Misery Loves Comedy


Hanks talks comedy.

Hanks talks comedy.

(2014) Documentary (Tribeca) Freddie Prinze Jr., Amy Schumer, Tom Hanks, Jim Gaffigan, Christopher Guest, Jon Favreau, Jason Reitman, Steve Coogan, Kathleen Madigan, Martin Short, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Richter, Jim Norton, Kelly Carlin, Marc Maron, Lewis Black, Bobby Cannavale, Kevin Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Chris Hardwick, Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Greg Proopst, Kumal Nanjiani, Jimmy Pardo, Maria Bamford. Directed by Kevin Pollak

Comedy is like a drug, both to the audience and the comedian. The audience uses the jokes as a means of escaping their daily lives, a way to find insight into those lives and a way to realize that just about nothing is above laughing at or about. The comedian feeds on their laughter, the laughter a validation of their craft and indirectly of themselves.

This documentary, directed by veteran comic, actor and impressionist Pollak who never appears on-camera but can be heard conducting the interview off-camera, has more than 40 subjects many of whom are on the A-list of stand-ups and several of whom have graduated on to bigger and better things. Some of the interviewees are comic actors, others directors of comedies. There are many more interviewees than we had room for at the top of this review, with Rob Brydon, Janeane Garafalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Jeffries, Robert Smigel, Larry Miller, David Koechner, Stephen Merchant, Nick Swardson, Gregg Hughes, William H. Macy and hordes of others.

The interviews don’t really go into the mechanics of comedy – putting together an act, writing jokes and so on – but more into how people become professional stand-ups. It looks at the influences of the various comics, and at what life events prompted them to become comedians. Many of the people interview have traumas at some point in their lives that prompted them to go into comedy, using standup almost as therapy.

It isn’t required for a comedian to be miserable, muses one of them, but “you have to know misery.” That makes a lot of sense when you think about it; to understand what makes people laugh you also have to understand what makes them cry. A good comedian can do both.

You do get a real sense of the insecurities that haunt a lot of the comics; they talk about what it’s like to bomb, what it’s like to kill and how comics bond together hoping that they all succeed. Nobody likes to follow a comic that bombed; the audience is less primed to laugh. When you follow someone who just killed, it’s not only easier to get the audience to laugh but they also laugh harder. Laughter multiplies exponentially.

One thing that is kind of glaring; there is only one African-American comic and no Latino comics among the forty or so interviewees and quite frankly, there’s too many interviewees to begin with. I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in the interviews which might have given us some different perspectives. A lot of the stories the comics told about not being accepted in high school and so on were a little bit too similar; getting the perspective of minority comics might have really made for a more three-dimensional take on comedy than what we received.

Yes, there are a lot of laughs here but there are some truly affecting moments, as when Prinze talks about his father’s suicide and how it affected he and his mother. Indirectly, Prinze Junior went into stand-up mainly because his grandfather urged him to “clean up what your father effed up” which for a young kid can be kind of a daunting burden, considering the fame his dad had. Bamford also tells us about the first time she talked about her time in a mental hospital onstage, prompting others in the audience to shout out their own experiences. It must be a very powerful thing, having the ability to help others heal through the gift of laughter. It’s also a nice little grace note that the movie was dedicated to Robin Williams, whose suicide likely had people in the business thinking about the link between misery and comedy.

This isn’t a complete primer on what makes us laugh and how the people who make us laugh do it, but it does give us some insight into the mind of the standup comedian and of the others who make us laugh on the big and small screens. It is said that laughter is the best medicine; this is essentially over-the-counter stuff but it gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of laughs as you’d expect hanging out with comedians. Powerful in places. Gives the viewer a sense of what the life of a standup comedian is like and why people do it.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many interviewees and only one African-American one and no Latinos. A little bit too scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language and some adult comedy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pollak is best known for his standup routine and celebrity impressions, most notably Peter Falk and William Shatner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Water Diviner

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Tusk


Tea for two and two for tea...

