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Thursday
May122011

Cropsey (2010) Home Video Review

The Heresy of Hearsay

More than any Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock movie, directors Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman's film Cropsey exemplifies the docuganda--a movie disguised as a documentary that is so slanted that it's almost impossible for the audience to draw objective conclusions about its events. When watching a documentary, one puts a certain amount of trust in the filmmakers: Their job is to present a real-life story that educates and entertains.  Docugandas take that trust and distort it through entertaining manipulation, leaving the audience to believe that what they're watching is real, even if the story is as fabricated as Avatar.

At the outset, one might think the movie is about what it says it is.  Brancaccio and Zeman interview residents of Staten Island, New York, about a bogeyman called Cropsey that many people on the East Coast grew up fearing.  In the 1980s, the island's looming Willowbrook Mental Institution was closed down thanks in large part to an expose by Geraldo Rivera.  A film crew made public the filthy conditions and lack of care that had plagued the institution for decades.  But after the doors were shuttered--we're told--a number of patients and former employees simply took to the surrounding woods, or returned to the abandoned Willowbrook grounds as living ghosts.

One of these was former orderly and sex offender Andre Rand.  In 1987, he was convicted of kidnapping a local girl with Down Syndrome named Jennifer Schweiger, who had been found buried in a shallow grave.  The authorities could never pin the murder on Rand, but Staten Island residents "knew" he was the killer.

After nearly two decades in prison, Rand was brought to trial again for the 1981 disappearance of 7-year-old Holly Ann Hughes.  By this time, the community was certain that Rand had been responsible for murdering every kid who'd disappeared on the island in the 70s and 80s, despite a lack of any supporting evidence.  Further hurting his credibility was the fact that he denied the press any interviews and never made public statements (he also looked a lot like George Romero, but I find that a cause for celebration; not suspicion).

While making their film, Brancaccio and Zeman receive several letters from Rand poking holes in the prosecution's argument and maintaining his innocence.  This is a first, and a big deal for the filmmakers, who set out to interview Rand in prison--but he turns them away at the last minute for no apparent reason.  In the end, Rand receives another kidnapping conviction, making him next eligible for parole at age 93.  The fine, law-abiding citizens of Staten Island are happy with the conviction, but wish to God that Rand would just tell everyone where he buried the other bodies.

The filmmakers have two big problems.  First, unlike the far superior, similarly themed documentary Paradise Lost, no cameras were allowed inside the courtroom.  Zeman is reduced to interviewing former cops at their homes or getting lawyers' opinions on the street; we never hear eyewitness testimony. It's only described to us.  What we do get is lots of authoritative-sounding speculation from people who worked these cases twenty-five or more years ago, whose suppositions and prejudices are just as desperate-sounding as the unfortunate parents who lost their children and want justice.  For good measure, Brancaccio and Zeman toss in an occult angle that never goes anywhere.

Related to that, the few facts we're presented with don't add up.  Apparently, Holly Ann Hughes was abducted at 9:30pm, after her mother sent her to a convenience store to buy soap.  Let me repeat that: A mother sent her seven-year-old daughter to the convenience store at 9:30pm to buy soap. Remember, this happened in an area that had seen kidnappings before and was home to a shuttered mental institution whose inmates were believed to be loose in the woods.

The second problem is that Rand was never charged with murder; only two kidnappings.  Yes, one of the bodies turned up, but there's controversy surrounding that, too: Some believe Rand was framed.  It feels as though Brancaccio and Zeman had bet all their chips on a "guilty" verdict (for murder) as the perfect bow for their serial killer/urban legend documentary.  I say this because, from the very beginning of the movie, we're assaulted with ominous music, artificially aged crime scene photographs, and somber narration that leads us to believe we're watching a tragic horror story about a deranged monster.

The presentation is so slanted that it doesn't matter if the courts convict Rand of murder because we've already been conditioned to accept every action on his part to be suspicious and evil.  It would be one thing for the filmmakers to let this play out in a straightforward, honest fashion, but Cropsey wants so badly to be a gripping crime drama/horror movie that it goes out of its way to make sure no one in the audience asks the questions that the people on-camera should have asked, too.  The whole "urban legend" conceit feels like an afterthought meant to dress up what is essentially the biggest non-story in Staten Island's history.

