‘Zack and Miri Make a Porno’ Goes Down in a, You Know, Pleasurable Way

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Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” is the first movie he made which takes place outside of New Jersey. Instead, he takes us to Pittsburgh where we follow the exploits of the title characters who share an apartment and have been the best of friends since they were kids. When we first meet them, their lives are hanging by a thread as they are behind on all their bills, and soon after they lose their water and electricity. Both work at a Starbucks-like shop called Bean n’ Gone where they waste their lives away like those two guys from “Clerks. “Sound like anyone you know?

These two end up going to their high school reunion where Miri ends up connecting with her biggest crush, football hero Bobby Long (Brandon Routh), in the hopes of having a nice little fling. She has yet to find Bobby doesn’t “swing that way.” This soon becomes clear as we see Zack talking with Bobby’s boyfriend, Brandon (Justin Long, who is frackin’ hilarious), who reveals to Zack he is in fact an actor in gay porno films, the stuff Zack doesn’t quite fit the demographic for.

Later on, when both Zack and Miri are in very dire straits, Zack comes up with the idea of the two of them doing a porno. Miri is not quite up to the idea, but the way Zack sees it, porno is now so mainstream that even Paris Hilton (albeit unintentionally) did one and now hawks her own line of perfume to “tweens.” They end up committing to it despite one thing; they have never had sex with each other before. The way they saw it beforehand was they get along so great that they both believe sex will just get in the way of the friendship they have a la “When Harry Met Sally.” Of course, you can’t help but get the feeling Zack would love an opportunity to get up close and personal with Miri, you know?

There’s this line from “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones” which keeps floating around in my head of when Anakin meets up with Padme again and tells her how she has grown more beautiful since the last time they were together. To this, Padme replies, “Anakin, you’ll always be that little boy I remember from Tatooine.” I totally remember the audiences groaning after she said this, and the line kind of sums up the relationship between Zack and Miri, and we feel we have a pretty good idea of where their relationship will end up.

Zack is played Seth Rogen who, for a moment, appeared to be Smith’s new man crush since Ben Affleck was far too busy with his acting career at the time. Rogen is perfect as he handles the raunchy and profane material of the movie with the confidence of a pro, and at the same time he projects a sweet side to his character which really wins the audience over. Elizabeth Banks (“W.“) plays Miri who stays close to Zack throughout their hardships and spends nights with him in front of a trash can in which all their unpaid bills are burned to a crisp. The chemistry between these two is very good, and they play off of each other really well.

In addition, Smith has rounded out a great cast to keep the laughs going throughout this ode to porn. Some of his regulars show up here like Jason Mewes who plays Lester, a hopelessly dense individual who also yearns to be a porn star. Another is Jeff Anderson (the immortal Randal Graves from “Clerks”) who plays Deacon the cameraman. How he manages to get a movie out of all this insanity is beyond me.

Smith even goes out of his way to even cast actual porno stars as well. The most noticeable one is Katie Morgan who has been featured on some documentaries on HBO about her career (how I know this, I refuse to reveal). She is as perky here as she is in those interviews, and her cheerful presence here is kind of a surprise compared to other actresses in her line of work. Traci Lords co-stars as well, and she shows us an amazing new way to blow bubbles. A former porn actress herself, Lords has long since escaped adult entertainment and has dived into the bad taste escapades of John Waters to a delightful effect. Both of the actresses being in this movie should show just how mainstream porn is getting and of how much this scares conservative politicians to death.

But one of the truly scene stealing performances in this movie belongs to Craig Robinson who plays the producer of the porno, Delaney. Robinson is a big kick to watch here as he delivers his lines in a terrifically deadpan manner. At once disgusted at what he has been hired to do, Delaney suddenly becomes incredibly enthusiastic when he realizes he gets to do. He also has a pretty hilarious response to when he is asked to work “Black Friday,” and it serves as a reminder of how some people take things a little too literally.

Smith also has loads of fun skewering the porn films we know from our past but never really admit to ever having watched. Zack and Miri end up coming up with the title “Star Whores” for their porno, and this in reference to how so many of these pornos are typically named after Hollywood blockbusters. See if any of these remind you of anything (some of these I made up):

“Pulp Friction”

“Robocock”

“The Hard Knight”

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Boner” (Justin Long’s character could easily be cast in this one.)

