Annie Hall (1977)

23 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let’s address the elephant in the room first: Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” won the Best Picture Oscar instead of “Star Wars.” There’s not much I can add to that, so let’s move on.

Well…maybe there is. I’m not going to act like I can’t understand why “Annie Hall” took home the award instead of the ever-popular “Star Wars” (which is one of my favorite films, so calm down). “Annie Hall” was more than just a typical romantic comedy. Hell, it was the 1970s, when typical romantic comedies were the rarity until the 1990s, when “When Harry Met Sally” set a new standard in 1989…thus resulting in the “typical romantic comedies” I can think of, now that I think about it…

Where was I going with this? Oh yes, “Annie Hall.” It was more than just pure comedy. Sure, there are funny lines of dialogue and many unusual comedic sketches (such as a cartoon sequence, fantasy journeys through time and daydreams, and constant breaking of the fourth wall), but considering all of it as the mindset of the narrator, Alvy Singer, played by writer-director Woody Allen, the film is more than a comedy and more like a bitter exploration into his psyche. In that respect, while “Star Wars” was the most fantastic, inventive and fun movie of 1977, “Annie Hall” might have been the smartest and most insightful.

“Annie Hall” represents the pure use of comedy I admire—if done well, comedy can allow audiences to get a real feel for the characters. Comedy can set you up and draw you in, and before you know it, you’re learning more about the characters and also learning from them as well.

If it wasn’t clear from Woody Allen’s films prior to this (“Take the Money and Run,” “Bananas”), Allen is a sad, sad man. The questions he has about life lead to a non-stop pursuit of answers, he has a very low opinion on many aspects of life and existence, and it’s probably fair to say that his therapy in getting through life is by creating characters to live through and writing jokes; first for standup, then for cinema. (Allen has since made quite a few dramatic films later in life, and while jokes may not be a primary focus in them, the way he lives through his characters certainly is.) With “Annie Hall,” written and directed by Allen, the public got a pretty clear picture of Allen’s personality and how close his character of Alvy Singer is to the actual Allen.

Alvy, a comedian, has a very low opinion of himself. As the film opens, he addresses the camera with a couple jokes—one about how short and pointless life can seem and another which is attributed to Groucho Marx: “I would never want to belong to any group that would have someone like me for a member.” All uphill from here, eh?

The film is essentially Alvy’s recollection of previous relationships with women, particularly the one he had the most fondness for: Annie Hall (played by a fabulous Diane Keaton, who won an Oscar for the role). He tries to understand why he and Annie broke up a year ago, and we take this journey inside his head, figuratively speaking, experiencing memories and fantasies (all in non-linear fashion, by the way). We even see the source of his melancholy at a very young age, when he read as a child that “the universe is expanding” and often questioned his mother about the point of existence.

Alvy recalls many pleasant times with Annie, more so than with his first wife (Carol Kane), who disagreed with him about his thoughts on the JFK assassination (maybe Allen felt better when he saw Oliver Stone’s “JFK”), or his second wife (Janet Margolin), a writer who was unable to get an orgasm. Annie talked a little differently (“la-de-da, la-de-da, la-la, yeah”) and dressed a little differently (with a wardrobe that started a trend for a little while after this film’s release), but they shared many fun times with her: frantically trying to cook lobsters, making fun of men from her past, among other things. She feels a loving connection between the two of them, but when the two of them move in together, that’s when things start to get a little tense, leading to their breakup.

But it doesn’t stop there. From that point on, Alvy has bad dating experiences (and bad sex), he’s unsure of what to do with his career, and when Annie calls for him in the middle of the night, it’s to get him to kill a spider (“a spider the size of a Buick”).

Sometimes, the journey through Allen’s (er, sorry—Alvy’s) psyche takes detours. I’m not sure why they’re there, but I find them simply hilarious. For example, Alvy and Annie are standing in line at a movie theater and Alvy is very annoyed by the guy standing behind him and telling his friend about the works of Fellini and McLuhan and his opinion on them. What does Alvy do? He brings in McLuhan himself to talk down to the man, saying “You know nothing of my work!” Why is this there? I don’t know—maybe just to appease Allen’s annoyance of people who try to act smarter than they are, but it’s got nothing to with Annie, other than…she was there.

