Finding Bliss


"What do you mean there's going to be a quiz?"

“What do you mean there’s going to be a quiz?”

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Phase 4) Leelee Sobieski, Matthew Davis, Denise Richards, Donnamarie Recco, Jamie Kennedy, Kristen Johnston, Mircea Monroe, P.J. Byrne, Caroline Aaron, Tim Bagley, Christa Campbell, Marcus J. Spencer, Sammi Hanratty, Stormy Daniels, Garry Marshall, Ron Jeremy, Zach Cumer, Mario Cassem, Maggy Bashaw, Kimbre Lancaster, Julie Davis. Directed by Julie Davis

Mainstream filmmakers and film fans tend to look down their noses at the porn industry. Even though it has become a multi-billion dollar business, the general feeling is that the writing is godawful, the acting is worse and the production values are almost non-existent. The popular conception of the porn business is that it is made up of predators, the desperate and the drug-addicted. Rarely are those who work in the business given any sort of, I don’t know, humanity.

Jody Balaban (Sobieski), has graduated from NYU film school and heads to Los Angeles armed with a student film she’s inordinately proud of, despite the inconvenient truth that nobody has yet been able to sit through it from start to finish. Still, she’s ready to make her splash in the industry which is sadly uninterested in her potential.

She gets a job as a film editor for Grind Productions, which is at least a foot in the door. When she opens the door, she is horrified to discover that it is a porn studio. Jody, you see, is a bit uptight about sex, being still a virgin at 25 and quite content to remain so for the foreseeable future. However, she’s surprised to discover that the star director for Grind is Jeff Drake (M. Davis) whose art film from the beginning of his own career is an inspiration to Jody, one she considers to be a masterpiece.

Deciding to make the best of things, she tries to make it through the hardcore sex she witnesses daily, using the studio facilities and sets at night to make her own non-pornographic film with the actors and actresses from the sex productions; they are eager enough to help not just out of the goodness of their hearts but also because they hope it might be a ticket into the mainstream. The leads, Bliss (Richards) and Dick Harder (Kennedy) turn out to be real sweethearts.

And for her own part, Jody is slowly falling in love with Jeff despite the odds being stacked against them – they really don’t appear to have a whole lot in common, particularly since Jeff is a hardened cynic and Jody a card-carrying optimist. Still, stranger couples have worked out.

While Boogie Nights looked at both the dark side and the less so, Finding Bliss plays it strictly upbeat. Everyone in the movie more or less has a heart of gold; even the a-holes turn out to be not so bad once you get to know them. Sobieski as Jody is a little bit naive, a little bit plucky and a little bit arrogant but soon comes around to discover that porn Isn’t So Bad. The last half of the movie kinds of descend into a typical rom-com purgatory with all the cliches therein, burning away any goodwill the audience might have accrued during the first half.

Sobieski has always been to my mind an actress with the kind of charm and screen presence to have been a Helen Hunt-sort of actress, which never really developed for her. It’s a shame too; she is certainly the best thing about this movie, deftly handling both the unpleasant parts of Jody’s nature (she’s a bit judgmental about sexuality) and the overly pleasant parts of her personality without becoming cloying or unlikable. We root for Jody even when she isn’t at her best. However, I have to admit that I’m mystified about the romance between Jody and Jeff. Jody doesn’t seem to be the kind of woman that would be attracted to Jeff and it feels more like the two are given a romance because the story requires one. After all, what’s a romantic comedy without a romance?

The rest of the cast is pretty solid as well, with Kennedy showing that he can have a winning screen personality when the right role comes along, and 3rd Rock From the Sun stalwart Johnston showing her underused comedic form as the wise boss of Grind.

While they tend to overuse Jody’s distaste for all things sexual, the movie has some genuinely funny moments although nothing earth-shaking. Overall, if I had to do a one-word review for the film it would be “pleasant” which would be meant in the most empty-headed sense. I would have preferred that the porn industry be portrayed with a little more edge; while I appreciate the attempt at humanization of the people who work in the industry, I would have liked actual humans rather than these overly nice people who remind me unnervingly of Stepford Wives and Husbands.

WHY RENT THIS: Sobieski is charming. Everyone is generally likable.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Devolves into standard rom-com cliches. Romance isn’t believable. Lacks the kind of edge that would draw the viewer in to the story.
FAMILY VALUES: Very strong sexual content, graphic nudity, explicit dialogue and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several actual porn actors appear in one or both of the movies depicted in the movie.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,783 on a $1.2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boogie Nights
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Man With the Iron Fist

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Scream 3


We've seen this movie before.

We’ve seen this movie before.

(2000) Horror Comedy (Dimension) Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox-Arquette, David Arquette, Liev Schreiber, Patrick Dempsey, Lance Henriksen, Kelly Rutherford, Parker Posey, Emily Mortimer, Jenny McCarthy, Kevin Smith, Jason Mewes, Deon Richmond, Patrick Warburton, Jamie Kennedy, Heather Matarazzo, Carrie Fisher, Scott Foley, Julie Janney. Directed by Wes Craven

As one character says, in the third installment of a trilogy, all bets are off. That can be a good thing and bad – it gives you the freedom to deviate from the course set by the first two films but sometimes lose the essence of what made them successful in the first place. Perhaps that’s why so few of them are really that successful, both artistically and financially.

Talk show host Cotton Weary (Schreiber), the man accused of the murder of Sydney Prescott’s (Campbell) mother (and later exonerated by the events of the first movie), is brutally killed in his apartment, and of course intrepid (and irritating) journalist Gail Weathers (Cox-Arquette) is on the case. Meanwhile over in Woodsboro a movie called Stab 3 is being shot.

