Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The DVD Beat: Clerks II and Scoop

For me, comedies have always been one of my least favorite genres. Don't get me wrong, I love to laugh as much as the next guy, but with most straight comedies you tend to base it on how much you laugh, or at least I do. If I laugh more than 40% of the time, I figure that's not a bad film. The other problem is a lot of the times comedies just don't hold up on multiple viewings the way an intense drama or slick thriller do. I don't know why that is; maybe comedies have more to do with the situation you're watching them in. Maybe it's the company you're with, or the way you're feeling at the time. Who knows? But I know that most comedies lose me pretty early, and just don't work that well.

Don't worry, I'm not really about to do a Kevin Smith/Woody Allen comparison. These are two different animals all together. However, I happened to watch both of these in the same night, and thought they would go pretty well together. Woody Allen will go down in the history books as one of our greatest filmmakers of all time period. When you have a resume that consists of films like "Annie Hall," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Manhattan," etc. it's hard to argue your importance in the history of cinema.

Still, Woody Allen, after having a string of critically praised films in the early nineties kind of dropped off the map with a string of flops in every way possible. Movies like "Celebrity," "Small Time Crooks," "Curse of the Jade Scorpion," "Hollywood Ending," "Deconstructing Harry," and "Anything Goes," it's not hard to see why. While I agree a bad Woody Allen film is better than a lot of films out there today, these were all pretty dreadful. I mean I'd watch any of those films over say having to suffer through "The Avengers" again, but is that really saying much?

Last year, Woody put himself back on the map with the underappreciated "Melinda and Melinda" and then came at us toward the end of the year with "Matchpoint," a film that many, including myself, think is one of the best films he has ever made. He set the film in England, which is a far cry from is typical New York hijinks, and he also made his first real attempt at a thriller since "Crimes and Misdemeanors." With "Scoop," he decided to stay in England, and decided to incorporate his New York style; although this is also a murder mystery, so I guess there's a little "Matchpoint" left in him after all. He also decided to use Scarlett Johannson again as his muse, and decided to put himself back in front of the camera, so we could once again see his love of trying to get some chemistry out of him and a much, much younger hot actress.

Miss Johannson goes to town, and shows a lot of cleavage, as Sondra Pransky, a young up and coming journalist who gets the scoop of a life time. A famous dead journalist (Deadwood's Ian McShane) comes to her in spirit form and gives her a story involving a serial killer known as the Tarot Card Killer and who he thinks is the prime suspect in the case, one Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), the son of England's famous Lord Lyman. Allen plays a magician who aids in Sondra's first visit with the spirit world, so he gets tag along and help her solve the case.

"Scoop" got a lot of bad reviews when it was released in the theater, and I just never got around to seeing it. The best I can say for it is that it's not terrible, but it's not very good either. The problem that Allen faces, much like the other greats still working today (Scorcese, Speilberg, Coppola, etc.) is that he is always going to be compared to his previous works. So, the way I look at this is if anybody else directed this film, would I even give a damn or be watching it? And the answer is probably, no. However, I think that's a hard way to look at this because I don't think anyone else would make this film, or any studio would even release it if anyone else was making it.

You hate to ever say anything bad about a film that Woody Allen makes, but sometimes you just have to. The story is not very interesting. The mystery is borderline juvenile, and the outcome is pretty damn obvious from the get-go. It kind of reminds me of Billy Crystal's critique of Danny Devito's mystery that he writes in "Throw Momma From the Train": "You wrote a murder mystery that was three pages long with only two characters, and one of them dies." It's not quite that simple, but it's close.

