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Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

July 22, 2016

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
Director: Kevin Smith
Actors: Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Shannon Elizabeth

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Synopsis: Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) head off to Hollywood when they discover that the film based on their cartoon alter-egos – Bluntman and Chronic – has led to a tidal wave of negative opinion on the internet.

Review: Kevin Smith came a long way in seven years. Back in 1994, with a budget of only $27,575, he set about making his debut feature Clerks, yet by 2001 and his fifth feature, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, he had Hollywood well and truly dancing to his tune. Perhaps therein lies the problem, because evidenced by Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, that startling ascendancy created a very indulgent, bloated and unchecked filmmaker.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is so far removed from Clerks‘ concentrated scope and sense of ingenuity, and though it earns the odd chuckle on occasions, it’s essentially just an elongated and largely pointless spoof movie designed only to glorify Smith’s own hermetic movie-world. One of the film’s most nauseating features is that there are only so many times Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith et al can self-deprecatingly break the fourth wall to joke about how commercial the film is before you realise its just apologism or ‘hiding behind humour’ from the fact that it actually is! By the time Smith’s utilised a character looking ‘ironically’ into the camera for the second time – and we’re only at the fifteen-minute mark in the movie – you know it’s going to be a long two hours.

Talking about Smith, his role as Silent Bob has also changed substantially for the worse. Where in Clerks, he truly lived up to the moniker “Silent Bob” apart from one choice monologue and a hilarious dance scene, in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Smith mistakenly revises his character as almost like Muttley to Jay’s Dick Dastardly – continually gesticulating and miming to the camera akin to a clown. Silent Bob functions much better when he’s the deadpan, impassive slacker to contrast Jay’s hyperactivity and foul mouth.

Arguably the best part of Jay and Silent Bob is the opening coda set outside the convenience store in New Jersey – detailing Jay and Silent Bob’s ironic genesis as babies into the adult slackers they were destined to be. Sadly, the rest of the film’s canvas of lame skits, wall-to-wall profanity, in-jokes and numerous celebrity cameos betrays the truer merit of the movie. (July 2016)

Dogma

July 20, 2016

Dogma (1999)
Director: Kevin Smith
Actors: Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon

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Synopsis: Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon) are two fallen angels looking to exploit a loophole whereby they can return to Heaven through a Catholic church in New Jersey which is allowing people free atonement of their sins. If Bartleby and Loki succeed, God will be proved fallible (hence the world will cease to exist) so Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) is summoned by God to save mankind…

Review: After the patchiness of Mallrats and Chasing Amy, Kevin Smith had a spectacular return to form with this absolutely ingenious vehicle for his talents: a near perfect religious comedy set in the most dowdy of locations – Wisconsin, Illinois and Smith’s regular haunt of New Jersey. In fact, the setting of Illinois is cause for one of the best gags of the film when Jay and Silent Bob explain to heroine Bethany how they wound up in the state through their misinformed reverence for the films of John Hughes (it’s doubly clever in that it creates exquisite bathos in the juxtaposition of the epicness of the religious struggle versus the banality of a midwestern state, but also honours Smith’s movie fanboy knowledge.)

Talking about Jay and Silent Bob, it’s easily their best and most organic appearance in a Smith film since Clerks, and in fact all the various characters (and the who’s who of actors playing them) lend the film’s ‘quest’ trajectory its momentum and variety. Probably the best imagining is of a wonderfully sarcastic Alan Rickman playing the voice of God who delivers the initial mission to Bethany. On top of his classic reaction to being doused in flames on first appearing to her, he then whisks her to a cheap Mexican restaurant down the road before delivering possibly the best line in the whole film about sex and God’s reaction to it.

Smith finds exactly the right pitch between the cogent religious referencing required to drive the narrative versus sending most of that religiosity up with irreverent satire and realising the film as a pastiche of an action movie. Arguably Smith digs himself in a touch because the religious scenario at times necessitates too much exposition, but that aside, this is his cinematic signature at its best: fresh, clever, bawdy and hilarious. (July 2016)

Chasing Amy

July 20, 2016

Chasing Amy (1997)
Director: Kevin Smith
Actors: Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee

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Synopsis: Holden (Ben Affleck) and Banky (Jason Lee) are comic book artists living and working in New York. Holden develops an interest in fellow comic book artist, Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), though quickly discovers she is a lesbian. After months of a platonic friendship, Holden and Alyssa start dating but when revelations about Alyssa’s past life and Holden’s subsequent insecurities start to surface, the relationship begins to falter….