But then again, maybe this was never really about Annie after all. Maybe this was all just a way of making Alvy feel better about himself. That would also explain the scene in which he revisits his first-grade classroom (with 6-year-old Alvy there as well) and all his old classmates state what kind of adults they became. (“I’m into leather,” a girl states.) Is this a way of Alvy thinking to himself that he could’ve had a worse journey in life than ending up as a comedian? A way of making himself feel better? Could be.

“Annie Hall” is also somewhat of a love letter to living in New York City (something Allen recaptured in the arguably-better “Manhattan” two years later) as opposed to Los Angeles, where Alvy and Annie visit in the final half-hour of this hour-and-a-half film. L.A. doesn’t look very good here, and I think what Allen was trying to say was people in New York City think too much and people in L.A. think very little. Ouch. No wonder Woody Allen never attends the Oscars in Hollywood, despite his numerous wins and nominations for his screenwriting.

Basically, “Annie Hall” is all about Woody Allen. It’s his vision, his dialogue, his persona, his representation of how he feels about love and life in general. And amidst all the talk about how embittered he is about a lot of things and how unsure he is about himself (to the point where he can’t let good things be as good as they should be), there is a lesson to be learned by the end of “Annie Hall”: relationships can be painful, but they’re also worth the pain. He’s not telling us how to feel; he’s telling us how he feels. And maybe we can learn something from him in the process.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

23 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Summer 2011: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is released to theaters. I decide not to see it. “Really? What’s the point? We all know how it’s going to end.”

Spring 2012: I catch “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” on one of the satellite movie channels. To my surprise, it’s pretty good. I write my three-star review, stating one major problem I had with it: the ending. I write that the story grinds to a halt, obviously setting up for a sequel. “I guess the origin story isn’t enough to set up the events in the previous movies,” I wrote. (Though, in hindsight, isn’t it deliciously ironic to see a film where man’s defeat is the happy ending?)

Summer 2014: No, the origin story is not enough to set up the events in the other “Planet of the Apes” movies, for now we have “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Let’s see how this one turns out… Well, that was one of the best sequels I’ve ever seen. I did not expect that…

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is the seventh entry in the “Planet of the Apes” film series. (Actually, it’s the eighth, but who wants to acknowledge the 2001 Tim Burton re-imagining?) Frankly, I think it’s the best in the series by far. It’s a solid sci-fi action film, but it also works effectively in its dramatic and allegorical elements.

The film is set a decade or so after “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” left off, when a virus plagued humankind, leaving much to ruin. A band of humans lives as one in San Francisco and an ape colony lives in the nearby woods. The apes, now more advanced than before, are led by Caesar (again played with stellar motion-capture performance work by Andy Serkis), who recalls the good in humanity more than most of his followers who were caged and horribly treated by their human captors. None of the apes have seen a single trace of humans until one day, when a small group of the San Francisco survivors enter the woods unexpectedly. They attempted to pass through to restore the power grid. Caesar has learned to speak, and so the group’s leader, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), reasons with him for help. But the mutual cooperation unfortunately doesn’t last long, as members of both man and ape clash, leading to the beginning of inevitable war.

The allegories of hatred and prejudice are done quite well in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” without getting preachy or too heavy-handed. There are blunt points that are made, but for the most part, it’s handled efficiently with visuals, interaction, and just the right amount of dialogue that helps get the point across. It makes for an intruging tragedy amongst the blockbuster-expected explosions and gunfire. And what helps even further is the characterizations of both the humans and the apes—the personalities that get the most focus are fleshed out. There are some humans and apes that see a mutual connection—they include Malcolm, Caesar, a nurse named Ellie (Keri Russell), Malcolm’s son Alexander (Kodi-Smit McPhee), and a wise orangutan named Maurice. (I’m not gonna lie—Maurice stole my heart.) But there are many of the other human survivors and many of the other apes who share a mutual hatred for each other and would like nothing more to see them exterminated if only for their own selfish desires of annihilation. The humans that represent it are Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Carver (Kirk Acevedo), and the ape that stands for warfare is Kobo, who often butts heads with Caesar, who tries to keep peace by keeping humans and apes separate in the beginning. But tragically, despite the sincere efforts of Malcolm, hatred breaks free and everything starts going to hell. The parallels of human and ape are effectively done and help make this allegorical tale even more powerful.

Andy Serkis is once-again outstanding as Caesar, hands-down the best, most compelling character in the whole “Planet of the Apes” series. He’ll always be known as the king of the CGI/human blend of acting, and someone at the Academy should give the man a special Oscar for his work. With his work in “Lord of the Rings,” “King Kong,” and now the “Planet of the Apes” reboots, I’d say he’s due for Academy recognition. Exaggeration, you may say? I don’t think so.

