Latest Blog Posts

by Bill Gibron

23 Feb 2009


Some filmmakers wear their influences like a clandestine coat of arms. While they’ll never really admit it, they are clearly borrowing from the wealth of directorial prowess that came before them. True originals are hard to come by. Instead, we usually wind up with post-modern moviemakers channeling their heroes and paying homage to elements both obvious and obscure. When he first hit the scene in late ‘60s, Dario Argento was seen as a part Hitchcock, part Italian cultural heritage. After all, his father Salvatore was a famed producer, and he himself had helped script several successful spaghetti westerns, including the classic Sergio Leone classic Once Upon a Time in the West.

But with his first film as a director, the brilliant Bird with the Crystal Plumage (new to Blu-ray DVD from Blue Underground), he was out to prove that he was more than just a Mediterranean copy of the Master of Suspense. Using innovative camera work and a novel twist on the standard thriller type, he invented the language of the “giallo” - the Italian crime film based on the famous ‘yellow’ novels that provide the genre’s moniker. Bird itself was actually an un-credited adaptation of Fredric Browne’s The Screaming Mimi, but as he would throughout the rest of his illustrious career, Argento takes the basics of the artform and transforms them into something original and wholly unique.

After a prosperous stay in Italy, American author Sam Dalmas is about to return to the US with his glamour gal model girlfriend in tow. On the way from picking up his final check, he sees a woman brutally attacked by a sinister dark figure. Helping the police, he learns that there have been several such incidents in the last few months - and he was lucky. All the other victims have ended up dead. While not a suspect, his passport is confiscated. Unable to leave, he decides to investigate the case. Turns out, there are several suspects, including the woman’s wary husband. As he gets deeper into things, Sam finds himself threatened both verbally and physically. Seems he is getting close to solving the crimes, and the killer will stop at nothing to make sure that doesn’t happen.

As a first feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a startling achievement. It’s technically proficient, visually arresting, and quite suspenseful. It features remarkable work from Tony Musante (a truly underappreciated American actor) and Suzy Kendall and a script that does a decent job of keeping the last minute surprises in check. As he does with many of his films, Argento employs an unusual combination of found locations and studio set-ups to create his uncomfortable worlds. When Sam sees the assault, it takes place in an art gallery overloaded with baroque and downright surreal pieces. Toward the end, our hero visits a hermit who lives in what looks like a broken down barn. Always a stickler for detail, you can practically smell the rot surrounding the cat-eating recluse.

As with many giallo, Bird is basically a police procedural, except this time, an American writer with some time on his hands does most of the grunt work. This gives Argento the opportunity to indulge in some dopey scenes of serio-comic clue gathering. They include a stop over at an antique shop where Musante’s rugged good looks give a fey clerk the veiled vapors. Later, a conversation with the victim’s husband reveals more red herrings than a Swedish banquet. Argento always plays his reveals close to the vest, so it’s almost impossible to guess who the killer really is. Even when we revisit Musante’s “memory” of the attack, the obvious misdirection offered by the editing keeps identities in check. Of course, the sadism of the murders and the manner in which they are choreographed suggest their own suspects as well.

Indeed, anyone coming to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage hoping for a fascinating foreign whodunit clearly don’t understand Argento. Some call him a technician, someone more interested than cinematic style over narrative or emotional substance. True, we don’t really care about Sam or his girlfriend. When threatened, we don’t respond with compassion or caring. But as he showed in such other masterworks as Suspiria, Inferno, and Profundo Rosso, we don’t have to identify with the people onscreen to get caught up in Argento’s approach. Instead, the combination of skills - the brilliant camerawork matched with a stunning soundtrack (this one offered by none other than acclaimed countryman Ennio Morricone) and an unusual take on the material or type can literally lull us into an entertainment trance.

