Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Smith’

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When I look back at the now-two-decade-long film career of Kevin Smith, I can’t escape the conclusion that it all just happened a little too fast for the guy : he went from “edgy” indie wunderkind with Clerks to tired one-note Johnny with Mallrats to an “older,wiser, more responsible” version of his previous self with Chasing Amy and Dogma to a one-man cottage industry milking his own semi-celebrity for all it’s worth (and then some) by way of podcasts, “reality” TV shows, etc. in the space of six or seven years, and then he basically remained stagnant — yet curiously immune to over-exposure — for about the next decade, occasionally trotting out middling “comedy” fare like Cop-Out and Zack And Miri Make A Porno (perhaps curiously, or perhaps not,  his two biggest box-office successes) to prove that he could break out of the confines of his internet-centric genre ghetto, but more or less not doing anything that you wouldn’t entirely expect of the guy.

Then, in 2011, something rather curious happened — he hustled up funds via Kickstarter (an entity which seems tailor-made for filmmakers such as himself with a somewhat small but amazingly loyal fan base) for an independent horror feature called Red State that, while deeply (and in many respects fatally) flawed, at least showed some willingness on his part to step outside of his comfort zone. And while that flick certainly bore all the hallmarks of a “one-and-done” type of deal, it appears that Smith, forthcoming (and depressingly inevitable) Clerks III aside, is embarking on a new phase of his career now — one that’s at the very least interesting, and perhaps even threatening to be good, Could the same guy whose irreverent take-no-prisoners approach to offending everyone with Clerks quickly descended to the tired “you never go ass to mouth” and donkey-fucking of its sequel possibly be positioning himself as an indie horror auteur as a sort of second (or maybe it’s third — or fourth) act? With the late 2014 release of Tusk, it’s beginning to look like the answer to that question is “yes.”

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Of course, many of the hallmarks of the Kevin Smith of old remain — he’s essentially unable to write characters that don’t come directly from his own life experiences ( this film centers around a protagonist named Wallace Bryton — played by Justin Shaw — who’s a — wait for it — podcaster by trade), and there’s a smattering of dull and tired “toilet humor” throughout the proceedings here, but by and large this is a reasonably intelligent, contemplative horror story that manages to tackle somewhat-weighty themes without having its characters resort to sounding like talking textbooks the way they did in heavy-handed earlier efforts like Chasing Amy and Dogma. It’s far from perfect, to be sure, and flirts perilously close to disaster by way of its major plot development, but Smith manages to battle his constant urge to overplay his hand with a reasonable level of success here, even if the central conceit of human-to-animal transformation has been done before (and, to be honest, better) in films like David Croneneberg’s The Fly and Tom Six’s apparently-still-ongoing Human Centipede series.To draw a forced and not entirely applicable (so why the fuck am I even doing it?) basketball metaphor, earlier directors set up a pretty clear lane to the basket for ol’ Kev, but rather than than charge hard to the hole and provide a rim-shattering slam dunk, he delivers a graceful, no-look, behind-the-back pass the to somebody else (probably a “2” guard) who has a wide-open look at a three-pointer. The results are less spectacular in the short term, but add up to an extra point for his team and, therefore,  a better chance at winning the game.

Okay, yeah, Smith wrote and directed this thing, so that wide-open off-guard he’s dishing that behind-the-back pass to is — errrmmm, himeslf — but like I said, the analogy isn’t the greatest. So what the hell — let’s strain it just a bit more, shall we?

Obviously when a center or forward indulges in a pass like that, he’s showing some trust in his teammate- and Smith the writer shows a heck of a lot of trust in Smith the director here when he chooses, arguably for the first time since Clerks, to be genuinely audacious. But first a bit of plot recap so that what I’m talling about will make at least a little bit of sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet : the storyline of Tusk follows the exploits of our aforementioned podcaster as he departs LA for Winnipeg in search of an overnight YouTube sensation he wants to get on his show. When that particular well turns out to be dry for an admittedly weird set of reasons, he encounters another local through a similarly bizarre convergence of circumstances and figures this old-timer, who goes by the name of Howard Howe (Red State holdover Michael Parks, who delivers a fine, and very chilling, performance) would make an even better on-digital-“air” guest. Unfortunately, their meeting — well, to put it mildly, it just doesn’t go as planned, and Wallace ends up waking up the next morning as an amputee.

