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Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019)

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is strictly made for writer/director Kevin Smith’s fanbase, so does trying to play outside this cultivated audience even matter? Honestly, there’s no way this is going to be anyone’s first Smith movie, so it’s already running on an assumed sense of familiarity with the characters and stories of old, which is often a perquisite to enjoying many of the jokes (more on this later). It’s been 25 years since Clerks originally debuted and showcased Smith’s ribald and shrewd sense of dialogue-driven, pop-culture-drenched humor. He’s created his own little sphere with a fervent fanbase, so does he need to strive for a larger audience with any forthcoming movies or does he simply exclusively serve the existing crowd?

Jay (Jason Mewes) and his hetero life-mate Silent Bob (Smith) are out for vengeance once again. Hollywood is rebooting the old Bluntman and Chronic superhero movie from 2001, this time in a dark and edgy direction, and since Jay and Silent Bob are the inspirations for those characters, even their likenesses and names now belong to the studio. The stoner duo, older and not so much wiser, chart a cross-country trip to California to attend ChronicCon and thwart the filming of the new movie, directed by none other than Kevin Smith (himself). Along the way, Jay and Bob discover that Jay’s old flame, Justice (Shannon Elizabeth), had a daughter, Millennium “Milly” Falcon (Harley Quinn Smith) and Jay is the father. Milly forces Jay and Bob to escort her and her group of friends to ChronicCon and Jay struggles with holding back his real connection to her.

One of my major complaints with 2016’s Yoga Hosers (still the worst film of his career) was that it felt like it was made for his daughter, her friends, and there was no point of access for anyone else. It felt like a higher-budget home movie that just happened to get a theatrical release. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot feels somewhat similar, reaching back to the 2001 comedy that itself was reaching back on a half-decade of inter-connected Smithian characters. There is a certain degree of frantic self-cannibalism here but if the fans are happy then does Smith need to branch out? This is a question that every fan will have to answer personally. At this point, do they want new stories in the same style of the old or do they just want new moments with the aging characters of old to provide an ever-extending coda to their fictional lives?

I certainly enjoyed myself but I could not escape the fact at how eager and stale much of the comedy felt. Smith has never been one to hinge on set pieces and more on character interactions, usually profane conversations with the occasional slapstick element. This is one reason why the original Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back suffers in comparison to his more character-driven comedies. Alas, the intended comedy set pieces in Reboot come across very flat. A lustful fantasy sequence never seems to take off into outrageousness. A drug trip sequence begins in a promising and specific angle and then stalls. The final act has a surprise villain that comes from nowhere, feels incredibly dated, and delivers few jokes beyond a badly over-the-top accent and its sheer bizarre randomness. There’s a scene where the characters stumble across a KKK rally. The escape is too juvenile and arbitrary. A courtroom scene has promise when Justin Long appears as a litigation attorney for both sides but the joke doesn’t go further, capping out merely at the revelation of the idea. This is indicative of much of Reboot where the jokes appear but are routinely easy to digest and surface-level, seldom deepening or expanding. There’s a character played by Fred Armison who makes a second appearance, leading you to believe he will become a running gag that will get even more desperate and unhinged with each new appearance as he seeks vengeance. He’s never seen again after that second time. There are other moments that feel like setups for larger comedic payoffs but they never arrive. The actual clip of the Bluntman and Chronic film, modeled after Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman, is almost absent any jokes or satire. There are fourth-wall breaks that are too obvious to be funny as they rest on recognition alone. There’s a running joke where Silent Bob furiously taps away at a smart phone to then turn around and showcase a single emoji. It’s cute the first time, but then this happens like six more times. Strangely it feels like Smith’s sense of humor has been turned off for painfully long durations on this trip down memory lane. The structure is so heavily reminiscent of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back that there are moments that repeat step-for-step joke patterns but without new context, meaning the joke is practically the repetition itself.

The problem with comedy is that familiarity can breed boredom, and during the funny stretches, I found myself growing restless with Reboot as we transitioned from stop to stop among the familiar faces. I enjoyed seeing the different characters again but many of them had no reason to be involved except in a general “we’re bringing the band back together” camaraderie. It’s nice to see Jason Lee again but if he doesn’t have any strong jokes, why use him in this way? Let me dig further with Lee to illustrate the problem at heart with Reboot. Jay and Silent Bob visit Brodie (Lee) at his comic book shop, which happens to be at the mall now. He complains that nobody comes to the mall any longer and he has to worry about the “mallrats,” and then he clarifies, he’s talking about actual rodents invading the space, and he throws a shoe off screen. I challenge anyone to find that joke amusing beyond a so-bad-it’s-fun dad joke reclamation. I kept waiting for Smith to rip open some satirical jabs on pop culture since 2006’s Clerks II. In the ensuing years, Star Wars and Marvel have taken over and geek culture and comic books rule the roost. Surely a man who made his name on these topics would have something to say about this moment of over saturation, let alone Hollywood’s narrow insistence on cash-grab remakes. I kept waiting for the Smith of old to have some biting remarks or trenchant commentary. Milly’s diverse group of friends (including a Muslim woman named “Jihad”) is referred to like it’s a satirical swipe at reboots, but there isn’t a joke there unless the joke is, “Ha ha, everyone has to be woke these days,” which is clunky and doesn’t feel like Smith’s point of view. There are several moments where I felt like the humor was trying too hard or not hard enough. As a result, I chuckled with a sense of familiarity but the new material failed to gain much traction.

I do want to single out one new addition that I found to be hysterical, and that is Chris Hemsworth as a hologram version of himself at a convention. The Thor actor has opened up an exciting career path in comedy as highlighted by 2017’s Ragnarok, but just watching his natural self-effacing charm as he riffs about the dos and don’ts of acceptable behavior with his hologram is yet another reminder that this man is so skilled at hitting all the jokes given to him.

Where the movie succeeds best is as an unexpected and heartfelt father/daughter vehicle, with Jay getting a long-delayed chance to mature. It’s weird to say that a movie with Jay and Silent Bob in starring roles would succeed on its dramatic elements, but that’s because it feels like this is the territory that Smith genuinely has the most interest in exploring. The concept of Jay circling fatherhood and its responsibilities is a momentous turn for a character that has previously been regarded as a cartoon. His growing relationship with Milly is the source of the movie’s best scenes and the two actors have an enjoyable and combative chemistry, surely aided by the fact that Mewes has known Harley Quinn Smith her entire existence. This change agent leads to some unexpected bursts of paternal guidance from Jay, which presents an amusing contrast. There’s a clever through line of the difference between a reboot and a remake, and Smith takes this concept and brilliantly repackages it into a poignant metaphor about parenthood in a concluding monologue. Smith’s position as a father has softened him up a bit but it’s also informed his worldview and he’s become very unabashedly sentimental, and when he puts in the right amount of attention, it works. There’s an end credit clip with the late Stan Lee where Smith is playing a potential Reboot scene with Stan the Man, and it’s so sweet to watch the genuine affection both men have for one another. I’m raising the entire grade for this movie simply for a wonderful extended return of Ben Affleck’s Holden McNeil character, the creator of Bluntman and Chronic. We get a new ending for 1997’s Chasing Amy that touches upon all the major characters and allows them to be wise and compassionate. It’s a well-written epilogue that allows the characters to open up on weightier topics beyond the standard “dick and fart” jokes that are expected from a Smith comedy vehicle. It’s during this sequence where the movie is allowed to settle and say something, and it hits big time.