Review: Anticipating the Judd Apatow ‘stunted male maturity’ brand ten years before its time, Kevin Smith’s seemingly ironic take on a young man’s romantic dalliance with a would-be risqué lesbian is generally considered to be the high point of Smith’s body of work to date though I personally take it to be a reductive juncture in Smith’s career compared to his more situationally specific and fine-tuned predecessors, Clerks and Mallrats.

Chasing Amy essentially fails in three clear, distinct ways. First, its hermetic, comic-nerd universe and the ‘ironic’ way that embalms the overall story is predictable and increasingly nauseating. The “tracer” gag (where our comic book artists are mocked as simply tracers and fillers in of outlines) in the opening comic book convention scene is an over-telegraphed graphic novel ‘in joke’ which acts as emblem for the obvious comic rhetoric of the rest of the film. Also, the moving of Jay and Silent Bob from the anarchic fringes of the story (à la Clerks) into indulgent, populist centrepieces continues apace – especially when Silent Bob gets a suspiciously long and articulate vocal slot here (acting as transparent mouthpiece for Smith himself?) when he manages to conveniently frame the Holden-Alyssa romantic dilemma in his own identical, asinine example.

Chasing Amy‘s second problem is that it ends up falling foul of the in-narrative dialectic it supposedly dramatises – the male demystification of the “lesbian”. Joey Lauren Adams’ Alyssa winds up as just a cipher or disingenuous plot device: conveniently designed to be this edgy lesbian procuring laughs at the beginning as she sparks off against Holden and Banky’s typical male viewpoint, but all that is dropped when she falls in love with Holden’s blander-than bland sop. It feels a complete misstep from the off, even more so when Alyssa seems genuinely heartbroken at her break-up with Holden and at their final wistful meeting at the comic book convention. Alyssa ends up encapsulating a form of fantasy projection for stunted males: a punky dike who can be conquered by the hetero male and left to simper when that same male sabotages it all because he’s intimidated by her libertarian vibes. In the real world, even if Alyssa was bi-curious, she wouldn’t look twice at a doofus like Holden.

Finally, Chasing Amy is simply too generic, too mainstream in its plot conceit and overall sensibility. Yes, it may have the gilded veneer of its comic-book conventions, its meta-referential dialogue and its trashy male slacker apartments replete with graffiti, cigarette trays and mattresses on floors, but the film’s devolving into a conventional, three-act romantic comedy-drama betrays the true bent of Smith’s aspirations. (July 2016)

Mallrats

July 18, 2016

Mallrats (1995)
Director: Kevin Smith
Actors: Jason Lee, Jeremy London, Claire Forlani

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Synopsis: Two young friends, Brodie (Jason Lee) and TS (Jeremy London), are dumped by their girlfriends. Over the course of a long afternoon in the local mall, they set about winning back their women…

Review: After an odd opening scene featuring some lame slapstick at the local college, Mallrats hits it stride to become a more than worthy successor to Kevin Smith’s excellent Clerks. Although there are plenty of similarities between the two films, there are one or two substantial differences that might dilute the experience of those recruited by the charms of Clerks. We don’t have the striking, immemorial black-and-white photography which did such a good job of crystallising the banality of the convenience store locale, and quite simply, the ‘hit’ ratio of gags and ingenious dialogue isn’t as high (also, is it just me, or do TS and Brodie here make for less amusing conduits than Dante and Randal in Clerks?)

Once the story gets into the mall though it chugs along nicely. Favouring a more crowd-pleasing, narrative-driven, screwball style, Smith manages to successfully subsume his ‘slackers’ feel into this more cartoony aesthetic. For one thing, Jay and Silent Bob are more prominent and have gone from being the anarchic chorus of Clerks to a wacky, comedy double-act. Jay’s amazing verbal artillery of Clerks is watered down though Silent Bob has a couple of funny subplots (one – where he thinks he can affect Jedi mind tricks, the other – where he always winds up crashing into the same girl trying on lingerie in various changing rooms).

The mall ode-cum-satire – much like with the convenience store of Clerks – is brilliantly done. Two sublime touches being Ben Affleck’s reptilian clothes store manager christening Brodie and TS as “mallrats” while hypocritically opining “I have no respect for people with no shopping agenda”, and Ethan Suplee’s neanderthal William being unable to see a sailboat in a ‘Magic Eye’ picture – it’s a wonderfully surreal subplot honouring what was so good about the best bits from Clerks. (July 2016)

Clerks

July 16, 2016

Clerks (1994)
Director: Kevin Smith
Actors: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Jason Mewes

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Synopsis: Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) wile away their day as small-town grocery and video store clerks respectively.

