Monday, November 10, 2008

Film Review - ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO: Deep Throated Laughs Aplenty.

Few directors working today have carved out as comfortable a niche as Kevin Smith. Thriving on the profane, obscene and scatological, he’s an auteur with a heart of gold and a mouth full of raw sewage. His dedication to delivering sweet fan-driven valentines of filthy goodness has earned him an obsessively loyal cult following (Full disclosure: I include myself in this cheery lot) who flock like speckled grackles to his riotous speaking engagements/stand-up sessions and gobble up his weekly podcasts and bountiful merchandising ventures. He’s a John Waters for the comic-book slacker generation.

Well, Silent Bob’s back once again, bending the limits of free speech to their breaking point, with Zack and Miri Make a Porno, a mostly successful carnal-carnival of a flick which is 100% guaranteed to draw gales of merry laughter from juveniles of all ages. Whereas Mel Brooks once proudly stated “I do bad taste with intelligence”, Smith delivers his foul funniness with a wink, a nudge and plenty of smiles.

And who better to characterize the prototypical Smith-ian protagonist than Seth Rogen, the Fozzy Bear-ish star of Judd Apatow’s audacious sex comedies Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin? Playing Zack, a chubby, shlubby coffee shop employee with little ambition outside of masturbatory exploration, he’s paired with Elizabeth Banks (Last seen portraying Laura Bush in W.) as Miri, his equally hopeless, yet light-years more attractive, best friend and room-mate. Desperately low on cash, and attending a High School reunion where they’ve become forgotten foot-notes, the duo are inspired by a gay adult film star (Justin Long – in a side-splitting comic turn) to get into the skin picture business.

Bankrolled by Zack’s co-worker, the unhappily married Delaney (Craig Robinson – the film’s drollest secret weapon), the duo quickly form a close-knit family of eager porn-pals. There’s Lester (Jason Mewes), a lisping goofball with one particularly valuable attribute, Bubbles (The legendary Traci Lords), star attraction of bachelor parties across the land, and Stacey (Real-life porn star Katie Morgan), a lovably vivacious - and impossibly pneumatic - stripper. Drafting an amateur camera-jockey (Clerks’ Jeff Anderson), the group set out to craft the ultimate do-it-yourself fornication flick. Complications ensue, however, as Zack and Miri prepare for their own scene, and begin to realize that their simple friendship may not be so simple after all...

Watching Zack and Miri, it’s hard to believe that Smith didn’t come up with this idea sooner. I mean c’mon, the man’s entire filmography has been fanatically fixated on exploring concepts usually best suited to the imagination of a fifteen-year-old thumbing through a well-worn copy of Hustler. It’s a great concept for a risqué adult comedy, and Smith recognizes the premises’ boundless potential and wrings plenty of laughs from it. Uproarious fake-porn antics rule the day (including one money shot you won’t see, um, coming.), but Smith’s talent for pop-culture riddled dialogue is also well served here, where obscure references to properties including Star Wars, Highlander and The Wiz are flawlessly peppered amongst the innumerable naughty words.

It’s pretty obvious that Smith has lovingly staged Zack and Miri as a tribute to his beloved younger years, pulling all-nighters shooting Clerks with his buddies, and Rogen is a superlative Smith stand-in. Crudely endearing, and so quick-witted that you almost need a slow-mo dial to keep up with him, this stoner Canuck delivers his passages of stamina-testing profanity with precision-like aplomb.

Equal, if not better, is Banks, who projects so much warmth into Miri that it’s hard not to join Zack in falling in love with her. There’s one moment after their big scene, where the actress expresses a whole host of feelings through body language, glowing smiles and girlish elation, pushing the film’s emotional envelope into the stratosphere. Mark my words; this woman is destined for Hollywood Jedi status.

While Smith handles his actors with skill, coaxing emotionally and amusingly satisfying performances from nearly the entire cast (Traci Lords proves to be the lone dead spot), he does make some undeniably limp editorial decisions. Zack and Miri’s momentum flags in spots, such as during an awkward opening sequence featuring Gerry Bednob, which shamelessly apes that actor’s eminent 40-Year-Old Virgin appearance, and more specifically throughout a meandering final act which veers perilously close to Maudlin-town. As well, James L. Venable’s dreadful Shaft meets Looney Tunes score should have never made it past the Cassio keyboard demo stage.