Because of the way Argento’s films look, fans have longed for the day when his movies would make the transition from standard home video formats to the latest high definition developments. Blue Underground’s treatment of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has always been stellar - but this new Blu-ray release is something else all together. It’s like stepping back in time and revisiting the film for the first time during its theatrical run. There is plenty of grain and a few flaws in the 2.35:1 anamorphic image, but that’s par for the course circa 1970s Italy. The Blu-ray really enhances both the evocativeness of Argento’s compositions and the hard boiled qualities of the technical limitations he had to work within. Similarly, the differing audio mixes (DTS, TrueHD) and variations (English Dub, Italian translation) reflect the film’s international success. Be wary of the subtitles, however. They do not match the Western version of the film very well.

Blue Underground also treats us to the wonderful bonus features they offered when the title first hit Special Edition DVD in 2005. They include interviews with Argento, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, actress Eva Renzi, and composer Ennio Morricone. All are insightful and quite fun. Then there is a commentary track from journalists Alan Jones and Kim Newman. Informal and rather superficial, the two discuss the influence of Argento and his provocative style as scenes demanding conversation gracefully flow by. This is not a bad alternate discussion, just one that seems to miss the point of most DVD tracks.

For those reviewing The Bird with the Crystal Plumage with a full knowledge of everything Dario Argento can and cannot do, the lack of outlandishness and the conventional nature of the film overall will probably be rather surprising. After all, there’s none of the beautiful violence of later films, or the cold and calculated anti-social sentiment of giallos like Tenebre, Opera, or The Stendhal Syndrome. As with any audition, Argento almost failed (a producer wanted to fire him after his secretary saw some dailies and was truly terrified), but in the end, he used its overriding success to become one of the true Masters of the macabre. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage may not be his most daring or controversial effort, but it certainly certifies the Hitchcock tag. Just like the British moviemaking maverick, there has been no one like Dario Argento - not before or since.

by Bill Gibron

15 Feb 2009


John Gulager’s rise from wannabe filmmaker to creator of the fright-astic Feast series was only partially documented on the cinema-based reality series Project Greenlight. As part of the DVD release of his latest effort, Feast III: The Happy Finish (from Genius Products, The Weinstein Company, and their Dimension Extreme label) we are treated to a short PR piece which explains Gulager’s twenty year rise to ‘overnight sensation’ status. As the son of Hollywood staple Clu, the 50-something has seen his fortunes go from pretender to player, all thanks to the Matt Damon-Ben Affleck series. Oddly enough, for feeling so beneath the process, Gulager is probably one of the most success of the all the Greenlight alumni. Now, some four years after his initial achievement, he’s back with another installment of his monster movie series. While not bad, the third time here is definitely not the charm.

After watching Honey Pie buy it in the middle of the street, and seeing both undersized heroes Thunder and Lightning fail in their quest to get the junkie out of the police station, the rest of the first Feast‘s survivors decide to take matters into their own grue-slicked hands. So what if the Bartender is still sporting a horrible neck wound or that car salesman Greg has a pipe sticking through his skull. Biker Queen, Tat Girl, Slasher, and Secrets are still going to try to get the guns, load up on ammunition, and blast their way out of town. Sadly, a couple of cockeyed action men - Shitkicker and Jean Claude Seagal - make such a simple idea quite complicated. Eventually, a handicapped prophet named Short Bus Gus comes along to show them the path to righteousness…and escape. He seems skilled at controlling the monsters. Unfortunately, his power doesn’t extend to the mutants living beneath the city.

To call Feast III a sequel to the whacked out wonders of the gore-drenched Feast II would be an intellectual exercise of limited results. In essence, if Gulager and crew had been able to make a two and a half hour epic out of the first revisit to the monsters on the rampage material, there would be no need for this clever continuation. The story picks up right as the last one ended, with some of the characters we saw die off then back to accent their blood soaked demise. As the players move from location to location, Gulager introduces us to some of the most unlucky heroes in the history of the genre. One minute they’re making some massive stand against the beasties. The next, an accident has their brains splashed all over the walls.

