Clerks II
Dir. Kevin Smith

Art it assuredly wasn't, but Kevin Smith's 1994 debut, Clerks, displayed a hilariously filthy, endlessly quotable flair for the poetry of dead-end conversations. Anyone who had ever stood at the business end of a cash register could happily hum along.

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Clerks II, Smith's backflip to safe waters after a string of moderately ambitious underperformers, can't catch the same breaks. Set once again in Smith's beloved Red Bank, New Jersey, the story finds the original film's convenience-store counter monkeys making the lateral move to a fast-food joint, with maturity nipping unwanted at their heels. From the get-go, the expanded budget and scale makes apparent that Smith's once-vaunted dialogue (or, to be more accurate, series of dueling monologues) only really works when the speakers are locked firmly in place behind a counter. Given movement, or more than one set, it clunks unmercifully. (Ben Affleck and Jason Lee, AKA the two people who have actually managed to make the director's past speeches sound even remotely like something somebody would say in real life, stop by for unfortunately brief cameos.)

There are a few amusing moments to be found between the speechifying and belabored craft-service zingers (the extended sight of Rosario Dawson bopping along to a Jackson 5 song is, for once, a reason to celebrate the filmmaker's inability to move the camera), but Smith's calculated return to his roots feels, for the most part, like a pre-moldy artifact that has lost most of its freshness or shock value in the era of YouTube and message boards. (Keith Olbermann was able to talk about fisting with a straight face on his prime-time newscast recently, which is probably a cultural signifier of something.) Smith's hyperliterate lead-assed wiseacres deserve their place in indie-movie history, no doubt, but when even the fart jokes fail to pop, it may be time to draw the curtain. ANDREW WRIGHT

Once in a Lifetime: The Story of the New York Cosmos
dir. Paul Crowder and John Dower

While in a bar watching the World Cup match between France and Portugal, I overheard the woman sitting next to me tell the woman sitting next to her, that, though the players are from the countries they are representing, in reality (meaning commercially) they play for anyone who offers the highest price. Because of this blunt monetary fact, some of the players on the French side are in actuality clubmates with some of the players on the Portuguese side. In short, although the woman sitting next to me was enjoying and rooting for the Portuguese side, she very well knew that the whole national aspect of it was a sham.

The birth of this sham is the subject of the documentary Once in a Lifetime: The Story of the New York Cosmos. (And yes, it is a good documentary.) This is what happened: The owner of the Cosmos—the team was floundering in the mid-'70s—got the idea that the team (and the league) would attract more fans and generate higher profits if it had the greatest player of the sport on its roster. For seven million dollars, the Cosmos brought in Pelé, who, though in retirement at the time (age 34), was still considered a national treasure by the Brazilian government. The dream worked. Pelé came to the U.S. and instantly drew fans. But Mr. Moneybags wanted more. So he bought Giorgio Chinaglia, a troubled superstar from Italy. More fans came to the Cosmos' games. Mr. Moneybags didn't stop there.

He went and bought the German superstar Franz Beckenbauer, who was then in mid-career. The result was phenomenal. At their peak, the Cosmos filled Giants Stadium with 77,000 fans and soccer was on the verge of becoming an American sport. Then things feel apart—Pelé retired, Chinaglia got greedier and seedier, and Americans proved to be capable of watching anything on TV except soccer. The team and the league folded, but the idea of a club buying players from any part in the world became what it is today: the standard. CHARLES MUDEDE

Wassup Rockers
dir. Larry Clark

The chronicler of teenage dysfunction takes a break from ogling white kids and turns his attention to Latino skater boys from South Central. Larry Clark isn't over his fetish—here his camera lingers on barely-adolescent torsos and little butts packed tightly into punk-rock jeans. But for a change, Clark's gaze feels more affectionate than lecherous. The documentary-style first half shows us the crew—led by mini ladies' man Jonathan (Jonathan Velasquez)—skateboarding, playing music, and shooting the shit. Far from the skeezy types we're used to seeing in Clark's films, these guys are a sweet-natured bunch trying to make the most of their grim surroundings.