Director Matt Reeves (who is also making the upcoming sequel, “War for the Planet of the Apes”) does a great job with the action and gives the audience what they crave in a summer movie, such as a lengthy battle sequence on the streets of San Francisco. But he’s also very efficient in the quieter moments, particularly in the first 15+ minutes, which show the home life of Caesar and the rest of the apes.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” did something I didn’t expect it to do: it made me anticipate the next “Planet of the Apes” movie. Will “War for the Planet of the Apes” be just as good if not better? I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out. If there’s anything I’ve learned from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” it’s not to be cynical about a continuing reboot that comes my way.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001)

2 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: Zero Stars

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I could start off this review by saying comedy is subjective, I don’t have to laugh at what you may find funny, I don’t have to like what you like, and so on. But instead, I’ll just say this: it’s unfair to call Tom Green’s “Freddy Got Fingered” the worst movie I’ve ever seen simply because I don’t find it funny and it made me feel unclean having watched it. After all, someone may admire it for being…different. Someone may even find it funny. So take that in consideration when I say this: not me.

“Freddy Got Fingered” is the film I personally hate the most. There are other movies that could qualify as “the worst movie ever made,” but I do enjoy “Birdemic,” “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” and “The Room” on campy levels. But that’s because they weren’t trying to be funny, and as a result of incompetence, they ended up being funny by default. “Freddy Got Fingered” is a comedy. It is trying to be funny. And if there’s anything that annoys audiences more, it’s when supposed-comedies don’t make them laugh. Not only did I not laugh at any of Tom Green’s antics in “Freddy Got Fingered,” but I shut down for a while after I watched it. I felt so unclean—not only did I want a shower, but I also wanted to gargle some mouthwash. (Maybe a colonoscopy wouldn’t have been so far out either.)

I despise “Freddy Got Fingered”—heartily and sincerely dislike it. Let’s get this over with…

Canadian comedian Tom Green became a hit with silly white-rap videos on TV, with a persona of a man-child rapping about childish things. Sad to say, this gave Green the opportunity to direct, write, and star in his own movie. The stuff he couldn’t do on TV with his “different” sense of humor, he could exploit to the nth degree with some of the most vile grossout humor ever brought to cinema. That’s just the way it works in Hollywood, I guess…

Why bother describing the plot? It doesn’t matter what the plot is, because it just gives Green an excuse to do whatever he wants. But essentially, it goes like this. Green plays a loser named Tom Green—er, I mean, Gord Brady—who wants to be a cartoonist and produce his own TV show. But things don’t work out for him, because he’s a screwup who scares the big-time executives away—er, I mean he’s an artist who thinks differently. He wants to win the approval of his stern father (Rip Torn), who sees him as nothing more than a disappointment, while his mother (Julie Hagerty) supports him no matter what. Meanwhile, he gets a girlfriend, Betty (Marisa Coughlan), who is wheelchair-bound and desperately wants to have oral sex with Gord…who of course has fun whacking her legs with heavy objects. Blah blah blah, hijinks ensue, Gord gets a show, everyone lives happily ever after…except for me.

Does the plot even matter? “Freddy Got Fingered’ is practically an hour-and-a-half-long geekshow attraction and the only point of it is for Green to be as off-the-wall as possible. And it just doesn’t work for me. Green was off-the-wall in “Road Trip” too, but he had some control and mildly amusing moments as well. But here, he’s the one in control. He wrote and directed the movie, and he takes center-stage as this odd, hapless protagonist, and I do not want to be in the company of this persona for another hour-and-a-half. He mugs constantly for the camera, he shouts many words/phrases repeatedly at a time hoping they’ll be funny, and he does the most nonsensical things imaginable, which is where the “highlights” of the grossout humor come in. For example, someone injures his leg in a skateboarding accident, Gord licks the open wound. Gord masturbates a horse and then an elephant (which ejaculates on his father). Gord comes across a dead deer, and, following the advice of “getting inside your characters,” skins the deer and wears the bloody skin.

Oh, and there’s another running gag involving a young child who always gets hurt and miraculously turns out OK…the punchline is more offensive than funny and pushes the limits of the R rating more than…oh no…it’s coming back to me…the worst part of the movie…

Gord visits a friend in the hospital and comes across a woman in labor. What does he do? He brings the baby out from her womb and, when it appears to be dead, brings it back to life by flinging it around the room with its umbilical cord. With so much blood being sprayed everywhere as a result, I have to wonder—what would it really take to bring an NC-17 rating in a mainstream comedy?