A lot of Feast III tries to be so unconventional. Gulager gets a lot of mileage out of dialogue that reeks with Scream style self-referentialism, and there’s irony in abundance during many of the shock showdowns. However, there’s little this time to match the merry mayhem of seeing a baby splattered by a group of horny Hellspawn. There’s no denying that, after a while, the story starts to waver as well. We grow tired of conversations that sound like band religious epiphanies - or on the other hand, sloppy pre-barroom brawling. The start/stop approach to the action is irritating and the long passages of crawling around lose their allure. By the time the remaining survivors head underground and start battling with some mutants, Gulager is resorting to strobe-light, stop motion cinematography to capture the clash.

It’s as if the entire Feast III series symbolically runs out of steam. We still enjoy the wrap-up (including the WTF ending involving an unseen “force”) and the Mexican troubadour singing over the credits is a hoot. But the first two Feasts were so fun, so anarchic and overloaded with arterial spray that too see it come to a somewhat sputtering halt feels unfulfilling. Of course, the splatter is still present, heads and torsos ripped apart and leaking their vital goodness, and no one can top Gulager in his Sam Raimi/Peter Jackson-inspired desire to push the limits of such sluice. There’s a memorable moment with a decapitated heroine, a hungry fiend, and a bout of bad gas that has to be scene to be believed. In many ways, this series is a geeky gorehound’s dream come true. This time around, it’s the story that suffers. 

As part of the direct-to-DVD release, Gulager steps up to offer yet another clever commentary. He is joined by Producer Michael Leahy and writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. Together, this group gives the film a good going over, laughing at lapses in plot logic, goofball characterization, and their overall bizarre approach to the material. They lament the lack of sex this time around (only one individual gets buggered by the beasts) and the ending appears to be a combination of purposeful rebellion and a “what do we do now” dilemma. Along with the Gulager EPK and a series of trailers, the bonus features here are as much fun - and as much of a letdown - as this part of the Feast franchise.

Still, one has to admire Gulager for never giving up on his dreams. As the child of a Tinsel Town icon, he could have easily traded on his father’s fame to become one of many untalented leeches lunching on their family crest. Instead, Gulager held on to his passion for motion pictures and finally found the opportunity to achieve his dreams. The resulting horror spoof scored big with fans desperate for something thrilling, chilling, and filled with blood spilling. With Part III, we don’t really get the promised happy “finish” implied in the title - unless you’re talking about for Gulager and his career. Few filmmakers can create a successful film, let alone a series. While he may never be a Craven or Romero, this sunny survivor can make as much schlock as he likes, and as long as he keeps the same tone and temperament he showed with the Feast films, he’ll remain someone worth paying attention to.

by Bill Gibron

8 Feb 2009


Titles are a tricky thing. Label a film incorrectly and you tend to completely confound audience expectations. The proper name not only puts things in perspective, but awards the attentive viewer with an additional piece of the motion picture puzzle that they might not have already possessed. Take the Jet Li film, Gei ba ba de xin. In America, it was known as The Enforcer. But in the star’s native China, it went by the more apropos moniker My Father is a Hero. To Western fans, the blood and guts label removes any doubt about the movie’s intentions: it’s going to be another installment of head busting Hong Kong marital artistry. Oddly enough, the Eastern tag is much more appropriate, since the film is really an action packed drama with as much emphasis on emotion as ass kicking.

Kung Wei is an undercover cop working for the Mainland police. He hangs out with lowlifes and other criminal scum, infiltrating their organizations and eliminating the bad guys. Sadly, he is unable to tell his sickly wife and doting son Johnny about his job. When a new case takes him to Hong Kong, Kung must face the humiliation of being “arrested”. And to make matters worse, while he’s away, his loving spouse falls gravely ill. This means that Johnny must take charge and become head of the household. He tries to protect his mother from the harassing jeers of the locals, while feeding her home remedies to make her well again. When Hong Kong policewoman Inspector Fong visits the family, she discovers Kung’s secret. When Johnny is suddenly left alone, she takes him back to the big city with her. This puts Johnny right in the sights of Po, a brutal mobster who Kung is working for.