Further evidence of this lay in the order in which the kidnappings are presented to us.  We begin with the most sensational of them, the dead Down Syndrome girl, and then "Tarantino" our way back in time to the other kids, whose disappearances are, perhaps, less sensational.  I wondered where the public outcry and crusading search teams were for the other kids.  If there's a legitimate reason we couldn't see the cases in chronological order, it's never explained.  I guess that kind of questioning has no place in a documentary.

At the end of the movie, I had no doubt that Andre Rand is a weird, troubled guy who probably functions best away from polite society.  But I didn't find the filmmakers' characters to be all that great, either. Weighing child murder and propaganda is an apples-and-oranges argument, but let's not pretend that anyone involved in this production has clean hands.

Note: The beautifully gruesome slasher film The Burning also takes place in the woods of New York and features a serial killer named Cropsy (the spelling difference is intentional).  Unlike Andre Rand, though, I saw evidence of that guy's crimes.

Thursday
May122011

Die Hard (1988)

This Place About to Blow

Die Hard established Bruce Willis as a superstar; gave cinema one of its greatest villains in Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber; and birthed an action sub-genre in which a not-quite-everyman fights the forces of evil in a single, mundane setting.  In the twenty-three years since its release, the film has been imitated so many times that one can easily forget how great it is.  What John McTiernan's movie has over nearly everything that has come after it is a strong sense of story, characterization, and visual inventiveness that doesn't suffer from repeat viewings.

Willis plays John McClane, a New York cop who visits his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), at her workplace in Los Angeles.  Their plans for a family Christmas gathering are cut short when a group of European terrorists breaks up the office holiday party and takes control of the building.  In the confusion, McClane avoids being rounded up and begins a night-long game of bloody hide and seek with a small army of machine-gun-wielding mercenaries.

It's not long before the police and FBI surround the locked-down skyscraper.  As is typical in these movies, the establishment is inept and callous towards the forward-thinking lone wolf; the feds' refusal to listen to McClane and a beat cop on the outside named Powell (Reginald Veljohnson) leads to a series of spectacular fuck-ups, deaths, and explosions.  On the inside, McClane must repel down elevator shafts, cross floors littered with broken glass, and dodge all manner of weaponry as he attempts to pick off the terrorists one by one--and, hopefully, keep the hostages alive.

The film is essentially a mash-up of the mid-80s action movie and a Friday the 13th film.  In the heyday of beefy box-office titans like Schwarzenegger and Stallone (who get name-dropped in the film), it was not unusual to see lots of carnage and munitions fetishism, usually bolstering a message of Regan-era individualism, suspicion of authority, and desire to trounce anyone or anything not Made in the USA (a peculiar irony in the Governator's case).  Also popular around the same time was the endless stream of slasher movies, where a shadowy maniac would kill hapless teens in the most gruesome and creative ways possible.

Die Hard took the scruffy anti-hero and made him a vicious killer.  Of course, because of his propensity for one-liners and witty asides--delivered with the iconic Bruce Willis Pouty-lipped Smirk (TM)--it's easy to breeze past the odd little details that make John McClane a genuinely disturbing figure: Why, for instance, is he such an expert at using every type of weapon he comes across?  I'm not sure what kind of detective training went on in New York back in the 80s, but this guy has better survival instincts than the guns-for-hire that he's fighting.  Also, he makes reference to beind disciplined repeatedly by his superiors for not following orders.  This casts McClane less in the aw-shucks-gotta-save-the-day light, and places him in the realm of a sociopath who happened to have his vacation ruined by a gang of rival sociopaths.

That's getting way down in the weeds with a character I'm meant to root for.  And don't get me wrong: I love John McClane; but it's the kind of love you have for someone you think is really cool until he screams at his girlfriend at dinner because she didn't order him the right drink while he was in the can.  To make things interesting, McTiernan and screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza (working from Roderick Thorpe's novel, "Nothing Lasts Forever") imbue Die Hard with a bit of the Lethal Weapon mojo that made waves the year before.  Willis and Veljohnson have a warmer relationship than Danny Glover and Mel Gibson did, but that element of crisis-based camaraderie fuels the middle of the movie and allows Willis in particular to showcase the human side of his character.

