Archive | May, 2017

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.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

18 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Let’s just get this out of the way. There’s a penis shown on screen for what feels like too long for a mainstream comedy, which in this case is “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” It’s an unexpected, uncomfortable sight, everyone’s gone crazy about it upon the film’s release, and it seems executive producer/co-writer Judd Apatow has an odd obsession with showing the male anatomy (either that or his sometimes-collaborator Seth Rogen is an influence; see “Superbad,” for example). There, I’ve addressed it. Now let’s talk about how awesome the rest of this movie is.

Remember the golden age of parody movies when you could make fun of tropes in a particular film subgenre while also pay homage to them? Movies like “Airplane” and “Spaceballs” are within that particular field. But unfortunately, many of the parody movies we know of nowadays are the ones that merely mention what’s popular at the time and put more emphasis and effort on that than story and humor, which both need to be the biggest factors. But then along comes a gem known as “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” a film that makes fun of musician-biopic stories while knowing what it means to parody something properly and be entertaining along the way.

You know the formulas of many music biopics and how overly earnest the films are in painting the portrait of tortured yet successful musicians. “Walk Hard” goes through all the conventions with an extreme lampooning style.

John C. Reilly stars in oddly enough one of his very best roles as Dewey Cox, a marginally talented country rocker who comes from a humble Southern background, where he experienced a tragic occurrence that cost the life of his brother. (He accidentally cut him in half while the boys were having a machete fight. What makes the scene even more hilariously tragic is the fact that the boy is still alive briefly after being “halved.”) Dewey’s father (Raymond J. Barry) hates him (and is always grumbling about how “the wrong kid died”) and he lost his sense of smell. But he can play guitar efficiently and sing well enough to get attention of some people, which leads to more people, which leads to a following, which leads to fame, which leads to drugs, sex, all that stuff you expect.

“Walk Hard” has it all: A) the disapproving parent, B) the cynical first wife (Kristen Wiig, very funny) who always reminds Dewey he’s “never gonna make it” even though he’s already successful, C) the drug pusher (Tim Meadows, also very funny) who’s always telling Dewey “You don’t want none of this shit” and yet somehow always convinces Dewey that DOES want “this shit,” D) a second wife (Jenna Fischer, also very funny) who has her own struggles with him such as resisting her own sexual urges, E) the ups and downs of fame and fortune, even going through Bob Dylan/Brian Wilson struggles in music and creativity, F) rehab, and finally G) redemption with a heartfelt song about Dewey’s life as a whole. What else does it have? Surprisingly, there’s heart in the midst of all the zaniness. I think a good reason for that is John C. Reilly doesn’t merely play Dewey Cox as a running joke but as sincere as possible, which surprisingly works—it makes the jokes more funny and you care somewhat about him too. Dewey Cox is just so…sweet! It’s hard not to care for him. The film was directed by Jake Kasdan, who co-wrote the script with Judd Apatow, and it’s clear they have some affection for Cox…don’t say that out loud, reader.

Many of the songs are heavy on the double-entendre fueled lyrics, making them highly amusing, particularly the title song “Walk Hard” (a play on “Walk the Line”) and especially “Let’s Duet,” a duet with John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer. Say this out loud: “Let’s duet in ways that make us feel good.”

There are many other funny bits I haven’t even mentioned in this review, including a recording scene that feels very similar Brian Wilson’s (of the Beach Boys) drug-induced creative state, a callback to the Bob Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back,” and especially the cameos from comedic actors portraying famous past musicians. (I’ll leave it for you to find out.) “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” is consistently clever, very funny, and represents the man, the myth, the legend that is Dewey Cox in a way that would make him proud if he were a real musician.

Sleight (2017)

17 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Sleight,” directed and co-written by J.D. Dillard, is a film that tells the familiar dangers of urban society that we’ve seen in other films and even on the news, but in doing so, it inserts a fascinating element of trickery: the troubled young man caught up in trouble with gangs and drugs is masterful at illusion.

He’s a street magician, performing card tricks, floating quarters, and making swift motions. And he’s excellent at it. But being the sole provider for his younger sister requires more than spare change on the street for performing magic tricks. So, he’s a street performer by day and a drug dealer by night, making runs for a local crimerunner.

You expect things to go wrong for this 18-year-old kid, and they do. Soon, he, his sister, and his girlfriend are in danger, and he figures the best way to escape them is to face them. Predictable, yes, but the way “Sleight” goes about bringing this story to life is intriguing, particularly it comes to how the kid is able to perform these tricks and what he must do to get out of this mess.

