View Askew.

It seems that the movies of Kevin Smith have been on my mind since my return from Pensacon, and my brief meeting with Joey Lauren Adams. I always had a soft spot for the clever dialogue, pop culture references, and the poignant soft spots that defined the series of movies. that defined the “View Askewniverse”, so I thought I would ride some nostalgia and take a moment to revisit those early films.

I was in my late teens, early 20′s when I discovered the indie world of filmmakers such as Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise), and Kevin Smith (Clerks). While I wasn’t the Texan that spent a day touring Europe with a beautiful French girl, I absolutely was a video store jockey working with one of my best friends, renting Sega CD games, Cinemax level softcore “passion” films and anime, while mocking our unibrowed boss. Clerks really was life for us, grousing as to why any returned Cheech & Chong films always smelled like a mixture of feces and weed, the endless rush of customers freaking out because we never had enough Jurassic Park in stock, the time we kidnapped the store’s video camera to make low-budget Batman films and ran those instead of the in-store PSAs. There was also the time that some customer left an actual turd in the return movie drop box. When Clerks came out, it was like someone had “gotten” my day to day struggles with the retail masses, and I was every bit a “Dante”.

Mallrats was the next film, and while filled with memorable lines, wasn’t as strong as Smith’s first film. Again, it touched on familiar subjects near and dear, such as shopping malls and comic books, but it was here that Smith’s predilection for Looney Tunes-esque slapstick humor began to manifest. From Stan Lee to teaching the rather horrid way of smiting one’s enemies via the “Stink Palm”, Mallrats had its own charm, though the pacing was a little uneven, switching from “real world” to cartoony and back again. I never really thought about it then, but it was more noticeable now on how it was two distinct types of comedies.

Chasing Amy remains Smith’s best work for a number of reasons: The heartfelt dialogue, the perils of jealousy, the depths of loyalty, the wonderful feeling of being in love and baring your soul to another person mixed with the crushing grief when it doesn’t work or stupid things like insecurity and hang ups get in the way of making something work. At its heart, I also think it’s a bit of a fairy tale for men: The story of “turning” an absurdly cute lesbian into a heterosexual relationship. And yet, to say that the message it just that would be doing the story a disservice. It’s also about getting out of your comfort zone to not only find and accept love, even when it is unconventional. “Love conquers all” in some cases, and I think here, that was the lesson that failed to be realized, only to be taught later in retrospect. It’s a very personal piece, and it shows. It also awakened one of my first real deep crushes on an actress, but I’ve covered that a fair bit already.

Dogma is an interesting piece. I am predisposed to having a soft spot for it as two of my long-time friends are running background in one of the opening scenes, but it’s an earnest exploration in understanding religious faith, and isn’t afraid to ask questions. One of the more meaningful exchanges in the film that personally resonated with me was discussed thusly:

Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.
Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?
Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier….

Another one of Smith’s “thoughtful” pieces, it still can’t fully escape from juvenile slapstick (such as a giant shit monster), but it is otherwise earnest and philosophical in its execution.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. This is where I believe that the “View Askewniverse” is truly its own reality well outside of our own. You can have love, and catharsis, and meaningful chatter about anything from life goals to Death Star contractors, to in this case, a literal live action cartoon. Jay and Silent Bob can work reasonably well enough as protagonists (see Dogma), but this film is ultimately Smith’s intended send-off to his world, and makes sure to cram in almost every single reference that he can to his previous works (yet, light on Dogma content). The film set out wanting to cheer everybody, offend everybody, and make a cinematic party for themselves. There are still absolutely funny moments, and it released a mere 2 1/2 weeks before 9/11, so you could easily make terrorist jokes and no one really cared, because really, what was there to be scared of?

Smith literally closed the book on these characters, and yet after Jersey Girl was a critical and commercial flop, he ran back to the beginning where he started his work.

Clerks II hit a resonant chord with me when it debuted: I was just into my early 30′s, getting into a then serious (and still going) relationship, and had just gotten out of a job that I had been doing a decade before, and into doing my own thing. Sarcasm, life observations, self analysis with a mild case of mockery still seem to be my forte, and I could and can relate to life changing and growing up. Again, for all the movie’s “life observations”, it still breaks character with an out of universe dance-off, and a “donkey scene that, while it leaves the perpetual horrors of that scene largely to the imagination, could have sufficed purely on the facial reactions of the protagonists. The last 10-15 minutes of the film are poignant and sentimental, and a reminder of the comforts of “home” with the fact that the more some things change, the more they stay the same. Even when you finally have to grow up.

