(On DVD, December 2015) Watching Zack and Miri a few years later, knowing the trajectory of mainstream American comedy films toward the Judd Apatow model, becomes an exercise in pinpointing the passing of the torch from Kevin Smith to Apatow, with Smith basically capitulating and trying to ape Apatow’s style. There’s some logic in this evolution: Smith is, after all, largely responsible for normalizing bad language and sexual references in mainstream comedy. Seeing him pass the baton to Apatow feels like a natural succession. It doesn’t help that Zack and Miri feels a lot closer to Apatow’s films than to Smith’s ones. From the raunchy subject matter to the chaste execution, passing by the presence of Seth Rogen in a lead role and some improvisation breaking through Smith’s usually tightly-scripted style, this is a film that would look undistinguishable as part of Apatow’s filmography. For Smith, Zack and Miri is something strange: A not-so-good, now-derivative script combined with what is perhaps the slickest direction of his career so far. There are a few laughs, but much of the film’s emotional arc is predictable, although viewers will be asked to suffer through other people’s misery for a rather long time on the way to a happy conclusion. The wall-to-wall profanity gets tiresome and feels like endless immaturity; the sexual content is handled in a way designed to neuter it of anything but comic value. It’s not a bad film, but it now probably doesn’t feel as edgy or clever as Smith originally intended. The torch, as I said, has been passed.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) The good thing about today’s movie universe is that it has never been easier for just about any determined filmmaker to grab decent-quality filmmaking equipment and shoot their own movies. This also works for experienced filmmakers, who can indulge their creative urges with smaller projects for specific audiences. Sadly, this is also making it harder to stop projects that maybe shouldn’t have been completed. So it is that Kevin Smith can riff off a ridiculous premise in a podcast and, months later, complete a project based on that rant, about a hapless podcaster being tortured into becoming a walrus for a madman’s own purposes. The wonders of modern filmmaking! Of course, the problem for end-result Tusk is that even though it tries hard to be a comedy/horror hybrid, it’s neither funny nor scary. Just gross and pitiful, with a big side-order of boring. Justin Long is neither good nor bad as the protagonist: while Long-the-actor is naturally likable, his character is obnoxious enough to shut down any nascent sympathy for his fate. Tusk is self-aware enough to have joke casting (such as having Johnny Depp in a supporting role without crediting him, or featuring Depp’s and Smith’s daughters in small roles), but as with most of the film’s characteristics, the final result is slight enough as to make everything seem pointless. If Tusk had been a better film, I would have a few nice things to say about the dialogue, the fractured chronology, some directorial choices or Michael Parks’ performance. But it’s pointless, grotesque and interminable even at 90 minutes. Even the Canadian content left me less than enthusiastic (the badly-translated French doesn’t help). I’m not opposed to dumb midnight-movies, but Tusk is not a good example of the form. And if Kevin Smith’s career is headed in the direction of increasingly-hermetic fan-service goofs, then I’m happy to let him go there and never look again; after all there are plenty of other filmmakers doing far more interesting things with the means at their disposal.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) With every new Kevin Smith movie, it becomes harder and harder to remember why I liked his first few movies. It may have been the sheer novelty of the sharp irreverent dialogue (at a time where this wasn’t as commonplace) coupled with the conspicuously lousy directing. But Red State is so far from the example set by his earlier better movies that Smith’s name as a director is now more cause for a double-take than anything else. A dull and unpleasant departure in C-grade thriller-land, Red State doesn’t quite know what to do with itself, and becomes less and less pleasant the longer it goes on. What looks at first like a cautionary tale about the dangers of Internet hook-ups quickly turns into an interminable sermon about right-wing conservatism, followed by yet another siege film in which the government agents play the trigger-happy just-as-bad guys. This Westboro-meets-Waco setup is pointless enough, but what makes it even less interesting is the sadism through which the characters are mowed down, the violent one-note caricature of the cult and the pointless resolution cloaked in anti-government clichés. Some actors manage to do good work: Michael Angarano could have been the protagonist of the film had it been better-conceived, John Goodman almost manages to acquit himself honorably and for all of the interminable duration of his monologues, Michael Parks is curiously compelling at the bloodthirsty cult leader. Smith’s direction has gotten better over the years but not that much better, and Red State‘s naturalistic atmosphere feels uglier than anything else, not exceeding the standards set by most Direct-to-Video thrillers. You can see the gleeful iconoclasm behind some of the film’s initial intentions, but the execution is simply too dull to be effective, and the film spares no time turning its audience against itself. As unpleasant as it is, rumors about an alternate rapturous ending as originally scripted would have made the film even worse, so I suppose we have that to be thankful about. Still, there is no excuse for the lengthy sermon scene or the trigger-happy violence. Where has Smith’s gift for witty dialogue, sympathetic characters or comic set-pieces gone? He keeps threatening retirement, and after Red State it’s easy to look forward to him keeping his promises.
(In theatres, March 2010) The most profound irony about Cop Out, as directed by Kevin Smith from someone else’s script, is that the film’s direction is quite a bit better than its screenplay. This should surprise Smith fans: after all, hasn’t it been a trademark of his movies that their writing frequently rises above their often-pedestrian direction? Here, through, Smith has a budget and presumably the time to present a more visually ambitious vision. Alas, the script just isn’t there: As a pair of policemen bumble their way through a dull storyline involving Latin gangsters in Brooklyn, Bruce Willis does well as the veteran leader of the pair but I remain unconvinced by Tracy Morgan’s comedic style. Worse, though, is the script’s fondness for police intimidation as a plot driver: in Cop Out’s reality, it’s hilarious for heroes to jam pistols and tattoo needles in civilians’ face to extract information. As for the rest of the film, it’s more miss than hit. Seann William Scott has an intriguing character that’s played for senseless giggles. Other characters come and go, with a dramatic plot heavy-handedly jammed in the middle of the comedy. There’s a noticeable lack of flow to the proceedings, and the spot-the-references-to-eighties-action-movies game quickly grows tiresome. For a comedy, Cop Out has a noticeable lack of laughs: even what is supposed to be amusing just feels dumb. On the other hand, the direction feels undistinguishable from most cookie-cutter cop comedies, which marks a step up for Smith. He’s still not doing it well, but at least it’s not as blatantly bad as in his first few films. Hopefully it’s a lucrative enough project that he’ll be able to work on something else soon. Still, even in mercenary work-for-hire projects, he may want to pick material that’s stronger than Jersey Girl.