Smith directs this movie to those who are more familiar with pornos than they would ever admit during a sales pitch. It’s also an ode to when he started as a filmmaker all those years ago with “Clerks.” Using a hockey stick as a boom mike holder? You can believe he utilized things like these to get his first movie done.

“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” is not as consistently funny as some of Smith’s other movies like “Clerks” or “Dogma” among others. Like “Jersey Girl,” it follows a certain formula to where we pretty much know where the story is going to end up. At the same time, he gleefully skewers the formula by adding his own brand of raunchy humor. There was one moment I laughed so hard that I almost passed out, something which does not always happen if at all. I fell over, the color went out of my eyes for a second, and things got fuzzy. Yes, that’s how hard I was laughing. I refuse to spoil this particular moment for you, but I will say I will never look at cake frosting in the same way ever again.

Smith also makes clear the difference between having sex and making love, and this difference is made clear at a pivotal moment in the movie which changes everything for the characters. There’s the one nighter, and then there’s the sex which reveals true feelings and which proves to be more than extraordinary. I may not be an expert on the subject for reasons I will plead the fifth on, but I do know this much. Smith, after all these years, still gives us down to earth characters which shows how he has not come even close to forgetting where he came from.

“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” may not be the best movie of Kevin Smith’s career, but it definitely has its moments of utter hilarity. It also shows there is more to him than making movies in New Jersey. By making a break from his usual comic territory, we can and should expect him to go beyond his comfort zone for a good dose of naughty laughs filled with heart from here on out.

* * * out of * * * *

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A Merry Friggin’ Christmas

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The worst Christmas memories we have tend to become the funniest and most memorable moments of our lives, and I went into “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” thinking it would reflect this fact. With a cast which includes such tremendously talented actors like Joel McHale, Lauren Graham, Candice Bergen, Clark Duke and Robin Williams, in what sadly turned out to be one of his last roles before his tragic death, this seemed to be a surefire winner and quite possibly one of the most subversive Christmas comedies ever, right?

Nope, no such luck. “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” turns out to be a tremendous disappointment as it strands its wonderful cast in a far too typical Christmas movie with very little in the way of laughs. In fact, I never got much in the way of gut-busting laughs like I hoped I would. When actors like these can’t make this holiday comedy rise above its formulaic conventions, you know something is seriously wrong in the state of Denmark.

McHale stars as Boyd Mitchler, and the movie starts with him as a boy hiding under the Christmas tree waiting for Santa Claus to appear. But instead of Santa Claus, Boyd is greeted by his drunken father Mitch (Robin Williams) who quickly tells him that, like the Easter Bunny, Santa doesn’t exist. Move to a number of years later, and Boyd is now happily married to Luann (Lauren Graham) and the father of two adorable children. Unlike his father, Boyd is determined to keep the magic of Christmas going for his kids as long as he can before the reality of the cruel world they live in forever robs them of it.

It’s interesting how Boyd’s daughter already knows Santa doesn’t exist as kids these days are getting increasingly harder to trick or fool. Still, Boyd is determined to keep his son Douglas (Pierce Gagnon from “Looper”) believing the jolly fat man from the North Pole is real even if he has to fly at 20,000 mph in order to deliver all those presents in a timely fashion. Of course, with climate change melting away much of the ice on this planet, Santa will most likely be living in a submarine at this point.

But then Boyd gets word from his brother Nelson (Clark Duke) that his baby is going to be baptized on Christmas Eve, and this means the whole Mitchler family is going to be reunited under one roof for the first time in years. We all know what happens when such a dysfunctional family gets together; tempers flare and old resentments quickly rise to the surface. Clearly, things are going to get worse before they can finally get better, and it doesn’t take a genius to see how predictable this “comedy” is going to end up being.

What’s even more unsurprising is how we see early on that Boyd is going to completely forget to bring Douglas’ presents along with him, and this results in him going on an 8-hour round trip to get them and preserve his son’s belief in Christmas. Coming along with Boyd on this ride is father who uses his truck which has a couple of portable toilets stowed in the back. Will one of them fall off the truck and create a disgusting mess? Does a bear shit in the woods?

Holiday movies are a dime a dozen, and I’m always waiting for one which messes around with the formula to give us something different. “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” had the potential to be such a movie, but it ends up falling apart as soon as it starts. The performances and the comedy are played much too broadly, and everything comes off as uninspired. It’s such a shame because you have an actor like Graham, who starred in one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, “Bad Santa,” and even she can’t save this movie with her priceless expressions (and they really are priceless).