The highly verbose filmmaker has been a favorite of mine since I discovered a VHS copy of Clerks in the late 90s. I will always have a special place reserved for the man and see any of his movies, even if I’m discovering that maybe some of the appeal is starting to fade. I don’t know if we’re ever going to get a Kevin Smith movie that is intended for wide appeal again. Up next is Clerks 3, which the released plot synopsis reveals is essentially the characters of Clerks making Clerks in the convenience store, which just sounds overpoweringly meta-textual. He’s working within the confines of a narrow band and he seems content with that reality. I had the great fortune to attend the traveling road show for this film and saw Smith and Mewes in person where they introduced Reboot and answered several questions afterwards. Even though it was after midnight (on a school night!) I was happy I stayed because it was easy to once again get caught up in just how effortlessly Smith can be as a storyteller, as he spins his engaging personal yarns that you don’t want to end. As a storyteller, I’ll always be front and center for this gregarious and generous man. As a filmmaker, I’ll always be thankful for his impact he had on my fledgling ideas of indie cinema and comedy, even if that means an inevitable parting of ways as he charts a well-trod familiar path. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is made strictly for the fans, and if you count yourself among that throng, you’ll likely find enough to justify a viewing, though it may also be one of diminished returns.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Yoga Hosers (2016)

yogahosers_27x40_onesheet_c5_finalKevin Smith has been a filmmaker who has flouted expectations. When people didn’t think the Clerks guy could make a religious thriller, he did it. When people said a movie about a man being transformed into a walrus creature was undoable, he did it. I was a moderate fan of Tusk, that man-as-walrus-as-Frankenstein movie that started as a joke premise from Smith’s popular podcast and then given strange cinematic life. Yoga Hosers is the second part in Smith’s “True North” trilogy of Canadian-set horror films. I wasn’t expecting much with Yoga Hosers and I felt like I got even less than that.

Colleen Collete (Lily-Rose Depp) and Colleen McKenzie (Harley Quinn Smith) are bored clerks at a Winnipeg convenience store. Their world is turned upside down when an attractive senior boy invites them to a “grade 12” party. Too bad they have to work, though even when on the clock the girls hardly work, instead preferring to jam in the back storage room as a fledging rock band. The girls have bigger threats than unruly customers. They’ll have to battle bad Satanists, forgotten Canadian Nazis, and tiny bratwurst men who leak sauerkraut when smashed. What’s a Canuck to do?

yoga-hosers-1280x720The two areas that have always been the hallmarks of a Kevin Smith movie, his idiosyncratic characterization and ribald humor, are both strangely absent and desperately needed. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, I turned to my friend and confided, “I think I hate these girls already.” It’s somewhat ironic that Smith has gone back again to the bored convenience store clerks as the platform for his heroes. Where Dante and Randall were railing against pop-culture, adult responsibility, and a society that constantly made them feel inferior for their menial occupations, these girls aren’t railing against anything. If anything they’re retreating from the world, their noses constantly glued to their smart phones and social media. The excursions with youth culture feel rather inauthentic. The teen dialogue lacks comic snap and repeats phrases too often that it feels like set-up for T-shirt slogans (“Basic!”). Smith is far from his territory of dick and fart jokes and esoteric pop-culture detours. We’re introduced to many new characters with a slam edit of an Instagram-like cover page accompanied by an irritatingly chirpy 8-bit score. The intro graphics appear so quickly as to have little impact other than annoyance. The lead characters have no engaging personalities. They have an infatuation with older, cute boys, a love of yoga, a general attitude against authority, and a common level of self-involvement, but they’re not characters. They’re goofy but rarely are they grounded or better developed. One girl is daft and the other girl is… less daft. I’m not expecting these characters to have depth considering this is a movie with one-foot tall killer bratwurst Nazis, but some degree of personality is demanded. It’s the bare minimum.

Smith’s millennial satire is fairly toothless, which sadly is much like the comedy of Yoga Hosers. I hope you like puns and jokes about how funny Canadian accents are. The Colleens say “soory aboot that” and isn’t that hilarious? How about a convenience store called “Eh-2-Zed”? How about a yogi whose name is Yogi Bayer? How about an off-brand version of Lucky Charms called Pucky Charms? Why are there so many freaking puns? Then there’s the re-emergence of Johnny Depp’s wacky Quebec investigator, Guy Lapointe, allowing Depp to indulge his tendency for prosthetics and heavy accents. The shticky Lapointe character absolutely derailed Tusk and whatever unsettling momentum had been built, but he feels far more at home in the goofy world of Yoga Hosers. I might even say his presence is one of the highlights, as once more Depp gets to sink his teeth into all the Peter Sellers physical comedy tics he’s been holding back.

There’s just not enough comedy to go around here. There are goofy elements that crash into one another, like the Brat-Zis and a gigantic Goalie Golem, but it feels very much like Smith is just throwing a lot of dispirit elements together and expecting cohesion. He might even be expecting the audience to be satiated just in seeing something “different.” While Red State and Tusk were films that had sharp tonal shifts, Yoga Hosers never really settles into the silly supernatural teen comedy it desires to be. I laughed here and there but it was mostly attributed to Smith letting his more capable comic actors go off on tangents, like Justin Long’s yogi with his unorthodox poses. Ralph Garman, Smith podcast regular, shows up late as a Nazi who prefers to discuss his plans via celebrity impressions, a talent of Garman’s. It’s the kind of “hell, why not?” plotting that dominates the movie and makes you wonder if there ever was a finished script.

yoga-hosers-johnny-deppI doubt any version of this story would have materialized if it wasn’t starring the daughters of Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp, and I don’t have a huge issue with this. Nepotism has been a core function of Hollywood for over a hundred years, and if Smith wants to create a vehicle for his daughter, by all means. The two young ladies have a pleasant chemistry and are believable BFFs. Their back-and-forth will occasionally elevate the jokes, like their insistent yet limited Batman impressions. Harley Quinn Smith has an enjoyable mugging quality that shows she’s studied her expressions from the school of Silent Bob. Her companion, Lily-Rose Depp, may be the real breakout. She’s the more consistent actor and the stronger anchor for the film. Even when the dialogue lets her down she still infuses a notable energy into her performance. There’s an emerging talent under the surface that looks ready for discovery, and perhaps the French film Planetarium with Natalie Portman will make others take notice. I get the impression that Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp are proud papas and just wanted to have fun together as a family. Consider the movie the equivalent of a quirky sweet 16 birthday party.

