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Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

It’s amazing how integrated pornography has become in our culture. Merely a few decades ago people had to wear disguises to venture out to a ratty theater to watch an adult movie alongside plenty of folks in raincoats helping to add to the sticky floors. Nowadays releasing a sex tape is considered a career boost. Porn stars have replaced supermodels as rock star arm candy, porn has become more socially acceptable, and a wealth of bizarre and explicit possibilities exist just a few keystrokes away. In the end, it’s all fantasy with bad acting.

And yet Kevin Smith’s newest comedy, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, got in trouble with advertisers because of people getting in a tizzy over the goofy word “porno.” Major League Baseball was told that a father was uncomfortably asked by his son what a “porno” was after seeing a commercial during a ball game. Heaven forbid our nation’s parents have to deal with an uncomfortable subject, so baseball banned any ads for the movie. Many newspapers nationwide have refused to list the full title. The original poster was deemed too inappropriate so Smith and crew devised a poster of stick figures. Poster version 2.0 then came under fire for being attractive to children because of the stick figure art. It seems Zack and Miri is getting it at both ends (no pun intended).

Times are tough for lifelong friends Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks). They’re scrambling to pay their bills and keep the electricity in their apartment during a chilly winter in Pennsylvania. Inspired by a conversation with a chatty gay porn star (Justin Long) at their tenth year high school reunion, Zack believes amateur porn can solve their money woes. The two will make their own porn video and sell it to the alumni list from their graduating class, who, Zack rationalizes, would buy a porn if they knew someone involved. Zack convinces his coffee shop co-worker Delaney (Craig Robinson) to help fund the project. Delaney agrees as long as he can have a say in casting; after many years of marriage he is eager to see something new. The team also recruits a squeaky-voiced stripper (current porn starlet Katie Morgan), an old bachelor party performer (former porn starlet Traci Lords), a cameraman (Jeff Anderson), and a man free from any inhibition (Jason Mewes). But Zack and Miri must confront their unspoken feelings for one another as they approach their own sex scene. Can they go from platonic friends to lovers?

Being a Smith film, naturally Zack and Miri is outrageous and often hysterical. The film manages to become witty and dirty at the same time, often stringing together vulgarities in exciting and imaginative ways (the curious “Dutch Rudder” as a means of escaping being deemed gay). Smith has a love of the profane. The movie is vulgar like most Smith movies but the beauty of its filth is in the sparkling, rapid-fire dialogue that adds eloquence to the scatological. This is Smith’s comedic brand, the verbose dirty joke. As in other Smith comedies, the true humor is not found in set pieces and set-ups but in the everyday camaraderie of the cast and through casual conversations. Smith writes characters that you just want to listen to for hours. Zack and Miri does have some funny moments that are specific to the production of randy moviemaking, like an unforgettable de-clogging that “frosts” a cameraman. The joke is swift. However, akin to the Judd Apatow brand of comedy, this is a movie where the charm is watching the characters interact, regardless of setting. I do think the movie unfortunately missed plenty of other potential gags on the silly minutia of homemade pornography. How about the crazy duties for a sound design? Imagine a guy trying to recreate the many weird bodily sounds during sex. I’m mildly shocked that Smith didn’t even touch the vagaries of pubic hair style.

What the movie does nicely is dwell upon the distinction between love and sex. Now I’m not conveniently forgetting the thousands of movies that have come before and dealt with the topic of intimacy and carnality, but Zack and Miri goes into the nuts and bolts (no pun intended) of an industry that has turned intimacy into a mass-market business model. Zack and Miri stress out about their Big Scene and try to convince themselves that it won’t mean anything, but of course their body language betrays them. The actual deed is an obvious turning point for the twosome and count this as one sex scene that is actually, well, emotionally climactic and, yes, sexy. Though the camera only stays at shoulder-length and alternates between two angles, the actors convincingly convey an array of genuine feelings, notably love. It’s not easy for an actor to display honest-to-goodness love, but Banks and Rogen achieve this feat. The aftermath of their onscreen coupling extends into a seemingly unnecessary third act that divides them apart in a contrived fashion. Seriously, the typical third act misunderstanding in standard romantic comedy fluff is alive and well in a Smith vehicle. The characters do not react to this misunderstanding in a realistic manner; one character would rather be sequestered than easily prove their innocence.

While Zack and Miri has plenty of laughs and a nice, mushy center, I cannot help but feel mixed about the results. The characters are not nearly as sharply drawn as they have been in other Apatow comedies, even other Kevin Smith movies. I can go back and remember the multiple dimensions of the funny people that populated Superbad, Sarah Marshall, 40-Year Old Virgin and others, but Kevin Smith’s latest comedy suffers in comparison. Zack and Miri are the only characters with moderate sums of characterization, and yet their unspoken love is essentially the bulk of that. Neither character is well defined or explored in a substantial way that doesn’t involve the other. I get that the movie is a romance. But I expect more from characters than to be defined by whom they desire. I just wanted more. Yes Zack is a slacker who says he’s just looking for a good time, though we know he has his sights set on more, and yes Miri is a gorgeous gal with a lot of patience, but these characters are staples of Kevin Smith movies. The assorted side characters have fun moments but are mostly insignificant. There’s the stripper with a heart of gold, the been-around-the-block type, the henpecked husband, the secret freak behind the button-down exterior, the loudmouth, and the sex-crazed dude. Zack and Miri establishes the idea of filmmaking as a community by introducing this lot, but the movie then forgets to incorporate the supporting characters in meaningful ways. They’re mostly used for jokes that fail to extend beyond the immediate. A late scene involving Delaney’s angry wife (Tisha Campbell-Martin) relies on too many grating “white boy” japes that I tuned out. I’m not intending to slam Smith’s film, but the lack of character work hampers the audience investment in the central romance.