Tea for two and two for tea…

(2014) Twisted Horror (A24) Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Johnny Depp, Harley Morenstein, Ralph Garman, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, Harley Quinn Smith, Lily-Rose Melody Depp, Ashley Greene, Douglas Banks, Matthew Shively, Zak Knutson, Bill Bennett, Randy Grazio, Paula Jiling, Todd Davis, Bonnie Cole. Directed by Kevin Smith

What separates humans from animals? There are those who believe that animals are far nobler than humans, that at our core we are rotten, vicious, callous creatures who wreak havoc on each other and the environment. It really is hard to argue the point.

Wallace Bryton (Long) is a podcaster who webcasts with his good buddy Teddy Craft (Osment) on something he calls The Not See Party (say it out loud if you want to get the joke). They specialize in commenting on videos that you can’t un-see, like the Kill Bill kid (Banks) – a Winnipeg teen who accidentally lops off his own leg while filming himself playing with an actual sword. Not smart.

Which is why Wallace flies to Winnipeg to get an interview with the kid. While there he espies on a bathroom wall of a bar an ad by a man named Howard Howe (Parks) looking for someone to live in his mansion for free in exchange for listening to his sea-faring tales and doing some light housework. The ad captures Wallace’s imagination and he calls Howe and arranges to meet. He drives off to Bifrost, a municipality that is about a two hour drive from Winnipeg in the Interlake district (Manitoba has a crapload of lakes for those unfamiliar with Canada’s plains province).

He discovers that Howard has a penchant for walruses…and is more than a little bit deranged. A panicked phone call to his girlfriend Ally (Rodriguez) gets her and Teddy out to Canada, where the police are more or less sympathetic but not too interested in helping them. One such sympathetic cop (Garman) gives the two the card of a disgraced Quebecois detective with a thick accent named Guy Lapointe (Depp) who tells them a bone-chilling tale about the serial killer he’s been chasing for ten years – and who might well be Howard Howe.

The movie began life as an idea on Smith’s SModcast which he riffed with producer Scott Mosier after seeing an ad on Gumtree for free lodging if the lodger was willing to dress up as a walrus. The two extrapolated a twisted plot based on the ad, then gave listeners the option of voting on whether he should make the movie for real by voting #WalrusYes or not by voting #WalrusNo. The votes were overwhelmingly yes.

Smith has always been a great writer, particularly of dialogue although here the dialogue is curiously flat for him. However, he crafts a fast-paced horror comedy that has moments that are genuinely disturbing. Parks, who was memorable as the maniacal Evangelical Christian preacher in Smith’s last film Red State exceeds even that performance with the quiet insanity of one who has been pushed around the bend by a life more harrowing than you or I could ever imagine. Had we lived the life Parks narrates, chances are we’d be all be a bit grumpy at the very least.

Depp, who is listed in the credits as “Guy Lapointe” playing “Guy Lapointe,” has always done well with oddball characters and he allows himself to go over-the-top in a way that is reminiscent of Captain Jack Sparrow. His daughter Lily, as well as Smith’s daughter Harley, have small roles in this film and reportedly will be the leads on Yoga Hosers, Smith’s next film in his True North trilogy (Smith’s wife Jennifer also makes a brief appearance).

Long is sharp in giving us a thoroughly unlikable character; he’s mean, he cheats on his girlfriend and treats his partner condescendingly. Still, he also manages to elicit some pathos particularly near the movie’s end. It’s a thankless role and Long does it pretty well.

Cinematographer James Laxton does a great job of ramping up the creepy factor in Howe’s mansion and capturing a kind of autumnal feel. And it’s clear that Smith has a great affection for the Great White North even as he occasionally skewers their pronunciation of the word “about” as well as their reputation for politeness.

I describe the movie as “twisted horror” for good reason. Yes, you will see it described as “horror comedy” elsewhere and they’re not wrong, but this has the feel of a cult classic and I wouldn’t be surprised if ten years from now it is a regular on the midnight madness circuit. Not everything here works but enough of it does to make this a satisfying but strange film that I can recommend to those who have a twisted streak of their own.