Yoga Hosers is a movie for a very select group of people, perhaps only Smith’s immediate family, friends, and most ardent of podcast listeners. I doubt that’s me. I’ve been a Smith fan since my own teens. His was one of the cinematic voices that awoke my own sense of what movies could be. I miss the caustic wit that separated Smith from the indie pack. The man was one of the few writers who could spin crass vulgarity into Shakespearean gold. He was a writing talent that many emulated but few could reproduce. Smith’s whip-smart comic perspective has always been his biggest cinematic draw, but with Yoga Hosers it feels decidedly neutered and wound down. I know he has gone on record saying he’s making the movies he wants to make without interference, but it doesn’t feel like the same Smith. Admittedly, a filmmaker in his early 20s is going to have a different perspective and creative impulses than a husband and father in his mid 40s. This apparently means that Smith has veered away from his conversational comedies and button-pushing topics and bought fully into genre filmmaking, mixing a pastiche of horror elements and varying tones. As an artist he doesn’t owe me or any other fan anything. Yoga Hosers might be a one-off, a love letter to his teen daughter and her bestie, or it could portend what is to come. Kevin Smith is making movies for himself at this point in his career. If you feel left out in that equation, like me, that’s okay. We can always go back and watch Clerks again. From my viewpoint, it feels like Smith is voluntarily erasing what made him a unique cinematic voice and choosing to disappear into the benign morass of schlocky genre filmmaking.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Tusk (2014)

Tusk-poster-WEB-READY1You’ve never seen a Kevin Smith film quite like this. Even after the man’s first foray into the horror genre with the flawed but tonally ambitious Red State, I never would have expected the man best known for lewd discussions over pop-culture minutia to take note of The Human Centipede and more or less say, “Hey, let me try.” After a short self-imposed retirement, it seems like Smith is creatively reinvigorated, crafting even more boutique films that no one else would make, and Tusk is a prime example of this. Whether or not the world needs a film where a man is kidnapped and physically transformed into a walrus is a personal question you’ll have to answer in your own space.

Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) is an egotistical podcaster who is something akin to the mean-spirited version of Ira Glass. He travels around the country interviewing strange people for their strange stories, all to relate to his travel-phobic pal and podcast co-host, Teddy (Haley Joel Osment, all grown up). The two guys then crack jokes and make fun of these pathetic weirdos and losers. While in Canada, Wallace finds a curious posting in a men’s room from a man named Howard Howe (Michael Parks) seeking a companion to share his lifetime of stories with. Wallace jumps at the chance, enters Howard’s secluded home, and listens as the older, wheelchair-bound eccentric spins several yarns, notably a tale where he was lost at sea. His only “friend” was a walrus who he credits with helping to save his life. He misses his seafaring friend, and Howard has secretly drugged Wallace with the intent or transforming him into a human-walrus composite.

-1If you’re a fan of bonkers body horror and demented humor, then Tusk just might be a short but potently nasty little treat for you. If you’ve seen enough similar genre entries you’ll likely be guessing several of the plot turns before they happen, like the tea being laced with a chemical or Howard holding back his real and fiendish capabilities. However, there are moments that simply defy prediction, especially the last half of the movie where Smith doubles down on the madness of executing his premise. The tone is rather uneven and can prove to be a hindrance, with the first half more dramatic and the second half more absurd comedy. Smith impresses early on by slowly teasing the reveals: the duplicitous Howard, the revelation of missing parts, the full-on transformation. The knowing camerawork and long, creepy conversations build suspense even when we stop and realize how ridiculous this entire movie can be. And that’s not an insult but a compliment, even a saving grace when the movie takes a few too many unwieldy detours (more on that later). With a premise this bizarre, and from a director in such unknown territory as Smith has waded, I, dear reader, was laughing throughout. Tonally, it felt like Smith was acknowledging the silliness of his movie but still being true to genre. There are some genuinely creepy and unsettling moments sprinkled throughout. The practical makeup gore can at times make skin look like a crumply raincoat. The final image of Long as a human walrus is both ludicrous and a horrifying sight you cannot un-see.

Much of the movie is a series of conversations and monologues featuring Long (Dodegball, He’s Just Not That Into You) and Parks (Kill Bill). Hell, even Genesis Rodriguez (Man on a Ledge) gets a monologue; she’s Wallace’s put upon girlfriend who doesn’t like the man he’s become with fame. It’s a rather rote part undeserving of a performance as good as Rodriguez delivers. She must have thought, “Here’s my acting reel for the next few years; look casting directors, I can do much more than look hot.” Back to the central duo, Long and Parks. The film’s greatest assets are these actors and the movie is at its best when they share the screen. After his skin-crawling turn as a bile-spewing zealot in Red State, I expected Parks to be unhinged and frightening, which he is in spades. The man’s calm demeanor is especially eerie. When he breaks into openly mocking his victims, adopting Wallace’s howling cry, is another moment that bounces from creepy to funny and back to creepy again. It’s a performance pattern that Parks nimbly dances throughout the film. Honestly, this may be the strongest performance of Long’s career. He gets to portray an array of different shades with his character, from egomaniacal jerk to timid victim and finally raging science experiment (Smith’s script reminds you often how much of a jerk Wallace was). It’s more than just a performance of panicked screams. Long manages to find a character here and stays true to him, even as Wallace’s psychological grasp is broken. He almost grounds the absurd third act due to the strength of his performance.

720x405-TUSK_00063_rgbIt’s that more jocular second half where Tusk starts to lose its momentum and focus, and that’s primarily because of the introduction of the character Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp), a French Canadian private eye. Yes, that Johnny Depp, starring in a Kevin Smith movie, adopting a silly accent and a silly fake mustache and becoming what is essentially his take on Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. It’s a character that feels like he walked in from the set of a different movie, one that is far more aimlessly wacky. The sequences with Lapointe are also laboriously overstuffed. They just go on and on, and you fee whatever sense of momentum starting to flee, sadly. Depp is amusing and I’m genuinely thrilled to see him in a small movie where he can afford to be even weirder. The problem is that the Lapointe scenes feel more like an improv session that Smith was afraid to cut short or nudge in a different direction, as if he was so gracious about Depp agreeing to be involved that he ceded all control of those scenes. The introduction to the character is a ten-minute sequence, itself with an overextended flashback, and after the initial shock and fun of watching Depp wears off, I started wishing to get back to the man-walrus.

Tusk is a unique experience, a macabre experimental lark from Kevin Smith, but it also seems to be the first in a new direction for a man who made his millions on stoner comedies. Smith is currently underway on three other movies, all of them horror, two of which are the next stages in what has become his Canadian Trilogy of Terror. While Tusk hasn’t made a blip at the box-office (if ever there was a film that cried out for on-demand, here it is), it has reawakened Smith’s creative impulses and now the guy can’t stop. Tusk is gross, funny, and genuinely creepy before it goes overboard with its very special guest star. I understand from a plot standpoint why another main character was necessary, but the movie needs some further discipline and tightening that it lacks. Basically, after reading the premise, you’ll know whether or not this film is for you. My girlfriend accompanied me without any knowledge of the plot or the genre, and she enjoyed it. Perhaps there’s hope for you as well.

Nate’s Grade: B-

 

Red State (2011)

Kevin Smith, love him or hate him, you can’t deny the man is a natural promoter. Earlier in the year, the indie filmmaker self-distributed his first foray into horror films, Red State, on a nationwide tour of screenings. I first saw Red State way back in March when Smith visited Springfield, Ohio to screen the film and then answer questions afterwards. I’ve been trying to wrestle with my critical opinion in the ensuing months. Fortunately for me, Smith has made it extremely easy to revisit my thoughts. Red State eschewed the traditional theatrical release pattern for a new digital-age model. It was available on demand through cable systems, available for download, and even broadcast in special theaters for a one-night only event. A month later the film hit DVD. In its better moments, Red State is the unholy union of Quentin Tarantino’s love of language, and penchant for jolting violence, and the Coen brothers’ nihilistic, cock-eyed sensibilities. This is strange new territory for the man. I wish I could say Red State is worthy of all the attention, though this sinister, messy, gritty little movie can work its wicked mojo, at least for a while.