Soon, cast members of the third movie of a series of movies based on the events in Scream (talk about art imitating art) are beginning to turn up dead, in the exact order that they are bumped off in the script. Former deputy-turned-technical advisor to the movie Dewey Riley (Arquette), in his own laconic way, is out to protect his friend Sydney, as well as rekindle a romance with Gail, with whom he has broken up twice (art imitating life, kind of). Sydney, for her part, has secreted herself in an isolated, rural home with lots of high-tech security. Still, even Dewey can’t protect her from the visions of her dead mother and for the most part, from the Ghostface killer who continues to stalk her.

Much of Scream 3 is pretty formulaic and is just the kind of movie, ironically, that the original Scream poked fun of. Although Craven deviates here from the tradition of murdering a lovely young starlet before the opening credits (a la Drew Barrymore and Jada Pinkett) by taking out Schreiber, they do manage to send Jenny McCarthy to join the Choir Invisible, getting a hearty “Amen!” from critics everywhere. We critics are a vindictive lot.

Still, director Wes Craven knows how to yank out all the stops, but the loss of screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who penned the first two Screams, is keenly felt (he would return for the fourth installment). This one doesn’t have the hipness quotient, the humor, or the insight into horror movies that Williamson has. I didn’t guess who the killer was, but by the time the identity of the killer behind the Edvard Munch mask is revealed, I pretty much didn’t care.

Although not bad by the standards of horror movies of the late 90s and early part of the following decade, Scream 3 belongs in the clutches of the robots of Mystery Science Theater 3000 which puts it far beneath the standards of the first two movies. That’s a little too much painful irony for my taste. At the time that this came out, I thought it was just as well Craven decided to bury the franchise at that point, since the corpse was smelling mighty bad. Scream 4 was a bit of a redemption but not enough to make up for this, the worst installment of the franchise to date – although it DOES get points for the Jay and Silent Bob cameo. Craven knows hip when he sees it. Honestly though, once you’ve seen the first two movies in the series you’re pretty much done.

WHY RENT THIS: Jay and Silent Bob show up. Seriously, that’s about it. There are some fans of the series who are very affectionate about this movie though.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Been there, done that, done better.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of violence and foul language although not as much as in earlier films of the series.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” is played at some point in all three films of the original trilogy.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a music video by Creed, an outtake reel and a montage of footage from all three films (fittingly set to “Red Right Hand”).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $161.8M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a big hit for Miramax/Dimension.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scary Movie (only unintentionally funny)

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Brother’s Justice

Café


Jennifer Love Hewitt wonders why “Ghost Whisperer” got canceled.

(2011) Drama (Maya Entertainment) Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jamie Kennedy, Alexa Vega, Madeline Carroll, Daniel Eric Gold, Michaela McManus, Khan Baykal, Gavin Bellour, Derek Cecil, Adam Shapiro, Richard Short, Olivia Hoff, Katie Lowes, Hubbel Palmer, Clayton Prince. Directed by Marc Erlbaum

 

A coffee house, a neighborhood place to sit, hang out, surf the web and just talk over a cup of coffee with a friend. Every neighborhood worth its salt has one, whether it be a Starbucks or a local joint, unique to its environment. Some however are much more unique than others.

This particular café has a pair of baristas – Claire (Hewitt) and Todd (Gold). Todd has a thing for Claire, but she’s in a relationship with a brutal, abusive jerk (Bellour) and he’s what you might call a little bit on the mousy side. Just a little bit.

It also has a cast of regulars – a writer (Short) who has a secret connection to Todd. A drug dealer (Kennedy) who is beginning to get the idea that he needs a career change. A married man (Cecil) who attends the movies with a woman (McManus) whom he is desperately attracted to. A cop (Prince) who is looking for his cousin who is a junkie and also a regular at the café.

All of which is witnessed by a man (Palmer) on a laptop who gets a video message from a young girl named Kelly (Lowes) who claims that the café is a computer generated environment she created. The man is at first skeptical but when the programmer makes some things happen, he realizes it’s the truth. He realizes he is face to face with his world’s God.

This is a bit of an allegory, but it’s far from being preachy although there are certainly some Christian overtones. At least you aren’t hit over the head with it, as some faith-based films are prone to doing. No, this can be taken just as easily as a treatise on the nature of reality. Whether the creator is a computer programmer, an all-powerful entity or a series of random events, our existence is shaped by the knowledge – or ignorance – of that which created us.

I have to admit I didn’t expect much from this film, not hearing much of a buzz about it but I was pleasantly surprised. The movie has a great deal of heart and I found myself feeling very comfortable in the café, like one I was familiar with and hung out at all the time which I suspect was the goal of the filmmakers in the first place.

Hewitt is one of those actresses who sometimes doesn’t get the credit that she deserves because of her face and figure which are both spectacular. She’s also a gifted actress who sometimes doesn’t get parts that suit her but here she plays a little bit out of her comfort zone as a battered girlfriend and she does a stellar job.

In fact the entire cast does a pretty solid job. Some of the storylines work better than others (while I like the two characters from the movie infidelity storyline, was it really necessary to the plot?) as is usually the case in movies like this. However, the focus is Gold and Hewitt to a large degree (which is a bit strange given the whole Avatar-Programmer storyline which is the crux of the plot) and they carry it off nicely.

This is probably going to be a little hard to find but worth the effort. It’s a charming film that asks some pretty big questions, doesn’t lead you towards any set of answers and doesn’t seem to conform to any specific philosophy. I like pictures that have both brains and heart – we humans are possessed of both and films that cater to both of them are both rare and appreciated.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice ensemble piece. Had more heart than I anticipated.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all the storylines work as well as they might.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, some bad language, some drug use and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in a working café in West Philadelphia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diner

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Molly