I get it. It’s shocking. It’s different. It didn’t make me laugh. It wasn’t for me. It made me mad. It made me uneasy. It made me unclean. And I could’ve turned off the movie at any time (thank God I didn’t see this in a theater), but I felt I had to keep going as a rite of passage for a film critic. I sat through it, and I can rest easy, with the full confidence that no matter how many bad movies I’ll continue to see in the future, none can be as hurtful as “Freddy Got Fingered” was to me.

Super Dark Times (2017)

30 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember growing up in the country and hanging out at a friend’s house in the middle of nowhere. When there were no parents around, he would play with some weapons in the house—act like we were soldiers/warriors or something like that. Other friends would often be there and get involved too. Nothing bad ever happened and we felt we were being careful. But when I saw Kevin Phillips’ “Super Dark Times” at this year’s annual Fantastic Cinema & Craft Beer Festival, it made me look back on those memories and consider myself (and my old friends) lucky that we didn’t get hurt doing some really stupid things.

“Super Dark Times” is a coming-of-age psychological drama about the aftermath of a deadly incident between a few high-school teens. It’s a film that reminded me a lot of “Mean Creek,” an independent film from 13 years ago about how actions & consequences can have a lasting impact on young people. Both films are effective in reminding their audiences how dangerous and scary teenage life can be.

Set in the mid-1990s, “Super Dark Times” centers on best friends Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan); ordinary teens who engage in typical teen conversation, perform gross-out dares, and hang out with others who aren’t exactly their “buddies” but need other people to pass the time with. Two of them are a younger boy, Charlie (Sawyer Barth), and an obnoxious peer, Daryl (Max Talisman). The four find Josh’s older brother’s samurai sword and take it out to the woods to slice some milk cartons. But when Daryl’s harsh attitude leads to a confrontation, an accidental result of panic becomes fatal. Panicked even further, Zach, Josh, and Charlie feel they have no choice but to hide Daryl’s body and cover everything up.

Covering up the accident is easier said than done. While Charlie is relatively quiet about everything, Zach and Josh act differently from then on. Josh is having strange urges, mouthing off in class, and taking more risks such as stealing his brother’s weed and sharing it with peers. Zach gets much of the film’s attention as he attempts to make sure everything is OK, when it becomes clear that nothing about this is quite alright with him, as the guilt is starting to overtake him. Phillips does a very good job showing just how much this plight is affecting Zach, as he becomes more worried and paranoid, and even presenting a couple dream sequences for a more uncomfortable, nightmarish setting.

Things get even darker when it comes to how Josh is handling the aftereffects of what he’s done. And the less I say about that, the better…

The most heartbreaking scene in the film for me was when Zach’s secret crash, a classmate named Alison (Elizabeth Cappucino), is suddenly in Zach’s bedroom and makes a seductive advance towards him. This should be a happy moment, as Zach is realizing his feelings toward her are mutual and she’s IN HIS ROOM, but he can’t help but cry on her shoulder about the tragedy that unfolded. It’s a confusing time for him (a “super dark time,” if you will) and he feels nothing can be normal for him anymore. And he can’t tell anyone about what he’s feeling—not Alison, not his unsuspecting mother (Amy Hargreaves), not Charlie (who’d rather not talk about the incident), not even Josh (who copes with it his own way, alienating Zach). It’s a powerful moment.

“Super Dark Times” is more effective when it explores the theme of “loss of innocence” than when it delves deep into horror in the final act, as Josh’s mental state goes from questionable to dangerous. This is an unfortunate move on the part of writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, but thankfully, by that point, the central characterizations are strong enough (and the actors are solid too) that it doesn’t really damage the film. It’s a gripping film with a “super dark” viewpoint.

Click (2006)

27 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are “movies starring Adam Sandler” (“Punch-Drunk Love,” “Spanglish,” “Funny People,” “Reign Over Me”) and then there are “Adam Sandler movies” (movies produced by Sandler and starring him to put him up front in attempts to maintain his popularity—“The Waterboy,” “Big Daddy,” “Grown Ups,” “I Now Pronounce Chuck & Larry,” and many more). Sandler can act really well (his terrific performance in “Spanglish,” in particular, breaks my heart), and he can also be very funny…even though a majority of those “Adam Sandler movies” don’t do good jobs of showing his comedic talents. Thankfully, there are exceptions—I like “Happy Gilmore,” “50 First Dates,” “The Wedding Singer,” and the subject of this review, “Click.”