However, clumsy choices aside, Kevin Smith once again proves himself cinema’s definitive pervert provocateur; an idiosyncratic talent still capable of crafting smart and witty crowd-pleasers. Zack and Miri doesn’t reach the comedic zenith occupied by Dogma, Chasing Amy or the Clerks films, but still proves to be a potent source of charmingly dirty-minded hilarity certain to delight die-hards and newbies alike. Trust me when I say that this is one Porno worth paying for.

3.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Nov. 10th, 2008.

Film Review - ASHES OF TIME REDUX: Kung Fu Dreamer.

Once in a blue moon, I find myself watching a movie that leaves me at a loss for words. Well, almost anyways. Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time Redux (aka Dung che sai duk redux) falls into that category, a narrative jumble of eye-popping imagery and subtle emotions that persistently challenges the viewer to find any sense of coherent story within it. Honestly, this is a film that would require flow-charts and an assemblage of a dozen esteemed film and literary scholars to properly decode into a comprehensive whole. With that said, though, it's something of a Herculean feat on Wong's part that this trancelike head-trip is still a thoroughly fulfilling and transporting visual journey.

It's actually kind of amazing that Ashes of Time managed to hold together at all. Originally released in Asia in 1994, the film was a critically lauded disappointment, making back but a fraction of its sizable budget. However, as is sporadically the case, the film began to accumulate a supportive fan-base who recognized the art within Wong's fever-dream madness. This support led to multiple edits, official and unofficial, each seeking to properly refine the essence of what the film was trying to say.
Recognizing an opportunity to reach a wider audience, Wong then set out to restore his film for a big screen revival, only to find that his original prints had been all but destroyed by the studio's print lab. After years of scouring black-markets and studio archives for alternate takes, digitally heightening their colour grades and recording a new soundtrack with famed cellist Yo Yo Mah, Wong and his editors are now finally introducing North American audiences to their definitive version of the film, appropriately labelled Ashes of Time Redux.

Loosely based on Louis Cha's novel The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, Ashes of Time Redux transports us to a lonely desert inn run by the sombre Ouyang Feng (the late Leslie Cheung), a heartbroken assassin who outsources his contracts to other hired guns, er swords. Over the course of the film, which is broken into six parts – with each representing one of the Chinese seasons - we come to know the men and women who enter his solitary life. Some of the more memorable guests are Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung), a skilled and ruthless killer shadowed by his blindly loving wife (Li Bai), Bridgitte Lin as a woman scarred by emotional pain who has created two separate identities in which to strike back at her uncaring world, and the mysterious Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a once-great warrior who yearns to return to his lost love before his sight degenerates completely.

Wong uses these characters in an abstract fashion, like emotional brushstrokes on a canvas, to explore his desired themes regarding the overpowering nature of man's memory over his life, as well as how our pasts can disrupt identity and affect our ability to connect with our fellow man. Ashes of Time Redux is an unabashedly romantic film in the purest sense of the word, lyrical, sensual and haunting, an unflinching glimpse into the human soul.

But the real backbone of the film, and what makes it a rewarding trip, are the stunning images that Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle produce with their lenses. We see a woman, standing in an oasis-like lake, wielding a sword, who, with each slice and thrust, produces momentous bursts of water that surge upwards, reaching out to an expansive blue sky. As well, warm sunlight light filtered through a birdcage casts foreboding shadows across the human characters, stressing their own personal imprisonment. And my own favourite: a meditative shot of a dying warrior gazing calmly heavenward, while blood flows elegantly from a fatal throat wound.

This is a beautiful movie, even in its ugly and indistinctly staged fight scenes, which manages to communicate more with images than through its characters' poetic monologues. It's a martial arts film by way of David Lynchian dream-logic, a fractured memory that aims to draw the viewer into a sensation, as opposed to a story. When the closing credits come up, we aren't left with a feeling of completion, but rather the sense of waking from a particularly surreal reverie.

Ultimately, however, I do realize that Ashes of Time Redux is probably destined to infuriate more attendees than it will inspire. So, this is where my job as a reviewer ends, and your role as a consumer kicks in: if you are an adventurous film-goer, who craves non-linear storytelling and extraordinary images, I heartily recommend tracking this film down. You'll be dazzled, frustrated, intrigued and spellbound by the ambitious tapestry that Wong Kar Wai has woven. Memory may be the root of man's troubles, but Ashes of Time Redux proves that it can also be the source of endless visionary wonders.

3.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Nov. 10th, 2008