Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Worst To Best: Kevin Smith

Worst To Best: Kevin Smith

I consider Kevin Smith to be somewhat of a brotherly figure. Perhaps he isn’t the most talented director in the world, but no matter how many times he misses the bar, you love him all the same with a definite soft spot for every piece of work he produces. You remember the good times, those moments he delivered his style impeccably, even if these days it seems more and more likely he only got lucky on occasion (albeit very lucky, reasonably often).

But no matter your opinion, one thing we have to respect Kevin for (at times, higher than some of the greatest directors on our planet), is his persistent willingness to push himself. He is forever trying something different, unafraid to dive into genres he knows absolutely nothing about, the only common denominator between his efforts standing as the daunting list of actors who recur throughout his work. And even if this approach has sometimes worked to his detriment (his later movies have been whipped as such duds that I worry as to how predictable this list may turn out, as well as how much of his career he has left), we cannot deny that he has continued to find fresh ways to get his thoughts onto our screens and into our hearts, which I find respectable. Respectable enough to write this blog, anyway.

And so while the UK waits impatiently for the release of Tusk (and while his filmography stands at the nice round number of 10 entries), I figured it was a decent point to analyse his projects and place them in some sort of an order, which is what I have done, and I am so glad you've read this far already. Please continue:

Worst To Best: Kevin Smith: 10. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

10. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)

Do not be fooled by this decidedly worst position, for let it be known, I adore Jay and Silent Bob with every stoner residue left within my bones from a misguided youth of bad decisions. They are the living interpretation of Beavis and Butthead meets Laurel and Hardy, appealing to the teenager in all of us, while we enjoy the last bits of our intelligence evaporating as each minute passes. And this flick is the epitome of their humour: shamelessly stupid without giving a fuck, the laughs so tasteless and pointless that you feel dirty for chuckling at them like some cheaper version of yourself. It come across more like a fun comic rather than a film, as we watch our vulgar heroes set out to destroy a movie within a movie in order to collect their royalties and prove the whole internet wrong. But even when considering the extensive film nods and thorough list of cameos, one can’t escape the feeling that this is one long lazy in-joke, driven by self indulgence and self references, repeatedly more miss than hit and boringly predictable, a cheesy side-project rather than a movie, falling cringely flat at whatever it was trying to do. Ultimately, it’s a Smith film for fans only, and even then, maybe not.

Key Scene: The closest thing we’ve got to a Good Will Hunting sequel.
Recurring actors: Joey Lauren Adams; Ben Affleck; Jeff Anderson; Jason Biggs; George Carlin; Matt Damon; Shannen Doherty; Dan Etheridge; Dwight Ewell; Walter Flanagan; Bryan Johnson; Jason Lee; Jason Mewes; Tracy Morgan; Scott Mosier; Ernest O'Donnell; Brian O'Halloran; Vincent Pereira; Chris Rock; Stephen Root; Seann William Scott; Harley Quinn Smith; Jennifer Schwalbach Smith; Kevin Smith; Ethan Suplee; John Willyung

Worst To Best: Kevin Smith: 09. Cop Out

09. Cop Out (2010)

Cop Out is an easy target, often considered Smith’s worst to date, even if I don’t find it quite as bad as everyone makes it out to be (and yet, still pretty bad). However, once you realise Smith didn’t actually write the film (only directed it, the sole example on my list), we can’t exclusively blame the guy for this typical homage to the buddy cop genre. At its core, it’s an adventure where two partners grow as a team whilst dealing with their own personal lives, featuring Tracy Morgan (performing as well as always) fearing his wife’s infidelity, and Bruce Willis (who reportedly hated working with Smith due to his excessive pot smoking) trying to find enough money to pay for his daughter's wedding. If that clumsy textbook synopsis didn’t already bore you to murder, then the overly eager film will, which tries so desperately to get you to laugh that you forget how, instead leaving you annoyed without any memory as to what actually happened. Perhaps it’s not the disaster every critic has labeled it, but in its incomplete, formulaic agony, it’s a movie which has been done a thousand times before and almost always better.

Key Scene: Morgan quoting Die Hard is just the kind of naughty self reference only Smith has the balls to do.
Recurring actors: Jason Lee; Tracy Morgan; Jim Norton; Ernest O'Donnell; Kevin Pollak; Seann William Scott; Jennifer Schwalbach Smith; Kevin Smith

Worst To Best: Kevin Smith: 08. Clerks II

08. Clerks II (2006)

Set 10 years after the original, Clerks II is pretty much the same old shit: a commentary on growing up and maintaining friendships whilst trying to survive the minimum wage rat race, except now as immature 30-something slackers as opposed to the more forgivable 20-something versions from before. Of course, the cult fan following served the reception well, many blindly praising the continuation of Smith’s everyday dialogue as well as the loveable casting (Dawson alone carries a lot of the movie herself), but personally I found this subpar development to be a substanceless pile of pointless disappointment, where we, the viewers, have grown up much faster than these protagonists, who act far too childish for their age group and that makes me feel old in just saying. It came across as more fun to make than watch, whilst trying too hard to be crude and emotionally touching at the same time, yet ultimately failing at both, exposing what is wrong with most of Kevin’s efforts: forcing tackiness straight into the oblivion of obviousness. I mean, the whole donkey ordeal? C’mon, that was way over the vulgar-cringe line even for Smith, but then again, maybe you’re into that sorta stuff.