Review: The reason this sublime debut film from Kevin Smith was so successful in launching his career, and is still such a treat to watch over twenty years later, is through its ingenious snapshot of small-town Americana and the inertia of Generation Xers.

Smith’s style and modus operandi is vaguely similar to Quentin Tarantino’s, except Smith’s is much more irreverent, homespun and “slacker” in tone. Although Smith has gone on to openly confess he’s not much of a visual director (he claims he just writes and points the camera at the action), the decision to shoot Clerks in black-and-white was such a clever move: the monochrome crystallising the banal world of the convenience store and small town perfectly. Smith also finds a gallows visual grammar (there are lots of sight gags) to go with the dialogue-heavy action – especially effective is an exquisite scene when Jay starts dancing vigorously to the sounds of his ghetto-blaster before Silent Bob (up until this point completely mute and impassive) joins him in the throwing of some wild shapes outside the convenience store.

Like with Tarantino though, the characters’ one-remove-from-reality, pop-culturally articulate dialogue is Smith’s pièce de resistance. It’s almost like a play, a situational comedy – a Walgreen or 7-Eleven version of “Waiting for Godot”. It’s an unlikely classic when some of the best scenes feature an old guy going for a cr*p but worrying about his hemorrhoids or when the girlfriend sleeps with a corpse that just happens to have a post-mortem erection! A little American classic it is though, and in the character of Jay, Smith has crafted a character who has done the near impossible – turn the profane into the poetic! (July 2016)

Force Majeure

July 14, 2016

Force Majeure (2014)
Director: Ruben Östlund
Actors: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Kristofer Hivju

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Synopsis: A Swedish couple with two young children find their relationship coming unhinged during an eventful skiing holiday in the French Alps.

Review: One of the most formally accomplished films of recent times, Ruben Östlund’s stately Force Majeure at first appears a Stanley Kubrick-cum-Michael Haneke hybrid  – although in its austere situational crises, Östlund touches on elements of satire that would place this more in the realm of a classic bourgeois farce.

Östlund certainly exacts every last ounce of potential from his deluxe ski resort location – finding arresting sonic and visual compositions which don’t just function as exhibitions of smarmified cinematography but that actually create almost an otherworldly, beguiling sense of place which perfectly compliments the narrative’s growing sense of dread and doom. The early, seminal avalanche scene is a particular masterclass in direction – its effect is as uncanny as the sense of unease it spawns in the married couple.

Just once or twice, Östlund overstates the subtler, metaphoric qualities of his story, and the marital crisis does get a bit wrought and soapy in the final third. However, there are far more ingenious scenes to appreciate: my two personal favourites being how Östlund cleverly taps into the social awkwardness of two different sets of friends both becoming privy to the unravelling angst of the married couple in excruciating dinner sequences, and then there’s the tense denouement of the family skiing precariously back down the slope in foggy and blizzard-like conditions (they literally fade in and out of white-hued abysses) – it’s gripping filmmaking. (July 2016)

Holes

July 14, 2016

Holes (2003)
Director: Andrew Davis
Actors: Shia LaBeouf, Khleo Thomas, Jon Voight

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Synopsis: Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf) is sent to a detention centre in Texas for a crime he didn’t commit. While digging holes there, his family history merges strangely with his present situation….

Review: This Burtonesque slice of Southern whimsy works much better on the page (it’s a lighter American version of the magical realism genre) than it does on screen where its events transpire arbitrarily and seem less organic. Where in the source novel the shifts in chronology to seemingly irreverent detours are charming and have an overarching screwball effect, in the film the flashbacks to the founding Kissin’ Kate Barlow and Elya Yelnats mythologies appear rushed, clichéd and lack pathos in sketching in the emotional undercurrent which is supposed to be informing the story’s present day dilemmas.

To be fair, in recruiting the story’s source author, Louis Sachar, Holes got a literate screenplay which manages to signpost most of the novel’s key plot points. It’s just that there’s a fundamental inertness about the landscape of a movie which is essentially a boy digging holes in a bland desert scape (although the fantastical flashbacks were clearly meant to alleviate that canvas on page and on screen.) (July 2016)

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