REASONS TO GO: Twisted in the right way. Parks is brilliant. Depp gives a whale of a performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is undistinguished, unusual for a Kevin Smith film. Feels rushed.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a surfeit of profanity, as well as some fairly disturbing violence and gore. There’s also a bit of sexual content as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Where to begin? The fictional hockey player Gregory Gumtree that Guy Lapointe refers to is a sly reference to the website where the original ad that caught Smith’s attention was found. Lapointe’s name is itself a reference to a hockey player from the Montreal Canadiens. The framed photo of the dog on Ally’s wall is actually Smith’s dog Shecky. And while the movie is set in Winnipeg, not a single frame was filmed there; it was filmed in North Carolina.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Misery
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: A Bag of Hammers

Red State


What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

(2011) Horror (SModcast) Melissa Leo, Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano, Michael Parks, Ralph Garman, Kerry Bishe, Jennifer Schwalbach, Stephen Root, John Goodman, James Parks, Molly Livingston, Catherine McCord, Alexa Nikolas, Ronnie Connell, Haley Ramm, Nicholas Braun, Cooper Thornton, Kevin Pollak, John Lacy, Anna Gunn, Kaylee DeFer. Directed by Kevin Smith

Life is full of it’s real horrors. Both conservative and liberal alike are outraged and disgusted by the antics of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church whose fundamentalist Christian zealotry borders on the batshit crazy. More accurately, is full on over the border and deep in crazy territory. You have to wonder what goes on in a congregation like that.

Travis (Angarano), Billy-Ray (Braun) and Jared (Gallner) are three horny high school buddies who answer a Craigslist ad from an older woman (Leo) who wants to have sex with three guys at once. They drive to her trailer where she serves them some beer before the festivities begin – except the festivities never begin since the beer is drugged and the boys pass out.

When they awaken they are in the church of Pastor Abin Cooper (M. Parks) who makes Fred Phelps look like a Girl Scout. They are treated to one of his fire-breathing sermons of hating sin and hating the sinners, ranting against the evils of homosexuality, adultery and premarital sex. Basically, against anything fun I suppose.

When a gay teen who was similarly entrapped is executed while immobilized and tied to a cross with saran wrap, the three boys realize they are in mortal danger. Travis is being bound to the cross when a deputy rolls up looking for the boys car which had sideswiped the Sheriff’s car while the Sheriff (Root) was parked on the side of the road having sex with his partner. Billy-Ray is able to free himself and manages to escape into the armory where he gets into a shoot-out with Caleb (Garman). This attracts attention of the deputy who calls in the shots fired to the Sheriff, who in turn calls in the ATF in the form of Agent Keenan (Goodman).

Soon the compound is surrounded and a standoff of Branch Davidian proportions; the well-armed zealots facing off against the might of a government which wants the situation ended without any surviving witnesses. Horny teenage boys, take note.

This is very much unlike any other Kevin Smith film; while there are humorous elements here it is most definitely not a comedy. This was also distributed in a unique way – for the most part, Smith took the film on tour with Q&A sessions following the screenings. There was also a one-day screening of the film just prior to its VOD and home video releases.

Smith is a well-known fan of genre films and while he doesn’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of B-movies like a Quentin Tarantino I do believe his affection for horror, action and comic book genres is just as passionate. He has tackled religious themes before in Dogma albeit in a much more satirical vein. He also is one of the finest writers in the business in my opinion with dialogue that is second to none in making onscreen characters talk like people you’d run into at the grocery store. Believe me, that’s a lot more difficult than it sounds.

The part of Pastor Abin Cooper was written specifically for Michael Parks and he delivers a blistering performance that will chill you to the bone and stay with you for a long while afterwards. His delivery is so smooth and so gentle that you are almost fooled into buying his message which you come to realize is absolutely whacko.

Goodman is solid as usual as the government stormtrooper who is tasked with bringing a situation that has spiraled wildly out of control back in control and who has no problems with carrying out orders that to you and me might seem immoral. In many ways, Cooper and Keenan are opposite ends of the same coin.