Sounds bad, right? And rest assured, it is — but things are about to get even worse, because Howard’s got this weird fixation on walruses. He loves ’em so much, in fact, that he’s determined to make one —

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Tusk‘s small cast and isolated setting make for a genuinely claustrophobic-feeling film (even if the mansion most of it was shot in is enormous), and while Long doesn’t really have the acting chops to carry the lead, by about the mid-way point he’s just barking and yelping, anyway, so that’s not too big a problem. There’s a side-plot involving Wallace’s girlfriend, Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and podcast  co-host, Teddy (Haley Joel “So That’s What Happened To Him” Osment) teaming up with a private dick to find him after he goes incommunicado in the Great White North that doesn’t add too terribly much to the film but apart from preventing it from becoming a two-character psychodrama, but it’s at least not distracting, either, and along the way Smith shows an impressive eye for shot composition and blocking his actors that I certainly never would have guessed at based on his previous work.

All in all, it adds up to a set of circumstances that really work in Smith’s favor by the time his “big reveal” comes to pass. I have no doubt that many folks will laugh out loud and/or shake their heads when the “walrus-man” makes his appearance (remember what I said about this flick being audacious?) — and I was even sorely tempted to do so myself — but the tone Smith manages to set in the early-to-mid-going helps to head that off at the pass and actually ensures that the second half is both damn horrifying and thoroughly engrossing. It’s a close call, to be sure, but it’s proof positive of the “Smith the writer trusting the Smith the director” thing we just talked about.

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Okay, so Smith does, in fact, overplay his hand with the insertion of an obvious and thoroughly uninspired song choice that accompanies his big climax here, and a surprise cameo by Johnny Depp feels a bit like a desperate ploy on the director’s part to prove he’s still got plenty of clout in Tinseltown, but on the whole this flick shows a willingness to be bold and take chances that I honestly didn’t think we’d ever see from him again. Red State may have been a baby step — or even a stumble — in the right direction, but this is a fairly impressive leap, and has me re-thinking the whole “Kevin Smith? That guy’s been played out for years” notion that I was living by.

For those interested, Tusk — which had only the most limited of theatrical runs and has largely been marketed to so-called “home viewing platforms” — has just come out on DVD and Blu-ray from Lionsgate and boasts an impressive package of extras including two behind-the-scenes featurettes, a selection of deleted scenes, and a full-length commentary track from Smith that’s surprisingly light on the self-indulgence and reasonably interesting throughout. Weird as it would have sounded a couple of years ago to say this, I get the feeling that Kevin Smith may be on the verge of making a truly great horror movie — and while this may not be it (yet), he’s inching ever closer all the time.

 

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Before getting into the hyper-opinionated shit that will divide all you lovely readers into “he sure is talkin’ sense” and “what is this guy — fucking nuts?” camps, let me start by making one statement we can probably all agree with — Kevin Smith’s whole shtick got old a long time ago. Seriously, dude, we get it : you’re the big version of the little engine that could. You came from nothing, and with even less than that for a budget you hit it huge with Clerks. It was funny. It was irreverent. It was tasteless. It was edgy. It was sophomoric. It was lewd, crude, and rude. And it’s still, by far, the best thing you’ve ever done.

You weren’t finished trying to catch lightning in a bottle again, though. A series of reasonably successful follow-ups ensued, until you supposedly closed the book for good on your “View Askewniverse” with the self-congratulatory Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back. You were on to new horizons. You were growing up. You wanted to talk about things other than pot smoking, fucking, comic books, and how awesome Star Wars is. The thing is — when your forays outside of all that didn’t work out, you came back with Clerks II, which was a pretty pale shadow of its predecessor, all things considered. That flick did reasonable, though unspectacular, business at the box office, but it seems to have given you another way to try to “reinvent” your flagging career — namely, you’d bifurcate yourself.