An engaging lead helps a lot too. Jacob Latimore stars as the kid, named Bo, and his performance is nothing short of brilliant. He forces you to feel his plight (see what I did there?) and understand what he does and why he has to do it to survive. Even when things are at their most deadly, in a particularly tense scene in the middle, you see him balance the fear he feels with trying to keep a game face in front of people who will otherwise kill him. The supporting characters are good too, with Bo’s sister Tina played by Storm Reid and Bo’s girlfriend played by Seychelle Gabriel. Latimore and Reid play off each other perfectly, and you buy them as brother-and-sister. Gabriel plays an appealing love interest, who doesn’t know Bo’s nightly duties and is able to listen and understand when he finally comes clean.

Then there’s Dule Hill, a character actor who has done great work as mild-mannered schmoes in TV shows like “Psych” and “The West Wing.” Here, he plays the gang leader Angelo, and he’s quite effective at playing a straight-up A-hole, perhaps channeling Giancarlo Esposito’s despicable character in the similarly-themed 1994 film, “Fresh.”

Everything builds to an inevitable climax in which Bo must use his hidden abilities against Angelo and his gang in order to get control of his life back and protect the people he loves, after everything has gone almost completely to hell. By then, I forget about how expected the outcome will be and remember that the most important thing is how Bo is going to pull it off. By that point, I am engrossed in the character and all I care about is him making it out of this messy situation.

I’m recommending “Sleight” for what isn’t easy to do, which is to take something familiar and keep it engaging and intriguing. But after seeing it, do yourself a favor and forget about the “open-ended” ending. It’s highly unneccesary, especially when taking into consideration that “Sleight” already told a full story with hardly any loose ends to be tied in a sequel. “Sleight” told the whole story. There is a fitting epilogue that gives closure, and then everything almost feels botched by just one last scene that ends the film on an ambiguous note when it didn’t need to.

I know Jacob Latimore will be forgotten by the Academy when it comes down to announcing next year’s nominees for Best Actor, but he won’t be forgotten by me, because I think his is one of the best performances of the year. “Sleight” may be forgotten by most people because it’s a small film being released so early in the year (from what I can tell, the Academy has an attention span of 3-4 months maximum), but I can’t forget good work by talented people. And that is the greatest trick of them all.

Ridge Runners (2017)

7 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Recently, I saw filmmaker Hunter West’s debut feature “Ridge Runners” again (my third time seeing it at a film festival). At the Q&A following the screening, West mentioned how difficult it was to get the finished film out there, due to its content. The issue that takes center-stage in this tense dramatic thriller is a little girl as a victim of child sex trafficking.

“Ridge Runners” is a very disturbing film, and that’s not just because of the subject matter. In fact, none of the deeds associated with the central crime are portrayed on-screen (thank God). What is chilling and unsettling about the film is what is suggested throughout the film and what our protagonists (who are a duo of police detectives investigating the disappearance of a little girl) are trying to find out about. And there are some characters whose true colors are revealed late in the film—they truly made my skin crawl in the ways they explain what’s happening and why.

So, there you go—the film is well-made and very ominous, and the horrifying stuff is only implied. And yet it was a tough sell…think about that for a moment.

The message of “Ridge Runners,” directed by West and written by Austin Lott, is “Human Trafficking happens everywhere,” as stated by the film’s website (http://www.ridgerunnersfilm.com/) and a truly unsettling prologue (followed by a caption that states one in five human trafficking victims is a child). Our protagonists, police detectives Rachel Willow (played by Jennica Schwartzman) and Rob Shepherd (Austin Haley), discover this horrible truth upon investigating the mysterious disappearance of a 12-year-old girl. The more they uncover, the more horrifying the truth becomes. West reportedly was inspired to make this film because he heard of actual sex trafficking happening in his small town (and the film also takes place in a small town), and so he and Lott set out to make a film as a warning that this type of thing isn’t just an international problem or even a city problem—it can happen anywhere.

But it’s one thing to make a public service announcement about it; it’s another to make it work well. How’s the film itself? It’s essentially a TV-crime-show episode doubled in length and with arguably more detail in description (though not even that much). But it’s very effectively done, and the credit for that goes to West’s directing, Lott’s writing, and the acting, which also includes chillingly good performances by Charlee Graham as the girl’s mother coping with her daughter’s disappearance and Jason Thompson as her employer at a racetrack called The Ridge, among other fine supporting players. A good portion of the film is dialogue and performance, and while some parts are veering close to overuse of exposition (particularly early in the proceedings, when the girl’s mother is questioned by the detectives), it still works overall.