There is plenty of violence here and while I would hesitate to label it strictly as a horror film mainly because the gore and level of terror isn’t in line with, say, a Hostel movie. As thrillers go however, it is on the gruesome side. To my mind the movie winds up being somewhere in the middle – call it throrror. The overall tone is pretty bleak so be aware of that and the body count is high; if you like to play the game of “who’s still standing at the end credits” chances are you’re gonna be wrong. Some main characters barely make the second act and some surprising characters are still around when the dust settles.

There is a lot of things going on here of a topical nature, dealing with religious fanaticism, government overkill and homophobia which makes for entertaining viewing. However, the movie lacks a strong center – Gallner as Jared kind of assumes that role by default but is never really fleshed out enough to get the audience intrigued. Still, it IS Kevin Smith and the guy can write so there is entertainment value here. Hell, ALL of his movies have entertainment value (except for maybe Cop Out) of at least some degree. Still, one wonders what direction he is going to head in next – genial raconteur or all-out revenge film slasher found footage supernatural thriller.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrifying portrayal of religious fanaticism. Very topical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too tame to be good horror, too bloody to be a thriller.

FAMILY VALUES: The content here is awfully disturbing and violent with plenty of foul language and sexuality. There’s also a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Abin Cooper was named after Abin Sur from the Green Lantern comic book series.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an informative interview with Michael Parks, a Q&A session with Smith from Sundance and a making-of feature which includes the Westboro Baptist Church’s reaction to the film and finally a series of Smith podcasts recorded while the film was shot, in post-production and finally in theaters.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Children of the Corn

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Blackfish

Scream 3


We've seen this movie before.

We’ve seen this movie before.

(2000) Horror Comedy (Dimension) Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox-Arquette, David Arquette, Liev Schreiber, Patrick Dempsey, Lance Henriksen, Kelly Rutherford, Parker Posey, Emily Mortimer, Jenny McCarthy, Kevin Smith, Jason Mewes, Deon Richmond, Patrick Warburton, Jamie Kennedy, Heather Matarazzo, Carrie Fisher, Scott Foley, Julie Janney. Directed by Wes Craven

As one character says, in the third installment of a trilogy, all bets are off. That can be a good thing and bad – it gives you the freedom to deviate from the course set by the first two films but sometimes lose the essence of what made them successful in the first place. Perhaps that’s why so few of them are really that successful, both artistically and financially.

Talk show host Cotton Weary (Schreiber), the man accused of the murder of Sydney Prescott’s (Campbell) mother (and later exonerated by the events of the first movie), is brutally killed in his apartment, and of course intrepid (and irritating) journalist Gail Weathers (Cox-Arquette) is on the case. Meanwhile over in Woodsboro a movie called Stab 3 is being shot.

Soon, cast members of the third movie of a series of movies based on the events in Scream (talk about art imitating art) are beginning to turn up dead, in the exact order that they are bumped off in the script. Former deputy-turned-technical advisor to the movie Dewey Riley (Arquette), in his own laconic way, is out to protect his friend Sydney, as well as rekindle a romance with Gail, with whom he has broken up twice (art imitating life, kind of). Sydney, for her part, has secreted herself in an isolated, rural home with lots of high-tech security. Still, even Dewey can’t protect her from the visions of her dead mother and for the most part, from the Ghostface killer who continues to stalk her.

Much of Scream 3 is pretty formulaic and is just the kind of movie, ironically, that the original Scream poked fun of. Although Craven deviates here from the tradition of murdering a lovely young starlet before the opening credits (a la Drew Barrymore and Jada Pinkett) by taking out Schreiber, they do manage to send Jenny McCarthy to join the Choir Invisible, getting a hearty “Amen!” from critics everywhere. We critics are a vindictive lot.

