A blog about movies and filmmaking.

The Movies Aren’t What They’re Cracked Up To Be…

In comedy, cult film, Directors on March 17, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Continuing from my previous post about making movies – posted here – I’ve seen two more movies that journey into the realm of movies about making movies. This time we have movies by two tried and true “pro’s” in the field. The previous post was by first-time writer/directors, who have been in the business – or had contacts – for a while. So, they’re perspectives were a bit more optimistic and not yet jaded. The two movies I’m about to discuss come from more of an established perspective. One being a recognized and applauded writer/director for such classics as RAIN MAN and TOOTSIE (and my personal favorite, WAG THE DOG). The other is from the “slacker generation” of the early ’90’s and while he has a large and vocal cult following, his movies have not really ever broken into the mainstream – other than for the controversies that his subject matter has caused. Both of these guys have seen the up’s and down’s of making movies. And these are the latest in their ongoing conversation with their audiences and even themselves on this artform.

Movie producer, Ben, starts the movie at a photo shoot for Variety’s Top Hollywood Producers and he has a complaint about his positioning in the photo. We then go into a flashback on what has brought Ben to this situation. In WHAT JUST HAPPENED, the new movie by director Barry Levinson (although, written by esteemed movie producer, Art Linson – which, natually alludes to the “fiction” being presented in this movie being more “fact” than we might know.), we get a look inside the life of what a producer does – a question often asked in the previously mentioned WAG THE DOG – and what it takes to stay on top in the movie business. Ben, played by Robert DeNiro – also previously discussed here – starts his day on the phone, stays on the phone as he drives to his ex-wife’s to pick up his kid and takes her to school. Then he stops into his office, answers more phone calls. Argues with studio heads, has to deal with a finicky director who has made a film that commits the biggest mortal sin by killing the dog. Then he goes to meet (and this wasn’t clear to me) another ex-wife and take that kid to school. He wines, he dines and meets people and friends of people. Then eventually he winds up in bed waiting to repeat it all the next morning, into eternity.

Ben’s problem come in many forms in this story. First the finicky, “artistic” director – played by a wonderfully cast, and vitally underused Michael Wincott affecting a British accent – named Jeremy Brunell, has made a movie called FIERCELY starring Sean Penn (playing himself) and when we come into the initial test audience screening to see the ending of the movie, Penn’s character is shot by a group of gangsters who then shoot the dog with one dramatic shot before the credits roll. Obviously, the test audience hates it, and the studio head – played by Katherine Keener – says that the movie has to be recut. This sends Brunell into a frenzy and leaves Ben to try and pick up the pieces and get him to work with the studio, or else they won’t get their premiere at Cannes. 

Secondly, he has his ex-wife – number one – Kelly (played by the ever lovely Robin Wright-Penn), who is still living in their old house and together they’re seeing a counselor that is trying to make them alright with their divorce and help them to move on. despite the fact that they still wind up sleeping with each other and Ben’s finding a strange Argyle sock under his (ex-wife’s) bed. Which leads into a pretty funny subplot about who else his wife is seeing and how he deals with this situation. There’s also his daughter played by Kristen Stewart and his first ex-wife.

Third, there’s a new movie project that Ben is working on starring Bruce Willis – again playing himself – who has decided that his character would be better served by being over-weight and having a large beard, to which he refuses to shave. So, Ben much try to work with Bruce’s agent, Dick Bell – played by John Turturro – who is much too timid and passive to really be effective at anything.

Then lastly, there’s his meeting with some mysterious Russian types who are looking to invest in a movie and thus leads him to being introduced to Laura, played by Mood Bloodgood – in a subplot that I honestly wished there was more to. 

The movie covers all this stuff to varying degrees. We see how you have to navigate through who you talk to, who you can see is lying to you or exaggerating things – as portrayed by Stanley Tucci’s character who has written a screenplay that “isn’t a movie” – and how best to get all these things to flow and in the end produce a movie, that’s good and hopefully even makes a profit. 

