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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A Merry Friggin’ Christmas


Not the road trip you want to take on Christmas Eve.

Not the road trip you want to take on Christmas Eve.

(2014) Holiday Comedy (Phase 4) Joel McHale, Robin Williams, Lauren Graham, Clark Duke, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tim Heidecker, Pierce Gagnon, Bebe Wood, Ryan Lee, Amara Miller, Mark Proksch, Jeffrey Tambor (voice), Amir Arison, Steele Gagnon, J.J. Jones, Gene Jones, Matt Jones, Barak Hardley, William Sanderson, Karan Kendrick. Directed by Tristram Shapeero

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family, no matter who that family is. Sometimes we’re about as happy to spend time as family as we are to be serving a stretch of hard time in San Quentin. Not all families do all that well together.

Boyd Mitchler (McHale) is a successful hedge fund manager in Chicago. He has a loving wife Luann (Graham) and a couple of pretty great kids, daughter Vera (Wood) who is riding into teen hormone-land on a white horse and son Douglas (P. Gagnon) who at seven still believes in Santa Claus despite beginning to suspect he’s fake. Boyd wants him to believe as long as possible as his own father, Mitch (Williams) tore all his fantasies down when Boyd was just five.

Boyd and Mitch don’t get along, so much so that they haven’t been in the same room for seven years. When Boyd’s brother Nelson (Duke) calls and tells him that he’s a dad and wants Boyd to be godfather to his son at the christening, Boyd is honored – but when he discovers that the christening is on the 24th of December, he’s horrified – for that will entail spending Christmas with his family. Luann however prevails on her reluctant husband to go to Wisconsin and be with his family.

His mom Donna (Bergen) is overjoyed to see him, his father not so much. He’s a mean curmudgeon who owns a port-a-potty business and quite frankly isn’t a nice person to be around, particularly when he’s drinking, Even when he’s not, he can be an S.O.B. – while the rest of the family is served chicken for Christmas Eve dinner, Boyd gets squirrel filled with buckshot. Like I said, an S.O.B.

When Boyd discovers that through mis-communication with his wife his son’s presents, from Santa, have been left behind in Chicago, he means to drive back home, pick them up and return before dawn. Car troubles force Boyd to rely on his dad to bail him out and the two must make the long drive to and from. On the way they’ll have to deal with a persistent state trooper, an unexpected stowaway and a drunken Santa (Platt). Either the two will re-connect or kill each other. Neither one is a safe bet.

Williams completed this movie before his untimely passing and it was the first of the three that were in the can to be released. It didn’t get any critical love as you can see by the scores below, but it wasn’t as bad as all that. Williams always dominates the screen whenever he’s in a movie and this is no different. For sure this isn’t one of his better performances but it’s good enough to carry the movie over a pretty impressive cast.

What bugs me about the movie is that it tries way too hard to make the family eccentric. Along for the ride is Heidecker as Boyd’s redneck brother-in-law who has a son (Lee) training to be a competitive eater while his wife (McLendon-Covey) – Boyd’s sister – goes through therapy . Nelson has PTSD despite having been discharged from the military without going into combat. And of course, there’s the dysfunctional Mitch himself.

The writer really tries to force the eccentricities until the family doesn’t feel real. I suppose there’s some irony in rooting for a hedge fund manager who are not renowned as being the nicest people ever, but that’s beside the point. The humor also feels forced at times, a kind of desperation to make the audience laugh that fools nobody that it’s anything other than what it is.

However, I did find some humor here, particularly with Williams, and there were enough of those to make this worth watching. It is a little bit on the dark side, tonally speaking and the Christmas-y happy ending doesn’t quite fit in quite well with the rest of the movie, but you can’t go wrong with Robin Williams – ok, you can but not often and not here – and everything else in the film doesn’t quite measure up to him, it is at least a bit better than you might expect if you read the reviews.

REASONS TO GO: Robin Williams as always does stellar work. There are moments when the comedy works.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries too hard to make the family eccentric. Doesn’t really offer any sort of insight into family dynamics.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of foul language and crude humor throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Christmas film Robin Williams was credited for (he was in Noel but in an uncredited role).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa
FINAL RATING: 6/19
NEXT: Fracture

Rid of Me


The dark side of Katie O'Grady.

The dark side of Katie O’Grady.

(2011) Dramedy (Phase 4/Submarine) Katie O’Grady, Art Alexakis, Theresa Russell, John Keyser, Storm Lange, Melik Malkasian, Betty Moyer, John Breen, Orianna Herrman, Ritah Parrish, Melinda Chilton, Geno Romo, Angie Rutan, Julie Vhay, Cora Benesh, Emily Galash, Jana Lee Hamblin, Brendan Robinson, Leslie Taylor, Adrienne Vogel. Directed by James Westby

They say hell hath no fury as a woman scorned and there is some truth to that. However, if you’re the scorned woman, how do you get to the point where you become more furious than Hell itself?

Meris Canfield (O’Grady) seems to have a rock-solid marriage with her husband Mitch (Keyser). They have recently moved from Southern California to the small Oregon town where Mitch grew up. Everyone there seems to have married their high school sweetheart and mousy Meris suddenly becomes the odd woman out. Despite her best intentions, the snobby clique that Mitch was part of freeze her out and she realizes that they have more in common with Mitch than she does.

History can bite you in the ass in that regard and Mitch decides that he would have been better off with his high school girlfriend Briann (Lange) so he divorces Meris and it’s out with the old, in with the new. Or maybe out with the new, in with the old if you look at it a certain way.

In any case, Meris isn’t willing at first to give up – she still loves Mitch. But as she gets a job at a candy store and her obsessive and compulsive stalking of her ex grows more pathetic, she falls in with a bunch of punk girls. The Pacific Northwest, you might recall, was Ground Zero for the riot grrl movement and ladies are grown non-conformist out there.

As Meris becomes more enamored of the culture of these punks she begins to learn more about who she is as a person and more importantly, who she wants to be. What she wants is to be a great big middle finger to society and to her POS husband and his snooty friends who quite frankly are the sort of people that you really wish bad things would happen to.

This is all about Meris’ growth as a person and you need someone strong in the role – someone who can play mousy, conformist and something of a wanna-be Stepford Wife, but also someone who is just as comfortable as a street urchin/punk goddess/what are YOU looking at sort. O’Grady makes every phase of Meris’ development realistic and believable. I don’t know O’Grady’s work well but if this is any indication, you should keep a sharp eye out for any other movie she’s done.

My issue with the film lies with the director. Too many camera tricks, unnecessary zooms, and movement otherwise known as “Look Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome. That kind of thing can be a sign of a director who is lacking the confidence in his own abilities to tell a story and has to resort to all sorts of visual gimmickry to get noticed – trust me Mr. Westby, you’ve got what it takes. You don’t need to get all gimmicky on us to make the movie worth seeking out.

In any case, this is one of those films that you’ve probably never heard of but nonetheless is worthy of the attention of any film buff. This isn’t the kind of movie that reinvents the wheel, but O’Grady’s performance is simply put, unforgettable.

WHY RENT THIS: An extraordinary performance by O’Grady. Ruggedly nihilist.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Look ma, I’m directing!

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and suggestive material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in Multnomah Village near Portland where director Westby has lived most of his life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,740 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trainspotting

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Cold in July