Still, director Wes Craven knows how to yank out all the stops, but the loss of screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who penned the first two Screams, is keenly felt (he would return for the fourth installment). This one doesn’t have the hipness quotient, the humor, or the insight into horror movies that Williamson has. I didn’t guess who the killer was, but by the time the identity of the killer behind the Edvard Munch mask is revealed, I pretty much didn’t care.

Although not bad by the standards of horror movies of the late 90s and early part of the following decade, Scream 3 belongs in the clutches of the robots of Mystery Science Theater 3000 which puts it far beneath the standards of the first two movies. That’s a little too much painful irony for my taste. At the time that this came out, I thought it was just as well Craven decided to bury the franchise at that point, since the corpse was smelling mighty bad. Scream 4 was a bit of a redemption but not enough to make up for this, the worst installment of the franchise to date – although it DOES get points for the Jay and Silent Bob cameo. Craven knows hip when he sees it. Honestly though, once you’ve seen the first two movies in the series you’re pretty much done.

WHY RENT THIS: Jay and Silent Bob show up. Seriously, that’s about it. There are some fans of the series who are very affectionate about this movie though.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Been there, done that, done better.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of violence and foul language although not as much as in earlier films of the series.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” is played at some point in all three films of the original trilogy.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a music video by Creed, an outtake reel and a montage of footage from all three films (fittingly set to “Red Right Hand”).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $161.8M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a big hit for Miramax/Dimension.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scary Movie (only unintentionally funny)

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Brother’s Justice

Daredevil


Daredevil

Matt Murdock and Elektra Natchios engage in a little foreplay.

(2003) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Ben Affleck, Colin Farrell, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Scott Terra, Ellen Pompeo, Joe Pantoliano, Leland Orser, Lennie Loftin, Erick Avari, Derrick O’Connor, Paul Ben-Victor, David Keith, Kevin Smith. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

It is a fact that every day, handicapped people show over and over again that they are capable of amazing things. Some are aided by technology but much of it is sheer willpower.

The young Matt Murdock (Terra), who has stood up for his father (David Keith) when neighborhood punks call him a washed-up boxer and a mob enforcer, is shocked one day to spot his loving dad thumping on someone who hadn’t been making his vig. Matt runs off, causing a traffic accident that ends with him being doused by toxic waste, right in the eyes. This leaves him blind for life. However, there is an interesting side effect: Matt wakes up to find he has outrageously acute hearing, including a kind of sonar sense, which allows him to “see” almost as well as any sighted person — better, in some ways.

He also spends time developing his body into a graceful, acrobatic, athletic machine. When his Dad refuses to throw a fight and is murdered, his son is left to seek revenge. The adult Matt Murdock (Affleck) becomes a lawyer. Justice being blind jokes aside, he has a particularly strong streak of wishing to do the right thing in him.

Not content at achieving justice through conventional means, Murdock adopts the persona of Daredevil, utilizing a red leather costume, and becoming a semi-urban legend in New York, one that reporter Ben Urich (Pantoliano) is hell-bent on tracking down. Those who have seen the first Batman movie will note the similarity. His day job allows Murdock to represent the downtrodden, much to the chagrin of partner “Foggy” Nelson (Favreau), who yearns for clients who pay in actual cash, rather than in foodstuffs. Murdock meets Elektra Natchios (Garner), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Avari) who is in bed with the corrupt Wilson Fisk (Duncan), the legendary Kingpin of Crime. When Natchios tries to get out of business with Fisk, the Kingpin brings in a psychopathic master of hurled objects, Bullseye (Farrell) to kill Natchios, which he does, framing Daredevil for the deed in the process. Elektra — who is falling in love with the blind lawyer, swears revenge, not knowing that it is his alter ego she has sworn to kill.

The New York City of Daredevil is a dark, gothic place, not unlike the Gotham City of Batman, and like the Caped Crusader, Daredevil inhabits the shadows and rooftops of a corrupt, dangerous city. The problem with casting Affleck in the role of Matt Murdock is that he is far too likable. Affleck doesn’t carry off the brooding vigilante as well as he does the wisecracking lawyer, so the dual personality of Murdock doesn’t mesh as nicely as it could.

