Archive for August 24, 2001

Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back

August 24, 2001

Watching Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, I was having too much fun to be sad; it was only afterward that I got a little melancholy. [NOTE: The reader might keep in mind that this review was written upon the film’s premiere in 2001, back when Kevin Smith was swearing up and down that there would be no more Jay & Silent Bob movies.] This, after all, is the final film of writer-director Kevin Smith’s “New Jersey Trilogy” — the fifth film, actually, which puts this “trilogy” on a par with Douglas Adams’ five-volume Hitchhiker’s Guide “trilogy.” No more Jay and Silent Bob? In retrospect, the enterprise does have the feel of a fond goodbye — characters or actors from Smith’s previous films (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma) keep turning up. But if it’s a farewell, it’s more of a farewell party. I have no idea how it’ll play for people unfamiliar with Smith’s work, but I rolled with it. Smith has earned this valentine to his fans.

Jay (Jason Mewes, as blinkered and profane as ever) and Silent Bob (Smith himself, as Jay’s large, eternal, near-wordless stooge) learn that two comic-book characters based on themselves — Bluntman and Chronic, which we saw the Ben Affleck and Jason Lee characters in Chasing Amy working on — are now the subjects of a major Miramax movie. Offended by the “Ain’t It Cool News”-type Internet posts by disgruntled losers predicting that the film will suck, Jay and Silent Bob take off for Hollywood to sabotage the Bluntman and Chronic movie (wherein they are being played by American Pie‘s Jason Biggs and Dawson’s Creek‘s James Van Der Beek, a towering indignity in itself).

The movie, like Smith’s Dogma — well, pretty much like every other Smith movie — is a loosely plotted excuse for creative invective, cheerfully crude humor, and, in this case, celebrity cameos a-go-go. Those who remember my observation in my Mallrats review — that Smith got Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee to do a cameo and would possibly find a way to get George Lucas in a future film — will be amused to see that Smith has achieved the next best thing here; Smith’s love of Star Wars, comic books, past collaborators (Affleck, Matt Damon, George Carlin, Chris Rock, Dante and Randal from Clerks), and even his family (his wife Jennifer and daughter Harley make appearances) suffuses the movie.

Does it help to be a fan — the kind of rabid Kevin Smith fan who visits religiously and leaves posts on its message board — to appreciate Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back? I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve seen all four previous Smith films, but not since they came out; this isn’t a movie that you need to prepare for with a Kevin Smith DVD marathon the day before. The motor of the movie is Jay and Silent Bob on the road, meeting colorful characters like a foxy jewel-thief quartet (Eliza Dushku, Ali Larter, Smith’s wife, and Shannon Elizabeth, who falls for Jay’s dubious charms), a road-wise hitchhiker, a nun, an inept cop (Will Farrell), and even the cast of a beloved cartoon series — how devious of Smith to spoof one of next year’s movies before it even comes out.

At one point, Smith has Ben Affleck (in his Chasing Amy incarnation, that is — he also plays himself later on) ask why a creator would want to continue telling stories about a stoner duo like Jay and Silent Bob. This may be Smith’s way of saying he’s finally ready to move on (his next project is said to be a seriocomic look at parenthood, รก la Chasing Amy, only without Jay and Silent Bob). I applaud his decision even as I fight pangs of sorrow that this is the last time the crass stoner and his beefy sidekick will grace the big screen (I’m sure they’ll continue to turn up in Smith’s comic books). But if this comedy duo had to go out, at least they’ve gone out with a bang. Kevin Smith even gets to have a lightsaber duel with Mark Hamill — how cool is that? (Though it’s kind of sad that Hamill has aged so poorly that the movie literally has to pause and point out that he is Mark Hamill.) By the time Jay and Silent Bob are sharing the stage with one of their favorite bands, you’ll either appreciate Smith’s desire to make his farewell to the boys as fun as possible, or you’ll be completely lost. My guess is, if you care enough about Kevin Smith to have read this far, you won’t be lost.

Ghosts of Mars

August 24, 2001

Cheese can be flavorful or rancid — the kind of cheese one sees on movie screens, as well as the edible kind — and John Carpenter, in his previous few films, had specialized in tasty cheese: unapologetic slices of genre entertainment for those who like it with edge and style. Vampires, despite its title, was really a grungy, bad-attitude Western, and even Carpenter’s much-maligned sequel/remake Escape from L.A. could be taken as a satire of itself. At his best, Carpenter works with a triple sense of intelligence, purpose, and fun.

Ghosts of Mars is not Carpenter at his best. It may very well be Carpenter at rock bottom. It lacks the three elements noted above: intelligence here is as sparse as breathable air on Mars, the movie feels pointless, and it’s almost completely humorless (except for the derisive chuckles earned by some of the dialogue — Carpenter had better jettison his script collaborator Larry Sulkis pronto). Ironically, Ghosts of Mars arrived the same weekend as Kevin Smith’s Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back; in both, well-loved cult directors pay tribute to themselves. But whereas Smith does it jokingly and self-deprecatingly, Carpenter does it half-heartedly, as if he had no energy left to do anything except lazily cannibalizing himself.

We’re on Mars, circa 2176; the red planet has been “terraformed” (made safe for human habitation) by Earth’s “matriarchal” society. (Does the whole matriarchy angle have any bearing whatsoever on what goes on in the movie? Nope, except to explain why many of the cops we see are female. The idea of a matriarchy is intriguing and completely ignored.) A bunch of cops, led by Natasha Henstridge, are assigned to transport a dangerous criminal known as Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). Ah, Carpenter and his bad-ass street names for anti-heroes: Napoleon Wilson (Assault on Precinct 13), Snake Plissken (the Escape films), and now Desolation, who turns out to be one of the few humans left alive in Chryse, the Martian town where he’d been stowed in jail.

Seems most of the humans have been possessed by Martian entities, who turn them evil, compel them to ravage their flesh, and force them to look like the extras in a bad Ozzy Osbourne video. Natasha and her cops (including Clea DuVall, Pam Grier, and Jason Statham) and Desolation and his fellow inmates join forces against the nasty Martian drones, who enjoy decapitating people and dangling the corpses upside down when they’re not sticking needles into their own flesh. Say this for the Martians — they know how to party.

This is recognizably a Carpenter film in theme (and plot) only. It feels like a shallow, made-for-cable wannabe-Carpenter ripoff. Anyone could have directed most of it; there’s a “sting” here and there as figures pop into the frame suddenly, but Carpenter’s detachment even extends to his musical score, which leans heavily on Anthrax crap-metal guitar riffs that dependably go whanngggwhonnggg every time the Martians or their stupid-looking leader (what is it lately with Carpenter and head villains who look like the lead singers of hair-metal bands?) show up.

The plot is entirely about how this ragtag group fights the siege, but Carpenter did it cheaper and better 25 years ago in Assault on Precinct 13. This time he also adopts a pointless flashback structure — sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks — and falls into the same self-spoiling trap that Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 did: if you’re watching a story being told in flashback by a character in the present, you know that character survives! And here, you also figure everyone else dies except Ice Cube, who is first-billed on the posters. Carpenter, as always, gets the very top billing; the movie, on the screen as well as in the ads, is fully titled John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. A more apt title might’ve been Alan Smithee’s Ghosts of Mars.