With the universe again “closed” (well, at least until Mallrats 2 and Clerks III), it really became apparent how much of a “time capsule” these films are Video stores, once a weekend pilgrimage, are all but forgotten outside of Netflix and Redbox. The mall was once the primary source of all things commerce. People could greet and see off their friends and loved ones at the airport. Hell, you could walk up to the gate just 15 years ago. The phrase “terrorist” was a joke that no one took seriously, as opposed to some potential threat always lurking on the fringes and making people check your bags at theme parks. I was a video store clerk. I was a mallrat. I too harbored a crush on Joey Lauren Adams. And the “Askewniverse” for all its gross out gags and cartoon silliness, also spoke true for more than a few times.

I hope Kevin Smith finds his way back to that “truthfulness” and candid demeanor that he once held with his earlier works. The majority of his stories these days seem to veer more towards the numerous times he gets stoned these days (an irony in itself, considering that he was a straight-edge in real life merely played a stoner). And I’m not exactly sure what the Hell kind of mood that you need to be in order to watch Tusk (an issue that I’ve constantly had stonewalling me every time that I’ve even remotely considered watching Human Centipede as well. Seriously, what place do you have to be in to watch these films? It’s like “I wonder if…. Nah. I still can’t do this.” Dude. Seriously. I can’t wrap my head around it).

In any case, it was a fond revisit to an older time in my life, with friends both from a cinematic world and from my own personal experiences. And it’s reminded me that I still have some stories that I need to tell, and well, I’m not getting any younger. And there’s a lot to say.

I think it’s time to start finally writing and telling those stories for a change….

Not even supposed to be here today....

Not even supposed to be here today….

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review.

To say that I have been a lifelong Star Wars fan is something of an understatement. My family grew up with the films. I played with the Kenner toys. One of my second cousins actually worked at 20th Century Fox, so I saw an early Empire Strikes Back screening, had an “Meet the Ewoks” press kit, and still have the original movie posters.

Growing up, my relationship with the series took a different turn. I got to meet, and in some cases, hang out with many of the cast members. I went to a film premiere of Episode I and dinner with some of the cast. I got to hang out with Mark Hamill at a party. Peter Mayhew introduced me to his wife when I ran into him again some years later at a convention. I didn’t just love the films, I got to experience them on a different level.

That’s not to say that I didn’t lose faith in the series for a while.

The 1997 Special Editions introduced questionable and dated CG changes. No matter what revisions these films tried to push, Han Solo would always the one that shot first (and impact of that action should not have been lessened as it only crippled the initial growth of the character). Then the Prequel films with their clunky dialogue, bland direction, and wooden performances pulled out of a really talented cast (an accomplishment in itself) wore on my cinematic senses with every subsequent installment. To further the annoyances of this era, each home video release brought more unnecessary and ridiculous changes, littering practical effects with CG laden gloss, and a Episode III-level “Noooooo” added in for Darth Vader in the last revision of Return of the Jedi seemed to be just one more middle finger from George Lucas to the fans.

I feared that I had outgrown these films, and this was no longer a series for me.

It wasn’t until I reluctantly gave The Clone Wars series a try years later that I believed that something interesting could be created from these characters and storylines. Disney bought the series in 2012, and released Rebels, which felt more Star Wars than anything else had in recent years. When the announcement that a seventh chapter would be released, reuniting the original cast with a new one, and more practical effects gave me cautious hope for this one. In a “Year of Star Wars“, would 2015 lead up to one amazing and defining moment to celebrate the granddaddy of great popcorn flicks?

Oh, yes. It most definitely did.

Star Wars: My Childhood Awakens

Star Wars: My Childhood Awakens

Though missing the original 20th Century Fox fanfare, the large titles and sweeping John Williams score filled the theater for the first time in a decade. Viewers were immediately drawn to new characters of Poe, Finn, Rey, and BB-8. Personally, I thought the new cast was wonderful. John Boyega (Finn) and Daisy Ridley (Rey) have spent the last year being “mega fans” themselves, right alongside the audience, and it’s been interesting watching them come out of nowhere to lead one of the rapidly growing highest grossing film of all time. Oscar Isaac added a sense of natural levity to the film (something again missing from the Prequels), and watching Finn grow from an AWOL Stormtrooper fumbling along as he learns to think for himself, and the tough, yet vulnerable Rey made me warm up to these characters. As an actual practical effect, BB-8 had a sense of fun personality, reminding me more of a loyal dog devoted to his master. I missed the humor aspects of Star Wars. I was glad to find some quotable lines again.