I don't know if this is the film that launched the saying, "A movie's only as good as its villain", but it might as well have been.  Hans Gruber is a suave, cold-blooded killer, but he's also got a great sense of humor.  He gets about as many funny lines as McClane does, but I think his work better simply because they're so unexpected.  Alan Rickman rarely breaks a sweat, even as McClane's plans encroach upon his own (turns out he's not a terrorist, but a thief who wants to steal the $640 million in corporate bonds in the building's digitally-encrypted vault).  This dark charisma would be enough to cement Gruber as a legendary foe, but the filmmakers take things one crucial step further.

In the middle of the film, Gruber breaks from his team to personally inspect the detonators that have been rigged underneath the roof.  He runs into McClane and immediately launches into the hokiest pseudo-Southern accent I've heard outside of a Larry the Cable Guy special.  Gruber convinces McClane that he, too, was separated from the group during the hostage-taking, and because neither man has ever seen the other, McClane plays hero to a frightened worker bee.  For the six people who haven't seen this movie yet, I won't spoil the thing that ultimately turns the tables, but it's a nifty bit of observation that I find lacking in a lot of modern action films.

In fact, there's a lot going on in Die Hard that action filmmakers seem to have forgotten in the last couple of decades.  McTiernan and company take the material seriously, and not as a disposable shoot-'em-up blockbuster.  All of the actors are top-notch; the stunts are well-thought-out and, as shot by Jan de Bont, play as perfectly orchestrated performance art (pay attention to the way McClane is absorbed by the light for just a second during the slow-motion roof demolition); and the screenplay takes care to cover all the intricate plots bases and leaves no doubt as to who the characters are, what they want, and why we should care.

In today's marketplace of CG-enhanced stunts and non-stop action extravaganzas, it's refreshing to go back and watch a movie that's so intimate in its scope and yet so ambitious in its desire to give the audience something they've never seen before.  It's also jarring--yet comforting--to see black performers in a mass-targeted movie who skipped Hell Naw University and went straight to acting school.  This is a recurring theme with me, I know, but I was genuinely surprised that Veljohnson and De'voreaux White (as a young limo driver) retained their cultural identity without plunging headfirst into easy stereotypes.  I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've seen this kind of class in a movie since 1988.

That's Die Hard all around: Classy.  It's the perfect action movie, which probably explains why nearly everything that followed it has failed to register on my excitement meter.

Note:  I was just informed by my friend Miguel that McClane's handiness with weapons stems from having been a marine before becoming a cop.  McClane has a marine tattoo on his arm, which I'd never noticed, even watching the film on blu-ray (I saw the tattoo, but couldn't make out what it was).  That changes everything, story wise, and it would've been nice for the screenwriters to include at least a line of dialogue explaining as much.

Sunday
May082011

The Big Kahuna (1999) Home Video Review

The Gospel According to Lube

Were it not for Danny DeVito's wonderful, sad eyes and the manic shifts in Kevin Spacey's face, one could fully enjoy The Big Kahuna by simply listening to it.  As directed by John Swanbeck and written for the screen by Roger Rueff (adapting his own stageplay), this story of three businessmen holed up in a Wichita hotel during a convention is all about establishing characters through dialogue; and the beautiful corporate/spiritual poetry of Rueff's words make The Big Kahuna a lyrical hybrid between an acting workshop and a self-help seminar.

Long-time friends and co-workers Larry (Spacey) and Phil (DeVito) have been tasked with luring the president of a large company up to their hospitality suite once the convention's after-hours party scene kicks in; joining them is newcomer Bob (Peter Facinelli), an earnest twenty-something Baptist who would rather witness to his fellow businesspeople than discuss the merits of his company's brand of industrial lubricants.