The Five Points Church is a notorious family-operated cult. Under the guidance of their shepherd, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), this fundamentalist Christian group pickets the funerals of dead soldiers, haranguing the grieved that their loved ones are dead because “God hates fags” (excuse me for failing to put two and two together). A group of teenage boys (Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun) is lured to Sara’s (Melissa Leo) trailer with the promise of sex. The middle-aged woman plies her young bucks with drinks and they are knocked out. The boys awaken to find they are inside the Five Points compound and witness to Abin Cooper’s solution to sinners. Rather than railing with signs, the family has decided to take a more hands-on approach and execute them. While this is going on, a sheriff’s deputy alerts the authorities and the ATF rolls up to the compound. Lead by Agent Keenan (John Goodman), the government agency engages in a firefight with the rightwing cult. Ordered to take down the compound, and all witnesses, the various characters will try and escape with their lives, never knowing when that fateful moment of atonement may drop.

What Smith does well for a genre novice is to keep his audience constantly upended. Just when we think we’ve settled on a protagonist and a plotline, suddenly Smith switches gears. The surprises are sudden and often merciless, leaving the audience little room to adjust. In a genre usually beholden to formula, the consistency of Smith’s surprises makes for a darkly satisfying viewing. Watching Red State demands due attention. Naturally, not all of these tonal shifts work to the movie’s best interest. The final shift, to all-out action thriller, is the most leaden. The Ruby Ridge/Waco-style standoff allows for a lot of gunfire but very little action. We mostly just cut back and forth between the two sides firing and, inexplicably high numbers, being shot in the face. It can get repetitive and seem like all the mounting tension gets squandered. There is a nice storyline within of one family member, Cheyenne (Kerry Bische), forming a plan to save the compound’s children and escape. Bische (the lead on the last season of TV’s Scrubs) makes fantastic use of her limited screen time to render the anxiety and fear of her character. She’s second only to Parks in the performance department as far as I’m concerned. Then the climax comes along and Smith teases being audacious, going in a fire-and-brimstone angle that would completely obliterate audience expectations. And just when it seems like we’re about to get something radical… Smith falls back to what he knows – dialogue. For the final five minutes, Smith concludes his narrative with two government officials explaining what happened in florid detail. It’s a fairly big letdown.

The setup of luring teens to their doom is an old horror staple, though usually the ones doing the sacrifices are card-carrying Satanists. And when exactly would a Satanist be in a situation needing to prove their validity with a membership card (“I’m sorry Mr. Darkseed, but we can’t give you the ten percent discount on all those goat skulls unless we see some valid photo ID.”)? Smith flips the switch religious allegiance. Instead of Satanists or some other misunderstood fringe religion, the cult is a group of pious Christians. There’s plenty of room to work here and Smith refrains from making easy associations; the Five Points nutjobs aren’t meant to represent Christians as a whole or Christianity. They are extremists, and they will go to extreme measures. Ostensibly based upon the Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps, you keep waiting for Smith to satirically carve up the clan, but this never really occurs beyond the superficial. Smith’s writerly instincts give Abin Cooper a ten-minute sermon/platform where the guy just unloads a hate-filled diatribe against homosexuals and progressives. For many, this will be the make it or break it point of the film. There are some genuinely tense moments to the first half of Red State. There’s one scene where the camera holds on Gallner (The Haunting in Connecticut) inside a wired cage. He rattles and screams and generally comes unglued, and we too piece together what he hears, dreading what is to come. The many escapes and narrow calls are also harrowing and finely edited to ratchet up suspense.

It seems, though, that Smith’s bleak screenplay does not present any characters we can truly root for. Horror has been shifting this way for the past twenty years. Thanks to the rise of the slasher flick, audience empathy has shifted from being with the running/screaming victims to being with the gruesome yet personable killers. Red State has a high body count but you won’t feel much when those bodies hit the floor. You’ll feel a jolt of shock, but from an empathy standpoint the needle barely registers. Sure, we don’t want people to be tortured and we want the abused to escape torment, but that’s not the same as characterization. The closeted sheriff (Stephen Root) feels like the start of an idea more than anything else. The trio of teen boys is presented with as little care as any other throwaway slasher flick. They are but meat for the grinder, our entryway into this hidden and spooky fundamental world. These aren’t so much characters as bodies waiting to be slain. The people are set up so they can be knocked down. This issue can become troubling when Smith wants us to rethink our loyalties, especially once the siege has begun. He wants us, dares us, to start feeling empathy for members of the Five Points Church. The problem is that the plot’s adherence to shock value and the underbelly of human nature has desensitized our empathy. When the ATF starts firing most in the audience will probably just cheer, not reflectively question the moral relativism. I doubt anyone will be switching allegiances midway through.

Cults are usually held together with a charismatic leader, and Red State has that in spades with Parks. The man just dissolves into his twisted character, a preacher that uses the Word of God to indoctrinate and arm for his own holy war. Parks has done fine supporting work before in the stable of Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez movies, but Red State is the actor’s biggest modern showcase yet. The man makes your skin crawl the way he can wrap hate into a honeyed, easily digestible product. Abin holds sway over his flock and likewise Parks commands the screen. He provides grandeur and menace to Smith’s words. It’s not a scenery-chewing performance; Parks doesn’t go for the obvious notes when he can hit something deeper and more unsettling. You get a sense that this man fully believes the dogma he teaches, and that makes him all the more terrifying. The other actors peopling Red State are fine, though Leo (Oscar-winner for The Fighter) seems a bit unrestrained especially in contrast with Parks. Goodman (TV’s Treme) gets to talk on the phone a lot to his unseen superiors. The end of the film just descends into frenzied yelling on everyone’s part.

Credited as a horror movie, though I view it more of a survivalist thriller but I suppose genre specifications are subjective, regardless, Red State is miles away from Smith’s usual output. The movie has its share of creeping dread and menace, thanks to Parks’ transfixing performance. The screenplay is unrepentantly dark, cruelly cutting down lives with shocking acuity. The constant surprises and upheavals are a way to keep the audience guessing, though the shock value starts to wear off by the noisy, repetitive gun battle climax. It’s hard to nail down exactly what kind of commentary Smith is presenting. Obviously he doesn’t side with the hateful fundamentalists (this is probably why he pulls back at the end), but he also shows the government’s reaction to religious zealots to be morally queasy at best. It’s hard to get a read what the commentary is, and with horror, if you don’t take a stab at commentary then you’re just watching high-gloss snuff films. Red State resembles a snuff film in several ways and not just in its grimy aesthetics. You feel a little dirty after it’s over, and you can’t help but question your motives for watching it. Plus you can’t help but think it could have been better done (note: I have never watched an actual snuff film, you sickos, but the point remains).