“A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” has taken on a special meaning in light of Williams’ tragic death, and it’s sad his career had to end with a movie like this one. Having said that, he does have some moments where he doesn’t say a word but his face speaks volumes about what Mitch is feeling and going through in his head. He makes you feel Mitch’s pain when he discovers he has been photo-shopped out of a family photo, and while his character is mostly a one-dimensional jerk, Williams gives him a depth many other actors would not have been able to achieve. It’s a shame his talents ended up being wasted on such a half-baked screenplay.

For me, there are few things worse than a comedy that doesn’t make you laugh, and “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” sadly turns out to be one of them. Those looking for the perfect Christmas movie for the whole family will be better off renting “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Love Actually” or “Bad Santa.” This one is not going to keep you entertained.

* out of * * * *

The Meddler

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When reading the plot synopsis of “The Meddler,” I walked into it expecting a formulaic comedy dealing in stereotypes like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” did. Not that working with stereotypes is always a bad thing, but it can get old very quickly and leave audiences with not much that is worth remembering when they leave the theater. Plus, the movie’s story deals with a parent interfering in the life of their offspring at the most inconvenient time in their life, and how many times have we seen that before? We all know it will build up to that moment where the offspring will say, “Mom, I love you but will you PLEASE GET THE HELL OUT OF MY LIFE??!!” But despite this inescapable confrontation, we know everything will work out in the end.

Well, “The Meddler” turned out to be a pleasant surprise as it is a movie made from the heart more than anything else. A lot of it has to do with the fact writer and director Lorene Scafaria (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) based the story on her own mother and the relationship she had with her. But while this might sound like a buddy comedy, it’s really more about the mother and it gives Susan Sarandon one of the best roles she has had in recent years.

Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini who, as “The Meddler” begins, is staring listlessly at the ceiling fan in her bedroom. We learn Marnie was recently widowed and has since moved from the east coast to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). As the title suggests, she endlessly interferes in Lori’s life and then goes on to help others whom she feels need her assistance. But deep down she is still struggling with the loss of her husband, someone she was with for decades and who has now vanished from her life. While she looks very pleasant on the outside, Marnie is still struggling to come to terms with her husband’s death and is trying to find new meaning in her life.

What I loved about Sarandon’s performance is how she avoids the easy trap of turning Minnie into a simple caricature and instead turns this character into this wonderful human who is infinitely generous to a fault. Even as Minnie gets a little too involved in her daughter’s life, Sarandon never makes her seem the slightest bit aggravating. It’s also great fun to see her roam around The Grove as if it were Disneyland because it shows just how new to Los Angeles Minnie really is.

Sarandon also has a great foil to work with in Rose Byrne who plays Minnie’s daughter Lori. Byrne also could have made Lori, a writer for television, into a caricature, but she makes her into someone with work problems we can all relate to regardless of whatever industry we work in. Lori is enduring a lot of problems in her life other than her mother such as being dumped by her celebrity boyfriend Jacob (Jason Ritter) which still weighs heavily on her, and she is not sure how she can move on past her heartbreak. Ever since the scene in “Neighbors” where she succeeded in getting two college students to seduce one another, she has remained a terrific actress and one with very sharp comedic skills.

During “The Meddler,” Minnie is met by a couple of men who are eager to get to know her better. One is Michael McKean’s overly earnest Mark whose idea of a date is to take Minnie to the Holocaust Museum, but it’s hard to imagine anyone getting romantic over there. McKean is always fun to watch no matter what movie he’s in, and he makes the most of his limited screen time as a guy who can’t quite take a hint.

The other suitor is a retired cop turned movie set security guard who goes by the name of Zipper, and he is played in a scene-stealing performance by J.K. Simmons. While being upstaged somewhat by an awesome looking mustache, Simmons makes Zipper into a uniquely lovable guy, and he is wonderful to watch as he introduces Sarandon to his nest of chickens. We’ve seen this Oscar-winning actor go from playing a warm-hearted father in “Juno” to an insanely brutal music instructor in “Whiplash,” and this is not to mention his terrific work in the first three “Spider-Man.” But in “The Meddler” Simmons gets to play a role many of us haven’t seen him play before, a romantic leading man, and he pulls it off beautifully.