The Enforcer (re-released on DVD as part of Genius Products Dragon Dynasty label) really is a poorly renamed effort. Not from a filmmaking standpoint. Li, as usual, is electric, his performance - and that of the amazing prodigy Miu Tse - giving the narrative a great deal of machismo and heft. And not from a directing position. The great Corey Yuen balances pathos with powerhouse stunt setpieces in a way few action helmers can even begin to handle. And The Enforcer really delivers in the character, narrative, and subplot category. Sure, the situation with Johnny, his mother, and the absentee Dad is manipulative as Hell, and Fong’s foolish relationship with a fellow officer sets her up for a last act bit of golly gender equity, but with Yuen and Li making everything work, we don’t really mind the old school exploitation.   

No, the only problem with this otherwise fine film is the flimsy, pro-USA moniker. Li doesn’t “enforce” anything here, nor is he really an “enforcer” for Po’s gang. In truth, he’s a put upon lackey that gets treated poorly by everyone, both legal and illegal. There’s the standard scene where Li begs his portly police superior for “a normal life” (which is naturally rejected) and the crime boss beats all his underlings senseless. As Bey Logan says in his always interesting commentary track, Po’s actions make one wonder why anyone would want to work with him. He’s nasty and inexplicably evil with very little motivation outside his own desire to be awful. Logan legitimizes the turn, however, arguing that this makes the villain that much more unpredictable - and deserving of any last act comeuppance.

When viewed through the veil of a title like My Father is a Hero however, the focus on Johnny, his competing storyline (he has as much screen time as Li - maybe more) and the work of Miu Tse becomes much more understandable. This undersized dynamo, around 10 at the time the movie was made, is jaw-droppingly brilliant in the role of pint-sized champion. He’s every bit the badass as his far more famous co-star and his kung fu skills are not to be questioned. During a clash with his fellow classmates at school, Tse’s Johnny teaches them all a lesson in butt kicking that they won’t soon forget. Not only that, but this sensational child star holds the camera like few in his age group. During the more emotional material, he manages moments of genuine pain and anguish. But he’s best when required to go toe to toe with the adult actors, more than holding his own in the cleverly choreographed fights.

Yuen also does an excellent job as a director. The opening skirmish in a high tech modern restaurant (complete with glass walls and waterfall) is eye-popping in its intricacy and drive, while individual sequences between Li and baddie Rongguang Yu have their own power and suspense. It’s fascinating that, in many of the sequences, our superstar often takes the fall. Li is seen as weak in certain situations, torn by his dedication to his job and love for his son. This is clearly something novel for the typical herculean sentiments of the genre. And unlike the work of Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow, Li’s films boil with a hyper-seriousness that makes the violence almost too cruel to watch. We never think of the amiable Chan or the comic Chow getting hurt. In his however, Li always seems poised to be beaten to death.

As for the DVD release, there will be fans that foam over the lack of a Cantonese language track here. The original English dub is present (in Dolby Digital 5.1) and while not completely embarrassing or distracting, it does do the Chinese actors a disservice. Dragon Dynasty has responded to the complaints with the following official statement:

“Dragon Dynasty strives to provide fans with only the highest quality DVD releases, including restored video and audio and extensive never-before-seen bonus features created exclusively for the label.

Though no usable version of the original Cantonese-language track was available in time for this release, every effort was made to bring together the best elements in the world in creating the greatest version of The Enforcer ever experienced on DVD in the U.S.”

While that may not satiate purists, the additional material exclusive to the DVD (Logan’s narration, interviews with Tse and Yu) make the disc a must-own for fans of Li.