Nate’s Grade: B-

Cop Out (2010)

As an avid Kevin Smith fan, it pains me to say this but Cop Out might be one of the least funny movies of the year. Sure it made me chuckle here and there, but mostly I sat staring slack-jawed, yawning, and wondering how this movie went so completely wrong. Smith is known without exception as a talent behind the typewriter, not the camera. He’s an ingeniously crass playwright in a filmmaker’s body. To hire Smith solely as director/visual storyteller is like hiring Picasso to mow your lawn — not the best use of his talents. To Smith’s credit, the film has a much stronger visual pulse than anything he’s ever committed to celluloid before, however, it still only looks like a marginal, mediocre Hollywood movie. Is that considered a success? The movie wants to parody the buddy cop action films of the 1980s. One of the more amusing additions is that Harold Faltermeyer (Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun) fashions a brand new 80s style synth and guitar styled score. It’s the best and funniest part of the movie. Cop Out spends an inordinate amount of time and attention to a tortuous plot that nobody should care about. Another miscalculation is that the tone never really settles and often Smith and company attempt a light touch when it comes to parody, which makes the film just look like an incompetent retread of 80s action movies. Just because we’re familiar with stuff doesn’t mean it can be funny without comment. The movie looks even shabbier in comparison with Will Ferrell’s similarly aimed The Other Guys, a far more winning and funnier venture. I wanted to laugh; I strained to find something to appreciate, which was especially hard as the movie tilts more toward action in the final 20 minutes. The slack pacing, lame dialogue, poor chemistry between lead cops Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan (who just comes off as an unfunny idiot with a loudspeaker for a mouth), disjointed tonality, and ill-conceived comic setups (car chase in a cemetery leads to? nothing? Morgan chases a suspect while he wears a cell phone costume … *crickets*) all take their toll and make me seriously question what drew the interest of so many, otherwise, talented people. Smith got hours of stories after shooting a small role alongside Willis for Die Hard 4. I hope Smith can justify this load with a few more hours of entertaining and juvenile stories for his road shows and podcasts. If that sounds like a faint attempt to find a silver lining for what is otherwise a tremendously botched comedy, then let it be seen as such.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

It’s amazing how integrated pornography has become in our culture. Merely a few decades ago people had to wear disguises to venture out to a ratty theater to watch an adult movie alongside plenty of folks in raincoats helping to add to the sticky floors. Nowadays releasing a sex tape is considered a career boost. Porn stars have replaced supermodels as rock star arm candy, porn has become more socially acceptable, and a wealth of bizarre and explicit possibilities exist just a few keystrokes away. In the end, it’s all fantasy with bad acting.

And yet Kevin Smith’s newest comedy, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, got in trouble with advertisers because of people getting in a tizzy over the goofy word “porno.” Major League Baseball was told that a father was uncomfortably asked by his son what a “porno” was after seeing a commercial during a ball game. Heaven forbid our nation’s parents have to deal with an uncomfortable subject, so baseball banned any ads for the movie. Many newspapers nationwide have refused to list the full title. The original poster was deemed too inappropriate so Smith and crew devised a poster of stick figures. Poster version 2.0 then came under fire for being attractive to children because of the stick figure art. It seems Zack and Miri is getting it at both ends (no pun intended).

Times are tough for lifelong friends Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks). They’re scrambling to pay their bills and keep the electricity in their apartment during a chilly winter in Pennsylvania. Inspired by a conversation with a chatty gay porn star (Justin Long) at their tenth year high school reunion, Zack believes amateur porn can solve their money woes. The two will make their own porn video and sell it to the alumni list from their graduating class, who, Zack rationalizes, would buy a porn if they knew someone involved. Zack convinces his coffee shop co-worker Delaney (Craig Robinson) to help fund the project. Delaney agrees as long as he can have a say in casting; after many years of marriage he is eager to see something new. The team also recruits a squeaky-voiced stripper (current porn starlet Katie Morgan), an old bachelor party performer (former porn starlet Traci Lords), a cameraman (Jeff Anderson), and a man free from any inhibition (Jason Mewes). But Zack and Miri must confront their unspoken feelings for one another as they approach their own sex scene. Can they go from platonic friends to lovers?

Being a Smith film, naturally Zack and Miri is outrageous and often hysterical. The film manages to become witty and dirty at the same time, often stringing together vulgarities in exciting and imaginative ways (the curious “Dutch Rudder” as a means of escaping being deemed gay). Smith has a love of the profane. The movie is vulgar like most Smith movies but the beauty of its filth is in the sparkling, rapid-fire dialogue that adds eloquence to the scatological. This is Smith’s comedic brand, the verbose dirty joke. As in other Smith comedies, the true humor is not found in set pieces and set-ups but in the everyday camaraderie of the cast and through casual conversations. Smith writes characters that you just want to listen to for hours. Zack and Miri does have some funny moments that are specific to the production of randy moviemaking, like an unforgettable de-clogging that “frosts” a cameraman. The joke is swift. However, akin to the Judd Apatow brand of comedy, this is a movie where the charm is watching the characters interact, regardless of setting. I do think the movie unfortunately missed plenty of other potential gags on the silly minutia of homemade pornography. How about the crazy duties for a sound design? Imagine a guy trying to recreate the many weird bodily sounds during sex. I’m mildly shocked that Smith didn’t even touch the vagaries of pubic hair style.

What the movie does nicely is dwell upon the distinction between love and sex. Now I’m not conveniently forgetting the thousands of movies that have come before and dealt with the topic of intimacy and carnality, but Zack and Miri goes into the nuts and bolts (no pun intended) of an industry that has turned intimacy into a mass-market business model. Zack and Miri stress out about their Big Scene and try to convince themselves that it won’t mean anything, but of course their body language betrays them. The actual deed is an obvious turning point for the twosome and count this as one sex scene that is actually, well, emotionally climactic and, yes, sexy. Though the camera only stays at shoulder-length and alternates between two angles, the actors convincingly convey an array of genuine feelings, notably love. It’s not easy for an actor to display honest-to-goodness love, but Banks and Rogen achieve this feat. The aftermath of their onscreen coupling extends into a seemingly unnecessary third act that divides them apart in a contrived fashion. Seriously, the typical third act misunderstanding in standard romantic comedy fluff is alive and well in a Smith vehicle. The characters do not react to this misunderstanding in a realistic manner; one character would rather be sequestered than easily prove their innocence.

While Zack and Miri has plenty of laughs and a nice, mushy center, I cannot help but feel mixed about the results. The characters are not nearly as sharply drawn as they have been in other Apatow comedies, even other Kevin Smith movies. I can go back and remember the multiple dimensions of the funny people that populated Superbad, Sarah Marshall, 40-Year Old Virgin and others, but Kevin Smith’s latest comedy suffers in comparison. Zack and Miri are the only characters with moderate sums of characterization, and yet their unspoken love is essentially the bulk of that. Neither character is well defined or explored in a substantial way that doesn’t involve the other. I get that the movie is a romance. But I expect more from characters than to be defined by whom they desire. I just wanted more. Yes Zack is a slacker who says he’s just looking for a good time, though we know he has his sights set on more, and yes Miri is a gorgeous gal with a lot of patience, but these characters are staples of Kevin Smith movies. The assorted side characters have fun moments but are mostly insignificant. There’s the stripper with a heart of gold, the been-around-the-block type, the henpecked husband, the secret freak behind the button-down exterior, the loudmouth, and the sex-crazed dude. Zack and Miri establishes the idea of filmmaking as a community by introducing this lot, but the movie then forgets to incorporate the supporting characters in meaningful ways. They’re mostly used for jokes that fail to extend beyond the immediate. A late scene involving Delaney’s angry wife (Tisha Campbell-Martin) relies on too many grating “white boy” japes that I tuned out. I’m not intending to slam Smith’s film, but the lack of character work hampers the audience investment in the central romance.

