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by Bill Gibron

30 Oct 2008

Thanks to its mainstreaming by the media (and the ever-present lure of easy access via the Internet), pornography has gone from stern community scandal to goofy necessary evil. It satisfies an obvious craving while providing suspect psycho-social suspicions. It also fosters a multibillion dollar industry, and as they say, money changes everything. Some adult stars have even made the semi-successful move into straight entertainment. Jenna Jameson touts her books and b-grade horror films, while Mary Carey turned her addiction into a run on VH-1’s Celebrity Rehab. Now Kevin Smith is getting into the act, turning the plight of two Pennsylvania pals who are low on cash into a clever comment on Bush’s America, human ingenuity, hardcore histrionics, and the map of the human heart. 

For most of their lives, Zack and Miri have been friends - very good, very close friends. Even though they share most things and now live together, their relationship has remained strictly platonic. Yet life in 2008 is not easy. Mounting bills, and a lack of payment options threaten their marginal existence. As luck would have it, a chance encounter with a gay porn star at their high school reunion leads the duo to a desperate conclusion - they need to do something to solve their money problems. The answer? Make a homemade adult film. Of course, it sounds much easier than it ends up being. Rounding up some local talent and a few friends, the original plan is to produce a XXX take on Star Wars. When that production implodes, the couple must find a new venue and premise. None of this addresses the bigger concern, however - how will having sex affect Zack and Miri’s friendship?

In a year that’s seen such spry and subversive comedies as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, and Tropic Thunder, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is the best. It represents yet another triumph for Kevin Smith (after the amazing Clerks II) and showcases a growing maturity for a filmmaking once noted for wallowing in the infantile. Sure, scatology abounds, and no one could accuse Smith of taking his subject too seriously. But when it comes time to deliver the goods, to get past the obvious T&A toilet humor and offer up something sweet and sincere, the king of the ViewAskew Universe literally rules. With its combination of heart and hilarity, bawdy blackouts and cleverly drawn characters, Smith starts out strong and ends up delivering something that’s timeless as well as tasteless.

As with most of his projects, Zack and Miri is expertly cast. Smith associates Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson are along for the ride, and Rogen is joined by Craig Robinson a fellow refugee from Judd Apatow’s comic company. Toss in former porn queen Traci Lords and current adult star Katie Morgan, and some wonderful cameos from Kenny Hotz, Justin Long and Brandon Routh and you’ve got a can’t miss crew of talent. Smith makes the most of them, offering up his standard stellar dialogue with an improving acumen behind the camera that’s a joy to behold. Instead of a strict point and shoot stylizing, there are moments of visual intrigue that indicate a cinematic confidence that Smith seemed to lack before. And no one handles the incorporation of music into a movie in such a rich, meaningful way.

As for the leads, both Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks shine. He is less extroverted here than when paling around with his former Freaks and Geeks consorts. Instead, Zack comes across as a dreamer who needs the proper catalyst to come out of his shell. In that regard, Miri stands as the perfect foil/symbolic fixture. She’s the hot chick with a definitive dork soul, and she accepts Zack on a level much deeper than any other woman could. Together, they generate the kind of chemistry you can’t buy in Hollywood, and turn what could have been a sunny collection of smut jokes into something really heartfelt and sincere. If we don’t buy the pairing, we won’t accept the porn. Smith successfully sells us both.

Indeed, the real surprise here is the film’s solid emotional core. Smith hasn’t shied away from presenting love and devotion onscreen. Both Chasing Amy and Jersey Girl centered on the universal connections between people and how we all fumble and fail while making them. Heck, even his Clerks climate has strong ties to individual feelings, friendship, and faith. But Zack and Miri is different. We want to see these people together, to see how their lives would change should their relationship become more (much more) than just roommates. The result is revelatory. Sure, some may argue that the last act turmoil is typical for a post-modern RomCom, but Smith keeps us guessing until the end.

That all this formulaic fuzziness exists in a film which wallows in nudity, crudeness, and random genital jokes is Zack and Miri‘s final genius move. Smith’s strategy to push the limits of what is acceptable remains consistent, but there is never a time when the gratuity or gross-outs overwhelm the narrative (well…maybe once). Smith stands solidly behind his people, making strippers as friendly and multidimensional as frustrated coffee shop baristas. So when a character illustrates her unique “bubble blowing” abilities, or complains about constipation - graphically - the tackiness doesn’t damage our howling good time. Instead, Smith keeps everything rooted firmly in reality. On occasion, Zack and Miri displays a dark, depressing atmosphere that’s hard to shake. 

