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

Advertisements

88 Minutes


Al Pacino looks thrilled to be in this movie.

Al Pacino looks thrilled to be in this movie.

(2007) Thriller (TriStar) Al Pacino, Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski, Amy Brennerman, William Forsythe, Deborah Kara Unger, Benjamin McKenzie, Neal McDonough, Leah Cairns, Stephen Moyer, Christopher Redman, Brendan Fletcher, Kristina Copeland, Tammy Hui, Vicky Huang, Victoria Tennant, Michal Yannai, Paul Campbell, Kaj-Erik Eriksen, Heather Dawn. Directed by Jon Avnet

Young Jamie Cates (Hui) witnesses the brutal murder of her twin sister (Huang). Although it was dark, Cates identifies former Eagle Scout Jon Forster (McDonough) as the culprit. Although there is little physical evidence tying him to the crime, the testimony of noted forensic psychologist Jack Gramm (Pacino) is enough to convince the jury to convict Forster of the heinous crime and sentence him to death.

Flash forward nine years. It is the eve of Forster’s execution and Gramm has been out partying with his students, afterwards waking up with a stranger (Cairns). He is stunned to learn that overnight, one of his students (Copeland) has been murdered in exactly the same way as Joanie Cates. The FBI, with acerbic agent Parks (Forsythe) and U.S. Attorney Guber (Redman) want to have a word with Gramm at his high-tech consulting office in downtown Seattle. At first he thinks that they want to pick his brain about the crime, but it seems they have a different agenda. Gramm stalks out of the office, leaving his long-suffering assistant Shelly (Brennerman) holding the bag.

Afterwards, Gramm begins to get disturbing phone calls; the first informing him he only had 88 minutes to live. In the meantime, the callers, voice heavily disguised, counts down the time left in a series of frequent phone calls. While this happens, another one of Gramm’s students, Lauren (Sobieski) is attacked, his car is blown up and a mysterious assailant in black leathers and a motorcycle helmet is shooting at him. Plucky teaching assistant Kim (Witt) thinks her volatile ex-husband LaForge (Moyer) may have something to do with it – he served time in Walla Walla with Forster – but Jack is convinced it’s an inside job. With time ticking down, suspects a-plenty and Jack himself under suspicion for the murder of his student, he’ll need all his skills to figure out who’s behind this and save his own life, as well as the lives of those around him.

Pacino is one of the best actors of his generation, but he has little to do here but scowl. He is clearly the centerpiece of the film, but at times it feels like he’s just giving a by-the-numbers performance, literally phoning it in (his character spends a whole lot of time on his cell phone). Pacino’s character is supposed to be a womanizer, but I get the feeling that while Gramm surrounds himself with beautiful women, the casting of Witt, Sobieski, Brennerman, Unger, Cairns and Copeland was done more for their looks rather than whether or not they were right for the part. Even so, in a role that’s not his best Pacino is still always watchable. Sobieski, in particular, is cruelly wasted; she’s one of my favorite actresses but she is clearly uncomfortable with certain aspects of her character, which is poorly developed. In fact the motivation for her actions doesn’t make sense with other aspects of her character. Not to give anything away, but it makes the whole crux of the movie a bit laughable.

Who did Pacino’s hair? He looks like an extra from a Lita Ford video. Yes, I get it; womanizer, vain, rich – but a man of those qualities would probably pick a more contemporary hairstyle for himself. The writing is really lazy, relying on cliché over character development and exploring no new ground whatsoever.

While I like the concept a lot, the filmmakers don’t really make use of it effectively. There are a ton of lapses in logic, coincidences that stretch credulity, plot points that lead nowhere, characters that don’t need to be here, characters that act wildly out of character without explanation…need I go on?

This is one I can’t honestly recommend. It started with a poorly written script and that seems to have defeated a pretty talented cast and crew. Avnet as a director has done much better work than this, including Up Close and Personal and The War. I usually am forgiving of movies that push the envelope of believability – after all, it’s only a movie – but this takes it a little bit too far. All I ask is that a movie remains true to its own internal logic, and this one simply doesn’t. Pacino fans may want to check it out, but there really isn’t any other reason to go see it as a rental or even as a free download.