There were enough fans of the “View Askewniverse” who’d fork over cash for anything and everything with your name attached to it, so you decided to keep them all happy by basically being all over the internet all the fucking time. From podcasts to blogs to YouTube to your own 24/7 online channel, you’ve just been everyplace. AMC got on board your gravy train by giving you and your pals a TV series, Comic Book Men, that continues to endure despite being whittled down from 60 minutes to a more palatable 30 and being shunted into the most remote regions of their post-prime-time schedule. You became a fixture at comic conventions and various other trade and memorabilia shows. You amassed an army of online supporters who would show up to defend you from even the most minute criticism, and when they weren’t doing the job vigorously enough, you’d defend yourself. In short, Kevin Smith became an industry. And hey, not to worry, whenever anybody had the temerity to point out that your ego seemed to grow in proportion to your ubiquitousness (a word I probably just made up), you’d have a well-timed,  good-natured, barely-self-deprecating jab at your weight at the ready in order to show that, hey, you were still a regular guy who wasn’t too full of himself.

So that was one part of the new Smith business paradigm — complete domination of the nerd-verse 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The other part was to to keep one foot in the door in Hollywood with a series of lackluster comedies like Cop Out (now’s probably not the best time to criticize anything Tracy Morgan’s been involved with, sorry about that, but it really is a stupid flick) and Zack And Miri Make A Porno. I think we can all agree nothing too memorable there.

Still, in 2011 you seemed to come out left field with something truly different — a return to your self-produced, low-budget, independent roots in an entirely different genre. Leaving comedy, of both the milquetoast crowd-pleasing and vulgar “stoner crowd” variety behind, you unleashed Red State, a semi-topical horror flick that played things pretty straight and showed a more obvious Romero and Hooper influence than your previous work had ever hinted at. For the first time in a long time — probably since Clerks, truth be told — you appeared to be willing to take a chance. to step outside the comfort zone you immediately established for yourself upon your ascent to the big time. To risk criticism and even ridicule by giving audiences something nobody was expecting, all in an effort to prove you weren’t some one-trick pony who could only, essentially, do variations of the same thing over and over again.

And you know what? I was so sick of to death of even seeing your name by that point that I just blew the thing off.

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That’s probably tremendously unfair of me, I know, but “Kevin Smith fatigue” is a syndrome I think almost all of us are suffering from. Still,  yesterday I noticed that Red State is now available on Netflix (sorry, no DVD or Blu-ray specs included with this review) and thought, what the hell?  It’s got a first-rate cast (seriously, this flick is packed to the gills with talent, as evidenced by the fact that even established actors like Anna Gunn and Kevn Pollak are on hand in, essentially, bit parts), promised at least some level of socio-political commentary, and hey — I wasn’t doing anything else, anyway. So I settled in and gave it a go.

Right off the bat, it’s obvious this really is a different kind of Kevin Smith movie — laughs are few and far between (which is also true of many of his latter-period comedies, but that’s sort of beside the point), and there’s an energy and immediacy to the proceedings that I was thinking had become foreign territory to the director. It’s reasonably suspenseful, includes some terrific performances, and has a pleasing “hungry young filmmaker” vibe to it. Smith does, in fact, prove that he can branch out into other genres successfully with this one, and in that respect, you’d have to consider Red State to be something of a success.

But ya know what? The whole thing ended up falling kinda flat with me anyway.

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It’s probably not for lack of trying, though — in fact, it’s for trying too hard : specifically, trying too hard not to piss anyone off.  Is this the same Kevin Smith that used to litter his scripts with jokes about donkey-fucking and necrophilia? Because despite its semi-politically-provocative title, Red State works overtime to make sure that nobody of any political or religious persuasion will take exception to it, and in the end, it’s that gutless,  ball-less need to to be inoffensive that really sells short all the first-rate work that folks have done here.

For those who aren’t familiar, here’s the set-up in a nutshell : three horny loser high school buddies (played by Kyle Gallner, Nicholas Braun, and Michal Anganaro) answer an online ad from an older woman seeking a foursome (who turns out to be Melissa Leo, in a typically strong performance) and head out for her trailer. Along the way they sideswipe a car wherein the local sheriff is getting a blowjob from another guy, but split the scene before they can even suss out what’s happening because they’re so eager to get laid. Turns out all is not as it appears to be once they arrive, though, because their hot-to-trot cougar is actually anything but : she drugs their beers and when the randy youths wake up, they find themselves prisoners of a cult-like extremist religious fringe group known as the Five Points Trinity Church, led by fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks, who absolutely fucking nails his role).

