Toronto Film Festival Update #5

September 08, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

An interesting synergy exists between Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith. With films like Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy, Smith opened a door that, only about 10 years later, Apatow walked through. Now, with Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Smith has fully and unabashedly followed Apatow into this territory that he once owned, completing the circle. In fact, so many Apatow signatures can be found in this film that it makes on appreciate how much these two have in common. There's the full-frontal male nudity, the romantic comedy subtext, and (perhaps most tellingly) the participation of Elizabeth Banks (who played the vixen in The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and Seth Rogen, one of Apatow's best pals.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno transpires in western Pennsylvania instead of New Jersey, where many of Smith's other films have been set. The title characters, platonic best friends since first grade, are facing a financial crisis. They are in danger of losing the apartment they share because they can't pay the rent. The electricity and water have already been disconnected. Zack (Rogen) has a brainstorm: he and Miri (Banks) can make an amateur porn film that, if reasonably successful, would allow them to clear their debts. Of course, this will force them to cross a line they have never crossed in their relationship but, after all, sex is just sex - isn't it? Joining the porn party to provide some variety are Lester (Jason Mewes), Stacey (real-life porn star Katie Morgan), Bubbles (ex-real-life porn star Traci Lords), and Barry (Ricky Mabe).

For two-thirds of its running length, Zack and Miri is vintage Smith - profane humor that knows no boundaries and obeys no rules. What's most amazing about Smith's barrage of hard-R jokes isn't the range of subjects he covers, but how few of them "miss." If 50% of the material in any comedy generates laughter, that movie is an unqualified success. Smith is well over the 50% mark here, provided this is your kind of comedy. There is a portion of the audience that might be shocked and appalled, although it's hard to imagine members of that demographic attending a movie with the title Zack and Miri Make a Porno. As far as truth in advertising goes, viewers pretty much know going in that this isn't going to be a sweet family values-oriented motion picture.

The "romantic" aspect of the "romantic comedy" doesn't work as well as the "comedy" portion. Most of the movie's final third is devoted to Zack's revelation that he loves Miri and the inevitable complications that delay the happily-ever-after moment we know will eventually arrive. There's chemistry, but not much sexual tension, between Rogen and Banks, and the romance is too heavily backloaded. By the time it shows up in full force, it has a tacked-on feel and some of its elements represent standard genre clich├ęs. In fact - and Kevin Smith probably doesn't want to hear this comparison - there's a lot of When Harry Met Sally in the final act of Zack and Miri (although things seem a little more rushed). In his romantic comedies, Judd Apatow has managed to drum the viewers' heartstrings. Smith isn't as adept in that arena but, while the romance may not be the most magical to reach the screen, most viewers will be laughing so hard they won't care.

Laughing is one thing few audience members will be doing during Fernando Meirelles' Blindness, a dark, intellectually challenging adaptation of the novel by Jose Saramago. A meditation on isolation and primal urges, Blindness could loosely be classified as a post-apocalyptic story, but the "event" that occurs isn't something as prosaic as a nuclear holocaust or a lethal plague. Instead, it's a sickness that renders everyone in the world blind except one woman. To quote Erasmus, "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

The disease, which instantaneously blinds those infected by it, strikes quickly, beginning with a Patient Zero and spiraling out of control by impacting everyone with whom he has contact. Soon, it's an epidemic and the government, unsure how to control the problem, sets up a concentration camp and dumps every blind person into it. Included in that population are the doctor (Mark Ruffalo) who first examined Patient Zero, a prostitute with dark glasses (Alice Braga), a young boy, and several others. The doctor's wife (Julianne Moore) is also there. Although still able to see, she fakes blindness so she can accompany her husband. Within the concentration camp, attempts to establish order soon collapse and it becomes survival of the fittest, with a self-proclaimed king (Gael Garcia Bernal) using a gun to take control of the food supply and force everyone to accept his rule. But the doctor's wife possesses a weapon no one else has.

Blindness is a fascinating intellectual exercise that explores how conditions and relationships might devolve in a closed community such as this one. Stripped of an element most humans believe to be crucial to civilization, some men and women find other, more basic ways to communicate while others seek to use the weakness of others as a path to domination. Meirelles constantly asks the viewers to place themselves in the group alongside the doctor's wife. We are complicit with her - the only ones who can see the conditions as they develop rather than hear and imagine them. Sometimes, even the seeing can be blind - as is the case with the doctor, who misses the bond that develops between her husband and the prostitute until it can no longer be ignored.

Blindness makes no attempt to explain the cause of the disease or why one person is immune. Those things are irrelevant and represent establishing circumstances that have to be accepted for the story to work. The movie is about exploring how humanity might respond in a situation like this, and the response that is shown can easily be extrapolated to other situations. Blindness is about human nature, and shows both the positives and the negatives inherent in it. With its loose narrative structure, unique visual style (lots of fades to white and one harrowing sequence in complete dark), and limited character development (we learn nothing about their pasts), Blindness has the potential to confound and frustrate some viewers. However, I found it to be an absorbing thought-piece. It engaged me throughout and I found the ending to be surprisingly hopeful.

Not much thought is needed about the nature of Mike Leigh's latest feature. Happy-Go-Lucky is a character study that devotes nearly all of its considerable attention and energy to the portrayal of one individual: the irrepressible Poppy, who is played by Sally Hawkins with the kind of intensity and immersion one normally associates with an Oscar nomination. Hawkins is a British actress who has hovered around the film and TV periphery, playing a variety of supporting roles over the course of the last five or six years. Happy-Go-Lucky is her first opportunity to shine, and she does so brilliantly. Viewers may not remember the movie's minimalist plot, but they certainly will remember Poppy.

There is, in fact, not much of a story, but that's often the case with Leigh's films. The director is a great believer in improvisation and focuses on interesting characters in circumstances that are often ordinary. With Poppy, that's a few days in her life. She's a grade school teacher who loves her job. She has no boyfriend, is the eldest of three sisters, and has shared a flat with the same roommate for 10 years. She is indefatigably bubbly, and even an event like the theft of her bicycle does little to interrupt her optimism. It's a minor annoyance, but nothing more. Poppy is the kind of character it's a pleasure to spend two hours with. In fact, I would have gladly given her additional time.

During the course of Happy-Go-Lucky, we see Poppy take driving lessons from an instructor whose dour personality is in direct opposition to his student's, visit a chiropractor, learn how to Flamenco dance, date a social worker, and cope with a weekend spent at the home of her pregnant sister. While any or all of these events might seem to form the backbone of an unendurably boring motion picture, everything comes alive because of Poppy. She's both the sparkplug that gets things going and the fuel that keeps them moving. Most importantly, she's the reason to experience this film and, because of her, what an experience it is.


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