WHY RENT THIS: Pacino, even in the worst movies, is worth checking out. Interesting concept. Gorgeous women.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly written. Lapses in logic. Extraneous characters and plot points.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some brief nudity, a whole lot of bad language and a surfeit of implied and actual mayhem.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: From the time that Gramm is informed that he has 88 minutes to live, the movie runs in real time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on Avnet and his directing style.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $32.6M on a $30M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nick of Time

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Wicker Man (2006)


Wicker Man

"Anything Mel can do I can do better, I can do anything better than Mel..."

(2006) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Beahan, Leelee Sobieski, Frances Conroy, Molly Parker, Diane Delano, Michael Wiseman, Erika-Shaye Gair, Aaron Eckhart. Directed by Neil LaBute.

The 1973 horror-suspense film The Wicker Man, which starred Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, was an atmospheric piece that depended on creating a mood to creep audiences out. There was little overt gore, but it still remains in the minds of many, a masterpiece of horror that is unsung. Only now that a high-profile remake is being released is it getting the kind of DVD release it deserves. So what of that high-profile remake?

It’s a bit different than the original. Highway patrol officer Edward Malus (Cage) is traumatized by an accident on the highway in which a mother and daughter burn to death and he is unable to rescue them. He is deep in depression, having overcome the physical injuries but still blames himself for the two lives he couldn’t save. 

Out of the blue he gets a letter from an ex-fiancée named Willow (Beahan) who left him and basically broke his heart. Now, she needs his help. Her daughter Rowan (Gair) has disappeared and she is frightened for her safety. She lives on an island in the Puget Sound called Summerisle, a privately-owned communal farm that specializes in honey. There are no regular ferries, so the girl must still be on the island. Despite misgivings by his partner Pete (Wiseman), Malus, being of no forethought – get it? – decides to go find the girl, deep down hoping he can redeem himself for the one he lost.

After basically conning his way onto the island, Malus is met by a chilly reception by the island’s inhabitants, a sort of Amish-like community in homespun dresses. After blustering his way around the island, he finally finds Willow in a common house, where the bartender Beech (Delano) reluctantly gives him a room.

As Malus investigates, things begin to get weirder. First of all, the women seem to be in a dominant position on the island, the men being relegated to menial labor and breeding stock. They never speak – I thought they had been made mute, although da Queen thought they were just too frightened to speak. He is having hallucinatory flashbacks to the accident, and sees visions that are terrifying. Most of the islanders deny the very existence of Rowan, but soon the stodgy Malus begins to find evidence that he is being lied to. A meeting with the Queen Bee of the colony, Sister Summerisle (Burstyn) convinces him that there is a secret that the women of the island are hiding. Still, he is getting no help from Willow whose behavior is becoming increasingly confused and dazed. With no phone service and no connection to the outside world, Malus realizes he is alone in a very dangerous situation.

For whatever reason, the filmmakers decided to take the Christian vs. Pagan themes of the original movie and change them into a women vs. men scenario. The result is kind of a severe anti-feminist backlash, in which earth mother-worshipping females, who in the real world tend to be nurturing and gentle, become bloodthirsty advocates of human sacrifice. Not only does the psychology make no sense whatsoever, I found the movie to be exceedingly misogynistic. There is only one sympathetic female character in the entire movie – a waitress in the very first scene. I don’t know if that was the intention of the director and the writer, but that’s the impression I got from the movie, and I don’t think I was alone in that feeling.

As if that isn’t bad enough, LaBute – who also wrote the screenplay – is guilty of some poor writing. There are many unnecessary plot contrivances that just leave you with a frustrating feeling of trying to figure out why they bothered to include that thread in the movie. For example, the fate of the pilot who transports Cage to the island is unnecessary except to provide a gross-out moment late in the movie. Once Cage is on the island, the pilot is no longer needed and should have been allowed to remain offscreen. Also, the climactic confrontation between Malus and the colony is drawn out too long and the plot “twist” is easily seen from miles away. Once you know what is coming, the movie takes way too long to get there. 