What is lacking on paper is nearly compensated by the great performances from Rogen and Banks. Both are on loan from the Apatow comedy company, and both are skilled at being raunchy one second and heartfelt the next. Rogen finds his comic groove easily and is an enjoyable schmo that taps hidden ambition in the most unlikely of scenarios. It really is Banks who comes across as the star of the flick. She can talk trash with the boys but she is radiant during the film’s dramatic moments, selling Miri’s emotional highs and lows with crinkling smiles and fluttering eyelashes. Banks has always been a solid actress underutilized by most of her marginal film roles. With Zack and Miri, Banks showcases a devilish comedic gleam. Of course yet again the audience must believe that a beautiful gal with a beaming smile would be down on her luck finding a good guy.

In the end (no pun intended), Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a crude romantic comedy that might have benefited by more attention spent on the romance or the comedy. The tone never breaks as sharply as with Chasing Amy, arguably still Smith’s finest accomplishment, but the dirty humor and the gooey romance have a hard time expanding because of the presence of each other. Too often the ribald humor doesn’t feel fully realized because the dirty jokes are just window dressing for the romance, and I had trouble fully engaging with the romance because the characters haven’t been rendered to have substantial depth. Smith may have been better served by making his movie longer; the film is barely an hour and 40 minutes long. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a sweet movie with a dirty mind but it does not measure up to recent comedies like the best of Apatow’s brand. Smith is a talented wordsmith who certainly knows how to make an entertaining comedy, and Zack and Miri certainly entertains, but like pornography, it just made me want something more fleshed-out and real (no pun intended).

Nate’s Grade: B-

Southland Tales (2007)

Richard Kelly is a talented writer/director who scored big with his first film, modern cult classic Donnie Darko. I was in love with the ominous yet inspired Darko from the moment I saw it, which, not to toot my own horn, was February 2002, way before the cult got started. I have been eagerly anticipating Southland Tales, Kelly’s writing/directing follow-up, even after its notorious 2006 Cannes Film Festival reception where critics readily cited terms like “indulgent,” “bloated,” “messy,” and, “disaster.” My love of Darko shielded me from such negative affronts, and so I watched Southland Tales undaunted and with as open a mind as possible. The regrettable truth is that even after Kelly shaved off a half-hour from the Cannes version, Southland Tales is every bit a mess as had been advertised; however, it is occasionally worthwhile and subversively ambitious.

Kelly begins his massive yarn with a nuclear attack on Abilene, Texas in 2005. America is plunged into World War III and fights, simultaneously, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea, while the conflict with Iraq continues. The Internet is now in control of the government, who passes sweeping security measures, chief among them IdentiCorp. This government arm uses thousands of trained cameras to keep watch over the lives of ordinary citizens, including when they duck into public bathroom stalls. Violent neo-Marxist groups have placed cells around the country, ready and willing to strike to destroy the last vestiges of American capitalism.

Fuel resources have almost run dry and the world looks to scientist Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn, hamming it up and having a good time) for a solution. The Baron has devised a substance known as Fluid Karma, which works under the properties of the churning oceans and will produce a radius of power. Fluid Karma also works as a powerful hallucinogenic drug and the Baron tested it on wounded Iraqi vets like Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake). Coldly narrating the film, Abilene stands guard outside the Baron’s laboratory and also peddles the drug on the side.

It is the summer of 2008 and the presidential election is months away. The Republican candidate, Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne), is in crisis mode. His spoiled daughter (Mandy Moore) is frantic because her husband, actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), has vanished. He’s awakened in the California desert with amnesia and shacked up with porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar); the duo has written a prophetic screenplay called “The Power.” Krysta and a pair of tattoo babes (Nora Dunn) plan to blackmail the Frost campaign with video of Boxer frolicking with the adult movie star. They want the campaign to endorse Proposition 69, which would rescind the encroachments on civil liberties by the U.S. government.

A group of neo-Marxists, led by pint-sized Zora Carmichaels (Cheri Oteri), have kidnapped a police officer, Roland Taverner, and are using his twin brother Ronald (both played by Seann William Scott) to frame the police and Boxer. And I haven’t even begun to talk about Senator Frost’s wife (Miranda Richardson), the president of Japan having his hand lopped off in a loony sequence, the frequent inverting of T.S. Elitot’s quote about the way the world ends, a commercial where two cars literally have sex, and a rip in the space-time continuum that people are putting monkeys inside.

Extraordinarily messy and scattershot, Southland Tales has 1000 ideas rolling around inside without much traction. It’s as if Kelly thought he was never going to get the chance to make another movie again so he crammed every thought and topic he ever had into one 144-minute cross-pollinated jumble. The movie veers wildly and chaotically from political satire, to crude comedy, to sci-fi head-trip, all the way to Busby Berkley musical. There’s a little of everything here but few of the dispirited elements mesh and the film runs a good two hours before any sort of overall context becomes remotely approachable. One second the movie is satirizing a Big Brother control state and the loss of American civil liberties, and in the next second a character is threatening to kill herself unless Boxer allows her to orally pleasure him. You got, among other things, zeppelins, global deceleration, perpetual motion machines, Zelda Rubenstein, drugs, holes in time, twins, a murderous Jon Lovitz, ice cream trucks that house military-grade weapons, blackmail, Kevin Smith in a ZZ Top beard and no legs, reality TV, the American national anthem cut together with an ATM robbery, Biblical Revelation quotes courtesy of Timberlake, and, why not, the end of the world. What does it all mean? I have no idea but I credit Kelly for his ambition.

Plenty of stuff happens for a solid two hours but little to nothing feels like it amounts to anything, and several subplots just get dropped. There are long stretches where I cannot explain even “what’s happening” from a literal description. This sprawling, magnificently self-indulgent meditative opus consists too much of side characters running into each other and having vague, pseudo-intellectual conversations that go nowhere. There are a lot of nonsensical speed bumps in this narrative. Sometimes the screen is just nothing but a series of newscasts overloading the audience with details on the reality of this alternative America; it’s filler. The conclusion is rather frustratingly abrupt; after slogging through two-plus hours of oblique questions it finally seems like we may reach some tentative answers, and then Kelly pulls the pin on his grenade and collapses his tale. Krysta tells Boxer in a moment of clarity, “It had to end this way.” Really? It did? This way?

The movie feels like a giant garage sale with scattered treasures hard to find but buried beneath loads of kitsch. Kelly clearly has bitten off more than he can chew and yet there is a bizarre undeniable power to some moments here. Roland (or is it Ronald) Taverner watches his mirror reflection a step behind; it’s unsettling and eerie and very cool. Timberlake has a drug-induced dance number where his scarred (both physically and mentally) Iraq veteran character is covered in blood, drinks beer, and lip synchs to the Killers’ song “All the Things I’ve Done,” which has the pertinent lyrics, “I’ve got soul but I’m not a solider,” and “You gotta help me out.” All the while, leggy dancing girls in blonde bobs strut and coo around him. It’s weird and tangential to the plot but it has a certain draw to it. The conclusion featuring the Taverner twins seeking forgiveness even generates some redemptive quality. Religious questioning and the philosophy of souls occupying the same realm plays a heavy part and gives the film an approachable reflection that tickles the brain, even if Timecop, sort of, visited the same ground, albeit secular, first (you’ll kind of understand when you see the movie). Southland Tales is grasping at profound and relevant messages, and yet some images achieve this easily, like a toy soldier crawling on the L.A. streets or a tank with Hustler stamped across its side for product placement. These simple images are able to transcend Kelly’s pop manifesto.

