Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 

Zack and Miri make a warm, fluffy, romantic comedy, and six artists make (more or less) spooky toons.

Don't believe the advertising for Zack and Miri Make a Porno. There's very little truly "outrageous" about it despite its title and the liberal use of the "F" word. It probably sets a post-Joe-Pesci record for instances of the word "fuck" in the dialogue. Anyone expecting writer-director Kevin Smith to do something really daring like, say, running Boogie Nights through a Clerks blender, is going to come away a little disappointed. Paul Thomas Anderson is still the king of the mainstream porno-tease scenario.

Smith's film is nothing more or less than a routine romantic comedy in an unaccustomed wrapper, with absolutely no actual porn, hard- or soft-core. That may or may not be a good thing. Depends on your tolerance for Seth Rogen. If, however, the prospect of seeing a guy get a face full of drippings from anal sex makes your day, you've come to the right place — but you're going to have to wait until the last quarter of the movie for it.

Not to belabor the gross-out quotient of Zack and Miri. In its way it's a sweet little tale of love in bloom in the frozen wastes of Monroeville, Pennsylvania, amidst Smith's favorite demographic — horny, good-natured, dumb slackers working dead-end jobs and waxing philosophical.

Zack (youth-market regular Rogen, star of the Judd Apatow hits Pineapple Express and Knocked Up) is a roly-poly late-twentysomething whose job is insulting customers at the Bean 'n' Gone coffee shop in the mall, where he trades observations on life with his work buddy Delaney (scene-stealing Craig Robinson). He's aware that he's not exactly cut out for the hospitality business: "No one wants me around your food. Would you eat food I gave you?" Zack's housemate is Miri (Elizabeth Banks, currently appearing as Laura Bush in W.), a beautiful part-time office worker with whom he has had a non-sexual friendship since their schooldays.

Exactly how it is that a babe like Miri does not have a steady boyfriend, or how she and Zack have never explored the physical side of their attraction to each other, is left to the imagination of the movie's target audience of young males. The nut predicament is that they're chronically broke and in danger of being evicted if they don't raise some cash in a hurry. Say, why not make a porno flick and sell it online? Of course, why didn't we think of that before?

Of course, jerk-offs like Zack and nice girls like Miri know nothing about the realities of the X-rated film industry or any other industry, for that matter. That's why they're impoverished slackers. But they set about assembling a cast and crew for their money-maker, with funds borrowed from Delaney. A cute woman named Stacey (Katie Morgan) signs up, as does would-be stud Lester (Smith frequent flyer Jason Mewes, aka Jay, longtime sidekick of Smith's Silent Bob character).

The only real pro fornicator in the cast is a hard-looking woman named Bubbles, played by Traci Lords, the real-life former porn star notorious for the numerous fuck-flicks she made as an underage teenager, before John Waters rediscovered her. Ms. Lords is now forty and looks it. Her face and body have the baked-on, shopworn "glamour" of the professional working girl. It would have been interesting to give Bubbles a little dialogue, to help etch in her character a little, but that would have probably tipped the film dangerously in the direction of hardcore sleaze — and Zack and Miri, again, is not really a porno item; it's a tender love story about a guy finally getting around to saying he cares for a woman he's taken for granted most of his life. Aww.

After a few false starts — they're initially inspired by a chance meeting with a gay male porno actor named Brandon St. Randy (played by Justin Long, the snotty Mac spokesman in Apple's TV commercials) — Zack and Miri eventually set their magnum opus in the coffee shop after it closes for the night. The final title: Swallow My Cockuccino. The moment of truth arrives when Zack and Miri finally have to do their big scene together. They're awkward because there are actual feelings involved. It's then that director Smith cuts away from the porn-shoot-POV visuals to the slicker, professionally produced shot of Zack and Miri actually making love instead of merely fucking — and there's a lesson there for all of us. It's a regular love scene like in any chick flick, safe and comfortable and non-threatening, definitely not masturbation fodder, and we could say the same for Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Thus, the evolution of one-time bad boy Kevin Smith.

So no Elizabeth Banks money shot. No sirree. Turns out Rogen has a warm and cuddly side. Delaney's wife is just as funny as he is. Weak Starbucks joke with the "Venti Vulva" scene. And we learn what a "Dutch rudder" is. Try to contain your feeling of contentment.

Fear(s) of the Dark (original title: Peurs du noir), a 2007 French-produced compilation of black-and-white animated shorts by various comic and graphic novel artists, all of whom try their best to disturb us, runs eighty minutes and is not even a second too short.

Among the high points in the uneven bag of nominally scary toons is the story of a young man menaced by giant, shape-shifting insects — it's by graphic artist Charles Burns, whose comic strip Big Baby ran in this paper in the late '80s. Also potent is the intermittent tale of a demonic 18th-century squire siccing his pack of fearsome leashed dogs on helpless peasants for sport, a nightmare scenario created by 41-year-old Christian Hincker, aka Blutch, a French/Belgian graphic storyteller. Marie Caillou's Japanese-derived evil fairytale resounds with eerie forest imagery that might have been lifted from the films of Takashi Miike or the chaotic artwork of Toshio Saeki.

One of the longest segments, a hit-or-miss shaggy-dog story about a man seemingly trapped in an old dark house, nevertheless makes marvelous use of light and blackness, as the man starts a fire, carries a candle though a patterned-wallpapered room, and generally becomes lost in the gloom. It's the work of Richard McGuire, an illustrator and designer who does covers for The New Yorker. Fear(s) of the Dark is calendared into the Shattuck — don't expect it to last more than a week. Graphic art and comics fans will appreciate its high-art wrinkle on the tried-and-true toon package concept, but aside from Blutch's Sade-istic vignette, it's pretty tame stuff conceptionally.

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