What makes “The Meddler” an especially strong movie is how genuine it is in its emotions. Not once did its story feel the least bit manipulative, and its portrait of people trying to move past the loss of a loved one feels authentic in its portrayal. Nothing ever feels cloying or artificial, and it also helps that Sarandon, Byrne, and Simmons are surrounded by a wonderful cast which includes “SNL’s” Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch (the moment where she tosses a baby shower gift aside is priceless), Jason Ritter, Casey Wilson and Jerrod Carmichael. Each actor succeeds in creating unique characters who are fun to hang out with, and watching them is a reminder of how there is never a role too small for an actor to play.

Although it deals with the heavy subjects of grief, heartbreak and losing a loved one, “The Meddler” proves to be a very positive movie which is optimistic in its view of life. In a time where many movies feature infinitely cynical characters, here’s one with a woman of a certain age (and lord knows there’s not enough of those) who is very giving and generous. Even when she appears to be more generous than anyone should be, we keep watching the movie with the hope her spirit will stay strong during even the toughest of times.

“The Meddler” was made on a low budget and on a very shooting schedule, and everyone involved succeeded in giving us something much better than we could have expected. Please don’t let the fact it is not a superhero movie keep you from checking it out.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Al White Discusses How Jive Talk Came About in ‘Airplane’ at New Beverly Cinema

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New Beverly Cinema was packed more than usual when the revival theater screened one of the funniest comedies ever made, “Airplane,” in honor of its 35th anniversary. After the movie was over, the audience got treated to a special appearance by Al White, the actor who played one of the jive talking passengers in the satirical comedy (to be more specific, he was the one with the beard). He ran up to the front of the theater to a thunderous applause and remarked how the movie still holds up after all these years, and the only thing which has changed about it is the color of his hair.

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White was born in Houston, Texas but was raised mostly in San Francisco, California, and he decided to pursue an acting career after working as a janitor at Golden Gate Park for eight years. In addition to his role as the jive talking dude in “Airplane,” a role he would reprise in “Airplane II: The Sequel,” he also had a memorable role in “Back to the Future Part II” as an angry homeowner who tries to beat up Michael J. Fox with a baseball bat. He was also a member of the American Conservatory Theater for several years and originated the role of the military officer in the Tennessee Williams play “This is an Entertainment.”

White told the New Beverly audience that making “Airplane” proved to be a lot of fun. While the movie was distributed by Paramount Pictures, much of its filming took place in Culver City, California.

Acting opposite White as the other jive-talking man in the movie was Norman Alexander Gibbs whom has since moved back to the east coast of the United States. White remarked at how Gibbs talked so much to where he didn’t want to compete with him, so he tried to fill in the blanks when Gibbs wasn’t saying anything. That made for one wonderful scene after another in this comedy classic.

Many in the audience were curious about the jive language White, Gibbs and Barbara Billingsley, who played the elderly white woman who understood what they were saying, said throughout and if it was a real language. White said it was something he and Gibbs worked on throughout shooting. The movie’s writers and directors, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, apparently got the idea for the jive talking guys while they were in a restaurant and sitting next to some black men who spoke in a language they couldn’t understand.

Jeff Zucker, the one who worked with the actors on set the most, gave the actors free range to come up with dialogue, and White described how a line of dialogue like “each of us faces a moral choice” turned into “that gray matter backlot perform us DOWN, I take TCB-in’, man!”

Following the screening of “Airplane,” White hung out in the lobby to sign autographs and talk with the fans. I thanked him for coming down to the New Beverly and told him how I always wondered if the jive language was real or if it was gibberish. He replied, “It’s gibberish to those who don’t understand it, but it makes perfect sense to those that do understand it.”

The genius of “Airplane” is that all the actors never played their roles as if they were in on the joke, and that’s a lesson lost on many filmmakers today when they make satires. These days, filmmakers seem far more concerned about the jokes than anything else, and the movies they make suffer as a result. To this White replied, “The old stuff is better.”

COL’ got to be! (How true!)

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Blazing Saddles

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Blazing Saddles” is one of Mel Brooks’ funniest comedies and one which invites repeat viewings as there are always jokes still waiting to be discovered. It acts as a satire of the western genre as well as the racism which was obscured by Hollywood’s creation of myths regarding the American West. But as funny as it is, it also offers the viewer a moving story about a black sheriff who manages to win over a town on the verge of being taken over by murderers and thieves. It also gleefully breaks the rules to where places and people are added that were never really part of the American West in the first place.