To some, Zack and Miri make a Porno will play like a Kevin Smith film co-opted by the mundane and measured out with one too many Inside Seka splashes. And there is definitely a demographic who will view the consistent carnality and claim all kinds of corruption and exploitation. But outside the buzzword basics, this is a great film. It’s funny, inventive, irreverent, subversive, and tastelessly terrific. It never tries to be more than a story of individuals, of how relationships are tested and interpersonal barriers are overcome. While he threatens to change things up and make a horror film next time out, Kevin Smith has finally found his real calling. As long as he continues to celebrate the marginalized and takes to championing Everyman (and woman), he might just become a wanton Woody Allen. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is proof of this. It’s one of 2008’s best.

by Bill Gibron

30 Oct 2008

If it’s October, it’s Fright Time here at SE&L. As we have the last two years, we will use the tenth month of the year to celebrate all things horror - the good, the bad, and the gory. In between our standard Friday film reviews and occasional mainstream DVD release, we will look at 20 scary movies that may (or may not) be worth your attention. By checking back here regularly, you will see the titles covered, and find links to the opinions provided. Hopefully, we will uncover some gems among the junk. Enjoy!

On DVD - Feast II: Sloppy Seconds (2008)
On DVD - Phantasm (1979) 
On DVD - The Toolbox Murders (1978)
On DVD - Evilspeak (1981)
On DVD - Pieces (1982)
On DVD - Pieces (1982) - Version 2.0
On DVD - Bad Taste (1987)
On DVD - Mad Monster Party? (1969)
On DVD - The Last Broadcast (1998)
On DVD - The Beyond (1981)
On DVD - Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2007)
On DVD - Ils (2006)
On DVD - Ganja & Hess (1973)
On DVD - Inside (2007)

Mil Mascaras: Resurrection (2005)
Midnight Meat Train (2008)
Haunted Hay Ride (2008)
Mirrors (2008)
[REC] (2008)

The Cottage (2008) - Coming Soon

by David Pullar

30 Oct 2008

The old saying about the fine line between genius and madness seems particularly apt when looking at writers. There must be something about the personality or temperament that is well-suited to long hours of isolated scribbling that leads to eccentricity and anti-sociability.

Recently, I’ve been reading Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals—a hatchet job on the writing profession if ever there was one. Now, Johnson is a curmudgeonly Conservative and has his own agenda in portraying the shortcomings of self-appointed (usually left-wing) intellectuals, but it’s hard to deny that at least the ones he selects are a sorry lot.

The most astonishing thing that comes out of these portraits is how poor at human relations some of the most humanist writers were. Johnson paints Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy, both known for their groundbreaking portrayals of women, as being hopelessly misogynistic in real life. Even more astonishing, given the psychological insights of much great literature, is how little empathy many of these writers have. How can someone understand people so well in the abstract and so little in the concrete?

A less polemical look at the writing profession is from Javier Marias, whose Written Lives is a true joy to read. Without any particular agenda, Marias relays anecdotes from the lives of some giants of literature: Nabokov, Mann, Mishima, Conrad, Faulkner. They’re mostly humorous and all the writers are portrayed as eccentric at the very least. Some (particularly Rimbaud or Mishima) are more accurately described as “crazy”.

There’s a lot of selection bias here. Johnson wanted to prove that intellectuals, particularly writers, are ineligible to tell the world how to live, based on their own (considerable) shortcomings. Marias wants to entertain. Either purpose will lead to a tendency to choose the most sensational stories. Obviously there are plenty of writers who are well-adjusted and even tempered—it’s just that a lot of the truly remarkable writers aren’t.

Are great writers any crazier or more deeply flawed than the rest of humanity, or do we simply forgive them more?  Do we excuse their foibles on account of their “artistic temperament”?  Do we say that their personality is unconnected to their art?

Even Johnson, who appears to be less willing to forgive faults than most, acknowledges that great art remains great irrespective of who created it. He takes more issue with the idea that great art should guide us, when the ideas and philosophies within served their creator so poorly.

As a lover of books and writing, I’m happy to cut the greats a little slack. And I’m more than happy to have a bit of a laugh at their oddities.

by Arun Subramanian

29 Oct 2008

It’s not difficult to imagine who the target audience for Mega Man 9 is.  A good number of gamers came of age during the heyday of the NES, when both challenge and level design encouraged multiple playthroughs of titles.  These qualities were particularly important considering both how much more $50 was then than it is now, and how many fewer people were playing video games to begin with, indicating a much more hardcore fanbase.  It doesn’t seem likely that newcomers to Mega Man will have any interest in Mega Man 9.  However, gamers who spent a good deal of time with Mega Man 1 and 2 in their formative years will very likely find the prospect of purchasing a new 8-bit Mega Man for $9.99 irresistible.