Farrell carries the movie, enthusiastically chewing the scenery and spitting it out so he can chew more. Favreau and Duncan are excellent as they nearly always are; Favreau would go on to direct the Iron Man movies but his association with the Marvel studios began here. His chemistry with Affleck is pretty keen.

The Elektra of the comics is far more threatening than the Elektra of the big screen. Garner, who on paper is an excellent choice to play her, is dispatched with near-comic ease in nearly every fight she takes part in. This compares unfavorably to the character in the four-color version (who is kickus assus maximus to the nth degree) and herein lies the problem with any adaptation of any comic.

Those who love the comic book will inevitably measure the movie against the comic, and in most aspects will find it wanting. Daredevil has always been one of the consistently best-written and innovative of story in Marvel’s arsenal. The movie’s writing denigrates it to an unsophisticated Batman knockoff. Yet, there are moments of poetry, such as when Murdock asks Elektra to stand in the rain, which allows him to see her face using his radar sense. That’s one of the best moments of any Marvel superhero film, ever.

A nice little aside – many of the characters here are named after comic book writers and artists, many of whom who worked on the Daredevil book itself. There are also several people associated with Daredevil’s long run at Marvel (including Smith, Stan Lee and Frank Miller) who make cameos in the movie. In addition, something must be said about the soundtrack which is one of the best for any movie in the last ten years. The tracks from Evanescence are particularly haunting. Also, The final confrontation between Fisk and Daredevil is very nicely done, visually speaking although the whole thing of the little water conduits running below the floor are head scratch-inducing.

Overall, this isn’t a bad movie. There are some deficiencies, true, but there is a large number of things the movie does well. Affleck would have been an excellent Daredevil had he another movie or two under his belt. The most important thing here however is to take the movie on its own merits. Try not to see it as a note-perfect portrayal of the comic hero, because you’ll only wind up disappointed. Judge it for what it is; a better-than-average action-adventure movie, and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

WHY RENT THIS: Better than average action movie. Fine supporting performances from Farrell, Duncan and Favreau.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit of a Batman knock-off. Affleck carries off Murdock better than Daredevil. Elektra a bit too wimpy here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first American movie in which Farrell uses his native Irish brogue.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The DVD features a featurette on the comic book series, a comparison of the “Shadow World” as visually realized in the movie vs. the comic book, three music videos and an enhanced viewing feature which, when an icon appears onscreen, allows viewers to see the same scene from different points of view. There is also a Directors Cut DVD edition which restores 30 minutes of footage to the film, cut initially to bring the movie from an R rating to PG-13.  However, oddly enough, the Directors Cut edition has almost no special features, merely a commentary track and a 15 minute making-of featurette. The Blu-Ray contains both the Directors Cut and all the features from the initial DVD release and as such is the best bet for those interested in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $179.2M on a $78M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Tower Heist

Chasing Amy


Chasing Amy

This is what cool looked like in 1997.

(1997) Romantic Comedy (Miramax) Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee, Matt Damon, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Dwight Ewell, Carmen Lee, Rebecca Waxman, Welker White, Kelli Simpkins, John Willyung, Ethan Suplee, Casey Affleck. Directed by Kevin Smith

Director Kevin Smith became the critic’s darling after Clerks, then became the critic’s whipping boy after Mallrats. This is the third movie set in what Smith calls his Askewniverse, a small trio of New Jersey towns called, oddly enough, the “tri-town area” (which actually exists, and Smith actually grew up there), inhabited by stoners, slackers, libertines and jerks. In short, it’s the real world, without the annoying odors.

Ben Affleck lives in this world, or rather he plays someone who does. That someone is Holden McNeil, a successful comic book artist (Smith is something of a fanboy who is heavily involved in the four-color world of comic books) who’s best friend Banky (Lee) is also his writer and business partner.