Some would say the film goes for the easy way out in the final act, but the outcome satisfied me, and I’m certain it satisfied many other festival audience members as well. I won’t go into it here, lest I give away potential spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that.

“Ridge Runners” is an intriguing, effective and chilling tale about how evil can exist anywhere. And it wasn’t done in a preachy or overdone manner; instead, it was handled in a relaxed manner, more dignified than you’d expect with this material. The film is currently playing in festivals at this time, but it is now set for distribution. You can catch more news about that as it surfaces on the film’s website and also on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/RidgeRunnersFilm/ It’s definitely worth checking out.

Chef (2014)

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I admire the work of Jon Favreau. As an actor (best known for films like “Rudy” and “Swingers”), he’s fun to watch, and as a director (best known for films like “Iron Man,” “Elf,” and “The Jungle Book”), he comes across as a man who knows and loves movies. So, it was interesting to see a film starring & directed/written by Favreau and even more interesting to make comparisons to Favreau’s career within said-film…even if Favreau reports that these parallels are coincidental.

The film is called “Chef,” written and directed by Favreau, who gets away from Hollywood for a while to create this film independently. In the film, he also stars as Carl Casper, a passionate, talented chef who feels burned out from his job at a fancy L.A. restaurant run by pushy Riva (Dustin Hoffman). Carl works hard but isn’t given an opportunity to get creative, as Riva wants him to stick to the menu. But when a popular food blogger (Oliver Platt) pans the menu (and makes a horrid remark at Carl about his weight), this makes Carl snap. Upon getting a Twitter account and angrily calling the blogger out to return, his chance at redemption is ruined when Riva demands he stick to the menu or lose his job, and it’s made even worse when a video of Carl angrily confronting the blogger goes viral.

Carl is having trouble finding work, which leads to an idea from his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) for him to get his own food truck and travel across the country to serve the food he makes. Carl, Inez, and their 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) go to Miami, where Carl got his start as a culinary artist, and manage to get a truck. Inez goes back home, giving Carl and Percy plenty of much-needed father-son time, as Percy helps Carl fix up the truck and cook & serve Carl’s food. As their relationship grows, Carl goes back to his roots.

So, let me get this straight. Jon Favreau (er, I’m sorry—chef Carl Casper) started out as a happy, independent filmmaker (er, culinary artist) making films (er, treats) such as “Swingers” and “Made” (er, Cuban sandwiches), but then he found success in California with “Iron Man” (er, as a master chef at a trendy eatery), only to make “Cowboys and Aliens” and “Iron Man 2” (er, predictable, standard menu options) and annoy film critics (er, food critics), and so he steps away from the Hollywood system (er, the L.A. restaurant) and decides to try something more like the days in which he started out, and so he makes an independent film called “Chef” (er, he gets a food truck and makes his own food the way he wants it done)…

Obviously, I’m not the only one to think “Chef” was an allegory to Favreau’s career as a director by going back to his independent roots after “Cowboys and Aliens” failed at the box-office. And even though Favreau has denied this comparison, it’s difficult to believe that Favreau didn’t have some part of that in mind while putting the film together at the start. I can’t help but think he wanted (and needed) to try something new, away from Hollywood, and he succeeded in making an independent film that is both funny and endearing…and also will make anyone who watches it hungry for Cuban sandwiches. (Seriously, don’t watch this film on an empty stomach—there are plenty of close-up shots of food being grilled, served, whatever.)

Favreau turns in his finest performance to date, playing a chef with the right amount of passion and devotion, leaving room for regret as he realizes he isn’t spending as much time with his son, who admires him. Speaking of whom, Emjay Anthony is perfect as Percy, turning in a natural juvenile performance. I buy the two as father and son, and I thought the scenes that deal with their bonding were well-done. The rest of the cast consists of big names all of which do well in smaller roles. Among them are the aforementioned Vergara, Hoffman, and Platt, but also featured are John Leguizamo who’s quite good as Carl’s friend and fellow kitchen master, Scarlett Johansen as a former co-worker/part-time lover of Carl’s, Bobby Cannavale as a sous chef, and Robert Downey Jr. in a very brief but funny turn as Inez’s (other) ex-husband.

“Chef” is a small film with big-name actors, and it’s entertaining, funny, and will make you hungry for some damn good food afterwards. And if you doubt this was Favreau’s way to take a step back before returning to Hollywood, just remember the critical/financial success of “The Jungle Book,” released two years after “Chef.” The man needed a break, and to make “Chef” was to make the right call.