All of the performances are top-notch. DeNiro is very subtle in his humor in this and laconic in his patience and perseverance to get his goals met. He spends the movie with grey hair and a permanent half-five-o’clock shadow/half goatee look – which he seems to try and keep just the right amount of grey mixed with color. Some of his best scenes are when he’s pretty much left dumbstruck being seeing things acknowledging his wife’s affair, and who it is with.

Penn and Willis, playing characters of themselves are great. Penn, mostly is seen only  the screen as his character in the Brunell film – and the couple of scenes where we are given “Penn, the artsy actor with an edge”. Which is fun and a nice poke at himself, along with his acceptance speech at the Oscars shows that he’s definitely got a sense of humor. Willis gets the best character of the movie, because we get the “movie star” version of Bruce Willis, if say John McClane were a real person and an actor. He gets to be bullying and a hard ass. And his obstinacy in refusing to shave off the beard – and seeing him later in a yamaka – makes him a draw for the film. 

Turturro, Tucci, Keener and the other actors that have smaller, but vital roles in this movie all do what they do best and have made them the cream of the crop of today’s acting talent. The last real standout, is Wincott – who is most famous for his villainous roles in ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES and THE CROW – eats this movie up in every scene he’s in. This is probably the widest performance he’s ever given and definitely one that reaches up there to the tops of his previous roles. From certain perspectives, he might be considered the hero of this movie – aside from Ben – with his standing up for his artistic expression and in the end getting the last laugh and giving the finger to his “hollywood” oppressors. And in the last moments leading up to the end of the movie and bringing us back to that Variety photo shoot, we get a new ending to Brunell’s movie – and it’s not what either we or the audience at Cannes expects to see. 

In the end, we see what Ben’s issue was with his placement in the photo. And we see how it’s a reflection on how Hollywood treats it’s own. When you’re hot, you get prime placing in the photos and when you’re not; well, “if you could just stand a little further to the right..no, further. Further please”, is what you get.

The other creator is Kevin Smith. In 1994, Smith came onto the scene by getting his feature film debut, CLERKS, accepted into Sundance, the rest is slightly unimportant, but still very interesting history. He was given money by a studio to create his next movie – a continuation, of sorts of CLERKS, using a few of the same actors and being the base of more long-time collaborators; such as Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and a couple of others. The closest to a real break out hit was his 1997 movie CHASING AMY – which again used much of the same group of actors but stepped slightly away from the geeky humor that his other movies are known for – and it still possesses, just in a limited quantity. Making a long story, not quite as long as it could be, Smith’s new movie, ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO, breaks away from the mold that he has worked with for the past fifteen years. (While also still remaining, most definitely a Kevin Smith movie) This time out, he uses only a select few of his familiar faces of performers — with the main standout being Jason Mewes – who has played Jay to Smith’s own Silent Bob in pretty much every movie (I’ve never seen Jersey Girl, so I don’t know anything about it) – only this time he’s playing a non-Jay character and to say we see a new side (maybe even “part”) of Mewes in this might be a bit of an over-statement. We also get Jeff Anderson, who played Randall in the “Askewniverse” movies, as most of Smith’s movies are called. 

Making their first appearances in a Smith movie, and helping to blur the line between Smith’s own brand of gross-out humor and nerd-centric dialogue, we get a slew of Judd Apatow movie regulars. Mainly featuring Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks as the titular characters, with Craig Robinson also tossed in there. Also thrown in for good measure are, Traci Lords, Brandon (SUPERMAN RETURNS) Routh, Justin (“I’m a Mac”) Long and cameos from Tom Savini and Smith’s wife, Jennifer Schwalbach. 