Of the section of “Adam Sandler movies” I find enjoyable, “Click” is probably my favorite. It has its typical “Sandler-esque” crude humor, but it has a bigger heart to it and an unexpected level of pathos that surprisingly make the movie more than what it could’ve been. There are laughs, but there is also a lot of drama as well—drama of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” class.

Sandler plays Michael Newman, an architect who works so hard to get a promotion in his firm that he barely has time to spend with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two kids. He misses his son’s swim meet, he has to cancel the annual summer camping trip, and he can’t enjoy have a family dinner without his arrogant jerk of a boss (David Hasselhoff) calling him constantly. Adding onto the agitation is his inability to turn on the TV without turning on the ceiling fan or opening the garage, and so he sets out late at night to buy a universal remote control. The only place open is “Bed, Bath & Beyond.” In the “Beyond” section is where the mysterious Morty (Christopher Walken) works. Morty takes Michael to the “Way Beyond” section and brings him the universal remote to end all universal remotes…

It turns out this remote controls everything in Michael’s universe. He pushes the pause button, and everything pauses around him. He clicks rewind, and he can revisit favorite memories. He can even fast-forward through parts of his life he’d rather skip, like arguments with his wife, slow traffic, and sad moments when his kids are let down. This leads to many funny moments such as he plays with the color setting on himself, making him appear yellow (pirate), then green (Hulk), then purple (Barney), until he finally gets a good tan (Julio Iglesias). And it also has its inventive moments too, such as when Michael explores features from his “Main Menu,” such as his “making-of” and a moment with commentary by James Earl Jones.

But Michael learns that the remote is no toy, as it seems to learn his fast-forwarding patterns and is skipping through larger portions of his life. This is where the dramatic aspects come in. Michael learns the hard way that he needs to put more focus on what he has rather than what he doesn’t have, because his life will just go by quickly otherwise. It’s hard to believe this is in the same film that also features crude jokes with side characters including Michael’s wife’s friend (Jennifer Coolidge, really annoying) and some grossout humor including a long fart joke. While the comedic aspects in the first half of the movie are broad, they’re toned down as the situation involving this dangerous remote becomes more serious. And it works because Michael is a relatable guy and his plight is recognizable—he wants everything to go well, but his priorities are out of place. We feel bad for him when he loses so many precious times (and even loved ones) and is in danger of losing even more. And it’s because Sandler is so good at playing the “everyman” that we want things to go well for the character.

“Click” is a bit uneven, but for what it set out to do, it works. Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s touching, and overall, it has a good point to make: don’t fast-forward through the most important parts of your life, figuratively. There’s more I can find here than I could in many other “Adam Sandler movies,” so I use “Click” as a prime example of what they could be.

Nirvanna the Band the Show (Viceland Series)

26 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m particularly fond of filmmaker Matt Johnson’s work. “The Dirties” is a film that has really grown on me with time (and repeated viewings), and I thoroughly enjoyed his film last year, “Operation Avalanche.” Johnson’s trademark style is “faux-documentary” done in guerilla fashion. (He goes in, he shoots a scene, he gets out, no matter who’s an actor or not—is it real or staged? He lets you decide.) This style of filmmaking suits him well with his new web series “Nirvanna the Band the Show,” made for Viceland.

“The Dirties” and “Operation Avalanche” are essentially dramatic feature films laced with comedic flavoring. But “Nirvanna the Band the Show” is straight-up comedic. In fact, I may just stop calling this “faux-documentary” and start calling it “mockumentary,” since that’s basically what this is. Nothing is to be taken seriously in the slightest, movie references that took up most of the dialogue for “The Dirties” are replaced with head-on lampoons of popular movies, and it’s easier to make the comparison to something like “Borat” with this series than it is to compare Johnson’s feature films to even a Christopher Guest mockumentary.