None of the actors really equip themselves well with the outrageousness. Scott comes off the best but that’s because his character(s) is/are the only figure(s) the audience is given a chance to emotionally connect with. The Rock, listed for the first time simply as Dwayne Johnson, is an actor that I genuinely like and think has tremendous comic ability, as evidenced by 2003’s The Rundown. With this film, however, he comes across too constantly bewildered and shifty, like he really needs to pee and cannot find a bathroom. Gellar is woefully miscast and I think she knows it given her leaden performance. Southland Tales is the kind of film where every role, even the two-bit nothing parts, is played by a known face, be it Christopher Lambert, John Larroquette, Curtis “Booger” Armstrong, Will Sasso, and a horde of Saturday Night Live alums.

Kelly’s previous film succeeded partially because an audience was able to relate and care about the central characters, which is not the case with the comically broad Southland Tales. Kelly seems to work best when he has some restraint, be it financially or artistically; the director’s cut of Donnie Darko explained far too much and took some of the magic out of interpreting the movie on your own terms. Southland Tales runs wildly in the opposite direction and is a giant mess unseen in Hollywood for some time, though for the doomsayers comparing Southland Tales to studio-killing, self-indulgent, era-defining Heaven’s Gate, may I argue that Oliver Stone’s Alexander was far more self-indulgent, longer, wackier, and duller. Due to its unpredictable nature, you can never say Southland Tales is boring.

Southland Tales the movie begins as Chapter Four of Kelly’s saga, the first three chapters being made into comic books, and really, when I think about it, a comic book is the right medium for this material. The confines of narrative film are too daunting for Kelly’s overloaded imagination. Southland Tales is oblique, incoherent, strange, and unfocused but not without merit. I doubt Kelly will ever be given the same artistic legroom to create another picture like this, so perhaps Southland Tales has helped to reign in Kelly’s filmmaking. A reigned-in Kelly is where he does his best work, and I look forward to Kelly’s remake of Richard Matheson’s story, “The Box,” presumably with no dance numbers and sexually active motor vehicles.

Nate’s Grade: C

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

A lot has changed in the world and for Bruce Willis since last we saw John McClane in 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance a.k.a. Die Hard 3: Die Harder-er. Is a post 9/11 anxiety-ridden world, does someone like McClane feel quaint, like the remnant of a bygone era? Live Free or Die Hard, a.k.a. Die Hard 4, is Willis getting back to butt-kicking, wise-cracking basics. The film is a surprising and fun summer entry that could have been much much worse, and for that I am grateful.

McClane (Willis) is a pretty run down man thanks to the rigors of his job the heavy price being labeled a “hero.” He’s divorced, estranged from his teenage daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and retired from the force. He gets called to transport a hacker named Matt (Justin Long) from New Jersey to D.C. and into federal custody. Before he can leave Matt’s apartment, assassins start shooting at McClane and the hacker and the two go on the run for their lives. A former national security leader, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) has planned what is known as a Fire Sale, where the United States’ infrastructure is brought to a standstill by eliminating all power services, communications, and causing the nation to be consumed by chaos. Matt was one of the many that were contracted to unknowingly write code that would assist in Gabirels’ techno takedown. Now Gabriel is cleaning up his tracks and that involves removing an increasingly irritatable John McClane.

The film is nothing short of Bruce Willis trying to reclaim the action movie genre the way he sees it should be. Die Hard 4 is all about how computers and our complete reliance on modern technology put us all at risk if someone ever pulls the plug. Willis and the film are an efficient, and enjoyably retrograde Hollywood action flick that scoffs at kung fu, self-indulgent effects, and the gravity-defying acrobatics that have dominated action cinema since the rise of The Matrix. McClane shrugs and cannot understand this “kung fu shit” and mistrusts computers. Die Hard 4 puts most of its attention on good old-fashioned practical stunt work, not that the film’s sequences are practical, like when McClane is driving an 18-wheeler around a crumbling highway while being fired upon by a fighter jet. Live Free or Die Hard is crammed with gunfights, fistfights, and motor vehicles launched into the sky. People bounce around like pin balls. It pushes the boundaries of PG-13 action; the profanity of the previous films isn’t exactly missed, but it’s regrettable that cinema’s best catch phrase to ever use the term “yippee-ki-yay” has to be partially muffled by a sound effect to keep its more family-friendly rating.

Willis helps keep things grounded with an enjoyable acting style best be described as bemused crankiness. Throughout the long trip foes and intense obstacles beset McClane, and yet he remains the same grumpy Gus that can’t believe his own damn luck. Whenever he defeats a well armed opponent, or does something “so crazy it just might work,” and it does, he laughs to himself like he cannot believe his luck. He informs the bad guys that he is coming, and he will kill them, and they ask him how and even he doesn’t know and he doesn’t care. He’s a one-man wrecking crew, as he always has been, but there’s an added level of fun watching someone with an AARP card (who isn’t Clint Eastwood) kicking ass and taking cyber geek names.

Director Len Wiseman cut his teeth on the terrible Underworld movies (I’m sorry, but if you got a movie about vampires vs. werewolves, you don’t give them leather and guns and call it a night), but he now has won me over with his work on Die Hard 4. His careening, deep-focus visuals are like a mix of Michael Bay with an extra dose of the fetish-loving Wachoswki brothers. There are a handful of visual scrapes that really pop onscreen like some very close encounters with high-speed cars.

But let’s not get too wrapped up in the fun of Live Free or Die Hard. It’s still an out-and-out action movie complete with plot holes, logic gaps, stock characters (the movie loses steam every time we have to cut back to the FBI agents), and some one-liner groaners. The villains are pretty standard, though very tech heavy in their approach. The movie never explains why a good portion of the henchmen are French. McClane’s daughter will obviously get crafty and bullish when under pressure, proving herself a chip off the old block. The banter between Willis and Long is overdone in an attempt to add more frantic feeling to a tale about the end of all reliance on technology.

Live Free or Die Hard is an efficient and satisfying retro, macho action movie. The action is frenetic and focused on hard-nosed stunt work that brings so much more excitement to the film. The movie works, and that in and of itself is something of a miracle. McClane rattles off a monologue about what it means to be a hero, and in the end he says it’s just about you being the guy willing to do his job no matter what. Well, as far as I’m concerned, the John McClane job is about providing solid action-packed crowd pleasers. I don’t care how old the man gets, because under the right direction he delivers.