One thing I was glad to see was that the character of Malus was not some sort of supersleuth. A patrol officer with ambitions towards being a detective, he blusters and stumbles his way through the investigation, preferring the blunt force trauma method of investigating over the finesse method with predictable results. He is not a brilliant man, but an obsessed one with an increasing undercurrent of desperation. Still, I thought that while Cage did a credible job, he was clearly wrong for the role. This is one of the few times I’ve ever gotten a sense from him that he didn’t really have a clear handle on what the character was all about.

While it is very much Cage’s movie, he doesn’t get a lot of help from the supporting cast. Burstyn overacts like she doesn’t get out much anymore so she needs to show off every acting chop she has and Beahan gets so increasingly dazed and confused that by the end of the movie you aren’t taking her character seriously at all. Sobieski is good in her role as a straight-to-the-point kinda sister, but is ultimately wasted. I was reminded, however, of how good she can be in the right role. This one reminded me for some reason of her work in Eyes Wide Shut although I couldn’t tell you why.

Beautifully photographed in British Columbia, there are some nifty sequences (such as the accident at the beginning of the film) but in the end, this is a disappointing movie. I can’t decide if it’s a horror movie that isn’t scary, a suspense movie that has no suspense or a thriller that isn’t thrilling. Any way you slice it this isn’t a very good movie.

WHY RENT IT: Some nice cinematography and one of Cage’s best over-the-top scenes of his over-the-top career.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cage is miscast, most of the supporting cast isn’t of much help and the script is oddly misogynistic.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some intensely disturbing imagery and scenes of violence. There is also a smattering of nasty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In the police station scene early in the movie, there is a missing persons poster with a picture of actor Edward Woodward, who played the lead role in the 1973 original.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is an alternate ending that is far more violent and close-ended than what appeared in the film that is superior in every way to how the original release was ended (at the insistence of the studio according to the commentary).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $38.8M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: Little Miss Sunshine 

Public Enemies


Public Enemies

Johnny Depp, unphased that they didn't spring for a convertible, finds another means of open-air driving.

(Universal) Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Rory Cochrane, Stephen Lang, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Channing Tatum, Jason Clarke, Branka Katic, Leelee Sobieski, James Russo, Bill Camp. Directed by Michael Mann.

The difference between a hero and a folk hero is often vast. Folk heroes are often regarded as villains in their time, becoming favorites long after their deaths. Sometimes, they are terribly misunderstood by their contemporaries.

John Dillinger (Depp) qualifies as a folk hero more than a traditional hero. He robs banks yes, but he has a certain ethical code; the movie starts out with the jailed Dillinger being broken out of prison by his gang members. When the brutality of one of the men leads to the death of Dillinger’s mentor Walter Dietrich (Russo), an enraged Dillinger kicks the offender out of the escape car.

G-man Melvin Purvis (Bale) receives notoriety by gunning down Pretty Boy Floyd (Tatum). FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (Crudup) promotes him to a task force with one directive: capture Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger. The ambitious Purvis immediately heads to Chicago to do just that.

Dillinger, relaxing at a restaurant between train robberies, meets coat check girl Billy Frechette (Cotillard) and immediately falls for her. He woos her by buying fur coats and expensive gifts. Even after he tells her who he is, she decides to stay with him.

A failed ambush at a hotel that leads to the death of an agent at the hands of the brutal Baby Face Nelson (Dorff) leads to Purvis calling in seasoned professional lawmen, Texas Rangers led by the dour Charles Winstead (Lang) despite the objections of Hoover. Shortly afterwards, Dillinger is actually captured after a hotel fire in Tucson and extradited to Indiana. He boldly escapes from the “escape-proof” prison there by ingeniously whittling a fake gun out of wood.