Rueff uses his characters as platforms for different points of view that he wants to see clash: Larry, Phil and Bob aren't so much people as walking, talking thought experiments.  It's important to understand this going into the film because, as with many of Kevin Smith's films, the characters have conversations that no one has ever had in ways that people don't talk.  Depending on your tolerance for such methods, you'll either turn off the movie in the opening exchange about pornography, or you'll see it through to the brutal, final discussion about the difference (or lack thereof) between salesmen and evangelists.

Sure, the words are overly contrived in places, but that doesn't mean they're any less effective or funny. Spacey storms into the picture at about the ten-minute mark as a loudmouth tornado, berating Phil for having reserved a dinky suite and ridiculing Bob's admiration for a hack that they both work with. Spacey gets the best zingers, and DeVito gets most of the best heartfelt moments: Phil spends much of the movie contemplating suicide, an after-effect of a divorce and a career that no longer means anything to him.

From my plot summary, you might think that Bob is the easy mark, the religious cartoon character that Rueff aims to use as a punching bag. But Facinelli plays him as a quietly confident man of conviction who's not afraid to match wits and judgments against secular pervert Larry.

The climax, in which Bob must answer for his very interesting way of dealing with the elusive, important client, raises some tough questions about the role of personal convictions (religious and otherwise) in the workplace; indeed, whether or not people remain people once they agree to work for a corporation. You may think that an absurd question with an easy answer, but it's presented in such a way as to make the audience examine--just for a moment--what they consider valuable.  Rueff, speaking through his surrogates, posits that there's real danger in coasting through life with a fixed set of beliefs, and that even the most well-intentioned people can negatively affect those around them without frequent reflection and consideration of opposing points of view.

The Big Kahuna presents the dark side of careerism that Office Space parodied (both films came out in 1999).  Like Mike Judge's comedy, Swanbeck's film is a good litmus test for where one is at any given point in their working life.  Most of us start out as naive and eager as Bob; eventually we become slick, scrappy professionals like Larry; and, if we stay in one place too long, we become Phil--too tired to care, and too old to start over.  Rueff's script shares a central theme in common with Judge's, though, and that's the idea that it's never too late to change course.  It's difficult, yes, but they argue that empowerment is fully within our grasp;  be it the ability to transition from software engineer to construction worker or shut the door on suicidal impulses, we're the masters of our own destinies.

Regardless of where you come down on any of these issues, I suggest giving The Big Kahuna a try.  The performances are uniformly top-notch, and the end-credits use of "Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen" will undoubtedly be the first time you'll hear it without rolling your eyes.  Regardless of whether or not you buy what he's selling, it's hard to deny that Rueff delivers a unique, offensive, and challenging sermon.

Saturday
May072011

Thor (2011)

Boroughly Thored

In the 1960s, comic book pioneer Stan Lee created what would come to be known as the Marvel Method. Instead of a writer handing over a script to an artist, Lee provided a plot synopsis from which the artist would illustrate an entire issue. On completion, the writer (often Lee) dove into the artwork, adding sound effects and captions to layouts and visual beats; and writing dialogue for the characters that helped make sense of what was happening on the page. In some cases, they had to create personalities for characters they'd never requested, but which the artist had included either on a whim or as a way of clarifying parts of the visual story.

I'm sad to say that the Marvel Method has transcended print and made its way into the movies based on the publishing giant's popular superheroes. The latest powers-and-popcorn spectacle is Kenneth Branagh's Thor, a movie whose high-falutin' cast, state-of-the-art 3D special effects, and two-plus-hour run-time do nothing to disguise its utter averageness. If reading the name "Kenneth Branagh" gave you the impression that this would be a challenging, adult take on the classic superhero origin story, I hate to be the bearer of bad news: Though I can't confirm it, I'm convinced the Kenneth Branagh that directed this film is a twelve-year-old video-games-and-comics nut who won some sort of contest.

The biggest problem I have with Thor is that Marvel Studios apparently banked on the idea that no one in the audience has seen another superhero movie--even the ones they produced themselves in the last decade. With the exception of Ang Lee's Hulk (its merits are debatable; its uniqueness is not), all of the Marvel movies have followed a distinct formula of boy-gets-powers; boy-uses-powers-for-good; boy-doubts-powers-and-runs-away; boy-returns-to-fight-super-powered-villain-and-save-the-day. Some filmmakers have concealed these inner workings by cluttering the playing field (X-Men), or relying on a larger-than-life personality to distract from the familiarity (Iron Man), but we have yet to see anyone try to deliver an origin story that doesn't look, feel, and drag on like every other one in the Marvel stable.