That said, it’s somewhat interesting to try and determine who will actually complete the game, given its level of difficulty.  From top to bottom, Mega Man 9 is a throwback to an another time in gaming.  The audiovisual presentation aims to match that of the earliest 8-bit titles to a fault.  Between that and the challenge presented, Mega Man 9 is strikingly content to present itself as though the last 20 years of gaming never happened.

As with the classic titles in the series, memorization, trial and error, and pure platforming ability are crucial to success in Mega Man 9.  Experimentation is also required in order to determine the most efficient order in which to defeat the bosses.  Again, Mega Man 9 is reminiscent of a time when beating the game was only the beginning of actually getting good at it, and punishing difficulty was welcomed, because level design and predictable enemy patterns meant that after the initial learning curve, dying was the player’s fault.

Normally, it might be difficult to argue that the “lost game”, retro feel that Mega Man 9 achieves was especially necessary in order to evoke nostalgia.  Indeed, games like Bionic Commando: Rearmed have demonstrated that the reboot of a long dormant franchise itself is likely to ensure decent enough sales among those that remember the original.  What makes Mega Man 9 unique is how active the franchise, or at least the protagonist, has been for many years regardless of the quality of individual titles.  Revisiting the early days of Mega Man when the series was at its strongest, then, is what makes the design of Mega Man 9 particularly notable. 

Although it makes perfect sense for Mega Man 9 to be distributed digitally (regardless of the brilliant limited edition physical packaging), it does seem somewhat at odds with the rest of the game’s aesthetics for there to be downloadable content and achievements for the Xbox 360 version.  But beyond that, Mega Man 9 does an admirable job of revisiting a classic gaming franchise, leaving the original presentation untouched, while offering brand new content.  For fans of the series, it offers a large amount of replay value for its relatively low price, though its retro brand of difficulty may prove too much for some.

by Jason Gross

29 Oct 2008

I’ve wondered about this when I’ve listened to James Brown’s Live at the Apollo and B.B. King’s Live at the Regal, two classic pre-psychedelic era 60’s live albums, where the crowds themselves are so boisterous that they become an important part of the live recording.  In both cases, what’s going on with the performance is enhanced by the audience reaction- I talk about this in more detail in an upcoming PopMatters article about yet another classic 60’s live album, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison.

I also wondered about this when I saw three bands at CMJ: Monotonix, DMBQ and AIDS Wolf. Other than the noise-rock connection, another thing that these three bands have in common is that they don’t like to be confined to the stage.  AIDS Wolf’s show at the Knitting Factory inspired a mini-mosh pit near the front of the stage, which sometimes spilled over there, encouraged by the band.  Diminutive singer Chloe Lum (aka Special Deluxe) also ran into the audience and writhed on the floor.  Nothing new unless you’ve never heard of Iggy Pop but seeing this kind of act up close is still exhilarating and definitely added something to the music and the performance. 

Japanese band DMBQ recovered from the tragic death of their drummer in an ‘05 car accident. Live, singer Shinji Masuko (a noted music journalist) donned a Lighting Bolt-type mask with a mic tied to his face and climbed onto the ceiling’s pipe fixtures.  Guitarist Toru Matsui frequently held his whole guitar in his mouth while bassist Ryuichi Watanabe frequently made his way into the crowd.  As for drummer Shinji Wada, he threw his kit into the audience and encouraged the crowd to hold it up as well as his drum stool.  He jumped up on the stool and played his kit, elevated over the crowd.  Surely Iggy would appreciate such crowd participation.

After that, I didn’t think that Monotix could top that in another venue but they did.  The crazed Israeli trio, subject to bans in their hometown, spends little or no time on a stage.  Like DMBQ, their drummer (Haggai Fershtman) likes to play in the audience, frequently moving his kit around.  The singer (Ami Shalev) and (Yonatan Gat) soon join him there.  Sometimes, the drums wind up at the back of a club or more frequently on top of a bar, where Fershtman goes to play them, with the rest of the band following along.  At one point, Shalev emptied a garbage can and put it over Fershtman’s head before he took it off and climbed in it himself with the crowd passing him and the can around, over their heads.  Shalev also put a drum on Fershtman’s head and played it there while the drummer himself played the rest of his kit.  Later, Fershtman moved his kit to the exits and Shalev literally herded the crowd back there to join him.  I’d seen them do something similar at another show but this was still great entertainment to witness.  For the newbies, they couldn’t imagine anything being any more exciting afterward.  Sadly, the club put on the house music, which drown out their sing-a-long finale but by then, the crowd was gratified enough.

See what crowd participation can do?  Tough to duplicate at home for sure unless you have a nice big rumpus room and don’t mind breaking some furniture.

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