The wonderful Harvey Korman plays Hedley Lamarr, the State Attorney General who wants to get his hands on the town of Rock Ridge where the land is worth millions. His attempts to frighten the people out of their town includes getting cowboys to ride in and shoot their guns, creating a havoc which makes everyone living there fearful and anxious. But when that doesn’t work, Lamarr comes up with what he believes is an ingenious idea; he hires a black man to become the new Sheriff of Rock Ridge with the belief his “mere presence” will scare everyone out of there. Of course, things do not go as planned.

Looking back at “Blazing Saddles” all these years later, it still stands up mainly because Brooks is not out to make the actors simply go for the joke. Instead they play many scenes straight instead of trying to be funny, and this makes the humor work even more than it already does. With a satire like this, it helps to have characters you care about regardless of how ridiculous their actions may be. Most movie satires and spoofs these days keep forgetting this as they are more persistent in selling the joke to the audience instead of giving the story any real substance.

The late Cleavon Little portrays Bart who becomes the Sheriff and immediately meets resistance to his presence because of the color of his skin. Regardless of how infinitely intelligent and cool he is compared to the idiotic residents of Rock Ridge, he has to work real hard to win them over. Little has so many inspired moments in the movie like when he sings a Cole Porter song instead of the “Camptown Races” which the racist cowboys assume blacks sing all the time.

Many may accuse “Blazing Saddles” of playing up black stereotypes in order to get easy laughs, but they completely miss the point. Brooks and his team of writers, which included Richard Pryor, turn those stereotypes upside down and expose them for the falsehoods they have always been. Seeing the residents of Rock Ridge overzealous reactions to Bart’s behavior, such as him saying “excuse me while I whip this out” when he takes out his written speech, are indicative of their overt racism more than anything else. Seeing them act so stupidly out of fear and sheer ignorance gives the movie some of its most side-splitting moments.

Another memorable performance comes from the great Gene Wilder who plays Jim, a.k.a. The Waco Kid, the fastest gun in the world. While Wilder is best remembered at times for playing neurotic characters, he is as cool as can be in this film. Seeing him play it so cool in moments where his precision with a pistol is stupidly questioned by others who don’t know him is so much fun to take in. His character is a riff on the one Dean Martin played in “Rio Bravo,” and Wilder is such a blast to watch throughout.

“Blazing Saddles” also provided the late Madeline Khan with one of her most famous roles, the German singer Lili von Shtupp whose name is inexplicably censored on the movie’s television version. She is endlessly brilliant in her rendition of the song “I’m Tired,” and it makes for one of the most unforgettable comic performances ever captured on film.

There are many unforgettably hysterical scenes throughout “Blazing Saddles” which stand up to repeat viewings. The campfire scene is as obscene as it is gut-bustlingly hilarious, and you may find yourself laughing harder than you ever have before. Brooks himself plays a couple of parts like the severely lacking in intelligence Gov. William J. Le Petomane and an Indian Chief who, for some bizarre reason, speaks Yiddish. Other actors like the great Slim Pickens and Burton Gilliam have us gasping with laughter just by looking at the befuddled expressions on their faces.

Along with a great music score by John Morris and beautiful cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc, “Blazing Saddles” has more than earned its place on the list of greatest comedies ever made. There is tremendous delight in watching Brooks throw caution and logic to the wind as he throws in the unexpected like Count Basie and his orchestra performing in the desert while Bart rides by, or having Nazis sign up for Lamar’s final battle at Rock Ridge. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense or because you just want the laughs to keep on coming (and they do). With a comedy like this, you can never be sure what will happen next!

By the way, be sure to watch “Blazing Saddles” in the widescreen version. Brooks shot the movie in Panavision scope, and it has never ever translated well to the realm of pan-and-scan.

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Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Molly Shannon revisits Mary Katherine Gallagher and ‘Superstar’ in Los Angeles

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Molly Shannon had quite the run on “Saturday Night Live,” giving us such hilarious characters like the 50-year-old Sally O’Malley, self-proclaimed “Joyologist” Helen Madden, “Goth Talk” co-host Circe Nightshade and “Delicious Dish” co-host Terri Rialto. But her best character by far was the social outcast Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher whose severe mood swings and love of TV movies she would always do monologues from still have us in hysterics to this day. Mary’s popularity became so huge to where she eventually got her own movie called “Superstar” in which she attempts to live out her dream of getting a kiss from the most popular guy at school, Sky Corrigan (Will Ferrell). Despite a middling reception upon its release in 1999, the movie has since earned a cult following.