In fact, it’s the thrills and character interaction that makes The Enforcer much more than a stereotypical trip through the Asian underworld. Li is his typical smoldering self, but there are opportunities for the actor to play family man and foil, and he does so effortlessly. As his international profile has increased, it’s clear that this Hong Kong hero could essay just about any role. What’s shocking however, is the limited career of co-star Tse. It was almost nine years between The Enforcer and his next film (2004’s Iron Lion), and that’s a damn shame. Under the right circumstances, he was someone who could have easily achieved the same movie star mantle as his far more famous “mentor”. Don’t let the title fool you. There is much more to this incredibly film than flying kicks and fisticuffs.

 

by Bill Gibron

7 Feb 2009


We are clearly a nation of classes. We hear about it everyday: the haves and the have-nots; upper, middle, lower, impoverished, disenfranchised, and all the pecuniary parameters in between; the name families and the citizenry within the so-called welfare state; those with power and those struggling to make ends meet. To ignore the financial delineation between people is foolhardy. To make too much out of it is equally pointless. There will always be rich folk and it seems we are destined to live in a social structure which fails to fully reward those who are the hardest working among us. But according to Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine and economic intellectual, there’s another class to be concerned about - one we Americans thought we would never see.

Indeed, in a democracy, there should never be a hierarchy of power, or a true ruling class. Money can indeed buy you influence, but the ability of the populace to control its abuse is the premise upon which our nation is founded. And yet, in his inspired documentary dissertation on the subject The American Ruling Class (new to DVD from Alive Mind), Lapham argues that the US is gripped by a collection of familiar names, faces, and corporate facades that manipulate and micromanage ever other facet of our supposed Constitutional community. Inexplicably tied to capitalism, the desire for material gain, and the implied notion of happiness linked to both, we discover that those who want to make a difference are rare indeed. Everyone else just wants to make a dollar.

Lapham presents his thesis in a powerful, provocative manner. He takes two “actors”, turns them into stereotypical Ivy League grads (Yale), and then sets them on different paths. ‘Jack Bellami’ comes from privilege, and has a standing offer at Goldman Sachs come graduation. He sees himself as part of the overall banking/financial set-up of America. ‘Mark Vanzetti’ has more noble aspirations. While he too could instantly earn a job on Wall Street, he really wants to be a writer. He takes a year off, gets a self-described “bohemian” apartment, and waits tables during the day as he searches for his muse. Lapham acts as a guide for both progressing pilgrims, showing each the possibilities, and pitfalls, of their individual pursuits. Part of this process includes talking with and interviewing individuals - artists, politicians, businessmen, CEOs - who hope to clarify (and sometimes complicate) the multifaceted pros and cons.

During its opening moments, The American Ruling Class appears obvious. Lapham may look like a member of the Warren Buffet Appreciation Society, but he seems more ideological in his search. He constantly warns his charges that there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of riches. Instead, he counters that one should “do no harm” during said quest. Thanks to insights from Walter Cronkite, Kurt Vonnegut, and Lapham himself, Jack feels authorized to begin his rise to prominence. After all, it’s just the way things are. But for Mark, our instructor forges a much more intricate path. We see a reporter playing waitress so she can chronicle the life of the minimum wage earner (the prognosis: not very good at all). There are conversations with Hollywood heavyweights Mike Medavoy and the late filmmaker Robert Altman. Mark even gets a last minute bit of advice from folk troubadour Pete Seeger.

Yet it’s the sit down with members of an elite think tank whose main purpose seems to be setting the policy for everyone on the planet that offers the most insight. It’s Mark who gets to match wits with such powerhouse individuals as Bill Bradley, Vartan Gregorian, Harold Brown, and William T. Coleman, among others. Most seem content to be part of the upper echelon, frequently speaking in terms that some might misinterpret as derogatory - or at the very least, unsympathetic. Perhaps the worst offender is former White House Chief of Staff/Secretary of State James A. Baker. Beginning from a position that believes there is nothing wrong with using wealth as a means of obtaining and maintaining power, and then extrapolating said position out onto the rest of the world, he remains a focused figure of Reagan/Bush neo-conservatism. Even his attempts at apologies seem arrogant.