Their superheroes are based on the exploits of two guys familiar to Smith fans; Jay (Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), and the book they draw has reached a level of success that has attracted the attention of MTV (look for Matt Damon in a cameo as a smarmy Empty Vee exec) who want to turn it into an animated series. There is a nice scene where they’re confronted by J&SB who are predictably none too happy that the characters based on them are doing so well.

At a convention, Holden meets struggling artist Alyssa Jones (Adams) and falls in love with her. It soon turns out that Alyssa is a lesbian, and perfectly content to be one. Hope springs eternal, however, and Holden eventually confesses his feelings for her. In a somewhat unlikely turn, she falls for him as well (and you’ve gotta love a movie where the lead actress is an unlikely bet to fall for Ben Affleck). That’s where things go sour.

Unlikely many romantic movies, this is a relationship between imperfect people who can – and do – say and do the wrong things. Smith has a gift for being able to expose you to differing viewpoints and enable you to relate to all of them, diverse as they may be. This is ostensibly a comedy, with some hellacious laughs in it (the bit in which acerbic gay black artist Hooper X (Ewell) tries to convince the frenetic Banky that Archie is actually gay is hysterical), but this is also a movie that forces you to examine your own viewpoints, especially as they relate to your own relationships.

We are all chasing Amy, the metaphor Smith uses for searching for the perfect partner, our life’s soulmate. Many times we find that partner, only to screw up the relationship. Then, forever, we are measuring our partners against The One that Got Away (this is particularly a guy thing, but it can be a girl thing as well). Too often, we end up messing up by trying to fit our partners within our preconceived notions of what they should be, rather than accepting them the way they are.

It might come as somewhat of a surprise to some that this is my favorite Kevin Smith movie, even more so than his more beloved Clerks. Then again, I understand from his Wikipedia page that many critics feel the same, although Clerks continues to be the movie Smith is most identified with. Maybe that’s why he is planning on retiring from film directing after his next movie. Still, Chasing Amy remains one of his best-reviewed films ever.

There’s good reason for that. There are times Chasing Amy is actually painful to watch, as you realize that with one thoughtful word said (and sometimes, one thoughtless word not said) things would be great between Holden and Alyssa. That they aren’t makes this a movie we can all actually relate to – and learn from.

WHY RENT THIS: Smith’s best film ever. A real world romantic comedy that deals with real world relationship issues. Relatable to most viewers who have ever messed up a romance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Smith can be an acquired taste. Lots of pop culture references dates this a little.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a fair amount of bad language, much of it related to sex. There’s also some sexuality and drug use as well as some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Smith was dating Joey Lauren Adams at the time and wrote the movie based on his experiences with her.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The DVD was released as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection and while there aren’t a ton of features beyond the usual DVD making-of and commentary fare, the director commentary is one of the best ever released. While the film has yet to get released on Blu-Ray on it’s own, it was released as part of a Kevin Smith Blu-Ray Collection along with Clerks and Mallrats. While the excellent commentary track wasn’t ported over to the Blu-Ray edition (because the rights to it belong to Criterion) there are some excellent features, including a 10th Anniversary Q&A session with the cast and a conversation with Smith and Adams long after their relationship came to an end that is sometimes poignant and awkward but is mostly funny and charming.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.2M on a $250,000 production budget; the movie was a blockbuster relative to it’s low budget.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: After.life

Zack and Miri Make a Porno


Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Didn't I see this in a letter to Penthouse?

(Weinstein) Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson, Traci Lords, Katie Morgan, Ricky Mabe, Jason Mewes, Justin Long, Jeff Anderson, Brandon Routh, Tom Savini. Directed by Kevin Smith

I am quite frankly a big Kevin Smith fan. Chasing Amy is one of my favorite movies from the Nineties, and I also adore Dogma and Jersey Girl (which I guess makes me a fanboy). While I wasn’t high on Clerks II or Mallrats I still admire them as well. I guess it’s safe to say he has a whole lot of leeway with me when it comes to his movies.