Key Scene: All criticism aside, that Silence of the Lambs moment was one my favourite Smith moments in his filmography.
Recurring actors: Ben Affleck; Jeff Anderson; Walter Flanagan; Jason Lee; Jason Mewes; Scott Mosier; Brian O'Halloran; Harley Quinn Smith; Jennifer Schwalbach Smith; Kevin Smith; Ethan Suplee

Worst To Best: Kevin Smith: 07. Red State

07. Red State (2011)

Despite this low position, there’s a lot to love about Red State. Essentially a cult-like horror, it covers every base, from sex to religion (the whole plot presented as one preachy anti-church seminar) to violence (lots of violence, people die), and in that way, could easily appeal to Smith fans and non-Smith fans alike, as one very different offering from the director. Furthermore, the performances are memorable (Michael Parks is worth the watch alone) and it is visually brilliant, probably the best looking Smith film on this list as far as style goes. But by the time it had reached its conclusion, I couldn’t escape the question of “was that it?” The idea was there and it was a good one, but the execution was so thin, messy, and directionless that I couldn’t imagine the script to be any more than a few pages long. Simply put, it felt unfinished, as if it “almost worked”, which is why this is yet another one of Smith’s later efforts which received mixed reviews at best, perhaps rather swallowed as an example of where the man tried to make a movie just slightly beyond his capabilities. Which still does deserve some appreciation, granted.

Key Scene: It’s difficult because there doesn’t really feel like there are that many distinctive scenes here, but I guess the whole action-packed mid-section was quite exciting?
Recurring actors: Betty Aberlin; Ralph Garman; Michael Parks; Kevin Pollak; Stephen Root; Jennifer Schwalbach Smith

Worst To Best: Kevin Smith: 06. Jersey Girl

06. Jersey Girl (2004)

Smith took an admirable risk with Jersey Girl, turning focus away from his trademark vulgar humour, opting rather to tell a heartfelt family story, dealing with the tragedy of loss and the struggles of single parenthood. Unfortunately, it was a gaggy flop, critics quick to tear the casting apart without focusing on the actual movie itself, which I consider unfair. Although, it has to be said, the casting was atrocious. Affleck performs well but is hard to take seriously, Castro comes across unauthentic, Carlin is uncharacteristically forgettable, and ... J.Lo?? Ughhhh! In fact, only Tyler feels like the right choice for her role, but even the unavoidable Liv charm could not save this film from crawling along like some formulaic, bland, safe effort from a director who has built a reputation from doing the exact opposite. BUT ... somehow I cannot bring myself to dislike this film, as its sweet nature and feel-good cuteness is still a cry-worthy journey, and if nothing else, is a fresh glimpse into Smith’s rare mature side, fundamentally a respectable effort in regards to trying something different and not completely failing at it.

Key Scene: The whole Will Smith running gag is great.
Recurring actors: Betty Aberlin; Ben Affleck; Jason Biggs; George Carlin; Matt Damon; Dan Etheridge; Jason Lee; Ernest O'Donnell; Vincent Pereira; Stephen Root; Harley Quinn Smith; Jennifer Schwalbach Smith; John Willyung

Worst To Best: Kevin Smith: 05. Zack and Miri Make a Porno

05. Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

It’s difficult to think of a title which sums up a film as accurately as this one. For, yes, Zack and Miri make a porno to solve their cash flow issues, and of course, fall in love in the process, simples. It’s Smith’s silly little rom com with a smutty centre, filthy but friendly, an unorthodox cuteness which, unfortunately, critics didn’t approve of. The usually "bankable" Rogen experienced his "worst box-office opening ever", the reception reportedly sending Smith into a deep depression following, and it doesn’t take a film connoisseur to work out why. The flick tries too hard to be crude just for the sake of it, and as a result, is another predictable piece of writing from the director, “a new low”, as some have called it. But in that same breath, I consider it underrated, as it only backfires in its desperate raunchiness due to the mushy heart dominating the execution, all corny and awkward and even ... touching (for a porn theme). It hits more than it misses, it’s not as disgusting as it wishes it was, and I honestly consider it one of Smith’s “better” works. Well, sort of.

Key Scene: Full frontal Jason! No homo.
Recurring actors: Betty Aberlin; Jeff Anderson; Justin Long; Jason Mewes; Jim Norton; Ernest O'Donnell; Jennifer Schwalbach Smith

Worst To Best: Kevin Smith: 04. Clerks

04. Clerks (1994)

And from here, it’s only the big boys, and there isn't much bigger than Smith’s debut, a film which proves that you don’t need a large budget, a real plot, or even colour to create an accidental classic so financially successful that it’s often considered one of the greatest independent comedies of all time. Exposing a day in the life of two half hearted slacker employees dealing with customers, running on the fuel of dialogue alone, there is no message here. Nobody is trying to save the world. Our characters just want to get through their shift, and in that way, it feels authentic as a slice of life we can all relate to whilst dying in hysterics from the excessive, politically incorrect toilet humour. But while Clerks would top many a Smith junkie’s list, personally I consider it slightly overrated for its cult status, and with all the sequels and animated versions which followed, it has grown a little weary in my eyes, sorry. Still, no one can deny this is Smith at his very best, with nothing to prove and ultimately the flick which made him the superstar he is today.