Shannon got to revisit Mary Katherine Gallagher and “Superstar” when American Cinematheque, in partnership with Alamo Drafthouse, screened the movie at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Joining her was the movie’s director Bruce McCulloch and its screenwriter Steve Koren. Shannon, who hasn’t aged much since her “SNL” days, was all smiles and showed no hesitation in doing Mary’s signature “Superstar” pose to the delight of the audience.

The first question on everybody’s mind was how Shannon came up with Mary Katherine Gallagher, and she replied the character was originally a version of herself, albeit a very exaggerated one. Like Mary, Shannon attended Catholic school, was never really comfortable there and got very nervous when going to confession. She also said the idea for Mary putting her fingers into her armpits came from a friend of hers she used to go on vacation with in Palm Springs. They were at the age where body odors began emanating from their bodies, and Shannon’s friend got her to smell her armpits and vice versa. Shannon also added she is no longer a practicing Catholic.

McCulloch, best known for being on “The Kids in the Hall,” originally turned down the opportunity to direct “Superstar.” Shannon at the time was co-starring opposite Drew Barrymore in “Never Been Kissed,” and Barrymore begged her to go after him and stop the airplane he was on from taking off. McCulloch said his reason for turning down this movie was because he was scared he wouldn’t be able to deliver the goods. He was also concerned he would be taking on another person’s project as well as their life and a significant part of that person’s career. Still, Shannon managed to track McCulloch down and he agreed to direct.

Koren had worked with Shannon on “SNL” and had written the Mary Katherine Gallagher sketches, so it seemed appropriate that the two of them wrote the screenplay for “Superstar.” Actually, it was Lorne Michaels who was “really into the movies,” as Koren put it, who wanted to see Mary get her own film. Koren said when writing the screenplay, it came down to thinking about the history of Mary and where she came from. After that, it was about giving the screenplay a three-act structure and going through a number of rewrites to where they had too much material. In the end, McCulloch said they managed to simplify things by making “Superstar” into a girl movie about finding yourself and of Mary getting her first real kiss.

McCulloch remarked how Shannon never wanted to stop even after shooting 11 takes of the same scene due to the ferocious energy she brought to Mary. He found this to be refreshing as other actors he worked with were not like that. In fact, he even recalled when he finished a third take with an actor and wanted to do another, and the actor looked at him and asked, “Don’t you have it yet?”

One of the many things we love about Shannon’s portrayal of Mary is how fearlessly she threw herself into the physical comedy and crashes into any and every object in her path. Shannon said she grew up watching John Ritter on “Three’s Company” which became a huge inspiration for her. She also added she always made sure to stretch out beforehand and that physical comedy can be very dangerous when doing it with another person.

Shannon also confirmed that when it came to making out with the tree, it was never sterilized beforehand. McCulloch even added he “had to pull her off that goddamn tree” more often than not.

As for her favorite moments in “Superstar,” Shannon said one of them was when Mary was watching the television movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” starring John Travolta as it proved to be her escape from sadness. She also loved the scene where Mary was in her bedroom talking about her breasts as it reminded her of when she was a little girl and thought about “bras” and “big boobs” most of the time.

When “Superstar” was released in 1999, Shannon admitted to seeing it in the theater “so many times.” She kept thanking God for the opportunities given to her, and she reveled in the audience’s reaction to the movie. At one particular showing, she remembered a little boy who saw her and then quickly looked at the screen and then back at her. He leaned over to his mom and said, “Mom, I think that’s the girl in the movie.”

Each of the night’s guests had worked on “SNL,” and an audience member asked how hard it was for them to leave the show. McCulloch recollected that after a season or two he wasn’t sure if he wanted to come back, and he later moved on “The Kids in the Hall.” Koren replied he left when he was hired to be a writer for “Seinfeld,” and it was very tough on him emotionally to move on from “SNL.” As for Shannon, she said she loved the show and wanted to leave while still in love with it. She had nothing planned when she left, and her reasons for leaving were more personal as her father was dying from cancer. Quitting the show allowed her to spend more time with him before he passed away.