The basic premise of the 8-episode 22-minute-per-episode “Nirvanna the Band the Show” is about Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol (who both created the series and play “themselves”; another staple of Johnson’s work) as two Toronto musicians who desperately want to perform a gig at the Rivoli. That’s the groundwork for the entire series, which leads to all kinds of hijinks as Matt tries everything he can think of to get this one gig. This includes—sneaking an ad in a local newspaper, building their own Christmas parade float, sneaking a film into the Sundance Film Festival, and even taking a sick child from a hospital in order to befriend him and, in return, get him to wish to the Make-a-Wish Foundation to have Matt and Jay perform at the Rivoli. And if you think that’s strange, just wait until the final episode…

It’s all outrageous, completely ridiculous, and just flat-out funny all the way through from the first episode to the eighth. It’s a lot of fun to watch for many reasons, but one of the main ones, for me at least, was I kept wondering how Johnson was going to pull off each comedic set piece, only to be pleasantly surprised that he actually can. He pulled them off in ways I didn’t expect. And the best part—Johnson pulls them off with absolute effort, putting his all into everything he’s got.

As with Johnson’s previous works, he uses the documentary-style approach to improvise with a plot detail in mind. With lapel mikes and sometimes-hidden cameramen, he and Jay out to the streets of Toronto to act out the situations that need to be in the episode and mix them with natural reactions of unsuspecting bystanders who can’t believe what these two nuts are saying or doing. Some of these “bystanders” are actors in on it, but even if you know that, it’s still very funny to watch their reactions to all this.

Much of the comedy in the essentially-dramatic “The Dirties” came from Johnson’s character and how much of a movie buff he is, constantly making reference after reference to whatever movie he can think of (which led to the film’s best sight gag—the choice of fonts for the end credits, which I won’t give away here). For “Nirvanna the Band the Show,” Johnson takes that up a notch not by merely referencing the movies but paying pure homage to them. In the first episode, there are numerous allusions to “Jurassic Park” (including a very funny revelation as to why Samuel L. Jackson’s character is so calm—something I hadn’t even thought of before!). In another episode, which is Christmas-related, “Home Alone” is the subject of satire. In another episode, sitcoms are spoofed, with a drastic situation and a race to make things right again (and the opening credits are even done in the style of ‘80s sitcom “Growing Pains”—I almost died laughing at that part). In another episode, Matt is temporarily blind in an episode that began with opening credits that are remarkably similar to Netflix’s “Daredevil” series, and…well, you can probably guess what happens later. And so on.

Oh, and how is Matt blinded in this episode? He watches the “Star Wars” movies for the first time and is so captivated by them that he sits too close to the TV screen. That is hilariously unfortunate…as is what happens when he and Jay go to the premiere showing of “The Force Awakens.”

My favorite episode is the fifth, which takes place in Park City, Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival, where “Operation Avalanche” premiered. In this one, Matt makes a short film set in a high school and is quickly thrown out (why do I get the feeling this is how “The Dirties” was really made?), but he gets enough footage to sneak a film into Sundance and gain attention for it. (Oh, and the short film is called “Operation Avalanche.”) Johnson and co. used their Sundance opportunity to make an episode out of whatever they could, and I highly respect them for it.

It took some time for me to get used to Jay McCarrol (who composes music for Johnson’s works) as his comedic foil, because I’m so used to seeing Owen Williams in that role in the features. But he held his own well here, and it’s nice to see him on piano and scoring the scenes in the Nirvanna the Band studio as Matt is mentioning idea after idea—you can tell he has passion in his craft just as Johnson has passion in his as well.

I really enjoyed “Nirvanna the Band the Show” and it only furthered my admiration for Matt Johnson as a filmmaker. He’s not afraid to take chances or try new things with his style, and it turns out he’s very good at it. Once again, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Power Rangers (2017)

23 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Recruit a team of teenagers with attitude!” You want teenagers with attitude? You’ll get them in this new version of “Power Rangers.”

I liked “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” as a kid. I had some of the Rangers’ action figures, I wore out the VHS tape of the 1995 feature-length spinoff from watching it so many times, and I even watched some of the spinoff TV series as well (“Wild Force,” “Ninja Storm,” “Galaxy”). But then something happened.

I grew up…but the Power Rangers didn’t grow up with me.

But it still stays with a lot of people who obviously didn’t outgrow it like I did (including Internet reviewer Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug, who has his own “History of the Power Rangers” web series). A good chunk of those people didn’t particularly care for the new direction the 2017 reboot of the franchise (simply titled “Power Rangers”) took upon hitting the big screen. This new direction was adding complexities, grit, and even “PG-13” to the fun and to the characters, whereas everything in the previous series and movies was consistently lighthearted and silly and “PG” (or “Practically G”).