Not to worry, though — “help” is on the way on the form of the local ATF field office, led by special agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman, who always turns in superb work), who have been monitoring the crazies at Five Points for some time for assembling a sizable weapons cache and are now ready to make their move. But are they going in to rescue our no-longer-quite-so-randy schoolboys, or to commit mass slaughter and cover the whole thing up?

Parallels to both the Westboro Baptist Church (Cooper’s outfit are infamous for picketing the funerals of gay folks) and the siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco are more than obvious here, and one would think Smith was sitting on top of more than one political powder keg with material of this nature, but wait — didn’t I just gripe about how safe he plays things? Indeed I did, so perhaps now would be a good time to elaborate on that.

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When we’re first introduced to the lunacy that is Five Points by way of an info-dump lecture delivered by the high school civics teacher, we’re told that they are an embarrassment to the state (in true “let’s-not-alienate anyone” style, the Red State this film is supposed to take place in is never actually mentioned by name — although it was filmed in the bluest of “blue states,” California), that every mainstream conservative group in the nation has disavowed them, and that even the fucking Nazi party considers them “too extreme.” So, hey, if you’re a Republican, or a Libertarian, or any other sort of conservative, don’t worry — Smith’s not taking aim at you, despite his movie’s title. You don’t even have to worry that he’s got a beef with you if you’re a goddamn Nazi.

Must be those pesky Westboro Baptists of “God Hates Fags” infamy who he’s criticizing, then, right? Not even. In a phone call with his superiors in Washington, special agent Keenan takes great pains to point out that these folks are even more extreme than Fred Phelps’ clan, and that the Westboro loonies, for all their faults, are peaceful, non-violent, and aren’t known to be building up an arsenal of any sort. So, hey, rest easy — if you stand outside of funerals with signs that say “Thank God For AIDS” and what have you, Smith doesn’t even have the guts to criticize you. The Five Pointers are a new, completely fictitious, in-no-way-based-on-any-actual-religious-or-political-group extremist outfit. It’s like he’s going out of his way to completely excuse and exonerate any and all actual people, organizations, or belief systems. All of which is plenty timid in and of itself, but when one of the kids who’s fighting for his life exclaims “but I’m not even gay!” (therefore, ya know, he doesn’t deserve to die) we go from a flick that’s way too timid to a film that’s flat-out offensively timid.

So, like, who are the actual, real bad guys here? The dastardly federal guv’mint? It looks that way for a minute when the ATF are getting ready to shoot first and ask questions later. Why, the bastards even manage to get the last of our teen trio killed (whoops, spoilers!), but Smith even lets them off the hook — it’s the closeted local sheriff who starts the gunfight, not the Feds, and in the end a truly weird plot twist prevents them from implementing a Waco-style massacre, so hey — no harm, no foul on their part, either. If you’re getting the idea that Smith’s working around the clock to de-politicize a script that ought to, by all rights, be highly combustible, give yourself a gold star (and — heh — five points).

And that’s the real tragedy of Red State in a nutshell : in so many ways it does everything Smith wanted to do by ably demonstrating that he’s a talented filmmaker who doesn’t need to pigeonhole himself. It has performances that range from “pretty damn good” to “amazingly strong” (even Oscar-worthy in the case of Parks). It has the potential to make liberals happy with a pointed critique of the extremist vipers that even the “mainline” conservative groups are still willing to get in bed with politically (some of the signs you see at Tea Party rallies are almost as offensive and outrageous as those you see at funerals the Westboro members are protesting at, for instance, and there are far fewer than “six degrees of separation” between the late reverend Phelps’ church and the Kansas state Republican power structure) and to make conservatives happy with a critique of heavy-handed federal government over-reach. It convincingly portrays the nightmarish reality of a siege situation and has a kind of urgency and authenticity to it that can’t be faked. And along the way it constantly undercuts itself by steadfastly refusing to actually criticize any actual persons or institutions and by letting everybody, from Fred Phelps to the ATF and all points in between, off easy. It has multiple targets in it sights, takes dead-accurate aim, and then refuses to fire a shot.

Not to worry, though — I’m sure Smith’s forthcoming Clerks III will make even Red State look like brave, “edgy” film-making. Having taken a shaky step outside the nest and stumbled, ol’ Kev is going back to the safe confines of regurgitated familiarity. Expect the entirely expected.