Dillinger returns to Chicago and finds himself unwelcome there. The heat the manhunt for him is bringing down on the city is interfering with the mob’s lucrative bookmaking operation, and Mafioso Frank Nitti (Camp) has hung out the get out of town sign personally. Dillinger is short on funds and reluctantly takes a squirrelly bank job, despite the presence of the twitchy Nelson. Predictably, Nelson opens fire on a cop outside the bank, leading to a shoot-out.

The G-Men capture a wounded gang member who is tortured until he reveals the location of the gang, the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin. The feds surround the lodge and would seem to have the element of surprise, but trigger happy G-Men open fire on civilians mistaken for gangsters and a gun battle ensues. All of Dillinger’s gang, including Nelson die in the gunfire as does Purvis’ partner Carter Baum (Cochrane). Dillinger barely escapes with his best friend, Red Hamilton (Clarke) who is mortally wounded. Dillinger, alone, buries his friend.

Things are spiraling towards the inevitable for Dillinger. Frechette is captured by the G-Men after Dillinger drops her off at what he thought was a safe location. She refuses to divulge the location of her lover, even after being beaten by a brutal agent, although Purvis and Winstead stop the assault before it gets out of hand.

In the meantime, Purvis is pointed at Madam Anna Sage (Katic) by a crooked cop. He threatens her with deportation unless she co-operates. The stage is set for the denouement that even Dillinger knew was inevitable given his lifestyle.

One has to admire the look of the film. Michael Mann went to great lengths to insure historical accuracy in the set design, costumes and vehicles (going so far to use a car that Dillinger actually drove). Unfortunately, he wasn’t a stickler for it in his script. Glaring inaccuracies – for example, Baby Face Nelson did not die in the Little Bohemia gunfight as depicted here, but several months later and not in the presence of Purvis. In fact, none of Dillinger’s gang perished in the battle.

This is meant to be a vehicle for stars Depp and Bale, but turns out a bit disappointing. Depp is so low-key as to be nearly comatose, and Bale, so good in The Dark Knight, seems unsure of what to do with his character. Mann has successfully directed two stars in the same film before (Collateral) but for some reason their performances fall a little flat here.

The gun battles are impressive and exceptionally LOUD. Throughout, the film looks impressive and I really wanted to like it more than I wound up doing. Maybe I wasn’t in the best of moods at the time, or maybe I missed the point. Whatever the reason, I didn’t really connect with the movie. I found myself feeling like I didn’t know either Dillinger or Purvis any better after the credits ran than before I walked in. I also found the liberties taken with the facts disquieting; especially in light of how hard Mann worked to make the look and sound of the film more authentic (Crudup perfectly catches the Cagney-like staccato of Hoover’s voice). In fact, some of the supporting performances make this worth seeking out.

In the end, it compares unfavorably with other gangster action movies such as The Untouchables. It re-creates the Midwest of the Depression era near-perfectly, but doesn’t really make you want to spend any time there. Now there’s a crime even Dillinger would never have committed.

REASONS TO GO: A near-perfect re-creation of Depression-era Chicago and the Midwest. There are some superb supporting performances, particularly from Crudup, Clarke and Lang.

REASONS TO STAY: Oddly enough, the leads are almost un-interesting. Sticklers for historical accuracy will be dismayed at the sometimes unnecessary gaffes that permeate the film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a heavy serving of violence and graphic carnage, including scenes of torture and brutality. Definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was shot in locations where the events depicted actually happened, such as the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin (site of the famous shoot-out) and the Lake County Jail in Indiana, where Dillinger’s daring “wooden gun” escape took place.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The standard DVD edition includes a featurette called “Larger Than Life: Adversaries” which discusses the rivalry between Purvis and Dillinger, featuring newsreel footage, interviews with Purvis’ son as well as the actors from the film. The 2-Disc Special Edition DVD featrues a featurette entitled “Last of the Legendary Outlaws,” a feature on the real-life Dillinger with some wonderful newsreel footage. Finally, the Blu-Ray has an interactive historical timeline as well as a gangster movie trivia game in addition to the featurettes previously mentioned.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sunshine