The acting is also something to criticize. Johannson, as she proved in "Matchpoint" and "The Black Dahlia" can play the femme fatale pretty damn well, and just about any other dramatic role you throw at her. But she doesn't really have the timing down for comedy, and especially Woody Allen's quick witted affairs. Allen throws in some good zingers, and Johannson's come backs fall so flat you won't even realize there was a joke to be had. Jackman also looks rather lost in his role; you would think this guy could play royalty with his good looks and his snobbish charm, but here he doesn't pull it off. Allen is fine, but it's the same Woody Allen character we've seen a million times, and his role is rather pointless in the long run. They never even give a remotely plausible reason why Johansson has him tagging along with her; she just keeps inviting him along, and then getting annoyed with him. I just didn't buy their friendship for a second. In the end, I could fall back on my notion about a bad Woody Allen film still being better than a lot of things out there, but I'd rather just go back and watch one of his great films. Why waste your time with mediocre Allen when there are so many insightful and endearing Allen films just a click away?

As for "Clerks II," all I can say is this wasn't what I expected, and that's a good thing. Smith has created his own universe, The View Askew Universe for those in the know. After his kickass low budget debut, the original "Clerks," he has made a string of movies that have gotten more and more for his fans. It's not to say that a newbie couldn't pick up any of these gems and not enjoy themselves, but for those of us that have been following his career closely, there are a lot of in-jokes and repeating themes that make them even more enjoyable. Shit, "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" was an hour and a half in-joke in itself.

After making a string of films ("Dogma," "JASBSB," and "Jersey Girl") that have all had their shining moments, and their bad ones, Smith has gone back to his debut and created his first direct sequel. The most amazing thing about "Clerks II" besides the fact that it doesn't suck, is that Smith has made his best film since "Chasing Amy." He's also made the romantic comedy, I think he was trying so hard to do with "Jersey Girl," but couldn't get all of the pieces to fall into place, but here he makes them fit quite nicely.

We pick up Dante and Randall 12 years later in their life, and there still trying to figure out what the hell to do with themselves. After being at the Kwik Mart for a decade, up until it burnt down, they have been working at a fast food restaurant, Moobies, for the past year. Dante is on his last day; he's actually going to move to Florida and get married. Randall is of course upset, but decides to give Dante a last day he will never forget, and hopefully in the end, get him to stay. One of Dante's obstacles to overcome is the beautiful Becky (Rosario Dawson) who we know from the start is the woman he is really in love with; his new Caitlin Bree, but just can't get himself to leave the idea of actually getting out of Jersey and making a name for himself finally.

I have to admit the first thirty minutes or so of this film, I was having a rough time getting into it. But I think that has to do with it being a sequel more than anything, and upon a second viewing, I think it will probably flow better. But then came the Jackson 5 dance number that had me rolling on the floor, and then not too long after that was the "Donkey Show," which is as gross as it sounds, and even funnier than that. Kevin Smith is the only filmmaker I know that can incorporate a tender, romantic scene into a "Donkey Show" and make it work.

The movie has it's flaws for sure. There are some scenes that could have used some editing or been thrown on the cutting room floor all together. A scene involving Randall and the dorky Elias (Trevor Ferhman) talking about a troll living in Elias's girlfriend's pussy named "Pillow Pants" is a prime example. There's also a scene involving Elias's love with "Lord of the Rings" and Randall's love of "Star Wars" that falls flat pretty fast. Although, I do love Randall's summation of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy being about two people walking for 12 very long hours.

But I can't bitch about this film too much because it did for me what all of the great comedies of the past have done, it made me laugh, and I mean laugh a lot. "Porch Monkey 4 Life," "Pickle Fucker," among many other nice gems will be stuck in my head for days. And any guys from my generation that can't relate to this film about guys in their early thirties being scared to grow up are lying to themselves if they don't see the realistic comparisons that Smith is speaking to us about. The scene between Randall and Dante towards the end of the film (I won't give away where it takes place) is some of the best writing you're likely to get in a film this year. Smith could really pull a Michael Apted on us here, and make the "Clerks" films his own little "7-Up" series. I know I wouldn't mind seeing what these guys are up to every few years. This might not be for anyone that isn't a Kevin Smith fan, I really can't say since I am one. But I know if you are a fan of Smith and have been a little deterred by some of the work he's done recently, come back and watch "Clerks II," you won't be dissapointed. I mean, come on, it's got a fucking "Donkey Show" in it; how can one resist?


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