Key Scene: Difficult to think of one “key scene” when the movie is essentially quotable quote after quote, but I’ll go with when Silent Bob speaks his wisdom, simply because it’s a cool thing for Smith to have done and the first of that running theme.
Recurring actors: Jeff Anderson; Walter Flanagan; Jason Mewes; Scott Mosier; Ernest O'Donnell; Brian O'Halloran; Vincent Pereira; Kevin Smith; John Willyung

Worst To Best: Kevin Smith: 03. Mallrats

03. Mallrats (1995)

As Smith’s sophomore, as well as the prequel to Clerks (set the day before), obvious human nature is to compare this offering to his debut, and generally, quite unfavourably. People called it flawed and people called it juvenile, but I call that bullshit, this underrated reception leaving me completely dumbfounded. For starters, it’s not all that different from his first effort, yet another semi-plotless slacker stoner movie, complete with many of Smith’s playful trademarks such as awkward situations, vulgar dialogue, comic book obsessions, and a silly childlike charm, except set in a mall rather than a store this time. But beyond that, what really sets Mallrats superior in my mind, is its deeper understanding of the hardships of break-ups. As the impressionable youth I was when I first watched it, this movie granted me some unlikely tools to deal with heartbreak in a humourous manner, which still serves me to this very day. Perhaps that was never its intention, but regardless, is why I personally hold this film dear to me as almost life changing as well as one of Kevin’s greatest works—better than your precious Clerks, anyway. Oh, and Jason Lee owns it.

Key Scene: Most people would probably flock towards the Stan Lee thing, but honestly, it was the spooning arm metaphor which always stuck with me.
Recurring actors: Joey Lauren Adams; Ben Affleck; Shannen Doherty; Walter Flanagan; Bryan Johnson; Jason Lee; Jason Mewes; Scott Mosier; Brian O'Halloran; Kevin Smith; Ethan Suplee

Worst To Best: Kevin Smith: 02. Dogma

02. Dogma (1999)

As this list should effortlessly illustrate, there are generally two types of Smith films: the safe, immature, more successful “stick to what he knows” type; and the different, less successful “out of his depth” type. But Dogma is the exception. Telling the age-old tale of good vs. evil, two fallen angels have found a loophole in the Christian system to get back into heaven, and the fate of the world lies in the hands of an abortion clinic worker, obvs. And while such a pushy religious theme was a risky move on Smith’s part (even some death threats followed), the bold jump paid off, a rare glimpse into the director’s intellectual side, maintaining the humour whilst even toying with something ... profound? Wait, Kevin Smith? Profound?? Did he actually write this movie?? Evidently so, as only someone as stoned as him could think up a concept as ludicrous as Buddy Christ. Sure, some critics called it bloated, pretentious, and unnecessarily long, but for me this well casted effort is almost as close to a masterpiece as he can get, and I eagerly rock in my seat every time the mention of a potential sequel comes up. And it often does.

Key Scene: Avoiding spoilers hard here, but for those who are in the know, I’ll say one word: God.
Recurring actors: Betty Aberlin; Ben Affleck; Jeff Anderson; George Carlin; Matt Damon; Dan Etheridge; Dwight Ewell; Walter Flanagan; Bryan Johnson; Jason Lee; Jason Mewes; Scott Mosier; Ernest O'Donnell; Brian O'Halloran; Vincent Pereira; Chris Rock; Kevin Smith; Ethan Suplee

Worst To Best: Kevin Smith: 01. Chasing Amy

01. Chasing Amy (1997)

As an oblivious heterosexual male, it’s hard for me to comment on the lesbian controversy which backhanded this film’s release. Perhaps it’s my own ignorance, but I felt this was Smith’s genuine attempt at accurately commenting on the gender roles within a relationship, as well as the difficulty of stomaching the sexual history of one’s partner. I view it as almost an untraditional chick flick, “a chick flick for guys” I’ve heard it been called, with touching performances all around (I fell in love with Adams multiple times within its duration), provoking tears without breaking the vulgarity or comic book references we have come to rely on. And above all else, it analyses love, friendship, and homosexuality in a fair, romantic manner, as funny as always, but with more heart and sincerity, which, personally, has only helped me become more tolerant towards dykes and my own bitches. Because of these reasons, I stand up and proclaim this as Smith’s most mature offering—as Smith’s best offering—and the only “real” movie he has ever made.

Key Scene: The sex-injury Jaws parody.
Recurring actors: Joey Lauren Adams; Ben Affleck; Matt Damon; Dwight Ewell; Walter Flanagan; Bryan Johnson; Jason Lee; Jason Mewes; Scott Mosier; Ernest O'Donnell; Brian O'Halloran; Vincent Pereira; Kevin Smith; Ethan Suplee; John Willyung

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