It’s this sequence that turns The American Ruling Class from a dissenter to a dinner companion. It seems as if Lapham is backhandedly trying to support the notion of giving up activism for a life in service of the all mighty greenback. There’s never a time when child of means Jack reconsiders his career arc. He has doubts at first, but the film’s narrative seems to cement his resolve. Mark, ion the other hand, gets batted around like a dead mouse in a barn cat’s paw. He’s against the kind of corporate zombie stance. He bristles at the notion of “selling out”. He argues with wealthy friends who have the trust fund to let them work for pro bono agencies like Legal Aid. But in the end, he takes Jack’s offers to join Goldman Sachs, and even with the perturbed look on his face, he appears ready to start his own potential ascension into importance. 

The mixed message really hurts The American Ruling Class, much more than the nonsensical novelty numbers strewn throughout the movie (yes, this is a musical…of sorts) or Lapham’s cryptic narration, filled with fancy, flowery prose. Documentaries are notorious for their ability to act as eye-openers, shedding light on ideas and individuals that the mainstream media seems to ignore. This film I a lot like Mark’s trip to The New York Times. On the one hand, the paper must serve the wishes of pure journalism. It must offer reportage without the benefit of bias or political position. And then there is the demand for cash flow. Sometimes, the content must meet the requirements of the commercial sector as well. The American Ruling Class apparently wants to argue both sides of the situation. But as anyone familiar with the art of debate can tell you, sitting on the fence is ultimately non-persuasive.

by Bill Gibron

1 Feb 2009


For Kevin Smith, it’s all about the story. It’s not about fancy camera angles, inferred symbolism, realistic special effects, thematic resonance, or the inevitable flights of filmmaking imagination. No, if it’s not about the characters, their interaction, and the way in which said truth (sprinkled with occasional scatology) sells the narrative, he’s history. In the recent stand-up/concert documentary Sold Out: A Threevening with Kevin Smith (now out on DVD), the writer/director of such slacker classics as Clerks and Chasing Amy offered up an anecdote about the making of his sensational 2006 comedy Clerks II. For him, it kind of sums up the filmmaking process in general, and his career specifically.

In a conversation with producer Harvey Weinstein, a pair of notes (Hollywood speak for possible changes) came to the fore. To hear Smith tell it, Weinstein wanted a dance sequence to feature actress Rosario Dawson in a single full head to toe take. No half-shot. No close-up. Head to toe. That’s how musical numbers are framed, he argued, offering Rob Marshall and Chicago as an example. He then moved on to a much greater concern, at least in his behind the scenes brain. It had to do with Pillow Pants. For those who know the film, the imaginary character plays an important part in naïve fast- food employee Elias’ assumed sex life. For Smith, it was merely the ends to a hilarious means. For Weinstein, however, it was a visual necessity - so much so that he demanded the genital imp be depicted in the film. Smith shrunk in his chair, another case of design over dialogue threatening his vision.

It’s these sorts of situations, and the hilarious ways he deals with them, that color Smith’s otherwise oddball career. He is hugely popular in the new web frontier of onli-nation, has what many would consider to be one of the largest, most vocal cult followings, and has almost never had to compromise his artistic approach to make the movie a studio or a suit wants to see. Of course, the payoff for such implied insularity is success - Smith has yet to make a legitimate, Tinsel Town style hit. While his movies make money, they don’t blow the doors off the box office. Even his latest, the brilliant Zack and Miri Make a Porno (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company), couldn’t cash in on the hyper-huge homunculus success of it’s ‘Friend of Apatow’ leading man (Seth Rogen), the bubbly sexual spryness of co-star Elizabeth Banks (a 2007 everywhere girl) and the familiar foul mouthed funny business that Smith was responsible for jumpstarting.