Just when all the lounging around starts to turn tedious, Clark sends the rascals into Beverly Hills on a quest for more inviting skategrounds, and the film shifts into a burlesque odyssey that brings out both the best and worst in the filmmaker. In one sequence, the kids are picked up by a couple of wealthy prep-school chicks. The encounter is fraught not only with sexual hunger, but with tenderness and curiosity as well; the scene where one of the boys and one of the girls sit on a bed, gently swapping stories about the very different perils of "the ghetto" and 90210-land, is the most gorgeous thing Clark has ever shot.

When the boys are confronted with various despicable specimens of white folk (a predatory gay materialist, a trigger-happy racist, an alcoholic Botox bitch, etc.), however, the movie dips into grotesque caricature. Wassup Rockers is Clark's warmest, loosest work yet, but it would have been better if the director had realized he didn't need to make us hate everyone else in order to get us to love these little dudes. JON FROSCH

Lady in the Water
dir. M. Night Shyamalan

Holy shit. Everything is wrong with this picture. Everything! The photography is exceptionally dull—M. Night Shyamalan managed to do what even Barry Levinson couldn't do: make the work of the most intoxicating cinematographer alive today, Christopher Doyle, look and feel absolutely sober.

The story has nothing new to reveal. A water nymph rises out of an ordinary swimming pool and wants to tell ordinary humans how to make the world better. But the humans have become deaf to nature and magic, and they cannot hear her. Only a child can receive her message (through the unlikely medium of cereal boxes). At the level of ideology, the movie ends up supporting exactly what it intended to denounce: war. The director clearly had a plan to make an antiwar film (he returns continually to shots of televisions broadcasting damning footage from the war in Iraq), but he made this huge mistake: He imagined the enemy of the delicate water people in the same way that Bush and other warmongers imagine their enemies—as pure evil, evil incarnate, evil for no other reason than being evil.

Lastly, the lady from the water is a pure-white, Pre-Raphaelite woman (played by Bryce Dallas Howard); whereas the evil being is simply a black mass. This binary construction leads us, by way of King Kong, back to The Birth of a Nation. M. Night Shyamalan, whose skin is as brown as the skin of most black Americans, employs a visual code system that is as white as white Americans can get. CHARLES MUDEDE

Monster House
dir. Gil Kenan

The latest in a recent glut of rote, computer-animated kiddie movies, Monster House (which screened earlier this year at SIFF) had all kinds of potential for bland suckage. Instead, it went right ahead and ruled.

Old Man Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), like all neighborhood coots, really, really wants you to stay off his lawn. He screams and howls, threatens bodily harm ("You want to be a dead person?"), and he will not give you your ball back. But it's for your own good, really, considering the giant carnivorous child-gobbling monster (Kathleen Turner—no, seriously) masquerading as Nebbercracker's house. Across the street, neighbor kid DJ peers through his telescope, suspecting foul play, determined to get to the bottom of things.

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Monster House's funny, odd screenplay (penned, for all you nerds out there, by the same duo as the legendary Jack Black pilot Heat Vision and Jack) weaves a sweetly macabre, if slightly thin, backstory involving the circus, the cruelty of children, and the festering longevity of hurt feelings. The animation—cold and stylized—has some flair, and it fits the film's pervading creepiness. Leafless trees flank the house like sad, dead fingers. Grasping tendrils of lawn drag unsuspecting trespassers to their doom. Long story short, I now have nightmares from a movie meant for babies.

Fortunately, Monster House has jokes, too—genuinely good ones—and an awesome cast (Fred Willard, Jason Lee, Maggie Gyllenhaal). Its exploration of the house's anatomy is an unexpected delight. Of a globby, chandelier-like thing, one of the kids observes: "That must be the uvula!" "Oh," responds her pal, "so it's a girl house." A girl house, indeed—one that can breathe and blink and vomit and hate. It will scare the shit out of you. LINDY WEST

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