It was great to see such an enthusiastic audience come out to see “Superstar” at the Egyptian Theatre. Shannon proved to be a delight as she has lost none of her enthusiasm for Mary Katherine Gallagher or acting. It was also a lot of fun to see McCulloch and Koren share their insights about the movie’s making as it proved to be better than its reputation suggests. As for where Mary would be today, Shannon is convinced she would be in a lot of therapy, but she also hoped Mary would have found love. Regardless, there’s no denying that after all these years, Mary is still a superstar.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

 

 

 

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday

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Pee-wee Herman was a big fixture in our young lives whether we liked it or not. Ever since the character’s first appearance at The Groundlings Theater, he amassed a large audience that grew infinitely beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Both he and Tim Burton realized their big screen dreams with “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” and soon after he had his own Saturday morning show with “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Then he disappeared for a time and if we were sick of him, his absence made us realize how much we liked and got used to having him around.

Well in the past couple of years he has made a welcome comeback, and now it culminates in his first big screen adventure in decades, “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.” Don’t let the fact it is debuting on Netflix turn you off (and why should it?). It’s an infinitely giddy movie which will have kids and adults alike laughing hysterically more often than not. While it seems to take place in an alternate universe where “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” never took place, please rest assured that this man child has not changed and hasn’t aged a day.

When we meet up with Pee-wee, he lives in the picturesque town of Fairville where everyone seems more than willing to help him out with his Rube Goldberg-like devices and machines which get him up and out of his house in the morning. He is perfectly happy to work as a cook at Dan’s Diner and rehearse with his rock group to where the thought of going outside the city limits seems unthinkable. But this all changes when Joe Manganiello shows up as he plays… Well, you’ll have to see for yourself.

Anyway, Manganiello encourages Pee-wee to go beyond Fairville’s city limits and to find out more about life, and he even invites him to a birthday party taking place in New York City. Despite some hesitation, Pee-wee agrees and endures all sorts of adventures and mishaps as he makes his way from one side of America to the other.

What’s great about “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” is how the humor succeeds in appealing to both kids and adults without condescending to either group. The kids will definitely enjoy Pee-wee’s antics as he braves a snake farm which is not all it appears to be and performs a balloon trick which has to be seen to be believed. Adults on the other hand will get a huge kick out of the subversive elements hidden throughout the screenplay which includes references to cult classics like Russ Meyers’ “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” There’s even a great moment where “Magic Mike” is mentioned, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you here.

Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, whose movie careers exploded after the success of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” weren’t around for this one. This particular adventure was directed by John Lee who became best known for his work on the MTV2 comedy series “Wonder Showzen” and episodes of “Inside Amy Schumer.” Lee keeps the pace of “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” tight to where the movie never drags. Granted, the jokes are at times hit and miss, but the ones which do hit had me laughing harder than I had in some time.

Devo lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh composed the film score, and he seems like a natural choice to succeed Elfman. Both Mothersbaugh and Elfman have had long working relationships with unique film directors (Elfman with Burton, and Mothersbaugh with Wes Anderson), and their scores perfectly capture the playfulness and creativity we see unfolding onscreen, Whether or not you think Mothersbaugh’s work equals what Elfman pulled off years before, he is a terrific fit for this material and captures the infinite innocence of Pee-wee.

But what’s really nice is how Paul Reubens brings his man child alter-ego of Pee-wee Herman back to life after such a long hiatus. I figured Reubens had long since grown tired of this character to where it seemed like he had engineered a rather embarrassing escape from playing him. Reubens even went on to show his acting range with terrific performances in “Blow” and “Life During Wartime,” proving to the world there was way more to him than Pee-wee. But you can see on Reubens’ face throughout just how super enthusiastic he was about bringing this iconic character back to life, and he makes you realize just how much we have missed him lo these many years.

The only thing which could possibly take away from Reubens’ thunder here is Manganiello who steals every single scene he’s in. He could have easily screwed up here by playing his role like he was in on the joke, but he doesn’t and it help makes “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” all the more fun to watch. Manganiello looks like he’s having a blast here, and his fun is very contagious.

There have been a lot of popular characters from the 1980’s resurrected over the past few years with varying degrees of success, and Reubens’ is more successful than others in doing so. His passion is sincere in bringing this character back from the land of syndication and reruns, and seeing him in action makes it seem like he never left us. Here’s hoping we see Pee-wee Herman taking on more big adventures in the near future.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * out of * * * *

Don’t Think Twice

Dont Think Twice poster

Don’t Think Twice” starts off with a black and white montage of improvisation groups at work onstage. The important thing to notice is how the actors work together as a group and accept the ideas given to them. It’s never about trying to be funnier than the other person because that just throws the whole dynamic off. You simply work together and let the scene you have created flow from one place to the next, and if you are lucky you will reach comedy nirvana for yourself and the audience. But there’s always that one rule you most follow the most during improv: don’t think. Thinking just screws you up.