And as strange as it may seem, even though I outgrew the Power Rangers franchise…I actually liked this movie.

It does have some major flaws, however. A majority of the dialogue isn’t particularly good, some of the jokes fall flat (especially one involving a cow early in the proceedings), there’s an inconsistency of tone (which I’ll get to later), and the climactic battle involves a McGuffin to be found at a Krispy Kreme. Just as “Happy Gilmore” had a lot of Subway and “Talladega Nights” had a lot of Applebee’s, the final act of “Power Rangers” practically belongs to Krispy Kreme. There’s even a scene in which the film grinds to a halt as the central antagonist enjoys a delicious donut.

But thankfully, the good elements of “Power Rangers” outweigh the bad. The story is surprisingly terrific; for a Power Rangers movie, having an impressive story is quite an accomplishment. It has its typical superhero origin story, with five teenagers discovering a buried, abandoned spaceship and some mystical stones that give them amazing abilities, but it also uses themes of friendship, leadership, and teamwork in ways that work surprisingly well. I was surprised by how much I was getting into a Power Rangers story!

Another reason for getting so invested in this Power Rangers story is a big one: all five of our young heroes are terrific! I don’t mean to merely say that the actors are appealing (which they certainly are). I mean this film about a team of superheroes manages to set each character up and develop them properly. They’re all different youngsters with different problems and one thing in common: each other. One kid, named Jason (played by Dacre Montgomery), is a former football jock which makes him qualified to be the leader of this group, but he also has to learn responsibility which is tough for any young man. Another, Kimberly (Naomi Scott), used to be a mean-girl type on campus, and her reason for losing her old friends is more complicated and surprisingly brutal, which teaches her to move forward. Another, Billy (RJ Cyler, from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), is an autistic victim of bullying whose brains help save the day. Another, Zack (Ludi Lin), is a loner who cares for his ill mother. And last but not least is Trini (Becky G), who feels uncomfortable in her own skin due to her struggles with her sexual orientation.

Yes, people. The Power Rangers are actually “teenagers with attitude” in this updated version, not like the squeaky-clean, perfect, bland teens in the series. Imagine that!

Moving past some inane lines of dialogue these young actors have to read from a script, these kids feel like real kids with real problems, which is a most pleasant surprise, especially for a Power Rangers movie. And they work great together, slowly warming up to one another after being strangers, training for combat, having to work together as a team, and finding that common element that will ultimately bind them as such. There’s a scene midway through the film in which they sit around a campfire and discuss their problems, and it’s the best scene in the film because it feels warm and genuine and even kind of deep. I would see a sequel to ‘Power Rangers” simply to see these characters again.

But wait, you might wonder, this doesn’t sound like a Power Rangers movie. Don’t worry, because there are still Power Rangers elements here. We have characters like the Rangers’ advisor Zordon (Bryan Cranston, slumming it as a face in a wall but never quite shows it), Zordon’s annoying robotic assistant Alpha (voiced by Bill Hader), and the Rangers’ ultimate archrival, Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a former Ranger who seeks to obtain a hidden stone (buried underneath a Krispy Kreme) and creates a giant golden monster to forcibly take it for her. And there are still the Zords, the Rangers’ heavily armored vehicles that can form as one if need be. And there’s still a big fight in the city between the Mega-Zord and a gigantic mutant beast. And yes, there’s still that awesome theme song from the original show that plays when the Rangers are finally headed for battle. But another problem with “Power Rangers” is kind of an odd one: it works best when it isn’t trying to be “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” It has kind of an inconsistent tone, especially when it comes to Rita, who is more silly than threatening. Banks is having a ton of fun with the role, but her scenes and the Rangers’ scenes have a distracting contrast. Alpha isn’t as annoying as he is in the show, but his comic-relief moments still come off as forced. But the scenes with Zordon work well (hey, every origin story needs a wise instructor). And even if the action is pushed aside to make room for a big bombastic final act, I didn’t mind…except that it might be a little late by that point. The film is two hours long, and most of the running time is devoted to character development that intense action seems a little out-of-place.

But then again, it is a “Power Rangers” movie, so…I dunno. Look, I liked the movie for reasons I didn’t expect to. That’s about all I can say about “Power Rangers” anymore. It’s fun, it’s well-acted, it’s even compelling at times. The action is there, the Power Rangers callbacks are there, and even some of the silliness is there; you just have to get through some solid character development…and resist the urge to get some donuts after viewing the film.