Zack (Rogen) and Miri (Banks) have been friends since high school and while they’ve never been romantically involved, they manage to stay close; in fact, they share a dumpy apartment. The electricity has been shut off just before they go to their high school reunion, one which is important more to Miri than to Zack (she’s even managed to procure a new dress for the occasion). Zack works at a coffee bar with his good friend Delaney (Robinson) and Miri is forced to change into her new dress in the coffee bar’s kitchen, which is filmed by a couple of teenaged dickweeds. More on that later.

The reunion is a complete disaster. The guy that Miri is trying to impress, Bobby Long (Routh) turns out to be gay, much to the amusement of Zack who discovers this while talking to Bobby’s gay porn star partner (Long) who then proceeds to out Bobby to the whole class. Ouch.

With funds getting thin, water and power turned off and the prospects of not being able to pay the rent looming, they discover that Miri has become famous for her striptease video which the dickweeds uploaded to YouTube. They need cash quickly and they decide to cash in on Miri’s newfound fame by making a porno. Hey, if Bobby’s gay partner can do it, then it can’t be impossible can it?

Surprisingly, Miri agrees to the scheme. To this end they recruit Delaney as a producer, high school videographer Deacon (Smith regular Anderson) to shoot the movie, as well as several would-be porn stars to act in it; Bubbles (former porn star Lords), Stacey (current porn star Morgan) and the very well-hung (and possibly deranged) Lester (Mewes). They decide to do a Star Wars-themed porno but when circumstances force that to shut down, they decide to film in the coffee bar instead.

However, when the time comes for Zack and Miri to film their own sex scene, they discover that it becomes more than sex. Once the two of them have scenes with other actors, it complicates a friendship which when they least expected it had grown into something else.

Smith is maybe one of the best writers in the business. Yes, he’s fond of using a variety of profanity but he uses it in the same way Hemingway used machismo, as a means to an end. The characters here are all interesting; you could spend time with any one of them and find yourself entertained and you get a room full of them at any given time. There are moments that are hysterically funny, and others that are quietly endearing.

Smith’s movies have a tendency to be rather raunchy on the outside but have a surprisingly tender inside. Chasing Amy for example was one of the most romantic movies I’ve ever seen, and one that gets what love is more thoroughly than any ten Lifetime Movie Channel movies you could name. Certainly sex is part of the equation, but as it does for Zack and Miri, the movie goes beyond the equation by a really large margin. It’s actually refreshing to see a movie that balances both the emotional with the physical instead of dwelling on one or the other.

Rogen made a name for himself as the endearing schlub in Knocked Up and this movie comes closest to the sweetness of that character. Sure he has an immature streak but you love him anyway, the same way you love that friend of yours that can be counted on to mess up at any given time, but not so much out of malice or stupidity but more out of bad luck and low ambitions.

I can’t tell you why Elizabeth Banks isn’t an A-list star, but she surely deserves to be. She is pretty and smart and plays a character that can hold her own with anybody. Sure, she makes some poor life choices but again, who hasn’t? Roles like this are perfect for Banks, who can be sexy and smart – often the two don’t mix in Hollywood. I’m still hoping for a big breakout film for her, but there don’t appear to be any forthcoming for her for the moment.

There is a lot of graphic nudity, simulated sex and sexual humor here, so this is definitely not for the Puritanical at heart, but those who aren’t easily offended will find this a bit refreshing; a raunchy comedy that actually is more than just funny. It makes you feel good and at the end of the day, isn’t that why you see movies in the first place?

WHY RENT THIS: There is more heart than crotch in this movie despite all signs to the contrary. Rogen and Banks exhibit some real chemistry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sensitive souls will find the overuse of the f-bomb and the frank sexual humor off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES: This very nearly got an NC-17 and while it didn’t really deserve it, there is plenty of sexuality and frank discussion of sex, enough to scare any prude away.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Tom Savini, who plays Jenkins, was the make-up man for Dawn of the Dead which was set in Monroeville, Pennsylvania; the hockey team Zack and Deacon play on is called the Monroeville Zombies.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As with most Kevin Smith films, there is a wealth of features, deleted scenes and other assorted goodies totaling well over two hours.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Knight and Day