This movie completely understands the improv dynamic, and it’s no surprise it was written and directed by an actor, writer and a comedian, Mike Birbiglia, who has been in groups like those before. Birbiglia plays Miles, the senior member of an improv group named The Commune which has long since gained a strong following in the New York area. All the group members care for each other very much like family and live in the same building together. As they continue to perform and develop their talents, they keep pursuing what they see as the comedy holy grail, a comedy variety show called “Weekend Live.” Clearly, this show is a not so subtle stand in for “Saturday Night Live” as it promises fame and fortune for all those lucky enough to be cast on it.

Then one day two of The Commune members, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), get called to audition for “Weekend Live,” and we know this is going to change everything for everybody no matter what happens. Jack ends up getting cast and his friends are happy for him, but once they see him on the show their excitement fades as they begin to wonder why they aren’t as successful as him. Another Commune member, Allison (Kate Micucci) wears a t-shirt that says “Friends Forever” on it, but you quickly get the feeling that this won’t be the case as the movie goes on.

All the characters in “Don’t Think Twice” are wonderfully realized by Birbiglia and the actors he has cast. There are no good or bad guys here, just a group of friends trying to support each other the best they can. It’s great that they have this support group as show business is always fiercely competitive, and what keeps them going is their love of acting and especially improv. Still, a number of roadblocks are put up in their general direction as the theatre they perform in gets sold, and they move into a more expensive venue they are unable to fill up. Also, their biggest fans are more eager to see Jack back in The Commune than to watch a Commune show without him.

I love everyone here is genuine in following their passion, and you see the price they pay for pursuing such elusive dreams. They work day jobs that are demeaning to say the least. Bill (Chris Gethard) in particular has a job at a local supermarket handing out food samples to customers who are typically quick to avoid him. He later remarks at how he had all the lead roles in his high school plays and now feels like his father looks at him as a loser. Like the others in the group he has no real interest in a desk job or any other 9 to 5 job, but the time is coming where he may have to question whether it is worth it to continue on the path he has chosen for himself.

It’s no surprise that everything “Don’t Think Twice” reaches a climax as feelings of bitterness and resentment come right up to the surface. Jack has gained a lot of fame in a short period of time, and he tries to help his friends out by passing their writing samples along to “Weekend Live’s” Lorne Michaels-like manager who instead urges him to write for himself. Miles feels he is owed a spot on “Weekend Live” and thinks he has been cheated out of what is rightfully his. Everyone else comes to see what they have sacrificed to be a part of The Commune, and now they wonder if it was worth the price. This makes the movie more intense as you know these people will eventually explode at one another, and you hope the damage isn’t too great that it can’t be repaired.

Now many other movies like this one would have ended on a note of bitterness to where enemies are made and friendships are forever destroyed, but Birbiglia doesn’t do that here. While failure is not an option for many starving artists, for others it is. Or perhaps they shouldn’t look at this as failure and instead as a chance to redirect their energies. This could have been an infinitely pessimistic movie, but Birbiglia manages to soften the blow in a way that feels honest and genuine. He shows us people who start to wonder if it is time to move on to something, but they never lose their love of improv. They all may not be able to make a living off of performing, but they don’t have to give up on it either.

My hat is off to the actors who have clearly been through the various ups and downs of an acting career and been involved with groups like these. Keegan Michael Key is terrific as the breakout cast member who struggles to exist in a high-pressure showbiz world that is not as welcoming as The Commune. Gillian Jacobs is also a standout as one who is so committed to her group that the thought of leaving it feels so wrong to her. Birbiglia is perfect as the improv teacher who occasionally sleeps with his students who eventually find him to be a 40-something weirdo, and the fact that he is actually 36 doesn’t seem to help matters. Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard also have their wonderful moments as the supporting players who are desperate to validate their worth in the eyes of others.

I apologize if I make “Don’t Think Twice” sound like a depressing picture because I certainly don’t mean to. It’s a movie as moving as it is funny, and some parts of it are very funny. It has a lot of hope in it even as it deals with the increasing odds against making it in show business and how New York real estate has gotten far too expensive for any artist of any kind to live there. It also shows how your love for your art and your friends is undying and always helps you through the toughest of times. It’s a heartfelt movie that is genuine in its emotions, and its lessons on improvisation are true and to the point.

Don’t think, just go and see “Don’t Think Twice.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.