In Thor, Chris Hemsworth plays the Norse god of thunder--sort of. In an effort, I guess, to avoid the sticky issue of why gods need capes, the suits made all of the ancient deities into aliens from a distant universe. Thor is a smirking, over-confident brat, a brawler who loves to destroy things and pummel the enemies of his father's kingdom. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) worries about his son, but trusts him enough to name him successor to the throne over his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). During the coronation, the castle of Asgard is broken into by a team of ice giants looking to steal back a glowing block of energy that was plundered during a war between the kingdoms years earlier.

Against his father's wishes, Thor leads a raid on the ice giants' homeworld to find answers (i.e. seek revenge for their audacity) and winds up starting another war. Odin steps in to make peace, and banishes Thor to Earth for some much needed lessons in humility. A trio of scientists discover Thor and take him in. Jane (Natalie Portman) shows off her PhD in Gushing Over Hot Abs; her assistant, a poli-sci major named Darcy (Kat Dennings) shows off the horrors of No Child Left Behind; and their mentor/professor (I think?), Erik (Stellan Skarsgard) shows off his ability to babysit.

Thor sets out to retrieve his hammer, a mighty boomerang of ancient power that Odin cursed and sent to Earth as a test of his son's worthiness: When the time comes, Thor will be able to lift the hammer from out of a crater in the middle of the New Mexico desert and get his powers back. Complicating matters, the secretive government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. has located the hammer and built a makeshift military base around it.

Back on Asgard, Loki makes a power move after Odin has a heart attack and falls into a coma (?); his first order of business is to re-start the war with the ice giants because...um...

Anyway, Thor's friends get wind of Loki's nefarious ideas and venture to Earth via a giant rainbow bridge that's powered by what looks to be an over-sized, golden airbrush compressor. Loki hears about this and sends a fire-breathing robot-monster called The Destroyer to Earth in order to destroy Thor, his traitorous buddies, and half of New Mexico. This leads to a penultimate climax in which a powerless Thor must protect innocent citizens from a rampaging, unstoppable force, before ultimately regaining his abilities and kicking ass in both realms.

If all of this sounds familiar, congratulations on remembering Superman 2. Thor is nothing but thirty-year-old archetypes and plot points that have been Mad-Lib-bed into the most tiresome screenplay you'll likely see put to film this summer. Though the arrogance angle is a nice touch, the fact remains that we're still dealing with a super-man sent to Earth from an alien world who falls in love with a ballsy Smart Chick and befriends a Nerdy Goofball and Grumpy Boss; the super-man must overcome cultural struggles and his innate physical superiority, and defeat a brutal dictator who wants revenge against his father.

Granted, those are all conventions established in the DC Universe (a Marvel competitor), but there are plenty of instances where Branagh and screenwriters Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne crib from the Marvel vault, too. As in 2004's Spider-man 2, Thor ends with a giant spinning death machine emitting crazy bursts of energy being plunged into the ocean.

Additionally, we have villains with daddy issues; the tragic, climactic moment where the romantic leads are separated by their diverging destinies--followed by the glimmer of hope for a rekindling in the sequel; and, of course, the bajillion references to other Marvel movies that will lay the ground-work for the forthcoming mega-team-up Avengers movie (in a particularly lame cameo, Jeremy Renner shows up as sharpshooter Hawkeye; much has been made of this appearance, but I'm sad to report that after a lot of shadowy jumping and getting into position to strike at Thor, Hawkeye is ordered to stand down; it's like announcing a Wolverine cameo and having Hugh Jackman show up to ask a gas station attendant for the men's room key).

There's nothing to recommend here, unless you've literally never seen a Marvel Films movie. This is one of those rare PG-13 blockbusters where the age recommendation is meant as a maximum, not a minimum. I think you'd have to be a child in order to appreciate Hemsworth's non-presence as Thor--which is a shame, because he lit up the screen as Captain Kirk's doomed father in the 2009 Star Trek remake. Here, he glowers and smirks and poses very well. But he's got nothing on Robert Downey, Jr. in the Charming Braggadocio department, and does little to combat the notion that Thor--like Wolverine--is just not interesting enough of a character to support an entire movie.