There’s also the matter of Kylo Ren, the new Darth Vader wannabe in this new trilogy, and in the truest sense of the description. Many critics have found him too “emo” for his seeming temper tantrums and insecurities. I actually found him more complex and interesting than expected. Here is a character that for whatever reason desperately wants to be “bad”. And yet he lacks a sense of self control, and in many cases, shows signs of mental instability. Considering his lineage, his motives are even more unclear. He is a complex character, one that I want to know more about, and by the end of the film, I grew to hate his villainy. An effective mark of a successful villain.

There’s also the matter of what I call “fan service”: The original trilogy elements. I felt a certain sense of childlike glee at seeing the Millennium Falcon take to the skies again, as well as the reintroduction of Han Solo and Chewbacca. For someone who claimed to not like the role of Han Solo, Harrison Ford slipped effortlessly back into the part, something I wasn’t sure how the role’s return would be handled considering how seemingly tired and “off” his characterization of Indiana Jones was back in 2008. This is perhaps one of Ford’s best acting performances in years. As the film progressed, Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2, and eventually Luke graced the screen once again, and it wasn’t handled as a cameo or a simple shout out. Each had their role in the film, whether for several scenes or just a few minutes. But this was definitely Han Solo’s film. For me, it felt like a reunion with old friends, and in retrospect given my personal adventures over the years, it actually was.

The film was fast-paced with plenty of action scenes and space battles. Lucas had derided the film as being “too retro” and how Star Wars “was never about the spaceships”, which is laughable considering how he managed to cram CG craft into practically every single scene of the Prequels, in addition to the numerous retroactive edits of the original trilogy. Seeing actors interact with props, sets, and actual locations helped make the galaxy seem more real again.

There were some genuine heartbreaking moments as well. As I delve into “spoiler” territory, there is a horrible realization that the “happy ending” of Return of the Jedi, with the heroes cheering together was never meant to last. The connection of Luke, Han and Leia to Kylo Ren’s past destroyed everything that they worked for, broke apart a family, and sent the three heroes on their separate ways. Jedi‘s ending canonically is now a temporary lie. And in Han Solo’s attempt to reconcile with a lost son, the smuggler who spent a life managing to escape everything, let his guard down in an act of vulnerability, and paid the price for it. No one likes losing their childhood heroes.

Were there flaws to the film? Of course. Some have called the film a “reboot” (when it most certainly is not) due to its familiarity to the original 1977 film. This looks to have been done intentionally, and not out of laziness. This is Disney’s way of reassuring the fans that they are “back to basics” after nearly two decades worth of needless additions and revisions alongside flat storylines and acting. The series needed to get back on track, blending familiar territory with new storylines, new characters, new questions… and I’d argue that it had to be done. There is a lot to ask about the past and future, and none of these answers have been revealed yet.

Not that it all worked perfectly. I am surprised that the New Order (and by proxy, the filmmakers) went with “Starkiller Base”, which in effect is a third Death Star (with the first two attempts obviously having worked so incredibly well for them). Another disappointment was the much hyped character of Captain Phasma. For all the build-up casting hype of Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie, Phasma joined both Darth Maul and Boba Fett in the category of “cool looking, but effectively useless villains” (and yes, I know their backstories are far more interesting in expanded content. I’m speaking cinematically).

The film ends on a cliffhanger; a meaningful and powerful shot that won’t be answered for at least another year and a half. And once again, we are faced with questions. “Less is more” in the film, which in turn opens up discussions like these. My own thought is that both Han and Luke know exactly who Rey is, because you could see the sudden familiarity in their eyes, and these moments were subtle, but intentional. There is also a hint of Han being asked twice in the film “Who is Rey/what’s her story”, and that answer was cut away from before he could answer to the audience. Again, the long and expository dialogue of the Prequels isn’t here to spell out things, and it leaves people room to talk. And wonder.

So ultimately, we’re left with a great film with likable leads, old friends, a return to form, and a lot of questions. Hopefully we’ll get some of these answers when the eighth story releases, and now that Disney has established its attempt at goodwill with returning to familiar themes, I’m ready to see where the new story threads will take the viewer next without the comforts of familiarity guiding them. Luke Skywalker has much to answer.

For two hours, I was reminded of the impact of how a galaxy far, far away has intertwined itself in my life, and got to revisit both old friends and fond memories.

Not bad for $12.