What is lacking on paper is nearly compensated by the great performances from Rogen and Banks. Both are on loan from the Apatow comedy company, and both are skilled at being raunchy one second and heartfelt the next. Rogen finds his comic groove easily and is an enjoyable schmo that taps hidden ambition in the most unlikely of scenarios. It really is Banks who comes across as the star of the flick. She can talk trash with the boys but she is radiant during the film’s dramatic moments, selling Miri’s emotional highs and lows with crinkling smiles and fluttering eyelashes. Banks has always been a solid actress underutilized by most of her marginal film roles. With Zack and Miri, Banks showcases a devilish comedic gleam. Of course yet again the audience must believe that a beautiful gal with a beaming smile would be down on her luck finding a good guy.

In the end (no pun intended), Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a crude romantic comedy that might have benefited by more attention spent on the romance or the comedy. The tone never breaks as sharply as with Chasing Amy, arguably still Smith’s finest accomplishment, but the dirty humor and the gooey romance have a hard time expanding because of the presence of each other. Too often the ribald humor doesn’t feel fully realized because the dirty jokes are just window dressing for the romance, and I had trouble fully engaging with the romance because the characters haven’t been rendered to have substantial depth. Smith may have been better served by making his movie longer; the film is barely an hour and 40 minutes long. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a sweet movie with a dirty mind but it does not measure up to recent comedies like the best of Apatow’s brand. Smith is a talented wordsmith who certainly knows how to make an entertaining comedy, and Zack and Miri certainly entertains, but like pornography, it just made me want something more fleshed-out and real (no pun intended).

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)

Kevin Smith returns back to his comedy roots. No more movies with a message (Chasing Amy and Dogma) it’s back to good ole’ snowballing and stink palming. His latest, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, is like a giant thank-you card to all his fans that have made the man who he is today. It ties up the entire View Askew universe so Kevin can drift off into uncharted ventures of film making and not have to keep referencing the same damn characters. Plus there’s plenty of good-natured vulgarity to go around.

The plot of Jay and Silent Bob is nothing too heavy but seems to keep the film on a continuous pace, unlike the sometimes stagnant feel Mallrats had (what, they’re in one location for 90 minutes). It seems that after getting a restraining order at the Quick Stop on them, Jay and Silent Bob learn that Miramax is making a movie from a comic book that is in fact based off of them. Learned of the riches they could make they seek out the comic’s author Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck’s first appearance in the film) and demand a piece of the pie. Holden tells them that he long ago sold his right to his partner Banky Edwards (Jason Lee, in his second appearance in the film) and that there’s nothing they can do to stop the film. Jay suddenly gets the idea that if they stop the movie from ever getting made then they don’t have to worry. So off go our stoner duo on a mission to sabotage and satirize Hollywood.

Along the way are a hitch-hiker (George Carlin) advising the best way to get a ride is to go down in your morals, a confused nun (Carrie Fisher), the cast of Scooby Doo offering a ride (which will be 100x funnier than the feature film coming out this summer), a beautiful band of international diamond thieves (Eliza Dusku, Ali Larter, Jennifer Swalbach-Smith, Shannon Elizabeth), a rescued chimpanzee, a dogged Wildlife agent (Will Ferrell), and a full barrage of hilarity once Hollywood is finally hit.

The best barbs are laid out by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon bickering about the other’s film choices on the set of Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season. This moment is truly inspired and full of great humor from Gus van Sant too busy counting his money to yell action to Damon turning into a vigilante hero. I almost fell on the floor laughing during this sequence.

When Jay and Silent Bob hit Hollywood is when the comedy starts hitting its stride as this Jersey Greek chorus interacts with the Hollywood life and encounters many a celebrity. The jokes are usually right on target except for Chris Rock’s performance of a racism obsessed film director. Rock’s portrayal becomes grating to the moviegoer far before it’s over, though he does get a few choice lines.

Smith as a director has finally elevated his visual art into something that can sustain itself instead of his earlier just-hold-the-camera-and-shoot movies. There are pans, zooms, quick cuts, cranes, action sequences, and even CGI. Smith is evolving as an artist but still staying his “dick and fart joke” self, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is evidence. And that’s fine by me.

Nate’s Grade: B

Scream 3 (2000)

Master of the macabre Wes Craven returns to the most anticipated and secretive horror series in recent memory. The Scream saga opened the doors for the teen proliferation of all that is commercial, and now the same people come back to close the book on what they started. At least that’s what the idea was.