(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.
(In theaters, April 2004) Ouch. While it’s not fair to begrudge writer/director Kevin Smith’s desire to grow up after five raucous comedies, it’s not poor efforts like Jersey Girl that will demonstrate anything. What’s nearly unbearable, though, is the dawning realization that the film’s problems stem from one source: The writing. The direction is surprisingly unremarkable for a Smith film (it looks like just about any cookie-cutter romance, which is a step up for Smith’s notoriously static style) and all of the actors do really good work, from Ben Affleck’s uneasy blue-collar worker to Elizabeth Castro’s adorable kid character. (Heck, even Liv Tyler has never looked hotter; it’s the glasses, I swear!) But the stuff that comes out of their mouth… eeew. Smith’s writing has always been the chief attraction of his films, but he completely (and repeatedly) misses the mark here: He brings to romantic drama the same sledge-hammer quality so obvious in his comedy and the result is a disaster. Characters spout off “on-the-nose” monologues to sleeping infants, react in broad and obvious ways that have no equivalent in the real world and engage in conversations that feel more like dramatic check-lists. Yikes. To add insult to injury, whatever comedy writing is in the film falls flat and feels forced. All in all, it’s not Smith’s new intentions that are at fault (despite everything, you can still sense the heart-felt bond between father and daughter) but his inept execution. Too bad.
(In theaters, August 2001) Non-Kevin Smith-fans probably shouldn’t even bother watching this fifth film in the Viewaskew Universe. Not only do it feature cameo bits from nearly everyone in the first four Smith films, but it also plays heavily upon the elements that made the series so endearing to fans and repulsive to others. A Road Trip film at heart, Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back is easily of the funniest films of the year, boldly skewering Internet fandom, Smith’s own films, Planet Of The Apes, homophobic rhetoric and a laundry list of element to numerous to contemplate here. Harsh language, off-color gags, simple stupidity and a lot of pantomime: it’s all there and more. There are annoyances beyond the usual Smith quirks, though: The film slows down considerably whenever there’s a monkey on-screen (a usual sign of creative bankruptcy, if you ask me) and that also includes Will Ferrell, completely unlikable here. There’s also an annoyance related to the Silent Bob character: In Smith’s first films, Silent Bob was silent because he didn’t need to talk; Jay handled the talking. He wasn’t this buffoon-like character gesticulating madly or overreacting at every gag. But, never mind that, Smith fans will love this final send-off to their beloved characters. Be sure to stay for the credits (always interesting to read) as in the charming post-credit clip, God herself closes the book on the Viewaskew Universe.
(On TV, September 2000) This film stands halfway between director/writer Kevin Smith’s low-budget wit and Hollywood’s big-budget means. While technically, the result is far beyond the hand-camera used to film Clerks (his first feature film), the story it illustrates seems… wrong… for the means used. Don’t be mistaken; Mallrats is still filled with enough of Smith’s trademark witty dialogues, outrageously frank vignettes and tasty scenes to be entertaining for everyone. There’s just something… faintly wrong here. The happy ending, perhaps?
(On VHS, December 1999) Almost certainly the most technically inept film I’ve ever seen. And, unlike some B-movie reviews, this is no mere hyperbole: Clerks was shot for under $30,000 at the writer/director Kevin Smith’s workplace, financed by his credit cards and starring almost complete non-actors. It’s in grainy black and white film stock, with static camera setups and almost no editing to speak of. And yet… this is one of the funniest, most well-written comedy you’re likely to see in any given year. Raunchy (the film was originally rated NC-17 on subject matter and language alone) but incredibly witty vignettes pepper a film that’s fully a cut over the mindless polished comedies that Hollywood churns out. Marilyn Ghigliotti is wonderful in one of the lead roles. Give this one a try and don’t be put off by the slow start.
(On TV, December 1999) An in-your-face comedy about sex, but it’s far, far better than the inanities of Porky, American Pie and other raunchy teen-oriented films. A frank look at the problems of sex (as opposed as to its attractiveness), Chasing Amy mines lesbianism, attraction, jealousy, male and female priorities, love, friendship and naturally presents the whole structure as being insanely unstable. It feels real, but it’s also hilarious… in a cathartic sense. The real strength of the film is the script and the acting, since writer/director Kevin Smith is almost mortally afraid of moving the camera or trying out any fancy cinematographic technique. A shame, because this flat directing actually distracts from the movie itself. (The strongly-directed scenes, like the rainy reunion and the record-shop discussion, stand out almost because of the better-than-static direction) Still, Chasing Amy is more than worth a look. For mature audiences only!
(In theaters, November 1999) As a good little (lapsed) catholic boy, I got a kick out of this film, maybe more than it actually deserves from an objective point of view. Kevin Smith’s script oscillates between the sharply clever and the drawn-out obvious, but gets the job done. The casting is spectacular, though unequal: even though I generally worship Salma Hayek, she wasn’t the best choice for Serendipity. Steadily funny, with an irreverent questioning streak, Dogma is actually respectful to both theist and atheist crowds, encouraging everyone to question their beliefs… and that’s respectable enough for any film.