by Marc Glassman
Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Kevin Smith, director, writer & editor. Harvey and Bob Weinstein, co-producers. Starring: Seth Rogen (Zack), Elizabeth Banks (Miri), Gerry Bednob (Mr. Surya), Jennifer Schwalbach (Betsy), Jason Mewes (Lester), Traci Lords (Bubbles), Brandon Routh (Bobby Long), Anne Wade (Roxanne), Justin Long (Brandon)
Ashes of Time Redux. Wong Kar-Wai, director. Christopher Doyle, cinematographer. Starring: Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Kar-fai, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Carina Lau
Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Kevin Smith may finally have a hit with his new film, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, but it seems certain that he’ll lose some of his indie cred in the process. The ultimate Sundance director, Smith’s lustre has come from his low-budget quasi-realistic comedies Clerks and Chasing Amy. As much a performer and scriptwriter as a director, Smith’s honest, if foul-mouthed, concert monologues and quirky film characters, whose digressions into the beauty of pop-culture, particularly comic books, and anger against Catholicism are — sometimes — worth the price of admission.
Speaking of the price of admission, Smith — for all his claims to be an honest hard working blue-collar kinda dude — has never hit the box-office big time. None of his films have taken in more than $32 million, which would be fine if he didn’t aspire to mainstream status. Winning awards at Sundance and Cannes is fine for many filmmakers, but Smith’s aspirations have taken him to another place.
That place is Zack and Miri Make a Porno. No, it doesn’t sound like a mainstream title, but it is. Smith has ventured into Judd Apatow country here — casting Seth Rogen and his pals is a dead give-away — and this film resembles Knocked Up more than it does Chasing Amy. Yep. It’s a hoser comedy.
The set-up here is simplicity itself, provided that you can believe that Rogen (Zack) and Elizabeth Banks (Miri) have been best friends since grade school, enjoying a 30-year platonic relationship. Once you accept that, it won’t be much of a push to believe that they’ve been flops as adults, working at terrible jobs while “enjoying” dead-end romantic relationships and living as roommates in an apartment that might have been acceptable in college days.
OK. It’s anniversary time: the 10th year since Zack and Miri graduated high school. The reunion is terrible of course — Miri’s dream boy-toy turns out to be gay and everyone makes fun of Zack — and the duo return to their apartment to discover that their utilities have been cut off because they don’t have any dough.
What to do? What to do? Hmm…how about making a porno to pay the bills?
Voila! “Le film commence.” Zack finally gets it together. Seems that directing a porno is all he needs to finally focus himself. And Miri is impressed. She gets to play “the girl” and — you won’t be surprised — the plot positions the two best friends to make love. For the first time. In front of a camera.
Smith is good here, catching the crazy nervousness of the scenario. And he lucks out. Elizabeth Banks persuades you that Zack/Rogen has rocked her world — not physically, perhaps, but emotionally.
After a series of silly complications worthy of a rom-com from the ‘60s, the duo…oops, I can’t tell you the ending. You’ll have to guess.
But it’s quite likely that this piece of nonsense will gross $100 million. Which would rock Kevin Smith’s world.
So. What’s the problem? Smith’s other films — the good ones anyway — were inventive and somehow moving. This one feels slow and hackneyed—and heartless.
With one exception: Elizabeth Banks. How this woman can play Laura Bush in W. and Miri in this film and Betty Brant in the Spider-man series and still know how to act credibly is beyond me. She does it here. Absolutely convinces you that Miri has suddenly discovered Zack while making a porno film.
While Kevin Smith slinks down to Apatow-wannabe status, how about kudos and a real role for Ms. Banks?
Ashes of Time Redux
Wong Kar Wai is one of those directors who seems satisfied with festival — and critical — success. Like Kevin Smith, he’s a Cannes award winner and is regularly hailed as one of the finest of the new Asian auteurs. Unlike him, the idea of commercial success doesn’t appear to be an obsession.
But something must be bothering Wong Kar-Wai. Why else would he return to his notorious flop, Ashes of Time? Back in 1994, when Wong was a young, up-coming director, he was given the opportunity to make a “wuxia” film — a specific genre that uses martial arts to tell a romantic story about love, loss and honour. Directors Zhang Yimou (Hero), Tsui Hark (Seven Swords) and most famously Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) have made brilliant films in the tradition.
Ashes of Time is based on a popular wuxia novel by Louis Cha (aka Jin Yong), which effortlessly tells one of those “honourable” romantic tales. Wong’s film, unfortunately, is almost arrogantly non-linear in its storytelling. Perhaps overwhelmed by the plot- — or disliking its constraints — Wong created a film that used voice-over narration to tell the story; scenes seem to have been dramatized willy-nilly because the director enjoyed making them.
Gorgeously shot, with a great performance by Brigitte Lin and a couple of notable ones by the two Tony Leungs, Ashes of Time has its supporters among critics. But the Chinese film-going audience stayed away in droves. Now, Wong has chosen to offer a “redux” version of the film, with more colour cinematography and a reworked score by Wu Tong, featuring solos by Yo-Yo Ma.
It’s all very good, of course, but the essential problem remains: this is not a well-told wuxia film.