As part of his always enjoyable Smodcasts, Smith and producer pal Scott Mosier recently spent nearly three hours in what the duo called a “talking cure”, trying to decipher why something so surefire (Weinstein approved the project on the strength of the title alone) failed to ignite profitable public interest. Many different theories were proposed: it had to be the sex… although nothing scandalous was even shown; It had to be the inference of same, even with the imagined mainstream acceptance of smut; Perhaps it was the timing, since the idea of opening a wild carnal comedy on Halloween makes one question the marketing acumen of all involved; Whatever it was, one of the best movies of 2008 came and went without even breaching the bottom of Cineplex coffers.



It makes no sense, really. Zack and Miri Make a Porno has everything you’d want from a film made by one of cinema’s greatest writers. The dialogue sparkles with wit and wicked humor. The characters are clearly drawn and given many individual moments to shine. We get completely involved in the title character’s plight, wondering what will happen and cheering/dreading the next aspect of the adventure. Both Rogen and Banks are stellar, essaying people who talk like regular folk while still embracing Smith’s sometimes smarter than thou hipness. With Craig Robinson stealing every scene he’s in as brash badass Delaney, View Askew regulars Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes working way outside their familiarity zone, and sly supporting turns by supporting eye candy Traci Lords and Katie Morgan, there is literally nothing wrong with Smith’s set-up.

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. 

So why did things turn out so average - not aesthetically, but commercially? Has Smith as a filmmaker spent all of his cultural carte blanche on being an open book, so much so that he can no longer surprise or inspire? Are his fans really fair-weather, supporting his books and his personal appearances, but lacking the drive to actually walk up to the ticket booth and buy a seat. Sadly, the DVD release offers little of the perspective we’ve come to expect from a Smith release. While the two-part Smodcast gave Mosier and his man a chance to debate, the lack of a commentary track on the disc indicates that, aside from explaining the movie in general, Smith has little else to say on the subject. Similarly, there are almost 90 minutes of deleted scenes offered. Clearly, Smith creates his films meticulously, removing subplots (Mewes weird “pimp”) and backstory to advance the jokes.

And Zack and Miri Make a Porno is indeed funny. It’s outrageous and outsized at times, but Rogen and company know comedy. During the outtakes and bloopers, we see how improvisation helped spice up several of the scenes. Similarly, Rogen and co-star Justin Long (who plays a gay XXX star) go toe to toe in a featurette that attempts to prove who the best ad-libber is. Still, we want more of Smith’s semi-serious philosophizing, the kind of clear vision insight he offers in things like Threevening. There, no holds are barred, from the surreal situation of costarring in the latest installment of the Die Hard series, to how he ended up with a miniature dachshund named Shecky. There’s even a thorough overview regarding a recent battle with anal fissures.

Maybe that’s it - maybe Smith’s outspoken nature, in combination with his ‘anything goes’ approach to subject matter makes his movies just slightly outside the comfort level of the mainstream. While $30 to $40 million is nothing to sneeze at, something like Zack and Miri deserves a much larger, near blockbuster acceptance. It’s more than just barbs aimed at boobs, balls, and boners. It’s not all adolescent level giggling. Again, it’s actually a heartfelt, touching, and quite emotional experience, made by a man who might talk ad nauseum about crude carnal exploits, but who is actually a romantic at heart. Oddly enough, Smith seems resigned to his situation (current Smodcast sentiments aside).

During Threevening, he rants about how bored he was by Bryan Singer’s recent Superman update. A financial success, Smith argues about the numerous plot holes and character beats that he didn’t care for. Toward the end, after more or less eviscerating everything that chaffed his comic book sensibility, he reluctantly acknowledged Singer’s status. He’s the guy who gets to make the multimillion dollar disappointments, Smith shrugs. I’ll always be the Clerks guy. Well, as long as that man continues to create movies like Zack and Miri Make a Porno, there’s nothing really to complain about - at least, from a fan’s viewpoint.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Double Take: 'Fantasia' Muses on Music

// Short Ends and Leader

"Fantasia stands alone as a virtuoso tribute to the virtuosity of its music.

READ the article