is not a Western country, a lot of the people look very natural, not polished. They have blemishes, bad teeth, they have sort of little tics and things that you’d spend a lot of time trying to create but they were already there. That was very nice.

The other big thing in terms of research that I wanted to do — as I understood it all the gospels originally were oral documents. They were passed down orally and then they were written down fairly late, some of them 100 years after the events and the more I talk to experts they say the reason why they were passed down orally is they were actually performed. People would have a story of a miracle or healing or something and around the campfire they would sit down and they would tell the story and it would be performed. And so, what I wanted to do was sort of bring that sense to it, trying to make it as authentic as possible. That is the way we should consume the Bible, as a performance not as a sort of read document. It’s something that needs to be done in public and experienced. And that was one of the things I would have in my mind when I was making the film.

Did you film all four at once?

We made a decision early on that we weren’t going to do four separate shoots. Jesus only had one life but it was four different perspectives on that life. So, what I didn’t want to do was to take each event and then film it four times.

We would film it once and some of the times we would have two cameras because that is the nature of how movies are made with multiple takes until you’ve got the particular one you wanted. I tried to replicate takes so that when I came to edit I would always have slightly different views depending on which gospel we were telling. So I re-cut each piece slightly differently, to make the scene shorter, longer, maybe try and alter the angle at which we see something happen just to sort of give that sense that the point of view that you were getting whether you were watching Matthew Mark Luke or John was slightly different, because presumably that is what happened with Jesus supposedly based on first-hand witnesses who were supposedly at these events but it was not the same one for each.

Tell me what you wanted from the music.

It was all composed. We tried to give it a different feel, with Mark because Mark has a sort of pacier feel to it and the music should add that. If you’ve got John which was sort of a much more cerebral character study, it’s sort of slower and bigger and maybe grander music. I think that was always my thinking on each of them, is that what we decided from the beginning — what’s the character of this gospel? Well then each of the elements needs to conform to that character.

I am really enjoying being a part of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ panel for their new Movie of the Week feature. This week’s pick is the touching and entertaining “Their Finest,” about filmmakers in WWII England, starring Bill Nighy, Gemma Arterton, and Sam Claflin.

Each week, AWFJ will pick a movie of particular interest to women, either people of the people behind the camera or the story itself. Be sure to check out each week’s selection.