(In theaters, July 2006) That’s it, Kevin Smith is out of the doghouse: After the disastrous Jersey Girl, this film is a thematic retreat, but an overall progression for the writer/director. Sure, going back to the Askewniverse smacks of desperation for a sure-fire redemption. There are enough fans of Jay and Silent Bob to cover the production costs of the film and that’s all that counts, right? Still, it doesn’t necessarily imply an artistic regression: Smith’s progression as a director continues to impress: While Clerks II had nowhere near the budget of the studio-backed Jersey Girl, the direction continues to progress. There are even a few nice moments here (including a sing-along to the Jackson 5’s “A.B.C.”) along with a camera that moves (!) from time to time. The editing, on the other hand, could use some work: too many shots last just a bit too long, which saps the comic energy of the film. See the far-too-indulgent “donkey show” sequence for the best examples. But it’s as a writer that Smith continues to make the most progress. Even though Clerks II continues to rely on its usual crutches (pop culture dialogue, in-your-face shock frankness, fantasy characterization), there is a solid emotional core in the middle of the R-rated dialogue, and the conclusion puts all the pieces together with a satisfying thunk. Smith is also fortunate in his choice of actors. Here, Rosario Dawson steals the show by grabbing a character seemingly written as a male dream-girl and transforming it into something extra. The film certainly won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s a huge part of its charm: While you may not understand why it’s funny to insult a Transformer fan by calling him a “Gobot”, I can guarantee you that it’s hilarious in its proper context. Now all we have to hope is that after finding solid ground once more, Kevin Smith will try something else for his next film.