Craven proves his directing credentials even more so with this vapidly dull sequel to the sequel about horror sequels. Even when the story is dragging, and it will, he wrings some amount of tension and excitement that I’m sure would likely be absent from any other director’s hands.

The void of teen powerhouse scribe Kevin Williamson is distinguishing, but newbie Miramax goldenboy Ehren Kruger walks the walk effectively. What is sadly absent are the touches of irony and intrigue that Williamson dabbled through like a French chef. Ghostface loses the edge it had in the earlier flicks where the deaths would all be unusually related to the topic at hand in some clever way. But in Scream 3 the irony is left behind at the Williamson offices and killer-man-guy just hacks people away. No interesting approaches or set-ups, just unrelenting running and slashing.

Scream 3‘s biggest drawback may be the lack of the central mystery the first two exhibited so well. ‘Scream 3’ introduces about 15 different characters, but then quickly enough kills off about 14 of them. Face it kids, if Scream 3 is your first Scream flick you ain’t making it to the end credits. Kruger lays no clues or red herrings for the audience to gape and trip over in wondering who is behind the killer’s mask. More time is spent needlessly killing needless characters than creatively playing the audience along an intricate guessing game that would have made the movie more enjoyable.

It may sound like I’m coming down hard on Scream 3 but, on the contrary, I had a huge amount of fun with it. Parker Posey is wonderful. I was laughing often and was usually entertained even though I could sense the franchise losing its steam. Besides a lame ending (two in a row), Scream 3 is good popcorn fun but nothing more promising than that.

Ladies and gentlemen the Scream horror series has finally degenerated into the very thing it’s making fun of. Except with this installment it seems not to know that the joke is on them.

Nate’s Grade: C+

 

Dogma (1999)

In a time where simply having faith in anything, let alone religion, is scoffed at, Kevin Smith daringly and passionately expresses his personal search for answers and understanding. But while the zealots decree Dogma as blasphemy, what they truly miss is the biggest commercial for faith and God that American audiences have seen in decades of cinema.

The story of the religious epic causing all the hubbub begins with a pair of fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) spurned from the pearly gates of Heaven and banished to Wisconsin. One discovers a re-dedication of a church imploring a little used Catholic practice of plenary indulgence allowing whoever to enter through the church’s arches to have their slate cleaned of all sin. The two seize this opportunity of a dogmatic loophole to sneak back into heaven. The only slight problem is that by doing so they reverse a decree of God and disprove the Almighty’s unfallability, and thus will wipe out all of existence. The voice of God (Alan Rickman) recruits a lapsed Catholic named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) for a Holy Crusade to halt the scheming angel’s plans for the good of the universe. Along the way she is aided by two unlikely prophets (the dynamic duo of Jay and Silent Bob), an racially discredited 13th Apostle (Chris Rock), and a shapely strip-teasing muse (Salma Hayek) as they engage with demons, seraphims, angles, and all sorts of celestial “who’s who” to stop the end of existence.

Smith’s direction has taken strides since the point-and-click days of his earlier works; however, there’s still an awkward flatness to his framing and action. Fiorentino, with her sexiy voice, plays the role of a grounded character well. Rickman as the bitter Brit shows why he can still take anyone toe-to-toe for acting chops. Affleck and Damon have terrific chemistry together and play off one another for great comedy. Jason Mewes has never been funnier as the terminally stoned and foul mouthed Jay. Rock shows he can restrain his abrasive personality. Salma shows… well she shows she can dance. Jason Lee as an air conditioning-adoring demon and George Carlin as a used car salesman type Catholic Cardinal are so commanding in their presence and excellent in their performances that it’s a sin most of their scenes were cut during editing. Even Alanis Morrisette works as a humanly childish God. She’s given no lines but expresses great feeling and humor anyway.

Dogma is rambunctiously hilarious and a never ending joyride of fun as it jumps from jokes about demons made of excrement to “Buddy Christs” to insightful and sensitive thoughts on religion. Rarely does it bore even with the large plot it must always keep in successive movement. The only drawback Dogma suffers from is the amount of religious points it desires to make. The characters will reach a subject, chat, then directly move on to the next. The sporadic nature can easily keep an audience’s head spinning, but is brought back down to gentle rest from Smith’s Divine wit and sharp writing. Some of the opus’ many characters appear for only brief stretches as Hollywood’s A-list battle for valid screen time amongst each other.

Smith is not one to shy away from controversy, or his quota of sexual innuendos and profanity. But the protestors for this film attacking its vulgarity are beyond missing the point; Dogma is reaching people the church hasn’t and can’t. It may be an audacious tweaker of a flick, but ultimately it’s bringing up religion into open debate and discussion amongst the masses where there was none before. And isn’t that in itself glorifying some type of achievement?

It would do well the opponents of Dogma to venture into a darkened theater sometime to see the movie and realize it is a humorous affirmation of faith and beliefs. The story of a crisis of faith is relatable to a society too jaded and cynical. Smith’s wrestle with theology is the public’s gain, and his halo only glows a little brighter for having the courage to do so.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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