The crux of the movie is that Zack and Miri have lived together, seemingly since high school. They have menial jobs and have failed to pay any bills, in who knows how long. So, one day after their electricity, water and heat is shut off – during Thanksgiving, in the middle of winter, in Pittsburgh – they decide that the quick, easy way to make money would be to make a porno. They get Zack’s co-worker – who was looking forward to purchasing a new plasma screen TV – Delaney (Robinson) to finance the production, using his saved up cash as well as his and his wife’s credit cards. They get Zack’s hockey-playing friend Deacon (Anderson) to be their cinematographer – he’s qualified because he used to film the games during high school, in hopes of hooking up with a cheerleader and finally they put out a casting call to pad out the movie of performances besides Zack and Miri’s sex act. Here’s where they meet Bubbles (Lords), Lester (Mewes) Stacey (also a real-life porn star, Katie Morgan) and Barry, a fey performer who thought that the audition was for an actual play/movie, but in the end finds he likes performing with Bubbles – as the bottom. So, our characters set off to film their porno titled STAR WHORES, a take on STAR WARS – in case you couldn’t figure it out. Only on the day of filming they find that all their hard-work has been ripped apart – literally. So, a new plan forms and along the way the question comes up on whether Zack and Miri are really up for doing what they planned on, and whether they can see it just as “acting” or if long-latent feelings might well up and over-take them. 

The thing to take from this movie, is that it is a sort of twisted version of exactly what Smith did when creating his first movie, CLERKS. He got his friends to help with the production and maxed out credit cards and borrowed money to pay for things like camera and film. He even actually used a hockey-stick as a boom mic. He cast friends and locals in the movie and filmed on the off hours at his “day” job – having to then actually work there during the day. It’s a very personal – and still very absurd – movie and it was sad to see it not get the audience that it really ought to have. It’s hilariously funny and completely in the same vein as the comedies that have been tearing up the box office over the past number of years. 

The performances are pretty much what you’ve come to expect from the majority of the performers involved. Rogen and Banks are both very funny and have a great onscreen chemistry. Rogen plays the “lovable loser” type, with the best of them. He’s funny and raucous. His stoner laugh and mentality, has so far worked to his benefit in most of the roles I’ve seen him in. Banks, who is actually quite a bit older than Rogen, looks perfectly like she’s the same age and holds her own in the humor department. She’s especially good at the “ditzy, funny and inappropriate” girl, as in a scene where she’s essentially throwing herself at Brandon Routh’s character. 

Mewes, as mentioned, shows he’s got a little more to his acting ability than just whipping out his “Mewesism’s” like, “Snoochy-boochies”, etc. And with his close-cropped, blonde hairdo looks quite a bit different from his former roles. Robinson, who was in last summer’s PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (also with Rogen), does a great job at being the co-worker/producer of the titular porno. He’s good at turning the whole “everything you say has to be racist” bent, as well as just playing so much of the movie with a straight-face…Which only makes it funnier. Katie Morgan and Traci Lords, being the tried-and-true porn stars of the movie, do fine in their roles. Morgan being our sole-female nudity role (Mewes, being the male – and we actually wind up seeing more of him, than we do of her!) and Lords gets to keep her clothes (as scant as they might be) on. We also get brief glimpses of Tisha Campbell-Martin pinching her nipple – through her shirt – and Gerry Bednob (the older middle-eastern comedian also in THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN) getting to spout his strange brand of curses and insults. 

This movie has managed to bring Smith more to the mainstream, though in that he is now signed to direct the first movie he has not written and for a major studio (A COUPLE OF DICKS, starring Tracey Morgan and Bruce Willis), despite it not being the mega-hit, that it was hoped to have been. (Really, pretty much assumed that this movie would make billions of dollars. Ending up, being Smith’s most profitable, but probably the lowest of Rogen’s recent run of comedies.)

While, I hope he never grows up in one sense, I’m happy to see that maybe he is in another. And like Zack, following his passion and still doing what he wants. 

**Warning, the trailer below, is the RED BAND trailer, which contains cussing and inappropriate material…Just as it ought to be! But, don’t watch it, if those things might upset you.**


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