As for Portman, I can only hope that this role, along with her parts in Your Highness and No Strings Attached were filmed prior to her (ugh) Academy-Award-winning performance in Black Swan. Otherwise, I fear she may be the victim of the Oscar Curse--that puzzling downward slide into crap films and derision that has claimed the likes of Hilary Swank and Halle Berry (who, don't forget, played Catwoman in a Batman spin-off). She has little to do in this movie, and no chance to display her alleged acting chops; as a character, Jane is a damsel in distress whose main job seems to be reinforcing the lead actor's hotness through a series of blushes, quivers and the most unconvincingly rushed budding romance since Knight and Day's Cruise/Diaz hookup. Rene Russo rounds out the "I Guess We Gotta Put Women in this Thing" quotient, playing Thor's mother as a series of concerned looks masquerading as a personality.

The only performer to rise above the material (by about a millimeter) is Hiddleston. Loki has some interesting motivations and I really enjoyed his subtle villainy in the beginning; it's a shame that he's reduced to yelling and shooting things in the climax like the foe in a Die Hard knockoff.

Which brings me back to the Marvel Method. Branagh and Company have created a wholly generic action movie that could have been written by an iPhone app. There's no personality in the directing, no stamp that indicates we're watching the work of a great actor/director; how much of that is the fault of the screenwriters' ineptitude or the studio's desire to maintain a high asses-in-seats rotation by not challenging anyone's notions of what a superhero movie could be is anyone's guess. All I know is that Thor is all lightning and no thunder.

Note:  I should mention that this is another one of those 3D movies where seventy-five percent of the film is actually in 2D, and the extra-dimensional effects pop up every once in awhile. It used to be that you had to wear the special glasses throughout an entire movie in order to avoid seeing squiggly splotches on the screen. With Thor, as with TRON: Legacy, you can watch most of the movie with the glasses off; some might call the four-dollar up-charge on such films a rip-off.  I call it dark financial genius.

Friday
May062011

Clerks 2 (2006)

The World Needs Clerks, Too

This will sound ridiculous, but it's true: Clerks 2 is one of the best sequels I've ever seen.  It's not a perfect film, and non-fans of writer/director Kevin Smithmay scoff at the very idea that one of his foul-mouthed talk-fests could be good, let alone great.  But as a bookend, as a legitimate revisiting of characters, events and themes from a previous movie, it doesn't get much better than this.

The film centers on Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), two directionless slackers in their early 30s who work at a low-rent New Jersey fast-food joint called Mooby's.  Their previous jobs were as clerks in a convenience store and its neighboring video store, but after Randall accidentally burns both down, they're forced to find their first new gigs in a decade.

Mooby's doesn't get a lot of foot traffic, meaning Randal has a lot of free time to harass bloggers on the Internet and horrify his teenaged, Christian co-worker, Elias (Trevor Fehrrman), with tales of his bizarre sexual escapades.  Dante, on the other hand, has begun a twenty-four-hour countdown to his big trip to Florida, where he'll marry his bubbly, hot* girlfriend, Emma (Jennifer Scwalbach Smith), and manage one of her father's car wash franchises.  Complicating matters is his affair with Mooby's manager, Becky (Rosario Dawson), who has the looks, brains and heart of a perfect catch--but not the promise of financial security that Dante has sought his whole life.

Clerks 2takes place over the course of one bizarrely long shift (Dante and Randal open the restaurant and close it, and we never see or hear mention of any more employees than the four I've already mentioned) in which we're treated to Randal's ingenious, pantomimed re-cap of the Lord of the Ringsmovies; a hilariously provocative debate over racial insensitivity; a look into the mind of a sexually repressed young churchgoer; and a Tijuana-style donkey show, smack dab in the middle of the Mooby's dining area.