Nate’s Grade: B

Catch and Release (2007)

Catch and Release may in fact have the most bizarre meet-cute in movie history. Gray (Jennifer Garner) is mourning the loss of Grady, the man that would have been her husband. She seeks a refuge from all the well-wishers and lies down in a bathtub with the shower curtain drawn. Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), one of the deceased’s best friends, enters the room with a female caterer. They position themselves against a wall and engage in some opportune sex. Gray is trapped and forced to hear the whole thing. The caterer keeps screaming, “Sock it to me” in increasing orgiastic pleasure. I was waiting for some more 1950s hipster dirty talk, like, “Lay it in me, Daddy-O.” Eventually the sex comes to an end and Fritz lights up a post-coital cigarette. But then Gray flings the shower curtain back. Aha! It’s boy meets girl in the most preposterous fashion, but that’s Catch and Release for you, a romantic comedy with enough to be different but still too limited to become anything other than a lukewarm date movie.

Now absent one less earner, Gray is forced to move into a house occupied by Sam (Kevin Smith) and Dennis (Sam Jaeger). They were friends of Gray’s ex as well. Then life proceeds to give Gray a series of curve balls. She discovers that her dead fiancé had over a million dollars in the bank and an 8-year-old son with another woman (Juliet Lewis), a flighty New Age massage therapist. Grady might not have been the same man Gray thought she was set to have and to hold (her married name would have been Gray Grady?).

Things get off to an interesting start. The proposed wedding party has been transformed into a wake. Then as she is trying to cope with loss and put the pieces of her life together she’s further undone by revelation after revelation of secrets her ex kept from her. That’s pretty dark for a usual airy genre but also a pretty interesting setup for something different. Catch and Release flirts with being unconventional but then is on a fairly predictable trajectory once its promise settles down and completely dissolves.

Thankfully, despite all the doom and gloom there isn’t any grating sense of whininess. The perspective feels knowing and in search of wisdom through life’s unexpected calamities. Writer/director Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, Ever After) has a worthy adult sensibility that helps make the film feel a bit more credible and less like an inane melodrama. Catch and Release feels less pre-programmed and unlike most paint-by-numbers romantic comedies, and yet it still wears the weight of its genre around its neck and can never take a step forward without taking two backwards. There’s ample opportunity for a romantic comedy that begins at the literal end of a relationship, with the widow discovering more than she ever knew about her dearly departed (a rom-com version of The Constant Gardener? Call me, Hollywood). However, the movie seems too content to walk the same beaten path many have before it. It may be nothing more than a throwaway genre movie but it got my hopes up that it could have been something more. I feel spurned and betrayed, somewhat like Gray must have felt.

Catch and Release is a hit-and-miss date movie that can never really reel in what it wants to do. The film has some somewhat inspired moments but is also dominated by romantic comedy clichés and sitcom generalizations when it comes to its characters and setting. Of course the nice guy has had a lifelong crush on Gray. Of course the fat guy is also funny and rude. And of course we’re going to house all of these people under one roof so it will produce plenty of Gray-Fritz interactions that will lead to their eventual coupling. Plus, who could forget the classic eleventh hour misunderstanding followed by the pursuit that ends in a glib line like, “What took you so long?” The movie seems to be trying too hard to make Fritz seem like a suitable replacement when we never really know much about him. He’s kind of sleazy and he knows it, but when exactly does he become likeably sleazy? Their union feels forced and unrealistic, even by romantic comedy standards. It also feels like Grant named Garner’s character Gray just so she could include this passage:

Gray: “What’s your favorite color?”
Fritz: “Gray.”

This prompted an entire row of teenage girls to go “ahhhhh” in my theater. I wanted to laugh, but then I was grossly outnumbered in my theater.

Catch and Release is mostly a grab bag of other romantic comedies. It doesn’t even know what to do with the fly fishing metaphor it valiantly tries to lift into some deeper meaning. I don’t get it myself. Gray says that her dead ex was always a “catch and release” man; does this mean he never had the heart to finish off his prey, or that he was too sympathetic with struggling creatures? It doesn’t matter what the metaphor attempts are because it allows for the cast to put on their rubber boots and wade in the cool waters of predictability. At least only one character works in the usual romantic comedy job pool (publishing, advertising, theater). Though Sam does come up with quotes for boxes.

Garner is such a winning actress but still finding her stride. She’s being positioned to fill the void of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts, which is fine, but when I see her more as a modern Sigourney Weaver, someone who can excel in light comedy but also kick your ass when the time came. Gray’s world goes into upheaval and Garner is up to the task balancing emotion and wry life observations, but too often there’s little else for her to do but pout or crinkle her eyebrows. Her cheekbones certainly get quite a workout in Catch and Release but I wouldn’t exactly call that dramatic acting. I have been a fan of Olyphant since 1999’s Go. He’s always had a scary sexiness to him, and works best playing assholes you just can’t help but love. Grant totally drops the ball on his character. Fritz is behind the eight ball early and never really recovers when it comes to audience loyalty. Olyphant is also given a problematic shaggy haircut that manages to neutralize his natural alluring danger and still make him seem aloof. His role is a stock role and nothing more.

Thank God for Kevin Smith. Grant wisely chose Silent Bob as her comic relief and Smith has such natural laid back charm and great timing that he should get more acting gigs full time. His presence is deeply missed when he steps offstage and the film returns back to its familiar roots. I don?t know why Grant has Sam eating or making food, or talking about eating in almost every scene. After the fourth scene in a row where Sam has a chicken leg in his fist, it gets tiresome, like she defined a character by hunger. Smith has the best scenes and the best chemistry, whether it’s with Garner, Lewis, or a little kid. I think someone should cast Kevin Smith as the lead of a romantic comedy. Now that’s an unconventional date movie I’d pay to see.

Catch and Release has some glimmers of promise before succumbing to the weight of the romantic comedy genre. The movie just cannot get past mounting clichés and shallow characters, plus some fairly contrived situations like the bizarre meet-cute. Garner and her dimples will survive to enchant another day. At the end of the day, Catch and Release is just like any other romantic comedy movie, and there’s plenty more of those in the sea.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Jersey Girl (2004)

Writer/director Kevin Smith (Dogma) takes a stab at family friendly territory with the story of Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck), a music publicist who must give up the glamour of the big city to realize the realities of single fatherhood. Despite brief J. Lo involvement, Jersey Girl is by no means Gigli 2: Electric Boogaloo. Alternating between edgy humor and sweet family melodrama, Smith shows a growing sense of maturity. Liv Tyler stars as Maya, a liberated video store clerk and Ollie’’s real love interest. Tyler and Affleck have terrific chemistry and their scenes together are a playful highlight. The real star of Jersey Girl is nine-year-old Raquel Castro, who plays Ollie’’s daughter. Castro is delightful and her cherubic smile can light up the screen. Smith deals heavily with familiar clichés (how many films recently end with some parent rushing to their child’’s theatrical production?), but at least they seem to be clichés and elements that Smith feels are worth something. Much cute kiddie stuff can be expected, but the strength of Jersey Girl is the earnest appeal of the characters. Some sequences are laugh-out-loud funny (like Affleck discovering his daughter and a neighbor boy engaging in “the time-honored game of “doctor””), but there are just as many small character beats that could have you feeling some emotion. A late exchange between Ollie and his father (George Carlin) is heartwarming, as is the final image of the movie, a father and daughter embracing and swaying to music. Jersey Girl proves to be a sweetly enjoyable date movie from one of the most unlikely sources.

Nate’s Grade: B

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