It's no surprise that the film is so raunchy:  The first Clerkswas all about the bored pop-cultural and philosophical musings of a couple of twenty-somethings.  Ten years on, the guys have the same interests, but Smith does not.  He's no longer content to let dialogue drive the proceedings, and his pro-active approach to getting the characters out of the retail setting for longer than a couple of minutes here and there is a refreshing expansion of scope (one of the key ingredients to any great sequel).

He also gives the film a much bigger heart than the original.  Dante's love triangle isn't the only one of import here: Randal acts out, whines and schemes in an attempt to both express love for his life-long best friend and construct the emotional steel wall he'll need after the Florida big-time yanks Dante away for good.  Smith seems to feel the same way about his characters, acknowledging to some extent that he's saying goodbye to the sarcastic duo that made him famous--ostensibly to move on to different, more "legitimate" types of movies (indie-porn dramady Zack and Miri Make a Porno and forthcoming thriller Red State).  In a strange but fitting turn, Smith bids adieu with a serenade.

Clerks 2 has more musical montages (including a full-fledged, dancing-in-the-streets musical number) than the average episode of One Tree Hill.  From the note-perfect opening-credits use of Talking Heads' "(Nothing But) Flowers" to the teardrop nostalgia of The Smashing Pumpkins' "1979", the film is peppered with touching tributes and promises that everything will be okay (for the characters and the fans).  I admit that on first viewing, I found the "ABC" sequence rather jarring; but it really does work, and is no more contrived than the linchpin of the first movie, in which Dante's ex-girlfriend had sex with a dead guy on a toilet.

The closing song, Soul Asylum's "Misery" is the perfect capper to the film and to the Clerksfranchise.  Not only is it a beautiful bit of filmic poetry, as George Lucas might say (the band's "I Can't Even Tell" closed out the original movie), but it's a neat representation of where the characters have ended up.  Not to spoil anything, but pay attention to the look that Dante and Randal shoot each other in the middle of the camera's protracted pull-back.  It's an awkward moment between two people who allegedly got everything they wanted out of life, and the subtext is delicious.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Jay and Silent Bob.  As played by Jason Mewesand Kevin Smith, these foul-mouthed stoner icons have appeared in almost every one of Smith's Jersey films.  Their evolution from slice-of-life curiosities to branded pranksters comes to a head in Clerks 2.  They're only intermittently amusing as characters here; in fact, many of their gags seem dependent on the audience knowing who they are and recalling genuinely funny material from previous movies.  The duo's intro scene is particularly embarrassing, and if you can convince someone who's never seen a Kevin Smith film to stay in the room after it's over, I'm sure there are twenty marketing firms that would love to pick your brain.

Perhaps I'm just getting older, or maybe Smith and Mewes simply aren't funny in those roles anymore, but I found myself rolling my eyes whenever they'd pop up on screen.  The pair are especially flat compared to the great chemistry between Dawson and O'Halloran, O'Halloran and Anderson, and Anderson and Fehrman.  There are so many rich personalities and so much funny, poignant (and low-brow) dialogue in every scene that Jay and Silent Bob feel less indispensable and more like an imposition.

What I like most about Clerks 2 is that it is the perfect kind of sequel.  Like Rocky Balboa, the film was made more than a decade after the movie that inspired it and catches up with its characters, rather than shoe-horning them into familiar situations that evoke dollars and not much else.  By the end, it's clear that Smith and his protagonists have grown up (a little) and are ready to move on to a phase of their lives that isn't rambunctious or flashy, but more satisfying than anything they could have imagined in their youth.

That's a lot of high-falutin' schmaltz for a comedy whose highlights include a story about a guy with a pickle jammed up his ass; but amidst the dick-and-fart jokes is a tender, beating heart that knows the value of friendship and the truth about how awful the Lord of the Rings movies really are.

* No offense to Ms. Schwalbach, but I found the Clerks 2 characters' fawning assessment of her looks utterly strange.  Personally, I thought she used to look attractive--in an Unconventional Smart Girl way--but sometime between Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and this film, she lost way too much weight and had way too much junk injected into her face.  She now looks like Jenna Jameson in Zombie Strippers (pre- or post-mortem is a judgment call that I'll leave in your capable hands).